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The Origin of “Divine Christology”?

October 9, 2017

A new book presents the argument that the key reason that Jesus became a recipient of worship in earliest Christian circles is that he claimed divinity and the right to receive worship:  Andrew Ter Ern Loke, The Origin of Divine Christology, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series,169 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

As it appears that I am Loke’s main dialogue partner in his book, and my proposals the main focus of his criticism, I should offer a response.  From my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (3rd edition, London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015) onward through my 2003 book, Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, pp. 27-78), I’ve proposed several “forces and factors” that prompted and shaped earliest devotion to Jesus.  These include “ancient Jewish monotheism” exhibited particularly in the “cultic (worship) exclusivity” in which the one deity of biblical tradition was worshiped to the exclusion of the many other deities of the ancient world; the impact of Jesus himself in his historical work (which, with other scholars, I contend generated the expectation among his followers that he was or would be declared Messiah, and the corresponding charge against him that led to his crucifixion); powerful religious experiences in the “post-Easter” period that generated the strong conviction that God had raised Jesus from death and exalted him to heavenly glory, and now demanded that Jesus be reverenced accordingly; and the “religious environment” of the Roman era, which both provided earliest believers with some conceptual resources and terminology, and also helped to generate a foil against which to articulate and express Jesus’ uniqueness.

The historical data indicate that a robust incorporation of the risen/exalted Jesus into the devotional life of Jesus-believers erupted early and took hold quickly, as evident in the constellation of corporate devotional practices that I have repeatedly specified and that comprise a novel “dyadic” devotional pattern in which “God” and Jesus receive cultic reverence. The question is how to account for this, given that these earliest Jesus-believers were all Jews and that the “cultic exclusivity” characteristic of ancient Jewish tradition worked strongly against giving worship to any second being/figure alongside the one God.

As I see no evidence that the “historical” Jesus himself demanded (or received) such cultic reverence, and there are early texts that emphasize God’s resurrection and exaltation of Jesus and the consequent demand that Jesus should be reverenced (e.g., Philippians 2:9-11), this dyadic devotional pattern appears to me to be a response to what earliest believers perceived to be God’s actions and requirement.  The further question, then, is how this perception and conviction came to them.  My own proposal is that early experiences of the risen/exalted Jesus, prophetic utterances and inspired odes expressing Jesus’ exalted status, and “charismatic exegesis” of biblical (OT) texts all combined to generate the guiding conviction that God now required that Jesus should be reverenced as sharing in divine glory.

It is this emphasis on “post-Easter” revelatory experiences that Loke finds objectionable, and against which he argues.  He contends, “Any implementation of new worship patterns based on the kinds of religious experiences which Hurtado suggests (i.e. visions, charismatic exegeses, etc.) would likely have met widespread dissent for at least quite some time among the earliest Christians (especially among those more traditionalist Christian Jews).  And yet, shockingly, there is no hint of such disagreements or even discussions among Christians concerning the worship of Jesus in the earliest Christian documents” (129).

In Loke’s view, “earliest Christians regarded Jesus’ teachings as the supreme indication of God’s will,” and so “if Jesus did not claim to be divine” then his followers “would probably have reasoned that this was not God’s will” (130).  That is, Loke’s explanation for the early eruption of Jesus-devotion is that Jesus himself taught his disciples that he was divine and deserved such reverence, and in Jesus’ resurrection they saw all this divinely vindicated.

In principle, Loke’s proposal is entirely possible. We don’t know of other ancient Jews (or at least those who continued to identify themselves within ancient Jewish tradition) who taught that they should be worshipped, so it would appear to have been a rather novel thing for Jesus to have done so.  But the idea that a particular human figure should be treated as a deity was by no means foreign in the larger environment of the Greco-Roman era.  Still, I don’t find Loke’s case persuasive, and I’ll sketch what seem to me to be some major problems with it.

