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McGrath Conversation on Jesus-Devotion

November 29, 2010

James McGrath has posted a further contribution to our conversation on early Jesus-devotion on his own blog site.  Interested readers can find it here:

http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2010/11/continuing-conversation-with-larry_28.html

Toward further clarification of matters, a few comments more, in response to McGrath’s latest posting.

McGrath is puzzled at what he describes as my emphasis “that the Christian development was not a departure from Jewish monotheism as understood in the first century, and yet that it was controversial in and of itself from the perspective of other Jews.”  To clarify a bit, in my approach whether Jesus-devotion was or wasn’t “a departure from Jewish monotheism” isn’t really ours to judge.  That would be to engage in theological judgement.  The historical questions are how Jesus-devotion was seen by first-century folk, not us, and  whether it seems to have been one example of a phenomenon for which we have other instances, or was novel and historically noteworthy. 

So, more precisely, my view is that earliest circles of Jesus-devotion (which included Jewish believers) saw themselves as responding to God’s exaltation of Jesus and God’s consequent requirement that Jesus be given the unprecedented place in their devotional practice that he quickly came to hold.  So, obeying the one true God by re-shaping their devotional practice to include Jesus programmatically, they saw themselves as faithful to the God of the biblical tradition.  In our terms (they didn’t have them), they didn’t see themselves as departing from “Jewish monotheism”.  Their inclusion of Jesus was not for them the worship of two gods, but a re-shaped worship of the one God.  (I have repeatedly indicated that this is what I mean in the use of the term “binitarian devotional pattern”.  I.e., the expression is intended to capture the pattern of worship directed to the one God but inclusive of Jesus as a second, distinguishable figure referred to and reverenced as the unique agent/image/son/word of the one God.)

But I propose that among other Jews who didn’t share the experience and conviction that God had exalted Jesus to heavenly glory, there was likely the judgement that earliest Christian devotion was at the least stupid and was perhaps even blasphemous and endangered the Jewish commitment to God’s uniqueness (ancient Jewish “monotheism”).  It should not be difficult to grasp that in a religious tradition, innovators can see themselves as faithful to the core tradition, and yet can be viewed by others as heretics and betrayers.  There are lots of examples in the history of religions!  I hope that this will clarify my point for McGrath and others.

One further clarification:  In my view it was not simply the claim that God had exalted Jesus, but also (and crucially) the consequent/associated devotional practices in which Jesus was so central that led at least some fellow Jews to judge that earliest Jewish Christians were seriously deviant.  (I think that among the earliest Jewish objectors was the Phinehas-like Saul of Tarsus, who sought to “destroy” the young Jewish-Christian circles.)   I’ve repeatedly emphasized that in the ancient setting devotional practice was the overt indication of “religion”, more than religious rhetoric.

It appears that McGrath and I make different judgements on some key matters, and I don’t think that this is likely to change.   He thinks the key controversial issue was the claim that a crucified Messiah was exalted to God’s right hand.  I agree that this was controversial, but I judge that there was more involved.  In passages such as 2 Cor 3:7–4:6 and Romans 10:1-13, I think it’s clear that Paul laments his fellow Jews’ inability to perceive “the glory of the Lord” (2 Cor 3:18), and urges the confession of Jesus as “Lord” (Rom 10:9-10) and “calling upon”  him (Rom 10:12-13, using the OT expression for worship here) as the requirements for salvation.  Earliest Christianity wasn’t simply a set of beliefs or assertions, but also involved a new pattern of worship of the one God in which Jesus was central.

Well, we’ve probably taken this discussion about as far as we can in this sort of medium.  I hope that readers have found it useful.

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4 Comments
  1. Howard Mazzaferro permalink

    I think your view was well stated. How would you include the idea that Jesus was the end of the Law in your view? (Rom 10:4) Wouldn’t this have made a major impact on re-shaping the worship of God for those who accepted Jesus? The Law defined the proper way for Jews to worship God. But the Law was just a shadow of things to come, leading to Christ. (Heb 10:1, Gal 3:24-25). So if Christians were no longer under the written Law, a change in worship was necessary, and this change included devotion to the Chief Agent of life. I’m not referring to a change in theology, but a change in the proper way to worship and obey God with Jesus as the key mediator.

    • I don’t see any indication in the NT texts that the inclusion of Jesus into the devotional/worship patterns of earliest Christian circles was prompted by their belief in Jesus’ significance vis-a-vis the Torah. The Torah isn’t worshipped, so Jesus superseding it doesn’t = he should be worshipped.
      As I’ve repeatedly indicated, the Jewish reluctance to include any other figure in their worship practice makes it very difficult to imagine that the inclusion of Jesus proceeded from some reflective process. Instead, the NT texts make the basis in God’s requirement that Jesus be so reverenced, and this conviction (I propose) seems to have come via powerful religious experiences taken as revelations of divine will/purposes. See my publications.

  2. Chris permalink

    Mr. Hurtado,

    I’m going to ask forgiveness if you’ve answered this elsewhere, but I’ve only recently become aware of your blog. What is your view of Paul? Was he divinely inspired (did he have a divine encounter), or was he more of a believer who reinterpreted Christianity to the congregations he preached to? Did he take the resurrection along with Jesus’ sonship and escalate it into something grander?

    The reason I ask this is strictly curiousity. Having grown up in an evangelical Southern Baptist tradition, I have a lot of “baggage”, so the idea of Paul being only a man with a desire to spread the message, and out of that desire reframing the events into a more formal recognition of Jesus’ sonship would be a radical idea to me.

    Thanks,
    Chris

    • I’ve discussed Paul and Pauline Christianity at some length in my book, Lord Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2003). I think most scholars now recognize some basics: (1) “Paul” (Saul of Tarsus) was formed as a devout Jew, a Pharisee, a diaspora Jew but zealous for his ancestral religion; (2) after what he described as a “revelation of God’s Son” (Gal. 1:13-15) he became a zealous advocate of the very faith that he had previously sought to destroy; (3) Paul’s theological innovation lay, not in christology, but in his conviction that he was especially commissioned to conduct a mission to the nations (inspired by OT promises of the nations coming to the God of Israel), proclaiming Jesus as the exalted Lord and Christ through whom now eschatological salvation was delivered. There is no evidence that Paul’s christology or the devotional practices reflected in his letters were a matter of controversy with fellow Jewish Christians. Essentially, instead, he seems to have embraced the views of the Jewish Christians he had persecuted prior to his own revelatory experience.

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