Monday, December 28, 2015

Books of the Year: 2015

Last year I never got around to writing my books of the year post. But it's back this year after a year off! This year, most of my reading covered the church of the first four or five centuries focusing particularly on Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, and Augustine. I did find some time to fit in a few other books as well, some of which are represented.

5. Framing Paul by Douglas Campbell

When you read Campbell you know you are going to get vigorous, well explained, interesting proposals. That certainly is the case here. His discussion of the use of statistics related to style in the determination of authorship is excellent and several of his proposals are very interesting, particularly his identification of Ephesians as the letter to the Laodiceans.

4. Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies eds. Susan Harvey and David Hunter

I came into the year with a minimal background in early Christian studies. This handbook was extremely helpful as I was gaining my bearings. Each essay is very informative and the bibliographies are up to date. It's a must own reference for anyone who wants to learn more about the first five centuries of Christianity.

This was a very nice, helpful book on a difficult topic. Middelton provides an overview of martyrdom in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions. He also provides helpful framework for understanding and discussing the modern phenomenon as well.

2. Paul within Judaism  eds. Mark Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm

I love Pauline studies, and it makes me sad that I don't get to read nearly as much as I'd like in this area. I'm very glad that I did get to read this edited volume. The contributions were consistently of a very high caliber and it helped open up a new way to see Paul. I am not completely convinced yet of the Jewish portrait of Paul presented in this volume but it's not one that can be easily dismissed. I look forward to further engagement with this viewpoint when my time eventually frees up.

1. First Principles by Origen

My apologies to all of the Augustine fans out there, but I found Origen to be the most brilliant and enriching figure to engage with from the first five centuries of Christianity. On First Principles is the most systematic presentation of his thought, though it is from an early period, and some of his thinking did develop as he aged.

Now for the books that came out in 2015 that I'm most excited about but haven't read yet.

5. First Isaiah by J.J.M. Roberts

The time was ripe for a full scale critical commentary on First Isaiah and I think J.J.M. Roberts is up to the task. I'm looking forward to picking this volume up sometime soon.

4. The Work of Theology by Stanley Hauerwas

The more I work on writing my theology the more acutely aware I am of how difficult it is, and how difficult it will be to move past the descriptive phase. I am so grateful that a gifted theologian like Hauerwas would write this book at the end of his career.

3. I Still Believe eds. John Byron and Joel Lohr

I definitely am not a fan of devotional/inspirational Christian literature. I don't think this work will fall into the trap of superficiality or sappiness. I have a deep respect for several of the contributors to this volume and I hope it encourages me as I expect some of them have struggled with doubt in similar areas to my own.

2. Becoming the Gospel by Michael Gorman

No single scholar has impacted the way I live more than Michael Gorman. I expect this book to be the fullest expression of Paul's view of the Christian way of life.

1. Paul and the Gift by John Barclay

That this is number one should be a surprise to no one. Barclay is a gifted scholar and I look forward to deepening my understanding of Paul's view of God's grace.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13

You can read the text here.

In this section Paul writes very personally to the Thessalonians. It's overflowing with love and concern for their spiritual well being.[1] Paul missed the Thessalonians very badly and really wanted to visit them, but Satan blocked his path. Not only did Paul care about them, but they also were the evidence of how well he fulfilled his calling before God. If they remained faithful, then he was faithful to his calling and would be deemed victorious by God on the last day. The positive report he had heard buoyed his confidence that he would be vindicated.[2]

Paul wanted to come himself, but when he couldn't make and also couldn't wait any longer he sent Timothy, who was well known to the Thessalonians to check in on them and to encourage them to stay faithful to Jesus. Following Jesus changed a lot of relationships for the Thessalonians and made participation in the common life of their city difficult.[3] This was something Paul warned them about. They were each others family now, and so was Paul, from whom they were separated. It was hard on both of them.[4] He knew it would be hard, so he sent Timothy to encourage them and to find out how they were doing.

Timothy brought back good news. The Thessalonians had stayed faithful,[5] and were full of love for one another and for Paul. This news brought Paul much relief through the trials he continued to face as he traveled around proclaiming the gospel, joy that he regularly expressed in prayer on their behalf. He also regularly asked God to allow him to return to see them once again.

Paul then shifts into a prayer of thanksgiving where he also prays for continued growth on the part of the Thessalonians. While Paul was not there long, he gave the Thessalonians a pattern of love to follow (a pattern he continued to demonstrate in this letter), and he urged them to follow it. Their love was the demonstration of their loyalty to Jesus and would bring about their vindication on the last day.

For one additional note. Gaventa has some nice comments on applying the passage on pp. 47-48. I want to quote a couple here as they are worth reflecting on.

"...this text emphasizes the vulnerability of the Christian preacher or teacher. The connection forged with those who are congregants or students is such that church leaders are themselves highly susceptible if those in their "charge," so to speak, turn aside." (p. 47).

"Paul may be speaking hyperbolically when he says "we now live, if you continue to stand firm," but he reveals something central to Christian faith and life. This is not an arena in which the rejoinder, "What I believe is my own business! can be recognized and respected." (p. 47-48).

"Because of God's actions, the apostles and the Thessalonians are irretrievably connected with one another." (p. 48).

