Review: James D. G. Dunn. The Oral Gospel Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.

James D. G. Dunn. The Oral Gospel Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013. x + 390 pp. $45.00.

This excellent book is a collection of fifteen essays previously published by Dunn mostly in the wake of Jesus Remembered (vii-viii), although three do predate that volume: “Prophetic ‘I’-Sayings and the Jesus Tradition” (1978); “John and the Oral Gospel Tradition” (1991); and “Matthew’s Awareness of Markan Redaction” (1992). Overall, the collection is historically stimulating and Dunn’s appreciation for the liveliness of oral traditioning is on display throughout (pp. 41-79; 138-63; 193-5; 237-47; 267-89; and 314-44). He frequently emphasizes both communal (pp. 54-5, 58, 75, 277-82, 316-20, and 340) and performative (pp. 53-4, 56-7, 74-9, 86-90, 94, 123-4, 211, 244-7, 250, 264, and 278-82) aspects of oral traditioning, and includes an essay on “Social Memory and the Oral Jesus Tradition” (pp. 230-47).

The book is divided into three parts thematically arranged, with Part I (pp. 13-195) mostly comprised of essays on Gospel pre-history or the Gospels themselves (including two essays on John’s Gospel, pp. 138-63 and 164-95). Part II (pp. 199-264) is a busy section focusing on present research related to Dunn’s oral emphasis, and engages Dunn’s interlocutors, including Bengt Holmberg and Samuel Byrskog (pp. 199-212), Birger Gerhardsson and Richard Bauckham (pp. 213-29), and Theodore Weeden’s firm critique of Kenneth Bailey whose model Dunn relies heavily upon (pp. 248-64). Part III’s essays (pp. 267-380) involve more syntheses of Dunn’s overall contributions and are excellent resources, specifically “The History of the Tradition (New Testament)” (pp. 313-63), which is the clearest and briefest though comprehensive treatment of Dunn’s thinking on oral tradition available.

Fundamental for Dunn is his concern to alter “the default setting” of Gospel criticism (“Altering the Default Setting,” pp. 41-79), from the stratified and composition-laden “literary paradigm,” i.e., form criticism’s continued and undue influence (pp. 44-9), to one more welcoming and appreciative of the oral culture surrounding the development of the Gospel tradition (pp. 49-59), and the tradition’s own lively character (p. 79; Dunn does not, however, dismiss the two-document hypothesis, p. 61). Although he does not dispense with Q, the oral traditioning model, according to Dunn, has better explanatory power than the literary paradigm in accounting for the same-yet-different character of the Jesus tradition (p. 59). On the heels of this essay Dunn presents “Q1 as Oral Tradition” (pp. 80-108). Here Dunn ably demonstrates the varied character of the six clusters of wisdom sayings (seventeen examples) identified as Q1 by John S. Kloppenborg with telling insight for his oral thesis of the tradition, concluding, against Kloppenborg, that the evidence for “a discrete compositional unit or stratum is weak” (p. 107).

Dunn has long been intrigued with Bailey’s thesis of informally controlled tradition, and this collection of essays reprints his rebuttal of Weeden (pp. 248-64). Dunn’s preference for Bailey over Gerhardsson’s better attested “model of rabbinic traditioning,” though admittedly “closer and works to a substantial extent,” is due to the rabbinic model’s “formal and even regimented process” (p. 249), something Dunn feels cannot account for attested variation. Neither does Dunn find much value in folkloristics (p. 249), in contrast to his student, Terence C. Mournet, who is more appreciative. Dunn’s response to Weeden’s critique of the haflat samar leaves much to be desired, since Weeden firmly showed that the practice was akin to evening entertainment (see pp. 251-2 n.9). When Dunn explains that Rena Hogg’s book, which was used by Bailey to demonstrate the stability of traditioning, is not actually traditioning material (pp. 251-2, 253), he is on firmer ground. Both Bailey and Weeden make the mistake of casting Rena Hogg as a tradent, since both presuppose that her book provides a crystallization of the same traditioning process that was accessible to Bailey. Her account, however, was not a representation of village tradition, but a memoir about her father. Dunn’s response may have fared better in emphasizing this rather than suggesting contextual differences in hafalat samar traditioning.

In his discussion with Bauckham (pp. 213-229, esp. 222-9), Dunn reveals that he and Bauckham have different understandings of Gospel pre-history, though they can and should be taken as complementary (as I. Howard Marshall notes, “A New Consensus on Oral Tradition? A Review of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 6 [2008]: 190). If, as Dunn writes, Bauckham “wants the eyewitnesses themselves to bridge the gap between initial formulation and transcription in written Gospels, he may be pressing his case beyond the evidence as it has come down to us” (227). But this ignores the significance of Luke’s prologue and eyewitness tradents (see Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006], 34 n.71; also noted by Marshall), who are just one link in the chain of transmission removed from Luke’s account. Dunn’s rich and lively historiography needs more of the complementary project of eyewitness traditioning to assist in offering stability in the similar-yet-dissimilar character of the tradition.
In closing, Dunn’s work on orality is remarkable in the greatest sense of the word. It brings a richness to the text that is seldom accentuated so expertly. Gospel history and liturgy are illuminated in new and rich ways that open up imaginative historical vistas. Dunn’s work deserves appreciation and thankfulness from any student interested in Gospel pre-history.

Michael Metts
The University of Aberdeen
Aberdeen, Scotland


The Last Supper and Markan Christology 1


Mark’s carefully layered plot gradually elaborates the mystery surrounding the identity of Jesus. In the early moments of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is a powerful wonder-working figure who seems comparable to Elijah or one of the prophets of old (e.g., Mark 6:15). At other points in the tale, his words and actions seem to correspond typologically to the words and actions of Moses or Joshua or Jeremiah. As the plot moves toward its climax in Jerusalem, there are abundant hints that Jesus is the bearer of David’s legacy as king of Israel. Each of these images of Jesus illumines some facet of his mission and identity, yet the images all remain tentative, partial, and inadequate. Jesus remains elusive and avoids direct speech about the secret of his own personhood, except in his cryptic declarations about the Son of Man.[1]

Whatever else may be true of Mark’s Gospel and its Christology, it is certain that Mark intends to present Jesus as the Messianic Son of God (see Mark 8:30–31, 14:61–62, and 15:39). Following Jesus’s Last Supper and his betrayal by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus stands before the Jewish leadership (Mark includes the chief priests, elders, scribes, and the Sanhedrin) and boldly declares, in answer to the high priest’s question Σὺ εἶ ὁ χριστὸς ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ εὐλογητοῦ (“Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed One?”), ἐγώ εἰμι, καὶ ὄψεσθε τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκ δεξιῶν καθήμενον τῆς δυνάμεως καὶ ἐρχόμενον μετὰ τῶν νεφελῶν τοῦ οὐρανοῦ  (“I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power and coming with the clouds of heaven”).[2]

For N. T. Wright, the response of the high priest ––“Blasphemy!” (Mark 14:63) –– was due, not just to Jesus’s claim of Messiahship, or to his remarks against the temple. It was the both together which “pointed towards an enthronement in which the Messiah, or the ‘son of man’, would share the very throne of Israel’s [G]od…”[3] The response prompted an exclamatory “Blasphemy!” because Jesus identified himself as sharing in the divine prerogatives included in both Psalm 110 and Daniel 7’s Son of Man. This is complementary to Bock’s understanding of the blasphemy exclamation, since Mark likely intends the allusion to Psalm 110 and Daniel 7, where the latter

describes the vindicating judgment authority of a figure who shares end-time judicial power received from God. Jesus applies this role to himself. In other words, Jesus ironically claims that rather than the council being his judge, he is the judge of the final judgment. The authority that Jesus possesses, he has received from God directly, like the ‘son of man’ image in Daniel. Implicit here is a claim to be able to go directly into God’s presence and work at his side, a claim that he is really their judge.[4]

Commenting on this passage, Bauckham provides an entire section under the heading: “The revelation of Jesus’ divine identity in Mark.” He explains,

Throughout the narrative, Mark provides indications for his readers that Jesus does not merely act on God’s behalf [i.e. agency], as the messianic king might be expected to do, but actually belongs to the divine identity. It is doubtful whether anyone within the narrative, other than the demons, really perceives this, and so, after the prologue, Mark does not state it outright but implies it for readers as the true implications of what Jesus or others say. The culmination of these indications comes in Jesus’ words to the high priest (14:62), where Jesus’ claim to be seated beside God on the cosmic throne from which God rules all things can only be, from a Jewish theological perspective, a claim to share in the unique divine identity of the God who alone rules over all things.[5]

Hays picks up on the importance of the blasphemy exclamation where he notes that,

If Jesus is identified, through Mark’s references to Daniel 7, as the eschatological Son of Man enthroned in heavenly glory, the question inevitably arises of how to understand his relation to the ‘Ancient One,’ the God of Israel. (…). Unlike the Gospel of John, which explicitly declares that Jesus is the Logos who is one with the Father, Mark shies away from overt ontological declarations. Nonetheless, Mark’s Gospel suggests that Jesus is, in some way that defies comprehension, the embodiment of God’s presence. Mark never quite dares to articulate this claim explicitly; it is too scandalous for direct speech. (…). For Mark, the character of God’s presence in Jesus is a mystery that can be approached only by indirection, through riddle-like allusions to the Old Testament, as several passages prior to the passion narrative indicate.[6]

The point in examining the trial is to see a larger context of Markan Christology, and to lend support to Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’s deity. The Supper, betrayal, and trial of Jesus form a connected unit that historical Jesus scholars all understand as operating as a whole from very early on (the pre-Markan passion unit). So it is difficult to think that what Mark intends to illustrate in one part, namely the trial, is not informative of the earlier part, since they are a whole.

[1]Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 61.

[2]Compare Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi in Mark 8:30: “σὺ εἶ ὁ χριστός.” Son of the Blessed one is a circumlocution for Son of God and is, interestingly, used in 1 Enoch 77:2; see Bock and Simpson, Jesus According to Scripture, 2nd ed., 478. Bock and Simpson note that the high priest is probably thinking of Son of God in messianic terms, as in Psalm 2 or 2 Samuel 7 (478). Wright also cautions that we do not know how much the high priest knew of Second Temple literature, including 1 Enoch (or, I would add, if it was even available in Palestine at this time; see Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 642).

[3]Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 642.

[4]Bock and Simpson, Jesus According to Scripture, 2nd ed., 479.

[5]Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, 265.

[6]Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 62.

DEBATE and Some Announcements

Dear Readers of Jesus and Paul blog,

We have a few updates for you.

Robert and I are going to debate a point on Markan Christology publicly through our blog. This began over a year ago when I noted the manner of Jesus’s covenanting with his disciples at the Last Supper.

I found it striking then, and still do, that Jesus directly covenants with twelve disciples who are indicative of a restored Israel in Jesus’s kingdom eschatology. Jesus was not mediating a covenant like Moses. He was covenanting between himself and the disciples. I understand this as another subtle Markan portrait of implicit deity.

Robert and I wrangled on Facebook about this over a year ago, fruitfully creating more light on the discussion than heat. And we recently discussed it anew. Robert understands, with most Gospel scholars (such as Brant Pitre), that Jesus’s covenanting action is a portrait of the New Moses motif. I had the thought that we should do this in a more public forum for interested readers. Now a few points about the debate/discussion.

First, a point on Christology. To  be clear, Robert and I do not disagree with one another’s Christology. Robert identifies many instances of implicit claims to deity in Mark and has shared these with me. The challenge is, as most know, that Mark’s Christology is a mosaic (pun not intended) of portraits: Jesus as the Suffering Servant; Jesus as Messiah; Jesus as Son of God; Jesus as the apocalyptic Son of Man; Jesus as the suffering Son of Man; etc. Understanding which is being put forward by Mark or may be intended by Mark is often difficult.

Jesus himself used Son of Man of himself to express both his humble suffering (e.g. in Mark 8:31 the Son of Man must suffer and be killed and rise after three days), and his exaltation (e.g. in Mark 14:62 Jesus portrays himself as at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven in judgment).

So, we intend to debate and discuss Jesus’s covenanting action during the Last Supper in Mark to determine which Christology or Christologies are intended.

Second, a point on debate.

The impetus for blogging this was to demonstrate specifically Christian dialogue. I had the idea that debating this publicly would be edifying for readers since Robert and I often have heated disagreements on points but always with fruitful understanding.

We are careful to take the time to narrow the differences and find the deciding points of where we disagree. These points are often hair-splitting but have important implications.

Robert and I have argued just about everything (e.g. Paul’s use of “all Israel” in Romans 11, which Robert still fails to see as including Gentiles, and in agreement with the whole of Paul’s argument in Romans!).

As an aside, the first time I met Robert, in 2008, he picked up on a Christology discussion a friend and I were having at Starbucks, and we debated even then a little. I have seen Robert grow and mature in his ability to communicate an effective argument and seen him grow in his care for doing so with integrity, and in his care for understanding truth rather than putting down his opponent or winning a debate. I hope he has seen the same maturity in me these past years. I appreciate his sharp intellect, and I often defer to him personally on the problem of God and evil. Robert has been a faithful witness to Scripture, constantly pointing me back to the text and what the text says. He knows Scripture and he lives it out in how he guides his family and in how he leads in the Church.

A third and fourth point on the debate, and then announcements.

There will be a winner. One of us will decide on the evidence from Scripture and from the arguments presented and make a decision based on these. It may be a grudging admission, but there will be one.

(I feel this may be on my part, although I do feel strongly about Jesus’s covenanting action and how unique it is when compared with Moses.) Fourthly, we will delimit the discussion as necessary and include any relevant points to support our views, but they must be related to Markan Christology and our arguments on the whole.

Now for a few announcements. I (Michael) am wrapping up some publications. One is a forthcoming book review that was granted 7,000 words in the Review of Biblical Literature. It is on a recent three volume publication on the Eucharist by Mohr Siebeck in the WUNT series. A second publication is a comparative religions essay arguing that Gospel prehistory research can learn something from Quran prehistory research. In the latter, philological study of the Quran has precipitated a revisionist approach that situates the teachings of the Quran in Syro-Palestine on account of its many Aramaisms and Syriacisms. By contrast, Gospel prehistory, particularly with reference to the Last Supper, continues to search for Greco-Roman contexts despite the many (and they are many) semitisms, which are Hebrew, the lingua sacra, or Aramaic. In fact, Gospel scholars speak of instances where Matthew and Luke have Graecized the semitisms in Mark. The conclusion, then, is rather obvious…

There are a couple of other publications, but these are the two I am most busy with.  (I’m sure my PhD supervisor would rather I busy myself with my dissertation!)


When I first became a Christian, I had a friend whose family were Jehovah’s Witnesses. This means that I was immediately launched into the world of apologetics in the area of Christology. In response to my trinitarianism, I was told that Jesus obviously could not be God because he’s clearly called God’s son. At the time, my church worship services usually ended with a doxology where we sang the end of the Christ Hymn in Philippians: “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Therefore, my response was something like, “Jesus is God—he’s called Lord in this passage!” To this, I would add a couple of references from John’s Gospel. This never convinced my Jehovah’s Witness friends and admittedly it wasn’t a very sophisticated argument. However, now that I’ve been studying the Bible and theology academically for a decade, I have come to realize that my citation of Philippians 2:10–11 was a better argument than I knew at the time.

