Early High Subordinationist Christology around the Blogosphere

Let me start this round-up of recent blogging about Christology with a quote from a blog post by Larry Hurtado:

All early expressions of Christology have a “subordinationist” character, in that they portray Jesus as sent, empowered, vindicated, and glorified by God (“the Father”). They weren’t touched by the concerns and issues that arose in the 3rd century especially. But in the inventory of honorific categories to hand to them, early believers were unhesitating and remarkably free in ascribing to Jesus an unparalleled place in their beliefs and practices. The “high” Christology of the early texts doesn’t consist in saying “Jesus is God Almighty” in some simplistic sense. What’s “high” about earliest Christology is that Jesus is uniquely and programmatically linked with God, both in beliefs and worship, to such an extent that Jesus is essential for any adequate discourse about God and for any adequate worship of God.

There have been many other discussions of Christology on scholarly and other blogs lately. Larry Hurtado also wrote about how and why Jesus devotion erupted. David Capes highlighted Richard Hays’ work on echoes of the Jewish Scripture in the Gospels, which he thinks indicate that Jesus was being identified as Yahweh even in the Synoptics! See also the interview with Hays that Ben Wiherington shared.

Justin Bass recently blogged about his debate with Bart Ehrman, and from his treatment not only of Ehrman’s statements but also those of Hurtado, you can tell that the discussion has veered into apologetics. He did include this nice meme:


But he also offered this unpersuasive attempt to turn Jesus into Yahweh by slight of hand with semantic domains:


All one has to know is something about the breadth of usage of lord and even god in first century Judaism, and the problems with the above become obvious. There is so much emphasis on Jesus’ subordinate and appointed status, that one can and should say that Jesus is identified with the one God, but not as the one God, since the one God is the one who bestows the exalted status, and in some instances even the divine name itself, on Jesus.

Bill Mounce discussed the fact that John 20:28 does not use the vocative.

Ben Blackwell highlighted Colossians 2:9 as an example of interest in ontology in New Testament Christology. This was in response to a blog post by Larry Hurtado on chronology, Christology, and ontology. See also Hurtado’s post about a new book in honor of Richard Bauckham.

Ruth Friederike Kunath offered a fascinating blog post summarizing her recent book on the pre-existence of Jesus in the Gospel of John. One important conclusion she draws is that the pre-existence of Jesus, at the time the Gospel was written, was still very controversial.

J. R. Daniel Kirk offered a webinar on his recent book.

You may also be interested in a paper I circulated before a guest appearance at the University of Michigan, on my answer to the question of how Jesus became God.

Finally, Larry Hurtado will be participating in a discussion with Anthony Buzzard:

Buzzard Hurtado

Stay in touch! Like Religion Prof on Facebook:
  • bibleandbeeswax

    Fascinating. Thank’s for collecting all of these. In light of all of this–what do you think about Romans 9:5? Do you translate it as, “the one who is God, blessed forever” or, “the one who is God-blessed forever”?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Given that Paul emphasizes Jesus’ subordination to God elsewhere, especially in 1 Corinthians 15, I view it as unlikely that Paul would refer to Jesus as “God over all,” even though that is the more natural way to construe the grammar in Romans 9:5. Paul is not always very precise in the way he words things, after all – few think that when he says “sent not by any man” in Galatians that he was denying the humanity of Jesus, after all! And so I think it more likely meant to offer a distinct doxology giving thanks for all the things he had just listed.

      • bibleandbeeswax

        Thanks for your answer! The NASB translates it the same way too. I think there are ways of reconciling both a subordination view of Jesus to the Father (economic) as well as an equality view of Jesus to the Father (ontological) within Pauline doctrine, but I agree that Rom. 9:5 isn’t very precise. There are a smattering of other passages in Paul’s writing that I think lend credence to this (ontological equivalence but economic subordination), but I’ll only point them out if you’re interested.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Well, Christology in the New Testament always interests me, and it has for a long time!

          • bibleandbeeswax

            You pointed at Ben Blackwell’s post on Col. 2:9, and I think that’s a good verse in regards to this. I believe it is about divine ontology, and that being and act are necessarily related.

            Of course, there’s also Philippians 2:5-11. You can debate the exegesis, of course, but personally I think the basic point is that we ought to think like Jesus did: though He shared the glory (form) of the Father, He didn’t consider that something to be clung to with greed, but “gave it up” by adding human nature to Himself. It’s an argument from the greatest to the least. If Jesus had His divine glory veiled for a time, can’t we humble ourselves even if we are “great”?

            In Romans 8:9-10, 14 Paul identifies the Holy Spirit as “The Spirit of Christ” as well as “the Spirit of God”. The equivalence likely means “the Spirit who is from Christ” and “the Spirit who is from God (the Father)”, meaning that Jesus, at the very least, is of equal authority with the Father, working in conjunction with the Father by sending the Holy Spirit. To add to that, Paul argues in Phil. 3:3 that we worship by means of the Spirit of God and “glory in Christ Jesus,” entailing that we give worship to Jesus.

            Further, I think that a great amount of work has yet to be done on the identification of Jesus as YHWH through judgeship texts. There are a plethora of OT passages that suggest YHWH alone will judge Israel/the world, which are then assigned, within Paul’s writings, to the work of Jesus, thus identifying Jesus as YHWH. For example–Romans 3:6, God will judge the world. 2 Tim. 4:1, 8 Jesus will judge the world. Obviously, I’ve seen it argued that God is “said” to judge the world, but He does so through the mediation of the man, Jesus. But I think that the identification of Jesus as Judge of the world would be shocking to early readers. Only the divine YHWH is to judge. Such a correlation, I believe, identifies Jesus as the divine One.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            I think that the more one becomes familiar with the texts from that ancient Jewish context, the less one has the impression that things like this would be universally shocking. What do you make, for instance, of the depiction of Abel as judge in the Testament of Abraham?

          • bibleandbeeswax

            Thanks for the reasonable response, and not using a series of ad hominems…like some people. Honestly, I was just suggesting that more work needs to be done in this area, not that I’ve done all the work already.

            Just a few notes on that though:

            There are quite a number of distinctions between Isaiah’s depiction of YHWH the judge/ Messiah the judge, to that of Daniel’s, to that of the Psalter’s to that of the TOA. By the time of the TOA there is clearly some exposition being done based upon these prior texts. For example, in the Testament of Abraham God says, “I will not judge you, but every man born of man shall be judged.” Then he moves on to say that there will be three judgments: Abel, the 12 tribes, and then God Himself. But the Psalms, Isaiah, and Daniel are never that specific about the manner in which the judgment will occur. All three of these collections refer to YHWH as the judge. The Psalms and Isaiah refer simultaneously to the Messiah as the Judge (Daniel does not), without explanation for how both YHWH and Messiah are to judge the nations. My thesis is that the apostolic interpretation of these texts denies/ignores passages like TOA, which suggest a 3-fold judgment, but understands Jesus-the-judge as fulfilling the passages about YHWH as judge on account of Jesus’ divine identity.

