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“Revelatory” Experiences and Religious Innovation

April 15, 2013

I returned Saturday from a trip to the USA, made primarily for invited lectures in Houston,Texas.  Hence, the lack of recent postings here.  My first lecture was the Burkitt Lecture for 2013, sponsored by the Department of Religion, Rice University.  My subsequent two lectures were the A. O. Collins lectures in Houston Baptist University.  I’ll say something about them in a subsequent posting.  In this posting, I highlight the basic thrust of my Rice University lecture:  “Revelatory Expriences and Religious Innovation in Earliest Christianity.”

In the lecture I underscored and developed an emphasis that I first set out in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, that one of the key factors involved in the striking innovation represented by the inclusion of Jesus as recipient of devotion along with God was powerful religious experiences that struck recipients as “revelations”.  In my 1998 T. W. Manson lecture (Manchester University), I developed that emphasis further, drawing on social-scientific studies showing the frequent connection between significant religious innovations and “revelatory” experiences:  “Religious Experience and Religious Innovation in the New Testament,” later published in Journal of Religion 80 (2000): 183-205, and re-published in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? (Eerdmans, 2005), 179-206.

I had been asked to focus on religious experience in my Rice lecture, and so took the opportunity to re-visit matters and treat in more detail some direct evidence in early Christian texts.  I began by clarifying what I mean by “revelatory” experiences, distinguishing these from other types of religious experiences.  In experiences of “revelation”, the recipient senses some significant new cognitive content, and/or some major re-configuring of previous beliefs, often with an accompanying sense of mission to proclaim the new insight/belief.  I emphasize that we don’t have to grant the religious/theological validity of the claimed revelation; we simply have to recognize the genuineness of the claim to having such experiences and the efficacy of such experiences in generating religious innovations.

I also reviewed several indications that there is a small growth in scholarly interest in religious experiences among scholars concerned with biblical texts and early Christianity.  Note, for example, the programme-unit in the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, “Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Early Christianity,” which began only a few years ago.

The key religious innovation that I’ve focused on over a couple of decades now is the remarkable inclusion of Jesus as co-recipient of devotion along with God, which is evident and taken for granted in our earliest Christian texts (the earliest of which take us back to ca. 20 years from Jesus’ execution).  This produced what I term a “dyadic devotional pattern” that seems to be novel in the ancient context in which it first emerged.  So, the historical question is how to account for it.  More specifically, how did observant Jews who shared the traditional concern for the uniquenss of the biblical God feel so ready to embrace this dyadic devotional stance?

As I’ve argued for a number of years now, it seems that they felt compelled to do so, and felt that refusing Jesus this sort of reverence would be disobedience to the one God.  In the lecture, I examined several NT passages that reflect the connection between this conviction and the powerful religious experiences that generated it.  These likely included visions of the exalted Jesus, including perhaps visions of heavenly worship, such as we have reflected in Revelation 4–5, in which the exalted Jesus receives worship.  On the ancient logic that heavenly worship was the model for earthly worship, these early believers felt compelled to follow suit

Another type of revelatory experience was what I call “charismatic exegesis” (borrowing the term from David Aune).  This likely involved experiences in which bursts of new insight about certain biblical (OT) texts suddenly emerged, probably in circles of early believers as they prayed and expected such revelations and pondered their scriptures.  The novel understanding and repeated use of Psalm 110 is a prime instance, the passage taken as reflecting God’s exaltation of Jesus to heavenly status.  The creative use of Isaiah 45:23 in Philippians 2:9-11 is another striking instance where a biblical text was read in a novel way, two figures seen as reverenced in this Isaiah text, both “God” and the “Lord”.

Of course, the experiences of early Jesus-followers were colored or shaped somewhat by their religious background.  So, e.g., their visions of the exalted Jesus likely reflected biblical references to “theophanies”, visual manifestations of God and/or angels.  But the crucial new cognitive factor was the conviction that God had exalted Jesus to heavenly glory and now required him to be reverenced in the setting of gathered worship.  This remarkable conviction in turn both identified earliest circles of what became Christianity, and distinguished their devotional pattern.

