Monday, June 25, 2007

John 5 and Christ "as Agent"

Several New Testament scholars - most notably A.E. Harvey ("Christ as Agent" and Jesus and the Constraints of History) and James Frank McGrath (John's Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology) have written that key christological verses in John's Gospel - particularly in Chapter 5 - may be explained not in terms of Jesus' ontological equality with His Father (as has been understood by the Early Church Fathers and orthodox commentators and scholars ever since) but in terms of the Jewish legal concept of "Agency." Not surprisingly, a number of anti-Trinitarian apologists have taken up this argument in an effort to undermine the Biblical evidence for Christ's Deity.

Here is a typical example:

"Even if the texts were saying that they were to honor Jesus"as much" as they honor the Father, it wouldn't be problematic to the JW view, nor would it assist trinitarianism. Jesus' relationship to the Father is developed by John according to the paradigm of 'agency', and this paradigm is summed up by the phrase, "the agent is equated with the principal," or "the agent is as the principal." Jesus' role as the "Word" (= God's spokesman) was to representatively reveal God to us. Thus, within the parameters set by the Father, the principal, Jesus was legally equal with God. To honor an agent is to honor the principal he represents, and to dishonor an agent is to dishonor the principal he represents. So when Christ performs functions that are ultimately the prerogatives of God himself, he is due the same honor that would be given to God himself.

The reason this doesn't present a problem is because, according to the agency paradigm, it is ultimately the principal who is the true recipient of the honor that is given to his representative. It is Jehovah's office and authority we honor when we honor his Son"

It must be said at the outset that this argument has a lot of merit. Trinitarians agree that Jesus is - in Harvey's words - God's "Agent par-excellence." He does represent the Father to the world. He is the direct "agent" of creation, salvation, resurrection, and eternal life.

The question is: How far can one press the idea of agency? Can one argue - as my Witness friend has, above - that agency completely eliminates the possibility that the Son of God is ontologically equal with God the Father? If Jesus is the agent "par-excellence" because He is God's Son, then can all of the references to Jesus as God (both direct and indirect) be explained away?

I've given this topic a lot of thought and research. I hope to write a formal article on this topic in the future. In this blog entry, I'll attempt to give a brief summary of my findings and preliminary conclusions. In short, I believe that while "agency" may be a helpful category to explain how easily some Jews were able to accommodate Jesus into their monotheism, it goes well beyond the available evidence to suggest that Jesus was simply God's Agent, to the exclusion of His essential Deity.

For further research, I'd suggest the following sources:

Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity
Larry Hurtado, One God and One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism.
Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism & Christology in the New Testament.
Darrell Bock, Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism: The Charge Against Jesus in Mark 14:53-65.

Is "Agency" Biblical?
It has been asserted - both by Harvey and McGrath (and a handful of others) - that the Jews of Jesus' day would readily have understood Jesus calling God "his own Father" and "making Himself equal with God" (John 5:18) in terms of agency. But the evidence they offer is usually in terms of extra-Biblical texts - many of them dating later than the NT. For example, the key concept, highlighted by the Witness apologist quoted above, is: "The agent is equated with the principal." While we can certainly find texts that indicate that God's agents represent Him (Luke 20:13), communicating His prophecies and commandments, and even "stand-in" for Him in very specific circumstances (e.g., Moses was "made like God" to Pharaoh, Exodus 7:1), there are no examples of agents (other than Jesus) who are said to be equal to God.

McGrath also points to Exodus 23:21 and several extra-Biblical texts to demonstrate that principal agents of God could bear His name. Each of these texts are very similar in the wording they use:

Exo 23:21 - Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.

Apocalypse of Abraham 10:3 - And when I was still face down on the earth, I heard the voice of the Holy One, saying, “Go, Yahoel, the namesake of the mediation of my ineffable name, sanctify this man and strengthen him from his trembling!”

Apocalypse of Abraham 10:8 - I am Yahoel named by him who shakes those which are with me on the seventh vault, on the firmament. I am a power in the midst of the Ineffable who put together his names in me.

3 Enoch 12:5 - He [the Holy One]… called me, 'The lesser YHVH' in the presence of his whole household in the height, as it is written, 'My name is in him.'"

The lone Biblical text does not say that anyone called the angel YHWH, or that God wanted Him to be so addressed. There is no hint that the angel is God's "principal agent," or co-regent. Instead, God says that the Israelites must obey the angel as if he were God, "since my Name is in him." The focus is on obedience; God placing His name in the angel need mean nothing more than He placed His authority in this particular circumstance in him. This text simply cannot be regarded as supporting the exaggerated view of agency advocated by McGrath and anti-trinitarian apologists.

The Apocalypse of Abraham is dated slightly after the NT period (80 - 100 AD). It refers to the angel Yahoel as the "namesake" of God, in whom God "put together his names." This language is so similar to the Exodus text, that it most likely is derivative of it. Later Jewish mysticism read much into such texts, but there is little evidence that the author of the Apocalypse regarded the angel Yahoel as the principal agent of God. He was granted God's authority in a specific situation, like the angel in Exodus.

3 Enoch dates from the later half of the 3rd Century AD. Jewish Merkabah mystics also made use of this text, and it probably contributed to the so-called Two Powers Heresy (see Alan Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism and James McGrath and Jerry Treux "'Two Powers' and Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism"). However, as McGrath and Truex argue, this 'heresy' probably developed over time. The fact that Paul and the other NT authors saw no reason to address it in relationship to their exalted view of Christ argues strongly that it did not exist in their day (contra McGrath and Truex, who argue that it did, but was not regarded as heretical until much later).

