Responding to Recent Reviews, Part 2: Novenson, Tilling, & Dialogue Partners

Continuing with my response to recent reviews of Chris Tilling’s Paul’s Divine Christology, I’d like to single out for attention Matthew Novenson’s second major point of criticism from his short review in The Expository Times 124/12 (2013): 619. Novenson suggests that “Tilling’s choice of dialogue partners is rather narrow, which renders the argument proportionately less compelling.” One wonders what Novenson was thinking exactly when he leveled this complaint. To start, this is a specialized field of inquiry and as such the number of dialogue partners is sure to be limited. This is true for any given field. For example, Novenson interacts with relatively few scholars in his own Christ Among the Messiahs, and yet we’d expect such since he interacts with those who have directly addressed the questions he’s seeking to answer in his monograph. This is simply standard practice.

But he elaborates on the complaint saying, “Most of the references to secondary literature go to interpreters with whom Tilling largely agrees (especially Bauckham, Hurtado, and Fee, as well as Capes, Harris, Thiselton, and others). He does engage closely with Dunn, but other more critical voices (e.g., Bousset, Casey, Fredriksen, Yarbro Collins) receive too little attention.” This is a strange charge for a number of reasons. First, it’s slightly misleading to state things in this way. Yes, Tilling agrees with the conclusions that Fee, Hurtado, and Bauckham reach, but he does not always agree with their methodology. So while he references those with whom he agrees often, it’s mostly by way of critical interaction with their work (see chap. 3 of PDC). Second, the reason why they receive the most attention is that Tilling’s “thesis hopes to build on their many insights and strengths” (35).

We now turn to the “critical voices” who allegedly “receive too little attention.” Beginning with Bousset, one wonders why Novenson feels that he should have been interacted with in any depth. His work is summarized in the survey of pre-1970s scholarship (see 13-15), where one would expect it to be mentioned, but Bousset’s main ideas have been significantly challenged since at least the 1950s with Cullmann’s The Christology of the New Testament. More recently, Hurtado has been undermining Bousset’s work since 1979! In other words, Bousset’s thesis, while certainly worthy of consideration (and trust me, Tilling has considered it), hardly merits detailed interaction in today’s debate over divine Christology.

Fredriksen hasn’t contributed much that’s pertinent specifically to the divine Christology debate in Paul as her writing tends to focus on historical Jesus studies and messianism. She has, however, written directly on the subject of Novenson’s own monograph, claiming that Paul “uses the Greek term, Christos, more as a name than a messianic title: Jesus Christ, not Jesus the Christ” (From Jesus to Christ, 56), which contradicts Novenson’s main argument. Ironically, Novenson doesn’t address Fredriksen directly on this point in his monograph and his overall reference to her work is sparse. Perhaps we have a case of the pot calling the kettle black!

Adela Yarbro Collins has written several articles concerning Christology but very little on Paul’s Christology in general and even less on the Pauline divine Christology debate in particular. Her most significant contributions have been her “The Worship of Jesus and the Imperial Cult” in The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism, 234-57, where she focuses on the cultural context of Philippians 2:6-11 as well as the expression “Son of God”; her “Psalms, Philippians 2:6-11, and the Origins of Christology,” Biblical Theology 11/3-4 (2002): 361-72, where she argues that Philippians 2:6-11 “is a prose hymn or a brief encomium in rhythmic prose” (“Psalms,” 371) and that Paul serves as something analogous to a theologos or a sebastologos; and most recently the fifth chapter of King and Messiah as Son of God, which looks at “Jesus as Messiah and Son of God in the Letters of Paul.”

Her “Worship” article concludes that a “decisive factor in the emergence of the worship of Jesus was probably the Greek and Hellenistic practice of offering veneration and cult to heroes, benefactors, and rulers” (“Worship,” 257). While relevant for Hurtado’s work on cultic devotion, her arguments and conclusions have very little to do with Tilling’s project. The same can be said for her chapter on “Jesus as Messiah and Son of God in the Letters of Paul.” The work here is relevant for Novenson’s own project but ultimately irrelevant to Tilling’s. Likewise, her Biblical Interpretation article doesn’t factor into Tilling’s relational argument. So we’re left to wonder once more why Novenson felt that Collins’ work merits engagement. I should also note that she is rarely referenced in standard works in the field so Tilling is simply mirroring what seems to be standard practice in the secondary literature on the subject.

The reference to Casey is the most puzzling for the simple reason that it can be argued that Tilling’s entire thesis is a direct response to Casey’s saying that “evidence that Jesus was worshipped in the Pauline communities seems to me to be extremely sparse and not really convincing” (“Monotheism, Worship and Christological Development in the Pauline Churches,” in The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism, 222, cf. PDC, 54, 189, 205, 245). Again, one of Tilling’s driving concerns is to show a pattern of data concerning the risen Lord’s relationship to believers that Paul would have arguably recognized himself (see PDC, chap. 7). This is why Tilling can say that “Casey can respond to Hurtado with the objection ‘not enough’ simply because the most appropriate set of issues has been underappreciated” (PDC, 194). It is precisely Tilling’s goal to appreciate this most appropriate set of issues, which expands well past cultic devotion or an examination of divine epithets!

The fact is that half of the authors that Novenson cites (i.e., Fredriksen; Collins) have little to say on the subject as it relates to Tilling’s thesis, and the one author (i.e., Casey) is directly addressed via Tilling’s main argument, while the other (i.e., Bousset) has been discredited for quite some time and receives attention exactly where we’d expect him to receive attention. This being the case, one begins to lose confidence in Novenson’s critique. I’m left to wonder exactly how closely he’s read the book he just reviewed, and even the authors he believes pose some kind of challenge to Tilling’s work! It seems to me that a careful reading of all of the authors mentioned as well as the broader body of relevant secondary literature in the field would have yielded a much different sort of criticism. And it should be noted that Tilling interacts with all known arguments against his thesis and the most significant proponents of each (see especially, PDC, chap. 9; as well as 244-52).

In the next post we’ll look at Novenson’s charge that Tilling’s “Christ relation” concept doesn’t actually entail a divine Christology. Stay tuned…

B”H

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