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Early Jesus-Devotion: Underscoring Key Points

May 20, 2014

I had hoped that my previous posting would have clarified the points I tried to make in the one before that.  But in light of ensuing questions and comments, it appears that it was not entirely successful.  So, this further (and much briefer) attempt.  I want to underscore the key things I wanted to highlight initially.  (And I request that comments be directed to the focus of my postings, and not wandering off afield into other matters.)

First, and most importantly, all the historical evidence indicates that it was the experience of the risen and exalted Jesus that generated the really lofty claims about him (e.g., ascribing to him a status likened to God’s, seated “at God’s right hand,” sharing divine glory and name, the title “The Kyrios,” etc.) and that generated the “dyadic” devotional pattern that I have emphasized over some 25 years now.  So, whatever the “historical” Jesus thought of himself, whatever he may have secretly believed, hoped, knew, etc., the key point is that this remarkable body of lofty claims and the accompanying devotional practice seem to have erupted in the “post-Easter” period.

During his ministry, Jesus certainly excited claims and counter-claims about himself, including specifically the hope that he was (or would be) Messiah, which appears to have been the basis of the charge against him that led to his crucifixion.

He certainly seems to have acted with an authority that excited some, offended others, and that reflected an implicit claim to be God’s unique agent announcing and enacting in some ways eschatological salvation. But, still, the claims and devotional practices that erupted after his crucifixion exceeded anything held about him during his ministry.

The fundamental basis for these claims and the devotional practice was the powerful conviction that God had exalted Jesus to heavenly glory and now required him to be reverenced.  As I tried to emphasize earlier, the Christological claims and worship practices had a theo-centric basis:  God’s actions that had Christological consequences.

The second major point I’d like to underscore and clarify (again) is that notions of Jesus’ “pre-existence” seem to have erupted in this same “post-Easter” period, and also as a consequence of God’s exaltation of Jesus.  This attribution of “pre-existence” to Jesus seems to have happened very quickly, certainly not as a result of some slow and incremental process.

The final point is that doctrinal development certainly didn’t cease at that early point, but continued as believers reflected further on what they believed God had done, what Jesus had done and revealed, and what they believed the Spirit had revealed.  Moreover, as early Christians thereafter sought to engage the wider intellectual currents of the Roman world (esp. influenced by Greek philosophical traditions), they developed further notions and responded to new issues.  But the beliefs of each period need to be considered in their own time.  So, e.g., the Christological beliefs and expressions found in early writings (the NT and other early texts) deserve to be studied in their own right, preferably (to my mind) without reading them through the lens of subsequent issues and formulations.

Likewise, those later creeds and formulations deserve to be considered sympathetically, with respect for the issues, the inventory of available concepts, etc.  But that takes us into a period later than my own focus.

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26 Comments
  1. Chris S permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,

    If the concept/idea of a pre-existent Christ did develop rapidly and was widely accepted by the early writings of Paul, why do the Synoptic Gospels not include some (or any depending on interpretation) comments about pre-existence like GJohn?

    I know this is speculation, but it seems like a critical part of the post-Easter story (Christ’s pre-existence) is at most very implicit in the Synoptics (e.g. I have come language).

    Chris

    • The essential reason is that the individual authors of the Synoptics didn’t think it fit with their literary/narrative plans.
      They each tell an account of the ministry of Jesus. And for that, pre-existence doesn’t fit. John, however, obviously took another path.
      But we have to beware of assuming that everything the Synoptic authors knew and believed they incorporated into their Gospels. That’s a most unlikely assumption.

