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“Early High Christology”: Clarifying Key Issues and Positions

December 18, 2013

As a follow-up to my previous posting in which I cited again Andrew Chester’s review of recent scholarly analysis of earliest “christology” here, I want to offer some further comments intended to clarify a few matters for those interested.

First, the sort of questions that I address are historical ones, i.e., questions that are in principle open to investigation by anyone interested and with the necessary competence, requiring no particular ideological or theological stance as a premise.  That is not to de-value theological stances and questions at all.  But (as I see it, at least) historical inquiry should proceed without either denying or requiring any particular theological stance as a basis.  So, historical inquiry cannot readily answer theological questions (e.g., Did this or that event constitute a divine revelation/action?), and no one theological stance can serve as a premise for historical discussion that is intended to include people of various stances.

Second, my own focus has been on devotional practices as the most important indication of ancient “religious” behavior and convictions.  Most others (including most scholars) have focused on christological ideas, beliefs, and the terminology involved in expressing them.  Starting with my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheismhowever, I’ve given my reasons for seeing earliest Christian devotional practices as important (and, indeed, as the crucial context in which to judge the meaning of christological titles, etc.).  In taking this view, I reaffirm the emphasis of the early “religionsgeschichtliche Schule,” who focused on “religion” (i.e., practiced religious faith).  Early christological affirmations are relevant and important, but should be read alongside, and in light of, the devotional practices that characterized earliest Christian circles.

Third, as to the larger questions about when Jesus came to be treated as in some way having/sharing a “divine” status and significance, and how we can recognize this, there are basically three main positions in scholarship:

(1) Devotion to Jesus according him divine honor and reverence erupted quite early, so early that it is presupposed in Paul’s letters, and was the faith-stance into which Paul was incorporated after the “christophany” that re-oriented this zealous Pharisee.  I.e., this eruption happened likely within the first few years, or even the first few months after Jesus’ crucifixion, and was likely a huge part of what had been objectionable to Paul and generated his zealous effort to “destroy” (his word) the early Jesus-movemen.

There are two variant versions of this position:  One (espoused influentially by Wilhelm Bousset) is that this remarkably early development could not have taken place in the Jerusalem church, but instead must have happened in diaspora settings such as Antioch and/or Damascus, where the influence of “pagan” religiosity might have facilitated it.  The other view (espoused by a number of others, including me) is that this eruption did likely commence in the Jerusalem church, and that it should be seen as a novel development (“mutation” in my terms) initially within second-temple Jewish tradition.

(2) Another view (espoused in variant forms, e.g., by Maurice Casey, J.D.G. Dunn, James McGrath, and Adela Yarbro Collins, if I understand her aright) is that Jesus was initially reverenced as Messiah, and that treating him as in some sense “divine” developed across at least a few decades, reaching earliest explicit expression in the Gospel of John.  The explanations vary from one scholar to another.  E.g., Casey (From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God) proposes the shifting demographics of early Christianity, an increasing number of gentiles/pagans leading to a gentile group-identification, with slackened commitment to and understanding of the constraints of Jewish monotheism permitting Jesus to be treated as divine.  Collins urges the influence of Roman-era ruler cult (e.g., “‘How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?’ A Reply,” in Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children, eds. D. B Capes, et al.).  Dunn & McGrath seem to propose an escalation of christological claims developing across early decades, partially a result of ongoing and sharpening polemics between early believers and the larger Jewish community (see my review-essays on Dunn’s book, Did the First Christian Worship Jesus? and McGrath’s book, The Only True God, posted under the “Selected Published Essays, etc.” tab on this blog site).

(3) There is a third view that seems to remain popular, especially among those who have not spent sufficient time engaging in detail with the evidence:  That Jesus only became divine across a few centuries, clearly so only by the fourth century and Nicaea.  (Geza Vermes’ last book, Christian Beginnings:  From Nazareth to Nicaea, is representative of this view.)

View number 3 is actually scarcely defensible if put to the test, though it continues to be asserted.  Advocates assume that unless/until we see the specific type of theological discourse expressed in the Nicene-era controversies, there is little to report.  This is an astonishing failure to understand the significance of what is evidenced in our earliest Christian sources, where already the risen/exalted Jesus is regarded as sharing divine glory and the divine name, and (still more importantly) is treated as co-recipient of the sort of devotion otherwise restricted to God.

View number 2 variants are somewhat more credible, although I think again that they don’t really engage the evidence adequately.  In particular, there is a rather persistent failure to register the historical importance of the kind of devotional practices and pattern that we see reflected already in Paul’s letters.  I have to say that Bousset, Johannes Weiss, Deissmann and others were far more astute in this matter.  As they judged, the eruption of what they called a “Christ/Kyrios-cult” (i.e., devotion to Jesus expressed in practices that comprise effectively “worship”) was the key development, and this commenced within the earliest moments of the young Jesus-movement.

