Eight years ago I posted Starting a New Religion with The Gospel of John. In that post the punch line was:
Where the Gospel of John is different:
Where the fourth evangelist differs from all of these [books written in the names of other prophets], as well as from those who exploited the Moses tradition, is in his conscious substitution of this tradition by the story of Jesus: ‘You search the scriptures,’ Jesus tells ‘the Jews’, ‘and I am the one to which they bear witness’ (5:39). The deliberate replacement of one founder-figure by another (the same step would be taken centuries later by Mohammed) is effectively the proclamation of a new religion. We may compare John with Matthew here, for whom Jesus is a second Moses, refining and purifying the law, but not replacing it (5:17). John, by contrast, puts the law aside, offering instead, in the name of Jesus Christ, ‘grace and truth’ (1:17). Similarly the Temple, the second pillar of contemporary Judaism, was for Matthew a place where Jesus’ disciples continued to offer their gifts: whereas in John the locus of Christian worship has shifted to a place of ‘spirit and truth’ (4:23)
(Ashton, p. 448)
This year I have read a proposal for another dramatic innovation that we find in this same fourth gospel. Gabriele Boccaccini picks up the recent publications of Larry Hurtado and Bart Ehrman that have sought to explain when and how “Jesus became God”.
Bart Ehrman and Larry Hurtado are the scholars who in recent years have more directly tried to address the question. For Ehrman [How Jesus Became God], the attempt to identify when and how Jesus “became God” is not the clear-cut divide that one would expect, but a much subtler discourse about how and when Jesus became “more and more divine,” until he climbed the entire monotheistic pyramid (almost) to share the top with the Father. Jesus, argues Ehrman, was first regarded as a human exalted to a divine status (like Enoch or Elijah before him), and then as a preexistent heavenly being who became human in Jesus and then returned to heaven in an even more exalted status.
Answering the same questions some years earlier, Larry Hurtado [Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity] traced the origin of such a belief by asking when Jesus began to be worshiped by his followers. In his view the devotion to Jesus marked a unique development within Jewish monotheism, even before the emergence of an explicit theology of the equality of Jesus with the Father. Jesus “became God” in the very moment in which he was worshiped.
(Boccaccini, p. 337)
Boccaccini finds both arguments problematic. Ehrman, for instance, does not really explain how Jesus is different from other figures in the Jewish “pantheon” who are also “divine” (e.g. Enoch, Elijah) and “preexistent”. “Being divine” and “being God” were not identical concepts in Second Temple Jewish belief systems. Angels were superhuman “divine” beings and divine beings could become human and humans could become divine. Preexistent divine beings like the Son of Man figure in the Parables of Enoch were not God; that figure was created at the beginning along with the angelic hosts. Thus in 1 Enoch 48:2-6 we read:
At that hour, that Son of Man was given a name, in the presence of the Lord of the Spirits, the Before-Time; even before the creation of the sun and the moon, before the creation of the stars [i.e., the angels], he was given a name in the presence of the Lord of the Spirits. He will become a staff for the righteous ones in order that they may lean on him and not fall. He will be the light of the gentiles and he will become the hope of those who are sick in their hearts…. He was concealed in the presence of (the Lord of the Spirits) prior to the creation of the world, and for eternity.
Hurtado is correct in pointing out that
Jesus was the only person in Judaism of whom we have evidence that he was worshiped by his followers;
But . . .
nonetheless, the force of the argument is somehow diminished by the fact that “veneration” was a common practice toward people of authority. Even within the Jewish monotheistic framework, different degrees of veneration could apply to divine beings other than, and inferior to, God.
Note, therefore, in the Life of Adam and Eve (13-16) the archangel Michael called on all the angels to worship Adam as the image of God:
The devil replied, ‘Adam, what dost thou tell me It is for thy sake that I have been hurled from that place. When thou wast formed. I was hurled out of the presence of God and banished from the company of the angels. When God blew into thee the breath of life and thy face and likeness was made in the image of God, Michael also brought thee and made (us) worship thee in the sight of God; and God the Lord spake: Here is Adam. I have made thee in our image and likeness.’
