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Early Christian Hymns

The first generation of Christ followers gathered regularly in house churches for instruction, encouragement and worship.  A central part of these gatherings was the chanting and singing of hymns.  Explicit reference to the use of hymns in the Christian church is found in Paul’s admonition to sing psalms (psalmoi), hymns (humnoi)  and spirituals songs (ōdē) with gratitudeto God (Col 3:16; cf. Eph 5:19-20).  These three terms likely refer to the practice of using the biblical Psalter along with distinctly Christian compositions.  The worship of God with hymns had its immediate background in Jewish synagogue practices.  Psalms, particularly messianic psalms, were used by early believers to express uniquely Christian perspectives on God’s recent actions in the world. Likewise, Eph 1:3-14 is constructed on a Jewish hymn-pattern known as the berakah (“blessed is . . . “). While the pattern is clearly Jewish, the author used it in a way that is explicitly Christian.  Gentile believers too would have also been accustomed to hymn-singing in the ethos of Greco-Roman religion. 

Scholars have detected hymns and hymn fragments throughout the Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation utilizing various criteria including introductory phrases (e.g., “therefore it says,” Eph 5:14), poetic parallelism, special uses of relative pronouns and participles, the presence of unusual vocabulary and rhyming features, and disruptions to the context.  Although not all scholars agree, there is a general consensus that the following passages represent early Christian hymns: Rom 11:33-36, Phil 2:6-11, Col 1:15-20, 1 Tim 3:16, 1 Pet 2:21-24, Heb 1:3-4, Rev 4:8-11 and 19:1-4.  These hymns may have been preformed traditions quoted or alluded to by a writer or spontaneous compositions understood to be Spirit-inspired.  Some hymns are so clear and self-contained that later generations of Christians name them (e.g., the Magnificat = Luke 1:46-55; the Benedictus = Luke 1:68-79).  The New Testament contains both hymns to Christ and to God the Father demonstrating a binitarian shape to early Christian devotion.  Furthermore, the content of early Christian hymns is directed to soteriological themes such as creation, incarnation, and redemption.  For early Christ believers hymnic praise was essentially a response to God’s saving actions in Christ.

Though not all agree, many scholars think that the earliest extant Christian hymn is the hymn to Christ found in Phil 2:6-11.  The hymn consists of two parts.  The first narrates the descent and humiliation of the pre-existent Jesus to become a man and to suffer a merciless death on the cross.  The second describes the ascent and exaltation of the crucified Jesus by God to receive the adoration of every creature and confession “Jesus Christ is Lord.”  This hymn functioned to recall the essential story and therefore had a didactic purpose.  Paul utilized it further to make Jesus the lordly example of humility and service (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-24).

By its nature poetic or hymnic language appears to affect those who use it in significant ways. Whether it was chanted or accompanied with musical instruments, hymns were easier to memorize and recall than other forms of instruction.  Therefore, it seems that early Christians used NT hymns for several purposes: (1) to instruct, (2) to express praise and thanks to God, (3) to confess faith, (4) to form communal identity, and (5) to provide an example for proper behavior.

Is It Time to Retire “Low” and “High” Christology?

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 EHCC mug “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.

Hengel

Founding member, Larry Hurtado, presents an official EHCC mug to the late Professor Martin Hengel (seen here with his wife, Frau Hengel)

Correcting the Record

A few days ago I posted a brief review of Dr. Crispin Fletcher-Louis’ recent book, Jesus Monotheism (Cascade, 2015).  This particular volume is entitled Christological Origins: The Emerging Consensus and Beyond.  I made a statement in trying to summarize Crispin’s position that mischaracterizes and goes beyond what he is claiming.  So I want to correct the record.  crispin-fletcher-louis

Let me quote my earlier paragraph in full:

Fletcher-Louis thinks that there are antecedent traditions which anticipate the inclusion of Jesus in the divine identity (Bauckham’s phrase). While the worship of Jesus alongside God and beliefs in his divine identity are new and surprising, they could have been anticipated if we were attuned correctly to certain movements and ideas within second temple Judaism.

The sentence in question is the second sentence of that paragraph.  In private correspondence Crispin indicated he agreed with the first part, that is, that including Jesus within the identity of Israel’s One God and worshipping him alongside God are new and surprising claims and actions on the part of early Jesus followers.  He does not, however, agree with the second part.

