Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Hurtado on early devotion to Jesus

How did Jesus become a god?
Last night I went to Macquarie University with some friends from church to hear Professor Larry Hurtado from the University of Edinburgh offer a one-off seminar on Early devotion to Jesus. It was an excellent summary of reams of material from his enormous Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (2003) and his more recent popularisation How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus.

The key claim put forward during the evening was that astonishing devotion to Jesus started almost immediately amongst Jewish believers in Jerusalem, rather than being a later development of more Hellenized Gentile converts from, say, Antioch. Hurtado claimed that more christological innovations occurred within the first handful of years after Jesus' death than in the subsequent seven centuries of theological debate during which orthodoxy was hammered out. Saul of Tarsus, for instance, was already persecuting followers of the Way for their deviant devotion to Jesus by the mid-30s.

Such devotion was not restricted to theological affirmations holding Jesus to be Israel's Messiah (and more), but was also expressed in a range of devotional practices unique amongst the Judaism of the time, such as singing hymns about Jesus, the invocation and confession of his name, prayer through and in the name of Jesus (and even occasionally to Jesus), the ritual use of his name in baptism, the sacred common meal at which Jesus was believed to preside ('the Lord's table') and prophecy in the name of Jesus (cf. Deuteronomy 13 and 17 on what to do with prophets who speak in the name anyone other than YHWH). The inclusion of Jesus with God in such corporate devotional practices was the largest discontinuity with contemporary Jewish worship for the nascent Messianic fellowship. Examples abound of second temple texts in which angelic beings eschew worship (including, for example, Revelation 19.10), so the fact that the Lamb receives it (Revelation 5.13) distinguished him from all other divine agents for the early Christians.

Yet this was no Greco-Roman apotheiosis of an outstanding individual, no addition to a pantheon of gods, since Jesus was worshipped by monotheists who continued to claim the label. Jesus was not to be worshipped apart from the Father, he had no special times or places, no separate altars or cultus, and his titles place him in reference to the Father: Son, Word, Image. Indeed, the claim of early Christians was that offering worship to Jesus was the new divinely-mandated way of worshipping aright the one God (cf. John 5.23).

At the same time, the form and focus of the canonical Gospels emphase that the one receiving the worship is the same human figure who was put to death by Pilate. This is in contrast with, for example, the Gospel of Thomas, which shows almost no interest in Jesus' historical setting and experience.

After some discussion of the social and political implications of devotion to Jesus for the early Christians (a topic overlooked in his 2003 tome, but which the shorter book treats briefly), Professor Hurtado finished his presentation with an extended discussion of Christian iconography in the second and early third century. This was both the most novel and most speculative aspect of the seminar, being only distantly related chronologically and thematically to the rest of his material. I might post more on it later.
Five points for the name of the building in the top image and its (tenuous) link to 'early' Christian devotion. Second photo by HCS.

3 comments:

Michael Canaris said...

The Roman church of Santa Maria ad Martyres, which prior to the reign in Constantinople of Phocas was known as the Pantheon. Prior to its reconsecration, it was prominent as a place in the devotions of (amongst others) apostates from Christianity to Paganism.

byron said...

Indeed - I'll give you seven rather than five points for giving so much information!

Anthony Douglas said...

Darn it. I should have thought of using Google on the dedication!