The Early High Christology Club

The Early High Christology Club February 6, 2013

Larry Hurtado has a post about the group of scholars who have come to refer to themselves in humorous fashion as the “Early High Christology Club.” The post includes this delightful story which Larry told me and some others at dinner one evening at SBL in Chicago:

An incident often cited subsequently took place after an annual meeting of the “Divine Mediators in Antiquity Group” that featured invited presentations from James D. G. Dunn and Maurice Casey (who each took somewhat different views on the origins of “high Christology,” both of them tending to see it as a somewhat later development).  After the meeting concluded, Dunn and Casey joined Capes, Hurtado, Newman and Segal for dinner at a Greek restaurant.  After Segal (who spoke modern Greek) ordered for the group and wine was poured, Newman (with characteristic mischief) proposed a toast “To early high Christology.”  Capes, Hurtado and Segal raised their glasses, while Dunn and Casey hesitated.  After a few seconds, Dunn raised his glass with a smile saying, “To high Christology”, and after a few more seconds Casey (with a twinkle in his eye) raised his glass toasting, “To Christology”.  (At some point thereafter, Newman in good-natured teasing proposed that Dunn and Casey be accorded leading status in an affiliate group, “The Late, Low and Slow Club” of early Christology.)

It is great that scholars can be good humored about their disagreements. For those readers interested in Christology, how do you view the origins and development of Christian thinking about Jesus? Was he accorded a status that could be considered “divine” early on, and if so, in what sense? Was it a status that it was theoretically acceptable for a human being to occupy in Jewish thought in that time? If this developed over time, what do you think caused the development?

My own views on this topic can be found in my books, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context and John’s Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series).

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  • Ken Olson

    This couldn’t have taken place at the Chicago 2012 SBL, as the late Alan Segal was present (though that may just be my anti-supernatural bias showing).

    • Sorry, did I suggest that it did? I apologize if it wasn’t clear that what I meant was that Larry told this story one evening at dinner in Chicago last year.

  • I accept the early EHCC view. I think it best explains early devotion to Jesus after his death and Paul’s early persecution of the Jewish-Christian community. I don’t think it was officially acceptable by religious leaders in Jewish thought and practice, but that among the “haaretz,” the people of the land, it was more acceptable. If Acts is reliable, the leaders such as Peter, James and Stephen are targeted early. After that I think it managed to survive in ancient Palestine by keeping a non-confrontational, low profile and by conforming to acceptable Jewish practice. Assuming that the Josephus passage about James refers to James the brother of Jesus, then again the leaders are targeted, while the believing community is allowed to continue in relative peace. The point is that the officials seem to be saying, “We really don’t think your theology is acceptable, and we’ll get rid of your leaders to show it. Now give up your cult or at least stay quiet.”

    Meanwhile, out in the Diaspora, Paul has some success among the Jewish community, until they see that he is letting Gentiles participate without going through conversion. His problem seems not so much the high christology of Jesus as lowering the standards for Gentile participation, as is made clear in Galatians, even without Acts.

    So yes, I think early high christology makes sense and can be understood by the historical data.

  • Ken Olson

    Sorry, James, my mistake. In reading your post and then Hurtado’s, I lost the context of what you had originally said. It’s clear enough.

  • James, I have given you an allusion here. Defining the divine is to my mind only possible by asymtotic analogy or indirect allusive inference, lest we exalt our words beyond their capacity. But look at the flesh – gospel – judgment – evangel implied in the Eucharist and the Psalms as I suggest in that brief post – part of a series based on Childs.

  • Kaz

    Funny story, James, thanks for sharing.

    Regarding the origins of Christology, that is an excellent question. It’s a difficult topic for a number of reasons, including apologetic rhetoric, i.e. what does one mean by “divine” “high Christology”, etc. Dale Tuggy talks about that, here:

    I find myself in agreement with Larry Hurtado, Maurice Casey, James Dunn, A.E. Harvey, Thom Stark, you, and the view that later Trinitarianism emerged due to syncretism! 😉 Impossible you say?

