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Early Jesus-Devotion Essay

December 16, 2010

I’m pleased to report that my essay, “Early Devotion to Jesus: A Report, Refletionss and Implications,” is published in Expository Times 122/4 (2010): 167-76.  I have placed the manuscript on the “Essays, etc.” page of this blog site.

The essay reports on some 20 years of involvement in the historical investigation of earliest devotion to Jesus, giving major results, and also a few brief observations and exhortations for Christianity today.

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  1. Hello Larry,

    Thanks again. And yeah, sorry, I should have been clear when I listed the URLs I did. I was not endorsing that bible facts web page. I simply listed it first, cause it gave some cool images that might interest people. Although I will say that I do endorse wikipedia. I think it is consistently the single best freely available source of information on any subject. I probably should have given this page; instead of the bible facts page, but it didn’t have any nice pretty images, and I was trying to start with a page with images. (people like pictures).

    With regards to accuracy, that is another great thing about wikipedia. It is truely the “invisible hand” that Adam Smith envisioned. The accuracy is constantly checked, and anyone can bring errors to the attention of the editors. There really is no better single source for information on any subject than wikipedia in my opinion. Or at least no better source to start with on any subject.

    Again. Thanks for confirming my thought about not having any existing texts from before the time of Irenaeus. I am working on a few ideas regarding early Christianity, and I thought it would be good to start making contact with a few additional people in the industry just to sort of introduce myself and begin some “social networking” with folks that work in the industry.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  2. Hello Larry,

    So it sounds like you are confirming my earlier hunch that we have nothing earlier (of the substance that you detailed above) than the C.200 Chester Beatty or Bodmer documents. Thanks, just wanted to make sure I was not unaware of anything new or known only inside the industry.

    For those that have become interested because of this thread, aside from the book that Larry mentions above, you might check out these sites for a bit of over view information.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

    • The Chester Beatty papyri and the Bodmer papyri give us the comparatively most preserved early copies of NT texts. Other than, and in some cases perhaps earlier than, these papyri are more fragmentary remnants, especially from Oxyrhynchus.
      As to the web-links you list, the two entries on Wikipedia seem, on the basis of my quick scan of them, essentially correct summaries of things so far as they go. The “biblefacts” link, however, contains several inaccuracies. The dating of items in the chart is waaay off and unreliable. E.g., P64 most certainly is not dated to 50 CE! Nor is the Qumran fragment 7Q5 a fragment of Mark, or 7Q4 a fragment of Romans! Nor are there 5300 NT papyri! I could go on. This site is unreliable for relevant information. It’s an example of how important it is to know who you’re dealing with on web/blog sites, and critically assess competence and proven records of scholarship . . . if you care about accuracy and adequacy of information.

  3. This isn’t directly about this essay, but about your work directly. I just finished a series motivated by “Lord Jesus Christ” and “How on Earth Did Jesus Become God?”, at my blog (third part linked, the previous two parts are just me clarifying my own thoughts and jargon). I enjoyed both books greatly (as evidenced that I bought them back to back). If you, or any of your knowledgeable commentators here have a second to have a glance and put right any egregious misunderstandings, I’d be grateful.

    • Thanks for tipping me off to your blog comments. (I confess that I don’t actually spend much time consulting blog sites myself. My own blogging is primarily to make more serious, and more reliable, research work available to those who do read blog sites.)
      From my quick perusal of your reflections, I’d say that you’ve correctly identified (in your own words, to be sure) the central historical problem I’ve worked at for over 20 years: How did Jesus have such a programmatic place along with God in the devotional life of earliest Christians who professed a “one God” stance? You may be over-simplifying the historical process, however. (With all due appreciation for simplifying, some things are just too damned complex for easy simplification.) E.g., I’m not persuaded that using terms like “monotheistic” and “polytheistic” in the way you do are terribly helpful to historical understanding. They’re too crude as categories for grasping ancient Judaism and earliest Christianity (see my own discussions of ancient Jewish monotheism, e.g., in How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God). One crucial point: I propose that earliest Christians (who were heavily devout Jews or were shaped by devout Jewish believers) did not see themselves as worshipping two gods . . . at all . . . ever. They were likely accused of this, esp. by some other Jews (as seems to be the case in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho), but their own faith and practice seems to have been that the one God had exalted Jesus to a status that now required acknowledgement and appropriate reverential responses. So, in incorporating the exalted Jesus into their devotional practice they saw themselves as obeying the one God, more true to him than those who refused to reverence Jesus. If historical understanding is our aim, I don’t see how your “etic” category of “polylatrous” helps. But as the French say, “Chacun a son gout“.

