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

Jude, Corpse-Fights, and Angels: Dealing with Moral Revisionism Then and Now

michael v satan

Michael challenging Satan for Moses’ corpse.

Jude, Jesus and James’ little brother, wrote probably the quirkiest little book in the whole New Testament. For one thing, it’s not a typical epistle. It’s just a short little letter, only one chapter in your Bible with twenty-five short verses marked out. But then again, so are the letters to Philemon and 2nd and 3rd John.  What distinguishes Jude is how jam-packed it is with short allusions to really intense biblical texts about judgment, densely clustered together, barely unpacked, with an expectation you’ll just be able to pick up what he’s throwing down. Beyond that, I’m fairly sure it’s got the most references to extra-biblical literature than any other NT text as well. Certainly by volume. Tucked in the back, there, right before Revelation, it’s this spicy, aggressive appetizer that whets your taste for the hyper-figural, bizarrity of John’s Apocalypse.

Which is probably one of the reasons it’s so ignored. And that’s a shame because it’s such a fascinating and relevant little text. In preparation for a Bible study, I was able to finally do a little digging into it and nail down some of the flow and even quirkier elements of the argument and was surprised at the way that even some of the weirdest stuff maps onto the current modes of argument and struggles with doctrinal debate and struggle in the church today.

The Opponents

So what’s going on? Well, Jude tells his readers very quickly he’d rather be writing a different letter–a more positive one about our “common salvation”–than the one he had to write appealing to the believers “contend” the faith once for all delivered to the saints (3). Apparently, false teachers and “believers” had stealthily snuck into the church and were threatening to lead people astray with their doctrines (4). What kind of doctrines are these? Well, in the past, there was the theory that it was Gnostics, but Richard Bauckham has argued that this thesis pushes past the evidence we have in the letter.

Jude says these opponents are drawn along by their own desires and sinful instincts the way the Israelites in the desert (cf. Paul 1 Cor. 10), the angels (the Watchers) were in pursuing the daughters of men (Gen 6), and the men of Sodom who pursued strange flesh (whether the accent is on angelic or simply male flesh), and will be judged like them (vv 5-8, 10, 19). Judging by that and his judgment that “They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (4), it seems licentious antinomianism is probably the biggest issue. According to Bauckham, these opponents were probably arguing for some sort of rejection of traditional moral norms because they’d transcended them and were inviting the rest of the Church to join.

The Opponents’ Main Moves

So how were they making the argument? There are about two or three arguments that I can spot Jude pointing to.

1. Abusing Grace. First, it appears that they were making a false appeal to Paul’s preaching of the gospel of grace. Mistaking grace for permission, they could be preaching “sin in order that grace may abound.”

Oh look, someone abusing the gospel of grace. How surprising.

2. False Appeals to “Visions”. Second, and the next two points are connected, they are appealing to “the strength of their dreams” (v. 9).  In other words, possibly some hyper-charismatic experience, or an appeal to a new, special experience of the Spirit that elevates or moves them beyond former moral norms given in the teaching of the Apostles or Scripture.

Oh look, someone abusing the claim of spiritual experience to downgrade Scripture. How surprising.

3. Assaulting the Law. Third, these “dreams” or visions taken to be superior to Old Testament moral law as given by lesser beings. And this is where we get to some of the quirky stuff in verses 8c-10a:

…reject authority and heap abuse on celestial beings. But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” Yet these people slander whatever they do not understand…

So, here’s where knowing some extra-biblical, 2nd Temple Judaism literature helps. At the time, there were a couple of teachings that were popular. First was the idea that the OT law was given by angels, intermediaries, and not directly by God, though by God’s authority. You can see this idea peeking out in Paul and Acts (Gal. 3:19; Acts 7 :38).

Second, there’s the story of Moses’ burial/assumption told in the Assumption (or Testament) of Moses. If you remember, Moses died on the mountain before entering the promised land. Well, a bunch of legends had grown up around that God had sent the Archangel Michael to retrieve the body of Moses for burial. When he got there, Satan (the Accuser), argued with Michael that Moses’ body was his because Moses was a murderer. Now, Michael knew that this was a slanderous charge, but what did he do? Surprisingly, he does not condemn Satan for slander or over-reach, but appealed to the Lord to judge him for the false accusation made according to the Law.

Without getting into the status of extra-biblical materials, what does this have to do with the false teachers Jude is dealing with? Apparently they were blaspheming the “glorious ones” or “celestial beings” through whom the Law came in order to denigrate the Law, and supplant moral authority of OT Scripture with their own licentious teachings. If the Law was delivered through untrustworthy angels, then it’s all the easier to replace with private revelations. Jude responds to their arrogance by appealing to Michael’s example. Bauckham comments:

Michael’s behavior contrasts with that of the false teachers when they reject the accusations which the angels, as spokesmen for the Law, bring against them. They do so because they claim to be above all such accusations, subject to no moral authority. In fact, even if they had the status of Moses or Michael, they would remain subject to the divine Lawgiver and Judge. — Jude, 2 Peter, pg. 62

If they really understood the nature of the spiritual realm they claimed to, they would not slander revelation as they have been doing, but apparently all they understand is their own lusts. The only authority that they will recognize is their own desires trumped up in the garb of elevated spiritual insight.

