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Incarnation

Note of the Day – July 1 (1 John 5:6-8, continued)

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1 John 5:6-8 (continued)

In the previous daily note I examined the context of 1 John 5:6 and began exploring the statements made in the verse itself. I noted the parallel with 4:2-3, especially the two expressions “in the flesh” and “in/through water and blood” which I regard as being closely related in thought. If the expression “come in the flesh [e)n sarki/]” refers to Jesus being born and appearing on earth as a true human being, then it stands to reason that “in/through water and blood” in 5:6 follows this same basic meaning. There appears to be little apparent difference here in the use of the prepositions dia/ (“through water and blood”) and e)n (“in water and…blood”), though it is possible that distinct aspects of Jesus birth/life as a human being are implied. We see the same interchangeability of the prepositions in Hebrews 9:12, 25 and Rom 6:4 / Col 2:12 (Brown, p. 574).

Before proceeding, I should point out that many Greek manuscripts and versions have a different reading of the first phrase in verse 6 (“the one coming through water and blood”), variously adding “and (the) Spirit” (or “and the holy Spirit”), to form a triad. That this reading is secondary, and not original, is strongly indicated by the fact that the reference to the Spirit appears at different points in the phrase; the most widespread of these variant readings is: “through water and blood and (the) Spirit” (a A 104 424c 614 1739c, etc). It may simply reflect the influence of what follows in vv. 6b-8. However, if early Christians understood the verse as referring to Jesus’ birth (cf. below), then the addition of “and (the) Spirit” in 6a could have theological significance (i.e. to safeguard the idea of the virginal conception, and the role of the Spirit in Jesus’ conception); on this, cf. Ehrman, pp. 60-1.

What exactly does the author mean when stating that Jesus came “through (or in) water and blood”? There would seem to be three main possibilities recognized by commentators:

  1. It refers to the birth and death of Jesus, respectively—fundamentally, to his (incarnate) human life on earth
  2. Similar to #1, it refers to the baptism and death of Jesus—to his mission on earth
  3. It refers specifically to Jesus’ death, following Jn 19:34
  4. In relation to #2, the reference is primarily sacramental—to baptism (water) and the eucharist (esp. the cup [blood])

In my view, the last of these can be eliminated. There is little indication anywhere else in the letter that either sacrament (Baptism or the Lord’s Supper) is in view. While it is possible that “water” and “blood” could be shorthand keywords for Baptism and the Eucharist, it seems quite out of place here in the letter, where the emphasis is clearly on the person and identity of Jesus. Otherwise, I can find no other definite Johannine references to (Christian) baptism, despite the emphasis on baptism in the early Gospel traditions recorded in Jn 1:19-34 and 3:22-23ff; there are eucharistic allusions in chapter 6 of the Gospel (esp. vv. 51-58), but the Lord’s Supper (i.e. as a ritual or sacrament introduced by Jesus) is completely absent from the Last Supper scene in John.

The choice, then, is between interpretations #1-3 above. There can be little doubt that “blood” refers to the sacrificial death of Jesus. The statement in 1:7 (“the blood of Yeshua…cleanses us from all sin”) reflects the idea of Jesus’ death (the shedding/pouring of blood) as a sacrificial offering, already found in the Gospel tradition of Mark 14:24 par (recording Jesus’ own words); there are, indeed, two aspects to this sacrificial motif:

  • The blood shed and poured on the altar (and upon the people) at the establishment of God’s covenant with Israel (cf. Exod 24:3-8)
  • The blood of the sin offering poured/sprinkled on the altar (Lev 4:1-5:13, etc)

While the Gospel of John does not record the institution of the Lord’s Supper (and the symbolic drinking of Jesus’ “blood”), the language in 6:51-58 is quite similar (esp. vv. 51b, 53). It is only in the Fourth Gospel that the shedding of Jesus’ blood is actually narrated and described (19:34, cf. below).

More difficult is determining exactly what is signified by “water”. There are seven other significant Johannine passages, in the Gospel and Letters, involving water (all from the Gospel):

  • The traditions related to John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus (1:26-34, cf. also 3:22ff)
  • The miracle of turning water into wine (2:6-9ff)
  • The discourse/dialogue with Nicodemus (3:5-8)
  • The “living water” dialogue with the Samaritan woman (4:7-15)
  • The “living water” declaration by Jesus (7:37-38f)
  • The washing of the disciples’ feet during the Last Supper scene (13:5ff)
  • The “blood and water” which came out of Jesus’ side after his death (19:34)

Commentators have sought to associate these passages variously with Baptism (cf. above), but the only instance where such an association can plausibly be made is in 3:3-8, and yet I am not at all convinced that (Christian) baptism is being referred to by Jesus in that passage (except, possibly, in a secondary sense). As far as water being related to the baptism of Jesus, it is noteworthy that the Gospel of John appears to downplay this episode; it is not even narrated directly, but only indirectly, through the testimony of the Baptist. The traditional detail from the Baptism scene which the author emphasizes is two-fold:

  • The presence of the Spirit (1:32-33), and
  • The identification of Jesus as the Son and Chosen (i.e. Anointed) One of God (1:34)

It thus seems unlikely to me that the author of the letter is specifically referring to Jesus’ baptism in 5:6-8. This leaves options #1 and 3 above. In analyzing each of these, it is important to consider the significance of water in the Gospel. I find three distinct themes or aspects:

  • A figure and symbol of the Spirit
  • Symbolic of the new/eternal Life which Jesus gives
  • Association with the sacrificial death of Jesus

The evidence cited above appears to be divided rather equally between these, with the first two being particularly emphasized. I would divide the passages into two primary themes:

  1. Life through the Spirit—1:26 (cf. 32-33); 3:3-8 (birth motif); 4:7-15ff; 7:37-39
  2. Association with Jesus’ death (i.e. blood)—2:6-9ff (cp. 6:51-58); 13:5ff; 19:34

Now, in Johannine thought, Life and the Spirit are closely associated with the idea of birth—especially the motif of believers coming to be born (i.e. a new, spiritual birth). This is expressed most clearly in John 3:3-8, where water and the Spirit are tied together in a manner similar to water and blood in 1 Jn 5:6-8; note the parallelism of logic:

  • born out of water and the Spirit (Jn 3:5)—i.e. not out of water alone, but also of the Spirit (cp. the same contrast in 1:26)
  • come in/through water and blood—not only water, but also blood (1 Jn 5:6)

It is important to understand the contrast Jesus establishes in Jn 3:5ff; as verse 6 makes clear, there is a parallel between water and flesh, indicating that the idea of human birth is in view:

  • water = “flesh”—ordinary, physical human birth and life
  • water and Spirit—the new spiritual life (“from above”) given to a human being through trust in Jesus

Based on this thematic logic, I believe that the birth (and human life) of Jesus is primarily in view in 1 John 5:6:

  • coming through/in water = Jesus’ birth and (incarnate) life
  • coming through/in blood = Jesus’ sacrificial death

These reflect the beginning and end points of Jesus’ earthly life and mission, and, significantly, “water and blood” are featured in the two episodes which open and close Jesus’ ministry on earth:

  • The miracle at Cana (2:1-11)—water and wine (= “blood”)
  • The death of Jesus (19:34)—blood and water

Both elements (water and blood) reflect Jesus’ human life which he sacrificed (poured out) for us. The issue for the author of 1 John is that there were would-be believers (“antichrists”, who have separated from the Johannine congregations) who did not correctly believe (and confess) that Jesus “came in the flesh”—that he was born and lived on earth as a true human being (i.e., an early “docetic” view of Christ). Now, if Jesus did not exist as a true flesh-and-blood human being, then neither did he shed real (human) blood on behalf of humankind. For later Christian authors and theologians in the second and third centuries, this was the most serious consequence of a docetic Christology—if Jesus was not a real human being like us, then he could not have truly suffered and died on our behalf, and this effectively nullifies the salvific meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death. In combating the docetic views of “Gnostics” and others at the time, proto-orthodox theologians such as Ignatius, Irenaeus and Tertullian were absolutely clear on this point. The same point, it would seem, was recognized already by the author of First John. Consider the logic:

  • Jesus came “in the flesh“—i.e. incarnation, existence as a real human being
    • = came “in/through water“—a real earthly life on earth, including the period of his ministry (the beginning of which is marked by water-motifs in 1:26-34; 2:1-11)
    • not only a real earthly life (in/through water), but Jesus also
      • came “in/through blood“—a real (human) death and shedding of blood, which has saving power for humankind

Johannine theology is unique in the way that these essential Christological motifs are tied so closely to the presence of the Spirit. The association between the Spirit and water is clear enough from the passages we have studied (and are cited above); however, the precise relationship between the Spirit and blood is not as readily apparent. And yet, the statements in vv. 6b-8 bring all three elements, or aspects, together into a triad. This is the subject which we will be discussing in the next daily note.

