I am a card-carrying member of The Early High Christology Club (EHCC). Well, in the spirit of full disclosure we don’t actually have cards, we have a mug. It is a highly sought-after prize. If you are mug-worthy and see one, do everything you can short of stealing it to get one. Carey Newman of Baylor University Press, also an EHCC charter member, made the first investment in the mugs. A bit of explanation is in order.
The Early High Christology Club is a loose affiliation of scholars who have written books or articles arguing that the early followers of Jesus—as early as we have evidence—had a high Christology, that is, their assessment of his significance included that he was, in some sense, divine. Now this is actually an historical conclusion based on our reading of the literary evidence; it does not depend on any confession. The earliest evidences we have in the New Testament or any Christian sources are the letters of Paul; so much of this historical construct has been built upon a close reading of his letters. There are all sorts of issues involved: how did Paul and other NT writers express their “Christology”? what kind of language was used? where did that language come from? how does this comport with their reading of the Christian Bible, the Septuagint? how early is “early”? how high is “high”? –how did these early Jewish Christians regard Jesus as divine without setting aside their monotheistic heritage? Paul, for example, claims to be a monotheist and yet he appears to regard Jesus as divine (e.g., 1 Cor 8.6; Phil 2:5-11). If Jesus were divine, then did early Christians worship him? If so, did they worship him the same way they would have worshiped God?
Not all people agree, of course, with the members of the EHCC. There is the Late, Low and Slow Club (LLSC)—though I don’t think they have a mug—which concludes that the early followers of Jesus regarded him as a human being only. Many decades later when Christianity moved beyond the constraints of its Jewish heritage, Christians began to regard Jesus as divine. The LLSC posits a lengthy period of development from a low to a high Christology, anywhere from 60 to 100 years. Now, members of the EHCC also posit a period of development in the Church’s Christology, but they think this development happened rapidly, perhaps even within a few years after Jesus’ crucifixion.
The EHCC meets regularly and informally at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Carey Newman and Larry Hurtado, distinguished (now retired) Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh, co-sponsor the annual gathering. Carey provides the room. Larry brings the food and drink. Stories are told. Friends catch up. There is a lot of laughter. At a given moment in our gathering someone recites our founding myth. Some who have heard it say that it is so good it cannot possibly be true; but those of us who were there know it happened just as we say.
I’ve been inspired recently by posts from Dr. Creig Marlowe and some comments I heard recently by N. T. Wright. There is some new thinking here for me, but as Ecclesiastes reminds us: “there is nothing new under the sun.”
It has to do with a series of binaries in Genesis 1. Here is a list:
1.1 heavens and earth
1.4 light and darkness
1.5 evening and morning
1.9-10 seas and dry land
1.14 sun and moon
1.27 male and female
These binaries form complementary pairs which are not only created by God but participate with God in the next steps of creation. In a way they become co-creators with God because they provide the raw materials for the coming days of creation. There is a logic to the days of creation which you have probably already noticed. Days 1-3 provide the raw materials and realms into which the creatures of days 4-6 live (I use the term “creature” here not so much as a living thing but a thing which is created):
Day 1 light Day 4 sun, moon, and stars
Day 2 sky and waters Day 5 birds and fish
Day 3 dry land Day 6 land creatures and humanity
This structure is intentional at several levels but it does show order coming from chaos, countering the formless and void state described in Genesis 1.2.
Dr. Marlowe is correct that some of these binaries form a hendiadys (literally, one through two). A hendiadys is an expression of a single idea by the use of two words often connected with “and” or some other conjunction. “His legal case is not black and white” uses a hendiadys. “Black and white” is not describing the color of the case but essentially that the facts of the case are not clear. In Genesis 1.1 “heavens and earth” describe not so much two things but one for which there is no Hebrew word “the universe.” “Heaven” means everything above your head and “earth” means everything below your feet, in a sense then everything. That is why we translated Gen 1.1 in The Voice: In the beginning God created everthing, the heavens above, the earth below . . . “
Here again is our list of binaries with a suggestion of how to see the hendiadys.
