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Writing & Pronouncing the Divine Name in Second-Temple Jewish Tradition

Several comments prompted by my earlier postings have raised questions about how the Hebrew divine name (YHWH) was rendered in written form and how God was referred to orally in the time of Jesus.  In addition to interest in these questions for their own sake, there is also the related question of how these matters may relate to the designation of Jesus as “Kyrios” in the NT.

So, there are three distinguishable issues involved.  (1) How was the name YHWH treated in ancient Jewish manuscripts, both Hebrew and Greek ones? (2) How did ancient Jews refer to YHWH orally (i.e., did they use verbal/oral substitute words)?  (3) How might data relating to the preceding questions relate to the use of “Kyrios” to designate Jesus in the NT?  An adequate treatment would require far more space than appropriate for a blog-posting, so I shall have to be brief, referring interested readers to the “For Further Reading” list at the end of this posting.  (I was surprised and disappointed to find no entry relevant to these questions in the otherwise excellent work edited by J. J. Collins & Daniel C. Harlow, The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism.)

Let’s take question #2 first.  On the one hand, it is clear that by the late second-temple period, there was among many Jews an (apparently growing) avoidance of pronouncing YHWH.  Among frequently cited evidence, note how the LXX renders Leviticus 24:16.  Whereas the Hebrew text  of this verse forbids blaspheming God’s name, the Greek text forbids pronouncing it.  Likewise, in the list of offences and punishments in the Qumran community text, 1QS (6:27–7:2), uttering the divine name (“which is honoured above all”) results in a permanent exclusion.  And in the Mishnah also (10.1), albeit later in date, uttering the divine name is one of the crimes that excludes a Jew from “the world to come”.

On the other hand, other data indicate that some Jews apparently continued to pronounce YHWH in one form or another, e.g., “IAO” in Greek, as surveyed most fully in Frank Shaw’s 2002 PhD thesis (details below).

But those who observed the rule about not pronouncing YHWH would likely have used some reverential substitute(s).  Philo, for example, gives strong evidence that “Kyrios” was used by at least some Greek-speaking Jews, and “Theos” as well.  Indeed, he even discusses the special connotations of “Kyrios” and “Theos,” as key ways of designating the biblical deity (Dahl & Segal essay listed below; also Royse).  There is also evidence suggesting that “Adonay” was used as an equivalent substitute in Hebrew (e.g., 1QIsa at 3:7-8 has “Adonay” where the Masoretic text has YHWH).

This takes us to the way(s) that YHWH was handled in manuscripts.  The data indicate a certain variety of copyist-practices, and these likely shifting across time (details in DeTroyer’s article and in Tov’s “go-to” book on Qumran manuscripts listed below).  For example, in Aramaic letters from Elephantine (5th century BCE), the name is written out, as is the case in the early Samaritan texts from Wadi Daliyeh (4th century BCE).  Likewise, in a number of Hebrew manuscripts from Qumran (2nd-1st century BCE) YHWH appears in the same “square” Hebrew script as the rest of the surrounding text.  But in some other Qumran manuscripts, YHWH is written in an archaic Hebrew script that sets the word off visually from the rest of the text (which is written in typical “square” Hebrew script); and in others, instead of YHWH we have four dots.  In some instances, where the Masoretic Hebrew text has YHWH, we have instead “Elohim”.  Marking off YHWH from the surrounding text, and/or replacing it with a set of dots, appear to be intended also to alert readers to pronounce some acceptable substitute, which is compatible with the data about avoiding pronouncing YHWH itself.

In very early (pre-Christian) Greek biblical manuscripts, there is likewise a variety of practice exhibited.  In some cases, YHWH is written in Hebrew characters, which again has the effect of setting it off visually from the surrounding Greek text.  It is interesting that in at least some of these instances (e.g., P. Fouad 266 b) where the copyist of the Greek biblical text left a blank space for someone subsequently to insert the divine name in Hebrew, the space is more adequate for ca. six characters.  The result is that when the four letters of YHWH were written in, there is extra space left.  This may suggest that the copyist of the Greek text was thinking of sufficient space for the Greek word “Kyrios,” because it was familiar to him as a common oral substitute for the divine name, a practice for which (as noted already) Philo gives evidence.

