From the Very Beginning: NT Wright

From the Very Beginning: NT Wright November 12, 2013

The issue for historians of earliest Christianity is how this stuff all came about: How did Jesus of Nazareth come to be explained or confessed as he was? How did that christology develop? NT Wright, in Paul and the Faithfulness of God, proposes a breathtaking scheme that high christology, seeing Jesus as part of divine identity, was there from the very beginning:

We must note carefully how this argument actually works. I am not saying that there was a pre-Christian Jewish belief that the Messiah, if and when he turned up, would be in any sense ‘divine’. There are indeed texts which, with hindsight, could be taken to point that way, but despite the best efforts of scholars such as Horbury and Boyarin I remain unconvinced that anyone before Jesus’ first followers read them in this sense. Nor am I saying that anyone prior to Jesus’ first followers had read 2 Samuel 7.12 as predict- ing a resurrected Messiah (this is hardly surprising since there is no pre- Christian evidence for a dying Messiah221). What I am suggesting is that the resurrection, demonstrating the truth of Jesus’s pre-crucifixion messianic claim, joined up with the expectation of YHWH’s return on the one hand and the presence of the spirit of Jesus on the other to generate a fresh reading of ‘messianic’ texts which enabled a full christological awareness to dawn on the disciples. I do not think that pre-Christian Jews had read 2 Samuel 7, or Psalm 110 (‘YHWH says to my lord, “sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool”’), or Daniel 7 (‘one like a son of man’ being exalted to sit on a throne beside that of the ‘ancient of days’) in ways that anticipated, or could be said to be an antecedent cause of, the very early christology. What I propose is that the combination of (a) the widely held expectation of the divine return to defeat Israel’s enemies and rescue his people and (b) Jesus’ resurrection, compelling the conclusion that he really was Messiah, created exactly the conditions within which, in a context of (c) worship and an awareness of the presence and power of the same Jesus, texts which had been there all along but never seen in this way (except, perhaps, in sayings of Jesus himself!) sprang into life.222 The earliest christol- ogy was thus firmly anchored in scripture, but the reading of scripture in question was highly innovatory, and did not itself generate the belief (692).

From 697, NT Wright proposes an unfolding-of-christology scheme:

So why does Paul stress the sending of the son? Quite possibly because he has already developed, or has even inherited from earlier tradition, ways of speaking and praying which belong with a christological monotheism (and, as Bauckham rightly suggests, an eschatological and cultic, as well as creational and covenantal, christological monotheism). These ways of speaking, as we already seen, identify ‘God’ as the source and goal of all things by designating him ‘father’, even while Jesus is designated ‘lord’, kyrios. We might then hypothesize a development in several stages, though as always with such things there is no way we can plot these chronologically. One might imagine the very early Christians, under the impact of the resurrection of Jesus and the fresh scriptural study which it precipitated, doing a variety of interlocking things very early on:

1. using theos for God the source and goal of all things, and kyrios for Jesus, as in 1 Corinthians 8.6, aware that these corresponded to the Hebrew elohim and YHWH, and intending to stress both the unity and the differentiation between the two of them;

2. using the biblical term ‘father’ to denote God/theos/elohim;

3. drawing in the originally messianic title ‘son of God’, already in use for Jesus because of its Davidic overtones and because of Jesus’ own way of speaking, as the natural corollary of this ‘father’. The one denoted as theos is thus seen as ‘father’ specifically of this ‘son’, andthe one denoted as kyrios is seen as ‘son’ specifically of this ‘father’,

even when that connection is not made explicitly;

4. speaking of ‘father and son’ in parallel to speaking of ‘God and lord’;

5. drawing on the ‘wisdom’ traditions, which were already in use in

terms of both the return of YHWH to Zion (Sirach 24) and the equip- ping of David’s son for his royal task (Wisdom 7—9), to speak of the father ‘sending’ the son (Romans 8.3; Galatians 4.4), and of the father transferring people into ‘the kingdom of the son of his love’ (Colos- sians 1.12–13, with the great ‘wisdom’-poem of 1.15–20 to follow), and of the kyrios as the one through whom all things were made (1 Corinthians 8.6; Colossians 1.16);

6. understanding the whole sequence in terms of the climactic and deci- sive rescuing act of the one God, the new Exodus in which this God had revealed himself fully and finally precisely in fulfilling his ancient promises, saving his people and coming to dwell in their midst.

