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New Testament Chronology and Christian Origins

May 10, 2012

In the course of writing an essay this past week in which I’m trying to work up a conceptual model for early Christianity, I had occasion to read again Martin Hengel’s pithy gem-essay:  “Christology and New Testament Chronology,” in his book, Between Jesus and Paul (London:  SCM, 1983), 30-47.  Since grad students and other serious readers have often asked for suggestions of essential-reading items, Hengel’s essay would be prominent among them to my mind.

This essay lays out some very important basic facts, particularly chronological facts about earliest Christianity, emphasizing that the time-window for crucial developments (especially christological ones) was remarkably small.  The essay appeared originally in German in 1972, the form in which I first read it (waaay back in the late 70s), but, though the discussion refers to works of that period and earlier, the issues and the points Hengel makes so pithily remain crucial.

“Crucial” but often overlooked still, even by some scholars.  As Hengel put it (in his usual peppery style), “If we look through some works on the history of earliest Christianity we might get the impression that people in them had declared war on chronology” (p. 39).   Here are a few of his points.

  • Paul’s letters (which date from ca. 50-60 CE), including notably Romans (addressed to a “pre-Pauline” Christian community), already reflect a developed christology, and do not indicate any real development across the years in which they were composed.  So, the maximum period for the christological development reflected in the letters can be no more than ca. 18 years, “a short space of time for such an intellectual process” (39).  Or, to cite another memorable statement:  “In essentials more happened in christology within these few years than in the whole subsequent seven hundred years of church history” (39-40).
  • This christological development took place above all in Jewish-Christian communities in Jerusalem, Caesarea, Damascus, Antioch and other places in Syria and Roman Palestine, involving both Greek-speaking and Aramaic-speaking believers.
  • It is dubious, thus, to employ the multi-layered schemes of the old History-of-Religions scholars or the modified versions put out in the 60s and 70s, involving “Primitive Palestinian”, “Hellenistic-Jewish”, and “Hellenistic-Gentile” stages of development, all of these sometimes posited as preceding Paul’s “conversion”.
  • Speaking of Paul’s “conversion”, which likely must be placed within at most a couple of years subsequent to Jesus’ execution, we have to consider that an “enormously rapid christological development” took place within this even shorter period.  Paul’s characterization of the cognitive content of his religious re-orientation is that it was a “revelation of God’s Son”.  But, since he then promptly associated himself with other Jewish Christians (including Peter/Cephas, per Gal. 1), the most reasonable inference is that the christological view he adopted was pretty much what he had been opposing.  And that means that some pretty powerful developments must be dated within the very first few years!
  • Given this tight chronology, it is also dubious to ascribe much to any supposed influence of pagan religious ideas and practices on these early christological developments.  It requires a strong necessity to ignore chronology, and some implausible assumptions about psychology too, to posit, for example, that early Jewish Christians were somehow unconsciously disposed to treat Jesus as bearing divine-like honour through the subtle influence of pagan ruler-cults.

But I don’t want to steal Hengel’s thunder, and would really encourage a slow and careful digestion of this essay.  It was formative in my own thinking from the late 70s onward, and remains unsurpassed in so concisely laying out some crucial matters.

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  1. Drew permalink

    I recently came across a book review of “The Son of God in the Roman World” by Michael Peppard that appears to have some critiques of your work on early christology, including “too sharply bifurcates divinity and humanity, relies upon an idealized view of monotheism in Second Temple Judaism, and generally ignores the Roman religious world.” I was wondering if you have had a chance to read his work and what do you think of his critiques on your publications? Thanks.

    • I haven’t yet read Peppard’s book. Your quoted characterization of my own work seems to me a good bit simplistic and misleading, but I will have to digest his own.

