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Lord Jesus ChristDevotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity
By Larry W. Hurtado
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.
IntroductionThe indisputable centrality of the figure of Jesus in early Christian devotion is the premise for this book, and my aim is to offer a new historical description and analysis of this remarkable phenomenon. Indeed, the key distinguishing feature of the early Christian circles was the prominent place of Jesus Christ in their religious thought and practice. There certainly were plenty of other religious groups worthy of note in the Roman period, and even some that shared a number of important features with early Christianity. There were, for example, other movements and groups that recruited converts across ethnic lines, offering intimate fellowship, initiation rituals, and sacred meals with a deity. There were philosophical movements to which the early Christian groups can be likened in their concern to define and promote ethics. But despite the similarities with other religious movements and groups of the Roman period, all the various forms of early Christianity (whatever their relationship to what came to be known as "orthodox" or "catholic" Christianity) can be identified as such by the importance they attached to the figure of Jesus.
Moreover, an exalted significance of Jesus appears astonishingly early in Christian circles. Well within the first couple decades of the Christian movement(i.e., ca. 30-50 C.E., to make at this point in the discussion a deliberately modest chronological claim) Jesus was treated as a recipient of religious devotion and was associated with God in striking ways. In fact, as we will see later in this study, we probably have to posit a virtual explosion of devotion to Jesus toward the earlier end of this short period. I have proposed that in this development we have what amounts to a new and distinctive "mutation" or variant form of the monotheistic practice that is otherwise characteristic of the Jewish religious matrix out of which the Christian movement sprang. In this book my aim is to offer a full-scale analysis of the origin, development, and diversification of devotion to Christ in the crucial first two centuries of the Christian movement (ca. 30-170 C.E.).
In the following chapters I have basically three main points to make. First, as I have already mentioned, a noteworthy devotion to Jesus emerges phenomenally early in circles of his followers, and cannot be restricted to a secondary stage of religious development or explained as the product of extraneous forces. Certainly the Christian movement was not hermetically sealed from the cultures in which it developed, and Christians appropriated (and adapted for their own purposes) words, conceptual categories, and religious traditions to express their faith. But devotion to Jesus was not a late development. So far as historical inquiry permits us to say, it was an immediate feature of the circles of those who identified themselves with reference to him.
Second, devotion to Jesus was exhibited in an unparalleled intensity and diversity of expression, for which we have no true analogy in the religious environment of the time. There is simply no precedent or parallel for the level of energy invested by early Christians in expressing the significance of Jesus for them in their religious thought and practice. The full pattern of devotion to Jesus that we examine in this book is not one example of a class of analogous religious phenomena in comparable groups, but is instead truly remarkable in the history of religions, justifying (indeed, requiring) a special effort to understand it in historical terms. Toward that end I propose a model of the historical forces and factors that shaped and propelled early devotion to Jesus, which is the particular focus of the next chapter.
The third thesis is that this intense devotion to Jesus, which includes reverencing him as divine, was offered and articulated characteristically within a firm stance of exclusivist monotheism, particularly in the circles of early Christians that anticipated and helped to establish what became mainstream (and subsequently, familiar) Christianity. That is, with notable exceptions that will be discussed in a later chapter, these early believers characteristically insisted on the exclusive validity of the God of the Scriptures of Israel, rejecting all the other deities of the Roman world; and they sought to express and understand Jesus' divine significance in relation to this one God. In their religious thought, that is, in the ways they defined and portrayed Jesus in their teachings, they characteristically referred to him with reference to God (e.g., as God's "Son," "Christ/Messiah," "Word," "Image"). In their devotional practices as well (for example, in their patterns of prayer and worship), they characteristically sought to express a rather full veneration of Jesus in ways that also affirmed the primacy of God "the Father."
To be sure, there are indications that maintaining this close linkage and distinction of Jesus and God was not easy. In some forms of early "popular" Christianity, Jesus almost seems to have eclipsed "the Father." In other cases a monotheistic concern may not have featured at all, as appears to be so in the so-called gnostic systems of multiple divine beings and emanations. But the religious thought and devotional practice that were most characteristic in the first two centuries, and that came to mark Christian tradition subsequently, express reverence for Jesus within the context of an exclusivist commitment to the one God of the Bible.
