Reviewed by Fred G. Zaspel
Who did Jesus think he was? That’s the subject of Sigurd Grindheim’s God’s Equal: What Can We Know about Jesus’ Self-Understanding? His contention, as the title states, is that Jesus’ own words reflect a self-estimate that is unprecedented: he claimed to occupy the place of God. “Only God himself could say and do what Jesus said and did.”
To sustain his thesis Grindheim examines certain claims of Jesus, found in the Synoptic Gospels, against the background of the Old Testament and especially the Jewish understanding of the day to demonstrate that he spoke and acted in categories reserved for God only.
Chapter 1 examines Jesus’ claim to usher in the eschatological kingdom of God, equating his own acts with the presence of God’s kingly rule. When he casts out demons “by the finger of God” he claims to do what God alone does and has promised to do.
Chapter 2 investigates not just Jesus’ miracles but his claims regarding his miracles – that he does these things by his own power and is thereby inaugurating God’s promised New Creation.
Chapter 3 focuses on Jesus’ claimed prerogative and authority to forgive sin – again, a work reserved for God alone. Yet in claiming this authority he implicitly claims also to have rendered the verdict of the eschatological judgment ahead of time, and so Chapter 4 highlights Jesus’ corresponding claim to be the final judge of all.
Chapter 5 examines Jesus’ presumed authority with respect to the Mosaic law, especially in Matthew 5:21-48, and demonstrates again that Jesus speaks with unprecedented authority, an authority with regard to the law that only God could have.
Chapter 6 examines this presumed authority in regard to Jesus’ relationship with and demands of his disciples. “No other ethical responsibility compares to the disciples’ duties vis-à-vis Jesus…. The most obvious explanation is that Jesus understood himself to be the object of the religious devotion that is only due God.”
Chapter 7 sketches out the way Jesus spoke about himself and argues that metaphors such as bridegroom and mother bird hovering over her young are well-known metaphors used in Scripture of God’s relationship to his people.
Chapter 8 compares current Jewish ideas regarding various exalted mediators between God and the world – such as the royal Messiah, the angel of the Lord, Moses, etc. – and argues that Jesus’ claims exceed even these.
Chapter 9 examines the nature of Jesus’ claim to be God’s “Son” and argues for both equality and a kind of subordination. Chapter 10 examines the background and significance of Jesus’ favorite self-designation, “Son of Man.” And Chapter 11 investigates Jesus’ actions and attitude toward the Temple.
In each of these cases Grindheim examines the evidence for the authenticity of each saying of Jesus, and he surveys sometimes at length the writings of second Temple Judaism for corresponding claims, which in each case are in exclusive reference to God. Pulling together related data from the Old Testament, intertestamental literature, the context and settings of each saying in the Gospels, he presents a compelling case that Jesus cannot be understood until we understand him as claiming to be in the place of God – God’s Equal.
It is of course a matter of primary importance in the study of the historical Jesus to consider what he had to say about himself. This line of study has long been an area of interest to me. “Who does Jesus think he is?” are words our congregation has heard often! And I have particularly enjoyed teaching this kind of material in non-Christian university settings – just as in Jesus’ own day it forces today’s hearers also to render judgment and decision regarding Jesus: given these stupendous claims, what do we make of him? The question carries implications that are quickly seen to be all-important. So I began reading already in agreement with Grindheim’s thesis, and with each next chapter my appreciation for it increased.
Grindheim’s argument is objectively compelling, and the force of it will undoubtedly be felt even by its critics. The most obvious evasion of his argument is simply to deny that these sayings are genuine – that they reflect the later thinking of the church put afterwards on the lips of Jesus. So, although as a believer committed already to the inspiration of the Gospel writers I find this line of argument tedious, the rather extensive attention Grindheim gives to the question of the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings is an important plank in his argument.
I did have a few frustrations along the way. For example, in establishing Jesus’ claim to usher in the rule of God Grindheim makes a very sharp distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the Messiah. The Old Testament does, in fact, present these two tracks that are particularly evident in the Psalms and the Prophets – the coming of God and the coming of David’s Son. Yet there are plenty of passages where these two lines of prophecy converge in a way that finally becomes clear in the incarnation. I very much appreciate Grindheim’s concern at this point to demonstrate that Jesus’ Kingdom claims reflected a divine self-awareness (Jesus himself establishing the rule of God!). Yes, and amen! But I’m not sure it is helpful to his argument to maintain this sharp distinction without making explicit how the two strands of prophecy come together in God incarnate.
I felt some frustration also in Grindheim’s treatment of Jesus’ claim to be God’s “Son.” Grindheim does not explain what kind of subordination he has in mind – not exactly an insignificant question to be left aside. (And although his focus is on the Synoptics, a glance at Jesus’ classic pronouncement on this subject in John 5 would have added considerable clarity also!)
Although these considerations would I think have improved his case, Grindheim’s argument is by no means weak. I was reminded of Warfield’s argument in his Lord of Glory that “every line” of the New Testament makes a contribution to this portrait of the divine Christ. Jesus’ self-claims form a massively important part of that study, and Grindheim has argued it clearly and persuasively. Everybody knows the Gospel of John teaches a high Christology, but it may be surprising to many to find that it is no higher than that of the Synoptics! God’s Equal will provide the teacher with an important dimension of a biblical Christology, and it will enrich any preaching or teaching through the Synoptics. Grindheim has given me new insights into a favorite theme, for which I am grateful, and he has made an important contribution to the study.
Fred Zaspel is Executive Editor here at Books At a Glance.
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God's Equal: What Can We Know About Jesus' Self-understanding In The Synoptic Gospels?