January 6: Galatians 3:27; 1 John 3:2

Believers as the “sons of God”, continued

In this short study on the “birth” of Believers as the sons/children of God, I have presented this in terms of Christian experience, as a process made up of four ‘stages’. The first two were discussed in the previous note, each with a representative Scripture verse; the last two will be examined today.

    1. Pre-existent sonship (predestination/election as sons)
    2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus
    3. Sonship recognized/symbolized in the ritual of Baptism
    4. Sonship realized through resurrection/exaltation
3. Sonship symbolized in Baptism (Galatians 3:26-27ff)

In the conceptual framework I have adopted, the baptism of believers corresponds, appropriately enough, with the baptism of Jesus (cf. the chiastic outline in the previous note). As Jesus was declared God’s Son at the Baptism, so the sonship of believers is recognized (and symbolized) in the ritual of baptism.

References to baptism are surprisingly rare in the New Testament, outside of the Gospels and Acts. Indeed, Paul is the only author to deal with subject (apart from 1 Peter 3:21), and he appears to have developed a distinctive interpretation of the ritual. Drawing upon a common early tradition, he has infused baptism with a deeper theological (and Christological) meaning. There were two factors which led to the association between baptism and the identity of believers as sons of God. The first of these, as noted above, is the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ own baptism. All four Gospels include the tradition of the heavenly voice (of God) declaring Jesus to be his Son. While there is some textual uncertainty regarding this declaration in John (1:34, v.l.), the Synoptic tradition is relatively fixed (Mark 1:11 par). As discussed in an earlier note, the heavenly declaration almost certainly alludes to Psalm 2:7 (in Luke 3:22 v.l. it is a direct citation), and, as such, has definite Messianic significance, though, as we have seen, Christians also came to understand the title “Son of God” (and the statement in Psalm 2:7 itself) in a deeper sense, in terms of the pre-existent deity of Christ.

The second factor involves the significance of the ritual act, as it developed among the earliest believers. From the original idea of cleansing (from sin), baptism came to represent the essential identity of the believer in Christ. This was patterned along the lines of the Lord’s Supper, as presented in the early (Gospel) tradition—as a participation in the death of Jesus, symbolically imitating his own sacrificial act. By going into the water, one dies (symbolically), participating in Jesus’ death; and, in emerging again from the water, our new life in Christ is symbolized—a “rebirth” effected by the same divine power (the Spirit) that raised Jesus from the dead. No one emphasized or expressed this participatory aspect more than Paul. It is clearly and powerfully stated in Romans 6:3-5:

“…are you without knowledge that we, as (many of us) as were dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed Yeshua, we were dunked into his death? Then we were buried together with him through th(is) dunking into the death, (so) that, just as (the) Anointed (One) was raised out of the dead through the honor/splendor [do/ca] of the Father, (so) also we should walk about in newness of life. For if we have come to be planted together in the likeness of his death, (then) also will we be (in the likeness) of (his) standing up (out of the dead)…”

The same idea is expressed, more concisely, in Colossians 2:12, which better captures the essence of the ritual act:

“…(hav)ing been buried together with him in the dunking [i.e. baptism], in which also you rose together, through the trust (you have) of God’s working in (it), the (One hav)ing raised him out of the dead”

In Galatians, this participatory language also occurs at several points, not always in the context of baptism (see especially 2:19-21). The theme of baptism is introduced at 3:27, directly following the declaration in verse 26 regarding the identity of believers as sons of God (cf. the discussion in the previous note). The entirety of chapter 3 (indeed, all of chaps. 3-4) deals with this question of Christian identity—i.e., believers in Christ as the people of God, heirs to the covenantal promises originally given to Abraham (and Israel). The true identity of humankind as the sons of God comes through trust in Jesus, along with the presence of the Spirit—both of which are represented in the baptism ritual. Here is how Paul concludes his discussion in chapter 3:

“For all of you are sons of God through the trust (you have) in (the) Anointed Yeshua, for as (many) of you as were dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed, you sunk yourselves into (the) Anointed (as a garment). (And) there is in (him) no Yehudean {Jew} and no Greek, there is in (him) no slave and no free (person), there is in (him) no male and female—for you all are one in (the) Anointed Yeshua! And if you are of the Anointed (One), then you are the seed of Abraham, (the one)s receiving (his) lot, according to (the) message [i.e. promise] (of God) upon (it).” (vv. 26-29)

This same sort of ritual language and imagery is used by Paul in 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:10-11 (cp. Eph 4:24). His use of the image of ‘putting on a garment’, with the verb e)ndu/w (literally “sink in”, i.e. into the garment), is even more widespread. It is typically used in the middle voice, that is, of believers reflexively putting on Christ (as a garment). The ‘garment’ signifies the participatory union we have with Jesus (the Son), but also the new life (and new way of life) that this union brings. It is the baptism ritual that symbolizes this new life, but it still must be realized by believers, in the present, each day. Thus, Paul uses the idiom in an ethical context, urging believers to live and walk in this newness of life, which means walking according to the guidance of the Spirit. For the verb e)ndu/w in this context, cf. 1 Thess 5:8; Romans 13:12-14; Col 3:9-12 (cp. 2:11-12); Eph 6:11, 14; and, for similar instruction specifically referring to the Spirit’s guidance, note Rom 8:4-5ff; Gal 5:16-18, 25; 6:8. That the baptismal ‘garment’ is essentially to be identified with the Spirit is clear from 1 Cor 12:13.

In 1 Cor 15:53f and 2 Cor 5:3 the verb e)ndu/w and image of putting on the (new) garment is used in an eschatological context, referring to the resurrection and future glory of believers. It is this (final) aspect of the sonship of believers that I discuss briefly below.

4. Sonship realized through Resurrection/Exaltation (1 John 3:2)

It is in Romans 8:18-25 that Paul addresses the identity of believers as the “sons of God”, as it is finally realized at the end-time, in the resurrection. I have discussed this passage earlier, as part of the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, and will not repeat that study here. Instead, I turn to 1 John 3:1-3, for an expression of this eschatological aspect.

The principal thrust of First John has to do with the identity of those who are true believers in Christ. This is defined by the great dual-command of (a) trust in Jesus and (b) love for one’s fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example (3:23-24). For the author of the letter, sin is understood primarily as violating the dual-command. The section 2:28-3:10 deals with the relationship between sin and the believer; no true believer can sin in the sense of transgressing the dual-command, only false believers will sin this way. He warns of the false believers who do not have a proper trust or belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and also do not show love (since they have separated from the Community of believers). And, in common with the Johannine theology, the true believers are identified as children of God, using the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”), i.e. “the ones having come to be born out of God”. This is the language used in 2:29 (also 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18), while the plural noun te/kna (“offspring, children”) occurs in 3:1-2, 10; 5:2; in the Gospel, note 1:12-13; 3:3-8. In the Johannine writings, te/kna is preferred over ui(oi/ (“sons”, except Jn 12:36 “sons of light”), with the noun ui(o/$ reserved for Jesus as the only “Son”.

The section 2:28-3:10 is given an eschatological setting, referring to the end-time coming of Jesus, in 2:28. The author clearly believed that he and his readers were living in the last days (“last hour”, 2:18), and would likely live to see the return of Jesus. The false view of Jesus is called antichrist (a)nti/xristo$, “against the Anointed”) and is a sure indication that the end is near. Thus, in 3:1-3, the identity of believers as sons/children of God has both a present and future aspect, with the future soon to be realized:

“You must see what (sort of) love the Father has given to us, that we would be called (the) offspring of God [te/kna qeou=], and (so) we are. Through [i.e. because of] this, the world does not know us, (in) that [i.e. because] it did not know Him. Loved (one)s, we are now (the) offspring of God, and yet it has not been made to shine forth what we will be. We have seen that, when it should (indeed) be made to shine forth, we will be like Him, (in) that we will look with (open) eyes (seeing) Him even as He is. And (so) every (one) holding this hope upon him makes himself pure, even as that (one) is pure.”

The key eschatological statement is verse 2 (in bold). There are four different dimensions to the believers’ identity as the “offspring of God”, and they generally correspond with the four ‘stages’ outlined in this study:

    • “we would be called” —the love and intention God has for us [Election/Predestination]
    • “we are” —our essential identity and reality as believers [Trust in Jesus]
    • “we are now” —our identity in the present, realized in the Christian life [Symbolized by Baptism, etc]
    • “we will be” —our identity fulfilled at the end-time coming of Jesus [Resurrection/Exaltation]

The syntax of vv. 1-3 poses certain problems, as the referent for the 3rd person singular verbal subject and pronoun is not always clear. Does “he/him” refer to God the Father (the immediate subject in v. 1) or to Jesus (his return, the subject in 2:28). Moreover, the verb fanerwqh=| is unclear—is the subject “what we will be”, or does it refer to the appearance of Jesus? The former is to be preferred as more natural to the syntax, and also to the point the author is making; it should be read “when it should be made to shine forth…”. As to the identity of “he/him”, in my view, it is God the Father in vv. 1-2, but then switches (back) to Jesus in v. 3. The hope of believers is “upon him”, that is, upon the return of Jesus (2:28), and the demonstrative pronoun e)kei=no$ (“that one”) refers back to Jesus. In between, 2:29-3:2, the focus is on God the Father, and our (believers’) relation to Him as His offspring. Admittedly, the syntax is a bit confusing; it requires careful attention to the nuance of the author’s line of argument.

This eschatological dimension of sonship is not that unusual; it relates to the traditional Jewish idea of the righteous as “sons of God”, an identity that will only be fully realized in the blessed afterlife, after having passed through the Judgment—e.g., Wisdom 5:5; Philo On the Confusion of Tongues §147; cp. Matt 5:9; 2 Cor 6:18. We also have the eschatological image of the faithful ones being gathered together, at the end-time, as “sons of God” (Psalms of Solomon 17:28-30; cp. John 11:52). The blessed future life for the righteous involves the vision of God, i.e. seeing God Himself, and it is this experience which fully transforms the righteous (believers) into sons/children of God who resemble their Father (cf. Matt 5:8; 1 Cor 13:12; 2 Cor 3:18; in Jewish tradition, e.g., Philo On Abraham §§57-59; Pesiqta Rabbati 46b [11.7]; Midrash on Psalm 149 [270a]). Cf. R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 30 (1982), p. 425, and the discussion throughout pp. 378-435.

Ultimately, however, for believers, this transformation is based on our union with Jesus (the Son), through the Spirit. This builds on the familiar idea that our identity as God’s sons/children stems from Jesus’ own Sonship. Paul recognizes this throughout his discussions on the resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-23ff, 45-49; 2 Cor 4:14; Phil 3:20-21, etc), but most notably in Romans 8:18-25ff, and the climactic statement in verse 29:

“…that the (one)s whom He knew before(hand) He also marked out before(hand) together in (the) shape of the image of His Son, unto his being (the) first-produced [i.e. firstborn] among many brothers

Thus, we are to become truly God’s sons, brothers to Jesus as His Son. Much the same idea is to be found in Hebrews 2:10:

“For it was fitting for Him, through whom all (thing)s (have their purpose), and through whom all (thing)s (came to be), (in) leading many sons into honor/splendor [do/ca], (was) to make complete the chief leader of their salvation through sufferings.”

