Life and Teaching.
Introduction: critical method.
By accepting the modern critical method of studying the New Testament, we need not attempt to write a life of Jesus in the modern sense of a psychological study. We can hope only to reconstruct the barest outline of his career and to give some account of his message and teaching.
We shall assume that Mark is the earliest of the four Gospels and that, apart from the passion narrative (14.1–16.8), the individual units of material are arranged in an order determined more by subject matter than by historical or chronological concerns. Moreover, these units of material (stories about Jesus, pronouncement stories, miracle stories, parables, and aphorisms) were adapted to the needs of the post‐Easter community and circulated in oral tradition for some forty years before Mark was written down. The authors of the two later synoptic Gospels, Matthew, and Luke, used Mark as their primary source, plus a common source consisting mostly of sayings, unknown to Mark. This source is hypothetical and only recoverable by reconstructing the non‐Marcan material common to Matthew and Luke. It is generally known as Q, from the German word Quelle, “source.” In addition, Matthew and Luke have their own special traditions. Like Mark, the three sources—Q, Special Matthew, and Special Luke—contain material previously passed on orally for some fifty years. The evangelists, in their use of sources and oral traditions, shaped them according to their theological interests; this editorial work is known as redaction. Thus, the synoptic Gospels contain material that developed in three stages: authentic words and memories of Jesus himself (stage I), materials shaped and transmitted in oral tradition (stage II), and the evangelists' redaction (stage III). The gospel of John, however, is very different. It contains some stage I and stage II materials independent of the synoptics that can be used sometimes to confirm or supplement the synoptic evidence in reconstructing the career and teaching of Jesus. But the Fourth Gospel contains much more material belonging to stage III. In reconstructing our account of Jesus, we shall attempt to recover stage I materials from all four Gospels. We shall be assisted by certain tests of authenticity. We may be reasonably certain that materials go back to stage I if they meet some or all of the following criteria: (1) have multiple attestation (i.e., are attested in more than one source or in more than one type of material); (2) are distinctive to Jesus (i.e., they are without parallel in Judaism or in the post‐Easter community; this test should be used with caution and generally applied to confirm rather than exclude; principle of dissimilarity); (3) cohere with other accepted Jesus traditions (test of coherence); and/or (4) exhibit indications of originating in Aramaic (in the case of sayings), since this was Jesus' normal language (though he probably knew some Greek), or in a Palestinian milieu or social setting.
The birth and upbringing of Jesus.
The birth stories in Matthew and Luke are relatively late, and belong to stages II and III. But they contain certain items that go back to earlier tradition. Some of these are clearly theological: Davidic descent, conception through the Holy Spirit while his mother remained a virgin, homage at birth. Factual data in these common items include: the date of Jesus' birth in the last years of the reign of Herod the Great (died 4 BCE); the names of Jesus' parents, Mary and Joseph; the fact that the child was conceived between betrothal and wedding; the birth at Bethlehem (though this may be a theological assertion, associated with the Davidic descent). In any case, Jesus was brought up in Nazareth. His father is said in Matthew 13.55 to have been a carpenter, and Jesus is said to have been one himself in Mark 6.3. Since sons habitually followed their father's trade, this is not improbable. Presumably, Jesus received the education of the devout poor in Israel, with thorough instruction in the Hebrew scriptures.
The beginning of Jesus' public ministry: his message.
Jesus' public career began when he left home for the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist. Jesus looked back to the Baptist as the source of his mission and authority (Mark 11.27–33). For a time, he appears to have conducted a ministry of baptizing parallel to that of the Baptist (see John 3.22; 4.1), presumably continuing the Baptist's message by demanding repentance from Israel in view of the impending advent of God's kingdom. After the Baptist's arrest (Mark 1.14), Jesus embarked upon a new kind of ministry. The message of the kingdom acquired a new urgency, perhaps as a result of the temptation (Mark 1.12–13), which included a vision of God's victory over Satan (Luke 10.18). Abandoning the practice of baptism, Jesus went to the synagogues for a time and then spoke in the open air, reaching out to the people instead of waiting for them to come to him; but still like the Baptist, he continued preaching the coming kingdom. Jesus never defined what he meant by the kingdom, but it means God's coming in saving power and strength, defeating the powers of evil and inaugurating salvation for Israel. It is basically future (“your kingdom come” in the Lord's Prayer) but also presently operative in Jesus' words and works (Matt. 12.28 ∥ Luke 11.20 Q). In the parables of the kingdom, Jesus seeks to engage his hearers, persuading them to see the present operation of the kingdom in his own words and works, and to secure from them the response of faith and confidence in its future consummation—parables of the sower, the seed growing secretly, the mustard seed (Mark 4.3–32); also the leaven (Matt. 13.33 ∥ Luke 13.20–21 Q).
An inescapable conclusion is that Jesus was influenced by the prophecies of Isaiah 40–66, where the coming of the reign of God is a central theme (Isa. 52.7). Indeed, much of Jesus' teaching is shot through with allusions to Isaiah 40–66. Jesus is represented as quoting Isaiah 61.1–2 and 58.6 in the inaugural sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4.18–19), but the content of the sermon was probably shaped in stage II or III. There are, however, clear echoes of these passages in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5.3–6 ∥ Luke 6.20–23 Q) and in the answer to John (Matt. 11.5–6 ∥ Luke 7.22–23). Jesus thus appeared first and foremost as eschatological prophet, one who announced the definitive coming of God's kingly rule, the salvation of the end time.
