“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Johannine Sayings (Jn 3:13-14)

John 3:13 and 14

The next two Johannine occurrences of the expression “the son of man” occur together, at the center of the ‘Nicodemus’ Discourse in chapter 3. These two sayings (vv. 13 and 14) may have originally circulated separately, even within the Johannine Tradition; however, they are currently integral to the Discourse, and clearly represent an important expository component within the literary structure of the Discourse.

All of the Johannine Discourses have an historical-traditional episode as their basis. In this instance, it is the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus (vv. 1-8ff). However, Nicodemus effectively disappears midway through the discourse, and is not mentioned again after verses 9-10. The sayings in verses 13-14f represent the transition point in the discourse, leading to the exposition by Jesus that follows in vv. 16-21. This is significant from the standpoint of the theological framework of the discourse, since it explains how being “born from above” and “born of the Spirit” (the dual-theme in vv. 1-8) are to be understood—viz., in terms of trusting in Jesus as the Son sent from heaven by God the Father (vv. 16-21). This Christological exposition also informs the “son of man” sayings in vv. 13-14 (as is clear from v. 15).

John 3:13

“no one has stepped up [a)nabe/bhken] into heaven, if not the (one hav)ing stepped down [kataba/$] out of heaven, the son of man.”

This statement by Jesus fits somewhat uneasily in the immediate context of vv. 9-12. Indeed, it is not entirely clear how it relates to the preceding vv. 11-12, and it certainly could have existed as a separate saying by Jesus (in some form). In the context of the Discourse, the statement affirms Jesus’ ability (and authority) to speak of “heavenly (thing)s” (e)poura/nia, lit. “[thing]s above the heaven[s]”)—such as the Divine/spiritual teaching in vv. 3-8, along with the exposition that follows in vv. 16-21. Only someone who comes from heaven is able to speak of heavenly things.

Verse 13 begins with the conjunction kai/, which could be translated conjunctively as “and”, or emphatically as “indeed”. In either case, the conjunction connects the saying with the prior vv. 11-12.

The saying itself uses the same verb pair as in 1:51 (see the previous study): a)nabai/nw (“step up”, i.e., go/come up) and katabai/nw (“step down”, i.e., go/come down). In our discussion on 1:51, the special theological significance of these verbs, in the Gospel of John, was noted. More to the point, they carry Christological importance. Though the immediate subject of the verbs in 1:51 was the angels (“Messengers of God”), the “son of man” (Jesus) is clearly the focus of that vision; and, indeed, throughout the remainder of the Gospel, these verbs are applied to the person of the Son (Jesus). This Johannine usage makes it absolutely clear, if there were any doubt, that the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou) refers to Jesus, and is thus used here by Jesus as a self-reference.

There are three component-phrases to this saying, and we shall examine them each in turn.

(a) “no one has stepped up into heaven”

In a strictly literal sense, this would mean that no one (i.e., no human being) has ever gone up (ascended) into heaven. It is possible that the Gospel writer intends us to understand the statement in just this way; however, if so, then the author (and Jesus as the speaker) would be rejecting well-established traditions regarding figures such as Enoch (cf. Gen 5:24), Moses, and Elijah (2 Kings 2:1, 11f). It is, I think, better to view the verb a)nabai/nw here in its special (Johannine) Christological meaning. That is to say, no other person has ever “stepped up” to heaven, being exalted by God in the manner that Jesus was.

In the immediate context of vv. 11-12, the idea of someone ascending to heaven relates to that person’s ability/authority to speak of heavenly things (see above). A human being (such as Elijah) who went up to heaven could presumably speak, in a certain way, about “heavenly things”, but not in the manner of the Son (Jesus); on this point, see below.

(b) “if not the (one hav)ing stepped down out of heaven”

The compound negative particle ei) mh/ (“if not”) is conditional, and usually is meant in an exceptive sense (i.e., “except [for]”)—that is, no one has ever “stepped up” into heaven except for… . The only person who has ever “stepped up” into heaven is the person who has (first) “stepped down” from heaven. This person is designated by the substantive verbal noun (participle) kataba/$ with the definite article—o( kataba/$ (“the [one hav]ing stepped down”). Such use of the articular substantive participle is typical of Johannine style, and there are many examples occurring throughout the Gospel and Letters (too many to cite here). The syntax allows the author/speaker to express an essential or definitive characteristic of a person (or group). The qualifying prepositional expression “out of heaven” (e)k tou= ou)ranou=) fills out the characterizing phrase: “the (one hav)ing stepped down out of heaven”.

This is a vital element of the Johannine Christology—viz., declaring and affirming Jesus’ heavenly origin, and his identity as the Son sent (down) from heaven by God the Father. For more on this, see section (c) below.

A word should be said about the tenses of the two verbs. The verb a)nabai/nw is in the perfect tense, while the participle of katabai/nw is in the aorist tense; in English, both would essentially need to be translated “has stepped up/down”, but note the distinction (indicated by parentheses) in the translation above.

If the author (and/or Jesus as the speaker) intends a meaningful distinction here between the two tenses, and it is not simply a stylistic difference, what would this be? The aorist is generally used as the past tense, typically referring to an event which took place at a specific point in the past. In this case, it would refer to the Son (Jesus) “stepping down” out of heaven at some point in the past—specifically, we may assume, from the Gospel standpoint, that this refers to the incarnation described in 1:14ff. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus is identified as the pre-existent Son (or Word [Logos], in the Prologue), who was sent to earth (from heaven) by God the Father. The “stepping down”, then, would refer to Jesus’ appearance on earth as a human being (see below).

The perfect tense of a)nabai/nw is more problematic. A perfect tense is typically used for a past action (or condition) the results/effects of which continue into the present. The sense may be that no one has ever (in the past) “stepped up” into heaven, a fact that continues to be true up to the present moment. This would give greater emphasis to the idea that Jesus (the present speaker) is the only one to do so.

(c) “the son of man”

Some manuscripts and versional (Syriac, Latin) witnesses include the qualifying phrase o( w&n e)n tw=| ou)ranw=| (“the [one] being in heaven”). The expression “the son of man” appears here so abruptly, without further explanation, that it would have been natural for scribes to add an explaining phrase such as this. On the other hand, copyists might just as well have deleted the phrase as being redundant or superfluous. The shorter reading is, I think, much to be preferred, though the matter is far from decisive; however, I would point out that the expression “in heaven” (with the preposition e)n) is not at all typical of Johannine usage, and occurs nowhere else in the Gospel (or Letters).

The expression “the son of man” is apposite to the phrase “the (one hav)ing stepped down out of heaven”, identifying the son of man (i.e., Jesus himself) as this person. That is, Jesus is the one who has “stepped down” out of heaven. In the context of the Johannine Christology, as noted above, the verb katabai/nw refers to Jesus’ heavenly origin, and to his identity as the Son sent (from heaven) by God the Father.

Does this usage imply that “the son of man” should here be understood as the title of a heavenly figure, with whom Jesus is identified? Many scholars believe so (or would assume so), and yet the evidence is highly questionable, when examined in detail. If it is intended as a title, then the heavenly figure called “the son of man” must refer to the one “like a son of man” in Daniel 7:13-14. As we have seen, at least two of the Synoptic sayings (Mark 13:26; 14:62 pars) allude to Dan 7:13f, and it is possible that other eschatological sayings assume the same traditional background. On this, see Part 4 of the article on the “Q” sayings. The question of the influence of Dan 7:13f on the occurrences of the expression will be discussed more extensively at a later point in this series.

Other commentators would emphasize the incarnation of the Son here, in the use of the expression “the son of man”. Since “son of man”, as a Semitic idiom, denotes a human being, it would be natural that it signify here the incarnation. Indeed, such an interpretation would very much fit the sense of the statement in v. 13: the Son “stepped down” from heaven to earth, and became a human being, viz., Jesus as “th(is) son of man”.

In the continuation of this study, we will examine the following “son of man” saying in verse 14.

“The Word Became Flesh…”: New Testament Christology, part 3

John 1:14 and New Testament Christology, continued

We now turn to the final part of this final division of our study (on John 1:14):

    • The Sonship of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (and Acts) [Part 1]
    • The influence of Wisdom tradition on early Christology [Part 2]
    • The specific idea of the Divine pre-existence of Jesus Christ [Part 3]

The Divine Pre-existence of Jesus Christ

Nearly all commentators recognize that the Gospel of John contains a strong pre-existence Christology—identifying Jesus Christ as the pre-existent Son of God. In the Prologue, he is identified as the incarnate Logos; however, in vv. 14-18, the Gospel writer transitions from the Logos concept to the Son concept that dominates the remainder of the Gospel.

In Part 1, I discussed the exaltation Christology that tended to define the Sonship of Jesus in the early Christian Tradition. By the year 60 A.D., a pre-existence Christology had begun to take hold in Christian thought, developing in a number of ways. Believers came to understand that Jesus must have been God’s Son even prior to his earthly life and ministry. However, in my view, there is very little clear evidence for such a pre-existence Christology much before 60 A.D. It is virtually absent from the Synoptic Gospels and the book of Acts, and notably absent from the early Gospel preaching recorded in Acts. Some commentators would see a pre-existence Christology in the Synoptic Son of Man sayings (cf. Hamerton-Kelly, pp. 22-102), but this is questionable at best.

1. The Pauline Letters

By all accounts, the earliest evidence for the idea of the Divine pre-existence of Jesus is found in Paul’s letters, but it is far from a dominant or prominent theme. Perhaps the earliest Pauline reference where this idea of pre-existence is indicated is 1 Corinthians 8:6:

“…one God, the Father, out of whom all (thing)s (came to be), and we unto Him; and one Lord, Yeshua (the) Anointed, through [dia/] whom all (thing)s (came to be), and we through him.”

A role is assigned to Jesus Christ in creation—both the original creation (of “all things”), and the new creation (of “we” as believers). There is no verb specified, but it would seem appropriate to fill in the verb of becoming (gi/nomai), which would make this statement by Paul nearly identical with the Johannine Gospel Prologue (1:3): “all (thing)s came to be [e)ge/neto] through [di/a] him”.

Like the Johannine Prologue, Paul may be drawing here upon Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom tradition, which assigned to the Divine Wisdom (personified) a pre-existent place and involvement in the Creation (Prov 8:22-31). In some Hellenistic Jewish circles, the idea of God creating the universe by his word (Gen 1:3ff) was interpreted in light of the philosophical implications of the term lo/go$. Philo of Alexandria blended together the Wisdom and Logos (Word) conceptions (cf. the earlier supplemental article), as did the Hellenistic-Jewish Book of Wisdom, and it would seem that the author of the Johannine Prologue did much the same, identifying the pre-existent Word/Wisdom of God with the person of Jesus. Given the Wisdom-emphasis in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16, and the specific wording by Paul in 1:24, he may have similarly identified Jesus with the pre-existent Wisdom.

Also of interest is Paul’s interpretation of the Exodus traditions (spec. Exod 17:1-6 and Num 20:7-11 [cf. Psalm 78:15-16]) in 1 Cor 10:1-10. In verse 4, Paul identifies Jesus Christ as the Rock from which water flowed, and which (according to tradition) followed the Israelites all during their journeys: “and the Rock was [h@n] the Anointed (One)”. If Paul understands this in a literal-historical sense, rather than an allegorical-typological sense, then it would clearly attest to a belief in Jesus’ (Divine) pre-existence. Again, Paul may be influenced by Jewish Wisdom tradition in this regard; in On Allegorical Interpretation II.86, Philo interprets the Rock as representing both the Wisdom and the Word (Logos) of God (cf. also III.162, and The Worse Attacks the Better §§115, 118; Hamerton-Kelly, p. 132).

