About 112 CE (or AD if one prefers), Pliny the Younger wrote a fascinating letter to emporer Trajan. In it Pliny tells Trajan that during Christian gatherings, Christians "chant antiphonally a hymn to Christ as to a god." But when did early Christianity first recognize Jesus as divine? The compendium of opinion (following Wilhelm Bousset's 1913 _Kyrios Christos_) has contended that Christianity began as a small group of messianic Jews in Roman Judea and the worship of Jesus began when Christianity emerged in Hellenistic circles. The divination of Jesus emerged in the larger pagan religious environment. Hurtado believes that the evidence demands a better explanation.
Hurtado writes that worship of Jesus was an explosively quick phenomenon. In our earliest Christian writings such as 1 Cor 1.2 (mid 1st century), cultic devotion to Jesus is presupposed. It is reflected in the way Christians understood Psalm 110 where Christians saw Jesus in the opening words "And the Lord said to my lord, 'Sit at my right hand...' "
Hurtado explores Phil 2.9-11 in detail and concludes that Jesus is the rightful recipient of the reverence portrayed in Is 45.23. Jesus Christ is Lord; it is the name above all other names, the divine name itself, God.
There are two main factors that point to the early date and the Jewish setting of the early reverence of Jesus. The writings of the Apostle Paul are the earliest in the New Testament and contain a wide range of honorifics about Jesus. Jesus is "christos" or messiah, "Lord," "God's Son," etc. But of even greater significance is the fact Paul's conversion experience occurred just a handful of years after Jesus' death. Hurtado mulls over the idea that what Paul as Saul found to be so objectionable about this very early Christianity was its reverence for Jesus as God. Regardless, a revelation occurs to Paul that presupposes a reverence for Jesus already extant... again within a handful of years after the death of Jesus. It is also important to remember that this very early Christianity was Jewish. It began in Roman Judea among people who were mainly Galilean. The demographics of the earliest years preclude the influence of a pagan religious environment.
There is no contemporary analogy for the explosiveness of the theology that developed about Jesus. The Greco-Roman world has other heroes who received adoration such as Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus. Some amount occurs in Judaism, but not of the same quality. Jesus was not the angel Raphael in disguise as in the Book of Tobit. However, quantitatively there is not the vast amount of theology as develops about Jesus in such a short period of time.
Larry Hurtado has done it again. His previous work, "Lord Jesus Christ" is one of the best, the most thorough, not to mention the most readable, explorations of earliest Christianity on the market. Don't miss it.
With "How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God" Hurtado ponders the question: when did the primitive Christian community come to believe Jesus was God?
Some modern scholars have suggested that the idea evolved. Bousset, for example, believed that in the primitive Palestinian community "Jesus was simply revered as the divinely appointed 'Son of Man'" (P 12) rather than as God himself.
Hurtado proves this wrong. "The devotion to Jesus was without true analogy" (P 23) as were the early devotional practices, and all of them suggest that from the very first Jesus was regarded as divine.
Paul's letters, which are the first written records we have, presuppose a divine Christ. This is so even in the first letter believed to be written, 1 Thessalonians. Furthermore, in the epistles Paul refers to devotional practices which were given to believers before Paul visited them, thus pushing the chronology back very close to the death of Jesus, making any kind of evolution impossible. "Among the devotional practices of earliest Christian circles ...were such things as invoking Jesus' name in healing and exorcism" (135).
Those who doubt that the earliest Christians believed Jesus was a God have no explanation for the persecutions that the Christians experienced. Why did Paul harry the believers? Why was Stephen killed? And "Paul's reference to...'forty lashes minus one' obviously indicates the punishment..was .most likely carried out by local synagogue authorities" (72). Another scholar, Hare, "concluded that Jewish opposition in this time was likely provoked by the kinds of reverence directed to Jesus by Jewish Christians, which must have struck many other Jews as idolatrous" (69).
Anyone who reads this book might also enjoy Hurtado's prior work, "Lord Jesus Christ", as well as Martin Hengel's "The Pre-Christian Paul".
on March 9, 2012
This book is mis-titled. The title should be "When on Earth Did Jesus Become a God" because this is the question Hurtado answers. He actually says very little about "how," other than telling us that it was due to "powerful revelatory experiences." Despite the misnomer, however, I still give the book five stars because answering "when" as effectively as he does is a big, big deal.
