“Early High Christology”: Clarifying Key Issues and Positions
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 Monotheism, however, 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.