Research output per year
Research output per year
Previously taught systematic theology at the Universities of Aberdeen, St Andrews, and Edinburgh. A member of: the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, USA (Visiting Research Fellow, 2002-3); the American Academy of Religion; the Tyndale Fellowship for biblical and theological research; the Society for the Study of Theology. the British New Testament Society.
Here I teach across a number of disciplines at both undergraduate and postgraduate: the Religion, Theology and Culture degree, the Ministerial Theology degree, the Philosophy degree; the taught Masters in Theology and Religious Studies. I supervise some five doctoral students.
Over the last five years I have been relentlessly focussed on one research problem and two related questions:
How did first-century monotheistic Jews come to believe in Jesus' post-mortem appearances as Jesus resurrected (by no means inevitable)? And in Jesus resurrected as God?
I contend that all present theories have significant flaws in them that make them unsatisfying as explanation. If I am right it disproves the theory that one’s best work is behind one after fifty!
I contend the concept of indubitable identification is a central explanatory category in the story of Jesus in the first century: ‘Doubting Thomas’ inter alia signifies monotheistic Jews in the Johannine community who must have (indubitable) certainty. The story begins with the indubitable identification of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances as Jesus resurrected circa 30 CE and ends with the indubitable identification of Jesus resurrected as Israel's god, incarnate, circa 100.
The terminus a quo of the history trajectory I delineate is the observation that the interpretation of a post-mortem appearance as Jesus resurrected was - even for a first-century Jew who believed in the resurrection of the dead at the end of history – by no means an inevitable one. The claim to have experienced post-mortem appearances of the recently deceased was not an uncommon feature of the ancient world. But the interpretation of resurrection, notwithstanding the seemingly non-‘ghost-like’ (and seemingly solid) presence of some of these apparitions, is conspicuous by its absence. This is no less true of Second Temple Judaism since half the Jewish texts between the period 200 BCE-100 CE that speak of an afterlife do so without mentioning the resurrection. Employing this kind of evidence Dale Allison Jr has argued that belief in the general resurrection of the dead at the end of history would not have been sufficient for the interpretation of Jesus resurrected. Those who experienced Jesus’ post-mortem appearances would have continued to believe that his resurrection, like every other Jew’s, remained an event that would take place at the appointed time in the future, at the eschaton. This is where the empty tomb tradition comes in. Since resurrection was indisputably how Jesus’ post-mortem appearances were understood from the beginning, at the origins of Christianity  we may put Allison’s point this way. Far from the empty tomb tradition being a late tradition, it was in the beginning, circa 30 CE, the sine qua non of the indubitable identification of Jesus resurrected.
Either because of its intrinsic vulnerability as a resurrection motif (a historical dead-end says Allison) or because this had become counter-productive in the wake of a sustained (intra-religious) polemic against it, the empty tomb became counterproductive in the field of missionary proclamation to the synagogue. In contrast to Matthew and Mark Luke and John sought to demonstrate Jesus resurrected without it. This effectively meant solving the formal problem indicated by the following:
The empty tomb is itself a means to an end, which is the body of Jesus actual at the time of, for example, the crucifixion, the paradigmatic identity of Jesus himself. What if one could deal directly with the end itself? What if indubitable identification could be directly of the body rather than indirectly through the empty tomb to the body? To speak of indubitably identifying Jesus’ living body – Jesus alive - regardless of its particular history of entombment means: no matter the twists and turns of the subsequent history of relocation of what is indubitably his body (his corpse) - even were the disciples to have stolen his body(!) or someone else innocently move the body (the gardener under Joseph of Arimathea’s direction) - Jesus could no longer be dead because, indubitably, here he was, indubitably his body, Jesus resurrected. Put otherwise: if one retraces the continuity of the journey that Jesus’ dead body makes from the cross to the entombment as in the final four stages of the stations of the cross, what may strike one, as I contend it did John, is that the indubitable identification of Jesus resurrected in terms of this body actual at a time before the entombment indubitably identifies Jesus resurrected without the aid of the empty tomb tradition. The common strategy was, effectively, to by-pass the tomb tradition.
For Luke the empty tomb is replaced by the prophetic interpretation of Jesus’ appearances in terms of LXX Psalm 15:10: ‘his flesh shall not see corruption’). In Acts the empty tomb is conspicuous by its absence in the speeches that Luke has Peter and Paul make (Acts 2 and 13 respectively). ‘Why look for the living among the dead’ says Luke 24:5, ‘whether this be the present individual tomb or another tomb or grave or even a communal (criminal’s) grave; instead: look for it (naturally enough) in the living word of God.’
Building on the evidence from Luke I argue that for John the solution to the formal problem is to be found in the demand John has ‘Doubting’ Thomas make of Jesus in John 20:24-29:
Unless this person shows wounds absolutely identical with Jesus’ wounds actual at the time of the crucifixion I will not believe (the disciples encountered Jesus resurrected)
Here I invoke philosophical logic’s distinction between absolute identity and sortal sameness . The concept of ‘actuality at a time’ is from the philosophy of time .
I have now demonstrated by this point in the narrative that any notion of Jesus showing scars or marks of the wounds is untenable. A whole tradition dissolved by asking the right question!
The terminus ad quem of the argument is that John’s solution is the catalyst leading to the indubitable identification of Jesus with Israel’s god. The major historical factor here is the Johannine community’s expulsion from the synagogue (Martyn) in the wake of the charge of ditheism precipitated by the Heavenly Son of Man Christology (Ashton, Frey). The significance of expulsion should not be underestimated in terms of its material and spiritual effects. In this context, the doubt that one had set one’s face diametrically against YHWH’s will (had in effect taken a devastatingly wrong path) had to be surmounted and transcended by an even greater indubitable certainty that one had not. Only then according to John would a monotheistic Jew have confessed or recited “My Lord and my God” to Jesus (John 20:28) in the way that they would recite the Shema twice a day (Deut. 6:7).
What John perceived in the wounds tradition was not only the indubitable identification of Jesus resurrected; in indubitably identifying himself, Jesus had enacted sovereignty over time (in John 20:24-29 John presents Jesus as a person who might not be Jesus showing wounds absolutely identical to Jesus’ wounds actual at the time of the crucifixion). Hitherto only YHWH had been understood to enact sovereignty over time: of all the actions of creation it was this action that, par excellence, identified YHWH as the greatest god, i.e. God. Moreover, only the action of sovereignty over time indubitably identified YHWH. This puts it in a different category from actions that, while the unique divine prerogative of YHWH’s to do,  did not indubitably identify him. Precedent existed for these actions being done by figures distinct from YHWH, namely principal angels and exalted figures. Forgiving the sins of Israel (the angel of YHWH in Exodus 23), enacting Lordship over history (where this includes eschatological Lordship and judgement of the dead at the end of history [Enoch in 1 Enoch, Jesus in John 5]), having the divine name (Jesus in John 8, though this is probably a state and not an action) – it is not that these cannot identify YHWH, or are not true of YHWH, it is just that they do not indubitably identify him. In a historical context in which certainty is everything for Jews expelled from the synagogue the distinction is a crucial one. In the wake of this seminal insight John, a monotheistic Jew, cannot avoid the conclusion of the incarnation of YHWH who yet cannot become incarnate. Enter the Logos: what it is YHWH is, i.e., God, become flesh (so YHWH now has a nature). Incarnational Christianity (John 1:14) leads to the first three verses of his Gospel. In the beginning was what YHWH was in the action of creating time (cf. Genesis 1:3-5). And what YHWH was with YHWH (and is to become flesh in Jesus). And what YHWH was the Logos was (i.e. YHWH’s nature – God).
There is one more moral to this whole story. If YHWH creating and therefore being sovereign over time is the reason early fifth-century(?) Jews affirmed him as the one true God, John cannot do other - if he is to be consistent - than affirm Jesus as God; for he too is sovereign over time. The logic repeats itself some five centuries later.
 Dale Allison, 'Resurrecting Jesus' Resurrecting Jesus (London: Continuum, 2005)
 Paul Schubert may be the origin of this line of argument. See Schubert, ’The Structure and Significance
of Luke 24’, Walther Eltester (ed.), Neutestamentliche Studien Für Bultmann, (Berlin: Gruyter, 1954), 165-186.
 Tooley, Time, Tense, and Causation ( Oxford: OUP, 2007) chapter 2, 'Actual at a Time'.
 Graff Fara, ‘Possibility Relative to a Sortal’, Bennett and Zimmerman, (eds.), Oxford Studies in Metaphysics vol 7 (Oxford: OUP, 2007), 3-40; Noonan, ‘On the Notion of a Sortal Concept’, Philosophical Quarterly 28 (110) 1978, 58-64.
 Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism 3rd edition (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)
 Gabriele Boccaccini, “From Jewish Prophet to Jewish God: How John Made the Divine Jesus Uncreated.” In Reading the Gospel of Johns Christology as Jewish Messianism, edited by Benjamin Reynolds and Gabriele Boccaccini, 106:335–57. Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 218); “How Jesus Became Uncreated.” Pages 185–208 in Sibyls, Scriptures, and Scrolls. John Collins at Seventy. Vol. 1. Edited by Joel Baden, Hindy Najman, and Eibert Tigchelaar. Leiden and Boston; Brill, 2017
The other feature of the history that I am compelled to mention is what I take to be the nearly unavoidable conclusion that at most only the more peripheral members of the Twelve were in the Upper Room in Jerusalem that evening. I take it to be nearly certain that the inner circle of the Twelve – Peter, his brother Andrew, the sons of Zebedee James and John – were not because they had already left for Galilee. It is a short step from saying that John (and the Lukan traditions that did not originate with Mark or Q) originates with a disciple, John the Elder, who was not one of the Twelve, to saying that he is the sole source of the Upper Room tradition. If the inner circle of the Twelve were not present at this encounter they could not have been eye- (and hand-) witnesses to the flesh and bone tradition (Luke) or the wounds tradition (John). This is one primary reason the tradition is omitted from the Petrine tradition undergirding Mark and Matthew. It is only when the empty tomb polemic renders the Petrine resurrection tradition counterproductive that this particular Jerusalem tradition is propelled into the public arena of kerygmatic proclamation. Hitherto the pre-Pauline kerygma of 1 Corinthians 15:5 followed by the Markan kerygma of Mark 16:6 had been the primary resurrection tradition out there. But now toward the end of the first century the proclamation of Jesus resurrected to eternal life rested on the shoulders of the tradition of Luke and John. This is consistent with a Passion narrative that speaks of a shift of eye-witness testimony away from the Twelve and toward those disciples who stayed loyal to Jesus to the bitter end of his death. These disciples were not of the Twelve.
Reviews of Previous Major Books:
Reviews of Metaphysics and the God of Israel: Systematic Theology of the Old and New Testaments
"Neil MacDonald's reflection moves back, forth and sideways between critical biblical study, high-modern philosophy in the analytical tradition, and classical Christian doctrine. Most who have attempted such explorations have reported mostly blockades and traps. MacDonald discovers instead sudden opportunities of faithful insight and of - very often unexpected - theological construction. A remarkable and, I think, important book, to be read with attention."
Robert W. Jenson, Formerly Senior Scholar for Research at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, Professor Emeritus of Religion, St. Olaf College, Minnesota
"MacDonald's is a voice crying in the wilderness. This is a brilliant effort to combine the very best in historical-critical and theological exegesis with dogmatic and philosophical reflection of a very high level. The writing style is lucid and at times almost poetic, which a theme as exalted as God's work in time requires. Sophisticated and full of insight. May his tribe increase."
Christopher R. Seitz, Professor of Old Testament and Theological Studies, University of St Andrews
Reviews of Karl Barth and the Strange New World within the Bible:
'It is a rare and exciting event to find a theologian within the English-speaking world who is so deeply involved with the current biblical debates concerning creation, covenant, and resurrection. His learned and profound analysis represents a major hermeneutical step forward as he recovers the genuine stature of Barth's interpretation of Scripture.'
Brevard Childs, Sterling Professor of Divinity (Emeritus), Yale University, USA.
'MacDonald has a masterly grasp of Barth's distinctive theological vision ... This is a book which will bear reading and re-reading.'
Trevor Hart, Professor of Divinity, University of St Andrews, Scotland.
'Neil MacDonald has done the impossible in this amazing new book - that is, he has rescued Barth from his friends and his enemies by helping us see how Barth might end the problematics of modernity. MacDonald has, moreover, accomplished this task by an extraordinary, fruitful comparison between Wittgenstein and Barth. Anyone working in contemporary theology must read this book.'
Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics, Duke University, USA.
'Brilliant and nuanced'
Christopher R Seitz, Professor of Old Testament and Theological Studies, University of St Andrews, Scotland.
MA (Hons) 1st class (Glasgow), MTh (King's College, London), PhD (Edinburgh)
Member of the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, New Jersey, USA
Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA)
Research output: Book/Report › Book › peer-review
Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceeding › Chapter › peer-review
Research output: Other contribution › peer-review
Research output: Contribution to journal › Article › peer-review
Research output: Other contribution
Neil MacDonald (Advisor)
Activity: Public engagement and outreach › Workshop and other training