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The self-understanding of Jesus: a metaphysical reading of historical Jesus studies

  • Austin Stevenson (a1)


This article argues that the quests for the historical Jesus have largely operated with an understanding of history hindered by a severely constricted range of divine and human possibilities. By outlining human ‘self-understanding’ as a historiographical question, it emphasises the determinative role in historical judgement played by the historian's assumptions about the range of possibility available to the processes of human thought. Highlighting three particular concerns that historians tend to connect to ‘docetism’, it suggests a couple of ways that metaphysical and theological forms of reasoning could expand the horizon of possibilities available to historical Jesus scholarship in a way that will augment access to the historical figure of Jesus.


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1 See arguments to this effect in e.g. Meyer, Ben F., The Aims of Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1979), p. 58; Evans, C. Stephen, ‘Methodological Naturalism in Historical Biblical Scholarship’, in Newman, Carey C. (ed.), Jesus and the Restoration of Israel (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), pp. 180205; Schillebeeckx, Edward, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (New York: Crossroad, 1981 [1974]), pp. 6476; Kähler, Martin, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, trans. Braaten, Carl E. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964 [1896]); Hays, Richard B., ‘Knowing Jesus: Story, History and the Question of Truth’, in Perrin, Nicholas and Hays, Richard B. (eds), Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), pp. 4161; Wright, N. T., Jesus and the Victory of God [hereafter JVG], vol. 2 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), p. 18; Adams, Samuel V., The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N. T. Wright (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015); Anderson, Paul N., The Fourth Gospel and the Quest for Jesus: Modern Foundations Reconsidered (London: T&T Clark, 2007), pp. 177–9; Zahrnt, Heinz, The Historical Jesus, trans. Bowden, J. S. (London: Collins, 1963), p. 48.

2 Schweitzer, Albert, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, 3rd edn., trans. Montgomery, W. (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1954 [1906]), p. 4.

3 Collingwood, R. G., The Idea of History (New York: OUP, 1971 [1946]), p. 213. This only plays a notable role in historical Jesus studies for those scholars who believe the sources are such that a significant amount can be known about Jesus, such as R. A. Horsley, M. Borg, H. Boers, J. Charlesworth, M. de Jonge, R. Leivestad, B. Meyer, B. Witherington and N. T. Wright.

4 Ibid., p. 215. Earlier articulation of this idea can be found e.g. in Fustel de Coulanges’ classic work, The Ancient City: A Study of the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome, trans. Willard Small (New York: Dover Publications, 2006 [1864]), p. 119: ‘History does not study material facts and institutions alone; its true object of study is the human mind.’

5 Collingwood, Idea of History, p. 215. Collingwood has long been a key resource on the philosophy of history for historical Jesus scholars, and his insights can be seen at work both implicitly and explicitly in the work of numerous members of both the new quest and the third quest. His influence is especially evident in the work of Ben F. Meyer who treats him at length in multiple influential books on hermeneutics and historical method. Meyer has, in turn, influenced a number of other scholars, most notably N. T. Wright. Although many historical Jesus scholars cite Collingwood, some do not follow him as faithfully as others. See discussion in Merkley, Paul, ‘New Quests for Old: One Historian's Observations on a Bad Bargain’, Canadian Journal of Theology 16 (1970), pp. 203–18; Meyer, Critical Realism and the New Testament, p. 148.

6 English translations: Wrede, William, The Messianic Secret (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1971 [1901]); Schweitzer, Albert, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus’ Messiahship and Passion, trans. Lowrie, Walter (London: A&C Black, 1925 [1901]).

7 The terms ‘thoroughgoing skepticism’ and ‘thoroughgoing eschatology’ are the ones Schweitzer used to characterise his and Wrede's alternative approaches. See Schweitzer, Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 328.

8 ‘I regard the entire Life-of-Jesus movement as a blind alley.’ Kähler, Historical Jesus, p. 46. In 1953 Käsemann noted the enduring need to reckon with Kähler's critique, ‘which still, after sixty years, is hardly dated and, in spite of many attacks and many possible reservations, has never really been refuted’. Käsemann, Ernst, ‘The Problem of the Historical Jesus’, in Essays on New Testament Themes (London: SCM Press, 1964), p. 16.