    A very brief statement of my view would go something like this: (i) Larry Hurtado is correct that Christians saw Jesus as highly exalted early on, second only to God himself in authority; (ii) Maruice Casey is correct that there were developmental stages in how Christians viewed Jesus, though I disagree with his stages, as the later stage seems to hang largely on a reading of John’s gospel that isn’t sufficiently sensitive to the agency paradigm that you develop in JAC; (iii) James Dunn is correct in his gentle criticisms of Larry Hurtado’s views (expressed in Partings of the Ways), and I would add other criticisms of my own, e.g. the dubiousness of the notion that KURIOS when applied to Jesus was a substitution of the Divine Name (though I don’t dispute that this may be the case at Phil 2); (iv) you and A.E. Harvey (and others) are correct about the importance of agency, and how much of what formerly fell under the umbrella of mystical or ontological categories sits much more naturally under the umbrella of the agency paradigm; (v) Jesus probably wasn’t viewed as God’s Son ontologically, at least not in the way some later theologians conceived it, until the post-Apostolic period; (vi) Nicea and Chalcedon probably wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for (a) the later syncretism that occurred when the good news about the Jewish Christ was contemplated within the thought categories of Greek philosophers, (b) later contemplations about God’s relation to the created order, (c) the perceived urgency of placing Jesus on one or the other side of that created order, and (d) the mistaken conclusion that Jesus belonged on the God-side.

    • So basically it sounds like you’re saying that my view – I won’t say “our view” until you have a chance to spell out where, if at all, you disagree with me – can encompass all of the relevant data and scholarship? 🙂

      • Kaz

        I think we’re close, both broadly speaking and in some particulars. I got point vi(b), (c), and (d) from my list directly from you, from one of your old articles that used to be available online. When I first read your view that Jesus came to be identified as God Himself because of later contemplation about the created order and the perceived need to place him on one or the other side of it, I experienced Tom Wolfe’s “Aha! Phenomenon” (I know, I use that line too much).

        Did you come to that conclusion via your own personal contemplation of post-Apostolic teachings, or did you stumble upon some study(ies) that made that point? I’d love to see that point developed more fully.

        • It was an “Aha!” moment thanks to hearing Frances Young give a paper about the Christology of the early church Fathers in Leuven, in which she suggested that the Christology they adhered to did not seem to raise the issue of monotheism in their discussions either internally or in conversation with Jews. I was already working on conflict in John’s Gospel as driving force to the development of its Christology, and suddenly it occurred to me that perhaps monotheism isn’t actually the issue there either!

  • James, could you summarize your view for those of us who don’t have ready access to your books?

    • Kaz

      Mike: You can discern much of Jame’s position vis a vis Christology from the following writings, all of which are available online free of charge:

      1) God’s Equal or God’s Agent? John 5:16-47 in Johannine Legitimation
      Click here:

      2) Food for Thought: The Bread of Life Discourse (John 6:25-71) in Johannine
      Click here:

      3) Are Christians Monotheists? The Answer of St. John’s Gospel
      Click here:

      4) Two Powers’ and Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism (with Jerry Truex)
      Click here:

      5) Change in Christology: New Testament Models and the Contemporary Task
      Click here:

      6) Monotheism and Worship in the Book. of Revelation (chapter 5 from The Only True God)

      Click here:

      7) John’s Apologetic Christology (unabridged original thesis that was later re-done and released in book form)
      Click here:

      • Sorry, I hadn’t seen that it ended up in the spam filter, presumably because it contains so many links. Thanks for rounding up so many of my online bits and pieces. There are also some additional parts of The Only True God available in the preview on Google Books, I believe.

        Mike, If that doesn’t provide what you are looking for, please let me know!

        • James,

          I’ve already begun perusing Kaz’s links (for which I’m grateful). But so that I don’t get lost in the weeds, could you summarize your position? I presume you stand closer to Dunn than Hurtado on the broader issue, but I also wonder if you see Jesus’ exaltation in the mind of John and the rest as that of a man with no preexistence or something closer to Charles Gieschen’s “Angelomorphic Christology” which would mean he was a man who preexisted as an angel – at least in the minds of his first-century Jewish followers.

          • Can I summarize my position on…what? Depending on whether the topic is the depiction of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, Paul’s letters, the Gospel of John, or the question of how we get from one to the other, then there would be different summaries. If there is an overarching theme, I’d say that it is this: even the Christology of the Gospel of John was not a departure from monotheism as it existed in first century Judaism.

