What did it mean to call Jesus “God”? NT Wright

NT Wright, in his Paul and the Faithfulness of God, examines Paul’s theology as a mutation or reframing of classic Jewish monotheism themes (alongside election and eschatology), including who God is. This has led for centuries to the question If Jesus is God or if he is not God. The framing of that question, though, is often backward or sideward and often enough not — in fact, Wright would say rarely — from the ground level of 1st Century Jewish Christians.

If Paul must have been aware that he was reaffirming the classic Jewish monotheism of his day, he must equally have been aware of the fact that he had redrawn this monotheism quite dramatically around Jesus himself. This bold claim will be made good in what follows (644).

NTWright develops his christology in discussion with many proposals, including Moule, Dunn, Hurtado, but especially Richard Bauckham:

Bauckham’s proposal is simple and striking: that

the highest possible Christology – the inclusion of Jesus in the unique divine identity – was central to the faith of the early church even before any of the New Testament writings were written, since it occurs in all of them.

Nor did this require any backing away from ancient Jewish monotheism:

. . . this high Christology was entirely possible within the understanding of Jewish monotheism we have outlined. Novel as it was, it did not require any repudiation of the monotheistic faith which the first Christians axiomatically shared with all Jews. That Jewish monotheism and high Christology were in some way in tension is one of the prevalent illusions in this field that we must allow the texts to dispel.

Jewish Monotheism, he here clarifies, has three aspects: creational, eschatological and cultic. God is the sole creator; he will at the last establish his universal kingdom; and he and he alone is to be worshipped. This launches Bauckham into a detailed, and necessarily technical, account of Paul’s language about Jesus, from which he concludes that Paul, like the rest of early Christianity, unhesitatingly ascribed to Jesus precisely this triple divine identity. He is the agent of creation; he is the one through whom all things are reconciled; he is to be worshipped.

With all of this I am in agreement. But there is one thing missing, and it is the burden of my song in this chapter to propose it and explain it. And it seems to me that when we do so all kinds of other evidence comes back into the picture to make an even larger, more comprehensive and satisfying whole (652-653).

Wright continues on the same page, after observing that the method is backwards — namely wondering if Judaism had other figures about whom they said divine-type things, thereby making it Jewish to do what Christians did:

But to raise the question in this way is, I believe, to start at the wrong end. If the phenomenon to be explained is the fact that from extremely early on the followers of Jesus used language for him (and engaged in practices, such as worship, in which he was invoked) which might previously have been thought appropriate only for Israel’s God, why should we not begin, not with ‘exalted figures’ who might as it were be assimilated into the One God, but with the One God himself? Did Judaism have any beliefs, stories, ideas about God himself upon which they might have drawn to say what they now wanted to say about Jesus?

Which story? Here is Wright’s proposal:

Central to second-temple monotheism was the belief we sketched in chapter 2: that Israel’s God, having abandoned Jerusalem and the Temple at the time of the Babylonian exile, would one day return. He would return in person. He would return in glory. He would return to judge and save. He would return to bring about the new Exodus, overthrowing the enemies that had enslaved his people. He would return to establish his glorious, tabernacling presence in their midst. He would return to rule over the whole world. He would come back to be king (653).

Here we go because the way to ask the deity question is to ask if the story about God was the story about Jesus — and I would agree with NTW on this and would also say it is the way forward in so many discussions of christology. What is the story about God? What is the story about Jesus?

Notice, though, even at this stage, what follows. Whereas in the modern period people have come to the New Testament with the question of Jesus’ ‘divinity’ as one of the uppermost worries in their mind, and have struggled to think of how a human being could come to be thought of as ‘divine’, for Jesus’ first followers the question will have posed itself the other way round. It was not a matter of them pondering this or that human, angelic, perhaps quasi-divine figure, and then transferring such categories to Jesus in such a way as to move him up (so to speak) to the level of the One God. It was a matter of them pondering the promises of the One God whose identity, as Bauckham has rightly stressed, was made clear in the scriptures, and wondering what it would look like when he returned to Zion, when he came back to judge the world and rescue his people, when he did again what he had done at the Exodus. Not for nothing had Jesus chosen Passover as the moment for his decisive action, and his decisive Passion. It was then a matter of Jesus’ followers coming to believe that in him, and supremely in his death and resurrection – the resurrection, of course, revealing that the death was itself to be radically re-evaluated – Israel’s God had done what he had long promised. He had returned to be king. He had ‘visited’ his people and ‘redeemed’ them. He had returned to dwell in the midst of his people. Jesus had done what God had said he and he alone would do. Early christology did not begin, I suggest, as a strange new belief based on memories of earlier Jewish language for mediator-figures, or even on the strong sense of Jesus’ personal presence during worship and prayer, important though that was as well. The former was not, I think, relevant, and the latter was, I suggest, important but essentially secondary. The most important thing was that in his life, death and resurrection Jesus had accomplished the new Exodus, had done in person what Israel’s God had said he would do in person. He had inaugurated God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. Scholars have spent too long looking for pre-Christian Jewish ideas about human figures, angels or other intermediaries. What matters is the pre-Christian Jewish ideas about Israel’s God. Jesus’ first followers found themselves not only (as it were) permitted to use God-language for Jesus, but compelled to use Jesus-language for the One God (654-655).

So now to this:

All these themes, then, lead into one another, spill over into one another, presuppose one another, interact with one another: Exodus, redemption, tabernacle, presence, return, wisdom, kingship (655).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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