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Christology in the First Few Centuries

I want to step back from the continuing discussions about Mark’s Christology and reflect on my broad understanding of the different lines of theological development in the first centuries. From my vantage point, I am a scholar of the New Testament and Patristic literature and a Christian who teaches at a University and attends a church subscribing to the Nicene creed.

At Caesarea Philippi, Peter explains to Jesus that some view him as John the Baptizer and others as Elijah or another prophet, but Peter perceives Jesus to be the promised Messiah. This echoes the likely manifold ways Jesus was remembered from early on: a sage in the radical wisdom tradition, a prophet of apocalyptic judgment, a charismatic healer and exorcist, and the list goes on. Perhaps the remnants of these views survive in some of the material included in the Gospels. Indeed, if Josephus’s Antiquities 18.63-64 is judged at least partially authentic, then we have a neutral assessment of Jesus as a “wise man” and a “worker of amazing deeds.”

However, the “Jerusalem Pillars” (James, Peter, the Twelve) advanced that Jesus was king David’s descendant and enthroned in heaven (Romans 1:3-4; 1 Corinthians 15:3-7). They prayerfully anticipated that the “Lord” would come to fully establish his kingdom (1 Corinthians 16:22; Revelation 22:20; Didache 10:6). I grant Larry Hurtado’s point that some Jesus followers’ devotion to their master exceeded that offered to Jewish intermediary agents with the exception that we do not hear if Jesus became the object of sacrificial worship in the temple (James Dunn, James McGrath). Yet I see more continuity with figures who were seated on a divine throne (e.g. Moses, Solomon, Enoch) and received obeisance and that the divine honours bestowed on Jesus may be a type of Jewish reaction against the Roman imperial cult (e.g. the “good news” of Augustus as “son of god”). In Mark’s story, Jesus is anointed for royal office at his baptism, while Matthew and Luke draw on traditions of the Virgin birth to mark Jesus out as special from his conception.

It is not that other New Testament authors (Paul, Hebrews, John) abandon this prior view of Jesus; for instance, I do not accept that the term “Messiah” (Christos) lost its royal connotations in Paul’s letters. However, they add a second, parallel line of development. Jesus is represented as God’s very self-expression, as embodying the divine Wisdom, Word, Name, or Glory. I remain hesitant about whether Jewish speculation about a supreme angel played a role for the New Testament authors, though a respected Christian philosopher of the second century named Justin Martyr had no qualms about identifying Jesus as the Angel of the LORD.

Proto-Orthodox or “centrist” Christians refined their theology in competition with other Christian factions in subsequent centuries. Thus, in the confused reports of varied “Jewish Christian” sects, we learn that some asserted that Jesus was the son of Joseph elected to be the Messiah or the Prophet sent to abolish the sacrificial system, while others share the proto-Orthodox view of Jesus’ virgin birth and his divinity. Other groups denied the union of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus, arguing that a heavenly being possessed the human Jesus at his baptism or that Jesus merely “appeared” to be on earth like a phantom. What contributed to what became the “orthodox” position?

First, centrist Christians allowed all of the New Testament voices to contribute to their theology of the Incarnation. Second, they did so under a change of philosophical categories. James McGrath argues that as Christians worked out the doctrine of creation out of nothing rather than pre-existing formless matter, it became imperative to decide on what side of the firm dividing line between Creator and creation Jesus should be located. Or, as Michael Peppard frames the terms of the debate, Jesus was on the side of eternal “being” rather than creation in the process of “becoming.” Third, the doctrine of theosis from Irenaeus to Athanasius emphasizes God took on our human nature to redeem it from corruption so we might inherit immortality (Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word 54). No one less than God could redeem the fallen creation!

In the end, Christians exhausted whatever categories were available to them in their cultural context, and developed them further through theological reflection and debate, in order to meaningfully articulate the ultimate significance of Jesus.

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