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Bird, Michael F. Jesus The Eternal Son: Answering Adoptionist Christology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2017. xv + 155 pages; Pb. $18.   Link to Eerdmans

This new monograph from Michael Bird is the result of a discussion held at the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint forum at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 2016 entitled “How Did Jesus Become God?” and featured Bird and Barth Ehrman.  The seminar discussed Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God (Harper One, 2015) and Bird’s recently edited collection of essays entitled How God Became Jesus (Zondervan, 2015). Larry W. Hurtado, Jennifer Wright Knust, Simon Gathercole and Dale Martin also participated in this conference.

As Bird explains in the preface, in his preparation for this conference he became aware much of what is said about adoptionist Christology is incorrect. It is simply assumed the most primitive Christology was adoptionist and scholars tended to reference John Knox or James Dunn rather than examine the evidence. This book calls that quasi consensus into question (9). Bird argues in this book that although there was Christological diversity in the early church, adoptionism was a second-century phenomenon. As Bird says, it is not correct to speak of a single, monolithic Christology of the early church, but it is equally problematic to speak of a wide variety of competing Christologies proportionally distributed across the early church (5).

After a short chapter describing what he means by both Christology and adoptionism, Bird examines two passages most often used as evidence for adoptionism (chapter 2). First, Romans 1:3-4 is one of the earliest statements often taken as evidence for adoptionist Christology, especially if these verses are a pre-Pauline creedal formula. Ehrman claims these verses say Jesus was (according to the flesh) the Davidic Messiah, then he was declared to be the exalted Son of God (14). Bird points out both titles “Son of David” and “Son of God” were messianic titles in Second Temple Jewish literature. There is no evidence the phrase “Son of God” was ever used in Jewish literature for a human who lived a meritorious life and was given divinity after a bodily resurrection (20). For Bird, Romans 1:34 claim the resurrection is the transition from Jesus’s messianic and earthy mode to a display of his divine sonship and heavenly position (23).

Second, Acts 2:36 (along with 5:31 and 13:33) claim that “God made Jesus both Lord and Messiah.” Since speeches in Luke-Acts reflect Luke’s theological agenda, it is at least possible these speeches by Peter and Paul intend to present the exaltation of Jesus as the divinization of Jesus. Bird counters this by showing Luke’s theology assumes Jesus was the messiah and Lord from the beginning (Luke 2:11). Bird cites Kavin Rowe, the change in Acts 2:36 is not ontological but epistemological. For both Romans 1:3-4 and Acts 2:36, there is no beginning to divine sonship implied because divine sonship is presupposed as a part of his messianic identity (29).

Bird devotes two chapters to the Christology of the Gospel of Mark. As the earliest Gospel, it is often assumed the book as an underdeveloped Christology and the baptism is clearly adoptionist: Jesus goes into the water a human, and comes out the Son of God (34). Barth Ehrman considers this as an innovation in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is adopted at the baptism rather than the resurrection. Mark’s gospel is also considered by some to have been influenced by Greco-Roman culture so that the baptism is deification similar to deified Hellenistic heroes or emperors. Bird surveys how the Greco-Roman world presented these defied figures and concludes ascriptions of divinity “were not primarily about essence but honor, status and power” (41). These people were deified because they had provided some benefit to the people and they were worshiped because they were perceived as continuing to be a benefit. In the Hellenistic world the idea a human could become a god was doubted, even if there was some cultural benefit from perpetuating the imperial cult. Both Jews and Christians rejected the idea of human deification, although Judaism developed used angels or exalted humans as intermediaries between God and man. But these angelic creatures are never exalted quite to the same level as Yahweh nor were they recipients of cultic worship (59). With respect to parallels between Mark’s Jesus and the divine men in the Hellenistic world, Bird suggests everyone read Sandmel’s article on parallelomania (JBL 81 (1962). Certainly Mark needs to be read within the context of both Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds, but parallels texts “create endless possibilities” and need to be used with clear criterion in order to avoid seeing things which just are not there (108).