The core of the book is Part I, consisting of four chapters. This material was first delivered as a series of lectures to Israelis at Ben-Gurion University. Two appendices by sponsors of the lectures give the context for the series (better communication between Jews and Christians about areas of common historical interest). Part II is comprised of four stand-alone essays, originally published in various journals, brought together here because they each reinforce an aspect of the lectures' topic.
Hurtado takes an historical approach to the subject rather than a theological one. Thus he pays close attention to the practices disclosed in the New Testament and other documents of Second Temple Judaism. He is cautious in drawing conclusions and seldom, if ever, pursues red herrings. His goal is to demonstrate that veneration of Jesus to a godlike status came almost immediately in the wake of Jesus' resurrection. It could not have arisen decades later as a result of syncretic influences from Gentiles. Here, he has arrived at a conclusion and he presses it with indefatigable zeal. Scholars may quibble with the edges of his argument, but its core is unassailable: it was Jewish believers who first gave Jesus godlike devotion, not Romans, Greeks, or anyone else.
The chassis on which Hurtado builds his argument are the seven letters of Paul whose authorship is practically unquestioned by modern scholarship (liberal and conservative). Those epistles are Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. There is also broad scholarly consensus that these letters were written between 50 and 60 C.E. When read, these letters make reference to practices and perspectives which were commonly accepted among believers in Christ from Jerusalem to Rome at the time of the writing. Just a little investigation takes these practices and perspectives back to within weeks or months of the crucifixion of Christ. As I said above, Hurtado does not deal with these passages as a theologian would. Rather, he examines them as a historian. His circumspect writing style gives sufficient regard for opposing views. But in the end, Hurtado has the compelling evidence on his side. You cannot read those letters of Paul without acknowledging that he had to expend no energy whatsoever in convincing his recipients that Jesus was the most exalted being in heaven and on earth other than God Himself. Nor did he have to convince them to call upon Jesus, practically speaking, as if He was God. It was, as Hurtado would say, an "astonishing and unprecedented innovation" in Judaistic practice. And this exalted view of the resurrected Messiah was obviously well in place by the mid-1st Century, spearheaded entirely by Jews.
While I would not charge this book with any weaknesses, there are questions that this book, having made its case, has raised. I hope Hurtado and other scholars will address these questions, using Hurtado's work here as a foundation. Among these are:
How? That is, how did believers come to venerate Jesus so highly? What precisely was communicated in those "powerful revelatory experiences" that caused them to link Jesus' name with God's in an unprecedented (at least in degree) way? This would include delineation of the degree and quantity of difference applied when Jewish believers in Jesus went beyond the "principal agent" analogies. It would also include scriptural warrant, because we almost always see scripture employed to validate a revelatory experience to the receptee when we read the New Testament. Revelation would be "according to the scriptures."
What? What exactly was the level of veneration given to Jesus? Hurtado uses words like exalt, venerate, reverence, devotion, and worship in practically synonymous ways. There are shades of difference in at least some of these words and, along with knowing how believers came to regard the resurrected Jesus in such an esteemed way, it would be good to know exactly how esteemed - and did that level of estimation change at all before the close of the century? (That is, deal with the later canonical texts such as John as well as the early texts such as Paul - with regard to this point.)
In summary, Hurtado's book looks beyond the millennia that separate us from nascent Christianity and takes us directly into the 1st century, demonstrating to us in lucid ways when Jesus went from being a great prophet of Israel to being much more than its prophet. It was sooner, not later.
on September 9, 2012
Larry W. Hurtado's "How on Earth did Jesus become a God?" is a summary of two more extensive works by the same author, "Lord Jesus Christ" and "One God, One Lord". Some of the chapters are edited articles from scholarly journals. The book is probably intended for students of theology, New Testament studies and comparative religion. It's on the same level of difficulty as, say, Bart Ehrman's "Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium". In other words, easy for nerds who avidly argue the pros and cons of Ehrman, Loftus, Carrier and the Jesus Seminar on the web, but perhaps a bit too difficult for the general reader!
