Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

Was Jesus Divine?
Early Christian Perspectives 

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2010 by Mark D. Roberts and Beliefnet

Click here for an updated, completed, and reformatted version of this series.

 

 

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Note: This series in in process. It is based on a series I wrote several years ago. For the latest posts, see my blog: http://blog.beliefnet.com/markdroberts/.
Introduction 

“I’m
okay with Jesus being a great teacher and even somehow a heavenly
revealer,” a man once said to me, “but I’m just not into this whole
notion of Jesus being God. I have a hard time with that one.” Sound
familiar? Have you ever heard this? Maybe even said it yourself? Or
maybe you haven’t said it, but deep inside you’ve wondered about how
Jesus could possible have been divine.

Indeed, the deity of
Jesus isn’t one of the easiest of Christian beliefs to grasp, though it
is one of the most central, and, I might add, one of the most
controversial. If Jesus was just an inspired human teacher, one who
pointed the way (or a way) to God, this fits nicely within our
contemporary religious milieu. But if Christians claim that Jesus was
not merely a human prophet, as affirmed, for example, by Islam, but
somehow also the one true God in the flesh, then this sets Christianity
apart from other religions. It implies that Christ is not merely one
possible way to God, but a unique way. In our world today, this claim
can seem arrogant, if not antique.

Today, some folks who
aren’t Christians don’t have a problem with the divinity of Jesus
because they believe that all people are, in some sense, divine. Like
the Gnostics of days gone by, these spiritual folk affirm that a spark
of the divine dwells within each person. They claim that we will
experience life most fully when we realize that we are all in some
measure divine. From this perspective, Jesus’ divinity seems to pose no
problem, since, in the end, all people are divine. Jesus is the Son of
God? Not to worry, because we are all sons and daughters of God.

But
Christian orthodoxy has always affirmed, not that Jesus was divine in a
way common to all people, but in a unique way. Jesus didn’t simply have
some element of the divine implanted within him. Rather, he was the
unique and perfect incarnation of the one true God. Whether people are
right or not in their belief about the divine spark in human beings,
what is claimed about Jesus is radically different than this belief,
even if it happens to be true.

One of the questions people
commonly ask when considering the deity of Jesus is: “Where did this
idea come from?” Or, to put the question somewhat differently: “Why did
Jesus’ followers start thinking that he was, not just a human teacher
and savior, but God in the flesh?” This is a crucial question, one that
Christians should be able to answer. In this blog series I will attempt
to answer this question by examining the historical records from
earliest Christian belief. (Photo: An icon of Jesus Christ as Pantokrator, a Greek word meaning “ruler of all things.” From a Serbian monastery in Greece.)

pantokrator-serbian-5.jpg

The
question of why the earliest Christians believed Jesus to be divine is
important, not only as a matter of historical interest, but also
because the divinity of Jesus is often rejected today on the grounds
that it was not an essential part of earliest Christian faith but a
latter addition. Because it came later, many have argued, it can be
safely jettisoned, and we can all get back to the most authentic,
politically-correct version of Christianity, in which Jesus is an
inspired man, but only a man.

You can find this view in
scholarly tomes tucked away in seminary libraries as well as in the
pseudo-scholarly volumes on Jesus that fill the shelves of secular
bookstores today. But one of the most popular vehicles for the
dissemination of the “Jesus was just a great guy who later on got
divinized” theory was the wildly successful novel The Da Vinci Code
by Dan Brown, as well as the movie version starring Tom Hanks. Though
the popularity of The Da Vinci Code has waned in the last few years, it
still offers one of the most readable and influential statements of the
“Jesus was just a man” theories.

Consider the following scene,
for example, in which the “scholar” Sir Leigh Teabing explains to the
ingénue Sophie Neveu what really happened at the Council of Nicaea in
A.D. 325:

“At this gathering,” Teabing said, “many
aspects of Christianity were debated and voted on – the date of Easter,
the role of the bishops, the administration of sacraments, and, of
course, the divinity of Jesus.”
“I don’t follow. His divinity?”
“My
dear,” Teabing declared, “until that moment in history, Jesus was
viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet . . . a great and powerful
man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal.”
“Not the Son of God?”
“Right,” Teabing said. “Jesus’ establishment as ‘the Son of God’ was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea.”
“Hold on. You’re saying Jesus’ divinity was the result of a vote?”
“A relatively close vote at that,” Teabing added. (Da Vinci Code, p. 233)

I
don’t have the time to refute the myriad of historical inaccuracies in
Teabing/Brown’s description of the Council of Nicaea. But, in this
present series, I do want to examine closely the historical roots of
Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus. In particular, I want to
examine historical evidence for the fact that the earliest Christians
held Jesus to be, somehow, God in the flesh. I also want to explain why
they came to this rather peculiar conviction.

If we find that
the earliest Christians did indeed regard Jesus as divine, this doesn’t
prove that they were right, of course. They might well have been
mistaken. But if the historical record indicates that belief in Jesus’
deity goes back to the first Christians, then the popular notion of his
divinity as a late addition to authentic Christianity will be revealed
as a fiction. We will be encouraged to reject it, not because orthodox
Christians don’t like it, but because it just doesn’t fit the facts.

In
the interest of full disclosure, I should at this point mention that I
am an orthodox Christian (or at least I try to be) who does in fact
believe that Jesus was divine. Naturally, my personal beliefs may
impact my scholarship, as is true for every human being, since none of
us can be completely objective. Yet, I will do my best in this series
to present information that is historically accurate. I have spent a
fair amount of my life studying early Christianity, both during my days
in graduate school and thereafter. As you read, if you think I’m
skewing the evidence in favor of my personal beliefs, you are more than
welcome to point this out in the comments or in an email to me.

In
my next post I’ll begin to examine some popular theories, some
advocated by Christians and others favored by secularists, that seek to
explain early Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus.

 

Click here for an updated and reformatted version of this series.

 

Popular Theories on Why the Early Christians Believed Jesus Was Divine: Theory #1

 

There
are many popular theories about why the earliest Christians considered
to Jesus to be divine. You can find these regularly espoused by
preachers, teachers, professors of religion, or debunkers of
Christianity. As you might be able to tell already, I do not find these
theories to be persuasive. But because they are so common, I thought I’d
begin by summarizing them and showing why they are inadequate. I’ll
start by examining theories espoused by faithful Christians, and then
move to the debunking side of the equation. 

Theory #1: The early Christians believed Jesus was divine because they believed he was the Messiah, the Son of God.

The
belief in the messiahship of Jesus is indeed one of the oldest and most
central of all Christian beliefs. In Matthew’s account of Peter’s
confession of Jesus, after Jesus asked who his disciples thought he was,
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”
(Matthew 16:16). The Gospel of Mark is introduced as “The beginning of
the good news of Jesus Christ [Greek = christos, either Christ or
Messiah], the Son of God (Mark 1:1). Similarly, the author of the
Gospel of John states his purpose this way: “[I have written about the
signs Jesus did] so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the
Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in
his name” (John 20:31).

So, then, don’t these passages make it
clear that because the earliest Christians thought Jesus was the Messiah
they also regarded him as the divine Son of God? Well, not exactly. Let
me explain. (Photo: A stained glass representation of Peter’s
confession of Jesus.
The words at the bottom say: “Thou art the Christ.” From Trinity
Lutheran Church in Pasadena, California.)

Peters-Confession-glass-5.jpg

First, in Judaism of the time of Jesus, the title “Messiah” carried no implication of divinity. In Hebrew a mashiach
was one who was anointed with oil for some special purpose. To
recognize someone as a messiah was rather like saying that person had
special authority or some special calling. But it was not in any way to
imply that someone was divine. In the time of Jesus, many Jews yearned
for the coming of a messiah, an anointed one who would bring freedom and
liberation from Rome. This person would be blessed by God, execute
God’s judgment, and ultimately be a vehicle for God’s salvation, but he
would not be divine. Remember that the Jews were fiercely monotheistic.
So early Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah would not have led
them to acknowledge him as God in the flesh. There is no logical flow
from messiahship to deity.

But, you might wonder, what about the
apparent equation of Messiah and Son of God in the gospel texts
mentioned above? Don’t these indicate that the Messiah was someone
divine? We might easily think this to be the case because we tend to use
“Son of God” in the sense of “God’s only divine Son.” This usage does
go back to the early days of Christianity. But among Jews in the time of
Jesus, “Son of God” was used in other ways. For example, the people of
Israel could be called God’s son (Hosea 11:1). So could the righteous
man who is faithful to God (Wisdom 2:12-18).

The Jewish king was
also called the Son of God, though, unlike their neighbors in the
ancient world, Jews didn’t deify their kings. Consider, for example,
what God said about King Solomon: “I will be a father to him, and he
shall be a son to me” (2 Samuel 7:14). Similarly, we read this in Psalm
89: “I have set the crown on one who is mighty . . . . I have found my
servant David; and with my holy oil I have anointed him; He shall cry to
me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!’ I will
make him my firstborn . . . .” (Psalm 89:19-20; 26-27). Notice that in
this passage God anoints (makes messiah) the king, who calls God Father,
and who is God’s firstborn. But there was no implication in this text
that the king of Israel was divine.

So, when Peter confessed
Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” it’s unlikely that
this meant, “the Anointed One, who is also the divine Son of God.”
Rather, this confession simply used two more or less synonymous terms
for “God’s chosen king and redeemer.”

Now I do believe that the
identification of Jesus as Son of God did in fact have something to do
with early Christian belief in his messiahship. I’ll examine this
possibility in greater depth later in this series. But, for now, I
simply want to point out that when Jews (like Peter) thought of Jesus as
Messiah or even Son of God, they were thinking of him as royalty, not
divinity.