So, it seems to me that we are left basically with some version of option number 1.  The two major treatments (Bousset’s Kyrios Christos and my book, Lord Jesus Christ) differ particularly over whether this development commenced in/among Jewish circles in Judea/Jerusalem (as I have argued) or in diaspora settings (so Bousset), and, correspondingly, over how to account for this development.  But, either way, we’re talking about a virtual eruption, not some progressive development, and one that happened remarkably early, not in some evolving manner across decades or centuries.

To be sure, there was further development across the first several decades, and then across ensuing centuries, particularly as Christians sought to express their theological views in terms of the philosophical categories of the larger Roman environment in the second and third centuries CE.  But the earliest clear indications of believers treating Jesus as sharing in divine honor and as rightful co-recipient of worship are found in our earliest texts, dated ca. 50-60 CE.  And, indeed, in these texts, this treatment of Jesus is taken for granted and as uncontroversial among believers, which suggests that it was by the time of these letters already traditional.  As Martin Hengel once observed, in historical terms, more happened christologically within those first few years than in the ensuing 800 years of theological development.

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  1. I am asking for a little guidance. Systematic theology normally does not appeal to me, but currently I am interested in how christological beliefs influenced (?) trinitarian ideas. I recall you have used the word binitarianan in your writings (my apologies if my memory is wrong) which seems to imply a stage before trinitarianism. I do not have your books handy at this moment, I will check them all promptly to see if you have already answered this. If the issue (how christological beliefs influenced trinitarianism) is not in your books, can you point me to one or two other places to get started? Thank you, sir!

    • In earlier publications I’ve referred to a “binitarian” devotional pattern, but not (to my recollection) to “binitarianism”. My work has focused more on the devotional praxis of earliest christians and what that tells us. I have not engaged questions of how earliest Christian devotion shaped later trinitarian/christological developments, but I have proposed that the earliest devotional practice did help prompt, shape (perhaps even require) Christians subsequently to engage those questions.

      • Thank you. I did not mean to type binitarianism, I actually mistyped binitarian, with an extra an, sorry.

        The more important point is that I understand your answer to mean you know of no genuinely good study on a transition from or a relationship between binitarian worship and trinitarian ideas. Perhaps such a study was not practical before your research was fully published? I do recall one or two Dead Sea Scroll scholars (e.g., Jim Charlesworth) suggesting the Qumran community had begun to work with the idea of THE Holy Spirit … so maybe we can guess that the seeds of trinitarian ideas were germinating in the first century? Anyway, thank you.

      • I have proposed a historical connection between the early pattern of “dyadic” devotion/worship and the “triadic” pattern of “God-talk” in the NT, which combined to form a major impulse in the subsequent development of “trinitarian” notions: See my book, God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon, 2010).

  2. Fr Aidan Kimel permalink

    Dr Hurtado, I was wondering if you have reached an opinion about when Christians began to outright deny the existence of other deities and thus move into what we we call a strict monotheism. Until I encountered your work, I would have placed that sometime in the 2nd Temple period, but apparently I am wrong on that. Yet clearly Christians and Jews did in fact adopt a strict monotheism. What did that happen?

    My guess is that it happened right around the same time when Christians began to teach the creatio ex nihilo–i.e., by the end of the 2nd century. But I have no evidence to support my conjecture.

    And if you have any recommendations for further reading, I’d welcome that as well.

    Thank you and Merry Christmas.

    • Aiden: A couple of clarifications in response to your query. First, for ancient Jews and Christians the primary question wasn’t whether the beings worshipped by other people existed. The primary question was whether these beings were worthy of worship. Devout Jews and then Christians too tended to say that these beings were, e.g., demons (e.g., Deuteronomy 32:17; 1 Corinthians 10:20-21). The dictionary definition of “monotheism” (denying the existenceof all gods but one) doesn’t readily fit with any ancient people. See, e.g., my essay, “First Century Jewish Monotheism” in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? (Eerdmans 2005).
      As I’ve shown in that essay and in another forthcoming in the journal,
      Ancient Judaism, “ancient Jewish monotheism” (distinguished from “monotheism” of dictionaries) was constituted in a strict cultic exclusivity (exclusive worship of the one God). It was pretty “strict” too: people were willing to be martyred rather than take part in offerings to other deities. You can’t get much stricter than that!

      • Fr Aidan Kimel permalink

        If I may, I’d like to sharpen up my question. During 2nd Temple period, did Jews have a clear ontological distinction and division between Creator and creature? Would they then have understood all of these other spiritual beings and deities as created beings? Or is such a clear distinction a later development?

        From the little that I have read, it seems to me that McGrath wants to fudge this distinction during the 2nd Temple period.

        Does this make sense?

        And Merry Christmas to you, Sir.

      • Whenever Isaiah 40-55 is to be dated (likely sometime during the 6th century?), you have there already the assertion that one deity (YHWH) created all else, including other heavenly beings (esp. Isa 45:12). YHWH is creator, never created, and YHWH there is ascribed universal creator role.

  3. Ed Woodruff permalink

    I would tend to agree with the first position. The individuals that witnessed these acts and had personal involvement would have no doubt about Lord Jesus Christ being divine. Therein results in their dilemma, they were not themselves divine, they were flesh and blood just as Jesus was, but, they would not be raised and return after death to spread the word
    and they knew this. They were children of God but not a direct “Son” of God as was Jesus. These were very turbulent times for religions/faith, I can only imagine the threat to power that the leaders of that time felt, unfortunately, instead of realizing that the words and deeds of Jesus Christ were the work of God the father they continued to preserve their power. I can assure you that anyone who promoted Jesus at the time of his death and for at least a few years afterwards were treated in the same manner he was, possibly worse. If they did not stay discrete and use word of mouth it was an immediate death sentence, therefore, they could not promote his words “openly”. Even during those times any reasonably smart man would know that if all of them were immediately killed, the world may never know the words of Christ. Over time as some of the immediate pressure of instant death was eased the writings and open sermons began. The truth in the words were so powerful the movement made huge progress with the masses once released openly (and continues today). This would seem a logical progression to a simple man like me, however, I concede to the scholars who have dedicated their life to this study. Again, this is only my opinion, hopefully some day we will know the truth with new knowledge….while still on this earth 😉

    • Ed: I fear that your historical picture is seriously inaccurate. There is no evidence that early Christians hesitated to proclaim their faith quite openly and vigorously, and only did so at some later point. All the evidence in fact points to an early, explosively vigorous proclamation. This is the reason that Saul the Pharisee (aka Paul the apostle) so quickly and vigorously directed his efforts to destroy the young Jesus-movement (within the first months after Jesus’ execution).
      Moreover, the actual threat of death to earliest Christians was not in fact great. There were some who were killed, and this certainly had a traumatic effect. But except for spasms such as Nero’s pogrom in Rome (ca. 65 CE), throughout the first century only this or that believer was ever executed.
      We don’t have to wait for “someday” to get the facts of the matter, Ed. The sources are sufficient for what I’ve written.

  4. Geoff Hudson permalink

    Larry, it is amazing to me that scholars don’t seem to have an agreed answer as to how Christianity began in a Jewish environment. Yet your article also indicates how important this issue is to scholars.

    • Geoff, It’s not particularly amazing. It was a long time ago. There are always fewer extant sources than historians would like. And we are talking about a religious development that was in its own setting remarkable, likely even unique. And scholars have different types of expertise and different questions and approaches. It’s no different than many other things in ancient history.

  5. anton permalink

    Thanks for the great summary!

  6. Mike Gantt permalink

    Like other commenters, I appreciate your clarifying the issues. I have read, highlighted, and underlined throughout OGOL, HEDJBG, TECA, GNTT, and your magnum opus, LJC. I am thoroughly persuaded of your position (1b above) and I am grateful that you continue to articulate it through this blog and by your continued research and writing.

    All that said, it seems that there is more for you, or others, to do. I am referring specifically to your characterization of the early and high exaltation of Jesus as a “mutation” brought about by the religious experiences of the earliest disciples. When juxtaposed with the absence of the sort of Christological controversies that beset us today, one logically wonders, “Why?” That is, can historical study recover the mindset that so pervaded the earliest gatherings of believers in the resurrection of Christ such that statements like those found in 1 Cor 8:5-6 and Phil 2:9-11 were used to settle arguments and conclude discussions when today they start arguments and fuel debates.

    To state it a slightly different way, it is, of course, obvious from Paul’s letters that there was no shortage of controversies in the early church. That the identity of the resurrected one seems to have been a settled issue – without the Christological controversies we have today – well before the earliest NT documents we have were written has to be the Gordian Knot of Early Christian history. I fully accept your rationale – I just do not find it explicit enough to solve the mystery. I hope you or others will take it on…and succeed at it.

