What Counts as a Historical Precedent for New Testament Christology?

Jesus monotheismFor the last 30 or so years (or maybe more), there’s been a running debate surrounding the nature, shape, and origins of New Testament Christology. How high or low was it really? Was Paul really working with a concept of Christ as fully divine and fully human a la Chalcedon, or did that come later as the Church reflected on the implications of what Paul and the other apostles wrote? And did Jesus think himself divine? Was that even an option for a 1st Century Jew? Where did that Christology eventually come from? Was it the influence of Greek, pagan cult, or rooted in classic, Hebrew monotheism? And are these even the right questions? (See Wesley Hill on this)

While much New Testament scholarship in the 20th century took it for granted that “high” Christology was a later development, scholars like Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, Chris Tilling, N.T. Wright, and others, have recently forwarded a thesis of early “Christological Monotheism” that argues the earliest Christology we have is a divine Christology. From the beginning, Paul, John, and the other apostles believed there to be one God (YHWH) and yet, somehow, the man Jesus was central to that one God’s identity (1 Cor. 8, Phil. 2, Col. 1, John 1, etc).

This “emerging consensus” has grown in force and strength over the years, despite variations among the different proponents. Some emphasize the new pattern of reading Scripture that forced the early Christians to recognize Christ as the one who has come and done what only YHWH himself would come and do (Wright), or the fact that he is ascribed the divine Name (Bauckham), or that he receives worship in a way only suited to the Creator in Jewish monotheism (Hurtado). All the same, one thesis that most seem agreed on is that this “Christological monotheism” has no real precedent in the 2nd Temple Jewish texts of the period before Christ.

Crispin Fletcher-Louis disagrees. He does so in a recently published first work of an ambitious, projected four-volume series on the issue, Jesus Monotheism Volume 1: Christological Origins: The Emerging Consensus and Beyond. I’m only about half-way through it, but it’s already proving instructive and provocative. For those interested, in the series, Fletcher -Louis aims both to support and forward the “emerging consensus” while simultaneously critiquing and strengthening it from what he takes to be real weaknesses, due largely from a failure to consider biblical anthropology and theology.

While mostly appreciative of Bauckham and Hurtado’s work (often sharply defending them against critics such as James Dunn or James McGrath), here he says they’ve missed the mark. They say that the various designated emissaries of God such as kings, prophets, priests, nor angelic figures were ever included in the identity of the one God, nor did they receive the kind of worship that Jesus does in the New Testament. Fletcher-Louis thinks that while they are right to point out the real, sharp discontinuity with anything that’s come before in pre-Christian Judaism, their method doesn’t give proper due to the range of thinking about Messianic or medatorial figures present in the 2nd Temple texts discovered by recent scholarship (128-129).

At this point in the study, he notes two problems with their method. First, he thinks they handle key texts idiosyncratically, taking minority positions without showing their work enough. Fletcher-Louis aims to tackle that issue at length later, with case-studies in key texts (130).

Second, and this was the interesting point for me, Fletcher-Louis claims they don’t handle the notion of precedents properly with respect to NT Christology. Obviously, there is no exact precedent. There is a radical discontinuity and difference. There is no direct parallel, nor does the Old Testament explicitly demand the New Testament’s Christology (though it is not inconsistent with it). All the same, Fletcher-Louis says that Hurtado in particular “demands too much of the Jewish material for it ever to hope to gain a proper hearing as a factor in explaining the phenomenon attested in the NT” (131). In other words, Hurtado has too high a criterion for what counts as a “precedent” and so it’s obvious that he won’t find one. There won’t be a precedent for each and every part in a single figure, but given the fact that the “Christological monotheism” of the New Testament has many parts, it can be shown that many of the various parts can be found in other sources, even if the whole is not.

He uses an illustration I found particularly instructive:

The Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98) is generally, reckoned, to have anticipated Luther’s German Reformation with an uprising against the power of the clergy in Renaissance Florence. But the full flowering of the theologcal and ecclesial revolution was only seen several decades later the other side of the Alps in Germany (and Switzerland). Savonarola was an historical precedent for Luther, but by no means did his attempted reformation have all the elements of the theological, ecclesial, and political revolution that would spread from Germany.  For the waves of Pentecostal and Charismatic renewal and revival that have overtaken parts of the church in the twentieth century there is precedent in pietistic and popular movements, some of which were focused on visionary and “Spirit” experiences, in the medieval church. But in many ways modern Pentecostalism is theologically (and sociologically) quite peculiar to the twentieth century. Such is the stuff of historical precedent. And sometimes precedent entails a degree of historical causality…but sometimes it only offers an intriguing comparison from another, separate historical context… (131)

In the same way, it’s not that we must find a total package Christological monotheism before Christ for it to count as a precedent, but similar elements. Nor, argues Fletcher-Louis, should we be too worried that some anticipations to the Christology of the New Testament might sideline the uniqueness of Christian claims. On the contrary, the similarities are precisely what can aid us in understanding the distinctive character of Christian worship of Christ in distinction from surrounding movements and theologies in the 2nd Temple literature we find (132).

