Volume 18 - Issue 3


By Greg Forster

Evolution, development and serendipity in the New Testament

In his recent article in Themelios under the title ‘Development in New Testament Christology’,1 Dr Dick France develops the ideas of Professor Moule on the way in which NT Christology grew out of the apostles’ (and others’) response to Jesus’ own words and actions. I find his approach helpful, and believe it can be used to explain not only the christological titles of the NT but also some of the functions ascribed to Christ on a cosmic level in the NT letters.2 However, while I agree at one level with Dr France’s case, I do wonder whether it is true to the NT itself.

As France recognizes, the word ‘evolution’ has 19th- and 20th-century connotations. The same could be said of the word ‘development’. They are part of an intellectual vocabulary which shapes the way in which we look at and understand the history of ideas. I used the metaphor of development myself, deliberately, above. I imagine that it appeared to readers the most natural idiom to use in describing France’s relation to the work of Professor Moule (just as the philosophical and social ideas of progress and evolution held by his father and others provided Darwin with the model with which to interpret his discoveries in the Galapagos). It is rightly part of our 20th-century intellectual equipment to search for origins, to trace influences or establish sources and parallels for the ideas we read and hear, and we may well be conscious of the ways in which we have ourselves assimilated and perhaps extended what we have learned from our teachers.

But such a concern for patterns of internal development, or evolution, and external influence belongs, I suspect, to the 20th-century more than the first. If we were to ask St John why he wrote of the Logos of God, perhaps he would tell us how it came from response in worship to reading of the Word of the Lord coming to some prophet; perhaps he might tell us of his arguments in evangelism with Greeks who thought in terms of the Logos of the universe. Perhaps—but I suspect that he would not have described it in terms of development. An imaginary interview with St Paul, likewise, might elucidate the sources of his language, but if asked how he knew that it was right, I think he would use other categories than evolution, even if it did come from argument with members of a mystery cult, or whatever.

Imaginary interviews and personal suspicions are of course inadequate as a means of scholarship—though they perhaps remind us that we are dealing with lively individuals who would have given an interviewer as good as they got! In fact there is evidence in the NT which should enable us not only to trace (in our terms) the development of Christology, but also to see (and perhaps be chastened by) the terms in which the NT writers saw what was happening. Those terms were, I suggest, recollection and revelation. Recollection does approximate to the modern idea of development, but lays stress not on the process and the end result, but on ‘what was there from the beginning’.3 Revelation may perhaps seem too glib a term, encouraging us to sidestep any intellectual activity on our part and merely to accept certain titles as given. The concept of ‘divine disclosure’ is, however, one which is not unknown outside of conservative theological circles,4 while for the NT writers, revelation was not an excuse to stop thinking.5

It is John whom we find most aware of recollection as the means by which his portrait of Christ (and indeed his account of Christ’s teaching) came to him and was reported to his readers. I have already referred to the beginning of his first letter. He assures his readers that what he is telling them about Christ (1:1) or about Christ’s moral teaching (3:11; cf. Jn. 13:34) derives from ‘the beginning’, i.e. from Christ’s earthly life when John saw and touched and heard him.6 Whatever we may choose to say about development and elaboration, this writer’s conscious understanding of what he was doing was recollection of what was there in the first place. If that were not enough, we have the report of Jesus’ own words on the subject which indicate at the very least how John viewed what he was doing—recollecting and interpreting under the influence of the Holy Spirit what Jesus had taught. ‘The Paraclete … will teach you all things and remind you of all I said to you’ (Jn. 14:26).

Once that has been said, it calls into question the category of ‘development’, at least in the slow, biological sense.7 We are looking at the experience of a community which was conscious of an impulse from outside of (or rather, above) itself which acted to prompt recollection, and prompt thought about its Lord. There are perhaps three instances in the NT where we can actually see that process going on, and (I suggest) a number of other places where the results of that process are actually quoted. (For the purposes of this note I will ignore Jesus’ baptism and the transfiguration.)

In the Matthean account of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus’ response to Peter’s recognition that he is (in some sense) God’s Messiah is to call him blessed because the source of that recognition was not flesh and blood—his own intellect—but the Father’s revelation (Mt. 16:16–17). Whatever else can be said about this passage, it indicates how Matthew’s church believed that its Christology had been given to it. As the pericope develops, we learn too how understanding of christological words was reshaped—in this case by our Lord’s own evaluation and interpretation of the revelation.

A second instance is to be found in John’s gospel. John tells us the story of Thomas’ leap of faith (how we malign him by calling him ‘doubting’ Thomas!). Faced with the solid evidence that Jesus is alive again after death, he draws a conclusion which (from the lips of a Jewish monotheist addressing a friend!) contains in it the germ of Nicaea (Jn. 20:28). It is so stark and all-demanding that it could be argued that the measured philosophy of John’s prologue is an attempt to tone it down! Perhaps it passes even Bultmann’s stringent test for authenticity; it is a saying that could not have come from a contemporary Jewish source, nor readily from the thought of an early church which did not normally use such high Christology. This story again shows how a Christian community—that led by John in Jerusalem or Ephesus—believed that its understanding of Christ had come to it, even though it may have taken some time for the revelation to be recalled and its implications realized. To refer to Streeter again,7 in the right circumstances such a christological ‘development’ comes not in 500 years or even five, but in five minutes, or five seconds, and depends not on genius but intuition.

