Jesus is Lord, but which Lord is He? My Response to Gupta and McGrath

There is an interesting discussion ensuing concerning whether or not Jesus being called “Lord” in the New Testament is an indicator of high christology. Recently, Nijay Gupta has offered a response to James McGrath, who was responding to Gupta’s response to Ehrman (I feel like I am explaining the trajectory of communication mentioned in Rev. 1:1). I thought I would throw in my two cents and draw attention toward some neglected evidence which I hope would bring this discussion toward areas of agreement.

I continue to be amazed that the most cited and alluded text from the Hebrew Bible, Psalm 110:1, wherein Yahweh speaks to another lord (“my lord”), fails to get enough press in discussions concerning the significance of Jesus being called Lord. I repeat, Psalm 110:1 is the New Testament’s favorite text from the Hebrew Bible to reference in regard to Jesus, his relationship to Yahweh, and his position of exaltation. It seems fairly obvious, to me, that the various New Testament authors regarded Jesus in terms of this second figure on Psalm 110:1. The “my lord” in this psalm, is the Hebrew adoni, which in every single of its 195 occurrences within the Hebrew Bible denotes a human superior, husband, and sometimes even an angel. However, in not one of those 195 occurrences does adoni refer to the God of Israel. Not once! I’ve actually verified each reference to confirm this fact, but hey [insert LeVar Burton voice] you don’t have to take my word for it…

levarIn Psalm 110:1 we have Yahweh speaking to an exalted human figure, “YHWH says to my lord, sit at My right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” This seems to indicate on the plain reading of the text that this human figure, summoned to the right hand of God, is to be distinguished from Yahweh. And it is this sort of relationship, I argue, that the New Testament writers repeatedly portrayed in their writings. Jesus is Lord indeed, but this does not make him Yahweh. Rather he is Lord in the sense described in Psalm 110:1, an exalted human figure who is distinct from Yahweh, but is God’s “right hand man” (pun intended).

Since Gupta correctly suggests that 1 Thessalonians is the earliest Christian correspondence which has survived, I’ll use the opening lines from that letter as an example:

constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ (1:3)

When Jesus here is called “our Lord” this certainly cannot mean “our Yahweh.” Such a phrase does not exist in the Hebrew Bible. Too often scholars have assumed that kyrios language identifies Jesus with Yahweh without stopping to think if this even makes sense, especially in regard to the multiple instances where Jesus is called “our Lord.” This point is shared by James Dunn, so I reckon the McGrath shares it as well.

I also suggest that 1 Cor 8:6 makes better sense if it is informed by Psalm 110:1. Both passages have two figures: God and an exalted human lord. Gupta never comes out and says this, but he implicitly seems to think that the Shema is split in 1 Cor 8:6, making the one Lord Jesus Christ be read as if Paul meant “the one YHWH Jesus Christ.” However, McGrath has persuasively refuted the nonsense of ‘Shema splitting’ theology in regard to 1 Cor 8:6 in his book ‘The Only True God.’

I suppose that the terminology regarding “High Christology” is not very helpful. If the human Messiah Jesus is exalted to the right hand of Yahweh, this is definitely a high view of Jesus. He is no ordinary man. He is God’s vice regent. But he is not Yahweh. However, many of those who read “God the Son” language into the New Testament regard the phrase “High Christology” as an indicator that Jesus is to be equated with Yahweh. I therefore suggest we need sharper terminology. While we are at it, let’s jettison the “divine” language. It likewise is too slippery.

In short, I contend that modern interpreters take Psalm 110:1 more seriously in their reconstruction of early christology. The writers of the New Testament regarded it as their chief reference from the Hebrew Bible to understanding Jesus. We should follow suit.



An Interview with James McGrath (part 4)

This is the fourth installment of my recent interview with James McGrath.


