Tag Archives: Christology

On Jesus’ Divinity

In most recent publications about Jesus’ identity with God, a lot of the arguments’ weight is placed on doxologies, proskynesis, sonship, the title “god,” and Jesus’ position on God’s throne. The idea is that these are honors or attributes that we expect to only find in God himself. Since Jesus is associated with them, the argument goes, and since, above all else, the framework of philosophical monotheism cannot be violated, Jesus must be God himself (a distinct “person” within the “being” of God). What I find interesting is that most publications simply ignore the fact that several Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and early Jewish authors envision the same or very similar honors and attributes being a part of humanity’s future existence.

John 17 has humanity being one with God’s glory just as Christ is one with his glory. Jesus gave his followers the very same glory God gave Jesus so they would be one with God and Jesus in the same way that they are one. Doxologies are also not infrequently found in reference to humans. Note Eph 3:20–21: “to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory.” God himself glorifies the justified in Rom 8:30, and in v. 17 Jesus’ followers are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, to be glorified along with him (cf. 2 Cor 3:18; 4:17; Col 3:4; 2 Tim 2:10; Heb 2:10; 1 Pet 5:1, 4, 10; Rom 5:2; 1 Thess 2:12). The attribution of glory to a figure does not indicate ontological identity with God.

Rev 3:9 has the Philadelphians receiving proskynesis. Many insist this is just a secular act, but Revelation uses the term more than any other text of the Bible, and it nowhere else in the book has a secular meaning. It is always formal worship. This text is also very similar to 4Q246, the “Son of God Text.” In there the eschatological people of God will rise up to end warfare. As a result, the nations of the earth will worship the people of God (Aramaic סגד; cf. Isa 44:15, 17, 19; 46:6; Dan 2:46; 3:5–28). The singular pronominal suffix throughout this section of 4Q246 does not refer to the Son of God (an antagonist in the text), but to the singular עם, “people.” The “Son of Man” from Daniel is also envisioned as receiving worship in the Old Greek, specifically with the Greek λατρευω, which is never used in the New Testament in reference to Christ. In the Old Testament, the angel of Yhwh is on more than one occasion the object of proskynesis (the Hebrew חוה, a fact that seems to allude New Testament scholars). Proskynesis before a divine or human figure doesn’t at all seem to indicate ontological identification with God.

The exact nature of Jesus’ sonship is an interesting question throughout the New Testament. Mark doesn’t have a birth narrative and doesn’t seem to view Jesus as being born as God’s son. Affinities with Greco-Roman views about the Son of God also abound in Mark. In the Roman world, divine sonship could be attributed to adults in terms of both adoption and begetting (at the same time). The same can be said of the king in the Old Testament. In Ps 2:7 the king is said to be God’s son and to have been “begotten” (ילד) by God on the day of his installation as king. In Ps 110:3 God states, “I begot you” (ילדתיך). The Hebrew has been obscured, and most modern translations are happy to leave it as is. The Septuagint translation preserves the likely original form, although it understands שחר to mean “morning star,” thus “before the Morning Star I begot you.” Many scholars have noted this indicates preexistence on the part of the messiah (cf. LXX Ps 71:17), although I don’t believe the Septuagint indicates any distinct existence that that begetting precedes. Ps 89 is particularly interesting. In v. 19 one is chosen out of God’s people. In v. 26 that chosen one declares to God, “You are my father.” In the next verse God declares, “I will make him my firstborn.” In the Old Testament, an adult human could be considered to be made to be divinely begotten. This is a mixing of metaphors, since adoption is also clearly in view. Augustus was adopted by Julius and subsequently considered begotten by Apollo. Adoption was important because it established inheritance, which was the focal point. Paul’s view of Christ’s sonship uses the same mixing of metaphors. He looked forward to an adoptive soteriology, through which we would become joint-heirs with Christ (Gal 4:1–7). Rom 8:29 says Christ is the “firstborn of many brothers.” In his book, Adoption as Sons of God, Jim Scott notes that, “the sons who share in the messianic inheritance and reign with the Son are adopted on the basis of the same Davidic promise as the Son, because they participate in the sonship of the Son.” Note John 1:12 says Jesus’ followers will have power to become the sons of God, begotten (εγεννηθησαν) by God (cf. John 3:3–8; 1 John 3:9–10). Note also that the gospel of John never describes Jesus as a “begotten” son. In addition to Scott’s book, I recommend Collins and Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God, and Peppard, The Son of God in the Roman World. Being the Son of God, begotten and/or adopted, preexistent or otherwise, does not indicate ontological identification with God.

