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“High/Early Christology”: An Emerging Consensus?

December 12, 2013

Almost exactly a year ago, I posted on a very informative and judicious (in my view) review of recent scholarly work on the emergence of “high” christology (which = Jesus regarded and treated as in some meaningful way “divine”) by Dr. Andrew Chester (Cambridge University), my earlier posting here.  Given the tone of one or two recent comments, claiming, e.g., that any such view reflects some sort of theologically “conservative” cabal, I thought it well to point again to Chester’s article:  Andrew Chester, “High Christology–Whence, When and Why?,” Early Christianity 2 (2011): 22-50.

As Chester observes, it’s really the evidence that seems to require the conclusion that Jesus-devotion erupted rapidly and originated in circles of Jewish Jesus-followers in Judea.  That conclusion (with variations in emphases) is now supported by a wide (and growing) spectrum of scholars.  (I even recall being challenged about the matter by a retired Jewish professor of ancient history who emailed saying that it was incredible to think that this sort of Jesus-devotion could have been entertained by self-identifying Jews of the Roman period.  I replied by asking him to read one or two of my own studies on the subject.  A week or two later he emailed again, saying “I’ll be damned!  There were Jews stupid enough to believe this!”  I considered it quite an endorsement!)

As evident in the anecdote I’ve recounted, this historical judgment doesn’t require any prior religious stance, and doesn’t necessarily demand one.  To reiterate Chester’s judgment, however counter-intuitive it seems at first, it’s just what the evidence seems to require.

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29 Comments
  1. Doug Bridges permalink

    Your books, and this blog where you answer questions precisely and clearly, are great help to me in trying to understand “Who is this Jesus?” Thank you very much. I am currently reading Hengel’s Studies in Christology in which he states that the resurrection appearances alone would not have been sufficient to cause Jesus’ followers to come to the belief that he was (somehow) divine. Hengel says that the necessary stimulus following the resurrection was reflection by the followers on what Jesus had said and what Jesus had done in his earthly life. Hengel also invokes inspiration by the Holy Spirit at times to help explain it all. Would you care to comment on this? (You know of course that Hengel references your work in his. Got to make you proud!)

    • Doug, Yes, it is gratifying to have figures that I respect cite positively my own efforts to contribute to our understanding of things. And Hengel was certainly a “biggie”! I agree (and have written essentially the same view) that a resurrection alone wouldn’t prompt belief that Jesus was “divine” somehow or worthy of worship. Essentially, in ancient Jewish thought, resurrection = divine vindication. So, for the righteous/elect, resurrection will = their vindication against detractors, persecutors, etc. Jesus’ resurrection would have signalled for believers his vindication against the charges of being a blasphemer, sorcerer, whatever, and likely also a false messiah. So, resurrection could have generated a (renewed?) messianic claim, and a claim that his ministry was valid.
      But, as I’ve indicated in several publications since my 1988 book, One God, One Lord, it likely required something more to generate the devotional practice that so quickly erupted. I’ve proposed visions of the exalted Jesus receiving heavenly cultus, and prophetic oracles declaring God’s will that Jesus be reverenced, and “charismatic” interpretation of biblical (OT) texts as well.
      It would have required a profound conviction that such devotion to Jesus was now required (by God), something explicit in my view. For those believers, it was the “Holy Spirit”, i.e., powerful religious experiences (which they took to be the Spirit) that generated the necessary conviction.

  2. Robert permalink

    Actually, Bart Ehrman’s view has taken a decided shift toward recognizing a very high Pauline christolology which is already evident in some pre-Pauline traditions as well. His book will be very interesting. He thinks Paul saw Jesus as a divine, pre-existing, angelic instrument of creation. I asked him if he was indebted to any particular scholars for his recent shift in his opinion, suggesting perhaps yours truly, but he said it was more a matter of just reading Paul’s letters and acknowledging the obvious.

  3. Anthony Stringfellow permalink

    Was Martin Hengel (RIP) the one who came up with most of the historical evidence for an early high christology?

    • Hengel was an early influence on me, for sure, esp. his little book, The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976); and his seminal essay: “Christologie und neutestamentliche Chronologie,” in Neues Testament und Geschichte: Historisches Geschehen und Deutung im Neuen Testament, Festchrift Oscar Cullmann, ed. H. Baltensweiler & B. Reicke. Zürich/Tübingen, 1972, pp. 43-67 (English = Martin Hengel, “Christology and New Testament Chronology,” in Between Jesus and Paul (London: SCM, 1983), 30-47.)