Turning to the details of Mark’s Gospel, Bird interacts at length with Michael Peppard, The Son of God in the Roman World (Oxford, 2011). Peppard argued the term “son of god” in the imperial cult was a major influence on early presentations of Jesus (67). For Bird, Peppard does not take seriously Mark’s key images for Jesus are drawn from the Hebrew Bible, especially in the story of Jesus’s baptism, the key adoption text in Mark. Psalm 2, Genesis 22 and Isaiah 42:1 provide Mark with his material: the Davidic king, the submissive son, and the Isaianic servant. In addition, Mark’s use of Lord for Jesus connects Jesus to the shema. It is Jesus who is the Lord, and it is the Lord Jesus who is initiating a new exodus (91).

Bird deals more briefly with three other issues in the Gospel of Mark. First, in Mark 2 Jesus claims to forgive sin. This is not the function of a priest in Judaism, only God has the prerogative to pronounce since forgiven. Second, calming the storm (Mark 4:25-41) and walking in the water (Mark 6:45-52) are “theophanic episodes” which reveal Jesus as the God who controls the chaos of the seas (94). Third, in Mark 14:61-62 Jesus claims to be the son of Man from Daniel 7:13 who is invited by God himself to sit on his right hand (Ps 110:1). This blending of texts strongly suggests Jesus is the co-enthroned one who will be Lord of all creation (101).

Since the first four chapters of this book argue there are no adoptionist texts in the New Testament, Bird devotes his fifth chapter to explaining how adoptionism developed in the second century. Even here he questions adoptionism in Shepherd of Hermes (which he calls complicated and even incoherent, p. 111) and the Ebionites (which he calls a “poor man’s Christology, 112). Bird agrees with Bauckham’s assessment that the Ebionites were Jewish believers who were uncomfortable with some of the Christological claims being made about Jesus, and defaulted to a possession Christology (Jesus was taken over by God at the baptism). Bird thinks the first writer who can be described as an adoptionist is Theodotus of Byzantium (about 190 CE). Even here, Bird hedges since there appears to have been some mixture among his followers.

In his brief concluding chapter, Bird makes the point the New Testament is not adoptionist, but rather focuses on the enthronement of the Davidic Messiah to heavenly glory. This conclusion favors a Christology developed out of the Hebrew Bible over one influenced by the Greco-Roman world. Modern adoptionism erodes the atonement since a created being cannot redeem another created being (128) and runs the risk of a merit-based theology (129).

Like most contributions to the ongoing discussion of early Christology, this book will probably not convince adoptionists. However, Bird does successfully challenge the assertion the earliest Christology was adoptionist by carefully examining several Pauline texts and the Gospel of Mark and providing a compelling non-adoptionist interpretation of these texts.

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

 

Norelli, Nick. Christology in Review: A Layman’s Take on Books about Christology. Lulu, 2017. 149pp.; Pb.; $10.84. Link to Lulu

Christology in Review: A Layman's Take on Books about ChristologyThis small book collects twenty book reviews written by blogger Nick Norelli on the topic of Christology. Norelli has been blogging at Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth since July of 2006. He offers a short introduction to his journey from AOL chatrooms in 1997 to regularly reviewing books on his blog. He credits Chris Tilling’s detailed review of Gordon Fee’s Pauline Christology as encouraging him to focus on seriously reviewing books.

Christology in Review includes reviews of the following books no particular order.

  • Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel
  • Casey, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God
  • J. & A. Y. Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God
  • D. G. Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?
  • D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God
  • Endo, Creation and Christology
  • Fatehi, The Spirit’s Relation to the Risen Lord in Paul
  • Grindheim, Christology in the Synoptic Gospels
  • Grindheim, God’s Equal
  • W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord
  • H. I. Lee, From Messiah to Preexistent Son
  • McDonough, Christ as Creator
  • F. McGrath, The Only True God
  • Nicholason, Dynamic Oneness
  • C. O’Neill, Who Did Jesus Think He Was?
  • A. Pizzuto, A Cosmic Leap of Faith
  • Stuckenbruck and North, Early Christian & Jewish Monotheism
  • H. Talbert, The Development of Christology During the First Hundred Years
  • Tilling, Paul’s Divine Christology
  • Warrington, Discovering Jesus in the New Testament

The first review is Bauckham’s 2008 work. The oldest reviewed book is Maurice Casey’s From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God was published in 1991 and the latest is Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God from 2014. I would have expected the inclusion of the Michael Bird edited response to Ehrman (How God Became Jesus, published almost simultaneously in 2014). Norelli does mention the volume in his review but does not include a review.