There are numerous figures that are called “god” in the Hebrew Bible and in Second Temple Judaism. In addition to the scores and scores of faceless masses of divine beings that are called gods in the Hebrew Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other literature, David is called “god” in Ps 45:6–7; Isa 9:6 says Hezekiah will be known as “the Mighty God”; Moses is called “god” in Exod 4:16 and 7:1, and Philo explains that God “appointed him [Moses] as god” (Sacrifices 9), and that he was “no longer man, but god” (Good Person 43); in 11Q13 (11QMelch) Melchizedek is identified with the singular אלהים of Psalm 82; Jesus appeals to LXX Ps 81:6 to point out that human beings were called “gods” according to the scriptures. John identifies Jesus with the preexistent Word, but not with God himself. Being a god does not indicate ontological identification with God.

The Throne
Rev 3:21 is frequently cited as an indication of the highest christology, but often neglected is the statement that those who overcome will sit down with Christ in his throne, as he is sitting with God in God’s throne. I only see one throne in view here. God’s throne has become Christ’s throne, and Christ’s throne will become the throne of those who overcome. In agreement with John 17, all will share the same glory and be one with Christ and God just as they are one. It’s a big throne. Sitting in it does not indicate ontological identification with God

This is a much more complicated issue than what I’ve described above, but I thought I would share some initial thoughts after seeing these attributes and honors repeatedly identified as indicating “deity” in the sense of “ontological identification with Israel’s deity.” I don’t believe they indicate that at all. I’m interested in your thoughts, as I hope to take up this issue more fully in the future.


Review: Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? (Chapter 4)

Dunn’s penultimate chapter, entitled The Lord Jesus Christ, is his longest and is where he makes the majority of his case. The previous three sought to define terms and provide background for this chapter’s investigation of the presentation of Jesus within the New Testament. Dunn begins by stating that up to this point the most consistent answer to the question, “did the first Christians worship Jesus?” is that he was not generally the object of worship, even though his name was invoked within worship contexts. Given Jesus’ participation in the worship of God, Dunn shifts the focus from the how and what of worship to the question of whom. He breaks the chapter down into eight sections: (1) was Jesus a monotheist? (2) ‘Jesus is Lord’; (3) Word, Wisdom and Spirit; (4) the testimony of the Apocalypse of John; (5) Jesus as god/God; (6) the last Adam, mediator, heavenly intercessor; (7) How helpful is it to re-express the issues in terms of ‘divine identity’? (8) Conclusion. This chapter is intended to respond to the approaches of Bauckham and Hurtado. The former is opposed to interpreting early perspectives on Christ in light of the vernacular associated with wisdom, word and spirit. Dunn believes that since that is how early Jews and Christians spoke about divine identity, it is helpful in evaluating Christ’s connection to divine identity. Hurtado sees devotion to Christ as a unique mutation of Second Temple Jewish theology. Dunn will largely agree with Hurtado in this regard.

Dunn’s discussion of Jesus as a monotheist focuses primarily on Jesus’ perspective on the Shema. He draws inferences regarding Jesus’ upbringing, evaluates relevant sayings attributed to him in the New Testament, and then looks at his disciples’ position on the question. As might be expected, Dunn finds the Shema, and thus the monotheistic ideal, to be fundamental to Jesus’ upbringing, message, and impact on his disciples. The next section investigates the term “Lord” (kyrios) used in reference to Jesus. Was it used simply as a secular sign of deference, or does it imply some manner of divine connection? One of the more important discussions in this section is the the appeal in reference to Jesus to Hebrew Bible texts mentioning Yhwh. In the Septuagint Yhwh was rendered with kyrios (although see here). In 1 Cor 1:8, for instance, Paul refers to “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” a clear adaptation of the eschatological “day of Yhwh.” Was Jesus being identified with Yhwh, or was he simply identified with Yhwh’s saving power? Since Paul and others always distinguish between Jesus and God, Dunn prefers the latter.