Occasionally, Paul makes a statement such as in 1 Cor 15:47, which could imply a heavenly origin for Christ (“the second man [i.e. Christ] is out of heaven”), much as in the Johannine Gospel; however, it could just as easily be understood in terms of an exaltation Christology—indeed, the context of Jesus’ resurrection in chap. 15 suggests that this is the case (see esp. verse 45, i.e., the exalted Jesus “became” a live-giving Spirit). Much clearer as evidence for belief in Jesus’ pre-existence is the wording in 2 Corinthians 4:4, where Jesus Christ is declared to be “the image [ei)kw/n] of God”. This also could be understood from the standpoint of an exaltation Christology; however, the parallel statement in Col 1:15 makes it all but certain that Paul has Divine pre-existence in mind. This is confirmed by the evidence of further influence of Wisdom-theology in shaping Paul’s manner of expression; compare, for example, the wording in Col 1:15 and 2 Cor 3:18 with Wisdom 7:26.

In Galatians 4:4, and again in Romans 8:3, Paul refers to God “sending His Son”, using language which resembles that of John 3:16-17. Now, in the Johannine Gospel it is clearly understood that God the Father has sent His Son from heaven, and that the Son has Divine pre-existence. It is not as clear, in these references, that Paul holds the same view. However, it is probably the best way to understand his view of Jesus’ Sonship. Particularly in Gal 4:4, the wording seems to indicate that Jesus was God’s Son prior to his human birth (compare Rom 1:3).

Probably the most famous Pauline passage evincing a belief in Jesus’ pre-existence is the ‘Christ-hymn’ of Philippians 2:6-11. I have discussed this passage at length in an earlier series of notes. There I addressed the possibility that Paul may have adapted an earlier hymn, incorporating it into his letter. If so, then the hymn, with its balancing of pre-existence (vv. 6-8) and exaltation (vv. 9-11) Christologies, would have been written some time earlier than Philippians itself (i.e., before c. 60 A.D.). It is conceivable that this Christ-hymn predates the Pauline references in Corinthians and Galatians (mid/late-50s). Even if Paul did not compose the hymn proper, he certainly affirmed the Christology it contains; this is confirmed by the references already mentioned above, but also, it would seem, by 2 Cor 8:9, which probably alludes to something like the ‘kenosis’ idea of Phil 2:6-8:

“…for you [i.e. your sake], (though) being rich, he became poor”

Almost certainly, Paul is not speaking here in socio-economic terms; rather, “rich” and “poor” are to be understood figuratively, for Jesus’ Divine status and his incarnate human state (after he “emptied” himself), respectively.

The Pauline authorship of Ephesians and the Pastoral Letters remains disputed. Even if one regards any (or all) of these letters as pseudonymous, they unquestionably reflect Pauline thought and tradition. While there is a strong predestination emphasis in Ephesians, I do not find any clear references which would require a belief in Jesus’ pre-existence, and could not be explained just as well in terms of an exaltation Christology; but cf. the references discussed by Hamerton-Kelly, pp. 178-187. Much the same holds true for the Pastoral Letters (cf. the predestination emphasis in 2 Tim 1:9-10; Titus 1:2). However, the ‘Christ-hymn’ in 1 Tim 3:16 (treated in earlier notes) may, like Phil 2:6-11 and the other Pauline references discussed above, assume the incarnation of a pre-existent Christ; at the very least, the implication is that something Divine (from God) was made to “shine forth” (i.e., appear, made manifest) in human flesh, in the person of Jesus.

2. The Remainder of the New Testament

I do not find any references to the pre-existence of Christ in the letters of James, 2 Peter, or Jude, although mention should be made of Jude 5. If one excepts the majority text reading, then the author is attributing the Exodus of Israel to the guidance of Jesus (presumably, a reference to the pre-existent Christ’s presence in earlier history, cp. 1 Cor 10:4 [see above]); however, a strong argument can be made for the minority reading “[the] Lord”, with God/YHWH as the likely referent.

1 Peter 1:20 is an interesting case study. It clearly refers to Jesus as having been “known beforehand” (vb proginw/skw) by God, even before the creation of the cosmos. But does this refer to Divine pre-existence, in the way we typically understand it? After all, the verb proginw/skw is just as easily applied to believers (Rom 8:29)—being known by God beforehand, even before the creation (cf. Eph 1:4; Rev 13:8; 17:8). It is certainly possible that Peter (or the author) held a belief in Jesus’ pre-existence, but this is not clearly expressed in the letter; however, cf. the references discussed by Hamerton-Kelly, pp. 258-62.

The situation surrounding 1 Peter 1:20 seems to apply to many different references in the book of Revelation. The exalted and Divine status of Jesus is expressed throughout the book, to the point where titles of God (the Father) can be applied equally, without qualification, to Christ (the Son). For example, the declarative “I am” title “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (1:8; 21:6) is spoken by Jesus in 22:13. The title certainly implies Divine pre-existence, as the qualifying existential phrase-title “the (One) being, and the (One who) was, and the (One) coming” (cf. also 1:4; 4:8; 11:17; 16:5) indicates. Jesus qualifies his Divine title differently in 22:13: “…the beginning and the end”, without applying the three-fold existential title (unless Jesus is also identified as the speaker in 1:8).

The author of the book of Revelation (and/or John as the seer) probably held a belief in the Divine pre-existence of Jesus; yet, on the whole, this is not emphasized in the book. There is, however, a strong pre-existence aspect to the entire range of eschatological symbolism and imagery of the visions. By this I mean that one may identify heavenly archetypes which are manifested (on earth) at the end time. One notes the many references to things or persons “coming down” from heaven, which echoes the Christological language of the Johannine Gospel (esp. the repeated use of the verb katabai/nw, “step down”), referring to Son’s heavenly origin. If the book of Revelation is regarded as a product of the same Johannine churches which produced the Gospel and Letters, then it is all but certain that the author and readers would have held a definite pre-existence Christology.

The Letter to the Hebrews

The introduction (exordium) of Hebrews (1:1-4) clearly evinces a pre-existence Christology, to match that of the Gospel of John and the ‘Christ-hymns’ of Phil 2:6-11 and Col 1:15-20 (see above). Indeed, it would appear that the author is utilizing a comparable ‘Christ-hymn’ in his prologue; at the very least, vv. 2b-4 possess a verse-structure and elements consonant with the other Christ-hymns found in the New Testament. The Divine pre-existence of the Son (Jesus) is indicated in vv. 2b-3a, to be balanced with an expression of the older exaltation Christology in vv. 3b-4. For more on this passage, see my earlier set of notes, along with the recent note on 2:10ff.

This pairing of pre-existence and exaltation corresponds with the thematic structure of Phil 2:6-8, 9-11. Yet chapter 1 of Hebrews definitely is emphasizing Jesus’ Divine pre-existence, as the author’s use of the Scripture chain (catena) in vv. 5-14 indicates. In particular, the quotation of Psalm 102:25-27 in vv. 10-12 is meant to allude to the Son’s role in the Creation (cp. verse 2). Psalm 2:7 [also 2 Sam 7:14] and 110:1 (vv. 5, 13) are references which had previously been given a Messianic interpretation, and then applied to Jesus by early Christians. However, originally Psalm 2:7 and 110:1 were applied in the context of the resurrection (see the discussion in Part 1), whereas here in Hebrews they seem to be understood in terms of the Son’s Divine pre-existence (however, note the exaltation-context of Ps 2:7 & 110:1ff in 5:5-6).

Interestingly, though there is a strong pre-existence emphasis in chapter 1, this aspect of the author’s Christology does not appear to be particularly prominent in the remainder of his work. The superiority of the Son continues to be argued and demonstrated, drawing upon a range of Old Testament traditions, yet the focus tends to be on Jesus’ earthly mission—especially his sacrificial death. This is particularly so for the central line of argument, whereby Jesus fulfills the sacrificial apparatus of the old covenant, which had been administered by the priestly officials. Indeed, Jesus is identified as the great High Priest, who fulfills the sacrifices of the old covenant and ushers in the new covenant. This is the great theme of chapters 5-10. But, of particular interest for us here is the author’s use of the figure of Melchizedek in chapter 7 (introduced in 5:6ff, and again in 6:19-20).

The main significance of Melchizedek (cf. the original historical tradition in Gen 14:18ff) for the author of Hebrews, as it is for the author of Psalm 110, is that it demonstrates a person can be a (high) priest of God without being a descendant of Aaron and the Levites. This is the point of the summary in vv. 1-10. Yet, as the argument continues in vv. 11-26, it would seem that the author imbues the figure of Melchizedek with a deeper significance. There is an indication that Melchizedek possessed a certain Divine power and perfection (v. 16, 26ff). Moreover, the implication is that Melchizedek has an eternal existence (already suggested in verse 3), which makes him the ideal archetype for the Priesthood of the Son of God.

There is some contemporary Jewish precedent for such an exalted view of Melchizedek. For example, Philo treats Melchizedek as a symbol of the Divine Logos in On Allegorical Interpretation III.82. However, it is more likely the author of Hebrews has something like the view of the Qumran text 11QMelchizedek in mind. In this fragmentary text, Melchizedek is identified as a heavenly Redeemer-figure who will appear at the end-time, to rescue God’s people and defeat the forces of wickedness. Possibly he is to be equated with the angel Michael; but, in any case, this text provides evidence that, at least in some Jewish circles, Melchizedek was treated as a heavenly/angelic figure. Probably the author of Hebrew shared this general view, which made the application of the figure (and the reference in Psalm 110:4) to the person of Jesus all the more appropriate. As the pre-existent Son of God, Jesus is a heavenly being much like Melchizedek, though, as the Son, he is far superior.

In spite of these aspects of the figure of Melchizedek, it should be noted that the idea of Jesus’ pre-existence is not particularly emphasized by the author in chapter 7. Rather, it is the exaltation of Jesus, following his sacrificial death (and resurrection), that is primarily in view. For more on the Messianic and Christological aspects of the author’s use of Melchizedek, cf. the supplemental article in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

References above marked “Hamerton-Kelly” are to R. G. Hamerton-Kelly, Pre-Existence, Wisdom, and the Son of Man: A Study of the Idea of Pre-Existence in the New Testament, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, vol. 21 (Cambridge: 1973).

March 14: Hebrews 2:10-18

Hebrews 2:10-18

“It was suitable for Him—for [dia/] whom and through [dia/] whom all (thing)s (come to be)—(in hav)ing led many sons into splendor [do/ca], to make complete through sufferings the chief leader of their salvation.” (Heb 2:10)

Hebrews 2:10-18 is one of the few New Testament passages, apart from the Johannine and Pauline writings, to deal with the sonship-of-believers theme. It indicates that the author shares, with both Johannine and Pauline thought, the close connection of the sonship of believers with Jesus’ own (unique) identity as God’s Son.

This key Christological point is established in the prologue (exordium) of the letter (1:1-4), being buttressed by a chain (catena) of Scripture quotations (vv. 5-14) which prove the unique Divine Sonship of Jesus. This Christology is then expounded by the author, drawing similarly upon a range of Old Testament traditions, throughout the remainder of the letter. At the close of the introduction (v. 14), the idea of believers as co-heirs (i.e., as sons) with Jesus is alluded to. Just as the heavenly beings (angels) serve the Son, so they are also sent to serve “th(ose) being about to receive as (their) lot [i.e. as sons/heirs] salvation”.

An important element of the Sonship-Christology of Hebrews is also introduced in the prologue—namely, the idea of the do/ca which the Son possesses, the very do/ca belonging to God (the Father) Himself. The noun do/ca, though quite common in the New Testament (and LXX), is actually a bit difficult to translate. Properly, it denotes what a person thinks about something (or someone), how one regards it, etc. The word is frequently used in a positive, honorific sense, which is best translated as “esteem”, though, in this context, “honor” is perhaps a more suitable match in English.

