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Knowledge based Opinion and Honest Questions

Some comments on my posting yesterday about the recent splendid book on the pericope of the adulterous woman lead me now to comment back in a posting, rather than address them individually (which would be tedious).

This site isn’t a public bulletin board or a graffiti wall or a place for speculative “sky writing”.  As indicated in the site rules, there is a welcome for questions, honest questions, not bating ones.  And if the question is really a challenge to the argument of the book, then first read the book, and then decide if you have a challenge/question after that.  It’s not my purpose here to defend the book in question, and all the more to individuals who haven’t read it.  It’s a pretty broadly researched and investigated work, and your question is likely addressed.  So, read the book.  If you want to know if this or that matter is addressed, I may be able to help.  But if you want to argue about the matter, then your dialogue partners are Knust and Wasserman, and their book.

Also, everyone is entitled to an opinion, but not entitled to his/her own truth.  And opinion that rests purely on one’s speculation, without doing the hard historical work of mastering the evidence, isn’t worth the time it takes to read it.  So, e.g., a few individuals have offered their “off the top of my head” opinions about the pericope of the adulterous woman, why it was composed, why it was inserted, etc.  But these comments are obviously baseless, in the sense that they rest on no extensive involvement in the evidence.  So, I’m not going to publish them or take the time to point out specifically how baseless they are.  These remind me of lazy students I sometimes had who didn’t do the class preparation work but thought they could bluff their way by offering an opinion anyway.  Easily caught out.  If you haven’t done the work, then avoid offering an opinion.  Ask an honest question for information purposes.  But keep quiet with baseless opinions and no one will know how ill informed you are!

The Story of the Story of the Adulterous Woman

The account of the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus is a well-known textual variant and problem.  Eventually obtaining a place in the Gospel of John (7:53—8:11) in the vast majority of manuscripts of the middle ages, it is typically judged by NT textual critics to be an insertion initiated at some point, and so not a part of the authentic or “original” text of GJohn.[i]  Now Jennifer Knust and Tommy Wasserman have produced a milestone work on the passage that covers an unrivalled breadth of evidence and issues, analysing not only the text-critical data (in great detail) but also the references to the passage in ancient commentaries, sermons, and letters, as well as its use in Christian liturgy and art:   To Cast the First Stone:  The Transmission of a Gospel Story (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019).

The passage appears in no extant Greek manuscript of the Gospel of John before the fifth century Codex Bezae (a Latin/Greek bi-lengual manuscript of the Gospels and Acts).  It may have been inserted into the GJohn as early as sometime in the third century, but direct evidence for this is lacking.[ii]  Some have argued that the text is original to GJohn but was omitted due to the supposed embarrassment of an account of Jesus letting an adulterous woman go free.  But in detailed and meticulous analysis (esp. chapters 1-4) Knust and Wasserman show that this is (to put it mildly) most improbable.  As they note, ancient copyists copied what was before them, and didn’t act typically as editors.  Moreover, if there was a variation-unit, the typical copyist action was to include a variant rather than omit it.  So, on this basis alone, insertion of the Pericope Adulterae is much more probable than its omission.  But they show there is even more evidence to support this.

Indeed, once early Christians were aware of the story, and whether they knew it as a part of the GJohn or from some other source (e.g., some early writers ascribe it to the Gospel of the Hebrews), they took to the story enthusiastically, typically seeing it as a powerful lesson in Christian mercy.  Far from embarrassed about the story, it was prized, whether or not it was thought to be part of the GJohn.

In chapters 5-6, Knust and Wasserman trace the differing history of the passage in the Christian East and West.  Their judgement is that the passage may well have entered the textual stream of the GJohn in a Greek manuscript, perhaps as early as the third century, but that it was in the West and in Latin manuscripts that the passage began to obtain a secure and increasingly accepted place where it is traditionally known.

Chapters 7-8 survey meticulously the liturgical uses of the passage, and early Christian scholarly views about it, and also the references to the passage in the medieval liturgy and sermons.  One conclusion from this is how the liturgical use of the passage came earlier in the Latin West than in the Greek East, but that, in the end, the liturgical usefulness of the passage overcame any initial doubts about it.  Liturgy, in short, had a significant role in the passage securing such a firm place in the traditional text of GJohn.

