Is Jesus Really Human?

Bartlomiej Staniszewski, University of Oxford
The following is an essay published by Clarifying Catholicism. Clarifying Catholicism enjoys promoting essays and works pertaining to Theology and Philosophy, written by High School and College students. Essay originally submitted to instructor 07/10/2018

PDF Version: Does the presentation of Jesus in John…

In order to answer the question of what makes someone human or not, one has to consider what does it mean to be human. Although seemingly a biological question, in the context of the Gospel of John, the question ought to be understood within the tradition in which the author of John (who will be now on simply referred to as ‘John’ for convenience) was writing. This tradition includes the Tanakh and the early Christian writings which would have already been available to John at the time of them writing the Gospel at about 90 AD[1]. However, in considering this, this essay does not seek to answer whether Jesus is human, or even whether John thinks Jesus is human, but indeed whether John presents Jesus as really human.

In Genesis 1:26-28, ‘humankind’ is described as having dominion over animals, being male or female, and is ordered to multiply. John makes no mention of the physical abilities of Jesus to reproduce or control animals, however, He is clearly referred to as male. More importantly, however, in v. 27, humankind is ‘created’ – a property which I will consider in relation to Jesus in John later.

We can also find out about Jesus’ humanity from His titles, as they are indicative of His identity. Normally, the ‘I am’ sayings are very useful in that respect, but sadly, few mention anything to do with humanity. That said, many highlight Jesus’ divinity (8:24; 13:19; 18:6,8; and most notoriously 8:58 referencing Exodus 3:14), which may seem contradictory to humanity insofar as within the Jewish tradition, to be God and to be human seem to be two contradicting properties. That said, as I will go on to demonstrate later, John departs strongly from that tradition.

One of the titles ascribed to Jesus in John is ‘the Son of Man’. This can be understood very literally, as the son of a biological man (Joseph), seemingly highlighting Jesus’ humanity, however, it is more likely that John would understand it in reference to the Tanakh,[2] where the title is used mostly in reference to the Prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a human prophet; hence, Jesus being identified with him makes Him appear more human. Furthermore, this title is also mentioned in Daniel 7, where it can also be translated to mean ‘like a human being’[3]. This double meaning may have been used by John deliberately. This is reinforced by the fact that the title is often used (both by John and within the synoptic tradition) to indicate passion and suffering – human qualities,[4] never ascribed to God in the Tanakh, nor even in the pagan Hellenic philosophy of the time.

That said, John is especially reluctant to speak about Jesus’s passion and suffering. He is not troubled in Gethsemane (John 17) nor is His agony on the cross described.[5] Perhaps this may be because the other Gospels already describe the passion and John did not see it as useful to repeat it, but Smalley suggests that John did not know of the synoptic gospels.[6] He is disagreed on this by, among others, Bockmuehl,[7] and as such it is not clear whether John was indeed aware of the other gospels, although it is likely that, if the synoptic gospels are based on common source material, John would have also had access to that material, and as such was familiar with the synoptic passion narrative. Either way, John is commonly seen to be written so that the reader ‘may come to believe’ (20:31), i.e. to convert, and Smalley especially underlines that it is not intended to complement or correct other gospels;[8] as such, John would not choose not to include material simply because it was included in the other gospels. Nonetheless, the issue of purpose is also not clear-cut: some versions of the gospel do not include verse 20:31,[9] and according to Meeks, it is actually intended as an insider theological guide for a Johannine community.[10]

The title of the Son of Man runs into further problems in regard to proving Jesus’ humanity. While in Aramaic the title simply means ‘man’ or ‘human being’,[11] which appears to emphasise humanity, the use of the article ‘the’ seems to rather suggest a specific, special person, rather than underscore humanity as a general property.[12] The exclusivity of Jesus becomes even more explicit when one notices that while Jesus is always referred to as ‘the Son of Man’, ‘the Son’, or ‘the only Son’, other men are simply described as ‘children’.[13]

In that, while certainly hinting at Jesus’ humanity more than His divinity (or any non-humanity of sorts), the title ‘the Son of Man’ is not conclusive about John’s views on Jesus’s humanity.

