Paul does not write against “selfish ambition”

The arguments of my Divine Heartset include more than half-a-dozen proposals for new translations of some unusual Greek language that Paul employs in his letter to the Philippians. Outside of the Christ Hymn, my favourite appear in the passage where Paul tees up his praise of Christ.

Here is my translation of 2:1–4, with new translations highlighted:

2:1 So if there is any comfort in Messiah, any consolation of love, any participation in the Spirit, any visceral affection and mercies, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, soul-united and minded to one thing. 3 Do nothing out of venal corruption (κατ’ ἐριθείαν) or vainglory, but in humblemindedness, regarding each other as superior to yourselves. 4 Let each of you be focused not on the interests of their own people, but rather everyone one of you on the interests of everyone else (μὴ τὰ ἑαυτῶν ἕκαστος σκοποῦντες ἀλλὰ [καὶ] τὰ ἑτέρων ἕκαστοι).

At 2:3, the word ἐριθεία is nowadays usually translated “selfish ambition,” “self-seeking,” occasionally “faction(s), factiousness,” “partisanship,” or “party-spirit.” The word is rare, appearing only twice (in Aristotle’s Politics) before it is used a few times by NT authors. (See also Phil 1:17; Rom 2:8; Phil 1:17; 2:3; 2 Cor 12:20; Gal 5:2; Jas 3:14, 16).

I argue (Divine Heartset chapter 11, §3.5) there is no evidence that it has anything to do with selfishness. No classicist, as far as I can tell, gives it that sense in Aristotle’s Politics. Epigraphic data (some of it not considered before) and a careful reexamination of the meagre literary evidence shows that ἐριθεία denotes a kind of corrupt corporate or civic behaviour, for which the best English equivalent would be “venality”. (Though the word ἐριθεία and its cognate verbs and adjective conveyed meanings peculiar to ancient discussions about civic virtue and forms of corruption that were perceived as a threat to community life in the Greek city). This meaning is attested in the Ancient Greek lexica (Hesychius and the Suda), was known to a few nineteenth century commentators, and has at last resurfaced in the Cambridge Greek Lexicon entry for the verbal form, “ἐριθεύομαι mid. vb . . . app. to put oneself up for hire; (pejor. of a person seeking public office) . . .” (CGL 599). My arguments are anticipated also by the work of Angela Standhartinger who translates ἐξ ἐριθείας 1:17 and κατ’ ἐριθείαν in 2:3 as “aus korrupten Motiven” (see her Philipperbrief, 98, 107, 138).

The fact that Paul warns in 2:3 against a kind of venal corruption fits also with a better translation of 2:4. There, too, it is usually thought that Paul urges regard for others, rather than for oneself, even a form of radical altruism: “Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others”). But Paul’s Greek is peculiar in ways that many commentators miss. It is better translated, as I have done above. So Paul teaches his readers to not be blinded by any allegiance to a particular group, whether that be one created by ethnic, caste, profession or some other index of social value. He wants everyone to love everyone, just as Christ came for all humanity (Phil 2:7).

The idea that Paul teaches against selfishness (here, in Romans 2, 2 Corinthians 12 and Gal 5) is, I contend, a relatively recent interpretative overlay that misses his real concerns. 

In this letter (and elsewhere) Paul is incredibly ambitious—for his own and others’ conformity to Christ (3:7–14) and for their receipt of divine glory and praise (1:11; 3:21). Indeed, in much of the letter Paul appeals directly to his readers’ knowledge of, or wise discernment of, their own best interests (see Divine Heartset chapter 11).


New Book Published: the Divine Heartset

We are back!

The fruit of 10 years research on the Christology of Paul’s letter to the Philippians (and the meaning of Christ Hymn in Phil 2:6–11 + 3:20–21) is now published (

If you are interested in joining a Reading Group with other scholars who will be working their way through the book, starting in February (that is being organised by Dr Logan Williams), message us at [email protected].

The Bible Project Interview

You can hear me discussing some of the ideas at the heart of the Jesus Monotheism project on a just-released The Bible Project podcast, here:

Tim and John are doing wonderful job bringing recent and cutting edge scholarship to the masses, so it was a privilege and to spend time with them.

Cambridge presentation arguing for a dynamic ontology in Phil 2:6c

I have spent much of the last couple of years revising my understanding of Phil 2:6–11. The journey has been uncomfortable. For the duration of the time you are forced to rearrange your mental furniture there can be nowhere comfortable to sit. But the rearrangement has been necessary and the end result has far reaching implications.

I figured a revision was necessary once I investigated carefully some of the passage’s language, and at the Cambridge New Testament seminar next Tuesday I will present some of my conclusions about the precise meaning of the expression τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ that Paul employs in Phil 2:6c.