The reviews are arranged alphabetically by author and vary in terms of length and depth of interaction. For example, his review of McGrath, The Only True God is a seventeen page review article with 34 footnotes.  His review of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the God of Israel runs about 14 pages. However, his Grindheim’s Christology in the Synoptic Gospels is only two pages. Some of the books reviewed are from the very best in scholarship (Fatehi, The Spirit’s Relation to the Risen Lord in Paul in the WUNT series), others are written to a more popular audience (Ehrman, How Jesus Became God).

Although he styles himself as a layperson, Norelli offers trenchant critiques in many of his reviews and is not at all shy about expressing disagreement with the scholars he is reviewing. For example, he makes several critical arguments against James McGrath. McGrath called the review “a very detailed and, from my perspective, very fair and useful review” of his book The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context. In his response, McGrath said “There have been more positive reviews that did not leave me feeling as satisfied with the level of engagement as Nick’s did.”

His review of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee is more scathing. Norelli says “if you have read one of Ehrman’s popular books, you’ve pretty much read them all” (p. 55), especially his frequent digs against his former Christian faith.

This collection is useful for anyone wanting a quick sample of the dozens of books published on Christology in the last 20 years. Norelli has done a service by collecting these reviews in an inexpensive single volume.

He hints in his introduction he might produce a second volume on the Trinity. Maybe you can encourage this blogger by purchasing this inexpensive book.

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

The opponents in 1 John are usually identified as having some kind of deficient view of Jesus.  In her Letters to the Church, Karen Jobes mentions both Docetism and Cerenthuis as possible targets of 1 John, although she is quick to point out that John does not dwell on these Christological errors as much as is often taught (420). The oft-repeated story of John in the bathhouse at Ephesus is likely apocryphal, but it makes for good preaching so it keeps turning up in sermons and commentaries on 1 John. But the letter may not even be about Docetism as it is defined in systematic theologies surveying the early Christological heresies.

By the end of the first century, at least some Christians began to deny that Jesus had a physical body.  (The name “Docetic” comes form the Greek word dokeo, meaning “to appear.”)  This teaching is known as Docetism, and was motivated by a strong belief that Jesus was in fact God, but also that material things are inherently evil.

John vs CerenthuisIrenaeus wrote in Against Heresies 3.11.7 that John wrote against an error taught by Cerinthus, although there is a considerable amount of legend concerning the contact Cerinthus may have had with John’s churches. Ignatius argues against Docetism in Ad Trall 9, 10 “Turn a deaf ear therefore when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David the child of Mary, who was truly born, who ate and drank, who was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died….”  Notice that Ignatius follows the same logic as John by pointing out that Jesus had all of the characteristics of a human, including eating, drinking, suffering and dying.

Is Docetism more Jewish than Gentile?  Frequently Docetism is seen as part of the larger theology of Gnosticism, and therefore more or less a “Greco-Roman Philosophy” or perhaps even an early Christian attempt to develop a rational non-Jewish theology which would appeal to the larger Roman world.

But this may not be a proper view of how Docetism developed.  Docetism is the earliest of the “Christological controversies.” If the common view that 1 John dates to the mid 90’s and the letter was written from Ephesus, it is a least plausible to argue that John is reacting to a Jewish Christian attempt to explain who Jesus was.  Rather than making Christianity more palatable to Romans, Docetism would have been appealing to Jews, since the idea of “God made flesh” is troubling to their view that God is completely transcendent.

