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Revelatory Religious Experience & Religious Innovation

I’ve just received my copy of the published version of my Burkitt Lecture, given in Rice University (10 April 2013):  “Revelatory Experiences and Religious Innovation in Earliest Christianity,” Expository Times 125/10 (2014):  469-82.  I’ve now put the pre-publication version of the lecture under the “Selected Published Essays” tab on this blog site, available here.

In this article, I return to a topic and argument laid out in several earlier publications, in particular my T.W. Manson Lecture, in published form: “Religious Experience and Religious Innovation in the New Testament,” Journal of Religion 80 (2000): 183-205; republished in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? (Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 179-204.

The core proposal in that earlier article, and re-argued in the later one, is that among the factors that led to the remarkable innovation in Jewish religious tradition that was the earliest Jesus-movement, were powerful religious experiences that struck the recipients as divine revelations.  I try to show that the history of religions illustrates this sort of phenomenon as often crucial in various religious innovations.  I also argue that the NT writings give reason to think that this sort of religious experience was involved centrally in the eruption of beliefs about Jesus’ exalted status, and the “dyadic” devotional practice that is reflected in NT writings.

In the later article, I also review scholarly developments subsequent to my earlier article, particularly a modest but potentially significant growth in scholarly appreciation of, and interest in, religious experiences.

Craig Evans’ New Book: “From Jesus to the Church”

I’m pleased to see in print Craig Evans’ new book, From Jesus to the Church:  The First Christian Generation (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), and pleased to have a copy.  It derives from Evans’ Deichmann lectures given in Ben Gurion University (Beersheva, Israel) in May 2010.  (As the first Deichmann lecturer in March 2004, I’m pleased to see the lecture series continuing and featuring such fine scholars as Evans.)

The core “storyline” of Evans’ book is the proposal that there was a “clash between the family of high priest Annas and the family of Jesus of Nazareth” that began with the arrest and execution of Jesus and then extended across the ensuing forty years or so.

Evans proposes that Jesus did prophesy the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (inspired by precedents such as the oracle in Jeremiah 7).  In part, this may have been motivated by “corruption in the Herodian Temple establishment.”  This (as well as others of Jesus’ actions) led to Jesus being arrested and interrogated by Temple authorities, who then obtained Jesus’ execution by the Roman governor.

In chapter 1, Evans considers the question of whether Jesus intended to found a “church.”  Evans’ judgement:  “Jesus envisioned the creation of a community or society, but it is most unlikely that he envisioned something outside of or over against Israel itself” (15).

In chapter 2, Evans probes Jesus’ proclamation of “the kingdom of God.”  In Evans’ view, Jesus viewed the coming reign of God as not simply a vindication of Israel against her national enemies, but “even Israel itself is subject to a critical review.”    Moreover, he surmises that Jesus foresaw his death as a necessary event through which “a repentant remnant, his community or church” would be established.  Indeed, in Jesus’ teaching and example Evans finds “hints” that this remnant might include Gentiles as well as Jews.

Evans describes chapter  4 as “more or less” an excursus in which he explores “the apparent tension between Paul and James on the matter of law and works.”

Chapter 5 is where Evans focuses in detail on “the conflict between the families and followers of Jesus and Annas the high priest.”  Included in his discussion is his intriguing proposal that the “rude peasant” described by Josephus, Jesus ben Ananias, who also warned of God’s looming judgement against the Temple, “was a member of the Jesus movement and rose up in protest of the murder of James” (Jesus’ brother).

In a short appendix, Evans briefly considers various factors that may have contributed to the “parting of the ways” between the emergent Christianity and the reformulated Judaism of the post-70 CE period.

As I wrote after reading the proofs several months ago, the book reflects “an impressive familiarity with a wide range of primary sources and a combination of thoughtful proposals and cogent arguments for them.”  Evans provides here much food for thought and offers a model of scholarly investigation and hypothesis-building.  Recommended!

“Performance Criticism”: A Critique

I’m pleased to announce that my critique of “performance criticism” as advocated by a small but enthusiastic number of NT scholars has just been published in the online advance format of the journal New Testament Studies 60 (2014): 321-40 (DOI: 10.1017/S0028688514000058).  By permission of Cambridge University Press, I’m also allowed to post the published version on this site.  See “Oral Fixation in NT Studies” under the “Selected Published Essays” tab, or click here.  Here is the abstract of the article:

In recent decades, emphasizing the ‘orality/aurality’ of the Roman world, some have asserted that in early Christian circles texts were ‘performed’, not ‘read’ (and could not have been read), likening this action to descriptions of oratorical delivery of speeches (from memory) or theatrical performance. Some have even proposed that some texts, particularly the Gospel of Mark, were composed in ‘performance’, and not through an author working up a text in written form. These claims seem to be based on numerous over-simplifications (and so distortions) of relevant historical matters, however, and also involve a failure to take account of the full range of relevant data about the use of texts in early Christianity and the wider Roman-era setting. So, at least some of the crucial claims and inferences made are highly dubious. In this essay, I offer corrections to some crucial over-simplifications, and I point to the sorts of data that must be taken into account in drawing a more reliable picture of the place of texts and how they functioned in early Christianity.