9 ‘But it was not only each epoch that found its reflection in Jesus; each individual created Him in accordance with his own character.’ Schweitzer, Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 4.

10 ‘I do indeed think that we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist.’ Bultmann, Rudolf, Jesus and the Word (New York: Scribner's, 1958 [1926]), p. 14.

11 Walter Weaver has devoted nearly 400 pages to outlining serious contributions to historical Jesus studies during this time period in The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century: 1900–1950 (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999). See a bibliography for this period in Evans, Craig A., Life of Jesus Research: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: E. J. Brill, 1996), pp. 1926.

12 See discussion in Wright, JVG, 22–23. Dale Allison maintains that there was sufficient work done between 1906 and 1953 for us to view historical Jesus studies as a continuous venture since its inception. See his The Secularizing of the Historical Jesus’, Perspectives in Religious Studies 27 (2000), pp. 135–51.

13 See discussion in Weaver, Historical Jesus, pp. 49–62.

14 ‘It is one of the marks of the upheaval in German work on the New Testament in this last generation that the old question about the Jesus of history has receded rather noticeably into the background.’ Käsemann, ‘Problem of the Historical Jesus’, p. 15.

15 ‘…we also cannot do away with the identity between the exalted and the earthly Lord without falling into docetism and depriving ourselves of the possibility of drawing a line between the Easter faith of the community and myth’. Ibid., p. 34.

16 Neill, Stephen and Wright, N. T., The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1986, 2nd edn (New York: OUP, 1988), p. 379. Cf. Wright, N. T., ‘Doing Justice to Jesus: A Response to J. D. Crossan: “What Victory? What God?”’, Scottish Journal of Theology 50 (1997), p. 345. Note that the ‘third quest’ is thus the fourth stage of the quests. According to some, members of the ‘third quest’ include B. F. Meyer, A. E. Harvey, E. P. Sanders, N. T. Wright, B. Chilton, R. Horsley and R. Theissen.

17 In addition to those noted above, see e.g. Simpson, Benjamin I., Recent Research on the Historical Jesus (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014); Paget, James Carleton, ‘Quests for the Historical Jesus’, in Bockmuehl, Markus (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Jesus (Cambridge: CUP, 2001); Tatum, W. Barnes, In Quest of Jesus: A Guidebook, revised edn (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999); Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz offer a thorough treatment of the relevant issues in The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM Press, 1998); Clive Marsh offers a nine-fold division of the quests in ‘Quests of the Historical Jesus in New Historicist Perspective’, Biblical Interpretation 5 (1997), pp. 403–37; Brown, Colin, ‘Historical Jesus, Quest of’, in Green, Joel, McKnight, Scot and Marshall, I. Howard (eds), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), p. 337; Schweitzer provided the classic history of the ‘old quest’ in Quest of the Historical Jesus.

18 See Crossan, John Dominic, ‘Straining Gnats, Swallowing Camels: A Review of Who Was Jesus? by N. T. Wright’, Bible Review 9 (Aug. 1993), pp. 1011. For this reason, there are many who simply refer to all contemporary Jesus scholarship as the ‘third quest’ (see Witherington, The Jesus Quest, passim).

19 Wright, for example, notes that Géza Vermes, Marcus Borg, J. D. Crossan and Richard Horsley all defy this categorisation (JVG, p. 83). Even the so-called ‘Jesus Seminar’ is put in different groups by different scholars: compare Wright, JVG, p. 30 with Meier, John P., ‘The Present State of the “Third Quest” for the Historical Jesus: Loss and Gain’, Biblica 80 (1999), p. 459.

20 See discussion in Paget, ‘Quests’, p. 149.

21 For books that include this level of discussion see Adams, Reality of God; Denton, Donald L. Jr., Historiography and Hermeneutics in Jesus Studies: An Examination of the Work of John Dominic Crossan and Ben F. Meyer (London: T&T Clark International, 2004); Meyer, B. F., Critical Realism and the New Testament (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick, 1989); Stewart, Robert B., The Quest of the Hermeneutical Jesus: The Impact of Hermeneutics on the Jesus Research of John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2008).

