Contours of Christology in the New Testament

Contours of Christology in the New Testament

by Richard N. Longenecker


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Contours of Christology in the New Testament features first-class biblical scholars who steep readers in the biblical texts about Jesus. These essays focus on the New Testament writers' various understandings of Jesus, their differing emphases seen as contours in the common landscape of New Testament christology. Sweeping in scope, the volume begins with a look at early christology and covers the whole of the New Testament from the Gospels to Revelation.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802810144
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 08/28/2005
Series: McMaster New Testament Studies
Pages: 345
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.87(d)

About the Author

Richard N. Longenecker (1930–2021) was a distinguished New Testament scholar who taught for many years at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He was the author of numerous books, including Paul, Apostle of Liberty; The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity; New Testament Social Ethics for Today; Introducing Romans: Critical Issues in Paul's Most Famous Letter, and the New International Greek Testament Commentary volume on Romans.

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Contours of Christology in the New Testament

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-1014-4

Chapter One

Jewish Messianism and Early Christology

William Horbury

Modern scholarly discussion of the significance of Jewish messianism at the time of Christ has extended over two hundred years or more. On at least one occasion it touched the course of world history. This occurred in connection with two famous skeptical writers on the historical Jesus, David Friedrich Strauss and Bruno Bauer. When Strauss published his two-volume The Life of Jesus in 1835-36, Bauer asserted that the book was not radical enough. Strauss had argued that Christ was presented by the evangelists along the lines of already existing Jewish mythical narratives of the coming Messiah's advent and work. Bauer mockingly replied that Strauss was arguing like a traditionally-minded member of the church, for his argument presupposed that there was, indeed, a highly developed messianic expectation among the Jews before the birth of Christ - whereas, in fact, so Bauer maintained, there was little or no evidence for a pre-Christian messianic hope, and the best-attested Jewish messianism appeared only after the rise of Christianity.

These comments on Strauss appeared in Bauer's Critique of the Gospel History of the Synoptics, which was issued in 1841. The publication of this book led to Bauer's dismissal by the Prussian government from his position at the University of Bonn, and so to much reduced prospects for his academic friends and proteges. One of these was the young Karl Marx, who through Bauer's encouragement had won his doctorate with a dissertation on Democritus and Epicureanism. Marx had had hopes of a university post and further work on later Greek philosophy under Bauer's wing. Now, however, Marx turned to journalism and fatefully immersed himself in politics.

The controversy between Bauer and Strauss - which led to this change of direction for Marx-turned, in part, on the question: Was messianic hope, in the sense of the expectation of a coming king or ruler, a significant element in Judaism at the time of Christian origins - and did it have any importance for the origins of New Testament christology? This question has been discussed ever since, and it concerns us now.

1. The Earlier Dossier of Texts and Earlier Arguments

Bauer's argument that pre-Christian messianic hope was insignificant has been substantially repeated down to the present day and forms the background for modern discussion of New Testament christology. In evaluating that argument, the literary evidence on which it was built and Bauer's own position vis-a-vis more traditional stances need to be set out first.

The Earlier Dossier of Texts

In the first part of the nineteenth century, those who argued for the existence of a pre-Christian messianic hope among Jews could point to the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) and to a certain amount of textual evidence outside it. The church from earliest times had treated the Old Testament as messianic prophecy, which could, of course, be disputed, and this had occurred extensively in the long history of medieval and later Jewish-Christian debate. So from the Middle Ages on, the Christian side of the argument also appealed for support to rabbinic interpretation. This appeal - made, of course, not without rebuttal - included messianic passages in the Targums, which are Aramaic biblical paraphrases that took their present form after the rise of Christianity, perhaps from the second century CE on. It also embraced Jewish mystical writings, which were used to show that ancient Jewish monotheism came close to specifically Christian doctrine-an argument that has come to the fore again in more recent study.

In the early nineteenth century, however, this Christian messianic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and of post-biblical Jewish exegesis was encountering a new intellectual climate. The older objections to the traditional Christian interpretation were being strengthened by ever-increasing scholarly efforts to connect the Old Testament with the history of Israel and the neighboring peoples.

