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Christology in the making  

by
06 January 2017

John Court considers the theory of a ‘high human’ view of Jesus

A Man Attested by God: The human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels
J. R. Daniel Kirk
Eerdmans £49.99
(978-0-8028-6795-7)
Church Times Bookshop £44.89

 

 

THROUGHOUT the Christian centuries, there has been a recurring debate between advocates of high and low Christologies, emphasising the divine or the human aspects.

The mid-20th century brought the use of the slogan “a man for others”, and arguments around the books Honest to God and The Myth of God Incarnate. Subsequently, the Jesus story “began to take on importance not as demonstrating that Jesus the human was not just a better teacher than most, or as showing that the divine had to take on flesh simply so that he could die, but as depicting Jesus playing the part that the story had always lacked: a human who fulfilled the purpose of primal humanity to not only rule the world for God, but also to do so as a faithful obedient son.”

“A man attested . . . by God, through miracles, wonders and signs” is a quotation from St Peter’s speech in Acts 2.22. In his substantial study, Daniel Kirk wants to use this as historical evidence for a first-century Jewish paradigm, an “idealized human figure”, comparable with a high human Christology as in the Adam Christology employed by St Paul, e.g. in Romans 5.

Kirk has to contend with recent arguments that the early Christians thought of Jesus as divine in the higher sense of a proto-Chalcedonian Christology, as in the writings of Richard Bauckham and Larry Hurtado, for example. They hold that first-century Jews reserved certain actions and attributes to God alone; therefore, the Jews who wrote the New Testament enlarged these ideas, applied to Jesus, as identifying him with the God of Israel.

For Kirk, this is a problematic conclusion, if Jews could see a human being participating in a divine identity, playing roles belonging to God, without in consequence redefining Jewish monotheism. So he argues that such a being is an idealised human figure, and that such a category is sufficient for explaining the narratives in the Synoptic Gospels, while not denying a divine Christology elsewhere in early Christian writings.

This book is a comprehensive defence, the fruit of years of study, of his thesis of a high human Christology. The first chapter examines the paradigms of idealised human figures in biblical and post-biblical Judaism, including Adam, Moses, the Priests, the Son of Man, and the Community of the Elect. The other five chapters test this hypothesis in the Synoptic Gospels in relation to Son of God, Son of Man, Messiah, Son of David, Messianic hermeneutics, and Lord of Creation, all in terms of a human agent of divine power.

This is not to suggest that the theology of the Synoptics is entirely monolithic. Kirk does acknowledge, while probably understating, some ways in which the particular theology of the individual Evangelist is reflected. But it is also important to note the diversity of attitudes that have been identified in early Judaism, and the range of its scholarly assessment. (Geza Vermes receives only one footnote reference, and that in relation to Son of Man.) One might also speculate on the doctrinal response and inclination of early hearers or readers, from a non-Jewish, Graeco-Roman background, if not to Matthew’s Gospel, then certainly to Mark’s and Luke’s.

 

Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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