Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity

* How did monotheistic Jews of the early church come to see Jesus as a part of the unique identity of Israel’s God? Offering an alternative to “functional” and “ontic” Christology, Bauckham convincingly argues that the divine identity—who God truly is—can be witnessed in Jesus’ humiliation, suffering, death, and resurrection.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity

  1. Review

    Book Review: Jesus and the God of Israel: ‘God Crucified’ and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity by Richard Bauckham.  Paternoster, Milton Keynes UK  2008;  ISBN 978-1-84227-538-2 (Paperback); $39.95

    Richard J. Bauckham is described at the time of this book’s publication as Emeritus Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, although its contents have been developed over several  decades.  James D.G. Dunn has commented on the book’s back page that its “New Testament Christology of divine identity” has the “potential to resolve old puzzles”. 

    One book, many perspectives

    Several important preliminary issues arise for consideration, including the author’s intention behind his work, the range of possible presuppositions and the problems relating to theology as a realm of inquiry.

    One problem faced by the reader is that the author’s actual intentions behind the writing are often very unclear. Authors naturally adopt their own personal perspective and set of presuppositions available to them.  These “biases” range from the confessionally apologetical and  the impartially neutral to  the academically analytical, the scientifically critical and possibly the negatively polemical and dismissive, any of which may be the pre-supposition behind each author’s book. 

    Readers who are confessionally-minded and biblically literalistic, will no doubt adopt and declare their faith in a preferred  literalistic understanding and acceptance of the book’s theological dogmas, supernatural events,  superhuman, theistic  beings and   miraculous contents. In contrast, the more critically-minded,  academically-oriented and reason-based readers will no doubt prefer to adapt this to the 21st century world-view and to seek to de-mythologize and to de-theologize this supernatural and superhuman realm.

    For example, on the level of pure description, Bauckham’s book, which deals with religion,  theology and the two themes of  Yahweh’s identification with  Jesus and the early high Christology, may be read and understood as a purely impartial articulation of  human ideas about the super-natural realm. This can be a most worthy object of humanistic and anthropological study and can be an academically and scientifically sound investigation, within the context of the first century’s history, geography, religion, cosmology and culture in Palestine.

    However, this book’s aim may actually harbour the author’s confessionally theological intent to go beyond such pure description of ideas or concepts to the promotion of its contents as representing the author’s deeply-held personal theological beliefs and supernatural dogmas and to the encouragement of readers to adopt these supernatural beliefs as articles of faith.  The reader’s assessment of the presuppositions behind theological and religion-related books will always display the possibility of such ambivalence.

     

    Theological books in today’s world

    This ambivalence raises the third important issue relating to the publication and use of theological books today. A book’s contents can be descriptively neutral but the author’s creative conception and conscious context imposed on the book establishes its biased perspective, aim and point-of-view.

    It is therefore possible to distinguish between content and intention. Books published by evangelical and even fundamentalist book publishers may be promoting their partial, confessional and purely apologetic type of thinking. However, the contents could also be appreciated by the more liberal-minded as impartial descriptions of important religious ideas and concepts, which can help to promote deeper insights into Christianity’s formative century and later development. The readers’ response to such books can allow for an appreciation of the expressed ideas and it certainly does not have to be submissive to the author’s literalistic intention for his or her work.

    This lengthy introduction should help to deal with the present “theological “book under review, which displays the typical ambivalence but which also offers valuable insights into the early formation of the high Christology and divine identity in Christianity’s first century.  Readers clearly have no influence over the present author’s articulation of his chosen topic or theme for his book but we do have control over our personal reader-response to the text!

    Contents

    Bauckham’s book consists of eight chapters of his essays, which he has written over several decades.  His sections include chapter 1. God Crucified; 2. Biblical Theology and the Problem of Monotheism; 3. The ‘Most High’ God and the Nature of Early Jewish Monotheism; 4. The Worship of Jesus in Early Christianity; 5. The Throne of God and the Worship of Jesus; 6. Paul’s Christology of Divine Identity; 7. The Divinity of Jesus in the Letter to the Hebrews; and 8. God’s Self-identification with the Godforsaken in the Gospel of Mark. It ends with a General Index and an Index of relevant texts. 

