A Whole New Approach to the Christ Hymn in Phil 2

The writing of volume 2 of my Jesus Monotheism series has taken longer than expected.

The main reason is that in my work on the Christ hymn in Phil 2 I have been forced to acknowledge dimensions of Phil 2:6–11 which I had missed and parts that I had, in the past, misunderstood. I am relieved to report that my mind is now settled and I am now in the writing up stage of the Philippians chapter. But I have had to go through a paradigm shift in my thinking.

The shift has been precipitated by two factors: lexical semantics and historical context. In short, I have come to see that some of the words do not mean what I thought they meant and I have, progressively, come to the realisation that the hymn, especially its first half, has to be interpreted in a Greco-Roman (pagan), not just a Jewish, cultural context. (The underlying ideas are thoroughly biblical, but their presentation is Greco-Roman).

In the last month I have presented the results of my latest research and thinking on this passage to two university NT Seminars (one at the University of Gloucestershire and one in Cambridge), and the reception I received on both occasions has encouraged me to think I am on the right path.

Here is an abstract of the Cambridge presentation. (A full version of the paper is available on my Academic.edu page where it is also possible to leave comments on the specifics of the argument):

As many have now seen, Phil 2:6–11 (along with 3:20–11) is a traditional hymnic piece that uses Greco-Roman language for divine rulers to express a kind of “imperial Christology.” Whilst the second half (vv. 9–11) cites biblical prophecy (Isa 45:23), the first half lacks scriptural language. Instead it employs Greco-Roman language, especially the conventional terminology for the gods’ self-transformations; stories of gods taking on a new “form (μορφή)” to visit human communities in disguise. Besides the shared language that has been noted especially by German scholars (D. Zeller, U. B. Müller and S. Vollenweider, cf. A. Y. Collins), there are other ways in which verses 7–8 employ the distinctive terminology of divine self-transformations that have hitherto escaped commentators’ notice. Together, Phil 2:6–11 and 3:20–11 also echo distinctive themes of those stories, for example in the combination of divine self-transformation (2:6–8) and the gods’ transformation of human beings (3:21). Christ is a divine ruler who comes to earth in a way that is comparable to the poetic vision of Octavian as a self-transforming God who comes to earth as Rome’s saviour in Horace Odes 1:2 (lines 42ff). However, in other ways Christ’s divine self-transformation is like no other: he empties himself and lives a whole human life, dying on a cross (see vv. 7a, 8a–c), things that the pagan gods never do.

All this points to a fresh approach to the much-discussed problem of the harpagmos clause in Phil 2:6. The use of the rare word ἁρπαγμός is not satisfactorily explained by the theory of Roy Hoover that, in this context (ἡγέομαι + a double accusative), it means “something to take advantage of”. Also, v. 6c means “being in a manner equal (ἴσα) with God”. It does not mean “equality with God”. Following David Fredrickson recent and stimulating discussion of the language of desire in Philippians (Eros and the Christ: Longing and Envy in Paul’s Christology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), I present a three-layered interpretation of 2:6ff that takes seriously the consistent lexicographical evidence (of Plutarch On the Education of Children 15; Vettius Valens Anthology 2.38 and Ms Va of Pausanias Description of Greece 1.20.3) that ἁρπαγμός means “abduction for marriage”. First, Christ reckons that the divine identity is not constituted by the kind of aggressive and deceptive erotic pursuits ascribed to Zeus and the other gods. Secondly, he reckons that “being in a manner equal with God” does not mean, as Caligula (and perhaps other kings and emperors) claimed (Cassius Dio Roman History 59.26.5), that as a divine ruler one is entitled to imitate the immortal gods by seizing and raping whoever turns you on. Thirdly, by this contrast with the gods and with soidisant divine rulers, the hymn sets forth the life of Christ as a revelation of the true character of God’s desire (ἐπιπόθησις—cf. Phil 1:8; 2:26; 4:1) for humanity; a desire focused on humanity’s, not Christ’s, interests (cf. 1:4).

Thankfully, my changing my way of reading the text does not adversely affect the overall argument of the four volumes of Jesus Monotheism. Indeed, it confirms one of the principal contentions of the whole project, namely that incarnation was more important—historically and theologically—for the earliest Christology than has been recognised by most recent scholarship. The hymn begins with a clear and emphatic statement of incarnation. The reader (or hearer) does not have to wait until the second half to hear a Christology of divine identity through exaltation, as if Christ’s biography is modelled on the pattern of imperial apotheosis that prevailed in Roman political discourse. Furthermore, by adopting the language of the gods’ self-transformations to tell the the story of Christ’s incarnation Paul (and whoever was the author of the hymnic piece) are true to the texts’s incarnational theology. A theology of incarnation takes the linguistic—and cultural—form that the audience will recognise. Form reflects content.

