Tag Archives: Christology

Strike the Shepherd–And God Becomes King

This morning’s musings had me in Zechariah. Zechariah 9-14 depicts a time of failure, punishment, and restoration.

The movement, the hopes, and the casting of the roles have the power to shape our imaginations about what God’s promised salvation looks like.

First, the hope of the people is thoroughly messianic. They will be given a king. This is the source of the people’s hope and joy. The king will bring peace. The king will reign over the whole earth.

It is from these hopes of a coming, Davidic messiah that Matthew draws his interpretation of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem: “He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey” (Zech 9:9, CEB).

Second, this is a time when the people are exalted. When YHWH protects Jerusalem, “anyone who stumbles will become like David, and David’s house will become like God, like YHWH’s messenger in front of them” (Zech 12:8).

This time of exaltation is one where people “play up”: they are assigned roles that do not fit them by nature, but to which they are exalted because of God’s great act of salvation.

Everyone is like a king.

David is like God.

Third, the great act of Israel’s salvation is the time when God becomes king.

This is the genius in the title of N. T. Wright’s book, How God Became King. It recognizes that for God to actualize God’s kingship over the earth, certain earthly realities have to be in place.

YHWH will become king over all the land. (Zech 14:9)

The people all come to Jerusalem to honor the king–who is YHWH (Zech 14:16).

Now, I’m sure my friends who are scholars of the Hebrew Bible will tell me that the varied visions of Zech 9-14 represent different theological strands and corresponding expectations for the future. O.k.

But in the book of Zechariah they all sit there next to each other: God becomes king precisely when the Davidic kingship is restored and the faithful king on earth becomes like God, leading the people in peace and righteousness.

We need to have our minds shaped by this fusion of heaven and earth: the claims scripture invites us to make about earthly events such as the coronation of a messiah are woven together with claims about God.

This is because, from the beginning, the role of people is to play the role of God upon the earth (Gen 1:26-28). To play roles typically assigned to God, or to say that God is at work, is not to say that a person is divine, but to say that God is present precisely in the way that God has always intended to be–through a faithful humanity.

In order to rediscover how it is that Jesus brings the biblical story to its fulfillment, we have to recognize that an absolute narratological necessity is this: a human king must be the agent of God’s salvation, so that God may be king through the reign of a faithful messiah.

On Being Son of God

There once was a person who received the Spirit of God.

With the reception of this Spirit, the man became something he was not before: God’s own son.

Knowing that God was father, and protector, and deliverer, he implored God for deliverance in the face of suffering: Abba! Father!

But deliverance, and entry into glory, would only come after suffering.

This person, of course, is any person who has been united to Christ. This biography of adoption, hope, importunity, suffering, and glory, is Paul’s description of people who have received the Spirit (Rom 8:12-17).

Every Christian.

But perhaps you heard another story?

Perhaps you heard the story of Jesus?

Perhaps you heard the story of Jesus at his baptism being given the Spirit, and the voice from heaven saying, “You are my beloved son?”

Perhaps you got annoyed that I said this was a becoming, rather than an affirmation of what Jesus had been all along?

Perhaps you knew that Abba! Father! was Jesus’ prayer?

Perhaps you recognized that it is Jesus’ suffering that resolves in glory, first of all?

Perhaps we need to be so confused on a more regular basis. Perhaps we have gotten so in the habit of recognizing the bits of Jesus that we imagine to be unrepeatable, utterly unique, that we have missed the opportunities we’re given to recognize that Jesus’ life in relationship to God is a picture of a human life perfectly in step with the Creator.

We receive the Spirit of sonship, because Jesus first was appointed son (cf. Rom 1:4). We are led by the Spirit that led, indeed drove, Jesus into the wilderness and empowered him in a life of kingdom-bringing, death-defeating power. We cry abba, father because we are sons bearing the likeness of the firstborn son. We are heirs of this father because we share our elder brother’s inheritance.