Hurtado is a Christian, and his book does have a Christian agenda. Still, the book is very interesting in its own right. The author attempts to prove all his points by using the usual historical-critical method. "How on Earth did Jesus become a God?" reminds me of Martin Hengel's works. Indeed, Hurtado mentions Hengel at several points in his argument.
The author believes that Jesus was worshipped virtually as a god already a few years after his execution. The apotheosis of the historical Jesus of Nazareth wasn't a drawn-out, evolutionary process. Rather, it was a dramatic innovation, a kind of cultural or religious "mutation". It must have happened almost immediately after the crucifixion and the (supposed) resurrection. The earliest Christian writings, the letters of Paul, consider Jesus to be in some sense divine. Thus, the idea that Jesus was elevated to divine status only by the late Gospel of John (or even later in some versions), cannot be sustained. Paul was converted to Christianity only a few years after the execution of Jesus. Hurtado also rejects the alternative claim that it was Paul himself who invented the divinity of Jesus. Before his Damascus road experience, Paul had been a persecutor of the Jewish Christians. But why would a Pharisee like Paul persecute the followers of Jesus? At this point in time, Judaism was extremely heterogeneous, and while various strands of Judaism were often in conflict, they are not known to have persecuted each other violently (besides, the Romans probably wouldn't have allowed it). There must have been something very special and unique about the earliest Jewish Christians, which made the other strands of Judaism react in an unprecedented fashion against them. Hurtado believes that this unique feature was precisely the worship of Jesus as a divine or near-divine figure.
Since Hurtado rejects a slow, evolutionary growth of the Jesus-is-divine notion, he also opposes the concomitant view that the exaltation of Jesus was a result of pagan influences on the Gentile Christians who gradually became dominant. Early Christianity's high view of Jesus was a mutation within the Jewish monotheistic tradition, not a foreign import. However, there is another view which has gained some followers lately: perhaps Judaism wasn't really monotheist to begin with? This is the thesis defended by Margaret Barker in her "The Great Angel", but also by some other scholars. Hurtado freely admits that Judaism wasn't monotheist in the "pure" sense demanded by modern scholars (who may perhaps be subconsciously influenced by Protestantism or Rabbinical Judaism - my observation). Angels, righteous prophets or the Messiah were often seen as intermediaries between God and man. Examples include Michael, Yahoel, Enoch, Moses and Elijah. Another example is Wisdom. These intermediaries were often given a surprisingly exalted status, representing some of God's attributes. The angel Yahoel even wears part of God's sacred name. However, Hurtado believes that there was no corporate worship of angels or exalted humans within Judaism. Sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem were to YHWH alone. Thus, while Jesus could conceivably be identified with, say, Enoch or Michael, actual corporate worship of Jesus would have been beyond the pale for all known Jewish groups in existence at the time. Therefore, the emergence of such worship only a few years after Jesus' death, demands a radical, non-evolutionary explanation.
Hurtado believes that the only possible explanation is that the earliest followers of Jesus experienced something they interpreted as divine revelation, and patterned their responses accordingly. Of course, the revelations in question would be the resurrection appearances of Jesus (Hurtado only discusses those mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15) and the Damascus road experience of Paul. Christians would consider these events to be objectively true and valid supernatural events, and this is presumably Hurtado's position, as well. However, the author believes that revelation in general can change a religious tradition beyond recognition, and that such revelations (no matter their veridical status) cannot be reduced to mere responses to social stress or other purely material factors. Unfortunately, Hurtado doesn't discuss comparative religion at length, despite a promise in the first section of the book to do so. He mentions Muhammad, Baha Ullah, Guru Nanak, the Teacher of Righteousness, the Ghost Dance and Japanese new religions as other examples of such stunning religious innovation, but then drops the issue. Does he consider these examples a threat to the theological conviction that Jesus' resurrection was unique? (Curiously, he doesn't mention Joseph Smith on his list of innovative prophets.)