Docetism is sometimes associated with a group of Jewish Christians known as the Ebionites. This group was ascetic, living a live of voluntary poverty in the desert. This voluntary poverty may have been based on the early Jewish Christians in Acts 2 (selling possessions for needs of the group), or perhaps based on Jesus’ own voluntary poverty.  On the other hand, they may have taken Jesus’ teaching “Blessed are the poor” quite literally!

The real problem with this identification is that Docetism as a Jewish viewpoint would have developed in Palestine, not Ephesus. It is possible that John’s gospel was developed while he was still doing ministry in the Land, and that the fall of Jerusalem forced Jews out of Judah, many of whom ended up in places like Ephesus and Corinth.

Given what we know about Docetism  1 John 1:1-4 seems like a good answer, but 1 John has a great deal more to say about “those who have gone out” and are trouble his readers. Reading only 1 John, what is the nature of the false teaching in 1 John?

The book of Hebrews emphasizes the priesthood of Jesus more than any other book in the New Testament. In fact, much of the argument of Hebrews 5-10 is based on Jesus as the High Priest. While the word ἀρχιερεύς (archiereus) can refer simply to a “chief priest,” the writer of Hebrews has in mind the High Priest from the Hebrew Bible. This word is rare in the LXX outside of the four books of Maccabees. It appears twice in Joshua referring to Aaron as “The Priest” (הַכֹּהֵ֧ן, hakohen), and once in Lev 4:3. This text is significant because the Hebrew used only the word priest (again, הַכֹּהֵ֧ן, hakohen), but the word is modified by “anointed” (הַמָּשִׁ֛יחַ, hamashiach).

Jesus High PriestWhat did the title “high priest” connote when Hebrews was written? By the first century, the High Priest more a political figure that a religious leader.  Control of the temple and the priesthood gave the office a great deal of power, and this power usually led to great wealth. It is unlikely, however, that the writer of Hebrews has this sort of power in mind.  He consistently looks to the idea image (“the shadow”) from the Hebrew Bible in order to describe the “substance” of Jesus.

Jesus is not just the High Priest, but the “great High Priest.” This was a title give to the High Priest Simon in 1 Maccabees (13:42, 14:27). This Simon was one of the founders of the Hasmonean dynasty and the first to take the title of both King and Great High Priest. His first year in power was “the yoke of the Gentiles was removed from Israel” (c. 142 B.C., 1 Macc 13:41). This combination of priest and king was an attempt to consolidate power into the one “office” in Maccabean revival of the kingdom in Judah.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Aaron was to be the representative for the people on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16). He was the only person allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies on that day, and then only after a series of sacrifices. By the Second Temple Period, this ritual was the responsibility of the High Priest. This priest was the only person who was allowed to enter the “presence of God” in order to make atonement on behalf of the people. It is this ideal that the writer of Hebrews is emphasizing when he calls Jesus the Great High Priest. It is only Jesus who can enter the “real Holy Place” and actually make atonement for sin in a way that the original Day of Atonement only could hint at.

A major difference between the High Priest of the Hebrew Bible and Jesus as the great High Priest is that Jesus priest has “gone through the heavens.” This may be an allusion to the smoke of the incense that was burned, which passed up through the heavens to be accepted by God as a sacrifice.  The author will develop the idea over the next few chapters, but Jesus enters the real sanctuary, the real presence of God rather than the “shadow” of the Tabernacle or Temple, as the earthy high priest does.

Looking ahead at the argument of the next five chapters of Hebrews, Jesus as High Priest not only made the sacrifice, but he was the sacrifice. He offered himself for sin. The writer of Hebrews will argue that Jesus could be both the sacrifice and the sacrifice because he was the Son of God. Are there other aspects of the image of Jesus as a High Priest that are significant for understanding who Jesus is?