  2. Hello, Professor Hurtado. You have followed the program of the John-Jesus-History of the Society of Biblical Literature ? What have you thought about? thank you

  3. I don’t see what the Chronology has to do with it. … if Paul or Peter or James, or whoever developed the first Christology, had a familiarity with the Imperial cult–and its hard to imagine that anyone wouldn’t especially Paul with his Greek education–it would only take a few hours to devise Christology, and perhaps only a few days or weeks to convince other people of it. So two years is adequate time for ‘pagan’ (better Graeco-Roman) influence to bear on earliest Christology…. if two years is insufficient time for Graeco-Roman influence, why is it sufficient for Jewish influence? As I say, time doesn’t really enter into it.

    …. I think that a case can be made for early Christians having internalized the general intellectual framework of antiquity and transforming it for their own use. Both Matthew and Paul for example seem to accept astrology but give their own Christian interpretation of it, namely that that astrology is generally a true explanation for the governing of the universe, but Jesus has or is removing the Church from its influence. In the same way Jesus is shown to exceed the dead emperors by being like them but more so. Similar is Helmut Koester’s idea that Jesus’ miracles in the so-called signs source are typically pagan miracles (turning water into wine, hearing the sick etc), but Jesus is shown to do them more abundantly.

    • Well, you’re not alone is giving insufficient regard for chronology! That’s a major problem in generating a lot of implausible theories about early Christianity over many decades now. As I’ve stated repeatedly, I’ve tried to do better justice to all these matters in my book, Lord Jesus Christ, and it’s not practical to devote the space here that your comments/queries deserve. So, if you’re seriously interested, read my published arguments and then get back to me where you still see problems. For now, only a few brief comments in response.
      First, we aren’t talking about people “devising a christology”, as if they were some political party or intellectual circle working up some written plan of action. We’re talking about the eruption of powerful convictions, likely impelled by religious experiences interpreted by the recipients as from God, including confirmations of Jesus’ risen/exalted status. I’ve discussed the rather rich and varied Jewish background fairly thoroughly in my book, One God, one Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (1988, 1998), and again must ask serious discussants to peruse the discussion and evidence there.
      Second, as to “pagan” religious influence (and, by the way, “Greco-Roman” isn’t an improvement–after all second-temple Judaism and early Christianity as well were “Greco-Roman” religious movements. The term is a chonronological one, not an ideological one, or shouldn’t be. “Pagan” is the standard short-hand used by classicists to = non-Christian and non-Jewish in the ancient world. Nothing pejorative.): Of course, all Jews knew of ruler-cult and the many gods. The question is how they regarded these matters, and what evidence there is that they absorbed features from them. All I ask is that you study the Jewish evidence. It’s pretty clear: Jews were often ready to absorb all kinds of things from Greek & Roman culture, except when it came to their deity and explicity religious matters. So, justify why those devout early Jews who were earliest Jesus-believers would have been so uniquely ready to do otherwise.
      Of course early Christians made Jesus competitive with other figures. That’s not the issue. Koester simply echoes observations from Bultmann and earlier. But where we see this going on, we’re already several decades to a century or so down the line. Those phenomena hardly explain the initial eruption of convictions that God has made Jesus rightful recipient of cultic devotion. But, as I say, inadequate here. More adequately in several publications.

  4. Michael permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,

    As a graduate student majoring in theology, I always enjoy and profit from your recommended reading in biblical studies, particularly when there is brevity involved. Thank you.


  5. I’m a bit slow on the uptake sometimes.

    Does this mean that the decision to symbolically eat the body of Jesus and symbolically drink his blood happened very early, far too early for any pagan influences to have had a bearing on this decision?

    • Ah, Steven, did my post mention this? It’s hardly what most scholars in Christian origins would identify as the earliest crucial christological developments. We do have indications that a “Lord’s Supper” thematized and connected with Jesus’ death was operative by the 50s in 1 Cor 11, and by the time of the Gospels narratives (ca. 70+) this idea is depicted as part of a “last supper” of Jesus and the 12.
      But the more crucial and early developments christologically are to do with the convictions that Jesus had been raised from death and given heavenly glory, that he was thus the vindicated true Messiah, that God now required him to be reverenced as “Lord”, and that his death was all a part of the divine plan. These developments must have happened so quickly and so early as to be almost untraceable, and in a fervently Jewish setting in which it is difficult to allow for much by way of “pagan” influences in religious ideas.

