Cognitive Perspectives on Early Christology

A paper I presented last year at the University of Kent and the University of St Andrews has recently been published in Brill’s journal, Biblical Interpretation. It is entitled, “Cognitive Perspectives on Early Christology,” and here is the abstract:

Central to all christological models are concepts of agency, identity, and divinity, but few scholars have directly addressed these frameworks within their ancient West Asian contexts. Rather, the proclivity has been to retroject modern, Eurocentric, and binary frameworks onto the ancient texts, resulting in christological models that inevitably reflect modern orthodoxies and ontological categories. The future of christological research will depend on moving beyond this tendentiousness. In an effort to begin this process, this paper will apply findings from the cognitive sciences – which examine the way the human brain structures its perception of the world around it – to the reconstruction of ancient frameworks of agency, identity, and divinity. Applying these findings to early Jewish literature reveals the intuitive conceptualization of God’s agency, reified as the divine name, as a communicable vehicle of divine presence and authority. These observations support the conclusion that early Jewish conceptualizations of divine agency provided a conceptual template for the development of early christology.

If you have an opportunity to read the paper, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


13 responses to “Cognitive Perspectives on Early Christology

  • No One of Consequence

    I enjoyed the paper very much. I have a couple of questions, mostly about the relationship of the cognitive science insights to your argument, and it’s also mostly because of my ignorance of the field.

    1. Near the beginning of your paper, you pointed out that the way we cognitively categorize tends to be around proximity to an archetype as opposed to meeting a definition of essential characteristics. You used this to argue that first century Jews may not have had the hard division in their mind that is necessary to Bauckham’s argument, but I didn’t see this crop up, again. I guess my question is, do you see further reaching implications of this way of thinking about categorization for Christology, and my follow-up question: when are you going to write that one? It’s the first I’d been exposed to the idea, but it seems like this could actually affect, not just Christology, but a number of elements of systematic theology.

    2. You list quite a bit of source evidence showing what we would think of as worship for other entities that were acting as divine agents. What wasn’t as clear to me was how this tied into the cognitive science insights. I mean, I could see someone entirely without reference to cognitive science bringing up those sources as arguments against Bauckham’s position. As you were writing the paper, how did you see these two fitting together?

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comment and for the kind words! On your questions:

      1. That’s prototype theory, and I don’t think I really return to it in that paper, just out of concern for space (we were given a pretty strict word limit), but I deal with it in much greater detail in a master’s thesis I wrote a few years ago on the conceptualization of deity in the Hebrew Bible (, and it plays a more central role in the doctoral dissertation I’m currently writing (which applies this framework to the messenger of YHWH in the Hebrew Bible). I think you’re absolutely right that prototype theory has potential to illuminate a number of important concepts related to theology.

      2. In a more expanded version of this paper, I talk about “worship” itself as a category to which we could apply the insights of prototype theory. For example, the full complement of activities associated with worship of YHWH might constitute the prototype for worship, whereas apotropaic rituals and petitions to mediatory figures like angels might constitute a less prototypical brand of worship that sits closer to the fuzzy boundaries of the category. Drawing the sharp lines of division forces Bauckham and others to insist these are “exceptions that prove the rule” and that they’re not “really” worship, when they’re actually just perfectly natural peripheral members of conceptual categories that don’t have firm boundaries. I discuss this a bit in the thesis I linked to above, and an important part of my doctoral dissertation is accounting for the “presence” of deity in cult statues, standing stones, the ark of the covenant, the messenger of YHWH, and other mediators of worship/divine presence/agency.

      Hope that answers your questions to your satisfaction, but please let me know if you have other questions, comments, or concerns.

      Thanks again!

      • No One of Consequence

        Hi Daniel, thanks for the link to the paper and the comments. I’d be interested in seeing the developments on prototype theory and the concept of worship.

        James McGrath has raised the issue, for instance, that no one ever offered sacrifices to Jesus, which is a great observation of at least one way people did not worship Jesus the same way in which they worshipped YHWH. But, if I’m following the thesis of prototype theory correctly, we might be proving too much by saying worship is only given to YHWH, so we need to figure out who “really” gets worshipped.

