The high priestly office and Jewish messianic hope

In late October last year I gave a paper at a conference at the University of Gloucestershire dedicated to 1 Enoch and Contemporary Theology. My topic was the political theology of the Similitudes of Enoch (1 En. 37–71) in its ancient context. The paper will likely appear in a published volume from the conference before too long. In the meantime I have posted a copy on my page

Building on an earlier publication in which I had argued that some of the distinctive features of theSimilitudes’ messianism is a response to patterns of Greco-Roman ruler cult (at the end of the C1st B.C. or the early decades of the C1st A.D.), 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. The high priest is an office not a person. The office transcends the identities of those who hold it. The way that works is especially clear in Ben Sira 50. The office pre-exists 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 (and Elect One) in 1 En. 37–71 is almost wholly devoid of personhood. 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, then, to the eschatological scenario what the high priestly office is within the liturgical context of the temple-as-microcosm.

This argument will make a small contribution to the account of biblical and Jewish theology that I will lay out in volume 3 of my Jesus Monotheism.

Peter Leithart on divine and human creativity

I am writing a conference paper on Solomon (in 1 Kings 3–4) and have been rereading the wonderful commentary on 1 and 2 Kings by Peter Leithart. In his discussion of Solomon’s achievements, Leithart eloquently explores a point that I make in my Jesus Monotheism Volume 1 (p. 146) about the relationship between the Creator and the human calling:

“Humans are created in the image of a God who creates, and humans are therefore created to be subcreators. Human making and creativity are not secular concerns in Scripture, but central to humanity’s imaging of the transcendent God. … Made in God’s image, the human is homo creator, and just as the Father is never without eternal “art,” so human artifacts are not a secondary reality grafted onto a more basic “natural” existence but fully equiprimordial with humanity itself (Milbank 1991, 22).[1] Since human making reflects the eternal trinitarian nature and the continually creative work of God, however, it is not secular or neutral but a reaching for transcendence and an imitation of and participation in the ongoing creative action of God. Reflecting the divine making, human art even partakes of the ex nihilo of the original divine creation. Though the original creation is unique, it implies that the essence of created existence is ongoing origination, a continual bringing-into-existence of new things and new states of affairs. A table is not “rearranged lumber”; it is an ontologically new thing, which did not exist before being built. Human invention brings into being entire new classes of things—lightbulbs, books, and computer terminals.”[2]

This understanding of the foundational matter of what it means to be human has far reaching implications for our theology, for life and our understanding of the human Jesus of Nazareth. In his discussion of 1 Kings 3–4 Leithart ably demonstrates its basis in the biblical text.

[1] J. Milbank, The Religious Dimension in the Thought of Giambattista Vico, 1668-1744, Part 1: The Early Metaphysics (Studies in the History of Philosophy 23. Lewiston NY: Mellen, 1991).

[2] P. J. Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings (Brazos theological commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 73–74.

“The Name above all names” (Phil 2:9)

Earlier this week I presented a paper at the St Andrews Divinity School Biblical Studies Research Seminar. The paper was warmly received, several responses have helped me further strength my case and none, as far as I could tell, seriously questioned or undermined my argument. I have posted a (slightly worked up) copy of the paper on my site and have created a 30 day feedback session there so folk can view and comment if they would like.

Here is a brief summary of the argument.

The majority of scholars think that in Phil 2:6–11 Paul reminds his readers of a piece of Christian tradition; a poem or a hymn in praise of Christ. In the second stanza of that piece (vv. 9–11) the poem says that God gave the risen and exalted Christ a new name—a “name above all names”. There has been considerable debate about the identification of that supreme name. Most scholars now advocate one of three options:

  1. The name is “Lord” (Greek: kyrios).
  2. The name is God’s own name; Yhwh or Kyrios in the sense that the Greek word “Kyrios” functioned as a translation of the Hebrew word that Jews used as a substitute for the name of God—adonai.
  3. The name is “Jesus”.

An argument can be made for each of these. A careful reading of the Greek of Phil 2:9–11 in its original first century historical context gives grounds for each of them. Although there is no consensus, the majority (including leading voices in the study of NT Christology such as Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham) now vote for option 2.