Some might wonder whether this provides evidence to think that Paul (or the earliest believers) came to a Christology of pre-existence as a result of exposure to contemporary pagan ways of thinking. There are many reasons why this is highly unlikely. For one thing, as I note in the Cambridge paper, the God-coming-to-earth-as-a-divine-ruler model was rare in the Roman world. So there is no reason to think pagan beliefs about rulers would have exercised a pressure on the earliest Christians to think the same way about their king (Messiah Jesus). On the contrary, there is considerable evidence—much of it hitherto unnoticed—that belief in Christ’s incarnation arose in the Jewish context of his own life and reflection on it in the immediate aftermath of his crucifixion.

“On Angels, Men and Priests (Ben Sira, the Qumran Sabbath Songs and the Yom Kippur Avodah)” (A newly published article)

I have just received my copy of the papers from a conference in Zürich in 2015 dedicated to worship and angels in ancient Judaism and early Christianity (Gottesdienst und Engel im antiken Judentum und frühen Christentum [eds. J. Frey & M. Jost; Mohr-Siebeck: Tübingen]). I was invited to speak to the conference on the back of my 2002 book All the Glory of Adam, in which I investigated the role of angels and human transformation in worship in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In All the Glory of Adam(chapters 8–11) I make these three claims about the so-called Angelic Liturgy (or the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice—4Q400–407; 11Q17):

  1. There is a genuine community between angels and human worshippers in the Songs, such that much of the language that others (esp. Carol Newsom the principal editor of the Songs) had taken to refer to non-human, angelic, beings, actually refers to exalted and transformed humans worshipping with the angels.
  2. The Songs presume two concepts that define the worldview and liturgical experience of the Qumran community; concepts that had hitherto been ignored, or denied a place in the interpretation of the Songs. These are, firstly a liturgical worldview in which the temple and sacred space correspond to creation—as a microcosm to the macrocosm, and, secondly, an anthropology according to which human beings were made, in the original order of creation, to be God’s image and likeness; divine in both being and function.
  3. The Songs provide for a kind of liturgical ascent to heaven that climaxes in Song XIII with a vision of God’s glory, not above the throne of God, but in the human priesthood that to a degree now manifests the presence of the Glory of God of Ezek 1:26–28.

I was grateful for the opportunity to engage the texts once more in the light of other specialists’ interaction with, and criticisms of, my arguments. And it is encouraging to report that quite a few others have now adopted an approach to the Sabbath Songs along the lines I advocate, even if not everyone is willing to go as far as I do. Others have been critical of my approach. Most notably Philip Alexander has laid out a series of criticisms in his The Mystical Texts: Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and Related Manuscripts (2006).

Anyone who reads Alexander’s Mystical Texts carefully will see that, in part, he is persuaded by my approach. For example, he is not very far from my reading of Song XIII when he thinks that, on analogy with what we have in 3 Enoch 9–13 (and 2 Enoch 22:8–10), the human “mystic” is transformed at the climax of the liturgical cycle. However, overall, Alexander is not persuaded by my approach and others have sometimes appealed to his criticisms of it.

In the bulk of the Zürich conference article I take each of Alexander’s criticisms and explain why I reckon them to be invalid and reflective, instead, of erroneous assumptions that he and others typically bring to such Jewish texts. In short, I say,

resistance to the full force of my revisionist, non-dualistic reading comes, I contend, from mistaken judgements about the nature of Biblical theology and emerging post-biblical Judaism; specifically what we think Jews believed about the identity of God, of human beings, of the priesthood, and of the meaning and purpose of temple worship and liturgy.

Alexander thinks that, in important ways, the Sabbath Songs are a departure from the shape of biblical theology, which has, for example, he thinks, no legitimate ascent to heaven. Instead, they anticipate the theology and spirituality of rabbinic-era mysticism (as represented by the Hekhalot texts). I agree that there are important connections between the Songs and later Hekhalot texts, however, I develop the argument of All the Glory of Adam that the Sabbath Songs are deeply indebted to scriptural ideas about what it is to be human and the nature of worship in God’s presence—in the heaven on earth of the temple-as-microcosm.