The God who only said “very good” over the creation after the creation of people to mediate God’s own presence to it, did not give up on that plan. It is renewed in “the human, Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5).

How God Became Jesus: Part 3 in Review of the Evangelical Response to Bart Ehrman

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.

Resurrection and Enthronement

It’s Easter.

For Christians, it’s always Easter, of course, even when we play the Lent game and embrace the cross for forty days per year.

This matters. I’m not just being a curmudgeon. If there’s one thing that matters for Christianity, it’s that it’s Easter. Jesus has been raised from the dead.

As the annual celebration is still coursing through my veins, so too are the debates about early Christology that I dove into last week. Those debates often swirl around how the disciples’ understanding of Jesus was transformed with their conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead.

And in the conjunction of church calendar and internet wrangling, I wonder if we’ve yet managed to dial in to the significance of this singular, Christianity-defining event?

Resurrection changes everything.

(Except, of course, when it doesn’t. More on that tomorrow.)

Let me start with how it changes everything for Jesus, and then I’ll come back next time with how it changes things for the people who want to follow him.

The most important words of the so-called great commission are these: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”Resurrection icon2

Here, the resurrected Jesus stakes claim to something that was not fully his before. By a gift of God, at the resurrection, Jesus has become Lord over all things.

This same idea is couched the language of “Messiah” and “Lord” in Peter’s sermon on Pentecost: “God has made him Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” In that speech, Jesus’ resurrection is the moment when he takes his seat at God’s right hand, in fulfillment of God’s promise to David.

Paul says the same thing, using the royal “son of God” language in Rom 1:4: Jesus was appointed son of God, with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.

The most important thing for us to keep our heads around as we talk about the resurrection of Jesus is that the resurrection is only significant if it is a true transformation of the human Jesus from once-dead to now-raised.

With this resurrection of the man from the clutches of death, the new creation begins to dawn.

And with the dawn of new creation comes a new image-bearing Son of God, recreated to rule the world on God’s behalf.

Resurrection means that a body has been given new life. But the connotations it bears stretch beyond the nature of the body to a particular role.

That role is the recreation of the first humans’ role, the fulfillment of the promise to David.

Now, the Human One is enthroned at God’s right hand.

This is why the most basic, and important, thing that Christians say together, the singular thing that we say in response to the resurrection, is “Jesus is Lord.”

How Jesus Became God: Final Installment in Review of Ehrman’s Latest

In the previous three reviews of How Jesus Became God, I focused on summary and positive assessments of the book. Today I want to lay out some of my quibbles.

First, Ehrman has rightly challenged us to imagine that in the first century the relationship between the divine and the human was more of a sliding scale than the either/or binary we often carry with us as moderns. And, he has done well to point to texts in which he sees “divine humans” in early Judaism.

However, as convinced as I am that the Davidic Kings as “sons of God” are crucial for making sense of the New Testament, I am not convinced that these figures were considered divine, any more than Israel as God’s firstborn son was considered divine. If I’m right that, instead, this is a way of talking about idealized human figures, then this has some significant, under-explored implications for the church’s earliest Christologies.

Second, while I generally agree with Ehrman’s historical Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet (in contrast, say, to a cynic sage), I think Ehrman is wrong to place miracle-working under “later reflections” on Jesus, in light of resurrection-divinity, rather than recognizing it as part of how the historical Jesus was known in his own day and time.

This has some possible implications for Christological development. If, as Ehrman seems to think, working miracles is part of how someone is recognized as divine in some sense, then Jesus’ being known as a miracle worker in his own time might push back speculation about divinity to before the resurrection. But, if there is no inherent link between miracle working and being uniquely divine (cf. Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Peter, Paul), then some other development in our understanding of what sort of human Jesus may have thought himself to be is probably in order.

Third, as I mentioned in my first review I thought that the extended argument against the resurrection of Jesus was gratuitous. But there was one line of argument that I found particularly weak: his argument against a burial by a member of the Sanhedrin.

