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Revelatory Religious Experience & Religious Innovation

June 19, 2014

I’ve just received my copy of the published version of my Burkitt Lecture, given in Rice University (10 April 2013):  “Revelatory Experiences and Religious Innovation in Earliest Christianity,” Expository Times 125/10 (2014):  469-82.  I’ve now put the pre-publication version of the lecture under the “Selected Published Essays” tab on this blog site, available here.

In this article, I return to a topic and argument laid out in several earlier publications, in particular my T.W. Manson Lecture, in published form: “Religious Experience and Religious Innovation in the New Testament,” Journal of Religion 80 (2000): 183-205; republished in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? (Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 179-204.

The core proposal in that earlier article, and re-argued in the later one, is that among the factors that led to the remarkable innovation in Jewish religious tradition that was the earliest Jesus-movement, were powerful religious experiences that struck the recipients as divine revelations.  I try to show that the history of religions illustrates this sort of phenomenon as often crucial in various religious innovations.  I also argue that the NT writings give reason to think that this sort of religious experience was involved centrally in the eruption of beliefs about Jesus’ exalted status, and the “dyadic” devotional practice that is reflected in NT writings.

In the later article, I also review scholarly developments subsequent to my earlier article, particularly a modest but potentially significant growth in scholarly appreciation of, and interest in, religious experiences.

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  1. Larry, in your paper you wrote “to treat revelatory religious experiences as significant in generating significant religious innovations does not involve a theological judgement about the religious validity of the experiences” (p 6). That’s a fair qualifier. As you know, within Christianity, or the fringes of Christianity, there’ve been various movements based on this sort of thing over the centuries including, e.g., the Montanists. Some today resemble Montanism (or what we know of Montanism) in certain ways.

    In particular, there is one individual who, upon receiving a religious experience in which he understood that God told him that the way Christianity was currently practiced was to fundamentally change, and, in combination with subsequent experiences of others, set forth to do what he perceived he was to do with this info. These experiences, then, form the basis of his current beliefs – particularly with respect to eschatology – and practice. There’s been a fair amount of controversy regarding him and his beliefs/practices of late.

    • Craig: As I wrote, the evaluation of the content of such experiences is a valid other matter.

  2. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Dr. H.,

    Excellent article, it gives even further insight into how you, at least, view these revelatory experiences. IMO, your ‘charismatic exegesis’ seems to be evident throughout the NT and particularly in Hebrews. This exegesis seems to view Jesus as the fulfillment of the Torah, and likewise seems necessary for Jewish believers who were so devoted to a monotheistic view of God to justify their elevated view and worship of Jesus.


  3. Thank you, this is great. I really appreciate the attention that you have so consistently given to this issue in your writings. There are a number of promising signs that religious experience is back on the map of biblical studies. I was at a colloquium on Hebrews a few years ago where I argued that apocalyptic visions of the risen Jesus in priestly garments and priestly settings facilitated the priestly Christology of Hebrews. Not sure what you make of that?

  4. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Would you class Joseph Smith’s religious experience and the religious mutation that followed as being in the same category of phenomena as early Christian mutation? I know for example that Rodney Stark does, a scholar you have relied upon when making this argument in relation to early Christianity.

    • If you read my article, you’ll see that I cite several reported instances from various religious traditions featuring a powerful revelatory experience of an influential figure. Whatever the theological validity one ascribes to this or that reported instance, phenomenologically there are similarities across various traditions.

  5. Steve Walach permalink

    Larry —

    In your definition of revelatory experiences, is there a place for the baptism of the spirit as described in the Prayer of Thanksgiving in Didache 10:2?

    … We thank you, holy Father, for your holy name which you enshrined in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality that you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever …

    Sounds like a revelatory experience to me — possibly ongoing for each individual and for multitudes that follow. In keeping with your essay’s assessment of revelatory experiences, it seems to be a prayer linking OT and NT concepts in an innovative way but with a traditional underpinning.

    (I use this verse in a paper I am working on that posits a connection between OT and NT understandings of the sacred name.)

    • I would distinguish as “revelatory” experiences those that struck recipients as conveying new cognitive content, and that had the effect of promoting some major “mutation” in a given religious tradition. I’d see the reference in Didache as referring more to the ongoing acceptance of the Christian/Jesus message in the hearts of those who framed the text.

      • Steve Walach permalink

        Larry –

        I might be missing something but the revelatory experiences you cite via Paul – namely, the appearances of the risen Jesus to Cephas, the twelve, James, more than 500 at one time and to Paul – seem to me to be religious experiences restricted to only a select few.

        The early Jewish and gentile adherents – other than those Paul names – would then have had to base their worship of Jesus upon a belief in what others had reported. It was a message whose credibility would have been reinforced by the authoritative power ascribed to Paul, who in 1 Cor. 15:3-8, somewhat coyly presents himself in a self-deprecatory way – “untimely born” – while at the same time tacitly closing the door to future revelations – “last of all.”

        Perhaps it is my naiveté, but I see the verse from the Didache as offering the possibility of a religious experience validated by individuals who received the baptism of the spirit, a phenomenon that might have generated powerful grassroots veneration of both the Father and Jesus. No belief in a human authority required, just a faith in, and an acknowledgement of, the in-dwelling of the holy name for those baptized.

        I have no access as yet to the John Levison book you refer to, The Spirit in First Century Judaism, but do Levinson or any other scholars view this Didache verse in a similar way?

        Thanks for considering.

      • Steve, As I wrote in the article, there are various kinds of religious expriences, only a few of which are experienced as revelations conveying new cognitive information, e.g., new beliefs.

  6. samtsang98 permalink


  7. Minas Monier permalink

    very interesting. congratulations! we discussed the religious experience matter in St. Andrews last year if you remember.


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