However, there are seriously problems with each of these three. Option 2, for example, surely implies that Paul believed that Jesus somehow became YhwhKyrios at his exaltation. If he was divine already in pre-existence (where he is “in the form of God” in v. 6), at v. 9 he is exalted to a higher position as a result of his receipt of the divine name. (For an example of the way this reading works and its implications for an account of the origins of the earliest beliefs about Jesus, see a recent blog post by Larry Hurtado).

In the paper I gave at St Andrews I argue for a different approach to the one that almost all modern scholars currently take. I agree that Christ is identified with the divine name. The citation of language that describes the nations’ prostration to the one God in Isa 45:23 in vv. 10–11—“every knee shall bow … every tongue confess”—makes that clear. But there are numerous reasons to doubt that the name that Jesus receives for the first time in v. 9 is Yhwh-Kyrios. There is no clear parallel to this idea anywhere else in the earliest Christian documents where is, on the contrary, rather widespread and consistent evidence for the belief that Christ was identified with Yhwh-Kyrios already in pre-existence.

My approach is not entirely unprecedented. It is present, for example, in Maurice Jones’s commentary (published in 1918) and it is anticipated by two recent articles (one by Sam Vollenweider and the other by Michael Martina and Bryan Nash). Vollenweider, Martin and Nash propose that the “name above all names” actually refers to two names. Following Jones, I go one step further and argue that the supreme name is clearly stated in v. 11. The Greek of that verse is usually translated:

And every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (so e.g. ESV, NRSV, NIV)

However, the grammar of that verse is ambiguous and an equally, if not more likely, translation supplies the answer to the question, “what is the name above all names?” I translate the whole of verses 9–10 this way (with explanatory paraphrasing in brackets):

9 “Wherefore, God also highly exalted him,
and gave to him the name (onoma)
above all names,
10 in order that at the (utterance of) the name Jesus,
every knee should bow
in heaven and on earth and under the earth
11 and every tongue confess/acclaim,
“Lord/LORD Jesus Christ,”
to the glory of God the Father.

The name above all names is the three-part name-title “Lord/LORD Jesus Christ”. The name Yhwh-Kyrios is not given to Christ at his exaltation after death. The onoma that is “given” is a multi-part name title that is given in the sense that, for the first time after his death and resurrection, Jesus is publicly known and recognised as—and to be worshipped as—the one who is also Kyrios and Christos. His name-title contains the divine name (Yhwh-Kyrios), but it specifies the divine person for whom the hymn provides a brief biography as the one who has now (at the end of days) uniquely manifested the divine identity: Yhwh-Kyrios-Jesus-Messiah. 

This understanding of the divine name makes sense of the Greek expression κύριος Ἰησοῦς χριστός (that I have translated “Lord/LORD Jesus Christ”) in the context of both Philippians (cf. 1:2; 3:20; 4:23) and the rest of Paul’s letters. It also makes very good sense given the various ways names and titles functioned in the first century Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds (especially in texts honoring and praising human and divine persons). The three-part name title beautifully sums up the description of Christ in the hymn, where he is portrayed as: (a) a sovereign “Lord,” (b) “Yhwh-Kyrios” made-manifest, (c) the man Jesus of Nazareth (exalted to heaven), and (d) the Messiah who sums up in his life story the identity of all humanity (as a new Adam).

The Greek of v. 11 is ambiguous. (There are multiple, deliberate, ambiguities all the way through the hymn). First century readers or hearers of the piece would construe the Greek in several ways, all of which would help to unpack the primary sense that the one who was “in the form of God” in pre-existence is now known and worshipped as “kyrios Iēsous Christos”.

LXX Isaiah 40:2: “O Priests, speak to the heart of Jerusalem”

In a fine paper by Dr Alison Salvesen at the Oxford OT Seminar yesterday there was mention of a passage in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT) that I had not seen before. It says:

O Priests, speak to the heart of Jerusalem; comfort her,
because her humiliation has been fulfilled, her sin has been released, because she has received from the Lord’s hand double that of her sins.

The Hebrew does not have “O Priests”. Evidently, the Greek translator(s) thought it was important that those whom the prophet summons to announce the good news of forgiveness to Jerusalem were priests.

