The Yahwehity of the Christ – why even faithful biblical scholars get Jesus’ deity wrong

There is a common trope in Christological studies of the last several decades that goes something like this:

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The Gospel of John presents Jesus as the divine Son, but the other three gospels do not.

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That simplistic statement is often followed up by the fact that John’s gospel was written later than the Synoptics and so it is assumed that John’s ideas about the Christ were built up to include the divinity of Christ which others missed or frankly, in the opinion of some scholars (too many), ideas which were not there about Christ’s divinity to begin with.

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Like the furniture in my house which arrived later, much later, after the house was built, the furnishings are not essential to the structure of the house. The furniture can be moved and even replaced as desired and so it has been with the deity of Christ. Critics of sound Christology and also skeptics of classical Christian Theism are banking on the pre-supposition that truth is truth not because it is that from its alpha all through to its omega, but that truth is that which we believe because it becomes truth by building it up – accretion, iow. So therefore Christ is not truly divine because by a majority vote – 3 out of 4 (Matthew, Mark and Luke contra John) – of historical development there is only a late minority report to support the idea of Christ’s divinity. Thus, Christ is not God (though it may be shown that in decades or centuries later he was promoted to be so).

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Now that was easy wasn’t it? Swift dismissals often are.

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It’s easy because not only is such reasoning a swift dismissal of the Church’s teaching on the deity of Christ. It’s easy – facile and even pedantic – because it ignores how the Church has from the very beginning (and by this I mean in the 1st century, not the 3rd or 4th century) read the Scriptures both Old and New Testaments.

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In a radio interview about Son of Man, the painting at the top of this post, the artist, René Magritte, said:

At least it hides the face partly well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present. [1]

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We are living in the age of “the visible that is present.” After the Enlightenment the minds of modern scholars have been overwhelmed to the point of infatuation by things “present” – iow, we are giddy for what we deem opaque and immediate. Everything else is risible or subject to some negative reaction short of that.

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Such is often the case with studies in Christology. Yet, as any artist knows, especially those who have spent long hours in their studios or at the writing desks, it is the prerogative of great artist to hide things, beautiful things, in plain sight.

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Have you seen Las Meninas which is considered to be one of Velasquez’s greatest paintings (they are all great, so that is a relative acclamation where Velasquez is concerned)? You see in the middle of the large canvas an image of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana. At first glance it appears to be a small painting of the royal couple. Then it comes clear that it’s not a painting but a mirror. The master artist has managed to paint a “double portrait.” The one most obvious is of the young princess in the foreground and the “other” portrait is outside the boundaries of the frame, but just as real and present.

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Whether were receive the lesson taught to us by the Belgian surrealist, René Magritte or the Spanish court painter, Deigo Velasquez, what we should learn is plainly said. The artist most often presents his work in layers. Everything we see is not on one plane and uniformly opaque. So it is in the theology the Holy Scriptures gives us. The secondary theologies we may infer or build up may in fact be over-simplifications or reductions of what the Holy Scripture intends from its inception. Scripture means for us to see not that Christ is god, but the Christ is Yahweh (even as Father and Spirit).

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The deity of Christ and said more fittingly, the Yahwehity of Christ, is indeed on fully array in the gospels of St. Matthew, St. Mark and St. Luke. They saw or heard within their same life-times the same Christ as St. John. We would expect critics such as Bart Ehrman or Daniel Kirk to dismiss the claim that the synoptic gospels do not show or assert the deity of Jesus. Yet, we find many conservative biblical scholars who do affirms the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Christology do, in fact, follow similar reasoning as the critics of the synoptic gospels. These believing scholars also come to the deity of Christ through an indirect path when using the synoptic gospel. At best they find an arrangement of inferences and not much more. They have been led to believe there is no direct claim or no direct reference to Christ’s deity in the synoptics.

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One of the reasons for this indirect approach on the question of Christ’s deity is, as noted above, the inheritance of the Enlightenment which still envelopes the halls of academia. Another reason is one that is less complex and easier to fix regardless of which era, country or academia setting one is in. What needs to be repaired is the way we read Scripture as a whole. We have lost the art of reading Scripture, Old and New Testaments, as one cloth unfolding in all its beautiful motifs and harmonic blends. Yes, it unfolds across many ages, but that doesn’t mean it is less cohesive in the New Testament than in the Old or that the NT is not cohesive with the OT. Scripture came from one mind, the divine Mind, no matter which period of time or language or geographical location in which it was delivered.

