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Did Jesus Demand to be Worshipped?

October 8, 2013

In the continuing scholarly discussion about the origins and nature of earliest “Jesus-devotion” (my term for the reverence given to the risen/exalted Jesus in early Christian beliefs, proclamation, and worship), a question repeatedly emerges, especially from the general public:  Did Jesus demand that he be so reverenced?

In fact, not long after my book, Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity appeared (Eerdmans, 2003), I was invited by the editor of Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus to address basically the question of what kind of reverence was likely offered to the “earthly” Jesus.  My article on the question appeared in the journal in 2003 (pp. 131-46):  “Homage to the Historical Jesus and Early Christian Devotion,” and was re-published as a chapter in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? (Eerdmans, 2005, pp. 134-51).

Essentially, I contend that a critical sifting of the evidence (in the NT Gospels) yields the conclusion that Jesus was treated with the sort of reverence that connoted respect for a teacher or prophet or holy man, especially by those who approached him for healing or exorcism, or for respectful dialogue over religious matters.  But there is no indication that Jesus was given the sorts or level of devotion that so quickly erupted among early circles of Jesus-believers soon after his crucifixion.  Nor is there evidence that Jesus demanded recognition as “divine” or demanded that he be given worship.  We should not expect this of a devout Jew of his time, and the evidence conforms to this expectation.

So, one might ask, if Jesus never demanded such reverence, what is the justification for it?  Why did early Jesus-believers practice such devotion to Jesus?  The answer seems to be that they held the conviction that God had exalted Jesus to an exceptional place of heavenly glory (e.g., Acts 2:36; 1 Peter 1:21), had enthroned Jesus as universal ruler (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:20-28), had declared him to be “the son of God” (e.g., Rom 1:3-4), had given Jesus to share in the divine “name” (e.g., Philippians 2:9-11), and now required that Jesus be reverenced in an unprecedented manner (e.g., John 5:23).  Indeed, these early believers appear to have felt that to refuse to give Jesus the devotion reflected in the early Christian sources would be to disobey God.

In short, the reason for treating Jesus as so central in their devotional practice was fundamentally theo-centric:  God required it.

From sometime in the 18th century onward, the idea arose that only what Jesus himself taught was valid, and so the mania over the “historical” Jesus arose, with the ensuing cafeteria of results and approaches.  But, whatever, you think of that idea, it’s irrelevant for the historical task of understanding the origins of earliest Jesus-devotion.  In the earliest sources, a conviction about what God required and had authorized was the basis for Jesus-devotion.  Note that even in a text such as the scene in Matthew 28:16-20, which ascribes to Jesus a universal authority, it is the risen Jesus who speaks, and he refers to this universal authority as given to him (by God, v. 18).

There is, of course, much more that could be said about the amazingly rapid and full flowering of Christological claims and beliefs that we see already in the NT writings, and that continued to develop across subsequent early centuries.  But this development, particularly in the initial period, was driven very much by the powerful conviction that it was the will of God, the one God of biblical tradition, “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (e.g., Romans 15:6).

(For further discussion of this and related matters, I point to my book, God in New Testament Theology, Abingdon Press, 2010.)

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  1. Professor Hurtado,

    I have read your book, LORD JESUS CHRIST, but it has been a while, so feel free to direct me to the relevant pages if my question is answered there. Given what you’ve said here with regard to Jesus’ self-perception of his calling and ministry, what do you make of John 17:5, which indicates that Jesus shared “glory” with the Father “before the world was” (pro tou ton kosmon einai)? Surely this mitigates against the idea that Jesus only considered himself a special agent of God, and (as I understand you to say) didn’t consider himself worthy of worship or devotion? Your responses to some of the previous comments seem to indicate a conviction that Jesus thought no more of himself than, at best, Moses or Elijah. Yet neither Moses or Elijah would have prayed as Jesus prayed in John 17.

    I’d be interested in your comments, and any clarification if I’m misunderstanding your position. Thank you!

    • Colin, The key point is that there is no evidence of real worship of Jesus as divine, even in the Gospel of John. As to John 17, with most scholars of the NT, I see it as a product of the author, expressive of what he believes Jesus’ true/higher significance is. Or was someone around recording Jesus’ (private) prayer, do you assume?

