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  • Brian Chilcote

Jesus Under Construction: The Theological Christ


1. If perceptions are to be remembered then they will inevitably be interpreted, subconsciously, consciously, or both.

2. Perceptions that contribute to historical memory are thus always interpreted along each stage of the tradition they inhabit.

3. The historian is never able to interpret an uninterpreted past.

 

 


“With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said. And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible.” 

 

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War 1.22 431 BCE


 

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.”

 ---King Henry V, Shakespeare ca 1600 

 



Did King Henry the Fifth actually utter those words on the field at Agincourt? Probably not, but according to Thucydides, they are certainly what he should have said! In part two of our series on the Historical and Theological Jesus, we turn now to the complex emergence of the Jesus we imagine in our day. Jesus is historical, for sure, but he's also theological. Can we untangle one from the other? Who is the real Jesus?

 

A Theological Jesus

 

What is meant by referring to Jesus as a theological figure? In brief, the phrase captures what we mean when we talk about almost any person from the past. Famous and influential people live on in the tales told about their adventures and inevitably these stories give rise to outsized depictions that go beyond the bare facts. The theological elements of the Jesus story emerge from our demand to know not just what, where, when and how, but why. The theological domain we call Christology is focused on explaining the Jesus event. Why does it need explaining? Most Christians believe that humanity's eternal destiny is deeply connected to how one interprets the story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection.

 

Theology is the study of belief in gods or God, proposing, defending or promoting positions on all sorts of topics related to the understanding of the divine. These explorations usually rest on some settled assumptions, e.g., that a deity or gods actually exist and that they are accessible to human beings in some way.

 

That last part takes us down a path toward epistemology- the study of how we know what we think we know. The data we have to work with have traditionally been drawn mostly from ancient written sources to which the church has bestowed final authority in matters of faith. When we ask questions like "What did Jesus really say? What did he really do? Can we actually know anything for certain?" we are asking questions about our ability to access, evaluate and make decisions about information. That which we accept as valid, we call truth. The rest we reject as false, and the law of non-contradiction keeps them apart. As one might expect there has been deep disagreement on what's true about Jesus, both historically and theologically, and most if not all interpreters logically assign a true-false binary to their favored conclusions.

 

Assumptions

 

This article will take a few things for granted. One is that the New Testament is a product of its time, written by people who were formed with values and priorities that show through in their texts. It was not written to us or for us and therefore must be understood as such, or there is little hope that our theological interpretations of the New Testament record will reflect reality. Second, it will take an agnostic position on what role God played, if any, in constructing the language and ideas we find there. "Inspiration" can mean any number of things and when it comes to textual material it's impossible to characterize with confidence any blend of human-divine dynamics. Third, there's also no way to define any sort of divine influence over any later interpretations of biblical texts, so while some interpretations might make more sense to more readers than others, there are no absolute criteria that allow us to point to a "correct" theological meaning.

 

Neither will the article take a position on whose Christology is wrong or right. Some right or left turns in the story have proven either harmful or beneficial, but we're not at the end just yet. Since Jesus occupies the center of so many cultural  phenomena- not the least of which is the church- we ought to be about the business of examining the circuitous path that brought us to the beliefs we hold today. Simply acknowledging that today's heretics were once Christians in good standing is one way to reduce the sectarianism that can turn the church ugly.

 

Historical vs. Theological

 

“Both the church and academia have gotten along successfully without the historical Jesus for centuries. The historical Jesus, the human being who walked the roads of ancient Israel, gathered disciples, and was executed by the Romans, is often contrasted with the ‘Christ of faith,’ a supra-historical figure whose presence in the world enlivens and nourishes Christian communities. The latter has always been far more important for most Christians.”

 

Setzer, Claudia; Tikkun Magazine, July 17, 1995 No. 4, Vol. 10; Pg. 73

 


Jesus really lived and walked among us. He was from a small town. He knew the inside of a synagogue. He visited Jerusalem. He wore the clothes (socks included!) and spoke the language of the culture into which he operated. And yet, our modern imagination of Jesus of Nazareth goes far, far beyond the simple trappings of an obscure Jewish activist in an ignored corner of the Middle East. Would Jesus be surprised or shocked by his worldwide fame and enduring impact on us? Would he recognize himself in our portrayals of him in our sermons, books, paintings, lectures, conversations and prayers?

