The Origins of Divine Christology?

The Origins of Divine Christology? October 25, 2017


Here is an excellent discussion of a recent important book on Jesus’ self-understanding, by my friend Larry Hurtado.

by larryhurtado
A new book presents the argument that the key reason that Jesus became a recipient of worship in earliest Christian circles is that he claimed divinity and the right to receive worship: Andrew Ter Ern Loke, The Origin of Divine Christology, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series,169 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

As it appears that I am Loke’s main dialogue partner in his book, and my proposals the main focus of his criticism, I should offer a response. From my 1988 book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (3rd edition, London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015) onward through my 2003 book, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, pp. 27-78), I’ve proposed several “forces and factors” that prompted and shaped earliest devotion to Jesus. These include “ancient Jewish monotheism” exhibited particularly in the “cultic (worship) exclusivity” in which the one deity of biblical tradition was worshiped to the exclusion of the many other deities of the ancient world; the impact of Jesus himself in his historical work (which, with other scholars, I contend generated the expectation among his followers that he was or would be declared Messiah, and the corresponding charge against him that led to his crucifixion); powerful religious experiences in the “post-Easter” period that generated the strong conviction that God had raised Jesus from death and exalted him to heavenly glory, and now demanded that Jesus be reverenced accordingly; and the “religious environment” of the Roman era, which both provided earliest believers with some conceptual resources and terminology, and also helped to generate a foil against which to articulate and express Jesus’ uniqueness.

The historical data indicate that a robust incorporation of the risen/exalted Jesus into the devotional life of Jesus-believers erupted early and took hold quickly, as evident in the constellation of corporate devotional practices that I have repeatedly specified and that comprise a novel “dyadic” devotional pattern in which “God” and Jesus receive cultic reverence. The question is how to account for this, given that these earliest Jesus-believers were all Jews and that the “cultic exclusivity” characteristic of ancient Jewish tradition worked strongly against giving worship to any second being/figure alongside the one God.

As I see no evidence that the “historical” Jesus himself demanded (or received) such cultic reverence, and there are early texts that emphasize God’s resurrection and exaltation of Jesus and the consequent demand that Jesus should be reverenced (e.g., Philippians 2:9-11), this dyadic devotional pattern appears to me to be a response to what earliest believers perceived to be God’s actions and requirement. The further question, then, is how this perception and conviction came to them. My own proposal is that early experiences of the risen/exalted Jesus, prophetic utterances and inspired odes expressing Jesus’ exalted status, and “charismatic exegesis” of biblical (OT) texts all combined to generate the guiding conviction that God now required that Jesus should be reverenced as sharing in divine glory.

It is this emphasis on “post-Easter” revelatory experiences that Loke finds objectionable, and against which he argues. He contends, “Any implementation of new worship patterns based on the kinds of religious experiences which Hurtado suggests (i.e. visions, charismatic exegeses, etc.) would likely have met widespread dissent for at least quite some time among the earliest Christians (especially among those more traditionalist Christian Jews). And yet, shockingly, there is no hint of such disagreements or even discussions among Christians concerning the worship of Jesus in the earliest Christian documents” (129). In Loke’s view, “earliest Christians regarded Jesus’ teachings as the supreme indication of God’s will,” and so “if Jesus did not claim to be divine” then his followers “would probably have reasoned that this was not God’s will” (130). That is, Loke’s explanation for the early eruption of Jesus-devotion is that Jesus himself taught his disciples that he was divine and deserved such reverence, and in Jesus’ resurrection they saw all this divinely vindicated.

In principle, Loke’s proposal is entirely possible. We don’t know of other ancient Jews (or at least those who continued to identify themselves within ancient Jewish tradition) who taught that they should be worshipped, so it would appear to have been a rather novel thing for Jesus to have done so. But the idea that a particular human figure should be treated as a deity was by no means foreign in the larger environment of the Greco-Roman era. Still, I don’t find Loke’s case persuasive, and I’ll sketch what seem to me to be some major problems with it.

