The Rise of 'High Christology'


One of the dilemmas historical Jesus/Christian origins scholars face is to explain the rise of high Christology - in other words, the exalted view of Jesus as being divine. After all, Judaism is strictly monotheistic - so just when and how did the early Christians manage to get around that and arrive at the belief that Jesus was divine and equally deserving of the honors due to God, without compromising the belief in only one God?

There are really two camps: on the one side, you have scholars advocating for a late origin of the idea of Jesus being divine (the “late high Christology” camp), and on the other hand, scholars who argue that high Christology erupted fairly early into Christian history (the “early high Christology” camp).

To be honest, the “late high Christology” had more or less predominated the field until fairly recently. To sum, most scholars then simply had a hard time trying to square the belief in Jesus as divine with the Jewish origins of Christianity. Since they thought that the belief in only one God would have prevented the Jewish followers of Jesus from contemplating Him as being equal to God, they usually proposed that high Christology came from a Diaspora context and influenced by pagan, Greco-Roman thinking (where there were no problems in believing in ‘divine men’ and divinized heroes). In other words, a clear divide is made between the ‘Palestinian’ followers of Jesus, who saw Him as a messianic ‘son of man’ figure but not necessarily divine, and the ‘Hellenistic’ Christian communities, who saw Jesus as divine. Some scholars named St. Paul (here believed to have been immersed in Hellenistic/Diaspora Jewish thinking) as the progenitor/developer of high Christology, though others would even deny that Paul exhibited a belief in true high Christology himself (usually going to lengths as interpreting the christological passages in his letters, for example, Philippians 2, as exhibiting a form of ‘not-quite-so-high’ Christology or even saying that they were later interpolations!) and instead propose that it gradually emerged afterwards, well into the second to the fourth centuries.

Scholars who belong(ed) in the late high Christology camp, each having their own distinct theories, include Wilhelm Bousset (who argued in his seminal 1913 work Kyrios Christos that high Christology had its origins in the gentile Christian communities like Antioch, and that Paul picked it up from there), Geza Vermes (who argued for a very late, 4th century origin of true high Christology), Maurice Casey (who pinpointed the origins of high Christology among Johannine Christians in the late 1st-early 2nd century, ascribing the shift to a slackening of commitment to and understanding of the constraints of Jewish monotheism), and James D.G. Dunn (who proposed that Paul was instead exhibiting an ‘Adamic Christology’ in Philippians 2).

More recently, however, there have been a growing body of scholars who proposed the opposite: high Christology could very well have emerged early (from the very first generations of Christians), from a Jewish context: Jewish monotheism might not have been a hurdle in the rise of high Christology as other scholars thought it was. One of the first scholars to propose this was Martin Hengel, who argued for “an explosive development” of high Christology over the first few decades. Soon, other academics picked up on the idea and traced the origins of high Christology in the context of known contemporary Jewish thinking (for example, Jewish messianic/royal traditions, the imagery of the ‘enthroned’ Jesus = the merkavah/chariot imagery in Ezekiel, the idea of Jesus being exalted that He has become a valid co-recipient of the devotion due to God, etc.) Aside from Hengel, scholars in the ‘early high Christology’ camp include Larry Hurtado (Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity), Timo Eskola (Messiah and the Throne), Richard Bauckham, among others.


Larry Hurtado has recently written a few blog posts which summarizes his view quite nicely.

Questioning a Common Assumption
Jesus, “Pre-existence,” etc.: Responding to Questions
Early Jesus-Devotion: Underscoring Key Points


patrick457 #1
One of the dilemmas historical Jesus/Christian origins scholars face is to explain the rise of high Christology - in other words, the exalted view of Jesus as being divine.

There is no dilemma of fact only of assumption/view.

The documents of Scripture are historical. Further, historically, the documents of Scripture relate that the man Jesus claimed to be sent by God, claimed to be God, proved His claim by His miracles and His Resurrection, and established His Church on St Peter to continue His teaching until the end of time.

The teaching, the Life and the Resurrection of Jesus proclaim the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, the necessity of faith, good deeds and atonement for sin, for salvation.

“I and the Father are one.” (Jn 10:30)…. “whoever has seen Me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

Quadratus writes (circa 123 A.D.) that in his day there were still persons around who had been cured or raised from the dead by Jesus – prime witnesses. [Eusebius, *Church History, 4.3, 1.2; See Free From All Error, Fr W. Most, p 12].

