BNTC 2014: Jesus’ Divine Self-Consciousness
1: In the originally intended order of creation, humanity is God’s idol (tselem) and as such is “divine” in both being and function.
Genesis 1:26-28 uses the language of ancient Near Easter idolatry and idol making.
In Akkadian, tsalam ili/ilani means a divine cult image, or idol. In Genesis, humanity is the tselem elohim—God’s idol. And an idol in the ancient world is the deity, it does not merely represent the deity. So humanity is created to be God’s manifest presence in the world; as S. D. mcBride puts it, “Adamic beings are animate icons ... the peculiar purpose for their creation is ‘theophanic’.” First century Jews knew this, and so they told a tale in which Adam was worshipped (before his sin) as God’s image-idol by the angels (Life of Adam and Eve 12–16 and parallels).
Of course, Adam in Genesis 1:26-28 is not a person, and humanity is not the Creator, so the “divine,” sinless Adam is no threat to God’s unique identity; in fact, he provides God with a means of extending his divine presence. The divine image is not understood as something distinct from the represented god, but actually as extending the presence of that God.
2: Adam, already being in the image and likeness of Yahweh God, as his “idol,” should not have considered the offer to become a god equal to the one true God something worth grasping after.
In line with ancient Jewish interpretation and much recent scholarship, Genesis 1–3 says that Adam tragically pursued an independent divine identity, forgetting or ignoring the one he already had (as God’s image and likeness). Already in Genesis 2 Adam knows the difference between good and evil (so Sir 17:7, cf. 1QHa 6:11–12; 4Q417 frag. 2 i 17–18 = 4Q418 frags. 43+44+45 i 13–14; 4Q300 frag. 3 2–3; 2 En. 30:15), and between the good trees and the evil one, and between the good partner (Eve) and the bestial ones. Adam and Eve are “wise”. Adam is already “divine”; he has God’s own breath, a share “in His own deity” (Philo Worse 86, cf. Creation 144) and is created for divine immortality. (He also continues the creative work of naming parts of creation, and the manner of his creation reiterates the point of Genesis 1 that he is supposed to serve as God’s image-idol). Adam is divine as God’s subordinate, and the serpent offers a faux deification, by which Adam and Eve he will become “like gods”.
So Adam and Eve deny who they are, and listening to the voice of creation (the serpent and the tree), they try to grasp an independent, additional divinity. In so doing they annhilate their true identity: as God predicted, they die. Sin is both a rebellion against God and a self-denigration - a loss of being, of divine glory - and this fall anticipates the tragedies of Israel and her kings. In particular, it has multiple points of contact with Solomon’s rise and fall (1 Kgs 1–11). As a new Adam (1 Kgs 3–4), Solomon turns in on himself and is led astray to self-serving idolatry through his wives (1 Kgs 10–11). So Genesis 1–3 has a deeply political purpose as a meditation on the human quest for personal glory; it says sin is always a denial of our vocation to bear God’s divine presence as his tselem. This is a problem that afflicts all rulers when they seek an independent divine identity.
3: The true image-idol of God is reconstituted in Israel, above all in the high priest (Exod 28), who is “divine” and receives worship as such.
Aaron is dressed as an idol: in multi-coloured, jewel-clad garments (Exod 28, cf. 39:1–30). These (especially the hoshen of judgement, the engraved gems, the ephod, robe, golden flower on the turban, pomegranates and bells) are generically the kind of glorious garments that decorate ancient Near Eastern idols. These are God’s glorious, light-giving, garments (cf. Ps 104:2). So it is not surprising to find texts where the high priest or a high priestly figure is “worshipped”, in ways analogous to the worship of divine cult statues by Israel’s neighbours.
There are thirteen texts that illustrate this proposition, at least five of which describe a priest or priestly figure as the image-idol of God, and at least eleven of which make him the recipient of worship, whether proskynesis, blessings or song (Ex 28; Ezekiel the prophet; Diodorus Siculus XL.5; T. Levi 17:3; T. Reu 6:12; Sir 7:27-31; 49:16-50:21; Antiquities 11:326-338; 4Q405.23; 2 Enoch 57 & 64; Dan 7:13-14; 1 En. 46:5; 48:5; 62:6, 9; War 4:324–325; 3 Enoch 12–16; and the Mareh Kohen piyut in the synagogue’s Yom Kippur Avodah service, esp. the Ashkenazi rite). I can no find no evidence that this view of the high priest was a matter of dispute, although propositions 4 & 5 will qualify what “worship’ of a “divine” high priest means.
