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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.

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.


The Extent of Theological Diversity

I’m fortunate to be affiliated with a group of scholars at the Society of Biblical Literature.  It is a program unit entitled: The Extent of Theological Diversity in Earliest Christianity.  Here’s a description of its purpose:

The Extent of Theological Diversity in Earliest Christianity Group explores the origin, nature, and extent of theological diversity within Christian communities from the beginnings until approximately 180 CE. Focusing on the evidence for Jesus’ death and resurrection as a narrative used to shape the identity of emergent communities, as well as on the alternatives to this narrative preserved in early Christian sources, the unit seeks to clarify the historical origins and relationship of these diverse forms of Christianity and bring greater precision to the study of “orthodoxy and heresy in early Christianity.”

Although  it is not quite up-to-date, the web address below will take you to some of the papers and activities of the group since its inception in 2008.  There are papers there by Richard Bauckham, Birger Pearson, Todd Still, James Ware, Mark Goodacre and many others.  More recently we have hosted sessions with Larry Hurtado, Bart Ehrman, and Judith Lieu. I’ll post the upcoming schedule for SBL 2016 in San Antonio.