The Nature of Pre-Existence in the New Testament
by Anthony Buzzard
"Within the Christian tradition, the New Testament has long been read through the prism of the later conciliar creeds... Speaking of Jesus as the Son of God had a very different connotation in the first century from that which it has had ever since the Council of Nicea (325 AD). Talk of his preexistence ought probably in most, perhaps in all, cases to be understood, on the analogy of the pre-existence of the Torah, to indicate the eternal divine purpose being achieved through him, rather than pre-existence of a fully personal kind."
"The mainstream churches are committed to a certain doctrine about Jesus, but specialists in early Christian thought are questioning the arguments by which that doctrine was reached. New Testament scholars ask if the New Testament teaches it at all, and historians wonder at the gulf between Jesus himself and fully-developed Christianity. These questions are very unsettling, for they imply that Christianity may be in worse condition than was thought. It is perhaps not a basically sound structure that needs only to be modernized, but may be in need of radical reconstruction... The New Testament never suggests that the phrase Son of God just means God.'" [Yet evangelicalism insists on that equation if one is to be considered a Christian!]
"When the Jew wished to designate something as predestined, he spoke of it as already existing in heaven." [Thus "preexistence" statements in the NT really have to do with foreordination and predestination. It was the Greeks who misunderstood Jewish ways of thinking and turned Jesus into a cosmic figure who entered the earth from outer space. But is such a Jesus a human being? Is he the true Messiah of Israel?]
Many dedicated Christians are currently exercised about the Gnostic and mystical tendencies affecting the Church. Many are unaware that philosophical, mystical ideas invaded the church from the second century onwards via the "Church Fathers," who were steeped in pagan philosophy and laid the foundation of the creeds now called "orthodox." The seed of Trinitarian doctrine was planted in the thinking of Justin Martyr, the second century Christian apologist who "found in Platonism the nearest approach to Christianity and felt that no break was required with its spirit and principles to pass into the greater light of Christian revelation." "The forces which operated to change apostolic doctrine were derived from paganism . The habits of thought which the Gentiles brought into the church are sufficient to explain the corruptions of apostolic doctrine which began in the post-apostolic age."
Intelligent Christians need to be informed of these corruptions and how they are currently "canonized" as Scripture by many. Discernment means learning the difference between revealed truth and philosophical teachings which originated outside the Bible.
I would ask the reader to consider the disastrous effects of not paying attention to the Jewish ways of thinking found in the Bible, which was written (with the exception of Luke) by Jews. Clearly if Jews do not mean what we mean by "preexistence" we are liable to misunderstand them on basic issues about who Jesus is. There is a huge difference between being predestined or foreordained and actually preexisting. Greek philosophy believed in a "second God", a non-human intermediary between the creator and the world. The true Jesus, however, is the "man Messiah", the one Mediator between God and Man (I Tim. 2:5). "To us Christians there is one God, the Father, and one Lord Messiah" (I Cor. 8:4-6). Note carefully Paul’s definition of the One God.
The New Testament is a thoroughly Jewish book. Its writers were all Jews except probably Luke (who, however, is as Jewish as any of the writers in terms of his obvious delight in the Jewish salvation offered in Jesus to both Jew and Gentile). Modern Bible-readers approach basic biblical issues with an entrenched Greek outlook on life. This they have inherited from the churches and early post-biblical creeds which overlooked the fact that Jesus was a Jew who thought and taught in Jewish categories.
There is an anti-semitic tendency in traditional, creedal Christianity which must be recognized and forsaken.
The idea that the soul separates from the body and survives consciously apart from the body is a thoroughly unJewish idea (at least from the Old Testament perspective and the NT is based on the Old). Modern readers of the Bible are shocked to discover that in the Bible the whole man dies and goes into unconsciousness ("sleep") and is returned to life only by the future resurrection of the whole person. Traditional Christianity persists with the mistaken notion that man has an "immortal soul which survives death.
The notion that Jesus was really alive and conscious before his birth in Bethlehem is also a very unJewish idea. Human beings in Hebrew thought do not exist consciously before they are born. The preexistence of souls belongs to the world of Greek philosophy and was held by some church fathers (notably the philosophically- and mystically-minded Origen). But they did not derive this idea from the Bible.