            Here are the passages I’ve collated for comparison, though I’m sure you’re already aware of them:

            YHWH as Judge: Isaiah 2:4; 3:13; 33:22; 51:5.
            A Messiah as Judge: Isaiah 11; Isaiah 16:5.

            YHWH as Judge: Ps. 7:8, 11; 9:8, 19; 50:4, 6; 58:11; 67:4; 82:8; 92:4; 96:10; 98:9.
            A Messiah as Judge: Ps. 2; Ps. 45:6-7; Ps. 110.

            Daniel–in Daniel 7:9, The Ancient of Days judges, and then hands the Kingdom over to One like a Son of Man (7:13-14), who is later defined as a symbol/representative of the saints (7:18).

            Those are my thoughts, at least. I understand how this can be interpreted to fit into subordinationist Christology, but I think the apostolic texts support the idea that the Messiah-Judge is YWHW, thus fulfilling the prophecies about a future judgment by YHWH alone (“my glory I will not give to another”).

          • bibleandbeeswax

            The last thing I want to point out is a comparison of one of Ezekiel’s judgment texts to Matthew’s. I believe Jesus identifies himself as YHWH in doing this:

            Ezek. 34:11 “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out…
            Ezek. 34:17 “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats.

            Matt. 25:32 Before him (the Son of Man) will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.

            Obviously, John also uses this motif in Jn. 10:14-16 as well.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            But no one is failing to observe these things, or disputing that Jesus does such things. The question is whether he does so as the one God has appointed to represent and rule on behalf of the one God, as many of the New Testament authors explicitly state, or whether he does things because he shares an ontological divinity that belongs only to the one God. Even the Gospel of John doesn’t explicitly state the latter – even there, where the Son is the Word-become-flesh, he is still depicted as referring to the Father as “the only true God.”

          • bibleandbeeswax

            Right. I think it’s a both-and type of thing. The Son is clearly subordinated to the Father, in an economic sense, with the goal of representing God to man and man to God, to accomplish an eternal mission of redemption (Jn. 8:42; 10:18; Phil. 2:7). I don’t think anyone disagrees with that (or I hope not). But that this mission is eternal signifies the eternality of the Son (Jn. 6:46, 57, 62), which I think is telling about the nature of His being. Jesus even adds that He shared the glory of the Father in eternity, which is impossible for a being who is not God (Jn. 17:5). Because YHWH doesn’t give His glory to another being (Is. 48:11), He Himself must also be Messiah. In the Messiah, the old statement is fulfilled, “YHWH is our judge; YHWH is our lawgiver; YHWH is our King; He will save us,” (Is. 33:22) and so is, “YHWH is our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6; 33:16). Further, I think the identification of YHWH as Judge is so abundant and persistent that it isn’t acceptable to say He judges merely via a human (and exalted) mediator, but the Mediator must Himself be YHWH.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            And so presumably the identification of Jesus as the (one like a) Son of Man who judges places him as a human among the holy ones of God, as their supreme representative, rather than as being the Ancient of Days (although the Greek tradition does witness some making precisely that identification – see Loren Stuckenbruck’s work on that topic).

          • bibleandbeeswax

            I’ll have to read Stuckenbruck’s work. But again, I don’t think a dichotomy is necessary between the Mediator being divine, and the Mediator being a human. He must represent the divine one to mankind without “stealing” or “sharing” YHWH’s glory, and represent humanity to God as well.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            This isn’t about introducing a dichotomy into texts where it isn’t present. It is about avoiding anachronism, and not reading a mediator who is both divine and human into texts where the idea isn’t present. I mean, think about 1 Timothy 2:5. If its author believed that the one mediator between God and humankind was both God and human, this was a perfect opportunity to say precisely that. And yet that isn’t what we find.

          • bibleandbeeswax

            I wasn’t attempting to offend you about the whole dichotomy thing. I didn’t call your dichotomy *false*, but unnecessary, because it isn’t as if the texts I’ve cited “demand” a purely subordinationist view. Like I said to Jaco–anachronism is dangerous indeed. You can charge me with anachronism for concluding with a divine-human mediator, but I can make the exact same charge to those who claim a subordinationist mediator. Claiming it doesn’t make it true. I’m also desirous of fleeing anachronism. I haven’t attempted to read a divine-human mediator into texts without warrant. In fact, I’ve only presented a very tentative hypothesis about the way YHWH-as-judge texts would fit well into the divine-human mediator view (with several other concepts/texts to support the view).

            And I think your 1 Timothy 2:5 argument is one from absence. Though he doesn’t state the divinity of the mediator in that text this doesn’t entail unbelief in Jesus’ divine nature. For example, while in 1 Timothy he refers to the Father specifically as God, and the Son specifically as Lord, and he follows the same pattern in 2 Timothy, there is one fascinating section where he equates God with Lord: 2 Timothy 2:19, and then again in verses 22-25. I’m aware of the semantic difficulties here, but my point is that I think the letters to Timothy are a bit more nuanced than, “He didn’t say it in this one verse so it can’t be his belief.”

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            There was no offense, simply disagreement. If one doesn’t stick with what the texts actually say, not only in one verse but throughout, and what they would likely have been understood to have meant in their original context, then one can obviously read all kinds of Nicene and proto-Nicene ideas back into them. That has never been the question. The question is whether one should do so, and if so, why.

          • bibleandbeeswax

            I agree with you that we ought to seek the original intent of the author, as well as their conceptual understanding of reality.

            That said, what if one *concludes* (not sure how to do italics here) with the idea that Nicea is accurate, and doesn’t a priori assume it in Paul?

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            What do you have in mind? Something like J. C. O’Neill’s view that the Trinity is in fact a pre-Christian Jewish conceptuality?

          • bibleandbeeswax

            Well, I don’t think it was that developed. I think the Trinity is an accurate assessment/formulation of biblical doctrine, but that the original author (just focusing on Paul for now) didn’t have it that conceptually formulated. So I think Paul believes these things: there is one Deity (1 Cor. 8:4-6). This deity is often referred to as “the Father”. But the man, Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5), is also this same deity (Rom. 9:6; Col. 1:16; Titus 2:13; 1 Cor. 8:4-6), and is not the Father. The Spirit is also this deity (2 Cor. 13:14), but is not the Father or Jesus, though He is identified in relation to the Father and Son (Rom. 8:11; 2 Cor. 3:17). But Paul doesn’t present this information in a systematic way, and I’m guessing he didn’t have it all worked out in a concrete way. Also, I highly doubt this view would be [edit: developed] before the incarnation of Jesus. I think his incarnation revealed things about the nature of God that, beforehand, were true, and even present in the Scriptures, but obscure.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            I don’t think Paul simply fails to systematize a way of viewing Jesus that was otherwise one that identified Jesus as the “same deity” as the Father. What he says in the passages you mention (especially the ones likely to have actually been written by Paul) does not suggest that he held the views you suggest. Let me offer, for instance, some thoughts on 1 Cor.8:4-6, which makes it clear, not that Jesus is the “same deity” but what you said first, that there is one God, the Father. http://digitalcommons.butler.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1191&context=facsch_papers

