“Early High Christology”: A Recent Assessment of Scholarly Debate


December 11, 2012
I have to confess failing to notice earlier a major and important critical review of scholarly work on the origins of “high christology” by Andrew Chester:  “High Christology — Whence, When and Why?” Early Christianity 2 (2011): 22-50.  This is a very clear, accurate and incisive discussion, giving a good map of current/recent contributions/contributors and key issues.

Chester first lays out the various views espoused in current/recent scholarship:

(1) “High christology as late”: Maurice Casey, Geza Vermes, J.D.G. Dunn, all, though in different ways, contending that Jewish monotheism would have prevented any view of Jesus as “divine”, at least for the first several decades.  (Vermes even offering the somewhat desperate proposal that Philippians 2:6-11 was a 2nd-century insertion, as Paul could just never have written or approved such a statement!  Hmm.  Well, I guess if you can’t accommodate evidence, you simply try to eliminate it.)

(2) “High christology as early and within a Jewish context”, various versions of this sort of position:  Martin Hengel espousing “an explosive development” within the first few years; William Horbury & Adela Collins emphasizing the importance of Jewish messianic/royal traditions; my own support for Hengel’s “explosive” picture and emphasizing the import of early Christian worship practices reflecting an innovative “Jesus-devotion”; Timo Eskola’s proposal that early “merkavah” visions of the heavenly/enthroned Jesus were crucial; Richard Bauckham’ argument that from the first Jesus was included within “the divine identity”.
Then Chester underscores the main “themes at issue” in the debate, judging that there are four main positions:  (1) High Christology as something “essentially and utterly alien within a Jewish context”; (2) High Christology as emerging “within essentially Jewish categories” but only gradually; (3) High Christology as emerging “in Jewish categories and with a Jewish context” and “very rapidly indeed . . . clearly in Paul, and very probably in pre-Pauline traditions as well”; and (4) “High Christology does not develop at all, but can be seen to be present, or inherent, from the very start”.

He thinks that option 1 appears (initially) as “the most obviously sustainable position,” option 4 as also exhibiting “logical and methodological clarity and coherence,” and “a clear methodological principle” evident in option 2.  By contrast, option 3 “would appear to beg the most questions at a methodological level.”  Nevertheless, he judges that it is actually option 3 that most adequately confronts the NT evidence, which “does not fit at all easily with what the logical and methdological considerations seem to demand” (p. 32).  That is, however, much the other options seem a priori reasonable, the evidence seems to demand something like option 3. (Evidence is often more “messy” than our assumptions initially allow.)

Chester then engages several major issues involved in this debate.  The first is the question of “what exactly in meant by ‘high Christology’” (p. 33), and how to distinguish “high” christology (Jesus seen as exalted and in a special relationship with God) and “divine” christology (Jesus treated as on a level with God, sharing divine glory and name, attributes and activities).  Highlighting Philip. 2:6-11 and 1 Cor. 8:6 as “crucial to the case for Christ being seen not just as exalted but actually as ‘divine’ at an early (and potentially very early) stage,” he concludes, “The understanding of Christ as a divine figure, therefore, is unmistakably clear in Paul’s writings, and can be seen as potentially going back to pre-Pauline tradition” (p. 35).

The significance and application of the title “Kyrios“to Jesus is Chester’s next topic.  He judges that both of the NT texts mentioned reflect uses of “Jewish scripture” (OT) to apply “the most distinctive designation of God (represented as κυριος), to show Jesus to be fully divine” (36).  Also, several NT passages show Jesus as the “image” and bearing the “glory” of God (e.g., 2 Cor. 4:4, 6; Col. 1:15-20; Heb. 1:2-12; Rev. 1:12-16; 5:6-14).

Chester then turns to evidence of worship and the application of OT scripture to Jesus, noting that the importance of both phenomena “has been stressed in recent discussion,” citing my own work and also Hengel’s.  He judges, “Hurtado makes a sustained, cumulative case for there being some kind of cult of Christ in Christian circles in Palestine as well as in the Pauline communities” (39). (This is a major difference with the classic work by Bousset.)

In the next section, Chester addresses the topic of “monotheism and intermediary figures.”  Noting that for scholars such as Casey “monotheism ” is “specifically a constraining force” (i.e., Jews such as Paul simply could not have treated Jesus as divine, no matter what his epistles may appear to reflect), and for others such as Bauckham “monotheism” has “exclusive force” (= “an absolute divide between God and all created reality”), and granting that, though these views are “impressive, logically and methodologically,” they are also “problematic.”  Casey’s position is “untenable,” and Bauckham’s “a completely black-and-white picture” that insufficiently takes account of the more “variegated and open-ended” Jewish traditions of the time (40-41).  Chester agrees with me (and others) in judging that what I have called ancient Jewish “principal agent” traditions likely did afford earliest Jewish believers initial conceptual resources for accommodating Jesus next to God.

The chronological question comes next in Chester’s article.  Judging that “most of those involved in the whole debate do not really engage with this question in any detail,” he singles out Hengel as the exception, citing his effort to construct “a specific time-scale for this whole momentous development” (42).  Here Chester cites approvingly Hengel’s widely-cited statement that the elevation of Jesus to divine status must have taken place no later than the 40s CE, and perhaps even much earlier.  (Chester notes that I’ve posited the emergence of Jesus-devotion “from the earliest days of Jewish Christianity,” but states that I have not been more specific.  He has apparently not noticed my discussion of the chronological issue in How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?, 32-38, esp. p. 35, where I contend that between Jesus’ crucifixion and Paul’s conversion, “perhaps within a year or two, and certainly no more than a few years,” Jesus-devotion “was already a prominent feature” of the young Jesus-movement.)

The final section of Chester’s article is devoted to “Determinative Factors” that may have prompted and shaped this early “high christology”.  Noting, e.g., proposals about the influence of Jesus’ own ministry, Jewish messianic-royal traditions, and the possible influence of key scrptural texts, “in one way or another, as necessary to the development of the astonishing beliefs held about Jesus so soon after his ignominious death,” Chester asks, however, “whether they can, individually or collectively, be held to constitute a sufficient cause” (46).

He proposes that “what was needed was a catalyst” to combine these various factors and produce the remarkable innovation represented by early “high christology”.  Here he cites several scholars who in varying ways have pointed to the impact of early religious experiences (e.g., visions, and other such experiences that struck recipients with the force of revelations).  He rightly judges, however, that though “visions and mystical experiences ” were likely important, “they must be brought integrally into relation with the various other factors” noted.  Thereby, “we at least thus have a clear basis and framework to help us begin to make sense of why and how the early Christians could articulate so high a Christology at so early a stage, in a Jewish context and in language that Jewish would reserve for God” (50).

As someone who has been involved in the scholarly analysis of early “high christology” for over 30 years now, it is very encouraging to me to see Chester’s judgements about where the discussion seems to be going.   To cite him one last time, “whereas for much of the twentierth century the dominant view was that high Christology represented something that emerged relatively late and under Gentile or pagan influence, more recently it has been seen as coming about at an early stage and within a Jewish setting.” (p. 22).  If he’s correct (and I think he is), this amounts to a major shift in scholarly perspective on this important matter.  I’m gratified to have had a part in it.


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