Not only are the facts of Jesus miracles recorded by His own Apostles who were present – Saints Matthew and John were companions of Christ, and Saints Mark and Luke lived in constant contact with His contemporaries, His miracles “were so frequent, the eyewitnesses so numerous, and the evidence so stark, that not even Christ’s enemies disputed the fact of their occurrence. Instead they ascribed them to the power of the devil, or defied Him to perform another one in His own favour.” (See Mt 12:24; 27:39-42; Jn 11:47). Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine, Sheehan/Joseph, Saint Austin Press, 2001, p 104].

The vast gulf between Catholicism and any other religion is that the Catholic Church has been founded by a Divine Person who lived with a human and divine nature and claimed to be God, proving that claim by His Resurrection and many recorded miracles. When God leads us through His Church, others fashion their own beliefs and morals. Certainty the Church derives from objective historical facts and the testimony of the apostolic Church witnesses to the Christ-redemption from which came the New Testament.


Wasn’t all that settled at the Council of Nicea :slight_smile: I have to say that the original poster impressed me to the hilt on this theological discussion.

It bothers me that I forgot most of my own learning on this with respect to low christology as well…as I have always felt my Lord was the Lord of low christology emphasising his humanity… but then I am kind of a Vatican II guy…

Cheerz…look forward to the conversation.

Bruce Ferguson


This is the first time I have ever heard of high and low Christology.


I think Larry Hurtado (on one of the blog posts I linked to earlier) makes a few important points:

(1) The rise of high Christology is from the post-Easter period. Sure, Jesus in His lifetime excited expectations that He was the Messiah due to His charismatic preaching and wonderworking, and it’s highly likely that He might have seen Himself along those same lines (as someone especially chosen and empowered by God), but it is with the death and the resurrection of Jesus that His followers came to have an exalted view of Him. Jesus’ earthly ministry was anointed by God, but it is by virtue of God’s resurrection and exaltation of Jesus that Jesus is now “Lord and Christ,” the judge and the one valid medium of salvation (Acts 2:32-36; 10:40-43; Philippians 2:5-11; 1 Corinthians 15:20ff; 1 Peter 3:22; etc.) In other words, we can say Easter is in a way key to the rise of high Christology: if the belief that Jesus was not raised from the dead did not rise, Jesus would have simply been another holy man, but not exactly someone who is Lord and co-sharer in the glory of God the Father.

(2) Which brings us to the issue of the idea of Jesus’ pre-existence. As Hurtado points out, this belief also erupted fairly early, being already presupposed in the writings of St. Paul.

But how could people ascribe a heavenly “pre-existence” to a real human and mortal figure of recent history? To understand this, you have to enter into the “logic” of ancient theological thought, and especially “apocalyptic” thought. I’ll sketch it briefly. God doesn’t make up his game-plan as the game goes along, but has the plan (of world history, redemption, judgement, etc.) all laid out even before creation. So, as God acts in revelation, each action is also an unveiling of his prior purpose and plan. So, “eschatological” events were actually in God’s purpose from the beginning: “final things = first things” (to paraphrase a scholarly formula). Indeed, in ancient Jewish texts there are references to various things, e.g., Torah, or the “name” of the messianic figure in the “Parables” of 1 Enoch (37-70) as “pre-existent” (see, e.g., my article, “Pre-Existence,” in the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. G.F. Hawthorne, et al., pp. 743-46 (and bibliography there).

So, in this case, if Jesus has been vindicated by God and exalted to heavenly glory, made Lord and judge, declared to be “the Son of God,” and the unique redeemer, then in some sense this is the eschatological revelation and articulation of what must have been God’s purpose, and the revelation of heavenly realities, from before creation. As various other scholars as well have observed, the conviction that Jesus had been exalted to heavenly/divine glory seems to have triggered the logical corollary that he must, in some sense, have been “there” from the beginning, and that God’s redemption work is tied closely to God’s creation work. (Note that NT statements about Jesus’ “pre-existence” are essentially confined to connecting him to creation, and there is scant interest in speculations about what else his “pre-existence” involved. There, isn’t in other words, the proliferation of elaborate “myth” narratives about the matter such as we have in the classic Greek myths of the gods.)