As Knust and Wasserman acknowledge, however, it is still not entirely clear why the passage was so successfully incorporated into the text of the GJohn, although their study goes farther than any other in offering some clues and suggestions.  But, certainly, the evidence presented in this book confirms the view that a surprising textual fluidity continued to characterize the transmission of some NT writings much later than sometimes supposed.  Actually, as Knust and Wasserman repeatedly note, the earliest extant evidence reflects a generally careful and conscientious copying of the NT writings, surprisingly, perhaps even a more careful copying, with less of a readiness to accommodate insertions, than in the Byzantine period![iii]

This handsomely produced and amazingly broadly researched volume is now the “go-to” book on the passage.


[i] See, e.g., Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition (Stuttgart:  Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 187-89.  The latest edition (28th) of the Nestle-Aland Greek text of the NT follows the previous pattern of retaining the account in the traditional place in GJohn, but within double brackets, signalling that, though part of the traditional text of GJohn, it is not “original”.  Other recent editions of the Greek NT, specifically The Greek New Testament, SBL Edition, ed. Michael W. Holmes (Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), and The Greek New Testament, ed. Dirk Jongkind (Cambridge/Wheaton IL:  Cambridge University Press/Crossway, 2017) choose to place the text in the textual apparatus.  For a survey on scholarship on the passage, see Chris Keith, “Recent and Previous Research on the Pericope Adulterae (John 7.53—8.11),” Currents in Biblical Research 6 (2008): 377-404

[ii] Chris Keith, The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus, NTTSD 38 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), proposed that it was added then to show that Jesus was able to write.

[iii] On the early transmission of the GJohn, see now Lonnie D. Bell, The Early Textual Transmission of John:  Stability and Fluidity in Its Second and Third Century Greek Manuscripts, NTTSD 54 (Leiden: Brill, 2018).

“Son of God” in NT Writings

Rumaging through notes on some of my tracing of word/phrase usage in NT writings, I came across the data I’d collected on the use of “son of God” with reference to Jesus.  There is an interesting variation in the use of the expression among NT writers.

In an earlier posting (here) I summarized briefly some data about Paul’s use of the expression, with references there to a couple of my publications in which I discuss the topic more fully.  In contrast to Paul’s many uses of “Christos” (Christ) and “Kyrios” (Lord) as titles for Jesus, there are only three uses of “son of God” in the uncontested epistles (Romans 1:4; 2 Corinthians 1:19; Galatians 2:20), plus one more use in Ephesians 4:13.  As I noted in that previous posting, in another dozen or so cases, Paul refers to Jesus’ divine sonship, but without using the “son of God” expression.  Moreover, the few cases where Paul does use the full expression “son of God” vary in their precise Greek construction.  So, as I noted in those previous publications, it appears that what mattered to Paul was Jesus’ divine sonship (expressive of Jesus’ close relationship to God), not so much the title.  (My essay on Paul’s references to Jesus’ divine sonship is now republished in L. W. Hurtado, Ancient Jewish Monotheism and Early Christian Jesus-Devotion [Baylor University Press, 2017], 407-24.)

The situation seems to change, however, with a greater frequency of use as we track onward through later NT writings, or at least in some of them.  GMark has “son of God” clearly in 3:11, and perhaps in 1:1 (there’s a textual variason of  here), and again (though with a different Greek construction) in 15:39.  In addition, there are references to Jesus as God’s “beloved son” (1:11; 9:7), “son of the most High God” (5:7), “the Son” (13:32), and “son of the Blessed” (14:61).

GMatthew refers to Jesus as “the son of God” in 4:3, 6; 8:29; 14:33; 26:63; 27:40, plus variations in 27:43 and 27:54.  There are also references to “the Son” (11:27; 28:19), and God’s “beloved son” (3:17; 17:5).  GLuke refers to Jesus as “the son of God” in 1:35; 3:38; 4:3, 9, 41: 22:70.