[1] Both Gaventa and Fee underscore this point very well.

[2] Gaventa deems Paul's confidence to be profoundly bold.

[3] So Malherbe.

[4] Malherbe notes that Paul's emphasis on his aloneness throughout this passage signals empathy for the Thessalonians and their newly isolated status.

[5] All three commentaries are consistent in affirming that Paul means faithfulness throughout this section and not just faith, if understood to refer to assent only.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Assessing Verbal Inspiration

What is the Bible? Lately I've been reading The Story of the Scrolls by Geza Vermes, and that in conjunction with recent post by James McGrath propelled me to tackle this topic here. Some in Evangelical circles answer this question by affirming that the Bible (or at least the original manuscripts) is the verbally inspired word of God, meaning that the words themselves are God's words and have some sort of inherently special properties or power. In this post I will explain why I don't think this is the right way to approach the Bible nor is it likely the way the earliest Christians understood the Scriptures. If it was, then one would expect to see the earliest Christians hold slavishly to literal interpretations and even slavishly to the literal wording of their Scriptures when quoting texts, since that is locus of God's power. I will explain that this was not the case, drawing from apostolic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, early Christian scribal practices, and the question of the original text of the Hebrew Bible.

How did the apostles interpret the Hebrew Bible? There has been debate among Christian scholars[1]. I personally think the evidence is very clear that the apostles did not slavishly interpret the Hebrew Bible literally nor did they even quote the text slavishly when citing entire verses. There are many passages that could be mentioned, but the classic example[2] is Paul's deliberate misinterpretation of the word seed/offspring in Genesis 13:14-16 in Galatians 3:15-29. Paul knows that "offspring" in Genesis 13 is a collective noun and refers to more than one person. However, he felt free to deliberately misinterpret the text to make his point. One could also point to his allegory of Galatians 4:21-31 for another clear example that Paul (and other New Testament authors) were not stuck with a narrow range of uses of Scripture. Scripture gave them a resource to make a point that they felt the Holy Spirit wanted them to make. The point was more important than the literal wording or even the literal meaning of the text.

We see a similar phenomenon with Christian scribal activity in the first several centuries. Many Christian scribes felt free to make additions or modifications to the text[3]. Many textual variants of course are scribal errors or were attempts to fix what later scribes believed were earlier scribal errors. However, there are a lot of modifications made to try to improve the comprehension of or the grammar of the text. If they believed the words of the text themselves were powerful one would not expect to see even these kinds of changes. However, some scribes went far beyond that adding, sometimes, even extensive material to conform scripture to their beliefs.[4] Scripture was clearly important to these early scribes as an authoritative source of doctrine, but again, their behavior suggests they believed the Bible to be something other than verbally inspired otherwise you wouldn't have these kinds of changes.

My next and final point may seem a bit out of place given that I'm talking about Christian understandings of their Scriptures, but the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews so it's meaningful to know what beliefs they would have inherited. In the Vermes book I mentioned above, he discusses the role of the Dead Sea Scrolls in helping us determine the original text of the various writings of the Hebrew Bible. Three distinct textual traditions with significant variations in the text itself have come down to us; the Samaritan Bible, the Septuagint, and the Masoretic Text (Hebrew text). The readings in our Bibles largely (perhaps completely? I'm unsure) follow the latter two in some way shape or form. There are many minor variations between the texts (e.g., the Samaritan Bible often replaces references to Jerusalem with Samaria), but there also are some major differences. For example, the text of Jeremiah in our Bibles is mainly derived from the Masoretic text. However, the Septuagint text is about 1/7 shorter and is arranged in a different order. Which is original? Either, neither, or both? Who knows? Manuscripts reflecting both traditions were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.[5] For other texts, we have examples reflecting the traditions in the Samaritan Bible in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This means that during the time of Jesus and the early church there were a variety of texts that were, in some cases, quite different, and it wasn't imperative to adjudicate which version of the Scriptures was official and "God's words." Even beyond that, given the disarray we have in some cases, how confident are we really that our reconstructed Old Testament is that close to the wording of the Hebrew (or Aramaic) original? That alone seems to be a practical problem for those who hold to a doctrine of verbal inspiration (though of course not a refutation).

Some may say I'm being too modern by requiring literalism on the part of ancient Jews and Christians. I would say that is precisely my point. This doctrine of Scripture is very modern (in that it fits a modern Western worldview better than an ancient one), but I often fear that fact goes unrecognized. If one wants to maintain that Scripture is the word of God, one either needs to recognize that this belief is far more innovative than is typically admitted or find a way to affirm this belief that doesn't necessitate and isn't tied to a "literalistic" method of reading Scripture.


[1]To get a lay of the land, you could read Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.

[2] E.g., See the extended discussion by Enns in Ibid. pp. 180-85.

[3] Though I have not read it, I have heard The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture by Bart Ehrman covers this ground well.

[4] A classic example is the Johannine comma an addition to 1 John 5:7-8 (compare KJV with NRSV), though many other texts could be pointed to. Wikipedia has a lengthy discussion of this passage that could serve as a starting point. Note their list of other disputed passages.

[5] Vermes does not discuss my example here of Jeremiah but discusses the diversity of textual traditions found at Qumran on pp. 213-14.