But despite ascribing pre-existence or divine honor to Jesus, the New Testament doesn’t insinuate that Jesus was somehow less than human, as docetism thought. Instead, Christians were at pains to show that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, mortal, human being, not a divine spirit who simply wore human flesh like a discardable set of clothes and who only pretended to be human.



(3) Of course, one thing to keep in mind is that we shouldn’t always read later Christian developments into the NT texts. In other words, we shouldn’t assume that St. Paul or the other NT writers already had a clear, Nicaea-esque notion of the human and divine natures of Jesus or the persons of the Trinity. (This is something both believers and non-believers always fall prey to: whenever we see the NT texts describe Jesus in exalted, divine terms we always read it as if the authors already had the Nicene Creed fully developed in their heads! ;)) Hurtado again:

What about subsequent creedal controversies and formulations? E.g., the three “persons” (or “hypostases”) that comprise the “Trinity,” etc.?

To my mind, these should be seen as valiant and impressive attempts by Christians living in later (than the NT texts) times, engaging and appropriating conceptual categories of those later times, to address questions and issues that had arisen then. But these conceptual categories and issues weren’t always the same ones that we find in the NT texts. E.g., referring to “persons” of the “Father” and the “Son” seems to have emerged sometime in the 2nd century (e.g., Justin Martyr’s references to the “prosopon” of the Son or the Father (literally = “face”, the Latin “persona” a subsequent attempt at an equivalent term). Simply reciting NT terms and expressions wasn’t sufficient (and is never sufficient for the theological task, to my mind). The questions had shifted, and the conceptual categories (heavily shaped by Greek philosophy) were different (the NT texts still heavily steeped in biblical/Jewish categories), and couldn’t rightly be avoided.

But I suspect that if Paul were asked whether Jesus was the “second person of the Trinity,” he would likely have responded with a quizzical look, and asked for some explanation of what it meant! Were the patristic texts and creedal statements saying something beyond or distinguishable from what the NT texts say? Certainly. Does that invalidate those later creedal discussions and formulations? Well, if you recognize the necessity of the continuing theological task (of intelligently attempting to articulate Christian faith meaningfully in terms appropriate and understandable in particular times and cultures), then probably you’ll see the classic creedal statements as an appropriate such effort. But that’s a historical judgement about that later period, and/or a theological judgement. And my emphasis is on the historical question of what the NT texts say and how to understand them in their own historical context.

And that’s why I’d like to nitpick Abu’s post a bit: it is true that John’s gospel describes Jesus in exalted terms (as the preexistent Logos) and has Jesus describing Himself in exalted terms (“I and the Father are one”) as well. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that John was already working with a Nicaea-Chalcedon-esque notion of stuff like the hypostatic union or the nature of the Trinity. There’s also the fact that John’s gospel as a whole is a retroactive reflection: it is the life of Jesus as viewed from a post-Easter lens, when (in the minds of Jesus’ disciples) the Holy Spirit had disclosed what they believe to be the truth about Jesus and who He is (John 16:13-14). So in that sense, theology did color the accounts in some way.


Come to think of it, the synoptic gospels are often presented as having a “low Christology” when compared to the higher Christology of John’s gospel, but in fact, even in the synoptics you actually have a high view of Jesus. While there are no long theological discourses as in John, Matthew, Mark and Luke do clearly associate Jesus with God (showing Him as being endowed with God’s Spirit; His teaching and miracles manifesting the power of God) and binds His identity with the God of Israel. In other words, perhaps we shouldn’t be pitting the supposed ‘low Christology’ of the synoptics vs. the ‘high Christology’ of John at all. John’s gospel, for that matter, has a curious mix of ‘high’ and ‘low’ Christology: John’s Jesus is the Jesus who speaks about Himself as being one with the Father, but also the Jesus who runs away and hides when His audience tries to stone Him.


patrick457 #7
I’d like to nitpick Abu’s post a bit: it is true that John’s gospel describes Jesus in exalted terms (as the preexistent Logos) and has Jesus describing Himself in exalted terms (“I and the Father are one”) as well. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that John was already working with a Nicaea-Chalcedon-esque notion of stuff like the hypostatic union or the nature of the Trinity. There’s also the fact that John’s gospel as a whole is a retroactive reflection: it is the life of Jesus as viewed from a post-Easter lens, when (in the minds of Jesus’ disciples) the Holy Spirit had disclosed what they believe to be the truth about Jesus and who He is (John 16:13-14). So in that sense, theology did color the accounts in some way.

