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“Early High Christology”: A Recent Assessment of Scholarly Debate

December 11, 2012

I have to confess failing to notice earlier a major and important critical review of scholarly work on the origins of “high christology” by Andrew Chester:  “High Christology — Whence, When and Why?” Early Christianity 2 (2011): 22-50.  This is a very clear, accurate and incisive discussion, giving a good map of current/recent contributions/contributors and key issues.

Chester first lays out the various views espoused in current/recent scholarship:

(1) “High christology as late”: Maurice Casey, Geza Vermes, J.D.G. Dunn, all, though in different ways, contending that Jewish monotheism would have prevented any view of Jesus as “divine”, at least for the first several decades.  (Vermes even offering the somewhat desperate proposal that Philippians 2:6-11 was a 2nd-century insertion, as Paul could just never have written or approved such a statement!  Hmm.  Well, I guess if you can’t accommodate evidence, you simply try to eliminate it.)

(2) “High christology as early and within a Jewish context”, various versions of this sort of position:  Martin Hengel espousing “an explosive development” within the first few years; William Horbury & Adela Collins emphasizing the importance of Jewish messianic/royal traditions; my own support for Hengel’s “explosive” picture and emphasizing the import of early Christian worship practices reflecting an innovative “Jesus-devotion”; Timo Eskola’s proposal that early “merkavah” visions of the heavenly/enthroned Jesus were crucial; Richard Bauckham’ argument that from the first Jesus was included within “the divine identity”.

Then Chester underscores the main “themes at issue” in the debate, judging that there are four main positions:  (1) High Christology as something “essentially and utterly alien within a Jewish context”; (2) High Christology as emerging “within essentially Jewish categories” but only gradually; (3) High Christology as emerging “in Jewish categories and with a Jewish context” and “very rapidly indeed . . . clearly in Paul, and very probably in pre-Pauline traditions as well”; and (4) “High Christology does not develop at all, but can be seen to be present, or inherent, from the very start”.

He thinks that option 1 appears (initially) as “the most obviously sustainable position,” option 4 as also exhibiting “logical and methodological clarity and coherence,” and “a clear methodological principle” evident in option 2.  By contrast, option 3 “would appear to beg the most questions at a methodological level.”  Nevertheless, he judges that it is actually option 3 that most adequately confronts the NT evidence, which “does not fit at all easily with what the logical and methdological considerations seem to demand” (p. 32).  That is, however much the other options seem a priori reasonable, the evidence seems to demand something like option 3. (Evidence is often more “messy” than our assumptions initially allow.)

Chester then engages several major issues involved in this debate.  The first is the question of “what exactly in meant by ‘high Christology'” (p. 33), and how to distinguish “high” christology (Jesus seen as exalted and in a special relationship with God) and “divine” christology (Jesus treated as on a level with God, sharing divine glory and name, attributes and activities).  Highlighting Philip. 2:6-11 and 1 Cor. 8:6 as “crucial to the case for Christ being seen not just as exalted but actually as ‘divine’ at an early (and potentially very early) stage,” he concludes, “The understanding of Christ as a divine figure, therefore, is unmistakably clear in Paul’s writings, and can be seen as potentially going back to pre-Pauline tradition” (p. 35).

The significance and application of the title “Kyrios“to Jesus is Chester’s next topic.  He judges that both of the NT texts mentioned reflect uses of “Jewish scripture” (OT) to apply “the most distinctive designation of God (represented as κυριος), to show Jesus to be fully divine” (36).  Also, several NT passages show Jesus as the “image” and bearing the “glory” of God (e.g., 2 Cor. 4:4, 6; Col. 1:15-20; Heb. 1:2-12; Rev. 1:12-16; 5:6-14).

Chester then turns to evidence of worship and the application of OT scripture to Jesus, noting that the importance of both phenomena “has been stressed in recent discussion,” citing my own work and also Hengel’s.  He judges, “Hurtado makes a sustained, cumulative case for there being some kind of cult of Christ in Christian circles in Palestine as well as in the Pauline communities” (39). (This is a major difference with the classic work by Bousset.)