So the common theory that virtually equates
messiahship with deity doesn’t fit the historical and linguistic
evidence. A first-century Jew could have acknowledged Jesus as the
Messiah without the slightest notion that he was somehow much more than a
special man inspired and authorized by God to deliver God’s people from
bondage to Rome.

There is another weak argument for Jesus’
divinity that Christians often put forth, and this I’ll examine in my
next post in this series.

Popular Theories on Why the Early Christians Believed Jesus Was Divine: Theory #2

 

In
my last post, I began considering popular theories about why the early
Christians considered Jesus to be divine. The first theory pointed to
the fact that they thought of Jesus as Messiah and therefore Son of God.
But I showed that, in the thought world of first-century Judaism – the
world of the earliest believers in Jesus – both “Messiah” and “Son of
God” were royal titles, pointing out Jesus’ divine anointing, but not
his divine nature. 

Perhaps the other popular theory espoused by
many Christians points to the resurrection of Jesus as evidence of his
deity. Here’s a version of that theory:

Theory #2: The early Christians believed Jesus was divine because of his resurrection.

According
to this theory, the first Christians believed that Jesus was divine
because they believed he had been raised from the dead. “Surely,” it is
proposed, “human beings don’t rise from the dead. So the good news of
Easter convinced the earliest Christians – as it convinces us today –
that Jesus was in fact God.”

Now there is a grain of truth in
this theory, as there was in the previous theory about the Messiah/Son
of God. No doubt the resurrection of Jesus did figure significantly in
the development of early Christian belief about Jesus’ deity. But the
“resurrection therefore divine” argument is too simple to be correct, at
least in its most common form. (Photo: My understanding of the
resurrection of Jesus has been significantly aided by N.T. Wright’s
magisterial The Resurrection of the Son of God. If you want to
know something about how people in the time of Jesus thought of
resurrection, you’ll find it in these 740 pages.)

Wright-Resurrection-4.jpg

For
one thing, Jesus was not the only one to rise from the dead while he
was on earth, yet we have no indication that any of the other
“resurrected ones” were considered to be divine. Mark 5:21-43 tells the
story of Jesus’ raising the dead daughter of the leader of a synagogue.
The people were amazed, but didn’t think the girl was divine. Similarly,
in John 11:1-45, Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. Many of
those who observed this miracle put their faith in Jesus (11:45), but
they didn’t deify Lazarus. Finally, Matthew mentions that many were
raised from the dead when Jesus was killed (27:52-53). Yet, once again,
nobody thought these people were divine. So, the “raised from the dead
therefore God” formula doesn’t fit the context in which the first
Christians came to recognize that Jesus was much more than a man. (I am
aware, of course, that the resurrection of Jesus was of a different kind
than the resurrections I have mentioned.)

Many Jews in the time
of Jesus expected that, in God’s time, human beings would experience
resurrection. Mark 12:18 notes that “Some Sadducees, who say there is no
resurrection, came to Jesus . . . .” The implication is that this
denial of resurrection set the Sadducees apart from many of not many if
not most other Jews in the time of Jesus. Notably, the Pharisees
believed in resurrection beyond death.

But the Pharisees were
not alone in this belief. We find the idea of resurrection among the Old
Testament prophets, most notably Daniel. Daniel 12 envisions a time in
the future when “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall
awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting
contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky,
and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and
ever” (Dan 12:3). The post-biblical book of Wisdom, written a couple of
centuries before Jesus, affirms that “the souls of the righteous are in
the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them” (Wis 3:1). In
time, “they will shine forth” and “will govern nations and rule over
peoples” (Wis 3:7-8). The promise of resurrection emboldened Jewish
people to die rather than abandon their faith in God. In 2 Maccabees, a
man who is being tortured to death says, “One cannot but choose to die
at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope God gives of being
raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!”
(2 Macc 7:14).

So, in the eyes of the first followers of Jesus,
who were Jewish, of course, the resurrection of Jesus proved that he
was righteous. It vindicated his life, his ministry, his message, and
even his death. But it did not, at least at first blush, demonstrate
that Jesus was God. The earliest Christians confessed that “God raised”
him from the dead (Acts 2:24; Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 6:14), but they did not
say that Jesus raised himself, thereby showing himself to be God.

I
would certainly agree, however, that apart from the resurrection of
Jesus, the early followers of Jesus would never have come to the
conclusion that he was God in the flesh. In fact, there really wouldn’t
have been any early followers of Jesus after his crucifixion, were it
not for his resurrection. So the resurrection is crucial in the overall
calculus that ends with Jesus’ deity. But the flow of ideas is more
complex than the simple “resurrection therefore divine” argument that
sometimes shows up in Easter sermons. Jesus could have been the
Messiah/Son of God, and he could even have been raised by God on the
third day after his crucifixion, without being divine. These things
surely point in the direction of Jesus’ specialness, even his
uniqueness, but more is required to get to his divinity.

I’ll
get to this “more” later in this series. But before I do, I want to
examine a very popular argument among secularists that purports to
explain why the earliest Christians believed Jesus to be divine. I’ll
deal with this in my next post in this series.

Popular Theories on Why the Early Christians Believed Jesus Was Divine: Theory #3

In my last two posts in this series, I examined two theories that seek
to explain why the earliest Christians regarded Jesus as divine. I found
both of these to be lacking, though both point in a direction that will
ultimately lead to a plausible theory.

Schwarzenegger-Hercules-4.jpg

Today
I want to examine a common theory that seeks to explain the early
Christian deification of Jesus without depending on the miracle of the
resurrection. This theory, popular in college religion courses, claims
that the earliest Christians, as faithful Jewish monotheists, hailed
Jesus as an inspired teacher and/or as Israel’s Messiah, but not as a
divine being. Yet as Christianity spread into the Roman world, the
original, authentic Christianity underwent a transformation. Under the
influence of Greco-Roman religion and culture, in which the line between
the human and the divine was frequently crossed, the fully human Jesus
began to be divinized. Soon, like Hercules or Julius Caesar, Jesus was
considered to be a god. Thus the authentic early Christianity, with a
human Jesus, was hijacked by the divinizing tendencies of the
Greco-Roman world. (Photo: Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first film,
Hercules in New York. His English was so poor that they dubbed his
voice, very poorly. Who would have thought in 1970 that this Austrian
muscleman would someday be the Governor of California?)

This
theory is not an implausible one. There actually was a fine and
permeable line between divinity and humanity in the Greek and Roman
worlds. Consider the myth of Hercules, for example (in Greek, Herakles).
His father was a god (Zeus) while his mother (Alcmene) was a human
being. Hercules lived as a sort of god-man, with superior strength and
other abilities. After his death he became a full-on god. In basic
outline, this story sounds rather like early Christian belief about
Jesus. (Photo: A picture of an obelisk in Rome. It was put there by
Augustus Caesar, whom the inscription identifies as “The Emperor
Augustus Caesar, son of the divine (Caesar).” Of course if Augustus was
the son of a divine being, then what did that imply about Augustus
himself?)

Augustus-obelisk-3.jpg

Yet
it wasn’t just mythical humans who became gods in the Roman world. The
Caesars were also accorded this honor. Julius, for example, was
recognized as a god after he was murdered in 44 B.C. His immediate
successors (Augustus, Tiberius) were also divinized, but only after
their deaths, at least in principle. Augustus was certainly more than
willing to hint at his divinity during his earthly life. Toward the
middle of the first century A.D., the Roman Emperors began to be
recognized as gods even before their deaths. By the end of the first
century, the Emperor Domitian left no room for speculation, calling
himself “Lord” and “God” and requiring others to do the same. Those who
would not pay him due homage, like the Christians, for example, were
executed.

Into this milieu the early Christians proclaimed Jesus
as one sent by God to bring salvation to the world. It’s not impossible
to imagine that, in competition with gods like Hercules (who had a
temple near the Roman Forum) and human heroes like the divinized Julius
Caesar (who had a temple in the Roman Forum), Jesus also came to be
thought of as divine. Moreover, this process of deification coincided
with the movement of Christianity away from Judaism and toward paganism.
So the Jewish commitment to monotheism was lost along the way, and,
voilà, Jesus became divine.

As I’ve said, this theory has merit.
But the question is: Does it fit the facts of early Christianity? As we
examine the original sources that show us what the earliest Christians
in fact believed about Jesus, does the “divinization under the influence
of Greco-Roman culture theory” hold up? Or is another theory more
plausible historically? These questions will guide the next steps in
this series.

Earliest Christian Belief About Jesus: What Evidence Do We Have?

In my last post I laid out a popular theory among some scholars for how
the early Christians came to think of Jesus as divine. Let me review it
briefly. According to this theory, the first followers of Jesus didn’t
consider him to be divine, but only an inspired man. The earliest
Christians were, after all, monotheistic Jews who didn’t go around
divinizing people. But as the Christian movement spread into the Roman
Empire, it encountered a very different ethos and was transformed by
that ethos. In the Greco-Roman world, unlike in the Jewish world, the
line between humanity and divinity was frequently crossed, not only by
mythological heroes like Hercules, but also by flesh-and-blood human
beings like the Roman Caesars. So it was only natural that formerly
pagan Christians, competing for religious allegiance against a slew of
Greco-Roman cults, would divinize Jesus. Therefore, the one who was once
only an inspired human redeemer and teacher became the One who was
regarded as divine. (Those who reject classical Christian faith
criticize this move to deify Jesus as an unnecessary and inauthentic
add-on. Real Christianity, they claim, affirms the specialness of the
human Jesus, but not his deity. See, for example, the prolific writings
of Marcus Borg.)

