Christ in the Gospels

Several weeks ago, a series of articles discussed how Christ can be seen, and was understood within Second Temple Judaism in the Old Testament.  A companion series discussing how Christ is seen in the New Testament may seem counter-intuitive due to its apparently obvious nature.  This is particularly true of Christ in the gospels, which are quite obviously entirely about our Lord Jesus Christ.  However, the core of that previous series was developing the way in which Second Temple Judaism had come, through careful attention to the text of the Hebrew Bible, to see God as a godhead of two or more persons even before the incarnation of Christ.  This then provided those to whom Christ came with the means to understand his divine identity and relationship to God the Father.  This is important, because there had come to be an understanding of 1st century Judaism which assumed that later unitarian monotheism, the idea that the one God is also only one person, was the generally held belief.  If this is assumed, then the emergence of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in general, and the deity of Christ in particular, become a problem that has to be solved.  How could Jews who were unitarian monotheists have begun to worship Jesus Christ as God?

In response to this, scholars who have accepted this incorrect presupposition and otherwise marginalized the Old Testament evidence, have set forth all manner of conjectures regarding how this supposed ‘transition’ came about.  Some, for example, have argued that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is some sort of ‘compromise’ between monotheism and paganism.  Probably the most influential approach, championed by the likes of Barth Ehrman, but found even in the writings of many Orthodox scholars, is the idea that the understanding of Christ’s divinity and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity evolved over time.  This is not just stretched out over the first three centuries of Christian history, but is read into the text of the New Testament itself.  So, for example, it is supposed that St. Mark’s Gospel, taken almost universally as the earliest, presents a purely human Jesus.  St. John’s Gospel, on the other hand, taken almost universally to be the last, is pushed forward as late as possible, as it clearly teaches a Jesus who is divine.  This is done likewise with the epistles and other texts of the New Testament to arrange them into this evolutionary picture where, depending on one’s perspective, either the idea of Jesus as God developed, or came to be understood.

Knowing, however, that Second Temple Judaism firmly embraced the idea of a ‘second power in heaven’, or a second hypostasis of the God of Israel, and even identified this figure with the coming Messiah (as in 1 Enoch), we should come to the New Testament texts expecting to find something very different.  Specifically, we should expect that the New Testament authors would, rather than arguing for a new theological idea of the nature of God, or struggling to understand some reality which has been revealed to them which is beyond their current paradigm, presenting Christ as a hypostasis of Yahweh, the God of Israel, who is become incarnate.  Further, we should expect to find this throughout the New Testament literature, not as a product or feature of ‘development’ in early Christian theologizing.  This is historically necessitated by the reality of early Christian persecution.  It is hard to imagine thousands of people being quickly convinced of a radical new, humanly produced idea to the point that they were willing to suffer and even die for it.  As will be seen in this series, it is also exactly what we find when we read the New Testament texts carefully.

As previously mentioned, in the Gospel According to St. John, Christ is clearly, repeatedly, and unambiguously identified as Yahweh, the God of Israel, through his own words.  As on example, in John 8, Christ states to his Jewish interlocutors that Abraham rejoiced to see his day.  They respond that Jesus is not even 50 years old, so how could he have known Abraham?  He answers, “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”  His meaning is very clear to his audience, as they immediately pick up stones in order to execute him for blasphemy (v. 56-59).  This simple clarity in St. John’s Gospel is often then contrasted with the other three gospels, the synoptics.  It is pointed out that there are no such clear statements made by Jesus in these three texts, and this is sometimes even used to cast doubt on whether such statements could ever have come from Christ’s mouth historically.  The difference here, however, is not a difference in content or purpose.  St. John is not presenting to us a different Jesus than St. Matthew, St. Mark, or St. Luke.  It is, rather, a difference in approach in the means of communicating that content.

