Thursday, March 4, 2021

On Calling Jesus, “My Brother”

In Mark God declares Jesus to be his son at his baptism: "You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased" (1:11 NRSV; cf. 9:7).1 The unclean spirits (3:11) and the Gerasene demoniac (5:7) also call Jesus son of God. A Roman centurion, on the other hand, does not make the Christian confession but recognizes his divinity by numbering him among the many sons of God in the Graeco-Roman tradition: "Truly, this man was a son of God" (15:39). Jesus himself accepts the appellation; when asked by the high priest "Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?" (14:61), he replies affirmatively, "I am" (14:62). Nowhere in Mark, however, is that term defined.2

            The terms son of God (Exod 4:22; 2 Sam7:14; Ps 2:7) and sons of God (Gen 6:1-4; Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7; Deut 32:8) are also used in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 6:1-4; Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7; Deut 32:8). I have never thought of these expressions as the influential background to explain the terms in the New Testament. It does not seem reasonable to me that these few references to son/sons of God in Hebrew Bible would have triggered the complicated concept of the Christ in NT literature and Christian Orthodoxy. If Mark wrote his gospel "outside of Aramaic speaking Palestine" in some location in the Roman world, as many think,3 there existed more pervasive influences that might have led to describing Jesus as "son of God":

Long before Jesus was born, Greeks had bestowed divine honors on kings and great men whose careers were thought to have been unusually outstanding, referring to them variously as "heroes" "demigods," "immortals," "divine men." The ancient Greeks believed these human beings had a divine origin—they were born as a result of a union between a God and a human being and this explained their unusual abilities.4

If Jesus were to be competitive in such a world, his pedigree would have to be equally as good as that of the Graeco-Roman figures.

In New Testament literature it turns out that God has other children. Paul regarded followers of Jesus the Anointed (Christ) as the children (tekna) of God (Rom 8:16-17, 21; 9:8), as did the author of First John (3:2, 10). And, even more surprisingly, Paul described them as sons (huios) of God (Rom 8:14, 19; Gal 3:26) and "co-heirs with Christ" (Rom 8:17). The designation son of God even appears in two of the synoptic gospels (Matt 5:9 and Luke 20:36).

            On the other hand, in the New Testament four passages (Acts 3:15; 5:31; Heb 2:10; 12:2) sport another title for Jesus, one that undermines the traditional image of a savior crucified in our behalf.5 In Acts and Hebrews Jesus is called "pioneer" (archēgos) rather than son of God. For example:

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in leading many sons to glory, should make the pioneer [archēgos] of their salvation perfect through sufferings. (Heb 2:10, my translation)

Hence Jesus was the pioneer, who was first to lead the Way in a certain kind of faith. He was pioneer in the sense that it was his own faith and confidence in God (Gal 2:16) that established the Way of faith for others to follow.6 His sufferings were for his own perfecting and not "in our behalf." In broad outline theological elements of this slender thread of an almost forgotten faith surface here and there in New Testament literature: Jesus was born under the Israelite law to an unnamed human mother (Gal 4:4); and later at his baptism (Mark 1:11) was declared the son of God (Rom 1:4). As son of God, he pioneered a Way of faith (Gal 2:16)7 that pleases God (Heb 12:2).8 Thus he became the first-born among many brothers (Rom 8:29).

It is in the sense of Jesus as the pioneer of a new Way of faith that a child/son of God can call Jesus "my brother" (adelphos), for he also is a child/son of God through his faith as they are through their faith, and he is not ashamed to call them his brothers (adelphous, Heb 2:11).

How does it seem to you?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1In Rom 1:4 Paul describes Jesus as being declared (not born) son of God, which corresponds to Mark 1:11. In Mark there is no birth narrative.

2I do not include in this listing of verses Mark 13:32, which could be evoking the title "son of man" that Jesus uses of himself in Mark. The expression "son of God" in Mark's incipit (1:11) is questionable as well on text critical grounds. See Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (4th ed., 2000), 62.

3P. J. Achtemeier, "Mark, Gospel of," ABD 4.543.

4Hedrick, "Is Belief in the Divinity of Jesus Essential to Being Christian," The Fourth R 24.5 (September-October 2011), 15.

5Hedrick, "Religious Titles for Jesus." Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog: Tuesday May 3, 2016: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=pioneer

6Hedrick, "The Gospel of Mark and the Way, a Sect reported in Acts" Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog: Monday January 11, 2021: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=the+way

7For the translation of Gal 2:16, see Arthur Dewey, et al., The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge, 2010), 65.

