Ruben A. Bühner

Reviewed by Christopher Maronde on 09/12/2022

It is of course no secret that our knowledge of so-called “Second Temple Judaism” has exploded in the last century. Not only the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls but also increased attention to other contemporary documents has increased our knowledge of Judaism “between the testaments” exponentially. This has necessarily given deeper insights into the messianic expectations of that era. It is also well-known that in the past several decades a number of scholars have pushed back against the critical consensus that the assertion of Christ as divine—so-called “high Christology”—arose late, a product of interaction with the wider Greco-Roman world. Popularizers of higher criticism continue to claim that Jesus “became” God only within the context of Christianity’s spread to the wider Mediterranean world. Ruben Bühner, a postdoctoral researcher for New Testament Studies at the University of Zurich and the University of Tübingen, intends to place these two areas of study in conversation with one another. He contends that the high Christology of the New Testament did not arise in a vacuum, but in interaction with the messianic hopes of Second Temple Judaism. In other words, earlier messianic language and expectations were taken up by the writers of the New Testament and reshaped in various ways as they expressed their high christological content. In this way, the New Testament authors participated in contemporary Jewish discussions and debates. The New Testament’s contentions about Christ, as dramatic as they may be, are still “in reach” (Bühner’s phrase) of Jewish messianic discourse.

To illustrate these contentions, Bühner sets side-by-side significant christological texts from the New Testament with significant messianic texts from Second Temple Judaism. The choice of these texts is by no means meant to be exhaustive, but representative of each genre. He thus deals with a Pauline text (Phil 2:6–11), two Synoptic texts (Mark 14:61–65; Luke 1:26–38), Revelation 4–5, and John’s prologue. Joined to these are texts from Qumran, 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, the Psalter, and Isaiah (particularly the reception history of these biblical documents in the Second Temple era). Bühner’s careful exegesis provides important insights for any who would study these central New Testament texts, as well as for those who study the extrabiblical texts, yet it is focused on his primary argument.

It is important to understand what Bühner is not arguing. Bühner does not posit a “history of religion” connection between the various texts that he sets next to one another. The question of the extent to which the authors of the New Testament knew the various documents of Second Temple Judaism he keeps open. Absent a direct quotation or clear allusion, he cannot be certain which of these documents were known by Mark or Paul, for example. Bühner’s proposal is much more modest: the New Testament’s articulation of “high” Christology—that is, the contention that Jesus of Nazareth is divine, included within the reality of the one God of Israel—took place within the wider context of messianic expectations in Second Temple Judaism. Bühner is also not contending that New Testament Christology is simply to be identified with Second Temple Jewish messianic expectations. He argues that it is a false alternative to force a choice between the “Jewishness” or the distinctiveness of New Testament Christology. Instead, he argues that New Testament Christology arose in dialogue with contemporary messianic discourse, yet there is something new here. The New Testament applied many of the motifs found around them but in a quantity never before seen, and connected them all with Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover, the notion of incarnation along with suffering and death were elements that made New Testament Christology very distinct and radically new. There is a tendency in Christian circles, particularly in preaching, to assume that all the Jews contemporary with Jesus were looking only for a temporal, militaristic messiah. Bühner’s evidence demonstrates that this was by no means the case, and that our understanding of contemporary messianic expectations is in need of adjustment. Yet, New Testament Christology is not simply the climax of all previous messianic expectations, but combines certain ones together to speak of Christ. One path that Bühner does not believe the New Testament authors took was an explicitly “angelic” or “angelomorphic” Christology. Indeed, he asserts that Hebrews 1:4 was written against such notions, found within the wider messianic discourse of Second Temple Judaism. In this discussion, he mentions the significant texts in Revelation where Jesus is portrayed as an angel, but he does not treat them in detail. Superhuman figures (such as the Old Testament’s “Angel of the Lord”) do not, in his opinion, form a significant part of the New Testament’s christological assertions, nor does theophanic language from the Old Testament.

Bühner challenges a number of scholarly assumptions with his work. First and most fundamentally, he challenges those in contemporary scholarship who assume that the divinity of Jesus was the parting of the ways between Second Temple Judaism and Christianity. He finds this assumption even among proponents of early high Christology, and it goes back even to Justin Martyr. Many scholars contend that Christians said of Jesus what no Jews were willing to say about their messianic hopes, in other words, that he is a divine messiah. Bühner argues that this eventually became the case, but only after the New Testament documents were composed. Within Second Temple Judaism, it was an open and hotly debated question whether the messiah was to be considered in some sense as divine. The “parting of the ways” only took place later, as a Jewish reaction to the claims of Christianity. He also cautions scholars of early high Christology to avoid putting all the emphasis on one way of understanding Jewish monotheism in the first century. There are a variety of different ways to express the divinity of the one God of Israel, and a number of them are interacted with in the New Testament. When considering how divinity is expressed, each text should be dealt with on its own terms. Finally, he challenges the contention of many that high Christology could only have developed late. His collected body of Second Temple evidence demonstrates that a messiah who was divine in some way was expected by many in that era. Much of the theological material needed to formulate high Christology was already present in contemporary messianic discourse, and Bühner asserts that the New Testament’s Christology can be understood best within that context. Moreover, his (albeit selective) examination of the New Testament evidence supports the contention that high Christology arose quite early. On what basis can scholars say that Jesus’ place at the right hand of God in Mark 14:62 is somehow “lower” than his status as uncreated in John’s prologue? As noted above, there are a variety of ways to express divinity, and each text should be taken on its own terms. Bühner thus argues against any kind of “divine pyramid” view of New Testament Christology.

Bühner’s study will no doubt be of significant interest to those who are following the current discussion concerning the nature of New Testament Christology. Those who have followed these debates in the English-speaking world will find Bühner conversant with that literature, but also able to provide a window into the discussions happening in German-language publications through his extensive footnotes. Those who have an interest in the literature of Second Temple Judaism will find his application of the texts of that era to New Testament Christology to be both helpful and fascinating. Confessional Lutherans will notice that Bühner operates within the terms of the contemporary scholarly discussion, sharing many of its assumptions, even as he challenges aspects of that discussion. The actual christological assertions of the “historical Jesus” are left an open question, although he asserts that it is historically conceivable that a man could have claimed to be divine in his own lifetime, and was placed in the middle of inter-Jewish debates over the nature of the messiah, with a bloody end as the result. His is a historical investigation, done within the scholarly world, with the advantages and disadvantages found therein. The value of Bühner’s work lies primarily in demonstrating, against much of scholarly opinion, that the high Christology of the New Testament is a high Christology with its roots primarily in Jewish messianic expectations based on the Old Testament and expressed in Second Temple literature, not in the religious proclivities of the wider Greco-Roman world. Understanding the context of the New Testament, particularly the kinds of inter-Jewish debates that were occurring while Jesus walked this earth, enriches our appreciation of the major texts of New Testament Christology. That Christ is divine is clearly attested by these texts, in many and various way. That no Jew expected the messiah to be divine is, according to Bühner’s work, a false assumption. That Jesus of Nazareth is that messiah, that Christ who is divine, that is the claim that led to the death of Jesus and the “parting of the ways” between Jews and Christians, changing an inter-Jewish debate into a fracture that could not be healed.