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YHWH’s “Return to Zion”

February 18, 2016

Yesterday, I received the PDF of my contribution to a multi-author volume examining features of N.T. Wright’s massive book on Paul’s theology.  My own piece is a critical study of Wright’s claim that the earthly ministry of Jesus was seen from the first as YHWH’s “return to Zion,” and that this conviction was the “key” to all of the rest of how Jesus came to feature so centrally in earliest devotional practice and beliefs in the young Jesus-movement.

I judge his claims faulty, unsupported by the evidence.  What I see is that the earliest use of the OT theme of YHWH’s return to Zion/Israel, in Paul’s letters (our earliest texts), posits that it is in Jesus’ “second coming” (parousia) that this is fulfilled.  See, e.g., the use of such imagery in 1 Thessalonians 3:13, where Jesus will come (again) “with all his holy ones” (μετά πάντων τῶν ἁγίων αὐτοῦ), which seems to draw this phrasing from Zechariah 14:5 (one of the “YHWH’s return” passages).  For further analysis of the NT appropriation of this theme, see Edward Adams, “The ‘Coming of God’ Tradition and Its Influence on New Testament Parousia Texts,” in Biblical Traditions in Transmission: Essays in Honour of Michael A. Knibb, ed. Charlotte Hempel and Judith M. Lieu (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 1-19.

I engage several other points as well, a major one being Wright’s handling of Philippians 2:6-11.  He somehow finds this text as asserting that in his earthly appearance (vv. 6-8), Jesus is presented as the returned YHWH.  But my own reading of the text I can summarize in these sentences from my essay:

“Instead, with some other NT texts, Philippians 2 (esp. vv. 9-11) suggests strongly that the initial conviction that generated subsequent christological development and devotional practice was that God had raised Jesus from death and exalted him to share in divine glory and the divine name, and now required Jesus to be reverenced accordingly (also, e.g., Acts 2:35; 17:31; 1 Peter 1:21; 3:22).  Fired by this startling conviction, earliest believers searched their scriptures to find resources to grasp what God’s exaltation of Jesus meant, and what import it held for their understanding of God’s purposes.  Philippians 2:6-11 is a particularly remarkable example of this fervent activity (which I have referred to elsewhere as ‘charismatic exegesis’) in which biblical texts were read in a radically new way with reference to Jesus.”

I provide below the concluding paragraphs of my essay, which will summarize my main points:

“The biblical theme of YHWH’s return is evidenced in second-temple Jewish expressions of hopes for eschatological judgment and redemption. In the second-temple tradition that served as the matrix of the earliest circles of Jesus-believers, references to YHWH’s personal and direct return/manifestation were readily linked with references to this taking place through a chief-agent figure.  The emphasis on YHWH’s direct action and the involvement of a chief agent were not in tension with each other, but served as complementary expressions of the eschatological hope.

This is reflected also in the NT texts that illustrate the remarkable christological appropriation of the theme of YHWH’s return. Despite Wright’s urgings, however, it is not clear that the theme of YHWH’s return was appropriated initially to interpret Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection.  Instead, the identifiable NT instances of the appropriation of the theme present Jesus’ parousia as effectively being YHWH’s eschatological return/manifestation.  Jesus’ return in glory (“the parousia of the Lord,” 1 Thess. 4:15) will comprise the “day of the Lord” (e.g., 1 Thess. 5:1-11).  Yet the same NT texts also clearly posit Jesus as the unique agent of God:  e.g., “through Jesus God will bring with him those who have died” (1 Thess. 4:14); “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9).  The two christological emphases, Jesus acting in the role of YHWH and as the unique agent of YHWH, are not in tension in the NT, and should not be played off against the other.

