My response to deon’s two lengthy and thoughtful comments (see the last piece on Jesus as Alpha and Omega) on how the narrative-historical approach potentially distorts crucial elements of New Testament christology has grown rather long, so I have posted it separately. But it remains a response to comments on another post and may not make too much sense in isolation. It was also done in a bit of a hurry, so it may not make much sense at all. I’ve slightly edited deon’s text.
…the application of this method appears to derive a narrative that, unless I am mistaken, demands exclusivity. Not only that but, it tends to largely ignore/redefine significant positions within the narrative simply because of disagreement with the theology it imposesgenerated.
I take it that there is a dominant prophetic-apocalyptic narrative in the New Testament, which runs through the Synoptic Gospels, Acts, the letters of Paul, the writer to the Hebrews, Peter, James and Jude, to Revelation. It is the story of how YHWH would reform his people and win the allegiance of the nations of the Greek-Roman world.
The Gospel of John is different, it shows very little interest in this narrative, for whatever reason. To my way of reading it, John has retold the story of Jesus around the central thought of Jesus’ intimate relationship with the Father—though the other idea is not entirely obliterated: ‘Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”’ (John 1:49).
So I take the point about ignoring/redefining significant positions within the narrative, but as far as the dominant tradition is concerned, it seems to me to be remarkably coherent. Everyone else in the New Testament is singing from the same hymn sheet.
The same can be said of John 1 or 1 John 1 that clearly point to not only eternal existence of who incarnated as the Christ but also is clearly regarded as God.
That may be the case. I think John stands apart as a very different account of Jesus’ significance, notwithstanding his attention to historical details. But I would also want to ask 1) whether “in the beginning” is a reference to creation or to new creation; and 2) how “the Word became flesh” differs from “God became flesh” or “Jesus became flesh” or “the Son became flesh”. But this is a whole other debate.
So, with the apostles being 1st century Jews it’s astounding that they would have such comfort and conviction in their very strange appropriation of terms and phrases for Jesus that leaves Him so close to God that a debate on His deity could even exist. It had never been done before. For John to open his letter with such a profound, confounding, yet very direct statement says volumes. More than you appear to give it credit for.
Yes, but that’s John, and is he representative of the outlook of the first century Jewish apostles? I don’t think so. There are passages in Paul and Hebrews that may point in the same direction, but on closer examination it seems to me that they are actually saying something else. That’s all debatable. In any case, such perceptions are fully subordinate to the prophetic-apocalyptic narrative about Jesus as Israel’s king.
The church came to build its core theology largely on John’s Gospel, so it is natural that it has been the primary lens for most readers. But my argument is that it is a very distorting lens. I think that our popular theologising generally gives far too much weight to John, and that much of the cognitive dissonance that people experience comes from trying to read the rest of the New Testament, in all its sweeping narrative complexity, as a gloss on the idea that God so loved the world that he became flesh and/or sent his Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life.
For that same John to describe Jesus ascribing to Himself such divine prerogatives as “Alpha and Omega” without inserting an explanation that this was not an equating with the Father is astounding.
This gets at what is perhaps the central christological issue. Why do we suppose that this amounts to an equation of identity? It’s the same with the kyrios argument. Is Jesus Lord because he is identified with YHWH or because he has been given the authority by YHWH to act as Kyrios?
When the Psalmist says, ‘The Lord said to my lord, “Sit on my right until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet” (Ps. 109:1 LXX), he is thinking of two distinct persons: YHWH and his king, whose right to rule in the midst of his enemies has been established by YHWH. There is no confusion of identities, and this is perhaps the most important Old Testament text for understanding the relation between God and the risen Christ.
To say that Jesus is “Alpha and Omega” only means that he has certain attributes in common with God, namely that he is the beginning and end of something. We could say that both God and Jesus are “good”, but that would not mean that they are identified, only that they share a characteristic. I would suggest that in the kingdom-narrative context Jesus has been made “Alpha and Omega” by God—an extraordinary privilege indeed!—in the same way that he was made “Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36) or appointed judge over the pagan world (Acts 17:31) or designated Son of God in power (Rom. 1:4) or given the name which is above every name (Phil. 2:9-11). These are the explicit statements that we find throughout the New Testament, and they should be given priority.
Why is this aspect of the narrative less significant?
It’s less significant because the New Testament makes it less significant. In John’s Gospel in particular we have a clear stepping stone to the developed trinitarian theology of the Fathers, but the later development has obscured the overriding and extremely important historical thrust of the dominant prophetic-apocalyptic tradition, which is that the God of Israel was about the take over running of the empire. The “politics” of the story gets swamped, albeit for good historical reasons, by the Platonising developments of the patristic period.
I would say, many would agree, that the Jews of Jesus day employed a similar approach to the narrative historical method to understanding scripture. This is the very reason why they could not truly accept who He was. Who He was did not align with who they exegetically believed the messiah would be.
This is an interesting point, but I’m not sure I agree with it. I would argue that the controlling prophetic-apocalyptic narrative remains pretty much the same between Judaism and “Christianity”. It is the story about kingdom. How will God judge and restore his sinful and oppressed people? How will he establish his own rule over the nations? John, as I say, is not much interested in that narrative, but it is everywhere else in the New Testament.
The problem that the Jews had was with the claim that a man rejected by the leaders of Israel and subjected to a degrading death at the hands of unclean Gentiles had been raised from the dead and given the authority to execute the kingdom programme. “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone” (Acts 4:11).
In this dominant storyline, we don’t hear the Jews protesting that Jesus’ followers identified him with God. What troubles them is the assertion that he has been granted the right to act as kyrios at the right hand of God. They refuse to accept Jesus as king.
What I do see in the New Testament is primary sources referring to Jesus in a litany of ways, including but not limited to His divinity. And when these are mentioned it’s taken as matter of fact rather than a point of contention or ambiguity. Just as in our churches today we will call Jesus the Lamb of God and the King of Kings and then the Alpha and Omega and then discuss his humanity all side by side without flinching or feeling the need to explain how one doesn’t invalidate the other.
I think this “litany” model is misleading because it is controlled by the traditional christological dichotomy between a divine and human Jesus. It assumes that some of the titles and names refer to his divinity, some to his humanity. But “Lamb of God”, “King of kins”, and I would argue “Alpha and Omega” are all references to the human Jesus. “Son of God” and “Son of Man” are not titles for Jesus’ divine and human nature. They speak of the authority given to him to rule over his own people and over the nations—“Son of man” only adds the idea that Jesus gains this authority because he was persecuted both by his own people and by the Gentiles.
What defines Jesus, and what gives meaning to the “titles”, is the prophetic-apocalyptic narrative. He is the one sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, who was rejected by his own people, who was killed, who was raised and exalted to the right hand of God, and who will sooner or later judge and rule over both Israel and the nations.
When Jesus was killed for blaspheming by calling God His own Father not one disciple I have read added the footnote…
Surely even in John it is clear that Jesus was crucified not for making himself God but for making himself the “Son of God”, that is “king of the Jews”:
The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” … From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” … So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” (John 19:7, 12, 21)