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.

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