      • As with Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, I have no problem understanding the prayer of Jesus recorded in John 17 as originating with Jesus himself. How the words of Jesus’ private prayers were relayed to the Gospel writers requires speculation beyond the text. Could Jesus have told them after? Certainly. If one believes the text to be inspired, could God have revealed these things to the Gospel writers? Again, why not? And, yes, John could have put the words on Jesus’ lips based on his understanding of Jesus’ significance. It seems to me, the speculation one wants to follow is more a question of the presuppositions one brings to the text rather than the historical evidence.

        In the same way, I see no reason to regard Thomas’ confession in John 20:28 as anything other than the disciples words. Words of worship, perhaps?

      • Colin, With respect, it’s more than presuppositions when scholars judge that the Gospel of john in particular seems to reflect the author’s heightened view of Jesus, read back into the narrative of Jesus’ ministry. One major factor is the utterly distinctive character of the Gospel of John in comparison to the other three. So, did Jesus act one way observed solely by the source(s) of GJohn, or (as most judge more likely) is GJohn a forthright presentation of Jesus’ ministry in light of the greater revelations about him described in GJohn 14–16? I take the latter view, based largely on the data that need some adequate explanation.
        The other thing (more relevant to the topic of my posting): The NT rather consistently describes Jesus as installed in a new position in which it is now incumbent upon people to reverence him in worship. So, the NT doesn’t portray Jesus receiving worship in his ministry. (And by the way, the scene of Thomas in GJohn 20:28 isn’t set in Jesus’ ministry: It’s the post-resurrection Jesus who is reverenced there.)

  2. Professor Hurtado,

    I know you don’t like to drag these things out in the comment section, but I need to add a few more corrections.

    With regard to the miracles or powerful works, I understand where you are coming from, but I do not agree with this sort of philosophy. Let me provide an illustration so you can see where I am coming from.

    A man makes a model airplane and said he used glue to put the pieces together. Then some years later after the man died, some people are arguing over some issues about the model airplane, and someone suggest that that plane was put together using water, instead of glue.

    It’s pretty clear that water is a ridiculous suggestion. The man would not have even been able to actually assemble the airplane. Even if water did hold the pieces together for a little while, eventually it would simply fall apart. Therefore, The Christian religion that Jesus created also falls apart or never really existed if we change some of the ingredients Jesus said he created it with. And yes, someone could argue that Jesus’ healings were really through a demon or natural causes. Wouldn’t that mean the Christian religion was built upon demons or natural causes, or at the very least, lies. But how about Jesus resurrection, and his exultation in heaven, were these from a demon or natural causes? That would be as ridiculous as saying water is like glue. So where is the logic in questioning the source of Jesus’ powerful works when on earth, and not questioning the source of the powerful works after he died? Not to mention the future powerful works that were promised to Christians, such as their resurrections. Will people be resurrected through demons, or through natural causes, or is it all just a lie?

    I never said the Messiah was worshipped, being the Messiah was a stepping stone in his progressive role as savior. Even now in his exulted state, I still do not believe he is to be worshiped, only God is to be worshipped. Actually, I do not even like the convoluted word worship. Jesus receives admiration according to his role as universal ruler, YHWH receives admiration for his role as Jesus’ God.

    I’m a little confused by your last part, I was merely saying the only new information about Jesus’ heavenly role comes to us from Paul’s letters. I do not have the book you mention, I do have your book, One God, One Lord, does that possibly contain the information?

    • Howard,
      We’re not connecting, so one last try. The judgement about whether Jesus was or was not empowered by God is a THEOLOGICAL one, not a historical one. All that historical inquiry can judge is that he was PERCEIVED to work healings, etc., and that some of his time thought these works of God’s power and others thought them sorcery. So, to say that Jesus’ miracles prove something is to make a THEOLOGICAL statement, not a historical one.
      And whether you do or don’t like anything stronger than “admiration” when applied to Jesus, it’s pretty clear that from the earliest years to which we have any access Jewish believers offered the sort of devotion to Jesus that I’ve described repeatedly, including in the final chapter of my book, One God, One Lord.
      OK. I hope that this will suffice for this particular exchange.

