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One God, One Lord (Part 2)

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I continue to work through the preface to the second edition of Larry Hurtado’s ONE GOD, ONE LORD.

Throughout his life Hurtado remained appreciative of the work of Wilhelm Bousset and the History of Religion School.  Bousset’s publication of Kyrios Christos in 1913 (the original German edition)  established him as the leading star in a galaxy of (primarily) German scholars interested in Christian origins.  In particular, Hurtado found value in the ways these scholars went about trying “to understand in historical terms the remarkable way in which Jesus figures in the religious devotion of ancient Christians” (xi, One God, One Lord [T. & T. Clark/Bloomsbury, 2015]).  The problem with these earlier explanations, according to Hurtado, was their simplistic and ultimately faulty model for how Christianity developed.  Bousset and his generation looked to Greco-Roman religions for their understanding of how early Christianity emerged; Hurtado and the new History of Religion School believed the rich and varied Jewish background held the key to understanding how Christianity developed.Larry-Hurtado-in-2016

Three theoretical approaches have dominated the discussions on Christian origins, particularly how Christ-devotion began.

First, some scholars propose that pagan religious ideas and practices were the primary shaping factors.  Not long after the Jesus movement began, non-Jews (therefore, polytheists) flooded into the movement in such numbers that pagan ideas became dominant.  Maurice Casey (From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God, 1991) provides a good example  of this way of thinking.  However, as Larry demonstrated, Christ-devotion did not take several centuries or decades to take shape.  Within two decades of the execution of Jesus, Jewish Christians were reverencing Jesus in ways  that monotheists reverence the one, true God.  Hurtado used the word “mutation” to describe the changes in Jewish religious practice in this period, a period before the end of the first century (AD or CE).   Hurtado described this development as early—as early as we have evidence, Paul’s letters—and explosive.

There is a second approach.  Granting that the emergence of religious devotion to Jesus was early, it is possible to posit that pagan influences had already corrupted Judaism and its monotheistic scruples by the time of Jesus.  While some maintained a strict monotheism, others played more fast and loose with it.  But Hurtado and others have shown that an exclusive monotheism, a strict adherence to God’s oneness, characterized Judaism at that time.  Jews (by and large) saw themselves as separate and wanted to maintain that separation.  Idolatry was foolish and evil.  Devotion to the Roman gods was not tolerated.  Roman era Judaism had been Hellenized but not paganized.  Probably one of the best examples of this is Saul of Tarsus, the Pharisee.

Hurtado’s work represents a third, and from my perspective, a more satisfying approach to the question of how religious devotion to Jesus emerged. It pays attention to the rich and various textures and nuances of Greco-Roman Jewish religion and the chronological reality that whatever devotion emerges, it emerges early.  Cultic devotion to Jesus was a novel development that drew (primarily) on the Jewish religious tradition, practices and concepts.  These traditions, practices, and concepts ultimately “mutate” under the influence of powerful, religious experiences that characterized the earliest communities of Christ followers.


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