Part of repentance is the willingness to admit we have been deceived, that we have not had sufficient information to make good decisions on Bible issues.
One most important fact we need to know before we try to understand who Jesus was is this:
"When the Jew said something was predestined, he thought of it as already existing in a higher sphere of life. The world’s history is thus predestined because it is already, in a sense, preexisting and consequently fixed. This typically Jewish conception of predestination may be distinguished from the Greek idea of preexistence by the predominance of the thought of preexistence in the Divine purpose."
Our scholar goes on to tell us that this typical mode of Jewish thought is clearly illustrated in I Peter. The letter is addressed to "the elect according to the foreknowledge (prognosis) of God the Father." Peter’s doctrine of future things is permeated by the same thought that all is predestined in God’s great Plan. God sees everything laid out before Him. Those who have the gift of the spirit will share God’s outlook and in faith recognize that the realities of God’s plan will in the future become realities on earth. According to Peter the Messiah himself was foreknown, not just his death for our sins but the person Messiah himself. Peter uses the same word to describe the existence of Christ in God’s plan as he did to describe the existence of the Christian church (v. 2).
Though the Messiah was foreknown (not known, but foreknown, as was Jeremiah before his birth, Jer. 1:5), he was manifested by being brought into actual existence at his birth (Luke 1:35). This is a typically Jewish way of understanding God’s purpose for mankind. He executes the Plan at the appropriate time.
The sort of "preexistence" Peter has in mind is the sort that fits the Jewish environment, not the Greek atmosphere of later, post-biblical Christianity.
"We are not entitled to say that Peter was familiar with the idea of Christ’s preexistence with the Father before the incarnation [we are therefore not entitled to claim that Peter was a Trinitarian]. For this idea is not necessarily implied in his description of Christ as foreknown before the foundation of the world, since Christians are also the objects of God’s foreknowledge. All that we can say is that the phrase pro kataboles kosmou [before the foundation of the world] affirms for Christ’s office and work a supramundane range and importance.... Peter has not extended his belief in Christ’s divinity to an affirmation of his pre-existence: his Christology is more like that of the early chapters of Acts than of John and Paul."
Peter, as the leading Apostle, would have had no sympathy with either a Trinitarian or Arian (cp. modern Jehovah’s Witnesses) view of Jesus.
We note also that the future salvation of the Christians, the Kingdom they are to inherit at the return of Christ, is likewise waiting in heaven "ready to be revealed in the last time." The Second Coming is thus to be an "apocalypse" or unveiling of what is now "existing" but hidden from our sight. So it is said of Jesus that he was "foreknown," and waiting to be revealed in Gods good time (I Pet. 1:20). Neither the Kingdom nor Jesus actually existed in advance. They were planned from before the foundation of the world.
Paul uses the same concept and language about the future of the saints. He says that we already "have" "a building from God, a house fit for the coming age." Our future resurrection body already "exists" in God’s intention and may be thought of as real because it is certain to be manifested in the future. In that sense we "have" it, though we obviously do not yet have it literally. The same is true of the treasure we have in heaven. It is promised for our future.
Having grasped this elementary fact of Jewish theology and thinking it will not be difficult to adjust our understanding of other passages where the same principle of "existence" followed by actual manifestation is found. Thus Jesus says in John 17:5: "Glorify me [now] with the glory which I had with you before the foundation of the world." On the basis of II Cor. 5:1 a Christian in the future, after the resurrection at Christ’s return, will be able to say that he has now received what he already "had, " i.e. laid up for him in God’s plan. Christians are said to have treasure in heaven, that is, a reward stored up with God and destined to be conferred in the future. This is only to say that they will one day in the future "inherit the Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world."
When Jesus says that he "had" the glory for which he now prays (John 17:5), he is merely asking for the glory which he knew was prepared for him by God from the beginning. That glory existed in God’s plan, and in that sense Jesus already "had" it. We note that Jesus did not say "Give me back the glory which I had when I was alive with you before my birth." This notion would have been completely foreign to Judaism. It is quite unnecessary and indeed wrong to read Gentile ideas into the text of Scripture when we can make good sense of them as they stand in their Jewish environment.
