Yesterday I posted the first in what will be a series of reflections on the earliest Christian Christologies (understandings of Christ).  I began to outline what I take to be the earliest Christology of all. Jesus and his followers, I maintained, saw him(self) as a man and nothing more than a man (who was a great teacher, a prophet, and the future messiah of the coming kingdom – but human through and through, nothing else). But once these followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead, they altered their view to begin to think that God had exalted him to heaven and made him his specially anointed one, his Son, who would indeed be the future messiah and who would bring in that Kingdom himself when he returned from heaven as the Son of Man.

And so, why do I think that this Christological view – that God made Jesus his Son at the resurrection, the one who reigns *now* (and so is already the “ruler” or the “anointed one” or the “messiah,”), and so is the lord of the kingdom (the LORD) already? It’s a complicated story.

A bit of personal background. I took my first PhD seminar at Princeton Theological Seminary before I was a PhD student. I was in the senior year of my Masters of Divinity program, and I knew I was going to apply to get into the PhD program for the following year.  It was very competitive to get in, and I wanted the biggest leg-up I could get.  Plus I was desperate to have some *serious* advanced training in NT (it may seem odd to an outsider, but you don’t really get that in most Master’s programs in the field; you get some, but it’s not all that hard-core).

That year one of the great professors of NT at Princeton Seminar, Paul Meyer, was offering a PhD seminar (for PhD students only), called “Creeds and Hymns in the NT.” I had taken a crazy-hard six-week crash-course in  German the summer before at Princeton University, and so I could already read scholarship in German (where most NT scholarship had been and was being done at the time).  And so I asked Prof. Meyer if he would make an exception to his rule not to allow MDiv students into his graduate seminars, and I somehow convinced him. So now I was in with the big boys. (And yes, they were all boys.)

It was a very difficult class for me, since I was not yet at the level of the others in the seminar.  But it was absolutely exhilarating as well.   The idea behind the class is a little hard to explain, since technically it had to do with the use of form-critical analysis to establish and analyze pre-literary units of tradition outside the Gospels.  Ha!  You almost need a PhD to understand what it was about (!).  (Kind of like trying to figure out instructions on how to set up my wi-fi system….)  So, well, I need to unpack that a bit.  I’ll give it a try here.

Sometimes authors of the New Testament – like Paul and the author of Acts – would not simply compose what they were writing, but would also quote earlier pieces of Christian tradition that they were familiar with.  And they would do that without telling their reader that this is what they were doing.  In many instances they may well have not needed to tell their readers, since their readers would have been familiar with these traditions.  It’d be like if I started saying ‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe,” without being pedantic and reminding you that what I was quoting a bit of “Jabberwocky”.  It might seem weird to you that I would do that, but in fact I sometimes do.   When I’m very pleased about something, I will sometimes tell a correspondent on email: “O frabjous day, callouh, callay!”  Or indicate that I am “chortling in my joy.”  If they know their Alice books well enough,  they will get the allusions.

And in part they are alerted to the fact that I am making allusions by the circumstance that suddenly I am using words that I normally don’t use, and that makes them think to consider whether I am picking up these words from somewhere else.

It’s easier to detect such things from made up words like frabjous, callouh, callay, and chortle, but in principle whenever I quote a poem without acknowledgment (e.g., from Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost or, well, J.R.R Tolkien) the difference in vocabulary and even rhythm may alert a careful reader to what I’m doing.

There are passages in the NT where the author – Paul, the author of Acts, the author of the Pastoral epistles, the author of Hebrews, etc. – appears to be doing something of the sort.  That was a day and age, of course, when it was not necessary or customary or even normal to indicate the source of a quotation.  You just quoted something and moved on, often incorporating it into your own writing without pause.

And so how do we today detect where an author is doing that?  It’s tricky, but there are some instances in the New Testament – in fact a lot of instances, enough to fill a full semester PhD seminar with them – where it happens.  The way you establish that someone (Paul, or whomever) is doing that is by looking at passages that have a different rhythm to them, and/or a vocabulary that is unusual for that particular author, and/or themes or points of view that are otherwise unattested for that author or (even better) that appear to stand at odds with what that author says elsewhere, and/or that (as passages) do not actually fit very well into their literary contexts.   And, well, there are other things you look for.

You can’t really do it without having a fairly good mastery of the Greek of the New Testament.  But scholars have worked on this kind of thing for decades, and there are passages of the NT that almost certainly represent just this kind of thing, quotations of earlier traditions (for example statements of faith/creeds, poems, and so on) that are not cited as being earlier traditions, but almost certainly are.

As I’ll point out in my next post, some of the earliest of these traditions in the judgment of a solid consensus of critical scholarship embody statements about Christ.  And the earliest of these represent just the kind of exaltation Christology I was speaking about in yesterday’s post.  More on this in tomorrow’s post![/mepr-show]