Book Review: James L. Papandrea, The Earliest Christologies

Papandrea, James L. The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. 144 pgs., Pb.; $18.00 Link to IVP

In his introduction, Papandrea explains the challenged faced in the post-apostolic era. Jesus taught and did miracles, was raised from the dead. This lead to the worship of Jesus from the very beginning of Christianity (15). There were good reasons to understand Jesus as divine, yet he suffered and died on the cross. It was difficult for the first few generations to reconcile Jesus’ humanity and his divinity. If Jesus was God, then he ought to be immutable; how then could he live as a human?

Papandrea-ChristologyPapandrea has limited his study to the post-apostolic age, primarily the second century. One reason is to avoid monarchic modalism which flourished in the third century and was a Trinitarian heresy rather than an attempt to explain who Jesus was. It also limits the discussion to the period before Arianism, a far more complicated view of Jesus worthy of a monograph on its own. By limiting himself to the second century, Papandrea has set a manageable goal for a short monograph. He does, however, mention both modalism and Arianism as the legacy of adoptionism in his final chapter.

As believers genuinely struggled with defining who (or what) Jesus was, several competing views emerged. Papandrea places these views along a continuum, beginning with Angel Adoptionism and Spirit Adoptionism, both of which emphasize the humanity of Jesus. He then describes Docetic Gnosticism and a hybrid form of Gnosticism emphasize the divinity of Jesus, concluding eventually Jesus a kind of “Cosmic Mind” devoid of humanity.

These four views might be called heresy, and they certainly were by the time Christians began to define orthodoxy. But Papandrea rightly points out these views all represent the sincere efforts of genuine Christians within the church to make sense of the difficult problem of who Jesus claimed to be. For the most part, these views “grew up rather organically or around certain teachers” (15).

Each chapter begins with a short definition of a view of who Christ was and a short survey of the literature used by the group. Angel Adoptionism is associated with Ebionism and may be represented in the eighth Sibylline Oracle, the Shepherd of Hermas, and (perhaps) an edited version of Matthew’s Gospel. Angel Adoptionism essentially believed that Jesus was a righteous human who was rewarded by God with the gift of an angelic spirit, called Christ. Similarly, Ebionites were also associated with Spirit Adoptionism, in which the man Jesus was given the Holy Spirit like an Old Testament prophet. Relying on the Gospel of the Nazarenes (possibly another name for Matthew, perhaps in Aramaic) and apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, this group also rejected the preexistence of Jesus as well as the virgin birth.

Docetic Gnosticism is an early form of Gnosticism which held that Jesus only appeared to be human. It is customary to cite 1 John as engaging this form of early Christology, although Papandrea suggests Docetists may have used a text like 1 Corinthians 15:50, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” to support their view of Jesus. If he was human (flesh and blood), then how can he ascend to heaven? Papandrea suggests some documents in the Nag Hammadi library may have been Docetic, especially the Thomas traditions (Gospel and Acts of Thomas) as well as the Acts of John. In this book, Jesus is not only intangible, he is invisible (55)!

Papandrea’s fourth view is a hybrid form of Gnosticism which thought of Jesus as a “Cosmic Mind.” The problem for Docetism is that there are too many stories about Jesus eating for him to have been some sort of phantom. He therefore suggests later Gnosticism was also a variation on adoptionism. He cites the Carpocrations and Sethians, and the teachers Basilides and Valentinius as examples of this view that a cosmic mind inhabited Jesus unto the crucifixion. The mind abandoned the man Jesus at that point, or switches bodies with Simon of Cyrene (73). Papandrea is sensitive to the wide variety of Gnostic teaching in this period and he is well-aware there was no standard view. But proposing this new category of “hybrid Gnosticism” he hopes to highlight the elements of Gnosticism which see divinity as a spark within humans while avoiding hedonistic aspects of Gnosticism appearing later.

At the center of his continuum, Papandrea places Logos Christology as a balance between the humanity and divinity of Jesus. The view opposes adoptionism by arguing Jesus pre-exists as the Logos, part of the Godhead, and develops a view of incarnation that can affirm a real bodily death and resurrection of Jesus. This eventual orthodox formulation is represented by Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Tertullian.

Finally, Papandrea concludes with a short chapter asking “what is orthodoxy?” To a certain extent, the orthodox view is the middle course between two extremes. Rather than asking “humanity or divinity?” the orthodox view sought to balance both since both were part of the apostolic preaching. Papandrea points out the important implications of adoptionism or Docetism have for the resurrection of Jesus. Neither adoptionism nor Gnosticism leave room for union with God at the resurrection, so that only Logos Christology affirms the bodily resurrection of Jesus (117).

Conclusion. This book makes a good supplemental reading for a systematic or historical theology class. Papandrea clearly and fairly presents the non-orthodox position and is to be applauded for avoiding the language of heresy for many of these positions. The orthodox view of the two natures of Jesus simply had not developed in the second century. He also avoids any of the conspiracy theories often present in a popular presentation of this period of history. It is not the case that orthodoxy suppressed the more spiritual (or liberal) Gnostics. The second century was a time when honest Christians struggled to make sense Jesus’ own question, “who do people say that I am?”

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Published on August 2, 2016 on Reading Acts.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: James L. Papandrea, The Earliest Christologies

  1. Thanks, Phillip. Good to know about this book. You give a helpful summary for us who probably won’t get or read it (tho the subj. is definitely of interest… you know, “life” gets in the way.)