Monday, September 21, 2015

1 Thessalonians 2:1-16

You can read the text here.

We continue with Paul's narrative about the nature of his ministry and visit to Thessalonica. It was a ministry filled with courage. That's what enabled Paul to continue on with his preaching of the gospel. Preaching that was fruitful as evidenced by the Thessalonian faithful. His ministry met with opposition while he was at Thessalonica, and probably did after he left.[1]

He wasn't a charlatan like some peddlers of philosophy of his day. What gave Paul courage to preach was not a desire for gain or glory but the status of the one whom he served as messenger. It was God whom Paul sought to please. Paul's status as appointed messenger of the divine king gave him rights to money, but Paul disavowed this right because he wanted to distance himself from the likes of those to whom he was being compared after he left.

Paul's motives were simple and innocent like a baby[2] and he was full of motherly concern and love. This drove Paul not only to share the gospel of King Jesus but also to do so sacrificially, making himself vulnerable to further their best interests. Paul (and possibly his coworkers) worked while they were in Thessalonica so that they would not need to receive money from the Thessalonians. And further, like a good father,[3] Paul taught the Thessalonians good philosophy,[4] a life appropriate for citizenship in the kingdom of God.

Paul mentions a second time how grateful he is for the way the Thessalonians responded to his message. They recognized his God given authority and treated his words as if they had come from God himself, which, of course, they had since Paul was his authorized representative.

Of course the Thessalonians weren't alone in following Jesus as their king, and it had repercussions. The churches in Judea were experiencing persecution at the hands of some of their own countrymen[5] just like the Thessalonians had. It was part of a pattern in Judea. These opponents of the Jesus followers had opposed Jesus and other Christian leaders[6] before persecuting Paul among others. Their day of judgment was upon them, presumably as it would be on those who were hindering the Thessalonians.[7] The implication, presumably, was that the Thessalonians had nothing to fear but just needed to rely on their king to defend them.[8]

[1] I agree with Fee that there was continued opposition to Paul and slander levied against him after he left Thessalonica.

[2] Fee has made a definitive case for infant over gentle in 7a.

[3] The choice of father over parent or mother isn't necessarily patriarchal in my opinion. A father should fulfill this role in his family, just as a mother should too.

[4] Against Fee a bit here. Paul isn't casting himself as a philosopher as Malherbe notes, but Paul's aims were still the aims of a typical philosopher and the utilization of philosophical language throughout this section is more than just a vehicle for the message.

[5] As noted in all three commentaries, the comma at the end of verse 14 is incorrect, devastatingly so.

[6] Again I think Fee makes a strong case for understanding prophets as Christian prophets based on the grammar of the sentence.

[7] Malherbe believes the opposition was ostracization, which seems plausible.

[8] See Gaventa for a helpful discussion of anti-Semetism and how this passage can be taught in today's church.

Monday, August 24, 2015

1 Thessalonians 1

While I may be in school, I want to make sure that my exegetical skills don't erode too much. I'm going to try, when I can, to work my way through Paul's letters in chronological order in addition to working on papers for the Christian Way of Life project. The next couple of years the pace will probably be slow due to school, but hopefully by 2030 I can finish all of them. These won't be quite as thorough as some of my other studies have been and will cover larger chunks of text, at least while I'm in school. For 1 Thessalonians I will be using the commentaries of Gaventa, Malherbe, and Fee. No promises as to when the second section will appear.

You can read the text here.

Paul opens his letter by greeting the Thessalonians on behalf of his missionary team, and noting their spiritual location. They are under the influence of/in the sphere of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. How thoroughly in the sphere of, there isn't enough to know right off the bat.

Paul then proceeds to his thanksgiving[1] where he tries to show how much he cares despite the fact that he was only in Thessalonica for a short time. The Thessalonians excel by demonstrating their fidelity through their trusting, love filled, hopeful working out of their commitment to God. As Malherbe and Fee note, the 'For' at the start of verse 4 is not causal, but explains that what the Thessalonians have displayed proves that God has indeed chosen them, which should bring about further comfort.[2] The proof of their election is really one fold, though it may appear to be two. It's the work of the Holy Spirit, who they experienced and brought them to a life of fidelity, both in belief and practice. So great was the work of the Spirit, that their faithfulness was joyful, even in the face of opposition and persecution, much like Paul's was. So great was the work of God in them.

As a result, all over Greece, people came to know about the work of God in them. Their lifestyle and allegiances were radically altered. No longer did they serve the gods of their world, but instead the one true God, who ruled through his Son, the crucified, raised, and exalted Messiah. A Messiah who will return one day to judge the evil oppressors of the Thessalonians and bring them final vindication and salvation.

As Malherbe notes, one unique feature of the early Christian movement, as evidenced in this letter, is the way religion and ethics were tied together. They were assumed to be different spheres. Wright, also explores this at length in Paul and the Faithfulness of God, noting that Christianity may be better understood in some ways as an ancient philosophy than an ancient religion. I think it certainly falls into both categories, then and now. The reason behind it all, is the Christian hope. If Jesus judges justly when he returns then the two are inseparable.

