Question: If Jesus is Deity (Very God of Very God, as you like to say), how come the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) don’t talk about it? You’d think if He was God they would have made a big deal about it.
This is a common feature in unitarian arguments, but it simply does not hold water for several reasons.
You are begging the question when you ask “how come the synoptics don’t talk about the Deity of Christ?” To give a “because XYZ” answer to that question, one has to assume that the synoptic gospels indeed do not speak of the Deity of Christ, but such an assumption would be highly erroneous! The basic fact is that the synoptics do teach the Deity of Christ, albeit somewhat implicitly. In a future installment we will cover the synoptic presentation of the Deity of Christ in great depth, but to whet your appetite (and prove I’m not just blowing smoke), consider the following:
Matt 18:20 (claiming omnipresence)
Luke 7:48-49 (also, you unitarians who say it doesn’t matter who Jesus is [creature or Deity], notice again the emphasis put on His identity)
Even if the synoptics had nothing to say about the Deity of Christ (which has been shown to be totally bogus), it is a logical fallacy to assert that this would mean Jesus was not by nature God. What do I mean? Simply that absence of evidence to the positive does not constitute proof of the negative. That is, just because there is a lack of proof in a certain area for something it does not then follow that the thing is disproven.
Example: the book of Esther in the Old Testament never mentions Abraham’s nephew Lot. To follow the unitarian line of reasoning – that absence of evidence for the Deity of Christ in the synoptics (even if it were truly absent) shows that He was not True God – we would have to also say that absence of evidence for the life of Lot in the book of Esther shows that he was not a real man.
This would be an absurd way to argue! The fact is that the gospel written by John is very explicit when it comes to the Deity of Christ (just as the book of Genesis is very explicit about the life of Lot), so to find a section of scripture where the evidence is not so explicit, such as the synoptics (or the book of Esther, in the case of Lot), does not overturn the evidence we do find in spades elsewhere!
Again, commit this principle to memory: absence of evidence to the positive does not constitute proof of the negative.
Let me give you one more example of this principle to add to your quiver before we move on. Suppose you were a defense attorney for a client who had broken into a home and killed a man. Now suppose that the prosecution had fingerprints, hair and DNA samples, actual video documentation of the entire incident, and eyewitnesses that pointed to your client as the culprit. All the evidence links to him.
You get up and address the judge and the jury, “Your honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client could not have committed this crime because we have not found the murder weapon.”
What do you think would happen? If not for the gravity of the proceedings, my guess is you would be laughed out of the court room. So the murder weapon is missing? So what? We have video documentation and eyewitnesses! You can point out all the gaps in the evidential net you like – the fact is there is more than enough evidence for a guaranteed conviction.
Now, as an aside, some people are just weird and would say, “Oh no! He/She’s right! We don’t have the murder weapon! We can’t be 100% sure the suspect did it unless we have a murder weapon!” Some of these people might even be on the jury, and if that’s the case, then you the defense attorney have done a good job of conjuring up doubt in people’s minds where none need exist (you have a flipping video tape!!!). This kind of deceptive tactic is used by the best liars because it seemingly lessens the degree of certainty you can have about a certain conclusion/conviction. But in the end, that’s all it is, a ploy to play on the fears of people by pointing out an area where the evidence is not so clear (not contradictory, just not explicitly clear either) and blowing it up so it seems like a bigger deal than it actually is. If you will remember the principle that absence of evidence to the positive does not constitute proof of the negative (getting tired of that yet?) you can avoid getting duped by all the people who will point to the gaps when the undeniable evidence more than overwhelms any doubts; and there are a lot of such manipulators, trust me.
I will of course grant (as I have from the beginning of this answer) that the synoptic gospels are not as “in your face” with the Deity of Christ as the Gospel of John is, and I think that’s really what the question at the top is referring to. So how come the synoptics aren’t in your face about it?
This question bugged me for the longest time. In my mind (and the mind of orthodoxy really), the Deity of Christ is the nail on which everything else is hung. So why-oh-why aren’t Matthew, Mark, and Luke more explicit about it?