In the next section, Chester addresses the topic of “monotheism and intermediary figures.”  Noting that for scholars such as Casey “monotheism ” is “specifically a constraining force” (i.e., Jews such as Paul simply could not have treated Jesus as divine, no matter what his epistles may appear to reflect), and for others such as Bauckham “monotheism” has “exclusive force” (= “an absolute divide between God and all created reality”), and granting that, though these views are “impressive, logically and methodologically,” they are also “problematic.”  Casey’s position is “untenable,” and Bauckham’s “a completely black-and-white picture” that insufficiently takes account of the more “variegated and open-ended” Jewish traditions of the time (40-41).  Chester agrees with me (and others) in judging that what I have called ancient Jewish “principal agent” traditions likely did afford earliest Jewish believers initial conceptual resources for accommodating Jesus next to God.

The chronological question comes next in Chester’s article.  Judging that “most of those involved in the whole debate do not really engage with this question in any detail,” he singles out Hengel as the exception, citing his effort to construct “a specific time-scale for this whole momentous development” (42).  Here Chester cites approvingly Hengel’s widely-cited statement that the elevation of Jesus to divine status must have taken place no later than the 40s CE, and perhaps even much earlier.  (Chester notes that I’ve posited the emergence of Jesus-devotion “from the earliest days of Jewish Christianity,” but states that I have not been more specific.  He has apparently not noticed my discussion of the chronological issue in How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?, 32-38, esp. p. 35, where I contend that between Jesus’ crucifixion and Paul’s conversion, “perhaps within a year or two, and certainly no more than a few years,” Jesus-devotion “was already a prominent feature” of the young Jesus-movement.)

The final section of Chester’s article is devoted to “Determinative Factors” that may have prompted and shaped this early “high christology”.  Noting, e.g., proposals about the influence of Jesus’ own ministry, Jewish messianic-royal traditions, and the possible influence of key scrptural texts, “in one way or another, as necessary to the development of the astonishing beliefs held about Jesus so soon after his ignominious death,” Chester asks, however, “whether they can, individually or collectively, be held to constitute a sufficient cause” (46).

He proposes that “what was needed was a catalyst” to combine these various factors and produce the remarkable innovation represented by early “high christology”.  Here he cites several scholars who in varying ways have pointed to the impact of early religious experiences (e.g., visions, and other such experiences that struck recipients with the force of revelations).  He rightly judges, however, that though “visions and mystical experiences ” were likely important, “they must be brought integrally into relation with the various other factors” noted.  Thereby, “we at least thus have a clear basis and framework to help us begin to make sense of why and how the early Christians could articulate so high a Christology at so early a stage, in a Jewish context and in language that Jewish would reserve for God” (50).

As someone who has been involved in the scholarly analysis of early “high christology” for over 30 years now, it is very encouraging to me to see Chester’s judgements about where the discussion seems to be going.   To cite him one last time, “whereas for much of the twentierth century the dominant view was that high Christology represented something that emerged relatively late and under Gentile or pagan influence, more recently it has been seen as coming about at an early stage and within a Jewish setting.” (p. 22).  If he’s correct (and I think he is), this amounts to a major shift in scholarly perspective on this important matter.  I’m gratified to have had a part in it.

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31 Comments
  1. Thank you, Professor Hurtado. Though unpersuaded, I will stick to my promise and put an end to this predictably fruitless argument.

    • Prof. Vermes: Just because I haven’t persuaded you, that doesn’t make the argument fruitless, surely. Let us have some perspective. And be well. LWH

  2. Yes , I believe you have missed something. Not only is the terminology of Phil. 2:6-11 not Pauline, but Paul’s universal custom of always addressing prayers and benedictions to God, and not to Jesus, proves that he did not consider Christ equal to the Father. In this he was followed by the entire ante-Nicene church. The generally positive reception of my “Christian Beginnings”, including reviews by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Guardian) and Diarmaid MacCulloch (Times), suggests that I cannot have strayed too far from the straight and narrow path of historical truth. I am interested in your response, but do not wish to go on an on with this predictably fruitless argument.