Interesting. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the NT claims the first verses of Isa 40 were fulfilled by John the Baptist—a priest (Matt 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4–6; Matt 3:3, cf. Luke 1:76).

Perhaps this Septuagint text (and others like it) ought to guide our interpretation of passages where Jesus of Nazareth announces the forgiveness of sins.

I’m just saying.

Wesley Hill on Paul and the Trinity

HillTrinityWesley Hill has written an important book about Paul’s theology, developing the work of his doctoral supervisor Professor Francis Watson (of Durham University, UK), on some ways in which trinitarian theology us understand the shape of Paul’s language about God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Spirit: Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (Eerdmans, 2015). Sadly I came to it after completing volume 1 of Jesus Monotheism, but I am happy to report that its arguments dovetail with my own understanding of Pauline Christology, and in several ways it makes a timely contribution to the study of NT Christology.

The highlights:

  • A clear and readable overview of recent approaches to Trinitarian theology that makes technical discussions among systematicians accessible to NT scholars trained in traditional historical and literary methodologies.
  • A compelling discussion of the need to account for all the evidence for the relationship between God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ through simultaneous descriptions of the ways they are and the ways they are not differentiated from one another—a “redoubled” discourse that does justice to their asymmetrical mutuality.
  • One of the clearest and best exposition of 1 Cor 8:6 that I know of.
  • Some incisive criticisms of the work of leading voices in NT Christology scholarship (Dunn, James McGrath, Hurtado and Bauckham).

In arguing for a trinitarian reading of Paul Hill provides an astute analysis of mainstream modern scholarship for whom it has been a badge of honour that the interpretation of Paul is not contaminated by anachronistic patristic categories. Reading Paul’s talk about God, Christ and the Spirit in terms of the relations between persons also produces some invaluable exegetical insights. He does a fine job, for example, critiquing the common view that the last phrase in Phil 2:6–11 (“to the glory of God the Father”) is a rear guard action designed to ensure that there is no suggestion of competition between the one God and the exalted Christ.

In one respect, this book will, I hope, change the field forever: Hill calls out and challenges the assumption that it is right to frame discussion of NT Christologies in terms of whether, in a particular passage or at a point on a historical line of development, there is a “low” or “high” Christology (esp. pp. 18–30, 168–9). As he rightly notes, the standard question in twentieth century has been “the degree of Jesus’ divinity” (quoting Raymond Brown). Hill proposes that that the texts should be discussed within a different framework—one that respects the traditional Christian language of divine persons and relations. God the Father, Christ and the Spirit all belong within a web, or skein, of relations, rather than on a vertical axis (p. 169). In this, he makes a cogent case that should help direct the terms of all future discussion NT Christology. I have long had my doubts about the high-low framework and I touched on this issue in Jesus Monotheism, Volume 1 (ch. 3). In the wake of Hill’s book I propose the high-low Christology language should either be abandoned or used with great care and a consciousness of the theological and methodological assumptions that it makes.

Three critical observations:

1. Hill is right to challenge the dominant historical model that insists we must interpret NT theology solely through the categories of Second Temple Judaism (comparing Christ to angelic or divine mediator figures, for example). However, at times the baby is thrown out with the bathwater and Hill abstracts Paul’s letters from their historical context. And this means his trinitarian reading of Phil 2:6–11 is unlikely to convince because he does deal adequately with the historical objections to it. There are weighty reasons for thinking that in that Passage Paul cites a hymn that ascribes to Chirst the language of the divine ruler and ideal emperor, and that the text’s primary context is an early Christian political theology rather than a later trinitarian one. For several specialists, Samuel Vollenweider1 and Adela Yarbro Collins2 among them, that context means the hymn cannot be anachronistically interpreted through fourth century categories. It is surprising that Hill does not engage this political reading of the passage.

