Thursday, June 26, 2014

Ehrman Chapter 6: The Beginning of Christology

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel with Bart Ehrman's, How Jesus Became God. So far:

1. Divine Humans in Ancient Greece and Rome
2. Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism
3. Did Jesus Think He Was God?
4. The Resurrection of Jesus: What We Cannot Know
5. The Resurrection - What We Can Know

I'm a little late this week with Chapter 6, "The Beginning of Christology."

1. The first thing I want to point out about this chapter is that the content of this chapter is largely faith neutral. When I was finishing up seminary, I read two books by James Dunn, whom I would eventually study under to do my doctorate. The books were Unity and Diversity in the New Testament and Christology in the Making.

What attracted me to Dunn is that he doesn't have an angle. On the one hand, he is a person of faith (Scotish Presbyterian north of the border, British Methodist south), but in his interpretations he is really just interested in the truth. That certainly doesn't mean he always gets it right. But he's not interested in coming up with a conclusion that either does or doesn't fit with prior faith tradition. He's interested in what is most likely true.

These books can be a shock to the system when you grow up, as I did, reading the Bible almost entirely ahistorically and out of context. This is, basically, the entire American church. I remember Dave Smith talking about how annoying he found Dunn's books when he first read them, and yet paradigm shifting. But my main point is that Dunn sees the understanding of Christ unfolding in the early church and yet doesn't see it contradicting faith.

Ehrman doesn't draw much on Dunn in this chapter, but he does mention another scholar from that 70s era, Raymond Brown. Brown was a faith-filled Catholic (recently passed). But I have always enjoyed reading Brown because, again, he doesn't read the evidence in order to shove his Catholic faith down it. He reads the evidence for what is true... and he has faith.

That era is over. Now its all postmodern "theological interpretation," how can I cook the books so they say what I want them to say and yet look like I'm being scholarly.

2. So in Brown and Dunn's scheme, belief in Jesus' pre-existence didn't come off the press the day after he rose from the dead. Although, as far as I know, Brown believed that Jesus had existed before he came to earth, Brown did not believe that the earliest Christians fully had this understanding until the Gospel of John.

Similarly, Brown saw a development in how early Christians saw Jesus becoming Christ. In the earliest layer of tradition, they spoke of Jesus becoming Son of God at his resurrection:
  • Jesus was "from the seed of David according to the flesh, but appointed Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead" (Rom. 1:3).
  • Today, after the resurrection, God has declared to Jesus, "You are my Son, today I have begotten you" (Acts 13:33).
  • Today, after the resurrection, "God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36).
So Brown thought this was the earliest layer of Christology (theology about Christ) in the New Testament. He then saw a development to where Jesus is declared Son of God at his baptism in Mark. Then there is the development to where Jesus is Son of God from his conception in Matthew and Luke. Finally, we have Jesus as Son of God from a pre-existent state in John.

3. Ehrman calls this approach an "exaltation Christology." Now I don't have Brown at hand (or Dunn) because I'm sitting in a hotel room in Pittsburgh, so I can't vouch that Ehrman has been completely fair to Brown. But I do disagree with the way Ehrman puts a number of things.

For example, Ehrman wants to show a tension between what Luke himself thinks and his quoting of earlier Christian tradition. So Ehrman thinks that Luke is quoting an earlier Christian position in Acts 2:36 and 13:33, while Luke himself believes that Jesus was Son of God from his birth.

I disagree. I don't think Luke saw any contradiction between the exaltation Christology he presents on the lips of Peter and Paul and the virginal conception. The angel does not say to Mary, "he will be called Son of the Most High from the moment the Spirit comes on you" in Luke 1:32. "Son of God" is a royal title and becomes most appropriate when Jesus is enthroned, which happened at his resurrection.

Perhaps I should add here that "Son of God" is not a genetic title but one that relates to Jesus as king. "Son of God" is the office of king, a royal title that became most fully appropriate upon enthronement (cf. 2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2). I find Bauckham's stuff on this topic bizarrely anachronistic, although it is all the rage.

4. This leads to an appropriate criticism that Simon Gathercole makes of Ehrman in the response book. Quoting someone else, Gathercole says, "Any logic which relies on a conjecture is itself a conjecture" (106). This gets at a problem that is endemic to Ehrman's book. He speculates, which in itself isn't necessarily bad, but then draws conclusions from his speculations.

So Ehrman repeatedly draws conclusions from his speculations about hymnic traditions in Paul. Sometimes he is reasonable in his speculations. Sometimes he's out on a limb. But he goes on to make central arguments out of his speculations and you can't do that.

Is Luke quoting material in tension with what he himself believes? I think that's a really debatable position, yet it is a key part of Ehrman's argument.

5. Whether it applies to Christology, I did think that Ehrman is correct in his assessment of adoption in the Roman world (233-234). An adopted child, in a Roman context, was even more significant than a biological one, because such children were adopted as adults with intention. Ehrman is drawing on Michael Peppard here.

So Julius Caesar had a biological son that no one has heard of (Caesarion). But every educated person has heard of his adopted son (Augustus, first emperor of Rome).

6. I also strongly disagree with Ehrman's insinuation that Jesus didn't do a lot of miracles before his crucifixion. If you follow his own historical criteria, exorcisms and healing must have been central features of Jesus' earthly ministry.

7. In my own assessment, both Jesus and his disciples believed that Jesus was the Messiah before his crucifixion and the rumors were flying. But this was not a matter of his public pronouncement.

I don't think the disciples expected Jesus to be crucified, although I believe Jesus anticipated it. Consequently, I don't think they expected Jesus to rise from the dead either. I accept the empty tomb tradition and think their initial reaction must have been puzzlement. I agree that it was Jesus' appearance to Peter and then others that was what changed everything.

The Gospels tell us these events after decades of reflection and insight. I don't think it's a problem if it actually took some time for them to arrive at this understanding. So the earliest layer of tradition probably does, in my opinion, begin with the resurrection as the focal point of Christology. In fact, I believe the resurrection remains the focal point of Christology for the whole New Testament, with the possible exception of John.

The resurrection is when Jesus is enthroned as Son of God, meaning it is when he becomes "Son of God in power." Before that point, he is the heir apparent. Before that point, he is the one who is going to be enthroned. "Son of God" is an office when used in this sense, not a matter of genetics.

But this doesn't contradict, in my opinion, Jesus being called Son at his baptism. It doesn't contradict a virginal conception. And none of those things contradict the incarnation.

From a faith standpoint, we believe Jesus was God incarnate. We believe he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary. Our answer to the question of how that understanding developed in the early church is an interesting one. But you can answer that question differently and still affirm these central matters of faith, IMO.

Some thoughts...

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

"But he goes on to make central arguments out of his speculations and you can't do that."

Oh, really? You shouldn't do that, but you surely can. I suspect that I have done it, all too often.