Tag Archives: Christ

How Could a Crucified Jesus Be Identified With God?


Richard Bauckham is not a mythicist. I have no doubt he would emphatically oppose the very idea. General readers probably know him best for his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony in which he argues the Gospel narratives were sourced from traditions guaranteed by eyewitnesses of Jesus. I happen to think that book was one of the worst pieces of nonsense I have ever read and suggested it might best be explained by issues related to an illness from which Bauckham was recovering at the time he wrote it. But when Bauckham is not attempting to do history he can be very interesting. So I’m thrilled to write something positive about a Bauckham book for a change.

Cover of "God Crucified : Monotheism and ...
Cover via Amazon

God Crucified was first published in 1998 and reissued as a chapter in a larger volume, Jesus and the God of Israel, two years after Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Bauckham argues that the New Testament consistently portrays Jesus as part of the Godhead itself. The earliest Christology was a “High Christology”. That is, views about Jesus did not gradually evolve from the time of “the resurrection appearances” through a series of graduating exaltations until he was eventually worshiped alongside, or as part of, God. He was identified with God by the earliest Christians before any of the New Testament was written.

This view of Jesus was derived from an interpretation of the passages in Isaiah where God is said to both reside in the highest places where he sits as supreme ruler over all creation, and also with the lowly on earth, in particular with the suffering Servant. God raises that suffering Servant from death to be with him in the highest places, too, thus identifying himself with that one who had been abased.

Bauckham believes that this view (that I address in more detail in this post) explains how the human Jesus came to be identified with ruler of the universe. I think Bauckham’s argument holds perfectly for “Christ crucified”, but runs into problems when one tries to relate it to a pre-crucified human Jesus. I wonder if his argument better supports mythicist scenarios that argue Jesus was initially a figure who only took on flesh or a form of flesh for the short time necessary to be crucified.

Understanding Early Jewish Monotheism

Bauckham begins by setting out the two main scholarly views of Second Temple Jewish monotheism: read more »

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 7

Continuing from Part 6 . . . .

The preceding posts have outlined Matthew Novenson’s argument that Paul’s concept of Christ (as expressed throughout his epistles) was entirely consistent with “the formal conventions of ancient Jewish Messiah language” that we would expect in any messianic literature of his era.

There are a few passages, however, that have been used to argue that Paul’s idea of Christ “demurred from, repudiated or even polemicized against” the Jewish theological notion of Messiah. Novenson rejects these interpretations and argues that even in these passages Paul uses χριστός within the range of conventional Jewish understanding of the Messiah.

1 Corinthians 1:23 “We Preach a Crucified Christ”

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

Recent scholarly interpretation has generally viewed Christ here as “a meaning-less proper name” and hence the common translation as above, “Christ crucified”. An alternative translation that Novenson deploys is “a crucified Christ“. That definitely has a different ring to it. read more »

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 5

Much New Testament scholarship has come to think that Paul did not believe Jesus was the Messiah in any sense that his contemporary Jews would have understood the word Messiah. Many Pauline scholars have concluded that for the bulk of Paul’s 270 references to Christ (Greek for Messiah) the word meant little more than a personal name, and certainly not the traditional Messiah of Jewish national aspirations.

Matthew Novenson (Christ among the Messiahs) argues otherwise. The previous posts in this series have sketched his arguments that Paul used the term Christ, not as a personal name nor as a title of office, but as an honorific comparable the honorifics applied to Hellenistic kings and Roman generals and emperors:

  • Epiphanes [God Manifest]
  • Soter [Saviour]
  • Africanus [conqueror of Africa]
  • Augustus [Venerable]

. . . . χριστός in Paul is best conceived neither as a sense-less proper name nor as a title of office but rather as an honorific, a word that can function as a stand-in for a personal name but part of whose function is to retain its supernominal associations. Consequently, we ought not to imagine Paul habitually writing χριστός as if it signified nothing, then occasionally recalling its scriptural associations and subtly redeploying it. We ought rather to think of Paul using the honorific throughout his letters and occasionally, for reasons of context, clarifying one of more aspects of how he means the term. (p. 138)

If follows that Novenson argues that Paul’s use of the word Christ (χριστός) is entirely consistent with what it meant among Jews of his day — a world-conquering and liberating Hebrew “Messiah”. Paul has not done away with the traditional messianic idea. Rather, Paul relies upon the same core Scriptural texts that other Jews likewise regarded as foundational to their understanding of who and what the Messiah was. I repeat here from Part 2 those half dozen central texts, none of which, interestingly, contains the word “messiah”. See part 2 for the explanation of why these texts are known to be central for Jewish concepts and discussions about the meaning of the Messiah.

Genesis 49:10

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the commander’s staff from between his feet, until that which is his comes; and the obedience of the peoples is his.

Numbers 24:17

A star will go forth from Jacob; and a scepter will rise from Israel; it will shatter the borders of Moab and tear down all the sons of Sheth.

Wenceslas Hollar - King David
Wenceslas Hollar – King David (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2 Samuel 7:12-13

I will raise up your seed after you, who will come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

Isaiah 11:1-2

A shoot will come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch will grow from his roots. The spirit of YHWH will rest upon him.

Amos 9:11

On that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and repair its breached walls, and raise up its ruins, and build it as in the days of old.

Daniel 7:13-14

I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like a son of man was coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and honor and kingship.

In this post I begin to look at some of the passages in Paul’s letters where Novenson finds Paul clarifying his use of the term χριστός/messiah. Novenson attempts to show through these passages that Paul’s use of the term is no different from what we would expect to find in any other Jewish or Christian text that we consider “a messiah text”.


Galatians 3:16 “Abraham’s Seed, Which Is Christ”

Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. (Gal. 3:16)

But contrast the passage in Genesis that Paul is referencing (Genesis 13:14-17): read more »

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 3a

In the previous post we saw how Matthew Novenson in Christ among the Messiahs showed that

there were certain linguistic conventions in Jewish antiquity whereby a speaker or writer could refer meaningfully to the concept of a messiah by alluding to a small but significant group of scriptural texts.

This post looks at the question of discovering what word “messiah” itself meant, or what role a messiah was thought to have, among ancient authors and with special reference to Paul.

One approach to interpretation is to note the frequency with which the word is used. It is significant, says Novenson, that 1 and 2 Maccabees never use messiah language with reference to Judah Maccabee or his brothers, that the Epistle of James uses the word only twice (1:1 and 2:1) and the Gospel of Thomas not at all. Paul’s seven “undisputed” letters contain 270 instances of the word. This total is

more than he uses any other word for Jesus and more than any other ancient Jewish author uses that word. (p. 64)

So was Paul really “the most messianically interested of any ancient Jewish or Christian author”? Did he really mean “messiah” in any traditional Jewish sense or was it mainly a personal name he applied to Jesus?


The Name-versus-Title Debate

If Paul used the word Christ as a title for Jesus then we may understand Paul as having a messianic Christological view. If he used it only as a personal name, however, then we may conclude that he had no such Christology and the word had no particular or traditional messianic meaning.

Most scholars have come down on the side of the latter argument — that Paul uses Christ as a proper name,

and that consequently the messiahship of Jesus plays little or no role in Paul’s thought . . . It follows, then, that for Paul “the Christian message does not hinge, at least primarily, on the claim that Jesus was or is the Messiah.” In fact, for Paul, “the Messiahship of Jesus is simply not an issue.” (p. 65, quoting MacRae, also Hare, Kramer, Dahl)

A minority of scholars, including N. T. Wright, have taken the contrary view and argued that Paul used the term as a title and that the messiashship of Jesus “lies at the very heart of his theology, ecclesiology, and eschatology.” read more »

Christ among the Messiahs — Part 1

  • What did Paul — or any of the earliest Christians — mean when they called Jesus “Christ”? I mean before the Gospels were written.
  • If the idea of Christ for earliest Christians and Jews of their day meant a conquering Davidic king, how do we explain why early Christians referred to Jesus as “Christ” and “seed of David” if he was crucified?
  • Did not Paul apply the term Christ to Jesus as a personal name, not as a title? If so, did Paul have his own idiosyncratic view of what Christ meant, if anything, other than a name?
  • If Jews at the time of the Jewish revolt (66-70 ce) were expecting a Messiah who would rise up out of Judea and rule the world (as indicated in Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius), did Paul and other early Christians share this same view with application to Jesus?
  • Did Paul “de-messianize a hitherto-messianic Jesus movement” and turn a Jewish cult into a religion that came to stand in opposition to Judaism?