Even a casual reading of St. John’s Gospel reveals that it is focused primarily, nearly entirely, upon the words of Christ.  The vast majority of the text consists of dialogues of Christ with individuals (such as Ss. Nicodemus and Photini), with his disciples, with his opponents, and ultimately with his Father in the chapters immediately preceding his trial and crucifixion.  The text luxuriates in these conversations, allowing them to play out and in the process, expressing deep and profound theological ideas concerning the identity of Christ.  St. Mark’s Gospel provides the starkest contrast, in recounting very little of what Christ said, and focusing almost entirely on Christ’s actions.  We are told throughout St. Mark’s Gospel that Christ is preaching, but the contents remain unreported.  The great teaching sections of St. Matthew’s and St. Luke’s Gospels, the sermons on the mount and on the plain, represent additions to St. Mark’s direct, and swiftly moving, narrative.  This approach, however, is intended to communicate precisely the same Christ.  St. Mark identifies Jesus Christ as the God of Israel in ways more subtle, but no less clear to his original readers.

As just one example, in Mark 6:45-52, St. Mark records the miracle of Christ walking across the troubled Sea of Galilee.  The disciples have set out in the boat ahead of him, while Christ remained at the shore to pray.  High winds come up on the sea, and the boat is making difficult progress.  Christ comes to them walking across the water.  The disciples think Christ to be a ghost and are frightened, but Jesus enters the boat with them, calming not only them, but the sea as well.  St. Mark’s conclusion to the story is that the disciples did not understand what this meant, because their hearts were hardened (v. 52).  In the midst of his telling of this story, St. Mark includes an odd detail, that Christ ‘went to pass by them’ (v. 48).  Much of the book of Job is a meditation on a similar theme, on our inability to understand the ways of the Lord, and why he does what he does.  Job 9, in particular, describes a similar circumstance.  In recounting the many glories of the Lord, Job describes the Lord as ‘walking upon the waves of the sea’.  In Greek, this reads, ‘peripaton…epi thalasses’ (Job 9:8, Mark 6:48).  To describe his lack of understanding, Job describes the Lord as ‘passing him by’.  In Greek, the verb ‘to pass by’ is ‘parelthein’ (Job 9:11, Mark 6:48).  In the way in which St. Mark describes these actions, he has put the disciples in the place of Job, and Jesus Christ in the place of Yahweh, the God of Israel.

What St. John expresses to us through the words of Christ, St. Mark teaches us by the way in which he describes Christ’s deeds.  Rather than reflecting growth, or development, or a variety of ‘Christologies’, the Gospels present a consistent and coherent picture of Jesus Christ as God Himself, the second hypostasis of the Holy Trinity, incarnate for our salvation.  While the gospels record different words and actions of Christ, this does not imply disagreement, only a different witness describing his own testimony.  In the same way that multiple accounts of the same event that describe different details do not imply a multiplicity of events, the gospel accounts do not imply different ‘versions’ of Christ.  Particularly when it is seen that what the gospel writers are doing is identifying the person of Jesus Christ with a divine figure in whom they already believed.

4 comments:

  1. Father, bless! I’ve found this series of posts quite compelling and look forward to more. A lot of your points hinge on the understanding of God in 2nd Temple Judaism. What in general terms are the sources here and how accessible are they? Or is there perhaps some secondary reading available that you’d recommend? I’d love to learn more about this!

    1. Well, I’ve mentioned before that in terms of writing about the idea of a ‘godhead’ in Second Temple Judaism, Two Powers in Heaven by Alan Segal is top of the line. Also the many things written on the subject by Daniel Boyarin. Its important to note that both of them are Jewish scholars, so they have no compelling bias to make Second Temple Judaism more amenable to Christianity. In terms of Second Temple Jewish literature, the classic repository is Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Its a two volume set that you can often find at a good price. There are several good editions out there of the Dead Sea Scroll texts. Finally, the Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism is a good reference work.

  2. Thank you Father Stephen.
    I had never been exposed to teachings with an eye to Second Temple Judaism. Makes a big difference contextually.
    The example you gave regarding the verses in Job and in Mark, that the Lord would have passed them by on the water…now that was an eye opener. That verse in Mark is one of those verses that I just kind of glossed over, completely missing out on its intention. That was very good Father…thank you!

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