The so-called "preexistence" of Jesus in John refers to his "existence" in the Plan of God. The church has been plagued by the introduction of non-biblical language. There is a perfectly good word for "real" preexistence in the Greek language (pro-uparchon). It is very significant that it appears nowhere in Scripture, but it does in the writings of Greek church fathers of the second century. These Greek commentators on Scripture failed to understand the Hebrew categories of thought in which the New Testament is written.
The so-called "pre-human existence" of Christ in the Bible refers to the prior existence of Jesus in God’s Plan and vision. Preexistence in the Bible does not mean what it meant in later creeds: The actual conscious existence of the Son of God before his birth at which time he entered the earth and the human condition by passing through the womb of his mother.
A Jewish and biblical conception of preexistence is most significant for Jesus understanding of himself as the Son of Man. The Son of Man is found in the book of Daniel. He "preexists" only in the sense that God grants us a vision of him in His Plan for the future. The Son of Man is a human being that is what the words mean. Thus what John wants us to understand is that the human Messiah was in heaven before his birth and was seen in Daniel’s vision of the future (Dan. 7). Jesus at his ascension went up to the position which had been prepared for him in God’s Plan. No text says that Jesus went back (upostrepho) to God, though this idea has appeared in some modern English translations to support "orthodoxy." Such mistranslation of the Greek "go to the Father" as "go back to the Father" tells its own story. The translation of the Bible has been corrupted to mirror traditional, post-biblical ideas of who Jesus is.
The Son of Man is not an angel. No angel was ever called a "Son of Man" (= member of the human race with good reason Jesus favorite self-title). To call the Messiah an angel would be a muddling of categories. Hence scholars rightly report that the idea of preexistence for the Messiah "antecedent to his birth in Bethlehem is unknown in Judaism."
"Judaism has never known anything of a preexistence peculiar to the Messiah antecedent to his birth as a human being (Dalman, Words of Jesus, pp. 128-32, 248, 252). The dominance of the idea in any Jewish circle whatever cannot seriously be upheld. Judaism knew nothing of the [literally] preexistent ideal man."
To claim to "be before Abraham" does not mean that you remember being alive before your birth. That is to think like a Greek who believes in the preexistence of souls. In the Hebrew thought of the New Testament one can "exist" as part of God’s Plan as did also the tabernacle, the temple, repentance and other major elements of the Divine purpose. Even Moses pre-existed in that sense, according to a quotation we introduce later. John the Apostle could also say that Christ was "crucified before the foundation of the world." This give us an enormously valuable clue as to the way the New Testament writers understood "preexistence."
There are multiple examples of past tenses in the Hebrew Bible which actually refer to future events. They are "past" because they describe events fixed in God’s counsels and therefore certain to be realized. Bible-readers disregard this very Jewish way of thinking when they leap to the conclusion that when Jesus said he "had" glory with the father from the foundation of the world (John 17:5), he meant that he was alive at that time. Certainly in a western frame of reference the traditional understanding is reasonable. But can we not do the Messiah the honor of trying to understand his words in their own Hebrew environment?
No Preexistence for Jesus in Matthew, Mark and Luke
There is a deafening silence about any real preexistence of Christ in Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts and Peter, and the whole of the OT. Not only do they not hint at a pre-human Son of God, they contradict the idea by talking of the origin of Jesus (Matt. 1:18) and his begetting as Son (Matt. 1:20) in Mary’s womb. Note that for Arians and Trinitarians this would be a second begetting. Luke knows nothing of such an idea. Unprejudiced readers will see (as acknowledged by a host of biblical experts) that the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke Acts and Peter is a human being originating at his "begettal" and birth as do all other human persons. He has not preexisted. Matthew even speaks of the "genesis" of Jesus in Matt. 1:18.
