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Jesus-Devotion: Clarifying Some Points

November 30, 2010

Because of the importance of the questions and the recurrent misjudged responses to my postings on Jesus-devotion in some comments, I thought I’d make this further effort at clarification/correction in a posting.  I’ll try to be as brief as clarity will permit.

First and foremost, the kind of research-writing that I do and reflect on this site is an effort to understand in historical terms the emergence and earliest expressions of Jesus-devotion.  Some commenters seem to assume incorrectly that I’m trying to advocate a theological position, or declaring my own religious convictions.  I have the latter, but that’s not the point in my scholarly work.  So, the issues to discuss are what the historical evidence indicates about earliest Jesus-devotion, not what subsequent or contemporary people believe or prefer.  Now to the historical issues.

As I read the earliest texts (which are those included in the NT), the rationale stated or implied for Jesus-devotion (especially the constellation of corporate-worship actions involving the exalted Jesus) is that God has resurrrected and glorified Jesus and now orders that Jesus be reverenced (e.g., Philip. 2:9-11; Acts 2:36; John 5:22-23).  These texts do not base this Jesus-devotion on the orders or teachings of the historical figure of Jesus (the speeches of Jesus in GJohn are commonly understood by scholars as heavily shaped by the Evangelist and reflecting what he believes to be the post-Jesus revelatory activity of the Spirit-Paraclete).  That is, the basis of Jesus-devotion is a claim about God’s action and is profoundly theological in basis but christological in import.

Can I also ask that before making comments readers study carefully what I’ve actually written?  It is frustrating to have one’s carefully-crafted statements distorted.  So, e.g., I have repeatedly stated that what we have in the NT texts is an inclusion of the risen/exalted (=divinely glorified) Jesus into the worship of the one God, that Jesus is not worshipped as a second god, that he does not take the place of God (the Father), and that categories such as “one substance” and “second person of the godhead” and such are later efforts to try to work out things.  Let me say it here yet again:  In the earliest texts (and actually in creedal and liturgical traditions subsequently), Jesus is rather consistently reverenced (whether in christological statements or in devotional practice) with reference to God (the Father). So, e.g., Jesus is the Son/Image/Messiah/Word of the one God, sent forth as unique agent of divine purposes, and now exalted by this same God to share in God’s glory and name, and also (here marking an unprecedented move) sharing in the corporate worship given to the one God.  But this sharing is not as a rival.  Instead, the NT texts present the worship of the one God as now required to be done through and in the name of Jesus for it to be fully valid and adequate.

I’ve tried to underscore here some (not all) points made repeatedly and explained more fully in publications extending over 20 years.   Those who can’t be bothered to read books and articles and who insist on engaging complex matters simply in frenzied blog-comments will find me and the issues frustrating.  No apologies.  They’ll either have to move on in the blogosphere or give the issues the time and care that they require and deserve.

For my latest effort in serious probing of earliest God-discourse, see my new book:  God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon Press, 2010).  (For UK-based readers, AlbanBooks is running a 20% discount on the book:

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  1. Eric Bergerud permalink

    I’ve been writing and teaching history for a living for 30 years. Modern war and peace is my field, but the ancient Mediterranean in general and early Church in particular are my favorite hobbies. It’s a busman’s holiday to read Luke Johnson, Richard Bauckham or some of the Jesus seminar “usual suspects.” I think your book about Christian artifacts is a real gem with fascinating implications. I’m half way through God in New Testament Theology and I do like it. I think Lord Jesus Christ is the single most interesting book on the very early church. Guess I’d qualify as a fan.

    I very much appreciate the caution and care you take when making your arguments. It’s been my experience that people outside the field of ancient history don’t have a good feel for the very real challenges imposed by the nature of the sources (or lack thereof.) You might sell more books if you brewed up a story that pushed the right buttons in 21st century America and heck with the sources. It’s encouraging that you, Johnson and a few others that take historical method seriously get published in more popular journals without making outrageous claims.

    Yet I think every serious student of the early Church has the right to create a view of the world of first century Palestine even if it requires constructing a picture without solid historical foundation. (A right, that is, as long as it remains a topic for a chat, a tool for interpreting others’ work and not as a representation of some kind of “reality.”) In my picture one issue has me stumped. I’m not really sure how big a deal Jesus was in the year or so before his execution. Was he a “marginal Jew” with a few dozen followers and a few hundred interested? Or was he, at least for a short time, a major personality with a very large following of people that thought he was … more than a marginal Jew. I’m inclined to think “Plan B” would explain a lot. It would help explain why the Roman governor of Judea knew who he was and considered it a good idea to kill him. It would explain why Roman collaborators among the Temple bigwigs might have felt threatened. It might even give a certain credence to the proposition presented in John that Jewish authorities wanted Jesus dead before something got out of hand and the Romans decided that they needed to make a political statement – potentially a dangerous thing in the Roman world. So on Palm Sunday, one of the few major events recounted in all the Gospels, I wonder if there were a hundred people outside the city gates or five thousand. I can’t imagine that there’s anyway to gauge the degree of Jesus’ “celebrity” but I’d sure like a handle on the question.

    Thanks very much for your wonderful work.
    Eric Bergerud

  2. Timothy Knowlton permalink

    Professor Hurtado, in what sense, if any, did Paul affirm a trinitarian notion of God?

    Thank you!