Moreover, notwithstanding Wright’s contention, this appropriation of the theme of YHWH’s return was not the initial christological claim or the conceptual move that prompted or accounts for all other early christological developments. Instead, the conviction that God raised from death and exalted him to unparalleled heavenly glory was the likely ignition for the explosively rapid and remarkably early development of the intense Jesus-devotion that we see already presumed in our earliest NT writings (as reflected, e.g., in Philip. 2:9-11).  In its earliest form, this crucial conviction was that in raising Jesus from death, God confirmed Jesus as the true Messiah (e.g., Acts 2:35), declared Jesus as God’s unique Son (Rom 1:3-4), and exalted him as the Lord (Mar/Kyrios) who now shares the divine throne, glory and “the name above every name” (e.g., Philip. 2:9-11; 1 Cor. 15:27; Heb 1:3-4).  This conviction likely erupted in the earliest days/weeks after Jesus’ crucifixion, and was generated and confirmed by the interaction of experiences that included encounters with the risen/glorified Jesus, visions of him in heavenly exaltation, prophetic oracles (and perhaps Spirit-inspired odes) declaring his status and expressing God’s will that Jesus be reverenced, and new “charismatic” readings of scriptural texts that confirmed and helped believers to understand better how to accommodate Jesus in relation to God.

At some very early point in this process, believers came to see (or perhaps came to see more fully) Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection/exaltation as prefigured in various biblical texts (prominently among these texts, Psalm 110:1), and even felt free (obliged?) to apply what Capes termed “Yahweh texts” to the risen/exalted Jesus (e.g., Psalm 24; Joel 2:32). As reflected in Paul’s letters, early christological developments also included ascribing to Jesus “pre-existence” in a divine mode (Philip. 2:6) and the role of unique agent in creation as well as redemption (1 Cor. 8:6).

Still more remarkably, early believers felt obliged to incorporate the risen/exalted Jesus programmatically in their devotional/cultic practices, according to Jesus the sort of place that they otherwise reserved for God alone. For example, in both Aramaic-speaking and Greek-speaking circles, they invoked (“called upon”) and “confessed” the risen Jesus in their worship-gatherings (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:22; Rom. 10:9-13).  Their initiation rite was a baptism in Jesus’ name.  The corporate meal of fellowship was also identified with reference to Jesus (e.g., “the table of the Lord,” 1 Cor. 10:21; “the Lord’s supper,” 1 Cor. 11:20).  In my view, this programmatic place of Jesus, producing a “dyadic” devotional pattern in which God and Jesus are linked as recipients, likely arose under the conviction that God required Jesus to be so reverenced.  I seriously doubt that it would have arisen through some sort of inference or liturgical experimentation.  This “dyadic” devotional pattern was in no way “secondary”!

In the process of the early christological appropriation of biblical tradition, believers drew upon the theme of YHWH’s eschatological return/triumph, especially to describe Jesus’ future return in glory. That is, although (contra Wright) the appropriation of this theme is not the crucial step or clue to the eruption of other christological claims, it is a striking example of the latter process.  But, finally, even though I find Wright’s claim about role of the return of YHWH theme unpersuasive, it appears that we are agreed that, in one form or another, an “early high christology” erupted initially among circles of Jewish believers and remarkably soon after Jesus’ crucifixion.  In sharing this basic view, despite differences on some other matters, Wright also aligns with other scholars such a Bauckham, Tilling, Newman, Capes, Segal, Frey, Schröter, and a growing number of others, whose work amounts to a ‘Paradigmenwechsel in der Erfassung der neutestamentlichen Christologie oder immerhin von einer “neuen Perspektive” [“a paradigm-shift in the description of New Testament Christology, or even a ‘new perspective'”].” (The concluding German statement is from Jörg Frey’s recent essay engaging my work:  Jörg Frey, “Eine neue religionsgeschichtliche Perspektive: Larry W. Hurtados Lord Jesus Christ und die Herausbildung der frühen Christologie,” 117-69, Reflections on the Early Christian History of Religion/Erwägungen zur frühchristlichen Religionsgeschichte, eds. Cilliers Breytenbach and Jörg Frey (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2013)

Here is the bibliographical information on the book in which my essay appears: God and the Faithfulness of Paul:  A Critical Examination of the Pauline Theology of N. T. Wright,  eds, Christoph Heilig, J. Thomas Hewitt, Michael F. Bird (Tuebingen:  Mohr-Siebeck, 2016).  My essay = pp. 417-38.  There are 29 other essays by an international galaxy of scholars, which certainly shows the salience of Wright’s work and the critical interest in it.


