Was Jesus accused of blasphemy?
Those who are committed to a low or human Christology sometimes argue that the charges of blasphemy leveled against Jesus in the Gospels are late and fabricated additions to the Jesus-tradition. Just as claims to deity were artificially ascribed to Jesus, so too were accusations like those found in John 5:18 & 10:33 anachronistically attributed to Jesus’ opponents.
This argument, though ultimately incorrect, is not without its merits. It is conspicuous, for instance, that most accusations of blasphemy appear in the final Gospel, John. While this could suggest that the late 1st century Johannine community invented blasphemy charges in order to juxtapose them with the high Christological claims of their Jesus, two factors block this path.
- The assumption that all material in John is without historical value should be dismissed. The Fourth Gospel is not a spiritualized account concocted from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Rather, much of John’s Gospel, while more highly developed than the Synoptics, appears to represent an early and independent Jesus-tradition. Every unit of Johannine testimony should therefore be weighed using standard historical tools.
- The Markan witness, though not without its own historical problems, corroborates the blasphemy charges found in John. Jesus is accused of blasphemy by the religious elite both early on in his ministry (Mark 2:6-7, cf. Luke 7:48-49) and in its final hour (Mark 14:64).
These points invite us to examine again the contexts in which Jesus finds himself branded a blasphemer.
What kind of blasphemy did Jesus commit?
Though the term “blasphemy” has since been equated with the metaphysical claims made by divine pretenders (i.e. “I am God/a god”), in its Second Temple context the word βλασφημέω simply referred to demeaning speech—that is, speech that questions, subverts, or diminishes someone’s status. Here are a few examples:
- Those who pass by Jesus as he is crucified “blaspheme” him by ridiculing his lofty claims to authority (Mark 15:29-32).¹
- King Sennacherib “blasphemes” Israel’s god when he reasons that YHWH will be unable to deliver Jerusalem from the Assyrian horde (LXX 2 Kings 19:4).
- Jesus warns that to call God’s spirit “Beelzebul,” that is, to call evil good and good evil, is to “blaspheme the Holy Spirit” (Mark 3:29).
- Some Jews “blaspheme” Paul when he brings to them the message that Jesus is the Messiah, forcing him to move along (Acts 18:5-6).
In each of these cases (and in many others) blasphemy amounts to the utterance of impious and dishonoring words. A blasphemer was not necessarily, therefore, a man who claimed to be a god, a literal divine being.
When we look specifically at the complaints brought against Jesus, the victim of Jesus’ supposedly blasphemous words is always understood to be Israel’s god. According to his enemies, Jesus elevated himself at God’s expense. By esteeming his own name, he desecrated God’s.
Still, as our texts bear out, Jesus did this not by claiming to be Israel’s god, as is often assumed. Rather, in the eyes of the religious elite, he denigrated God by appropriating the prerogatives of God. Put another way, no one believed Jesus claimed to be YHWH in some metaphysical sense; instead, they thought he operated in ways that only God should operate. He was a man who acted as if he maintained the authority of God.
Consider these relevant passages.
- The teachers of the Law accuse Jesus of blasphemy after he reports that the sins of a paralytic man have been forgiven. Having heard this startling declaration, Jesus’ enemies wonder ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). In response, Jesus uses spiritual healing power in an attempt to prove that “the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). By implication then, the teachers label Jesus a blasphemer not because he claims to be God, but because he does something that normally only God does: forgive sins.
- At his trial before the Sanhedrin the high priest interrogates Jesus: “Are you the Messiah, that is, the son of [God]?” (Mark 14:61). Answering in the affirmative, Jesus ups the ante. Not only is Jesus God’s long-awaited messianic son, he will soon appear seated at God’s right hand coming on the clouds in judgement (Mark 14:62). In turn, Jesus’ unsubstantiated claim to be God’s right hand man is received as “blasphemy.” As before, Jesus has not here claimed to be God; rather, he has seemingly made himself the arbiter of divine judgement, God’s secretary of justice, as it were. In so doing, the high priest believes Jesus has laid violent hands not on God’s identity, but on God’s special sovereignty.
