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Historical Inquiry & Christian Origins

July 15, 2011

I’m currently in Vancouver teaching a summer course in Regent College.  My course, “Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity”, draws upon my research and publications over the last 20+ yearas.

It’s interesting, yet again, to lead students in focusing on historical issues involved in the origins of Jesus-devotion.  The students are all communicant Christians (of one kind or another), and for many of them these specific issues are new, and an effort at a strict historical approach somewhat new as well.

It is, however, one of the unavoidable features of Christianity that it is a historical religion, its origins provenanced, a number of the leading figures identifiable, and with texts from the earliest period, some of which take us back to within ca. 20 years after Jesus’ execution.  So, it’s really unavoidable for thinking Christians to take seriously the historical nature of their faith, all the historical issues and approaches valid.

In fact, to my mind, it’s one of the attractive features of Christianity that it is a historical faith, and doesn’t claim to be simply some set of timeless truths (e.g., to be discovered by contemplation).   It means living with the nature of historical knowledge on a number of issues (limited by extant evidence, always provisional and subject to correction, and conclusions often disputed).  But it can be an intriguing exercise to try to project ourselves back into the setting of earliest Christian centuries, when they were having to understand what they believed had happened to them, and without the later creeds, theologians and church structures of subsequent centuries.

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20 Comments
  1. stephen permalink

    I’d be very interested in your thoughts on what Jesus’ death meant to the early generations of Christians – particularly in how they may have understood his death in terms of sacrifice or redemption, or do you think that was a little later?

    • I have discussed this in my book, Lord Jesus Christ, pp. 126-33; and in an essay, “Jesus’ Death as Paradigmatic in the New Testament,” Scottish Journal of Theology 57/4 (2004), 413-33.

  2. Reformed Gerry permalink

    Professor Hurtado, your “Lord Jesus Christ” book is in my top 5 of books I’ve read and was hugely influential for me on several levels. I’ve also enjoyed “The Earliest Christian Artefacts”. I remember being impressed with how, at the outset of “Lord Jesus Christ”, you addressed the issue of scholars’ own perspectives and mentioned that you were writing as a “Christian”. I think that an awareness of where an author is “coming from” in terms of their theology/tradition is a vital part of critically engaging with any text, not least in the area of Christian origins. However, I have been unable to detect, either through reading your work or by internet research, what your own specific Christian tradition/denomination is – forgive me if the question is indiscreet!

    • Thanks for your kind comments. My acknowledgement of my Christian stance is intended (1) to indicate that we all have a stance, and that no one occupies a place of pure objectivity, and (2) to allow readers to check whether my Christian stance negatively affects my historical analysis. My main concern in “Lord Jesus Christ”, however, is not to discuss this or that religious stance, but instead to conduct as careful a historical analysis of early Jesus-devotion as I can. I didn’t write that (or most other things) for any particular confessional group, but instead for scholars and other critical readers of whatever stance.

  3. “it can be an intriguing exercise to try to project ourselves back into the setting of earliest Christian centuries, when they were having to understand what they believed had happened to them, and without the later creeds, theologians and church structures of subsequent centuries.”

    Fully agree. More than this, I think we should apply the same criteria to Jewish creeds and practices at the time of Jesus – I am under the impression that some people (and scholars, too) tend to use “rabbinic Judaism” categories when they try to figure out the “second-temple pharisaism” environment. Rabbinic Judaism is a post-christian judaism, so I think we shouldn’t put it before Christianity to understand the milieu of christian’s practices: rabbinic Judaism may also have searched for (and developed) an identity in contrast to Christianity.

    Another commonplace seems to be the “openness” of hellenistic Jews circles vs. “pure” Palestininan Jews: I think this needs to be proved instead of taking it as an assumption.

    I admit I was one of those people who took such things as a given, while reading your works I started questioning my assumptions on early Christianity development.

    many thanks, kindest regards

  4. Thanks so much for your reflection Dr. Hurtado. I am currently finishing my undergraduate degree in ancient history so this is encouraging. How do you respond to the growing trend of “theological interpretation” of scripture. From your vantage point as an experienced scholar do you see this trend as a complement to a more historically oriented approach to the NT or in any way is this trend a step away from history in the NT guild?

    • “Theological interpretation of Scripture” is a valid exercise, indeed essential for faith-communities. My own work has been mainly in historical queries, however. But I do think that “theological interpretation” must take full account of the historically-conditioned nature of texts, including the specifics of each text. Otherwise, however well motived, “theological interpretation” simply reads into the text any given pre-disposition, and also shows disrespect for the historical-given nature of “Scripture”.

  5. I am not sure if you’ve blogged about this matter. In Acts 2.38 Peter invited people to be baptized in the name of Jesus. This pattern continued in Acts 10.48 too. And in Matthew 28.19, baptism was to be in the name of the triune God. How did this transition take place?

    • I’m not sure that we know how the transition from baptizing with invocation of Jesus’ name to baptizing with a more “trinitarian” formula took place. It’s simply the case that all our earliest references to Christian baptism describe it as involving the “calling upon” Jesus’ name.

  6. Howard permalink

    You had mentioned “texts from the earliest period, some of which take us back to within ca. 20 years after Jesus’ execution.” Besides biblical texts themselves, what other texts do you consider when evaluating the earliest devotion to Jesus?

    • Unfortunately (historians always want more!), the earliest Christian texts are letters of Paul. On the other hand, we have more texts and earlier texts for early Christianity, by far, than for any other new religious movement of the Roman world. In my book, Lord Jesus Christ (2003), I discuss in considerable detail the nature of evidences for earliest Christianity that can illumine for us their devotion to Jesus.

  7. Kurt Brown permalink

    I just finished– At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion [Kindle Edition].

    Very good presentation and I especially appreciated the comments about worship in the early church. Excellent. I have begun to start our worship services with the simple affirmation “Jesus is Lord” and to close with Maranatha. At least for me it grounds me in the history of the church. I will let you know how my people feel about it. I am sure they will let me know. Thank you for that…

    Also, I am very glad that it is out on Kindle…very good. My kindle has become my constant companion.

    • Glad to be of help. Personally, I would urge pastors not to institute changes to suit themselves, but instead to take things slowly, trying to help people understand the aims of worship. Then, when they start thinking about possible options/changes, it’s time to make them.

  8. As a young student and scholar in training I have found that this form of inquiry has only deepened my understanding of my faith. The rigorous historical and unapologetic approach has opened doors for me to see a wider ecumenism that is beneficial to our understanding of each other who find ourselves falling under the reign of a risen and exalted Messiah and how in response we relate to God and the contemporary world. Thank you for sharing your reflection.

  9. Timothy Knowlton permalink

    Professor Hurtado,

    Are there any resources you would recommend on the task of the New Testament Historian?

    Thank you sir!

    • There is such an abundance of material that it’s difficult to choose. The way most of us learn and develop our historical approach is by critically considering the efforts of others. Instead of generalized exhortations about historical inquiry, it’s better to read the works of experienced scholars who apply their skills to specific issues.

  10. thom waters permalink

    In one of your articles you referred to a fudging or a falsifying of “facts” by the scientific community, and I wonder if the community of Christian apologists hasn’t in some ways been guilty of the same type of “fudging”. If you would indulge me, I refer to the “death” or so-called “death” of Jesus by means of crucifixion. I’m not claiming that Jesus didn’t die, only questioning the Christian claim that it is a historical “fact” that one Jesus died by crucifixion. Is it really and what is the “data” used to establish this fact?

    • Forgive me, but I’m more than a bit puzzled at your query. Jesus’ death-by-crucifixion is referred to in our earliest Christian sources (which take us back to the first generation of the Christian movement), in our earliest pagan references to the Christian movement, and is not challenged by any ancient critics of Christianity (such as Celsus).
      Moreover, there was no “percentage” for Christians to have invented such a claim, for crucifixion was regarded as the most shameful of deaths by Jews, pagans, everyone (see, e.g., Martin Hengel’s fine book, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
      The only objection that I know comes from some Muslim friends, whose religious tradition insists that Jesus could not have been crucified for God would never have allowed his holy prophet to suffer such a shameful death. But I know of no reputable historian who questions the event.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        ‘Moreover, there was no “percentage” for Christians to have invented such a claim, for crucifixion was regarded as the most shameful of deaths by Jews, pagans,….’

        Absolutely correct.

        Just look at how Paul writes about people executed by the state in Romans 13 to see how crucified people were regarded automatically as wrongdoers, executed by authorities who did not bear the sword for nothing – ‘For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. … For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.’

        Claiming Jesus had been crucified was an automatic claim to follow a wrongdoer, who must have been crucified for a reason.

        Where was the percentage in that?

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