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The Dunn/Hurtado Dialogue on Jesus-Veneration

September 19, 2011

At the annual British New Testament Conference (1-3 September, Nottingham), one of the sessions was a dialogue with my long-time friend, Prof. Jimmy Dunn on “The Veneration of Jesus and the First Commandment.”  Dunn and I have been in dialogue on this subject over several years, reviewing each other’s publications and trying to sharpen mutually our perceptions of the issues.  This dialogue was for me a welcome opportunity to continue this engagement in live-time.

We chose to label the event a “dialogue” rather than a “debate”, mainly because we agreed that the aim shouldn’t be to score points in some contest, but instead to come at the evidence and issues with a shared concern for understanding things.  That may have disappointed some who prefer minor blood-sport to scholarship.  No apologies from me.

Dunn’s presentation seemed to me to focus on concerns that devotion to, and beliefs about, Jesus should not be at the expense of the primacy of God, and that Christian faith ought to be genuinely “monotheistic”.  These are entirely understandable theological concerns about Christian faith today (with which I am sympathetic), but I was a bit surprised that they seemed to play such a role in a discussion that was to be focused mainly on the evidence of Jesus-devotion in the first-century Christian circles reflected in the NT writings.

In my own presentation, I reviewed briefly the constellation of devotional practices in which Jesus features centrally attested in the NT, noted that they are without precedent or analogy in the ancient Jewish setting (the religious matrix of Christian faith), and reiterated my contention that these phenomena reflect a distinctive and noteworthy “mutation” in ancient Jewish devotion to the one God. 

Put another way, the NT writings reflect a distinctive “dyadic” devotional pattern.  But it is a “shaped” dyad, Jesus’ significance and place in early Christian devotion rather consistently defined and justified with reference to the will and actions of God (“the Father”).  E.g., Philippians 2:9-11 celebrates God’s exaltation of Jesus and the bestowal of “the name above every name”, with the intention that Jesus be given universal acclamation as “Kyrios”. 

It remains a source of puzzlement to me that the historical significance of these remarkable devotional practices is not adequately grasped by some.  To judge by NT writings, Jesus was not reverenced at the expense of God, but instead as the unique agent and expression of God (e.g., as God’s “Image,” “Son”), and in obedience to the one God, who has designated Jesus as the “Kyrios” to whom this robust cultic reverence is to be given. 

In the historical context, it is a novel development:  professing the “one God” of Israel and yet also including as rightful (even required) recipient of devotion a distinguishable, second figure.  The NT evidences, not dreams of some future time when a messianic figure may be reverenced (as, e.g., in the “Similtudes” of 1 Enoch), but instead a real and dramatic re-formulation of regular devotional practice in historically identifiable circles of early Christians.  Given the special significance attached to worshp practice, the programmatic inclusion of Jesus as co-recipient/recipient of their devotion is remarkable. 

Of course, these first Christians insisted that they remained true to the “monotheistic” stance inherited from the ancient Jewish tradition.  But, judging by the actual way that they practiced their worship and larger devotional life, theirs was a distinguishable form of “monotheistic” practice involving the programmatic inclusion of Jesus along with God.

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  1. Professor Hurtado, here is how I have always understood the situation. If I may use an analogy, imagine there is a kingdom with a single king. All the inhabitants of this kingdom vow their allegiance to this king, and do whatever this king commands them to do. Years later, this king has a son, the prince of this kingdom. Now the king commands the inhabitants to honor this child the same as they honor him, and to vow their allegiance to him as well, as long as the sons will is in conformity with the kings will. So the father is still the final authority as the only king, but their is a new member of the royal family second in line to the king. Within the royal family, there is a distinction between the king and his son, but from the perspective of the inhabitants, there is not much of a distinction between the two, it was a shift from only recognizing the king to recognizing the royal family along with the king. But technically they do not receive the exact same devotion, the type of devotion is dependent on which position each person fills in the royal family.

    The Messiah coming was first mentioned to Adam, and all future men of God expected him to come one day. But no one had a clue that it would actually be God’s only son that would show up, and be far greater than anything they had imagined, until after his death and resurrection when the disciples received the holy spirit which revealed the truth to them about his true identity and his pre-existence.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I should indicate that your final paragraph would seem to most scholars as a bit pre-critical, esp. in stating that the coming of the Messiah was “first mentioned to Adam”. Your analogy is indeed not far off, as Jesus is explicitly referred to as “THE Son of God” in NT texts, and the concept behind these early references to Jesus’ divine sonship derives largely from biblical/Jewish traditions, including the idea of the Judean king as divine “Son”.
      The sort of questions that I’ve pursued, however, are more historical ones: When and how did Jesus-devotion first appear? What shape did it take and how was it expressed? Are there resources and/or precedents and analogies that might help us understand how it could have appeared? What did it represent in the religious setting of that time? Etc.

  2. Steven Carr permalink

    ‘ITo judge by NT writings, Jesus was not reverenced at the expense of God, but instead as the unique agent and expression of God (e.g., as God’s “Image,” “Son”), …..n the historical context, it is a novel development:…’

    Professor Hurtado is totally correct.

