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“Law” Statistics

Here are some raw figures to contemplate about the usage of “law” (Greek: nomos) in the NT (relying on Bibleworks):

  • Total NT occurrences: 199x (including references to “the Law and the Prophets”
  • Of these, total occurrences in the entire Pauline Corpus:  95x
  • Of these, 82x occur in Romans (56x) and Galatians (26x).  In 1 Corinthians 6x, Philippians 3x, 1 Timothy 3x, Ephesians 1x.
  • The other significant numbers are Acts 18x, John 13x, and Hebrews 13x, 10x in Luke
  • Cf. 8x in Matthew (wouldn’t you expect more?)

Clearly, the sizeable numbers of usages are in writings that address questions about Jesus-faith and the OT and/or concerns about Torah-observance and its role now in the new setting occasioned by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

To focus on Paul, the term appears with frequency only in two writings:  Romans and Galatians, and only 9 other times scattered across 1 Corinthians and Philippians among the uncontested letters of Paul.  No uses at all in 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon, or in 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, 2 Timothy, Titus.

I get the impression that Paul engaged “the Law” when required to do so in the course of his mission to bring former pagans to faith in Jesus and commitment to the God of the Bible.  So, e.g., the densest usage in Galatians was obviously provoked by those who seem to have been promoting Torah-conversion among Galatian churches to complete their conversion to God.  And the largest single number of uses in Romans, likewise seems to have been prompted by Paul’s need to set out his mission and teaching with the aim of securing the acceptance of Roman churches, and to correct any misrepresentations of him there, especially by Jewish believers who opposed or suspected the terms of his gentile mission.

A “Law-Free” Apostle Paul?

For a brisk and characteristically incisive discussion, read Paula Fredriksen’s article that challenges the notion that the Apostle Paul forsook Torah-observance and discouraged others from The Torah as well:  “Why Should a ‘Law-Free’ Mission Mean a ‘Law-Free’ Apostle?” Journal of Biblical Literature 134 (2015): 637-50.  The article draws on and anticipates arguments in her forthcoming book, Paul, the Pagans’ Apostle (Yale University Press).

Fredriksen grants that Paul firmly believed that he was called to summon pagans to abandon their idolatry and to trust in Christ as the basis for their new relationship to the God of Israel and the multi-nation family of Abraham.  So, Paul vigorously opposed efforts to require his gentile converts to take on the sort of Torah-observance that would represent a proselyte conversion to Judaism.

Paul insisted that his former pagans who turned to God and Christ must remain gentiles, believing that this represented the fulfilment of biblical prophecies that the nations would come to the God of Israel . . . not as proselytes, but as the “nations,” “gentiles.”  So, to require a Torah-conversion of them would be to work against what Paul believed was the fulfilment of God’s eschatological will.  Moreover, to impose Torah-conversion on these pagans would effectively treat their trust in Christ (and so Christ himself) as an insufficient basis for a full relationship with God.  It would relativize Jesus, making their baptism simply a nice first step that required completion in a Torah-conversion.

But Fredriksen also rightly contends that Paul’s conviction about the basis on which his pagan converts should come to God is one thing, and how Paul saw his own relationship to Torah quite another.  Granted, when among his gentile converts, Paul no doubt had to take liberties in such matters as food, etc., as he seems to describe briefly (and rhetorically) in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.  But the exigencies of his gentile mission don’t mean that he renounced Torah altogether, or that he threw off any responsibility to maintain his Jewish identity.

Subsequent Christian theologians (from the second century onward) have presumed otherwise, making Torah-observance serve as some kind of alternative (and inferior) form of religiousness to pit over against trust in Christ.  Indeed, even Jewish believers in Christ were condemned if they continued to observe Torah as incompatible with their commitment to Christ.  But, as Fredriksen cogently argues, this was all a misguided and fallacious adaptation of Paul’s arguments against gentile Torah-conversion.

Indeed, as Fredriksen contends, in requiring his pagan converts to abandon their ancestral gods (“idolatry”), Paul was enforcing the central requirement of Torah:  to serve the one God alone!

Podcast on “Destroyer of the gods”

The podcast interview with Matthew Bates in the “OnScript” series has now appeared here.