Oh look, someone is denigrating the revelation of the Scripture and the Apostles’ teaching  as revealing God’s creative intent of Christian moral practice because we’ve moved past that. How surprising.

This is Not New

Don’t get me wrong here. I know there are difficult issues involved with parsing the relationship with the OT and the NT, or contextualizing the preaching of the apostles in the 1st Century in the 21st Century. I have to say, though, when you begin to study the structure of heretical arguments made in the history of the church, there is a redundancy in form that becomes increasingly familiar.  I’m not an expert, but I’ve read about these sorts of moves in the first couple of centuries, and again with some of the hyper-radicals of the Reformation and the post-Reformation period, and down on into today.

Of course, that means that, despite the complexities, modern nuances, and varied ambiguities we need to manage, Jude’s call to “maintain the faith once for all delivered to the saints” remains the same. We haven’t “moved past” this, or progressed on to a fundamentally new stage in spiritual history. Yes, history moves on, but now, as then, we live between the comings of Christ. The 1970s were not an eschatologically-significant event comparable to the changing of the covenants brought about through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. So, as difficult and tempting  as it might be, we are called to keep ourselves from being drawn off into false teaching:

But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. (20-21)

This is not a call to rigid, or harsh judgmentalism in matters of doctrinal difference, or towards those who struggle with belief. Christ-like pastors are sensitive to tender consciences. Jude continues by telling people that even though they should hate even the clothes stained by sin, they are to:

Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear… (22-23)

People in the pews are in all kinds of different places. We need to be prepared for that and deal gently, even as we correct false teaching coming from those set on uprooting the truth.

Thankfully, we have God’s promises to sustain us, which is why in the midst of conflict and controversy we praise him now as Jude did then:

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (24-25)

Soli Deo Gloria

Who Were Rufus And Alexander? Why Are They In The Bible?

Simon CyreneAnd they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. (Mark 15:21)

Many of us growing up in church know who Simon of Cyrene is. Simon was forced to carry Jesus’ Cross for him on the road to Golgotha. His inclusion in Mark’s account makes sense; when the almighty Son of God’s mortal strength was failing him, Simon helped bear his burden. What makes less sense, initially, is the inclusion of his sons, Alexander and Rufus, who, to our knowledge, did absolutely nothing. Why then should they be there, included in the text? What’s the point in telling us who his sons are, especially when so many others go unnamed in the account, including the relations of prominent disciples, such as Peter’s mother-in-law who was actually the subject of healing (Mark 1:30-31)?

Richard Bauckham steps in to clear things up for us:

…the way Simon is described by Mark — as “Simon the father of Alexander and Rufus” — needs explanation. The case is not parallel to that of Mary the mother of James the little and Joses (Mark 14:40), where the sons serve to distinguish this Mary from others, because Simon (very common though this name was) is already sufficiently distinguished by reference to his native place, Cyrene. Matthew and Luke, by omitting the names of the sons, who that they recognize that. Nor is it really plausible that Mark names the sons merely because they were known to his readers. Mark is far from prodigal with names. The reference to Alexander and Rufus certainly does presuppose that Mark expected many of his readers to know them, in person or by reputation, as almost all commentators have agreed, but this cannot in itself explain why they are named. There does not seem to be any good reason available other than that Mark is appealing to Simon’s eyewitness testimony, known in the early Christian movement not from his own firsthand account but through his sons. Perhaps Simon himself did not, like his sons, join the movement, or perhaps he died in the early years, while his sons remained well-known figures, telling their father’s story of the crucifixion of Jesus. That they were no longer such when Matthew and Luke wrote would be sufficient explanation of Matthew’s and Luke’s omission of their names.

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, pg. 52

What we have here is an early invitation to check with the witnesses. The implication, much as with Paul’s laundry-list of names in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, is for the reader feel free to ask them about it, should they care to. Simon might be dead, but Rufus and Alexander are living witnesses who can verify what Mark has written about their father.

The constant witness of the New Testament is that the apostles were not teaching “cleverly devised stories” but were dealing with “eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 2:16) Our faith is still faith–it is not yet sight–and yet, it is not blind. We are asked to place whole-hearted trust in credible testimony, human, and ultimately divine, that the promises of God have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who, though he was strong, became weak for our sake that day on Golgotha.

Soli Deo Gloria