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Jesus vs. Christ:  Epistles

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated:  Monday May 24, 2004

MG Theory and the Jesus/Christ Distinction

One of the points made by MG scholars, following Bultmann, is to contrast the 'Jesus of History' with the 'Christ of Faith.'  Marcus Borg's distinction is between the 'pre-Easter' and 'post-Easter' Jesus.  Whether 'post-Easter' Jesus or 'Christ of Faith', this entity is the 'Jesus' experienced by the Church.  This early Christian experience, for the MG scholars, is what was instantiated in the stories they created.  For Spong, it was motivated by 'midrash'; for Crossan, 'prophecy historicized'; for Borg, it was at least in part the ecstatic declarations by early Christian prophets which inspired spiritual stories. 

Some writers (Crossan) place primary value on the Jesus of History.  Others (Spong) put their emphasis on the Christ of Faith.  And of course, there are scholars (Borg) who emphasize both aspects, each in its own way.

And so, the details of the Jesus vs. Christ distinction vary somewhat between the MG scholars, but that there is a vital distinction, and the general outline of that distinction, is common to all three. 

If the Metaphorical Gospel Theory is true, then the New Testament writers would (all of them), at least tacitly, have this distinction in mind.  They would believe in - and teach - a clear and definite distinction between the man, Jesus of Nazareth, and the object of the Christians' experience, the risen "Christ of Faith."

Jesus vs. The Christ

One would not expect to find much discussion about this in the gospels; but that could be because this is an unstated background assumption.  Since the epistles tend to explain Christianity, one might have better luck.  In fact, that is just where we ought to find clear support for the theory, if there is any.  Paul, in particular, makes theological distinctions all the time, and since the nature of Christ is a central theological theme to him, we should see this distinction completely laid out for us.

But we do not find this to be the case.  But perhaps Paul is so unconcerned with the historical Jesus that it doesn't even occur to him to address this issue.  Scholars such as N.T. Wright have disputed this 'unconcern', convincingly in my view, and so this explanation appears weak. 

And so, looking further, do we find any indications that New Testament writers believe in a clear and definite distinction between the man, Jesus of Nazareth, and the object of the Christians' experience, the risen "Christ of Faith?"  Or do any of them stress a fundamental identity of Jesus with "the Christ?"

1 John

The writer of 1 John (whether John the disciple or another is irrelevant to this point) is concerned to deny a certain false teaching, or perhaps two different teachings.  We are warned in these statements to be suspicious of those who separate Jesus from "the Christ", for they are deceivers. 

Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ.  Such a man is the antichrist - he denies the Father and the Son.  (1 John 2:22)

This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ as come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.  (1 John 4:2-3)

The first case could refer either to the one who simply denies the Messianic status of Jesus, or to one who says that Jesus and the Christ are separate.  The separation of the Christ (a spiritual being) and Jesus (the man) appears to be the teaching that the writer opposes in the second passage.

The Christ
There are, of course, two senses in which someone could deny that Jesus is the Christ, and this depends on the meaning of 'Christ' in each case.  The first, most obvious interpretation, is the denial that Jesus was ever the Jewish Messiah.  The second would be to posit a second spiritual being or principle, 'the Christ', that filled Jesus or inspired him or for a time became part of him, but which is essentially separate from him. 

If we combine both statements, it seems clear that the Messiahship of Jesus is not the point in question.  This rather lengthy explanation is a good one:

Thus in v 22, when John says that 'the liar' is the person who 'denies that Jesus is the Christ', he could be referring to the (ex-pagan) docetic heretic who refused to acknowledge the real humanity of jesus Christ, or the unity of his human and divine nature.  For that person the Christ was not Jesus.  Equally, he could be describing the ex-Jewish heretic who did not believe that Jesus was the Christ; and this is, after all, the obvious meaning of the Gr. as it stands.  It is doubtful if this signifies an assault on the Christian faith as such, by Jews who denied that jesus was the Messiah expected in the OT, since this was not the problem addressed by the writer of either these letters, or indeed of the Fourth Gospel.  Rather, the author may be describing the person whose estimate of Jesus was inadequate, in accepting his humanity but failing to acknowledge his divinity.  Support for such an argument may be derived from the second part of this v, where denial of Jesus as the Christ is equated with disowning the Father and the (divine) Son.
    In either case John is asserting the reality of the Incarnation, and claiming that in Jesus two natures, human and divine, were present.  However, in view of the fact that the heretics who led the breakaway from the Johannine community were probably docetic in outlook, and (as a group) in the ascendant, it is likely that John has chiefly (but not exclusively) in mind at this point those of a similar inclination:  schismatics who thought of Jesus Christ as divine, but not as porperly human.  To such people John asserts (by implication) that Jesus is the Christ, thereby seeking to preserve the truth against the inroads of heresy.  (Word 114)

The most common explanation is that the heretics John is opposition advocate some form of Docetism, a view that we know became popular at least by the early second century.  One definition of Docetism (from