References above marked “Brown” are to R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 30 (1982). Those marked “Ehrman” are to B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford: 1993).

Note of the Day – March 28 (Jn 1:51; 3:13-14; 8:38; 12:23, etc)

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Having discussed the various Son of Man sayings and references in the Synoptic Gospels in the previous notes, today I will survey the sayings in the Gospel of John. None of the Synoptic sayings occur, as such, in John; as in most cases, the Fourth Gospel draws upon a separate line of tradition. However, there are some interesting parallels. As in the Synoptics, the Son of Man sayings have undergone relatively little development in John. Any adaptation that has taken place has primarily been to emphasize particular words or concepts which are common to the Gospel’s unique mode of expression. There are twelve distinct Son of Man sayings, the first of which is perhaps the most difficult.

John 1:51

“Amen, amen, I say to you (that) you will see [o&yesqe] the heavens opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up [a)nabai/nonta$] and stepping down [katabai/nonta$] upon the Son of Man”

I have discussed this enigmatic verse in some detail in an earlier note, and will deal with it again this Saturday (as part of the running “Saturday Series”). Here I summarize the results of the study previously published.

I am very much inclined to the view that the saying of John 1:51, in its particular position within the structure of the narrative, is intended primarily as a symbolic picture that effectively encompasses the entire Gospel—a framing device representing beginning and end, much like the “Alpha and Omega” (A and W) of Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13 (another Johannine work, with definite parallels in thought and language to the Gospel). Here are some points I would cite in favor of this interpretation:

  • The clear parallels with the Baptism (cf. the earlier note), which marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry (descent/incarnation); the location of Jn 1:51 also strongly suggests an allusion to the Baptism.
  • Similar parallels with the Resurrection (ascension), which effectively marks the end of Jesus’ earthly existence.
  • Similarities to descriptions of the Son of Man coming in glory at the end-time (esp. in the Synoptic tradition); however, the Gospel of John understands the Son to have had this position and glory prior to his incarnation/birth as a human being (i.e. divine pre-existence). This means, in the Johannine context, that such images cannot refer only to Jesus’ exaltation and future return, but to a reality that encompasses and transcends the entire process of descent/ascent (cf. above).
  • The saying in Jn 1:51 is part of a parallel, between the beginning and end of the Gospel, expressed by the encounter of two disciples (Nathanael and Thomas) with Jesus, and involving parallel confessions:
    Jn 1:49: “You are the Son of God | you are the King of Israel!”
    Jn 20:28: “My Lord | my God!”
    Each of the confessions also includes a response by Jesus (Jn 1:50-51; 20:29) related to disciples/believers seeing him.
  • In the Gospel of John, “seeing” often signifies a level of spiritual perception (or of faith/trust) that is different from visual observation (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:3; 6:36, 46; 9:37-41; 11:9, 40; 12:45; 14:7, 9, 17, 19; 17:24; 20:29, etc). It is likely that the declaration “you will see” (o&yesqe) does not refer to a concrete, visible event, but rather to the recognition and realization of Jesus’ true identity—the Son who reveals and leads the way to the Father. Note the parallel with 20:29:
    • “because I said to you that I saw [ei@don] you… you trust?
      you will see [o&yesqe] the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God… upon the Son of Man” (1:51)
    • “because you have seen [e(w/raka$] me you trust?
      Happy/blessed are the ones not seeing [i)do/nte$] and (yet) trusting!” (20:29)

The comprehensive nature of the Son of Man reference in 1:51 is paralleled by two key sayings toward the end of the ministry period (in John, the so-called “Book of Signs” chaps 2-12), which also serve to introduce the great Last Discourse (chs. 13-17) and Passion Narrative. Both of these sayings use the verb doca/zw (doxázœ), “give (or regard with) esteem, honor”, etc, i.e. “glorify”, related to the noun do/ca (dóxa, usually translated “glory”).

John 12:23; 13:31

  • John 12:23: “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be honored/glorified [docasqh=]”—the primary context in this passage is to Jesus’ upcoming death (cf. below).
  • John 13:31: “Now the Son of Man is honored/glorified [e)doca/sqh], and the Father is honored/glorified in him”—this saying effectively begins the great Discourses of chapters 13-17, and is tied throughout to the idea that Son is about to go away: a dual-layered reference to his death and his return to the Father.

For additional occurrences of the verb doca/zw in reference to Jesus (or the Son) being glorified, cf. John 7:39; 8:54; 11:4; 12:16; 14:13; 15:8; 16:14; 17:1, 4-5, 10. This “glory” covers both aspects of Jesus’ Passion—his death and his resurrection. In classic Christian theology this duality is often referred to as the two “states” of Christ—his humiliation and exaltation. However, in Johannine terminology, it is better understood as a descent to earth (i.e. the incarnation) leading all the way to death, followed by an ascent to heaven (including the resurrection), back to the Father.

This two-fold process of Jesus’ glorification is expressed in two distinct groups of Son of Man sayings. The first group involves the verb u(yo/w (hypsóœ, “make/place high”, i.e. “raise, lift up”); the second uses the related pair of verbs a)nabai/nw and katabai/nw (“step up” and “step down”, i.e. “ascend”, “descend”).

John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34: “lift (up) high”

  • John 3:14: “so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted high [u(ywqh=nai]”—the comparison is with the ‘fiery’ copper/bronze serpent lifted by Moses (on a pole) which brought healing (from the burning snakebite) to all who looked at it (Num 21:9); the reference is primarily to Jesus’ death (on the stake/cross), but almost certainly has his resurrection and exaltation in mind as well (cf. below). This is described in terms of salvation: “…so that every one trusting in him might have (the) Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]”.
  • John 8:28: “when you (have) lifted high [u(yw/shte] the Son of Man…”—the formulation here (“when you…”) indicates more precisely Jesus being put to death (on the stake/cross), but again the subsequent exaltation is also in view. Throughout the discourse(s) of chapters 7-8, Jesus has been expressing, in various ways, his relationship to (and identification with) God the Father; here specifically Jesus states that when they have lifted up the Son of Man “…then you will know that I am, and I do nothing from myself, but just as the Father taught me, (so) I speak these things”. In verse 26, this is also described in terms of judgment, which is associated with the eschatological Son of Man figure of many of Jesus’ sayings in the Synoptics.
  • John 12:32: “and if I am lifted high [u(ywqw=] I will drag all (people/things) toward me”—this is related to the previous sayings (especially 3:14), as well as to the Son of Man saying in 12:23 (cf. above). The context is specifically that of Jesus’ impending death (and resurrection), again relating to the promise of salvation and eternal life (vv. 24-25, 27-28, 33, 36).
  • John 12:34: “you say that it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted high…”—this is part of a question to Jesus from the crowd, referring (in context) to verse 32, but more properly it cites the saying in 3:14 (above). There is a clear connection with the “Anointed (One)”, and expresses some confusion on the part of the people in the crowd as to just what Jesus means by the expression Son of Man—”…who is this ‘Son of Man’?”

These are the only instances of the verb in John; for similar usage elsewhere, cf. Acts 2:33; 5:31.

