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Why and How did Jesus-Devotion Erupt?

October 3, 2016

I recently discovered an interesting conversation with Chris Tilling about early christology on a pod-cast site, “OnScript,” here. Tilling is now a frequently-cited “second generation” contributor to the analysis of early devotion to Jesus, and in the conversation exhibits a thoughtful engagement with important issues.  His book (which arose from his PhD thesis on which I was the external examiner) focuses on Paul’s reference to a relationship with the exalted/risen Jesus in terms that, Tilling argues, best resemble the kind of statements that portray the relationship of people with YHWH.  The consequence is that this is another indication that for Paul the exalted Jesus occupies a status like that of YHWH.  That is, we have another expression of a “divine christology” in Paul.

I found it interesting that when Tilling was asked where scholarly inquiry should proceed now, he urged that we need to ask why and how early Jesus came to be regarded and reverenced as sharing in a status like that of God. In the final chapter of my 1988 book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (3rd ed., Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), I offered a preliminary proposal of the “Causes of the Christian Mutation” in ancient Jewish devotional practice and beliefs.  Then, in my later book, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003), I devoted a whole chapter to the “Forces and Factors” that generated and shaped early Jesus-devotion (pp. 27-78).

In the pod-cast Tilling refers to my proposal, but only a part of it, and thereby in my view, unfortunately, distorts it. It’s important, however, to understand and reflect as adequately as we can the views of other scholars before we criticize them.  So, in the interests of further and more accurate scholarly discussion, I clarify and correct a couple of things in Tilling’s comments.

First, my proposal involves assigned roles for four major forces/factors.  Each of the four factors has a specific role, and the interaction of the four factors is also important.  So I hope that those who assess my proposal will take account of it adequately.

What seems to generate a critical response from Tilling and some others is my positing “religious experience” as a crucial factor.  “Religious experience” is my effort to designate in historical and non-confessional terms the references in early Christian texts to phenomena described as revelatory acts of God.  In Lord Jesus Christ, I sketch what these experiences likely involved, trying to be as specific as the evidence allows (pp. 70-74).  So, again, I plead for engagement with the specifics of my proposal.

Tilling claims that my positing “post-Easter” religious experiences neglects the contribution of the historical ministry of Jesus. My first response is that this seems a bit unfair, as, in fact, another of the four forces/factors in my proposal is the historical impact of Jesus’ ministry (Lord Jesus Christ, 53-64).  Indeed, I contend that the impact of Jesus’ ministry accounts crucially for his centrality in the beliefs and devotion of the subsequent Jesus-movement.  During his ministry, I argue, Jesus had already become the “issue,” his validity as unique agent of God’s purposes already the central question, both for his followers and his opponents.  So, the experience of the risen/exalted Jesus confirmed for his followers his validity, and, indeed, escalated him to a radically higher status in their beliefs.

But Tilling (and some others, such as Crispin Fletcher-Louis) seem to me to be anxious about ascribing much in the way of new convictions about Jesus’ status to these “post-Easter” revelatory experiences.  Perhaps their concern is that this would involve early believers making claims about Jesus that he hadn’t made or even held about himself.  In earlier posting here, however, I have argued that this concern betrays (typically unconsciously) a dubious notion that emerged with particular force in 18th-century Deist thought that the validity of claims about Jesus rests upon whether Jesus himself made them about himself.

In any case, by contrast, it seems to me that NT texts freely attribute to God the exalted place of Jesus in early Christian beliefs and practice.  For example, these texts posit that God has raised Jesus from death and exalted him to share in divine glory (e.g., Philippians 2:9-11; Acts 2:36), conferring on Jesus a status that he did not previously hold.  That is, the fundamental basis of the christological convictions expressed in these NT texts is a theo-logical claim:  God has exalted Jesus and now requires him to be reverenced.  Whether Jesus did or didn’t imagine such a future status for himself, whether he did or didn’t teach his disciples about this, is, in this sense, irrelevant.  What matters in various NT texts is what God has done and now declared about Jesus.

And how did these convictions about what God has done and declared about Jesus emerge?  Through religious experiences that recipients took to be revelations and actions of God, such as experiences of the risen and exalted Jesus.  As well, there appear to have been exciting and new “charismatic” readings of biblical (OT) texts, such as Psalm 110 and Isaiah 45:22-25, and Joel 2:32.