    • Mike: First, we have only a small fraction of the evidence that we’d like from earliest Christianity, so we can’t say for sure what kinds of variant christological views there may have been that are not reflected in what survives, especially from the first century. There are indications, however, of some serious differences. I take 1 John, for example, to oppose some kind of christological stance that the author deems unacceptable. What is was exactly is a matter of scholarly debate. I suspect that it was some kind of what later came to be called “docetic” christology, the earthly/human nature of Jesus minimized or denied. There are certainly examples of this in some Christian texts of the 2nd/3rd centuries CE. And the catalogue of “heresies” identified by Irenaeus (toward the end of the 2nd century) surely indicates a rich variety in early Christianity, as wide a diversity as anything we see today!

      • Mike Gantt permalink

        Presuming 1 John to have been written later than the undisputed Paulines (i.e. after c. 50-60 CE), doesn’t the sign of christological controversy there, along with the subsequent catalog produced by Irenaeus, make a striking contrast between the early, formative period (i.e. c. 30-50 CE) and the later period on this very point?

        That is, don’t the undisputed Paulines (particularly with reference to 1 Cor 8:5-6 and Phil 2:9-11 as I described them above) speak to a preceding period (i.e. c. 30-50 CE) relative free of the christological controversies which arose and multiplied quickly thereafter, at least insofar as the extant evidence testifies?

      • Mike, So far as our evidence goes, yes, there does seem to be a certain body of shared christological convictions. At least that’s what Paul claims (e.g., 1 Cor 15:1-7). But there were, of course, also sharp differences over other matters, esp. over the terms on which gentiles could be treated as full co-religionists by Jewish believers. I.e., did they have to convert to Jewish Torah-practice? So, no time that we know of when Christians weren’t differing sharply over something!

  7. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Professor Hurtado I read again the introduction to Lord Jesus Christ that you referred to the other day. I notice that you say, “Bousset’s views were obviously coloured by and in service of his own theological preferences.” (p. 10) Since you claim that connection between beliefs and scholarship in relation Bousset and his liberal set, is it not fair if people should explore whether there is a similar animus at work in the ‘new religionsgechichtliche Schule’ with which you identify?

    • Donald, I didn’t use the word “animus” of Bousset, so it’s dodgy to introduce it. In characterizing Bousset as I did, I simply state what was obvious, and what has been commented on by a number of other scholars (who have no theological agenda of their own). Now, if you read the Intro to LJC, you will see that I openly indicate my own Christian faith, and then indicate that I intend to produce simply the best historical analysis that I can. I welcome you and anyone else to show specifically that/how my being a Christian has slanted my handling of historical data or issues. But unless you do so, it is unfair to sling generalizing innuendos, hinting that somehow (unspecified thus far) my being a Christian has led me to distort things. I have put my views out there for scholars of various persuasions to engage, and LJC has been reviewed in ca. 50 different journals. I have yet to see that any reviewer has identified an instance where my Christian faith has led me to distort or slant something.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Did not Bousset also seek to produce the best historical analysis that he could? If his background beliefs and motivations can be scrutinised for clues then why not contemporary authors also?

        I have not read the 50 reviews of LJC (yet!), but I did read an article in the Concordia Theological Quarterly by Charles Gieschen the other day which places LJC alongside other works that he views as performing an important role in “Confronting Current Christological Controversy”, where he discusses the importance of historical scholarship in defending the deity of Christ:

        “The current situation is much worse: the divinity of Christ as true God is incessantly questioned or denied. Therefore, although Jesus’ historical existence as a human is acknowledged by most scholars, serious discussion of the two natures of Christ has ceased among those who deny his divinity. This study, therefore, will argue that the church can defend the divinity of the Son by showing, through rigorous historical research that the formative period for the identification of Jesus within the mystery of the one God was the two decades that followed his death and resurrection as evidenced in the worship of Jesus by Jews.” (Pages 3 & 4)

        Charles Gieschen cites LJC as a prominent example of such historical research.

      • Donald, Let me speak to the issue that concerns my own work. THAT those of a traditional Christian faith find my work relevant is one thing. Whether that makes my work invalid, or slanted, is another. The latter has to be shown. So, either show it, or show someone who has shown it, or . . . well, cease all this blather.
        Those who proffer a supposed late and slow development of a “high” christology as a basis for denying the validity of traditional christological claims will find my work objectionable . . . for THEOLOGICAL reasons. Those of traditional Christian faith may find my work helpful, in that it cuts the ground from under such a basis for denying the validity of christological claims.
        But as I’ve written in the Intro to LJC, the assumption that the validity of christological claims depends on them emerging early is a FALLACY, one followed ironically often voices on both sides of the theological issue. My work doesn’t prove the theological validity of anything. It just lays out the best historical analysis I can offer.
        As for Bousset, several major studies have shown quite clearly that he (and his co-workers) were deeply involved in a major theological programme to try to create a “modern” form of Christianity that could be embraced by the German “Volk” and so lead to their moral re-vitalization. See, e.g., Karsten Lehmkühler, Kultus und Theologie: Dogmatik und Exegese in der religionsgeschichtliche Schule, Forschungen zur systematischen und ökumenischen Theologie, no. 76 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996); and/or Suzanne L. Marchand, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        I have not said that a particular theological motivation invalidates your work. Is that what you mean to imply in relation to Bousset? Would he not likely have argued that his beliefs resulted from the fruits of his scholarship rather than the other way round? It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that you have adopted the hypocritical position that the scholarship of Bousset can be evaluated in relation to his theological motivation, but that your own scholarship must be evaluated on its own merit with no regard for theological motivation. That jars a bit, and doesn’t come across as either consistent or reflexive.

