Why and How did Jesus-Devotion Erupt?
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.