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Questioning a Common Assumption

May 13, 2014

First, a quote:  “The Church cannot indefinitely continue to believe about Jesus what he did not know to be true about himself,” J. W. Bowman, The Intention of Jesus (London:  SCM, 1945), p. 108.

This  is not really a historical claim but a theological one, and it reflects a common assumption:  The assumption that the theological/religious validity of claims about Jesus rest upon what Jesus  believed and taught about himself.  In my book, Lord Jesus Christ (pp. 5-9), I’ve noted the irony of how this assumption has been shared by critics and advocates of Christian faith, and also how it has worked mischief in the historical investigation of Christian origins.

Operating on this assumption, apologists of traditional christological claims have striven to argue that Jesus really did teach them, e.g., that he is divine and worthy of worship.  Typically, this has meant trying to show, for example, that the distinctive discourse that we find in the Gospel of John really is the best index of Jesus’ own self-perception and teaching about himself (thereby distorting this remarkable text and making it serve a purpose for which it was never intended).

Also, and ironically, operating on the same theological assumption, critics of traditional Christian faith have often argued that Jesus didn’t actually make direct claims for divinity and make himself worthy of worship.  Instead, they have emphasized (with greater plausibility), it appears that these “high” claims about Jesus emerged only after Jesus’ execution (in what is sometimes called the “post-Easter” period).  It is this sort of argument that is the burden of Bart Ehrman’s most recent book:  How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2014).  (Yeah, I know.  Bart repeatedly claims that he’s not trying to “dis” Christian faith, and he generally maintains a respectful tone, but at times he slips and his disinterested claims  seem a bit coy.)

So, how is it that this assumption came to be held as self-evident truth, shared both by apologists and critics of Christian faith?  Well, it seems to derive from a very clever and historically successful move made in the 18th century by people now referred to as “Deists”.  As Jonathan Z. Smith showed in his little tome, Drudgery Divine (1990), the Deists set out to drive a wedge between the “historical” Jesus and the NT (and traditional Christian faith).  Taking a cue from the Protestant argument that church teaching had to be based in the NT, Deists argued in turn that NT christological claims had to be based in Jesus’ own teaching.  They then further argued that a critical approach toward the “historical” Jesus did not provide a sufficient basis for traditional christological beliefs.

Now the interesting bit is that this (originally Deist) argument was wildly successful, at least in setting the terms of the ensuing theological and scholarly debate.  That is, even those (e.g., advocates of traditional Christian faith) who opposed the Deists’ conclusions accepted their terms for the debate that followed (right down to our day):  Jesus’ own teaching about himself was the criterion of legitimacy for any claims about him.

So, what you have is a fundamentally theological issue becoming the shared assumption for a great deal of subsequent historical investigation.  And the result, as I’ve said, was a great deal of mischief:  Christian apologists producing contorted historical arguments trying to pump up maximally what might be attributed to Jesus, and critics of traditional Christian faith (e.g., the Deists, the old religionsgeschichtliche Schule scholars and their intellectual descendants) contending that these claims were invalidated by the evident historical events/process through which they had emerged.

But I’d like to make two observations.  First, the earliest extant Christian texts themselves make it perfectly clear that the “high” notions about Jesus sharing in divine glory, exalted to heavenly status, worthy of worship, etc., all erupted after Jesus’ ministry, not during it, and that the crucial impetus for these notions was what earliest believers saw as God’s actions, particularly their belief that God had raised Jesus from death to heavenly glory.  (See, e.g., Philippians 2:9-11; Acts 2:36).

To be sure, Jesus generated a devoted following during his ministry, and (as I have argued in Lord Jesus Christ, 53-64) also generated a strong polarization of opinion about himself, which led to him being crucified.  Indeed, as numerous scholars judge, Jesus (whether intentionally or not) likely generated the claim that he was (or was to be) Messiah, which seems to have been the cause of him being executed.  But Messiah isn’t necessarily a “divine” figure in any real sense of that term, and certainly not typically a figure who receives the sort of devotion that was given to the “risen/exalted” Jesus in earliest Christian circles.  (See my discussion of the question of how Jesus was reverenced during his ministry in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? esp. pp. 134-51).

