How Did Jesus Ever Come Up with the Idea for Christmas?

Have you ever wondered how Jesus ever came up with the idea for Christmas?  That He was God Incarnate?  In several previous blogs, I’ve addressed the staggering conundrum this belief presents as it relates to Jesus’ disciples: Outside of Resurrection faith, scholars are stumped.  For a first century Jew, the notion of God becoming human would have been utterly incoherent—literally unthinkable.  Within their fiercely monotheistic worldview, this belief was so far beyond the realm of logical possibility that nothing else adequately explains how those first disciples could have conjured it up.

While scholars argue over what those disciples actually experienced, whether it was a real resurrection or not, practically all agree that the disciples’ belief in Jesus as Lord—the eternal Son of God—could only have been triggered by powerful experiences which they took to be appearances of a risen Christ.  Appearances which somehow convinced them that He had been clothed with divine-like glory.  Appearances which caused them to feel overwhelmingly compelled—by God—to give Jesus the same honor and worship as Yahweh Himself.

Prior to such appearances, the Incarnation—God taking human flesh in Jesus—i.e., Christmas, would have been so preposterous to them, they couldn’t, even for a moment, even entertain the idea.      
But Jesus was a first-century Jew too!  He was squarely situated in first-century Judaism, too.  He was thoroughly steeped in the worldview of strict monotheism, too.  The notion that He was God Incarnate would have been just as incoherent and unintelligible to Him, too.  He couldn’t entertain it, even for a second, as logically possible, too.  So, how did He come up with an idea that, we know, only became intelligible in light of His Resurrection?  After His death?      

How did Jesus ever come up with the idea for Christmas? 

We know He did.  It’s not hard to demonstrate.  There are number of examples scattered throughout the Gospels which stand up to critical scrutiny.  Since I don’t have time to go into all of them, let me focus on what many think is the most remarkable, Mark 13:32.  What makes this verse so remarkable is what Jesus admits in it: That He is ignorant of the timing of “that day.”  The day of His return.  The End of the World.  Something He should know.  Something which was a terrible embarrassment for the Early Church.  Something which continues to this day.  Think for a second about what an enduring liability this verse is for Christian belief in Jesus’ full divinity: How could “the (Eternal) Son” not know something as vital as the timing of His return?   

One of surest rules of modern, historical-critical Biblical interpretation is that no Biblical writer would put words into Jesus’ mouth that were as embarrassing and counterproductive as these words were for the Early Church.  Since we can be sure no Gospel writer would invent such problematic, scandalous, and even offensive words about the One Who they believed was the Eternal Son of God, even the most skeptical readers of the Gospels can be sure that this verse was something Jesus Himself said.

There are other verses in the Gospels where Jesus is more explicit about His divinity.  In case you’re wondering why I’m not highlighting them, it’s because so many critical scholars doubt they could have come from Jesus.  They think they are the creations of the Gospel writers, or their sources, and reflect the post-Easter faith of the Early Church.  There are two main reasons so many modern scholars think this: First, they doubt Jesus could have been so explicit about His identity—it would have led to His immediate execution if He had, preempting the rest of His public ministry.  His public ministry would have been over before He was able to bring it to completion.  Even those scholars who think Jesus was aware of His divine identity believe He had to be far more strategic about communicating it. 

Second, a powerful, perhaps irrefutable reason to think Jesus wasn’t explicitly clear about His divinity is that, if He had spoken so openly about it, His disciples never could have abandoned Him in the end.  If they understood His true identity, if they truly thought He was divine, how could they ever betray, deny, or abandon Him?  Believing Him to be God, knowing that death could never defeat Him, that He would be gloriously vindicated beyond death, they would have been far more fearful of denying Him than losing their lives for Him.  Their shameful cowardice isn’t at all consistent with Jesus having made His identity this explicitly known to them.   

So, as Brandt Pitre puts it, most scholars don’t think Jesus went around announcing “I am God”!  Or anything equivalent.  Rather, He presented His divinity in an elusive way, using riddles and parables to convey it.  He hinted at it, enigmatically alluded to it, implied it through many of the things He did—Forgiving sins, speaking with divine authority, reinterpreting Torah—the very Word of God—healing directly by the power of His command and without having to rely on incantations, prayers, or magical formulas.  The breathtaking authority Jesus presumed to possess and many of the things He did were properly understood to be the prerogatives of God.  Alone.  Claiming these prerogatives as His own would have been tantalizing, even provocative.  But it would leave people guessing.  His identity would remain shrouded in mystery, a far cry from announcing “I am God”—or anything equivalent. 

When His actions elicited charges of blasphemy, like His practice of free forgiveness, it wasn’t because people got His drift and thought He was claiming to be God.  Rather, it was because His opponents demanded to know by what authority He was doing such things: What gave Him the right?  Since He was doing what only God had the right and authority to, they were looking for some “sign” that God had actually delegated this authority to Him. 

