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More on the divinity of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels

This post is really just for the good folks—Marv in particular—at the Theologica forum, who have been earnestly discussing my views on the virgin birth and my perceived cageyness regarding the divinity of Jesus. Marv has responded to the complaint that the defenders of orthodoxy are unwilling to discuss the actual analysis of the text with a lengthy and, I think, constructive comment that can be found here. It deserves a proper response.

Let me say, first, that I am all in favour of “orthodoxy”, but I am inclined to think that biblical orthodoxy should take precedence over theological orthodoxy. Or to put it another way, I see no reason why the philosophically informed reading of the New Testament that prevailed in the fourth century should be regarded as a more reliable guide to interpretation than a historically informed reading in the twenty-first century. I think that the historical reading of the New Testament—quest for the historical Jesus, New Perspective, etc.—has brought us to the point at which we at least have to ask the question whether formulae generated under the peculiar intellectual conditions of early Christendom still offer the best way of making sense of the narrative of Christian origins. That is another debate. For now I want to focus on Marv’s argument with respect to the Synoptic Gospels.

The “Son of Man” arises from Daniel and indicates a glorious personage, though I am not prepared to say that this is a non-divine person. Indeed he is introduced in Daniel as “one like a son of man.” And he also has an “everlasting dominion.”

Subsequent apocalyptic tradition may have regarded this “son of man” figure as a divine person—that is a matter of some dispute, and there is more than one way of construing “divine”. But with regard to Daniel 7 it seems a difficult position to maintain. Elsewhere in the Old Testament “son of man” always signifies a human figure (cf. Ps. 8:4), even in explicit opposition to God (eg. Num. 23:19). In Daniel 7 this figure stands for the persecuted saints of the Most High (Dan. 7:21-22, 27), in contrast to the ferocious beast-kingdoms that emerge from the chaos of the sea. The faithful community is given an “everlasting kingdom” (7:27), so clearly this is no argument for divinity.

This is prophecy, and the full import of its meaning can be known only after fulfillment. The prophets themselves “inquir[ed] what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.”

This is true, but surely what we need to ask is: How does the New Testament determine the “full import” of the meaning of Daniel 7 for understanding Jesus? Marv dismisses the views of Jewish scholars (I’m not sure who he has in mind), but does he want to argue that Jesus and the mostly Jewish writers of the New Testament were incapable of reading Daniel 7 according to its original literary and historical context? Did they not understand that the “son of man” figure was a symbol for faithful Israel which would be vindicated before the throne of YHWH and given authority to rule the nations? Nothing in the New Testament, as far as I can see, leads us to conclude that Jesus as Son of Man was anything other than the embodiment of faithful Israel, to whom authority was given to rule the nations (along with those who would suffer and be vindicated in him), which incidentally is a central theme in The Coming of the Son of Man.

I deny that I am reading anything in. We know that it is true, that Christ is God incarnate. And this being true, was true at the annunciation. So if we are tempted to read nothing more in the angel’s words than that Christ was to be an exalted (mere) human, we are going to be making a crucial mistake in our understanding of the angel’s import.

This beats me. Historic orthodoxy tells us that Jesus was God incarnate. If we know that, then the angel must have known it. Therefore, when the angel said to Mary that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit and that he would be called the “Son of God”, he must have meant rather more than what the words actually mean in their context. Really? With all due respect to Marv, this is not a good way to do biblical interpretation. How is this different from putting words in the angel’s mouth? How does it count as a high view of scripture? Are we claiming to know better than the angel? Yes, you said that, but what you really meant was….

By making this a proof-text for the incarnation, we miss the whole point of what the angel was trying to communicate to Mary, which was that the exceptional circumstances of Jesus’ conception were a sign that this child was the Son of the Most High, who would receive the “throne of his father David” and would “reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:32-33). It’s all there in the text. No “reading in” needed. This is why people like Tom Wright and Scot McKnight have to work so hard to bring the “King Jesus” gospel back into focus. Historic orthodoxy, for all its merits as a systematic formulation of Christendom beliefs, can sometimes get in the way of a clear understanding of the New Testament.

I assume, moreover, that Matthew understood by the name “Immanuel” exactly what Isaiah understood by the name “Immanuel”, which is that the birth would be a sign that YHWH was with his people both to judge and to save.

Whatever one can say about the understanding of the term “Son of God” in the Judaism of that day, we also need to understand that Matthew was an apostle and walked with Jesus during His earthly ministry. We have no excuse for starting from the premise that he was a Christologically-naive writer.

But the only Jesus that we know Matthew knew is the one that he writes about in his Gospel; and the only Matthew that we know of was as much a Jew “of that day” as any other, if not more so. He may well have believed that Jesus was God incarnate. But he does not appear to have written that belief into his Gospel, presumably because he was seeking to be true to the historical Jesus as he knew him or as tradition remembered him. That does not preclude the possibility that through its encounter with the risen Jesus the early church reached the proper conclusion that he was divine. That is another matter. It is simply to make the point that the writers of the Synoptic Gospels did not set out to prove that Jesus was God incarnate. They set out to prove that Jesus was Israel’s king.

If we suppose these works to be fiction we may—indeed must—isolate them from one another.

No, if we suppose them to be historical, then we have to respect the proper literary-historical boundaries within texts and between texts. There is no reason to think that Matthew expected his Gospel to be read in the light of the Johannine tradition. I don’t think it is right to dissolve these boundaries in the interest of maintaining theological tradition. If we want to keep the orthodox affirmations, we have to find a better way of justifying them, not at the expense of exegetical integrity.

None of this negates in the least that He is also personally divine.

No one is arguing that the story we encounter in the Synoptics of Jesus as a “human anointed with the Spirit of God” negates the view that he was also “personally divine”. The argument is that there is very little, if anything, in the Synoptics—and we’re only talking about the Synoptics here—that can be taken as a positive, unequivocal argument for the divinity of Jesus.

Things are attributed to this “Son of God,” and this “King of Israel” that would never be said of any mere human king. This is a Man unlike any man that had every lived.

That we have an understanding of the Trinity already, even before the later formulations, is evident in passages such as Christ’s baptism in Matt. 3:16-17 in which the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are simultaneously manifest. The words from heaven indicate rather more than a mere exalted human.

Well, no, the words do not “indicate rather more than a mere exalted human”—but there is nothing “mere” about Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of the Father to reign on his behalf throughout the coming ages as Israel’s king. Nor is the baptism of Jesus evidence for the Trinity: many individuals are given the Spirit of God in the Old Testament, but this does not make them members of the godhead. Even the supposed Trinitarian formula in Matthew 28:19 can only be parsed to something like: “in the name of the Father who appoints, in the name of the Son who is given the kingdom, and in the name of the Spirit of prophecy and covenant renewal”.

So I’m afraid I have to disagree with Marv’s conclusion that “the data rather indicates the divinity of Christ is an underlying concept in the gospel of Matthew”. I greatly appreciate the trouble he (and others) have taken to engage with the argument—and their willingness to pursue the debate beyond the entry-requirement of a profession of orthodoxy. But I am strongly of the opinion that if we are going to profess a biblically Trinitarian belief, we have to do so by way of what Matthew and Luke say, rather than by way of what they do not say.

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