      But there were earlier influences too, e.g., the great A. D. Nock: Early Gentile Christianity and Its Hellenistic Background (New York: Harper & Row, 1964); “‘Son of God’ in Pauline and Hellenistic Thought,” in Essays on Religion and the Ancient World, ed. Zeph Stewart (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 2:928-39.

      And, actually, Bousset urged an “early high christology”, arguing that it appeared so early that Paul absorbed it upon his “conversion” (which took place within 1-3 yrs after Jesus’ execution). It’s just that Bousset contended that it couldn’t have erupted in Jerusalem, but instead in Antioch and Damascus.
      And there were others, e.g., Johannes Weiss, et al. So, the “early high christology” emphasis (though that phrasing is recent) isn’t by any means some novel conclusion.

  4. Paul J permalink

    Dr Hurtado, I don’t mean to be a pest, and I’m a little rusty, sadly, but I would like you to clarify the question of adoptionism. You say that this was a later controversy but many would argue that adoptionism is implicit in the theology of Mark, and therefore, perhaps, his sources.

    Again, some would say these sources go back to the very earliest followers of Jesus.

    Now, without necessarily going into too much detail about Mark and Paul’s letters, do you believe the earliest “strata”, for (want of a better word) of his followers held that Jesus was the Messiah from birth, or that he became so after his Baptism?

    • Paul: The term “adoptionism/adoptionist” refers properly to a view (labelled a “heresy”) that arose in 8th century Spain. (See, e.g., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “adoptionism” (pp. 18-19). Through the influence of Adolph von Harnack, the term was retro-applied to one of what he portrayed as two “streams” of early christology (see, Harnack, History of Dogma, vol. 1, pp. 190-99). Harnack referred to “Adoptian Christology”, as one of the two most ancient christological views, the other one being an incarnationalist view, Jesus regarded as “a heavenly spiritual being” who became a man.
      Harnack’s reading of the ancient sources is, however, open to serious question, and would be judged inadequate or even fallacious by many today (except those who fail to keep up to date!). But there may well have been variety among earliest attempts to understand Jesus’ significance. The key impetus was the conviction that God had raised Jesus from death and given him heavenly glory. But very quickly (so quickly that it’s already taken for granted by Paul) this was seen as God’s vindication of Jesus’ rightful messianic status, and a declaration and appointment of him to universal rule (e.g., 1 Cor 15). So, e.g., Paul already sees Jesus as both “pre-existent” agent of creation who took on human existence (e.g., Philip 2:6-11) and also as the newly declared Lord and Son to whom all must now give reverence.
      As to Mark and the Evangelists, it would be passing strange if they were somehow ignorant of these early developments!

  5. Donald Jacobs permalink

    High Christology consensus? What about Vermes, Frederiksen, Casey, McGrath and Ehrman just to name a few. Plus even Dunn in his book on worship of Jesus. I am looking forward to Ehrman’s new book: How Jesus Became God. And equally interested to read any response from Professor Hurtado, because as scholars they hardly ever seem to engage, yet Ehrman is surely here entering Hurtado’s patch.

    • Vermes, RIP, was not a specialist in Christian origins. He did some good work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and some ancient Jewish sources,but was out of his depth on his last book.
      Dunn has budged (and in the right direction). Casey, well, what does he mean by saying that in Paul Jesus was “rising toward divinity”?
      In any case, I did ask if there was perhaps “an emerging consensus”.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Have you engaged the work of James McGrath anywhere? In particular his book The Only True God. He seems to be a younger scholar who breaks with the “emerging consensus”.

      • See my review under the “Selected Essays etc” on this blog site home page.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Oh yeah, I read that review at the time but forgot about it!

  6. Amazon is now taking pre-orders for Bart Ehrman’s next book: “How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee” (HarperOne, March 25, 2014).

    Having some familiarity with his work and views, I have a general sense of the tack he will take, and wonder how much he might interact with OGOL, HEDJBG, and, of course, LJC (all of which I have read and enjoyed immensely).