Besides a point-by-point response to Alexander’s criticisms, one substantially new contribution I make in this article is a series of observations on the ways in which the Sabbath Songs anticipate the piety of the later Synogogue liturgy as that is reflected in the piyyutim for Yom Kippur. For the vision of the high priesthood manifesting the glory of God of Ezek 1:26–28 in Song XIII there is a later parallel in the Mareh Kohen (or Emet Mah Nehadar), an acrostic poem from the Avodah service, that identifies the priest emerging from the sanctuary at Yom Kippur with the glory of God that Ezekiel saw by the river Chebar (Ezek 1:26–28). Here are the first six lines of that acrostic, with the language of Ezek 1:26–28 in the fourth line (line Dalet):

Aleph: As a tent (keʾohel) stretched out among the dwellers on high, was the appearance of the [high] priest (marʾeh kohen).

Beth: As lightning (keberaqim) flashes from the radiance of the living creatures (hahayyot), was the appearance of the Priest (marʾeh kohen).

Gimel: As the greatness of the fringes on the four corners, was the appearance of the Priest.

Dalet: As the likeness of the bow in the midst of the clouds, was the appearance of the priest (kidmut haqqeshet betok ʿanan, marʾeh kohen).

He: As the splendour with which the Rock clothed those he had made (tsur litsurim) was the appearance of the Priest.

Waw: As a rose planted in the midst of a delightful garden, was the appearance of the Priest.

A similar identification between the high priesthood and God’s glory is already made in Ben Sira 50 (v. 7), a text that nicely illustrates the kind of cosmology and theological anthropology that the Sabbath Songs take for granted and which anticipates the liturgical theology of the Mareh Kohen.

Alexander was at the conference and gave his paper after my presentation. I am grateful for the lively interaction there was between us.

I wonder, reading his Mystical Works and other people’s responses to All the Glory whether in part resistance is due to a misunderstanding of my arguments. Certainly, I have been struck by how easily critical readers have missed, and failed to interact with, my contention that these Dead Sea Scrolls should be interpreted in the light of a particular, scriptural, theological anthropology and temple cosmology. I hope that setting out, and offering fresh arguments for, the main lines of my argument in this article will advance discussion of this important material.

On the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37–71), its Political Theology and Divine Messiah

PICKWICK_TemplateI have just received my copy of the proceedings of a conference on Enoch literature and contemporary theology at the University of Gloucestershire, for which I provided an essay on the Similitudes of Enoch (P. F. Esler ed., The Blessing of Enoch: 1 Enoch and Contemporary Theology (Eugene, Or: Wipf & Stock, 2017).

The Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37–71) is one of the most difficult and contentious of the texts that scholars have long recognized may have some bearing on the earliest beliefs about Jesus. It describes a messianic figure (variously called the Elect One/Chosen One, Son of Man and Messiah) who exists from before the creation of the Sun, Moon and Stars (1 Enoch 48:3) and who, in various ways, appears to be identified with the one God of biblical revelation: he is seated on a throne of glory, is “ruler of all,” is given the language of scriptural texts about Yahweh and receives worship.

For many years, since the realization in the 1960s and 70s that copies of this part of 1 Enoch are not preserved in the library of the Dead Sea Scroll community based at Qumran, it has been common to date the Similitudes to the period after the first formative decades of the early Christian movement. Some have even speculated that the Similitudes’ remarkable messianic expectation is a response to early beliefs about Jesus. Many, notably James Dunn in his Christology in the Making, have therefore rejected the view (that was common in older scholarship until the 1970s) that the Similitudes represents an established Jewish view that a divine messiah would come from heavenly pre-existence. For Dunn a pre-existent messianic hope is not pre-Christian and a pre-existent Christology appears only in the later strata of the New Testament; it is not present in the Synoptics or in Paul’s letters.

In the first volume of my Jesus Monotheism (chapter 5) I point out that there has been a dramatic sea-change in the study of the Similitudes in the last 15 years. In 2005 forty-four specialists gathering under the auspices of the Enoch Seminar, led by Gabriele Boccaccini, reached almost unanimous agreement that the Similitudes are pre-Christian, with many favouring a date in the first century B.C.E. And there are many striking similarities between the portrayal of the Son of Man-Messiah in the Similitudes and the Son of Man figure, or title, in the Four Gospels that mean we now have to take seriously the possibility that the Similitudes’ messianism influenced Jesus and his followers.

Whatever its formative relationship to the Jesus and his first followers’ beliefs, the Similitudes’ theology and messianic hope needs to be explained. As a thoroughly Jewish text the Similitudes challenges some modern accounts of the shape of Jewish monotheism. Certainly, we need to explain how a Jewish author and community of readers could envisage a messiah in such strongly “divine” terms. In volume 3 of Jesus Monotheism I will set out an account of Israel’s beliefs and expectations that offers such an explanation. And the essay that has now been published sketches some of the observations and conceptual moves that I will make in that volume.

