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Hurtado’s critique of Wright’s account of Paul’s christology

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Larry Hurtado has uploaded a pre-publication version of his contribution to a response to N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. As the fashion goes these days (How Jesus Became God / How God Became Jesus) the new book is cleverly called God and the Faithfulness of Paul: A Critical Examination of the Pauline Theology of N. T. Wright, and is edited by Christoph Heilig, J. Thomas Hewitt and Michael F. Bird. You can get it on Amazon for £134 ($194), which is twice the price and half the number of words of Wright’s original book, so if any other contributors feel inclined to make pre-publication copies available, it would be much appreciated. 

Hurtado’s chapter is entitled “YHWH’s Return to Zion: A New Catalyst for Earliest High Christology?” He summarises Wright’s argument about the development of Paul’s christology and puts forward two main lines of criticism. I haven’t looked closely at what Wright says, but on the evidence of the summary, I’d say Hurtado has a strong case. Where it leaves us in terms of an Early High Christology, is another matter. I’ll throw in some thoughts at the end.

Hurtado’s summary of Wright’s return-of-YHWH-to-Zion christology

Addressing the question of why early Christians included Jesus in the “reality of the one God”, Wright argues that the conceptual catalyst was not some or other Jewish “mediator-figure” (or as Hurtado prefers, “chief-agent” but the belief that YHWH would return in person to Zion, in glory, to dwell among his people as their king, and to rule over the world. 

It is important to underscore specifically that what Wright claims is that the “return of YHWH” belief/tradition was the key initial christological resource appropriated in earliest Christian circles, and is the best historical explanation for the christologicial beliefs and devotional practices that the NT writings attest…. Wright declares firmly that the earliest and primary christological belief was “that Israel’s one God had returned in person,” “[i]n the person of Jesus.” As devout Jews longing for YHWH’s return, Wright contends, earliest (Jewish) believers saw “the events concerning Jesus,” and “deduced that it had happened.” Pondering the biblical promises of YHWH’s return to Zion, and “wondering what it would look like” when it happened, Jesus’ followers came to see in Jesus’ death and resurrection that “Israel’s God had done what he had long promised”: God had “returned to be king,” had “‘visited’ his people and ‘redeemed’ them,” and had “returned to dwell in the midst of his people.”

The return of YHWH and divine agents

Hurtado thinks that Wright makes too sharp a distinction between the personal return or presence of YHWH and the “roles of chief-agent figures”.

In some eschatological judgment/redemption texts YHWH acts alone. For example: “Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him” (Is. 40:10).

But in other texts an agent is involved: David as the “shepherd and agent of God’s rule” in Ezekiel 34:23-24; a Davidic Messiah in Psalms of Solomon 17; the prince of the congregation raised up as a messianic leader at Qumran; the angelic prince Michael in 1QM 17:6-8; Melchizedek, a “godlike being” who will execute divine judgment and deliver the elect from Belial (11Q13 2:9-14); or the “chosen/righteous/anointed one” or “Son of Man” in the Parables of Enoch.

Hurtado argues that in the Old Testament and the literature of the second temple period we find an “interplay” between these two emphases. They go hand-in-hand. So it is a mistake—perhaps driven by Wright’s strong incarnational theology—to dissociate the theme of YHWH’s return to Zion from the “expectation that this manifestation of YHWH would involve and be expressed through one or another chief-agent figure”.

In fact, the New Testament consistently presents Jesus as the “unique agent of God’s purposes” (as “Son”, “Image”, or “Word”). So Jesus was included in the “divine identity” at an early stage, but “in a role differentiated from that of God…, as the unique agent of God, the unique and ultimate historical expression of God’s purposes”.

The return of YHWH and the parousia of Christ

Hurtado then makes the point, following Eddie Adams, that the theme of YHWH’s coming in eschatological judgment/redemption is associated less with Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection than with his parousia—for example, Paul’s reference to the “parousia of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones” (1 Thess. 3:13), which is taken to be an adaptation of Zechariah 14:5.

