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Jesus in the Gospels

March 16, 2017

In the light of recent discussion about how the Gospels present Jesus, I offer some observations intended to underscore and summarize my own views, and, hopefully, to promote some clear thinking by all.[1] Readers’ alert: This will be a long posting.

The first thing to say is that, quite obviously, all four canonical Gospels (not only the Synoptic Gospels) present a genuinely human Jesus whose career is empowered and authorized by God. These “Jesus books” are all bios-shaped sequential narratives, all of them commencing Jesus’ career in connection with John the Baptizer, all of them then relating Jesus’ itinerant activities of proclaiming God’s kingdom, teaching, disputing with opponents, working various miracles, and all of them devoting a sizeable final section to Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem, featuring his arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection. They are not theological tractates, but narratives of the earthly Jesus.[2]

So it is dubious to infer that their lack of the explicit Christological claims affirmed in other early Christian texts means that they advocate some particular Christological stance different from or in opposition to that advocated in writings that do incorporate more explicit and “post-Easter” Christological statements, such as Paul’s letters. Certainly, I find no evidence in the Gospels that the authors were tilting against or correcting some Christological stance, intending their accounts as replacements or alternatives.

Instead, the “bios” shape of these writings suggests that the authors were all (albeit in varying ways) motivated or inspired by the emergence of biographical type literature in the late Hellenistic and Roman periods. That is, these writings seem to reflect the “literary environment” in which they were written. They are all “literaturizations” (to use David Aune’s term) of the stories of Jesus. This is perhaps more obviously evident in Matthew and Luke, which add birth narratives, a feature of “great figure” biographies.

As bios-type writings, the aims were to promote Jesus as the central heroic figure, authoritative teacher, always correct over against critics, and the inspiring example to followers. This exemplary emphasis is perhaps particularly evident in Mark, which features Jesus summoning people to follow him (e.g., 8:34-38). Indeed, Mark seems to make Jesus the sole fully positive example for followers, and depicts Jesus’ disciples as often contrasting examples of “fallible followers.” That is, the purpose of the authors wasn’t to formulate and promote some distinctive theological standpoint, but instead, presuming convictions already held, to emphasize the earthly Jesus as exemplary, and his teachings as authoritative for the behaviour of his followers. I repeat: Nothing in the Gospels suggests that this was in opposition to other beliefs about Jesus (e.g., advocating a “low” Christology over against a “high” Christology), and so the more reasonable inference is that the authors intended their works to promote and complement the sorts of beliefs and devotional practice that appear to have been widespread in various early Christian circles by the late first century when these texts were written.

The emphasis on the earthly career of Jesus involves an impressive amount of “local color”. The Gospels are studded with geographical sites, early first-century issues and customs characteristic of Jewish circles in Roman Judea (e.g., food customs, clean/unclean questions, Sabbath observance), historical figures of the time, Jewish religious parties (e.g., Pharisees, Sadducees). And there is an interesting absence of issues that featured in the period after Jesus’ career, such as debates about circumcision. You get foreshadowings of the kind of Christological claims familiar in early Christian circles, as in the Markan scene where Jesus responds to the question of the high priest (14:61-65). But, on the whole, the writers (especially the Synoptics) tend to situate Jesus authentically in his own setting.

So, the Synoptic Gospels don’t present Jesus declaring his divine status or demanding that people worship him. But this simply reflects the emphasis in various NT writings that it was God’s post-mortem exaltation of Jesus, involving his installation as universal “Kyrios” that provided the basis for treating him as sharing in divine glory. So, in these terms, it would have been inappropriate for Jesus to claim a status not yet conferred by God, or to demand the sort of reverence that was seen as authorized by God’s exaltation of Jesus. Even in the Gospel of John, with its more explicit statements on the mouth of Jesus claiming a heavenly origin (e.g., about having “come down from heaven,” 6:38) and divine significance (e.g., 14:8-11), we have otherwise a genuinely human Jesus, who, for example, grows thirsty (4:7), weeps at the death of a friend (11:35-36), and, most clearly, who really dies (19:30). Indeed, John (uniquely) has Jesus insisting that he works entirely as empowered by God and does not bear witness to himself but depends upon God (and also John the Baptizer, Moses and the scriptures) to do so (5:19-24, 30-45).

At the same time, all four Gospels reflect and even appear to allude to beliefs and devotional practices that erupted early in the “post-Easter” period and that, by the time of their composition certainly, had become widely characteristic of the early Christian movement. The mysteriousness of Jesus’ true/full significance in Mark, for example, is widely taken as indicative of this. Human characters in Mark don’t “get it,” to be sure, even Jesus’ closest followers (e.g., 4:41), but it seems to me that the early Christian readers for whom Mark was written were expected to smile knowingly, perceiving at various points in the story allusions and foreshadowings of the “high” Christological beliefs and devotional practices that they shared. For example, the demonic recognitions of Jesus’ high status (e.g., 2:24, 34; 5:1-7) serve as ironic contrasts with the obtuseness of humans in the story, and seem to me to allude to the insights into Jesus transcendent status likely familiar to earliest readers.