Speaking of theology, Hurtado calls the earliest Christian conception of God "binitarian". On the one hand, God the Father and Jesus were distinct persons. On the other hand, Jesus reflected the glory of God to such a great extent, that he nevertheless became the object of worship traditionally only bestowed upon YHWH in the Jewish monotheistic tradition. While a "binitarian" god is probably more than, say, Ehrman would be prepared to swallow, it still falls short of evangelical Christianity or Catholicism. Besides, a distinct person who reflects the glory of the Father isn't exactly the same thing as a person in the Trinity. Ironically, our author might have gotten into trouble during the time of Theodosius the Great! He also accepts the results of modern scholarship on many other issues, including the pseudonymous authorship of the Gospels, the late date of John, the allegorical character of some Gospel stories and the existence of frequent anachronisms in the same. Thus, the worship bestowed upon Jesus in Matthew proves that the readers of Matthew around AD 80 worshipped Jesus as a god - it doesn't prove that the historical Jesus was worshipped in such a manner. How the Christian reader reacts to this, is presumably dependent on his or her own theological agendas. Of course, Hurtado's subtext is anything but "liberal": his real point is that the early Christians started to worship Jesus as a god because the resurrected Jesus told them that he, in fact, *was* God. This might also explain the above-mentioned reluctance to engage other revelations from a comparative perspective.
Even so, I admit that "How on Earth did Jesus become a God?" does make a powerful case for the innovative, dramatic or "mutational" view of Christian origins. Those critical of this work must prove the following: that there was corporate worship of angels or other intermediary beings in Judaism, similar to the worship of Jesus as somehow divine; or that Jewish groups in Palestine really did persecute "heretics" other than the Jewish Christians. I'm open to suggestions on both points...
Meanwhile, Hurtado's ideas about a "binitarian" mutation do make a certain logical sense. If the binitarian mutation was supernatural, or just one of those things that happens, is (perhaps) another question entirely... ;-)
The author explains the deliberately provocative title in its two aspects: the book investigates how Jesus of Nazareth came to occupy such a lofty position so early in the history of the religion, and the remarkable nature of this early devotion as a historical phenomenon. The work investigates both the claims about his significance and the pattern of devotional practices in the first and early second centuries. Having read The Authentic Gospel of Jesus by Geza Vermes at the same time, I found this book highly illuminating and thought-provoking.
Instead of dissipating after the crucifixion, the movement flourished. The death of Jesus triggered a much more startling level of devotion that far surpassed the commitment of his followers during his life on earth. The author shows that this devotion was so momentous that it played a pivotal role in the complex early Christian efforts to articulate doctrines about Jesus and God throughout the next few centuries. This is confirmed in Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew by Bart Ehrman, a compelling study of diversity in early Christianity.
Part One is titled Issues & Approaches. The first chapter is a critical review of the various historical approaches to understanding the emergence of this devotion. The next presents the major evidence for considering this development as initially totally within second-temple Judaism. In other words, it represents an innovation in the strictly monotheistic religion of the time. The social costs of Jesus-devotion, which were often heavy for early believers, are discussed in chapter three whilst the last one studies the key Pauline text of Philippians 2: 6 - 11 as an expression of worship.
Part Two: Definitions & Defense, also consists of four chapters. The first addresses controversies associated with the term Monotheism in Roman-era Judaism in order to fully understand the religious tradition from which the worship of Jesus arose. The next compares this early Christian worship to the attitude of his followers while he was alive. There is an enormous difference. Hurtado analyses how the four Gospels portray people giving homage to Jesus with particular emphasis on the Greek word "proskynein" which means To worship, Give homage, Reverence. A significantly heightened level of devotion is evident in the early church.
Chapter seven investigates the hostility and opposition that this phenomenon provoked in Judaism. Opposition appeared early; Jesus-devotion was considered to be outrageous, as blasphemy and a direct challenge to monotheism. The next chapter seeks to explain in historical terms such a drastic innovation within a religious tradition. Hurtado argues that innovations are due to powerful numinous experiences or revelations. He draws upon an impressive body of studies in the history of religion and in modern social-scientific research of new/emergent religious movements, including William James' classic Varieties of Religious Experience. He clearly believes that these spiritual experiences were pivotal in establishing devotion to Jesus Christ.