  3. ‘….had given Jesus to share in the divine “name” (e.g., Philippians 2:9-11)’

    Somebody once told me that the divine name was ‘Yahweh’ and that Jews were not allowed to pronounce the divine name.

    Is this true? If not, what is the divine name,and would Paul have been able to say it out loud?

    • Most interpreters (including me) judge that “the name above every name” is the divine name (which for Jews such as Paul connoted also something of divine status, attributes, etc.). At least many devout Jews of the time avoided pronunciation of the Hebrew name (YHWH), and when reading Scriptures or praying used a reverential substitute, such as “Adonay” or, for Greek-speaking Jews, “Kyrios”. Philip. 2:9-11 makes the acclamation, “Kyrios Iesous Christos” the requisite for all beings. So, “Kyrios” here is probably to be taken as the reverential expression of God’s name.

      • Thanks for the knowledgable reply.

        I had thought that the divine name given to Jesus was indeed ‘YHWH’ but Paul would not have pronounced that and said ‘Kyrios’ instead.

  4. Early Christians believed that Jesus had been the agent through whom God created all things.

    1 Corinthians 8
    and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

    So Jesus must have had quite an exalted rank even before he was resurrected, and exalted even further.

    • But in historical terms, Steven, any such recognition came only AFTER Jesus’ earthly ministry, and as a consequence of experiences of the risen/exalted Jesus. Moreover, we should distinguish between playing a role in the creation of the world and being enthroned as the one who now is to be explicitly acclaimed as “Kyrios”. The latter came as a corollary of God’s exaltation of him, per the NT.

      • I would regard playing a role in the creation of the world as being pretty exalted.
        It seems to me that early Christians regarded Jesus as somebody who had existed since the creation of the world.

      • Yes, Steven, but “existed since creation of the world” doesn’t justify worshipping him, and doesn’t constitute being enthroned as “the Son of God” with universal rule. The latter came with God’s exaltation of him. That’s just saying what our earliest texts say.

  5. Anthony Stringfellow permalink

    Hello Professor Hurtado,

    Wouldn’t the fact that high christology appeared so early among Jesus’ followers increase the historical probability that he did make divine claims? Does Jesus’ historic life have at least some influence on Jesus devotion apart from religious experience?

    • Once again, as a scholar who puts his work into print, can I request that you read what I’ve written on this subject? E.g., in my book, Lord Jesus Christ (pp. 27-78, I discuss the several “Forces and Factors” that I propose prompted and shaped earliest “Jesus-devotion,” one of them being “Jesus” (pp. 53-64).

  6. From your post and some of your responses, especially the one to Crispin, I am getting the sense that, although you believe the man Jesus existed, he was merely a man who “believed” he was a representative of God. As on so many other scholarly sites where I have seen them describe the Hebrew scriptures as the thoughts of men who believed they were communicating with God, and wrote down what they thought he was saying to them through their own person religious experience. So I am not exactly sure if this is what you are saying or not. I bring the issue up because I feel it plays a crucial role in why Jesus was able to receive the kind of devotion that he did.

    In my view, if Jesus was simply a man who was quoting scripture and making claims about God, he would have probably went the way of the many others who have quoted scripture and made claims about God, and that was nowhere. What separated Jesus from the others were the miraculous signs that demonstrated that Jesus was the coming Messiah. And when certain Jews recognized him as the Messiah, he was treated as you have said, “with the sort of reverence that connoted respect for a teacher or prophet or holy man”. However, after his death and resurrection, it slowly became apparent to believers that Jesus’ role was much wider than original thought. It became apparent, that Jesus was to actually step into God’s role concerning his people. 1 Corinthians 15:27. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that early Christian devotion to Jesus progressed from treating him as a prophet, to eventually treating him as a divine one. And simply put, I don’t believe any of this could have happened if the miracles during his life never really happened. “This one came to him in the night and said to him: ‘Rabbi, we know that you as a teacher have come from God; for no one can perform these signs that you perform unless God is with him.’” – John 3:2

    • Howard,
      If I may say so, you’re confusing two things and making two quite distinguishable claims. Let’s stay with the evidence. Where the NT writings give any basis for treating Jesus as worthy of worship, they make that basis in God’s raising Jesus from death and installing him in heavenly glory, God requiring that Jesus be reverenced. Jesus’ miracles are never cited as a basis for regarding him as divine or as a basis for worship.
      To say that Jesus likely believed this or that about himself and his mission is to “historical speak”. To make a judgement about whether he was or wasn’t Messiah, or divine or whatever . . . that’s “theological speak”. Each has its legitimate sphere. But they shouldn’t be confused. To do so is . . . confusion.