The Date of P66 (P. Bodmer II): Nongbri’s New Argument

Brent Nongbri has begun to establish himself as a critic of received (or widely assumed) opinions on the dates of several early NT papyri.  His first venture along these lines was his critique of early dates of the famous Rylands fragment of the Gospel of John:  Brent Nongbri, “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel,” Harvard Theological Review 98 (2005): 23-48.

In his latest publication, he queries the commonly-accepted date of one of the most substantial and important NT papyri:  P66 (P. Bodmer II):   Brent Nongbri, “The Limits of Palaeographic Dating of Literary Papyri: Some Observations on the Date and Provenance of P. Bodmer II (P66),” Museum Helveticum 71 (2014): 1-35.

This papyrus (part of the Bodmer Library collection), which preserves a goodly portion of the Gospel of John, is commonly regarded as one of our earliest NT manuscripts.  In the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Gracece (28th edition), for example, the date given for it  is “ca. 200.”  Various scholars place it in the early 3rd century CE.  The basis for dating this papyrus (and nearly all manuscripts of literary texts) is palaeography:  the scholarly analysis of the “hand” of the copyist.  Nongbri challenges this dating, contending that palaeography doesn’t permit a date as precise as that assigned to P66.  Instead, he argues, the “hand” exhibited in P66 could allow it to be dated anytime from very late 2nd century to the 4th century CE.

Then, on the basis of other factors (e.g., the size and shape of the pages), he proposes that a date in the 4th century just might even be as good a bet, or even a better one.  He even creatively engages my treatment of the “staurogram” (the device in which the Greek letters tau and rho are combined), which (with some earlier scholars) I’ve proposed functions in early NT manuscripts as a “pictographic” depiction of the crucified Jesus.  On the commonly-accepted dating of P66 (and also P75 and P45, which also have instances of the staurogram) to the early 3rd century, we have visual references to the crucified Jesus some 150-200 years earlier than what has often been cited as the first depictions of Jesus on the cross.  (See, e.g., my discussion of the matter in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, 135-54.)

Nongbri, however, turns the argument around.  He suggests that, since visual depictions of the crucified Jesus otherwise seem to come from the 4th century and later, the uses of the staurogram in P66 give us a further reason for dating it in the 4th century too.  Nongbri’s several reasons for dating P66 later should all be weighed carefully and by people qualified to do so.  I’ll confine myself here to this one matter about the staurogram.

As I indicated when Nongbri sent me a pre-publication draft of the essay for comment, one problem I see in his argument is this:  By the 4th century, the staurogram had become a free-standing symbol referring to Christ, just as the more well-known Chi-Rho did.  But in P66 and the other papyri dated to the 3rd century, the device is found only as part of abbreviated forms of the Greek words for “cross” and/or “crucify.”  This seems to be how the device was first appropriated by Christians (its “pre-Christian” usage was as a symbol for “three” or “thirty).  Then, it seems, after being so used for a while and becoming sufficiently familiar to Christians, it was used as a free-standing “christogram” symbol.

So, in my opinion, the way the staurogram is used in P66 still seems to me to suggest a 3rd century date.  But, as I say, Nongbri’s full case deserves to be considered.  I was particularly impressed with his reference to the shape of the pages in P66 as aligning more with the “squarish” shape of manuscript pages in the 4th century.  (But those “squarish” pages of 4th century manuscripts tend more to be skin, not papyrus, which may, or may not, count against Nongbri’s argument.)

The accurate dating of early Christian manuscripts, and especially copies of biblical writings, is extremely important.  So, as unsettling as Nongbri’s contentions may be to what has been the received opinion on P66, it is important to give the matter patient and adequate attention.  (And he refers to another article that is forthcoming in which he challenges the received dating of P75 too!)

Ehrman on Jesus: Amendments

My posting on Bart Ehrman’s latest book, How Jesus Became God, generated a number of responses, the most important of which was from Ehrman himself.  In particular, he took umbrage at my suggestion that on a few matters he seemed insufficiently informed or up to date.

In a series of email exchanges, he insisted that, in a couple of my criticisms, I’d misunderstood his intended meanings.  So, in the belief that it’s totally unprofitable to criticize a view not held by a book’s author, I’m happy to amend my posting on these points.  I’ll itemize them briefly below.

First, on the question about the origin and meaning of the expression “the son of man,” I’d taken from Ehrman’s discussion the inference that he affirmed the now-outdated view (formerly held widely) that the expression was well established as a fixed title for an eschatological figure in ancient Jewish apocalyptic thought.  He insists, however, that he accepts that the expression wasn’t a fixed title or well-known.  He allows that Jesus may have coined it, or may have appropriated it from somewhere (he’s “agnostic” on the question, to use his own term).  But, he also insists, Jesus used it to refer, not to himself, but to a future eschatological figure.

It’s this latter bit that remains, in my view, a problem, however.  If “the son of man” wasn’t a relatively well-known title for a relatively well-known figure, i.e., if it was something of a novel, or at least very unusual, designation, then how were Jesus’ disciples supposed to get what “the son of man” designated?

