Why Scholars Now Argue for an Early High Christology

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by Neil Godfrey

It seems that a growing number of scholars (thinking in particular here of Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham and others who approvingly cite them on this question, and now even Bart Ehrman) have in recent years been taking up the argument that the followers of Jesus took up the view that Jesus was exalted to a very high divine status almost from the moment he was believed to have stepped out of his tomb.

Why is this happening? One would think that the gradual evolutionary view that Jesus’ exaltation to the godhead would accord more with a “plausible historicity”. We are regularly reminded how Jews abhorred the notion of a human being considered divine (though with many qualifications given the Second Temple evidence for persons like Moses being thought of as divine by at least some Jewish authors) and that it must have been with the increase in numbers of gentiles joining the church that the notion of a divine human was conceived and grew. 

There are, as we know, problems even with this evolutionary explanation. One of these is that the evidence we have points to a high Christology appearing in the record before we find the humanizing tendencies. But I won’t discuss any of those issues now. My only point here is to share something I read last night in M. David Litwa’s Iesus Deus:

In his oft-cited study, Judentum und Hellenismus, Martin Hengel demonstrated with impressive detail that “All of Judaism from about the middle of the 3rd century BC must in the strict sense by called ‘hellenistic Judaism.’ . . . .

Palestine had long been touched by the “spirit” (Geist) of Hellenistic civilization on almost every level: economically, politically, culturally, literarily, philosophically, and theologically.” 

Curiously Hengel later “curtly” attempted to “cut off early christology from all Greco-Roman influence.” He denied absolutely and comparison between popular Hellenistic stories of deified humans (e.g. Heracles who died a violent death, Octavian being sent into the world as Mercury according to the poet Horace, etc.).

For Hengel,

the earliest christology comes out of the Palestinian Jewish milieu — exactly the milieu that Hengel argued was radically pervaded by Hellenistic modes of thought.

We are thus asked to believe that, despite the fact that Palestine (not to mention other centers of early Christology) was hellenized centuries before the Christian movement, virtually no Hellenistic theological story or idea substantially affected the development of early christology. 

Apologetics returns:

By preserving christology from Hellenistic forms of thought, Hengel reinstated an old apologetic distinction between Jewish-Christian truth and Greek myth. 

The Jesus story cannot be tainted with Greco-Roman myths.

And today it seems a growing number of scholars insist on a great gulf that no man can cross between “Jewish” and “Hellenistic”.

Judaism is thus made the comprehensive — even exclusive — context for christology. 

And the earlier the high christology appears then the less time there is for any Hellenistic influence to be blamed. The earlier it is the more necessarily it is “Jewish” (as distinct from “Hellenistic”, supposedly.)

Not that Litwa is advocating a return to the mistakes of the “old school of religions” school. But that’s also another topic for another time.



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32 thoughts on “Why Scholars Now Argue for an Early High Christology”

  1. And why do the scholars insist on this gulf between Jewish and Hellenistic? Is it to preserve Christianity from the “taint” of association with Hellenistic paganism? What are the qualities associated with Hellenistic, as opposed to Jewish christology? What is the connection between historicity and Jewish christology, if any? What’s the answer to the question?

    1. Someone else told my how much they enjoyed Litwa’s book and I’m also finding it captivating. We are familiar with the repetitive insistence that Luke’s narrative of the divine conception is so distinctly “unpagan”, without any parallel in the non-Jewish world, yet Litwa demonstrates in detail how the holy spirit coming upon Mary to enable her to beget Jesus is so totally in synch with Plutarch’s Platonic discussion of how the spirit of the god works to produce progeny in mortals. And Plutarch was writing in the first century CE, and was expressing the emerging view that gods do not really succumb to lust and change or beget through sexual activity — but they can do through a ‘wind’-like spirit touching a mortal. I’m looking forward to finishing this book. It is much more interesting and grounded in reality than the speculative and hyper-assumption-ridden work of Chris Keith.

    2. Yes, Christian scholars are trying to maintain their ethnocentric xenophobic exceptionalism. By systematically obscuring all links between Christianity and other ANE and especially Greco Roman, Platonistic cultures.

    3. Hi
      I think they do not want to lose touch with the “historical Jesus”… this being a bogus addiction to history by apologists . And they know it.

  2. So the belief in a resurrection led early Christians to change their mind about who Jesus had been and to claim that he must have been divine.

    While also changing their mind about who Jesus had been and to start claiming that Jesus must have been the Messiah – a figure we are told that Jews could not envisage as being anything other than a normal mortal human being.

    1. “Jesus must have been the Messiah – a figure, we are told, that Jews could not envisage as being anything other than a normal mortal human being”

      One wonders if the Jews only knew Him retrospectively (too).