But, because they were viewing it all through the prism of first-century Judaism, the most they would have been able to imagine was that He was blasphemously usurping divine authority for Himself, treading on the prerogatives that are reserved for God alone.  If God hadn’t given Him this authority, as His opponents were trying to prove, He was committing a blasphemous offense to be sure.  But in their minds it wasn’t the blasphemy of claiming to be God Incarnate.  Even His opponents could never imagine Him—or any Jew—claiming that. 

In their context, blasphemy covered many offenses.  For example, just the careless use of the Divine Name—Yahweh—constituted blasphemy.  Using the Lord’s Name in vain—which meant using it outside of the most sacred of contexts—was of such enormity that the High Priest would likely tear His robes in righteous indignation—just as He did at Jesus’ trial—before handing down the appropriate sentence for such blasphemy.   

Perhaps the best way to illustrate how modern scholars understand all of this is with what many consider the most explicit claim to divinity that could have made in that day, which Jesus is recorded to have used in John 8:58.  After a long and exasperating back-and-forth with His opponents, Jesus finally declares to them: “Before Abraham was, I AM.”  In the Greek of John’s Gospel, “I AM” is the English translation of “ego eimi”.  Ordinarily, it simply means “it is I.”  But, since Abraham lived some Eighteen hundred years before Jesus, His claim to have existed prior to Abraham indicates He intends much more than this simple, self-referential sense.  He is using it in an absolute sense, the way Yahweh does from the burning bush in Exodus 3:15, identifying Himself to Moses. 

As scholars argue, if someone ever dared invoke the Divine Name for themselves in this way, there is no doubt that any first-century Jew would hear it as a clear—and utterly blasphemous—claim to Divine Identity.  It would be hard to find a more explicit way to claim divinity than to use the very Name Yahweh uses to identify Himself in the Old Testament, the Name reserved for Yahweh Himself alone.  Which is probably why John records that, upon hearing Jesus utter these very words, people begin picking up rocks to stone Him! 

But this is also precisely why many critical scholars don’t think Jesus invoked the Divine Name for Himself during His public ministry—if He had, it would have been such a heinous and memorable offense, He would not have been able to escape execution, most likely being stoned.  On the spot.  As the Law demands.  The way Stephen is in Acts 7:54-60 for declaring his faith in Jesus—as Lord.  And even if, as John suggests, Jesus was able to escape, it would have been such a heinous and memorable offense, He would never be able to show His face in public again.  In fact, the Jewish authorities would have been hunting Him down.     

Let me be perfectly clear: I’m not saying what some very popular but very misleading scholars and their best-selling books claim, namely, that most critical scholars think most of the Gospels should be attributed to the creative work of the Evangelists and/or their sources.  That might have been the case several decades ago.  But it’s a dated argument.  Based on recent findings across multiple lines of evidence, modern historical-critical Biblical scholarship has vindicated much, if not most, of the historical reliability of the Gospels. 

Modern scholarship doesn’t maintain that every detail is historical, but more and more, it is showing that, at their core, the Gospel narratives are solidly historical.  Including some of their more extraordinary claims, such as Jesus’ miracles.  The miracles are one of the best attested parts of the Gospel story, so much so that practically all Gospel scholars now consider it an indisputable fact that Jesus’ contemporaries, including His enemies, were convinced that they had witnessed Him perform exorcisms and miracles on numerous occasions.  While scholars debate what this might have entailed—mostly on metaphysical grounds—the historical record clearly indicates that no other figure in antiquity comes close to the number and nature of well-attested miracles Jesus is reputed to have performed.   

As for those sections of the Gospels, like Jesus’ more explicit claims to divinity, that scholars think are the creative work of the Evangelists or their sources, we moderns often get tripped up.  We think of good history as purely factual.  But that’s not the way good ancient historiography worked.  It wasn’t enough for a good ancient historian to record events as they took place.  By the standards of ancient historiography, they were expected to interpret the meaning of the events they were reporting, usually through common literary methods, motifs, and devises infused into their recording of it. 

So, when it comes to those more explicit statements of divinity attributed to Jesus, modern scholars believe that the Gospel writers are acting like good ancient historians by teasing out the meaning of His life from their post-Resurrection faith perspective.  They aren’t inventing major parts of the story whole-cloth.  Rather, they are infusing what is mostly historical memory with the critical insight the disciples didn’t have at the time.  What Jesus only hinted at enigmatically, they—under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—are proclaiming “from the rooftops” by intepreting the meaning of the events the disciples witnessed so it is abundantly clear for us to see what they failed to at the time.     

Along these lines, several top scholars have argued that Jesus’ “I AM” declaration in John 8:58 is a good example of how the Gospel writers would later tease out the meaning or import of something that Jesus actually said (or did) but wasn’t understood properly at the time.  These scholars believe Jesus did use the Divine Name for Himself, but in a far more enigmatic way.  For example, in Mark 13:6, as Jesus describes those who will come “in my name” and lead many astray, He says that they will claim “I am he.”  Again, this could just be an ordinary reference to oneself, in this case, that they are claiming to be Jesus.  But it can just as easily be interpreted in the absolute sense.  In fact, these top scholars argue, that is the better way to take it. 