Perhaps the title ‘Messiah’ (Hebrew for ‘anointed one’) is more helpful. It is used in the Tanakh in reference to a variety of commendable individuals who have in some way aided Israel, notably including King David and many of the prophets. Importantly, all of those individuals were human – Jesus being identified by this title seems to associate Him with their humanity. ‘Messiah’ (or Christ, from Greek), is an especially effective title in John, as John always uses it as a title, unlike for example St. Paul, who often uses it as a byword for Jesus.[14]

Although a further hint at Jesus’ humanity, the use of the title ‘Messiah’ is also not conclusive. Jesus claims to be greater and prior to the prophets (8:58), and it is possible to interpret the sign of turning the water into wine as an indication of His superiority – just as the best wine was kept until the last (2:10), so was Jesus ‘kept’ until after the prophets.[15] In that, John may be suggesting Jesus should not be associated with them despite being the Messiah.

Worth mentioning are also titles used for Jesus which are not frequently repeated, and so are not indicative of John as a whole, but nonetheless may take us closer to discovering John’s presentation of Jesus’ humanity. Jesus accepts his human title, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, as He is referred to, among others, by those who hold him to be nothing more than a human (and reject titles such as Son of God or Messiah) in 18:5. Similarly, perhaps deliberately, John quotes Caiaphas making an almost prophetic statement about Jesus death whereby he refers to Jesus as ‘one man’ (11:50). Both of those point towards Jesus’ humanity.

On the other hand, why might Jesus not be seen as really human? Many of the things He does appear superhuman. He performs miracles and is identified as ‘in the Father’ (10:38) and ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ (20:28). An especially striking claim of divinity is made by Jesus in 10:30, when He claims that ‘I and the Father are one’. The Gospel is primarily concerned with salvation through Jesus,[16] and yet in Jeremiah 31:31-34, which John would have been familiar with, it is said that salvation is brought about by godly intervention – not a human act.[17] The Prologue claims that ‘the Word was God’ (1:1) and identifies the Word (Logos) with Jesus. There are many aforementioned ‘I am’ sayings which point at Jesus’ divinity, and finally, He is often bestowed with the title ‘the Son of God’ (1:49; 3:18; 5:25; 11:4 etc.), which has traditionally indicated divine qualities.[18]

Jesus performing miracles demonstrates god-like, divine power, but they are ultimately human acts; miracles were also performed earlier in the Jewish tradition, by Elijah or Elisha. As such, performing those does not make Jesus unlike men.[19] What is unique about Jesus is that, unlike Elijah or Elisha, He does not seem to require extra help for performing the miracles – while Elijah and Elisha were granted their power through divine inspiration, Jesus can perform miracles at any time, as though He himself was divine.

Indeed, Jesus at times seems very other-worldly. His dialogue with Nicodemus (3:1-21) is full of confusion, and Nicodemus cannot understand Jesus (3:10). It is as though Nicodemus (a human) and Jesus are of different worlds, and completely unlike.[20] Meeks goes as far as to say that Jesus is ‘incomprehensible to all’,[21] accentuating just how inhuman He seems. This is in line with 18:36, where Jesus Himself admits his Kingdom to be ‘not of this world’.

This is where the evidence against Jesus’ humanity seems to fall apart. If John is indeed aware of the synoptic gospels, he would be familiar with Matthew 13:13, and the synoptic tradition of Jesus speaking in parables in a way which nobody understands, not because He cannot be understood, but because He does not wish to be understood. Even if one is to reject the idea that John knew about the synoptic gospels, in saying the disciples ‘do not belong to the world’ (17:16), Jesus uses the language of other-worldliness in reference to persons we know to be human,[22] as such debunking the idea that the two are mutually exclusive.