22 See the bibliography for ‘criteria of authenticity’ in Evans, Jesus Research, pp. 127–47. For discussions of ‘Apocalyptic’ see esp. Collins, John J., The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 2nd edn (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998); Wright, N. T., The New Testament and the People of God, vol. 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), pp. 280–99; Crossan, John Dominic, ‘What Victory? What God? A Review Debate with N T Wright on Jesus and the Victory of God’, Scottish Journal of Theology 50 (1997), pp. 352–3.

23 ‘It can make a difference that Reimarus wrote with certain Enlightenment presuppositions; that Strauss was a Hegelian; that Harnack was a liberal Protestant; that Schweitzer had read Nietzsche … ; and that members of the Jesus Seminar operate in a country where Christian fundamentalism of an apocalyptic colour is so influential.’ Paget, ‘Quests’, p. 149.

24 A couple of examples of this kind of focus include N. T. Wright's 2018 Gifford Lectures and Brown, Colin, Jesus in European Protestant Thought: 1178–1860 (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 1985).

25 Schweitzer hailed it as ‘one of the greatest events in the history of criticism’ (Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 15). However, see the discussion highlighting Reimarus’ indebtedness to Spinoza and English deism in Brown, Protestant Thought, pp. 1–55, esp. pp. 50–5.

26 Reimarus, H. S., Reimarus: Fragments, ed. Talbert, Charles H., trans. Fraser, Ralph S. (London: SCM Press, 1970 [1778]), §I.3, p. 65.

27 Ibid., §II.8, pp. 148, 150.

28 Ibid., §II.53; pp. 242–3.

29 ‘In a few days they alter their entire doctrine and make of Jesus a suffering savior for all mankind; then they change their facts accordingly.’ Ibid., §I.33, p. 134.

30 ‘Uncritical’ because, although Reimarus shows a preference for certain material, his judgements are not based on any explicit criteria of authenticity. See him wrestling with a version of the criterion of dissimilarity at the beginning of part two (§II.1, p. 135).

31 This process began in earnest with D. F. Strauss and became an essentially unassailable position through the work of F. C. Baur. See discussion in Schweitzer, Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 87.

32 Strauss understood the Gospels to be the result of a (partly unconscious) process of mythologisation through which genuine religious convictions became clothed with historical narratives. See Strauss, David Friedrich, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, ed. Hodgson, Peter C., trans. Eliot, George, Lives of Jesus Series (London: SCM Press, 1973 [1835]).

33 Wrede, Messianic Secret.

34 Wright maintains that ‘much of the impetus for form-critical and redaction-critical study came from the presupposition that this or that piece of synoptic material about Jesus could not be historical; in other words, that an historical hypothesis about Jesus could already be presupposed which demanded a further tradition-historical hypothesis to explain the evidence’ (JVG, p. 87).

35 The question was framed as follows: did the early Christians’ belief in the divinity of Christ derive from Jesus own words and actions, or was it something that they developed after his death? The question of self-understanding is a way of examining the continuity between Jesus and Second Temple Judaism on the one hand, and between Jesus and the rise of the early church on the other. As Meyer maintains, ‘thematic Christology either did or did not originate earlier than Easter. Between these contradictory alternatives there can be no middle ground or third position.’ Meyer, Critical Realism, p. 159.

36 In response to this state of scholarship Martin Hengel argued that ‘the unmessianic Jesus has almost become a dogma among many New Testament scholars’. Hengel, Martin, Studies in Early Christology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), p. 16; see the discussion in Pitre, Brant, Jesus and the Last Supper (Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 2015), pp. 914.

37 See the discussion in McKnight, Scot, Jesus and his Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2005), pp, 4775; Balla, Peter, ‘What Did Jesus Think about His Approaching Death?’, in Labahn, M. and Schmidt, A. (eds), Jesus, Mark and Q: The Teaching of Jesus and its Earliest Records (London: T&T Clark, 2001), pp. 239–58; Howard, V., ‘Did Jesus Speak about His Own Death?’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 39 (1997), pp. 515–27.

38 Reimarus, Fragments, §I.10–13, pp. 76–88.

39 Boring describes research in this area as a veritable mine field’. Boring, M. Eugene, Sayings of the Risen Jesus: Christian Prophecy in the Synoptic Tradition (Cambridge: CUP, 1982), p. 239. Evans (Life of Jesus Research, pp. 195–210) lists over forty books and articles published in the past fifty years written specifically about the title ‘son of man’. See the discussion in Burkett, Delbert, The Son of Man Debate: A History and Evaluation (Cambridge: CUP, 1999).

40 Sanders, E. P., The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Allen Lane, 1993), p. 248.

41 There are a few scholars who stand out from this consensus, including J. C. O'Neill, who concludes that ‘Jesus did in fact hold that he was the eternal Son of God’. O'Neill, J. C., Who Did Jesus Think He Was? (Leiden: Brill, 1995), p. 189. Cf. Dreyfus, François, Did Jesus Know He Was God?, trans. Wren, Michael J. (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1984), p. 128: the real Jesus of Nazareth was ‘Son of Man and Son of God, God himself, knowing that he was and saying it’.

42 Ehrman, Bart D., How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2014).

43 Brown, Raymond E., Jesus God and Man: Modern Biblical Reflections (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1968), p. 86. Brown goes on in a later article to say: ‘Yet, if I judge unsatisfactorily obscure the question, “Did Jesus know he was God?”, I am more disconcerted when Christians give the answer “No”. Some who give that answer think they are being alert to the historical problem; in my judgment their denial is more false to the historical evidence of Jesus’ self-awareness than the response “Yes”.’ Brown, Raymond E., ‘Did Jesus Know He Was God?’, Biblical Theology Bulletin 15 (April 1985), p. 78.

44 Dunn, Christianity in the Making, p. 33.

45 Wright, JVG, p. 653. Elsewhere Wright unpacks this further, suggesting that Jesus did not sit back and say ‘Well I never! I'm the second person of the Trinity!’ but that ‘as a part of his human vocation, grasped in faith, sustained in prayer, tested in confrontation, agonized over in further prayer and doubt, and implemented in action, he believed that he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to Scripture only YHWH himself could do and be’. Wright, N. T., ‘Jesus and the Identity of God’, Ex auditu 14 (1998), p. 54.

46 Schleiermacher, Friedrich, The Life of Jesus, ed. Verheyden, Jack C., trans. Gilmour, S. Maclean (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 269.

47 Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, p. 8.

48 Borg, Marcus J., ‘Portraits of Jesus’, in Shanks, Hershel (ed.), The Search for Jesus: Modern Scholarship Looks at the Gospels (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1994), p. 87 (emphasis added). See also Sanders, Historical Figure, p. 248: ‘Jesus seems to have been quite reluctant to adopt a title for himself. I think that even “king” is not precisely correct, since Jesus regarded God as king. My own favorite term for his conception of himself is “viceroy.” God was king, but Jesus represented him …’

49 That is not to say they find the question uninteresting or irrelevant, just that they believe the nature of the sources are such that they provide us no data from which to determine an answer. See the discussion in Robinson, John A. T., ‘The Last Tabu? The Self-Consciousness of Jesus’, in Dunn, James D. G. and McKnight, Scott (eds), The Historical Jesus in Recent Research (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005), pp. 553–66.

50 See Wright, ‘Jesus and the Identity of God’.

51 Wright, JVG, p. 17.

52 Kasemann, ‘The Problem of the Historical Jesus’, p. 34. Note that this is an argument on at least two fronts: against Bultmann, it is a belief that Jesus as he actually was is theologically relevant (not just the faith of the kerygma); against those who decry historical inquiry, it is a belief that Jesus as he can be reconstructed by historians is necessary for theology.

53 Wright, JVG, p. 23. He notes the un-Jewish Jesus of the Nazis as a particularly pertinent example.

54 See e.g. Wright, JVG, pp. 653, 661; Wright, A Biblical Portrait of God’, in The Changing Face of God: Lincoln Lectures in Theology (Lincoln: Lincoln Cathedral Publications, 1996), pp. 27–8; Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus was and is (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015), p. 121.

55 Witherington, The Jesus Quest, p. 11; Meier, John P., The Roots of the Problem and the Person, vol. 1 of A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (London: ABRL Doubleday, 1991), p. 199; Meyer, Critical Realism, p. 148; Borg, Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, p. 196; Meyer, Paul, ‘Faith and History Revisited’, Princeton Seminary Bulletin 10 (1989), p. 82; John Dominic Crossan, ‘Jesus at 2000 Debate’,, accessed 12 Apr., 2018; Dunn, James D. G., Jesus Remembered, Christianity in the Making (Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), p. 102; Schweizer, E., ‘Die Frage Nach dem Historischen Jesus’, Evangelische Theologie 24 (1964), pp. 403–19; Schillebeeckx, E., Jesus in Our Western Culture: Mysticism, Ethics and Politics (London: SCM, 1987), p. 13. Cf. the discussion in Luke Johnson, Timothy, ‘The Humanity of Jesus: What's at Stake in the Quest for the Historical Jesus?’, in Contested Issues in Christian Origins and the New Testament: Collected Essays (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 1516; Jüngel, Eberhard, ‘The Dogmatic Significance of the Question of the Historical Jesus’, in Theological Essays II (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2014), pp. 82119; Adam, A. K. M., ‘Why Historical Criticism Can't Protect Christological Orthodoxy: Reflections on Docetism, Käsemann, and Christology’, in Faithful Interpretation: Reading the Bible in a Postmodern World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), pp. 3756; Pannenberg, Wolfhart, Jesus, God and Man, trans. Wilkins, Lewis L. and Priebe, Duane A. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), pp. 307–64.

56 See esp. Adam, ‘Historical Criticism’, pp. 37–56; Johnson, ‘Humanity of Jesus’, pp. 3–28.

57 See Slusser, Michael, ‘Docetism: A Historical Definition’, Second Century 1 (1981), pp. 163–72; Brox, Norbert, ‘“Doketismus”: Eine Problemanzeige’, Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 95 (1984), pp. 301–14.

58 Adam, ‘Historical Criticism’, p. 43.

59 Thus, while the following issues may cause problems for historical studies of Jesus, they are not for that reason necessarily ‘docetic’. Some of them may, in fact, be inevitable aspects of an orthodox high christology.

60 Collingwood, ‘History’, p. 215.

61 This was the second of Earnst Troeltsch's (1865–1923) three ‘principles of critical history’. See Troeltsch, Earnst, Gesammelte Schriften (Tübingen: J. C. Β. Mohr, 1913), II, pp. 729–53.

62 For a christological engagement with this issue, see TWhite, homas Joseph, ‘The Infused Science of Christ’, Nova et Vetera (English edn) 16 (2018), pp. 617–41.

63 This has been the particular emphasis of scholars such as Géza Vermes, E. P. Sanders, John P. Meier, Jacob Neusner and James H. Charlesworth.

64 See Wright, JVG, pp. 137–44; Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, pp. 31–77.

65 See discussion in Fasolt, Constantin, The Limits of History (London: University of Chicago Press, 2004), esp. pp. 345.

66 Brown, Jesus God and Man, p. 87. See similar arguments in e.g. Harvey, Anthony E., Jesus and the Constraints of History: The Bampton Lectures 1980 (London: Duckworth, 1982), pp. 154–73; Vermes, Géza, Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Reading of the Gospels (London: Collins, 1973); Vermes, The Religion of Jesus the Jew (London: SCM, 1993).

67 See discussion of concepts and judgements in Yeago, David S., ‘The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis’, Pro Ecclesia 3/2 (1994), pp. 152–64.

68 Käsemann, Ernst, The Testament of Jesus: A Study of the Gospel of John in the Light of Chapter 17 (London: SCM, 1968), pp. 26, 76.

69 Larsen, Kasper Bro, ‘Narrative Docetism: Christology and Storytelling in the Gospel of John’, in Bauckham, Richard and Mosser, Carl (eds), The Gospel of John and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 354.