All this, I stress, is necessarily hypothetical. Unless fresh evidence from the first twenty years of the Jesus-movement were to turn up (the age-old dream of a Christian archaeologist!) it remains impossible to demonstrate that any such sequence of thought actually took place. And ‘a sequence of thought’ has nothing to do with chronological extension. A mind well stocked with scripture, allied to a heart understanding itself to be trans- formed by the spirit and attuned to the worship of Jesus, could grasp in an instant what we are forced to reconstruct slowly and carefully. But I submit that this does seem to reflect some aspects of the data we actually possess. Interestingly, though move (4) seems somewhat obvious, Paul seldom uses the word ‘father’ in direct connection to a designation of Jesus as ‘son’. The closest we come in the passages already discussed is where believers cry ‘Abba, father’, because the spirit of the son has been sent into their hearts, and in Colossians 1.12–14, where ‘the father’ has ‘transferred us into the kingdom of the son of his love’ (697-698).

But this may be the biggest thing many need to hear today:

This brings us back to a point we have made already and which can now be reiterated with renewed force. None of this seems to have been a matter of controversy within the earliest church. This indicates, against the drift of studies of early christology for most of the twentieth century, that what we think of as a ‘high’ christology was thoroughly established within, at the most, twenty years of Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, to employ the kind of argument that used to be popular when it ran in the opposite direction, we might suggest that this christology must have been well established even sooner, since if it had only been accepted, say, in the late 40s we might have expected to catch some trace of anxiety or controversy on this point in Paul’s early letters at least. And we do not. The identification of Jesus with YHWH seems to have been part of (what later came to be called) Christianity from more or less the very beginning. Paul can refer to it, and weave it into arguments, poems, prayers and throwaway remarks, as common coin. Recognizing Jesus within the identity of Israel’s One God, and following through that recognition in worship (where monotheism really counts), seems to have been part of ‘the way’ from the start (709).

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  • It sounds pretty interesting but I would go less far than him and just argue that Jesus was an extraordinary man.

    Most atheist scholars deny the historicity of the empty tomb and argue that powerful hallucinations are largely sufficient to explain the origins of Christianity.


  • People argue and deny lots of things, doesn’t mean they’re right. The question is does the argument provide the best explanation of the evidence available?

    Edit: I recommend on why hallucinations fail as an explanation

  • Norman

    I think there was a pre Christian Jewish belief that the Messiah would be divine is some form or manifestation. I cite the section of the book of Enoch that looks for the plant of righteousness and effectively lays out the template that the early Christians followed. The problem is that biblical scholars don’t pay attention to the influence of 2nd Temple literature that profoundly influenced the early Christian movement if it isn’t found in our so called latter day westernized canon of writings. You will find many quotes and allusions from Enoch scattered throughout the NT and if one is willing to spend some serious time studying Enoch you likely will see that the pattern for the Messiah has already been essentially laid out for these second Temple first Christians. They didn’t really invent much if anything but were reflecting a segment of Judaism that was already somewhat established. The resurrection though did indeed confirm Christ as the Enoch “plant of righteousness” for those who believed they were the elect.


    1. And in those days shall the earth also give back that which has been entrusted to it,
    And Sheol also shall give back that which it has received, And hell shall give back that which it owes. 5a. For in those days the Elect One shall arise, 2. And he shall choose the righteous and holy from among them: For the day has drawn nigh that they should be saved. 3. And the Elect One shall in those days sit on My throne, And his mouth shall pour forth all the secrets of wisdom and counsel: For the Lord of Spirits hath given (them) to him and hath glorified him.


    1. And after that Enoch both gave and began to recount from the books. And Enoch said: ‘Concerning the children of righteousness and concerning the elect of the world, And concerning the plant of uprightness, I will speak these things, 10. And at its close shall be elected The elect righteous of the eternal plant of righteousness, To receive sevenfold instruction concerning all His creation.