 

Are the "Christ of faith" and the "Jesus of history" in conflict? Answers vary, as expected. Let's take a look, then at the ways we have illuminated the story of Jesus through the generations, and what it might mean for our own faith community. Have we distorted the truth about Jesus in some way? Are we following a straw-man system of beliefs, or are we right on target? Does it matter if we get the details wrong? And which doctrines are details and which ones are essential to seeing reality properly? Are all things matters of opinion, or are there solid truths we can land on?

 

Different Questions

 

In contrast to the "Historical" Jesus, the "Theological" Christ seeks answers to questions like these:

 

What was Jesus' main message? To whom was it addressed?

What was he really trying to accomplish? Did he have a plan?

How did Jesus identify himself?

Did he see himself as the apocalyptic "Son of Man" figure from Daniel?

Did he know himself to be the final Messiah, bringing in the end of the age?

Was he a prophet?

Was he a social reformer?

Did he accomplish some kind of atonement?

How did this atonement work? How can we access it?

What's the significance of his resurrection?

What is his relationship with YHWH and the Holy Spirit?

Is he alive? In heaven? With believers?

Is it more important to believe the right things about Jesus or act the way he acted?

 

Contrary to what we usually hear in our contemporary American church culture, at no time in history has there been unanimity on any of these questions. As you would reasonably expect with the passing of any influential figure, differing explanations of who and what Jesus was sprouted like dandelions in the spring. And why is this a matter of speculation and theory? Don't we have reliable descriptions of Jesus and clear answers in the gospels and in Paul's writings? That's a topic for other articles, but the brief answer is no, the New Testament is not as clear, unanimous or concise as we'd like.

 

Jesus the Reformer

 

This view affirms a family of beliefs called "Realized Eschatology," held by Preterists who think that all biblical prophecies have already been fulfilled, as well as others who hold to some modification of that premise. The destruction of the second temple in 70 CE was a watershed moment in which all the end of the world predictions took place. Jesus' intention was to bring about the Kingdom of God person-by-person as God's reign on earth spreads out from Jerusalem.

 

From the Westar Institute (Formerly the Jesus Seminar):

 

  • Jesus of Nazareth did not refer to himself as the Messiah, nor did he claim to be a divine being who descended to earth from heaven in order to die as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

  • At the heart of Jesus’ teaching and actions was a vision of a life under the reign of God (or, in the empire of God) in which God’s generosity and goodness is regarded as the model and measure of human life.

  • Jesus did not hold an apocalyptic view of the reign (or kingdom) of God—that by direct intervention God was about to bring history to an end and bring a new, perfect order of life into being. Rather, in Jesus’ teaching the reign of God is a vision of what life in this world could be, not a vision of life in a future world that would soon be brought into being by a miraculous act of God.

 

Jesus was mainly concerned with conversion as a way to realize a superior ethic in the here and now. His call to repent wasn't energized by the approaching end of the world, but by the need to render a lasting ethical change in society.

 

Passages that mention the kingdom of God are interpreted as a developing state of affairs that was set in motion with the appearance of Jesus and will continue until the final vision of the prophets is realized. In the meantime, the church has been given the responsibility to "make disciples of all nations."  Luke is the gospel that majors on this idea with 32 mentions of  the kingdom of God, with Mark in a distant second with 14. The author of Luke hints at a possible event-based eschatological fulfillment in 9:27 "Indeed, truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God," but he also seems to support a longer-lasting project without a catastrophic and sudden end with statements like, "Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (17:20-21) Luke's second volume, the book of Acts explores how the movement expanded into Gentile nations ending in Rome with Paul living in a rented house.

 

Both Catholic and most mainstream protestant denominations have generally taken up a non-apocalyptic interpretation of the gospels, possibly in part because of a simple reason: the apocalypse has not yet arrived, and the church needs a mandate for its continued authority and mission. It's a little easier to cast the Kingdom of God as a phenomenon that grows slowly through local congregations than to insist on a fixed but unknown future date when the world as we know it ends in judgement.

