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The following is a book review of the pope’s book on Jesus: Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: From The Baptism In the Jordan To the Transfiguration (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007). In this book Ratzinger applies a methodology he discusses more fully elsewhere, I have attempted to describe Ratzinger’s methodology before reviewing the book, asking whether he is true to his own methodology. Thus a full bibliography and all footnotes appear at the end of the post.
THE REQUEST FOR AUTHENTIC EXEGESIS: RATZINGER’S PROPOSAL
The quest for the historical Jesus has led to a dizzying “jungle” of contradictory reconstructions that make the possibility of having friendship with Jesus seem like “clutching at thin air.” Ratzinger thinks there is an urgent need for “a criticism of criticism”—that is, a criticism of historical criticism. He offers an alternative approach that he hopes will, in the end, make Jesus more “intelligible” than the litany of speculative reconstructions. Ratzinger wants to take us from the quest for the historical Jesus to the request for authentic exegesis.
Proposing the Methodological Synthesis
Ratzinger only articulates what he considers a viable alternative methodology for biblical interpretation after first criticizing what he considers to be the dominant methodology: the exclusive use of the historical-critical method. Thus, his articulation has two aspects: a negative critique and a positive alternative. The latter should be understood in light of the former. The problem, as Ratzinger sees it, with the dominant methodology is at least twofold. First, the historical-critical method, although yielding great insights, has an inherent limitation: it must limit itself only to the past, and therefore has an inability to speak to the present, and 2) it excludes a priori the supernatural and thereby “determines in advance what may or may not be.” If the former negative critique is self-explanatory (the historical method is proper concerned, not with making a text “speak” to today, but only with history) the latter needs more explanation.
Ratzinger believes that the dominant methodology in biblical interpretation, taking its direction from the historical-critical methodology, attempts to impose the scientific method of natural sciences on biblical interpretation. He believes the most influential application of this methodology has taken the form of a “simplistic transferal of science’s evolutionary model to spiritual history.” Although the details of biblical interpretation are debated, Ratzinger believes the dominant methodology for modern exegesis is the same. The presupposition of this “scientific” (read: naturalistic) method is that all reports of supernatural phenomenon in the Bible must be assumed to be non-historical and explained by way of evolutionary development of some sort from the simple to the complex. That is, the Bible is divided into pieces that come from various hypothetical sources, which pieces contradict each other because they are snapshots of the different stages of the development of Christology. Because this application depends on the naturalistic presuppositions of the historical-critical method—and on the Kantian premise that “the other” is unintelligible or unknowable—the “debate” over exegesis is not so much about history, Ratzinger argues, but more about philosophy. “Faith itself is not a component of this method, nor is God a factor to be dealt with in historical events.”
Once one understands this negative critique, Ratzinger’s proposal for an alternative methodology is more easily apprehended. First, the exegete cannot exclude the possibility that God could “speak” in human words and also “act” in history. To do so would confuse the distinction between a naturalistic methodology (explaining history in purely naturalistic ways) and a naturalistic worldview (that excludes the possibility anything supernatural). Second, one must supplant the assumption of discontinuity (derived from the evolutionary model) with one of “organic continuity” between the Old and New Testaments. Ratzinger calls this the analogia scripturae (the analogy of scripture) in which one assumes that Bible is indeed a unified book, coherent and intelligible. After all, this is the way the church—who accepted the canonical literature as a whole—understood it.
With these principles at work, the process of exegesis is twofold. First one must interpret the text in light of its historical origins and proper historical context. This part of exegesis is indespensible because “it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events.” Second, one must go beyond this to understand the texts in light of what Ratzinger calls “the total movement of history” and in light of Jesus Christ as the center of that history. This second step involves what Ratzinger calls a “Christological hermeneutic.” It also involves the aforementioned analogia scripturae which Ratzinger understands to be based in practice of canonical exegesis. He also believes this canonical approach allows for human utterances to have more meaning than what the human author may have been “immediately aware of at the time.” Only by combining these two steps in a methodological synthesis can one arrive at an authentic understanding of the Bible.
I will now limit my critique to just three chapter’s of Ratzinger’s book.
