Did Mark Identify Jesus as a ‘Preexistent Heavenly Figure?’ A Response to Michael Bird

235-2There has been quite a fuss on the internet recently (eg., here and here) regarding Michael Bird’s assertion that Mark, our earliest Gospel in the New Testament, presents Jesus Christ as a preexistent figure from heaven. In a rather short blog post, Bird stated the following,

The Marcan Jesus participates in the kyricentricity of Israel’s God. He is identified as a pre-existent heavenly figure who has come to earth, who carries divine authority, who embodies royal and priestly roles; and in his person, words, and deeds he manifests the holy presence, the redemptive purposes, and the cosmic power of the Lord of Israel.

This will be my first interaction with Bird’s work, although Bird himself is not unfamiliar with me as he was actually a reviewer of my latest book The Son of God: Three Views of the Identity of Jesus. I hope to meet Michael one day in person, as I hear that he is a very pleasant fellow. However, I do feel that he is grasping at straws be arguing that Mark presents a Jesus who preexisted in heaven. In this post, I will break down his two sentences with evidence from Mark which I feel runs counter to Bird’s position.

  1. The Marcan Jesus participates in the kyricentricity of Israel’s God. – I can only surmise that this phrase, being a combination of kurios and centricity, is an adjective suggesting the Lord [God] as the center point. Despite my attempts to really get at what Bird is saying this word (which Darth Vader would describe as a “technological terror you’ve constructed”) I cannot seem to lock down what is intended. The correlating indication that Jesus “participates” in this centrality of the Lord God further begs for clarification. All Christians would agree that Jesus participates in the will of God (Mark 14:26) by obediently carrying out his ministry in Mark’s Gospel. It is quite another thing to insist that Mark teaches that Jesus participated with Israel’s God as the second member of the Trinity, a theology wholly absent from Mark (see esp. Mark 12:29). I wonder if this ‘participation’ language is a rehashing of Bauckham’s similar terminology.
  2. He is identified as a pre-existent heavenly figure who has come to earth – I respectfully suggest that there is absolutely no evidence to back up this claim. Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is identified as the descendant of his mother Mary (Mark 6:3), who is called his mother (3:31). Furthermore, Jesus is hailed as the Son of David, a messianic title referring to the promised king among the descendants of David (Mark 10:47, 48; 12:35). To put it plainly, it is impossible for Jesus to be a preexisting figure if he is younger than and originating from Mary and David. Mark makes no attempt to suggest, imply, or hint that Jesus is anyone other than the human Messiah, a lineal descendant of King David carried forth down to Mary, Jesus’ mother.
  3. in his person, words, and deeds he manifests the holy presence, the redemptive purposes, and the cosmic power of the Lord of Israel – Again, the real questions regards what all is meant by these words. As an authorized agent, Jesus could carry with him a delegated and even empowered authority. The redemptive purposes, as admitted by Jesus, seem to be expressed in Mark 14:62 with a combination of Dan. 7:13 and Psa. 110:1. Mark 14:62 presents Jesus claiming to be the ‘Son of Man’ from Daniel 7 (a figure distinct yet empowered by the Ancient of Days), who will be exalted to the right hand of Yahweh as the adoni figure (a nondeity figure in all of its OT occurrences) of Psalm 110:1. In other words, both passages alluded to distinguish Jesus from Israel’s God while simultaneously indicating that Jesus is/will be exalted and empowered by that very God. It is quite another thing to suggest that Jesus is the embodying presence of God with incarnational connotations from the later creeds of 325 and 451 CE. In fact, the crowds understand Jesus as he rides humbly into Jerusalem as the one who rightfully “comes in the name of the Lord” (11:9), indicating an authorized agent of Israel’s God. Does the Markan Jesus embody all of God’s attributes? The answer would have to be no, since Jesus did not know the day of his return (13:32) and since Jesus died (15:37). Jesus also attributes the role of Creator to Israel’s God and not unto himself (Mark 10:6).

In sum, I suggest that Bird’s description of the Markan christology needs further clarification and fails to take into account off of the available data. There is no use presenting a hypothesis that is both unclear and unwilling to take seriously all that Mark has to say to his readers.

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.



Review of Bart Ehrman’s ‘How Jesus Became God’ (part 5 – Rom. 1:3-4)

Those who have the book will notice that I have moved from chs. 2 and 3 on into ch. 6. I am not haphazardly skipping over the two chapters on what historians can and cannot know about the resurrection (chs. 4 and 5). I simply wish to interact with the more christological aspects of this book. Much of my theological and graduate training has been in the area of christology, so I am attracted to such discussions. My philosopher and history buff friends are, arguably, more apt to interact with chs. 4-5.