In one Greek copy of Leviticus from Qumran (4QpapLXXLev b), we have an instance where YHWH is written in Greek letters as IAO.  In another (later) Greek biblical manuscript likely of Jewish provenance, P.Oxyrhynchus 656, at a few places we read “Theos” where the Masoretic Hebrew text has YHWH.

So, in sum, we have a variety of copying practices, including writing YHWH in one or another special ways, or using dots or some other word in its place, and also a (growing?) scruple against pronouncing YHWH, and so a usage of oral substitutes such as “Adonay” in Hebrew, “Kyrios” in Greek (and also “Mar” in Aramaic, as noted by Fitzmyer).

Finally, then, what is the relevance of all this for early use of “Kyrios” as an epithet for Jesus?  Well, perhaps the first thing to note is that this practice seems to follow from a prior ritual use of the equivalent term,  “Mar,” in Aramaic-speaking circles of the young Jesus movement (as commonly seen reflected in the “Maranatha” expression in 1 Cor 16:22).  So, the reference to Jesus as “Lord/Master” seems to take us back to the very earliest moments of the movement.  Indeed, it is entirely plausible (I’d say very likely) that Jesus’ followers referred to him in such terms (with the sense of “master”) during his ministry.

But very quickly after Jesus’ crucifixion, the powerful conviction erupted that God had raised him from death and exalted him to a new, greater, even unique heavenly glory/status.  In Philippians 2:9-11, this exaltation appears to include Jesus being given to share in the divine name (“the name above every name”).  In other early texts the exalted Jesus is pictured as uniquely sharing and reflecting God’s glory (e.g., 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:6).  In these early texts also, we have reference to the ritual practices of “confessing” Jesus as “Kyrios” and “calling upon” him, apparently as common constituent practices of the early worship-gatherings (Romans 10:9-13; 1 Corinthians 1:2).

The latter expression (“to call upon the name of the Lord”) clearly draws on the biblical (OT) expression for the invocation and worship of YHWH, but in these NT texts this action is applied to the exalted Jesus.  Likewise, in a number of early texts (including Paul’s letters, as studied in Capes’s book), biblical texts that originally referred to YHWH are applied to Jesus (e.g., Romans 10:13).  So, it’s clear that at a remarkably early point the exalted Jesus was associated with YHWH, such that practices and texts that originally applied to YHWH were “extended” (so to speak) to include Jesus as the further referent.

Against the contentions of a few (e.g., George Howard), however, these remarkable developments cannot be ascribed to some sort of textual confusion brought on by a supposedly later copyist practice of writing “Kyrios” in place of YHWH in Greek biblical manuscripts.  The developments in question exploded so early and so quickly to render any such a proposal irrelevant.

It is, however, likely that the oral substitution of “Adonay” and/or “Kyrios” for YHWH among Jews charged these terms with enlarged significance, widening their semantic force, or range of connotations, so to speak.  To be sure, the application of “Kyrios” to Jesus in NT texts has a certain variety of connotations.  In some cases, however, it seems to function as applying to the risen/exalted Jesus uniquely something of the divine status that otherwise belongs to YHWH.  The forces that prompted and shaped the specific conviction that it is right (even necessary) to accord Jesus this reverence and to acclaim him uniquely as the “Kyrios” were several (as I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, e.g., in Lord Jesus Christ, 27-78).  They cannot be reduced to Jewish copyist practices concerning YHWH.  But the latter are not irrelevant either.

For Further Reading:

Capes, David B., Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul’s Christology, WUNT, no. 2/47 (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1992)

Dahl, Nils and Alan F. Segal, “Philo and the Rabbis on the Names of God,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period 9 (1978): 1-28.

DeTroyer, Kristin:  (Good on the textual data, but I regard her stance on the “nomina sacra” deficient in bases and so unpersuasive.)

Fitzmyer, J. A. “New Testament Kyrios and Maranatha and Their Aramaic Background,” in To Advance the Gospel: New Testament Studies (New York: Crossroads, 1981), 218-35.