- When Jesus is caught healing on the Sabbath he defends himself in this way: “My Father is still working [on the Sabbath], and I also am working” (John 5:17). Unsurprisingly, the Jews interpret these words in a blasphemous light—by calling God his own father, Jesus is making himself “equal to God” (John 5:18). Still, the issue at hand is not whether Jesus is claiming to be a divine being (i.e. Israel’s god), but whether Jesus is encroaching upon God’s rights. By claiming to have a unique filial relationship with God such that he can work as only God works, Jesus snatches at a functional equality with God—the height of impiety. Though he is a mere mortal, he is effectively saying “I can do what only God does.”
He who makes himself God
In finalizing this assessment of the blasphemy charges, let’s look at one final accusation. After Jesus declares “the Father and I are one,” the Jews retort that Jesus is “making [himself] God” (John 10:30-33). Unlike the other accusations surveyed before, this one seems to indicate that Jesus’ foes considered him a divine pretender—a man claiming to be God not merely in a functional sense, but also in an ontological sense. Jesus identified himself as the god of Israel.
One problem with this reading lies in the phrase “making himself God.” With these words the Johannine Jews invoke the archetypal self-aggrandizing pagan king caricatured in their scriptures. This king attempts to “make himself like the Most High God” by arrogantly trampling over Israel and the nations in defiance of YHWH (Isaiah 14:4-21). In accordance with his unchecked political power he “considers himself greater than any god” and speaks “horrendous things against the God of gods” (Daniel 11:36, cf. Revelation 13:6). Peering out upon his thalassocracy he says in his heart “I am a god [because] I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas” (Ezekiel 28:2-10, cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:4). Over his hydraulic empire he exults “My Nile is my own, I made it for myself” (Ezekiel 29:3-7).
For these pretentious affronts against the creator God such kings are deposed and ruined on the day of YHWH. Since they do not see fit to acknowledge their own dependence upon the divine realm (and, more specifically, upon Israel’s god), their earthly realms are brought to nothing when God comes for reckoning.
The emphasis then is not on the metaphysical implications of the claim “I am a god,” but rather upon the claim’s political import. It is a political claim, not a theological one. This is to say that in Biblical perspective those who “make themselves gods” do so by acting as if they were the self-sufficient rulers and creators of the world and its political order. Discontent to be the mortal benefactors and viceroys of the gods in general, and of Israel’s god in particular,² they claim for themselves absolute sovereignty.
As it so happens, this impious presumption manifests itself in the brutal annexation of Israel and the nations under pagan hegemony. Such blasphemous kings fleetingly exercise the imperial authority possessed only by the supreme deity and in this way consider themselves to be “gods” or “like gods.”
Returning then to John 10, where does this leave us? Given the context just discussed, and viewing the controversy as a whole (10:22-39),³ it would appear that Jesus was seen by some Jews as a self-aggrandizing pagan-style god-king, that is, as a usurper of God’s rightful dominion.⁴ Although he was a human being, one entirely dependent on God, through his ministry of forgiveness and judgement⁵ he claimed the authority due a god and thus “made himself God.”
To others, on the other hand, Jesus was an ever-obedient slave to his father and a man made godlike by his god for the redemption of Israel.
1—Those claims being 1) that he could destroy the Temple, and 2) that he was Israel’s king, God’s Messiah.
2—See the repentant Nebuchadnezzar as a more positive example of pagan kingship (Daniel 3:28, 4:34).
3—Coincidentally, this argument takes place during Hanukkah, a feast dedicated to Israel’s victory over the god-king Antiochus Epiphanes (John 10:22-23).
4—The blasphemy charges originate in Jesus’ insistence that God had given him authority to declare sins either forgiven or retained on the heels of the eschatological cataclysm.
5—That the Johannine Jews are reacting to Jesus’ apparent pagan egotism is clear from the discussion leading up to the fateful accusation: Jesus first alleges that he does God’s work (10:25-26), then that can give eternal life (10:27-28), and finally that he and God are “one” (10:30).⁶ Jesus insists that it is God who “has given” such privileges (10:29). Though Jesus assures his countrymen that he is not acting on his own or out of his own self-interest, his kinsmen have heard enough. Jesus must be condemned as a treasonous Israelite.
6—Jesus likely means that he and God are a functional unit—this is how the word ἓν is used in John 17:20-21 and 1 Corinthians 3:8. As explained before, as God’s representative, Jesus can legally act on God’s behalf and as such they are “one.”