          • James, that being the case, my question is “How were the believing disciples able to ascribe unique greatness to Jesus without threatening their monotheism?” I presume you will suggest that they considered him a uniquely-favored human being who had no existence prior to his human conception (like most Unitarians believe), or else one who had a previous heavenly existence (Charles Gieschen’s Angelomorphic Christology” being an example of this kind of thinking).

            I am not suggesting that you are a Unitarian or that you have read or agree with Gieschen. Nor am I trying to fit you into a box. Rather, I’m simply interested in positive first-century reactions to Jesus and how you think they viewed him ontologically as it bears on their monotheism.

          • The reason I have written what I have is to give the nuanced answers those questions need. But they clearly viewed Jesus as having been exalted to God’s right hand, appointed supreme agent worthy of receiving the acclamation of all creation (ultimately to the glory of God the Father, of course) and so on and so on.

            The problem with using a term like Unitarian is that is involves giving an either/or answer where in the context of first century monotheism, one could say both/and.

          • As I said, please disregard the labels if they’re not useful. I’m simply trying to get at the essence of your view of how the earliest disciples thought of Jesus in a way that did not conflict with their view that there was but one true God. That is, did they think of Jesus as a human being or as having a preexistence to his humanity? And if having a preexistence, what sort of preexistence did they consider it to be?

          • Again, these are questions that require long answers. Since the author of the Gospel of Matthew seems to have known the Similitudes of Enoch, and so may well have thought of the Messiah having pre-existed in heaven. But that isn’t taken literally, and nothing in that work suggests that Jesus is not thought of as a human being like others, however miraculously conceived and however much authority he may be given. In the Gospel of John, however, we see the idea being taken literally. My own view is that this results from conflicts about Jesus as revealer if heavenly things, which motivated some Christians to begin to take such language literally and draw literal implications from it in a manner that they had not previously.

            That’s just a small section of a much bigger picture…

    • Kaz

      Mike: I tried to submit a post directing you to many of James’s writings that are available free online, including his entire thesis, which was later published in book form. However, like so many others, my post has vanished in the void, probably flagged as spam.

      If you’d like, I can send you the links, which will take you to the following:

      1) Food for Thought: The Bread of Life Discourse (John 6:25-71) in Johannine

      2) God’s Equal or God’s Agent? John 5:16-47 in Johannine Legitimation

      3) Are Christians Monotheists? The Answer of St. John’s Gospel

      4) Two Powers’ and Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism (with Jerry Truex)

      5) Change in Christology: New Testament Models and the Contemporary Task

      6) Monotheism and Worship in the Book of Revelation (chapter 5 from The Only True God)

      7) John’s Apologetic Christology : legitimation and development in Johannine christology (unabridged thesis)

      • Kaz,

        I see your original comment with the links below. Guess it finally cleared the spam filter. That’s very gracious of you. Thanks!


  • newenglandsun

    N.T. Wirght, on page 316 of “The New Testament and the People of God” shows us how Dan. 7:13-14 was actually being used as part of a Messianic text. Note that this part is generally widely regarded among scholars as having been originally written in the second century B.C.E. Which means it was written in Greek which means when the Markan author writes down “they will see the Son of man coming in clouds” (Mark 13:26), and this is a clear reference to Dan. 7:13-14, it indicates something about his Christology. The Greek Septuagint which the Orthodox have argued in defense of over the Hebrew scriptures ( ), applies the word “latreou” to the son of man in Dan. 7:13-14. Continuing onward on that thought, both Matt. 4:10 and Luke 4:8 argue that latreou is only to be rendered to God. This is in contrast to another word for “bow” or “obeisance” that which is strictly used of God. I think, this at least indicates that the Christology of the early church developed from some sort of two powers in Heaven theory (or one power, two persons). Know any scholars other than Wright that have pointed that out about Dan. 7:13-14 originally being used by Jews as a Messianic movement? Or in general, non-Trinitarian scholars/Trinity historically developed scholars that have written profusely on how Dan. 7:13-14 does not indicate an early church belief in the Messiah as divine?