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Early Jesus-Devotion: Continuing Discussion

December 7, 2012

In an earlier posting I noted the publication of a volume in which appear papers from a colloquium on my book, Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (2003, hereafter “LJC“), held in Berlin in 2005 (along with papers from a similar colloquium in Berlin held in 2007 on the book by Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer, Jesus und das Judentum, 2007):  Reflections on the Early Christian History of Religion / Erwägungen zur frühchristlichen Religionsgeschichte, eds. Cilliers Breytenbach & Jörg Frey (Leiden:  Brill, 2013).

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been reading through the four presentations that engage my work, and I thought I’d report on the results (especially for those readers without German).  I’m honored highly and grateful to have the time and attention given by such important scholars.  All of them are kind and offer compliments about LJC, which is obviously very encouraging given the considerable effort that I put into it.  But I also want to note where they lodge some criticisms, places where I’ll want to give those matters further thought.  I’ll summarize as concisely as I can in what follows.

The first and largest contribution is by Jörg Frey, “Eine neue religionsgeschichtliche Perspektive:  Larry W. Hurtados Lord Jesus Christ und die Herausbildung der frühen Christologie” (pp. 117-69).   In the first section of his discussion, Frey engages the question of whether LJC reflects a “new history-of-religions” school of thought, noting important differences from the older “Schule” of the early 20th century, and rightly pointing out the wider number of scholars who take an approach somewhat similar to mine. He also notes as an early influence the work of Martin Hengel, especially his important small book, The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion (ET, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976).

In his second section, Frey assesses LJC in comparison/dialogue with Wilhelm Bousset’s classic, Kyrios Christos (1913, ET 1970), probably the single most influential book on the origins of Jesus-devotion in the 20th century.  Frey accurately highlights the major emphases and results of my study here, e.g., the emphasis that the origins of Jesus-devotion lie in circles of Jewish believers in the Jewish homeland (contra Bousset, not in diaspora settings), the emphasis on worship-practice as particularly significant, the factors that I propose prompted and shaped earliest Jesus-devotion, the proposal that Jewish traditions of “divine agents” provided earliest believers with conceptual resources for how to accommodate Jesus as a distinguishable figure alongside God, and how earliest Jesus-devotion represents a significant “mutation” in Jewish “divine agent” traditions.

In the final section, Frey engages Pauline data as a “test-case”, arriving at conclusions that heavily affirm those that I reached.  As a former student of Hengel, Frey again rightly here notes how Hengel’s studies have been foundational and influential.

Jens Schröter, “Trinitarian Belief, Binitarian Monotheism, and the One God:  Reflections on the Origin of Christian Faith in Affiliation to Larry Hurtado’s Christological Approach” (171-94) focuses on “earliest traces of faith in the Trinitarian God in New Testament texts” (171).  He argues that we can speak of a “Trinitarian horizon” in Paul’s thinking at various points, his discourse programmatically featuring God, Jesus and God’s Spirit, the set-piece example, of course, being 2 Cor 13:13.

My only complaint about Schröter’s discussion comes in where he incorrectly claims that I support the view that “Jewish traditions about divine agents . . . would have weakened the monotheistic character of Jewish religion and prepared the ground for an ‘angelomorphic Christology'” (176 and n. 17).  I’ve never myself proposed that interest in “divine agents” represents any weakening of Jewish “monotheism,” but instead have insisted that 2nd-temple Jewish tradition reflected a rather robust concern to protect God’s uniqueness, especially in worship.  Otherwise, I am happy to report that the major results of Schröter’s analysis are congruent with my own.

Perhaps the most critical assessment of parts of LJC is given by Christoph Markschies, “‘Radical Diversity’?  Ein Gespräch mit Larry Hurtado über verschiedene Formen der Christusverehrung im zweiten Jahrhundert” (195-210).  Markschies (a highly-regarded expert in early Christianity, especially in Valentinianism and “gnostic” streams) interrogates my discussion in chap. 9 especially, and whether it is correct to refer to Valentinianism and Marcion as comprising “radical diversity”.   After some kind words in general about LJC, he then proceeds to press three questions: (1) Is the paradigm of “radical diversity” really appropiate? (He argues it is not.) (2) Have I accurately enough portrayed Valentinian and Marcionite theological views? (He contends that I have not, and that, e.g., the apparent plurality in deities ascribed to these circles is really only a colorful way of referring to the plural aspects of the one Deity.)  (3) Don’t we know more about 2nd-century Christian religion and piety than I have conveyed?  (He answers briefly, yes, there is more that I could have included.)