Jesus' teaching: ethics.
Jesus was also recognized as a rabbi and teacher. Like the rabbis, he taught in synagogues, collected a band of disciples, and discussed Torah with them as well as with inquirers and critics. The forms of his teachings were similar to those employed by Pharisaic teachers: parables and aphorisms, that is, sayings, often of a wisdom type, enunciating general truths about human life and manners (e.g., the teaching on anxiety in Matt. 6.25–34). Like the Pharisees, Jesus took the authority of the Hebrew Bible for granted. It enunciates the demands of God: prohibition of divorce (Mark 10.6–8; Matt 5.32; Luke 16.18); the second tablet of the Ten Commandments (Mark 10.19); the Shema and the summary of the law (Mark 12.29–31).
Yet there are differences between Jesus' teaching and those of the Pharisees. He emphasizes more strongly than they that God demands not just outward conformity to the law but the whole person, and not just love of neighbor but love of enemy (see the antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5.21–48). The rich young man must not only keep the commandments but sell all he has and follow Jesus (Mark 10.21).
For Jesus, God's demand is summed up in the double commandment of love. This raises the question of the relationship between Jesus' preaching of the kingdom and his enunciation of God's demand, between his prophetic preaching and his wisdom teaching. Jesus never relates the two; in fact, he relates his wisdom teaching to creation rather than to the coming of God's kingly rule. Thus, the command to love one's enemy is based on the fact that God causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine upon the just and the unjust alike (Matt. 5.45; cf. Luke 6.35). Similarly, the absolute prohibition of divorce shows that the reversion to the situation at creation is now possible because of the shift in the ages: the age of Moses is coming to an end, and God's kingly rule is coming. Therefore, Jesus' prophetic preaching presupposes his wisdom teaching. The coming of that rule makes possible the realization of God's original intent in creation. The same unspoken presupposition operates in the double commandment of love: only the coming of God's kingly rule makes it possible for people to love God in radical obedience and to love one's neighbor, including one's enemy. For God's coming in his kingly rule is an act of mercy and forgiveness (an important aspect of Jesus' message; see, e.g., Mark 2.5; Luke 7.47; Matt. 18.23–35; also Jesus' preaching of repentance is connected with his offer of forgiveness: Mark 1.15; 6.12; Matt. 11.20); and forgiveness as a human response to God's forgiveness is the supreme expression of love. Jesus' prophetic message is the indicative and his enunciation of the will of God is the imperative that the indicative implies.
Jesus' teaching about God.
Jesus brought no new teaching about God. God is the creator, though this is understood in an immediate way. God did not merely create the world in the beginning, rather, it comes from him as his creation in every moment (Matt. 6.26, 30, 32, and the fourth petition of the Lord's Prayer). For Jesus, God is also the God who acts in history, the climax of which is the coming of the kingdom (see e.g., Matt. 13.16–17 ∥ Luke 10.23–24 Q, and the tradition behind Matt. 23.34–35 ∥ Luke 11.49–50). Also, Jesus frequently adduced biblical characters whose situation in their day was analogous to the situation of his contemporaries in the face of the coming kingdom (e.g., Lot and his wife, the Queen of Sheba, Jonah).
Although the address of God as Father is not unknown in the Hebrew Bible and Judaism, and even the familiar abba is not completely without precedent, that usage was characteristic of Jesus. He did not enunciate the fatherhood of God as an abstract doctrine or a general truth but himself experienced God as his own Father (i.e., in his call to his unique mission mediated through his baptism and temptations), and he offered to those who responded to his prophetic message a similar experience and the privilege of addressing God as abba (note the opening address of the Lord's Prayer in its original Lucan form, Luke 11.2).
Jesus appeared as a charismatic healer as well as a preacher and teacher. This was a further implementation of the prophetic mission set forth in Isaiah 35 and 61 (Matt. 11.5–6 ∥ Luke 7.22–23). Jesus performed exorcisms, which he claimed were the action in him of the Spirit (Matthew) or finger (Luke) of God. To deny this spirit at work in his exorcisms was blasphemy, a sin for which there would be no forgiveness (Mark 3.29). Thus, both healings and exorcisms are related to his message. The actual miracle stories may not be direct reports, but they reflect a general memory that Jesus did do such things. More problematic are the so‐called nature miracles. There are three raising stories—Jairus's daughter (Mark 5.21–24, 35–43), the widow's son at Nain (Luke 7.11–17), and Lazarus (John 11.1–44)—but all these belong to stage II. The answer to John (Matt. 11.5–6 ∥ Luke 7.22–23), however, may enable us to take back the fact of resuscitations to stage I, in which case the three stories of the raising may rest upon a general memory that Jesus did perform such deeds. Another special instance of a nature miracle is the feeding of the multitude. This miracle has multiple attestation (Mark 6.30–44, Mark 8.1–10, and John 6.1–15 represent three independent traditions). The shaping of the stories originated early in stage II, where they were modeled partly on the eucharistic tradition and partly on the Elisha story (2 Kings 4.42–44, whence the miraculous multiplication of the loaves derives). But such a meal itself may well be historical: Jesus met with his followers in a remote place and ate with them. This meal may have been one of a series of events constituting a crisis at the climax of the Galilean ministry (see below).
Jesus also celebrated meals with the outcast, and for this too there is multiple attestation. In the parables of the lost (Luke 15), Jesus interprets this action as a celebration in advance of the joy of the great banquet of the kingdom of God.