Chapter 1: The Baptism of Jesus
The first thing to note about Ratzinger’s first chapter in Jesus of Nazareth on Jesus’ baptism is that Ratzinger has certainly employed a Christological hermeneutic. He understands the genealogies, as well as the baptism of Jesus, to have a universal scope—and this places Jesus as the centerpiece of real history. Ratzinger makes the case that Jesus’ baptism should be understood as a repetition of all of world history (both past and future) where Jesus wins a cosmic battle with the Devil who holds all people captive. Since his baptism is an anticipation of the cross and resurrection, it is Jesus’ descent into the inferno (the underworld) and his taking on the sins of the whole world as one who is equal with God which also makes him and “the true Jonah.”
Ratzinger gets to these sorts of conclusions, however, by a complicated series of claims and associations that he does not sufficiently ground. He himself appreciates how easily it could appear that he has strayed from the text, for he asks “Has this ecclesiastical interpretation and rereading of the event of Jesus’ Baptism taken us too far away from the Bible?” He then seeks to show how this is not the case by arguing that John’s “lamb symbolism” includes all this. He appeals to Joachim Jeremias briefly in support. To be fair, the imagery that connects Jesus with the Passover lamb may establish Jesus as the one who, through his death, saves Israel, and on Isaiah and John the Baptist’s words, “the whole world.” Yet it is not clear how this necessarily entails the gospel writer’s wanting us to see Jesus’ baptism as a recapitulation of all of world history and a descent into hell. There is a considerable gap, then, between the ambitious exegetical points that Ratzinger wants to make here, and the legwork he exercises to establish his points well. Other problems appear with his exegesis. For example, he supports his claim that Jesus descended into hell by citing Cyril of Jerusalem, but this is neither a responsible Christological hermeneutic or historical-critical method—it is an appeal to a church father.
Ratzinger also fails to seriously engage the historical-critical method. When he seeks to support his claims by appealing to others scholars, this is the exception. In fact, it is so rare that it appears random. Why, for example, does he appeal to Gnilka to support his association of the Spirit with the dove of Jesus’ baptism, but not offer any scholarly backing on the rest of his analysis of the symbolism of John’s baptism or his suggestion that Jesus and John were possibly close to the Qumran community? For the most part, he simply makes all sorts of associations and claims about the text without taking the time to carefully explain how he is confident that his interpretation is well supported. For example, he tells us the key to understanding Jesus’ response to John (about fulfilling all righteousness) is in understanding the word “righteousness” as this: Jesus’ “Yes to God’s will” and his expression of solidarity with all mankind—even a “confession of guilt and a plea for forgiveness.” Exactly how Ratzinger knows all this is unclear, for he does not offer any lucid exegetical argumentation.
He bases a great deal of his analysis on his understanding of the ritual of Baptism during Jesus time. He asserts that baptism, through its water symbolism, had at least six different meanings (death, life, purification, liberation, new beginnings, resurrection). He does not take the trouble to give the reader indication of whether there are differences or uncertainties among biblical critics about the symbolism of baptism in Second Temple Judiasm or among the Essenes. The way he makes so many claims about the meanings of John’s baptism one is left to assume Ratzinger must believe there is simply unanimous agreement about such questions. He treats them as certain and uncontroversial, then bases his further conclusions on them. He simply tells us that the water of baptism was a symbol of death because the waters were associated with the destructive powers of ocean floods, and yet it was also a symbol of life since rivers were a source of life. But how do we know that this is how John the Baptist was likely to understand his baptism? How likely is it that John the Baptist—possibly being an Essene—would have incorporated all these possible symbolisms (some of which are opposite in meaning) into his water baptism? Ratiznger gives us no confidence that he is grounding what he says on careful study. He simply continues to add more and more meaning to the symbolism—it also means “purification” (in what sense?), liberation from the past (how do we know?), and therefore new birth.