      • I said I was a bit slow sometimes.

        With Paul dating it back to Jesus himself, I had somehow got it into my head that it was very early. Just shows I need to think before posting,

      • Bobby Garringer permalink

        In terms of historical documentation (in this case, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, along with each of the four Gospels, including indirect references in John and 1 John), the institution of the Lord’s Supper by Christ himself seems well grounded. Doesn’t it?

        The clear affirmations of Christ’s deity and Lordship must have been based on the actual words and deeds of Jesus. The apostles and early church talked that way about him, because of the way he talked about himself, backed by the way he lived and conducted his work as their rabbi and Lord.

        So his knowledge of his own death, his declaration of its meaning, and his instructions that a permanent reminder of it be incorporated into the practice of the church (the Lord’s Supper) seem relevant to the overall Christological view we must necessarily attribute to the earliest traceable setting of apostolic doctrine.

        The institution of the Supper by Christ himself is well-enough documented in terms of historical criteria that we can doubt it would be questioned at all if it were not for both a supernatural and theological component that is unacceptable to many critical scholars.

        Paul had “received and delivered” the details of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23), just as he had “delivered and received” the essential gospel (1 Cor 15:3). He was not creating either, but was passing along to the churches that he established what was held in common among the apostles with whom he consulted.

        A re-worked paganism is unnecessary and unfitting in explaining either the institution of the Lord’s Supper or the content of the gospel and — applying the over-all position of Hengel, the compact chronology involved — seems also to be impossible in each case.

      • Bobby, please don’t take my candor as offensive, but your extended comment reflects what scholars would see as a naive and “pre-critical” view of things. I’ll try briefly to indicate why.
        –Jesus himself left nothing in writing. Our only information about him comes from others. Our earliest narrative accounts of his teaching/ministry are commonly dated ca. 70-100 CE, i.e., some 40-60 yrs after his execution. Equally clearly, these accounts arose from, and drew upon, the prior decades of teaching and preaching about him. So, there is a body of prior and early tradition behind them, but it is tradition, not a tape-recording or a stenographic record of Jesus.
        –Moreover, these Gospels vary in emphases, sometimes in striking ways, even in the ways they report what seems to be the same incident or saying. This suggests that Jesus tradition was adapted to serve the concerns of various kinds of early christian groups. On the one hand, this makes the Gospels valuable as historical reflections of various early Christian groups, as well as giving us Jesus-tradition. On the other hand, it means that we have to handle them with critical sensitivity to their nature.
        –Paul’s letters are our earliest Christian texts, taking us back to ca. 20 yrs from Jesus’ death. And if we take account that these letters presuppose Paul’s prior/earlier teaching/preaching among various cities, and also that Paul circulated widely among various christian groups (Jerusalem, Damascus, Antioch, and other places), his letters are invaluable historical sources. Though he stoutly pursued the mission he believed he had been given, involving a special redemptive inclusion of gentiles, he also strove to maintain positive relations with Jerusalem and other Christian leaders and groups. So, his reports of common tradition (as, e.g., in 1 Cor 15:1-7) ought to be taken as that. He knew whereof he wrote!
        –But we also know from other sources (e.g., Didache) that the group-meal took on apparently varying emphases/themes in different early Christian circles. The tight connection with Jesus’ “last supper” and the bread & wine connected with Jesus’ death as in Paul and the Gospels is one form, but there seem to have been some others. All this makes it difficult to make a direct attribution of any one emphasis to Jesus, at least not in simple terms.
        –Finally, as I’ve indicated in a number of publications over a number of decades now, the NT bases the treatment of Jesus as bearing divine glory/status on God’s actions and will, not particularly on a claim that Jesus commanded it. In the NT reverence of Jesus has a profoundly *theo-centric* basis: Effectively, “God says so!” As I’ve tried to show in my essay, “Remembrance and Revelation” (the pre-publication version available on the “Essays, etc.” tab of this blog site), the distinctive way that Jesus speaks of his own divinity in the Gospel of John is likely a product of the author using the escalated view of Jesus that he believed had been conveyed by the “Paraclete”.
        –So, in sum, I think you’re right that the it is implausible to posit direct influence of “pagan” religious ideas/practices on the earliest and crucial Christian developments (which happened within the very first few years). A number of us over many years have shown that these developments can fully be set in the context of the lively Jewish tradition of the time. On the other hand, it is naive to ascribe it all to Jesus’ own teaching.

