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Reiterating the Basics on Jesus-Devotion

October 7, 2016

A recent comment is so chock-full of confusion and erroneous statements that I choose not to post it, but instead to address relevant matters in this posting.

1.)  Contrary to the comment, I don’t “assume” that cultic devotion to Jesus erupted early and quickly.  Over 30+ years I’ve made and defended the case arrived at inductively through pains-taking analysis of the historical evidence.  No assumption involved.  So, it’s a bit tiresome to have someone assert that my case is built on an assumption.

2.)  Actually, I’m not unique in making the claim that a “high” view of Jesus erupted early.  For example, the great master-scholar of the early 20th century, Wilhelm Bousset, in his influential study, Kyrios Christos, reached basically the same conclusion, as did Johannes Weiss, Martin Hengel, and others.  Indeed, Bousset judged that what he called the “kyrios-cult” (programmatic treatment of Jesus as worthy of worship) erupted so early and quickly that it was the form of the Jesus-movement that Paul encountered and to which he became an adherent, Paul’s “Damascus road” experience typically dated within the first 2-3 yrs at most after Jesus’ crucifixion.

3.)  Further, contrary to the ill-informed comment that triggered this posting, there is no evidence of an equivalent “angel-cult” in any evidence of 2nd-temple Jewish tradition.  Check out the major studies, e.g., by Stuckenbruck, Hannah, and others.  They all agree that the programmatic place of Jesus in early Christian devotion is at least a major step-change in comparison to the reverential treatment of angels in ancient Jewish tradition.

4.)  Likewise, Ehrman’s recent claim that Paul viewed Jesus as an angel lacks clear support from either the evidence or any of the major studies over the last 70 yrs or so, and is not one of the stronger features of Ehrman’s book.  So, that’s simply a red-herring, and has obtained no real “traction” among scholars working on the origins of Jesus-devotion.

5.)  Chronology is crucial (as Martin Hengel showed a few decades ago in an essay that should be required reading).  Uncontestably, our earliest evidence of the Jesus-movement is in Paul’s undisputed letters, which take us back to within ca. 20 yrs of Jesus’ execution, and which draw upon and directly reflect beliefs and practices of still earlier years.  It is ignorant to posit the Gospel of Mark as a testimony to some supposedly earlier and “low” Christology.  GMark was written likely ca. 70 AD, much later than the Pauline letters.  And neither GMark nor the other Synoptic Gospels comprises a theological tractate intended to push some particular “Christology” over against others.  Each is an account of Jesus’ ministry, emphasizing his historical, cultural specificity.  Moreover, they presuppose 40-60 years of the Jesus-movement, and developments in its beliefs and cultic practices.  I’ve analysed the Gospels as expressions of Jesus-devotion in my book, Lord Jesus Christ, at some length.  The GMark, for example, quite obviously narrates an account of Jesus in which he functions as the ideal role-model and master of disciples.  The author shows no evidence of laying out some distinctive Christological stance, or dissenting from some “high” one.

6.)  All early expressions of Christology have a “subordinationist” character, in that they portray Jesus as sent, empowered, vindicated, and glorified by God (“the Father”).  They weren’t touched by the concerns and issues that arose in the 3rd century especially.  But in the inventory of honorific categories to hand to them, early believers were unhesitating and remarkably free in ascribing to Jesus an unparalleled place in their beliefs and practices.  The “high” Christology of the early texts doesn’t consist in saying “Jesus is God Almighty” in some simplistic sense.  What’s “high” about earliest Christology is that Jesus is uniquely and programmatically linked with God, both in beliefs and worship, to such an extent that Jesus is essential for any adequate discourse about God and for any adequate worship of God.  We have no comparable development in any 2nd-temple Jewish group.  I’ve laid out the evidence in publications over the last 30 yrs, as listed on this blog site here (a couple of example given below).  So, I ask readers of this blog site to invest in the effort to engage the relevant work, if they’re serious about the matter.

For further reading:

Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988; 3rd ed., London:  Boomsbury T&T Clark, 2016).

Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2003)

Martin Hengel, “Christology and New Testament Chronology,” in Between Jesus and Paul (London: SCM, 1983), 30-47.

And, indicative of work on the relevance of angels, Loren T. Stuckenbruck, “‘Angels’ and ‘God’: Exploring the Limits of Early Jewish Monotheism,” in Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism, ed. Loren T. Stuckenbruck and Wendy E. S. North (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 45-70.  E.g., p. 68: “in none of the passages discussed is there any hint that in Judaism a cultus was being organised around angelic beings. I am thus convinced that Hurtado’s thesis is essentially corrrect that the sometimes exalted position of angels did not directly contribute to the inception of early Christian devotion to Christ alongside God.”



