Historical Origin of Divine Christology. Part 1 – Apostolic Christology vs Mythological Christology

Mythological Christology
Some critics of Christianity assert that the doctrine of the deity of Christ was imposed on the church by Emperor Constantine during the Council of Nicaea (325 AD). Presumably, the early church in the first century began with a lower view of Jesus as an itinerant teacher and apocalyptic prophet of God. However, Jesus was gradually elevated to a higher status as Christianity spread through the Roman Empire. Christianity was loosened from its monotheistic Jewish roots when the new Hellenistic Christian communities surpassed the early Judaistic Christian community. A higher Christology evolved with adoption of elements of pagan religions. The result is the deification of Jesus Christ.

This theory has its roots in the “history of religions school” (Religionsgeschichtliche Schule) in Germany in the 19th century. The school extended its influence into the USA through the seminal works of Wilhelm Bousset, Kyrios Christos (1913) and Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934). High profile scholars like Bart Ehrman are essentially theorizing from the framework of Bauer’s theory even as they speculate further that the deification of Jesus Christ was accelerated, purportedly under the influence of Jewish angelology.

The use of sophisticated concepts derived from evolutionary cultural analysis and naturalistic historical criticism to reconstruct the process of the transformation of Jesus from a merely human prophet to a divine being may impress uninformed readers. But this does not hide the fact that these critics are claiming that the doctrine of the deity of Christ is fundamentally based on mythologies of the ancient Mediterranean world. It is appropriate to describe the Christology of these critical scholars as “Mythological Christology.”

However, other scholars like Richard Bauckham, Martin Hengel and Larry Hurtado reject the historical reconstruction of Mythological Christology. Hengel who displays an exhaustive knowledge of the primary literature on the interaction between Judaism and Hellenism in his two-volume work, Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in their Encounter in Palestine During the Early Hellenistic Period (Fortress, 1974), wryly comments that critical scholars have been twisting historical data and chronology to suit an a priori historical framework. He rejects their historical reconstruction which envisages the evolution of Christology passing through distinct stages of development characterized as “Primitive Palestinian”, “Hellenistic-Jewish” and “Hellenistic-Gentile” Christology.  The distinctive stages are premised on an artificial demarcation between Jewish and Gentile thought forms. This premise is implausible as it ignores the fact that there was already two centuries of interaction and cross-fertilization of ideas between Judaism and Hellenism by the time of Christ and the early Christian community.

Bauer’s theory is premised on the assumption that diverse theories of Christology flourished in early Christianity because the pockets of Christianity strewn across the Roman Empire in Antioch, Alexandria, Edessa and Rome were isolated from one another.  These isolated communities naturally took liberty in developing diverse forms of Mythological Christology. This theory has been subject to devastating critique in scholarly analysis of H.E.W. Turner, The Pattern of Truth Christian Truth (Mowbray, 1954), Paul Hartog, ed., Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christian Context (Wipf and Stock pub. 2015), and Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy (Crossway, 2010). It should be noted that the highly publicized Mythological Christology promoted by Bart Ehrman suffers from questionable historical foundations since it is premised on the discredited Bauer’s theory.

Mythological Christology assumes that Christology evolved because the ethos of early Christian communities was syncretistic and eclectic. This would require an assumption about the psychology of the earlier believers that they were open to regard devotion to Jesus as comparable to the worship of pagan ruler-cults. This assumption is highly doubtful when the early church was persecuted precisely for refusing to compromise their faith with emperor worship. The early Christians were also accused to be atheists and ostracized because they rejected the polytheism of the neighboring religions.

Apostolic Christology
The earliest evidence of a fully-formed Apostolic Christology found in the letters of Paul (ca. 50-60AD) already reflect a highly developed Christology. There is no evidence of any real evolution of Christology within a short space of time (around 18 years) between the original Apostles of Christ and the highly formed Christology found in Paul’s letters. Hengel gives a memorable statement: “In essentials more happened in christology within these few years than in the whole subsequent seven hundred years of church history.” [Martin Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul (Fortress, 1983), pp. 39-40] Hengel reiterates elsewhere, “The basic question of New Testament Christology is: How did it come about that in the short space of twenty years the crucified Galilean Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, was elevated by his followers to a dignity which left every form of pagan-polytheistic apotheosis far behind? Pre-existence, Mediator of Creation and the revelation of his identity with the One God: this exceeds the possibilities of deification in a polytheistic pantheon. [Martin Hengel, Studies in Early Christology (T & T Clark, 1995), pp. 383-384]

Bauckham concurs, “The earliest Christology was already the highest Christology… The Christology of divine identity is not a mere stage on the way to the patristic development of ontological Christology in the context of a Trinitarian theology. It is already a fully divine Christology, maintaining that Jesus Christ is intrinsic to the unique and eternal identity of God. The Fathers did not develop it so much as transpose it into the conceptual framework more concerned with the Greek philosophical categories of essence and nature.” [Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel (Eerdmans, 2008), p. x]

The historical and textual evidence show that the earliest Christology was a fully divine Christology and that it was not the product of an amalgamation of elements borrowed from Jewish angelology and Hellenistic religions. On the contrary, the roots of divine Christology began with Jesus applying Old Testament categories, including divine titles to himself. The apostles proclaimed that Jesus is the messiah and divine Lord after their encounter with the resurrected Christ. It is appropriate to describe this original proclamation of divine Christology as “Apostolic Christology” in contrast to “Mythology Christology.” The essential features of Apostolic Christology will be elaborated through several subsequent posts. Meanwhile, I shall offer some brief comments on two instances of Apostolic Christology given in earliest writings of the New Testament.