John 3:13; 6:62 (with 6:27, 53): “descend / ascend”

  • John 1:51: “You will see the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down upon the Son of Man”—on this saying, cf. above.
  • John 3:13: “no one has stepped up into heaven if not the one stepping down out of heaven, the Son of Man”—this saying is obviously related to that of verse 14 (cf. above); it identifies/contrasts a person being raised/exalted to heavenly status with one who has (first) come down out of heaven. The implication is that Jesus is not simply a human being who has been (or will be) raised to a heavenly/divine position, but was previously in heaven (with God) before coming to earth. This, of course, is stated clearly in the Prologue of John (1:1ff) and indicated throughout the Gospel by Jesus; in precise theological terms, it refers to the (divine) pre-existence of Jesus. This is made even more definite in the manuscripts which read “…the Son of Man, the (one) being in Heaven”.
  • John 6:62: “then (what) if you should behold the Son of Man stepping up [a)nabai/nonta] (to) where he was (at) the first?”
    This saying is part of the great Bread of Life discourse in John 6:27-71, which I have discussed in considerable detail in prior articles. Especially noteworthy are the references to the bread that has come down (lit “stepped down”) from Heaven (vv. 33, 38, 41-42, 50-51, 58), which in context clearly symbolizes Jesus (the Son of Man) who has stepped down from Heaven (i.e. the incarnation), and who will soon step back up into Heaven (back to the Father) from whence he came (v. 62). As in 3:13 (above), this indicates a pre-existent, heavenly status in relationship to God, and must be understood in light of the many references throughout the Gospel—especially in the discourses of chapters 13-17—where Jesus speaks of the Son coming from and going (back) to the Father. There is, of course, eucharistic symbolism in the bread—broken down into the dual image of eating his body and drinking his blood. This is expressed in the Son of Man sayings in vv. 27, 53, associated specifically with Jesus’ sacrificial death:

    • John 6:27: “work…for the food th(at) remains in the Life of Ages [i.e. eternal life], which the Son of Man will give to you”
    • John 6:53: “if you do not consume the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not hold Life in yourself”

All of these sayings which speak of Jesus’ glorification through the dualistic imagery of death and resurrection, descent and ascent, along with the two-fold meaning of being “lifted (up) high”, as they run through the Gospel narrative, have a general parallel with the Passion predictions by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (cf. the earlier note). In those declarations, reference to the suffering and death of the Son of Man is followed by the announcement of his resurrection. In a similar way, the death of Jesus, indicated by his “trial” before the Sanhedrin, prefigures his exaltation (cf. Mk 14:62 par). The Synoptic Gospels use these three Passion predictions (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 par) as a framing device for the narrative. However, in the Gospel of John, the Son of Man sayings serve rather a different purpose, which is primarily theological and Christological. However, there are two Son of Many sayings in John which draw more clearly upon the traditional imagery found in the Synoptics.

John 5:27; 9:35

  • John 5:26-27: “For (even) as the Father holds life in himself, so also he gave the Son to hold life in himself; and he [i.e. the Father] gave him authority [e)cousi/a] to make judgment, (in) that [i.e. because] he is the Son of Man”
  • John 9:35: “Do you trust in the Son of Man?” (other manuscripts read “…in the Son of God“)

The first saying (5:27) identifies the Son of Man with the end-time Judgment, as we see in many of the Synoptic sayings (cf. the previous two notes). Yet consider the way Jesus expounds this traditional association in the Johannine discourse. The statement in v. 27 essentially identifies Jesus with the heavenly “Son of Man” figure-type (Dan 7:13, etc), much as we find in the Synoptics:

  • V. 27—”He [i.e. God the Father] gave him [i.e. Jesus] authority to make judgment, because he [i.e. Jesus] is the Son of Man

At the same time, the statement in v. 26 brings out the distinctly Johannine idea of Jesus as the divine/eternal Son (of God), in his unique relation to (God) the Father:

  • V. 26—”Just as the Father holds Life in himself, so also he gave (it) to the Son to hold Life in himself”

The saying in 9:35 is rather different; Jesus addresses the man whose sight was restored: “Do you trust in the Son of Man?”. As noted above, some manuscripts read “Son of God” instead of “Son of Man”, perhaps reflecting a point in time when copyists no longer understood the expression “Son of Man” and wished to stress the deity of Christ as the point of belief. However, as we have seen, Jesus often used the expression “Son of Man” as a self-reference, as if to say, in this instance, “Do you trust in me?” Yet, even people at the time seem to have had difficulty understanding Jesus’ use of the expression “Son of Man”, if we accept the authenticity of the crowd’s response in 12:34, and the question of the healed man here in v. 36: “Who is he, (my) lord, that I may trust in him?” Jesus’ immediate answer (v. 37) perfectly encapsulates the Johannine theology which associates belief (and salvation) with seeing Jesus—that is, coming to recognize just who Jesus is, his true identity.

It is worth noting that each of these last two sayings are set in the context of traditional healing miracle episodes, and thus are perhaps closer to the Son of Man sayings which occur in the Synoptics (from the standpoint of the Gospel narrative) during the period of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. With these sayings we bring this portion of the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”, dealing with the Galilean Period, to a close. It may serve as yet another reminder of the many rich and powerful ways that the traditions were developed—a fact, and a theme, that we will continue to explore as we enter into the next major portion of this series: the Passion Narrative.

Note of the Day – January 8

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Today’s note, on the Christmas theme of the “Birth of the Son of God” will look at the ‘birth’ of the Son in terms of divine revelation. I begin with the introduction (exordium) of the Letter to the Hebrews.

Hebrews 1:1-4

Verses 1-2 deal specifically with the idea of God’s revelation, beginning with “God spoke”, and indicating a contrast:

V. 1: God (has) been speaking [lalh/sa$]

  • (in) many parts and many ways
  • (in) old (times) [pa/lai]
  • to the Fathers [toi=$ patra/sin]
  • in the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] [e)n toi=$ profh/tai$]

V. 2: (God) spoke [e)la/lhsen]

  • in one new way (implied)
  • in these last days [e)p’ e)sxa/tou tw=n h(merw=n tou/twn]
  • to us [h(mi=n]
  • in (the) Son [e)n ui(w=|]

The new revelation (to us) is marked primarily by two elements or characteristics: (1) it is eschatological, set in the “last days”, (2) it takes place in the person of the Son. The Greek e)n ui(w=| does not have the definite article, so it is possible to translate “in a Son”, but it is clear from the context that God’s Son—the Son—is meant. Verse 2b presents the nature of this Son, with a pair of relative clauses:

  • whom [o^n] He has set (as the) one receiving the lot [i.e. heir] of all (thing)s
  • through whom [di’ ou!] He made the Ages

The first of these draws on the idea of Christ being exalted to heaven following the resurrection, in common with the earliest Christian tradition; the second expresses Christ’s role in creation, implying some sort of divine pre-existence. These two Christological approaches were shared by several strands of early tradition (e.g. Paul, the Gospel of John), and were not deemed to be contradictory in any way. The author of Hebrews will present the two views side-by-side at a number of points in the letter (cf. below).

In verses 3-4, the Son is described in greater detail; four elements are stressed in v. 3:

  • Reflection/manifestation of God’s glory and nature (3a)
  • Role in creating/sustaining the universe—”by the utterance of his power” (3b)
  • Salvific work—priestly cleansing of sin (by way of sacrifice, i.e. his death) (3c)
  • Exaltation to the right hand of God (3d)

The outer elements (first and last) indicate the Son’s divine/heavenly status, the inner elements (second and third) parallel creation and incarnation (Christ’s work in both). This is the sort of chiastic conceptual framework—

  • pre-existence
    —incarnation
  • exaltation

which the author of Hebrews makes use of elsewhere (2:8-13, cf. also the famous Christ-hymn of Phil 2:6-11). In verse 4, Christ’s divine/heavenly status is emphasized—that it is greater than that of other heavenly beings (“angels”). This superiority is understood in terms of the name that he has inherited (cf. Phil 2:9ff), which, though not specified here, is best identified with ku/rio$ (“Lord”), the conventional rendering of the divine name YHWH.

There can be little doubt that Sonship (i.e. Son of God) here is defined in the context of divine pre-existence—a blending of the Davidic “Messiah” with the concept of a heavenly Redeemer-figure which is also known from Jewish tradition at roughly the same time as the (later) New Testament, such in the Similitudes of Enoch and 4 Ezra (2/4 Esdras). In Hebrews, this is indicated by the citations of Psalm 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14—both passages given Messianic interpretation—in verse 5. Recall that in Acts 13:32-33ff, Psalm 2:7 is cited in the context of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation—i.e., the Son is “born” following the resurrection. Verse 6, however, shows that the author of Hebrews has a view of Christ that is comparable to the prologue of the Gospel of John (esp. Jn 1:1ff, 9, 14, etc; cf. also Rom 1:3; Gal 4:4; Phil 2:6ff):

  • Christ is already God’s “firstborn” (prwto/tokon)
  • God leads him into the inhabited-world (oi)koume/nh, possibly the heavenly realm of angels in addition to the world of human beings)—ei)$ th\n oi)koume/nhn as parallel to the Johannine ei)$ to\n ko/smon (“into the world”)

As indicated above, the author presents two different Christological portraits, and continues this in vv. 8-12 (citing Scripture):

  • vv. 8-9—in more traditional language of exaltation (citing Psalm 45:6-7)
  • vv. 10-12—of Jesus’ divine status and existence encompassing the beginning and end of creation (citing Psalm 102:25-27, cf. also verse 2b above)

As I have already pointed out, there are a number of similarities with the basic Christology of the author and that presented in the Gospel of John; for more on Jesus as “the Son” in relation to God the Father, see the previous Christmas season note. Elsewhere in the New Testament writings, Jesus as God’s Son is an important theological identification, especially in: (1) Paul’s letters, (2) the first letter of John (par. with the Gospel of John), and (3) here in Hebrews.

