Larry Hurtado on early Jesus Devotion— Part Two

Larry Hurtado on early Jesus Devotion— Part Two September 9, 2019

Here’s another fine post by Larry.


Jesus-Devotion and Historical Questions
by larryhurtado
A reader of my previous posting raised several questions and made several assertions (some of them unfounded) that lead me to offer a few comments about the historical issues pertaining to the origins of Jesus-devotion and correct historical method in addressing them.

The first thing is to grasp clearly the questions that I address. When, where, and in what form did devotion to Jesus emerge, and what forces and factors might have prompted and shaped it? In particular, we’re exploring the emergence of what Wilhelm Bousset referred to as “the Kyrios cult”, i.e., the treatment of Jesus as in some way sharing in divine glory and reverence. These are the questions, not whether there may have been some isolated group that didn’t revere Jesus in this manner.

Second, in doing historical work an important principle is chronology. As to the questions before us, the earliest assured evidence is found in the seven letters of the Apostle Paul that are almost universally regarded as genuinely written by him (1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, Philemon). These are commonly dated ca. 50-60 AD, which means we have reflections of early Christian beliefs and practices from within approximately 18-20 yrs after Jesus’ execution.

But it gets better. These letters scarcely devote much space to teaching christological beliefs and devotional practices; instead they presuppose them. Which means that these beliefs and practices emerged and had become traditional well before these letters. Moreover, Paul’s efforts are evident to align his mission and churches with the Jerusalem church and Aramaic-speaking circles of Jesus-believers. As, e.g., in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Paul expressly says that the Jerusalem figures and he taught basically the same message. Paul’s collection for Jerusalem also shows how he strove to link his diaspora/gentile churches with Jesus-believers in the Jewish homeland.

There were conflicts, to be sure, especially with those whom Paul referred to as “the circumcision lot”, sometimes referred to today as “Judaizers”. But if you examine references to these conflicts you’ll quickly see that the issue wasn’t christological beliefs, but, instead, the terms on which gentiles could be accepted as full co-religionists. Those who opposed Paul insisted that they had to make a full proselyte conversion to the Jewish people, which for males involved circumcision, for, after all, Messiah came to redeem Israel. Paul, however, held that OT prophecies of gentile peoples coming to the God of Israel were being fulfilled in his mission. It was essential that they come as gentiles, not as proselytes. That was the issue, not what to make of Jesus.

Further, Paul’s violent (in his own words) opposition to the young Jesus-movement (which has to be dated within the first few years or even months after Jesus’ execution) means that something serious prompted his actions. Likely something that he felt endangered the religious integrity of his people. He portrays the experience that changed him from persecutor to promoter of the Jesus-movement as a “revelation of his[God’s] son” (Gal. 1:15-16). That is, the content of the experience was a radically revised view of Jesus, and as Paul thereafter joined the Jesus-movement the most likely conclusion is that he came to accept a view of Jesus that he had previously opposed and found unacceptable. It wasn’t Paul who invented a glorified Jesus; it was his predecessors among the Jewish believers whom he had previously regarded as promoting a dangerous set of beliefs.

Were there other circles of Jesus-followers who didn’t share these beliefs? If so, we have no evidence of them. And Paul wasn’t reluctant to indicate or engage issues of difference with others! So, it’s conspicuous that there is no mention of differences over christological issues. Without evidence of major christological differences, or of circles that didn’t regard Jesus as glorified and sharing in divine honor, to posit such circles is an exercise in fantasy. Not good historical practice. To be sure, there are later references to “Ebionites” who may or may not be actual groups by that name. But these groups can’t be placed early or function as rival versions of earliest believers, nor is it clear that they denied the glorified status of Jesus.[1]

Oh yes, the Gospels, especially the Synoptics, present us with a Jesus of Nazareth who doesn’t make divine claims and who is treated by people variously as prophet, Messiah, charlatan, or false teacher. That’s what biographical accounts are supposed to do–give an account of the actual activities of the subject. And the Gospels can’t be taken as full-blown accounts of the christological beliefs of their authors. They aren’t that kind of theological treatises.

Moreover, the Gospels are commonly dated ca. 70-100 AD, or somewhere between forty and seventy years after Jesus’ crucifixion, which means forty to sixty years into the Jesus-movement. Careful analysis shows that the authors presuppose a developed Jesus-devotion, and aim to present the historical roots in the figure of Jesus. But, as with all the early evidence, the authors regard God’s actions in raising Jesus from death and installing him as Lord and regnant Son as the point at which Jesus receives divine honors and is then to be reverenced accordingly. So, for example, it is the risen/glorified Jesus in Matthew 28:16-20 who is worshipped (v. 17) and who claims to have been given “all authority in heaven and on earth” (v. 18).

As for the Gospel of John, it doesn’t really offer a much higher christological stance, but, instead, in comparison with the other Gospels presents an account of Jesus more explicitly colored retrospectively by the beliefs of the “post-Easter” believers. The author accounts for this in the so-called “Paraclete discourse” in chapters 14-16. (See my essay, “Remembrance and Revelation” here.)

In sum, the evidence indicates that the conviction that God had glorified Jesus and given him divine honor and status erupted first among Jewish believers in Judea. Contra Bousset, it was not in diaspora settings, but in these Judean churches. For discussion of the forces and factors that shaped this Jesus-devotion, see my book Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, pp. 27-78.

[1] See, e.g., the judicious analysis by Oskar Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries, ed. Oskar Skarsaue and Reidar Hvalvik (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 419-62.

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