I mentioned before that this theory has merit
as one possible explanation of how Jesus came to be seen as God. It
isn’t a crazy theory (like the ones that “expose” Jesus as a space alien
or a closet homosexual). One of the benefits of the “Jesus was
divinized under the influence of Greco-Roman culture” theory is that we
can actually look closely at the historical evidence to see if it is
true or not.

What is the evidence for earliest Christian belief?
Unfortunately, we don’t have newspaper accounts or in-depth interviews
of the earliest followers of Jesus. There weren’t many reliable bloggers
or videographers in the first-century A.D. either. In fact, we don’t
have any information about the very earliest Christian beliefs beyond
what we find in the New Testament itself. The earliest Roman and Jewish
descriptions of Christianity confirm what we see in Christian sources,
but they were written at the end of the first-century A.D., decades
after the Christian sources at our disposal. The Gnostic writings, which
are sometimes brought forward as witnesses to earliest Christian
belief, were written after most if not all of the New Testament. So they
provide little data for understanding earliest Christian belief, though
they are helpful for our knowledge of second-century and later
Christian thought and practice.

The New Testament alone provides
authentic historical information about the earliest Christians, yet this
doesn’t come in systematic or exhaustive packages. Acts of the Apostles
supplies some clues to the earliest Christian beliefs, but tells only a
small part of the story of early Christianity. Acts was written maybe
fifty years after the events themselves (though with the help of earlier
written sources no longer available to us). The New Testament Gospels
tell the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but provide scant evidence of
what his first followers did and thought after Jesus disappeared from
the scene. (The literary/historical discipline of form-criticism does
provide some access to this evidence, but its results are often quite
speculative.)

Some scholars point to the document known as “Q” as
a helpful source for earliest Christian beliefs. “Q” gets its name from
the German word “Quelle” which means “source.” You’ll even find some
scholars who write about several versions of “Q,” going back to the very
earliest days of Christianity. In the first drafts of “Q,” which
conveniently don’t include verses in “Q” that contradict the “human
Jesus” theory, Jesus is an inspired teacher of wisdom, but not a divine
figure. The problem with this theory is that it is basically fiction.
There is no document “Q” in existence. It is a scholarly construct. Now,
I happen to believe that the theory that Matthew and Luke had access to
a document that consisted mainly of sayings of Jesus is a plausible
one. But scholars who think they can peel back the editorial layers of
this theoretical document, and in so doing get back to some authentic
core of Christian belief, have more confidence in the scholarly
inventions than I do. In truth, they’re making it all up on the basis of
precious little actual evidence. So even if there was a “Q” document,
discussion of layers of “Q” and the early “Q communities” provides a
sandy foundation for an understanding of earliest Christian belief. (If
you’re interested in the contents of “Q,” check this helpful list.)
(Photo: A page of a biblical manuscript known as Papyrus 46 [p46]. This
page contains portions of Galatians and Philippians, and has been dated
to the second century A.D.)

p46-Gal-Phil-5.jpg

If
Acts of the Apostles, the New Testament Gospels, and even the elusive
“Q” don’t give us too much information about earliest Christian belief,
where can we turn? To the writings of the Apostle Paul. Though scholars
debate the details, all serious scholars agree that Paul’s letters were
penned within a fifteen-year period beginning in the late forties A.D.
This means that the earliest Pauline letters were written only 15-20
years after the death of Jesus. Thus the letters themselves are primary
evidence of what some of the earliest Christians believed. These people
would include Paul, to be sure, and also his churches and his
theological opponents.

Moreover, within Paul’s letters there are
passages that, in all likelihood, capture Christian beliefs that are
earlier than the late forties A.D. Just as a preacher today might quote a
bit of a hymn or a song, Paul included such materials in his letters.
Some of these can be identified with a high level of probability. Thus
these passages in particular get us back to some of the earliest
Christian beliefs, those that pre-date Paul’s own writings.

In my
next post I want to begin to look at one of these passages in Paul’s
letters, a passage that most certainly includes one of the very earliest
records of Christian belief about Jesus.

Maranatha! What Difference Does It Make?

Sometime in the mid-50s A.D., the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the
church in Corinth. He concluded this epistle in the following way:

I,
Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Let anyone be accursed who
has no love for the Lord. Our Lord, come! The grace of the Lord Jesus be
with you. My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus (1 Cor 16:21-24).

This
passage this reads smoothly in English. But if you were to read the
original Greek, you’d stumble upon a mystery. What you’d find is this:

I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord. Marana tha. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus

No matter how well you knew Greek, you would not be able to understand the words, marana tha because, though they appear in Greek letters, they aren’t Greek words.

In fact, marana tha
are Aramaic words. They mean “Our Lord, come!” or possibly, “Our Lord
is coming”. The use of the prayer “Our Lord, come!” in Revelation 22:20
(in Greek) and in the Didache 10:6 (in Aramaic) points to the prayerful
use of the Aramaic phrase in 1 Corinthians 16:20. Aramaic was the
language spoken commonly in the eastern Roman Empire, in lands such as
Judea and Syria. But it was not the language of Corinth. In fact very
few of the Corinthian Christians would have known what marana tha
meant, unless Paul had taught them this meaning in an earlier visit to
Corinth. The fact that he employs it in his letter suggests that this
was in fact the case. The Corinthians knew this Aramaic phrase because
Paul had taught it to them during his first visit to Corinth, which took
place around A.D. 52. (Photo: Maranatha Baptist Bible College, in
Bangalore, India.)

maranatha-bible-college-india.jpg

So,
you may be thinking, that’s all well and good. I now know something
about the origin of “Our Lord, come!” in 1 Corinthians 16. But why does
this matter? Whatever does this tell us about the earliest Christian
belief about Jesus and his divinity? Let me explain.

First of all, the fact that marana tha
are Aramaic words suggests that they came at first, not from the quill
of the Apostle Paul, but rather from the life and liturgy of the Aramaic
speaking church. This means that their origin can be dated, not to the
mid-50’s A.D., but earlier. Marana tha comes from the 40s or 30s. In other words, this phrase preserves one of the earliest Christian prayers we have.

Second,
the fact that Paul actually taught these Aramaic words in a letter to
the Greek-speaking Corinthians suggests that they weren’t some
incidental phrase Paul picked up somewhere in his early days as a
Christian. Rather, they were important enough and used enough in the
earliest church that Paul actually passed them on in their original
tongue. This situation would be somewhat like that of the Hebrew words
amen and hallelujah, which we know in the original language because they
have played such a crucial part in Christian worship.

So, the phrase marana tha is both very old and very important. But what does it show us about the earliest Christian understanding of Jesus?

First, it’s quite clear from the context in 1 Corinthians 16 (and elsewhere), that the “Lord” being addressed as “Our Lord” (marana) is Jesus in particular, not God (the Father). Jesus is the one the early Christians are asking to come.

Second,
consider the fact that the earliest Christians, most of whom were Jews,
were calling out to Jesus as if in prayer. Not only did they believe
that he rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, but they also
believed that he could hear their requests. So, as they worshiped the
one true God, they also prayed to Jesus. This is quite a surprising
development when you consider that it happened within a monotheistic
Jewish context.

Third, the word “Lord” in Aramaic (mar)
had a variety of meanings. It could be used as a term of respect for a
human being. But it was also the word used by Aramaic-speaking Jews when
they spoke to the LORD God. During his earthly life, Jesus was
sometimes addressed as “lord” by people who meant simply to show respect
to him as an honorable human being (for example, Matthew 8:6). But,
after Jesus’ resurrection, the Christian use of “Lord” began to change.
We see this illustrated powerfully in the story of “doubting Thomas.”
When he finally realizes that Jesus is truly risen, Thomas exclaims, “My
Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). While Thomas is not espousing
Trinitarian theology here, his language suggests an association between
Jesus and God that is striking.

So when the earliest Christians,
who still maintained their Jewish identity and central belief in one
God, spoke in prayer to Jesus, calling him “Lord,” this indicates that
they thought of Jesus in most exalted terms. Though it would be going
beyond the evidence to conclude that the earliest, Aramaic-speaking,
Jewish Christians believed that Jesus was somehow “fully God,” in the
language of the fourth-century Nicene Creed, they were clearly moving in
that direction. (In fact, it may well be that some of those who prayed
to Jesus with marana tha did indeed think of him as God, while
others did not. Early Christianity showed considerable theological
diversity, which is one reason I entitled this series Was Jesus Divine? Early Christian Perspectives, not The Early Christian Perspective.)

We
have seen that two small words in Paul’s first letter to the
Corinthians turn out to reveal quite a bit about the earliest Christian
belief in Jesus. They show that some of the first Christians prayed to
Jesus, as if to God, and referred to him with a title they used for God.
These words also show us that the phrase “Our Lord, come!” was
important enough and used so commonly among some of the earliest
Christians that Paul taught the Corinthians both the Aramaic words and
their meaning. Clearly, therefore, many of the earliest Christians
regarded Jesus as far more than simply an inspired, human teacher of
wisdom. He was someone to whom they prayed as if they were praying to
God.

In my next post in this series I’ll consider another piece
of early Christian evidence that confirms and develops what we have seen
in this post.

The Paradoxical Path to Lordship

In my last post I examined one of the very oldest bits of evidence for
early Christian belief about Jesus. As you may recall, the original
Greek text of 1 Corinthians 16:22 contains the Aramaic phrase, marana tha,
which means, “Our Lord, come!” This shows that some of the very
earliest Christians actually prayed to Jesus after his death and
resurrection, even addressing him as “Lord,” a term used for God
himself. So, though we can’t tell exactly what the first followers of
Jesus believed about him, they surely held him to be much more than a
man. In some way they related to Jesus as if he were God himself.