But it’s the GJohn where we see a more noteworthy increase in usage:  “the son of God” appears in 1:34, 49; 3:18; 5:25; 10:36; 11:4, 27; 19:7; 20:31.  And in 1 John the usage is also frequent:  3:8; 4:15; 5:5, 10, 12, 13, 20.  Indeed, in these writings, “son of God” appears to be the authors’ favorite confessional title for Jesus.

On the other hand, in some other late first-century NT writings, the title features only a few times.  Three times in Hebrews (4:14; 6:6; 7:3; plus references to Jesus simply as God’s “son” as in 1:2, 5, 8), once in Acts (9:20, characterizing Paul’s preaching), and once in Revelation (2:18).

So, it’s clear that the NT authors vary in their use of the expression “son of God”, with no clear pattern readily apparent to me.  The authors of GJohn and 1 John easily out-distance other NT texts in usage of the phrase, and in the confessional significance attached to it.  The Gospels show varying frequencies of usage too.  As the case with Paul, GMark seems to care more about the idea of Jesus’ divine sonship than the phrase “son of God” itself.  And in some other NT writings, the idea scarcely is mentioned.

All this leads me to question some claims (e.g., by Wilhelm Bousset, and some others more recently) that “son of God” was an early Christian appropriation from the larger (pagan) religious environment and was used as the key claim to communicate Jesus’ divine significance in/to the pagan population.  In Revelation, for example, where we have perhaps the most explicit and combative tension with the imperial cult, we have only the one use of the expression.  As for Paul’s uses of the expression and his other ways of referring to Jesus’ divine sonship, they are all are clustered heavily in two epistles (Romans and Galatians) where he is in an intensive engagement with Jewish traditions, not in the epistles such as the Corinthian letters where he addresses a non-Jewish readership and is in explicit engagement with the pagan environment of his day.

So I remain of the opinion that Hengel’s little book is a good guide to questions of origins and impetus for the term in earliest Christian texts:  Martin Hengel, The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976).  Also worth noting:  A. D. Nock, “‘Son of God’ in Pauline and Hellenistic Thought,” in Essays on Religion and the Ancient World, ed. Zeph Stewart (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 928-39.

Two New Books by Jörg Frey

One of the most productive NT scholars today is Professor Jörg Frey (University of Zurich), and so it is very good news to have a couple of his major works now available in English.

A major focus for Frey over many years now is the Gospel of John, and one of the new books is a revised and expanded version of his invited Shaffer Lectures in the Yale Divinity School (January 2018):  Theology and History in the Fourth Gospel:  Tradition and Narration (Baylor University Press, 2018), the publisher’s online catalog entry here.  Frey’s title makes an allusion to the influential book by J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (rev ed., 1979).  Engaging that book and also the recent quest for “John, Jesus, and History,” Frey questions whether the scholarly desire to bring together the Jesus of history and his Johannine depiction is “historically and theologically appropriate to the Fourth Gospel or whether it possibly underestimates its [GJohn] theological and interpretive intentions.”

Frey focuses on how the author of the GJohn “utilizes and reshapes the traditions available to him, and how he justifies his approach.”  Frey judges, “The results will differ from our image of a ‘historically truthful’ author and give reason to rethink our views of factuality and fictionality, of ‘truth’ in historical and theological terms.”  I have to admit that I find Frey’s emphasis congenial, as it seems to me congruent with the thrust of my essay, “Remembering and Revelation: The Historic and Glorified Jesus in the Gospel of John,” in Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children: Christology and Community in Early Judaism and Christianity. Essays in Honor of Larry W. Hurtado and Alan F. Segal, ed. David B. Capes et al. (Waco, TX: Baylor Univesity Press, 2007), 195-213.  All who are seriously interested in the remarkable text, the Gospel of John, should now study Frey’s new book.