[1] The exact extent of the introductory thanksgiving is difficult to determine, but I think Fee is probably correct in only see verses 2 and 3 as comprising it.

[2] As Fee further notes, election is always reflecting a reality after the fact and as an expression of God's love and, with one exception, is corporate. Also, Fee makes the observation that salvation is positional, meaning an objective reality based on their position, "in Christ," or perhaps one could say based on membership in his people.

[3] Gaventa is particularly strong in bringing out how theocentric 1 Thessalonians 1 is.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Exploring the Christian Way of Life: The Identity of Jesus - Divine Messiah Part 4

This is the fourth and final of a paper on Jesus as divine Messiah. See part 1, part 2, and part 3.

The closest parallel to the New Testament’s divine Christology is the Enochic Christology concerning the Son of Man in the Book of Parables in 1 Enoch 37-71.[1] There are many parallels between the ways Jesus is portrayed as Messiah in the New Testament and the Enochic Son of Man that are unparalleled claims concerning messianic figures elsewhere.[2] Key among those are pre-existence, the receipt of worship, and association with the figure of divine wisdom. Let’s look at 1 Enoch 48:1-49:4 as an example.

In the Book of Parables, the son of man is a messianic figure. The text we’re looking at begins in verses 2 and 3 with a clear statement of idyllic pre-existence on the part of the son of man.[3] He was known, named, and chosen by God for a specific task before creation. In verse 6, it goes even farther to posit actual pre-existence (not just as an idea, but as a being) prior to creation.[4] Verses 4 and 5 go on to describe the son of man carrying out messianic tasks, bringing about the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham by bringing in the gentiles into the people of God. As a result he received worship and also brought glory to God. If we were uncertain of the messianic theme, the rest of 1 Enoch 48 makes that clear, being full with stock apocalyptic messianic themes, especially in the conclusion in verse 10 where the son of man is called the ‘Anointed One.’

The first four verses of chapter 49 segue smoothly into a discussion of wisdom themes, something not completely missing from chapter 48 (see 48:7). Here, though, it is made explicit in verse 3 that the son of man will possess the spirit of wisdom that will enable him to instruct and judge, which are Solomonic themes. However, the way he will judge goes beyond Solomon, since he can judge things that are secret (vs. 4). When one reads that in conjunction with the description of his glory in verse 2 it sounds as if he possesses God’s wisdom, or more accurately, his spirit of wisdom to a much fuller degree than any human before or after him. Here in 1 Enoch 48 as elsewhere in the Book of Parables, the pre-existent son of man is closely associated with, but not identified as pre-existent heavenly wisdom.[5]

This passage contains ideas that seem like a more complete candidate to stand as the primary background to New Testament Christology.[6] Jesus called himself the Son of Man and the themes from this chapter match up well with the major emphases we have found in the Christological hymns. The Messiah in the Book of Parables was a divine figure, full of divine wisdom and of the divine spirit (similar to claims made in Colossians 1:15-20), who pre-existed in heaven. However, his subordination to and difference from Yahweh is also very clear. He is the supreme agent of Yahweh who has his authority and carries out the tasks of bringing eschatological salvation and revealing God’s will. The Son of Man is very far along the spectrum of deity, but he clearly stops short of where Yahweh is.

Does this last conclusion mesh with what we find in the New Testament? In some ways it does very well in perhaps the clearest discussion of the status of the Messiah Jesus in the New Testament, I Corinthians 15:25-28:

25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all (NRSV).

Here the reign of the Messiah is said to have a definite duration, until all of his enemies are defeated. Then, he will no longer rule and will give up that rule to Yahweh to rule directly, and he will be subordinate to him.[7] Until that happens, there is no difference in status from the perspective of creation because the Messiah is acting as the authorized agent of God on earth. Of course, as Ciampa and Rosner point out, the Messiah is in actuality subordinate the entire time.[8] That may be underscored by noticing the simple use of the appellation, ‘the Son,’[9] perhaps implying that even if there is no visible difference in status temporarily; there is still an emphasis on Yahweh being primary.[10]

Let’s cycle back to Philippians 2:5-11. Clearly verses 10 and 11 fit smoothly with 1 Cor. 15:25-28. When Christ completes his task he will have achieved the highest honor. At that point he can turn the kingdom over to God with his job done. Then, presumably he returns to role he held prior to his deployment as Messiah, but possessing more honor and the same or a higher status having been bestowed the divine name.[11] This, then, places boundaries on how we are to understand verse 6, unless we are to make Paul incoherent. Being in the form of God and having equality with God should not be understood as statements claiming that Jesus was on the same point in the spectrum of divinity as Yahweh. To say that Jesus was in the form of God could mean many things, and it is not at all clear, when the above argument is taken into account, that it claims an equivalent divine ontology as that which Yahweh possesses. Reumann, after a lengthy discussion of possible understandings opts for ‘in the sphere of God.’[12] This would fit very well with the Christology of 1 Enoch, as that is precisely where the Son of Man existed prior to creation.