The statement is awkward as a self-reference.  It is more naturally an absolute statement, akin to the I AM formula of John 8:58.  So these scholars maintain that John is not inventing the fact that Jesus used the Divine Name for Himself.  John is simply taking what Jesus said enigmatically and teasing out what only became apparent to the disciples after the Resurrection.  As a good ancient historian, He is just placing it in a context where it is more explicit so that his reader understands who Jesus actually claimed to be. 

Thus do I believe that Jesus did, in fact, use the Divine Name, but in such an enigmatic way that the full impact of what He was saying could only be understood in light of the Resurrection.  That way, He couldn’t be accused of blasphemy, but could make crystal clear Who He understood Himself to be, even though this self-awareness would only be understood in retrospect.

Hence, as more and more scholars like Pitre are arguing, Jesus expressed His divine self-awareness in a very Jewish, a very implicit, and a very veiled, suggestive, enigmatic, even provocative way.  But a way which made what He was revealing about Himself apparent only in hindsight, with the perspective of Resurrection faith.  Where His opponents picked up on any of this, the worst they could have assumed is that He was arrogantly treading on divine prerogatives, not claiming a divine identity.  Unless Jesus did come right out and declare: “I AM God”, it would have been impossible for them to think of Him as anything more than merely human.  And if He had come right out and claimed it, the only thing that would have delayed them from picking up rocks to stone Him to death, would be picking themselves up off the ground from laughing so hard at such a preposterous proposition.    

Since so many scholars find Jesus’ explicit claims to divinity, like the one in John 8:58, dubious; since my skeptical mind used to find these verses dubious (until, that is, I came across the growing scholarship that shows how Jesus expressed the same awareness but in more enigmatic ways), I won’t use verses like this to show Jesus had a divine self-awareness.  I don’t need to.  Because even the most skeptically  minded can accept that Mark 13:32 are the very words of Jesus.  
As I pointed out above, what makes this verse so historically reliable is Jesus’ remarkable admission of ignorance about the time of His Return.  But look closely.  Contained in this verse is something even more remarkable: Jesus refers to Himself as “the Son.”  As higher than the angels.  As, in Jewish cosmology, only God Himself was.  And Jesus does this in the most natural, matter of fact way—as if it is second nature.  He isn’t even talking about the question of His identity, but rather, the End Time.  And yet, He seamlessly, reflexively, instinctively refers to Himself as the Son. 

Notice how He places Himself in the Cosmic Order of things: Above the angels, in the position immediately below the Father.  In Jewish cosmology the only realm higher than the angels was the abode of God—the unique abode of God alone.  Euphemistically, when something was referred to being in a position higher than the angels, it was just another way of saying “God.” 

Notice also what scholars refer to as Jesus’ “absolute” use of the Son, especially in juxtaposition with the absolute use of the Father.  This points well beyond a merely messianic understanding of the term, which used sonship figuratively.  It points to an ontological relationship.  To an actual father and son relationship.  To Jesus being made out of the same “stuff” as the Father.  In other words, it points to Jesus’ awareness that He is the Unique, One and Only, divine Son of God the Father.  To use technical language, the absolutes Jesus uses to describe the “ontological” relationship He has with His divine Father reveals that He believes He is of the same “substance”, “being”, or “identity” as the Father, that is, Yahweh.    
As few scholars would deny, this verse is simply too embarrassing to the Early Church to have been invented.  If these weren’t the words of Jesus, if Mark or his source before him, felt like they had the authority to strike them from the record, to omit them, to ignore them, they would have.  In a heartbeat.  The only reasonable explanation for such a troubling verse being recorded in the Gospel text is if the historical Jesus said it.      

So how do scholars who think Jesus couldn’t have had a divine self-awareness try to explain Mark 13:32?  How do they explain the Gospel writer putting these words into Jesus’ mouth?  They can’t.  In fact, most don’t attempt to.  Because of the embarrassment they cause, most scholars are convinced they are the very words of Jesus.  And verses like this, along with other insights from recent scholarship, is convincing an increasing number of scholars that Jesus did have some kind of awareness of His divinity, of a unique, ontological relationship to God, His Abba/Father. 

Minimally, then, even the most skeptical reader of the Gospels can accept the fact that Jesus did refer to Himself as “the Son”, in a clearly divine sense.  And, while this might be the most impressive example, it isn’t the only place that the historical Jesus betrayed such a self-awareness.  There are several other examples that most scholars are convinced go back to Jesus, revealing the same sentiment.  Chief among them are the Parable of the Evil Tenants in Mark 12:1-12 and the famous “Johannine logion” (because it sounds so much like the more developed Christology of John’s Gospel, yet is found in one of the earliest sources scholars have identified, the so-called “Q” source) in Matthew 11:27/Luke 10:22.

So, if Jesus actually did refer to Himself as “the Son”, why didn’t anyone pick up stones at this point?  Why didn’t those who heard Him hear it as the height of blasphemy, as deserving immediate death?  Because this is a perfect example of how elusive Jesus could be about His divine identity.  Even though it is now perfectly clear to us that He meant so much more by it, Jesus’ “son” language would have been heard through the filter of their worldview, messianically.  Figuratively.  Not ontologically.  Not as God’s actual Son.  But as in Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14, “He will be like a son to me.”