        Here you say it is a fallacy to depend on the early emergence of high Christological claims. But in your book At the Origin of Christian Worship I think it is fair to say you make a direct link between early and proper Christian practice:

        “the worship of Christians today can be enriched and informed by what we can learn of the historical origins of this devotion.” (p. 98)

        “The reflections in the following pages are based on the premise that contemporary Christian worship and thought should attempt some genuine fiduciary relationship with biblical precedents while also developing in the light of continuing historical factors.” (p.100)

        If that is a fallacy it appears that it is one you engage in to some extent.

      • Donald: I’ll try yet again to clarify and correct your somewhat confused notions. (Sorry, but your own forthright statement of them invites an equally forthright response.)
        I’m not being hypocritical. I’ve shown that and how Bousset’s own agenda shaped his historical work. That isn’t a general claim, but something I’ve spelled out quite specifically. E.g., his desire to “orientalize” Paul and earliest Christianity (as documented by Marchand) led him to play down the generative possibilities of 2nd temple Jewish tradition (for which he showed a certain disdain, again, documented), and so deny to Jerusalem church anything like the “Kyrios cult” that he ascribed to Antioch. His own theological proclivities come out in Kyrios Christos, e.g., his characterization of the “doubtful aspects” of the veneration of Jesus (151), and “the burdening and complicating of the simple belief in God through the introduction of the cultic worship of the Kyrios Christos”. But, in historical terms, what made this “doubtful” or a “burdening”? Surely, these are his own theological responses to Jesus-devotion as reflected in the NT. Show me where I’ve made similar evaluative judgements about the theological legitimacy of things in my historical work?
        So, similarly, I invite you or others to show that my own personal proclivities have prevented me from seeing something important, or have led me to distort things. My point, again, is that if you can’t what on earth are you banging on about in pointing out that I’m a Christian?
        As for the second half of your comments, again, you’re confused. My statements in my “At the Origins of Christian Worship” have to do with drawing upon ancient Christian worship practice to inform and enrich modern practice. That’s totally different from any claim that my portrait of the historical origins of Jesus-devotion lend it any theological validity. I.e., if you’re already a worshipping Christian, I think that ancient worship practice can be instructive. But my account of the origins of Jesus-devotion doesn’t comprise a basis for adopting Christian faith. It’s just an attempt to lay out the origins as best I can with available evidence.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Thank you for pointing out the language in Bousset you are referring to. I see your point that Bousset interweaves his theological and historical judgements in a way that is no longer de rigueur. Yet I am sceptical that the difference is substantive rather than stylistic: conformity to contemporary discursive practices. The bare facts would seem to be that Bousset perceived religious practice in Urchristentum in a certain way that conformed to his own religious preferences, and you have likewise. I appreciate and believe when you say that you attempt to uncover the historical facts as best you can, but I doubt Bousset aspired to anything less. That you have (for the most part) successfully separated out your historical arguments from their religious implications may be a presentational advance rather than an objective one. Do we really imagine Bousset was less concerned to find out how it really was (“wie es eigentlich gewesen”) than contemporary scholars? Or did he simply express the relation between his faith and his scholarship in a more naive or, one might even say, more straightforward fashion. Has the relation between personal belief and historical scholarship really been eliminated or merely silenced by contemporary academic discursive practices? One could argue that while Bousset’s style may now appear quaint, at least it was out in the open.

        Having said that, you *do* also make theological judgements in relation to your historical work, especially in At the Origins of Christian Worship where you let your hair down.