The answer from liberal secular scholars is of course that, “Well, the early followers of Christ didn’t conceive of Him as God. It took time for that whole idea to grow, and so we see that John’s gospel, which was written towards the end of the first century (as opposed to the mid-first century synoptics) exhibits a “higher Christology” – that is, more clear statements about Jesus as God – than the earlier synoptics do.
Some of the more liberal Christian scholars, in an effort to retain this theory, try to soften it and have gone instead with saying, “Well, the first Christians did think of Jesus as Divine, they just had trouble with the concept and how to express and understand it, so it took them some time to reflect on it after Jesus’ ascension before they really got it.”
Now, obviously, the first answer from atheistic liberals is unacceptable. We affirm as Christians that the belief in the Deity of Christ is central to the message of the Gospel, and therefore for that doctrine to have been a late innovation is equivalent to our faith being in vain. Besides that, it doesn’t stand up to the facts; more on that in a moment.
The answer from these Christian scholars who want to say that the idea of Christ as God needed to grow up from some vague (though acknowledged) concept at the time of the ascension to the full-blown Christology of John’s gospel is likewise a bitter pill to swallow. Look, if Thomas could confess Jesus as “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28) immediately after the resurrection, why would it take the Church another 30-40 years to really contemplate and affirm the message?
Let me tell you why both of these theories fail, and in so doing it will be an answer to the question of why the synoptics are not on-your-face with the Deity of Christ like John is.
Here’s the thing:
The Apostle Paul wrote many explicit things about the Deity of Christ in his letters, many to most of which pre-date the gospels (see especially the Carmen Christi in Philippians 2, which was probably an early Christian hymn and may even pre-date Paul’s conversion – placing it within a mere several years of Jesus’ resurrection). This means that the teaching of Jesus as God was already taking place well before the synoptics were penned, let alone John’s gospel account (so much for the development of this doctrine over decades).
Further, the vast majority of the teaching of the early Church was oral, which means that the Deity of Christ was most likely something that was covered by the traveling Apostles and Evangelists as they spread the gospel to the nations and therefore was not recorded for us as such until later. The gospels were written primarily to preserve a record of the teachings of Jesus, not as an apologetic tool to be used against every Johnny-come-lately heretic who denied the Deity of Christ. In fact, the first heresies about Jesus’ nature took several decades to crop up.
I want you to join me in a thought-experiment, just for fun. Imagine that you are a citizen in a Roman town and the Apostle Peter is passing through preaching the gospel of Christ crucified. You hear it and are intrigued, as are many others. In no time you and your fellows have banded together and are now meeting regularly to hear the Apostle preach about this man, Jesus Christ. He tells you that this man was God in the flesh, and that He did many miracles and even rose from the dead, claiming to be the firstfruits of a future resurrection for all who believe and trust in Him for salvation. After staying for some time, he appoints leaders for the Church in your area and goes on his way to continue to spread the news.
Now, before he goes, imagine that his interpreter, Mark (who was indeed Peter’s interpreter), says to you, “I’m writing an account of Jesus to spread to all the Churches. What do you think I should spend the most room talking about? After all, I only have a limited amount of papyrus to write on.”
What would you say?
Here’s another way of looking at it. Suppose you were at the bookstore looking for a book on George Washington. There are two options: one is a book written as an apologetic to prove that Washington was the first president of the United States. All it talked about over and over was the fact that Washington was the president, and oh, what a president, and did I mention he was the president? The second is a book which chronicles the things that Washington did (fight in battles, work a farm, survey land, etc.) and the things he said (speeches he made, letters he wrote, and conversations recorded for posterity). Which book would you buy? What would be more interesting and useful to you?
For my part, I’d want the second one. Good grief, I already learned he was the first US president in grade school, no need to belabor the point. Actually, I don’t care if the second book never even mentions that fact. I don’t need that book to give me the slightest clue that Washington was ever the president, because as I read I’m already assuming it, since it’s something I’ve already learned. The book can hint at his future (or past) presidency all it wants without saying it explicitly, and I’ll catch every hint because I’m reading the book with a basic foundational knowledge already in place.