So, how did Jesus ever come up with the idea for Christmas? Is there any chance Jesus could have borrowed the idea from the pagan religions surrounding Him?  Could their belief in gods who take human form have influenced Him? 

The notion of a “theos aner”, a divine man, was in the air after all.  Even though most modern scholars now admit that the number of parallels that exist was grossly overdone by scholars of the past—the many examples they thought they would find never materialized—scholars have identified a few, very popular examples of “divine men” in or around the time of Jesus.  Moreover, a number of Roman Emperors claimed to be divine, a god in human form, even going so far as to demand people worship them as “lord”.   So, the concept of “apotheosis”, the divinization of human figures, was something Jesus and His fellow Jews would have been all too familiar with. 

This is where the past thirty years or so of new archeological finds and scholarship intensely focused on the Judaism of that time period (often referred to as “Second Temple Judaism”) has been so fruitful.  What has become abundantly clear is that the Jewish response to pagan belief wasn’t, as previous scholarship speculated and supposed, accommodation and syncretization, a weakening of monotheistic belief.  In the opposite direction, it wasn’t just a doubling down of violent repulsion at such blatant blasphemy.  No, first and foremost, it was ridicule. 

We now know that, to a first-century monotheistic Jews, the notion of “apotheosis” was laughable, something that couldn’t be taken seriously.  Their primary, instinctual, visceral reaction to the idea that God could become human wasn’t anger at such blasphemous irreverence—though this would quickly follow.  It was laughter—how could anyone believe such nonsense?   

One of the top scholars in the field has pointed this out.  That as much as first-century monotheistic Jews abhorred Pagan beliefs as blasphemous, they just as readily mocked them as “ridiculous.”  “Apotheosis” was disdained just as much for its blatant stupidity as it was for its blatant irreverence. 

A perfect example of this is something the great Jewish philosopher Philo, who was roughly a contemporary of Jesus, once said.  Living in Alexandria as part of the Jewish diaspora, Philo was as thoroughly immersed in the Greco-Hellenistic world and as steeped in its thought as any Jew could be—as a philosopher, he sought to integrate Jewish thought with Greek philosophy, to present Judaism in a way that would appeal to the Gentile world.  But when the Emperor Gaius Caligula claimed to be divine, a god, this is Philo’s reaction: “Sooner could God change into a man than a man into a God.”  Notice Philo’s rhetorical move: he laces his remark with the most stinging sarcasm he can find, the most devastating way he knows to mock it—The only thing more foolish than thinking God could become a man is thinking a man could make himself into a god.  Philo holds up what he simply presumes is the very height of absurdity—nothing could be more foolish than thinking God could change into a man—in order to emphasize that there is only one thing that could possibly be more absurd: to assume a man could make himself into a god. 

This is how his logic runs: At least God is all-powerful and can do whatever He wills.  Humans obviously can’t.  But the one thing even God Himself can’t do is violate the rationality, the logic, that is intrinsic to His nature.  Thus, the one thing the God who can do all things can’t do is this, is to change into a man—because it isn’t a logical possibility.  The Creator can’t become a created being.  This is the very essence of the divine-human divide, the absolute distinction between God and all else that exists.  To think God could change into a man is the very height of absurdity because it violates the very logic which is intrinsic to God’s nature.  It is the most impossible of notions.  This was the Jewish attitude.  
Even though the religious context all around Jesus was highly suggestive of “apotheosis”, we have  absolutely no suggestion, not one hint, that any Jews in that period ever seriously entertained such a view.  Quite the opposite: They mock it.  Mercilessly.  They are stupefied by those who can believe such nonsense.  This, as another scholar puts it, is why the crucial question among scholars of this period remains: “how it could have been possible for monotheistic Jews to have worshipped Jesus.”  That is the crucial question: How is it possible?  

The disciples’ experience of a Risen Lord is the only thing that can satisfactorily account for this possibility.  But how, then, did Jesus, prior to the Resurrection, come up with it?  
Previous generations of scholars have pointed to a variety of lively ideas current in Judaism at the time of Jesus which, they argued in different ways, could be responsible for sparking the idea.  Could Jesus’ exposure to such ideas have been the catalyst for Him coming up with the idea for Christmas? 

Once again, the scholarship of the past three decades not only provides a hard “no” to this question.  It goes even further, demonstrating—quite decisively—that, even in all these “lively ideas”, the chasm being drawn between the human and divine was only moving further and further apart.  If anything, recent scholarship shows that monotheism in Jesus’ time was as fierce, as strict, and as entrenched as it had ever been.  There was no tolerance for anything that would compromise the absolute distinction between the divine and the human. 