    16. And the first heaven shall depart and pass away, And a new heaven shall appear, And all the powers of the heavens shall give sevenfold light. 17. And after that there will be many weeks without number for ever, And all shall be in goodness and righteousness,

  • One could read Genesis, Exodus, 1 and 2 Samuel, the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and perhaps the Melchizedek 11q13 scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls and put together a full-orbed Trinitarian Christology.

    In a forthcoming book, “Living the Full Bible: Embracing God’s Vision for Your Life, Your Church, and the World,” I argue, as an important sidepoint, that Jesus himself understood and articulated just such a Christology.

    Indeed I argue that the baptism of Jesus touched on the three roles of the Messiah that J. Alec Motyer finds in Isaiah (which I name as 1. Royal Son, 2. Suffering Servant, and 3. Ultimate Victor). Add to that Daniel’s Son of Man and the DSS Melchizedekian Messiah, and voila!

    If we assume that the Gospels accurately convey the essence of what Jesus actually said or implied, then all the New Testament writers had to do was to articulate the Trinitarian significance of Jesus’ life and teaching, which for the most part, he had already expressed in both words and deeds.

    Despite Paul’s being “as one untimely born,” I believe that he gave the earliest surviving written articulation of these themes which were already a solid part of the Jesus tradition.

  • Phil Miller

    If someone makes a truth claim regarding that Jesus’ tomb wasn’t empty, it’s a claim not based on evidence, but simply of belief. I suppose they could say it’s based on a belief in a way the we observe the world normally working all the time, but it’s still a belief nonetheless. Personally, I have a hard time believing that anyone in early church believed that Jesus was simply an extraordinary man. It’s pretty obvious that they saw Him as something much more than that.

  • craig cottongim

    “this is hardly surprising since there is no pre- Christian evidence for a dying Messiah” What about Isa 53?

  • scotmcknight

    Craig, I think you are probably making an assumption that Isa 53 was understood in the Jewish world to be the Messiah, which it appears Wright does not think is the case.

  • MatthewS

    If this were indeed the experience of the first believers, seems like that would have been very exciting to hear the old texts with this fresh perspective, “oh, there it is again! another hint!” Breathtaking would be a good word for how that would feel.

  • Doug Van Dorn

    Scott, he does mention Boyarin, but just kind of dismisses him. Wright says nary a word about the Jewish conception of the Memra from the targums and/or the “Second Power in heaven” as the Rabbis called it (ala Segal’s Two Powers in Heaven book), and/or Metatron (I just wanted to put his awesome name in a post mostly), etc., and how they actually DID read the whole Daniel 7 “son of man” figure or Genesis 19:24’s “second Yahweh” and other similar passages in light of that theology. That seems pretty much a closed case after reading Segal, not to mention Justin Martyr. Any thoughts on that?

  • Norman

    Scot, that seems strange; Acts 8:34-35 appears to indicate that indeed Isa 53 was considered messianic by these. Jewish Christians.

  • scotmcknight

    Doug, Yes, Tom mentions Segal and two powers, though I’m not sure I recall “metatron” … and I don’t think he sees that as a closed case so much as the other way of doing this question. He doesn’t think the way forward is to see if there were divine figures or intermediaries and to see if Jesus fits in that group; his approach is the Story.

  • Ron Fay

    I am not sure about the pre-Christian traditions, but it seems clear to me that Paul moved into intentional and explicit Trinitarian language when writing his letters, especially Romans. He certainly saw the Jewish tradition as fitting that way and instead of arguing for it, assumed it. I wrote on this for the PAST series for Stan Porter. Also, I think John appropriates Ezekiel for pushing these boundaries as well, not just taking Son of Man as a Danielic influenced title but with strong influence from Ezekiel (see the work of Gary Manning, though he does not push into the Son of Man debate).

  • Most atheists said that he was an ordinary man. The early Christians experienced very powerful hallucinations which made them belief he rose from the deads.
    The empty tomb is a later invention.

    2013/11/12 Disqus

  • The book of Acts does not represent Jewish thought, but post-Easter Christian thought. That is Wright’s point, that very early on in the Christian tradition passages such as the Isaianic servant songs were seen as biblical signposts to the identity of Jesus and his role as divine Messiah.

