The conventional answers to questions about how Christianity began cover a wide spectrum of unverifiable beliefs. How did such a small band of Jesus followers turn the world upside down so quickly? Of course, most Christians would say that the bodily resurrection and outpouring of the Spirit had a lot to do with it. But secular studies that cannot explain Christian origins by recourse to “faith” or the supernatural tend to have quite different stories about how Christianity originated and about who Jesus really was as a historical figure.
The most popular version of Christian origin theories accounts for Christian beginnings by proposing that Jesus was probably just a prophet, but, over time, his followers who admired him so greatly began to worship him as a god. Making this sort of narrative even more historically credible, the Jews who were spread far and wide throughout the Roman Empire in the ancient world (far away from the “orthodox” center in Jerusalem) were more susceptible to pagan influence. This makes the story easy to tell: Jesus was a charismatic Jewish prophet who, when many Jews in the diaspora became convinced that he was the Messiah and inaugurated the Kingdom of God, began to worship him as a god contrary to Jewish Orthodoxy. This was the inevitable influence of pagan religiosity among the Jews of the diaspora: a syncretism of Jewish Messianic theology and pagan religion.
This narrative is easy to follow and quite believable. But does it fit the earliest evidence for Christian beginnings?
Larry W. Hurtado doesn’t think so, and he’s made it his life-long labor of blood, sweat and tears to show how such a narrative simply does not take the evidence seriously. But don’t judge him too quickly: he’s not just some Bible-thumping evangelical out to scorn the unbelief of secular historians. Hurtado is also a serious historian of high caliber who sticks to the historical-critical method. He seeks to offer an alternative narrative that he claims fits the evidence much better, but without appealing to anything supernatural. The following is a summary and review of the most compact version of his argument in the following book:
Hurtado, W. Larry. How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005. Pp. vii + 234. $20.00, pb.
Hurtado’s book, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, contributes to modern studies in Christian origins. That is, it seeks to investigate Christian origins strictly on historical grounds and provide an explanation for how and when devotion to Jesus—as a historical phenomenon—originated. Systematically avoiding what he calls a “theological” or “religious” evaluation of the validity of such early Christian devotion, Hurtado consciously limits himself to a historical method (2). Hurtado’s historical method includes analysis and interpretation of the sources that provide the earliest evidence for Christianity (roughly the first and early second centuries c.e.). His work therefore demands an overlap with New Testament scholarship (5).
The original setting for the first four chapters of this book was the Deichmann Annual Lecture Series at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. The chief aim of these lectures was to show how the study of the New Testament in Israel is important for historical analysis of the Jewish religion in the Roman period (ix). However, Hurtado has combined the content of these Deichmann lectures (chapters 1-4), along with journal articles that provide further support for his positions (chapters 5-8), in order to provide a widely accessible version of his contributions (x).
The author’s main argument is that devotion to Jesus alongside the one God of the Old Testament (which included not only doctrine about Jesus but remarkable religious devotional practices) not only developed surprisingly early, but emerged as a “binitarian” mutation of Second-Temple Jewish monotheism within circles of Jewish Christians. On the one hand, since the worship practices of this binitarian monotheism involved an unprecedented level of devotion to Jesus as divine, this sets it apart from the more common “principal agent” speculations of Second-Temple Judaism (these agents were never the object of multiple worship practices as was the case with early Christian devotion). On the other hand, it was still binitarian monotheism with the kind of exclusive bent typical of the Jewish Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4 (“The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!”). These Jewish Christians did not add Jesus to a pantheon of deities or divinize him after the apotheosis model of pagan religion but rather worshiped Jesus as subordinate to the one God who they believed willed him to be worshipped in this way.
This is why Hurtado’s work has a sharp focus on establishing a few major points, such as: 1) the evidence for a high Christology is surprisingly early within the Christian movement, 2) it is only when one gives full attention to devotional practices (and not just doctrinal formulations) that the distinctness of the development of early Christian devotion can be fully appreciated, 3) this development is adequately understood only as a mutation of Jewish monotheism and not as the result of pagan religious traditions, 4) the evidence for early Jewish hostility toward Jewish Christians is most adequately and naturally accounted for if we understand Christian devotion to have offended Jews because they saw it as a serious deviation from monotheistic worship (understandably so), and 5) this significant religious mutation is sufficiently explained by analogy to the broader phenomenon of religious experiences that are perceived to be divine revelations and tend to create remarkable innovations within religious traditions.
