Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Lord Jesus Christ, S2 Part 5: Did Jesus Pre-exist for Paul?

DID JESUS PRE-EXIST? It's an interesting question to be taken seriously, especially if you happen to believe that the Christian story about his resurrection and cosmic reign of love and justice might actually be true. But a long way away from what you or I might think about this issue, if we believe our beliefs have to be shaped by New Testament positions, then we had better pay good attention to what the apostle Paul wrote on this point, with Hurtado as our ever-faithful guide.

Before we do that, I'd like to recap on the two posts I made regarding Jesus' lordship from LJC. I lost a lot of visits during that double post (sorry, I guess I failed to keep it interesting!) but I think I covered some important ground worth summarising, which I will do now in six short bullets:

  • Kyrios (Lord) was likely used by the earliest followers of Jesus in its Aramaic translation, including in spiritual contexts assimilable to worship (maranatha!).
  • Kyrios in Greek had a wide range of meanings from "sir", to "master" and in some eastern provinces of the Roman empire as a form of greeting the Caeser.
  • Kyrios was used frequently by Paul to describe the God of the Old Testament. He frequently applies the translation standard of the time of removing the definite article "the" in two of the most common cases especially.
  • There are several instances where prophecies of the divine Kyrios of the Old Testament are astonishingly fulfilled in the eyes of Paul (and others) when Kyrios Jesus accomplishes that promise, and the "kyrios-ship" is mapped onto him in these instances perfectly (including the grammar).
  • However, we noted that despite this definite overlap and function of Divine Agent and name bearer, Jesus' Lordship is significantly different and broader to how Jews perceived their god as Kyrios. Jesus is closer and more intimate and is more often than not our Lord, something that was virtually absent from the inherited Jewish worldview. As ever, Jesus shatters our attempted ideas to contain him in this or that predefined concept or ideal! (In some of the referenced posts at the bottom of both the posts on Hurtado's treatment of Jesus as Kyrios in Paul I provided further more technical evidence referring to how the Greek of Jesus' lordship was treated slightly differently to the anarthrous Kyrios of our Old Testaments in linguistically parallel scenarios).
  • I also threw in at the end of the second post (3000 words in!), that the "Kyrios overlap" may have been an important factor in settling the question of quite how much authority and worship should our exalted Lord Jesus receive.
Check out the posts in full here and here

Turning, then, to Hurtado on Paul's belief on a pre-existent Jesus, i.e. before his birth
be that eternally or as some early Christian theology would have it, right back to the dawn of time - not a distinction Hurtado develops here, i.e. to make clear the different types of pre-existence on offer, although he will mention and dismiss one version from James Dunn and later in the section will crucially state that "eschatological entities can be referred to as pre-existent in various ways", p. 124). Another, that Christ might have pre-existed for Paul as an angel is not mentioned. Bart Ehrman has postulated, for example, that for Paul, the structure in Gal 4:14 ὡς ἄγγελον Θεοῦ ἐδέξασθέ με, ὡς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν (as an angel of God you received me, as Jesus Christ) is used as a repetitive technique, not a climaxing analogy. Ehrman shows a couple of other instances where these "as" do not contrast but compliment in Paul's usage "ὡς....ὡς....." (1 Corinthians 3:1 and 2 Corinthians 2:17). Regardless of these different types of pre-existence, I suppose the point of this section should be - would belief in a second figure worthy of Jewish divine worship needed to have pre-existed in some sense? That might have tied the section in more nicely to the overall book purpose, even if a wider version does exist: What [do] Paul's letters tell us about the Christ-devotion that characterized Pauline Christianity, and perhaps other and earlier circles as well? (p. 119) and also there are questions about how early this view of Jesus arose, how to account for the belief historically, and what Jesus' pre-existence meant for early Christians

I think the main point really is that we can't say a great deal about this topic in detail, given how brief and fleeting Paul's references are to this supposed pre-existence. Since these references do not attempt to teach recipients anything new about the pre-existence of Christ, we are best left to analyse quite what Pauline churches could be assuming (the idea had already become disseminated among his churches so early that by the time he wrote his epistles he could take it for granted as known - p. 124). And if I could draw in my assumption at this early point, that this lack of need to develop significantly in the early stages may be because certain assumptions have been naturally taken from a graft into Judaism of belief in a divine logos (quite apart from Christianity), which may have already been associated with the Messiah-to-come. This possibility sets us up for what I see as a false dichotomy in Hurtado, as we shall see in a minute.

