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The Early High Christology Club

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.EHCC mug

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.

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

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.


The Imitation of Christ


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.St. Paul

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

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;

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!

So God raised Him up to the highest place

and gave Him the name above all.

1So 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.

Larry Hurtado: Were the Gnostics the Elite Intellects They Have Been Portrayed to Be?

One of the blogs I like to follow is Larry Hurtado’s.  He is retired professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Univ of Edinburgh.  Twice weekly he writes a stimulating blog on all things pertaining to early Christianity.  A recent  post by him questioned whether the Gnostics were the elite intellectuals they have often been portrayed to be.  I include a link here for those who may be interested.

Richard Bauckham and the “Eyewitnesses”

Sir Richard Bauckham

Recently, Professor Richard Bauckham gave a lecture at Houston Baptist University which considered the descriptions of geographic locations around the sea of Galilee as part of a “mental map” of a Galilean fisherman.  It was an interesting lecture that was well attended.  The substance of the lecture will be included in a new book written as a sequel to Richard’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

I don’t normally do this but I read a blog post from Larry Hurtado ( in which Richard Bauckham clarifies what he means by “eyewitnesses.”  It is to the point and offers a helpful handle on some of Richard’s ideas.  I include a link to Larry’s blog here:


How Did Simon Peter Die?

How Did Simon Peter Die?

I traveled recently to Edinburgh, Scotland.  The university where I teach, Houston Baptist University, is looking into the possibility of establishing a study-abroad agreement with the University of Edinburgh, and I was there to help make that connection.  While there, I attended some lectures on Simon Peter sponsored by the Center for the Study of Christian Origins (CSCO).  Founded by Professor Larry Hurtado (now retired) in the late 1990s, the center is today ably run by Dr. Helen Bond. I heard a number of good papers on the apostle Peter; though he is the best known of Jesus’ “twelve,” he is often neglected by Protestants (Protestants tend to favor Paul). Caravaggio_-_Martirio_di_San_Pietro 

One paper in particular stood out.  It was given by (retired) Professor Timothy D. Barnes.  He is a world class historian who is known for being a bit feisty.  He began his lecture recognizing full well that he was about to ruffle a few feathers. 

Many Christian scholars have thought that Simon Peter died in Rome by crucifixion.  There are a variety of early Christian reports that seem to indicate this (Tertullian, Praescr. Haer. 36.3; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.1.2).  In one tradition, Peter asks to be crucified upside-down because he is not worthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus, his Lord (Martyrdom of Peter 8.3-4). 

Professor Barnes, however, reads the evidence differently.  He takes his cue from John 21.18-19.  Here is how these verses are translated in the New American Standard:

Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself, and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go. Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me!” (Joh 21:18-19 NAS)

The problem with this translation, Barnes says, has to do with the Greek word translated “gird yourself.”  It is typically taken to refer to tying a belt around your waist and hitching up your outer garment for travel, work or possibly battle.  Barnes argues that the Greek verb actually means “dress yourself.”  A number of modern translations agree (English Standard Version, New Living Translation).  Here is how the NLT renders the verses:

“I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.” (Joh 21:18-19 NLT)

Notice. This saying of Jesus let’s Peter (and John’s readers) in on the way in which Peter was going to die.  When Peter is old, he will stretch out his hands, someone else will dress him, and take him where he would rather not go.  Some have taken this as an image of crucifixion.  John goes on to say that this refers to the kind of death he would die and thereby glorify God.  A careful reader will recall that earlier in John’s Gospel, the crucifixion of Jesus is his hour of glory.  Some have taken these verses as a reminder that Peter had been crucified (The Fourth Gospel was probably written 25-30 years following Peter’s execution). 

For Barnes the problem with the crucifixion of Peter theory is this.  Men were always crucified stark naked.  You would not be dressed for it; you would be undressed (Artemidorus, Oneirocritica 2.53). You may recall how the soldiers divided Jesus’ garments as he suffered on the cross.  Jesus may typically be depicted with a loin cloth around his waist, but that is a matter of piety and modesty not history.  Jesus hung on the cross stark naked. If Peter had been crucified, he would have been stripped as well. But according to Barnes, he was not.

So how did Simon Peter die?  From John’s Gospel Barnes directs our attention to Tacitus (Annals 15.44.4) and the madness of Nero.  After Rome went up in flames in AD 64, Nero wanted to make an example of the Christians whom he thought were a despicable lot. He knew the public was already against them so it was convenient to make them the scapegoats. Nero, who was always a bit of a showman, wanted a spectacle; he rounded up the Christians who lived in what was left of the city and slaughtered them.  Here is how Tacitus describes it:

And, as they perished, mockeries were added, so that, covered in the hides of wild beasts, they expired from mutilation by dogs, or were burned fixed to crosses for use as nocturnal illumination on the dwindling of daylight (Barnes’ modification of the translation by A. J. Woodman). 

Barnes thinks his case is “rock solid” (a phrase he used with me over dinner after his lecture). Peter, who was present in Rome at the time, was apprehended with the rest of the Christians. He was bound by authorities and dressed in a tunic dipped in a flammable substance. He was taken and fixed to a mock cross near the banks of the Tiber River, his hands extended, and then he was set on fire.  If Barnes is correct, Peter died in the persecutions that followed Rome’s burning in AD 64 by burning not by crucifixion.  Crucifixion was a slow, agonizing death by asphyxiation that took up to three days in some cases.  Peter’s death would have come much more quickly but the sight everyone would remember would be his charred body, formed like a cross, smoldering by the Tiber.  Peter Conference Edinburgh 2

Barnes makes a compelling case; it is historically plausible if not likely.  Still it is always difficult to move from the general to the particular.  While it is true generally that many Christians died during Nero’s persecution in this way, it is not “rock solid” (with apologies to the apostle) that a particular person named Simon Peter died on that day in that way.  More evidence is needed.  There is no physical evidence you consider as you might have with a modern crime scene investigation. Still, Barnes has a good bit to teach us.

On this occasion, the Romans wanted to mock their enemies.  You can almost hear one of them thinking:  “These despicable people love their crosses. Let’s see how much they love them after they’ve been burned to death on them.”  It wasn’t enough to put these poor souls to death; they increased the humiliation—as the Romans would have seen it—by wrapping the martyrs in animals skins or fixing them to crosses. 

But what the Romans failed to recognize was that the cross had already become a fixture in early Christian devotion.  The crucifixion of Jesus was central to their confession.  Rather than being a place of disgrace and death; it had become a symbol of honor and life.  It is no wonder that later generations of believers continued to imagine that Peter died with his arms stretched wide, embracing the world.