Given the considerable respect that I have for Markschies’ expertise in the matters that he discusses, I hesitate to attempt any correction of what he argues.  He is certainly correct that there is more to say than I provide in LJC about the forms of early Christianity in question.  He may well be right also that I have not perceived with sufficient subtlety the nuances of Valentianian or Marcionite theology, and particularly how to interpret their mythological narratives.  I will have to give his criticisms more thought; the authority with which he writes requires it.  For now, I will only note that, whatever one makes of Valentinus and Valentinians, there still seem to me reasons for seeing Marcion’s theological views as comprising something quite distinguishable from the emergent “proto-orthodox” view, especially their respective views of “God”.  I note, e.g.,  Sebastian Moll, , The Arch-Heretic Marcion, WUNT 2.250 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010).

Hermut Löhr, “‘Binitarian Worship’?  Zur impliziten Theologie des frühchristlichen Gottesdienstes.  Dargestellt an Justin, 1 Apol. 61-67″ (211-29), argues mainly that early Christian worship reflected in the NT and, more fully, in Justin Martyr is clearly theo-centric, prayer and praise typically directed to “God”, and Jesus posited typically as the agent through whom worship is offered.   Jesus is not typically treated as recipient of direct worship in his own right.  On the one hand, this is not terribly different from what I’ve noted from my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, onward.  Jesus is typically reverenced with reference to “God”, not as a second (and certainly not as a rival) deity, but as the unique agent/expression of the one God.  On the other hand, I would probably underscore another observation made by Löhr (p. 228-29) that the place of Jesus in early Christian devotional/worship practices is distinctive, particularly in comparison with the Jewish matrix in which it first appeared.

Overall, especially on questions about when this remarkable Jesus-devotion first appeared and how significant it was in its historical context, I am pleased to note that all these scholars seem essentially to subscribe to the sort of position that I lay out in LJC.  There are some things for further thought, and possible revision (especially thinking of Markschies’s critique about certain 2nd-century developments).  But no work, even one that reflects some 20+ years of research and analysis, is likely to be flawless or incapable of being improved.  One of the images I had as I wrote LJC was a big ship like an aircraft carrier, that could take a few hits but not sink.  I hope that it is not too soon to feel that maybe LJC will keep sailing, and that in the main it’s a valid contribution to our understanding of early Jesus-devotion.

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  1. Mark A. Matson permalink

    Larry, just a couple of quick notes. I used your LJC as a textbook in a seminary class on NT Theology in conversation with Bousset, and must report the students found it very persuasive.

    More recently I just finished reviewing Daniel Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels” — which is a nice summary and application to the NT of some of his various articles on “Two Powers” and the parting of the ways. His approach is, I think, very sympathetic to yours — that is that the early high christology is very Jewish. Indeed he finds the NT christology to be not incompatible with the varieties or range of belief in 2nd temple Judaism (he shrinks from the term “judaisms” preferring to discuss the range of approaches found in ancient judaism).

    I know your LJC barely touches on Boyarin, probably because it pre-dates much of Boyarin’s recent writing. Any thoughts on this material?

    • Dear Mark,
      There are (I think we both agree) certain similarities between Boyarin’s work and mine on early Jesus-devotion, but also some differences that I regard significant. (We’ve exchanged emails over these matters.) To mention a couple of things briefly: Boyarin seems to me to focus (unwisely, to my mind) too much on intellectual developments (e.g., the Logos as christological category) and on things far too late, ignoring (for some curious reason) earlier phenomena that seem to me far more significant historically. Specifically, he has little-or-nothing to say about the rich (but scattered) evidence in Paul’s letters of an already-developed christological stance and devotional practice in which Jesus has an extraordinary and unprecedented place. Indeed, Boyarin seems to discount the significance of cultic/devotional practice, which I regard as a serious mistake when it comes to assessing ancient religion, and when it concerns Jewish religion in particular. So, in short, he seems to me to miss what is in fact the really big story (already reflected in Paul’s letters) imagining instead that the later stuff he focuses on is it.

      Second, and related, he seems to me to want to play down and even ignore the clear indications of tensions between Jesus-affirming Jews and other Jews in the first century. To be sure, there were different movements in the rich and diverse 2nd-temple Jewish tradition, but I know of no evidence of a similarly disruptive development such as represented in the early Jesus-movement. Beginning with Saul of Tarsus’ own violent efforts to “destroy” (his word) the young Jesus movement, there continue to be indications that it was regarded as outrageous and exceptionally so. As I’ve shown in a publication some years ago: Larry W. Hurtado, “Pre-70 C.E. Jewish Opposition to Christ-Devotion,” JTS 50 (1999): 35-58, republished in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?, pp. 152-78.

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