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Hurtado focuses on two distinguishing characteristics of earliest Christian worship: its exclusivity (rejecting the worship of other deities) and its "binitarian" shape (the veneration of Christ alongside God the Father). Setting early Christianity within the religious environment of the Roman era, Hurtado describes the features of Christianity that attracted followers and led them to renounce other religions. He then turns his attention to a more detailed discussion of the place of Christ in the monotheistic worship of the earliest Christians, showing that Christ figured in their public and corporate devotional life at a surprisingly early stage. The book concludes with some reflections for Christian worship today based on the historical features of early Christian devotional practices.
Clear, illuminating, and relevant to the modern church, this volume will be of interest to scholars, pastors, students, and general readers seeking insight into the origins of Christian faith and practice.
Christian worship has a long and complex history, and this little volume is about its earliest observable stages. Over the last two decades my own research has focused on the first two centuries of the Christian movement, with special attention to the origins and early development of devotion to Christ. I have been particularly interested in the expression of this devotion in the worship setting. I am, however, a specialist in the New Testament and Christian origins, not a historian of liturgy; but I have given considerable attention to ancient Christian worship because of its significance for understanding early Christianity. At the risk of severe understatement, one of the characteristic things early Christians did was to worship. Early Christianity was, after all, a religious movement, striving to orient adherents to the divine purposes proclaimed in its gospel message. If, therefore, we want to analyse major phenomena of early Christianity, Christians' devotional practices are clearly key matters for attention. But the worship of the earliest Christians casts light on other features of the Christian movement as well. In the following chapters I approach early Christian worship by setting it within the context of the Roman world (including particularly the Jewish tradition) in which it emerged.
Scholars of the New Testament and Christian origins have tended to focus on the religious beliefs of early Christians, and the data for their studies have tended to be the verbal expressions of beliefs in early Christian texts and the vocabulary of these expressions. The verbal expressions of early Christian beliefs, for example, their 'christology', are of course important. But in the intense scholarly investigation and debate, the big questions have been what these faith expressions mean. What, for example, did early Christians mean when they called Christ their 'lord'? The Greek and Aramaic terms translated by 'lord' can carry various meanings ranging from a polite address to a social superior (e.g., 'Sir', 'master') to designating a deity. I have argued that the devotional practice of early Christians is the crucial context for assessing the meaning of their verbal expressions of beliefs about Christ. Modern linguistics has helped us to see that words, which often have a complex and diverse range of meanings, acquire their specific meaning in the context in which they are used. I contend that the specific connotation of early Christian christological titles and devotional gestures is most clearly assessed by taking full account of the worship context in which they were used. For example, addressing Jesus as 'lord' in the worship setting, using the term to invoke and appeal to Jesus, connoted something far more precise and striking than the other more general semantic possibilities of the term 'lord'. It represented addressing him in the context and way that ancients addressed the deities that they gathered to worship. To refer to Jesus as 'lord' in other settings could connote something different, such as a recognition of him as master or as leader of his devotees. But to address him as 'lord' as a feature of the collective worship of early Christian groups indicates a much more precise and exalted meaning for the term.
It also makes sense to take due account of the worship of early Christians because of the importance of worship in the Roman period as constituting and manifesting religion. In the ancient world especially, one's religion was understood and assessed in terms of how, when, and what one worshipped. Worship was seen as the characteristic and crucial expression of one's religious orientations and commitments. It is a bit puzzling to me, therefore, that a good many scholars who profess a commitment to a historical understanding of early Christianity in its original setting have not always seen how important early Christian devotional practices and patterns are. To cite one illustration of this, among the complaints made about and against Christians in the first three centuries there is the recurrent charge that they disdain the worship of the traditional gods. Clearly, the ancient critics of Christians saw their cultic behaviour as a major and defining feature. When Christians were put on trial (as reflected, for example, in the famous letter of Pliny to Trajan, and in the Martyrdom of Polycarp), it was demanded that they perform certain cultic gestures, such as calling upon the gods, offering incense to the image of the Emperor and ritually cursing Jesus. In any account of early Christianity that seeks to take account of the historical context, therefore, the devotional practices and scruples of Christians should be central.
