(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Did God die on the cross? Part 2

I’ve had a couple of different types of response to my “Did God die on the cross?” post. Not a lot, but enough to justify a follow-up, I think. There is a biblical response based on the view that the New Testament directly equates or identifies Jesus with YHWH as kyrios; and there is a more deductive theological argument grounded in atonement theory.

The kyrios argument

As regards the identification of Jesus with YHWH by means of the transfer of Greek Old Testament kyrios texts, I see no reason to change my view that in the eschatological Jesus-narrative he is given the authority that goes with kyrios in response to his faithful obedience to the point of death on a Roman cross.

Romans 10:9-13 was proposed. Joel says that everybody who calls on the name of the Lord God will be saved; Paul says that everybody who calls on the name of the Lord Jesus will be saved; therefore, Jesus is God; therefore, we can say that God’s blood was shed on the cross.

But if the narrative says that Jesus became Lord or “Son of God in power” by his resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God (eg., Acts 2:32-36; Rom. 1:3-4; Phil. 2:9-11), it seems more reasonable to conclude that the Old Testament texts have been re-applied to him on that basis. The authority to act as only YHWH acted in the Old Testament has been devolved on to Jesus.

It is not the magnitude of the sacrifice that counts but the magnitude of the grace of God in response to Jesus’ simple human faithfulness unto death.

Besides, the salvation in view in this passage is eschatological; there is no reference to Jesus’ death as an act of propitiation. The thought is: Jesus has been raised from the dead (Rom. 9:9); he has been made Lord; when the wrath of God comes, he will save those Jews and Gentiles who call upon his name. The thought is the same as 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10: “ you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come”.

When Paul says that the “rulers of this age” failed to understand the wisdom of God and so “crucified the Lord of glory”, kyrios is not a reference to God (1 Cor. 2:8)—another suggestoin made. The “Lord of glory” is also eschatological. The phrase brings into view the earlier statement about waiting “for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7–8). On this day, the old world will pass away, and those who have called upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:2) will be vindicated; those who have trusted in the counterintuitive wisdom of God will be glorified (1 Cor. 2:7). James speaks of “our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (James 2:1).

The death-of-an-infinite-person argument

The second line of reply was that if this wasn’t God on the cross, then “we have nothing that changes anything”. The death of a mere man wouldn’t do the heavy lifting of salvation.

Jason Helopolous makes this point in his sermon:

The Son of God, eternally God, appropriates to himself humanity…. The Son of God, who appropriated human flesh, appropriated our humanity, appropriated our death. Real human death. His real human blood was shed, and he truly died for us, the God-man. The Son, the second person of the triune godhead suffered in his human nature. The infinite person of God, we can say, in his human nature suffered in our place; and his suffering was of infinite efficacy and infinite value because of his infinite divine nature.

There are two parts to the argument: first, that it was the eternal Son of God who died on the cross; and secondly, that only the suffering of an “infinite person” could have produced infinite benefits. I think this argument can be challenged on both points.

1. The identification of Jesus as “Son of God” in the New Testament is not a statement about his divine pre-existence. In biblical terms it is wrong to say, as Helopolous does, that the Son of God “appropriated human flesh, appropriated our humanity, appropriated our death”. There are “sons of God” in the Jewish scriptures who are divine, but they appear to be angelic figures (Gen. 6:2, 4; Deut. 32:8; Job. 1:6; 2:1; 38:7); they do not appropriate human flesh. The singular son of God, otherwise, is either Israel or Israel’s king—human by definition, not by appropriation.

The problem with the theological method is that it has taken the language of sonship, emptied it of its biblical content, refilled it with a Trinitarian conceptuality, and then reinserted it into the New Testament, hoping that no one would notice the sleight of hand.

We can defend the theological rationalisation as theological rationalisation, taking into account an emerging Wisdom christology and the demands of the Hellenistic worldview. But we deceive ourselves (and the truth is not in us) when we argue that this is the logic that shaped the central story about Jesus in the New Testament.

