The second essay in Martin Hengel’s Between Jesus and Paul is “Christology and New Testament Chronology: A Problem in the History of Earliest Christianity.” Even more than in the first article, Hengel avoids extended defenses of his claims. This will leave some readers frustrated or simply unconvinced. It’s interesting to note that while reading this piece, I occasionally was reminded of Larry Hurtado’s work on early christology, especially his Lord Jesus Christ. I’m sure that Hengel was appreciative of Hurtado’s contributions, and vice versa.
Hengel opens with a key claim: all the essential features of Paul’s christology were already fully developed by the late 40s C.E., before the apostle embarked on his first extended missionary journey to Asia Minor. This leaves the historian with three questions to address:
1) What kind of picture of the Messiah might the newly-converted Pharisee, Paul, have had in the aftermath of his Damascus Road experience ca. 33 C.E.?
2) Do we have any reason to suppose that Paul’s christology changed in essential points during the years following his conversion (say, from 33-48 C.E.)?
3) Which earliest Christians, if any, influenced Paul’s theological thinking and shaped his christological ideas?
Hengel rejects the idea that there was an exclusive “Gentile Christian” formative influence on earliest christology. Instead, these theological developments took place in communities where Jewish Christians were the predominant group. At best, there were mixed “Jew/Gentile” communities where the Jewish element was still theologically dominant. In this regard, he offers reasons for rejecting the claims of scholars such as Bousset, Bultmann, Hahn, and others, who contended that much of the earliest “high” christology originated among Gentile Christians. According to Hengel, more christological development occurred in the first 18 years of the church than in the subsequent 700 years. This development took place primarily in the Greek-speaking Jewish-Christian communities of Jerusalem, Antioch, Damascus, Caesarea, and elsewhere in Syria and Palestine. Since there is no evidence of Paul’s christology being a point of contention in his relationship with the Jerusalem apostles, it is safe to assume that it did not differ significantly from theirs.
Hengel concludes by outlining the development of earliest christology, though he cautions against getting more specific than this (e.g., one cannot ascertain the precise sequence in which the christological titles were ascribed to Jesus during this earliest period):
1) The activity and preaching of Jesus contained an implicit christology – Jesus fashioned himself in the mold of a messianic prophet, his followers regarded him as such, and he was executed as a “pseudo-Messiah.”
2) The disciples’ resurrection experiences came to be understood as the exaltation and enthronement of Jesus.
3) A series of titles were quickly ascribed to Jesus in accordance with his various “functions” (e.g., Christ, Son of David, Son of God).
4) Jesus’ call to his followers to evangelize represented a special stimulus toward christological reflection – who was/is Jesus?
5) This missionary task set in motion the argument from Scripture – Christology and Scripture interpretation were inextricably linked from the beginning.
6) Even before Paul’s conversion, the basic christological elements were in place, with the exception of pre-existence christology and the concept of the sending of the Son.