This argument begins (p. 152) with Ehrman drawing our attention to the fact that Mark 14:55 says that the whole Sanhedrin was looking for evidence against Jesus, and all condemned him as deserving of death. How, then, could one of them suddenly step forward and bury Jesus through some great act of charity?

First, Ehrman over-plays the historical significance of the words “whole” and “all.” While he rightly reads those words as indicating that everyone was entailed, they are the kinds of words that find ready exceptions in historical narratives. In Mark 1:32, we hear that “all” who were sick or demon possessed were brought to Jesus. Are we to take it, then, that the healing of the hemorrhagic woman four chapters later is unhistorical, because we’ve clearly been told already that all the sick people were healed? It is perfectly possible that “all” and “whole” are told for rhetorical effect, even though not every single person was present and/or in agreement.

Second, even if every single member of the Sanhedrin was entailed in the trial, I do not find it implausible that a good natured member, after getting swept up in the moment, felt a twinge of remorse and acted on it by having Jesus buried.

Third, Ehrman underplays the burial tradition by saying that Paul knows nothing of Joseph who supposedly buried Jesus, but Paul’s articulation of the early creed in 1 Cor 15:3-4 does include “was buried.”

Fourth, where Ehrman finds a tension in the burial tradition I see confirmation from another source. In Acts 13:28-29, Paul’s sermon says that the Jewish leaders who condemned and killed Jesus were also the ones who, “when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.” This association of Jesus’ burial with the Sanhedrin seems to my mind to weigh in favor of burial by those or one of those who condemned Jesus, rather than disproof of the whole.

A final word: this book asks a legitimate question, one that has also been asked by those of more traditional Christological convictions than Ehrman. (Larry Hurtado wrote a book a few years ago entitled, How on Earth Did Jesus Become God?) The question is not “Who is Jesus?” the question being asked is, “Who did the earliest Christians think Jesus was, and how did they get these ideas?”

One of the big mistakes we make when we read the Bible is to assume that the writers shared all of our theology. We do this without being aware of it, most of the time.

Why is this a mistake?

It’s a mistake because it deafens our ears to the things that the texts might actually teach us that we don’t already know (or where we might be wrong). For instance, if we recognize that Romans 1:4 has an exaltation Christology (Jesus was appointed to be Son of God with power through his resurrection, according to the Spirit), then we can start to hear the resonance between Jesus’ own resurrection-sonship and our own, when Paul draws together spirit, resurrection, and sonship in Romans 8. If we insist that the first passage is talking about Jesus being God, then we miss the fact that Jesus’ life, and even his exaltation by God, are definitive for our own lives and identities before God.

Ehrman’s book is always provocative, at times disconcerting, and at times (I would judge) wrong. But it asks the kinds of questions that can not only make us better readers of the biblical texts, but ultimately better theologians as we understand the multiple ways that the earliest Christians reflected on the significance of Jesus as Messiah.

How Jesus Became God: Review of Ehrman’s Latest (Part 3)

“The idea that Jesus is God is not an invention of modern times, of course. As I will show in my discussion, it was the view of the very earliest Christians soon after Jesus’ death.”
How Jesus Became God, p. 3

Bart Ehrman is asking a historical question: how is it that the earliest Christians started to think of and refer to Jesus as divine, and what, exactly, did they mean by it?

Here we start to put on the table the sorts of historical background data that, by and large, determines the possibilities that folks are willing to entertain about early Christian Christology. Ehrman addresses this question on two fronts.

First, he surveys “Divine Humans in Ancient Greece and Rome.” He begins with one of his favorite “parallel” figures, Apollonius of Tyana, whose legend begins with an announcement of his birth, including an indication of his divinity. He was a preacher, exorcist, and healer, ascended to heaven and appeared to at least one doubting follower.

The point is that there are legends of miraculous births that signal divinity, and those often at the beginning of lives marked by supernatural endowments and final exaltations.