However, when applied to God, in a religious context, do/ca often connotes that which, intrinsically, makes God worthy of honor—i.e., His Divine majesty, greatness, holiness, etc. It typically is used to translate the Hebrew noun dobK*, meaning “weight”, but often in the sense of “worth, value”, and thus, in a figurative religious sense, of the honor which God deserves, and of which He is worthy. The dobK*/do/ca of God is so closely connected with His nature and fundamental attributes that it, too, can be treated as a characteristic attribute—a reference to the awesome splendor or glory which He possesses.

In 1:3, in what may represent an adaptation (by the author) of an early ‘Christ-hymn’, the Son (Jesus) is said to possess the Divine do/ca, understood in the traditional theophanic sense of a brilliant light, a radiant aura which surrounds God. Christ obtained this “glory/splendor” when he was exalted, after his resurrection, but it is also something which he possessed even prior to his earthly life and mission. Hebrews balances an exaltation Christology with a pre-existence Christology, such as we see, for example, in the ‘Christ-hymn’ of Philippians 2:6-11. Jesus was the Son of God from the beginning. Note the wording in 1:2-3:

“…upon (the) last of these days He spoke to us in (His) Son,
whom He set (as one) receiving the lot [i.e. heir] (of) all (thing)s,
through whom also He made the Ages,
who,
being a shining forth of (His) splendor [do/ca], and (the) imprint of His underlying (essence),
and carrying all (thing)s by the utterance of His power…”

The hymnic character of vv. 2b-3 is indicated both by the verse-structure and the distinctive use of the relative pronoun (o%$, “who”) to introduce the principal verses/lines. Such use of the relative pronoun seems to be typical of early Christ-hymns, such as those which we find preserved in the New Testament (cf. Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20; 1 Tim 3:16). For more on this aspect of vv. 2b-4, and for a detailed exegesis, see my earlier set of notes on the passage.

Even from the beginning, the Son possessed the Divine attributes, power, and splendor/glory (do/ca). Yet the pre-existence emphasis in vv. 2b-3a is balanced by the exaltation emphasis that follows in vv. 3b-4. This same emphasis occurs at 2:5-9, just prior to our reference to the sonship of believers in 2:10. With his incarnation, as a mortal human being, and following his subsequent death and resurrection, the Son (Jesus) was “crowned” with splendor (do/ca) and honor (timh/). The author prepares for the ‘transfer’ of this honor/glory to believers in Christ by emphasizing the way that the incarnate Son shared (with us) the common human condition. This enables us, as believers, also to share in the Divine glory which he possesses (and has inherited).

In the next daily note, we will explore this association further, with a detailed analysis of how the author expounds his theme in vv. 10-18.

 

“The Word Became Flesh…”: New Testament Christology, part 1

John 1:14 and New Testament Christology

Our final area of study in this series is the relation of John 1:14 to the wider view of Christ, held by early believers, and as expressed in the New Testament. To what extent does the Johannine Christology of the Prologue (and its underlying Logos-poem) reflect the beliefs and thought of first-century Christians? In what ways does this Christology represent a natural development of the early Gospel traditions, or should it be characterized more as a distinctly Johannine creative expression?

Due to the scope of the study, which involves much of the New Testament, I will not be going into the kind of exegetical detail that I did in the first two divisions. Rather, the study will proceed as a survey, looking at the more salient points and citing certain references and phrasing when appropriate. This study will build upon the results from the prior articles, framed in terms of the Johannine Christology found in the Prologue (and particularly verse 14). It is to be divided into three parts, focusing on:

    • The Sonship of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (and Acts)
    • The influence of Wisdom tradition on early Christology, and
    • The specific idea of the Divine pre-existence of Jesus Christ

Here, in Part 1, we begin with the first of these topics.

The Sonship of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels

John 1:14 speaks of the incarnation (“became flesh”) of the Word/Wisdom (Logos) of God, even though, throughout the remainder of the Gospel (and in the Letters), the principal identification is of Jesus as the Son of God. The word lo/go$ has considerable theological importance in the Johannine writings, but, outside of the Gospel Prologue, the profound Christological use of the term is, at best, only indirectly alluded to or implied. By contrast, the Gospel repeatedly refers to Jesus as the Son (ui(o/$) who was sent (by God the Father) from heaven to earth. This theology implies the idea of the Son’s pre-existence; Jesus’ words in 8:58 and 17:5, 24 state the Christological point even more directly.

In the Prologue, the Gospel writer appears to have taken an existing ‘Logos-poem’, developing and applying it to the context of the Gospel he was composing (or had composed). The Logos-poem itself draws upon Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom tradition, involving the personification of Divine Wisdom (cf. Prov 8:22-31), but expressed through the philosophical/theological use of the term lo/go$, rather than utilizing the term sofi/a (“wisdom”) itself. This usage of the word lo/go$ in the Johannine Logos-poem has much in common with the way the term is used, for example, in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, as we have discussed.

In verses 14-18 of the Prologue, the Gospel writer makes the transition from the term lo/go$ (i.e., the pre-existent Word/Wisdom of God) to the term ui(o/$ (i.e., the Son of God). This transition is enabled through the use of the adjective monogenh/$ (“only [Son]”) in v. 14 (cf. also v. 18; 3:16, 18; 1 Jn 4:9). The idea of Jesus as the incarnate Logos is absent from the Synoptic Gospels; nor does the term monogenh/$ occur (in this theological/Christological sense). However, the idea that Jesus is the unique Son of God is found at various points in the wider Gospel Tradition, going back to the early historical tradition and the earliest expressions of Christian belief.

In this article, we will examine the outlines of this belief in the Divine Sonship of Jesus, considering how it may relate to the Johannine Christology (of the Prologue, etc). I wish to focus on three areas:

    • The early exaltation Christology—viz., the Sonship of Jesus defined by his resurrection and exaltation (to God’s right hand in heaven)
    • The identification of Jesus as God’s Son at the baptism
    • The birth of Jesus (as God’s Son) in the Infancy Narratives
1. The early exaltation Christology

By all accounts, the earliest Christology can be characterized as an exaltation Christology—that is, Jesus’ identity as the Son of God was defined primarily in terms of his resurrection and exaltation to heaven. This exaltation resulted in his obtaining a status and position at the “right hand” of God in heaven (cf. Mk 14:62 par; Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; 1 Pet 3:22; Heb 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). The early Gospel proclamation (kerygma), as we find it preserved in the sermon-speeches in the book of Acts (and elsewhere in the New Testament), tends to define the Sonship of Jesus primarily in terms of this exaltation—see, for example, the declaration in Acts 2:36, the citations of Ps 110:1 and 2:7 (in the specific context of the resurrection) in Acts 2:34-35 and 13:33 (cp. Heb 1:5; 5:5), and Paul’s statements in 1 Thes 1:10 and Rom 1:3-4 (the latter perhaps quoting from an early credal statement).

Within the Gospel Tradition itself, the identification of Jesus as the exalted Son tends to be framed by way of the title “(the) Son of Man” (cf. Mk 13:26, 32; 14:61-62 par; Matt 16:27-28; 19:28; 24:36ff pars; 25:1). This Gospel usage of the expression “(the) Son of Man” ([o(] ui(o\$ [tou=] a)nqrw/pou), which unquestionably derives from authentic historical tradition (and Jesus’ own usage), is a complex matter. Four aspects of its use must be recognized:

    • As a self-reference, a circumlocution for the pronoun “I”, so that, when Jesus speaks of “the son of man”, he is simply referring to himself
    • The Son of Man sayings, where Jesus uses the expression to identify with the suffering and mortality of the human condition
    • The Passion statements and predictions, where the human mortality of Jesus (the Son of Man) refers specifically to his own impending death (and resurrection)
    • The eschatological Son of Man sayings, in which Jesus seems to identify himself with a heavenly figure who will appear on earth and usher in the end-time Judgment

All four of these aspects are combined in the famous declaration by Jesus in Mk 14:62 par, which is clearly influenced by Daniel 7:13-14, and thus refers indirectly to the idea of Jesus’ exaltation. For more on the Gospel use of the title “Son of Man”, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, along with my series on the Son of Man sayings; see also my note on Dan 7:13-14.

The Gospel of John preserves this exaltation Christology, but adds to it a highly developed pre-existence Christology. The two aspects of Jesus’ Sonship are thus balanced, much as we see, for example, in the ‘Christ hymn’ of Phil 2:6-11. In the Johannine theological idiom, the exalted status which Jesus receives (following his death and resurrection) is understood as a return—that is, to the glory which he, the Son, possessed in the beginning (17:5). The “Son of Man” references in the Gospel of John are instructive in this regard (1:51; 3:13-14; 5:27; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 9:35; 12:23, 34; 13:31). They refer not only to the exaltation (“lifting high”) of the Son of Man, but to his coming down to earth (from heaven)—i.e., during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The pairing of the related verbs katabai/nw (“step down”) and a)nabai/nw (“step up”) highlight this dual-aspect. In the Johannine Gospel, the emphasis is squarely on the Son’s heavenly origin.

The Son’s heavenly origin is clearly the focus in the Gospel Prologue as well. The emphasis on his pre-existent glory (do/ca) balances the traditional idea of Jesus’ post-resurrection exaltation, as does the specific image of the Logos/Son possessing this glory “alongside” (para/) the Father. One is immediately reminded of the traditional idiom of the exalted Jesus standing “at the right hand” (i.e., alongside) God in heaven (cf. above).

2. The identification of Jesus as God’s Son at the baptism

The Gospel Tradition also expresses the idea of Jesus’ Divine Sonship through the specific tradition(s) surrounding his baptism. In particular, the heavenly voice at the baptism declares, quite unequivocally, that Jesus is God’s Son (Mk 1:11; par Matt 3:17; Lk 3:22), a declaration that is essentially repeated in the Synoptic Transfiguration scene (Mk 9:7 par Matt 17:5 [where the declarations are identical]; Lk 9:35).

In my view, this idea of Jesus’ Sonship should be understood in a Messianic sense. This seems particularly clear by the Lukan version of the declaration in the Transfiguration scene:

“This is my Son, the (one) gathered out [i.e., chosen]…”

The use of the participle e)klelegme/no$ (from the verb e)kle/gomai) unquestionably has Messianic significance, referring to Jesus as the “Chosen (One)”. Indeed, there can be little doubt that the Gospel writer (trad. Luke) has this in mind, given the occurrence of the related adjective e)klekto/$ in 23:35: “…the Anointed [xristo/$] of God, the Chosen (One)”. Interestingly, in some manuscripts, the Johannine version of the heavenly declaration at the baptism (Jn 1:34) also uses the substantive adjective e)klekto/$ rather than the noun ui(o/$ (“Son”):

    • “This is the Son [ui(o/$] of God”
      [Majority Text]
    • “This is the Chosen (One) [e)klekto/$] of God”
      [the reading of Ë5vid a* and other versional witnesses]
    • “This is the Chosen Son of God”
      [a conflation of the two readings attested in a number of versional witnesses]

The original Gospel tradition almost certainly alludes to Isaiah 42:1, Jesus’ baptism (marking the beginning of his time of ministry) being seen as a fulfillment of this prophetic passage—the heavenly declaration corresponding to v. 1a, and the descent of the Spirit to v. 1b. For more on this connection, cf. my earlier study in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”. Jesus is thus identified with the Deutero-Isaian Servant figure, and as a Messianic Prophet, chosen by God and anointed by His Spirit. Again, it is Luke’s Gospel that brings out this Messianic identification most clearly, identifying Jesus, in particular, with the anointed herald of Isa 61:1ff (4:18-19, cf. also 7:22 par). Cf. Parts 23 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

By the time the Gospels were completed, Jesus’ Messianic identity as the royal/Davidic figure type (cf. Parts 68 of “Yeshua the Anointed”) had completely eclipsed that of the Prophet figure-types. It is thus not surprising that the Sonship emphasized in the baptism scene would come to be understood in terms of the royal/Davidic type as well. The textual tradition of the Lukan version of the heavenly declaration (3:22) contains a variant reading to this effect, whereby the heavenly voice quotes Psalm 2:7. Certainly, in the Lukan and Matthean Infancy Narratives (cf. below), Jesus is identified exclusively as the Davidic Messiah, with his Sonship defined on those terms.

