Jewish Christian Literature and High Christology

In the earliest days, Christianity was entirely Jewish, yet by the end of the first century the majority of the church was Gentile, and by the end of the second century only a minority of Christians were converts from Judaism. There is little doubt a book like Hebrews is Jewish Christian based on its focus on the Law and use of the Old Testament. On the other hand, the writings of the second century apologists are almost entirely Gentile because of their use of philosophical categories to argue for the truth of Christianity. In a previous post I survey Donald Hagner’s description of Jewish Christianity and Raymond Brown’s four categories of Jewish Christianity. I also looked briefly at Jacob Neusner’s suggestion Jewish Christianity was a myth. Neusner said “Judaisms and Christianities never meet anywhere. That is because at no point do Judaism, defined by Torah, and Christianity, defined by the Bible, intersect.” I think they do (go read that earlier post)and the Jewish Christian literature (Especially Hebrews and James) is evidence of that.

But most books are not as easy to categorize as Hebrews or James, so the following several posts will develop a set of criteria which may indicate a book is more or less representative of Jewish Christianity. I will start with the Christology of Jewish Christian literature.

JesusIt is often assumed “high Christology” means a book is “less Jewish” and ought to be dated as late as possible. High Christology refers to the belief that Jesus was in some sense divine. Low Christology is the belief that Jesus was only a human, or was human specially appointed by God. The general assumption is the belief Jesus is God and part of the Trinity developed over several hundred years, not finally taking shape until the fourth century. There is some truth to this since the claims the gospels make about Jesus could be read either way: Jesus is a human, but he also seems to claim some divine prerogatives which imply he was “more than just a human.”

This “low develops into the high” Christology can be seen in the New Testament. For example, Mark’s Gospel is the earliest of the four and does not contain any birth narrative. Jesus is the suffering servant who tries to keep messianic expectations to a minimum. Matthew and Luke include birth stories which expand Jesus’ origins to include a divine miracle (the virgin birth) and the fulfillment of prophecy. John’s Gospel was the last written and describes Jesus as the Word of God who was with God at creation, and is in fact God (John 1:1-3).

The main reason a low Christology is assumed to be “more Jewish” is the importance of monotheism in Second Temple period Judaism. If a Jewish teacher like Jesus announced he was The God of the Hebrew Bible in the flesh, he would have likely been immediately stoned for blasphemy. In Mark 2 Jesus claims to be able to forgive sin and he is accused (at least in thought) of blasphemy.

I had some reservations since Paul (a Jewish Christian) has a remarkably high Christology at a fairly early date (Phil 2:5-11). This particular example is important since it appears as though Paul is recalling a well-known tradition, implying this example of “high Christology” is earlier than the letter of Philippians. Martin Hengel, for example associates high Christology with the early church, commenting that a high Christology “grew entirely out of Jewish soil” and any “pagan influences have been suspected in the origins of Christianity were mediated without exception by Judaism” (“Early Christianity,” 2–3). Richard Bauckham also concluded “the earliest Christology was already the highest Christology” (God Crucified, viii, also see here).

There are some examples of Jewish Christian letters which do not have a robust Christology (James barely mentions Jesus). But Hebrews cannot be described as a “low Christology” but certainly represents Jewish Christianity. How might a writer’s view of who Jesus be influenced by whether they are Jewish or Gentile?

18 thoughts on “Jewish Christian Literature and High Christology

  1. The latest wave of Pauline studies headed by Nanos, Fredriksen, Elliot, et al. argue that the designations “Christian” and “church” are completely anachronistic translations within their first century context. “Messianic-Jew” seems to be their preferred term, though it’s academics in progress and the arguments about what “Jew” and “Judaism” even mean within the first century are far from settled. See their latest round of essays in Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, Fortress Press, 2015.

    As far as High Christology goes, Daniel Boyarin argues in The Jewish Gospels (New Press, 2012) that all the elements for a “High Christology” through interpretations of Son of Man (a divine titular designation) existed by the time of the birth of Jesus, so it’s not unreasonable to accept that Paul, or even Jesus (and, I suspect, Mark as well), had a fully developed “High Christology”. So, Hengel may be right, but off by a century or more. Boyarin also argues that that this development suggests “Judaism” was more polytheistic in the first century than is assumed and that the formulation of Father, Son and Holy Spirt, came from within “Judaism” itself, and not the Greeks, and was present within Jewish messianic/apocalyptic thinking by the time of Jesus. Fredriksen also points out that Paul fully accepted the polytheistic world of the Greeks and Romans, but that their gods all took a knee to the Christ. I suppose the point is, the first century world was (still) far more rich and complex than we yet understand, as reflected in books like James and Hebrews, no doubt.

    (Paula Fredriksen’s tome on Paul and paganism is due from Yale sometime in 2016.)

    I’m looking forward to your future posts.


    • Thanks for these comments and references! Tho I have little time for book-length reading lately, I’ve noted these and the upcoming Fredricksen one… her work on Jesus becoming Christ (exact title escapes me at the moment) was excellent.