In Hebrews 1:6 the author says that God commands the angels to worship Jesus, his firstborn son.  The command to worship is drawn from the LXX of Deut 32:43 but seems to be blended with Psalm 97:7 (LXX Ps 96:7) and Psalm 89:27 (LXX 88:28). Ellingworth suggests Odes of Solomon 2:43b and 4QDt 32:43b are possible sources as well, although these two texts are probably alluding to the same texts as the author of Hebrews. The phrase “let all the sons of God/angels worship him” is missing in the Hebrew text, so the writer of Hebrews either is following the Greek of Deuteronomy or only has the Psalm in mind.

There are two issues with this verse that need to be addressed that have a bearing on Christology. First, the quote is introduced by a phrase calling Christ the “firstborn of God.”  The word “firstborn” could be taken to mean that Jesus was created or generated by God, so that Jesus was similar to God, but not the same substance as God himself. In fact, the Greek word πρωτότοκος (prototokos) does mean “first born,” but it often refers to the legal status as heir rather than birth order.

Rembrandt_AqedahIt is possible for the “first born” to be the literal first born child, but that is not necessarily the case. Jacob can be called the first born, even though he was not the literal first born, because he was the son of the blessing over his older brother. More importantly for the writer of Hebrews, the word πρωτότοκος was applied to David in Psalm 89:27 (LXX 88:28).

The second issue is the command to worship Jesus. In the original context of Psalm 97:7, worshipers of idols are put to shame by the glory of God revealed in creation. Since the idols are worthless, the gods/angels are commanded to worship God. The Hebrew Bible has כָּל־אֱלֹהִֽים, “all the gods,” the Greek of the Psalm has πάντες οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτοῦ, “all his angels.” It is probably the case that the translator took the “gods” as “sons of God” and translated the phrase “angels,” a similar case is found in Psalm 8.

The important point is what the quote says: all the angels should (now) worship the Son. In this present age, the firstborn son ought to receive the worship that was reserved for God in the previous age. This would create a problem for a monotheistic Jewish thinker – how can Jesus be worshiped as God? God is commanding his angels to worship something other than himself, a violation of his own Law. The shema, after all, says that there is one God. The angels can only worship God himself, so the author of Hebrews is pointing to the fact that the Son is to be worshiped because he is God.

Is this a valid inference from the text of Hebrews? If a reader sets aside their views on the Trinity (either for or against it), does the writer of Hebrews intend to equate Jesus and God in some real way in this verse? What else is there in Hebrews 1 to support this assertion?

This is the third part of a series of posts on three potential theological points made in the Jewish Christian literature (see also part one and part two). Hagner’s third point concerns a writer’s understanding of who Jesus is. In scholarship there has a kind of sliding scale for Christology has developed, usually described as “High Christology”) versus “Low Christology.”  It is true that the differences between the Christology of the Gospels of Mark and John are striking.

There is an assumption that Christology developed slowly over the first century as the second and third generation of Christians sought to make some sense of the claim that Jesus is God. If a letter has a carefully, theologically nuanced view of Christ, then it is likely to be written later in the first century (or even into the second century). Since Mark is the earliest Gospel and John is the last, there is some evidence that theological thinking about Jesus developed between the writing of those two gospels.

I think that these assumptions are problematic. First, Jesus must have said and done things that that caused his followers to describe him as messiah and very early on Jesus was the object of worship. To say that people two generations later tried to turn Jesus into a god assumes that Jesus did not do things that implied that he was in fact the “son of God.” He claimed to do things that were the prerogative of God, such as forgiving sin (Mark 2:1-12). If Jesus himself the source of “high Christology,” then thinking of Jesus as messiah, savior, Lord and God are all early and Jewish approaches to who Jesus was.

Jewish JesusSecond, if Paul can write in Thessalonians that Jesus is both Messiah and Lord in the context of prayer (1 Thess 1:2-3), then he is already using language that ought to be associated only with God. In the introduction to Galatians Paul blesses his readers in the name of both God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ and ascribes to both worship (Gal 1:2-5). If Philippians can be dated early in Paul’s career, then the theological hymn in Phil 2:5-11 was written only 20 years after the resurrection – hardly a long slow development of Christological thinking! If that hymn was a piece of tradition that was already in use in the churches, then the assertion that Jesus was the very nature of God is quite early indeed! Even if the dates of Philippians and Colossians are in the early 60s, the Christology of these letters must be considered “high.”