  2. Wayne permalink

    There is a distinction between the Christology of the apostle Paul, the author of the Gospel of John, and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews and that of the ecumenical councils. It is a matter of judgement whether the Christology of the councils is a legitimate development or not. Whereas Oscar Cullman said that in the New Testament there is only a “functional Christology” and that “in light of the New Testament witness all mere speculation about [Christ’s] natures is an absurdity,” Vincent Taylor said that it was “providential” that the earliest Christology was limited in comparison to later Christology because “it was essential to describe Christ, and to make the greatest claims for Him, before facing the problems which these claims raised.” In your blog you rightly emphasize that Jesus Christ is portrayed primarily as the “agent” of God in creation and redemption. Yet would you concede that there are also ontological claims being made as well, such as in John 1 and in Hebrews 1:3 (the only text in the New Testament where “hypostasis” is used to describe “God’s very being”?

    • It’s hard to say whether the authors of John 1 and Hebrews 1 were making “ontological” statements, because they don’t use that kind of category. I do think, however, that they (and even Paul) were making the highest claims that they could with the language and concepts available to them.
      Let’s simply analyse and appreciate the NT writers for what they wrote, and not keep trying to judge them by later conceptual categories.

      • Dr Hurtado,

        Regarding the pre-existence in the Mark for example…

        You said in your commentary on Mark…

        “The Old Testament (ot) passages (Mal. 3:1 and Isa. 40:3; see the notes on 1:2, 3) are furnished to show that John the Baptist and Jesus are to be understood in the context of the prophecies regarded by ancient Jews and Christians as holy Scripture and divine revelation of God’s purposes. That is, in the writer’s view, neither Jesus nor John appeared “out of the blue” but, rather, as fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption.” (Logos version)

        It seems to me that these passages express an early (and very high) Christology of Yeshua/Jesus.

        Understanding that Mark as most probably the oldest Gospel, how does Mark’s high Christology (seemingly equating YHWH from Isa 40:3&Mal3 to Jesus in light of baptism) not seem to be way assume pre-existence?

        Do you understand my question?
        And in no way am I saying the understanding of a Divine Messiah was understood utterly by the apostles of Jesus, but I agree they had some things to learn about their Lord (whitch came “post-Easter”.

        Thanks

      • I agree (with others, e.g., Joel Marcus) that the opening verses of Mark adapt OT passages that originally referred to YHWH to apply to Jesus as the “Lord” whose way is to be prepared. On this view, this does reflect a “high” view of Jesus (along with numerous other data in Mark, such as demonic recognition scenes). But, of course, Mark was written in the “post-Easter” setting, and reflect the exalted views of Jesus that erupted in that setting so early and so quickly.

  3. james permalink

    I’ve reread your points several times and can see why the mythicist’s hypothesis is gaining traction.

    • Uh, James. The “mythicist hypothesis” is gaining no traction at all, nada, among scholars able to assess things. It may have a certain circulation among other folk,but that’s not how scholarship gets “traction”.

  4. Arvo P-L permalink

    One idea I’ve been thinking about is how much Jesus could have revealed his divinity pre-crucifixion. It’s very apparent that his disciples were quite thick skulled about many things that Jesus was trying to convey to them. At least Peter understood that, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” So maybe one reason the gospel writers don’t show a lot of Jesus’ divine attributes pre-resurrection is that Jesus didn’t tip his hand because they would not have understood. He lost a lot of followers over the “eat my body and drink my blood” comment. He was atypically forthcoming with the woman at the well about who he was. Only three were allowed to witness the transfiguration. He also seemed to be conveying frustration with Phillip when he replied, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the father.” Thus, Jesus only revealed as much as he thought the audience could handle, and in the disciples’ case, that was not much. Then, it wasn’t so much that Jesus changed after the resurrection, but that the disciples finally got it because, “…he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” What do you think?

    • Arvo: YOu’re asking speculative questions, largely driven by theological assumptions. I’m simply trying to follow the evidence as to the history of things. And the evidence rather clearly points to the “post-Easter” period as the time when Jesus was thought to have been exalted as Kyrios and Christos and was now to be reverenced as such.

  5. Paul J permalink

    Thank you for this excellent series of posts, and I commend your patience.

  6. Steve Driediger permalink

    Thank you very much, Dr. Hurtado, for your fine treatment of the subject.