The second volume is an English translation of Frey’s commentary on the Epistle of Jude and 2 Peter:  The Letter of Jude and the Second Letter of Peter:  A Theological Commentary (Baylor University Press, 2018), the publisher’s online catalog entry here.  At 518 pages, it is now one of the most detailed discussions of these two small NT writings.  In keeping with the approach of the German-language series in which the commentary originally appeared, Frey considers, not only all the historical, literary, and philological issues that one hopes for, but also the theological themes of each writing.  Frey argues that these two writings give us windows on developments in early Christianity in the late first and early second century CE.




A Reminder of the Rules

I’d like to remind readers that this blog site has rules, clearly stated here.  Among them is the necessity to speak to the issue of a posting, and not try to hijack things for some other issue or pet theory.

Another rule is to avoid slander and other character assassinations.  So, for example, someone might be judged to be in error, but it’s not on to accuse them of lying.

A few recent comments blatantly commit the above offences.  So, I simply delete them.  This is “my house,” and we all should “play nice.”

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

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.

Christological Non-Starters, Part 2: “Angel Christology”

In a previous posting, I discussed the claim that the earliest christological belief was Jesus’ divine adoption, and found it unsupported by the evidence (here).  In this posting I consider another “christological non-starter,” the claim that earliest Jesus-followers saw the pre-existent or risen Jesus as an angel.  The issue involves some complexity, however, and requires some careful distinctions in concepts.  Nevertheless, in short, it seems clear that Jewish speculations about “principal angels” formed some of the conceptual resources drawn upon by earliest Christians, but this appropriation of angelic motifs did not comprise a belief that Jesus was an angel.[1]

The basic claim that Jesus was understood as an angel goes back in scholarship at least over a hundred years (Lueken’s 1898 book arguing that Jesus was likened to the archangel Michael).[2]  The more well-known argument was made by Martin Werner in the 1940s.[3]  But the refutation of Werner’s case in subsequent scholarship has proven decisive for most.[4]  After a few decades, however, there was renewed interest in the possible relationship of ancient Jewish speculation about angels and early efforts to formulate beliefs about Jesus.[5]  But, again, this didn’t typically involve any claim that Jesus was understood to be an angel.

Darrell Hannah’s study, Michael and Christ, gives a careful and nuanced analysis, benefiting also from several other works that comprised a virtual explosion of interest in the subject in the 1970s-1990s.  As he notes, the generally accepted view now is that the earliest evidence (the New Testament texts) gives scant basis for the view that earliest Jesus-believers took Jesus to be an angel.  Instead, scholars tend to refer to “angelomorphic” Christology, the early Christian use of motifs and roles from principal-angel speculations in describing the exalted/risen Jesus as God’s unique emissary and agent.[6]

Probably the most telling NT evidence against the notion that early believers saw Jesus as actually an angel is the frequent contrast between him and angels.  This is explicit in texts such as Hebrews 1:1-14. But the same distinction is reflected earlier in Pauline texts such as Romans 8:31-39, in which angels are only one of a number of classes of beings that are inferior to the glorified Jesus.  The simple fact is that earliest Jesus-followers had a rich body of angel-speculations available to them and were convinced of the reality of angels, but they never referred to Jesus as an angel (to judge from the NT texts).  The supposed reference to Jesus as an angel in Galatians 4:14, where Paul says that the Galatians initially welcomed him “as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus,” is a misreading of what is in context a progressive set of comparisons, and not a set of appositives.  There is evidence of a critique of certain interests in angels, as in Colossians 2:16-19 and perhaps also in Hebrews 1.  But neither passage reflects a view of Jesus as an angel.

Instead, NT texts more typically posit a relationship of Jesus with God, not with angels.  For example, Philippians 2:6-11 refers to the “pre-existent” Jesus as “in the form of God,” not in angelic form.  Or consider John 12:37-41, which makes the vision of “the Lord” in Isaiah 6:1 a vision of the glorified Jesus.

Stuckenbruck’s study of what he called “angel veneration” and its possible relationship to early christological beliefs (especially in Revelation) reinforced my earlier proposal that the treatment of principal angels in ancient Jewish traditions likely helped to provide a conceptual “space” to accommodate a second figure closely associated with God, which was drawn upon by earliest Jesus-followers to place the risen Jesus in relationship to God.[7]  Stuckenbruck’s term “angel veneration” actually referred to the high standing accorded to certain principal angels, and the important roles assigned to them.  But, as with other scholars who have looked at the matter carefully, Stuckenbruck concluded that there was no evidence of the acceptance of a worship of angels in Jewish tradition, in contrast to the central place of Jesus in earliest devotional practices of the Jesus-movement.

