Alastair Roberts asks, “Where is the Trinity in the Old Testament?” He is quite candid about the fact that the “philosophical cast and categories of these later disputes transposed the biblical material into very different idioms and discourses animated by rather different concerns”; and he warns against the danger of “retrojecting a developed philosophical doctrine of the Trinity into texts operating within a very different horizon”.
But he thinks that there is at least a conceptual preparation for the idea of a pre-existent divine Christ in a figure such as the “angel of the Lord”, and he lists a number of New Testament passages which suggest, in his view, that when Christ finally appears, “he comes as a silhouetted figure who has been active in salvation and judgment throughout Israel’s history, finally stepping into the light.” Eloquently said, but unconvincing in my view. Let’s go through the list.
1. The Synoptic Gospels portray Jesus as one who has been sent by God and who comes, but the obvious way to understand this is in the terms of Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants (Mk. 12:1-9). The son is sent from the same place as the servants to perform the same task—to get some of the fruit of the vineyard for the master. When he comes to the vineyard, he is taken and killed and thrown out of the vineyard. There is obviously much more to be said about the matter (see, for example, Simon Gathercole’s The Pre-existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and a couple of posts here that discuss it), but I would argue that the parable is decisive. Jesus is not at any point likened to an angel sent from heaven.
2. Demons recognise Jesus not because they have encountered him before—in Israel’s past, or in the heavenly realms—but because they are servants of the prince of demons, who challenged Jesus self-understanding as the Son of God in the wilderness (Mk. 1:24; 3:22-23).
3. I’m not sure why Roberts thinks that in John 1:51 Jesus identifies himself with someone or something in Jacob’s vision of a ladder between earth and heaven, on which the angels of God are ascending and descending (Gen. 28:12). Nathanael acclaims Jesus as “Son of God… King of Israel.” Jesus’ response is that he will see “heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” For Jacob the vision was a ratification of the promise of the land (Gen. 28:13-14). Jesus means, presumably, that the renewal of God’s new-creation-people-in-microcosm will come about through the suffering of the Son of Man. This is typology, not a claim to pre-existence.
4. The transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain identifies him as the chosen Son or servant of YHWH, appointed at his baptism, who will follow the path of suffering to be glorified within a generation as the vindicated Son of Man (Lk. 9:26-36). Both the Law and the prophets—Moses and Elijah—bear witness to the truth of the vision (Lk. 9:30-31; cf. 24:27). God appears in the account, speaking from heaven, as the one who confirms this (Lk. 9:35). Jesus remains distinct from God as the “chosen” Son. Nothing, as far as I can see, points to his pre-existence.
5. Roberts also cites John 1:14-18 in this connection. This is a problematic passage in all sorts of ways. John asserts clearly enough that the creative Word or Wisdom of God “became flesh”, arguably as a way of speaking about the baptism of Jesus. Whether pre-existence is attributed to Jesus beyond that is not so clear. The glory witnessed by his disciples belongs to the present and the future; it does not derive from his past. When Peter says that the disciples were “eyewitnesses of his majesty”, the reference is to the “honour and glory” which he “received” (labōn) at the transfiguration, when he was confirmed by God as the beloved Son or servant (2 Pet. 1:16-17). John has Jesus repeatedly say that his glory is not his own, it comes from God (Jn. 7:18; 8:54; 11:4; 17:5, 22, 24). The textual and translational difficulties presented by John 1:18 are manifold.
6. According to the ESV translation of Jude 5, the author reminds his readers that “Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 1:5). Bauckham notes that most manuscripts have kyrios but a few important manuscripts have Iēsous; he opts for “Lord” rather than “Jesus”.1 In the version of this passage in 2 Peter 2:4-10 the author of salvation and judgment is unambiguously God.
If “Jesus” is the correct reading, however, we should perhaps understand the salvation of a people from Egypt and subsequent destruction of those who did not believe figuratively. If the letter is late first century, we may even suppose that this destruction is a reference to AD 70. Jesus has done what God did at the exodus—he has redeemed his people and has destroyed those who did not believe. The parallel destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah explicitly serves “as an example” (Jude 7); and Jude says that his opponents “walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion” (Jude 1:11). This literary fluidity between the two contexts would readily account for the apparent insertion of “Jesus” into the Old Testament narrative. I think a similar typology may be operative in the reference to the “days of Noah” in 1 Peter 3:20 (cf. 2 Pet. 2:5).
7. There is some consensus among commentators that “Christ” is more likely than “Lord” in 1 Corinthians 10:9-10 on textual grounds. But the passage needs to be read carefully: “We should not test (ekpeirazōmen) Christ as some of them tested (epeirasan) and were destroyed by the serpents.” The repetition of the verb in the less intense form and the definite article with “snakes” suggests a reference back to the narrative of verse 5: “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” The implicit object of epeirasan is “God”: we should not test Christ in the way that they tested God and were overthrown.
8 John regards the disbelief of the Jews as fulfilment of two statements in Isaiah; his understanding is that Isaiah “said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (Jn. 12:37-41). Given the references to the glory of God in Isaiah 6:1, 3 LXX, which immediately precedes the passage quoted in John 12:40, it is often assumed that John means that Isaiah saw the glory of Jesus in the temple.
But there is no obvious connection between seeing the glory in the temple and speaking about the unbelief of the Jews. The warning about disbelief belongs to the sending of Isaiah, not to the vision, the purpose of which is to impress upon Isaiah his unworthiness. It seems to me preferable, therefore, to understand “he saw his glory and spoke of him” as forward looking or prophetic: John is only saying that Isaiah made these statements about unbelief because he foresaw how Jesus’ glory would be revealed in the face of Jewish opposition.
The preceding quotation of Isaiah 53:1 then sets the tone: people have not believed what they have heard; the servant of YHWH had no obvious beauty, he was “despised and rejected by men”; but this was precisely the ground of his glory. This forward looking perspective is then confirmed by the comment regarding those who did not confess their belief in Jesus for fear of the Pharisees, “for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (Jn. 12:43).
9. Jesus does not identify himself with a pre-existent individual known as the “Son of Man”. In an apocalyptic vision Daniel sees a figure in human form, “one like a son of man”, coming with the clouds of heaven to stand before the throne of God (Dan. 7:13-14). This figure represents a new kingdom that will replace the old pagan kingdoms of the Ancient Near East, represented by violent beasts. The vision is interpreted for Daniel by one the heavenly beings in attendance at this judgment scene. The “son of man” figure, as I read it, stands for those Jews who remain faithful to the covenant during the period of Antiochus Epiphanes’ vicious attempt to suppress Jewish religion.
Jesus takes this symbolic narrative and applies it to himself and to his followers as a way of saying—not least to the Jewish Council—that he will be vindicated by events and will receive the vineyard of Israel as his inheritance (Mk. 13:24-26; 14:62). When Stephen sees the “heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56), he simply confirms the truth of Jesus’ response to Caiaphas.
The list is not exhaustive, but presumably Roberts presents these as among the best examples. The misreading arises largely, I think, because the Jewish authors of the New Testament naturally interpret the person and authority of Jesus by means of Old Testament antecedents—that is, broadly typologically. If we bring to this intertextuality a “developed philosophical doctrine of the Trinity”, it’s very easy to mistake the typology for a real reference to the pre-existent Jesus.
Much too simplistic, I know. But you have to try….
- 1. R.J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter (1983), 43.