Jesus Christ: Maybe BOTH names are titular? (Dunn on Price, again, too)

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by Neil Godfrey

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Christ, meaning Messiah, is, of course, not a proper name but a title, like King or High Priest.

Yet Paul’s letters use Christ as if it is a proper name for Jesus.

Dunn writes in response to Price (The Historical Jesus: Five Views) what is well known to all scholars:

As often noted, the fact that Christ was more or less a proper name (Jesus Christ) by the time of Paul (within twenty to twenty-five years of Jesus’ death) must indicate that messianic status had already been ascribed to this Jesus for such a long time that the titular significance of Christ (Messiah) had largely faded. (p. 96)

What is more rarely discussed is the possibility that Jesus, meaning Saviour, is also a personal name that originated as a title. (I know Jesus/Joshua is a common personal name; this post is addressing the happy coincidence that it was bestowed on the one who epitomized its meaning in the Christian myth and narrative.)

Reading the gospel narratives entitles us to be reminded sometimes of Walt Disney’s seven dwarfs. All of their names are “titular” or at least character-role labels: Grumpy, Sleepy, Bashful, Happy, Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey.

Compare Peter, the rock on which the church was built (or in Mark’s Gospel the rocky soil of the parable on which it was not); Jairus, father of the girl awakened from “sleep”, meaning Awakened or Enlightened; Barabbas, meaning Son of the Father, being the substitute for the real Son of the Father; Judas, the namesake of the Jews who betrayed their saviour; John the Baptist, of whom Joseph Campbell remarked on the coincidence of finding at Jordan an individual who bore the name of the Mesopotamian god (Ea of Water, Oannes) associated with the ritual he taught; the plays on the different Simons (one Simon taught to take up his cross but failed, another Simon stepped in); etc.

Of Jesus’ brothers —

Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James (=Jacob), Joseph, Judas (=Judah) and Simon (=Simeon)? (Mark 6:3)

— Jacob, Joseph and Judah are three of the most prominent of Israelite patriarchs, and Simeon, too, is strongly associated in this status with Judah. As Paul Fredriksen remarks:

It’s a little like naming a string of Olsons Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin: the names themselves convey a close identification with the nation’s foundational past. (Jesus of Nazareth, p.240)

(See also the names of the 12 apostles.)

So wasn’t it a lucky coincidence that Mr and Miss (later Mrs) Joseph’n’Mary decided on Saviour (=Jesus) out of all the names in their baby-name book.

I guess when you look at the whole constellation of remarkable name coincidences it only goes to show that a guiding intelligence, or a pool of intelligences, lay behind the show’s cast.

So the argument that Dunn was objecting to I find plausible. Price was addressing the pre-Pauline hymn in which the most straightforward reading is that Jesus was the name bestowed after his death and resurrection:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father

When you read this without any Gospel narrative presuppositions (and this letter and hymn was composed long before any of the Gospels, most scholars I believe would agree) then its “plain straightforward” meaning is that Jesus was given this particular name after his exaltation into the highest place in heaven after his death and resurrection.

Price writes:

Finally, though the Epistles name the Christian savior Jesus, it is quite possible, as Paul Couchoud suggested long ago, that they attest to an even earlier stage of belief in which the savior received the honorific name Jesus only as of his postmortem exaltation. For Philippians 2:9-11, read without theological embarrassment, seems to intend that it was that name, exalted above all other names, that the savior received, not the title kyrios [Lord]. Every voice acclaiming him Lord is paralleled with every knee bowing to him, both to occur at the mention of this new name, Jesus, now bestowed upon him. (p. 64)

But when the straightforward reading embarrasses belief in the traditional Gospel narrative, Dunn will not allow it. He writes:

The name “Jesus” is hardly to be classified as “the name that is above every name” (Phil 2:9-10), so it hardly provides evidence that the name Jesus first emerged in relation to the putative exaltation of some previously unknown figure. . . . . On the contrary, it confirms that Jesus was the well enough known name of the one now widely recognized (in Pauline circles) as the Messiah. (p. 96)

No, the hymn does not confirm that at all. It says that God gave the saviour this name at his exaltation in heaven, and it was at that name that all creatures should henceforth bow. These couple of verses do raise the possibility that this is what was originally meant.

(Note also, by the way, that Dunn fails to grasp Price’s specific argument here — Price does not suggest, as Dunn seems to think, that the name was foisted on “some previously unknown figure.”)

So when Dunn faults Price’s point here for being an “implausible” and “disappointing” argument, he is failing to address the merits or logic of the argument itself. He is simply saying, in a scholarly way, “that’s dumb”. He may be writing in a manner that passes for scholarly, but the content of his rebuttal contains nothing by way of a logical or evidence-based counter-argument.

I suggest that the fact that “Christ” is attached to Jesus as a personal name even though it is really a title, and the fact that so many names in the Gospels can be shown to have some symbolic functions, widens the plausibility that Jesus, meaning Saviour, was also originally a function, a role, that indicated a divine being who was later personified in gospel narratives.

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews also appears to have found the name Jesus (Joshua) happily as symbolic as Snow White when he could urge spiritual Christians to “enter the rest” that their physical “forebear” had failed to enter under “Joshua/Jesus” (Hebrews 3-4).

None of this is meant to argue that Jesus’ name definitely arose in this way. But the possibility that it did is surely not as implausible as Dunn complains.