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  1. Jody permalink

    Perhaps even more direct than 1 Pet 1:21 is Heb 1:3 which describes the exalted and enthroned Son as the “radiance of the Glory and exact expression of God’s being”. This coheres well with certain apocalyptic visions of the enthroned anthropomorphic Glory of God (e.g. Isa 6; Ezek 1; 1 En. 14), and probably reflects the author’s own visions of the risen Jesus as the embodiment of divine Glory.

    • Jody: Thanks. If not a direct reflection of the author’s own experiences, his description likely reflects the reports of such experiences in early Christian circles.

  2. crispinfl permalink

    Hi, Larry, thank you for your posting and it is good to know that you are still working on the religious experience hypothesis.

    I’m interested to know whether you have more to say on the matter of social-scientific study producing a precedent or analogy for the kind of role that religious experiences played (according to your understanding) in Christological origins? I’m thinking in particular of your response to my Tyndale Bulletin review of your work in which you seem to shift your position away from an attempt to find a precedent for the monotheistic innovation in early Christianity in social scientific study of new religious movements. Or perhaps I misread your response to my critique of the attempt to find such precedent/analogy.

    Crispin (Fletcher-Louis)

    • Dear Crispin: Good to hear from you! I’m not myself aware of a significant shift in my own proposals, though I have made some changes in language (e.g., now preferring “dyadic devotional pattern” in place of “binitarian devotional pattern” to avoid misguided inferences). From my 1988 book onward I’ve contended that ancient Jewish tradition provided a key conceptual category, the “chief agent” category, drawn on by early Christians in framing their view of Jesus as principal agent of God. But I’ve also judged that the really noteworthy innovation, for which “chief agent” traditions don’t provide a true precedent or analogy, was the “dyadic” devotional pattern in which Jesus was programmatically incorporated as recipient of cultic veneration along with God (e.g., One God, One Lord, 115).
      From the 1988 book onward, I’ve also pointed to phenomenological analogies in other religious developments and the emergence of religious innovations arising from, or linked closely to, “revelatory” religious experiences (e.g., One God, One Lord, 126-27, citing there work by Stark and others). This I took up more earnestly in my T.W. Manson lecture, published now in How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? (179-204), in which I probed further social-scientific studies of religious innovations.
      In short, I propose both conceptual resources in, and continuities with, ancient Jewish tradition, and also genuine innovation (invoking particularly “revelatory” religious experiences as a factor generating it).

  3. Deane permalink

    Very interesting. There’s a kind of paradoxical conservatism at work in revelatory developments, do you think? While on the one hand there is in early Christianity the “new” development of an unparalleled degree of worship of a figure alongside God in Judaism [perhaps you might phrase that a little differently], on the other hand it is not too difficult to trace the already existing traditions which the minds of those people who had revelatory experiences drew upon to construct the “new” development (esp. veneration of divine agents and intermediaries, Jesus’s claim to be the most important of such figures, belief they were living at the very end of history, martyrdom and resurrection traditions, etc). Also, while there is a claim for a new revelatory insight, it seems to be accompanied by a partial disavowal of the determination of that revelation by tradition (and Paul would be the prime early example of someone who makes both the claim and disavowal). So there is a conservatism in revelatory experiences, as I think Katz termed it, which nonetheless can produce something genuinely new. Or do you disagree?

    • Deane: If I understand you aright, yes, “revelatory” experiences/developments typically exhibit a connection with the “parent” tradition and also observable innovation(s). This seems to be the case with earliest Christianity. I offered a rather detailed analysis of the matter in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Fortress/SCM, 1988; reprint ed., T&T Clark, 1998). There I noted the impressive place given in ancient Jewish thought to what I called “chief agent” figures (e.g., high angels, OT worthies, personified divine attributes), which suggests a readiness to allow for God having such a “vizier”. But, importantly, I judge that none of these figures was the recipient of the sort of constellation of devotional actions that comprise the way Jesus was venerated in earliest Christian circles. Especially in the actions integral to early Christian corporate worship, I see nothing that matches the place of Jesus or that serves as a true precedent.

      • Deane permalink

        I agree that Christian devotion to Jesus is of a higher level than devotion to intermediaries by Jewish contemporaries, at least at some stage in the first century after his death. My thought, perhaps expressed a bit opaquely above, was that such religious innovation is not inconsistent with explanation of that innovation entirely in terms of existing cultural practices, beliefs, etc. To the contrary, innovation is better accounted for, paradoxically, as an attempt to apply existing practices and beliefs for new circumstances. I was attempting to apply here a regular insight in works on HB/OT inner-biblical interpretation (including mantological exegesis): new and innovative writings are frequently attempts to apply authoritative traditions from the past to the exigencies of the present, with their authors tending to still claim faithfulness to past tradition, even a more authentic faithfulness to past tradition. So in the case of a devotee of Christ from, say, AD 100, while I would affirm that there is an innovative level of worship in a writing such as the Gospel of John, is this not entirely explicable in terms of the development of existing Jewish traditions (including what Jesus said about himself, as transmitted and developed)? Accepting that revelatory experiences may have contributed to the process of the formation of such innovative beliefs and practices, I don’t see any necessary inconsistency with explaining the revelatory experiences and beliefs/practices which resulted from them as determined in toto by pre-existing beliefs and practices. Or is there a necessary inconsistency? That is, are you are saying that these early Christian revelatory experiences which contributed to an innovative worship of Christ are explicable only in terms of something beyond material explanations?

        Thank you in advance for your answer. I read your book some time ago, but spend considerably more time in HB/OT these days, and in any case I am not clear on how you would answer that last question in particular.

      • Deane: As I’ve indicated repeatedly in several publications now, at a phenomenological level, the “revelatory” experiences (and their social effects) of early Christians are roughly similar to those identified as factors in the emergence of other significant religious innovations. And, to repeat, one doesn’t have to accept the religious/theological claims involved in these experiences to grant that the recipients really had the experiences and that they have been efficacious in prompting religious innovations.
        On your other point, with quite a number of others now, I contend that the crucial development of cultic devotion to Jesus erupted within the first few years (or less!) after Jesus’ execution. The letters of Paul (ca. 50-60 CE) already presuppose Jesus as having received divine glory and so rightly to be so reverenced. we certainly don’t have to wait till the Gospel of John!
        Moreover, we’re not talking about some sort of exegetical work such as that practiced by scribes and rabbis, but a remarkable and unprecedented development: The conviction that God has exalted a figure (Jesus) to unique status, sharing divine glory, divine name, divine throne, and God now requiring him to be accorded cultic reverence. This sort of convication moves well beyond anything in 2nd temple Judaism, and in terms of that tradition was an astonishing development.

  4. ‘This likely involved experiences in which bursts of new insight about certain biblical (OT) texts suddenly emerged, probably in circles of early believers as they prayed and expected such revelations and pondered their scriptures. ‘

    I think this is a very important insight, and an insight that is grossly underestimated by many New Testament scholars.

  5. Was there ever a moment in the long history of the Jews before Jesus, a singular, Jewish worldview? A time when their beliefs and practices coalesced into a more or less finished form. Or, was their culture and their beliefs constantly changing as their circumstance changed?

    From tribal nomads to slaves, from freemen to farmers, to a Bronze Age industrial and military power and eventually slaves again–that is a lot territory to cover. Think of America when it was 13 colonies, and, as it is today. How has our vision of God changed in 400 years, as opposed to a thousand years or more of the Israel of Jesus’ time?

    A recurring theme throughout the Hebrew Bible is their struggle with idolatry. One that they seemed to lose as often as not. All of the prophets appear to be written from this perspective, culminating with the Babylonian captivity and its aftermath.

    Is it possible that the earliest Jews who accepted Jesus as being something like co-equal with God reflected that small portion that was given to worshiping foreign gods and was a long part of Jewish history? They certainly had a historical frame of reference for god/king worship dating to at least the time of Pharaoh and Moses.

    It would appear that they adapted the language of the colonial powers and applied it to Jesus as a means of protest against the Jewish leadership’s collusion with Rome. Meaning, that the Jews that accepted Jesus as God were the heretical few, not the “faithful” many. More than a few poor Jews may have been favorable to Jesus’ teaching, but leery about such a radical departure form their traditions as they had come to understand them. Marcus Borg’s and John Dominic Crossan’s “The Last Days” makes this point in greater detail.

    That would mean that the original Jesus movement was a political, social and religious movement of radicals, marginalized Jews and gentiles that crossed social, economic and cultural barriers. I’m not implying some proto-Marxism. Jesus’ expression of God and worship as something more meaningful than an adherence to an increasingly strict Legal code of rituals and sacrifices was not only freeing, but trans formative. This offered a very stark contrast with the religious practices and personal behavior of the Pharisees.

    As always, thanks Larry for your wonderful scholarship that is so freely given and a forum to express it in.

    • Mark: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. A couple of brief responses if I may. First, the question isn’t whether Jews/Israel had ever committed idolatry, or even whether in some earlier period they weren’t particularly “monotheistic”. It’s pretty clear that the worship of other deities than YHWH was perhaps even dominant in pre-exilic Israel & Judah. As I’ve proposed in a forthcoming article in Journal of Ancient Judaism, it is particularly in the Hellenistic and Roman period that we see the most firm and combatively “monotheistic” stance in matters of worship. The question, thus, is what characterized Jewish religious practice contemporary with the origins of Christianity, not what may have been the case a few centuries earlier.
      Second, it’s also irrelevant whether there were apostate Jews who worshipped other gods. Of course there were, e.g., Philo’s nephew whom he condemns. The question is what sort of religious stance was affirmed and socially enforced by the Jewish communities is their homeland and in the diaspora. And that’s pretty clear (e.g., Philo’s “Embassy to Gaius”).
      As for the earliest circles of Jesus-believers, all evidence indicates quite “normal” Jews, firmly committed to their scriptures and rather recognizable Jewishness, not renegades or mavericks. I know that Crossan and others have proposed some intriguing suggestions, but “intriguing” doesn’t necessarily mean valid or persuasive. We need evidence to make a suggestion persuasive, and that’s inconveniently (for Crossan) missing for his proposals.
      Earliest circles were primarily those who “call(ed) upon the name of the Lord Jesus”, not primarily (or even particularly) social-activists or political agitators. We simply have to face the facts: They were what we would call deeply “religion” driven, and at the heart of their religion was the conviction that the one God of Israel had (unexpectedly) glorified Jesus of Nazareth and made him the one to who all creation should now give obeisance.

      • Bob Moore permalink

        Does the apostle Paul express the conviction that God glorified the Jesus of Nazarath?

      • Bob: The most direct statement to this effect is 1 Peter 1:21, referring to God “who raised him [Jesus] fromt he dead and gave him glory.” As for Paul, although there is not the exact same statement, the theme of divine glory as an attribute of Jesus is important, as studied by Carey Newman, Paul’s Glory-Christology. Tradition and Rhetoric. Novum Testamenum Supplements, no. 69. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992. This divine glory seems connected to Jesus’ resurrection, which included his exaltation to heavenly status. Philip. 2:9-11 relates God’s giving Jesus “the name above every name,” and requiring universal obeisance to Jesus. In 2 Cor 3:12–4:6, Paul refers to “the glory of the Lord” (3:18, who seems here to be the risen Jesus), and in 4:6 refers to “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”. Jesus’ resurrection in Paul is the pattern for the ultimate salvation of believers (e.g., 2 Cor 4:14; Rom 8:11, 16-17, 29), and that involves their sharing in divine glory (e.g., Rom 8:17b, 21).

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