Since I can’t review all the different examples scholars have pointed to, let me illustrate with the one that is most compelling, that comes closest to bridging this chasm, and that is the most extreme example of the category of  “divine agency”, where the idea of the divinization of a human being, at least among some Jews, seems to have been possible, perhaps even in vogue.  Just to be clear: Scholars continue to debate how prevalent these ideas were at the time of Jesus—they tend to be found in obscure texts, many of which likely post-date Jesus.  But where they are found, they paint a consistent picture.  So, what I will show is happening with Enoch applies to the other less striking examples as well.    

The “Parables of Enoch” focus on—you guessed it—Enoch, from Genesis fame.  There, he appears only briefly and then mysteriously disappears, apparently having been “assumed” into Heaven. (Genesis 5:21-24)  Over the subsequent centuries, his unusual exit from this earth led to all kinds of speculation about him in many different Jewish writings.  The Three Books of “Parables of Enoch” are thought to be written sometime between the first century BC and the second century AD.  It is very likely the passages I’m about to reference were written after the time of Jesus, so it is almost certain Jesus wasn’t aware of them.  But these passages show what at least some smaller pockets of Judaism could think, and in turn, what it might have been possible for Jesus to think as well.   

The key passages involve heavenly visions featuring Enoch.  One in particular depicts him as the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God, judging the enemies of Israel.  I should note that several of the top scholars in this area believe these passages would have been understood metaphorically, as apocalyptic writings from the period normally were—in other words, the heavenly reality symbolically represents, or perhaps is even meant to mirror at the cosmic level, the earthly judgment the Messiah will effect against Israel’s enemies when he comes. 

But other scholars aren’t so sure.  They think the author meant to depict Enoch exercising the kind of judgment that was reserved for God alone—and receiving the honor that goes with it.  Even though Enoch is a mythical figure in the Parables, could this depiction of him exercising divine judgment—and being shown reverence as a result—be an example showing that monotheistic Jews could conceive of God sharing His throne, His authority, and thus His divinity with another, particularly a human figure? 

No.  As recent scholarship has fairly decisively shown, Enoch, along with every other less striking example scholars have found, points in the opposite direction.  There are a number of writings contemporaneous with Jesus and the Early Church which present a figure, sometimes human or human-like, sometimes angelic, who exercises divine authority on God’s behalf.  However, they are never presented as being divine themselves.  Their divine authority has been delegated to them by God.  Specifically, to do His bidding.  Specifically, so He doesn’t have to “get His hands dirty.”  In other words, the net effect of “divine agency” is to elevate God even higher.  To emphasize the separation between the divine and the human even more dramatically. 

In fact, many scholars think that this category of divine agency developed in response to the powerful monarchies that surrounded and often oppressed Israel.  In those monarchies, the more a monarch delegated authority, the more they had others doing their bidding, the more they didn’t have to get their hands dirty with the administrative affairs of their kingdom, the greater they were perceived to be.  Having others exercise power on their behalf in order to do the “dirty work” while they oversaw it all from high above, communicated their superiority, their greatness, and in a particularly poignant way. 

By depicting Yahweh delegating the “dirty work” of administrating His cosmic reign to select divine agents, these texts communicated that Yahweh is the greatest Sovereign of all, the Supreme Monarch.  By thus depicting Yahweh delegating His divine authority to agents who do His bidding, these writings only served to intensify monotheistic belief.  “Divine agency” only served to magnify how far and wide the chasm between divinity and humanity actually is. 

When you take a close look at Enoch, this becomes abundantly clear.  For one thing, his is a very limited role: it’s temporary, only for a period; it’s restricted to one, and only one, divine prerogative, that of judgment; and it’s only exercised over a portion of humanity, Israel’s enemies.  For another thing, Enoch stands when he is at God’s right hand executing judgment, which is the position a servant takes.  (The angels are frequently depicted standing in service in God’s presence.)  The only time Enoch doesn’t stand in the role of a servant in God’s presence is when Gabriel invites him to sit—only once—at the lefthand of God so Yahweh can show him things from His heavenly perspective.  (It is the righthand of God which was traditionally associated with His power, the exercise of His authority.)  And when he sits, it is only by Gabriel’s invitation; not His own initiative, not as his right, his proper place. 

In other words, Enoch’s divine authority is purely functional; it’s not ontological.  It is something delegated to him for a limited time, to exercise on God’s behalf; it’s not something intrinsic to who he is, his nature.  It’s a temporary role; not a permanent position.

This is in complete contrast to the Early Church’s conviction that Jesus is Lord, the One who sits at the right hand of the Father.  This is in complete contrast to Jesus’ expressed self-awareness as the unique Son of God, in an emphatically ontological sense—Divine Sonship is His nature, His true identity; by right, His proper place is to be ever at the Father’s side. 

In all the literature we have from the Judaism of Jesus’ time, the closest Second Temple Judaism, as it’s called, comes to the idea for Christmas is various fringe and often obscure writings that describe what has become known in scholarly circles as “divine agency.”  But instead of compromising Jewish monotheism, they only serve to intensify it.  That’s their purpose: to reveal how far and wide and deep is the chasm that exists between God and all else.  By depicting Yahweh as a monarch Who delegates His authority, they end up magnifying the divine-human distinction even more.  By Jesus’ day, the line between divine and human was drawn more sharply than it ever had been, meaning, the notion of God becoming human was as unthinkable as it ever had been.   