To be sure, by sometime in the second century or so, there were Christians who identified Jesus as a high angel.  In the text known as The Ascension of Isaiah, for example, Jesus appears to be identified as one of the two seraphim in the Isaiah vision of “the Lord”.   But these ideas seem to have been later than the initial stages of belief in Jesus.  And they were found inadequate as well in the emerging “great church” circles.  They were christological “non-starters,” and the assertion that earliest believers saw Jesus as an angel is a historical non-starter too.

[1] In One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1988; 2nd ed., Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1998; 3rd ed., London:  T&T Clark, 2015), I proposed that there was a variety of “chief agent” figures in second-temple Jewish traditions, and that principal angels were an important strand of these traditions, esp. 71-92.

[2] Wilhelm Lueken, Michael. Eine Darstellung und Vergleichung der jüdischen und der morgenländisch-christlichen Tradition vom Erzengel Michael (Göttingen: Vandenhoef und Ruprecht, 1898).  But the key study now is Darrell D. Hannah, Michael and Christ:  Michael Traditions and Angel Christology in Early Christianity, WUNT, 2/109 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999).

[3] Martin Werner, Die Entstehung des Christlichen Dogmas, 2nd ed. (1941; reprint, Bern: Paul Haupt, 1954); English translation, The Formation of Christian Dogma:  An Historical Study of Its Problem, trans. S. G. F. Brandon (London:  A. & C. Black, 1957).

[4] E.g., W. Michaelis, Zur Engelchristologie im Urchristentum: Abbau der Konstruktion Martin Werners (Basel: Heinrich Majer, 1942); J. Barbel, Christos Angelos: Die Anschauung von Christus als Bote und Engel in der gelehrten und volkstünlichen Literatur der Christlichen Altertums (1941; reprint, Bonn: Peter Hanstein, 1964), although Barbel acknowledged interesting parallels between Jewish angelology and early christological motifs.  And see the review of scholarship in Hannah, Michael and Christ, 2-13

[5] Richard N. Longenecker, “Some Distinctive Early Christological Motifs,” New Testament Studies 14 (1967-1968): 529-45; id., The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity (London: SCM Press, 1970), signalled the renewed interest in the matter.  Note also Jean Daniélou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1964).

[6] E.g., Charles A. Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology:  Antecedents and Early Evidence (Leiden: Brill, 1998).  The term “angelomorphic Christology” was apparently coined by Daniélou, Jewish Christianity, Hannah prefers “angelic Christology” but he means essentially the same thing as those who prefer “angelomorphic Christology,” and he distinguishes this sharply from “angel christology,” the view that Jesus was (or became) an angel.

[7] Loren T. Stuckenbruck, Angel Veneration and Christology, WUNT 2/70 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1995).  My earlier discussion is in One God, One Lord, esp. 71-92.

Review of Fredriksen, “When Christians Were Jews”

My commissioned review of Paula Fredriksen’s new book, When Christians Were Jews (Yale University Press, 2018) has now appeared in the online journal, Marginalia:  Los Angeles Review of Books.  You can access the review here.

Christological Non-Starters: Part 1, “Adoption as Divine Son”

Having spent now some forty years exploring and attempting to understand how earliest Christians understood and reverenced Jesus, it is sometimes almost amusing to see proposals presented confidently that actually have scant basis in the earliest evidence.  In this and a couple of ensuing postings I’ll mention a few (and, no doubt, make proponents a bit angry, but “them’s the breaks”).

One claim is that Paul and/or other early believers saw Jesus as God’s “adopted Son,” the putative adoption posited as his baptism or resurrection.  Certainly, there are reports of individuals and groups from the late second century AD and later about such ideas.  These include the figure associated with a Valentinian gnostic position, a Theodotus, extracts of his thought cited and commented on by Clement of Alexandria.[1]  But, if I may, where exactly do we find an “adoption” of Jesus by God stated in Paul, or in other earlier texts?