    A couple points nice to see: That Intervarsity would publish a work of this kind, being as careful and “restrained” (?) as you indicate. I like your comment re. mid between extremes and that both orthodoxy-extrapolated-back and “conspiracy theory” by pro-Gnostics or anti-orthodox folks tend to distort the first 3 centuries or so. After a fair amount of study, I’ve observed both sides of this. The 2nd century, with the late first, is a tough period because what texts we have are often hard to date or to correlate with one another. But key is the observation that views were widely varied and no clear “orthodoxy” yet existed.

    I don’t believe “apostolic authority” really was retroactively (mostly, in my understanding) “invented” in the basic form we now consider it until about the time/work of Eusebius, though things were moving that direction from as early as Ignatius and Polycarp.

    As to “only Logos Christology affirms the bodily resurrection of Jesus”, it’s important that that came relatively late itself… and G. John seems clearly to be a response to or in competition with “Thomas” faith, and to therefore invent stuff that bolstered the questionable bodily resurrection “evidence” that I doubt actually existed UNTIL after 70 AD. And Ch. 21 of John may well have been added quite a while after release of the original (though not too long, as we don’t have actual variants that I’m aware, as would be the case if after 130 or 140, probably. In other words, if amended, it would probably have to have been within 20 or 30 years or variants would have survived.)


    • Phillip, I’m “replying” to my own comment to ask this: In my last 2 sentences, am I tracking pretty close to what textual critics would tend to think about the issues of timing and surviving variants? I’ve only studied textual criticism lightly, and the early history of NT and non-canonical 1st to 2nd century mss. But from my general knowledge and what seems to make sense, it seems that originals (of various texts) might have been modified without leaving clear evidence (as with variants of similar antiquity) for only maybe a decade or two. That’s especially if they had “caught on” and were being copied a lot. Maybe less popular ones could be later modified and we’d never know about it. What do you think, and/or what do specialized textual experts have to say re. this?


    • You might have a later date for “Logos Christology” than this book, since he is going to date Gospel of John 85-90. I think he would say the Johannine literature is one option for a high Christology, one that intentionally avoids any form of docetism (which is a parallel development since John is answering that view as deficient.)

      Again, I am guessing here since it goes beyond what Papandrea actually says in the book, but it seems like the Gnostic views he includes are post-John and probably utilized the Logos-Christology to over-emphasize the divine aspects of Jesus in the Gospel. I would like to think Mark’s Gospel created some questions in the way it presents Jesus (the messianic secret, for example), that Matthew and Luke seek to clarify, John is a third layer of theological reflection in parallel with the adoptionist views Papandrea covers. The Gnostic views in this little book come in a fourth wave of reflection on who Jesus was, Modalism and Arianism in the third century extend Christological discussions in a different (closer to orthodox) direction, culminating in Nicea and the subsequent church councils.

      That is really a short, back of the napkin outline, if Papandrea had another three or four chapters, this might be the direction he went. If he ever sees this review he can speak for himself.


      • I appreciate the further interaction, Phillip. I also see “layers” of theological reflection in at least 5 stages in the NT… minimally 3 in the Gospels, overall listed like this: Paul, Mark, Luke/Acts/Matthew, John, Petrine/Pastoral Epistles. I actually think we have 4 (with one less directly revealed) in the Gospels, in clear indications of an earlier “source” document (“Q”), which would make my total at least 6.

        In relation to early Docetism and/or Gnosticism, I think a progression is clear and not supportive of giving, as orthodoxy has done, sole real “authority” to writings with presumed “apostolic authority”. Of course, that being authorship directly or supervised by an Apostle (the 12 plus Paul, “lower case” apostles being separate). The issue was not “eyewitness reports” of direct disciples or revelation to them or to Paul, but rather of theological (and socio-political, etc.) interpretation of Jesus and his teachings. And how various genre of the day, or invented for the occasion, were utilized to convey developing interpretation.

        Of course, there is an historical core behind Paul’s and the Gospel’s accounts, though impossible to very precisely identify amid embellished narrative. (Careful readers observe that a whole lot, especially in JOHN, is much more interpretive – i.e., fanciful – than historical… statements there go very clearly and strongly against Mark, for example.)

        Tying to my earlier point, it is John that has by far the most detailed and most poignantly physical “evidence” of Jesus’ BODILY encounters with followers after his death. But this “evidence” only comes out (apparently) AFTER other theological interpretations by Christians seemingly as sincere and desirous of truth as were those in the enclave which was behind the Gospel of John and related epistles. For modern Christians to take stories in the Gospel of John as things we can count on to have actually happened is to let the very matter of theological interpretation lead.

        What was actually said and done should lead and interpretation follow, as historically happened (we can be quite certain). Orthodox faith has pretended this facts-first order is its basis but in reality it is largely the reverse…. Accounts SUPPORTING interpretation have been taken as factual, against all indications of the texts themselves, when examined closely. Based on all this:

        I continue to be a strong advocate that both “orthodox” and “progressive” (plus any other) versions of Christian faith need to better understand Christian origins and base their principles and practices on what we can reasonably KNOW and inwardly resonate with, not speculate about… Also understand the base/core vision and commitments that promoted early Christian expansion and successes (morally, socially, etc.). Hint to most among the orthodox camp: this does NOT include a faith requirement that Jesus’ resurrection be taken as his BODILY appearance as is pictured in John, or the bodily resurrection and appearance of many “saints” as in Matthew 27. But neither need the Resurrection and “appearances” be merely symbolic. There is at least a 3rd option, I believe shown in the NT, which walks a sort of “middle ground”, consistent of “The Way” of 1st century Christians.


  2. Does the author cite these four views as the four alternatives to a dominant high christology or are these the only four views?


    • He does not discuss high Christology, since (I suppose) they all embrace the divinity of Jesus in some way, even the two adoptionist views. The other views are really sub-orthodox, eventually rejected at Nicea.


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