          • bibleandbeeswax

            Thanks for the paper. Some initial thoughts: 1. The oral vs. literary cultural distinction has been challenged by some recent scholarship in light of new evidence about the prolific amount of literature available at the time (not denying an abundance of illiteracy). 2. You suggest that the burden of proof rests on those who believe Paul affirms in the deity of the Messiah, which is probably a good assessment. 3. But you further argue that the deity of the Messiah isn’t proven from various Shema-related passages on account of an inability to “audibly distinguish” the differences. I think that’s assuming a lot, honestly. Considering your Josephus citation: Josephus is using a *comparison*–since there is one God, there ought to be one temple. Because of texts like this, you argue, the common understanding would be one of comparison. But was Paul merely being comparative? “Since there is one God, there ought also to be one Lord (OTHER than that God)”? v. 5 Paul equates the pagan view of “lords” with the pagan view of “deities”. He then references the Shema. To me, it seems incredible to believe that the original audience would have accepted a view which argues that the Lord of the Shema is someone other than God,
            “one God, the Father,
            from whom are all things
            and for whom we exist,
            and one Lord, Jesus Christ,
            through whom are all things
            and through whom we exist.”
            Contextually, it seems rather obvious that he has, indeed, “split the Shema”, arguing that while He is one being, the Father is the origin and telos of our existence, while the Son is the ground and mode/means of our existence. Because this God is the source, grounds, and purpose of our existence, we don’t need to be concerned about food sacrificed to idols.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            As you will know, I don’t think that Paul was identifying YHWH of the Shema with the Lord Jesus. “One God” was a standard way of summarizing the Shema. To the extent that there is an identification of Jesus with (but not as) YHWH for Paul, he indicates what that meant to him and how it came about in Philippians 2:6-11: the one God exalted Jesus and bestowed upon him the divine name.

          • bibleandbeeswax

            Yes, but I think your argument about Kurios as not being identified as YHWH doesn’t work. Mainly, I disagree with the point that because the text was read aloud the audience would not have identified Kurios with YHWH. While other texts (like Josephus) might necessitate a comparative understanding (one Theos demands that there be one Kurios), I think Paul’s letter demands an equation of Theos and Kurios. This is primarily because when he moves on from his summary of the Shema in verse 4 to verse 5, he then equates false gods (theoi) with false lords (kurioi), and finally states that we believe in one Theos and one Kurios. I suppose the debate then needs to focus on whether the theoi and kurioi of verse 5 are two comparative and distinct things (the lords somehow being emblematic of the rule of various deities), or whether they are being used as synonyms.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            Even if the 1 Corinthians passage, taken on its own, is capable of being understood in the way you suggest as well as the way I suggest, surely the fact that Paul clarifies that (1) Christ is exalted by the one God, (2) Christ is given the divine name by the one God, and (3) Christ hands over all things to the one God so that God may be all in all, makes clear in the corpus of his letters what is left ambiguous in one passage or another?

          • bibleandbeeswax

            Well that gets back to what I’d say is an unnecessary dichotomy, “because points 1,2,3 therefore Christ cannot be the same being as the Father”. I think Paul assumes both the divinity of Christ (which I think you didn’t successfully disprove in 1 Cor.), as well as the “subordination” of His person by taking on a mediatorial role.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            Well, it sounds to me as though you are determined to view Paul as assuming things that he does not state but which you wish to believe that he believed, and are not willing to allow his explicit affirmations of Jewish monotheism and Christ’s subordination to challenge what you simply presuppose that Paul assumed.

          • bibleandbeeswax

            We just disagree about how to interpret passages like 1 Cor. 8:4-6. I think it actually shows that Paul believed Jesus to be YHWH, and I went through the passage to explain that. It’s baseless to suggest that I have arrived at my conclusion solely because of presuppositions when I’ve detailed my reasoning for you from the passage. And that’s just one passage at that.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            It is not enough to simply say “I think it shows” something, when Paul is explicit that, to the extent that Jesus bears the divine name, it is because “God highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name.” Unless you can provide a plausible explanation for such evidence that does not fit your viewpoint, it isn’t going to be plausible to claim that you are not merely reading your assumptions into Paul – and more than that, attributing to him your own assumptions which are based on creeds and other developments from after Paul’s time.

          • bibleandbeeswax

            If you want me to give you a highly developed technical treatise on the subject of Jesus’ divinity within Pauline literature then this isn’t the forum for that. I can say “I disagree” because of such-and-such a grouping of texts (which I mentioned previously) and concepts (which I also suggested previously), and NOT be guilty of sloppy scholarship. I view this a lot more as a discussion, and am not trying to bombard you with proofs to win your theological assent.

            Also, I haven’t been discussing Philippians 2 with you…this is just shifting the conversation to another text. I went through and showed how I believe the passage at hand (1 Cor. 8) fit within my understanding, and how your own work on the text wasn’t sufficient. About Phil. 2…this is the logic I see in it:
            “Although Jesus was in the form/shape of God…
            He…took of the form/shape of a servant
            BY being born in human likeness.”

            Here’s how I’ll put it: In Paul’s argument to the extent that Jesus was in “the form of God” Jesus also became “in the form of man.”

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            Well, given that I’ve offered a book-length treatment of these topics, I don’t think that expecting at least some actual argument from you is inappropriate or unrealistic. http://amzn.to/2eZ18AB

            What it means for Jesus to have been “in the form of God” has been discussed and debated, and the options range from it meaning “in very nature God” or simply “being God” (although this would be an incredibly odd way of making that point, adding unnecessary ambiguity), to it being synonymous to “in the image of God” and connected with the Adamic parallels and contrasts that seem to be the dominant theme of the passage.

            It is not going to be persuasive to appeal to a more ambiguous text as a counterargument against one that appears to be clear. You are still not addressing the data: Jesus is exalted by the one God, given the divine name by the one God, has all things subjected to him by the one God, and hands all things over to the one God including himself. How is that compatible with Jesus “being the one God”?

          • bibleandbeeswax

            I have made an argument, and have said it’s merely tentative. I think Bauckham and Hurtado are persuasive/accurate in their explanation of Paul’s view of the divinity of Christ, and haven’t really wanted to elaborate on it (aside from some basic points about OT judge texts).

            I wasn’t appealing to a “less persuasive text” but was addressing the same one that you cited…Philippians 2.
            About that one–what is your take on it? Would you consider it as a reference to “image of God”? And if so, do you think Paul believes in the eternal humanity of Jesus?

