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Critical Questions for the Early High Christology Club

By Michael Kok
July 2015

Many scholars of Christian origins infer that the Christian understanding of Christ (i.e. Christology) evolved in the first century CE from a human who was exalted to heavenly glory to a divine being who became incarnate in human flesh. They debate how rapidly Jesus’ status grew over time among his devotees. For some scholars, a full-fledged Christ cult was established by the Hellenized communities in northern Syria and was spread throughout the Mediterranean by Saul of Tarsus.[1] Others contend that the divinization of Jesus is not attested until the Gospel of John or the epistles of Ignatius.[2] An evolutionary model for the development of Christology, however, has remained as a standard historical reconstruction.

This paradigm is not without its shortcomings. It presumes a unilinear trajectory culminating in the deification of Jesus and may be tied to essentialist assumptions about ethnic identity. Some scholars cannot fathom how a divine Christology could be conceived unless the constraint of Second Temple Jewish monotheism was removed in predominantly non-Jewish settings.[3] “Monotheism” is extrapolated as the item of discrimination to differentiate Jews and Christians.[4] Jonathan Z. Smith urges researchers to jettison monothetic procedures in favor of a polythetic system of classification in which there may be a large number of properties possessed in varying degrees within a group yet not every property is possessed by all its members. For example, Smith explores the range of Jewish attitudes towards circumcision such as identifying it as the quintessential marker of the covenant (Gen 17:9-14; Exod 12:43-49; Phil 3:5), regarding it as an ancestral custom (Josephus, Ant. 1.192, 214) shared with other ethnic minorities (Ant. 1.214; Philo, Spec. Laws 1.2), or discarding its literal application (1 Macc 1:15; Jub 15:33-34; Philo, Mig. 89-93).[5] The cultic invocation of Jesus as Lord derives from Aramaic-speaking Jewish circles (1 Cor 16:22; Rev 22:20; Did 10:6) and challenges scholarly notions about what they could entertain. For this reason, several reputable scholars are involved in an informal group known as the Early High Christology Club (EHCC).

Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham are prominent representatives of the EHCC. Hurtado’s thesis is that the positioning of Jesus alongside the god of Israel as the co-recipient of a constellation of “binitarian” devotional practices constituted a significant mutation of Second Temple monotheism. This unparalleled development was generated by visions of the risen Christ receiving heavenly worship and celebrated in prophetic oracles, inspired songs, and charismatic exegesis.[6] Whereas Hurtado allows for a partial precedent in the category of Jewish intermediary agents, with the exception that none of these figures became the object of a cult, Bauckham is adamant that a firm line separated Israel’s deity from all other reality. Even so, Bauckham proposes that the early Christ followers included Jesus within the divine identity, which is characterized by the deity’s rule over and creation of all things. Creative exegesis of Psalm 110 and Isaiah 40-55 led to this novel conclusion.[7] Space does not permit a full engagement with their ground-breaking monographs, but I hope to open up a dialogue.

First, is there a concern to date a “high Christology” as close as possible to the founding of the “Christian” movement? Bauckham stresses that “the earliest Christology was already in nuce the highest Christology” and that “the highest possible Christology – the inclusion of Jesus in the unique divine identity – was central to the faith of the early church even before any of the New Testament writings were written, since it occurs in all of them.”[8] This could leave the impression that the recognition of Jesus’ divinity was a virtually instantaneous response to charismatic experiences rather than the result of historical processes (a-->b-->c). Pushing the point further, a curious agreement is occasionally found between defenders and detractors of Christian dogma that the legitimacy of Christian confessions about Jesus in the canon and creeds depends on whether or not they approximate Jesus’ self-understanding.[9] The quest for origins may be an attempt to capture the essence of “Christianity” before the fall into discord over the plethora of views on Jesus’ dual natures championed by rival Christian factions in the Patristic period.[10] It may be unfair to paint Hurtado’s work with the same brush since he does “not believe that the religious validity of a Christian Christological conviction necessarily rests upon the time or manner of its appearance in history.”[11] Bauckham’s rhetorical point could be modified to speak about the earliest recoverable Christology. This permits the possibility that it was preceded by, or contemporary with, evaluations of Jesus as a sage, prophet, healer, or other messianic types that were superseded in the extant New Testament books.[12]