A robust engagement with Paul’s historical context should not be feared. Hill argues it is a mistake to read the last phrase of Phil 2:11c—“to the glory of God the Father”—and hear a concession to Jewish monotheism that ensures Christ and God the Father are not in competition with each other. I agree with him on this point. (There is no reason to think that among the earliest Christians anyone would think that the rest of Phil 2:6–11 would suggest competition between God (the Father) and the Lord Jesus Christ. That explanation of v. 11c  tells us far more about modern notions of Jewish and early Christian theology than it actually reflects first century views or debates). But I am surprised that Hill does not comment on the Philippians context of the hymn. That might help his case. Is it a coincidence that Paul is bothered by a competitive culture of honour and glory in Roman Philippi (on which see Joseph Hellerman, Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi: Carmen Christi as Cursus Podorum, 2005), and that the hymn supports his call for a unity of relations among his readers (Phil 1:27–2:4, cf. 4:2)? In the surrounding literary context “glory” and “vainglory” (i.e. competition for honour and glory) are concerns at the forefront of Paul’s argument (1:11; 2:4; 3:18–21; cf. 4:1). In this context, I suggest, the hymn presents a harmonious relationship between divine persons as a model or warrant for harmonious relations between human persons. The usual scholarly view (that Hill rejects) concedes the point to those who fear a competition for honour and glory between God the Father and the exalted Christ. That usual view, in effect, implicitly endorses the (cultural and philosophical) assumptions in pagan Philippi: persons, including divine ones, compete for honour and glory.

2. A danger in reading Paul through the lens of later Trinitarian theology is the likelihood that the particularities of individual texts will be ignored. This, I think, has happened in one detail of Hill’s exegesis of Phil 2:6–11. He says our interpretation should recognise the asymmetrical relationship between the divine persons in that God sends Jesus (p. 81, 109). But he doesn’t, does he. And that is one of the ways Phil 2:6–11 is such a remarkable passage: the one “being in the form of God” comes from pre-existence of his own volition (v. 7) and in light of his discerning correctly on the issue of equality with God (v. 6b–c). He is not sent. He is his own person, even in pre-existence. Hill seems to have collapsed Phil 2:6–7 into other incarnational statements in Paul’s letters (e.g. Rom 8:3; Gal 4:4).

3. I agree with N. T. Wright’s (appreciative and constructive) critique of Hill’s book when Wright complains that Hill has ignored all the ways in which the biblical story and theology (especially Adam as God’s image, the Temple, and the Exodus story) provided raw materials and categories for Paul’s presentation of the relationship between God and Christ. What we need now, in the light of the work of both Wright, Hill and others, is a creative conversation between a robustly historical approach to Paul’s (implicitly) trinitarian theology and the later (patristic) construal of that theology in terms of persons and relations.

Such a conversation would no doubt mean that the early interpreters of Paul will sometimes illuminate his writings. But it will also lead us to conclude, I am sure, that, in some ways, the apostle was closer to the inner meaning and full ramifications of the Christ event and its biblical context than were those who established a trinitarian orthodoxy in the fourth century and beyond. In the end, the question is not who best helps us understand a (Pauline or some other) text (exegesis), but who, or what, most faithfully represents and interprets the life death and resurrection of Jesus (history).


1. S. Vollenweider, “Der ‘Raub’ der Gottgleichheit: Ein religionsgeschichtlicher Vorschlag zu Phil 2.6(-11).” New Testament Studies 45 (1999): 413–33.

2. A. Y. Collins in A. Y. Collins and J. J. Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 113–116, 208–9.

A couple of recent blog reviews of Jesus Monotheism Volume 1

I am grateful for a couple of blog posts dedicated to Jesus Monotheism 1 that have appeared in recent weeks. One by Derek Rishmawy is entirely fair and appreciative.

The other, at The Two Cities site, is by Max Botner at St Andrews. It is also appreciative, though a little more probing. He makes some valuable observations on my approach to Christological origins and I’d like to comment on a couple of points he makes.

At one point, Botner says:

“While Fletcher-Louis agrees with William Horbury that the ruler-cult offers a partial precedent for the worship of Jesus, he argues that the evidence is to be found in priestly rather than royal messianism.”