To sum up, we have confirmed our observation from the first paper: early Christians certainly saw Jesus as a pre-existent divine being. Now we have added precision to that statement and confirmed another observation from that paper. Jesus is the divine Messiah, enthroned in his resurrection. His primary function is to act as the authoritative representative of God who brings about eschatological salvation by defeating all of God’s enemies. He is full of the divine spirit of wisdom, which allows him to reveal God’s will (both as a way of life and in judgment) and bring about the new creation. At that point he will have accomplished his task and will cease to function as God’s intermediary, as no intermediary will be needed. Jesus possessed the highest status that anyone but Yahweh could attain, but a clear distinction and subordination was maintained, at least initially. In the Gospel of John we could start to see that distinction break down.[13] That trend continued unabated for centuries, while the emphasis on Jesus as Messiah decreased. My next paper will explore the Christology of several key figures in the Early, Medieval, and Reformation era church to see how they participated in that movement.


[1] There has been a developing consensus among Enoch experts that the Book of Parables was probably written in the latter half of the first century B.C.E or the early part of the first century C.E. See the articles of Bock 2013 and Charlesworth 2013. Charlesworth’s article is particularly forceful and makes a strong argument that the Book of Parables was written in Galilea and that we should expect that Jesus had direct contact with its community of origin. Bock provides a thorough and detailed history of scholarship. On the dating see also e.g., the evidence in Waddell 2011, pp. 22-27. Nickelsburg and VanderKam 2012 opt for a date around the turn of the era (pp. 58-63), though preferring one on the B.C.E. side.
[2] See Waddell 2011 pp.178-201, esp. p. 182.
[3] See the important work of Hammerton-Kelly 1973, pp. 15-21 for a discussion of different types of pre-existence.
[4] Nickelsburg and VanderKam 2012, ad loc.
[5] Nickelsburg and VanderKam 2012, ad loc.
[6] In addition to its correlation with Pauline themes, Nickelsburg and VanderKam 2012 p. 168, claim there are “structural functional parallels” with Markan predictions of the suffering Son of Man in Mk. 8:31, 9:31, and 10:33-34.
[7] I found Conzelmann  1975 ad loc. to be the most helpful discussion of this passage.
[9] As noted by Fitzmyer 2008 ad loc., this is the only time Paul uses this ‘absolute’ expression.
[10] I suspect viewing this as a statement about ontology is probably going too far. However, for the purposes of Systematic Theology, there still may be ways to affirm the import of this passage and still avoid a subordinationist Christology. See Thiselton 2000, pp. 1237-39. This will be a necessary but minor focus in subsequent papers.
[11] McGrath 2009, pp. 50-51. This passage would not work as an encouragement to selflessness (as Fee 1995 persuasively argues) if this were not the case.
[12] Reumann 2008, ad loc.
[13] See the discussion of the Johannine prologue in my first paper as well as my discussion of John 1:35-51 here.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Exploring the Christian Way of Life: The Identity of Jesus - Divine Messiah Part 3

This is part 3 of a paper on Jesus as divine Messiah. See part 1 and part 2.

Possibly the clearest passage on the topic from the undisputed Pauline epistles comes in 2 Corinthians 3:1-4:7. We will focus on several key verses, starting with the climax in 4:4-6:

4In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (NRSV).

Here, Paul describes Jesus in terms of light, glory, and the image of God. In other words, he is the supreme revelation of God. Here Paul is combining two strands of his Christology. Jesus is acting as the second Adam, being the perfect image, but he is far surpassing anything that Adam was ever capable of. He embodies God’s wisdom, herself, and is the prototype of the new humanity, the new creation.[1] That glory is available to us in the story of Jesus the risen, Messianic Lord. When our eyes are opened to accept and submit to that proclamation, we receive that glory for ourselves.[2]

When we tie this back to some of the earlier verses, we get a clearer picture of how Paul viewed Jesus. The statements about a greater glory than the Torah being revealed in Jesus in 3:7-11 are directly interacting with Sir. 24:19-21. Perhaps this, along with Jesus’ own actions, is what enabled Christians to move past strict Torah observance. Jesus was the ultimate revelation of God’s glory and the greatest source of God’s wisdom, both in terms of guidance but especially salvation. This superiority made following Torah unnecessary.[3]

Hebrews too shows dependence upon Wisdom Christology, though this may not be independent of the influence of Paul.[4] The letter’s introduction is a compact statement of Jesus’ divinity a la wisdom.

“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Heb. 1:1-4 NRSV).

Several matters require brief comment. First, this passage is about Jesus’ status. He has the highest status that one can get. Second he is also the definitive source of revelation of God.[5] Third, we again have a tie of both creational and soteriological functions. As Johnson notes, “the protological function of the Son points to his eschatological victory.”[6] That could be another piece of the puzzle that explains why early Christians seized on Wisdom Christology.