Second, having been formulated in reaction to the parallelomania of the “history of religions school” (religionsgeschichtliche Schule), does the exclusive focus on the Jewish matrix of the Christ followers serve to insulate them from influences from the Greco-Roman world?[13] After insisting upon a purely Jewish genealogy for Christology, some scholars seem to take the next step of asserting that it surpassed the Jewish parallels as well and belongs in a class of its own (sui generis). In James Crossley’s words, it is “Jewish… but not that Jewish.”[14] Granted, Bauckham concedes a few rare parallels of another figure sitting on the divine throne such as the “son of man” (1 En. 61:8; 62:2, 5; 69:27, 29) and, much later, the angel Metatron (b. Hag. 15a).[15] Hurtado contrasts the act of paying obeisance and prostrating before a human or cosmic superior (1 Chron 29:20; Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica 40.3.3-8; 1 En. 48:5; 62:6-9; Josephus, Ant. 11.331-335; Life of Adam and Eve 12-16) to the cultic veneration of a deity. He adds that imaginative scenes in literary fictions do not compare to the embodied praxis of the Christ congregations (e.g., prayers, invocations, hymns, cultic meals, baptisms rites).[16] Yet Michael Peppard wonders why he does not factor the popular enthusiasm for the imperial cult in as an analogy for Christ devotion.[17] It is probable that the minority of Jews who accommodated the imperial cult were outnumbered by those who opposed its imposition (e.g., Josephus, War 2.169-174, 184-203; Philo, Legat. 198, 208), but, through a process of colonial mimicry, some Jews may have replaced the emperor with Jesus as the sovereign to whom divine honors were due.

Third, is there a risk of depicting ancient “Christianity” as monolithic, assuming that a divine Christology was the definitive feature of all Christ associations? For instance, Jesus is involved in the act of creation in select New Testament passages (John 1:1-3, 10; 1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:15-17; Heb 1:2). Jesus assumes the role of Lady Wisdom and the Logos, personified divine attributes or hypostases that Bauckham considers to be intrinsic to the divine identity,[18] though other texts may be more ambiguous than his tidy categories (e.g., Philo, Heir 206). Alternatively, Jesus’ pre-existence is neither articulated in the Synoptic Gospels nor in the sermons in Acts. Against this view, Simon Gathercole advances the “I have come” sayings (cf. Mark 1:24, 38; 2:17; 10:45; Matt 10:34/Luke 12:51; Matt 5:17; 8:29; 10:35; Luke 12:49; 19:10) as analogous to statements made by heavenly visitors to earth.[19] He rejects sayings that do not fit his criteria (i.e. “I have come” followed by a purpose expressed in an infinitive formula) even if they shed light on the idiom, such as the different opinions regarding the coming of Jesus and John (Matt 11:18-19/Luke 7:33-34). He also distinguishes the sayings that have a single event in mind from the ones that sum up a person’s whole purpose in life so he can exclude Josephus’s proclamation that he had come to bring good tidings to Vespasian as a parallel (War 3.400). The Synoptic sayings may not cover Jesus’ entire life but refer to events in his public ministry such as exorcising a possessed person (Mark 1:24), preaching the gospel in Galilean villages (1:38), or calling sinners to repentance (2:17; Luke 19:10). The idiom simply denotes a sense of a special commission.[20]

In the end, we must resist the tendency to treat the textual representations of Christian beliefs and praxis in the New Testament and other Christian literature as univocal. We must be rigorously historical in contextualizing which group was putting forward what claim about Jesus and what function did the claim serve in their symbolic universe and social formation. It is perfectly valid to inquire about the theological truthfulness of various canonical and creedal declarations about the person of Christ within confessional communities. The tools of the historian’s trade are not sufficient to engage such questions. They are only fit to investigate the individuals or groups who found a given Christology persuasive in a specific historical and social context.