8This theological thread is similar in a few respects to the views of Cerinthus, a late first century Jesus follower. See Cockerill, "Cerinthus," ABD 1.883 and Hedrick, "Cerinthus," NIDB 1.580. At this early period Orthodoxy had not become the dominant Christian view by which to judge as heretical those who disagreed with them. In the early period one was led by one's own inner compass. Compare, for example, the theological differences between Mark and John; see Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019), 151-54.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Paul and the Kingdom of God

There are striking differences between the synoptic gospel narratives about Jesus and the undisputed Pauline letters. One of the most curious is between Jesus and Paul on the Kingdom of God. Mark, the earliest gospel, summarizes the quintessential message of Jesus as follows: He proclaimed the gospel of God saying, “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom (Basileia) of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15; cf. Matt 4:17). While Paul, on the other hand, mentions the kingdom of God only seven times in the seven undisputed letters attributed to him (Rom 14:17; 1 Cor 4:20; 6:9-10; 15:24, 50; Gal 5:21; 1 Thess 2:12). To judge from his letters Paul does not rely much on the teachings of Jesus, and it is questionable whether he even knew much about what Jesus taught. There are three explicit references by Paul to traditions and sayings of Jesus that have parallels in the synoptic gospels, and two references that do not have parallels in the synoptic gospels. It has also been argued that some of Paul’s statements echo sayings of Jesus or the risen Lord, but what is or is not an echo is debatable. What is more surprising is that the authority of the risen Lord (Christ) seems to have carried more weight with Paul than sayings of the historical man (Jesus, 2 Cor 5:16).1

            For Paul the kingdom of God appears to have been a certain kind of experience (with an aspect of futurity, 1 Cor 15:24) into which one is called (1Thess 2:12). It is characterized by righteousness, peace, joy, and divine power (Rom 14:17, 1 Cor 4:20), rather than physical sensations like eating and drinking, and talking, for people who revel in fleshly sensations do not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10; 15:50; Gal 5:21).2

            In Rom 14:17 Paul takes advantage of the issues in a squabble between factions in the gathering of Jesus followers at Rome (Rom 14:1-23) to specify what does not characterize the kingdom. What does not characterize the kingdom of God is precisely the two issues he names as the cause of their squabble: eating and drinking (Rom 14:2-3, 6, 15, 17, 20, 21, 23):

For the kingdom of God is not characterized by eating and drinking but by righteousness, peace, and joy (Rom 14:17, my translation).3

But saying that the kingdom of God is not characterized by eating and drinking contradicts a statement attributed to Jesus at the final Passover meal with his disciples:

Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God (Mark 14:25, RSV).

Paul’s statement contradicts with the ancient theme of the eschatological banquet to be celebrated by the people of God at the end of time:

On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined… (Isa 25:6-8, RSV).

I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 8:11, my translation)

Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God (Luke 14:15; 16-24, RSV).

Blessed is the one who will eat with me in the kingdom of the heavens (Gos. Sav. 1:3, my translation).4

In our day this kind of language is generally regarded as figurative for the obvious reason that eating and drinking are physical delights, but who knows what expectations the authors of these texts, or their ancient readers, had with respect to the eschatological banquet. How should one regard this disagreement between Paul and the ancient traditions? Was it simply carelessness or an oversight on Paul’s part, and hence inadvertent? Or did Paul deliberately contradict the earlier traditions? If he did it deliberately, perhaps it was because he regarded the end-time experience of the people of God as spiritual and not physical, as he insists in 1 Cor 15:50: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” How do you regard the contradiction?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (Cascade, 2014), 27-29. For the difference between the resurrected Lord and Jesus the historical man, see pages 25-26.

2Divine power is the power of God, the power of the Spirit, the power of Christ—that is to say spiritual power: for example, Rom 15:13, 19; I Cor 2:4-5; 2 Cor 4:7; 2 Cor 12:12; Gal 3:5; Phil 3:10.

3He makes a similar statement in 1 Cor 4:20, also related to something going on in the Corinthian gathering of saints (1 Cor 4:19-20).

4Hedrick and P. A. Mirecki, eds. Gospel of the Savior. A New Ancient Gospel (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1999). The manuscript dates from the fourth to the seventh centuries (p. 15), but the original composition is likely the latter half of the second century CE (p. 23). This date has recently been challenged and others argue that the manuscript dates from the 5th/6th century. See my defense of the original dating, which gives all the pertinent bibliography: “Dating The Gospel of the Savior: Response to Peter Nagel and Pierluigi Piovanelli,” Apocrypha. Revue international des littératures apocryphes: International Journal of Apocryphal Literature, 24 (2013), 223-36.