These questions are addressed and answered by Matthew V. Novenson in his recently published Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism. Matthew Novenson is a lecturer in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh. He had earlier addressed aspects of them briefly in a 2009 JBL article, The Jewish Messiahs, the Pauline Christ, and the Gentile Question.

The Problem Stated

Novenson sets out the problem in his introduction:

The problem can be stated simply: Scholars of ancient Judaism, finding only a few diverse references to “messiahs” in Hellenistic- and Roman-period Jewish literature, have concluded that the word did not mean anything determinate [that is, it did not convey, for example, the idea of troubles in the last-days, with an Elijah precursor, a coming to overthrow enemies, establish the kingdom of God, etc] in that period [it was merely a word for anyone/thing “anointed”].

Meanwhile, Pauline interpreters, faced with Paul’s several hundred uses of the Greek word for “messiah,” have concluded that Paul said it but did not mean it, that χριστός in Paul does not bear any of its conventional senses.

To summarize the majority view: “Messiah” did not mean anything determinate in the period in question, and Paul, at any rate, cannot have meant whatever it is that “messiah” did not mean. (pp. 1-2, my formatting)

Novenson finds John Collins’ statement of the problem particularly pointed:

On the Christian side, we have had the astonishing claim that Paul, the earliest Christian writer, did not regard Jesus as the messiah. The ecumenical intentions of such a claim are transparent and honorable, but also misguided since the claim is so plainly false. Jesus is called Christos, anointed, the Greek equivalent of messiah, 270 times in the Pauline corpus. If this is not ample testimony that Paul regarded Jesus as messiah, then words have no meaning. (p. 2)

Novenson’s book argues that for Paul Jesus was the “messiah” in more than just name. But if so, what did the term “messiah” mean to Paul? Novenson will argue that Paul really did understand the word “messiah” in the same sense as other Jews of his day understood the term:

To rephrase my thesis from this perspective: Christ language in Paul is actually an invaluable example of messiah language in ancient Judaism. (p. 3) read more »

Paul’s Christ and Hercules Compared as Moral Examples

Niko Huttunen has extended Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s work on showing how the apostle Paul’s thought was in many respects a mutation of ancient Stoic philosophy: Paul and Epictetus on Law: A Comparison.

One detail of a more general interest (I think anyway) is Huttunen’s concluding discussion of comparisons of the philosopher Epictetus‘ use of Heracles (Hercules) as a role model and Paul’s similar treatment of Christ.

Epictetus found examples of perfect morality in Diogenes, Socrates and Heracles. They were fully obedient to the divine law. . . . Heracles had a special position compared with Socrates and Diogenes. Heracles was more than a moral example; he was a demigod still living and actively affecting life in the world. Though this side of his figure is downplayed in Epictetus’ descriptions, the remnants of it are still present. This makes him a closer analogy to the Pauline Christ than to Socrates or Diogenes. (p. 150, my emphasis)

Both Heracles and Christ are in a class above mortals since they are both designated sons of God in a special sense:

But nothing more dear to him than God. For this reason it was believed that he [Heracles] was the son of God, and he was. (Disc. 2.16.44)

for neither did [God] supply [much to] Hercules who was his own son (Disc. 3:26.31)

Like Christ Heracles was a moral exemplar by virtue of obedience to God and his law. read more »

The Gnostic Gospel (Apocryphon) of John – 2

This post follows on from my earlier post on The Secret Book of John, possibly a Jewish pre-Christian work, as translated and annotated by Stevan Davies.

Stevan Davies’ translation of the Secret Book/Apocryphon of John is available online at The Gnostic Society Library.

The Prologue is said to be a Christian addition to an earlier non-Christian book. But what sort of Christianity interested the scribe who added this? The disciple John is said to see Jesus appearing variably as a child, an old man and a young man. I am reminded of Irenaeus’s belief that Jesus had to have been past his 50th birthday when he was crucified so he could experience all the life stages of humanity and thus be the saviour of all. One is also reminded of the letter of 1 John that addresses the “children, fathers and young men” in the church. Of related interest to me are some of the earliest Christian art forms that depict Jesus as a little child – in particular when he faces an elderly John the Baptist to be baptized. Christ crucified does not appear.