  • Phil Miller

    Well, the hallucination hypothesis has been debunked pretty well… The link in the comment does a good job of explaining it. Essentially, in order for it to have any sort of explanatory power, you’d have to show that there was an expectation on the part of Jesus’ disciples that He would be raised. Even in the Gospels themselves, this is clearly not the case. No one really expected Jesus to be raised. It wasn’t something they were trying to convince themselves of.

  • Hmm. I think I disagree with the way Wright phrases this (you know its a bad day when you disagree with NT Wright): “One might imagine the very early Christians, under the impact of the resurrection of Jesus and the fresh scriptural study which it precipitated, doing a variety of interlocking things very early on.” Instead–I think it would it would be more accurate to say that Jesus’ disciples heard Him equate Himself with God and believed, then saw He whom they thought was God die and then doubted, and then saw Him resurrected and again believed. What makes me think this is Jesus’ seven “I am” statements in the gospel of John. Similarly, I imagine that the 8 names of Yahweh (I Am) were important to the Jews of Jesus’ day–Yahweh-my-shepherd, Yahweh-will-provide, Yahweh-of-hosts, etc.–and Jesus’ followers saw and heard Him claim these for Himself and act them out. So, I think high-Christology was even present in Jesus’ disciples (Peter in Matt 16:16), but they just misunderstood what God incarnated would look like. Anyways, maybe I’m missing something in Wright’s argument when he says this, “what we think of as a ‘high’ christology was thoroughly established within, at the most, twenty years of Jesus’ resurrection. ” I’d say there was a pre-resurrection high christology.

  • Doug Van Dorn

    Thanks Scot. First time I read about Metatron in the Pseud., I just had to love the name. I have several articles on him. Here’s one for anyone interested in looking him up. Daniel Abrams, “The Boundaries of Divine Ontology: The Inclusion and Exclusion of Metatron in the Godhead,” HTR 87:3 (1994) 291-321.

  • Norman

    John, if Acts was composed in the early 60’s then it is definitely reflecting an early Jewish view toward messiah that likely would not have originated without some provenance accompanying it. Doesn’t mean it was seen that way by the majority of Jews but the NT doesn’t propose to reflect majority Jewish opinion. In fact it reflects a definitive view that was accepted enough to take hold and flourish.

  • Nazam Guffoor

    He was a prophet (Luke 24:19; Acts 2:22)

  • Phil Miller

    Oddly enough, Acts 2:24 goes on to say that, “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” So that passage doesn’t seem to back up your contention that Jesus was ever seen as a mere prophet by the early Church. That’s not to say there weren’t contemporaries who saw Him that way. But Wright’s point it that the issue was never really a matter of controversy in the Church itself.

  • BryanJensen

    I think I’m more persuaded the issue’s crux lays where John per Wright has articulated. Were it substantially expected a dying Messiah were the anticipated mode I don’t think we would have had the disciples portrayed so reluctant to envision Jesus as anything other than a savior that had a significant socio-political revolutionary aspect to his mission.

  • BryanJensen

    I’m more persuaded by Margaret Barker’s research that sees the Son of Man directly in the context of the anointed kings of the First Temple period, and that the expectation wasn’t “divinity” for such a Messiah, per se, (as Israel’s Anointed Kings weren’t divine beings) as much as a more obvious and infused sense of Real Presence that had been lost to the Second Temple period.

    In the role of Divine Presence therefore we see greater debate and clarity emerge about articulating the mystery about how that Presence worked out in the person of Jesus. I think this is sympathetic to Wright’s research, though for all his First Temple allusions I can’t figure out why his work is so silent of Barker’s.

  • BryanJensen

    Not critical to the core of the argument but a little detail that jumped out at me: “because the spirit of the son has been sent into their hearts…”

    A small holdover from the filioque difference between West and East?

  • BryanJensen

    I struggle to agree. It seems the case against Jesus, at least presented in the Gospels, is that Jesus was tried for blasphemy. Were an actually-divine Anointed King a more substantial shaper of the Messianic Jewish worldview of Second Temple, I would expect to see Jesus’s self-claim of the anointed davidic role Son of Man be one where his divinity were to be taken for granted (and him being measured to whatever their standard for that expectation was) rather than a case of accusation for blasphemy.

