Saturday, September 18, 2010

Jesus is Lord:
What did it mean for the Earliest Christianity?

Ο Ιησούς είναι Κύριος:
Τι σήμαινε αυτό για την πρωιμότερη Χριστιανοσύνη;

«The history of this confession of Jesus as Lord in earliest Christianity largely revolves round the question, How significant is the application of this title to Jesus? What role or status does this confession attribute to Jesus or recognize as belonging to Jesus? The answers of earliest Christianity vary and we cannot always be sure if we are hearing them correctly. The problem is that 'lord' can denote a whole range of dignity - from a respectful form of address as to a teacher or judge to a full title for God. Where do the early Christian references to the lordship of Jesus come within this spectrum? The answer seems to be that over the first few decades of Christianity the confession of Jesus as 'Lord' moved in overt significance from the lower end of this 'spectrum of dignity' towards the upper end steadily gathering to itself increasing overtones of deity.

According to Matthew and Luke Jesus was regularly addressed as 'Lord' during his ministry - in Matthew chiefly within the context of miracle stories (Matt. 8.2, 6, 8, 25; 9.28; 14.28, 30; etc.), in Luke chiefly in teaching contexts (Luke 9.59, 61; 10.40; 11.1; 12.41; etc.). We need not doubt that the Aramaic mari underlies the Greek kyrie (vocative) in at least some of these instances. Mar was used of the first-century BC holy man Abba Hilkiah, presumably in recognition of the charismatic powers attributed to him. Moreover, 'lord' was largely synonymous with 'teacher' at the time of Jesus, and Jesus was certainly recognized to have the authority of a rabbi or teacher (Mark 9.5, 17, 38; 10.17, 35, 51; etc.). This equivalence of 'teacher' and 'lord' is probably reflected in John 13.13f. and may well lie behind the use of kyrios in Mark 11.3 (cf. Mark 14.14). We can say therefore that the confession of Jesus as Lord was rooted within the ministry of Jesus to the extent that he was widely acknowledged to exercise the authority of a (charismatic) teacher and healer (cf. Mark 1.22, 27; 6.2; 11.28). Whether 'Lord' already had a higher significance for Jesus himself during his ministry depends on how we evaluate Mark 12.35-37. Even if it contains an authentic word of the historical Jesus (as is quite possible) it need only mean that he understood Messiah to be a figure superior to David in significance and specially favoured by Yahweh. It does not necessarily imply that he thought of Messiah as a divine figure (Psalm 110 after all probably referred originally to the king; see also p.56 n.45 below).

As a confession 'Jesus is Lord' stems primarily from the post-resurrection faith of the first Christians. It was evidently the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead which gave 'lord' the decisive nudge along the 'spectrum of dignity' towards a connotation of divinity. According to both Acts 2.36 and the hymn cited by Paul in Phil. 2.9-11, kyrios was the title given to Jesus at his resurrection/exaltation and by virtue of it. A striking confirmation of the resurrection's significance at this point is Luke's own use of the title. In his Gospel, when he is narrating some episode, he quite naturally refers to Jesus as 'the Lord'. But never do the characters in these episodes speak in this way. The first time Jesus is called 'the Lord' by one of his contemporaries is immediately after his resurrection (Luke 24.34). Similarly in the Fourth Gospel. Despite the high christology of John's presentation of the incarnate Logos (including the roll-call of titles in John 1 and Jesus' consciousness of pre-existence) kyrios is not used by Jesus' contemporaries until John 20.28, and the Evangelist himself, unlike even Luke, shows a marked reserve in his own use of the title for Jesus prior to the resurrection. In other words, what we have preserved here, as explicitly elsewhere, is the conviction that Jesus became Lord as a consequence of his resurrection and exaltation

* James D. G. Dunn,
Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity
[Ενότητα και Ποικιλία στην Καινή Διαθήκη: Διερεύνηση στον Χαρακτήρα της Πρωιμότερης Χριστιανοσύνης],
SCM Press , 2006,
pp./σσ. 53-55.

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