As I read things, at least, there is a core eschatological-kyrios narrative, according to which Jesus is elevated to a position of derived authority at the right hand of God; added to this is a Wisdom-Logos narrative, which makes him the agent of creation and/or new creation; these biblical narratives became fodder for the intellectual meat grinder of the Church Fathers, out of which came the highly rationalised, a-historical, narrative-free metaphysics of Trinitarian orthodoxy. I’m not saying that the Fathers were wrong, just that we need to understand the historical process.

2. The other part of Helopolous’ argument is that the person who suffered on the cross had to be divine in order for his death to have “infinite efficacy”. A finite human death would have only finite saving value and therefore could not be the means by which the sins of the whole world are atoned for.

Underlying the argument is a logic of proportionality. This perhaps makes sense theoretically, to the rational theological mind, but it is hard to find support or justification for it in the New Testament. If anything, it runs counter to the “logic” of the New Testament narrative, which is that God brings about his purposes through what is weak and ineffectual, through the least rather than the greatest.

The logic of the New Testament is one of disproportionality.

Nothing suggests that a sacrifice was needed on the same metaphysical scale as the sin of all humanity. It is not the magnitude of the sacrifice that counts but the magnitude of the grace of God in response to Jesus’ simple human faithfulness unto death.

This is what we find in the classic atonement passage in Romans 3.

God put Christ Jesus forward “as a propitiation by his blood” in order to demonstrate his righteousness or rightness, “because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Rom. 3:25-26). Paul shows no interest in superimposing the identity of God on Jesus. The death of the Son at the instigation of the wicked tenants of the vineyard is put forward as an act of propitiation for the sins of Israel, by God, who is prepared to overlook the long history of rebellion and defiance that had brought things to this head. It is by this divine act of “grace as a gift” ( the putting forward and passing over) that both Jews and Gentiles are justified (3:24). It is what God does in response to Jesus’ death that makes a difference, not the death itself as a cosmic metaphysical event.

The same point can be made from Romans 5. Jesus’ death is of value “for many” not because God himself died on the cross but because many were justified by the abundant grace of God for believing in Jesus even though he had appeared to Israel “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 5:15-17 ; 8:3). It is the grace of God, the “free gift”, justifying those who believe, that exceeds the sinfulness introduced by Adam. Jesus’ death is never any more than a human death.


One of the Puritans – I think it was Thomas Manton – in the course of a series of about 100 sermons (possible exaggeration there) on the words, “Father, the hour is come,” wrote (I paraphrase): “Only an hour? How was it possible that in just one hour of suffering the Son of God could pay for the accumulated sins of the world, each deserving of eternal wrath? If I pay a large debt in copper coins, I will need a very large number of them. But the repayment of the same debt in gold would require but a small amount. And such is the infinite value of the Only Begotten Son that his suffering and death repays an infinite debt that in baser coin could never be repaid.” (One wonders why it had to take an hour, when on that argument a fraction of a millisecond would have sufficed.)

So the argument was around a long time before Helopolous. I expect prior to Manton it will be found in Calvin, and probably Anselm.

To those of us who reject the standard Reformed idea of Jesus’s death as PSA, it is in any case hollow; but otherwise your answer is, I think, very satisfactory.

I’m fairly happy that your Kurios argument is nowhere near as strong as you assert. The problem is that there just isn’t enough evidence provided in scripture to demonstrate the distinction you take as a given: Jesus was delegated the attributes of YHWH rather than embodying them in himself as a person. Even if he had been delegated these attributes, the lack of due deference to YHWH rather than himself requires some much more searching questions about his identity than is provided in the simple narrative solution you are proposing.

I’m also fairly happy that the deductive argument about the divine identity of Jesus works. It can be demonstrated in the gospels, which were the product of the earliest Christian communities (well before the supposed Hellenistic Platonising of a later period) which worshipped Jesus as God, and seem to have had that agenda in the way Jesus is presented. If he wasn’t a divine figure, you have yet to address the more compelling question: who was Jesus?