These words are usually taken to mean an ‘equality with God’ and many have insisted this is only a status, not a nature or essence. The phrases is treated as a parade example of the conclusion that, across the earliest Christological texts, Christ’s divinity was not conceived in the anachronistic terms of later Patristic discussions of ontology, that were influenced by dialogue with Greek philosophy. However, remarkably no one has undertaken a thorough investigation of comparable Greek expressions and the arguments of many in the nineteenth century (and three German scholars in the twentieth) that the Greek cannot mean ‘equality with God’ have been ignored.

I have found more than 140 texts, from Homer down to the early third century C.E., that use ἴσος/ἴσα + θεός in ways that are comparable to Phil 2:6c, in five discrete syntactic constructions. Phil 2:6c should now be categorised as a rarely attested construction, but one which would probably sound Homeric in the first century, since it first appears in Iliad 5:441–2 and 21:315. Phil 2:6c is closest to a line in Homeric Hymns 5, line 214 (where ἶσα θεοῖσιν modifies an optative form of the verb εἰμί), but is similar also to a section of Pseudo-Perictione’s On the Harmony of Women (two texts which have not, until now, figured in the interpretation of Phil 2:6). According to the basic rules of Greek and, in keeping with these (and a few other) comparative texts, Phil 2:6c must mean ‘being in a manner equal with God’, or more precisely, ‘a/the being that is in a manner equal with God’s manner of being’ (as our nineteenth century forebears saw). The ἴσα θεῷ is an adverbial, ‘in a manner equal with God’, not an adjectival ‘equal with God’.

In several respects, however, the words τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ are unique and they have a precise two-fold purpose in this passage that has until now been missed by all commentators.

1.  The expression τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ has a strongly active, verbal, force. (This has been missed, in part, because commentators have not appreciated the fact that the Greek verb εἶναι can have a durative and active force—’to live, be alive, to dwell, be present, or be available’). This is fitting because, within the οὐκ … ἀλλά construction that orders the thought sequence in vv. 6–8, τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ is interpreted by Christ in his act of self-emptying and his becoming human in vv. 7–8. One burden of these verses is to say that, strangely and scandalously for Greco-Roman readers, Christ exegetes divine equality by his becoming human; by incarnation.

2. In verse 6c τὸ εἶναι is used absolutely, to denote ‘Being’. (In Greek τὸ εἶναι can be used either predicatively or absolutely, as in English also. In English ‘being’ can be used predicatively as in the sentence, ‘Being the brightest in her class she won the competition’, or it can be used absolutely, as in, ‘The mystic sat cross-legged and meditated on the nature of ‘Being’). So the first half of the hymn, in its description of the incarnation, uses language that is highly suggestive of the Platonic distinction between being and becoming, as can be seen in this English translation:

‘who being (ὑπάρχων) in the form of God, considered being (τὸ εἶναι) (that is) in a manner equal with God’s being, not harpagmos, but emptied himself, … becoming (γενόμενος) in human likeness … becoming (γενόμενος) obedient to death.

A two-fold being defines Christ’s pre-incarnate, heavenly, existence. A two-fold becoming describes his contingent, earthly, existence (that ended in death). This is the basic Platonic distinction between being and becoming. It is true that Plato usually uses the words (τὸ) ὄν and οὐσία for ‘being’. But the verb γίνομαι is the standard Platonic verb for becoming. Furthermore, occasionally Plato used τὸ εἶναι for ‘being’ and passages in Philo and Plutarch show that in the middle Platonism of the first century C.E. τὸ εἶναι was regularly used in this way and that the verb ὑπάρχω (and its nominal form) also figured in such contexts.

Plato and his followers insisted that ‘being’ cannot ‘become’. Paul’s Christ hymn describes, by contrast, the life of one who, in recent history, demonstrated a being equal to God’s being precisely in the act of his becoming human and mortal. The hymn most certainly describes Christ’s divine identity in ontological terms, though it does so to offer a new kind of dynamic, incarnational, divine ontology.

Already, before Paul wrote to the Philippians, the earliest followers of Jesus were describing Jesus’ divine identity in terms of a kind nature or ontology—in terms of divine being.

On ancient republicanisms: Roman, early Christian and Jewish?

An article has just been published that I reckon contains a breakthrough insight into the earliest understanding(s) of Jesus and the movement he started.

In his ‘Long Live the King: The Fourth Gospel’s Responses to Greco-Roman Suspicions Concerning Monarchy’, JGRChJ 13 (2017), pp. 189–212, Adam Booth contends that John’s gospel presents a problem for first century Roman readers who would be troubled by the presentation of Jesus as a king. Booth’s central insight rests on the fact that Romans were republicans whose founding stories and long history rejected the tyrannies of kingship in favour of a mixed constitution in which the power of the executive was shared out among a senate and the people. Even after the transition to imperial rule under Octavian (Julius Caesar’s adopted son), Romans continued to avoid the language of kingship for the Emperor (the Princeps) and continued to present their political system as republican in form and philosophy.