Another
very early piece of early Christian belief confirms and expands upon
this conclusion. In his letter to the Philippians, written during the
mid- to late-50’s A.D., the Apostle Paul speaks of Christ in quite
exalted language:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:5-11).

Notice
that Christ, prior to becoming human, was in the form of God and
possessed equality with God. Then, in light of his obedient death, God
exalted him and gave him the very name of God so that all creation might
bow before him and worship him as Lord. Clearly Jesus is no longer in
the “merely human” category. (Photo: A statue of the reigning Christ
from the cathedral in Monaco.)

christ-reigning-monaco-5.jpg

At
the latest, this passage was written about 25 years after the death of
Jesus – a testimony to early Christian belief. Yet many respectable
scholars believe that Paul did not actually compose this text, but
borrowed it from an earlier piece of Christian liturgy. The peculiar
linguistic form of this passage, combined with its use of language that
is unusual for Paul, combined with its “confessional” quality, have
persuaded many New Testament scholars that Paul employed a hymn that had
been written earlier than Philippians. Just how much earlier we can’t
tell. But, once again, we have in Paul’s letters, which are themselves
the earliest Christian documents available to us, a piece of tradition
which quite possibly goes back to an earlier stage of Christian history.
Of course even if Paul composed the hymn in Philippians 2:5-11, it
still counts as early Christian belief about Jesus.

This is all
the more striking when you compare this text from Philippians with
passages from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. In Philippians 2:9-11,
God gave Jesus “the name that is above every name” so that every tongue
might confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Compare this with Isaiah
42:5-8:

Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you; . . .
I am the LORD, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.

Yet in Philippians 2, the Lord shares his glory with Christ, even giving him the name of Lord.

Three chapters later, in Isaiah 45:21-23, we read this:

Declare and present your case;
let them take counsel together!
Who told this long ago?
Who declared it of old?
Was it not I, the LORD?
There is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Savior;
there is no one besides me.
Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn,
from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
“To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear.”

Yet
Philippians 2, obviously echoing Isaiah 45, claims that every knee
shall bow to Jesus, and every tongue will confess that he is Lord.

Notice,
however, that Philippians 2 doesn’t confuse Jesus Christ with God, who
in the later language of Christian theology, is identified as God the
Father. The Father exalts the Son and is glorified when all creation
confesses Jesus to be Lord. So, though we don’t have well-developed
Trinitarian theology here, we certain have the seeds from which grew the
Christian confession of one God in three persons.

Finally, we
need to remember that the Apostle Paul was a faithful, monotheistic Jew.
Part of what is so striking about the hymn in Philippians 2 is that it
is quite intentionally an application of Isaiah to Jesus. Passages in
Isaiah once reserved for God alone have been applied to Jesus, who
receives the name of Lord and who shares in divine worship. The use of
Isaiah here suggests that the recognition of Jesus as God happened among
faithful, Scripture-honoring Jews who saw in Jesus an incarnation of
their God.

Moreover, what is most stunning about Philippians
2:5-11 is that the death of Jesus, even a scandalous death on the cross,
contributes to his being regarded as God, rather than taking away from
it. The one who died so ignominiously is the one who receives the
worship of all creation as if he were God, and this worship is somehow a
result of his humiliating death. Now that’s a paradox well worth
further consideration.

In my next post in this series I’ll begin
to look at another theological insight that contributed to early
Christian exaltation of Jesus as God.

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is One!

One of the classic Jewish affirmations appears in the sixth chapter of
Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love
the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with
all your strength” (Deut 6:4-5, NIV). This is often called the Shema, Hebrew for the imperative “hear.” The Shema
stood at the center of Jewish faith and worship in the time of Jesus,
even as it does today. It affirmed the oneness of God, as well as the
fact that this one God was also the Israel’s own LORD, the One who had
revealed himself as Yahweh. (When “LORD” appears in all caps in the
Bible, it translates the Hebrew name of God, YHWH. Photo: The Shema as
it appears in the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book. I have circled the
word shema’ in Hebrew.)

shema-siddur-5.jpg

The Apostle Paul, having grown up in a committed Jewish family, would have heard the Shema
countless times. Though the larger pagan world of his upbringing was
filled with other so-called “gods,” Paul and his fellow Jews affirmed
that theirs was the only true God, an affirmation that sometimes led to
persecution of Jews, even occasional martyrdom. Yet no faithful Jew
would abandon the belief in one God, the LORD, who was worthy to be
loved with heart, soul, and strength. Jesus himself affirmed the
importance of the Shema when he asked which commandment was the
greatest: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is
one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all
your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark
12:29-30).

When he accepted Jesus as God’s Messiah, Paul
continued to see himself as a faithful Jew. Yet his understanding of God
began to change. Not only did he see the grace of God more clearly, but
also he saw greater complexity in God’s own unique nature. This is
evident in a passage from his first letter to the Corinthians, in a
discussion focused on the question of whether or not Christians should
eat food that had been sacrificed to idols. Here he writes:

Indeed,
even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth–as in
fact there are many gods and many lords–yet for us there is one God,
the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one
Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we
exist (1 Cor 8:5-6).

Here, in Paul’s confession of one God, is a distinct echo of the Shema. Surely when a Jewish man wrote “yet for us there is one God,” the Shema
was ringing in his ears. Unlike the pagans for whom there are many
“gods,” for Paul and the Christians in Corinth there is “one god, the
Father.” This is the God who created all things, and who gives us our
purpose in living.

But then Paul adds something radically new in
the history of Judaism. Not only is there one God, but also “one Lord,
Jesus Christ.” As we have seen in my last two posts, once again Jesus is
called “Lord.” The context makes it clear that Paul was not using this
word merely in reference to a human worthy of respect. The Lord Jesus is
the one “through whom are all things and through whom we exist,” not
exactly something that would be said of a human being.

In 1
Corinthians 8, the relationship of Jesus Christ to God the Father is
extraordinarily intertwined. Jesus not only receives God’s unique name
of Lord, but also he is the agent through whom God created all things
and all people. Thus Jesus has begun to take on the attributes of God’s
Wisdom as portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures and other ancient Jewish
writings. In Proverbs, for example, as God creates the universe, Wisdom
speaks in this way: “When [God] marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his
delight, rejoicing before him always” (Prov 8:29-30). God created, but
Wisdom was the master worker. In 1 Corinthians 8, all things come from
God, but all things come through Jesus Christ the Lord.

This
passage reveals that the early Christian confession of Jesus as Lord did
not, in the minds of the early Christians, mean they had abandoned
Jewish monotheism in favor of pagan polytheism. They still affirmed the
existence of one God. Yet somehow this one God now includes the one
Lord, Jesus Christ.

A critic would say that this is folly, that
one God can’t include the one Lord, Jesus Christ. The early Christians
would say that this is part of the mysterious nature of God. Later on,
theologians would attempt to explain this mystery in more systematic
terms, affirming that the one God exists in three persons (including the
Holy Spirit). We can see the seeds of this Trinitarian theology in
texts like 1 Corinthians 8. Though these seeds are of the tiny, mustard
seed variety, nevertheless they show the beginning of Christian
reflection on the nature of God and Christ, that which led to full-blown
Trinitarianism in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D.

So far in
this series we’ve seen that the earliest Christians addressed and
referred to the risen Jesus as Lord, applying to him a name reserved for
the God of Israel. They prayed to him (1 Corinthians 16:22). They
envisioned his worship and no doubt worshiped him themselves (Phil
2:9-11). They related to him as if to God. Therefore, the idea that the
divinization of Jesus was a late development apart from genuine
Christianity fails to fit the evidence. On the contrary, the evidence
suggests that some of the very earliest Christians regarded Jesus as far
more than merely human. Moreover, this theological development
happened, not under the influence of pagan polytheism, but while
Christianity was still growing in the cradle of Judaism.

Why?
Why did the earliest Christians, many of whom were faithful Jewish
monotheists, regard Jesus as divine? What motivated them to regard the
human Messiah as far more than human? I’ll seek to answer these
questions in my next posts.

Who is the Savior? Part 1

So far in this series we’ve looked at historical evidence that shows
that some of the earliest Christian spoke of Jesus as Lord, applying to
him the very name of Israel’s God. To their Lord they prayed and offered
worship. Why? Why did faithful, monotheistic Jews begin to believe that
Jesus, the human Messiah, was also in some sense the one true God?

Since
all of this happened early within Christian history, and since it
happened even among the Aramaic-speaking followers of Jesus, who were,
for the most part, devoted Jews, the “divinization under the influence
of Greco-Roman paganism” theory doesn’t explain the facts. Moreover, in
one of the early Christian texts that speaks of Jesus as the divine Lord
(1 Corinthians 8:5-6), there is a clear rejection of pagan polytheism.
Christians didn’t think that Jesus was one god among many, but that he
was, in some sense a personification of the one true God, the Lord who
revealed himself to Israel. So if the “pagan influence” theory fails to
account for the early Christian belief in the deity of Jesus, what else
might explain this startling theological development?

I would
answer this question, in part, by pointing to the implications of
salvation through Jesus Christ. (Photo: James B. Janknegt, “Father
Forgive Us,” 1990. Used by permission. I appreciated Janknegt’s
paintings for many years before I had the opportunity to meet him when
he came to Laity Lodge as a resident artist. You can view more of his
art here.)

janknegt-forgive-5.jpg

The
early Christians believed that God’s salvation had come through Jesus,
preeminently through his death and resurrection. Acts of the Apostles,
for example, describes Peter as proclaiming to the leaders of the Jews:
“This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has
become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there
is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be
saved” (Acts 4:11-12). Similarly, in what might be the earliest of all
extant Christian writings, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the
Apostle writes, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for
obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians
5:8). The good news about what God has done in Jesus is, according to
Paul, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the
Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16).

