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Marcus Aurelius and Christians

The question of how to take Emperor Marcus and the treatment of Christians under his rule is fascinating:  the Roman Emperor widely regarded subsequently as unexcelled in his urbane learning and sophistication ruled in a time when it appears that Christians were often the object of persecution by officers of the Roman Empire.

This is why I find Marcus Aurelius so interesting.  One of the books I’ve recently waded through is a massive biography of Marcus by Frank McLynn.  I won’t offer a review here, but compare the reviews by Mary Beard here, and by Tom Holland here.  For me, Marcus illustrates well how early Christianity stood out and so was the object of hostility in that period.  This is one of the points I emphasize in my new book:  Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016).

There are statements by Marcus that reflect his disdain for Christians that I cite in my book.  But, as argued by Paul Keresztes some years ago (“Was Marcus Aurelius a Persecutor?” Harvard Theological Review 61/3 (1968): 321-41), the reasons for the sometimes violent actions against Christians likely also had a good deal to do with the historical situation.  In the latter half of the 2nd century the Roman world suffered under a couple of rounds of plague, with many deaths.  Such events were naturally seen as stemming from the anger of the Roman gods, and so Marcus urged the population to renew their supplications to the gods to avert their wrath.

But conscientious Christians of the time would have found his decree incompatible with their faith-commitment.  For them, the Roman gods were unworthy beings at best, or demonic at worst.  In any case, Christians couldn’t readily join in sacrifices to these beings.  In the eyes of the wider populace, however, this amounted to “atheism.”  Refusing to honor the gods was what “atheism” meant then.

In the view of the officials charged with maintaining social and political solidarity, and securing the favour of the gods, Christians were offenders against all things pious and orderly.  The official Roman view wasn’t a “persecution” of Christians, but instead judicial action against people who offended society and whose “atheism” could also imperil the Empire, through bringing the wrath of the gods.

But, however, you slice it, in the reign of this oft-regarded noble Emperor (not simply in times of more dubious characters such as Nero), Christians were objects of official ire as well as popular hostility.  This is only one illustration of early Christian distinctiveness.

Early Manuscripts Electronic Library

I’ve just learned of a venture new to me:  The Early Manuscripts Electronic Library.  Their web site here.  They seem to have impressive links and their focus is on high-tech means of imaging ancient manuscripts, including techniques for recovering the underlying text in palimpsest manuscripts (which have a later text copied on parchment containing an earlier text that has been erased).

This is another encouraging venture that will help all of us concerned with the study of ancient texts.

Free Copy of “Destroyer of the gods”

Our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins is offering a free signed copy of my new book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.  For information on how to enter the draw for the book, click here.

Tom Holland and Hurtado on Early Christianity

My discussion with historian Tom Holland about early Christianity aired on a London-based radio station, and can be accessed as a pod-cast here.  Holland discusses his recent article in the New Statesman in which he describes his own realization that his moral views owe a great deal of Christianity, that article here.  I discuss my new book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016), the publisher’s online catalogue entry here.

I found Holland’s interest in my book encouraging, as he comes at it from his own established books on the ancient world.  And I wrote the book for a wide and diverse readership of whatever personal stance on Christianity.  Whoever we are, we experience the culture-shaping effects of that rambunctious and radically distinctive movement that became Christianity.

Reiterating the Basics on Jesus-Devotion

A recent comment is so chock-full of confusion and erroneous statements that I choose not to post it, but instead to address relevant matters in this posting.

1.)  Contrary to the comment, I don’t “assume” that cultic devotion to Jesus erupted early and quickly.  Over 30+ years I’ve made and defended the case arrived at inductively through pains-taking analysis of the historical evidence.  No assumption involved.  So, it’s a bit tiresome to have someone assert that my case is built on an assumption.

2.)  Actually, I’m not unique in making the claim that a “high” view of Jesus erupted early.  For example, the great master-scholar of the early 20th century, Wilhelm Bousset, in his influential study, Kyrios Christos, reached basically the same conclusion, as did Johannes Weiss, Martin Hengel, and others.  Indeed, Bousset judged that what he called the “kyrios-cult” (programmatic treatment of Jesus as worthy of worship) erupted so early and quickly that it was the form of the Jesus-movement that Paul encountered and to which he became an adherent, Paul’s “Damascus road” experience typically dated within the first 2-3 yrs at most after Jesus’ crucifixion.

3.)  Further, contrary to the ill-informed comment that triggered this posting, there is no evidence of an equivalent “angel-cult” in any evidence of 2nd-temple Jewish tradition.  Check out the major studies, e.g., by Stuckenbruck, Hannah, and others.  They all agree that the programmatic place of Jesus in early Christian devotion is at least a major step-change in comparison to the reverential treatment of angels in ancient Jewish tradition.