  6. “Paul’s letters (which date from ca. 50-60 CE), including notably Romans (addressed to a “pre-Pauline” Christian community), already reflect a developed christology, …. This christological development took place above all in Jewish-Christian communities in Jerusalem, Caesarea, Damascus, Antioch and other places in Syria and Roman Palestine, involving both Greek-speaking and Aramaic-speaking believers.”

    This simply does not follow; it is a non sequitur.

    (1) Paul travelled to Jerusalem c. 48 to lay his gospel before the Pillars, lest somehow he had run in vain (Gal. 2.2). Isn’t it obvious there must have been some original or innovative aspects to it, if Paul was worried his gospel might be in vain?

    And, furthermore, it is not even clear his gospel “innovations” were even finished at the time of the Jerusalem conference.

    As for Christology, how do we even know Paul did not develop the doctrine of Jesus’s pre-existence himself?

    (2) Origen (Contra Celsum 5.65.5) tells us that “there are some sects who do not accept the epistles of the apostle Paul, such as the two kinds of Ebionites.” Eusebius tells us that both sects of Ebionites rejected Jesus’s pre-existence.

    At 2 Cor. 11:4 we have most probably Jewish Christian missionaries, with the backing of the Jerusalem church, proclaiming “another Jesus” and “another gospel” (much like the Torah observant “another gospel” in Gal. 1:6), so the view that earliest Christianity is united in doctrine or even Christology is very shaky indeed.

    • Good questions, but requiring some corrective information. First, Paul’s references to “my gospel” are clearly and commonly taken to refer to his message that gentiles can be treated as full co-religionists on the basis of faith in Jesus and without making a conversion to Jewish Torah-observance. There is no reason for thinking that “christology” was the issue. Paul was concerned (in Gal 2) that his gentile mission might be invalidated and his converts treated as invalid. Note the reference to Titus and his not being required to be circumcised. That was the issue.
      Second, those Paul complains about in Gal and in 2 Cor as proclaiming “another gospel/Jesus” clearly are pushing for circumcision and Torah-observance as an additional requirement, and are calling into question the validity of Paul as apostolic figure. We have no indication in Paul’s letters that his christology was an issue with his critics from Jerusalem or elsewhere. (I’ve dealt with all these matters in relevant sections of my book, Lord Jesus Christ, e.g., 155-216, on “Judean Jewish Christianity”, so I really ask anyone seriously interested to take the trouble to read that material.)
      Third, citing Origen (early 3rd century) is hardly germane to what was happening ca. 30-50 CE. Exactly who and what “Ebionites” were is a thorny question on which there is no scholarly consensus. Early sources (e.g., Justin, Dialogue with Trypho) refer to at least two kinds of Jewish Christians, some of them portrayed as not accepting Jesus’ virginal conception, etc. But let’s remember Hengel’s point about chronology: Earlier sources preferred, and sound historical reasoning always.

      • Thank you for your response.

        (1) You are entirely correct that in Galatians the issue is Paul’s law free gospel (that is, salvation without the need for conversion to Judaism). But even here the fact that Paul innovated in this respect leaves room for the possibility that he innovated in terms of Christology, surely?

        (2) when Paul mentions people proclaiming “another Jesus” at 2 Cor. 11:4 then what is he talking about, if not doctrines about Jesus, involving Christological issues?

        (3) Regarding sources and dating, we have nothing directly from the Jerusalem church before Paul. The gospels such as Mark, Luke and John are already heavily influenced by Pauline Christianity, but even they have no explicit reference to the pre-existence of Jesus.
        At Romans 1:1-4 we have what many think is a pre-Pauline creed. But where, then, is the reference to Jesus’s pre-existence here? (note that I have no difficulty whatsoever with the idea that the early Jerusalem church thought Jesus had become a chief agent of god at his exaltation, however).

