Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity: Recent Scholarly Developments

Devotion to Jesus as divine appeared more as an explosion than as an evolutionary development 

By Larry W. Hurtado
Professor of New Testament Language Literature and Theology
University of Edinburgh (Scotland)
April 2003

    How soon did early followers of Jesus regard him as divine? By what historical process did this Jewish man from Galilee who was executed by the Roman governor of Judea become revered by followers as uniquely exalted to heavenly glory? How did those who first thought of him as divine reverence him and express their devotion to him? These are not new questions, but in recent decades, what were thought to be secure answers have been challenged. In this newer research, more sophisticated approaches to the questions are producing major revisions in received scholarly opinion.

    The approach and views that have been dominant were developed largely in the closing years of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth century in a period of German scholarship dominated by the so-called “religionsgeschichtliche Schule” (“history of religions school”). The key scholar on early Christian belief in Jesus was Wilhelm Bousset, and in a monumental study first published in 1913, Kyrios Christos (English translation 1970), he laid out what became a widely echoed historical understanding of matters. Essentially, Bousset portrayed a divinization of Jesus that took place as the result of influences from the wider Roman religious environment with its many gods and divine heroes. In his view, Jesus’ earliest followers, “the Palestinian Primitive Community,” revered him as Messiah and “the Son of Man” whom they expected to come soon to bring eschatological salvation. Bousset sharply distinguished their beliefs about Jesus from what came later.

    In Bousset’s view, it was only in subsequent stages, especially in “the Gentile Christian Primitive Community,” that Jesus was regarded as divine and invoked as “Kyrios” (“Lord”) in worship settings. Basically, these circles of Christians brought their pagan concepts (such as apotheosis of heroic figures) and religious schemes with them, treating Jesus as a “cult deity” like the many divinities and heroes of their background. As traced by Bousset, these subsequent developments, from the apostle Paul on through to Irenaeus (late second century) essentially comprised a story of a progressive (and in Bousset’s view, regrettable) paganization of an originally simple piety with which Bousset more readily identified himself in its putative emphasis on ethics and a “purer” monotheism unencumbered by dogmas about the divinity of Jesus.

     In short, Bousset portrayed devotion to Jesus as divine as an evolutionary process that was largely explained by “syncretistic” influences from the wider pagan world mediated through the influx of Gentile (non-Jewish) converts to the early Christian churches, especially in diaspora locations such as Syrian Antioch. Although Bousset certainly had his critics and major scholars (such as Oscar Cullmann) offered cogent alternative views of some relevant matters, the “story” set forth in Kyrios Christos has enjoyed remarkably wide acceptance in scholarly circles, and the gist of it has also been echoed in many popular accounts as well.

    But in publications commencing as far back as 1979, I have drawn attention to serious problems in Bousset’s characterization of matters, citing the work of a number of other scholars (such as Martin Hengel, Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion, 1976). Then, in a 1988 book that has enjoyed wide notice among scholars in the subject, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (2nd edition 1998, T&T Clark), I set forth the basics of a view of things very different from Bousset’s. I confirmed the judgment of some other scholars that devotion to Jesus as divine, in fact, erupted in Jewish-Christian circles of the very earliest years, far too early to account for it through the influence of Gentile converts and by a strung-out process of development. Also, I showed that all of the earliest expressions of belief in/about Jesus clearly reflect the influences and resources of the Jewish religious tradition, which was the religious matrix of earliest Christianity. Now, in a much larger study with a chronological scope that runs from the beginning of the Christian movement down into the late second century, I offer an analysis that is intended to compete with Bousset’s classic study: Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003).

    In these and other publications of the last decade and more, I have emphasized that the most remarkable and eloquent indication of Jesus’ exalted place in their faith was a constellation of devotional actions that comprised what I termed a “binitarian” devotional pattern in which Jesus was reverenced uniquely along with God. In fact, in these actions, which are taken for granted already in our earliest extant texts, Jesus was given the sort of reverence that was otherwise reserved for God alone in all known circles of devout Jews of the time.