1 Corinthians 8: 5-6
For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

In this remarkable passage, the terms “one God” and “one Lord” (κύριος) stand in contrast to the “many gods” and “many lords” of pagan religions. Paul is applying Deut. 6:4 to affirm the One Lord and One God in contrast to the many gods and many lords in the pagan world. Paul asserts in the same breath that there is only one God and that Jesus is Lord (κύριος), which in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) was used as a substitute for the Tetragrammaton (YHWH). Paul writes that while the Father is the source of all things, his creative activity is mediated through the creative and redemptive activity of the Son. Oscar Cullmann points out, there is no separation between God as Creator and Christ the Savior. The Father and Son are distinguished not by their spheres of operations (creation and redemption), but by the propositions, ἐκ and εἰς in connection with God; δια in connection with Christ, ‘through whom are all things’ (from and to is of the One God, through is of Christ). [Oscar Cullmann, Christology of the New Testament (SCM, 1955), p. 2] Paul affirms monotheism while maintaining a unity and distinction between two persons of the Father and Jesus Christ. The Trinitarian implications arising from the unity of divine operations through the Father and the Son is clear.

Philippians 2:6-11
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I shall merely supplement what I have written elsewhere about this passage. Re: Answering Al-Ghazali Refutation of Jesus’ Divinity Part 3. Biblical Evidence for the Divinity of Christ.

In applying to Christ the phrase “the form of God” (morphē) Paul highlights that Christ is the visible expression of the essential nature of God (cf. John 1:1–18; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:1–3). Christ is the glory of God or the visible manifestation of God. Even though Christ possesses the essential nature of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be held on to, but “emptied himself” or veiled his glory in his incarnate state. In using the terms “form of God” and “equality with God”, Paul is emphasizing that Christ who was manifested on earth is God in his essential nature.

Note that Philippians 2:6-11 describes the “pre-existent” Jesus as “in the form of God” and not in the form of an angel. This contradicts critics who speculate that the origin of the doctrine of the deity of Christ lies in Jewish angelology. Furthermore, while there is no evidence of the acceptance of worship of angels in Jewish tradition, this passage ends with a climax when every knee shall bow and confess that Jesus is Lord. This acknowledgment of the Lordship of Christ was expressed in earliest devotional practices of the earliest Christian community.

Notes from Martin Hengel who offers a more plausible account of the origins and historical development of Christology for the earliest Christian community.
Source: “Christology and New Testament Chronology: A Problem in the History of Earliest Christianity,” from Martin Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul (Fortress, 1983), pp. 30-47.

On closer inspection the time available for the christological development leading up to Paul becomes even shorter. The earliest letter to the community in Thessalonica was written probably at the beginning of AD 50, at the start of Paul’s activity in Corinth. The last letter, to the Romans, was presumably written in the winter of AD 56/57, again from Corinth. However, as we cannot detect any development in the basic christological views in his letters and furthermore he presupposes that the christological titles, formulae and conceptions which he uses are known in the communities to which he is writing, so that they go back to the content of his mission preaching when he founded these communities, we must assume that all the essential features of Paul’s christology were already fully developed towards the end of the 40s, before the beginning of his great missionary journeys in the West. (Emphasis added) That means that there are less than twenty years available for the development of primitive Christian christology up to the time of its earliest representative accessible to us, namely Paul. This ‘shortage of time’ for the development of the christological tradition within the earliest community becomes yet more acute if on the basis of Gal. 1 and 2 we look back another fourteen to sixteen years, to the conversion of Paul between AD 32 and 34: now only between two and four years separate us from the death and resurrection of Jesus, the events which brought the Christian community into being. (p. 31)

Since the letters of Paul – including Romans, which is addressed to a ‘pre-Pauline’ community – demonstrate a stereotyped christology within which we cannot establish any real development, we must assume that even before Paul set off on his great missionary journeys in the West, that is, at the latest with the Apostolic Council about AD 48, his christology was largely complete. Thus the christological development from Jesus as far as Paul took place within about eighteen years, a short space of time for such an intellectual process. In essentials more happened in christology within these few years than in the whole subsequent seven hundred years of church history (emphasis added. p. 39)

It is extremely improbable that to begin with there was a multiplicity of mutually exclusive, rival ‘christologies’, as is continually claimed. The earliest community made christological ‘experiments’, if one likes to put it that way, but not in sectarian exclusiveness; they had a readiness to accept new elements and thus ‘enrich’ the worth of Christ. The multiplicity of christological titles does not mean a multiplicity of exclusive ‘christologies’ but an accumulative glorification of Jesus. The titles must be considered from the perspective of a ‘multiplicity of approaches’ of the kind that is typical of mythical thought. This is particularly true of the early phase of expansion.