      • Thanks Larry. I agree. I understood you as definitely saying that the very first Christians never saw themselves as worshipping two gods.

        The etic categories were there to try to get a sense of the tension between self-conception and practice. The early Christians were, in fact, worshipping two supernatural agents. But clearly that was in tension with their self-conception of what they were doing (and were allowed to do). That seemed to me to be a good motive for theological innovation (which, I understand, isn’t your direct focus in the books!). It seemed to me your model, expressed in those terms, had good explanatory insights in the realm of Christological history.

        “So, in incorporating the exalted Jesus into their devotional practice they saw themselves as obeying the one God, more true to him than those who refused to reverence Jesus.”

        Hmmm… okay. But this suggests that their devotional practice was somehow based on the idea that God had asked them to worship Jesus. Whereas I understood your claim to be that the devotional practice was the initial innovation, and was therefore first, and the understanding of that devotion in theological terms came later. I’m not disputing either, I’m just wondering now whether you think they are actually one and the same.

        Anyway, thanks for the feedback. Despite my baseline level of confusion, I really did enjoy both books.

      • I’ll try to clarify: I propose that the Jewish concern about worship of any other than the one God was such that the kind of devotion to Jesus witnessed in our earliest NT texts must have required some powerful impetus and justification. I propose that these came via powerful religious experiences, the crucial cognitive import of which was that God had exalted Jesus to unique heavenly glory and now required him to be reverenced. That is, their worship pattern was based on this key conviction. Further theologizing began immediately and continued for at least a few centuries. Initially, this took the form of ransacking the OT texts (and second-temple Jewish traditions) for help in understanding what they had experienced. This pool of resources is drawn on particularly in the period covered by my Lord Jesus Christ book (i.e., ca. 30-170 CE). From ca. early 2nd century, and increasingly thereafter, some also drew upon imagery and quasi-philosophical categories from the wider intellectual environment, this emergent in Justin and increasing thereafter.
        But as I see it from the first observable data Christians sought to reverence Jesus in the strongest and highest way possible within their commitment to the one God. I don’t see much consciousness of tension in this matter among believers, for they seem to have been convinced that they were obeying God.

      • Brilliant. That’s very helpful, thanks, and thanks for taking the time. I’ll post again on my blog to reflect your view, because I think I was misrepresenting you somewhat.

  4. Hello Larry,

    I am sorry about the confusion in my earlier post. I was not claiming any texts in the 300s. That sentence should have read “I appreciate you also mentioning some others of our additional earliest documents dating till (NOT in) the 300s.”, and was simply thanking you for referring me to your book listing early texts that you mentioned you collected up till the 300s.

    I could use some clarification though. I was originally talking about the Chester Beatty Pypryi of c200 as the earliest existing text that contains the gospels and what are called “pauline” writings. I thought in your first response you were saying, yes, it is the earliest, and you mentioned the Bodmer Papyri (p66) which would also be c200 (which while it contains parts of GLuke and parts of GJohn is not a complete text of either and does not contain the other two gospels. In addition, my understanding is that that document does not contain the “pauline” writings except i think for 3rd Corinthians). So, The Chester Beatty papyri would still be the earliest copy to contain the 4 gospels and the pauline letters. OR… even simply the oldest copy of the any of the complete gospels. That I thought you were confirming.

    I just want to be clear. Are you saying that there are other existing complete gospels or “pauline” collection texts that exist, other than these, that would date from anywhere from 180 or before?

    I understand your summary judgement of my thoughts on Irenaeus, but that is not something that I am at this point interested in arguing for.

    I simply was hoping that as someone in the industry you could either confirm that the Chester Beatty pypri (and now we will include the c200 Bodmer Papyri P66 text as well) as the earliest complete gospel or “pauline” collection texts we have. I want to make sure that I am aware of all the earliest complete texts. When I say, complete texts, if a page or two is missing I would include that. But I am not interested in a small scrap of a gospel like say the Rylands Papyrus P52, but substantially intact complete texts of any of the gospels or “pauline” texts that we have that date from 180 or before.

    Aside from the Chester Beatty Pypri and/or the Bodmer Papyri P66 documents, can you think of any other complete texts that I am overlooking?

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

    • Rich, Thanks for your clarification/correction of your earlier query. The Chester Beatty Gospels codex (Chester Beatty I) contains remnants of the four gospels and Acts. Remnants, not complete texts, and in some cases (e.g., Mark) substantial portions are unfortunately lost to us. The Bodmer Papyri are equally valuable and maybe slightly earlier. These include Bodmer II (P66), an almost complete copy of GJohn dated ca. 200 CE, and Bodmer XIV-XV (P75), substantial portions of GLuke and GJohn (and which Skeat proposed might have once been a four-gospel codex). The Chester Beatty Pauline codex (Chester Beatty II), dating from ca. 200 CE, gives us our earliest extant collection of Pauline letters in one codex (though, again, what we have are substantial remnants of the codex). Can I once again simply ask you and others to consult the appendix to my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), which is now probably the most complete and up to date discussion of the features of earliest Christian manuscripts of biblical and extra-biblical texts. (A blog site can’t substitute for all the work we scholars put into journal articles and books, and so seriously interested people will simply have to read these publications.)

  5. Dear Larry,

    I have recently been looking around for what are our earliest Christian documents. It looks to me that the Chester Beatty Papyri,, of the 200s the earliest Christian documents we have. When you are talking about Early Jesus-devotion it would be based on the documents of the 200s? Or are there earlier documents that you are basing this on?

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

    • The Chester Beatty papyri are certainly central among our earliest copies of Christian texts and Christian copies of OT texts. In addition, however, the Bodmer papyri are very important, especially Bodmer II (P66) and Bodmer XIV-XV (P75), both of which are palaeographically dated to ca. 200. As well, we have fragments of several NT writings and a number of extra-canonical texts (e.g., Shepherd of Hermas, Irenaeus, Gospel of Thomas) from about the same time. I have a rather complete list of Christian copies of texts from before ca. 300 CE in the appendix to my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts (Eerdmans, 2006).
      But don’t confuse the date of the copies with the date of the composition of a text. E.g., for many texts unquestionably written in the first century CE or thereabouts our earliest copy comes from hundreds of years later. Yet no classicist would hesitate to use that copy to make statements about what the classical author wrote.
      Textual criticism is the discipline that works with extant copies of texts for which we have no autograph, with the view to tracing the textual history of a given writing and to reconstructing a critical edition that is as close to the autograph as we can get.

      • Hello Larry,

        Continuing our discussion of the earliest Christian documents. As we agree the Chester Beatty Papyri is the earliest of any of Christian documents we have. I appreciate you also mentioning some others of our additional earliest documents dating in the 300s.

        The fact that every single Christian document we have exists only AFTER Irenaus’s _Against Heresies_ where he both attacks other Christian views, and talks a great deal about a unified organized world wide Church, I think makes anyone that studies Early Christianity have to recognize that talking about Christianity BEFORE Irenaeus without constantly thinking of his potential impact on any Christian text would be a major mistake.
        We can know nothing about Christianity from it’s documents except through the filter of what Irenaeus wanted us to see. Since not a single document exists from before his efforts to unify Christianity.

        This is something I think that people even in the industry overlook.

