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Chronology and Ontology


A recent commenter queried my statement that “ontological” categories weren’t explicit or operative in 1st-century Christian texts (see my response to Philip Alexander in the comments on my posting here).  Granting that ontological categories and statements aren’t explicit in NT writings, the commenter asked how we can judge that ontological categories weren’t operative or on the table in early Christological beliefs/statements.  As this is an important question, I’ve chosen to address it in a posting, rather than in a comment/response.

These “ontological” categories figure in the Christological discussions and debates of the early centuries of Christianity, and are reflected in the classic creedal formulations, such as the “Nicene” creed, in which Jesus is confessed to be of the same “essence” as the Father.

First, the lack of explicitly ontological language in Christological statements in the NT writings is significant.  For, surely, if the writers of these texts were working with ontological conceptual categories, we should expect this to be reflected in their language.  But there is no use of terms such as ousia (“being/substance”), or the other terms that emerged in the subsequent centuries.  Note, please, the writers don’t reject such terms or conceptions; they just don’t use them. So, it’s anachronistic to impose later theological issues woodenly upon these earlier texts.

Perhaps the closest that we get in NT writings to what may look like early expressions of the later conceptions is in some statements in the Gospel of John.  For example, John 1:1-4 says that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  But each part of the statement modifies the other.  So, for example, if “the Word” was with God, then some sort of distinction is expressed.  And yet the latter part of the statement seems to block off a view of “the Word” as merely a creature, as does the following statement that “all things” were created through this Word.  The emphasis seems to be on the Word sharing uniquely in the God-role of universal creation.

The rest of the Gospel of John continues to align Jesus (the “Word” incarnate) with God uniquely, while also distinguishing them.  The alignment is expressed in categories such as a shared “glory” (17:1-5), and in Jesus being shown uniquely God’s purposes and being given the role as judge and the one who is now to be honoured, just as God is honoured (5:19-24).  In 1:18, we have the vivid portrayal of the “only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father,” the Son pictured thus as right next to God like a uniquely close dinner companion.

We might also take account of statements such as Philippians 2:6, where Jesus is said to have been “in the form of God” (en morphe theou).  But this expression seems to express a “godlike” similarity, not quite the explicit claim of “one substance” of later confession.  Note also that the ensuing verses in Philippians 2:6-11 picture Jesus as installed by God as the “Lord” who is to be acclaimed by all creation, “to the glory of God the Father.”  It appears that the “pre-existent” one who made himself a servant acquires a status and role that he did not exercise earlier.  But, again, the focus seems to be on status, role, etc., and not on “ontology.”

So, how can we say that “ontological” categories don’t appear to be operative in earliest Christological texts?  Negatively, there is the absence of the sort of philosophical terms that make their appearance in subsequent Christian texts.  Positively, the Christological statements that we do have in NT texts seem to me to express claims more of a relational and transactional nature.  In various ways, Jesus is uniquely linked with God, and is conferred (by God) with a unique status and role in relation to God.

As a third reason to judge that “ontological” categories weren’t operative in earliest texts, I point to the lengthy and complex efforts of Christian teachers of the 2nd-5th centuries, especially the thorny debates in the so-called “Arian controversy.”  All sides in these controversies drew upon biblical texts (OT texts often as important as NT texts), because these biblical texts weren’t framed by, and didn’t precisely address, the philosophical categories and questions of the later centuries.  (To grasp the complexity and fervent efforts of those debates, see, e.g., Rowan Williams, Arius:  Heresy and Tradition, 2nd ed., SCM, 2001.)

Of course, once “ontological” categories were put on the table, Christian theologians had to engage them.  But the absence of these categories in earliest Christological statements wasn’t a deficiency.  The so-called “ontological” categories are simply the products of one particular historical discourse and philosophical development, whereas the NT writings are largely shaped by the categories and concepts that derive from the biblical and ancient Jewish tradition.  So, for example, NT writers tend to refer to God’s name, glory, throne, and role as creator and sovereign over all, instead of God’s “being” or “essence.”  If it seems to us inevitable that Christian thought had to develop into “ontological” expressions, I submit that this only reflects how much our outlook has been shaped by our intellectual history, so heavily influenced by Greek philosophical traditions.

