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“Who Were the First Christians?”

A new book by Thomas A. Robinson, Who Were the First Christians?  Dismantling the Urban Thesis (Oxford University Press, 2017) takes a virtual wrecking ball to the theories of a number of prominent scholars in early Christianity.  (The publisher’s online catalogue here.)

His most direct and effective critique goes at the numbers and accompanying assumptions widely touted about the growth of early Christianity.  Asking whether historians can count, Robinson shows that the numbers often invoked just don’t add up.  Many scholars posit that by 300 CE Christians made up ca. 10% of the population of the Roman Empire, and that somewhere between 5% and 15% of the population lived in urban settings, and that Christianity was almost entirely an urban religion.  But, as Robinson cleverly notes, putting these figures together would require that by 300 CE the population of urban centres of the Empire would have been totally Christian, something that no historian would hold.

So, something has to give.  Either there were far fewer Christians than typically imagined, or there were many more Christians beyond the urban centres than typically imagined.  Robinson then argues over several chapters for the latter view.  Drawing upon an impressive body of scholarly work, he seems to me to make a rather persuasive case.

One important point made is that there were strong links between urbanized and rural areas.  People from rural areas moved to cities, but likely retained links with relatives and friends in the countryside.  Cities and rural areas operated in a symbiotic relationship.  Indeed, it is not always possible to say where ancient cities ended and the countryside began.

Historians often grant that Christianity began to have a rural impact as early as 250 CE.  But,  extending his survey across a wide expanse, both eastern and western areas of the Empire included, Robinson also draws upon indications in early Christian sources that there were rural Christians from a far earlier point.

In two appendices, Robinson tackles the theories of two figures who loom large in today’s study of early Christianity, Ramsay MacMullen and Rodney Stark, and mounts an effective critique of both.  He posits problems in method in MacMullen’s thesis of two early Christianities.  But his sharpest criticism is directed at Rodney Stark’s use of dubious numbers to support his thesis that factors specific to the ancient urban centres were crucial in the growth of early Christianity.  I found it hard to avoid wincing at points where Robinson skewers Stark for failures in method.

As should be obvious, this book is primarily a work of criticism, intended to signal the need to re-think a lot about early Christianity.  Robinson candidly admits that this re-thinking lies ahead, and that his book is essentially a clarion call for it.  But the implications are far-reaching.

For if the thesis is incorrect that early Christianity had success pretty much solely in urban settings in the first two or three centuries, then that calls into question the putative reasons for its growth that follow from that “urban thesis.”

Moreover, Robinson challenges some now-popular notions about the social levels of early Christians (e.g., W. A. Meeks), contending that the evidence suggests a larger place must be given to Christians of lower social and economic levels.  This, too, might well have effects on theories about what it was about early Christianity that appealed to people.

I commend this book to all students of early Christianity.  It should start the ball rolling on a prolonged and far-reaching re-examination of who the first Christians were and why early Christianity developed so remarkably.

(Robinson has made a career of challenging widely-held theories effectively.  His published PhD thesis, The Bauer Thesis Examined: The Geography of Heresy in the Early Christian Church [Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988], was a powerful refutation of Walter Bauer’s theory that “heresy” preceded “orthodox” Christianity in several areas of the Roman Empire.  Robinson’s book, Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways:  Early Jewish-Christian Relations [Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson; Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2009], offered an incisive reading of evidence of an early emergence of “Christianity” in distinction from “Judaism”.  I confess a certain pride in his accomplishments, as Robinson was one of my masters degree students from many years ago.)

For whom is “Destroyer of the gods”?

In all the various interviews about my recent book, Destroyer of the gods, the question  up early:  Who is this book for, and what can people today take from it?  So, I’ll summarize here what my answers are.

The book is intended for a wide swathe of readers, really, anyone interested in exploring how Christianity began and what it looked like in its earliest phases.  I’d hope that many Christians would be curious about their religious forebears, and would be interested to see what it was like being a Christian before Christendom.  It was a time when, in the words of the Australian ancient historian Eric Osborne, Christians had to reason for their lives.  A bit dramatic, perhaps, for not every Christian was under threat of death, to be sure.  But Christianity was simply one sect among  others, and, indeed, was seen widely in a rather negative light.

So, becoming a Christian held no social or economic advantage that I can see in the first centuries before Constantine changed things.  Those who wanted to aspire for upward social mobility would have been advised to give Christianity a pass.  My book focuses on several features of early Christianity that made it distinctive, odd, even dangerous in the eyes of some of the time.

In the “post-Christendom” setting of the modern Western world, Christianity is no longer the socially dominant force that it once was.  Christians are again one kind of religiousness among many others.  So, actually, it may well be those Christians and texts of the first three centuries that will be the most instructive about how to live out Christian faith in these circumstances.  Augustine, the Cappadocian Fathers, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Barth, etc., these all wrote in situations where their dialogue partners were other Christians.  But people such as Justin Martyr, the author of the Epistle to Diognetus, Tertullian, and others of those early centuries were seeking to articulate and defend Christian faith to outsiders and critics in a situation in which Christians had to do so.  Their efforts at articulating their faith and living it out in as winsome a manner as they could will, I think, be more relevant now than at any time in the preceding 1000 years of Western history.

But I also have aimed the book at a wider public who don’t identify themselves as Christians, but will be interested to see what this thing called Christianity was like in its earliest setting.  These folk (or some)  may presume that all religion is simply the refuge of mentally less competent, socially dysfunctional souls, and/or the tool of those seeking to exploit credulity for economic and political gains.  It will come as a surprise, I suspect, to see who early Christians were, and that they included people of all social ranks and a decent number of clear educational and intellectual abilities.  And, as I’ve stated, for these early Christians their Christian allegiance had scant chance of offering any economic, social or political advantage (prior to Constantine’s adoption of Christianity).

