Kyrios Christology: One More Time (Gupta)

Apparently my reflections on Kyrios Christology in the New Testament has led to some further discussion here, here, and here. I have to move on in my discussion of Ehrman/Bird, but this is all good food for thought for my fall term NT Christology course.

As I reflect on the ideas and counter-arguments from the above-mentioned blog postings from my dialogue partners, I want to make some clarifications and further arguments about Kyrios Christology.

(1) I am sorry if my appeal to the use of Kyrios in the LXX and its relevance for NT Christology was confusing. I never intended to say that it is a divine name (Kyrios = YHWH), as if YHWH gives his personal name to Jesus. It is clear enough that if devout Jews felt the need to avoid writing YHWH when translating the LXX and instead chose Kyrios in Greek, it would only be creating a new problem if they saw it as a name. It is clearly a title and it takes on a technical meaning as a divine title (not divine name). So, when Jesus is proclaimed as “lord” he is (in my view) sharing the divine title of YHWH, not his name.

(2) 1 Cor 8:6. James McGrath and Dustin both used the language of “splitting” for how I see the one God (YHWH) and one Lord (Jesus) in this text. I don’t think I have ever used that language because, for me, it wouldn’t be monotheism any more if we have splitting going on (I have the horrible and hilarious image in my head right now of the multiplication of mogwais from the movie Gremlins). I would rather say that what Paul is doing is positioning Jesus alongside the unique and singular identity of the one God by attributing to Jesus the unique title (Kyriosthat has come to define the one God’s position and power in Jewish thought and religion. I think James thinks somewhat similarly about this, but my point (and a place where we differ, I would assume) is that by sharing this unique and supreme title with Jesus, the one God would be introducing the opportunity for confusing when believers refer to “the Lord” in absolute terms (e.g., “the Lord is near”).

Let me furnish an illustration. I am Dr. Gupta and my dad is Dr. Gupta. We share the same title. If someone walks into a room with us and says, “Hi Dr. Gupta,” we are both going to look over and respond. It would be less confusing if someone walked in and said “Hi professor Gupta” (for me) and “Hi physician Gupta” (for my dad; awkward, but you get the point). Because the NT writers so often seem to alternate referring to Jesus as Kyrios and the Father as Kyrios, they were naturally accepting that readers might confuse the two and such ambiguity seemed reasonable because of their shared identity. If Jesus were but a man exalted to a lordly status (even a very high one), I simply cannot see the one God (or devout early Christians) accepting the possibility of this ambiguity.

(3) Ps 110:1 – “The Lord said to my lord” – this is been brought into the discussion by Dustin and I want to address it. Yes, it is a remarkably popularly statement quoted from the OT by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and yes it does refer (in the OT/LXX) to two uses of the word kyrios – one is the divine title and the other is this “master/lord” of David who receives the opportunity to sit at the right hand of God. I have admitted before and I will admit again that kyrios was used in Jewish literature (including the LXX) for a variety of “lords” and “masters” and “sirs.” So, in Ps 110:1, the “plain reading” of the text is that the second “lord” is a lower/lesser lord (like David himself). This is even confirmed by the very use of the quote of Ps 110:1 in Acts 2:34, but actually the context of Acts 2:34 proves a point I want to make. Over and over the gospels (and Acts) want to note double-meaning in a variety of titles and encounters. Look at John 20:15 – Mary Magdalene asks the garden – whom she calls “sir” (kyrios) – where they have taken the body of Jesus. Of course in that moment Mary Magdalene means “sir” but a double-reading of the text helps us “see” that the higher meaning of kyrios is embedded here for those with eyes to see. The same could be said for Paul’s inquiry when confronted by the bright light – who are you, kyrie (Acts 9:5)? He obviously doesn’t know who this is, so he could mean “sir” or “great one” but he doesn’t mean YHWH (or else he didn’t really need to ask the question). But – as we read the text in retrospect we seem to be led to re-read his question with insight and “see” that this is the Lord whom he is appropriately addressing – these are two cases of many where figures “say rightly more than they could know.”

