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Jesus-devotion: Underscoring key Matters

January 22, 2018

In the last few days I’ve been contacted by a colleague asking for my responses to several scholars who have posited critiques of my work on the origins of Jesus-devotion.  In my response, I pointed to some blog postings in which I discussed relevant publications.  I take the liberty here of pointing the wider readership of the blog site to these postings as well.  They are among the sort of material that might be overlooked by readers not familiar with how to search the archives.

One publication that made a critique of my work was Michael Peppard’s book, The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in its Social and Political Context (Oxford University Press, 2011).  Along with admiring its positive features, I also lodged some complaints about its unfair representation of my views, and some other problems in Peppard’s case here.

Another recent work that includes several pages of critique of my work is M. David Litwa, Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus As a Mediterranean God (Fortress Press, 2014), esp. pp. 6-12.  I posted on this book here.  Litwa makes two crucial mistakes:

(1) He confuses the evident “Hellenization” of Roman-era Judaism, reflected in the appropriation of Greek terms, concepts, dining practices, etc., with the question of whether this included the cultic worship of figures other than the biblical God.  He tries to make me out as treating an insular “Judaism” free from Hellenistic influences, but anyone who reads my work carefully will readily see that he misrepresents me.

(2)  He confuses the verbal/discoursive treatment of figures as in some sense “divinized” with the real question for ancient Jews, which was whether any figure other than the one God should be given cultic worship.  Of course, at the verbal level we have figures such as Moses or Enoch, and angelic figures such as Michael or Melchizedek, described verbally in terms that look like “divinization”.  That’s not under dispute.  Indeed, well before Litwa, I made this point emphatically in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism.

The crucial “red line” issue for Roman-era Jewish tradition wasn’t the verbal depiction of this or that figure in glorious, divine-like language, but whether any such figure was to be given cultic worship.  I’ve made this point quite clearly, repeatedly, most recently in my article: Larry W. Hurtado, “‘Ancient Jewish Monotheism’ in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods,” Journal of Ancient Judaism 4, no. 3 (2013): 379-400.

It is precisely in the remarkable pattern of devotional practices reflected in our earliest Christian texts that we see an apparently novel development:  Jesus is included as a co-recipient of cultic practices.  I’ve repeatedly itemized the cultic practices in question, and have waited for other scholars to prove me wrong.  Still waiting.  Litwa rightly notes that what I have called the “christological rhetoric” of the NT is similar to the kind of “divinization” discourse used in pagan and Jewish circles in the Roman era.  But the further step of treating Jesus as rightful recipient of cultic devotion in a programmatic manner is unparalleled in Jewish tradition of the time.

On the question, see also this previous posting here.




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  1. John Mitrosky permalink

    One of the on-going issues for me about your posts on Jesus devotion Larry is the similarities and differences between Paul’s beliefs derived from his seven authentic letters, beliefs derived from letters attributed to apostles, and beliefs derived from the four canonical gospels.

    ……………… (material edited for conciseness. LWH)
    My sense of wonder about all this is to what extent are Paul’s beliefs his own beliefs and concerns, and to what extent are gospel beliefs and concerns more reflective of the historical Jesus’ beliefs and concerns? For example, a survey of the similarities and differences between Paul’s Jesus and Mark’s Jesus reveals a boldness on Paul’s part. He can disagree, for example, on Jesus’ teaching about divorce. What else might Paul disagree with? It seems possible to me that Paul disagreed with the term, “the Son of Man”, in relation to things he learned from the apostles about Jesus’ beliefs and concerns.

    • John: You’re confusing writings that had two quite different purposes. The Gospels offer narratives of Jesus’ ministry. Paul’s letters address problems that arose in his churches. And Paul didn’t “disagree” on Jesus’ teaching on divorce (in 1 Cor 7). He reiterates it. Don’t! But he then engages a question that Jesus didn’t, and tells us that he did so. Nothing funny going on, John.

