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“Honoring the Son”: A Recent Review

January 7, 2019

Reviewing books well requires care.  When the topic of a book is central to field of study, and when the position advocated in a book is carefully nuanced, it is important to engage it accurately.  A newly-published review of my latest book left me a bit puzzled and disappointed.  The book:  Honoring the Son:  Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice (Lexham Press, 2018).  The review is by Yung Suk Kim, in Review of Biblical Literature (RBL 01/2019).  Although expressing appreciation for the decades of work reflected in the little book in question, Kim posits disagreement on a few key matters.  It is these matters that I address in this response.

The first thing to emphasize in engaging the book is my contention that in the ancient world cultic practice (“worship”) was the core expression of what we mean by “religion,” and so mapping the contours of earliest Christian devotional practice is a key objective in understanding earliest Christian circles in their historical context.  Kim complains that “a mere lens of the devotional focus on Jesus without careful interpretation of his work as the Son of God seems hollow.”  I suggest in turn that this reflects Kim’s lack of appreciation of the historical centrality of devotional practices in the Roman world.  I also must object to the implication that my argument reflects a lack of consideration of Jesus’ “work.”  In various statements throughout the book, I note that Jesus is reverenced “in, and on account of, his relationship to the one God, for example, as the unique Son of God, Word of God, and image of God,” and I point as an example to the scene in Revelation 5 where “‘the Lamb’” (the exalted Jesus) is worshipped as the one who was slain and ‘purchased for God’ people from every nation,” while Jesus is also “hymned along with God ‘who sits on the throne’” (13).

I characterize early Christian devotional practice as “dyadic,” two figures (God and Jesus) distinguished from each other and yet also uniquely linked, Jesus functioning as God’s “chief agent” and plenipotentiary.  Kim offers what he seems to think is a correction to my view.  Kim states that “a more natural understanding might be that Jesus was exalted as the Son of God but not as God or the same with God or with the same worthiness as God.”  I’m not sure what makes this more “natural,” but in any case what he seems to imagine as my view is that Jesus was treated as the replacement for God or as a second deity in his own right.  But over some thirty years or more I have consistently indicated that Jesus was reverenced with reference to his relationship with God, not as a second deity or at God’s expense.  The “dyad” in earliest Christian devotional practice was a shaped dyad, Jesus consistently portrayed in relationship to God.  As I note in the book, earliest believers reverenced Jesus because they believed that God had exalted him to a unique status as divine plenipotentiary and now required them to reverence Jesus accordingly.  In short, they believed that faithfulness to the one God precisely required that their worship practice incorporate Jesus as well!

Moreover, contra Kim’s claim, the key status and title by which earliest believers referred to the exalted Jesus in the cultic setting wasn’t as “the adopted Son of God,” but “Lord” (Greek:  Kyrios; Aramaic:  Mar).  Take Philippians 2:6-11, for example, which states that God “highly exalted” Jesus (vv. 9-11) and gave him “the name above every name,” with the aim that Jesus should be given a universal obeisance expressed in the acclamation “Lord Jesus Christ” (Greek: kyrios Iēsous Christos). By contrast, to judge by Paul’s usage, references to Jesus’ divine sonship were mainly sentences expressing Jesus’ intimate relationship with God, and God’s approval and investment in Jesus’ redemptive work.  But in worship, Jesus was thought of and addressed as “Lord.”  And, by the way, it’s actually difficult to find much reference in the New Testament to Jesus being “adopted” as divine Son.

