How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus


In How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Larry Hurtado investigates the intense devotion to Jesus that emerged with surprising speed after his death. Reverence for Jesus among early Christians, notes Hurtado, included both grand claims about Jesus' significance and a pattern of devotional practices that effectively treated him as divine. This book argues that whatever one makes of such devotion to Jesus, the subject deserves serious historical consideration.
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In How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Larry Hurtado investigates the intense devotion to Jesus that emerged with surprising speed after his death. Reverence for Jesus among early Christians, notes Hurtado, included both grand claims about Jesus' significance and a pattern of devotional practices that effectively treated him as divine. This book argues that whatever one makes of such devotion to Jesus, the subject deserves serious historical consideration.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The title of this well-researched work by Hurtado (New Testament language, literature, & theology, Univ. of Edinburgh, Scotland; Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity) points to the methodology by which he focuses on the development of devotion to Jesus as divine in the apostolic church both historically and phenomenologically. Chapters 1-4 constitute inaugural lectures Hurtado delivered in March 2004 as part of the Deichmann Annual Lecture Series. The content of Chapters 5-8 was originally published in professional theological journals that served as a basis for the author's previous work. Finely researched, written, organized, and argued, this book posits that devotion to Jesus as divine was influenced by and adapts in new ways the religious thinking of Second Temple Judaism that would have been prevalent during Jesus' lifetime and in the immediately succeeding apostolic and subapostolic ages of the church. Hurtado's intended audience is, however, a specialized one; in Chapters 5-8, Greek vocabulary is used in exegetes of certain New Testament pericopes and verses. Recommended for upper undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty members but not recommended for public libraries.-Charlie Murray, Boston Univ. Sch. of Theology Lib. & Southern New Hampshire Univ., Manchester Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802828613
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 11/2/2005
  • Pages: 246
  • Sales rank: 1,092,967
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Larry W. Hurtado is professor emeritus of New Testament language, literature, and theology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.
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How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?

Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus
By Larry W. Hurtado

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2006 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2861-2


The title of this book is deliberately provocative, but I do not wish to offend anyone. It expresses a double entente that captures two key emphases in the following pages. The one connotation in the title is how remarkable it is that Jesus of Nazareth came to be revered in the most exalted terms, and so early, in the religious movement dedicated to him that became what we call "Christianity." "How on earth" (to use a common English idiom of wonder) did this treatment of Jesus as divine happen? This reverence for Jesus included both grand claims about his significance and also a pattern of devotional practices in which he figured centrally and in ways that amount to him being treated as divine. In the Roman-era religious environment of the early churches, this devotion to Jesus effectively comprised treating him like a god. This is the premise for the following chapters, which reflect an effort to engage this keen devotion to Jesus as a subject for historical investigation.

This brings me to the other part of the double entente. How "on earth" - that is, how in historical terms - did Jesus come to hold such a status among early Christians? Of course, in traditional Christian faith, Jesus of Nazareth is the personal, human embodiment of thesecond person of the Trinity, and simply was divine from "before all time" (to use an ancient Christian creedal expression). But, whatever the validity of this traditional Christian view, the historical question remains: How did early Christians "on earth" come to see Jesus as divine and revere him as such? That is the key question that shapes the discussion in this book.

I am not primarily concerned here with considering the legitimacy of devotion to Jesus. That is a valid religious question, but more suitable for a study in Christian apologetics, or for a theological tome. Nor am I particularly concerned here with exploring the meaning of devotion to Jesus for contemporary Christian thought and practice. The latter likewise would be suitable for a theological treatise or perhaps a study intended to promote Christian reflection and piety. Christian apologetics, theological reflection, and the shaping and promoting of Christian piety are all, in principle, fully legitimate efforts. But these are not the focus or intention here.

Instead, this book represents an attempt to describe and understand in historical terms and as a historical phenomenon the devotion to Jesus that (as we shall see) characterized Christianity from a very (perhaps surprisingly) early point. To take this sort of historical approach does not necessarily signal or require either a disdain for questions about the validity and continuing meaning of devotion to Jesus or any particular answer to such questions. For example, one can certainly treat devotion to Jesus thoroughly as a historical phenomenon without denying thereby that it also may represent a response to the revelation of God. But, whatever the answers to religious and theological questions, I urge the validity and usefulness of the kind of historical analysis that I offer here.

For the past twenty-five years or so, I have devoted a good deal of effort to this historical investigation. In various publications, most recently in a large volume, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, I have offered the fruits of that effort. In the present, much smaller book, I draw upon this work and those publications (as well as the work of a large number of other scholars of previous and contemporary time). I write here particularly (but not exclusively) for those who find the topic of interest and who would appreciate a more compact presentation of some of the important issues involved.

Early Christian devotion to Jesus certainly justifies attention, for it is remarkable in a number of respects. First, of course, this high reverence for Jesus in early Christian circles contrasts strongly with the very negative treatment of him by others, both during his historic lifetime and thereafter. Initially, Jesus was probably a follower of the fiery contemporary prophet of national repentance known as John "the Baptizer," but after John's arrest and execution by Herod Antipas (the Roman client-ruler of Galilee), Jesus emerged more saliently as a prophet-like figure in his own right. He clearly and quickly became a controversial and polarizing figure for many, perhaps most, who had occasion to consider him seriously, and he remains so today.

