Novel Devotional Practices in Early Christianity

Here is a useful discussion by Larry Hurtado that makes clear the importance of early Christian worship practices in evaluating early Christianity.

Words, Actions and Meanings
by larry hurtado

In discussions after my lectures in Chicago and Waco (in which I focused on the place of Jesus in earliest Christian prayer), I tried to clarify why I have placed emphasis over many years on the importance of early Christian devotional practice. I have done so both because devotional practice is a core component in any religious group, and so crucial for any historical understanding of the group, and also because often devotional practice can help us understand what the religious discourse/rhetoric of the group actually means. In the course of making these points, I used the following illustration, which may help others to get my point.

Two married men, each one says “I love my wife.” One also admits that he does occasionally have sex with other women, but insists “I do love my wife.” The other does not have sex with other women, declaring “I love my wife.” Both men say the same thing, and each man means what he says. But from their actions we know that they mean very different things, though what they say is the same.

So, as Erik Peterson showed many decades ago, all kinds of people in the ancient world used “one/only god” language: Eis Theos: Epigraphische, formgeschichtliche und religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen, FRLANT N.F., no. 24 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1926). But from the devotional practices of various groups/people, we learn what this language actually meant, and it clearly meant very different things.

In the case of ancient Jews and Christians, a “one/only god” profession was supposed to mean an exclusivity of cultic worship, and a corresponding refusal to join in worship of “the gods”. That exclusivity comprised a very distinctive religious stance, indeed generating the charge of “atheism”. So people of the time clearly perceived this religious standpoint as very different from that of the culture more generally.

The further “wrinkle” in earliest Christian “one/only god” professions was the striking inclusion of Jesus as a distinguishable but uniquely connected second recipient of devotion along with “God”. That too was noted as curious (e.g., Celsus’ critique of Christianity), and remains utterly remarkable in history, especially given its early emergence and rapid spread in various Christian circles.

  • Jerry Blair

    Thanks for the important/insightful/clarifying example. I’m a contemporary Christian songwriter/performer with some small international recognition – haven’t been able to leave my day job as a lawyer primarily for indigent people – and I only say all of that because my initial reaction was that I wish I could write a song that so succinctly underlines the implications of that concept in followers’ lives. I’ve had enough formal biblical education to appreciate the importance of our scholars, and I greatly appreciate your work. But my subsequent reaction was that you have inadvertently pointed out a possible mistake I have been making – I’ll have to ponder this more. You see, “out in the fields,” I have taken the position of extreme tolerance theologically, and I have repeatedly preached that, unless theology is our occupation, if we occupy ourselves properly with trying to “one one another” as Jesus demands, then we don’t have time to obsess and dispute over what may ultimately be “inconsequential” theological issues – that we should be able to discern “what love demands” from the corpus of Jesus’s teachings. But your little post today has reminded me that even the command to “love one another” may be too ambiguous to allow it to simply stand on its own. I’ll have to consider this deeply, which means you achieved what I guess is one of your main goals as a scholar – making me think. Thanks again.

  • Jerry Blair

    –should have said “love one another” instead of “one one another”