Bauckham: New Testament Christology [1]

Richard Bauckham is one of my favourite NT scholars. He constantly challenges basic assumptions within the NT guild, is always interesting and a delight to read. This week I’m going to give an overview of Bauckham’s understanding of the development of New Testament Christology (probably three posts). By necessity, this will be more detailed than my usual posts. If that’s not to your taste, you can blame Brian, who is the source of their inspiration. Once I’ve finished this short series, I’ll provide a pdf.file as a handy reference for anyone who wants it.  

  

Jesus and the God of Israel  

—————————————————————  

Introduction  

One of the most prevalent assumptions within New Testament scholarship is that the early Christian belief that Jesus was a divine being worthy of worship is in considerable tension with Jewish monotheism. Richard Bauckham, in a stimulating and provocative fashion, has sought to dispel this notion while insisting that the earliest Christology was also the highest Christology. He argues that in trying to understand the development of NT Christology scholars have been utilising distorting and inappropriate conceptual categories which focus on what divinity or divine nature is rather than on who God is. Consequently, he employs the considerably more suitable category of ‘identity’ in his thesis. With this keystone of his argument in mind, Bauckham’s line of reasoning essentially proceeds in three clear phases. Firstly, “early Judaism had clear and consistent ways of characterising the unique identity of the one God and thus distinguishing the one God from all other reality.”[1] In point of fact, this construal of Jewish monotheism operates as the hermeneutical key to understanding the manner in which the NT writers relate Jesus to the one God of Israel. For secondly, the NT writers did not adapt pre-existing models from so-called semi-divine intermediaries which straddle the boundary between God and the rest of reality but directly identified Jesus with God, making use of the well-understood unique and defining characteristics of YHWH, the one God. They did so “in order to apply them also to Jesus, thereby including him in the unique divine identity.”[2] Bauckham argues that this step was taken “very early as the fundamental step on which all further christological development then rested.” Moreover, this occurred within a thoroughly Jewish milieu and “does not become any more intelligible by being placed at the end of a long process” under the influence of later Gentile and pagan ideas, for the notion is widespread across the entire New Testament.[3] Thirdly, the belief that the crucified and suffering messiah, Jesus, is intrinsic to the unique divine identity naturally has implications for who the one God is. Although this last stage of Bauckham’s general thesis is fascinating, it lies beyond the scope of the present series of posts.  

Jewish Monotheism and the Unique Divine Identity  

Bauckham believes the best way to make sense of the depiction of God in the texts is by analogy with human personal identity, and ‘identity’ is a crucial and central focus of his project.[4] From this angle, he notes that God is  

specifically identifiable through relationship to particular worldly realities – events which are particular acts of God, places in which God appears or dwells, people to whom God relates in specific ways. God in an important sense particularises Godself and gives Godself a particular identity by which God may be known.[5]  

Thus, he finds that in historical terms, it may well be appropriate to speak of the “‘monotheizing’ dynamic”[6] at the heart of pre-exilic Israel’s religion, but that by the Second Temple period there is good evidence to suggest that common Judaism was strictly and exclusively monotheistic.[7] Significantly, though, this form of monotheism did not entail unitariness nor “make distinctions within the divine identity inconceivable.”[8] The Shema was recited twice daily, often in conjunction with the first two commandments; belief and praxis were mutually reinforcing. Nonetheless, Bauckham argues that to understand the development of NT Christology within the matrix of Jewish monotheism scholars must especially attend to the way in which Jews “understood the uniqueness of God and drew the distinction between God and what is not God.”[9] He argues that in the Second Temple period this was expressed consistently and clearly: YHWH, the God of Israel, was the only eternal one, the creator and ruler of all.  