  1. Paul’s letters—in the context of
    a) God’s work through Christ, esp. his sacrificial and atoning death: Romans 1:3-4; 5:10; 8:3, 32; Gal 1:16; 2:20; 4:4; 1 Thess 1:10; Col 1:13.
    b) specific association with the Gospel message: Rom 1:9; Gal 1:6
    c) the unity and bond of believers (with Christ, the Spirit): Rom 8:29; 1 Cor 1:9; 2 Cor 1:19; Gal 4:6; Col 1:13, and also Eph 4:13
    Note also 1 Cor 15:28
  2. The letters of John—similarly, along with the Gospel of John:
    a) the union of believers with God and Christ: 1 Jn 1:3; 2:23-24; 3:23; 4:9b, 15; 15:12-13
    b) Christ’s redemptive work: 1 Jn 1:7; 3:8; 4:9-10, 14; 5:11
    c) the identity of Christ: 1 Jn 2:22-23; 4:15a; 5:5, 9-10, 20
  3. Hebrews—in addition to 1:2, 8 we have (context indicated):
    Heb 3:6—role as heir/master of the household, emphasizing his faithfulness
    Heb 4:14; 5:5, 8; 7;3, 28—role as (exalted) High Priest, indicating his sacrificial work; 5:5 cites Ps 2:7 [as in 1:5]; 7:3 has spec. title “Son of God”
    Heb 5:8—his suffering (incarnation and death) and obedience (to the Father)
    Heb 6:6—his death on the cross (spec. title “Son of God” is used)
    Heb 10:29—his holy/sacrificial work, i.e. his death (“blood of the covenant”)
  4. Other passages:
    2 Peter 1:7 (referring to the Transfiguration scene [Mark 9:7 par])
    Revelation 2:18—the message (to Thyatira): “the Son of God relates these (thing)s…”

This last reference to the Son of God speaking brings us back to the first verses of Hebrews—”God spoke…in (the) Son”. How did God speak? We do not find much mention in Hebrews of the things Jesus actually said; the emphasis is rather on: (1) who he is, and (2) what he has done—in classic theological terms, this means the person and work of Christ. God speaks first through the person of Christ, i.e. his (pre-existent) divine status and/or nature as Son, and then through his work—in creation, his sacrificial (and atoning) death, his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the Father in heaven. Here New Testament Christology reaches perhaps its fullest and most rounded expression—of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

Note of the Day – December 27

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In the previous note, I discussed aspects of the Prologue to the Gospel of John (Jn 1:1-18) which relate to the idea of the birth of incarnation of Christ as the Son of God, as well as some interesting parallels to the language and terminology found in the annunciation to Mary (Lk 1:28-35). The two most relevant of these—the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”) and the title ui(o\$ qeou= (“Son of God”)—come together in John 1:13.

John 1:13

In order to view this verse properly in context, we must begin with the first portion in verse 12:

“But as (many) as received him, to them he gave the exousia [i.e. ability/authority] to come to be [gene/sqai] (the) offspring of God [te/kna qeou=, i.e. sons/children of God]—to the ones trusting in his name…”

The context is clear enough—Christ himself gives the ability to become “children of God” to believers (the ones who trust/believe in him). The the verb gi/nomai (cognate with genna/w) is used, more or less, in the sense of coming to be born, as is clear from the parallel in v. 13. The expression te/kna qeou= (“offspring/children of God”) is generally synonymous with ui(oi\ qeou= (“sons of God”), as demonstrated by a comparison of Rom 8:16-17, 21 with Rom 8:14, 19; Gal 3:26, etc. The Gospel and letters of John (Jn 11:52; 1 Jn 3:1, 10; 5:2) prefer te/kna qeou=; based on the slight evidence available, Luke (and the Synoptics) tends to use ui(oi\ qeou= (cf. Lk 20:36; and 6:35, where it is u(yi/stou instead of qeou=, as in Lk 1:32).

The sentence continues in verse 13:

“…who, not out of blood [lit. bloods] and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh and not out of (the) will of man, but (rather) out of God [e)k qeou=], have come to be (born) [e)gennh/qhsan]”

Note, again, a general parallel with Lk 1:28-35, especially if v. 35b is expanded with the additional (variant) e)k sou (“out of you”):

  • Jn 1:14—e)gennh/qhsan “(the ones who) have come to be born”
    Lk 1:35—to\ gennw/menon “the (one) coming to be born”
  • Jn 1:14—e)k qeou= “out of God”
    Lk 1:35—[e)k sou=] “[out of you]” (v.l.)

In Lk 1:35, Jesus is born (as a human being) out of Mary’s body (i.e. her “flesh”); in Jn 1:14, believers are born (spiritually) out of God. The spiritual birth of believers is referred to on several occasions in the Gospel of John, most notably in the famous passage Jn 3:3-8, where the verb genna/w appears 8 times; by contrast, as indicated in the previous note, it is used of Jesus’ incarnate (human) birth only in Jn 18:37. The Gospel writer’s use of genna/w in 3:3-8 will be discussed specifically in an upcoming note.

The author refers to believers as te/kna qeou= (“offspring/children of God”) rather than ui(oi\ qeou= (“sons of God”), as indicated above; for him (and the tradition/community in which he writes), there is only one true “Son” (ui(o/$) of God, and this is almost certainly the proper way to understand the term monogenh/$ in the  context of Jn 1:14, 18—Christ is the only [monogenh/$] (Son) of God the Father. Within the Gospel, Jesus frequently identifies himself as “(the) Son”, usually in terms of his relationship to, and identity with, God the Father. Believers come to be (born as) “children of God” through Christ—that is, we are dependent on him for our relationship to the Father. Paul says much the same thing (though in different terms) in Rom 8:3ff, 14-15, 22-29; Gal 3:26; 4:4-7.

Despite the many New Testament references to believers receiving a divine status and/or nature as sons/children of God, Christians throughout the centuries have, at times, been uncomfortable with this idea. It has been much more prevalent in Eastern (Orthodox) tradition, under the theological/doctrinal term qew/si$ (theosis), “deification, divinization”—the ultimate destiny of believers to become “like God”. Such an idea, understood in a particular “gnostic” sense, was opposed by (proto-)orthodox theologians such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. It seems also to have been connected to a specific view of Jesus’ birth (and his full/true humanity) which involved an interpretation of John 1:13:

As is clear from the majority text, the relative pronoun and form of genna/w which bookend verse 13 are in the plural: “(the ones) who…have come to be born [oi^e)gennh/qhsan]”, referring back to “as many as [o%soi]…the ones trusting [toi=$ pisteu/sousin]”. However, Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ §19) claims that the correct text has the singular: “(the one) who…has come to be born [i.e. o^$e)gennh/qh]”. He accuses the Valentinian “gnostics” of tampering with the text, changing the singular to the plural—instead of a reference to the birth/incarnation of Jesus, they make it refer to their own gnostic/spiritual ‘birth’. Tertullian cites the variant form again in §24, as does Irenaeus in Against Heresies III.16.2, 19.2; somewhat earlier, it is also found in the so-called Epistle of the Apostles (§3), as well as one manuscript (Latin MS b). A few scholars have argued that the minority reading (with the singular) is original, however the overwhelming textual evidence supports the reading with the plural. The error (if such it is) may have crept in through a careless reading of the text, thinking that the relative pronoun should refer back to the immediately prior words “his name”, especially since Christ is the implicit subject of the verb e&dwken (“he gave”), etc in verse 12. A scribe may thus have mistakenly “corrected” the text; the fact that the reading with the singular was advantageous in the context of early Christological debates with “gnostics”, could explain its temporary, limited popularity in the second century. For more on the text-critical issue in this verse, see the UBS/Metzger Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition), pp. 168-9, and B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford:1993), p. 59.