My studies of Paul have since focused most on understanding his soteriology in its Jewish context. However, I have never lost my interest in growing to better understand New Testament Christology. I’ve tried to stay up to date on the research and have worked through the most of the scholarly titles on the subject, especially those that focus on Paul. I have pieced together what I believe is a nuanced historical case for how the early church came to believe that Jesus is God while maintaining what can be rightly called monotheism. When it comes to Paul, the argument that I have found most compelling is that in several passages he quotes Old Testament texts about Israel’s God, Yahweh, and applies them explicitly to Jesus. I just got around to reading David Capes excellent study on this subject (Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul’s Christology [Baylor University Press, 2017]), which has now probably become my favorite book on Paul’s Christology.

Capes did an excellent job in this study showing that Paul regularly quoted or alluded to OT passages about Yahweh with Jesus as the referent. His study includes an extensive treatment of Paul’s use of the noun κύριος (“Lord”) in reference to Jesus, which the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible most often used to translate the divine name, Yahweh. He argues convincingly, against the scholars like Wihelm Bousset, that the early Christian practice of calling Jesus “Lord” was not the result of pagan influence after Christianity spread into the Gentile world, but it originated in the context of earliest Jewish Christianity in Palestine. The kind of monotheism that characterized Judaism during this period was not identical with later Rabbinic Judaism, so that the earliest Christians could identify Jesus with Yahweh within a nuanced monotheistic framework that incorporated figures like the angel of Yahweh as well as Yahweh’s Word, Wisdom, and Glory.

I really have nothing negative to say about Capes’ study. I found his treatment to be thoroughly convincing from beginning to end. In this post, however, I’d like to supplement what Capes argued by emphasizing a point that he only mentions once in passing (as I recall). In commenting on Paul’s use of Isaiah 45:23 in Philippians 2:10–11, Capes observes “The claim that ‘every knee shall bow’ an ‘every tongue confess’ belongs to one of the more important monotheistic passages of the Old Testament…” What I find significant about this observation is that Paul (and the original writer of this pre-formed tradition) did not apply just any Yahweh passage to Jesus; Paul applied one of the most emphatically monotheistic passages in the Hebrew Bible to Jesus. If we were only expected to think of Jesus’ relationship to Yahweh in terms of agency, as some scholars have suggested, then we would not expect Paul or other NT authors to apply passages that speak of Yahweh in terms of his “transcendent uniqueness” (to borrow Richard Bauckham’s phrase). But that is precisely what we have here and in a number of other passages. This suggests that the early Christians saw Jesus’ relationship to Yahweh in terms that go beyond agency categories so that Jesus is identified with Yahweh. In what follows, I want to look more closely at the use Isaiah 45 in Philippians 2, and two additional examples of New Testament writers (another text from Paul and one from Hebrews) applying Old Testament passages that emphatically stress Yahweh’s uniqueness in comparison to anyone else, especially other divine beings.

Isaiah 45 in Philippians 2:10–11

Scholars have long recognized that Isaiah 40–55 is the most emphatically monotheistic section in all the Hebrew Bible. This section of Isaiah is about God’s promise to sovereignly and powerfully bring his people out of exile after they have been justly punished for the persistent violation of their covenant with Yahweh (e.g., Isa 40:1–2, 9–11; 42:1–9). This section stresses Yahweh’s sovereignty, omnipotence, and uniqueness and we see these themes highlighted in chap. 40 and repeated throughout the larger section. There is no one to whom one can liken Yahweh because he is incomparable (40:18, 25–26). Yahweh alone “sits above the circle of the earth,” “stretches out the heaven,” and “brings princes to nothing and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness” (Isa 40:22–23). That Yahweh is in a category of divinity all his own is probably most emphatically stated in Isaiah 43:10: “‘You are my witnesses,’ declares Yahweh, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.” Similarly, in Isaiah 44:6–8 Yahweh, “the King of Israel” says “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me?… Is there a God beside me? There is no rock; I know not any.”

The theme of Yahweh’s transcendent uniqueness continues in chap. 45 as God’s sovereignty becomes the emphatic theme. He forms light and darkness and makes peace and creates calamity or evil (v. 7). God is the potter and his creation the clay. Therefore, his ways are beyond the scrutiny of human beings (vv. 9–13). In vv. 14–25 we see these truths of God’s universal kingship culminate with a vision of his being worshiped universally in the world as “all the ends of the earth” are invited to turn to Yahweh to be saved (v. 22). The result will be that all people will bow the knee and swear alliance to Yahweh alone (vv. 23–25). Paul’s application of this passage to Jesus, I suggest (following David Capes) goes beyond his role as Yahweh’s eschatological agent (a theme present in this section through the “servant of Yahweh” figure) and includes him within the unique identity of Yahweh. In Isaiah 42:8 Yahweh declares his name and states his refusal to share his glory with another. However, Paul says that Jesus has received “the name that is above every name” so that at his name will all bow and confess that he is “Lord” (i.e., Yahweh). I believe the application of this Yahweh text would be irresponsible on Paul’s part if it were not his intention to identify Jesus with Yahweh.

Deuteronomy 6:4 in 1 Corinthians 8:6

A number of scholars have come to the conclusion that in 1 Corinthians 8:6 Paul has reformulated the classic monotheistic confession of Israel, the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4, so that it includes Jesus in the statement that Israel has only one God, Yahweh. A comparison of these two texts makes this apparent. I have tried to show the emphasis on the shared terms “one,” “Lord,” and “God”:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (Deut 6:4)

…for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Cor 8:6)

It is possible to render Deuteronomy 6:4 as “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone.” Moreover, Jesus’ participation in creation is probably intended to evoke common Jewish notions of Yahweh’s Wisdom, a hypostasis of an attribute that is indispensable to Yahweh’s identity, character, and power (see esp. Proverbs 8:22–31; Sirach 24:2, 9; Wisdom 7:22–27; 8:4; 9:4, 9–11). Of course, the LXX usually renders the divine name as κύριος, which is the term that Paul applies to Jesus. For Paul, the two divine terms in Deuteronomy 6:4 refer respectively to the Father (“God”) and Jesus Christ (“Lord”). This is significant because Deuteronomy 6 goes on to speak of the exclusive devotion that Israel was to have for Yahweh—“You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (v. 5). This text was at the heart of Jewish belief that they were to worship and honor Yahweh and no other God. Paul’s context has to do with the way Christians should relate to the idol worship of their neighbors. Some have knowledge that idols are really nothing and for us (we Christians) there is only one God (1 Cor 8:4). Where it Paul’s intention to bring in Jesus alongside Yahweh as another deity, this would not be the text to use. Instead, he reappropriated the terms for God found Deuteronomy 6:4 so that Jesus is identified with Israel’s God.