From the fact that
God’s salvation came through Jesus, the early Christians came to view
Jesus as more than merely an agent of divine salvation. He began to be
regarded as the Savior, the one who accomplished what God alone could
do. Consider, for example, the following New Testament passages:

Luke 2:11: “. . .  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Philippians
3:20: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we
are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
1 John 4:13-14 “By
this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us
of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent
his Son as the Savior of the world.”

Christians, who are
so used to regarding Jesus as Savior, might easily miss the scandalous
element in this confession. But a careful look at the Old Testament
underscores the scandal. Rarely do the Hebrew Scriptures refer to human
beings as agents of divine salvation. In the vast majority of texts, God
and God alone is the true Savior. For example, through Isaiah God says:

When
you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When
you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown! When you walk
through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames
will not consume you. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of
Israel, your Savior. . . . I am the LORD, and there is no other Savior
(Isaiah 43:2-3, 11 NLT).

Or consider the opening of Psalm 62:

I wait quietly before God,
for my salvation comes from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress where I will never be shaken (Psalm 62:1-2, NLT)

So,
the earliest Christians, most of whom would have been familiar with
these and many other Old Testament passages that proclaim God as the
only Savior, nevertheless assigned the title of Savior to Jesus. Yet if
Jesus was the Savior, and God alone was the Savior, what did this imply
about Jesus himself?

In my next post I’ll try to answer this
question by examining another New Testament passage that weaves together
the notion of Jesus as Savior with the idea of his divinity.

Who is the Savior? Part 2

In last Friday’s post I began to answer the question of why the earliest
Christians came to regard Jesus as divine. I showed how belief that
divine salvation came through Jesus led to confessing Jesus as the
Savior. Then, given the consistent testimony of the Old Testament to the
effect that God alone is Savior, the move from Savior to divine Lord
was obvious, however scandalous. (Photo: “St. Joseph with the Infant
Jesus” by Guido Reni, c. 1635. It’s striking that Joseph, who is
pictured as being old, holds Jesus much as Mary does in much Christian
art.)

reni-joseph-jesus-5.jpg

Consider
one additional New Testament text that connects Jesus as Savior to
Jesus as God. This one comes from the so-called “Infancy Narrative” in
Matthew’s gospel. Joseph had just found out that his fiancée, Mary, was
pregnant, though he had not been sexually intimate with her. So he
resolved to break their engagement. But while he was sleeping, an angel
appeared to him in a dream. The angel said:

“Joseph, son
of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child
conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you
are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All
this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the
prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they
shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew
1:20-23).

Joseph was to name Mary’s son “Jesus.” Why?
Because “he will save his people from their sins.” There is a play on
words here easily missed in English. Jesus’ actual name in Aramaic was Yeshua, or in Hebrew, Joshua.
This name means, in either Semitic language, “The LORD is salvation.”
So Mary’s son will be called “The LORD is salvation.” Given the fact
that Yeshua/Joshua was a popular name in the time of Jesus, we
cannot conclude that Jesus’ bearing of this name identified him as
divine. Yet, the angel said to Joseph that Jesus himself would save
Israel from their sins. From this one can produce a nifty syllogism:

Major premise: The LORD is salvation.
Minor premise: Jesus will save his people from their sins.
Therefore: Jesus is the LORD.

Of
course the angel made this conclusion clear by adding a line from
Isaiah 7:14: “‘Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they
shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.'” Jesus will
fulfill the promise of Isaiah. He will be, not only the Savior, but the
One who is Emmanuel: God with us. Notice that Jesus is not one god among
many, but in some way the presence of the one true God.

I began
my last post with a question: Why did the earliest Christians come to
regard Jesus as divine? Part of the answer is now apparent. The deity of
Jesus was an extrapolation from his role as Savior. Because they
experienced salvation through Jesus, and because they believed that God
alone was the Savior, the early Christians concluded that Jesus was
indeed Emmanuel, God with us.

When I use the language of
“extrapolation” and “conclusion,” I don’t mean to suggest that the
earliest Christians sat down together and worked out logical syllogisms
to prove the deity of Jesus. Faith is far more fluid and experiential
than this, of course. Moreover, I believe that the Holy Spirit was
active among the earliest Christians, teaching and guiding them into all
truth (John 15:26; 16:13). But when you probe beneath the early
Christian confessions to their theological foundation, you find that
salvation through Christ was part of what led to the belief that he was
the Savior, which then led the faithful Jewish followers of Jesus to the
unprecedented conclusion that he was also, in some measure, the one
true LORD.

Centuries later, Christian theologians continued to
define the nature of Jesus in light of his role as Savior. If Jesus were
to save us, they argued, then he had to be fully human. Only in this
way could he bear the penalty for human sin. Yet if he were merely
human, then he wouldn’t be able to break the power of sin. So he must
also be fully God. Thus, the logic of the earliest Christians, from
salvation in Jesus to Jesus as divine Savior, set the stage for later
and more systematic examinations of Jesus’ unique nature as one who is
fully God and fully human.

In my next post in this series I’ll
examine another avenue of reflection that guided the early followers of
Jesus to the conclusion that he shared in God’s own nature.

Echoes of Wisdom and the Divinity of Jesus (Part 1)

One
of the most influential theological movements in ancient Judaism was
what scholars call The Wisdom Tradition. Beginning many centuries before
Christ, faithful Jews began to pass along popular wisdom, such as we
find in the biblical book of Proverbs. Throughout this book we find wise
sayings of the sort popularized in America by Ben Franklin. For
example, we find such pragmatic advice as: 

Do not quarrel with anyone without cause,
when no harm has been done to you (Prov 3:30)
Do not enter the path of the wicked,
and do not walk in the way of the evildoers (Prov 4:14).
A slack hand causes poverty,
but the hand of the diligent makes rich (Prov 10:4).

But
there was another strand woven through the fabric of the Wisdom
Tradition, a more theological and reflective fiber. Some of the Jewish
sages, besides passing on practical guidance, began to meditate on the
very nature of wisdom, which for them meant divine wisdom. These
meditations were enshrined in poetry narrated by God’s wisdom who was
pictured as a female companion of God. In Proverbs 8, for example, we
read:

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice? . . .
“To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.
O simple ones, learn prudence;
acquire intelligence, you who lack it. . . .
Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold; . . .
The LORD created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago. . . .
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle of the face of the deep, . . .
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always. . . .” (Prov 8:1, 4-5, 10, 22, 27, 29-30)

Of
course the monotheistic Jews who penned and read these lines didn’t
picture Wisdom literally as a female god separate from the Lord. But in
the creative freedom of their poetry, they waxed eloquent about the
feminine glory of God’s wisdom. The Hebrew word for wisdom, chokhmah, is a female noun, much as in Spanish (la sabiduría) or French (la sagesse).

In
post-biblical Wisdom Tradition, Wisdom was increasingly pictured as a
female consort of the Lord. We see this, for example, in books from the
Old Testament Apocrypha, including the Wisdom of Solomon and the Wisdom
of Ben-Sira (known also as Sirach or Ecclesiasticus). The Jewish sages
believed, moreover, that Wisdom had come to dwell in Israel in the form
of the Mosaic law or the temple. Thus the universal Wisdom of God found a
place within the tradition and revelation of Jewish religion and
theology. (Photo: A painting of Jesus as a teacher of wisdom:
Tintoretto, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary,” 1570-75)

tintoretto-christ-mary-martha-5.jpg

The
earliest Christians, along with other first-century Jews, were
influenced by the Wisdom Tradition. You can see this clearly, for
example, in the New Testament letter of James, whose advice giving
sayings often sound a lot like those in Proverbs. Also, some of the
sayings of Jesus contain distinct echoes of Jewish wisdom. One of the
most striking of these echoes is found in Matthew 11:

“Come
to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heaven burdens, and I
will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am
gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For
my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30)

Now compare this with a couple passages from the pre-Christian Jewish book of Sirach.

Come to [wisdom] will all your soul,
and keep her ways with all your might.
Search out and seek, and she will become known to you;
and when you get hold of her, do not let her go.
For at last you will find the rest she gives,
and she will be changed into joy for you.
Then her fetters will become for you a strong defense,
and her collar a glorious robe.
Her yoke is a golden ornament,
and her bonds a purple cord. (Sir 6:26-30)

Another chapter of Sirach pictures Wisdom as speaking for herself:

Come to me, you who desire me,
and eat your fill of my fruits.
For the memory of me is sweeter than honey,
and the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb.
Those who eat of me will hunger for more,
and those who drink of me will thirst for more. (Sir 24:19-21)

Sirach
goes on to identify Wisdom as “the law that Moses commanded us”
(24:23), a point to which I’ll return later. The words of Wisdom in
Sirach 24:19-21 are reminiscent, not only of Jesus’ invitation in
Matthew 11:28 to “Come to me,” but also of his offer of living water to
the Samaritan woman in John 4, not to mention his language in John 6,
where he speaks of eating and drinking his flesh and blood. Like
personified Wisdom, Jesus says, “Whoever eats me will live because of
me” (John 6:57).

Surely it was no accident that Jesus echoed the
invitation of divine Wisdom. His multifaceted offer in Matthew 11 – Come
to me; I will give you rest; Take my yoke; Learn from me; My yoke is
easy – is an intentional imitation of Wisdom. By using this language,
Jesus was saying, in a sense, “What God’s Wisdom offers, I offer. What
divine Wisdom provides, I provide.” So, though he did not say directly,
“I am the incarnation of divine Wisdom,” his language pointed
suggestively in this direction. Jesus wasn’t the traditional Jewish
wisdom teacher who rhapsodized about God’s supreme Wisdom. Rather, he
spoke as if he himself were Wisdom in the flesh.