Finally, in terms of the more critical questions about the legitimacy of gospel authorship, the authenticity of the texts he quotes from, whether the gospel writers might be giving a “supernatural” spin to natural events—all these sorts of critical questions are ignored. The answers to these questions, however, are assumed: the gospel writers are to be trusted. Not once does Ratzinger really call into question the truth of their accounts. For example, he makes passing mention of Jesus being equal to God. He simply notes in passing (and with excitement) that all the anticipations of Jesus baptism have “now become reality”! While Ratzinger remains faithful to his promise to go beyond the historical-critical method and take a faith-posture to the text, those who expected a serious engagement with the historical-critical method are likely to be very disappointed by his neglect to establish his assumptions.
Chapter Six: The Disciples
Chapter six is full of digressions that do not appear to relate to the text Ratizinger hopes to exegete. After pointing out that Jesus sent the disciples to preach and cast out demons, he somehow winds up making the point that when we belong to Jesus the allure of everything else in the world looses its power. Ratzinger then makes the point that to “exorcise” the world is to establish “reason,” which reminds him of a passage from one of Paul’s letters and a quote from Heinrich Schlier about the threat of the “anonymous atmosphere.” These points all seem miles away from the concern of the text. They are more like devotional meditations than an exegesis of the passages under consideration. That is not to say that I cannot see the purported connections that Ratzinger is trying to make—they just do not seem appropriate for someone attempting an exegetical approach to scripture (read: they are not, strictly speaking, points from the text).
I find him in a similar excursion when after noting that Jesus gave the apostles power to heal the sick and blind, he explains how becoming spiritually one with God is true healing, which is a process. One must also, in this process of healing, use her power of “reason.” Now is all that really the point of Jesus’ giving the disciples power to heal the deaf, dumb, and blind in the gospels? If so, it is not obvious, and Ratzinger does not make any such argument.
This is not to say that Ratzinger makes no effort at interacting with scholarly work in this chapter. For example, he appeals to recent scholarship to clarify that “the Cananaean” means “the Zealot”; he shows knowledge that some manuscripts have Christ sending out seventy two disciples to preach and heal (rather than seventy); he dismisses some scholars who argue that “Boanerges” indicates that John and James were associated with the Zealot movement, etc. However, overall, his treatment of the text does not seem very focused. He deviates from the exegetical task so often and for so long that he has to keep writing: “Let us return to our text” (because there is no other smooth transition back to the text!). This makes his engagement with exegesis superficial. One sometimes gets the impression that he only interacts with exegetical points long enough to springboard into a devotional thought.
Chapter Nine: Peter’s Confession and the Transfiguration
Chapter nine betrays a more sustained focus and better interaction with historical-critical scholarship. The gospel writers, Ratzinger argues, want us to see Peter’s confession only in tandem with the his suffering on the cross. He grounds this premise in the structure of the synoptic gospels, and therefore in the text. He also places his understanding of the confession in John on the structure of John’s gospel. I find his meditation about world religions having a “correct” but inadequate understanding of Jesus much closer to the text than some of his other detours. He sustains a meaningful interaction with Pierre Grelot in which he gives arguments and reasons for concluding that Grelot’s historical reconstruction is “on the wrong track” and asserts that “scholarship overplays its hand” in such reconstructions. Also, Ratzinger gives us an idea of different ways people have interpreted the time references in the story of the transfiguration before revealing which understanding he favors.
Nevertheless, pieces of the exegesis in chapter nine are still debatable, and some of them lack serious interaction with the historical-critical method. His assumption that the disciples understood Jesus’ divinity before his resurrection is debatable, and engagement with differing opinions of scholars on this issue would have been more helpful. In his discussion of the Feast of Tabernacles, he does not give his sources for the three aspects of Jewish feasts. Is this threefold designation the way Jews summarize the meaning of all their feasts or is this simply expedient for making a Christological point? One is left to wonder. Also, his point that Jesus’ glow during the Transfiguration came from “within” whereas Moses came from “without” is not in the text.