To cite again the comment from Wayne Meeks that opens my book:

“Even in an age that some describe as post-Christian, the beginnings of the strange movement that was to become Christianity in all its varieties continue to fascinate thoughtful people . . . Yet something more that mere curiosity about an ancient puzzle draws our attention to the first centuries of Christian history.  Our interest in the question betrays our awareness that, whether or not we regard ourselves as Christians or in any way religious, we cannot altogether escape the tectonic shift of cultural values that was set in motion by those small and obscure beginnings.” (The Origins of Christian Morality:  The First Two Centuries, Yale University Press, 1993, p. 1).



“Graphic Signs” in Early Christianity

I’m pleased to have notice of the publication of my contribution to a multi-author volume: Graphic Signs of Identity, Faith, and Power in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, eds. Ildar Garipzanov, C. Goodson, H. McGuire (Brepols, 2017; the publisher’s online catalogue entry here).  My essay = “Earliest Christian Graphic Symbols:Examples and References from the Second/Third Centuries”(pp.25-44).

I introduce the “nomina sacra” and the “staurogram,” and then discuss various symbols referred to in Christian texts of the first three centuries: the cross (the T-shape), and fish symbolism.

The remainder of the essays, by a galaxy of scholars, are mainly focused on later centuries, and explore how “graphic symbols” (i.e., non-representational and non-textual) functioned to express and promote “identity, faith and power.”  I was invited to contribute, even though my own expertise and focus are on the first Christian centuries, and am honoured to be included with the various respected colleagues in the volume.

I have uploaded the pre-publication version of the essay on this blog site under the “Selected published essays” tab.

Jesus in the Gospels

In the light of recent discussion about how the Gospels present Jesus, I offer some observations intended to underscore and summarize my own views, and, hopefully, to promote some clear thinking by all.[1] Readers’ alert: This will be a long posting.

The first thing to say is that, quite obviously, all four canonical Gospels (not only the Synoptic Gospels) present a genuinely human Jesus whose career is empowered and authorized by God. These “Jesus books” are all bios-shaped sequential narratives, all of them commencing Jesus’ career in connection with John the Baptizer, all of them then relating Jesus’ itinerant activities of proclaiming God’s kingdom, teaching, disputing with opponents, working various miracles, and all of them devoting a sizeable final section to Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem, featuring his arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection. They are not theological tractates, but narratives of the earthly Jesus.[2]

So it is dubious to infer that their lack of the explicit Christological claims affirmed in other early Christian texts means that they advocate some particular Christological stance different from or in opposition to that advocated in writings that do incorporate more explicit and “post-Easter” Christological statements, such as Paul’s letters. Certainly, I find no evidence in the Gospels that the authors were tilting against or correcting some Christological stance, intending their accounts as replacements or alternatives.

Instead, the “bios” shape of these writings suggests that the authors were all (albeit in varying ways) motivated or inspired by the emergence of biographical type literature in the late Hellenistic and Roman periods. That is, these writings seem to reflect the “literary environment” in which they were written. They are all “literaturizations” (to use David Aune’s term) of the stories of Jesus. This is perhaps more obviously evident in Matthew and Luke, which add birth narratives, a feature of “great figure” biographies.

As bios-type writings, the aims were to promote Jesus as the central heroic figure, authoritative teacher, always correct over against critics, and the inspiring example to followers. This exemplary emphasis is perhaps particularly evident in Mark, which features Jesus summoning people to follow him (e.g., 8:34-38). Indeed, Mark seems to make Jesus the sole fully positive example for followers, and depicts Jesus’ disciples as often contrasting examples of “fallible followers.” That is, the purpose of the authors wasn’t to formulate and promote some distinctive theological standpoint, but instead, presuming convictions already held, to emphasize the earthly Jesus as exemplary, and his teachings as authoritative for the behaviour of his followers. I repeat: Nothing in the Gospels suggests that this was in opposition to other beliefs about Jesus (e.g., advocating a “low” Christology over against a “high” Christology), and so the more reasonable inference is that the authors intended their works to promote and complement the sorts of beliefs and devotional practice that appear to have been widespread in various early Christian circles by the late first century when these texts were written.

The emphasis on the earthly career of Jesus involves an impressive amount of “local color”. The Gospels are studded with geographical sites, early first-century issues and customs characteristic of Jewish circles in Roman Judea (e.g., food customs, clean/unclean questions, Sabbath observance), historical figures of the time, Jewish religious parties (e.g., Pharisees, Sadducees). And there is an interesting absence of issues that featured in the period after Jesus’ career, such as debates about circumcision. You get foreshadowings of the kind of Christological claims familiar in early Christian circles, as in the Markan scene where Jesus responds to the question of the high priest (14:61-65). But, on the whole, the writers (especially the Synoptics) tend to situate Jesus authentically in his own setting.

So, the Synoptic Gospels don’t present Jesus declaring his divine status or demanding that people worship him. But this simply reflects the emphasis in various NT writings that it was God’s post-mortem exaltation of Jesus, involving his installation as universal “Kyrios” that provided the basis for treating him as sharing in divine glory. So, in these terms, it would have been inappropriate for Jesus to claim a status not yet conferred by God, or to demand the sort of reverence that was seen as authorized by God’s exaltation of Jesus. Even in the Gospel of John, with its more explicit statements on the mouth of Jesus claiming a heavenly origin (e.g., about having “come down from heaven,” 6:38) and divine significance (e.g., 14:8-11), we have otherwise a genuinely human Jesus, who, for example, grows thirsty (4:7), weeps at the death of a friend (11:35-36), and, most clearly, who really dies (19:30). Indeed, John (uniquely) has Jesus insisting that he works entirely as empowered by God and does not bear witness to himself but depends upon God (and also John the Baptizer, Moses and the scriptures) to do so (5:19-24, 30-45).

