Alexander’s Ineffective Critique
In the newly-published volume honouring Richard Bauckham, Philip Alexander attempts a critique of the view that the worship of Jesus reflected in NT writings means what “early high Christology” advocates contend: “‘The Agent of the King is Treated as the King Himself’: Does the Worship of Jesus Imply His Divinity?” (97-114). With great respect for Alexander’s expertise in rabbinic texts and contributions to other topics, I have to say that this critique is riddled with problems that make it a failure.
First, let’s note the contradictions in method. Alexander states quite rightly that the only relevant evidence is that from 2nd temple Jewish and lst century Christian texts (p. 99). But then he invokes rabbinic texts from several centuries later (e.g., those referring to “Metatron”) in trying to make the argument that Jewish tradition could accommodate a second figure along with God in the way that early circles of the Jesus-movement treated Jesus.
Likewise, Alexander’s argument that “full-blown monotheism” (by which he seems to mean a denial that other deities exist at all) required a doctrine of “creatio ex nihilo,” citing again rabbinic texts from the Byzantine and early medieval period, is (I regret to say) a red-herring. For one thing, it’s quite clear that 2nd temple Jews affirmed the God of Israel as the sole creator of all things (e.g., Philo, Decalogue 52; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6; Colossians 1:15-16; John 1:1-3, the NT texts also include Jesus as the one agent of creation), these affirmations far earlier than Alexander claims, and not dependent on later “ex nihilo” formulations. So, it is simply a fallacy to think that notions of the one God as creator of all things requires the later philosophical doctrine. Moreover, as I have repeatedly noted over a few decades now, “ancient Jewish monotheism” was essentially an exclusivity in worship. The issue wasn’t the existence of other “divine” beings, but the legitimacy of worshipping them.
As further illustration of Alexander’s curious anachronistic line of argument, in his discussion of Jewish “monotheism,” he probes what the commandment against idolatry in Exodus 20:3-6 and Deuteronomy 5:7-10 might have meant in the time of the composition of these texts (100-101). But what went on in “early Israelite religion” is again chronologically irrelevant to the question, which is what 2nd-temple Jewish tradition affirmed and practiced. And so it is passing strange that Alexander cites no 2nd temple evidence in his analysis.
Alexander rightly labels the prohibitions against worshipping angel-messengers as a “literary trope,” but then makes the dubious inference that they are therefore of little weight in assessing the worship policies advocated in 2nd temple Jewish tradition. Literary tropes, however, are more typically indicative of beliefs, attitudes, etc., and are hardly to be set aside as cavalierly as Alexander does with this one.
I also have to say that I’m completely puzzled at Alexander’s assertion that scholars engaged in the current debate about early Christology haven’t taken account of ancient Jewish notions of “agency” (e.g., 108, 113). From my own 1988 book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, onward, I’ve repeatedly pointed to ancient Jewish “chief agent” traditions as likely early conceptual resources drawn upon (and “mutated”) among early Jesus-followers in accommodating the exalted Jesus alongside God. At the risk of being a bit sharp, I could suggest that the problem isn’t other scholars overlooking the notion of divine agency, but Alexander’s failure to acquaint himself adequately with that body of scholarship that he seeks to instruct!
The title of Alexander’s essay, “‘The Agent of the King is treated as the King Himself’,” derives from a rabbinic saying (note again the anachronism). But in the rabbinic texts where the saying is found, there is no indication that it functioned to justify the inclusion of other figures alongside God in Jewish worship practice. So, the relevance of the saying is dubious so far as the issue of the essay is concerned. Moreover, ironically, we have explicit indication that in 2nd temple Jewish tradition the trope of a King and his agents actually worked contrary to Alexander’s assumption.
In course of his critique of the “great delusion that has taken hold of the larger part of mankind” (Decalogue 52) that leads them to idolatry, Philo of Alexandria refers to anyone who renders to the “subordinate satraps the honours due to the Great King” as guilty of “the height not only of unwisdom but of foolhardiness, by bestowing on servants what belonged to their master.” He then draws a direct application, that worship should be restricted to the one God, and withheld from any of his servants and creatures (obviously including spirit-beings as well as material ones). In short, in 2nd temple Jewish worship, the servant of the King was not treated as was the King!
Finally, to offer a familiar complaint, instead of engaging the specifics of the devotional practices of ancient Jews and the early Jesus-movement, Alexander briefly discusses semantic issues about the terms translated as “worship” (e.g., Hebrew: avodah; Greek: proskynein), noting that they can connote a variety of levels of reverence. True . . . but hardly decisive for the question of how to view the place of Jesus in earliest Christianity. That is why in my own work I’ve repeatedly identified the specific actions that indicate the remarkable place of the exalted Jesus in the devotional practices of earliest Christian circles. These actions comprise a constellation that is without precedent or parallel in the evidence of 2nd temple Jewish devotional practice for any figure other than God.
No other “chief agent” of God figures in the devotional practices of circles of 2nd temple Jews. This is what makes the “dyadic” pattern of devotion already presumed in Paul’s letters as characteristic of the Jesus-movement so historically remarkable and significant. I repeat the challenge I have posed for over 30 years: Falsify this claim that the programmatic inclusion of the exalted Jesus in the devotional practices and beliefs of earliest Christian circles is novel and so historically significant, or else assent to it. As historians, surely, we must engage the historical phenomena.
For further reading:
Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Fortress Press, 1988; 2nd ed. T&T Clark, 1998; 3rd ed with new Epilogue, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015).
Larry W. Hurtado, “‘Ancient Jewish Monotheism’ in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods,” Journal of Ancient Judaism 4, no. 3 (2013): 379-400.