But Ehrman finds particular significance in the fact that Julius Caesar’s divinization left the title “son of God” to fall to Augustus. Augustus was acknowledged as divine both during and after his life–with a sort of divinity that could scale from less divine to more divine.

Two important conclusions follow: (1) ancient Greco-Roman people did not see God and humanity as an either/or proposition, but as a scale of possibility; and (2) “son of God” is a title given to the person who is acknowledged as ruler / lord of the world.

Ok, but that doesn’t sound very Jewish. Touché. Enter the next chapter, Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism. Here, Ehrman argues that there were divine humans even in ancient Judaism. (The point, remember, is to try to figure out what sort of categories were available to people in the first century to make sense of Jesus.)

A first claim is that there are a spectrum of divine beings in early Judaism: even if there is only one almighty God at the top of the pyramid, there are lots of other heavenly figures.

But at least one of these angelic figures is so close to God as to be, at times, interchangeable: the OT’s “angel of the Lord” (e.g., Gen 16), a figure who appears in human form, and is the means by which YHWH appears to people.

Then there are the “gods” of Ps 82 among whom God reigns.

But the list goes on: semi-divine beings in Gen 6,the son of man in Dan 7, Two powers, hypostases of God such as wisdom and the logos.

Then there are the divine humans: the kings of Israel who are “sons of God,” Moses who is made God to Pharaoh and Aaron.

Within Jewish monotheism, which Ehrman concedes to be the stance of early Jewish people, “it was widely believe that there were other divine beings.” And “Humans could be called the Son of God or even God.”

One of the main sticking points between folks of differing understandings of NT Christology has become the question of what a first-century monotheistic Jew could say of some person without transforming what they mean by monotheism. Ehrman has done a good job of reminding us that there are a lot of options on the table.

“Son of God” need not imply preexistence, in fact, it need not imply divinity at all (cf. Israel as son of God, and Christians as sons of God). But it does imply some sort of unique relationship with the Almighty.

The point is that there are a number of options open to early Christians to begin expressing devotion to Jesus without immediately reconfiguring their notions of monotheism. This needs to be taken seriously. The actual practice of rendering various figures in god-like ways is an important balance to the totalizing claims of God who will not share worship, glory, power, or sovereignty with another.

Jews have options about how to speak of exalted figures in closest possible proximity to God, even as divine, within the context of their monotheistic commitment.

As I have put my toe in the waters of these debates over the past few days, I’ve been reminded of how much of ourselves we bring to texts as interpreters. We fill in gaps and assume interpretations, often without realizing it.

One of the great values of Ehrman’s survey of early divine figures is to create the possibility in our minds that when we see language like “God” or “son of God” or “son of man,” that there may be a connotation for a first-century Jew or first-century Roman that is not the connotation of someone who has been shaped by the past 2,000 years of Christological reflection.

I have a few more things to say about this book, so stay tuned for a final installment in the next couple of days.

How Jesus Became God: Review of Bart Ehrman’s Latest (Part 2)

In part one of this review, I laid out some of Ehrman’s basic commitments and conclusions. In particular, Ehrman recognizes that the earliest and most historically reliable Jesus traditions do not include indications that Jesus spoke of himself as divine. The evidence seems to point toward early Christians reassessing Jesus’ identity based on the conviction that he had been raised from the dead.

But Ehrman does not subscribe to some sort of totalizing evolutionary narrative, in which early Christology is “low” and subsequent Christologies get gradually “higher.”

Ehrman reaches back to the character of the “angel of the Lord” from the OT to provide a framework for understanding how early Christians interpreted Jesus as one who was preexistent and divine. This character would sometimes be differentiated from God, but sometimes spoken of as though it is none other than God.

Ehrman maintains that Paul, the earliest Christian writer to which we have access, held to an “incarnation Christology”: a Christology in which Jesus was a preexistent, heavenly figure.