Placing Hurtado’s Proposal Among Approaches to Christian Origins
Modern scholarship and historical investigation has produced various and conflicting approaches to Christian origins. While Hurtado is quick to acknowledge his “enormous debt” to previous studies (xii), he also aims to criticize historical proposals intended to explain the emergence of Jesus-devotion that in his view are problematic and “unsatisfactory” (6). In his first chapter, he places these approaches under three categories and gives proponents of each: 1) evolutionary proposals (e.g. Wilhelm Bousset, Burton Mack, Maurice Casey, James Dunn), 2) Jewish messianic and martyr cult proposals (e.g. William Horbury) and 3) theological inference proposals (e.g. Timo Eskola, Richard Bauckham). While he offers only preliminary critiques of these positions in this first chapter, the rest of his book sets out to marshal the evidence for his criticisms.
First Hurtado sets his approach against evolutionary proposals, particularly the religionsgeschichtliche Schule of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that sought to explain the emergence of devotion to Jesus as divine primarily as a late first century development resulting from the inevitable influence of pagan religions once Gentile converts outnumbered Jewish Christians (15-16). Wilhelm Bousset, for example, argues that worship of Jesus began with “Hellenistic Gentile” circles with a background of pagan demigods and divinized heroes (16). Bousset concludes that while the apostle Paul himself was influenced by such groups, such a “Christ cult” was not characteristic of the original Jewish Christians in Judea (16). In spite of Bousset’s impressive scholarship and what Hurtado calls the “intuitive appeal” of his position, the author complains that Bousset’s view of early Christianity and Roman-era Jewish traditions is “inaccurate and simplistic” (17).
While Maurice Casey and James Dunn differ from Bousset by rejecting the idea that Paul could have countenanced the worship of Jesus alongside God, as Hurtado sees it, their unwavering commitment to a late date for Jesus-devotion (late first century C.E.) puts them at odds with the earliest evidence (17-18). As his argument develops throughout the book, Hurtado points especially to Paul’s letter to the Philippians (ca. 60 C.E.) in which worship of Jesus as divine appears to be already developed enough for Paul to quote a Christological hymn or ode with remarkable claims about Jesus’ status in relation to God—claims that are tantamount to viewing Jesus as divine (83-106). He also invokes Pliny the Younger’s letter to the Roman Emperor Trajan (ca. 112 C.E.) in which he reports that Christians “chant antiphonally a hymn to Christ as to a god” (13). Furthermore, Dunn’s claim that there is no evidence of Jewish hostility toward Christians earlier than the Gospel of John is, by Hurtado’s estimation, “simply incorrect” (20).
For example, the synoptic gospels (understood to have been written before the Gospel of John) depict hostile Jewish authorities that accuse Jesus of blasphemy (154). Hurtado appeals to the work of D.R.A. Hare who urges that the gospel of Matthew’s “central point” in depicting such persecutions reflects tensions between Jewish authorities and the church (156). Dunn’s view is commendable to Hurtado in at least one respect, however: he is at least ready to grant more plausibility to the proposal that Christianity spawned from religious dynamics already operative within Second-Temple Jewish monotheism (19).
The second approach to fall victom to Hurtado’s critique is represented by William Horbury’s approach to Christian origins: the Jewish messianic and martyr cult proposal. By arguing that Jewish worship of messianic figures and martyrs was already well established before the rise of Christianity, Horbury explains Christianity as simply a variation of this cultic form of Second-Temple Judaism (21). Although, like Dunn’s approach, Horbury’s attempt has the commendable quality of locating the development of Christianity within the Jewish matrix (as opposed to a pagan one), Horbury’s definition of “cult” blurs the distinction between the kind of reverence shown to figures of God’s entourage (even when they are heavenly beings that appear to share attributes of God) and the kind of unprecedented devotional practices that characterize the innovations of the early Christian movement (21).
