Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the Gods– Part Nine

Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the Gods– Part Nine August 28, 2016


BEN: Let’s consider for a moment a comparison of the Qumranites and the earliest followers of Jesus, meaning Jewish Christians like James, Peter, and Paul. These two early Jewish movements were definitely sectarian in ways that say the Pharisees were not. For them both, if you were not part of ‘their’ in- group with their beliefs and practices, then you were not properly worshipping God, or as Paul dramatically puts it, Jews like that have been temporarily broken off from God’s people, though they can be saved later when Jesus returns.

This is as you say different from Pharisaism. So what really distinguishes the Qumranites from the Jesus followers? On the one hand, they are both very eschatologically oriented, expecting big things on the near horizon. On the other hand, the Jesus followers are focusing on someone who has already come, a known historical figure, that they are prepared to call all sorts of exalted titles, and claim he died and rose again. It is this particular Christology, not messianism in general which we also find at Qumran, that is distinctive, it seems to me, and I agree with you not even the parables of Enoch parallel this development. Why is it, in your view, that so many scholars try to whittle off the more ‘offensive’ distinctive beliefs and practices of early Christians, or try so hard to find parallels or precedents? Is this because of ongoing implicit emphasis on a history of religious ideas approach, assuming that ideas evolve over time? But in the case of early Christianity this would not explain, as M. Hengel stressed, that some of the highest Christology is some of earliest, in Paul’s own letters. It would also not explain that the early preaching kept talking about historical events in the life of Jesus— not batting mere theological ideas around? The theology seems to grow out the assumptions about the history. Comments?

LARRY: I think, Ben, that you’ve wrapped two questions into your comments, and I’ll try to speak briefly to each. First, what distinguished the Qumran sect and earliest Jewish Jesus-followers? Well, the most immediate difference in my view is the programmatic place of Jesus in beliefs and devotional practice. The “teacher of righteousness” was certainly an important figure in the memory of the Qumran group, but there’s no indication that he or any other figure played an equivalent role to Jesus for earliest Christianity. In addition, of course, though both groups were eschatological oriented, the Qumran sect seems entirely concerned with their fellow Jews, with no indication that gentiles could be included in the elect, whereas from an early point the Jesus-movement became aggressively trans-ethnic, recruiting adherents from beyond the Jewish people.

As to you second question: Why some scholars seems to downplay distinctive features of early Christianity and try to posit parallels and precedents where others of us doubt them? Well, I can’t read minds or attribute motivations. I think, however, that there may be a certain misguided notion that “historical” explanation must involve showing something was inevitable, and perhaps a misguided notion that to claim originality or novelty means claiming some divine authenticity/validity. But both notions are self-evidently fallacies. Occasional novelty is a fact of the history of religion, and sound historical analysis must recognize such when we find it. And to label something novel says nothing about its religious validity. The latter is a theological decision.

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