My third example is not narrowly christological, but relates to the gospel message that Paul preached. In Galatians 1:12 he claims that what he taught came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. Whatever incident he is referring to, he clearly saw it in supernatural terms, since he denies that it came through human tradition (though he indicates in the following verses that he allowed it to be vertted by those who were apostles before him). Perhaps we can look at what we know of Paul’s biography and say, ‘But he did hear the Christian message from those he persecuted, or Ananias, or the Jews who encouraged him to oppose it.’ That perspective from the standpoint of a modern psychology may have some truth in it, but in his own terms it came home to him by revelation, either on the Damascus road or as he pondered over and prayed through that and all else he knew of Jesus, or perhaps in what he heard proclaimed in worship.

There are a number of passages embedded in the NT which are variously called hymns or creeds by recent scholars. In the actual texts some of these are called mysteria—secrets laid bare for the initiated—or ‘faithful words’, as if they are being weighed up and commended as reliable for the church to accept. They cover a number of issues, some doctrinal, some to do with church order; one at least is christological—1 Timothy 3:16. I have argued elsewhere8 That they are in fact prophetic utterances, used perhaps later as hymns, but vetted and approved according to good apostolic practice (cf. 1 Jn. 4:1; Tit. 1:9 (Gk. text); 1 Cor. 14:32). If so, are we not looking at examples of how NT christology was being formed? For the NT christians, understanding of who Jesus was and what he was doing for them was shaped by inspired utterances, vetted by their leaders. Perhaps we can call that the mechanics of development, and ask questions about how the intuition behind prophetic inspiration works;9 but in their own terms it was ‘Lo! I tell you a mystery.…’

If this argument is valid, it implies that there were some very ‘high’ christological ideas around, at least as germs if not fully developed, very early in the church’s history.10 Should they not have left some trace in the records? It must be admitted that what record there is of the earliest Christology (in the speeches in Acts) suggests a far ‘lower’ view of Jesus as the child or servant of God, though ‘lord’ and ‘Christ’ are also used. However, there are suggestions in the gospels that there were ideas in the air, as yet not understood, even during Jesus’ lifetime—in some of the sayings about the ‘Messianic Secret’, perhaps (e.g. Mk. 9:9), and John’s comment about the ‘destroy this temple’ saying (Jn. 2:22). Likewise, we have John’s own testimony to how one of these ideas suddenly fell into place for him (Jn. 20:8–9).

Perhaps we should look outside the NT, to the very earliest Christian ‘text’ which survives. It is the inscription on an ossuary excavated in Jerusalem, which has been dated to the ad 40s.11 It reads simply Iesous aloth, in Greek characters, though the word aloth is Hebrew, and probably means ‘let him rise’. What is significant in this context is that it is Jesus who is apparently being addressed in a prayer, a practice rare even in the (later) NT letters, and most nearly paralleled in the (early) second letter to the Thessalonians (2:16).

These pointers are somewhat tenuous—the gospel references could be dismissed as explanations of why no-one else ‘remembered’ what was being ‘recollected’, while the ossuary inscription is very brief to carry such weight. All that can be said with any certainty is that for the NT writers it was (rightly or wrongly) of recollection and revelation rather than development that they were conscious as they wrote of Christ, whatever we may try to understand of what was going on in their individual or communal consciousness. But if that is so, are we right to restrict ourselves to a study of development?

1 Themelios Vol. 18 No. 1, pp. 4–8.

2 E.g. Col. 1:20—reconciliation and peacemaking.

3 I Jn. 1:1.

4 E.g. I.T. Ramsey, Christian Discourse (Oxford: OUP, 1965), pp. 5, 13.

5 1 Jn. 4:1; cf. 1 Cor. 12:10 and the use of the phrase pistos logos, vid. inf.

6 I realize that there is discussion about the word arche here, in the light of its use in Jn. 1, and elsewhere in 1 Jn., but the context seems to point in these verses to the earthly ministry of Jesus. I suggest that this was in fact almost a technical term in the early church, used by Mark (1:1) and Luke (Acts 1:1—what Jesus began to do and teach …), but that is a different story.

7 The phrase is Streeter’s (The Four Gospels, MacMillan 1951 (1924), p. 457; cf. also J.A.T. Robinson, The Priority of John, SCM Press 1985, p. 91n.). Talking about the Johannine Logos doctrine, Streeter says, ‘The question we have to ask is how many years of development must be allowed to a Church which already possessed Colossians … to reach the point when it could [talk of the Logos]. The answer is a conditional one. Five hundred years in a community that could produce no single mind above the commonplace; five years if a man of genius should arise so soon.’

7 The phrase is Streeter’s (The Four Gospels, MacMillan 1951 (1924), p. 457; cf. also J.A.T. Robinson, The Priority of John, SCM Press 1985, p. 91n.). Talking about the Johannine Logos doctrine, Streeter says, ‘The question we have to ask is how many years of development must be allowed to a Church which already possessed Colossians … to reach the point when it could [talk of the Logos]. The answer is a conditional one. Five hundred years in a community that could produce no single mind above the commonplace; five years if a man of genius should arise so soon.’

8 ‘Are there Christian Prophecies quoted in the NT?’, in Theological Renewal No. 8, Feb./Mar. 1978.

9 Though this was not the intention of my Theological Renewal article, it does touch on this question.

10 I recall reading some years ago in a footnote of John Robinson’s that he reckoned that the biggest leaps in the church’s understanding of Christ had taken place in the first five years of its history but, to my regret and despite much searching, I cannot retrace the reference! But credit to whom credit is due.

11 B. Gustafsson, in NTS, Nov. 1956. Sukenik, who originally published the discoveries of this and another similar inscription, thought the reference was to aloes!

Greg Forster