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“Pre-Existence” in Ancient Jewish Tradition and the NT

February 6, 2019

One reader of my posts seems to have difficulty in grasping what scholars refer to as “pre-existence”.  It’s a technical term, scholarly jargon/shorthand, to designate a motif or concept evident in a number of early Jewish and early Christian texts.  In particular, a number of early Christian texts ascribe a “pre-existence” to Jesus.  But there is a certain complexity, so I’ll attempt to elucidate matters.

First, to say that something or someone was “pre-existent” can mean that he/it existed (in some form or another) prior to any earthly, mundane appearance/existence of the figure/thing.  But it can also mean that it/he even existed before the creation of the worlds.  In the case of NT texts about Jesus, they typically place him as somehow “there” at, and as the divine agent of, the creation of all else.  See, e.g., 1 Corinthians 8:4-6; Hebrews 1:1-2; John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:15-16.  As well, Philippians 2:6-8 is commonly taken as ascribing a pre-existence to Jesus “in the form of God,” who then became a human/historical figure and submitted himself to obedience to God, even to the point of crucifixion.

This ascription of participation in the creation of the world seems to most scholars to comprise a christological appropriation and adaptation of a motif found in ancient Jewish tradition.  In Proverbs 8:22-31, for example, a personified divine wisdom speaks of herself as God’s pre-creation companion, and co-worker in creation.  In Baruch 3:9—4:4, this heavenly wisdom is identified as the historical Torah (Law) of God (esp. 4:1), a kind of book-incarnation. In the early Christian texts, Jesus is the human, historical expression/embodiment of the divine Word/Wisdom (as in John 1:1-3).

This isn’t Platonic thinking.  If anything, it appears, instead, to be particularly a motif or “logic” of ancient Jewish theological thought.  Essentially, it seems that the logic goes like this: God doesn’t make up his plans on the fly, but ordered all things from the beginning.  So, divine actions in history may well have their beginnings  . . . at the beginning.  One expression of this coined by scholars is “final things are first things.”  So, in Jewish tradition there are a number of things that are ascribed a kind of “pre-existence,” including Torah, repentance, and the name of the Messiah.[1]  It’s essentially the belief that God had everything planned out from the beginning, and provided for redemption of the world even before he created it.

This seems particularly a strong idea in ancient Jewish eschatological/apocalyptic thought.  So, e.g., in the 1 Enoch 48:1-3, the messianic figure (“the Chosen/Elect One”) who is to appear and execute divine judgement and redemption in the last days is portrayed as named and chosen before creation.  Scholars ponder whether this particular instance is a “real” pre-existence, or something closer to some kind of “ideal” pre-existence.  The figure is named and designated before creation, but does this mean that he had some kind of real existence?  But this may be to press matters farther than ancient Jewish tradition was concerned to probe.  The important assertion in the text is that God has everything planned from the beginning, including provision for a Messiah, and that eschatological redemption isn’t a case of God scrambling to put things right.

In the NT passages, the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, is (quite amazingly) ascribed a pre-existence, most often to posit his role also in creation of the world, as the unique agent of creation.  We have no other example in Jewish tradition of a near-contemporary historical figure ascribed pre-existence.  So, e.g., in John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:15-16; Hebrews 1:1-2, these texts claim that the pre-existent Jesus was the one “through whom” the world was created.  Interestingly, with one or two exceptions, the NT writings show little concern to attach the pre-existent Jesus to other events in biblical history.[2]  Instead, the main concern seems to have been to link the eschatological and redemptive work of Jesus to “first things” and creation of the world.

One of the best discussions of the matter is an essay by Nils Dahl (all of his work remains well worth studying).[3]  As Dahl noted, the NT also posits that the redeemed were known before creation, and the pre-existent Jesus was already designated as the saviour of them.  So, again, the positing of pre-existence to Christ wasn’t an exercise in speculation for its own sake, but was profoundly connected with beliefs about God’s sovereignty and redemptive purposes, and Jesus’ centrality in all this.

Another point to make is that, contrary to some assumptions, the ascription of pre-existence to Jesus didn’t require decades or develop late.  Instead, the evidence (esp. Pauline letters) indicate that the idea was already known and uncontroversial in early Christian circles within the first few years after Jesus’ crucifixion.  And we can understand why, if we take account of the logic of ancient Jewish eschatological thought, in which final things are therefore also first things.  So, if Jesus’ resurrection proved to earliest believers that Jesus was the true eschatological Messiah and Lord, then he must have been so from before creation.  In short, it was a short (but remarkable) step from belief in Jesus’ eschatological significance to belief in his pre-existence, and likely required very little time to make that step.

