Now, in Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God 4), N. T. Wright attempts to explain why the early church saw Jesus as God while not denying monotheism — a tricky bit of theology if ever there was one — but a critically important one.
It was a matter of [the First Century Jews] pondering the promises of the One God whose identity, as Bauckham has rightly stressed, was made clear in the scriptures, and wondering what it would look like when he returned to Zion, when he came back to judge the world and rescue his people, when he did again what he had done at the Exodus.
Not for nothing had Jesus chosen Passover as the moment for his decisive action, and his decisive Passion. It was then a matter of Jesus’ followers coming to believe that in him, and supremely in his death and resurrection—the resurrection, of course, revealing that the death was itself to be radically re-evaluated—Israel’s God had done what he had long promised. He had returned to be king. He had ‘visited’ his people and ‘redeemed’ them. He had returned to dwell in the midst of his people. Jesus had done what God had said he and he alone would do. …
The most important thing was that in his life, death and resurrection Jesus had accomplished the new Exodus, had done in person what Israel’s God had said he would do in person. He had inaugurated God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. Scholars have spent too long looking for pre-Christian Jewish ideas about human figures, angels or other intermediaries. What matters is the pre-Christian Jewish ideas about Israel’s God. Jesus’ first followers found themselves not only (as it were) permitted to use God-language for Jesus, but compelled to use Jesus-language for the One God.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:654–655.
But if, (a) granted the expectation of YHWH’s return, (b) a would-be Messiah were to be raised from the dead and thereby vindicated as Messiah, ‘son of God’; if such a person were believed to have been exalted to heaven and enthroned as ‘lord’; and (c) if his followers were thereafter convinced that he was personally and powerfully present to and with them in a new mode—then the almost instantaneous rise of the christology we find already firmly established by the time of Paul is fully explained. The three elements converge to produce and provide something which none of them, by itself, would have been able to do.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:690–691.
What I am suggesting is that the resurrection, demonstrating the truth of Jesus’s pre-crucifixion messianic claim, joined up with the expectation of YHWH’s return on the one hand and the presence of the spirit of Jesus on the other to generate a fresh reading of ‘messianic’ texts which enabled a full christological awareness to dawn on the disciples. I do not think that pre-Christian Jews had read 2 Samuel 7, or Psalm 110 (‘YHWH says to my lord, “sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool” ’), or Daniel 7 (‘one like a son of man’ being exalted to sit on a throne beside that of the ‘ancient of days’) in ways that anticipated, or could be said to be an antecedent cause of, the very early christology.
What I propose is that the combination of (a) the widely held expectation of the divine return to defeat Israel’s enemies and rescue his people and (b) Jesus’ resurrection, compelling the conclusion that he really was Messiah, created exactly the conditions within which, in a context of (c) worship and an awareness of the presence and power of the same Jesus, texts which had been there all along but never seen in this way (except, perhaps, in sayings of Jesus himself!) sprang into life. The earliest christology was thus firmly anchored in scripture, but the reading of scripture in question was highly innovatory, and did not itself generate the belief.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:692–694.
One might imagine the very early Christians, under the impact of the resurrection of Jesus and the fresh scriptural study which it precipitated, doing a variety of interlocking things very early on:
1. using theos for God the source and goal of all things, and Kyrios for Jesus, as in 1 Corinthians 8:6, aware that these corresponded to the Hebrew elohim and YHWH, and intending to stress both the unity and the differentiation between the two of them;
2. using the biblical term ‘father’ to denote God/theos/elohim;
3. drawing in the originally messianic title ‘son of God’, already in use for Jesus because of its Davidic overtones and because of Jesus’ own way of speaking, as the natural corollary of this ‘father’. The one denoted as theos is thus seen as ‘father’ specifically of this ‘son’, and the one denoted as Kyrios is seen as ‘son’ specifically of this ‘father’, even when that connection is not made explicitly;
4. speaking of ‘father and son’ in parallel to speaking of ‘God and lord’;
5. drawing on the ‘wisdom’ traditions, which were already in use in terms of both the return of YHWH to Zion (Sirach 24) and the equipping of David’s son for his royal task (Wisdom 7–9), to speak of the father ‘sending’ the son (Romans 8:3; Galatians 4:4), and of the father transferring people into ‘the kingdom of the son of his love’ (Colossians 1:12–13, with the great ‘wisdom’-poem of 1:15–20 to follow), and of the Kyrios as the one through whom all things were made (1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16);
6. understanding the whole sequence in terms of the climactic and decisive rescuing act of the one God, the new Exodus in which this God had revealed himself fully and finally precisely in fulfilling his ancient promises, saving his people and coming to dwell in their midst.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:697–698.
So this is pretty weighty theology, and it’s a challenging but valuable read. For now, the point is that the “faith” that saves becomes not only faith in God but also faith in Jesus as Messiah and LORD. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus is Lord.
Before the time of Jesus, this could not be confessed. The Ancients could only believe in a Messiah not yet revealed. Nor could the Ancients have anticipated the resurrection and ascension. These were only hinted at. And so the content of faith changed and didn’t change.
It changed by adding Jesus to the equation. It didn’t change in that Jesus was a part of YHWH all along.