  2. have you already extensively reviewed “Jesus Monotheism” by Crispin Flechter Louis ? give me the link please.

  3. Dear Larry Hurtado , is there any extensive interaction between you and Chris Tilling’s early christians relationship christology? because i searched a lot to find your reply to Chris Tilling’s criticism. but i could not find any on the internet. Your excellent reply to other scholars in LJC was a stimulating reading. Please let me know your dialogue/interaction with Chris Tilling.

  4. Griffin permalink

    If cultic divination or deification is found in Greek and Roman culture, but not Jewish tradition, then wouldn’t that suggest that some very key parts of even rather early Christianity were influenced by Greek and Roman culture?

    • Griffin: Your question has been dealt with, among others by me, in numerous publications. The historical evidence points to the origin of cultic devotion to Jesus among Judean Jews. And influence by “Greek and Roman culture” isn’t in dispute. But the wholesale adoption of the pagan practice of cultic reverence for multiple beings wasn’t accepted.

      • Griffin permalink

        Early Jews like Paul made converts of Ptolemaic and other Greeks, Romans. Why wouldn’t such converts have carried into Christianity, and applied to Jesus, their habit of deifyng their leaders? The Greek Stephen for instance, seems quite devoted.

      • Griffin: First the Stephen of Acts wasn’t a Greek! He was a Jew. Second, if you would trouble yourself to read the scholarship on a subject before mouthing off on it, you would know that the evidence points to the origins of the cultic reverence of Jesus in Jewish circles in Judea, not “Ptolemaic and other Greeks, Romans” later in the Pauline mission”. Please! Either commit to the work needed to understand a subject or desist from uninformed claims and silly proposals. Really.

      • Griffin permalink

        Could Greeks and Romans have influenced early Christianity? We’ve made a case for the Roman Centurion.

        Important were many nominal Jews with “dual citizenship” it seems. Paul said he was a Jew, but also a Roman citizen. And Steven? Spoke Greek, and was a Hellenist. Or a Jew raised outside Jerusalem, probably in Greek territories. Acts 6. After seeing Steven around Jerusalem, among others, Jews complained that Paul was bringing Greeks into the Temple.

        Persons like Steven might claim to be very, wholly Jewish; but Jerusalem Jews seem to have thought otherwise. In fact, Acts 6 shows Hellenists like Stephen opposing “Hebrews.”

        After that, look at Timothy. His mother was Jewish, giving Tmothy claim to be Jewish. But his father was Greek. Acts 16.

        Many Greeks were active in early Christianity in Acts 17.4. And many like them backed issues opposed by strict Jews, Hebrews.

      • Griffin: I’ll respond to this one final comment of yours, just to note its problems. But this is it. The issue isn’t whether Greeks “influenced” early Christianity. Instead, the question is whether the cultic veneration of Jesus arose on authentic Jewish soil or came only as the result of the influx of “pagans”. I’ve pointed to the work that sustains the first option. Read the material and stop making red-herring observations. All you’ve done is mention Jews who happen to have been either of a Diaspora background or former pagans who joined the movement at a secondary point. All beside the point. Enough!!

      • Griffin permalink

        I guess I’m wondering how “purely Jewish” the founders – and especially, later authors of the gospels – were. Since certainly later figures were not so pure – c. 56 AD. Just before the gospels appeared.

      • Griffin: YOu keep on failing to get the issue. For heaven’s sake! You use “purely Jewish”, not me, reflecting your failure to follow the matter carefully. Roman-era Jews were all influenced in this or that way and to this or that degree by Greek culture, language, etc. For the last time: The issue is whether the cultic reverence of Jesus arose among Judean Jews or not. The case has been made. Just read some serious stuff and stop badgering so ineffectively. We’re done now.