70 See Greimas, Algirdas Julien and Courtés, Joseph, ‘The Cognitive Dimension of Narrative Discourse’, New Literary History 7 (1976), pp. 433–47.

71 Larsen, ‘Narrative Docetism’, p. 352.

72 Larsen suggests that a similar thing happens in film noir and concludes that John ‘shaped a high Christology within the literary frame of elaborate narrative’ (‘Narrative Docetism, pp. 354–5). The narrative tension, he avers, comes through instead on the level of doubt confronting faith within the reader.

73 In his inaugural lecture at Knox Theological Hall, Dunedin, T. E. Pollard picked up on this tension between a preference for external details and a methodological focus on internal motivations. He maintains that ‘the Synoptists see Jesus and his words and actions from the outside through the eyes of the disciples: John “enters sympathetically into the mind” of Jesus, or “puts himself into the shoes” of Jesus. [Therefore,] on Collingwood's definition of the real task of the historian, it could well be argued that John is a better historian than the Synoptists.’ Quoted in Robinson, ‘The Last Tabu?’, p. 560.

74 Thompson, Marianne Meye, The Incarnate Word: Perspectives on Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988), pp. 78, 117–28.

75 In line with the usage thus far of ‘docetism’, I am using ‘Ebionitism’ in a synchronic or ahistorical manner. Recognising the difficulties surrounding historical appellations of heresy to particular groups of Christians, this is nonetheless the widely accepted terminology to refer to the christological tendency to downplay or reject the divine nature of Christ. Adams (Reality of God, p. 211) uses the term ‘methodological Arianism’ for this same phenomenon among historical Jesus scholars, but it seems to me Ebionitism is more precise. Below I use Eutychianism in a similar fashion, to denote the christological tendency to combine or confuse the divine and human natures, thereby positing a tertium quid, which is neither.

76 Wright, Challenge, p. 3.

77 Meier, Marginal Jew, vol. 1, p. 199.

78 Another way of construing this would be to say that even if the divine nature is not explicitly denied (i.e. Ebionitism), the natures are conceived of as discrete subjects open to different modes of analysis (resulting in Nestorianism). Thus, the divine nature is at least bracketed out and the human nature is treated on its own. Cf. Riches, Aaron, Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2016).

79 Wright, JVG, p. 8.

80 An explicit example of a quantitative delineation of divinity and humanity can be found in Bart Ehrman's work. He argues that the Gospels should be read against a background in which humanity and divinity were not thought of as qualitatively distinct, but as existing along two ‘overlapping’ continuums. See Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, p. 4.

81 Allison, Dale C. Jr., The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), p. 89; Borg, Marcus J., Jesus a New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1987), pp. 48; Wright, ‘A Biblical Portrait of God’, p. 27; Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, p. 3.

82 At the end of Witherington's book-length study on Jesus’ self-understanding, he concludes somewhat vaguely that ‘I think [Jesus] implied that he should be seen not merely as a greater king than David but in a higher and more transcendent category’ (The Christology of Jesus, p. 276). This reveals quite clearly the need for richer language and terminology around this issue.

83 For an example of this assumption at work among biblical scholars, see O'Neill, Who Did Jesus Think He Was?, pp. 189ff.

84 Forsyth, P. T., The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (London: Independent Press, 1909); Mackintosh, H. R., The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1912). See the discussion in McCormack, Bruce L., ‘Kenoticism in Modern Christology’, in Murphy, Francesca Aran and Stefano, Troy A. (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Christology (Oxford: OUP, 2015), pp. 444–57.

85 Note how this abandons a two-natures approach altogether. See discussion in Sykes, S. W., ‘The Strange Persistence of Kenotic Christology’, in Kee, Alistair and Long, Eugene T. (eds), Being and Truth: Essays in Honour of John Macquarrie (London: SCM, 1986), pp. 349–75; cf. C. Evans, Stephen (ed.), Exploring Kenotic Christology: The Self-Emptying of God (Oxford: OUP, 2006).

