In his valuable book Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity Richard Bauckham argues that the unique identity of God in scripture is characterized in two ways: he is the particular God of Israel, known to them as YHWH, who brought them out of Egypt and revealed himself to Moses as “YHWH, YHWH, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Ex. 34:6); and he is God in relation to all reality, he is creator and sovereign ruler of all things. These two categories remain for the most part distinct, but they come together in Deutero-Isaiah “with special combined significance in Israel’s eschatological expectation”:
In the future, when God will fulfil his promises to his own people, showing himself to be finally and definitively the gracious God they have known in their history from the exodus onwards, God will at the same time demonstrate his deity to the nations, implementing his sovereignty as Creator and Ruler of all things in establishing his universal kingdom kingdom, making his name known universally, becoming known to all as the God Israel has known. (8)
Jewish monotheism and intermediaries
Bauckham then suggests that two types of “intermediary” figure are associated with God in Second Temple Judaism: on the one hand, “principal angels and exalted patriarchs”, such as Michael in the Qumran literature, Yahoel in the Apocalypse of Abraham, Moses in the work of Ezekiel the Tragedian, or the Son of Man in Parables of Enoch; and on the other, “personifications or hypostatizations of aspects of God himself, such as his Spirit, his Word and his Wisdom” (14).
The first category consists of “created beings”. They do not share in the divine identity, though Bauckham notes the important exception of the Son of Man in Parables of Enoch, who “will in the future, at the eschatological day of judgement, be placed by God on God’s own throne to exercise judgement on God’s behalf” (16).
The figures that form the second category are not created beings (16-17). They are part of the divine identity: “they express God, his mind and his will in relation to the world”. Most significantly, both the Word and the Wisdom of God “take part in the work of creation, sometimes with distinguishable roles, sometimes interchangeably”. Bauckham concludes from this that Jewish writers were able to “envisage some form of real distinction within the unique identity of the one God”.
Jesus and the identity of God
Bauckham then goes on to argue that this account of Jewish monotheism provides the key to understanding how the New Testament includes Jesus in the unique divine identity.
First, the early Christians understood Jesus—as a human being—to have been exalted after his death to the throne of God to exercise or share in “God’s unique sovereignty over the whole cosmos”. This is unprecedented in Second Temple Judaism, but it “leads to all the other exalted christological claims of the New Testament texts”. Bauckham characterizes this as “christological and eschatological monotheism”:
Jesus is seen as the one who exercises God’s eschatological sovereignty over all things, with a view to the coming of God’s kingdom and the universal acknowledgement of God’s unique deity. Jesus is included, we might say, in the eschatological identity of God. (26).
Secondly, the early Christians included Jesus in the unique divine identity not only eschatologically but also protologically, because for Jewish monotheism the future completion of God’s purposes could not be separated from his creative activity:
The participation of Christ in the creative work of God is necessary, in Jewish monotheistic terms, to complete the otherwise incomplete inclusion of him in the divine identity. (26)
So Jesus is the one “through whom are all things”, by whom “all things were created” (1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16; cf. Jn. 1:1-5; Heb. 1:2-3, 10-12; Rev. 3:14).
The overall argument can be summarized as follows:
This arrangement of the data seems to me to be broadly correct. There are two Old Testament stories told about Jesus in the New Testament, one having to do with the transfer of divine sovereignty to him, the other with his participation in an act of divine creation. The first story, as Bauckham acknowledges, is by far the more important of the two, but the creation story is used by John, Paul, the writer of Hebrews, and John the author of Revelation. The argument, however, I think, needs tweaking.
1. For Bauckham the coming of God’s kingdom and the universal acknowledgment of the sovereignty of Israel’s God are still in the future. I think that the concrete fulfilment of this eschatological expectation has to be understood historically as the moment when the nations of the greek-Roman world confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Deutero-Isaiah envisages the knowledge of YHWH reaching beyond the borders of Israel within the course of history as a direct consequence of God’s judgment of Israel.
2. Bauckham confuses the general assertion of divine sovereignty over the world with the prospect of a future or eschatological sovereignty. The rule of Jesus at the right hand of the Father always has a future orientation. It is not retrojected to include history prior to the resurrection. Psalm 110:1, which Bauckham rightly says was crucial for the development of the idea that Jesus shared in the unique divine sovereignty, places the Lord (kyrios, not YHWH) at the right hand of God to rule in the midst of his enemies. In the story of God and his people Jesus comes to rule at a certain moment and will rule from that moment until all his enemies are defeated, the last enemy being death. His participation in the exercise of divine rule is only eschatological.
3. If Psalm 110:1 is as important for the early development of a high christology as Bauckham thinks, the differentiation between YHWH and ʾdoni surely works against simply conflating the identity of Jesus as “Lord” with the identity of YHWH. In such texts as Isaiah 45:22-23 and Joel 2:32 it is YHWH who is kyrios, but Psalm 110:1 gives the necessary rationale for the transfer of sovereignty from YHWH to his Son or servant. Daniel 7:13-27 is used in the New Testament to the same effect: God gives kingdom, etc., to the figure who represents the suffering saints of the Most High.
4. The “participation” of Jesus in the unique divine sovereignty is much more like that of Enoch’s Son of Man than Bauckham allows. This figure, as Bauckham says, will participate in the unique divine sovereignty only on a future day of judgment—”therefore his inclusion in the divine identity remains equivocal” (16). But Jesus, too, is exalted to the right hand of the Father for the sake of a future judgment and rule over the nations (cf. Acts 10:42; 17:30-31; 2 Tim. 4:1). Bauckham makes much of the significance of Psalm 110:1 for shaping the belief in the participation of Jesus in the sovereignty of God but conveniently overlooks the influence of Daniel 7:13-14, even though Jesus connects the two passages in his response to the high priest at his trial: “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62).
5. Bauckham regards the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God as a “recognition of his inclusion in the unique divine identity” (21). This is more than the texts say. The texts only say that the exalted Jesus participates in the rule of YHWH. Jesus is given sovereignty (cf. Phil. 2:9), the right to rule on God’s behalf, because he suffered and died, and he will in the end give that sovereignty back to God when it is no longer necessary for the faithful servant who overcame death to reign (1 Cor. 15:24-28). Even if we allow that sharing the throne of God implies or entails sharing in the identity of God, it has reference to a state of affairs that begins with the resurrection.
6. Significantly, as Bauckham notes, there is no reference to Psalm 110:1 in the Johannine literature (21). The synoptic Gospels tell the story of how Jesus became Lord, the one to whom authority would be given, as a vindication of his suffering, to judge and rule over the nations. John’s Gospel has little interest in the apocalyptic narrative that dominates the synoptics and Acts; it tells instead the story of how the Wisdom of God became flesh. The synoptics are much more congenial to historians; John is the preferred Gospel of theologians. In Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1, however, the two stories converge in rather complex ways: Jesus is both firstborn of every creature and firstborn from the dead; the Son who has sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high is the one through whom God created all things. It seems to me that understanding this convergence will be the key to understanding how the New Testament speaks of Jesus as God.