At the same time, all four Gospels reflect and even appear to allude to beliefs and devotional practices that erupted early in the “post-Easter” period and that, by the time of their composition certainly, had become widely characteristic of the early Christian movement. The mysteriousness of Jesus’ true/full significance in Mark, for example, is widely taken as indicative of this. Human characters in Mark don’t “get it,” to be sure, even Jesus’ closest followers (e.g., 4:41), but it seems to me that the early Christian readers for whom Mark was written were expected to smile knowingly, perceiving at various points in the story allusions and foreshadowings of the “high” Christological beliefs and devotional practices that they shared. For example, the demonic recognitions of Jesus’ high status (e.g., 2:24, 34; 5:1-7) serve as ironic contrasts with the obtuseness of humans in the story, and seem to me to allude to the insights into Jesus transcendent status likely familiar to earliest readers.

Or consider Matthew’s interesting uses of proskynein in several scenes in place of the Greek terms used by Mark (on which Matthew seems to have drawn heavily).[3] It seems that the author of Matthew intended his Christian readers to see these scenes where people make obeisance to Jesus or reverentially ask favors from him as anticipations of the more explicit cultic reverence familiar to those readers. And, of course, there is the remarkable version of the lament over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39; also Luke 13:34-35), which appears to ascribe a “pre-existence” to Jesus, who speaks here as the mother hen who repeatedly sought to gather rebellious Israel under her wings.

To reiterate the point for emphasis, in all four Gospels, Jesus is a genuinely human and historical figure, authorized and empowered by God for his unique mission. But, contra the recent proposal of Daniel Kirk, the Gospels don’t try to fit Jesus into a genus or category populated also by others, such as Kirk’s “exalted human” category. Indeed, there are indications that the authors opposed any such categorization as wholly inadequate.

Note, for example, the transfiguration scene in Mark 9:2-8. Jesus alone is portrayed as glistening with heavenly glory. Moses and Elijah appear “talking with Jesus,” but in contrast to Peter’s ill-judged proposal to “make three booths” for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, the divine voice proclaims Jesus alone as “my beloved Son” and orders the disciples, “Listen to him.” In short, if Moses and Elijah fit the category of “exalted humans,” the scene seems to distinguish Jesus as not really fitting within that box, but having a unique status of his own. Jesus is a human, but his divinely affirmed status seems to break the mould of “exalted human.”

Or consider the parable in Mark 12:1-12, where the “beloved son” is distinguished from all the other “servants” (likely the OT prophets) sent to the “tenants” of the vineyard (Israel). Likewise, consider the question Jesus is pictured as posing in Mark 12:35-37, which appears to query common notions of the Messiah as inadequate, and ascribes to the one taken here as David’s “lord” a unique heavenly exaltation at God’s “right hand.” Here again, a previous category of an exalted human is challenged as inadequate. Yes, Jesus is genuinely a human. But the accounts hint at a status and significance that defies precedents.

I know that we NT scholars are all trained to try to identify distinguishing features of every early Christian text, and to react somewhat allergically to any reading of texts that appears to harmonize them or treat them as complementary. But, in this case, duly granting the distinguishing emphases of the individual Gospels, and the collective character of the Synoptic Gospels, I think we have to be cautious about ascribing to them some major alternative theological position over against the beliefs and practices reflected in other and prior Christian texts. The literary genre and the authorial purposes of the Gospels involved an emphasis on the “earthly” and “pre-Easter” Jesus (albeit with indications that the accounts were written in the light of “post-Easter” Christological convictions). But it exceeds the warrants of evidence to make the authors into exponents of a supposedly “low” Christology intended to counter what otherwise seems to have been the widely shared beliefs and devotional pattern of Christian circles of the late first century. After all, if the Gospels were written with this intent, it would be difficult to account for their rather early acceptance in the various Christian circles in which those beliefs and devotional practices were affirmed.

In short, it is a fallacy to pose a genuinely human Jesus such as we have in the Gospels over against the “high” Christology reflected in Paul’s letters and other various early Christian texts. Instead, at least in the various circles that comprised the emerging “proto-orthodox” Christianity of the late first century and thereafter, various affirmations about Jesus were seen as compatible and complementary, and various literary genres were appropriated to express Jesus significance.

[1] I refer readers to my extended discussion of the Gospels as literary expressions of Jesus-devotion in my book, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003), 259-347.

[2] “Jesus books” is, so far as I know, my coinage, first used in Lord Jesus Christ, in my discussion of the various Gospel writings, both canonical and non-canonical. On the literary genre of the canonical Gospels in the Roman setting, see, e.g., David E. Aune, The New Testament in its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987); and Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (rev. ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

[3] See, e.g., my discussion in Lord Jesus Christ, 337-38; H. Kim, “The Worship of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew,” Biblica 93 (2012): 227-36.

“The Last Adam”: Brandon Crowe’s new book

Relevant to the recent discussion here about the portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels, note also Brandon D. Crowe’s new book, The Last Adam:  A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospels (Baker Academic, 2017; the publisher’s online catalogue entry here.  As does Kirk, Crowe (one of my former PhD students) overtly offers his study with a theological concern that the life-stories of Jesus in the Gospels should be taken seriously, both in theological reflections and in preaching.  But Crowe doesn’t seem to make so much of a contrast between his emphasis on the human career of Jesus and the emphasis on him as having a divine status and as rightful recipient of worship.

