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Incarnation Christology, Angels, and Paul

In my posts on Christology so far I have argued that different Christians in the early decades of the Christian movement maintained that Jesus had been exalted to a divine status at some point of his existence – at his resurrection, at his baptism, at his birth. I have called this a christology from below, or an “exaltation” christology; it is sometimes called a low christology because it understands Jesus to have started out as a human (down here with us) and to have been raised to a divine status. In this view he was not God from eternity past or a pre-existent being. He was a human being who was taken up to the level of divinity at some point (or, in the case of the Virgin Birth, that he came into existence at a point in time as a person who was partially human partially divine).

But there was another kind of Christology which was also very early – earlier, in fact, than our earliest surviving Christian writer, Paul. This is the view that Jesus was a pre-existent divine being who became a human, did the Father’s will on earth, and then wax taken back up into heaven whence he had originally come. If the other view is an “exaltation” Christology, I’ll call this one an “incarnation” Christology. The term “incarnation” literally means something like “being made flesh.” The idea is that a spiritual divine being (however “divine” is understood – more on this later) becomes a human being as a part of the divine plan of salvation. This is a view that can be considered a Christology “from above” (since the divine being comes from heaven to earth in bodily form) and is more commonly thought of as a “high” Christology, since in it Christ starts out up there, way up there, in fact, with God.

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The Pre-pauline “Poem” in Philippians 2
An Important and Relevant Textual Variant in Luke 2

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Comments

  1. Adam0685  February 14, 2013

    Fascinating!!

    So what I hear you saying (on the most basic level) is it seems Paul (or the early christians who wrote the creed he might be quoting in Phil 2) probably over time and because of Jesus’ resurrection appearances began to think of Jesus was equal to God in STATUS but not equal in NATURE. Do you think the Gospel of John thinks Jesus is equal to God in nature?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2013

      I’m not sure that the biblical authors thought in terms of “status” and “nature” — though *we* certainly tend to do so. So the question requires us to transpose their thinking into other terms. But once we do so, I would say that an exaltation christology claims that God changed Jesus’ status. And later Christologies of the fourth century were more interested in his nature. But the “nature” talk doesn’t kick in until the fourth century or so.

      • Adam0685  February 19, 2013

        It seems like today we are so far removed from 1st-2nd century (and beyond!) thought, language, “religious,” and cultural contexts that the task of really getting back to how Jesus became to understand God is nearly impossible. We do have many Christian writings but it seems that they don’t provide sufficient insight into why/how this happened (it seems like describing the interior of a magnificent cathedral by looking through only a key hole if one does not have the key). One can put towards theories of what the rest of the cathedral looks like based on the little one can see but really one couldn’t know for sure. This seems the case when studying how Jesus became understood to be God. There are many theories, but seems to be no real answers.

  2. gmatthews
    gmatthews  February 15, 2013

    When I read Galatians 4:14 the version you quote above doesn’t seem to me to be saying that Paul thought Jesus was an angel. It sounds more like he’s saying (with my additions in brackets [ ] to make my understanding clear): “you received me as an angel of God, [just] as [you received] Christ Jesus [into your lives]” —-or something similar. Is there something about the original Greek, some nuance that we don’t get in English, that makes you believe Paul believes Jesus was an angel? When I look at other translations online I find that there are other Bible translations that pretty much write it as I interpret it. For example, picking one translation at random, The Voice (never heard of that translation until now!) says: “You cared for me as if I were a heavenly messenger of God, possibly as well as if I were the Anointed Jesus Himself!”. Obviously not quite the same as I put it, but fairly close.

    Now, all that said, while looking for other examples of Pre-Pauline fragments, I recently read the Philippians passage that you quote above and that is indeed an oddly worded creed that definitely makes your suggestion that Paul believed Jesus to be an angel seem more intriguing!

    Also, I hadn’t read anything on the Ebionites since your book Lost Christianities about 10 years ago so I refreshed myself quickly on wikipedia and noticed that it says that Epiphanius wrote that at least one sect of Ebionites believed that Jesus was a great archangel who was reincarnated on earth. That sounds strikingly similar to what you propose about Paul’s beliefs. Are you going down that road or is this just a coincidence? On the other hand I believe I either read something from you or somewhere else recently that Epiphanius’ book on heretical beliefs wasn’t really to be trusted that much.

    I have another question, but I’ll save it for the next chapter.

    Thanks for writing about this topic! It’s been really fascinating.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2013

      Yes, the Greek appears pretty clear that Paul is saying “you received my like you would an angel, in fact, like you would Jesus Christ” — and the nuance of the Greek is that Jesus Christ is the kind of angel that you received me as.

      I don’t think Epiphanius probably knew what hte Ebionites of his day actually believed, but it is an interesting comment he makes! But of course he was writing over 300 years after Paul….