Note of the Day – December 26

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For the introduction to this series of Christmas season notes (on the theme of “The birth of the Son of God“) see the previous discussion on Luke 1:28-35—the Angelic message to Mary, which climaxes with the declaration:

to\ gennw/menon a%gion klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou=
“…the (child) coming to be (born) will be called Holy, (the) Son of God”

When we turn from the Infancy narratives (of Luke and Matthew) to the prologue of the Gospel of John (Jn 1:1-18), we enter into a very different world of terms, concepts and images; and yet, as we shall see, there are number of interesting parallels with words and phrases found in Lk 1:28-35 etc.

John 1:1-18

Let us begin by looking at the verb genna/w, which is used as a verbal (neuter) substantive in Lk 1:35b—to\ gennw/menon “the (one) [i.e. the child] coming to be (born)”. In the first chapter of John, this verb appears only once (in v. 13, cf. below), not in reference to Jesus’ birth, but rather to the (spiritual) birth of believers. The verbs genna/w and the cognate gi/nomai both have the basic meaning “become, come to be”; genna/w more specifically has the denotation “come to be born“, but gi/nomai can be used in this sense as well. Because of the similarities in both form and meaning, these verbs are occasionally confused in the textual tradition, sometimes with subtle (but potentially significant) theological import (cf. ge/nesi$ vs. ge/nnhsi$ in Matt 1:18, and geno/menon vs. gennw/menon in Gal 4:4 [also Rom 1:3]). In the Johannine prologue, the Gospel writer distinguishes carefully between use of the existential verb ei)mi (“be”) and gi/nomai (“come to be”), with the former used of God (and the divine Logos), and the latter used of created beings—note the threefold use of ei)mi (“the Logos was [h@n]”) in v. 1 and of gi/nomai (“came to be / has come to be” [e)ge/neto / ge/gonen]) in v. 3. Only in verse 14, is gi/nomai used of Christ (that is, of the pre-existent Word/Logos [lo/go$]):

“and the Logos came to be flesh [kai\ o( lo/go$ sa/rc e)ge/neto] and dwelt [lit. put down tent] among us…”

Based on the context of vv. 1-13, this clearly is a reference to what we would call the incarnation of the pre-existent Word of God, identified here of course with the person of Christ, and almost certainly influenced by language and imagery related to divine Wisdom (personified) in Old Testament/Jewish tradition. Twice more in this chapter, gi/nomai is used of Jesus, in the parallel declaration by the Baptist (vv. 15, 30):

“the one coming [e)rxo/meno$] behind me has come to be [ge/gonen] in front of me, (in) that [i.e. because] he was [h@n] first of me [i.e. first for me, ‘my first’]”

All three of these verbs—ei)mi, gi/nomai, e&rxomai—have definite theological/christological connotation and and significance in the Gospel. Though it is extremely difficult to offer a precise interpretation of this complex saying, I would suggest:

  1. e&rxomai (“coming”)—refers to Jesus’ coming into the world, specifically his public appearance/emergence in Israelite/Jewish society (cf. verse 11); chronologically, and in terms of the Gospel narrative, Jesus appears on the scene after John.
  2. gi/nomai (“come to be”)—following on verse 14, I take this a kind of veiled reference to the incarnation, that is to say of the man Jesus’ status as the incarnate Logos/Word of God; in this sense, Jesus is in front of John (as well as of all other human beings).
  3. ei)mi (“was”)—based on the usage in vv. 1ff, this more properly (and precisely) indicates Jesus’ deity and identity with God the Father; clearly, Jesus is to be considered “the first” (prw=to$).

Only once in the Gospel is the verb genna/w applied to Jesus—in Jesus’ own declaration to Pilate in Jn 18:37:

“unto this have I come to be (born) [gege/nnhmai] and unto this have I come [e)lh/luqa] into the world….”

This is the only specific reference to Jesus’ birth in John, but the pairing of genna/w and e&rxomai, along with the image of Jesus coming into the world, offers a reasonably close parallel to the use of gi/nomai and e&rxomai in Jn 1:11f, 14 (also vv. 15, 30). Jn 1:17-18 also provides an interesting parallel to v. 14 in its use of:

  • gi/nomai  (v. 17)—”the favor [xa/ri$] and the truth (of God) came to be [e)ge/neto] through Jesus Christ”, i.e. Jesus is the (incarnate) manifestation/representation of divine truth and favor (grace).
  • monogenh/$ (v. 18)—this word is almost impossible to render into English; literally, it means something like “(the) only (one who has) come to be”, and often carries the general sense of “(one and) only” or “one of a kind, unique”—the traditional rendering “only-begotten/born” probably reads too much into the term, though monogenh/$ can be used of an “only child”.

Both words appear in verse 14, framing the declaration:

“the Logos came to be [e)ge/neto] flesh… as (of) an only (son) [monogenh/$] alongside (the) Father”

It is not possible here to enter into the thorny text-critical debate over the reading monogenh\$ ui(o/$ (“only Son“) vs. monogenh\$ qeo/$ (“only God“), as the textual evidence is evenly divided and strong arguments can be mustered on both sides. I have discussed the issue in an earlier note, and will do so again as part of this Christmas series. If ui(o/$ (“Son”) is correct, then it spells out what is already implied in v. 14, and may provide another implicit reference to the birth of Jesus as the “Son of God”.

Another parallel between v. 17 and v. 14 is the combination of “(the) favor and truth (of God)”. The word xa/ri$ is often translated “grace”, though I consistently render it as “favor”, especially in the context of the favor/grace of God. There is an interesting synchronicity or resemblance in detail, however faint, between Jn 1:14, 17 and Lk 1:28ff, centered on the word xa/ri$ (“favor”)—in conceiving and giving birth to Jesus as son, Mary has found favor with [lit. “alongside”, para/] God (Lk 1:30), while Jesus himself is the manifestion of God’s favor, as of a Son “alongside” [para/] God. The expressions plh/rh$ xa/rito$ (Jn 1:14) and kexaritwme/nh (Lk 1:28) have (at times) both been translated “full of grace”, though, as indicated above, I would render the first expression as “full of (the) favor (of God)”, while the second properly means “favored (one)”, i.e. favored by God.

Returning to Lk 1:35, two other terms have parallels in the Johannine prologue—namely, the verb genna/w and the title “Son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=)—in verse 13. These will be examined in the next daily note.

Note of the Day – December 10

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Galatians 4:4

This series of Advent season notes examines Galatians 4:4. The particular word or phrase discussed each day will be underlined and indicated in bold in the verse:

o%te de\ h@lqen to\ plh/rwma tou= xro/nou e)cape/steilen o( qeo\$ to\n ui(o\n au)tou= geno/menon e)k gunaiko/$ geno/menon u(po\ no/mon
“but when the fullness of time came, God set forth out from (him) his Son, coming to be out of a woman, coming to be under the Law…”

e)k gunaiko/$ (“out of a woman”)

The first participle geno/menon (“coming to be”) is followed by the prepositional expression e)k gunaiko/$ (“out of a woman”). As indicated in the previous note, the verb gi/nomai with the preposition e)k (“come to be out of”) is often used for natural production or birth. The addition of gunh/ (“woman”) specifies what would otherwise be obvious, while also giving an elevated style and rhythm to the sentence. Several aspects of this phrase need to be examined:

1. The reality of Jesus’ birth. Here e)k gunaiko/$ makes his coming to be [geno/menon] concrete, part of the natural process of human birth. Jesus was truly and actually born: (a) from a woman generally, i.e. through natural childbirth, and (b) from a particular woman, i.e. Maryam (Mary). Note also the use of gi/nomai + e)k in Rom 1:3, which likewise affirms Jesus’ real human birth, but in a different respect (“out of the seed of David”). In the second and third centuries, in order to combat “docetic” views of Jesus, the reality of his human birth was occasionally given additional emphasis by commentators and scribes, which is reflected in a number of variant readings in the manuscripts.

2. His Humanity. The phrase “born of a woman” is a circumlocution for human beings in general, i.e. the human condition. It is a Hebrew idiom, used occasionally in Old Testament poetry (Job 14:1; 15:4; 25:4), cf. also 1QS 11:20ff and 1 Cor 11:12. Paul, along with virtually all early Christians, accepted—indeed, would have taken for granted—that Jesus was a real human being. Only at the end of the New Testament period, do we see any indication of believers questioning the reality of Christ’s humanity (cf. 1 John 4:2). Various forms of “docetic” Christology—i.e., that Jesus only seemed or appeared to be a normal human being—had developed by the mid-2nd century, and continued to exert influence over Christian thought for some time.