Like John the Baptist, Jesus addressed his message of repentance in view of the coming kingdom to Israel as a whole. But he called some to follow him, accompany him, and share in the work of proclaiming the message. From these he selected twelve to symbolize the restoration of Israel (Mark 3.14; 6.7; Matt. 19.28; cf. Luke 22.28–30). It would seem that much of Jesus' radical demand was intended for these followers, who constituted a band of wandering charismatic preachers and therefore had to dispense, as he did, with the normal securities of human life (Mark 6.8–9), including family ties (see Mark 3.34–35; 8.34–37; 10.28–30).
The central crisis.
It is clear that at one point Jesus broke off his Galilean ministry and transferred his activities to Jerusalem. There are indications of a series of events starting with the feeding of the multitude (Mark 6.30–52; 8.1–9.13; John 6.1–71), followed by a withdrawal from the crowds, a crossing of the lake, and a period of solitary communication with his disciples (represented by the confession of Peter and the Transfiguration), after which Jesus set out for Jerusalem. We may suppose that during this period of solitude Jesus resolved that it was now God's plan for him to go to Jerusalem and carry his message to Israel at the very center of its life. Two circumstances may have contributed to this decision. First, Jesus' ministry evoked a dangerous messianic enthusiasm among the crowds (John 6.15, clarifying Mark 6.45). Second, the execution of John the Baptist (Mark 6.14–29; cf. 9.13) made Jesus fear that Herod Antipas might arrest him before he could challenge the authorities in Jerusalem (Luke 13.31–34).
The chronology of the Galilean ministry.
Since Mark mentions only one Passover during Jesus' public career, it is often supposed that his entire ministry lasted but a few months, less than one year. True, John mentions two Passovers before the final one (2.13; 6.4), but these references belong to stage III. There are, however, indications of two springs during the Galilean ministry. In Mark 2.23, Jesus' disciples plucked ears of grain, while in the first feeding the crowds sit on the “green grass” (6.39). If we can trust these items and if they do not refer to the same spring, it would permit us to conclude that the Galilean ministry lasted over a year, for the grainfields episode requires that Jesus should have had time to collect a band of followers, and the feeding presumes a longer ministry. According to Luke 3.1, the Baptist's ministry began in the fifteenth year of Tiberius's reign (27 CE). Jesus' baptism could have occurred in that year, his Judean ministry would have covered the intervening period, and the Galilean ministry would have begun in late 27 or early 28 and ended after the spring of 29. But this is highly speculative. (See also Chronology, article on Early Christian Chronology.)
The journey to Jerusalem.
John's gospel has obscured the decisiveness of Jesus' final journey to Jerusalem by bringing him to the holy city on two earlier occasions (John 2.12; 5.1), but these episodes probably belonged to the final Jerusalem period. John may be right, though, in making the Jerusalem ministry last for several months rather than for a single week, as it does in Mark. Indeed, Luke offers some support for a longer Jerusalem ministry (Luke 13.34). This would mean that the journey would have occurred some months earlier than the final Passover, perhaps bringing Jesus to Jerusalem in time for the feast of tabernacles (John 7.2). This would be in the fall of 29 CE.
The purpose of the trip is stated in Mark's three passion predictions (8.31; 9.31; 10.33–34). It is generally agreed that these predictions in their present form are prophecies after the event and therefore reflect a knowledge of the passion story (stage II). But they may well contain an authentic nucleus (stage I), such as “the Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men” (Mark 9.31), where we have an Aramaic play on words (Son of man/men). Jesus hardly went up to Jerusalem in order to die; that, it has been suggested, would be tantamount to suicide. But he may well have realized that death would be the inevitable outcome of his mission.
The ministry in Jerusalem.
Jesus continued to preach and teach in Jerusalem as he had done in Galilee. He also engaged in conflicts with his adversaries. These conflicts, Mark indicates, were of a different kind from the earlier ones in Galilee. Jesus is now a marked man and his enemies engage him on specific issues, seeking to entrap him into self‐incrimination. John likewise presents Jesus as engaged in theological conflict with the religious authorities in Jerusalem.
Jesus' challenge reached its climax in his entry to Jerusalem and the “cleansing” of the Temple (so the Synoptics; John shifts the “cleansing” for theological reasons to the beginning of the ministry). It is not at all clear what the precise issues were that led the Sanhedrin to plot Jesus' execution (for the plot see Mark 14.1–2; 10–11; John 11.45–54). The Synoptics attribute the plot against Jesus to the Sanhedrin's reaction to the cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11.18 par.), while John, less convincingly, attributes it to the raising of Lazarus. Yet John's report of the Sanhedrin meeting (John 11.47–53) seems to be based on reliable tradition: the Sanhedrin decided to get rid of Jesus out of fear that any disturbance of the peace would lead to Roman intervention and destroy the delicate balance between Jewish and Roman power.
On the eve of Passover (following the more plausible chronology of John), Jesus celebrated a farewell meal with his disciples. In the course of it, he interpreted his impending death as the climax of his life of self‐giving service (Luke 22.24–27; cf. John 13.1–11; Mark 10.42–45a may originally have belonged to this context). The exact words Jesus spoke over the bread and cup are impossible to recover, since the various accounts of the institution (1 Cor. 11.23–25; Mark 14.22–24 ∥ Matt. 26.26–28; Luke 22.19–20) have been colored by liturgical developments in the post‐Easter community (see Lord's Supper). But they all agree that Jesus associated the bread with his body (i.e., his person) and the wine with his blood (i.e., the giving of his life in death) and with the inauguration of a (new) covenant. He also assured his disciples that beyond his death lay the coming of the kingdom of God (Mark 14.25; Luke 22.15–18).
