What N.T. Wright does with the early high christology of Hurtado, Tilling and Bauckham

Following the recent posts on “divine identity” christology, I have been urged to have a look at what N.T. Wright does with the argument in Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

Wright starts by tracing developments in Pauline christology in the modern era (644-53). The two competing “orthodoxies” of post-Enlightenment discourse have been: i) the reductionist view that Jesus was a great teacher who was mistakenly divinized by his followers at a later stage in a thoroughly Hellenistic context; and ii) the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus as simply God. In neither case is the proclamation of the coming kingdom of God taken into account. In the middle of the last century the dominant history-of-religions approach gave way to a new perspective that prioritized the Jewish origins and character of the New Testament. Within this new tradition opinion has divided between scholars who argue for an Early High Christology (Hurtado, Bauckham) and those who hold to a more “developmental” approach (Dunn, Casey, Vermes).

Wright aims to take the EHC argument a step further—in a way that effects some measure of reconvergence between the two strands, though he doesn’t put it in such terms. He accepts Hurtado’s thesis that it was the experience of the presence of the risen Christ that led the early Christians to worship Jesus and then develop a high christology through a rereading of the scriptures. Chris Tilling’s relational christology gets an approving mention in passing. But the more important hypothesis to emerge in recent explorations of early christology is Bauckham’s argument that Jesus is included in the unique “divine identity” of the one God.

In order to understand the phenomenon, however, the implicit narrative or eschatological element in Bauckham’s thesis needs to be developed—and at this point Wright’s hobby horse comes galloping down the street (see also 139-63). He holds that it was a central tenet of second temple Jewish monotheism that Israel’s God, having abandoned Jerusalem and the temple at the time of the exile, would one day return in person, in glory, to judge and save, to bring about a new exodus, to defeat his enemies, to establish his glorious presence in the midst of his people, and to “rule over the whole earth”. In other words, he would come back to be king. This act “was a vital part of what they believed about ‘divine identity’” (653). What the early Christians concluded was that this return had happened or was happening in Jesus:

…in his life, death and resurrection Jesus had accomplished the new exodus, had done in person what Israel’s God had said he would do in person. He had inaugurated God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. (655)

The return of Wisdom to Zion

Wright then argues that this return-of-YHWH-to-Zion narrative also appears in the literature of second temple Judaism in “Wisdom” categories. He thinks i) that Sirach 24 affirms the return of YHWH to the temple in the form of Wisdom; and ii) that Wisdom of Solomon has the idea that divine Wisdom was to be “invoked by Israel’s king as the key requirement for his promised worldwide rule”. Both aspects carry over into an early “Wisdom-christology”. Early Christians spoke both about “the strange and unexpected return of Israel’s God” and “the commissioning and equipment of the coming king”. It was the events concerning Jesus which compelled them to join these threads together.

So, if I’ve understood Wright correctly, his extension of Bauckham’s “identity christology” works as follows:

  • the narrative component in Bauckham’s account of second temple monotheism is pushed to the foreground;
  • the defining narrative in the period is the return-of-YHWH-to-Zion to restore his people and establish his worldwide rule;
  • the convergence of these two themes is pre-empted in Jewish Wisdom texts: Wisdom is both the mode of YHWH’s return to Zion and the means by which Israel’s king will rule;
  • Christians before Paul already interpreted Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in the light of this convergence;
  • Paul inherits this interpretation and “takes it forward in several giant leaps” (655).

Wright then goes on to discuss in some detail a number of passages that in his view show how Paul developed the initial eschatological-Wisdom insight (Gal. 4:1-11; Rom. 8:1-4; 1 Cor. 8-10; Col. 1; 2 Cor. 3-4; Phil. 2:6-11). These texts will have to wait. What surprises me is the flimsiness of the two claims made about Wisdom.

Ben Sirach 24

In Sirach 24 Wisdom boasts in the presence of God. She came from the mouth of God, was created by God, her throne was in heaven, she traversed the sky and walked in the depths of the sea. She searched for a place to take up residence among the nations, but was commanded by God to encamp in Jacob and to make Israel her inheritance. Wisdom was created from the beginning and she will never fail. She identifies herself with the high priest in the tabernacle and with the king in Jerusalem. She “took root among a glorified people”.

Wisdom invites all who desire her to come and “from my produce be filled”. But the supreme embodiment God’s Wisdom is the Law. The Law fills Wisdom, supplies understanding, and shines forth education like light. No one has grasped the full breadth of divine Wisdom.