      • Howard, I agree: Reading takes dedication and some financial resources depending on the what’s in your local libraries, which is why a book of essays like Paul within Judaism is a welcome respite. It’s a box of chocolates you can consume at your leisure. Also, if you go to YouTube and search a scholar’s name, often times you’ll come across a wealth of lecture material that you can download and watch at your leisure. Here’s a couple of worthwhile talks by Fredriksen:

        Paula Fredriksen – “Judaizing the Gentiles: The Ritual Demands of Paul’s Gospel”

        Why Paul’s Pagans were not ‘Converts’?


  2. Reflecting some of what “robwaltoon” says above, we just have too little of the literature (and knowledge of the thinking) of the 1st century to see very clearly how things developed. (The claimed “history” of Acts is very sketchy, selective and often unreliable, the little that it does seek to explain.)

    What is clear, but often not recognized, is that there were many strains of thinking, many “faith communities” all developing rapidly at the same time… and the following of many “messiahs” both before and after the Jerusalem fall in 70. With that, no settled views from varying “OT” descriptions or “predictions” of Messiah, so that sincere Jews could and did readily project out a messiah of their preference.

    On another 1st century issue, we still, even after the Nag Hammadi texts were discovered, have no clear understanding of the roots and early development of the many strains of Gnosticism – “Christian” and otherwise. Thus, while Paul does evidence an early high Christology, he also evidences a number of pretty important parallels with Gnostic thought, especially if Eph. and Col. are included in his corpus. And as to Gnostic origins, it won’t do to just presume it was a corruption of Christian dogma, as Evangelicals often do.

    I’ll reference my comment in the just-prior post introducing “Jewish Christian Literature”. There I develop a bit a case that amounts to this: Even presuming an early and Jewish high Christology does not require that the same people based that on evidences for a bodily Resurrection and “empty tomb”, or necessarily had such a belief. In fact, the NT evidence indicates otherwise.


  3. Hebrews certainly does have high Christology throughout. And though the author never mentioned himself and the original title of the book is surrounded in speculation, i think in this case that your question is important. Hebrews is written to people who are Jews. At least one reason has convinced me of this after reading the chapters in LTTC. First though, I have gathered over the past few years that some/many/I’m not sure how many Jewish Pharisees around the time of Jesus believed in the Law and all that, but took it farther to what I would almost label as mysticism. With all the Apocalypse stories and the other Rabbinical literature and the general preoccupation with angels following suit, all the talk about angels in Hebrews 1 catches my eye. Why would the author choose to point out to his audience that Jesus is higher than specifically the angels and everything else? That must have held some special meaning to the audience. Hebrews provides so much for our understanding of who Jesus is. And at the very least, I can say I know that Jesus is higher than angels.


  4. Having read the post on What exactly is Jewish Christian Lit and High Christology and after reviewing book reviews of that of Raymond Brown, Jacob Neusner, amongst others that were viewed, along with reading Jobes text and reviewing what we had discussed in class over Jewish Christian Lit and the Pauline Letters, it is easy for me to assume the many variations of where the book of Hebrews might have been located as according to the authors and what the term “High Christology” means to us as humans. I will first start out with our views of Christology, when we first review the articles posted on “Reading Acts” we understand that having a “High Christology” means that we have a full understanding of who God is as 3 persons- The Godhead, The Spirit, and The Son. We know of this if we just refer to the sections of the Bible that mention the Godhead: Deuteronomy 6:4, Romans 1:9, 20, Acts 17:29, and Colossians 2:9 all speak of the Godhead in divine nature. We also know that he is both fully human and divine from what we read about from Jobes (p. 24, Letters of the Church). Jobes tells us how Hebrews clearly explains why Christ had to be fully human and divine in order to bring God’s redemptive plan to its culmination. “Sometimes, the author says, as Christians we fail to recognize that he too, struggled with many of the same things we face,” which is why it is important to establish a “High Christology” mindset when dealing with such a controversial topic. Having a “Low Christology” mindset would only mean that we would only view him as someone appointed by God to finish what was left to be vacant. Of course, if we viewed Christ in this way we would only understand he would suffer the same way humans do, but would be missing a piece of what is led to be believed as the most important part of understanding the Christian faith. Because of the suffering Christ took upon his shoulders to save us from our sins, it is the part we would miss if we only kept to our secular viewpoints and, in turn, destroy the biblical foundation on which the Christian faith is built.
    Assuming that we all understand the difference between the Christology’s, I will now attempt to defer where the Book of Hebrews (the main source for Christology in the New Testament as it underscores its significance of Jesus Christ in the 3 persons as seen above) might have been written. Hebrews having been associated with much of the Jewish is it easy to assume that Jerusalem has earned a proper place in history as it associates itself more with a Jewish population but as we read throughout Jobes book in chapter one, we see that there is also other places in mind where scholars believe that the book of Hebrews might have been written and to whom it might be written for.
    For example, we are told from Jobes that the book of Hebrews might have also been heavily influenced by the Romans and since the Apostle Paul is claimed to be the writer of this section of the Bible and was claimed to be a Roman citizen at one point during this period (see Acts 22:28) so it is possible to assume that Hebrews was written for other people other than the Jews themselves and, in fact, could just be a general guideline for all of his people instead of aimed at one specific group Jewish Christian or not. This topic leads me to ask some questions which need more time to evaluate which is something I can only gain from The Bible as my main source to get information.
    I look forward to answering your future posts.