The warp and woof of Catholic teaching is that the knowledge of Christ and His teaching develops – totally in tune with Christ’s explicit words: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you." (John 14:15-18). “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name, he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” (John 14:26) “But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:13-15).

The Father did send the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost – acknowledging the infallibility conveyed from the Son.

The Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tim 3:16).” St. Paul says also, “through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places (Eph 3:10).” The Church teaches even the angels! This is with the authority of Christ!

CCC 94:
“Thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church.”

Donum Veritatis, CDF 1990 (Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian) #35
“Although theological faith as such then cannot err, the believer can still have erroneous opinions since all his thoughts do not spring from faith.(32) Not all the ideas which circulate among the People of God are compatible with the faith. This is all the more so given that people can be swayed by a public opinion influenced by modern communications media. Not without reason did the Second Vatican Council emphasize the indissoluble bond between the ‘sensus fidei’ and the guidance of God’s People by the Magisterium of the Pastors. These two realities cannot be separated.(33) Magisterial interventions serve to guarantee the Church’s unity in the truth of the Lord. They aid her to ‘abide in the truth’ in face of the arbitrary character of changeable opinions and are an expression of obedience to the Word of God.(34) Even when it might seem that they limit the freedom of theologians, these actions, by their fidelity to the faith which has been handed on, establish a deeper freedom which can only come from unity in truth."


Thanks Patrick for the links. Your posts are always thought provoking. Just quickly reading your links I would just comment that a lot of the links to Jesus’ divinity in the NT are very steeped in Jewish culture, language and scripture.

This would show that even if you don’t believe the NT writers were the first generation of Christians (and I do) they were certainly steeped in Jewish culture.

To suggest the writers were diaspora Jews who were influenced by paganism might not be reasonable. Often immigrant communities are more ethnically loyal to culture than homeland cultures, especially with regards to those stark differentiations with their own host cultures.

If Paul was originally so aggressive in attacking Christianity wouldn’t that point to him coming from an environment that was super vigilant against Jewish ‘heresy’?


Let’s just say that the modern trend is to look at Paul the Hellenistic Jew more than Paul the Pharisee. Many scholars pay too much attention on Paul’s place of birth (Tarsus) and his knowledge and use of Greek rhetoric and philosophy in his letters that the description of him as being educated in Palestinian, Pharisaic Judaism is downplayed or even outright denied.

All these issues are connected in some way: it is from Paul that we get hints of high Christology, but many scholars in the past thought that his ideas must have been unthinkable if he was really educated in Palestinian Judaism. So the descriptions of him being taught under the Pharisees mustn’t be true, and that he was just a Hellenistic Jew. (Some like Heinrich Graetz or Hyam Maccoby even went so far as to allow for a possibility that Paul was actually a gentile - maybe masquerading as a Jew?) It’s also related to a third canard, that Paul was the ‘inventor’ of Christianity. :shrug:


Let me explain some of the theories supporters of EHC hold.

Timo Eskola argues that high Christology had its roots in the esoteric/mystical merkabah tradition. Merkabah (‘chariot’, referring to Ezekiel’s vision of the cherubim and of God’s chariot-throne) mysticism is a speculative form of mysticism which focuses on visionary exegeses concerning the divine realm and accounts of mystical ascents into heaven. This form of mysticism centered on meditating on passages such as Ezekiel 1-2 or Isaiah 6 (Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne) or the creation account in Genesis 1, which sometimes led to the experience of ecstasy. The mystics would engage in ‘ascents’ to heaven, where they saw the throne of God and the angels. The ascents were often portrayed as dangerous: the journey posed a great risk to the mystic if he did not purify himself, or did not know the necessary ‘passwords’ (incantations, hymns, seals, etc.) to get past the various levels of heaven.

In merkabah, a neat divide exists between God and creation - God is portrayed as being exalted and (nearly) inaccessible. So for the adept to gain access to the divine throne and the divine mysteries, an angelic ‘vice regent’ figure (or figures) is usually shown as escorting the mystic and explaining to him the workings of heaven. This ‘vice regent’ figure - often depicted as an angelic being who is so exalted so as to be almost like God - serves as a mediator who breaches the gap between God and man. There is not one goal in these mystic ascents: in some works, the goal is simply to have a ‘glimpse’ of God in His beauty and glory. In other texts, the goal of the ascent is ‘enthronement’, for the mystic to be accepted among the heavenly court and get an honored (god-like?) seat.