The poem concludes with Wisdom’s promise that in the future she will flow abundantly to water her garden. She will again make education enlighten like the dawn. She will again pour out teaching like prophecy and leave it for subsequent generations. Ben Sirach concludes: “See that I have not toiled for myself alone but for all who seek it out.”

Does this amount to a restatement of the return-of-YHWH-to-Zion motif? I don’t see how it can be read that way. There is an “eschatological” dimension—possibly that the Wisdom originally given to Israel will overflow to the nations. But the return of YHWH to Zion is not part of the argument. If, as Wright notes (106), Wisdom now consists in Torah, then the most that may be claimed is that Torah returns to Zion. But in the account of Israel’s history with which the book ends, neither Wisdom nor the Law plays any part in the return from exile. Ezekiel sees a vision of glory; the prophets redeem Jacob in confidence of hope; and Zerubbabel and Joshua “built a house and raised a holy shrine to the Lord, prepared for everlasting glory” (Sir. 49:8-12). That’s it.

Wisdom of Solomon 9

Solomon prays that YHWH will give him “wisdom that sits by you on your throne”. Wisdom was present when God made the world. She understands “what is right according to your commandments”. Solomon asks YHWH to send Wisdom “from your glorious throne” that she may labour in the king’s presence and that he may “learn what is well-pleasing before you”. In other words, very simply, Solomon asks for the wisdom of God so that he will judge Israel justly and be “worthy of the throne of my father”. It is just one example of how people have always been taught by Wisdom—Adam, Noah, Abraham, Lot, and so on.

Again there is an eschatological dimension to the text. The righteous who have been killed by the unrighteous will shine out in the time of their visitation; they will “judge nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will be king over them for ever” (3:8). They are “counted amongst divine sons”; they will live for ever, they will receive a glorious crown (5:5, 15-16). The Lord will put on his armour and avenge them. This is made a warning to the kings of the earth: they received their dominion from the Lord, and he will hold them accountable. “He will examine your deeds and inquire into your counsels, because, being servants of his kingdom, you did not judge rightly or keep the law or walk according to the counsel of God” (Wis. 6:3–4). Therefore, they should learn wisdom.

But Solomon is not himself cast as an eschatological ruler. He is put forward as a model of wise rule for the rulers of the earth. The kings of the nations should also learn to rule wisely and in particular should not persecute the righteous. Otherwise they will be held accountable on a day of judgment when the God of Israel will destroy the idols and save the righteous. Wright notes a reminiscence of Psalm 2:10 in chapter 6: “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth” (660). But what we don’t find in Wisdom of Solomon is just that element of Psalm 2 that made it such an important text for the early Christians: the participation of Israel’s king in YHWH’s rule over the nations.

In fact, it is the martyrs who most nearly embody the eschatological claim. As in Daniel, they are “the wise”, to whom will be given authority to judge and rule over the nations (Wis. 4:16-17; cf. Dan. 7:27; 11:33-35). But this introduces a corporate dimension that is hard to square with the early high christology thesis.

Have I missed something?

This has been a quick review of the argument, and I may well have missed something. But for now I fail to see why Wright thinks it helpful to reformulate the eschatological argument in Wisdom terms. I agree that an early high christology must, in the first place, take account of the story that is being told about what YHWH is doing, though I am not persuaded that the return-from-exile motif is as significant as Wright thinks: the high christology of the New Testament draws primarily on narratives of coming judgment and rule, such as Psalm 2; 110; Daniel 7. It is also clear that Jewish stories about Wisdom will account for important secondary aspects of New Testament christology. But I do not think that Wright has shown that Wisdom has a decisive bearing on the two themes identified—the return of YHWH to Zion and the worldwide rule of God. Whether this can be shown from the Pauline texts despite the lack of support from the Jewish literature remains to be seen.

Submitted by peter on  Thu, 12/18/2014 - 10:30

I wonder if you are making Wright say rather more than he actually does about wisdom.

His observation on Ben Sirach is that, in the context of 2nd Temple Judaism’s interest in YHWH’s return to the temple, Ben Sirach  says that Israel’s God had already returned in the form of Wisdom through the Torah.

Wright then says that, in the Wisdom of Solomon, “wisdom was to be invoked by Israel’s king as the key requirement for his promised worldwide rule” (655). I’ll have to take your word for it that Wisdom of Solomon does not actually say speak of a worldwide rule, or at least only says it indirectly through warnings to other world rulers. 