        In form, some are judgements that appear as purely historical statements:

        “For example, the attempt of the fourth-century teacher, Arius, to accommodate monotheism by distinguishing between the divine nature of Christ and the divine nature of God the Father ultimately proved misguided and unacceptable in the debates of the fourth century, at least in part because it was seen by critics as implying the worship of two gods.” (p. 102)

        Thus making comment on the theological dispute while maintaining objective distance. Then you wade in a little further:

        “Though much about his reasoning, his use of the Bible, and his tone toward his opponents bears some critical scrutiny, Athanasius’ basic points are still worth considering. I think that Athanasius was correct that Christian theology and worship should be required to have some genuinely mutual relationship.” (p. 102)

        Which is leads up to a judgement that is theologically evaluative as anything you’ve pointed out from Bousset:

        “If, on the other hand, Christians are sincere about their monotheistic commitment and yet also feel obliged to continue the historic Christian devotional pattern of according the sort of reverence to Christ that they otherwise reserve for God, then some kind of profound inclusion of Christ with(in) God such as was articulated in Nicene christology (though not necessarily the same articulation) seems required, or at the very least reasonable.” (p. 102)

      • Donald: Here we go again! I write my scholarly works for all to read and engage/critique, regardless of their faith-stance. I plead to pre-condition of any faith-stance. In Bousset’s case, he has been shown to have downplayed wrongly (fact) the ancient Jewish context of earliest Christianity as part of his programme (identified by Marchand in particular). If you can show how my own historical work has received similar critique, I’d be grateful. You keep on doing this “hand-waving”, asserting in some general way that my religious faith may skew my findings, but I’m waiting for you to be specific. It’s tiresome to have your muted/general accusations without anything in particular.
        Your attempt to do so is again misguided, as I’ve said before. The quotes that you give aren’t theological and don’t require any theological stance. I simply noted that christian theology came to judge Arius’ position as inadequate and unacceptable. That’s a historical fact. In the second one I opine that Christians who claim a monotheistic stance and yet retain some kind of worship that includes Jesus as recipient will have to think about how they justify this and articulate a notion of “God” that allows for this.
        None of this comprises any example of how my religious ideas have skewed my historical judgements.
        Bousset was a great man, and a great scholar. He knew likely far more than I ever will. But he was wrong on some crucial assumptions and he allowed his cultural agenda to skew his judgements on some key matters. If someone can show the same true of me, I will be grateful. You haven’t done so.

    • Donald Jacobs permalink

      Okay I’d like to write more some time, but just now I’ll stop as I know when I’m defeated.

      Anyway, keep up the good work Professor Hurtado, have a Merry Christmas and gey Scottish Hogmanay. 🙂

  8. J.J. permalink

    Excellent clarification of the main positions. Really grateful you take time to organize the important issues in clear, well-defined terms. One further clarification between the positions of Bousset and yourself. Do you think it’s possible that the early developments could have taken place both in Jerusalem and in diaspora settings somewhat independently? (Granted, it’s unlikely Damascus and Antioch were completely independent of Jerusalem.) But in other words, could it be that what you are proposing is not negating Bousset’s description of early developments in the diaspora, only that you’re saying Bousset restricted it unnecessarily only to the diaspora? Or are you saying it happened only/mainly in Jerusalem, not in the diaspora? Or in other words, is it more of a “both-and” instead of an “either-or”? Thanks in advance.

    • J.J. I contend that the eruption initiated in the earliest circles of Jesus-followers, in Jerusalem and Judea, and from there spread to diaspora settings such as Antioch & Damascus. I’ve given my rationale in my book, Lord Jesus Christ.

  9. Dr. Hurtado,

    What I found interesting in reading James McGrath’s The Only True God, was that he actually denied that Jesus has/shares the divine identity even in the latest New Testament texts. He argues that Jesus’ full divinity wasn’t established until Creation ex nihilo became the ‘orthodoxy’ stance. I’m not sure when exactly he would date that, but it seems he is closer to Vermes than Casey or Dunn. Though, I admit that I haven’t read Casey.

    • Well, see my review-essay of McGrath for my own take on his views. (Listed under “Selected published Essays, etc.” tab on this blog site.)

  10. And yet, the big dispute between Paul and other Jews is over observance of the law, not devotion to Jesus. This tends to suggest that whatever was being claimed about Jesus’s identity in the 50s wasn’t as upsetting to non-Christian Jews as was breaking with Torah-observance, doesn’t it?

    This is not to deny that there were claims being made in Paul’s time about Jesus’s role in heaven and at the anticipated end of the age. And I recall you have scratched out some of these possible claims about Jesus’s person in Paul’s letters in a chapter in How on Earth?

    But if legal disputes were a hotter topic than claims about Jesus’s “divinity”, doesn’t this suggest that the “divinity” being posited about Jesus in the early decades was nothing more than that of a divine agent or intermediary who shared some (esp. eschatological judgment) roles of God? That is, doesn’t the focus of disputes with non-Christian Jews in Paul’s letters (i.e., on legal matters) support a development from an early “divine intermediary” who Paul distinguished from God, to the “high Christology” in John’s Gospel?

