Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Jesus’ life before his birth


When did Jesus Christ really live? Did his life begin at his conception in his mother Mary’s womb, or did he enjoy a prior existence as a divine, spirit person in the transcendent spirit realm with his God and Father? (Galatians 4:4; John 8:23; 16:28; 17:5) This blog entry will address this subject and will kindly point out some deficiencies of the “No Personal Preexistence” school of thought espoused by “Socinianism” or “Ebionism,” also known today as “Biblical Unitarianism.” Hereon, this school of thought will be addressed simply as NP.

One thing that is clear is that Jesus called God his Father (notably at John 17:1-5) in accords with divine revelation seen in Deuteronomy 32:6, Isaiah 63:16, 64:8, Jeremiah 31:9, Psalm 89:26 and Malachi 2:10, which all in one way or another identify God or Jehovah as the Father. He recognized his parents Joseph and Mary, but he always directed attention to God as his Father, never to Joseph, not even in passing.

Additionally, at his baptism the ‘heavens opened up’ to him. (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:21-22) Now, the ‘heavens opening up’ can include revelation, which finds precedent in Ezekiel 1:1, and this motif was repeated later with Stephen in Acts 7:56 and with John in Revelation 4:1 and 19:11—thus he likely experienced a baptismal revelatory enlightenment. Following this notable event, he spoke as if he had lived before his birth as recorded at Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34, apparently recalling specific cases of him reaching out to the Israelites before his birth, as in working alongside warning prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah from the spirit realm. (See Appendix A.)

Descent Narratives
But perhaps the most descriptive and explicit explanation of Jesus’ origin is found in the Descent Narratives of Ephesians 4:9 and Philippians 2:5-8:

In Ephesians 4:8-10 the reference is being made to Psalm 68:18 where God ascends “up high” back to heaven. Thus, after identifying the application to Jesus in Ephesians 4:7, in Ephesians 4:9 (NET Bible) Paul writes that Jesus “also descended to the lower regions, namely, the earth,” and the NET Bible footnote for “earth” informs us that “the phrase ‘of the earth’” is “a genitive of apposition” and that “many recent scholars hold this view and argue that it is a reference to the incarnation.”[1] Thus this phrase explicitly specifies that Jesus descended to the earth just like he ascended from it. (Acts 1:9, 10) Alternatively, one NP-friendly translation presents Ephesians 4:9 as: “it says he ascended, but that means he also had previously descended.”[2] This translation ends the verse prematurely and fails to include the highly relevant and qualifying ending of “to the lower regions, namely, the earth.” Hopefully this was an unintentional omission, especially since this omitted phrase may be seen as a significant contribution to the debate. While NP may want to view the descent as one into the grave[3], that this omission may consequently allow for, this verse is not talking about Jesus descending into the grave from the earth, no, it is talking about Jesus descending from heaven that he ascended to. (Acts 1:9, 10) This is the only way Paul’s logic works—as Jesus ascended from earth to heaven, so he then previously had to descend from heaven to earth. This is also consistent with Jesus’ words at John 8:21, 23, where he made the contrast with his audience who was from the earth with himself who was not from the earth, and said that he was returning to his transcendent abode where they could not follow him on their own. This powerful contrast is deflated if Jesus was really from the earth.

In Philippians 2:5-8 there is a contrast with Adam made, for Jesus is the “last Adam.” (1 Corinthians 15:45) Exploring this contrast, NP posits that as Adam was created in the image of God, so he was in God’s form (Greek: morphe), as Jesus was in Philippians 2:6,[4] even though morphe is not in Genesis 1:26, 27 LXX—Adam was in the “image” of God only, not the “form” of God there. Ignoring this inconsistency as irrelevant, NP continues to posit that Jesus was born on par with Adam in God’s image or form, and that he “emptied” himself (Philippians 2:7) in the same manner as Isaiah 53:12 describes, where the suffering servant “poured out his life even to death.” Now, while it is true that Jesus “poured out his life even to death,” this act was referred to in Philippians 2:8 where “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.” But when Jesus “emptied” himself, this resulted in him becoming human, his birth on earth. (Galatians 4:4) This is where NP appears to crumble. To his credit, one Biblical Unitarian said it’s possible that this Philippians 2 passage can support Jesus having a prehuman existence that he emptied himself of.[5] However, one concern he posits is that we can’t relate to having a prehuman existence that we’re emptying ourselves of to imitate Jesus. But as we can still relate to the humility that action demonstrated, that concern would fall to the wayside. It is also noteworthy that Jesus is called the same thing Adam was called, the “image of God,” at 2 Corinthians 4:4 and Colossians 1:15 (see also Hebrews 1:3). In contrast, Adam is never referred to as having the “form” of God that Jesus explicitly is said to have. Jesus is spoken of as having both the image and form of God, whereas Adam is only spoken of as having the image of God. This is the second weakness with the NP position—the first and primary weakness is not taking it seriously enough that Jesus emptied himself to become human, not dead.

Thus, these two Descent Narratives portray Jesus as a true missionary, one who left his home in the transcendent spirit realm to be subsequently born without male conception to be the savior of humanity. Per NP, Jesus was not a missionary in the true sense of the word, for he never left his home, he was strictly an itinerant preacher to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” reluctant to preach to Gentiles or Samaritans. (Matthew 10:5; 15:24; Luke 8:1; John 4:3-5; Acts 13:46; Romans 15:8) Thus, per NP, he was the savior of humanity only who was conspicuously born without male conception. In the NP interpretive model then, the virgin birth stands out even more conspicuously than what the Descent Narratives imply. For if Jesus was a true missionary descending from heaven, then yes, the virgin birth would be naturally expected. Thus the virgin birth is only fully congruent with Jesus enjoying a prehuman life, for that’s how he entered our world via his descent.[6] This may be seen as a third weakness with NP. Thus, Jesus enjoying a personal preexistence may be seen as scripturally compelling, even as the most likely interpretation as it has no such strikes against it.


Footnotes:
[1] The term “incarnation” is inaccurate as incarnations are materializations, which by definition are not born like Jesus was—from Mary. (Luke 1:31; Galatians 4:4) Defenders of the incarnation draw attention to the expression at John 1:14, which states that Jesus “resided [Greek skayno-o, literally, “tented”] among us,” and claim this shows Jesus was, not a true human, but an incarnation. However, the apostle Peter used a similar expression about himself, and Peter was obviously not an incarnation. (2 Peter 1:13, 14) The bottom line is that people who are born, like Jesus was, cannot by definition be incarnations.

Additionally, Paul’s application of God in Psalm 68:18 to Jesus in Ephesians 4:7-10 does not automatically support Trinitarianism, for Jesus represents his God and thus may be seen as acting in God’s name. The same situation exists elsewhere, in Psalm 102:25-27 and Isaiah 40:3, for which see “A Trinitarian Take on Jehovah” here: http://jimspace3000.blogspot.com/2016/05/a-trinitarian-take-on-jehovah.html.

[2] Buzzard, Sir Anthony. The One God, the Father, One Man Messiah Translation – New Testament with Commentary. (2014)

[3] The NET Bible footnote referenced above presents this view by stating: “The traditional view understands it as a reference to the underworld (hell), where Jesus is thought to have descended in the three days between his death and resurrection. In this case, ‘of the earth’ would be a partitive genitive.” However this view is seen as inconsistent with the referent drama of Psalm 68:18 of going from the earth to heaven, the transcendent realm of “up high.”

[4] Being in the “form” of God may simply mean that Jesus was a divine spirit being in God’s heavenly court per Biblical monotheism, monolatrism.

[5] Dr. Dale Tuggy. Podcast 49 – 2 interpretations of Philippians 2 – part 2. http://trinities.org/blog/podcast-49-2-interpretations-of-philippians-2-part-2/

[6] In other words, denial of the preexistence makes the virgin birth more peculiar, as in why not have him be born naturally from a zygote cleansed of imperfection? That way there would be no controversy over Mary’s premarital conception. However, with preexistence then the virgin birth would make sense, as it would be the only way for the Messiah to enter our world through a mother.