In my next post
in this series I’ll continue to pursue ways in which the connection of
Jesus with divine Wisdom underscored early Christian belief in his
divinity.

Echoes of Wisdom and the Divinity of Jesus (Part 2)

In
my last post I began to examine echoes of Wisdom in the ministry of
Jesus. By Wisdom, I mean not the human trait of wise judgment, but the
divine characteristic pictured in the Old Testament and other Jewish
sources as a female consort of the Lord. When Jesus intentionally speaks
in the voice of divine Wisdom, and not merely as a human sage pointing
people to Wisdom, the implications are striking. Jesus, one might
conclude, by talking as if he himself were God’s Wisdom, is suggesting
that he himself is in some sense divine. 

The earliest Christians
took this ball and ran with it. In several passages of the New
Testament, the biblical writers portray Jesus as God’s Wisdom come to
earth (see, for example, Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:1-4). Perhaps the
most obvious and significant of these texts is John 1:1-18, the
prologue of John’s gospel. This passage begins:

In the
beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through
him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into
being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The
light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Now
at first glance, this passage appears to associate Jesus with the Word
of God, not the Wisdom of God. And it surely does make this association.
In the Old Testament, God speaks creation into existence (Genesis 1).
Thus one might say, as some who wrote the books of the Old Testament
did, that the Word of God created the world. Take Psalm 33, for example:

For the word of the LORD is upright,
and all his work is done in faithfulness. . . .
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
and all their host by the breath of his mouth. (33:4,6)

Moreover,
as the Old Testament records that “the word of the Lord” came to
someone to reveal God’s truth, so John’s prologue recognizes Jesus the
Word as the one through whom God’s ultimate revelation has come.

Without
question, therefore, the Old Testament notion of the Word of God stands
behind the opening verses of John’s gospel. But this isn’t the whole
story, because the echoes of Wisdom in John 1:1-18 are so loud as not to
be missed by anyone familiar with the Jewish Wisdom tradition. Consider
Proverbs 3:19, for example: “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by
understanding he established the heavens.” Sounds a lot like John 1:3,
doesn’t it? But this is just the beginning. Consider the following
parallels between the Word of God in John 1 and Wisdom in Jewish
tradition:

The Word of God (John 1:1-3)

In the beginning
was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in
the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and
without him not one thing came into being. (vv. 1-3)

The Wisdom of God (Prov 8:22-23, 27-30)

The
LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of
long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of
the earth.

When he established the heavens, I was there, when he
drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies
above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned
to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his
command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was
beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing
before him always.

The Word of God (John 1:3-4)

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The Wisdom of God (Prov 8:35; Wis 6:12)

For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD.

Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her.

The Word of God (John 1:11)

He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him (v. 11)

The Wisdom of God (Prov 1:24)

. . . I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded.

The Word of God (John 1:10-12)

He
was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the
world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people
did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his
name, he gave power to become children of God.

The Wisdom of God (Wis 9:10-11)

Send
her forth from the holy heavens, and from the throne of your glory send
her, that she may labor at my side, and that I may learn what is
pleasing to you. For she knows and understands all things, and she will
guide me wisely in my actions and guard me with her glory.

The Word of God (John 1:14)

And
the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The Wisdom of God (Wis 7:25-26)

For
she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory
of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For
she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working
of God, and an image of his goodness.

There
are actually many more parallels between the Word in John’s prologue
and Wisdom in Jewish tradition, a couple of which I’ll examine later.
But the main point is clear, I believe. John’s picture of Jesus as the
Word of God has been painted with Jewish Wisdom as a model.

John’s
association of Word and Wisdom, as it turns out, was also something
found in older Jewish sources. Consider the following passages:

For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding (Prov 2:6).
It
is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his
wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens.  When he
utters his voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and he
makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. (Jer 10:12-13)
“O
God of my ancestors and Lord of mercy, who have made all things by your
word,  and by your wisdom have formed humankind . . . .” (Wis 9:1-2)
For wisdom becomes known through speech, and education through the words of the tongue (Sir 4:24).

So,
following in the footsteps of the Jewish sages, John painted a picture
of God’s Word/Wisdom in the prologue of his Gospel. The most shocking
element of this picture, of course, is the unprecedented identification
of Word/Wisdom with a man, with Jesus of Nazareth. I’ll examine this in
greater detail in my next post.

Echoes of Wisdom and the Divinity of Jesus (Part 3)

 

Let me review briefly what we have seen so far about Wisdom and Jesus before I dive into today’s new material. 

I
began this series with a simple question: Why did Jesus’ followers
start thinking that he was, not just a human teacher and savior, but God
in the flesh? Then I considered several popular answers to this
question, none of which quite do the job. So I began to examine what the
first Christians believed about Jesus and why. I then documented the
exaltation of Jesus as Lord, and showed how the early Christian
understanding of Jesus as savior contributed to seeing him as God.

In
my last two posts I illustrated how Jesus was identified with divine
Wisdom. The Jewish Wisdom Tradition often spoke of God’s Wisdom as if
“she” were a female character, a consort of the Lord himself. The Jewish
sages didn’t actually believe that Wisdom was some sort of goddess
alongside the one true Lord, of course. But they exercised considerable
poetic freedom in the way they portrayed God’s Wisdom as a female being.

In
my last post I focused on the prologue to John’s Gospel (1:1-18). Here
John waxes eloquent about the Word of God, active both in creation and
in revelation. Behind John’s notion of the Word lies the Jewish
conception of Wisdom, as demonstrated by many clear parallels between
Wisdom in Jewish tradition and the Word in John 1:1-18. Today I want to
examine even more striking connections along this same line. (Photo: A
contemporary model of the Tabernacle. Photo used with permission of holylandphotos.org.)

Tabernacle-model-5.jpg

The
first comes from the post-biblical Wisdom document known as Sirach (or
Ecclesiasticus). Here divine Wisdom is pictured in this way:

Wisdom praises herself,
and tells of her glory in the midst of her people. . . .
“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and covered the earth like a mist. . . .
Over waves of the sea, over all the earth,
and over every people and nation I have held sway.
Among all these I sought a resting place;
in whose territory should I abide?
“Then the Creator of all things gave me a command,
and my Creator chose the place for my tent.
He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob,
and in Israel receive your inheritance.’
Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me,
and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.
In the holy tent I ministered before him,
and so I was established in Zion. (Sir 24:1-3, 6-10)

Glorious
Wisdom, who existed in the beginning and who came forth from the mouth
of God (as God’s Word) was seeking a place among people. God chose a
special place for her tent, telling Wisdom to make her dwelling
(literally, to pitch her tent) in Jacob. And what exactly was this tent?
It was the tabernacle, later the temple, in which God was present on
earth.

Another Jewish sage who went by the name of Baruch also waxed eloquent about Wisdom’s presence among the Jewish people:

Learn where there is wisdom,
where there is strength,
where there is understanding, . . .
Who has found her place?
And who has entered her storehouses?
No one knows the way to her,
or is concerned about the path to her.
But the one who knows all things knows her,
he found her by his understanding. . . .
This is our God;
no other can be compared to him.
He found the whole way to knowledge,
and gave her to his servant Jacob
and to Israel, whom he loved.
Afterward she appeared on earth
and lived with humankind.
She is the book of the commandments of God,
the law that endures forever.
All who hold her fast will live,
and those who forsake her will die.
Turn, O Jacob, and take her;
walk toward the shining of her light. (Bar 3:14-15, 31-32, 35-37; 4:1-2)

In
Baruch’s vision, Wisdom wanted to be found by people, but they were
uninterested in her. So God sent her to earth in the form of the law of
Moses. One who embraces the law walks toward Wisdom’s light.

Both
Sirach and Baruch envision God’s Wisdom as desiring to be found by
people who fail to receive her. But Wisdom, glorious and shining with
light, comes to earth to dwell among people. According to Sirach, her
“tent” is the Jewish tabernacle/temple. For Baruch, she takes the form
of the Mosaic law. True life will be found by the person who embraces
Wisdom, either by participating in the Jewish sacrificial cult or by
accepting and living by the Torah.

Now, with this picture of Wisdom’s visit to earth firmly in mind, read again these lines from John’s prologue:

In the beginning was the Word . . .
What has come to being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him,
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory, . . .
The law indeed was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:1, 3-4, 10-12, 14, 17)

John’s
picture of the Word is clearly reminiscent of Wisdom in Sirach and
Baruch. The Word seeks to be found by people, but is at first rejected.
Undeterred, the Word finally comes in a definitive form among the Jewish
people, not as the tabernacle or the law, but as the human being,
Jesus.

The parallel between John and Sirach is even clearer in
Greek than in English. Our translation reads, “And the Word became flesh
and lived among us.” In fact “lived among us” is a distinctive Greek
verb skenoo. It means, quite literally, “pitch a tent” (skene means tent in Greek). This is the same word group that appeared in Sirach 24: “and my Creator chose the place for my tent [skene]. He said, ‘Make your dwelling [kataskenoo]
in Jacob . . .” (v. 8). Such a close verbal parallel is not an
accident. John is intentionally using the language of the Wisdom
tradition, though giving it a completely new meaning. God’s Wisdom has
indeed “pitched a tent” on earth, not in the tabernacle/temple, but in
the flesh of Jesus.

