Adoptionism—the idea that Jesus is portrayed in the Bible as a human figure who was adopted as God’s son at his baptism or resurrection—has been commonly accepted in much recent scholarship as the earliest explanation of Jesus’s divine status. In this book Michael Bird draws that view into question with a thorough examination of pre-Pauline materials, the Gospel of Mark, and patristic sources.
Engaging critically with Bart Ehrman, James Dunn, and other scholars, Bird demonstrates that a full-fledged adoptionist Christology did not emerge until the late second century. As he delves into passages often used to support the idea of an early adoptionist Christology, including Romans 1:3–4 and portions of the speeches in Acts, Bird persuasively argues that early Christology was in fact incarnational, not adoptionist. He concludes by surveying and critiquing notable examples of adoptionism in modern theology.
“A more likely scenario is that while the resurrection did not mark the beginning of Jesus’s divine sonship, it instead signified a change in the ages with a consequent change in the mode and function of divine sonship for Jesus.” (Page 21)
“This is not about the adoption of a human figure, but the enthronement of a divine agent with a very definite pre-history in his earthly life, and even pre-existence.” (Page 28)
“My objective is to question this quasi-consensus that the earliest retrievable Christology was adoptionist. To that end, I intend to develop two central claims: (1) the first Christologies were hastily devised venerations of Jesus as a divine figure, which then crystallized over the next twenty years into a series of presentations of Jesus that were variations of a theme of incarnationalism, even if the details were still to be fully worked out; and (2) adoptionism originated as a particular second-century phenomenon driven largely by internal debates about preferred texts and socio-religious influences on reading them. So, when did Jesus get adopted as the Son of God? As we will see, probably in the second century, though precisely when will remain a matter of debate.” (Page 9)
“Resultantly, we cannot speak of a single monolithic Christology of the early church, but neither can we settle for postulating an endless variety of Christologies that were all mutually exclusive and proportionately distributed across the early church, each with equal claims to validity. Therefore, rather than refer to a single and uniform ‘early Christology,’ I prefer to speak of ‘early christologizing,’ with various expressions of Jesus’s identity gradually clustering together, becoming fused through the sharing of texts, the development of a common lexicon, shared hermeneutical strategies, and common rituals.” (Page 5)
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