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Jesus-Devotion: Contrary Views

July 12, 2010

In the spirit of true/open academic-based debate, I thought I’d post information about some of the scholars who disagree with the sort of view that I espouse on early “Jesus-devotion”.  Yeah, it’s my blog-site, but I’m not into one-sided propaganda.  So, here are some colleagues who’ve engaged my work and expressed some differences of views:

  • Maurice Casey, “Lord Jesus Christ: A Response to Professor Hurtado,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27, no. 1 (2004): 83-96.  (And for my response:   Larry W. Hurtado, “Devotion to Jesus and Historical Investigation: A Grateful, Clarifying and Critical Response to Professor Casey,” JSNT 27, no. 1 (2004): 97-104.)
  • Adela Yarbro Collins, “‘How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?’: A Reply,” in Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children: Christology and Community in Early Judaism and Christianity, ed. David B. Capes et al. (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007).  (She proposes that ideas/practices of ruler-cult and deification of heroes may have unconsciously influenced earliest Jewish believers, so that they could accommodate Jesus’ divine status.  It would help her case if we had at least one other example of what she suggests may have happened so readily.  I’m not convinced.)
  • Crispin Fletcher-Louis, “A New Explanation of Christological Origins: A Review of the Work of Larry W. Hurtado,” Tyndale Bulletin 60, no. 2 (2009): 161-205.  And see my invited response:   L. W. Hurtado, “The Origins of Jesus-Devotion: A Response to Chrispin Fletcher-Louis,” Tyndale Bulletin 61, no. 1 (2010): 1-20.
  • James F. McGrath, The Only True God:  Early Christian Monotheism in its Jewish Context (Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 2009).  I haven’t been able to read this one yet (awaiting a copy for the library), but there’s what seems an even-handed review on Review of Biblical
  • James D. G. Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus:  The New Testament Evidence (London:  SPCK, 2010).   I’m reading this right now for review.  More later.

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  1. Sean permalink

    Thank you for interacting with the issue I’ve raised. I think that this sort of information is helpful for those who want to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the different historical paradigms.

    I appreciate your point about Paul’s writings, i.e. that they were 20 or more years removed from the earliest converts. I’m not sure that this resolves the problem about which I’m concerned, though. Although the activities you mentioned may have eventually become routine to those who were there from the start, the young movement itself was far from something routine in its historical context. New converts joined the movement regularly, many if not most of whom were Jews in the beginning, with increasing numbers of non-Jews converting as the movement progressed and grew. If these converts felt that Jesus was given the sort of religious devotion that could only appropriately be given to God himself then I think that they would have required justification for this. Converted Jews would have needed such justification to deal with the concern that they may loose God’s favor by worshiping his agent as his equal, and non-Jews (at least some of them) would have questioned how these devotional practices cohere with the assertion that the movement remained faithful to the Jewish Scriptures that it used to justify itself.

    With that said, I think your impression that early converts were probably driven to prayerfully search their Scriptures to understand the significance of Christ is surely correct, and I concur that Jesus’ inclusion in the devotional practices of the emerging community was indeed quite remarkable. To borrow a phrase from Dunn, “we should not allow our familiarity with [devotional language] to dull the astonishing character of such language spoken of one who had so recently lived on earth.” (The Partings of the Ways, 2nd edition), p. 269. But I question the assumption made by some that this “mutation” in religious practices necessarily implies a corresponding mutation in the early Christians’ concept of the very being of God. Based on first-hand experience, I think that many people who are familiar with your work either consciously assume or subconsciously infer that the description “binitarian mutation” is employed because it it is felt that it both opens the door to yet simultaneously borrows connotations from the later “trinitarian” devotional character the Church ultimately adopted. I think that’s probably what Casey is getting at by the words “fully God”. I borrowed them because I felt that they made for a handy tool to make my point, namely (again), if early Christ-devotion was such that it could only appropriately be given to God himself then the early converts either consciously acted inappropriately or they believed that Jesus was God himself. If the latter were the case then such a paradox would have become a serious issue and nothing short of full doctrinal delineation would have satisfactorily addressed it. The absence of such dispute along with the requisite doctrinal delineation suggests to me that the early Christians did not feel that such devotion could only be given to God. Perhaps we can account for this by carefully noting the specific ways that Christ is included in the context of this devotion (e.g. as the “lamb” he is the the sacrifice rather than the God to whom it is offered; as the “temple” he is the “place” Christians come to worship God rather than the God who is worshiped, etc).


