Earliest Jesus-Devotion and Putative “Parallels”
Over the years I’ve been pleased to see that historical questions about the emergence and nature of “Jesus-devotion” have continued to be prominent in scholarly studies of Christian origins. My own involvement began in earnest in the late 1970s and has continued across some thirty-five years now. A number of PhD theses and monographs, as well as articles in journals and multi-author volumes have also addressed these matters in this period (and, I suspect, this will continue). In a number of these, my own work has been engaged, sometimes as the centre of attention, and a few times the object of particular critique. It’s obviously gratifying to have one’s work treated seriously by others, whether they agree or disagree. But in some cases, it’s also frustrating, particularly when one’s views seem to be either inadequately understood or (worse still) misrepresented (I must presume inadvertently). So, in what follows, I offer a small attempt to clarify a few crucial matters, particularly the question of whether I am justified in characterizing earliest Christian devotion as historically an innovation.
First, I have to point out that in my own programme of research and publication on the origins and nature of earliest Jesus-devotion each of my publications was intended to address a particular component question or topic in this larger programme, later publications typically depending on earlier ones. I’ll be selective here. I consider particularly important my 1988 book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Fortress Press/SCM; reprint edition with new introductory preface T&T Clark, 1998; hereafter “OGOL”). In this book I gave the results of my intensive research into the Jewish context/matrix of earliest Christianity, pursuing specifically questions about what resources this richly variegated Jewish tradition might have provided earliest believers in accommodating Jesus along with God in their beliefs and devotional practice. This book served as an essential foundation for my subsequent publications on Jesus-devotion, and I really must request that those who wish to understand my views, especially on the distinctiveness of earliest Jesus-devotion (and even more those who wish to critique them) should read carefully that book. Sadly, this exhortation seems necessary, as it appears to me that some recent engagements with my work have overlooked OGOL, a few scholars accusing me of neglecting the very data that I engaged intensively in that book.
In a number of subsequent publications, especially in Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003, hereafter “LJC”), I turned my attention to the emergence and development of Jesus-devotion in Christian circles across the time-span of roughly 30-170 CE. (My smaller book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus [Eerdmans, 2005], is a combination of a short set of lectures given in Israel prompted by the Lord Jesus Christ book, along with several articles originally published in journals that reflect some of the more specialized studies that I drew upon for the LJC volume.) To put matters simply, in OGOL I looked “upstream” at the context and immediate “background” of earliest Jesus-devotion, and in LJC I looked “downstream,” commencing with our earliest sources and tracing developments and expressions across the ensuing century or more. In LJC I presuppose my conclusions reached in OGOL so far as the relationship of early Jesus-devotion to the Jewish tradition is concerned. So, I repeat, if anyone is interested in my views on that question, OGOL is the key work to consult.
In that work I surveyed a wide assortment of ancient Jewish traditions about three broad types of “principal agent” figures, specifically figures portrayed as having a heavenly status and in some way likened to or specially linked with God: (1) Personified divine attributes (e.g., Wisdom, Logos); (2) Exalted human figures (e.g., Enoch and the messianic figure in Parables of Enoch; Moses, Jacob); and (3) Principal angels (e.g., Michael, Yahoel, et alia). Essentially, I judged that this “principal agent” tradition provided earliest Jesus-believers with a conceptual category in which a second and distinguishable figure could be portrayed as exalted above all of the rest of God’s retinue, sometimes even bearing divine titles and sharing in some of God’s activities (e.g., creation). Especially in OGOL pp. 93-99, I illustrated what I take as examples of NT evidence that earliest “christological rhetoric” reflects this Jewish “principal agent” tradition. So, I have no argument with those who judge that earliest christological thought and language drew upon ancient Jewish traditions about “principal agent” figures. Indeed, I emphasized that speculations about principal agent figures may have given earliest Jesus-believers a conceptual category that enabled them to think of God having exalted Jesus to such a position.
In OGOL, however, I also indicated what I see as the major feature of earliest Jesus-devotion that distinguished it from other examples of this ancient “principal agent” tradition, making earliest Jesus-devotion an apparently distinctive/novel “mutation” (OGOL, 99-124). By “mutation” I mean that “earliest Christian devotion was a direct outgrowth from, and indeed a variety of, the ancient Jewish tradition. But at an early stage it exhibited a sudden and significant difference in character,” most saliently in “the place of the exalted Jesus in the religious life, devotion, or piety of its [Christian] adherents” (OGOL, 99). To put the matter more explicitly, our earliest Christian sources reflect a programmatic place of the risen/exalted Jesus in the devotional life of believers, most importantly in their corporate worship.
To make myself as clear and explicit as I could, and to try to avoid useless misunderstanding and generalities, I laid out several specific devotional actions that comprise a constellation of ways in which Jesus was central (OGOL, 100-116) in the corporate devotion of earliest Christian circles. (In several subsequent publications as well, I have reiterated discussion of these specific devotional practices.) I could not (and still cannot) find evidence of ancient Jewish circles in which any of these other “principal agent” figures held any equivalent place in their devotional life/practices. So, I judged that the dyadic devotional pattern evidenced in earliest Christian sources was apparently an innovation, for which we don’t have a true precedent or analogy in 2nd-temple era Jewish tradition.
I really don’t know how I could have been any more explicit or given other scholars a clearer opportunity to correct my findings. For what it’s worth, in the twenty-five years since the initial publication of OGOL, no one has really provided evidence of some circle of 2nd-temple Jews in which any comparable dyadic devotional/worship pattern is found. So, I dare to think that I’m correct.
This makes it a bit (well, OK, more than a bit) frustrating when sometimes a scholar refers to my “bias” in claiming that earliest Jesus-devotion appears to be unique, or that I’ve ignored the supposedly clear evidence of this or that ancient Jewish text, and downplay supposedly obvious parallels or precedents. (I encountered an example of this accusation again in the last couple of weeks in perusing a recently-published monograph on Pauline christology.) When you look at what is typically held out as a supposed parallel, however, it’s this or that depiction of some “principal agent” figure in the remarkable ways that they’re portrayed, as, for example, executing the divine programme of redemption, or participating in the creation of the world, or (sometimes) even sharing in the divine name (or other epithets, such as “Elohim”), or receiving obeisance from the nations in visions of eschatological redemption, or . . . well, you get the idea.
But what these purported “parallels/precedents” don’t give us is what I contend is remarkable about earliest Christian circles, which is (to repeat) any example of a circle of 2nd-temple Jews in which any of these principal agent figures functions in their corporate worship in the way that Jesus did in earliest Christian circles. To refer to the striking ways that Wisdom or Enoch or some other principal agent figure is described is, quite simply, beside the point. At least, it doesn’t comprise either a parallel or an explanation of the specifics of earliest Jesus-devotion.
So, in sum, two points: First, my work and reasoning on the relationship of earliest Jesus-devotion and the 2nd-temple Jewish context is presented particularly in OGOL, and so that’s the book to consider in assessing my views on that subject. Second, my contention is that earliest Christian circles exhibit an apparently distinctive devotional pattern in which a second, distinguishable figure, the exalted Jesus, is included programmatically in their devotional practices. I emphasize that I’m referring to actual devotional practices, not visions of some eschatological event, real devotional actions corporately practice, not simply “concepts” about this or that exalted figure.
Now that is open to possible refutation. But a refutation will require a genuine instance of another circle of 2nd-temple Jews who identify themselves with their ancestral religion and also incorporate some principal-agent figure in equivalent devotional practices. Otherwise, my claim stands.