“Early High Christology”: Taking up a Dialogue
In a commendably professional step, Michael Kok sent me advance notice of a piece in which he addresses briefly the work of several scholars associated with the “early high christology” perspective (sometimes also referred to as “the new religionsgeschichtliche Schule”), and that he subsequently posted on a web site here. In that piece, he says that he hopes “to open up a dialogue,” and so I offer an initial response here.
My first observation is that I think that Kok has attempted a balanced and (within the limits of his brief posting) essentially fair treatment of recent discussion/debate about the origins of “high Christology” (or, as I prefer to describe my own emphasis, “Jesus-devotion”). The notes to his piece will guide readers to some key works both “pro” and “con,” and the characterization of various scholars seems to me basically accurate (again, working with the constraints of a brief web-posting, and see my critique in the following paragraphs). So, I’ll take up his wish for dialogue by briefly addressing a few issues of substance.
One of Kok’s concerns is whether in the recent work that prompts his piece (particularly mine and that of Bauckham) there is “a concern to date a ‘high Christology’ as close as possible to the founding of the “Christian” movement.” Well, Bauckham can speak for himself (as can others), but, to represent my own stance in the matter, I’ve reached the views that I advocate on the basis of the evidence and the best analysis of it that I can develop, using premises, approaches and arguments that are fully open to scholarly engagement by colleagues of any perspective. I think that the evidence points to the conclusion that the pattern of Jesus-devotion presumed and reflected already in Paul’s letters was basically shared by, and likely originated among, Jewish circles in the young Jesus-movement based in Roman Judaea, i.e., among the earliest circles and in the earliest “post-Easter” period. I judge that, I repeat, not out of some concern that it be so, but because that seems to me what a reasonable analysis demands. (In footnote 9, Kok says that his concern applies more to “apologetic appropriations of the work of the EHCC rather than to its main scholarly proponents,” and I take him at his word. But his essay addresses the “main scholarly proponents,” in which case his “concern” seems to me a red-herring.)
I will also note again that (unlike the older German Schule) this so-called “new religionsgeschichtliche Schule” includes scholars of various personal and religious stances, such as Jarl Fossum (who was a Jungian but I’m not aware of any particularly Christian theological stance) and Alan Segal (a self-identifying Jewish scholar of ancient religion). I happen to be a Christian (so, take me to the lions, I guess!), and Bauckham is also. But I’m also a white male, a North American of mixed British and Spanish ancestry, near-sighted, of centre-left political leaning, a gender-egalitarian, who also likes porridge often for breakfast, gin and tonic or a good whiskey on a Friday afternoon, brought up on country music, and the first in my family history to take a university degree. So? The positions I’ve reached and advocate don’t require anybody to share any of these personal features. Let’s discuss substance.
Kok also wonders if the emphasis on the ancient Jewish matrix of earliest circles of Jesus-devotion serves to “insulate them from influences from the Greco-Roman world.” Well, one could also note that the older work against which I and others have been pushing back was openly concerned to attribute a lot to “oriental” forces, with an inadequate appreciation of the richness of the Roman-era Jewish tradition. But, again, Kok’s statement implicitly imputes a motive, rather than engaging issues. Any reader of my work, for example, can note that one of the “forces and factors” that I specifically cite is the larger Roman-era religious environment, including emperor-cult (e.g., Lord Jesus Christ, pp. 74-77). Moreover, as Hengel and others showed, the Jewish matrix of the Jesus-movement was Roman-era Jewish tradition that had been shaped (albeit variously) in response to Persian, then Hellenistic, and then Roman influences for some 300 years or more. So, I reject any suggestion of an effort to dodge “influences from the Greco-Roman world,” and I simply ask for colleagues to point out specifically what things I’m ignorant of, or incorrectly interpreting.
Kok suggests that “through a process of colonial mimicry, some Jews may have replaced the emperor with Jesus as the sovereign to whom divine honors were due.” Now that (along with other things) is possible. But to pose it as a possibility is one heck of a long way from showing it to have been the case. Do we have evidence of Jewish “mimicry” involving the sort of devotional pattern that we see in earliest Jesus-movement circles, and given to other figures? The major thrust of my 1988 book, One God, One Lord, was that we have no such evidence. If I overlooked something, let’s have it. And are we to imagine (and it is only imagination so far as I can see) that the stoutly Jewish early followers of Jesus would have aped emperor-cult, when, by all indications, it was regarded with utter disdain and horror by Jews who identified strongly with their ancestral tradition? Or do we imagine that these Jews might have aped emperor-cult unconsciously? Really?
I’d find this all a good deal less difficult to grasp if we had some comparable examples of other Jewish circles who likewise developed the sort of “dyadic” devotional pattern that we have in our earliest Christian texts. Otherwise, I think that we have to say that something unusual and innovative went on in the early Jesus-movement. That doesn’t mean that it was a miracle, or that you have to see it as the had of God. I’m simply focusing on historical observation, not apologetics.
Kok also worries that there is “a risk of depicting ancient ‘Christianity’ as monolithic, assuming that a divine Christology was the definitive feature of all Christ associations,” and he notes the thematic variety that we have in NT texts in their Christological emphases. Another red herring, in my view. To speak for myself again, I don’t claim a “monolithic” early Christian movement. In fact, in a recent article, I’ve argued that there was rich and “interactive diversity.” There may well have been early circles in which Jesus wasn’t treated as recipient of the sort of cultic devotion that I cite. But, again, to mention that as possible isn’t the same as demonstrating that it was so. In any case, my own emphasis isn’t that there weren’t any such circles. Instead, my point is that, whatever other kinds of Jesus-movement there may have been, the remarkable pattern of Jesus-devotion reflected in Paul’s letters seems to go back to/among the earliest circles. Maybe there were other circles with a different devotional pattern, but those circles in which such Jesus-devotion was practiced were at least among the earliest.
On some other matters briefly mentioned in Kok’s piece, my only complaint is that he cites this or that critic of my work without noting that I’ve often given an answering argument. For example, the critique of the term “monotheism” is by far wide of the mark. In several publications over a couple of decades or more I’ve made it quite clear that “ancient Jewish monotheism” didn’t involve necessarily denying the existence of other “gods,” but that what I mean by the term is the evident cultic exclusivity characteristic of Roman-era Judaism. And, as for James Crossley’s bizarre characterization of my portrayal of earliest Jesus-devotion as “Jewish, but not too Jewish,” well, in my view it says more about the limits of what he means by “Jewish” than it does about what I’ve actually written.
Finally, I endorse completely the exhortations in Kok’s final paragraph, which to my mind essentially echo emphases that I’ve posited for many years: Let’s avoid simplistic and reductionistic conclusions; let’s allow for a rich diversity in early “Christianity”; let’s contextualize early beliefs and practices; and let’s avoid simplistic uses of historical analysis.
 For analysis of the theological/cultural agenda of the older Schule: Karsten Lehmkühler, Kultus und Theologie: Dogmatik und Exegese in der religionsgeschichtliche Schule. Forschungen zur systematischen und ökumenischen Theologie, 76 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996); and Suzanne L. Marchand, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), esp. 212-51.
 Larry W. Hurtado, “Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins.” Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013): 445-62.
 Most recently, Larry W. Hurtado, “‘Ancient Jewish Monotheism’ in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods.” Journal of Ancient Judaism 4, no. 3 (2013): 379-400, which includes a response to (my friend and colleague) Paula Fredriksen’s critique.