See http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/Sarcophagus-Santa-Maria-Antiqua.html for related pagan images

The same prologue has Jesus say “I am the Father, the Mother, the Son. I am the incorruptible Purity.” The Holy Spirit in the eastern churches was grammatically feminine and so the Holy Spirit itself came to be regarded as feminine.

The Christianity that is appropriating this originally non-Christian gnostic text was one that viewed Christ as not only a discrete personality who had been crucified and risen as a saviour, but one that also accommodated gnostic-like ideas of Christ being identified in the different forms of humanity. Or perhaps it is more correct to say that the range of humanity is a representation of the divine.

But enough of my ramblings and speculative asides. Back to the gnostic myth. read more »

Earl Doherty’s forerunner? Paul-Louis Couchoud and the birth of Christ

In his review of Maurice Goguel‘s attack on Jesus mythicism Earl Doherty writes (with my emphasis):

It was at the opening of the 20th century that the first serious presentations of the Jesus Myth theory appeared. The earliest efforts by such as Robertson, Drews, Jensen and Smith were, from a modern point of view, less than perfect, lacking a comprehensive explanation for all aspects of the issue. Pre-Christian cults, astral religions, obscure parallels with foreign cultures, even the epic of Gilgamesh, went into a somewhat hodge-podge mix; many of them didn’t seem to know quite what to do with Paul. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Paul-Louis Couchoud in France offered a more coherent scenario, identifying Christ in the eyes of Paul as a spiritual being. (While not relying upon him, I would trace my type of thinking back to Couchoud, rather than the more recent G. A. Wells who, in my opinion, misread Paul’s understanding of Christ.)

More recently on this blog Earl Doherty stated in relation to this 1920’s French mythicist (again my emphasis):

Prior to Wells, the mythicist whose views were closest to my own was Paul-Louis Couchoud who wrote in the 1920s, though I took my own fresh run at the question and drew very little from Couchoud himself.

I have recently acquired a two volume English translation of Couchoud’s work titled The Creation of Christ: An Outline of the Beginnings of Christianity, translated by C. Bradlaugh Bonner and published 1939.

Today I did a very rough and dirty bodgie job of scanning the introductory chapters of this book and making them word-searchable. But if you are not a fuss-pot for perfection and are curious about how Couchoud opens his argument I share here the opening pages of this two volume work.  read more »

Critically evaluating Paul’s claims about Jesus

From the moment his followers believed that Jesus was the Messiah foretold by the Prophets, the transformation of his life into myth began, and proceeded apace. (p. 108 of Jesus by Charles Guignebert, trans by S.H. Hooke)

It is refreshing to read some sound logical sense by a historical Jesus scholar in the swelling tide of apologetic publications. I like the way Guignebert (through his translator) worded the following:

The belief in this illustrious descent [of Jesus] is unquestionably very old, since Paul already knew and accepted it (Rom. i. 3, “of the seed of David according to the flesh”), but that is no reason for believing, without further investigation, that it was correct. There are still critics, even open-minded ones, who accept the possibility of its being so, but we cannot share their opinion. (p. 111, my emphasis)

No doubt more recent scholars have expressed the same critical nous, but there are many other historical Jesus scholars who since have attacked the very values of the Enlightenment, sneered at what they label a “hermeneutic of suspicion” (some even arguing that “charity” is a Christian duty owed to certain subsets of texts) (Bauckham et beaucoup al), and glided on the wind of postmodernism to substitute “even fabricated material . . . however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned” for genuine historical evidence (Allison).

So how does Guignebert investigate the correctness of this claim by Paul that Jesus was “of the seed of David”? read more »

Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism 5 — The Christ Title (2)

Continuing the series that is archived here.

Here is my understanding of Walter Schmithals’ argument so far. (Others who have read ‘Gnosticism in Corinth‘ — Roger? — please do chime in with corrections. I have not found reading S easy and am quite open to being shown that I have forgotten or overlooked some significant aspect of his argument.)