My own view (and not mine alone) is that Jesus took an expression frequently used in Hebrew & Aramaic, “a son of man,” and adapted it to express a particularizing force:  “the son of man.”  And, further, I hold that he used the expression as his own distinctive self-designation, comprising what we can call a feature of Jesus’ “idiolect” (to use a linguistics category).  This fits with the fact that the Gospels clearly all understand all uses of it as self-designations.  So, either these writers all were confused, or deliberately shifted from Jesus’ meaning (thereby over-riding Jesus on the matter), or else the Gospels preserve Jesus’ use of the expression as his distinctive self-designation.  Certainly, it’s noteworthy that there is no evidence in the NT that “the son of man” ever functioned as a confessional title, unlike, e.g., “Messiah/Christ,” “Lord,” “Son of God.”  I’ve laid out my thinking further in my concluding essay in Who is This Son of Man?, eds. Paul Owen & Larry Hurtado.

The second point on which Ehrman complains is my comment about places where he emphasizes that in this or that NT text Jesus isn’t pictured as God “the Father.”  I’d inferred that Ehrman meant (erroneously) to contrast this with what became classical Christian doctrine.  Ehrman rather firmly insisted that he isn’t actually that ill-informed which I am relieved to know as I otherwise think of him as relatively well informed.  Instead, he assures me, he intended to contrast these NT texts with the view of some modern Christians who treat Jesus as God the Father (and/or non-Christian moderns who assume that Christians do so).  Well, OK.  As I replied, however, it would have helped me (and others?) grasp this intended meaning had he made that explicit.  But I’m happy to correct my inference.

As he didn’t complain about other things, I assume that he regards them as fair comment (whether he finds my own view of things persuasive or not).  My thanks to Bart for his attention to my posting and help in setting out more clearly the issues and our respective positions.

How Jesus became “God,” per Ehrman

Having been asked to review Bart Ehrman’s new book, How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2014), for the Christian Century, I take the opportunity here also to comment on it.  This book is another of his now “best-selling” publications directed to a general readership, and, as with these earlier books (e.g., Misquoting Jesus), this one seems intended to startle naïve Christians uninformed about biblical scholarship, agitate and respond to Christian apologists, and reassure fellow sceptics and agnostics (Ehrman’s self-description) that they have some basis for their doubts.

Ehrman is generally a good communicator, and one of the positive things one can say about the book is that it is clearly written, and readily accessible to readers with little or no prior acquaintance with the issues and scholarly methods involved in the topic.  Indeed, at a number of places Ehrman gives an admirably clear description of this or that technical matter, e.g., his explanation of how scholars identify places in Paul’s letters (e.g., Romans 1:3-4; Philippians 2:6-11) where he likely incorporates earlier Christian confessional and liturgical traditions.

But, whereas in some of his previous general-reader books, Ehrman drew upon his recognized expertise (especially in NT textual criticism), in this book he deals with a subject on which he is not particularly known as a contributor.  So, he draws heavily on the work of other scholars (including my own), and with commendable acknowledgement.  Unfortunately, however, on several matters he seems to rely on now discredited views, or over-simplify or misunderstand things.

But before I turn to criticism, I want to note a few more positive things.  With probably the majority of NT scholars, Ehrman emphasizes that the exalted claims about Jesus reflected in the NT (e.g., that Jesus shares divine glory, divine rule, the divine name, and is to be given universal reverence) all appeared soon in the aftermath of Jesus’ execution.  These convictions were based primarily on experiences of the risen/exalted Jesus (“visions” in Ehrman’s terms) by Jesus’ followers, which conveyed the conviction that God had raised Jesus from death and had uniquely exalted him as Christ and Lord.

Ehrman (rightly in my view) also notes that these lofty claims about Jesus reflected in the NT seem to have erupted very early, so early that they are presupposed as widely shared already by the time Paul wrote his letters (from ca. 50 CE and thereafter).  In a commendable example of changing his mind, Ehrman acknowledges that prior to immersing himself in the evidence and scholarly analysis for this book, he had assumed a much slower and more drawn-out process, but was driven to conclude that these remarkable Christological beliefs erupted much earlier and much more fully than he had thought.  It’s always reassuring when a scholar admits to learning something new, and even to changing his/her mind.

Moreover, Ehrman argues (again, rightly in my view), that the early claim that Jesus is Messiah, requires us to conclude also that Jesus had excited such hopes about himself during his own ministry.  Indeed, this was likely the reason that the Roman authority moved against him and crucified him.  (“Messiah” = typically a divinely appointed ruler/deliverer, a claim that would have been seen as sedition against Rome.)  As Ehrman observes, resurrection by itself would not have connoted that Jesus is Messiah.  But, if Jesus’ followers had held such a hope during his ministry, then Jesus’ resurrection would quite readily have been taken as God’s validation of Jesus as Messiah.  (This, by the way, is basically the argument made by the great Yale NT scholar, Nils Dahl, decades ago.)