Deuteronomy 32:43 in Hebrews 1:6

In Hebrews 1:6 the writer quotes Deuteronomy 32:43 to make the claim that Jesus is greater than all angels. The verse says, “And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’” Scholars were unsure what text the author was referencing until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The version of Deuteronomy discovered there differs at 32:43 from the previously received Hebrew text by saying, “Rejoice, O heavens, together with him; and bow down to him all you gods.” This reading is now rightly favored in modern translations and you can compare the English Standard Version to King James Version to see the differences in the text. The reading we have in the Greek translation of the OT is similar, but instead of “gods” it has “sons of God,” which would have been problematic for the author because he is distinguishing “the Son” from the angels. Therefore, we have good reason to believe that he was quoting the reading we discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls, because this text would fit his rhetorical purposes much better. What is remarkable about this is what it means the writer was saying about Jesus. If you read Deuteronomy 32 in context you will see the point is the lordship of Yahweh over all other “gods.” In v. 8 it is Yahweh “the Most High” who divided the nations and assigned lesser gods (“the sons of God”) over them. But Yahweh has kept Jacob as his own people (v. 9), so that they are not to worship the gods of the nations. Yahweh alone has just delivered them and he alone will continue to guide them (v. 12). Israel had already transgressed their covenant with Yahweh when the “sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently” rather than Yahweh, the God of their fathers (v. 17, 21). This is foolish because Yahweh is Lord over these lesser gods. These gods will not be able to rise up and protect Israel (vv. 37–38). Yahweh alone will be able to do so: “‘See now that I, even I am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand’” (v. 39). Such a monotheistic statement in this context means that there is no god who is able to rival Yahweh’s power. He has delegated authority to all other deities (the “sons of God”) and even they must bow down to worship him (v. 43).

It is Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews who is to be worshiped by the lesser gods (i.e., angels). The author of Hebrews is applying this passage about Yahweh to Jesus in order to make the point that Jesus is greater than the angels. For this author, Jesus is not one of the lesser divinities of Deuteronomy 32. He is the supreme God to whom all other gods are to bow down in worship—he is Yahweh. I think this is remarkable and the evidence suggests that the author intentionally selected a passage about the superiority of the God of Israel to all other heavenly beings, which expresses Yahweh’s transcendent uniqueness when compared to all other “gods,” and applied it in his context to make his case that Jesus is superior to all the host of heaven. Again, the selection of this text and its application to Jesus implies the highest imaginable Christology, one which identifies Jesus with Yahweh.


It is fascinating to observe the many texts that New Testament authors apply in trying to come to grips with who Jesus is. It is remarkable that they often choose passages that describe Yahweh in order to do so. But it is stunning to see the texts they sometimes select. In these instances, and probably more, the New Testament authors select passages from Israel’s scriptures that are among the most explicit and forceful in expressing that Yahweh is unlike any other and that he alone is to be obeyed and worshiped. The selection of these Yahweh passages are best explained if the early church came to believe that Jesus should be identified with Yahweh. It is especially significant to recognize that many scholars believe that Philippians 2:6–11 and 1 Corinthians 8:6 were not originally Pauline compositions, but that he reappropriated these creedal statements for his context. This means that G. B. Caird was right in saying that the earliest New Testament Christology is already the highest. The identification of Jesus with Yahweh happened quickly in the very earliest circles of Christianity.



I recently listened to an episode of Unbelievable?, an apologetics podcast hosted by Justin Brierley based out of the UK, on the information Paul provides us about the historical Jesus (link). This discussion was between atheist Richard Carrier and Christian apologist Jonathan McLatchie. I’m a regular listener and even had the honor of participating in an episode on what the Book of Revelation teaches us about the nature of eschatological punishment in hell (link). I’m a huge fan of the show because Justin has been able to get the world’s best biblical scholars (along with scientists and philosophers) to have down to earth and usually civil conversations about all sorts of really interesting topics related to Christian faith and skepticism. The shows usually include one Christian and one non-Christian contributor in the conversation.

Richard Carrier has tried to make a scholarly argument that the historical Jesus reflected in the Gospels arose after a more primitive Christian belief that Jesus was a celestial being who was crucified in the heavenly realm, and never a historical person. Later Christians projected this heavenly redeemer figure Jesus into history and eventually inscribed this myth in the canonical Gospels of the New Testament. Carrier’s case rests largely on his reading of Paul, our earliest Christian author, who he believes gives no indication of belief in a historical Jesus. To summarize Carrier’s argument (all too briefly), if our earliest sources present Jesus as a heavenly being and only our later sources place him in history, then we lack sufficient evidence for belief in the historical Jesus, according to Carrier.

The radio show discussed several important Pauline texts and briefly touched on the evidence in Acts and the Gospels. There was one line of evidence that didn’t come up, which I think is very problematic for Carrier’s thesis. This is the material from Romans 9:1–5, where Paul describes the blessings of the Jewish people, whom Paul wishes would embrace their Messiah, Jesus, and avoid condemnation. Of most importance, Paul says “from whom (the Israelites, v. 4) is the Messiah, according to flesh…” (ἐξ ὧν ὁ Χριστὸς τὸ κατὰ σάρκα, v. 5). Since this passage didn’t come up in the discussion (unless I missed it) I went to Carrier’s recently published book on the subject (On the History of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt [Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014]) to see if he addresses this passage in his treatment of the evidence from Paul. Carrier’s study includes no detailed treatment of its relevance for the discussion of Paul’s belief regarding the historical Jesus. He refers once to this passage in a parenthetical note (p. 568) and once he makes the connection between this verse and Romans 1:3, which speaks of the Messiah as a descendant of David (p. 575). There is also a discussion of this verse’s relevance to Paul’s belief in Jesus’ divinity in a footnote as well (p. 95 n.69).

In my opinion, this is an important oversight for Carrier’s thesis. In order to highlight the gap in his case, I want to discuss briefly what Paul meant when he described Jesus as an Israelite κατὰ σάρκα (“according to the flesh”). I believe that this evidence in Paul clearly demonstrates that he believed Jesus was a human being who was born into the same world that every other human being was and is, and that Jesus was born specifically as an ethnic Israelite. If this is the case, Carrier’s argument crumbles, because it means that Christianity began as a religion based on the belief in a human Messiah who descended from heaven into the human realm, evidenced by Paul’s writings and the continuity of this belief in the next generation, as the Gospels and latter NT writings bear witness.

What Does κατὰ σάρκα Mean?

This prepositional phrase κατὰ σάρκα occurs 20 times in the letters attributed to Paul, and only two of the occurrences are in the disputed epistles. A similar phrase (which adds the article before σάρκα) occurs in John 8:15. Otherwise, this is a uniquely Pauline term in the New Testament. From my reading of the evidence there are basically two ways that Paul uses this phrase. First, in several instances, κατὰ σάρκα is contrasted with κατὰ πνεῦμα (“according to the Spirit”). When this is the case, the idea conveyed by κατὰ σάρκα seems to be the condition of a human being who is void of God’s Spirit which is the meaning in the several occurrences in Romans 8 (see vv. 4, 5, 12, 13). Within this category is Paul’s use of this expression to depict behaving in an unspiritual way (2 Cor 1:17; 5:16; 10:2, 3, 11:18). While these passages convey important theological concepts, this meaning does not seem to be Paul’s intent in Romans 9:5.

For our purposes, it is most important to observe that Paul regularly uses this phrase to mean something essentially like “as a human being,” or “according to human flesh.” This is the meaning of σάρξ in Hebrews 12:9, which is often brought over with the translation “earthly” or “human.” Thus, in Romans 1:3, Jesus is David’s son “according to the flesh.” In contrast to Jesus’ Davidic sonship because of his “according to the flesh,” in Romans 1:4 Paul says that Jesus was declared to be God’s son “by the Spirit of holiness” (κατὰ πνεῦμα ἁγιωσύνης) when he was resurrected. Scholars have identified this text as a preform tradition that predates Paul’s use of it in Romans. This means the Christology reflected in this passage is not only Paul’s but may also reflect the Christology of those who were believers in Jesus before him. The question that must be asked is to whom does Christ’s resurrection display his divine sonship? If his death and resurrection took place in the celestial realm, then his divine status was already known. This early creedal statement revealed that Jesus is God’s Son to those who were previously unaware. This pre-formed Christological creed makes far better sense if it is taken to attest to Jesus birth in the human realm as a son of David and the Spirit’s announcement that he is the Son of God when he is resurrected, again in the world of their experience.