            In response to your last question–I think developed Trinitarian theology explains how they are compatible, albeit without denying that it is mysterious. I think later theologians accurately understood and developed Paul’s thought when they explain the full deity and humanity of Christ, as well as his “economic” subordination to the Father in order to save His chosen people.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            In the Philippians passage, it doesn’t say anything about an eternal humanity or form, does it? He certainly could have believed in the pre-existence of the Messiah, given the evidence for that belief in the Similitudes of Enoch, which influenced Paul and other early Christian authors. Pre-existence is not the same thing as existing eternally.

            I’ve blogged about Bauckham’s work before, e.g. here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2009/07/five-primary-sources-that-should-influence-richard-bauckham.html

            You mentioned Hurtado – would you disagree with the quote in the blog post we are commenting on?

          • bibleandbeeswax

            No, it doesn’t say anything about an eternal humanity or form. I was just wondering what your conclusion was about the passage. I think that Paul at the very least believed in Jesus’ pre-existence in the form of God. But do you think that he could not have moved beyond prior Jewish monotheistic work? I think that this passage is one that suggests he moved beyond it and ascribes unity of being between the Father and the Messiah.

            Thanks for the link.

            Well, honestly, I can’t really nail down Hurtado’s view. I thought that he previously had stated a belief in the early Church’s understanding of Christ as the divine being. If his view is confined to the quote you cited then I’d say it’s insufficient. I agree that they ascribed exalted titles to Him, and that they didn’t espouse a “simplistic” understanding of Jesus as the Divine Being, but I do think they believed Him to be the One God, the same One God as the Father (which is not simplistic but rather complicated).

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            I do think that it was possible to move beyond prior forms of Jewish monotheism or even abandon monotheism. What I don’t think plausible is that Paul could have done this subtly and vaguely through subtle allusions while at the same time using the standard rhetoric involved in articulating Jewish belief in one God alone in contradistinction to Gentile polytheism, while in fact meaning something that was neither.

            If Paul meant what you claim that he does, how do you explain the fact that he says things that give such a very different impression?

          • bibleandbeeswax

            I think you hit the nail on the head when you point out the difficulty of articulating the belief in one God alone in contradistinction to Gentile polytheism. Paul has varying audiences for each letter, but overall his concern is to prevent a misunderstanding from both sides (Jew and Gentile) as well as to confirm that his teaching doesn’t deny monotheism, but is the continuation of the covenant promises of God. I think that for that reason exactly he doesn’t have an elaborate or extensive discussion on how the Messiah is both the One God as well as man. Jewish audiences rejected Jesus as the Messiah primarily because of his sufferings and death, and the additional topic of His deity would cause even more dilemmas. Personally, I have the same problem when discussing Jesus with my Muslim friends. I would like for them to believe in His divinity, but my primary focus is first to introduce them to His saving work. My hope is that over time they become mature and grow in their knowledge of Him. I think Paul has similar dilemmas when writing to his audiences.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            Paul is quite direct towards Gentiles about his monotheism. He is emphatic about the Law despite his stance being a source of much controversy. And yet he is supposedly seeking to avoid misunderstanding on his view of monotheism, precisely by saying things that give the impression that he is straightforwardly standing in the tradition of Jewish monotheism, hoping to avoid causing dilemmas?

            Can you see why it seems to me that you are doing what I used to do, namely starting with a later Christological view and trying to come up with presuppositions that Paul might have had that will allow you to believe that he held your view, even though what he says is different from it?

          • bibleandbeeswax

            Well, I think he does explicitly affirms the deity of Christ numerous times, but that he doesn’t elaborate on it because it isn’t the concern of his letters. He’s still a monotheist (singular deity). But I have different conclusions about the texts you think “don’t fit” into this mold. And at the same time I fully embrace the idea that Paul espouses a form of subordination of Christ to the Father. I’ve never disagreed on that point…which I think should calm your concerns that my presuppositions rule this. I think the texts speak to both realities: his divinity and his subordination.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            I appreciate that you are not concerned to make Paul completely conform to Nicene orthodoxy. And I don’t have an objection to your affirming the deity of Christ, nor your concluding that Paul affirms it. If one is exalted to a heavenly status second only to the one God, “divine” is an apt term. The question is what you think Paul meant by the divinity of Christ.

          • bibleandbeeswax

            When I read his work, I think Paul does articulate that Jesus is the divine being, but that he simultaneously explains Jesus’ distinction from the Father as well as his willing subordination (not one of necessity). And as you’ve pointed out, he definitely devotes more time to explaining Jesus’ subordination and role as Mediator.

            Because of that I actually think Nicea explicated Paul correctly, and developed his views appropriately. But I don’t begin with Nicea. I only agree with them because I think they read Paul correctly.

            So, whatever our conclusions about Paul’s view, do you think he was right about Jesus?

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            Whether or not it is possible to evaluate the correctness of Paul’s view of Jesus, it doesn’t seem to me to be possible to do so a priori. Surely one has to figure out what Paul meant before trying to assess his viewpoint?

          • bibleandbeeswax

            Agreed. I wasn’t suggesting that you approach it with a priori reasoning. I meant that once you have “concluded” about what you think Paul means–do you think he was right? So, for example, if you conclude that Paul believed in Jesus’ pre-existence (but not as the divine being), incarnation, death, resurrection, and bestowal of divine titles, do you personally believe this is true about Jesus?

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            There are limits to what one can say today based on one’s personal religious experience. One can say that one encounters God through Jesus Christ, but I don’t see how that could confirm either that God exalted him and gave him the name above every name, as Paul says, or that he was given the name and glory before the foundation of the world, as John says. If the earliest Christians didn’t view Jesus the same way in such close proximity, it doesn’t seem to me that we are better poised to settle their debates.

        • Jaco van Zyl

          I don’t think that will work, as you have to assume that that was the operating model of the first century. It isn’t. It’s the operating model of the 4th and 5th centuries. So in order to determine who Jesus was to Paul, such late interpretive schemas need to be bracketed and a better-disciplined approach should be followed.

          • bibleandbeeswax

            I’m not trying to impose a 4th-5th century grid onto 1st century interpreters, and I think I’ve avoided that, actually. At best, I think you can try to argue hints of it in my first reference (Col. 2:9), which, if you read Blackwell’s post, he specifically tries to counteract. Note in particular my emphasis on the last section about how shocking it would be to 1st century readers to see a human identified with divine actions (judging the whole world, which only YHWH was to do). As Blackwell argued, and others have argued, actions flow from being. A human who does divine actions must also necessarily be divine.

          • Jaco van Zyl

            But that is exactly what you are doing. Your distinction between economic and ontological relationships in the case of Jesus and the Father is precisely a later distinction developed and elaborated on by the Trinitarian church. In that distinction is yet another assumption, namely that the similarities between the Son and the Father signify their being ontologically divine, while their differences signify functional differences. All later baggage. And you assume a Father-Son relationship from a trinitarian perspective as opposed to the prototypical understanding of Yahweh entering into a unique relationship with someone else, his son Jesus, which would make Yahweh the Father and Jesus someone other than Yahweh/Father.