4.)  Likewise, Ehrman’s recent claim that Paul viewed Jesus as an angel lacks clear support from either the evidence or any of the major studies over the last 70 yrs or so, and is not one of the stronger features of Ehrman’s book.  So, that’s simply a red-herring, and has obtained no real “traction” among scholars working on the origins of Jesus-devotion.

5.)  Chronology is crucial (as Martin Hengel showed a few decades ago in an essay that should be required reading).  Uncontestably, our earliest evidence of the Jesus-movement is in Paul’s undisputed letters, which take us back to within ca. 20 yrs of Jesus’ execution, and which draw upon and directly reflect beliefs and practices of still earlier years.  It is ignorant to posit the Gospel of Mark as a testimony to some supposedly earlier and “low” Christology.  GMark was written likely ca. 70 AD, much later than the Pauline letters.  And neither GMark nor the other Synoptic Gospels comprises a theological tractate intended to push some particular “Christology” over against others.  Each is an account of Jesus’ ministry, emphasizing his historical, cultural specificity.  Moreover, they presuppose 40-60 years of the Jesus-movement, and developments in its beliefs and cultic practices.  I’ve analysed the Gospels as expressions of Jesus-devotion in my book, Lord Jesus Christ, at some length.  The GMark, for example, quite obviously narrates an account of Jesus in which he functions as the ideal role-model and master of disciples.  The author shows no evidence of laying out some distinctive Christological stance, or dissenting from some “high” one.

6.)  All early expressions of Christology have a “subordinationist” character, in that they portray Jesus as sent, empowered, vindicated, and glorified by God (“the Father”).  They weren’t touched by the concerns and issues that arose in the 3rd century especially.  But in the inventory of honorific categories to hand to them, early believers were unhesitating and remarkably free in ascribing to Jesus an unparalleled place in their beliefs and practices.  The “high” Christology of the early texts doesn’t consist in saying “Jesus is God Almighty” in some simplistic sense.  What’s “high” about earliest Christology is that Jesus is uniquely and programmatically linked with God, both in beliefs and worship, to such an extent that Jesus is essential for any adequate discourse about God and for any adequate worship of God.  We have no comparable development in any 2nd-temple Jewish group.  I’ve laid out the evidence in publications over the last 30 yrs, as listed on this blog site here (a couple of example given below).  So, I ask readers of this blog site to invest in the effort to engage the relevant work, if they’re serious about the matter.

For further reading:

Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988; 3rd ed., London:  Boomsbury T&T Clark, 2016).

Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2003)

Martin Hengel, “Christology and New Testament Chronology,” in Between Jesus and Paul (London: SCM, 1983), 30-47.

And, indicative of work on the relevance of angels, Loren T. Stuckenbruck, “‘Angels’ and ‘God’: Exploring the Limits of Early Jewish Monotheism,” in Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism, ed. Loren T. Stuckenbruck and Wendy E. S. North (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 45-70.  E.g., p. 68: “in none of the passages discussed is there any hint that in Judaism a cultus was being organised around angelic beings. I am thus convinced that Hurtado’s thesis is essentially corrrect that the sometimes exalted position of angels did not directly contribute to the inception of early Christian devotion to Christ alongside God.”



Catalyst Article

The online magazine, Catalyst, has just published my article, “The Distinctiveness of Early Christianity,” which draws from my new book:  Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016).  The article is accessible here.

Why and How did Jesus-Devotion Erupt?

I recently discovered an interesting conversation with Chris Tilling about early christology on a pod-cast site, “OnScript,” here. Tilling is now a frequently-cited “second generation” contributor to the analysis of early devotion to Jesus, and in the conversation exhibits a thoughtful engagement with important issues.  His book (which arose from his PhD thesis on which I was the external examiner) focuses on Paul’s reference to a relationship with the exalted/risen Jesus in terms that, Tilling argues, best resemble the kind of statements that portray the relationship of people with YHWH.  The consequence is that this is another indication that for Paul the exalted Jesus occupies a status like that of YHWH.  That is, we have another expression of a “divine christology” in Paul.

I found it interesting that when Tilling was asked where scholarly inquiry should proceed now, he urged that we need to ask why and how early Jesus came to be regarded and reverenced as sharing in a status like that of God. In the final chapter of my 1988 book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (3rd ed., Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), I offered a preliminary proposal of the “Causes of the Christian Mutation” in ancient Jewish devotional practice and beliefs.  Then, in my later book, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003), I devoted a whole chapter to the “Forces and Factors” that generated and shaped early Jesus-devotion (pp. 27-78).