In his own words (used by permission):

I agree with the first half of that sentence, but not the second. Christological monotheism is so surprising no one could have anticipated it. There are ideas in the Bible and there were movements in the Second Temple period that are in some ways conceptually continuous with Christological monotheism, but in several respects the Christian worship of Jesus and associated beliefs about him and his deity are without clear precedent. We have no evidence that anyone did anticipate the full pattern of Christ devotion that the NT texts describe (and that Hurtado has laid out in his work), and I would be rather surprised if some new text emerged that showed anyone did anticipate the full pattern. Furthermore, the evidence of the earliest Gospels is that Jesus’ followers were not expecting a messiah who would receive precisely the kind of devotion that those same followers apparently ended up giving to Jesus after his death and resurrection.

I find myself in broad agreement with Crispin on this and I’m grateful for his clarifying for me this aspect of his project which is scheduled to take four volumes to work out.  Scholarship is about putting forth an idea, presenting the evidence, and drawing conclusions with the hope that you’ll get a fair hearing. I certainly want to read, understand and present his work fairly.  So I’m grateful for the kind and generous way he approached me on this.  Dr. Fletcher-Louis has been and continues to be an important partner in the conversation regarding how Christ devotion developed so quickly after the execution of Jesus.

The Divine Name . . . before Nicea

 

Charles Gieschen, professor and dean at Concordia Theological Seminary (Indiana), has written what I regard to be a significant article.  I’d like for people to know about it.  It is in a refereed journal entitled Vigiliae Christianae 57 (2003): 115-158.   The title of the article is “The Divine Name in Ante-Nicene Christology.” His thesis is this: many references or allusions to the “name” of Jesus in early Christianity should be understood as signifying that Jesus possesses the Divine Name, the holy, unspeakable name of Israel’s God (YHWH), often called the Tetragrammaton.  The “name” of Jesus in these contexts does not refer to the name given to him on the eighth day by his parents.  Gieschen spends a good deal of time in the New Testament but he also considers such extra-canonical texts as 1 Clement, the Ascension of Isaiah, the Odes of Solomon, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, among others. gieschen

Clearly, I think Charles is onto something.  He cites favorably my own book Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul’s Christology, WUNT (Tubingen, 1992), that showed how Paul, the earliest Christian theologian, took Scriptural texts containing the Divine Name and applied them to Jesus.  The name “Jesus” was a common name in its day, even if it is unusual in English-speaking circles.  It is a transliteration through Greek, into Latin, into English of the Hebrew name “Joshua.”  I’ve been to many a baseball game where players from Latin American countries were named “Jesus” (pronounced Hay-soos).

When Paul says that “at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord . . .” (Phil 2:9-11), it seems clear that the Greek genitive should be rendered possessively “the name that belongs to Jesus.”  And what name belongs to Jesus?  Gieschen argues, and I think he is correct, the covenant name of God revealed to Moses at Sinai (YHWH).

Gieschen concludes his study asking why a Divine Name Christology fades in the next Christian centuries.  He gives two reasons.  First, as the Jesus movement became more and more Gentile, knowledge of the Divine Name is no longer determinative for how Christ followers assess his significance.  This begins to happen even among Greek-speaking Christians who read Kyrios as the standard translation/ rendering of the Divine Name in Hebrew biblical texts. Knowledge of the Divine Name traditions began to fade. Second, it seems that heretical groups in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD are those who utilize and keep the Divine Name Christology in tact. The “orthodox,” in responding negatively to the “heretics,” set aside their teaching which associated Jesus so clearly with the Divine Name.

To cite one example:

“One single name is not uttered in the world, the name that the Father gave the Son, the name above all things: the name of the Father.” (Gospel of Philip II.54.5-8)

If Gieschen is correct, the heretics kept alive a neglected aspect of early Christology.

 

Pauline Exegesis and the Divine Christ

Here is a link to the third lecture I did at Acadia Divinity School in Nova Scotia in fall 2014.  Thanks to Danny Zacharias, fleetwd1 and Mike Harris for making this video available to me and anyone interested.

https://youtu.be/0pokwuUniYE

 

 

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