 

The Apostle Paul is significantly more apocalyptic than the gospels. This makes sense as he wrote in a time before the gospels when eschatological fervor was high. It's not hard to infer from his writings that he thought the end was just around the corner.

 

The gospel of John, written 60 years after the fact when Christ-following Jews were indeed experiencing some persecution, includes the Jewish apocalyptic themes of suffering-then-reward. But in chapter 16 the author has Jesus discuss the "Spirit of Truth" who will sustain them in a world that will give the disciples trouble, predicting a future of being tossed out of synagogues and encourages believers to hang in there for the long term. The final chapter has a curious scene that addresses the delay by refuting a rumor that "the disciple that Jesus loved" would not die until Jesus returned. 

 

As the End tarried, though, we see in Romans and Philippians the need for Paul to address the obvious problem of a delayed Parousia. In the later chapters of Romans, we find Paul addressing conflict in the ecclesia around questions like paying taxes, maintaining a high moral standard and adjusting to the differences in Jewish and Gentile approaches to dietary rules. A large percentage of Philippians deals with financial support for the church in Jerusalem- something that takes time, planning and an assumption that the end isn't quite so near as he first supposed when he wrote earlier in 1 Corinthians 7, "I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away."

 

Later epistles purported to be authored by Paul contain much more detail on how to organize and manage a local ecclesia with instructions on selecting bishops and elders, structuring gatherings for worship and establishing behavioral standards for the various social classes that needed to get along. Even later canonized texts like 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John go into detail about false teachers. All of these were issues that emerged only as the years rolled by with no appearance of the Son of Man. Today, the church finds in these texts a rich source of material to guide faith and practice for the long term.

 

Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

 

Another view characterizes Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet whose ministry was driven by the expectation that the Old Testament prediction of the "Last Day" was to be imminently fulfilled. His call to repent was an urgent appeal to get ready for impending judgement. The fact that 1 Thessalonians and Revelation were early to circulate among Christ followers indicates a sense of impending something in the air. John the Baptist and Jesus were familiar with these themes, possibly from hearing expositions of writings like Isaiah, Daniel and Ezekiel that discuss a traumatic reversal of  fortune for Israel.

 

The speeches and parables written as characteristic of Jesus are studded with references to this apocalypse to the extent that if you have a non-apocalyptic Christological view you must deal with them. The call to repent shows a concern that his generation should prepare themselves morally and ritually for the appearance of YHWH.

 

Now, was Jesus wrong about the near end of the world? Was his timing off? Or was there always supposed to be a multi-century gap between "all this will come upon this generation," and our time? Preterists liken the destruction of Jerusalem and the second temple as an apocalypse that ushered in a new era, but we see none of the Old Testament predictions fulfilled after 70 CE or at any later time. Israel is not ruling the nations from Zion, there are still terrible wars and the "Son of Man" figure has not arrived as described in Matthew 24. If Jesus was looking for the arrival of a world predicted in Isaiah and in other authoritative Jewish writings, then he was either mistaken or it is still to come (see Isaiah 2:1-5 and below). Preterists might offer that these things are in the process of coming to light over time, referring to it as the "now and not yet" mystery.

 

Regardless of those visions of the future, we find good evidence that Jesus saw himself as an eschatological prophet of a coming apocalypse. Mark 13 is a prime example of how the early Christians remembered Jesus's teachings in light of their present circumstances: political and religious persecution, false messiahs, famines and earthquakes… all these triggered memories of Jesus's statements about the near future. Tellingly, in Mark 13:28-31, like the Luke passage mentioned above, the author chose to address the Son of Man's perceived delay by reiterating the assurance that "this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place."

 

Matthew's Christology is fully Apocalyptic. In chapters 24-25, he relates a long discourse on how the End will go down and how to prepare. In chapter 19, Jesus assures the twelve that they will rule over Israel "at the renewal of all things." Did this drive the story in Acts where they replace Judas with Mattathias?

 

At issue is the nature and meaning of "The Kingdom of God." Is it an ethical-social phenomena that is supposed to grow in communities over time? Or does Jesus mean that it's the way things will be after the wrath of God falls in judgement on the earth, according to passages like Isaiah chapter 2: "In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it."