    The reader’s exploration of these interesting chapters will soon raise the vital issue of their “cosmological context’. How should the descriptions be understood?  The first-century’s three-tiered cosmology included the heavenly realm above, the underworld below and the earthly, terrestrial and human realm in between.

    Five levels of textual analysis

    More recently, five levels of textual analysis and narrative activity have been formulated, relating to the historical and cosmological context of the Hebrew deity Yahweh and of Christianity’s Jesus. This book’s beings, locations and activities all need to be contextualised within such a Yahwistic analysis on five levels. These include [1] the sun located up  in the sky; [2] the sun deified as Yahweh; [3] Yahweh personified and humanised as “Yahweh Saves” or Yehoshua or Jesus; [4] Jesus humanised, historicised and demythologised  within first century Palestine and [5] the human soul journey, which can be spiritually nourished by the anagogical appropriation metaphorically of any or all of  the previous levels.

    Yahweh’s roles at these five levels are most instructive. Starting in the middle at level 3, and moving backwards, Yahweh is depicted as the Hebrew and Jewish Yahweh Sabaoth (of hosts), the Hebrew’s tribal and later more universal deity, resident in heaven but also able to visit his temple home in Jerusalem.

    At level 2, many biblical texts connect Yahweh with the sun.  Joshua 10 is a good example, where Yahweh is associated with the sun as it miraculously stands still for a whole day during one of the Israelites’ battles.  In turn, the sun is deified as Yahweh and these two levels need to be analysed by supernatural, theological and metaphysical methods.

     Level 1 begins with the physical sun in the sky as part of cosmic astronomy and this can be analysed by scientific, technical and materialistic methods.

    Moving forwards from level 3,  “Yahweh” is depicted as incarnating on earth as Jesus or Yehoshua, whose name really means “Yahweh Saves”.  Using the name “Jesus” tends to hide Jesus’ identification with Yahweh, both as miraculous Son of Yahweh  and the declining’ dying and rising Son of Man, as is so clearly depicted in the Gospel of Mark. For example, the nature-miracles in the first half of Mark thus provide illustrations of Yahweh’s solar power over nature and the mid-summer sun at its peak appears in the Transfiguration, where Jesus’ face shone like the sun, as described in Matthew 17:1-8. Likewise, the predictions of the suffering, death and resurrection of the Son of Man, which coincide with the declining sun or Son of Man during the annual autumn and winter seasons, illustrate a naturalistic solar-based death of “Yahweh Saves” or “Jesus” on 21 December and after three days, the resurrection of “Yahweh Saves” or “Jesus” on 25 December every year. Hence, on both a daily and an annual basis, disciples could proclaim that “He is Risen!” .

    The textual-analysis at level 4 moves beyond the super-natural realm to the exploration of Yehoshua or Jesus the Nazarene as an actual, historical human being with religious ideas, who lived mainly in Galilee in early first century CE. Here the important issue is what is historical fact and propositional truth in the text and what are theological and mythical ideas and concepts in need of demythologisation. This can also be analysed from a scientific, technical, materialistic and academic perspective, as displayed by the Jesus Seminar.

    Finally, level 5 analysis relates all of the above beings, locations and activities, whether historical or symbolical, to the soul-journey and to an anagogical appropriation by the individual, for spiritual sustenance and soul care. This level’s methodology and perspective is therefore best described as spiritual, therapeutic and mystical. Hence, any analysis and application of the Incarnation or Identification of Yahweh with his Son called “Yahweh Saves” need not be literalistic or fundamentalist. On the contrary, such as application can be suitable for atheists, agnostics and modernist-Christians, who are now unable to accept the literal truth of such dogmas, but who appropriate in a metaphorical manner, the annual journeys both in the sky by Yahweh through the annual seasons and zodiacal signs and through Galilee and Judah by Jesus for their own soul-journeys.