After the supper, Jesus and the disciples went out to the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14.32; John 18.1) where he was arrested by Temple police, and also, if John 18.3 is correct, by Roman soldiers. This would indicate that the priestly party and the Roman prefect Pilate were in close collusion over the matter. A preliminary investigation was held before the Jewish authorities (Mark 14.53–64; see also John 18.12–14, 19–24, which may be more accurate). This was not a formal trial, but more like a grand jury proceeding. By this investigation they established to their satisfaction that there was sufficient ground to warrant an accusation of high treason before Pilate's court (Mark 15.1–15). There Jesus was condemned to death as a messianic pretender. He was then taken out to Golgotha and crucified with two criminals who were guilty of sedition (Mark 15.20b‐32; John 19.16b–19). Jesus died later that same day and was buried, according to the gospel tradition, by sympathizers (Mark 15.42–47 par.; John 19.38–42). This marks the end of his earthly career.
While Jesus' career evoked messianic hopes among his followers and fears among his enemies, stage I material shows him reluctant to assert any overt messianic claim. The self‐designation he uses is son of man. This is so widely attested in the gospel tradition and occurs (with one or two negligible exceptions) only on the lips of Jesus himself, that it satisfies the major tests of authenticity. It occurs in all primary strata of the gospel tradition (Mark, Q, Special Matthew, Special Luke, and the pre‐Gospel tradition in John). It is not attested as a messianic title in earlier Judaism and occurs only once outside the gospels (apart from citations of Psalm 8.5–7), in Acts 7.56. So there should be no reasonable doubt that it was a characteristic self‐designation of the historical Jesus. It is not a title but means “human one,” and it is best understood as a self‐effacing self‐reference. It is used in contexts where Jesus spoke of his mission, fate, and final vindication.
Jesus certainly thought of himself as a prophet (Mark 6.4; Luke 13.33), but there was a final quality about his message and work that entitles us to conclude that he thought of himself as God's final, definitive emissary to Israel. He was more interested in what God was doing through him than in what he was in himself. He did not obtrude his own ego, yet his own ego was included as part of his message: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matt. 10.40 ∥ Luke 10.16 Q); “Follow me” (Mark 1.17; etc.); “Those who are ashamed of me …” (Mark 8.38); “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me (Matt. 11.6 ∥ Luke 7.23 Q); “If it is by the Spirit [Luke: “finger”] of God that I cast out demons …” (Matt. 12.28 ∥ Luke 11.20 Q). Jesus dared to speak and act for God. This is clear in the antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5.21–48: “It was said to those of ancient times … but I say to you”), in his pronouncement of the forgiveness of sins (which only God could do, Mark 2.5–12; Luke 7.36–50), his acceptance of the outcast and healing of lepers who were shunned under the law. Coupled with such features is the tremendous authority with which Jesus spoke and acted, an authority for which he offers no credentials save that it is intimately bound up with the authority of the Baptist (Mark 11.27–33) and rests upon God's final vindication (Mark 8.38 and Luke 12.8 Q). Jesus does not claim overtly to be Son of God in any unique sense. Passages in which he appears to do so belong to stage II or III of the tradition. But he does call God “abba” in an unusual way, which points to God's call to which he has responded in full obedience, and therefore we may speak of his unique sense of sonship. But we must bear in mind that in this Palestinian milieu sonship denoted not a metaphysical quality but rather a historical call and obedience. Jesus did challenge his disciples to say who they thought he was, which elicited from Peter the response that he was the Christ or Messiah (Mark 8.27–30; cf. John 6.66–69). According to Mark, he neither accepted nor rejected Peter's assertion. What did Peter mean, and in what sense did Jesus take it? It is commonly thought that it was meant in a political‐nationalist sense and that Jesus rejected this. It seems more likely, however, that Peter meant it in the sense of the anointed prophet of Isaiah 61.1. Such a response to Jesus would have been wholly appropriate as far as it went. What Peter and the other disciples did not realize, of course, was that this mission extended beyond the terms of Isaiah 61 and that it also involved rejection, suffering, and death. It is possible, though much disputed, that Jesus modeled this further insight upon the figure of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. We could be sure of this if Mark 10.45b belongs to stage I.
A very early tradition (Rom. 1.3) asserted that the earthly Jesus was of a family descended from the royal line of David. We cannot be sure that this played any role in his self‐understanding. For the post‐Easter community this title was important as qualifying him for the messianic role he assumed after his exaltation.
The use of “Rabbi” and “my Lord” in addressing Jesus during his earthly ministry did not denote majesty: these were titles of respect accorded a charismatic person. However, as the conviction grew among his followers that he was the final emissary of God, these terms would acquire a heightened meaning.
In sum, we find in the Synoptics only limited evidence for an explicit Christology in Jesus' self‐understanding, and such evidence as there is is critically suspect. He was more concerned with what God was doing in him than who he was, especially in any metaphysical sense. But what God was doing through him in his earthly ministry provided the raw materials for the christological evaluation of Jesus after the Easter event.
Person and Work.
Introduction: critical presuppositions.
