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The Early High Christology Club (EHCC)

February 6, 2013

In a recent book, the “Early High Christology Club” (EHCC) was referred to mistakenly as if it reflected some particular confessional stance.  In the interests of setting the record straight, I offer the following as a charter member of the “club”.

“The Early High Christology Club” (EHCC) is a jocular self-designation coined by a group of scholars of various backgrounds with research interests in earliest Christianity who emphasize that an exalted place of Jesus in belief and devotional practice (including corporate worship) is evident in the earliest Christian sources and likely goes back to the first circles of Jesus’ followers from shortly after his crucifixion.  The nickname originated among several scholars who formed the steering committee of a progam-unit in the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in the 1990s, the “Divine Mediators in Antiquity Group,” which was focused on the Roman-era historical context in which the “high Christology” (beliefs that Jesus is in some way worthy of divine honor) reflected in the New Testament first emerged.  This initial group included David Capes, Wendy Cotter, Jarl Fossum, Larry Hurtado, Donald Juel, John R. Levison, Carey Newman, Pheme Perkins, Alan Segal and Marianne Meye Thompson.  In addition to those already mentioned, others who associate themselves with the EHCC include Clinton Arnold, Loren Stuckenbruck, James Davila, Charles Gieschen, Richard Bauckham, Martin Hengel, April DeConick, Karl-Wilhelm Niebuhr and Jörg Frey. 

            An incident often cited subsequently took place after an annual meeting of the “Divine Mediators in Antiquity Group” that featured invited presentations from James D. G. Dunn and Maurice Casey (who each took somewhat different views on the origins of “high Christology,” both of them tending to see it as a somewhat later development).  After the meeting concluded, Dunn and Casey joined Capes, Hurtado, Newman and Segal for dinner at a Greek restaurant.  After Segal (who spoke modern Greek) ordered for the group and wine was poured, Newman (with characteristic mischief) proposed a toast “To early high Christology.”  Capes, Hurtado and Segal raised their glasses, while Dunn and Casey hesitated.  After a few seconds, Dunn raised his glass with a smile saying, “To high Christology”, and after a few more seconds Casey (with a twinkle in his eye) raised his glass toasting, “To Christology”.  (At some point thereafter, Newman in good-natured teasing proposed that Dunn and Casey be accorded leading status in an affiliate group, “The Late, Low and Slow Club” of early Christology.)

            A historic artefact of the EHCC was commissioned by Newman in the late 1990s, a coffee mug emblazoned with “EHCC The Early High Christology Club”.  These mugs were offered to those who had presented papers at the meetings of the “Divine Mediators in Antiquity Group,” and many others as well subsequently requested what has now become a hard-to-find collector’s item, jealously guarded by those who have one.  In the late 1990s also began what has become the annual (and highly informal) meeting of the EHCC (typically, late Saturday night during the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature), which features good-humored banter and sharing a bottle of Scottish single-malt whisky, with toasts to members sadly deceased (Juel and Segal, in particular).  (But by standing rules, no serious discussion is allowed, and invitations to this annual occasion are highly sought!)

            The EHCC came to more public notice in the dedication-statement in Hurtado’s large book, Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2003):  “To the EHCC:  Scholarship, friendship, a sense of humor, and Highland irrigation.” (The “Highland irrigation” an allusion to the Scottish single-malt beverage consumed at the annual get-togethers.)

            On a more serious level, among early influences on the scholars involved, the work of Martin Hengel is significant, e.g., his book, The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976).  One of their emphases in their own work is to set the emergence of early “high” views of Jesus in the dynamic context of ancient Jewish traditions, whereas older work (e.g., Wilhelm Bousset’s Kyrios Christos, 1913) tended to portray it as resulting from the influence of “pagan” religion on the young Christian movement.

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14 Comments
  1. ‘Now it seems to me (and most scholars I’d judge) that Jesus likely operated with a strong sense of personal mission, perhaps a sense of unique mission and relationship with God.’

    What did Jesus think the mission of the 12 disciples was? Did they know what Jesus expected of them? Did he expect the 12 disciples to help him judge, or perhaps, rule, the world? Or did Jesus expect them to have a different role?

    • Steven: They didn’t keep minutes of their discussions! So one is limited to inferences. But the gospel traditions show Jesus appointing 12 (NB: the number seems intentionally significant), who act as his deputies in his mission. Some sayings offer them a role in the coming divine kingdom (Luke 22:28-30). But it’s clear that they are his assistants, deriving their roles from his.

  2. 1 Corinthians 8:6 says Jesus was the agent through whom God created the world.
    Does this imply that early Christians thought of Jesus as being very important in God’s plans before the first century AD?

    • Steven: In the sort of eschatological thinking reflected in the NT (and in, e.g., Qumran), “last” things are often regarded as “first” things. I.e., the idea is that God doesn’t make things up as he goes along, but has the game-plan all figured out from beginning. So, if Jesus comes to be regarded as God’s unique and ultimate agent of salvation, it’s quite logical for them to then think that he was in fact “there” in some sense from beginning. The NT claims about JEsus as agent of creation also seem to draw upon such things as OT traditions about God’s “Word” and “wisdom” as personified agents of creation, only now attached to a real, distinguishable figure: Jesus. It’s a measure of the strong nature of early Christian beliefs about Jesus’ significance that they so quickly posit him in this role. But note that this doesn’t lead to further speculative developments. It’s quite focused on saying that the agent of redemption was also the agent of creation.

  3. Bobby Garringer permalink

    Does your advocacy of early high Christology allow for at least the possibility that it goes back to Jesus himself?

    • The “high” christology and, more importantly, the devotional practices that involve treating Jesus as rightful recipient of corporate worship, are directly referred to in NT texts as occasioned, prompted, and demanded by God’s exaltation of Jesus to heavenly glory (“at the right hand” of God, etc.). I.e., the emphasis is not what Jesus may have believed about himself but what God has done and now requires. Now it seems to me (and most scholars I’d judge) that Jesus likely operated with a strong sense of personal mission, perhaps a sense of unique mission and relationship with God. But that isn’t the basis for treating him as worthy of worship. See, e.g., my discussion of the matter in my book, How on Earth Did Jesus become a God? (pp. 134-51).

      • Bobby Garringer permalink

        Still, isn’t it AT LEAST POSSIBLE that when Jesus “operated with a strong sense of personal mission” and “a sense of unique mission and relationship with God,” he was also presenting himself as one who is “worthy of worship.” Isn’t it at least possible?

        I believe these are more than possibilities, based on: (1) the content of the Gospels (2) their bearing on who Jesus was and what he did prior to the resurrection and (3) the historical and linguistic connection between the Gospels, the confessional gospel and the letters of Paul.

        I have concluded, not confessionally but critically, that the deity of Jesus in each Gospel is not merely implicit. Instead it is both explicit and central.

        Finally, the testimony of these Gospels is not merely conditioned by post-resurrection experiences, but also — in the first place — by pre-resurrection experiences that were entered into consciously by the Rabbi Jesus and his disciples. It seems to me that it is flawed methodology to insist that the latter significantly altered the former. A better method would acknowledge AT LEAST THE POSSIBILITY of sustained continuity.

        Even the earliest sermon in Acts is a clear assertion of this cohesive relationship. It includes the declaration that the one who was “made” Lord and Christ is the one who was previously “pointed out to you by God with miracles, wonders and signs” (Acts 2:22) and that he is the one who could not possibly be held by “the pains of death” (Acts 2:24). So the resurrection is necessary, not for what Jesus “became” afterwards, but for what he already “was” prior to it.

        I am not asking you to agree with all or any of this. But isn’t what I am asserting at least possible?

      • Mr Garringer:
        I’ve had to edit down your lengthy comment, preserving what I think are you key claims, but omitting your further disquisition on them. Blog comments aren’t supposed to be so lengthy (at least on this site). So, let me try to address (briefly!) your concerns.
        –Anything is possible. The job of critical historical work is to judge what is more probable.
        –Facts: There is no evidence of a cultus (formal worship) given to Jesus during his earthly ministry. There is such a phenomenon quickly (as I’ve argued) after his execution and experiences of the risen Jesus. The most logical inference, therefore, is that Jesus didn’t urge people to worship him, but subsequent to his execution followers felt compelled (by God) to do so.
        –You correctly characterize the Gospels as reflecting a “high” view of Jesus as, e.g., “Son of God”, etc. But, of course, the Gospels (and Acts) are written a few decades after Jesus’ ministry and fully/obviously shaped by the faith of the period in which they were written. They do try to set Jesus in his authentic context (and do a good job of that), but not simply for our modern historical purposes, but instead to promote faith in him. So, e.g., the speeches of Acts are commonly understood (in keeping with literary practices of the time) as compositions by the author of Acts, perhaps based on traditions about the individuals in question, but they are certainly not verbatim transcripts.
        In short, to a large degree your views will seem to scholars to be based on a somewhat uncritical and naive view of the NT writings and how best to use them for historical purposes.

  4. Prof Hurtado . regards sir

    What is your opinion on the Christology in the synoptics , as you might be aware sir that there are scholars who say synoptics have a non devine Christology .

    Sir , since most of the early high Christology comes from the Pauline epistles can we call it a unanimous belief of the early Christians ?

    Sir , what is your view about the Christology held by the early followers of Christ who were all Jews , will not a devine Christology ascribe to them be a anachronism ?

    • Dear Ali: With a number of other scholars, I think that the Synoptics presuppose and reflect a rather “high” christology. To cite Mark, the demonic acclamations of Jesus as “Son of God”, the miracle-narratives where Jesus exercises divine power (e.g., the storm-stilling and feeding miracles), and the transfiguration, seem to me to reflect a concern to present Jesus as bearing a transcendent significance and certainly acting as unique agent of God’s power and purposes.
      The earliest Christian sources are the undisputed letters of Paul, which take us back to ca. 50-60 CE, i.e., within ca. 20 yrs of Jesus’ execution. But these letters presuppose prior teaching and beliefs shared and affirmed by Paul, his readers and others. These letters don’t present their christological beliefs as new or controversial, but as already traditional and commonly accepted, even among those other Jewish believers who differ with Paul over the terms on which gentiles can be treated as full co-religionists. So, as Martin Hengel judged decades ago, the christological claims/beliefs and devotional practices reflected in Paul’s letters must have erupted quite quickly and quite early. Indeed, as Bousset himself observed, they were already in place at/by the time of Paul’s “Damascus road” experience, which = ca. 1-3 yrs after Jesus’ execution.
      We can’t say what might have been “unanimous”, because we don’t have an exhaustive record of earliest Christianity. But we can say with some confidence that the “high” christology of Paul’s letters likely goes back to the earliest circles of Jewish believers. I’ve tried to engage matters at sufficient length in my book, Lord Jesus Christ, esp. 79-153 (on Pauline Christianity), and pp. 155-216 (on “Judean Jewish Christianity”).

  5. Tomek permalink

    Prof. Hurtado, do you think that N. T. Wright, M. Barker, or in some way even B. Mack (in his Christ cult, Christ is treated as a god and this Christ Cult is very, very early, even if the adherents of that are not “connected with the most immediate of Jesus’ folowers) could be also in that club?

    • Tomek: Hmm. I suspect that Wright would feel comfortable with the position reflected on “early high christology”. I’ve noted informally that Bousset (were he with us) could perhaps even be a member, as he certainly placed his “Christ cult” so early that it was the kind of Christian faith into which Paul was immersed after his “conversion”. But Bousset (and Mack), on the other hand, tend to deny this kind of Jesus-devotion to the earliest circles of Jewish believers, whereas the EHCC pals all tend to think that it likely originated in those very circles.

      • Tomek permalink

        Thank you for the answer, Prof. Hurtado. Taking the opportunity I would like to ask about one more person. I write my doctoral thesis about recent trends in “searching” of divinity of Jesus in early Christianity. The general division is between positions linked with the “early” and “later” manifestations of that phenomen. In the context of the first one, I have in mind the person of Gerd Theissen. I have never noticed any mention of him in important books about the early christology, when in his “The Religion of the Earliest Churches: Creating a Symbolic World”, Fortress Press (1999), he has one chapter titled: “How did Jesus come to be Deified”. How would you see his position in the context of your blog entry?

      • I have great respect for Theissen’s many contributions to NT scholarship. I read Theissen’s chapter some years ago, but my notes tell me that I found his treatment a bit too psychologizing for my tastes. As I recall, he proposes that Jesus was deified as a kind of stiffening of their stance by Jesus-followers in reaction to Jesus’ crucifixion. So, this makes the phenomenon early, it appears. But I wasn’t persuaded by his explanation. I think he didn’t allow sufficiently for the force of ancient Jewish scruples about worshipping anything other than the one God, and so he didn’t quite grasp the significance and extraordinary nature of what was involved in early believers broadening their devotional pattern/practice to include Jesus.

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