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An “Early High Christology”

July 1, 2012

A reader responding to an earlier posting of mine drew attention to a forthcoming book in which apparently the author asserts that the view of Jesus as somehow divine or partaking in divine honor arose sometime in the 40s and in places such as Antioch (where, supposedly, the influence of pagan religion with the frequency of divinized heroes would have helped to generate a divine Jesus).  As I’ve invested some 25 years in the relevant questions and evidence, it’s always disappointing to find apparently senior scholars so much out of touch.  So, I thought that it would be appropriate to underscore some essentials in data and approach that have led most of those who have studied the subject to judge that there was in fact a very early eruption of devotion to Jesus as in some sense sharing divine glory.  (The expression “early high christology” isn’t my own and isn’t my preferred expression, but it’s used so much that I employ it here.)

However plausible it may initially seem (and however comforting to some) the sort of view reflected in the forthcoming book fails at the essential task of building on the relevant data.  And we should always start with the data!

As Wilhelm Bousset noted in 1913 (in what is regarded as the key expression of the old history-of-religions school), the “Christ cult” (his term) obviously arose within the first couple of years or so after Jesus’ execution at the latest, for (crucially) this is the form of Christian devotion into which Paul was incorporated after his conversion and which he presumed thereafter.  But Bousset insisted that this couldn’t have characterized the “primitive Palestinian community” (also his term), for in the Jerusalem setting of Jewish “monotheism” it simply was unthinkable.  So, he proposed that it erupted in Antioch shortly after the flight of refugees from the persecution that broke out after the death of Stephen (as described in Acts 7).

So, even the old history-of-religions school granted an “early high christology”, and very early, not in the 40s or thereafter but within the first few years at most.  The remaining question, however, is whether Bousset was correct to judge that this devotion to Jesus as sharing in divine honor did not erupt first in the earliest circles of Jewish believers and in an authentically Jewish setting such as Jerusalem.

Perhaps most extensively in a couple of chapters in my book, Lord Jesus Christ (2003, pp. 79-216), I’ve analyzed in detail the data relevant to this question, and have concluded that by all accounts in fact the sort of Jesus-devotion reflected and affirmed in Paul’s letters seems to have characterized also Jewish-Christian circles of the very first years.  Moreover, quite a number of other scholars have reached essentially the same conclusion over recent decades.  I think, therefore, there there is a certain moral ground on which to ask that those who wish to reach other conclusions should demonstrate an equivalent analysis of the data.

Of course, earliest Christian discourse did not refer to Jesus and God in the terms that later became common, such as divine “essence” and divine “persons”.  We can’t read the christological/theological discourse of the 3rd-4th centuries back into the first years.  Indeed, it appears that the vocabulary and the questions of “ontology” weren’t a part of the discourse that earliest believers used.  Note:  It isn’t that they considered such language and rejected it; instead, it simply wasn’t a part of their discourse-world.  So, they referred to Jesus as sharing and reflecting the glory of God, as bearing/sharing the divine name, etc., and this is pretty heady stuff.  Most significantly, I have argued, they also included Jesus in their devotional practice in ways that were without precedent in Jewish tradition and that were otherwise reserved for God.  Crucially, all indications are that this was not an issue between Paul and Jerusalem.

Now there are differing approaches to accounting for this.  Traditionally, scholars have sought to invoke circumstantial factors:  e.g., Bousset’s reference to divinized heroes in pagan settings such as Antioch.  To be sure, circumstances and settings are important.  But sometimes (actually, surprisingly often) significant religious innovations are also the result of internal factors in the group in which the innovation appears.  I’ve referred to examples of this in the history of religion in my essay, “Religious Experience and Religious Innovation in the New Testament,” which is included in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? (2005, pp. 179-204), originally published in the Journal of Religion 80 (2000), 183-205.

So, in addition to attending adequately to the historical data, we also should develop models of religious developments that are built up inductively from examples across time.  Often, religious developments aren’t simply one group aping another, or blindly reflecting their cultural setting.  History is more complicated than that!


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  1. Walter Sobchak permalink

    No doubt that the idea of a second divine person was anathema to the rabbinic circles of 1st century Jerusalem, but there were also a great many Hellenized Jews to whom the ideas of divine human heroes and human divine emperors were familiar. For these people, assimilating the Jewish idea of a anointed king (messiah) into a Hellenistic framework as a divine being should not have been a stretch.