    • Oh Prof. Vermes, do please indulge me just a brief response (as requested). Even though I am not Archbishop of Canterbury or a Reformation historian (hmm, is either really a recognized expert in Christian origins?).
      Your claim in support of your proposal is indicative of why the latter is not supported among NT scholars: Paul generally offers prayers to “God” (the “Father”), to be sure (as any reader of Paul knows). But there are other occasions when he reflects prayers to God and Jesus jointly (e.g., 1 Thess 3:11-13), and even directly to Jesus (e.g., 2 Cor 12:1-10, esp. 8-10). So, with respect, you aren’t correct to say that “Paul’s universal custom” was prayers to God.
      Moreover, Paul’s grace-salutations are typically from God and Jesus jointly (e.g., Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3, et al.), something for which we have no Jewish analogy, and Paul’s grace-benedictions are typically from Jesus (e.g.,1 Cor 16:23, etc.). So, not quite correct in your sweeping claim.
      But, more to the point, Philip 2:6-11 isn’t a prayer . . . to Jesus or God or anyone. It’s a passage lyrically narrating Jesus’ self-humbling (even to crucifixion, in obedience to God), and God’s subsequent super-exaltation of Jesus to a place that now requires universal obeisance. That seems pretty damn close to what Paul postulates elsewhere, e.g., 1 Cor 15:20-28 (Jesus exalted by God to receive submission of all things).
      I trust that my response has not been entirely fruitless.

      • M. Gould permalink

        Professor Hurtado

        You do have to read the Archbishop’s review in full to get the gentle criticism:

        http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jul/11/christian-beginnings-geza-vermes-review

        “Despite Vermes’s skilful argument, it is hard simply to deny that Christian scripture does show people praying to the exalted Jesus from very early indeed…..Vermes’s account, for all its lucidity, does not quite allow us to see the energy behind such a movement of ideas. Nor, as other commentators have said, are we helped to see why this particular charismatic wonder-worker rather than others attracted the extraordinary claim that he was the vehicle of unconditional creative power and the enabler of a new kind of worship – the paradox that the creed of 325 enshrined, in words Christians still use”

  3. Professor Hurtado, you are still refusing to confront my evidence against the Pauline authenticity of Philippians 2:6-11, last formulated in my “Christian Beginnings…” (2012) on pp. 108-113.

    • Prof. Vermes: I’m not refusing to confront any evidence that I know of. You’ve given no evidence that the passage is uncertain in the manuscript tradition (by contrast, e.g., the various endings of Mark, or teh pericopy of the adulterous woman, et al.). As for “Pauline authenticity”, as you likely know, most scholars think that the passage derives from an ancient odes/hymn and was not composed by Paul but appropriated by him. So, in that sense at least, the passage is not “Pauline”. There are, as you likely know, in fact several places where Paul is widely thought to have done something similar, incorporating creedal/liturgical material: e.g., Rom 1:3-4; 4:25; and others. But I’ve seen no evidence that any of these (including Philip 2:6-11) is a later interpolation, as opposed to something incorporated by Paul into his letter to the Philippians. You draw inferences of your own, but I’m not aware of any new evidence that you offer. Have I missed something important?

  4. Professor Hurtado: Thank you for alerting us to this review by Chester. I appreciate his precise thinking so much that I forked over my hard-earned money for “Messiah and Exaltation”. It just so happens that it has an honored place on my bookshelf next to several of your books, and two of Professor Bauckham’s.

    Professor Bauckham: You are probably weary of this question, but when will the book with the exhaustive treatment of 2nd temple literature be finished? I’ve been looking forward to it for years, and I would like to have the chance to read it before I die;-)

    • Sean, I wish I could answer your question. I continue to work on it, but the trouble is I’m doing too many other things too. It is likely to move higher up the agenda. Chances are, if I finish it before I die, you’ll be able to read it before you do.

