The Eldest Brother and New Testament Christology

by Harald Aarbakke (Author)
©2018 Monographs XIV, 332 Pages
Series: Bible and Theology in Africa, Volume 27


The Eldest Brother and New Testament Christology explores the origin of cultural representations of Jesus as an eldest brother. Through ethnographic surveys, author Harald Aarbakke shows that the role of the eldest brother in different African societies is often accompanied by additional roles, among them mediator, protector, and leader. Aarbakke also searches for an exegetical basis for this understanding of Jesus, and argues that an eldest brother Christology can be substantiated by the cultural and literary context of certain New Testament texts (Matthew 25:31–46 and 28:10, Mark 3:31–35, John 20:17, Romans 8:28–30, Colossians 1:15–20, and Hebrews 2:10–18).

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations and Formalities
  • 1 Introduction
  • 1.1 African Understandings of Jesus as the Eldest Brother
  • 1.1.1 Anthony O. Nkwoka: Jesus as the Eldest Brother (Okpara)
  • 1.1.2 Harry Sawyerr: Jesus as the Incarnated Eldest Brother within a Great Family
  • 1.1.3 François Kabasélé Lumbala: Jesus Christ as Ancestor and Elder Brother
  • 1.2 The Relevance and Challenge of Jesus as the Eldest Brother
  • 1.2.1 What Eldest Brother?
  • 1.2.2 African or Mediterranean Eldest Brother?
  • 1.2.3 Jesus as the Eldest Brother in the New Testament
  • 1.2.4 The Challenge Formulated as a Thesis
  • 1.3 Considerations of Terminology and Language
  • Notes
  • References
  • 2 The Eldest Brother in African Societies
  • 2.1 Ethnic Groups Referred to by Nkwoka
  • 2.1.1 The Igbo
  • 2.2 Ethnic Groups Referred to by Sawyerr
  • 2.2.1 The Akan
  • 2.2.2 The Kikuyu
  • 2.2.3 The Mende
  • 2.2.4 The Yoruba
  • 2.3 Ethnic Groups Referred to by Kabasélé Lumbala
  • 2.3.1 Various Bantu Ethnic Groups
  • 2.3.2 The Luba and Kuba
  • 2.4 Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • 3 The Eldest Brother in the First-Century Mediterranean World
  • 3.1 Family Relations in Antiquity
  • 3.2 Eldest Brother in Greek and Roman Literature
  • 3.2.1 Eldest Brother in the Works of Plutarch
  • 3.3 Eldest Brother in the Hebrew Bible/Septuagint
  • 3.3.1 Characteristics of Eldest Brother as Social Phenomenon or Reality
  • 3.3.2 Characteristics of Firstborn Used Metaphorically
  • 3.4 Eldest Brother in the Works of Philo
  • 3.4.1 Characteristics of Eldest Brother as Social Reality
  • 3.4.2 Firstborn Used Metaphorically
  • 3.5 Eldest Brother in the Works of Josephus
  • 3.5.1 Explicit about Who Is the Eldest Son or Brother
  • 3.5.2 The Eldest Is Expected to Succeed
  • 3.5.3 Spokesman, Representative, and Responsible Eldest Brother
  • 3.5.4 Rights and Statuses Connected with Being Elder Brothers
  • 3.5.5 Conclusion
  • 3.6 Summary and Conclusions
  • Notes
  • References
  • 4 Jesus as Eldest Brother in the New Testament
  • 4.1 Hebrews 2:10–18: The Eldest Brother Who Acts on Behalf of His Brothers
  • 4.1.1 Introduction
  • 4.1.2 The Challenges Presented in Context
  • 4.1.3 The Son Presented as the Eldest Brother
  • 4.1.4 Conclusions
  • 4.2 Romans 8:28–30: The Firstborn among Many Siblings
  • 4.2.1 Introduction
  • 4.2.2 Establishing Common Origin
  • 4.2.3 The Firstborn as the Eldest Brother
  • 4.2.4 Eldest Brother Characteristics
  • 4.2.5 Conclusions
  • 4.3 Colossians 1:15–20: The Elevated Firstborn—the Eldest Brother?
  • 4.3.1 Introduction
  • 4.3.2 Establishing Common Origin
  • 4.3.3 Jesus—the Firstborn
  • 4.3.4 Statuses and Roles Corresponding with Being the Eldest Brother?
  • 4.3.5 Conclusions
  • 4.4 Mark 3:31–35: Jesus and His New Family
  • 4.4.1 Introduction
  • 4.4.2 Jesus’ Status and Role in Relation to His New Family
  • 4.4.3 Conclusions
  • 4.5 Matthew 25:31–46: Jesus and the Least of These My Brothers
  • 4.5.1 Introduction
  • 4.5.2 The King in Relation to the Least of These My Brothers
  • 4.5.3 Conclusions
  • 4.6 Matthew 28:10 and John 20:17: Jesus and His Postresurrection Brothers
  • 4.6.1 Introduction
  • 4.6.2 A Message for His Brothers
  • 4.6.3 Conclusions
  • Notes
  • References
  • 5 Conclusion and Outlook
  • 5.1 Conclusion
  • 5.2 Outlook
  • Notes
  • Reference
  • Index
  • Series index

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This project is the result of a long journey, a journey neither foreseen nor planned, altered by possibilities and priorities. The good support of many people in different ways has helped me finally finish this project and turn it into a book. I am in this regard grateful to Peter Lang Publishing and to acquisition editor Meagan K. Simpson.

This book is a revised version of my doctoral dissertation submitted at MF Norwegian School of Theology and I am grateful to Professor Reidar Hvalvik, who for several years was my supervisor, for sharing his insight and offering many helpful comments on both the larger issues and the finer details. His professional guidance has been invaluable also in helping me finish this project. I also wish to thank Ernst Baasland, Torrey Seland, Roar G. Fotland, Karl Olav Sandnes, Anna Rebecca Solevåg, and Reidar Aasgaard for valuable comments and feedback.

