With the death of my friend and mentor, Larry Hurtado, on November 25, 2019, I thought I’d take an occasion to re-read and blog about his classic book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism. It has been published in its 3rd edition recently by Bloomsbury T. & T. Clark, as a part of its Cornerstones Series. When I visited Larry in early October, he gave me a copy and signed it “for David, trusted friend, Larry.” With his passing it is a hallowed possession.
The preface to the 3rd edition of the book is brief (one page), dated to 2015. Larry acknowledged his gratitude that the book was still being read and cited so many years after its initial publication in 1988, about the time I met him. The publisher made the decision to re-typeset the book but they placed in the margins the original page numbers so it would be easy to compare to the original. The third edition has an extensive epilogue (30 + pages) which situated ONEGOD, as it was affectionately known among insiders, in Hurtado’s larger research agenda. Otherwise the text of the book remained the same.
The preface to the 2nd edition (1998) offers some substantial engagement with critics and advocates of the positions Hurtado maintains. Hurtado’s main project is to investigate the origins of religious devotion to Jesus. This is a unique phenomenon of early Christianity and set it apart both from its Greco-Roman setting and its Jewish background. Hurtado’s interests are primarily historical. In its 1998 edition Hurtodo did not think it necessary to revise the book because his critics had not dissuaded him that his positions needed to be modified. As is often the case, our dissenters help us sharpen our thinking through a body of evidence.
The book’s focus is the rise (again, in historical terms) of religious devotion to Jesus as Messiah in the first century. At a rather early period (the letters of Paul) we see evidence that Christ was honored and reverenced in the same ways and using the same language of reference to God. His major question is: “How is the devotion given to Jesus in first-century Christianity like and unlike patterns of devotion in the Jewish religious background of the first believers?” Could Christ-devotion (a phrase Hurtado coined) have been shaped by conceptions and practices found in ancient Judaism? Where and how do we see Christ-devotion expressed? Are there historical factors that brought it about? If so, what are they and why?
For Hurtado, “Christ-devotion” was more than “Christology.” It was not just beliefs about Jesus held by his earliest followers. It involved questions about how Jesus might fit into the religious practices. How did Jesus figure into their devotion? And in what ways could Jesus be considered as associated with, linked with, or identified with God? These were Hurtado’s guiding concerns.
Martin Hengel said wisely in a blurb that with Hurtado’s book—and other books that followed—that we were witnessing a new Religionsgeschichtliche Schule (a history of religion school). If there was a new school, then Hurtado must have been its dean.
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.
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.
One God, One Lord (Part 3)
One of the criticisms leveled against Larry Hurtado’s work on Christ-devotion has had to do with his claim that reverence for Jesus is a significant innovation and that precedents did exist for the practice in Judaism before. In other words, the counter-claim is that “well, we’ve seen this all before . . . or at least something like it.”
In the Life of Adam and Eve God orders all the angels to reverence Adam since he is made in God’s image. Might this be an antecedent to the worship of Jesus as the bearer of the image of God (a new Adam)? Hurtado says no because there was no Jewish group who took up any sort of religious reverence for Adam. Hurtado writes: “in my view the absence of any Adam-cultus practice is crucial” (xiii). If it could be demonstrated that serious Jews took up the worship of Adam (in imitation of the angels) and that there was evidence for Adam-devotion, then it might be a different story. So there is no analogy here for the programmatic inclusion of Jesus as a recipient of devotion as we see in early Christianity..
Another scholar pointed to the story of Joseph and Asenath (15.11-12). In that account Asenath asks that an angel tell her name so she could worship him. But this is not an antecedent because the angel refuses to give her his name. This is part of a larger angelic-refusal tradition that characterized a number of second temple Jewish writings. What we have here then appears to be a corrective to any that might take up angel-worship (a common feature of paganism in places). Jewish monotheism ruled out the worship of angels.
1 Enoch is often cited by those who believe the worship of Jesus was not as innovative as Hurtado argues. In 1 Enoch there is a figure known as “the Elect One” or “Son of Man” to whom obeisance is given (1 Enoch 48.5-6; 62.9) in some grand, eschatological future. But again Hurtado notices that no Jewish groups actually engaged in the worship of this figure. No cult has yet been identified. The situation is somewhat complicated because when you dig down into 1 Enoch, some scenes appear to show how one day the nations of the world will reverence God’s people, Israel (Isa 45.14-15; 49:7, 23).