  5. Would it not be more appropriate, not to say polite, for Professor Hurtado to refute my argument against the Pauline authenticity of Philippians 2:6-11 than high-handedly reject it with the snide remark: “Well, I guess if you can’t accommodate evidence, you simply try to eliminate it”?
    Geza Vermes

    • Well, Prof. Vermes, if you had any textual evidence in the manuscript-tradition, with which I must say I do have a certain familiarity, you might have a case to offer. Likewise, had you been able to show that the text in question is incompatible with the surrounding material or with what else we know of Paul’s Jesus-devotion, you might well require an answer.
      In the absence of these things, you must admit that it does rather appear to be trying to remove evidence rather than engaging it.

  6. Larry, the Qumran texts are very much the exception in that sense, but even among them it is only the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifices that use elohim for angels. Other Qumran texts reserve elohim for God, and use elim for angels. The question is then – what did they mean when they used elim? The fact that its etymological sense is gods does not require that they thought of it as just a variation of elohim. Their careful distinction of usage suggests rather that they considered elim a scriptural term for created heavenly beings, i.e. angels. As in some other cases in this debate (e.g. Philo’s use of theos for Moses), it’s important to observe how words were used, rather than just jumping to conclusions simply from the word itself.

    Of course, Jesus is portrayed as a unique agent of God. Does anyone doubt it? The question is what kind of Jewish background is relevant to that. Messiah, as you know, is not necessarily a unique agent: there could be two messiahs, royal and priestly. Nor was the Messiah generally considered a cosmic agent, reigning from the throne of the universe, just an earthly king like David. So the universal early Christian identification of Jesus as Messiah does not itself get us anywhere near the divine status that Chester, you and I are discussing. Lamb of God is not a pre-Christian concept, so far as I know. Word of God is used by Christians, I think, precisely because in Judaism this was a divine agent that belonged to the identity of God, not a created agent like an angel. The same goes for Wisdom to the extent that Wisdom ideas lie behind some NT christological passages (maybe, in view of Fee’s argument, fewer than most of us used to think). Evidence that Jesus’ role was modelled on that of an angel is very thin.

    To create a ‘principal agent concept’ by putting together the Davidic Messiah (earthly king), the Logos or Wisdom (cosmic function of a personalized divine aspect, intrinsic to God’s identity) and a few texts where here one named angel, there a different one seems to be uniquely exalted, seems to me very artificial. These figures work in different ways in different contexts.

    I think it is only in the Qumran dualism of the Prince of Light and thew Prince of Darkness that we find a single ‘principal angel’ to whom all other angels are presumably subject. Elsewhere I think the normal idea is that God governs with a council of ministers, each with a different portfolio. Michael is often prominent because he is the patron of Israel, but that doesn’t make him a grand vizir with authority over other angels. Yahoel in the Apocalypse of Angel is the heavenly high priest, with high priestly functions, while Michael is captain of the heavenly armies, as often. I see no reason to consider either subordinate to the other.

    Incidentally, I should have said with reference to Chester’s arguments (and maybe of yours too), we now have to take very seriously the questions Jim Davila has raised about the origins (are they really early Jewish?) of some texts people have too readily treated as Late Second Temple Jewish. Joseph and Aseneth has become, I think, very suspect in this respect (as more than one scholar has now argued). I am quite inclined to the view that it is a Christian text, and so its depiction of the archangel is actually Christian Christology.

    But thank you for the reference to your essay, “Monotheism, Principal Angels, and Christology,” which I don’t know (I haven’t come across that volume). I must look at it.

