Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Bauckham's "Jesus and the God of Israel": Introduction

I have been asked by a certain journal to review Richard Bauckham's, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament's Christology of Divine Identity (Eerdmans 2008). I am finding my notes to be disproportionately longer than they should be, and so I thought I would work out my initial impressions on this blog, while reserving my secondary reflections for the far more succinct official review to come.

This book consists of a collection of essays on Jewish monotheism and its importance for what Bauckham has called a “divine identity” Christology, which eschews “ontic” and “functional” christologies as anachronistic. My regular readers will realize that I think all language of "monotheism" is anachronistic in an ancient context (see here, here, and here). Nonetheless, we'll see how he conceptualizes this divine identity (and see if the issue of "monotheism" is a matter of semantics or substance).

He also, in the process, denies any relevance to or importance to “semi-divine” intermediary figures in Second Temple Jewish literature for the development of early Christian Christology. This, at first blush, seems to counter everything April DeConick has been writing lately (see especially here and here). We will find, in chapter 1, that he basically ignores the traditions of the Angel of YHWH or an angel invested with the divine name.

The first chapter lays out the foundations of these ideas rather generally (in a lumper's fashion), while the latter chapters explore specific aspects of his proposals. This is not the comprehensive treatment that he promised in his earlier booklet from ten years ago, God Crucified. If you read that little booklet, which provides the material for Chapter 1, you often find him relegating the actual detailed arguments for his claim to future work. It sounds to me that he has methodologically put the cart before the horse: he is giving his conclusions before he has presented the nitty gritty detailed exegetical work. I personally like to work from the ground-up, so to speak, and then postulate broader patterns to account for the details.

As such, I have noticed when working through the first chapter that in the lumper/splitter differentiation, he is a lumper to lumpers. He lumps a great deal of material together without reference to specific and idiosyncratic aspects or variations of his ideas. I think there is a place for both lumpers and splitters in the world of scholarship, but it means that we have to check all of his references to see if there are some patterns in the citations or qualifications that need to be made, which he is not in the habit of making.

It seems, however, that future chapters do engage in much more detailed readings of sources to discuss monotheism in the Hebrew Bible (Ch. 2) and Second Temple Judaism (Ch. 3); then general discussion of worship (Ch. 4) and enthronement (Ch. 5) of Jesus as marks of divinity; Pauline Christology of identity (Ch. 6); Hebrews (Ch. 7); and God’s identification with the lowest of the low in Mark (Ch. 8).

I rarely pay attention to such an issue, but I find the tone of the book grating; it is making it difficult for me to read. He uses adjectives and adverbs such as “clear/ly,” “consistent/ly,” “unequivocal/ly,” “unambiguous/ly,” etc., that demonstrate only that he has convinced himself of his own interpretation. If things were so clear, consistent, and unequivocal, there would be no debate on ancient Jewish “monotheism” and, thus, its relationship to Christology, and, therefore, no need for his book.

Laying out his concept of a theology and Christology of “identity,” the question will be “who” god is rather than “what” divinity is. This identity of god is unique (hence his “monotheism”) and “clearly” differentiates God from all other reality (no matter what you call that other reality: angels, gods, etc.). The second step is that Jesus will be included in this divine identity, but this inclusion does not consist of a break with monotheism as he will define it, because Second Temple Jewish Monotheism was “structurally open” to the developments found in the New Testament, while recognizing the novelty of such developments. At this point, I wonder, if Second Temple Jewish conceptions of the divine are also “structurally open” to other figures: Adam (Test. Adam), Moses (Ezekiel the Tragedian’s Exagoge), Melchizedek in 11Q13, Enoch in the Similitudes of Enoch, etc. I bring this up because I think (in fact, I am pretty sure) that Bauckham does not want to go there and will try to refute that such figures in any way participate in divinity. It will be explaining away, and not explanation, if so. Nonetheless, I find this “structurally open” a provocative phrase, making one wonder what other “identity” inclusions are possible—to fast-forward, the only ones he claims are possible before Jesus are the Word and Wisdom of God as aspects of God, but I do not think we can hide these other exalted figures under the rug too quickly.

One of the claims he makes that he will work through is that the earliest Christology is the highest possible—again not in terms of being or function, those being later Hellenistic philosophical concerns being imposed on the New Testament evidence, but in terms of “identity” culled from the New Testament texts themselves. He attributes this later move to the Church Fathers—in fact, in what seems to be a strangely accusatory tone.

The identification of Jesus’ with God’s identity has implications not only of who Jesus is, but who God is: that, through Jesus, the divine is humiliated, suffers, is crucified, but then exalted and enthroned. I find this move, thinking about God as crucified, as his earlier book title (and the title of his first chapter) indicate, an interesting move on his part.

This is where the accusatory tone comes in:
“While the Fathers successfully appropriated, in their own way, in Nicene theology, the New Testament’s inclusion of Jesus in the identity of God, they were less successful in appropriating this corollary: the revelation of the divine identity in Jesus’ human life and passion. To see justice done to this aspect of New Testament Christology, we have to turn to the king of theology of the cross which Martin Luther adumbrated and which has come into its own in the twentieth century” (x).

I find such a broad-blanket statement quite shocking from the pen of a historian. He is saying that for 1500 years there is nothing that appreciates the suffering of the divine in Jesus in all of Christianity—Catholic, Orthodox, etc.—in all of its regional and local variations. That is a LOT of literature to dismiss so easily. I highly doubt Luther (and presumably Reformed theology as well) are the ones to save the day. It bespeaks too much of a Protestant metanarrative. I am not qualified, actually, to evaluate such a statement, but it appears careless to me. I am sure my friends in Church History will most likely object to it, and, if you are reading this and have sources to the contrary, be sure to post them below.

Let's see how he argues these issues more specifically in chapter 1: "God Crucified."

1 comment:

Ken Brown said...

Very fair review. I had a broadly similar reaction to the book (and its predecessor). His focus on divine identity rather than function/ontology is excellent, but he is far too quick to dismiss the principle angels and exalted patriarchs. He also skates over the subordinationist texts in the NT.

On his too easy dismissal of "the Fathers," though: you make a good point, but I think he is simply indicating the fact that patripassionism was considered a heresy throughout most of church history. Of course, if it was a "heresy" that means some people believed it (!), as a great many of us do these days, but it was not "orthodoxy," as it came to be defined.