Ben Byerly has posted a lengthy quote from my book The Only True God as well as a series of questions, comments, thoughts and reflections. This was sparked in turn by Michael Whitenton’s post on amateur vs. professional study of the Bible, in which he noted that I had written something in my book that was relevant to that discussion currently making its way around the biblioblogs.
April DeConick has posted entry #23 in her “Creating Jesus” series, on “ensoulment Christology”. In essence what she is suggesting is that the later Apollonarians were quite faithful interpreters of the Christology of the Gospel of John. While this is certainly a possible interpretation of the Gospel, and almost certainly the most popular understanding of John’s Christology today in spite of its having been declared heretical over a millenium and a half ago, there is another possible understanding of John’s Christology that ought to be given more consideration than it often is: that the Christology of the Gospel of John follows an inspiration model, with Jesus understood as akin to a prophet or mystic. Of course, it will need to be added that the view articulated in this Gospel presents Jesus as being permanently indwelt with the Spirit of God (presumably not yet understood as something or someone other than the Word). But the difference is one of degree or permanence rather than kind.
If there is a key distinction between the two Christological models it is the following. The “ensoulment” viewpoint has a Jesus with no human personality that develops over the course of his life: from conception, we are dealing with a pre-existent person dressed up as a human being. The “inspiration” or “mystical” viewpoint understands Jesus as a human being who so moved his “I” or ego out of the way, that at times he spoke in the divine first person, in a way that prophets have often done. And the matter must be settled not on the basis of the orthodoxy or otherwise of the Christological viewpoint in question (by whatever standard), nor the attractiveness or even the logical coherence of the viewpoint from our standpoint, but by the ability of a given interpretation to do justice to the data of the Gospel of John itself.
The title of my book was derived from the neglected John 17:3, in which Jesus is depicted as referring to the Father as “the only true God”, while mentioning himself as the one sent by the only true God. By the time we reach the era of the extracanonical acts of the apostles and martyrs, Jesus is himself referred to as “the only true God”, showing evidence of yet another Christological option that was explored by the early Church, that form of modalism that regarded God the Father as the very same “person” that became incarnate, regarding Jesus and the Father as simply “modes” of existence of the same single God.
If there is a verse that should make us revisit “inspirational” understandings of John’s Christology, it is perhaps John 8:40, where Jesus is depicted referring to himself as a person who told what he heard from God. Perhaps the time is ripe for a revisiting of John A. T. Robinson’s interpretation of John’s Christology as he outlined it in The Priority of John.
Returning to where this post began, the interpretative options mentioned above are not ones that are discussed exclusively by academics or lay interpreters of the New Testament. One can find a range of views on the person of Jesus and the interpretation of John’s Gospel both among scholars and among laypeople. That a scholar holds a viewpoint doesn’t make it correct, and that someone without a PhD holds a viewpoint doesn’t make it incorrect. What a rigorous academic approach contributes, even if it is practiced by a well-informed layperson, is an awareness of the relevant evidence beyond the range of ways an English translation of the Bible can be understood, of the history of interpretation of these texts over the centuries in the early church (and beyond), and the brute fact that while some interpretations are simply incompatible with the evidence, a number of different conclusions have been reached by equally intelligent people wrestling to make sense of the same evidence. And so ideally, what anyone, scholar or layperson, should bring to a consideration of such (indeed all!) matters is a combination of relevant information and the humility to recognize that I may be wrong. And what I think most scholars would like to see is not that other interested individuals refrain from commenting on matters in their area of expertise, but that interested parties outside of the academy take the time and effort to inform themselves and think critically about a subject before jumping into the fray.