Wright acknowledges this, but in Hurtado’s view he presents it “as essentially an extension of what he posits as the more important appropriation of YHWH’s return to interpret Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection”.

The point is illustrated with reference to the interpretation of Philippians 2:9-11. Whereas Wright, as Hurtado reads him, places the emphasis on Jesus’ earthly obedience and suffering as the expression of “how Israel’s God came back to do what he had promised”, Hurtado thinks that the connection is made with Jesus’ post-resurrection status as Lord and the expecation of a “future universal acclamation”. In other words, it’s about the future rather than the past.

The conclusion is thus: “the initial conviction that generated subsequent christological development and devotional practice was that God had raised Jesus from death and exalted him to share in divine glory and the divine name, and now required Jesus to be reverenced accordingly”. The early believers then “searched their scriptures to find resources to grasp what God’s exaltation of Jesus meant, and what import it held for their understanding of God’s purposes”.

But is this really a “divine christology”?

The critique of Wright seems to me correct, and I certainly agree that it is primarily—and overwhelmingly—the elevation of Jesus to the right hand of the Father that defines his uniquely exalted status as Lord, in Paul and in the New Testament generally. I find Hurtado’s account of the early christological development cogent:

This conviction likely erupted in the earliest days/weeks after Jesus’ crucifixion, and was generated and confirmed by the interaction of experiences that included encounters with the risen/glorified Jesus, visions of him in heavenly exaltation, prophetic oracles (and perhaps Spirit-inspired odes) declaring his status and expressing God’s will that Jesus be reverenced, and new “charismatic” readings of scriptural texts that confirmed and helped believers to understand better how to accommodate Jesus in relation to God.

What’s good about Wright’s approach is that it makes a story, rather than a person, or title, or office, the basis for understanding the accommodation of Jesus “in relation to God”. But I think he prioritises the wrong part of the story—the process rather than the climax, the middle rather than the end.

This may be where there’s a problem, however, with Hurtado’s argument if he thinks that the parousia narrative underpins (in Andrew Chester’s words, which he quotes) “a Christology that portrays Christ as divine”. The story itself does not lead towards an outcome in which the identity of Jesus is assimilated into or subsumed under or confused with—or whatever—the identity of YHWH.

Yes, Jesus does or will do what in the Old Testament is reserved for YHWH alone, but that is what we would expect of a “chief-agent” as an actor in the story. He has been authorised to act on YHWH’s behalf, having been qualified for the role by his obedience and suffering.

So should we not assume that early believers simply imagined, or had visions of, the risen Jesus seated at the right hand of God in the heavenly court, making himself known to his followers, appearing at some time in the foreseeable future to be acclaimed by the nations, reigning throughout the coming ages as Lord and King, and ultimately handing back the rule to God the Father—and that’s it?

Enoch’s Son of Man—a chief-agent if ever there was one—is associated with the “wisdom of the Lord of the Spirits”, which was present with God from the beginning (1 En. 42:-13; 48:6-7). No doubt the early believers also extended the story of Jesus in a similar fashion in order to identify him with the creative Wisdom of God. But it seems to me that in the New Testament the apocalytic narrative about exaltation and kingdom always controls the argument about Jesus and God. It is not until we escape from the gravitational pull of the Jewish worldview that this arrangement gets upended and Jesus becomes first and foremost the incarnate Logos.

peter wilkinson | Tue, 07/12/2016 - 11:14 | Permalink

I continue to be struck how, in Daniel 7:13-14 and 27b, the language applied to the son of man as chief agent figure is simultaneously the language applied to the Ancient of Days/Most High. We have in fact three main figures in the passages: the Ancient of Days/Most High, a chief agent figure, and Israel — each distinct from each other, but the first two identified with each other in a way that the third (in 27a) is not.

When Jesus took on himself the identity of the son of man figure, it is not far-fetched to say that he continued this pattern of identification with YHWH, yet maintaining a unique role as chief agent figure, which ultimately was also seen as a proxy for Israel. The explanation? That Jesus was the God/man. That is also the traditional way in which he has been understood as a mediator. Even before the exaltation of Jesus in his ascension, there were signs (in the synoptic gospels, and in John’s gospel made explicit) that Jesus was just such a person.