    To CMA: Surely John 10:35 makes clear that in Jesus’ reading of Ps 82 he takes the ‘gods’ to be humans. In view of v 7 especially, it is not at all surprising that later Jews should read the psalm as meaning that human judges, arrogating the term gods for themselves, are condemned by God for their unjust practice and sentenced by him to death. This is another example of my point (SO important, I think) that we can’t assume late 2nd Temple period Jews read texts in the way OT scholars tell us they were originally meant. They read potentially non-montheistic texts in a monotheistic way, just as they read prophetic texts in an eschatologizing way, and royal psalms in a messianizing way.

    • Yes…most scholars take the human view Jesus’ use of Ps 82 in John 10:35. Heiser takes a much different view. I urge you to read his stuff. I would be interested to know what you think. I think his view makes more sense in light of what is happening in John 10. For example, taking the human view Heiser suggests that, “Jesus is being charged with blasphemy for asserting he had been commissioned by God”. If so, this is problematic.

      Here is a link to his article on Jesus’ use of Psalm 82:

      https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B4WO0t7zct0NMTZhMTQ1ODAtNWM1Yi00OTk5LWFmNWUtMzE0NzczNmNmODI4/edit?hl=en_US

      • CMA: I’ve read Heiser’s article. He simply takes it for granted that the original meaning of Ps 82 is the meaning presupposed in John 10:34-35. So an argument (Emerton’s) about the original meaning is supposed to demonstrate what is meant in John. But anyone at all familiar with late Second Temple Jewish exegesis will know that this will not do.
        I take it what is going on in John 10:34-39 is something like this. Jesus starts off responding to “the Jews” in a minimal, ad hominem way and then works up to the extraordinary climactic claim in v 39b, which they understandably take to be blasphemy. The argument in vv 34-36 is a typical Jewish ‘from the lesser to the greater argument’ (cf. e.g. Luke 11:13). If even the evil human beings to whom God’s word in Ps 82 was spoken can be called gods (and sons of God), then surely the one uniquely sent by the Father, whose legitimacy as the Father’s agent is shown by his ‘good works’ (v 31), can be called God’s son? This is no more than a debating point, demonstrating that “the Jews” do actually not know the Scriptures which they claim as their authority and in which they claim to be experts (“your law” – v 33) very well. The serious argument then begins at v 37.

      • CMA, I’ve read a good deal on Jesus’ use of Ps 82, as this account has long fascinated me, and I have to agree with professor Hurtado in that I find it impossible to see everything Heiser sees. It just doesn’t flow from a natural reading of the account in John 10. His certainly isn’t the most strained interpretation I’ve seen, yet it appears to be another example where a theologian feels compelled to fit the account into a Christological grid that harmonizes with later ideas rather than letting it’s meaning unfold naturally. (If you click on my name you’ll see a brief lay-level post dealing with the Jews’ charge and Jesus’ response that highlights a couple of my objections to such apparent over interpretations.)

    • Dr. Bauckham,

      Thanks for reading Heiser’s article and sharing your thoughts.

      What confuses me is that guys like Beasley-Murray, D.A. Carson and Kostenberger are saying that the blasphemy charge stems from Christ claiming to be one (hen) in action with the Father and not one (heis) in identity with the Father.

      But the thing that I get stuck on is exactly what guys like Carson, Beasley-Murray and Kostenberger also concede. Carson puts it this way – “some kind of metaphysical unity is presupposed” in the John 10 exchange. Or as Kostenberger puts it, “an ontological unity between Jesus and the Father seems presupposed”. Heiser seems to account for this presupposition.

      I take it you differ a little bit with these guys, however. Jesus’ allusion to the shema is an ontological one and not just a “functional” one? And this is how to account for the presupposition of “ontological unity”.

      Thanks again and, by the way, I loved Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

  7. I think Chester is straightforwardly wrong about the flexibility of Jewish traditions with regard to semi-divine figures. This point has simply to be argued in detail text by text, and I think his evidence disappears when one looks more carefully at each text in its own terms (I have done that, for example, for Yahoel in the Apocalypse of Abraham, but Chester has not responded), rather than assuming in advance that they exhibit a common phenomenon. Unfortunately one cannot do that argument in a short space. But a few points can be made. One is that those, like Chester, who focus on these few instances of figures they think are being treated as semi-divine are attributing far too much importance to those few texts, as compared with the vast majority of early Jewish texts in which there are no such figures and the uniqueness of the one God is constantly spoken of in ‘absolute’ terms. My work is based on surveying the whole of late Second Temple period Jewish literature, not isolating a few texts that seem interesting because they seem to be precedents for Christology. Chester needs to do the same.

