Does Jesus call himself Messiah?

by K.W. Leslie, 10 January

As I pointed out in my piece on Historical Jesus, a number of skeptics claim Jesus didn’t say and do everything we read in the gospels. Or anything. Once they’re done revising him, turns out Jesus did no miracles, wasn’t resurrected, taught nothing, wasn’t even born. He was entirely fabricated by overzealous apostles.

Hogwash, but popular hogwash. ’Cause if Jesus isn’t anything, they don’t have to follow him. And they really don’t wanna, so it’s quite fortuitous for them he turns out to not be anything. It’s almost as if they loaded the dice, innit?

Anyway. The reason I bring ’em up is because every so often, one of the Historical Jesus revisionists’ claims winds up worming its way into Christendom. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The revisionists do like to point out baby Jesus wasn’t really visited by magi while he was still in the manger, and it turns out they’re right; it was years later. Skeptics can be mighty useful when they poke holes in popular culture’s myths and help us get to the real Jesus. They have their uses.

But sometimes one of their false claims gets into Christians’ heads, and we gotta help correct our fellow Christians.

The most common one I bump into is this idea Jesus never called himself Messiah. He never did, skeptics insist; go check your bible. So Christians do—and lo and behold, Jesus never does use those precise words, “I’m Messiah.” Not in English, nor in Aramaic nor Greek. Didn’t say ’em. It’s always others who call him Messiah. And since he didn’t say it… maybe he wasn’t.

Okay, time to clear things up.

What Jesus didn’t say.

I fully admit Jesus didn’t use the words, “I’m Messiah,” in the gospels. At all. That part’s true.

So what?

It’s an old attorney’s stunt to say, “Since he never said these precise words, it means he never said such a thing.” Incorrect. He did say such a thing. Several times. Without using the words, “I’m Messiah.”

Most attorneys are familiar with basic logic—a lot of ’em studied it in law school—and know “He never said these precise words” is a fallacious argument. But they use it anyway. ’Cause they took logic, but juries haven’t always. And sometimes judges aren’t too quick, and let “he never said these precise words” slide as if it’s a valid argument. It’s not.

We have plenty of evidence in the gospels that Jesus indicated himself Messiah; that he thought himself Messiah; that he accepted the title from various people. He never had to say the words.

Why not? Because Messiah means “king.” Not “savior”; that’s what Jesus means. Not “anointed one,” although mešiákh does mean that literally, but then again how many people nowadays use the word facebook literally? Words evolve. Messiah means “king.”

In Jesus’s culture, you couldn’t simply say, “I’m Messiah.” Because other people considered themselves Messiah. When Herod was king, he figured that was his title. After Herod died and Rome sent governors, they figured that was Caesar’s title. Claiming to be Messiah meant you defied the current rulers of Israel; you were the rightful king and they weren’t. Understandably, they’d see this as treason, and have you killed. Slowly.

In fact, implying “I’m Messiah” did get Jesus killed. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Freedom of speech is a recent invention. The first governments to guarantee it were the individual states of the United States, during our Revolution. Before that point—and even after it—people could be arrested for the political things they said. Not even the truth was any defense: If truth embarrassed anyone, especially people in power, it was wrongly called “libel,” and you’d suffer consequences. Remember, Antipas Herod threw John into prison for stating (correctly!) Antipas’s marriage violated the Law. Jn 3.19-20 Truth was no defense.

This was the world Jesus lived in. It’s why he resorted to parables. Nobody can accuse him of literally proclaiming a new kingdom, because he told people what the kingdom was like, not what it is. In the same way, he never flat-out stated, “I’m Messiah.” Instead he said it every other way he could get away with.

What Jesus said.

John 4.25-26, 28-29 KWL
25 The woman told Jesus, “I know Messiah comes, who’s called Christ.
Whenever he comes, he’ll explain everything to us.”
26 Jesus told her, “I am the one speaking to you.”
28 So the Samaritan left her jar and went back into the town.
She told the people, “Come see a person who told me everything I’ve done!
It’s not Christ, is it?”

The translators of the NLT decided to forego any ambiguity and have Jesus flat-out say, “I AM the Messiah.” Jn 4.26 NLT No, that’s not what he actually said. But it’s certainly what he meant. The woman spoke about how Messiah’d explain everything, and Jesus pointed out he was explaining everything. That’s direct enough for any present-day court of law.

As is this.

Matthew 16.13-17, 20 KWL
13 While Jesus was going to the area of Caesarea-Philippi, he quizzed his students.
He was asking, “Whom do the people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They said, “Some John the Baptist, and others Elijah,
and yet others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 He told them, “And whom do you say I am?”
16 In reply Simon Peter said, “You’re Messiah, the son of the living God.”
17 In reply Jesus told him, “You’re awesome, Simon bar Jonah.
For flesh and blood didn’t reveal this to you; instead my heavenly Father did.[…]
20 Then he ordered the students to never say he’s Messiah.

Again, Jesus didn’t straight-up call himself Messiah. He didn’t have to; Simon Peter did it for him. Jesus praised him… then he told his students to keep it quiet. He never told them, “No; wrong!” He told them, “Tell no one.”

This isn’t the behavior of someone who didn’t believe himself Messiah. Nor is it the behavior of someone who wanted this impression corrected or squelched. On the contrary: Jesus told them to keep their mouths shut. Thus magnifying its importance in his students’ minds. They were keeping his secret.