Of course, it is an interesting question as to whether Jesus may have seen himself in OT texts as well during his ministry.  But, whatever we conclude about that, various NT texts seem to me to indicate that it was first in the aftermath of experiences of the risen Jesus that his followers came to convictions that he had been exalted to heavenly glory and was now rightly to be given the programmatic place in beliefs and devotional practice that we see presumed already in Paul’s letters.

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  1. Professor Hurtado – Would you say the Gospel of John is then worthless for understanding what Jesus taught about his identity since it was written decades after religious revelations had read his new identity back into his historical biography?

    • I judge (with the overwhelming number of other scholars) the GJohn to represent a telling of Jesus’ ministry from the standpoint of subsequent “revelations” given by “the Paracletos”, as described in chaps. 14-16. See, e.g., my essay, “Remembering and Revelation,” published in the volume, Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children, the typescript available on this site here.

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Are you saying it’s irrelevant to the development of Christology whether Jesus viewed himself as divine? If so do you mean irrelevant to a historical perspective of the emergence of Christ devotion, or from a theological perspective?

    • The issue for Deists and apologists who accepted their terms of the debate was always a theological one.

  3. Jon permalink

    Dr Hurtado,

    You refer to Jesus’ followers as having “religious experiences…of the risen and exalted Jesus.” Are you referring here to something that only a Christian historian can comprehend (such as an actual resurrected Jesus appearing or religious experiences sent by the Deity of the universe), or are you referring here to experiences that can be included in secular explanations of Christian origins (like ecstatic religious experiences that exist only in the head of the person experiencing it)? If your historical explanation leaves room for the latter, what would be the impetus for Jesus’ followers having religious experiences if they thought Jesus was dead; seems like it would have been a pretty downer time, so why would they have religious experiences?

    • Jon: If you read my work you’ll see that I address historical questions and those interested in historical questions, of whatever personal stance. My term “religious experiences” is intended as a neutral and phenomenological term. Recipients of such experiences regarded them as divine revelations. Whether they were or weren’t is a theological issue.

      • Jon permalink

        Dr. Hurtado,

        I think you missed the second question I asked. If your term “religious experiences…of the risen and exalted Jesus” is intended as a neutral and phenomenological term that does not imply a divine act, this would seem to mean that you think the religious experiences of the risen and exalted Jesus could have existed only in the heads of Jesus’ earliest followers (hallucinations I presume). If so, what would be the impetus for Jesus’ earliest followers having such hallucinatory religious experiences if they thought Jesus was dead; seems like it would have been a pretty downer time, so why would they have hallucinatory religious experiences of the risen and exalted Jesus? Why not, for example, just say that Jesus’ followers could have had post-mortem bereavement hallucinations of Jesus? Asking my question in another way: What is the difference between your “religious experience of the risen and exalted Jesus” and a “post-mortem bereavement hallucination of Jesus”? I don’t think the type of hallucinatory religious experience you are talking about exists without the help of drugs or a hyper-charged religious environment, neither of which seems to be the case after Jesus’ death. Maybe you can provide an example the type of hallucinatory religious experience you are talking about?

      • Jon: Labelling the experiences that I focus on as “revelations” or as “hallucinations” is to make a philosophical/theological judgement, not a historical one. My work is mainly concerned with probing historical issues. So, to use a “neutral” term, such as “religious experience” doesn’t = either of the theological judgements, and certainly doesn’t = “hallucinatory” events.
        And you’re simply ill informed to say that the sort of experiences that I discuss require “drugs or a hyper-charged environment” (whatever the latter means). If you trouble yourself to read my publications on the matter (e.g., my essay republished in my book, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?), you’ll see the references to phenomenological analogies in the eruption of other major “mutations” in religious traditions.

      • Jon permalink

        Dr. Hurtado,

        You seem to want to get your ideas out to a wider public and yet seem easily frustrated when lay people ask lay people type questions. I have purchased two of your books, Lord Jesus Christ and One God, One Lord. I have read all of the latter and the first half of the former. On page 71 and 72 of Lord Jesus Christ you say:

        “The resurrection appearances were the crucial bases for the faith that God had raised Jesus from death….The [religious] experiences, therefore, likely involved an encounter with a figure recognized as Jesus but also exhibiting features that convinced the recipients that he had been clothed with divinelike glory and given a unique heavenly status. The earliest traditions attribute the innovation to powerful [religious] experiences taken by the recipients as appearances of the risen Christ. We have no historical basis for attributing the innovative convictions to some other source, and we have surveyed scholarly bases for accepting that such [religious] experiences can generate novel religious convictions. Whether one chooses to consider these particular experiences hallucinatory, projections of mental processes of the recipients, or the acts of God, there is every reason to see them as the ignition points for the christological convictions linked to them.”

