“Revelatory” Experiences and Religious Innovation
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.