I don’t see why the early disciples should not (as I think they did) identify the chief agent figure with YHWH himself, and worship him as such. The question of how YHWH would return to Israel cannot, to my mind, be separated from the role of the chief agent figure, Jesus, in his death and resurrection. Nevertheless, Hurtado seems to be developing an important argument about the future exaltation of Jesus over all the earth, possibly reinstating Jesus’s ‘second coming’, in a way which a reading of Wright can appear to call into question through his ‘return of YHWH as Jesus in his 1st century appearance’ viewpoint.

How is the son of man figure identified with the Ancient of Days and not with the people of the saints of the Most High?

Kingdom, etc., are given to the son of man figure. Kingdom, etc., are given to righteous Israel. That has strongly suggested to most commentators that the son of man figure is in some way identified with or representative of righteous Israel.

It is not said that kingdom is given to the Ancient of Days. The nations will serve righteous Israel / the Son of Man because they have been given the imperial authority taken away from the pagan kingdoms.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 07/15/2016 - 12:28 | Permalink

The word “serve” (pelach) in Daniel 7:14 is used of God on eight other occasions (including Daniel 7:27) in Daniel. While in Daniel 7:13 the identity of the subject is the son of man, in 7:14, the application of the verb ‘pelach’ to him casts doubt on this identification alone. In 7:27, the same verb is used without ambiguity of the Most High (ie God).

I don’t know whether most commentators have noticed this use of ‘pelach’ here and elsewhere in Daniel, but my observations and the application of the son of man figure to himself by Jesus (as fulfilled prophecy, not 1st century analogy) arise out of this unusual choice of language.

From a New Testament point of view (as understood by most commentators) it would make perfect sense of the Daniel passages if Jesus fulfilled Daniel 7:14 (and included parts of the story not found in Daniel) as ‘the God/man’.

But that doesn’t identify the Son of Man with the Ancient of Days. It’s the same logic as in Psalm 110. God says to his king “Rule in the midst of your enemies!”, but at the same time we hear that God will shatter kings and execute judgment. The whole logic of kingship is that the king rules on YHWH’s behalf, so serving the king is serving YHWH.

Yes, in Daniel p̱lḥ is used of serving God, but Daniel 7 describes an exceptional circumstance: the right to be served is given to the son of man figure.

There appear to be a couple of instances in the Qumran writings where the verb has a human object: eg., Joseph “served” 30 years in Egypt (4Q559 f1:3).

So it seems to me that the argument of Daniel 7:13-27 is that God gives kingdom, etc., and the right to be served by the nations (this is the novelty) to the son of man figure, who somehow represents or acts on behalf of or embodies the people of the saints of the Most High. What Daniel has introduced here is a theme that will be developed in the second temple writings and the New Testament—that the suffering faithful, the martyrs, will reign with the authority of YHWH over the nations in the age to come.

It’s also quite possible, of course, since this is the angel’s interpretation of the symbolism of the vision, that “his kingdom” in 27b refers not to the Most High but to the son of man figure.

I think what all this points back to is the question of the status of the son of man, and hence Jesus. To say that the son of man could be served/worshipped in the same way as God because he was given that right does not provide an answer; it simply raises more questions.


The humanlike figure comes in order to be invested as king (v 14). The sovereignty he is given is like God’s own (cf. 3:33 [4:3]; 6:27 [26]), the rule the first symbolic dream spoke of (2:44–45). He is given the power Nebuchadnezzar once exercised (2:37; 5:19; cf. 6:26 [25]). In serving him, people indirectly serve God, like the foreigners pictured as serving Israel in Isa 60:7, 10; 61:6….

Goldingay is a bit non-committal regarding whether the human figure is an angelic power or a king or representative of justified Israel. But the important point to stress is that he is served by the nations because “dominion and glory and a kingdom” have been “given” (yhyḇ) to him, just as Belshazzar’s kingdom was given (yhyḇṯ) to the Medes and Persians. There is no argument for identification here. That is a serious misreading of the text. However many questions it raises, the passage says what it says. Brexit means Brexit.

One has to pay attention to what a scholar like Goldingay says, but I’m a bit mystified by it. Of course, there is a close connection between kings and gods (Israelite king and God) in the ancient world — the one being the representative of the other, and reflecting some of their/His qualities. But no-one in their right mind would have pressed the identification further (except Nebuchadnezzar of course, and look what happened to him). But the identification is precisely what is happening with Jesus, and can be seen, suggestively, in the Daniel 7 ‘son of man’ figure.

Daniel 7:14 is an investiture, but not any old investiture. This is in the presence of the Ancient of Days, the king of kings (Daniel 7:9-10). The final beast is slain (Daniel 7:11; further explanation and commentary Daniel 7:15-28). Allusions to Antiochus IV are combined with more distant fulfilment (Daniel 7:13-14, 7:27), which inevitably (for NT scholars) land on Jesus.

Goldingay’s verse citations seem confused — unless you have miscopied them. There is no Daniel 3:33 (unless it’s a LXX reference I don’t know about). 4:3 is a reference to ‘the Most High God’, not his representative, and the parallels with 7:14 only prove my point. 6:27 likewise; 6:25 has no relevant connection. Isaiah 60:7, 10 and 61:6 speak of the ultimate transfer of power to the future saints, since no comparable fulfilment ever took place in Israel’s own history as a nation state. The language is therefore symbolic, not literal. I don’t see the relevance of the Isaiah passages to the argument.

Goldingay may have his own views on the identity of the ‘human figure’ (he actually says ‘humanlike’ in the extract you quote, so you have already downgraded the figure’s status). The conventional view is stated by Sinclair B. Ferguson: The son of man is

True Man (sic) by contrast with the beasts. He is able to bear the holiness of God and remain in his presence. In this figure the rock of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream … . becomes a man in whom the true image of God shines forth … the Messianic man who will be God’s true regent… . . It is not possible to read this figure from a NT perspective without recognising that the figure of the ‘son of man’ (13) is fulfilled in Christ … the son of man, being granted universal dominion for himself and his people, will then reign for ever (14, 26-27).

The attributes ascribed to the ‘son of man’ go far beyond anything ascribed to Nebuchadnezzar, or any other king in the ancient world. In the anxiety of subsequent scholars not to read more in the passage (Daniel 7:13-14 in particular) than was the supposed reconstructed view of Israel, gnats are strained and camels swallowed. A thoughtful reflection on the passage will ask the same question of the son of man figure as of Christ: what exactly was his status, and who exactly was he? I’m opting for the one which for me makes most sense of all the data: fully man and fully God.

Daniel 3:33 is the Masoretic text. It is 4:3 in the English versions. It’s missing from the LXX altogether. Don’t ask me why.

Nebuchadnezzar declares that YHWH’s “kingdom is an everlasting kingdom”. It doesn’t prove your point at all. Identification between the the Ancient of Days and the son of man figure is not “suggested” anywhere in the passage, and I don’t think I’ve ever come across a scholar who thinks that it is. The explicit claim is simply that kingdom is given to the son of man figure, who probably represents the persecuted saints of the Most High, against whom Antiochus made war. It so happens that I’ve just read exactly that argument in Robert Webb’s John the Baptizer and Prophet.

The Isaiah passages for Goldingay illustrate the nations’ service of Israel and thus, indirectly, of YHWH. Whether or not it happened exactly as described is one thing, but there is no reason to discount the political character of the vision. The expectation both in Isaiah and in Daniel is that the nation will be restored, that Jerusalem will be the centre of a new imperial arrangement, and that the nations will come to pay tribute to and serve the God of Israel by serving his people and perhaps his king.