He makes the case for six distinctive devotional practices that underscore his point (28): 1) singing hymns about Jesus in worship gatherings, 2) praying to Jesus and to God through Jesus, 3) calling on Jesus’ name in baptism, healing and exorcism, 4) practicing the eucharist that invoked Jesus as “Lord” of the gathered community, 5) ritually confessioning Jesus in worship, and 6) attributing prophetic oracles to the risen Jesus (or to the Holy Spirit understood as the Spirit of Jesus). Not only is there no parallel to any one of these peculiar practices in Horbury’s examples (argues Hurtado), “the cumulative pattern of devotional practice is even more striking” (28). This is why Hurtado enumerates such practices: to show that the analogy fails miserably.
Timo Eskola and Richard Bauckham represent the third approach Hurtado finds inadequate, in which these worship practices are understood as simply the logical “next step” in light of Jesus’ exalted status, a legitimate theological inference fully appropriated (22). Eskola draws comparisons with Jewish merkavah mysticism in which God is seen to share his throne with another figure. In Eskola’s analysis, Christians simply drew the inference that if Jesus shared the divine throne with God, worship befitted this unique status. While Bauckham’s approach is more elaborate (entailing what he describes as Jesus sharing in the “divine identity” by taking on the role of creator and cosmic ruler), his account is similar to Eskola’s. Once Christians were convinced that Jesus was the creator of all and ruled over all, they were obliged to worship him as God (23).
Although this third category of “theological inference” receives praise from Hutrado inasmuch as it does justice to the early evidence for unprecedented cultic devotion to Jesus, he still finds this proposal deficient in on at least two accounts: 1) they do not explain how such remarkable convictions about Jesus arose in the first place and 2) they fail to account for why Jews did not find it logical to worship “God’s throne-companions” in other figures of Second-Temple Judaism who also shared in God’s rule and creation (e.g. God’s Wisdom or Word, 23). While Jews of this time often portrayed figures in the most lofty of terms, never did they take the “momentous step” of making them the object of cultic devotion that “in any way” comes close to the Jesus devotion of early Christians (23-24).
Evidence and Secondary Arguments
By his scrutiny of these three approaches to Christian origins, Hurtado establishes his chief concerns. The claims he makes in chapter one by way of pithy critique he develops and bolsters with further argumentation throughout the rest of his book. I will give a few examples to show how many of his subsequent points fit with the main concerns already mentioned.
Proposals of Christian origins must take seriously the dating of early Christian sources (especially Paul’s letters). They must also do justice to the high Christology that such sources demonstrate were already developed by the time these sources originated (one can almost see Hurtado rolling his eyes every time he mentions the chronological blind eye in approaches that see Christology as an evolutionary trajectory that culminates in John’s Gospel). To call attention to this point, he devotes chapters to a closer examination of Paul’s letter to Philippians (83-106) and to early sources that show hostility to Christian devotion from Jews and pagans (56-82)—both of which help to establish that worship of Jesus as divine developed (as far as Hurtado can tell) from the earliest moments of the Christian movement. In establishing this, Hurtado hopes to dissuade future studies from what he sees as futile evolutionary proposals that fail to take seriously the volcanic nature of Christian origins.
His examination of Philippians is packed with exegetical points. In this one chapter he manages to demonstrate the fruit of an “inductive” approach (89), explain why we should not expect the Christological ode to have poetic meter (early Christians imitated the style of the biblical Psalms, 84-85), shows how the existence of the Christological ode and Paul’s failure to explain it both reflect that it was already known and affirmed (87), argues against the Adam-Christology approach to the passage on several grounds (88), highlights the importance of recognizing the emphasis of the passage indicated by the “therefore” in verse nine (“therefore, God also highly exalted him,” etc.), and shows allusions to Isaiah 45 that amount to an early “Christological midrash” (92) that also demonstrates sensitivity to a Jewish mindset (they were providing scriptural justification for Jesus’ status, 93). This chapter considerably corroborates his contention that early Christianity developed in a thoroughly Jewish mindset—not some Gnostic redeemer-myth or apotheosis model. The way in which Jesus is carefully depicted as being humbly submitted to God and receiving his high status from God betrays a sensitivity to a thoroughgoing monotheistic framework (95-96).