This reading of κατὰ σάρκα in Rom 1:3 is solidified by Paul’s other uses of the prepositional phrase. Thus, in Romans 4:1, Abraham is the forefather “according to the flesh” of the Jewish people. Paul describes other ethnic Israelites as his “kinsmen according to the flesh” in Romans 9:3. This reading of Romans 9:3 is further supported by Paul’s reference to unbelieving Israelites simply as “my flesh” (μου τὴν σάρκα) in Romans 11:14. We have a somewhat ambiguous case in the occurrences of κατὰ σάρκα in Galatians 4:23 and 29. Paul builds an allegory on the story of Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac. Paul says that Ishmael is Abraham’s son born “according to the flesh” while Isaac is the son born according to promise and the spirit. The idea seems to be that Abraham’s son Ishmael was born apart from divine intervention in contrast to the miraculous and life-giving promise of God to Sarah (cf., Romans 4:17), which overcame her old age and barrenness so that God’s promise to Abraham could be realized through Isaac’s birth. Still, that Ishmael was born “according to the flesh” includes the reality that he was born of a woman in the normal way humans are born. Finally, in two parallel verses, Paul commands Christians who are slaves to obey their “masters according to the flesh” (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:22). These instances clearly mean human masters who have authority over their slaves in the human realm.

Conclusion and the Meaning of Romans 9:5

In none of the instances of κατὰ σάρκα does Paul mean someone who became flesh in the heavenly realm, as Carrier believes had to be the case for Jesus. To suggest otherwise is clearly a case of begging the question and it requires that we turn a blind eye to much material in Paul about what it meant for Jesus to be “flesh.” It would require us to believe that only in the references to Jesus does Paul mean something exceptional by the phrase κατὰ σάρκα. This is an obvious instance of one letting his hypothesis determine what the evidence means, rather than testing his hypothesis against the evidence,  and allowing it to be falsified when the evidence demands such. That this is the case in Carrier’s book becomes especially interesting when he suggests that Paul was “all but required” to read the prophecy of 2 Samuel 7:12–14 not as a promise that a descendant of David, born through normal means on earth, would be placed on the throne of an eternal kingdom, but, rather, that God extracted David’s sperm and kept it in heaven to create him a descendant to sit on his throne (pp. 576-7)! If one’s hypothesis leads him to believe that Paul read this prophecy in this way, while citing no Second Temple Jewish evidence that anyone read 2 Samuel 7 in such an incredible way, then I think it is rather obvious that he has taken a wrong turn somewhere in his journey to discover Paul’s beliefs about the historical Jesus.

As we observed above, for Paul to speak of his fellow Israelites in terms of “flesh” is to identify them as fellow descendants of Abraham. He laments their plight apart from faith in Christ, because they have sought to establish their own righteousness by obeying the law (Romans 10:3). However, Christ is the end of the law and the only source of righteousness, which is received only by those who believe (Romans 10:4). Paul believed that God accomplished what the law could not do for his fellow Israelites (and all who would believe) “by sending his son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).

For Paul, if Jesus is to solve Israel’s plight, and the human plight more generally, God had to send him as a genuine human being in the realm of the law’s influence and shortcomings.

This means Jesus had to take on human flesh in this world to overcome the plight of sin. Paul says as much in Galatians 4:4–5—Jesus was sent by God into this world, born of a woman, born under the law—i.e., as an Israelite—so that he might redeem those under the law.

Paul’s point in Romans 9:5 cannot be overlooked in this debate. Paul is concerned about his fellow Israelites, who will suffer judgment for their failure to embrace Jesus as Messiah and Lord. That these Israelites are Paul’s “kinsmen according to the flesh” means that he shares the same ethnicity. Likewise, that Jesus, the Messiah, comes from them “according to the flesh” means that Jesus was an Israelite in the same way that Paul and the kinsmen he is concerned about are Israelites.

For Paul, as for all the early Christians, it was not enough for Jesus to be a human, he had to be the eschatological Adam, a son of Abraham, a son of David, and an obedient Israelite (N. T. Wright has highlighted this point well in his publications).

Paul’s affirmations that Jesus is a descendant of David “according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3; cf., 15:12), the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16), and an Israelite “according to the flesh” (Romans 9:5) all mean, for Paul, that Jesus was a flesh and blood human who lived in the same world he ministered in and that he died for the sins of God’s people in this world and was resurrected in this world and only then exalted again to heaven as Lord (Philippians 2:5–11; cf. 1 Timothy 3:16). This evidence, I believe, cannot be read fairly in a way that upholds Carrier’s thesis that Paul did not believe in a historical Jesus. Paul’s entire Gospel message is grounded in the reality of the historical Jesus.

A Recent and Notable Dissertation on Memory and Jesus Research

Tuomas Havukainen, “The Quest for the Memory of Jesus: A Viable Path or a Dead End?” (Ph.D. diss., Åbo Akademi University, 2018) 319 pp.

It is available at the following link for download:

From “The Purpose of the Dissertation,” pp. 14-15:

The main purpose of this dissertation is to investigate whether the memory approach constitutes a methodologically coherent school of thought in historical Jesus research. In other words, this dissertation explores how the basic tenets of the memory approach differ from earlier scholarship and whether one may speak of a new beginning in the field of historical Jesus research. The focus of the dissertation is on research-historical developments. In order to meaningfully approach the question of the methodological school of thought in historical Jesus research, the research-historical discussion is focused on the debate on the nature and the processes of the transmission of the Jesus traditions in early Christianity, which is a central topic to both earlier historical Jesus research and the methodological formation of the memory approach. Rather than attempting to discuss the whole history of historical Jesus research, in other words, all the ‘Quests’ for the historical Jesus with regard to this debate, the scope of this research is limited to a few significant viewpoints from approximately the last one hundred years, as this period is specifically relevant for the rise and development of the memory approach.


Chosen from the Beginning: Paul’s Predestinarian Theology of Election—Part 5: Predestinarian Election in Paul


Having mapped out the Jewish debates about the relationship between divine sovereignty and human agency in Paul’s Jewish world, we are now in a position to compare some of his language to what we have seen so that we might draw some conclusions about his thinking on these questions. Having spent the last couple of years focused on this particular set of questions, I am convinced now more than ever that Paul’s thinking is closest to the strong emphasis on divine providence that we have observed, particularly in the Dead Scrolls, but also in Sirach 33. We can see this in a number of themes that Paul shares in common with these sources, but we will focus here on his clearest expressions of predestination in order to highlight the striking similarities between his language and that of other Jews who described election in terms of the predestination of individuals for covenant membership and final salvation.