In 1 John 3:1-3, this relationship is indicated by the outer references to Jesus (2:28, 3:3) which frame the inner references to God the Father. Our sonship derives from Jesus’ own sonship, and our exaltation is similarly based on Jesus’ own exaltation. When he returns, this final aspect of our identity as sons of God will be realized.

December 27: Romans 1:4

In the previous note, we saw how, in the earliest Christian preaching, the deity of Jesus—and, in particular, his identity as the Son of God—was understood primarily in terms of his resurrection and exaltation to heaven. The birth/sonship motif was introduced by way of Psalm 2:7, applied to Jesus (as the Messiah). This featured in the kerygma of Paul’s Antioch speech in Acts 13 (vv. 32-33), but it is also representative of the wider preaching done by the first missionaries, reflecting a seminal Christology. Long before the Infancy narratives had been written—and even years before any Gospel was written at all—there was a core story of Jesus’ birth, of how he can to be “born” as the Son of God.

If the book of Acts preserves Gospel preaching (in substance, at least) from the early years c. 30-45 A.D., then the Pauline letters represent the next stage of development, documents recording early Christian theology in written form, during the years c. 45-60. And, in those letters, the title “Son of God”, and references to Jesus as God’s Son, occur more frequently than they do in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts. The few passages which mention God sending his Son (Rom 8:3, 32; Gal 4:4ff) may allude to a belief in Jesus’ pre-existent deity (cp. with Phil 2:6-11)—at any rate, they certainly point in that direction. However, most of Paul’s references do not evince a Christology that goes much beyond what we see in the book of Acts. Two of the earliest such references to Jesus as God’s Son, like those by Paul in the Acts speeches, etc, are still very much defined in relation to the resurrection.

1 and 2 Thessalonians are likely are the earliest of Paul’s surviving letters, dating perhaps from 49-50 A.D. They contain just one reference to Jesus as God’s Son—the eschatological notice in 1 Thess 1:10:

“…how you turned back toward God, away from the images, to be a slave for the living and true God, and to remain up (waiting for) His Son (from) out of the heavens, whom He raised out of the dead—Yeshua, the (one hav)ing rescued us out of the coming anger (of God)”.

Here, again, Jesus’ status as God’s Son appears to be tied to his resurrection. This is more or less assumed by Paul in the subsequent letters, but never again stated so clearly in terms of the traditional belief. Within just a few years, apparently, Paul’s Christological understanding had deepened; certainly, by the time he wrote 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans, in the mid-late 50s, he refers to Jesus as God’s Son somewhat differently, with new points of emphasis. Romans, in many ways, represents the pinnacle of his theology; however, it begins with a doctrinal formulation (1:3-4) that many commentators regard as much earlier, a creedal statement that Paul inherited and adapted. This critical hypothesis is probably correct, given the atypical language, phrasing and theological emphases that occur in these two verses. If it does indeed represent an older, established creedal formula, then it may have been in existence any number of years prior to being incorporated by Paul in the opening of Romans. It may well reflect the Christological understanding of believers c. 45-50 A.D.

Romans 1:4

Here is the statement in Rom 1:3-4, given in literal translation:

“…about His Son, the (one hav)ing come to be out of the seed of David according to the flesh, the (one hav)ing been marked out (as) Son of God, in power, according to the spirit of holiness, out of the standing up [i.e. resurrection] of the dead—Yeshua (the) Anointed, our Lord”

Two participial phrases are set in parallel:

    • “coming to be out of the seed of David
      • according to the flesh”
    • “being marked out (as) Son of God…
      • according to the spirit of holiness”

The modifying prepositional phrases (with kata/, “according to”) are also parallel. The first clearly refers to Jesus’ human birth, while the second, properly, to his “birth” as the Son of God. Both aspects of Jesus’ person and identity are fundamentally Messianic. The first phrase indicates that he was the Davidic (royal) Messiah from the time of his birth, and apparently, assumes the tradition of a Davidic geneaology (cp. Matt 1:1-17). The second phrase, most likely builds on the early Christological statements in Acts 13:32-33, etc (cf. the previous note), which applies Psalm 2:7 to Jesus, in the context of the resurrection, and so defines his identity as the “Son of God”. This basic qualification of the title would seem to be confirmed by the wording in verse 4, especially the modifying expression “in power” and the specific phrase “out of the standing up [i.e. resurrection] of the dead”.

The expression “in power” (e)n duna/mei) refers to God’s power (duna/mi$) that raised Jesus from the dead, as seems clear from Paul’s wording in 1 Cor 6:14:

“And God raised the Lord [i.e. Jesus] and will (also) raise us through His power [dia\ th=$ duna/mew$ au)tou=]”

The power that raised Jesus also established him as God’s Son, in a position at God the Father’s right hand in heaven. The modifying phrase “according to the spirit of holiness” is a bit more ambiguous. Despite the similarity in wording, and the familiar Pauline contrast between flesh (sa/rc) and Spirit (pneu=ma), the expression “spirit of holiness” probably should not be taken as equivalent to “the Holy Spirit”; it is better understood here in the sense of the transformation of Jesus’ person and human body (“flesh”) which occurred in the resurrection. In 1 Cor 15:45, Paul states that Jesus (the “last Adam”) came to be (transformed) “into a life-giving spirit”. Elsewhere, Paul essentially identifies the Holy Spirit with the Spirit of Jesus that is at work in and among believers, so there is clearly some conceptual overlap and blending of these ideas. The exalted person of Jesus comes to be closely identified with the Holy Spirit, especially when understood in relation to believers.

We must keep in mind that the parallel with Jesus’ physical/biological human birth in verse 3 confirms that v. 4 refers to Jesus’ “birth” as the Son of God. This is understood, in line with the earliest Christian belief, in terms of the resurrection, however problematic this might be for subsequent Christology. That some were indeed troubled by the wording here is suggested by the common Latin rendering that developed (praedestinatus), which would presuppose the reading proorisqe/nto$ (“marking out before[hand]”) instead of o(risqe/nto$ (“marking out”). The verb o(ri/zw literally means “mark out”, as of a boundary, setting the limits to something, etc. It can be used figuratively (of people) in the sense of appointing or designating someone, in a position or role, etc. The use of the verb here of Jesus (cp. Acts 17:31; 10:42) suggests that he was appointed to the position/status of God’s Son only at the resurrection; while the prefixed proori/zw is more amenable to a belief in Jesus’ pre-existent deity.

Paul’s initial words in verse 3 allow for the possibility of the pre-existent Sonship of Jesus—i.e. that he was God’s Son even prior to his birth. This would seem to be confirmed by the language used in 8:3, 29, 32 (cp. Gal 4:4ff). In all likelihood, Paul would have affirmed (in Romans and Galatians) the Christological understanding evinced in the Christ-hymn of Phil 2:6-11, expressed in terms of God sending His Son to humankind. While this is not so forceful a view of pre-existent Sonship as we find in the Johannine writings (Gospel and Letters), it seems clear enough. The apparent contrast with the Christology of Rom 1:3-4 can be explained by the critical theory, that those verses preserve an older/earlier mode of expression, a creedal formula which Paul has adopted.

Before proceeding to consider Jesus’ identity as the Son of God in Rom 8:3ff and Gal 4:4-7, and how this relates to the birth/sonship motif, it is necessary to turn first to the early Gospel tradition, and how this motif was applied to Jesus’ Baptism and the period of his earthly ministry. This we will do in the next note.

December 26: Acts 13:33

Jesus as the Son of God: The Resurrection and Exaltation of Christ

If we are to ask: how did the earliest Christians understand Jesus’ identity as the Son of God? The answer may be somewhat surprising. The orthodox Christology, as enshrined in the 4th century Nicene Creed, affirms Jesus Christ as the eternal, pre-existent Son of God the Father. However, Christians did not come to such a fully developed belief immediately. Indeed, there is actually little evidence, clear and direct, for the pre-existent deity of Jesus in much of the New Testament. For the earliest believers, Jesus’ divine Sonship was understood and expressed almost entirely in terms of the resurrection. And, while this did not remain the limit of the New Testament Christology, it is very much where the Christology began.

This can be illustrated by an examination of the preaching in the book of Acts. While commentators debate the extent to which the sermon-speeches in Acts genuinely reflect the earliest preaching, there appear to be enough unusual or archaic details in them to affirm, on entirely objective grounds, that the speeches preserve, in substance, authentic Gospel preaching from the time of the first apostles. For more on this, cf. the articles in my series “The Speeches of Acts”.

When one looks as the Gospel preaching in Acts, one is struck by the absence of a ‘high’ Christology, with virtually no suggestion of Jesus’ pre-existent deity. In the earliest years, still flush from the experience of the resurrection, the first preachers and missionaries presented their proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel squarely in terms of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. With the resurrection, Jesus was exalted to a divine status and position, to be seated at the right hand of God. This was the result of the resurrection, and there is no real indication that he had this position prior to his life and ministry on earth. Of all the sermon-speeches in Acts, those by Peter and Paul, in Acts 2 and 13 respectively, are primary, encapsulating the essence of the earliest preaching. In each of these speeches, the deity of Jesus is clearly expressed in relation to the resurrection; note, for example, Peter’s declaration:

“This Yeshua God made to stand up (out of the dead), of which we all are witnesses; so (then), having been lifted high to the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of God, and receiving the message about (what will be done by way) of the holy Spirit (from) alongside the Father, he poured this out… So (then), all the house of Yisrael must know, without fail, that God made him (to be) even Lord and Anointed (One), this Yeshua whom you put to the stake!” (2:32-33, 36)

The passage clearly states that Jesus was made (vb poie/w) Lord and Christ as a result of the resurrection. This sort of language would be problematic for later Christians, since, according to the orthodox Christology, Jesus was already Lord (as the pre-existent Son) long before he was raised from the dead. While Peter’s speech does not mention the motif of sonship, it is part of Paul’s great speech at Antioch in chapter 13; it is worth devoting some attention to the statement in verse 33.

Acts 13:33

The two great sermon-speeches by Peter and Paul (in Acts 2 and 13) have a similar structure, style, and points of emphasis. In both speeches there are key Scripture passages (from the Psalms) that are expounded as part of the Gospel proclamation (kerygma), so as to demonstrate (to the Jewish audience) that Jesus is the Anointed One (Messiah), the end-time ruler and redeemer from the line of David. As it happens, both speeches make use of Psalm 16:8-11, as a (Messianic) prophecy of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (2:25-31; 13:34-37). Along with this Scripture passage, another Psalm verse is included as a Messianic prophecy. In Acts 2, it is Psalm 110:1 (vv. 34-35), while in Acts 13 it is Psalm 2:7 (vv. 32-33). These happen to be the two Old Testament verses which exerted the most influence on early Christians, both in terms of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and his divine status. With Psalm 110:1, this involves the title Lord (ku/rio$), while in Ps 2:7 it is the Messiah’s identity as God’s Son. The Gospel proclamation in Acts relates both of these to Jesus in his resurrection and exaltation (not as pre-existent titles). Here is Paul’s use of Psalm 2:7 in verses 32-33:

“And we bring th(is) good message to you: the message about (what God will do), (hav)ing come to be toward the fathers, (it is) this that God has fulfilled for us th[eir] offspring, (by) making Yeshua stand up (out of the dead), even as it has been written in the second Psalm— ‘You are my son; today I have caused you to be (born)’.”