  3. Yes, Hengel went so far to say that there was no Greek influence on the New Testament whatsoever. This, after writing a 2 volume study whose main thesis was Palestine had been Hellenized for 360 years before the supposed “ministry” of Jesus. The basic idea was that Christianity was a reactionary movement that sought to purge the taint of these influences.

    Apologetics isn’t scholarship. It is the antithesis of scholarship.

  4. Price has an interesting comment on Greek influence on the Jesus story in his essay “The Jesus Mirage.” Price writes that:

    “Another egregious case of Janus apologetics, facing both ways at once, is Boyd’s and Eddy’s argument that the resurrection of Jesus cannot have been borrowed from polytheistic mythemes. Their first step is to circumscribe a magic zone from about 165 BCE to 70 CE when there was no Jewish inclination, but rather the reverse, to accept Hellenistic influence. They figure that the Hasmonean victory over the Seleucid Hellenizers put an end once and for all to the temptation to Hellenize. Hellenization began to rear its ugly head again only after the Roman victory over Jews. This strikes me as a gratuitous assumption. Indeed, the fact that there is during their magic period much evidence of Jewish anti-Hellenistic Zealotry surely means the “danger” of influence continued. You don’t strengthen the fortifications when there is no enemy at the door. And no evidence of Hellenization? What about the astrology of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Ah, er, it’s not what it looks like! The presence of horoscopes at Qumran doesn’t mean the sectarians actually used or believed in them, say the apologists. Perish the thought! It was probably because they needed them to write scholarly refutations of them! And second- to third-century synagogues with mosaics of Hercules, Dionysus and the Zodiac? Purely decorative, that’s all. Come on! Obviously, you don’t decorate your house of worship with images of gods you find abhorrent! And this was just at the time Yavneh Judaism was getting stronger and stronger! Judaism just was not a solid monolith even at this time, much less in Jesus’ time. “

    1. Nice work. In addition, we can move those days closer together. Any imagined Jewish autonomy ended when Rome and Pompey occupied Jerusalem, c. 64 BC. Well before Rome burned Jerusalem 134 years later.

  5. Isn’t the conviction that ‘high Christology is early’ just the conviction that Paul had a high Christology and that his original ‘conversion’ was not too long after ground zero and in contact with the original messianic resurrection enthusiasts? — and maybe also that his views on the subject didn’t change much or go too far out of line with the Jerusalem people? Which are not too-unreasonable assertions. I thought by the way that in Hurtado and the like, spectacular ‘devotion’ came first; high Christologies, considered as theoretical statements, things like Philippians 2:6, are a reflection on that. By the time you get to the point of framing a theory – certainly by the time you start getting Gospels – you might start grasping for ‘pagan’ analogies to make sense of what you are already doing — lex orandi lex credendi, as they say. Of course someone like Hurtado will of course deny the need for pagan hellenistic ‘influence’; but by the time you start getting something like virgin birth theories, this can seem a little silly.

    I’m not sure how ‘high’ a christology something like the Philippians 2 is — it seems pretty straightforwardly angelomorphic to me: though he was an angel (i.e. had the form of God, had God’s name in him, etc.), he was an unfallen angel (i.e., one who didn’t ‘grasp at’ or ‘seize’ ‘equality with God’ .) It thus presupposes one of the standard theories of the ‘fall’ of the angels in apocalyptic angel-speculation – that it was due to some sort of envy or pride. The idea that Paul may have been quoting received Jesus-hymn or something ‘devotional’ seems to me kind of plausible. Maybe this should be called a high christology — certainly it involves ‘pre-existence’. Anyway, the God/angel distinction is highly malleable.

    The general idea that the later overt ‘divinization’ rhetoric, especially outright ‘Jesus = God’-ism , arises from reflection on a more inchoate devotion seems reasonable anyway. And that this devotion taken by itself really did follow a purely ‘Jewish apocalyptic’ dialectic seems plausible to me too. The practices that are called ‘worship of Jesus’ arise from two factors. First that ‘Jesus Christ’ really is the political ruler in the process of installing himself; the ‘Christ Jesus’ who is making his entry is someone of whom e.g. ‘Nero Augustus’ or ‘Augustus Caesar’ are a mere parody. That this Jewish super-ultra-trans-emperor is not actually present will make this seem more like worship of a god than even so-called emperor worship is. Bowing and praising or whatever in the presence of the political ruler will seem a matter of course; when there’s no one actually there, it will look like divine worship. And the longer there’s no one there, the more it will look like, and turn into that, and maybe come to *need* ‘hellenistic pagan influence’ to make sense of itself. But on the other hand it’s clear that according to the selection of messianic and apocalyptic traditions they are working with, the arrival or installation of the messiah is at the same time the arrival of the great and final Day of the Lord, in which God comes to have direct rule in an ultimate exodus etc etc. A great and final Day of the Lord be described in outline without reference to any messiah figure. But, of course, it’s all comes together with Jesus!

