A Look at Early Christology

Anyone who studies historical method is familiar with what is called historical causation. Historians seek out the causes of a certain events. For example, there is no doubt that historians can observe the effect- the birth of the Jesus movement pre-70 AD. What must be asked is what has better explanatory power for the birth of a early  as well as a very high Christology in a very short time period after Jesus’ resurrection.  As historian Paul Barnett says, “The birth of Christianity and the birth of Christology are inseparable both as to time and essence.” (1)

We must not forget that within Judaism there is a term called “avodah zara” which is defined as the formal recognition or worship as God of an entity that is in fact not God i.e., idolatry. In other words, the acceptance of a non-divine entity as your deity is a form of avodah zara. (2) As of today, traditional or Orthodox Judaism still upholds the position that Jewish people are forbidden to pray and worship anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9).

In light of this issue, one theory is that Jesus’ deity can be attributed to an apotheosis legend. In an apotheosis legend, a human becomes one among many gods. The New Testament seems to show the rejection of an apotheosis category for Jesus given that the early Jewish followers of Jesus refused worship (Acts 14:15) as did angels (Rev. 22:8–9). There are also references to the negative views of gentile polytheism (Acts 17: 22-23; 1 Cor 8:5). Gentiles were regarded as both sinful (Gal 2:5) and idolatrous (Rom 1:23). To read more about this, see Paul Eddy’s essay called, Was Early Christianity Corrupted by Hellenism?

In their book  The Jesus Legend, The: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy say,

 “During the reign of Pilate and Herod, when Caiaphas was high priest, we find a Jewish movement arising that worships a recent contemporary alongside and in a similar manner as Yahweh-God. To call this development “novel” is a significant understatement. In truth, it constitutes nothing less than a massive paradigm shift in the first century Palestinian Jewish religious worldview.” (3)

The earliest records we have for the Christology of Jesus are Paul’s letters.  And 1 Cor. 15:3-8 and 1 Cor. 11:23 along with other, short Christian creeds include II Timothy 2:8, and Romans 1:3-4 show that the core  teachings of the Gospel (Jesus died for our sins and rose again) pre-date Paul. Hence, the core of the Gospel was being circulated very early and even before Paul was a believer.

Let’s look at Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 8: 5-6:

“For though there are things that are called gods, whether in the heavens or on earth; as there are many gods and many lords; yet to us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we live through him.”

Here is a distinct echo of the Shema, a creed that every Jew would have memorized from a very early age. When we read Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which says, “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is our God, the Lord is one,” Paul ends up doing something extremely significant in the history of Judaism.

A glance at the entire context of the passage in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 shows that according to Paul’s inspired understanding, Jesus receives the “name above all names,” the name God revealed as his own, the name of the Lord. In giving a reformulation of the Shema, Paul still affirms the existence of the one God, but what is unique is that somehow this one God now includes the one Lord, Jesus the Messiah. Therefore, Paul’s understanding of this passage begets no indication of abandoning Jewish monotheism in place of paganism.

For a Jewish person, when the title “Lord” (Heb. Adonai) was used in place of the divine name YHWH, this was the highest designation a Jewish person could use for deity. Furthermore, it would have been no problem to confess Jesus as prophet, priest, or king since these offices already existed in the Hebrew Bible. After all, these titles were used for a human being. There was nothing divine about them.

Larry Hurtado  describes the early devotion to Jesus as a “mutation.” (4) One of the primary factors that Hurtado presents for the cause of this “mutation” in the context of Jewish monotheism is the resurrection itself and the post-resurrection appearances. Some of the features in the early Jesus devotion are as follows:

First, there are hymns to Jesus ( Col 1:15-20; Phil.2:5-11) which are exalted things about him done in song.

Second, there are prayers to Jesus: we see prayer to Jesus in prayer-like expressions such as “grace and peace” greetings at the beginning of Paul’s letters and in the benedictions at the end. Also, the early followers of Jesus are seen “calling upon” the name of Jesus as Lord (Acts 9:14, 21; 22:16;1 Cor. 1:2; Rom. 10:13), which is the same pattern that is used in the Hebrew Bible where it refers to “calling upon the Lord” (Gen. 12:8;13:4 ;21:23 ; 26:25; Psalms 99:6;105:1; Joel 2:32). (5)  Allow me to expand on this:

In 2 Corinthians 12:7-8, Paul says, “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  So here is Paul, a staunch Pharisee who was raised to call nobody ‘Lord’ expect the God of Israel. But despite this,  he is asking Jesus the ‘Lord’ to help him.

As Baker”s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology notes:

“While kyrios was common as a polite, even honorific title for “sir” or “master, “calling Jesus “Lord” to imply divine associations or identity was by no means a convention readily adopted from the Roman world. In Jesus’ more Eastern but militantly monotheistic Jewish milieu, where the title’s application to humans to connote divinity was not only absent but anathema, the title is an eloquent tribute to the astonishing impression he made. It also points to the prerogatives he holds. Since Jesus is Lord, he shares with the Father qualities like deity ( Rom 9:5 ), preexistence ( John 8:58 ), holiness ( Heb 4:15 ), and compassion ( 1 John 4:9 ), to name just a few. He is co-creator ( Col 1:16 ) and co-regent, presiding in power at the Father’s right hand ( Acts 2:33 ; Eph 1:20 ; Heb 1:3 ), where he intercedes for God’s people ( Rom 8:34 ) and from whence, as the Creed states, he will return to judge the living and dead ( 2 Thess 1:7-8 ).” (6)

What about “The Name”?

