A doctrine of the Person of Christ, and the study of it, has been an essential part of rational thought about their beliefs once monotheistic Jews found that they were worshipping Jesus Christ as God. The figure of Jesus of Nazareth was from the start the centre of Christian preaching, and in the complementary presentation of him in the four biographical narratives of the gospels Jesus is a unique human body who, replacing the Torah, revealed God through words and deeds, and the death and resurrection. Down the ages it has taken many shapes, beginning with the application of ‘Christ’ (= ‘Messiah’) to Jesus; this asserted the connection of Jesus with the aspirations and beliefs of the OT and the people of Israel, however interpreted.
After long and sometimes acrimonious debates the Church gave a final definition of its Christology at the Council of Chalcedon in Asia Minor in 451 CE, affirming belief in Jesus Christ as One Person in Two Natures, which are united without confusion. Much subsequent thinking started with the premiss that Jesus was the second Person of the Trinity and then speculated how he could have been man. An early suggestion had been that Jesus only appeared to have had a physical body (this became known as the heresy of docetism and was ruled out by stressing the genuine humanity of Jesus, descendant of David, 2 Tim. 2: 8). Nevertheless there continued a long tradition in the Church which emphasized the divine nature of Christ at the expense of his humanity.
Much recent Christology claims to work ‘from below up’, that is to say, to begin with the humanity of Jesus and go on to show that the evidence leads to a recognition also of his divinity. It is a procedure beset with problems; for it necessarily depends upon controversial assessment of the historical value of the gospels which recount words and deeds of Jesus within the context of an interpretative apparatus. Examples are the messages of angels at the beginning and end, voices from heaven (at the baptism and transfiguration), various theological reflections (e.g. Luke 23: 44–5), and constant references (especially in Matthew) to OT prophecies.
On the other hand, there is much in the narratives of the gospels which can be accepted as historically trustworthy and which provides a foundation for a modern Christology. Events which are recorded in spite of being obviously embarrassing to the early Church and which might therefore have been understandably omitted impress for their veracity; an example is the baptism of Jesus and the history of its treatment from Mark, through Matthew (3: 14); Luke (3: 21), where the baptism by John is not mentioned explicitly; and John (1: 33), which does not record the baptism of Jesus at all. Such a progress reveals the embarrassment felt that Jesus should have undergone a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1: 4). It was his self‐identification with his people, but theological interpretation is evident: there is the mention of the heavenly voice, where Matthew uses a rabbinic image, the bath qol, to confirm the readers' inference that there is a pattern of events similar to that of the Exodus (of Israel). There can be no doubt about the crucifixion and little doubt that Jesus at the end cried, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15: 34), where Luke (23: 46) prefers the cry, ‘Into your hands I commend my spirit’. Equally authentic are the stories of Jesus consorting with disadvantaged, unpopular, and despised people, and the accounts of miracles of healing and exorcizing.
Given the recognition that the gospels portray a genuinely human Jesus whose mode of life and teaching provoked opposition almost from the start (Mark 3: 6), we are entitled to take a further step by noting the theological interpretation given to some of these events. That Jesus was born somewhere in Palestine at the end of the reign of Herod the Great is a fact of history, but the interpretation of Matthew and Luke that the birth by Mary without the agency of a human father is an assertion that the man Jesus came from God to inaugurate a new relationship between God and humanity. The Transfiguration (Mark 9: 2–8), often dismissed by critics as a post‐resurrection narrative which has been lifted out of the oral tradition into its present significant location within the ministry, need not be regarded as theological fiction. The account of Jesus' shining garments is paralleled by authentic accounts of the luminosity of saints. But the theological apparatus of the cloud and the arrival of Moses and Elijah are pointers to the belief that this wholly human figure can be discerned by faith to be invested with a transcendental ‘glory’.
Beginning therefore with clear expressions of the humanity of Jesus, of a life within the historical conditions of human existence, it is discernible that the gospels also bestow on it a depth of glory which goes beyond our own humanity. In him there is a combination of the authority in his teaching, an outreach of unselfish love, and a total obedience, with humility, to God's calling. Jesus' words and deeds, his death and resurrection, are not merely images or hints of divine love: they were perceived as the actuality of divine love.
The NT account of the Person of Christ is also expressed in the use of an extraordinary range of terms, or names, derived from the OT. He was proclaimed as the great High Priest, the Lord (Acts 7: 60), Immanuel, God with us.
Among these, the best known are ‘the Son of Man’ and ‘the Son of God’, which have often been seen as straight references to Jesus' humanity and divinity respectively. But it is not so simple. Both terms have a long history in the OT and later literature and have been the subject of a whole industry of scholarship. Was ‘Son of Man’ used by Jesus himself with or without the definite article? Are the sayings in the gospels authentic utterances of Jesus? If so, do they refer to himself or to some other figure? Are they references to an individual or to a collection of people? Does the Aramaic simply mean ‘man’ in general, or does the background of the term denote a supernatural, apocalyptic figure that was taken over by the Palestinian Christian community and applied in the first generation of the Church to Jesus?
There is wide agreement that at least certain sayings in the gospels cannot be the words of Jesus himself, such as Matt. 16: 13. There is also considerable agreement about the almost complete absence of the term ‘Son of Man’ outside the gospels: that the phrase was so consecrated to the lips of Jesus that others in the NT did not use it of him. As to the meaning, it is probable that, in Aramaic, it was an oblique, reticent way of referring to himself—‘I, being the man I am…’ ‘The Son of Man’ was not a Messianic title and in using it Jesus was not laying claim to Messiahship; but neither was he denying such a claim.
‘Son of God’ was a familiar expression in Hebrew and Jewish thought: it does not characterize a divine being but is used of male persons who are believed to stand in a close relationship to God. The gospels maintain that Jesus was Son of God in a pre-eminent sense, as is apparent from the application of the expression to him by the Voice at Jesus' baptism and transfiguration. In the Hellenistic world into which the Church advanced, ‘Son of God’ was being accorded to the Roman emperor Augustus and his successors, so that ‘Son of God’, an early use in the Church (1 Thess. 1: 10), made possible an easy transition from Jewish to Gentile understanding. The early and authentic origins of the phrase as applied to Jesus is indicated by the unconcealed confession of the ignorance of the Son (Mark 13: 32), though the Son does enjoy a unique knowledge of the Father (Matt. 11: 27).
Another title which made an easy transition to the Hellenistic world was ‘Lord’ (kurios, in Greek; used in the LXX with the definite article for ‘The Lord’ or Yahweh) which could mean merely ‘sir’ but to Gentile converts would imply supernatural status. It was already acquiring this meaning in the third gospel, written for Gentile readers (Luke 22: 61). Cf. Phil. 2: 10–11.
There is therefore in the NT, especially in the gospel of John, material which led to the classical Christological definitions. Emphases and terminology certainly vary, but all the NT authors share a common faith in Jesus as the unique agent of God's saving purpose for humankind. Some forty‐two names or titles of Jesus are used in the NT; his humanity is clear—he is a ‘son of Joseph’, ‘rabbi’, ‘prophet’—yet the gospels were compiled ‘that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God’ (John 20: 21, making explicit what was unformulated in the synoptic gospels). Jesus was tempted to escape the cup of suffering (Mark 14: 36) but through death was vindicated by resurrection and then bestowed the Spirit on his disciples (Luke 24: 49; John 20: 22).