    Secondly, it cannot just be assumed that these few examples, even if Chester were right about their meaning, represent anything that was current in the Jewish context of earliest Christianity in Jerusalem and Palestine. For example, one [Ezekiel the Tragedian] is Egyptian, another [Apocalypse of Abraham] is certainly to be dated c. 100 CE, another [Philo] a highly distinctive thinker, none of whose ideas can be presumed to have been shared by anyone else without demonstrating that.
    Thirdly, although I’m now inclined to think better of my allowing (in God Crucified) the Parables of Enoch to be an exception to my rule (an admission on which Chester seizes as though it were fatal to my case), my case would not be damaged by evidence that some particular, unrepresentative Jewish writer or group anticipated something like early Christology. That would simply mean that those Jews did something as distinctive as the early Christians did. There is no reason in principle why that shouldn’t have happened. But it wouldn’t tell us anything about how most Jews understood monotheism, for which we have abundant evidence. In fact, I think that the speculation about Metatron in some Hekhalot texts is probably a case of that, though undoubtedly much later than the NT. Indeed, one scholar has adopted my terminology, speaking of ‘the inclusion of Metatron within the divine identity.’ Exactly! Such a move was a possibility for Jewish monotheism – and so early Christians could take it without abandoning Jewish monotheism – but the step consisted in ‘including [Metatron or Jesus] within the unique identity of the unique God.’ And so there were also Jews who formulated Metatron traditions repudiating that step.

    My ongoing work on Christology will produce a full study of early Jewish monotheism, taking account of all the evidence – something no one has done or come anywhere near doing. Most generalizations, like Chester’s and Horbury’s, are not based on most of the evidence. With reference to Horbury, I have published a full study of the use of the title ‘Most High God’ (in the FS for Larry!) which I think shows conclusively that Horbury’s claim that Deut 32:8-9 and wider use of the title Most High God shows that Jews in the late Second Temple period espoused an ‘inclusive monotheism’ defies all the evidence, including the evidence we have (including Philo) of how Jews in that period actually read Deut 32:8-9.

    • Richard: Two comments in response. First, without denying the differences between your position and that advocated by Chester (and a few others), it seems that you agree that Jewish “monotheism” was capable of involving a second, distinguishable figure alongside YHWH, even if, in your view, this was exceptional and not so common. Yes?
      Second, I for one think that even the “Elect One” of 1 Enoch and the Metraton of 3 Enoch are not really so fully included with God in the actual devotional life of the respective Jews behind these texts as was Jesus in the devotional life of earliest circles of (Jewish) Christians. That is, what we see reflected in early Christian texts seems still a unique “mutation” or innovation in ancient Jewish religious practice, a second, distinguishable figure (Jesus) treated along with God as rightful recipient of cultic devotion.

      • I think such a second, distinguishable figure belonged to YHWH’s own identity. This is the case with Wisdom and with Philo’s Logos. They represent complexifications of YHWH’s own identity. They do not, in other words, fudge the absolute divide between YHWH the Creator and all other things, which are his creation. Yahoel and other exalted angels are simply exalted angels, created by YHWH. I think Jews in the late Second Temple period were profoundly aware of this absolute divide between YHWH and all other things. In any discussion with pagans it was crucial. Your own observation that angels and exalted patriarchs were not worshipped is evidence of this divide. Wisdom and Logos seem not to be worshipped as such, perhaps because they are not fully personalized (as distinct from literary personification), but also because the literature in which they appear did not have the kind of status and influence in temple or synagogues to impact worship. The way that these figures function in the texts in which they appear is not such as to require a school or a sect or a cult that would adopt a special version of Jewish worship focussed on them. I used to think maybe the Son of Man in the Parables of Enoch could be said to be included in YHWH’s identity by virtue of the fact that he sits on YHWH’s throne and is worshipped. I now think probably he sits on his own throne in order to judge the nations (cf. the ‘thrones’ set in Dan 7) and receives obeisance, the sort one could give to a God-appointed human ruler, not the worship owed to YHWH alone. Metatron is different matter, the nearest Jewish parallel to Christology, though certainly not an influence on Christology. There could, of course, be influence here from Christology. Maybe some Jewish Merkavah mystics worshipped him when they ascended to the highest heaven and encountered him seated there on his throne. This wouldn’t surprise me.