So where did Jesus come up with the idea for Christmas?

But if no outside influence from His or any other surrounding culture could have prompted the idea, couldn’t He have gotten it from within?  What if He was just deluded enough to imagine He was God Incarnate, a true lunatic?  Or, what if He was just this arrogant?  What if He was an egomaniac, or megalomaniac?  History is littered with people who come up with similarly grandiose beliefs about themselves.  What if Jesus was just the David Karesh of His day?        
David Karesh, if you don’t recall, was the cult leader who founded the Branch Davidians who famously engaged in a months-long standoff with the government, ATF and FBI, in the early 1990’s that ended very badly.  For all the unique peculiarities of the Branch Davidians, Karesh bore many of the earmarks that characterize cult leaders.  So, how does Jesus compare?

Karesh was manipulative, getting his followers to serve his aims, interests, and needs, including having many of the women who followed him indulge his sexual appetite.
Jesus came to serve not to be served and lived in such a way that, after His death, His followers could openly declare Him to be without sin, a fact that His enemies who were still living at the time, couldn’t impugn. (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21, written in the mid 50’s when many who knew Jesus were still living)  

Karesh taught a separatist ethic, an “us versus the world” mentality, a “cultish” superiority which defined “us” over “them”, insiders over outsiders.

Jesus taught a radical, expansive, universal love—perhaps the most expansive ever—that even extended to love of enemies—and lived it.

Karesh rehashed old ideas, including Jesus’ teachings, but with such a demented slant and interpretation of the Bible that most who become familiar with his teaching find it ugly and abhorrent.

Jesus astounded listeners by teaching on His own authority, not like the rabbis, not borrowing from Torah or quoting from other authorities, but innovatively, introducing a new world ethic that most even to this day consider the most sublime and sane ethic of all.

Karesh employed classic brainwashing techniques to lure followers in.
Jesus’ up-front demand for potential followers to abide fully in His radical grace drove many away, as in the case of the rich young ruler; He wanted people to “count the cost” before picking up their cross, as He beckoned, to follow Him.
Karesh manipulated others to fight for him, to kill and even die to preserve his life while he hid in safety, displaying the worst kind of cowardice.
Jesus is as renowned as any other human being for His other-centeredness, being the quintessential “man for others”, known for His sacrificial love and self-denial.  

Karesh was, by all accounts, a true narcissistic, a genuine egomaniac. 

Jesus willingly went to the Cross, freely laying down His life with the conviction that He was making the ultimate sacrifice to save others; He displayed the most self-less, sacrificial, and heroic of loves.

Karesh’s messianic pretentions were regurgitated, simply rehearsing much of what so many who claimed the same anointing had proffered before; as such, they were self-serving, intended to establish his power over others, to dominate them.
Jesus’ self-understanding was utterly novel and utterly unimaginable in context, and risky to the extreme, finally resulting in His execution; but this self-understanding was the basis, the source, of the stunning grace He displayed, ultimately by giving His life as a ransom for others—this unconditional love is what He taught was the true nature of divine love.

Karesh issued a prophetic vision that failed to come to pass, his words proving to be empty, vain rhetoric.

Jesus performed multiple miracles by the power of just His word, a fact His enemies don’t deny, a practice so well-attested, most modern scholars acknowledge that Jesus’ contemporaries, friend and foe, alike, were convinced they had witnessed.  

Karesh was severely flawed, far worse than average, what we might call a “bad human.”

Jesus was, by all accounts, sinless, perfect, the ideal all humans strive for.  

From any angle it’s hard to see Jesus as being deluded or egomaniacal.  In every way, He seems the complete opposite, espousing sublime wisdom and living the altruistic ideal.    
In fact, Jesus’ teachings are so sublime, His words so cogent and wise, one psychiatrist, James T. Fisher, felt compelled to say this: “If you were to take the sum total of all the authoritative articles ever written by the most qualified of psychologists and psychiatrists on the subject of mental hygiene—if you were to combine them and refine them and cleave out the excess verbiage—if you were to…have these unadulterated bits of pure scientific knowledge concisely expressed by the most capable of living poets, you would have an awkward and incomplete summation of the Sermon on the Mount.” 

Of all humans who have ever lived, Jesus seems to be the furthest thing from delusional or egomaniacal. 

So, where did Jesus ever come up with the idea for Christmas?

Years ago, I would have attributed it to the fact that Jesus was a religious genius.  In so many ways, He was a radical innovator, an “out-of-the-box” thinker, challenging so many norms, pushing so many boundaries, rejecting so many taboos.  He saw the God and the World and human nature in ways no one had dared to imagine.  Given everything else He taught and did, His imagination seemed unlimited.  So, it would be just like Him to discern such a novel, “unthinkable” understanding of Himself.  Years ago, I would have simply chalked up His self-understanding as God Incarnate to His unique, one-of-a-kind religious creativity.     