The Epilogue provides a summary of the argument, concluding that revelatory experiences as key factor accord with the evidence from earliest Christianity and best explain how Jesus came to be regarded as divine. Such a view casts new light on the earliest expressions of the faith that has proved to be one of the most influential religious innovations in history. It certainly makes logical sense in view of the plethora of religions thriving in the Roman Empire at the time, the absence of significant books in this movement at the beginning and the low level of literacy at that time. Missionary activity alone does not adequately explain the phenomenon.
Nor is it a thing of the past. In more modern times these experiences have been associated with Marian devotion and officially recognized by the largest Christian church. Some of the famous occurrences include Lourdes in 1858, Fatima in 1917 and Medjugorje in 1981. Although it must be said that these apparitions do not represent the same type of religious innovation but rather seem to indicate the survival or re-emergence of a widespread and prehistoric "mother goddess" figure; see The Cult of the Black Virgin by Ean Begg.
There are footnotes throughout the text. Appendix 1 contains the opening remarks to the First Deichmann Annual Lecture Series by Horst-Heinz Deichmann whilst Appendix 2 is a discussion of the reasons for studying early Christian literature at Ben-Gurion University by Roland Deines. The book concludes with three indices: of Modern Authors, Subjects, and Scripture & Other Ancient Sources. I enjoyed reading this book; Hurtado is a very thorough scholar but he never "lost" me as a lay reader. I'm looking forward to reading his highly esteemed book Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity.
on August 7, 2011
In this outstanding sequel to his earlier book, Lord Jesus Christ, Larry Hurtado explains the enigma of how Jesus became an object of worship among his earliest Jewish followers. Hurtado is not an evangelist posing as a scholar but takes a secular and fact-finding approach in explaining this mystery which seems to have baffled so many modern liberal scholars.
Many modern scholars believe that the cultic devotion to Jesus developed over a long period of time in a gentile setting when Christianity became "Hellenized" and was influenced by pagan mystery cults. However, historical facts prove otherwise.
Hurtado demonstrates how the devotion to Jesus which made him an object of veneration and worship was a radical phenomenon which burst upon the scene immediately after the crucifixion among Jesus' earliest followers. It developed within the milieu of Judaism before the mission to the gentiles started. This book clearly demonstrates that the conviction that God raised Jesus from the dead to an exalted status in Heaven was already developed prior to Paul's conversion and long before gentiles had any influence on the faith.
Judaism has its own exalted human and heavenly figures such as Moses, Enoch, Melchizedek, and Michael, but these were only servants of God. The earliest followers of Jesus took a much more radical step in regard to Jesus. While Jesus was never God himself or even a second god, he was the only begotten Son of God who alone was worthy of worship and whose name was venerated above all other names.
Hurtado explains how there was never a conflict between the strict Jewish monotheism of Jesus' earliest followers and their veneration of Jesus. He uses the term "binitarian monotheism" to describe how they could remain monotheistic Jews and worship Jesus. In simple terms, to them, Jesus was the sole agent through which God acts and through which God receives glory. God chose to raise Jesus from the dead to an exalted status in Heaven. Jesus is God's chosen vessel and it is God's will and God's requirement that He be worshipped and glorified through Jesus.
Hurtado explains this by examining a key text in one of Paul's epistles which he believes did not originate with Paul. Philippians 2:6-11 is believed by some scholars to be taken from a very ancient ode or hymn which Paul had learned from those who preceded him in the faith and which he inserted into his epistle to illustrate the belief of how God glorified Jesus to a status worthy of worship and bestowed upon him a name above all other names by which God himself would be glorified.
Paul, by his own admission, was a devout Jew who had violently persecuted the followers of Jesus because of something which he felt was very repugnant about what they were espousing. This could only have been their veneration of Jesus who had been condemned and crucified as a criminal. Ironically, Paul was converted to the very same belief which he so zealously tried to stamp out.
