What Only God Can Do?

“If Jesus isn’t God, then we are worshiping God and a human being.”

“If Jesus isn’t God, then Christians are infringing on God’s right to sovereignty over everything in order to assign Lordship to Jesus.”

These are the sorts of claims that lie behind some attempts to prove that the NT presupposes the divinity of Jesus throughout. For example, Richard Bauckham argues that the way a Jewish person would express a high Christology would not be through the language of “being,” but instead through an identity of function with the God of Israel. If Jesus does what only YHWH can do, he is being so identified with him as to say that this is God directly at work. Jesus is written into the divine identity–therefore, Jesus is (as later theologians using different categories would say) God.

In response to these sorts of claims, I have a very simple litmus test that I am in the process of applying, and would invite you to do the same:

Do other Jews say these sorts of things about other people?

As theological outworkings, such claims are fine. You can say that our worship of Jesus is an expression of what we all (myself included) confess as traditional Christians about Jesus as preexistent God-the-Son.

But as historical claims these claims should be measured, as best as we possibly can, by the criteria of early Jewish ways of speaking about God and God’s agents.

If other Jews, who did not think of themselves, their hoped-for Messiahs, their teachers as God in any sense used this same sort of language to describe other humans, then we cannot claim that use of such language by first century Jews, in their descriptions of Jesus, intends to depict him as “divine.”

The Similitudes of Enoch are a great example.

In these, a figure known variously as the Elect One, the Son of Man, and the Messiah looms large.

This figure sits on God’s own throne, executes the final judgment on God’s behalf, receives worship, and is the agent of humanity’s salvation.

Sovereignty. Worship. Glory.

All things that belong to God, that God does not share–are shared with the Elect One in order that, in praising this Messiah, God Himself might receive glory and honor and praise.

The criterion of “participation in the divine identity” by playing the role of God in worship and rule, is insufficient to demarcate a figure in early Jewish literature as God Himself.

Instead, it demarcates the Human One who is restoring the world through judgment and salvation and thereby bringing all glory and praise to God.

13 thoughts on “What Only God Can Do?”

  1. I have to confess, I have had little engagement with extra-biblical 2nd Temple writings. But this post may have inspired me to investigate.

    Remaining within the Canon, the piece that bothers me about the argument regarding Jesus doing “what only God can do” is that it is never applied to other scriptural figures. Elijah clearly performed (or facilitated) acts of God. Likewise Moses, Joshua, Elisha, etc.

    Of course, it is argued, those figures did such things by the momentary empowerment of the spirit. And yet, it is forgotten (or set aside) that Jesus is not recorded to have done anything of significance before the descent of the Spirit at his baptism.

    What that implies for christology, I’m sure yet, but it seems to have massive implications for the post-resurrection people of God.

    1. Yes, Mike, I think there is something to this–something we can affirm without making Jesus “just” another in a long line. He has a special, specific role to play. I don’t want to downplay that at all–quite the opposite. I just want to make sure we have that role more clearly defined in our minds.

  2. Daniel,

    If some Jewish thinkers allowed for a human to be worshiped does this necessarily mean that it would have been commonly accepted by Jews and/or that Christians would have been OK with this early in the formation of the church? It seems that the Johannine community makes sure that people know Jesus is one with the Father so that his divine identity is established. Could this hint that some Jews wouldn’t accept a mere human as worthy of worship?

    1. No it doesn’t, Brian. I think you are rightly pointing out one way (there are others) that John’s Gospel takes what I see as indications of vocation / function and transposes them into the key of ontology.

      What I’m mainly going for is what constitutes proof? John does some things to hammer home that he is aiming for a high Christology, in ways that Mt, Mk, and Lk don’t. Is that just because he needed to explain what they could assume? Or because he needed to explain that he meant something different, something more?

      1. I think either trajectory is possible. The Fourth Gospel does seem to indicate the the Beloved Disciple knew more than the other disciples, even the great Apostle Peter. If this has merit then he very well could expanded what the Synoptic evangelist only hint (which I think Hays argues, at least his Baylor University lectures lean that direction) or he thought their witness was insufficient in its claims so he said more.