The point could not be any clearer: Jesus’ ‘birth’ as God’s Son occurred as a result of his resurrection. The author of Hebrews makes similar use of Psalm 2:7 , but with a major difference—the traditional context of Jesus’ resurrection (5:5) has been expanded to include the idea of his eternal pre-existence (1:5). This is a proper development in early Christian thought, but it is a development which, by all accounts, had not yet occurred in the earliest period. It is generally absent from the Synoptic Gospels and Acts; the earliest evidence for a belief in Jesus’ pre-existent deity appears to be the Christ-hymn in Phil 2:6-11, probably some time around 60 A.D. (or a few years prior). There are other possible allusions in Paul’s letters (cf. below), but few if any clear references earlier than the Christ-hymn.

The only other reference to Jesus as the Son of God in the book of Acts is 9:20, where Paul again is the focus of the narrative. It summarizes his Gospel preaching among Jews (in the synagogues):

“And straightway, in the (place)s (where people) are brought together [i.e. synagogues], he proclaimed Yeshua, (saying) that this (one) is the Son of God.”

This narrative statement is generally synonymous with the one that follows in verse 22: “…he poured out (his teaching) together (among) the Yehudeans {Jews}…driving together (the point) that this (one) is the Anointed (of God).” By bringing the two statements together, we obtain a snapshot of the apostolic message, and specifically that emphasized by Paul. Jesus is the Anointed One (Messiah) expected by the people, and more—through his resurrection and exaltation to heaven, he also is truly “the Son of God”.

Thus, when the earliest Christians spoke of Jesus’ birth, they did not immediately have in mind his physical birth as a human being, but, rather, his “birth” as the Son of God that resulted from his resurrection from the dead. Being exalted to heaven, and seated as the right hand of God the Father, he is very much the Son. How was this idea expressed and how did it develop in the earliest Christian writings?

The best evidence we have for Christian belief in the period c. 45-60 A.D. comes from the Pauline letters, especially those where authorship is undisputed (1 Thessalonians, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians, etc). In the next note, we will look at some key references to Jesus as God’s Son in these letters, with special attention being paid to the declaration in Romans 1:4.

June 8: Acts 2:33

This is the second of three daily notes on the Pentecost speech-sermon of Peter in Acts 2:14-41 in which I am examining three Christological statements or expressions—the first (a&ndra a)podedeigme/non a)po\ tou= qeou=, see the previous day’s note) was found in verse 22; today I will be looking at verse 33. The first kerygmatic statement in vv. 22-24 precedes the quotation from Psalm 16; a second kerygmatic statement follows it in vv. 32-33, which is framed by two main clauses (with parenthetic declarations):

This Yeshua {Jesus} God made stand up (again)
—of which we all are witnesses…

…he has poured this out
—which you [also] see and hear

Note the structure of this frame:

    • Act of God (the Father)—raised Jesus from the dead
      • We all (i.e. the disciples/speaker[s]) are witnesses (i.e. have seen)
    • Act of Jesus—poured out the (gift of the) Spirit
      • You (i.e. the crowd/hearers) are witnesses (see and hear)

It is the inner clauses that are central to the Christological statement, for they provide the bridge between the act of God (resurrection) and the act of Jesus (sending the Spirit); they are as follows:

th=| decia=| ou@n tou= qeou= u(ywqei\$,
th\n te e)paggeli/an tou= pneu/mato$ tou= a(gi/ou labw\n para\ tou= patro/$

(and) therefore being lifted high (to) the giving [i.e. right] (hand) side of God
(and) receiving the e)paggeli/a of the holy Spirit (from) alongside the Father

The first clause refers to Jesus’ exaltation to the special honored position of the “right hand” side of God. This is a popular expression in the New Testament, and one of the most common (and probably earliest) descriptions of the exalted “divine” status of Jesus (Mk 14:62 par; Acts 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3ff; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22), certainly influenced greatly by Psalm 110:1, cited already by Jesus in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 12:36; Matt 22:44; Luke 20:42), here in Acts 2:34, and in Hebrews 1:13. This idea of Jesus being raised to divine status/position proved somewhat problematic for subsequent Christology, for it could indeed be taken to suggest that Jesus was not “fully divine” prior to the resurrection/exaltation. I will discuss the “adoptionistic” interpretation of such expressions at the conclusion of the third note.

The second clause describes Jesus’ reception of the Holy Spirit from the Father. This idea is less common in the New Testament, best known from the Gospel of John—see the discourses of Jesus in Jn 13-17 (esp. 14:26; 15:26; 16:7) and the episode in Jn 20:19-23 (v. 22). However, something similar had already been mentioned in the Gospel of Luke 24:49:

“and [see!] I set forth from (God/Myself) the e)paggeli/a of my Father upon you; but you—sit (down) in the city until the (time in) which you should be sunk into [i.e. have put on] power (from) out of (the) height”

The same expression “e)paggeli/a of the Father” also occurs in Acts 1:4 in reference to the coming of the Spirit upon the disciples. Previously above, I left the word e)paggeli/a untranslated since it is somewhat difficult to render literally in English. Fundamentally, it would be defined as a message or announcement (a)ggeli/a angelía) on (e)pi epi) a particular matter, primarily in the sense of a public declaration. A specialized, but common, nuance to the word is a declaration that a person intends (or is about) to do something—i.e., a promise—and so the word is used almost exclusively in the New Testament. The context tends to be the covenantal promise(s) God made to Israel, even though the word e)paggeli/a (and the verb e)pagge/llw) hardly occur in the Greek version (LXX) of the Old Testament; it becomes much more common in the deutero-canonical and similar Jewish writings of the intertestamental period (e.g., 2 Macc 2:17; 3 Macc 2:10; Ps Sol 12:8; 2 Bar 57:2; 59:2; Jos Ant 2.219), often expressed in terms of the “promises of God” or the “promises of/to the fathers”—promises to be inherited/fulfilled to faithful believers among Israel. The word, in this sense (and with these related expressions), is used fairly frequently by Paul (in Romans and Galatians), as well as in Hebrews—in particular, Paul invests the word with great significance, indicating the salvation and (eternal) life to be inherited (the parallel word klhronomi/a “lot, inheritance”) by believers through Christ (apart from the Law). This is realized through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, as Paul states in Gal 3:14; note the expression “promise of the Spirit” (e)paggeli/a tou= pneu/mato$)—parallel with the “blessing (eu)logi/a) of Abraham”—and cf. also Eph 1:13 (“the holy Spirit of the promise”).

Apart from 23:21, all of the subsequent instances of e)paggeli/a in the book of Acts refer primarily to the idea of God’s promise(s) to Abraham/Israel:

  • Acts 2:39, juxtaposed with the promise of the Spirit (v. 33), as in Galatians 3:14
  • Acts 7:17—promise to Abraham, in the context of the Exodus and journey to the Promised Land
  • Acts 13:32, juxtaposed with Christ (as Savior) from the seed of David “according to the promise” in v. 23 (cf. Galatians 3-4 for Christ [and believers] as the seed of Abraham according to the promise)
  • Acts 26:6, again with an implied connection (or fulfillment) of the promise in Jesus Christ (and the gift of the Spirit)

As mentioned previously, in Acts 1:4, here in 2:33, and earlier in Luke 24:49 (the only instance of the word in the Gospels), the Spirit is specifically referred to as the e)paggeli/a (“promise”) of God.

From whom/whence does Jesus send (a)postellw, lit. “set [forth] from…”) the Spirit, as in Lk 24:49 (see above)? In the history of Doctrine, this is the notorious question of the “procession of the Holy Spirit”, as represented by the so-called Filioque controversy. The latin filioque reflects an expression “and the Son” which was added to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, to indicate that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son (technically referred to as the “double/dual procession of the Holy Spirit”). This addition was rejected by the Eastern Church and has proven a divisive issue between East and West through the centuries, the precise reasons for which are somewhat hard to appreciate today. The idea of a shared “sending” of the Spirit, in some meaningful sense, is suggested strongly by the Gospel of John, where, in the discourses, Jesus refers to the Spirit/Paraclete as one who: (1) “the Father will send in my name” [Jn 14:26], (2) “I will send (from) alongside the Father” [Jn 15:26], (3) “I will send”, having first gone away to the Father [Jn 16:7]. The phrasing in Lk 24:49 and Acts 2:33 is closest to Jn 15:26. Conceptually, in the Gospel of John, the idea is that the Spirit is sent (travels/proceeds out of the Father, cf. Jn 15:26) to the Son, and the Son, in turn, sends it/him to believers (portrayed in Jn 20:22 as Jesus breathing the Spirit into the believers).

Where Did Jesus Go? – Critical Notes on the Ascension, Pt 3

In the first two parts (Pt 1 & 2)of this article, I discussed the main passages dealing with the Ascension of Jesus in Luke-Acts (Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:1-11). Here I will briefly explore several additional New Testament passages, followed by a treatment of some key critical questions related to the Ascension.

Mark 16:19

This is the most straightforward account of the Ascension, presented in traditional, credal terms:

o( me\n ou@n ku/rio$  )Ihsou=$ meta\ to\ lalh=sai au)toi=$ a)nelh/mfqh ei)$ to\n ou)rano\n kai\ e)ka/qisen e)k deciw=n tou= qeou=
“therefore the Lord Jesus, after speaking to them, was taken up into the heaven and sat out of the ‘right-hand’ of God”

decio/$ is literally the hand/side “that takes” (or gives), the favored or auspicious side. The “right hand” (/ym!y`) of God occurs frequently in the Old Testament (Exodus 15:6, 12; Psalm 16:11; 17:7, etc; Isaiah 41:10; 48:13; 62:8; and others), usually as a symbol of God’s faithfulness and power. It is also the most common image of Jesus’ exaltation in the New Testament (Matthew 22:44; 26:64; Mark 12:36; 14:62; Luke 20:42; 22:69; Acts 2:25, 33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22)—all of these passages seem to have been influenced by Psalm 110:1 (many are direct citations). Even though this account in Mark is probably not original to the Gospel (part of the so-called “long ending”, 16:9-20), it no doubt here preserves an ancient tradition.

There is another reference to the ascension/exaltation of Jesus, in an unusual variant, earlier in the chapter. In verse 4, the Old Latin MS k begins: “but suddenly at the third hour of the day there was darkness over the whole circle of the earth, and angels descended from the heavens, and as he [the Lord] was rising [surgente eo] in the glory of the living God, at the same time they ascended with him; and immediately it was light. Then the women went to the tomb…” (translation from Meztger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition, pp. 101-102). This represents a description of the actual resurrection of Jesus, similar to that found in the Gospel of Peter §35-40. However, it also reflects the principal manner in which the “Ascension” was understood in the early Church—that is, as an extension of the resurrection (on this, see below).