    It is possible, I suppose, that sects like the Essenes had different expectations than the sects of Pharisees and Sadducees. I can’t say because I’m not more informed of the particulars of the Essenes. But at least insofar as those sects (Sadducees, the post-Maccabean benefactors of power, and the Pharisees, more driven by tribal purity ethics re: the Tanakh) who are said to have united to oppose Jesus at his trial, despite their worldview differences, I am not persuaded a divine messiah worldview was in any way significantly infused among either.

  • Ron Fay

    A small allusion to Romans 8.

  • Norman

    Bryan, I like Margaret Barkers work and see a synthesis between her and my views to an extent. I need to study her views more closely as some of her concepts are built upon some ideas that need more work. Her concept of the restoration of wisdom (paradise lost) is similar to my idea that the Adam and Eve story portrays that Jewish conflict going on within within their ranks. Lots of good material in that discussion and it would be good to bring her and Wright together to talk about it.

  • Norman

    Yes it’s obvious from the gospel accounts that a dying messiah was not in view. However other attributes of the messianic coming appeared to quickly congeal once the resurrection occurred.

  • josenmiami

    good post but “innovatory”? That’s a new one for me.

  • BryanJensen

    ^ Agreed. You’re familiar with Barker, but for the sake of other readers I’ll say that I thought her lecture last year at St Vladimir’s made her general research thesis very accessible to those who haven’t read her work, which is that the longing for the substance and symbol of an anointed priest-king — and by extension a feminine embodiment of Wisdom (Mary) — connected with Jewish listeners and allowed The Way to take root.

    Temple Theology, at least articulated peculiar to First Temple worldview, still doesn’t explain to me how it took so strongly in the Greco-Roman world (though I see generally compatible trends), but very provocative research of hers nonetheless, I think.

  • Nazam Guffoor

    Ok, so fine, he was a prophet raised from the dead. And I never said he was just a mere prophet, in fact I reference a verse in which it says that Jesus was a prophet, mighty in word and deed. This a more primitive and early belief in Jesus than the belief in the Trinity.

  • According to Wright, in the Dead Sea Scrolls (on which there is disagreement on whether these were from the Essenes) the group who produced them were looking for two messiahs–one the true anointed priest and the other the true Davidic king. They looked for a day “when Israel’s god would act WITHIN history to redeem his people and re-establish them as his people, within his holy Land and worshipping in a new Temple.” They had no animal sacrifices. They believed that their god had already begun the process of liberating Israel from her continuing exile secretly in and through them. Their community was the true Temple, instead of the corrupt one in Jerusalem. (NTPG, 205-9). I find the Essenes fascinating and their study to illuminate much of the New Testament world.

  • BryanJensen

    Maybe it’s a Britishism like “put to rights”? 🙂

  • josenmiami


  • BryanJensen

    Dictionary says its a valid adjective as is “innovative”. Not knowing for certain I give the benefit for possible explanation as culturally Brit connotative nuances that go past me. 🙂

  • truthisfree4u

    However, Luke is believed to have written Acts a couple years after Paul wrote Colossians 1. Look at Colossians 1 and see what the view of Christ was. It’s anything but just a prophet.

  • Nazam Guffoor

    Does NT Wright believes that Paul wrote Colossians and why?

  • Marshall

    Interesting objection. Do you suppose language to be a semantical construction kit or a set of fixed objects with fixed meanings? Would this be a useful allegory for theology? Discuss.

    On topic, I took a recommendation for Larry Hurtado that makes Tom’s point (this particular point). Which is, more or less, that out of the “construction kit” of the 2nd Temple, a christology spontaneously self-assembled, more or less instantaneously, that is still active today. Good evidence for “the moment when everything changed”, IMO.

  • Phil Miller

    I believe Wright would say that Paul probably wrote Colossians… Actually he mentions it briefly in the first chapter of the new book. His reasoning is simply that he doesn’t think that there’s compelling enough evidence to say that Paul didn’t.

  • 1 Corinthians 15:45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.

    1 Corinthians 2:11-16 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. […] “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.