Similarly, in verse 17, John contrasts the
Mosaic law with the “grace and truth” that has come through Jesus
Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Whereas Baruch envisioned Wisdom as
coming in the law, John identified the locus of Wisdom’s presence in the
person of Jesus. He alone gives grace and truth, making God known to us
(v. 18).

So, to summarize what we’ve seen so far, among the
Jewish sages God’s Wisdom was seen as “pitching a tent” on earth in the
form of the tabernacle/temple or the law. John, using similar language
and imagery, says that God’s Word/Wisdom became flesh in Jesus. Wisdom’s
“tent” wasn’t the tabernacle or the law, but the fully human person of
Jesus Christ.

If Jesus was the incarnation of divine Wisdom,
wouldn’t this imply that he was far more than human? Yes, according to
John. As he says in verse 18: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the
only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known”
(1:18). God the only Son!!?? This sounds serious, and indeed it is. In
my next post I’ll begin to look at how Jesus as “son of God” also
contributed to early Christian belief that he was God.

Jesus as the Son of God

 

In
my last post I showed how the picture of Jesus in the prologue of
John’s Gospel was drawn on the basis of the Jewish figure of divine, yet
with a striking innovation. Whereas the Jewish sages envisioned Wisdom
as coming to earth in the tabernacle/temple or the Mosaic law, John
professed the incarnation of the Word/Wisdom of God in the person of
Jesus (John 1:14). This astounding truth meant that Jesus was uniquely
able to reveal God to humankind: “No one has ever seen God. It is God
the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him
known” (1:18). So the Word/Wisdom of God is also “God the only son.”
This suggests that the divine sonship of Jesus was part of what enabled
the early Christians to identify him as God. So let us now turn to the
issue of the “sonship” of Jesus. 

For those of us who are used to
referring to Jesus as the “Son of God,” it comes as a shock to realize
how rarely this language appeared on his own lips. In fact, in the
Gospels “Son of God” is used more often for Jesus by Satan and demons
than by Jesus himself (e.g. Matt 4:3, 6; 8:29). Only twice in the
biblical Gospels does Jesus refer to himself directly as Son of God:

“Very
truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead
will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”
(John 5:25)
“This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for
God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John
11:4).

We might wonder why, if Jesus was in fact the
divine Son of God, he didn’t call himself Son of God more often. An
answer to this question is found in the meaning of the phrase “Son of
God” among Jews in the time of Jesus. I wrote about this historical
meaning in Part 2 of this series. Let me reiterate and expand upon what I
explained then. (Photo: A stained glass window of Annunciation Melkite
Catholic Cathedral, Boston, Massachusetts, depicting Christ as the
King.)

christ-king-roslindale-5.jpg

Among
Jews in the time of Jesus, “Son of God” did not have the connotation of
divinity. Consider, for example, the image of the son of God that
emerges from the Old Testament. Through the prophet Hosea, the Lord
referred to the people of Israel as a whole as his son (Hosea 11:1). The
Jewish king was also called the Son of God. This did not mean the Jews
had divinized their king, however. Unlike their neighbors in the ancient
world, Jews didn’t regard their kings as gods. For example, God once
said about King Solomon: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a
son to me” (2 Samuel 7:14). This did not mean Solomon was divine,
however. Similarly, we read this in Psalm 89: “I have set the crown on
one who is mighty . . . . I have found my servant David; and with my
holy oil I have anointed him; He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my
God, and the Rock of my salvation!’ I will make him my firstborn . . .
.” (vv. 19-20; 26-27). Surely the Lord was not suggesting that David is
divine.

During the intertestamental period, Jews continued to
refer to human beings (or in some cases, angelic beings) as sons of God.
To cite one example among many, in the Jewish book of Wisdom, the
ungodly plot against the godly. Notice the description of the righteous
person:

“Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord [paida Kyriou]. . . .
We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God’s child [huios theou], he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. (Wis 2:12-13, 16-18)

If
Jesus had openly proclaimed himself as Son of God, his contemporaries
would not have thought of this as a claim to divinity. They might have
understood only that Jesus was touting his own righteousness. More
likely, they would have heard a claim to be the promised Messiah, the
human being who would lead Israel to throw the Romans out of God’s land
once and for all. We see evidence of the messianic meaning of “Son of
God” in the gospels. For example, Matthew records Peter as confessing
Jesus’ identity in this way: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living
God” (Matt 16:16). Similarly, though in a vastly different context, the
high priest who interrogates Jesus prior to his death said, “I put you
under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the
Son of God” (Matt 26:63).

So, if Jesus had often referred to
himself as Son of God, he would have been understood as claiming to be
the Messiah, not an incarnation of the Lord. But, even though Jesus
surely understood himself as Messiah in an unexpected sense, he almost
never referred to himself in this way. Given the true nature of his
calling, adoption of the title “Messiah” would have confused matters
greatly. The same would have been true for “Son of God.”

Yet, as
we read the gospels, we find that Jesus often used the word “son” in
reference to himself, not in the phrase “Son of God,” but in the
expression “Son of Man.” To this curious title I’ll turn in my next
post.

Jesus and the Perplexing Son of Man

 

In
my last post, I noted that Jesus rarely referred to himself as the Son
of God. Yet he frequently spoke of himself as the Son of Man. This
title, rarely used by Christians today when we speak of Jesus, was by
far Jesus’ preferred title for himself. It shows up over seventy times
in the gospels, almost always on the lips of Jesus himself. 

It’s
ironic that Jesus’ favorite self-designation gets so little play among
Christians today. It’s also understandable because relatively few
believers in Jesus really understand what he meant when he used the
phrase “Son of Man.” In fact, none of those who followed the earthly
Jesus understood what he meant either, at least not prior to his death
and resurrection.

Consider the following scene from the Gospel of
John. In the final hours of his ministry, Jesus said, “The hour has
come for the Son of Man to be glorified. . . . And I, when I am lifted
up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:23, 32). The
crowd was perplexed, asking: “How can you say that the Son of Man must
be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” (John 12:34). After repeatedly
hearing Jesus speak about himself as the Son of Man, the people were
still confused. They weren’t even sure what in the world he was talking
about. Even more surprisingly, Jesus’ closest followers failed to
comprehend his mission as the Son of Man. Peter, James, and John joined
the crowds in their puzzlement (Mark 8:27-33; 10:35-45). So if you’re
uncertain about all of this “Son of Man” stuff, you’ve got good company.
(Photo: Emerson Hall of Harvard University. The inscription of the wall
is from Psalm 8: “What is man that thou are mindful of him?”)

emerson-harvard-5.jpg

What
does the expression “Son of Man” actually mean when it is applied to
Jesus? We tend to think of it as an affirmation of his humanity. And in
one sense, it it. The phrase “son of man” was, at base, an expression
that meant “human being” both in Hebrew and in Aramaic, the spoken
language of Jesus and his followers. On the most obvious level, one who
said “I am a son of man” was simply saying “I am a human being.” You see
this in the classic line from Psalm 8, for example:

What is man,
that thou art mindful of him?
and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
(Psalm 8:4, KJV)

The
King James Version follows the Hebrew quite literally here. More recent
translations render the sense of the verse in contemporary English, as
in the following example:

What are mortals that you should think of us?
mere humans that you should care for us?             (Psalm 8:4, NLT)

Armed
with the knowledge that the basic meaning of “son of man” is “human
being,” we turn to the sayings of Jesus in the gospels. There we find
anything but what we might expect. Jesus talks about one he calls “the
Son of Man,” yet his descriptions of the Son of Man suggest that this
figure is not an ordinary human being. Consider these two excerpts from
the Gospel of Matthew:

When the Son of Man comes in his
glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of
his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will
separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from
the goats (Matt 25:31-32).

Then the sign of the Son of Man will
appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and
they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power
and great glory (Matt 24:30).

So, according to Jesus,
the glorious Son of Man will someday be enthroned in heaven, in the
midst of an angelic host. At that time he will exercise the power of
judgment over all nations. This is no ordinary human being! Though his
title points to his humanity, he functions in a role generally reserved
for the Lord alone.

Where did Jesus get this stuff? Why did he
use the expression “Son of Man” in such a striking way? In my next post
I’ll examine the Jewish background behind Jesus’ usage of “Son of Man,”
showing both Jesus’ continuity with Jewish tradition and his astounding
break from that tradition.

The Son of Man in the Judaism of Jesus

 

In
my last post I began to examine Jesus’ use of the self-designation “Son
of Man.” I noted that although this was Jesus’ preferred title for
himself, his followers have generally been confused by what Jesus meant
when he called himself the “Son of Man.” Moreover, some of what he
claimed for the Son of Man seems to be, on first glance, fantastic.
According to Jesus, the time will come when the Son of Man will be
glorified and enthroned in heaven, where he will execute judgment upon
the nations. This “human being” seems to take on the attributes of God
himself. Where did Jesus get these ideas about the Son of Man? 

It
should come as no surprise that Jesus’ picture of the glorious Son of
Man reflects a portion of his Jewish background. In fact, his
description of the Son of Man can be traced back to a crucial text from
the Old Testament book of Daniel. One night Daniel had a terrifying
dream about the future of human history. In his dream, he saw four
dreadful beasts who rule over the earth and devour people through their
political oppression. But, in the midst of the beasts, God appeared as
“the Ancient One” who existed even before time itself (Daniel 7:9). He
sat upon his throne in the presence of his heavenly court, judging the
four beasts and taking away their power. Then, unexpectedly, a new
figure appeared:

As I watched in the night visions, I saw
one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to
the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should
serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass
away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed (Dan
7:13-14).