Bates gave me questions about how I spend my time, how I came to formulate the questions that I address in my book, Destroyer of the gods, and about the major distinctive features of early Christianity that I discuss, and how these have now become cultural commonplaces for us.

Marcus Aurelius and Christians

The question of how to take Emperor Marcus and the treatment of Christians under his rule is fascinating:  the Roman Emperor widely regarded subsequently as unexcelled in his urbane learning and sophistication ruled in a time when it appears that Christians were often the object of persecution by officers of the Roman Empire.

This is why I find Marcus Aurelius so interesting.  One of the books I’ve recently waded through is a massive biography of Marcus by Frank McLynn.  I won’t offer a review here, but compare the reviews by Mary Beard here, and by Tom Holland here.  For me, Marcus illustrates well how early Christianity stood out and so was the object of hostility in that period.  This is one of the points I emphasize in my new book:  Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016).

There are statements by Marcus that reflect his disdain for Christians that I cite in my book.  But, as argued by Paul Keresztes some years ago (“Was Marcus Aurelius a Persecutor?” Harvard Theological Review 61/3 (1968): 321-41), the reasons for the sometimes violent actions against Christians likely also had a good deal to do with the historical situation.  In the latter half of the 2nd century the Roman world suffered under a couple of rounds of plague, with many deaths.  Such events were naturally seen as stemming from the anger of the Roman gods, and so Marcus urged the population to renew their supplications to the gods to avert their wrath.

But conscientious Christians of the time would have found his decree incompatible with their faith-commitment.  For them, the Roman gods were unworthy beings at best, or demonic at worst.  In any case, Christians couldn’t readily join in sacrifices to these beings.  In the eyes of the wider populace, however, this amounted to “atheism.”  Refusing to honor the gods was what “atheism” meant then.

In the view of the officials charged with maintaining social and political solidarity, and securing the favour of the gods, Christians were offenders against all things pious and orderly.  The official Roman view wasn’t a “persecution” of Christians, but instead judicial action against people who offended society and whose “atheism” could also imperil the Empire, through bringing the wrath of the gods.

But, however, you slice it, in the reign of this oft-regarded noble Emperor (not simply in times of more dubious characters such as Nero), Christians were objects of official ire as well as popular hostility.  This is only one illustration of early Christian distinctiveness.

Early Manuscripts Electronic Library

I’ve just learned of a venture new to me:  The Early Manuscripts Electronic Library.  Their web site here.  They seem to have impressive links and their focus is on high-tech means of imaging ancient manuscripts, including techniques for recovering the underlying text in palimpsest manuscripts (which have a later text copied on parchment containing an earlier text that has been erased).

This is another encouraging venture that will help all of us concerned with the study of ancient texts.

Free Copy of “Destroyer of the gods”

Our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins is offering a free signed copy of my new book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.  For information on how to enter the draw for the book, click here.

Tom Holland and Hurtado on Early Christianity

My discussion with historian Tom Holland about early Christianity aired on a London-based radio station, and can be accessed as a pod-cast here.  Holland discusses his recent article in the New Statesman in which he describes his own realization that his moral views owe a great deal of Christianity, that article here.  I discuss my new book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016), the publisher’s online catalogue entry here.

I found Holland’s interest in my book encouraging, as he comes at it from his own established books on the ancient world.  And I wrote the book for a wide and diverse readership of whatever personal stance on Christianity.  Whoever we are, we experience the culture-shaping effects of that rambunctious and radically distinctive movement that became Christianity.

Reiterating the Basics on Jesus-Devotion

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.”



Catalyst Article

The online magazine, Catalyst, has just published my article, “The Distinctiveness of Early Christianity,” which draws from my new book:  Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016).  The article is accessible here.

Why and How did Jesus-Devotion Erupt?

I recently discovered an interesting conversation with Chris Tilling about early christology on a pod-cast site, “OnScript,” here. Tilling is now a frequently-cited “second generation” contributor to the analysis of early devotion to Jesus, and in the conversation exhibits a thoughtful engagement with important issues.  His book (which arose from his PhD thesis on which I was the external examiner) focuses on Paul’s reference to a relationship with the exalted/risen Jesus in terms that, Tilling argues, best resemble the kind of statements that portray the relationship of people with YHWH.  The consequence is that this is another indication that for Paul the exalted Jesus occupies a status like that of YHWH.  That is, we have another expression of a “divine christology” in Paul.