The place of the baptism of Jesus (and the heavenly declaration) within the Johannine Christology is problematic and remains debated by scholars. The main event at the baptism (in all four Gospel accounts) is the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus (Jn 1:32-33). In the Synoptics, the clear implication is that the presence of the Spirit is tied to Jesus’ Messianic identity (Isa 42:1; 61:1), empowering him to fulfill his ministry, working miracles as a Spirit-anointed Messianic Prophet (according to figure-types of Elijah and Moses). Luke’s Gospel particularly emphasizes this role of the Spirit, in relation to Jesus’ identity as a Messianic Prophet (4:1ff, 14, 18-19ff, 24ff [note the Elijah/Elisha references in vv. 25-27]).

However, in the Gospel of John, both Jesus’ Sonship and the role of the Spirit are described very differently, and the traditional material preserved in the baptism scene thus needs to be interpreted and explained accordingly. I am devoting an extensive supplemental note to this subject.

3. The Birth of Jesus (as God’s Son) in the Infancy Narratives

In the detailed exegesis of Jn 1:14 given previously, in the articles of the first two divisions of our study, I discussed the evidence in support of the expression “became flesh” (sa/rc e)ge/neto) as referring to a human birth—viz., of the birth of the Logos as a human being. For many Christians, this would simply be taken for granted, given the tendency to harmonize 1:14 with the Matthean and Lukan Infancy Narratives—thus assuming that 1:14 refers to Jesus’ birth.

There is, however, no real indication that the Gospel of John, in any way, has been influenced by the Matthean and/or Lukan narrative (or any of their underlying traditions). The Gospel writer certainly was aware of the expectation that the royal/Davidic Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (7:42), but there is no evidence that he understood Jesus to have been born there—indeed, the author’s handling of the matter in 7:41-43 could be taken as suggesting the opposite.

More seriously, there are two ways in which the Gospel of John differs markedly from the Infancy Narratives: (1) the lack of emphasis on Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, and (2) the Johannine emphasis on Jesus’ birth as an incarnation. As we conclude Part 1 of this article, let us briefly consider each of these points.

The identification of Jesus as the “Anointed (One)” (xristo/$), that is, the Messiah, is central to the Johannine theology—as, indeed, it was for virtually all early Christians. However, as I have discussed (particularly in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”), there were a number of different Messianic figure-types present in Judaism during the first centuries B.C./A.D., and these should not be reduced to the single (royal/Davidic) type that subsequently came to dominate eschatological and Messianic thought. In 7:40-43 (discussed above), there is a distinction made between “the Prophet” (that is, a Messianic Prophet, patterned after Moses) and “the Anointed One” (the Davidic Messiah). Similar distinctions are made in 1:20-25.

It is not clear whether the title o( xristo/$, throughout the Gospel, refers strictly to Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, or whether it has broader or more general Messianic significance. In any case, Johannine Christians would have identified Jesus with all relevant Messianic figure-types, both “the Prophet” (esp. patterned after Moses) and the Davidic Messiah. The Gospel explicitly identifies Jesus as “the King of Israel” (1:49), and, like the Synoptic tradition, beginning with the ‘triumphal entry’ and throughout the Passion narrative, gives certain emphasis to the theme of Jesus’ kingship (12:13, 15; 18:33ff, 39; 19:3, 12-21). In my view, the title o( xristo/$, in the Gospel of John, entails both Prophet (Moses) and Kingly (Davidic) aspects; overall, however, it is the association with Moses that is specifically established in the Prologue, and which is more dominant which the thematic structure and theology of the Gospel.

This is to be contrasted with the Infancy Narratives, where the Davidic Messiahship of Jesus is unquestionably given emphasis, and which is tied directly to Jesus’ birth—Matt 1:1ff, 20; 2:1-6ff (citing Mic 5:2), 15; Luke 1:27ff, 69; 2:1-4ff, 10-11ff. In the Lukan narrative, the Sonship of Jesus is defined by this particular Messianic paradigm, as the statements in 1:32-33 and 35 make abundantly clear. There is no real sense, in either narrative, that Jesus’ birth represents the incarnation of a pre-existent Divine being; to be sure, the Lukan and Matthean accounts are typically read that way, but this largely under the harmonizing influence of Jn 1:14.

The Johannine confessional statements (cf. especially in 11:27 and 20:31) effectively summarize the Johannine theology: Jesus is the Anointed One (Messiah) and the Son of God. He is, indeed, the Messiah (both Prophet and King), but also something more—the eternal and pre-existent Son of God. In Parts 2 and 3, we will consider the New Testament parallels to this pre-existence Christology, focusing (in Part 2) on the influence of Wisdom tradition on early Christology, and evidence for this outside of the Johannine writings.

August 5: John 6:63 (5)

John 6:63, continued

The transitional, connecting point between the Bread of Life Discourse (vv. 22-59), and the sayings/teaching of Jesus in vv. 60-71, is the response by the disciples in v. 60, in which they complain of the harshness (and difficulty) of their master’s words. In the literary and theological context of the Discourse, there are, as I have noted, two main sources of difficulty: (1) the claim by Jesus that he has come down from heaven (indicating his heavenly origin), and (2) the idea that people need to eat Jesus (as “bread from heaven”). Both of these are significant in terms of the Johannine Christology that is expressed in the Gospel, and both Christological themes certainly relate to Jesus’ statement in v. 63.

Let us begin with the first theme—that of Jesus’ heavenly origin. This aspect of verse 63 was discussed in the previous note, particularly in relation to the question in v. 62, and the idea of the disciples seeing the exaltation (“stepping up”, vb a)nabai/nw) of Jesus. Now we turn to the Christological point proper—viz., that Jesus, as the Divine Son sent by God the Father, has come down (“stepped down”, vb katabai/nw) to earth from heaven. In the theological setting of the Gospel (expressed most clearly in the Prologue), this implies Jesus’ eternal pre-existence as the Son/Logos of God.

How does this Christology relate specifically to verse 63? Let us look again at the Spirit/flesh contrast in v. 63a:

“The Spirit is the (thing) making (a)live, the flesh does not benefit anything!”

In the Johannine Gospel (as also in 1 John), the term sa/rc (“flesh”) refers specifically to one’s life and existence as a human being. In 3:6 (cf. also 1:13), an ordinary human (physical/biological) birth is in view, while in 8:15; 17:2 sa/rc denotes the human condition (on earth) more generally. Only in 1 Jn 2:16 is the word used in the kind of negative religious-ethical sense so familiar from Paul’s letters. The overall Johannine usage strongly indicates that the Spirit/flesh contrast is not religious-ethical, but metaphysical and existential. It refers to the distinction between the Divine and the human.

Of particular importance is the Christological use of sa/rc in the Gospel prologue (1:14), followed by the confessional statement in the Letters (1 Jn 4:2 [par 2 Jn 7]):

“And the Word [lo/go$] came to be flesh and set up tent [i.e. dwelt] among us, and we looked at [vb qea/omai] his splendor, splendor as of an only (Son) alongside (the) Father…”
“…every spirit that gives account as one (of) [i.e. acknowledges/confesses] Yeshua (the) Anointed having come in (the) flesh is out of [i.e. from] God”

From a Christological standpoint, sa/rc here in 6:63 would refer to the (incarnate) existence of the Son as a human being (“in [the] flesh”, e)n sarki/). The Spirit (pneu=ma), by contrast, refers to the Divine nature and status of the Son, in relation to God the Father. Since God is Spirit (4:24), so is His Son. Elsewhere in the Gospel, the Son receives the Spirit from the Father—so stated in 3:34-35, and implied in other passages (cf. 5:26; 6:57; 14:16, 19-20, 26; 15:26; 16:7b, 14-15; 17:5). Given the theology of the Prologue, the reference in 3:34, to the Father giving (the Son) the fullness of the Spirit, cannot simply reflect the traditional motif of the descent of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. The traditional (Messianic) Christology of the Baptism-scene is maintained, with no real attempt being made by the Gospel writer to harmonize this with the implications of the pre-existence Christology of the Prologue.

The Divine nature of the Spirit in 6:63 is especially clear by its characterization as “making (a)live” (vb zwopoei/w)—emphasizing the life-giving power of God’s Spirit. In the traditional exaltation-Christology among first-century believers, this Spirit-power was associated particularly with the resurrection of Jesus, mentioned most directly in the Pauline letters (cf. Rom 1:4; 8:11; 1 Cor 15:45; 1 Tim 3:16). From his exalted place at God’s right hand in heaven, Jesus shares in the Divine Spirit (1 Cor 15:45; cp. 6:17) and is able to communicate the Spirit to believers.

The Gospel of John gives special prominence to this idea of Jesus giving the Spirit to believers, enhancing the traditional Messianic and exaltational Christology with a distinctive pre-existence Christology. From this Christological viewpoint, Jesus possession of the Spirit is part of his essential identity as God’s eternal Son. This is why Jesus can speak as he does in verse 63, even prior to his “stepping (back) up” to the Father.

How, then, should the declaration in v. 63a be understood, in terms of the Johannine Christology? Even though the Son is present in the flesh (as a human being), it is still the Divine Spirit entirely that possesses the power to give life. The flesh, even the human flesh of Jesus—simply as flesh—can do nothing without the presence of the Spirit. The Johannine Gospel expresses this Spiritual presence at two different levels, which, as I noted above, are never completely harmonized within the narrative. This can be represented chiastically:

    • Jesus’ eternal nature and identity as God’s Son
      • The Son’s incarnate existence on earth as a human being
    • The exalted Son’s return to God the Father

The Gospel narrative, from Baptism to Exaltation (death/resurrection), with its framing Spirit-references (1:32-34; 19:30/20:22), covers the central (temporal/incarnational) phase, while continually alluding to the eternal dimension (of pre-existence and return).

After the Miraculous Feeding episode (vv. 1-14), it would be natural for people to respond to Jesus, in the flesh, as a special human wonder-worker. And so they did, according to verse 14, even recognizing him as a Messianic Prophet (on which, cf. Parts 23 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). Jesus himself, however, eschewed the socio-political (human) aspect of this identification, and would not allow them to exalt him in a worldly/fleshly manner (v. 15). The same contrastive theme (implying a flesh vs. Spirit / world vs. God contrast) dominates his dialogue with Pilate (18:33-38). When the crowd meets up again with Jesus (v. 25), he discerns that their attraction to him is primarily the result of his providing them with physical food to eat (v. 26)—i.e., to satisfy their flesh. Instead, as the ensuing Discourse makes clear, the primary purpose of the physical food is as a symbol of the spiritual food that he offers to humankind.

In the next daily note, we will examine v. 63a in light of this second Christological aspect.

August 1: John 6:63 (1)

John 6:63

“The Spirit is the (thing) making (a)live, the flesh does not benefit anything! (and) the utterances which I have spoken to you are Spirit and are Life.”

This famous Spirit-reference in John 6:63 has featured as an important part of recent discussions in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament” —cf. the article and supplemental note. I thought it worth giving more consideration to this provocative reference, looking at it particularly from a Christological standpoint. In the prior studies, the emphasis tended to be exegetical and interpretive. The mention of Jesus’ words (“utterances” r(h/mata) has naturally led commentators to explain v. 63 in relation to the words of Jesus in the Bread of Life Discourse (vv. 22-59)—that is, the statement in v. 63 further expounds the message and teaching(s) of the Discourse. Beyond this, the specific contrast between Spirit and flesh (sa/rc) has been understood, in various ways, as an explication of the use of sa/rc in vv. 51-58.