 

It's eye-opening to read the New Testament with this question in mind: How are the NT authors balancing Jesus' apparent insistence that the end was very near with later questions about why the Apocalypse hasn't happened yet? See 2 Peter chapter 3 for a late-first-early-second-century attempt to defend a stalled apocalypse.

 

An Array of Understandings

 

The sheer breadth of the spectrum of views that materialize out of the very same source material is impressive. Jesus has been described as

  • An eschatological prophet of restoration

  • A sage, Rabbi or Pharisee

  • A wisdom teacher advocating radical egalitarianism

  • A subversive radical teacher

  • A social revolutionary

  • A type of Cynic (as in the Hellenistic philosophical school)

 

Scholars who have published very accessible works on Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet are

 

Albert Schweitzer- The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer concludes that Jesus saw himself as called to a prophetic ministry of confrontation that ushered in the long-awaited Last Day.

 

Dale Allison- Millenarian Prophet and The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate with Marcus Borg, J.D. Crossan and Stephen Patterson. This short work is a lively discussion of what Jesus meant by God's Kingdom- Did he usher it into history where it remains now, or was he talking about a day in his near future that seems to have not happened?  

 

James Tabor- A scholar of both the gospels and Paul, he puts together a detailed case for seeing Jesus as Schweitzer did- a visionary who was convinced that an apocalypse was near. See his article Standing in the Shadow of Schweitzer: What Can We Say About an Apocalyptic Jesus?   and his video Bible Prophecy #11 Did the Jesus Apocalypse Fail?

 

Readers may not agree with everything Bart Ehrman writes, but here's an insightful quote from his book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee

 

"People today think that we should live ethically for a wide variety of reasons—most of them irrelevant to Jesus—for example, so we can find the greatest self-fulfillment in life and so we can all thrive together as a society for the long haul. Jesus did not teach his ethics so that society could thrive for the long haul. For Jesus, there was not going to be a long haul. The end was coming soon, and people needed to prepare for it. Those who lived according to the standards he set forth, loving God with all their being and loving one another as themselves, would enter into the kingdom of God that was very soon to appear. Anyone who chose not to do so would be destroyed when the Son of Man arrived in judgment from heaven. Jesus’s ethics were an “ethics of the kingdom” both because the kinds of lives his followers led when they followed these ethical principles would be the kinds of lives they would experience in the kingdom…"

 

…or at least that's the impression that the Paul-influenced gospels give.

 

Already Theologized

 

One problem we face when trying to unearth what Jesus was really all about is the fact that we don't have any credible direct source material from Jesus himself. All of our information about him has undergone some theologizing, reflection and interpretation before a word was inked. When we read "and Jesus said…" we imagine Jesus making pronouncements in English to an audience whose assumptions about the world are the same as ours. As careful readers of the Bible, we do well to read it with a ferocious commitment to recognize and set aside our modern biases. Otherwise we have very little claim to represent what was actually happening. 

 

Our source material regarding the actual Jesus is not American nor was it composed in English. It's a set of theologically and rhetorically refined texts that abide by first century values and literary conventions, which for most of us were never recognized or appreciated for their contribution to the meanings of scripture. The gospels portray a theological Christ more than they do a Historical Jesus

 

Our modern conceptions of Jesus sit atop a mountain of culturally informed interpretations hammered out by centuries of debate, testing, revision and decision. If a stranger were to ask for a description of Jesus by his first followers, the answers would be dizzyingly diverse- and we have reliable evidence for this diversity from very early on, as we'll see later in this article.

 

"But the gospels are God's word, which means that all of that debate was protected and directed by the Holy Spirit." In many American conservative Christian circles, this is settled dogma.

 

Strangely, so is this: "We must interpret the Bible correctly, and to do that, we need to consider the cultural contexts of the authors and original audiences."

 

The problem? These two principles often don't get along with each other. We have numerous and extensive written records showing that the first Christians held a wide variety of beliefs and practices that are completely alien to what we see in the western church today. If we pay attention to all that we've discovered about the worldviews of the authors, we must deal with differences between our concepts of divinity, messiahship and resurrection, etc., and theirs.