        My concern in this matter has never been to secure the uniqueness of early Christianity and minimize its continuity with early Judaism. (The figure and history of Jesus himself are so distinctive that they alone would make anything early Christians thought about him as divine also highly distinctive.There was no figure in early Judaism about whom anyone could conceivably have written anything like Phil 2.) My concern has always been to understand how early Christians thought of his relationship to God. Much of my work, stuff that Andrew Chester cites in agreement, is concerned to show that early Christians said about him things that in the general theology of early Judaism served to distinguish the unique God from all other things. They didn’t get there by, as it were, moving up from the model of a very exalted human or angelic figure. For example, much early Christian theological reflection was done, as in Judaism, by way of biblical exegesis. This included the frequent application of OT YHWH texts to Jesus in a completely innovative way, including, as Chester acknowledges, texts that have a strongly monotheistic thrust, plainly asserting the absolute uniqueness of YHWH as Creator, Lord and alone to be worshipped. This is not exploiting a ‘grey area’ (Chester’s term) between God and creation in Jewish thought. It is distinguishing God and all else and including Jesus in what the text says about God.

  8. I see that a common objection to an early “high christology” is, to quote from above, “contending that Jewish monotheism would have prevented any view of Jesus as ‘divine'”. With respect to scholars who hold this view, how seriously do they wrestle with the OT concepts of the divine council, regent and co-regent as explained by the likes of Hebrew scholar Michael Heiser? He argues that “the necessary concepts and categories were in place” in Judaism to accommodate the incarnation of the Wisdom and Name of Yahweh.

    • CMA: The OT traditions cited by Heiser and others involve heavenly beings that, in poetic texts at least, can be referred to as “gods” that form a council of YHWH. That is, they form a heavenly collective that function as YHWH’s “cabinet” of sorts, or privy council. There’s no indication that they received cultic devotion. Also, there is no single figure in the OT tradition that is treated as the heavenly vizier or chancellor, the way that certain figures seem to be treated in some 2nd-temple texts. “Lady Wisdom” is perhaps the closest, but “she” is really a personification of an attribute of YHWH.

      • I would add that such texts underwent a monotheizing interpretation in early Judaism, which involved the inclusion of them in the monotheizing process of canon formation, which set them in a literary context that elsewhere denies real divinity to such figures. I haven’t read Heiser (obviously I should), but the problem with the sort of argument Horbury pursues along these lines is that he starts with what such texts meant, according to OT scholars, in an ancient Israelite context and moves forward to late Second Temple Judaism, assuming he can carry over the ‘original’ meaning into this context.

        Note Ps 82, one of the most explicit reference to the ‘divine council’ in which YHWH stands among ‘the gods’. He says to them: ‘You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; yet you shall die like mortals…’ What is that but a radical monotheizing that deprives these ‘gods’ of anything like real divinity? If there is one inalienable aspect of YHWH’s nature in the OT and elsewhere in early Judaism it is that he is ‘the living God’, the source of all life who cannot die.

        Late 2nd Temple Judaism very largely drops such terms as ‘gods’ and ‘sons of God’ from its language about angels.

