Michael Kok’s Questions on Early High Christology Club

Michael Kok’s Questions on Early High Christology Club August 2, 2015

Over at Bible and Interpretation, Michael Kok– a young scholar, who has written a wonderful PhD thesis on the second century reception of Mark’s Gospel – has posed some questions for the Early High Christology Club:

First, is there a concern to date a “high Christology” as close as possible to the founding of the “Christian” movement? 

Kok is concerned that scholars depict a situation where “recognition of Jesus’ divinity was a virtually instantaneous response to charismatic experiences rather than the result of historical processes.” I understand the problem that some will want to argue that a high christology was the big bang behind Christian origins because the earliest version of something is its most authentic and authoritative expression. A presupposition I don’t share. Neither Hurtado nor Bauckham nor Hengel think that 5 minutes after the Day of Pentecost that Jesus’ disciples were walking around with some version of the Nicene Creed inscribed into their brains and thereafter just struggled to find ways to describe it. There is no doubt that historical development took place from Pentecost to the Christ-Hymn of Philippians 2 and all the way through to the Niceano-Chalcedonian clarifications of christology. However, the evidence to me points to the fact that estimation of Jesus as part of the “divine identity” and worthy of cultic patterns of devotion normally reserved for YHWH did begin very quickly, within the first decade of the early church. One can affirm as much without subscribing to the view that the earliest is the most authentic/authoritative and without denying the notion of development. The concern to date a “high christology” early is based on the scholarly assessment that it really, really did emerge early!

Second, having been formulated in reaction to the parallelomania of the “history of religions school” (religionsgeschichtliche Schule), does the exclusive focus on the Jewish matrix of the Christ followers serve to insulate them from influences from the Greco-Roman world?

I understand this objection and its valid. First, yes, I’m aware of what is now called (pejoratively) the “Hengel card,” where Jewish backgrounds always trump Greco-Roman backgrounds. Second, I think Luke Timothy Johnson is right that we can only understand how Christianity is different from the Graeco-Roman world unless we first understand how they are similar, and that applies to patterns of devotion and beliefs about intermediary figures. Third, putting that into practice, chaps like Michael Peppard and David Litwa have done a good job quite recently of showing how the christological claims in NT texts like the Gospel of Mark can be comparatively squared with things attributed to other deities or deified figures in the ancient world. Fourth, the fact is however, that the grounds for seeing Jewish backgrounds as the most determinative factor for NT christological configurations is over-whelming. We have to be aware of the fallacy that analogy does not mean genealogy, similarities don’t imply direct borrowing, otherwise this becomes sheer “parallelomania.” Moreover, when I read Mark 1:9-11 and Phil 2:5-11, I am struck by the overwhelming intertextual dominance of OT citations, allusions, and echoes. For case in point, Peppard’s attempt to situate the Marcan baptismal story in terms of Roman adoptive practices and bird omens I think fails to convince, specifically, because he has to marginalize the OT imagery which is drawn from Ps 2 and Isa 42. And again, on Phil 2:5-11, yes, we can note how in 2 Macc 9:12 that Antiochus (allegedly) claimed to be “equal with God” (ἰσόθεος) and Appian described the honors Augustus gave to Julius Caesar as “equal with God” (BCiv. 2.148).  So “equal with God” had currency as a term for ancient rulers; however, the punch-line of the hymn comes with the explicit allusion to Isa 45.23 about knees bowing and tongues confessing. The problem is that if I have to choose between possible verbal connections between the text and Homer or Life of Apollonius or extant papyri and the explicit use of the Hebrew Bible/Septugint, and ask which one is more influential, then truth be told, I don’t think it is much of a contest between Greco-Roman parallels and Septuagintal intertextuality. Now that is not to say that it is always either/or. I think in the case of the Kyrios language in the NT that we do have a mixture of borrowing terms and images from the LXX and mimicking elements of the imperial cult. I find that a particularly prosaic point because ancient Judaism was always rather anti-imperial in the sense that it was always YHWH versus the pantheon and potentates of ANE empires (see Andrew Abernethy et al [ed.] Isaiah and Empire and Anathea Porter-Young Apocalypse and Empire). The reason I think Jewish backgrounds predominate is not because I’m worried that Jesus might be like the pagan gods – we can draw endless comparisons and parallels – but the inter-textual use of the OT in the NT suggests that Israel’s sacred traditions proved to be the main framework in which conceptions of Jesus’ divinity were expressed.

Third, is there a risk of depicting ancient “Christianity” as monolithic, assuming that a divine Christology was the definitive feature of all Christ associations?

I think we could push back on Kok here a bit. I regard the appeal to wisdom traditions as the basis of some christological affirmations, while true at some level, to be grossly over played. Also, I think Simon Gathercole’s view of Jesus’ pre-existence in the Synoptic Gospels has a bit more traction than he allows. My main point, I have to say, is that I’m struck by the relative homogeneity of NT christologies (note, I did not say uniformity!). Yes, there are diversities, but these are really variations on a theme, since everyone is seemingly happy to call Jesus the Son of God, Messiah, Lord, and Saviour. The Gospel of John is the most distinctive, majoring on what others only imply or regard as marginal, namely Jesus’ pre-existence and consciousness of his own deity. As far as we can tell, christology was not a major point of division in the early church. Paul’s warning of someone preaching “another Jesus” (2 Cor 11:4) is really about a Jesus who relates to the Torah differently: Does Jesus merely top up Moses or does Jesus fulfil and (somehow) supercede the Torah so Gentiles do not have to proselytize? I don’t see unequivocal evidence in the NT for a mere prophet Jesus who becomes the Son of Man, a miracle-working “divine man,” not even a Jesus adopted at his resurrection or baptism. I think there came to be very early on a fairly broad consensus on Jesus as a pre-existent person, exalted to God’s hand, and sharing in the divinity identity (though consensus does not rule out some exceptions even if we don’t have evidence for them). Christology was externally controversial as the proclamation of Jesus as “Messiah” caused debates within Jewish communities (1 Cor 1:22-23; 1 John 2:22) and the proclamation of Jesus as “Lord” made Christians look disloyal to imperial authorities (Acts 17:6-7). Still, as far as I can tell, the first big controversy in the early church about christology were largely post-70 AD and focused on christologies that were too high like docetism (1 John; Letters of Ignatius) and some angelomorphic christologies (maybe Hebrews responds to this; probably Revelation responds too; definitely in Shepherd of Hermas). The next problem is the second century where folks trying to de-judaize christology as evidenced by the Epistle of Barnabas all the way through to Marcion and others interpreting their christology through a neo-platonic lens led to some mixed results about Jesus as one with the Father and yet a “second god “(e.g., Justin). In sum, I think the early church was diverse (see Gal 2:11-14), however, the christologies embedded in the NT seem more like unity-in-diversity rather than radically disparate. It is not really until the late first century that we find a lot more radical diversity developing.

Larry Hurtado has his own response here.

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