In addition, Josephus' account of James the Just being stoned to death by the high priesthood in the absence of the Roman governor would make no sense if James was known as a pious law abiding Jew or if he was a rebel against Rome. Stoning was the ultimate punishment inflicted by Jews upon Jews who committed the most severe sacrilege against Judaism which were blasphemy and idolatry. The only charge by which James would have merited such a punishment was his belief and confession that Jesus had been raised from the dead and glorified in Heaven. This was later articulated by Hegesippus who was known as a member of the Palestinian Jewish Christian community and would have been privy to the traditions handed down by that community regarding James. Stephen's speech in Acts also preserves this pre-Pauline belief of Jesus being glorified in Heaven. The Book of Revelation, which could not have been influenced by Paul, clearly describes the vision of Jesus enthroned in Heaven and worshipped as the Lamb of God.
Hurtado suggests that the only explanation for this sudden and explosive conviction that Jesus had been raised from the dead to an exalted status in Heaven who would soon return to establish God's Kingdom on earth was due to strong visionary and revelatory experiences among his followers after his crucifixion. The gospel accounts of the transfiguration may actually reflect post-easter visionary experiences which were written back into the life of Jesus. In addition, many of the conflicts which Jesus had with his fellow Jews may have been motivated by and reflect the rejection of Jewish Christians by their fellow Jews. The gospel account of Jesus warning his disciples that they would be tried in the synagogues could only have been directed to a Jewish or Jewish Christian audience. The threat of being tried in a synagogue would be totally irrelevant to gentile converts.
Hurtado has done a masterful job in destroying the false wedge which many modern scholars try to drive between the New Testament and Jewish Christianity.
on August 12, 2013
Hurtado can barely contain his excitement and enthusiasm as he examines the belief that Jesus was/is divine that developed very quickly, very early in the days following his death. Hurtado's argument/explanation seems sensible and convincing. He has worked on this topic for more than twenty years. I have read this book carefully five times and underlined so many important parts that nearly every word is now underlined. Also let me say that I have read many books of theology, philosophy, religion, etc in the last thirty years and this is one of the best. I will read it again.
on May 20, 2010
The book is divided into two parts. The first dealing with finding the proper approach to characterize the worship on the part of the followers of Jesus and the implications of it. The second part is mostly a further development of Hurtado's approach and his defense. In short Hurtado proposes that the devotion on the part of the early Christians signifies that they treated Jesus alongside God as a rightful recipient of worship, and that in light of Second Temple Judaism this could be called a binitarian shaped monotheism. In his opinion this is innovative and unparalleled (at least not to that degree). He argues against the idea that overtime, with the influx of non-Jews, Jesus came to be considered God and spends one chapter exegeting the Christological Hymn in Phil. 2:6-11 to show that this devotion was present with the early Christians. He looks at first century Jewish monotheism and considers the relevant ideas that were present and how they relate to the devotion of early Christians. He also fills some pages about the Jewish opposition and wraps up with an interesting chapter where he proposes that the catalyst to the early devotion were certain revelatory experiences the followers had with the glorified Jesus.
I must say that I was positively surprised with the book, both in terms of content as well as its presentation. I found his case to be very strong and wish I had read his work earlier. I had some points I disagreed with, such as his claim that the devotion to Jesus was innovative and unparalleled. In my opinion the Kings of Israel are a good parallel and also certain Principal Agents. It may not be identical but it shows a strong precedent that may have been expanded by early Christians but might entail the same implications as those precedents. I think the absence of sacrifice is important for the evaluation of what the devotion entailed and was dissappointed I couldnt find any discussion about this in the book. But these reservations aside, I must say that Hurtado's case impressed me and made me reconsider some things.
9 out of 10
Must-read for anyone interested in Christology
on February 21, 2014
and am more than satisfied with the author's directness in laying to rest the discrepancies put forth by other scholars who dispute the ancient church's position in worshipping Jesus as their Lord shortly after His resurrection. By verifying these views with scripture itself he has revealed how these earliest christian believers grasped the significance of worshipping Jesus and understood that it was actually the purpose of God's intent for them to do so. I look forward to exploring the remainder of the author's views.
on July 25, 2016
The author makes a very convincing case that the "high Christology", the conclusion that Jesus is the son of God, occurred very early and was not the result of, for instance, influences from Greek philosophy. However, the organization of the book, based on a series of lectures then supported by earlier articles of the author, makes it very repetitious and, in the latter portions especially, rather a difficult read.