    Some Highlights

    There are many highlights in this book but there are also some complexities.  Each idea, concept, entity or location mentioned below needs  to be contextualised within the five different  levels of Yahwistic and textual analysis, as outlined above.

    When this book is viewed descriptively and phenomenologically, it contains much valuable and widely researched Christological material. These few highlights will reveal them.

    The author leaves no doubt that “the earliest Christology was already the highest Christology” (p. X) he goes on to explain that the Incarnation did not involve “intermediary figures” but it arose “by identifying Jesus directly with the one God of Israel, including Jesus in the unique identity of this one God” (p.3).  This is confirmed for the author in the context of the Second Temple Judaism and the recitation of the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:2-6: “Hear, O Israel: YHWH our God, YHWH is one”. An important corollary to this monotheism is therefore monolatry, which is “the worship of only the one God” (p. 5).

    The identity issue is clarified by distinguishing between several roles of Yahweh as the specific God of the Israelites and Yahweh as the” Creator of all things and the sovereign Ruler of all things” (p.8).

    Intermediary figures are also clarified and placed into two categories: [1] principal angels and exalted patriarchs; and [2] personifications of aspects of Yahweh, such as Spirit, Word, or Wisdom. Only these latter concepts are included “within the unique identity of God” [p.14].

    The author’s early “high Christology” also reflects “the practice of worshipping Jesus” which “goes far back into early Jewish Christianity” and which arose from Jesus’ “inclusion in the unique divine identity” (p.25).  Implication of this in relation to Jesus’ Incarnation, Resurrection and Exaltation are many.

    If Jesus as “Yahweh Saves” is identified with Yahweh and if Yahweh is identified with the sun, the Transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17 not surprisingly presents Jesus with his face shining like the sun. Does this also apply to Jesus and his disciples who met after Easter on a mountain in Galilee and who witnessed a viewing of Jesus as the sun in their Galilean resurrection appearance? Such a viewing was plausible, even for 500 witnesses at once. This sequence in relation to Jesus appears to be quite coherent and even Paul was blinded by the intense light at his conversion appearance and viewing.

    The exaltation in turn takes Jesus “to the highest position, the heavenly throne of God” (p.42). The author is not surprised that Paul is able to present an account of such an exalted Jesus as in Philippians 2:6-11.

    The problems of monotheism are not ignored (p. 62) and it is acknowledged that archaeology has shown the worship by the Hebrews of gods besides Yahweh, especially the goddess Asherah (p.73). The distinction is also made between “inclusive monotheism” which describes a supreme but not unique deity and “exclusive monotheism”, which describes the deity in terms of transcendent uniqueness (p.109).

    An interesting issue or theory raised is that the Hebrews, who had other names for their deity such as El Shaddai and El Elyon, may have seen these Elohim or El deities as the invisible aspect of deity.  Yahweh in turn may have been viewed both as the Son of El and as the solar manifestation of the invisible El, able to shed with its powerful rays both light and heat upon the earth. Bauckham personally doubts this theory (p.112) but this reviewer thinks that it needs to be further investigated.

    Bauckham also is open to figurative interpretation. He presents on p. 167 a reference to the heavens above, the depth below and the earth between which is interpreted as the three parts of time.

    His exploration of the vexed concept of “Son of Man” includes this human figure in heaven as the heavenly representative of the people of God on earth (p.169). His study of Jesus’ exaltation “from the earliest post-Easter Christology that we can trace”, indicates to the author that “Jesus’ exaltation was understood as his sharing in the divine rule over the cosmos” (p.172). Clearly the combined resurrection and exaltation depicted in the “Gospel of Peter” located in Egypt in the 1880s, is also of relevance here, although it is not mentioned.

    The author stresses the high Christology of Paul, when he observes that “Paul’s christological interpretation of scriptural passages about YHWH, takes the name YHWH (kyrios in LXX) to refer to Jesus Christ” (p.186).

