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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.

Hengel

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

Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels

Richard B. Hays completed his new book Echoes of Scripture in Gospels (Baylor University Press, 2016) in record time thanks in large part to the heavy-lifting done by Carey Newman and his staff at Baylor University Press.  Hays was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2015 and underwent successful surgery in the fall.  He stepped down from his role as dean of Duke Divinity School for medical treatment and used part of his recovery to finish up this book. Richard Hays

This book extends an earlier project, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Baylor University Press, 2014). It echoes an even earlier bit of research written up in Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (Yale University Press, 1993).  In the book under review Hays turns his attention to the four New Testament Gospels with similar method and surprising results.

Hays is influenced by Eric Auerbach’s approach to “figural interpretation” in his  book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton University Press, 2013).  Figural interpretation involves linking two texts so that a past person (or event) signifies that person as well as another in the future.  The interplay between those two texts brings greater insight to both texts.  Each sheds light on the other.  It is a way of “reading backwards.” This has nothing to do with past predictions which are “fulfilled” in the future, although there are places when Gospel writers make those kinds of connections as well.  At the heart of it is the notion that a text might mean more than a human author ever intended. Once a writer has released his text, later audiences are able to read backwards through significant events/persons in order to see connections to these earlier texts.  The NT is awash in figural readings of the OT.

Hays does not spend his time working out and fine tuning a method.  In a sense he has done that already in earlier books mentioned above.  What he does do is work carefully through many Gospel texts listening for the echoes and helping his readers see and experience these in fresh and exciting ways.  One of my favorite examples is in the episode when Jesus walks on the sea of Galilee (Mark 6).  Although Mark does not make any explicit biblical allusions, the way he tells the story conjures up certain images from the first part of the Christian Scriptures.  In particular, he notes how Mark says Jesus appears to intend to pass them by and ends the pericope with the hanging question: “who is this that the winds and the seas obey?” As Hays says, there is only one right answer to that question.  It is found in Job 9, particularly the Greek version (LXX).  I won’t spoil the ending completely but Hays and I both think there is a not-so-subtle identification of Jesus with the God who created the land and seas in the first place.  Go back and read Job 9 in the Greek and it is apparent.

Hays is an advocate of an early high Christology, compared to the late, slow and low crowd. This means that the earliest evidence we have (the letters of Paul and the NT Gospels) are best read to include Jesus within the identity of Israel’s God.  As a charter member of the early high Christology club, I’m glad to make him a full-fledged member.

This is an amazing book. I cannot recommend it any higher.  I’m so glad to have it in hand as I’m thinking about a future book I’m working on entitled Matthew through Old Testament Eyes (Kregel, forthcoming 2018 or 2019).

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