It is wrong to talk of a christologically productive Gentile-Christian community before Paul. Even the Syrian missionary communities were at best ‘mixed communities’, in which the Jewish-Christian element was for a long time theologically dominant. Syria in fact had the strongest Jewish Diaspora. Virtually all the Gentile-Christian missionaries of the first twenty-five years were Jewish Christians; only from Paul do we know that Gentile Christians also joined them as auxiliary missionaries. The mission to the Gentiles apart from the law in the decisive early period is completely and utterly the work of Christian Jews. The consequence is that even in this early period one cannot assume any direct, massive pagan influences as was the view in the first joys of discovery among the history-of-religion school. The conception of the sending of the Son does not come from a pre-Christian gnostic myth – which in fact never existed – but has its roots in Jewish wisdom speculation; the confession κύριος Ἰησοῦς is not borrowed from the cult of Attis, serapis or Isis, but is a necessary consequence of the exaltation christology in which Ps. 110.1 in particular played a part; the Jerusalem Maranatha formula represented a preliminary stage in which the exalted Christ was called upon to return soon. (p. 41)

The real problem for the origin of earliest Christian Christology lies in the first four or five years whith are “pre-Pauline’ in the full sense of the word…[The earliest development of Christology] becomes understandable only if we see the necessity of assuming a twofold starting point for the origin of earliest Christianity. (a) The activity of Jesus, which had a tremendous effect on the disciples and in addition on wide circles of the people in both Galilee and Judaea, to a degree that we find it hard to imagine. It can be described adequately, to a degree with the term ‘messianic.’ (b) The immediate succession of the crucifixion of Jesus as a messianic rebel and the radical change brought about by the resurrection appearances. This complex event in connection with the eschatological community of salvation, the experience of the Spirit, missionary sending by the risen Christ and not least in christological reflection. This spirit-directed development of christological conceptions came about not least through the singing and composition of messianic psalms in the earliest Christian worship. Different themes were at work in it simultaneously from the beginning. (p. 44)

The command to missionize their own people represented a special stimulus towards christological reflection. Clear statements were needed about the functions of the one who was proclaimed: about the Son of Man as the coming judge, the Messiah and son of David as the redeemer and ruler over the people of God, the servant of God who makes expiation through his suffering, the ‘Lord’ of the community and the Son of God. One could put Kasemann’s emphatic statement that ‘apocalyptic….is the mother of all Christian theology even more precisely, to the effect that the eschatological mission of the earliest community prompted by the resurrection appearances became ‘the mother of christological reflection’ and thus of early Christian theology generally.

Along with christological reflection, the missionary task set the argument from scripture in motion. Christology and the interpretation of scripture were indissolubly connected from the beginning. Messianic proof from scripture was an essential part of missionary argumentation in particular with Palestinian Judaism. The individual honorific titles and functions were always closely connected with the central proof-texts, the significance of which was clarified particularly in Palestine by the fact that the rabbis later were extremely restrained towards them and reinterpreted them. II Samuel 7 and Ps. 2 were the basis for the designation ‘Son of God’; Ps. 8 connected the conception of exaltation with the Son of Man, and Ps. 110 with the designation ‘Lord’. It was particularly necessary to provide a basis in scripture for the saving significance of the death of Jesus. It was necessary, for example, to refute Jewish objections to the crucified Messiah (Deut. 21.23). In addition to Jewish notions of sacrifice, Ps. 22 and Isa. 53 were used to interpret it. Among other elements, from the beginning the tradition of the Last Supper was the Sitz im Leben for this tradition. The messianic psalms of the Old Testament were not only used as proof texts but still more were sung in services as hymns in praise of the Messiah Jesus. Through the inspiration of the Spirit new hymns were created for this enthusiastic form of worship which preceded christological thought.

Probably the basic element of so-called ‘pre-Pauline’ christology – with the exception of pre-existence christology and the conception of the sending of the Son – was already to be found in the time before the conversion of Paul. Thus in a very short time the ‘dynamic and creative impulse’ of the primal event which led to the founding of the community laid the foundations for the christology which predominates in the New Testament. In one way the last appearance of the risen Christ to the Diaspora Pharisee from Tarsus already brought to a close the first period of the history of earliest Christianity – which was decisive for the whole of alter developments. A new period of christological development then began which about fourteen to sixteen years later came to full development in the Pauline ‘world mission’ after the Apostolic Council and bore rich fruit.
(pp. 45-47)

Related Posts
Historical Origin of Divine Christology. Part 2 – Exaltation Christology in Luke-Acts

The Meaning of “Son of God”: A Muslim Critique – Christology Part 1

Answering Al-Ghazali Refutation of Jesus’ Divinity Part 3. Biblical Evidence for the Divinity of Christ.