In part because the anthromorphized descriptions of God and the heavenly court might lead to theological misunderstandings, in-depth study of Ezekiel 1-2 and merkabah eventually became off-limits to most people, reserved only for the wise and the spiritually prepared. Legends circulated about what happened to people who dared to study merkabah without the necessary knowledge or preparation: it included stuff like being struck dead, going mad or spontaneously combusting. Because Ezekiel was the core text for merkabah mysticism, for a time some Jews actually thought the book was problematic. Jewish commentaries on Ezekiel took great pains to emphasize how the vision was not a literal description of God’s or the angels’ appearances, but are to be understood in a symbolic or allegorical manner.

In Eskola’s theory, the early Christians described Jesus’ exaltation using merkabah symbolism, in terms of a heavenly journey or ascent that culminated in His enthronement on the divine throne of glory. Whereas Jewish mystical theology described ascensions and throne visions, Christians reoriented it to center on the glorified Jesus: they spoke of His ascension to heaven and of His sitting on the divine throne, and His serving as the one Mediator between God and man. (In a sense, other scholars also saw possible influences of this brand of mysticism in places like St. Paul’s experience of being caught up in “the third heaven,” as well as Revelation.)


Larry Hurtado does find antecedents to high Christology among ‘divine agent’ figures in Judaism: say, personified divine attributes such as Wisdom and the Logos, exalted humans like Moses and Enoch, or principal ‘vice regent’ angels like Michael or Yahoel (Apocalypse of Abraham). But at the same time, he says that the pattern we see in Jesus is different from what we see in these other ‘divine agent’ figures. Whereas these other ‘divine agent’ figures were never worshiped by Jews or given divine attributes, in the case of Jesus we see hymns celebrating His resurrection, prayer to Jesus, the name of Jesus, the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist), the confession of Jesus, and prophetic statements attributed to the risen Jesus. Hurtado believes that this ‘mutation’ may have occurred due to experiences the followers of Jesus had which led them to see Him not just as divine agent, but also as Lord and Savior. Hurtado believes that St. Paul’s vision of Jesus in Damascus is, at least in Paul’s mind, ‘apocalyptic’, merkabah-like in nature (a view some other scholars like Eskola also hold) - and that this and such visions contributed to the exalted view of Jesus and to the devotion early Christians exhibited towards Him.

The Ascension, from the Rabbula Gospels (AD 586). Note the four-faced cherub at the foot of Jesus and the fiery wheels; in the Syriac liturgy Ezekiel 1 is read during the feast of the Ascension. This iconography links the ascended Jesus with the figure who sits on the merkabah in Ezekiel’s vision.
Carey C. Newman (Paul’s Glory-Christology: Tradition and Rhetoric) believes Paul had a Glory (doxa) Christology. Tracing the usages of the term ‘glory’ in the Old Testament and other Jewish literature, he identifies four usages of “glory” (kabod) in the OT, all linked with God in some way: theophanic (involving the arrival of God and the subsequent upheaval); Sinaitic (in connection with the theophany at Sinai); royal (in connection with God, the King, and life in the kingdom of Israel - a sign of approval and blessing), and prophetic (as it was interpreted in the light of the Exile - as a sign of judgment and hope). In apocalyptic/merkabah literature (1 Enoch, Ezekiel, Daniel 7, some documents from Qumran like the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice), “Glory formed part of the characteristic field of signifiers used to describe the heavens. That is, when a seer peered into the heavens, he saw Glory–whether associated with God, a throne or a special angel.” He finds a significant connection between glory and merkabah visions, and observes that the Greek word doxa (which he claims translated the Hebrew word kabod in the Septuagint to distinguish Yhwh from other gods) is closely associated with divine epiphany and ‘light’ imagery.

Newman sees Paul’s visionary experience (also interpreted as a merkabah-like encounter) as the factor which led him to weld the various strands of this Jewish ‘Glory’ tradition to arrive at an exalted identification of Jesus as the glory (doxa) of God. (It should also be noted that the other NT authors also to some extent link Jesus with ‘glory’ as well.)