Commentators have not examined v. 63 much from the standpoint of the Johannine Christology;

A rare exception is the brief discussion by George Johnston, The Spirit-Paraclete in the Gospel of John, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 12 (Cambridge: 1970), pp. 22-8.

however, in light of the immediate context of Jesus’ question in v. 62, a Christological examination would seem to be warranted.

Admittedly, the question in v. 62 has proven rather enigmatic, the precise thrust of it being difficult to determine—at least for readers and commentators today. Some of Jesus’ disciples themselves had complained about the difficulty of their master’s words: “This word [lo/go$] is hard—who is able to hear it?” (v. 60). While vv. 60ff may represent an originally separate tradition, unrelated to the preceding Discourse, in the literary setting of the Gospel, it can only refer to Jesus’ teaching in vv. 22-59—and, most likely, to the specific words (and the eucharistic language) in vv. 51-58.

But the thrust of the Discourse is Christological. Specifically, Jesus identifies himself as the “bread having come down out of heaven” (v. 41, 51); in contrast to the manna sent by God (through the mediation of Moses), Jesus is the true (a)lhqino/$) bread from heaven (vv. 32-33, 38ff, 55, 58; cf. v. 31; Psalm 78:25; 105:40; Neh 9:15), and the living bread (vv. 35, 48ff, 51ff)—specifically in the sense that it is ‘bread’ which gives (eternal) life to those who ‘eat’ it (vv. 40, 47, 51, 54, 57-58). The implication is that Jesus has come down (vb katabai/nw) from heaven, having been sent from God the Father.

This further implies the pre-existence Christology of the Johannine Gospel—entailing Jesus’ identity as the eternal (and pre-existent) Son (and  Logos) of God. This Christology is expressed most clearly in the Prologue (1:1-18), and again in the chap. 17 Prayer-Discourse (vv. 1-5), but it can be seen throughout the entire Gospel, running as a thread through the Discourses. Earlier in the Discourses, this thematic motif of “coming down” (lit. “stepping down,” vb katabai/nw) was associated specifically with Jesus’ identity as the “Son of Man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou). While the expression “Son of Man,” and Jesus’ use of it, is more common in the Synoptic Gospels, it occurs at a number of points of the Gospel of John as well, indicating that it was a significant part of the Johannine tradition (no less than the Synoptic).

The first Son of Man saying, also utilizing the verb katabai/nw (and its parallel, a)nabai/nw, “step up”) is the enigmatic vision-saying in 1:51. The next occurs in 3:13f, which is more directly relevant to the Bread of Life Discourse. It is worth citing vv. 12-15 together:

“If I told you (about) the (thing)s on earth, and you do not trust, how (then), if should tell you (about) the (thing)s above (the) heavens, will you trust? (For) indeed, no one has stepped up into heaven, if not the (one hav)ing stepped down out of heaven—the Son of Man. And, just as Moshe lifted high the snake in the desolate (land), so it is necessary (for) the Son of Man to be lifted high, (so) that every (one) trusting in him should hold (the) Life of the Age(s) [i.e., eternal life].”

The points of emphasis in these verses are particularly significant for a proper understanding of 6:61-63, in their Johannine literary and theological context. These will be discussed in the next daily note, in preparation for applying the points to the statement in 6:62.

 

Spiritualism and the Opponents in 1 John (Pt 2)

Having summarized (in Part 1) my understanding of the evidence regarding both the opponents in 1-2 John and of the Johannine spiritualism, I will now attempt to bring together the results of my analysis, synthesizing it, to see in what ways the opponents (and the conflict surrounding them) may relate to this spiritualism.

Spiritualism and the Opponents: Synthesizing the Evidence

I will present three specific lines of interpretation, expounding and arguing them as far as the evidence may allow:

    1. The priority of the Spirit in teaching/guiding believers
    2. The abiding presence of Jesus through the Spirit, and
    3. Spiritualistic aspects of the Johannine Christology (i.e., regarding the person of Christ)
1. The Priority of the Spirit in Teaching/Guiding Believers

The key evidence for this particular aspect of Johannine spiritualism is: (a) the Paraclete-sayings in the Gospel (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7b-15), and (b) the xri=sma-statements in 1 Jn 2:20, 27. These statements emphasize the role of the Spirit in teaching and guiding believers. This role is suggested by the very title “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:12; 1 Jn 4:6, cf. also 5:6), obviously implying the truthfulness of the Spirit’s teaching and witness, but even more particularly by the promises in 14:26 and 16:13:

    • “that (one) [i.e. the Spirit/Paraclete] will teach you all (thing)s”
    • “when that (one) should come…he will lead you on the way in all truth”

In 1 John 2:20f, 27, the “anointing” (xri=sma) that abides/remains in the believer functions in much the same way:

“…you hold (the) anointing from the Holy (One), and you have seen [i.e. known] all (thing)s” (v. 20)
“…the anointing that you received from Him remains in you, and you do not have (any) need that any(one) should teach you…the anointing teaches you about all (thing)s” (v. 27)

The term xri=sma (“anointing”) here is best understood as a reference to the abiding presence of the Spirit, as I discuss in the article on this passage.

The opponents almost certainly shared this Johannine belief with the author of 1 John (and with the Community at large). If so, then it is fair to assume that the opponents, who would have regarded themselves as true believers, understood that they possessed God’s Spirit, and that the Spirit was the primary (and sufficient) source for Divine teaching and instruction. Moreover, they presumably believed also that Jesus (the Son) was himself teaching them through the Spirit (see esp. Jn 16:12-15).

On this basis, with the presumption that the Spirit of Truth (and Jesus through the Spirit) would not (and could not) teach them anything false, the opponents likely regarded their Christology, their understanding of Jesus Christ, to be true, confirmed by the internal witness of the Spirit.

The problem, then, for the Johannine Community, which apparently was experiencing a significant Christological division, was how to reconcile two contrasting (and opposing) views of Jesus with the one Spirit of truth. Significantly, the author does not deny the primacy of the Spirit as the guiding (and authoritative) source of truth, though this might have been useful as a way of combating the opponents. Instead of relying, for example, upon a personal apostolic authority (the noun a)po/stolo$ is essentially absent from the Johannine writings [cf. Jn 13:16]), the author seems to maintain the priority of the abiding (internal) presence of the Spirit, which is available to all believers. I tend to take seriously the author’s statements in 2:20, 27 as representing fundamental declarations of Johannine belief, doubtless understood as a fulfillment of the ‘new covenant’ prophecy in Jer 31:31-34 (vv. 33-34). The same focus on the (internal) witness of the Spirit is found in 3:24 [par 4:13], 4:4, and 5:6-8.

How, then, does the author combat the opponents? He does this two ways. First, in addressing his readers, he effectively treats them as true believers, assuming that they will thus be in agreement with the Community (of true believers)—with whom he also identifies himself. The underlying assumption, thus, is that, as true believers, the readers can trust that the indwelling Spirit will convince them of the truth, and that they will accept the Christology of the author (as representing the view of the Community), rather than that of the opponents.

Along with this rhetorical strategy, the author adds the implicit test that the witness of the Spirit will affirm, and will not contradict, the established witness of the historical (Gospel) tradition—regarding the person and work of Jesus. The author introduces this theme at the very beginning of his treatise, in the prologue (1:1-4), and it continues to run as an underlying thread throughout. In particular, the reality (and significance) of Jesus’ earthly life (as a human being) is emphasized—especially his sacrificial death (i.e., his “blood”, 1:7; 5:6-8, cf. Jn 6:53-56; 19:30). I have previously noted how the opponents combated by Ignatius of Antioch (see esp. his letter to the Smyrneans) seem to have similarly denied/devalued Jesus’ death, and how they resemble the Johannine opponents in certain respects.

Ultimately, the author summarizes the Gospel tradition by way of a trio of Christological confessional statements—in 2:22-23; 4:2-3 [par 2 Jn 7]; 5:5-6f—which he presents as a litmus test to distinguish between the true believers and the opponents.

2. The Abiding Presence of Jesus through the Spirit

A fundamental component of the Johannine theology is that Jesus (God’s Son) abides/remains (vb me/nw) in and among believers through the Spirit. God the Father, present in the Son, also abides in believers (and believers in Him)—cf. 1 Jn 3:24; 4:13, etc. Thus, even after his departure/return to the Father (in heaven), Jesus continues to remain with believers, teaching and guiding them. This is the principal message of the Gospel Paraclete-sayings (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7b-15), and it can be inferred from the other Spirit-references in the Gospel as well.

As I discuss above, there is little reason to doubt that the opponents shared this Johannine belief with the author of 1 John (along with the wider Community). This may help to explain how they might come to devalue or relativize the significance of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. After all, if he continues to remain with believers, continuing to teach and guide, then why should one place such importance on the things he said and did during the short span of his earthly ministry. Moreover, is not his presence in the Spirit greater that his limited presence in the flesh, as a matter of principle (cf. Jn 4:24; 6:63), far surpassing it in importance?

Again, the author does not in any way deny the fundamental Johannine belief—viz., of the Son’s abiding presence through the Spirit. However, as discussed above, he very much gives emphasis to Jesus’ earthly life (and death) as a human being. The idea of Jesus’ coming “in the flesh” (4:2f; 2 Jn 7) clearly refers to his life and existence as a (real) human being. Whether or not the opponents’ Christology was docetic, they do seem at least to have denied (or devalued) the significance of Jesus’ earthly life. Their denial, according to the author, was focused principally upon Jesus’ human death (“blood”)—its reality and/or importance. In my view, as I have discussed (cf. the article and supplemental notes), the confessional statement in 5:5-6ff informs the earlier ones in 4:2-3 and 2:22-23. In other words, the opponents’ false Christology (according to the author) was rooted in their understanding of his death.

One can see how a strongly spiritualistic view of Jesus (cf below) might tend to avoid emphasizing his death. After all, if “the flesh is not useful (for) anything” (Jn 6:63), how could this not include a person’s death in the flesh? By contrast, the author gives particular emphasis to Jesus’ death, especially in 5:6-8. This passage toward the end of the treatise is matched by the earlier reference in 1:7ff (cf. the earlier note), focusing on the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood. The implication is that this life-giving (and preserving/restoring) power is communicated to the believer through the Spirit. This idea is brought out more directly, it seems, by two passages in the Gospel: (1) the eucharistic language in 6:51-58, read in light of the statement of v. 63; and (2) the allusion to Jesus’ giving of the Spirit in 19:30 (also v. 34) at the moment of his death.

3. Spiritualistic Aspects of the Johannine Christology

It is reasonable to posit that the opponents’ view of Jesus Christ is rooted in the wider Johannine Christology, and represents a particular variation, or development, of it. As such, it is worth considering if there are any spiritualistic aspects of this Christology which may, in some respect, inform the opponents’ view. Here three lines of exploration will be considered briefly:

    1. Pre-existence Christology
    2. The Priority of the Spirit in the Gospel Narrative
    3. Jesus’ Role in the Outpouring of the Spirit
a. Pre-existence Christology

If, as would seem to be the case, the Gospel of John is representative of the Christology of the Johannine churches (when the Letters were written), then this was a pre-existence Christology—that is, characterized by a fundamental belief that identified Jesus Christ as the eternal (and pre-existent) Son of God, existing as such even prior to his earthly life. Once such a Christology had taken root throughout the Community, it created certain difficulties for the understanding of Jesus’ earthly life (as a human being). In particular, it became hard to explain Jesus’ death—indeed, how could the eternal Son of God die like any other ordinary human being?

Two relatively influential Christological trends—which are attested throughout the second and third centuries, but which likely originated sometime near the end of the first century—the Docetic and the Separatist, offered different explanations to navigate around this problem. In the various forms of the Docetic view, Jesus Christ only seemed (or appeared, vb doke/w) to be human, and thus only seemed to suffer an ordinary human death. Alternately, according to the Separationist view, the Divine Son/Christ and the man Jesus were two separate entities, who were joined together at the baptism and then separated at the moment of his death; this can be represented by the coming and departure of the Spirit, respectively (cf. Jn 1:26, 33; 19:30, [34]). Based on the evidence from the Ignatian letters (cf. throughout Smyrneans, also Trallians 10, etc), it is quite possible that the Johannine opponents held a rudimentary docetic view of Jesus, though a separationist view would accord better with the Johannine Gospel itself (cf. below).