    • Good thoughtful commnets, and you correctly highlight the difficult historical issues, which is why I’ve been working away at these matters for 20+ years.
      A few short comments in response. (We can’t work out all the issues here. I really must ask for my part that my publications be studied carefully.)
      –I really can’t account for what people choose to do with the word “binitarian”. I’ve repeatedly spelled out in detail how I use the term and what it connotes in my own discourse. And it really must be a fundamental rule of discussion to engage the connotation of a term that a writer deploys. Words take on their meaning in usage, not from dictionaries or a priori assumptions. I’ve indicated repeatedly that what I’m trying to label is a *devotional pattern* of practices and beliefs in which Jesus is both distinguished conceptually from God and yet also linked with God in an astonishing and unique way. I proposed “binitarian” to distinguish this devotional pattern from “di-theism” (two gods), which it is clear theat the NT authors rejected.
      If the term “binitarian” is a problem, then ignore it. We don’t need it, so long as what the term describes is kept in view.
      –You keep referring to an absence of indication of controversy *internal to early Christian groups* as evidence that Jesus-devotion wasn’t all that big a deal. As I’ve indicated before, an argument from silence is effective only if something is missing where we should expect it. I can only reiterate that I can’t see that we should expect controversies over Jesus-devotion still being worked out in letters 20-30 yrs into the movement. What we do have is evidence of controversies brought on by developments of this period, esp. the Gentile mission and major questions about the terms for Gentiles to be treated as in some way part of the people of God. The absence of controversy over Jesus would more naturally mean in my view that for those among whom these letters circulated, the matter had been settled for some time.
      –Along with most others, you refer to what I call “christological rhetoric”, e.g., references to Jesus as Lamb, etc. But since my 1988 book One God, one Lord I’ve insisted that the more remarkable and noteworthy phenomena are the devotional actions in which Jesus features so centrally. I’ve spelled them out repeatedly, observing that they are unparalleled and significant. I have yet to have any scholar either disprove the actions or show that they have full analogies in Jewish tradition of the time.
      These devotional phenomena are what I think are (1) the most significant developments in history-or-religions terms, and (2) indicate a traatment of Jesus that aligns him with God (while also distinguishing him from God).
      In short, the Jesus-devotion reflected in the NT texts is not simply another example of something we have elsewhere–it appears to be a novel and therefore highly significant development.

  2. Sean permalink

    “As a brief response to your question about why there is no note of controversy in Paul’s letters over Jesus-devotion, remember that these letters are sent to churches *already established* by Paul, to people who’ve already been taught and become adherents. So, again, we have to use arguments from silence with care. They are valid only where something ought to be and isn’t.”

    I appreciate that, but let me clarify my point, which apparently extends somewhat beyond the observation offered by Dunn. My impression is that if the earliest Christian teachings really did imply that Christ was “fully God” then something akin to cognitive dissonance would have led to questions, murmurings, concern and controversy even from among those who were joining or who had joined the young movement. In other words, assuming the validity of your historical paradigm, I would think that we _ought_ to find such concerns expressed and addressed from within the movement.

    Those young congregations didn’t have nearly two thousand years of Church tradition, or even Nicea, yet (!), to provide a comfort zone in which they could participate in the sorts of activities that they did if said activities implied what your paradigm seems to suggest that we should naturally infer from them. Nor is it likely that there where creedal statements of faith that touched on Christ-devotion vis a vis binitarian implications which one had to accept to join the movement. I would think that all who took an interest were probably welcome, and that those who did so were attracted to the new faith because they came to believe that God was working through Christ in an unprecedented way to accomplish his will. The resurrection was seen as powerful evidence of this.