        You are proposing a pretty incredible religious experience (dead man appears in divinelike glory). Now I understand that you want to use philosophically/theologically “neutral” terms, but I am asking you to go deeper and clarify, for those of your readers who might have a completely atheistic view of the universe, what exactly you could possibly mean by a “religious experience” in which one person thinks they see a dead person appearing to them in divinelike glory. The only things I can think of that could cause such a thing is a hallucination brought on by drugs, a hallucination brought on by a hyper-charged religious environment (but which I mean a Pentecostal type event where a group is whipped up into a frenzy by a charasmatic leader or things like people staring at the sun expecting ahead of time to see the Virgin Mary), or a post-mortem bereavement hallucination. Since the first two do not seem to apply to Jesus’ followers immediately after Jesus’ death, my question to you is, for those with an atheistic view of the universe, are you saying that the appearances of Jesus could have been post-mortem bereavement hallucinations? If you are not saying this, then what on earth (literally) are you saying could have happened to cause Jesus’ followers to think that a dead Jesus was appearing to them in divinelike glory? Or are you using neutral terminology to be respectful of all viewpoints but really think there is no naturalistic explanation for such phenomena and so it must have been religious experiences sent by God? I ask all of this respectfully. As a lay reader, I want to know if you personally think anything naturalistic can explain the “religious experiences” you refer to in your books and, if so, I am asking you to more clearly define it and, preferably, give one non-Christian example of it.

      • Jon: OK. I’ll try one last time. What’s frustrating isn’t people asking “laymen” questions; it’s people who continue to ignore my responses even when I’ve given them. First, I repeat that the sort of experiences that the earliest texts claim are, in principle, capable of being “explained” either as some sort of “hallucination” (i.e., factors other than what they claim at work) or as experiences of Jesus’ exaltation. The human physiology in either case is the same. The point of my scholarly work isn’t to bring you to Christian faith, but simply to try to do good historical work. You, however, seem to want to focus on “is it true or not” questions, while failing to grasp the evidence that I’ve given that powerful experiences (however you account for them) can have the effects that I describe: commencing a new religious movement. In my articles on revelatory religious experiences I refer to various studies by anthropologists of religion and others who cite instances of major religious mutations/innovations resulting from such experiences of “revelation”. Read on.

      • Jon permalink

        Ok, can you help a laymen out? Which study by anthropologists that you refer to in your works should I look at to find an example NOT JUST of a religious experience that caused a mutation/innovation, but also included a rather extravagant appearance of a dead person (something like clothed in “divinelike glory”).

      • Jon: My case that “revelatory” religious experiences were influential in generating early Christian beliefs and worship practices doesn’t depend on showing that the very same experiences appeared in other movements. That’s a rather silly expectation. The specific cognitive content and specific forms of such experiences vary, from prophetic oracles, to visions, to other phenomena. If you actually read what I’ve written, esp. in Lord Jesus Christ, about what early Christian experiences involved, you’ll see that I propose visions, oracles, and “charismatic exegesis” of biblical (OT) texts.
        And,by the way, the testimonies of experiences of the “risen/exalted” Jesus don’t fit grief-experience reports either. Early believers don’t report seeing the familiar dead person, and don’t get assurances that all is well, that the dead person is happy, etc. Instead, the reports portray Jesus as transfigured and transformed in eschatological glory and installed as God’s vizier.
        Heavenly visions, prophetic oracles, etc. are well-attested in other new religious movements, which makes my point that such experiences can have the impact of helping to generate a significant mutation in a parent religious tradition.