In reconstructing the New Testament interpretation of the person (Christology) and work (soteriology) of Jesus, we are concerned with the Christian community's response to the Christ event in its totality. This event embraces both his earthly career, culminating in his crucifixion, and also the Easter event, that is, the community's subsequent experiences, the empty tomb, and the appearances, together with their ongoing sense of his presence and the hope of his coming again.
The earliest Christian writings we have are those letters of Paul that are beyond question authentic, namely, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philemon, and Philippians. These letters contain formulae that give us evidence of the theology of the pre‐Pauline communities (e.g., 1 Thess. 1.9–10; 1 Cor. 15.3–5; Rom. 1.3–4; 3.25–26; 4.25; 10.9). Some of these formulae go back to the earliest Palestinian community, others to the Hellenistic communities (Greek‐speaking communities before Paul). In addition, we have the kerygmatic speeches, proclamations of the Christ event, in Acts; though composed by the author of Luke‐Acts, they probably enshrine samples of early Christian preaching (e.g., Acts 2.22–24, 32–33, 36; 3.13–15, 21). Putting the evidence afforded by these materials together, we can form a general idea of the Christologies and soteriologies of the early communities. The letters of Paul provide ample evidence for the apostle's understanding of these matters. We have no other writings that can be said with any certainty to derive from the apostolic age, but there are a number of New Testament writings that, though ascribed to apostolic authors, were probably written in the subapostolic age (i.e., the period from ca. 70 to 110 CE). This would include the “deutero‐Pauline” letters, that is, those letters which though ascribed to Paul were with varying degrees of probability written by later writers. Their purpose was to perpetuate Paul's teaching after his death. They consist of 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus). Other writings for this period are Hebrews, together with the catholic letters (James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, Jude, Revelation), and stage III of the four Gospels.
The person of Christ.
The Easter event established in the first disciples the conviction that, despite Jesus' crucifixion, God had vindicated him and his message. The Christ event was indeed God's saving act. The earliest Christians expressed this conviction by ascribing to Jesus titles of majesty, such as Messiah (Grk. christos, Eng. “Christ,” which was originally a title and is not a proper name), Lord (kyrios), and Son of God. Some of the early christological patterns suggest that Jesus was “appointed” Christ, Lord, or Son of God (Acts 2.36; Rom. 1.4; Phil. 2.9–11) at his exaltation. These patterns are often called “adoptionist,” but this is misleading. The meaning is not that Jesus became something he was not before, for example, a divine person; rather, he was appointed to a new office and function, that of being the one in whom God would finally judge and save the world (Acts 3.21; 1 Thess. 1.10), and through whom he was already offering salvation after Easter in the church's proclamation (Acts 2.38). Moreover, this type of Christology does not mean that the earthly life of Jesus had no christological or salvific significance. It was not nonmessianic, for God was present and acting in the earthly Jesus (Acts 2.22). But its messianic significance was initially expressed by a different set of terms, such as the end‐time prophet promised in Deuteronomy 18.15 (Acts 3.22–23; 7.37). It is notable that the emphasis of these Christologies is on the end of Jesus' career; in short, they are paschal Christologies.
Over time, the titles that were first applied to the post‐Easter phase of Jesus' saving activity were pushed back into his earthly life. This was notably the case with the title Son of God. As the story of Jesus' baptism developed in stage II, this title was featured in a heavenly voice (“You are my Son,” Mark 1.11), perhaps replacing an earlier use of “servant” in this context. Later in the birth stories, the title Son of God is pushed back to the moment of Jesus' conception or birth (Luke 1.35; cf. Matt. 2.15). This does not mean that some sort of metaphysical divinity is being ascribed to Jesus. In a Jewish context, it meant that like the kings of Israel Jesus was chosen for a unique role in history. Jesus' conception through the Holy Spirit is not meant to imply any metaphysical quality; it means, rather, that Jesus was a historical person elected from the womb for his unique role through the direct intervention of God (cf. Isa. 49.5; Jer 1.4). (See Virgin Birth.)
A similar type of Christology is expressed in the so‐called sending formulae. These follow a regular pattern: a verb of sending with God as the subject and the son as the object, followed by a purpose clause stating the saving intention behind the sending. The earliest occurrence of such a formula is: “God sent his Son … to redeem those …” (Gal. 4.4–5). From such formulae it will be clear that the title “son” denotes a historical person with a saving mission. Notice that, unlike the paschal type, this type of Christology focuses upon the beginning rather than the end of Jesus' career.
In Hellenistic Christianity, a new pattern began to develop in which Christ existed in heaven before his birth. Here is a Christology of preexistence and incarnation. It is generally agreed that this pattern developed from the identification of Jesus with the wisdom of God. In Judaism, especially in the Greek‐speaking world, the notion of the wisdom of God had undergone a remarkable development. Originally it had been no more than the personification of a divine attribute (see, e.g., Prov. 8.22–31), like God's righteousness or salvation (Isa. 51.6; Ps. 85.10–11). In the later wisdom literature, however, and in the writings of Philo, the concept of the wisdom or Word (logos) of God developed in the direction of hypostatization—it became the distinct personal entity within the being of God, something like a person in the sense in which that term was later used in the Christian dogma of the Trinity (see, e.g., Wisd. of Sol. 18.14–15). Wisdom or “Word” was that aspect of the being of God which was God turned toward the world in creative, revelatory, and saving activity (see, e.g., Wisd. of Sol. 7.22–27).