And Michael went out and called all the angels saying: ‘Worship the image of God as the Lord God hath commanded.’ And Michael himself worshipped first; then he called me and said: ‘Worship the image of God the Lord.’ And I answered, ‘I have no (need) to worship Adam.’ And since Michael kept urging me to worship, I said to him, ‘Why dost thou urge me I will not worship an inferior and younger being (than I). I am his senior in the Creation, before he was made was I already made. It is his duty to worship me.’
When the angels, who were under me, heard this, they refused to worship him. And Michael saith, ‘Worship the image of God, but if thou wilt not worship him, the Lord God will be wrath with thee.’ And I said, ‘If He be wrath with me, I will set my seat above the stars of heaven and will be like the Highest.’
And God the Lord was wrath with me and banished me and my angels from our glory; and on thy account were we expelled from our abodes into this world and hurled on the earth. And straightway we were overcome with grief, since we had been spoiled of so great glory. And we were grieved when we saw thee in such joy and luxury. And with guile I cheated thy wife and caused thee to be expelled through her (doing) from thy joy and luxury, as I have been driven out of my glory.
Again in 1 Enoch 62:6, 9 we find the expectation that the Son of Man will be worshiped even though he is not identified with God.
And the kings and the mighty and all who possess the earth shall bless and glorify and extol him who rules over all, who was hidden. . . .
And all the kings and the mighty and the exalted and those who rule the earth
Shall fall down before him on their faces,
And worship and set their hope upon that Son of Man,
And petition him and supplicate for mercy at his hands.
What set God apart from other divine and preexistent beings was, Boccaccini believes, was that God was the creator of all. God was not only sitting at the top of the pyramid of divine and angelic beings. God was set apart not simply on the basis that he was more divine than others (Ehrman) or that he was more worthy of worship (Hurtado), but that he was unique, in a dimension of his own, because he had created all things.
Philo spoke of five distinctive characteristics of Jewish “monotheism” in On the Creation of the World (170-72) and one of these was his creator status:
God has a being and existence, and he who so exists is really one, and he has created the world, and he has created it one … having made it like to himself in singleness; and he exercises a continual care for that which he has created.
Don’t we read in Paul’s letters claims that Jesus was God or equal with God? Boccaccini replies:
In the letter to the Romans, Paul used a similar language of “adoption” both in reference to Christ, who was “designated Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4), and in relation to the whole Christian community (“you received a spirit of adoption whereby we cry, ‘Abba, Father!”’ Rom. 8:15). In his unique relationship with the Father, the Messiah stands out as the son among the other sons; the phrase does not imply in itself Jesus’s equality with the Father, unless we read the Synoptics and Paul in light of the Gospel of John.
(344 — emphasis mine)
What of the Philippian Hymn?
As Yarbro Collins and Collins correctly point out [in King and Messiah, 147], the prose hymn in Philippians “clearly speaks about the preexistence of Jesus … [but] does not imply that Jesus was God or equal to God before his birth as a human being.” In Ehrman’s words, “Paul understood Christ to be an angel who became a human.” Erhman’s definition of the Philippian hymn as an early example of “incarnation christology,” however, is misleading, and his rejection of the parallelism with Adam is unnecessary. Philippians’s description of the lowering of the divine “Son” who became human as an act of obedience and was then exalted to an higher degree of divinity parallels the story of the “divine” Adam, the other “Son of God,” who also was created “immortal” like an angel but became “human” (i.e., mortal) as a punishment for his desire of acquiring a higher degree of divinity. Yes, Paul describes Jesus as “a preexistent divine being,” [How Jesus Became God, 266] but there is no “incarnation” in Paul; in no place does Paul talk of Jesus as an uncreated being who became flesh. Yes, “Christ could be a divine being yet not be fully equal with God.” Paul is very careful; he never refers to Christ as the θεός, the only uncreated Maker of All.