      • I think my comment confused you a little. Because I completely agree with your post, and I thought we were saying basically the same thing. The only point I was bringing out was that I thought you were implying that because Jesus’ miracles are not historically provable, you were rejecting them and the role they played in the issue of devotion to Jesus. But if you are using the NT as your source of history, then the miracles can not be rejected. Now you must have misread me as I never meant to imply that the miracles were the basis for regarding Jesus as divine. All I meant by the miracles was that they helped reinforce the notion that Jesus was the Messiah. And Jesus himself said he was the Messiah, so how is that theological, rather than historical? Now if Jews were recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, this would be the point of origin for Jesus devotion, would it not? Then I said the same thing that you did, that during his earthly life he received the reverence of a prophet, or a holy man, or maybe even an anointed king. It was only after his resurrection that he started to receive divine recognition, and yes, because God requested it to be done. And the main reason for that was because of Paul’s revelation and his writings. Now whether Paul was miraculously inspired with all his information or whether he pieced a lot of it together from the Hebrew scriptures is not clear. Still later on, Christians started to look back on the Gospel narratives and see a wider application of Jesus’ words based on Paul’s writings.

      • Howard,
        A few corrections if I may to your comment (or at least to your assumptions):
        –As to Jesus’ “miracles,” it isn’t simply a matter of treating the NT as “historical” or not. Most scholars in the field would likely accept that Jesus was regarded by his contemporaries as a worker of “miracles”, healings and exorcisms perhaps especially characteristic. Were they actually what his followers (and probably Jesus) thought them to be, the works of God? Or, as Jesus’ critics contended, were they demonic and sorcery? Or, as many today might contend, were they various kinds of recoveries that might be accounted for by some “natural” theory? These are all philosophical options.
        –Yes, that Jesus was perceived as working “miracles” (the term used in the Synoptic Gospels is “dynameis”, “powers/powerful deeds”), may well have contributed to a hope/belief among his followers that he was to be the promised Messiah. But Messiahs don’t get worshipped, or become the object of cultic devotion. So, any such messianic view of Jesus isn’t sufficient to have generated the level of earliest Jesus-devotion.
        –Finally, no, it is not the case historically that “the main reason” for the intense Jesus-devotion was “Paul’s revelation and his writings.” In my book, Lord Jesus Christ (chaps 2-3), I’ve shown why this is simplistic and incorrect. Instead, there I’ve laid out the argument (with many others) that the sort of Jesus-devotion reflected in Paul’s letters was likely shared with and reflective of “Judean Jewish Christianity” as well. Likewise, the composition of the Gospels was prompted by factors far more numerous than simply Paul and his letters.

  7. As a Christian and a pastor, here are my thoughts concerning reverence given to Jesus in his lifetime:

    In the Bible and Ancient Near Eastern culture generally, the same physical acts of reverence and thanksgiving are offered to a variety of people of various rank. But the physical acts do not all have the same significance.

    To bow before a landlord or a wealthy benefactor did not mean the same thing as bowing before a prophet or an emperor. The context of the act of reverence determines its meaning and intensity.

    So in the Gospels to bow before Jesus is to perform an act consistent with Jesus’ unique role — unmatched by any other — as the unique Son of God and Son of Man who ushers in the kingdom. To bow before him is to acknowledge a reverence that could not possibly belong to another.

    At the very least, this kind of reverence appears as an anticipation of the acts of devotion that followed when Jesus was no longer present and had been exalted by God the Father.