In my book, God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon, 2010), I’ve shown how the “God discourse” of NT writings is remarkably “triadic” in shape.  That is, there are copious references to God “the Father,” to Jesus (often “the Son”), and to the Spirit.  Indeed, I contend that the place of Jesus in particular in this God-discourse, and in the worship practices reflected in NT writings as well, is such that he is constitutive for both.  That is, to judge by the NT writings, adequate discourse about “God” and adequate worship of “God” must now include reference to Jesus.

How subsequent theologians made the transition to God-discourse conducted in ontological categories is a complex and fascinating story that taxes my personal competence chronologically.  In any case, judging whether the NT Christological statements fit this or that subsequent creedal option is more a theological than a historical task.  My own plea is that we respect the historical particularities of those earlier statements and texts, and try to avoid anachronism in our historical task of engaging them.

The Christological claims in NT writings are remarkable enough in their own terms and setting, and even more so the programmatic place of Jesus in earliest devotional practice.

Zurich Engages Wright

Graduate students and colleagues in Zurich has posted a 3-part blog series focused on Zurich contributors to the recent large volume (noted earlier here) assessing N.T. Wright’s 2-volume work on Paul.

The first of the Zurich postings deals with the essay by Benjamin Schliesser, here.  The second posting focuses on Wright’s historical methodology here.  The third posting features the critique of Wright’s view of “apocalyptic” thought by Joerg Frey here.

These blog posts give a good sense of the serious level of discussion, engagement, and critique of Wright, and with Paul (!) that one finds in the recent volume mentioned above.

Dialogue with Alexander

Prof. Philip Alexander has commented on my posting about his essay in the Bauckham volume (here), and I’ve responded.  Readers might find the exchange interesting.  See the “comments” on that posting.

See now the further, and vigorous, response from Bauckham in the “comments”.

Podcasts on “Destroyer”

I engage issues discussed in and arising from my new book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, in a couple of podcast interviews on a site hosted by Dale Tuggy here and here.

Alexander’s Ineffective Critique

In the newly-published volume honouring Richard Bauckham, Philip Alexander attempts a critique of the view that the worship of Jesus reflected in NT writings means what “early high Christology” advocates contend:  “‘The Agent of the King is Treated as the King Himself’:  Does the Worship of Jesus Imply His Divinity?” (97-114).  With great respect for Alexander’s expertise in rabbinic texts and contributions to other topics, I have to say that this critique is riddled with problems that make it a failure.

First, let’s note the contradictions in method.  Alexander states quite rightly that the only relevant evidence is that from 2nd temple Jewish and lst century Christian texts (p. 99).  But then he invokes rabbinic texts from several centuries later (e.g., those referring to “Metatron”) in trying to make the argument that Jewish tradition could accommodate a second figure along with God in the way that early circles of the Jesus-movement treated Jesus.

Likewise, Alexander’s argument that “full-blown monotheism” (by which he seems to mean a denial that other deities exist at all) required a doctrine of “creatio ex nihilo,” citing again rabbinic texts from the Byzantine and early medieval period, is (I regret to say) a red-herring.  For one thing, it’s quite clear that 2nd temple Jews affirmed the God of Israel as the sole creator of all things (e.g., Philo, Decalogue 52; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6; Colossians 1:15-16; John 1:1-3, the NT texts also include Jesus as the one agent of creation), these affirmations far earlier than Alexander claims, and not dependent on later “ex nihilo” formulations.  So, it is simply a fallacy to think that notions of the one God as creator of all things requires the later philosophical doctrine.  Moreover, as I have repeatedly noted over a few decades now, “ancient Jewish monotheism” was essentially an exclusivity in worship.  The issue wasn’t the existence of other “divine” beings, but the legitimacy of worshipping them. 