 

If the immutable, unchanging God of truth "allowed" an extremely diverse range of viewpoints about Christ to flourish for more than 200 years, how does that map onto the idea that our version of orthodoxy is the right one? Have we arrived here in the twenty-first century with an amalgam of many misunderstandings of Jesus?

 

For example, a major rival movement to proto-orthodoxy believed that Jesus was in no way related to Yahweh of the Old Testament, and wasn't actually human. Others also saw the emerging trinitarian view as hogwash and formulated doctrines that grew out of the "fact" that the only possible pre-existent divine being had to be the one true God of the Jews- Yahweh. Jesus and the Holy Spirit were derivative and subordinate. And what do we think of the fact that the earliest Christians were essentially Jewish, living by the Levitical systems of ritual purity, kosher diets and temple worship?

 

To claim that the central tenets of Christianity have always been what we know them to be in our time is demonstrably false. If you're ready to try on that idea, it's worth surveying the historical record for information on just how diverse our ideas about Jesus have been down through the centuries. We'll take a look at that in the next article.

 

What about eyewitnesses?

 

It's a given that eyewitnesses can provide very different accounts of the very same occurrence; perceived "truth" mingles with bias and expectations to produce extraordinarily different stories. Our modern ability to record sound and video, while helpful in excluding the least likely interpretations of events, have not eliminated the need for jury trials that labor for weeks to settle on the "whole truth and nothing but the truth."

 

In our earliest written records, we find Paul in approximately 52 CE processing his own hypotheses about Jesus, namely that he is in fact the anointed one predicted by the Jewish scriptures. First Thessalonians repeatedly refers to Jesus as "the Christ," indicating an early layer of interpretation regarding the actual Jesus of Nazareth. Somewhere along the line, it was decided that Jesus was "The Anointed One." The gospels, written later, don't typically use the term Christ to describe Jesus. It appears on Jesus's lips twice: in Mark 9 and John 17. Messiah is more frequent and draws on links to the Hebrew scriptures that speak of a future reversal of fortune for the Israelites led by a powerful political figure who comes as a judge to set the oppressed (the Jews) on top and reduce the oppressor (all the other nations) to client states under Yahweh.

 

The very first written data we have about Jesus is that he was understood by his biographers to be a person of great importance and influence, who challenged his native social systems and was crucified by a coalition of his powerful enemies. His impression on people was so striking that stories and snippets of his teachings survived his demise, and quite a few of his admirers testified to experiences of his presence long after his death. None of the gospel writers were eyewitnesses, although you'll hear arguments to the contrary. Each gospel is anonymous, acquiring their authorship long after they were composed and circulated.

 

The gospel entitled Matthew describes Jesus as a Messiah in the mold of a new Moses. Mark depicts Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God and possibly the Son of Man figure. Luke's Jesus is a universal savior, better than that other "son of god" ruling from a throne in Rome. John is fond of using the "ego eimi" formula to emphasize the intimate connection between the Jewish "I AM" and Jesus.

 

Same events, same speeches, remembered encounters, pithy sayings and stories, but radically different pictures of Jesus of Nazareth. Is there some Thucydidean embellishment involved? It would be strange if there weren't.

 

For more, read about these two positions: Were the gospel writers eyewitnesses?

 

EHCC- the Early High Christology Club

 

Among modern scholars there is an "Early High Christology Club," a tongue-in-cheek and informal designation that argues for a very rapid development of actual worship of Jesus as a deity.  This view finds support in Bauckham's position that the gospels are eyewitness accounts and are relatively unprocessed narratives. Simon Gathercole says: "The Synoptics have a divine-identity christology, including pre-existence, indicated by the presence of the phrase 'I come…' as if Jesus were arriving from a heavenly place to earth. It recalls the speech of Angels when visiting earth." The fact that these ideas are present in writings occurring within two to three generations after Jesus seems to be proof that the earliest Jesus-followers weren't averse to assigning him a high status, up to and including  what they knew to be deity.

 

Though it appears that the gospels were composed later as persuasive arguments for a specific point of view, the EHCC makes a good case for early deification. An early high Christology depends in part on the minds of Jesus' admirers- specifically how likely they were to "know" that a mortal human could undergo deification. Let's compare the Jesus story with the deification of Julius Caesar for a possible window into another case of rapid deification.