    I’ve contemplated this at length, and I’ll continue to do so while asking questions of those, such as yourself, who have valuable insights to offer. At this point, though, my mind keeps coming back to this: If the early congregations viewed Christ as God’s right-hand man (so to speak), i.e. as an exalted agent who was not God himself but who fulfilled an unprecedented role in the outworking of God’s purposes, then the absence of controversy over Christ-devotion within the early Church is not so surprising. In this case, accepting who Christ was would not have involved an apparent oxymoron that cried out to be made coherent (=Son of God yet God himself). However, if the constellation of devotional practices (to borrower from your elegant terminology) was understood to be “binitarian” in a way that implies that Christ was fully God, then I would think that controversy would likely have emerged even from within as members new and old questioned how they could continue to engage in such practices without offending God. In my mind it is certain that the question would have arisen, and once it did the need to address it in a big way would have naturally followed. Indeed, if one begins with the assumption that the orthodox Church got its Christology right and proceeds to contemplate the form the answer would have had to have taken once begun, then one wonders if perhaps The First Council of Nicaea would have never been necessary.


    • “Sean” again presses some good points (showing some reading and serious thought on the issues). Accordingly, within the limitations of a blog-comment, I’ll try to do them a bit of justice.

      It is interesting that we seem not to have indication of any serious controversy about Jesus-devotion in the letters of Paul. We do have indications of internal issues over “christology” in 1 John (although the “in-house” nature of this text means that the references, frustratingly for us, are brief and presume knowledge of specifics that we don’t have). But why is Jesus’ divine status not registered as a problem in Paul’s letters or in Acts? The impression is that it wasn’t a big problem, at least by the time these texts were written, and at least in these circles (there may have been other circles about which we don’t know anything). So why?

      Well, the first thing to remember is that by the date of Paul’s letters we are some 20+ yrs along. So, invoking Jesus, or confessing him ritually or baptizing in his name, or celebrating the common-sacred meal in his honour, will all have become ritualized/routinized, and the rationale for these practices long-since provided.

      The impression I get is that from the earliest moments, the experiences that generated the convictions that God had raised Jesus from death and given him divine glory drove believers to their scriptures seeking to find some way of understanding things. There was, in short, a fervent probing of scriptures along with (indeed, in complex interaction) experiences taken as “revelations” and confirmations of divine actions. This was what has been called a “charismatic exegesis” of sorts, i.e., not a modern scholarly exegesis but an intense, prayer-driven, probing of biblical texts in the expectation that God would open their eyes to truths.

      We see what I take to be artifacts of this in such creative appropriations of OT texts as is reflected in Philip. 2:9-11 (adapting Isa 45:22ff), in the numerous uses of Psa 110:1, and numerous other instances.

      One other point for now: I’m not sure what Casey (or you, Sean) means by “fully God”. It could mean a variety of things. It’s not really the language used in the NT. (Even in John 1:1-2, we need to read the whole statement: “the Word was God and the Word was with God”. Leaving out either part distorts the statement.) In any case, my own approach has been to focus more on the devotional practices evident in early circles. It’s rather hard to be sure what concepts ancients had, esp. when we have only creedal formulas and not treatises to explain them. But we can take stock of their devotional practices, see what precedents and analogies there were, what such actions were taken to mean in that context, etc., and form some view of what it all means. That’s been my approach.

      You’re perfectly right that simply believing that Jesus was now God’s principal agent (“right hand man”), in principle, would not be some new category step. It would be ridiculous in many eyes to claim this for a crucified criminal, but in principle claiming that God has a principal agent was no problem. That’s a large part of what I tried to show thoroughly in my 1988 book, “One God, One Lord”.