The staff at the libraries at Fjellhaug International University College, MF Norwegian School of Theology, and VID Stavanger have all been generous and helpful in finding needed literature. I also wish to thank former and current colleagues at NLA University College, Campus Gimlekollen and Fjellhaug International University College for kind encouragements.

Christiane Cunnar, Member Services at Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) at Yale University has also been kind in granting me access to the eHRAF database and helping me to make effective searches in the database. ← xi | xii →

My final thanks go to my family and friends for their support, especially to my three daughters, Elise, Silje, and Anita, and to Anne, my wife and companion for life, for her support, encouragement, and patience.

Oslo, June 2018

Harald Aarbakke

| xiii →

Abbreviations follow The SBL Handbook of Style, Second Edition. Biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), unless otherwise indicated.

Quotations from the Greek New Testament are taken from Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland, 28th edition.

Abbreviations not found in The SBL Handbook of Style, Second Edition:

ACS African Christian Studies

ACSS African Christian Studies Series

AFER African Ecclesiastical Review

Bibel 2011 Norwegian Bible Society Translation: Bokmål 2011

eHRAF electronic Human Relations Area Files

EHS.T Europäische Hochschulschriften Reihe XXIII Theologie

FCS Faith and Cultures Series

HRAF Human Relations Area Files

IBMR International Bulletin of Missionary Research ← xiii | xiv →

IRM International Review of Mission

JAfH Journal of African History

JRAI Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

LEB Lexham English Bible

MThS.H Münchener theologische Studien. 1. Historische Abteilung

NASB95 New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update

NCBC New Century Bible Commentary

NCV New Century Version

NIV 1984 New International Version 1984

NIVAC NIV Application Commentary

NoTM Norsk Tidsskrift for Misjon

NSBT New Studies in Biblical Theology

PrTMS Princeton Theological Monograph Series

SPIB Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici

SIA Studia Instituti Anthropos

StMiss Studia Missionalia

SIHC Studies in the Intercultural History of Christianity

ZMiss Zeitschrift für Mission

| 1 →

Several years ago, I worked as a missionary in Northern Sumatra in Indonesia, teaching at a small Bible college. I experienced there that when the Batak of Northern Sumatra were talking about Jesus, they were using other images than those I was used to in my country, Norway. One image fascinated me more than the others: Jesus presented as the first member of the family with the believers as his siblings. This image was called marga Kristus. In the Indonesian language, marga can mean both “clan” and “family name.”1 Among the Batak, it is of utmost importance to know the number of generations from the first ancestor of their clan or lineage. A smaller number of generations back to the first ancestor means higher ascribed honor than a larger number of generations. The Batak use this cultural kinship relationship in Christian preaching to emphasize that all believers belong to the first generation in their relationship with Christ. The believers are the brothers and sisters of Jesus. There is therefore nobody in marga Kristus with a higher number than one. Combined with the privileged status the firstborns have had in traditional Batak society, this made marga Kristus a telling image among their own.

Later I was referred to an article entitled “Jesus as Eldest Brother, (Okpara): An Igbo Paradigm for Christology in the African Context” written by Anthony O. Nkwoka that dealt with nearly the same subject, but from an African point of view.2 He attempts there to present Jesus as the eldest brother to his younger siblings (the ← 1 | 2 → believers) in the New Testament. When reading Nkwoka, I also noticed that his African cultural background helped him recognize the preferential status of Jesus as a brother to younger siblings. At first, I wanted to pursue this topic with reference to my former experience from Northern Sumatra, but because of a lack of suitable written presentations, I looked for other contributions from African authors and found more written material that is relevant. Below I will present this material.

Emilio Julio Miguel de Carvalho has, in the following quote, given an apt description that reflects this “African eldest brother Christology”: “Such an idea of Jesus as our elder brother is perfectly understandable, due to the role that the older brother has in our society and culture: of a defender, mediator and protector.”3 An African understanding of the eldest brother seems to offer a meaningful image useful in the efforts to formulate a contextual African Christology.4 If we were to search for an exegetical basis for this understanding of Jesus—read in light of its first-century Mediterranean context—what understanding of the eldest brother would we then find? To develop my thesis, I will first present this African Christology. After discussing the relevance and challenges of this Christology, I will present a more precisely defined thesis, which here may be given in a preliminary form: According to an African understanding of Jesus, he may be understood as the eldest brother within a large family. As such, he has certain roles and holds certain statuses, which to a certain extent can be substantiated from a reading of the New Testament in light of its first-century Mediterranean context.

1.1 African Understandings of Jesus as the Eldest Brother

Concurrently with the liberation of the former colonies and during the process of becoming indigenous, the effort to write an African theology became more important among African theologians. John Vernon Taylor formulated the question succinctly:

Christ has been presented as the answer to the questions a white man would ask, the solution to the needs that Western man would feel, the Saviour of the world of the European world-view, the object of the adoration and prayer of historic Christendom. But if Christ were to appear as the answer to the questions that Africans are asking, what would he look like?5

Among those who initially responded to this challenge to formulate an African theology, most seemed to concentrate their efforts on the African cultural situation ← 2 | 3 → with less attention to biblical studies, especially in Christology.6 The attempts to formulate an “African eldest brother Christology” have been one attempt among several others, to respond to this neglect in writing an African theology.7

Harry Sawyerr was probably the first to contribute substantially in this area.8 He has made a significant impact on the christological discussion in African theology. Aylward Shorter comments, “Sawyerr’s suggestion provided an opening for Black Theology and the concept of Christ as the ‘universal brother’ of diminished humankind.”9 John S. Mbiti asserts that Sawyerr’s work is a substantial study in indigenous theology: “The first African theologian of our time to publish a substantial study in the area of indigenous Theology to my knowledge is H. Sawyerr, in Creative Evangelism: Towards a New Christian Encounter with Africa (1968).”10 Mbiti labels Sawyerr’s approach “Contact Theology,” which he defines as “a Theology built upon areas of apparent similarities and contact between Christianity and traditional African concepts and practices.”11Unfortunately, few theologians have carried out an investigation as thorough as that of Sawyerr. Most of them give short comments on how Africans understand Christ as their brother.12 Another African that has tried to relate this christological thinking to the New Testament material is the aforementioned Nkwoka in the previously mentioned article by him.13 Ukachukwu Chris Manus comments that Nkwoka’s article “represents a further milestone in this direction of Biblical Christology.”14 Few theologians have so far taken up the christological proposal outlined by Nkwoka for further investigation, but the theme of Jesus as elder brother does come to the fore from a different perspective. François Kabasélé Lumbala deals with the topic of Jesus as our brother in an article entitled “Christ as Ancestor and Elder Brother.”15 I will not discuss the implications of the wider theme of Jesus as ancestor, but concentrate on what is relevant concerning the brother relation.16 Because Kabasélé Lumbala uses the status and role of the elder brother within the family to show what it means to call Jesus our elder brother, this is a workable option.17 Below I will present the material from these three authors.18 Nkwoka’s contribution is probably the easier to grasp from a non-African perspective; therefore, I will present his contribution first, after that the richer and more biblically grounded contribution by Sawyerr, and finally Kabasélé Lumbala’s contribution.

Before I present this material, I will give a very brief overview of the main characteristics of African cosmology as an aid in providing a broader African context for the presentation below. African cosmology is characterized by a fundamental belief in transcendent realities that includes the existence of a Supreme Being, the creator of the universe. The Supreme Being is universal and does not belong to particular peoples or societies. God, the Supreme Being, is furthermore ← 3 | 4 → accompanied by “lesser deities, ancestors of clans and lineages, and other benevolent and malevolent powers” in the transcendent world.19 These lesser deities, ancestors, and powers can influence the lives of individual people for good or for ill.20 Among these the ancestors are the guardians of morality; that together with the deities “reward and punish people according to their deeds.”21 Humankind is weak, finite, and impure. Therefore, one is dependent on the Supreme Being and benevolent powers for protection. There is a belief in the holiness of human life and its divine source. In Africa, to be human means to belong to and take active part in the life of the whole community.22

1.1.1 Anthony O. Nkwoka: Jesus as the Eldest Brother (Okpara)

Nkwoka gave in 1991 a stimulating contribution to the theme of Jesus as the eldest brother with the aforementioned article entitled “Jesus as Eldest Brother, (Okpara): An Igbo Paradigm for Christology in the African Context.”23 Nkwoka notes there the massive growth of Christians among the Igbo, an ethnic group living in Nigeria.24 Commenting on the translation of the Bible into Igbo, done by Thomas J. Dennis, he notes that the translator uses Okpara Chineke as a rendering of Son of God (Jesus Christ). This was a contextual translation because Okpara Chineke means “firstborn Son of God” in Igbo. It was therefore a deliberate choice and an effort to contextualize the gospel.25

The Igbo are mainly patrilineal, and the wish for a son is strong among them. The place of the okpara or firstborn son in the family is unique, and his parents, siblings, and the larger community respect and highly esteem him. Within the wider community, the kings “exercise both priestly and social leadership through the okpara, heads of families, lineages, and clans rather than through their own staff.”26 Of the privileges of the okpara, Nkwoka mentions that on the family level the father confides vital family information to the okpara. He is the second in command as long as the father lives, and his inheritance rights are special and protected. He is expected to marry before his younger brothers and before his sisters are married, he must be consulted. Participation in various dangerous unimportant activities is prohibited. He receives the seniority tribute; that is, he receives certain parts of the animal in cases where the father of the man who killed the animal is dead. He also receives tribute gifts on the great feast days of the lineage.27 The okpara also has many responsibilities and social roles. As “the second father,” he aids his father. Later, when the father gets old, he represents him. The okpara is also responsible for the burial of his father and takes care of the upbringing of his younger brothers and sisters. He organizes the work when clearing and cultivating ← 4 | 5 → common farmland. When needed, he also has the responsibility of disciplining family members. In the religious sphere, he is the family priest, being the link between the family members and the living-dead ancestors. He pours libations and offers prayers to the ancestors, and he organizes sacrifices. He consults the ancestors and gods of the land through diviners when unusual events occur. In social activities, he is highly involved; he actively takes part in rites of passage, and he gives the name to a newborn child during the naming ceremony after finding out which ancestor is reincarnated in the child. He ensures proper socialization of family members and arranges for proper care of those in need of it. Politically he is the traditional prime minister and head of the family unit. He sounds out the majority opinion in the family, takes a stand and the others must comply. Because of developments in recent years, some of the traditional aspects of the role of the okpara have changed.28

Nkwoka then continues to the New Testament to learn what it says about Jesus as the elder brother. He notes first the significance of the title “Son of God” for Jesus. The Gospel of Mark underlines his divine sonship, but his humanity is also emphasized (Mark 1:11; 9:7).29 Jesus’ brotherhood with regenerated humankind relates to his divine sonship. Jesus is by nature Son of God while believers in Christ are sons by adoption (Gal 4:5; Eph 1:4, 5). In addition, Jesus’ teaching on the fatherhood of God is prominent. Jesus addressed God as “my Father,” but fourteen times in the Sermon on the Mount he also presents God as the Father of those who believe in him. Nkwoka focuses next on two passages where Jesus presents himself as a brother; the first he defines as contextual, the second as eschatological.

Mark 3:34–35 with parallels is the contextual passage. First, Nkwoka notes that Jesus is not rude toward his relatives. The emphasis on doing the will of God nevertheless sets the relationship with his relatives on a different level.30 He claims that Jesus “admits all His disciples and all believers to the same honourable rank as if they were His nearest relations.”31 From this biblical passage, he also claims that Jesus presents himself as a brother for all who do the will of God irrespective of color, race, status, and sex. This new “spiritual kinship surpasses the accidents of birth,”32 but Jesus is not just a brother. He is the eldest of all his brothers and sisters (Col 1:15 and 16). He is the first begotten before all creation. By Him, all things were created.

Matthew 25:40 is the eschatological passage. The text presents Jesus in an eschatological scene as the exalted Son of Man that as King sits to reward men according to their works on earth. He identifies himself with the least of his brothers.33 Nkwoka understands these as the outcasts and marginal members of society, ← 5 | 6 → of whom he declares himself a brother. This sounded amazing and perhaps scandalous to both his disciples and the larger Jewish audience, but Jesus serves and cares for suffering humanity. Similarly, the disciple that serves and cares for suffering humanity serves and cares for the brothers of the King and so serves the King. Nkwoka goes on to point out that Jesus by his resurrection became “the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent,” citing Col 1:18 (and Rom 8:29; 1 Cor 15:20). The redeemed are therefore a family, and the resurrection is the entrance into this family. Since Christ was the first to rise, he is the “Eldest-Born.”34 But Jesus’ purpose was to reconcile man to God. “In so doing, Jesus did not present himself as a liberator—Lord. But he was bringing many sons to glory, and ‘is not ashamed to call them brethren’ (Heb. 2:11).”35 Nkwoka stresses that Jesus’ primary task is to bring the kingdom of God to humankind. In doing this, Jesus presents himself as a brother. Nkwoka emphasizes Jesus’ devotion to God in this task by citing George Arthur Buttrick, who writes about Jesus’ strong spiritual bond and loyalty to God.36 Nkwoka concludes:

From the foregoing, the brotherhood of Jesus to the believers is open to all mankind irrespective of race, colour, or status in life. He is the first begotten of the Father and from the dead. Consequently he is the eldest of all his ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ (Rom. 8:29; Heb. 2:17). This relationship by the anticipated eschatological resurrection transcends time into eternity. It is not liable to loss through death.37

Finally, Nkwoka attempts to relate the cultural context. He focuses on the special status of the okpara, with the New Testament description of Jesus as the eldest brother. Nkwoka finds that the “New Testament justifies the application of this title by affirming that Jesus is the only ‘natural’ Son of God (Mk. 1:22; 9:7; Jn. 3:16, 18; Rom. 8:32 etc.).”38 He is not only “the first and only begotten of the Father, he is also the first-born from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18).”39 The unique relationship between Jesus and God seems in addition to be the central theme of the Letter to the Hebrews. His obedience and humility that were manifested in his death had the effect that God exalted him and gave him a name worthy of worship (Phil 2:6–11).40

By presenting Jesus as Okpara Chineke, Nkwoka lists six positive aspects in this christological contextualization. First, the high value on male children that prolong the family name and lineage is a powerful explication of Jesus as the only Son of God. Second, the Igbo tradition of giving the heart of a sacrificed victim to the okpara as his portion can be used as a theological topic for conversion. Third, Jesus refines, amplifies, and immortalize the priestly role of the okpara. Fourth, in the church as a community, the indebtedness of the family members ← 6 | 7 → to the okpara, in the form of service and tribute gifts, provides a base for church resources. Fifth, Christian hospitality can be directed to serving the less privileged “brothers” of the Son of God. Sixth, the Igbo are fascinated when someone lowers themselves to do a sacrificial duty below their role expectations. When they are confronted with the fact that Jesus, Okpara Chineke, risked everything for us, they become very enamored with Jesus.41

1.1.2 Harry Sawyerr: Jesus as the Incarnated Eldest Brother within a Great Family

In 1968 Sawyerr wrote a book called Creative Evangelism with the telling subtitle Towards a New Christian Encounter with Africa where he also discusses the theme of Jesus as the elder brother.42 In this book, regarded as one of the first major attempts to write an African theology,43 Sawyerr deals first with some basic factors about the situation in Africa and then with some evangelistic considerations, before he turns to what he labels “Sound Doctrinal Teaching.”44

Sawyerr wants to interpret Christ in terms that are relevant and important to the Africans.45 This means that if one wants to be an African unto Africans, it is necessary to start with an African interpretation of existence and the universe when dealing with the task of doing theology.46 Sawyerr admits that problems are involved in this approach, but it is nevertheless necessary.47 He then discusses the interpretation of existence and the universe, the problem of evil, the earth goddess, the practice of presence, and sin. Based on the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians he also gives a short overview of the doctrine of Jesus Christ, God, and the Christian life. He turns next to the question about the relation between God and creation. These concepts, he states, as well as others found in African indigenous religions, are foreign to those found in the Old Testament. He therefore denies a positive equation between African indigenous religions and the Old Testament. It is essential for the understanding of the Christian message that Jesus was born as a Jew.48 For Sawyerr, the incarnation is of great significance, a theme he discusses in the section called “The Uniqueness of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ for Christian Evangelism in Africa.”49 It is here that the discussion about Jesus as the elder brother begins. When presenting the incarnation in the African context emphasis should be on showing that Jesus Christ manifests God’s love for humanity, that he shares in their suffering, and that his death reveals God’s victory over death.50 The humanity of Jesus is important, but since God raised him from the dead, Christ is now alive, and therefore it is suitable to speak about the church as “the Great Family.” In this family, Jesus Christ is the head. ← 7 | 8 → The implication is that the community of the church transcends all kinds of divisions among people whether ethnic or national. For Sawyerr, this interpretation of Jesus’ role is an interpretation of him as the elder brother. While others have suggested an interpretation of Jesus as chief, Sawyerr finds that an interpretation of Jesus as the elder brother is both more acceptable and more constructive.51 He states: “We therefore suggest that chiefship is unsuited to the Person of Christ. But to represent Jesus Christ as the first-born among many brethren who with Him together form the Church is in true keeping with African notions.”52 With reference to Gal 2:19ff he labels the relation between the Christians and Jesus as a mystical relation that implies that the Christians are adopted into sonship with God. This is the goal for humankind (Rom 8:29; 1 John 3:2). According to Sawyerr, many Africans (Christians included) struggle with a feeling of insecurity. To overcome this, many seek help in various ready-made formulas. The purpose is to gain a visible manifestation of the presence of the spirits and through them deal with the situation. Such a resort is considered idolatrous for the Christian, who is left without concrete help. Sawyerr argues that the doctrine of the incarnation is the answer to this problem.53

The spirits worshiped in Africa are said to be close to God. They are neither divine nor human but can somehow be described as intermediaries between God and humankind. On the other hand, Christianity claims that God created the world with Jesus Christ as the agent of both the first creation and of the new creation. By citing from Col 2:9–10, 1:16, and referring to John 1:14 and 1 John 1:1–2, Sawyerr argues that the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily in Christ and that Jesus became flesh. He concludes: “The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation presents Jesus Christ to us as a genuine ladder between God and nature, humankind included.”54 Jesus Christ is therefore the concrete manifestation of the Godhead. According to Gal 3:28, the Christians are one in Christ (Eph 2:11–22; John 17:21). The church is the body of Christ where Christ is the head (Eph 1:22; Col 1:18; Eph 2:20). Sawyerr argues that the unity and universality of the church manifest themselves in unity in diversity. This means that the church in Africa may develop an originality of its own as long as it does not lead to syncretism. Christianity in culture “requires, always, both an incarnation and detachment.”55 This understanding of the church as the body of Christ where the members of the body are integrated into Christ as the head has a strong appeal to Africans. The reason is that the idea of Jesus Christ as the firstborn among many brothers fits nicely with this understanding. The benefit of this approach is that it takes care of the contrast between the ancestors and Christ.56 It is important, therefore, to hold on to the doctrine of the incarnation and thereby to keep ← 8 | 9 → the association of perfect manhood with perfect Godhead because many Africans tend to represent Christ as a true human being, but do not recognize him as “true God of true God.”57

The concept of the Great Family may also offer a mold for people of various backgrounds and areas. The disruption of the traditional extended family caused by industrialization has caused many to break loose from the moral sanctions of their former environment. The bond of kinship that all can find in Jesus Christ as the firstborn among many brothers will offer an answer to this as well. The relevant kinship is the age-mate kinship that creates a sense of fellow feeling among men and women of the same age.58 Since the African community includes the living, the unborn, and the dead the relation to the ancestors is important.59 The Christians have entered a mystical relationship with Christ. They are therefore exhorted to live as men who have been brought from death to life (Rom 6:13). This relates both to the fact that they are raised at baptism from death to walk in the newness of life, and to the state of oneness with Christ (Gal 2:20). Sawyerr comments: “Here, the Christian is in symbiosis with Jesus Christ our elder brother, the first-born of many brethren.”60 A significant difference between the African ancestors and Jesus Christ that once was dead is that Jesus Christ is alive now. “Every true Christian has a personal experience of Him as a life-giving Spirit, returned to His place of glory in the Godhead.”61 Also, the Bible states that Jesus was seen after His resurrection by up to five hundred brothers (1 Cor 15:6; Acts 10:40–43). There is, on the other hand, no concrete evidence to claim that the ancestors are alive in the spirit.62 While Africans feel that the ancestors are close to them, it is important to present the church as a unifying community that surpasses anything comparable in African Traditional Religion societies, and at the same time preserve the solidarity between the living and the dead in this new community, the church.63 The church, understood as the Great Family, founded in Jesus Christ, includes a real concern for the ancestral dead, as well as those that may not have been Christians, and for whom God is potentially the Father (Eph 1:10). Sawyerr considers this a proper answer to the pluralism and syncretism that confront Christianity. As Christians that have been adopted into sonship by God, they also have a better case in believing that God their Father is their ancestor than adherents of African Traditional Religion.64

The Akan of Ghana have a concept of a Messiah that Sawyerr compares with the Christian Messiah.65 In this connection, he states that Christ “becomes the bridge-head by which we may gain access to God the Father. So He is the first-born among many brethren and as elder brother we have direct and complete access to him.”66 In addition, Christ is universal. All Christians, whether Jew or ← 9 | 10 → Greek, African or Chinese, become co-heirs with Him of the kingdom of God (Rom 8:16 f., 29; Gal 3:27 ff.; Eph 2:11–22; 3:6 f.; 1 Pet 2:9 f.; Matt 8:11). This also implies that Christ is “the leader of the family as the first-born of the family line.”67 In Africa, the Supreme God is the father of the deities. This can be with a pantheon ranging from four hundred gods and goddesses to around one thousand divinities as among the Yoruba.68 For Christians, there is only one Son of God, Jesus Christ, the only begotten. Therefore, he is “the perfect, concrete manifestation of the Power of God.”69 Also, regarding the attitude to both ancestral and cultic spirits that are widely worshiped among the Africans, Sawyerr argues that the Christians should strive to end this practice. In this connection, he asserts that belief in spirits is not based on any personal relationship. Apart from ancestral spirits, none of the objects of worship in African Traditional Religion has any historical origin.70 Here Sawyerr sees a difference with the Christians because “Jesus Christ is both an historical Person, an elder Brother and a personal Friend who came to the world to manifest the love of God for mankind (John 3:16; Romans 8:28).”71 Due to this understanding of Jesus as a friend and elder brother, it is now easier to see how God deals with the sufferings of humanity. Through the incarnation of Jesus, God now understands human suffering and now comforts and consoles humans in their pain (2 Cor 1:3–10; 12:9).

1.1.3 François Kabasélé Lumbala: Jesus Christ as Ancestor and Elder Brother

Kabasélé Lumbala has written several articles where he discusses various models for understanding Christ.72 He most specifically takes up the theme of the eldest brother in the article from 1991 entitled “Christ as Ancestor and Elder Brother” where he defines Christ as elder brother as a subcategory of Christ as ancestor.73 To understand his description of Christ as the elder brother, I will first give a presentation of how he treats Christ as ancestor. Kabasélé Lumbala takes as his starting point John 14:6 where Jesus said to Thomas: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one goes to the Father but by me.”74 To a Muntu,75 these words remind him of the people who are the source of life and obligatory route to the Supreme Being, the ancestors. Jesus’ use of the vine or the tree reminds a Bantu of the importance of ongoing contact with the ancestors for the maintenance of life.76 One needs to be grafted onto them; otherwise, one dries up and wastes away (John 15:5ff.). According to Kabasélé Lumbala, the parallel between Christ and Adam drawn by Paul establishes even more the image and suggestion of the ancestors on the figure of Jesus (Rom 5:14b, 15b; 1 Cor 15:45b). There is also ← 10 | 11 → a strong sense of the concept of the intermediary. As such, Jesus is portrayed for the Jamaa, as the ancestor par excellence that is present today among his own; he is the new Adam and Mary the new Eve.77 Christ is above all spirits. Kabasélé Lumbala explains by citing Nkongolo wa Mbiye:

He is our own Spirit [Ancestor], because we have been … born a second time by baptism. We are human beings, but we are also of the race of God, by our baptism. Thus we have two lines of Ancestors. The great spirit [Ancestor] is always Christ, God’s child, who died and who rose again. He is the firstborn from the dead. After Christ, we can rely on other founding spirits. First, [we have] the Blessed Virgin Mary…. Then let us not forget our departed….78

He relates this description of Christ as their ancestor to what the ancestor represents for a Muntu. The various tonalities, in which the relationship between a Muntu and his or her ancestor is expressed, are then applied to Christ.79 Kabasélé Lumbala gives after that an outline of the Bantu ancestor to show how the Bantu understand Christ as ancestor.

Kabasélé Lumbala then describes the main characteristics of the Bantu ancestors.80 They constitute the highest link after God in the chain of beings while remaining humans. After passing death, they are more powerful than other humans are, and they behold both God and God’s subjects. To become an ancestor, one must have led a virtuous life and observed the laws. Hence high moral conduct is a prerequisite. They must also have left descendants on earth and have died a natural death, full of years, after having delivered one’s message to one’s own.81 Those who have fulfilled these conditions can perform the role of mediation, although other deceased might also be called ancestors. The actual mediation is carried out by bringing about fertility, health, and prosperity; in short, a happy life. The ancestors also continue to be what they were as living human beings, man or woman, king or poor, but those alive do not recognize them any longer, they pass like the wind. Recourse to them is made when asking for favor and in remembrance of them. This is always a source of blessing. The important events in life for a Muntu become “either an epiphany of the activity of the Ancestors or an occasion of renewing contact with them, like closing ranks before a battle.”82 Kabasélé Lumbala admits that the figure of the ancestor is quite complex. He discusses four aspects of this ancestor figure that he applies to Christ: life, presence, the eldest, and mediation, all aspects we should see together.

Life comes from God, but it has come through the ancestors. They are accordingly somehow the “origin,” from whom the Bantu emerge. Kabasélé Lumbala maintains that one “can perform the role of ancestor only if one has given life.”83 ← 11 | 12 → To live is to give life; therefore, the greatest curse consists in dying childless. Now, Christ came to give “life.” “On his account we become heirs to the life of the Father. This life is the gift of the Father, but it comes by way of Jesus.”84 Consequently, he sees Jesus as the source of life by his word (Matt 4:4; John 11:25; 4:14; 6:51). Jesus continuously nourishes the life of believers, in a similar way to how the ancestors watch over the life of their descendants and strengthen their lives. The aspect of presence means that the ancestors are not treated merely as a memory, as a European ancestor, but as presence. The former is remembered, the latter is invoked, notably on important occasions. Therefore, one converses with them, shares food and drink with them as well as the communion meals of the family or the clan. They are the principal “allies” of earthly beings.85 He compares this with Jesus (Matt 28:20b). Christ is also ancestor in the sense of elder brother. Kabasélé Lumbala connects this with the notion of anteriority because it is central to the Bantu notion of the eldest sibling. The ancestors, as elder siblings, are closer to the sources because they came first. The one that came first is God; his name, “Mvidi-Eldest,” marks his anteriority to all life, all being. “The word Mvidi denotes a category of trees that multiply through their seeds, their roots, and their branches.”86 This attribute of eldest is also given to his Son. Accordingly, Christ also receives the attribute of “Eldest.”87 The children of the elder brother will always be “elder” vis-à-vis the children of younger brothers, even if the children of the younger brothers are older than the children of the elder brother. The patrilineal people in the Kasai region show examples of this respect for the elder brother and his sons when a father must give the dowry received for the first and second daughters in marriage to his elder brother or his elder brother’s sons. The same principle is applied to a younger brother’s first wages; he gives them to his eldest brother. The eldest brother makes an offering to the ancestors and to God on behalf of the others. Seen from this perspective, Christ is the elder brother par excellence, because our offerings must be made through him.88

As the Bantu eldest brother also represents an example to follow, as long as he behaves as the “eldest brother,” so is Christ a true “eldest one.” He has disappointed neither people’s expectations nor those of his Father. From the Father’s point of view, this is seen in that he has restored and crowned him in the resurrection. From people’s point of view, he has given himself as an example (John 13:15). As the eldest sibling, he discharges an exemplary role for the younger, or for the age group that follows. Related to this role of exemplarity is also the responsibility that the eldest child is charged with, for the acts of the younger. As such, Christ has shown himself for the Bantu to be their eldest brother who takes responsibility for their wrongs, by performing expiation for them (Isa 53:4–5; Heb 8–10). This ← 12 | 13 → relates to the work of mediation.89 The category of ancestor fits Christ because he is the synthesis of all mediations (Heb 8).90 Within the Bantu context, their conception of the world encompasses the notion of mediation. The contact with God is established through intermediaries that are endowed with a special communications network with God. The contact with the Supreme Being is therefore indirect for human beings. Within the mediating community, the ancestors hold first place because of their closeness to the source. Both their relations to the Supreme Being and to those living on earth put them in this special intermediary position.91 Christ holds this intermediary position because he is the door that opens access to the Father (John 10:9; Luke 10:22).92 So, for Bantu Christians Christ performs the role of the ancestor through the mediation he provides by fulfilling in himself the words and deeds of the ancestors.

1.2 The Relevance and Challenge of Jesus as the Eldest Brother

From the presentation given above, we see that it has been important for these three authors to present an African eldest brother Christology that adheres to what they regard as African notions.93 Sawyerr states explicitly, as quoted above, that the presentation of Jesus as the firstborn among many brothers “is in true keeping with African notions.”94 Nkwoka, on the other hand, takes as his point of departure a contextualized translation of the title Son of God into the Igbo language. He shows that this deliberate translation has enriched the understanding of Jesus as the eldest brother. The Igbo have also received the translation well. Finally, Kabasélé Lumbala presents Jesus as the eldest brother within the context of the African ancestors, an aspect of African life of vital importance and explanatory force. We see that the three authors clearly aim to offer presentations of Jesus that are relevant primarily within an African context.

There are, furthermore, numerous statements given by African authors signaling that many of the christological titles found in the New Testament are not experienced immediately at home in Africa.95 John S. Pobee claims: “Just as biblical christology is not possible without Jewish anthropology, so too African christology is impossible without African anthropology.”96 He argues that it is valid for Africans to look for Christologies that speak more directly to the African by giving adequate attention to an African view of humankind. A result of this interest in African anthropology is that African christological thinking tends to focus on relational aspects, due to the prominent interest in relationships among Africans. ← 13 | 14 → The African eldest brother Christology fits well into this interest.97 The formulation of an African eldest brother Christology reflects a living perception of Jesus among ordinary Christians at the grassroots level and is not just creative thinking from some scholars trying to formulate a contextualized understanding of Jesus.98 The many positive statements expressing such an understanding of Jesus suggest that the description of Jesus as the eldest brother strikes a positive chord for many Africans in various parts of Africa.99

Nkwoka, Sawyerr, and Kabasélé Lumbala write within a church setting where their contributions add to the ongoing christological discourse on how to present and understand Jesus in a meaningful way for Africans. Therefore, they address their contributions to a wider audience than to the scholarly community, even though important ideas in their contributions ought to be of interest to scholars as well. In addition to its African relevance, perspectives from African and Asian Christianity may also enlighten Christians in the Western world to discover new insights from the Bible, thereby signaling a global relevance as well.100 We may also note positively that this African contextual Christology might contain an understanding that is closer to the biblical texts themselves, read in their own context, than a “typical Westerner” at first sight is willing to accept.101 For a “typical Westerner”, this understanding might well be challenging, possibly due to cultural distance both to African and biblical societies. The firm focus on equality in the Western world might have led to less interest in inequality, positively evaluated. The African focus on Jesus as the eldest brother might accordingly add a dimension to traditional European Christology from the early church to the present.

My presentation of the African eldest brother Christology above does reveal several challenges and questions that I will deal with below. I notice and take into account, that the three African authors did not write scholarly monographs about this topic; two have written shorter articles, the third a book that covers a wider topic than what is my focus here. I will nevertheless try to deal with the challenges from the above-mentioned African authors in a scholarly context. Given the character of their writings, my discussion cannot be in a direct dialog with them. I will seek to bring the insights and proposed Christology from Nkwoka, Sawyerr, and Kabasélé Lumbala into a more Western format of scholarly discourse. To accomplish that, I will need to raise some critical questions in the following. First, what is meant by “the eldest brother”? The three African authors bring forward material from various African contexts when referring to the eldest brother. What do those contexts have in common in their understanding of the eldest brother? Second, to what degree must we confine such a Christology to contextually based understandings from specific African societies—if any? Third, to what extent is it ← 14 | 15 → possible to argue for an elder brother Christology based on the New Testament read in its cultural and historical context—independent of cultural experiences from contemporary societies? I will elaborate on these questions below.

1.2.1 What Eldest Brother?

The first question we should ask is what eldest brother we presuppose when we present Jesus as the eldest brother. The three authors present this information in different ways. Nkwoka starts with a presentation of the okpara, the eldest brother in Igbo society. He is highly esteemed and respected, his inheritance rights are special, and he receives the seniority tribute. He is the confidant of his father and as the second in command he assists his father. When his father gets old, he represents him. He is also responsible for the upbringing of younger siblings by both caring for them and disciplining them. In the religious sphere, he is the family priest and acts as a mediator between family members and the ancestors. He participates actively in rites of passage. In the political arena, he serves as the head of the family unit. The church, understood as the Great Family, is the basis for Sawyerr. By his incarnation, Jesus Christ is the first member or the head in this community. This implies an interpretation of Jesus as the elder brother within the Great Family. Sawyerr is more interested in describing the theological implications of this understanding of Jesus than describing what eldest brother he means. Still, the role as mediator is evident in his function as a ladder or bridgehead between God and humankind. He also understands him as a comforter for people in the Great Family who encounters various sufferings. Kabasélé Lumbala treats the understanding of the eldest brother in relation to the understanding of the ancestors among the Bantu and its application to Christ.102 It should be noted that in his discussion about Jesus as the elder brother, the comparison is with the role of the elder brother in the family as such and he does not draw on the understanding of ancestors. This should warrant that an analysis of Jesus as brother is possible even though the question about Jesus as ancestor is left open. The notion of anteriority as being closer to the source is crucial for the Bantu. The elder brother and his sons deserve respect and their special status as being the elder is marked. By making offerings on behalf of others, he becomes their mediator. By behaving like the true eldest brother, he is an example to follow, and he is charged with responsibility for younger siblings.

To sum up, the characteristics of the eldest brother that emerge from the writings of these three authors are: The eldest brother deserves respect from his younger siblings because he is their eldest brother. For younger siblings he ← 15 | 16 → is an example and he is founder of the filial generation. His inheritance rights are special. He mediates between his father and younger siblings by being their spokesperson. He is responsible for younger siblings by both caring for them and disciplining them. He is the confidant of the father and is second in command. In the family he has both a priestly and political leader role. His status is therefore special, and his role is that of a mediator, protector, and leader.103 I conclude that Nkwoka, Sawyerr, and Kabasélé Lumbala have shown that with the characteristics of the eldest brother that they have brought forward, a presentation of Jesus as the eldest brother makes sense.104 Yet, it is an open question how representative this understanding of the eldest brother is in the societies of the three authors and more generally on the African continent. Nkwoka specifically limits himself to the Igbo while Kabasélé Lumbala focuses on the Bantu. Sawyerr is less explicit. The examples he uses are mainly from Western Africa, but he refers at the same time to “African notions.” Due to the different kinship systems found in Africa, we expect differences in the understanding of the eldest brother in African societies.105 For that reason, it seems necessary to bring the notion of “the eldest brother” presupposed by Nkwoka, Sawyerr, and Kabasélé Lumbala into a broader presentation of this concept. I will present such a survey of the eldest brother from a social anthropological point of view in chapter two. The ethnic groups referred to by the three authors will naturally be of interest. We will, in chapter two, also be able to see whether these three authors have given a fair description of the eldest brother in their societies.

1.2.2 African or Mediterranean Eldest Brother?

Maybe an African understanding of the eldest brother has enabled the above-mentioned authors to illuminate an underlying social understanding reflected, not only in African societies but also in biblical texts.106 This needs to be investigated. We need to acquire a proper understanding of the eldest brother in first-century Mediterranean society to determine its relevance for New Testament Christology. My first research question is therefore how this description of the African eldest brother relates to the “biblical eldest brother” in light of its first-century Mediterranean context. More precisely: What does it mean to be the “eldest brother” in the literary and cultural context of the New Testament?107 When addressing this question, it might be fruitful to pay attention to whether any noteworthy differences exist between a predominantly Jewish context and the wider Hellenistic society, and how the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament influenced the New Testament authors on this question. This means that after the presentation of the ← 16 | 17 → social anthropological survey of the eldest brother in African societies, we need to investigate what the eldest brother means in the literary and cultural context of the New Testament.108 This I will pursue in chapter three.

While none that I am aware of has discussed what it means to be the “eldest brother” in the New Testament and its literary and cultural context, several scholars have published studies on the use of family metaphors in the New Testament and its social-historical context. Among these we find the contributions by Klaus Schäfer, Gemeinde als “Bruderschaft:” Ein Beitrag zum Kirchenverständnis des Paulus,109 Karl Olav Sandnes, A New Family: Conversion and Ecclesiology in the Early Church with Cross-Cultural Comparisons,110 and Joseph H. Hellerman, The Ancient Church as Family.111 These three contributions provide useful insight into both the social-historical context of the family and the use of metaphorical family language in the New Testament. The apparently most obvious contribution to mention is Reidar Aasgaard’s monograph: “My Beloved Brothers and Siblings!” Christian Siblingship in Paul.112 His study provides more details on metaphorical sibling language in Paul and its social-historical context than the contributions previously mentioned. His focus is on the sibling relation. My approach is therefore defined differently.

The description of the African understanding of the eldest brother by various authors might be a useful comparative resource in the task of uncovering characteristics of the social understanding of the eldest brother in the New Testament era. Hence, I will ask whether specific features of an elder brother in African societies might be found in the literary and cultural context of the New Testament. This will provide cautiously informed assistance for me when deciding what to look for. On the other hand, if the African understanding becomes a locked grid through which we filter the texts of the New Testament era, this method becomes restrictive. The point is on the contrary to let it function as a critical eye-opener. When Jesus is described as the eldest brother, the phrase “eldest brother” is obviously used in a figurative or metaphorical sense. It is consequently necessary to distinguish between a literal and a metaphorical use in the relevant sources.113 Apart from the New Testament, I have found the most relevant sources to be the following Greco-Roman sources: Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Plutarch, the Hebrew Bible/Septuagint, and the writings of Philo of Alexandria and Josephus.114

1.2.3 Jesus as the Eldest Brother in the New Testament


XIV, 332
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XIV, 332 pp.

Biographical notes

Harald Aarbakke (Author)

Harald Aarbakke is an associate professor at Fjellhaug International University College. He received his Ph.D. in theology from the MF Norwegian School of Theology, Norway. He is a former missionary to Indonesia.


Title: The Eldest Brother and New Testament Christology
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347 pages