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.