As hinted in the title, Crowe’s book has a central thesis that in all four Gospels Jesus is implicitly or explicitly presented as the new/last Adam, Jesus’ life and actions depicted in relation to (and in contrast with) the (failing/disobedient) Adam of Genesis.  In Crowe’s judgement, the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ ministry emphasize his obedience (to God), making his life salvific, and not only his death and resurrection.  Crowe pushes back against depictions of the Gospels as “passion narratives with extended introductions” (Martin Kähler), urging (cogently) that the authors of the Gospels must have intended their narratives of the Jesus of Galilee to be meaningful, and not simply preparations for his crucifixion.

Crowe draws upon a history of scholarship to argue that his thesis is not so much new as insufficiently noted in some recent scholarly work.  His intended readership includes particularly students and pastors, hoping to offer the latter in particular some practical help in preaching from the Gospels narratives.



“A Man Attested by God”: Kirk’s Response

Daniel Kirk has blogged here in reply to my review of his book, A Man Attested by God, exhibiting an irenic tone that is much to be commended.  I’ll allow myself just a couple of observations in response.

First, and perhaps most importantly for the purpose and argument of Kirk’s book, he doesn’t respond to my point that his proposed reading of the Synoptic Gospels seems very implausible in the late first-century CE Christian setting in which these texts were composed.  Kirk seems to want to read the Synoptics as if (1) they were complete Christological statements on their own, and (2) early Christian readers would have had to hand only what these texts explicitly state.  But, as I noted in my SBL response published on this site earlier, these are most unlikely.  For we know that the treatment of Jesus as worthy of divine honor and cultic devotion had been in place and widely practiced already by the 50s when Paul wrote his letters.  So, to imagine that some 30-50 years later the authors of the Synoptics and/or their intended Christian readership would have been ignorant of these things (as Kirk’s approach seems to me to require) is an implausible stretch of imagination in my view.

Positively, therefore, it’s far more plausible to think that the Synoptic authors emphasize a genuinely human Jesus, not because they are uncomfortable with treating him as sharing in divine status, or because they want readers to take their narratives of the historic and human Jesus in isolation from other early Christian beliefs, but because, instead, these authors simply want to present ordered narratives of the earthly career of this Jesus.  Perhaps they wished to maintain (or re-establish) a balance, underscoring that the exalted Jesus of early Christian devotion is also the man of Galilee.  In any case, my point is that it’s methodologically dubious to read the Synoptics as if they were the only statements about Jesus available to original readers.

And my further observation here is that Kirk doesn’t seem to me to have responded to this point.  At least not directly or explicitly, so far as I can see.

My other point is in response to the quotation that he cites in defence of his accusation that my views show the influence or “Chalcedonian” creedal categories.  I’d think that a careful reader of that quotation will note that I’m simply making the historical observation that the discursive and devotional patterns evident in NT texts played a [NB: a] major role in the subsequent (NB:  subsequent) developments in Christological thought.  To make such a historical observation is not, however, to read those subsequent developments back into the earlier phenomena (contra Kirk’s claim), nor is it to frame the investigation and characterization of those earlier phenomena in line with later developments.  The historical connection moves from earlier to later, and that’s just a fact.  But to note this is hardly to commit the anachronistic analysis that Kirk seems (albeit softly) to ascribe to me.

I’d hope that anyone who reads my work without such an accusation in mind would see that I go to great lengths to avoid using later creedal categories to describe the earlier beliefs and devotional practices of the Jesus-movement.  There are real distinctions between the discursive categories of 4th century Christological debate and the first-century texts in the NT.  At the same time, the one could not have developed without the other.

Podcast Interview with David Pendergrass

A two-part interview of me by David Pendergrass is now available here and here.  The discussion ranges over my recent books on early Christianity and related topics, including questions about what implications there might be for Christians today.

Lanier Lecture on YouTube

My Lanier Lecture (September 2016) was video-recorded and I’ve just accidentally discovered that it’s been out for a few months on YouTube here.  They did a nice job of incorporating my visuals used in the lecture.  It’s basically an overview of key emphases from my recent book, Destroyer of the gods.

“A Man Attested by God”: A Review

In response to several requests, I give below my panel- presentation from the review session devoted to J. R. Daniel Kirk’s recent book,  A Man Attested by God: The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).

At 582 pages, plus a 21-page bibliography, Kirk’s hefty tome reflects an impressive investment of effort, his main thesis being that the Synoptic Gospels present Jesus as what Kirk calls an “idealized human” who is the agent of remarkable divine power and purposes. Upon receiving the pre-publication proofs for this review, my first thought was why such a large discussion devoted to a point that will be rather uncontroversial, surely, to most scholars, that the Synoptic Gospels (and I would include John as well) present a genuinely human Jesus who acts as God’s unique agent.[1] And why the somewhat agonistic tenor of the book?

But I take it that the size and tone of the book are explained by two factors. First, Kirk is concerned, not simply to affirm that the Synoptics present a human Jesus, albeit an “idealized human,” but also to advocate this view of Jesus as particularly productive theologically, over against what he portrays as a one-sided recent emphasis on Jesus’ divine status. Although he grants that the divine status/significance of Jesus is affirmed in some other NT texts, he warns against emphasizing this in what he describes as a “one size fits all” manner (p. 39). So, a goodly part of Kirk’s book is consumed with contending, not just that the Synoptic Jesus is a human figure, but that the Synoptic Jesus in particular is solely human, and doesn’t also partake of divinity (at least as Kirk defines that).