I found it interesting that when Tilling was asked where scholarly inquiry should proceed now, he urged that we need to ask why and how early Jesus came to be regarded and reverenced as sharing in a status like that of God. In the final chapter of my 1988 book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (3rd ed., Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), I offered a preliminary proposal of the “Causes of the Christian Mutation” in ancient Jewish devotional practice and beliefs.  Then, in my later book, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003), I devoted a whole chapter to the “Forces and Factors” that generated and shaped early Jesus-devotion (pp. 27-78).

In the pod-cast Tilling refers to my proposal, but only a part of it, and thereby in my view, unfortunately, distorts it. It’s important, however, to understand and reflect as adequately as we can the views of other scholars before we criticize them.  So, in the interests of further and more accurate scholarly discussion, I clarify and correct a couple of things in Tilling’s comments.

First, my proposal involves assigned roles for four major forces/factors.  Each of the four factors has a specific role, and the interaction of the four factors is also important.  So I hope that those who assess my proposal will take account of it adequately.

What seems to generate a critical response from Tilling and some others is my positing “religious experience” as a crucial factor.  “Religious experience” is my effort to designate in historical and non-confessional terms the references in early Christian texts to phenomena described as revelatory acts of God.  In Lord Jesus Christ, I sketch what these experiences likely involved, trying to be as specific as the evidence allows (pp. 70-74).  So, again, I plead for engagement with the specifics of my proposal.

Tilling claims that my positing “post-Easter” religious experiences neglects the contribution of the historical ministry of Jesus. My first response is that this seems a bit unfair, as, in fact, another of the four forces/factors in my proposal is the historical impact of Jesus’ ministry (Lord Jesus Christ, 53-64).  Indeed, I contend that the impact of Jesus’ ministry accounts crucially for his centrality in the beliefs and devotion of the subsequent Jesus-movement.  During his ministry, I argue, Jesus had already become the “issue,” his validity as unique agent of God’s purposes already the central question, both for his followers and his opponents.  So, the experience of the risen/exalted Jesus confirmed for his followers his validity, and, indeed, escalated him to a radically higher status in their beliefs.

But Tilling (and some others, such as Crispin Fletcher-Louis) seem to me to be anxious about ascribing much in the way of new convictions about Jesus’ status to these “post-Easter” revelatory experiences.  Perhaps their concern is that this would involve early believers making claims about Jesus that he hadn’t made or even held about himself.  In earlier posting here, however, I have argued that this concern betrays (typically unconsciously) a dubious notion that emerged with particular force in 18th-century Deist thought that the validity of claims about Jesus rests upon whether Jesus himself made them about himself.

In any case, by contrast, it seems to me that NT texts freely attribute to God the exalted place of Jesus in early Christian beliefs and practice.  For example, these texts posit that God has raised Jesus from death and exalted him to share in divine glory (e.g., Philippians 2:9-11; Acts 2:36), conferring on Jesus a status that he did not previously hold.  That is, the fundamental basis of the christological convictions expressed in these NT texts is a theo-logical claim:  God has exalted Jesus and now requires him to be reverenced.  Whether Jesus did or didn’t imagine such a future status for himself, whether he did or didn’t teach his disciples about this, is, in this sense, irrelevant.  What matters in various NT texts is what God has done and now declared about Jesus.

And how did these convictions about what God has done and declared about Jesus emerge?  Through religious experiences that recipients took to be revelations and actions of God, such as experiences of the risen and exalted Jesus.  As well, there appear to have been exciting and new “charismatic” readings of biblical (OT) texts, such as Psalm 110 and Isaiah 45:22-25, and Joel 2:32.

Of course, it is an interesting question as to whether Jesus may have seen himself in OT texts as well during his ministry.  But, whatever we conclude about that, various NT texts seem to me to indicate that it was first in the aftermath of experiences of the risen Jesus that his followers came to convictions that he had been exalted to heavenly glory and was now rightly to be given the programmatic place in beliefs and devotional practice that we see presumed already in Paul’s letters.

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