Fitzmyer, J. A. “The Semitic Background of the New Testament Kyrios Title,” in A Wandering Aramaen: Collected Aramaic Essays (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1979), 115-42.

Rösel, Martin, “Die Übersetzung der Gottesbezeichnungen in der Genesis-Septuaginta,” in Ernten, was man sät:  Festschrift für Klaus Koch zu seinem 65. Geburtstag, ed. Dwight R. Daniels, Uwe Glessmer and Martin Rösel (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1991): 357-77.

Rösel, Martin, “The Reading and Translation of the Divine Name in the Masoretic Tradition and the Greek Pentateuch,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31 (2007):  411-28.

Rösel, Martin, Adonaj, warum Gott ‘Herr’ genannt wird, Forschungen zum Alten Testament, 29 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000)

Royse, James R. “Philo, Kyrios, and the Tetragrammaton,” The Studia Philonica Annual 3 (1991): 167-83.

Shaw, Frank Edward. PhD thesis, “The Earliest Non-Mystical Jewish Use of ΙΑΩ,‘‘ (2002, Cincinnati):  (He may “over-egg” things just a bit, but his basic point is sound, that “IAO” was used as a designation of God by some Jews of the 2nd-temple period.)

Tov, Emanuel , Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert, Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah, 54 (Leiden: Brill, 2004), esp. 218-21.

Tov, Emanuel, The Greek Prophets Scroll From Nahal Hever (8HevXIIgr): (The Seiyâl Collection I), Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, 8 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990)


The “Septuagint”: Some Scholarly Resources

In response to an earlier posting, a couple of commenters referred to the “Septuagint” (the name commonly given to the Greek translations of the Jewish scriptures, the “Old Testament”), raising questions about what it represented in its original setting.  There were also questions about how the divine name was handled.  I’ll mention here a few points about the topic and offer a few suggestions for those who would like to know more.

First, the term “Septuagint” (in scholarly literature often designated by “LXX”) is used with more than one referent.  In one strict sense, it designates the form of the Greek OT that came to be used and transmitted in early Christian circles.  But this is one of several forms of the Greek translation of the OT.  Scholars typically distinguish the earlier state and form from which the “Septuagint” proper derives as the “Old Greek” (OG).  In some circles today, one sees “OG/LXX” used as well for this early form/state of the text.

Second, the translation of Jewish scriptures into Greek wasn’t a one-off project, but instead seems to have been done across perhaps a couple of centuries and by various translators who had various translation practices.  The “Pentateuch” (first 5 books of the OT) came first, sometime in the 3rd century BCE, and then other units translated across the ensuing time-frame.  When completed, the OG/LXX represents probably the largest single translation-project of the ancient world.

Third, even in those early centuries the translations were being adjusted and revised.  It appears, for example, that in the post-Maccabean period there were revising efforts that took the translation toward a closer alignment with the Masoretic form of the Hebrew scriptures.  This may well have been part of a larger “Hebraizing” tendency of this period, Jews re-asserting their ethnic particularities in the aftermath of the revolt against Antiochus’ effort to assimilate them religiously.

Finally, a number of scholars now agree that we need to distinguish between the originating purpose and usage of the Greek “OT” and its subsequent role/usage in early Jewish circles.  To cite a particularly influential proposal, Albert Pietersma contends that the originating purpose and usage was to help Greek-speaking Jews to access the Hebrew scriptures, that the “OG” served originally more as a pedagogical than as a liturgical project.  He proposes what he calls an “interlinear paradigm”, the OG translation originally an attempt to render the Hebrew into Greek with greater concern to reflect the Hebrew than to produce something elegant in the eyes of Greek-speakers.

This means that the primary purpose was not to “Hellenize” Jews or introduce some radically new/different form of Jewish religion or culture.  Studies of some units of the LXX do suggest, however, that there is a heightening of emphasis on some ideas:  e.g., eschatology, the influence sometimes of a concern to avoid anthropomorphic representations of God, et alia.

For one of several recent introductory works, see Karen H. Jobes and Moises Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint (Grand Rapids/Carlisle: Baker Academic/Paternoster, 2000).