Docetism is a term used to refer to a theological perspective among some in the early church who regarded the sufferings and the human aspects of Christ as imaginary or apparent instead of being part of a real incarnation. The basic thesis of such docetics was that if Christ suffered he was not divine, and if he was God he could not suffer. The combination of the two natures, Son of David and Son of God, affirmed by Paul in Rom. 1:3 - 4 was apparently already under attack in the Johannine community (see 1 John 4:2; 2 John 7). Docetic thinking became an integral part of the perspectives of Gnostics, who viewed Jesus as the alien messenger from outside the present evil world and one who was untouched by the evil creator. This alien Jesus came to awaken Gnostics to their destiny outside the realm of creation. While the framers of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds were opposed to docetic teaching and clearly assumed the two natures of Jesus, the drafters of the Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD) made explicit the Christian teaching concerning Jesus Christ as "truly God and truly man."   G L Borchert (Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)  Bibliography:  J N D Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines

The (somewhat later?) arch-heretic, Cerinthus, is a possible example of one holding these views:

But what is meant by saying that they were denying the nature of Jesus as 'the Christ'? ... Cerinthus, who probably lived c A.D. 100, was a gnostic Jewish-Christian who claimed that the divine emanation (or aeon) 'Christ' came upon the man Jesus at his baptism in the form of a dove, sent by God, and left him before his crucifixion.  Thus the human and divine natures of Jesus were never properly united, there was no genuine Incarnation as such, and only the human Jesus suffered and rose again.  (Word 111)

However, it is simply not clear precisely what the condemned heresy is:

'The exact nature of the false teaching which is denounced in these Epistles has been much disputed, and is still a matter of controversy.  The opponents have been held to be Jews, or Judaizing Christians, or Gnostics, Judaizing or heathen, or some particular set of Gnostics, Basilides, Saturninus, Valentinus or Cerinthus.  Some have supposed the chief error denounced to be Docetsim, others Anti-nomianism" (A.E. Brooks).  (Jerome 410)

But there is a clear parallel in Ignatius (discussed in another section of this article):

An alternative explanation of the christological error which the writer is attacking in this passage is to identify it with the heresy opposed by Ignatius.  (Word 113)

What relationship does this have to the MG Theory?  Do the MG scholars hold to a form of Docetism?  They certainly don't teach the doctrine that 'Jesus suffered, but Christ didn't suffer.'  But limiting John's criticism to this narrow heresy is unnecessary and probably inaccurate.  It's not at all clear, first, that 1 John is objecting to that specific doctrine; in fact, the heresy proposes a more general thesis:  that (a) Jesus is not the Christ, and (b) that Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh. 

However you slice it, John is opposing any view which separates Jesus and 'Christ.'  If he wanted to maintain that a certain kind of separation (such as pre-Easter and post-Easter) was, nevertheless, valid, he had the perfect opportunity to say so.  Instead, this author is clearly determined to identify the two.  They are precisely the same person.  Jesus is the Christ.

Objections and Answers

1.  This Epistle is Post-MG

Crossan dates 1 John in the 80-120 period.  If he (or anyone else) pushes it to the 110-120 side, then the letter is contemporaneous with Ignatius' epistles, and thus would possibly reflect the 'literalizing' tendency already under way.  The wording is very similar to Ignatius.

Thus, one might agree with everything said above, but counter that this letter should not be used as evidence regarding the MG Theory.

Answer.  First, I believe that Spong and Borg do not themselves hold to this late of a date, and I'm not clear about Crossan's actual date (if it's more like 80, then this objection would be less effective).  The burden is on the one who proposes a second-century date.

Second, Given a first-century date for this epistle, along with 2 Peter, etc., we would have a different MG view - a mixed view.  The view would hold that some of the New Testament writers (namely the gospel writers and Paul) wrote metaphorically, but that other writers (deutero-epistles) wrote literally, even though they were roughly contemporaneous.  I specifically asked Bishop Spong about his position on these matters.

4) One possible view is a hybrid scenario, with a two-tier hierarchy (sort of an "elite vs. the masses" approach), with the spiritually sophisticated leaders of the church sponsoring such works as the gospels. These gospels are creative midrash, and of course the writers and leaders operate from within that tradition. However, the masses are not sophisticated, and easily fall into a literal understanding of the material presented to them. This could have two flavors, neither of which appears to be advocated by Spong

He pointed me to his then-upcoming book of Aug, '96, which did not indicate at all that he advocated that kind of theory. 

2.  John's Critique is Specific - Does Not Address MG

One could try to develop the point that John only objected to the specific form of division advocated by his opponents.  Perhaps the heresy was denying that Jesus ('Jesus Christ') ever was a human being - not that Jesus was a human and Christ was a spiritual force.  In such a case, John would only be affirming that Jesus was the Messiah and was a real human being:  either (a) he never existed as a historical person, or (b) he was a super-human being who just looked like a man. 

In either case, this heresy is not what is affirmed by the MG theory.  And so, John's comments do not refute it.

Answer.  It seems to me that this is actually a possible interpretation of the text, if you look at only the second statement.  I would respond by saying that my point does not necessarily depend on an isomorphic match between the MG theory and the condemned heresy.  I would reaffirm that when John talks about people who deny that Jesus is the Christ, he is not talking about people who deny the Messiah-ship of Jesus, but people who take issue with the Christ coming in the flesh

Thus, if you take both statements, together, you see that John is objecting to one form of the general fallacy of separating Jesus and the Christ.  His response is to tighten the connection.  And so, John's statements run counter to the MG theory in that it seeks to separate what should not be separated.  For John, Jesus and 'Christ' essential describe the same person.  Jesus IS the Christ.