The German scholar Martin Hengel (1926-2009) writing in the 1970s was one of the first modern (by which I mean the period after the 1960s-1970s :D) scholars to advocate early high Christology (I’ll refer to it hereafter as EHC).

As I mentioned earlier, many scholars before - and even after - Hengel advocated an ‘evolutionary’ model of Christological development. In their view there were a number of separate and insulated Christian communities, all independent of each other, each of which represented a separate developmental phase in the formation of beliefs about Jesus: there were Jewish Christians, followed by Hellenistic Jewish Christians, and finally gentile Christians. In this model, belief in Jesus began with Him being viewed as as the ‘son of man’ in Palestinian communities, culminating to a belief in a fully divinized ‘Lord’ in gentile communities. This shift is often ascribed to the cultural influence of pagan (Greco-Roman) mystery cults and beliefs in ‘divine men’ among non-Palestinian Diaspora Christians.

Hengel however pointed out that the earliest evidence indicates that Aramaic-speaking and Greek-speaking believers existed side by side from the beginning, coexisting in Jerusalem and elsewhere. These linguistic groups interpenetrated each other and were mutually influential on each other’s beliefs, as the movements of figures like Peter, Barnabas, Paul, Mark or Silvanus show. So there weren’t really ‘community A’ believing in this and ‘community B’ believing in that, with the two communities being ignorant of (or outright antagonistic of) each other. Hengel recognized that Paul’s letters (the earliest undisputed Christian literature we have, written in the 50s) make elevated claims about Jesus, and propose that the stereotyped formula he uses in his letters go back to his earliest missionary activities in the 40s. He doesn’t deny that some development during the time between Paul and John’s gospel and Justin Martyr (late 1st-mid 2nd century) did occur - with John and Justin attempting to flesh out Jesus’ divine functions and explain them in terms of Greek metaphysics - but these developments are not derived from pagan sources, but from a logical fusion of the concept of Jesus’ preexistent sonship with Jewish Wisdom traditions.

For Hengel, “[t]he time between the death of Jesus and the fully developed Christology which we find in the earliest Christian documents, the letters of Paul, is so short that the development which takes place within it can only be called amazing.” (Between Jesus and Paul: Studies in the Earliest History of Christianity, p. 31) “This means that the ‘apotheosis of the crucified Jesus’ must already have taken place in the forties, and one is tempted to say that more happened in this period of less than two decades than in the whole of the next seven centuries, up to the time when the doctrine of the early church was completed.” (The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion, p.2; emphasis original)

Hengel traces the influences for the Church’s belief about Jesus from a mixture of scriptural exegesis (the Jewish wisdom tradition about the descent and ascent of Wisdom into the world as sent from God; reflections on Psalms 2 and 110, which stimulated confessions of Jesus as “son of God” and “Lord”) and personal experience (the impact Jesus had on His followers; the experience of visions of the risen Christ) These two factors set off a “unique dynamic and creative impulse” among Jesus’ disciples, which expressed itself in devotion toward Him as Lord.


Richard Bauckham has a different approach from Hurtado’s (described in post 13), in that he rejects the idea of ‘divine agent’ figures as being antecedent to high Christology* - since they are not exact parallels. These intermediary figures are either (a) created beings distinct from the divine identity (e.g., patriarchs, angels, etc.) or (2) personifications of one or more of God’s attributes and thus part of the divine identity (e.g., Wisdom, the Logos). Instead, he focuses on what he sees as the NT authors’ identifying Jesus directly with the one God of Israel.

As per Bauckham, Jewish authors focused on several salient elements to identify the uniqueness of God. God was known as the one and only God through His relationship with Israel as the One who reveals the divine Name (Yhwh), but also through His relationship to all of relation as the sole Creator and highest sovereign over all things. Bauckham argues that in the NT, Jesus’ relationship to Israel and to the whole of reality is also configured in a similar way - so the NT, when read with this theological context, also reveals the belief of Jesus being included within the unique and eternal identity of the God of Israel: Jesus is portrayed as being a participant in creation, as a possessor of the divine Name and a sharer of God’s throne, and a valid recipient of worship. The later theological reflection of Church Fathers did not so much develop this theme as to transpose it into a conceptual framework to be readily explored in terms of ‘essences’ and ‘natures’.