Having established that the Fourth Gospel has a kingship Christology (see John 1:49; 6:15; 12:13; 18:33–37; 19:1–5, 21–22), Booth offers a reader-response analysis that attempts to show that Jesus’ royalty is of a (unique) kind that in various ways would mitigate the concerns of a reader with republican commitments. His proposals in this section are fascinating and I look forward to hearing how others with a competence in John and Greco-Roman political philosophy judge them.

I applaud Booth’s piece because it breaks new ground in a way that ought to be an inspiration and challenge to others seeking to understand the nature of early Christology and Jewish messianism. The movement we call Christianity was birthed under Roman rule. And when it started its Jewish context—that more than any shaped its values, culture and political outlook—had had nearly two centuries’ exposure to the Roman world and its distinctive republican politics. The possibility that a republican philosophy was a factor in shaping both the Jewish political thinking and the early Christian worlds before John ought long ago to have been a subject of critical reflection. Surprisingly, that possibility has barely figured in modern scholarship. It might help explain the surprising lack of interest in a royal messiah in Jewish texts. It might also have been one reason that Paul only rarely uses explicitly royal language in his Christology and, with the possible exception of 1 Tim 1:17 and 6:15, he never speaks of Christ as “king”.

Behind those two historical phenomena there are more fundamental questions that go back deeper into Israel’s political self-understanding. The Bible has its own critique of kingship. Parallel to the story of the last king of Rome’s son (Sextus Tarquinius) raping the noblewoman Lucretia (c. 510 B.C.)—that provoked the overthrow of the monarchy—Israel had a story of a king abusing his power to have the woman he wanted (Bathsheba). And Israel had both prophetic (1 Sam 8) and legal (Deut 17) warnings against the self-serving power of kings—texts that are the negative correlate of those in which God’s spokespeople insist that power and property should be distributed throughout the nation. Might it be appropriate to speak in these texts of an “Israelite republicanism”? Or, more concretely, might it be that some Jews and early Christians read such scriptures and recognised in their own tradition a kind of republicanism analogous to Rome’s?

Booth frames his analysis of John as reader-response thought experiment—how would a reader (gentile or Jewish) with Roman republican persuasions read John? I suggest that his basic historical insight upon which that question is based should open up other, broader, lines of historical inquiry. Indeed, I will explore these questions in volumes 3 and 4 of Jesus Monotheism where I aim to show that a biblical and Jewish “republicanism” helps explains aspects of the earliest beliefs about Jesus.

Ben Sira’s Incorporative and Cosmic Messianism


I have just returned from the a stimulating symposium in St Andrews on the Atonement in biblical texts and traditions. I heard expertly done main papers by Deborah Rooke, David Moffitt, David Wright, Martha Himmelfarb, Carol Newsom and Catrin Williams and many short papers with the latest research on everything from the precise meaning of Pentateuchal sacrificial terminology to the temple imagery in Revelation.

In my own presentation I argued that the Wisdom of Ben Sira (early second cent. B.C.E.) has a distinctive understanding of atonement, or at-one-ment, in which the high priest is an incorporative and cosmic messiah. In Ben Sira 50 all of heaven and earth, and all of humanity, are united, and find their proper place, in joyous, ecstatic, worship of God in the Jerusalem temple and its liturgy. The chapter is carefully crafted to sum up everything that has been said about Wisdom and its presence in the world in the foregoing chapters (chs. 1–49).

Most remarkably of all, by dense poetic allusion and an intricate literary structure, the high priest is portrayed as one who in whom there is present every sphere of reality in the liturgical enactment of creation and human history. For Ben Sira the temple is a microcosm (in which the roofed sanctuary equates to heaven and the altar in the forecourt is earth) and the high priest is—or plays the part of—the principal actors in the drama of creation and history. On the divine side, he is God, the Creator, Lady Wisdom, and the visible glory of God (cf. Ezek 1:28). He is also a new and glorious Adam (fulfilling God’s vision for humanity in Genesis 1–2 and Psalm 8). He is Israel—the nation of the pious and glorious. And he is, or he has, the pied beauty of the heavens and the arboreal abundance of the earth. He is both the image of the invisible God, and the one in or through whom all of creation is sacramentally recreated and held together. In him there is at-one-ment.

The argument was well received and, all being well, a version will no doubt appear somewhere in print in due course. In the meantime here is a copy of my annotated translation of Ben Sira 50. Any who are willing to give the time to careful study of the text and its scriptural language will, I’m sure, figure out for themselves the main points of my argument.

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 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.