1.1 heavens and earth = the universe
1.4 light and darkness = the progression of time
1.5 evening and morning = a day
1.9-10 seas and dry land = the earth
1.14 sun and moon = signs and seasons (again, the progression of time)
1.27 male and female = humanity
In each case God, as it were, turns to the created thing to invite it to work with him in the ongoing task of creation. So, for example, God says to the earth to bring forth vegetation, plants and seeds (1:11-12). He says to the waters/seas and the skies: bring forth fish and birds (1.20-23). Then God says to the land: bring forth land creatures of every kind (1.24-25). When God says, “let us make humanity . . . ” people have wondered about the “us.” Is God speaking to and for the Trinity? Not necessarily. That certainly is one way Christians have read the text. Given everything that has gone on so far in Genesis 1, however, I think God is speaking to the created order itself. The “us” would include God, the sun, moon, stars, waters, seas, dry land, and other land creatures. Human beings are made up of the same elements as the stars, the earth, and all the critters. Now, I’m not arguing that we should have a scientific reading of Genesis; what I am suggesting is that there is an internal logic to the creation story of Genesis 1: God creates something and then uses that creation to create the next thing. In this way all things are dependent and related. Genesis 2 reinforces this when it says that God sculpted Adam/humanity from the earth/dust and breathed in him the breath of life (2.7-9). So Adam is made up of previously created elements along with the divine breath.
The final binary “male and female” deserves special attention. Male and female make up one thing, humanity, and this humanity reflects the image of God. But it is in their differences, their complementarities that male and female reflect the imago dei. Male has no greater claim than female on imaging God. It is in their union together and distinctions from one another that God’s likeness is on full display. We live at a time when people want to deny or erase the male-female distinction: to do so is to assault humanity itself and diminish God in the process. Here is the commentary embedded at Genesis 1:27 in The Voice:
The crown of God’s creation is a new creature, a creature that can sound the heartbeat of its Creator. That creature, made male and female, reflects God’s own relational richness. The human family is to join God in the ongoing work of creation. The earth below and the sky above with all their inhabitants are too beautiful and too good to be left alone. They need the tender care and close attention that only God’s favored creature can give.
In Genesis 1:28ff. God blesses the humans and gives them the prime directive: be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. In other words, humans are now directed to participate with God in the ongoing work of creation. God no longer creates ex nihilo. He uses preexisting elements and persons in order to fashion the next generation. Through the sexual union male and female become one flesh and life as we know it goes on.
The university where I teach, Houston Baptist University, is hosting a consultation this week for the International Orality Network. I will be attending the consultation and learning all I can regarding this new and important missions emphasis that recognizes that most of the world consists of people who are oral preference learners. What excites me about the movement is that they focus on sharing the gospel by learning to tell great stories from the Bible in the mother language of the unreached people. This is exactly what we hoped to do with The Voice Bible.
One of the articles I read in preparation for the consultation is from Tom A. Steffen, former professor at Biola University and missionary for 20 years in the Philippines. In an article entitled, “Why Communicate the Gospel through Stories?” Steffen tells his own story about trying to teach new believers a simple version of systematic theology in the Ifugao language (one of Philippine dialects). Basically, his teaching fell flat because he insisted on relating the content using a western model of education, that is, teaching propositions and concepts. When he saw it wasn’t working, he decided to join his content with some wonderful stories from the Old Testament. He told stories of creation, the fall, Cain and Abel, the flood, and other stories on his way to telling the Jesus story. Once Steffen switched from teaching propositions and concepts to stories, the people caught on, got excited, and began to catch the essence of God’s redemptive love and purposes for the world.
I’ve said all along that human beings are hard-wired to tell stories. God has built that into our minds and hearts. So we are at our bests when we do tell stories. And we are good at it. Go on a trip and have something interesting happen to you and you can’t wait to tell someone. You call your best friend and tell them what happened. You put it on facebook. You may tweet it out. The point is that we are great producers and consumers of stories.
In the article I read Steffen quoted a statistic which I did know. I probably could have guessed at these numbers and gotten close but it is good to see it in print by someone who knows. Here is what he said: the Scriptures contain three kinds of literature: stories, poetry, and thought-organized material. Stories make up 75% of the Bible. Poetry makes up 15%. And thought-organized comprises the remaining 10%. By thought-organized he was referring to a good bit of Paul’s letters that make logical, linear arguments. But as N. T. Wright and others have pointed out, a lot of Paul’s theologizing involves retelling the essentially Jewish story around Jesus; so for Paul Jesus is the climax of the covenant story. In other words, even when Paul is making an argument for a particular idea (e.g., the resurrection of Jesus, the centrality of the cross) he is nibbling around the edges of narrative.