Dustin: We have textual variants which we, honestly, do not know for certain which goes back to the original pen of the author, such as John 1:18. Now I learned Greek with a modern pronunciation, so when I say μονογενὴς θεὸς I hope you can understand what I am trying to convey. Anyway, this verse has the well-known variant which seems to either be μονογενὴς θεὸς, “uniquely begotten God,” or μονογενὴς υἱὸς, “uniquely begotten son.” We are all taught in textual criticism to go for the more difficult reading. I am thinking here, however, if it originally was μονογενὴς υἱὸς, like the other characteristic Johannine constructions in John 3:16, 18, etc., then I could see a reason why scribes would want to tamper with the noun ‘son’ and change it to a more exalted title ‘God.’ I can certainly see that as a possibility. I can also make an argument that μονογενὴς θεὸς was the more difficult reading and scribes had a tendency to make the difficult things conform to the more traditional lines, such as in John 3:16. Yet some of the manuscripts with the ‘God’ variant are focused in a particular geographical area, suggesting a localized change, perhaps. I do wonder what in the world “the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father” actually means. If that was the real reading, what is John trying to convey to his original readers? That is the closest thing to two gods that you could get. I also wonder if in the word μονογενὴς, “only begotten.” has a sense of the act of creation, perhaps the uniquely-created God/son. Is this a distant acknowledgement to the virgin birth tradition which is independently attested in Matthew and Luke? 

JM: I have seen a strong linguistic case and of course there is a blurring of the distinction in modern English because ancients were not always consistent in their spelling. So the same is true with ancient Greek. They way it is spelled, it does seem to not come from ‘genao’ but from ‘genos,’ “one of a kind, unique” rather than “only begotten.” Although the term has resonances with the Abraham story [Gen. 22] but there too only begotten doesn’t fit Isaac. “Unique, special, or one of a kind” works better there.

Even so, “one of a kind God who is the bosom of the Father” would be very puzzling. I think a bigger question is, who is being referred to in that way? Can we figure out why the terminology is being used? What would it have meant? My own view, which may or may not be right, is that there is this parallel between the opening and the closing of the prologue.

Dustin: I know you can build a chiasm with the eighteen verses there.

JM: Yes. Is there entire thing about the human being Jesus? Is there a transition from the preexistent word to the human person Jesus, and if so, where? Is it chronological or do things jump around. If it is telling a story in a way that flows with a chronology, them presumably the ending is the Jesus exalted and at the Father’s right hand. And so, the author may be using this parallel to justify that, answering how can Jesus have that status. It is because he is the incarnation of the word.

But what does it mean to call Jesus “God?” There is this whole history with Philo calling Moses “God to Pharaoh.” There was certainly a broader use of calling people “god” in the ancient world.

Dustin: Absolutely.

JM: So whether it is “only begotten” or “one of a kind” or “one of a kind God” or even “one of a kind (comma) God,” it is not clear that we can sort those out grammatically. It really comes down to what we think the author meant. And to answer those questions we need to dive into the whole thing and attempt to situate the prologue into that. Either way, the author is basically tracing the story that leads up the exaltation of Jesus by connecting it with the pivotal moment of the prologue when the word became flesh. We do need to reflect more on the relationship between the preexistent word with the human being Jesus.

Dustin: I would again like to take a stab at that, if you don’t mind. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the prologue over the years. You have “in the beginning was the word” with its resonances with the Septuagint of Gen. 1:1. This evokes images of God speaking, vayomer elohim, and bring creation into being with his creative speech. John takes this up with the personified Logos, which is translated as a “him.” It could be translated “it” but if the Logos is a personified noun then perhaps John intended it to be a personified “him” in the same way that we have traditions with personified Sophia/wisdom as a “she” in Proverbs 8 and Wisdom of Solomon 6. In Sirach 24 we see that God’s Torah comes and tabernacles among the people. John is arguably drawing upon all of these strands within the cultural milieu, which unfortunately people who pick up the Gospel of John today aren’t aware of.

JM: Yeah.

Dustin: Unfortunately, the ignorance at this point on the part of modern readers, whether willingly or unwillingly, means that we aren’t quite in the same mindset that John was. So God’s personified speech creates things, it has life, etc. Now when I speak, my heart is coming across to you. So when God speaks, his words are a reflection of his inner being, his own self. So when John 1:1c says kai theos en o logos, it is not exactly equating 1:1 God and the Logos. Emphatically, it is kai theos.

JM: Yes.

Dustin: At this point, theos without the article can be adjectival. Some translations use “divine,” or “what God was, the word was.” So God’s Logos is fully expressive of God. That is my best translation at this point.