        Cheers! RichGriese.NET

      • Dear Rich, I must offer a set of corrections to what is, I have to say, an overly simlistic statement.
        –The Chester Beatty papyri are among our earliest copies of Christian texts (not the earliest beyond others), and date from ca. 150-275 CE (the Numbers MS is probably the earliest, thought by Kenyon to be mid/late 2nd cent CE), not “the 300s”.
        –Your comments make the unwarranted assumptions that (1) Irenaeus was in a position to control the copying of Christian texts trans-locally (nobody in the know would think that!); (2) specifically, that texts from ca. 200 CE were produced under the control of ecclesiastical authorities in turn controlled by Irenaeus (again, not held by anyone in the field).
        –In any case, the main complaint made by Irenaeus and others in early Christian polemics was not that “heretics” tampered with the wording of Christian texts, but that, instead, they came up with what the heresiologists regarded as crazy/incorrect interpretations of scriptures.
        –If you take the trouble to acquaint yourself with the abundant work of textual criticism of the NT, you will find that overwhelmingly scholars in the field believe that we have sound bases for our critical editions of early Christian texts. No need to worry about Irenaeus (or anybody else that early) having an undue effect on the copying of them.

  6. Larry,

    At conclusion of the section on Religious Experience and Religious Innovation, you wrote”

    “It bears emphasizing that we do not have to accept the religious/theological validity of an experience in order to grant its reality and efficacy in generating religious innovation.”

    That comment reminds me of Jonathan Edwards “Religious Affections” which I read once, 35 years ago. Anyway, it is a comment that could lead in various directions. It raises some rather thorny questions about the historians relationship to subject of investigation. I might be tempted to detect, lurking in the shadows, the notion that the historian can be situated in some sort of hypothetical neutral ground in relationship to the subject.

    I am not objecting to the comment, as it stands it is a perfectly valid observation but I think someone like Nicholas Wolterstorff might have some questions to ask “after class” so to speak.

    Thank you for posting the article. It is very helpful for those us who do not live near a major library.

    • Hmm. Well, I’d hope that what I’ve written wouldn’t be a problem, even for Wolterstorff. I’m not so naive as to assume that historians aren’t human beings. All knowledge we have is human knowledge, refracted through the abilities, interests, and resources of knowing humans. My point in what you quoted was simply that one doesn’t have to endorse a given experience’s claims to be divine revelation in order to grant that a given person had an experience which he/she honestly took as revelation, and which introduced a development (“mutation”) in his/her religious beliefs/practices. No big philosophical issues involved really.

  7. Timothy Knowlton permalink

    Professor Hurtado, thank you for your helpful and informative essay. If I have reconstructed your argument of “historical efficaciousness” correctly:

    The Cause: “I have proposed the following four
    forces/factors: (1) the Jewish monotheistic tradition with its ability to accommodate “principal agent” figures, who can variously be chief angels, OT patriarchs such as Moses or Enoch, or even personified attributes of God (such as Wisdom or Word); (2) the impact of Jesus’ own earthly ministry and crucifixion; (3) the wider religious environment of the Roman era (the influence of which is more typically indicated, however, reaction against it); and (4) the crucial role of revelatory religious experiences, through which earliest Christians came to the conviction that God now required them to reverence Jesus as they did. These religious experiences likely included visions of the risen and exalted/enthroned Jesus receiving heavenly worship, prophetic revelations (issuing in
    oracles) that it was the will of God for Jesus to be given worship, and also inspired odes that came to recipients with the force of divine revelation in which Jesus was hymned and praised in terms similar to, and along with, God.”

    The Effect: “The broad import is that an amazing devotion to Jesus appeared more like an explosion, a volcanic eruption, than an evolution. However counter-intuitive it will perhaps seem, the exalted claims and the unprecedented devotional practices that reflect a treatment of Jesus as somehow sharing divine attributes and status began among Jewish believers and within the earliest moments of the young Christian movement.”

    First, are you arguing that it is because of “religious visions” regarding a crucified self-proclaimed messianic figure from the hills of Galilee, that a group of First-Century Palestinian Jews radically altered their view of God, Scriptures, Torah, Temple, and History?

    Second, did these “religious experiences” imply/entail that the dead body of Jesus of Nazareth was still lying in its tomb? If that’s the case, did the earliest Christians proclaim that “over 500 brethren all similtaneously had an identical “religious experience?” 1 Corinthians 15:6

    Third, as Robert Gundry points out in his Book, “Soma in Biblical Theology,” pages 175-176, if Paul believed that the body of Jesus of Nazareth was still dead in the tomb, how could Paul proclaim the Victory over death, that death has been defeated? If the dead body of Jesus is still in the tomb, death has not been defeated, there is no victory at all, because the body that died is still dead!