    • Deane, You’re confusing things. Paul’s contentions over the Torah in his epistles are with other Jewish christians and those influenced by then, not with “non-Christian” Jews. His epistles, after all, were intra-mural communications with other believers (his churches), not with outsiders.
      As I’ve explained more fully in other places (e.g., Lord Jesus Christ, the chapter on Paul), the event that re-oriented Paul he describes as a christophany, a revelation of Jesus as God’s “Son”, after which Paul then subscribes to the full christological stance reflected in his letters. Obviously, then, the reason for his previous opposition to the early ekklesias was likely the very view that he was compelled to accept . . . about Jesus and his significance.
      Read also my essay on early Jewish opposition to Jesus-devotion in my book, How on Earth did Jesus become a God?.

      • Well, I tend to take a higher view of Acts 21 and of its veracity, which surely indicates that it was precisely Paul’s teachings about circumcision and the law of Moses which antagonised all Jews – including the nonbelievers who opposed him. Sure, his letters were to other believers, but Acts 21 indicates that the issue of law observance provoked both believing and non-believing Jews.

        Moreover, Acts provides further support for the conclusion that it was merely acclaiming Jesus as the expected Messiah (while still distinguishing him from God, which is the consistent picture throughout Acts) that added to the divisions between all Jews and Paul. All this is consistent with a trajectory in which Jesus was first treated in the early to mid-first century, in worship and confession, as an eschatological divine intermediary – and only at the end of the first century beginning to be equated with God.

      • Deane: Please read Acts 21 carefully. The tensions referred to and accusations that Paul taught Jews “to forsake Moses and . . . not to circumcise their sons” are circulating among the “thousands of BELIEVERS there are among the Jews” (vv. 20-21). What gets Paul into trouble later in the chapter in the temple is the accusation that he brought gentiles into the inner court of the temple (v.28).
        If you read the Acts account of Paul’s defences (e.g., chap 22), you’ll note that he consistently denies any such thing and instead makes Jesus the crucial issue. Moreover, in the places in his letters where he does appear to refer to “non-believing” Jews (Rom 9-11; 2 Cor 3:12–4:6), Paul refers to them as “hardened” (against the gospel of Jesus) and having a veil over their minds so that they don’t see “the glory of God in the face of Jesus” (2 Cor 4:6).
        That Paul seemed to some to relativize the Torah, specifically not requiring gentile believers to convert to Jewish observance, was an issue, both for some other Jewish believers and for some other Jews. But, of course, his basis for his position was entirely christological!
        Finally, you’re posing a false set of alternatives. Every NT text/writer, indeed, every “proto-orthodox” text of the first few centuries, identifies Jesus in relationship to “the Father” as effectively agent, expression, etc. Jesus (“the Son”, in their language) is, of course, distinguished from “God” (“the Father”). And also linked with God uniquely, even to including Jesus as co-recipient of worship. I don’t know what you mean by “equated with God”. But if you mean “confused” with God, that’s not what I or others assert. What I mean is that Jesus was uniquely enfranchised into the devotional practice that otherwise was reserved for God. Read what I’ve written, e.g., One God, One Lord (1988) and later books, before you try to start an argument!

  11. Greetings Dr. Hurtado. Thanks for writing this. I had first adopted something similar to Dunn’s view that christology evolved into higher forms, from something like Mark, then Matthew, then Paul and John. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case at all. Later I learned that Paul was the earliest Christian writer we have, and he has exceptionally high christology early on, as you highlight. Why did Mark seem to introduce a “lower” christology? What would be his motives if a major Christian figure and ostensibly a contemporary, Paul, had a “higher” christology? I look forward to your reply.

    • Monte: I think you’re mistaken to compare Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ ministry in this way with Paul’s christological views in his letters. Mark’s purpose was to emphasize the connection of the exalted Christ of early Christian devotion with the earthly figure, Jesus of Nazareth, not to propose some “christology”. It’s simply a fallacy to think that Mark was intending anything otherwise. So, of course, an account of the earthly Jesus doesn’t include worship of him, etc., which doesn’t erupt until God’s exaltation of him via resurrection. But certainly Mark reflects and presumes a very “high” view of Jesus. E.g., the opening lines effectively make Jesus the “Lord” whose paths are prepared for by the Baptist. And at various points Jesus is pictured as heralded by demons who (unlike the humans in the story) perceive his transcendent significance. And Jesus acts in ways that allude to YHWH in the OT (e.g., walking on the waves and calming them). So, I think your assumptions about Mark are seriously incorrect, and so your purported history of christological development is also. Check out more recent studies of Markan christology!! E.g., Joel Marcus’ commentary.