JM: [nods] Mmmhmm.   

Dustin: And then God’s creative word gets embodied in the human Jesus. Now some people think that this is the first time this has even been said in literature. However, Philo has two instances where he describes Moses as the “en-soul-ment” of Torah. Well then John goes on to say that the Law came through Moses but grace and truth came through Jesus. If Moses is the embodiment of the law then Jesus is the embodiment of God’s creative utterance. And the rest of the Gospel has Jesus saying pretty much nothing but “the words that I speak, they are eternal life, they aren’t my own words, but rather they came from God himself, I’m not speaking of myself, I’m only speaking of what God says.” That is basically the summary of John’s Gospel.

JM: Yeah. Another really important study is C. K. Barrett’s piece which asks if John is christo-centric of theo-centric. He has this great memorable line which really gets at something that is easy to miss. Before I get to that, let me come and respond. You made a really good point that we don’t have the first century Jewish context. There is a sense in which we have, at the same time, assumptions which we are lacking from the first century as well as assumptions we bring to the text from a whole history of debates about christology which first century people didn’t have! So we might both have ignorance and extra baggage! This is worth mentioning. We lack some things that the author assumes and we have assumptions from a history of christological debates which the author wouldn’t assume.

Now coming back to Barrett, he says something along the lines of:

“it is simply intolerable to have Jesus saying ‘I am Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, and as such I do as I’m told.'”          

An Interview with James McGrath (part 3)

This is my third installment into an interview I had with Dr. James McGrath earlier this month. The first part can be viewed here and the second can be seen here.

Dustin: One of the things I notice when comparing John to the former three Gospels is there there is an emphasis in John with this ἀποσυνάγωγος (“to be put out of the synagogue”) word, which is only coined in John and not found in any prior literature. Scholars have tended to see with these references, among others, that the Johannine community consisted of former members of Judaism who converted to Christianity, who now find themselves in dialogue with the synagogue down the street (whether in Ephesus or somewhere else, it is difficult to tell as we attempt to reconstruct the social situation which precipitated the Fourth Gospel). On top of that we have scholars who argue that there are multiple sources within John. I recently purchased the three commentaries on John and the Letters in the Eerdmans Critical Commentary series (here, here, and here) where it is argued, in detailed commentary, what each of the reconstructed layers of tradition meant. I’m sure for some interpreters this sort of reconstruction is useful but I wonder how one can even confidently argue to know what the three layers of tradition actually said when we don’t possess any of the individual sources. The point is that John is difficult and complicated, to say the least. I laugh when I see street preachers give out these condensed versions of the Bible, often times with just the Gospel of John in it.

JM: But there is a simplicity to it. On the one hand, there is the old analogy of the magical pool where children can paddle in it and adults can swim in it. If we start pulling on the strands and looking beneath the surface we do find that it is deep, complicated, and mysterious. Yet you also have Light, Love, Word…

Dustin: It seems very black and white, light or dark, ‘of God’ or ‘of the world.’

JM: Yeah.

Dustin: You also have this word kosmos, which most John scholars I think are correct in pointing out that this does not refer to the third rock from the sun but rather this present evil society which is opposed to what God and Jesus (and the Johannine Community) are doing. Therefore you get phrases like “you are of this world,” or “you are not of this world,” etc. It is interesting that you have these phrases on the lips of Jesus saying “I came into the world,” “I am leaving the world,” and “I am not of this world.” Then the disciples are also “not of this world.”

JM: (nods) Mmmhmm.