86 Sykes, ‘Strange Persistence’, pp. 354–6. Sykes calls the ideas behind the nineteenth-century development of kenosis ‘grotesquely anthropomorphic’. He continues, ‘It is surely odd that they were not perceived as such at the time, and that they have not been consistently, and by every thoughtful theologian similarly perceived’ (p. 357).

87 See e.g. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Philippians, trans. James W. Leitch (London: SCM, 1962 [1947]), pp. 60–4; Pope Pius XII, ‘Sempiternus Rex Christus’, 8 Sept. 1951, §29,, accessed May 2018.

88 Thus, ‘kenosis’ refers to ‘the quality of the love of God in becoming a human person for the sake of humanity … In this sense the word has no technical Christological connotation.’ Sykes, ‘Strange Persistence’, p. 356.

89 Farrer, Austin, Scripture, Metaphysics, and Poetry: Austin Farrer's The Glass of Vision with Critical Commentary, ed. MacSwain, Robert (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013 [1948]), p. 35.

90 This helpful imagery of natures ‘jostling for space’ comes from Rowan Williams’ 2016 Hulsean Lectures:, accessed May 2018.

91 See a similar argument in Weinandy, Thomas G., In the Likeness of Sinful Flesh: An Essay on the Humanity of Christ (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), esp. pp. 811.

92 See e.g. Pannenberg, Wolfhart, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 327ff.; Moltmann, Jürgen, The Crucified God, trans. Wilson, R. A. and Bowden, John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993 [1973]), pp. 187ff., 227ff.; Jenson, Robert, God After God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1969), pp. 123ff.

93 Tanner, Kathryn, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), p. 10.

94 ‘The dependence of the deity of the Father upon the course of events in the world of creation was first worked out by Jüngel and then by Moltmann, who illustrated it by the crucifixion of Jesus. Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, p. 329. Cf. Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

95 See, for example, the comments in Wright, ‘Jesus and the Identity of God’, pp. 44, 54–5.

96 For two recent works that relate closely to what follows, see Gaine, Simon Francis, Did the Saviour See the Father? Christ, Salvation and the Vision of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015); and White, Thomas Joseph, The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2017).

97 Receptum est in recipiente per modum recipientis. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae [hereafter ST], Leonine edn, vols. 4–12, [1888–1906], 1.84.1. See the discussion in John Wippel, Metaphysical Themes in Thomas Aquinas II (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2007), pp. 113–22.

98 Aquinas, Thomas, Sententia super De anima, Leonine edn, vol. 45 (1984), bk II, c. 12, §551.

99 Et ideo forma recipitur in patiente sine materia, inquantum patiens assimilatur agenti secundum formam, et non secundum materiam. Thomas Aquinas, De anima, bk II, c.12. This is how Aquinas distinguishes knowers from non-knowers: a knower is capable of receiving immaterially the forms of other things (see ST 1.14.1).

100 Secundum quemdam determinatum essendi modum. Aquinas, Thomas, De substantiis separatis, Leonine edn, vol. 40 (1968), §43.

101 For an excellent recent treatment of this theme, see Williams, Rowan, Christ the Heart of Creation (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018).

102 ST 3.9.3. For Aquinas, Jesus’ human knowledge also consisted of acquired knowledge and the beatific vision (see ST 3.9–12). Aquinas emphasises the integrity of the specifically human ways of knowing that Jesus must have had if he was truly human. Thus, his belief that Jesus possessed the beatific vision coincided with the belief that the beatific vision is the telos of all human intellects. See Gaine, Did the Savior See the Father?

103 Gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit. ST 1.1.8.

104 ST 3.11.1.

105 Contra von Harnack, Adolf, History of Dogma, trans. Buchanan, N., 4 vols. (New York: Dover Publications, 1961 [1886–9]).

106 I am grateful to Dr Andrew Davison, Professor Catherine Pickstock, Alex Abecina, Jonathan Platter and the anonymous reviewers at SJT for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of this article. I would also like to thank Professor Hans Boersma for conversations about topics addressed herein.


The self-understanding of Jesus: a metaphysical reading of historical Jesus studies

  • Austin Stevenson (a1)


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