      What was unprecedented and highly significant (judged by the stated views of devout Jews of the time) was the further step of treating this particular principal agent (Jesus) as worthy of inclusion in their devotional practice in the remarkable ways that they did.

  3. Sean permalink

    Hello Professor Hurtado,

    Thank you for your response and references, the latter of which I’ll check out tonight (I have a copy of the book you mentioned). FYI, though Dunn might (?), I wasn’t limiting my own question to the context of Paul’s interaction with non-Christian Jews. I’m trying to gauge what is likely by placing myself back in time, as a new member of the emerging faith (I think that the word “emerging” is important here). Obviously this is extremely difficult to do, but I think it’s important to try nevertheless. In doing so (albeit quite imperfectly, I admit), I find it difficult to imagine how Paul’s Christology could be “binitarian” in a sense that implies that he was “fully God”, even in an incipient way, yet no need arose for him to clarify how this could be so to members of the emerging faith. If a crucified Messiah could be a stumbling block to Jews (1 Cor 1:23), then it seems likely to me that teachings that could be construed to suggest that the Messiah was co-equal with God would likely incite sufficient controversy even within the young faith community for Paul to have appreciated the need to address it.

    As you can see, this is a crucial issue for me, and it is one of the factors that causes me to favor a paradigm closer to Dunn and Casey. I think that you are a brilliant scholar, though, and for every book by Dunn that graces my shelf there is another by you (it’s close, anyway). You commented about how you try to make your books important enough to require scholarly attention yet understandable for the rest of us, and as one who belongs to the latter group I can assure you that you have been successful in this.


    • As a brief response to your question about why there is no note of controversy in Paul’s letters over Jesus-devotion, remember that these letters are sent to churches *already established* by Paul, to people who’ve already been taught and become adherents. So, again, we have to use arguments from silence with care. They are valid only where something ought to be and isn’t. I’ve used the argument from silence, in this case the absence of any indication of conflict between Paul and Jerusalem over Jesus-devotion, to infer that there was no conflict. I think it’s a valid argument, precisely because Paul’s letters *do* explicitly indicate that he and some in Jerusalem had conflicts, and explicitly what the conflicts were about. Paul didn’t hesitate to refer to conflicts! So, if he doesn’t include Jesus-devotion among the issues, it’s a safe inference that this wasn’t an issue . . . not between him and *other Jewish believers*. Dunn and Casey try to make this silence a basis for infering no conflict between Paul and Jewish *non-believers*, and I think it doesn’t work.

      But Dunn and Casey are good mates. We tease each other, and appreciate each other. We just disagree on some things.

  4. Hi Folks,

    Interesting on the evidence from silence issue, it is true that very often scholars want the Epistles to be about things that they are not about !

    As to the evidence that Jesus-devotion was controversial, clearly there is later evidence (Toldet Yeshu and Talmud) that can be seen as relating to the 1st century, perhaps Trypho. There is also the issue of whether the general opposition shown in the Gospels and Josephus, given as law-based, might (or might not) also have a “Messiah as God manifest” opposition base. There is also the ambiguity of Jewish writings, as one can see a high, glorified Christology in works like Targum Jonathan, so there could be a very mixed reaction overall.

    Now that I have mixed a number of elements together, how do we get Professor Hurtado to summarize his view in a couple of paragraphs 🙂 .

    Steven Avery

  5. Sean permalink

    Professor Hurtado,

    I’m delighted to see that you have started a blog, and I hope that you come to find that its virtues outweigh its irritations. So much of the dialogue that one finds online is uninformed and often downright uncivil, and so I appreciate those online havens where one can be sure to find serious, scholarly commentary and interaction.