To cite another commendable matter, early in the book, Ehrman helpfully and clearly explains the limits of historical inquiry, particularly noting that historical analysis is not able to judge the validity of theological claims.  So, he notes, historians cannot really judge the question of whether God raised Jesus from death.  All historical analysis can do is to explore when and in what circumstances such claims emerged, what people seem to have meant in making such claims, and what the subsequent effects were.

But, to turn now to critical comments, it’s curious that Ehrman then devotes a section of the ensuing discussion to comparing early experiences of the risen Jesus with apparitions of deceased loved ones to the bereaved, and with other such phenomena.  The point of doing so, quite obviously, seems to be to give reasons for taking early Christian experiences as hallucinations, and so not really valid.  To do this, however, is (in Ehrman’s own terms) to move from historical analysis to something else.  To be specific, this discussion seems more aimed to counter Christian apologists and give justification for doubting Christian claims.  But this makes just a bit coy his profession of not being concerned to judge the question whether experiences of the risen Jesus were valid.

As I’ve mentioned, on several matters Ehrman seems ill-informed and/or not current.  For example, he assumes that the expression “the son of man” (used numerous times by Jesus in the Gospels) was a recognized title of a figure well-known in ancient Jewish eschatological hopes.  So, Ehrman continues (on this assumption), Jesus must have been referring to this future figure, not to himself.  But from at least the 1970s it has been clear that this assumption is baseless.  There is, in fact, no evidence that “the son of man” was a fixed title, or that there was a known figure who bore it, in ancient Jewish tradition.  So (as is clearly the way the Gospel writers took the expression), Jesus’ use of “the son of man” (NB:  with the definite article) seems to have been simply a distinctive self-referential expression/idiom.

To cite another example of the curious misunderstanding of some things, Ehrman repeatedly refers to the early Christian doctrine of Jesus’ incarnation as portraying him as “temporarily human.”  But from the NT onward, and even  in subsequent centuries, Jesus’ assumption of humanity was emphatically portrayed as irrevocable.  Indeed, it is as a resurrected and glorified human that he serves (in classical Christian thought) as the paradigm for the ultimate salvation of believers.  (Of course, in classical Christian belief Jesus is also divine, but not at the expense of a genuine, and irrevocable, humanity.)

At a few other points, Ehrman refers to the Christology of this or that NT text, noting that Jesus is not pictured as God the Father.  I take this as implying that this is significant somehow, as if later Christians did identify Jesus as the Father. But Jesus was never pictured as God the Father, neither in any NT text nor in any classical Christian text thereafter.  Indeed, from Justin Martyr onward, Christian writers typically note that “God the Father” and “the Son” are “numerically distinct,” that is, distinguished, in the expressions of the doctrine of the “Trinity.”

As a final criticism, Ehrman posits that the key to Paul’s Christology is that he thought of Jesus as an (or the) angel (of God/the Lord).  That, says Ehrman, explains how Paul could ascribe “pre-existence” to Jesus, and how, as a devout Jew, he could countenance worshipping Jesus.  As the key basis for this notion, Ehrman invokes a peculiar reading of Galatians 4:14, where Paul says that in his initial visit the Galatians received him “as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.”  Ehrman insists that this is to be read as a flat appositive construction, in which “an angel of God” = “Christ Jesus.”   But this isn’t actually as compelling a claim as he thinks.  Even Gieschen (on whose work Ehrman relies here) presents this reading of the construction as only a distinct “possibility.”  And most scholars (myself included) don’t think it really works.  The grammar certainly doesn’t require it, and it seems more reasonable to take it as a kind of stair-step statement, “angel of God” and “Christ Jesus” as ascending categories.

Moreover, Ehrman fails to consider other evidence that Paul distinguished between Jesus and angels, as for example in Romans 8:38-39, where Paul lyrically asserts that “nothing in all creation,” including angels, can separate believers from God’s love in “Christ Jesus our Lord.”   Or note 1 Cor. 6:3, where Paul asserts that, on the basis of their redemption in Christ, believers will judge angels (in the eschatological consummation).  In short, Paul’s Christology seems to place Jesus in a category of his own, superior and distinct from angels.

Further, contra Ehrman, there is, in fact, no evidence of angels receiving worship in any known Jewish circles of Paul’s day.  So, the worship given to Jesus isn’t really paralleled or made more understandable by positing that Jesus was regarded as an angel.

As to Jesus’ “pre-existence,” Ehrman seems not to know the indications that in ancient Jewish apocalyptic thought one or another kind of pre-existence could be ascribed to eschatological figures (as Nils Dahl noted long ago in another important essay, and as R. G. Hamerton-Kelly documented more fully).

On these and a few other matters, in short, Ehrman’s discussion is misinformed, which is curious given that the jacket promotional blurb describes the book as the product of eight years of research and writing.  But, notwithstanding its defects and sometimes slanted handling of matters, it will perhaps have some positive effect.  The general public today is widely unaware of how remarkable were the beliefs about Jesus and the extraordinary place of Jesus in the devotional practices of earliest Christian circles.  So, if the book sells as well as his previous general-reader books, in addition to enriching Ehrman’s bank balance further, this one might help general readers to appreciate more how astonishing these early beliefs and devotional practices were.