      • Emmett  February 16, 2013

        This discussion rather emphasizes the need for anyone interested in Biblical analysis to make learning classical Greek a priority. It’s not hard to do, because one does not have to learn conversational Greek, just a working knowledge of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. Otherwise we’re all relying on translations, and, as a person who is fluent in German and Russian, I know that translations are only approximations. Anyone who’s read Goethe’s Faust in German — then in English — knows that the former is as a bolt of lightning, while the latter sputters more like a flash bulb on an old Instamatic.

  3. Jdavis3927  February 15, 2013

    Hey Bart,
    Very interesting article..thanks.
    It seems to me in Ephesians 1:3-6, that Paul (or whoever) is saying, that we, or the people he is talking to, shared in this pre-existence with Christ- maybe existing as an “angel” as he did, before being born of a women, born under the law. And we can get back to that state of pre-existence through the blood of Jesus/forgiveness of sins. In other words, we are all on a mission..a mission from God:) Of course I do not believe this..just saying.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2013

      Interesting reading. But I think the fact that it says that God “chose” and “desined” people before the foundation of the world isn’t the same as saying that the people actually existed at the time, if you see what I mean.

  4. Mikail78  February 15, 2013

    WOW!!!! In all my years as an evangelical/fundy Christian, I never noticed that verse in Galatians 4 where Paul refers to Jesus as an angel. I think it’s quite obvious that many of the “orthodox” doctrines of the faith have to be read into the Bible, as opposed to the Bible clearly communicating them. The view that the Bible clearly communicates “orthodox” doctrines is naive and ignorant at best, and extremely deceptive and disingenuous at worst.

  5. David Chumney  February 15, 2013

    This reading of Philippians calls to mind the tradition that identifies Satan as a “fallen angel.” According to that tradition, Satan did seek equality with (superiority to?) God and was punished by being cast out of heaven. Because Jesus did not seek equality with God, he was exalted. Too bad Satan didn’t realize how the game was played!

  6. Wilusa  February 15, 2013

    I’m wondering, Dr. Ehrman…based on your studies, do you think most early Christians who held this view thought Jesus remembered, throughout his life, that he was an angelic being who’d accepted this role? Or did most of them think he had no memory of it?

    Also…granted this explanation for Paul’s understanding Jesus to have been “born of a woman,” does his mentioning it in a letter suggest that the church(?) he was writing to had denied it?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2013

      Great question. No way to know! And on the second question: my hunch is that no one denied it, or he would have stated it more vehemently; more likely Paul was just trying to make it clear that Jesus really was a human even though he came from above. Or so I’d guess. (He really *attacks* the views he finds to be wrong — especiall in Galatians)

  7. JamesFouassier  February 15, 2013

    But upon what basis would Paul have developed such an idea ? If you believe Paul to have been well educated in the Hellinic tradition, might this have been a synthesis of Jewish tradition and Greek mythology ? Was it unique to Paul ? The authors of Matthew and Luke also are presumed to have been educated in Greek and familiar with Greek tradition, yet their books do not hint at at the idea of an angelic incarnation, do they ?

  8. Wilusa  February 15, 2013

    A further thought: If Paul seemingly believed in an “incarnation Christology” at a very early date, is it plausible that it came directly from his interpretation of the “vision” (whatever it was) that he experienced on the road to Damascus?

    I know people can have “visions” without any, uh, facilitating agents. But is there any way of knowing whether some of Jesus’s contemporaries might have been using drugs (peyote, or something comparable)? Alternatively, is it possible they were unknowingly ingesting hallucinogens, in the spices they put on their food?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2013

      Paul: yuup, it’s possible. Drugs: some people have suggested this, but there’s really no evidence in support. But if you want to read a wild book about it, try John Allegro’s on Jesus and the muschroom cult, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross.

      • RecoveringCalvinist  February 16, 2013

        Drugs are certainly present in Revelation.

  9. RonaldTaska  February 15, 2013

    I was not familiar with the difference between “exaltation” and “incarnation.” I am learning, but surely humans just made up most of these different views..

  10. dewdds  February 15, 2013

    Fascinating. More things I’ve missed reading the Epistles. How similar would you say this view of Jesus was compared to the Arian sect?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2013

      The Arian view is a very sophisticayted development out of this. I may get to it on the blog!

      • Joshua150  February 20, 2013

        Exactly. Most of the church was ‘Arian’ in view, even after Nicea, as you Bart well know. You are doing an excellent job of showing how the root of this started in the primitive church, most likely with Paul, but maybe with the apostles in their own way. Thus why a strange alliance with them and Paul existed for awhile since Jesus appeared to Saul/Paul changing him into a supporter. IMO Paul was probably the seminal gnostic for how the church grew in that manner in some places, since he continued to be visionary. I explain it to those who want to have it simplified like this: Compare early Christianity as a Jewish revelation of how to correctly interpret the scripture – what we call the Old Testament and some apocrypha (see letter of Jude, Book of Enoch) -in the same manner that Joseph Smith was a prophet doing the same with Mormonism to the established tradition of Christianity. Wide brush, but conveys the idea..