But is it true that the more Jewish a work is, the more likely you will find a struggle with the divinity of Christ? Arguably the book of Hebrews is the most “Jewish” of the letters in this collection. The book begins with a careful, scriptural argument that Jesus is the Son of God and he is superior to the sacrifices of the Hebrew Bible, Moses, the angels, and a number of other Jewish ideas. This in and of itself constitutes a very “high” Christology, although it is possible to still see this description as a bit less that Col 1:15-15 or Phil 2:5-11. The writer stops short of using language like “the very essence of God.” In fact, one could argue that the “son of God” language in Hebrews is consistent with messianic language found in Psalm 2 and 110 and not really saying something about Jesus’ ontological being.

On the more radical fringe of Jewish Christianity, the Ebionites seem to have struggled with the idea of Jesus as God since the shema clearly states that there is only one God. They therefore have to reject the virgin birth and full deity of Jesus. At least according to Irenaeus, they believed that the human Jesus was adopted by God at his baptism. Jesus was “merely human” who was anointed like a prophet of the Hebrew Bible (Skarsaune, 429).

In the end, Hagner’s three theological categories are helpful and certainly describe the Jewish Christianity found among the Ebionites.  But the third category may not be as descriptive of the biblical Jewish Christian literature since there is a high Christology evident in Hebrews. But what about a book like James, where there is little even said about Jesus? Is Christology a helpful guide to the “Jewishness” of a document?

In 1 Peter 2:24, Peter alludes to Isaiah 53:5 when he declares that Christ’s death provides “healing.”  He is clearly referring to the death of Jesus on the cross (“he bore our sins on the tree”).  But Peter adjusts the wording of Isaiah 53 slightly. In both the Hebrew and Greek versions, the line reads “we are healed,” Peter has “you (plural) are healed.”  This may simply be a case of a pastor inserting his congregation into a text for rhetorical purposes.

On the other hand, it is not clear in Isaiah who the suffering servant benefits – who is the “we” in this verse?  A common first-century answer was “Israel.” The nation as a whole suffers in order to bring redemption to the world.   This could be an example of Peter re-using a text from the Hebrew Bible and applying it more specifically to the Church. It is not the nation of Israel who is healed by the death of the messiah, but rather the ones who follow Jesus.

The verb translated “healed” (ἰάομαι) can easily be misunderstood. While it is often used for physical healing, it is also used for being delivered from spiritual blindness. What is more, it is used in Isaiah 6:10 to describe what might happen if the people of Isaiah’s day turned their hearts to the Lord and really understood the message of the prophet – “they would be healed.” This text from Isaiah is used several times in the New Testament to describe the spiritual blindness of those who witnessed Jesus’ ministry. They were spiritually insensitive and therefore rejected the Suffering Servant when he revealed himself.

John 12:37-44 is a remarkable combination of Isaiah 6:10 and 53:1. This is John’s summary of the ministry of Jesus. No one heard the message of the Suffering Servant, so no one turned as was healed! Like John, Peter is saying that those who follow Christ are healed of their spiritual blindness in a way which separates them from those who heard the teaching of Jesus and failed to respond.

Isaiah 53 forms a foundation for Peter’s Christology, and probably for the Christology of the earliest apostolic preaching. Based on the suffering of Jesus Christ, his followers experience redemption.  But there is a pastoral application of Peter’s theology of salvation.  If Jesus suffered so intensely so that you can have salvation, then those who follow Jesus ought to suffer in the same way.  Look back a few verses:  1 Peter: 2:20 is an ethical statement about servants who are unjustly suffering at the  hands of their masters.

In fact, Peter’s point is that how you follow Jesus ought to be based on the way in which Jesus lived, suffered and died.  This is not some sort of sugary “WWJD” pep-talk.  Peter bases his ethical teachings on the suffering of Jesus, not his “good life” or other moral teachings.  It is remarkable that Peter does not say, “Love your neighbor the way Jesus loved his neighbors.” I am sure that is true and that Peter would agree with that sort of a statement.   But Peter says, “suffering in silence, the way Jesus suffered.”