The deductive argument also works with the term “Son of God”. The term had various meanings in the OT, of which Israel’s messiah was just one. Not only did Jesus fill YHWH’s character with unforeseen characteristics and how they should be reflected in his (Jesus’s) followers, but the same could be said of the developed meaning of the term “Son of God”. Clearly, if everything in the NT was limited strictly to whatever its meaning had been in the OT, then we would still be practitioners of the Law in its literal entirety, an enterprise whose impossibility would be giving us extreme problems. Jesus did not come to promote such a project, and neither should we in the larger issue of how we define Israel’s narrative.

1. I’m not suggesting that all the “attributes of YHWH” were delegated to Jesus. It is only authority that is delegated. What Jesus received when he was seated at the right hand of the Father was the authority to judge and rule, first with respect to Israel, then with respect to the nations of the pagan world. The prominence of Psalm 110:1 in the New Testament witness to Jesus points firmly in this direction: YHWH gives to his anointed king, a greater king than David, the authority to rule in the midst of his enemies until the last enemy is destroyed, when that authority to rule as king is returned to God (1 Cor. 15:24-28). This eschatological narrative neither presupposes nor establishes the divinity of Jesus. For that we have to look elsewhere.

I don’t understand your point about “lack of due deference to YHWH”.

2. If it could be demonstrated from the Gospels, then it would not be a deductive argument. That aside, the “worship” given to Jesus in the Gospels is just as well explained by the transfer-of-authority reading as by the Jesus-is-YHWH reading. In my view, everything points to Jesus acting on behalf of YHWH rather than acting as YHWH. At his baptism, for example, Jesus is identified by God as the servant whom God will use to bring justice to the nations. There is no comparable paradigmatic episode that points unequivocally to his being identified by YHWH with YHWH.

3. Isn’t this a bit dubious in light of the fact that Jesus claimed to reveal the Father, to do what the Father was doing: “Not only did Jesus fill YHWH’s character with unforeseen characteristics…”? What did Jesus teach the Jews about YHWH that wasn’t already there in the Old Testament? “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk. 24:27).

But yes, there’s a basic hermeneutic issue here: Do we read forwards or backwards? Do we read the New Testament with Christian eyes or with (as far as is possible) Jewish eyes? My assumption is that the New Testament should be read according to historically appropriate presuppositions. Certainly, Jesus may have modified Jewish categories, but that remains to be shown.

Your argument about stilling practitioners of the Law seems very odd. The issue is how Jewish terms were understood, not whether they remained valid. In any case, Jewish Christians continued to practice the Jewish Law. It was an entirely separate question whether Gentiles, who did not have the Law, should be circumcised, etc.

I keep getting this feeling of dejà vu! But it’s not to do with whether we are reading forwards or backwards, as you say. Even reading forwards, there is a huge amount in the gospels and NT which simply does not fit the paradigm of the OT continued, though perhaps in slightly different packaging. The gospels and letters, though coming from their Jewish OT origins, are at the same time about as far away from the OT origins as you could get. If we can’t agree on that, we are reading entirely different scriptures.

With regard to your comments:

1. I suggest that the Kurios authority which Jesus exercised in his heavenly exaltation was already being demonstrated and defined by his Kurios authority in his earthly ministry, in which there was no distinction between his Kurios attributes and his Kurios authority. The gospels paint a picture of the authority and attributes of YHWH radically transposed and transferred to Jesus, to the extent that if we insist on a distinction between the delegate and the person, there isn’t a cigarette paper of difference between them. Which leads back to the question you have avoided thinking about, but which is central to the whole argument: who was Jesus?

2. A demonstration of a deductive argument is straightforward logic. I didn’t mention “worship”. Your argument about Jesus acting on behalf of YHWH ignores the point: the gospels powerfully present someone extraordinary, for whom there was no precedent in world history let alone the OT, who does not simply suggest a delegate acting on behalf of God, in the way that your textual reference to the servant suggests.

3. I may be missing something, but I’m not sure which part of my comment you are referring to. You make some debatable points, but I can’t see that they connect with what I said, which was mainly that the term Son of God had a variety of meanings in the OT, and was open to further development, as I believe it is in the NT, and certainly beyond.

Crucially, the wider implications of the question: “Who was Jesus?” remain unanswered.

The gospels and letters, though coming from their Jewish OT origins, are at the same time about as far away from the OT origins as you could get.

