I thought this would be a fun topic for a blog post because Michael and I have had some good interaction on the subject. In this first post, I want to present the three positions that scholars on Paul have taken in answering this question of how Paul thought all Israel would be saved. So that the reader will know where I’m going, I state up front that I hold to the third view. In my next post, I will provide the main lines of justification that convince me that this view is correct, while acknowledging the helpful insights of the other two views for understanding the broader section of Rom 9–11.

Some readers of the Bible may not realize the options that are available to interpreters when approaching Paul’s expectation of the eventual salvation of a group he calls “all Israel” in Rom 11:26. This was sort of a none question in the church where I first began to study the Bible theologically. It was a very popular-level dispensational church where “Israel always means Israel.” However, it doesn’t take too much critical reading to realize that this is not actually the case. There are numerous instances in the NT where authors apply OT passages about the nation of Israel to Jesus and his people, the church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. So, simplistic answers that avoid engagement with Paul’s context and the views of scholars cannot be taken for granted.

Survey of Interpretations

In the history of interpretation, there are basically three positions that interpreters have advanced. I have actually held each of these at one time or another, so I’m happy to say that I have almost certainly been right at one time or another! (unless there is another possibility that I am unaware of) Each of these positions is founded on valid observations from the larger context of Rom 9–11, so each needs to be considered carefully.

(1) The Church View: Some have taken “all Israel” as the church, made up of Jews and Gentiles, who in this age are being gathered into the fold of God’s saved people in Christ. This has been the view of notable interpreters in church history, such as John Calvin (although he seems to hold it in concert with the third view). The most prominent proponent of this position today is N. T. Wright (see his Romans commentary in the New Interpreters Bible, The Climax of the Covenant, and Paul and the Faithfulness of God). The primary basis for this position is that in Rom 9:6–8 Paul explicitly says that one’s ethnicity is not what makes one “Israel.” Rather, one is a descendant of Abraham not on the basis of such fleshly considerations, but according to promise. Elsewhere Paul says that all, both Jews and Gentiles, are Abraham’s children—i.e., true “Israel” (e.g., Rom 4:12, 16; Gal 3:7­–9, 29; Gal 6:16). Moreover, Paul goes on in Rom 9:24–26 to identify both Jews and Gentiles who have been called effectually into Christ as the fulfillment of Hosea’s prophetic expectation of Israel’s restoration after covenant judgment. So, it would be quite consistent if Paul has this same notion of Israel in mind in Rom 11:26. It is also noted that Paul’s Greek in Rom 11:26—and in this way (καὶ οὕτως) all Israel will be saved—isn’t normally used in a temporal sense (“and then”), but instead it suggests that the context is concerned with the way God will keep his salvific promises to Israel. Thus, v. 25 says that Israel has been hardened so that the fullness of the Gentiles will come into the covenant, v. 26 then says this is how Israel will be saved, that is, through the salvation of the new Israel, the church made up of Jew and Gentile in Christ. However, this view is not widely held by interpreters of Paul because, I think, it neglects the flow of Paul’s argument in Rom 11, which we will discuss on the next post. It seems to suggest that since Paul identifies Israel as the church in some sense in Rom 9:6ff, he cannot employ an ethnic definition of Israel later in Rom 11, even though the broader context Rom 9–11 is concerned with the apparent discrepancy between Paul’s Gospel and the small number Jews who have embraced Jesus as Messiah (Rom 9:1–7; 10:1–4; 11:7; etc). As I will try to show in the next post, Paul’s discussion of God’s faithfulness to Israel, which is the undisputed subject taken up in Rom 9–11, is complex and cannot be subjected to the kind of reductionism this view seems to be guilty of (as I too used to be guilty of, and which my friend, Mr. Metts still is!).

(2) The Remnant View: Another view makes much of the more of the immediate context of the earlier part of Rom 11, where Paul says God has kept his promises to ethnic Israel, Abraham’s physical descendants, by saving a remnant in his day, as God had done in the time of Elijah, and of which Paul himself is evidence (vv. 1–6). Thus, just as God in Paul’s age had saved a remnant, he will continue to extend saving grace to a remnant of ethnic Israelites throughout this age, and this is how all Israel is saved. Although this view seems to have strong contextual support, it is rarely advanced by scholars whose expertise is Pauline exegesis. Well-known advocates of this interpretation include Herman Bavinck, Louis Berkhof, O. Palmer Robertson, and Herman Ridderbos. The most recent scholarly treatment that takes this position which I have been able to find is an article by Ben L. Merkle (“Romans 11 and the Future of Ethnic Israel,” JETS 43/3 [2011]: 709-21). Like the previous view, this one is founded on a valid observation in Paul’s answer to the ‘elephant in the room’ problem of Israel with his Gospel. However, this view too, I believe, ultimately proves to be an insufficient explanation of Paul’s argument as it progresses through the chapter.

