The Birth of Jesus from the Standpoint of the Earliest Christology
When we turn from the Matthean and Lukan Infancy narratives, we find ourselves in a very different environment in terms of understanding the birth of Jesus. In point of fact, there is scarcely any reference at all to the actual birth of Jesus (as a human being) in the New Testament, apart from the Infancy narratives. It does not seem to have featured at all in the earliest Christian preaching, as illustrated, for example, by the sermon-speeches in the book of Acts.
There are, however, references to the ‘birth’ of Jesus, as the Son of God, in the early Gospel proclamation (kerygma). A key Old Testament text, in this regard, was the second Psalm (especially verse 7), utilized, for example, as part of the kerygma in 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.
The use of Psalm 2:7 will be discussed in an upcoming article in this series; here, let us focus on the substance of the early Christology, and how it relates to the idea of Jesus’ birth. A key reference is found in Peter’s famous Pentecost speech in Acts 2. I have discussed that sermon-speech in considerable detail elsewhere. It has a three-part structure, with each part anchored by a Scripture citation, carrying eschatological and Messianic significance, applied in the context of the resurrection/exaltation of Jesus. The kerygma is woven around the Scripture citations from Psalm 16:8-11 and 110:1:
The wording in the closing declaration is most significant, in terms of the early Christology:
“…so let all (the) house of Yisrael know that God (has) made him both Lord and (the) Anointed (One), this Yeshua whom you put to the stake!”
Jesus’ identity as Lord (Ku/rio$) is understood as being a product of his resurrection and exaltation (to God’s right hand in heaven). Much the same analysis can be made for Paul’s Antioch speech in chapter 13, which is similar, in a number of important respects, to Peter’s Pentecost speech. In Paul’s speech, a citation of Psalm 2:7 (vv. 32-33) essentially takes the place of Psalm 110:1 in Peter’s speech (cf. above). The clear implication is that, just as Jesus was made to be Lord through the resurrection, so also he became God’s Son through the resurrection. It is thus proper to refer to an early Christian understanding of Jesus’ birth, as God’s Son, taking place as a result of his resurrection (and exaltation). This earliest Christology is rightly characterized as an exaltation-Christology.
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 (cf. my detailed study as part of a series on the New Testament ‘Christ-hymns’). 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.
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”
- “coming to be out of the seed of David
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. above), 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.
Thus, Paul, by the time he wrote his letter to the Romans, was standing on the threshold of a new Christological understanding. He has, already in the opening sentences of the letter (1:3-4), gone some way toward synthesizing three distinct lines of early Christian tradition:
- Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, understood primarily in terms of his resurrection and exaltation (to God’s right hand)—i.e., the early exaltation-Christology that dominated the period c. 35-60 A.D.
- This ‘birth’ of Jesus as God’s Son is due to the presence and power of the Spirit—a core early Christian tenet
- The establishment of a parallel between Jesus’ birth as a human being (the Davidic Messiah), and his ‘birth’ as the Son of God (through the Spirit)
In the continuation of this article, we will turn to another Pauline passage, written around the same time as Romans (perhaps a year or two earlier), in which Paul again connects Jesus’ birth (as a human being) with his resurrection and the manifest power of the Spirit which transformed and exalted him.