As further illustration of Alexander’s curious anachronistic line of argument, in his discussion of Jewish “monotheism,” he probes what the commandment against idolatry in Exodus 20:3-6 and Deuteronomy 5:7-10 might have meant in the time of the composition of these texts (100-101).  But what went on in “early Israelite religion” is again chronologically irrelevant to the question, which is what 2nd-temple Jewish tradition affirmed and practiced.  And so it is passing strange that Alexander cites no 2nd temple evidence in his analysis.

Alexander rightly labels the prohibitions against worshipping angel-messengers as a “literary trope,” but then makes the dubious inference that they are therefore of little weight in assessing the worship policies advocated in 2nd temple Jewish tradition.  Literary tropes, however, are more typically indicative of beliefs, attitudes, etc., and are hardly to be set aside as cavalierly as Alexander does with this one.

I also have to say that I’m completely puzzled at Alexander’s assertion that scholars engaged in the current debate about early Christology haven’t taken account of ancient Jewish notions of “agency” (e.g., 108, 113).  From my own 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, onward, I’ve repeatedly pointed to ancient Jewish “chief agent” traditions as likely early conceptual resources drawn upon (and “mutated”) among early Jesus-followers in accommodating the exalted Jesus alongside God.  At the risk of being a bit sharp, I could suggest that the problem isn’t other scholars overlooking the notion of divine agency, but Alexander’s failure to acquaint himself adequately with that body of scholarship that he seeks to instruct!

The title of Alexander’s essay, “‘The Agent of the King is treated as the King Himself’,” derives from a rabbinic saying (note again the anachronism).  But in the rabbinic texts where the saying is found, there is no indication that it functioned to justify the inclusion of other figures alongside God in Jewish worship practice.  So, the relevance of the saying is dubious so far as the issue of the essay is concerned.  Moreover, ironically, we have explicit indication that in 2nd temple Jewish tradition the trope of a King and his agents actually worked contrary to Alexander’s assumption.

In course of his critique of the “great delusion that has taken hold of the larger part of mankind” (Decalogue 52) that leads them to idolatry,  Philo of Alexandria refers to anyone who renders to the “subordinate satraps the honours due to the Great King” as guilty of “the height not only of unwisdom but of foolhardiness, by bestowing on servants what belonged to their master.”  He then draws a direct application, that worship should be restricted to the one God, and withheld from any of his servants and creatures (obviously including spirit-beings as well as material ones).  In short, in 2nd temple Jewish worship, the servant of the King was not treated as was the King!

Finally, to offer a familiar complaint, instead of engaging the specifics of the devotional practices of ancient Jews and the early Jesus-movement, Alexander briefly discusses semantic issues about the terms translated as “worship” (e.g., Hebrew:  avodah; Greek:  proskynein), noting that they can connote a variety of levels of reverence.  True . . . but hardly decisive for the question of how to view the place of Jesus in earliest Christianity.  That is why in my own work I’ve repeatedly identified the specific actions that indicate the remarkable place of the exalted Jesus in the devotional practices of earliest Christian circles.  These actions comprise a constellation that is without precedent or parallel in the evidence of 2nd temple Jewish devotional practice for any figure other than God.

No other “chief agent” of God figures in the devotional practices of circles of 2nd temple Jews.  This is what makes the “dyadic” pattern of devotion already presumed in Paul’s letters as characteristic of the Jesus-movement so historically remarkable and significant.  I repeat the challenge I have posed for over 30 years:  Falsify this claim that the programmatic inclusion of the exalted Jesus in the devotional practices and beliefs of earliest Christian circles is novel and so historically significant, or else assent to it.  As historians, surely, we must engage the historical phenomena.

For further reading:

Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Fortress Press, 1988; 2nd ed. T&T Clark, 1998; 3rd ed with new Epilogue, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015).

Larry W. Hurtado, “‘Ancient Jewish Monotheism’ in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods,” Journal of Ancient Judaism 4, no. 3 (2013): 379-400.