Among important publications, perhaps none deserves so wide a notice as the recent English translation of the LXX:  Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright, eds., A New English Translation of the Septuagint, and Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included Under That Title (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).  Note especially the very informative initial essay in it, “To the Reader of NETS,” which in itself serves as a basic introduction to some key matters.

For an excellent bundle of studies that delve into some major issues in current Septuagint scholarship, see Wolfgang Kraus and R. Glenn Wooden (eds.), Septuagint Research: Issues and Challenges in the Study of the Greek Jewish Scriptures (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006).

Textual Variants and Ancient Readers

In my essay that has just been published (mentioned in my post yesterday), my broader emphasis is that intentional textual variants in NT writings likely resulted from ancient readers.  In the case of the variation-units I survey in that essay, I submit that readers were trying to judge the referents in statements that were somewhat ambiguous.  I further propose that the variants likely resulted from readers perusing the context of each ambiguous statement to make their judgement, in short, doing just what serious readers and modern commentators do:  exegesis based on context.

But, whereas modern commentators write a new text about the biblical text, these ancient readers (and we’re talking about the 2nd-3rd centuries likely) wrote what they judged to be the correct referent into their text of the NT writing.  Ironically, out of their high regard for the text and its clear meaning, they felt free to alter the word to make clearer the referent.

This sort of close study of immediate context (reading not  only backwards but also forward) isn’t likely what copyists did.  Copyists basically copied the text before them.  But readers/users of the copied text, they had the opportunity to note ambiguities and other problems, and the leisure-time to study carefully the context to see if they could clarify matters.

Then, when a reader’s copy was thereafter copied, the copyist likely assumed that what originated as a change in wording was the corrected wording, and so that change/variant entered subsequent textual transmission.

Copyists, to be sure, made oodles of accidental or unintentional changes, as is well documented.  But the sort of exegetically-based intentional changes that I discuss were, I contend, made by readers/users of the texts.  (I’m not the first to make this point.  I refer to earlier publications by Michael Holmes and Ulrich Schmid in my essay.)

So, as I note in the essay, these and other such textual variants are fascinating “artefacts” of ancient reading/readers, and their exegetical efforts to understand more precisely the texts.  Whereas in much earlier times NT textual critics tended to dismiss obviously secondary variants, seeking only the “original” reading, nowadays we are coming to regard all variants as in themselves valuable historical data.  The field of NT textual criticism is now a much “sexier” discipline than it ever was!

Textual Ambiguity in Acts of the Apostles

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my essay, “God or Jesus?  Textual Ambiguity and Textual Variants in Acts of the Apostles,” in the multi-author volume, Texts and Traditions:  Essays in Honour of J. Keith Elliott, edited by Peter Doble and Jeffrey Kloha (Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2014), pp. 239-54.   In the essay, I study an interesting phenomenon:  In Acts there are a number of places where we have variants that appear to reflect efforts to clarify whether Jesus or God is referred to, cases where the likely original reading was “kyrios” which in these places has a certain ambiguity as to who the referent is.

The phenomenon suggested itself in the course of researching and writing an earlier commissioned essay, “Christology in Acts:  Jesus in Early Christian Belief and Practice,” published in Issues in Luke-Acts:  Selected Essays,, eds. Sean A. Adams and Michael Pahl (Piscataway, NJ:  Gorgias Press, 2012), 217-38.

Here is the Abstract of my essay that has just appeared:

“The correlation of God and Jesus in Acts, in particular the use of κύριος/ὁ κύριος for both, produced a number of statements in which there can be a certain degree of ambiguity as to the referent. At these points we often find variants in the manuscripts, which reflect efforts of ancient readers to disambiguate the statements and clarify the text. They often seem to have drawn upon the immediate context to help them judge matters. So the variants are artefacts of this exegetical activity of these ancient readers of Acts.”

I’ve uploaded the pre-publication version of the essay under the “Selected Published Essays” tab on this blog site.


The Gospel of Thomas: A New Commentary

A new introduction and commentary on the Gospel of Thomas was published earlier this year:  Simon J. Gathercole, The Gospel of Thomas:  Introduction and Commentary (Leiden:  Brill, 2014).  Such detailed studies of the many fascinating extra-canonical texts of early Christianity are so few that it is a cause for celebration whenever one appears.  And in this case, it’s from a scholar with an established record of earlier and respected publications on this particular text.

