It’s my belief that Jesus made no claim to be Yahweh, the Jewish God, made flesh. As a devout Jew, such a claim would’ve stuck in his throat. In John’s Gospel, he does say, “I am”, which is what God called himself in the Book of Exodus. That Gospel, however, belongs to the late 1st century and, compared with the others, presents a very different Jesus. To me, its author has put these words into Jesus’ mouth, to communicate the view of him current, at that time, in his own community.
It’s also my belief that Jesus’ earliest followers didn’t regard him as being Yahweh. In keeping with the apocalyptic thinking prominent between 200 BCE and 200 CE, it’s more likely that they thought of him as the promised Messiah who, like David centuries before, would be the ‘King of the Jews’, ruling over a restored Israel after the impending, cataclysmic arrival of the Kingdom of God. That fits in with Jesus’ choice of twelve special disciples, each of whom would rule over one of the restored twelve tribes of Israel.
Jesus is reported (with Daniel 7:13,14 in mind) to have spoken about a figure known as the “Son of Man”, sometimes as someone distinct from himself, and sometimes as being himself. Since the Gospels contain earlier and later material, I tend to the view that the historical Jesus regarded the “Son of Man” as a distinct figure whose imminent appearance would herald the coming of the Kingdom over which Jesus would become the King. Later Christians, however, after his crucifixion and the non-arrival of the Kingdom of God, saw the ‘risen’ Jesus himself as the “Son of Man” who would arrive from ‘heaven’ and inaugurate that Kingdom at some indeterminate time in the future.
How then did the idea originate that Jesus was God in the flesh? The key to this is the fervent belief of Jesus’ earliest followers that he had been seen alive again, and that God must therefore have raised him from the dead. He no longer lived in this world, however, and so God must have taken him ‘up’ into heaven, and he must therefore be considered a divine being. That raised a question. At what point in time did the man Jesus become a divine being, a “Son of God’? There were different answers.
In the Hebrew Bible, people could become a ‘Son of God’ by ‘adoption’. When a king was crowned, the words of Psalm 2:7 would be read to him, “You are my Son, today I have become your Father”. These are the words God reportedly addressed to Jesus at the time of his baptism. People could also become a ‘Son of God’ by ‘incarnation’, as when Mary was told by the angel that, “the Holy Spirit will come on you”, making her pregnant, and making her child, “the Son of God”.
By the time of John’s Gospel, Jesus hadn’t ‘become’ the Son of God, but “in the beginning was with God, and was God.” That raised a further question – how many Gods are there? It was the 4th century before Jesus became the “Second Person of the Holy Trinity”, God the Son. Would the Jesus of history have been flattered or scandalised? Oh what a tangled web we weave, even without an intent to deceive!
For me, the man Jesus of Nazareth is a historical fact. Jesus, as God in human flesh, is a mythical construct. In my usage of the word ‘myth’, it is not about falsehood or make believe, but is a valid means of communicating something in a graphic and telling way. The clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson has said that he tries to live “as if there is a God”. What might that mean? One answer would be, to live in ways that the historical Jesus of Nazareth did. That would be about inclusiveness and compassion for all fellow human beings; about spirituality rather than materialism ; about altruism rather than selfishness and greed; about love and peace rather than hatred and war; and so much else besides. The myth must not be allowed to divert attention from, or hide from our view, a historical lifestyle and set of teachings which are of timeless relevance, and which we ignore at our peril.