First (as Loke concedes), the evidence indicates that Jesus was not given the cultic reverence in question until the “post-Easter” period.  So, if Jesus taught his original disciples that he was divine and should consequently receive worship, why didn’t they respond accordingly?  Loke answers that, although Jesus expressed his divine status to his disciples, they didn’t quite “get it” until after they experienced God’s resurrection of Jesus.  This, Loke argues, had the effect of somehow making them remember more fully what Jesus had already taught them about his person.  But the fact remains that there was no such cultic reverence of Jesus until after the experiences of his resurrection/exaltation.  This still seems to me to make these experiences the crucial factor in generating the conviction that it was now right to give Jesus cultic devotion.

Second, critical analysis of the historical traditions does not yield evidence that Jesus himself actually claimed to share in divine glory and status during his earthly career.[i]  Instead, the classic instances where Jesus makes such claims for himself are scenes where the risen/exalted Jesus speaks, e.g., Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:44-52.  Loke, however, contends that, “whether the indication [Jesus’ claims to divinity] happened ‘pre-resurrection’ or ‘post-resurrection’ does not matter; all that matters is that the indication was perceived to have come from Jesus” (159).  But it seems to me that, in historical terms, it matters a great deal whether the “historical/earthly” Jesus claimed divinity and demanded worship during his ministry, or (as I think the evidence shows) earliest believers experienced the risen/exalted Jesus expressing God’s exaltation of him to divine glory.

I’m not talking about the theological/religious validity of these claims or worship practices.  I’m focusing on the historical factors and process that generated them.  It’s a fallacy that I’ve identified earlier here to presume that the validity of “divine christology” rests on whether the “historical” Jesus himself claimed divinity.  A lot of traditional Christians presume this, as do a lot of others, including some so-called “Evangelical Unitarians,” and also non/anti-Christian voices (including, e.g., some Muslim apologists).  But, as I read the evidence, for earliest believers, the crucial theological basis for acclaiming Jesus in “high” Christological terms and for including him as a recipient of corporate devotion was what they held that God claimed and demanded.

There are other issues raised in Loke’s book that also deserve attention, but I confine my attention here to this historical question.  Loke offers a bold and vigorously argued case, but I don’t find it persuasive.  It still seems to me more fitting with the evidence to infer that earliest believers experienced the risen Jesus as given divine glory, exalted to God’s “right hand,” and made to share in the divine name (Philippians 2:9-11), all of which took their previous estimate of Jesus to a categorically new level.  To be sure, the experiences of the risen Jesus validated their previous estimate of Jesus as God’s Messiah, and validated Jesus’ teachings and actions as the unique and eschatological agent of God’s purposes.  But in their experiences that struck them with revelatory force, God’s resurrection of Jesus comprised still more:  the exaltation of Jesus to heavenly glory, his installation as “Lord” and the one to whom all creation should now give obeisance, in obedience to God’s actions and will.

Loke contends that for earliest believers, Jesus was their supreme authority, and so if Jesus didn’t declare his divinity his followers wouldn’t have accepted the notion.  But, as I read the evidence, for earliest believers the crucial matter was what God had declared about Jesus, what God had done in making Jesus the “Kyrios”.  Granted, the traditions in the Gospels have the risen/exalted Jesus declaring God’s bestowal on him of authority and glory (e.g., Matthew 28:18), but it was God’s new actions of resurrection and exaltation of Jesus that made any such declaration and conviction valid.  And I remain persuaded that powerful religious experiences of the kind that I have sketched (which include experiences of the person of the risen Jesus) conveyed that conviction.


[i] Of course, by a “critical analysis” of the evidence, I mean that (as agreed widely among NT scholars) the distinctive self-declarations of Jesus in the Gospel of John should be taken as retrospectively shaped by “post-Easter” experiences and convictions.  See, e.g., my essay, Larry W. Hurtado, “Remembering and Revelation:  The Historic and Glorified Jesus in the Gospel of John,” in Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children:  Christology and Community in Early Judaism and Christianity.  Essays in Honor of Larry W. Hurtado and Alan F. Segal, ed. David B. Capes et al. (Waco, TX: Baylor Univesity Press, 2007), 195-213, and republished in Larry W. Hurtado, Ancient Jewish Monotheism and Early Christian Jesus-Devotion:  The Context and Character of Christological Faith (Waco:  Baylor University Press, 2017),  483-506. The pre-publication version is available on this blog site here.


