These famous words by C. S. Lewis beautifully encapsulate the Christianity of my childhood. They underscore how central Jesus’s divinity has been to the church’s confession of faith for the past sixteen hundred years. And they provide a trenchant lens for coming to terms with Jesus as he is depicted in the Gospel of John.
But they also provide a set of blinders that have the power to keep us from ever coming fully to terms with Jesus as he is portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus says very few things that explicitly claim lordship for himself, and none at all that assert preexistence or divinity. John is full of such references, but the Synoptic Gospels seem to be telling a different story.
A Man Attested by God provides some pointers for reconceiving the gospel as a story about Jesus as The Human One, an idealized human figure who plays the roles and performs the functions that Israel’s God always intended for humanity—and Israel, and its kings—to fulfill.
Of course, biblical scholars aren’t usually in the habit of appealing to C. S. Lewis in our exegetical arguments. The case for a divine Jesus in the Synoptic texts has been made through more subtle appeals to the way in which Jesus plays various roles or receives certain honors that have otherwise been reserved for God alone in early Judaism.
This is why the chapter I consider the most important in A Man Attested by Godcontains a lengthy engagement with Judaism. There I show that various strands of biblical and post-biblical Jewish traditions regularly depict idealized humans playing the role of God on earth.
What’s surprising isn’t that Jewish people depicted someone exercising authority over demons (see David/Solomon) or receiving God’s Spirit (see David, again) or multiplying bread (see Elisha) or curing leprosy (see Elisha, again) or claiming to be son of God (see Adam, David, Israel) or son of man (see Israel, Enoch).
What’s surprising in the Gospels is the claim that this particular human being, this crucified Jewish peasant, was celebrated as the one in whom the embodiment of such divine powers had reached its apex. What’s surprising is the claim that the eschatological apogee of human life has already come, in the outskirts of Galilee, and been raised from the dead by the power of God.
My experience in both the church and the academy is that we haven’t gotten very far past the idea that to say “human” is to say something diminutive. The phrase “I’m only human”—so often used as an excuse for weakness and failure—captures the way we immediately think of our humanity as something inherently negative. When it comes to our thinking about Jesus, we too often bring this understanding with us: Jesus became human so that he could be identified with everything that’s wrong in the world, in order that (through his identity as God) it might be fixed.
But what if the idea that humanity is the image of God—that when one looks at a human one comes as close as possible in this life to beholding God’s own face—is not an idea that God has given up on? What if the plan to have a faithful humanity ruling the world on God’s behalf is not a plan that God has abandoned despite the mockery we have so often made of it?
What if a human who is fully and quintessentially human is the one thing that the world actually needed in order to be finally set to rights—and for us to be set to rights upon it?
This is the story that I believe the Synoptic Gospels are telling. It’s a story whose dynamic Irenaeus referred to as “recapitulation.” It’s the story of Jesus as the “idealized human figure” that we see on the pages of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. While we turn to John to begin our quest to understanding as the preexistent Word of God made flesh, we turn to the Synoptic Gospels in order to understand the story of Jesus as a man attested by God.
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