It was in this setting that a vast defense of the messianic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible was issued from 1829 onward by E. W. Hengstenberg, under the title Christology of the Old Testament. This work reviewed the newer historical exegesis, but retained many of the older traditional arguments. Hengstenberg based himself not only on rabbinic interpretation, but also on later Jewish mystical writings. The most important of these is the Zohar - a long Aramaic text composed in the thirteenth century, but which represents itself as issuing from Simeon ben Yohai and his circle in the second century CE. In Hengstenberg's time it was often used to defend a messianic interpretation of Old Testament prophecy.

A general aim in early-nineteenth-century Christian apologetics, as in the Christian interpretation of prophecy from medieval and earlier times, was to show (1) that a Messiah was expected in Israel, (2) that the prophecies of his person and work were fulfilled by the church's Christ, and (3) that, correspondingly, the Old Testament foretold a divine Christ and, perhaps, also hinted at a doctrine of the trinity. Yet the strongly historical tendency of biblical study, coupled with a concomitant recognition of the medieval setting of the Zohar, meant that conclusions such as those defended by Hengstenberg could not be taken for granted.

Those who argued for pre-Christian messianism in this situation might, therefore, tend to put less emphasis on the Old Testament, the rabbinic literature, and the Zohar. They could, however, still urge that pre- Christian messianic hope was discernible in the Jewish Greek translation of the Pentateuch and the other Old Testament books known as the Septuagint (LXX), which dated in its earliest parts from the third century BCE. Moreover, much further attestation of messianism was found in the Targums, which had been handed down within the Jewish communities, as well as in various Jewish apocalypses from the time of Christian origins, which had been transmitted through the church.

Two such apocalypses were particularly important in the 1840s. One was familiar, whereas the other was new to most western readers. The familiar work was the book called 2 Esdras in the Apocrypha of the English Bible and 4 Ezra in the appendix of the Vulgate. It had been known since ancient times through its Latin version. It seemed in its oldest part (chs. 3-14) to reflect the years soon after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. This section of the book included clear references to messianic victory and reign.

The other work was 1 Enoch, which is most fully preserved in Ethiopic. The Ethiopic text was first translated in 1821 and edited in 1838 by Richard Laurence, Archbishop of Cashel and formerly Regius Professor of Hebrew in Oxford. In the section of the book called the "Parables of Enoch" (chs. 37-71) there are striking references, as Laurence observed, to a preexistent Messiah, together with historical allusions that suggest that this section was composed in the early Herodian age. The claims for Jewish anticipations of trinitarian belief, which some had made on the basis of the Zohar, could now be founded more securely, so Laurence suggested, on the Book of Enoch.

Bruno Bauer's Own Position

Bauer himself argued-against claims for a pre-Christian messianic hope based on the Septuagint, the Targums, 2 Esdras (4 Ezra), and 1 (Ethiopic) Enoch-that in pre-Christian Jewish sources a silence on messianism was more obvious than its attestation. Messianic hope left no clear traces, he asserted, in the Septuagint, the Old Testament Apocrypha, or Philo. He allowed its presence in Daniel, a book that would later be thought ambiguous in this regard. He insisted, however, that otherwise it appeared only in apocalypses like 1 Enoch and 2 Esdras, which in his view were post- Christian or perhaps added to by Christians, and in the Targums, which were not so early as to give clear attestation of pre-Christian views. Bauer was inclined to set the efflorescence of Jewish messianic hope in the late first century CE - and to see it, at least in part, as a result of the rise of Christianity. Christian christological thought, then, could not have drawn on a Jewish messianic hope. Rather, Jewish messianism would have arisen, in part, as a result of the influence of nascent Christianity within Judaism.

Although this final suggestion of Christian influence on Jewish messianism has not been widely followed, the view that pre-Christian messianism was insignificant has affected later study up to the present. This emerges, for instance, when the sparseness of non-Christian witness to Jewish messianic hope in New Testament times is underlined by Marinus de Jonge (Christology in Context: The Earliest Christian Response to Jesus [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1988], pp. 65, 110) and Raymond Brown (An Introduction to New Testament Chistology [New York/Toronto: Paulist, 1994], p. 73).

