This third installment of my review of How God Became Jesus moves to Simon Gathercole’s argument for preexistence Christology, and divine Christology more specifically, throughout the NT.
Gathercole begins with a summary of the argument he made at length in The Preexistent Son, that the “I have come” sayings signal that Jesus came from somewhere; to wit, from heaven to earth. He does not weigh the possibility that Jesus is speaking to his role (“I am here as son of man”) rather than his ultimate origins (“I am here from heaven”). Nor does he address the fact that Jesus puts John the Baptist in parallel with the son of man when he says, “John came neither eating nor drinking… the son of man came eating and drinking…”
Gathercole says that those who follow his lead in “carefully” so reading the Gospels will find preexistence throughout the Synoptic Gospels. Four pages later Gathercole concedes that most NT scholars “underestimate” the significance of preexistence in the texts (p. 102).
He next turns to Jesus’ baptism, and claims that Ehrman merely asserts, doesn’t argue, that Jesus is adopted son of God at his baptism in Mark. In response, Gathercole says that since the divine voice calls Jesus son once again at the Transfiguration, that it is “hard to see” how the first declaration is causative of Jesus’ sonship in any sense.
Of course, scholars have argued extensively about the baptism. In particular, many, if not most, scholars see an allusion there to Ps 2 which is an enthronement Psalm. The idea that Jesus is somehow anointed (he does receive the Spirit at the baptism!) as Son-King is in keeping with both the OT precedent and Mark’s narrative. Moreover, if one reads Mark as a story and not a static set of Christological statements, it is not difficult at all to imagine that the second time God speaks the same title is used to different effect (this time, telling the disciples that Jesus understands what his kingship entails).
In a series of other indications of Jesus’ divine identity, Gathercole mentions the episode where Jesus forgives sins (Mark 2 and parallels). This is, to be sure, a divine prerogative. But the whole point of being God’s agent on the earth is to exercise divine prerogatives. In interpreting Mark 2, we should look not to the scribes’ interpretation of Jesus’ action (“Who can forgive sins but God alone?”), but to his own: “the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
Gathercole then goes into a puzzling series of interpretations of early Christian material contained in the NT, all of which indicates an exaltation Christology.
Romans 1:3-4 says that Jesus was appointed son of God at the resurrection. Ehrman rightly sees this as an “adoption” type text. We know that is correct, in part, because Paul uses the same notion of appointment, Spirit, and Jesus’s sonship, to talk about how people are adopted as God’s “sons” in Romans 8.
This is one reason I’m so worried about putting everything in the “divinity” box: it eviscerates the internal connections between the human Jesus and the salvation of humanity.
In delving into a similar exaltation formula in Acts 13:32-33, Gathercole says that we are simply to assume that the words, “You are my son, today I have become your father” do not actually say what the early church, or the writer of Acts, means. They are instead part of an OT passage that is suggestive on other grounds.
Similarly, in looking at Acts 2:36, Gathercole’s move is to say that when Peter says, “God has made him Lord and Christ,” something that happens at the resurrection, he does not mean that God made him Lord and Christ. Yes, Gathercole is right to point out that for Luke Jesus was both Lord and Christ prior to his crucifixion.
What, then, does it mean to say here that the resurrection effects these things? Gathercole says that Jesus occupies a new position vis-à-vis the world. Surely this is true. It is the position of messiah exalted to God’s right hand—otherwise known as being appointed son of God.
I do worry that Gathercole’s overall argument leaves no room for a transformation in the life of the human Jesus and thereby denies not only the basis of our hope as humans, but also the orthodox faith he seems keen to preserve. Here is an example of what I mean.
When talking about Jesus’ glorified body, Gathercole claims, “in being freed from physical weakness, suffering, and death, he is really returning to his preexistent condition rather than being elevated to a brand new physical state” (p. 114).
So not only was Jesus divine before his incarnation, he was incarnate before his incarnation? This resurrection “body” he has, with all its physicality (yes, this is what Gathercole is talking about, a state “material and physical” (p. 112), is nothing other than the condition Christ had before becoming human?
This is incompatible with every NT description of Jesus’ resurrection, with every Jewish depiction of the non-physicality of God, and dare I say, it is virtually Gnostic in its denial of the ongoing significance of the human, embodied life of Jesus.
Did Jesus escape human physicality in order to “return to his preexistent condition”? This is heresy.
Did Jesus not enter a brand new physical state? Then all the hope Paul hinges on just such a transformation in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8 is lost to us. Our faith is worthless. We are still in our sins. There is no new creation.
I don’t think Gathercole things any of these things, actually. But I do think that the chapter unwittingly bears witness to the problem of having our eyes so screwed to the goal of defending every facet of the early Christian witness as bearing testimony to Jesus’ divinity. It pushes our Christology off the one side of the horse, landing it on the ground on the God side, with nothing of any significance left on the human side.
In all, I simply disagree with Gathercole about any number of exegetical moves. In these disagreements, I find that the notion of a Christ, a human being empowered to act for God in the world, is muted in Gathercole’s rendering, in a way that fails to do justice to the stories that contain it.