Responding to Larry Hurtado’s Review

Responding to Larry Hurtado’s Review November 16, 2010

Let me begin by saying once again how much I appreciate Larry Hurtado taking the time to review my book The Only True God and for sharing his review on his blog. I thought it would be worth making just a few points in response, in the hope that I can clarify my own viewpoint, and also hopefully stimulate further conversation on this subject that is of interest to so many, the relationship of early Christianity to Judaism as far as monotheism is concerned.

John's Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series)On the topic of the Christology of the Gospel of John, let me merely say that I have never thought of The Only True God as a stand-alone book. I deliberately sought to build on and supplement (but also to avoid overlapping extensively with) the case I made for my understanding of the Gospel of John in my first book, John’s Apologetic Christology. And so I refer those interested in a fuller discussion of whether monotheism was an issue for the author and community behind the Fourth Gospel to that volume.

On the subject of Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, Trypho certainly voices objections to the worship of Jesus in places. However, the Dialogue also provides indications about why this was considered objectionable. It seems to me that it had to do with objections specifically to the worship of Jesus, and not to the theoretical question of whether someone whom Trypho accepted as the true Messiah could appropriately be so honored.

The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish ContextIn Dialogue 38, Trypho is depicted as saying “For you utter many blasphemies, in that you seek to persuade us that this crucified man was with Moses and Aaron, and spoke to them in the pillar of the cloud; then that he became man, was crucified, and ascended up to heaven, and comes again to earth, and ought to be worshipped.” Note the double mention of Jesus having been crucified, which seems to be a clear sticking point. It is the claim that a crucified man was being attributed this status that was the problem – the identification of a crucified man as God’s exalted and honored Messiah. In Dialogue 64, Trypho says, “Let Him be recognised as Lord and Christ and God, as the Scriptures declare, by you of the Gentiles, who have from His name been all called Christians; but we who are servants of God that made this same [Christ], do not require to confess or worship Him.” Here Trypho is depicted as suggesting that Jews worship the God of Christ, and so need not add to that worship of Christ. Whether the views attributed to Trypho here are realistic is a question worth asking. But he is depicted as not objecting to Gentiles worshipping Christ, and even says that Scripture attributes to him the status of Lord and God. What Trypho argues is that Jews already worship the God of Christ, and so have no need to add the additional beliefs of Christians. The final passage which Hurtado mentions in his review, Dialogue 65, has Trypho say “Trypho said, “Being shaken by so many Scriptures, I know not what to say about the Scripture which Isaiah writes, in which God says that He gives not His glory to another, speaking thus ‘I am the Lord God; this is my name; my glory will I not give to another, nor my virtues.'” In context, this clearly represents a last-ditch attempt at proof-texting, and Justin’s own response makes clear that the passage refers to God not sharing his glory with idols and other such competitors for his glory, and does not need to be understood as contradicting the idea that God at times seems to glorify his agent. Trypho is depicted as conceding the point.

I perhaps ought to have explicitly presented the evidence from Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho in more detail in The Only True God. But hopefully from the texts cited above, it will now be clearer why I remain persuaded that the evidence from Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho confirms rather than undermines my point. It was the attribution of an exalted status to Jesus who had been crucified, and not the exalted status per se, that was the crux of the issue. If the issue had been a principled objection to any figure holding an exalted status, we might have expected Trypho to bring them into the discussion at the beginning rather than as an afterthought.

On the question of the failure of Paul and others to defend their beliefs against objections that they tampered with monotheism in controversial ways, I am not persuaded by Hurtado’s argument that they need not have done so, because those places where we see objections being addressed (e.g. circumcision and the Law in Paul’s letters) were intramural affairs between Christians. “Christians” were still largely a subset of “Jews” in this period, Paul’s Gentile mission notwithstanding. The objections from Jewish Christians are unlikely to have been thought of as Christian as opposed to Jewish objections. Rather, Paul was criticized precisely for having played fast and loose with the Jewish identity of believers. And if there were Christians who did something similar with monotheism to what Paul did with circumcision, surely that too would have arisen as an issue among Jewish Christians. And so even if one finds the language of these being “intramural matters” applicable, surely the monotheistic Jewish heritage of the early Christians would have made this such an intramural matter.

On the subject of Christian participation in sacrificial worship, Acts depicts Christians as participating in the Temple sacrificial system while the Temple still stood (Acts 3:1; 21:26). It is plausible, indeed likely, that not all did so. And of course once the Temple was destroyed the point became moot. But there is no need to suggest that, after the Temple’s destruction, neither Jews nor Christians worshiped God. Of course they did. But even in later times sacrifice continued to serve as a sign of their unique monotheistic allegiance – as Jews and Christians refused to participate in sacrifices offered to other figures. My point about sacrifice is simply this: there was one sort of sacrifice that Jews seem to have clearly and exclusively reserved for the only true God – animal sacrifice – and that is never offered to Jesus. It is not my intention to press this matter to an illogical extreme. My point is simply that the kinds of activities Christians did engage in, and the honor they offered to Jesus, did not serve to unambiguously offer to Jesus worship that all Jews agreed only God should receive. This does not prove that they intended to exclude Jesus from the divine identity, but only that they did not unambiguously use worship to include him within it. Whether this is due to a lack of desire, a lack of opportunity, or something else, we cannot say. What we can say is that Jesus is worshiped in ways that texts like the Similitudes of Enoch would lead us to expect the Messiah to be in a Jewish context – with an additional exuberance that likewise might be expected when the figure in question was not merely an awaited savior, but one believed to have already come and provided salvation.

I am perfectly willing to concede that, in attempting to counterbalance what I perceive to be an overemphasis on Christianity’s distinctiveness in its conception of God when compared to non-Christian Judaism, I may have overcompensated, and in reaction expressed myself in ways that seem to overemphasize the contrary. And so I hope that one thing that may usefully come from the current scholarly conversations of this topic, as with many others that have to do with the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, is that we may eventually achieve a greater clarity and nuance about similarities, differences, and trajectories. And so let me conclude this post by thanking Larry Hurtado once again for his critical reading of my work on this subject, and for providing me with feedback that is incredibly useful as I continue to ponder this subject of mutual interest.

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