Conclusion: Practicing The Methodological Synthesis
One might agree with Ratzinger’s methodological proposal as stated above, yet be unhappy about the way he performs this method. One can understand the “rules” of a game and still loose that game by not playing well. Whether Ratzinger has the right rules for properly authentic exegesis is one question, whether he has played the game well by them well is quite another. In order for Ratzinger to play well by the rules he has set out, he must first do justice to the insights of the historical-critical method (step one) and then surpass these insights through a faith-wrought Christological hermeneutic that does justice to the analogia scripturae. As my analysis shows, Ratzinger delivers on his promise to employ a Christological hermeneutic (step 2). Still one might wish at times that he would employ this hermeneutic more responsibly, and it should be clear that there will be a wide range of understandings about how this part of his synthesis is to be executed.
The question of whether he delivers on his promise to give serious attention to the historical-critical method is more debatable. Since according to Ratzinger’s own categories, the historical-critical method does not require faith, it should be noted that the majority of Ratzinger’s insights assume and require faith on the part of the interpreter. This indicates that the bulk of his book is an attempt to harvest the fruits of his understanding of the Christological hermeneutic. Since whatever insights appear to require faith, according to his terms, should not be counted as insights proper to the historical-critical method, it should be clear that while Ratzinger has included this step in his methodology, he has used it only sparsely.
This raises a further question. Does Ratzinger intend to ground his Christological method in some way on the historical-critical method? Since the methodology as Ratzinger lays it out has numbered steps, we should be inquiring about whether he applies these steps in their numerical order. In fact, however, it does not appear that he has even remotely attempted to systematically begin with the historical-critical method before moving to draw his Christological insights. Therefore, either he has failed his own method or—what is more likely—the numbering of his steps was not intended to be understood as an ordering of the steps. If this is the case, given Ratzinger’s performance as evaluated above, it seems appropriate to ask: Can the authentic exegete get carried away with drawing all sorts of Christological points in his exegesis while paying scarce attention to the historical-critical method?
Crandall, G. Allan. Review of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger. Dialog 47, no. 1 (2008): 82 – 84.
Hays, Richard B. Review of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger. First Things, no. 175 (Ag-S 2007): 49 – 53.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. Review of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger. Modern Theology 24, no. 2 (2008): 318 – 320.
Morgan, Robert. Review of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, by Joseph Ratzinger. Expository Times 119, no. 6 (2008): 282 – 283.
Ratzinger, Joseph. “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today.” This World: A Journal of Religion and Public Life. Reprint N.p., Summer 1988.
________. Jesus of Nazareth: From The Baptism In the Jordan To the Transfiguration. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007.
 Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: From The Baptism In the Jordan To the Transfiguration (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007), xvi.
 Joseph Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today,” in This World: A Journal of Religion and Public Life, Reprint N.p. (Summer 1988): 6.
 Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, xxii.
 Ibid., xvi.
 Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” 16.
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid., 8. “It goes without saying that the form-critical works of Dibelius and Bultmann have in the meantime been surpassed and in many respects corrected in their details. But it is likewise true that their basic methodlogical approaches continue even today to determine the methods and procedures of modern exegesis. Their essential elements underlie more than their own historical and theological judgments and, to be sure, these have widely achieved an authority like unto dogma.”
 Ibid, 13.
 Ibid., 14. “It is with this basic conviction that Bultmann, with the majority of modern exegetes, read the Bible. He is certain that it cannot be the way it is depicted in the Bible, and he looks for methods to prove the way it really had to be.”
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 16. “He may not exclude a priori that (almighty) God could speak in human words in the world. He may not exclude that God himself could enter into and work in human history, however improbable such a thing might at first appear.” This also corresponds to Ratzinger’s language about giving equal weight to both “word” and “event.” Ibid., 17.
 Ibid. “Such evidence is admissible only under the presupposition that the principle of scientific method, namely that ever effect which occurs can be explained in terms of purely immanent relationships within the operation itself, is not only valid methodologically but is true in and of itself.”
 Ibid., 17.
 Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, xv.
 Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” 17.
 Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, xix.
 Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” 17.
 Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, 20.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 15-16.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 174.
 Ibid., 174 – 175.
 Ibid., 176 – 177.
 Ibid., 177.
 Ibid., 177 – 179.
 Ibid., 172, 177.
 Ibid., 287.
 Ibid., 289.
 Ibid., 291.
 Ibid., 303.
 Ibid., 306.
 Ibid., 304 – 305.
 Ibid., 307.
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.