So to go back to the thought experiment, you would already know full-well through the Apostolic teaching that Jesus is Deity (because, as Paul’s letters show, this was being clearly taught to the Churches within a matter of years after Pentecost and well before the synoptics). Therefore this would be old news, just like the presidency of Washington. So if Mark told you that he was writing a book about the Word made flesh, what would you want in it? For my part, I already get it, God became man for my sake. Fantastic news! Now that I know and believe that God was incarnate, I don’t want a whole book about it, I’ll just assume it. No, I want to know what God did and said when He was walking among men, in the flesh – and I would tell Mark as much.
And you know what? That’s exactly what we see in the synoptics. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are written with the underlying assumption that Jesus is God, and thus they do not seek to prove it (as John does), because it’s a given already. They simply record what the God-man did during His earthly ministry, as a biography.
It is just plain error (in my opinion) to read the synoptics while asking the question, “Is Jesus God incarnate?” They record what God incarnate did and said, and therefore you will be very confused if you read them without the underlying understanding that Jesus is God, but you might not be able to deductively prove that He is God incarnate from that text alone (which is why we have John!).
Still, why did it take John so long to get around to writing about the Deity of Christ?
Now, as to why John saw fit to prove the Deity of Christ and spend so much time on it in His gospel when the synoptics didn’t, it is very simple. John wrote his gospel account decades after the synoptics, and in the between period many false teachers had sprung up. One in particular who was known to John was a man named Cerinthus.
As near as historians can tell, Cerinthus taught that Jesus was a mere man, a mortal creature. According to Cerinthus, when Jesus was baptized the “Christ spirit” attached itself to Jesus and enabled him to exercise divine powers. At Jesus’ crucifixion this “Christ spirit” left him to return to heaven, and Jesus died, again a mere mortal creature.
Now, it’s important to recognize that this heresy was one of the first of its kind, and therefore it wasn’t a problem decades before when Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote their accounts. However, the evidence points rather squarely to the conclusion that John was actually responding to this teaching of Cerinthus when he wrote his gospel. In other words, John’s goal in writing his gospel account was to prove that Jesus is Himself Divine! Consider the words: “These things are written that you may believe, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:31) – do you see how soundly this refutes Cerinthus’ teaching that Jesus and the Christ were 2 different things?
The fact is that early on, there were really no heresies denying the Deity of Christ, so we would not expect the earlier synoptics to place a strong emphasis on it – they would rather be more concerned with what God incarnate taught than proving that He was God incarnate, because everyone already accepted that. Later on, when Cerinthus started spouting his heresy that Jesus was a mere mortal man, John saw fit to pen his gospel roundly refuting that error.
Finally, I want to point out that there was one slightly earlier heresy than Cerinthus’ (Jesus being only man, not God) and that was proto-gnosticism. This heresy held that Jesus was only a Divine being, but not actually man – He just appeared to have a physical body, which was actually an illusion (this is known as Docetism). Good ol’ John wrote against this heresy just like he wrote against the Cerinthian error, and you will find that this is recorded for you in 1st John, his catholic epistle – read it and see if you can tell how adamant he is in saying that Jesus was truly man! (see esp. 1 John 4:2)
In conclusion, the Deity of Christ is found in the synoptics, however they were written before the heresies denying the Deity of Christ began to appear, therefore they focus mostly on what God in the flesh did and said on this earth and did not waste precious space (and it was precious in those days of expensive writing materials) hammering home the evidence for His Deity, especially since they would have known that their readers had a firm grasp on this concept already from Apostolic teaching.
John wrote about the Deity of Christ extensively and explicitly because by the time he penned his account the Cerinthian and Gnostic heresies had arrived on the scene, therefore as the last surviving Apostle he spent his final years leaving the Church with an irrefutable witness to the Deity and humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
To our unitarian friends: please understand that the synoptic gospels were never meant to convince you of the Deity of Christ. They were meant to teach what anyone who already believes in the Deity of Christ wants to know: “if God came to earth in the flesh, tell me about what He did and what He said while He was here!” The gospel of John was meant to convince you of the Deity of Christ, so I suggest you spend your time there. And to those unitarians who will want to find a way to throw the gospel of John out because you are running from the Biblical testimony of the Deity of Christ, read “Evading Truth – Speculation” and take stock of the reasons you are trying so very hard to avoid the obvious truth:
Jesus is God!
I hope all this made sense without being redundant. Feel free to leave a comment if I need to elaborate on anything or clear something up.