Or consider Matthew’s interesting uses of proskynein in several scenes in place of the Greek terms used by Mark (on which Matthew seems to have drawn heavily).[3] It seems that the author of Matthew intended his Christian readers to see these scenes where people make obeisance to Jesus or reverentially ask favors from him as anticipations of the more explicit cultic reverence familiar to those readers. And, of course, there is the remarkable version of the lament over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39; also Luke 13:34-35), which appears to ascribe a “pre-existence” to Jesus, who speaks here as the mother hen who repeatedly sought to gather rebellious Israel under her wings.

To reiterate the point for emphasis, in all four Gospels, Jesus is a genuinely human and historical figure, authorized and empowered by God for his unique mission. But, contra the recent proposal of Daniel Kirk, the Gospels don’t try to fit Jesus into a genus or category populated also by others, such as Kirk’s “exalted human” category. Indeed, there are indications that the authors opposed any such categorization as wholly inadequate.

Note, for example, the transfiguration scene in Mark 9:2-8. Jesus alone is portrayed as glistening with heavenly glory. Moses and Elijah appear “talking with Jesus,” but in contrast to Peter’s ill-judged proposal to “make three booths” for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, the divine voice proclaims Jesus alone as “my beloved Son” and orders the disciples, “Listen to him.” In short, if Moses and Elijah fit the category of “exalted humans,” the scene seems to distinguish Jesus as not really fitting within that box, but having a unique status of his own. Jesus is a human, but his divinely affirmed status seems to break the mould of “exalted human.”

Or consider the parable in Mark 12:1-12, where the “beloved son” is distinguished from all the other “servants” (likely the OT prophets) sent to the “tenants” of the vineyard (Israel). Likewise, consider the question Jesus is pictured as posing in Mark 12:35-37, which appears to query common notions of the Messiah as inadequate, and ascribes to the one taken here as David’s “lord” a unique heavenly exaltation at God’s “right hand.” Here again, a previous category of an exalted human is challenged as inadequate. Yes, Jesus is genuinely a human. But the accounts hint at a status and significance that defies precedents.

I know that we NT scholars are all trained to try to identify distinguishing features of every early Christian text, and to react somewhat allergically to any reading of texts that appears to harmonize them or treat them as complementary. But, in this case, duly granting the distinguishing emphases of the individual Gospels, and the collective character of the Synoptic Gospels, I think we have to be cautious about ascribing to them some major alternative theological position over against the beliefs and practices reflected in other and prior Christian texts. The literary genre and the authorial purposes of the Gospels involved an emphasis on the “earthly” and “pre-Easter” Jesus (albeit with indications that the accounts were written in the light of “post-Easter” Christological convictions). But it exceeds the warrants of evidence to make the authors into exponents of a supposedly “low” Christology intended to counter what otherwise seems to have been the widely shared beliefs and devotional pattern of Christian circles of the late first century. After all, if the Gospels were written with this intent, it would be difficult to account for their rather early acceptance in the various Christian circles in which those beliefs and devotional practices were affirmed.

In short, it is a fallacy to pose a genuinely human Jesus such as we have in the Gospels over against the “high” Christology reflected in Paul’s letters and other various early Christian texts. Instead, at least in the various circles that comprised the emerging “proto-orthodox” Christianity of the late first century and thereafter, various affirmations about Jesus were seen as compatible and complementary, and various literary genres were appropriated to express Jesus significance.

[1] I refer readers to my extended discussion of the Gospels as literary expressions of Jesus-devotion in my book, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003), 259-347.

[2] “Jesus books” is, so far as I know, my coinage, first used in Lord Jesus Christ, in my discussion of the various Gospel writings, both canonical and non-canonical. On the literary genre of the canonical Gospels in the Roman setting, see, e.g., David E. Aune, The New Testament in its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987); and Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (rev. ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

[3] See, e.g., my discussion in Lord Jesus Christ, 337-38; H. Kim, “The Worship of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew,” Biblica 93 (2012): 227-36.

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19 Comments
  1. Bryantiii,

    You said:

    “It may be that one day you will write a post or article on the similarities and differences between your version of the History of Religion and the early 20th Century version.”

    See Larry’s magnum opus “Lord Jesus Christ”, in which he spent hundreds of pages documenting the evidence for his position over against that of Wilhelm Bousset.

    Also see “Kyrios Christos Introduction–Hurtado”, which is in the Essays section of this site.

    Sean

  2. I think it could be misleading to speculate on such “pre-existence” using our trinitarian-philosophical categories such as “person”. So Dr. Hurtado rightly (in my opinion) stays firm on what the texts say.

    • Michael permalink

      Interesting event in Acts 14:8-18 where both Paul and Barnabas are seen as divine gods from heaven that came down in human form and worshipped.

