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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.

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[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. 

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