Messianic High Christology: New Testament Variants of Second Temple Judaism

Written by Ruben A. Bühner Reviewed By Jared Compton

“All the ideas about Christ are old; the new is Jesus.” It’s Daniel Boyarin’s line, but it could be Bühner’s thesis (cited pp. 93 and 194). Bühner, postdoctoral researcher for NT studies at the Universities of Zurich and Tübingen, argues in this follow-up to his award-winning dissertation Hohe Messianologie (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020) that “most of [the] superhuman characteristics that were adopted in the earliest New Testament Christologies cannot be considered genuine ‘Christian’ innovations.” Instead, “we should depict the emerging New Testament high Christologies primarily as variants of Second Temple messianism” (p. 185; see, similarly, pp. 62–63, 121, 142, 170–71, 181). Such a provocative thesis is, of course, out of step with much contemporary scholarship, which says just the opposite, namely that Christian claims about Jesus, especially exalted claims about his divinity, set Christianity and Judaism apart.

To prove his thesis, Bühner shows that early Christianity’s most exalted claims about Jesus parallel messianic claims already made in Jewish literature. He takes five NT texts that include “superhuman” or “high” claims about Jesus—i.e., claims that modern scholars routinely insist distinguish Christology from messianism (p. 20)—and discusses them in the body of his book: Philippians 2:6–11 (ch. 1); Mark 14:61–65 (ch. 2); Luke 1:26–38 (ch. 3); Revelation 4–5 (ch. 4) and John 1:1–18 (ch. 5). For each, Bühner identifies their superhuman claim(s) and then discusses parallels within Jewish messianic discourse—i.e., Jewish texts describing an “eschatological figure of salvation” (p. 6). The results are fascinating. He notes that both discourses—Christian and Jewish—describe messiahs who are

  1. exalted above other heavenly beings (cf. Phil 2:10b and Rev 5:3–5 with 4Q491c 7, 11, in the light of 4Q431 14, and 11QMelch II 14, also II 10);
  2. given the divine name (cf. Phil 2:9b and John 1:1, 18 [and 20:28] with 11QMelch II 10 and Ps 45 LXX);
  3. understood to be the referent of OT Yahweh-texts (cf. Phil 2:10a [Isa 45:23] with 4Q431c 8, 14 [Exod 15:11; Isa 44:7; Ps 89:7]; 11QMelch II 9 [Isa 61:2]; and 4 Ezra 13:12 [Isa 66:20]);
  4. of preexistent, heavenly origin (i.e., existing in heaven before the messianic age; cf. Phil 2:6–8 with 11QMelch II 11 and 4 Ezra 7:27–28; 12:52b; 13:26, 51f; see also the allusion to Ps 109 LXX in Mark 14:62 and, thus, cf. Ps 109:3 LXX with 1 Enoch 48:2f [cf. with Jubilees 2:2–11])
  5. described in theophanic terms (cf. Mark 14:62b with 4 Ezra 13:1–13a, including the transference in 13:10 of Dan 7:10a from Yahweh to a messianic figure; see also 1 Enoch 52:6, especially in the light of Ps 97:5 and Micah 1:3ff);
  6. divinely-begotten (cf. Luke 1:26–38, specifically vv. 32, 35 and 37, with Gen 18:14 and also Gen 21:1ff as interpreted in Philo, Questions on Genesis 1.3.18; Legum allegoriae 3.219; Jub. 16:12; also 19:12; and Luke 1:27, 31, 33 with Isa 7:13–14, 17 LXX, esp. in the light of the recognizably-messianic Ps 109 LXX and, spec., v. 3, and 1QSa II 11–12; see also “son of God” in Pss 2, 89; 4Q246 II 1; also 4Q174; 4Q177; 4 Ezra 7:28–29; 13:32, 37, 52; 14:9);
  7. worshipped as divine (cf. Rev 5:12–13, especially in the light of 4:8, 11 and 19:10; 22:8–9, with 1 Enoch 48:5; 62:9)
  8. seated on God’s throne (cf. Rev 5:6, especially in the light of 3:21, 7:17, and 22:1, 3, with 1 Enoch 45:3; 62:2, esp. in the light of 47:3; 60:2; 62:3 and 6); and
  9. uniquely powerful in speech (cf. John 1:1, especially in the light of 3:34, 10:43, 15:3, with 1QSb V, 4Q461; 4Q285; Psalms of Solomon 17; 1 Enoch 49:1–4; Testament of Judah 24, which reflect on Isa 11:4).

Now, in one sense, overlap like this should not be too surprising, considering the “pressure” exerted on both discourses by the OT itself, as Bühner’s attention to Psalms 45 and 110 and Isaiah 7 and 9 attests. But neither should differences surprise us, and not simply the fact that early Christians claimed Jesus was the messiah. As Bühner notes, “all four Gospels within the New Testament present Jesus’ claim of divinity as the reason he is charged with blasphemy” (p. 192). This charge, however, testifies less to Christianity’s radical departure from Judaism and more to debates already-existing within Judaism about what was and was not acceptable messianic discourse (see pp. 171–72; also pp. 75, 119–20, 191–92). What’s more, even Christianity’s real nova should be seen as developments of rather than deviations from Judaism. That is, while it was only Christians who claimed a messiah who was uncreated, a co-worker in creation, and the incarnation of a fully-divine being (see John 1:1, 3, 14), they made this claim by freshly-combining messianic expectations with other, already-existing traditions (i.e., the Jewish wisdom tradition; see pp. 147–72). Thus, as Bühner notes, “even what is probably the most developed Logos Christology of the Johannine prologue must be assessed as only a variant of existing Jewish messianic concepts” (p. 187). After all, “if one labeled an idea ‘part of Jewish messianism’ only where there were clear parallels to all of its aspects in earlier models, then no early Jewish messianic expectation would pass such a test” (p. 186).

One need not agree with every exegetical decision Bühner reaches to benefit from his careful, thoroughly-researched, and far-reaching thesis. I can wonder, for example, about his purely functional reading of μορφή θεοῦ in Philippians 2:6 (p. 30) or about his failure to mention Psalm 102 [101 LXX], not least its use in Hebrews 1:10–12, in his discussion of the sui generis messianism of John’s prologue (see pp. 155–57). The same goes for Bühner’s decision to side-step whether “superhuman” claims about the messiah are meant to put him on the divine side of the register in each and every text (see pp. 10–20). Bühner is correct in noting that such decisions were beyond the purview of his study, turning as they do on the larger and more complicated questions of whether and how each individual text surveyed articulates the difference between God and everyone else. That said, had he taken this step, it would shed light on the even more fundamental question of whether “superhuman” messianic language was used in each discourse for the same purposes and with the same meaning. Perhaps he will take this up as his next project. I hope he does.

Jared Compton

Jared Compton is associate professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Other Articles in this Issue

J. I. Packer’s theological works have wielded remarkable influence on the landscape of North American evangelicalism...

Several modern Bible versions do a disservice to John’s use of numbers in the book of Revelation...

J. I. Packer (1926–2020) first came to the attention of the reading public with a 1953 essay in the second printing of the New Bible Commentary...

The purpose of this article is to help the reader conceptualize and imagine the Holy Spirit as a real person with a distinct and knowable personality—a person of the Trinity more accessible to our faith, reading of Scripture, and worship...

What are good sexual acts? It is not that surprising when cultural voices, without reference to God, argue for the inherent goodness of all “unharmful” sexual desires and acts...