    People think it is a legitimate ‘Judaism’ to anticipate a messiah who will come and rule forever; a divine messiah crosses the line, though, is ‘hellenistic’ and ‘pagan’ and making ‘another God’ etc. and needs extra-Judaic ‘influence’. But this kind of sensible thinking comes from outside activated messianic and eschatological enthusiasm. Something like divinization starts to appear in every Jewish messianic enthusiasm that has legs, by which I mean Sabbateanism and Lubavitchism. It’s basically built in, it’s just that the various sources of the tradition weren’t dealing with the real article and so didn’t face crucial problems. It’s kind of obvious that *a utopia of permanent messianic rule* would be demonic if the messiah was anything other than the ‘one true God’. This is a sort of elementary theological reflection, but one that doesn’t occur to you until you are inside a messianic cult, or observe one.

    This is why the god Jesus ends up being is *the very same god* as the god Moses saw, and the rule of the messiah is the rule of that god — this is something the ‘pagan parallels’ don’t generally preserve. This has nothing to do with theoretical, philosophical monotheism: Jews can and did grant that the nations’ gods are somehow real, but would stick to their own god under direct orders from him; any ‘divinized Jewish messiah’ must somehow be *that* god, not another alongside it, an import from Persia or something. Which is basically what we observe. (Its pure speculation, but somehow clear to me, that Paul thought that what he saw in his ‘resurrection appearance’ was the same as what Moses saw, or better; every reference to glory/doxa/kavod is an assertion of this.) Even the later theory of a multiplication of ‘persons’ in the one God doesn’t seem to depart too radically from ‘Jewish’ precedent, it is just proto-Kabbalistic boilerplate to cover the inevitable cracks.

    1. Very perceptive comments. But your last subject Is monotheism of course. As allegedly only Jewish.

      Yet Egyptian pharaoh gods predate Judaism. And no doubt these human gods, emperors, demanded rather singular devotion, in many contexts. Especially vs. any human being.

  6. I like this from Litwa:

    By pointing out the similarities in the conception of divnity, I do not want to make a (tedious) argument about Christian “borrowing” from the larger culture, involving a “paganization” or “hellenization” of Christian thought (as if a touch of Greek thought somehow made Christianity impure). No, the Christian storytellers who told and retold the tales of Jesus’ childhood would have been oblivious, I think, to having “borrowed” elements or patterns of thought from the larger culture. They probably would have openly denied that their god had anything to do with Dionysus. [Infancy Gospel of Thomas] retains a strong Jewish local color but is simultaneously a good example of a kind of “embedded hellenization” that would not necessarily have been recognized by contemporary Jews and Christians as hellenization at all. In IGT, then, Christian storytellers quite innocently depicted Jesus with the acts and attitudes of a Mediterranean divinity. Historically speaking, that is what he was. (my bolding)

    Imagine where scholarship would be today if it were Greeks instead of Jews who had been persecuted through the ages.

    1. When Hengel, Hurtado and co. argue that ‘high christology’ was early, they mean that the deed was done by say 40 or 50 a.d. and that the development must have taken place mostly in Jerusalem. If that’s true – maybe, maybe not – then a rejection of Dionysus parallels will be common sense – which can always be wrong! – not a Judaising ‘purity’ craze.

      IGT would seem to be a completely ‘nother subject. The learned argue that it post-dates Luke and predates the Dialogue with Trypho (~150?). Why they are confident Luke predates Justin I don’t know, but maybe; the argument that it predates Trypho seems to be that Justin has the idea that Jesus was a carpenter, which otherwise we have from IGT. That seems a little weak as an argument, since this detail could have been passed around in any way from a common source … but again maybe I’m missing something.

      Even so, that’s a hundred years of development of ‘Christianity’, most of it as the detached acephalous gentile arm of a Jerusalem messianic enthusiasm (to follow the usual account). It’s ‘early’ in a completely different sense from the letters of Paul, which are close to ground zero (whatever it was) and in which it is pure teleological back-projection to characterize the material as ‘Christian’ at all. It’s kind of obvious that we are in a different world with IGT than with Paul: boy Jesus’ first act in the story is to break the Sabbath and get busted by a mindless ‘Jew’; his last act is a trip to Jerusalem for Passover in accordance with ‘the custom practiced by Joseph and Mary’. The heresy-hunter Iraneaus – to a certain extent re-Judaising the tradition against Marcion and various ‘gnosticisms’, at least as regards the sources – he seems to have known what he was dealing with in IGT; this was enough to keep it out of the canon, but the book wasn’t so ‘bad’ as to be put out of circulation.