To underscore the point,  the remarkable escalation in the status/significance of Jesus to the “right hand” of God, to sharing the divine name and glory, and to the central and programmatic place he held in earliest Christian devotional practice all rested on the fundamental conviction that God has exalted him and now required that Jesus’ exalted status be recognized, and that he should be reverenced accordingly.

My second observation is this:  Why should this be taken as some kind of threat to the theological legitimacy of traditional Christian faith?  Why should the clever Deist tactic of the 18th century continue to be treated as a self-evident truth and the basis for apologists and critics of Christian faith in their continuing wrangles and debates?  The fundamental theological basis given in the NT for treating Jesus in the “high” terms advocated is a theo-centric one:  God’s actions form the basis of the responding christological claims and devotional practices.  Considering this might be a really helpful move for all sides in any theological debate.

And setting aside the assumption that the validity of Christian faith can be weighed on the basis of the historical process by which it emerged could also make for better (or at least less antagonistic) historical work on Christian origins too.

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32 Comments
  1. Patrick permalink

    Larry,

    The question posed in your article by JW Bowman “The Church cannot indefinitely continue to believe about Jesus what he did not know to be true about himself,” is why I said what I did. I think it is demonstrable that Jesus did see Himself as divine.

    If for no other reason than how Jesus responded to Caiaphas I think He did. “Coming in the clouds” alone to an ANE Jew meant the most high God and to some of their pagan neighbors. “Sitting at the right hand of power” also.

    I share your view of why believers began to see Jesus this way, but, your article quoted Bowman challenging the idea that Jesus ever saw Himself this way and I think He did.

  2. Chris S permalink

    Larry,

    I think I agree that the theological basis in the NT for speaking of Jesus in high terms is a theo-centric one. However, the high terms never culminate to Jesus being called the one God. Jesus is always numerically distinct from the one God (the Father).

    Since Jesus never claimed that he is (part of) the one God, we have to look at the rest of the NT. While the NT makes very high claims of Jesus, there remains a numerical distinction between Jesus and the one God.

    It seems like church fathers took the high NT claims and made even higher claims. Are they reasonable? Should claims that Jesus is (part of) the one God stand given the NT’s silence?

    There is clearly one God in the NT — the Father. There is also a Son that is lifted very high. Must this Son be equal to the Father?

    • Chris: You’re introducing questions that take us away from the point of my posting, which was simply the two points that (1) the widely-shared assumption that the validity of christological claims must rest upon whether Jesus authorized them is dubious; and (2) that the NT makes God’s actions the basis for the “high” Christology and devotion given to the risen/exalted Jesus. Your questions focus more on the Patristic period and the doctrinal developments that led to subsequent formulations. Can’t be dealt with here.

  3. Donald Jacobs permalink

    I’m sorry, but how can you argue that Jesus was God incarnate if the historical Jesus had no such conception of himself? This is not of “tricky question” dreamt up by an unholy alliance of the godless and fundamentalists, it’s a statement of the perfectly obvious. Only to a very narrow strip of intellectually (over)engaged liberal believers could it ever appear otherwise.

    Prof Hurtado you point out that in the NT itself “notions of Jesus sharing the divine glory” erupted after the (claimed) resurrection. But how is this in any way an answer to the objection that Jesus could essentially be ignorant about who he really was and his own significance and yet still be God the Son? Where does the NT present Jesus as being so unaware? I can’t find any such suggestion. The gospels do not present a Jesus who was blind to his real significance. Any such reading that relies on such an “ignorant Jesus” overlay of the text is a significant distortion. The Jesus of the gospels knew exactly who he was – it was his disciples who were presented as being slow on the uptake – unfortunately for later Christianity, that Jesus was not the same as the later Jesus of faith. This is a very real problem at the heart of Christianity, not a mere philosophical technicality.