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So now to the question of the synoptic gospels and their direct revelation affirming that Jesus is God. More precisely what we should be looking for is not simplistic statements that “Jesus is God,” but ones show that Jesus is Yahweh.

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A good start in repairing the way we read Scripture is that we should see the the project of “proving the deity of Jesus” is not the way the NT authors would have described their task. Here is where learning to the read the Scripture, especially the NT Scriptures, in a Jewish way is absolutely essential to getting all that’s there in the text. Otherwise, like the painting, Son of Man, we can be so focused on the apple, “the thing”in front of us that we miss “the thing” behind it, the living being.

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Take for example the title ‘the Son of Man’ which is used quite frequently in the synoptic gospels. Let’s take a look at Mark’s gospel in the use of ‘the Son of Man.’ Readers of the NT, well-trained scholars included, state in simplistic terms that the title ‘the Son of Man’ is one which refers to Jesus’ humanity. Or others will add that it refers to his work and office as Messiah. That’s true, but they stop there and are not curious to see how the title ‘the Son of Man’ is visibly “hiding” an even greater reality and identity. The answer to why we fall short of this greater reality is best heard in the words of Rabbi Daniel Boyarin. In The Jewish Gospels Boyarin writes:

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But the contexts in Mark will not allow us to interpret Jesus’ use of the term [Son of Man] as meaning just a human being (loc 630).

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What Boyarin is referring to is how the title ‘the Son of Man’ is not only one that speaks of his humanity, but more so of his royal divinity as prefigured in the vision of Daniel 7. The ‘human one’ in Daniel is the eternal Son who having entered our humanity brings it into the presence of ‘the Ancient of Days.’ When Jesus refers to himself as ‘the Son of Man’ he is giving us something far better than a trite clause such as “I am god.” The Romans and Greeks were accustomed to hearing that sort of empty talk all over their empire and in their literature and from all sorts of charlatans. Jesus was not a god. He was Yahweh (and is) present in human form.

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One of the key interpretive tools that unlocks the transparent claims of Jesus’ deity in the synoptic gospels is to see how YHWH (or Yahweh) is spoken of or is present in all the gospels. This is vital because even theologians who affirm the Trinity may also – as does EO theologian John Behr – believe that God’s name, Yahweh, is in reference only to the Father. This, of course, is at odds with the doctrine of Divine Simplicity.

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However, notice how the gospel of Matthew begins with the announcement in simple dictum and directly, Immanuel, ‘God with us.’ That is most clearly and emphatically Yahweh declaring that in Jesus he is fully present. Why? Because Jesus is Yahweh (even as is the Father and Spirit).

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Notice again in the gospel of Mark how the same is said, but with the use of using the poetic language of Isaiah. Mark quotes from Isaiah which commands the people in his own 1st century to…

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Prepare the way for the Lord [Yahweh], make straight paths for him.

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Who is ‘the Lord’ but Yahweh himself which is the actual Name used by the prophet in Isaiah 40 in his own century. Nothing has changed about who God is. The language and cultural context did, but not Yahweh.

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Then in Luke we see something quite similar, but a little more intricate. We hear Elizabeth call Mary ‘the mother of my Lord’ which again is an adoring way of speaking not only of Mary, but Yahweh himself. Then later when the angels sing to the shepherds we hear them say:

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An angel of the Lord [Yahweh] appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord [Yahweh] shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord [Yahweh].

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There is so much more to see in the gospels concerning the Yahwehity of Christ. Once you start reading the NT in a way that is informed by the OT way of thinking, talking, its imagery, its divine Name theology and it poetic idioms, then what you have tended to miss before – and even dismiss swiftly – will no longer be merely “the visible that is present,” but “the visible that is hidden,” now “present.”

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Here is a just published dissertation which makes the same thesis from a different set of perspectives.

Old Testament Conceptual Metaphors and the Christology of Luke’s Gospel by Gregory R. Lanier

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Jesus is Yahweh, the I AM, present in all the gospels. Enjoy!

 

 

about the author

 

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why a party hat?

 

 

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header image credit: wikipedia article on Son of Man

[1]  interview with Jean Neyens (1965), cited in Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. Richard Millen (New York: Harry N. Abrams), p.172.

 

 

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