First (as Loke concedes), the evidence indicates that Jesus was not given the cultic reverence in question until the “post-Easter” period. So, if Jesus taught his original disciples that he was divine and should consequently receive worship, why didn’t they respond accordingly? Loke answers that, although Jesus expressed his divine status to his disciples, they didn’t quite “get it” until after they experienced God’s resurrection of Jesus. This, Loke argues, had the effect of somehow making them remember more fully what Jesus had already taught them about his person. But the fact remains that there was no such cultic reverence of Jesus until after the experiences of his resurrection/exaltation. This still seems to me to make these experiences the crucial factor in generating the conviction that it was now right to give Jesus cultic devotion.

Second, critical analysis of the historical traditions does not yield evidence that Jesus himself actually claimed to share in divine glory and status during his earthly career.[i] Instead, the classic instances where Jesus makes such claims for himself are scenes where the risen/exalted Jesus speaks, e.g., Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:44-52. Loke, however, contends that, “whether the indication [Jesus’ claims to divinity] happened ‘pre-resurrection’ or ‘post-resurrection’ does not matter; all that matters is that the indication was perceived to have come from Jesus” (159). But it seems to me that, in historical terms, it matters a great deal whether the Jesus claimed divinity and demanded worship during his ministry, or (as I think the evidence shows) earliest believers experienced the risen/exalted Jesus expressing God’s exaltation of him to divine glory.

I’m not talking about the theological/religious validity of these claims or worship practices. I’m focusing on the historical factors and process that generated them. It’s a fallacy that I’ve identified earlier here to presume that the validity of “divine christology” rests on whether the “historical” Jesus himself claimed divinity. A lot of traditional Christians presume this, as do a lot of others, including some so-called “Evangelical Unitarians,” and also non/anti-Christian voices (including, e.g., some Muslim apologists). But, as I read the evidence, for earliest believers, the crucial theological basis for acclaiming Jesus in “high” Christological terms and for including him as a recipient of corporate devotion was what they held that God claimed and demanded.

There are other issues raised in Loke’s book that also deserve attention, but I confine my attention here to this historical question. Loke offers a bold and vigorously argued case, but I don’t find it persuasive. It still seems to me more fitting with the evidence to infer that earliest believers experienced the risen Jesus as given divine glory, exalted to God’s “right hand,” and made to share in the divine name (Philippians 2:9-11), all of which took their previous estimate of Jesus to a categorically new level. To be sure, the experiences of the risen Jesus validated their previous estimate of Jesus as God’s Messiah, and validated Jesus’ teachings and actions as the unique and eschatological agent of God’s purposes. But in their experiences that struck them with revelatory force, God’s resurrection of Jesus comprised still more: the exaltation of Jesus to heavenly glory, his installation as “Lord” and the one to whom all creation should now give obeisance, in obedience to God’s actions and will.

Loke contends that for earliest believers, Jesus was their supreme authority, and so if Jesus didn’t declare his divinity his followers wouldn’t have accepted the notion. But, as I read the evidence, for earliest believers the crucial matter was what God had declared about Jesus, what God had done in making Jesus the “Kyrios”. Granted, the traditions in the Gospels have the risen/exalted Jesus declaring God’s bestowal on him of authority and glory (e.g., Matthew 28:18), but it was God’s new actions of resurrection and exaltation of Jesus that made any such declaration and conviction valid. And I remain persuaded that powerful religious experiences of the kind that I have sketched (which include experiences of the person of the risen Jesus) conveyed that conviction.

[i] Of course, by a “critical analysis” of the evidence, I mean that (as agreed widely among NT scholars) the distinctive self-declarations of Jesus in the Gospel of John should be taken as retrospectively shaped by “post-Easter” experiences and convictions. See, e.g., my essay, Larry W. Hurtado, “Remembering and Revelation: The Historic and Glorified Jesus in the Gospel of John,” in Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children: Christology and Community in Early Judaism and Christianity. Essays in Honor of Larry W. Hurtado and Alan F. Segal, ed. David B. Capes et al. (Waco, TX: Baylor Univesity Press, 2007), 195-213. The pre-publication version is available on this blog site here.

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