By all indications, during his own historic lifetime Jesus became known in at least parts of Roman Judea through proclaiming the imminent arrival of God's "kingdom." To judge from many of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament Gospels, the coming of God's kingdom would comprise a genuine "regime change" (to borrow an expression from recent geopolitical discourse), and it represented values and purposes significantly different from those dominant in the religious and social structures of his day. In addition to proclaiming and teaching about God's kingdom, Jesus also seems to have engaged in other activities that had the effect of drawing further attention to him but were primarily intended to demonstrate something of the power and purposes of the divine kingdom that he announced. These other actions included calling a band of followers, pursuing an itinerant teaching activity, and taking controversial positions on some matters of religious practice. Both followers and opponents perceived Jesus as being able to perform miraculous healings and other deeds of supernatural power.

In view of the nearness of God's kingdom and the radical differences that it represented, Jesus seems to have urged his hearers to commence reordering their attitudes and behavior accordingly, and immediately: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:15). They were to live their lives in the "now" with a view toward, and their conduct shaped by, the future (but imminent) full manifestation of God's rule.

This is not the place to attempt a fuller account of Jesus' own message and aims, and it is not necessary to do so here. For the purposes of this book, the more crucial matter to note is that Jesus' activities clearly generated responses that ranged from a devoted following to mortal opposition, and these reactions to him became much more significant than was probably realized at first. The mortal opposition was manifest in Jesus' arrest, his denunciation by the Jerusalem Temple authorities, and his brutal execution under the authority of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. In the Roman arsenal of execution measures, crucifixion was the particular option for those of lower social orders, especially those deemed guilty of threatening Roman rule. The aim was not simply to terminate an offender's life; it was a public degradation and humiliation of the victim, and was intended to exhibit to all onlookers (and it was conducted as public spectacle) the consequences of daring to challenge Roman authority.

But, against all odds, as it must have seemed at the time, in Jesus' case crucifixion did not have the result intended by his executioners. The form of his execution certainly indicated that he had generated severe hostility. But his grisly death did not by any means end the controversy that he had ignited over what to make of him and his message. Instead, with surprising rapidity, the controversy only became greater, and his followers exhibited a much more startling level of devotion to him. Perhaps within only a few days or weeks of his crucifixion, Jesus' followers were circulating the astonishing claim that God had raised him from death and had installed him in heavenly glory as Messiah and the appointed vehicle of redemption. Moreover, and still more astonishing, these claims were accompanied by an emerging pattern of devotional practices in which Jesus figured with an unprecedented centrality. For example, Jesus' name was invoked as part of the process of initiation into the early circles of those who identified themselves with reference to Jesus. In short, from a surprisingly early point after his death, Jesus' followers were according to him at a level of devotion that far exceeded their own prior and impressive commitment to him during his lifetime. As I show later in this book (especially in Chapter Two), in the earliest extant artifacts of the Christian movement (texts written scarcely more than twenty years after Jesus' death), we see an amazingly exalted level of devotion to Jesus which at that early point was already commonplace among circles of his followers spread across a wide geographical area.

This devotion to Jesus was also momentous for all subsequent Christianity, which is another important reason to devote careful attention to questions about how and when it developed. Indeed, I contend that the energetic and sometimes complex early Christian efforts to articulate doctrines about Jesus and God in the next few centuries were practically demanded and significantly shaped by the intense devotion to Jesus that we see already expressed in our earliest evidence of the young Christian movement.

It is not possible in this volume to address all the texts and phenomena involved. Instead, I aim here to focus on some key historical issues, in the light of which I believe it will be easier to consider the significant body of remaining matters. I emphasize that I focus here on historical issues and questions, and that no particular personal stance is presumed on the part of the reader. The chronological scope is limited roughly to the first and early second centuries, with particular attention to the earliest evidence and the first-century developments.

The eight chapters of this book represent two collections of studies. The first four chapters (which derive from my four Deichmann lectures) form one collection, and the remaining four chapters derive from previously published journal articles that are devoted to some key issues raised in the first four chapters. It may be helpful for me to sketch a bit further how these studies hang together.

Of course, mine is by no means the first serious effort to deal with these important historical questions. Over the many years of modern scholarly investigation, a number of approaches have been tried. In Chapter One, I give a critical review of various historical approaches to understanding the emergence of Jesus-devotion, indicating the problems in those I find unsatisfactory, and sketching the main features of the approach that I favor. I focus on current scholarly alternatives and key exponents of them. This chapter will help readers to place my discussion on a "map" of current scholarly debate. My main point in this chapter is that earliest devotion to Jesus was a notable phenomenon that justifies a serious effort to understand it in historical terms.