Second, the agonistic tone of the book reflects what seems to be an embattled sense of the issues, as reflected in Kirk’s language in references (emphasis mine) to the “onslaught of ‘early high christology’ studies” (p. 12), and his concern to “stem the rushing tide of conversation about divine Christology and reclaim some ground for exploring the most important thing that the Synoptic Gospels tell us about Jesus: that he is some kind of human Christ” (p. 581). This rather combative language is a bit of a puzzle, as I recall no sense among those of us identified with an “early high Christology” emphasis that it works against recognizing Jesus as an authentic human figure. Instead, in my work, for instance, the key contested issues were whether, as Bousset claimed, the “Kyrios cult” arose in Diaspora settings or in an authentic Jewish setting (as I and others more recently hold), and whether treating Jesus as sharing in divine status developed slowly and late in the first century (as Casey & Dunn held) or much earlier, within the very first years of the Jesus movement (as I and others in the “early high christology” stance hold).

That Kirk has a larger theological project or emphasis is evident from his Preface onward, and more extensively in concluding comments on pp. 578-82. He contends that reading “the whole Bible diachronically” (and with a particular emphasis on the Genesis creation account of Adam as God’s “image” serving as a controlling notion) yields the overarching theological conviction stated variously at numerous points in the book: e.g., “the kingdom of God comes near not when God rules as such [by which he must mean in some direct and unmediated way], but when a human king, anointed and empowered by God’s spirit, exercises an authority on the earth that by rights belongs to God alone” (xi), and another statement, “Jesus is the Human One who exercises God’s authority on the earth as God intended for humanity to do at the beginning” (11). In his Conclusion, Kirk sketches briefly the larger dimensions of his theological stance, proposing it as virtually the basis for a wide-ranging biblical theology.

I do not engage Kirk’s stated theological programme here, however, instead confining my comments to a few matters that leave me puzzled or hesitant about (1) Kirk’s stated approach, (2) his handling of certain evidence, and (3) his representation of the alternatives against which he poses his own views. I must emphasize at the outset that through large portions of Kirk’s handling of second-temple Jewish texts and the Synoptics I find myself simply nodding in agreement. But it will serve better the ensuing discussion that the book will generate to highlight matters briefly on which I think that more discussion is needed.

The Approach

As noted already, Kirk grants that what he calls “divine and pre-existence Christology is attested in other early Christian literature,” citing specifically GJohn, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 1 (pp. 4, 16). Kirk admits also that Paul’s undisputed letters (written several decades earlier than the Synoptics) likely reflect such ideas, although Kirk claims that Paul does not assign much importance to them (p. 572, a somewhat debatable assertion). In his Introduction Kirk declares, thus, that his aim is simply to focus on the depiction of Jesus in the Synoptic narratives, but also Kirk effectively proposes that we read them in isolation from other early Christian texts and their portrayal of Jesus (p. 13). On the other hand, Kirk devotes 132 pages (the largest chapter) to biblical and second-temple Jewish texts, this chapter serving as the context and basis for his approach to the Synoptics. He urges that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels invite their readers “to interpret them in conversation with biblical precedents,” and Kirk proffers what he terms “a historically viable reading of the texts [which I take here to be the Synoptics] from within the first-century Greek-speaking Jewish world in which they were written” (p. 9).

Of course, I agree that the second-temple Jewish tradition is the matrix within which the Jesus-movement first erupted, and also that this tradition provided the crucial conceptual categories initially appropriated and adapted by adherents of the Jesus-movement in the earliest articulations of their faith. Moreover, I agree that the conceptual resources drawn upon included what I termed “chief agent” traditions in my 1988 book, one variant of which focused on exalted human figures of the sort that Kirk discuses.[2]


But surely the more immediate context in which the Synoptics were composed, and the readership to whom they were directed, was the Jesus-movement itself, which was well into its second generation by the later decades of the first century (when these texts are typically dated). So, how is it methodologically sound virtually to bracket out the other and prior texts, beliefs, and devotional practices of the Jesus-movement in approaching the Synoptics? Kirk says that he aims “to read the text as it was meant to be read by the author, and/or as it was likely to be heard by the audience” (40-41). But one could ask pointedly whether anyone in the first-century setting really ever read the Synoptics in the way that Kirk proposes, effectively excluding all other indications of the place of Jesus in the traditions of the faith and devotional life of early Christian circles. It is, no doubt, an interesting literary project to try to do so, but does it comprise a genuinely historical exercise that might actually reflect either how the Synoptic authors expected their readers to approach their texts or how earliest readers likely read them?[3]

Already in the early 50s of the first century CE, a couple of decades or more earlier than the Synoptics, the letters of Paul reflect, and indeed presuppose, beliefs in Jesus’ exalted and glorified status and a whole constellation of devotional practices in which Jesus was central. My point isn’t that the earliest readers of the Synoptics also must have read Paul’s letters (though that’s fully plausible), but instead that Paul’s letters suggest that a “high” view of Jesus as sharing somehow in divine status, and a corresponding “dyadic” worship practice as well, were pretty widely characteristic of various circles in the first-century Jesus-movement, Pauline circles and others. Certainly, I find no indication in the Synoptics that the emphasis on the earthly career of Jesus was promoted as a conflictual alternative over against the sort of Christological beliefs and devotional practices that we see in other first-century texts. In short, Kirk seems to pose an “exalted human” Jesus over against treating Jesus as also bearing a divine status and significance, but the Synoptic authors don’t seem to do so.

Handling Certain Evidence

I turn now to a few matters pertaining to Kirk’s handling of certain evidence. There is such a large body of textual evidence addressed in Kirk’s book that it is impossible for me here to do more than highlight a few matters for further discussion. Since he devotes so much space to the biblical and Jewish background, I turn to it first. One major issue that springs out to me is his repeated claim that in Jewish texts this or that exalted human receives “worship,” by which I take it that he means the same sort of cultic reverence as given to God. The point of his argument seems to be to argue against the contention that the programmatic inclusion of Jesus in early Christian devotional practice is novel and noteworthy, and that this practice suggests that Jesus occupies a status like God’s. But I think he exaggerates matters.