The consequences of a pre-existence Christology to the Johannine spiritualism may be even more fundamental. One practical result of this Christology is to shift the focus from Jesus’ human nature to his Divine nature as Spirit (Jn 4:24); the Son receives the fullness of the Father’s Spirit (3:34-35). This is not simply the product of Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation (cp. 1 Cor 15:45; 6:17), it is intrinsic to his eternal identity as the Son (and he returns to it after the resurrection, Jn 17:1-5, etc). Thus the essential spiritual nature of Jesus may be seen as an important component of the Johannine Christology, even though (admittedly) this aspect is not particularly developed in the writings. It would, however, imply that the presence of Jesus (in believers) through the Spirit is the principal way that believers understand and experience him. The Gospel record of Jesus’ limited earthly life (and death), by comparison, could be seen as of only secondary importance. Possibly the opponents’ denial of Jesus Christ “having come in the flesh” is rooted in this basic Christological preference for Jesus as Spirit, rather than as flesh (cf. Jn 6:63).

b. The Priority of the Spirit in the Gospel Narrative

References to the Spirit frame the Johannine Gospel narrative, with the Spirit coming upon Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (1:32-34), and then being released (by Jesus) at the end (19:30, [34]; 20:22). The emphasis on Jesus ‘baptizing’ people in the Spirit (i.e., living water [cf. 4:10-15; 7:37-39], instead of with ordinary water), following the tradition of the Baptist’s saying (1:26, 33; cp. Mark 1:8 par), is a theme that dominates chapters 1-3. The statements about being born of the Spirit (instead of an ordinary human birth [out of ordinary water]) in 3:3-8 (cp. 1:12-13) is part of this thematic development. In the following Discourses of chaps. 4-8, the idea of Jesus giving the Spirit—through the idiom of giving living water/bread—also features as an important theme (cf. 4:10-15, 32ff; 6:35ff, 48ff, 51-58, 63; 7:37-39). Finally, the promise of the Spirit, as the abiding presence of Jesus the Son (and God the Father) with believers, is central to the Last Discourse (particularly in the Paraclete-sayings, 14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7b-15), and is also alluded to in the chap. 17 Prayer-Discourse.

All of these theological (and Christological) points of reference strongly suggest that believers experience the presence and power of Jesus Christ (the Son of God) primarily, and directly, through the indwelling Spirit. This spiritual primacy of believers’ relationship with God (the Father, and Jesus the Son) is an essential component of Christian spiritualism. It would very much seem to reflect the understanding of the Spirit within the Johannine Community, and likely was influential in shaping the views of the opponents as well.

c. Jesus’ Role in the Outpouring of the Spirit

The Gospel references related to Jesus’ giving the Spirit are documented in section (b.) above, including the idiom of baptizing people in/with the Spirit and the motif of living water—both of which involve the image of pouring out water. There can be no doubt as to the eschatological significance of this imagery, drawn as it is from Old Testament (Prophetic) tradition regarding the pouring out of God’s Spirit upon His people in the New Age of Israel’s restoration (see the passages cited, with links to detailed notes, in the Introduction to this series). The end-time outpouring of the Spirit upon God’s people (believers) is ushered in by the work of Jesus the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ), culminating in his death, resurrection, and exaltation.

The Johannine churches shared this basic belief with all other early Christians. However, the particular emphasis on the Spirit—and on Jesus giving the Spirit to believers—has a special prominence in the Johannine tradition (and its Gospel, cf. above). It may be said that, for most Johannine Christians, the primary role of Jesus—and the purpose of his incarnate mission on earth—was as the giver of God’s Spirit to His people. Though Jesus (the Son) possessed the fullness of God the Father’s Spirit (cf. above), his giving of the Spirit to believers was made possible only after the fulfillment of his earthly mission—culminating in his sacrificial death. This would seem to be expressed clearly enough in the Gospel, and yet the opponents apparently did not recognize the significance of Jesus’ death in this regard. Even if they acknowledged the reality of his human death, they may have denied its importance (and salvific power).

How does this relate to Johannine spiritualism? It is possible that the opponents held that the Spirit was communicated to believers by Jesus apart from his death. This is one way of understanding the significance of the author’s distinction between Jesus’ coming “in/through water” and “in/through blood” (1 Jn 5:6ff). If “water” here refers to Jesus’ baptism, then this was the moment when the Spirit came upon Jesus. Typically early Christians saw a believer’s baptism as the moment when, similarly, the believer received the Spirit (from Jesus). Thus, it is the baptism that holds the significance for receiving the Spirit, not Jesus’ death (“blood”). Again, it is possible that this way of thinking informed, to some extent, the opponents’ view. I am more inclined to think that “in/through water” refers rather to Jesus’ birth as a human being (and “in/through blood” to his death), but I will admit that the water-baptism connection represents a plausible interpretation that must be seriously considered.

Some final thoughts regarding the opponents, and their relation to Johannine spiritualism, will be given in the conclusion to the studies (in this series) on the Johannine writings.

1 John 4:2-3 and the Opponents in 1 John (Pt 2)

In Part 1 of this supplemental note, I laid out 4 lines of interpretation, regarding the Christology of the Johannine opponents, according to the statements in 1 John 2:22-23 and 4:2-3:

    • 2:22-23: Jesus is not the Christ
      “Yeshua is not the Anointed (One)”
    • 4:2-3: Jesus Christ has not come in the flesh
      “Yeshua (the) Anointed (as) {not} having come in (the) flesh” (cp. 2 Jn 7)

Within the four lines, there are seven interpretive approaches. Here, I will offer my evaluation regarding each approach.

1. The Jewish Hypothesis maintains that the opponents are Jewish Christians who have abandoned their faith in Jesus as the Messiah. This approach is relatively new, but has some distinguished proponents. It remains a minority view, but has gained somewhat in acceptance with the increasing emphasis among scholars on the Jewish background and context of the Johannine writings. The strongest presentation (and defense) of the Jewish Hypothesis is the dissertation by Daniel R. Streett, published as a lengthy monograph (They went out from us: The Identity of the Opponents in First John [De Gruyter: 2011]). This approach has the major advantage of taking at face value the denial in 2:22-23 (“Yeshua is not the Anointed One”), treating the title o( Xristo/$ in its principal first-century context, viz., as referring to the Messianic expectation(s) of Israelites and Jews, just as, in fact, o( Xristo/$ is used throughout the Gospel of John (cf. the earlier note on 2:22-23).

However, while proponents (like Streett) of the Jewish Hypothesis make many fine points, I have to disagree entirely with the premise. In my view, it is most unlikely that the opponents are simply Jewish Christians who have flatly rejected their faith in Jesus. If this truly were the situation being addressed by the author, I would very much expect to find evidence of some harsh anti-Judaism, anti-Synagogue language, such as we see at various points in the Gospel and also in the book of Revelation (2:9; 3:9). Indeed, I see little or no indication of any Jewish or Judaistic emphasis in the Johannine Letters.

2. Christian rejection of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. I find a much stronger argument to be made that the opponents are non-Jewish (Gentile) believers who reject Jesus’ identity as the Messiah (of Jewish expectation), and who would thus deny (or be inclined not to accept) the title o( Xristo/$ (“the Anointed One”) for Jesus. There are a number of details in 1 John, not least of which being the warning against keeping away from ‘idols’ (at the end of the work, 5:21), which suggest that the author is writing to a primarily non-Jewish audience.

This approach shares the same advantage with the Jewish Hypothesis (1., above)—that of taking at face value the statement in 2:22-23, along with the ordinary meaning of the title o( Xristo/$ (including everywhere it occurs in the Gospel of John; cp. 2 John 9). At the same time, it preserves the correct (in my view) nature of the crisis, as representing a Christological conflict within the Johannine Community of believers. However, at the same time, this approach does not seem to do justice to the centrality of the statement in 4:2-3, nor to the force of the author’s polemic (and language) in the “antichrist” section of 2:18-27 as a whole.

3. A Separationist Christology. As previously noted, this refers to the idea that the man Jesus and the Divine Christ are two separate entities, which were joined together (at the baptism), and then separated again at the moment of Jesus’ death. This explanation of the opponents’ view finds some support in the tradition that associates the apostle John (trad. author of the Letters) with the arch-heretic Cerinthus (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.3.4)—a point I mentioned in a prior note. According to Irenaeus (Against Heresies I.26), Cerinthus affirmed an early separationist Christology. This could be taken as evidence that the Johannine Community (symbolized by John) was in conflict with members (symbolized by Cerinthus) who held a separationist view of Christ.

There might be even stronger support for this approach if one were to accept (as some commentators do) the variant reading in 4:3lu/ei to\n Ihsou=n (“looses Yeshua”) instead of mh\ o(mologei= to\n Ihsou=n (“does not give account as one [of] [i.e., does not confess/acknowledge] Yeshua”). I discussed this text-critical issue at length in an earlier note. The manuscript evidence in favor of mh\ o(mologei= is absolutely overwhelming, and it is unlikely that that the reading lu/ei is original.

Yet, if it were original, the use of lu/w (“loose[n]”) with a person (Jesus) as the object might naturally be understood in the sense of “separating” (loosing) Jesus. From what would he be “loosed” if not the bond of union with the Divine Christ (and Son)? The variant reading is, indeed, understood in this way by Irenaeus (Against Heresies III.16.8), in opposition to the separationist Christology of the Valentinians (and other Gnostics). Origen and the historian Socrates (Church History 7:32), also cite the variant reading in a similar sense, in terms of dividing Jesus Christ; Socrates cites it in the specific context of the Nestorian controversy. The Latin witnesses that attest the reading lu/ei to\n Ihosu=n alternate between the translation solvit Iesum (“dissolves [i.e. destroys] Jesus”) and dividere Iesum (“divides Jesus”).

I find the separationist explanation, on the whole, to be rather unconvincing. If the idea of ‘dividing’ Jesus Christ truly were the point at issue, I would expect to find more evidence in 1 John arguing for a union between the man Jesus and the Divine Christ/Son. This does not seem at all to be the emphasis, though admittedly Christians in the 2nd-4th centuries may have understood 1 Jn 4:2-3 in this light (thus explaining the presence of the reading lu/ei in the margin of manuscripts, and its citation by theologians). However, Tertullian cites the same variant (Against Marcion V.16.4) in opposition to the docetic Christology of Marcion, claiming that such a Christology effectively “dissolves” (i.e. destroys) Jesus.

4. 2:22-23 as the author’s interpretation of 4:2-3. There is always the possibility that the statement in 2:22-23 does not actually represent the stated view of the opponents, but, rather, how the author, in his polemic, interprets it. According to this approach, the real point of Christological contention is given in 4:2-3—viz., the opponents denying that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (“Yeshua [the] Anointed [as] having come in [the] flesh”). By denying this, as the author understands the matter, the opponents demonstrate that they do not have true faith/trust in Jesus, thus effectively denying him as both the “Anointed One” (Christ) and the “Son of God”. That the author thinks in these terms is indicated by the extended logic in 2:22f:

    • denying Jesus as the Christ =>
      • denying him as the Son of God,
        and denying him as the Son =>

        • denying the Father as well

Just as the opponents surely would have affirmed belief in God (the Father), so almost certainly they also affirmed Jesus as the Son of God. By the same logic, as Johannine Christians (cf. 3:23; Jn 11:27; 20:31) they may well have also affirmed Jesus’ identity as the Christ; however, for the author, these points all hang together, and we might surmise his polemical logic to be as follows:

    • a false/erroneous view of Jesus Christ =>
      • they deny Jesus as the Christ =>
        • they also deny him as the Son =>
          • they actually deny the Father as well

Even if this assumption about the author’s presentation is correct, it is still necessary to define more clearly the Christological issue addressed in 4:2-3 (par 2 Jn 7). The remaining four approaches (4a-d) represent alternative explanations for this.