“Humanlike figure” is more accurate than “human figure”: “one like a son of man” (ḵ-ḇr ʾnś, ὡς υἱὸς ἀνθρώπου)—which is why interpreters are able to identified the figure either with Michael or with Israel. In that regard, Ferguson is wrong: this son of man figure is not presented in Daniel as a “man in whom the true image of God shines forth”—that’s overloading it with too much extaneous theologising. But he is correct in saying that the man Jesus was “granted universal dominion for himself and his people”.

peter wilkinson | Mon, 07/18/2016 - 21:55 | Permalink

Ferguson is wrong: this son of man figure is not presented in Daniel as a “man in whom the true image of God shines forth”

— in your opinion. It’s also your opinion (and apparently that of Robert Webb), that

The explicit claim is simply that kingdom is given to the son of man figure, who probably represents the persecuted saints of the Most High, against whom Antiochus made war

This claim is rejected by Goldingay —

In the symbolic vision, the four creatures do not attack the humanlike figure, and the logic that makes them do so is the logic of allegory

I’m simply pointing out that there is nothing in the verses cited by Goldingay to disprove that there is at the very least an ambiguity in 7:13-14 about the identity of the son of man figure: language which is applied to YHWH is also applied to then son of man. You can’t just go on repeating that it is simply delegated authority when the language suggests otherwise.

The question which also arises with Jesus is to do with the very identity of the son of man. There is some sense in which he represents Israel, and some sense in which he is very much individual and not corporate. Goldingay looks at a range of options — which includes divine identity. For instance —

if the human figure is the anointed, the anointed as Daniel pictures him has a very transcendent dimension. If the idea of the anointed moves between a God pole and a human pole, this humanlike figure is at the former.

Overall, the problem with your interpretation is oversimplification, to fit your wider interpretive concerns. There is an identification of language between the Ancient of Days — the term itself suggesting something or someone with human characteristics, ie age (as Goldingay also considers) — and the son of man, and you need not to be quite so swift to dismiss it.

Well, since this is becoming a battle-by-Goldingay, here is the full quote about the “transcendent dimension”:

For the anointed one to be a heavenly figure would be a novel idea; by definition, the anointed one is an earthly descendant of David. The visionary portrayal of him coming with the clouds of the heavens might simply signify that he comes by God’s initiative and as his gift, without suggesting that he is in himself other than human. Moses enters the theophanic cloud in Exod 24:18, while Ps 2, after all, describes the anointed king as begotten by God and installed by God, without implying he is other than human. Nevertheless, if the humanlike figure is the anointed, the anointed as Daniel pictures him now has a very transcendent dimension. If the idea of the anointed moves between a God pole and a human pole, this humanlike figure is at the former…. (170)

I’m not sure I agree with this. The Ancient of Days has come to earth in order to judge the nations and vindicate Israel. It is not a judgment of heavenly powers in heaven. It is not said that the son of man takes one of the thrones or that he returns with God to heaven. This is partly why I think it is more likely that the figure is a symbol for righteous Israel (or perhaps a leader of Israel).

What is “really” happening in this vision is described in 7:21-22:

As I looked, this horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them, until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom. (Dan 7:21–22)

Antiochus IV makes war against the Jews (not against angels). God comes and passes judgment against Antiochus and in favour of righteous Israel. Some time after that the saints “possessed the kingdom”—presumably, as it turned out, a reference to the Hasmoneans.

But in any case, I would argue that the New Testament portrays Jesus as having been shifted to the “God pole” by virtue of having been seated at the right hand of God in heaven—in a “transcendent dimension”. That in itself does not constitute identification. This is what Goldingay is suggesting. A Davidic messiah—an anointed human—has been included in the function of divine rule over the nations.

The point about Antiochus making war against the saints is not rejected by Goldingay. What is says is:

The picture is of conflict and victory rather than affliction and suffering…. The verses describe the appearing, presentation, and investiture of someone notable and imposing, not the exaltation of a previously lowly figure. (171)

His point is that in the symbolic vision the son of man is not presented as a figure who has suffered—this is true; but he does represent Israel in this conflict. The beast does not directly attack the son of man figure. It attacks Israel, but the son of man figure coming with the clouds of heaven represents righteous Israel in its reception of the kingdom. Goldingay appears to lean towards the view that the son of man figure is angelic, but I don’t see any reason to rule out the idea that the son of man figure comes to the throne of God having suffered.