Now, as a further introductory step, I want to define the phenomena that form the subject of the investigation. "Devotion" is my portmanteau word for the beliefs and related religious actions that constituted the expressions of religious reverence of early Christians. For a number of years now I have proposed the term "Christ-devotion" in preference to "Christology" to refer to the range of phenomena we shall consider here. "Christology" has been used for study of Christian beliefs about the figure of Jesus, the doctrine(s) and concepts involved, and the wording used by Christians to express them. To be sure, these things all form part of the present investigation. But to do full justice to the way in which Jesus figures in early Christian circles requires us to take account of additional matters as well, some of which have not always been given adequate attention.
To cite one particularly important matter, there is the place of Jesus in the patterns of worship characteristic of early Christian groups. At an astonishingly early point, in at least some Christian groups, there is a clear and programmatic inclusion of Jesus in their devotional life, both in honorific claims and in devotional practices. In addition, Jesus functioned in their ethical ideals and demands, in both interpersonal and wider social spheres.
As another kind of evidence, already within the early period addressed in this book we can even find initial attempts to register piety and devotion to Jesus in phenomena that signify an emergent material and visual culture. For instance, this can be seen in the way Christian manuscripts were prepared, specifically, the so-called nomina sacra, sacred abbreviations of key terms that refer to God and to Jesus.
By "Christ-devotion" and "devotion" to Jesus, thus, I mean the significance and role of the figure of Jesus Christ in both the religious life and thought of those forms of Christianity observable to us within the first two centuries. In particular, we shall focus on the ways in which early Christians referred and related to Jesus that seem to constitute treating him as a "divine" figure, or at least a figure of unique significance in God's plan. So this book is neither a "New Testament Christology" (in the sense of an organized presentation of all the expressions of christological beliefs in the New Testament) nor simply a survey of all christological beliefs of the historical period under review here. Instead, the particular "story" I try to tell in this historical study concerns the ways that Jesus functions as divine in the religious life of Christian groups of the first two centuries, when and how this is exhibited in beliefs and other expressions of their faith, and what historical forces probably shaped devotion to Jesus in this period.
As to why and how Jesus came to be held and treated as messianic and a divine figure among early Christians, two major approaches can be mentioned as particularly influential, with both of which I take issue. Among Christians of more naive orientation (this can include otherwise sophisticated people who have simply not been made aware of the issues) and among some anticritical Christian apologists, there is often the view that Jesus was regarded as divine simply because he was in fact the Messiah and divine Son of God and made both his messiahship and his divinity clear to his disciples during his ministry. Consequently, in this view, there is no historical process to investigate and nothing particularly difficult to understand historically about Christ-devotion in the early period. The early Christian claims about Jesus may be difficult for nonbelievers to accept for various reasons, but the explanation of how and why early Christians promoted such high views of Jesus as are attested in the New Testament and other early Christian writings is thought to be simple: the truth of Jesus' messiahship and divinity was revealed by Jesus himself, and so naturally was taken up from the beginning in Christian beliefs and religious practice. In effect, in this view it is either puzzling or downright inappropriate (especially in the view of anticritical apologists) to apply historical analysis to the Christ-devotion of early Christianity and seek to explain how it developed. In the anticritical expressions of this viewpoint, it is held that the theological and religious validity of traditional Christian devotion to Christ would be called into question if it were really treated as a historical phenomenon.
The other influential approach arose in large part in reaction against this naive and ahistorical view. Though the roots of modern historical-critical study of the Bible lie in eighteenth-century Deism, for our purposes the key period is the late nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth, when the so-called religionsgeschichtliche Schule (history-of-religions school of thought) sought to set Christian origins thoroughly within the history of the Roman era. These scholars devoted particular attention to the questions of how Jesus came to be so central in early Christianity and how early Christian devotion to Jesus developed in the period prior to the classical creedal statements about Christ and the Trinity of the fourth century and later.
