McGrath Conversation on Jesus-Devotion
James McGrath has posted a further contribution to our conversation on early Jesus-devotion on his own blog site. Interested readers can find it here:
Toward further clarification of matters, a few comments more, in response to McGrath’s latest posting.
McGrath is puzzled at what he describes as my emphasis “that the Christian development was not a departure from Jewish monotheism as understood in the first century, and yet that it was controversial in and of itself from the perspective of other Jews.” To clarify a bit, in my approach whether Jesus-devotion was or wasn’t “a departure from Jewish monotheism” isn’t really ours to judge. That would be to engage in theological judgement. The historical questions are how Jesus-devotion was seen by first-century folk, not us, and whether it seems to have been one example of a phenomenon for which we have other instances, or was novel and historically noteworthy.
So, more precisely, my view is that earliest circles of Jesus-devotion (which included Jewish believers) saw themselves as responding to God’s exaltation of Jesus and God’s consequent requirement that Jesus be given the unprecedented place in their devotional practice that he quickly came to hold. So, obeying the one true God by re-shaping their devotional practice to include Jesus programmatically, they saw themselves as faithful to the God of the biblical tradition. In our terms (they didn’t have them), they didn’t see themselves as departing from “Jewish monotheism”. Their inclusion of Jesus was not for them the worship of two gods, but a re-shaped worship of the one God. (I have repeatedly indicated that this is what I mean in the use of the term “binitarian devotional pattern”. I.e., the expression is intended to capture the pattern of worship directed to the one God but inclusive of Jesus as a second, distinguishable figure referred to and reverenced as the unique agent/image/son/word of the one God.)
But I propose that among other Jews who didn’t share the experience and conviction that God had exalted Jesus to heavenly glory, there was likely the judgement that earliest Christian devotion was at the least stupid and was perhaps even blasphemous and endangered the Jewish commitment to God’s uniqueness (ancient Jewish “monotheism”). It should not be difficult to grasp that in a religious tradition, innovators can see themselves as faithful to the core tradition, and yet can be viewed by others as heretics and betrayers. There are lots of examples in the history of religions! I hope that this will clarify my point for McGrath and others.
One further clarification: In my view it was not simply the claim that God had exalted Jesus, but also (and crucially) the consequent/associated devotional practices in which Jesus was so central that led at least some fellow Jews to judge that earliest Jewish Christians were seriously deviant. (I think that among the earliest Jewish objectors was the Phinehas-like Saul of Tarsus, who sought to “destroy” the young Jewish-Christian circles.) I’ve repeatedly emphasized that in the ancient setting devotional practice was the overt indication of “religion”, more than religious rhetoric.
It appears that McGrath and I make different judgements on some key matters, and I don’t think that this is likely to change. He thinks the key controversial issue was the claim that a crucified Messiah was exalted to God’s right hand. I agree that this was controversial, but I judge that there was more involved. In passages such as 2 Cor 3:7–4:6 and Romans 10:1-13, I think it’s clear that Paul laments his fellow Jews’ inability to perceive “the glory of the Lord” (2 Cor 3:18), and urges the confession of Jesus as “Lord” (Rom 10:9-10) and “calling upon” him (Rom 10:12-13, using the OT expression for worship here) as the requirements for salvation. Earliest Christianity wasn’t simply a set of beliefs or assertions, but also involved a new pattern of worship of the one God in which Jesus was central.
Well, we’ve probably taken this discussion about as far as we can in this sort of medium. I hope that readers have found it useful.