While it may be going too far to say, that the resurrection is viewed as an enthronement, “…by which he entered fully into the life and rule of God as ‘Lord.’”[7] Clearly the resurrection was the cause of attributions of divinity to Jesus. His status as resurrected Lord in heaven allowed the early Christians to see Jesus as a pre-existent heavenly being.[8]

Are these connections in Paul and Hebrews enough to posit a Wisdom Christology? With Fee, I want to urge some caution.[9] While the conceptual ties are there, nowhere is Jesus called wisdom in the sense of personified wisdom.[10] He is the full revelation of God and the agent and sustainer of creation, as was wisdom, so wisdom traditions must stand somewhere in the background and add depth to the early church’s proclamation of Jesus. But without clearer statements it is hard to make the assertion that we have a Wisdom Christology in Paul, even if it might fit in Hebrews. It seems as if wisdom language is being used in both cases to clarify or expand on things believed about Jesus on other grounds. In particular, the contrast with language surrounding kingship is stunning. Even in Hebrews, one gets the sense that Wisdom Christology isn’t at the epicenter. Jesus enthronement at his resurrection is. The language of kingship, lordship, and messianic status are shot through all of the New Testament. Perhaps we need to revisit messianic beliefs in early Judaism to see if we can find the root of some of the early Christian beliefs about Jesus.

It is interesting that it is not only texts with ties to Wisdom that suggest pre-existence on the part of Jesus. We also find it in a much more straight forwardly messianic text like Philippians 2:5-11. Pre-existence is clearly predicated of him in 2:6, where the state of Jesus prior to the incarnation is described. His existence was in heaven. This much we can say without much controversy.[11] The Messianic import of the text is also clear from the exultation he receives in verses 10-11, as is clearly seen when cross referencing it with Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 14.[12] Thus, I would argue that Wisdom Christology is a secondary development, and that we see divinity in some sense (heavenly pre-existence, if not more than that) predicated of the Messiah Jesus as the resurrected Messiah. This, then, pushes us back to look for other Jewish sources that allow us to make sense of all of the data.

[1] See the excellent exegesis of Thrall 1994, ad loc. for a fuller discussion. Also see Matera 2003 for a discussion of possible texts lying behind the OT allusion in vs. 6.
[2] See Thrall 1994, pp. 318-20 for a fuller exploration of the “Christophany” of 4:4, 6.
[3] I will note that this line of argument is my own and not reflected in the major commentaries on 2 Cor. that I consulted.
[4] Hebrews 13:23 mentions connection to Timothy.
[5] Koester 2001, ad loc.
[6] Johnson 2006, p. 67.
[7] Ibid, p. 72.
[8] Hamerton-Kelly 1973, p. 123.
[9] Fee 2007, pp. 317-25. Fee exceeds caution in outright disparagement, which I think goes too far.
[10] Try as I might, I couldn’t find a way to see it in 1 Cor. 1:24. I think the reading of Thiselton 2000, ad loc. is sound, calling Jesus an actualization of God’s wisdom.
[11] See, e.g., O’Brien 1991 ad loc., Fee 1995 ad loc., and Bockmuehl 1998 ad loc.
[12] See the concise argument ad loc. in Bockmuehl 1998. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Exploring the Christian Way of Life: The Identity of Jesus - Divine Messiah Part 2

This is part 2 of a paper on Jesus as divine Messiah. For part 1, click here.

Revelation is not exceptional in showing great devotion and worship to Jesus. As Larry Hurtado has argued in many places,[1] as far back as we can tell the churches exhibited a very high Christology that honored Jesus through a variety of devotional practices.[2] Particularly noteworthy is the way in which Jesus devotion was public and corporate, not private and individual like the worship of other intermediary figures like angels.[3] With the limited scope of this paper we will focus on fragments of confessional material that we find in the New Testament.[4]

The first text we will look at is Colossians 1:15-20.

15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Most scholars agree that what we have here is an early Christian hymn or confession which the author of Colossians incorporated into his letter.[5] It has been argued by many that the passage as a whole reflects a Wisdom Christology which views wisdom as a personification of God like what is found in texts like Wisdom of Solomon 7-9 and Sirach 24.[6] Let’s take a brief detour to look at wisdom in these texts.[7]

Wisdom 7-9 is a eulogy on the figure of Wisdom.[8] The author proceeds to praise Wisdom as the source of all good things and offers her praise –  like that due to God – heaping compliments by calling her things like “unpolluted,” “beneficent,” “steadfast,” “all-powerful,” and “penetrating through all spirits” (Wis. 7:22, 23). She is called “a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” (Wis. 7:26 NRSV). Later she is compared to and said to exceed anything in creation and indeed to rule it (Wis. 7:29-8:1). Wisdom is good like God, but also accessible.[9] It emanates from him and is his image or copy, carrying out divine function.[10] If we skip ahead to chapter 9 we find similar statements in more detail. God created by his wisdom[11] and through wisdom, who sits near his throne, he rules (Wis. 9:1-4). By wisdom we can come to know God (Wis. 9:5-6). The chapter closes in vv. 17-18 with similarly lofty statements about Wisdom, perhaps echoing Isaiah 40:1-7. Salvation comes through Wisdom, who makes paths straight by teaching people how to please God. That is because salvation is a new creation and is realized by living according to creational intentions.[12] Final judgment brings liberation from chaos and life lived in accordance with Wisdom.[13]

Briefly I will mention Sirach 24 as well. It exhibits many of the same core themes as Wisdom of Solomon, including her role in creation (Sir. 24:1-7). She emanates from the mouth of God (Sir. 24:3). Wisdom is the source of God’s blessing (Sir. 24:19-21) and is singly focused one place, in the Torah.

