Book Write-Up: The Earliest Christologies

James L. Papandrea.  The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

James L. Papandrea teaches church history at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, which is at Northwestern University.  Papandrea has a Ph.D. from Northwestern University.

The Earliest Christologies is about the different beliefs about Jesus and Christ after the time of the apostles.  The book focuses on the second century C.E., but it also refers to issues and personalities from the third-fourth centuries C.E., and occasionally to the New Testament.

Papandrea discusses five Christologies.  First, there was Angel Adoptionism.  Angel Adoptionism maintained that an angel inhabited and empowered the man Jesus at Jesus’ conception.  This form of Adoptionism tended to accept the virgin birth of Jesus.

Second, there was Spirit Adoptionism.  Spirit Adoptionism held that the Holy Spirit anointed Jesus at Jesus’ baptism.  This form of Adoptionism tended to reject the virgin birth.

Both forms of Adoptionism differentiated between the man Jesus and the spiritual “Christ” who empowered him, meaning that they did not regard Jesus as divine.  They thought that the supernatural empowered Jesus as a reward for Jesus’ piety and obedience to God’s law: Angel Adoptionism believed that God foresaw Jesus’ obedience and rewarded him at conception, whereas Spirit Adoptionism held that God rewarded Jesus later in Jesus’ life, at his baptism.  According to Papandrea, Adoptionism was primarily accepted by Jewish Christians, who were monotheistic and upheld obedience towards the Torah.

Whereas the Adoptionisms treated Jesus as a mere man who was empowered by the divine, the third and the fourth Christologies that Papandrea discusses went to the other extreme: they maintained that Jesus was fully divine, not human.  Docetic Gnosticism held that Jesus was a phantom, one who only appeared human but actually was not.  Hybrid Gnosticism, however, thought that Jesus had a body, albeit an ethereal one rather than a human one.  Both of these Christologies believed that Jesus pre-existed his coming to earth and was a deity who had an origin from other deities.  Whereas Adoptionism believed in one God and recoiled from any idea that a god could be created, which were possible reasons that it was embraced by Jewish Christians, the Gnosticisms thought that gods could be created; thus, the Gnosticisms were more consistent with paganism.  Papandrea also discusses the ethical implications of the Gnosticisms, as some Gnostics took their contempt for the flesh in a hedonistic direction (have fun, for the flesh does not matter, anyway!), and other Gnostics suppressed the flesh through asceticism.

According to Papandrea, these four Christologies largely rejected the idea the Christ suffered.  Both Adoptionisms maintained that the spiritual “Christ” left the man Jesus before Jesus died.  Although there were some Hybrid Gnosticisms that accepted that Christ suffered, many thought that Christ shed his body and escaped suffering.  Papandrea also states that these four Christologies largely rejected the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The fifth Christology that Papandrea discusses is the one that most Christians today embrace: Logos Christology.  According to this view, Jesus pre-existed his coming to earth and was the divine Logos, the son of God the Father.  God the Logos became incarnate in Jesus, who was fully human and fully divine during his lifetime, and who remained so even after his resurrection.  For Papandrea, this position was the position of the apostles, and it was the majority, mainstream position in second century Christianity.  At the same time, Papandrea acknowledges that it became refined and crystallized through its encounter with alternative positions.  Papandrea argues that Logos Christology is a balanced position, and he implies that it lacks the deficiencies of the other four Christologies.

Here are some thoughts about this book:

A.  While Papandrea embraces Logos Christology, he empathetically and clearly explains what was at stake for the adherents of the five positions.  He could be repetitive, but some readers can use repetition, or at least reminders.  The book is lucid.  It may be appropriate for undergraduates, albeit undergraduates who have learned basics about the New Testament and early Christianity.

B.  Papandrea distinguishes between paganism and Judaism, particularly on issues pertaining to monotheism and divinity.  While that distinction may have some validity, there may have been cases in which paganism and Judaism overlapped, even on these issues.  Papandrea demonstrates awareness of this possibility, for he does mention Jewish ideas about the logos and wisdom.  The reason that this issue is significant is that some scholars have argued that Gnosticism may have been a Jewish phenomenon, or may have existed within Judaism, whereas Papandrea appears to treat it as largely Gentile, without really engaging contrary scholarly perspectives.

C.  Is Papandrea correct that Logos Christology is the position of the New Testament?  On the one hand, Papandrea asserts this, without really demonstrating it.  Granted, something like Logos Christology exists in the Gospel of John and in Paul’s writings, but what about the New Testament writings that do not explicitly depict Jesus as pre-existing, or the passages that may imply that Jesus became the Son of God at his resurrection?  Papandrea in one place disputes that the Gospel of Mark has Adoptionism, but he does not really offer support for his position.  On the other hand, Papandrea does well to argue, or to refer to the possibility, that some of the New Testament writings (i.e., I John, Hebrews) actually argue against non-Logos Christologies.

