I am in solid agreement with Matthew Bates that the central narrative of the New Testament—the narrative which makes sense of the “gospel”—has to do with the enthronement of Jesus as king by his resurrection from the dead and his ascension to the right hand of the Father.
Two areas of disagreement have surfaced so far:
- Bates is trying to read the New Testament at a cosmic level, guided by theological interests, whereas I think it needs to be read at a political level, from a more rigorously historical perspective.
- Bates is firmly of the opinion that the story begins with the pre-existence and incarnation of Jesus—this was already apparent from his discussion of Paul’s gospel. I don’t deny that these ideas are part of the New Testament witness, but I think they arise from an association of Jesus with divine wisdom rather than from the Jewish hope of kingdom.
Both of these issues can probably be tied to Bates’ broader objectives, which are, it appears, to engage in the theological controversy about justification and to offer an accessible mainstream alternative to the narrow modern-Reformed focus on a gospel of personal salvation.
In chapter three of Salvation by Allegiance Alone he sets out to show how Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel fits the storyline. The discussion of the confrontation with Caiaphas, which I will get to next, is excellent, but he begins with some dubious arguments about the pre-existence and incarnation, which I want to look at here.
To be fair, I should really take into consideration his book on the Trinity,1 but I don’t have it, so we’ll have to make do with these brief statements.
The pre-existent beloved Son?
Bates thinks that the words heard from heaven at Jesus’ baptism are an allusion to Psalm 2, in which ‘the person identified as the Messiah… and as Son… reports a prior conversation, at which time God said to this Son, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”’ (56). Bates suggests that Jesus may have taken “You are my Son” as “indicative of his preexistent status alongside God”.
For both Paul and the author of Hebrews, however, Psalm 2:7 is a “prophecy” not of Jesus’ birth but of his resurrection:
this he has fulfilled… by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’ (Acts 13:33; cf. Heb. 1:5; 5:5)
It describes the moment of the king’s enthronement, who then only needs to ask and he will be given the nations to rule with a rod of iron. There is no “prior conversation” as such; the king simply reminds the kings of the earth (Ps. 2:10-12) that at his enthronement he was promised the nations as his heritage.
So is Psalm 2:7 relevant for Jesus’ baptism? I don’t think so. The voice from heaven alludes rather to Isaiah 42:1:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him….
At his baptism Jesus is identified as the Son/servant who is anointed by the Spirit and sent to the vineyard of Israel “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Is. 42:7).
There is no implication of pre-existence here.
The declaration at Jesus’ baptism is repeated at the transfiguration:
And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” (Mk. 9:7)
The voice reaffirms Jesus as the servant of YHWH, but we now know that his mission will run the course of the Son of Man narrative, culminating in the Son of Man coming “in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mk. 8:38).
Bates thinks that the glory revealed on the mountain six days later “suggests his heavenly origin” (56). In context, it seems to me much more likely that it suggests the heavenly destiny of the one who must first suffer many things. The transfiguration points forward to the parousia, when the Son of Man, who will be given kingdom and glory, will be revealed to Israel and, eventually, to the nations.
No pre-existence required.
The Lord said to my lord…
The argument here is that the historical Jesus would have understood Psalm 110:1 as a conversation between David and God about a pre-existent Messiah:
And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” (Mk. 12:35–37)
But the obvious way to read this, surely, is to suppose that Jesus thought that David was prophesying the future enthronement of a greater king. David is not talking about a king who is being installed in office in his own time—that would make no sense.
Jesus’ point was simply that Israel’s messianic ruler would transcend the historical line of David because he would reign not for a limited period of time in Jerusalem but throughout the coming ages at the right hand of God.
So again there is no thought of pre-existence.
Bates proposes a translation of Psalm 110:3, drawing on the Septuagint, that he thinks supports a comparison with Psalm 2:7 and the idea that a pre-existent messiah is begotten into the family of David:
Rule in the midst of your enemies…; from the womb, before the dawn-bearing morning star appeared, I begot you. (58).
But even supposing that this was how the Hebrew text was read at the time of Jesus, it’s not at all clear how it would have connoted pre-existence. Why is not “from the womb”, which Bates rather ignores, not simply a reference to the natural birth of the king?
Or if there is really a link with Psalm 2:7, why not read it as a reference to the resurrection/ascension of Jesus rather than his birth? The begetting of Israel’s king is a figure for enthronement.
The virgin birth
Finally, Bates asserts that “the virgin birth complements both of the first two elements of the gospel, Jesus’ preexistence with God the Father and his taking on human flesh in the line of David” (59).
I think the argument about pre-existence is based on a misreading of the sonship texts. The story that emerges is of the Son who is the obedient, anointed servant of YHWH, who is sent to Israel, just as prophets were sent before, who will suffer as the Son of Man but will be raised, vindicated, glorified, and who will be enthroned at the right hand of God to rule over his enemies throughout the coming ages. That seems to me to account fully for the evidence.
As for the virgin birth, my argument has been that by connecting Jesus’ conception with the birth of a son to Isaiah, who will be called Immanuel, Matthew is saying only that it will likewise be a sign that God is with his people to judge and deliver.
There is no thought of incarnation.
The real point lies in the giving of a prophetically significant name: “you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).
- 1M.W. Bates, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in the New Testament and early Christian Interpretation of the Old Testament (OUP, 2015).
I tend to agree that a predisposition to find and affirm the later theology of pre-existence developed through the conciliar agreements is not helpful in understanding the NT. Still, there are theological statements that transcend mere historical concerns in the NT that have to been fully integrated into even narrative historical understanding of the NT.