You can see the publisher’s information here.  Again, as with so many good scholarly books in the field, this one is prohibitively expensive.  But one hopes that in due course a soft-back edition will be released and people other than Bill Gates will be able to purchase it!

You can see a brief interview with Gathercole about the book here.

Was Early Christianity Secretive?

In an interview with a TV producer a week or so ago, the question came up whether early Christianity (Roman-era) was secretive and operated in a covert manner, seeking to avoid hostile attention.  The origins of this notion I don’t really know (information welcome), but it seems now “out there” (along with a number of other supposed “truths”) in at least some parts of the general populace.  But it seems to have little basis.  A few illustrations will suffice.

For example, when you have spokesmen for a religious movement framing formal defences of it (“apologia“) and addressing these to the Emperor (e.g., Justin Martyr) and to the wider public (e.g., Epistle to Diognetus), I’d say that’s hardly trying to remain under cover!  That’s not simply putting your head “above the parapet,” that’s standing up on top of the parapet and waving your arms!  And these texts are all the more significant in being produced during a time when tensions with governmental authorities were heating up.  Even when you move on down into the third century CE, when there were occasional pogroms against Christians, this same very public stance obtains.

Even in our earliest extant Christian texts (Paul’s letters), there is evidence of the open, “in your face” presentation of beliefs, and indication that outsiders could well be present in early church gatherings (e.g., Paul’s references to “outsiders” and “unbelievers” present in 1 Cor 14:23-25).  The depictions of early preaching given in Acts further support the view that Christians went public quite readily. (Even if Acts presents dramatized, even somewhat fictional scenes, they were obviously intended to be recognized by early Christian readers as authentic depictions of what Christians were supposed to do and did.)

But (I was asked), what about the fish symbol, or the anchor?  Weren’t these hidden means of signifying Christian faith, e.g., the latter a covert reference to Jesus’ cross (the cross-bar of the anchor forming a disguised cross)?  Well, in a word, no.  Instead, it appears that these and other items reflect the early Christian tendency to appropriate various symbols, images, and expressions from the Roman-era environment, then assigning to them new Christian meanings.  Behind this was the early Christian attitude that their beliefs were prefigured in the creation, in culture, in the prior intellectual history.  So, they boldly made these sorts of things their own.

The fish-acrostic illustrates this:  The ordinary Greek word for “fish” (ΙΧΘΥϹ) seized upon and read as a kind of short-hand statement of Christian faith:  Ιησους Χριστος Θεου Υιος Σωτηρ (“Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour”).  As for the anchor, it appears that in this and other phenomena, Christians saw their cross-symbol anticipated, reflected, and affirmed.  Early Christians such as Justin also pointed to the shape of the masts of ships, and the T-shape of the human brow and nose, as other reflections of the cross-symbol.  This wasn’t being covert; it was instead a bold (perhaps even audacious) affirmation.  (Oh, and by the way, another notion “out there” in some scholarly circles is that we don’t have any cross-symbolism or visual references to Jesus’ crucifixion before the 4th/5th century CE.  Wrong!  That notion simply rests on an incomplete data-set and a certain ideological premise.)

Sure, we have sometimes the language of “secrets” (Greek: mysterion), e.g., “secret(s) of the kingdom of God/heaven” (Mark 4:11; Matt 13:11), a saying that seems simply to refer to the unrecognized meaning of Jesus’ words and deeds.  Or there is Paul’s reference to proclaiming (openly!) the “mysterion  of God” (1 Cor 2:1, 7; 4:1), which seems to designate what Paul regarded as God’s previously unknown redemptive purpose and message, now openly declared in Paul’s preaching.  (This language of “secrets” seems to draw mainly upon ancient Jewish notions of heavenly secrets to do with God’s eschatological purposes, as has been shown by R. E. Brown and others.)

And, yes, in the so-called “gnostic” Christian texts, we also have references to “secret sayings” (e.g., Gospel of Thomas), and at least some of these texts exude an esoteric tone.  But the secrecy had to do with a supposedly deeper (or higher) understanding of truths presented in a covert (or even a riddling) manner that “ordinary” Christians didn’t get.  I know of no evidence that there were “gnostic” conventicles that met covertly to avoid Roman attention.