Dustin: So, to read this language as referring to some literal preexistence of Jesus seems problematic. I remember reading through John’s Gospel noting that Jesus came into the world, is leaving the world, and the disciples are leaving this world. I don’t know if this is a sectarian motif. I remember reading in your book John’s Apologetic Christology where you ask how the things Jesus was doing would have been viewed by the Jews. Is he being a rebellious son by claiming divine prerogatives which might bring dishonor onto God? If so, Jesus deserves to be stoned. However, if Jesus really is the appointed human agent, the shaliach, the one who has been empowered to do these things, which the Messiah could do within many contemporary Jewish messianic expectations, then the argument turns into whether or not Jesus really is God’s appointed agent. You quote from the Apocalypse of Abraham where Yahoel has the name of YHWH within it as an angel, and there seems to be no compromise to monotheism with this title. We seem all of these themes in a Christian document and yet they can still say things in John 5:44 about “the one and only God” and 17:3, “this is eternal life that they may know you, the only true God” with Jesus Christ being distinct from that category. I recall JAT JATRobinson made a statement in his book Twelve More New Testament Studies which says something to the effect that “John is an undeviating witness to Jewish unitary monotheism.” Of course that hasn’t caught on with modern scholars but I wish they would give him another look.

JM: I think there is a sense in which there is an acknowledgement of that. I am not persuaded by not entirely happy with how things are being formulated in the splitting of the Shema or talks concerning the divine identity as Richard Bauckham does. At the very least there have been several people, including Bauckham, who said that what the early Christians were saying was not controversial in that context. I don’t think they make the persuasive case that christology as they are understanding it, Bauckham and others, would not have been controversial. I think they realize that there is a sense in which monotheism doesn’t seem to be the issue in they way that others have understood it. So there is some reaction to it, but I am not happy with how they are formulating a response to that. It seems like there is some acknowledgement to they. There are some steps which, perhaps, an optimist could view as a positive direction.

Dustin: Yes, I see. I am aware that no interpreter can go to the text completely objective. Everyone comes to the text with some presuppositions and background, often from religious settings. People that are persuaded by a particular theological viewpoint often read those beliefs into the text.

JM: (nods) Mmmhmm.

Dustin: Scholars that teach at institutions which require them to believe a set of beliefs will regularly read those views into the text.

JM: (nods) Mmmhmm.

Dustin: I don’t think that is helpful because it makes me ask whether their books expound what they really think they text says or what their conservative institution teaches. We live in a time when academic integrity is a real issue, especially in light of the recent Bryan College discussion online. But I recognize, for those who are in those situations where they struggle to be honest with where they seem the evidence pointing for fear of their job, that its tough.

JM: I grew up…well, my background is a long story. I came to a personal faith within conservative evangelical and evangelical circles, so that’s where I started out. I came into my high education with that perspective. It may be that, because the positions I have now are different that those I had from my upbringing, it has allowed a little more flexibility. On the other hand, sometimes when one comes to something later they become a little more stauncher. I’m not sure what helped and what didn’t. I’m not fully able to see these things about myself they way we can see them clearly in other people. If you can spot these things, by all means tell me.

An Interview with James McGrath (part 2)

This post is a continuation of last week’s interview with Dr. James McGrath. You can read the first installment here.

Dustin: Thanks for all of that. I would like to take a stab at John 17:5 if you don’t mind. It is in this passage where Jesus says, “Glorify me with the glory which I had with you before the world was.” Later in that very chapter, Jesus says [John 17:22], “The glory which you have given to me, I have given to them,” i.e., the people he is praying for, the disciples. From the standpoint of the narrative in John, this bestowing of the glory onto the disciples has not, in fact, happened yet. However, I am aware that in Jewish theology that everything that is really important was in the mind of God from the beginning. You can see this in Genesis Rabbah where Wisdom preexists, along with the name of the Messiah, the Torah, Moses, etc. Even in the biblical book of Genesis, God speaks to Abraham in 15:18, “this land I have already given to your descendants.” The verb “have given” is in the qal perfect form, and Abraham doesn’t even have any children yet! Yet God can be so focused on his promises that he can speak of things as having already happened, as if they are true and valid. So I want to take seriously the difficulty of John 17:5 but while doing so I also want to take seriously the rest of the passage, particularly 17:22, which seems to offer an explanation. I think this is called the prophetic perfect of prophesy.

JM: Yes, the prophetic perfect. It is like “it has happened.”

Jesus-with-Open-Arms-Stained-Glass-WindowDustin: I see independent strand, such as in 1 Peter 1:20 where the Messiah was foreknown, προεγνωσμένου, before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last days. And then in Rev. 13:8 where John talks about the Lamb which has been crucified from the foundation of the world. Not literally, but within these independent traditions, such as the Petrine tradition and the…well, I don’t think the Fourth Gospel was written by the same person named John who penned the Apocalypse, but you get the idea. Independent strands within the first century which talk about the preexistence of the Messiah in the mind of God, but not literally. These statements are comfortable within the tradition, but readers don’t seem to make an issue out of those, so why John 17:5? I wonder.

