Skip to content

“Jewish” and “Hellenistic” in Recent Scholarship on Christian Origins

November 30, 2015

In some recent studies of early expressions of Jesus-devotion, there are some issues that need clarification.  One of these recent studies is Iesus Deus:  The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God, by M. David Litwa (Fortress Press, 2014).

I must begin by acknowledging the learning displayed and, most often, the carefully crafted analysis and claims advanced.  Essentially, Litwa seeks to show that early Christianity (in the first couple of centuries or so) drew upon and adapted literary topoi and various notions, in particular notions about how human figures could be, or become, divine in some sense of the word.

For example, in one chapter Litwa compares the account of Jesus’ miraculous conception in GLuke with Plutarch’s thoughts on the divine involvement in the conception of figures such as Plato.  In both writers, Litwa notes the use of “pneuma” (“spirit”) and “dynamis” (“power”) to portray the action of a god in the conception of a figure, the shared aim being to avoid crude notions of a god having sexual relations with a human woman.

In other chapters Litwa discusses the curious depiction of the child Jesus in the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” which has Jesus striking out in anger against fellow children.  Litwa argues that this shows the Christian author appropriating the notion that gods could demonstrate their power by such actions.  Litwa also notes how the Gospels portrayals of Jesus as working miracles and performing good deeds reflects wider notions of the traits of gods and humans endowed with divine power.

Litwa also proposes that NT references to Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation can be seen as a partially distinctive example of what he calls “corporeal immortalization” of a human figure, examples given in Jewish and non-Jewish texts.  And he contends that the reference to Jesus being given (or given to share) “the name above every name” in Philippians 2:9-11 reflects wider notions of deified humans being given a new name signalling their deified status.

I reiterate that Litwa is careful to avoid claiming a simple “borrowing” or direct influence in most cases.  Instead, he offers the comparisons in support of his thesis that the notions and themes in question were widely available in the larger cultural environment, both in Jewish and non-Jewish circles, which allowed early Christians to make use of them for their own distinctive purposes.  I can’t here engage the particulars of these proposals, which deserve adequate thought and space to discuss them, except to say that some strike me as more persuasive than others.  Instead, I focus here on Litwa’s characterization of the scholarly discourse into which he places his study.  I think he makes some significant errors.

Litwa rightly complains about an overly sharp distinction between “Jewish” and non-Jewish (often “Hellenistic”) categories, but he fails to note that the distinction was actually introduced and promoted by the older “history-of-religion” scholarship that he seems to admire.  Moreover, this distinction was clearly shaped by theological views and purposes.  Take Otto Pfleiderer, for example, sometimes referred to as the father of the history-of-religion approach to Christian origins (and a figure Litwa cites often and with apparent admiration).  Pfleiderer referred approvingly to “the deliverance of the Christian idea from the rigid fetters of Judaism,” that comprised adopting “myths and rites” from various pagan sources, which were “free from that slavery to history which is the characteristic of Judaism and every legal religion” (The Early Conception of Christ, 168).  Likewise, Wilhelm Bousset insisted that the cultic reverence of Jesus couldn’t have emerged in a Jewish Palestinian setting, but only in cities where pagan religious influence was sufficient to prompt it.  And he too reflected a similar disdain for things Jewish (as I’ve shown in previous publications, e.g., One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, 22-24).

Indeed, it was a major objective of Pfleiderer, Bousset and others of that school of thought to invoke various “oriental” (i.e., non-Jewish) influences as decisive for the distinguishing features of early Christian circles.  In her important study of German orientalism, Suzanne Marchand discusses what she calls their “furor orientalis,” and the programmatic effort to credit various “oriental” influences on early Christianity (German Orientalism in the Age of empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship, 212-91).  As she notes, their key question = “Was Christianity a product of Judaism or of oriental syncretism?” (283).

Here is where the unfortunate “divide” between “Jewish” and non-Jewish influences was set up.  Contra Litwa (and a couple of other recent scholars), it wasn’t with Hengel or others of us who have emphasized the rich and diverse Jewish tradition as the matrix and primary reservoir of conceptual categories adapted in earliest Christian circles.  Instead, the contribution of Hengel in particular was to emphasize the prolonged encounter between Judaism and Hellenism, for some 300 years by the time of Jesus’ birth.  So, if we see notions that seem to have a Greek derivation in Jewish figures such as Paul, it is most likely that they had been absorbed and adapted by his Jewish tradition, and so reached him as part of his Jewish heritage.

Further, it wasn’t Hengel or others who point to the Jewish matrix of early Christianity who introduced theological concerns.  Here also, it was actually the older history-of-religions advocates such as Pfleiderer and Bousset.  You can’t miss Pfleiderer’s blatant theological concerns in the book that I’ve cited already.  And Bousset made his own theological concerns entirely clear in several general-reader books, some of them translated early and read widely in English as well, such as The Faith of a Modern Protestant (1909).