Well, no, I don’t agree with that at all, so there’s probably not much point in pursuing the conversation. It may also explain the sense of déjà vu.

Good to see that you’re still around, Peter Wilkinson.

“The gospels and letters, though coming from their Jewish OT origins, are at the same time about as far away from the OT origins as you could get.”

This has to be demonstrated as opposed to assumed. It is unthinkable that the unsophisticated recipients of the Gospel stories had the exposure or the philosophical training crucially required to understand these stories in the terms and concepts necessary for the Trinity. Their Jewish worldview had everything necessary in the experience and reflection about Jesus without necessitating him to be God.

” The gospels paint a picture of the authority and attributes of YHWH radically transposed and transferred to Jesus, to the extent that if we insist on a distinction between the delegate and the person, there isn’t a cigarette paper of difference between them. “

Oh, but you’re crudely overstating your case. Where Jesus did not explicitly state that he imitated his Father, parable and cultural symbols served the purpose sufficiently to sharply distinguish between Jesus and the God of Israel (his Father). Dale Tuggy’s paper on indiscernability of identicals demonstrates this strict identification between Lord Jesus and Lord God as fundamentally flawed.

“Son of God had a variety of meanings in the OT, and was open to further development, as I believe it is in the NT, and certainly beyond.”

None of those meanings permitted the otherworldly impositions of later centuries which trinitarians so desperately wish back onto the text. Geza Vermes and Maurice Casey eloquently demonstrated how the phrase satisfied the identity of Jesus sufficiently from an indigenous worldview.

“Crucially, the wider implications of the question: “Who was Jesus?” remain unanswered.”

To some, no amount of evidence would suffice.


Hello Jaco. In summary, my response to your three points would be
1. It’s all a question of recognising discontinuity and continuity with the OT. Discontinuity seems to be extremely reduced, or even absent, in Andrew’s account.
2. I disagree, but thanks for the pointer to a reinforcement of your position.
3. Again, thanks for pointing me to Vermes and Casey, but I think my basic point, taken in conjunction with point 1, remains. And as I’ve pointed out, even if you marshal your evidence in support of a 100% human Jesus, it does not answer the questions about the identity of Jesus raised by the picture we are given of him. Unlike the OT heroes you cite, Jesus was without the kind of flaws we see in all of them, and again, quite different in the picture he presented of God, and what it means to be truly loyal to God - which is discontinuity.

“the gospels powerfully present someone extraordinary, for whom there was no precedent in world history let alone the OT

However, as various OT scriptures were written, they do the same things with their central figures. Moses is a larger than life character, as is Samson, as is Elijah, and so on. To say that Jesus must be God because the gospels present him as an incomparable figure is question begging. As these writings are produced, their main character is usually incomparable to everyone else and everyone who had gone before them.

Nor does this trend stop in the New Testament, although it does stop in Christian sacred literature. Mohammed is also depicted this way. Joseph Smith is depicted this way. At no point are these human figures ever meant to equate with God despite their narrative superiority to everyone else.

It seems as though (and forgive me if I’m misunderstanding) you are using the deity of Jesus both as an explanation for his fantastic portrayal as well as a conclusion also drawn from that very portrayal, and neither seem warranted to me.

As for “Son of God” having various meanings in the OT, there may be something to that and I’m curious what the various meanings are that you have in mind, but I’ll bet none of the meanings you have in mind are “God Himself.” You could argue that this is a new aspect to the title that Jesus brings in, but once again, this is begging the question.

Phil - I stick with my statement. Partly for reasons which I gave in a reply to Jaco, by mistake! It should have been in this comment. And by the way, my statement was not in itself presented as a proof of Jesus’s divinity: it was just a starting point to ask some searching questions, which I think have been largely ignored by Andrew. For instance, Jesus was without flaw, unlike the conspicuous flaws in the OT heroes you cite. I’m afraid I do no regard the leading figures of the faith movements you mention as figures without deep personal flaws of a kind we associate with flaws that are general to humanity.

The remarkable flawlessness of Jesus is not in itself, as I said to Jaco, a grounds for proving his divinity. It simply needs, in the first place, to be acknowledged, and deeply considered. It raises questions about his identity, which on this level have never been considered or pursued by Andrew. In my opinion, the questiosn raised by this and many remarkable aspects of Jesus’s character and activities lead only in one direction: a unique person without any peer in human history, let alone the history of the Jews. When taken into account with the entire reach of his ministry as understood and presented by the rest of the NT, for me there is only one explanation: he was the unique God/man.

I believe this view is woven into the gospels, which like a detective story, present sufficient clues by their believing authors about Jesus, but for his immediate contemporaries are largely missed - and in a way, unsurprisingly. Had Jesus come and openly proclaimed his divine identity, it would have violated his own consciousness of who he was (which was not according to theological logic), and would have been the quickest way of aborting his mission, ministry, credibility and indeed his own life.

What flaws would you say Moses is portrayed with that are absent from portrayals of Jesus?

Numbers 20?

That’s fair. There’s an incident where Moses, overcome by the faithlessness of Israel, strikes the rock instead of speaking to it as God commanded. So, we have an instance where God gave Moses a specific, verbal instruction that Moses did not keep because he was overwhelmed by Israel’s lack of faith.

While I think that’s a valid example, there are issues with it in comparison to Jesus, because we don’t have any instances where God gave Jesus a specific, verbal instruction about something Jesus was supposed to do at a particular point in time. We do, however, have several instances where Jesus lost his temper and/or decried Israel for her faithlessness.

So, in terms of how the figures are portrayed. Both are depicted as losing their tempers. Both are depicted as harshly criticizing Israel for her lack of faith. One is depicted as striking a rock instead of speaking to it as God commanded because he is overwrought over the people’s faithlessness, and there is no comparable episode in Jesus’ story, but there’s also not a comparable episode of Jesus being put in that situation and obeying, either.

I hardly think that’s enough distinction to put the portrayal of Jesus as an entirely different caliber of being than Moses.

I don’t know what you would describe as an incident where Jesus ‘lost his temper’. However, it was never, if at all, to the point of disobedience, like Moses. Also, Jesus was living in a state of constant communion with God and obedience to Him, eg John 4:34, 5:19, so even the concept of disobedience seems foreign to him, though I guess the closest he came might have been Matthew 26:42.
But this is almost missing the wood for the trees. I think very few people indeed could read the gospel accounts and not think Jesus was a very extraordinary person indeed, and to repeat, without the human flaws which characterise all the major OT figures.

Clearing out the moneychangers in the Temple. Getting riled at Pharisees (Mark 3:5, Matthew 23). Cursing fig trees (Mark 11:12-14), Just to name a few.

You could say those incidents were just Jesus displaying righteous anger, but it’s hard to see how that’s any different than the incident at Meribah. The only difference seems to be that God did not verbally tell Jesus in those situations to do something specific that he failed to do.

Your statement about “living in a state of constant communion with God and obedience to Him, so even the concept of disobedience seems foreign to him” is a highly theologized statement. The verses you quoted do not say that, are quite similar to statements OT figures made about themselves, and, if what you say is correct, it renders the temptation narrative completely toothless.

It seems to me that the reason you see Jesus as presented so radically differently from special OT figures is that you’ve already decided, theologically, that he is radically different from OT figures and therefore you find it in the text. That’s not convincing to me. If the best you’ve got is that Moses was SO overwrought with Israel’s faithlessness that he hit a rock instead of speaking to it, that does not seem to me to be ontological orders of magnitude different such that now we have to come up with a different category of being for Jesus above and beyond “Spirit-filled human being.”

Hitting the rock was evidently serious enough to disqualify Moses from entry to the land. The John passages I quoted may be highly theologised, but to the best of my knowledge, which is quite limited, I don’t know of anyone who has said they are inconsistent with the picture we have of Jesus, either in John, or the synoptic gospels.

I think the statement ‘lost his temper’ needs some definition, but in the sense that it means ‘lost his self.control’, I don’t think it does describe Jesus in any of the incidents you mention. With the fig tree, Jesus was hungry, he cursed the tree, but of his state of mind we have no record.