    • Bobby,
      There is a legitimate difference between one’s religious stance on the question of what to make of Jesus and one’s efforts to practice historical inquiry about what ancient believers thought and what process and factors may have shaped their beliefs and devotion. On this site, we’re mainly focusing on the latter.
      So, although from a later standpoint (i.e., after the experience of the risen/exalted Jesus) believers retro-saw in the earthly Jesus much more than even his followers saw during his ministry, we have to recognize in historical terms that this was a historical process. Were these earliest believers right to see Jesus in such high terms? That’s a theological question. Did they do so? That’s a historical question. How did they come to these high claims about him? That also is a historical question, but can have a theological dimension too. But it’s best to keep the two distinguished and not confuse them.
      So, the obeisance shown to the earthly Jesus was essentially middle-eastern gestures given to anyone seen as socially superior, or from whom one wished a favour, etc. In light of LATER notions of Jesus’ significance and later devotional practice, believers could see in these earlier gestures a prefiguring of their own devotion. But that’s a religious move. It too has it’s legitimacy in principle, but it’s not the same thing as historical analysis.

      • I am suggesting that — from a cultural-historical perspective — it may not be accurate to say that the earthly Jesus received obeisance that was “essentially middle-eastern gestures given to anyone seen as socially superior”, because the same gesture shown to people of different social rank did not carry the same meaning.

        If someone is demonstrated to be the emperor, and a subject bows before him, that person is acknowledging the unique status of the emperor, a status that belonged to no other. So bowing before a benefactor for some significant gift is not a declaration that the benefactor is on the same level as the emperor.

        And if someone presents himself as “the unique personal agent and vehicle of the rule of God”, the obeisance given him — greatly — exceeds, in significance, even that given to the emperor.

        In your own estimation, Jesus “felt himself specially designated by God to announce the imminent arrival of the kingdom/rule of God, and authorized by God to speak and act as the unique personal agent and vehicle of that rule of God” who was on a mission “directed to his people ‘Israel’” with a view to “the wider ingathering of other nations to the worship of this God” (all in fulfillment of OT prophecy), and who “likely foresaw his own execution, and trusted that God would vindicate him”.

        I would add — concerning Jesus’ power to heal and deliver from demonic oppression — no one approached another healer with the expectations that were expressed to Jesus; and no other practiced healing and exorcism as Jesus did — by the sheer power of his presence and his word. This unique capacity calculated into the sense of greatness people felt and expressed toward him — expressions that Jesus freely received.

        At the very least, these expressions seem to anticipate the Jesus-devotion that followed his exaltation. And the exaltation can be read, not as bestowing a new status Jesus never had before, but as a God’s “vindication”, as you put it, of who he was all along.

      • Bobby,
        We don’t know what people who approached Jesus intended. But someone who came to a healer/holy-man in that time might well prostrate himself, etc. And, yes, the same gesture might be made when that same man offered worship to a deity. But they meant different things. No argument.
        But your claims that “no one approached another healer with the expectations that were expressed to Jesus” seems to me (and I’m not peculiar here) to exceed what we can know. Maybe. But we don’t know this. And it sounds, frankly, a bit more based on your own religious faith, and not particularly on hard evidence of how people approached healers and exorcists in that time.
        And, yes, if you wish to do so, in light of the view of Jesus’ person that came in the aftermath of the experience of his resurrection and exaltation, you could say that this was all a vindication of him. But the NT texts also make it clear that Jesus took on a new role (as universal ruler, etc.) that he didn’t have before: How else can one read such texts as Philippians 2:9-11? Though “in the form of God” (v. 6), nevertheless, only in v. 9 is he given “the name above every name” and made the rightful recipient of universal obeisance.

      • When people approached Jesus in humble submission, we can be sure they were acknowledging him to be, at least, what he claimed to be, which was — by your own analysis — much more than one among many holy-men. He was not merely one in a category of many.

        I do not believe we can locate any other historical figure who consistently healed and cast out evil spirits the way Jesus did — by his own self-contained authority and by the power of his utterance. The asserted parallels do not hold up between Jesus’ claims and miracles and those of any other significant person in the ANE. So to seek his help in healing and deliverance, by logical necessity, involved recognition of an authority and power seen in no other. This is a historical conviction, not an expression of religious faith.

        You give the example of Philippines 2:9-11 as an indication that Jesus was made the rightful recipient of universal obeisance only after his exaltation. But you note the exceptional “in the form of God”, which is a quality Christ had — by his nature — prior to his voluntary emptying in order to participate in human life.

        So Jesus’ vindication by God, at least in this passage, seems to be a restoration, not a participation in something completely new. “The name that is above every name” that he received in his exaltation would be the name of God, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it be “LORD” as in the Jewish usage of the time? So in giving this incomparable name to Jesus, God the Father would have given him what was his all along, but was now acknowledged in a new light.

        So I’m not sure it is accurate to say that the NT texts, not all of them at least — make it clear — that Jesus took on a completely new role as “universal ruler” after his exaltation.

      • Bobby,
        A brief response to your (rather lengthy) comment, specifically the final bit: We simply must do justice to the NT texts. They rather consistently present God’s resurrection/exaltation of Jesus as conferring on him a new role, an enthronement as universal “Lord” and ruler, and the one now named as the one to whom universal obeisance is to be given.
        In subsequent theological developments, especially under the impact of Greek philosophical categories, a strong emphasis on “timelessness/immutability” came into Christian theology. But this sits uncomfortably with the more dynamic picture of God that we find in biblical texts. So, if you want (as I do) to try to comprehend earliest expressions of Jesus-devotion, you have to take the earliest texts in their own terms, and try to avoid reading them through the lens of later theological notions (and anxieties).
        I hope that we can now drop this as adequately engaged . . . at least for now!

  8. Larry, thank you for putting your position so clearly on this important issue. What do you make of Simon Gathercole’s recent book on Pre-Existence in the Christology of the Synoptics? Are you unpersuaded by Simon’s interpretation of “I have come sayings” or do you judge that those sayings are not authentic to the historical Jesus in their current form?

    • Gathercole’s argument is worth considering seriously, even if he has not persuaded everyone (by any means). I do myself think that Jesus likely had a strong sense of his unique/special mission and the significance of his calling and ministry. Indeed, it’s not in principle impossible for him to have seen himself as in some sense destined and fore-ordained (cf. Paul’s sense of having been “set apart from his mother’s womb” for his own special ministry). But, even granting the full force of Gathercole’s case as to what these “I have come” sayings meant, we still don’t have Jesus demanding that he be worshipped.

  9. Ali Hussain permalink

    Prof . Hurtado , thank you very much for this . God bless you .

    Sir, as a SCHOLAR what do u think Jesus was ? , his message was ? and how did Jesus identified as who God was ?

    • Well, Ali, simply to state a few basic views without the necessary defence of them here, to give a historian-type statement, I think that Jesus felt himself specially designated by God to announce the imminent arrival of the kingdom-rule of God, and authorized by God to speak and act as the unique personal agent and vehicle of that rule of God. The God whom he spoke of and who called him and whose kingdom he proclaimed was “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” the deity of the biblical tradition. Jesus’ own mission/ministry was especially directed to his people “Israel” (the Jews of his time), but he likely anticipated the wider ingathering of other peoples/nations to the worship of this God, as predicted in the OT prophets, which for Jesus were scriptures and declarations of God’s purposes.
      I further think that at some point Jesus likely foresaw his own execution, and trusted that God would vindicate him.

      • Cristiano permalink

        Congratulations Professor Hurtado. I have been reading your blog for some time and I enjoy your sincere and impartial way of dealing with those questions. It sounds really scientifically. How do you see the dogmatic way Christian tradition shaped christology?

      • Cristiano,
        By “the dogmatic way Christian tradition shaped Christology”, I presume that you refer to the early theological developments in Christian beliefs about God and Jesus across the first few centuries. I’ve tried to address the matter down into the second century in my book, Lord Jesus Christ, but much beyond that and I can’t claim an equivalent expertise, especially not in the voluminous scholarly literature on matters from that period. Essentially, however, Christian thinkers and teachers sought to probe and define God and Jesus in light of the tradition they inherited (e.g., NT, traditional worship patterns) and in light of the philosophical categories of their times. So, e.g., by the 3rd century, questions of divine “essence” came up, a category that one doesn’t find in the earlier tradition. For a good study of these early developments, I recommend Eric Osborn, The Emergence of Christian Theology (Cambridge Univ Press, 1993).

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