        Instead, we can recognize that worship is not a boundary but a field of gradations, which among other things, could imply that how the early followers thought of Jesus and divinity is more about a gradation than is or isn’t.

        Am I tracking correctly?

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Yeah, you’re tracking correctly. So Dunn’s book Did The First Christians Worship Jesus? comes to the conclusion that they kinda did, but not fully. Applying prototype theory helps us to understand that “worship” constitutes an enormous continuum of practices, materials, beliefs, places, etc., and we’re better off showing relationships between all these things and proximities to prototypes than trying to draw clear and binary boundaries that are arbitrary and really only serve dogmatic ends.

    A good introduction to what goes on with prototype theory and conceptual categories is John R. Taylor, Linguistic Categorization.

  • nelsonct

    I read your paper. It’s interesting. I wonder how you would handle religious experiences like visions and dreams. Larry Hurtado posit such experiences as the impetus behind early Christological developments. Stated briefly, Hurtado says that after Jesus’ death, some of his followers had ecstatic experiences, visions and dreams in which they understood that God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to the utmost and now requires his inclusion as recipient of cultic worship alongside (not instead of) God. Hurtado doesn’t speculate about identity or ontological categories.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comment and the question! In short, Hurtado is speculating about those visions and dreams because they bridge the gap between the Jewish monotheism he asserts for the period (which has numerous problems of its own) and the “mutation” he suggests took place very early in the life of the Christian church that facilitated the worship of Christ. I would insist that that worship is still distinct from that offered the God of Israel (as does Dunn in Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?), and we have numerous examples of brands of worship being offered to other intermediary figures that Hurtado dismisses as “anomalies” in his reconstruction of first century Jewish monotheism. In short, Jesus is a difference in degree, not kind, and that difference in degree is explainable via the influence of the Christian sect and the centralization of Christ in their soteriology.

      • nelsonct

        I don’t think that Hurtado speculates but infers the visions from the NT texts. One doesn’t need to accept Hurtado’s definition of 1st century Jewish monotheism or his characterization of Christ worship as a mutation. However, the visions would provide an explanation as to why Jesus came to be seen as God’s chief agent (in redemption and creation). If it’s a question of degree, one still must wonder why was Jesus, a man, exalted above everything else (except God) for the Christian sect?

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Thanks for responding, nelsonct. I meant he speculates about the contribution of the visions mentioned in the NT to early Christians’ conceptualizations of Jesus’ relationship to God. There is no self-evident link whatsoever between a vision of Christ resurrected and a notion of his inclusion in cultic worship alongside God. Extensive research has shown, as well, that connections between theology and worship practices are rarely systematized and usually quite variable and subjective. Hurtado further puts the cart before the horse in suggesting that cultic practices derive from and are directly reflective of beliefs. That’s just not at all how worship works.

    Your final question is an important one, and I would suggest that the continual distancing of God from humanity incentivized the production of an imminent and corporeal mediator with whom humanity could directly relate. The Christ tradition was the one that touched all the bases and had the most durability. I think the conflation of a variety of early Jewish traditions about mediation and divine presencing helped an awful lot. In short, Christ was the cumulative culmination of everything for which a large swath of Judaism had been yearning.

    • nelsonct

      Happy New Year!

      I pretty much agree with what you say. But how do you think all the traditions of mediation and prescencing came to be applied to Christ? Did it happen during Jesus ministry? Did it happen after his crucifixion? Was it a gradual process? Why him and not John the Baptizer? Do we have evidence of this happening to any other Jewish person but with less success?