            Col. 2:9 poses no problem to this, as the Almighty decided to have what is divine dwell in Jesus. There are perfectly valid non-trinitarian explanations to this text which do not necessitate Jesus to be God himself, just as it wouldn’t be the case for Christians according to Eph. 3:19.

            It is simply false that these exalted prerogatives would be totally alien to the first-century readers. The human messiah would judge (Isa. 11); his saints would too (cp. Ps. 2:9 with Rev. 2:27); other utterly human figures doing what you say only God can do (judging) include Abel on Yahweh’s throne (Testament of Abraham 11) and Enoch (III Enoch 3 – 16). But even here, your distinction between divine and human is an artificial one, which ignores the first-century understanding in which divine and human are categories along a continuum, and not distinguished in terms of specific nature.

            It is utterly false that actions flow from being. There was nothing ontologically different from Moses that he should send 10 plagues, and not any other human being. Nothing ontologically different from Jesus that he could forgive sins and not any other human (Matt. 9:8) or in the case of several others who could raise the dead. In these and many other instances, divine prerogatives were functionally imputed upon persons who were nother else but human. In fact, the explicit explanation for Jesus’ abilities is given in Acts 2:22. Blackwell’s argument is exceptionally weak with obvious doctrinal loyalties behind it.

          • bibleandbeeswax

            I think it’s a mistake to categorically reject the idea of ontology–>action simply because it was formulated with precision in the 3rd to 4th centuries. The purpose for these formulations was to protect doctrine that was already commonly held against misconceptions, particularly Arianism, which is remarkably akin to the “High Christology” theories I’ve seen of late. This formulation wasn’t proposed in neglect to the flexibility of interpreting these texts in another manner, but it was proposed precisely for the purpose of arguing against the exegesis you are suggesting. The same is true of the early anthropomorphites and others who viewed divinity and humanity “along a continuum”. Of course these interpretive theories existed, but they were rejected as a whole by the Church for a reason.

            Also, I could easily argue the same thing against you (“you’re imposing 3rd-4th century Arian/2nd century anthropomorphite categories upon texts that speak otherwise”) but it isn’t a fair assertion. We’re both attempting to be exegetical and historical.

          • Jaco van Zyl

            At least you’re no longer denying that you were imposing 4th and 5th century arguments and doctrines onto the biblical text. You’re now rationalizing/defending your doing so. And the faith-based credulity doesn’t seem to stop there. If you consider (which you apparently haven’t) that 15 of the councils were in favor of Arianism, 7 in favor of Athenasius and 2 stalemate. Ad populums hardly ever work. It amounts to retrospective evidentialism rationalized as the truth being victorious. Not necessarily so.

            My rejection of your approach is not so much due to my disagreement with the content of the later philosophies, as it is due to the fundamental error of anachronism and hybridization and then claiming that that was original. Not so. And no, you can’t argue that I’m imposing 3rd-4th century Arian/2nd century anthropomorphite categories upon texts that speak otherwise, as that is certainly not my approach. It is yours, as you’ve defended above.

          • bibleandbeeswax

            It’s difficult to reconstruct the way a people group would have understood or perceived a text. Like you, I attempt to ask, “In what manner did the original readers think about these terms/concepts?” It is unfair, however, to say that because the Church held to such-and-such a category later on in history, it could NOT have held to the same category in a previous generation.

            So I think you misunderstand me. I was saying that while those arguments were crystallized in the 4th-5th century, they were already commonly held in prior generations. I said, “the purpose for these formulations was to protect doctrine that was already commonly held against misconceptions.” I wasn’t meaning that it was only commonly held doctrine in the 4th-5th century, but that this was an understanding the Church held in general since the apostles, but didn’t find necessary to formulate with specificity until various heresies were introduced.

            You bring up valid points about subordination texts, but I haven’t even attempted to counter-argue from the Scriptures yet. Instead I’ve been forced to argue against your accusations of anachronism. In return, I said that I could do the same to you, but it would be unfair because simply because anthropomorphites and Arians held to these mindsets, this does not entail the early Church could not have thought in the same manner.

          • Jaco van Zyl

            Difficulty shouldn’t deter you, should it? Nor should difficulty be the excuse to simply default to the familiar and accepted position. Fact remains that many scholars have done the difficult thing and solved most of the problem. We now have a fairly good understanding of ancient Hebrew epistemology and ontology. Thank goodness it did not depend on theologians to to do this research, as they seem to be the most vulnerable to succumb to personal bias. Anthropologists, historians, linguists and sociologists who couldn’t care less about being threatened in their faith have given us an immense treasury of discoveries. The problem is that church goers fear hell and persecutions as heretics, hence their reluctance to explore and discover.

            So to address your arguments, it is precisely this kind of credulity and bias (that the victorious had it right) that prevent you from going where the evidence leads you. That’s an operational flaw in your approach. Then your argument that the Gentiles preserved what was handed over to them from the apostles. It is factually false. You don’t strike me as someone who has studied the cultural chasms between Gentile and Hebraic worldviews, nor the culturally specific philosophical arguments necessary to arrive and the Trinity and two natures doctrines of the 4th and 5th centuries. So, not only by deduction, but also by hard evidence, those later councils arrived at their formulations precisely since they had abandoned and divorced themselves centuries earlier from the world of the first century Hebrews. So no, once again, your approach is flawed as well as the content of your arguments.

            It is also for this reason why you cannot say the same about me, as I am arguing from the cultural worldview and schemas of this first century Hebrew mind, and as far possible bracketed out the noise of later contamination. You should do the same.

            Until then, I’ll leave you with the last word.

          • bibleandbeeswax

            Alright. My last word is that you simply argue against my assumed character. You repeatedly suggest that I won’t “go where the evidence leads”, as if I’m uninterested in truth because of bias. My highest aim is truth, and I’ll “switch” beliefs if I’m persuaded. What this comes down to is disagreement about scholarly assessments on “the Hebraist” worldview/ the “Roman Christian” worldview. I disagree with your assessment. I’m not interested in giving all the details here, as I was really just meaning to discuss a few texts from Paul that might lend credibility to an alternative theory.

          • Jaco van Zyl

            I really didn’t intend to character assassinate you. I like robust discussions, that’s all. Thank you for an enjoyable discussion.

          • bibleandbeeswax

            Thanks. I’ve enjoyed the discussion as well.

    • Thomas Farrar

      It seems that the scholarly debate on Romans 9:5 has recently turned in favour of Paul referring to Christ as θεὸς here:

      ‘The debate among biblical scholars during an earlier generation has been almost equally divided. Of late, however, scholarly opinion in favor of the Christological interpretation seems to have become dominant.’
      Longenecker, Richard N. (2016). The Epistle to the Romans: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 789.

      • bibleandbeeswax

        Thanks, Thomas. That comes as a surprise to me, but I’m glad to see it!