      1. I’ll address Litwa’s discussion of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas another time, but the point here was simply to notice one scholar’s view of what seems a real paranoia over any possibility of a Hellenistic influence in Christian origins.

        The early high christology currently being postulated by Hurtado and co is much earlier than the 40s, though. They are thinking of it being there from the very first.

          1. Litwa advances some very interesting observations from the less philosophical takes on the way gods worked in the time of earliest Christianity. I look forward to posting about them. But it’s not so easy having just arrived a few hours ago here on another one of Indonesia’s hundreds of islands and lost half way between negotiating free wifi access and late night pub noise and other (musical) distractions . . . . .

            1. Best of luck from Bali. We may be coming to some partial agreements with or concessions from Keith and Le Donne over on their blog. Though Hurtado stands mostly fixed.

              1. I’ve been exploring Lombok the last couple of days, the island “next to” Bali. New places, new adventures. What’s with Keith and LeDonne?

              2. They are acknowledging equivocality in Mark, Mat., regarding the efficacy of God, it seems. And talking about drinking beer, as their admitted mental frame.

        1. > The early high christology currently being postulated by Hurtado and co is much earlier than the 40s, though. They are thinking of it being there from the very first

          Right, I agree with that, I meant just to be saying that the development was quite done by 40 or 50, but was a little unclear. The famous sentence of Hengel is something like that there was more christological development between 30 and 50 than in the next seven centuries.

          The problem isn’t really ‘hellenism’, which just means: ‘of or pertaining to eastern cultures after the conquests of Alexander’. ‘Hellenism’ doesn’t really affect the number and character of cults, since it typically accepts and practices them all, so to say. There is no such thing as a hellenistic god. Insofar as hellenism does ‘proselytize’ and carry a content that is related to religion and cult, it resides in the tradition of ‘philosophy’, rhetoric etc. The 1st century cult in Jerusalem is a totally typical hellenism. The concept of hellenism is irrelevant to this discourse.

          The Jerusalem cult is also a very typical cult of a ‘mediterranean deity’, to use Litwa’s preferred expression — what with a temple and animal sacrifice and so on. It is slightly unusual in that a) it is the cult of a Maker god and b) it is aniconic — but these are both found elsewhere in other cults. Its only really strange and eccentric feature is — of course! — that c) adherence to its cult is incompatible with adherence to any other cult, and is basically organized around just this principle; it is the cult of having no other cult (and was indeed in this period about to destroy itself on this principle). Even a second *temple* like the one in Leontopolis, to say nothing of the one on Mt Gerezim, are somewhat problematic.

          The claim of Hengel is that ‘high christology’ arose inside that framework — which had already been a perfect ‘hellenism’ for centuries. It is a particular, apocalyptic, expression of a ‘no cult but me’ cult precisely as a ‘no cult but me’ cult.

          I wasn’t opposing anything Litwa said, it’s just that he’s (in *this* book) talking about a different century and a different country and a different ethnē than the one Hengel & co are talking about in finding the origin of ‘high christology’.

          1. In its exclusivism, Christianity might originate in tribalism, nationalism, rival kingdoms, more than religion.

            Perhaps its exclusivism ironically owes much to the great man or emperor cult model that it claimed to reject from Romans. The differance being that Jews wanted a Jewish “kingdom” and god, not a Roman one.

    1. I noticed it, and with approval, too. This afternoon I was also re-reading a chapter from Richard Evans’ “In Defence of History” in which he tears shreds off the complete nonsense coming out of these latter-day postmodernist hoodwinkers like Chris Keith and also off the majority of traditionalist scholars like James McGrath who like to call themselves “historians” — If I feel motivated enough one day I might set alongside each other various sentences from Keith and McGrath and others explaining what “history” means to them and statements by Richard Evans directly contradicting them with what history and historical methods have meant in the real world of real historians.

      It’s a shame. I had hoped to ask Crossley, Hurtado and Keith to comment on the points made by such historians as Evans but they can only resort to personal insults and sometimes even outright lies as well.

      It’s as if they have no idea how to engage with the arguments and methods of mainstream history.

      1. Not surprising, since regular history is not taught is religion programs, to any significant degree.

        Some know this though. It is possible to find quotes in the field acknowledging that HJ study does not “limit itself” to what can verified by history.

        1. I do not think that Keith is close to embracing mythicism. But his work requires at least a critical approach to the Bible. And he is somewhat receptive to scholarship that calls for that.

          Your current efforts, quoting such sources, are extremely helpful in reaching the academic community.

      2. Evans is a welcome antidote to postmodernism; a Ranke de nos jours. A bit more skepticism re certain WW2 legends, false memories, politically motivated propaganda embellishment and indeed quasi-religion would also be welcome on his part. Nome sane?

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