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  1. Jack Dalby permalink

    Professor Hurtado: Thanks for your reply. I have your book and am enjoying the read. If I may, another time line question, this one concerning Paul’s conversion. I find that historians tend to date Paul’s “Damascus Road” experience to somewhere around 33-36 CE. That date, however, always struck me as overly optimistic because so much had to happen before Paul could even become aware of Jewish Christians, let alone witness the risen Christ. The specific events I refer to and the questions they raise are: 1) Jesus is believed to be executed around 30 CE. 2) His disciples flee Jerusalem and return to Galilee. How much time passes before they experience the risen Christ? How long do they stay in Galilee? 3) Acts says the disciples return to Jerusalem to set up shop. Do they begin their missionary work to other Jews immediately? 4) At some point, the Apostles message leaves the confines of Jerusalem. Do they spread the message? Are there other missionaries? 5) To what cities does the message of the risen Christ travel? How long does it take for that pronouncement to be accepted by a group of Jews and how long does it take Paul to notice them? 6) Paul persecutes this group and perhaps others. He becomes well known as an enemy of Jewish Christians. For what period of time and over what distance must Paul travel to earn this reputation? 7) Paul has his conversion experience around 33-36 CE.

    So the question is: How can all these events transpire in 6 years or less? Would appreciate your thoughts and any suggested readings.

    • Interesting/valid questions, but you do need to consider some assumptions: The movements back & forth Galilee/Jerusalem you mention presume that Acts, for example, is a simple description of events. Also, if the purpose in executing Jesus was to stamp out the movement he generated, then further actions against followers who persisted in touting him would likely not have been delayed. On the chronology question, see, e.g., Rainer Riesner, Paul’s Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology (Eerdmans, 1998), e.g., 64-74 on the probably date of Paul’s “conversion”.

  2. James permalink

    Hi Larry,

    You say that these convictions that Jesus shared the divine throne, God’s glory etc., “likely erupted in the earliest days/weeks after Jesus’ crucifixion.” I was interested in how we date this conviction to the “earliest days/weeks” after Jesus’ crucifixion, as opposed to say months or a year or two after? I know in your books (if I recall rightly) you note Paul was persecuting Christians because of their “high” view of Jesus, so are you basing the dating off that fact or something else?

    • Esp in my book, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 155-215, I lay out our bases for a portrait of “Judean Jewish Christianity.” There is a web of evidence and argumentation that leads to the judgement that a robust view of Jesus as exalted, given divine glory, and rightful recipient of devotion erupted quite early, so early that it is prior to Paul’s “Damascus road” experience. I add that Bousset (the great history-of-religion scholar of the early 20th century) agreed on such an early date (i.e., within the first few years at most). Where he seems to me to have been wrong was in his view that this development could not have taken place in an authentically Jewish setting such as the Jerusalem church, but had to be placed in a diaspora setting such as Antioch. From a 1979 article onward, however, I have pointed to the flaws at the foundation of his work on the matter: Larry W. Hurtado, “New Testament Christology: A Critique of Bousset’s Influence,” Theological Studies 40 (1979): 306-17.
      We have to ask what would have been different, say, a year or two later? We have no reference to any major developments of the sort you suggest.

  3. Jack Dalby permalink

    Hello Professor Hurtado. Thanks again for your always informative blog. A couple of questions about today’s post. Who are you referencing when you talk about the risen Jesus’ earliest believers? Peter, James, John and the rest of the original disciples? If so, other than their basic creed of “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again”, where do we find information as to any of their other christological beliefs? Secondly, how soon after Jesus’ death do you believe that gentiles first began to worship him? Thank you.

    • If you want my analysis of the evidence, read relevant chapters in my book, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003), esp. 155-216, on “Judean Jewish Christianity.” As I contend there, the extant evidence suggests that reverence of Jesus as sharing divine glory commenced among Jewish believers and very shortly after Jesus’ execution. So early, that it was developed by the time of Saul of Tarsus’ “revelation” event that turned him from opponent to proponent of the Jesus movement.

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