Ehrman’s sixth chapter is entitled ‘The Beginning of Christology.’ He starts his inquiry by looking into the pre-Pauline traditions (hymns and creeds) preserved within the texts of the New Testament. The first of these pre-Pauline traditions discussed by Ehrman is the creedal statement preserved in Rom. 1:1-4. The text reads as follows (my translation):

1. Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, marked out for the gospel of God

2. which was previously promised through His prophets in the holy scriptures

3. concerning His son, begotten out of David seed, according to the flesh

4. marked out as son of God in power according the the spirit of holiness from the resurrection of the dead, Jesus Christ our lord

Within this pre-Pauline creed is an abundance of Jewish messianic theology. Firstly, the “promise coming from the prophets in the holy writings” indicates that the early believers found, in Jesus, a christological identity which conformed to the expectations of their heritage. They could look at the prophets within the Hebrew Bible and check off, in a sense, the qualifications of the office designated ‘Messiah,’ based on what they came to believe and preach about Jesus’ person.

One of these qualifications is my second point: Jesus is the human descendant of David. Ehrman is familiar with 2 Sam. 7:12-14, where God promises the monarch David, through the prophet Nathan, that the royal line will endure forever. The descendant of David, according to 2 Sam. 7:14, will be called God’s sonWe also learn from that verse that God will be his FatherI stress the tense in both of these propositions because it is popular in modern theologies about Jesus and God to say that there was never a time when the Son didn’t  exist, which presumes that God was always a Father in relation to that very eternal Son. 2 Sam. 7:14 says otherwise. God will be his Father and the descendant of David will be His son. The Chronicler in 1 Chron. 17:11-14 makes sure that this reference is not confused for Solomon, strongly suggesting a messianic reading of that promise during the composition of the book of Chronicles.

We also know from the Qumran texts that the title Son of David was understood in Jewish circles messianically. In an important text in the Dead Sea Scrolls called 1QSa 2:11 we even get a sense of Israel’s God’s relationship to the Messiah:

“…when God begets the Messiah”

In some sense I have digressed. Back to 2 Sam. 7:12-14, where this descendant of David will be understood as God’s own son. “Son of God” was a title of the Davidic king, a human descendant from his line. The same can be seen from Psalm 2:7 where the king of Israel is called God’s son.

Why am I stressing these points? Ehrman sees in Rom. 1:3-4 a contrast between the son of David (1:3) and the Son of God (1:4). It is true that Paul contrasts the two. However, the specifics of that contrast are not taken seriously by Ehrman. In Rom. 1:4, Jesus, upon being raised from the dead, is designated son of God in power. It is not the case that Jesus was not the son of God prior to his resurrection, for the messianic office of the son of David was equivalent to being called “son of God” (2 Sam. 7:14; Psalm 2:7). Ehrman is, I think, aware of these points because he writes on p. 222 that, “Jesus was the descendant of David (which was a requisite, of course, for the earthly messiah).” You see there? Ehrman is aware of these “requisites” as he calls them. Those requisites are noted in 2 Sam 7:12-14 (which he quotes on p. 77). Unfortunately, those requisites seem to only matter to the early Christians and Paul, but not for Ehrman, who is trying to ascertain the beliefs of the early Christians and understand this passage in Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

Ehrman needs to be quoted in order to get the true sense of his misunderstanding (or misrepresentation). Ehrman writes on p. 222 that,

“the idea that Jesus was made the Son of God precisely at the moment of his resurrection is also stressed.”

Precisely at the moment of his resurrection? Go back and read Rom. 1:1-3 which talks about God’s gospel, promised beforehand, concerning His son. There! Son of God is there identified as the human descendant of David. Apparently when Paul writes περὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ in Rom. 1:3 this should not be understood as Son of God for Ehrman.

Later Ehrman says,

“Jesus was “appointed” (or “designated” the “Son of God” when he was raised from the dead” (p. 224).

No sir. Jesus was God’s son when he was brought into existence as the seed of David (τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ τοῦ γενομένου ἐκ σπέρματος Δαυὶδ κατὰ σάρκα).

Let me reiterate. There is a difference between Jesus prior to his resurrection and exaltation. Paul says that he is, in Rom. 1:4, designated son of God in power…Jesus Christ our lord. James D.G. Dunn, in his Romans contribution to the Word Biblical Commentary, notes correctly that the emphasis on Jesus being “our lord” is a direct allusion to Psalm 110:1, where Yahweh exalts the human lord (Hebrew adoni) up tho God’s right hand. This reference to Psalm 110:1 is, unfortunately, not mentioned by Ehrman in his treatment of Rom. 1:4, although he does mentions it earlier in this book, showing that he is aware of it. However, if he were to admit that it is in Paul’s mind (or even in the mind of the composers of this pre-Pauline creed) then it would give away his argument which unfairly differentiates the human Messiah (prior to his death, Rom 1:3) and the resurrected exalted lord (Rom. 1:4).

misquoteIn short, Ehrman, conveniently, fails to note three important facts in his interpretation of Rom. 1:1-4. First, he fails to take seriously the fact that the Son of David was understood as the Son of God. Second, he misquotes Paul, leaving out the fact that Jesus was designated Son of God “in power” at the resurrection. Thirdly, Ehrman fails to see (or admit) the reference to Psalm 110:1 at the end of Rom. 1:4, which would mark out that the Son of God in power has, powerfully, been exalted to the position of lordship as described in that psalm. Ehrman has a book called ‘Misquoting Jesus.’ Ironically, Ehrman has now Misquoted Paul.

I expected better from Ehrman. Now it is time for a refill of my Starbucks iced coffee.