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“Early High Christology”: A “Paradigm Shift”? “New Perspective”?

July 10, 2015

In a programmatic essay surveying recent scholarly discussion about earliest Jesus-devotion, Jörg Frey (Professor, University of Zürich) judges that one can speak perhaps of “a paradigm-shift” (von einem Paradigmenwechsel) or, “a new perspective” (von einer ‘neuen Perspektive’) in the work of a number of scholars:  “Eine neue religionsgeschichtliche Perspektive:  Larry W. Hurtados Lord Jesus Christ und die Herausbildung der frühen Christologie,” in Reflections on the Early Christian History of Religion/Erwägungen zur frühen Religionsgeschichte, ed. Cilliers Breytenbach & Jörg Frey (Leiden:  Brill, 2013), 117-69.

The term “new perspective” derives from (and alludes to) the use of that expression to describe the major shift in viewpoint (or at least in the scholarly agenda) arising from the landmark book by E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977).  In the case considered by Frey, however, there is no one book and no one scholar to point to as having had the same effect.  Instead, there are a number of scholars in various countries and of varying stances (and Frey cites many of them, pp. 122-24), among whom he includes me.  I would myself cite Martin Hengel’s works as particularly important foundation for me and, likely for a number of others as well.  His little (but typically jam-packed) book, The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976; German: 1975) I would cite as especially noteworthy.

It was in Hengel’s endorsement on the cover of the initial publication my own book, One God, One Lord (1988) that he referred to the work of a number of scholars of various countries as comprising a kind of “new religionsgeschichtliche Schule” (“history of religion school”), this term taken up several times subsequently by observers of the ensuing scholarly discussion.  As I have stated earlier (Lord Jesus Christ, 11-18), I don’t think that the term strictly fits.  Unlike the original “schule,” the more recent scholars are from various universities in various countries, and, perhaps still more importantly, they are not all of one stance on matters of religion (the old “schule” were all German Protestant liberal theologians, mainly in the University of Gottingen).  But, with allowance for differences among us, we do all tend to judge that a “high” devotion to Jesus erupted early and quickly, and in circles of Jewish Jesus-followers.

So, I agree with Frey that it may be more appropriate to refer to “a new perspective” in the study of the origins of “Christology” and the place of Jesus in earliest Christian faith and practice.  Frey characterizes my book, Lord Jesus Christ, as now offering “a comprehensive representation” (“eine zusammenfassende Darstellung”) of that new perspective (125).  Well, it is at least my attempt to do this.

Frey’s essay derives from a day-long seminar on my 2003 book, Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, held in Berlin in 2005 under the auspices of the New Testament section of the Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft für Theologie.  Other essays from that event, now published in the same volume, are by Jens Schröter, “Trinitarian Belief, Binitarian Monotheism, and the One God:  Reflections on the Origin of Christian Faith in Affiliation to Larry Hurtado’s Christological Approach” (pp. 171-94); Christoph Markschies, “‘Radical Diversity’? Ein Gespräch mit Larry Hurtado über verschiedene Formen der Christusverehrung im zweiten Jahrhundert” (195-210); Hermut Löhr, “‘Binitarian Worship’?  Zur impliziten Theologie des frühchristlichen Gottesdienstes. Dargestellt an Justin, 1 Apol. 61-67″ (211-29).

I remember that Berlin seminar well, with gratitude to the German-speaking colleagues who gave my work their serious attention. There were both appreciative and critical observations, to be sure!  I remember that when we re-convened after the lunch-break the leader said something like “Well, after roasting you on one side, we now turn you to the other side,” alluding, of course, to the story of the death-by-roasting of my early Christian name-sake, Laurence!  But, in fact, they were much kinder than that, and I escaped without any serious scorch marks.

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