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Jesus-Devotion and Historical Questions

August 26, 2019

A reader of my previous posting raised several questions and made several assertions (some of them unfounded) that lead me to offer a few comments about the historical issues pertaining to the origins of Jesus-devotion and correct historical method in addressing them.

The first thing is to grasp clearly the questions that I address.  When, where, and in what form did devotion to Jesus emerge, and what forces and factors might have prompted and shaped it?  In particular, we’re exploring the emergence of what Wilhelm Bousset referred to as “the Kyrios cult”, i.e., the treatment of Jesus as in some way sharing in divine glory and reverence.  These are the questions, not whether there may have been some isolated group that didn’t revere Jesus in this manner.

Second, in doing historical work an important principle is chronology.  As to the questions before us, the earliest assured evidence is found in the seven letters of the Apostle Paul that are almost universally regarded as genuinely written by him (1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, Philemon).  These are commonly dated ca. 50-60 AD, which means we have reflections of early Christian beliefs and practices from within approximately 18-20 yrs after Jesus’ execution.

But it gets better.  These letters scarcely devote much space to teaching christological beliefs and devotional practices; instead they presuppose them.  Which means that these beliefs and practices emerged and had become traditional well before these letters.  Moreover, Paul’s efforts are evident to align his mission and churches with the Jerusalem church and Aramaic-speaking circles of Jesus-believers.  As, e.g., in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Paul expressly says that the Jerusalem figures and he taught basically the same message.  Paul’s collection for Jerusalem also shows how he strove to link his diaspora/gentile churches with Jesus-believers in the Jewish homeland.

There were conflicts, to be sure, especially with those whom Paul referred to as “the circumcision lot”, sometimes referred to today as “Judaizers”.  But if you examine references to these conflicts you’ll quickly see that the issue wasn’t christological beliefs, but, instead, the terms on which gentiles could be accepted as full co-religionists.  Those who opposed Paul insisted that they had to make a full proselyte conversion to the Jewish people, which for males involved circumcision, for, after all, Messiah came to redeem Israel.  Paul, however, held that OT prophecies of gentile peoples coming to the God of Israel were being fulfilled in his mission.  It was essential that they come as gentiles, not as proselytes.  That was the issue, not what to make of Jesus.

Further, Paul’s violent (in his own words) opposition to the young Jesus-movement (which has to be dated within the first few years or even months after Jesus’ execution) means that something serious prompted his actions.  Likely something that he felt endangered the religious integrity of his people.  He portrays the experience that changed him from persecutor to promoter of the Jesus-movement as a “revelation of his[God’s] son” (Gal. 1:15-16).  That is, the content of the experience was a radically revised view of Jesus, and as Paul thereafter joined the Jesus-movement the most likely conclusion is that he came to accept a view of Jesus that he had previously opposed and found unacceptable.  It wasn’t Paul who invented a glorified Jesus; it was his predecessors among the Jewish believers whom he had previously regarded as promoting a dangerous set of beliefs.

Were there other circles of Jesus-followers who didn’t share these beliefs?  If so, we have no evidence of them.  And Paul wasn’t reluctant to indicate or engage issues of difference with others!  So, it’s conspicuous that there is no mention of differences over christological issues.  Without evidence of major christological differences, or of circles that didn’t regard Jesus as glorified and sharing in divine honor, to posit such circles is an exercise in fantasy.  Not good historical practice.  To be sure, there are later references to “Ebionites” who may or may not be actual groups by that name.  But these groups can’t be placed early or function as rival versions of earliest believers, nor is it clear that they denied the glorified status of Jesus.[1]

Oh yes, the Gospels, especially the Synoptics, present us with a Jesus of Nazareth who doesn’t make divine claims and who is treated by people variously as prophet, Messiah, charlatan, or false teacher.  That’s what biographical accounts are supposed to do–give an account of the actual activities of the subject.  And the Gospels can’t be taken as full-blown accounts of the christological beliefs of their authors.  They aren’t that kind of theological treatises.

Moreover, the Gospels are commonly dated ca. 70-100 AD, or somewhere between forty and seventy years after Jesus’ crucifixion, which means forty to sixty years into the Jesus-movement.  Careful analysis shows that the authors presuppose a developed Jesus-devotion, and aim to present the historical roots in the figure of Jesus.  But, as with all the early evidence, the authors regard God’s actions in raising Jesus from death and installing him as Lord and regnant Son as the point at which Jesus receives divine honors and is then to be reverenced accordingly.  So, for example, it is the risen/glorified Jesus in Matthew 28:16-20 who is worshipped (v. 17) and who claims to have been given “all authority in heaven and on earth” (v. 18).

As for the Gospel of John, it doesn’t really offer a much higher christological stance, but, instead, in comparison with the other Gospels presents an account of Jesus more explicitly colored retrospectively by the beliefs of the “post-Easter” believers.  The author accounts for this in the so-called “Paraclete discourse” in chapters 14-16.  (See my essay, “Remembrance and Revelation” here.)

In sum, the evidence indicates that the conviction that God had glorified Jesus and given him divine honor and status erupted first among Jewish believers in Judea.  Contra Bousset, it was not in diaspora settings, but in these Judean churches.  For discussion of the forces and factors that shaped this Jesus-devotion, see my book Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, pp. 27-78.

[1] See, e.g., the judicious analysis by Oskar Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Jewish Believers in Jesus:  The Early Centuries, ed. Oskar Skarsaue and Reidar Hvalvik (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 2007), 419-62.