      • Richard: We agree that Jews typically distinguished YHWH from all else, to my mind most clearly in their worship practice/scruples. I remain persuaded (despite your best efforts thus far) that there was a noteworthy interest in the idea that God has a “principal agent” of some sort, but I don’t think that there was anything inevitable about this idea morphing into the sort of innovation comprising early Jesus-devotion. It does seem to me, however, that the language of earliest “christology” reflects a view of Jesus as principal/unique agent of God: e.g., Messiah (of God), Son of God, Word of God, Lamb of God, and references to him as sent, exalted, empowered by God.

        As to 2nd temple Jewish tradition use of “gods” etc. for heavenly beings, this terminology remains certainly in the Qumran texts (e.g., “elim” in 1QM 14:16; 18:6; “elohim” in 4Q400 fr. 2, line 5), and other terms. (Can I plug my essay, “Monotheism, Principal Angels, and Christology,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 546-64?)

      • First off, it is fantastic that you give whoever wants it access to your time and resources on this blog…thank you.

        And I think I understand your point. But it seems like Heiser goes beyond the description you have ascribed to him. He deals with Jesus’ use of Psalm 82:6-7 in John 10:34-36 to show that Jesus identifies Himself with the divine council as its coregent. He establishes this coregency in OT theology in a pretty compelling way. The coregent was not just a “god” in the divine council but Yahweh himself. He was seated, not attending. He was petitioned, not petitioning, etc. He was the “Name”, “Wisdom”, “Glory”, etc.

        I am sure I am not saying anything you don’t know. I know I am out of my league here. I am just a laymen that reads a lot and I appreciate your patience.

        BTW – I love it when Richard Bauckham and you go back and forth.

      • Well, CMA, Heiser gets a good bit more out of John 10:34-36 than I.

    • ‘I see that a common objection to an early “high christology” is, to quote from above, “contending that Jewish monotheism would have prevented any view of Jesus as ‘divine’”’

      Would it have been regarded as ‘idolatry’ by non-Christian Jews?

      Or would non-Christian Jews just have regarded it as weird to worship a crucified criminal , rather than idolatrous?

      • Matthstutorwirral: I suspect that different ancient Jews would have taken different views of earliest Jesus-devotion. Some, obviously, found it quite objectionable, perhaps blasphemous. See my essay, “Pre-70 CE Jewish Opposition to Jesus-Devotion” in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?.

      • Is there any evidence in Paul’s letters of some Jews finding early Jesus devotion, blasphemous, perhaps idolatrous?

        1 Corinthians 1 seems to me to suggest that the biggest problem Paul had in trying to persuade Jews about Christianity was a lack of miracle stories.

      • Mathstutorwirral: Can I ask you again to read my essay on “Pre-70 Jewish Opposition”?? I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to lay out the evidence there. And in 1 Cor the trouble isn’t a lack of miracles!

      • 1 Corinthians 1 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,

        Jews were demanding signs.

        I would prefer primary source documentation, if possible, rather than another reference to your essay.

        Having read Paul’s letters, I can’t help feeling I missed the verses where he talked about being accused of idolatry.

        Perhaps he wasn’t.

      • Mathstutor: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and follishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24). Which rather suggests tht the “bone in the throat” of Jews and Greeks was the claim that the crucified Jesus was validly God’s message/purpose. The objection wasn’t to a lack of signs but to the “stumbling block” of the crucified Jesus.
        But let’s go to Paul/Saul himself, who was so deeply offended at Jewish Jesus-followers that, in his own words, he sought to “destroy” the movement (ekklesia): Gal. 1:13-16. He says there that his own change of heart came about and involved God’s “revelation of his Son to me”, i.e., specifically an experience of christological content. This logically suggests that he came to embrace a view of Jesus that he had previously opposed.
        I don’t recall contending that Paul was accused of “idolatry”. I said that some ancient Jews seem to have regarded Jesus-devotion as outrageous and even blasphemous.
        Oh, and if you’re not willing to read scholarly publications in a given field to examine evidence and warrants, then you’ll miss a lot!

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