  5. I believe that many of the reasons that the these types of books are not all directly taking a Christian stand point is because much of the Christian culture of that time came from a previously Jewish life. As you said in class on Monday, I believe you were talking of Brown’s 4 sub-groups, different groups of people would have kept on living parts of their Jewish heritage even though they did not “have to” anymore because of the New Covenant under Christ. People would hold on to the things that they know, and are comfortable with, and as a new Christian teacher whoever was writing these books, whether we know the author or not, had to engage this group of people still living in their old ways knowing that they were still engaging in their old traditions. In my opinion, I believe that not directly mentioning Christ was a shot at warming them up to the idea that the Messiah had come, and that things were going to change because of it.


  6. I thought it was really interesting that Paul had a high Christology early on which wasn’t normal. I think it’s interesting that he does in particular because of his conversion story. It seems that many of the other apostles were “eased” into their faith in Jesus. It took many years for them to develop their faith and to finally realize who Jesus really is. Paul however, had his faith knocked into him in a matter of days and went from one extreme, persecution, to the other, having a high Christology. I thought it was interesting that this shock may have played a role in a higher Christology. I also never really thought much about how Christology developed over time but it’s interesting to think about and makes a lot of sense as well. It seems that at least one Jewish Christian book has a high Christology, indicating that there had to have been some mix of Judaism and Christianity. Hebrews does speak of the angels worshipping Jesus and that He is the son of God, it does seem out of place compared to some of the books.


  7. I find it somewhat ridiculous that one would think that Christianity and Judaism never intersect. I would absolutely agree that the books of Hebrews and James especially are very much about Jewish traditions and Faith. I think right away about Hebrews 11, which uses historical figures such as Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, and some very obscure ones such as Enoch, Barak and Jephthah. These names would be irrelevant to gentiles, who would have no experience with the Old Testament like we do. It is obvious that it is meant for Jews. However, as you mentioned earlier, there are also many cases in Hebrews that reflect a high Christology. Therefore it is fairly obvious to me that it is important to take more criteria into account than just Christology when defining a Jewish-Christian Letter


  8. Jewish-Christian lit is the main point I see. It was written to Jews who believe Jesus was the Messiah and truly fulfilled the prophecies. Hebrews is a great example of this. Hebrews refers to the Old Testament saints in chapter eleven as mosesvk pointed out, but it also has a very high Christology as yourself and benjabeast have pointed out. They are trying to remain Jewish and incorporate Jesus into their beliefs. Since mono-theism was a significant part of Jewish beliefs they would have to indicate the Christ was truly God. If Christ was God they needed to worship and raise him up to be on the same level as God thus creating a very high level of Christology. I would assume they needed to make it clear that Jesus was God in order to be different than the rest of the world believing in polytheism.


    • It would be a stupid reason to make Jesus into God because the rest of the world believed in multiple gods, also because that Jesus has less similarities or equalities with the main God than other pagan gods have with their main god. Those inequalities with God and the multiple sayings of God and of Christ Jesus should make it clear for Christians that Jesus never claimed to be God neither that he is God.


  9. As you have mentioned above Hebrews has many mentions of Christ unlike some of the books included in the Jewish-Christian category. Hebrews is well known for the passage that addresses Jesus as our High Priest who appealed to God for our sins, I feel that the writer of Hebrews must have had a view of High Christology sense He addresses on more than one occasion Jesus approaching God as the atone for our sins, and the fact that His sacrifice was the one to end all need for sacrifices; Christ would have to have had some divine nature in order to raise from the dead and be the final sacrifice needed. Hebrews 2:17 says that “For this reason He had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest, in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.” Christ was already divine and the author of Hebrews is aware of that.


  10. It is really cool to see that Paul had such a high Christology, which was unusual for his time. In my opinion, this points to the fact that Paul was unafraid of consequences, and only sought to share the complete truth about Christ. Even though saying these things was deemed blasphemous, and put his life in danger, he was more than willing to lay it out there and trust in God. Perhaps the sudden and dramatic experience that Paul had with Christ factored into this fearlessness. If God could do what he did to Paul on the Damascus road, surely Paul believes that Jesus is the true God, and surely God has the power over Paul’s life.


  11. Hebrews is a book packed full of Christology from beginning to end. This book was written towards the audience of Jews. It is important to point out and remember that in Hebrews, the author pointed to Jesus. The book of Hebrews circles around the fact that Jesus is God and that God is in control of everything. When reading this blog, a key component that stuck out to me was that high Christology infers that Jesus was in some sense divine and that low Christology infers that Jesus was only human. Both high and low Christology need to be combined in order to truly understand Jesus. Both Hebrews and James tend to be more Jewish faith and traditions and reflect more of a high Christology. In remembering this, one must acknowledge that it was written to Jews who believed in fulfilled prophecies and that Jesus was the Messiah.


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