In his discussion with various scholars, particular Dunn, Hurtado wants to say that this assumption of the pre-existence of Jesus should be greater than some sort of personalised wisdom. Dustin Smith is a great resource for the opposite view, by the way, and can be mined in his co-written book The Son of God: Three Views of the Identity of Jesus (I have written a small series also on this book if you look back to March - April 2016 on this blog). Hurtado also correctly asserts that at some point a real belief in literal pre-existence did emerge, which, with our hermeneutic circle hats firmly back on, should mean that these references and the divine/religious centricity that Jesus takes/is given in other areas were of importance to early interpreters doted, we should note, with greater cultural insight than we have in the twenty-first century. Hurtado also notes that literal pre-existence is more firmly asserted in John 1:1-18 (although Smith still has cards to play in this instance), but Smith et. al still have their work cut out in passages of Paul like Philippians 2:6-8, 1 Corinthians 8:6 (one of those "through whom"s the world was made references), 2 Corinthians 8:9, Galatians 4:4, and a few more. Hurtado maintains that the question should still remain about how "solid" or "imaginary/symbolic" that pre-existence was. Hurtado is on the solid side; his main sparring partner, James Dunn holds "the dissenting view", which tends to focus on the personalised Jewish ideas of (Lady) Wisdom.

Hurtado agrees with Dunn that there is metaphorical language at play, and shouldn't be read woodenly (e.g. 2 Cor. 8:9, Christ "impoverished himself"). The differences lie in what you do with the reality behind the metaphor. Dunn claims that the passage is a "one-stage act of abasement" (Jesus' death). To answer the question more fully, responds Hurtado, we need to look elsewhere in Paul to see what Christ's self-abasement might mean, and goes straight for the jugular of Philippians 2:6-11. As a keen follower of Hurtado's blog, I have noted that his views on this passage have now enlarged slightly. He recognises now that the parallel between the first "god" (anarthrous) is paralleled (also anarthrously) by the first "servant", so it seems that if you want to say that Jesus became "a servant", then you have to be open to the view that Paul's cited poem might have read that although he subsisted as "a god" (see Hurtado's post here). On this Philippian passage, Hurtado sees Dunn's view as too dependent on a pretty absent "Adam Christology", including too much looseness with "made in the image of God" and "subsisting in the form of God". Fform and image, although similar, have distinctions, and if Paul wanted to imply the Adam version, he wouldn't have used "form" here (morphé theou is never used elsewhere in any allusion to Adam p. 122).

As with his recent blog-post, Hurtado demonstrates openness again here in his book when he says on pp. 122-123: In Philippians 2:6, however, "being equal with God" seems to be presented as something already held by Christ or really within Christ's grasp (emphasis mine). The point is that the Greek word used by Paul for "grasp" is very seldom used at this time, but the best I could find when I researched this passage a year or two ago was that "pillaging" seemed to be one of the predominant usages. In which case, openness is definitely the way to go here with this grasping business and is appropriately adopted in the NET translation I believe. The conclusion, nonetheless for the 2003 stage of Hurtado reflection is that this astonishing belief encapsulated in the early Christ poem in Philippians should be seen as the action of a pre-incarnate Christ, thus shedding light on other passages such as the number of stages of abasement in 2 Corinthians 8:9.

But this pre-existence is not a static point - New Testament theology virtually never is. It would feed into the belief that Jesus had really come from God and that the story of Jesus' own involvement in redemption extended back beyond his earthly existence and his crucially redemptive death and resurrection (p. 123). So this pre-existence from a Jewish perspective about this redemptive plan, either alongside or in the Messiah himself, was a firm expectation - the "eschatological agent of redemption". Hurtado says that for the earliest Christians who saw Jesus in this light, sent from God and for this eschatological purpose of salvation, it was "only a small and very natural step to hold that he was also in some way "there" with and in God from before the creation of the world" (p. 125). Hurtado will again later conclude the section that this fulfilment perspective would have also provided a basis for making appeals for Christian behaviour (humility and concern for other in Phil. 2:1-18; generosity in 2 Cor. 8:8-15 (p. 126).

Having returned to 1 Cor 8:6 (One Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things), Hurtado now arrives at the false dichotomy that I referred to earlier: The idea of Jesus' agency in creation and redemption is not driven by speculative interests, and does not respond to philosophical questions about how a transcendent deity could create the material world. Instead, the logic proceeds from profound convictions about the sovereignty of the one God reflected in Jewish apocalyptic tradition, which posit that all of history is subject to God (emphasis mine). Here I see a false dichotomy. This seems to be saying that Christians chose between philosophical categories or Jewish categories. But Philo, in particular, is bona fide proof that those two options had already collided and intertwined. Judaism had already encountered and in some respects embraced hermeneutically philosophical ideas even in the examination and application of her own sacred texts.

Hurtado's own summary of this section

  • The condensed Pauline references imply that notions of Jesus as a pre-existent divine agent had already been appropriated. Paul's not introducing the ideas as new.
  • The pre-existence was active, as an agent in God's creative act.
  • The ideas supporting this pre-existence were Jewish, apocalyptic/eschatological view in which "final things are seen as primal things". 


  1. Extremely interesting.

    FYI, there's a typo in the middle of the post:
    '1 Corinthians 6:8' should be '1 Corinthians 8:6'

    Jonathan B.

    1. Thanks so much Jonathan, you're such an encouragement! I made the change, and a couple of other tweaks too. A+


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