If the NT writers are doing this (I think they are, and most Johannine scholars see as much regularly in John), it fits for Ps 110:1 as used in the NT as well. While in the OT context, it is clear enough that the two “lords” stand at quite a distance, when re-framed in the NT, Christologically, I think it takes on new meaning where “my lord” (Jesus) is “repositioned” to fit with “The Lord.” Now, one might make the case that Acts 2:34-36 tends towards an adoptionistic view because the Lukan Peter says that “God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” (2:36). Does that not mean that he could not be the Lord if he was made “lord” by the one God? When taken out of context, this could be understood in such a way, but remember that Peter is talking to Jews he treats as those who rejected and crucified Jesus. To crucify Jesus (for his false messiahship) would be (in human perspective) to erase his identity with no hope of recovery. For God to make him Messiah and Lord would be something that God has done in reaction to what mortals did – they erased his identity, God vindicated it, which can seem like something new as far as the audience of Peter’s speech is concerned (i.e. in response to their actions).

The other point I want to make about Ps 110:1 is that it matters that this was associated with David (the psalmist and the figure of interest in Peter’s speech in Acts). Looking at a text like Ezek 34 is instructive – the Lord condemns the sinful shepherds (leaders) of Israel and promises to be the singular shepherd of the sheep (Ezek 34:15; note in LXX, emphatic ego).

Then the text transitions in v. 23ff to the Lord talking this way: “I will set one shepherd over them, and he will feed them–namely, my servant David. He will feed them and will be their shepherd. I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David will be prince (archon) among them…” (23). Through the work of this singular shepherd (David), the people will “know that I, the Lord their God, am with them” (34:30).

The Jewish people of God were told that the king (David) would be the agent par excellence of divine activity and presence. I like to tell my students that the difference between Moses and David is that God led through Moses, but he ruled in David. There is, in Ezek 34, a unique kind of ambiguity – how can God successfully act through a human agent – esp when humans prove to be flawed? Somehow God was going to do this through the “one shepherd” David. In the NT use of Ps 110:1, I think the one shepherd agency concept is being demonstrated in the “my lord” of this text, but the early Christian conviction is that, for this to work properly, there must be the recognition that Jesus is not just the Davidic kind of “lord” (kyrios), but he is unique as a royal agent of God, deserving recognition as the Lord (Kyrios). So, I would suggest, yes Ps 110:1 is an important piece of the puzzle, but its meaning and what it contributes to the conversation must make for a very long discussion in light of all the complex ways that the NT writers interacted with Jewish Scripture and contemplated the unique identity of Jesus.


How God Became Jesus – Gathercole v Ehrman on Earliest Christology (Gupta)

GathercoleWe are now up to chapter five in the Zonderbird response book How God Became Jesus, edited by Mike Bird. Today, we are going to review Simon Gathercole’s chapter on “What Did the First Christians Think about Jesus?” Gathercole responds to Ehrman’s arguments that, as Ehrman thinks, there is evidence in the NT that pre-literary traditions embedded in Luke and Paul point to the first Christians believing that the man Jesus was adopted/exalted to divinity after his death through the resurrection. Also, Ehrman argues that the Synoptic gospels do not portray a preexistent Jesus, but a Jesus adopted to be Son of God at birth or his baptism.

Gathercole is a good person to take stock of Ehrman’s arguments and respond to him because Gathercole wrote a book arguing that there is evidence in the Synoptics of authorial appeals to the preexistence of Jesus. Gathercole is known for arguing that Jesus’ “I have come” statements in the Synoptics are a key indicator that “Jesus has come from somewhere to accomplish his mission” (p. 97; not unlike how an angel has come to earth from heaven; though Gathercole resists angel-Christology). I actually do not find Gathercole’s “I have come” argument persuasive, but it is worth considering.

Gathercole brings together other counter-arguments and responses to challenge Ehrman’s readings

Was Jesus Adopted at Baptism?

Ehrman argues that the Synoptics take slightly different stances on when Jesus became Son of God. On Mark, Ehrman thinks that Mark sees this happening at the baptism with the words: “You are my Son…” But Gathercole rightly responds, what about the same voice at the transfiguration (Mark 9:1)? – “Presumably God is not adopting Jesus again” (99)

Divine Privileges of Jesus in Synoptics

Ehrman is reluctant to see Jesus as directly associated with the one God in the Synoptics. Gathercole begs to differ. Gathercole argues that, in the Synoptics, (1) “Jesus has the power of electing people to be saved”; (2) the elect and the angels belong to Jesus (Mark 13:27; Matt 13:41), (3) Jesus has supernatural power and knowledge, and (4)  Jesus is the receipt of divine worship (Luke 24:52). I think Gathercole scores some points here, but I was not confident that attributing to Jesus miraculous works and knowledge gets Jesus a high divinity when all kinds of people in the ancient world claimed to have such abilities. As for Jesus receiving worship, even though Gathercole aims for a properly nuanced discussion, I still think that proskuneo is too flexible of a verb to treat it as a “technical term” (see 100-101).

The Tunnel Period and Jesus Appointed Son of God and Lord

Ehrman argues that pre-literary traditions in the NT point to adoption of Jesus at the resurrection. Gathercole tries to rebut this point by point in relation to Rom 1:3-4 and Acts 13:32-33, but I don’t think his counter-arguments are all that strong. What is much better is his final point in the chapter about why it might look like we have a serious change in Jesus from before resurrection to after. In Gathercole’s perspective, “His activity in the course of his earthly ministry is different from his activity when seated at the right hand of God in glory” (111). Why? Because “Jesus came not to overwhelm the world with his heavenly glory, but as a suffering rescuer” (111). What might look like a major “change” at his resurrection (Rom 1:3-4) is not an ontological change (from non-divinity to divinity), but especially a narrative and relational change – salvation history is moving forward and Jesus demonstrates obedience in his incarnation, mission, and death on a cross, and, thus, he becomes Lord of the church and world as God’s plan proceeds. I appreciate Gathercole’s apt final lines of his chapter: “These [texts that see Jesus as appointed/declared Son of God/Lord] need to be understood as new roles that Jesus takes on, and an extension or intensification of his authority (in parallel with the extension or intensification of God’s reign) in relation to a change and still-changing cosmos, but not as indicating a change in his nature or his identity in relation to God” (116).


I have a huge amount of respect for Gathercole (he was my external doctoral examiner), but I have to admit this was not as strong of a chapter as some of the others in this book that I read. Perhaps it is because he felt the need to respond to Ehrman point-by-point which made his chapter feel like a series of very-short (even rushed) rebuttals. Unlike some of the other chapters in the response book, Gathercole was not able to contradict Ehrman’s arguments as cogently. Rather, the strength of his chapter was his alternative reading (his constructive argumentation, rather than his disassembly of Ehrman’s arguments).

Let me end with this: while I did not find the majority of Gathercole’s chapter all that helpful in response to Ehrman, his last few pages (where he sets out his own basic reading of the earthly and exalted Jesus) are a goldmine for how (orthodox?) Christians should approach a healthy Christology. This helped clarify in my own thought that, while Ehrman focuses so much on disproving that Jesus claims to be God in the Synoptics, he is kind of missing the point – Jesus (in the incarnation) becomes like a lowly slave (Phil 2), a man of sorrows, a frail mortal – subject to death. His glory (as John shows us later) is in this humble choice. In Ehrman’s obsession over showing the non-Godness of Jesus (in the earliest thought of Christians), he misses the glory precisely in his humble flesh in his short time on earth.