I 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:
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.
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.
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.