Indeed, as Marchand shows, Bousset and others of his stance were concerned specifically to reform Christianity to make it palatable to what they saw as “modern” Christians, and for the purpose of strengthening the German Volk for its destined purposes in the world.  One must say, in short, that their dedicated historical work was by no means innocent of theological and cultural purposes.

So, when Hengel and others (such as I) have emphasized that all historical evidence points to the origin of a “high” Jesus-devotion in Jewish circles of Jesus-followers in Palestine and in the very earliest years after Jesus’ execution, we have been trying to correct the imbalance and tendentious claims of the older history-of-religions scholars.  We didn’t create any “Jewish/Hellenistic” divide; that was done by Pfleiderer and company.  And we didn’t introduce theological concerns either.

As a final point, Litwa goes at Hengel (and at me across several pages) for failing to do what Litwa sets out to do in his book, to note interesting parallels and comparisons between ideas and themes in early Christian texts and in the larger Roman-era environment.  But it isn’t a case of failing; we’re doing different things.  Litwa clearly focuses on certain features of selected literary expressions of Jesus as a divine figure in early Christian texts.  To speak for myself, I’ve been concerned more with the historical origins of the phenomena of Jesus-devotion:  how and when Jesus was treated in devotional practices as well as in rhetoric as sharing in divine status, particularly how and when Jesus was treated as rightful recipient of cultic devotion.  So, it’s just a bit misleading (and, I think, unfair) to scold Hengel and me for failing at what we didn’t set out to do.  (I can also note that I’m not as neglectful of the wider Roman-era environment as Litwa alleges.  He claims that I devote a mere 5 pages to the matter in my large book, Lord Jesus Christ.  But in fact there is more, such as my discussion of the Gospels in reference to the literary environment, 277-82, or my discussion of the use of “savior” and “ephiphany” as possibly reflecting Roman emperor-cult, 516-18.)

As I say, Litwa’s study is helpful in considering critically how early Christianity adapted certain notions and themes in articulating Jesus’ significance variously.  It’s a bit of an exaggeration to refer to the literary motifs discussed as the “deification” of Jesus (and Litwa seems to recognize this), but I suppose the term helps to focus the mind of readers!  His study also doesn’t really address the historical questions about what motivated early Christians to appropriate themes and notions from their cultural environment to posit Jesus as divine.

Any living tradition confidently and critically appropriates things  from the wider cultural environment and adapts them to serve the tradition.  In doing so, the tradition itself adapts and changes, of course.  The only traditions that don’t do so are dead ones.  But what drives healthy traditions isn’t the appropriation process.  It’s something else, its own driving force of convictions that empowers a tradition and gives it boldness to appropriate things and bend them to the purposes of the tradition.  We shouldn’t be surprised that the early Christian movement did this.  As Litwa also grants, this wasn’t some simplistic syncretistic process, and the decisive matrix for Christian origins was the rich and lively Jewish tradition of the early Roman era.



From → Uncategorized

  1. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Professor Hurtado I wonder if you have a position on the merit of drawing inferences with regard to the origins of Chritianity on the basis of comparisons with the births of more recent religious movements? For example Rodney Stark finds it instructive to use his study of the growth of the Mormon church to illuminate the growth of the early Christian church for which the sources are much more scant. Do you approve of this method of making comparisons and drawing conclusions based on similarities and sociological models?

    At the moment I’m reading this excellent book about the early Bible Student/Watch Tower movement: “A Separate Identity: Organizational Identity Among Readers of Zion’s Watch Tower from 1870-1887” by Bruce Schulz and Rachael de Vienne. Often this group is casually categorised as an offshoot of the Adventist movement. But what strikes me in this meticulous study of origins is just how incredibly complex the networks of faith communities and theological influences can be. The authors rely on a wealth of original documents to establish contact between preachers: letters, travel arrangements, lectures, financial statements, court hearings, and so on. All the extensive documentation produced in a modern state, plus religious ephemera associated with cheap mass publishing. These sources allow us to understand the origins of a movement in a way that is not available for early Christianity.

    Should we seek to make inferences about how early Christianity may have evolved on the basis of comparisons with modern groups whose origins are much more extensively documented? Is it a useful way to approach the problem of origins when original sources are thin on the ground?

    • I think that it’s useful to take proper account of the sort of religious developments that you mention, at least to give us a rough sense of the sort of things that we might investigate in our extant evidence of ancient developments. I’ve proposed, for example, that evidence of the role of revelatory experiences in the formation of new religious movements/innovations may be useful in considering early Christian references to such experiences as helping to generate the early Christian “mutation” in beliefs and cultic practices. We shouldn’t simply use modern phenomena as a “cookie cutter,” imposing them upon the ancient developments. They have to be used with due critical care.

      • What is the stimulus that produced this mutation? Many of us are suggesting that the stimulus that caused this dramatic mutation might be a person. And/or an idea; a sudden cultural epiphany. Either one – or both. As in a person with a dramatic New idea.

      • I’ve proposed a combination of “forces and factors” that generated and shaped the distinctive early Christian “mutation” since my 1988 book, One God, One Lord and in a number of publications thereafter.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: