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On Being Understood (about the Origins of Jesus-Devotion)

January 18, 2013

It’s discouraging to be misunderstood.  It happens to others as well.  In some cases it may seem entirely accountable to the way that some express their views, e.g., with vague or complicated prose.  But, as one of the compliments that I’ve often received (and with much satisfaction) is that I write fairly clear prose, it’s all the more curious when I find that I’ve been unsuccessful with some reader who obviously is skilled and concerned to grasp what I’m trying to say. 

One of the topics on which, more than once, I’ve experienced this is how to account for the eruption of such a vibrant devotion to Jesus, including the incorporation of Jesus so centrally in the cultic devotion of circles of believers.  From my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (1988, 2nd ed 1998), onward, in several publications, I’ve laid out what I propose are the major “forces and factors” that likely shaped devotion to Jesus and the ways it was expressed, underscoring that we must posit “a dynamic (and varying) combination” of them.  In my 2003 book, Lord Jesus Christ, I’ve probably discussed the matter most fully to date, pp. 27-78. The four forces/factors that I propose there are “Jewish Monotheism” (exhbited particularly in the “cultic exclusivity” practiced typically among Jews, and then among Christians too), “Jesus” (particularly the impact of Jesus upon contemporaries, both friendly and hostile), “Religious Experience” (particularly experiences perceived by recipients as “revelatory” in nature), and “the Religious Environment” (of the larger Roman era).

In my analyis of “ancient Jewish monotheism”, with a number of other scholars, I’ve noted that in the second-temple period Jewish concern about “one God” was also able to accommodate this or that figure as a kind of “principal agent” or “vizier”, set over God’s retinue of angels, etc, and in various ways second only to God.  (I’ve laid out the specifics at some length in One God, one Lord.)  But I’ve also emphasized as crucial that none of these figures is incorporated into the devotional life of ancient Jews in ways that really compare with the role of Jesus in the devotional life of earliest Christian circles.  That is, the decisive new thing about Jesus in these circles (in my view) is precisely that:  He is quickly and programmatically incorporated into their devotional practice (the specifics laid out likewise in One God, One Lord).

I do propose that ancient Jewish “principal agent” traditions may have provided earliest Jesus-followers with a conceptual category of sorts, the idea that there might be one figure who is God’s “vizier” or chief agent.  It seems to me that the christological rhetoric that we find in the NT shows this:  Jesus referred to as God’s unique “son” and/or “word”, messiah, etc. 

But, equally, this principal agent tradition can’t account for the ways in which Jesus is incorporated into the devotional practice of early believers, the way he receives what looks like “worship”.  Something else is required additionally.  I’ve proposed that this apparently distinctive “mutation” in devotional practice was prompted by convictions that God wished Jesus to receive this devotion.  Further, I’ve proposed that these convictions were generated in religious experiences that struck recipients with the force of “revelation”.  In an article published over a decade ago, I’ve laid out more fully my reasoning and the bases (including attention to studies of other major religious innovations):  “Religious Experience and Religious Innovation in the New Testament,” Journal of Religion 80 (2000):  183-205 (republished in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? 2005, pp. 179-204).

It’s a bit of a puzzle and disappointment, therefore, that occasionally I’ve found my position characterized as ascribing the worship of Jesus to Jewish principal agent traditions.  And then, of course, the inadequacy of principal agent traditions is pointed out by way of critique.  In the way indicated, I do emphasize principal agent traditions as significant (although my friend, Richard Bauckham, disputes this), but I have never ascribed the worship of Jesus to principal agent traditions.

My proposal about the crucial role of revelatory experiences has received some criticism, to be sure.  That’s fine, and one can’t object to critical scrutiny.  But I do prefer to have critics actually address accurately what I’ve said.  That makes for such more helpful conversation:-).

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  1. It really does seem very obvious that early Christians, after Jesus had been executed, regarded him as a figure to be worshipped.

  2. Mark permalink

    Thanks Larry for your thoughtful response.

    Did Jesus demand worship as God? If not, why is “Jesus worship” nearly universal? Answering that question as regards the ancient world would be one thing, for the contemporary church another. This, like so many other aspects of scripture; heaven, hell, demons, angels, etc. for contemporary Christians tends to be, primarily, the product of “blind faith” and a whole lot of inferring from scripture. Those inferences form the basis of core doctrines for the church. Which church? The broad mainstream as defined by the loudest voices in the room, meaning; mainstream evangelicals, Christian televangelists and the growing number of prosperity oriented super churches. That this was done in ancient times without historical review or the scientific method was reasonable, since neither discipline existed two thousand years ago, at least not in the way we understand them in a post enlightenment world. However, it still appears to be the preferred method for many Christians today, a variation on the idea of “sola scriptura”. Take a bit of Genesis, thrown in a Psalm or two, add in a heaping helping of the Gospel of John, a pinch of Revelations, mix liberally, and you have doctrine. Once you add the witness of the Holy Spirit, infallibility is just around the corner.

    It reminds me of the cliches used in films. The detective searches for a serial killer by looking for a pattern using a map and some push-pins. There’s that moment when the pattern reveals itself as the push-pins create an outline and the music swells heightening the drama. It works well for a movie, but, seems awfully vague when ideas like; eternal salvation and eternal damnation are allegedly at stake.

    I recognize that many of these central doctrines are reflected in the earliest traditions of the church, including “Jesus worship”. So, how do we translate the beliefs of an ancient culture in a scientific age? Or, to put it another way; how does the scholar reconcile his faith? Faith alone, or blind faith, would seem insufficient. Peeling away the layers of superstition to find a core of truth beneath the rhetoric would seem necessary. I understand that you’re doing that as a scholar. But, as a believer how do you reconcile the two; virgin births, walking on water and the dead rising, walking the streets along with a risen Jesus. Do these stories reflect history? Or, are they form of apocalyptic, didactic preaching and storytelling?—as N.T. Wright would say “A sign post pointing into a fog!”

    • Mark: Your (lengthy!) comment seems to reflect a real concern on your part, and a reasonable one, about how to think about Christian faith today. Thoughtful believers must face the issue, and do in various ways. You seem not to have much experience with those who do, to judge from your summary description of what you portray as churches/Christians. Much as I sympathize with the issue, it isn’t the focus of this blog site, which, instead, is focused more on disseminating results of historical study of the NT and Christian origins. All I will say is that things are a bit more complicated than you pose them (e.g., “history . . . or . . .”), that you may pose false dilemmas, and that there are thoughtful Christians out there who show full regard for the historically-conditioned nature of the NT and Christian faith and also find a reality and authenticity in these texts and the sort of faith that they reflect.

  3. (I’ve chosen to interleave my responses to Ali’s questions below, rather than making a separate comment. LWH)

    Sir , i want to ask 3 questions to you and will be overjoyed if you respond to them by taking time from your busy schedule.

    1) As we know that Christianity from its very inception was not a singular one but was Christianities with different beliefs and practices , so was the early Jesus devotion a unanimous and universal feature seen among the early Christians or was it practiced by some ?
    LWH: We don’t have exhaustive evidence of ancient Christian circles, only what survives (as is true of everything from history). So, all we can do is assess what we have, which I’ve tried to do, esp. in my book, Lord Jesus Christ. I show there that devotion to Jesus as in some unique way “divine” and worthy of cultic devotion can be traced back to earliest circles (including “Jewish-Christian” circles in Roman Judea), that there then was further development across the period covered in the book (ca. 30-150 CE), and that there was also significant variation and diversity (esp. evident in late-first and second-century evidence treated in the book). We don’t have “universal” evidence, so we can’t strictly say that it was “universal” of early Christianity to treat Jesus as worthy of worship. But we can say that it was not a secondary development but appeared remarkably early and quickly, and that it seems characteristic broadly of early Christian circles that we know of.

    2) Did Jesus asked/demanded his followers to include him in the cultic worship given to God ? , if yes , then can he be considered a orthodox Jew or a fringe element ?
    –LWH: No. There is no evidence that Jesus demanded worship of himself. And the reasons given for treating him as worthy of worship in NT writings are not to do with Jesus demanding it, but are claims that God demands it, that God has exalted him to a unique status as “Kyrios” (Aramaic: “Maryah”). This is important: The basis given for Jesus-devotion in the NT is theo-centric; it is a matter of obedience to God.
    3) The 2nd temple Judaism used to include some figure as a principal agent and used to offer cultic devotion as you have shown . Now my question is how much deviated the 2nd temple Judaism is from the first temple period which used to direct all devotion to 1 God of Israel ?
    –LWH: Correction: Neither I nor others can show that “principal agent” figures received cultic devotion. From my 1988 book, One God, One Lord onward, I’ve shown that this is precisely the decisive difference between 2nd-temple “principal agent” traditions and the treatment of Jesus in earliest Christian circles. So, as I’ve put it, this incorporation of Jesus along with God, producing a “dyadic” devotional pattern, seems to represent a novel “mutation” in ancient Jewish devotional praxis, a “dyadic” form of “monotheistic” worship.