John 20:17

The only specific reference in John to anything like the traditional “Ascension” in Luke-Acts, occurs during the first resurrection appearance (to Mary Magdalene). Here Jesus says to her: mh/ mou a%ptou, ou&pw ga\r a)nabe/bhka pro\$ to\n pate/ra, “do not touch me, for I have not yet stepped up toward the Father”; and, following the instruction to go to the other disciples (“my brothers”), tells her to say to them, a)nabai/nw pro\$ to\n pate/ra mou kai\ pate/ra u(mw=n kai\ qeo/n mou kai\ qeo\n u(mw=n (“I step up toward my Father and your [pl.] Father, and [toward] my God and your [pl.] God”). The chronology of this statement is difficult, for it does not seem to fit with the wider record of resurrection appearances in the Gospel tradition, nor with the ‘older’ view of an ascension as an immediate climax of the resurrection/exaltation. It is complicated even further by John’s highly symbolic use (primarily as presented in the Discourses of Jesus) of going/lifting up. For other similar uses of a)nabai/nw: John 3:13; 6:62; 1:51 (also the references of “going up” to the feast may involve an intentional wordplay); for u(yo/w (“lift high”) see John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34. Throughout the last discourses (John 13-17), Jesus also makes numerous references to going/returning to the Father (John 13:3, 33; 14:2, 4, 13, 28; 16:5, 7, 10, 17, 28). Since these are generally made in context of the coming/sending of the paraclete (lit. “one called alongside”, identified with the Holy Spirit [14:26]), it is almost certainly Jesus’ ‘final’ departure that is in view; however, other references to his return (14:18-20; 16:16-23) seem to fit better an immediate post-resurrection appearance.

I have discussed some of the symbolic and theological nuances of the appearance to Mary in a previous post. With regard to the authentic tradition that underlies this narrative, it is perhaps best to distinguish clearly between: (a) Jesus’ exaltation to the right-hand of the Father (as part of the resurrection), and (b) his final (earthly) departure from the disciples. Since “ascension” language can be used to describe both of these, one must be careful not to confuse them (on this, see in more detail below).

Ephesians 4:8-10

Here Paul (or the author of the epistle) cites Psalm 68:18a [MT 19a], which, early on in Christian tradition, seems to have been understood as referring to the ascension and exaltation of Christ. It quickly became embedded as part of the liturgy celebrating the ascension. However, as is often the case with scriptural citations in the New Testament, both the original text and context have been altered:

Hebrew (MT)

<d*a*B* tonT*m^ T*j=q^l* yb!V# t*yb!v* <orM*l^ t*yl!u*

“You have gone up to the heights, you have led captive captivity, you have taken gifts by man”

LXX (67:19a)

a)ne/bh$ ei)$ u%yo$ h)|xmalw/teusa$ ai)xmalwsi/an e&labe$ do/mata e)n a)nqrw/pw|

“You have stepped up into (the) height, you have led captive captivity, you have taken/received gifts among man”

Ephesians 4:8

a)naba\$ ei)$ u%yo$ h)|xmalw/eusen ai)xmalwsi/an e&dwken do/mata toi=$ a)nqrw/poi$

“Stepping up into (the) height, he led captive captivity, he gave gifts to men”

The LXX is a faithful rendering of the Hebrew. However, the citation in Ephesians differs markedly:

    • The first verb (a)naba\$) is a participle, which is not all that significant; this also occurs as a variant (MS B) in the LXX
    • The verbs have all been changed from 2nd person to 3rd person, which is a natural adaptation to the context in Ephesians (from a hymn addressing God, to a description of the work of Christ).
    • The collective “man” (<dah) has been changed to the plural “men”
    • The last verb has been changed from “take/receive” (jql, lamba/nw) to “give” (di/dwmi)

This last is most notable, for it entirely alters the sense of the passage. In the original Psalm, the justice and power of God are celebrated. Yahweh has gone out before His people, leading them in power and glory (vv. 7-18, also 21-23)—kings and armies flee before His might (v. 12, 14). He is depicted as going up into His mountain, leading captives from battle, and taking/receiving gifts (even from the rebellious [the ones who have “turned aside”], v. 18b). Verses 24-31 present the liturgical picture of peoples offering gifts to God. While all of this, of course, could fit the image of Christ being exalted to the right-hand of God, Ephesians has turned the image inside out: now God/Christ is the one offering gifts to believers.

*  *  *  *  *  *

It now remains to address several key questions related to the Ascension:

    1. Where did it occur?
    2. When did it occur?
    3. What is its exact nature?

1. Where Did the Ascension Occur?

This is part of a larger question related to the provenance of the resurrection appearances. If one takes all the Gospel narratives as they currently stand, it is actually quite difficult to harmonize them in detail, though of course many have attempted to do so. There are two fundamental differences in the accounts:

(a) In one line of tradition, the Messenger tells the women at the tomb to relate to the disciples (and Peter) that “he leads (the way) before you into Galilee; there you will see him, even as he said to you” (Mark 16:7, par. Matthew 28:7). The implication is that Jesus is going ahead to Galilee, and it is there that the disciples (including Peter) will (first) see him. This is confirmed even more clearly by Jesus in Matthew 28:10, declaring that the disciples “should go from (here) into Galilee”. There is no suggestion that they should remain in Jerusalem; in fact, that could be said to contradict Jesus’ command. In Matthew, the subsequent appearance in Galilee (vv. 16-17), however brief, gives every indication that this is the first appearance to the disciples (note their “wavering” in v. 17, indications of doubt common to the other appearances in Luke and John).

By all accounts, the original ending of Mark has been lost (this is not certain, but I think it remains the best explanation); the so-called “long ending” (16:9-20), though added relatively early (it is known by the mid-2nd century), seems very much to be a secondary (scribal?) addition. While doubtless containing ancient/authentic traditions, I think it possible that an attempt has also been made to harmonize with the account in Luke. In any event, the resurrection appearance (and ascension, v. 19) seems to take place in Jerusalem (though this is not specified), which would be ‘contrary’ to the message in v. 7.

(b) The second line of tradition (preserved in Luke 24 and John 20) clearly has the resurrection appearances occurring in and around Jerusalem. In the Lukan account, Jesus actually commands the disciples to remain (kaqi/sate, “sit” or “dwell”) in the city (presumably Jerusalem) “until the (moment) in which you should be set in power out of (the) height” (24:49). The implication is that they should stay in Jerusalem for the approx. fifty days until Pentecost (when the Spirit comes upon them). There is no mention of going to Galilee; in fact, similar to the (opposite) situation in Matthew-Mark, that would contradict Jesus’ explicit command. It is interesting that, if Luke has made use of Mark (as scholars commonly believe), then he has quite altered the angelic announcement: in Luke 24:6 the two messengers still mention Galilee (cf. Mark 16:7), but in a very different context.

In John, too they are apparently in Jerusalem when Jesus appears and they receive the Spirit from him (20:19-23); similarly the appearance to Thomas eight days later (vv. 26-29) would presumably still be in Jerusalem. John 21 complicates the picture: for there (in verses 1-14 at least) we have a resurrection appearance in Galilee. However, since this chapter follows what seems to be the conclusion to the Gospel (20:30-31), many scholars would view it as a kind of “appendix”, possibly composed/included by a different author (though this is much disputed). Its exact origins and relation to the events recorded in chapter 20 are also uncertain, with a wide range of opinions on all sides.

Of course, according to Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:50-53 (assuming the longer reading), the Ascension of Jesus—that is, his final departure from the disciples—clearly takes place on the Mount of Olives, about 2000 cubits (or just over 1000 yards) east of Jerusalem (Acts 1:12). If the reference in Luke 24:50 is meant to be specific, then the Ascension might have occurred on the eastern slope somewhere near Bethany.

2. When Did the Ascension Occur?

This question, in relation to the seemingly divergent chronologies in Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:1-11, has been dealt with to some extent in the first two parts of this article. The basic question is, did it take place on Easter day as is (apparently) indicated in Luke 24 and the Markan “long ending”, or did it take place between 40 and  50 days later as narrated in Acts? My view is that the “separate” accounts in Luke-Acts probably describe the same event, but that in the Gospel the narrative has been greatly compressed, so that events which may have occurred days apart seem to take place on the same day. The same could perhaps be said of the Markan “long ending”, especially since everything seems to wrap up quickly in the last two verses.

However, a proper answer to the question also must address exactly what one means by the “Ascension”.

3. What Is the Nature of the Ascension?

As indicated above, there seem to be two separate traditions at work:

a) The first describes the “Ascension” in terms of Jesus’ resurrection—his being raised and glorified to the “right hand” of the Father.

b) The second relates it in terms of Jesus’ final (earthly) departure from his disciples.

One must be careful, I think, not to confuse or conflate the two traditions—for, both doctrinally, and even historically, they can be said to have quite different meanings. However, if one wishes to systematize or harmonize the scriptural details, it could possibly be done as follows:

    • Jesus’ being raised from the dead (evidence of the empty tomb and the angelic announcement[s])
    • His ascension to the Father is part of the resurrection/exaltation, which climaxes with his presence at the right hand of God (where also he receives the Spirit to give to his disciples)
    • From a temporal point of view, Jesus’ appearance to the women (cf. Matthew 28:9-10; [Mark 16:9]; John 20:11-18) could perhaps be seen as taking place prior to this ascent to the Father (John 20:17-18)—but that is not entirely clear.
    • Resurrection appearances of the glorified Christ, during which he instructed and commissioned the disciples (in John [20:22] he gives them the Spirit as well)
    • His final departure, recorded only in Luke-Acts, described as a visible Ascension
    • Mark 16:19 may represent a conflation of the two traditions (in a credal formula?), indicated above

Where Did Jesus Go? – Critical Notes on the Ascension, Pt 1

This post is an extended “Note of the Day” following the celebration of the Ascension of Jesus, traditionally commemorated 40 days after Easter (cf. Acts 1:3ff). There are surprisingly few direct references to the “Ascension”, either in the New Testament or in early Christian literature. More commonly, reference is made to Christ’s exaltation (usually involving either the verb u(yo/w, “to raise high” or adjective u(yhlo/$, “high”; cf. Acts 2:33; 5:31; Philippians 2:9; Hebrews 1:3; 7:26, etc), or to his being in heaven at the “right (hand)” (decio/$, that is, the giving/receiving hand) of God (cf. Mark 14:62 par.; Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22).

Only in Luke-Acts is an ascension described as a distinct event, perceivable in space and time. However, since there are numerous difficult text-critical (and interpretative) issues related to these passages, these will need to be discussed in some detail.

Luke 24:50-53

Luke’s Gospel concludes with a scene (apparently still on Easter day) which, in the “oldest and best” manuscripts (Ë75 a B C* L 1 33 579 etc), reads as follows:

50  )Ech/gagen de\ au)tou\$ [e&cw] e%w$ pro\$ Bhqani/an kai\ e)pa/ra$ ta\$ xei=ra$ au)tou= eu)lo/ghsen au)tou/$. 51 kai\ e)ge/neto e)n tw=| eu)logei=n au)to\n au)tou\$ die/sth a)p’ au)tw=n kai\ a)nefe/reto ei)$ to\n ou)rano/n.
“And he brought/led them out[side] until toward Bethany, and lifting over (them) his hands he spoke well to them [i.e. blessed them]; and it came to be, in his speaking well to them [i.e. blessing them], he stood (apart) from them and was carried up into the heaven.”
52 Kai\ au)toi\ proskunh/sante$ au)to\n u(pe/streyan ei)$  )Ierousalh\m meta/ xara=$ mega/lh$ 53 kai\ h@san dia/ panto\$ e)n tw=| i(erw=| eu)logou=nte$ to\n qeo/n.
“And they, kissing toward him [i.e. worshiping him], turned back unto Jerusalem with great joy, and they were through all [i.e. continually] in the sacred place [i.e. temple] speaking well to [i.e. blessing] God.”

(The Majority text differs slightly, primarily in reading ei)$ Bhqani/an instead of pro\$ Bhqani/an in v. 50, and adding kai\ ai)nou=nte$ or ai)nou=nte$ kai\ [“blessing and praising God”] in v. 53.)

