Tag Archives: Michael Bird

Markan Christology and the Messenger of YHWH

There have been several discussions floating around about Mark’s christology and the following putative summary of the same from Michael Bird:

The Marcan Jesus participates in the kyricentricity of Israel’s God. He is identified as a pre-existent heavenly figure who has come to earth, who carries divine authority, who embodies royal and priestly roles; and in his person, words, and deeds he manifests the holy presence, the redemptive purposes, and the cosmic power of the Lord of Israel.

A roundup of some posts is here. It’s been noted already that Bird’s blithe assertion of a Markan identification of Jesus as pre-existent seems to draw from the problematic conceptual trigonometry that Gathercole uses to try to suggest that pre-existence is implicit in the synoptic gospels, but I’d like to address a related claim that Bird published in How God Became Jesus (his response volume to Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God).

Bird says above about Jesus that, “in his person, words, and deeds he manifests the holy presence,” which I suggest is not incorrect, but is misconstrued by Bird and others to mean that Jesus is God. An agent can manifest the presence of their patron without actually participating in that patron’s being or ousia. We see it, in fact, in the Hebrew Bible’s messenger of YHWH. In How God Became Jesus, Bird rejects the notion that the messenger of YHWH provides a conceptual template for Jesus’ relationship with God. He first points out that,

the angel not only represents God but even embodies God’s presence, which explains why the angel of the Lord who appeared to Moses in the burning bush said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,’ and was the one who revealed the divine name to Moses (Exod 3:2, 6, 14). Paradoxically the angel of the Lord both is YHWH and is not YHWH.

Despite acknowledging that just like Christ, the messenger of YHWH is paradoxically identified with and distinguished from YHWH, Bird insists this has no connection to how Christ was conceptualized, since,

Christ’s person was understood as being distinct form God the Father, and his mode of divine presence was couched in far more concrete language, like ‘form’ of God, ‘glory’ of God, ‘image’ of God, and even ‘God enfleshed.’

In addition to the facts that the “person/being” distinction is utterly irrelevant to these texts and that the second concern is a difference of degrees, not kind, the passages Bird cites in the earlier quote are cases of interpolation (see here). They didn’t originally refer to the messenger as God. While it’s true the interpolated texts were later incorporated into a broader theology of presencing, this fact rather undermines Bird’s attempt to distance the conceptualization of the messenger of YHWH from the conceptualization of Jesus. The messenger became identified with God and God’s presence and authority in virtue of possessing God’s name, as we see in Exod 23:20–21:

Look, I’m sending a messenger before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to his voice. Do not rebel against him, because he will not pardon your transgressions, for my name is in him.

Christ’s possession of God’s name, in his own theophoric name as well as his repeated associated with “I am,” is conceptually identical. He has God’s name, therefore he presences God (reifies his presence) and exercises his authority. This notion of the “indwelling” of the name is found also in the Apocalypse of Abraham, where Yahoel is a name given to God, but also to an angel who meets with Abraham. The angel insists he exercises God’s power “in virtue of the ineffable name that is dwelling in me” (think also of the “place where my name will dwell”).

Interestingly enough, the Exodus 23 passage undermines one of the most common assertions that is made about Christ’s unique relationship with God in Mark. When Jesus forgives the man in Mark 2, the rhetorical bad guys wonder, “who can forgive sins but God only?” This is taken by some to be an accurate assertion of theological fact that means Jesus’ forgiveness of the man’s sins proves he is God, but a far more parsimonious reading has Jesus correct their misunderstanding by showing that he exercises that very power despite not being God. The objection that is usually lodged here is that there are no other examples anywhere of someone other than God having the prerogative to forgive sins. While this objection is an argument from silence, it’s also wrong. The messenger in Exodus 23, whose presencing of God is likely a reflection of those earlier interpolated texts, exercises precisely that prerogative in virtue of having God’s name in him.