It is true that I am going to argue for the importance of priestly precedents for the earliest Christology. And, to be fair to any readers who might have gained the impression that I think “priestly” messianism “rather than” royal messianism is the key, in my discussion of Ruler Cult (in JM 1 ch. 6) I do argue that priestly categories have been neglected and there has been an over-emphasis on kingship in much of the scholarship. At least, scholars who come at the pre-Christian Jewish material looking for answers to NT questions have missed the considerable evidence (highlighted by a long line of non-NT specialists) that the high priesthood and priestly messianism was rather important to Second Temple Jews.

But I do not see a sharp “rather than” between priesthood and kingship as precedents for NT Christology. Biblical prophecies, and first century Jewish expectations, of a coming king are very important for Christological origins. (This is why Joshua Jipp’s new book Christ is King is so important). Also, for many, if not most, Jews the high priest was a royal figure. For some he was, indeed, a king. So Israel’s high priesthood necessarily means “and also” not “rather than” royal messianism. Against this background, I will argue in volume 4, the fact that Jesus is both a high priest and a messianic ruler in the line of David means the peculiar character of his kingship stands in sharp relief. Paying attention to the role that the high priesthood paid in the Bible and in Jesus’ historical context means Jesus’ royal self-consciousness was far more important than mainstream NT scholarship has hitherto realised.

On another point, Botner makes this striking comment:

… Fletcher-Louis’s decision to build his argument from the “emerging consensus” has its strengths and weaknesses. Its strength is that it allows him to focus on issues within early high christology models which have hitherto gone unaddressed. Its weakness is that the project hinges, in part, on whether or not one comes to the book already persuaded by the “emerging consensus.” For readers who are persuaded, such as this reviewer, this move is of little consequence; for others, however, I suspect that the book’s minimal engagement with scholars who do not align with this “consensus” may be deemed problematic.

I am a little surprised by this comment. It is true that volume 1 does not have a chapter titled “scholarship outside the emerging consensus”. But every chapter bar the first one engages with questions and issues that have led some specialists to reject the findings of the emerging consensus. And on several key points (esp. chs 3–7) I have voiced my agreement with those who have raised objections to the approach adopted by Hurtado and Bauckham. (I agree with Dunn and Casey that a lack of persecution of christians for Christ devotion is a problem that Hurtado and Bauckham have not adequately addressed. I agree with leading voices of the Enoch Seminar that the Similitudes of Enoch and a Jewish Son of Man expectation must have played a more important role in Christological origins than the likes of Hurtado and Bauckham admit. And so on … more of this in volume 2).

I wonder, if there is some truth to Botner’s comment, is it simply because there really has not been much critical reaction to the “consensus” that I discern gathering around the work of Hurtado and Bauckham. Have I missed any critical publications of their work? 

There is perhaps a problem here which I did not describe explicitly in JM 1. There are, no doubt, scholars who remain committed to an older paradigm who reject some/all of the emerging consensus findings. But they have not explained (in print) why they remain committed to older views. One hope I have had in writing Jesus Monotheism is that it will provoke a deeper and wider conversation. If there are weighty arguments against those points of the emerging consensus that I have endorsed and that I have missed I would love to hear them.

On Pauline Christology and the Glory of Israel’s Messiah

In my last post I offered a few thoughts on Joshua Jipp’s new book Christ is King. I’ve enjoyed reading Joshua’s work ever since I came across his insightful and well written book on divine visitations and hospitality to strangers in Luke-Acts. (I have particularly benefited from his article on Paul’s Areopagus speech in Acts 17—published in the Journal of Biblical Literature vol. 131 2012—which anticipates my own reading of that passage that I will lay out in another volume of Jesus Monotheism).

My blog post focused on Joshua’s argument in the third chapter of Christ is King that biblical and Greco-Roman kingship traditions are the most important “historico-religious framework” for the origins of the belief in Jesus’ divinity. Joshua himself commented on my post. And I’m glad to see that Joel Willits, who is an expert on the relationship between the royal messiah and early Christology, has now weighed into the debate with his own blog post over at Evangelion in which he both reviews Joshua’s third chapter and adds some comments on my comments.

This blogsphere interaction highlights two important questions that, to my mind, are pressing for current discussion of Pauline and early Christology.