        If we were to rule out the evidence of Origen, Eusebius and Justin Martyr on Jerusalem Christianity and its Christology, because they are late, then we would have to rule out the gospels as credible evidence for Jesus because the earliest gospel – Mark – is written after about 70 AD, about 40 years after Jesus’s death. Acts and John’s gospel would have to thrown out too, because they are probably closer to 100 AD (around 70 years later).

        (4) But also another point: Messianic movements could develop in extraordinary ways, even in modern times: think of Sabbatai Zevi. There is evidence that he signed letters with what was to many members of his community the most blasphemous phrase: “the Lord, your God, Sabbatai Zevi” (Heinrich Graetz and Bella Lowy, History of the Jews, Vol. V, p. 143) – yet he still attracted a vast following during his lifetime. And this was not after he died and his disciples claimed he had been resurrected, but when he lived.

        Your admirable book “One God, One Lord” (which I think is brilliant, by the way) shows how second temple Judaism had exalted heavenly figures like personified divine attributes (wisdom, the logos), exalted patriarchs, and chiefs agents/angels.

        One wonders why Paul couldn’t have assimilated Jesus to personified wisdom or a first-born, angelic chief agent, and created the pre-existence doctrine.

      • Thanks for the kind words about my One God, One Lord book (which will have its 25th birthday next year!). Your well-phrased questions and observations would take a lot of space to engage adequately. So, can I simply ask you to read carefully my discussion of Judean Christianity (which includes a critical analysis of sources, etc.) and my discussion of Pauline christianity also in my book, Lord Jesus Christ (2003)? Having invested a lot of time and effort in the more extended discussion possible there, I think it’s appropriate to refer you there. I think I’ve anticipated all your queries there.

  7. Robrecht permalink

    Yes, it is surprising how some people assume a long development period when Paul’s rather high christology is evident at such an early date. Still some try to hypothetically reconstruct an early proto-Ebionite opposition to Paul’s christology. Speculative. It would make sense, but no good evidence that I’m aware of.

  8. Bobby Garringer permalink

    In reading the opening of Marks’ Gospel, it seems to me that — from the start — Mark is writing a narrative with the intention of declaring boldly the deity of Christ.

    Mark cites Isaiah 40:3 and applies it to Jesus, the one for whom John the Baptist is opening the way. Thus, he calls him “Yahweh” (Heb.) and “Kurios” (LXX).

    The Baptist is portrayed as the expected Elijah who is to appear just prior to the Day of Yahweh. He announces that he is not worthy to even kneel and loosen a sandal of the powerful one he represents. John attributes to Jesus the authority to bestow the Holy Spirit. (Who but God can do that?) Then when Jesus is baptized, the visible heaven is ripped open, the Spirit of God descends on him, and the Father declares that Jesus is the beloved Son, wholly pleasing to him.

    The titles Mark attributes to Jesus, his powerful actions, and the climactic declaration that he is the Son of God as he hangs on the cross — followed by his resurrection — all seem to reflect the highest form of Christology in what many believe to be our earliest Gospel.

    • You take a view held also by a number of other Markan scholars (e.g., Joel Marcus, Rikk Watts, my own student, Daniel Johansson), and one I find most cogent too. There are, and have been, however, other opinions. But, given the “high” christology taken for granted in Paul’s letters (ca. 20 yrs earlier than GMark), it seems to me most unlikely that GMark would be ignorant of matters. The author didn’t likely reside in some isolated Swiss village.

    • Scott F permalink

      Interestingly Mark changes the wording of Malachi from “before me” to “before you.” Did he intend to create a little distance between Jesus and YHWH?

      • Actually, Joel Marcus and some others reach the opposite conclusion: That the shift from “before me” to “before you” = making Jesus the “Lord” whose way is prepared. Check out Marcus’ commentary.

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