Book Review: Nick Norelli, Christology in Review

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.

Christology in 1 Peter – Searching the Scripture

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.

Is James a Christian Letter?

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!