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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.
Hurtado contended that divine agents, or better principal agents, provided a conceptual category whereby earliest Christians were able to understand how a second figure (like Jesus) could be closely associated with God in creation and sustaining the world, in redemption and future judgment. For Hurtado, a good deal of early Christians’ assessment of Jesus and his significance owed its substance to this category. But he never contended that divine agency (principal agency) was sufficient in and of itself to account for the rise of Christ-devotion in the early decades of the Christian movement. What is unparalleled in second temple Judaism vis-à-vis the principal agent figure is the kind of cultic devotion that arose with Jesus as the rightful (God willed) recipient. This is truly a “novel development,” that represented what he called a binitarian pattern of devotion.
One factor Hurtado noted was the powerful religious experiences that convinced Jesus followers that it was right and good to reverence the Lord Jesus as Jews were reverencing God. Moreover, that to reverence Jesus did not distract in any way from one’s devotion to God. The experiences had to be so forceful and compelling as to persuade scrupulous Jews to consider it God’s will that they reverence Jesus.
Some scholars have questioned whether religious experience could have the kind of generative effect as Hurtado argued. But he made the point in various articles that sociologists and anthropologists increasingly were recognizing that religious experience, particular “revelations,” did lead to significance innovations. Any religious experience and language used to express it were culturally and religiously determined. But there are novel interpretations of religious phenomena that led to structural changes in communities, new beliefs and practices.
The New Testament demonstrates that believers like Paul, a significant minor founder figure, had revelatory experiences that shaped and determined their lives (Galatians 1; 2 Corinthians 13; Acts 9). These revelations caused Saul/Paul to rethink the concepts, beliefs, and practices that had previously characterized his life. Whatever value he found in his previous life is now recast in light of knowing Christ (Philippians 3). As a result of his “conversion” or “call,” he joined a new group, the ecclesia of Christ, and found himself at odds with his previous community. The role of “revelation” is significant in early Christianity. Hurtado sensed this from the earliest sources and knew that it had sculpted what early Christianity was becoming in its first century.
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.
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.
The first generation of Christ followers gathered regularly in house churches for instruction, encouragement and worship. A central part of these gatherings was the chanting and singing of hymns. Explicit reference to the use of hymns in the Christian church is found in Paul’s admonition to sing psalms (psalmoi), hymns (humnoi) and spirituals songs (ōdē) with gratitudeto God (Col 3:16; cf. Eph 5:19-20). These three terms likely refer to the practice of using the biblical Psalter along with distinctly Christian compositions. The worship of God with hymns had its immediate background in Jewish synagogue practices. Psalms, particularly messianic psalms, were used by early believers to express uniquely Christian perspectives on God’s recent actions in the world. Likewise, Eph 1:3-14 is constructed on a Jewish hymn-pattern known as the berakah (“blessed is . . . “). While the pattern is clearly Jewish, the author used it in a way that is explicitly Christian. Gentile believers too would have also been accustomed to hymn-singing in the ethos of Greco-Roman religion.
Scholars have detected hymns and hymn fragments throughout the Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation utilizing various criteria including introductory phrases (e.g., “therefore it says,” Eph 5:14), poetic parallelism, special uses of relative pronouns and participles, the presence of unusual vocabulary and rhyming features, and disruptions to the context. Although not all scholars agree, there is a general consensus that the following passages represent early Christian hymns: Rom 11:33-36, Phil 2:6-11, Col 1:15-20, 1 Tim 3:16, 1 Pet 2:21-24, Heb 1:3-4, Rev 4:8-11 and 19:1-4. These hymns may have been preformed traditions quoted or alluded to by a writer or spontaneous compositions understood to be Spirit-inspired. Some hymns are so clear and self-contained that later generations of Christians name them (e.g., the Magnificat = Luke 1:46-55; the Benedictus = Luke 1:68-79). The New Testament contains both hymns to Christ and to God the Father demonstrating a binitarian shape to early Christian devotion. Furthermore, the content of early Christian hymns is directed to soteriological themes such as creation, incarnation, and redemption. For early Christ believers hymnic praise was essentially a response to God’s saving actions in Christ.
Though not all agree, many scholars think that the earliest extant Christian hymn is the hymn to Christ found in Phil 2:6-11. The hymn consists of two parts. The first narrates the descent and humiliation of the pre-existent Jesus to become a man and to suffer a merciless death on the cross. The second describes the ascent and exaltation of the crucified Jesus by God to receive the adoration of every creature and confession “Jesus Christ is Lord.” This hymn functioned to recall the essential story and therefore had a didactic purpose. Paul utilized it further to make Jesus the lordly example of humility and service (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-24).