    • Donald: Get your facts straight before you shoot off! Where does this “trick question” rhetoric come from? Did I say anything justifying it? No. A short answer to what I think may be the substance lurking beneath your unhelpfully charged rhetoric: Jesus couldn’t claim to be at the right hand of God until God put him there (in the resurrection). He couldn’t demand worship. Only God could require it.
      I made no reference to an “ignorant Jesus” (again, your own ignorantly distorting rhetoric needs chastening). I said simply that the Gospels don’t present Jesus as demanding worship, etc., and that the NT rests the “high” Christological claims primarily on God’s actions and demands. Stay on topic please.

  4. mark permalink

    This is a fascinating subject. It’s hard, however, to separate the way in which Christian tradition evolved regarding Jesus and the Trinity, and, how Paul and Peter, for instance, might have understood these ideas. Is the issue that 18th century desists wrongly assumed that the idea of Jesus as God emerged long after Jesus’ death? When, in fact, according to Paul, our earliest written source, the belief was there from the beginning.

    Once that’s been established, though, how do we begin to understand the world-view of a 1st century Asian people, living in world of magic, in relation to our own. It would seem they had an abundant cultural framework in which to think about god’s and god-men that might seem foreign to people raised in a western culture shaped by a strict monotheism. That would be especially true in a scientific age. For instance, were the birth narratives intended as actual history? Or, were they a way of reinterpreting existing cultural myths to explain the theological meaning of Jesus and his unique relationship with God? Hopefully, I haven’t moved too far afield with my questions.

    • Mark: A brief response to your queries. First, the crucial issue isn’t really how long it took for “high” Christological claims to emerge. Bousset (Kyrios Christos), for example, held that the worship of Jesus as “Kyrios” erupted quickly and early, indeed within the first year or so. But he regarded it as theologically dubious, not based in Jesus’ own teaching.
      As for the ancient situation, you fail to note how Roman-era Jews (such as those who made up the earliest circles of Jesus-believers) maintained a fairly clear/strict distinction between the one God and the many putative deities of the Roman era (see, e.g., 1 Cor 8:4-6, where Paul reflects this). There is no evidence that devout Jews were ready to embrace deified heros, “god-men”, multiple deities, etc., especially when it came to worship practice. In fact, all the evidence indicates a critical stance toward such claims and a refusal to join in the worship of such beings. So, the eruption of Jesus-devotion can’t be accounted for readily by such purported analogies. As I’ve shown in publications since 1988.

  5. Bill Wortman permalink

    Crispin appears to have somewhat undermined your emphasis, Larry, on the significance of Deism as an important stage in defining this debate (for both sides). Your reply to him does not seem to me to have addressed his observation that one side in the debate was working from the ‘ipse dixit’ premise long before Deism. To be clear, I am not meaning to be antagonistic. I am genuinely curious about the merits of your argument.

    • Bill: I stand by my historical claim. What ancient patristic writers or Reformation theologians may or may not have assumed and asserted is a red-herring.

    • Tim Reichmuth permalink

      Bill, come on. Read the post, nowhere does Dr. H. say anything about what certain people argued in the past, but the influence that the 18th century deists have on the argument today and how the argument is framed . Crispin missed this as well or chose to ignore it.

  6. Dear Larry,
    You made yet another fine and highly relevant distinction. As those of old used to say, “bene docet qui bene distinguit”. I am afraid that a lot of people (some scholars included) would wish such distinctions away, since these remove the possibilities of blurring certain issues: an art in which far too many became interested over the past years and centuries. Those students of mine in Kolozsvár, who read your book in Hungarian (and some of them read it in English) are not so easily gullible anymore.

  7. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Dr. H,
    Great insight on both counts. Reading the Gospels makes it clear to me that Jesus’ followers not only did not consider Him divine before His resurrection, they in fact were struggling with who He was in the context of their own religious belief system, Judaic Monotheism. For me, the real historical phenomenon is, contra 18th century deists and those on both sides today, that these followers after Jesus’ resurrection, found a way to reconcile their Judaic Monotheism with a devotion to Jesus that is equal to the Father and continued to proclaim a belief in the One God of the scriptures. To allow ourselves to be penned in by a false either or proposition is not good for either a historical or religious approach to who Jesus was and where the beliefs of early Christians came from.