James McGrath also points to Philo's concept of the Logos as a "second God" as supporting the common idea that God has a principal agent, and he finds this idea also present in the NT. He writes: "For example, it is widely recognized that John’s concept of the Logos has similarities with Philo’s ("Two Powers"). But McGrath seems to be over-reaching, both in his sweeping statement about Philo's and John's Logos being "similar" (many NT scholars would sharply disagree), and most importantly in regarding Philo's language as supportive of personal agency. As Larry Hurtado cogently argues:

"In Philo, as in Greek philosophical tradition, the Logos was solely an important logical category posited to deal with an intellectual problem. By contrast Justin's view [which was, I would argue, influenced by John's Gospel] was obviously shaped by the fact that he was applying the term to a real figure who had appeared in history and was reverenced in Christian worship under his own name along with God the Father" (Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, p. 644, emphasis in original).

In summary, while the notion of God sending agents into the world is surely Biblical, there is no evidence supporting the idea that the agent was to be understood as being equal to God. This leads us, then, to an examination of John 5.

Equal with God
John 5:18 - For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

Anti-trinitarians argue that Jesus calling God His "own Father" and "making himself equal with God" can be accommodated under the rubric of agency. As we have seen, there is no Biblical evidence that such can be the case. However, if the Jews in Jesus' day can be shown to have understood equality with God to be purely functional (to the exclusion of ontology), we might agree that while prior agents were never equated with God, Jesus as the agent par-excellence could be so equated.

I must stress is that the phrase "equal with God" is not spoken by the Jews; it is John's explanatory statement. God knew the minds of the Jews, and God inspired John to explain what the Jews meant when they accused Jesus of claiming God as his own Father, i.e., "making Himself equal with God." "Making Himself equal with God," is appositional to "saying God is his own Father." This view is commonplace among commentators and grammarians, including the McGrath and Harvey. McGrath goes so far as to creatively retranslate John 5:18 to avoid what he acknowledges is the consensus view and the negative implications of that view for his position (McGrath, Jesus and the Constraints of History, p. 88).

The Jews sought to kill Jesus for what they perceived to be blasphemy. While it is possible that the Jews would have thought someone claiming to be God's agent who really wasn't was blasphemous, there is little evidence to support this idea. For example, nowhere in Darrell Bock's extensive study (see above) does he suggest that 'blasphemy' can be so tightly defined. Nor is there evidence that words or actions against God's agent were considered blasphemous because the offender failed to honor the agent just as he honored God. In fact, his examples are all verbal insults hurled against God's people or their leaders, which were perceived as attacks against God Himself, not refusal to give even unequal honor.

On the contrary, regarding oneself as ontologically equal with God was regarded as blasphemy of the highest order, as we shall see.

Since Harvey and McGrath are comfortable leaving the Bible to establish what they think represents common Jewish thinking in NT times, I will do so as well. In 2 Maccabees 9:12 we read the following cry of remorse from a cursed Antiochus:

"And when he could not endure his own stench, he uttered these words: "It is right to be subject to God, and no mortal should think that he is equal to God."

That Antiochus did not merely regard himself as God's principal agent is clear from the context:

"He who had just been thinking that he could command the waves of the sea, in his superhuman arrogance, and imagining that he could weigh the high mountains in a balance" (2 Maccabees, 9:8). Antiochus was claiming divine power and authority, tantamount to ontological equality with God. And in verse 28, he is called "blasphemer."

The explicit reference to divinity, here, is ISOQEOS (which the classical Greek lexicon LSJ renders: "equal to the gods"). I've consulted several standard translations of 2 Maccabees with these results:

RSV: "Equal to God"
Bartlett: "Equal to him [God]"
Tedesche: "God's equal"

The verbal similarity to John 5 is obvious, and has been recognized by Hurtado, Bock, Meeks, and Harvey. Indeed, in Jesus and the Constraints of History (page 170), Harvey cites the Jews' accusations in John 5:18 and says that claiming equality with God was "blasphemous." But on page 171, he references 2 Maccabees 9:12! He actually agrees that the Jews understood Jesus to be claiming ontological equality. He believes Jesus answers the Jews by claiming merely to be God's agent, but he acknowledges the very point I have been raising. I'm not sure how Harvey can, on the one hand, agree that "equal with God" connotes ontological equality and is John's explanation of what "claiming God as his own Father" means in John 5, and on the other, claim that 'Son of God' was not blasphemous. It would seem a contradiction in his argument.

In the Decalogue 61, Philo calls "impious" those who would honor a creature equally with God, comparing them to those would would honor a viceroy equally with a King. This statement not only supports the idea that equality with God could include ontology, but also that agency does not require even functional equality in the way Harvey and McGrath argue.

In evaluating the "Christ as Agent" claims of scholars and anti-Trinitarian apologists, we must first determine if there is any basis in history for someone claiming to be God's agent, and being accused of blasphemy the way those claiming ontological equality with God were. We can speculate that such would have been the case, but the fact is that no prior agents of God ever claimed what Jesus was claiming. None ever claimed to work on the Sabbath just as their own Father was working (John 5:17); none claimed that God showed them everything He does (John 5:20); none claimed to do everything the Father showed them, and in the same manner (John 5:19); none claimed that believers must honor the 'agent' just as they honor the Father, and not to honor the 'agent' was not honoring God Himself (John 5:23). These are stupendous claims! Even Harvey says that Jesus is the agent par-excellence, the Son of the Sender. The reason a Son was the perfect envoy in the Jewish culture, was not only because the son was loved by the father, but because the son was the perfect representation of his father (Hebrews 1:3), his own son and heir - ontologically equal with his father (e.g., Colossians 2:9), but under the Father's authority.

As Harvey asks, "how far can we take this idea of agency?" How far, indeed?