But the more I’ve studied first-century Jewish monotheism, the more I see how completely out of the question this would have been, even for the most creative of Jewish minds.  Even the most out of the box thinker can’t picture a square circle.  Even the most creative mind can’t figure out how the ocean fits in a bottle.  Even a religious genius as edgy and daring and imaginative as Jesus couldn’t make such an utterly unintelligible understanding intelligible.      
Looking back through the lens of later Christian faith, especially the Church’s post-Easter faith and the way it has indelibly shaped Western thought, the Incarnation doesn’t strike us as all that remarkable.  But it is.   

Because our culture is so steeped in Christian thought, because we have been so thoroughly exposed to Incarnational thinking, we can’t feel the first-century Jewish repulsion to the concept.  We can’t fully grasp how much of an insult to logic, to their intelligence, they took it to be.  It truly is the equivalent of someone telling us—with a straight face—they could pour the ocean into a bottle.  It truly is the equivalent of being asked to imagine a square circle.  The idea of God Incarnate was as logically impossible as logically impossible can be. 

Of course, I would be the first to say that there is a higher rationality to the Incarnation.  Along with many other Christians throughout the ages, I have discovered that, at a much deeper level, it reveals a far more profound and exquisitely beautiful logic, the logic of love.  As such, it ends up making far more sense of God and reality, and once we see this higher rationality, it becomes obvious that it couldn’t be any other way.     

But as I’ve also discovered, none of this would have been apparent in the first century.  A good example of how impenetrable I’ve discovered it would have been is the Holiness of God.  In the Old Testament this is the most important attribute of God.  Holiness is central to Yahweh’s nature.  But the essential meaning of holiness is separateness: God is completely “Other”.  Transcendent.  Beyond beyond.  The holiness of God not only made the idea of a human being God taboo.  Off limits.  Abhorrent to the point of feeling ill.  Something that would cause any decent believer to start gathering stones.  More fundamentally, it was an ever-present reminder of the absolute divide between the divine and the human.  An unbridgeable chasm.  Two completely separate realms that could never be confused, mixed, or—God forbid—combined.  This is what made “apotheosis” look so ridiculous.  So laughable.  Ocean in a bottle laughable.  Square circle laughable.   

To state the obvious, Jesus’ public ministry was squarely set within the context of this fiercely monotheistic, first-century Palestinian Judaism.  It was what every Jew, including Jesus, would have lived and breathed.  It was the limit of their metaphysical horizon, the limit of what they could envision being possible.  This limit would have prevented even the most deluded, mentally unstable, egomaniacal Jew from ever imagining themselves to be what Jesus imagined Himself to be.  Even for the most full-of-themselves, cult-leader-like lunatic, that would be a bridge too far. 

As one of the leading modern scholars in the study of Jewish monotheism in this period points out, for any first century monotheistic Jew to transcend this horizon and be catapulted across the chasm of Incarnation, something more is required.  Something that has enough “revelatory validity and force” to “reconfigure monotheism.”  In the case of Jesus’ disciples, what they understood to be appearances of a risen Jesus “clothed in divine-like glory” was what we know enabled them to take the unthinkable seriously.  Nothing less, nothing lacking this kind of revelatory validity and force, could have rocked the unshakable monotheistic foundation of their worldview the way we know it was.     

But, if the only thing that explains how a group of first-century Jews could arrive at such an understanding is their conviction that Jesus had appeared to them risen from the dead, clothed in divine-like glory; if this is what it took for the disciples to think the unthinkable, how did Jesus ever come up with the idea?  Prior to His death and Resurrection!    

Those who want to maintain that Jesus was just a great moral teacher or merely a human prophet have to explain how He arrived at this (clearly mistaken in their eyes) self-awareness.  That He did, no one can deny.  That He didn’t have the benefit of the disciples’ experience, or the insight that came with it, no one can deny either.  So, what catapulted Him beyond the limitations of His horizon, His culture conditioning, His strict monotheism? 

With all that we now know about the Jewish monotheism of Jesus’ time, if Jesus were merely a human being, if He was like every other first-century Jew, He too would have been totally incapable of imagining Yahweh, the transcendent Lord of the Universe, becoming human; the Infinite, finite.  The limits of His metaphysical horizon would pose too insurmountable of a mental block, a tremendous and stultifying obstacle.   

In that cultural context, the idea that any human being could be Yahweh in Person required an imaginative quantum leap even the biggest megalomaniac was incapable of making.  And, as just about everyone would acknowledge, believer and unbeliever alike, Jesus was the furthest thing from a megalomaniac.  He is nearly universally regarded as one of if not the most sane and selfless person to have ever lived. 

But we know this was Jesus’ self-awareness.  We know the words in Mark 13:32 (and others like it) are Jesus’ words.  And they represent a tectonic shift in what we know it would be possible for a first-century Jew to contemplate.  They represent a veritable worldview explosion that is unknown throughout the rest of history and civilization, minus a cause of sufficient magnitude like the disciples had. 