Early Jesus-Devotion: Underscoring Key Points

I had hoped that my previous posting would have clarified the points I tried to make in the one before that.  But in light of ensuing questions and comments, it appears that it was not entirely successful.  So, this further (and much briefer) attempt.  I want to underscore the key things I wanted to highlight initially.  (And I request that comments be directed to the focus of my postings, and not wandering off afield into other matters.)

First, and most importantly, all the historical evidence indicates that it was the experience of the risen and exalted Jesus that generated the really lofty claims about him (e.g., ascribing to him a status likened to God’s, seated “at God’s right hand,” sharing divine glory and name, the title “The Kyrios,” etc.) and that generated the “dyadic” devotional pattern that I have emphasized over some 25 years now.  So, whatever the “historical” Jesus thought of himself, whatever he may have secretly believed, hoped, knew, etc., the key point is that this remarkable body of lofty claims and the accompanying devotional practice seem to have erupted in the “post-Easter” period.

During his ministry, Jesus certainly excited claims and counter-claims about himself, including specifically the hope that he was (or would be) Messiah, which appears to have been the basis of the charge against him that led to his crucifixion.

He certainly seems to have acted with an authority that excited some, offended others, and that reflected an implicit claim to be God’s unique agent announcing and enacting in some ways eschatological salvation. But, still, the claims and devotional practices that erupted after his crucifixion exceeded anything held about him during his ministry.

The fundamental basis for these claims and the devotional practice was the powerful conviction that God had exalted Jesus to heavenly glory and now required him to be reverenced.  As I tried to emphasize earlier, the Christological claims and worship practices had a theo-centric basis:  God’s actions that had Christological consequences.

The second major point I’d like to underscore and clarify (again) is that notions of Jesus’ “pre-existence” seem to have erupted in this same “post-Easter” period, and also as a consequence of God’s exaltation of Jesus.  This attribution of “pre-existence” to Jesus seems to have happened very quickly, certainly not as a result of some slow and incremental process.

The final point is that doctrinal development certainly didn’t cease at that early point, but continued as believers reflected further on what they believed God had done, what Jesus had done and revealed, and what they believed the Spirit had revealed.  Moreover, as early Christians thereafter sought to engage the wider intellectual currents of the Roman world (esp. influenced by Greek philosophical traditions), they developed further notions and responded to new issues.  But the beliefs of each period need to be considered in their own time.  So, e.g., the Christological beliefs and expressions found in early writings (the NT and other early texts) deserve to be studied in their own right, preferably (to my mind) without reading them through the lens of subsequent issues and formulations.

Likewise, those later creeds and formulations deserve to be considered sympathetically, with respect for the issues, the inventory of available concepts, etc.  But that takes us into a period later than my own focus.

Jesus, “Pre-existence,” etc.: Responding to Questions

Well, my postings over the last couple of days have certainly generated a number of responses, including several rather vigorous ones, and have raised some entirely understandable questions.  Instead of responding to the comments individually (thereby burying both questions and my responses down in the “comments” material), however, I thought I’d try to address them here in this blog-posting.  I’ll try to be as concise as clarity allows, but this will be a somewhat “longish” posting.

1.  First, in response to my emphasis that the NT makes God’s actions (esp. in raising Jesus from death and giving him glory) the basis for the “high” Christological claims and the remarkable devotional practice in which Jesus was included with God, what about the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracles, authoritative actions, etc.?  Doesn’t this suggest that Jesus was actually exercising his divine power during his earthly life?

The first thing to note is what the Gospels and other NT writings portray as the responses to these actions, particularly the more “friendly” responses.  For example, in response to Jesus’ questions to his disciples about what people make of him (as portrayed, e.g., in Mark 8:27-30), the options reported are “John the Baptist” (which I take as meaning “another one like John”), Elijah (possibly in part because Jesus’ reported miracles often mirror those attributed to Elijah),”one of the prophets” (the opinion that Jesus was a “prophet” is reported elsewhere in the Gospels also, e.g., John 6:14; and 7:25-30 where people wonder if he is Messiah).  And the disciples’ response (on Peter’s lips) was “Messiah/Christ”.  There is no statement of deification, no “cultic” worship offered, and Jesus doesn’t demand it, or claim divinity.

In Acts 10:38, in a speech ascribed to Peter, Jesus is referred to as having gone about “doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”  Note that this statement is in the context of far more exalted claims about Jesus reflective of the “post-Easter” period:  e.g., “the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead . . . everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:42-43).  So, for the author of Acts, both things are true:  Jesus’ earthly ministry was “anointed” and empowered by God (it was not a god working miracles on the earth, as in Greek myths).  But, by virtue of God’s resurrection of Jesus (10:40), Jesus is now judge and the one valid medium of salvation (vv. 42-43).

To be sure, there is good reason to think that Jesus was known as a charismatic healer and exorcist, that he acted with a charismatic/prophetic authority in his teaching, that he excited expectations that he was (or was to be ) Messiah.  Indeed, it is even not entirely impossible that Jesus could have trusted in the kind of vindication that is expressed in Mark 14:61-64 (although I personally suspect that as reported this statement is seriously reflective of post-Easter convictions about Jesus).  But all of this put together doesn’t amount to a direct claim of divine status, of bearing divine glory, and of being worthy of worship.