Building on an earlier publication in which I have argued that the Similitudes’ messianism is a response to aspects of the Greco-Roman ruler cult and emperor worship (at the end of the C1st B.C.E. or the early decades of the C1st C.E.), I argue that it is also indebted to an older and well-established, biblically-based, distinction between the priestly office and the person of the king. Unlike kings, the high priest is an office not a person. The office transcends the identities of those who hold it. The way that works for the high priest is especially clear in the description of the high priest as a divine figure in Ben Sira 50. The office pre-exists the personality of each incumbent and it will continue to exist after their death. The Similitudes, I contend, projects that distinction on to a mythological, eschatological, horizon. The Son of Man-Messiah in 1 En. 37–71 is almost wholly devoid of personhood, as has sometimes been observed. He is simply the one-God-made-manifest, with no separate, individual, identity or personality that would threaten the identity of the one God. He is to the eschatological scenario what the high priestly office is within the real-time liturgical context of the temple-as-microcosm.

Because the Gloucestershire conference aimed at pioneering work on the relationship between the early Enoch literature and theology, the essay concludes with some reasons to think that the study of the Similitudes is no threat to Christian theology. Indeed, I close by pointing out that, if the main points of my explanation of the Similitudes’ distinctive “divine” messianism are on the mark, then this remarkable text may lead us to conclude that the so-called dirty great ditch between the Christ of Faith and the Jesus of Faith is not as wide and deep as many have supposed.

Intertextuality, Richard Hays and the Son of Man Problem

On Monday of this week I gave a lecture at a Biblical Studies conference at the University of Birmingham entitled “Intertextuality and the Son of Man Problem”. It was an invited (“Keynote”) paper and, as I was asked to speak to the general topic of Intertextuality, the research and writing has helped me clarify my understanding of the Son of Man problem.

Richard Hays, the godfather of New Testament studies on all things intertextual (see his seminal Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul [1989] and his The Conversion of the Imagination [1999] ) has recently published an important book on the use of the Old Testament in the Gospels (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels [2015]). It is an important book, elegantly written and full of fresh insights into the literary character and theology of the Four Gospels. It will surely be a landmark publication in the history of scholarship for its bold claim that all four canonical Gospels present Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel (a view for which I will also argue in volumes 2, 3 and 4 of my Jesus Monotheism).

In my Birmingham paper I adopted a modified version of Hays’ approach to intertextuality to offer some new observations on aspects of the Son of Man problem. I adopt Hays approach to the use of the Israel’s scriptures in the NT to explore the ways Gospel writers would likely have in mind the whole of Daniel 7 when they use the language of Dan 7:13. However, Hays’ approach to Dan and the Gospel’s evocation of Dan 7 needs to be modified in one important respect.

Several commentators have criticised Hays for a lack of attention to the ways in which Israel’s scriptures were being interpreted in the first century Jewish world; in the immediate historical context, that is, of early Christian texts. A particularly incisive criticism of Hays on this point appears, remarkably, in the published doctoral dissertation of one of Hay’s students (Leroy Huizenga, The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew [2009]). As Huizenga points out, traditional Jewish interpretations of Old Testament texts often help to explain the distinctive ways in which those texts function in the Gospels. (The fact that Huizenga challenges so clearly his doctoral supervisor on this point is surely a testimony to the greatness of the character of Duke’s George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament).

Hays’ treatment of Daniel 7 in relation to the Gospels provides a valuable illustration of the importance of a modification to Hay’s methodology (along the lines laid out by Huizenga). Hays several times says that “in its original context/setting” the “one like son of man” of Dan 7:13 is symbolic representation of the nation of Israel (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, pp. 34, 143, 332). This is a well-established interpretation, of course, but no everyone agrees.

In my Birmingham paper I set out the evidence for a well-established and broadly consistent tradition of interpretation of Daniel 7 in Second Temple Judaism, that shows that nobody interpreted Dan 7:13 the way Hays and others think its author originally intended it. Some of the evidence for this tradition of interpretation is well-known (4 Ezra 13 and 1 Enoch 37–71), but one vital witness to it has been all but ignored (the paraphrastic translation of Dan 7 in the Old Greek [OG] dating from c. 100 B.C.E.), and in the last fifteen years a new consensus has concluded that 1 Enoch 37–71 is pre-Christian, not, as some have supposed, from the late first century C.E. So we in fact have evidence for continuous tradition of interpretation of Dan 7 (and, esp. of v. 13) in the Jewish world contemporaneous with the New Testament. These three texts agree that the “one like a son of man” is an individual figure, not a symbol for Israel, and that he has a strongly “divine” character.  They also show that Daniel 7:13 was typically interpreted with a sensitivity to its immediate literary context in a way that suggests that when Jewish readers of the Gospels heard the expression “the Son of Man” they would recall the rest of Dan 7.

