The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke

By Simon J. Gathercole
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2006). 357 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Trevor Craigen
19.1 (Spring 2008) : 121-123

Displaying a familiarity with a considerable amount of material, in English, French, German, and Latin, Simon Gathercole, Senior Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Aberdeen, has put forth a thought-provoking study on a subject of as much interest to the NT scholar as to the systematic theologian. The preexistence of Jesus Christ takes the study of the Son of God back to before Bethlehem and before conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Final answers to questions of where He was and what He was doing prior to His incarnation, and more so, prior to the creation of the universe would be nice to have in one’s grasp, but that is unlikely. Certainly, a careful and in-depth exegetical study is never out of order. Gathercole, however, candidly acknowledges that he is in pursuit of proving a controversial point, namely, “That the preexistence of Christ can be found in the Synoptic Gospels” (1). A controversial point, because critical scholarship had long held that Jesus could not have regarded Himself as preexistent (4). A thumbnail sketch accompanies the names of each of the eleven proponents who concurred in their skepticism of either Matthew, Mark, or Luke presenting evidence of preexistence. The most well-known of these is James D. G. Dunn, and his Christology in the Making (5). Two influential names associated with the “New History of Religion School” have paragraph descriptions of their views as well. Noteworthy is the author’s acknowledgment that he paid scant attention to questions of tradition, history, sources, and the relationship between the canonical Gospels and Thomas or the elusive Q (17).

The introduction sketches out the four stages of argument being made to establish the plausibility of preexistence, to propose that the “I have come . . .” sayings are the clearest indication in the Synoptic Gospels of a preexistent christology, to look at how the proponents of Wisdom christology interpret certain portions of the Gospels, and finally to determine if preexistence inheres in terms such as Messiah, Lord, Son of Man, and Son of God (18-19).

In Chapter 1, “Preexistence in Earliest Christianity,” Gathercole briefly conducts his readers on a tour through various passages in Paul’s epistles to the Philippians, Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans, concluding that the apostle assumed it without finding it necessary to argue for it. Similarly so with Hebrews and Jude. In fact, given the wide spread influence of the apostle Paul, the burden of proof now falls on those who search for early Christian groups which either did not accept or did not know about Christ’s preexistence (43).

Chapter Two treats extensively Christ transcending both the heaven-earth divide and the God/creation divide. The chapter’s conclusion is followed by two pages of comment on two intriguing sayings in which Jesus is described as transcending space, one in Matt 18:18-20 and the other in Matt 28:18-20, one pre- and one post-resurrection. Part II, “The Advent and Mission of Jesus,” embracing five chapters and two excurses is a well-documented section which first deals concisely with the ten “‘I have come’ + Purpose Formula” sayings. Then the next chapter introduces the false perspective on these sayings. Angelic usage of the “I have come…” sayings, is the nearest parallel usage, the author contends, after having looked at material from the OT, the Apocrypha, Targums, Midrashic texts, later Rabbinic tales, the tradition of the coming of Elijah, and some angelophanies. Unlike Christ’s sayings which turned out summarizing His whole existence, the angels’ sayings are oriented to that particular visit. Preexistence is clear, whether it be the words of Jesus or those of an angel speaking. A study of the “sent” sayings is also carried out and concludes that the “sent” sayings by themselves would not necessarily prove preexistence, but in the light of the “coming” sayings (189) then the coming and seeking imagery and His heavenly identity, show that His being sent is not like the sending of a prophet.

Part 3, “Jesus, the Incarnation of Divine Wisdom,” comes online with attention given to Matthew 23 and Christ in the history of Israel. It finds no serious obstacle to the portrayal of Jesus as a figure who transcends the generation into which He was born. The titles of Jesus make up Part 4, in which “Lord,” “Son of Man,” and “Son of God” all merit separate informative and instructive chapters, as does “‘Messiah’ Anatole.” The conclusion is the same as that which has been offered at the end of practically every chapter and certainly at the end of each of the four parts, namely that sufficient evidence and indications have highlighted undeniably the preexistence of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels.

The reader becomes aware of those of differing theological persuasions who probably would leave behind the evidence from these Gospels, pockmarked by their denial and amendment. One thing became clear and urgent for the seminary student of today: “Nail down that NTI course! Know well the book, The Jesus Crisis!”

Now, this is not a book to sit down and read in one or two sittings, just tripping along with the words. It is definitely not light reading and will require concentration. It will be referenced by students doing research in the Synoptics or reading more deeply into the whole mystery of Christ’s preexistence, which, in turn, ends up challenging the thinking of theologian and exegete alike, as they seek to compose an extended definition and description of exactly what can be known of Him and His activities and responsibilities before His incarnation. If you have a few moments to spare, pick it up and glance through the Table of Contents.