      • Daniel O. McClellan

        Happy New Year! I think identifying with the Son of Man tradition and others like it from the preceding two centuries or so of Judaism were big factors, but it seems to me there were a number of links forged with the Hebrew Bible and earlier expectations regarding divine mediation, but critical was the overturning of expectations regarding what this mediator would do. One promising military deliverance or political independence would not experience much success once that deliverance/independence wasn’t achieved, but one turning the focus inward and championing the downtrodden would allow far more people to relate to it while also meeting their needs for affirmation. The apologists of the second century then made it palatable for a more successful and philosophically-minded intelligentsia, which paved the way for its appropriation by political leaders. I’d still like to dedicate some time to unpacking all the phases in the development of this tradition, but I think it has to begin with reliable data, and I don’t find Hurtado’s assumptions about how worship and belief interface to be all that reliable.

  • Howard Pepper

    I don’t know where this comment will get positioned but it is after the New Year exchange, and to the whole of it plus prior comments: Important points being discussed. Reading a fair amount, I don’t see that collectively we yet have a very good handle on the type and function of visionary experiences, especially collective ones, or related individual ones. Luke, in Acts, seems to take a lot of dramatic license in his descriptions, both re. Paul and the Jerusalem disciples and Apostles.

    Yet, it seems visions were instrumental; also charisms of healing, etc. But Luke leaves “plot holes”, one of which I wrote about on my blog… the Gamaliel speech/posture. And for additional reasons we KNOW he’s being highly selective and pushing an agenda, not just writing history unbiased. Even he leaves little question that the Jerusalem group remained practicing Jews, and apparently until the city’s destruction in 70…. Not Pauline Christians. So THEIR visions and Paul’s didn’t really jive. “Paulinism” could only flourish over them, Ebonites, etc., to their eventual disappearance, BECAUSE Temple worship and the main Jesus-following headquarters were put of the way.

  • Prometheus

    I liked your paper very much. Gives food for thought. Though I’m sure your MA thesis and dissertation touch on these issues, I’d like to know how slowly the Jews are thought to have created these reflective categories. It seems that the sects that had developed by the time of Jesus shows that a lot of reflection had gone on and that there were many disagreements over belief and cultic practice that were justified philosophically. Philo is a great example of one who philosophized re: Judaism. Why would the worship of Jesus necessarily preclude such thoughtful reflection early on – especially if it seemed to conflict with the Jewish conceptions of monotheism (see below)?

    While I agree that language and intuitive thought work on the principles of prototypicality and gradation, people who use it are often unaware of this feature of language. The idea of a one-to-one correspondent for words has been believed at various times throughout history (including among the Greeks and Romans). It seems that Paul is unaware of the true nature of intuitive thought in his argument in Galatians when he insists on the singularity of the ‘seed’ that Abraham will produce (though this is in line with the exegesis of the day). Anyway, the point is that people can easily think reflectively in terms of absolute boundaries while using words that naturally have fuzzy edges. Your thesis argues that the Jewish people of Jesus’ day did not make identity distinctions such as those of modern day. But scattered throughout the OT and NT texts are such references that ‘worship’ (as in Revelation 22:9) is not even to be given to an angel, but to God alone. This is implied by gospels to be the normal Judeo-Christian conception, too, when Jesus is accused of blasphemy for claiming that he will sit at the right hand of the power. Why were the leaders calling that blasphemy if he was speaking within legitimate Jewish categories? Can we attribute it to the pagan influences of the gospel writers who wrote in Greek? That seems unlikely, since they are hardly likely to get such ideas from the polytheistic background they have.

    On p.656, you say “the consensus in the literature is clearly that angels are not YHWH . . . nowhere does the consensus actually suggest a rejection of their divinity.” It seems that you are begging the question – what is ‘divinity’? Is it coterminous with the Hebrew elohim/el/elim? What of the uniqueness of using ‘elohim’ with a singular verb when referencing YHWH? It is unclear what ‘divinity’ means in your paper.

    How does Matthew 28:19’s baptismal formula fit into your argument? In Revelation 3, how is it that the Philadelphians are being worshiped (I see the attribution of the divine name, but this does not seem at all in line with your other examples)? What of Hebrews’ strong distinction between angels and the son? There seems to be a strong sense that the son is divine in a way that is vastly superior to that of angels. This is reminiscent of the retort in John 5:18 “he is making himself out to be equal to god!” [Sidenote: The doctrine of ex nihilo may have been most clearly articulated in the 2nd century CE, but what of 2nd Maccabees’ mention of the idea? Interpolation? Is the evidence for that strong?]