Appendix
  1. Jesus’ Jerusalem Lamentations
  2. Jesus’ Johannean Reminiscence
Jesus’ Jerusalem Lamentations
In Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem as recorded in Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34, the NET Bible offers this observation: “Jesus, like a lamenting prophet, speaks for God here, who longed to care tenderly for Israel and protect her.” This is really remarkable. Either Jesus is expressing empathy alone for God, or he is recalling his own feelings he expressed during his preexistence. The later may be seen as more compelling for this reason: if he was empathizing alone, he could have spoken clearer if he had said God had longed for it instead of himself. As he was replacing God’s point-of-view with his own in a time-period predating his own birth, it seems pretty clear that this constitutes a personal reminiscence event.

What may support this is a consideration of the context for both the Matthean and Lukan parallels. While Matthew presents the setting as a single occasion as seen in Matthew 23:34-39, Luke separates it into two different contexts as seen in Luke 11:49-51 and 13:34, 35. To recap, Matthew does not separate the account, but Luke does. See Table A, where Luke 13:33 is included for additional relevant context:

Table A
Matthew
Luke
(Matthew 23:34-39) For this reason, I am sending to you prophets and wise men and public instructors. Some of them you will kill and execute on stakes, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, 35 so that there may come upon you all the righteous blood spilled on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. 37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the killer of the prophets and stoner of those sent to her—how often I wanted to gather your children together the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings! But you did not want it. 38 Look! Your house is abandoned to you. 39 For I say to you, you will by no means see me from now until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in Jehovah’s name!’” (Luke 11:49-51) That is why the wisdom of God also said: ‘I will send prophets and apostles to them, and they will kill and persecute some of them, 50 so that the blood of all the prophets spilled from the founding of the world may be charged against this generation, 51 from the blood of Abel down to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the house.’ Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.

(Luke 13:33-35) Nevertheless, I must go on today, tomorrow, and the following day, because it cannot be that a prophet should be put to death outside of Jerusalem. 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the killer of the prophets and stoner of those sent to her—how often I wanted to gather your children together the way a hen gathers her brood of chicks under her wings! But you did not want it. 35 Look! Your house is abandoned to you. I tell you, you will by no means see me until you say: ‘Blessed is the one who comes in Jehovah’s name!’”

Notice that in Matthew, it is Jesus who says “I will send prophets to them who will be mistreated,” but in Luke it is “the wisdom of God,” “a personification of an attribute of God that refers to his wise will,” who says that. (NET Bible footnote) Putting these together, it becomes alarmingly apparent that Jesus is claiming to have existed and acted as “the wisdom of God” prior to his birth, acting out God’s “wise will” prior to his earthly mission. As one scholar explains:
Here Jesus does speak as a person who transcends the time of his earthly ministry in his reference to his longing throughout the entirety of Israel’s history to call the nation to God. (Simon J. Gathercole. The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Kindle Locations 264-265. Kindle Edition. Underline added.)
What makes this observation particularly striking is the contrast between what Jesus says in Matthew 23:35, summarizing the dark history of mistreating God’s people and his prophets, with his first-person lamentation over Jerusalem. In speaking this way, Jesus was likely drawing on Jehovah’s lamentation seen at Jeremiah 35:14-15 where he said: “I have spoken to you again and again, but you have not obeyed me. And I kept sending all my servants the prophets to you, sending them again and again … But you did not incline your ear or listen to me.” (See also 2 Chronicles 36:15-16.) Jesus then appears to be taking Jehovah’s lamentation as his own, and adding to it. The same scholar explains:
[T]he reference to “how often” in connection with Jesus’ attitude to Jerusalem portrays Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel as a transcendent figure who has been summoning Israel to repentance throughout her history. … [W]e can to a large extent agree with [one scholar’s] statement that “for Matthew, Jesus is a trans-historical figure.” (Ibid, Kindle Locations 2341-2343. Underline added.)
Therefore, these Jerusalem Lamentation passages in their contexts indicate that Jesus is being depicted as speaking as the preexistent “wisdom of God,” not just as a personification but as a real person who expressed emotions, and who in Judea could now reminisce on his prehuman career.