On the contrary, John quite explicitly suggests the idea that there exist at least two persons to God, Jesus and the Father, and that Jesus can be both God and human. Jesus prays to the Father in John 17, suggesting there is some degree of separation between the two, and John’s language of ‘believe into’ (6:29) used in reference to Jesus, can indeed only be used in reference to a person in the original Greek.[23]

At no point does John suggest that Jesus’ pre-existence means He is anything less than fully human.[24] Rather the opposite is suggested in John 1, where Jesus is identified as both God (1:1-3, 18) and human (1:14). Assuredly, the title ‘the Son of God’ suggests a similar relationship. It can be interpreted to mean a royal title, or suggest divinity (although from the context in which John uses it, it is fairly clear that the latter is the case),[25] and the sheer use of the word ‘Son’ suggests a uniquely human, family-like relationship.

Nevertheless, it is the verse 1:14 that is, unlike the titles ‘the Son of Man’ or ‘Messiah’, conclusive about Jesus’ human identity – not without justification does Tuckett assert the ‘full humanity of Jesus’ citing this verse alone.[26] Brown points out that ‘flesh’ in 1:14 ‘stands for the whole man’; it signifies the entirety of human nature, not merely an element of it,[27] and as such Jesus is not only human – He is fully human. Even the use of the word ‘dwelt’ (‘eskenosen’ in the original Greek) suggests a simple, human dwelling, alike the dwelling of Wisdom in Israel (Sirach 24:8), and literally means ‘setting a tent’.[28] It is meant to indicate a human presence.

The evidence for Jesus’ humanity in the Gospel does not end there. John portrays Jesus performing uniquely human actions, such as weeping (11:35) (indeed the verse mentioning weeping is the shortest in the whole gospel, placing a large emphasis on the importance of this action in portraying Jesus as a human). Not only does Jesus weep, but He also has friends (15:14-15). Those are actions exemplifying passions and emotions – qualities unmet in God in the Jewish tradition, or even in pagan Hellenic philosophy, which explicitly denies that any divine being could have passions.

John also frequently mentions the words ‘ascending and descending’, in awareness that he is the first in his or pagan tradition to portray a divine being as descending, as opposed to ascending.[29] In 1:51, at the beginning of the Gospel, he makes mention of heaven joining the earth precisely when angels will be descending and ascending, as Jesus is that which joins them.[30] He is both heavenly, in being divine, and earthly, in being human.

Finally, it is quite possible that 1:14 is not the earliest mention of Jesus’ humanity within the Gospel. The references to the ‘light of all people’ in 1:4 and ‘coming into the world’ in 1:9 are further evidence that John sees Jesus as God coming into the world as a human.[31]

There exists hard to deny ‘stress on the humanity of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel’.[32] Nonetheless, what yet remains important to point out is that John writes about Jesus’ humanity through the idea of incarnation – Jesus becomes human only through His incarnation. While He pre-existed ‘in the beginning with God’ (1:2), He only ‘became’ flesh (1:14) at a set point in time. As such, while Jesus was not human before His incarnation, having existed before His birth (8:58), and indeed before humanity (1:2), He does become fully human and is presented as such in the Gospel of John, at the moment of the incarnation. This brings us back to the creation of humankind in Genesis 1 – humankind was ‘created’, or in other words, it came to be, through an act of God. Much in the same way, Jesus’ humanity, through the incarnation, comes to be, and insofar as Jesus comes down from the Father to become human, it is an act of God. In that, He embraces all human properties, and is fully and really human; but not just human, since for John, He is also divine.

Bibliography:

  1. Bockmuehl, ‘From Jesus of Nazareth to Christ of the Creed’, The Figure of Jesus through the Centuries, Lecture 1, Delivered at the University of Oxford, 09/10/2018
  2. E. Brown, ‘The Gospel According to John (i-xii)’ (London: Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, 1971)
  3. H. C. Frend, ‘The Early Church’ (London: SCM Press, 2003)
  4. Lindars, ‘John’ (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001)
  5. A. Meeks, ‘The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism’ in the Journal of Biblical Literature, 01/03/1972, Vol. 91
  6. J. Moloney, ‘The Gospel of John’ (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998)
  7. Moule, ‘The Origin of Christology’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977)
  8. Smalley, ‘John: Evangelist and Interpreter’ (2nd ed.; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998)
  9. Tuckett, ‘Christology and the New Testament: Jesus and His Earliest Followers’ (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2001)