He explicitly rejects the suggestion that the “one like a son of man” is divine: “with any of these approaches, since the one advanced in years stands for God, it is difficult to attribute the same significance to this second figure” (171).

You can’t just go on repeating that it is simply delegated authority when the language suggests otherwise.

I repeat it because that’s exactly what the language suggests. It’s in the text: dominion, glory and kingdom, are “given” to him. Goldingay says that the son of man figure is “a symbol for some entity given authority by God” (168, my italics). What does “given” mean in this context if not delegated or transferred?

Goldingay again, clearly expressing delegation:

Ruling God’s world on God’s behalf, the humanlike figure fulfills the role once given to humanity as a whole at creation (Gen 1–2) and later bestowed on the king of Israel in particular (e.g., Ps 2). (190, my italics)

And in his Old Testament Theology 2 (435, my italics):

There is a parallel allusiveness in Daniel 7 when God grants the authority to reign. The other reigns, symbolized as animals, are replaced by Yhwh’s reign; God then gives this reign to someone who looks like a human being and who in some way stands for “a holy people on high,” whose rule will last forever….

peter wilkinson | Tue, 07/19/2016 - 18:35 | Permalink

The argument about the son of man being ‘given’ the kingdom is actually a non-argument. For instance, no-one who believes that Jesus is divine (ie the majority Christian view) questions that he was given the right to rule by God the Father, being raised from the dead by God the Father, and exalted to the Father’s ‘right hand’ (which is a metaphor, not a literal position).

Goldingay describes various alternatives on offer about the identity of the son of man, and is honest enough to concede that there is an enigmatic quality to him. He refers to 4 or 5 scholars who argue for his divinity, arguments which he rejects in each case, and the grounds of which I also reject. In one place Goldingay says that the son of man’s identity is less important than the role he plays, or what he does. That to me is evading the issue. Of course the identity of the son of man is important — especially in the form which Jesus gave to the concept when applying it to himself.

I return to the detail to which I was drawing attention — 7:13-14 in particular. The language not only gives the son of man divine attributes (those already given to the Ancient of Days), without differentiating his status, but as I’ve pointed out, uses the unique word ‘pelach’, which elsewhere in Daniel is used on eight occasions exclusively, and I think uniquely in the OT, of YHWH.

If we are agreed that the ‘son of man’ prophecy finds its fulfilment in Jesus, and is not simply used by Jesus to illustrate a parallel between himself and a 2nd century BC figure, then Jesus provides the interpretive key to the 7:13-14 prophecy. It would be odd if NT scholars (excluding yourself) did not notice the very close association between the son of man and divinity in the Daniel passage, whilst fully endorsing it in Jesus himself — the fulfilment of the ‘son of man’ figure.

Anyway, always nice to mull these things over with you, Andrew, even if we disagree. Your challenges to me in our exchanges here and elsewhere often have the unintended consequence of drawing my attention to striking details which strengthen rather than undermine my point of view. Here, it’s the unusual use of the verb ‘pelach’ in 7:14.

Also, I’ve had the Goldingay commentary on my shelf for a couple of years, but never really got round to reading it. Now that I’ve started, it’s one of those books which, in the words of N.T.Wright, having put down I find it hard pick up again. It requires some perseverance. But the perseverance rewards the effort. I’m in line with the overall thrusts of what Goldingay says about Daniel. The prophecy largely concerns 2nd century BC history. But Goldingay concedes that the use of allusive symbolism lends itself to other contexts and times, so it’s not altogether illegitimate to read associations with later times in the prophecies. How far you go down this route is a matter of debate.

But where did this particular series of exchanges begin? Somewhere back in a more distant time and place, a more innocent world perhaps, there was a discussion about chief agent figures. This may have been tangentially connected with the original post and the actual subject of the thread. I’m afraid I’ve long forgotten what that was.

What would be the reason/s for denying Christ’s Supreme Deity in that He is the proper recipient of “pelach”?