There are interesting differences between the three texts, but there is also considerable agreement among them. Furthermore there are Gospel texts that confirm the impression given by these three non-Christian texts: Daniel’s “one like a son of man” is a divine, messianic figure and several passages show the Gospel writers used the expression “Son of Man” with an intertextual consciousness. Among them, John 5:19–30 has a virtual citation of Dan 7:13–14 (at v. 27) and multiple echoes of other parts of Dan 7 and 12 (as J. Frey, B. Reynolds and S. Mihalios have shown). Son of Man passages in Matthew, John and the Book of Revelation all show that the OG was a particularly important version of Daniel for some members of the nascent Christian movement.

In the last forty years it has often been said—against the older views of C20th New Testament scholars—that there was no apocalyptic Son of Man concept. Gospel Son of Man sayings, it has been asserted, do not show that Jesus was identified with a figure of popular Jewish eschatological expectation (“the Son of Man”). I demur. It may well be that expression “the Son of Man” was not used as a title in the first century Jewish world, but the evidence of OG Daniel 7, the new dating of 1 Enoch 37–71, and the considerable conceptual continuities between the OG, 1 Enoch 37–71 and 4 Ezra 13 all show that there was a lively interest in the meaning of Dan 7 in Jesus’ Jewish world. Furthermore Jewish interpreters in the first century CE were consistent in thinking the Dan 7:13 figure was a divine individual or messiah. That interpretation surely guided and inspired the way the expression “Son of Man” is used in the Gospels. Consistency of interpretation—of Daniel’s reception history—may also point to a definite “Son of Man concept” in the first century C.E.

Richard Bauckham and the Numerical Structure of the Confession in 1 Cor 8:6

I heard this week that Prof. Richard Bauckham (St Andrews and Cambridge) likes and is convinced by the main points of my argument for a carefully worked out numerical structure in the reworked Shema that Paul cites in 1 Cor 8:6.

(The reworked Shema in 1 Cor 8:6 has two parts, each composed of thirteen words in a way that says that together, the one God the Father and the one Lord Jesus Christ constitute the divine identity of the God who has revealed himself to Israel. The God of the Hebrew Bible is Yhwh, whose name carries the numerical value of twenty-six by the rules of Hebrew gematria. Thus the number of words in the two parts of the confession in 1 Cor 8:6 add up to the value of the name of the one God. There is more to the numerical structure than that, but this is the essence of my argument (which I present in chapter of my Jesus Monotheism, Volume 1).

This is a great encouragement. Bauckham has been a pioneer in the application of numerical criticism to the New Testament and, over many years, he has worked closely on New Testament Christology and the Jewish material related to it.

He has also suggested to me a minor modification of my argument, which I think is sensible and which prompts to makes some further suggestions as to the significance of 1 Cor 8:6 for Pauline theology.

I have argued that in 1 Cor 8:6 Paul is quoting from a well-known confession that is based on the first line of the daily Jewish prayer known as the Shema (= Deut 6:4), in which case the first word of 1 Cor 8:6 (“But,” ἀλλά in Greek) is not part of the confession known to the Corinthians. Paul’s “But” just introduces the confession. So the verse can be laid out like this:


Bauckham points out that the word ἡμῖν (“for us”) is probably used to ensure that the confession fits the literary context of the letter to the Corinthians and more likely the confession itself had the genitive plural form of the pronoun, ἡμῶν (“our”), with Father:


I can see three reasons why this is likely the actual form of the confession. And those considerations lead to a rather important conclusion.

(1) The word  ἡμῶν (“our”) after ὁ πατὴρ (“the Father”) makes for a neater balance between the first and third lines:

εἷς θεὸς ὁ πατὴρ ἡμῶν

καὶ εἷς κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστός

(2) The word  ἡμῶν (“our”) makes for a clearer relationship to the first line of the Shema which everyone agrees is the OT base text for Paul’s words:

           Ἄκουε, Ισραηλ· κύριος ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν κύριος εἷς ἐστιν·

           Hear, Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

(3) If the confession opened with the words εἷς θεὸς ὁ πατὴρ ἡμῶν then it must have reflected traditional, conventional, early Christian language for God.