In this discussion, he offers one of the most intriguing suggestions of the whole book; namely, that when Paul says to the Galatians, “You received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus himself,” he speaks a hendiadys: the “angel of God” is none other than “Christ Jesus.” Such an identification intends to suggest that Paul sees Jesus as God’s chief angel, the angel of the Lord who is so closely joined to Yahweh, that the two figures are often conflated.

In a subsequent section, Ehrman addresses the so-called Christ hymn of Philippians 2. Although he disputes the idea that it was a sung hymn, he agrees that it represents a pre-Pauline tradition.

Moreover, he agrees with the majority reading that sees in the hymn an incarnation Christology: Christ was in the form of God before emptying himself and becoming human. He was not yet considered equal with God the Father (he had to be given that name above every name), but this is still an extraordinarily high Christology.

EhrmanPut those two things together and this is what you get: the so-called Christ hymn bears witnesses to an incarnation Christology as early, possibly, as the 40s, or within less than twenty years of Jesus’ death. As Ehrman goes on to say:

We don’t know how soon Christians started thinking of Jesus not merely as a man who had become an angel or an angel-like being, but as an angel–or some other divine being–who preexisted his appearance on earth. But it must have been remarkably early in the Christian tradition. This view did not originate with the Gospel of John, as I used to believe… It was in place well before Paul’s letters, as evidenced in the fact that the pre-Pauline Christ poem of Philippians attests it, as does Paul himself in scattered and sometimes frustratingly vague references throughout his writings.

That is why in yesterday’s post I had the audacity to give Ehrman a place in the Early High Christology Club: he strongly suggests that incarnation Christology antedates every extant Christian document we have.

Next time I want to dig a bit more deeply into why Ehrman thinks an early Jewish person could identify someone as divine without entirely reimagining or abandoning Jewish “monotheism.”

How Jesus Became God: Review of Bart Ehrman’s Latest (Part 1)

As I came to the end of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, I had three major take-aways:

  1. Ehrman has just cemented his seat at the table of the Early High Christology Club, claiming that within twenty years of Jesus’ death people were already proclaiming him as preexistent God.
  2. I can’t believe that Christians are so worked up about the Christology of this book, which is basically on target and that argues for Jesus being regarded as God “shockingly early,” as Larry Hurtado would put it.
  3. My biggest disagreements come from my own conviction that “idealized human figures” occupy a good deal of the space that Ehrman assigns to divinity. In other words, I’m not as convinced as Ehrman that Jesus is reflected as “divine” across the diversity of NT literature in which he claims to find it.

In a nutshell, here is Ehrman’s thesis: Jesus was a peasant and apocalyptic preacher from Galilee whose life and identity began to be reinterpreted by his followers after they became convinced that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

In other words, this is not a book about how Jesus “became” divine, but how Christians came to regard Jesus as divine. It is a historical investigation into the development of Christology, not a theological assessment or claim that Jesus “really wasn’t” but then “came to be [considered]” God.

I don’t think that Ehrman’s basic thesis, that the Christology of the early church was a matter of post-resurrection reflection, should be all that controversial. The Synoptic Gospels show us that the disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ ministry, pretty much at all, and that it is only after the resurrection as depicted in Luke that the twelve have their eyes opened to understand not only the scriptures, but the words Jesus spoke while still with them. (NB: Richard Hays has argued something similar.)

Ehrman’s depiction of the historical Jesus as apocalyptic prophet entails two major threads: (1) Jesus preached a coming judgment at the hands of the Son of Man, whom Jesus thought to be someone other than himself; and yet (2) Jesus considered himself Messiah (but not God).

On the latter point, especially, Ehrman’s claim seems to be on target. The Synoptic Gospels do not depict Jesus making claims to his own divinity. That is the later work of John. In particular, Ehrman will go on to argue that the Synoptics, written later than Paul, nonetheless reflect a “lower” Christology than Paul’s. What this means is that the Synoptics were written at a time when some people did believe in the divinity of the earthly Jesus, and that it would have been quite easy to reflect this belief in the teachings and/or Jesus’ self-claims of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But it’s not there.