As I’ve contended in my book, Lord Jesus Christ (53-64), Jesus himself (his actions and their impact on others) was certainly a major factor/force in the subsequent eruption of “Jesus-devotion” reflected in the NT.  But the NT writings rather consistently place that eruption in the “post-Easter” period, and base it heavily on God’s exaltation of Jesus and designation of him as “Lord and Christ” (e.g., Acts 2:36), “The Son of God” (e.g., Rom 1:3-4), the glorified ruler (e.g., 1 Cor 15:20ff; 1 Pet 3:22), etc.

2.  What about texts such as John 1:1-2, where, of the “Logos” (here, the “pre-incarnate” identity/form of the incarnate Jesus), we read:  “he was with God and he was God”?  Well, the first thing to emphasize is that both statements have to be read together, and taking the one without the other results in a serious loss of meaning.  The Logos here is portrayed as both “with” God (i.e., distinguishable from “God” albeit in closest relation to God) and “was God” (i.e., in some way partaking of this status).  The next statement helps “unpack” this a bit:  The Logos was the agent of creation.  Creation in biblical perspective is God’s act, and so positing the Logos as the agency through whom God created “all things” places the Logos outside of “all things” and into the action of God.  But note that the Logos is the agent/medium of creation, “God” remaining the creator in ultimate sense.  (This distinction remained pretty central even in much later creedal developments.)

This role as agent of creation, by the way, isn’t original or confined to GJohn.  Decades earlier it is affirmed in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, where explicitly the “Lord Jesus Christ” is posited as the one “through whom are all things and we are through him” (to render the Greek somewhat woodenly).  Here, likewise, the “one God the Father” is the one “from who are all things and we (are) for him” (“God the Father” the creator and the ultimate destiny of believers).

3.  What are we supposed to make of statements ascribing “pre-existence” to Jesus (to use the typical theological buzzword)?  If you entertain these, how could Jesus not have known this and spoken of it?

First, a historical note:  The ascription of “pre-existence” to Jesus wasn’t a late development, but appears already presupposed in texts as early as the 1 Cor 8:4-6 text cited above, and also, e.g., in the famous passage in Philippians 2:6-11 (esp. vv. 6-8).  (Interesting to note Bart Ehrman’s recognition of this in his new book, and his admission that it took him by surprise and required him to correct earlier suppositions.)  Indeed, we can’t really chart some evolutionary scheme in the earliest explosion of Christological beliefs.  It all happened so quickly that by the time of Paul’s letters (written scarcely 15-20 yrs after Jesus’ execution) it’s all presupposed as long and widely known among believers.

But how could people ascribe a heavenly “pre-existence” to a real human and mortal figure of recent history?  To understand this, you have to enter into the “logic” of ancient theological thought, and especially “apocalyptic” thought.   I’ll sketch it briefly.  God doesn’t make up his game-plan as the game goes along, but has the plan (of world history, redemption, judgement, etc.) all laid out even before creation.  So, as God acts in revelation, each action is also an unveiling of his prior purpose and plan.  So, “eschatological” events were actually in God’s purpose from the beginning:  “final things = first things” (to paraphrase a scholarly formula).  Indeed, in ancient Jewish texts there are references to various things, e.g., Torah, or the “name” of the messianic figure in the “Parables” of 1 Enoch (37-70) as “pre-existent” (see, e.g., my article, “Pre-Existence,” in the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. G.F. Hawthorne, et al., pp. 743-46 (and bibliography there).

So, in this case, if Jesus has been vindicated by God and exalted to heavenly glory, made Lord and judge, declared to be “the Son of God,” and the unique redeemer, then in some sense this is the eschatological revelation and articulation of what must have been God’s purpose, and the revelation of heavenly realities, from before creation.  As various other scholars as well have observed, the conviction that Jesus had been exalted to heavenly/divine glory seems to have triggered the logical corollary that he must, in some sense, have been “there” from the beginning, and that God’s redemption work is tied closely to God’s creation work.  (Note that NT statements about Jesus’ “pre-existence” are essentially confined to connecting him to creation, and there is scant interest in speculations about what else his “pre-existence” involved.  There, isn’t in other words, the proliferation of elaborate “myth” narratives about the matter such as we have in the classic Greek myths of the gods.)

But the NT also, even more emphatically, insists that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, mortal, human being, not a “god-in-drag” walking the earth, only pretending to eat, sleep, die, etc. (in contrast, e.g., to the angel Raphael in Tobit).  “Born of a woman” declares Paul (Gal. 4:4), and “crucified and buried” is a pretty sure indication of things!  Moreover, the NT doesn’t present Jesus as raising himself from death, as if by his own innate divine power, but declares Jesus was raised by God (e.g., 1 Thess 1:9-10).