    • Er, ah, what particular Hellenized Jews so ready to accommodate pagan notions and practices do you have in mind? Let’s take Philo as a prime example of a Diaspora Jew, apparently educated the Hellenistic standards and familiar with Greek learning. As practically any recent study of Philo shows, he seems, nevertheless, to have been fiercely loyal to the core religious traditions that identified Judaism, among which avoidance of the worship of any figure other than the one God was central. If you need some bibliography, see the following illustrative recent studies:
      Jutta Leonhardt, Jewish Worship in Philo of Alexandria, TSAJ, no. 84 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001); Larry W. Hurtado, “Does Philo Help Explain Christianity?,” in Philo und das Neue Testament, ed. Roland Deines and Karl-Wilhelm Niebuhr (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 73-92; Ian W. Scott, “Is Philo’s Moses a Divine Man?,” Studia Philonica Annual 14 (2002): 87-111.
      Finally, as I indicated in the posting (and have demonstrated in numerous publications over 25+ years), the apparent provenance of origin of the pronounced Jesus-devotion reflected in Paul’s letters was among Jewish believers, Aramaic-speaking, and based in Roman Judea . . . not among supposedly (and dubiously) more “liberal” Diaspora Jews.

      • On Philo, perhaps I can mention also my article recently published in the Festschrift for Max Turner: “Moses as ‘God’ in Philo of Alexandria: A Precedent for Christology?,” in I. Howard Marshall, Volker Rabens and Cornelis Bennema ed., The Spirit and Christ in the New Testament and Christian Theology: Essays in Honor of Max Turner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012) 246-265.

      • Any contribution from you, Richard, most welcome!

      • Prof. Hurtado and Prof. Bauckham, thank you for pointing out those references. I’ve learned so much from and inspired by both your works on early high Christology!

      • Walter Sobchak permalink

        I wouldn’t expect an educated man like Philo to entertain heretical ideas. But we know from the Talmudic writings (yes, they are not narrative history or sociology) that there were ordinary Jews who were to some degree Hellenized, who attended the baths, theaters, and gymnasiums. Herod built such venues during his reign. Hillel is recorded as having been to a bath. Jews were not kept in vacuum bottles in Eretz Yisroel in that era.

      • Of course, urban Jews attended baths, etc. The question is how many diaspora Jews (I mean those who continued to identify themselves as Jews) could countenance their own participation in the cultic worship of figures other than their own national deity. I repeat: I dealt with this sort of question quite directly in my 1988 book, One God, one Lord, and it hasn’t been overturned since…so it just might be correct! Crucial: We have to distinguish between non-cultic cultural assimilation by Jews and cultic assimilation.
        From all we know, the reaction of Jews of the diaspora or elsewhere to hero-worship and king-worship, was no different than their reaction to the worship of other gods–abhorance. Moreover, if hellenized Jews (and all Jews of the Hellenistic period were hellenized Jews, just as all Jews today are modern Jews) were supposedly disposed by their religious environment to approve the incorporation of some second figure along with God in their devotional life, shouldn’t we see examples of this other than early Jesus-devotion? We don’t. So, there has to be another variable factor beyond the environment in this particular case. Simple science.

      • John Barclay’s book Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora is very good on degrees of Jewish assimilation to hellenistic culture. He concludes that, whatever the degree of assimilation, non-involvement in pagan cult, circumcision, food laws and Sabbath were integral to Jewish identity. Non-compromise in these areas was reinforced by the fact that Jews in the diaspora lived in well-defined Jewish communities.

  2. Patrick permalink

    Wouldn’t James’ post resurrection eyewitness of Christ and his murder documented by Josephus also be evidence of early Jewish believers seeing Jesus as Divine in some manner if not exactly co-regent of Yahweh in creation as John later shows?

    There’s a book written by an orthodox Jew named Segal, “2 Powers in Heaven” which details how ancient Jews did understand there was “POSSIBLY” more than one Yahweh, they just couldn’t figure out if it was 2 Yahweh’s or 1 in 2 different manifestations, 1 visible, 1 invisible.

    So, even in 30 AD the idea of possibly 2 Yahweh’s or 1 in 2 forms in Jewish theology was known if Segal’s research is valid and the Christian theologians saw Jesus as Yahweh in that regard fairly easily post resurrection, IMO.

    • A resurrection appearance, such as that ascribed to James and others by Paul (1 Cor 15:1-6) doesn’t in itself = a divine status of the individual appearing. All it means is divine vindication of the individual. Something more was needed. (Actually, I’ve written about this quite a lot in serious publications, and so I really must ask that readers take account of what’s out there. This blog site isn’t a substitute for serious reading!)
      Secondly, Alan Segal (a dearly missed personal friend) did write an important study, Two Powers in Heaven (1977). But you vastly over-simplify his findings, and distort them thereby. Essentially, he shows that in rabbinic reports of Jewish “two powers heresies” there appear to be an earlier type and a later type. The earlier type (two complimentary divine beings) he proposes was likely Jewish Christians, who were regarded as treating Jesus as a second divine being (thereby violating God’s uniqueness). The later type of “two powers heresy” Segal proposed was likely some kind of “gnostic” view, in which there appear to have been two opposing divine beings. (And Alan wasn’t actually orthodox, but a more liberal Jew.)
      From Philo of Alexandria we have reference to a “second god”, which takes us back to the early lst century, but in context this is largely conceptual and rhetorical. Most importantly, there is no indication that Philo knew or approved the worship of any second being. Again, I’ve dealt with all this evidence quite in depth in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and ancient Jewish Monotheism (rev. ed. 1998). So, once more, I must ask truly interested readers to read what’s already been quite adequately written on relevant matters. The internet isn’t a substitute for serious research.

