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Alexander’s Ineffective Critique

September 16, 2016

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.


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  1. Philip Alexander permalink

    Larry, some interesting points here but I feel you’ve rather missed the point of my essay. I actually agree with you that the early church had a high christology, and that this is shown by the place they gave to Jesus in their prayers, but what does this imply? That they believed Jesus was God? And if they had said: “Yes, Jesus is God”, what would they have meant by this? That he is one and the same as God? But what would “one and the same” mean? That ontologically there is no difference between him and God? As far as I can see they never satisfactorily clarified this ontological problem, as I think you yourself may recognize. But that ontological problem had to be clarified, as finally the christological debates of the fourth century realized.

    Methodologically I think I insisted that only Second Temple evidence was relevant in the specific case of the lists of the trope of the angel interpres rejecting worship. Lists of the trope extending down to the middle ages,seem to be cited to suggest that first century Judaism simply would not countenance the worship of an angel, but only God. But the later cases, as I argued, may be bound up with later debates.

    Besides I wish I could be as confident as you seem to be about what Second Temple Judaism may or may not have believed. I would hesitate to extrapolate from de Decalogo 52 to Second Temple Judaism at large. I am always conscious of the paucity of our evidence.I am trying to get away from the proof-text, the “chapter-and-verse”, mentality, and this is precisely why in my essay I adopted a more organic, systemic approach which traced a trajectory of thought from the Hebrew Bible through the first century to beyond. In such an approach the possible semantic range of words has to be explored. So we have to ask what statements like “God alone created all things”. mean. That he created them out of nothing as opposed to bringing them into being out of chaos? This doesn’t necessarily follow. We have to ask what might be meant by worship in late Second Temple Jewish texts. The texts themselves are not all that clear.

    And of course I was aware that you and others had talked about divine agents in Second Temple Jewish texts, but what I could not find was any clear recognition of the implications of this language. If Jesus is God’s agent then he can hardly be ontologically the same as God. Some sort of distinction is surely being implied.



    • I’m pleased to have your response to my posting on your essay in the Bauckham volume, Philip. But I fear that your response reflects a couple of the red-herrings that trouble the essay. (1) Given that the NT texts don’t deal explicitly in “ontological” categories, and given that neither Bauckham nor I have asserted that “Jesus is God” in the simplistic way that you criticize, it’s a bit of a red-herring to introduce the matter when dealing with lst-century CE texts. That “ontological” problem wasn’t actually something overlooked; it just wasn’t a category operative in lst cent CE circles of believers. They weren’t deficient . . . just operating with different categories.
      (2) I agree that one text from Philo shouldn’t be taken necessarily as reflective of 2nd-temple Judaism as a whole. That’s why in my various publications I’ve cited a good deal more evidence, all of which indicates that the espoused practice of those who identified themselves with the Jewish people was rejection of any object of worship but YHWH. We historians have only what is extant by way of evidence. But, lacking contrary evidence, it’s reasonable to make judgements in light of what we have. And collectively that evidence is pretty clear.
      (3) As to the “agency” category, I’ve myself repeatedly described the “dyadic” devotional pattern as one in which God and Jesus are distinguished and yet also uniquely linked. “Some sort of distinction” (to use your wording) I’ve clearly maintained. “Ontologically the same as God” is, again, a category not operative in the NT so far as I can see, and so not really relevant for our historical work of describing lst-century Christology.
      Thanks again for your cordial response.

    • The problem is, Philip, that you do not understand Second Temple Jewish monotheism – specifically *Second Temple* Jewish monotheism. It is not a matter of one or two texts, but of consistent themes and motifs that run right through all the very varied literature of the period. If Philo is significant it is precisely because one might have expected him to be different on this issue, whereas what he says is fully coherent with the rest of the literature. (An obvious example of a major Jewish writer saying just the same thing is Josephus, Ant. 1.155-6.) My criticism of those who argue that Second Temple Judaism was not “strictly” monotheistic or was very diverse in this respect is precisely that they focus exclusively on a few debatable texts and ignore the bulk of the literature, which actually turns out to be very consistent on this issue (however varied on others).
      You have focused on one essay I published forty years ago, which, since it was a first venture in this field, focused on just a very few Jewish texts (some of which are chronologically not relevant but were included just in order to complete the evidence for the topos). I had not then developed the conceptuality with which, in my maturer work on this subject, I have tried to do better justice to the way Jews and Christians of the period thought about God.
      It would have been much more appropriate (if you had to single out just one essay and ignore the large literature on this by Larry and now many others, such as Chris Tilling) to take, for example, my essay “The Throne of God and the Worship of Jesus” (1st published 1999, and a longer version in my book Jesus and the God of Israel, 2008), which engages very much more extensively with 2nd Temple Jewish literature. Moreover, it was written in full awareness of the kinds of considerations you raise. (On creation, e.g,, see p. 158 and n. 16.) From your essay I find it hard to believe you had read it when you wrote the essay.
      Agency is very old hat in discussion of New Testament Christology. The model of NT Christology that used to be dominant until Larry and I and others began to challenge it was so-called “functional Christology” – meaning pretty much what you propose. So it is just ignorant to suggest that this category has been ignored. The thrust of my work and that of others has been to argue precisely that this category does not do justice to the way the NT speaks of God and Jesus – given the Jewish context which we have also explored afresh.

  2. Griffin permalink

    I suppose we would say that Moses, or the Mosaic books, would not be considered a chief agency of God? Or at least, not quite to the degree that our Christian Jesus was?

    • There are “chief agent” figures in 2nd temple Jewish tradition. I discuss specific examples in depth in my book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism. But none features in the devotional practices of Jewish circles in the central and programmatic way that Jesus does in early circles of the Jesus movement. That’s the historical innovation.

      • Griffin permalink

        Christian practice does sound like an innovation relative to Jewish tradition. But there might be very tiny hints here and there, of some connections?

        For example, possibly John, in presenting Jesus as the “Word,” alluded in effect to the sacredness of religious writing, books. As the commands, almost the presence, of God.

        Holy scrolls receive a very careful presentation in Temple; almost as if they are part of God. And Jesus, having been characterized as being “new” words from God, might have gained at least a very small measure of respect from that connection?

        Later on, being presented also in the novel written format of a book or codex, would connect both to sacred scolls, and God as words; but since it was also in a new format, the Christian codec would be a vivid new analogue to new words, a New Testament, after all.

        The traces to old Jewish liturgical practices to be sure, seem faint. Though the New Testament was constantly trying to make legitimizing ties between the Jewish scriptures, and Jesus. Maybe John’s “Word” was one attempt?

      • Griffin: I’m afraid that I see no relevance to the issue in your comments. Treasuring books as sacred has nothing to do with the question of how/why Jesus was treated as rightful recipient of cultic devotion in early circles of the Jesus-movement.

      • Griffin permalink

        I guess I’m thinking of the Torah, as it is presented in religious services; as not just books, but the commands, the agents, and almost the presence, of God.

        So here’s a Historical question: did early Christian cultic devotional practice, likewise present texts, possibly early gospels, as the word – and in effect, agent – of God? As more than just another book?

      • I don’t know of any evidence of the treatment of texts as cultic objects in early Christian circles. The READING of certain texts formed an early part of their corporate worship, but that’s not at all comparable to the devotional actions directed toward Jesus (and God).

      • Michael permalink

        Dr Hurtado, I’ve read your thesis that postulates ‘revelatory experiences’ compelled the Jewish monotheistic disciples of Jesus to now believe he literally did preexist as the Son of God worthy of worship, who created the world and then later became a man on earth via incarnation.

        I just cannot grasp how monotheistic Jews could adhere to such a new theological understanding of God and Jesus that would have been viewed as polytheistic in the pre Easter period during Jesus’ ministry.

      • Michael: However you try to account for it, the sort of convictions that your describe seem to have been rather innovative in the 2nd-temple Jewish setting. Not completely so, as I showed in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord. E.g., we have the Prayer of Joseph, where Jacob claims to be an angelic being who became a man (see my discussion, pp. 63-64). My sense is that the initial conviction among Jesus-followers was that God had exalted him, and now required him to be reverenced. So, to do so was simply to obey God, the one God. It wasn’t “polytheistic,” for the one true God demanded that Jesus be reverenced. Nor (in my view) did this initially involve the sort of “ontological” conceptions that emerged across succeeding centuries.

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