It is a serious imposition on the Gospel of John to understand him to teach a different sort of Jesus than Matthew, Mark and Luke one who is really an angel or God appearing as a man. Such a non-human Messiah is foreign not only to the rest of the New Testament, but to the whole revelation of God in the Old Testament in regard to his definition of the coming Messiah. Deuteronomy 18 expressly says that the Messiah is to arise from a family in Israel. All Jews who looked forward to the Messiah expected a human person, not an angel, much less God Himself! Though the Jews had not understood that the Messiah was to be born supernaturally, even this miraculous begetting was in fact predicted. A "pre-human" Messiah, however, is nowhere suggested.
According to Isa. 44:24 God was unaccompanied at the original creation. Jesus in the gospels attributes the creation to the Father and has no memory of being the agent in the Genesis creation.
The spirit of God is available to believers. As they learn to think as God does, they will share the concept that "God speaks of things which do not exist as though they did." It is a mistake to confuse "existence" in the Plan of God with actual preexistence, thus creating a non-fully human Jesus. The Christ of biblical expectation is a human person, supernaturally conceived. The supreme glory of his achievement for us lies in the fact that he really was a human being..
The "Rock" Apostle whom Jesus appointed to "feed my sheep," has given us a marvelous lesson in how to understand the meaning of preexistence as foreknowledge and predestination. It was Peter whose recognition of Jesus as the Messiah was greeted by the excited approval of Jesus (Matt. 16:16-18). Peter and John understood that the glory which Jesus already "had" is the same glory believers subsequent to the time of Jesus (and therefore not yet born when Jesus spoke) also "had been given." This means only that things which are fixed in God’s counsels "exist" in a sense other than actual existence. We must choose whether to understand the language of the New Testament as Americans or Europeans or as sympathetic to Jesus and his Jewish culture. A verse in Revelation speaks of things "being" before they were created. "They were and were created."
A knowledge of the background to the New Testament reveals that Jews believed that Moses "preexisted" in the counsels of God, but not actually as a conscious person:
"For this is what the Lord of the world has decreed: He created the world on behalf of his people, but he did not make this purpose of creation known from the beginning of the world so that the nations might be found guilty... But He did design and devise me [Moses], who was prepared from the beginning of the world to be the mediator of the covenant" (Testament of Moses, 1:13, 14).
If Moses was decreed in the Plan of God, it makes perfect sense that the Messiah himself was the purpose for which God created everything. Out of respect for God’s revealed Plan and in honor of the human Savior, we should seek to understand his identity in the context of his own Hebrew setting.
A fine statement of the Jewish understanding of "preexistence" is given by the Norwegian scholar, Mowinckel, in his famous He Who Cometh:
"That any expression or vehicle of God’s will for the world, His saving counsel and purpose, was present in His mind, or His Word, from the beginning is a natural way of saying that it is not fortuitous, but the due unfolding and expression of God’s own being [cp. John: "the Word was with God and was God"] This attribution of pre-existence indicates religious importance of the highest order. Rabbinic theology speaks of the Law, of God’s throne of glory, of Israel and of other important objects of faith, as things which had been created by God, and were already present with Him, before the creation of the world. The same is also true of the Messiah. It is said that his name was present with God in heaven beforehand, that it was created before the world, and that it is eternal.
But the reference here is not to genuine pre-existence in the strict and literal sense. This is clear from the fact that Israel is included among these pre-existent entities. This does not mean that either the nation Israel or its ancestor existed long ago in heaven, but that the community Israel, the people of God, had been from all eternity in the mind of God, as a factor in His purpose . This is true of references to the pre-existence of the Messiah. It is his name, not the Messiah himself, that is said to have been present with God before creation. In Pesikta Rabbati 152b is said that from the beginning of the creation of the world the King Messiah was born, for he came up in the thought of God before the world was created. This means that from all eternity it was the will of God that the Messiah should come into existence, and should do his work in the world to fulfill God’s eternal saving purpose."