According to Matthew, Jesus taught his disciples that when they pray they should pray this way: “Our Father (Πάτερ ἡμῶν) in heaven …”

Paul repeatedly uses the words θεὸς πατὴρ ἡμῶν “God our Father,” especially in blessings and prayer wishes. The expression (or its variant “θεὸς πατὴρ ἡμῶν”) appears eleven times in the Pauline letters (if we include manuscripts with the longer text at 2 Thess 1:2): Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:2; Col 1:2; 2 Thess 1:1, 2; 2:16; Phlm 3. Similar phrases appear also in Gal 1:4; Phil 4:20; 1 Thess 1:3; 3:11, 13.

All this is important because if the confession has two parts that begin εἷς θεὸς ὁ πατὴρ ἡμῶν and εἷς κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστός respectively, then Paul probably alludes to the confession multiple times in his letters. Consider these Pauline verses:

1 Cor 1:3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ).

2 Cor 1:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ).

Gal 1:3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ).

Eph 1:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ).

Phil 1:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ).

See the similar coupling of “God our Father” and “the Lord Jesus Christ” in Col 1:2; 1 Thess 1:3; 3:11; 2 Thess 1:1, 2; 2:16; 1 Tim 1:2; Phlm 3; 1 Pet 1:3.

Every time Paul speaks of “God our Father” and “the Lord Jesus Christ” in the same breath he probably has in mind the redefined divine identity of the one God spelt out in 1 Cor 8:6. Paul thinks, prays and worships according to a grammar moulded by the conviction that the one God of biblical revelation is now two.

A little noticed reference to speculation on Adam and the Merkabah in Ben Sira

I am finishing up a detour in my research schedule. Work on a small book on John 5 (forthcoming later this year) has forced me to revisit Ben Sira 50, my favourite Jewish text outside Hebrew Bible. Reading through Otto Mulder’s rich and detailed treatment of the chapter (O. Mulder, Simon the High Priest in Sirach 50: An Exegetical Study of the Significance of Simon the High Priest as Climax to the Praise of the Fathers in Ben Sira’s Concept of the History of Israel, Leiden: Brill, 2003) I noticed for the first time the importance of an odd expression in the Hebrew text at 50:27.

In 50:27 the author sums up all that has gone before with the words:

Instruction concerning insight and the mastery/ruler of the wheels (מושל אופנים),
by Simon, ben Joshua, ben Eleazar, ben Sira,
Who pours forth in pure elucidation,
Who makes to effervesce with understanding.

What does the mysterious expression “mastery/ruler of the wheels” (מושל אופנים) mean?

Mulder argues convincingly that it must have something to do with Ezekiel’s chariot vision, that includes repeated references to the wheels of God’s throne (Ezek 1:15–16, 19–21, cf. Ezek 3:13; 10:6, 9–10, 12–13, 16, 19; 11:22). But why the reference to a “ruler” or “mastery” (מושל)? In Ezekiel 1 the one who sits, ruler-like, on the wheeled chariot is God, or rather “the appearance of the likeness of the Glory of the LORD” (1:26–28); mysteriously shrouded in light, something like fire and all the colours of the rainbow. But he is not referred to as “ruler” in that text.

I am not yet entirely certain how to explain the expression מושל אופנים here. But several observations point towards a remarkable conclusion.

1. Three times already in the foregoing section Ben Sira has referred to, or used the language of, Ezekiel’s throne vision:

49:6 “Ezekiel saw a vision and told of the different features of the chariot (זני מרכבה)”.

This refers to the whole description of the throne of God in Ezek 1:4–25. Then we have Ben Sira 4916b:

“And above/over all the living creatures (כל חי) (is/was) the beauty of a man/of Adam (תפארת אדם).”

This echoes Ezek 1:26:

“And from above the dome which was over (עַל) their heads (the living creatures’) something like lapis lazuli, the likeness of a throne and upon (עַל) the likeness of the throne a likeness as an appearance of a man (דְּמוּת כְּמַרְאֵה אָדָם) upon it (עָלָיו) (above it).”

Then we have Ben Sira 50:7b where, when Simon the high priest comes forth from the sanctuary in heavenly splendour he is

“as a bow appearing in the cloud (כקשת נראתה בענן)”.

This echoes the climax of Ezekiel’s call vision where it says, in Ezek 1:28,

“as the appearance of of the bow in a cloud on a day of rain (כְּמַרְאֵה הַקֶּשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בֶעָנָן בְּיוֹם הַגֶּשֶׁם) such was the appearance of the splendour all around. This was appearance the likeness of the Glory the Lord (כְּבוֹד־יְהוָה)”

The niphal form of the verb “to see” (נראתה) in Ben Sira 50:7b picks up descriptions of the glory of the Lord appearing in Exod 16:10; Num 17:7; Isa 60:1–3.