  3. Dr. Hurtado, I’m curious, have you engaged at all with Daniel Boyarin’s recent work on Christology?

    • In an earlier posting, I drew attention to the extended review of Boyarin’s latest book by Peter Schafer:
      I’ve not engaged him in published form, but a couple of years ago or so we had an extended set of email exchanges. At the time, I found his analysis of early christology seriously and surprisingly flawed. E.g., he seemed to think that “Logos” christology was the earliest expression of a view of Jesus as in some way divine. That’s just so eccentric. I found Schafer’s rather direct and critical review pretty reflective of my own views of Boyarin’s earlier christological statements.

  4. Larry,

    The argument for an early “high Christology” hinges, if I understand you correctly, on a fairly accurate dating for Paul and a fairly accurate dating for Jesus’ death.

    Now, of course, either Luke or Matthew seems to have messed up the birth dating by a decade or so: Herod’s reign vs. the census under Quirinius. So, how certain are we that there is not a similar mix-up in Jesus’ death date? After all, the only mention of Pilate outside of the Gospels (and Acts) is in 1 Timothy, which, I understand, was not written by Paul.

    I find it intriguing that the “mythicists” (e.g., Doherty and Wells) use the early high Christology as evidence that Jesus did not exist at all, since there was, supposedly, not enough time for such a high Christology to develop. Incidentally, I am not a mythicist (or for that matter, whatever the opposite is): I honestly do not know the answer to how certain we are of Jesus’ death date or that this date was not mixed up, as the birth date was.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • Dave,
      The argument for an “early high christology” rests upon textual evidence that, irrespective of when we date Jesus’ death, takes us back to within ca. 20 yrs max thereafter. And BTW, the uncertainty over Jesus’ death isn’t a matter of decades but a typically a few years one way or another. See, e.g., the posting on the matter by my colleague, Dr. Helen Bond, on the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins blog site:

      As she notes, we have to date Paul’s activities from a very few years at most after Jesus’ death, and his letters from ca. 50 CE. So, there isn’t a lot of time to play with. But, please, I do find it a bit uncomfortable to have the “mythicists” that you mention (none of whom has any standing in the field of Christian origins) in a serious discussion of things.

    • Paul D. permalink

      I wonder how much reason there is to firmly date Paul’s writings to c. 50 CE. We know very little about his life and death from his epistles, and the apocryphal writings on which church tradition rests, along with Acts of the Apostles, seem to be mostly fiction. Furthermore, there are a few passages (usually considered interpolations) that appear to be post-70.

      I find an early Paul to be entirely plausible, and he is certainly earlier than the gospels. But assuming a date to the 40s or 50s simply to prove something else seems a little bold. (Just trying to judge things on the evidence and keep an open mind.)

      • An open mind is good! But one opens one’s mind to get good information and critical judgement. In this case, there is a strong body of work on Paul’s chronology, by a variety of scholars, over a number of decades, and there is, to my knowledge, no significant disagreement that (1) Paul’s “conversion” happened within the first few years after Jesus’ death, (2) that his “gentile mission” likely commenced sometime in the 40s (at the latest), and that the earliest of his epistles (widely thought to be 1 Thess, with some plumping for Gal) should be dated ca. 50 CE.
        A key archaeological datum is the Gallio inscription, which refers to the figure mentioned in Acts 18.

        For some sample bibliography: A. J. M. Wedderburn, “Keeping Up with Recent Studies VIII. Some Recent Pauline Chronologies,” The Expository Times 92 (1980-1981): 1-3-108; Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer, Paul Between Damascus and Antioch: The Unknown Years, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM Press, 1997); Rainer Riesner, Paul’s Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998 [German original, 1994]).

        I don’t posit an early date to prove anything. I take the commonly accepted dating of Paul and then reason out the implications for certain questions. The point of Hengel’s classic essay, “New Testament Chronology and Christology,” was that scholars hadn’t adequately faced the implications of the chronology that is commonly accepted.
        I know of no proposals about interpolations in Paul’s letters that pertain to his christological beliefs or devotional practices.

  5. Dr. Hurtado – For reference, what is the forthcoming book that this post is responding to?

    • As I haven’t read the book myself, I can’t cite it with confidence. The issue is what I have to say, not what the book may or may not say.

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