To take one example, it is really not clear that 1 Chronicles 29:20 will bear the weight of Kirk’s repeated claim that it reflects the cultic worship of the Judean king. Clearly, YHWH is the sole recipient of the prayers and sacrifice here. In this context the lonely reference to the assembly bowing their heads and prostrating themselves to God and to the king hardly amounts to evidence of some royal cult in which the king received worship jointly with God. And the honorific language in texts such the royal wedding laudation in Psalm 45 won’t make the case either.

There are also the several texts in the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71) where the pagan rulers make obeisance to the august Elect One, and the righteous gather before him to worship God; but I don’t think that these texts really make the Elect One the recipient of anyone’s cultic worship. To be sure, Kirk is not alone in making what I regard as exaggerated claims about these texts. But I will simply ask whether scholars who claim that the Elect One receives worship (and not simply submission from conquered rulers and the elect) are actually reading into the Similitudes the kind of devotional stance that is clearly reflected in early Christian texts in an understandable but misjudged effort to give the latter some direct basis in ancient Jewish tradition. Put another way, if we did not approach the Similitudes with the aim of trying to account for the remarkable Jesus-devotion reflected in early Christian texts, but simply read them in the context of ancient Jewish tradition, would we see the Elect One as recipient of cultic worship along with God?   I fear that there is a kind of interpretative back-flow in some claims about the Similitudes.

In any case, the Similitudes are imaginative scenes, dreams of some future time of divine victory, not reflections of the actual devotional practice of any second-temple Jewish group. Kirk thinks that difference unimportant.   But to my mind, if we are historians of religion, and not simply comparing literary motifs, the actual historical appearance of the devotional pattern reflected (indeed, presumed as already common among believers) in earliest Christian texts is a genuinely novel and therefore remarkable historical development, a significant step-change in comparison with known worship practices of other second-temple Jewish groups. For there is no other group in Jewish tradition of the time in which an “idealized human” (e.g., prophet or messiah, or “Teacher of Righteousness”) had the centrality in belief and devotional practice that the exalted Jesus held in earliest circles of the Jesus-movement. I have specified the devotional practices in question in various publications over nearly thirty years now, and cannot here take time to reiterate them. Indeed, judged historically, I contend that the place of Jesus in earliest Christian worship practice is perhaps the most remarkable development in the first-century Jesus-movement, and in taking this view I echo a similar judgement by previous scholars including Johannes Weiss, Wilhelm Bousset, and Martin Hengel.[4]

To turn now to the Synoptics, I repeat that Kirk is certainly correct that they present us with narratives of Jesus of Nazareth, locating him specifically in time, geography, religio-cultural and political context, and positing him as Messiah and the uniquely empowered and authorized human agent of the God of the OT. But I wonder if Kirk succeeds in his additional aim of denying in them practically any hint of other early Christian beliefs about Jesus’ high significance and status. Is the strong note of mystery about Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, for example, really only that his messianic vocation requires crucifixion and resurrection? Is the content of thee demonic knowledge of Jesus in Mark really only his messianic role? By the late first century, was the Christian acclamation “the son of God” only a messianic title? Is Jesus’ messianic status all that the author hints at in the various places where the question of what to make of Jesus is posed, such as the sea-miracles in 4:35-41 and 6:45-52? In Mark 6:14-16 and 8:27-30, the various judgements about Jesus as a prophet, or Elijah, or John the Baptist redivivus seem to make at least these various “idealized human” categories inadequate. And Jesus’ question in 12:35-37 about the Messiah as David’s lord suggests to me that even this “exalted human” category is somehow inadequate, at least as understood by “the scribes.”

As for the Gospel of Matthew, Kirk commendably admits that the christology of this text may be “poised to transcend the mold of idealized human figures and stake a claim to divinity” (p. 573). Nevertheless, as Kirk insists (and rightly), even in the climactic post-resurrection scene in 28:16-20, Matthew’s Jesus exercises an authority that is explicitly conferred upon him by God. Kirk’s insists that a genuinely divine christology must involve the claim of pre-existence, which I find debateable. In the Roman world, for example, human emperors could attain divinity upon their death without pre-existence. But, given Kirk’s position, I was puzzled that there was no discussion of Matthew 23:29-39, where Jesus first speaks as if it is he who has sent previous messengers to Israel, and then utters the famous lament over Jerusalem in which he appears to have been the (pre-existent) mother-hen who repeatedly sought to shelter her recalcitrant brood, an obvious figure of the OT history of Israel’s frequent disobedience.

Representation of Others

I mentioned earlier the agonistic tone of Kirk’s discussion, and this leads me now to some comments on his representations of those with whom he posits disagreements. These are mainly figures now associated with underscoring what is often referred to as “early high Christology,” among them, Richard Bauckham in particular and, although not as frequently an object of Kirk’s critique, myself.[5] As well, Kirk engages Gathercole’s controversial thesis that the Synoptics allude to Jesus’ pre-existence, Richard Hays, Crispin Fletcher-Louis, Kavin Rowe, and also (beyond the so-called “early high christology club”) Daniel Boyarin. I find Kirk’s critique valid on some matters. But I have to say that at some points I judge his characterization of the views that he opposes unhelpful exaggerations and distortions.