For sure I’ve decided Jesus was divine, just as you haven’t (I assume). But that’s because of my personal experiences, which did not come from the gospels, but I find the gospels unreservedly confirm. I also find the viewpoint of Jesus as divine confirmed by a historical approach. However, I don’t deny you or Jaco or Andrew in his own way a different viewpoint. I just find when I visit the ‘human only’ viewpoint of Jesus, it fails to be convincing. Some of the reasons which form a basis for coming to this view are in my responses in this thread. (I said ‘some’, and ‘form a basis’. They are not in themselves proofs).

It’s always a pleasure interacting with you Phil (and Jaco, and yes, Andrew as well). Thanks for giving the time.

It’s not just the death of Jesus that raises questions concerning the validity of “the Trinity,” but also take a look at the temptation of Jesus in the earliest Gospel, Mark:

To quote from Ricky Carvel’s blog

‘…why was the testing necessary? Did God the Father need to do this in order to find out that Jesus was up to the task? Well, that very much depends on your pre-conceptions of the Father. Did Jesus need to know for himself that he could pass the test? I don’t think the angels really needed to know. Whether Satan needed to know would depend very much on your pre-conceptions of Satan. But really, I think, the main audience who need to know if Jesus passed the test are Mark’s readers themselves. This story is for them. Nobody else in this story needs these events to have happened. That, in itself, should put a very big question mark over the actual historicity of this event, the event itself presupposes an audience, but as presented there was no audience present.

‘If we take for granted the Trinity, as generally believed in modern Christianity, this story makes no sense. Why would one member of the Trinity need to get another member of the Trinity to direct the third member of the Trinity to the place of testing? In this concept, God the Father must already know that God the Son is up to the task set before him, as they have been in communion together for eternity past. God the Father does not need to test God the Son, and certainly does not need the direction of God the Spirit to assist in this. From a Trinitarian point of view, the only way we can make sense of this passage is if Satan is the devil, and the point of the exercise is to demonstrate to the devil just who Jesus is. This seems to be the way that Matthew understands the story, but it is not at all clear in Mark’s version. Various theologies in other parts of the NT rely on the assumption that the devil did not know who Jesus was, so they, at least, are inconsistent with this view of this event.

‘Put aside the idea of the Trinity for a moment, though, and the story makes a whole lot more sense. If God in heaven had chosen a righteous man, Jesus, to become his Son, and had poured his Spirit into this man (that’s something to be discussed in the part of this study that we have temporarily jumped over), then he’d need to be sure that the man he had chosen was up to the task. From a non-Trinitarian (and, indeed, an adoptionist) point of view, this passage makes perfect sense. Here God is simply double checking that he made the right choice. And so from here on in, the reader can be sure that God made the right choice too.

‘I think this is the lens through which we need to view the rest of the gospel of Mark. Jesus is just a man, chosen and empowered to be the Son of God, but not part of the Trinity and not pre-existent.

‘Thinking in this way also makes this passage make sense from Jesus’s point of view as well. Jesus himself needs to know that he can pass the test. He needs to know the power of the Spirit which is now within him. Having been through this, Jesus himself now knows that he is ready for the rest of the gospel, and so does the reader.

‘Before we move on, one final comment that, I think, contradicts what Matthew will later do with this passage when he expands it. Nothing in this passage suggests that Jesus is without food. Indeed, the angels ‘attending’ him would imply that they brought him whatever he needed, including food. For some reason this short passage makes me think of 1 Kings 17 where Elijah is ministered to by ravens, who bring him food. Perhaps it is even closer to 1 Kings 19, where an angel brings Elijah food. Either way, if this inference is correct, then Matthew’s story, in which Jesus has no food for 40 days, contradicts this.

‘So there we have it, I think this short passage is clearly non-historical, and reveals an underlying theology which is at odds with current Christian belief.’

I agree with the author, and in particular the meat-grinder analogy, up to a point. I think Charles H. Talbert’s masterful essay on “Christology during the first hundred years”[1] is helpful here. Talbert identifies four basic Christological models that were in use during the first hundred years of Christian thought (including the New Testament). These are (a) that of a human being taken up to perform benevolent acts on behalf of humans in the present; (b) that of a righteous human designated to exercise eschatological judgment; (c) that of a pre-existent being who descends into this world, fulfils the descent’s aim, and then ascends back into the heavens; (d) that of a deity who descends and remains with/on/in a human person permanently. Individual writings make use of one or more of these models (which are not mutually exclusive) in expressing their Christology.