The ground for this identification of Jesus with the hypostatized wisdom of God was the fact that Jesus himself had appeared as a sage or wise man and had used the speech forms of wisdom literature (see above). He thus came to be regarded not merely as a spokesperson of wisdom but as wisdom's final envoy who acted as the mouthpiece of wisdom (cf. Matt. 11.28–30 with Sir. 24.19 and 51.23–26). From there, it was but a short step to identify him in person with wisdom itself. This happened first in certain christological hymns (Phil. 2.6–11; 1 Cor. 8.6; Col. 1.15–18a; Heb. 1.3–4; John 1.1–18). In these hymns, the same grammatical subject, usually the relative pronoun “who,” governs all the verbs that speak of wisdom's activity before the incarnation, of the activity of the incarnate one in history, and of the exalted one after Easter. Thus, we now have a three‐step Christology: (1) wisdom's activity in creation, revelation, providence, and salvation history before Christ; (2) the career of the historical Jesus; (3) the exalted life of Jesus after Easter. Like the sending formulae, this Christology focuses upon the origin rather than the fate of Jesus.
Outside the Fourth Gospel and the Letters of John, this preexistence‐incarnation Christology is for the most part confined to hymns. It does not widely affect the christological thinking of Paul, the deutero‐Pauline writings, or Hebrews outside the hymns. There are, however, a few exceptional passages where we do see the influence of this type of Christology. When Paul says that the rock that followed the Israelites in the wilderness was Christ (1 Cor. 10.4), this implies the identification of Christ with a preexistent wisdom who was active in Israel's salvation history, especially in the exodus. Again, when Paul says that God sent his Son in the “likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8.3), the sending formula has apparently been widened to include the idea not just of historical sending but of preexistence and incarnation.
Hebrews also shows the influence of this incarnation Christology when the author applies Ps. 8.5–7 to Jesus' career in 2.6–9, and goes on to say “since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself [Christ] likewise shared the same things” (Heb. 2.14). There are signs in Hebrews that the three‐step Christology is beginning to be integrated into the author's thinking.
It is in the gospel of John, however, that the preexistence‐incarnation Christology was fully integrated into the thought of the evangelist. True, the Fourth Gospel does contain earlier materials reflecting the more primitive sending formula (e.g., John 12.44, a pre‐Johannine saying with synoptic parallels). There are also passages in John where, like Matthew 11.28–30, Jesus is presented as the spokesperson of wisdom (e.g., John 6.35, 37). This may also have been the original sense of the great “I am” sayings, including John 8.58, which originally was intended not to be a personal utterance of Jesus but of God's wisdom speaking through Jesus. Other parts of the evangelist's stage III materials, however, present Christ as one who was personally preexistent. He came down from heaven (3.31). God sent him into the world (3.17). He came into the world (3.19). At the Last Supper, Jesus prays that he may resume the glory that he had before the world was made (John 17.5; cf. 13.3). Thus, in the later phases of stage III, John moves beyond the idea of Christ as wisdom's spokesperson to the idea that he is the personal incarnation of the eternal wisdom of God. This doubtless affected the understanding of the earlier sending formulae and the sayings in which Jesus is the spokesperson of wisdom. He is now perceived to be the incarnation of wisdom in person. But never does John call Jesus the wisdom of God; rather, the titles that describe him as such are “son” and, in the prologue, Word (Grk. logos). The consequence is that the title Son of God, or son, which had earlier been used functionally to denote historic mission, now acquired a metaphysical sense. We may now properly speak of the divinity, or better, the deity, of Christ. In three instances the Johannine writings actually call Jesus “God” (John 1.18; 20.28; 1 John 5.20). Other instances of this in the New Testament are doubtful on textual or interpretative grounds (Rom. 9.5; Tit. 2.13). When we call Jesus God, it must be carefully nuanced: Jesus is not all that God is. He is the incarnation of that aspect of the divine being which is God going forth from himself in creative, revelatory, and saving activity. In terms of later dogma, he is the incarnation of the Second, not of the First, person of the Trinity.
We may ask what motives propelled Christian writers to such a high Christology within such a relatively short period. The God whose presence had been discerned in the Christ event was the same God they had known all along, the God who created the world, the God who was known in general human experience, and, above all, the God who was known in Israel's salvation history. The Christ event was an experience of recognition. Also creation and salvation were closely related. Salvation was not salvation out of the world but salvation of the world.
The work of Christ.
By the work of Christ is meant the saving significance of the Christ event (soteriology). The earliest Christian preaching as recorded in Acts (chaps. 2; 3; 10) does not highlight the death of Christ, but speaks of the Christ event in its totality as God's act of salvation. These speeches do feature the death of Christ, but always in the so‐called contrast scheme: the death of Christ was Israel's rejection of God's offer, and the Resurrection was God's act of vindicating his offer (Acts 2.23–24; 3.13–15; 10.39–40). Mark's passion predictions, which in their present form belong to stage II, have the same contrast scheme. Yet these passages also state that Israel's rejection of the Messiah was in accordance with God's purpose (Acts 2.23 and the “must” of the passion predictions). It was also explicitly predicted in scripture (Acts 3.18). Thus, the way was prepared for conceiving the death of Christ not only as Israel's active refusal but also as God's act of salvation.