    One of the questions that I often find myself asking (not just about this particular issue but about all kinds of issues) goes something like this: How does the way that I read the Bible impact my conviction about “x”? In this case, I wonder if much of the disagreement between yourself and your detractors is based not so much on the “evidence” (ie. what does the Bible say or not say) but rather on how a person reads it ie. Is the Bible – the gospels in particular – a “play-by-play” account of events as they unfolded? or are the gospels the result of later theological reflection on those events?

    Of course, then we get into another whole set of arguments about the mode of inspiration of scripture, though perhaps without settling that argument we remain resigned to disagreement over the current one.

    • Steve: I agree that our view of the nature of the sources we’re examining is crucial. With other scholars in the field, I take the Gospels to be written ca. 70-90 CE, and so drawing upon Jesus-tradition that had circulated for a few decades. I take them as written by authors, and so to be literary products, with purposes, emphases, etc., which are quite obviously distinguishable one from another. I take them to be intended to promote faith in Jesus, to address issues of the time they were written. So, they aren’t cctv footage, but highly interpretative accounts. In my book Lord Jesus Christ, I treat each of them as different “renditions” of Jesus (using a musical metaphor, not one from the CIA!!).

  7. Mr Hurtado, why do you think then that the historical Jesus did not make any of those claims about himself that his ‘post-resurrection’ followers were making? Why would he not have mentioned these elements about himself? It’s not like they were mere details? Thank you

    • Jerome: Your question assumes that Jesus would or could have claimed things that had not yet taken place. Specifically, until/unless God exalted him to heavenly glory, he could not have claimed such. Moreover, it is not necessary for Jesus to have believed/known the idea that he was “pre-existent” for believers subsequently to claim this, and to be correct in doing so.
      One of the assumptions that I’ve repeatedly questioned (and that works historical mischief) is that Jesus had to know all that believers claimed of him subsequently. It’s not the case.

      • Larry: if Jesus only got ‘exalted to heavenly glory’ at/after his ‘resurrection’ then how could he actually have been God the whole time (like later Christians have claimed ever since)? And if he had been ‘pre-existent’ then how could he possibly have forgotten this?

      • Jerome: First, are you really interested in the question, or are you simply trying to pester? If serious, then do some serious reading in the development of early Christian theology, and you’ll find some answers they gave to your questions. But, in the hope that you’re sincere, my own brief response for now:
        First, the Philippians passage (2:6-11) is a good place to start. Here, Jesus is portrayed as “in the form of God”, then incarnate as a human, and then hyper-exalted to a role/place as the “Kyrios” to whom all creation is to give obeisance. It’s the latter in particular that’s the new thing he is pictured as not having before.
        And as to your continuing questions about Jesus’ psychology, from the NT onward the emphasis is that Jesus was a real human, not a god or angel pretending to be one. So, as a human he didn’t “pre-exist”, and so had no memory of this.
        But, as I say, a blog comment isn’t the place to lay out all the sophistication involved in early Christian theological developments. Read. Maybe start with a simple classic such as J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1960)

  8. Thank you for this concise summary. Your exposition is crystal clear, I always found your arguments extremely solid even when tested vis-a-vis the “Historical Jesus” quest.

    Unless you already did it (I may have missed something) it would be *very* interesting to read your comments/opinion about last Ehrman’s book “How Jesus Became God”. Could be a comment about the book as a whole, or maybe about some specific Ehrman’s arguments that may have found as wanting.. Thank you!!

    • I’ve read the book and am now preparing an invited review for Christian Century. I’ll also likely post a blog on it in due course.

  9. As I’ve said before, and I am happy to say again, your work on this subject, especially with respect to its primarily historical rather than theological focus, has been substantive, groundbreaking, uniquely valuable, and dispositive with regard to clarifying the high view of the resurrected Jesus held by the earliest Christians.