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        Indeed it has, although as I pointed out, that doesn’t clarify things altogether. It would be odd for Paul to only refer to Jesus once as God throughout his whole corpus of letters. And even if he did, it may be used in the broader way that term was applied to divine agents.

        • Thomas Farrar

          Prof. James,
          I agree that the anomalous nature of the referent (Paul nowhere else using θεὸς for Christ) is the strongest argument against the Christological reading of Rom. 9:5b.

          On the other hand, I don’t think it is very likely that θεὸς is used for Christ in Rom. 9:5b ‘in the broader way that term was applied to divine agents’.

          Indeed, if you consider the arguments scholars have made against the Christological reading of θεὸς in Rom. 9:5 – besides the argument from anomaly that you noted – they largely consist of insisting the language of this clause is too lofty to have been applied to Christ: ‘God over all things’ combined with the reverential expression εὐλογητός which is elsewhere in the NT used only for God.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            I agree. As I said elsewhere, given what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, either Paul means Christ, whom the one God has made “God over all” as God’s supreme agent, or Paul is offering a doxology to the one God who is, as 1 Corinthians 15 makes unambiguous, over all – including over Christ.

          • Thomas Farrar

            1 Cor. 15.20-28 is a fascinating passage. For me the most remarkable feature is that Paul felt he needed to correct or forestall the notion that God would be placed in subjection to Christ at the end. How ‘high’ must his Christological teaching to the Corinthians have been for this to have been a plausible inference that needed to be headed off?

            In terms of Christ’s eschatological subjection to God expressed in v. 28, it is noteworthy that Paul shifts from ‘Christ’, the term he has been using throughout the discussion, to ‘the Son’ (one of only two occasions he uses υἱὸς for Christ in this letter, and the first since 1:9). Similarly, in v. 24 when speaking of Christ’s delivery of the kingdom to God he calls God ‘the Father’ (for only the third time in the letter out of over 100 occurrences of θεὸς). There thus seems to be a deliberate attempt to frame Christ’s subordination to God in filial terms (cp. Luke 2.51). God will be over the ‘powers’ in the sense that a victor is over the vanquished; but he will be over the exalted Christ in the sense that a father is over his son.

  • Jaco van Zyl

    Wow! Your best blog post ever!

    To the splitters of the Shema where Yahweh is Jesus and God is the Father, substituted back it becomes:

    Akoue Israel: Iesou ho Pater hemon, Iesou eis estin.

    It is simply unthinkable that the pragmatic substitutions by Bass and other apologists were present in the Pauline churches, particularly since they were so closely associated with the synagogue to which the Shema would have become doctrinal gobbledygook.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      If you’re not already familiar with it, you’ll probably appreciate this article of mine: http://digitalcommons.butler.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1191&context=facsch_papers

      • Jaco van Zyl

        Hi James. Oh yes I’m very familiar with that paper. It related well to cognitive linguistics which I had just finished studying. When one realizes the extent to which the ancient believers had to use prototypical concepts, and related everything else to that framework of concepts, apologetic-type scholarship using computer parsers to make fine distinctions in the usage of functional words (such as proponents of Sharp’s Rule) becomes laughable. That is simply not how the human mind and language work. But, yes, I really enjoyed your article. I’ll look at it again.

  • John Thomas

    I am not fully convinced by current argument among Evangelical circles that Jesus and Yahweh are same beings. I agree with Ehrman on that. It seems to me Larry Hurtado’s view that Jesus was a human being and that Yahweh exalted Jesus to the same level of divinity as himself following his resurrection and demanded the followers to give to Jesus the same worship due to Yahweh, the earliest belief among followers of Jesus contrary to Trinitarian belief if one goes strictly by Biblical evidence. So according to him, the apostles worshiped Jesus as divine because Yahweh required that amount of worship towards him following his exaltation. Even though there is Shema, Hurtado argues that early followers could have believed that Yahweh can change that status and exalt Jesus to his level and require worship to Jesus same as himself. There are other individuals in OT itself who are reckoned with divine status like Moses, Enoch etc I believe Hurtado’s view tallies well with most of NT data regarding Jesus. Just my personal observation about that. I maybe wrong.

  • arcseconds

    “Early High Subordinationist Christology around the blogosphere” struck me as being so specific as to be almost absurd to expect there would be anything actually falling under it in any given week, so it almost made me wonder whether it was a joke title, but it seems like I underestimated the fecundity of the biblioblogosphere…

    It did make me think I could run a regular feature of “Existentialist Marine Biology Animation” or something, which would usually say in the body of the posts “yet again, no existentialist marine biology animation this week”, except for that one time when someone makes a short animated film about a dolphin who really likes Camus or something.

    But then I might have made the same mistake, and find myself committed to summarizing dozens of blog posts about being an existentialist who does marine biology animation, animators who have double degrees (B.Sc. in marine biology and B.A. (philosophy, specializing in existentialism)), and then Cameron will decide that the next Avatar series will be set entirely underwater and explore existential themes and it’ll eat my life entirely…

  • arcseconds

    What do you think of the idea that Hays puts forward that Mark 4:41 (not Mark 6 as Capes says) is a reference to Job 9?

    At first I thought it was strikingly Job-like (even before I read on to see the reference to Job 9) but after looking at Job 9 I’m less convinced. It’s nothing like a direct quote or paraphrase.

    (Of course even if it was referencing Job it wouldn’t necessarily show an exact identification with God…)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I would say that, just as echoes of Scripture do not necessarily mean that a Gospel is making the same exact point as the intertext, so too we can say that Mark might have been happy if readers understood his portrait in such a way that, in the footsteps of Jesus (whether on the sea or dry land), “echoes of YHWH” could be heard. But does that mean that he was hinting that Jesus IS YHWH? I am not persuaded that such a point could be made merely through hints and subtle allusions. A better option is that the answer to “what sort of man is this?” that Mark pointed to was “a man so infused with the presence and power of the one God that in his presence, words, and actions, one encountered the one God.” Sonship and agency never cease to be the relevant categories.

      There is more interesting discussion in these blog posts from other blogs:




      • arcseconds

        “A man so infused with the presence and power of the one God that in his presence, words, and actions, one encountered the one God.” ← this is a great way of putting it.

        But this cuts to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it? The Gospels very seldom (never?) make explicit theological claims in the sense of later Christian theology. They just don’t contain language like “And Jesus said: I have the same ousia as Abba but I am my own divine person”, or, contrariwise “and then the disciples realised that Jesus had been elevated above the rest of creation (for he too was a created being) and given authority over creation by God (with whom he was definitely distinct, for some reason I feel I have to make that clear)”.

        They prefer to show rather than tell, so perhaps they took their creative writing classes to heart.

        So whatever view we’re to understand from the Gospels is going to be something that’s hinted at, rather than stated explicitly, although the hints can be pretty heavy-handed.

        And indications that Jesus is that infused with the one God that one encounters the one God by his actions are going to look rather like hints that he’s identical (somehow) with the one God, aren’t they?

        It seems to me the ambiguity cuts both ways.

        Of course, you’ll appeal to the cultural background and say there are other figures in late Second Temple Judaism which blur the boundaries between the human and divine which aren’t understood as being identical with God, but surely a conscientious apologist would just insist that you’re assuming that the Gospels are unremarkable (as John Frye does in one of the posts you link to), or even agree that they’re mostly unremarkable to start with, but the significance of Jesus was only fully discovered and realised later, so the significance of the versus could only be understood later.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I think the other thing that is crucial is the emphasis on God’s oneness in Judaism, which seems to me to make it extremely unlikely that one could subtly identify a human being as the one God without explicit explanation and clarification.

  • urnotathinkerareu?

    I think many have gone down the rabbithole and will never see light again. Theism’s are all distorted and severlely I might add. There has been too much messing with scripture right from the get go…early christians clearly seperated god from jesus…distictively until a “new” doctrine was formulated based on someone’ idea…and further into the rabbithole they have crawled dragging millions of innocent beleivers alomng with them based on someone’s ideology set up by “paul’s THINKING. I just plan to stay away from all this searching for rationality based on irrationality all to reinforce my “feeling” that I’m being ‘inspired” by some invisible entity. Projection can stain your minds in a deep deep way without you knowing it…some fortunately do recover.

  • arcseconds

    I have watched the Bass/Ehrman debate over the past couple of days.

    My verdict: a nil-all draw. Neither participant managed to convincingly argue for their thesis.

    This might seem odd on the face of it, given that Ehrman overall gave a far better performance than Bass. But he really was a victim of his own sophistication.

    Firstly, let me note that the debate was fraught with ambiguity and equivocation, mostly coming from Bass’s side, but it’s actually built into the debate question itself: “did Jesus claim to be divine?” Does this mean being God, or does it mean being infused with the presence of God and acting on God’s authority? Bass generally treats these questions as identical. He claims that Jesus is identical to Yahweh (and Ehrman hilariously accuses him of Sabellianism), and uses as proof statements he makes about being the Son of Man. He does seem to be prepared to treat these as different questions when Ehrman insists, but then later he’ll equivocate and be back to claiming the same thing: Jesus says he’s the Son of Man and therefore he says he’s God.

    I spent most of the debate thinking it was over Jesus being God. That certainly seemed to be how Bass was treating the question, and Ehrman’s arguments worked quite well against that thesis. But towards the end Ehrman clarifies that, as far as he is concerned, divine could mean any form of superhuman status, there were various divine beings in Judaism, and Jesus as a matter of fact claimed no such status whatsoever.

    So for Ehrman, the debate really hinges on whether or not Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man. And he doesn’t really offer a convincing argument against this. He even says that some Aramaic scholars think “the Son of Man” may have been an expression that could be used just to mean “me”, in which case of course Jesus may have said it (although if that was all it would have no cosmic significance). And he thinks that the statements that suggest that the Son of Man is distinct from Jesus probably did go back to Jesus, on the basis of the criterion of dissimilarity.

    So already we can see a possibility here: if Jesus was inclined to use “the Son of Man” as a locution for talking about himself (assuming this was at least somewhat unusual) and to talk about a divine Son of Man figure, then that seems like it could be a pretty heavy-handed hint we’re to understand that the divine Son of Man is actually him (perhaps an exalted posthumous him, or his heavenly twin, or him merged with his heavenly twin after death, there’s several possibilities).

    Also, Ehrman’s argument against the statements which seem more like Jesus is claiming to be a divine son of man (rather than using the phrase as an odd form of first-person singular pronoun) coming from the historical Jesus is just the criterion of dissimilarity. But surely this is a total misuse of the criterion. The criterion works on the basis that a statement that doesn’t fit in with the sorts of things we expect early Christians to say, then Jesus becomes a plausible source for the odd statement. But surely it doesn’t work the other way around: if it’s the sort of thing that early Christians were to say, we can’t just conclude that Jesus didn’t say it. That would imply that Jesus only said things that were unusual for both 1st century Judaism and early Christianity, that is to say he’s a totally unprecedented, alien figure who failed to really influence his followers, which is surely absurd.

    Ehrman also spends very little time discussing this point, which is a shame because the way he construes “divine” means he has to prove this claim solidly. I’m not convinced that Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man particularly, but Ehrman doesn’t convincingly establish otherwise.

    Now, on the other hand, Ehrman has an excellent argument that the statements in John that seem to imply an equivalence with YHWH do not go back to the historical Jesus: they would seem extremely unusual claims for him to make, so how could the earlier gospel writers fail to mention them? Bass really doesn’t have a good response to this. He accuses Ehrman of not allowing the Gospel writers literary license (to which Ehrman replies he thinks it’s all literary license!), by which he seems to mean build up drama by means of subtle hints. But this only really works for the idea that we don’t find the most extravagant claims until John if we presume that the Gospel writers are doing their dramatic subtle hinting across all the Gospels! So Mark didn’t make them because he knew that a ‘sequel’ would be written decades later by someone else and the big reveal would happen then…

    Bass appears to (sometimes, but he does make this reply directly to Ehrman when Ehrman asks why don’t the earlier Gospels have the Johannine claims) have Mark 14 in mind when he says this, but Mark 14 doesn’t actually contain a clear reference that Jesus himself is the divine Son of Man, and the only reference to the divine Son of Man (as opposed to Jesus referring just to himself) is said in the trial, which of course is likely to be made up.

    Here again we see Bass not really making distinctions between claiming to the the Son of Man and claiming pre-existence and “when you see me, you see the Father”.

    And I do think this is really almost the first thing a biblical scholar has to say to the uninitiated: it is so easy for Christians, or people with Christian backgrounds, to just project traditional (but much later) Christian understanding of statements like “the Son of Man”, and assume that just means “God”.

    Another related problem is the assumption there’s only one kind of divine, and this is some kind of identity with God. So in “the Son of Man” is heard “the Son person of the Trinity” already.

    Ehrman makes this all fairly clear if you have some awareness of these issues or if you are paying close attention, but I really think it needs to be drummed home in the clearest possible terms.

    Bass certainly has a few irritating things about him. One is that he seems to be one of those people that you can explain something carefully to, and he goes ‘yes yes’ and appears to understand it and agree, but a couple of minutes later it’s almost as if you never said it.

    The most disappointing moment in the debate for me was when Ehrman asked how did Mark find out about what went on in Mark 14 (I assume this means the trail with the Sanhedrin), and Bass says “Joseph of Arimathea”. Ehrman asks “can you prove that?” and Bass says “can you prove it didn’t happen?”… and there was applause.

    The problem here of course is that despite the fact the audience is educated, and Bass himself is very well educated, not being able to come up with conclusive proof that something couldn’t have occurred is taken as license to assert that it did occur, and it’s a crying shame that anyone gets through higher education thinking like this and applauding people when they make such an argument, instead of treating it with disdain.