In various writings Crispin Fletcher-Louis thinks there is a precedent for the worship of Jesus in those scenes that depict the faithful bowing down before the Jewish High Priest in second temple texts. The primary evidence comes from a non-Jewish writer in the 4th century BCE who describes how on certain, high religious occasions the devout would offer proskynesis, that is, bow down before him. But in that day and culture, such a posture indicated only that one is giving respect due to a king, general, priest, or other person in high position. Hurtado concludes: “It [the proskynesis before the high priest] is hardly evidence of a pattern of cultic devotion directed toward the Priest in ancient Jewish worship gatherings” (xiv).
We will have more to say on this in our next post. Page numbers are taken from the most recent edition of Hurtado’s One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, 3rd edition (T & T Clark, 2015).
One God, One Lord (Part 4)
Regarding precedents for the worship of Jesus in early Christianity . . .
Hurtado appreciated Loren Stuckenbruck’s work on the veneration of angels and the Christology of Revelation (Angel Veneration and Christology, WUNT 2/70 [Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1995]). He found Stuckenbruck’s conclusions largely in line with his own. In his study of Jewish magical texts, angel veneration, and the angelic responses to humans, Stuckenbruck admits there is nothing like an organized cult of angel worship among Jews prior to or during the time of Jesus. So, there is no precedent for the worship of Jesus in the Jewish posture toward angels, even principal angels.
Clinton Arnold’s work (The Colossian Syncretism: The Interface between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae, WUNT 2/77 [Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1995) also garnered attention from Hurtado. In particular, devout Jews clearly had an interest in angels, but they did not organize themselves into religious communities gathering to worship or pray to angels as divine, or alongside the God of Israel. What Hurtado and others demonstrated was that Jewish monotheism was elastic enough to allow for divine agents, like prinicipal angels, to be included in close association with God without somehow giving up on their commitment to God’s oneness.
Another criticism leveled toward Hurtado’s work has to do with whether the early Christians’ actions toward and beliefs about Jesus amounted to worship. Hurtado says yes and he details a number of these. We will consider those in a future post. But Jimmy Dunn regards these phenomena as adoration and not worship (see Theology of Paul the Apostle [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 257-60. An analogy I’ve heard Dunn use is this: Catholics and (some) Protestants adore Mary but do not worship her. Early Christians like Paul, Dunn believes, did gather and offer remarkable devotion to Jesus but that did not constitute “worship” as Jews worshiped the God of Israel. This phenomenon does take place, eventually, but it is not as early as Hurtado alleges. You can see my review of Dunn’s arguments here.
Hurtado does conclude that in the first two decades of the Jesus movement there is a “binitarian” pattern of worship that sets Jesus as a rightful recipient of worship along with God. This is not ditheism (belief in and worship of two distinct figures), but a different pattern that includes Jesus within God in some important way. So that to bow the head and bend the knee to Jesus is the will of God and constitutive of proper worship (Phil 2.9-11).
I continue to work through the preface of Larry Hurtado’s classic, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism. It has been published in its 3rd edition recently by Bloomsbury T. & T. Clark, as a part of its Cornerstones Series.
Both Maurice Casey and Jimmy Dunn do not think that Jesus is truly reverenced by believers until the later NT period, once the communities left behind the so-called constraints of Jewish monotheism. Perhaps it is first evidenced in the Gospel of John (hereafter GJohn). As evidence they cite the absence (prior to AD 70) of Jews condemning what Hurtado called “Christ-devotion.” Since there is no condemnation, the reverence accorded Jesus must not have violated the Jewish sensibilities of God’s oneness. Therefore, there was no mutation in Jewish religious practices.
Hurtado responded that prior to AD 70 there is evidence that some Jews considered Christ devotion a “dangerous development” (xvi). He has pointed this out in various publications. In particular, L. W. Hurtado, “Pre-70 c.e. Jewish Opposition to Christ-Devotion,” Journal of Religion 80 (2000), 183-205. We will take this up in a subsequent post. We might well ask the question of what did Saul, the Pharisee, find so problematic about the church that he was willing to destroy it prior to his revelation (Galatians 1; Acts 9)? While he does not say in explicit terms, his letters might be a source of information for what he found so offensive.
Therefore, in historical terms Hurtado argues that it is accurate to say that a mutation in Jewish religious practices had already taken place and was a regular feature of Christian churches prior to AD 70. But clearly by the end of the first century AD when John is written other developments had taken place. He regards this as “a more advanced stage of polemical confrontation with the Jewish religious leadership of synagogues in the late first century” (xvi). It may not be too much to say that Christ devotion caused profound outrage among some Jews to what Christians were saying about Jesus and how they were reverencing him alongside the God of Israel.
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