In the pod-cast Tilling refers to my proposal, but only a part of it, and thereby in my view, unfortunately, distorts it. It’s important, however, to understand and reflect as adequately as we can the views of other scholars before we criticize them.  So, in the interests of further and more accurate scholarly discussion, I clarify and correct a couple of things in Tilling’s comments.

First, my proposal involves assigned roles for four major forces/factors.  Each of the four factors has a specific role, and the interaction of the four factors is also important.  So I hope that those who assess my proposal will take account of it adequately.

What seems to generate a critical response from Tilling and some others is my positing “religious experience” as a crucial factor.  “Religious experience” is my effort to designate in historical and non-confessional terms the references in early Christian texts to phenomena described as revelatory acts of God.  In Lord Jesus Christ, I sketch what these experiences likely involved, trying to be as specific as the evidence allows (pp. 70-74).  So, again, I plead for engagement with the specifics of my proposal.

Tilling claims that my positing “post-Easter” religious experiences neglects the contribution of the historical ministry of Jesus. My first response is that this seems a bit unfair, as, in fact, another of the four forces/factors in my proposal is the historical impact of Jesus’ ministry (Lord Jesus Christ, 53-64).  Indeed, I contend that the impact of Jesus’ ministry accounts crucially for his centrality in the beliefs and devotion of the subsequent Jesus-movement.  During his ministry, I argue, Jesus had already become the “issue,” his validity as unique agent of God’s purposes already the central question, both for his followers and his opponents.  So, the experience of the risen/exalted Jesus confirmed for his followers his validity, and, indeed, escalated him to a radically higher status in their beliefs.

But Tilling (and some others, such as Crispin Fletcher-Louis) seem to me to be anxious about ascribing much in the way of new convictions about Jesus’ status to these “post-Easter” revelatory experiences.  Perhaps their concern is that this would involve early believers making claims about Jesus that he hadn’t made or even held about himself.  In earlier posting here, however, I have argued that this concern betrays (typically unconsciously) a dubious notion that emerged with particular force in 18th-century Deist thought that the validity of claims about Jesus rests upon whether Jesus himself made them about himself.

In any case, by contrast, it seems to me that NT texts freely attribute to God the exalted place of Jesus in early Christian beliefs and practice.  For example, these texts posit that God has raised Jesus from death and exalted him to share in divine glory (e.g., Philippians 2:9-11; Acts 2:36), conferring on Jesus a status that he did not previously hold.  That is, the fundamental basis of the christological convictions expressed in these NT texts is a theo-logical claim:  God has exalted Jesus and now requires him to be reverenced.  Whether Jesus did or didn’t imagine such a future status for himself, whether he did or didn’t teach his disciples about this, is, in this sense, irrelevant.  What matters in various NT texts is what God has done and now declared about Jesus.

And how did these convictions about what God has done and declared about Jesus emerge?  Through religious experiences that recipients took to be revelations and actions of God, such as experiences of the risen and exalted Jesus.  As well, there appear to have been exciting and new “charismatic” readings of biblical (OT) texts, such as Psalm 110 and Isaiah 45:22-25, and Joel 2:32.

Of course, it is an interesting question as to whether Jesus may have seen himself in OT texts as well during his ministry.  But, whatever we conclude about that, various NT texts seem to me to indicate that it was first in the aftermath of experiences of the risen Jesus that his followers came to convictions that he had been exalted to heavenly glory and was now rightly to be given the programmatic place in beliefs and devotional practice that we see presumed already in Paul’s letters.

CSCO Interview on “Destroyer”

The final (5th) part of my video interview on my new book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, has now appeared on the blog site of our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins here.  Earlier parts of that interview can be traced there also.

Chronology and Ontology


A recent commenter queried my statement that “ontological” categories weren’t explicit or operative in 1st-century Christian texts (see my response to Philip Alexander in the comments on my posting here).  Granting that ontological categories and statements aren’t explicit in NT writings, the commenter asked how we can judge that ontological categories weren’t operative or on the table in early Christological beliefs/statements.  As this is an important question, I’ve chosen to address it in a posting, rather than in a comment/response.

These “ontological” categories figure in the Christological discussions and debates of the early centuries of Christianity, and are reflected in the classic creedal formulations, such as the “Nicene” creed, in which Jesus is confessed to be of the same “essence” as the Father.

First, the lack of explicitly ontological language in Christological statements in the NT writings is significant.  For, surely, if the writers of these texts were working with ontological conceptual categories, we should expect this to be reflected in their language.  But there is no use of terms such as ousia (“being/substance”), or the other terms that emerged in the subsequent centuries.  Note, please, the writers don’t reject such terms or conceptions; they just don’t use them. So, it’s anachronistic to impose later theological issues woodenly upon these earlier texts.