In his closing thoughts, Kim also accuses me of assuming “the existence of a single group of earliest Christians,” and Kim posits, instead, “various understandings of Jesus, his resurrection, and Christology” in the first century.  Well, maybe.  But Kim gives no basis for the latter claim, and no specifics of what he posits.  In any case, his accusation is far wide of the mark.  In fact, I note precisely that there were various circles of earliest believers, and that they differed in some matters, such as the bitter disputes over the terms on which to treat gentile converts as full members of the redeemed, whether male gentiles had to undergo circumcision.  I don’t claim “a single group of earliest Christians.”  Indeed, we know that there were differences precisely because Paul refers to them quite explicitly.  And that makes it all the more interesting that these differences didn’t apparently include the sort of devotional practices and christological affirmations reflected (indeed, take for granted) in Paul’s letters.  That is, across the various groups and circles, with their other differences, the “dyadic” devotional pattern seems to have been shared, at least to judge by the extant evidence.  I should also indicate that, in any case, the validity of my historical case, that the cultic reverence of Jesus erupted early and quickly became widely shared in earliest Christian circles, would not be refuted were we to discover that in some circles the “dyadic” pattern wasn’t followed.

So, with thanks to Kim for the positive features of his review (which include a brief chapter-by-chapter description of contents), I must also express some disappointment at the apparent failure to grasp carefully the position taken in the book and the bases for it.

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12 Comments
  1. Michael permalink

    “As I note in the book, earliest believers reverenced Jesus because they believed that God had exalted him to a unique status as divine plenipotentiary and now required them to reverence Jesus accordingly.” … Dr. Hurtado, worshipping Jesus alongside God Almighty is not idolatry because God Almighty exceptionally decreed it so?

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Professor Hurtado, I was hoping you would address Kim’s point about lareuo, a point that James Dunn also made in his book on early Christian worship of Jesus, and that I have never seen you engage.

    • Donald: I’ve addressed the basic question a number of times. To state matters briefly, of course Paul thought of his whole life as a cultic service (Greek: latreuo) to God. Even giving reverence to Jesus was part of this cultic service to God, not some separate cultus to a second deity. Conceptually, that is, all early Christian devotion was a response to God and obedience to God.
      But the actual phenomena of worship clearly involved Jesus as well. and for a “dyadic” pattern. For my part, it’s annoying and frustrating that scholars to take issue with me rather consistently fail to address these phenomena.

  3. Dr. Hurtado, given that you mention adoptionism here, will you dedicate a post to the question of your views on adoptionism in the NT in specific? I’ve seen you discuss it in as a peripheral topic in some of your other posts here, though I was wondering if you’d devote a post to this question in specific.

    I’m currently reading your book Lord Jesus Christ, and you deal with adoptionism of an extra-biblical text on pg. 604, though I’m not aware of any published work you may have on NT adoptionism. I’d be interested in being pointed to any if you’ve written about this.

  4. john permalink

    The Enochic parallel to the Philippians hymn is fascinating in my view, whether it predates Paul, or was Paul’s creation, it is still fascinating:

    “And they had great joy, and they blessed and glorified and exalted, because the name of ‘the son of a man’ had been revealed to them” (1 Enoch 69:26).

    This correct translation “the son of a man’ is both non titular, yet very suggestive in naming “the name above every name”. Like you often say though, the evidence we have suggests “kyrios” was first, at least for Paul.

    • John: There is no reference to “the name above every name” given to the messianic figure of 1 Enoch. You’re once again forcing a false parallel where there isn’t one. The scene simply depicts the joy at the manifestation of the messianic figure, the identity of the figure disclosed at some future point. Remember–the scene and the others in the Parables in 1 Enoch are dream-visions of some future time and events, not really reports of historical events or of cultic practice. Contrast this with the NT evidence, which reports and reflects actual groups of believers and their practices.

  5. Simon permalink

    I look forward to the day when someone will offer a fair and appreciative review of your work. It seems from your blog that almost every other scholar is intent on giving you a hard time!

  6. L. Gabriel Narváez permalink

    Thank you for the clarification, Dr. Hurtado. It looks like there is still confusion about the nature of the Son and his relationship with the Father.

    • Gabriel: Where do you see the confusion? In the reviewer? In my book? IN the NT?

      • L. Gabriel Narváez permalink

        Reading your explanation allowed me to see that the reviewer is confused about the nature of the relationship between Jesus and God. On the other hand, I think there is a present confusion on how their relationship is understood today. From my perspective, I agree with your views on this topic.

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