Prior to the Resurrection, for a first century Jew, let alone one as lucid, wise, and ego-less as Jesus, to think of Himself as God Incarnate, to, in other words, be able to transcend the massive mental block the logic of monotheism exerted, can only make sense through some kind of extraordinary, supernatural insight.  To see beyond the human horizon of His culture and the cognitive limitations that went along with it to what no other person in that context naturally could, means He had to be endowed with a supernatural insight.

What was the precise nature of this insight?  Was it that Mary and Joseph told Him about the virgin birth?  Was it a revelation by God the Father during His formative years?  Did He just know it intuitively, a given, something He was aware of all along?  It’s impossible to say.  We can only speculate.  Although, Raymond Brown who was regarded as one of if not the top biblical scholar of the last third of the twentieth century, poses an intriguing question: What was the source of Jesus’ assurance that He was “the Son”?  He answers by suggesting: “Was the source his knowledge that he had no human father and thus was uniquely God’s Son?  The latter might explain his strange custom of addressing God intimately as “Abba.””  It might also explain why He felt He could act with such authority, claiming many divine prerogatives as His own. 

All we can say for certain is that Jesus had this divine self-awareness.  Given the enormous cognitive constraints, that, to borrow the famous words of C. S. Lewis, made this kind of self-awareness seem as ridiculous to a first-century Jew as declaring that you are a poached egg, this kind of self-awareness could only have come if, and only if, He was “the Son.” 

During the Viet Nam war, Creedence Clearwater Revival came out with a song called “Fortunate Son.”  The lyrics, especially the verse that cries out, “Ain’t no Senator’s son,” exposed the gross injustice and shameful hypocrisy of those who, like Senators’ sons, had wealth and privilege and political connections and were able to escape the draft—in droves—while less privileged Americans were being sent to die—in droves—in Viet Nam. 

John McCain wasn’t a Senator’s son.  But he was an Admiral’s son—and grandson.  With both his grandfather and father serving as Admirals in the Navy, he was destined for a career in the military.  And with connections like this, he had ample opportunity to escape being deployed to Viet Nam.  But he never pulled that hook. 

Instead, as a naval fighter pilot, he signed up to fly dangerous missions over Viet Nam.  On one of those missions, he was shot down and taken as a POW.  During years of captivity, he was tortured mercilessly.  The courage and heroics he and his fellow POW’s displayed in what they ironically called the “Hanoi Hilton,” are well documented.  That experience scarred him for life—quite literally.  It was impossible to miss.  In his many public appearances as a Senator and Presidential candidate, it was impossible not to notice how awkwardly he held his arms.  As a result of his shoulders repeatedly broken during his captivity, he was never able to raise his arms above his shoulders again.  It was impossible to miss these scars.  

You might not have liked McCains’ politics.  Many didn’t.  But no one can question his patriotism.  He paid a huge price for this country.  He bore the scars—physical and emotional.  As a young man of high privilege, someone who was as well-connected as an American at the time could be, he could have avoided paying this price.  He could have avoided bearing those scars for the remainder of his life.  But he loved this country too much.  His love for country propelled him to risk it all to defend her. 

On an infinitely greater scale, God did something similar on that first Christmas: The Eternal Son of God had the greatest privilege anyone in the Universe could have.  He possessed all the prerogative of divinity.  As the Second Person of the Trinity, as the Son, not of an Admiral or even a Senator, but of God, we could say that He was as well connected as any Being in the Universe could be. 

He could have remained in the safety and comfort—and perfect bliss—of Heaven. 

It boggles the mind why He wouldn’t.  Why He would risk all to enter into the danger and turmoil and suffering and pain of this life.  Especially knowing He would have to suffer excruciating torture as a result.   

It boggles the mind how God ever came up with the idea for Christmas.

If we were God, we would never think of doing such a thing.  We’d just enjoy our privilege, draining every ounce of transcendence out for ourselves. 

It’s no wonder first-century Jews found the idea of an Incarnation so unthinkable.  Beyond their abhorrence of blasphemy, beyond the logical impossibility of it all, the love God displayed at Christmas is the furthest thing beyond human comprehension.  Why would He do such a thing?  For us.  For the humanity who routinely spurns Him, who doesn’t give Him a second thought, and when we do, it’s usually about how to get around Him—His will, His commands—without suffering the consequences. 

If we yawn at the wonder of Christmas, it’s only because we are so used to it.  Because we give it so little thought.  Because our hearts for God have grown so cold.  When it comes to God, we’re like the Grinch: Our hearts have shrunk two sizes too small!  We have very little love for God in our hearts at all.   

But if this Christmas you dare to take a moment and think about it, the stupefying splendor of the Word made flesh will arouse the greatest awe and wonder.  It will transport you into the mystery of divine love.  Love of a different order.  Love from a different realm. 

Why God would ever do this for us might confound us to no end.  But because He did, we never have to question how He feels about us, how much He loves us.  Just look at the scars He bears, the scars He received as a result of the dangerous mission He embarked on that first Christmas long ago, the scars inflicted by the torture He was willing to endure to save us. 

Just look at those scars and lose yourself in the wonder: That’s how precious you are to Him.  That’s how much He loves you.

Merry Christmas!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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