Before discussing the positive parallels between Paul and the sources, it is important to note one difference with some of them. In a previous post, I noted examples of explicit affirmations of freewill in Sirach, Wisdom, and Psalms of Solomon. However, one looks in vain for anything comparable in Paul. Instead, there are a number of passages that reveal what scholars have identified as an “anthropological pessimism” which seems to minimize human freedom in Paul’s thinking. Thus, in Romans 8:7–8, Paul says that those who are “in the flesh,” and therefore lack God’s empowering Spirit, are unable to obey God’s law or do what pleases him. In Ephesians 2:1–10, God’s people were formerly “dead in trespasses and sins” (v. 1) and under the domain of the “the spirit that is now at work on the sons of disobedience” (v. 2). This necessitates a work on God’s part that amounts to a new creation (v. 10; cf., Rom 6:3–4; 2 Cor 4:6; 5:17; Titus 3:5), for such cannot be effected by lifeless human beings. Scholars, such as Jason Maston (Divine and Human Agency in Second Temple Judaism and Paul: A Comparative Study [WUNT 297; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010]), have noted that Paul shares much of this negative anthropological language in common with the Thanksgiving Hymns of the DSS. It was this negative estimation of humanity that led the Essene community (as attested in the DSS) to posit an explicit dual predestination, without which they could not explain their own existence. Fundamentally, therefore, Paul’s strong and explicit anthropological pessimism places him in company with those Jews who explained covenant membership and salvation in terms of individual predestination, even before we consider the passages that address the subject directly. We can confirm this by considering the most explicit mention of human will in Paul. In Romans 9:15, after rehearsing God’s choices in election and exclusion in biblical history, Paul deduces the theological conclusion that “it [election] does not depend on human will or exertion, but on the God who does mercy” (my translation). Categorically, therefore, Paul is at odds with those Jewish authors mentioned above who affirm the importance of human volition in election and salvation, choosing instead to hold up divine free will as the standard (v. 18).


This brings us to the positive statements in Paul’s letters that seem to affirm the kind of predestination we observed in Sirach 33 and the DSS. Although there are other texts and themes that we might discuss, I have focused here on the clearest instances in Paul’s letters that display remarkable overlap with Jewish predestinarian sources. I will list and briefly explain the four clearest texts in order of the value I believe they have in explaining Paul’s theology of predestinarian election.

1 Thessalonians 5:9

 “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ…” (ESV)

This verse comes at the end of a letter that Paul wrote to a church that was troubled with matters of eschatology. Based on the two Thessalonian letters, it seems that some in this church had come to believe in an over realized eschatology and were concerned that those who died prior to Christ’s return would not be able to participate in the resurrection. After explaining that at “the day of the Lord” Christ would resurrect all of his people, both dead and alive (4:13–18), Paul concludes the letter by reminding the audience that the hope of this coming day should be a cause for joy, not fear (5:1–11). God’s people, armed with the knowledge that Jesus will return to vindicate his people by raising them from the dead, are to continue to encourage and edify each other as they patiently wait (5:6–11). In 5:9 Paul introduces the theological grounds (ὅτι, “for”) that he wants his audience to stand on as they await the Lord’s return. Because God has not destined (ἔθετο) his people to experience wrath when the Lord returns, they need not live in fear in this age. Instead, he has positively appointed for them to receive salvation.

There are two interesting parallels we can observe here. First, in 1 Thessalonians 5:5, Paul says that his audience are “children of light” and “not…of the darkness.” Read along with v. 9, this sounds remarkably like the Treatise on the Two Spirits from the Community Rule (1QS 3–4), where God is said to have assigned his covenant people the “spirit of light” and those who are destined to experience wrath, “the spirit of darkness.” Coupling this light/darkness dualism with Paul’s language of divine appointment to wrath or salvation makes perfect sense if Paul shares the perspective reflected in the Treatise on the Two Spirits. Second, we find a direct verbal parallel in the Thanksgiving Hymns. In 1QH 15.37–38, the hymnist gives thanks to God because he has “not cast my lot in the fraudulent assembly, nor have You set my portion in the council of the pretenders. But you call me to Your mercies, to [Your] forgiveness [You have brought me,] and in the abundance of Your compassion…” The context of thanksgiving is likewise important in 1 Thessalonians. Paul begins the letter by thanking God for his election of the people, which was evidenced by the effectiveness of his gospel ministry there (1:2–5). Moreover, the Greek that Paul uses to speak of God having not appointed his audience for wrath is nearly a perfect translation of the Hebrew the hymnist uses — “You have not set my portion…” (לא שמתה הוקי). The hymn goes on to describe how this appointment results in his receiving insight and being established for salvation through the covenant community, just as Paul knows that God has chosen the believers in Thessalonica because his preaching was received by faith. Paul’s language of election and appointment to wrath or salvation makes good sense when read in light of the similar language used in the DSS.

2 Thessalonians 2:11–13

“Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but has pleasure in unrighteousness. But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification of the spirit and belief in the truth.”

This translation is essentially my modification of the ESV based on my decisions regarding some exegetical problems in the text. I will have to be content to provide a very brief explanation of this complex text, which cannot possibly do justice to all that could occupy us here.

This passage comes on the heels of the most detailed explanation of the events leading up to the Lord’s return in Paul’s writings (and Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians is debated). According to the previous chapter, when Jesus returns he will destroy Satan and those who have followed him. However, 2 Thessalonians 2:11–12 says that they “believe what is false” because God causes them to, so that they may be condemned. The language of “a strong delusion” from God that leads to their rejection of the truth sounds similar to the “spirit of falsehood” described in the Treatise on the Two Spirits. This connection finds additional support when we look carefully at the Greek Paul uses in v. 13, which can be translated woodenly as “by the sanctification of the spirit” (ἐν ἁγιασμῷ πνεύματος). Since Paul uses a verbal noun—“sanctification”—the genitive “of the spirit” that follows could either be subjective, referring to the Holy Spirit’s sanctification of the believer, or objective, referring to the human spirit that is sanctified. Both readings would have parallels in Paul and would place heavy emphasis on God’s agency in salvation. However, in this context where we have a contrast between those who receive a strong delusion that results in one believing falsehood and those chosen for salvation, I believe the objective reading makes better sense. If so, we have Paul using language parallel to the “spirit of truth” described in the Treatise on the Two Spirits.

Even without this conceptual parallel in the Treatise on the Two Spirits we would still have a clear affirmation of individual election unto salvation. Paul presents humanity at the Lord’s return in clearly dualistic terms, with both groups created as the result of God’s activity. There is a textual critical issue in v. 13 that impacts the meaning of the verse. It is very difficult to determine whether Paul originally wrote that God chose his people “as first fruits” or “from the beginning.” The evidence in the manuscripts themselves is essentially a stalemate. Most commentators, however, have pointed to parallel Pauline passages to show that Paul regularly uses pre-temporal indicators when discussing election (e.g., Rom 8:29; Eph 1:4), which inclines them to take “from the beginning” as original. The reading “from the beginning” obviously fits well with the predestinarian theology I am suggesting Paul intends to communicate here. Additional support for this is Paul’s use of the verb αἱρέω (“to choose”), meaning “to take” or “to pick out,” instead of the usual verb for election. This verb is arguably more vivid in expressing the subject’s deliberation and the effectiveness of his choosing. This makes the attempt of some scholars to reduce Paul’s election theology here to merely a corporate concept untenable. Moreover, Paul expresses clearly that God’s choice results in the salvation of the one chosen (εἰς σωτηρίαν), as we saw in 1 Thessalonians 5:9. They are not chosen because they are saved by choosing freely to join the covenant community, as in the corporate election scheme. The grammar employed here suggests instead that their being chosen precedes their salvation and ultimately results in it. Thus, I was shocked when reading Thornhill’s treatment on this passage that he spends much time dealing with the textual critical problem while ignoring that Paul explicitly says God’s election is for the salvation of those chosen. This is remarkable because he makes the bald claim in the book that Paul never couches election in terms of individual predestination to salvation. This verse alone, without the benefit of the exegesis provided here, does not prove Thornhill wrong; but it was an oversight not to interact with syntactical significance of the prepositional phrase εἰς σωτηρίαν. As it stands, I believe there is much in this passage to show that Paul affirmed the kind of predestination attested in Essene sources I surveyed in my last two blog entries.