  8. Bilbo permalink

    Hi Larry,

    I’m willing to grant that believing that God raised Jesus from the dead provided a great deal of motivation in understanding who Jesus was. However, it’s difficult to see how this act of God, by itself, could result in seeing Jesus as somehow divine and worthy of worship. It seems that there would be a need for claims made by Jesus about who he was either prior to his death or after his resurrection that give some sort of indication that one should see him as divine. The resurrection event by itself, alone, would seem to lack enough meaningful content to justify making such high claims about Jesus.

    • Well, first, it would help if you might read my publications in which I discuss this matter further. E.g., check the “Forces and Factors” section of my book, Lord Jesus Christ.
      The essence = this: I don’t say that “mere” resurrection by itself connoted Jesus’ divine status. I refer to the experiences that convinced earliest believers that God had exalted him to heavenly glory, etc. The believers didn’t make inferences from resurrection by itself, but had experiences that directly conveyed Jesus’ exalted status (e.g., visions of the exalted Jesus). Read what I’ve written and the evidence there provided.

  9. Patrick permalink

    It’s always going to be a matter of interpretation to have a basis for claiming Jesus saw& declared Himself being Divine OR did not. I think He did myself. Unbelievers/skeptical believers would say He did not , as pointed out here.

    • Patrick: You don’t get the issue. It isn’t a matter of “believers” and “unbelievers”. The NT makes it perfectly clear that the point at which people started claiming that Jesus shared divine glory, was worthy of worship, etc., was God’s exaltation of Jesus, not Jesus’ own demands.

  10. Mr Hurtado,

    If the historical Jesus had claimed, during his lifetime, that he actually was God, that he had to ‘die’ and resurrect in order to perform a kind of cosmic ritual which would allow people to gain ‘eternal life’ under certain conditions then why would his followers a. have been surprised that he got executed, b. have gone to his tomb to perform funeral rites and c. have been wondering why the tomb was empty? If you believed and expected someone to resurrect shortly after his death then wouldn’t you interpret an empty tomb as a GOOD sign? As a confirmation of what was told earlier?

  11. Interesting post Larry. It reminds me of Raymond Brown’s line of argument who also tried to develop a nuanced position that allowed for Christians to have developed further insight about Jesus’ identity and new categories for expressing this insight after his resurrection, while maintaining that this insight did stand in continuity with who Jesus was/is, even if Jesus himself did not yet reflect on his identity with all of these same categories during his lifetime. At least that is how I recall Brown’s line of thought. All the best, Wayne

    • Yes, thanks. Put another way, it is not necessary for Jesus to have proclaimed himself as divine Son of God for him to be that and be reverenced as that. This is especially so given that the NT texts make Jesus’ resurrection not only an affirmation of the earthly Jesus but a further catapulting of Jesus to a new status and role as “Kyrios” and regent (a la 1 Cor 15:20ff.).

  12. I found your post especially interesting, since I have just finished reading Ehrman’s book (as well as the Evangelical response to it). Here’s my question: If Jesus devotion is predicated on early Christian (non-historical) claims of god’s actions in raising and exalting Jesus after his death, does what the historical Jesus thought about himself have any significance beyond being an historical curiosity? (That is, of course, if we can actually know what the historical Jesus thought about himself: a question in and of itself!)

    • Charles: The early Christian claims are “historical”–i.e., we can investigate whether they made such claims, and what they were. Of course, we can’t test historically the religious validity of the claims (e.g., that God raised Jesus and exalted him to heavenly glory), either confirming or falsifying them.
      What Jesus proclaimed and taught is significant, of course. My point was that the early Christians based their claims about Jesus’ “divine” status, etc., not primarily on Jesus’ claims for himself but on God’s affirmation of him.