  3. Daniel,

    Great post. This is helpful stuff. I do, however, wonder about this claim: “If other Jews, who did not think of themselves, their hoped-for Messiahs, their teachers as God in any sense used this same sort of language to describe other humans, then we cannot claim that use of such language by first century Jews, in their descriptions of Jesus, intends to depict him as ‘divine.’” Why not? Is it not possible that some Jews used language and concepts in ways that are both similar and dissimilar to their contemporaries? Don’t the Gospel writers themselves fuse different traditions from Israel’s story, at least sometimes in innovative ways?

    Second, you use the example of the Similitudes of Enoch. In them the figure you refer to who is called the Son of Man is also described as pre-existent, being concealed in the presence of the Lord of Spirits before creation. Now preexistence is one of the things it seems that you say is something we get from a place like John, but could it be in the mind of the Synoptic writers, if we are using the criterion of the Similitudes to help fill out the categories and terminology found in the Synoptics. Couldn’t such terminology, along with certain other aspects of Jesus doing things like forgiving sins, interpreting Torah in ways that seem to some cavalier and even blasphemous, etc. lead someone to something like a divine identity thesis? Is this totally lacking in plausibility?

    Also i think we need to watch how we use terms like vocation, function and ontology, as if vocational and functional roles and identities can’t have ontological import. If one’s ontological categories are relational and covenantal, they can’t be separated from ontological talk.

    1. Scott, you bring up a number of great points.

      In part I’m largely responding to Richard Bauckham’s influential thesis at this point. He has argued in an “if-then” fashion that someone says x about God that is a Jewish way of saying, in essence, this person is God.

      So yes, the NT writers can use and explode the OT and Jewish categories. What I’m suggesting is that this particular approach, which is gaining quite a bit of traction, is insufficient (even if necessary) to indicate “divinity” in the classical sense. We need to look for other indicators that this coalescence between God and The Man is one of incarnation.

      I do think that vocation and function are connected to ontology. And this gets to some of the points raised by Random Arrow as well. But the point I keep hammering on is that the particular vocation and function we see being enacted are the human vocation and function of representing the reign of God to the world. There’s a reason why Jesus is called The Man in the Gospels, and it has to do with his fulfillment of the human task of ruling the world for God, enacting God’s presence on God’s behalf.

  4. “…Richard Bauckham argues that the way a Jewish person would express a high Christology would not be through the language of ‘being,’ but instead through an identity of function with the God of Israel … Jesus does what only YHWH can do … Jesus is written into the divine identity–therefore, Jesus is (as later theologians using different categories would say) God.”

    The concept of anything (a person or events) being “written into the divine identity” is what makes non-ontological narratives (storied theologies?) into ontological ones, whether or not categories of ‘being’ are key. I’m not pushing this. It breaks down. For example, when Margaret Somers (who I mentioned previously) proposed quantifying narratives for social stats purposes (“The narrative constitution of identity: A relational and network approach”) and said that functional and relational narratives are ontological in character, she meant that non-ontological narratives become ontological when they constitute individual and group identities. Another among the varied definitions of ontology. This tactic pretends to move away from theology and to description in a rough analogue to how critical biblical studies do the same thing. However slim is this ontological plane of ‘identity’ as constructed by narratives, it’s a wonder whether ‘identity’ and ‘being’ finally merge as proxies for each other. It’s an open question whether narrative-lovers will eventually write themselves into this kind of irony. That story isn’t finished.

    I agree that “‘participation in the divine identity’ by playing the role of God in worship and rule, is insufficient to demarcate a figure in early Jewish literature as God Himself.” Sensible enough. The move to ‘identity’ via narrative and away from ‘being’ via ontology seems a slippery move, that is, if one holds in mind a secret or open Barthian characterization of ‘God’ as an extramundane wholly other being! Barth doesn’t do the following (I think he reverses it); but, if Jesus is merely or mostly human because ‘God’ is safely insulated too far away in extramundane-wholly-other-land for Jesus and God to become confused by any mere narrative, no matter how hard the narrative tries to “write” Jesus’s identity as Divine, then just what is it about ‘God’ (forget substantialist categories of ‘being’ – God is wholly other) – just what is it about God (and not about Jesus as human) that separates God and Jesus into separate narrative identities? There can be myriad answers to this. The ancient Hebrew prohibition against idolatry, for one. Is this ancient prohibition against idolatry bluntly strong enough to prevent Jesus-the-man from confusion with God? – no matter whether the idolatrous confusion comes by way of identity or of being? Or is a Jewish invocation of idolatry against Jesus as Divine a selective tactic, not used against Elijah, Ehud, and David? Our silly categories. Our idolatry of them. I don’t have the answer. It’s just that if narratives are not constructing something, either identities or beings or what have you, then story-land for the sake of story-land in a Kiplingesque sea of just-so stories seems all that’s left. An idolatry of story?