4a) A Docetic Christology.—that is, Jesus Christ was not really present on earth as a flesh-and-blood human being, but only seemed (vb doke/w) to be a human being. Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of this explanation of the opponents’ view comes from the writings of Ignatius of Antioch. As I discussed in a prior note, Ignatius probably wrote his letters not many years after 1 John was written, and to churches in Asia Minor (the region surrounding Ephesus), an area traditionally identified as the geographic locale of the Johannine congregations; indeed, many commentators today would be inclined to accept this identification. In several letters (most notably the letter to the Smyrneans) Ignatius seems rather clearly to be combatting a docetic view of Christ, and refers to 1 Jn 4:2-3 specifically in this context (Smyrneans 5:2). The evidence from Ignatius is convincing enough that numerous commentators have been willing to characterize (however broadly) the Christology of the Johannine opponents as “docetic”.

If one accepts the docetist explanation, it is probably best to construe it more narrowly, placing the emphasis primarily on the death of Jesus. In other words, the principal Christological error involved the denial that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, would suffer and die like any other mortal (cf. Ignatius, Smyrneans 2:1, “he [only] seemed [dokei=n] to suffer”). The emphasis in 5:5-8, along with the parallel in wording between 4:2f and 5:6ff, suggests that the reality of Jesus’ death was primarily in view.

4b) Denying the Importance of Jesus’ Earthly Life. According to this view, the opponents did not deny the incarnation per se, but, rather, they denied (or devalued) the importance of Jesus’ earthly life (and, particularly, his death). The opponents, it would seem, were influenced by the high Christology of the Johannine Gospel, as well as by the Johannine spiritualistic emphasis. If Jesus truly is the pre-existent Son of God, and thus fundamentally of a spiritual nature (Jn 4:24), and, if he is continually present in and among believers through the Spirit, teaching them “all things” (2:20, 27; Jn 14:26), it would be natural for Johannine Christians to question the importance of Jesus’ teaching and activity during the limited scope of his earthly life.

Such an interpretation has the added advantage of allowing for harmonization between 2:22-23 and 4:2-3, according to the view of 2:22f outlined in approach #2 (above). If Jesus’ earthly life itself is of limited importance, then of what value is his identification as the Jewish Messiah? However, this approach overall is perhaps better suited to the idea that the author is giving a polemical distortion of 4:2f in 2:22f—viz., by denying the importance of Jesus’ earthly life (and death), the opponents are effectively denying him as the Christ. At issue is one’s understanding of the significance of what Jesus did while “in the flesh”, and, particularly, the saving efficacy and power of his death.

Taken generally, this approach is relatively popular among commentators, and can be found in the distinguished commentaries of Schnackenburg, R. E. Brown, Klauck, and von Wahlde, among others. The chief problem with this approach, as I see it, is that it does not take seriously enough the specific language used by the author in 4:2-3. In a previous note, I analyzed the Johannine use of the noun sa/rc (“flesh”), the particular expression “in [the] flesh” ([e)n th=|] sarki/), along with the contextual use of the verb e&rxomai. The emphasis very much seems to be on Jesus’ existence and life as a human being. This suggests that the incarnation of the Son of God is the principal point at issue; this would, of course, include the reality of his death “in the flesh” (5:6ff).

4c-d) Denial of the Johannine Pre-existence Christology. These two approaches share the basic premise that the opponents were Christians (probably Jewish believers) who denied, or would not affirm, the idea that Divine/eternal Son was incarnate in the person of Jesus. I would delineate two main versions of this approach:

    1. The opponents believed that the Spirit came upon Jesus (at his baptism), who, as God’s chosen representative and “Anointed One” (o( Xristo/$), was able to communicate to believers the things of God (including the Spirit). However, he was not a flesh-and-blood incarnation of the eternal Logos and Son of God.
    2. The opponents fully accepted the identity of Jesus as the Christ and Son of God, but in accordance with the exaltation Christology held by believers throughout the first century. That is, Jesus’ status and position as God’s Son was understood as being the transformative result of his resurrection, when he was exalted to God’s ‘right hand’ in heaven, to share in the Divine Spirit, with the ability of communicating it to believers. However, again, according to this view, Jesus was not an earthly incarnation (“come in the flesh”) of the Divine Son.

These two approaches have the advantage of conforming to the contours of first-century Christology, as opposed to docetism, for which there is almost no evidence prior to the second century. Indeed, during the years c. 60-100, there must have been many Christians who were forced to grapple with the developing pre-existence Christology (attested primarily in the Johannine Gospel and Hebrews), and who found it difficult to accept. The Gospel of John itself seems to illustrate something of this difficulty. In the chapter 6 “Bread of Life” Discourse, for example, what seems particularly to “trip up” Jesus’ disciples (vv. 60ff), no less than the rest of his Jewish audience, is the idea that (1) Jesus has come to earth from heaven, and (2) that one must join in his earthly life and death (by ‘eating and drinking’ his “flesh” and “blood”). The disciples who cannot accept this incarnation-teaching, and who thus depart from following Jesus, could well serve as a paradigm for the crisis surrounding the opponents, as described in 1-2 John.

Having thus given some evaluation of the major interpretive approaches which attempt to explain the Christological view of the opponents, in the final part of this supplemental note I will offer a final summary of my own thoughts on the matter. This summary will take the form of a practical working hypothesis.

The Spirit and the Birth of Jesus: Part 4 (Heb 1:5; 5:5; 9:14)

In the previous section of Part 4, we considered the role of Psalm 2:7 in the development of Christology in the first century. We saw how the Scripture was applied in the context of Jesus’ resurrection (and exaltation to heaven), as a way of understanding his identity as the Son of God (cf. Acts 13:33ff). It also could be used in the context of Jesus’ baptism, as in the variant ‘Western’ reading of Luke 3:22b, in which the Heavenly Voice quotes Psalm 2:7, rather than the allusion to Isa 42:1 in the majority text (and the other Synoptics). As a reference to Jesus’ Messianic identity, the use of Ps 2:7 in the baptism scene would most likely be intended to identify Jesus more precisely as the royal/Davidic Messiah (drawing upon the ancient Near Eastern tradition of the king as God’s ‘son’, in a figurative and symbolic sense).

Gradually, however, early Christians came to realize that Jesus must have been God’s Son, in terms of a Divine/exalted status, even prior to his resurrection—that is to say, during the time of his life and ministry on earth. Since the Gospel Tradition marks the beginning of Jesus’ career with his baptism, it was natural for Christians to interpret the declaration of the Heavenly Voice (at the baptism) in a deeper theological sense. In other words, Jesus was truly the Son of God, possessing a Divine/exalted position (and nature), from the beginning of his ministry.

Eventually, this idea of Jesus’ Divine Sonship was extended further back, to a time even before he was born—a point attested clearly enough by the Matthean and Lukan Infancy narratives. The Infancy narratives themselves do not indicate a belief in the Divine pre-existence of Jesus, but we know that such a belief—representing a further stage of Christological development—is attested by at least the mid-50s A.D., since Paul alludes to it at several points in his letters. The earliest definite evidence for belief in Jesus’ pre-existence is the ‘Christ hymn’ in Philippians 2:6-11, which Paul either composed himself (c. 60 A.D.), or incorporated (and adapted) from older traditional material.

The ‘Christ hymns’ in the New Testament appear to have served as a locus for Christological development. I have discussed all of these passages, in considerable detail, in an earlier series of notes. One such ‘Christ hymn’ occurs in the introduction (exordium) of Hebrews (1:1-4). This passage is especially significant for our study here, since it leads into a chain (catena) of Scriptures, imbued with Christological meaning, that begins with a quotation of Psalm 2:7 (v. 5). Therefore it is worth examining briefly these introductory verses which establish the theological (and Christological) context for the application of Ps 2:7.

Hebrews 1:1-5

Verses 1-2 deal specifically with the idea of God’s revelation, beginning with “God spoke”, and indicating a contrast:

V. 1: God (has) been speaking [lalh/sa$] V. 2: (God) spoke [e)la/lhsen]
    • (in) many parts and many ways
    • (in) old (times) [pa/lai]
    • to the Fathers [toi=$ patra/sin]
    • in the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] [e)n toi=$ profh/tai$]
 
    • in one new way (implied)
    • in these last days [e)p’ e)sxa/tou tw=n h(merw=n tou/twn]
    • to us [h(mi=n]
    • in (the) Son [e)n ui(w=|]
 

The new revelation (to us) is marked primarily by two elements or characteristics: (1) it is eschatological, set in the “last days”, (2) it takes place in the person of the Son. The Greek e)n ui(w=| does not have the definite article, so it is possible to translate “in a Son”, but it is clear from the context that God’s Son—the Son—is meant. Verse 2b presents the nature of this Son, with a pair of relative clauses:

    • whom [o^n] He has set (as the) one receiving the lot [i.e. heir] of all (thing)s
    • through whom [di’ ou!] He made the Ages

The first of these draws on the idea of Christ being exalted to heaven following the resurrection, in common with the earliest Christian tradition; the second expresses Christ’s role in creation, implying some sort of divine pre-existence (cf. above). These two Christological approaches were shared by several strands of early tradition (e.g. Paul, the Gospel of John), and were not deemed to be contradictory in any way. The author of Hebrews will present the two views side-by-side at a number of points in the letter (cf. below).

In verses 3-4, the Son is described in greater detail; four elements are stressed in v. 3:

    • Reflection/manifestation of God’s glory and nature (3a)
    • Role in creating/sustaining the universe— “by the utterance of his power” (3b)
    • Salvific work—priestly cleansing of sin (by way of sacrifice, i.e. his death) (3c)
    • Exaltation to the right hand of God (3d)

The outer elements (first and last) indicate the Son’s divine/heavenly status, the inner elements (second and third) parallel creation and incarnation (Christ’s work in both). This is the sort of chiastic conceptual framework—

    • pre-existence
      —incarnation
    • exaltation

which the author of Hebrews makes use of elsewhere (2:8-13, cf. also the famous Christ-hymn of Phil 2:6-11). In verse 4, Christ’s divine/heavenly status is emphasized—that it is greater than that of other heavenly beings (“angels”). This superiority is understood in terms of the name that he has inherited (cf. Phil 2:9ff), which, though not specified here, is best identified with ku/rio$ (“Lord”), the conventional rendering of the divine name YHWH. For more on the ‘Christ-hymn’ in vv. 3-4, see my earlier series of notes.