    Thank you again!

    • I’ll proceed immediately to your numbered queries: Your first question incorporates an inadequate and misleading representation of what I think I’ve stated rather clearly (so I’m puzzled at your mis-characterization of it). I judge that Jewish scruples about worship were such that the incorporation of Jesus into the devotional life of earliest believers must have been prompted by the conviction that it was God’s will to do so. This seems to require an explanation. I propose that we must posit revelatory experiences that conveyed this conviction to early influential figures and circles. These experiences likely included visions such as I have sketched. The most important component in any such experiences was something sufficient to convey the conviction that God now requires Jesus to be reverenced. An encounter with the risen Jesus does not seem to me adequate for this. I think that more along the lines I’ve suggested was involved.
      So far as Jesus’ mortal body is concerned, it seems to me that all our earliest testimonies about Jesus’ resurrection and heavenly exaltation either explicitly include the claim that the body was transformed (and thus the tomb evacuated), or else imply this. I think that you accurately characterize Paul’s view, that Jesus’ bodily resurrection is essential to Christian hope for their own salvation.

      • Timothy Knowlton permalink

        Professor Hurtado, I apologize for any mis-characterizations. It seems my attempt to present your argument in succinct fashion did not go too well. Ultimately though, as a matter of historical causation, it seems the Resurrection of Jesus is not given enough weight as a/the primary causal factor for the origins of Christianity. Its difficult to imagine Christianity coming into existence with a crucified, dead and buried Messiah. Probably the most important New Testament text I have in mind is the pre-Pauline confessional formula used by the Christians in Rome, “the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power as a result of the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord”–Romans 1:1-4…And Paul’s own words in 1 Corinthians 15:14, 17, and 19, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins…If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied”

      • No aim on my part at all of minimizing the significance for earliest Christians of the claim that God had raised Jesus from death and exalted him to heavenly glory. Unquestionably, this faith lies at the basis of earliest Christianity. My own research has focused more specifically, however, on the causation-factors prompting and shaping earliest Jesus-devotion, specifically, the incorporation of the risen Jesus into the corporate worship of earliest Christianity. My point about Jesus’ resurrection is that I don’t see any basis in the Jewish evidence of the time or in the NT for that matter for thinking that Jesus’ resurrection by itself would be sufficient to have generated this significant mutation in Jewish worship-practice. I’m not slighting the significance of Jesus’ resurrection, only pointing out that by itself the resurrection doesn’t seem to lead to worship, especially in light of Jewish scruples about worship. Hence, the extended discussion of “forces and factors” in my book, Lord Jesus Christ.

  8. Annang Asumang permalink

    Thank you very much for making your essay available, Prof Hurtado. One other benefit I find with your approach of investigating Christology from the point of view of “rhetoric and practic” of devotion to Jesus is that it simultaneously also addresses the question of discipleship to Jesus. For it seems to me that the New Testament tends to look at Christology from the point of view of discipleship, and vice versa; never dichotomizing the two, as the titular approach somehow did. Moreover, your approach seems to make the translation of scholarship into contemporary Christian faith and practice more straight-forward. I know you insist on the distinction between the scholar’s work and Christian practice. Nevertheless, your area is one place where that distinction can appear a bit forced. Thank you very much for this Prof.

    • Well, as I say to students, “In the NT everything is connected to everything else”. Scholars have to particularize and distinguish things for clarity of analysis. But sometimes it can become counter-productive. I’m pleased that my work has been found worthwhile by scholars concerned with historical understanding of earliest Christianity, and also (in some circles) by theologians and others wishing to draw upon historical understanding of earliest Christianity as resource for reflecting on Christian faith and practice today. I don’t think that historical analysis (such as I tend to produce) by itself argues for or against Christian faith. But mature Christian faith should have nothing to fear from good historical analysis.

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