    Given his substantial readership, I would love to see some enterprising publisher twist your arm to write a popular version of your findings to compete with Bart’s and address questions he will raise while they are at the top of people’s minds.

    I’m not suggesting that your writing is not accessible to normal folks because, after all, I’ve already said that I have benefited from them. Harper, however, is a marketing powerhouse and I would love for as many people to be exposed to your work as have been and will be exposed to Ehrman’s. If they’ve enjoyed baloney, they’ll be thrilled with steak.

    Alas, March is almost upon us, so unless this idea is already in the works, it may be too late to be practically applied. If that’s the case, I hope you will continue doing research and publishing new findings through your traditional means.

    • Well, I’ll be interested to see what Bart has to say, given that he’s effectively responding to me, not the other way around on this one. When my book, “How on Earth did Jesus become a God?” appeared he told me that he was cross that I’d taken a title that he wanted to use. Note the similarity in the title of his forthcoming tome!

    • Mike Bird permalink

      “Given his substantial readership, I would love to see some enterprising publisher twist your arm to write a popular version of your findings to compete with Bart’s and address questions he will raise while they are at the top of people’s minds.”

      If only someone would write a Hurtado-esque response to Ehrman! I sooo concur!

      • Mike: As to historical sequence, the “Hurtado-esque” view of things has been written . . . . in publications extending now back over 25 years. So, the question (at least to my mind) will be how well Bart responds to that.
        But, whatever he does, he’s got a celebrity status with the wider public that would be hard to match, and it would be a mug’s game to try. I have to hand it to him: He set out to be a celebrity, and he’s done it. With most other scholars, I’ll just keep on trying to do good work and let history happen. (But I just might well have something to say on this blog site when Bart’s book appears!)

    • I STONGLY second Mike’s suggestion. I’d even buy 30 copies of such a book and distribute it to every media person I know. Here’s hoping.

    • Donald Jacobs permalink

      I am very much looking forward to Ehrman’s book too! I think I recall Ehrman elsewhere stating that the early Christians viewed Jesus as an exalted angel. That would be an interesting perspective to explore, and certainly under-examined ever since the excellent, underrated book by Martin Werner along those lines early in the twentieth century: The Formation of Christian Dogma.

      On the other hand Ehrman’s books have become a bit “dumbed down” of late, so we might be a bit disappointed with the extent to which he engages other scholars such as Hurtado, Dunn and others who specialise in the area.

      • As Bart’s book hasn’t yet appeared, I won’t/can’t comment on what he’ll write. But Werner is by no means the last or most significant writer on “angel-christology”. It’s received quite a lot of attention over the last couple of decades or so. But no one has found Werner’s particular view of things persuasive. See the following publications:
        –Crispin H. T. Fletcher-Louis, Luke-Acts: Angels, Christology and Soteriology, WUNT, no. 2/94 (Tübingen: Mohr (Siebeck), 1997)
        –Peter Carrell, Jesus and the Angels: Angelology and the Christology of the Apocalypse of John, SNTSMS, no. 95 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
        –Charles A. Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence, Arbeiten zur Geschichte des Antiken Judentums und des Urchristentums, no. 42 (Leiden: Brill, 1998)
        –Darrell D. Hannah, Michael and Christ: Michael Traditions and Angel Christology in Early Christianity, WUNT, no. 2/109 (Tübingen: Mohr (Siebeck), 1999)
        –Susan R. Garrett, No Ordinary Angel: Celestial Spirits and Christian Claims About Jesus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008)

        But it would be a good bit of a “reach” to ascribe a genuine “angel-christology” to Paul, in my view.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        I am reading Gieschen’s Angelomorphic Christology at the moment, and I’ve already read Darrel Hannah’s book on Michael and the one by Peter Carrell, but the book No Ordinary Angel by Barrett is new to me so I’ll look it up, thanks!

        When you earlier said that Dunn was beginning to come round to the Early High Christology club’s way of looking at things, were you referring to private conversations, or has he published anything new to that effect?

      • Donald, In his book, Did the Early Christians Worship Jesus? Dunn seems to hover back and forth between granting that something like or close to “worship” seems to be reflected in some texts, while he also hesitates to affirm this too firmly. See my review-essay, which I’ve posted under the “Selected Published essays, etc.” tab.