There are, however, two major variants (omissions) in the key Western MSS (D, Old Latin a b d e ff2 l, and the Sinaitic Syriac):

    1. Verse 51 reads: kai\ e)ge/neto e)n tw=| eu)logei=n au)to\n au)tou\$ die/sth a)p’ au)tw=n “and it came to be, in his blessing them, he stood (apart) from them” (without kai\ a)nefe/reto ei)$ to\n ou)rano/n “and he was carried up into the heaven”). In other words, it relates that Jesus simply “parted” from them, without any reference to an ascension into heaven.
    2. Verse 52 continues: kai\ au)toi\ u(pe/streyan ei)$  )Ierousalh\m meta/ xara=$ mega/lh$ “and they turned back unto Jerusalem with great joy…” (without proskunh/sante$ au)ton “worshiping him”).
      See how this shorter version of vv. 50-53 reads, in context, in conventional translation:
      “And he led them out toward Bethany, and raising his hands over (them) he blessed them; and it came to be, in his blessing them, (that) he parted from them; and they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the Temple, blessing God.”

These are both so-called Western “Non-Interpolations”, i.e. instances where the shorter reading of the (usually longer and more expansive) Western text has been thought (by some scholars) to preserve the original reading in the face of superior manuscript evidence (I have discussed the other seven key “Non-Interpolations” in a previous post). The first of these two (in v. 51) is far more significant, especially since, in addition to the Western MSS, the shorter reading is also found in the Georgian version (group 1) and the original hand of Codex Sinaiticus (a*).

How is one to explain this variant? As indicated above, the vast majority of MSS, including all the early/best Greek MSS (Ë75, a [corrected], A, B, C, K, L, W, X, D, etc.) contain the words kai a)nefe/reto ei)$ ton ou)rano/n. The manuscript evidence would seem to be decidedly in favor of the longer reading, but internal considerations make it a bit less certain. In which direction did the change occur? There are a number of possibilities:

Reasons for Omission (in support of the longer text):

  1. To avoid contradiction with the chronology in Acts. It is certainly possible that scribes, noticing the apparent discrepancy between v. 51 and Luke’s own account of the Ascension in Acts 1:1-11, deleted the words. In the Gospel, it would seem that the Ascension takes place on the same night as the Resurrection, whereas in Acts (v. 3) it occurs 40 days later. This is probably the most popular explanation.
  2. A scribal mistake. A scribe may have skipped from a)p’ au)twn kai in v. 51 to ou)ranon kai au)toi at the end of v.51 & start of v. 52 (homoioarcton: each has the segment nkai). However, this would require that (the precursors of) a and D both made the same mistake, which is rather unlikely.
  3. Theological reasons. Some scholars have thought that the so-called “Non-Interpolations” (involving the Resurrection appearances and “Ascension”) exhibit a purposeful tendency in the Western text (in Luke-Acts) to eliminate concrete references to the resurrection body of Jesus, and physical nature of the Ascension, etc. With regard to the Ascension in particular, see especially Eldon J. Epp’s article “The Ascension in the Textual Tradition of Luke-Acts”, in New Testament Textual Criticism: Its Significance for Exegesis. Essays in Honor of Bruce M. Metzger. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981, pp. 131-145.
  4. The support of Acts. Acts 1:2 would seem to indicate that the Gospel referenced the Ascension (a&xri h!$ h(me/ra$a)nelh/mfqh, “until which day…he was taken up”). Assuming this is the case, it could be (rightly) argued that the author would not say he described an event which he in fact did not record. It should be noted that several Western witnesses (gig, quotations in Augustine and Vigilius) also omit reference to the ascension (a)nelh/mfqh) in this verse.

Reasons for Addition (in support of the shorter text):

  1. Literary or Theological reasons. Although Luke-Acts may have been published together as a ‘two-volume’ work, by the mid-second century (at the latest), the Gospel of Luke was being copied and distributed bound together (in codex form) with the other Gospels; meaning that, as in nearly all printed New Testament editions today, it was separated from the book of Acts. The shorter reading, if original, would close the Gospel with the suggestion that Jesus simply “parted” from the disciples—a rather unexciting and possibly misleading conclusion. The scribal tendency was always to add Christological details, rather than remove them; it would have been natural to add the few extra words (both in v. 51 and 52), in order to exalt the portrait of Christ.
  2. The shorter text removes the chronological difficulty with Acts. This argument cuts both ways (see above), for the longer text could be said to be the more difficult reading (lectio difficilior potior). However, since Luke explicitly records the Ascension taking place at least 40 days after the Resurrection (Acts 1:3ff), would he (the same author of Luke-Acts, by general consensus) have created the confusion by recording the Ascension (apparently) taking place on the day of the Resurrection (Luke 24:50-53)?
  3. Additional support from Acts. It is possible that the phrase a&xri h!$ h(me/ra$a)nelh/mfqh (“until which day…he was taken up”) in Acts 1:2 should not be taken to imply that the Ascension was narrated in the Gospel, but only events which took place prior to that day. In this regard, to note the reference (v. 22) in Peter’s subsequent address (Acts 1:15-22), where nearly similar language is used. Could the author of Acts simply be reproducing the phrasing from v. 22, as part of his “prologue”, without specific reference to details in the Gospel?
  4. Evidence from the Church Fathers. The Ascension is referred to numerous times in writings of the 1st-3rd centuries, for example: Epistle of Barnabas 15; JUSTIN: 1 Apology 26, Dialogue with Trypho 82, 87, On the Resurrection ch. 9; IRENAEUS: Against Heresies I.10, III.17, IV.33.13, 34.3, V.31, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 41, 84; CLEMENT: Stromateis VI. ch. 15; ORIGEN: On First Principles Pref §1, II.6.1, 7.2, On Prayer §23, Against Celsus VII.8; TERTULLIAN: Against Marcion V.8, Against Praxeas 25, 30, Prescription Against Heretics 13, On the Resurrection 51; The Muratorian Canon; Epistle of the Apostles 18; Cyprian On the Lord’s Prayer §8, etc. (by no means an exhaustive list). Most of these references are to the narrative in Acts 1:9ff; Ephesians 4:9-10, or to the belief generally; however, I have not been able to find a single clear reference to the long text of Luke 24:51-52 cited in any writing up through the third century (outside of the Diatessaron [§55], a work with a singularly difficult textual history). Moreover, in Tertullian’s fourth book Against Marcion, in which he goes over many details of Luke’s Gospel, up through the Resurrection appearances (chapter 43), he does not cite the long text of v. 51 or 52, and makes no reference to the Ascension (cf. Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, pp. 257-8).
  5. The Western Non-Interpolations. Despite protests from scholars on both sides of the argument, it is hard to avoid the notion that the 9 key “non-interpolations”, eight of which are all found together in the same set of MSS (D a b d e ff2 l), stand or fall together—most likely, they are all original, or they are not. If one accepts the shorter text in the previous 7 Lukan instances, then one really ought to do so here as well.

Clearly, intrinsic/transcriptional arguments can be made for sides. Ultimately, it is difficult to ignore the overwhelming textual evidence. If the longer reading is, in fact, original, I suspect that the apparent discrepancy (with Acts) may be the result of Luke compressing/conflating the narrative, thereby giving the impression that it all happened on one night. This sort of handling of historical narrative was quite common with ancient writers, as unsatisfying as it might be to our modern sensibilities. On the other hand, the clear scribal tendency was to add significant Christological details to the Gospel narrative, rather than omit them (even when there are apparent discrepancies involved); it seems to have been much more acceptable to modify (instead of deleting) difficult words in the text. The presence of the longer reading(s) in the Bodmer Papyrus (Ë75, c. 200) have turned the tide decisively; however, I am by no means so certain the shorter reading(s) can be dismissed as easily as many commentators do today.

Notes on Prayer: John 17:1-5 (continued)

John 17:1-5, continued

Last week, I began a discussion on the great Prayer-Discourse of Jesus in John 17, looking at verse 1 in some detail. Today I wish to continue on with an examination of the remainder of verses 1-5.

Of particular importance is the use of the verb doca/zw, both in verse 1 and again in vv. 4-5 (and v. 10); the related noun do/ca also occurs several times in the chapter (at the beginning and end, vv. 5, 22, 24). Both words are an important part of the vocabulary of the Johannine Discourses of Jesus, especially the verb which is used 23 times (out of 61 total in the New Testament)—7:39; 8:54 (2); 11:4; 12:16, 23, 28 (3); 13:31 (2), 32 (3); 14:13; 15:8; 16:14; 17:1 (2), 4, 5, 10; 21:19. There are also 19 occurrences of the noun do/ca1:14 (2); 2:11; 5:41, 44 (2); 7:18 (2); 8:50, 54; 9:24; 11:4, 40; 12:41, 43 (2); 17:5, 22, 24. Unfortunately, it is not easy to give a (consistent) literal translation in English for either verb or noun, as they can differ in meaning and nuance depending on the context, and, in particular, whether the subject/object involves human beings or God (or Christ). While do/ca is typically translated “glory”, in many instances a much better rendering is “esteem”, which more closely captures the fundamental meaning of the word. When used in a religious context, the predominant idea tends to be that human beings are to give to God the esteem and honor which He is due. However, when applied as a divine attribute or characteristic it is better understood in terms of the “splendor” which God possesses, and which surrounds him. In order to capture both aspects, in the special way that the words are used in the Gospel of John, I prefer to translate the verb doca/zw as “give honor (to)”.

There are several key Johannine passages (in the Discourses of Jesus) where the verb is used, sometimes together with the noun, and these need to be considered in order to gain a proper understanding of their usage in chapter 17.

1. Jn 8:50ff. The words are part of the conceptual vocabulary that frames the great Discourse of chapters 7-8 set during the Sukkoth (Booths/Tabernacles) festival in Jerusalem. Thematically, there is a clear symmetric (and chiastic) structure to the discourse-sequence, with the concluding discourse (8:31-59) serving as a parallel to the opening episode (7:14-24). In particular, we may note how the exchange in 8:48-51ff refers back to Jesus’ declaration in 7:18:

“The (one) speaking from himself seeks his own honor/esteem [do/ca]; but the (one) seeking the honor/esteem [do/ca] of the (One) having sent him, this (one) is true and there is not (any) injustice in him.”

The long and increasingly hostile exchange in 8:31-59, sharpens and comes to a climax as Jesus makes the following statement in verse 49, in response to the attack from his opponents that he “has [lit. holds] a daimon“:

“I do not hold a(ny) daimon, but (rather) I honor [timw=] my Father and you treat me without honor [a)tima/zete/ me]!”

This use of the verbs tima/w & a)tima/zw demonstrate how close in meaning the noun timh/ (“value, worth”, often in the sense of “honor”) is to do/ca (“esteem/honor”), especially in this context. Jesus follows in verse 50 with the language of 7:18, using the noun do/ca:

“And I do not seek my own esteem/honor [do/ca]—(but) there is there is the (One) seeking (it)…”

Here we find the same reciprocity (between Father and Son) as we have in 17:1ff—Jesus (the Son) seeks the honor of God the Father, and the Father seeks the Son’s honor. This raises an interesting point regarding the syntax of verses 1-5 and the use of the particle i%na (discussed below).