There can be little doubt that Sonship (i.e. Son of God) here is defined in the context of divine pre-existence—a blending of the Davidic “Messiah” with the concept of a heavenly Redeemer-figure which is also known from Jewish tradition at roughly the same time as the (later) New Testament, such as in the Similitudes of Enoch and 4 Ezra (2/4 Esdras). In Hebrews, this is indicated by the citations of Psalm 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14—both passages given Messianic interpretation—in verse 5. Recall that in Acts 13:32-33ff, Psalm 2:7 is cited in the context of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation (cf. above)—i.e., the Son is “born” following the resurrection. Verse 6, however, shows that the author of Hebrews has a view of Christ that is comparable to the prologue of the Gospel of John (esp. Jn 1:1ff, 9, 14, etc; cf. also Rom 1:3; Gal 4:4; Phil 2:6ff):

    • Christ is already God’s “firstborn” (prwto/tokon)
    • God leads him into the inhabited-world (oi)koume/nh, possibly the heavenly realm of angels in addition to the world of human beings)
      ei)$ th\n oi)koume/nhn as parallel to the Johannine ei)$ to\n ko/smon (“into the world”)

As indicated above, the author presents two different Christological portraits, and continues this in vv. 8-12 (citing Scripture):

    • vv. 8-9—in more traditional language of exaltation (citing Psalm 45:6-7)
    • vv. 10-12—of Jesus’ divine status and existence encompassing the beginning and end of creation (citing Psalm 102:25-27, cf. also verse 2b above)

Jesus as God’s Son is an important theological identification throughout the New Testament; let us consider the thematic development and presentation here in Hebrews. In addition to 1:2, 8 we have (context indicated):

    • Heb 3:6—role as heir/master of the household, emphasizing his faithfulness
    • Heb 4:14; 5:5, 8; 7:3, 28—role as (exalted) High Priest, indicating his sacrificial work (cf. below); 5:5 cites Ps 2:7 [as in 1:5], cf. below; 7:3 has spec. title “Son of God”
    • Heb 5:8—his suffering (incarnation and death) and obedience (to the Father)
    • Heb 6:6—his death on the cross (spec. title “Son of God” is used)
    • Heb 10:29—his holy/sacrificial work, i.e. his death (“blood of the covenant”)

As the above summary indicates, there is a special emphasis in Hebrews on Jesus’ Sonship in terms of his sacrificial death.

Hebrews 5:5; 9:14

The theme of the Son’s superiority over the prophets and mediators (Moses, Aaron, etc) of the old covenant was established in the introduction (1:1-4, cf. above). In 4:14-5:10 the comparison is narrowed to the specific motif of Jesus as a new (and superior) kind of High Priest. This Priesthood of Jesus is defined in terms of his death and resurrection. In this regard, the citation of Psalm 2:7 (again) here in 5:5 draws upon the early tradition associating that particular Scripture with the resurrection (and exaltation to heaven) of Jesus. The opening words in 4:14 make clear that the exaltation is primarily in view, identifying Jesus as a great high priest “…having gone through the heavens”.

We saw, however, that the earlier citation of Psalm 2:7 (in 1:5, cf. above) was applied equally to the pre-existence of Jesus. In light of this developed Christology, the reference to Jesus as the “Son of God” here in 4:14 has a deeper significance. Even though he was already God’s Son, he humbled himself so as to take on the role of High Priest through his life on earth, with its suffering (5:7-8). Jesus’ obedience in enduring this suffering (v. 8) resulted in a greater completion (and perfection) of his Sonship (v. 9). The same basic paradigm is found in the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2:6-11:

    • Pre-existence (alongside God)
      • Incarnation/earthly life (lowering himself)
        • Suffering/death (obedient humbling of himself)
      • Exaltation by God
    • Heavenly position (at God’s right hand)

The Priesthood that Jesus took upon himself in his earthly life (and death) was translated into a heavenly Priesthood. In this regard, Hebrews uniquely blends together Psalm 2:7 and 110:1 (5:5-6). Both of these Scriptures were treated as Messianic passages, applied to Jesus, at a very early stage of Christian tradition. They hold the same kerygmatic position, respectively, in Peter’s Pentecost speech and Paul’s Antioch speech (2:34-35; 13:33); in each instance, as we have discussed, they were interpreted in the context of the resurrection/exaltation of Jesus. Hebrews, however, focuses on the figure of Melchizedek in Psalm 110, drawing upon an entirely different line of Messianic tradition, identifying the exalted Jesus with a Divine/Heavenly Savior figure (cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed,” along with the supplemental study on Hebrews in that series).

The synthesis of Christological beliefs and traditions in Hebrews is rich and complex. To this, we may add a very distinctive reference to the Spirit in 9:14. Comparing the sacrifice of Jesus (as High Priest) with the sacrificial offerings of the old covenant, the author concludes as follows:

“…how much more the blood of the Anointed (One), who through (the) Spirit of the Ages brought himself without blemish toward God, shall cleanse our conscience from dead works to give service to (the) living God.”

The blood of the material sacrificial offerings (goats and calves, etc) of the old covenant are contrasted with the spiritual offering of Christ himself. He who is the High Priest offers himself as a sacrifice to God. This is done in an entirely spiritual way. The expression used is “through (the) Spirit of the Ages” (dia\ pneu/mato$ ai)wni/ou), i.e., “through (the) eternal Spirit”. This draws upon the basic early Christian belief that Jesus’ resurrection took place through the Spirit of God, but extends the role of the Spirit to his sacrificial death as well. Moreover, the sacrifice itself takes place “through the Spirit” since Jesus himself, as the pre-existent Son of God (cf. above), from the beginning shared in the Divine Spirit.

Once the Divine pre-existence of Jesus was recognized, the role of the Holy Spirit in relation to him took on an entirely new and deeper Christological significance. The older traditions had to be reworked and reinterpreted. We can see this process at work in Hebrews, and it is even more prominent in the Johannine writings, to which we will turn in Part 5.

January 17: John 1:33

John 1:33

Verse 33 is curious in that it essentially repeats the information from verses 31-32 (discussed in the previous notes). It is one of several repetitions and ‘doublets’ in this section, which commentators have sought to explain in a variety of ways. Actually, such repetition/doublets seem to be part of the Johannine literary style, and many examples could be cited from throughout the Discourses. One way to explain this, as a mode of composition by the Gospel writer, is that parallel but distinct source-traditions have been creatively combined together into a single narrative. However, in this case it is perhaps better to view the matter as a combination of different interpretive approaches by the Gospel writer to a common tradition.

It may be useful to compare verses 31-32 and 33 in context here:

Vv. 31-32
John: “And I had not seen [i.e. known] him, but (so) that he should be made to shine forth to Yisrael, through this [i.e. for this reason] I came dunking in water.”
Narration: “And Yohanan gave witness, saying that ‘I looked at the Spirit stepping down as a dove out of heaven, and it remained upon him’.”

V. 33
John: “And I had not seen [i.e. known] him, but the (One) sending me to dunk in water—that (One) said to me”
Heavenly voice: “The (one) upon whom you should see the Spirit stepping down and remaining upon him”
Trad. saying (adapted): “this is the (one) dunking in (the) holy Spirit”

There is clear parallelism at work, but, as is often the case in the Gospel of John, the apparent repetitiveness is actually a sign of careful composition and a purposeful literary structure. The reasonably precise parallelism serves to highly the differences between the two versions, and these differences are more significant than might appear at first glance. We may summarize it this way:

    • Vv. 31-32 record John’s witness as to what he saw
    • V. 33 records John’s witness as to what God revealed to him

These are both important, and complementary, aspects, from the standpoint of the Johannine theology. It also demonstrates the special and unique way that the Gospel writer adapted the established tradition. Recall that there are two fundamental components to the Baptism tradition: (a) visual (descent of the Spirit), and (b) aural (voice from heaven). These correspond to the two ‘versions’ of the Johannine account: (a) what John saw (vv. 31-32), and (b) what he heard God say to him (v. 33).

Moreover, there is a reverse progression in vv. 31-33; that is to say, verses 31-32 depend on v. 33, even though verse 33 comes after vv. 31-32 in the narrative. John would not be able to give the witness that he does in vv. 31-32, if God had not first revealed the information to him in vv. 33. In this way, the Gospel writer, through his carefully constructed narrative, takes the reader back to the revelatory point experienced by John himself. In effect, the reader, through the inspired narrative, experiences the same revelation. On the importance of John as a source of revelation regarding the person of Jesus, cf. also 3:26-30ff; 5:33-35.

Some comment must be made regarding one particular adaptation of the Baptism tradition: the use of the verb me/nw (“remain”), an important Johannine keyword, which occurs here in both verse 32 and 33. The common tradition is followed in stating that the Spirit “stepped down” (vb katabai/nw) out of heaven as a dove, coming “upon” (e)pi/) Jesus. However, the phrasing in the Johannine version involves the Spirit stepping down and remaining on Jesus. Given the importance of the verb me/nw for the Johannine theology, this is surely significant. Even though the idea of the Spirit resting upon Jesus, may be part of the traditional (Messianic) imagery, based on the wording, for example, in Isa 11:2 (cp. Testament of Judah 24:1ff; Testament of Levi 18:7), the specific Johannine use of me/nw gives to the scene an even deeper meaning.

It is at just this point, however, that the Johannine Christological portrait seems to be somewhat at odds with the Baptism tradition. In the context of the core Gospel narrative, it is only after the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism that he is empowered to proclaim the Kingdom, teach/preach the Divine message, and work healing miracles. There is not the slightest suggestion in the Synoptic Gospels of the divine pre-existence of Jesus. Fundamentally, his identity as the Son of God begins at the Baptism (Mk 1:10-11 par), marked by the coming of the Spirit upon him.

The Gospel of John, however, evinces a strong pre-existence Christology, identifying Jesus as the Son of God even prior to his life/existence on earth. This is declared (and affirmed), not only in the Prologue, but throughout the Gospel Discourses as well. It may be that the Gospel writer, here in vv. 29-34, has simply retained the core Gospel (and historical) tradition, without altering it substantially to fit the Johannine Christology. Even so, we must ask what significance the theologically charged verb me/nw has in this context.

Throughout the Johannine Discourses, this verb is used to express the abiding relationship (and union) between God the Father and Jesus (the Son). By extension, this same sense of union applies to the relationship between Jesus and believers. In the Last Discourse, in particular, Jesus repeatedly refers to his disciples “remaining” in him, and he in them. The Vine illustration (and its exposition) in 15:1-16 alone contains 11 occurrences of the verb me/nw. This abiding union is realized through the presence of the Spirit, which comes upon believers and dwells in and among them.

Based on the Johannine Christology, expressed most clearly in the Last Discourse, the Spirit also represents the bond of unity shared by God the Father and Jesus the Son. And yet, this fact renders somewhat problematic the traditional Baptism scene recorded in vv. 29-34, where the Spirit comes upon Jesus much as it does upon his disciples (believers). If Jesus is the pre-existent Son of God, sharing the Divine Life and existence with God the Father, would he not already possess the Spirit in full measure? In that case, what is the purpose of the Spirit’s descent at the Baptism?

The question might be answered by way of the kenosis-theory (based on Phil 2:6-8), whereby Jesus “emptied” (vb keno/w) himself of his Divine position and status when he came to be born and live on earth as a human being. According to the kenotic theology, the emptied human Jesus was dependent upon the special presence of the Spirit, which came and empowered him at the Baptism—an empowerment that lasted throughout the time of his life on earth. The validity of this kenotic theology, in whole or in part, continues to be debated by theologians; in any event, it is not at all clear whether (or to what extent) the Gospel writer held such a view of Jesus.

Perhaps the most serious objection to the kenotic hypothesis is that it is predicated upon a developed (post-Nicene) mode of Christological thinking, and it is highly questionable whether such a mode of thinking can (or should) be read back into the first-century context of the New Testament writings. I suspect that the Gospel writer is simply making use of the Baptism tradition without giving any real thought to all of the potential theological implications. The Johannine Christology required that there be some mention of the abiding presence of the Spirit with Jesus during his time on earth as the incarnate Word and Son of God. The Baptism tradition, with its record of the Spirit’s descent upon Jesus, was the best vehicle for establishing the fundamental connection between Jesus and the Spirit. From a literary standpoint, once this connection was established, the Gospel writer could then freely reference the incarnate Son’s possession of the Spirit—the same Spirit which God the Father possesses, and which the Father gave to the Son (3:34-35, etc)

One key point that the Johannine theology shares with the wider Gospel tradition is that Jesus’ empowerment by the Spirit’s presence was permanent, and, as such, differed fundamentally from the temporary inspiration of religious leaders and prophets (such as John the Baptist). The verb me/nw certainly captures this idea of permanence: the Spirit “remained” (e&meinen) upon Jesus. This theme also applies to our union (as believers) with Jesus—we remain in him through the abiding presence of the Spirit, and this presence is permanent.