While there may be some forms of Adoptionism in New Testament writings, the New Testament appears to differ, overall, from the second century positions of Angel Adoptionism and Spirit Adoptionism, for the New Testament presents Jesus Christ as suffering and rising again.  That may add support to Papandrea’s view that Angel Adoptionism and Spirit Adoptionism were stray positions, untrue to the mainstream.  (Robert M. Price has a different view, however, contending that there are traces of docetism in the New Testament, and even traces of the view that Jesus did not even die.)

D.  Papandrea argues that the second century church fathers regarded Jesus as God, and as eternally existing.  Bart Ehrman seems to present a different picture in How Jesus Became God, but, even in Papandrea’s book, there are some indications that things may be more complex than Papandrea’s narrative would imply.  On page 100, Papandrea states that “all of the apologists and theologians before Novatian had assumed that the ‘begetting’ (or generation) of the Son from the Father was an event that took place at some point in eternity before creation.”  Specifically, the view was that the Son existed as a thought in the mind of the Father, until the Father spoke the Son as a word, thereby begetting the Son.  Papandrea still believes that these theologians and apologists regarded the Son as eternal, for he says that they believed that the Son had eternally existed prior to his being begotten, but he existed in the Father’s mind.  On page 120, however, Papandrea says that Theophilus of Antioch (second century) believed that the Son was a thought in the Father’s mind until he was begotten, and that his successors concluded from this that the Son did not actually exist prior to the time that he was begotten: that the Son had not always existed, but rather came into existence at a certain point.  Should not this cast at least some question on the notion that the apologists and theologians before Novatian necessarily assumed that the Son had eternally existed, prior to his being begotten?

E.  One may think that I am saying that Papandrea retrojects Nicene Christology onto the New Testament and second century C.E. Christianity.  That would not be entirely accurate, though.  Papandrea acknowledges some messiness: he notes that there were second century Christians who tended to conflate Christ with the Holy Spirit, for example.  Papandrea also discusses the Christology of the Shepherd of Hermas, in his chapter on Angel Adoptionism.  The Shepherd of Hermas did enjoy some popularity within early Christianity (though it also had it critics), and one may inquire if that casts some question on, or at least should qualify, Papandrea’s overall picture: of the apostles holding and passing down some “orthodox” position (however rudimentary), which became mainstream, and some teachers strayed from that.

F.  Was Logos Christology the mainstream, majority position in the second century C.E., or at least the position held by most bishops and theologians, as Papandrea states on page 85, referring to Tertullian’s Prescription Against Heretics 1?  There may be something to Papandrea’s narrative, even though (as I said above) there may be factors that should qualify it.  Perhaps there was a majority Christian teaching, and some within the church held that they could uncover esoteric secrets underneath that teaching, secrets that would be accessible to the few.  The esotericism of Gnosticism may go against it being the majority position.  Still, did that majority position advocate a particular Christology?

G.  A question that I had in reading this book: if Logos Christology was so perfect and covered all of the bases, addressing the inadequacies of the other positions, and Logos Christology came first, then how did those other Christologies even arise?  Were they raising concerns that had already been successfully answered?  Papandrea may say that Logos Christology existed prior to the other positions, but in a rudimentary form, and it was primarily in contrast with the other positions that its implications became clearer.  Or perhaps one could say that Logos Christology existed first, but people still found it to be unsatisfactory: some still had a problem with God becoming flesh, or with a man being divine, so they developed alternative Christologies.

H.  An interesting feature of Papandrea’s book is that it discussed how some of the non-Logos Christologies changed in response to developments.  When John 1 became more accepted, for example, people who denied Jesus’ pre-existence had to deal with that, since John 1 presents Jesus as pre-existent.  Some of them went the route of saying that Christ in John 1 pre-existed in the Father’s mind as a plan, but not as an actual person.

I.  I have read books that cover the Arian controversy, but, from this book, I learned that there may have been Adoptionist aspects to Arian’s thought.

J.  Although, in this review, I have criticized Papandrea for not always supporting his points, there were many instances in which he did.  For instance, against scholars who question whether Gnosticism had both ascetic and hedonistic tendencies, Papandrea offered a compelling defense that it did.  Papandrea also discussed the significance of that within the historical and cultural context.

This book is slender, but it has a lot of information.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.




About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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