  7. Joshua Paul Smith permalink

    It seems as though in the first century, the “conservative” view would have been the low-Christological assumption that Jesus was just a human rabbi, no? A conservative understanding of Jesus would have affirmed the monotheistic tradition and vehemently denied that a man should be worshiped alongside God.

    So it is interesting that many “liberals” (for lack of a better term) now affirm what would have been a conservative view in the first century, while “conservatives” affirm what would have been the radically liberal view.

    • Joshua: In the time of Jesus’ ministry, he was variously regarded as a prophet, a sorcerer (e.g., Mark 3:20), and (by at least some followers, it appears) as Messiah-designate (which is the report that seems to have led to his execution). In the aftermath of his execution, the conviction erupted that God had raised him from death and given him glory. As I’ve shown since my 1988 book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, this seems to have generated a novel “mutation” in “Jewish monotheism”, in which a second, distinguishable figure was included with God in the “devotional pattern” of earliest Jewish-christian circles. The terms “conservative” and “liberal” pertain to modern Christian controversies and are work mischief if you try to use them for the ancient situation.

  8. Do I understand correctly that in this post you are using “high” to include say adoptionist christologies? Of course “high” and “low” are always going to be relative to something, so it makes sense to use it the way you’re using it here in this context, and to use it differently say in comparing the gospels (where “high” would mean like John). I just wanted to make sure I understood the way you were using the term.

    • Noah: “Adoptionist” is an anachronistic term, reflecting controversies much later than, e.g., Paul. The term “high” christology typically simply means the belief that Jesus in some unique way is associated with God and so is justly to be included in the reverence given to God. I’ve laid out the matter extensively over a few decades in various publications as I see the matter.

      • Rod permalink

        Prof. Hurtado, I just want to clarify what your response to Noah Snyder; when you say that “Jesus in some unique way is associated with God” are you implying that He is indeed equal with God because of His identity with God (maybe ala Bauckham)? Consequently, can we take your view on early high christology as reflecting divine Christology? Thank you for your comments.

      • Rod: I’ve tried to stay as close as I can to the evidence . . . and its limits. So, e.g., we don’t have NT statements saying “Jesus is equal with God”. We have various expressions of an intense Jesus-devotion in which Jesus is treated in ways that ordinarily pertain to God. E.g., OT texts referring to YHWH are applied to Jesus (as shown by David Capes a few decades ago).
        For my part, I’ve also focused on the devotional actions that characterize earliest Christian circles, as worship practice more readily conveys what statements mean in the ancient world. So, e.g., earliest believers “call upon the name of the Lord (Jesus)” as a regular devotional action, using terminology that in the OT refers to worship given to YHWH.
        They also (e.g., Paul) ascribed to the “pre-existent” Jesus a central role in creation of all things, as well as in redemption. They rather consistently distinguish between “God” (the “Father”) and Jesus also, Jesus serving as unique agent/vehicle/expression of God’s purposes. (For more discussion, see my little book, God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon Press, 2010).
        In my view “christology” = beliefs, ideas about Jesus, as expressed in statements and titles etc., and “devotion” is my umbrella-term that includes “christology” and also devotional/worship practices that give us a rounder and more adequate sense of the place of Jesus in their religious life and thought.
        So, as I see the evidence, at a remarkably early point (already presupposed in Paul’s letters), Jesus came to be treated as sharing in divine glory, and as the rightful object of the sort of reverence shared solely with God.

  9. barb martin permalink

    Dr Hurtado, I was ready your blog about high/early christology where you use both the word Jesus and Christ. Would I be correct in inferring that when you state that after crucifixion Jesus was worshiped your are meaning Jesus was worshiped as the ‘Christ of faith’ rather than the ‘Jesus of history’? Thanking you in advance for your answer, Rev. Martin

    • Barb: I’m not entirely sure of what you’re asking, but I’ll have a go. The early devotion to Jesus that I’ve described (e.g., in Lord Jesus Christ) seems to have been prompted initially by the powerful conviction that God had raised the crucified Jesus of Nazareth and exalted him to heavenly glory, now requiring Jesus to be reverenced. As, e.g., in Philippians 2:9-11. I’m not sure what you mean in appearing to distinguish “Jesus of history” and “Christ of faith”, but they certainly didn’t distinguish two figures. Jesus of Nazareth is for them also the Son of God, the Kyrios who is now to be reverenced.

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