One attempted answer is that it happened at Jesus’ baptism, as related in the Synoptic Gospels.  Proof is alleged in the divine voice:  “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  But the first thing to ask is this scene one of adoption or an acclamation?  As widely recognized, the statement in the baptism scene draws upon (and may allude to) Psalm 2:7, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.”  It’s commonly thought that the Psalm originated to celebrate the installation of the Judean king, at whose coronation he was “begotten.”  This divine “begetting” has sometimes been taken as a metaphorical statement that the king was adopted by God, but this has been challenged more recently.[2]  But, whatever the case, if the Synoptic writers wanted to make it clear that at his baptism Jesus was likewise supposedly adopted as “son”, why didn’t they just include the full Psalm statement?  Instead, the baptism scenes all simply affirm Jesus’ divine sonship,  making it unique “my beloved Son,” without any reference to “today I have begotten you,” which looks more like an acclamation and commissioning of Jesus as royal Messiah, not an adoption.[3]

Certainly, the terminology of adoption was readily at hand.  Verbal forms, from huiotheteō or huiopoieō, and noun forms such as huiothesia, for example.  Indeed, Paul does use this last term, but only to refer to the action by which God makes believers “sons” (Galatians 4:5; Romans 8:15).  That is, Paul uses adoption terminology in what theologians term “soteriological” statements (concerning the salvation of believers), but not in “christological statements” (concerning the work or status of Jesus).  So, if early figures such as Paul wished to affirm Jesus’ adoption as divine son, why didn’t they say so, equally explicitly, in the terminology readily available to do so?

And that brings us to Romans 1:3-4, the Pauline text to which appeal is sometime made.  But, here again, it bears noting that the text says nothing about adoption.  It portrays Jesus as born from “the seed of David,” and “declared/affirmed [horisthentos] the son of God in power” at his resurrection (presented here as the first to experience the general resurrection “of the dead”). The term, horisthentos, is a form of a verb used variously to refer to separating or designating something or someone (for some special use or significance), but never for adoption.  Further, the emphasis in the statement appears to be that as of Jesus’ resurrection he is thereafter the son of God “in power,” which likely refers to the well-known belief that Jesus’ resurrection involved also his exaltation to function as God’s plenipotentiary.

It is sometimes claimed, however, that the belief in Jesus as adopted divine Son was initial and early, but was then superseded by belief in his “pre-existence,” such as is reflected already in Paul’s letters, written ca. 50 AD and thereafter. Anything is possible, of course.  But this supersession would have to have been very early, and any “adoption-christology” rather short-lived.  For, by common scholarly consent, Paul underwent his “revelation of God’s Son” within a couple of years at most after Jesus’ crucifixion.  And, moreover, by common scholarly judgement he was initiated into a Jesus-movement that already held the basic christological convictions that are reflected in his letters (e.g., that Jesus had been glorified and given a status second only to God, and that in some manner he was already “there” from, and the agent of, creation).  Indeed, I suspect that Paul was reacting against such convictions in his previous opposition to the Jesus-movement.  So, in any case, if there was an early adoption-christology, it would have been very short-lived, and, it appears, it left scant explicit trace or impact.  It would have been an abortive non-starter.  So, certainly as far as Paul knew (and he did get around quite a lot!), whether in Jerusalem or his own assemblies, Jesus was reverenced similarly as designated “Lord”, not as adopted Son.

To be sure, the powerful ignition factors in the explosive development of early Jesus-devotion included particularly the experiences of the risen and exalted Jesus.  In that sense, Ehrman is correct to refer to an early “exaltation” view of Jesus, as having been given a new place of unique status “at the right hand” of God.  But, by all indications, the view that Jesus was exalted to a new status/role by God (e.g., Philippians 2:9-11) went fully hand-in-hand with beliefs that Jesus was God’s “Son” by right all along, so to speak, with no adoption involved.  To appeal to an ancient practice for rough comparison, when an ancient king elevated a son to the position of co-regent and successor, this wasn’t an adoption.  It was the conferral of a new status, to be sure, but the person didn’t thereby become a son.  He was already a son, who was designated with a new explicit role, and obedience to the reigning king required that this designated son be acknowledged and honoured by the king’s loyal subjects also.  Just so, earliest Jesus-followers stressed that God had exalted his Son, given him divine glory and “the name above all names,” and now required him to be reverenced appropriately.[4]

[1] R. P. Casey (ed.), The Excerpta Ex Theodoto of Clement of Alexandria, Studies & Documents, 1 (London: Christophers, 1934). Esp. 33.1.

[2] See, e.g., Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins, King and Messiah As Son of God:  Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), esp. 19-24.

[3] See, e.g., Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary Hermeneia (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2007), 150, who proposes that the divine voice “appoints” Jesus as Messiah.

[4] For a more detailed critique of “adoption Christology” proposals, see Michael Bird, Jesus the Eternal Son:  Answering Adoptionist Christology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017).  For more on the historical importance of the place of Jesus in earliest devotional practices, Larry W. Hurtado, Honoring the Son:  Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).



Was Paul “Converted”?

In the ecclesiastical calendar, 25 January (this Friday) marks the “Conversion of St. Paul.”  Over the last several decades, however, scholars have differed over whether “conversion” is the right term to describe Paul’s change from fierce opponent of the young Jesus-movement to one of the most well-known advocates.

In general usage, a “conversion” marks a change from one religion to another, or a shift from an irreligious to religious profession/stance.  At the time of Paul’s experience (a scant couple of years after Jesus’ crucifixion), the Jesus-movement wasn’t what we know and think of as a self-standing “religion.”  It was more a rather exclusive new sect or movement within the larger Jewish tradition.  (And it must be emphasized that Paul’s “persecution” of Jesus-followers was not directed at “Christians” but solely at fellow Jews whom he must have regarded as having seriously problematic in their beliefs and practices.)

More significantly, Paul refers to that experience that prompted his shift in direction as a “revelation” (apokalypsis) and a “calling” (kaleo) as in Galatians 1:11-17.  On the other hand, Paul can refer to those Gentiles who accepted his gospel message as having “converted” or “turned” (epistrepho) to God and having turned away from their ancestral gods (“idols”), as in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10.  So, in Paul’s thinking Gentiles/pagans “convert” from their polytheistic practice to worship and serve “a true and living God.”  But Jews such as he instead come to right understanding of what their ancestral deity requires of them.

Paul’s references to his own experience seem to align it more with that of the classical prophets, who received revelations and divine callings.  So, many scholars would insist that we should refer to Paul’s “calling,” not his “conversion.”  To be sure, the reorientation must have been unsettling; hence his reference in the Galatians passage to going off to Arabia for some time, probably to sort through the meaning of what had happened!

The late Alan Segal, recognizing the problem, nevertheless argued that we could refer to Paul as converted, in the sociological sense of shifting from a staunch stance against the Jesus-movement to embracing it.  It wasn’t a shift from one religion to another really, but Segal proposed, a bit more like moving from one Christian denomination to another, as when a Catholic person becomes a Baptist.

In her recent book on Paul, however, (Paul:  The Pagans’ Apostle) Paula Fredriksen insists that “conversion” isn’t appropriate.  Her emphasis is that Paul didn’t change deities, and also continued to see himself and function as a Jew.  His willingness to undergo several synagogue floggings attests this, for the punishment was given only to Jews, and only if they submitted to it.  Paul came quickly to see that his previous attitude toward Jesus and the Jesus-movement was wrong, and that the God of his ancestors in fact affirmed both.

Given that the Jesus-movement became “Christianity,” a separate religion, however, and for many centuries largely made up of non-Jews, the term “conversion” may reflect this outlook.  But Paul thought of himself as bringing former pagans (and fellow Jews too) to a proper alignment with the God of Israel and his Messiah, not inventing a new religion.  So on 25 January, perhaps we should remember this.

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