  • A number of adherents of EHC like Hurtado or Hengel see 1st century Jewish monotheism as being more or less what we might call a flexible, ‘mediatorial monotheism’, which understands monotheism more in terms of uniqueness than numerical individuality. This belief points to the idea of ‘divine agent’ figures who seem to occupy a subordinate divine or semi-divine status but who are not considered a hurdle in the belief in one God because they are also in some way seen to share in the divine oneness. (Using OT examples, figures like the ‘one like a son of man’ in Daniel 7 and the ‘Angel of Yhwh’ closely resembled the Lord, even at times described in the same language, and yet still apparently did not threaten monotheism in the OT.) Bauckham differs from these aforementioned scholars by arguing that the monotheism of Second Temple Judaism was indeed ‘strict’, drawing a clear line between the identity of the one God and these agent figures. (cf. Paul’s Christology of Divine Identity.) So unlike other EHC adherents, Bauckham doesn’t so much see the first generation of Christians as imaging Jesus to be a ‘divine agent’ who shared in God’s divinity but linking His identity directly with God.


Do you see John and Paul’s described visions as using a similar symbolic or allegorical literary tradition? Do you think that Jewish ‘hearers’ and ‘readers’ would have understood this?

Because the writers of the NT were Jewish, and high Christology is infused in the content of Jesus’ actions and words, would they not have understood the Jewish literary devices of visions as a separate well defined practice and so would have been little influenced on their recordings of Jesus’ actions and words?

In short, what do you think of the merits of the argument that the misunderstanding of these literary vision devices mis-formed the perceptions of Jesus amongst the early Christians?


Let me go the other way and see what adherents of ‘late high Christology’ (LHC) propose.

The German scholar Wilhelm Bousset (1865-1920) wrote his very influential (and first, controversial) work Kyrios Christos in 1913.

Bousset was a prominent figure in the so-called Religionsgeschichtliche Schule (‘history of religions’ school) of the University of Göttingen in the late 19th century. Despite the traditional English translation of the German term religionsgeschichtlich, this particular ‘school’ of Göttingen professors were not so much concerned with the history of religions in general, but the history of one religion (Christianity) within the larger frame of religious history. The members of this school were scholars who shared methods and results: a focus on religion rather than theology, a concern to view the history of Christianity within the course of the larger history of religion, an emphasis on the history of tradition rather than literary criticism, and a conviction that Christianity, while indeed originating ultimately from Judaism, was also shaped and influenced by foreign religions. The slogan of the school was ‘Religion is history’; and if religion was history, Christianity could not be understood apart from the religious matrix in which it developed.

One might say that this approach reflected some sort of bias against Judaism: for Bousset and his colleagues, simply saying that Christianity was derived from Judaism will not do. Judaism itself was mostly considered simply as the foundation stone, a preliminary stage of Christianity that became obsolete once the latter came into the scene and grew out of it. While Bousset did write works which combated the more hostile view of Jews and Judaism at the time of Jesus common among a number of scholars at the time and helped gain recognition for Judaism as the root of Christianity (his 1903 work Die Religion des Judenthums im neutestamentlichen Zeitalter “The Religion of the Jews in the New Testament Age”), he ultimately could not free himself from the old Christian stereotype of Judaism and Pharisaic Jews as legalistic hypocrites and 1st century Judaism (which he termed somewhat pejoratively as “late Judaism”) as a half-grown, outmoded national cult which emphasized external piety without sincerity and which was superseded by the morally superior, more universal teachings of Jesus and Christianity. What was ironic then is that while the school renounced theological commitments and biases in the interest of an objective historiography of Christianity, its members arrived at equally negative conclusions regarding the Judaism of the period as many other scholars of the time did. Bousset and others of his ilk looked to Oriental religions to explain Christian origins - Judaism being conveniently omitted from this list of ‘Oriental’ religions.



In Kyrios Christos, Bousset proposed that cultic veneration of Jesus did not emerge in the earliest circles of Jewish believers, which he called the “Primitive Palestinian Community.” It instead developed in the “Gentile Christian Primitive Community,” in places such as Antioch and Damascus, under the influence of pagan religious traditions in which various divine figures and divinized heroes were part of the culture. It was in these circles, Bousset claimed, that Jesus came to be first reverenced as Kyrios, the ‘Lord’.

