Where does the process begin that turns Jesus from a man into God? What was there about this first-century lower-class Galilean man that set him apart from others? We know very little about him and his situation in life in the early years of the first century. Jesus was born under the ideology of the Israelite religion, and became a lower-class artisan by trade. At one point he became a follower of John the Baptizer, who preached a message of Israelite renewal, repentance, and baptism in the face of the coming Judgment of God (Mark 1:4-8). About his early life little more is known, for the sources report virtually nothing historically reliable about the period from his birth to the beginning of his own public career, following the arrest of John.
The early Christian gospels are of little help, other than perhaps providing us hints about the earlier period, since Jesus is already portrayed in the gospels bigger-than-life as the Messiah and Son of God—basically a God who appears to be a man. In their reports the process is well advanced on the way to the declaration of Chalcedon in 451: that Jesus is "fully God and fully human." We must search for hints that might take us backwards toward the early beginning of the process.
It is possible that the process of turning Jesus into God happened during the Hellenistic phase of the early history of the church. With the influx of gentiles into the early community gatherings, Eastern religious traditions meet Western religious traditions. The right conditions for accelerating the process are provided by the Greek tendency to ascribe divinity to people of unusual abilities and by the pervasive influence of the mystery religions in the Greco-Roman world. To judge from the Pauline letters by the early 50s the process of elevating Jesus to divinity was well advanced, a situation likely due to the fact that gentiles associated themselves with Jesus gatherings shortly after the crucifixion (Acts 6:1-6).
What unusual ability might Jesus have that prompted his elevation from laborer to divinity? Josephus (JA 18.3.3) provides one suggestion. In the well-known Testimonium Flavianum Josephus refers to him as a wise man (σοφὸς ἀνήρ), although the entire statement in Josephus (first century) suggests that he is more than simply man. Because it conflicts with the statement as a whole, the view that Jesus was a "wise man" may be an authentic earlier memory. Another hint appears in a remarkable statement made by Justin Martyr (second century) who attests a similar view of Jesus: "Now the son of God, called Jesus, even if only an ordinary man, is on account of his wisdom (σοφία) worthy to be called son of God." (First Apology, 22). Justin tells the reader nothing about what he regards as the content of Jesus' wisdom.
The association of Jesus with wisdom is more pointedly made in the New Testament by the author of the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 23:34-36) in revising an earlier Q tradition, represented by Luke (11:49-51). Q attributes the oracle of doom on the people of "this generation" to Jesus, who says "I will send you prophets, wise men (σοφούς) and scribes." In Matthew, on the other hand, the oracle of doom is attributed to "the Wisdom of God," who "will send prophets and apostles." In other words Matthew has identified Jesus as personified Wisdom, and attributed Wisdom's oracle to Jesus. Before the earth was formed (personified) Wisdom worked alongside God in the creation of the heavens and the earth (Proverbs 8:27-30). But more to the point "in every generation she (Wisdom) passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God and prophets" (Wisdom 7:27). Again Matthew has revised an earlier Q tradition; Q identifies John the baptizer and Jesus as emissaries (i.e., children) of Lady Wisdom in spite of their different lifestyles (Luke 7:31-35), while Matthew by revising Q makes Jesus the embodiment of Lady Wisdom herself (Matthew 11:16-19) by virtue of the deeds Jesus performs (Matthew 11:19).
There is no trace of Jesus' reputation as savant or sage in any of the early Christian creeds, and only traces of it can be found in the early Christian gospels. His reputation as a Galilean sage virtually disappears from the tradition, along with the suppression of his public career by the creeds.
Only these few hints remain to suggest what may have been the case in Galilee and Judea only twenty years or so before Paul: Jesus was a man of unusual but native abilities with a quick mind who was remembered for his memorable sayings. Although he was an unlettered savant or a rustic sage, he became celebrated for his wisdom; eventually coming to be regarded by his associates as a "friend of God" and one of his generation's "holy souls" sent by Lady Wisdom (Wisdom 7:27). His unusual natural abilities gave him a position of special prominence and respect among his peers in Galilee.
Being regarded as an emissary of Lady Wisdom and a "wise man," however, would not inevitably lead to divinity, for "wise men" were ubiquitous in the ancient world. Nevertheless, the right conditions might spark the beginning of the process. Those "right" conditions are provided by the influence of non-Israelites in the early gatherings of his later followers; they could well have begun the process resulting in divine honors for him. Consider the early pre-Pauline Hellenistic confession that Jesus was a man chosen by God to be his son by virtue of his resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:3-4). Such a conjecture about the status of Jesus among his peers plausibly tracks the beginnings of Christology to circumstances in the life of the Israelite man, Jesus, in Roman Palestine.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
Charlie, how did you determine what weight, if any, for the beginning of Christology, should be given to such personal witness as may be found in I Corinthians 9:1b, Paul's remark, "Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" Interestingly, 9:1-6 is not attested by the church Fathers in BeDuhn's reconstruction of the Marcionite text.
Actually I don't make anything of 1 Corinthians 9:1b for Paul's knowledge of the historical man. In 1 Corinthians 9:1-7 Paul is defending his apostleship. Seeing the Lord in 9:1b is a claim that he has seen the resurrected Christ, as he claims in 1 Corinthians 15:8, and possibly also in Galatians 1:12-16. The three reports in Acts (Acts 9:3-19, 21:6-16, 26:12-18) make the same point but they are traditional; that is, they are not from Paul himself. Acts 9:3-19 is a miracle story converted into a commissioning narrative. Paul has no first hand knowledge of Jesus. He relies on his experience and early Christian tradition, as best I can tell.
Charlie, thank you for your comments on the relationship between Jesus and Wisdom, which are right on. I would like to say, however, that I don't think the creeds "suppress" Jesus' earthly career. Rather, the creeds focus on contested issues. Every line of the creeds rebuts its opposite. Jesus' public career as a parable-spouting sage was not so much under dispute.
Charlie, I agree with your comments about "knowledge of the historical man." But regarding the beginning of Christology, how would you rule in or out Paul's comment in 1 Cor 9:1b, and like testimonies, as a beginning for Christology?
Thanks for this post, Charlie. I particularly appreciate Leslie's comments; I had not thought of the creeds in that light. I hope more of your readers will join in on this topic.
What a stimulating, readable piece on early Christology.
Something many of our students should read.
Good Afternoon Gene,
I think such a statement is important for the history of Christology in the early church, but I see the statement as evidence of an advanced Christology, while I was searching for a point of origin in the life of the historical man from whence Christology began. Paul's claim to have experienced an appearance of the resurrected Lord is an event based on faith in Jesus who has already become the Christ. From my perspective all early Christianity reflects an advanced Christology; there is virtually nothing left reminding us that he was once only a man (perhaps Rom 1:3-4) and reports about Cerinthus are about all that is left).
Thanks for keeping me honest about the words I use! The issue you raise as I see it, is: what was the purpose of the creed? Was it to state the solution to the theological debates in the church and so to shut off the debate by means of the solution? Or was it simply an escalation of the debate by providing a new response to what orthodoxy's opponents were arguing. I take the position that it is the final solution, and so it has been in Christendom since the 4th/5th century. The framers of the Nicene Creed, adopted in 325, reaffirmed in 381 at Constantinople, and read and approved in 451 at Chalcedon, wanted "to exclude from consciousness" (i.e., suppress) the public life of Jesus as a Galilean sage, because it would have given support to their Arian opponents (who thought Christ was neither fully God nor fully man). The only thing important about his life, as stated in the creed, was that "he was made flesh of the holy spirit and the virgin Mary, and became man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered...." There is simply no trace of his sayings and doings. It was enough for them to affirm that he was one of us. After Constantine and the Trinitarian Creeds the situation among the followers of Jesus was no longer one of competition, dialogue, and debate. The "heretics" were excluded from any consideration from the state by imperial edict; their property and books were confiscated and turned over to the orthodox. In short, debates were over when the orthodox won political support, and consolidated their theological position. This period of church history is not my specific focus of study so I hope some church historians out there will weigh in on your comment.
Charlie, please feel free to ignore me if I am pressing the point unreasonably. How can an interpretation of Jesus as Wisdom at the turn of the century (Matthew) be said to be earlier in Christology influence than a personal testimony by Paul in the first decade or so following Jesus' death?
Seems more likely that wisdom (small letter) would be transformed to Wisdom (capital letter) by such mystical experience as reported by Paul (perhaps under a broader cultural influence) by which Matthew would then re-interpret the earlier Q wisdom saying, Paul, and those like him, becomes the intervening variable between w and W,
Thanks for being interested enough in the subject to press it! I called the statements of Josephus, Matthew, Luke, and Justin Martyr later "hints" at what may well have been the case earlier. All of these references to the native wisdom ability of Jesus occur after his death and hence much later than the time that Jesus was living in Galilee. Nevertheless, because they conflict with the later fully developed Christology, that is, Jesus is the Christ, the divine resurrected son of God, and personified Wisdom of God, I am speculating that a reference to the natural (not divine) ability of Jesus as a Galilean wise man may actually recall the earlier circumstances of his public life before he was advanced to divinity. Paul claiming to see the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians 9:1b) did not originate the church's belief in Jesus as the Christ (Paul was a late-comer to faith in Jesus). Others had experienced resurrection appearances before him. Jesus' advancement to divinity was a result of a process that began much earlier. Since he was a human being, the beginning of the process may likely have occurred while he was living. What I am suggesting is speculation, of course, but it is somewhat based on later evidence (hence it is not "sheer" speculation), which seems quite plausibly to point to a pre-crucifixion point as the origin of an incipient "Christology.".
Reading BeDuhn's reconstruction of the Apostolikon, which seems to have been collected early (beginning of the second century), it seems evident that these versions of the Paulines can be seen this way. This is the first paragraph of my summary of the Christos of Paul, according to the way I try to read them through Marcion's eyes: "Because of the trust of Christos, who was sent in human form by his father and died the death of a martyr as a vicarious substitute, God, humanity was purchased, rescued and adopted by God. This adoption rectified humanity and reconciled, united humanity with God. This was the God who made himself known through Christos. The law was nullified, as well as the gods of his age, with the god of the age “blinded” the untrusting, keeping God from being seen. Since the law was nullified and the gods of the age were nullified, that would point toward the god of the Jews. The god of Christos was the true god." To me, this seems a good starting point for the genesis of Christology.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
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