The possibility that the New Testament is simply proof-texting, and that a systematic Christology should not be extrapolated from a synthesis of all these references is not explored by Dunn. He cites Heb 1:6 and 8 on p. 136, which appropriate references to Yhwh (Deut 32:43) and the king (Ps 45:7), respectively, as references to Jesus. He decides that synthesizing the original intent of each Hebrew Bible text and their usage in Hebrews is the best way to understand what they mean, but more likely, in my view (and the view of others), is that the author is simply proof-texting. Many of these quotations and allusions are likely meant to be reinterpreted in light of the Christian gospel and not their original context. Ps 8:4–6, which refer exclusively to humanity, are quoted in Heb 2:6–8, where they are used exclusively in reference to Christ. The argument is made that the reference is still being made to humanity, but that Christ is also being read from the passage in relation to his soteriological relationship to humanity. I disagree, though. I don’t see any justification for reading Heb 2:6–8 as a reference to humanity. Every word surrounding the quotation links the text exclusively to Jesus, and portion of the psalm which explicitly link it to humanity are excised in the quotation (specifically Ps 8:6a: “you have given them dominion over the works of your hands,” which would undermine the Christian notion that creation is the work of Christ’s hands). Dunn describes the author’s re-readings of these texts as a “balance” that he maintains in fleshing out his view of Christ’s mission. The appeal to texts referencing the king and God reach a “climactic revelation through the Son” in the second chapter, where the author brings it all around to appeal to texts referencing humanity in an effort to express the “divine purpose for humankind fulfilled now in Christ” (139). I suggest these texts are better read as re-readings of texts that simply had more currency within Second Temple Judaism when read in another light. Another example of this is Ps 82:6 quoted in John 10:35. The author is not trying to suggest Jesus’ reading should be synthesized with the text’s original meaning, he’s just communicating its contemporary understanding as a reference to something with which it originally had absolutely nothing to do.

This tendentiousness is found elsewhere. In discussing whether or not Paul persecuted Christians because of their devotion directed to Christ, Dunn cites Gal 1:13–14:

You have heard of my way of life previously in Judaism, that in excessive measure I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it; and that I progressed in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my people, being exceedingly zealous for my ancestral traditions.

For Dunn, the “implication is clear” (114) that Paul is intentionally trying to link the nature of his persecution of Christians with the specific nature of his zeal for his ancestral traditions. It can “only mean that Paul had persecuted the first Christians because he saw them as some sort of threat to his (fundamentalist) understanding of what being ‘in Judaism’ demanded of Jews, their loyalty to the law and adherence to the Pharisaic halakhoth” (114). While a connection is made between his zeal for ancestral traditions and his persecution of Christianity, to say it can “only mean” that it had specifically to do with a “(fundamentalist) understanding” of the law and “adherence to the Pharisaic halakhoth” is a bit of a stretch. Exactly which “ancestral traditions” were being offended is not indicated.

His next section, on the word, wisdom, and spirit of God, investigates the way these themes communicate early Jewish and Christian ideas of extensions of God’s identity. Logos Christology is particularly emphasized in this section. According to Dunn, the personification jargon used of the logos has not simply been transferred to Jesus, but rather Jesus reveals the personal character of the logos, who could previously only be conceptualized in “personification terms” (120). Dunn reasserts his anti-anthropomorphism, stating that Jesus makes known the “unseen and un-seeable God” (121). In a footnote he states that God’s invisibility was a “fundamental of Jewish thought.” He cites Exod 33:20 and Deut 4:12, but he does not address Exod 24:10 or the dozens of other scriptures that insist God was seen. One wonders if he prioritizes John 1:18 in his exegesis of those other texts.