    So bleed into the question whether Jewish story tellers and their audiences might characterize any other humans as divine. No need to bother with Elijah. Or Ehud. Or David serving his generation well. Maybe Walter Ong had a partial point in holding that oral masters told campfire stories to local lords, recycling old sound bytes, while switching local names into the lordship stories, telling each different local lord from campfire to campfire, that he is lord of lords! Or thereabouts. T’was risky. Could start wars! To prove who really reigns! But wonderful oralist entertainment. And helpful if you want to get paid. Or fed your dinner. Or save your life from a belching drunken bedouin lord offended by coming in second to all the other belching drunken lords, when the present lord’s alpha identity was at stake. You never know. Everyman can be lord of lords. Surrounded by lessers in the pantheon huddled hungry and in need of lordship patronage around shared local campfires. Any or all can be lord of lords, If you tell the story right. Since when did lords in texts trump lords of oral campfire stories? Really?

    Funny this gets back into biology and evo-psych and sociobiology, since it’s a biological and not a theological need to know who and where one’s predators are! Maybe it’s a faster heuristic to learn these things orally and quickly around campfires than await high literary forms in belabored high-christological texts. High or low christology, damn those schwermer anabaptists, not lords, but predators on our lands!



    1. Jim, I think that my post today picks up on these concerns. Part of what I want to say about Bauckham’s thesis is, “Yes, doing these things indicates a relationship with divinity that tells you who you are”–but that “who you are” is about being fully and truly human for the first time.

  5. The Chosen One (Righteous One/Son of Man/Messiah) in the Parables of Enoch is a divine (often considered angelic) figure. I’m unclear how this example helps your argument. If anything it would cut the other way and provide contextual evidence for language similar to some of the Synoptics’ about Jesus referring to some kind of heavenly-divine deliverer figure. This, of course, doesn’t mean Mark has to be using similar language the same way…but it is evidence within your “criteria.”

    There are some scholars who think the Chosen One in the Parables of Enoch is Enoch himself, who is then exalted and transformed into the heavenly deliverer figure (c.f., 1 En. 70-71). But this still doesn’t really help your argument since the presumption throughout the text is that the Chosen One still only does all the things the text describes him doing as an angelic-divine figure.

    1. Stephen, it actually does help my argument, but perhaps it helps my argument against Baukham more directly than underpinning my positive alternative proposal.

      Bauckham says that anyone doing x, y, or z is being put on display as the God of Israel by participating in YHWH’s unique divine identity. So, there’s “Wisdom”, who helps with creation, and is really none other than YHWH. The problem with the Son of Man for Bauckham is that it’s someone who clearly is not YHWH doing what only YHWH should do: receive worship.

      For RB, “high Christology” means something as “high” as the later Chalcedonians–but expressed in Jewish categories. Son of Man in 1 Enoch proves that his position is wrong: Jewish people could have a high Christology without saying that someone is, simply, God Himself.

      As far as my own thesis, it helps in a couple of ways. First, it’s exceedingly relevant that both this son of man and the one we find in the NT have to be human to do the things they do. It helps push us beyond the idea that humanness is a mere accident required for death or some such, that the real reason he can do what he does is because Jesus is God. Actually, if the Enochic SoM has to be human, then the point is underscored even there that the only way someone can be worthy of worship as God’s agent is to be human, rather than an angel (for example).

      Second, the Enochic SoM is not YHWH himself, so the idea that to do x means that someone is God incarnate is unsubstantiable.

      Finally, if the Enochic SoM is Enoch, then it’s not an angel, but the perfect human who returns to earth to rule on God’s behalf–the idea that Son of Man does what he does b/c he’s The Man rather than b/c of being God in some sense is strengthened.

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