But what about the catacombs?  Well, Christians didn’t meet in catacombs for secret purposes, to hide from Roman authorities, but instead to have Christian meals with the Christian dead, especially martyrs.  Catacomb burial wasn’t at all distinctive to Christians, but was practiced more widely in Rome and some other places.

So, without prolonging the point needlessly, there is scant reason to think of early Christianity as “secretive” and “covert”.  When Roman authorities wanted to arraign Christians, it seems to have been easy enough to do so.  And this largely because Christians made no secret of who they were, and where you could find them.


Scholarly Work and the “Blogosphere”

I’ve been puzzled in recent days by some readers whose comments suggest that they expect that sound scholarly analysis of serious historical questions can be conveyed persuasively in blog-postings and/or replies to comments.  There seems to be some notion that they shouldn’t have to read books and articles, plow through the data, etc.  So, they ask a question; I respond briefly and point them to some book or article for fuller and more adequate discussion; but then the responses sometimes suggest the folk posing the questions really can’t be bothered.  Yet they often seem to have firm opinions on the issues involved, challenging me to dislodge them to their satisfaction.  So, I think it’s well to try some clarification of things here.

Scholarly work intended to have an impact on the field isn’t done in blogging.  The amount of data, its complexity, the analysis and argumentation involved, and the engagement with the work of other scholars that forms an essential feature of scholarly work all require more space than a few hundred words of a blog-posting, or a few paragraphs of blog-comment.  So, it’s rather unrealistic (not to say bizarre) for some commenters to assume otherwise.

This particular blog site is intended to disseminate the basic results of scholarly work (particularly my own) to a wider public, directing anyone interested in further study to the publications where matters are discussed more fully.  Of course, I can’t expect that the “general public” will necessarily have read my publications or those of other scholars in my field.  This blog site, therefore, is intended to alert interested readers to developments and to the publications where they can follow up matters.

I get the impression now and then that some readers can’t be bothered to read these publications.  That’s their choice.  The puzzling thing is that some, nevertheless, have firm opinions on the issues involved, and want to engage them in blog conversations, but can’t be bothered to do any serious work of studying what’s been patiently and laboriously published by scholars who’ve devoted much time and effort to the matters.

So, to underscore the point here:  Blogging (at least this blog site) is for disseminating basic results of scholarly work, and alerting interested readers to publications where they can pursue matters further.  But if you do want to engage the issues, you’re just going to have to do some serious reading . . . in books, and articles, and in the original sources on which scholarly work is based.  The Internet and the “blogosphere” hasn’t really changed that.

(As some of the recent comments that have triggered this posting query matters about earliest Jesus-devotion, I’ll point to a previous posting in which I tried to summarize some of my own work over the last 25 years or so:  here.


Ehrman Review Published

My commissioned review of Bart Ehrman’s book, How Jesus Became God:  The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, has just appeared in the latest issue of Christian Century (August 6, 2014), pp. 26-28.   It’s given a review-essay place, and I was allowed a reasonably generous word-count, which permitted me to engage a number of key issues in the book.

I applaud Ehrman’s ability to communicate scholarly issues in an accessible manner, and also I hope that the book will help make a general readership more aware of the fascinating questions connected with the early eruption of Jesus-devotion.  Ehrman indicates that in the course of doing his research he came around to the recognition that it erupted early and quickly, and didn’t develop as an incremental process.

I’m also critical of several matters, however, and have to give the book a mixed verdict, therefore.  I think he presents some matters in a one-sided fashion (e.g., his treatment of how Jesus’ body was disposed of after crucifixion, or his treatment of early resurrection-visions).  And I don’t  think that he offers a valid basis for his claim that the earliest “high” christology involved seeing Jesus as an angel.  On these and some other matters, the book seems to me to mis-fire.  But it’s always good to have one’s own research focus presented to a wider readership, even if I’m not satisfied with the presentation.

Thanks to a commentor on this blog site, I can now note that the review is available online here.