Jesus’ Johannean Reminiscence
At John 8:56 Jesus said to his opponents: “Abraham your father rejoiced greatly at the prospect of seeing my day, and he saw it and rejoiced.” His agitated interlocutors, now even more irritated, pressed him to explain, aggressively asking him: “You are not yet 50 years old, and still you have seen Abraham?” To this, Jesus replied with a statement that has reverberated thunderously for centuries, with both grandiose and mundane interpretations being understood from his answer. The most popular and grandiose interpretation is ironically the most unsubstantiated and absurd one, the interpretation of Trinitarianism that has inflicted incalculable damage on Biblical exegesis. That fallacious interpretation presents Jesus as saying, “before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (NET Bible) As explained in the blog entry “Identifying Jesus,” the Greek words for “I am” are basically left untranslated (translated only as an interlinear translation) with the disproven claim that they refer to the “I AM” of Exodus 3:14, which is also a debatable translation. As explained in “Identifying Jesus,” this is just ridiculous for more Greek words would have to be present to justify this interpretation, as in “before Abraham came into existence, I existed as the I am!” Noticing this glaring deficiency, NP posits that the claim that Jesus had literally seen Abraham in his prehuman life derives from Jesus’ enemies (John 8:57), and that his answer to them should be understood as being “before Abraham ever existed, I am the Messiah.” (Buzzard, Sir Anthony. The One God, the Father, One Man Messiah Translation – New Testament with Commentary. 2014) Here though more words are added that are not in the Greek, and are inserted per the NP interpretation. Additionally, NP holds that this interpretation of inserting “the Messiah” refers to “the Messiah planned in God’s great design for humanity.” (Footnote 608.)

To review, Trinitarianism doesn’t add words but reads the text in a way that demands more words. NP on the other hand adds words and then reads the revised text in a way that demands even more words, as in “before Abraham ever existed, I am the Messiah in the sense of being planned in God’s great design for humanity.”

Is this not a sad state of affairs? Rescuing Bible readers from exegetical oblivion is the more mundane translation of Jesus’ stellar reply: “before Abraham was born, I have been” (1963, 71 NASB with marginal reading), “before Abraham came into existence, I have been” (NWT), and “I existed before Abraham was even born!” (1996 NLT). No dangling “I am” with a blank to be filled in. No, Jesus was indeed attempting to answer their derisive question of seeing Abraham or not—and it was his answer affirming pre-Abrahamic existence that amounted to a grievous stoning offense (in their eyes) of injuring their sacred genealogy, in addition to Jesus’ other perceived offenses that in their eyes could only be remedied by hurling stones at him.

With this interpretation in mind, we can see that it was actually Jesus, not his enemies, who broached the subject of seeing Abraham back in verse 56. Commenting on this, one researcher wrote:
Here Jesus talks about the reaction of Abraham upon ‘seeing his day.’ Jesus says that Abraham “saw it” and then “rejoiced.” But there is no account in the Bible [or any known contemporary document for that matter] that records any such emotion by Abraham upon seeing the “day” of the Messiah. It is clear, then, that Jesus is looking back to a time when he saw Abraham rejoice! This is so clearly the meaning of his own personal reflection on the emotions Abraham displayed, that the Jews responded to Jesus [in the next verse]: “You have seen Abraham?” (Stafford, Greg. Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended 3rd ed., 223-4. 2007) (Italics original.)
Perhaps Jesus had in mind the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 where it is said that “all the families of the ground will certainly be blessed by means of you.” While it is possible that Jesus was merely imagining Abraham’s natural response of rejoicing at hearing this, his repetition of Abraham’s rejoicing and him not clarifying to his incensed enemies that he was only imagining it serve as indicators that this is another “reminiscence event” of a person “who transcends the time of his earthly ministry” as “a trans-historical figure.” (See Appendix A.)


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