3. His Suffering. “Born of a woman” signifies the process of childbirth, including its pain, which is representative of human suffering and misfortune as a whole (Gen 3:16ff). This is implied in the use of the expression in Job (above), and see also Isa 21:3; 26:17; Jer 4:31; 13:21; 22:23; 49:22; Hos 13:13; Mark 13:8 par; John 16:21; Rom 8:22; 1 Thess 5:3, etc. It is not certain that Paul is referring specifically to Jesus’ suffering here in Gal 4:4, but Christ’s death (on the cross) is in view all throughout Galatians (esp. 1:4; 2:19-20; 3:1, 13; 5:11; 6:12, 14). Paul typically does not emphasize the physical pain, etc. of the crucifixion, but the idea of suffering is certainly present in Gal 3:13, where Jesus is said to have become the curse of the Law.

What of the relationship between sin and the human condition? In the religious tradition of ancient Israel, childbirth itself resulted in impurity for the mother, which had to be cleansed (cf. Lev 12:1-8; Luke 2:22, 24). This likewise is indicated in the use of the expression “born of a woman” in Job 15:14; 25:4, which leads to a highly sensitive Christological question: in taking on human flesh, did Jesus take on the sin/impurity that is in the flesh (according to Paul’s way of thinking, cf. Rom 7:5, 7-25) as well? The main passages where Paul addresses this are:

  • 2 Cor 5:21: “…the (one) not knowing sin He [i.e. God] made (to be) sin over us [i.e. on our behalf], (so) that we might come to be the righteousness of God in him”
  • Rom 8:3f: “God, sending his own Son in (the) likeness of flesh of sin [i.e. sinful flesh], also judged against sin in the flesh, (so) that the righteousness of the Law might be fulfilled in us…”
  • Gal 3:13: “Christ bought us out of [i.e. redeemed us from] the curse of the Law, coming to be (the) curse over us [i.e. on our behalf]…”

The key portions (in italics) are especially difficult, from the standpoint of orthodox Christology, for they suggest some degree of identification between sin and the person of Christ. I have discussed 2 Cor 5:21 and Rom 8:3 together in an earlier note. In any case, the focus of Christ being made sin, coming to be the curse, etc, is specifically his death on the cross. It is this sacrificial work which redeems and frees humankind from sin and, ultimately, from suffering.

4. The Virgin Birth? Does Gal 4:4 imply a belief in the virgin birth? Though occasionally traditional-conservative commentators have sought to use this verse as evidence for the doctrine, there is really little (if any) indication of this in the text. As noted above, the expression “out of a woman” need not mean anything more than (ordinary) human childbirth and the human condition (with its ‘labor pains’) in general. While it may be assumed that Paul accepted the idea of Jesus’ virgin birth, he does not mention it anywhere in his letters. Rom 1:3, the only other reference to Jesus’ birth as such, could actually be read in the other direction, with “out of the seed of David” indicating the genealogy of Joseph (as in Matthew 1 and Luke 3). In point of fact, the virgin birth is not referenced in the New Testament outside of the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, neither in the early preaching recorded in the book of Acts, nor in the Letters, nor elsewhere in Gospel tradition; indeed, the birth of Jesus itself is scarcely even mentioned. Clearly, it was not an integral part of the early Gospel proclamation and instruction, and believers today should exercise considerable caution in trying to make the virgin birth (or conception) into a binding point of doctrine.

Note of the Day – December 9

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Galatians 4:4

This series of Advent season notes examines Galatians 4:4. The particular word or phrase discussed each day will be underlined and indicated in bold in the verse:

o%te de\ h@lqen to\ plh/rwma tou= xro/nou e)cape/steilen o( qeo\$ to\n ui(o\n au)tou= geno/menon e)k gunaiko/$ geno/menon u(po\ no/mon
“but when the fullness of time came, God set forth out from (him) his Son, coming to be out of a woman, coming to be under the Law…”

geno/menon (“coming to be”)

The verbs gi/nomai and the related genna/w both have the fundamental meaning “come to be, become”; genna/w more precisely denotes coming to be born, but gi/nomai can be used in this sense as well. The closeness of form and meaning between the two root verbs has occasionally resulted in textual confusion—note, for example, the variant readings between ge/nesi$ (“coming to be”) and ge/nnhsi$ (“coming to be [born]”, i.e. “birth”) in Matthew 1:18, the two words differing by only two letters. Here in Gal 4:4, the verb is used twice, in parallel participial phrases which modify “his son” (to\n ui(o\n au)tou=), and, in a broader sense, describe the result of God’s sending him forth:

  • coming to be [geno/menon] out of a woman
  • coming to be [geno/menon] under the Law

In each phrase, the precise meaning of geno/menon is governed by the prepositions with follow: e)k (“out of”) and u(po/ (“under”). The verb followed by e)k is often used to indicate physical birth, as in the LXX 1 Esdras 4:16; Tobit 8:6; and Josephus Antiquities II.216, similarly of trees and other natural production, Matt 21:19. This is sense in Rom 1:3 as well, where the context is generally close to that of Gal 4:4:

“…about his [i.e. God’s] son the (one) coming to be [genome/nou] out of [e)k] (the) seed of David according to (the) flesh…”

The “seed of David” would seem to indicate that Jesus’ father comes from the line of David, and, indeed, Joseph is identified as a descendant of David in Matt 1:2-16 and Luke 3:23ff. However, in Rom 1:3, Jesus is specifically referred to as God’s son; the ambiguity between the two basic propositions is intrinsic to early Christian tradition regarding the birth of Jesus. Neither in Rom 1:3 nor in Gal 4:4 (or anywhere else in his letters) does Paul specifically mention the virgin birth as such; this will be discussed further in the next note. It is interesting, however, that the only other passages in the New Testament where the preposition e)k follows directly after gi/nomai are in the baptism and transfiguration scenes:

  • Mark 1:11—”and a voice came to be [e)ge/neto] out of [e)k] the heavens…”; cp. Matt 3:17 (“[there was] a voice out of heaven…”) and Luke 3:22 (“and a voice com[ing] to be out of heaven…”)
  • Mark 9:7—”and a voice came to be [e)ge/neto] out of [e)k] the cloud…”; cp. Luke 9:35; Matt 17:5 (“and [there was] a voice out of the cloud…”)

In both instances, a heavenly, divine voice “comes to be”, i.e. is heard, out of heaven (or the cloud, par. to the cloud of God’s presence in Exod 13:21; 40:34-38, etc); and in both narratives the voice makes a declaration regarding Jesus as God’s Son: “you are my (be)loved Son…” (Mark 1:11 par). Consider also, in this regard, the variant reading in a number of key (Western) witnesses, where the voice from heaven cites Psalm 2:7: “you are my son; today I have caused you to be (born) [gege/nnhka]” (cf. Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5).

There are, in fact, definite Christological implications to the use of gi/nomai in several key passages of the Gospel of John. For example, there is a clear theological distinction between gi/nomai (“come to be, become”) and ei)mi (“be, [have] being”)—in Jn 1:1 ei)mi is used (3 times) of God/Deity, while in Jn 1:3 gi/nomai is used (again 3 times) of creation (also vv. 6, 10); in other words, God is, but creation comes to be. We see this same distinction in Jn 8:58: “before Abraham came to be [gene/sqai], I am [ei)mi/]”. Yet, in other references, Jesus comes to be as well (using gi/nomai):

  • Jn 1:14: “and the Logos came to be [e)ge/neto] flesh, and put down tent [i.e. dwelt] in/among us…”
  • Jn 1:15: (John the Baptist speaking): “the (one) coming in back of me has come to be [ge/gonen] in front of me, (in) that he was [h@n] first of [i.e. for] me” (also v. 30)

Jn 1:14 clearly refers to the birth/incarnation of Jesus (cf. below); in Jn 1:15, 30, on the other hand, there is a complex and subtle wordplay that interacts on two different levels of meaning. I have discussed this verse in detail in an earlier note. Several other passages in the Gospel should also be mentioned, where gi/nomai has (or may have) a special theological/spiritual nuance:

