Is the Oldest Christology also the Highest?

Is the Oldest Christology also the Highest? October 17, 2015

Ron Huggins asked an interesting question in an interesting way recently.

Some view Galatians as the oldest piece of Christian literature we have. And at the very beginning of that letter, Paul contrasts human authorities with God and Jesus.

paul-damascusAnd so, he asks, is this – arguably the oldest Christological statement in the New Testament – also the highest – i.e. one that makes a contrast between humans and divine beings, and places Jesus on the divine side of things.

The problem with this interpretation is that Paul elsewhere makes clear that he does not think that Jesus is not a human being, which is what the contrast in Galatians 1:1 says when taken literally at face value.

And so one has to view Paul as speaking in an imprecise manner either here or in all the places where he refers to Jesus as a human being.

If we accept the former as more likely, we can make good sense of Paul's point even if his wording goes beyond what he ought to have said while making that point if he wanted to avoid contradicting himself.

Paul is clearly concerned in his letter to emphasize that he does not depend on the authority of the apostles in Jerusalem, or anyone else on Earth, for his calling and his authority.

And so Paul says that he is not an apostle from or through human beings (i.e. not merely an emissary of some other person or community), but through Jesus Christ and God the Father (i.e. by means of the authority of Jesus Christ, the only human being thus far whom God raised from the dead, and is thus the one trustworthy source of divine authority, in contrast with even the apostles that Jesus sent, as those figures place one a further step removed from God's direct activity and communication).

Paul is thus, it seems to me, concerned to place himself on the same level as those commissioned directly by Jesus, rather than subordinate to and dependent upon their authority. He is not trying to place Jesus outside of the human sphere.

What do readers of this blog think?

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, Bart Ehrman blogged recently about adoptionistic Christologies. Daniel Kirk spoke about the human Jesus. And Joel Watts shared a video about whether Jesus is God in the Gospel of Mark.


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  • Gary

    In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed Shoko Sahara, Sun Ayung Moon, and others. In recent history, we’ve had Joseph Smith. This blog doesn’t really make me contemplate the divinity and/or humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. It more makes me ponder the humanity of Saul of Tarsus. What do readers of this blog think? Cult creators are fascinating people.

    • Mark

      What are the grounds for thinking Paul ‘created’ anything? What are the grounds for thinking that there is any cult in view except the cultus of the Temple in Jerusalem?

      • Gary


  • John MacDonald

    Didn’t God raise Moses and Elijah prior to Jesus in the transfiguration?

    • Michael Wilson

      Good point, though technically Elijah was taken to heaven alive. I think their may have been a view that God carried Moses to heaven , but I’d have to look that up for particulars. It does raise the question about how Jesus’s return is different from theirs and the doctrine that he raised bodily may have been to differentiate Jesus from these guys, though I think the first Christians felt that the heavenly Jesus interacted in the mundane world while Moses and Elijah were just residents of Heaven who did not interact with people on Earth.

  • Cecil Bagpuss

    Paul seems to think that Jesus transcended his human status at the resurrection. The risen Christ now sits at the right hand of God. Therefore, a distinction between God and Christ on the one hand, and men in general on the other, is not unnatural.

    The alleged non-human status of Jesus is something that mythicists try to exploit, but they can never make a case out of it. What they need is something that is incompatible with historicity, but the belief that Jesus was a man who acquired a heavenly status after his death is not it.

    • Mark

      What does ‘transcended his human status’ mean, though? The stuff the risen Jesus is made of is for Paul the same as the stuff everybody else is made of after the resurrection. It’s great stuff for sure, but not, it seems, divine. Or are we all supposed to ‘transcend our human status’? If ‘human’ is read as ‘mortal’ and ‘fleshly’ and (so-to-say) ‘not-yet-resurrected’, then the passage becomes intelligible, but it seems to impute too much content to this opening line.

      • Michael Wilson

        I would argue Paul thinks all Christians will transcend human status. I’ll let Cecil speak for himself though. Paul sees Jesus as the reflection of the unseen God, the spirit of God’s sacred name, which isn’t a quality he ascribes to other humans, but his theology suggest that all Christians will be unified with Christ and God so that God will be simultaneously manifest as all his children so the one and the many will be the same being.

      • Cecil Bagpuss

        As Michael says, Paul does seem to think that we will all transcend our human status. The fact that Jesus got there first sets him apart. Jesus also seems to have the unique privilege of sitting at the right hand of God. Presumably, this would not be incompatible with his humanity, but it would provide a further basis for a distinction between Christ on the one hand, and men in general on the other.

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          Since science fiction metaphors are the order of the day, I might suggest one in this case. In 2001, Dave Bowman is an ordinary man who is transformed into a god-like being. After his transformation he is able to appear to people at will and then simply vanish. If I remember correctly, the new Dave Bowman no longer considers himself to be a man.

  • Mark

    The problem with the passage is that the flat-footed reading will have Paul denying that Jesus is human – and thus denying that Jesus is Christ, who of course must be human, as David was human. It won’t be a high christology but a maximally low christology, since there won’t be a christ in the high/low christology sense, since that opposition takes the humanity of the messiah for granted, as every known use of ‘christ’ does.

    Once one sees that he’s playing with prepositions as usual – here ‘apo’ and ‘dia’ – we are stuck with the usual problem of figuring out Paul’s picture of agency, authority, delegation and messianic-political structure. Everything in Paul is permeated by some opaque picture of the constitutional structure of the messianic age, which is somehow already present in the present revolutionary transition.

  • Michael Wilson

    I think when discussing an encounter with a person that is a spirit in heaven, contrasting that with a encounter with a human seems like a normal thing to say and we ought not to contemplate much on the fact that Jesus is the spirit of a human. One could say without raising much fuss that they didn’t see a man in the White House but the ghost of Abraham Lincoln despite Lincoln being a man.

  • John MacDonald

    I think Ehrman argues Jesus was understood as some kind of pre-existent angel by Paul in “How Jesus Became God.”

  • Gakusei Don

    I thought “High Christology” was related to how people perceived Jesus on earth, before the resurrection? That is, a High Christology has Jesus being a pre-existent being who incarnated as the Son of God and upon death ascends to heaven, whereas a Low Christology has Jesus as a man who becomes Son of God at some point (baptism or death) and then ascends to heaven.

    Either way, Jesus is no longer just a man after resurrection. So it is not surprising to see in Gal that when Paul says he got the Gospel from Jesus, he got it “from no man”. That to me seems consistent with either High or Low Christology.

  • The impression I have from reading Paul is that his Christology is more or less Arian, viewing Jesus as more than merely human but not quite equal to God. But whatever Paul’s Christology was, I don’t agree with the implication that we should assume it was earliest just because we happen to have an early written record of it. There’s no reason to assume that rivals like James would have agreed with Paul on this, and written documents that tell us about Pauline Christianity don’t necessarily reflect the beliefs of Jewish or other early forms of Christianity. I find it more likely that multiple Christologies were being developed early on, and Paul’s voice was just one among many.