The deity of Jesus is a key issue for evangelicals. But how did early Christians come to regard Jesus as divine? That is, what were the key factors that led Jesus’ early followers to proclaim that He is indeed God in the flesh? This question has been in the scholarly limelight for quite some time, most noticeably with the advent of critical Jesus studies in the late eighteenth century. In the early twentieth century scholars in the history-of-religions school, most notably Wilhelm Bousset in his 1913 work, Kyrios Christos: Geschichte des Christusglaubens von den Anfängen des Christentums bis Irenaeus, argued that attribution of divine status to Jesus was a development from within the Gentile church out of pagan worship in Hellenism. More recent works (such as Larry Hurtado, One God, One Lord, and Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament) have addressed this question from Jewish backgrounds. This work by Collins and Collins focuses on the thesis that the Jews regarded the king of Israel as divine and that by extension the Messiah was viewed in the same way. Thus when Jesus’ followers acknowledged Him as the Messiah, the key theological element for regarding Him as divine would have already been in place. Thus the concept of Jesus’ deity was not a Gentile, Hellenistic development. Instead it arose naturally and appropriately out of a Jewish milieu through the relationship of the Messiah to Israel’s kingship.
The book includes four chapters on background studies and four on biblical studies. John J. Collins addresses the topics of the king of Israel as the “son” of God, the concept of kingship in deuteronomistic and prophetic literature, the concepts of Messiah and Son of God in the Hellenistic period, and the messianic Son of Man concept. The author excels in presenting carefully constructed, textually defensible arguments, replete with extrabiblical data.
The following four chapters address the biblical data. Authored by Adela Yarbro Collins, they address in turn the Messiah and Son of God concepts first in Paul and the Synoptic Gospels, and then in the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation. Similar in tone to the first half of the book, these chapters argue that the New Testament authors readily understood Jesus’ life and ministry in terms of Jewish divine kingship.
The authors use the term “Messiah” in a minimalistic way. They say it refers to the future Davidic individual who will one day reign over Israel. Actually they say less about this term than many readers might expect. Also the authors consider that the term “Son of God” implies divinity; so they say more with this term than some readers might expect. For a different approach to this title see D. R. Bauer, “Son of God,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 269–75.
A trend among scholars today is to view much of the early church’s theology as arising from a Jewish milieu. Even so, proving that is a different matter. The authors have attempted to prove one facet of the larger question of the early church’s belief in the deity of Jesus with ample textual data both from extrabiblical sources and from the New Testament. For this reason this is a positive study.
Some negatives, however, may be noted. Relative to the divinity of the king of Israel, the authors are somewhat guilty of Bousset’s own history-of-religions error in making assumptions about its development. Their argument is that the belief about the divinity of the king made its way to Israel through Canaanite religion, which in turn was influenced by Egyptian religion. However, alternative views relative to this theme are not discussed (e.g., Ps. 2). Readers who disagree with this thesis might arrive at the same conclusion, but the starting point as well as the reconstruction of some of the data differs. In addition the authors accept without debate the theory of the deuteronomist and deuteronomistic history. Certainly this book was not the place to debate that theory, but again readers might put the pieces of the argument together differently if this theory is not accepted. Surprisingly the authors suggest that John 1:1c “may be translated either ‘the word was God’ or ‘the word was a god.’ ” Current scholarship is decidedly on the side of the traditional translation, giving little or no credence to the translation “the word was a god.”
This work is based on the Speaker’s Lectures the authors delivered at Oxford University in May 2006. Thus the book has the slightly disjointed feel of oral lectures, which makes the thesis somewhat difficult to follow.
When all is considered, though, this is a helpful work. Ample evidence is given in support of the general thesis. The authors add scholarly support to one facet of the broad argument that the early church’s declaration of Jesus as divine arose naturally from a Jewish milieu and was not, so to speak, a foreign import.
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