In his book Echoes of Scripture in the Gospel (Baylor University Press, 2016) Richard Hays makes a compelling case that the four NT Gospels, taken together and individually, identify Jesus as the embodiment (incarnation) of the God of Israel. He reaches this conclusion after probing the Jewish and Old Testament roots of the Gospel stories.
Now this presents a challenge to a number of scholars who have assumed that Gospels like Mark and Luke offer a “low” Christology, that is, an image of Jesus as prophet and Messiah but not divine. He goes on to say that it may be time to retire terms like “high” and “low” Christology because they presuppose a developmental scheme, a movement from low to high or human to divine as if these categories can be easily distinguished. Scholars such as Maurice Casey, Jimmy Dunn and, more recently, Bart Ehrman have made the developmental case. The presupposition driving such analyses has been that the first Jewish followers of Jesus would have been prevented from associating the man Jesus with the God of Israel because of their monotheistic heritage. Once the Jesus movement drifted into Gentile territory where there were gods-a-plenty, such scruples could be easily compromised.
Hays is quick to say that bold, even audacious claims about Jesus’ linkage with the God of Israel do not preclude the Gospels’ portrayal of “human” Jesus, a Jesus who truly suffers and dies, a Jesus who hungers, thirsts, grows weary, like the rest of us. For the evangelists it was not an all or nothing proposition.
I’m sympathetic with Hays’ call to retire the terms. But I’m not sure what to put in their place. Is there a single term which can unite those claims that Jesus is human like the rest of us with Jesus is divine like the God of Israel? In private correspondence Prof. Hays writes that he likes the phrase used by Richard Bauckham “divine identity Christology.” But does this reflect sufficiently the full and true humanity of Jesus? I have also used that phrase because I find it useful.
In a sense that is what these discussions are about; how might we frame the Jesus-talk of the earliest Christians? Other than repeating and explaining what we sense they meant when they used titles and echoed Scriptural language and applied it to Jesus we are often in search for language which describes, portrays, and otherwise adequately reflects these convictions.
I have to confess I’m partial to the language of “low” and “high” Christology for a number of reasons. Despite the assumption of development from low to high culturally and chronologically with which the phrases are often laden, I think the terms can be useful if they are carefully nuanced. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a mug-carrying member of the Early High Christology Club. Still, I’d be interested to know if you think there is language out there which might help us have more fruitful discussions about early Christology.