On the Jewish-Christian Doctrine of the Preexistence of the Messiah

The view that the Jews who lived about the beginning of our era, and the early Christians, or both, held that the Messiah was pre-existent with God, has been entertained by many scholars. Pfleiderer,¹ Weiss,² Harnack,³ Weizsacker,⁴ Hausrath,⁵ Schurer,⁶ Sabatier,⁷ Edersheim,⁸ Bruce,9 Dodds,¹⁰ Briggs,¹¹ Cone,¹² Gould,¹³ Stevens,¹⁴ Charles,¹⁵ Goodspeed,¹⁶ and Somerville,¹⁷ may all be quoted in favor of this view, and these are but a few of its advocates.

Three devout and able scholars have in recent years reached the conclusion that, so far as the Gospels are concerned, no real pre-existence is taught in any of them, but an ideal pre-existence only, and, in presenting this view, at least one of them endeavors to show that the real content of the Jewish view of that period consisted of the conception of ideal pre-existence alone. The scholars to whom I refer are Beyschlag, Wendt, and our own fellow-countryman, George H. Gilbert.¹⁸ One can only admire the painstaking care which each of these interpreters has given to his work, the breadth of the scholarship displayed, and the delightful spirit which breathes through all which they have written. One of them, as we know, has made great personal sacrifices for his opinion.…

With these preliminary remarks, we proceed to examine the interpretation which Wendt, Beyschlag, and Gilbert give to the most significant of these passages. The first of them occurs in John 3:13, “And no one hath ascended into heaven, but he that descended out of heaven, even the Son of Man.” Wendt holds³⁷ that this does not mean that Jesus pre-existed in heaven, but that He had a heavenly intuition or knowledge which no other man had. He argues that, if we take the term “descended” as literally applying to Jesus, we must also take the term “ascended” as applying to Him in a literal way also. This would involve an earthly existence and a miraculous ascension of Jesus previous to His ministry, which Wendt considers to be absurd. If one were forced to construe the meaning of the passage thus literally, surely another possibility would present itself. We could then, I think, hardly fail to regard it as one of the points in this Gospel where the author has passed from the report of the Master’s words to his own reflections. Writing after the ascension of Christ, he might, if these were his own thoughts, thus confuse the chronology of events and make Christ seem to utter an anachronism. We are not, however, shut up to this view. Weiss³⁸ and Dodds³⁹ have given the meaning of the passage correctly in the following paraphrase: “No one has gone up to heaven and by dwelling there gained a knowledge of heavenly things: One only has dwelt there and is able to communicate that knowledge; viz. He who came down from heaven.”⁴⁰ If this be the meaning of the verse, it reflects the Jewish view of the pre-existence of the Messiah, whether we regard it as a word of Christ, or as an utterance of the author of the Gospel.

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Author: George A. Barton

Keywords: from the foundation of the world, before the foundation of the world, before the world began, angel of the lord, Jesus angel, preexistence of Jesus, Christ's preexistence, Preexistence of Christ, Jesus' preexistence, Jesus preexisted, Christ preexisted, Theophany, Christ's pre-existence, Pre-existence of Christ, Jesus' pre-existence, Jesus pre-existed, Christ pre-existed, preexistence, pre-existence, preincarnate, pre-incarnate, preincarnate Jesus, preincarnate Christ, pre-incarnate Jesus, pre-incarnate Christ, Christ preincarnate, Christ pre-incarnate, captain of the lord's host, Jesus Preexistence in Heaven, Jesus Preexisted in Heaven, Jesus existed before Abraham, Christ existed before Abraham, Greater than Abraham, Existed before Abraham, Before Abraham, Trinity, Trinitarian, Jesus existed before he was born, Deity of Christ, Deity of Jesus

Bible reference(s): John 1:1-3, Joh 1:14, John 1:15, John 1:30, Joh 3:13, Joh 6:38, Joh 6:58, John 6:62, Joh 8:56-58, Joh 17:5, Joh 17:24, 1Co 10:4, Hebrews 1:2-5, Heb 1:8, Heb 1:13

Source: “On the Jewish-Christian Doctrine of the Preexistence of the Messiah” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. XXI, 1902, pp. 78-86.

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