Now here are relevant excerpts from Talbert’s conclusion: “Early Christologies used OT texts and Jewish and Greco-Roman myths to give voice to what must be said about Jesus given the effects of his person on those voicing their views. The reflection of non-Jewish as well as Jewish myths in christological reflection does not mean that early Christianity was a syncretistic religion made up of pieces from hither and yon all stirred together. No, rather the earliest followers of Jesus had a distinctive constitutive core, experientially grounded, that gave them the ability to sift and sort through language and concepts from their surroundings to express what the Christ-event meant to them in terms of their past, present, and future. There was no alien invasion of a pagan culture into the pure faith. Rather, there was a sovereign use of the general culture for self-understanding and evangelization insofar as it could be adapted to the constitutive, soteriological core… it would be a serious mistake to conceive of the historical development so described in terms of an evolution from a ‘low’ to a ‘high’ Christology. Christological development, as described above, has the messiness of lived life… The first and early second centuries were but the beginning of Christological development. They furnished the raw materials, a beginning of a synthetic view of Jesus’ identity, and the initial defensive maneuvers of the early followers of Jesus. Producing a finished product would remain an elusive quest for many centuries to come.” (Talbert 41-42)

This paints a similar picture to Perriman’s meat grinder analogy. Both Talbert and Perriman acknowledge that there were raw materials/ingredients that went into the machine, and that later Christological orthodoxy is a “finished product,” a (not illegitimate) synthesis of these. What distinguishes Perriman’s view from Talbert’s (and from most other NT scholars’) is that Perriman seems reluctant to acknowledge that the ingredients going into the meat grinder include the notion of a pre-existent divine being. In that sense Talbert’s model is both more comprehensive and more representative of the current state of scholarship. Nevertheless, Perriman offers a useful corrective to those who assume that the NT writers were already working with fully-developed fourth-century Christological categories, or that every individual NT writer understood Christ to be a pre-existent divine being.

[1] Talbert, Charles H. (2011). The Development of Christology in the First 100 Years: A Modest Proposal. In The Development of Christology During the First Hundred Years and other essays on early Christian christology (pp. 3-42). Leiden: Brill.

Thanks, Thomas. Very helpful. You say that I seem “reluctant to acknowledge that the ingredients going into the meat grinder include the notion of a pre-existent divine being”. Does wisdom count as a “pre-existent divine being”? I don’t think the New Testament speaks of a pre-existent “Son” entering into the world, but it does seem to me that the early church reconfigured Jewish wisdom motifs around Jesus.

Does wisdom count as a “pre-existent divine being”?

The assumption that seems embedded in this question is that in taking language used of wisdom in the religion-historical context and applying it to Christ, the NT writers are saying that Christ somehow embodies wisdom, which existed before Christ was born but not as a personal being, not as Christ.

I invite you to consider another possibility: that these writers are turning to the wisdom motif because it is a conceptual resource that helps them express what they want to say about Christ. This is why, for instance, James Dunn’s exegesis of passages like 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:15-20 and Heb. 1:2, 10-12 has not carried the day: the referent in these passages is quite clearly Christ, not wisdom. So it seems highly problematic to infer that the statements these passages make about the post-incarnate Christ refer to Christ whereas the statements about the pre-incarnate Christ refer to wisdom and not to Christ.

The assumption that seems embedded in this question…

I think you’re assuming too much. I only suggested that “the early church reconfigured Jewish wisdom motifs around Jesus”. How they did it, why, and to what Christological effect is another matter. That would depend on how we read the particular texts. John 1 could be read as the incarnation of the divine Word or Wisdom—Jesus is the embodiment in Israel of the creative Word of God—though I’m not sure the argument can be sustained. In the case of the other texts, the question is not so much whether the referent is Christ but whether the original creation or the creation of a new order of things is in view. I suspect, at least, that we get to the former by way of the latter.