The conceptualization of the messenger of YHWH in those Hebrew Bible passages where its identity is confused with that of God provide an exactly parallel conceptualization of the messenger as a figure that, in virtue of being endowed with God’s very name, presences God and exercises God’s authority. This is not to say that Jesus was originally an angel (which is what critics—including Bird—always seem to think angelomorphic christology means), but just that the messenger’s literary form and function as a representative of the deity offered a conceptual template for those nurturing and developing the Christ tradition. The cognitive architecture that predisposes us to conceptualize of agency and even identity as rather fluid and even communicable, as we see with the messenger and with Christ, is the subject of the doctoral dissertation I’m writing right now. Stay tuned!

Part 1 of Review of How God Became Jesus is up at Near Emmaus

Part 1 of my now-two-part review of Bird, et al., How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature is now posted at Near Emmaus. In this segment I respond only to the contributions of Bird, of which I am quite critical. Please have a look and feel free to comment here, there, or anywhere.

Guest Blogging on Christology at Near Emmaus

I will be publishing my reviews of Bart Ehrman’s book, How Jesus Became God, and Michael Bird’s response volume, How God Became Jesus, in a four-part series at Near Emmaus (thank you, Brian LePort!). My first post is now up there, and it lays some preliminary groundwork by interacting critically with Richard Bauckham’s christology of divine identity model. Since most of the authors of the review volume appear to adopt it, I thought it would save some time to articulate some of my concerns ahead of time. Following the reviews, my final post in the series will discuss my own thoughts on the development of Christ’s identification with God.

Paula Fredriksen on Early Jewish Monotheism

I’m reading back through a number of sources that have been cited and have been conspicuously not cited by both sides of the current Ehrman/Bird-Evans-Gathercole-Hill-Tilling debate, and I’ve been impressed (again) by some comments made by Paula Fredriksen about the treatment of the notion of monotheism by the Early High Christology Club that bear sharing:

Big books and long articles have appeared analyzing the sudden and early development of high christological claims by imputing an austere and exclusive monotheism to late Second Temple Judaism.28 Jews are distinguished from pagan contemporaries on the basis of their cultic exclusivism, a consequence of this monotheism. The persecution of Gentile Christians, in turn, is explained as the result of their commitment, inherited from Judaism, to this sort of monotheism. Meanwhile, the higher the christological claims, the more ingenious the various and scholarly reassurances that these claims do not, in fact, compromise monotheism.

All this raises the question, What do we mean by “monotheism”? In the modern context of its origin, the word denotes belief in a single god who is the only god. When modern scholars transpose the term to antiquity, the definition remains constant. And that is a large part of the problem.

Ancient monotheism spoke to the imagined architecture of the cosmos, not to its absolute population. Ancient monotheism means “one god on top,” with other gods ranged beneath, lower than, and in some sense subordinate to the high god. People of sufficient education who thought philosophically about relations between levels of divinity might see these lower gods as ontologically contingent on the high god; less philosophical monotheists were content simply to assert that their own god was the biggest, the most powerful, or the best god.

Fredriksen, “Mandatory Retirement: Ideas in the Study of Christian Origins Whose Time Has Come to Go,” in Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children (D. B. Capes, et al., eds.; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 35.

Y’see, in his discussion of early christology, Ehrman explicitly adopts the idea of the divine/human relationship as a continuum, or spectrum (helped along by Peppard, whom I address here), over and against the contemporary notion of a strict and clear divine/human dichotomy that is so often the conceptual linchpin that makes the detection of an early high christology possible (for Bauckham most critically). For proponents of the latter conceptualization, first century Judaism is staunchly and consciously monotheistic because of this dichotomous relationship of God to “all other reality,” but the philosophical lexicon and lenses that make such a view possible are generally just assumed, without argument, to have been issued to every Jewish person of the first century of the Common Era. The reality of the ancient world is much more complicated than that, as Fredriksen points out above (and more forcefully in her review of Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ). Building on the work of Gradel, Fredriksen, and others, Peppard and now Ehrman highlight this concern, but I have yet to see a single reference to those precedents in the essays on monotheism from Bird’s response, much less a cogent challenge to their arguments. There is still more left for me to read, though. Individual reviews and thoughts on the overall debate will be forthcoming.