2. In Ben Sira 49:16 the historical figure Adam is allusively identified with the man-like figure (דְּמוּת כְּמַרְאֵה אָדָם) that Ezekiel sees on the throne in his vision.

3. In Ben Sira 50:7 it is the high priest who is allusively identified with the Glory of God (who appears in human-like form) in Ezekiel’s vision.

4. Whilst these verses of Ben Sira allude or refer to Ezek 1 and its vision of a human-like divine form on the throne, other parts of the text demonstrate an interest in Ps 8 and its praise of a humanity which, though weak and insignificant, is exalted over all creation. The language of Ps 8 runs through the whole of the chapter in its Hebrew original (see my annotated translation of Hebrew of Sira 50).

The Psalm 8 allusions are also applied, in a way that is similar to the Ezekiel 1 allusions, to both Adam (in 49:16a–b) and to the high priest (see esp. vv. 11–13). The combination of Ezekiel 1 and Psalm 8 in the poetic praise of Adam and Simon at the climax of Ben Sira’s wisdom book then presents an explanation of the mysterious phrase מושל אופנים in 50:27a. The verb משל “to rule” is used for humanity’s position of authority in creation in Ps 8:

4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  5 Yet you have made them a little lower than the angels, and crowned them with glory and honour. 6 You have given them rule (תַּמְשִׁילֵהוּ) over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.

Ben Sira’s instruction in the “rule” or “mastery” of the wheels must have something to do with a vision of humanity exalted to position equivalent to, or identical with, the position of the human-like Glory of God that Ezekiel saw. That vision, says Ben Sira 50, is available in the liturgy of the temple. It is available, above all, in the ministry of the high priest. In that ministry there is the human-like Glory of God which Ezekiel saw. He is the one who shows us what it means to be given rule over all the works of God’s hands. He is the one who has a “mastery of the wheels of the divine chariot”.

In his own way, Ben Sira was a merkabah mystic, who provided his disciples an interpretation of Ezekiel 1.

And his remarkable poem in praise of Simon the high priest is surely of inestimable importance for any account of the earliest beliefs about Jesus who was also seen, in his own way, as the fulfilment of the vision for humanity in Psalm 8 (1 Cor 15:27; Eph 1:22; Phil 3:20–21; Heb 1–2).

King Solomon and N. T. Wright’s Pauline Theology

Earlier in the year, in June, I presented a paper on Solomon in 1 Kgs 3–4 at the Son of God Conference at St Andrews:

Abstract N. T. Wright has argued that Pauline theology is indebted to a Jewish and biblical notion that the king is a representative, incorporative figure. This paper offers fresh evidence from the portrayal ofSolomon in 1 Kings to support this understanding of the ideal Israelite king. In recent publicationsP. Leithart, G. Beale and John Davies have pointed to ways in which Solomon is portrayed as the image of God; as a new Adam. Additional observations, arising from a reading of 1 Kings 3–11 in relation to Genesis 1–3 and traditional language for Yahweh in other parts of the Hebrew Bible,confirm this approach to the account of Solomon’s early years. Equally, through a subtle use of poetry and prose, the narrative claims that one reason for Solomon’s early success as a king was the way in which he represented or summed up the whole nation, in a quasi-priestly fashion.

I have now have a worked up copy of the paper that will shortly be submitted for publication. There is now a copy on my Academia.edu page and I have opened a session for discussion. All thoughts greatly appreciated.

On the transcendence of conflict in scholarship

I observe that in scholarship—as in life generally—the truth often lies between and beneath or above conflicting arguments. Too often we are prone to taking sides and binary thinking. Our emotions and personal, relational, allegiances colour our perception. Rarely does the truth lie entirely with one side of a conflict, especially where sides have become entrenched over many years of heated debated. Commitment to listen to and discern the truth in both sides can lead to a new perception that simultaneously both stands with and critiques the two (or more) sides.  A new, third, perspective that transcends both sides of the argument can then emerge. With that higher order perspective it appears the two warring parties shared a common misunderstanding, but that each has keys to unlock the door to the third way.

Labuschagne’s Numerical Secrets republished

I have just seen that Wipf and Stock have now published Casper Labuschagne’s formerly out of print Numerical Secrets of the Bible (originally published in 2000 by Bibal Press). This is a seminal work in biblical numerical criticism or, as Labuschagne now calls it, “arithomology”. Although the book has not received the attention it deserves, I reckon it is one of the most important pieces of biblical scholarship to appear in the last twenty years. It has helped me in my own work on both Old and New Testaments and, in particular, stimulated my thinking about the early confession in 1 Cor 8:6 when I first sat down to write Jesus Monotheism in 2012.