Bauckham posits that, “the overwhelming tendency in Second Temple Judaism was to depict God as absolutely unique, to differentiate God as completely as possible from all other reality,”[10] and a key symbol of this uniqueness is the high and lofty divine throne on which YHWH sits, far above all the heavenly realms. Within Jewish monotheism the throne  

represents the absolute divine rule, not merely over human society, but over the whole cosmos, the world of nature, the unseen worlds of the heavens and Hades, the whole of reality which God the sole cosmic emperor governs by his myriads of angelic servants.[11]  

This sort of imagery carefully conveyed who Jews believed their God to be, it conveyed YHWH’s unique identity vis-à-vis the rest of reality. Thus, it is against this portrait of a transcendent Second Temple Jewish monotheism that intermediary figures such as angels or exalted patriarchs are to be interpreted.[12]   

Bauckham stresses that the bulk of our evidence clearly testifies that God was treated as unique and that the small amount of highly debatable material which suggests otherwise must be viewed against this larger, dominant background. In fact, he believes that scholarly over-attention to these intermediary figures, which supposedly blur the distinction between God and the rest of reality, has proved greatly misleading.  

Specifically, Bauckham classifies the personified divine attributes as intrinsic to God’s own identity, whereas angels and patriarchs, however exalted, are not. He makes this judgement according to the decisive criteria which the texts themselves employ to differentiate between the one God and all other reality. For example, Word and Wisdom are involved in the act of creation, which is never stated of angels or patriarchs. Further, Wisdom is even viewed as sitting on God’s throne and acting as his advisor, in spite of the fact that God has no counsellors. Thus, as Wisdom is intrinsic to the unique divine identity this is not a breach of monotheism. Furthermore, while the literature may envisage a small council of angelic ministers of state, they execute the divine decrees, not co-rule, but serve and carry out God’s will. Moreover, “Some may rank higher than others but none has overall responsibility for all areas of government.”[13] This tells against those scholarly reconstructions which envisage the category of a grand-vizier or special plenipotentiary. The evidence of the texts simply does not support such a view. Bauckham’s perspective would seem to be corroborated by the well-established tradition in which angels refuse worship. As mere servants of the mighty Sovereign over all, they are simply not worthy of it. Indeed, the issue of worship is an essential aspect of Bauckham’s reconstruction.  

Monolatry is a key element in any consideration of Jewish monotheism. Bauckham observes that while pagan gods could be spoken of in exalted terms and in similar sounding language to the Jewish god, monolatry both heightened and was crucial to expressing the critical differences between the various monotheistic conceptions. YHWH was absolutely unique and not merely a high god or the source of a spectrum of divinity. Jewish worship practices, in both the giving and withholding of worship, were crucial in reflecting this. Bauckham points out that, repeatedly in polemic contexts within the literature, the reason that God is to be worshipped is that he is the creator and ruler of all, the only eternal one. Even those beings worshipped by Gentiles were created by him and were subject to his rule. As such,  

exclusive worship of the God of Israel was precisely a recognition of and response to his unique identity. For Second Temple Jews, it was because God was unique – in ways they were frequently willing to characterize – that he alone was worthy of worship.  

Thus, against Hurtado for instance, monolatry “cannot stand alone as a sufficient definition of the uniqueness of Jewish monotheism.”[14] When this Jewish understanding of the absolute uniqueness of YHWH is borne in mind, as the only eternal creator and ruler of all, the one seated on the heavenly throne, high and lifted up above all others, the one who alone may be worshipped, then it is Bauckham’s contention that the first Christians deliberately and clearly characterised Jesus in the same unique ways to state that he belonged within the divine identity. In other words, to understand who God is, we must incorporate Jesus into our thinking.  

Next up: The Divine Identity of Jesus  


[1] Bauckham, R., God Crucified: Monotheism & New Testament Christology (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998; repr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), vii.   

[2] Bauckham, R., “Monotheism and Christology in the Gospel of John” in R.N. Longenecker (ed.), Contours of Christology in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 148-66; 148.  

[3] Bauckham, God Crucified, 28.  

[4] It is possible to observe Bauckham’s thought progressing towards using ‘identity’ as a category in some of his earlier work, but that he had not yet clearly worked out the implications [e.g., The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: CUP, 1993), 58-62]. To speculate, the awkward discussion of Jesus’ role in Revelation through the medium of functional and ontic categories may well have provoked him to envisage a more satisfactory solution, and spurred him on to utilise more fully the notion of identity.  

[5] Bauckham, R., “Jesus the Revelation of God” in P. Avis (ed.), Divine Revelation (London/Grand Rapids: Darton, Longman & Todd/Eerdmans, 1997), 174-200; 188.  