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  1. Hi Donald,

    You said: “None at all? What about Galatians 4:14?”

    As Larry pointed out, that could be an example of stair-step comparison. However, there’s another point to consider, namely, “angel” could be used there to simply mean “messenger”, and as one speaker once said, if Jesus wasn’t a messenger of God, then no one was. De Jonge has referred to Jesus as “God’s Final Envoy.” So, Paul could be saying that Jesus was an angel, but that wouldn’t necessarily imply a connection with the OT ‘Angel of the Lord’, as Ehrman suggests.

    It’s been a while since I read Ehrman’s book, but I also seem to recall that he may have conflated the ‘angel of the Lord’ with God Himself, which is to say that he may have construed the ‘angel of the Lord’ as a manifestation of God Himself (i.e. not necessarily as second being). This is a pretty common move for exegetes, as you probably know, and it would introduce a paradox, to be sure, as it would mean that the man Jesus was the ‘angel of the Lord’ in human form, but that ‘angel of the Lord’ was God Himself.

    I too find this to be one of the weaker parts of Ehrman’s reconstruction. He bases it on about 3 similar Greek constructions that can be found in Gieschen’s ‘Angelomorphic Christology’, and that’s a pretty modest sampling from which to draw definitive conclusions.

    ~Sean Kasabuske

  2. Could you provide details for “required” Hengel essay? Would like to track it down…

  3. I expect you’ll object that the evidence comes in written form much later, but the Rabbis understood Christianity as a confusion between the chief angel (Metatron, etc.) and a second god. But do you exclude the possibility that they had some insight into the issue. I have to admit I find Segal’s arguments that that is in fact what Paul did convincing. You’re right of course, to point out that the earliest worship of Jesus probably developed before Paul’s conversion. Would you grant the possibility that Paul understood Jesus as an angel (or at least conceived of him within a context based on second temple beliefs about angels) while the earlier stand of worship of Jesus did not?

    • The primary evidence of what Paul did or did not believe is in his own letters, not rabbinic texts of the 5-8th centuries AD. And I don’t recall Alan Segal claiming that Paul saw Jesus as an angel. In any case, there’s no basis for such a view that I can find in Paul’s letters. Charles Gieschen has argued, that early Christological thought appropriated “angelomorphic” language, but he emphasizes that this did not involve identifying Jesus as an angel.

      • Timothy Joseph permalink

        Dr. H.,
        This point seems to be essential, that the evidence that you used was early. So often, it appears to me, the arguments against your premise are based on writings that are much later and then read back into the early evidence. I have read much of what you have written and imho, your arguments consistently win the day because they line up with the earliest evidence. Know this, many of us owe you a great debt for the thorough work you have done over an extended period. I learn something valuable each time I read or reread your works.


      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        None at all? What about Galatians 4:14?

      • What about Gal 4:14? Paul refers to his being received warmly by Galatians, using a stair-step comparison, “like an angel of God, like Christ Jesus”. Ehrman’s (in the judgement of nearly all commentators) builds faaaar to big an edifice on the sand of this one verse.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Longenecker, Geischen and Ehrman are among those who read the passage as calling Jesus an angel, not insubstantial scholars. I’ve seen you elsewhere praised Geischen highly and included him as a younger member of the early high Christology club.

      • You’ve misread both Longenecker and Gieschen (sp!!), neither of whom takes Gal 4.14 as Paul defining Jesus as an angel. First, Gieschen really proposes that Paul saw Jesus as “the angel of the Lord” figure of the OT. I.e., this is somewhat the view of Justin Martyr, who finds the “pre-incarnate” Christ at various places in the OT where God is said to appear/speak, etc., in the created world. I.e., the OT “angel of the Lord” is a form in which YHWH appears in the earthly setting, much the way Philo assigns this to his “Logos”. If you read Gieschen’s full discussion of “The Pauline Epistles” (pp. 315-46), you’ll see this.
        Further, Gieschen himself admits that at several points his proposals are debatable, and can’t be taken as more than proposals. And, for what it’s worth, in a conversation with him after Ehrman’s book appeared, Gieschen dis-associated himself from the Ehrman’s position. Gieschen argues that OT “angelomorphic” LANGUAGE was appropriated by Paul, not that Paul saw Jesus as simply an angel as such.

    • Donald Jacobs permalink

      I was following the footnote in Danniel Hannah’s book on Michael (page 155, footnote 144) who says Longenecker and Gieschen read the verse that way. Maybe he changed his position since the article Hannah cited. There are other scholars who support the reading, I remember when I read about this topic years ago, including Martin Werner, I suppose, who you tend to discount for some reason, but who was a fantastic scholar in the liberal tradition.