The proposition introduced by Gentile, philosophically-minded "Church Fathers" that Jesus was either a second "member" of the Godhead (orthodoxy) or a created angel (Jehovahs Witnesses) launched the whole vexed problem of the nature of Christ in relation to the Godhead and put under a fog the true Messiahship of Jesus and his Messianic Gospel about the Kingdom. Jesus of Nazareth is what the Word of John 1:1 became. He is the unique expression, as a human being, of the Wisdom of God. It was the Wisdom of God which existed from the beginning, and that Wisdom became a person at the conception of Jesus. This explanation leaves in tact the great cardinal doctrine that the One God is the Father and that Jesus is the Lord Messiah, not the Lord God. It was the early Greek Church Fathers who confused the issue of Jewish/Christian monotheism by introducing the idea of a "numerically second God."
It is most significant that Paul often speaks of the gospel as having been hidden in the counsels of God from "ages past." He also says that the Son of God "came into existence" from a women and from the seed of David. It is unimaginable that Paul could have believed in the preexistence of the Son. It would be untrue to say that the Son came into existence at his birth, if in fact he had always existed. It is far more reasonable to suppose that Paul agreed with Peter that the Messiah was hidden in the divine counsels and then revealed in the fullness of time.
Finally, it is most unreasonable to claim that "Wisdom" in Proverbs (i.e., "Lady Wisdom") was in fact Jesus, the Son, preexisting. It should not be difficult to discern that "Wisdom" here is a personification of a divine quality, not a person. The proof of this is found not only in all major commentaries but very clearly in the text itself. "I, Wisdom, dwell with Prudence...."
If Wisdom is really a (male) Son of God, then who is Prudence?
Preexisting purposes and personifications are all part of the literature of Judaism. A non-human Messiah is not. A Messiah who is not a human being approximates much more closely to the pagan idea of preexisting souls and Gnostic "aions." It was that early invasion of paganism which unfortunately began to corrupt the faith, just as Peter and Paul warned.
That intrusion of paganism resulted in some very strange language about Jesus. His "pre-human existence" signals the fact that he is really not a human being. He has existed as an angel before being born. This is close to the idea of "the gods coming down in the likeness of men." Such a Jesus sounds like a pagan savior figure. There were many such cosmic saviors in the Graeco-Roman world. But there was only one Messiah, whose identity was given long in advance of his birth. He was foreknown (I Pet. 1:20) and would arise from the House of Israel as an Israelite of the tribe of Judah (Deut. 18:15-18). That important text in Deuteronomy actually states that the promised agent of God would not be the Lord God, but His spokesman (Deut. 18:16, 17). Christians should be careful to claim allegiance to that Savior. To worship a Savior with wrong ideas about him runs the risk of worshipping another Savior. The creed of Jesus is the right creed for Christians (Mark 12:28ff.). As so many scholars know, that creed is not a Trinitarian creed. The One God of Israel and of Jesus was and is the Father (John 17:3; John 5:44; I Tim. 2:5; I Cor. 8:4-6), "the One and only God" (John 5:44), "the only true God" (John 17:3).
Neither Paul or any writer of the Bible ever stated that "there is One God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit." No example out of thousands of occurrences of Jahweh (OT) and God (NT) can be shown to mean "God in three Persons." The Triune God is foreign to the Bible. The words of Paul need careful consideration: "There is no God but one To us there is One God, the Father" (I Cor. 8:4, 6) There is also one Lord Messiah, Jesus (I Cor. 8:6), but He is the Lord Christ (Luke 2:11; Ps. 110:1), the Son of the One God, His Father.
The two major players in the Bible are described in a precious divine oracle quoted in the NT more than any other verse from the Hebrew Bible: Ps. 110:1. There the One God "Yahweh" speaks to David’s Lord, who is addressed as Adoni ("my Lord"). Adoni in its 167 occurrences never means the One God. It refers always to a human (or occasionally) angelic superior, other than God. Jesus is the Lord of David of whom Ps. 110:1 speaks. He was appointed Lord and Messiah appointed by God, his Father (Acts 2:34-36).
Out of respect and honor for Jesus the Messiah, Christians should adopt his Jewish creed in Mark 12:28ff.: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord." God is one Lord. Jesus is another Lord. That makes two Lords, but the creed knows of only one Lord who is God Deut. 6:4; Mark 12:28ff.). That is the creed of Jesus and therefore the original Christian creed. May we all joyfully embrace that creed and align ourselves with the Jesus of history.