Book Write-Up: New Testament Christological Hymns, by Matthew E. Gordley

Matthew E. Gordley.  New Testament Christological Hymns: Exploring Texts, Contexts, and Significance.  IVP Academic, 2018.  See here to purchase the book.

Matthew E. Gordley has a doctorate in theology from the University of Notre Dame.  He has taught at Regent University and is currently Associate Professor of Theology and Dean at Carlow University’s College of Learning and Innovation.  He is also the author of two other books, one on The Colossian Hymn in Context, and the other entitled Teaching through Song in Antiquity.

New Testament Christological Hymns is about a number of the poetic units in the New Testament that focus on Christ.  The book has separate and specific chapters about Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:15-20, and John 1:1-17.  Chapter 6, “A Wider Look,” examines and engages Ephesians 2:14-16, I Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 1:1-4, I Peter 3:18-22, songs in the Lukan Infancy Narrative (Luke 1-2), and Revelation 4-5.

A question that recurs in this book is whether these units indeed were hymns that pre-existed the writing of these New Testament books and were employed in liturgical settings.  Such a claim has been challenged within scholarship, and Gordley acknowledges the dearth of evidence for it.  At the same time, Gordley discusses the textual evidence for the existence of early Christian hymnology, inside and outside of the New Testament, as well as the hymns in Jewish and Greco-Roman antiquity.  His conclusion is that the poetic units in the New Testament can provide indications as to what early Christian hymns were like, even if there is a possibility that they were composed by the New Testament writers themselves specifically for their writings.

An argument that Gordley frequently advances is that these poetic units were challenging, implicitly and occasionally more explicitly, the pretensions of the Roman empire.  There were hymns to gods and rulers who had been divinized in antiquity, and Roman emperors were believed to be sons of the divine, conveying blessing to humanity.  Against this backdrop, Philippians 2:6-11 presents Christ as the exalted one, only, unlike divinized Roman emperors, he was exalted after the public humiliation of the cross.  Colossians 1:15-20 makes exalted claims about Christ that were advanced in antiquity about Roman emperors.

Some thoughts about this book:

A.  I am somewhat ambivalent about Gordley’s argument that the poetic units were challenging imperial Rome.  The reason is that, in a number of cases, this challenge is not explicit, and thus there is a possibility that the existence of such a challenge is speculative.  I am reminded of Bart Ehrman’s argument that the historical Jesus envisioned an imminent apocalypse in which God would overthrow the Roman empire.  If that is the case, why does Jesus in the Gospels hardly ever speak negatively about the Roman empire?  Gordley does not advance the same argument that Ehrman does, but a similar question occurs in my mind in reading Gordley’s book.  Of course, there was the issue of practicality: early Christians would not have wanted to have gotten into trouble with the Roman authorities by overtly criticizing them, so that could explain why they may have chosen to be more implicit in their criticism.  Scholars have offered such an explanation for why Jewish and Christian apocalyptic is so cryptic: so as to conceal the object of criticism and thereby avoid further oppression by the authorities.  This sort of explanation has some plausibility but also raises questions.  What about the times when poetic units and apocalyptic writings are quite overt in criticizing Gentile powers?  Where was the fear of the ruling authorities then?  And would not the oppressive Gentile powers have been smart enough to tell that they were being criticized: that they themselves were the villainous beasts of apocalyptic literature, or that early Christian writings were making claims about Jesus that Rome made about emperors?  That would depend, I suppose, on how observant they were of apocalyptic literature and early Christian writings.  Gordley’s book perhaps would have been stronger had it engaged such issues.  At the same time, what Gordley does put on the table is certainly considerable, particularly his chart on page 134 comparing what is said about Jesus in Colossians 1:15-20 and claims in antiquity about Roman emperors.

B.  The historical-critical method would look at possible historical influences on early Christian poetic units, and perhaps highlight diversity among early Christian writings.  Gordley does this.  He argues, for example, that Hellenistic Jewish ideas and deuterocanonical writings form a backdrop for what some of the New Testament poetic units claim about Jesus.  He also highlights some diversity among the poetic units.  Philippians 2:6-11 does not depict Christ as creator, but Colossians 1:15-20 does.  The hymns in the Lukan Infancy Narrative say nothing about Christ’s death and resurrection, but Gordley argues that they still set the stage for that, in a sense.  There seem to be limits, however, in how far Gordley was willing to go in positing diversity in New Testament Christianity.  For instance, I Timothy 3:16 states that Jesus was revealed in the flesh and vindicated in spirit, and I Peter 3:18 affirms that Jesus was put to death in the flesh but raised in the spirit.  As far as I recall, Gordley does not engage the possibility that this is saying that Jesus was raised with a spirit body; there are ways to believe that Jesus was raised with a physical body and was raised and vindicated in Spirit, as a number of conservative scholars interpret the spiritual body of I Corinthians 15 to be a spiritually-renewed and empowered physical body.  The book may have been stronger had Gordley interacted with that more.  Gordley also appears to hold that a high Christology underlies a number of New Testament poetic units.  There are cases in which Gordley offers arguments for such positions, as when he refers to Larry Hurtado’s work on early Christian devotion, when he states that the Book of Revelation presents the Lamb being exalted, like God, and when he quotes N.T. Wright’s statement that Jesus was acting in accordance with what prophets in the Hebrew Bible predicted about the God of Israel.  But, at times, some of his positions seemed to be assumed rather than rigorously defended.  Gordley’s engagement with Hebrews 1:1-4 comes to mind, perhaps because I have encountered some scholars who dispute that Jesus in that text was a pre-existent divine being who created the world.  (See Victor (Sung Yul) Rhee’s critique of such a denial in “Christology in Hebrews 1:5-14: The Three Stages of Christ’s Existence,” JETS 59 (2014): 717-729.)

C.  At the same time, the book did have its share of exegetical meat, as Gordley interacted with different scholarly interpretations.  He wrestles with John 1:1-17, specifically the question of whether the Word before v. 14 illuminates and is rejected by people in his pre-incarnate state, or as the incarnate Jesus.  Gordley’s interaction with I Timothy 3:16 was interesting, notwithstanding my critique in (B.).  Gordley referred to the interpretation that Jesus was vindicated in the spirit during his ministry on earth, and that his appearance to angels concerned his appearance to fallen angels in the underworld (cp. I Peter 3:19).  The book also made an attempt to be nuanced and to avoid jumping to conclusions.  Its discussion about Christian hymnology after the time of the New Testament—-its fall, then rise again, and possible reasons for both developments—-was informative.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.


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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