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  1. Justin permalink

    Splendid, thanks very much indeed Larry for your comments on those passages. They are very clear and precise. Much appreciated.

  2. Prof Hurtado,

    It seems to me that the agreement between yourself and Loke is far more significant than the disagreement. You both agree that the Resurrection was a necessary condition for the worship of Jesus and, chronologically speaking, a sufficient condition (i.e. it actually gave rise to the practice). You both agree that Jesus’ teachings about himself (whether as Messiah or as divine being) informed disciples’ interpretation of the Resurrection event and thus constituted a necessary condition for the Resurrection to give rise to divine worship.

    The only area of disagreement, it seems, is the degree of importance of Jesus’ claims about himself in this post-Resurrection cultic development. You give Jesus’ claims a relatively minor role, as not implying his divinity (but presumably not denying or ruling it out either), while Loke gives his claims a relatively major role, as implying his divinity.

    If this characterization of your positions is correct, the distance between them is small indeed.

    I am grateful to you for emphasizing the fallacy of conflating historical Jesus studies with theological validity. This fallacy undergirds much unitarian apologetics in the blogosphere.

    • Thomas, you are correct in a measure of things. Loke agrees with me that the experiences of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation were the final/key ignition for reverencing Jesus as sharing divine glory, etc. But our difference is substantial in historical terms. He seems to posit that Jesus knew himself to be the incarnate God and made such claims to his disciples during his earthly ministry. He also seems to me to posit that Jesus’ resurrection was simply a validation of these prior claims. I posit that Jesus acted and spoke as God’s unique emissary and agent, and that the experiences of Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation convinced Jesus’ followers that he had been catapulted into a new status “at God’s right hand” etc., and made “Lord”. These amount to quite distinguishable historical views I think.

      • True, there is a distinction but set against broader historical debate over Christological origins it is fairly minor.

        I think how exactly Jesus and his disciples understood his claims about himself during his ministry is difficult to get at, but the more important question is whether the resurrection/exaltation experiences induced a reinterpretation of these claims in loftier terms. If so, then Jesus’s “new status” could be retrojected onto his earthly self and earlier, which helps explain phenomena such as Luke’s Narrative Christology (as Rowe calls it) whereby Jesus as a fetus is already “my Lord,” and also pre-existence Christology.

        This notion of the church reinterpreting (and rewriting) Jesus’s pre-resurrection claims about himself attends to both your and Loke’s concerns: your concern to recognize Easter as the decisive moment in precipitating Jesus-devotion, and Loke’s concern that this development could not have occurred unless the disciples thought they had a mandate for it in Jesus’s teachings.

      • Thomas: But there are two different historical views. One (my own) is that Jesus didn’t claim divinity and the right to be worshiped, and the resurrection events communicated to Jesus’ followers the new conviction that he had been exalted to divine glory and should be worshiped. The other view is that Jesus did make explicit claims to be “truly divine” and so worthy of worship, but his followers didn’t grasp or accept them until the resurrection events, which then changed their minds.

  3. Justin permalink

    Greetings Larry

    You explain “these earliest Jesus-believers were all Jews and that the “cultic exclusivity” characteristic of ancient Jewish tradition worked strongly against giving worship to any second being/figure alongside the one God.”

    I’ve just read a review of Tilling’s “Paul’s Divine Christology” in the July-Sept issue of Bibliotheca Sacra in which the reviewer says “it is often maintained that one important proof of the deity of Christ is that only God is worshipped. Therefore, when Christ is worshipped it proves he is God….Unfortunately when Jewish literature is surveyed, the original claim cannot he sustained. Tilling considers three passages in which men are granted worship: Sirach 44-50, the life of Adam and Eve and the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71)….He acknowledges that there are non-divine figures who receive some sort of worship; however…[he] determines that the Christ relation concept already developed early in the book is better compared with God in these passages than with the human figure (pp. 201, 206,212-30,232-33).”

