First of all, let me say that it is a privilege for me to have the opportunity to reflect upon the arguments of Christ is King with Joel. I’m particularly aware of his excellent work Matthew’s Messianic Shepherd-King, and I had heard from friends that he was planning to do more work on Jesus’ Davidic Messiahship in the New Testament. I think somewhere around a third of my own scholarly articles have been devoted to exploring this theme in Hebrews, Romans, the Gospel of Luke, and Acts, so I’m very much looking forward to Joel’s own NT Christology. I think it’s about time for someone to write this, and I’m glad it will be Joel! In this regard, I’m very tempted to view Joel as an ally, but I can’t get the images of him in a New York Yankees cap out of my head. If the tone of any of my responses is inappropriate, at least you’ll know why.
If I may, let me first indicate what led to this project. In my time at Duke Divinity School I worked with Richard Hays on two essays, one related to Luke-Acts [(“Luke’s Scriptural Suffering Messiah,” CBQ 72 (2010)] and one related to 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 (portions which appear in the book). My broad, and I think largely non-controversial, conclusion in both of these studies was that the Psalter was one of the most significant resources for the development of Luke’s and Paul’s articulation of the identity and work of Jesus of Nazareth.
At the same time as I was discovering the significance of the Psalter for the NT, I was working through Bousset’s Kyrios Christos and its massive influence on those who studied and reconstructed the history of early Christology. I was surprised to find that with Bousset’s division between Palestinian Christianity and Hellenistic Christianity (though he is largely following W. Heitmüller here) came the belief that the title of Christos was of little significance for Gentile/Pauline Christianity. It was also at this time that I was exposed to Erwin Goodenough’s “The Political Philosophy of Hellenistic Kingship” and the abundance of non-Jewish literature devoted to reflections upon the good king. If I may, see now the excellent work of Julien Smith who reads Ephesians in light of these traditions, Christ the Ideal King (Mohr-Siebeck, 2011). I was, then, simultaneously reading the Psalter, Paul’s letters, German history of religions scholarship, and ancient kingship discourse. During my time at Emory, however, I largely focused on the Acts of the Apostles and put these ideas on the back burner.
I was excited, then, when I saw the publication of Matt Novenson’s Christ Among the Messiahs. In my view, Matt has now decisively established that Christos in Paul conforms to everything one would expect for an honorific (e.g., Caesar Augustus, Antiochus Epiphanes, Judah Maccabaeus). I know that this is strong language, but I have not seen any convincing attempts to rebut his argument. Matt makes significant progress in his study of Paul’s Christos language by demonstrating that Paul’s messiah-language does not depend upon its conformity to a Jewish royal/messianic ideal, but rather “could be used meaningfully in antiquity because it was deployed in the context of a linguistic community whose members shared a stock of common linguistic resources” (p. 47). My only substantive criticism was not really a criticism, but simply an observation that if Matt’s claims are right then one can and must go further in examining Paul’s discourse (where appropriate) as messianic-discourse. My book, then, is an attempt to show that significant portions of Paul’s Christ-discourse is illuminated when it is understood as Messianic, that is to say royal or kingly, discourse. While pride of place goes to Israel’s Scriptures in illuminating Paul’s language, however, I understand Paul’s language to make most sense when it is situated within the broader ancient Mediterranean discussions of monarchy.
The language of “creates” and “invents” with respect to any ideology or social imaginary is admittedly strong language and should rightly raise eyebrows. Joel’s question, thus, is both interesting and highly appropriate. I do not claim, however, anything that would justify Joel’s suggestion that I imagine Paul standing outside his tradition. I argue, rather that, “Paul inhabits these royal scripts.They are, for him, stitched as one important thread within the interwoven fabric of his social imaginary” (p. 13). I affirm that Paul, a Second Temple Jew navigating the complexities of Roman imperial influence, stood within linguistic communities that confessed Jesus as Messiah. So throughout the work, I argue that Paul’s royal ideology was shaped “through the fate of Jesus and the early Christians’ continued experience of him” (p. 9). In other words, Paul had precursors. He did not invent the confession “Jesus is Messiah,” his attraction to Psalm 110 (e.g., Rom. 8:34; 1 Cor. 15:20-28; Eph. 1:20-23) runs across numerous early Christian texts, and it still seems likely that the christological confession in Romans 1:3-4 predates Paul’s use of it.
But I do not think it does justice to Paul’s messiah-language to suggest that he was only unintentionally and unconsciously reflecting prior royal traditions. In fact, many have assumed that Paul’s Christ-language cannot be Messiah-language precisely because of the impressive differences between the two. Ideologies and social imaginaries, in other words, often remain invisible until some kind of pressure is exerted to make them visible. And this is precisely what has happened, I suggest, with the early Christian confession that a crucified criminal had been raised from the dead, exalted to God’s right hand, and is the Lord’s Anointed. Thus, the meaning of the messianic texts from the Greek Old Testament are transformed and reshaped when they are read through the particular fate of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, the events of Good Friday and Easter have decisively transformed and shaped the meaning of Paul’s royal discourse. The rest of the book is largely an attempt to demonstrate this, so I won’t offer any examples now.
Finally, I find it interesting that in Joel’s call for me to pay more attention to the Chronicler, he says that he sees the Chronicler as attempting “to forge a strong Davidic identity for the returnees in 1-2 Chronicles.” I assume he sees the Chronicler intentionally and consciously shaping and reworking earlier traditions in light of the experience of exile and return. So too I think Paul consciously attempts to forge a Christ-ian identity for his churches as he reworks, adapts, transforms, and passes on royal traditions about Christ the King. I grant that the language of “create” and “invent” is strong (though qualified throughout in such a way that I wouldn’t and don’t use the language of autonomously selecting sources and traditions – see esp. p. 13). But of course I’m trying to show how Paul creates a new discourse or ideology precisely out of previous iterations of kingship discourse – not least of which is Israel’s Scriptures!
Thanks again for taking the time, Joel, my Davidic-kingship ally, to read my book and to ask these excellent questions. I’m looking forward to our conversations over the next five chapters!