  4. Mark permalink

    Sorry for the lack of specificity. You’re correct; I did make a number of broadly generalized statements. I’m merely suggesting that Hebrew culture and belief didn’t develop in a vacuum. Does any culture?

    Can we explain Jesus worship as an expression of Greek and Roman influences? Yes! Are there problems with that hypothesis? Absolutely!

    I am a Christian that is troubled by the idea that Christianity rests primarily on “Christ worship” as opposed to following the teachings of Jesus, which is what a disciple was expected to do. The problem of the doctrine of Jesus as God, as I see it, is that it’s beyond evidence. What is absolutely provable, however, is that Jesus is, according to approximately half of the human race, the central figure in history. How did that happen? How did a man from a small religious sect become the most influential moral teacher in history—and what is more important, the teaching, which under-girds virtually all of Western culture, or the doctrine of the godhead, heaven, hell and the afterlife?

    The church has increasingly focused on Christ worship with his teaching becoming a secondary consideration. Make a few confessions, claim allegiance to Jesus as Lord, and wait for death and resurrection seems to be the order of the day. I don’t mean to suggest that’s what you are saying. If that’s how it came across I ask your forgiveness.

    • Mark: I appreciate your candor, indicating that you’re moved primarily by your own feelings about what you perceive about contemporary Christianity, and that your statements are not based on (or motivated primarily by) the ancient evidence. A few specific points still: “Can we explain Jesus worship as an expression of Greek and Roman influences?” Only if we ignore crucial evidence, of the sort that scholars (including yours truly) have been producing and analysing for several decades! This is important: Contrary to what is sometimes paraded as a “with it” “postmodern” attitude to history, not all opinions are equally valid. What counts is evidence and the most compelling analysis of it.
      I will not here attempt to address what seem to be your concerns about whatever forms of Christianity that trouble you beyond a few simple comments. It’s not clear that “the church [which church?] has increasingly focused on Christi worship” to the exclusion of Jesus’ teaching, not clear to me anyway. Nor is it clear what form of Christianity has taught “make a few confessions” and that’s it. If that’s your experience, then church-shop elsewhere.
      No forgiveness necessary, as nothing that you said was offensive . . . simply mis-informed.

  5. As the various super powers of the age; Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome among others, vied for control of the Promised Land, the language, culture, iconography and customs of the Jews, would have, and certainly did change. From the Law of Moses, to the Temple of Solomon, the Jewish people adapted what they gleaned from the more advanced cultures that they interacted with and used it to express and further their own cultural development. Their primary innovation appears to have been; an evolving vision of a one God who could be known by observing the external world—and as their knowledge of the world deepened and changed, so did their vision of God. Out of this melting pot experience as nomads, slaves, power-players, and slaves yet again, they appeared to developed a distinctly moral, egalitarian culture. This is, even today, the unique role of the Jews wherever they settle.

    It’s interesting that the primary architects of both Judaism and Christianity, after Abraham and Jesus, were multicultural. Moses was an Egyptian/Hebrew, who studied under a Midianite priest—while Paul was a wealthy, Hellenistic, Pharisee with Roman citizenship. We should expect this cross cultural experience to be reflected in their rituals and sacrifices, as well as their idioms and expressions.

    What does this have to do with Jesus/God worship? Could a people who were monotheists ever worship multiple gods? Apparently, they did. In fact, monotheism may have been the ideal, but, it wasn’t necessarily the norm for the average Jew. Theological purity didn’t exist then, any more than it exists today. Did Paul/Saul the Hellenistic/Pharisee, citizen of Rome and Jerusalem, free-associate between contemporary paganism and Judaism?—it seems plausible, although not necessarily true. That his predecessors, the Apostles and 1st Christians did so previously, adopting the language used for Kings, Pharaohs’ and Caesars in order to challenge the prevailing worldview doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. On the other hand, I could be wrong.

