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orthodox icon of Christ

Jesus Christ is one the most fascinating and enigmatic figures in history. Despite his humble origins (a son of a carpenter from the Judean countryside), short life (about 33 years), and very short public career (between one and three years), Jesus is the central focus of the world’s largest religion and has meant many things to many people since his death almost 2,000 years ago. Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions calls Jesus “arguably the most important figure in the history of western civilization.”

In recent years, both scholarly and popular attention has been focused on the “quest for the historical Jesus,” an attempt to distinguish the human Jesus who lived and taught in Galilee from the “Christ of faith” developed by the early Christians. This subject will be discussed in a separate article (currently under development).

This article focuses on the “Christ of faith” – that is, the Christian doctrine about who Jesus was. This topic is known to Christian theologians as “Christology,” a field that seeks to answer the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” from a theological perspective. The article that follows will focus on five major answers that Christians have traditionally given to this question: he was a real human being, the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Son of God, and God.

Christ as a Historical Human Being

First, Christians believe Jesus to have been a historical human being who was born in Bethlehem between 7 and 4 BC. {1} The humanity of Jesus is now one of the least controversial areas of Christology, but this was not always so.

In the early years after Christ, some taught that Jesus’ body, suffering, and death were merely appearances. Scholars call this view “docetism,” from the Greek word meaning “to seem.” Docetism arose from the Gnostic view that all matter is evil, and concluded that God could not have been actually associated with it.

Christ as the Messiah

Christians believe Jesus is the Messiah, the “anointed one” predicted in the Jewish Scriptures. The word “Christ” comes from the Greek for “Messiah,” (it is actually a title, not a surname). According to the Hebrew prophets, the Messiah is a king-like figure from the line of David who would, among other things, rescue Israel from her oppressors, return Jerusalem to the Jewish people, and usher in an age of peace. {2} There is evidence that Jewish messianic expectation was high at the time of Jesus, associated with hope of liberation from Roman occupation.

Jews and Christians disagree, of course, as to whether Jesus was the Messiah. The arguments given for both sides and the history of this disagreement is worthy of fuller treatment, and will be the subject of a future feature article. In the meantime, an overview of Jewish beliefs about the Messiah can be found in the article on Jewish Beliefs.

In the New Testament, affirmations of Jesus as the Messiah are found almost exclusively in the four Gospel narratives and the Acts of the Apostles. The Pauline and other epistles, many of which predate the Gospels, do not attempt to show that Jesus is Messiah, yet they refer to him almost exclusively as “Christ.” In the Gospels, various people identify Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus himself reinforces this perception:

  • After meeting Jesus, Andrew runs to tell Peter that he has found the Messiah (Jn 1:41)
  • In a conversation with Jesus, a Samaritan woman says she knows the Messiah is coming. Jesus replies, “I who speak to you am he.” (Jn 4:25-26)
  • When Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, Peter answers, “You are the Christ.” (Mt 16:16; Mk 8:29; Lk 9:20)
  • During the Triumphal Entry, the crowds shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and the Gospel author explains that this fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. (Mt 21:4-9)
  • When Jesus stands trial before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish high court), the high priest asks him if he is ” the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” and Jesus replies, “I am.” (Mk 14:61-62)

In Acts, one of the primary messages of the apostles is that Jesus is the Messiah:

  • “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they [the apostles] never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.” (Ac 5:52)
  • “As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and one three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,’ he said.” (Ac 17:2-3)
  • Before King Herod Agrippa II, Paul insists, “I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen – that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.” (Ac 26:22-23)

It is interesting to note that although Jesus appears to see himself as the Messiah in the Gospels, he does not go out of his way to identify himself as such, and those who do are commanded not to tell anyone about it. {3} This is known as the “messianic secret,” and its significance remains somewhat of a mystery to biblical scholars.

Christ as Son of Man

“Son of Man” is one of the more interesting and enigmatic titles of Jesus. It used 81 times in theGospels, and always by Jesus himself. No other character in the Gospel narratives nor any other New Testament writer uses the term. {4} Various explanations have been offered as to why Jesus employed the term and others did not. It may have been a term Jesus could use early in his ministry without inciting much hostility, because of its various meanings, but that would later encompass his messianic claims. The early Christian writers may have been reluctant to use it because the Greek phrase is somewhat ambiguous (Jesus would have used the simpler Aramaic term). {5}

To determine what Jesus meant by the phrase, Biblical scholars turn to its use in the Old Testament. There the term “Son of Man” is used in three main contexts:

  • an address to the prophet Ezekiel (e.g. Ezekiel 2:1);
  • to refer to humanity in general, especially its lowliness when compared to God and the angels (Numbers 23:19; Psalm 8:14); and
  • to refer to an eschatological figure whose coming signals the end of history (Daniel 7:13-14). {6}

Jesus appears to use the phrase especially in the third sense. He uses the phrase “Son of Man” when speaking of his roles of saving and judging (e.g. Mk 10:45; Mt 25:31) and of the future coming of an exalted, heavenly figure (e.g. Mt 13:41, 24:30; Mk 14:62; Lk 18:8).

Christ as Son of God

Another title used to refer to Jesus in the New Testament is “Son of God.” In the Old Testament, this phrase had a general meaning of “belonging to God.” It was applied to the people of Israel in general and especially its rulers (see e.g. Ex 4:22; 2 Sa 7:14).

Jesus does not refer to himself as the Son of God in the Gospels, but the term is used in the writings of Paul (e.g. Ro 1:4, 8:31) and in the epistle to the Hebrews (4:14). The Gospel of John refers to Jesus simply as “the Son,” which may have a similar meaning. Paul uses the term for both Christ and Christians, but distinguishes between the two. Christians become sons of God by adoption, but Jesus is the rightful Son of God by nature. {7}

Christ as God

Finally, Christians believe that Christ is God. This concept seems to be stated explicitly in the New Testament in at least the following places:

  • In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:1,14)
  • Thomas said to him [the resurrected Jesus], “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
  • But about the Son he [God] says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever.” (Hebrews 1:8)

In addition, some important titles and functions applied to Christ in the New Testament indicate early belief in his divinity. The statement “Jesus Christ is Lord (Greek kyrios, Hebrew adonai)” is found throughout the New Testament and was one of the earliest Christian confessions of faith. Due to the substitution of the word “Lord” in place of YHWH (the holy name of God that may not be pronounced) in Torah readings, “Lord” had come to be almost synonymous with God in Jewish thinking by the time of Jesus. This associated can be seen in the Jews’ refusal to address the Roman emperor as “lord,” even under penalty of death. {8}

Finally, as noted by Alister McGrath, the New Testament writers apply the following functions to Jesus that are associated only with God:

  • Jesus is the savior of humanity (Mt 1:21, Ac 4:12, Lk 2:11)
  • It is appropriate to call on the name of Jesus in prayer (1 Co 1:2) and to worship him (Mt 28:9)
  • Jesus reveals God directly: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (Jn 14:9) {9}




1. Jesus was born “Before Christ” due to a calculation error by the monk Dionysius Exiguus, who established the Christian calendar in 525 AD.

2. See, for example, 2 Samuel 7:12-13; Isaiah 11; Jeremiah 23:5-8; 30-31; Hosea 3:5.

3. Mt 16:20; Mk 8:30, 9:9; Lk 8:56, 9:21.

4. “Son of Man,” Catholic Encylopedia (1912).

5. Ibid.

6. McGrath, Christian Theology, 327.

7. Ibid., 326.

8. Ibid., 328, citing the Jewish historian Josephus.

9. Ibid., 329-30