Perhaps most importantly, however, he draws attention to the structure of the Greek that “practically requires” one to understand Jesus’ status before his abnegation as “being equal with God,” since “being in the form of God” parallels this phrase in a way that requires us to interpret one in light of the other (100-101). If Jesus’ pre-existence and divinity are fully developed in this Christological ode that was well known by the time Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, such an ode must have developed between the time of Jesus’ execution and 60 C.E., which means that the most significant Christological development (Jesus’ equality with God) developed within the first half of the first century C.E. This is breathtakingly early.
Hurtado cashes in his distinction between Christian doctrine and Christian devotional practice (the latter of which must weight heavily in the discussion of Christian origins) in chapter two. Here he shows how it is precisely these devotional practices that distinguish Christianity from previous developments within Judaism and explains what provoked outrage among Jews (34). He further supports his claim for such devotional practices to have developed early by reference to phrases that go unexplained in Paul’s letters (e.g. Marana tha, Abba, 37). In support of his proposal that Christianity developed within Jewish circles, he rehearses widely acknowledged aspects of the earliest sources (e.g. Jesus’ own entourage were all Jews from Judea, other prominent figures in the movement were Greek speaking Jews, many Gentile converts were proselytes to the Jewish religion, even many of Paul’s fellow workers among the Gentiles were Jewish, etc., 38-39).
To add to his case that early Christianity was not likely caused by pagan influence, he argues that reasons exist for believing that after the Maccabean crisis, Jewish reaction to pagan religious influences became more hostile (41). There is no evidence, he claims, that the kind of influence non-Jewish religions had on Jews—such as seen in the often cited example of Philo who was influenced by Greek philosophy—was the kind of influence that led Jews to consciously overturn the core of their monotheistic tradition (40). His clincher is this: the earliest Christian sources show an antipathy towards pagan religion in general on the grounds of monotheism in particular (42-45).
If Hurtado will not accept the dominant theories of Christian origins, then he must explain a more plausible scenario in which such drastic innovations might have taken shape. To put it simply: if pagan influence is not the culprit that caused Jews to worship a human, what else could have caused them to do something so radically counter-intuitive? This is why Hurtado offers his last chapter to provide a social-scientific “conceptual model” that he understands to fit snugly with the type of innovations that characterized early Christianity (179-204).
Social-scientific studies that document how recipients of intense religious experiences tend to lead to reconfigurations of beliefs and practices of the “parent” religious tradition must be taken seriously because they provide a viable explanation for why Jewish monotheism went from one-person monotheism to two-person monotheism (“binitarian monotheism”) so swiftly after the execution of Jesus. In terms of the evidence, Hurtado suggests, the development of Christianity was less like a slow evolution and more like a Cambrian explosion. He contrasts the arguments of Anthony Wallace, Rodney Stark, Mark Mullins, Byron Earhart, and Werner Stark with other scholars who seem to arbitrarily restrict all religious innovation to “deprivation theory” in order to show that it is by no means obvious or necessary to deny religious experience a potential causal power in religious reconfigurations (186-191). He then attempts to recount how, according to our earliest sources, religious experiences seemed to be precisely the fountainhead of the innovations that caused the early Jewish Christians to start a new religion while understanding it as the further fulfillment of the previous Jewish monotheistic paradigm (192-204).
Reviews of Hurtado’s Book
As someone not in the field of Christian origin studies, I am in no position to evaluate Hurtado’s case with persuasive authority, yet his arguments appear lucid and even ingenious. Peer reviews reveal high praise but also several criticisms. As one might expect, many Christian reviews consider this book “a valuable and unique contribution” for the general interested reader even if they are partial to his more thorough book Lord Jesus Chirst: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Kruger, 370; Gooder, 34).
