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“Kyriocentric” Visions and the Origins of Jesus-Devotion

July 21, 2014

In his recent book, Christopher Barina Kaiser argues that earliest Jesus-followers had visions of God (YHWH) in “the face and voice of their own teacher, now in a glorified body,” and these experiences prompted the early eruption of Jesus-devotion that we see presupposed in the NT:  Seeing the Lord’s Glory:  Kyriocentric Visions and the Dilemma of Early Christology (Fortress Press, 2014).  In short, he contends, the earliest post-crucifixion Christology was one in which “the LORD is Jesus.”   Effectively “God” appeared as Jesus.  Only subsequently was this conviction modified to produce the familiar duality of God and Jesus that we see in the NT.

The “dilemma” in Kaiser’s sub-title is basically this:  How did Jewish followers of Jesus (for whom the uniqueness of their one God was crucial) come to reverence Jesus as they did, i.e., treating Jesus as himself sharing in a status otherwise reserved for God?  (I’d think that “problem” is a better term than “dilemma,” but that’s not a major matter.)  It’s clear (and increasingly referred to as an emergent consensus now) that a remarkable devotion to Jesus along these lines exploded early and rapidly, and initially among circles of Jewish believers.  Specifically, the earliest Christian writings (which take us back to ca. 20 years from Jesus’ crucifixion) already presuppose a view of Jesus as uniquely linked with God, even sharing divine glory and incorporated programmatically into discourse about God and the devotional/worship practices of early circles of the Jesus-movement.  How could this be?  I’ve worked on the historical questions and evidence involved for over 25 years now, beginning with my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, and on through subsequent publications:  e.g., Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (2003), How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (2005).

On the one hand, it’s affirming to me to see continuing efforts to explore historical questions about the fascinating and remarkable explosion of Jesus-devotion, and also to see an author taking seriously “revelatory” religious experiences as a factor, something I’ve proposed in publications over some 25 years now.  On the other hand, I have to say that I find Kaiser’s specific proposal in the end unsatisfactory and unpersuasive.  It would require more space than appropriate in a blog-posting to engage fully all the points where I find problems, so I’ll restrict myself a brief discussion of those I think most important.

To my mind, probably the main problem in the book is that there is no direct evidence to support Kaiser’s claims.  That is, we have no reference to early Jesus-followers having the particular sort of vision-experience that Kaiser makes so important (i.e., specifically one in which they have a vision of God in/with the face and form of Jesus).  Paul, for example, refers to his own experience (Galatians 1:15-16) as a “revelation of his [God's] son,” i.e., a “christophany,” not as a vision of YHWH in the form of Jesus.  (Curiously, Kaiser’s only direct reference to this Pauline text is a single sentence in an endnote.)  Paul refers to “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6), but this involves Jesus as the “image” (eikon) of God, and reflecting God’s glory as in a mirror.  I.e., Paul here (and ubiquitously) portrays Jesus’ high significance with reference to “God,” reflecting a duality that is typical of NT writings.  (On the shape of early God-discourse, see my book, God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon, 2010).

Likewise, the other (and textually later) NT passages that Kaiser examines as offering what he posits as “traces of Kyriocentric visions” give no direct support for his hypothesis.  The “sea theophany” in Mark 6:45-52 (parallel in Matt 14:22-32) has Jesus acting with a power ascribed to YHWH in the OT to be sure, but does not comprise what Kaiser needs for his case.  That is, there is no indication that the story ever involved people confusing Jesus with God on the basis of some vision.  Neither does the transfiguration story in Luke 9:28-36 (which, instead, rather clearly refers to Jesus’ status in relation to God, not as God.  The same is the case for the Acts accounts of Paul’s “Damascus Road” vision (Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-10; 26:12-16), the vision of the risen Jesus in Revelation 1, and the reference in John 12:40-41 to Isaiah’s vision of the exalted Jesus.

Kaiser urges, however, that in these and other texts a supposedly original kind of experience (of Jesus as YHWH) has been adapted to exhibit the duality of Jesus and God that the NT writings pretty much everywhere reflect.  Kaiser claims, for example, that his proposed “Kyriocentric” visions (of YHWH as Jesus) “morphed into stories about the risen Jesus.”  Unfortunately (and I mean no offence), however, this comes pretty close to adjusting the data to fit a hypothesis, whereas it’s better to form the hypothesis out of the data.

But Kaiser contends that the justification for his hypothesis is that otherwise we’re left with an anomaly, wondering how self-identifying Jews of the Roman period (who affirmed what we call “ancient Jewish monotheism”) could have ascribed to Jesus the astonishing place he held in their beliefs and practices.  In particular, how could such “monotheistic” Jews accord Jesus the place that he held in their worship (a matter that I’ve drawn attention to since my 1988 book).  And here we encounter another problem in the book.

Kaiser notes and finds faulty three other proposed schemes:  (1) the view that treating Jesus as sharing in divine status emerged only incrementally and was due to “polytheistic gentile influence” (e.g., Maurice Casey); (2) “the resurrection scenario of N. T. Wright,” the resurrection-sightings positied as “empirical rather than visionary”; and (3) “the binitarian, neo-Canaanite scenario of Margaret Barker,” reflecting her contention than in earliest Christianity we see a re-eruption of ancient Israelite di-theism.  So, he contends, we’re left without any other alternative than to propose something else, his proposal posited as filling that lack.

I find it puzzling, however, that Kaiser makes no mention of my own proposal, which I’ve laid out and developed across a number of publications (several of which he cites and lists in his bibliography).  The crucial bit of my proposal is this:  The key impetus that drove earliest believers to reverence Jesus in the ways they did was a conviction that God required it.  God (they believed) had singled out Jesus in the resurrection (bestowing on Jesus the eschatological existence/body that was otherwise reserved for the last day for anyone else), and had exalted Jesus to heavenly glory, giving Jesus the unique status as “Kyrios,” now requiring that Jesus be reverenced accordingly.  An early text that reflects this conviction is Philippians 2:6-11, esp. vv. 9-11.  Other NT texts reflect this stance:  God has exalted Jesus and now requires all to reverence him (e.g., John 5:22-23).  I further propose that this conviction likely emerged through “revelatory” experiences.  (For further discussion, see pp. 70-74 in my book, Lord Jesus Christ).

Kaiser’s proffered justification for his own proposal is that otherwise we’re without a cogent alternative.  But he doesn’t really engage all the proposals currently on the table, so his justification isn’t persuasive.  Mine is, to be sure, only one attempt to grapple with the historical problem of early Jesus-devotion.  But I have offered a proposal that (if I do say so myself) ought to be considered.  If one can show it fallacious, then so be it.  But it won’t do simply to bypass or ignore it and then claim that you’ve dealt with the major extant proposals.  I note also that my proposal at least accords with  the textual evidence and requires no hypothetical re-casting of the evidence to support it.

One other matter I’ll mention is Kaiser’s repeated references to the “performance” of visions.  I honestly don’t know what he means:  Does he mean that people recounted their experiences, and others subsequently recounted them?  Why not say this?  He’s obviously been taken with proposals emanating from “performance criticism” advocates.  On this also, however, I think he makes a wrong move.   As I’ve shown in a recent article, “performance criticism” seems to rest upon a number of historical fallacies, and so doesn’t stand up to critique:  “Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies?  ‘Orality’, ‘Performance’ and Reading Texts in Early Christianity,” New Testament Studies 60.3 (2014), pp 321 – 340 (DOI: 10.1017/S0028688514000058).

There’s a lot of work reflected in Kaiser’s book, and, no doubt, a good deal of pondering as well.  But, for reasons sketched here, I don’t think he has succeeded in providing a cogent proposal or in offering a justification for it.  But, as stated earlier, I am pleased that the book reflects the recognition that the eruption of early Jesus-devotion is a historical phenomenon that is both remarkable and very much worth studying.


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  1. John permalink


    Just a few comments from someone toying with looking at your full case, but worried that there are problems with it that I will not find answers to after reading the voluminous amount of material you have written on this subject.

    I do not feel you have ever fully acknowledged or addressed one of the points I have tried to make several times here. You keep bringing up the limits of reverence given to other 2nd Temple Jewish figures, pointing out that none involved the reverence given to Jesus. You think that, “What we must look for is another [Jewish] group who openly and formally reverenced any second figure alongside God”. But all this data about other 2nd Temple Jewish figures does not seem of much use for one reason: No other 2nd Temple Jewish figure was ever thought to be the Messiah, bodily raised from the dead up to heaven, the ultimate martyr for our sins, and probably thought to be perfect in the eyes of God. The question is whether some 2nd Temple Jews could imagine God giving THIS kind of figure a higher position in heaven than anyone had ever been given, making Jesus into some kind of assistant or representative of God that was worthy of reverence (maybe they even imagined that, as the first raised from the dead and perfect in the eyes of God, God passed onto Jesus the authority to judge the dead at the end times, e.g. Jn 5:22-23). I don’t know, I’m just guessing, but given uneducated people in a superstitious environment with very nearly the same kinds of beliefs right next door (sons of gods in paganism), I do not honestly see how anyone could possibly rule this out (as you seem to be doing) and insist that there MUST have been some powerful external stimuli. It seems like you should at least acknowledge this possibility alongside your hypothesis.

    The second problem I am struggling with is the part your hypothesis you brought up in your article above: that Jesus’ followers were led to worship Jesus because they had “revelations” in which they thought God demanded that they worship Jesus. If it is true that worshiping Jesus was this nearly impossible thing for Jesus’ followers to accept, it would seem to take a significant number of these revelations to virtually all of the early Christian leadership (otherwise each would think the others must have gotten something wrong or was crazy), and the revelations would seem to have to be very explicit in order to overcome any thought by the recipient that they were misunderstanding things. But with the exception of some very brief imagery in Rev 5:8,14, I am not aware of any revelation in the NT that has God explicitly demanding of the recipient that they worship Jesus. Why wouldn’t descriptions of these important revelations survive in the NT evidence?

    And here is one final thought I had. If it is true that worshiping Jesus was such an impossible thing for a Jew to do, how did the Christian leadership get ANY Jew to follow their lead? That some Jews did follow the lead of others in this aspect of Christian worship suggest to me that it was not such an impossible hurdle to clear. But if it is true that worshiping Jesus was not such an impossible hurdle for a Jew to clear, then it becomes possible that Jesus’ followers reached this conclusion all are their own (AFTER they came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, bodily raised from the dead up to heaven, the ultimate martyr for our sins, and perfect in the eyes of God).

    • John: I have answered your question, but it appears that it hasn’t been noticed. So, another try.
      If you read about ancient Jewish messianic figures and other figures portrayed as plenipotentiaries (which I’ve referred to as “principal agent” figures, in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord), you’ll note that in fact they can be portrayed in amazingly exalted manners: e.g., as God’s appointed executor of his purposes, as sharing the divine name, et alia. Yet (as I’ve shown in OGOL), they aren’t treated as rightful recipient of the sort of reverence given to Jesus. So, (1) this shows that “ancient Jewish monotheism” firmly reserved cultic reverence for God and did not readily admit such figures, and (2) such an exalted position wasn’t adequate to break with this scruple.
      So, there is little reason to think that the sort of theory you propose is likely correct. Instead, we need something more to have moved Jews to do what we see. I have proposed that they would have done so if (and perhaps only if) they believed that God willed it. That way, there is no violation of God’s uniqueness. Indeed, they would be obeying the one God in doing what he now commands.
      How would such a conviction have come to them? My proposal is that it came in “revelatory experiences” (of various types described in LJC and elsewhere), and this conviction was then successfully conveyed to others. The point that could have made it “sell” to other Jews was that God now required Jesus to be reverenced. In a similar manner, some people (but not many, actually) had experiences of the risen Jesus, but the main body of early believers didn’t. Instead, the conviction that God had raised Jesus was successfully proclaimed and then embraced by others.

      And, once again, can I urge you to be more self-critical about your implicit “deprivation theory” that it took uneducated and uncultured people to believe this. There is no empirical basis for your assumption.

      Finally, having laid out the evidence and analysis at some length in various publications, it’s a bit tedious to be asked to present it in blog-site comments. I repeat: If you really are interested in researching the matter, then why the reluctance to “pay the dues” and actually read some serious publications? And, please, not another lengthy comment simply reiterating your same claims. It looks a bit lazy. Let’s be done now. Go do some research-reading.

  2. John permalink


    Where can I go to read your “full” case? Is it all in your 1988 book, or is it spread out among various sources? If the latter, are you planning to consolidate your full case into a new book anytime soon?

    I also have one other question if you care to answer it here. You say that a one-off raised from dead up to heaven Messiah who was considered the ultimate martyr could not be thought by some “devout” Jews of the Roman period to be given by God a special status deserving of reverence/worship without some powerful external stimuli. Why do you put the word “devout” in there? You seem to be hedging your position toward the most conservative form of first-century Judaism. Are you willing to say that “NO” Jew of the first century could think a one-off raised from dead up to heaven Messiah who was the ultimate martyr could be thought to be given by God a special status deserving of reverence/worship? If so, do we really know so much about first century Judaism that we can say that with confidence? Are our sources really so good, for example, that we can say that Hellenistic beliefs (sons of gods all over the place) could not possibly have had any influence on Jesus’ earliest followers, leading them to rever/worship Jesus?

    • John: My examination of 2nd century Jewish “principal agent” figures and the limits of reverence given to them is in One God, One Lord (1988), where I show that we lack a proper precedent or analogy for the devotional pattern reflected in the NT. My analysis of that devotional pattern in greater depth is given in several publications (repeated, sometimes with fuller explication), from that book onward, culminating in my 2003 book, Lord jesus Christ.
      Second, by “devout” Jews, I mean Jews who religiously identified themselves as Jews, not as apostates to paganism (as, e.g., Philo of Alexandria’s nephew). That’s all.
      Finally, all we can do is note and examine carefully what evidence we have. And all I’ve said is that the evidence of 2nd temple Jewish attitudes and practices (which, actually, in comparison with other features of Roman-era religion, isn’t all that bad) gives the strong indication of a powerful resistance against giving cultic reverence to figures other than the biblical God, including even angels, etc.
      There surely must have been individual Jews, however, who may have varied in this. But I emphasize that what we must look for is another group who openly and formally reverenced any second figure alongside God. And whatever you wonder about “Hellenistic beliefs” about divinized heroes and rulers, etc., all I can say is we don’t have evidence that these beliefs produced any other example of a Jewish group with the kind of dyadic devotional pattern that we see presumed in the NT. Those are just the facts, however you may prefer to respond to them.
      Might there have been some other Jewish group for which we have no evidence? Possibly. But we can only go with the extant evidence. The rest is pure speculation.

  3. James permalink

    Hi Larry,

    Sorry to dense but just to be clear then: You’re saying Brown was correct that we don’t have any texts speaking of a Jew who claimed or was acclaimed as “the Messiah” prior to Jesus and that Wright is wrong when, for example, he says things like, “Simon and Athronges had been hailed as messiahs when Jesus was a boy. The Sicarii regarded Menahem as messiah until a rival group killed him. Simeon ben Kosiba was hailed by Akiba as “son of the star.” Presumably, they all regarded themselves as messiah”

    Also, when you say “Hengel has also argued that, although we don’t have direct evidence, it is likely that there were pre-Jesus Jewish figures who were held to be Messiah or Messiah-designate,” what does Hengel base that assumption on? Which book of Hengel’s should I read on that point?

  4. There’s a rather commonsense way to revise the author’s thesis: many ancient figures, lords, claimed to be or were taken as, gods … or sons, agents, of God.

    Conventional Christian theology in fact, supposes that the Holy Spirit of God can descend on ordinary people. So that God speaks out of them.

    The author’s specific way of formulating this seems a little strained. But behind it we see many conventionally supported notions. Which suggest that we see God in various holy men.

    • Brettongarcia (real name please on this site): You miss the point. It isn’t the banality that you mention. Kaiser’s claim is that the early believers made a flat identification of YHWH as Jesus.

  5. Chris S permalink

    Hi Professor Hurtado,

    Please excuse the simplicity of my question. Do you believe that early Jewish Christians believed Jesus was a part of YHWH’s identity (e.g. Bauckham’s argument) or rather that Jesus was numerically distinct from YHWH (i.e. someone other than)? Or something else entirely?

    It seems like there is clear distinction between the “God of the Fathers” (Who I assume is YHWH) in many texts like Acts 3:13, so I am confused about how Jewish Christians could worship Jesus if they believed there was distinction.

    • Well, Bauckham (who sometimes comments here) can speak for himself, but my own understanding of his argument about Jesus being included in the “divine identity” is that Bauckham fully respects a distinction between Jesus and God, and specifies that his model doesn’t involve some ontological assumption. By “divine identity” he seems to mean the key, distinguishing actions and attributes of God, among which Bauckham especially underscores creation of all things and sovereignty over all things.
      As to how early believers could feel compelled to include Jesus as recipient of their devotion, Bauckham proposes that this inclusion within “divine identity” meant that he was entitled to this. My own proposal is that texts such as Philip 2:9-11 and others indicate that the basis was a conviction that God had exalted Jesus and now required him to be reverenced. So, to refuse to do so would be to disobey the one God.

  6. John permalink


    You say that the key impetus for Jesus’ followers showing Jesus reverence was that they thought Jesus had been singled out in his resurrection and exaltation to heavenly glory. Why can’t we stop right there? Why is there a need to hypothesize (assuming I am understanding your argument correctly) that the revelatory experiences ALSO included direction to Jesus’ followers that they MUST show reverence to Jesus? It seems like Jesus’ followers could have come up with this unprecedented conclusion all on their own through the oftentimes muddled thinking of human nature (especially poor, uneducated, and superstitious people) and based on their belief that Jesus was the one and only Messiah, the ultimate martyr (died for our sins), and that God had unprecedentedly raised Jesus bodily from the dead up to heaven. In short, can’t the rise of the unprecedented reverence toward Jesus be attributable to the unprecedented beliefs that Jesus’ followers already had about Jesus and the messy process of fallible human thinking in a superstitious age by poor and uneducated people?

    • John: First, what’s your basis for thinking that the worship of Jesus was based on and arose only in ignorant people? You got some kind of sociological survey? In fact, the extant evidence of earliest Christian circles suggests a demongraphic much more complex than what you posit.
      Second, the way to test a hypothesis such as you offer about how the worship of Jesus might have arisen is to see if we have other instances of it. There were numerous varieties of messiah-figures and expectations, and in none of them do we have the sort of dyadic devotional pattern that erupted in earliest Jesus-circles. So, we have to look for some other factor(s). (I’ve been at this for 25 yrs and have considered probably every possible explanation, John.)

      • John permalink

        No I do not have a sociological survey, but I would be willing to bet that uneducated people in difficult economic circumstances in a superstitious environment are more likely to come up with inexplicable and false beliefs than people who are educated, not in desperate economic situations, and are less superstitious (the term you used, “ignorant”, is a somewhat derogatory term that is more severe in my mind than the term “uneducated”). I do not say this in an elitist sense. I think it is just human nature. But this is really beside the point. Educated, well off, and less superstitious people can come up with inexplicable and false beliefs too; I just think in the former it is probably more frequent. Just my opinion, but maybe I am wrong.

        As to your suggestion that I should be able to test my hypothesis by finding an example of the Jewish worship of someone else other than Jesus, I think you misunderstood the point I was trying to make. Although there were numerous other messiah-figures and Jewish expectations, there was never any other Jew who was ever thought to be the one and only Messiah, the ultimate martyr (died for our sins), and that God had unprecedentedly raised bodily from the dead up to heaven out of time before everyone else. So there is no other examples to draw from. We are in uncharted territory.

        My question to you was, if Jesus’ followers ALREADY believed these incredibly unprecedented things (sparked by whatever means, perhaps visions/hallucinations of Jesus after his death), why is there a need to posit (as you do if I am understanding you correctly) that the revelatory experiences Jesus’ followers had MUST have included direction to Jesus’ followers that they MUST show reverence to Jesus? It seems like as human beings Jesus’ followers could have come up with this all on their own (i.e. believing that Jesus was the one and only Messiah, that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for our sins, and that God unprecedentedly raised only Jesus from the dead up to heaven before the end times, some of Jesus’ followers concluded that God exalted Jesus in heaven and made him a heavenly representative who was worthy of reverence. I respect that you have been at this for 25 yrs. I am just asking you if you have ever considered the possibility, and if so, how you ruled it out. Why MUST there have been direction in the visions/revelations Jesus’ followers had that they must show reverence to Jesus; why couldn’t Jesus’ followers have reached this conclusion all on their own given all of the other unprecedented things that they already believed about Jesus?

      • John: To turn to your question, there is nothing in notions of Jesus as Messiah, as having suffered a redemptive death, or as having been raised from the dead that would justify (for devout Jews of the Roman period) that he should receive the kind of devotion reflected in the NT. That is, these things don’t account for it. Given the intense concern not to compromise the uniqueness of the biblical God, especially in matters of worship practice, we require some powerful force(s) to explain how earliest Jewish followers of Jesus felt so free and ready to include Jesus in their devotional pattern in the ways we see reflected in the NT. (I’ve shown this quite clearly since my 1988 book, One God, One Lord, John, so if you’re seriously interested in these questions, read it.)

      • James permalink

        Hi Larry,

        You said “There were numerous varieties of messiah-figures and expectations, and in none of them do we have the sort of dyadic devotional pattern that erupted in earliest Jesus-circles.” I’ve heard N.T Wright says there were a number of other messianic movement in the 1st century. In fact, he states that he can “count roughly 15 messianic or quasi-messianic movements between about 50 B.C. and 150 A.D.”

        I’ve heard many writers make a similar point to Wright but then I can across a comment by the late Raymond Brown in which he says,”Since the ‘Messiah’ issue will appear in the discussion to follow, some fictions need to be laid to rest. One encounters the affirmation that there were many would-be messiahs in Palestine at this time. In fact there is no evidence that any Jew claimed or was said to be the Messiah before Jesus of Nazareth (or until a century after his death).”

        I was wondering if you could clear this up? Where was Brown going wrong?

      • James: Both Brown and I are correct! Brown was correct that (per extant evidence) we don’t have a Jew who claimed or was acclaimed as “the Messiah” prior to Jesus. But I’m correct that we do have a number of texts referring to or projecting a Messiah and/or a messianic-like figure. Hengel has also argued that, although we don’t have direct evidence, it is likely that there were pre-Jesus Jewish figures who were held to be Messiah or Messiah-designate. But in any case, in none of the references to, descriptions of Messiahs and such figures do we have indications that the figure should receive worship of the sort that was given to Jesus.

      • John permalink

        Since revelations are a crucial part of your proposal, do you hypothesize anywhere in your book the number and content of the revelations that caused Jesus’ followers to worship him in a way that would compromise the uniqueness of God? It would seem to take many (all?) leaders in the Jesus movement having very explicit revelations on this issue in order to overcome what you are characterizing as a nearly impossible hurdle to clear, and even then, it seems a stretch that anyone else would believe what the leaders were telling them to do if this was such an impossible hurdle to clear. Also, the content of the revelations would seem to have to be, at a minimum, something like that in Rev 5:8,14, where persons in heaven are seen bowing down to and worshiping Jesus. But if visions/revelations like this were occurring among most/all the leaders of the early Jesus movement, shouldn’t we see more descriptions of these types of visions/revelations in the rest of the NT? A vision where Jesus is simply seen at the right hand of God (e.g. Acts 7:55) would not seem enough to convince someone that they should worship Jesus (under the assumption that this hurdle was impossible to clear without specific direction from God). I would like to know how you address these questions before I read your whole case. If you address these questions in your book, can you please point me to the page numbers? Thank you.

      • If you’re not interested in reading a full case, then I’m afraid you’re not really serious. Be well.

  7. Dr. Hurtado,

    I’m curious about ther “Two Powers in Heaven” idea. Was it popular or at least well known among Jews of the first century? If so, could it have been relevant in providing a category in which to place Jesus for his followers, that allowed them to worship him, yet see him as somehow distinct from the Father?

    • The earliest evidence for allegations of “two powers” is in rabbinic texts that might take us as early as the first half of the second century (per Segal). We do have indications of accusations of blasphemy and of making Jesus a deity reflected in Christian texts from the lst century. See, e.g., my essay, “Early Jewish Opposition to Jesus-Devotion,” in my book, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?.

      • So do we know that the Two Powers idea not exist in pre-Christian Judaism, or is it that if it did, we don’t have evidence of it?

        I guess what makes me dissatisfied with the idea that the Two Powers doctrine was merely a later Rabbinic euphemism for Christianity is that the New Testament already seems to have a consistent, sophisticated, well developed role that the Son plays in the divine scheme of things. Perhaps this theology simply developed within first century Christianity, but it suggests that there was already a pre-existing theology already thought out that the first Jewish Christians could point to and say, “This is who Jesus is.”

      • Bilbo: There are a few distinct things to keep in focus. (1) “two powers” is a particular expression or rhetoric that appears in rabbinic texts, some of which may point to use of the expression as early as the “Taanaitic” period (ca. 2nd century CE); (2) as I’ve indicated, this should be distinguished from the question of when early Christians treated Jesus as divine, effectively in the eyes of outsiders, treating him as a deity. As to the latter, with others over the last few decades, I’ve shown that this erupted within the first years/months after Jesus’ crucifixion.

      • Dr. Hurtado: I understand the distinction that you are making. I am also making a distinction between (1) treating Jesus as divine and (2) understanding and describing Jesus’ functional role as divine. The New Testament description is surprisingly sophisticated, yet consistent. What I question is how such a sophisticated yet consistent view of his role came about. Was it all to be attributed to theological reflection that took place among Christians? Or was this also a result of what Christians considered revelatory experiences? Or was there some pre-existing theological reflection that provided a place into which the Christians could “fit” Jesus?

        In other words, I think the historical problem is twofold. Not only do we need to explain early high Christology. We also need to explain why this Christology has such a consistently sophisticated form.

      • “Bilbo” (PLEASE: real names here): The questions you ask are the ones I started off with back in the 80s, and are addressed initially in my 1988 book, One God, one Lord, in which I ransacked ancient Jewish traditions for resources that earliest believers may have drawn upon to accommodate Jesus alongside God. I’ll have to ask you to read that book, if you’re serious. (It’s the one other scholars point to as well for this data.)
        I’m not sure what “sophisticated” means in your comments. The christological beliefs presumed in early NT texts is developed, to be sure. As I’ve repeatedly noted, there seems to have been a veritable explosion or eruption of christological beliefs quite early. In my 1988 book and repeatedly thereafter I’ve proposed several inter-acting factors that may have combined to generate this phenomenon. You’ll have to do some extended reading and research if you’re serious about your questions. They can’t be addressed adequately on this or any other blog site.

      • Dr. Hurtado: By “sophisticated” I mean the description of Jesus’ functional role in the divinity. John 1, which I assume is written at the end of the first century, gives us its fullest, grandest explication: Jesus is the Logos, the Word of God who is the means of creating everything that exists. But earlier texts say the same thing: Colossians 1:13-17 and Hebrews 1:1-3. There’s also Acts 3:15, “the author of life.” Even in Philippians 2:6, Jesus is the “form of God.” Anyone having an acquaintance with Platonic philosophy would recognize the significance of using “form” and its connection to “logos.”

        If you have explored the possibility of pre-existing Jewish ideas related to the New Testament view of what Jesus’ role as divine was, then yes, I would very much want to read your book. Otherwise, probably not.

      • Julian: Historical analysis of early Jesus-devotion in the context of second-temple Jewish tradition has been what I’ve written on for 25 years! If you haven’t even bothered to read any of my publications, then I can only recommend that you do so. As for your own comment, yes, we have amazing beliefs about Jesus very early. But more astonishing still (I have argued) is the way in which Jesus functions in the devotional practices of early believers.

      • Dr Hurtado: Great! Glad you wrote about it. Allow me to repeat my question: Was there some pre-existing theological reflection that provided a place into which the Christians could “fit” Jesus?

      • Yes. Read the data in my book, One God, One Lord (1988). I contend that what I call “principal agent” traditions provided a basic conceptual category, which early Jewish believers substantially “mutated”, their “principal agent” receiving an unprecedented kind/pattern of devotion.

  8. Brian permalink

    Hi Larry,

    So, if I understand correclty, Kaiser’s historical contentions are somewhat reversed: from embodied YHWH *into* a more sharped, distinctive entity in reference with YHWH, rather than from a distinguishable, human entity (read: Messiah) in reference with YHWH *into* a more unique and divine essence/substance (hypostasis/ousia) of YHWH/God the Father (i.e., Paul -> Mark -> Matt. -> Luke -> and John)?

    • Kaiser posits (1) the historical Jesus was regarded as the beloved teacher and “hasid” of his followers; (2) after his execution they went to God in prayer and seeking consolation; (3) they had revelatory (epiphanic) visions of YHWH but in the face and form of their beloved hasid; (4) so the earliest christology was this: YHWH is Jesus.
      Then, subsequently, for various reasons (but very quickly, so quickly that none of the original christology survives in the evidence), Jesus came to be distinguished from YHWH but uniquely linked with YHWH. The “substance,hypostasis, person” categories came much later.

  9. “…I have to say that I find Kaiser’s specific proposal in the end unsatisfactory and unpersuasive…To my mind, probably the main problem in the book is that there is no direct evidence to support Kaiser’s claims.”

    Funny, that was the first thing that popped into my mind as I read your description of his thesis, and then you immediately spoke my mind:-) Theologians have a knack for superimposing paradigms over data, and they can sometimes be very creative in doing so.

  10. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Isn’t Heb 1:3 a stronger statement than 2 Cor 4:6 along these lines? Light from light, water from a fountain. Was that Tertullian or Origen who invoked that metaphor?

    What if Richard Carrier is right (“On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt”) that the Jesus cult began with a celestial Jesus and the gospel narratives only grew up later? But even so I don’t think Jesus was identified with God as such in this scenario, but rather his representative. The NT often talks about God giving Jesus his name, something that would not make any sense if Jesus was viewed as being YHWH himself. Charles Gieschen wrote about this.

    • Donald: Richard Carrier isn’t right, and isn’t regarded as such. It’s dangerous to propose grand theories when you haven’t proven your ability to do the slog work on which valid theories must be built.
      It’s clear to anyone who’s done that work that the Gospel narratives incorporate lots of traditional narratives that circulated for decades between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels.
      So, to stay with something valid, yes, one of the ways that the NT describes Jesus’ post-resurrection status is that he shares the divine name.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Dennis R MacDonald did a lot of work on the gospel texts. In a book published by Yale University Press (The Homeric Epics and Gospel of Mark) he argues that the gospel of Mark was not intended to be read as history but carefully crafted fiction.

        Given your admonition to read books before commenting, would it be cheeky to ask if you’ve read Richard Carrier’s new book? He has also published an article on a related matter in the Journal of a Early Christian Studies, if that counts toward “slog work” to be credited to his account. He acknowledges that his argument does not command support in the scholarly community but is asking for consideration. Or will it be dismissed out of hand?

        The idea that Christianity began with a celestial Jesus makes a lot of sense, especially of this problem of “kyriocentrism” highlighted in this post, because Paul talked about Jesus purely as a spiritual encounter. Scholars have long believed that Paul downplayed the earth Jesus as a matter of pride, because his own faith derived from post-resurrection visions. But what if the simpler explanation is that visions was truly all there was to start with? Gospel narratives coming later.

      • Donald: The *idea* you mention may “make sense” in some a priori sense, perhaps. The problem is that it doesn’t match at all the evidence. And let’s go with theories that arise from the evidence. Much better idea I think. Paul was fully aware of Jesus as a historical/human figure, as has been repeatedly shown in prior attempts to register the sort of notion that Carrier now tries to resurret. (Those who do not pay attention to history are destined to repeat it.)

  11. Jack Dalby permalink

    Larry, thank you once again for your thoughtful analysis on the murky topic of what exactly the earliest followers of Jesus believed about him. I do agree that Jesus was seen as divine very shortly after his death. However, I also have to wonder about the whole idea that something astounding had to happen to explain the early exaltation of Jesus. I will be brief…

    1) Our only primary source for a description of the apostle’s original encounter with the risen Christ (the letters of Paul) are few and at some remove. Christopher Barina Kaiser, Luke Johnson and you want very much to find the answer to that question in Paul’s writings. While Paul gives us a decent peek at his encounters with the divine, he tells us very little about what the original apostle’s actually experienced. I know you feel otherwise, but I think a strong case can be made that in many ways, Paul’s revelation was different in important ways from that of Peter and James. At the end of the day, however, we can only guess. The point is, I think we ask too much of our sources.

    2) I find the claims made by Kaiser and yourself (in your book, “Lord Jesus Christ”) that there was an “unprecedented” “explosion” of Jesus devotion to be a tad overblown. The Beatles coming to America was an explosion. The change in American attitudes to gay marriage is unprecedented. The belief by a very, very tiny group of eschatological Jews that the resurrected Jesus was now, in some sense divine, a view mocked by the vast majority of their contemporaries, hardly qualifies as a bang, let alone an explosion. More like the rustling of a few leafs in a vast forest.

    3) In the same vein, both Kaiser and you find the apostle’s beliefs in Jesus’ divinity to be “unprecedented” for 1st century Jews, but are they really? To begin with, we have absolutely no first hand information about the emotional makeup of Jesus’ followers. Who were these men? Well, a reasonable guess would be that they were young (perhaps very young), poor and probably poorly educated. That is not a criticism, but it is, however, a good description of what modern psychologists would describe as fertile ground for religious fundamentalism. Perhaps a divine Jesus was not so far a leap for them after all. Apparently, these men believed that Jesus’ ministry was somehow ushering in the kingdom of God. When he was unexpectedly crucified, they must have been thrown into a panic. For reasons we can not know, many (though initially not all) came to believe that Jesus was resurrected and had ascended to heaven with God. Is it really that hard to believe that these same men would start to pray to Jesus, asking him to return soon to establish his kingdom? And as the stories of Jesus were retold and began to spread, it seems logical that the prayers and beliefs would evolve into more theologically complex petitions, like the one’s we see in Paul’s letters.

    The bottom line is that no one can say with certainty whether Peter and the other apostles actually had an encounter with the divine. But as Occam’s razor posits, the simplest answer (though not always a simple answer) is most likely the correct answer. And in this case, I think the birth and growth of Jesus worship can be better explained by messy, convoluted human nature rather than an encounter with the divine.

    OK, so not so brief after all. Thank you for your time.

    Jack Dalby
    Leesburg, VA

    • Jack, Although lengthy, I’ve allowed your comment to stand as written, for your raise some matters that I can address/correct.
      First, your final statement implies that I invoke necessarily “an encounter with the divine”. I don’t. I simply report that the earliest evidence reports the *experiences interpreted by recipients* as revelations. Whether they really were is a theological issue. My work attempts history.
      Second, you have a right to your opinion, of course. But your simply feeling, e.g., that the Pauline texts can’t give us data for questions about what kind of experience Paul had is . . . nothing more than your feeling. Paul in fact refers to his experiences several times, focusing more on their cognitive content/impact than on other matters. But he’s surprisingly explicit about that cognitive content.
      Third, whether Paul’s experience was or wasn’t phenomenologically like that of the other apostles, is another issue. But Paul certainly likened them (1 Cor 9:1; 15:1-11). In any case, you have no basis for making a sharp distinction.
      Fourth, your rejection of “explosion” is done by injecting a red-herring. You focus on the immediate numbers involved, which is irrelevant. I focus on the nature of the beliefs and devotional pattern in the 2nd temple Jewish context. In that context, it was revolutionary. And it was explosively rapid and early. (And the Beatles weren’t a revolution: Long before we had Elvis, Jerry Lee, et alia making all those teenie-boppers swoon! The Beatles simply later came up with some good music.)
      Fifth, as to whether earliest Jesus-devotion was unprecedented, again, you drop in another red-herring. I.e., you immediately turn from the historical question: Were these beliefs or were they not unprecedented in ancient Jewish tradition? I’ve examined the matter in some depth, e.g., in my book, One God, One Lord. Refute it or pipe down. You, instead, invoke some kind of pseudo-psychology about young men and their supposed proclivities. Well, Jack, there were lots of Jewish young men at the time, and we don’t have another Jewish group in which a messianic figure functions in their corporate devotional life similarly to early Jesus-circles. Let’s stay with history. Leave off the bum psychology.

      • Jack Dalby permalink

        Wow, Larry…what’s with the “pipe down” stuff? I believe my entire post consisted of respectful questions. More than I can say for your response. At least we both appreciate the Beatles. Good luck to you.

      • Jack: Re-read your posting. It isn’t “respectful questions”, but also a series of assertions, the justification for which is lacking. If you want to make such forceful assertions, you surely must be prepared to have firm responses. Scholarship isn’t a democracy. You have to justify your views.

  12. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Dr. H.,
    Not having read Kaiser yet, I wonder how he suggests that those who proclaim “ancient Jewish monotheism” would be so ready to accept that YHWH himself had visited mankind in human form and allowed (?) Himself to be crucified as a criminal. Clearly this is a concern in any understanding of early Jesus devotion and must be contended with. One strong suit ( of many in my opinion) of dyadic devotion model is that this elevation of Jesus to being worthy of Worship is in His unique relationship with YHWH and YHWH being the one who requires this worship of Jesus. While this dyadic Worship of Jesus was still problematic for many it at least seems to comport more with both the evidence in the NT and what we know of Jewish Monotheism. I look forward to reading Kaiser and hope that you will do an extended review at some point and post it on the essays page!


    • Tim: If time permits, perhaps something further by way of review. But I don’t foresee this. I’m turning now to another large project (4 lectures due by mid-December).

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