Book Review – From Messiah to Preexistent Son (Aquila Lee)

Aquila H. I. Lee. From Messiah to Preexistent Son (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009. 388 pp. $40.00.

AILeeThis book is a revised version of Aquila Lee’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Aberdeen under I. Howard Marshall. Originally published in 2005 by Mohr Siebeck in the prestigious monograph series WUNT II and retailing at $147.50, this reprint by Wipf & Stock at a much more accessible price is a blessing to all who have a scholarly interest in early Christology.

With a conviction of strict Jewish monotheism and timing that’s basically in agreement with the “Early High Christology Club,” Lee’s thesis in this study is that “at the root of the pre-existent Son Christology lies the early Christian exegesis of Ps 110:1 and Ps 2:7 (the catalyst) in the light of Jesus’ self-consciousness of divine sonship and divine mission (the foundation)” (34). Lee’s study pays attention not just to Jewish precedents for early Christology but also to contributions by members of the early Christian community because of the overemphasis on the former in recent scholarship, thereby offering a more balanced account of the origin and development of early Christology.

After an introductory chapter, Chapters 2 and 3 looks at Jewish traditions concerning intermediary figures, examining whether these traditions provided the real precedent in the early church for viewing Jesus as a divine, pre-existent being alongside God. Chapter 2 concerns “personified divine attributes” and investigates how the Wisdom of God, the Word of God, and the Name of God were understood in the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism. Here Lee helpfully points out the ambiguity and lack of scholarly consensus concerning the term “divine hypostasis” – whereas some (like Ehrman in his recent book How Jesus Became God) use it to designate a semi-divine being separate from God, others use the term to mean nothing more than a literary personification of an attribute of God. Lee pleads for a clear distinction to be kept between “personified divine attribute” and “divine hypostasis” and cogently argues that Wisdom, Word, and Name were understood as the former and not the latter in the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism.

Chapter 3 deals with Jewish speculations about exalted angels and a pre-existent messiah and argues that these beings did not blur the distinction between God and intermediary beings, but that like personified divine attributes, they “offered the Second Temple Jews a variety of religious language to speak about God’s presence, manifestation, and action in the world without calling into question his transcendence and uniqueness” (85). Therefore, it’s most likely that there was not a concept of a pre-existent messiah prior to Christianity for the early church to readily apply to Jesus. Both these chapters demonstrate that Second Temple Judaism was strongly monotheistic.

The next two chapters deal with what in Lee’s thesis are the foundation for pre-existent Son Christology – Jesus’s self-consciousness of divine sonship (chapter 4) and his self-consciousness of divine mission (chapter 5). Through an examination of Jesus’s use of “abba” as well as exegesis of other self-revelatory statements, Lee argues in chapter 4 that Jesus conceived of himself to be the son of God in unique, personal relationship with the Father, and that he communicated this to his disciples. In chapter 5, Lee looks at Jesus’s “I have come” and “I was sent” sayings to demonstrate that “by uttering these logia Jesus revealed himself as one who was conscious of his God-given mission to carry out in this world” (199). Of course, Jesus’s self-understanding of his divine sonship and divine mission alone could not have caused the early church to come to see him as pre-existent.

However, if his self-consciousness of divine sonship and divine mission is recalled and re-examined at a later stage by early Christians in view of his resurrection event and the whole context of his life and teaching, such a self-understanding was probably open to interpretation in terms of his pre-existence. In other words, if his self-understanding is re-interpreted retrospectively, such an interpretation is hardly out of the question but a real probability. It is at this precise point that early Christian exegesis of Ps 110:1 and Ps 2:7 comes in and plays a central role.

(Lee 200)

Chapters 6 and 7 examine this catalyst for pre-existent Son Christology, addressing early Christian exegesis of Ps 110:1 and Ps 2:7, respectively, in light of Jesus’s self-consciousness of divine sonship and divine mission. In Chapter 6 Lee examines both pre-Christian interpretation and early Christian interpretation of Ps 110:1, demonstrating that this messianic verse was uniformly applied to Jesus’s resurrection. “[O]ne of the most significant Christological implications from the early Christian messianic exegesis of Ps 110:1 was that they came to interpret Jesus’s resurrection as his exaltation to God’s right hand, through which his status as the pre-existent Lord saw its confirmation” (239). Working similarly with Ps 2:7 in chapter 7, Lee argues that “the early church interpreted Ps 2:7 as a prophecy about Jesus’ divine sonship decisively demonstrated at his resurrection and regarded him as already God’s son during and before his earthly life” (251). He proposes that Ps 2:6 provides the missing link between Psalm 2:7 and the resurrection.

Chapter 8 addresses Paul’s wisdom Christology and the pre-Pauline “sending formula.” Contra the common assertion that the pre-Pauline sending formula was developed on the basis of a divine wisdom Christology, Lee argues instead that it’s rooted in the pre-existent Son Christology developed from early Christian exegesis of Ps 110:1 and Ps 2:7 in light of Jesus’s self-consciousness of divine sonship and divine mission. Finally, a concluding chapter summarizes the entire study.

From Messiah to Preexistent Son is an important contribution to the early Christology debates and is a book that all with scholarly interest in the topic should have on their bookshelves. Those who align with the EHCC would especially enjoy this study. Lee’s grasp of the vast primary and secondary literature pertaining to the origin and early development of Christology is impressive, and his thesis (that the root of pre-existent Son Christology lies in early Christian exegesis of Ps 110:1 and Ps 2:7 in light of Jesus’s self-consciousness of divine sonship and divine mission) is persuasive. Because of the typical emphasis on the Second Temple background on early Christology and influence of divine intermediaries, Lee’s approach of focusing instead on early Christian exegesis is a breath of fresh air. At several points Lee goes against the tide of scholarship and makes significant arguments, such as his contentions regarding Pauline wisdom Christology.

For me there were a few minor shortcomings. One is that Lee seems to almost equate preexistence with (full) divinity, when this is just not the case. A pre-existent Christology is not automatically the highest Christology, as in the case of angelomorphic Christology. I would have liked to see Lee eventually bridge the gap between pre-existent Son Christology and a fully divine Christology, perhaps drawing on Hurtado’s work on early Christ-devotion. Another issue is that Lee never addressed the fact that in the Synoptics, Jesus never used the self-designation Son of God. Because this is a key argument from an opposing camp in the historical Jesus/early Christology debates, spending some time on this issue could have made Lee’s case stronger. Though there were minor things here and there that I either did not find convincing or felt could have been strengthened, overall I enjoyed this book very much and believe it to be a valuable contribution to the scholarship concerning the origin and early development of Christology.

Purchase: Amazon

Many thanks to Wipf & Stock for sending a copy in exchange for an honest review!

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  1. I’m almost jealous you got to review this book! Thanks for the review sounds like it is very interesting and relevant in the discussion of the Jewish root of Christian Christology


  1. Book Log: September 2014 |
  2. Book Review: The Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Seyoon Kim) |

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