Common criticisms of his book are that “it makes for a rather ‘scattered’ read” or is repetitious (Kruger, 372; Gooder, 34; Parker, 376). One evangelical appears to be mildly criticizing the book for not having a chapter on how it was the bodily resurrection of Jesus that caused all the religious experiences (Stenschke, 177). This reviewer has apparently missed the point of Hurtado’s methodology. You cannot revolutionize a field of study like Christian origins by appealing to the supernatural—that is the whole genius of Hurtado’s labor, he has boldly ventured into an anti-supernatural field of study and managed to successfully point the evidence in the right direction (i.e., one that is congenial for recourse to the supernatural).
The most serious criticism I was able to find against Hurtado was by Nathaniel Morehouse of the University of Manitoba who appears to be lamenting when he writes that for those familiar with Hurtado “very little in this book will come as a surprise” (Morehouse, 615). His chief complaint is that Hurtado’s “razor-sharp focus” blinds him from exploring “other extra-Jewish options” as perhaps having a causal role in Christian origins (Morehouse, 616). He fails, however, to offer any convincing suggestions. He backs his criticism up with two points: 1) if the early churches were analogous to other Voluntary Associations they may have been persecuted for similar reasons as these groups—namely, for being illegal associations; 2) the theology that might have “resonated” with gentile Christians “might have been influenced by forms of non-Jewish religiosity” (Morehouse, 616). The first of these points escapes me. It is not clear to me exactly what part of Hurtado’s argument this necessarily undermines. The second point appears to be special pleading for a possibility that Hurtado has cast into doubt with a flood of arguments that will not easily be overturned.
Although Hurtado’s aim is to explain Christianity purely as a historical phenomenon by means of natural explanations and without providing any “religious” evaluation, by the time he is done using Ockham’s razor to cast doubt on the efficiency of theories that seek to explain the development of Christianity by going outside the community of Second-Temple Judaism, the Christian apologist would appear to have her work cut out for her. For Christians, the fountainhead for Christianity was the resurrection appearances of Jesus to the apostles (and many others) who subsequently proclaimed this resurrection with a reckless passion that compelled them even under guillotine-like pressure.
Hurtado’s historical backdrop for Christianity makes belief in the resurrection more plausible (what else would most easily explain the transformational impacts of the early Christian’s experiences and their explosive power through those who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus?). His study dignifies Christianity from the stigma of having been corrupted from its earliest decades by pagan religious influence. Ironically, it would appear that Hurtado’s approach to Christian origins, while being most strikingly in accord with recourse to the supernatural, however, happens also to be most strikingly in accord with the evidence in a way that meets the least amount of resistance from the historical-critical method. This is not to claim that his approach is without any difficulty, but his streamlining of the evidence appears much more historically intelligible than so many convoluted approaches to Jesus studies that seem to satisfy only a minority of skeptics. One hopes his persistent reinterpretation of the relevant evidence will revolutionize the field of Christian studies. Will the post-enlightenment anti-supernaturalist field of Christian origins be content with “neutral” evidence that explains Christianity purely on naturalistic terms while at the same time making a way for recourse to the supernatural appear to tell “the whole story”?
BIBLIOGRAPHY: REVIEWS CONSULTED
Gooder, Paula. 2007. Review of How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, by Larry W. Hurtado. Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29, no. 5: 34.
Jurgens, David. 2007. Review of How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, by Larry W. Hurtado. Reformed Review 60, no. 3 (Fall): 154-56.
Kruger, Michael, J. 2006. Review of How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, by Larry W. Hurtado. Westminster Theological Journal 68, no. 2 (Fall): 369-72.
Morehouse, Nathaniel. 2007. Review of How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, by Larry W. Hurtado. Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 36 no. 3-4: 615-16.
Parker, David. 2007. Review of How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, by Larry W. Hurtado. Evangelical Review of Theology 31 no. 4 (O): 376-77.
Stenschke, Christoph W. 2009. Review of How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, by Larry W. Hurtado. Evangelical Quarterly 81 no. 2 (Ap): 175-177.