  • Jn 1:6—a man (John the Baptist) came to be [e)ge/neto] who witnessed regarding the Logos
  • Jn 1:12—believers in Christ are enabled to become [gene/sqai] offspring/children of God (cf. also Jn 8:33; 10:16; 12:36; 15:8)
  • Jn 1:17—(God’s) favor and truth came to be [e)ge/neto] through Christ
  • Jn 3:9—”how are these things able to come to be [gene/sqai]?” (context of Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus)
  • Jn 5:6ff—”do you wish to become [gene/sqai] whole?”
  • Jn 10:35—”…toward whom [i.e. those addressed in Ps 82:6] the Word/Logos of God came to be [e)ge/neto]”
  • Jn 12:29-30—the voice of God (sounding like thunder) coming/came to be [gegone/nai/ge/gonen]

In the Gospel of John, the related verb genna/w describes spiritual birth (from above) in Jn 3:3-8, but is also used in a manner similar to gi/nomai in two important verses:

  • Jn 1:13—believers, enabled to come to be offspring of God, come to be born out of God [e)k qeou=]
  • Jn 18:37—(Jesus to Pilate): “unto this I have come to be (born), and unto this I have come into the world…”

As a result of the Christological debates and controversies in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries, theologians and commentators were uncomfortable saying that Jesus “came to be” (using gi/nomai), since the verb could be used generally for various kinds of natural production or creation. The Arian controversy, in particular, made it unacceptable to say that Jesus “came to be” in the sense of being created. Some manuscripts and witnesses of Gal 4:4 read gennw/menon (“coming to be [born]”) rather than geno/menon (“coming to be”), including Old Latin versions which have “natum ex muliere” instead of “factum ex muliere”; a similar variant occurs in Rom 1:3. Both verses were cited by Irenaeus (Against Heresies III.22.1, V.21.1) and Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ §§20-22) in the late-2nd/early 3rd century, arguing in support of the reality of Jesus’ (human) birth. By the time of the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Creeds in the 4th century, Christ’s pre-existent divine nature is unequivocably affirmed, along with the phrase gennhqe/nta ou) poihqe/nta, “coming to be born (from God), not made” (natum [genitum], non factum).

Does Gal 4:4 show evidence for the twin doctrine of the pre-existence and incarnation of Christ? Taken literally, the verb e)caposte/llw would mean “set forth from out of” the place where God is (i.e. heaven). Later Christology could speak of the Son (Christ) being born/generated out of [e)k] the substance of God the Father, but this is foreign to Paul’s way of thinking. In terms of Jesus’ birth, here only his ‘human nature’ is emphasized—he comes to be (born) out of [e)k] a woman. Based on Phil 2:6ff, it may assumed that Paul believed in some manner of (divine, heavenly) pre-existence for Jesus; however, it is interesting that he does not make much of it in his letters—there is virtually no other mention of the idea, though it can be inferred from passages such as 2 Cor 8:9; Col 1:15 (note also, possibly, Eph 4:8-9). The references to the voice of God coming to be from out of heaven (Mark 1:11; 9:7 par; Jn 12:29-30) show that, within early Christian tradition, there was an established use of gi/nomai (+ e)k) for a kind of sensible/tangible incarnate manifestation or revelation of God on earth, which was specifically tied to the person of Jesus Christ. Whether we are justified to read something of the sort in Gal 4:4 is difficult to say; Paul certainly understood that God worked through Jesus, manifesting His own righteousness, love, and so forth (Rom 3:21ff; 5:8; 8:3, etc). If we accept Col 1:15-19 (also 2:9) as Pauline, then he certainly held to a belief that generally corresponds to the incarnation, also evinced by Phil 2:7; Rom 8:3 (and note 1 Tim 3:16). With regard to the idea of the virgin birth, this will be addressed briefly in the discussion on the words “out of a woman” in the next note.

Note of the Day – December 6

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Galatians 4:4

This series of Advent season notes examines Galatians 4:4. The particular word or phrase discussed each day will be underlined and indicated in bold in the verse:

o%te de\ h@lqen to\ plh/rwma tou= xro/nou e)cape/steilen o( qeo\$ to\n ui(o\n au)tou= geno/menon e)k gunaiko/$ geno/menon u(po\ no/mon
“but when the fullness of time came, God set forth out from (him) his Son, coming to be out of a woman, coming to be under the Law…”

to\ plh/rwma tou= xro/nou (“the fullness of the time”)

to\ plh/rwma (“the fullness”)—the word plh/rwma means “filling (up)”, in the sense of (a) the process of filling up, (b) something which is filled up, or (c) the condition of being filled up, i.e. “fullness”. There are two aspects of its usage which must be examined:

  1. In a temporal expression or phrase, and
  2. Paul’s use of the word in his letters

1. plh/rwma in a temporal expression or phrase. We should begin with the related verbs plh/qw (pi/mplhmi) and plhro/w (“fill [up], make full”)—both of which can be used to express the passage of time, and, in particular, the completion of a specific period of time; it may also indicate that a time is now fully past. Such expressions occur most frequently in Luke-Acts (Lk 1:20, 23, 57; 2:6, 21, 22; 21:24; Acts 7:23, 30; 9:23; 24:27), but note also Mark 1:15; John 7:8. The noun plh/rwma is used in a similar way, attested in the LXX in Jer 5:24; Ezek 5:2; Dan 10:3 [Theod.]; in the New Testament, outside of Gal 4:4, the only such occurrence is in Eph 1:10, but note the use of the related (compound) word e)kplh/rwsi$ in Acts 21:26.

2. Paul’s use of plh/rwma. The word appears 12 times in the Pauline corpus, including 4 in Ephesians. It is used in a general sense (of the earth’s “fullness”) in 1 Cor 10:26 (citing Psalm 24:1), and in Rom 15:29 (the “fullness of Christ’s blessing”). The other references may be summarized:

  • Rom 11:12, 25—Paul refers to the “fullness” of Israel (“their fullness”) and of the nations (i.e. Gentiles), in the famous eschatological discussion regarding the salvation of Israel in chapter 11 (see my recent article on this passage). In his view, the “full number” of Israelites will come to faith in Christ (and be saved) only after the “full number” of Gentiles has come into faith (using the image of being grafted into the olive tree, rooted in the promise to Abraham, vv. 17-24).
  • Rom 13:10—Here Paul declares that love (spec. love for one’s neighbor, Lev 19:18) is the filling/fullness of the Law; in other words, through the so-called love command (presumably identified with the “Law of Christ”, Gal 6:2), one effectively fills all the commands and precepts of the Old Testament Law; cf. Mark 12:28-34 par; James 2:8-13; Gal 5:14.
  • Col 1:19; 2:9—In Col 1:19 it is said that it seemed good [eu)do/khsen] (to God) that “all the fullness” (pa=n to\ plh/rwma) should dwell (lit. put down house) in Christ; in Col 2:9, something similar is stated, but more precisely: “in him all the fullness of God-ness [qeo/th$, i.e. Deity] dwells [lit. puts down house] bodily [swmatikw$]”.
  • Eph 3:19—Paul (or the author of the letter) expresses the wish that believers would be filled up “into all the fullness of God”; the context makes it clear that this “fullness of God” is found in Christ, and the Spirit (of God and Christ). Similarly, in Eph 1:23, the Church (the group of those “called out”) is identified with the “body of Christ”, which is further described as “the fullness [plh/rwma] of the (one) filling [plhroume/nou] all things in all things”
  • Eph 4:13—Here we find a similar hope (and expectation) for the ultimate destiny of believers: that “we all should arrive (together) into the oneness of the trust/faith and the (true) knowledge/understanding of the Son of God, into a complete man, into (the) measure of the growth/stature of the fullness of Christ”. Believers will arrive and enter (together) into three things: (1) oneness of faith, (2) completeness of person, (3) and will grow into the “fullness” of Christ.

In Colossians and Ephesians, plh/rwma clearly has a special Christological significance, in terms of: (a) Christ embodying the fullness of God, and (b) believers coming to share in the same fullness through our union with Christ. It is in this light that one should read Eph 1:10, which is the verse closest in meaning and context to Gal 4:4:

9having made known to us the secret of his will, according to th(at which) seemed good for him, which he set forth before(hand) in him(self), 10into the house-law [i.e. management/administration] of the fullness of the times, to gather up all things under (one) head in Christ—the (thing)s upon the heavens (above) and the (thing)s upon the earth (below)—(all) in him.”