Review of Wright Published

In earlier postings I’ve mentioned that I’d agreed to review N.T. Wright’s massive opus, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (earlier postings here, here, and here).  The review has just appeared as a featured review-essay in the journal Theology 117 (2014):  361-65.  I’ve uploaded the pre-publication version and you can find it under the “Selected Published Essays” tab on this blog site, or click here.

“Kyriocentric” Visions and the Origins of Jesus-Devotion

In his recent book, Christopher Barina Kaiser argues that earliest Jesus-followers had visions of God (YHWH) in “the face and voice of their own teacher, now in a glorified body,” and these experiences prompted the early eruption of Jesus-devotion that we see presupposed in the NT:  Seeing the Lord’s Glory:  Kyriocentric Visions and the Dilemma of Early Christology (Fortress Press, 2014).  In short, he contends, the earliest post-crucifixion Christology was one in which “the LORD is Jesus.”   Effectively “God” appeared as Jesus.  Only subsequently was this conviction modified to produce the familiar duality of God and Jesus that we see in the NT.

The “dilemma” in Kaiser’s sub-title is basically this:  How did Jewish followers of Jesus (for whom the uniqueness of their one God was crucial) come to reverence Jesus as they did, i.e., treating Jesus as himself sharing in a status otherwise reserved for God?  (I’d think that “problem” is a better term than “dilemma,” but that’s not a major matter.)  It’s clear (and increasingly referred to as an emergent consensus now) that a remarkable devotion to Jesus along these lines exploded early and rapidly, and initially among circles of Jewish believers.  Specifically, the earliest Christian writings (which take us back to ca. 20 years from Jesus’ crucifixion) already presuppose a view of Jesus as uniquely linked with God, even sharing divine glory and incorporated programmatically into discourse about God and the devotional/worship practices of early circles of the Jesus-movement.  How could this be?  I’ve worked on the historical questions and evidence involved for over 25 years now, beginning with my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, and on through subsequent publications:  e.g., Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (2003), How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (2005).

On the one hand, it’s affirming to me to see continuing efforts to explore historical questions about the fascinating and remarkable explosion of Jesus-devotion, and also to see an author taking seriously “revelatory” religious experiences as a factor, something I’ve proposed in publications over some 25 years now.  On the other hand, I have to say that I find Kaiser’s specific proposal in the end unsatisfactory and unpersuasive.  It would require more space than appropriate in a blog-posting to engage fully all the points where I find problems, so I’ll restrict myself a brief discussion of those I think most important.

To my mind, probably the main problem in the book is that there is no direct evidence to support Kaiser’s claims.  That is, we have no reference to early Jesus-followers having the particular sort of vision-experience that Kaiser makes so important (i.e., specifically one in which they have a vision of God in/with the face and form of Jesus).  Paul, for example, refers to his own experience (Galatians 1:15-16) as a “revelation of his [God's] son,” i.e., a “christophany,” not as a vision of YHWH in the form of Jesus.  (Curiously, Kaiser’s only direct reference to this Pauline text is a single sentence in an endnote.)  Paul refers to “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6), but this involves Jesus as the “image” (eikon) of God, and reflecting God’s glory as in a mirror.  I.e., Paul here (and ubiquitously) portrays Jesus’ high significance with reference to “God,” reflecting a duality that is typical of NT writings.  (On the shape of early God-discourse, see my book, God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon, 2010).

Likewise, the other (and textually later) NT passages that Kaiser examines as offering what he posits as “traces of Kyriocentric visions” give no direct support for his hypothesis.  The “sea theophany” in Mark 6:45-52 (parallel in Matt 14:22-32) has Jesus acting with a power ascribed to YHWH in the OT to be sure, but does not comprise what Kaiser needs for his case.  That is, there is no indication that the story ever involved people confusing Jesus with God on the basis of some vision.  Neither does the transfiguration story in Luke 9:28-36 (which, instead, rather clearly refers to Jesus’ status in relation to God, not as God.  The same is the case for the Acts accounts of Paul’s “Damascus Road” vision (Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-10; 26:12-16), the vision of the risen Jesus in Revelation 1, and the reference in John 12:40-41 to Isaiah’s vision of the exalted Jesus.