    It was a novel development to claim that a crucified criminal was the image of God. Are there any parallels in other religions?

    • Not to my knowledge. But the more relevant point for historical purposes is whether there is any analogy or precedent within the ancient Jewish tradition. The religious outlook and practice of 2nd-temple Judaism worked against the sort of inclusion of a second figure as recipient of devotion that characterized earliest Christian circles.

  3. Thank you for these helpful comments Prof Hurtado. I wonder if you might briefly unpack your metaphor of *mutation*?

    • I first used this term in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish monotheism (2nd ed. London: T&T Clark, 1998). The metaphor = an observable development of/within a species that exhibits one or more new traits/characteristics that differentiate it from the species pattern.
      So, in its earliest expressions, the dyadic devotional pattern I have noted emerged within/among devout Jewish circles and as new variant-form of Jewish “monotheistic” devotion. The demographics of the spread of the early Jesus movement led in time to the emergence of a new religious “species”, i.e., a distinguishable “religion” called “christianity”.

  4. Dr. Hurtado, I’m reading your splendid book, Lord Jesus Christ, and it has lighted me up so much that I had to put it down temporarily to seek out answers to related questions about the Incarnation and Christology. No worries, I have a six-month check-out privilege. And your criticism of Bousset and your pointers to more positive developments since Cullmann have helped me begin to sort things out.

    You make the point above about the anachronism inherent in negative attitudes toward the present correctness of Jesus-worship, and I had to overcome that same reticence voiced by Dunn before I saw clearly what kind of epoch-making suggestions about first century Apostolic consciousness (and whole-hearted belief) you feature in your book.

    I still believe Jesus revealed a religion-about-Father-and-brother which is higher than any religion-about-Jesus can be (maybe this is Dunn’s point too), but the ramifications of the fact that the first Christians could not restrain themselves in the latter regard has not been fully appreciated by many besides you I think. It’s a great challenge to the theory of ‘religious syncretism’ and also must give pause to those who argue that Jesus was just about ‘reformed Judaism’.

    When Paul writes that nobody can in truth say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Spirit (1Cor 12:3), I think he was ‘speaking volumes’ about truths of Incarnation, Redemption – and even Creation – which are almost too astonishing to grasp, and which I never heard in the right tone until I began to read your book.

  5. Katoikei permalink

    I like your thinking Mr. Hurtado. Keep up the good work. Peace, Katoikei.

  6. John Moles permalink

    I was present at this debate/dialogue, greatly enjoyed it, and learned a lot from it (though unfortunately had to rush away immediately after it). As a Classicist, with I’m afraid, no particular expertise in ancient (pagan) religion, I wondered if one route (an old one, I know) towards explaining the ‘novel’, ‘unprecedented’ (etc.) nature of the devotion offered to Jesus lay through the ‘history of religions’ approach, where of course one does get ‘objective’ parallels (Father-Son relationships where the son is at once subordinate to the father but seemingly also an independent, almost equally powerful, figure, and where the divine father and son have the same, or closely related, names; intermediary gods; man-gods; god-men; miraculous births; ‘split’ parentage; nowadays, henotheism, pagan monotheism, the Hypsistos, etc.). I know Professor Dunn is somewhat more receptive to that approach than many NT/early Christianity scholars; though he customarily invokes the adage ‘analogy not genealogy’, he sometimes seems to go beyond it (as e.g. in his discussions of the Lord’s Supper). Of course, there is a lot of rubbish discussion here (especially on the Internet), but it isn’t all rubbish (some sort of Jesus-Dionysus link seems fairly sound and seems to some degree acknowledged in Paul, John [the miracle at Canaan; ‘I am the true Vine’] and Acts). Might then this sort of ‘pagan’ thinking have provided some early Christians, especially in a Greek-language context, some sort of intellectual framework for thinking about Jesus’ relationship to Yahweh, especially since Jewish conceptions didn’t match? I know of course there are huge problems here, including about the degree of Hellenisation of Jewish Palestine, but even Jesus and disciples knew something about pagan religion (odd if they hadn’t).

    • As I presume you’ll guess, none of these things are new to me or to others who have striven to understand the historical phenomena of earliest Jesus-devotion. Of course, in the larger “pagan” environment we have deified hero-figures, deified rulers, demi-gods and gods galore, and there was no problem at all introducing new ones. But these are really not relevant, as has been shown for several decades. I’ve laid this out myself in several publications, so I’ll simply reiterate the basic points here.
      1) Most important is the chronological issue: The remarkable Jesus-devotion in question clearly had its origin within the earliest years/months/weeks after Jesus’ execution, and in circles made up exclusively of devout Jews, not pagans used to multiple deities.
      2) We know very well that Jews adopted aspects of hellenistic culture (esp. language, but also dining customs, etc.), but we also know what devout Jews thought of “pagan” religion, and also of the idea of deification of humans. As any study of second-temple Judaism will attest, Jews drew a red-line at compromising the worship of the one God. Of course many Jews knew something of pagan religion, and the general response was disdain for it, and horrer specifically at its “idolatry”.

      Adela Collins has proposed some kind of unconscious influence of pagan ruler-cult ideas upon earliest Jewish Christians. I’d feel more ready to entertain this suggestion if we had any other example of this kind of thing happening in second-temple Jewish groups. But we don’t. So, we’re left with a one-off to explain.

      3) It is one thing to imagine the deification of a human hero in a setting in which that was entirely expected and had multiple precedents. It is quite another in a religious culture that forbids it! It’s the latter setting in which Jesus-devotion erupted. And it’s in the latter setting where we find no analogy for the eruption of Jesus-devotion in earliest (Jewish) Christian cricles. So, no true analogy. False analogies not relevant.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        ‘It is one thing to imagine the deification of a human hero in a setting in which that was entirely expected and had multiple precedents. It is quite another in a religious culture that forbids it! ‘

        What was there about Jesus which led Paul, and the authors of James, and of Hebrews to overcome the fact that their relgious culture forbad the deification of a human hero, crucified by the Romans in a shameful death?

      • I’ve addressed this repeatedly in publications over ca. 20 yrs. I recommend reading the “forces and factors” section of my book, Lord Jesus Christ.

      • terri permalink

        I’d feel more ready to entertain this suggestion if we had any other example of this kind of thing happening in second-temple Jewish groups. But we don’t. So, we’re left with a one-off to explain.

        Yes, but is it necessary that an event is repeatable and follows a specific pattern in different groups?

        From a psychological viewpoint, wouldn’t the amount of time the apostles spent with Jesus have provided a base of identity that made it possible for them to consider themselves devoted Jews and believers in a Jesus who was more than merely human? Wouldn’t belief in Jesus’ divinity be worked up to in a backwards-flowing manner. In other words, in the face of splitting from “normal” second temple Judaism and the opposition early Christians portrayed in the gospels and Acts, perhaps coming to a gradual place of justifying and rationalizing their newfound devotion by claiming divinity for Jesus, was a way of asserting their monotheism.

      • Well, if you want to say that a given belief or practice is readily explanable by this or that set of circumstances of the time, then it would certainly enhance the plausibility of the proposal were there more than one instance. Of course, there can be novel developments, which is what I judge the dyadic-shaped devotional stance of earliest Christian circles to be. But it is those who claim that it’s not novel or difficult to explain of whom I ask for something by way of analogy to enhance the plausibility of their claims.
        As to your own proposal, the key problem is, once again, chronology. Within the very earliest period (i.e., a couple of years at most, and likely within a few months or even weeks), it seems that a novel and noteworthy level of devotion to Jesus erupted (it didn’t evolve). It produced the backlash, and wasn’t so much the result of one. There was nothing “gradual” about the phenomenon. I’ve laid all this out in a number of publications, e.g., How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? (Eerdmans, 2005), and so I really must suggest that if you’re seriously interested you engage the data and discussion there.

  7. Your comment is a stimulating summary, which prompts a couple of responses. Your final sentence indicates that, as early as the 2nd generation, Christian veneration of Jesus amounted to a departure from monotheism. . . .

    • Mr. Cook: I’ve heavily edited your comment, essentially deleting what seemed to me extraneous material, largely polemical and dealing with theological issues, not historical ones.
      I see, nor intended, nothing in my posting to offer a judgement about whether the early “dyadic” devotional pattern “amounted to a departure from monotheism.” That would be a theological judgement, not a historical one. From a historical standpoint, I contend two things: (1) from the earliest years (not the 2nd generation), we see a “dyadic” devotional pattern erupted, with Jesus included as recipient with God, producing a novel and noteworthy “mutation” in Jewish devotional practice, and yet (2) early Christians seem not to have seen themselves as any less loyal to the one God, insisting instead that they were obeying the one God in including Jesus as co-recipient of their devotion.

      • Annang Asumang permalink

        I was also present at the meeting, Larry, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you very much for sharing these insights. You may recall that at the closing stages of that session, there were a number of questions, which time did not permit the two of you to answer. One key question regarded to what extent the type of divine devotion to Jesus which you describe as occuring weeks after the resurrection should be judged to be “novel”. In other words, is the view that historically, this devotion occured before the resurrection incorrect? And secondly, is the view that the theophanies of the OT (e.g. the captain of Israel’s host’s encounter with Joshua in Josh 5) were earlier forms or precedents of this devotion flawed?

      • I’ve addressed the question of what kind of reverence was given to Jesus during his earthly ministry: Larry W. Hurtado, “Homage to the Historical Jesus and Early Christian Devotion,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 1, no. 2 (2003): 131-46 (re-published in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?, pp.134-51. My short answer: Jesus was reverenced as a holy man, prophet, and in the eyes of close followers as Messiah-designate (probably). But the more robust devotional practices reflected in the NT were occasioned by the conviction that God had exalted the resurrected Jesus to heavenly glory and now required him to be so reverenced.
        The OT theophanies/angelophanies aren’t really applicable, as they didn’t generate a devotional practice devoted to any such figure.

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