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Kyrios Christos Centenary Publication

May 11, 2015

The latest issue of the journal Early Christianity (vol. 6, no. 1, 2015) is given to several articles assessing Wilhelm Bousset’s classic work, Kyrios Christos (1913; English trans. of the 5th edition 1970; new edition of the English trans. Baylor University Press, 2013).  The articles derive from a special session held in the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2013.  Here is the table of contents:

David Capes, “Introduction:  A Centenary Celebration of Bousset’s Kyrios Christos” (3-4)

Cilliers Breytenbach, “Bousset’s Kyrios Christos:  Imperfections of a Benchmark” (5-16)

Larry W. Hurtado, “Wilhelm Bousset’s Kyrios Christos:  An Appreciative and Critical Assessment” (17-29)

Kelly Coblentz Bautch, “Kyrios Christos in the Light of Twenty-First Century Perspectives on Second-Temple Judaism” (30-50)

Lutz Doering, “Wilhelm Bousset’s Die Religion des Judentums im neutestamentlichen Zeitalter” (51-66).  (This article actually focuses on another of Bousset’s major works, which continued to be used, especially in German circles as a textbook, for many decades.)

Robert Matthew Calhoun, “The Power of the Call:  Wilhelm Bousset on Miracle, and Mark 1:16-20” (67-88)

In my article, I focus on some key problems in Bousset’s method and assumptions that render his construction of the origins and early development of Jesus-devotion untenable.  His use of sources was particularly bizarre.  For example, he presumed that the sayings material in the Gospels somehow derived from and preserved the confessional stance of the “primitive Palestinian” Jewish circles of the Jesus-movement, and he treated the Pauline letters as indicative of a quite different and secondary development in Christological beliefs and practices.  He presumed a “pre-Christian gnostic redeemer myth” that supposedly influenced particularly the Gospel of John.  He drew upon texts centuries later than the NT to posit the supposed background and sources for beliefs reflected in the NT.

But I applaud his aim of setting earliest Christianity in its ancient historical setting, and his recognition that early devotional/worship practice should be a key focus for scholars.  He was also correct to grant that the treatment of Jesus as “Kyrios”  and so rightful (co)recipient of worship erupted early, within the very first years of the young Jesus-movement.  We’d have much to argue about, but Bousset could be invited for a drink with the Early High Christology Club!

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  1. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Why are many conservative scholars so reluctant to acknowledge the parallels between the myths that attached themselves to Jesus and the stories that existed in the culture of the time? Is it because when you strip all the familiar stories away there is embarrassingly little if any historical Jesus left to speak about? One scholar who does not ignore the parallels is Dennis MacDonald who wrote “The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark” published by Yale UP. His most recent book “Mythologising Jesus” looks fascinating. I’ve not got it yet.

    If Bousset were around today I’d imagine he’d have more to talk about with MacDonald who attempts to situate the NT in its time and place than with scholars who prefer to invoke historical ruptures and mystical departures.

    • Donald:”Parallels” of what kind? The earliest parallels drawn between Jesus and the pagan hero figures are in the late second century AD, and drawn by Christians as part of their apologetic aims.
      MacDonald’s claims concern alleged literary features of Mark, not the historical questions about Jesus. You’re confusing things again. And (at least thus far) MacDonald’s claims remain his own, without a large takeup among other scholars.
      I reiterate my rejection of your snide attempt to label scholars as to “conservative” or other. For my part, I treat scholarly work on its own merits, and have no anxieties of the sort you impute. Please either engage issues or drop your subscriiption to this site.

  2. Fred permalink

    Could “primitive Palestinians” leave open a possible source for them in Q or Jesus himself?

    • “Fred”: In any construction, the “primitive Palestinian Community” are the closest historically to Jesus. As for Q, it’s now commonly regarded as composed in Greek sometime ca. 60 CE. So, as late or later than Paul’s letters.

  3. Hugh Scott permalink

    An interesting reflection on the ‘visibility profile’ of Bousset’s Kyrios Christos: though advertised on amazon in both the UK and the USA, there are no reader reviews on amazon UK, and only one in the USA.

    However, when I googled the title, one reference given was to an 8- or 9- page article in the Princeton Theological Review of 1914 ( which, like Larry Hurtado in his brief blog, praises the book for its wide learning, but finds it fundamentally flawed. Larry says that in his (Larry’s) contributary article on the Centenary of Bousset’s publication, “… I focus on some key problems in Bousset’s method and assumptions that render his construction of the origins and early development of Jesus-devotion untenable. His use of sources was particularly bizarre”.

    This ‘source’ issue is far from dead.

    The Princeton article already repeatedly faulted Bousset for catastrophically over-emphasizing the influence on Christian origins, of the surrounding Greco-Roman-Egyptian pagan deities and cults.

    But only last year Richard Carrier published a book ‘On the Historicity of Jesus’ (which I haven’t read) from which one reviewer picked out (approvingly) forty ‘pre-figurings’ of Jesus: a divine-human person, born of a god and godesss, dying and rising again each spring, and so on and so on. According to this reviewer, one doesn’t even need to prove the influence of the pagan world on Jesus: the mere existence of the pagan ‘parallels’ debunks the whole Jesus-Christian story!

    • Hugh: Please refrain from associating Carrier with Bousset. Bousset was a great scholar (even if flawed in some fundamentals of method). The “mythicist” argument has been put forth repeatedly (virtually unchanged) over a couple of centuries now, and repeatedly refuted to the satisfaction of scholars of virtually all persuasions. It’s a dead issue, except for those who don’t know enough scholarship to know otherwise.

      • Fred Weston permalink

        Still, Dr. Hurtado allows that Roman household codes say, influenced early Pauline codes.

        Presumably, the Roman rules were stripped of any Greek mythic underpinnings?

      • It would be more accurate to say that the NT household codes reflect the sort of social structures that we see also in the Greco-Roman codes. Doubtful that there is any direct influence, nor was it necessary. People in a given culture share its framework. The Greco-Roman codes don’t deal with “Greek mythic underpinnings”. They simply posit relationships of dominance and subordination.

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