So, if Jesus did not consider himself God, why did his disciples?

Generally, I agree with Ehrman’s answer: their reassessments of Jesus are generated by their belief in the resurrection is on target. And yet this also brings up two of my greatest qualms about the book.

First, there are two chapters totaling some 82 pages (22% of the book) on the historical question of Jesus’ resurrection. While these chapters are interesting and present some fascinating data and arguments, they are largely irrelevant for the thesis of the book. At a couple of points, Ehrman indicates that it’s not really important to know whether or not the resurrection happened; what matters is that the disciples (or at least, some of them) believed that it did, and this in turn set off the process of reimagining Jesus’ identity. Why, then, provide 82 pages talking about why you think the resurrection probably didn’t happen?

To be clear, I don’t object to the chapters because of the wholesale doubt they articulate about Jesus being buried and raised–I think there’s an important place for this question to be asked in a historical Jesus book or book about the resurrection per se. But it felt to me like the chapters were included more for the purpose of laying out such doubt than for the purpose of furthering the book’s argument about how, in historical terms, the Galilean peasant came to be regarded as divine.

Second, in my view Ehrman jumps too quickly to the idea that the exaltation of Jesus is a divinization.

He does well to point out passages in the Psalms such as the royal “begetting” of the king as God’s son in Ps 2 and the declaration in Ps 45 that the king is “God.” Moreover, Ps 110 does become a heightened song of praise when Jesus is seen as “the Lord” enthroned, literally, at God’s right hand. And, he is surely correct to argue that applying such passages to Jesus was part of the process of reinterpreting Jesus’ identity as a glorified, heavenly messianic figure.

But does all of this mean that the king of Israel was thought to be divine, or that these psalms were so interpreted in Jesus’ case?

I think there is another explanation, an explanation we get hints of in a couple of places where Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation/enthronement is precisely the question at hand.

In Acts 2, when Peter gives a speech that is largely about the resurrection of Jesus fulfilling the promises of a coming messiah, he provides a quite plausible and sufficient Christology: “Jesus was a man attested by God.”

It may be that there is far more capacity for human beings to be exalted, heavenly figures than Ehrman has taken stock of.

Similarly, “the resurrection chapter” in 1 Corinthians 15, which is also an enthronement/exaltation chapter, the entire point is that Jesus is the first of a new kind of humanity. Jesus is not raised as God, which would nullify the whole argument about the “second man” who determines the destiny of the rest of the harvest, but as “consummated, idealized humanity.”

In my estimation, recognizing the place of exalted human beings to play the role of God throughout the Jewish tradition modulates some of Ehrman’s claims that the resurrection causes Jesus to be regarded as a divine figure in, e.g., the Synoptic Gospels. While I agree with him that the Synoptic Tradition contains an “exlatation” Christology that is an extraordinarily high Christology, I see this as an exalted, idealized human Christology, not a divine Christology per se.

In other words, my dissatisfaction has to do with the Christology being too “high”/divine in his reading of the Synoptic Gospels and a couple of other strands of the early Christian tradition. But then, that’s my own hundreds of pages of research in the works, not Ehrman’s.

Here endeth Part 1 of my review: in general, I think Ehrman is right that Jesus’ identity is interpreted by his disciples in light of their conviction about the resurrection; moreover, I agree that an exaltation/adoption Christology helps make sense of the somewhat tentative nods toward divinity we find in the Synoptics while they nonetheless depict Jesus residing at the center of the work of God’s coming Kingdom.

But if we say that these documents, written in the 60s-80s don’t imagine Jesus as a preexistent divine being, what are we supposed to do about Paul, the Christ hymn in Phil 2, and the like? Stay tuned…

Jewish Anticipations of a Suffering Christ

Was a suffering Messiah a surprise?