Some of Labuschagne’s claims will no doubt remain controversial, but I notice that quite a few prominent scholars have now made contributions to the field of biblical arithomology in line with his seminal study. (See the scholars I cite in Jesus Monotheism, Volume 1, pp. 39–56). Its principal theses deserve widespread attention. Every library should own a copy.

Larry Hurtado’s review of Jesus Monotheism, Volume 1. Volume

Prof. Larry Hurtado (Edinburgh University, Emeritus) has written a careful and balanced review of Jesus Monotheism, Volume 1, available here (but sadly only accessible to members of the Society of Biblical Literature) and he has posted some additional words about the review on his blog.

I am grateful for a careful and thorough review. In particular, from one who is a, if not the, leading scholar in the field I am thankful for the words of the last paragraph:

“This book reflects impressive acquaintance with a large body of primary data and a wide swath of scholarly literature and prolonged and energetic engagement with the issues discussed. … The book is also the first installment on a remarkable big-idea project … [that] deserves (and will require) careful study and will surely create interest in the projected volumes in which Fletcher-Louis will explicate fully his own “new paradigm” of how the remarkable devotion to Jesus reflected in the New Testament first emerged.”

I have just one comment and one quibble.

1. I think that Jesus had a divine self-consciousness and that was one of the decisive factors that precipitated what others now call “Christological monotheism”. (I signal in JM1 that this is where my argument will end up in volume 4). Hurtado thinks that to make that argument I will have to give to John’s Gospel a position of superiority over the Synoptics. Hurtado here assumes the view of most NT scholars that, whilst Jesus in John thinks of himself as a pre-existent being who has come from heaven, that that incarnational Christology is lacking in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

But for the record, I don’t read the synoptics this way and the main lines of my argument will be made without dependence on John. I arrived at my view of Jesus, his divine self-understanding, and a model to explain the origins of the earliest beliefs about him quite independently of any in-depth study of John’s Gospel. Though I do also now think that John’s account of Jesus’ life is supporting (and also, in some ways, complicating) witness for the view of Jesus that I will layout in volume 4.

2. Hurtado slightly misrepresents my claims for the relationship between the Similitudes of Enoch (1 En. 37–71) and the origins of Christological monotheism. He says:

First, in chapter 5 he urges that the Similitudes of Enoch and “related texts” reflect “a pre- Christian Son of Man expectation that prepared the way for a high and fully divine Christology” (172). Indeed, Fletcher-Louis characterizes the Similitudes as providing “a golden key to unlock the puzzle that is the origins of Christ devotion” (180) … Moreover, Fletcher-Louis urges that “the historical Jesus claimed he was ‘the Son of Man’ … now attested in the Similitudes and 4 Ezra” and that in doing so “he also claimed an identification with Yhwh-Kyrios.”

The first sentence is a fair quotation and representation of what I say. However, the second takes my words out of context and the third entails a little editing that I fear might give the misleading impression that I think Jesus knew the Similitudes and that he specifically claimed to fulfil its Son of Man expectation.

(To be fair to Hurtado, he graciously sent me a copy of the review before it was delivered to the publisher and asked for my comment. That was some time ago and I cannot now recall why I did not pick up these problems in the precise wording of his account of my treatment of the Similitudes).

Early on in my chapter on the Similitudes I flagged up the possibility that the Similitudes is “a golden key to unlock the puzzle that is the origins of Christ devotion” (p. 180). There are now weighty arguments for thinking that the Similitudes was a causal factor in the origins of Christ devotion. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which Christ devotion was caused by Jesus’ own belief, or his followers’ belief, that the Similitudes‘ Son of Man expectation was fulfilled in his life. But with many other things that I say—in the immediate context of the “golden key” statement, in the rest of the chapter and in the conclusion to chapter 6—I indicate that matters are not so straightforward.

As I will explain in volumes 3 and 4, I think the Similitudes is a supporting witness to one part of a multi-factorial explanation of the origins of Christ devotion. It is not a golden key that solves the main questions that the quest for Christological origins must address. But it does, providentially, help to explain what we would know anyway from Old Testament and New Testament texts and their own account of the events, experiences and beliefs that precipitated Christ devotion. Jesus may have known the Similitudes of Enoch (or, more likely, he knew an earlier version of the text that we now have). But it is far from certain that he did know it and nothing in the new paradigm that I will offer in Jesus Monotheism, volumes 3 and 4 depends on him—or his earliest followers—knowing it and giving it an authoritative status.