The history-of-religions scholars insisted that the divine status of Jesus in early Christianity was the result of a thoroughly historical process and was thus in principle subject to the same sort of historical investigation that one would apply to any other historical phenomenon. This investigation demanded the utmost of scholars in becoming thoroughly familiar with all the early Christian sources and with the whole of the wider Roman era, especially the religious environment of the time. The great scholars of this school of thought demonstrated impressive (and today almost unmatchable) breadth of learning and competence in the languages and texts of the ancient world.
But in this religionsgeschichtliche Schule the whole impressive effort of historical investigation had the effect (and likely, the intention) of demonstrating that the emergence of devotion to Christ as a divine figure was essentially a simple and really rather unremarkable process of syncretism. Essentially, devotion to Jesus as divine resulted from the influence of "pagan" religion of the Roman era upon "Hellenistic" Christians supposedly more susceptible to such influence than were "Palestinian" Jewish Christians.
I will have more to say about this particular view of things later. For now, I limit myself to making one ironic point. Though the history-of-religions scholars took issue with the naive or precritical view and insisted that the devotion to Christ reflected in early Christian sources could be approached as a historical phenomenon, their view of the historical process behind this phenomenon was practically as simplistic as the view they opposed. In their own way they too wound up claiming (though for very different reasons, to be sure) that the emergence and development of Christ-devotion in early Christianity was neither very remarkable nor difficult to understand. Presented as one particular example of the deification of heroes and the emergence of new gods rampant in the Roman world, early Christ-devotion was to be understood simply as resulting from the impact of this "pagan" religious environment upon an originally purer Christian movement in which ideas of Jesus' divinity could not have appeared.
I wish to take issue in this book with both of these views, which in varying forms continue to be influential. On the one hand, I agree with the history-of-religions school that Christ-devotion can be approached as a historical phenomenon. Whatever stance one takes on the religious validity of the devotion to Jesus reflected in the various early Christian sources, this devotion manifested itself within history and therefore, in principle, can be investigated in the ways we inquire about any other historical person, event, or movement. We may or may not have sufficient historical understanding of the time and sufficient understanding of how religious movements originate to develop a plausible analysis of the particular historical process involved in the emergence of Christ-devotion. I believe that we can, as I hope to show in this book. But whatever the particular merits of my own proposals, in principle the effort to understand devotion to Jesus historically is valid.
But, on the other hand, both the naive view and the familiar history-of-religions view are wrong in portraying early devotion to Jesus as basically simple, unremarkable, and not difficult to understand. For several reasons I contend that Christ-devotion is an utterly remarkable phenomenon, and that it is also the result of a complex of historical forces and factors. Here are some major features that justify us in seeing early devotion to Jesus as remarkable.
(1) It began amazingly early, and was already exhibiting signs of routinization by the time of the letters of Paul (i.e., by ca. 50 C.E.), which means that the origins of cultic veneration of Jesus have to be pushed well back into the first two decades of the Christian movement. (2) Devotion to Jesus was by no means confined to this or that conventicle but seems to have spread with impressive rapidity across the Christian movement, though there were also variations in its expression. (3) Although at a certain high level of generalization one can draw some comparisons with other Roman-era groups and movements, we have no full analogue in the Roman world, which makes the task of historical explanation particularly difficult (the more so to the degree that historical "explanation" is seen to rest upon analogy). To cite one key matter, we have no other Roman-era example of a religious movement with similar ties to the Jewish religious tradition of exclusivistic monotheism and with a devotional pattern that involved so thoroughly a second figure in addition to God. (4) Devotion to Jesus was central in early Christian groups and of enormous significance for the historical development of Christianity.
As already indicated, I contend that the historical process was not simple but complex, involving not one factor but the interaction of several important factors or forces. One of my major aims in the long research and reflection that has led to this book has been to develop an understanding of these historical factors and forces and to make them explicit for others to judge. In the next chapter I describe the historical process and propose the key factors involved.
Excerpted from Lord Jesus Christ by Larry W. Hurtado Copyright © 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company . Excerpted by permission.
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