  11. tcc  February 15, 2013

    Christology sounds like it was pretty muddled from the beginning–if Jesus preexisted with God from the beginning and was exalted to equality with God, how does that make him God’s “son”? Wouldn’t that make him God’s twin brother?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2013

      Only if they had the same mother. (!) But the idea is that God the Father begets the Son (eternally, from some views).

      • tcc  February 16, 2013

        It’s pretty interesting that Paul’s Christology sounds so similar to Jehovah’s Witness theology; Jesus being an archangel that was created by God to build the Universe. They sort of jammed the logos theology from John together with Paul and The Book Of Hebrews’ image of Jesus as a divine high priest. Ancient theology’s pretty whacky–imaginative, but whacky. My own pet theory (not to offend any believers here) is that Paul and his buddies were all stoners, and not in the Biblical sense. That’s how Paul would take his trips to the “third heaven”.

        • pawel  February 18, 2013

          “That’s how Paul would take his trips to the “third heaven”.”
          Temporal lobe epilepsy seems to be slightly more probable explanation of Paul’s issues …

  12. Robertus
    Robertus  February 15, 2013

    But why do you think that Paul was using ‘messenger’ in Gal 4,4 in the technical sense of ‘angel’? As for being’ born of a woman’, the point may merely be to illustrate that Jesus was the singular seed of Abraham, which relates to the midrash about Abraham, Sarah andHagar in this context of Galatians.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 15, 2013

      Because it wouldn’t make sense for him to say “You received me as a messenger” where the second element (messenger) is something other than what he is (since he *was* a messenger). So it makes better sense that it means “angel.” I think you’ll find that all the translations give it this way — but I haven’t checked.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  February 16, 2013

        I don’t think the contrast is between a ‘messenger’ and an ‘angel’, but rather between someone whom they first met as having some sort of a physical ‘infirmity or condition that put them to the test’ (epilepsy?) but nonethelss accepted as a messener of God. They did not truly accept him as a celestial being, but it is, of course, possible that Paul has this in mind as an exaggerated metaphor for himself, which is extended without exaggeration to Jesus Messiah, whom he obviously does think of now as a celestial being. So I don’t really disagree with your reading. From an historical point of view, what do you make of this ‘infirmity or condition that put them to the test’ (RSVP)? I’ve heard of some hellenisisttic religions having a certain respect or awe of epileptic fits of ecstatic communion with God, daemonic in the positive sense, in contrast to a more negative Jewish appraisal of epilepsy as demonic, in the negative sense.

  13. oatz01  February 15, 2013

    Having read ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ I know one of the main arguments you had against the dying/rising god motif in Jesus’ story was that his earliest followers didn’t believe he was God. Do you think the Incarnation Christology drew from any of these stories?

  14. Jim  February 16, 2013

    My opinion is that this could be reading too much into the term angel. I guess I don’ know how they really understood the supernatural in the first century, i.e. they also thought of Satan as being a real entity as opposed to something like human ego. How can one put into perspective how they viewed supernatural beings in that day compared to how someone might view this today, Can you recommend any literature because this has really puzzled me. Thanks in advance.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 16, 2013

      Yes, I’d suggest you start with the book by Susan Garrett, No Ordinary Angel. Excellent discussion!

  15. pawel  February 16, 2013

    This Paul’s understanding of Christ as an angel is quite surprising and revealing.
    And it fits well to theologies of some nowadays religions, i.e.:
    – according to Jehova’s Witnessess – references in the Bible to the Archangel Michael (“chief angel”) and Abaddon (a rather spooky figure in Revelation – the angel of the bottomless pit) refer to Jesus.
    – according to Mormons – Christ and Lucifers are kind of angels brothers.

    • Kasey  February 16, 2013

      I would like to disagree. Interpreting Jesus’ preexistent angelic status through a modern lens is troubling on many different levels, and causes a more antiquated interpretation (the new testament writers, apostolic fathers, and early church fathers like eusibius and origin) of angelic beings (and its correlation to christology) to go a bit awry. I would even bid that arian would look upon these “nowadays religions” and remark with laughter.

      Also, this understanding is not too surprising at all considering much ink has been spilled over the matter throughout the years. Two of the major modern ones being Hengel and Hurtado accompanied by many others. For a bibliographic resource of modern scholarship over this topic check out monographs by Christopher Rowland “The Open Heaven”, and Loren Struckenberg “Angel Veneration and Christology”.