[6] Bauckham, R., “Biblical Theology and the Problems of Monotheism” in C.G. Bartholomew, M. Healy, K. Moller, (eds.), Out of Egypt (SHS, 5; Carlisle/Grand Rapids: Paternoster/Zondervan, 2004), 187-232; 211.  

[7] E.g., Jos. Ant. 3.91; Philo, Decal. 65; Ps-Philo, LAB 6:4  

[8] Bauckham, God Crucified, 22.  

[9] Bauckham, God Crucified, 5.  

[10] Bauckham, R., “The Throne of God and the Worship of Jesus” in C.C. Newman, J.R. Davila and G.S. Lewis (eds.), The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism (JSJSup, 63; Leiden: Brill, 1999), 43-69; 48.  

[11] Bauckham, “Throne”, 53.  

[12] An obvious question at this juncture is whether a Jewish monotheism which views YHWH as the ‘king of gods’ presiding over a council of gods (Ps 82; 95:31) can really be the kind of transcendent monotheism Bauckham describes? But as he notes, it should not surprise us that within Second Temple literature there still remain a few vestiges of the polytheistic notions that YHWH is the high god of a pantheon or that YHWH retains a species identity. For, “Jewish monotheism was a historical phenomenon, whose ways of portraying God and his uniqueness were often fashioned out of older and non-Jewish materials which lacked the typically sharp Second Temple Jewish understanding of divine uniqueness” (“Throne”, 48). Thus, to clarify, while for Second Temple Jews God has a “personal identity”, because of his incomparability and unique defining characteristics, he no longer retains a “species identity”.  

Moreover, as Bauckham points out, it is not the mere use of the term “god” for other beings than YHWH that assigns them divinity, but how that term is used. Given that the texts continually stress YHWH’s incomparability, a category distinction is consistently driven between YHWH and all other beings. A similar issue is the outward appearance of heavenly beings which some scholars (e.g. Gieschen) designate a feature of divinity. Again, this should be viewed as the vestigial remains of a species identity for YHWH and his heavenly retinue, but one which no longer functions to signify their common species identity. In the Second Temple period, such descriptions of heavenly beings now convey the basic idea that “heaven and its inhabitants are shining and bright” (“Throne”, 51). See esp., “OT Monotheism”, 191-6, 207-17.   

[13] Bauckham, “Throne”, 50.  

[14] Bauckham, R., “The Worship of Jesus in Philippians 2:9-11” in R.P. Martin and B. Dodd (eds.), Where Christology Began (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998), 128-39; 129. This reflects a very interesting change of mind on Bauckham’s part and is a somewhat ironic turn of events as Hurtado explicitly credits Bauckham’s earlier work as a stimulus for his own position. Indeed, in an early article Bauckham stated that “It is not too much to say that Jewish monotheism was defined by its adherence to the first and second commandments” (“Jesus, Worship of” in D.N. Freedman (ed.), The Anchor Bible Dictionary, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 3: 812-819; 816). Yet, it is possible that this early work also contains the seed of his current position. “The worship of Jesus in early Christianity could neither be easily rejected… nor unreflectively permitted” (My emphasis; Bauckham, R., “The Worship of Jesus in Apocalyptic Christianity” NTS 27 (1981), 322-41; 335). It seems possible that Bauckham came to think that Jesus could only be worshipped if he were first recognised as divine; or as he might express it now, they recognised his divine identity and therefore gave him worship.

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3 Responses to “Bauckham: New Testament Christology [1]”

  1. Bauckham: New Testament Christology [2] « Introspective Cogitations Says:

    […] New Testament Christology [2] By Jonathan To recap the first post on Richard Bauckham’s understanding of the development of NT Christology: the God of Israel […]

  2. Bauckham: New Testament Christology [3] « Introspective Cogitations Says:

    […] New Testament Christology [3] By Jonathan Click here for the first and second posts outlining Richard Bauckham’s understanding of the development of New […]

  3. Week in Review: 08.13.10 | Near Emmaus Says:

    […] Jonathan Brown has begun a series on Richard Bauckham’s Christology (see here, here, and […]

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