    These important early devotional actions, which comprise an unparalleled set of phenomena, especially when compared to devotional practice in ancient Jewish tradition, are the following. (1) Prayer was offered either “in Jesus’ name” or sometimes even to Jesus. (2) Collective ritual invocation and credal “confession” of Jesus characterized Christian worship gatherings. (3) The initiation rite widely used was a ritual immersion (“baptism”) that included an invocation of Jesus, and the baptized person was thought of as having been made Jesus’ property. (4) The sacred meals widely shared in Christian circles seem to have been understood and practiced characteristically as “the Lord’s supper,” with the risen Jesus understood as having a significance in the meal that can only be likened to that of a deity. (5) A very important feature of earliest Christian collective devotion was the singing/chanting of songs (“hymns”) that typically lauded Jesus. These appear to have included Old Testament Psalms interpreted as referring to Jesus and also fresh compositions that arose from the religious exaltation attributed to the Holy Spirit. (6) Prophetic oracles delivered as revelatory speech was another phenomenon familiar in many early Christian groups, and the striking feature was that these oracles were presented as coming from the risen Jesus. This is an astonishing phenomenon, given the strong sanction against prophecy from any source other than God in the ancient Jewish tradition that shaped earliest Christian values.

    Providing an extended review of ancient Jewish evidence in my 1988 book, I showed that these phenomena/practices constitute a major and unparalleled development: a distinctive “mutation” in, or “variant form” of, the exclusivist monotheistic devotional practice that was characteristic of Jewish tradition of the Roman period. Yet we cannot easily attribute these phenomena to the influence of Gentile converts and their “pagan” religious background. For, as I have indicated already in this article, the devotional pattern represented in these phenomena seems to have characterized the Christian movement from its earliest years and among circles that were either made up of Jewish believers or were shaped by Jewish-Christian leaders (such as Cephas/Peter, Barnabas, Silas, Paul, Prisca, and Acquila). Indeed, this devotional pattern appears so early and quickly that it is better imaged as an explosion than an incremental process, a veritable “big bang” of sorts in the religious history of the early first century.
In seeking to understand in historical terms how such a major and sudden development could have happened, my research included wider history-or-religions phenomena and developments (such as the origins of the Qumran community, Islam, the Bahais, Mormonism, and modern Pentecostalism), and studies of new religious movements in various cultural settings (such as studies by Rodney Stark and by Byron Earhart) and the phenomenon of “innovation” in cultures. In One God, One Lord, I sketched a view of major factors that drove and shaped the significant innovation represented by this devotion to Jesus, and now in Lord Jesus Christ, I update and refine a proposal as to the “forces and factors” involved. Although each factor had a particular contribution, I emphasize that it is the dynamic interaction of all four that provides us with a plausible model of the historical process involved in the sudden emergence of devotion to Jesus as divine.

    First, the monotheistic emphasis of Roman-era Jewish tradition is absolutely crucial. This emphasis was most visibly expressed in a refusal to offer worship to any figure other than the God of Israel. At the same time, devout ancient Jews were very ready to accommodate this or that powerful figure distinguishable from God in a role that can be characterized as God’s “principal agent.” We see the effects of Jewish monotheistic tradition in the consistent way that Jesus is identified and defined with reference to God (e.g., “Son/Lamb/Image of God,” exalted/enthroned by God, given a name/status by God, glorified by God, etc.).

    Second, there is the impact of the figure of Jesus. Whatever Jesus’ intention or understanding of himself and his activities, the results involved a striking polarization of views about him, with some being his disciples and others ready to proceed against him in mortal enmity. This polarization, with Jesus himself as the issue, seems to go back to the time of Jesus’ ministry and is particularly evident in his public crucifixion.

    But these factors do not by themselves account for the remarkable ways in which early Christian circles offered the exalted Jesus worship-type reverence. So, thirdly, I propose that powerful religious experiences of “revelation” played an important role. This proposal reflects observations of scholars that major religious innovations often stem from such experiences although this has not been reckoned with adequately by scholars of Christian origins.