Schmithals guiding principle appears to be that nature (or human culture) would produce a singular trajectory or evolutionary progression from a “system” which begins without a clear individualised redeemer myth (i.e. one in which a personalised redeemer descends from heaven to rescue mankind enabling them to follow him back into heaven and their true home). At the beginning the potentially saving power lies dormant in all humankind and is activated by saving knowledge (gnosis) of its origin and ultimate home. This power was part of the great power or creative force that produced all things.

Jewish influence or Jewish gnostics are said to have led to the adoption of the title of “Christ” as one of the names of this power. This adoption took only the title or term Christ and not the full conceptual embodiment of what that figure supposedly meant to Jewish thought. In this primitive gnostic thought the title Christ was thus amenable to being attached to the Primal Man or Adamus (heavenly Adam) concept.

None of the above is said to have shown any hint of Christian influence. read more »

Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism 4 — The Christ Title (1)

This continues the series on an introductory chapter from Walter Schmithals’ Gnosticism in Corinth. The full series is archived here.

Now it is no longer a very long step to the identification of this system as “pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism.” When Simon identifies himself as the “Great Power,” he therewith makes the claim, not to be a definite divine emanation, but an emanated part of the one original God himself. We have seen that the Apophasis developed just this Simonian claim and how it developed it. It is immediately understandable that all the divine predicates can be claimed by Simon or can be attributed to him. Thus, following Irenaeus, Hippolytus rightly says that Simon tolerated “being called by any name with which people wished to name him.” Hence he is called not only Great Power or The Standing One, but also God, Son of God, Father, Holy Spirit, Kyrios, Savior, and so on. (p. 45)

The pre-Christian system of Simonianism did not use the Judaistic term Christ in the sense of being a unique redeemer but as a title only. So when Hippolytus says that

Simon had appeared as a man although he was not a man, and had apparently suffered in Judea, had appeared to the Jews as Son, and to the other peoples as Pneuma Hagion [Holy Spirit], it is still clear in this late report that Simon is the Christ not as the one Christ who has appeared in Jesus but as the Pneuma who has appeared in all, and only thus also in Jesus. (p. 46)

Dositheus who was reputed to have been Simon’s teacher presented himself as Christ, according to Origen (Celsus, 1, LVII).

But of course none of the above proves the existence of a pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism.

For Schmithals what is important first of all is to be clear about the nature of what he calls “the structure” of the pre-Christian Gnostic system: read more »

Philo’s Spiritual Messiah: allegorical and personal?

Spiritual Logos from http://web.archive.org/web/20100730211306/http://www.thelogocreator.com:80/spiritual-logos.html
Spiritual Logos from http://www.thelogocreator.com/spiritual-logos.html

Philo does not mention the term “christos” (“messiah”). But he does use a lot of messianic terminology to describe how the Logos converts people, through an inner personal war against the flesh, into the divine image. The message reminds me of Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s more detailed discussion of Paul’s concept of the Stoic-Logos-like function of the heavenly Christ in converting his followers to a “life in Christ”. (I return to this point at the end of this post.)

This post is another that attempts to “wikileak” what scholars themselves publish about the diverse nature of the ideas surrounding the origins of Christianity.

Philo allegorizes the narratives in the Jewish Scriptures: the wanderings of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the Temple. Professor of Religious Studies at UCSB, Richard D. Hecht, asks:

Why should he take the eschatological future any more “realistically” and thereby less spiritually than other elements in this thought? (Philo and Messiah, in Judaisms and their Messiahs at the turn of the Christian Era, p.148)

Hecht points to two different interpretations of messianic tropes in Philo:

  1. Messianic terms are used as symbols for the Logos, or for how virtue is stimulated in the human soul;
  2. Philo draws on Stoic ideas to describes an end-time Golden Age, but this is again a “spiritualization” of history, not an attempt to place a messiah in a real historical context. This description also concludes with a return to his primary interest (in 1 above) by comparing this Messianic Era to a “little seed” that generates “the most honorable and beautiful qualities among men.” (On Rewards and Punishments, 172)

It is the first of these that I focus most on in this post. Hecht argues that the Messiah in Philo is, for the spiritually discerning, the Logos working in “man” to save him spiritually by transforming him into the divine character image.

In On the Confusion of Tongues Philo attributes a messianic name to the Logos itself. read more »