Friday, April 6, 2012

high and low christology

The term christology is analogous to theology: it refers to ordered discourse about the Christ.* Who was Jesus? Was he truly the son of God, or just a particularly talented teacher? Did Jesus even exist? What does it mean when Christians declare that Jesus is the Christ? What is the significance of the crucifixion and resurrection events? What scriptural, historical, philosophical, and psychological arguments can be made regarding who this Christ was? Christology deals with all these matters.

Two other terms are in common use among biblical scholars: low christology and high christology, sometimes also called low, ascending christology and high, descending christology. These terms refer, in the main, to the attitudes taken by the New Testament writers toward Jesus's role and significance: low christology emphasizes Jesus' humanity; high christology emphasizes Jesus divinity, his cosmic nature.

Since it's Good Friday, I thought it might be appropriate to focus on these varying christologies for a moment. One of my favorite approaches to this topic is to ask people to compare the four gospel accounts at the moment of Jesus' death on the cross. In each case, what are Jesus' final utterances?

Mark is, according to most biblical scholarship, the first of the four gospels (Matthew was written later). How does Mark portray Jesus' final moments?

Mark 15:33-37

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.

Let's move on to Matthew.

Matthew 27:45-50

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”

Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.

Now Luke:

Luke 23:44-46

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

Finally, the Fourth Gospel:

John 19:28-30

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Note that, in Mark and Matthew, Jesus' final utterance is a scream-- this coming after a lorn cry of abandonment. Mark and Matthew's depiction of Jesus constitutes a low christology: the emphasis, here, is on Jesus' humanity. Luke, meanwhile, seems to offer us a slightly loftier perspective, but it's in John's gospel that we see a radical shift to high christology: John's version of Jesus proclaims, "It is finished" (some render this as "It is accomplished."). That's the sort of utterance you'd hear from someone who has orchestrated events to turn out as they did. This gospel moment, then, is an example of high christology: Jesus is exalted in death.

None of this is to say that Mark and Matthew are entirely low-christological works, or that John is entirely high-christological. I chose the above passages because they illustrate, quite clearly, what the terms mean. The exercise for the budding biblical scholar is to see whether he or she can spot high- and low-christological moments throughout each respective gospel, and to form an opinion, after doing such research, as to which gospels lean more one way or the other. (You can probably guess which way John leans!)

For those who are celebrating Easter: a mindful Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and a Happy Easter. For my Jewish friends, who begin their own celebrations at sundown today: a mindful Pesach to you and yours.

*Another term used in Christian scholarship is pneumatology: ordered discourse about the Holy Spirit. The three terms together form a trinitarian set: theology (theos), christology (christos), and pneumatology (pneuma).


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