 

Julius Caesar was brutally assassinated on March 15th 44 BCE. As powerful parties jockeyed in the aftermath for the throne, Sidus Iulium, the Julian Star, appeared during the annual Ludi Victoriae Caesaris- games and festivals in honor of Julius Caesar's military conquests, held between July 20-30 that same year. This star has been identified by astronomers as Comet C/-43 K1, appearing for seven days and visible in the daytime sky. To many Romans, this was clear evidence of Julius' ascension to take his place among the gods. Roman historian Suetonius recounts the phenomenon:

 

“He died in the fifty-sixth year of his age, and was numbered among the gods, not only by a formal decree, but also in the conviction of the common people. For at the first of the games which his heir Augustus gave in honour of his apotheosis, a comet shone for seven successive days, rising about the eleventh hour,​ and was believed to be the soul of Caesar, who had been taken to heaven; and this is why a star is set upon the crown of his head in his statue.”

 

A mere five months after his demise, the people of Rome were discussing the possibility that Julius Caesar had made a kind of transition from an exalted, heroic human being to full "immortal god" status. Of course Octavian, the soon-to-be emperor Caesar Augustus, got behind the deification push as it would benefit his own standing as a son of a god.

 

Two years later, the Triumvirs Octavian, Antony and Lepidus decreed that a temple should be erected following the Senate's posthumous deification of the first Caesar. Building started in 44 BCE. It was completed and dedicated in 29 BCE.

 

There was some precedent for the arguments put forward for his deification. The Julian family emphasized their connections to the god Mars and goddess Venus. Romulus, one of the mythical brothers that founded Rome, was the offspring of Mars and Rhea Silvius. They also traced their ancestry to Aeneas of Troy whose mother was Aphrodite / Venus. In the minds of the general public and the politically powerful, Julius Caesar's ascension to immortality should be fast-tracked.

 

While Jesus appeared on the scene in a completely different set of circumstances, from an opposite position on the social spectrum, these events were contemporary to the times and would not have been dismissed out of hand. This was especially true of a community whose relationship with Rome was not an easy one, and who were amenable to an alternative. Julius Caesar's quick rise to immortality in the heavens lends support to the possibility that the same could happen just as quickly to Jesus, especially if there were reports of a resurrection supporting the idea. In less than 6 months post assassination, Caesar was being talked about as a god, or sharing the qualities of gods as the Romans perceived them.

 

That's the remaining question. When we talk about an early high Christology, what are we talking about? When we decode the words "Christ" and "Messiah" from where we stand as latecomers to these designations, are those terms necessarily trinitarian? Given the long debate about the actual nature of Jesus as God, probably that's a no. The church finally settled on an official position called "Miaphysitism" (that Jesus is fully divine and fully human in one nature) in the fifth century CE.

 

Examples of Early Christologies

 

The Apostle Paul's appointment theory: Jesus is a human descendent of David (with all that implies), and "appointed" (Greek horizo- literally, set a boundary around) as the Son of God at his resurrection. Famously he says in the opening of Romans: "Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord…" The implication here is that Jesus was not necessarily pre-existent but adopted or appointed as God's son at his resurrection. 

 

That's one possibility. Paul doesn't seem to settle in easily on any modern category for Christological views. This is to be expected, as a general theory wasn't as well developed as it became a few centuries later. Scholar Bart Ehrman detects a solution in Paul's use of a descriptive phrase in Galatians 4:14 "…you did not scorn or despise me but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus." Did he believe that Jesus was now a type of angel, as understood by a Jewish mind shaped by Old Testament appearances of special messengers of God? Bart Ehrman How Jesus Became God p. 252

 

Mark is somewhat more clear about his Christology. He writes of an Announcement from Heaven event at Jesus' baptism- the declaration from a torn-open sky that Jesus is now the "beloved Son" in whom God is well pleased. Mark does not elaborate on what is meant by "Son of God," so we are left to mine his literary goals, cultural context and comparison with others who use the phrase. Earlier in chapter one of Mark, it's clear that the author has set Jesus up as a secondary fulfillment of Isaiah's hopeful declaration of restoration for Israel.