JM: But then when you have this picture of the Messiah talking as though he remembered things from a heavenly existence [I assume he means John 6:62]. Is this preexistence in the mind of God or is this something more tangible? There is a really interesting doctoral dissertation published after my own books, but it looks at the different ways in which the different views of how the divine comes to be manifest in the world, both in Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts. It basically looks at things like a theophany where you might have divine beings appearing as a human being, but it is actually an allusion, for the benefit of the one seeing it. But there is also possession where the divine take a hold of the person.

Dustin: Like Ezekiel?

JM: Yeah. Prophesy is all about those sort of experiences. It is worth asking which of those describes what is happening in the Gospel of John, if any. Since the author of John doesn’t explicitly say, “I am going to give you a whole new way that this could happen,”  then asking about his assumptions may be appropriate. And I think the author of that book basically suggests that the ‘possession’ model is closer to what you see with Jesus in John.

It is interesting, another thing I would like to do is look at the Gospel of John through a mystical lens. There was a mystic named Mansur Al-Hallaj who said “Ana’l Haqq,” “I am the Truth” (i.e. God). However, when he said this, he thought nothing of himself but only of God. (Now I don’t think that a mystical reading could be used to interpret the Gospel, but it would be an interesting.) Could it be at times when we are hearing the voice that seamlessly moves between a Jesus who is fully human and a voice which is aware of preexistent realities? Perhaps a mystical reading could help with that. Maybe we are trying to tie up loose ends which John simply really didn’t tie up, maybe we are trying to impose consistency upon the text. Maybe this is a human being speaking as a human being, and yet also speaking the divine revelation.

Dustin: Maybe there is a dissertation right there.

JM: Maybe there is more than one. If someone wants to take this and run with it, I’ll look forward to reading it. I will not be at all resentful that I was not the one who wrote it.

Dustin: You just want to read it, ha.

JM: (smiles) I want to read it! In fact it would be a lot easier for someone else to write it and just let me read it. Better let someone else do it, haha.

Stay tuned for further installments of this interview.

An Interview with James McGrath on Christology (part 1)

I was fortunate enough to meet up with Dr. James McGrath at Butler University for an interview last week. I have been a fan of his blog, Exploring Our Matrix, for many years now. His contributions to the subject of christology are John’s Apologetic Christology in the SNTSMS (2001) and The Only True God (2009). Both of these are fantastic and academically stimulating works. James worked on his doctorate under James Dunn, arguably the foremost contributor to the subject of christology alive today.

jamesOur interview was quite extensive, so I will be releasing the transcript in sections. This post is the first of many. I hope you find our exchange exciting.

Dustin: Thanks for meeting with me Dr. McGrath. Most people see the Gospel of John as something quite different than the Synoptics, suggesting that John’s christology is far elevated above Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Sometimes even scholars have argued that John’s christology is something completely different and detached from the various expressions of first century Jewish monotheism. The impression I get, with how you see the evidence therein, is that you want to encourage interpreters to look more closely at first century Jewish monotheism because John indeed fits very well within that context. You also seem to indicate that when the interpreter honestly places the Fourth Gospel within this historical context, it doesn’t quite say what many of the later Christian creeds say. A lot of these topics are fresh on my mind because we are aware that Bart Ehrman is going to release his new book describing his reconstruction of how Jesus became God (later this month). Bart has gone on record in many other publications and said that the Synoptics reveal a human Jesus while John’s Gospel promotes a different, divine Jesus. Now “divine” is such a flexible, slippery term, and I am not exactly sure everyone agrees with its meaning when it is used. I wish that it would be fleshed out further in writings, no pun intended with the “John, flesh” motif.

JM: That was a good pun, perhaps intended. I like puns, so never apologize when you make them.

Dustin: (laughs) Anyway, so in light of that introduction, would you like to speak in reference to all of that, or to where you see the current scholarly discussions going?