    • Scholars differ on this. Gordon Fee speaks of Paul variously as “proto-triniarian” and even more robustly. I prefer to say that Paul (as true of the rest of the NT) has a certain triadic shape to his God-discourse. I.e., he refers explicitly to God (the Father, from whom creation and salvation springs), to Jesus (God’s Son and believers’ Lord, through whom both creation and redemption come), and the Spirit (the form in which God is imparted, who is also strikingly linked with Jesus). See my new book, God in New Testament Theology, for fuller discussion of NT discourse about God.

  3. Since historical research always without exception takes on a background color from the “framework” of the historian and there is no such thing as a brute historical fact, when I read Raymond E. Brown’s works on the Johannine literature I get Brown’s “spin” on the data. Richard Bauckham’s “The Gospels for All Christians” offers an alternative to R.E. Brown’s framework. Bauckham’s book was “historical”, he was not doing “apologetics” but it also serves as a critique of a significant 20th century school of thought.

    With some NT scholars the background color of the “historian” becomes prominent, the names B. Ehrman, E. Pagels come mind. Propaganda wars are not particularly enlightening. I assume this is something Larry Hurtado wants to avoid on this blog, using “historical” evidence as a weapon in ideological dispute.
    my blog:

    • Yes, yes, and yes. We shouldn’t be so naive as to think that human knowing is unaffected by the humans doing the knowing. No claim from me on “simple facts”. But we can try to know our anxieties & tendencies, and try thereby to avoid them shaping our historical work. The most important way in which scholarly knowledge is arrived at, however, is through claims & arguments being critically appraised by other competent scholars. That’s why we scholars write primarily for other scholars (at least when we have anything new to say that should be tested). And, yes, there are examples of scholars who have made their own life and personality the main subject of their popular-oriented writings. (I couldn’t possibly comment on particular names.) Doesn’t mean they’re bad scholars, just a career choice I wouldn’t make; but on the other hand they’ll have a fatter retirement fund than if they hadn’t made that choice!

  4. Timothy Knowlton permalink

    “I’ve no problem with apologetics, but it doesn’t belong on this particular list.”

    Professor Hurtado, in your assessment, what would be the appropriate context for apologetics? Paul himself said in Philippians 1:7, “since both in my imprisonment and in the apologetic and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me.” And then in Philippians 1:16 he said, “I am appointed for the apologetic of the gospel.”

    How would someone who endeavors to be a professional historian, and a christian, apply the statements of Paul to practice? Thank you

    • An appropriate context for apologetics (specifically, advocating and defending Christian faith) would be on a blog site specifically devoted to this (and there are such). This site (and my own scholarly publications) aren’t about this. My own faith provides a strong curiosity about earliest Christianity, but I hope that my faith-understanding doesn’t dictate results, and that my faith-understanding can be informed by my historical studies (and it has been).

  5. Larry,

    I’ve been reading James Dunn on off for about fifteen years but found his treatment of christology almost impossible to figure out. Reading your work and several books by R.Bauckham has shed a great deal of light on the subject. I realize your work is not an exercise in apologetics for historical orthodoxy, but people who do apologetics are certainly going to take an interest in books like Lord Jesus Christ and Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. If you find these people annoying you can throw them off your blog but they will continue to [mis]quote you and probably misrepresent your scholarly intentions.

    Thank you for your blog, it is a light in the cyber-wasteland.

    • I don’t like throwing people off the list (only one so far), and prefer to try to promote calm and serious discussion. I’ve no problem with apologetics, but it doesn’t belong on this particular list. Actually, however, some of the most unhelpful and ignorant comments have come from people who seem to be more anti-religious.

  6. So are you saying that you are a historian, exploring the causes of the rise of Jesus worship, but are not yourself a Jesus worshipper?

    If so, obviously I have misjudged you, lumping you in with the Trinitarians. My sincere apologies; and thanks for the clarification.

    • Mr “Wounded Ego” (repeating, again, my request that contributors have the politeness to identify themselves on this site): Unless I misunderstand you, your comment reflects the simplistic assumption that one must be either a historian or a practicing Christian. I am both. With a good many other scholars, I do my scholarly work and submit it to full critical review by all other scholars in the relevant fields (who include colleagues of various religious & non-religious persuasions). My historical work on earliest Christianity does not invoke or depend on specifically Christian faith, but is conducted using the evidence and reasoning open to all competent scholars in the fields. Get over your judgemental bias!

      • Dr Hurtado

        Speaking of being a practicing Christian, I wonder if we might see some more “personal” posts concerning your own Christian faith, and how (or should I say “if”?) scholarship has effected your view of the Bible, and worship. Or is that beyond the purpose of this blog?

      • Well, I’m a bit shy of what I call “Oprah scholarship”, where the personality of the scholar becomes the focus (I could name names, but won’t). The point of this blog site is the subject matter: the NT, Christian origins, etc., not so much putting Hurtado on the couch.
        But there may be appropriate occasions for discussing related *issues*: e.g., is Christian faith automatically some sort of hindrance to sound historical scholarship (answer: all depends on the Christian and the sophistication of the Christian faith, the adequacy of his/her theological thinking, etc.). Maybe a future posting.

  7. Larry, I appreciate what you’ve done here in providing further insights, defense, and clarity to what you’ve said in your published work. I would also find it frustrating with regards to what you mentioned. I do hope this frustration will not thwart any future efforts to continue engaging these issues in the way that you have. It seems as though many will comment only to share disagreements rather than the other way around. So I hope this will be an encouragement to you to keep going.

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