As a human, say the NT texts, Jesus was only able to declare what God had revealed to him (even, perhaps especially, in the Gospel of John, e.g., 5:30-38).  He is pictured as empowered by God (via God’s Spirit) for his ministry (e.g., the descent of the Spirit in the baptism scenes).  He declares ignorance of “the day or hour” of eschatological consummation (Mark 13:32, a text that clearly troubled some early readers, as the variant readings show).  It has been a common mistake to assume that if Jesus bears divine glory, status, etc., now (in Christian faith), and if in some sense he was “pre-existent”, then this must have affected (or even limited) how he could have been truly human.  To think this, however, is both to ignore the NT texts, and (in theological terms) to descend into a kind of heresy (classically called, “Docetism”).  Indeed, in later creedal statements, “orthodox” Christian “Fathers” often declared “that which the Son did not take on him self he cannot redeem” (meaning that a fully human Jesus was necessary for him to be an adequate redeemer of humans, an emphasis that actually emerged as early as Hebrews 2:5-18).  In short, ascribing to Jesus divine honour, status, glory, etc., in the NT texts was never at the expense of Jesus being truly, fully, human.  The statement in John 1:14 bears as much force as the statement in 1:1-2.  “The Word became flesh” (i.e., fully, mortal human).  And so, e.g., operating within the knowledge available to humans, whether about themselves or anything else.

4.  What about subsequent creedal controversies and formulations?  E.g., the three “persons” (or “hypostases”) that comprise the “Trinity,” etc.?

To my mind, these should be seen as valiant and impressive attempts by Christians living in later (than the NT texts) times, engaging and appropriating conceptual categories of those later times, to address questions and issues that had arisen then.  But these conceptual categories and issues weren’t always the same ones that we find in the NT texts.  E.g., referring to “persons” of the “Father” and the “Son” seems to have emerged sometime in the 2nd century (e.g., Justin Martyr’s references to the “prosopon” of the Son or the Father (literally = “face”, the Latin “persona” a subsequent attempt at an equivalent term).  Simply reciting NT terms and expressions wasn’t sufficient (and is never sufficient for the theological task, to my mind).  The questions had shifted, and the conceptual categories (heavily shaped by Greek philosophy) were different (the NT texts still heavily steeped in biblical/Jewish categories), and couldn’t rightly be avoided.

But I suspect that if Paul were asked whether Jesus was the “second person of the Trinity,” he would likely have responded with a quizzical look, and asked for some explanation of what it meant!   Were the patristic texts and creedal statements  saying something beyond or distinguishable from what the NT texts say?  Certainly.  Does that invalidate those later creedal discussions and formulations?  Well, if you recognize the necessity of the continuing theological task (of intelligently attempting to articulate Christian faith meaningfully in terms appropriate and understandable in particular times and cultures), then probably you’ll see the classic creedal statements as an appropriate such effort.  But that’s a historical judgement about that later period, and/or a theological judgement.  And my emphasis is on the historical question of what the NT texts say and how to understand them in their own historical context.

Jesus and Christology: The Gospel of John as Case-Study

As a follow-up to my posting yesterday in which I drew attention to the widely-shared fallacious assumption that the theological validity of NT Christological claims rests upon their having been articulated and taught by Jesus, I (immodestly) draw attention to an essay of mine on the Gospel of John.  In this essay I note that GJohn in fact maintains a clear distinction between what was believed about Jesus during his earthly ministry and what his followers came to believe about him in the “post-Easter” period. This is, of course, all the more remarkable in that GJohn also is distinctive in the programmatic way that the earthly Jesus seems to speak with a lot of the discourse-features of the author and the believers for whom he wrote.

The essay in published form = Larry W. Hurtado, “Remembering and Revelation: The Historic and Glorified Jesus in the Gospel of John,” in Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children: Christology and Community in Early Judaism and Christianity. Essays in Honor of Larry W. Hurtado and Alan F. Segal, ed. David B. Capes et al. (Waco, TX: Baylor Univesity Press, 2007), 195-213.  (I can’t here go into the curious phenomenon of having written an essay for a volume that was produced with me as the joint-honoree.)  I’ve put the pre-publication form of the essay on this blog-site under the “Selected Published Essays” tab here.

Indeed, more explicitly than any of the other Gospels, GJohn makes it clear that the author saw and accepted a distinction between what he regarded as the level of understanding of Jesus among his followers during his earthly life and the subsequently enhanced level of understanding in the “post-Easter” period.  The text (in discourse ascribed to Jesus by the author) attributes this to the work of the Spirit, who will “glorify” Jesus, and will guide believers into “all truth” (about Jesus), as, e.g., in 16:12-15.

Of course, early believers held that what they came to realize in the “post-Easter” period (through what they took to be God’s revelations to them) were truths of Jesus’ significance and person that, in some senses, were always true of him.  This, however, was again fundamentally a theo-logical conviction:  They believed that God didn’t make things up as he went along, but had it all planned out from the beginning.  Moreover, they believed that God’s eschatological actions were simply the revelation of things purposed from the beginning.

But my point here is that even GJohn doesn’t make the high Christological claims affirmed by the author rest simply (or even particularly) on demands and teaching of the earthly Jesus.  Instead, the text fully affirms that the realization of Jesus’ glorified/glorious status came subsequently, through the revelations of the Spirit.