      • James permalink

        Hi Larry,

        I just wondered if you thought Jesus actually claimed (or implied at least) He was divine during His earthly life? Obviously, if He did, the disciples didn’t “get it” until after the resurrection (as you’ve said here and in your books too) but I just wondered about passages like – just to cite one example – Matthew 9:1-8, where Jesus claims the ability to forgive sins which, it seems, is something only God can do. Do you take that passage as authentic and, if so, do you see Jesus as claiming divinity there?

      • James: I won’t have space here to examine the passage that you mention (or others that could be proffered), in which Jesus acts with divine authority. I will say, however, that the NT (even the Gospel of John) presents Jesus as acting as the uniquely authorized agent/son of God. So, e.g., in the story you cite, Jesus isn’t pictured as replacing God or “overwriting” God, but as the supremely authorized agent of God. That’s the controversial issue. There is no evidence that during Jesus’ ministry he proclaimed himself divine or demanded worship. The subsequent claims and devotional practice were in response to God’s actions and demands.

  13. That is clear, I fully agree with what you say. However, in my opinion some big problems still remain. Even if we are devoted to Jesus and believe in resurrection, it may seem that in some cases the “Christian” message of NT is a distorted interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. Assuming that God vindicated Jesus by resurrecting him in glory, God presumably did it to confirm Jesus’ (historical) words and deeds, thus expecting that his followers acted accordingly.
    So, for example, if Jesus never said (or meant to say) that all foods are clean (and Jesus only eat kosher food) – foods didn’t presumably become clean due to the resurrection.

    Sorry for this challenging argument and for my poor exposition of it, but it’s a practical problem that Christians have actually to deal with.

    • Lorenzo, You’re introducing other issues, but a brief response. E.g., Jesus’ ministry was to fellow Jews, so the question of whether to observe biblical commands about kosher wouldn’t arise. But when the Christian gospel went to Gentiles, then the question arises. It isn’t the resurrection, but the question of what God requires of Gentiles. See, e.g., the dramatized narrative in ACts 10, where God is portrayed as directing Peter about the matter. The text doesn’t ascribe the issue to Jesus but to God there.

      • Thanks for your response, brief but extremely clear.
        Christians tend to think that God spoke thru Jesus (that’s what make the difference: we heard the Truth straight from Jesus!), and due to the fact that Mark’s Gospel ascribes to Jesus (even though indirectly) such teaching on foods (and Shabbath, etc.), Christians believe that since it comes from Jesus then it’s God’s will.
        It’s hard to explain that Mark is using a literary device, and that new perspectives on food and Shabbath (for example) don’t come from Jesus but from God in some other way. If such teachings come from God in some other way, then we’re no longer close to the core of the Christian faith which is faith in Jesus (faith in God was already assumed before Jesus).

        I perfectly understand this is a theological issue, and I think we need a very mature faith to accept such arguments.

      • But, Lorenzo, the early Christian claim is that God’s actions with regard to Jesus now make it required to recognize Jesus, affirm God’s actions, and so to worship God via Jesus. Otherwise, one would be disobedient to God. So, things don’t (in their eyes) remain as they were at all!

  14. Crispin Fletcher-Louis permalink

    Interesting post Larry.

    Can you clarify for us: are you saying that all the way down through the history of the Church it was never the standard, traditional or “orthodox” view that Jesus’ divinity was partly a case of him thinking of himself as divine? Are you saying that it was only first in a defensive response to the Deists in the 18th century that anyone actually claimed that Jesus himself believed he was divine (and that is one of the reasons Christians do too)? In other words, you are saying that the Church Fathers (Eastern and Western), medieval theologians and the Reformers would all have said it really is not relevant what Jesus of Nazareth actually believed about himself?

    Crispin

    • Crispin: I’m saying what I wrote: (1) The Deist tactic of the 18th century governs the working assumption shared by apologists and critics of Christian faith to the present time, and (2) the NT stress is on what God has done as the basis for responding in Christological claims and devotional practice.

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