Ephesians 1:3–14

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (ESV)

If you have had the opportunity to study the Greek used here, you will know that it is lamentable to simply quote an English translation, since the meaning of virtually every phrase has been the subject of debate. However, we will have to be content with an imperfect translation here, since I want to keep this as to-the-point as possible. Moreover, I will not be able to validate all that I say here. Those who read the previous entry where I discussed the Thanksgiving Hymns may notice that Paul’s introductory words here—“Blessed be the God and Father…”—are really a translation of the Hebrew used in the introductions of the hymns. In fact, apart from the distinctly Christian elements in this text, this entire passage would be right at home among the Thanksgiving Hymns that were discovered among the DSS, and this includes some remarkably distinct theological ideas. I believe a detailed study of the many parallels between Ephesians and the DSS provides the clearest evidence that suggests that Paul had significant theological interaction with the Essenes who believed what is reflected in the DSS.

For my purposes here, I want to pay careful attention to Paul’s language in vv. 4–5 and the emphasis throughout this praise hymn on God’s desire as the basis for what he has done in redeeming his people in Christ. Verse 4 describes God’s election has having taken place “before the foundation of the world.” This temporal phrase rules out a reductionistic corporate view that excludes predestinarian ideas. For it is God’s people (“us”) who are the objects of his choosing before creation, and not a plan or a faceless community of people who happen to join the church. Election here is not described as entering the community of the chosen, but as a gift passively received by the elect person, with God as the explicit subject who acted before the elect person even existed. The purpose of this pre-temporal election is said to be “adoption”—a covenantal category—which is effected in time through God’s predestining super intention (v. 5). The certain result of being elected and predestined is “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (v. 7) and participation in ultimate glory (e.g., v. 14). As mentioned above, Paul’s language is strikingly similar to what we read in the Thanksgiving Hymns: “You have determined before ever You created him…You alone have [creat]ed the righteous one, and from the womb You established him to give heed to Your covenant at the appointed time of grace…for an eternal salvation and everlasting peace without want” (7.27–29); “in the wisdom of Your knowledge You determined their destiny before they came into existence and according [to Your will] everything come[s to pass], and nothing happens apart from You” (9.21–22).

When Paul tells us on what basis God does all that he is credited with doing here, he tells us repeatedly that it was simply God’s desire and plan to do so—“according to the purpose of his will” (v. 5); “according to his purpose” (v. 9); “having been predestined accordingly to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (v. 11). These parallel phrases employ the exact Greek expression—κατὰ τὴν εὐδοκίαν αὐτοῦ— we saw in Sirach 33:13. Likewise, in the Treatise on the Two Spirits, we read that God ordains all things according to “His glorious plan” (כמחשבת כבודו, 1QS 3.16). Moreover, throughout the Thanksgiving Hymns there is heavy emphasis placed on God’s sovereign foreordination according to his “good pleasure” (רצון, see esp. 9.10, 12, 17), which is translated in the Greek OT with just the same language Paul uses here. Read in this context, it seems difficult to deny that Paul described election in terms of individual predestination to salvation, as did the Essene community who authored the DSS.

Romans 8:28–11:36

Due to the length of this section I will not quote this text in full. As sad as it was not to treat everything we encounter in Ephesians 1, what will have to suffice in our discussion of this passage is an absolute tragedy! In my thesis, the chapter dealing with this section took up 46 pages, and that barely scratched the surface as far as I’m concerned. For my purposes here, I want to discuss just four topics that especially highlight the predestinarian elements in Paul’s argument, which he shares in common with the Jewish sources that espouse predestinarian election: (1) Paul’s “Calling” Language; (2) The Meaning of Foreknowledge; (3) The Background to the Potter/Clay Imagery; (4) Israel’s Hardening and its Future Reversal.

Paul’s “Calling” Language

Up to this point I have not discussed the meaning of Paul’s language of the divine call. This concept becomes especially important in Romans 8:28–30, where we read,

“And we know that, for those who love God, he causes all things to work together for good, for those who are called according to [God’s] purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be confirmed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many siblings. And those whom he predestined, these he also called, and those whom he called, these he also justified, and those whom he justified, these he also glorified.” (my translation).

The predestinarian notions are obvious with Paul’s use of the verb “predestined” (προορίζω). All that Paul says God does here, he tells us he does for “those who are called according to [God’s] purpose.” In Paul’s writings, there is no distinction between being called and coming to faith. You will look in vain in Paul’s letters for an example of someone being called by God and failing to come to faith. God’s call is always effective for Paul, and therefore, he is happy simply to refer to Christians as those who are “called,” since those who are not in the faith have not been the beneficiaries of such a call. This text before us is the strongest evidence in Paul that he believes in an infallibly effective divine call. He tells us in no uncertain terms in v. 30 that all who are called are also justified by God and glorified. There is no room in Paul’s language to posit the category of someone who was called but failed to be justified and eventually glorified, which, according to this context, refers to eschatological salvation through resurrection (vv. 16–23). Earlier in Romans 4:17, God’s calling is described explicitly as his creation ex nihilo in fulfilling his promise that Sarah would bear Abraham’s heir. God’s calling, therefore, effects new creation. For Paul, God’s calling cannot be reduced to an invitation, since all those God calls he also justifies and glorifies.

This is reminiscent of the effectiveness and creative power of God’s “Word” that we saw when discussing Sirach on a previous post. In Sirach 16.28, we are told that nothing in creation disobeys God’s word, and in 42.15 we read that God creates by his word and this results in the obedience of his creatures. It is no surprise that in the Thanksgiving Hymns  15.37–38 we find the author praising God for having called him (ותקראני) resulting in his receiving mercy and forgiveness. The OT background to this notion can be found in Isaiah 43:1 and 7, where God’s creation (ברא), forming (יצר), and calling (קרא) of Israel are presented in synonymous parallel. God’s call is no simple invitation—it is his powerful word that creates his covenant people. Therefore, for Paul, as for Isaiah and the DSS, God’s calling is not a summons that the one called may or may not obey. God’s calling is his life-giving creative decree which infallibly effects what it intends, namely, the justification and glorification of those called. For these reasons, Paul can state categorically in Romans 9:6 that it is impossible for God’s word to Israel to fail, since his calling creates his people (9:24–26). By focusing on Paul’s calling language, we see that we cannot reduce his election theology to the exclusion of determinism, since God’s calling of individuals, in Paul’s thought, effects his desired result in election, which is the full salvation of those called.

The Meaning of Foreknowledge

In traditional theological debates, much hangs on how one understands God’s foreknowledge described in Romans 8:29. Those who reject the kind of divine determinism I am suggesting that Paul embraced tend to understand the verb “foreknew” (προγινώσκω) as suggesting that God took into consideration the foreseen faith of individuals before predestining them. The problem with this reading is that it makes the mention of God’s predestination and calling redundant. If they were already going to believe of their own accord, why must God create new life through his effectual call that we discussed? What is the point of God predestining what he already foresees is going to take place? Moreover, as I mentioned above, this is problematic in light Paul’s anthropological pessimism. Earlier in this very chapter Paul said that apart from the gift of God’s Spirit it is impossible for someone to please God (vv. 6–8). It is also important that Paul uses the verb “foreknew” again in reference to Israel in 11:2. There, because God has foreknown Israel, even though she is currently hardened in unbelief, God has not abandoned her, but will eventually reverse Israel’s condition of unbelief and bring them to salvation (11:26, 30–31). Therefore, foreknowledge is not what God learns when he peaks into some future that he did not create. Rather, it is God’s covenantal love set unconditionally on those whom he promises to save through his sovereign work. As most commentators recognize, “foreknew” here essentially means “fore-loved” or “chose before.”

We find some interesting and informative parallels to this way of speaking about God’s foreknowledge in the DSS that support this reading of Paul. At the end of the Treatise on the Two Spirits, God’s foreknowledge is the same as his deciding the fate of humanity at creation (1QS 4.25–26). In the Thanksgiving Hymns, we read, “[For apart from You no]thing is done, and without Your will nothing is known” (1QH 9.10). Here, God’s knowledge logically follows from his works as creator. The future is a reflection of God’s prior knowledge. God does not learn when he peers down the corridors of time, since the future takes the shape it does because of his prior creative activity. God’s knowledge is an aspect of his creative power. The view espoused by Paul is clearly in line with that presented in the DSS, which is different from what we saw in Jubilees, wherein, God chose Abraham and his sons because he foresaw that they would obey. This latter notion is completely foreign to Paul, and, as we will see, is flatly contradicted by Paul’s affirmations in Romans 9 and 11.

The Background to the Potter/Clay Imagery

Following Paul’s use of the case of Pharaoh’s hardening (Rom 9:14–18, narrated in Exod 4–14), Paul acknowledges the offense that his affirmation of absolute divine freedom would cause for some (v. 19). In response, he employs the metaphor of a potter’s freedom to do as he wills with clay (vv. 20–24). This is a metaphor which is used in diverse ways by Jewish authors. For this reason, some interpreters have asserted without validation that the background to Paul’s use of the imagery is Jeremiah 18. In that text, Jeremiah is encouraging the people of Judah to repent before they are taken away into exile. Although they deserve the covenant curse of exile, if they repent, God can repurpose them, in the same way a potter can start over with a piece of clay and mold it into something different. This example illustrates that the potter metaphor need not speak of divine determinism. However, observing this use of the imagery falls short of demonstrating that this is what Paul means by the image in Romans 9. In fact, this use of the potter/clay metaphor is completely out of place in Romans 9, and therefore, it is doubtful that Paul was alluding to this text.

As it turns out, Paul does not quote Jeremiah 18, but Isaiah 29:16 and 45:9. These texts use this “forming” imagery to make the point that the potter’s purpose cannot be scrutinized by the thing he creates. This fits far better with Paul’s use of the metaphor, which should be our default interpretation since these are the OT passages he is making reference too. We find some important parallels to Paul’s use of this metaphor in the DSS and Sirach 33. In 1QS 11.21–22 we read:

Who can Your glory measure? Who, indeed, is man among Your glorious works? As what can he, born of a woman, be reckoned before You? Kneaded from dust, his body is but the bread of worms; he is so much spit, mere nipped-off clay—and for clay his longing. Shall clay contest, the vessel plumb counsel?

Additionally, in the Thanksgiving Hymns there are several references to God “forming” his people’s destinies, using the same Hebrew verb (יצר) found in Isaiah 29:16 and 45:9 (1QH 7.35; 9.10, 17; 11.24–25; 19.6; 20.27–37), which evokes this same potter/clay imagery we find here in Paul. Perhaps the clearest parallel to Paul’s argument among the Thanksgiving Hymns can be seen in 1QH 20.30–34, where the author is clearly making the same point that Paul is, following Isaiah, that the thing molded cannot question the one who made it:

And what shall the dust answer […and what] shall it understand…? And how shall it stand its ground before the one who rebukes it…? For You are righteous and there is not to compare with You. So what then is the one who returns to its dust?

However, the passage which contains an argument most like Paul’s is Sirach 33.7–15, which we treated on in a previous post. In fact, it has been argued cogently by several scholars that Paul is dependent on Sirach 33 at this point in Romans 9. Like Paul, Sirach 33 describes human beings as vessels that God has formed “as he pleases” and according to “whatever he decides” (v. 13). Some are blessed by being brought into the covenant and others are cursed (v. 12), both as God sees fit. In this text, as in Romans 9, the author attributes these choices to the freedom and right of God as creator to do what he desires with his creation. Paul tells us in Romans 9:22–23 that this was God’s intention so that he could make known the full range of his attributes, including his “power,” “wrath,” and “mercy.” This is precisely the conclusion the author of the Thanksgiving Hymns draws following in perhaps the most overtly predestinarian passage in our sources:

…You have prepared them in order to execute great judgements among them before Your creatures that they might be a sign […] eternal, so that all might know Your glory and great power. (1QH 7.32–33)

While it may not be palatable to some, the view of Paul, following other Jews with deterministic theology, was that God is free to create people with fates as he sees fit. Some he creates to endure judgment and others he creates to experience his mercy and receive glory. God’s revelation is the greatest good, therefore, according to Paul, God is justified in doing as he desires with his creation. While it may be natural for humans to be offended, Paul and some of his contemporaries believed that human beings are like clay vessels attempting to scrutinize the potter. The emphasis on absolute determinism cannot be overlooked here without vitiating Paul’s intention in this magisterial passage.

Israel’s Hardening and its Future Reversal

Finally, we will consider briefly what Paul says about Israel’s hardening and future salvation in Romans 11. To begin with, Paul tells us that God has not reneged on his promise to Israel, since “at present there is a remnant according to the election of grace” (ἐν τῷ νῦν καιρῷ λεῖμα κατ᾽ ἐκλογήν χάριτος γέγονεν, v. 5, my translation). That is, God has remained faithful to the promises made to Israel by preserving a number of Israelites, as he had done with the seven thousand in the days of Elijah (v. 4). In vv. 7–10, we read that those Israelites who have not been preserved as part of the remnant were “hardened”—as Pharoah was in ch. 9—and given “a spirit of stupor” as their eyes were “darkened,” which reminds one of the “spirit of darkness” in the Treatise on the Two Spirits. Moreover, Paul goes on to say that “God has consigned all to disobedience” (συνέκεισεν γὰρ ὁ θεὸς τοὺς πάντας εἰς ἀπείθειαν) in order to one day reverse their condition (v. 32). That is, Israel’s current state of unbelief is the result of God’s design, so that the Gentiles would be brought into his covenant dealings in this age—“a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (v. 25). However, since “God’s gifts and calling are irrevocable” (v. 29), at a time determined by God, their current condition will be reversed, so that their disobedience will be transformed into obedience and salvation. For Paul, Israel’s salvation awaits God’s sovereign intervention, which unmistakably implies God’s determination of the salvation of those individual Jews who in this age have been hardened and consigned to disobedience. Paul does not try to justify these truths. Instead, he praises God for his surpassing wisdom and the truth that all things have their telos in him and for his glory:

Oh, the depth of the riches, wisdom, and knowledge of God! His judgments are unfathomable and his ways inscrutable! “For who has known the Lord’s mind, or who has been his advisor?” “Or who has given to him so that he would be repaid?” For from him, through him, and to him are all things! To him be glory for ever! Amen! (vv. 33–36, my translation)


In this series, we have seen that Judaism in the Second Temple period was not monolithic on the subjects of election, predestination, and human volition. As Josephus tells us, some emphasized human freedom in such a way that God’s determinism is reduced. Others, as Sirach 33 and the Dead Sea Scrolls testify, understood that whatever takes place in time is ultimately the result of God’s decree in advance. By examining this language, we saw that this included the election of individuals and their being predetermined to become members of the covenant community, and thereby, to receive ultimate salvation. By comparing the language these sources use to Paul’s language in the passages with the strongest election and predestinarian language, I believe I have shown that Paul evidently favored this Essene outlook on election. The clearest parallels to Paul’s language in 1 Thessalonians 5:9, 2 Thessalonians 2:11–13, Ephesians 1:3–14, and Romans 8:28–11:36 are found in these Essene texts. At some points the correspondence is quite remarkable, making it difficult to avoid the conclusion, based on a nuanced historical reading, that Paul did believe election includes the divine predestination of individuals to membership in the new covenant in Christ and eschatological salvation.