[1] See, e.g., Larry W. Hurtado, “Pre-Existence,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. G. F. Hawthorne and R. P. Martin (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 743-46; Jürgen Habermann, , Präexistenzaussagen im Neuen Testament, Europäische Hochschulschriften, Reihe 23, Theologie, 362 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1990); R. G. Hamerton-Kelly, “The Idea of Pre-Existence in Early Judaism: A Study in the Background of New Testament Theology” (Th.D., Union Theological Seminary, 1966).  J. D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making:  A New Testament Inquiry Into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), is one of the few book-length studies of the topic, but Dunn’s conclusions, e.g., that the NT texts don’t really ascribe pre-existence to Jesus, have not persuaded most scholars.

[2] There is Paul’s curious reference to the rock from which Israel derived water in the wilderness as “Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4), and also the interesting textual variants in Jude 5, one of which posits Jesus as the Lord who rescued Israel out of Egypt.

[3] Nils A. Dahl, “Christ, Creation and the Church,” in The Background of the New Testament and Its Eschatology: Studies in Honour of C. H. Dodd, ed. W. D. Davies and D. Daube (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954), 422-43; republished in N. A. Dahl, Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church (Minneapolis:  Augsburg, 1976), 120-40.

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23 Comments
  1. Larry, the logical explanation of 1 Cor. 1.30 is that wisdom is from God who has always existed and therefore pre-existent – the church Fathers source for the pre-existence of Jesus. How can anyone be IN Christ Jesus? These believers were IN the Spirit, a medium, who was indeed Wisdom from God for them, exactly as it was for the prophets.

    • Well, “logical” is in the eyes of each interpreter, and 1 Cor 1:30 doesn’t say what you see as “logical”. For Paul, “in Christ” is a common trope, not a code word for something else. Certainly, the Spirit makes being “in Christ” possible, but believers are really “in Christ”, not something else. And wisdom isn’t all that large a thing in “the prophets”. No, “wisdom” doesn’t provide the magic key to “pre-existence”.

  2. john permalink

    Thanks for this excellent post Larry. It draws my attention to scholarly thoughts on 1 Enoch 42:1-2, which a lot of scholars think is out of place in the text (they claim 41:9 links more logically with 42:3), yet scholars have different ideas about the “age” of the passage. Some think it is a late insertion, while others, perhaps most scholars think it is either early, or at least relative to the bulk of the PE. Still others say it is not an insertion and belongs right where it is. I’m curious how you see the passage in terms of place, age and meaning?

    The way I see it, the passage may not be out of place. Maybe it belongs right where it is and that Wisdom (female Sophia-like) is personified, or given female human attributes. As a female human, she comes down from the heavens, “but she did not find a dwelling place”, so she “returned to her place and sat down in the midst of the angels”. I am also intrigued, of course you won’t be surprised, how Wisdom personified seems to be given a pre-existent superiority to the angels. Plus, at least thematically, the passage links nicely to the idea, albeit highly debatable, or even worthy of rejection by some scholars, that Jesus conceived of Wisdom (Sophia) in a similar way, and linked it to “a Son of man”, or “the Son of man” (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58; GThom 86; cf. Matt 11:18-19; Luke 7:33-35).

  3. Erich von Abele permalink

    Then there’s that wrangle about Greek verbs with the “before Abraham was, I am” statement in John. Seems to me those who dispute that it means what it says and that what it says is (meant to be) paradoxically ungrammatical, are quibbling rather tortuously.

  4. Dr. H.,
    Thanks for this blog series and your tireless engagement with others on it. Having read most of your writings, I still gain fuller understanding from these posts.
    Thanks again, I pray for your continued improvement in your health.

    Tim

  5. Deane permalink

    The interpretation by some scholars of the son of man’s “ideal” pre-existence at Creation in 1 Enoch 48 doesn’t negate pre-existence per se, does it? For it’s fairly clear that Enoch’s (the visionary’s) vision of the son of man in 1 Enoch 46 is in Enoch’s present time – because eschatological reversals are described there as events that will be revealed in the future.

    So at most we go from pre-existence at Creation to pre-existence in 987 Anno Mundi (the date of the ascension of Enoch in 1 En 39.3, at least going by MT Gen 5.24).

    The ‘ideal’ interpretation seems a bit forced to me. What do you reckon? Are you with me on this one?

    • Deane, The question is what to make of the statement that the Elect One (there is no “the son of man” title in 1 Enoch) was named before creation, and kept hidden. These categories of “real” and “ideal” may not reflect the thinking of ancient Jews. Their protological thinking wasn’t so much speculative as it was a theological statement about God’s purposes and plans taking precedence over all else.

  6. Michael Mojica permalink

    You say, “In the NT passages, the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, is (quite amazingly) ascribed a pre-existence, most often to posit his role also in creation of the world, as the unique agent of creation.” In your book “Honoring the Son” and here I see how you connect/ascribe “pre-existence” to Jesus but you seem to stop short of either saying that therefore Jesus must be God or that Jesus may be a creature etc. Can you clarify please?

    Also, can you say something about how did God “the Father” motif/title come about in the NT?