    Sacred name YHWH or Yahweh

    However, the “name that is above every name” is not “Jesus”, which is a later Greek-based version but it is YHWH or Yahweh.  This sacred form of the divine name YHWH was often substituted by the word “Lord”, which in Hebrew is “Adonai” and in Greek is “Kyrios”. This was done to avoid using the sacred name. However, YHWH  appears in both the name of the Hebrews’ heavenly, solar deity called Yahweh and in Christianity’s  Jesus, whose name is really “YHWH Yesha”, which is also written as “Yehoshua” and means “Yahweh is  Salvation” in the English language   (p.199). Hence, the hymns extolling the “name of Jesus” may be in need of some revision.

    The author also proposes that the “imagery of height” associates the concept of exaltation with “the unique superiority of the name which Jesus acquires” (p. 200) He further observes that Paul actually rewrites the  Shema (‘YHWH our God, YHWH, is one’) to “include both God and Jesus in the unique divine identity” (p.213). 

    Bauckham’s reflections in his final chapter on the Gospel of Mark are worthy of close study. He notes both a “two-fold structure” of the Markan Gospel and how the Gospel is “framed by the three key events of revelation”, namely the Baptism, the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion of “Yahweh Saves” or Jesus.

    The author then presents the parallel nature of the “Jesus’ way” and the “the way of the Lord” from Isaiah 40:3 and also describes a Markan secret, which is further and in addition to Mark’s well-known “Messianic Secret”. This new one is the “Secret of Jesus’ divine identity” (p.265).  I prefer to call this concept “the Markan Yahwistic Secret”.  

    This Yahweh-factor is already contained in his name” Jesus”, bestowed on him in Matthew   1:21, which states: “You must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins”. The name “Jesus” therefore contains both the name and the identity of YHWH or Yahweh.

    Jerusalem and Athens in Dialogue

    Past wisdom wondered what Jerusalem had to do with Athens.  Like the first century, our contemporary 21st century world still has its Jerusalem of Prophets, Priests, Popes, Political theocrats, a monotheistic deity, the Jewish and Christian Bible and Jewish and Christian doctrines, held as factual and truthful by the Jewish and Christian believers. Our present century also has its Athens of Philosophers, Pragmatists, Political theorists, scepticism, agnosticism, atheism and of humanistic pursuits and endeavours. Instead of continuing on their separate and conflicting paths as in the past, the Hebrews’ Jerusalem and Hellenists’ Athens now need to resume contact and to enter into serious dialogue.

    The value of the above five levels of narrative and conceptual analysis is that different interpretational needs can be articulated, assessed,  applied and appropriated both within and between these five levels, as they feature either the materialistic, the metaphysical or the mystical perspectives. Thus, a literal theology or an imaginative mythology can be explored on a metaphysical level and its physical origins on the materialistic level but it can be applied and appropriated on the mystical, personal level of the endless cyclical journey of the human soul.

    One result of these five levels is a new freedom in the use of published books. Descriptive books, as well as both literalistically-developed and critically-constructed books, can readily be read, de-mythologised or re-symbolised as metaphorical content for the spiritual journey of the human soul. Progressive Christians can read and benefit from the theological content and exploration of a confessional book, which can also serve as useful metaphors for the human soul or psyche, as it moves from its early state of unconscious wholeness, through its traumatic conscious un-wholeness and onwards to conscious wholeness, freedom and enlightenment.

    James D.G. Dunn, listed on the book’s back cover as Emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity, University of Durham, comments that this book has the potential “to direct Christian understanding of Jesus into new and fruitful paths”.  Any new paths will require intellectual integrity, maturity and courage, as well as mental flexibility, empathy and considerable tolerance while moving amongst humanity’s various perspectives, presuppositions and mental horizons.

    Hopefully, this review’s more flexible appreciation of Bauckham’s theological exploration into “divine identity” is one humble example of Professor Dunn’s “new and fruitful paths”.

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