Section 4.4 discusses the book of Revelation. In this book, says Dunn, “the deity of Christ is unqualified” (130). That it was written decades after the time frame that Dunn set in his introduction for the “first Christians” is not discussed, and the advanced christology is attributed to the text’s genre rather than its date. Dunn highlights five illustrators of the author’s high christology: (1) the Son of Man imagery from Daniel is conflated with the same book’s Ancient of Days imagery, (2) both Jesus and God call themselves the “Alpha and Omega,” (3) the worship offered to Christ is indistinguishable from that offered to God (proskynein in each case), (4) the throne of Christ and the throne of God are conflated, and (5) the “firstfruits” are offered to both Christ and God, and the believers will be priests to both. Neglected in this chapter are Rev 3:9 and 3:21, where the believers are said to receive worship (proskynein) from the wicked in the future, as well as to sit down in God’s throne as did Christ. Both these texts rather undermine the uniqueness of Christ’s position as illustrated by Dunn in points 3 and 4. Both texts are also ignored by Dunn elsewhere in discussions of the nature and meaning of worship in early Christianity. This negligence is stunning (on pp. 9–10 Dunn argues that Rev 3:9 “clearly implies the appropriate mode for making a petition to one of high authority who could exercise power to benefit the petitioner.” That such is the case over and against reading actual religious worship in Rev 3:9 remains to be seen, especially in light of v. 21).

The next two sections of chapter 4, “Jesus as god/God” and “Last Adam, mediator and heavenly intercessor,” examine Christ’s identification with deity and with other roles. Dunn is careful to paint an ambiguous picture of Christ’s identification with God in the first section, but he also reads quite a bit more into the proof-texting of some New Testament authors than I think is warranted. For instance, he discusses the appropriation in Hebrews 1 of different Hebrew Bible texts in reference to Jesus, but he accounts for the fact that they originally had subjects like God or the king by assuming some kind of “transferred sense” whereby the original subject is understood by the author of Hebrews to have been identified in some capacity with the updated application. This hermeneutic is extended in the following pages in discussing Christ as the “last Adam.” Dunn addresses the fact that Pss 110:1 and 8:4–6 are reapplied to Christ in New Testament literature, and then tries to reconcile that reading with the original context. The quotation of Ps 8:4–6 in Heb 2:6–9 is interpreted by the author, according to Dunn, in terms of its Christological as well as its human application, despite the fact that the author of Hebrews adapts the text exclusively to a messianic reading. That that author had to excise one of the psalm’s cola in order to make it applicable to Christ is overlooked.

The last two section of chapter 4 provide a reassessment of the idea of “divine identity” and then conclude the chapter. In the former, Dunn suggests that divine “equation” is a better term than divine “identity.” The first, he says, means that “for some values of A and/or some values of B, A and B are the same.” The “identity formula” means A and B are the same for all values. The chapter concludes with the notion that Jesus was not worshipped as fully God, or as a separate god, but that God was worshipped “in and through” Jesus.

In the conclusion to Dunn’s volume, he answers the titular question with a qualified “no.” Christ was not worshipped in and of himself. His qualification follows. God was worshipped through Jesus:

So our central question can indeed be answered negatively, and perhaps it should be. But not if the result is a far less adequate worship of God. For the worship that really constitutes Christianity and forms its distinctive contribution to the dialogue of the religions, is the worship of God as enabled by Jesus the worship of God as revealed in and through Jesus.

I find this conclusion unsatisfactory. Dunn’s retrojection of modern notions of Trinity and monotheism onto the question bear too heavily on his identification of worship in the early Church. He neglects a number of instances where worship was said to be offered, or potentially offered, to beings other than God. Most egregiously, he dismisses the worship of humans described in Rev 3:9 with a flippant and poor argument, despite the fact that he highlights the same honor said to be given to humans in Rev 3:21 as an indication of an unqualified high christology when given to Christ. He brings to the central question the presupposition that only God the Father can be worshipped (effectively begging the question), and sets off to describe a way to work Jesus into the equation. Not surprisingly, he arrives at a Protestant trinitarian understanding of early Christianity. The question could have been answered in a more illuminating manner without that presupposition. The book no doubt would have sold far fewer copies, however.