It was the celebration of the Lord's Supper which appears to have provided the context for reflection on the saving significance of Christ's death. The earliest traditions that do so consist of liturgical materials. First, we have the expansion of the cup word in the Supper tradition itself (Mark 14.24; cf. Mark 10.45b). Here we get for the first time the so‐called hyper ‐formula, which asserts that the death of Christ was for (Grk. hyper) us. Next, the hyper ‐formula appears in creedal or catechetical traditions (1 Cor. 15.4).
Over the course of time, more precise imagery was introduced to interpret the meaning of Christ's death. One pre‐Pauline hymn compares the death of Christ and its effects with the ritual of the Day of Atonement. We are “justified … through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood. … He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over sins previously committed” (Rom. 3.24–25). “Justify” is a metaphor from the law courts referring to the judge's pronouncement of the verdict “not guilty.” This is another way of saying that Christ's death conveyed the forgiveness of sins, an idea that occurs later in the hymn when it speaks of God's “passing over sins.” Christ's death is then described as an act of “*redemption” (Grk. apolytrōsis). Although this word is often thought to derive from the manumission of slaves, it has a more likely background in salvation history. God redeemed Israel by bringing it out of the land of Egypt and by restoring it after the exile, and Israel continued to hope for redemption at the end. The Song of Zechariah announces the fulfillment of this hope (Luke 1.68). Redemption thus came to denote deliverance from all the ills of history in the messianic age.
Next we have the word translated “sacrifice of atonement” (Grk. hilastērion). Its precise meaning is disputed. Some translate it “propitiation,” which suggests appeasing or placating an angry deity—a notion hardly compatible with biblical thought and rarely occurring in that sense in the Hebrew Bible. It requires God as its object, whereas in this hymn God is the subject: “whom God put forward.” Luther translated it as “mercy seat,” an item of the Temple furniture which was sprinkled with blood on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16.14–16). But applied to Jesus the metaphor would be confused: Jesus did not cleanse himself through his own blood as the priest did with the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement. Accordingly, the rendering “expiation” is the most probable. In Israelite sacrifices, especially those of the Day of Atonement, sins were expiated, that is, they were covered over or cleansed and thus removed (Lev. 4.1–6.7; 6.24–7.1). This seems to give the best meaning in Romans 3.24–25. There is, however, an element of truth in the idea of propitiation, for it calls attention to the fact that sin is not only a defilement but a breach of the human relationship with God. As a result of Christ's saving work, this broken relationship has been restored. The last soteriological term in this hymn is the word “blood.” This comes from the cup word in the supper tradition and denotes not a substance but the death of Christ as a sacrificial and saving event. Another early formula is found in Romans 4.25: Christ “was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”
Paul took over these earlier traditions about the saving work of Christ and developed them significantly in two directions. He speaks both of the work of Christ in itself (the objective side) and of the work of Christ in believers (the subjective side). Here we will be concerned with the former, the objective side.
The central term in Paul's soteriology is justification. Together with its cognates, including “righteousness” as applied to God, it occurs some forty‐eight times in the undisputed letters. It is the major focus of Paul's arguments in Galatians 3–4 and in Romans 3.21–5.11. It is almost synonymous with reconciliation (Rom. 5.11). This gives it a more personal twist, for reconciliation is a metaphor derived not from the law court but from relationships between persons and between social groups. Thus, justification comes to mean not merely to pronounce not guilty but also to bring into a right relationship with God. Paul tries to explain how this happened. On the cross Christ took upon himself the curse of the Law (Gal. 3.10–14) and endured its consequences. God made his son to be “sin” for us (2 Cor. 5.21). Christ put himself in the place of sinners, and as the sinless one he exhausted God's wrath against sin, thus making it possible for humanity to enter into a right relationship with God. The metaphor reconciliation also gives a social and cosmic dimension to justification (2 Cor. 5.19). These dimensions received further emphasis in the deutero‐Pauline letters (Col. 1.20–22; Eph. 2.16).
Paul occasionally speaks of Christ's death as a sacrifice but only in traditional formulae (in addition to Rom. 3.25–26, see 1 Cor. 5.8). He once uses the term “blood” as shorthand for Christ's death as a saving event, in the phrase “justified by his blood” (Rom. 5.9). Otherwise, in the genuine Pauline letters “blood” occurs only in connection with the Lord's Supper.
Christ's death is also regarded by Paul as a victory over the powers of evil, another item that comes from earlier tradition (Phil. 2.10). In speaking about victory, however, Paul is careful to emphasize that the powers, though decisively defeated, await final subjugation at the end (1 Cor 15.25–27). The apostle includes among the powers of evil not only cosmic forces but existential realities like law, sin, and death. This victory‐soteriology becomes more important in the deutero‐Pauline letters (Col. 2.15; Eph. 1.21), which abandon Paul's reservation about its present incompleteness. All that remains is for everything to be united (NRSV: “gathered up”) in Christ at the end (Eph. 1.10).
In itself, the term “salvation,” with its cognates “save” and “savior,” is a rather colorless word in the Pauline writings. As with the other words we have studied, its background is found in the Hebrew Bible, where it is applied to the Exodus and to the restoration from exile (Exod. 15.2; Isa. 43.11; 52.10). Like similar words, it also became part of Israel's hope for the end. Paul uses this word group in an all‐embracing way. Believers have been saved, though only in hope (Rom. 8.24–25); they are being saved (1 Cor. 1.18); and they will be saved at the end (Rom. 5.10). Once again, the deutero‐Pauline letters abandon this reserve and insist that believers have already been saved (Eph. 2.5,8).