It need not have been: there were psalms of a suffering, lamenting king. There was Isaiah 53. Plenty of precedent existed for claiming that the Messiah would die. And, the NT writers depict this suffering as the focal point of the OT’s anticipations of Jesus (e.g., Luke 24).

In his final argument for the Jewish nature of the early church’s claims, Daniel Boyarin argues that a suffering Messiah is at home in the exegetical traditions of Judaism.

He wants to argue that the church’s construction of a suffering messiah is not a theology that was created after the fact, in light of its conviction that the suffering one was (and is) the Messiah, but a category that was already extant and applied to Jesus.

The chapter does not accomplish this.

What it accomplishes instead is the following: Boyarin demonstrates that one can use traditional Jewish hermeneutical moves to demonstrate from scripture that the Messiah had to die.

While he shows that the biblical interpretation is Jewish, he does not demonstrate that these moves had been made previous to the church’s claims about Jesus, such that he was simply fitting into one possible type of expected Messiah.

In fact, one might argue in parallel with Qumran that after-the-fact readings of Scripture in light of the realities being experienced by one’s community are, themselves, a hallmark of the type of midrash Boyarin sees in play in early Christianity.

He states on p. 132:

The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent.

What evidence does he offer?

He offers two arguments:

(1) The exegetical methods used in the Gospels are perfectly traditional Jewish, midrashic moves.
(2) Such an understanding of the Messiah as one who must suffer, in step with say Isa 53, continues in the later period of the Talmud, etc.

In other words, the evidence of non-Christian Jews making these precise moves comes from texts a couple hundred years later than the NT.

I think that Boyarin is offering in this chapter an excellent, challenging reading of Daniel 7 as a suffering son of man. In fact, I think that we should mine the suffering of the saints in Daniel 7 as part of what Jesus refers to when he says the son of man must suffer before entering his glory. I’ve not researched this possibility, but I’ve thought there might be something to it, and Boyarin encourages more research along these lines.

But to say that the NT writers use a Jewish way of talking about Jesus, and Jewish exegetical methods to demonstrate his messianic identity, is a very different thing from saying that they are putting Jesus into an already extant category of suffering messiah.

Such a category may have existed, but Boyarin has not shown it.

That Jews in the Talmudic period and later depicted a coming suffering Messiah in step with Isa 53, for example, does constitute an interesting piece of circumstantial evidence. It would have been easy, in the wake of the separation between Christianity and Judaism, to leave such argumentation entirely in the hands of the Christians. But arguing backwards a few hundred years is tricky business.

I have a few overall thoughts about Boyarin’s challenging and provocative book, including a revisiting of Jesus’ declaring all foods clean in Mk 7. So look for one more pass at Boyarin in the coming days.

On Being Greater Than Angels

Since yesterday’s post on interpreting difficult OT passages continues to generate vigorous discussion, I encourage you to read that post and jump into the fray.

Spread Good Theology: Click the Pic To Buy the Shirt!

But, not wanting to deprive you of something fresh for today, I thought I’d follow up ever so briefly on the idea that ancient Jewish people might have held idealized humanity to occupy a higher place in the cosmic order than angels.

This time, the indication comes from Paul:

When someone in your assembly has a legal case against another member, do they dare to take it to court to be judged by people who aren’t just, instead of by God’s people? Or don’t you know that God’s people will judge the world? If the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to judge trivial cases? Don’t you know that we will judge angels? Why not ordinary things? (1 Cor 6:1-3, CEB)

First, we need to be aware that Paul has in mind an idealized humanity as those who judge the world for God. Those who are “in Christ” will play this role: “Don’t you know that God’s people will judge the world?”

In other words, this is not about “humanity” as such being higher than angels, but idealized humanity, those who are in the second and last and glorified Adam.

Second, the judgment God’s people exercise extends not merely to the world but also to the angels.

In Paul’s cosmology, redeemed humanity occupies a higher place in the cosmic order than angels. This overflows beyond the talk of judgment into other exalted functions such as ruling over the age to come (Rom 5:17).