I find his point well-taken, though, it remains to be seen (at least for me) whether he actually does demonstrate the precedents, or whether he does properly safeguards against some of the parallelomania that’s prevalent in certain quarters of the NT guild. Given the case he’s made so far, though, and this write-up of his work by Andrew Wilson, I’m quite excited to see him make the attempt.

Soli Deo Gloria

11 thoughts on “What Counts as a Historical Precedent for New Testament Christology?

  1. I find this whole area of study puzzling. Surely it is no secret by now that the Old Testament does necessitate something remarkably like New Testament christology with regard to the word, angel and presence of Yahweh? Eg bnonn.com/overt-christology-in-the-old-testament-1/

    Surely a backwoods hick like me can’t have spotted this stuff when scholars who study Christological precedent for a living have not. And hasn’t this been common knowledge since Alan Segal published Two Powers in Heaven back in 1977?

    So what is going on?

    • Well, first, never question what scholars will question. Also, the idea of what the Old Testament necessitates v. what it is consistent with is a distinction that’s important for understanding the variety of 2nd Temple beliefs on this.

  2. Dear Derek

    Great material, as always. Savonarola and other examples demonstrate that history does not repeat itself, but does rhyme.

    Happy New Year blessings,

    Michael Mates

  3. It has seemed fairly clear to me that Hurtado pretty thoroughly portrays and examines all kinds of close precedents to aspects of Christ devotion but points out that none of the precedents had actual historical instantiation as they do in the exalted Jesus. I don’t think Hurtado uses the language you did to describe what Bauckham, N T Wright, and others do: “the man Jesus was central to that one God’s identity.” You can read Hurtado’s response to Fletcher-Louis (and others) here: https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/early-jesus-devotion-critical-engagement/
    and more fully here:
    in link to Hurtado as author (you have to jump down to Hurtado in the list of authors) called: L. W. Hurtado, “The Origins of Jesus-Devotion: A Response to Crispin Fletcher-Louis,” Tyndale Bulletin 61, no. 1 (2010): 1-20

    Fletcher-Louis’ take can be read here:
    But you get more of the whole thing at Amazon as linked by Mishmawy above.
    Hopefully someone with time and access to Fletcher-Louis’ new first volume on the topic can describe for us how and why his views have developed in relation to Hurtado’s since the early critiques, and how he addresses Hurtado’s dismissal of his criticisms as being largely misconstruals of what he has written. Perhaps Fletcher-Louis has yet to develop responses to Hurtado’s sense that his views were apparently misunderstood.

  4. Wow, reading deeper takes us into amazing realms of theological speculation, much of it altogether intriguing as it explores the biblical portrayal of Adam as the “unique bearer of the divine glory,” and ‘the biblical vision for a high, even a “divine,” theological anthropology’ in which he is quite clearly referring to Adam in term quite similar to, if not identical with, those he uses for Christ in relation to Yahweh. There is also what he sees as the biblical view where ‘the high priest is the “divine” image-idol in the temple-as-Eden and the temple-as-microcosm; on a cosmic stage.’ Which is a bit too astonishing as a “precedent” to summarize (OK, I can’t take the time). Check it out here: https://www.academia.edu/8211442/Jesus_Divine_Self-Consciousness_A_Proposal_British_New_Testament_Conference_2014_
    If you fiddle with things a bit here you can get all kinds of pdf’s of Fletcher-Louis’ work:
    You will also surely be intrigued by his excursi on numerology (gematria) in key NT texts like I Cor 8:5 and Rom 9:5 (speak of numerical coincidences!). You can see those arguments in the Amazon preview at about pg. 55 here:
    If you think he is somehow simply upholding traditional orthodox views of what you think of as the biblical Jesus Christ you might want to think at least twice about that.
    Enjoy, in Christ.

  5. Hi Derek, thanks for this review of volume 1 of my Jesus Monotheism project. Well written – all very clear and fair.

    Hurtado has not really understood my perspective on Christological origins and, I’m afraid, has sometimes misrepresented my views in print. (To be fair to him, I have not, until now, had an opportunity to set everything out properly – although a series of articles over the last fifteen years point in the direction I have always been heading). One aim of volume 1 and all that follows will be to show in what ways we agree and disagree.


    • Hello! I just saw this comment. I’m so glad to know you appreciated it. I have to say, I’m looking forward to what’s coming in future volumes. You’ve whet my appetite for more of what comes, especially on the high-priestly end of things.


    • So interact with Hurtado online; he is undoubtedly altogether open to it. You can even simply respond to his comments and critiques. Please let us know here if you do.

  6. Pingback: Jesus Monotheism: Digital A couple of recent blog reviews of Jesus Monotheism Volume 1
  7. Pingback: Won’t Get Fooled Again? Machen on Old-School “Jesus v. The Bible” Liberalism | Reformedish

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