    I’ve wanted to ask you about one of the issues that distinguishes your view from that of James Dunn and Maurice Casey for a while now, but I was timid about dropping in unannounced and uninvited via email. I’m referring to their observation that there is nothing in Paul’s writings to suggest that his Christology (vis a vis Christ’s exalted status) was a point of serious dispute among Paul’s contemporaries. As you are aware, Dunn speaks of this silence in The Partings of the Ways, where he notes that:

    “The silence on this score cannot be because we have no means of knowing what Jewish reaction to earliest Christian theology was at this stage; on the contrary, we can see well enough from the literature of first generation Christianity that Paul’s understanding of the law was a sore bone of contention for those who valued their Jewish heritage highly. Had Paul’s christology been equally, or more contentious at this time for his fellow Jews, we would surely have heard of it from Paul’s own letters. The absence of such indicators points in the other direction: that Paul’s christology and the devotional language of the earliest Christian worship did not cause any offense to monotheistic Jews. So far as both Paul and his fellow Jews were concerned, early Christian devotion to Jesus still lay within the bounds of the Jewish understanding of God in his dealings with his world and people.” (pages 205 & 206 of the 1st edition; page 270 in the 2nd edition)

    Maurice Casey offers a similar observation in From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God:

    “The disputes extant in Acts and the epistles are about halakhah rather than
    christology, and if there had been a general perception among Jewish members of the communities that other Christians were hailing Jesus as fully God, there would have been disputes severe enough for us to hear about them.” (From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God), p. 115

    Obviously describing early Christ devotion as “binitarian in character” is not exactly the same as saying that the early Christians were “hailing Jesus as fully God”, but people who read your writings probably infer that the former is meant to imply the later, at least in an incipient way.

    Have you interacted with this issue in any of your published writings? I’m very interested to see whether you’ve worked out a plausible means of accounting for the referenced striking omission in light of the historical paradigm you favor. I’ve read much of your published work, but I did so some time ago now and I just can’t remember whether you addressed this. If you could point me to any of your published writings that address this issue or offer your insights now I’d appreciate it very much.


    • I suppose that my most direct response to these views is in my essay, ““Pre-70 C.E. Jewish Opposition to Christ-Devotion,” Journal of Theological Studies 50(1999), pp. 35-58, which appears also in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?, 152-78. Two quick points: (1) I don’t think that Dunn or Casey takes due account of the evidence that Jesus-devotion was controversial; (2) their argument from silence fails the crucial test. An argument from silence works only if something is missing where it ought to be. In this case, why should we expect references to polemics with Jewish opponents of believers in Paul’s letters to gentile churches, and in which he is trying essentially to consolidate their faith and ethical practice? The conflicts over Torah-observance, circumcision, etc. in Paul’s letters (and Acts) are between believers (e.g., between Paul and those Jewish believers whom he regards as wrongly trying to enforce Torah-observance on their gentile co-religionists). I.e., the Pauline letters deal with intra-mural issues, and aren’t written to address objections of non-believers.

  6. Hmm. Nope. Hadn’t known of the book till your comment. Neither author is known to me as a contributing scholar to NT/Christian Origins. Looks from the Amazon site to be mainly a work of apologetics.

  7. Eric Chabot permalink

    Professor Hurtado, Thank you so much for your work. I really appreciate your work in the Jesus Devotion area. I was wondering if you have had the chance to read the chapter called “Yahweh Embodied,” in the book The Jesus Legend by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy? In that chapter I find that they did some fine work on the relationship between Hellenism and Second Temple Judaism, etc…and the topic of Jesus’ deity. Eric

  8. I’ll have to get to McGrath’s book. It’s been difficult to keep up with some things owing to my admin duties here over the last three years (ending 31 July!). And I’m a bit ecclectic in scholarly interests, so I’ve been devoting what time I’ve had to other projects, including a forthcoming book on “‘God’ in NT Theology” (Abingdon).

    If McGrath’s argument is along the lines of your summary, then I have to say it doesn’t work. The only sacrificial worship linked with Christians is that ascribed to Jewish believers in ACts, where it clearly functions simply as part of their participation as Jews in the worship of their ancestral God. The question is what constituted “worship” *in Christian gathered circles*. And in those circles nobody offered sacrifice to anyone.

