This summer my family and I were glued to our television for nearly a month, as we are every four years, during the FIFA World Cup. Even though the USA didn’t qualify, we were pulling for one particular team—England, where my wife and I lived during my doctoral studies. Sadly, the Three Lions were eliminated in the semi-final round, bringing an all-too-early end to our World Cup dreams. But it was an exciting tournament nonetheless and we were sorely disappointed when the final whistle blew.

Despite our World Cup thrills, most viewers probably appreciated the tournament far more than we did. While my family and I are avid fans of football, the truth is we normally follow the other kind—American football, which is, as they say, a completely different ballgame. In fact, our familiarity with the players, rules, strategies, and team histories of international soccer are embarrassingly limited. We know enough of the basics to follow along, even enough to get caught up in some of the drama, but there is no question we would have understood and appreciated more of what we were watching had we possessed a deeper well of knowledge about the sport, even about international politics and pop culture.

Believe it or not, reading the Gospel of Mark is not unlike watching the World Cup. Many readers can easily pick up their New Testament, read the Second Gospel, and walk away better informed about the life, ministry, and passion of Jesus Christ. They can even, as a result, grow in their love for our Lord and live more faithful lives as his disciples. But what Jesus said and did resonates at an altogether deeper level when one brings to the Bible greater awareness of the “game” Jesus was playing—that is, the game of Second Temple Judaism.

Mark’s Gospel was written for readers with at least some familiarity with intertestamental Jewish history, politics, culture, and religion. In fact, there are numerous pericopae that are in implicit dialogue with the Jewish theological traditions extant in the first century. Sometimes the evangelist himself tells us exactly what those traditions and beliefs consisted of. For example, when introducing the Sadducees for the first and only time in the narrative, Mark tells us they were a sect of Judaism that denied the resurrection of the dead (12:18). But at other times, Mark assumes his readers themselves possess the requisite knowledge to fill in the blanks about the who, what, and where of the narrative.

Reading Mark in Context

Our recently released collection of essays, Reading Mark in Context: Jesus and Second Temple Judaism (Zondervan Academic), seeks to show how familiarizing oneself with Second Temple Jewish literature can help fill those blanks. With a foreword by N. T. Wright and 30 essays by some of today’s most respected Markan scholars (Michael Bird, Darrell Bock, Helen Bond, Elizabeth Shively, Mark Strauss, Rikk Watts, and more), this book will help the reader study the text in new and enriching ways. The volume was designed to cover the entire Second Gospel, but not to be exhaustive. Much more could be said both about Judaism as well as about Jesus. But hopefully this book will whet one’s appetite for reading Mark’s Gospel in context and for digging deeply into the world of the New Testament. If this book interests you, I encourage you to check it out!


I (Ben) noted last week about Justin Martyr’s very clear affirmation that Jesus eternally existed and became incarnate in time in his Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 48. In the conclusion I noted the issue of distinguishing between economy (what God does) and ontology (how God is). The economy is clear in that statement, but what about ontology. Trypho has the same question!

Chapter 50: “You seem,” said Trypho, “to have debated with many persons on every possible topic, and consequently are ready to answer any of my questions. Tell me then, first of all, how can you prove that there is another God besides the Creator of the world, and then show that He condescended to be born of a virgin.”

Justin continues a previous argument (about the two advents of Christ) before coming back to this question in chapter 55ff. In chapter 56, Justin provides a lengthy set of quotations and descriptions of the Abraham’s interchange with three men and Lot’s later interchange. His argument is basically that God is present in two places at the same time. Summing up at key points, he writes:

Chapter 56:[11] “Then,” I said, “let us return to the Scriptures and I will try to convince you that He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, and is called God, is distinct from God, the Creator; distinct, that is, in number, but not in mind. For I state that He never did or said anything else than what the Creator — above whom there is no other God — desired that He do or say.”  …

[22] At this point I asked, “Do you not see, my friends, that one of the three, who is both God and Lord, and ministers to Him who is in Heaven, is Lord of the two angels? When they went on to Sodom, He stayed behind and talked with Abraham, as Moses testified. Then He went His way after His conversation, and Abraham returned to his place. [23] And when He came to Sodom, it was no longer the two angels, but He Himself, who talked with Lot, as is evident from the Scriptures. He, indeed, is the Lord who was commissioned by the Lord in Heaven, that is, the Creator of all things, to inflict those dreadful punishments upon Sodom and Gomorrah, which are described in the Scriptures in this fashion: ‘The Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven’ [Gen 19.24].”