    • Michael, The NT passages (our earliest evidence of Christian circles/beliefs) don’t enter into the kind of metaphysical/ontological issues that preoccupied later Christian thinkers. They focus on what I’ve called “relational” and “transactional” statements. So, e.g., Jesus is God’s unique “son”, and the “Lord” of believers. God “sent” and “gave” Jesus to redemptive death, etc. For more, I commend to you my book, God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon Press, 2010). The reference to God as “Father” stemmed from ancient Jewish usage, but appears to have become more prominent still in early Christian usage, because of the emphasis on Jesus as the divine “son”.

  7. Donald Jacobs permalink

    “We have no other example in Jewish tradition of a near-contemporary historical figure ascribed pre-existence.”

    This is exactly what Richard Carrier, Robert Price, Hector Avalos, Rachael Lancaster and other scholars point out, who argue that the gospels are not based on a historical figure, but are reworked OT and other stories applied to the cosmic saviour preached by Paul and others.

    • Yes, well, let’s not descend to the ridiculous. The “mythical Jesus” claim has been repeatedly tried and found wanting.

  8. Dr. Hurtado, I take at face value that under ancient Jewish eschatology, whatever is part of God’s eschatological plans, revealed at some point in history, is in some sense already decided and present in the beginning. Hence the Jewish Christians applied this framework to Jesus’ messiahship and lordship, thereby concluding Jesus was in some sense already there in this role in the beginning. Yet it strikes me the logic of Jewish eschatological thought is arbitrary in its application: why apply it to Jesus and the Torah, but not to the prophets, the Church and the central role of Peter? That is, given Moses’ eschatological role, shouldn’t he be thought of as a pre-existent figure? Peter was designated as the rock on whom Jesus would build his church, so shouldn’t Peter also be a pre-existent figure? If the Torah can be in some sense pre-existent, shouldn’t the Church also be pre-existent?

  9. Griffin permalink

    But can we use a metaphysical concept to support the case for an historical Jesus and his contemporary followers?

    Paul makes a metaphysical claim about Jesus, possibly. But? The question for historians is: did the contemporary companions of Jesus see him as wholly divine, the same as God, in his lifetime? Such a claim was likely made well after Jesus’ death. Suggesting no very early High Christology or extreme devotion, in his lifetime.

    • Griffin (this is getting a bit tiresome): Again, you’re confused or incorrect. There is no indications that during Jesus’ ministry his followers offered the kind of cultic reverence that they did shortly after his crucifixion. The sudden “high” christology and devotional pattern erupted however quite quickly and early, after the experiences of the risen/exalted Jesus.
      Second, the early Christians didn’t claim that “Jesus is God”, so that’s a red-herring on your part. As I’ve repeatedly stated, they both distinguished Jesus and God and also linked them uniquely, asserting that Jesus now shares the divine throne, divine glory, divine name with God.
      The NT language isn’t “metaphysical” but relational and transactional. You really need to do some reading and get your thinking straight. You’re firing at phantoms!!

  10. Robert permalink

    “So, e.g., in the 1 Enoch 48:1-3 …”

    Do you accept the trend toward an earlier dating of the Similitudes of Enoch?

    More generally, thank you for this profound reflection. I continue to be amazed at Paul’s early high christology that he seems to have inherited from those who were believers before him. It certainly helps to be reminded of the Jewish roots of these ideas.

    • The date of the Parables/Similitudes of 1 Enoch is not crucial to my point, which is simply that in Jewish apocalyptic texts one often finds a notion of last things, first things.

      • Robert permalink

        Of course. I’m just curious if you have taken a position on the question of dating and possible later Christian influence on this particular passage.

      • I don’t see any evidence of Christian influence on the text of the Parables of Enoch, or any evidence of influence in the other direction.

  11. Is it correct to say that we can find traces of “Wisdom Christology” in the Gospels as well as in Paul’s letters? If that’s true, shouldn’t this imply “pre-existence” for Jesus as it’s implied for Wisdom? Thank you.

    • Scholars often find Wisdom influence in John 1:1-2, and also in Matthew 11:28-30; 23:37-39. But Pauline texts are decades earlier still.

      • Tom Hennell permalink

        Fascinating Larry,

        Accepting that Jewish tradition had already established a logical space for the pre-existent Wisdom (and the Torah) as partners in creation; that seems to me to prompt the question of how far the pre-existent Jesus, in earliest Christian understanding, replaces or supplements the pre-existent Torah and/or Wisdom? Or, for Christians, was the pre-existent Jesus identified with the pre-existent Word/Wisdom/Torah?

      • It’s not clear that earliest believers made such a simple/flat identification of Jesus AS Wisdom, etc. But, instead, Wisdom illustrates the sort of notion of “pre-existence” available to Jewish believers, which they drew upon in beliefs about Jesus’ protological significance.

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