  5. I’ve been having a discussion with someone on early-high christology and your views on the thing etc, and they made some statements about your work which I wanted to check with you to see if they were getting it right or not. I would be appreciative if you commented;

    1) Do you think there are statements in the NT where Jesus is equated with or called God?

    2) Recently the early high christology has been increasing academia, promoting an effective consensus. But what does this statement exactly mean? How early was this christology (from my interpretation, the first few weeks or months) and how high was this christology (i.e. Jesus was literally God, or Jesus wasn’t thought of actually God at all but simply exalted to a state near God, etc)?

    • My various publication convey rather clearly my views,so you might consider reading one or two of them. But brief responses to your questions: (1) the various NT writings both link Jesus with God in a unique manner and also distinguish Jesus and God (“the Father”); and (2) “early high christology” in the sense held by those of us who drink in that club = an eruption of devotion to Jesus as worthy of cultic reverence easily within the first several years, and (in my view) likely within the first months after his execution.

      • Thanks! I now have two of your books, so I will get to reading them (once I finish the ones I’ve already gotten). I should also thank you for your patience with me!

  6. Professor Hurtado:

    Is the main — or only — reason Jesus was included in cultic worship by these ancient monotheistic Jews simply due to the fact that they had experiences/visions of Jesus after his death?

    • The reason that early believers treated Jesus as worthy of cultic devotion is that they were convinced that God demanded it. The remaining question is how this conviction arose. I have proposed multiple factors, as described in my book, Lord Jesus Christ.

  7. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Thanks for bringing this together and the links to previous posts and discussions.

    Does this indicate new critiques of your work that have been newly published or in the pipeline? Or is your correspondent referring to the works you have already acknowledged and responded to here and elsewhere?

    I wonder what you would consider the most challenging response to your work to date. I’ve enjoyed the work of Dunn, McGrath, Casey and Crossley (who you don’t mention) but the recent books you cite are new to me and I will follow them up with interest.

    But I find that old classics still pose a challenge to your views as well. I’ve been reading Martin Werner again: The Formation of Christian Dogma. I find his account most fascinating. In particular his argument that the kyrios title for Jesus indicated that he was viewed as an exalted angelic figure seems prescient, in view of subsequent discoveries that have shown the early LXX didn’t tend to use kyrios for the diivne name, and DSS fragments that show angels were called “lords”. What with that, and Ehrman’s new book, angel Christology is experiencing something of a revival. Werner makes a good case for “lord” as an angelic title, especially in the book of Acts. You have been dismissive of Werner but I don’t think you engaged with his arguments adequately. I know you won’t agree with this, but I honestly think this is where your overall argument on Jesus devotion is most vulnerable, and exhibits a blind spot. I wonder if someone will connect these dots to offer a critique of your work using a Werner/kyrios/angel Christology perspective. This would be somewhat different than the critique that Dunn has offered for example, because of course he joins you in strongly rejecting the idea that the early Christians had an angel Christology.

    • Donald: I was contacted specifically asking if I had responded to Yarbro COllins, Peppard and Litwa. The notion that Jesus was a high angel is a non-starter, your own opinion notwithstanding. Those who have probed the matter, e.g., Stuckenbruck & Gieschen, agree. If that’s the “most vulnerable” feature of my case, I’m sitting pretty comfortable! The treatment of the Tetragammaton in the OG is irrelevant: We know from multiple sources that “kyrios” was how the text was read out in Greek.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Professor Hurtado, how do we know that Jews read kyrios when they came across the divine name in the LXX? They surely didn’t say kyrios, for example, when they came across the transliteration IAW, as in manuscript 4Q120. There is mounting evidence, as documented by Frank Shaw, that Yaho was the common designation for God among first century Jews. So why presume Jews would have read YHWH as kyrios rather than Yaho? Sean McDonough makes a similar observation in his book, “YHWH at Patmos: Rev 1:4 in its Hellenistic and Early Jewish Setting”, page 121:

        “But I would also contend that for many Jews, this ‘shortened’ form functioned for them as the personal name for their God. Indeed, it is not out of the question that, being accustomed to using this form in everyday speech, they then read the Tetragrammaton as ‘Iao’.”

        Could you point me to the evidence that when first century Jews encountered YHWH in the text they read it as aloud as kyrios?

      • Donald, You’re confusing things. First, Shaw hasn’t shown that IAO was regularly used, only that it does appear in some instances by some people. Don’t exaggerate.
        Second, “kyrios” was the Greek “kere” (pronounced) substitute for YHWH, as shown by lst century writers (Josephus and Philo for example). And Pietersma mounted an impressive case that “kyrios” originally stood in written copies of the Greek biblical writings, and that the use of “YHWH” in Hebrew characters was a later practice. Here’s some reading material for you:
        –Albert Pietersma, “Kyrios or Tetragram: A Renewed Quest for the Original Septuagint,” in Studies in Honour of John W. Wevers on His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. Albert Pietersma and Claude Cox (Mississauga: Benben Publishers, 1984), 85-101
        –James R. Royse, “Philo, Kyrios, and the Tetragrammaton,” The Studia Philonica Annual 3 (1991), 167-83.
        –Martin Rösel, “The Reading and Translation of the Divine Name in the Massoretic Tradition and the Greek Pentateuch,” JSOT 31 (2007): 411-28
        –Martin Rösel, Adonaj, warum Gott ‘Herr’ genannt wird, Forschungen Zum Alten Testament, no. 29 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000)
        –Martin Rösel, “Die Übersetzung der Gottesbezeichnungen in der Genesis-Septuaginta,” in Ernten, was man sät: Festschrift für Klaus Koch zu seinem 65. Geburtstag, ed. Dwight R. Daniels, Uwe Glessmer and Martin Rösel (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1991), 355-77
        –Johan Lust, “Yahweh Adonai [Heb] in Ezekiel and Its Counterpart in the Old Greek,” Ephemerides theologicae lovanienses 62 (1996): 138-45
        –John William Wevers, “The Rendering of the Tetragram in the Psalter and Pentateuch: A Comparative Study,” in The Old Greek Psalter: Studies in Honour of Albert Pietersma, ed. Robert J. V. Hiebert, Claude E. Cox and Peter J. Gentry (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 21-35

  8. John Mitrosky permalink

    How do we reconcile the two aspects of early Jesus devotion: a looking forward to a supernatural transformation of this world as we know it, with the simple view of what happens when a person of faith dies, as in Mark 12:25? What is the context, if not Enochic, or Enochic-like? In other words, Jesus’ second coming to the earth plane is his resurrection, so why must he still come again?

    • John: Your comment is misinformed. Mark 12:25 isn’t a reference to “what happens when a person of faith dies”, but about the future resurrection of the dead and what will be the status of those raised. Note the question in v. 23 about “the resurrection”. And what the devil Enoch has to do with anything here . . . can you give it a rest, John??

      • John Mitrosky permalink

        The future resurrection of the dead and the status of those raised is related to a world view of ideas at the time of Jesus. 1 Enoch 21, for example, speaks of both the places of punishment for the disobedient stars (21:1-5) and the prison of the fallen angels (Watcher demons?) (21:7-10). Both are imprisoned, or bound on earth, or just under the earth. To say, “they become like angels in heaven” is similar to saying, “they become like stars in heaven.” Sheol gives up her dead humans on the day of resurrection, consummation, judgment, etc. It is this imagery I find fascinating, where stars are so similar to angels, demons and spirit beings, messengers capable of helping, or, in the case of demons, hurting. Mark 12:25 hints to us what Jesus may have thought, when he looked up at the stars in the night sky. Yes?

      • John: The likening of the resurrection body to stars has its origin early, e.g., Daniel 12:1-3.
        It’s an image, John. I doubt that lst-century Jews looked at the stars and saw anything but stars.

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