He goes on to include discussion of the burning bush and gives this description:

Chapter 61 “So, my friends,” I said, “I will now show from the Scriptures that God has begotten of Himself a certain rational Power as a Beginning before all other creatures. The Holy Spirit indicates this Power by various titles, sometimes the Glory of the Lord, at other times Son, or Wisdom, or Angel, or God, or Lord, or Word. He even called Himself Commander-in-chief when He appeared in human guise to Jesus, the son of Nave. Indeed, He can justly lay claim to all these titles from the fact both that He performs the Father’s will and that He was begotten by an act of the Father’s will. [2] But, does not something similar happen also with us humans? When we utter a word, it can be said that we beget the word, but not by cutting it off, in the sense that our power of uttering words would thereby be diminished. We can observe a similar example in nature when one fire kindles another, without losing anything, but remaining the same; yet the enkindled fire seems to exist of itself and to shine without lessening the brilliancy of the first fire. [3]My statements will now be confirmed by none other than the Word of Wisdom, who is this God begotten from the Universal Father, and who is the Word and Wisdom and Power and Glory of Him who begot Him.

This doesn’t sort all the questions about ontology by any means, but it shows that Justin was indeed aware of the issues. Though later argumentation is framed differently, the ideas of God meeting Abraham in Genesis 19 which is so central for Justin is at the heart of Rublev’s Trinity:


As Brevard Childs and Kavin Rowe argued so well: the OT is not an impediment to the Trinity, it is the necessary foundation on which the Trinity is grounded.

(Public Domain)

Sometimes it is popularly asserted that the Emperor and/or the bishops at Nicaea invented the idea that Jesus is God incarnate. Of course, that has been clearly refuted in scholarship, but conspiracy stories are so much fun and more interesting to pass along. I (Ben) am heading to give a lecture at Huntington University in a couple of weeks on Justin Martyr, Paul and the issue of circumcision, so I have been rereading the Dialogue with Trypho and was reminded of this gem on Christology:

Chapter 48 [1]“We have now heard your opinion on these matters,” interrupted Trypho. “Resume your discourse where you left off, and bring it to an end, for it seems to be entirely absurd and utterly impossible of proof. Your statement that this Christ existed as God before all ages, and then that He consented to be born and become man, yet that He is not of human origin, appears to be not only paradoxical, but preposterous.” [2] “I am aware,” I replied, “that my assertion must seem paradoxical, especially to you Jews, who were never in the least interested in knowing or doing the things of God, but only the things of your teachers, as God Himself testifies [cf. Isa 29.3]. However, Trypho, the fact that this Man is the Christ of God, is not to be denied, even if I were unable to prove that He, being God, pre-existed as the Son of the Creator of the universe and became Man through a virgin.

No nuanced reading or sophisticated hermeneutic to get the main idea here. Of course, the ontology of Nicaea is still wanting, but this is about as clear as an economic description of theology as you can get, and this is about 175 years before Nicaea. Irenaeus has equally clear statements about Jesus as God, dating to just a few years after Justin’s work.

Statements that the Bible/NT do not have a fully orbed Trinitarianism abound. Of course, those with a “low, slow” christology make that affirmation, but even those with an “early, high” christology regularly make such claims. Behind this is a strong concern to avoid the anachronism of later (creedal) theology back into texts. It is this problem of anachronism that I think undergirds those that would both deny and affirm Nicene theology. In other words, both groups are actually committing an anachronistic reading by making the comment that a fully orbed Trinitarianism is not found int the NT.