    In any case, of course earliest believers would insist that they worship solely the one God, not two gods. They saw whatever reverence they gave to Jesus as to God’s glory, and in obedience to God. As I’ve noted already, Dunn (and perhaps McGrath?) seem to approach the question defining “worship of Jesus” as reverence that is directed to him alone. Well, it’s hard to find that. What we do find is a novel, unprecedented *inclusion* of Jesus into the glory, name, authority, and reverence given to God. That’s what I’ve meant by using the term “binitarian”: Not two gods, but two figures, the second (Jesus) defined and reverenced with reference to the other (God, the Father). (Sometimes scholars just seem to talk past each other, which doesn’t help for refining our understand of things.)

  9. Steven: If you have read Bauckham’s earlier book God Crucified then you’ve read the first chapter of his later book Jesus and the God of Israel which is a reprinting of God Crucified along with other essays he’s published on Christology. If you’re interested in an overview of the book I did a five-part review of it on my blog last year (which has been collated here.

    Larry: I think you might also like to add James McGrath’s The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009) to your list above. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to interact with his work yet but he basically argues (in agreement with Dunn’s new book that you mentioned last week and J. Lionel North’s essay “Jesus and Worship, God and Sacrifice” in Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism [ed. L. T. Stuckenbruck and W. E. S. North; JSNTSup 263; London: T&T Clark, 2004], 186-202) that sacrificial worship was the defining feature of early cultic devotion to God.

  10. Hi Folks,

    Understood, and your book “How On Earth…” is reasonably priced, new and used, as are both editions of the Richard Bauckham book (I have read the early one.)

    So I will try to place it on my next purchase group and then come back with the next group of questions and comments. And I surely will not begrudge a writer preferring the book read first 🙂 , especially when it is not one of those $125 techie specials !

    And do appreciate your answers above, and am not sure if I agree with the “Theological Inference” summary, however for now I will put that in the consideration hopper.

    Steven Avery
    Queens, NY

    • Part of the reason I publish with American “trade” publishers such as Eerdmans is that they are interested in selling books. So, they do a decent print-run, which enables them to price the book reasonably. E.g., my 650pp hardback, “Lord Jesus Christ” reteailed at $55 US, but would have cost over £100 Sterlinng no doubt with many European publishers of scholarly books.

      I want to get reviewed by scholars and contribute to my field; but I deliberately try to write such that the discussion is also accessible. As I told a publisher a few decades ago: I try to write books that scholars in the field need to read, and that anyone else interested in the subject will be able to read.

  11. Bauckham and I are friends and I admire him greatly. We are also rather closely allied in emphasizing an early and “high” christology and Jesus-devotion. In “God Crucified”, however, he expresses dissent from the view that there was a “principal agent” topos in 2nd temple Jewish tradition, or at least that it is all that important. He also seems to want to make the reverence of Jesus a by-product of theological beliefs about him. It’s what I’ve termed “Worship of Jesus as Theological Inference” (which I discuss in my book, “How on Earth did Jesus become a God?”, pp. 22-25). Theological convictions were certainly involved, and it’s now difficult to recover the process by which Jesus-devotion emerged. But I demur from seems to be his view: that the conviction that Jesus was agent of creation and shared in divine rule led to him being worshipped. I just don’t think that it worked that way.
    Once again, I fear that I must point you to my published works. To my mind, one of the positive purposes of web-blogging can be to alert readers to publications.

  12. Hi Folks,

    Professor Hurtado, do you have a section in your book where you discuss your areas of agreement and disagreement with “God Crucified” ? And the later follow-up work by Richard Bauckham. I believe his book title may be a bit charged and imprecise, however the book itself is rather interesting. And do you have a web-available paper or comment ?

    Would his book count as a prefigured disagreement with your “Jesus-devotion” work >


    Steven Avery

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