4: The high priest is the “divine” image-idol in the temple-as-Eden and the temple-as-microcosm on a cosmic stage.
The temple is theatre. The high priest is an actor on a cosmic stage. He plays the role of God in the cult as microcosm and he plays the role originally intended for the image and likeness of God in a restored Eden. So, in the worship of the “divine” high priest there is not threat to the uniqueness of Israel’s God. It no more entails the worship of a second god than Anthony Hopkins’ performance of a production of Shadowlands in the West End would mean there are two instantiations of C. S. Lewis.
5: The high priest is an office not a person.
The temple is also sacrament and it works with the unmodern notion that the priest is an office, not a person. Within the temple’s liturgical, sacramental framework, the high priest is not a private, individual person. He is consituted by purification rituals the other side of which he is “blameless, sinless, perfected”, special clothes that no ordinary Israelite can wear that say he “belongs to Yhwh” rather than himself, a predefined liturgical script that has to be performed to be effective, and God’s choice of the Levites which cannot be earnt, won or bought, and which is effective regardless of the incumbent’s own inner moral state (cf. John 11:51–52). The high priest’s own personal interests, attributes and aspirations are occluded. He ministers “in persona christi” (as the anointed one, ha-mashiah) and that, in turn, means he ministers “in persona Domini” (and also “in persona mundi,” “in persona Israhel,” and “in persona Adam”). In Sirach 50:21, when the high priest utters God’s name, the Hebrew says the congregation fell down “before him”. The “him” is deliberately ambiguous. “He” is the high priest who is the Most High.
So the high priest really is “divine”: the priest “is” Yhwh, but as an office rather than an individual. The high priest is not “included” in the divine identity, for “inclusion” means a distinct identity (of a divine “Son” with a “Father”). The priest “manifests” or “expresses” the divine identity (just as a cult statue manifests a deity). Crucially, the high priest is not a separate figure who is worshipped alongside God.
6: The high priest is co-creator, in a sacramental ontology.
So biblical monotheism is deeply iconic (not aniconic). It proclaims the good news that it is God’s purpose that we share and express his life and identity, and “incarnation” is not the least unbiblical. All this comes to its fullest expression with the high priest playing the role of the Creator, reenacting the work of the 7-days of creation. This is clearly laid out in Sirach and is already present in Priestly portions of the Pentateuch . Because the temple is more than just theatre—because it is sacrament—in a sense the high priest is as a Co-creator. The world is established by temple service (m. Aboth 1:2), and so, in part, the high priest and his liturgical duties have a cosmogonic function.
7: In accordance with Israel’s Scriptures, the priesthood had a position of primacy in Second Temple political theology and messianic hope.
There is less enthusiasm for a royal messiah in the first century than we might expect. But this is historically unsurprising. In the Pentateuch there is no need for a king, in part because Aaron is a royal high priest. Some of his garments are a king’s garments. In antiquity what is true and good is what is old. Sinai precedes Zion. So the Bible says hierocracy is God’s ideal constitution. And throughout the Second Temple period, the nation was led by priests.
Some turned to a diarchic model after the failures of the Hasmoneans; with the king or “prince” clearly subordinate to the high priest. But no one—and this is of the utmost importance for our understanding of Jesus—espouses a king who is a priest. That is the model of the old Canaanite city states, Mesopotamian kings, Hellenistic divine rulers and imperial Rome, where Caesar is also Pontifex Maximus, the Great Priest. God severely judges Israel’s kings who leverage the cult for their own purposes.
8: Daniel 7:13 exemplifies the centrality of temple and priesthood in Second Temple theology and its hope for a new (messianic and royal) high priest.
In brief, the scene is set at the temple. Daniel’s man figure comes to God with clouds, the way the high priest comes to God in the holy of holies surrounded by clouds of incense on the Day of Atonement. As the true high priest he has Adamic and angelic characteristics, and there are also royal aspects to the “one like a son of man” - which is unsurprising since the high priest is a royal figure (although clearly not a literal priest-king).
[9: Apocalyptic literature reflects the spirituality and cosmology of the Temple (and Torah) and of the belief that humanity in general, and the priesthood in particular, is created to be God’s true image-idol.]
10. All four Gospels present a plausibly historical account of a Jewish Jesus with a self-consciously unique, incarnational divine identity.