My guess is that most people who wore the WWJD bracelets were not thinking about being silent while they were beaten unjustly for their commitment to their Lord and Savior.

1 Peter begins his description of salvation by explaining his methodology.  He states that the salvation he described in 1:3-9  is the subject of prophecy (1:10).  This is an interesting window into the preaching of the Apostles, since the Scripture to which Peter alludes here is found consistently in the the sermons in Acts as well as the letters of Paul.  It appears that the Apostolic preaching of the Gospel began with the idea that the Messiah should have to suffer and die, based on Isaiah 53.

Peter says that the prophets “searched and inquired carefully” into this matter.  The verb ἐκζητέω has the connotation of exertion, to work hard to find something. The compound ἐξεραυνάω also has the sense of diligently searching (John 5:39 uses a related word for “diligently searching the Scriptures.” Both words mean virtually the same thing and both emphasize the effort these prophets made in understanding the coming Messiah.

How did the prophets “diligently search” prophecies about the Messiah? It is possible that the prophets which are described here are not the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, but rather teachers who read the scriptures and looked forward to the coming of the messiah.   If this is the case, then Peter is saying that all of the sages and scholars of post-Exlic Judaism were searching Scripture like Isaiah 53 in order to figure out when and how the Messiah should come.  What is remarkable is that Christianity is the only for of Judaism to understand the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 as the Messiah.

Perhaps Acts 8 can be used as an analogy here. Philip the Evangelist encounters the Ethiopian Eunuch reading Isaiah 53. The question the man concerns the subject of Isaiah 53. Jews in the Second Temple period would have that the passage described either Isaiah or some other person (like a new Elijah); if the messiah was in view, it was not a suffering messiah at all. Philip “begins with that very passage” to explain the gospel with the Ethiopian. Philip identifies Jesus as the innocent sufferer of Isaiah 53, making it clear that the new age described in Isaiah 56 has begun.

Their search was for the “person or time” the Spirit of Christ was predicting. The prophets predicted the “sufferings of the Messiah” and his “subsequent glory.” This implies a two stage-mission of the messiah, first as a suffering servant, the at a later time in glory.

It is possible to take the “sufferings of the messiah” as the trials of the Jewish people as the await the Messiah. The noun Christ is not genitive, so the common translation “of Christ” is not necessarily accurate. This phrase could be translated “suffering with respect to the Messiah” (for example, Selwyn, 134). But this translation does not take into account the context of Peter’s letter, since by chapter 2 it is quite clear that he means the suffering of Jesus in the cross (Jobes, 1 Peter, 99).

Peter therefore says that the prophets saw two events: the suffering and the glory of the Messiah.  While Peter is clearly standing on the shoulders of the Hebrew Prophets, this two-stage coming of the Messiah was unique in the Second Temple Period.

Ever since Luther’s famous disdain for the letter of James, Christian readers have wondered about the Jewishness of the Letter of James.  Some scholars argued that James is not a Christian letter at all.  There are only two clear references to Jesus in the letter (1:1 and 2:1), although there are a few other verses which might refer to Jesus or God (5:8-9, for example).  Most Christian readers will labor hard to show that James is a Christian letter, although the recognize that they book lacks much of what can be called a Christian theology.

Karen Jobes devotes a chapter of Letters to the Church to the question of Christology in the letter of James.  She refers to an implicit Christology in the letter, recognizing the fact that James only refers to Jesus unambiguously twice, although she thinks the “Lord’s coming” in 5:7-8 refers to Jesus.  Her strategy is interesting.  She gathers all the references to the Lord in James and shows that these all could refer to either Jesus or God.  This ambiguity was intentional, so that James is speaking of Jesus or the God of the Old Testament in the same breath. James considers Jesus the same as God.   Given the serious nature of blasphemy in the first century, she argues that this is a high Christology after all.