      • Jon permalink

        Dr. Hurtado,

        Yes, I understand that you are proposing a variety of religious experience phenomena and not just visions, but I am very interested in just the visions at this moment. And I agree that it is unrealistic to expect finding the very same circumstances and type of visions in other movements, so I do not expect that. However, I would like to see how comparable the visions in other religious movements are with the early Christian visions. You said, “Heavenly visions…are well-attested in other new religious movements, which makes my point that such experiences can have the impact of helping to generate a significant mutation in a parent religious tradition.” So I would like to learn more about this. Can you point me to your best anthropological study or two where VISIONS helped generate a significant mutation in a parent religious tradition (i.e. not visions that came about AFTER the significant mutation, which I think I am already familiar with, but visions that came BEFORE the mutation and therefore helped to generate the mutation)? I hope this is not too much to ask for.

      • Jon: In my essay, “Religious Experience and Religious Innovation in the New Testament,” I cite a number of studies of various types of “mystical/revelatory” experiences that are identified as causative factors in generating innovations in religious traditions. Here’s the reference: Journal of Religion 80(2000)183-205; republished in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? (Eerdmans, 2005), 179-204.

      • Jon permalink

        Dr. Hurtado,

        That’s very, very honest. I greatly admire that. For others on this blog who might be interested in this topic (how the circumstances that led to visions in other religious movements compare to the circumstances of Jesus’ followers after his death), I have combed through Dr. Hurtado’s article that he referred me to and listed below all of the sources that seem to have any possibility of answering this question (three books and about 250 pages of journal articles). My interest in this (and maybe that of others too?) is that Dr. Hurtado presents his proposal that Jesus’ followers had visions of Jesus (among other phenomena) as something that even those with an atheistic view of the universe can consider (i.e., the visions could be hallucinations that are only in the mind of the person and need not be sent by God). However, Dr. Hurtado rules out the visions being caused by drugs or psychopathology or due to post-mortem bereavement (like proposed by Bart Ehrman). With these three types of hallucination ruled out, my personal uneducated layperson gut is telling me that you need some kind of hyper-charged religious environment to produce a hallucination or hallucinations in people. So if I ever get up the gumption to plow through the resources below (ug!), I would be trying to find an example of anyone ever having a vision in a relatively depressed or benign environment, which is what I think Jesus’ followers would have been in after Jesus’ death. If anyone here knows of an example off the top of their head, I would appreciate hearing about it to help narrow the search. In the meantime, a post-mortem bereavement hallucination seems to me the only way to explain the initial vision or visions of Jesus (although a hyper-charged religious environment could then have ensued and I think that could have caused the powerful religious visions that Dr. Hurtado is proposing. Does anyone else following this blog struggle with Dr. Hurtado’s proposal for visions as I do? I find this to be a significant hurdle.

        Sources for Researching This Topic (gathered from Dr. Hurtado’s article “Religious Experience and Religious Innovation in the New Testament”):

        William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience( 1902; reprint, New York: Mentor Books,

        W.H. Clark, H. N. Malony, J. Daane, and A. R. Tippett, Religious Experience: Its Nature and Function in the Human Psyche
        (Springfield, Ill.: C. C. Thomas, 1973)

        Luke T Johnson, Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity: A Missing Dimension in New
        Testament Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998).

        Rodney Stark, “A Taxonomy of Religious Experience,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 5 (1965): 97-116.)

        Rodney Stark, “Normal Revelations: A Rational Model of ‘Mystical’ Experiences,” Religion and Social Order 1 (1991): 239-51.

        R. Stark and W. S. Bainbridge, “Three Models of Cult Formation,” in their The Future of
        Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of
        California Press, 1985), pp. 171-88.)

        (A. E C. Wallace, “Revitalization Movements,” AmericanA nthropologis5t 8 (1956): 264-81;
        this citation is from p. 270.)

        Mark R. Mullins, “Christianity as a New Religion: Charisma, Minor Founders, and
        Indigenous Movements,” in Religion and Society in Modern Japan, ed. Mark R. Mullins, Shimazono Susumu, and Paul Swanson (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1993), pp. 257-72, esp. p. 264, citing H. Byron Earhart, Gedatsu-kaia nd Religion in ContemporarJya pan: Returning to the Center (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 236.

        H. Byron Earhart, “Toward a Theory of the Formation of the Japanese New Religions:
        The Case of Gedatsu-Kai,” History of Religions 20, nos. I and 2 (1980): 175-97.

        T. W. Overholt, Prophecyi n Cross-CulturaPl erspective[ Atlanta: Scholars
        Press, 1986], pp. 101-41)

        Philip C. Almond, Mystical Experience and Religious Doctrine: An Investigation of the Study of
        Mysticism in World Religions (Berlin: Mouton, 1982), pp. 166-67.)

        Jewish mystical traditions: John Bowker, “‘Merkabah Visions’ and the Visions of Paul,” Journal of Semitic Studies 16 (1971): 57-73; Peter Schdifer, “The New Testament and Hekhalot Literature: The Journey into Heaven in Paul and in Merkabah Mysticism,” Journal of Jewish Studies 35 (1984): 19-35; A. F Segal, “Heavenly Ascent in Hellenistic Judaism, Early Christianity and Their Environment,” in Aufstieg und Niedergang der rdmischen Welt, ed. H. Temporini and W. Haase (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1980), 23, pt. 2:1333-94, and Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990); J. D. Tabor, Things UnutterableP: aul’sA scentt o Paradisei n Its Greco-RomanJ,u daic, and Early Christian Contexts (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986)

      • Jon: Corrections: (1) I don’t “rule out” anything by way of explaining the nature of the experiences that I cite. I simply require that people give testable bases for their proffered explanations. Simply asserting that these experiences must be explained in this or that way won’t do, and only tells us the prejudice of the person espousing such demands. (2) I don’t confine the experiences in question to the visual experiences that seem to trouble you so much. I list several types of “revelatory” experiences, all of which are portrayed in early Christian texts and also ascribed to individuals involved in the origins of other religious movements. (3) Of course, the initial followers of Jesus were grieving his death, and so the experiences could be taken as somehow conditioned by this. But they don’t fit the more typically described experiences in such situations, i.e., visions of the recently deceased in recognizable clothing/form, etc., often giving comforting words that “I’m ok” etc. Instead, the earliest visual experiences seem to have Jesus in a new and glorified form, given the sort of resurrection-body that is sometimes posited as that to be given to the elect in the eschatological resurrection of the righteous dead. What they experience, in short, is Jesus given this eschatological resurrection on his own, well ahead of the rest of those who will share it.

      • Jon permalink

        Dr. Hurtado,

        You said, “I simply require that people give testable bases for their proffered explanations”.

        That’s what I feel I have been asking for. Your proffered explanation for Christian beginnings includes (amongst other things, yes, I know) a vision of Jesus that can be understood on atheistic terms, and so, a hallucination for those people in your audience. And yet you claim (or at least imply) that the hallucination of Jesus was different than a post-mortem bereavement hallucination and so that cannot be a complete explanation. So I am simply asking for one example (a testable bases) of a vision that helped start a religious movement or mutation from a depressed or benign starting point. This would back up your claim that Jesus’ followers had a vision of Jesus (a hallucination of Jesus for the atheists out there) in the depressed or benign environment after Jesus’ death.

      • Jon, in the list of prior studies of religious revelatory experiences cited in my published works there are examples involving visions. If you’re really interested, look them up. My “forces and factors” don’t require a Christian or an atheist standpoint. These are irrelevant. I’m simply trying to find plausible historical factors. Your own self-declared confessional standpoint “atheistic” seems to me to keep getting in the way of simply patiently examining matters. But I think we’ve now aired this quite adequately. Let’s move on.

    • Jon permalink

      Thank you. As I look through your references, is there any particular group/movement that you remember off the top of your head as specifically having VISIONS that helped generate a significant mutation in a parent religious tradition (i.e. not just the more general category that you just referred to — “mystical/revelatory experiences”)?

      • I haven’t focused on the fine distinctions that you seem interested in. My focus was on how revelatory experiences generate religious innovations. The experiences logged by sociologists and anthropologists vary, from visions, to prophetic revelations/oracles, to inward powerful “insights”, etc.

  4. Ben Haupt permalink

    Dear Professor Hurtado, thank you for your recent post and for this blog in general. As a postgraduate in NT & early Christianity, this blog regularly updates me to important developments in the field. I know the term “charismatic exegesis” has frequently been used to describe early Christian interpretations of the Law, Prophets, and Writings. Could you expand on how you use this term and any recent work on its use as a descriptor? Much thanks.

    • I use the expression “charismatic exegesis” in Lord Jesus Christ (73-74), adapting it from an essay by David Aune cited there. In my usage, the expression simply designates creative readings of biblical texts that came to recipients as revelations of new insights into the texts.

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