Perhaps the closest that we get in NT writings to what may look like early expressions of the later conceptions is in some statements in the Gospel of John.  For example, John 1:1-4 says that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  But each part of the statement modifies the other.  So, for example, if “the Word” was with God, then some sort of distinction is expressed.  And yet the latter part of the statement seems to block off a view of “the Word” as merely a creature, as does the following statement that “all things” were created through this Word.  The emphasis seems to be on the Word sharing uniquely in the God-role of universal creation.

The rest of the Gospel of John continues to align Jesus (the “Word” incarnate) with God uniquely, while also distinguishing them.  The alignment is expressed in categories such as a shared “glory” (17:1-5), and in Jesus being shown uniquely God’s purposes and being given the role as judge and the one who is now to be honoured, just as God is honoured (5:19-24).  In 1:18, we have the vivid portrayal of the “only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father,” the Son pictured thus as right next to God like a uniquely close dinner companion.

We might also take account of statements such as Philippians 2:6, where Jesus is said to have been “in the form of God” (en morphe theou).  But this expression seems to express a “godlike” similarity, not quite the explicit claim of “one substance” of later confession.  Note also that the ensuing verses in Philippians 2:6-11 picture Jesus as installed by God as the “Lord” who is to be acclaimed by all creation, “to the glory of God the Father.”  It appears that the “pre-existent” one who made himself a servant acquires a status and role that he did not exercise earlier.  But, again, the focus seems to be on status, role, etc., and not on “ontology.”

So, how can we say that “ontological” categories don’t appear to be operative in earliest Christological texts?  Negatively, there is the absence of the sort of philosophical terms that make their appearance in subsequent Christian texts.  Positively, the Christological statements that we do have in NT texts seem to me to express claims more of a relational and transactional nature.  In various ways, Jesus is uniquely linked with God, and is conferred (by God) with a unique status and role in relation to God.

As a third reason to judge that “ontological” categories weren’t operative in earliest texts, I point to the lengthy and complex efforts of Christian teachers of the 2nd-5th centuries, especially the thorny debates in the so-called “Arian controversy.”  All sides in these controversies drew upon biblical texts (OT texts often as important as NT texts), because these biblical texts weren’t framed by, and didn’t precisely address, the philosophical categories and questions of the later centuries.  (To grasp the complexity and fervent efforts of those debates, see, e.g., Rowan Williams, Arius:  Heresy and Tradition, 2nd ed., SCM, 2001.)

Of course, once “ontological” categories were put on the table, Christian theologians had to engage them.  But the absence of these categories in earliest Christological statements wasn’t a deficiency.  The so-called “ontological” categories are simply the products of one particular historical discourse and philosophical development, whereas the NT writings are largely shaped by the categories and concepts that derive from the biblical and ancient Jewish tradition.  So, for example, NT writers tend to refer to God’s name, glory, throne, and role as creator and sovereign over all, instead of God’s “being” or “essence.”  If it seems to us inevitable that Christian thought had to develop into “ontological” expressions, I submit that this only reflects how much our outlook has been shaped by our intellectual history, so heavily influenced by Greek philosophical traditions.

In my book, God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon, 2010), I’ve shown how the “God discourse” of NT writings is remarkably “triadic” in shape.  That is, there are copious references to God “the Father,” to Jesus (often “the Son”), and to the Spirit.  Indeed, I contend that the place of Jesus in particular in this God-discourse, and in the worship practices reflected in NT writings as well, is such that he is constitutive for both.  That is, to judge by the NT writings, adequate discourse about “God” and adequate worship of “God” must now include reference to Jesus.

How subsequent theologians made the transition to God-discourse conducted in ontological categories is a complex and fascinating story that taxes my personal competence chronologically.  In any case, judging whether the NT Christological statements fit this or that subsequent creedal option is more a theological than a historical task.  My own plea is that we respect the historical particularities of those earlier statements and texts, and try to avoid anachronism in our historical task of engaging them.

The Christological claims in NT writings are remarkable enough in their own terms and setting, and even more so the programmatic place of Jesus in earliest devotional practice.

Zurich Engages Wright

Graduate students and colleagues in Zurich has posted a 3-part blog series focused on Zurich contributors to the recent large volume (noted earlier here) assessing N.T. Wright’s 2-volume work on Paul.

The first of the Zurich postings deals with the essay by Benjamin Schliesser, here.  The second posting focuses on Wright’s historical methodology here.  The third posting features the critique of Wright’s view of “apocalyptic” thought by Joerg Frey here.

These blog posts give a good sense of the serious level of discussion, engagement, and critique of Wright, and with Paul (!) that one finds in the recent volume mentioned above.

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