    You have certainly responded to Tilling’s approach in your posts but I wondered if you could please explain how we are to understand these passages? Are men granted worship? And if so is this of a different nature so as to preserve the idea that worship cannot be said to be given a second being/figure alongside the one God?

    As always I am indebted to you for your insight

    • Justin: A brief response to your queries, focused on the texts that you mention. Tilling (with some others) too uncritically and casually treat these texts. Sirach 44-50 doesn’t in fact show any human figure receiving worship. Gestures of respect for the High Priest aren’t cultic worship. Neither the priest nor king nor anyone else receives sacrifice or cultic rites in the Jerusalem temple. Nor are angels worshipped (as Stuckenbruck and others have clearly shown). As for Life of Adam & Eve, aside from the unsettled questions of date and provenance, it is a one-off scene, where the angels are demanded to reverence the human figure and refuse. It’s an etiology, explaining the origin of Satan’s animosity toward humans.
      And in 1 Enoch the messianic figure there receives obeisance from the conquered gentile rulers, not worship in a cultic setting. Moreover, this is a dream-scene, and there is no indication that it reflects any actual devotional practice of any groups/circles in the 2nd temple Jewish tradition.
      So. We in fact have no precedent or analogy for the full constellation and pattern of Jesus-devotion that erupted quickly and early in the post-Easter period. Period.

  4. bryantiii permalink

    I thank you for your review of Loke’s book. I do understand that you probably had to limit your remarks to a word limit and was unable to give a more fuller treatment. It is what it is. I do wonder though, if both Loke (assuming that he will reply) and you are both talking past one another since Loke would be emphasizing the divinity of Jesus before the Cross and you would be recognizing the divinity of Jesus after? . . .

    However one takes the Confession of Peter in Matthew 16:16, “Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is abundantly clear that Jesus did not deny that what Peter confessed was wrong; but, in fact, praised Peter and pronounced a blessing upon Him.

    The question then arises as to the “Son of Man” (ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου) sayings that are found 76x in the Gospels (74x on lips of Jesus; 2x on the crowd in John 12:34); 1x on the lips of Stephen in Acts 7:56; 1x in Hebrews 2:6, quoting Psalm 8:4-6; and 2x in Revelation. This would indicate that there is a deliberate attempt by Jesus to use the phrase in a way that points to Daniel 7:14; while also pointing to its use by Ezekiel (93x). Finally, there is the use of ἐγώ εἰμι in the Gospels which John has the majority of uses frequently with divine overtones as presented by Isaiah 41-61.

    All of these instances indicate that Jesus did make known who He was before the Cross, but not as declarative as many a scholar would wish. The change in recognition by the disciples before the Cross is understandable to a certain extent since it did not fit in with their conception of who the Messiah was to be. but would be much clearer from the Resurrection and afterward when these things were brought back to remembrance by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26).

    • Bryant: The question of whether Jesus declared his “truly divine” (Loke’s term) status during his earthly ministry, making his resurrection simply a confirmation of this, or whether he presented himself as God’s unique agent and his resurrection was understood as the conferral of a radically new status as Kyrios, is not a minor “talking past each other” issue.
      The confession ascribed to Peter is Jesus’ messianic status, not divinity, which fits more with my view, not Loke’s.
      Jesus’ use of “the son of man” as his distinctive self-referential expression isn’t necessarily a reference to Daniel 7. As Maurice Casey showed several decades ago, the figure of Daniel 7 isn’t referred to in Jewish tradition of the time or later as “the son of man”. So, it appears that people wouldn’t have grasped the expression as a reference to this figure.

