The Christology presented in the letters of St. Paul is particularly important to an understanding of the viewpoint of the New Testament as a whole, in that St. Paul’s epistles are the earliest documents, the first written, that discuss who Christ is. Though obviously these letters were written after the events described in the gospels and, in most cases, the events described in the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul’s written exhortations to the nascent Christian communities which he had established precede the setting down of the gospel accounts in writing. If there was indeed some sort of ‘development’ of the understanding or the idea of Christ, from a ‘lower’ to a ‘higher’ Christology, one would expect to find in St. Paul’s writings a more primitive and lower view of the identity of Christ. In actuality, however, we find the exact opposite.
There is a great deal of controversy among scholars regarding the authorship of many of St. Paul’s epistles. This issue will be the subject of a later posting. For the present discussion, the examples taken to establish St. Paul’s understanding of Christ’s divine identity will be from those epistles which are non-controversially Pauline. These epistles are also, not conincidentally, the earliest of St. Paul’s writings. For this reason, leaving the controversy aside, these examples are the most important for overturning the idea that Christology underwent a ‘development’, rather than stemming directly from the Second Temple Jewish understanding of Israel’s God.
As mentioned in the previous post in this series, St. John’s Gospel is universally accepted to present Christ as divine. As discussed in another previous posting, St. John’s Christology follows from Second Temple Judaism’s idea of a second hypostasis of Yahweh, Israel’s God. The two elements which constitute this view are the view that Jesus Christ is a pre-existing divine being with the Father, who became flesh (John 1:1-18), and that Jesus Christ is the God of Israel (John 8:58). These same two elements regarding Christ’s identity are to be found in St.Paul’s early, uncontested epistles.
Philippians 2:5-11, sometimes referred to as the Carmen Christi, is a literary unit that many consider to be an early Christian hymn. Whether it represents a pre-existing hymn adapted by St. Paul to his purpose, was composed as a poetic unit by St. Paul, or was adapted into hymnic form from St. Paul’s prose is the subject of discussion. In any event, it is used by St. Paul as the theological backbone for his case to the church in Philippi. In it, the Apostle presents Christ as pre-existing in the form of God, and taking upon himself also the form of humanity. Christ humbles himself in the incarnation, and then is exalted back to his divine state. The opening verses make an interpretation of Jesus Christ as an exalted human being impossible. This Pauline text (or pre-Pauline text so influential on St. Paul) clearly presents Christ as a divine being before his incarnation.
Though referring to it as a ‘creed’ is an anachronism, the central statement of Jewish faith in the first century, used as both statement of belief and meditative prayer, was the ‘Shema’. Named for the first Hebrew word in the text, Deuteronomy 6:4 states, “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.” In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul takes the Greek form of this most sacred text, and adapts it. The Greek form of the text replaces the name of the God of Israel with the word ‘kyrios’, or Lord, and so reads, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, he is one Lord.” St. Paul states, “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:6).
In this verse, St. Paul has divided this classic statement of the oneness of th God of Israel into a first half, speaking of God the Father, and a second half speaking of Jesus Christ. In so doing, by modifying the Greek of Deuteronomy, he has presented the one God of Israel, Yahweh, as two hypostases, the Father and Jesus Christ. This serves to identify Jesus Christ as the second hypostasis of the God of Israel, and when united with Philippians, portrays him as a pre-existing hypostasis who has become incarnate in these last days.
St. Paul uses such parallel constructions relatively frequently. In 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, he uses such a construction to bring into parallel all three persons of the Holy Trinity. The pattern ‘one Spirit, one Lord, and one God’ identifies the three persons, while also focusing on the unity of each. It likewise emphasizes their shared task, as the three are considered equally. Benedictions such as 2 Corinthians 13:14 likewise give the blessing of the God of Israel within the frame of the three persons.
Far from revealing a primitive stage of Christian belief regarding Christ from which later dogmas regarding the Holy Trinity and Christology would evolve, St. Paul’s writings reveal a Christology and Trinitarian belief already full-formed. These earliest of the New Testament writings were able to present such an understanding because St. Paul is interpreting the revelation of Jesus Christ in the flesh and the coming of the Holy Spirit through the lens of existing Jewish understandings of the God of Israel. Rather than struggling to find a middle ground between monotheism and polytheism, St. Paul identifies divine figures with whom his readers were already familiar through the tradition in which they had received the scriptures.