2. Jn 11:4, 40. In the Lazarus scene, the entire episode—the death of Lazarus and his subsequent resurrection—is for the declared purpose of giving honor/esteem (do/ca) to Jesus; and this, not simply due to the fact that he works a great miracle, but for what it indicates (as a sign) regarding Jesus’ true identity. The purpose is stated by Jesus, to his disciples (and to the readers as well) in the opening portion of the narrative (verse 4):

“This lack of strength [i.e. weakness/illness] is not toward death, but (instead it is) under the honor/splendor [do/ca] of God, so (that) the Son of God might be given honor [docasqh=|] through it.”

In other words, the illness (and death) of Lazarus is under the control of the do/ca of God and serves that divine purpose. The association of do/ca/doca/zw with resurrection here emphasizes again the difference between Jesus’ prayer in 17:1ff and the similar prayer-language used during the Synoptic garden scene (discussed in last week’s study). The “hour” in 17:1 is not that of Jesus’ Passion (his suffering and death) alone, but instead points more directly toward his subsequent resurrection and return to the Father, just as Lazarus’ moment of suffering does not point toward physical death alone, but to the resurrection power possessed by Jesus as God’s Son. The moment of Lazarus’ own resurrection confirms the point (11:40): “Yeshua says to her [i.e. Martha], ‘Did I not say to you that, if you would trust, you will see the honor/splendor [do/ca] of God?'”.

3. Jn 12:23, 28, 41, 43. The portion of the Gospel of John spanning chapters 2-12 forms a clear division in the narrative (sometimes referred to as the “Book of Signs”), covering the period of Jesus’ public ministry, and comprised of a combination of miracles by Jesus (and other “signs”) and related discourses in which the signs (together with their true meaning) are explained. The words do/ca/doca/zw feature prominently in the concluding scenes of the “Book of Signs” in chapter 12. We already looked at verses 23 and 28 in last week’s study, as they fit so closely with the language used by Jesus in 17:1ff. To these may be added the important, but often neglected, words of the Gospel writer in verses 41-43. As in the Synoptics, Isaiah 6:10 is cited to explain why many of Jesus’ contemporaries were unwilling (or unable) to accept him as the Messiah. The Gospel writer further states that Isaiah “saw his honor/splendor [do/ca]”, by which the original context (the do/ca of YHWH) is interpreted in terms of Jesus’ divine status as God’s Son. There is a clear echo of 8:56-58 in these words (cf. above on the use of do/ca in 8:50, 54). The failure of people to recognize Jesus’ divine do/ca, is further explained, through a bit of ironic wordplay, by the author in verse 43:

“For they loved the honor/esteem [do/ca] of men more than the honor/esteem [do/ca] of God.”

We must keep this Johannine usage of do/ca & doca/zw in mind as we return to examine 17:1-5. The reciprocal language used by Jesus, indicating the intimate relationship between Father and Son, creates certain ambiguities and tensions in the fabric of the text. This is part of the immense beauty and power of the Johannine discourses of Jesus, but it also creates points of difficulty for the commentator. One example is the use of the conjunctive particle i%na to join together the phrases and clauses of vv. 1-2 into a structure and chain of relation. There are actually three connective particles; let us consider them and how the phrases fit together:

    • “The hour has come—may you give honor to your Son
      • (so) that [i%na] the Son may give honor to you
        • even as [kaqw\$] you gave him e)cousi/a over all flesh
          • (so) that [i%na] (for) all which you have given to him, he might give to them (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

There are two i%na-clauses, both of which are best understood as indicating a purpose or result (i.e. “so that…”). However, the precise relationship between them is not entirely certain. It is possible to view them in more parallel terms, as representing two related results of the Father giving honor to the Son; one might even view this as a chiastic structure:

    • “The hour has come—may you give honor to your Son
      • (so) that [i%na] the Son may give honor to you
        • even as [kaqw\$] you gave him e)cousia over all flesh
      • (so) that [i%na] for all that you have given to him
    • he might give to them—(the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life].”

The sense of reciprocity is perhaps better illustrated in the second (chiastic) structure, and is to be developed by Jesus throughout the Prayer-Discourse. A powerful inter-relationship is established: Father—Son—Believers. As indicated above, the particle i%na in verse 1 is best understood as indicating purpose or result—the Son giving honor to the Father is the result (and end purpose or goal) of the Father giving honor to the Son. However, it is interesting to note that, in the parallel verses 4-5, we find the opposite—that the Father honors the Son as the result of the Son’s work which give honor to the Father. This would allow for the reading of the i%na clause in verse 1 in a causal sense (“in that…”, i.e., “because”). I would maintain that it is, indeed, better to keep to the more natural grammatical sense of i%na indicating purpose/result in verse 1, and to see verses 4-5 as reflecting a reciprocal parallelism with vv. 1-2. This fits with the overall chiastic structure of vv. 1-5, as I noted already last week:

    • The Father gives honor to the Son
      • (so that) the Son may give honor to the Father (v. 1)
        • through the (work) given him by the Father (to complete) (v. 2)
        • the Son has completed the work by him by the Father (v. 4)
      • (and so) the Son has given honor to the Father
    • (thus) the Father will give honor to the Son (v. 5)

It is in vv. 4-5 that we have a clearer indication of the coming death of Jesus, with the use of the verb teleio/w (“[make] complete”). Earlier in the Gospel (4:34; 5:36) the verb seems to refer more generally to Jesus’ ministry work (teaching, healing miracles, etc); but here, in the Johannine context, there can be no doubt that the verb, when used by Jesus in the Discourses, must be understood in a comprehensive sense—Jesus’ work on earth (as the Son), culminating in his sacrificial death. This is confirmed by Jesus’ dying words on the cross (19:28), actually a single word in the Greek: tete/lestai (“it is completed”). The verb takes on a somewhat deeper significance later in the Prayer-Discourse (v. 23), when Jesus uses it to refer to the unity that his work achieves for believers, uniting them/us together with Father and Son through the presence of the Spirit. This will be discussed later in these notes on John 17.

Looking at verses 1-5 as a whole, again, it  must be stated that the death of Jesus is not what is primarily in view, despite the general Passion setting and the use of the verb teleio/w in verse 4 (see above). His sacrificial death certainly represents the climax and completion of his work on earth; however, it is this work, taken as a whole, and as a reflection of the relationship between Father and Son, which is the main emphasis in chapter 17 (and, one may say, in the Last Discourse itself). If there were any doubt on this point, we would simply turn to the declaration in verse 3, which stands at the heart of verses 1-5. Many commentators regard this statement, not as the words of Jesus, but as an explanatory aside (comment) by the Gospel writer. This seems likely given the particular formulation, which sounds very much like an early Christian creedal formula, and, indeed, is similar in many ways to the concluding declaration in 20:31. While the objective statement in verse 3 may be, theologically speaking, a bit too precise to fit the historical context of the narrative, it is vital for what it reveals about the identity of Jesus. I discuss this verse in considerable detail in a separate series on the use of the words “Spirit” (pneu=ma) and “Life” (zwh/) in the Gospel of John (soon to be posted on this site), and will not reproduce that here. The expression “life of the Age” (here h( ai)w/nio$ zwh/), typically translated as “eternal life”, is a key Johannine term, appearing many times in the Discourses of Jesus, but also elsewhere in the Gospel and Letters. Here it is given a precise definition:

“And this is the Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]—that they would know you the only true God, and the (one) whom you se(n)t forth, Yeshua (the) Anointed.”

If verse 3 is indeed an explanatory statement by the author, it was triggered by the use of the expression zwh/ ai)w/nio$ at the end of verse 2. The parallel with verse 4 makes clear that the “work” which the Son (Jesus) completes may be understood as the giving of (eternal) Life to all those (believers) whom God the Father has given to him. This point will be discussed in more detail in next week’s study (on verses 6-10).

Finally, it is worth noting the temporal-keyed statement that concludes verse 5; it should be understood as parallel to the initial declaration of v. 1: “the hour has come”. Again, we must make clear that here, in contrast to the Passion-context of the similar Synoptic saying (cf. last week’s study), this “hour” goes beyond the moment of Jesus’ impending suffering and death, to the completion of the Son’s work on earth, which includes his resurrection and return to the Father. This is confirmed by the statement in v. 5b which further describes the honor/splendor (do/ca) the Son is to receive from the Father: “…the honor [do/ca] which I held alongside you before the (coming) to be of the world”. Note again the parallelism:

    • The hour has come
      • May you give honor the Son (v. 1)
      • Now may you give honor to me, Father… (v. 5a)
    • (in the time) before the world (came) to be (v. 5b)

This coming “hour” marks a return to the beginning (1:1ff)—the Son’s return to the Father in Heaven. As Christians, we are so accustomed to thinking, in orthodox terms, of Jesus’ divine pre-existence, that it is easy to forget (or ignore) how rare this idea actually is in the New Testament. It is not to be found at all in the Synoptic Gospels, nor in the early Gospel preaching recorded in the book of Acts; it is also quite rare in the Pauline letters (though Paul himself accepted some basic version of the idea), and in the other New Testament letters as well (with the exception of Hebrews). The first generation of Christians appears to have come to a realization of this belief only gradually. While the idea that Jesus, after the resurrection, was exalted to a divine position and status at the right hand of God in Heaven, was widespread, there does not seem to be clear evidence for a belief in Jesus’ pre-existent Deity prior to about 60 A.D. The ‘Christ hymn’ in Philippians 2:6-11 has a descent/ascent conceptual formulation which is generally similar to what we find throughout the Gospel of John. The traditions underlying the Johannine Prologue (1:1-18), and reflected all through the Gospel, probably date from around the same time as the ‘Christ hymn’. One may surmise that it was during the period c. 50-60 A.D. that a distinct belief in Jesus’ pre-existence began to take shape. If it were more widespread by or before this time we would expect to see greater evidence for it throughout the New Testament. In any event, there is no doubt of this belief in the Gospel of John; the pre-existent deity of Jesus is expressed in unmistakable terms, including by Jesus himself in the Discourses. However, the idea is, perhaps, not stated so precisely by Jesus as we find it here in the Prayer-Discourse. The wording in v. 5b seems to hearken back to the opening words of the Gospel (1:1ff). What is unique about the setting in the Prayer-Discourse is the added dimension, developed by Jesus during the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33), involving the promise that believers will share in this same glory (do/ca) that the Son has alongside the Father. This will be discussed further in the coming weeks’ studies.

April 15 (2): Acts 7:55-56

This is the last in the series of daily notes for Easter Season, during which we have explored the Son of Man sayings of Jesus in the Gospels of Luke and John. Today’s note is on Acts 7:55-56—the last Son of Man verse in Luke-Acts, and one of only four occurrences of the expression “Son of Man” outside of the Gospels (the others being Heb 2:6 [quoting Ps 8:4ff] and Rev 1:13; 14:14 [referring to Dan 7:13]).

Acts 7:55-56

Most of the Son of Man sayings in Luke relate either to: (1) Jesus’ suffering and death, or (2) his exaltation to Glory (and future return in Judgment). As I have previously discussed, the use of “son of man” in the first instance would seem to identify Jesus specifically with humankind in its mortality (weakness, suffering and death); in the second, he identifies himself as the Divine/Heavenly figure (of Daniel 7:13ff) who will appear at the end-time Judgment by God. These two aspects of the expression “Son of Man” are present during the night of Jesus’ arrest and “trial” before the Sanhedrin (Lk 22:22, 48 and Lk 22:69), and also in the Angelic announcement of Lk 24:7 where the predictions of Jesus’ Passion (Lk 9:22, 44-45; 18:31-33) are connected with the Resurrection.

