7 Questions on the Christological Hymns in the Gospels
Matthew E. Gordley holds a PhD from the University of Notre Dame in the area of Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity, an MDiv from Alliance Theological Seminary, and a BA from Wheaton College (IL). He also completed doctoral courses at Princeton Theological Seminary prior to matriculating at the University of Notre Dame.
Since 2015 Dr. Gordley has been serving as the Dean of the College of Learning and Innovation and as an Associate Professor of Theology within the Humanities Department. He teaches courses in biblical studies and related areas including a Contemplation and Action course within the Carlow Compass curriculum, “Parables of Jesus: Ancient Stories with Enduring Meaning.” His research centers on reading the New Testament in its original cultural and historical contexts and he has written extensively on early Jewish and Christian psalms and their place in the wider Greco-Roman world.
His work has been published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Journal of Jewish Studies, Journal of Ancient Judaism, Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha, and the Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters. Prior to joining Carlow University Dr. Gordley served as an associate dean, a department chair, and a faculty member at a sister CIC (Council of Independent Colleges) school in Virginia.
1. What previous research and/or personal interests helped prepare you to write New Testament Christological Hymns? How was this particular project born?
My fascination with early Christian hymns was really sparked in a doctoral seminar I took at Princeton Theological Seminary called “Earliest Christianity in its Greco-Roman Context.” As we read ancient texts representing different facets of first-century life, I was particularly struck by the ways that the language of ancient hymns in praise of the Egyptian goddess Isis sounded so similar to early Christian praise of Jesus. Isis was hailed as a savior, a deliverer, and she was praised for her saving work in language that was not unlike what was said of Jesus in the New Testament hymns. This led to my focusing my doctoral dissertation on the Colossian hymn (Col 1:15-20). Once that was published I turned to a broader survey of ancient hymns with special attention to the formative dimension of hymns. That book, Teaching through Song in Antiquity: Didactic Hymnody among Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Christians, focused on the ways that hymns convey teaching to a human audience in addition to the ways they offer praise to a deity. New Testament Christological Hymns is my attempt at a scholarly survey of the hymnic materials in praise of Jesus in the New Testament, and it is the fruit of my last fifteen years of research on these passages. Aside from my scholarly work, I have been a worship leader in a number of different congregations over the years. So in that sense I have a deeply personal connection to understanding the dynamics of early Christian worship.
2. Who is the intended audience for New Testament Christological Hymns ? Would it benefit pastors? professors? students? lay Christians in the local church?
I’d like to think that this book is for anyone interested in the earliest worship of Jesus. But this is first and foremost an academic book that delves into scholarship on the earliest Christian hymns and I believe makes an important contribution to future scholarly work on these passages. However, because the subject matter connects directly with Christian worship today, I have written it to be accessible to a much broader audience than just New Testament scholars. So I do hope that this will be used by professors in undergraduate and graduate classes in New Testament and particularly in worship classes. But I think that my focus on early Christian worship in its Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural contexts provides a really stimulating model for contemporary Christians who are struggling with how to bridge cultural gaps in their own worship. So pastors and worship leaders who wrestle with these issues will find encouragement here. A deeper understanding of some of the dynamics of early Christian worship can help contemporary worshippers reflect on their own worship in new ways.
3. What is unique about New Testament Christological Hymns ? What contribution does it make to biblical studies and/or biblical theology?
The passages that we call New Testament christological hymns offer us a unique entry point into early Christian understandings of Jesus and his work and also into early Christian worship. But there is also a lot of debate among interpreters about their significance. Though in most cases we lack the evidence to be able to claim that a passage was a hymn that was utilized by a community of believers in a worship context, I argue that there is still good reason to conclude that these passages are reflective of what was occurring in early Christian worship. Taken together they can tell us a great deal about the shape of early Christian worship. My approach is unique in that I do take seriously the claims of the critics of identifying early Christian hymns in the New Testament, while at the same time I use an appropriate and methodologically defensible way to gain a fuller appreciation of the hymnic nature of many of these passages. A key part of my approach is to consider these hymnic passages within the larger context of both Jewish and Greco-Roman hymns and praise poetry in antiquity. When we view these passages within this larger cultural context, new insights emerge about Christian worship of Jesus. Some aspects of early Christian worship reflect shared cultural norms; other aspects indicate ways that Christian worship moved in unprecedented directions. Taken as a whole, these passages enable us to hear echoes of the earliest worship of Jesus.
4. In the book, you write that your “aim is to provide a comprehensive, comparative, and exegetically informed analysis of New Testament christological hymns in light of their cultural, literary, and theological contexts” (p. 11). What kind of application can readers expect to have from this study?
Great question. In each chapter of this book I study one major hymn or a selection of shorter hymnic passages. Those chapters delve deeply into those passages within the first-century context. It is really in the conclusion that I take a broader look and consider contemporary application. And the way I do that is by walking readers through a set of questions based on what we have seen in the New Testament hymns. So, for example, I argue that the New Testament hymns show a pervasive interest in presenting Jesus as inaugurating a “new era”—the era of God’s fulfilling of the promises of the Jewish scriptures. If that is so, then the question for worshippers today is: to what extent does our worship reflect this recognition that Jesus has inaugurated a new age? And a second question is: in my own life, to what extent am I living my life, going about my daily activities, with an awareness that I am living in the new era which Jesus initiated? Rather than being prescriptive about what we should do, these passages invite us to see the world, to see ourselves, and to see Jesus in a particular way, and to live our lives in light of those realities.
5. You discuss christological hymns found in Philippians, Colossians, and the Gospel of John, as well as Ephesians, 1 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 Peter, Luke, and Revelation. In other words, christological hymns are found in books written by different authors, who are in different contexts, who are writing in different literary genres, and for different purposes. What does this diverse yet collective use of christological hymns tell us about first-century Christology and ecclesiology?
On the one hand, it suggests that acclamation of Jesus in hymnic forms was very widespread and that this acclamation centered on a few things: his death, resurrection, ascension, and exaltation to a place of lordship over all. On the other hand, the diversity of the kinds of expressions (ie, none of these hymns seems to be directly quoting any of the others, even though they express related ideas) suggests that there was a great deal of freedom in expressing these ideas. Further, the fact that these are poetic and worship texts that invoke awe and emotion rather than prose explanations directed to the intellect reminds us that these are not precise expressions of doctrine. Of course, with their high christology they have been a rich resource for the construction of theology and doctrine ever since. But what I have uncovered is the affective dimensions of these texts as early hymns. They convey ideas, yes, but they also work like poetry in grand imagery designed to inspire.
6. What section or passage of New Testament Christological Hymns was particularly memorable to research and write? What personally edified you in writing this book, increasing your affections for Christ?
It was definitely the chapter on the Philippian hymn (Phil 2:6-11). Whenever I have taught this passage or written about it, I have always felt that I did not do justice to the grandeur of this majestic, poetic portrayal of Christ—or to the rich tradition of scholarship on this passage. One scholar has aptly referred to this passage as the “Mt. Everest of Philippians study.” But treating this passage in the larger context of this comparative study, I got closer to feeling really good about my understanding of this passage and also how I explained it. Though not every reader will be interested in the 20th century German scholarship on the Philippian hymn, for me spending some significant time with the works of Käsemann and Lohmeyer was very enlightening. Overall though, gaining a renewed perspective on the scope and grandeur of the earliest worship of Jesus in its historical and social contexts was particularly uplifting.
7. What is next for you? What project are you currently working on? How can people follow your work and ministry?
Right now I am doing some research on a first-century BCE Jewish collection of psalms called Psalms of Solomon, a text which I refer to a number of times in the present volume. This collection of psalms from around Jerusalem is the only collection from this time period outside of some Hebrew psalms found at Qumran. It seems very likely that the group that produced these psalms represents currents of Judaism not unlike the Jewish background of Paul. Notably, the Psalms of Solomon look forward expectantly to the advent of a messiah who will fulfill the biblical promises and rescue God’s people. Surprisingly, this collection of eighteen psalms has not received as much attention among New Testament scholars as other early Jewish writings. With my interests in early Christian worship, there is a lot more there to explore.
I welcome anyone to follow me on twitter @matthewgordley. I also have a blog in which I write from time to time about my research, my classes, and other items of interest that I come across as a college dean in higher education. My blog is at https://matthewgordley.blogspot.com/.
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