Here, temporal fullness (“fullness of the times/seasons”) is linked directly with Christological fullness. Though Paul does not go quite this far in Galatians, it is clear that Gal 4:4 refers to the incarnation, at least in seminal, kerygmatic form.

tou= xro/nou (“of the time”)—the genitival expression “of the time” qualifies plh/rwma, just as “of the times/seasons [tw=n kairw=n] does in Eph 1:10. As indicated above, “fullness of time” can refer to: (a) the passage of time, i.e. time in the process of being filled up, (b) a specific period of time that has been completed, or (c) a time that is now fully past. In Gal 4:4, meaning (b) best fits the context, mainly for the reasons discussed in the previous note—the illustrations which depict believers (prior to faith) as in a period of childhood (requiring legal guardianship, etc), which lasts until the time set beforehand by the father. In this context, the “fullness of time” means specifically the period of time which the Father set when we were under the authority of household servants (the Law and the “elements” of the world)—its “fullness” means that this time has been completed.

Note of the Day – December 30

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In the prior Christmas season note, I discussed the two passages in the Pauline Epistles (Rom 1:3-4, Gal 4:4-5) which refer in some way to the birth of Jesus. Today I will look very briefly at another passage dealing with what we would call the Incarnation of Christ: the so-called Christ-hymn in Philippians 2:6-11. If the birth of Jesus proper is hardly mentioned (outside of Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2) in the New Testament, there are a few more references to the idea of Christ’s incarnation—that is, of his becoming human, or of taking on human flesh.

The best-known and most prominent passage is the ‘prologue’ to the Gospel of John (Jn 1:1-18), itself a kind of ‘Christ-hymn’; see especially v. 14—”and the Word [lo/go$] became flesh and set up tent [i.e. dwelt] in/among us”. Note also Romans 8:3f: “for the Law (being) powerless, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son in (the) likeness of sinful flesh, judged against sin in the flesh, that the justice of the Law might be (ful)filled in us”; and cf. 1 Tim 3:16; 1 Pet 4:1, etc.

Philippians 2:6-11 is generally called a hymn, and is often thought to be an earlier (non-Pauline) composition which Paul quotes here. Aspects of the vocabulary, style, and theology of these verses have been considered unusual enough in comparison with that of the (undisputed) Pauline Letters as a whole. However, if it is an earlier hymn, Paul has carefully adapted and integrated it, for many words and phrases and ideas are echoed already in vv. 1-5.

The Christ-hymn is actually extremely difficult to translate, especially the first half (vv. 6-8); but even in verse 5, there are difficulties—the syntax surrounding the verb (tou=to fronei=teo^), and the relation of e)n u(mi=n to e)n Xristw=|. The text as it stands would normally be rendered something like: “have this mind in [i.e. among] you which also/even (was) in Christ Jesus”. Occasionally it is understood with the sense of “have the (same) mind among your(selves) which (you have) in Christ Jesus”, but this seems contrary to thrust of the hymn the verse introduces.

I will be focusing specifically on verse 7, in the context of the vv. 6-8 (the first half of the hymn). However, as these verses are especially rife with difficulties, it is necessary to make a few exegetical notes here:

  • e)n morfh=| qeou= (“in [the] form of God”)—the precise meaning of this phrase is disputed, particularly in light of: (a) the phrase i&sa qew=|= (“equal with God”), and (b) the parallel morfh/ dou/lou (“[the] form of a slave”) in v. 7. Conceptually, the “form” could imply: (i) the essential shape (i.e. the divine “nature”), (ii) the ‘visible’ appearance (i.e. the energy/power/glory of God). Probably the latter is more likely, to allow some distinction with i&sa qew=|.
  • u(pa/rxwn—the verb u(pa/rxw fundamentally means “begin to be (in/under etc)”, with the nuance of “being”, “existing”, “being present”, “belonging”, and so forth. A key question here is whether the emphasis is on divine existence (and pre-existence) as such or on existing in a particular condition. It is a subtle distinction, perhaps, but the latter is probably more accurate.
  • a(rpagmo\n h(gh/sato—this phrase, and its relation to what follows, has been hotly debated. The verb h(ge/omai literally means to “lead (out)”, sometimes in the sense of “bring (something) to mind”. The rare noun a(rpagmo/$ is a “seizing (by force)”. There have been four principal interpretations of this phrase, in connection with to\ ei@nai i&sa qew=|:
    • 1. “he did not consider it robbery to be equal to God”, that is, because he was, in fact, equal to God. This has been popular as an orthodox christological statement, but it seems quite foreign to the rest of the hymn. In particular, it generally disregards the adversative a)lla\ at the start of verse 7.
    • 2. “he did not consider being equal to God as something to be seized”—in other words, though he was in the “form” of God (i.e. divine), he would not attempt to be “equal” to God. This would seem to be the more natural sense of the words, and can be understood in a more (or less) orthodox sense as the case may be.
    • 3. “he did not think being equal to God was something to use for (his own) advantage”—this treats a(rpagmo\n h(gh/sato as a particular idiom implying opportunity/advantage, something like the English expression “seize the opportunity”. An interpretation along these lines is becoming more popular among commentators today. Like #1, it treats “in the form of God” as synonymous with “equal to God”
    • 4. Another popular modern interpretation holds that these verses have nothing to do with the deity or pre-existence of Christ, but rather reflect an Adam-Christ typology (as in Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15)—i.e., even though Jesus was in the image/form of God (like Adam) he did not wish to be like/equal to God Himself (unlike Adam), cf. Genesis 3. This, however, seems to read too much into the text; while there may echoes of such a motif in verse 6, it is harder to maintain throughout the hymn.
  • to\ ei@nai i&sa qew=|= (“to be equal to/with God”)—as indicated above, much depends on whether this phrase is meant to be equivalent to “in the form of God”, or something quite distinct and separate from it. In any event, a parallelism is clearly intended (whether synonymous or contrasting):

e)n morfh=| qeou= u(pa/rxwn (‘being’ in [the] form of God)

ou)x a(rpagmo\n h(gh/sato (he did not bring ‘seizing’ [it to mind])

to\ ei@nai i&sa qew=| ([the] being equal to God)

Verses 7-8 follow and are subordinate to v. 6. There are any number of ways to outline these; my arrangement below illustrates some of the linguistic and conceptual parallels:

a)lla\ e(auto\n e)ke/nwsen  (but he emptied himself)

morfh\n dou/lou labw/n (taking [the] form of a slave)

e)n o(moiw/mati a)nqrw/pwn geno/meno$ (coming to be in [the] likeness of men)

kai\ sxh/mati eu(reqei\$ w($ a&nqrwpo$ (and being found [in] shape/appearance as a man)

e)tapei/nwsen e(auto\n (he lowered himself)

geno/meno$ u(ph/koo$ me/xri qana/tou (becoming obedient [lit. hearing/listening] until death)

qana/tou de\ staurou= (—but a death of [i.e. on] [the] stake!)

As in v. 6, there are several problematic words and phrases in verse 7:

  • a)lla\ (“but”)—the connection of the adversative particle is a major question: does it tie back to ei@nai i&sa qew=| or to a(rpagmo\n h(ghsato? If the former, then it signifies that Christ forsook equality with God (in some sense); if the latter, that he forsook any desire to seize it (by force), perhaps in the sense indicated above—of not using the divine nature for his own advantage.
  • e)ke/nwsen (“emptied”)—the force of the verb here has been debated for centuries, principally whether it is: (a) metaphysical, emptying himself of the divine nature/identity (in some sense), or (b) metaphorical, humbling himself by taking on the human condition. The parallel with verse 8 (“emptied”/”lowered”) would suggest the latter (b).
  • morfh\n dou/lou labw/n (“taking/receiving [the] form of a slave”)—the phrase is clearly meant to contrast with e)n morfh=| qeou= (“in [the] form of God”) in v. 6. I take the aorist (active) participle here as parallel with the aorist (passive) participle eu(reqei/$ (“being found”), and so “form of a slave” with “[in] shape/appearance as a man”.
  • e)n o(moiw/mati a)nqrw/pwn geno/meno$ (“coming to be in [the] likeness of men”)—this is the second of three participial phrases. To get a sense of the thought-structure of the verse, it may help to illustrate again how the three relate:

Taking/receiving [labw/n, aorist active particple] the form of a slave

Coming to be [geno/meno$, aorist middle participle] in the likeness of men

Being found [eu(reqei\$, aorist passive participle] in shape/appearance as a man

I have chosen the chiastic arrangment especially to draw attention to the middle phrase, as specifically related to the birth of Jesus—this coming-to-be (which can be understood as coming to be born) rightly stands between the active and passive: between the act of God’s own will (in Christ) and the helplessness of the human condition (into which Christ entered), we find the incarnate Lord being born, in our own likeness and at one with us!