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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.
This week (Dec 2-7, 2017) I’m working through the page proofs for my new book The Divine Christ: Paul, the Lord Jesus, and the Scriptures of Israel (Baker Academic, March 2018). Not long ago I received word of the cover art for the book which I present here for the first time.
Recently I have received endorsements from a number of scholars whom I deeply respect. Here are few of those:
“What is the most amazing thing the New Testament writers do to exalt Jesus of Nazareth? Is it reporting all his ‘I am’ sayings in the Gospel of John or calling him ‘the Messiah, God blessed over all’ in Romans 9:5? Maybe it’s all the ways he is worshiped, starting during his life but especially after his death and resurrection? Perhaps, but when do we consider all the New Testament texts that quote the Old Testament and apply to Jesus what is said about Yahweh, the one and only God of creation? English readers don’t usually think of these passages because we just see the word ‘Lord’ and move on. David Capes leads us on a sleuthing exercise to discover and understand the significance of these passages. Readers will be astounded at how many there are and will be greatly encouraged by what their meanings add up to.”—Craig L. Blomberg, distinguished professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary
“What does it mean when Paul says ‘Jesus is Lord’? In a clear and engaging style, David Capes takes us to the heart of Paul’s theology, revealing the depth and nuance of this seemingly simple claim by showing how it is shaped by Paul’s Old Testament citations and allusions. Capes extends the conclusions of his seminal work on Paul’s early high Christology and makes the best of contemporary scholarship accessible without getting lost in the weeds. Both beginning students and seasoned scholars will benefit from this valuable work.”—Ben C. Blackwell, assistant professor of Christianity, Houston Baptist University
“In this volume Capes extends the argument he first presented in his important book Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul’s Christology and responds to some recent developments in scholarly discussion. By pressing home useful distinctions and carefully attending to textual and contextual features, Capes elucidates crucial aspects of the earliest and fully divine Christology. This volume sparkles with common sense and judicious judgment, shedding light on a perennially contentious issue. These debates concern matters of great significance, and I am grateful that Capes has once again contributed to these discussions.”—Chris Tilling, senior lecturer in New Testament Studies, St. Mellitus College
“Every generation of students has to struggle anew with complex questions regarding the status and nature of Christ in the New Testament and early Christian thought. Capes proves himself an expert guide through Paul’s Letters, especially Paul’s use of Old Testament texts that apply the divine title ‘Lord’ to Jesus. When Christians called Jesus ‘Lord,’ what did this mean? Did the first Christians consider Jesus divine? How did they conceive of the unique lordship of Jesus in relation to the one God? To this weighty subject Capes brings proven expertise, crystal clarity of expression, and penetrating analysis of interpretations past and present.”—Nijay K. Gupta, associate professor of New Testament, Portland Seminary
“Capes offers a brilliant examination of the meaning of ‘Lord’ in ancient Judaism, in modern scholarship, and in the Pauline Letters. What Capes demonstrates, with acumen and insight, is that Paul was among those who considered Jesus as Lord in the strongest possible sense, and the highest Christology we can imagine was indeed among the earliest. This erudite and learned volume is for anyone interested in the Christology of the early church.”—Michael F. Bird, lecturer in theology, Ridley College, Melbourne, AustraliaN
Thanks to all these scholars who took time to read the book and take it seriously.
Now . . . back to work . . .
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.
Early in 2016 a group of scholars gathered at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to debate the question: how did Jesus become God? I wish I had been there, because it is a question of interest to me. For those who know me and my work, I’ve worked on aspects of this question since the late 1980s when I was writing my dissertation.
Well, thanks to YouTube we can all be there to at least hear the comments and arguments of these scholars. I want to help you find them so I’ll post them here and eventually pull them together.
The first is a debate between Bart Ehrman and Mike Bird.
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James McGrath, professor of New Testament at Butler University in Indiana, is somebody you need to know. He’s a good scholar and a faithful blogger. He’s worth reading on a variety of subjects. He has good judgment and sound methods.
. In a recent post he collected some of the hubbub going on right now on the web regarding “an early high Christology,” a topic I have some interest in. In fact over the next few years I hope to return to the topic–though I never really left it, I got distracted–with what I trust is a more measured and mature reading of certain texts. In the meantime I thought I’d link to his Patheos blog.
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