    Finally, of course, there is the influence of the Roman-era religious environment/setting. It must be said, however, that more often than not this influence is exhibited in early Christian reactions against the religious practic es of their time and in efforts to distinguish their beliefs and practices from those that they regarded as idolatrous.

    The studies of a number of other scholars of the last couple of decades have contributed studies that are similar in approach and results (e.g., Richard Bauckham, Loren Stuckenbruck, Carey Newman, David Capes, Alan Segal, Jarl Fossum, April DeConick, Darrell Hannah, Jonathan Knight, Charles Gieschen, Larry Kreitzer, Mehrdad Fatehi, Max Turner). A few observers have even referred to a “new religionsgeschichtliche Schule”! However, this isn’t really a German-type “school”; instead, what we have is a number of studies on various cognate matters by scholars who are reaching similar and broadly supportive (but not identical!) conclusions.

    In the new book that I mentioned earlier (Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity), I reinforce the judgment that devotion to Jesus as divine appeared more as an explosion than as an evolutionary development so quickly and so early that already in our earliest extant evidence (Paul’s undisputed epistles) it is taken for granted as characteristic of Christian circles, whether in Judea or the Diaspora and whether Jewish or Gentiles. For example, Paul’s reference to “all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2) suggests that the devotional action in question (to “call upon the name” of Jesus represents an invocation of him as a divine figure) was ubiquitously a feature of early Christian religious life.

    I also show that devotion to Jesus as divine was exhibited with a completely unparalleled intensity and breadth in earliest Christianity of the first two centuries. Although there were numerous deities and divine heroes touted in the Roman religious environment, these are not true parallels for the devotion to Jesus that became so influential in Christian tradition. For one thing, typically in the wider religious setting of the time, devotion to this or that deity in no way meant that one could not also offer worship to any or all the other deities and divine figures of the Roman era. But earliest devotees of the Christian movement were expected to forsake all the other deities and practice an exclusive reverence of the God of the Jewish Scriptures . . . and Jesus. This is why I describe this devotional pattern as a “binitarian” form of monotheism: God and the exalted Jesus are given the sort of reverence that connotes their divine status and that is denied to any other figure. Certainly, there were various circles of Christians in the first century and thereafter, sometimes dissenting and clashing over issues of religious belief and practice, and there were significant differences in the ways that they expressed Jesus’ significance. But, whatever these differences, all evidence indicates that Jesus held a unique status in their beliefs and was revered as divine, both among those circles that form the tributaries of “proto-orthodox” Christianity and those various circles that came to be regarded as “heterodox” or “heretical.”

    In my own work, the focus is on the religious beliefs of earliest Christians and the devotional practices that expressed their religious convictions. Most scholarly work, however, has concentrated on what I refer to as the “christological rhetoric” of the New Testament and other early Christian writings, that is, the beliefs about Jesus and the ways that these beliefs are verbally expressed. Scholars usually refer to these beliefs as the “christology” of this or that text, author, circle, or period of Christianity. In the sort of work that I have carried out and encouraged, however, there is a broader scope of phenomena that comprise what I refer to as “devotion to Jesus.”

    In this, and in the attempt to approach earliest Christianity as a truly historical development, the newer work affirms the questions of old religionsgeschichtliche Schule. But, with all due appreciation for the impressive scholars of that period and the influence of their work subsequently, the results of the more recent scholarly efforts that are referred to here represent a major revision in our understanding of what earliest devotion to Jesus was and how it developed. The devotion offered to Jesus in earliest Christianity is remarkable, even stunning, and all the more so when seen in its full historical context. Thanks to the intense efforts of a number of scholars, we appear now to have a much more adequate grasp of how earliest Christians reverenced Jesus and how, in historical terms, this hugely influential development happened.

    Larry W. Hurtado is Professor of New Testament Language Literature and Theology in the University of Edinburgh (Scotland). His publications drawn upon here include: One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Fortress Press, 1988; 2nd ed. T&T Clark, 1998); At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion (Paternoster, 1999; Eerdmans, 2000); and now, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003).

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