Two of the most important Jewish writings in the Greco-Roman period, one Palestinian and one from the Diaspora follow a similar pattern, though the Wisdom of Solomon is much more developed. God is transcendent and acts in the world to create, guide, and save his people, through his personification, his perfect image, Wisdom.

When we go back to Colossians 1:15-20, we see many of the same themes applied to Jesus. Jesus created, was the image of the invisible God, representing and revealing him.[14] He has a place of authority over the created order and has a special role in relation to God’s people (just like the Torah did). Rather than listing a litany of divine attributes like the author of Wisdom of Solomon, the author of Colossians simply states that the fullness of God dwelled in Jesus. Through Jesus, God saved his people. Colossians has a particular focus on the creation to salvation pattern found in the Wisdom of Solomon, stressing the eschatological element in calling Jesus the firstborn from the dead.[15] Conceptual ties are there.

It is unfortunate that we do not have a resolution on the authorship of Colossians. If it were written by Paul it would push the date for a clear, divine Christology of some sort to within a generation of Jesus’ death. While I think a strong case can be made, I do not want to ground my overall argument on something so hotly disputed in contemporary scholarship.[16] Even so, if the author of Colossians was citing something conventional, then by the end of the first century, both attribution of divinity and a Christology paralleled by statements in Wisdom literature about divine Wisdom was at least relatively uncontroversial,[17] which means that it would have been fairly developed, probably by the 70s at the latest and perhaps earlier. In fact I suspect earlier, especially since he was writing in Paul’s name.  So let’s ask another question. Do the views presented in Colossians 1:15-20 have roots or parallels in the uncontested Pauline letters? Let’s look at a passage in 2 Corinthians, though not a hymn or creedal text, since it is of undisputed Pauline authorship.

[1] His most detailed treatment is in Hurtado 2003 and is the most important contemporary work on early Christology.
[2] As Hurtado notes on p. 137, what sets early Christians apart is the pattern, how thoroughly Jesus devotion permeated every aspect of religious activity.
[3] Ibid., p. 199.
[4] Hengel 1983, pp. 95-99 notes the centrality of hymns, as key didactic tools that also were a “medium for development of Christological thinking” p. 95.
[5] See e.g., Wilson 2005 and especially Dunn 1996.
[6] So Dunn 1996, p. 88, who pushes back against seeing wisdom as an intermediary figure in these texts. Kolarcik 1997 p. 505 agrees that what we have in Wisdom of Solomon is a personification.

[7] I draw on these rather than the writings of Philo because Sirach is definitely older and Wisdom is possibly older and are more likely to have influenced the hymn writer (I believe Paul used Wisdom of Solomon in Romans and thus that it was written in the 40s CE at the absolute latest).
[8] Kolarcik 1997, ad loc.
[9] Ibid., ad loc. points out that Wisdom penetrating all spirits is a Stoic idea describing the presence of the spirit of Wisdom.
[10] Ibid.
[11] God’s word and wisdom are placed in parallel in Wis. 9:1-2.
[12] Kolarcik 1992, pp. 102-04.
[13] Ibid., p. 98.
[14] Sumney 2008, ad loc.
[15] Ibid, p. 72 notices how creation and salvation are tied together, but not that Wisdom of Solomon has the same pattern.
[16] See the recent defense of Pauline authorship by Campbell 2014, pp. 260-309
[17] On “fullness of deity” “… the absolute use of the phrase here, without an explanatory genitive, suggests that this is something which our author could assume to be familiar to his readers.” Wilson 2005 p. 152. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Exploring the Christian Way of Life: The Identity of Jesus - Divine Messiah Part 1

Unfortunately it didn't take much to push a winter release of my paper to the summer. Anyways, here it is:

In our last paper we looked at the identity of Jesus as presented in the Gospels. We noted that Jesus is primarily identified as Messiah. As I’ve studied further, I’ve become more convinced that Jesus messianic identity is the center of Christology. As Michael Bird put it, “the messianic identity of Jesus is the…most basic claim of early Christology.”[1] At the same time we noted that aspects of each of the Gospels suggest that the writers saw Jesus as divine, especially in the Gospel of John. Why? One could be the Messiah without being divine. It also seems that the clearest claims of divine identity are presented more in the way the Evangelists interpret the meaning of Jesus than at the core of the historical tradition.[2] Even before we get that far, though, we need to know what it means to call someone divine in the ancient world, as that may not have meant the same thing then as it does now. Then we will look at the senses in which the New Testament writers claim divinity for Jesus and try to understand the reasons behind it. We will conclude with a discussion of the implications of divine identity on messianic identity.