When we turn to the book of Acts, the theme of Jesus’ suffering (and death) continues—both with regard to the message that is proclaimed by the disciples (Acts 1:16; 2:23ff; 3:13-15, 17-18; 4:10, 27-28; 5:30 etc), and as a pattern for their own experience of suffering and persecution (cf. throughout chapters 3-7), predicted by Jesus himself (Lk 12:11-12; 21:12-19). So also the theme of Jesus’ exaltation (cf. below). Acts 7:55-56 represents the climactic moment of the Stephen narrative, which spans chapters 6-7:

  • 6:1-7: Introduction, setting the stage for the conflict
  • 6:8-15: The conflict with Stephen, including his arrest and appearance before the Sanhedrin
  • 7:1-60: The Sermon-Speech and Execution of Stephen
    • 7:1: The question of the High Priest to Stephen, which serves as the immediate narrative introduction to the Speech
    • 7:2-53: The Sermon-Speech of Stephen
    • 7:54-60: The response to the Speech and Execution of Stephen
  • 8:1a: Transitional verse, mentioning Saul/Paul’s role in the execution
  • 8:1b-4: Narrative summary describing the onset of Persecution (led by Saul)

Of the three major scenes in Acts which show the early believers in conflict with the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-42), it is the Stephen narrative which most clearly follows the pattern of Jesus’ Passion. The parallels (some more precise than others) may be outlined as follows:

  • Stephen was “full of faith/trust and the Holy Spirit” and “full of the favor (of God) and power” (Acts 6:5, 8)
    —Jesus likewise, at the beginning of his ministry (Lk 4:1), was said to be “full of the Holy Spirit”; cf. also Lk 4:14 and Lk 1:15, 17; 2:40.
  • Stephen did “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8)
    —Cf. especially the notice of Jesus’ miracles in Acts 2:22
  • It is stated that Stephen’s opponents “did not have strength to stand against the wisdom and the Spirit in which he spoke” (Acts 6:10)
    —Cf. Luke 20:26, etc; 21:15
  • The accusation of blasphemy (i.e. insult/slander against God) (Acts 6:11)
    —The declaration of the High Priest (Mark 14:64 par), implied in Lk 22:71
  • Stephen’s opponents “stirred together” the crowds etc. against him (Acts 6:12)
    —The Jewish authorities “shook up” the crowds against Jesus (Mark 15:11, not in Luke)
  • “They seized him and led him into the Sanhedrin” (Acts 6:12b)
    —Cf. Luke 22:52, 54, 66; 23:1, also the specific mention of “Elders and Scribes” (Lk 22:66)
  • False witnesses give testimony, involving the Temple (Acts 6:13)
    —False witnesses against Jesus rel. to the “Temple-saying” (Mark 14:57-59 par, not in Luke)
  • The claim that Jesus would destroy the Temple (Acts 6:14)
  • Stephen stands in the middle of the Council (cf. Luke 22:66)
  • The question by the High Priest regarding the truth of the accusations (Acts 7:1)
    —The specific question in Mark 14:60 par (not in Luke); cf. also Mk 14:61 par; Lk 22:67, 70
  • Stephen’s vision of the Son of Man (Acts 7:55-56)
    —Jesus’ answer to the Council regarding the Son of Man (Lk 22:69 par; in Matt/Mark, seeing the Son of Man)
  • The reaction of the Council (including tearing their garments) (Acts 7:52; Mark 14:63-64 par, cf. Lk 22:71)
  • Stephen is taken outside of the city to be put to death (Acts 7:58, cf. Lk 23:26, 33)
  • Stephen’s dying words: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59)
    —Jesus’ dying words: “Father, into your hands I place [i.e. give] along my spirit” (Lk 23:46)
  • Stephen asks God to forgive those putting him to death: “Do not hold up this sin against them” (Acts 7:60)
    —Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness on the cross (Lk 23:34 [not in some MSS])
  • After Stephen’s death “there came to be… a great persecution upon the Church” (Acts 8:1)
    —After Jesus’ death “there came to be darkness upon the whole land” (Luke 23:44)

From a narrative standpoint, these parallels illustrate vividly the disciple following in Jesus’ footsteps, even to the point of death (Lk 5:11, 27-28; 9:23, 57-62; 18:22, 28; 21:12-19; 22:39, 54; 23:27, 49 pars; cf. also Mk 10:38-40, etc). Let us compare specifically the Son of Man parallel:

Jesus’ saying (Lk 22:69):

“From now on, the Son of Man will be sitting out of [i.e. on/at] the right hand of the power of God”

The formula in Mark/Matthew is:

“[From now] you will see the Son of Man sitting out of [i.e. on/at] the right hand of the Power, and coming with/upon the clouds of Heaven

The declaration by Stephen (in Acts 7:56) is:

“I behold the heavens opening through and the Son of Man standing out of [i.e. on/at] the right hand of God

The preceding narrative in verse 55 adds the following details: (1) he saw the glory of God, and (2) Jesus is specifically identified as the Son of Man (“Jesus standing at the right hand of God”).

The use of the verb dianoi/gw (“open through[out], open thoroughly”) is interesting, as it appears to be a favorite of Luke’s—7 of the 8 occurrences in the New Testament are in Luke-Acts, and five of these refer to the knowledge and awareness of Jesus, and of coming to faith, etc. Note:

    • Luke 24:31—”and their eyes were opened through [dihnoi/xqhsan] and they knew upon [i.e. recognized] him…”
    • Luke 24:32—”Were our hearts not burning [i.e. being set on fire] [in us] as he spoke with us in the way, as he opened through [dih/noigen] to us the Writings [i.e. Scriptures]?”
    • Luke 24:45—”Then he [i.e. Jesus] opened through [dih/noicen] their mind for th(eir) bringing together the Writings [i.e. understanding the Scriptures]”
    • Acts 16:14—”a certain woman {Lydia}… of whom the Lord opened through [dih/noicen] (her) heart”
    • Acts 17:3—Paul gathered through [i.e. discussed, argued] with them from the Scriptures, “opening through [dianoi/gwn]…that it was necessary for the Anointed (One) to suffer and stand up (again) out of the dead, and that this Yeshua is the Anointed (One)…” (cf. Luke 9:22; 24:7, 26, 46)

The early chapters of Acts (chs. 1-7) are still connected in many ways with the Gospel narrative, so it is fitting perhaps that they close with this vision by Stephen of the Son of Man, a fulfillment of the sayings by Jesus such as that in Luke 22:69. His vision confirms the reality of Jesus’ exaltation to heaven (at the right hand of God) and of his identity as the divine/heavenly Son of Man. Christ’s presence in heaven at God’s right hand was a common motif in early Christian tradition (Acts 2:25, 33ff; 5:31; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; 1 Pet 3:22; Heb 1:3, etc), largely influenced by Psalm 110:1 (Acts 2:34; Heb 1:13). The remainder of the book (chapters 8-28), on the other hand, narrates the spread of Christianity outside of Judea, out into the wider Greco-Roman world, and thus focuses more precisely on the message (the Gospel) of Jesus, and how people respond to it. If Stephen saw a vision of heaven “opened”, that is, the revelation of God in the person of Jesus, so also do believers have their hearts and minds “opened” to the truth, and, in turn, proclaim the message of Christ to others, “opening” and explaining the Scriptures.

April 14 (1): John 1:51

In today’s note for the third day of Easter (Easter Tuesday), I continue the study of the Son of Man saying in John 1:51, begun yesterday (for more on the Son of Man sayings in John, cf. the earlier note). Here I will be looking more specifically at the meaning of the saying in the context of the Gospel narrative.

John 1:51

“Amen, Amen, I say to you—you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up [a)nabai/nonta$] and stepping down [katabai/nonta$] upon the Son of Man”

In the previous note, I explored four images or traditions which seem to be especially relevant for an interpretation of the saying, based on similarities in language and concept: (1) the baptism of Jesus, (2) the resurrection/ascension, (3) his (future) coming in glory, and (4) the dream-vision of Jacob’s ladder in Gen 28:12. It must be admitted, however, that none of these are sufficient, nor do they entirely fit the position and context of the saying in John. Therefore, it is necessary to examine the narrative and thematic structure of the Gospel, in order to gain a better understanding of the ultimate significance of the saying. I will proceed, briefly, according to the following outline:

    1. The location of the saying, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry
    2. Its connection with the other Son of Man sayings in John
    3. Its possible purpose as a comprehensive symbol

1. The Location of the Saying

After the hymnic prologue of Jn 1:1-18, the first main section of the Gospel is Jn 1:19-51, which has, as its primary theme, the testimony of John the Baptist regarding Jesus. The section may be divided as follows:

    • vv. 19-28—the Baptist’s testimony regarding himself (“I am not…”)
    • vv. 29-34—the Baptist’s testimony regarding Jesus
      • account of the Baptism (vv. 31-33)
    • vv. 35-42—disciples respond to the Baptist’s testimony and follow Jesus
      • a disciple (Peter)’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 41-42)
      • saying of Jesus (v. 42)
    • vv. 43-51—disciples respond to the testimony of other (disciple)s and follow Jesus
      • a disciple (Nathanael)’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 47-51)
      • saying of Jesus (v. 51)

The saying in Jn 1:51 thus concludes this opening section of the Gospel. In the previous note, I mentioned several parallels with the Baptism of Jesus, and, given the position of the saying in relation to the Baptism (and the Baptist’s testimony) in this section, it is likely that some sort of allusion is intended. Interestingly, and altogether typical of John’s Gospel, the Baptism is not narrated as something that people observe directly—it is only “seen” through the verbal account (or word) of the Baptist. Similarly, throughout this section “seeing” Jesus is intimately connected with hearing and responding to the message of the Baptist and the first disciples (vv. 34, 36, 39, 46). In Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 47ff), he also “sees” based on what Jesus says to him; note, in particular, the wording:

“Jesus responded and said to him, ‘(In) that [i.e. because] I said to you that I saw you underneath the fig-tree, you trust (in me)? (Thing)s greater than these you will see!” (v. 50)

This interplay between “seeing” and “saying” should caution us against the simple assumption that a concrete visible event is intended in v. 51. That the saying concludes the first section (1:19-51) means that it also marks the beginning of the next—that is to say, the core narrative of the Gospel spanning chapters 2-20. Commentators typically divide this into two main parts:

    1. Chapters 2-12, sometimes referred to as the “Book of Signs”, in which the narrative alternates between accounts of miracles and teaching (discourses) by Jesus—the miracle (sign) often serving as the basis and starting point for the discourse which follows (cf. especially in chapters 5, 6, and 9). All but the first and last of the Son of Man sayings are found in these chapters.
    2. Chapters 13-20, which narrate the Passion (and Resurrection) of Jesus—chapter 13 (a Last Supper scene similar to that in the Synoptic tradition) leads into the great Discourses in 13:31-16:33, concluding with the remarkable Prayer-Discourse of chapter 17.

The last Son of Man saying in John (13:31) opens the Discourses which are set at the beginning of the last major section of the Gospel (chs 13-20). It seems likely that the first Son of Man saying (1:51) is meant to have a similar transitional role in the structure of the Gospel narrative.

2. The other Son of Man Sayings

For a survey of the other Son of Man sayings in John, cf. my earlier note. As mentioned above, all but the first and last sayings occur in chapters 2-12, which is significant for two reasons:

    • They are part of the Discourses of Jesus in these chapters, marked by a unique style of teaching—a statement or action by Jesus is misunderstood by the audience, leading to a pointed question, and the subsequent response (and exposition) by Jesus, answering the question at a deeper level of meaning. This process of redirection and reformulation always involves Jesus’ identity—his Person and Teaching—as the Son in relation to God the Father. Where they occur, the Son of Man sayings (esp. 3:13-14; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 12:23, 32, 34) are central and climactic to the Discourse.
    • They point toward the death and exaltation (resurrection, return to the Father) of Jesus described in chapters 13-20. Indeed, the principal sayings all have a dual-meaning, centered on Jesus’ death/resurrection. The sayings which refer to the Son of Man being “lifted high” (Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34) or being “glorified” (Jn 12:23; also 13:31) have both aspects in mind.

The dualism of these sayings is best demonstrated in those which use the verbs katabai/nw and a)nabai/nw (“step down”, “step up”), as in Jn 1:51. The saying in 3:13 is followed by that of v. 14 (which speaks of the Son of Man “lifted high”); the sayings in Jn 6:27, 53, 62 have a more complex reference matrix, as part of the great Bread of Life discourse (6:25-66). In schematic form, we might outline the dualism as follows:

  • With the Father in Heaven (Divine Pre-existence)
    • Descent (“stepping down”) from Heaven (Incarnation)
      • Death—being “lifted up” on the cross
        • Glorified—Life—Father-Son (Jn 13:31)
      • Resurrection—lifted/raised from the dead
    • Ascent (“stepping up”) into Heaven (Exaltation)
  • Return to the Father in Heaven

According to this outline, the last Son of Man saying (Jn 13:31) reflects the central, inner dynamic of the Father-Son relationship and identity, governed by the verb doca/zw (“give honor/esteem/glory”, i.e. “glorify”). If this is correct, then it is not unreasonable to assume that the first of the Son of Man sayings (Jn 1:51) is parallel to this in some way, and may reflect the outer dynamic—the ascent/descent. Again, this would seem to be correct considering the use of the verbs katabai/nw and a)nabai/nw in 1:51. However, in that first saying, it is not the Son of Man descending/ascending, but rather of Angels (“Messengers of God”) ascending/descending on the Son of Man.

3. A Comprehensive Symbol?

I am very much inclined to the view that the saying of John 1:51, in its particular position within the structure of the narrative, is intended primarily as a symbolic picture that effectively encompasses the entire Gospel—a framing device representing beginning and end, much like the “Alpha and Omega” (A and W) of Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13 (another Johannine work, with definite parallels in thought and language to the Gospel). Here are some points I would cite in favor of this interpretation:

    • The clear parallels with the Baptism (cf. the previous note), which marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry (descent/incarnation); the location of Jn 1:51 also strongly suggests an allusion to the Baptism.
    • Similar parallels with the Resurrection (ascension), which effectively marks the end of Jesus’ earthly existence.
    • Similarities to descriptions of the Son of Man coming in glory at the end-time (esp. in the Synoptic tradition); however, the Gospel of John understands the Son to have had this position and glory prior to his incarnation/birth as a human being (i.e. divine pre-existence). This means, in the Johannine context, that such images cannot refer only to Jesus’ exaltation and future return, but to a reality that encompasses and transcends the entire process of descent/ascent (cf. above).
    • The saying in Jn 1:51 is part of a parallel, between the beginning and end of the Gospel, expressed by the encounter of two disciples (Nathanael and Thomas) with Jesus, and involving parallel confessions:
      Jn 1:49: “You are the Son of God | you are the King of Israel!”
      Jn 20:28: “My Lord | my God!”
      It is possible that these confessions themselves together form a bracketing chiasm:
      “Son of God” (in a Messianic context)
      —”King of Israel” (i.e. Anointed Davidic Ruler)
      —”My Lord” (Jesus as Messiah/Lord, cf. Ps 110:1)
      “My God” (Deity)
      Each of the confessions also includes a response by Jesus (Jn 1:50-51; 20:29) related to disciples/believers seeing him.
    • In the Gospel of John, “seeing” often signifies a level of spiritual perception (or of faith/trust) that is different from visual observation (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:3; 6:36, 46; 9:37-41; 11:9, 40; 12:45; 14:7, 9, 17, 19; 17:24; 20:29, etc). It is likely that the declaration “you will see” (o&yesqe) does not refer to a concrete, visible event, but rather to the recognition and realization of Jesus’ true identity—the Son who reveals and leads the way to the Father. This, of course, is also related to “seeing” the Son in terms of being with him, in his presence, as other instances of the verb o)pta/nomai, o&ptomai/o&yomai would indicate (esp. Jn 16:16-17, 19, 22). As a concluding observation that “seeing” in Jn 1:51 signifies something more than a concrete vision, note the parallel with 20:29:
      • “because I said to you that I saw [ei@don] you… you trust?
        you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God… upon the Son of Man” (1:51)
      • “because you have seen [e(w/raka$] me you trust?
        Happy/blessed are the ones not seeing [i)do/nte$] and (yet) trusting!” (20:29)

In both Jn 1:51 and 20:29, the eventual seeing by the believer is contrasted with the disciple believing on the basis of an extraordinary or miraculous experience. Even the concrete evidence for Jesus’ resurrection (in the case of Thomas) should not be relied upon as the basis for faith and trust in Christ, but rather the word that bears witness to him and the Spirit that draws us to him.

April 13 (1): John 1:51

Today, for the second day of Easter (Easter Monday), and following the theme of these seasonal daily notes, I will be examining the Son of Man saying in John 1:51. In an earlier note (for Holy Saturday), I surveyed all of the Son of Man sayings in John, noting three main categories:

    • Sayings which speak of the Son of Man being “lifted high” (using the verb u(yo/w)—Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34
    • Sayings involving the descent/ascent of the Son of Man (verbs katabai/nw, a)nabai/nw)—Jn 3:13; 6:22, 53, 62
    • Sayings which refer to the Son of Man being glorified (vb. doca/zw)—Jn 12:23, 31

John 1:51 generally belongs to the second category. All of these sayings refer in some way to Jesus’ death, and also relate to the two-fold sense in which the Son is “lifted up”, according to the symbolism and imagery in John—(1) his death on the cross, and (2) his exaltation (resurrection and return to the Father).

John 1:51

“Amen, Amen, I say to you—you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up [a)nabai/nonta$] and stepping down [katabai/nonta$] upon [e)pi] the Son of Man”

This saying has proven sufficiently difficult and obscure for commentators throughout the years, resulting in a wide range of possible interpretations. A fundamental question is whether the saying should be taken as a concrete prediction, or a symbolic picture. If the former, then one must ask to which specific event or episode it refers; there are three possibilities—(1) a supernatural event witnessed by the disciples (similar to the Transfiguration), but otherwise unrecorded, (2) the resurrection and/or ascension, or (3) the future/end-time appearance of Christ. Given the similarities with key eschatological Son of Man sayings in the Synoptics, the third option makes most sense; however, it does not especially seem to fit the context where the saying is set in John. If we are to understand the saying primarily as a symbolic picture—whether by the Gospel writer or Jesus himself—then there a number of possible associations or allusions which may be in mind. I summarize the most relevant and important of these here (cf. R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29, pp. 89-91):

The Baptism—There are two details in the (Synoptic) account of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:10 par) which are especially relevant:

    • The Holy Spirit, in the form/shape of a dove, descends [lit. “steps down”] upon Jesus, using the same verb (katabai/nw) as in Jn 1:51. Also, the versions in Matthew/Luke specifically use the preposition e)pi (“upon”) and narrate the episode as something observable by all the people (in contrast with Mark’s account). John does not narrate Jesus’ baptism as such, but provides a comparable (indirect) description as part of the Baptist’s testimony (cf. Jn 1:32).
    • In the descent of the Spirit, the heavens are said to separate; in Matthew/Luke (Matt 3:16; Lk 3:21), the verb used is a)noi/gw (“open up”) as in Jn 1:51.

Matthew 16:27-28 par—Matthew’s version of a core Son of Man saying in Synoptic tradition (Mk 8:38; Lk 9:26) begins: “For the Son of Man is about to come in the glory of his Father with his Messengers [i.e. Angels]…” and concludes with the specific formulation:

“…there will be some of the (one)s having stood here who should not taste death (themselves) until they should see [i&dwsin] the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom” (note the parallel in Lk 9:27: “…until they should see the Kingdom of God”, and also Lk 23:42 v.l.)

Several points should be made about the context and significance of this passage:

    • The reference is to the end-time Judgment, and (in the developed Gospel tradition) to the parousia (or second coming) of Jesus.
    • It is positioned directly between Peter’s confession and the Transfiguration (a vision of Jesus in glory witnessed by several of the disciples). Moreover, in both Synoptic tradition and Jn 1:19-51, the Son of Man saying follows soon after Jesus gives Peter his new name (Matt 16:18; Jn 1:42).
    • The Son of Man is associated with Angels in a number of sayings, all eschatological and emphasizing the end-time Judgment—Matt 13:41ff; 16:27 par; 24:30-31 par; 25:31; Luke 12:8-9; cf. also Matt 4:6 par; 26:53.

The Resurrection/Ascension—Note especially the following:

    • In Mark 16:4 of the Old Latin MS Bobiensis (k), it is narrated that angels descend to Jesus and ascend with him (cf. also the extra-canonical Gospel of Peter §§36-40).
    • The appearance of Angels in the Synoptic tradition, associated with the Resurrection (variously described, Mk 16:5-7; Matt 28:2-7; Lk 24:4-7) and the Ascension (Acts 1:10-11) of Jesus. In Matthew 28:2, it is stated that the Angel “stepped down” out of heaven, using the same verb (katabai/nw) as in Jn 1:51 (cf. above).
    • John does not record a visible ascension of Jesus, but note Jn 20:17: “…I step up [a)nabai/nw] toward my Father”.

An allusion to Genesis 28:12—In Jacob’s dream-vision at Bethel, he sees Angels ascending and descending on the ladder; in the LXX “ascending and descending” uses the same verbs (a)nabai/nw and katabai/nw) as Jn 1:51.

    • There is a traditional Jewish interpretation which understands the Angels ascending/descending on him (i.e. Jacob), cf. Genesis Rabbah 69:3 (in 68:12 Jacob is seen as being simultaneously in heaven).
    • The Targums (cf. Onkelos) express the idea that the shekinah—the visible manifestation and/or personification of God’s glory—was on the ladder. In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (mid-2nd century A.D.), we find the earliest evidence for the interpretation that Christ was on the ladder (86:2).
    • Bethel as the “House of God”, i.e. the rock/stone which symbolizes the Temple and its foundation. In Jn 2:19ff (not long after the saying in 1:51), the Temple is identified with Jesus’ own person (and body), specifically in connection with his death and resurrection.

These are the most plausible associations with Jn 1:51, based on similarities of language and imagery—(1) the account of Jesus’ baptism, (2) his resurrection/ascension, (3) his return in glory at the end-time Judgment, and (4) the theophanic dream-vision of Jacob’s ladder in Gen 28:12. In the next note I will look a bit more closely at Jn 1:51 in terms of its likely meaning and purpose within the context and structure of the Gospel narrative.