      • Monte Harris permalink

        Thanks for pointing out the weaknesses in my position. I like growing!

  12. I have a few questions on these issues, but I’m going to break them up into separate comments. The first is in relation to how early Jesus devotion emerged. And since the word divine has various meanings, I just want to make it clear that my understanding with respect to Jesus, is that it means a divine being, godlike, but not God himself. So my question is, in Matthew 16:16, Peter answered Jesus’ question with, “you are the Christ, the son of the living God” and Jesus approved of his answer. In trying to research the ancient Jewish meaning of “son of God”, it appears there was no specific Messianic meaning for the phrase other then it being used with angels and men in various situations. So what was Peter actually trying to relate about Jesus? Was this expression suppose to relate to some kind of divine status? On the other hand, this could merely indicate an aspect of his being the Messiah, and the divine status did not happen until after his resurrection. I also find it interesting that sometime before this event, in Matthew 8:27 after Jesus calmed the storm, his disciples said, “What kind of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” Indicating they were not clear as to his identity at this point.

    • Howard: As to what I mean (I can’t account for others) when I refer to Jesus being treated as in some way “divine” in earliest Christian texts, I remind you that I have consistently defined this in terms of a “devotional pattern” comprising a constellation of actions that amount to Jesus being incorporated into the worship given to God. From my One God, One Lord (1988) book onward, I have repeatedly spelled out what these actions are. So, I refer specifically to this constellation of devotional actions as particularly indicative of a “high” stance of Jesus in earliest Christian circles.

      Your query about Matt 16:16 and what “Son of God” might mean well illustrates my point that christological terms/titles are not self-defining. The term “Son of God” can be applied variously to angels, Israel, the Jewish king, the righteous person, and (in Paul’s eschatological hopes) to all believers, as reflected in various OT & second-temple Jewish texts. So, we have to judge what it means when applied to Jesus in Matthew based on what other indications we have of how Jesus was seen by the author. One of the most important is in Matt 28:16-20, where his followers “worship” the risen Jesus, and he claims unique and omni-authority. In Matthew, Jesus is certainly also Messiah, but this Messiah for Matthew is also treated as uniquely worthy of being included in the worship given to God.

      • Larry, I’m beginning to wonder whether I’m not being clear enough, or that you are purposely putting a condescending slant on your comments to me as if I don’t know anything about these issues. Just for the record, you are not that much older than me and I have been doing this for over 25 years. Granted you know a lot more than me because this is/was your job, but you do not have to rehash the basics every time you respond to me. I’m looking for academic consensus/explanations, not the basics. For starters, I was just giving you my own position of how I relate what it means for Jesus to be divine, so that you knew where I stood in relation to my question.

        Then in an almost condescending way you respond with, “Your query about Matt 16:16 and what “Son of God” might mean well illustrates my point that christological terms/titles are not self-defining.” Who ever said they were? You are letting your preconceived ideas about me influence how you read what I write. If asking what the son of God might mean is somehow wrong, and not worthy of a detailed explanation, why do you support and review whole books dedicated to this very question? Case in point, your blog post of “The “Son of God” in/and the Roman Empire: A Review Essay” and a book you mention several times on this subject, The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion.

        Then not only did I not get a relevant response, but you parroted back to me what I had already acknowledged. That the title or phrase “son of God” DID NOT have a specific definition on it’s own, and that what Peter meant would need to be derived from other sources. The scholarly consensus on these other sources was what I was asking for in my original question. That’s why I mentioned the use among angels and men etc., I have no idea why you mentioned it again as if I never said it.

        Finally, I’m not at all convinced that in Matt 28 that Jesus is “Worshiped,” as the Greek word use here is proskyneo and literally refers to a position of the body. And it only means an act of worship when the recipient has clearly been recognized as a deity elsewhere. Therefore, Matt 28 cannot define, even in part, “son of God” in Matt 16:16.

      • Howard, I mean no condescension, but, frankly, the nature of some of your queries and comments does suggest strongly that you may not have quite the familiarity with all the data or scholarly discussion/issues. So, I merely try to ensure that you get them.
        Second, I DID give you a relevant response about Matt 16:16. My point is that any christological title such as “son of God” has to be understood in the specific context and socio-cultural setting in which it’s used. In this case, GMatthew seems strongly to reflect an early Christian context in which the risen Jesus was treated as recipient of cultic devotion. So, for Matthew, “the son of God” likely connotes something specific, reflecting all that the author affirms about Jesus, which includes messiahship but also the “higher register” accorded to the risen Jesus in earliest Christian circles. As for your thought about “proskyneo” in Matt 28:20, again, the term has to be read in its specific context. And when we do so I submit that it reflects earliest Christian cultic reverence of Jesus.

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