Tag Archives: Michael Peppard

Michael Kok and Critical Questions for the Early High Christology Club

Michael Kok has a great article up on Bible and Interpretation entitled “Critical Questions for the Early High Christology Club” that discusses some of the main ideas that have been promulgated in recent years related to the development of high christology and invites a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of those ideas. I’ve submitted a comment that should be up shortly. If you’re interested in the topic, join the discussion.


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.

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.


The Divine/Human Dichotomy or Spectrum?

In my previous post I mentioned two books that I bought at SBL and have already begun to read, namely Reconsidering the Concept of Revolutionary Monotheism and The Son of God in the Roman World. Both touch in some way on my thesis topic, the development of monotheism, and both treat contemporary academic positions regarding the nature of divinity in very similar ways. Specifically, both highlight a trend away from viewing divinity and humanity as separated by an ontological barrier, and toward viewing them as somewhat overlapping fields within a continuous spectrum. This insight is borrowed by both authors from scholarship on Roman emperor worship (both even cite the same author), but both insist it has explanatory power in their respective spheres (Assyro-Babylonian religion and early Christianity). I’ve found this understanding also alleviates a lot of issues scholars have had with understanding early Israelite and formative Jewish ideologies. Both authors go on at length about how this insight informs their particular interest in the divine, but two quotes show the similar approaches and similar influences. From Pongratz-Leisten’s article, “Divine Agency and Astralization of the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia”:

Ittai Gradel’s approach to the notion of the divine in his book Emperor Worship and Roman Religion is inspiring when applied to religions of the ancient Near East. In the introduction to his book, Gradel cautions us against viewing ancient religions as an independent dimension, separable from other spheres of human experience and capable of being independently dissected. Based on the practice of ritual and sacrifice, he interprets the man-god divide, which clearly existed also in antiquity, as a reflection of a distinction in status rather than a distinction between their respective natures of “species.” He suggests that we speak of divinity as a “relative category” rather than beginning with the rather diffuse notion of “the Holy” and the “Numinous” and from the concept of the gods as a species. . . . Rather than conceptualizing the divine and human worlds as distinct realms, the human sphere gradually merges with the realm of the divine.

And from Peppard’s book:

Scholars such as Simon Price, Ittai Gradel, and Clifford Ando articulate interpretations of divinity that confound the categories customarily used by Roman historians and scholars of religion. In their view, divinity in the Roman world was not an essence or a nature, but a concept of status and power in a cosmic spectrum that had no absolute dividing lines. The realm of the gods was not, in the famous maxim of Rudolf Otto, “wholly Other.” In this chapter, I survey and synthesize the current conclusions of this burgeoning field of research, in order to encourage fellow scholars to question their presuppositions about divinity in the Roman world, just as I have scrutinized and reoriented my own. My approach to the matter draws especially from recent studies of emperor worship, while also making some analogies to scholarship on Judaism and Christianity in their Roman context.

SBL Book Haul

I didn’t buy a lot of books this year.

I got Pongratz-Leisten’s edited volume the first day, even though I already have two of the articles and two others are early versions of books I own. The other articles looked interesting, and I’ve really enjoyed the volume so far. I hope to review it once I get on the other side of Christmas. Peppard’s book, The Son of God in the Roman World, is a great find, and I got it on the last day for 50% off. I bought the book primarily because I’m interested in the “Son of God” epithet in early Christianity, but it also has discussion in it that is helpful to my thesis, which is a bonus. Miller’s book, Oral Tradition in Ancient Israel, is one I picked up from Wipf & Stock. Having read Ong and a few other articles on orality and literacy, I was interested in seeing what contemporary scholarship had to say on the topic as it bore on early Israel. I haven’t cracked the book yet, but it looks promising. Lastly, I’ve always wanted a JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, and these were $15 at the little JPS booth.

Quotable: Michael Peppard in The Son of God in the Roman World

I’m going to review an Oxford University Press book I picked up at SBL called The Son of God in the Roman World, and the preface begins with an interesting invitation: Imagine yourself as a first century Jew living somewhere in the Mediterranean and seeking to spread the word of Jesus, the Son of God. How do you write his story? It concludes,

One main problem you have, as a Jew, with portraying God’s “son” is that God does not have a partner. For this reason, among others, your God is unusual in the Roman world. But if the paternal God does not procreate, how do you portray the divine sonship of Jesus? Again, where do you begin? Put yourself in Mark’s shoes—how do you narrate the life of God’s son?

A helpful exercise, but it seems to me to indicate the author imagines his audience to be a little leery of the notion that a Gospel author would appropriate Greco-Roman literary conventions and imagery.