Amazing isn’t it that God chose primarily to reveal himself to us in these marvelous stories. I would have probably guessed that poetry was a higher percentage. I’d be interested to know how these decisions were made. For example, of Job’s 40+ chapters, all but 2 ½ are poetry. But Job’s poetry still tells a story. We might call it poetic narratives. The creation “story” in Genesis 1 is very poetic in its form. So how are these classified? I don’t know. And what about all the Proverbs, were they classified as poetry? I think they probably should have been because they are written in Hebrew poetic style.
It excites me to think is that in doing The Voice Bible we did something very different from other translations. We invited story-tellers, novelists, poets, and song-writers to help us retell the stories and poetry of Scripture. Scholars are very good at the technical bits of translation but we aren’t good at telling a story or of capturing the beauty and rhythm of a good poem. That’s why I think The Voice Bible has come of age when it has; we are moving deeper into a digital age that still recognizes the value of orality. Some scholars have taken to calling it a “digitoral age.” (I’m grateful to Dr. Samuel Chiang, executive director of the International Orality Network, for this useful term.) Too often we’ve tried to analyze the biblical stories using western logic to break them down into (4) points all beginning with the letter “P.” This way of preaching and teaching has had a tendency to obscure the story and make it hard to remember. Storytelling—God’s preferred method—has a way of capturing both the heart and mind for the sake of kingdom purposes.
If you’d like to know more about the International Orality Network, check out their website: http://www.orality.net/
Last week I traveled to Arlington TX to B. H. Carroll Theological Institute (bhcarroll.edu). Founded in the 1990s, the institution exists to provide graduate-level theological education for men and women who are called to serve Christ in the diverse and global ministries of His church. My professor, Dr. Bruce Corley, was founding president and continues in retirement to help direct the effort. I can’t begin to describe how influential he has been on a generation of scholars and church leaders. B. H. Carroll is the second largest seminary in Texas with students around the world in Russia, Cuba, Vietnam and China. They have a great model for how to do education in this technological world. They keep overhead low and are making a difference in the lives of many people.
Every spring BHCTI holds a colloquy for its PhD students. There have been many times I have wanted to attend but final exams and grading have typically interfered. But this time I got a special dispensation to turn my grades in just a wee bit late. Thanks to my dean.
In addition to sharing with these pastors and church leaders about The Voice Bible project, I had the privilege of listening and responding to Dr. Craig Keener, professor at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky.
The topic for the colloquy was “Jesus and Mighty Works.” Much of the discussion has centered around Dr. Keener’s two volume work Miracles: The Credibility of New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011). It is the best book available on miracles as a modern phenomenon. Dr. Keener brought together a staggering number of accounts from the modern world about miracles that are taking place now in order to help us understand the miracles in the Bible. Keener said that these two volumes (1100 pages) began as a footnote in his Acts commentary regarding eyewitness accounts of miracles. Some people (known as cessationists) have claimed that miracles stopped centuries ago when the Bible was complete. Dr. Keener offers ample evidence to the contrary. Others are skeptical about miracles because they have never seen one, but Keener finds easily over 200,000,000 people who claim to have had direct experience with ‘extranormal’ events. He interviewed scientists, doctors, and eyewitnesses from several continents.
In the 18th century David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, argued that miracles are impossible because they violate natural law and are only testified among uncivilized and uneducated folks. Keener does a masterful job at deconstructing Hume’s argument and showing that his perspective is based on an ethnocentric bias against non-whites. Essentially, Hume rejected the testimony of the majority of people in the world because they were not educated in western culture. He then declared that “uniform human experience” tells us that miracles do not occur. Apparently, the “us” Hume was referring to were Scottish professors living in the 18th century. “Uniform human experience” only applied to Hume and his friends.
If you are curious whether miracles are still happening today, you will be amazed at the evidence Keener produces. Not only are miracles still happening but they are more common than you think.