    I only wish you hadn’t chosen the metaphor of “mutation” to describe it. The New Testament writings portray the earliest Christians as seeing Messiah’s resurrection as more organic than that. That is, their portrait is not that of Israel as a plant that mutated but rather as of a seed that blossomed.

    • Dr. Hurtado, I agree with the gadfly here that your excellent book is so thoroughly researched that it is perfectly suited for use by ambassadors of The Kyrios, even though they must reject your studied interpretation of the facts.

      As you say, the ‘mutation’ of understanding occurred almost immediately. That is a genuine historical finding. But what it finds is (as you have shown) a great and early quantity of religious attitudes favoring a true incarnation.

      You have interpreted such findings in connection with other points which favor the priority of the Jewish-heathen concept of exalted humans. Well. But historical tools don’t yield the same certainty in regard to final interpretations as they do in regard to a fair knowledge of the historical record.

      I don’t mean that you have ‘justified’ the ambassadors of the living Kyrios (and I am sure I am not in sympathy with all that Mike G writes here). I only feel I can safely doubt that what we can call pre- and post-resurrection facts are as closely tied to your professional conclusions as you might think.

      But I really liked your book. And how many scholars can claim that their scholarship is of such high quality that it can be used to challenge their own professional interpretation of their facts?

      • John: Thanks for your positive comments about my book (which one, unspecified). But I have to say that, by and large, I can’t make sense of most of the rest of what you wrote! So, I really don’t know how to respond. E.g., “Jewish-heathen concept of exalted humans”?? And the next sentence?? And the second sentence in your second paragraph?? These and other things in your comment are simply impenetrable for me. I trust, however, that you meant something meaningful.

  10. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Much of what you say makes sense when you put it like that. But I do wonder if you are somewhat guilty of making the evidence say more than it can bear. For example with the statement:

    “But, still, the claims and devotional practices that erupted after his crucifixion exceeded anything held about him during his ministry.”

    Given the extremely fragmentary and dubious quality if the evidence can this really be claimed with any degree of confidence?

    Or here:

    “This attribution of “pre-existence” to Jesus seems to have happened very quickly, certainly not as a result of some slow and incremental process.”

    Well it depends what you mean by slow and incremental doesn’t it? If there was under 20 years between the death of Jesus and the earliest Pauline epistles that’s a similar length of time as from the October revolution in 1917 and the purges of the 1930s. Plenty of time for ideological innovation. Imagine trying to unpack the all the internal politics, ideological deformation, and pressures from outside powers, from a few letters dealing with those matters tangentially (not to mention tendentiously) in the 1930s and later. You could be forgiven for thinking the task is hopeless. Or at least it would make one recoil from making any sort of definite claims.

    An even better example could be the French Revolution, where all sorts of ideas developed extremely rapidly and in conflict with one another. And the situation that resulted within a few short years could not easily be used to reconstruct what had precipitated the events of 1789.

    • Well, Donald, if you simply stand on the sidelines and point out such theoretical problems, it will seem hopeless perhaps or at least un-decidable. But if, as I have done and published, you actually engage the details of the evidence, then you might see that one can have more confidence in results. E.g., scholars commonly find in Paul’s undisputed (and so early) letters a number of confessional formulae, “hymnic” material, etc., that pre-date the letters, and appear to be widely, commonly accepted and presumed by Paul. So, very early, easily within the period between Jesus’ execution and the commencement of Paul’s gentile mission. But also, as I’ve noted, the “logic” of ancient Jewish apocalyptic thought didn’t require much time to extrapolate from Jesus’ heavenly exaltation to such notions as his pre-existence. But, as I say, to assess the matter requires getting off the bench and into the game.

  11. Chris permalink

    On that final point, aside from the conclusion of God in New Testament Theology and sections 8-10 in Lord Jesus Christare there any other go-to sources you would recommend for discussions of the pre-Nicean theological developments?

    • One work that I’ve referred readers to previously that I found particularly stimulating:
      Eric Osborn, The Emergence of Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

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