In Chapter Two, I follow up on this by laying out the major evidence and factors that I believe require us to see the emergence of Jesus-devotion as a development initially within circles of Second-Temple devout Jews. That is, in this sense, devotion to Jesus initially appeared historically as an innovation in Second-Temple Jewish religion. I also emphasize in this chapter that in the crucial early decades of the young Christian movement, Jesus' exalted status was consistently affirmed in relation to the one God of biblical tradition. Devotion to Jesus was combined with a continuing monotheistic stance that promoted the disdain for participation in the worship of the many other deities of the Roman religious environment. In early Christian circles, however, this exclusivist stance also accommodated reverence for Jesus. But these early believers did not assent to the charge that they worshipped two deities. They insisted that Jesus' exalted status "at God's right hand" had been affirmed by the one God, and they saw their reverence of Jesus as obedience to the will of the one God who had given Jesus heavenly glory with the intention of all creation acclaiming Jesus as Lord.

In Chapter Three, I discuss some of the social and political consequences of devotion to Jesus for early Christians, particularly the negative consequences, the social costs of being a Christian in the earliest period. It is reasonable to suppose that the actual level of negative consequences experienced by Christians varied, and I do not intend to suggest that all believers were subject to any and all of the sorts of experiences and stresses that I refer to in this chapter. But it is fairly clear that a good many Christians did face the possibility of paying social costs for their faith, ranging from ridicule to much more painful opposition, whether from family members or wider social circles. And some Christians did find that their faith even led to trouble with the political authorities (usually local authorities). As I note, this was apparently rather more uncommon initially, but by the early second century things were looking a bit more widely ominous, at least for some Christian leaders.

In Chapter Four, I narrow the focus down to one particular text from a letter of the Apostle Paul, Philippians 2:6-11, which is widely acknowledged among scholars in Christian origins as one of the most important early expressions of devotion to Jesus. I engage here in amore detailed and sustained analysis of this one text, which I offer as a "case study" of a key passage that probably takes us back to within the first couple of decades of the Christian movement. This particular passage, widely thought to comprise the wording of an early Christian ode or hymn used in worship, has received an enormous amount of attention by scholars, which illustrates its historical importance. In spite of the many previous discussions of the passage, I hope to contribute something further to our appreciation of this fascinating text.

In my approach to early Christian devotion, I make frequent reference to ancient Jewish "monotheism" and its importance for relevant historical matters. "Monotheism" is a modern scholarly term, and not one used in the ancient sources. Moreover, there are controversies associated with the term in current scholarly debate. Some voices even question whether it is appropriate to ascribe "monotheism" to Roman-era Jewish religion. In Chapter Five I engage these controversies and try to indicate how and why it is appropriate to refer to Second-Temple Jewish religion as "monotheistic." If, as I contend, earliest Christianity emerged in the matrix of Second-Temple Jewish tradition, then it is important to have as accurate a grasp as we can obtain of what that religious tradition comprised. More particularly, I argue that the remarkable nature of earliest devotion to Jesus is more clearly appreciated when we see it in the context of ancient Jewish concerns about the uniqueness of the one God.

In Chapter Six I take up the question of how early Christian devotion might compare with, and be related to, the sort of stance toward Jesus that likely characterized his followers in the time of his own historical career. I analyze the way that the four canonical Gospels (our earliest narrative traditions about Jesus) portray people giving homage to Jesus, and I focus particularly on the use of the Greek term proskynein (meaning "to reverence, give homage, worship"). I contend that, although it is entirely likely that those who accepted Jesus' message about the kingdom of God gave Jesus homage and reverence, the level of cultic reverence that characterized early Christian churches represents a considerable further elevation of devotion.

Some scholars have expressed doubt, however, that the devotion to Jesus that I underscore really amounted to treating Jesus as divine in the earliest decades and in Jewish-Christian circles. Had early Jewish Christians treated Jesus as divine, had their devotion to him been seen to amount to "worship," this would have generated outrage and opposition from fellow Jews. But (so the argument goes) what indication do we have that this happened? In Chapter Seven I engage this question, showing that in fact we have clear indication that rather serious Jewish opposition to early Christian devotion to Jesus appeared early. Moreover, I argue that the level of opposition suggests that devotion to Jesus was perceived as a seriously outrageous phenomenon by some Jews concerned with protecting their religious traditions. This in turn confirms that what generated this kind of opposition likely involved treating Jesus as divine and in ways that represented a significant innovation in Jewish religious practice of the time.


Excerpted from How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? by Larry W. Hurtado Copyright © 2006 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

1 How on earth did Jesus become a god? : approaches to Jesus-devotion in earliest Christianity 13
2 Devotion to Jesus and second-temple Jewish monotheistic piety 31
3 To live and die for Jesus : social and political consequences of devotion to Jesus in earliest Christianity 56
4 A "case study" in early Christian devotion to Jesus : Philippians 2:6-11 83
5 First-century Jewish monotheism 111
6 Homage to the historical Jesus and early Christian devotion 134
7 Early Jewish opposition to Jesus-devotion 152
8 Religious experience and religious innovation in the New Testament 179
App. 1 Opening remarks to the first Deichmann annual lecture series
App. 2 Are there good reasons for studying early Christian literature at Ben-Gurion University?
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