Historical Criticism: The concern of anachronism is almost self-evident in historical critical studies. There is a one-way flow of time, and every text/author must be interpreted in light of what is contemporaneous or previous to them. In no way should later conceptualities be introduced that would taint the historical evidence. Therefore, introducing later Nicene theology into a text would be out of order and would produce anachronistic results. Accordingly, one can easily say that the NT does not have a fully formed Trinitarianism, by which they mean a fully formed Nicene Trinitarianism. However, by using this later standard by which to measure Trinitarianism, historical critics have implicitly imported an anachronistic conceptuality into their their argument. Can’t the NT have a fully formed Trinitarianism on its own terms? Or might we say, in light of the historical critical concern to bracket out the ontology of Nicaea in terms of the immanent Trinity, they can fall into the trap of missing the event and action of God in terms of the economic Trinity. For example, Dunn in his Christology in the Making argues that Christ is the revelation of God in Paul’s letters, just that Christ is not ontologically identified with God (through pre-existence) in Paul’s letters: “God had himself acted in and through Christ” (255). This seems to be a strong indication of an economic view of Trinity, which is set in opposition to an immanent view. Yet if the immanent view was not at play in the discussion as an alternative, then the economic would be allowed more space.

Thus, it seems that this anachronistic standard is shaping historical critical affirmations and denials. This doesn’t mean that ontological issues are irrelevant to assessments of these texts, but we need to be careful of importing a standard from a latter time in order to make those assessments. This isn’t only a problem for those critiquing or questioning traditional readings, and I’ll mention how more traditional readers deal in anachronism  while trying to support their readings in a follow-up post.


O’Keefe (“Impassible Suffering?”, 44-45) describing Cyril of Alexandria:

Those who refuse to confess that Mary is Mother of God do not appreciate the fullness of the Son’s participation with us, just as the Arians misunderstood the fullness of the Son’s participation in God.

Continuing a series of posts about NT Christology, Larry Hurtado recently posted about “Chronology and Ontology“. There, he makes this claim:

So, how can we say that “ontological” categories don’t appear to be operative in earliest Christological texts? Negatively, there is the absence of the sort of philosophical terms that make their appearance in subsequent Christian texts. Positively, the Christological statements that we do have in NT texts seem to me to express claims more of a relational and transactional nature. In various ways, Jesus is uniquely linked with God, and is conferred (by God) with a unique status and role in relation to God.

My thoughts immediately ran to Colossians 2.9, which he doesn’t mention in his post. However, after being questioned in the comments about Col 2.9 and Heb 1.4, he follows up with a comment:

Sure, there are verbal links, but the sentences (and so the connotation of the terms) are different. And remember that sentences are the primary semantic unit, not “words”. So, e.g., in Col 2:9, Jesus is the one in whom “the fullness of deity dwells bodily,” which makes Jesus the vehicle of deity, which is a bit different from the later questions about whether the “Son” and God the Father share the same “essence.” And in Hebrews 1:3, the Son bears “the stamp” of God’s “being,” the term hypostasis used here in its more typical sense, whereas in the later Christological debates the term takes on a new/peculiar sense designating the particularity of the divinity of each of the three “persons” of the Trinity. Again, let’s respect the historical particularities of any text.

I  (Ben) wrote an article on Colossians 2.9–“You Are Filled in Him: Theosis and Colossians 2–3“–and among the topics I treat there is the ontology of this passage. As I point out there, even Dunn concedes how the terminology is relevant:

Dunn, for instance, while defending the latter option [that the dwelling is functional not ontological], concedes that θεότης “was sufficiently familiar in literary Greek to denote the nature or essence of deity, that which constitutes deity.” [Dunn, Colossians, 151]

In response to Dunn and McGrath, I make use of Hurtado’s conceptualities to argue for an ontological reading:

In one of his more recent works, Hurtado notes the informal distinction
in NT texts between discourse and practice, that is, there is a triadic shape of the God-discourse (elevated language about Father, Son, and Spirit) alongside a dyadic devotional practice (focused on the Father and Son). 24 In this taxonomy, the hymn in 1:15–20 reflects devotional practice, whereas 2:9 reflects God-discourse, since it is focused more on concepts than practice. That is, repeating but also expanding the language of 1:19, Paul is clarifying in 2:9 what he means by the fullness dwelling in Christ: it is the fullness of deity. That this fullness is not just God’s presence with Christ is shown through 1:15–20, where the cultic devotion reserved for God alone is now also given to Christ. Thus, 1:15–20 with its devotional practice and 2:9–10 with its God-discourse mutually inform one another.

As part of my conclusions, I write:

Paul’s use of θεότης invites us to consider the ontology of the assertion because the term itself relates to the divine essence. Francis Watson and others have rightly argued that in Paul’s letters that Christ’s function coheres with a divine ontology. Though addressing a later debate, the language and conceptualities of Nicaea can be of help. Importantly, one of the major topics in the Nicene debates was the issue of the coherence of act and being. That is, the orthodox confession was that Christ’s being (ontology) and act (function) cohere so that he is divine as the Father is divine. Thus, although extrabiblical concepts were employed to support the argument in the fourth century, the affirmations reflect the same judgments regarding the “unique divine identity” that Bauckham argues is in play in first-century assertions like we see in 2:9.

Of course, there is much more content and substance to my argument in the essay, but I would argue that ontology is too easily dismissed by Hurtado in this case because he wants to separate concepts and judgments. We should be sensitive to the problem of anachronism, but being too sensitive to it means that we miss the similarities.

While Wright is pegged as the “ecclesiological” version of justification, it strikes me that this is a red-herring. While justification as covenant status addresses the division of Jews and Gentiles, the problem is more basic. Wright sees justification has addressing the human problems of sin, condemnation, and death, and Paul’s discussion of a creational, anthropological, covenantal, and forensic eschatology is described in terms of justification (see the progressive discussion of these framing terms in Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 925-37). Ultimately this is all captured in his discussion of final eschatology:

Paul’s vision in Romans 1-8, then, has as its framework the all-important narrative about a future judgment according to the fullness of the life that has been led, emphasizing the fact that those ‘in Christ’ will face ‘no condemnation’ on that final day (2.1-16; 8.1-11, 31-39). The reason Paul gives for this is, as so often, the cross and the spirit (8.3-4): in the Messiah, and by the spirit, the life in question will have been the life of spirit-led obedience, adoption, suffering, prayer, and ultimately glory (8.5-8, 12-17, 18-27, 28-30). This is not something other than ‘Paul’s doctrine of justification‘. It is its outer, eschatological framework.   …   And, to repeat a vital point about the character of Paul’s theology, that integration [of present and final justification] makes nonsense of all schemes that depend on regarding Romans 1-4 and 5-8 as representing two types of thought or systems of soteriology. That division results from failing to notice Paul’s larger controlling category, namely, the covenant promises made by God to Abraham to deal with the problem of the world’s sin and its consequences. Those, Paul insists, are the promises to which the covenant God has been true in the Messiah. The faithfulness of this God is the underlying theme of Romans 1-8… [sic] as it is also the problem, and then the solution, throughout Romans 9-11. (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 941-42)

He later uses the terminology of ‘inaugurated forensic and covenantal eschatology’. “The future verdict … is thus brought forward into the present, because of the utter grace of the one God seen in the ‘faithful’ death of the Messiah … and then at work, as we shall now see, through the spirit in the gospel” (944-45).

Restoring the community, setting it to rights, is important, but in Christ and the Spirit God is setting the whole world to rights, and so to limit justification, for Wright at least, to ecclesiology is to miss his larger picture. That said, he frames it this way:

Once we have worked through the first five preliminary points, we ought to realize that this sixth one is where it has all been going. Those who are declared or accounted ‘righteous’ on the basis of Messiah-faith constitute the single covenant family which the one God has faithfully given to Abraham. (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 961)


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