1. If kingship is so important for Pauline Christology, then why does Paul never use the word “king” for the risen Christ? Why is Greek kingship and Emperor language (sōtēreuergetēs, for example) either rare or unattested in Paul. (This is a question which also, I think, needs to be put to N. T. Wright’s account of Pauline Christology and its origins. Wright also places considerable weight on royal messiah as the meaning and historical background of Paul’s Christ language. Perhaps Tom has an answer to that question somewhere. If so, I’ve not seen it). Why, to repeat a point I made in my last post, does Paul steer well clear of the classic Old Testament kingship and royal messiah texts (Isa 9, 11; Pss 2; 72; 45; 89; Gen 49:8–12; Num 24:17; Zech 6:12)? If you take an hour or so to read all the relevant contemporary Jewish messianic texts (in the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the pseudepigrapha and related material) and then read Paul, you find a startling difference: the classic royal and Davidic Scriptures that crop up again and again in the Jewish material are missing from the apostle’s letters. Why is this?

2. In my last post I questioned whether there is really any evidence (as Joshua, and now Joel, claim) for the association of the royal messiah with God’s glory (Heb. kavod) in the biblical and Jewish texts. (In Jesus Monotheism 1:230-33 I point out that the lack of any association between God’s own glory and the king/royal messiah has to be balanced by some much-overlooked evidence that the high priest was identified with, or ascribed, God’s own glory). On this issue Joel appeals to the important description of a royal messiah in (the first century B.C. Jewish text) Psalms of Solomon. In particular, he quotes Ps. Sol. 17:30b–31:

“And he [i.e. the royal Messiah] will purge Jerusalem and make it holy as it was even from the beginning, for the nations to come from the ends of the earth to see his [Messiah’s] glory (tēn doxan autou) to bring as gifts her children who had been driven out, and to see the glory of the Lord with which God has glorified her (‘autēn’).”

If Joel is right about this passage, then, to my mind, the Psalms of Solomon would be an exception to the rule that divine glory in the biblical and Jewish tradition is withheld from the king and royal messiah. As it is, and to quote from my own published words (in JM 1, p. 231, n. 59), “I agree with [Richard] Bauckham (God of Israel, 228–29) that Ps. Sol. 17:31 does not refer to the glory of the coming royal messiah as the glory of Yhwh-Kyrios … The context and other references to the glory of Jerusalem (in Pss. Sol. 2:19, 21; 11:7) show that the reference is to the glory of the restored holy city.”

I might have added two points that explain and back up Bauckham’s view.

  1. The feminine singular pronoun “autēn” in the last clause (“God has glorified her”) shows that the “glory of it” earlier in the verse must be “the glory of Jerusalem,” not the messiah’s glory. (The Greek Ierousalēm, mentioned in the previous verse, is a feminine noun).
  2. The whole of verse 31 evokes the language and themes of the closing chapters of Isaiah (esp. Isa 60:3-4, 9, 19; 61:3, 62:2; 66:20) where it is Zion and all the people of God that become the location of God’s glory and that the nations come to see.

So, instead of the translation in J. H. Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (vol. 1, p. 667) that Joel follows, a better translation of the Greek of Ps. Sol. 17:31 would be:

“… for the nations to come from the ends of the earth to see its [Jerusalem’s] glory to bring as gifts her children who had fainted, and to see the glory of the Lord with which God has glorified her.”

The meaning of this passage seems pretty clear to me. But perhaps I have missed something. And if there are any texts from the time of the writing of the New Testament that closely associate Israel’s king with God’s own glory I would love to know. (The difference between divine glory for the high priest and no-divine glory for the king is a small, but important, part of the model of Christological origins that I will offer in Jesus Monotheism, vols. 3 & 4).

What do you think, guys?!

On Joshua Jipp’s Christ is King

JippChristisKingI have thoroughly enjoyed reading Joshua Jipp’s new book on Pauline Christology: Christ is King: Paul’s Royal Ideology (Fortress Press, 2015). It is a wide-ranging study, full of creative new interpretative suggestions and it overlaps at one critical point with the argument I develop in Jesus Monotheism. 