    Ehrman quite rightly points out that Bass is making a historical claim, so he needs to prove it.

    The second most disappointing moment was When Ehrman asks Bass for what he thinks is historical in the Gospels. Bass can’t quite come up with a straight answer at first, but with a bit of cross-examination it is established that (a) OK, so the Gospel writers obviously translated Jesus’s words into Greek, and (b) made some minor wording changes (like “Jesus Christ” instead of just “Jesus”) and (c) the zombie apocalypse in Matthew he isn’t sure on. OK, agnostic about. OK, leans towards it not having happened.

    I honestly don’t know what to make of this. How can someone have a Ph.D. in this topic, and have read widely on it, and have organised a debate with Ehrman, and yet apparently never have seriously considered what in the Gospels is historical? He even says (although maybe this wouldn’t quite be how he’d put it if Ehrman wasn’t putting the question to him like this) that it all passes the Criteria. Even if you believe in the supernatural and give miracles a high prior probability, this is astoundingly credulous. People who weren’t there writing decades after the event and not subjecting everything to rigorous scrutiny are not likely to get all the details correct, even granting the Resurrection.

    If one were to go into a research project and find all one’s beliefs at the end are exactly as they were at the beginning, then surely one should start to suspect one isn’t being intellectually honest.

    Ehrman talked a bit about memory, and asked if people could remember any of Obama’s inauguration speech word-for-word. Then asked, if they can’t remember something that happened a few months ago, then how do they expect people to remember speeches word-for-word decades later?

    I felt Ehrman was being a bit prejudicial here, although perhaps there’s some pedagogical sense in doing so in order to undermine the certainty (which one suspects might be fairly prevalent in the audience) that the Gospels preserve things with word-for-word accuracy. No-one in that room knows Obama, and even the average Obama supporter (one that’s enthustiastic enough to have a poster or wear a pin, say) probably isn’t that invested in his every word. He’s not their guru, or auctor, or poster-boy, or anything like that. And the other kinds of events he was discussing were one-offs: details of where you were when Kennedy was shot, or a crime.

    What would be comparable to a disciple’s experience of Jesus is someone you spent a lot of time with every day for years, and whom you paid close attention to, and had several memorable events with. A Ph.D. supervisor, perhaps! Does Ehrman think his memories of his Ph.D. supervisor are just utterly unreliable, and if he tried to give an account of his supervisor or a memorable talk he gave once that this would just be completely unreliable?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. The truth is that conservative Evangelicals often claim to be doing history, but in fact are doing something that could only pass for history in their cloistered environments where “research” must reach predetermined outcomes and so some questions are never asked.

      Ehrman does tend to go to the other extreme, continuing to argue with his former fundamentalist self as well as his current conversation partner.

      Debates thus rarely do justice to the fact that memory, textualization, and other processes never fail to distort, and do not always distort in such a way as to be useless, since it is only the fundamentalist who is obsessed with having absolute undistorted truth with no hint of error. And so that perspective has a tendency to ruin conversations about historical matters.

      Defining divinity is a crucial aspect. Whether or not the earliest Christian sources depict Jesus as “divine” can only be answered initially by “it depends what you mean by that.”

      • arcseconds

        What baffles me is not that Bass reaches predetermined outcomes, but that he claims to be doing perfectly regular, secular scholarship.

        “OK so I learned about the criteria, and they seemed like good tools, so I went back to the New Testament to examine it critically, and it turns out that everything passes! Except for that statement about the dead rising from their graves, that maybe was a slight exaggeration. I don’t understand why atheists reading this aren’t immediately convinced that it all happened!”

        This statement seems absurd, but I’m only being slightly hyperbolic here. Apart from the last statement he almost says these exact things at points, and the last statement almost seems implied. He does at least state at the beginning he thinks he can convince Ehrman of Jesus’s claims to divinity.

        I just can’t understand how he thinks this is what he is doing, or, if he’s aware that’s not what he’s doing, why he is baldfacely lying about what he is doing.

        Seems to me some kind of epistemic holism, presuppositionitional position, or something like “it’s fine if academic history leaves the possibility of faith open” arguments would be less obviously problematic… maybe I should hire myself out to apologists to shore up their epistemological propaganda?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Yes, I really do think that some conservative Evangelicals think they are doing history, being so completely isolated from the liberals and secular scholars they denigrate, and having created their own journals and conferences at which to present, that they genuinely don’t realize the extent to which they are doing something very different from the rest of us.

          • arcseconds

            That doesn’t surprise me, and in fact I knew that already, but I guess I thought they just pretty much rejected secular scholarship, at least implicitly by ignoring it completely. Bass has obviously read Ehrman and Hutardo and plenty of other secular scholars, and claims to be doing exactly what they are doing.

            It’s not actually unreasonable to argue that you can’t do history by algorithmically applying a fixed list of criteria to every verse in isolation, or even to reject the classic criteria pretty much completely, but Bass seems to be wanting to say that you can do history in this highly analytical way, and then come up with — surprise! — everything attributed to Jesus turns out to be authentic! Every single statement is embarassing, multiply-attested, doubly dissimilar, etc.

  • John MacDonald

    I still think the Christology of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is explained when Mark has Jesus identify himself as a fallible human prophet, one incapable of performing miracles in his home town:

    “Then Jesus told them, ‘A prophet is without honor only in his hometown, among his relatives, and in his own household.’ 5 So He could not perform any miracles there, except to lay His hands on a few of the sick and heal them (Mark 6: 4-5).”

    One could perhaps see Mark exaggerating Jesus’ powers to satisfy Mark’s theological agenda, but not negating his powers as we see in Mark 6: 4-5. That Jesus displayed a lack of power around the people of his hometown rings historically true.

    In other words, Mark probably got from his sources that Jesus was a human prophet (not a God), and the idea that Jesus was a God came later.

    • John MacDonald

      And I would add that Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ death shows Jesus as a man in terror, desperately questioning God as to why God has abandoned him, and desperately calling out to Elijah to com save him from the cross (not Jesus as a ‘God’ fulfilling the plan to die for the sins of mankind):

      33From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. 34At the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” 35When some of those standing nearby heard this, they said, “Look, He is calling Elijah.” 36And someone ran and filled a sponge with vinegar. He put it on a stick and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Wait!” he said. “Let us see if Elijah comes to take Him down.” (Mark 15: 33-36)

      Luke obviously had a problem with Mark’s portrayal of the last words of Jesus as terrifyingly questioning God and desperately calling out to Elijah to save him from the cross, so Luke changed Jesus’ last words to the more resolute:

      “46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”[a] When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23: 44-46)

      Jesus’ last words in Mark, because they run contrary to Mark’s hints at atonement theology (the tearing of the vale, the words of the soldier, etc), seem to have a historical ring of truth to them and therefore speak against a high Christology.