But it wasn’t all that secret. Lots of other folks realized Jesus is Messiah, and used biblical language to say so. They used every euphemism for Messiah there was. They’d call him “king,” Lk 19.38, Jn 1.49 and “son of David” Mt 22.42, Mk 12.35 —not because they actually knew Jesus’s ancestry, but because David was a Messiah, and the future Messiah of prophecy was David’s successor.

They also called him “son of God.” Mt 26.63, Jn 20.31 Now, since we Christians know Jesus is the literal son of God, we regularly—and wrongly—miss what the Jews meant by this. “Son of God” is another term for king, i.e. Messiah.

Psalm 2.6-9 KWL
6 “On my holy Zion hill, I poured out my king.”
7 Let me now instruct you on the LORD God’s ruling.
“You’re my son,” he told me, “on this day I birthed you.
8 Ask me and I grant the wealth of nations to you.
Your inheritance extends to earth’s horizon.
9 Shatter with your iron staff; like jars you’ll break them.”

God adopted his kings as his sons; so, “son of God.”

I suspect most of the reason Jesus shut up the occasional devil who called him son of God, Lk 4.41 was because of the cultural misunderstanding “son of God” would create for the Jews.

Once you learn Messiah means king, and learn to recognize all this Messianic language, when you read the gospels you’ll see it everywhere. Doesn’t matter how much Jesus tried to keep it quiet.

Jesus constantly talked about the kingdom of God. Not for no good reason, but because it’s his kingdom. Jesus attracted crowds of followers, as any king would. Jesus was asked to settle disputes, king-style. Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem, king-style. There was a whole revolution going on, right under the Romans’ noses. No wonder it freaked out the head priests.

Calling himself Messiah is the whole reason for his execution.

When the head priests finally arrested him and hauled him in front of the Judean senate, they asked him about it point-blank. Which he answered, at last, point-blank.

Mark 14.60-64 KWL
60 Rising in the middle, the head priest questioned Jesus,
saying, “Don’t you challenge anything these people witnessed against you?”
61 Jesus was silent, and challenged nothing.
Again, the head priest questioned him, telling him, “You’re Messiah, the ‘son of the Blessed’?”
62 Jesus said, “I am. You’ll see the Son of Man—
seating himself at the right of God’s power, coming with heaven’s clouds.”
63 Tearing his tunic, the head priest said, “Who still needs to have witnesses?
64 You heard the slander. How’s it look to you?”
Everyone sentenced Jesus guilty, and to be put to death.

There are slight variations of this story in Matthew and Luke, and John doesn’t refer to its outcome, but the gist is the same: The leaders of the Judean senate condemned Jesus because he said he was their Messiah, their king.

Now, it’s not a crime if he is Messiah, and he is. But like the skeptics, the senators absolutely couldn’t believe him, and didn’t want to. The only other conclusion was Jesus was lying. He claimed God had anointed him as their king, but he hadn’t, so this was slander against God. Back then this’d get you the death penalty. (Nowadays people just call you “controversial.”)

As I said, many Christians believe Messiah means “savior” instead of “king.” These same Christians usually teach the senators changed their accusation when they handed Jesus off to the Romans for execution. Supposedly the Romans couldn’t care less about slandering God—which isn’t true; if slandering God disrupted the peace, the Romans were mighty quick to put down such disruptions and crucify the ringleaders. But because the Romans didn’t care about the Judeans’ religion, the senators changed the charge to something they would care about, and accused Jesus of calling himself King of Judea. And I remind you, Messiah means king. The senators didn’t switch any accusation. They simply translated “Messiah” into the proper Roman context. They let the Romans handle it the same way Romans handled everything. Roman peace… achieved by killing anyone who disrupted it.

But Pilate interrogated him, once again, Jesus didn’t deny he was king.

John 18.33-38 KWL
33 Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and told him, “You’re the king of Judea?”
34 Jesus replied, “You say this on your own? Or did others tell you about me?”
35 Pilate replied, “Do I look Judean to you?
Your nation and head priests handed you over to me. What did you do?”
36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom’s not from this world.
If my kingdom’s from this world, my servants would fight lest I be handed over to the Judeans.
Now, my kingdom doesn’t exist yet.”
37 So Pilate told him, “Therefore you’re not a king.”
Jesus replied, “You say so because I am a king.
I was born into it. I came into the world into it. Thus I can testify to truth.
Everybody who’s of the truth hears my voice.”
38 Pilate told him, “What’s ‘truth’?”
On saying this, he went out again to the Judeans and told them, “I find nothing of guilt in him.”

Problem or not, the Judeans pinned him down: Anyone who called himself king was a rebel against Caesar, and anyone who released such a man would be in deep doo-doo with Caesar. Jn 19.12 Pilate capitulated, and “King of the Jews” became the crime tacked to Jesus’s cross… along with Jesus himself. Jn 19.19

True, Jesus wasn’t any sort of Messiah or king like the Jews or Romans were expecting. But their misunderstanding didn’t prevent Jesus from accepting these titles. And his acceptance of the title gave the Judean senate and the Romans their excuse to kill him.

This being the case, those who claim, “Jesus never called himself Messiah” simply have no leg to stand on. Not historically. They’re basing their statement on something other than history. Personal bias, another religion, or a lack of respect for the gospels as historical documents. But certainly not history.