[1] Wilhelm Bousset, Kyrios Christos: A History of the Belief in Christ from the Beginnings of Christianity to Irenaeus. (trans. John E. Steely; Nashville: Abingdon, 1970), 119-132; Burton Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996), 75-98.

[2] James Dunn, Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation (2nd ed., London: SCM, 1989), 239-245, 248-50; Maurice Casey, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God: The Origins and Development of New Testament Christology (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 1991), 23-40, 156-159; A. E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 158, 158n.29.

[3] Harvey, Constraints, 154-173; Casey, Gentile God, 11-20, 27-38. Casey defines an ethnic group as a social group that exhibits or is perceived to exhibit several shared traits (e.g., geographical origin, language, ancestry, customs) and identifies the eight key identity factors shared among Second Temple Jews as ethnicity, scripture, monotheism, circumcision, Sabbath observance, dietary laws, purity laws, and festivals. John’s Gospel, Casey avers, polemicizes against “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi) as the Other and repudiates most of these identity markers in its references to “their law” (John 15:25; cf. 8:17; 10:34). Casey’s thesis is partly dependent on his debatable reconstruction of the Johannine community as filled with assimilating Jews who had been expelled from the synagogue (9:22; 12:42-43) after the formulation of the benediction against the heretics (minim) and an increasing number of non-Jews, leading the community to take on a “Gentile self-identification.”

[4] Jonathan Z. Smith, “Fences and Neighbours: Some Contours of Early Judaism,” in Approaches to Ancient Judaism: Volume Two (ed. William Scott Green; Chicago: Scholars, 1980), 2. Paula Fredriksen deems conceptions of “monotheism” that rule out the existence of lesser divinities and spirits ruled by a chief deity to be anachronistic for ancient Jews, Christians and Pagans. See her review of “Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, by Larry Hurtado” JECS 12 (2004): 537-41.

[5] Smith, “Fences,” 4-5, 10-15.

[6] Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 27-78, 134-153, 194-206.

[7] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 5-57, 152-181, 191-232.

[8] Bauckham, God of Israel, 19, 184, 235.

[9] Michael Bird, “Did Jesus Think He Was God?” in How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 69; Casey, Gentile God, 176. This critique applies to apologetic appropriations of the work of the EHCC rather than to its main scholarly proponents.

[10] On origins, see Michael Foucault, “Nietzsche, Geneology, History,” in Aescetics, Method and Epistemology (Volume 2) (ed. James Faubion, trans. Robert Hurley et al; London: Penguin, 2000), 374.

[11] Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, 9.

[12] Mack (Myth, 43-74) speculates too much in moving from hypothetical sources possibly underlying the material in the Synoptic Gospels (e.g., the double tradition in Matthew/Luke, the Markan pronouncement stories, and the Markan/Johannine sea and feeding miracle chains) and the Gospel of Thomas to putative communities who only maintained the Christologies expressed in these sources. Even so, the Synoptics differ markedly from the Pauline corpus in the silence on Jesus’ pre-existence, the attention to his pre-crucifixion ministry, and the depiction of him as the apocalyptic Son of Man. The Synoptic sayings tradition and other Christian writings (e.g., James, the Didache) further suggests that not all Christ followers placed the exact same weight on Jesus’ vicarious death.

[13] On this point, see Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 44.

[14] James G. Crossley, Jesus in an Age of Terror: Scholarly Projects for a New American Century (Sheffield: Equinox, 2008), 186-189.

[15] Bauckham, God of Israel, 16, 169-172.

[16] Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, 38-42.

[17] Michael Peppard, The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in its Social and Political Context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 24-26. Fredriksen (540-541) notes that, with the exception of the blood sacrifices, the imperial cult was alive and well after the Christianization of the Empire.

[18] Bauckham, God of Israel, 16-17, 158-159, 165-166.

[19] Simon Gathercole, The Pre-existent Son : Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark and Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 113-145.

[20] See the criticisms in Adela Collins and John J. Collins, King and as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 124-126.