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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.


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