In the original Aramaic of Daniel, the phrase “one like a human being” reads literally, “one like a son of man” (kebar ‘enash).
This human figure rose from earth into the sky to appear in God’s
presence where he received the kingdom of God. The dominion of this
human being is unlike any human reign because it “is an everlasting
dominion that shall not pass away” (Dan 7:14).

While still
dreaming, Daniel approached one of the divine attendants, asking for the
interpretation of the dream. He learned that the four beasts represent
four kingdoms that shall dominate the earth.  But when the Ancient One
finally executes judgment upon the all four beasts, the saints will be
exonerated.  In fact,

The kingship and dominion and the
greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the
people of the holy ones of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an
everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them (Dan
7:27).

Therefore, the “one like a son of man” represents
the faithful people of God who endure oppression and ultimately share
in God’s rule over the earth.

Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man
didn’t dominate Jewish eschatological speculation in the time of Jesus,
but it was picked up by a number of writers. In a writing known as 1
Enoch, the Son of Man executes divine judgment on earth by removing
kings from their thrones and crushing the teeth of sinners (1 Enoch 46:
4-6). In another Jewish writing called 4 Ezra (or 2 Esdras), a human
figure emerges from the sea and flies over the earth. When multitudes of
humanity wage war against this human figure, he sends forth a stream of
fire from his mouth that completely consumes his enemies.  Thereafter,
he gathers the faithful remnant of God’s people to dwell together in
peace (4 Ezra 13:1-57). (Photo: Superman, from a 1942 movie now in the
public domain.)

superman-5-public-domain.jpg

In my book Jesus Revealed
I compared the Son of Man in intertestamental Jewish speculation to the
cartoon character Superman. Like the Man of Steel, the Son of Man has
superhuman powers which he uses to defend “truth, justice, and the
divine way,” which also happens to be the way of faithful Israel.

Surely
Jesus’ description of the Son of Man derives, in part, from Daniel 7.
It may well have been influenced by later Jewish visions as well.
Consider once again the passages I cited in my last post:

When
the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he
will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered
before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd
separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31-32).

Then the sign
of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the
earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the
clouds of heaven” with power and great glory (Matt 24:30).

Yet
this is not the whole story, because Jesus had other things to say
about the Son of Man, things that appeared to contradict everything his
Jewish contemporaries believed. To the unexpected and unsettling sayings
of Jesus about the Son of Man I’ll turn in my next post.

Jesus the Unexpected Son of Man (Part 1)

 

In
my last post I showed how some of what Jesus said about the Son of Man
was drawn from Jewish speculation about the future. Even as Jewish
visionaries in the time of Jesus looked forward to the coming of a
glorious Son of Man who would judge the nations, so did Jesus (see Matt
25:31-32, 24:30). But, in addition, Jesus also spoke of the Son of Man
in a completely unprecedented and shocking manner. (I have discussed
this in depth in my book, Jesus Revealed.
What follows in this post is a more succinct and edited version what I
wrote in this book. Photo: A picture of Peter’s Confession from an old
Sunday School curriculum. Thanks to http://thebiblerevival.com/.) 

peters-confession-5.jpg

In
one of the most dramatic scenes in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus asked his
disciples who they thought he was. “You are the Messiah,” answered
Peter, boldly (Mark 8:29). But then Jesus began to teach them that he,
as the Son of Man, “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the
elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after
three days rise again” (Mark 8:3). This revelation horrified Peter, who
actually rebuked his master. Jesus responded with a stunning rebuke of
his own, “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on
divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:33).

At first glance
we might scoff at Peter’s foolish audacity. But if we recall Daniel’s
vision of the Son of Man, not to mention the development of this vision
in later Jewish speculation, then we can begin to understand why Peter
responded so negatively to Jesus’ prediction of his suffering as the Son
of Man. Everything Peter believed up to that moment identified the Son
of Man as the victor, not the victim. He was to be glorified, not
crucified. He was to judge the gentiles, not to die under their
judgment.  Jesus was turning the image up the Son of Man completely
upside down and Peter intended to save his master from such folly.

In
another incident from the gospels, Jesus’ other closest followers,
James and John, showed their confusion about Jesus’ role as Son of Man.
When he again predicted his imminent suffering as the Son of Man, these
two disciples couldn’t let go of their picture of his future triumph.
They asked Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at
your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). It’s as if they were saying,
“All of this bizarre talk of suffering aside, we know that you’ll soon
be enthroned as the Son of Man, and we want to get a piece of your glory
for ourselves.” Jesus responded by explaining that they really didn’t
know what they were asking. If, indeed, James and John sought to share
in his work as the Son of Man, then they first had to share in his
suffering.

When the rest of the disciples realized what James and
John had asked, they became angry, presumably because they wanted to
protect their own share of glory. Jesus reproved the whole group:

Whoever
wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever
wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man
came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for
many (Mark 10:45).

The disciples expected Jesus to be
the luminescent Son of Man, the one who would be served by all peoples,
as prophesied in Daniel 7. Jesus, on the contrary, saw his initial
mission as Son of Man as rendering service, not receiving it. Even more
unexpected, he came to give up his very life for the sake of others.

Nothing
in the disciples’ Jewish background had prepared them for this
astounding claim concerning the mission of the Son of Man. Nowhere in
Jewish thought prior to Jesus was the Son of Man envisioned as a servant
who surrenders his own life for others. Where in the world did Jesus
get this idea? Was it a brand new thought, a novel bit of special
revelation? Or was Jesus drawing from some element of Jewish tradition
that was not usually associated with the Son of Man?

I’m going to
have to leave you with a cliffhanger today. Tomorrow I’ll explain how
Jesus came up with the unprecedented notion of the serving, suffering
Son of Man.

Jesus the Unexpected Son of Man (Part 2)

 

In
yesterday’s post I showed how Jesus startled his disciples by claiming
that he, as the Son of Man, would suffer and die. Though Jewish visions
of the Son of Man pictured him as receiving honor and glory, Jesus said
that he, as the Son of Man, had come “not to be served but to serve, and
to give his life a ransom for man” (Mark 10:45). I closed yesterday’s
post by wondering where Jesus got these unprecedented ideas: 

Nothing
in the disciples’ Jewish background had prepared them for this
astounding claim concerning the mission of the Son of Man. Nowhere in
Jewish thought prior to Jesus was the Son of Man envisioned as a servant
who surrenders his own life for others. Where in the world did Jesus
get this idea? Was it a brand new thought, a novel bit of special
revelation? Or was Jesus drawing from some element of Jewish tradition
that was not usually associated with the Son of Man?

The last
option is the correct one. Jesus framed his mission as the Son of Man by
combining Daniel’s fantastic dreams with Isaiah’s poignant portrait of
the suffering Servant of God. In the so-called Servant Songs found in
chapters 42-53 of the Isaiah, God speaks of his chosen servant, the one
in whom his soul delights: “I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring
forth justice to the nations” (Isa 42:1). Beyond reestablishing the
kingdom of God in Israel, the Servant will extend God’s salvation “to
the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6).

In chapter 52, Isaiah’s
description of the Servant seems at first to fulfill Jewish expectations
for the one who will inaugurate God’s reign: “See, my servant shall
prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up” (Isa 52:13). But then
Isaiah’s picture of the Servant takes a staggering turn. Many are
“astonished” at him because “so marred was his appearance, beyond human
semblance” (Isa 52:14). Not only does he lack any sign of glory, but
also he is so battered that people hide their eyes rather than look at
him. The Servant’s shocking suffering is not in vain, however, because
he agonizes for the sake of others:

Surely he has borne
our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our
transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment
that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed (Isa 53:4-5).

God’s Servant even “pours out himself to death,” giving up his life as “an offering for sin” (Isa 53:10-12). (Photo: “Crucifixion at Barton Creek Mall” by James Janknegt, 1985.)

crucifixion-barton-creek-janknegt-3.jpg

Jesus
appropriated these images when speaking of himself as the Son of Man
who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom
for many” (Mark 10:45). Through the “ransom” paid by his suffering and
death, he would set many free from their captivity, just like God’s
Servant who took upon himself “the punishment that made us whole” (Isa
53:5). As the Servant “poured out himself to death” for the sake of
others, Jesus would soon “pour out” his blood for many for the
forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28).

Jesus interwove the unsettling
picture of the Servant of God in Isaiah with Daniel’s mysterious vision
of the Son of Man. In this extraordinary tapestry, he combined Jewish
hopes for God’s glorious salvation with divine promises of the Servant’s
vicarious suffering. The Son of Man will be glorified, Jesus said, but
not as you have expected, at least not at first. He will be lifted up,
as you have hoped, but not initially into the heavens. Rather, the Son
of Man as Servant of God will be lifted up on the cross, and,
paradoxically, from there he will draw the whole world to himself (John
12:32-33). He will be glorified through a most inglorious death.  Yet
his sacrifice will be the source of life for others, the ultimate act of
servanthood, the ransom for many.

Thus, through his suffering,
Jesus fulfilled his destiny as the Son of Man. By dying on the cross, he
bore the sin of many, thus becoming the Savior, not only of Israel, but
also of all humanity. In his saving work, as we have seen earlier in
this series, Jesus did what God alone could do. Therefore, his followers
began to see him as more than a human being. Moreover, because of his
faithfulness as the suffering Son of Man, Jesus was believed to inherit
the rewards reserved for the victorious Son of Man in Daniel 7: “To him
was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations,
and languages should serve him” (Dan 7:14; see Phil 2:5-11).

In
my next post in this series I’ll look at one additional piece of
evidence from the gospels, verses where Jesus speaks of himself as God’s
son in a curious and telling manner.

Click here for an updated, completed, and reformatted version of this series.