The only New Testament work to develop the doctrine of Christ's saving work is the letter to the Hebrews. This letter makes an elaborate comparison between the levitical high priests and their sacrifices, on the one hand, and Christ and his sacrifice, on the other. The author took up certain items from earlier Christian tradition. One was the comparison of Good Friday with the Day of Atonement, which we have already seen in Romans 3.24–25 (note the expression “sacrifice of atonement,” Heb. 2.17). Another was the supper tradition with its language about blood and covenant (Heb. 8.6–13). Yet a third theme, that of Christ as high priest after the order of Melchizedek, was suggested by Psalm 110, which led the author on to verse 4 (Heb. 5.6; etc.).
In developing his argument, the author of Hebrews had first to prove that Jesus was qualified to be a high priest despite his lack of levitical descent (Heb. 5.1–10). Then, in the central part of his work (7.1–10.18), he compares Jesus and his sacrifice point by point with the levitical high priests and their sacrifices, demonstrating at every point the superiority of Jesus and his self‐offering. As the comparison with the Day of Atonement shows, Christ's sacrifice is not confined to his death but includes also his ascension into heaven. For the action of the priest in taking the blood of the victim into the Holy of Holies was an essential part of the ritual, in which the slaying of the victim was only a preliminary. Thus, Christ's sacrifice was completed only when he entered into the presence of God and sat down at his right hand (Heb. 10.12). Henceforth, Christ lives to make intercession for us (Heb. 7.25).
How does the author of Hebrews understand Christ's sacrifice to be effective in taking away sin? He follows the biblical belief that sin is a ritual defilement that can be cleansed only with the blood of a victim (Heb. 9.22). Yet he points beyond a merely cultic interpretation of this imagery when he observes that Christ's death was the offering of a perfect obedience of his human will (Heb. 10.5–10). On the strength of his perfect obedience, believers too can draw near to God's presence and offer the sacrifice of praise that leads to the obedience of a holy life (Heb. 10.19–25; 13.15).
The author of 1 Peter takes over the earlier tradition that compared Christ's sacrifice to that of the Passover lamb (1 Pet. 1.19). In a remarkable hymnlike passage (1 Pet. 2.21–25), the author describes Christ's passion in terms of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. Christ's sufferings are to serve as the example for Christian slaves to follow (v. 21). This treatment of the death of Christ as an example is characteristic of the moralism of the subapostolic age.
We turn now to the treatment of the death of Christ in stage III of the four Gospels. Each evangelist presents the death of Christ from his own perspective. For Mark, the death of Jesus was the occasion for the unveiling of the messianic secret. Only at the crucifixion could he be publicly acknowledged as the Son of God (Mark 15.39). Mark was probably countering the view that overemphasized the miracles as revelations of Christ's deity. The miracles are important to Mark but only as prefigurations of the supreme act of salvation on the cross.
For Matthew, the cross was Israel's rejection of the Messiah. Because of it, God's judgment came upon the nation at the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE (Matt. 27.25). A new nation, the Christian church, would arise in Israel's place (Matt. 21.43). Meanwhile, Matthew emphasizes the saving significance of the cross by adding to the cup word at the supper the phrase “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26.28).
For Luke, the death of Jesus at Jerusalem and his consequent assumption into heaven (Luke 9.51) constituted a major turning point in salvation history, inaugurating the new period of the church and its universal mission. This period would be covered by the book of Acts. Luke is wrestling with the problem created by the delay in Christ's second coming. The time of the church will be marked by persecution and martyrdom, and Christ's passion is presented as an example for Christian martyrs to follow, such as Stephen in Acts 6–7.
John seems to shift his interest away from the cross to the revelation that Jesus brings in his earthly life (John 1.18). The death of Jesus seems to be no more than the occasion when he returned to the Father from whom he came (John 13.3; 16.5). But this is to underestimate the importance of Christ's death in the Fourth Gospel. The words and works of Christ are all overshadowed by the hour of the passion (John 2.4, etc.). The signs or miracles point to what Christ would finally accomplish on the cross. It is there that he brings in the new order symbolized by the changing of the water into wine (2.1–11). It is there that he makes his flesh available for the life of the world (6.51–58), that he cures the blindness of human life (9.1–41), and that he confers eternal life (11.1–44). It is also in the cross that all the claims made in the great “I am” sayings are substantiated. It is because of the cross that he is the true bread that comes down from heaven (6.33), that he is the light of the world (8.12), the door of the sheep (10.7), the good shepherd (10.14), the resurrection and the life (11.25), the way, the truth, and the life (14.6), and the true vine (15.1). Moreover, it is through the cross that the Spirit‐Paraclete is released which leads the Johannine community into all truth (7.39). Thus it was the death of Christ and his glorification that made it possible for the Fourth Gospel to ascribe the “I am” sayings to Jesus.
Despite the apparent preoccupation of the author of Revelation with the events leading up to the end and with the new heaven and the new earth that lie beyond, the cross for him plays a crucial role in salvation history. The central christological image in Revelation is the Lamb that was slain. In the cross, the Lamb has conquered and taken his seat beside the Father on the throne of heaven (3.21). Because of that victory, the Lamb alone is qualified to open the scroll and its seven seals (5.5). In other words, his victorious death determines the future course of history. It becomes clear that the cross is the central and controlling event of the whole book. Meanwhile, Christ has “ransomed” believers “from every tribe and language and people and nation, and … made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God” (Rev. 5.9–10).
See also Images of Christ.
Reginald H. Fuller