[1] M. Bockmuehl, ‘From Jesus of Nazareth to Christ of the Creed’, The Figure of Jesus through the Centuries, Lecture 1, Delivered at the University of Oxford, 09/10/2018

[2] C. Tuckett, ‘Christology and the New Testament: Jesus and His Earliest Followers’ (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2001), pp.163-164

[3] C. Moule, ‘The Origin of Christology’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), pp.14

[4] B. Lindars, ‘John’ (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), pp.84

[5] C. Tuckett, ‘Christology and the New Testament: Jesus and His Earliest Followers’ (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2001), pp.152

[6] S. Smalley, ‘John: Evangelist and Interpreter’ (2nd ed.; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), pp.218

[7] M. Bockmuehl, ‘From Jesus of Nazareth to Christ of the Creed’, The Figure of Jesus through the Centuries, Lecture 1, Delivered at the University of Oxford, 09/10/2018

[8] S. Smalley, ‘John: Evangelist and Interpreter’ (2nd ed.; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), pp.174

[9] C. Tuckett, ‘Christology and the New Testament: Jesus and His Earliest Followers’ (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2001), pp.151

[10] W. A. Meeks, ‘The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism’ in the Journal of Biblical Literature, 01/03/1972, Vol.91, pp.70

[11] B. Lindars, ‘John’ (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), pp.82-83

[12] C. Moule, ‘The Origin of Christology’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), pp.13

[13] M. Bockmuehl, ‘From Jesus of Nazareth to Christ of the Creed’, The Figure of Jesus through the Centuries, Lecture 1, Delivered at the University of Oxford, 09/10/2018

[14] C. Tuckett, ‘Christology and the New Testament: Jesus and His Earliest Followers’ (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2001), pp.156

[15] S. Smalley, ‘John: Evangelist and Interpreter’ (2nd ed.; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), pp.215

[16] B. Lindars, ‘John’ (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), pp.68

[17] Ibid. pp.69

[18] M. Bockmuehl, ‘From Jesus of Nazareth to Christ of the Creed’, The Figure of Jesus through the Centuries, Lecture 1, Delivered at the University of Oxford, 09/10/2018

[19] B. Lindars, ‘John’ (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), pp.76

[20] W. A. Meeks, ‘The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism’ in the Journal of Biblical Literature, 01/03/1972, Vol.91, pp.54

[21] Ibid. pp.57

[22] R. E. Brown, ‘The Gospel According to John (i-xii)’ (London: Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, 1971), pp.347

[23] B. Lindars, ‘John’ (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), pp.73

[24] Ibid. pp.75

[25] C. Tuckett, ‘Christology and the New Testament: Jesus and His Earliest Followers’ (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2001), pp.160

[26] Ibid. pp.168

[27] R. E. Brown, ‘The Gospel According to John (i-xii)’ (London: Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, 1971), pp.13

[28] F. J. Moloney, ‘The Gospel of John’ (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998), pp.38

[29] M. Bockmuehl, ‘From Jesus of Nazareth to Christ of the Creed’, The Figure of Jesus through the Centuries, Lecture 1, Delivered at the University of Oxford, 09/10/2018

[30] B. Lindars, ‘John’ (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), pp.84

[31] F. J. Moloney, ‘The Gospel of John’ (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998), pp.38

[32] S. Smalley, ‘John: Evangelist and Interpreter’ (2nd ed.; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), pp.239

2 comments

  1. Well, this is a nice article. I have no problem at all believing in or loving my God who is fully God and fully Man, the Son Man, Jesus Christ. Haven’t since my conversion. I guess I’m blessed. I think if you follow this link, and read the article there, you’ll have some positive affirmations that yes indeedie He is 100% Human. It’s about the DNA evidence of several Eucharistic Miracles regarding Hosts that have been transformed into Human tissues that demonstrate in various ways that they are parts of a Human Heart, the Sacred Heart of Jesus that beats for love of us. https://reasontobelieve.com.au/eucharistic-miracle/ Enjoy the article. God bless. Ginnyfree.

    Like

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