A Tribute to Bauckham: New Volume

I’ve just received my contributor’s copy of a multi-author volume in honour of Richard Bauckham:  In the Fullness of Time:  Essays on Christology, Creation, and Eschatology, eds. Daniel M. Gurtner, Grant Macaskill & Jonathan T. Pennington (Eerdmans , 2016).  The publisher’s online description here.

The stature of the many contributors and the range of topics that they address reflect the breadth of Bauckham’s own contributions over several decades now.  My own essay in the volume, “Worship and Divine Identity:  Richard Bauckham’s Christological Pilgrimage” (pp. 82-96), attests my admiration for his work, my indebtedness to him on specific matters, and my aim to try to engage some of his stimulating theses.

In the latter part of my essay, I pose three questions.  The first of these is why Bauckham’s emphasis on Jesus being included in the “divine identity” is incompatible with the proposal that I’ve supported that in Second Temple Jewish tradition we see expressions of what can be called a “chief agent” notion, which may have provided earliest Jewish believers in Jesus with a conceptual category for accommodating Jesus in a unique relationship with God and as superior to all other beings.  As I’ve argued since my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (3rd edition, Bloomington T&T Clark, 2015), the Christological statements in the NT typically portray Jesus with reference to God:  e.g, as God’s Word, Son, Image, etc., which seems to me to amount to use of such a conceptual category.

To be sure, the programmatic place of Jesus in creation and redemption comprises a breadth exceeding any of the other instances of “chief agent” figures.  And the programmatic place of Jesus in earliest devotional practice is likewise singular.  But I see these as evidence of the novel “mutation” in “chief agent” tradition that I’ve proposed for several decades now.

My second question probes how and why Jesus, so rapidly and so early, was (in Bauckham’s terms) included within the “divine identity.”  By all evidence, this was an unparalleled development.  With others, Bauckham refers to the early and novel uses of biblical (OT) texts as expressive of the remarkable place of Jesus in the beliefs of earliest circles of the Jesus-movement.  To my mind, the most likely answer to why these texts (e.g., Psalm 110) were read in this novel way is that early believers were moved by powerful religious experiences that they took as revelatory.  That is, the distinctive appropriation of these texts reflects a “charismatic exegesis” of the OT prompted by what early believers took to be the inspiration of God’s Spirit.

My third question probes critically Bauckham’s portrayal of the inclusion of Jesus as co-recipient of worship as a “corollary” of Jesus’ inclusion within the “divine identity.”  I find scant evidence of this notion in NT texts.  Instead, it seems to me that the closest we get to an explanation or justification in the NT for treating Jesus as rightful recipient of cultic devotion is the claim that God has exalted him to share in divine glory and now requires Jesus to be so reverenced.  Philippians 2:9-11 seems to me an early and explicit statement to this effect.

These queries are intended more to engage Bauckham’s proposals, however, rather than to refute them.  I reiterate my admiration for his work, especially his varied contributions to analysis of early Christian texts, both NT writings and extra-canonical texts.


Lanier Lecture

I was pleased to see about 500 in attendance at my lecture in the Lanier Theological Library series on 10 September.  Lots of interesting questions.  Mark Lanier is to be congratulated on developing such an impressive public/lay interest in lectures by scholars on various subjects.

Video Interview: “Destroyer of the gods”

On 05 September, our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins will launch a video interview with me on my new book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.  The CSCO web site is here.

The first video is here.

Lanier Lecture: 10 September

I give a lecture based on my new book on 10 September in the Lanier Theological Library, Houston, Texas:  “Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World,” 7 p.m.  The lecture is open to the general public.

This will also be the launch of the book, copies available for purchase.

For information on the library and the lecture, including registering to attend, go here.

New Commentary on Colossians

My colleague, Prof. Paul Foster, has recently had his fine commentary on the epistle to the Colossians published:

The Centre for the Study of Christian Origins has information here, and toward the end of September will release a video interview with Foster on the book.  The publisher’s online catalogue entry is here.

Congratulations to Foster on this excellent commentary.  It exhibits his trademark care for detail and balanced judgments.

(Starting 05 September, the CSCO site will also release a video of me interviewed on my new book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.)

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