The Divine Uncreated Christ
For Boccaccini the Gospel of John was the turning point.
The common view that earliest Christianity bestowed a “low Christology” on Jesus as the Messiah is without warrant, Boccaccini argues. Ehrman’s thesis of Jesus “gradual climb up the ladder of divinity” is without support.
There never was in Christianity something like a “low Christology,” centered on the view of Jesus as a human Messiah. Since its earliest beginnings, the Jesus movement found cohesion in the belief of Jesus as the “Son of Man,” an exalted heavenly, divine Messiah, the forgiver on earth and the would-be eschatological Judge. However, while exalting Jesus as a “divine” being and venerating him accordingly, the first Christians did not even take into consideration the hypothesis that their Messiah could be “uncreated.” This possibility was simply not part of the Jewish messianic debate of the time. Paul also was very careful never to attribute to the κύριος Jesus the title of θεός (God), which was unique to the Father.
Indeed, even though there are so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many θεοί and κύριοι—yet for us there is only one θεός, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one κύριος, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Cor. 8:5-6)
Boccaccini stresses that for Paul Jesus was a Messiah figure comparable to the Son of Man figure in the Parables of Enoch. Paul does not apply the Son of Man title to Jesus, it appears, because to do so in the context of Paul’s writings would be to make Jesus the Son of Adam, whereas Jesus represents a polar opposite figure to Adam: Adam fell because of his disobedience; Jesus lowered himself voluntarily and in obedience. Yes, the Philippians hymn presents a Jesus who is preexistent, but that does not imply that Jesus was God or equal with God before entering the world as a human.
It took almost a century for Christians to come to the conclusion (or within a Christian theological perspective, to the realization) that Jesus the Messiah “has become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Heb. 1:4). And it took the genius of the Gospel of John to first introduce the possibility of an uncreated divine Christ and make this concept part of the theological debate of Second Temple Judaism. This goal was achieved by relying on speculations about the divine “uncreated” λόγος/σοφία, speculations that were not completely extraneous to Jewish messianism, in the sense that it was believed that the Messiah would speak the word of God and would be the revealer of heavenly wisdom (Isa. 11:1-5).
John’s Prologue: 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 were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.
Psalm 33:6 By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.
Sirach 24:8 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.’
The Gospel of John’s Prologue, Boccaccini points out, “is a masterpiece of theological synthesis.”
The Word ( λόγος ) is firstly said to be divine and uncreated; then that divine and uncreated λόγος is said to be the instrument by which God created all.
The Septuagint (Greek translation) of Psalm 33 declares how all things were created by “the Word ( λόγος ) of the Lord”.
In the Septuagint of Proverbs, Wisdom is said to be uncreated; but in Sirach 24:8 Wisdom was said to have been created, and that created Wisdom “dwelled” among mankind. John combined the two: the uncreated Logos came to “dwell” among us. John, or the author of the Gospel of John, was the first, it appears, to have removed the boundary between created and uncreated. In the process Jesus became the “divine uncreated manifestation of God ( λόγος ).
Until the Gospel of John Christians looked on Jesus was the divine yet created Messiah/Christ. They could not declare Jesus to be god/God. With the Gospel of John they could look on Jesus as the “uncreated” λόγος.
“My κύριος [Lord] and my θεός [God]!” (John 20:28)
We sometimes hear that in principle John could have called Jesus Wisdom ( σοφία ) instead of the Word ( λόγος ). But the technical hitch to that identification was the fact that Jesus was male and σοφία was a feminine noun. Boccaccini suggests another and more profound reason for choosing Word over Wisdom for Jesus:
Λόγος had always been unambiguously presented in the Jewish tradition as an uncreated manifestation of God, while, as we have seen, the debate about the created or uncreated status of Wisdom was still open. By using λόγος, John could be sure not to be misunderstood in his claim that the man Jesus was the created embodiment of an uncreated manifestation of God.