Kaiser urges, however, that in these and other texts a supposedly original kind of experience (of Jesus as YHWH) has been adapted to exhibit the duality of Jesus and God that the NT writings pretty much everywhere reflect.  Kaiser claims, for example, that his proposed “Kyriocentric” visions (of YHWH as Jesus) “morphed into stories about the risen Jesus.”  Unfortunately (and I mean no offence), however, this comes pretty close to adjusting the data to fit a hypothesis, whereas it’s better to form the hypothesis out of the data.

But Kaiser contends that the justification for his hypothesis is that otherwise we’re left with an anomaly, wondering how self-identifying Jews of the Roman period (who affirmed what we call “ancient Jewish monotheism”) could have ascribed to Jesus the astonishing place he held in their beliefs and practices.  In particular, how could such “monotheistic” Jews accord Jesus the place that he held in their worship (a matter that I’ve drawn attention to since my 1988 book).  And here we encounter another problem in the book.

Kaiser notes and finds faulty three other proposed schemes:  (1) the view that treating Jesus as sharing in divine status emerged only incrementally and was due to “polytheistic gentile influence” (e.g., Maurice Casey); (2) “the resurrection scenario of N. T. Wright,” the resurrection-sightings positied as “empirical rather than visionary”; and (3) “the binitarian, neo-Canaanite scenario of Margaret Barker,” reflecting her contention than in earliest Christianity we see a re-eruption of ancient Israelite di-theism.  So, he contends, we’re left without any other alternative than to propose something else, his proposal posited as filling that lack.

I find it puzzling, however, that Kaiser makes no mention of my own proposal, which I’ve laid out and developed across a number of publications (several of which he cites and lists in his bibliography).  The crucial bit of my proposal is this:  The key impetus that drove earliest believers to reverence Jesus in the ways they did was a conviction that God required it.  God (they believed) had singled out Jesus in the resurrection (bestowing on Jesus the eschatological existence/body that was otherwise reserved for the last day for anyone else), and had exalted Jesus to heavenly glory, giving Jesus the unique status as “Kyrios,” now requiring that Jesus be reverenced accordingly.  An early text that reflects this conviction is Philippians 2:6-11, esp. vv. 9-11.  Other NT texts reflect this stance:  God has exalted Jesus and now requires all to reverence him (e.g., John 5:22-23).  I further propose that this conviction likely emerged through “revelatory” experiences.  (For further discussion, see pp. 70-74 in my book, Lord Jesus Christ).

Kaiser’s proffered justification for his own proposal is that otherwise we’re without a cogent alternative.  But he doesn’t really engage all the proposals currently on the table, so his justification isn’t persuasive.  Mine is, to be sure, only one attempt to grapple with the historical problem of early Jesus-devotion.  But I have offered a proposal that (if I do say so myself) ought to be considered.  If one can show it fallacious, then so be it.  But it won’t do simply to bypass or ignore it and then claim that you’ve dealt with the major extant proposals.  I note also that my proposal at least accords with  the textual evidence and requires no hypothetical re-casting of the evidence to support it.

One other matter I’ll mention is Kaiser’s repeated references to the “performance” of visions.  I honestly don’t know what he means:  Does he mean that people recounted their experiences, and others subsequently recounted them?  Why not say this?  He’s obviously been taken with proposals emanating from “performance criticism” advocates.  On this also, however, I think he makes a wrong move.   As I’ve shown in a recent article, “performance criticism” seems to rest upon a number of historical fallacies, and so doesn’t stand up to critique:  “Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies?  ‘Orality’, ‘Performance’ and Reading Texts in Early Christianity,” New Testament Studies 60.3 (2014), pp 321 – 340 (DOI: 10.1017/S0028688514000058).

There’s a lot of work reflected in Kaiser’s book, and, no doubt, a good deal of pondering as well.  But, for reasons sketched here, I don’t think he has succeeded in providing a cogent proposal or in offering a justification for it.  But, as stated earlier, I am pleased that the book reflects the recognition that the eruption of early Jesus-devotion is a historical phenomenon that is both remarkable and very much worth studying.



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