Her second line of evidence is the use of the Sermon on the Mount in James. That James knew the teaching of Jesus seems obvious, Jobes provides a great deal of evidence that James new and used Matthew 5-7 in his letter. There are at least 24 clear parallels between James and the Sermon on the Mount, too many to be a coincidence. Since he uses this material as authoritative and parallel to Scripture, Jobes argues that he sees Jesus’ teaching as just as authoritative as the Hebrew Bible. A related bit of evidence is the “royal law” in James.  This is essentially the greatest commandment according to Jesus in Matthew 27:37-40.  Jobes concludes that “the way Jesus uses the teaching of Jesus as a moral reference point reveals another aspect of his assumed Christology.”

I agree with Jobes, but I also have some questions.  Is there anything in the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5-7 that is uniquely Christian?  Jesus is interacting with the Law and does not “cancel” the Law or contradict it at all.  In fact, Jesus seems to be arguing for a more strict interpretation of the Law than was popular in the first-century.  Even the “greatest commandment” is not uniquely Christian, the rabbi Hillel is well-known for saying virtually the same thing.

I think the question “Is James a Christian Letter?” might set the problem in the wrong light.  When asked that way, the Christian scholar feels the need to find Jesus lurking behind every line of James, as if a letter which did not mention Jesus is not a Christian letter. It is possible for a Jewish believer with James’ reputation to write a letter admonishing his readers to good morals would sound very much like Proverbs or Sirach.  Where he does allude to Jesus’ teaching, it is not uniquely Christian because Jesus was not creating a Christian theology and ethic in the same sense that Paul was, or later in the first century, Clement or Didache. To expect that James is going to have a high Christology is to assume that he will have a Pauline Christology.  That is simply not the case, and we should not force James into the Pauline Grid.  He simply does not fit.

If we understand that there was a distinct Jewish-oriented form of Christianity in the first century,  then we will not have to struggle so much to bring James into the “Christian” fold.  James is a Christian letter, but it s a distinctly Jewish one, and definitely not a Pauline Christian letter!

The writer of Hebrews begins his argument concerning the superiority of Christ to everything by discussing his superiority angels.  Why start with the angels?

Angels were very popular in Jewish mythology from the second century B.C. through the first century A.D.   A whole hierarchy of angels was developed along with some theological teachings that were not present in the Old Testament.  In the re-telling of Biblical stories writers often had angels performing acts that were acts of God in the Hebrew Bible.  Although the imagery is found in Daniel 10, the appearance of angels as glowing white, fiery, glowing, etc. was developed during this time as well.

Don't Blink

What is more, the angels are associated with the giving of the Law in early Judaism.  This tradition appears in the Hebrew Bible as early as Deut 33:2, although the “holy ones” merely accompany the Lord as he arrives at Sinai. Stephen refers to the Law as “delivered by angels” in Acts 7:53.  The book of Jubilees predates Hebrews clearly has the belief that an angel wrote a text for Moses:

Jubilees 1.27-28 And He said to the angel of the presence: ‘Write for Moses from the beginning of creation till My sanctuary has been built among them for all eternity.’ (Charles)

This tradition is found in later Judaism as well:  “The presence of angels at the event of the giving of the law was a favourite bit of embroidery in rabbinic tradition, and was meant to enhance the glory of Sinai” (H. Schoeps, Paul, 182).  The emphasis in this literature is on the angels as intermediaries, delivering the Law to Moses.  When God revealed himself to Moses, he used angels.

Since the writer of Hebrews began his book by saying that God is new revealing himself through his Jesus, it is possible a Jewish reader might think of Jesus as an angel, like a Michael or Gabriel.  He must therefore begin by showing that Jesus is something other than an angel, he is “Song of God.”

One last observation:  Is this a “difference” between Jewish Christian literature and the Pauline Letters? Perhaps not.  While Paul cannot be accused of emphasizing angels, he does use the same sort of language as Stephen in Gal 3:19: The law was “put in place through angels” (ESV).

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Christian Theology

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