Wright goes on to say that the “divine Wisdom”

“is one way in which some 2nd Temple Jews and then many early Christians spoke of the strange and unexpected return of Israel’s God … and the commissioning and equipment of the coming king” (655).

Maybe the latter (2nd Temple jews) has not been qute so clearly demonstrated from these texts.

Wright then says, more significantly to my mind, that “all these themes (ie drawn from Ben Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon) spill over into each other:  … exodus, redemption, tabernacle, presence, return, wisdom, kingship”.

In other words, the discussion is not simply about wisdom in isolation, but its significance in relation to other 2nd Temple return themes. These are certainly taken up in Jesus the Messiah, and, as Wright has observed, have only before been spoken of in identification with YHWH as executor, but now the identification as executor is Jesus. I think you are going to have to provide stronger grounds than you have so far done for saying that Jesus was appointed by YHWH as a human delegate to execute these functions, and not in fact part of the divine identity of YHWH himself.

This would be my defence of Wright at this point. You might say that he implies much more about wisdom than the 2nd Temple Judaism texts themselves warrant, when it is singled out as an isolated theme. I’m not sure that is the case. We’ll see what the NT texts have to say.

Corrections: ”Maybe the former …” (para 6) , and certainly “Wisdom of Solomon does not actually speak of (but not say)”    (para 3).

When I said “I wonder if you are making Wright say rather more than he actually does about wisdom” (para 1), I suppose the obvious response, from your point of view, would be that Wright is making Ben Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon say rather more about return-from-exile than they do. Maybe, in this instance, less is not more when applying a return-from-exile interpretation to Wisdom texts.

In other words, the discussion is not simply about wisdom in isolation, but its significance in relation to other 2nd Temple return themes. 

No, the discussion is about whether second temple Judaism spoke of YHWH’s return to Zion in the form of Wisdom in such a way that any identification of Jesus with Wisdom may be taken as an identification of Jesus with YHWH returning to Zion. Ben Sirach neither identifies Wisdom with YHWH nor frames Wisdom’s presence in Israel with the return-from-exile narrative. If the modern interpreter reads through spectacles misted over with dogma, it’s easy enough to think that these blurred concepts merge together to demonstrate some sort of direct divine identity. But as far as I can see, the texts don’t support the argument—and it has to be said that Wright is surprisingly vague in his exegesis of Ben Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon.

So there is nothing in the texts considered that supports or explains a divine identity christology. In Ben Sirach Wisdom is created by God and commanded by God to reside in Israel. If there is an implicit return-from-exile-narrative, it is simply insofar as the Jews (obviously) brought the Law—the embodiment of God’s Wisdom—back with them from Babylon. But this is not what Ben Sirach is trying to say, and in any case, it hardly helps Wright argue that some second temple Jews were still waiting for the return from exile to be completed.

These are certainly taken up in Jesus the Messiah, and, as Wright has observed, have only before been spoken of in identification with YHWH as executor, but now the identification as executor is Jesus. I think you are going to have to provide stronger grounds than you have so far done for saying that Jesus was appointed by YHWH as a human delegate to execute these functions, and not in fact part of the divine identity of YHWH himself.

It seems to me that the burden of proof lies with the EHC advocates. The New Testament ascribes certain tasks and functions to Jesus that previously were reserved for YHWH alone. Agreed. But the explicit justification for this is invariably that God appointed him or gave authority to him, in accordance with statements about kingdom in the Psalms and Daniel. This is what the texts actually say, and it fully accounts for the data. There is no need, in this respect, for the divine identity hypothesis—not at this level of exegesis.

“I think you are going to have to provide stronger grounds than you have so far done for saying that Jesus was appointed by YHWH as a human delegate to execute these functions, and not in fact part of the divine identity of YHWH himself.”

On the contrary, it’s divine identity that must be established, a term invented by Bauckham (supported w/ slight variance by Wright) to try in earnest to link the HC concepts and language of the creeds with the NT texts.  It’s precisely the NT texts that undoubtedly teach that Jesus was appointed as a human delegate to execute YHWH functions, whatever else he was. 

Hi Charles,

Have you seen Dale Tuggy’s critique of Bauckham’s proposal and its fundamental flaw from a logical perspective?  Theologians can be the worst logicians.