Bousset does grant that this development happened early (he recognizes Paul’s letters as being early evidence of this high Christology and proposes that Paul got his christological views from this Diaspora/gentile setting), but he insisted that it was a real departure from, or at least a significant development beyond, anything that Jesus could have expected, or that the Jerusalem Church could have entertained. All the Jewish followers of Jesus believed was that Jesus was the ‘Son of Man’, which Bousset posited was a heavenly figure who would appear soon to consummate God’s eschatological purposes.

Earlier, in Die Religion des Judentums, Bousset also thought that the term ‘Son of Man’ itself could not be explained within the context of Judaism alone: so he turned to gnostic, Mandaean, Manichean and Kabbalistic sources and concluded that behind the title lay a more general Primal Man conception that belonged to the sphere of 'Hellenistic religious syncretism.") In 1907, Hauptprobleme der Gnosis, Bousset began to trace this supposed conception of the ‘Primal Man’, which took him as far as India. He traced the ‘Primal Man’ myth to the Rigvedic myth of a primeval being, Purusha, who was sacrificed by the gods and from whose body the world came into being, and its supposed original context (an Oriental fertility cult). Bousset then claimed that this ‘primal man’ myth travelled westwards, into Persia (surviving, he says, as the myth of Gayomart/Keyumars), Greece (where it influenced Platonism and gnosticism), and finally, into Judaism - by which time the myth had become hardly recognizable. Bousset claimed that Judaism changed the ‘primal man’ into an eschatological figure and became conflated with the Jewish idea of a messiah, thereby giving birth to the idea of the ‘Son of Man’.

Bousset’s Jesus was simply a heroic figure with a daring faith in God who confronted the false piety of His day and who taught an ethical religion of forgiveness and an advocate of love and compassion. But His (original) followers added in mythic inflations which pictured Him as Messiah and ‘Son of Man’, because they saw that their superstitious age was not yet ready for the simplicity and “purely historical actuality” of the historical Jesus and His teaching. In other words, in order to sell Jesus to the masses, they needed to dress Him up and make Him larger than life. (Really shows his religious biases here, if you ask me. :D) And then came the diaspora Jewish and gentile Christians, who under influence of the religions and the ideas around them, did not just make Jesus into an eschatological divine messenger, but an outright Lord and Savior of the world. In Bousset’s eyes, the Jesus-as-Kyrios cult and the subsequent doctrines were an unfortunate set of developments that complicated the simpler and purer faith of Jesus and the first generation of believers. (Does this sound familiar to you?)



During the 19th-20th century, many German scholars and theologians were concerned to create a version of Christianity that their exponents deemed compatible with ‘modernity’ (i.e. rational, without all those trappings of ‘superstition’), and particularly suitable for the enhancement of the German people and nation. A central aim of this project was the ‘orientalising’ of early Christianity, and of Paul in particular. People posited that ‘pagan’ religious groups of an Hellenistic/‘oriental’ provenance influenced Christian beliefs, at the same time downplaying the significance of the Old Testament and Jewish traditions in Christian origins. (Just like what I said earlier, turn-of-the-century intellectual Germans were keen to associate this or that ‘Oriental’ belief system or philosophy to Christianity, while quietly dropping Judaism from their list of ‘Oriental’ religions’. ;))

This disdain for Judaism might have been partly influenced by Protestant (specifically, Lutheran) theology - particularly its emphasis on “the Law” being pitted against faith and the rejection of the idea of justification by “works of the Law.” Another is the common tendency among German Protestants since the Reformation for a kind of ‘philo-heathenism’ - which emphasized that Christianity in their land could be traced not to Judaism but to Paul’s missionary activity to the gentiles and which enabled them to minimize the historical connections between Christianity and Judaism, and at the same time to take pride in a Germanic pre-Christian heritage.


The apostles witness the miracles performed by Jesus–they see Him walk on water and calm the sea–they see Him raise people from the dead–they see Him raised from the dead and with a glorified body–and James and Peter and John see Him transfigured with Moses and Elijah–why wouldn’t they–regardless of their Judaism think of Jesus as God when He Himself said I and the Father are one?

How early does does their belief in Jesus as God have to be to constitute early High Christology?

There is only one Christology–Jesus is God. When did the disciples first believe that? I don’t know but I do know that Peter said “Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God”. Is that early enough? Is that high enough?

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