JM:  Yeah, and it will be interesting to see where the Bart book goes. You are probably aware that the same publisher is releasing his book and a counter book around the same time, so it will be interesting. They are getting the best of both markets, presumably. There is background to some of the scholarly conclusions I came to which might be worth fleshing out. (I should also mention that there will be a panel at SBL on Bart’s book and that I was invited to be on it. It should be interesting, but it is worth mentioning here.) I have been influenced on my christology by James Dunn. In fact, that was the reason I wanted to study with him as my doctoral supervisor at the University of Durham for my work on John’s christology. I was also influenced by John A.T. Robinson, who is a very interesting person, who on one hand makes the argument that John could have had access to an eye witness and therefore could be early. Yet he understands the christology of that Gospel in The Priority of John.

Dustin: Yeah, I remember that book has an entire chapter dedicated to the subject of christology.

JM: In addition to Dunn’s Christology in the Making, which I wanted to fight against during my undergraduate work because of influences and my previous background which I had when reading that, I was finding that Dunn manages to persuade me on a lot of things, despite my instinct to reject and fight. But Dunn also wrote a smaller piece, which I think is less-widely read, called ‘Let John be John.’ This essay was all about not letting John be so easily blended into the Synoptics while at the same time not being blended into the later creeds. Rather, this is a work that is somewhere in between the two.

But really for me, a key shift happened in my thinking while I was a doctoral student. I had gone into my approach into the study of the Gospel of John thinking that the issue which was part of the controversy between the character of Jesus and “the Jews” was monotheism (and whether or not monotheism had been compromised). I went to a conference about chistology (I think it was called The Myriad of Christ) and Frances Young gave a presentation in which she argued that the early Christian apologists, such as Justin Martyr, were not arguing about monotheism with their Jewish contemporaries. They were arguing over whether Jesus was the Messiah, and whether certain things can be said about this man who was crucified, and things like that. But we don’t find monotheism as the topic. For me, the proverbial light came down from the sky and I suddenly said, “Maybe monotheism is not the issue in John. Maybe that is not what the fight is about.” That actually really did shape the core of my study from then on of the actual conclusions I drew in the book that I wrote on John’s Apologetic Christology. In that book I essentially argued that John is doing some creative things with christology. For instance, when Jesus says, “What if you see the Son of Man return to where he was before?” (John 6:62), or “Glorify me with the glory which I had with you…” (John 17:5), those kinds of things. Who is the “I” there? Who is speaking? Does the preexistent Word have an I? Is this the “I” of God or something separate? Is this the preexistent Son of Man? Does John think that the Son of Man is the same as the preexistent Logos? John is developing Son of Man traditions. He is developing Word/Wisdom/Spirit traditions. He is developing Jesus traditions. So when Jesus says things like that (John 6:62; 17:5) should we really understand him to be thinking “I personally preexisted”  at that point? Because certainly within later Judaism there was room for the preexisting Messiah without having the Messiah on earth remembering all kinds of things. It may be that what John is doing there is, “Well those Jews say that they have a better revealer of God in Moses, but we’ll show them because our revealer knows more than Moses.” There are multiple ways that these texts can be understood. Is this the preexistent Messiah preexisting that the Son of Man in heaven? But that raises the question of how that related to the Word, which is the personification of God’s own self, rather than a separate person.  

It is not surprising that in the time after John writes, we get every possible answer to those questions. You get everything from adoptionist readings of John to docetic readings of John. But this is a human person who is somehow united with this divine…reality. I stopped myself from saying several possible words there which would not be appropriate: ‘person,’ ‘hypostasis,’ or even ‘identity.’ I think this is the interesting thing that John A.T. Robinson points out when Jesus says that he is “a man who is telling you what he heard and saw from God.” This seems to put Jesus as a genuinely human agent who has received information and is talking about it. But then we have the Word became flesh. How do these strands fit together? I still haven’t figured that out. Does John have things in there that reflect his multifaceted Jewish heritage which he hasn’t synthesized into a coherent whole? If we want something that has no loose ends, we will have to cut some stuff out or add some stuff onto John in order to make that work.    

Stay tuned for further installments of this interview.