      I hear what you say about Gieschen qualifying angelomorphic language. That’s the common explanation for Jesus as an angel offered today. But there’s plenty of evidence that the primitive community viewed Jesus as an angel. Werner even points out that the title “Lord” points in this direction. Even though you discount this argument, I have read Werner in the original, and he makes a good case. People should look it up for themselves. Gieschen’s article on the divine name in early Christianity was a revelation for me. But incorporated into a high Christology of course. How can that be? I find it all fascinating, but often misdirected.

      Another contributor suggests that I’ve not bothered to read your work. As I mentioned before, I’ve actually read most of your books and many of your articles over the years. In fact I read “One God, One Lord” twice! That was a few years ago now and I have no doubt forgotten a lot. But I did read them carefully at the time, and I also read the opposing arguments too! Casey, Werner, McGrath, Dunn, Ehrman, Crossley and so on. But actually my favourite scholars on New Testament theology and Christology are John Ziesler and Hans Conzelmann. I don’t understand why they are not referenced more often. Conzelmann sits next to Oscar Cullmann on the shelf, but for some reason not picked up as often.

      • Well, good on you, Donald, for all your reading. I don’t refer to Conzelmann or Ziesler because they weren’t “players” in the questions about how earliest Jesus-devotion erupted. As you’ve indicated oodles of times before, you prefer Casey, et al. That’s not an argument, but we at least know your preferences . . . repeatedly.

  4. I feel your pain, Larry. I can only imagine how frustrating it can be to regularly review submitted comments that reflect a lack of interaction with your published material, which is extensive, to say the least! Aside from your books, one of which is rather lengthy (LJC), haven’t you written close to 100 articles/reviews on the subject as well?

    You mentioned Ehrman, which leads me to think that the poster may have referenced Ehrman’s work as part of the basis for the charge that you “assume” early cultic devotion to Jesus. If true, then I think Ehrman’s work was not being used carefully by your critic. Ehrman is intimately familiar with your work (he said this on his blog), and as far as I can see, he gives no indication that he rejects your primary thesis. Indeed, he seems to agree with you to a considerable degree (as he should, IMO). Where he *may* differ to some extent, if I’ve read him correctly, is that he believes that there were two general strands of belief about Jesus early on, one which held to what some have called an “adoptionist” Christology, and one which held to a “high” Christology (in agreement with your position).

    Ehrman’s view can therefore be taken as supporting your thesis, because his recognition of the second strand shows that he also sees that there is clear historical evidence for it, even if he feels that there is also evidence for “alternative” views.

    ~Sean Garrigan

    • I should clarify that it is somewhat misleading to present an “adoptionist” Christology as an “alternative” to your view, because, as Ehrman states in a Youtube lecture, such a Christology is extremely “high”, as it places a man at God’s right hand as subject only to God Himself! So even this form of Christology wouldn’t necessarily be an “alternative” vis a vis your general thesis that Jesus became an object of cultic devotion very early in a way that was unprecedented. In other words, both strands can be said to be consistent with your general thesis, even if some may feel that one conforms to it more easily/naturally than the other.

      ~Sean Garrigan

    • Yes, as I read Ehrman, he seemed largely to come to positions similar to those that I’ve advocated for some 30 yrs now: The experiences of the risen Jesus were crucial; a “high” view of Jesus erupted early (i.e., a view of Jesus as worthy of divine honors and reverence); the notion of “pre-existence” likewise was early. I don’t find plausible his claim that Paul saw Jesus as an angel, or that the view of Jesus as installed as God’s “Son” and the “Lord” at his resurrection and the view that Jesus was “pre-existent” were two separate strands of thought. The latter seems to me to have emerged quite readily from the former.

  5. Brian Lopez permalink

    Larry, these reiterations are extremely useful over the years. You have repeated yourself in “many parts and in many ways” (πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως – to use the language of Hebrews) on this subject matter and it turns out to be valuable clarifications to your point(s) of view that you have distilled for so long.


  6. Bobby Garringer permalink

    In reaching your conclusions about who Jesus was and how he came to be worshipped, what do you consider the strongest – and what the weakest – evidences in the case you make?

    • I’m not sure what you mean, Bobby. I would say that what evidence we have is pretty clear. What I could wish for is more evidence!

  7. Doug Bridges permalink

    Thank you for your edifying explanation. I have enjoyed your books greatly, and this is a helpful addendum to them.

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