The Gospels think Jesus has a pre-existent, incarnational self-understanding (as per the work of Bauckham, Gathercole, Rowe et al). The principal Synoptic texts are the storm and sea crossing stories; the transfiguration; the “I have come” with a purpose sayings (Mark 1:24; 2:17; Luke 12:49; Matt 5:17; 8:29; 10:34–35; Mark 10:45; Luke 19:10); the Son being given “all things” and revealing the Father; Matthew’s Immanuel, Yhwh-Kyrios theophany language and proskynesis to Jesus; Luke’s use carefully structured use of (ho) kyrios; and the blasphemy texts (Mark 2:10; Mark 14:62–64).
There is plenty of evidence that the Jesus of the gospels thinks of himself as Israel’s true eschatological high priest and therefore “divine” on that count. The key Synoptic material is:
(a) Jesus forgiving sins as Aaron does in Exod 28:36–38 (and the priestly Enoch does in 2 En. 64:5). This is both a theological challenge, in that Jesus does what only God and God’s living image-idol can do, and a political challenge, in that Jesus mediates outside of the temple what only a priest can mediate with sacrifices in the temple.
(b) Jesus’ contagious healing holiness (Mark 1:40–45; 5:24–34, 35–43, cf. Exod 30:29–30; 44:19; Wis 18:20–25).
(c) Jesus working on the Sabbath, something only priests can (and must) do in the temple (Mark 2:23–28; 3:1–6; John 5:17).
(d) Jesus as the pre-existent “Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24, cf. Aaron in Ps 106:16; Num 16:7; Sir 45:6).
(e) The transfiguration of Jesus’ garments.
(f) The Son of Man title.
(g) Jesus’ claim to fulfil Ps 110:1 (in combination with Dan 7:13), a text that describes
one who is both king and priest.
(h) His celibacy (cf. especially Qumran priestly celibacy).
(i) His identification with historic Israel and the representatives of her faith: Adam, Jacob,
Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, Elijah-Elisha, and so on (cf. Sir 44–50).
[11: In so-called “Christological monotheism” Jesus’ identity includes a truly human and therefore divine identity.]
12: In the first instance, the worship of the Lord Jesus Christ is best explained as a response to the conviction that he was Israel’s true eschatological high priest, the true image-idol of God.
We might have suspected this already from Luke 24:50–53, where Jesus is first worshipped by the disciples as he ascends to heaven, giving the two-handed blessing that was the prerogative of the priest according. This makes sense of the fact that Christ-devotion begins after his resurrection, but before his full exaltation and ascension to God’s right hand: this is because the resurrection confirmed for the disciples’ Jesus’ claim to be the true eschatological high priest. It also dovetails with proposition 6, in that Christ is an agent of creation in “Christological monotheism”, flowing from his identity as the true high priest, and with the fact that Christ is said to be sinless. On careful inspection, we even find that priestly language, categories and a high priestly script partly explain the classic “Christological monotheism” texts (Phil 2:6–11; Col 1:15–20 and 1 Cor 8:6).
13. There is a lack of proper recognition and response to Jesus in the Gospels, because his self-understanding as Israel’s priestly king is puzzling, and seems to disregard the God-given boundaries of the office.
We might wonder how Jesus spoke and acted this way, yet without it precipitating a response in the Gospels, but this is not hard to explain. The most Jesus could reasonably claim to be, by virtue of natural credentials, is a royal messiah, Elijah-like healer and prophet. It would be an absurdity for Jesus to claim to be the true high priest. Indeed, it would be a blasphemy. It would mean that Jesus was “exalting himself” (as the king is warned not to do in Deut 17:20), “taking the honour for himself” (Heb 5:4), with a flagrant disregard for God’s own constitution (revealed through Moses). It would be a double absurdity if Jesus now claimed that he was Israel’s true high priest outside the boundaries of the office (with no appeal to anointed clothing, rites of purification and the sacramental ontology and cosmology of the temple). To speak and act as the true high priest ex persona not ex cathedra would be to subordinate the divine identity, power and authority of the office to his own person. Not only that, but sacral kingship is a pagan model, and if he were to adopt it he would be “making himself equal to God” (John 5:18, cf. Phil 2:6; 2 Thess 2:3–4; Josephus Ant. 18:256; 19:4). It would be the authorities’ God-ordained duty to punish him lest he lead the people astray.
But the Jesus of the Gospels believes that he has God and Scripture on his side. His healings and their manner confirm his priestly self-consciousness; at the transfiguration he is both priestly (with transfigured garments) and also God’s royal “son”; even the demons recognise he is both a royal figure (“Son of the Most High”) and a priestly figure (“Holy One of God”); and Scripture does provide one passage to justify his messianic identity, and it
precedes Sinai (Ps 110). So, during his ministry, Jesus undertakes a carefully worked out PR strategy that is designed to introduce his radically new vision of Israel’s constitution to his disciples slowly, not all at once lest he lose them, and to give him a public stage in Jerusalem where he will make, with the greatest possible impact at the centre of the nation’s current power structures, his claim to be Israel’s priest-king after the order of Melchizedek. Consequently, Jesus usually speaks of the Son of Man as if he is somebody else - escalating the clarity with which the Daniel 7 connection is expressed (from not clear in Mark 2:10, 28, to fairly clear in Mark 8:38, to crystal clear in Mark 13:26 and 14:62) - and avoids Son of Man talk when he is with the authorities.
14. The divine identity of Jesus is a matter of his own deeds and his peculiar life as Israel’s priestly king. So, on analogy to the identity of the pagan divine ruler, he is a person and God is now two (“Jesus monotheism”).
The Old Testament has a unitarian “christological monotheism” in which the high priest, a Messiah (anointed one, “christos”) expresses and manifests the divine identity. The New Testament form of “christological monotheism” is binitarian. The one God (of the Shema) is “one God the Father” and “one Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 8:6). How has the OT monotheism mutated?
Well, in light of propositions 1-9: Jesus has no liturgical theatre or stage. Though being the one clothed in divine glory and the rightful star of the sanctury-as-heaven stage, he strips himself of his costume, taking the outward appearance of an ordinary man, and is found wandering the towns and villages of Israel. He has left the theatre. It is as if Anthony Hopkins really does believe he is (another) C.S. Lewis.
Further, Jesus is not an office, but the creative power and divine identity of the office is poured out into an “ordinary” life that has its own narrative, as a “son” living in interpendence with the divine “Father”. This man is Yhwh-Kyrios in his royal person, so his story is told in a kind of encomiastic biography that focuses on his historical person. His identity is revealed in deeds of power, saving benefactions and a peculiar character (or virtue) that mean his life is generically like that of the Hellenistic divine Ruler or true Emperor (cf. Acts 10:36–38). His is a Canaanite kind of a kingship—after the order of Melchizedek. All of this is true of Jesus the true priest, so Yhwh-Kyrios is now manifest in this person.
These aspects of the gospel story place internal mathematical pressure on the identity of the “One” God in a way that explains the conceptual origins of the belief that now a messiah is “included” within the divine identity as a distinct person (persona or face). In the light of this story, the one God is now two. Thus the New Testament form of “christological monotheism” is best now labeled “Jesus monotheism”.
15: The New Testament offers a plausible explanation of the origins and shape of its Christology: an historical Jesus who claimed to be the incarnation of a distinct person within the eternal divine identity, whose resurrection served as confirmation of this claim.
So I offer you a new landscape. We have rapidly scaled a conceptual mountain and in the land before us there is new opportunity: to consider afresh what it might mean, for all the discrete issues and questions that arise from the historical Jesus data (Jesus and the temple, Jesus and Torah, Jesus and the parables, and so on), that it is not thoroughgoing eschatology (Schweitzer) that governs Jesus’ life and message, but thoroughgoing incarnational monotheism.
It is usual to say that Jesus’ pre-existence in some NT texts is a matter of tidy theology (e.g. Bauckham). But I propose it is inextricable from other aspects of Jesus’ own aims, actions and self-perception. For instance, there are texts where Jesus’ priestly identity is tied to his sense of pre-existence. He “has come” as “the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24) and the Father “consecrated” and “sent him into the world” (John 10:36, cf. Mark 10:45; John 3:13; 6:62). We have also seen that, in speaking and acting as a priest-king, he sets himself against his people, their institutions, their reading of Scripture, and draws onto himself the accusation that he is a pagan deceiver. Might it be that this kind of messianic self-consciousness, that can so calmly and firmly transcend his people, their judgements and the normative Scriptural hermeneutic of his age, makes excellent sense if that contingent, temporal, self-consciousness is grounded in a pre-existent identity and epistemology? Might it be, in other words, that we need a pre-existent Jesus to make sense of Jesus as an historically believable human being?
This kind of thought sequence, I have found, now crops up time and again when I reflect on the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of history from within the new paradigm. It invites the conclusion that, in the end, Jesus’ monotheism was Jesus monotheism.