For example, note Kirk’s statement that the recent “resurgence of early high Christology” involves the notion that already in the NT we have beliefs in Jesus “as divine in what might fairly be called a proto-Chalcedonian sense” (pp.1-2).   In a footnote to that statement he refers to me. Now, to speak for myself, I have no recollection of ever alluding to the Chalcedonian definition of the two natures of Christ, nor any sense of how my own work can be linked to it. So I have to say that I find Kirk’s statement a complete puzzle.   For the historical questions that I have pursued for nearly thirty years should be clear enough: When and under what circumstances did adherents of the early Jesus-movement come to treat him as rightful recipient of cultic devotion? What factors influenced this, and what resources did they draw upon? How was this Jesus-devotion expressed and how did it develop, especially across roughly the first couple of centuries?[6] Chalcedon doesn’t come into it.

Kirk states that Bauckham “looms most largely,” referring particularly to his claim that in early Christian texts Jesus is included within “the divine identity” (p. 17). This is another curiosity, given that Bauckham has scarcely published on the Synoptics. Bauckham and I are not always agreed in matters, and I see his work as (like Kirk’s) shaped more by theological categories than mine. But, again, I think that Kirk distorts matters by repeatedly claiming that Bauckham’s view amounts to ascribing to Jesus an “ontological” unity with God (e.g. p. 23). For Bauckham explicitly indicates that his concept of “divine identity” consists in key actions or roles that he urges God alone plays in biblical/Jewish tradition: in particular, the creation of all things and sovereignty over all things.[7]

Actually, Kirk himself appears to operate with the anachronistic categories that he attributes to the work of others. For example, at a number of points, it seems to me that Kirk’s argument is essentially that the Synoptic Gospels don’t exhibit the sort of “ontological” Christological categories of Nicaea; they don’t, for example, describe the historical figure of Jesus as sharing in God’s ousia (e.g., 378). Fair enough, and insofar as some scholars appear to claim otherwise, I agree with Kirk that they’re mistaken, or at least are anachronistic in their approach. But, ironically, it appears that nothing less than Nicene-like “ontological” statements would satisfy Kirk as comprising a genuinely “divine” Christological claim. And Kirk makes the absence of such specific “ontological” statements in Gospels evidence that the authors didn’t harbour any view of Jesus as divine.

Of course, the Synoptics present a genuinely human figure. This is explicitly true even of the Gospel of John as well, which emphasizes Jesus’ dependence on God and also Jesus’ genuine mortality (e.g., 5:30; 6:37-40). And, of course, the Evangelists didn’t face the issues that arose in the Christological controversies of the 3rd-5th centuries, or have to hand the conceptual categories of that time. But, surely, it is better simply to try to determine whether the christological claims and devotional practices in early Christian texts are essentially versions of those also attested for other figures in second-temple Jewish tradition (as Kirk appears to hold), or whether early Christian texts present us with a significant development and innovation in that historical context. And if they do, as I think is the case, we then have to judge how to characterize matters, and in terms appropriate to that context.

For example, I propose that the discourse about God and Jesus in the NT is largely comprised of transactional and relational statements. E.g., Jesus is sent forth, acclaimed, offered up, raised, exalted and glorified by God. Jesus is God’s unique Son, Image, and Word, and his redemptive death and resurrection accomplishes God’s purposes and redeems people for God. But the abundant centrality of Jesus in NT discourse about God and in how God is to be worshipped is also striking, indeed, unique in that historical context. The effect of this, as I have contended in my 2010 book, God in New Testament Theology, is that in NT texts collectively discourse about “God” seems to require reference to Jesus as well, and the worship of God requires the inclusion of Jesus as its basis, Jesus the one through whom it is now valid, and even the rightful co-recipient.[8] That is, in NT texts Jesus is integral to beliefs about, and the worship of, God. That isn’t expressed in the “ontological” categories of later Christological discourse, but it does seem to me to comprise a significant (I judge unique) historical mutation in Jewish divine-agent traditions.


I repeat that Kirk is correct to emphasize that the Synoptics are primarily narratives of the human Jesus. Certainly, they present Jesus as attested, empowered and authorized by God, and then also uniquely validated through Jesus’ resurrection. The authors may well have intended to ensure that the Kyrios of early Christian belief and devotion should also be seen as the Jewish prophet from Galilee. But I also repeat that I see no indication that the authors of these texts intended to counterpose their narratives of the earthly Jesus over against the exalted claims about him that we know had been circulating widely for decades in the Jesus-movement. The contrarian tone of Kirk’s book doesn’t seem to me to correspond to the tone of the Synoptics. Moreover, there are some problems in Kirk’s approach to the Synoptics, his interpretation of some key evidence, and in his representation of those he purports to disagree with that I think mar this ambitious and stimulating work.

[1][1] See my own discussion of “Jesus Books” (a.k.a. gospels) in Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 239-347, esp. 283-346. I note that one shared feature of the Synoptics is their emphasis on Jesus as a real historical figure of 6specific time and place, and the “bios” shape of their narratives, in which they variously present Jesus as role model, authoritative teacher, and redemptive sufferer.

[2] L. W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Philadelphia/London: Fortress/SCM, 1988; 2nd ed., Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998; 3rd ed. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015).

[3] The methodological questions I pose are who read the Synoptics in the first instances and what beliefs and practices they brought, and were expected by the authors to bring, to that exercise. Toward an answer to these questions, it is certainly apparent that from perhaps the earliest moments the Synoptics circulated among, and were read appreciatively by, Christians who believed that Jesus shares divine glory and is worthy of cultic devotion, and yet also found these narratives of the man Jesus deeply meaningful as complementing their picture of him. This seems clear from the subsequent reception of these texts among such circles, which led to their being included in an early four-fold Gospel collection and then in the emergent NT. Moreover, so far as we can tell, these earliest readers were unaware of a conflict or tension between the picture of Jesus in the Synoptics and what else they believed about him.

[4] Johannes Weiss described the early emergence of cultic devotion to Jesus as “the most significant step of all in the history of the origins of Christianity”: Earliest Christianity (ET; New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 1:37. Wilhelm Bousset (Kyrios Christos [1913, 1921; ET, 1970) seems to have taken a similar view, but he contended that cultic reverence of Jesus first emerged in diaspora settings such as Antioch and/or Damascus, whereas I posit that its origin lies in Judean circles of the Jesus-movement such as the Jerusalem church. For Hengel’s view, see, e.g., “Christology and New Testament Chronology: A Problem in the History of Earliest Christianity,” Between Jesus and Paul (London: SCM, 1983), 30-47.

[5] Scholars linked to the emphasis on “early high christology” are also sometimes identified with reference to Martin Hengel’s description of “a new religionsgeschichtliche Schule,” a phrase used in his endorsement that appeared on the back cover of the first edition of my book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988). See my discussion of the term in L.W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 11-18.

[6] I fail to see how any of this is “proto-Chalcedonian.” And it is worth noting that the only putative justification that Kirk offers for his curious claim is my use of the term “binitarian” to describe the devotional pattern of earliest Christian circles (p. 2 n.2). To my knowledge, however, “binitarian” isn’t particularly a term in Chalcedonian discourse (or in Nicene discourse for that matter), and more importantly from my earliest publications onward I have repeatedly stressed that I used it simply is a shorthand designation to capture the peculiar way that God and Jesus are both distinguished and also uniquely and inextricably linked in the beliefs and devotional practice of early Christianity, and linked in a “shaped” dyad, Jesus the unique agent of God, not vice versa. Indeed, in more recent publications I’ve adopted the term “dyadic” in place of “binitarian,” precisely because of the sort of curious misconstrual of my use of the latter term that Kirk seems to perpetuate.

[7] E.g., Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), 7-13. On the other hand, some of Bauckham’s rhetoric can be taken as asserting an ontological claim, as in references to Jesus as the God of Israel. But I think that these must be read taking account of how he nuances issues.

[8] Larry W. Hurtado, God in New Testament Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010).


“Nomina Sacra”: Further Observations

The scribal convention known as the “nomina sacra” is among the earliest expressions of an early Christian “visual culture,” and deserves more attention that it has been given characteristically beyond circles of papyrologists.  Questions about when the practice began and how it began continue, although I remain supportive of the hypothesis I put forth in a 1998 journal article that it all may have begun with an abbreviated form of Jesus’ name, using the first two Greek letters, ΙΗ.[1]

In any case, this particular nomen sacrum is the only one commented on in early Christian texts, the earliest such reference in the Epistle of Barnabas 9.7-8 (a similar reference in Clement of Alexandria, Strommata 6.278-80). Specifically, these references note the combined numerical value of the two Greek letters in question, which is 18. The references don’t explain why this number is meaningful, perhaps because they expected this to be sufficiently well known, or (as may more likely be the case) because the original meaning for Christians had been forgotten. I have attempted to recover that original meaning of the abbreviation in my proposal, I won’t linger over this matter here.[2]

Instead, I want to draw attention to the ways that the nomina sacra, and especially this particular abbreviated form of Jesus’ name, came to mark out early Christian copies of texts. Let’s return to that Barnabas text, where the author gives a remarkable reading of the number of Abraham’s servants given in Genesis 14:14. Per the Genesis account, Abraham’s servants numbered 318. Barnabas observes that this number can be represented with the Greek letters ΙΗ (which = 18) and Τ (which = 300). He also notes that the T is the shape of the cross, and that the letters IH are the first two letters of Jesus’ name. Barnabas’ conclusion: “So the text reveals Jesus in the two letters [IH], and the cross in the other one [T]” (9.8). In short, Barnabas takes the number of Abraham’s servants as a type or foreshadowing of the redemptive force of Jesus’ crucifixion.

This has been noted in earlier discussions of the nomina sacra, but what has not so often been noted is that early Christian copies of Genesis can be identified readily by the way this number in Genesis 14:14 is written: as TIH. The “normal” way that numbers were given in Greek literary manuscripts was to write out the word: e.g., “three hundred and eighteen.” But, such was the antiquity and significance of the abbreviation of Jesus’ name as IH for early Christians that it affected the way the number of Abraham’s servants was written in early Christian copies of Genesis.[3] Here we see an early Christian belief about Jesus’ significance both expressed visually in this abbreviation of his name, and also in the way that this number (318) was written in early Christian copies of Genesis.

Similarly, early Christian copies of other OT texts exhibit key nomina sacra forms, including, notably, the Greek name of “Joshua” (Ιησους) written as a nomen sacrum. Again, the rationale for this was that the figure given this name (by Moses) thus served to prefigure Jesus of Nazareth. That is, in this view this figure bore Jesus’ name in anticipation of him, and so the name was written as a nomen sacrum. This is another visual/physical expression of early Christian beliefs that is often overlooked, or (among scholars who don’t understand the typology involved) taken as a puzzling scribal phenomenon.

In these and other ways, however, early Christian manuscripts give us fascinating glimpses of the emergence of a Christian “visual culture.”

[1] Larry W. Hurtado, “The Origin of the Nomina Sacra: A Proposal,” Journal of Biblical Literature 117(1998): 655-73. I have summarized my case for this proposal in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 111-20. My proposal builds on some hesitant suggestions made by Colin H. Roberts in his discussion of the nomina sacra in his Schweich Lecture, Manuscript, Society and Belief in Christian Egypt (London: Oxford University Press, 1979), 26-48.

[2] I proposed that the writing of Jesus’ name as IH originated in circles where its numerical value was appreciated by aligning it with the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “life” (חי).

[3] E.g., P.Yale 1; LDAB 3081; VH 12; Rahlfs 814, dated 2nd/3rd century AD, a single leaf of a codex containing Genesis 14:5-8, 12-15.

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