Questioning a Common Assumption

First, a quote:  “The Church cannot indefinitely continue to believe about Jesus what he did not know to be true about himself,” J. W. Bowman, The Intention of Jesus (London:  SCM, 1945), p. 108.

This  is not really a historical claim but a theological one, and it reflects a common assumption:  The assumption that the theological/religious validity of claims about Jesus rest upon what Jesus  believed and taught about himself.  In my book, Lord Jesus Christ (pp. 5-9), I’ve noted the irony of how this assumption has been shared by critics and advocates of Christian faith, and also how it has worked mischief in the historical investigation of Christian origins.

Operating on this assumption, apologists of traditional christological claims have striven to argue that Jesus really did teach them, e.g., that he is divine and worthy of worship.  Typically, this has meant trying to show, for example, that the distinctive discourse that we find in the Gospel of John really is the best index of Jesus’ own self-perception and teaching about himself (thereby distorting this remarkable text and making it serve a purpose for which it was never intended).

Also, and ironically, operating on the same theological assumption, critics of traditional Christian faith have often argued that Jesus didn’t actually make direct claims for divinity and make himself worthy of worship.  Instead, they have emphasized (with greater plausibility), it appears that these “high” claims about Jesus emerged only after Jesus’ execution (in what is sometimes called the “post-Easter” period).  It is this sort of argument that is the burden of Bart Ehrman’s most recent book:  How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2014).  (Yeah, I know.  Bart repeatedly claims that he’s not trying to “dis” Christian faith, and he generally maintains a respectful tone, but at times he slips and his disinterested claims  seem a bit coy.)

So, how is it that this assumption came to be held as self-evident truth, shared both by apologists and critics of Christian faith?  Well, it seems to derive from a very clever and historically successful move made in the 18th century by people now referred to as “Deists”.  As Jonathan Z. Smith showed in his little tome, Drudgery Divine (1990), the Deists set out to drive a wedge between the “historical” Jesus and the NT (and traditional Christian faith).  Taking a cue from the Protestant argument that church teaching had to be based in the NT, Deists argued in turn that NT christological claims had to be based in Jesus’ own teaching.  They then further argued that a critical approach toward the “historical” Jesus did not provide a sufficient basis for traditional christological beliefs.

Now the interesting bit is that this (originally Deist) argument was wildly successful, at least in setting the terms of the ensuing theological and scholarly debate.  That is, even those (e.g., advocates of traditional Christian faith) who opposed the Deists’ conclusions accepted their terms for the debate that followed (right down to our day):  Jesus’ own teaching about himself was the criterion of legitimacy for any claims about him.

So, what you have is a fundamentally theological issue becoming the shared assumption for a great deal of subsequent historical investigation.  And the result, as I’ve said, was a great deal of mischief:  Christian apologists producing contorted historical arguments trying to pump up maximally what might be attributed to Jesus, and critics of traditional Christian faith (e.g., the Deists, the old religionsgeschichtliche Schule scholars and their intellectual descendants) contending that these claims were invalidated by the evident historical events/process through which they had emerged.

But I’d like to make two observations.  First, the earliest extant Christian texts themselves make it perfectly clear that the “high” notions about Jesus sharing in divine glory, exalted to heavenly status, worthy of worship, etc., all erupted after Jesus’ ministry, not during it, and that the crucial impetus for these notions was what earliest believers saw as God’s actions, particularly their belief that God had raised Jesus from death to heavenly glory.  (See, e.g., Philippians 2:9-11; Acts 2:36).

To be sure, Jesus generated a devoted following during his ministry, and (as I have argued in Lord Jesus Christ, 53-64) also generated a strong polarization of opinion about himself, which led to him being crucified.  Indeed, as numerous scholars judge, Jesus (whether intentionally or not) likely generated the claim that he was (or was to be) Messiah, which seems to have been the cause of him being executed.  But Messiah isn’t necessarily a “divine” figure in any real sense of that term, and certainly not typically a figure who receives the sort of devotion that was given to the “risen/exalted” Jesus in earliest Christian circles.  (See my discussion of the question of how Jesus was reverenced during his ministry in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? esp. pp. 134-51).

To underscore the point,  the remarkable escalation in the status/significance of Jesus to the “right hand” of God, to sharing the divine name and glory, and to the central and programmatic place he held in earliest Christian devotional practice all rested on the fundamental conviction that God has exalted him and now required that Jesus’ exalted status be recognized, and that he should be reverenced accordingly.

My second observation is this:  Why should this be taken as some kind of threat to the theological legitimacy of traditional Christian faith?  Why should the clever Deist tactic of the 18th century continue to be treated as a self-evident truth and the basis for apologists and critics of Christian faith in their continuing wrangles and debates?  The fundamental theological basis given in the NT for treating Jesus in the “high” terms advocated is a theo-centric one:  God’s actions form the basis of the responding christological claims and devotional practices.  Considering this might be a really helpful move for all sides in any theological debate.

And setting aside the assumption that the validity of Christian faith can be weighed on the basis of the historical process by which it emerged could also make for better (or at least less antagonistic) historical work on Christian origins too.


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