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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Jesus Christ: Maybe BOTH names are titular? (Dunn on Price, again, too)”

  1. Also, the name Jeshua is undistinguishable from Joshua, since we have no idea which way it was pronounced. A name like that, matching an eponymous ancestor, could easily be both a personal name and a title.

  2. This is a breakthrough in mythological thought and religious analysis?

    The very problem with the entire bible is that the real histories are even clouded with mythological events and titles.

    That is the point of the Geeks show. I’d take it that re-submitting Prices very recent podcasted thoughts as your re-interpretation, you should sling him a lobster or 5 on his donation site.

    The subject material was very deftly dealt by Price not a week ago and consistently in his writings.

    Surely one wonders, would the author similarly with the ridiculous ruminations of the recent Access economics survey into the equally daft natural medicine movement as quickly?

  3. If Jesus is the name above all names given to him when he was exalted, then was his name Simon before? It might explain a few things if “Simon Magus” was just pre-glorified “Jesus”.

  4. I can only speak from a non-scholarly point of view, but a few reflections on the “Soter” title seem to me in order.

    First of all, the LXX calls God “Soter.” As stated by O. Cullmann, “It is certain that the title originally referred to God. But it does also sometimes distinguish definite men of God who by his commission have delivered, are delivering, or will deliver the people. Thus Moses ‘saved’ the people in the past, and after him other leaders of Israel were called ‘saviours’… In connection with this line, the Messiah is seen as the coming saviour who will finally and permanently save his people… Indeed, this designation corresponds perfectly to the function which the Messiah is expected to fulfil” (The Christology of the New Testament, p. 239).

    Dunn: “The name ‘Jesus’ is hardly to be classified as ‘the name that is above every name’…” This statement leaves me wondering if Dunn is misunderstanding on purpose. According to Cullmann, we must “take into account the significance of the proper name Jesus for the origin of the title [soter Iesous]. In fact, to Jewish ears ‘Jesus’ meant the same as [soter], Saviour” (p. 242). Early Christians, who were familiar with the Septuagint, would undoubtedly have seen a connection between the “Soter” title and the name Jesus (Joshua); cf. Phil. 3:20. (From this point of view, “Soter Iesous” is a rhetorical tautology, whereas “Soter Asclepius” is not.)

    The notion that “God gave the saviour this name at his exaltation in heaven” seems to be reflected in Hebrews:

    “Hebrews has two interesting uses of [sozo]. Jesus prayed to the One who was able to save Him from death (5:7), and now in His eternal heavenly state He intercedes for those who believe in Him and is able to save them ‘for all time’ (RSV 7:25) or ‘completely’ (NIV). In the former instance Jesus was saved not in that He did not die but in that he was preserved through the experience of death. In the latter instance, in turn, He is able to preserve or ‘keep safe’ those who depend on Him… It is striking that Christ’s role as pioneer (2:10) and as source (5:9) of salvation are both connected with Jesus’ suffering during His earthly life” (G. W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 294).

    1. Thanks so much for this. I think you have pointed to one of the key missing pieces in this question I had been looking for. I had been thinking along the lines of the Hesiod and Platonic like theogonies of the various gnostics who postulated all sorts of generative entities ultimately emanating from the Monad or ‘Singularity’ that was God. These could include the entities Christ and Jesus as distinct names or entities. But of course there is the major hurdle of where to fit these chronologically in relation to the canonical literature, and how.

      But your points here are more direct and work much better. I need to also refresh my memory of the details of the “Soter” title for Hellenistic kings, (and its counterpart for Roman emperors?).

  5. Paul refers often enough to ‘the Lord’. So how can ‘Lord’ be a name? As far as I know, Paul never refers to ‘the Jesus’.

    There is a thread on this subject at http://cscoedinburgh.wordpress.com/2010/10/19/exorcism-in-jesus-name/

    If Jesus had been given the ‘name above every name’, meaning ‘Lord’, then why were Christians not immediately stoned to death as blasphemers?

    But if such a title had been given to a person found by bizarre readings of the Scriptures, the Christians would have been regarded as lunatics, not blasphemers.

    ‘These people say that the Scriptures say the Messiah has been crucified by the archons and exalted into Heaven.’

    That would have been lunacy, not blasphemy.

    ‘These people say that this crucified criminal has been given the name ‘Lord’, because that is a substitute for the divine name.’

    That would have been blasphemy, not lunacy.

      1. 1 Corinthians
        ‘Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. ‘

        How could the world not have known Jesus when the world killed Jesus because he was becoming too well known?

        God saves those who believe ,not those acquaintances of Jesus who *knew* Jesus. Did Christians know Jesus had been crucified or did they believe it?

  6. Steve without going into a large discussion on what Paul means by “Lord” and whether Paul is identifying Jesus with godhood, I think a Jew elevating any being to the status of God, whether it is the messiah, Zeus, Adam, or Michael, would run afoul of those that held strongly to God is one. The weren’t just opposed to Jews worshiping people. If we don’t have evidence of angry mobs at Philo’s house, I would say 1. we don’t know much of any thing on what other Jews thought of Philo then, only they didn’t find him worth preserving later, 2. He mentions the “second god” once 3. his readership seemed to be limited, I don’t see evidence of him preaching door to door.

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