In conclusion, an entirely Jewish progression
Jesus “became God” not when he was given the attribute of “divinity” (which happened at a very early stage, maybe even during his lifetime) or when he was “venerated” (which also happened at a very early stage after his death, as soon as he was believed to be resurrected and living in heaven). Jesus “became God” not even when progressively a “higher degree of divinity was given to the already divine Messiah” and Jesus began to be understood as a preexistent angelic figure who came to dwell on earth. It did not even happen when his disciples “upgraded” their veneration, worshiping him as God.
The categories of “veneration,” suggested by Larry Hurtado, and that of “divinity,” explored by Bart Ehrman, fall short of giving a clear answer to the quest for “how Jesus became God,” and do not fully recognize the distinctive and revolutionary contribution given by the Gospel of John. Jesus “became God” only when the Gospel of John ultimately made him “uncreated,” and the Messiah was understood to be the uncreated λόγος who became flesh. It was not the transformation of a Jewish prophet into a pagan God, as Maurice Casey argued [From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God], but the transformation of a Jewish prophet and messianic claimant into the Jewish God, exploiting the rich variety of previous messianic models and the dynamic nature of Jewish monotheism.
And it was all “very Jewish”. There is no need to call upon non-Jewish Hellenistic influences to explain Jesus’ status.
Conceptually, John’s λόγος Christology was only a small “variant” in relation to existing Jewish messianic and earlier christological models that described the lowering and exaltation of the preexistent “divine” Messiah, and yet it was a huge, bold step. The crossing of the boundary between the “created” and the “uncreated” distinctively set the Christian Messiah apart and brought Jesus to an unprecedented level of exaltation, from an inferior divine being to the Jewish God.
One question arising from what I have set out above is the significance of Jesus calling himself the Son of Man in the Gospel of John. Recall that the Son of Man was known from Enochic literature to be a created being. John reconciled the Son of Man title by explaining the various functions of Jesus as Messiah. The Messiah, we learn from the early chapters, has many functions. One of these is to judge the world. That was the Son of Man’s job according to the Parables of Enoch.
Jesus is not the Son of Man by nature; the Son of Man was in fact “created.” Jesus therefore is only “said” to be the Son of Man because he serves as the eschatological judge. “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son… [the Father] has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man” (John 5:22,27).
The Parables of Enoch state that it was Enoch who as the Son of Man. Enoch was said to be the judge at the end of days.
You are the Son of Man born for justice, and righteousness has dwelt in you, and the Chief Justice of Days you do not abandon” (1 En. 71:14)
The Parables even describe the transition of Enoch into an angelic being, or in Boccaccini’s words, he was “transfigured” to become an angel.
John does not hold back from a sharp rebuttal:
“No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13).
Against those who claimed that Enoch was the Son of Man who ascended into heaven, John argued the superiority of Jesus, the Son of Man who descended from and ascended into heaven.
So the Son of Man was a title bestowed on Jesus because he was to fulfill the functions of the Son of Man. In The Gospel of John Jesus was not the literal Son of Man; he was said to be the Son of Man because he would carry out the Judgement, originally a Son of Man task. Once the Son of Man had been thus reduced to a term that represented a role or function, it soon lost its significance in the subsequent theological debates among various Christian factions.
Other changes followed. One of these was that angels and mortals on earth were no longer allowed to be worshiped. In the earliest days of “Christianity”, when Jesus was understood to be a created being, and when the Son of Man figure was said to have been created, the worship of angels was accepted. Jesus was one of many, or the highest among his like-kind. Once Jesus became in uncreated being and in that dimension, the God dimension, he was worshiped, then the worshiping of angels and mortals was from that moment forbidden.
Ashton, John. 2009. Understanding the Fourth Gospel. 2nd edition. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
Boccaccini, Gabriele. 2018. “From Jewish Prophet to Jewish God: How John Made the Divine Jesus Uncreated.” In Reading the Gospel of Johns Christology as Jewish Messianism, edited by Benjamin Reynolds and Gabriele Boccaccini, 106:335–57. Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. Leiden ; Boston: Brill.
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