As is well known, in Greco-Roman culture, divinity ranged on a spectrum, with the high gods at the top and divinized humans near the bottom.[3] How did Jews view things? Both James McGrath and Bart Ehrman have made convincing arguments that many Jews, too, viewed things as ranging on a spectrum.[4] The post-exilic work, 1 Chronicles, in 29:20-23, describes David as receiving prostration (a form of worship) in conjunction with God, and Solomon as sitting on the throne of Yahweh. Both of those actions would seem to recognize some sort of divine identity on the part of David and Solomon. Psalm 45:6-7 goes even further, “6Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity; 7you love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;” (NRSV). “God, your God” is referencing two different individuals by the identifier ‘God,’ the first being the king.[5] In other Jewish literature from outside the canon and artifacts from the period, you can see similar honors as granted to various figures as well as prayers to various mediators.[6] At the same time YHWH is clearly at one end of the spectrum and in a class by himself. Only YHWH can receive sacrificial worship and the use of icons or idols in worship is strictly forbidden.[7] Certainly, on the other hand, some Jews denied the presence of a broad spectrum; for them only YHWH was divine.[8] Jesus followers, as ordinary Jews, could fall anywhere on this spectrum. What we cannot do is decide before we begin our study what the followers of Jesus must have believed. Options were available to them. All of this needs to be kept in mind as we explore the ways in which the New Testament presents Jesus as being divine. Where on the spectrum are they putting him?[9] Is he being equated with YHWH, or is he in an intermediate position? How clear and consistent is the evidence?

Let’s start at the end of the first century and work our way backwards. Clearly, Jesus was viewed as divine in a significant sense by Christians by the end of the first century. Pliny, a Roman governor, in a letter to Trajan in the second decade of the second century, wrote that the Christians sang “hymns to Christ as a god.[10]” We have every reason to believe that his description was accurate, as we have Christian textual evidence to support that claim. Revelation 5, most likely written at the tail end of the first century, contains two brief hymns of praise to Jesus.

The scene begins by looking for one who is worthy to open the seal. No human or angel is found.[11] As Keener points out, the question must point back to the hymn of 4:11, where God is the one who is worthy and full of power.[12] This splits all of reality into God and everyone else.

After receiving the negative answer that no one besides God is worthy, one is found; Jesus, described in thoroughly Messianic terms. This seems to place Jesus as an exalted, divine king, a claim not uncommon in the Roman Empire.[13] However as Malin and Pilch also state, Jesus’ status exceeds that of all (divine) kings on the earth.[14] Jesus, as Messiah, is worthy, and thus also receives worship from the elders, as God did. Clearly Jesus kingship is transcendent and greater than any of the kings of the earth. He is greater than anyone except God.

Jesus was worthy because he “has conquered.” In verse 9 we find out that conquering was performed by being slain and winning the release of God’s people who were made into a kingdom of priests with ruling function.[15] It seems here that we have a merging of two Old Testament traditions, one being the Exodus and the other being the vision of Daniel 7.[16] Jesus is the paschal lamb; sacrificed to bring about the release of God’s people. As in Exodus 19:5b-6 the purpose of the divine action was so that “you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (NRSV). Also, Jesus is the Son of Man of Daniel 7 to whom, in 7:14, ‘”was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed” (NRSV). Jesus, as Son of Man, was acting as the divine mediator, recapitulating the Exodus in saving God’s people by allowing them to escape the judgment. As Messiah he carried out the task of the Son of Man, which was the universalizing of God’s action in the Exodus. I believe it is critical to note Blount’s point that there is no emphasis here on Jesus’ death being expiatory. Jesus’ death instead reveals God’s identity and clarifies how God rules and liberates.[17] Jesus receives worship because he carries out the divine task in the divine way, perfectly revealing the divine being.


[1] Bird 2012, p. 4.
[2] This is a point at which I disagree with Bauckham 2008, pp. 18-31 and those who follow him. Telling stories of Jesus doing the same types of activities as YHWH in the Old Testament does not imply divine identity, but more on that later.
[3] See Ehrman 2014, pp. 11-45 for an interesting discussion.
[4] McGrath 2009 pp. 3-37, Ehrman 2014, pp. 47-84.
[5] Ehrman 2014, p. 79, c.f., Kraus 1988 ad loc. Neither Goldingay 2006 nor Cragie 2004 draw attention to this, but I agree with Ehrman and Kraus that it seems at least reasonably clear. As Kraus puts it, “The idea that Yahweh is addressed in v. 6 could of course be suggested here if one disregards the context.”
[6] See the very helpful discussion in, McGrath 2009, pp. 23-37.
[7] Even here, the best interpretation of the available evidence may be that some Jews were even willing to sacrifice to YHWH in foreign temples as long as it was not offered in front of an idol. See McGrath 2009 pp. 32-34 for fuller discussion. Even a strongly monotheistic text like the Wisdom of Solomon is strictly targeting iconic worship. 
[8] The author of the Letters of Aristeas would fall in this category and the views of much of the religious elite probably correspond.
[9] This element of the discussion is unfortunately lacking in Bauckham’s 2008 work and significantly weakens it, in my opinion. It is very unclear to me how the Son of Man in 1 Enoch is an exception that proves the rule, as he claims on p. 16. It seems to fit in with other evidence that McGrath includes that is not noted by Bauckham and will in fact be the critical piece of the puzzle in this paper.
[10] See translation available here: accessed 4/14/2014.
[11] Blount 2009, ad loc.
[12] Keener 1999, ad loc.
[13] Malina and Pilch 2000, ad loc., point out that in Greco-Roman culture, kings are semi-divine and worthy to receive revelation. As we saw above, this was not an unparalleled claim in Early Judaism either.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Beale 1999, ad loc. nicely lays out the parallels between vv. 3-5 and vs. 9.
[16] Ibid.4
[17] Blount 2009, ad loc.


For Further Reading: