“Kyriocentric” Visions and the Origins of Jesus-Devotion
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.