Over the last decade I have given a good deal of thought and effort to exploring what it means to imitate Christ. Recently I sat down with Dr. Holly Ordway to discuss what it means and how we go about it. I have two academic articles on it which I hope to make available here on my blog soon. Stay tuned. In the meantime, take a listen.
Scholars have been weighing in on the badly named “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” fragment since Harvard University’s Karen King announced it about 20 months ago. Now after publication in the Harvard Theological Review, closer scrutiny by scholars has almost certainly determined the fragment is a forgery. By whom we do not know?
The most up-to-date presentation of the details can be found on Mark Goodacre’s blog on May 5, 2014. Here is the link:
Forgeries of antiquities are nothing new. A lot of money has been made by creating fake relics and smuggling them out of their supposed countries of origin. Likewise, careers have been made (and sometimes broken) by scholars who discover and argue for the authenticity of new documents, particularly when those documents present information which goes against the prevailing knowledge of a field.
Let’s not be too hard on Dr. Karen King and Harvard University. This is exactly how scholarship is supposed to work. Research is conducted and ideas are put forward by a scholar in a publication. Those ideas are tested and examined by another group of scholars. Over time–it sometimes takes several years–the truth comes out.
Jack Wisdom and I taught a Lenten series at Ecclesia Houston on the Imitation of Christ. Jack is an elder at Ecclesia and one of the scholar-writers who helped us with the translation. He is a lawyer during the day and a New Testament scholar all the time. He is a good friend, and I admire the way he carefully reads through the Scripture.
One of my favorite biblical texts urging us to follow Jesus and have his mind is Philippians 2.5-11. It is one of those passages I think about and quote often. At the heart of it is an early Christian hymn that sets the story of Jesus within poetic verse. A lot of modern translations obscure the fact it is a hymn. The New American Standard Version (NASV), for example, formats every verse like a paragraph so you never really know you’re dealing with a hymn. Now I like the NASV, but that is one of its shortcomings. In The Voice we decided to take seriously not only the words but the forms as well.
The Bible contains more than prose. It contains poems, hymns, acrostics, and wordplays. Now, to be honest there are aspects of the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic that you cannot replicate in another language; but there are features which you can at least attempt to bring over into the target language—in our case English. For example, Lamentations is written in an acrostic poem. So our scholar-writer Dr. Kristin Swenson, research professor at the University of Virginia, did an excellent job at approximating the look, sound, and meaning of the Hebrew acrostic. An acrostic is a type of poem where each line or set of lines begins with a new letter in alphabetic order: A, B, C, etc. It’s a challenge to do because English has more letters than Hebrew. Still we sensed there was beauty and meaning in the form. Take a look at how we did Lamentations 3. If you don’t have a copy of The Voice, you can always look it up on www.biblegateway.com.
Back to Philippians 2. Here is how we translated the Philippian hymn to Christ.
Though He was in the form of God,
He chose not to cling to equality with God;
7 But He poured Himself out to fill a vessel brand new;
a servant in form
and a man indeed.
The very likeness of humanity,
8 He humbled Himself,
obedient to death—
a merciless death on the cross!
9 So God raised Him up to the highest place
and gave Him the name above all.
10 So when His name is called,
every knee will bow,[a]
in heaven, on earth, and below.
11 And every tongue will confess[b]
“Jesus, the Anointed One, is Lord,”
to the glory of God our Father!
The hymn captures the career of Jesus from his preexistent glory with God to his incarnation, suffering and then exaltation. Paul urges the Philippians to have the same mind (2:5). Larry Hurtado, retired New Testament professor at the University of Edinburgh, offered a phrase a few years ago that has helped me think about this. Jesus, he said, is “the lordly example” of humility and service. Most lords through history have demanded others serve them. This Lord emptied himself, humbled himself and ultimately gave his life for others. We can’t do those actions, but we can strive to have the same mind. Now that we are beyond the Lenten season, my hope is that we might follow the lordly example of Jesus in service to God, his people, and his creation.
Many thanks to David Taylor and Paul Owen who hosted me recently at Montreat College in western North Carolina. I had a wonderful time sharing with hundreds of students, faculty, and staff in class and in chapel. Their students asked some great questions. Some of which I’m still pondering and hope to answer later, here on this blog. Montreat College is a great school in one of the most beautiful settings I’ve ever seen. I can see why people want to go there to study, hike, and do life together.