(3) The Ethnic View: The final view is that the salvation of “all Israel” in Rom 11:26 reflects Paul’s belief in a future large-scale conversation of ethnic Israelites to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Least those skeptical of this view object too quickly, it needs to be noted that this is not a view unique to dispensationalists. In fact, there are prominent theologians and commentators from every theological tradition who have strongly advocated this position. So, this is not an interpretation that commits one to the distinctives of dispensationalism, unless we want to label folks like the great Reformed theologian John Calvin, the editors of the Geneva Bible, or the great Roman Catholic scholar Joseph Fitzmyer as dispensationalists. In addition, this is the view you will find most often advanced in the standard commentaries by Bruce, Cranfield, Dunn, Jewett, Longenecker, Moo, and Schreiner, just to name a few. Also, the work of J. Ross Wagner should be mentioned here, because he has done extensive and influential work on this question and lands on this view. When I first began studying the Bible theologically, this was my default position because I was in a very dispensational church. Eventually, I embraced the first position because of the force of Rom 9:6ff. However, due to some continuing research and study, as well as an exegetical course in seminary on Romans, I began to favor the second position, but only for a short time. Then, when this topic came up during a class I had on the historical Jesus with Darrell Bock, he put some challenging questions to my exegesis that made me go back to the drawing board and think through Paul’s argument more carefully. This brought me back full-circle to this third view, but without some of the theological baggage of my former dispensational assumptions.

In my next post, I’ll explain what specifically has led me to come back to embracing the view that Paul believed in a future mass conversion of ethnic Israelites.



Where is the Gospel? My Thoughts on President Patterson and Supporters and Critics

While it is frustrating to read defenders of President Paige Patterson label critics social justice warriors, they are right to a degree. Outrage on social media concerning a spate of recently revealed indiscretions by him have not really mobilized into a clear Gospel response by his critics. But neither have supporters of President Patterson offered one. Southwestern’s own Statement on Abuse, approved by President Patterson, does not offer Gospel counsel for women who have been abused. Gospel is mentioned only in relationship to the abuser in the statement’s third point. Further, given the severity of some of the recent claims made against President Patterson, the support for him from women who are within his circle of influence, and who are defending his character as bulletproof, may be forgivably thought disingenuous, perhaps, or, at least, exaggerated — though it was heartbreaking to read his granddaughter’s hurt over the harsh criticisms, and should serve as a reminder to all of us, that real people are involved. To President Patterson’s granddaughter, each of us owe Gospel character. And to the church we owe a Gospel resolution.

But supporters were not alone in neglecting the Gospel. Critics have as well, particularly Dr. Ed Stetzer, who, in an impressive(ly un-biblical) record-of-wrongs Christianity Today piece, also neglects the Gospel out of concern for the harm being done to the public image of Southern Baptists. Gospel marriages are not abusive marriages. Pure and simple. Neither is this the same answer as: “We are concerned Southern Baptist women who affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, including its statements on the roles of men and women in the family and in the church.” In fact, nowhere in that particular Letter to SWBTS’ Board of Trustees do the authors mention the Gospel.

But the issue is at heart an attack on women and therefore an attack on God and the Gospel. Woman is a particular treasure of God, reflective of the imago Dei in a way and manner unique from man, since it is the two taken together that reflect God’s image. And not because women are beautiful, though they are the fair sex, but because they uniquely demonstrate grace, mercy, love, and sacrifice in a way that we as husbands are constantly humbled by. They are the gender of many significant aspects of God’s revelation as well, particularly Lady Wisdom. They are seen as the superiors of the Apostles at the end of the Gospels, demonstrating, to all the readers of the Evangelists, their notable faith and compassion for Jesus, while the Twelve, by contrast, are nowhere to be found.

Christian women are not ever the seductress that seminary students are cautioned about. That is another type of woman. And we need to find a manner of relating to Christian women that does not cause them to feel alienated, or as second-class kingdom citizens, but instead as rightful co-heirs of the Gospel in the Church whose charge and commission it is to proclaim Christ just as men. This is not an egalitarian ethic, but the rightful extrapolation of biblical complementarianism.

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.