Richard Bauckham, professor of New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, is perhaps best known for his studies of the book of Revelation and for his commentaries on Jude and 2 Peter. He is also a thoughtful theologian who has written an introduction to the theology of Jirgen Moltmann. God Crucified displays the craft of both a careful exegete and a deft theologian as Bauckham explores the riddle of how the radically monotheistic Jews who composed the earliest church could have come to call Jesus “Lord.”
His argument turns much of mainstream christology, which has often assumed that a high christology is both a later development and incompatible with Jewish monotheism, on its head. According to Bauckham, “the earliest Christology was already the highest Christology,” a theology of divine identity that focuses on “who God is” rather than on what “divinity” is. In the Jewish monotheism of the Second Temple, the identity of God was understood by analogy with human identity, which includes both character and personal story. This unique identity had two key features: (1) God as the creator of all things and (2) God as the sovereign ruler over all things. God is also identified by God’s acts in Israel’s history, especially in the exodus, and by the character description God gives to Moses: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6). The acts of God and the character of God together identify God as the one who acts graciously towards his people.
This God, then, by his very identity, was expected to act in the future. For example, Second Isaiah, an important source for early Christians, expects a new exodus, which will show decisively God’s identity as creator and ruler of all things. So the first Christians, who had experienced this new exodus in Jesus, understood that God was continuing the story, and “a new narrative of God’s acts becomes definitive for his identity.” The God who acted in the exodus had now acted again in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
When the church included Jesus, a human being humiliated and exalted, into the identity of God, they were saying something radically new about God’s identity. Nevertheless, the novelty of God crucified did not betray the identity of the God of Israel. On the contrary, as the early church examined the Scriptures it could find consistency in the novelty. It found the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ to be one and the same God.
Bauckham helps us understand early Jewish monotheism as the context for New Testament christology. On one hand, he takes issue with “strict” approaches, which claim that only a radical break with Jewish monotheism could allow for the attribution of divinity to Jesus. On the other hand, he rejects “revisionist” approaches, which focus on intermediary figures– principal angels, exalted humans, and the like-as models by which to understand the divinity attributed to Jesus. Bauckham also maintains a strict view of monotheism but argues that a high christology was possible precisely within a strict monotheism by identifying Jesus directly with the God of Israel. Bauckham rejects the second view as being unimportant for the study of christology, for the intermediary figures were never worshipped. He understands the presence of divine attributes such as word and wisdom as expressions of God’s identity and not separate creatures. They demonstrate, he believes, that Second Temple Judaism does not find distinctions in the divine identity inconceivable or threatening to divine uniqueness.
Such a christology of divine identity helpfully moves us beyond functional and ontic understandings. A functional christology, in which Jesus exercises the functions of lordship without being ontically divine, would have been problematic for Jewish monotheism, since the unique sovereignty of God was not something God could delegate to someone else. The ontological approach has often assumed that while early Jewish monotheists could speak of divine functions when speaking of Jesus, they shied away from speaking of divine nature, something that only later patristic development spelled out. Against this view, Bauckham shows that throughout the New Testament there are clear and deliberate uses of the unique, divine identity to include Jesus. Bauckham’s christology of divine identity offers a proper way to understand the New Testament within its Jewish monotheistic context by including Jesus, cross and all, within the unique identity of Israel’s God.
Richard L. Floyd.
(This review first appeared in Theology Today in April 2001, in a slightly edited form that eliminated my masculine personal pronouns for deity, an editorial practice I find stylistically awkward, theologically problematic, and troublesome to free speech. This is closer to what I originally wrote.)