    With regard to the main thesis I have two thoughts: 1) It does not seem that you have shown that identity is different per se between the modern and ancient era, but rather that the ideas of the communicability of agency are different. Therefore, God can still have his own identity even if he communicates his attributes, etc. on other entities. I’m not sure how that breaks with the modern notion of identity. 2) I would have liked to have seen some interaction with the Greco-Roman conceptions of deity, statuary, and the imperial cult, since this is the overall context in which Christianity developed. Why is it that Jews and Christians would not build statues of the deity if the divine attributes were so readily communicable? Why did they not do as the ancient religions in general?

    Thanks again for your article!

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments! I think the process of ideological development took place quite slowly, with periods of accelerated change, similar to the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium, but I also think there was a great deal of synchronic variability, whether on a class level, a regional level, or just on a personal level. Within contemporary religious studies, it’s well known that individuals differ significantly on how they interpret the finer points of ideology. Just because something is authoritative or enshrined in literature doesn’t mean it means the same thing or is conceptualized the same way by everyone. So the point of saying all that is that while there were certainly some who spent a great deal of time philosophizing who may have had some influence on the literature or the authorities, that doesn’t necessarily mean their frameworks became normative or particularly widespread. Philo is an example of that. If we were to poll first century CE Palestine, I don’t imagine more than maybe 5–10% of the population would even have heard of Philo’s writings, much less would sign on to his particular theoretical frameworks. The early worship of Jesus seems to have taken place primarily among the lower and less educated classes, and so it’s highly unlikely these people were philosophically oriented or informed. On the other hand, I’m not saying early worship of Jesus necessarily precluded such philosophical reflection, I’m just saying there’s no evidence of it, and without evidence, we can’t presuppose it. The default view would be to the natural progression of practice that becomes normative and later gets systematized.

      Yes, people who use language are frequently unaware of those dynamics, but they are also frequently unconcerned with necessary and sufficient features until some reason arises for them to become salient. A reflective concern for delineating categories must exist before the imposition of definitional frameworks takes place. Without that reflective concern, or in the absence of knowledge of how definition works (it was not at all common practice in the first century CE), the conventional frameworks of prototypicality govern. In other words, I suggest absolute boundaries cannot just be presupposed. We have to show they are being asserted or that they are demanded by a given context, and I just don’t see any such demands in early Jewish theology. The hard lines of demarcation that are drawn have entirely to do with behavior and hierarchies of power, not with ontology. Yes, worship is supposed to only be given to God, but that doesn’t require ontological exclusivity in any sense whatsoever, and “worship” itself is a graded category with fuzzy boundaries. The New Testament makes several references to worship being offered to other beings. I think this is an area that would benefit from a lot more research and discussion, of course, but I have yet to see anything at all demanding an ontological exclusivity, and certainly not in a way that suggests such an exclusivity was common knowledge. On the Jews’ accusations, I would make the point that the Jews of the New Testament are largely a conjured up ideological other. That’s not to say no one said what they are represented as saying, just that we don’t know how closely the representations, much less the words themselves, fall to the reality of the situation. We also don’t know if any such concerns were actually based on hard lines of dogmatism or on ad hoc rationalization reacting to challenges to their authority or popularity. How many people in the United States today accuse others of promoting wildly unconstitutional platforms that aren’t unconstitutional in any way whatsoever? It’s largely identity politics calling for rationalizations. I feel we are ignoring the influence and reality of rhetoric when take any of these texts precisely at their word without trying to better understand what might be compelling them to say what they’re saying. Again, I think the field would be greatly benefitted by a long and hard look at precisely these categories and issues, and part of the goal of my paper is to catalyze just such a discussion.

      But “what is divinity” is precisely the question I’m seeking to answer, which is why I challenged Bauckham’s assumption that God is coterminous with the concept of divinity. I find no such suggestion anywhere in the Bible and am specifically trying to get us to look again at this issue by applying what we have observed about some universals underlying the development of concepts of deity and the conceptualization of deity. The notion that a specific deity exhausts the category of deity is not intuitive. It is a thoroughly reflective concept that requires constant constraint and tending. The intuitive tendency will be toward expanding the concept of deity, and reflective and authoritative restraints would need to be asserted and reasserted to mitigate that. For that reason, I think the notion that God exhausts the category bears the burden of proof. I think, again, healthy debate could be very helpful.

      The Greek word for “deity” is not semantically coterminous with the Hebrew terms, so I would suggests they all need to be analyzed within their own contexts. Elohim is used in the plural to refer to singular deities that are not YHWH, too, though. Baal, Asherah, and several others are referred to alone with the plural elohim. I address this in more detail on pp. 49–56 of my second master’s thesis:

      On Matthew 28:19, I don’t think there’s much of an issue. The Granville Sharp rule suggests the three entities are being referenced as distinct entities. Perhaps you mean something else by your question that I’m just overlooking, though.

      The Philadelphians are being worshipped because the Greek word being used (προσκυνεω) is the word commonly used for worship in the NT (specifically, bowing down before). There is a suggestion that this reflects some kind of “secular” brand of bowing down before someone that isn’t about worship, but the word occurs over 20 other times in Revelation, and in every single occurrence, the meaning is unambiguously “worship.”

      I would suggest the difference between the angels and the son is one of degrees, not kind. That the son is vastly superior does not mean there is an ontological dichotomy.

      On 2 Maccabees 7, I have actually argued elsewhere that the chapter is indeed a second century CE composition (on multiple grounds), but several others have argued for reading the reference in light of Platonic notions of unformed matter. For instance, Markus Bockmuehl recently wrote, “2 Maccabees 7:28, for example, affirms not that God made the heavens and the earth out of ‘nothing,’ merely that he made them ‘not out of existing things’ (ουκ εξ οντων). The writer applies this principle to human conception in the womb, which is clearly a case of God making human beings out of what is not a human being. Other examples could be multiplied. If God makes ‘out of non-being the things that are’ this need not be ex nihilo, but merely his making out of shapelessness the things which have shape” (Bockmuehl, “Creatio ex nihilo in Palestinian Judaism and Early Christianity,” SJT 65.3 [2012]: 257–58).

      On your final thoughts: (1) Modern notions of identity are built primarily on philosophical and scientific concepts of a bounded and unitary organism. The relationship of loci of agency to one’s biological body is a foundational element of our concepts of personhood, so I would suggest showing a difference in the communicability of agency demonstrated a difference in concepts of identity. Of course God has a personal identity, but because agency is communicable, there is no absolute dichotomy distinguishing that identity ontologically and inviolably from all other reality, which is the foundation of Bauckham’s concept of monotheism and of Jesus’ inclusion in that identity. The Bible presents God is thoroughly integrated into that reality, if I may impose a modern philosophical construct. Regarding (2) had I the space, I would have discussed Greco-Roman conceptualizations of deity, but I was quite limited on my word count, and actually had to cut out a lot of stuff. I think Peppard and Gradel do a good job of showing that deity and humanity occupied a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. There’s been a good deal of research showing Greek statues were often conceptualized as animated by divine agency, too. The commandment not to create images is the main reason Jews and Christians didn’t do so, but even in light of that, there were still widespread uses of such things. Judean Pillar Figurines were found all over and around Jerusalem from the pre-exilic and into the exilic period, and the Israelite temple at Arad shows two massebot were used in the holy of holies to represent YHWH and likely his consort. Catholics and other Orthodox denominations widely make use of images and icons that are considered animated by agency. It’s not so common now as it was 1000 years ago, but it’s very much a part of the history of Christianity (Pongratz-Leisten and Sonik’s edited volume, The Materiality of Divine Agency, discusses some such examples).

      Thanks for the engagement, and I hope I’ve offered some reasonable responses to your questions. I’m, of course, happy to continue discussing these issues as long as you are.

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