The standard modern scholarly view has been that Paul’s word “Christos” is simply a personal name for Jesus. It does not evoke any messianic ideas. It is not a title. Matthew Novenson has recently argued in his influential study (Christ Among the Messiahs (Oxford University Press, 2012) that actually “Christos” is an honorific title, that does (at least sometimes) have messianic connotations. Jipp builds out from Novenson’s thesis, in several new directions, to argue that swathes of Paul’s letters can now be explained on the theory that Paul uses the word “Christos” to mean “king”. At critical points—at the start of Romans for example (Rom 1:3–4)—Paul signals that “Christ,” the son of God, is the royal messiah of scriptural expectation. Christ’s rule as resurrected king over his subjects creates new political communities (his churches) whose identity and pattern of life is defined by their salvific participation in and conformity to his representative, sovereignty (chapters 4–5).

Paul also makes a distinctive contribution to the development of early Christian thought by sometimes evoking Greco-Roman ideas about the ideal king (in the neo-Pythogrean peri basileia texts, for example). This provides a new explanation of the (otherwise puzzling) expression “law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2) (explored in chapter 2).

The part that interests me most is chapter 3 in which Jipp applies his overarching thesis to the worship of Christ that we find in the hymns in Phil 2:6–11 and Col 1:15–20. Jipp takes up the important work of William Horbury—especially his Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ (SCM, 2015)—to argue that this worship of Jesus as a divine figure is somehow indebted to both scriptural texts where the king is divine and to Greco-Roman beliefs about the ideal, divine, ruler.

This is a provocative thesis challenges the important work of Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham who have dismissed the possibility that biblical and pagan kingship traditions actually help explain Pauline Christ devotion. I hope it will breathe new life into debate about this most important historical (and theological) subject. I notice that on this issue there is some overlap between Jipp’s argument and the one recently put forward by David Litwa (in his Iesus Deus)—which I discussed in an earlier blog post. And I am encouraged that on several key points Jipp’s argument overlaps with my own.

We agree on:

  1. The need now to give more attention to the role of Greco-Roman traditions when interpreting NT Christological texts. Horbury’s seminal work in this area has perhaps sometimes been undervalued. As he and Jipp show, there is a lively interaction in pre-Christian Judaism with the long and rich tradition of Greek and Roman philosophical debate about the nature of kingship. So it is likely that as a messianic movement Christians continued that interaction in their Christological thinking.

  2. Christ is portrayed as the ideal divine ruler in Phil 2:6–11 + 3:20–21 and Col 1:15–20. The Phil 2 hymn has “an imperial Christology” (P. Oakes). Such texts can only be fully understood when we immerse ourselves in both OT kingship texts and the cognate pagan texts.

  3. Point 2 suggests those pagan traditions were a contributing factor towards the early Christian treatment of the risen and exalted Jesus as a divine figure. This matter needs fresh investigation. (In his Conclusion Jipp seems to hedge his bets on this possibility).

At the same time, aspects of Jipp’s argument are unconvincing or problematic. In Jesus Monotheism, Volume 1 chapter 6 I laid out some criticisms of Horbury’s thesis that apply equally to Jipp’s arguments.

In essence, I think Jipp overstates the role of biblical and pagan kingship texts in the formation and formulation of NT Christology. In important ways, Christ’s divine identity—as the eternal Son, the co-creator-become-incarnate-in-Jesus-of-Nazareth—is quite unlike anything that we find in OT texts describing a “divine” king. Those texts do not explain Paul’s remarkable identification of Christ with Yhwh-Kyrios.

I will argue in chapter 8 (in volume 2 of Jesus Monotheism) that Phil 2:6–11, 3:20–21 is a profound critique of the pagan ruler cult. But this material in Philippians is somewhat exceptional in the Pauline corpus (the connections to the pagan material are weaker in Col 1:15–20).

