Earliest Christology

Earliest Christology December 19, 2013

Larry Hurtado has posted about views of early Christian Christology. He says that proponents of the view that significant development took place over the course of the first century of Christianity fail to do justice to the exalted status of Jesus and devotional practice evidenced from the beginning. I would respond by saying that proponents of early high Christology often fail to do justice to just how different the Gospel of John is from the Gospels of Mark and Luke. (UPDATE: now also see Dale Tuggy’s post on whether Jesus is God in Mark.)

But perhaps a rapprochement is possible? If there has been a tendency to downplay the degree of development on one side, there has been a tendency to downplay the significance of the earliest sources’ exalted claims about Jesus on the other. And so perhaps we can inch closer to agreement that the status attributed to Jesus by Paul is exalted and “divine” (in the sense of Jesus exercising divine rule and bearing the divine name) and yet not (at least explicitly) divine/incarnational in the sense that John may have been, and still later Christian creeds certainly were.

Perhaps more happened in the first decade than has been done justice to by those who see significant evolution over the course of the entire New Testament period, and more happened in the rest of the first century and beyond than has been done justice to by those who have emphasized the decisive nature of the initial event and immediately following years.

Michael Bird mentioned the same quote from Martin Hengel that Larry Hurtado did, but in relation to Bart Ehrman’s forthcoming book. And of course, for my own views see The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context.


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  • Jim

    Possibly one of the earliest documented Christologies might have been Paul’s. In his last book, Rom 1.4 seems to imply somewhat of a subordinationist view. Even taking into account the hymn in Philippians 2 (re pre-existence) , Paul’s view seems to be a bit lower Christology than that found in the gospel of John. Does anyone know how to rank Paul’s Christology?

    • Yes, I think you make an excellent point. Even in Philippians 2, we could be dealing with the notion of the Messiah pre-existing, encountered in Jewish texts which do not envisage the Messiah pre-existing as part of the “divine identity.”

    • Nigel Wehrmann

      Hi there, Jim. When speaking of Christology the early church defended Christ from views of docetism and ebionitism. Docetism Jesus wasn’t really human – he only appeared to be human. Ebionitism Jesus wasn’t really God he was exalted as divine a semi god after his life of perfect obedience. This was the belief of the Caesars, that is,that upon their death they were exalted to the honors of Divinity. Paul in his Greco-Roman world would never insist on Jesus as being compared with this Greek view. Paul makes the bold claim that Jesus was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead. That is, by his resurrection Jesus proved himself to be the eternal Son of God. These are the claims that the apostle John attributes to Jesus in his gospel and letters. As for the hymn in Philippians 2. Paul draws on Isaiah 45:23 By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked Before me every knee shall bow by me every tongue will swear. Jesus shares in a role that only God himself was entitled to. Paul is saying here that this servant Jesus is indeed God. In the first century the prominent worldview was neo-platonic, insisting that the cosmos / matter was evil and that God the supreme one was remote from matter. Therefore docetism was a common heresy. How could Jesus be God become human. All humans were trapped in matter, that is a material body, Jesus wasn’t really human he only appeared as human. Matter is evil and God the One will have nothing to do with evil. Ebionitism with it’s claim that Jesus wasn’t really God raises the question How could Jesus be savior if he wasn’t God. Only God can forgive sins, blasphemy! the pharisees distorted. they were right and Jesus never said they were wrong but gave them proof that he was God by telling the man to pick up his mat and walk. Mark 2. Now my point is simple, that is that there is no differences in the claims of Paul, John and the other gospel writers. This is just a way to introduce myself, so that hopefully we can have some discussions.

  • I suspect that you left something out of your second sentence. Perhaps it should read: “While he says that proponents of the view that significant development took place over the course of the first century of Christianity fail to do justice to the kind of devotional practices and pattern that we see in Paul’s letters, I would respond by saying that proponents of early high Christology often fail to do justice to just how different the Gospel of John is from the Gospels of Mark and Luke.”

    • Yes, something must have been accidentally selected and typed over. I will fix it… Thanks!

  • Guest

    I wonder if part of the impasse on this issue is that we’re not recognizing enough the diversity of first-century Christianity in different locales, and even sometimes in the same locale (e.g., tradition associates Paul, the Fourth Gospel, and the Apocalypse with Ephesus, yet those three hold very, very different theological perspectives). Are we expecting too much for first-century christology to be a graphable linear progression when in different places of the first century, Christology was expressed quite differently. That certainly was true in the second and third centuries. I think a linear progression is noticeable and defensible in the Synoptics going from Mark to Matthew to Luke since we can see developments across those interrelated writings. But insisting on a linear evolution in other writings becomes tenuous since Paul’s expression of theology is mostly independent of the Synoptics, as is the Fourth Gospel’s, as is the Apocalypse’s, as is Hebrews’, etc. Not all Christians of the first and second centuries arrived at a high christology the same way or at the same time or with the same view, and many never arrived.

    Anyway, just my two cents. I appreciate you and the other bibliobloggers discussing this and your willingness to engage in time-consuming comments about it. It helps move the discussion from the ivory-tower to the coffee table.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Notwithstanding the argument’s that Paul’s christology is not as high as some claim it to be (I agree with you James that Jesus reaches a type of divine status but not on equal footing with God the Father in Paul), it’s frustrating that neo-orthodox like Hurtado and Wright always just equate Paul’s theology to “early Christian” theology, which I think is a bad assumption and not supported by the other texts we have.

  • As I understand it, God using exalted agents was part of Jewish understanding at the time, whereas God becoming man was not. If Paul and Mark wanted their readers to understand that Jesus was in an entirely new category rather than in one with which they were already familiar, I would expect them to have been unambiguous about it, as John was.

  • I’ve now thrown my oar into the whole how to read Mark thing. It was getting very long, so I’ve stuck it here: http://jamesdowden.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/marks-christology/