What is even more significant is the statement in Acts 4:12: “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other NAME under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” How could Jesus be declared as the only one whom God’s salvation is effected? In the ancient world, a name was not merely what someone was called, but rather the identification of the being and essence of its bearer.  James R. Edwards summarizes the importance of this issue:

“In the ancient world, a name was not merely what someone was called, but rather the identification of the being and essence of its bearer. To the Jewish people, an idol could not properly have a “name” because it has no being represented by the name (Is. 44:9-21). The “name” to which the apostles refer does not signify an event, but a person, in whom the authority and power of God was active in salvation. The saving activity of God was and is expressed in the name of Jesus Christ.The name of Jesus is thereby linked in the closest possible way to the name of God. “No other name” does not refer to a second name of God, but to the unity of God with Jesus, signifying one name, one nature, one saving activity. The shared nature of God and Jesus is signaled in the most striking way by the custom of the early church to pray to God in the name of Jesus.” (7)

So just as in the Hebrew Bible where the name of God represents the person of God and all that he is, so in the New Testament “the Name” represents all who Jesus is as Lord and Savior. Furthermore, as Jean Danielou says:

The beginning of the Christology of the Name are already found in the New Testament. On the one hand Old Testament texts mentioning the Name are frequently quoted in the New Testament. Thus Acts 15:17, quoting Amos 9:12, reads:  ‘All the Gentiles upon my Name is called….’ Paul (Rom 2:24 mentioned Is. 52: 5 ‘The Name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’ The same Epistle quotes Ex. 9:16: ‘that my Name might be published abroad in all the earth’ (Rom. 9:17). ….In these various quotations the Name can in fact only mean Yahweh, but it is hard to see why these texts should have been collected in messianic dossiers unless the Name had appeared to have some relation to Christ. There are, moreover, some passages in which this relationship is explicitly stated. Thus Joel 3:5: ‘Whoever shall call upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved’ is quoted in Acts 2:21 and 4:12 in a somewhat indeterminate  sense. But the same text is repeated in Rom 10:12,as follows: ‘(Christ) is the same Lord (Kurios) of all, and is rich unto all that call upon him: for, Whosoever, shall call upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Here the Name is clearly that of Christ;…. (8)

Furthermore, In Acts 7:59-60, Luke records the following about the prayer of Stephen, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. The word translated “prayed” in the NRSV (as well as the NIV) is a form of “epikaleo,” which literally means to “call on” someone. (9) And when this word is used in religious contexts of appealing to supernatural beings for divine help, “epikaleo” is a technical term for prayer. (10) Stephen is actually seen as entrusting the “Lord Jesus” with his very spirit. The immanent theologian Jaroslav Pelikan said the following about Stephen’s willingness to call upon Jesus as Lord: “For Stephen to commit his spirit to the Lord Jesus when the Lord Jesus himself had committed his spirit to the Father was either an act of blatant idolatry or his acknowledgment of the kurios Iesous [Lord Jesus] as the fitting recipient of the dying prayer of Stephen.(11).

Paul also says the following

Another passage that stands out is 1 Corinthians 16:22: “If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed. Maranatha.” Maranatha means “Our Lord Come!” Because this liturgical expression was present at the worship gathering for Jesus to come eschatologically, it is evident that this was a plea that was a widely known feature of early Christian worship that started among Aramaic-speaking believers and had also become a part of the prayers among Pauline Christians. Hurtado says, “What is even more significant is that there is nothing in comparison to a corporate invocation to Jesus to any other group related to a Jewish tradition at that time period.” (12)

As I said, one thing that can be observed by the historian is cause and effect. In other words, a historian can observe the effect- the radical shift in the devotional practice of the early Christian community. While the Jesus devotion of the early Christian community is related to the disciples experiences with Jesus before the resurrection, there is no doubt that Hurtado’s comments about Jesus’ messianic work by being raised from the dead certainly lends credence to the fact that He was worthy of their worship and devotion.

The Cause for Jesus Devotion? Paganism, Hellenism, Mystery Religions?

Now I know the skeptic will try to find some naturalistic explanation to explain the “shift” in the devotional practice of these early Jewish believers. As I said, there are also references to the negative views of gentile polytheism (Acts 17: 22-23; 1 Cor 8:5). Gentiles were regarded as both sinful (Gal 2:5) and idolatrous (Rom 1:23). To try to say that during the Second Temple period that the early Jewish believers were syncretistic is problematic.  I have discussed these issues elsewhere. I have also written elsewhere that it is doubtful a dead, crucified Messiah wouldn’t jump start the early Christology.

Conclusion

So what has the best explanatory power for birth of Christology? The answer to this question can’t be determined apart from a person’s presuppositions. If one has decided to not rule out any explanation that isn’t naturalistic, then I concur with Hurtado that it is the resurrection itself and the post-resurrection appearances that provides the best hypothesis for the birth of Christology.

Sources:
1. Paul Barnett, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2005), 8.
2. David Berger, The Rebbe, The Messiah And The Scandal Of Orthodox Difference, 160-174.
3. Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Books, 2007), 132.
4. Larry Hurtado, One Lord, One God, Early Christian Devotion And Ancient Jewish Montheism (Philadelphia, PA. Fortress Press. 1988), 100-124.
5. Ibid.

6. ” Robert W. Yarbrough, Jesus Christ, Name and Titles of” This is available online at http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/jesus-christ-name-and-titles-of.html

7. James R. Edwards,  Is Jesus the Only Savior? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Group, 2005.

8. Jean Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, trans. John A. Baker (London,: Darton, Longman&Todd; Philadephia,: Westminster Press, 1964), 149.

9. R. M. Bowman and J.E. Komoszewski, Putting Jesus Back In His Place: The Case For The Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2007), 49.

10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion And Ancient Jewish Monotheism(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 100-124.

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