2. The Modern Recovery of Ancient Jewish Literature

The dossier of texts on Jewish messianism, however, has changed considerably since Bauer's time. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries formed a period of reassessment, reconsideration, and fresh discovery of ancient Jewish literature. Lost works were found again and hitherto unknown works came to light. For this reason the present-day discussion of messianic hope, influenced as it is by observations that Bauer brought to the fore, should be approached first of all through consideration of the changes that have occurred in the dossier of literary evidence.

Nineteenth-Century Reassessment and Recovery of Texts

Already in the 1840s attention was being given again to the Psalms of Solomon, which had been preserved in Greek and were first printed in the seventeenth century. These poems, which were grouped and transmitted in the ancient church together with the Septuagint, reflect Judean history during the period between about 63 and 40 BCE and express the desire for a God-given anointed Davidic king. Furthermore, it was also noticed that the long-familiar Jewish Sibylline Oracles included messianic passages-although the clearest instance comes from book 5, which reflects the period after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus.

Reassessment of 1 Enoch, especially in light of seeming allusions to the Maccabean age in the "Dream Visions" of chs. 83-90, led not only to the recognition of the "Parables" in chs. 37-71 as the latest section of the writing, but also to the identification of a second-century BCE messianic prophecy in 90:37, which speaks of a white bull with great horns (cf. Deut 33:17; see J. Schaper, Eschatology in the Greek Psalter, 111-12, 124-25, and n. 444). Likewise, the Assumption of Moses, which was first published in 1861 and dates from the period of the tetrarchs after the death of Herod the Great, was found to speak in 10:1-2 of the revelation of God's kingdom and the consecration of a messenger in heaven.

Renewed consideration was also given to Philo of Alexandria, who was writing in the period to which the Assumption of Moses belongs. National hope is important in Philo's treatise De Praemiis et Poenis ("On Rewards and Punishments"). In De Praemiis 95 he envisages a glorious return of Jewish exiles, led by the great Man of Balaam's prophecy in Num 24:7 (LXX): "There shall come forth a man." Then the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch, or 2 Baruch, which was first translated and edited in 1866 and 1871, respectively, proved itself to be close to 2 Esdras 3-14, not only in date and outlook but also in kindred predictions of messianic victory and reign.

Finally, fresh notice was taken of messianic features in ancient Jewish Prayers - especially in the Eighteen Benedictions, which form the thrice-daily petition known as the Tefillah ("the prayer") or Amidah ("standing prayer"). Mentioned repeatedly in the Mishnah (Berakoth 4:1-5:5) and transmitted among the liturgical texts of the Jewish community, these benedictions probably reflect prayer themes that were customary at the end of the first century CE. Most significant for our discussion is the fact that they include petitions for the coming of the anointed Davidic king (cf. E. Schurer, History of the Jewish People, 2.455-63; also P. S. Alexander, "The King Messiah," 471-72).

When these texts were considered together, as was done by Emil Schurer in 1873 (and later by his revisers), messianic hope was found to be attested in Jewish sources from before the beginning of the Herodian period to its end. These non-Christian Jewish texts ranged from the "Dream Visions" of 1 Enoch, the Psalms of Solomon, and the "Parables" of 1 Enoch, to 2 Esdras (4 Ezra), 2 Baruch, book 5 of the Sibylline Oracles, and the Eighteen Benedictions. They therefore spanned the time during which the New Testament books were written. By the same token, however, a good part of them came from the period just after the emergence of Christianity and so recalled Bauer's assertion that Jewish messianic hope arose only in the wake of the earlier Christian messianism.

Moreover, the ambiguity of the Assumption of Moses (e.g., is the messenger in heaven angelic or messianic, or possibly both?) raised questions regarding the coherence of the materials in this body of texts. Furthermore, although these writings mention a messianic figure, other eschatological texts do not. This suggested that the revelation of the divine kingdom could be envisaged in ancient Judaism without any clear reference to a Messiah. Nineteenth-century reassessment of these texts, therefore, made it harder to deny a pre-Christian Jewish messianic hope altogether, but by no means did it preclude the view that such a hope was either insignificant or incoherent.

Reconsideration of Jubilees and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs

Two other writings that received fresh attention in the mid-nineteenth century were Jubilees and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. These works seemed, at first, rather unimportant or ambiguous as evidence for a Jewish messianic hope. In the twentieth century, however, they gained more significance through the publication of hitherto unknown Hebrew texts from the Second Temple period.


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