In its ancient Roman context, two features in particular characterised and distinguished early Christian worship. First, it was exclusivist, with disdain for the worship of the many deities of the Roman environment, and, secondly, it involved devotion offered exclusively to the God of the Bible and to Christ. These two features are in fact eloquent indicators of the importance of the topic of this book and provide the logic for its content and for the lectures from which it arose. Thus the first two chapters take as their premise the exclusivity of early Christian worship in the context of the Roman world, while the third chapter focuses on what I term the 'binitarian shape' of earliest Christian worship, with God and Christ as the two exclusive recipients of the worship of believers who considered themselves to be true and devout monotheists.
In chapter 1 I sketch the Roman religious environment of Christians, especially those first-century Gentile Christians who lived in cities outside of Roman Palestine. My aim is not to be exhaustive or to provide a catalogue of deities and religious movements. Instead, I offer a general characterization aimed at conveying something of the place and roles of religion in the lives of people. I want to emphasise how varied, prominent, pervasive and popular the practice of religion was, probably for most people. For early Gentile Christians to disdain and renounce the religious practices of their pre-conversion lives meant to turn away from colourful and engaging cultic customs that offered a great deal to devotees. It also meant abandoning a central feature of common life in Roman cities and a major component in the things that united families and peoples. We cannot appreciate early Christian worship unless we keep before our eyes the fact that for Gentile Christians it represented a replacement cultus. It was at one and the same time both a religious commitment and a renunciation, a stark and demanding devotional stance with profound repercussions.
In chapter two I move on to an attempt to describe some general features of early Christian worship. Here my concern is to address the question of what devotees seem to have derived from their corporate devotional practice. They were expected to give up the rich religious 'pagan' fare on offer in the Roman world. What did they derive from their Christian worship, which was to be their sole legitimate worship? Here we look at the setting and practices of first-century Christian worship, and the ways that Christians attributed large and powerful significance to their worship. We shall see that for early Christians their Christian worship gatherings provided alternative opportunities for shared religious experiences and the communal identity that they had formerly found in their pagan religious practices. Also, we shall see how early Christian worship was endowed with rich meaning, even with transcendent significance, though it would have been seen outwardly as rather unimpressive in comparison with the often elaborate and striking ceremonies of the Roman environment.
Then, in chapter three, I turn to a rather detailed discussion of the place of Christ in the monotheistic worship of early Christians. Here I return to, and expand upon, an earlier itemised analysis of the cultic actions directed toward Christ and the way that Christ figures in the Christians' public and corporate devotional life. Both in an earlier book and in this chapter, I aim to demonstrate that Christ was given the sorts of devotion that we can properly understand as full cultic worship, and that we can rightly describe Christian worship of the earliest observable decades as genuinely 'binitarian'. That is, I contend that at this surprisingly early stage Christian worship has two recipients, God and Christ, yet the early Christians understand themselves as monotheists and see their inclusion of Christ in their devotional life as in no way compromising the uniqueness of the one God to whom they had been converted through the gospel. This topic has been the subject of a good deal of investigation and debate in recent years, and so I engage a number of other scholars in this chapter, especially in the many notes.
These three chapters of historical investigation are followed by a final chapter directed toward questions about contemporary Christian worship. The discussion and views in the first three chapters do not presuppose any particular faith standpoint and will, I hope, be of some value to anyone with a historical interest in early Christianity. In this final chapter I write as a worshipping Christian, drawing upon scholarly research and offering some reflections intended to help shape Christian worship today. Those readers who have no personal interest in the contemporary practice of Christian faith are free to ignore the final chapter, of course. But I invite those who for any reason do not share Christian faith but who may find it interesting to 'listen in' on one Christian addressing others about worship to consider this discussion as well as the historically oriented discussion in the first three chapters. I have neither the competence nor the space in this book to attempt anything but reflections on a selection of points that have to do with how Christians might regard their worship today and seek to inform it by the emphases and character of Christian worship in its foundational period.