  3. Michael permalink

    “All we can say, Michael, is that Paul (e.g., 1 Cor 8:4-6), and Hebrews (1:1-4), for example, ascribe to the man they know as Jesus the role of God’s agent in creation of the world.”

    and thats what really astounds me! … God decided to reveal who Jesus ‘really’ was – God’s pre-existing agent in the creation of the world – through ‘revelatory experiences’, where prior to the Easter events, no such idea or biblical notion of a divine person preexisting alongside God was known for 1000’s of years throughout biblical history!

    and now this is not polytheism or breech of Jewish monotheism because God (says so) revealed it so after the Easter events and few God fearing ‘Jews’ who received these ‘revelations’ believed them to be true christological revelations about Jesus! Unbelievable!

    • Michael, It is an amazing (in my view) phenomenon. But note that it involved adapting and “mutating” some Jewish/biblical categories, e.g., the notion in Proverbs & other Jewish texts that God created the world through “Wisdom” or “Logos”. The new development was to assign this role to a human figure of then-recent history.

  4. bryantiii permalink

    Larry,
    Thank you for the excellent summary of the evidence portrayed in the Synoptics and some of John. It would seem to me that what is gradually happening is that NT scholarship is getting away from the History of Religion approach as represented by Bauer.

    I also noticed that Paul’s comments in I Corinthians 11:26, “…proclaim the Lord’s death TILL He comes” and Phillipians 2:6-11 on the Pre-existence and Exaltation of Jesus is not mentioned; although, I did see them in the comments. The epistles of Paul reflect the earliest strands of “HIgh Christology” that are later reflected in the Gospels and Acts. I sense in your post that this is what you are saying?

    • No, I would myself say that I and others are practicing a thoroughly history-of-religion approach, but a corrected version in comparison with the early 20th century version. The aim is to do history better, not abandon historical inquiry.

      • bryantiii permalink

        Larry,
        Thank you for the correction on your view of the History of Religion approach. I appreciate you and others have tried to correct the skewed version of the early 20th Century version. It may be that one day you will write a post or article on the similarities and differences between your version of the History of Religion and the early 20th Century version.

  5. Jim permalink

    From your analysis of the structure of gMark, do you get the impression that the author of this gospel was reasonably skilled/trained in composition of a bios along the lines of Hellenistic and Roman bios’ of the day, or did this author likely just assemble oral traditions that he heard (kind of along the lines of Papias’ alleged comment about this gospel)? Thanks in advance for your insights.

    • With most other scholars who have looked at the literary properties of GMark, I judge the author to have been fairly competent in the handling of his material, using, e.g., irony, the “sandwiching” of two stories together at various places, the characterization of the 12 as contrasts with Jesus, etc.

  6. John Mitrosky permalink

    Early high Christology was, it seems to me, about worshippig a “man from heaven” (Paul’s words). who would soon return in glory.”For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 10:26). This corresponds to what Jesus believed about this man, that he was this man, or saw himself as becoming this man gradually. Does it not? Mark and Luke hint this was a gradual realization of Jesus’s, from his own low to high Christology, do they not?

    • No, John. For Paul, the exalted Kyrios was the Jesus “born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4), who was “obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8) and whom God exalted and made Kyrios (Philippians 2:9-11). He wasn’t a mythical figure of prior expectation. And the Gospels don’t show Jesus referring to any such figure or gradually coming to think that it was he. No, all around.

      • But in many places (including Paul and Matthew) we see Jesus as a sort of “personified Wisdom”, correct? Doesn’t Wisdom parallel suggest a sort of pre-existence then?

      • Yes. That Paul affirmed Jesus’ “pre-existence” is not in doubt. And Matthew is widely thought to reflect a similar belief.

      • The clause “born of a woman” in Gal. 4.4 is often cited to show the full humanity of Jesus, and He was fully human, of course. But did Paul connect the clause to Gen. 3.15? In other words, Jesus birth (virgin mother, without male) is used as a proof as a fulfillment. Have you studied the usage of this clause historically to say one way or the other of my supposition?

      • Alex, the phrase “born of a woman” is simply a formula for being an ordinary human. There’s no verbal connection to Genesis 3:15, or a virgin mother.

      • Michael permalink

        “Yes. That Paul affirmed Jesus’ “pre-existence” is not in doubt. And Matthew is widely thought to reflect a similar belief.”

        Dr Hurtado what do you mean by pre- existence?..both Paul and Matthew affirmed that Jesus preexisted literally as a ‘person’ before incarnation?.
        .or preexisted in sense that Jesus was in the mind of God almighty?..Please kindly clarify. Thanks

      • All we can say, Michael, is that Paul (e.g., 1 Cor 8:4-6), and Hebrews (1:1-4), for example, ascribe to the man they know as Jesus the role of God’s agent in creation of the world. Of course, he was not then “Jesus” a human being, but in some way these authors seem to posit a direct continuity between this agent of creation and the man Jesus. That looks to me a good bit more robust than positing that he was “in the mind of God.”

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