      • Aaron permalink

        Dr. Hurtado,

        It’s very difficult (for me) to not at least see the passage where Jesus references himself as the “Son of Man” in Mark 14:61-64 as a pretty direct reference to Daniel 7. Does it not seem like he is referring to Daniel’s vision here? The Jews would have had to have known that phrase/title was used in that passage and then as Jesus used the same imagery in his declaration on trial would have been claiming to be the king of that

      • Yes, Mark 14:61-64 does seem to allude in part to the scene in Daniel 7:13-14. But the question put to Jesus and to which he replies affirmatively is “are you the Christ/Messiah, the son of the Blessed [God]?” These are the only recognized titles in the passage.
        Jesus replies affirmatively, and then uses his typical self-referential expression, claiming that he will be exalted to God’s right hand, etc. It’s this that seems to draw the charge of “blasphemy”. There is no indication here or in other texts, NT or Jewish of the time, that “the son of man” was the way you referred to the figure of Daniel 7:13-14. Again, I refer you to Maurice Casey, Son of Man: The Interpretation and Influence of Daniel 7 (London: SPCK, 1979).

  5. Chris permalink

    I find it interesting that Loke’s argument is that Jesus’ teachings are the supreme authority for the early Christians when the early Christians (who were Jews) pointed to the OT to defend/authorize the teachings of Jesus…in large part using Psalm 110, which does not state that the second lord is YHWH.

  6. Bill Wortman permalink

    Is it accurate to say that you and Loke agree that the risen Jesus was understood by the earliest Christians to have declared his divinity to some of those who encountered him?

    • To speak for myself, I’d say that the experiences of the risen/exalted Jesus in their various forms generated the conviction that he shared divine glory and was to be reverenced accordingly.

      • Kim Fabricius permalink

        For what it’s worth, I agree. Explicit, unambiguous, in-your-face self-declarations of divinity strike me as incongruent with our Lord’s oblique and interrogative style (cf. Kierkegaard on “indirect communication”) — they are the modus operandi of the charlatan — and quite at odds with the kenoticism of Philippians 2:5-11.

  7. I think there are instances where Jesus does clearly claim Himself to be God, even in the Synoptic Gospels. Just today, I finished reading Richard B. Hay’s Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness, which I found very persuasive to show that as the Evangelists (all four) retrospectively accounted for Israel’s scriptures, they came to believe in Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s God through both His sayings as the Evangelists record and the authorial commentary of the Evangelists themselves.

    For example, Matthew 1:22-23 says “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name him Immanuel, which is translated “God is with us.” Here, Matthew identifies Jesus as Immanuel, God with us, and this is reflected through Jesus own sayings to His disciples later on in the Gospels as having His presence exist alongside and with them (and this happens once before the Resurrection [18:20] and once after [28:20]). In Luke’s Gospel, like the others, Jesus continually pronounces the coming of the “kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43; 9:2, etc etc) but as Jesus speaks in Luke 22:30, it becomes “my kingdom.” Surely, this is Jesus taking hold of His identity as the embodiment of Israel’s God, as I think Hays persuasively defends. I believe there are a number more examples of Jesus clearly identifying Himself with Israel’s God in both Matthew and Luke (such as the double-tradition of Matthew 11:27/Luke 10:22), and even in Mark as well before the resurrection.

    Either way, I happily look fowards to the emerging consensus in scholarship of high Christology being the earliest Christology and that one of the Jerusalem apostles.

  8. It seems really hard to argue that Paul saw Jesus’s teachings as his supreme authority, given how rarely he uses Jesus’s words or teachings in his arguments and pastoral counsel.

  9. Chris Chandler permalink

    As a young graduate student I really appreciate this blog post! What would be the biggest implications if the “historical/earthly” Jesus claimed divinity and demanded worship during his ministry?

    Thanks Dr. Hurtado!

    • Well, Chris, in my view, your question takes us into the realm of “alternate history”, exploring what it might have meant if things had gone differently. I don’t do that kind of speculation.

    • Michael permalink

      if the “historical/earthly” Jesus claimed divinity and demanded worship during his ministry, Jesus would likely be subjected to the laws in stipulated in Deuteronomy 13 and be killed by stoning.

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