By its nature poetic or hymnic language appears to affect those who use it in significant ways. Whether it was chanted or accompanied with musical instruments, hymns were easier to memorize and recall than other forms of instruction. Therefore, it seems that early Christians used NT hymns for several purposes: (1) to instruct, (2) to express praise and thanks to God, (3) to confess faith, (4) to form communal identity, and (5) to provide an example for proper behavior.
In his book Echoes of Scripture in the Gospel (Baylor University Press, 2016) Richard Hays makes a compelling case that the four NT Gospels, taken together and individually, identify Jesus as the embodiment (incarnation) of the God of Israel. He reaches this conclusion after probing the Jewish and Old Testament roots of the Gospel stories.
Now this presents a challenge to a number of scholars who have assumed that Gospels like Mark and Luke offer a “low” Christology, that is, an image of Jesus as prophet and Messiah but not divine. He goes on to say that it may be time to retire terms like “high” and “low” Christology because they presuppose a developmental scheme, a movement from low to high or human to divine as if these categories can be easily distinguished. Scholars such as Maurice Casey, Jimmy Dunn and, more recently, Bart Ehrman have made the developmental case. The presupposition driving such analyses has been that the first Jewish followers of Jesus would have been prevented from associating the man Jesus with the God of Israel because of their monotheistic heritage. Once the Jesus movement drifted into Gentile territory where there were gods-a-plenty, such scruples could be easily compromised.
Hays is quick to say that bold, even audacious claims about Jesus’ linkage with the God of Israel do not preclude the Gospels’ portrayal of “human” Jesus, a Jesus who truly suffers and dies, a Jesus who hungers, thirsts, grows weary, like the rest of us. For the evangelists it was not an all or nothing proposition.
I’m sympathetic with Hays’ call to retire the terms. But I’m not sure what to put in their place. Is there a single term which can unite those claims that Jesus is human like the rest of us with Jesus is divine like the God of Israel? In private correspondence Prof. Hays writes that he likes the phrase used by Richard Bauckham “divine identity Christology.” But does this reflect sufficiently the full and true humanity of Jesus? I have also used that phrase because I find it useful.
In a sense that is what these discussions are about; how might we frame the Jesus-talk of the earliest Christians? Other than repeating and explaining what we sense they meant when they used titles and echoed Scriptural language and applied it to Jesus we are often in search for language which describes, portrays, and otherwise adequately reflects these convictions.
I have to confess I’m partial to the language of “low” and “high” Christology for a number of reasons. Despite the assumption of development from low to high culturally and chronologically with which the phrases are often laden, I think the terms can be useful if they are carefully nuanced. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a mug-carrying member of the Early High Christology Club. Still, I’d be interested to know if you think there is language out there which might help us have more fruitful discussions about early Christology.
A few days ago I posted a brief review of Dr. Crispin Fletcher-Louis’ recent book, Jesus Monotheism (Cascade, 2015). This particular volume is entitled Christological Origins: The Emerging Consensus and Beyond. I made a statement in trying to summarize Crispin’s position that mischaracterizes and goes beyond what he is claiming. So I want to correct the record.
Let me quote my earlier paragraph in full:
Fletcher-Louis thinks that there are antecedent traditions which anticipate the inclusion of Jesus in the divine identity (Bauckham’s phrase). While the worship of Jesus alongside God and beliefs in his divine identity are new and surprising, they could have been anticipated if we were attuned correctly to certain movements and ideas within second temple Judaism.
The sentence in question is the second sentence of that paragraph. In private correspondence Crispin indicated he agreed with the first part, that is, that including Jesus within the identity of Israel’s One God and worshipping him alongside God are new and surprising claims and actions on the part of early Jesus followers. He does not, however, agree with the second part.
In his own words (used by permission):
I agree with the first half of that sentence, but not the second. Christological monotheism is so surprising no one could have anticipated it. There are ideas in the Bible and there were movements in the Second Temple period that are in some ways conceptually continuous with Christological monotheism, but in several respects the Christian worship of Jesus and associated beliefs about him and his deity are without clear precedent. We have no evidence that anyone did anticipate the full pattern of Christ devotion that the NT texts describe (and that Hurtado has laid out in his work), and I would be rather surprised if some new text emerged that showed anyone did anticipate the full pattern. Furthermore, the evidence of the earliest Gospels is that Jesus’ followers were not expecting a messiah who would receive precisely the kind of devotion that those same followers apparently ended up giving to Jesus after his death and resurrection.
I find myself in broad agreement with Crispin on this and I’m grateful for his clarifying for me this aspect of his project which is scheduled to take four volumes to work out. Scholarship is about putting forth an idea, presenting the evidence, and drawing conclusions with the hope that you’ll get a fair hearing. I certainly want to read, understand and present his work fairly. So I’m grateful for the kind and generous way he approached me on this. Dr. Fletcher-Louis has been and continues to be an important partner in the conversation regarding how Christ devotion developed so quickly after the execution of Jesus.