Synoptic Christology and Pre-Existence

Synoptic Christology and Pre-Existence May 16, 2011

At the blog Near Emmaus, Simon Gathercole’s interpretation of Synoptic Christology, and in particular his argument regarding the “I have come” + purpose sayings, are getting discussed. (See too the earlier discussion of Synoptic Christology at Near Emmaus, and the subsequent posts by Michael Bird and Allan Bevere).

My own view, akin to that expressed by Andrew Perriman in a recent post on this subject, is that the Synoptic Gospels depict Jesus as a human being vested with divinely-given authority. They lack any explicit or clear implicit indication that Jesus is viewed as literally pre-existent. Even the Gospel of Matthew, which draws on the Similitudes of Enoch, fails to work in a reference to that aspect of its depiction of the Son of Man.

While some of the posts that I have linked to above argue that we ought to expect the Synoptic Gospels to reflect Christologies at least as “high” as Paul’s, my own understanding is more in line with that of James D. G. Dunn, i.e.  that it is better to interpret Paul’s few possible references to pre-existence in another way. When Paul speaks in a non-poetic way about Jesus, the notion of pre-existence seems to disappear. This is not to say that Paul may not have thought of the Messiah pre-existing in some sense in God’s plan, or as being in some way prepared in heaven by God for the appropriate moment. But it is not clear that, even if Paul held such views, he understood that pre-existence in the same literal fashion, or with the same literal implications, as later authors such as that of the Fourth Gospel.

Whatever one concludes about Paul, the Gospel of John shows that it was possible to work the idea of personal pre-existence into a Gospel. And the fact that the Synoptic Gospels did not do so, and make perfect and perhaps better sense when pre-existence is not read into them, persuades me that their authors did not think of Jesus in those terms.

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