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  1. John Mitrosky permalink

    I thought Bousset argued that Judean and Galilean (or Palestinian) churches worshiped Jesus as a PE-like “the Son of man”, implying that the gospels preserve a more primitive type of worship and that Paul made the leap to calling him “Lord Jesus”, because this was more understandable to folks in diaspora churches, without any PE-like background knowledge, but the titles “the Son of man” and “Lord” mean essentially the same thing in Bousett’s view?

    • John: Bousset posited that the Jerusalem/Judean believers held Jesus as designated to be the future “Son of Man” figure, assuming the then-common assumption that there was such an expectation and title in second-temple Jewish tradition (now shown to be a fallacy). He saw the “Kyrios cult” as something else, a belief first developed in diaspora settings under the influence of pagan cults, that Jesus was already now exalted as their cult lord, also shown now to be a fallacy.

      • John Mitrosky permalink

        So Bousset did not speculate upon conversations based on Galatians, between Paul and James/Peter/John at all, as far as we know? I am speculating that if Paul chose the title “Lord” for Jesus, Peter/James/John would have approved, After all, trying to explain Jesus as a Daniel-PE-like “Son” to Gentiles would not be intelligible to Diaspora Jews, let alone Gentiles, who would find the basic Semitic construction of a phrase like “the Son of man” rather odd, and all further steps to its understanding still more difficult. Plus, if they all shared a belief in his resurrection and glorification, the idea of a suffering Son of man would now be passe’, as the resurrection had taken place and Jesus had crossed the threshold of glory. If they discussed it under such beliefs about Jesus, Son of God and Lord Jesus Christ would have replaced how they, according to the Gospels, new him by the name “the Son of man.” In other words, they might have agreed that Jesus ceased to be the Son of man, because of his resurrection. This scenario for Paul’s conversations with Peter especially, at least seems plausible to me.

      • But John, your comment resupposes that (a) “the son of man” was ever a title applied to Jesus by believers (it’s never done), and (b) that the Gospels somehow (written decades later) reflect a christology earlier than what we have attested in Paul’s letters. Please learn to do proper historical method, and stop presuming what has been shown to be fallacies. Not good historical method. End of discussion

  2. Edgar permalink

    Prof. Hurtado, I’m wondering what other blogs you recommend that are similar to yours. What blogs do you read that deal with the same subject matter?

  3. Note how much time and space is allocated in the New Testament to explaining that there is one YHWH who is yet more than one, and how Jesus can be YHWH but also be beside YHWH, and how all this can be possible… None.

    Second Temple period Jewish belief was already open to the idea of a ‘Second YHWH’ particularly due to ‘The Angel of YHWH’ passages and the Daniel 7 vision (ref: the research of Alan F. Segal, Daniel Boyarin, Michael Heiser). They even posited various identities for him – Enoch, Michael, Melchizedek, Moses. What the Jewish leaders couldn’t accept was that THIS GUY, Jesus of Nazareth, could be that ‘Second YHWH’.

    This simply wasn’t an issue for Second Temple Jews familiar with their own scriptures, and wouldn’t ‘unJewish’ until Judaism needed to differentiate itself from Christianity and the ‘Two Powers in Heaven’ belief was declared heretical… 200 years AFTER Jesus walked the earth!

    Judaism became more stringently Unitarian from then on, especially with the influence of Maimonides (recall his modified Deuteronomy 6:4 – Shema Israel, Adonai Elohim, Adonai YACHID) who was physician to Saladin and surely familiar with the Tawhid reasonings of Islamic theologians.

    • Scottcast: You haven’t quite got it right. The references to a second (or little) YHWH continue well into the rabbinic period. Consider, e.g., 3 Enoch too. Second I will shamelessly point you to my own study (earlier than Boyarin, Heiser, et al.): One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Fortress/SCM, 1988; 2nd ed. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998; 3rd ed., London: T&T Clark, 2015), in which I surveyed all the evidence and figures such as you mention. The crucial difference is that none of them received the kind of devotion or worship actions that are readily attested as given to the risen Jesus. Worship was the red-line issue, not speculation about this or that figure. Your characterization of Jewish history is also rather over simplified, but that’s not the issue here.

      • Robbert permalink

        Question. Is the red-line issue (the move from only speculating about secondary Jewish divine figures to a high Christology devotion) not explained by the actual manifestation of this eschatological idea into a living person that can be worshipped? I imagine that when an abstract idea manifests in a particular person, who not only made divine claims but proved them by rising from the dead is enough to catapult worship. Doesn’t this explain why the risen Jesus received worship and not the other secondary divine figures?

      • Robbert: I don’t think your proposal works. The concern to confine worship to the one God extended to prohibitions about angels, patriarches, etc. So, merely having a historical figure wouldn’t have broken that scruple. I think that it was only the conviction that God now required the risen Jesus to be included in their cultic devotional practice.

  4. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Great to see you posting Professor Hurtado.

    When you mention “the Kyrios cult” I wonder what in your view was the background or the main reason for Jesus being called “Lord” in early Christianity, At one time it was a popular idea that the title derived from the LXX use of Kyrios for YHWH. You pointed out in a recent post that Kyrios was not used in the LXX until the second century. So what was the meaning of calling Jesus Kyrios in earliest Christianity in your view?

    • Although Kyrios wasn’t apparently written in early Greek copies of OT writings it was the word pronounced when reading the text. In light of texts such as Philippians 2:9-11, acclaiming Jesus as Kyrios seems to have meant the confession that he shared or in some way was the manifestation of the divine name. It also connoted a relationship to believers as their Lord. The title is used particularly in liturgical texts and texts giving behavioral instruction.

  5. Joseph H. Meyer permalink

    Thank you for the thought provoking post! 🙂

  6. Thank you for this helpful and forceful summary of key points.

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