I am not convinced that the OT texts go quite as far in ascribing to Israel’s king a divine identity as Jipp supposes. For example, as I point out in Jesus Monotheism volume 1, the Hebrew Bible is actually careful to avoid saying that the king has God’s own divine glory. Also, it is not for nothing that Paul never actually refers to Christ as a “king” (basileus). (According to Acts that is an outsider’s perspective on his beliefs about Jesus—Acts 17:7). And it is striking that the few OT texts that do explicitly speak of the king in divine terms are almost entirely missing from the NT and are nowhere cited or echoed in the Pauline corpus (Isa 9:6; Ps 45:7; 1 Chr 29:20, cf. Isa 11:1–4; Num 24:17; LXX Ps 71:11). This picture accords very well with the evidence of the gospels wherein the view that Jesus is a “king” is at best a partial recognition of his real identity and, at worst, a serious misunderstanding of him (Mark 8:27–9:13 and parrs; Mark 14:61–62 and parrs; John 6:15; 18:33–37).

Also, a thorough investigation of the role of Jewish “messianic” beliefs in the formation of a divine Christology needs now to consider the role of ideas surrounding the high priest “messiah”. For Jipp “Messiah” only means king. He gives no space to the evidence that for many first century Jews it meant (royal) high priest.

On David Litwa’s Iesus Deus

litwaIesusDeus2David Litwa has written an important book on the relationship between Greco-Roman traditions and Christological material in early Christian texts (in the New Testament and beyond).

M. D. Litwa, Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).

It is a thoroughly enjoyable, informative and stimulating read, with fresh ideas that should be of interest to anyone studying the earliest beliefs about Jesus.

In essence, Litwa argues that “early Christians imagined and depicted Jesus with some of the basic traits common to other Mediterranean divinities and deified men.” (215).

Larry Hurtado has just reviewed the book on his blog. He is appreciative of some of Litwa’s proposals, but also strongly critical of “errors” that he thinks Litwa has made. In particular, the review makes a forceful response to Litwa’s lengthy critique of Hurtado’s work that Litwa thinks exemplifies an unhelpful and theologically motivated attempt to insulate Christological origins from pagan, Greco-Roman influence.

In my own recent work on Christology I have become convinced (in a way that I was not when I wrote my doctoral dissertation) that interaction with Greco-Roman traditions was an important factor in the formulation of the earliest beliefs about Jesus. I agree with Litwa that there has not been as much discussion of this possibility in some circles as there should. And I am not sure that Hurtado has fully heard or understood the nature of Litwa’s criticisms. In particular, Litwa makes some persuasive comments on Hurtado’s negative views of the possibility that a biblical and Jewish monotheism could accommodate some notion of “deification”. (I also touch on this issue in an excursus at the end of Jesus Monotheism Volume 1. And in volumes 2, 3 and 4 of Jesus Monotheism I will set out some fresh proposals for the role of Greco-Roman traditions at the origins of the belief in Jesus’ divinity).

On the other hand, Hurtado is right, I think, to press Litwa on the matter of research objectives. Hurtado points out that his own work has been concerned to explain “the historical origins of the phenomena of Jesus-devotion”. Litwa seems more concerned with the literary features of early Christian texts. On my reading of Iesus Deus, Litwa moves tentatively towards the historical origins question in his final chapter (on the gift of the name above all names in Phil 2:9). Litwa comes in that chapter to the conclusion that the idea that Jesus is given the divine name of Israel’s God after his death “was adapted from the imperial conventions of the larger (Mediterranean) culture contemporary with the author of the hymn” (in Phil 2:6–11). This surely raises important historical questions. If the gift of the divine name Yhwh-Kyrios to the exalted Christ in Phil 2:9 is an idea adapted from the non-Jewish world, then when, in the development of early Christian life and thought, was that idea promulgated? And by whom? And for what reason? Does Phil 2:9 exemplify a transition from a Christology in which Jesus is extraordinary, but not divine, to one in which he is “deified” and deemed worthy of worship? Or does the Philippians hymn simply express a much older identification of Jesus with Yhwh-Kyrios (that was originally formulated without reference to Greco-Roman traditions) in a way that would resonate in a Roman city like Philippi?

Litwa’s book is perhaps one of the most persuasive—certainly the most recent—to argue for the presence of Greco-Roman motifs in early Christological texts. As the case steadily mounts for the presence of those motifs in early Christian documents, surely now there is a need to explore the historical questions those motifs raise. Above all, what role did they play, if any, in the origins of Christ devotion and the belief that (as R. Bauckham has put it) Christ is included in the identity of the one God revealed in Israel’s Scriptures?