  16. RecoveringCalvinist  February 16, 2013

    Regarding Gal.4:14, the verse begins “..and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me…..”. A trusty reference book I own, “The Writings of St. Paul” edited by Wayne Meeks (a great compilation), contains an interesting footnote. It defines the word, quote, “despise” as “to spit”; a superstitious gesture to ward off demonic influence thought to emanate from victims of certain diseases such as insanity or epilepsy, unquote.

    I assume the ancient world thought of some diseases as demonic inhabitations or curses. If you met a person afflicted you would make a gesture towards that person in order for the disease not to spread. Not such a nice custom.

    In Galatians 4:13-14 could Paul be complimenting this church for not accusing him as one inhabited by an “evil” spirit (as social convention would dictate), but recognizing his “good” spirit, the same which they ultimately saw in Christ? I’m sure “spirit” is not such a precise word to use, but is Paul setting up a contrast between the “evil” perception and the “angelic” reality of his (and ultimately Christ’s) character had they not overcome their prejudices?

    This brings up an interesting conjecture I’ve heard before that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was not failing eyesight (See how large I write!), but epilepsy. I assume this theory could also be supported by the opponents who mocked his speaking voice in another letter, which I’m too lazy to look up.

  17. hwl  February 16, 2013

    Is there any precedent in the Judaism of Paul’s day of a human being exalted to divine status, or of an angelic being incarnating into human form? It is often said 1st century Judaism was monotheistic. Perhaps the boundaries between God, angels and humans were not as rigid as in contemporary Judaism.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 16, 2013

      Yes, precedent for both (Philo thought of Moses as a divine being; even in the OT angels come down in human form)

  18. Kasey  February 16, 2013

    Do you think that Paul believed Jesus to be just some ordinary angel? Since you already seem to think that Paul attributed a quality of preexistence to Jesus (as taken from your interpretation of Phil.2), would you agree with a theory like Margaret Baarker’s which espouses that Jesus happened to be, not just any ole’ angel, but the Great Angel, YHWH of the Old Testament?
    Especially in light of the fact that elsewhere Paul refers to Jesus as the “son” of God (Rom. 8. 3, 29, 32; Gal. 4.4), these references seem to suggest that Paul, when discussing preexistence, understood Jesus as more than a typical angel. Even more interesting is the fact that, as Hengel observed, the times when Paul refers to Jesus as God’s son most frequently is when controversy with Jewish tradition is at its height.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 18, 2013

      My guess is that he thought of Jesus as some kind of particularly exalted angel; but I think it’s hard to tell. (Angels in general could be called the “sons of God” as in Genesis 6 and Job 1)

      • talitakum
        talitakum  February 19, 2013

        Question: you mentioned a couple of possible precedents in Judaism for christologies like “incarnated angel” and divinization of a human being (OT and Philo). This would definitely exclude any major “novelty” of early christology within Judaism. However, I think that your analysis of early christology shouldn’t underestimate what some early texts (especially pre-Pauline texts) are: liturgy. I don’t think that early believers were much concerned of defining such complex angelic/superangelic/preexistence nature of Jesus, they rather began to spontaneously include Jesus’ name alongside God in their liturgy (prayers, cultic devotion) within few years after his death. And I am not sure if there is *such* a precedent in Judaism (not for angels, nor for Moses or any self-proclaimed Messiah/Davidic descendant). This is a stunning element of novelty that might require an historical explanation, don’t you think?

  19. Ron  February 19, 2013

    Jesus was quite clear (John 10:34-38, quoting from Asaph) that he was not a monotheist claiming to be God, as if there is only one God. To do so was blasphemy to the 1st-century Jews, at least the ones he was talking to here, which is why they were stoning him. The original “stoners” were those who denied the existence of other gods, “to whom the Word of God came,” Jesus reminds us. So, to speak of only one God without recognizing and listening to His “messengers,” angels,” “hosts,” etc., is to promulgate ignorance, resulting in suffering.

    Jesus also made it clear (Rev. 3:21) that for anyone else who “overcomes,” just as he had done by conquering death and all that this entails, is granted equal status as a fully-exalted “son of God.” We all have a physical and spiritual Father, the latter with whom we can become One. If there is anything Jesus plainly exemplified, it was that he did not regard himself as the only “son of God” who would be sitting on his Father’s right hand.

  20. gmatthews
    gmatthews  March 29, 2013

    While I haven’t watched it, I read an article this morning on The History Channel’s The Bible miniseries and they were talking about 5 “errors” in the show. One of which is under the little heading “Ninja Angels” (yeah I rolled my eyes too) talking about the three angels who visited Abraham before destroying S + G. The opinion of the professor interviewed is that the angel who in the Bible is supposed to be God was actually portrayed as a proto-Jesus and that this suggestion was a big no-no. In light of your February articles on this very idea I thought you might find this interesting. Here is the link: http://theclicker.today.com/_news/2013/03/27/17492225-heresy-five-things-the-bible-got-wrong?lite.

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