    • Mark: Just a few corrections to your rather sweeping statements. At least to judge from comments of ancient “pagan” observers and critics of Jewish religion, the most distinctive and objectionable feature was probably their refusal to worship deities other than their own. You don’t offer any basis for your sweeping statements in your second paragraph. I don’t know what you mean by “theological purity”, and it sounds a bit like a red-herring anyway. What I’m talking about is cultic practice; and ancient Jews were notorious/famous for a practice of cultic exclusivity: i.e., refusing worship to any deity other than the biblical deity. Of course people adopt and adapt language (e.g., honorific titles). That’s not the point. It’s worship-practice that was the key expression of one’s “religion” in the ancient world.

  6. Mike Gantt permalink

    One possible reason that you are misunderstood on this point is that when you describe the religious experiences of Jesus’ disciples as the cause of their believing Jesus should be given a central place in the worship of Israel’s God, it raises the question of how they were able to reconcile this direction with the Hebrew Scriptures which they would have considered inviolable. Having referenced divine agent figures as part of your broader explanation, some readers might assume – even if erroneously – that you are saying such divine agents provided the precedent. Of course, you are saying that divine agent figures provided some degree of precedent but none were ever given quite the status that these earliest Christians gave to Jesus. But this then leaves unanswered the obvious question: “How were these disciples able to reconcile their religious experiences with the absence of a more precise precedent; that is, what enabled them to ‘cross the line’ into the uncharted territory of what many consider ‘worship’ in a way they could feel was supported as much by their Scriptures as by their religious experiences?” I think the more you talk about this aspect, the less room it will leave for confusion…at least on this point.

    • Mike: Well, yes, it is a very interesting historical puzzle that these early Jesus-followers reached the conviction that God required them to reverence Jesus as they did. We can’t peer into their minds, and they didn’t leave minutes of their thinking. But we do have what I take to be “artifacts” of these developments. I think particularly of references to “revelations”, “visions”, etc., which suggest collectively what I’ve described as a “religious micro-climate” in which believers expected new insights and revelations, plausibly connected with their sense of eschatology. The Qumran folk seem to reflect a somewhat similar sense, with new insights and distinctive ideas there too. The other sort of artifact is the various OT passages give a creative reading in NT texts, e.g, of course Psa 110:1-2, but also Isa 45:20-25 (in Philip 2:9-11), and Psa 16, just to name a few. So, I take this to mean that one venue or situation in which these revelations came was in pondering (prayerfully and expectantly) biblical passages that had been understood in one way, but suddenly to their eyes opened up in a new direction.

  7. Interesting coincidence. I had just today written a summary blog post of your chapter on “Forces and Factors” and when I saw this post’s title I had a panic moment thinking I may have misunderstood you. Good to see that I haven’t.

  8. Judy Diehl permalink

    Larry, from what I discern, Jesus felt the same thing. Nobody understood him in the Fourth Gospel. You are in good company. I think you have made your position quite clear; but, like the Pharisees, some chose to misunderstand.

    • July, I would strongly dissent from your statement, even though I know it’s meant kindly. I don’t want to accuse fellow scholars of such willful misconstrual. Being misunderstood is frustrating, but I wouldn’t demonize things this way.

  9. Benjamin Davis permalink

    Dr. Hurtado:

    I have enjoyed reading your blog posts and I thank you for taking time to share your knowledge with us. I have learned a great deal from your posts in only a few months and I look forward to interacting more with your ideas in the future.

    After studying philosophy for many years (political philosophy, specifically), I have now turned my attention and efforts to biblical studies and theology. In that regard, I am consuming as many books and journal articles as I can get my hands on in an effort to grasp the aims and purposes of the Bible as a whole, but also each of it’s constituent books. At this point I am focusing my attention on the gospels, earnesly learning about their commonalities and differences. I have just purchased your commenatry on the book of Mark, and also Graham Stanton’s book on Matthew, but I am looking for other good books for all the gospels and don’t know where to turn. Would you please offer some suggestions of books and authors that you find especially intriguing so that I may begin to study them? And if there are other books, too, dealing with the NT, OT or individual topics which you think I should read, please include them as well.

    I would greatly appreciate any help you can give.

    Best wishes,


    • Ben: One piece of advice is to make good reference works your core purchases, such as these:
      Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. J. B. Green et al.
      Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. G. F. Hawthorne et al.

      Such works tend to have extended articles on all key matters written by specialists in the subject, and they also have bibliographies (which, however, date over the years, but are still valuable).

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