 

Luke and Matthew both have Jesus signified as the Son of God from his miraculous birth and subsequent actions that show him to be an apocalyptic messiah according to their interpretations of prophetic scripture. If in fact Luke's author is indeed also the author of Acts, he does record some contradictory material in his second volume, for example in Acts 13, Jesus is installed as the messiah at his resurrection (in fulfillment of a phrase in Psalm 2) which clashes with the story he tells in the opening chapters of the gospel.

 

John's gospel frames Jesus in the language of Hellenistic philosophical concepts, namely, as the embodied Logos or pre-existent organizing principle of the universe. The fourth gospel reverses the process of the others in portraying Jesus as progressing from divine to human rather than human to divine.

 

Mark also refers to Jesus with the title "Christos," the Greek version of the Hebrew "anointed one." There's a conscious literary effort there to reference the commonly expected apocalyptic bringer of the end of the age, the final prophet-priest-king who sets things right.

 

Also on the table of possibilities is the phrase "Son of Man," from Ezekiel and Daniel. Mark uses the title to draw on heightened first-century expectations that the end of the age was near. Use of the title indicated kingship and real political power issuing directly from the heavenly court of Yahweh. In Mark 14:62 Jesus answers his accusers positively when they ask him if he is the "Christ, the son of the Blessed One." "I am" (ego eimi), he answers according to Mark. He follows with a second person reference to seeing the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the "clouds of heaven." It's not clear if he uses the title for himself or some other divine being.

 

Early Christologies then, usually settled into one of four categories, based on Greek, Roman and Jewish assumptions about how it was possible for the human and divine worlds to overlap:

 

  • A human-god hybrid could be the offspring of one human parent and one divine

  • A regular human could be chosen by the gods for promotion to immortality and place among the gods. This idea is behind Mark's divine announcement where Jesus became the Son of God at the moment of baptism. The Christological term for this is Exaltation.

  • A third option presents itself in the New Testament: Incarnation

 

Incarnation means that a pre-existent deity becomes human for a time and then returns to their place in the heavens.  Jesus was understood by some to be this kind of god-man who experienced a temporary embodiment as a person, suffered the death as any mortal would, but then returned, resurrected, to his native existence. Well known scriptures like Philippians 2 and John 1 describe an  incarnational view of Jesus.

 

These early attempts to explain Jesus as Messiah or Christ grew out of a desire to understand and interpret the remarkable life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As a community formed around these theories, there also arose a desire to settle on a core truth concerning who or what Jesus was.

 

In any century, a writer is constrained by the intellectual categories and concepts of her time. You won't find first century writers using space travel metaphors or wordplay based on automotive concepts, e.g., "where the rubber meets the road." When confronted with a person like Jesus who many were saying had risen from the dead and ascended into the heavens, they had only the conceptual tools lent to them by their culture. Phrases like "Son of God," and "Savior" in contemporary use but they were locked up by state governments to refer to the authority and benevolence of their leaders. To call Jesus a "Savior" was most definitely a political statement in a world where there was no separation between the state and the gods.

 

In the Hebrew Bible, we have Adam and Eve achieving partial deity status and prevented from becoming fully deified by eating from the other tree of immortality. YHWH also prevents the builders of the Babel tower because of their attempt to presumably access the place of the gods and by extension, become one of them. 

 

Another example comes from ancient Athens, Greece.

 

In 290 BCE, King Demetrios Poliorketes dismounted from his carriage in Athens, his last visit there. The Athenians welcomed him as king with incense, libation offerings and of course, hymns to his greatness. One of these hymns, by the poet Hermokles of Kyzikos became quite popular. It starts off "See how the greatest and the most beloved gods in our city are present, for here Demeter and Demetrios one lucky moment brought us… " It goes on to mention Demetrios' divine parentage and represent him as a divine presence not in wood or stone, but "real to the bone."

 

Though there existed some language tools with which to describe a human-god combination, the debate raged for centuries over the Big Questions:

 

In what way is Jesus both man and God?

Why does he have to be both, or one or the other?

What is Jesus' relationship to YHWH, the one true God of the Jews?

How can monotheism be maintained while designating not one, but two other "persons" of a trinity?

 

In the next installment, we'll survey the Christological debate from the first century down to our time.


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