How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God
A review of Larry Hurtado's, "How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus", by Dr. William Klein.
Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ. Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2003. xxii + 746 pages. ISBN: 0-8028-6070-2. Paper, 2005. $35.00. ISBN: 0-8028-3167-2.
Larry W. Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God. Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2005. xii + 234 pages. $20.00. ISBN: 0-8028-2861-2
Dr. Hurtado is currently professor of New Testament language, literature, and theology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Though published a couple years apart, these two volumes naturally go together. The first is three times as long as the second and provides the full story; the second overlaps the first but presents the case in a way that is accessible to average readers. They emerge from a twenty-five year quest of Professor Hurtado to understand how Jewish monotheists of the first century AD were so quick to treat Jesus in ways formerly reserved only for Yahweh. In other words, Ã¯Â¿Â½how did Jesus become a GodÃ¯Â¿Â½? How did these early Jewish Christians become binitarianists?
The larger work can rightly be termed a tour de force. In this monumental study Hurtado aims to supplant the venerable and landmark (and what Hurtado believes is a fundamentally misguided) work of Wilhelm Bousett, Kyrios Christos, written in 1913. In fact he sets his work against the two most popular explanations of how Jesus came to be regarded as divine: first, the simplistic view that Jesus claimed to be divine through his teachingÃ¯Â¿Â½a conclusion that his followers simply adopted. Hurtado believes and demonstrates this to be naïve and ahistorical. The second pole derives from the religionsgeschichtliche Schule (history-of-religions school of thought) that concluded that JesusÃ¯Â¿Â½ divine status was the outgrowth of a process of syncretism in the ancient world. That is, as Christianity moved into the Hellenistic world Ã¯Â¿Â½paganÃ¯Â¿Â½ influences led to a divinization of their leader. This view was most powerfully defended by Bousett, and it continues to play (after many German editions Kyrios Christos was translated into English in 1970!) an influential role as the regnant explanation of the formative period of Christianity. The contention here is that only within a Gentile Christianity that had separated from its Jewish roots did Jesus eventually come to be regarded as divine.
So, to supplant what he believes to be the wrong conclusions of Bousett (and others who have embraced similar explanations), Hurtado sets out to survey the evidence for himselfÃ¯Â¿Â½in as comprehensive a fashion as possible. The result is a truly erudite analysis. He surveys the totality of the available evidence. He succeeds in showing how Jewish monotheism Ã¯Â¿Â½mutatedÃ¯Â¿Â½ into a devotion that led the earliest Christians to include Jesus along with God in their worship. The evidence he surveys is all-inclusive: early Pauline writings; Judean Jewish Christianity; Q; the synoptic gospels (what he calls Ã¯Â¿Â½Jesus BooksÃ¯Â¿Â½); Johannine Christianity; the apocryphal gospels, fragments, and Thomas; second century Christianity; Valentinus and Valentinianism, Ignatius, Nag Hammadi, and Marcion; Revelation, the Ascension of Isaiah, and Shepherd of Hermas; and, finally, such phenomena as worship and prayer, martyrdom, the Nomina Sacra, the writings of Justin, and crucial doctrinal developments. In all he covers the period from ca. 30-170.
But he also investigates an extremely crucial question: what might be the cause of such a mutation? He concludes that rather than some evolutionary explanation that finds devotion to Jesus gradually developing over the decades along the lines of other religions in the Greco-roman world, the early Christians had such significant and revelatory experiences of Jesus from the first that they become convinced that devotion to him was as appropriate as their devotion to Yahweh.
What does he discover? Christians worshiping Jesus (and dying for him) far before the development of the orthodox creeds; devotion to Jesus erupted suddenly and quickly, not gradually and late; along the wide spectrum of diverse Christian manifestations, beliefs in Jesus as divine were commonÃ¯Â¿Â½even the heresies presuppose JesusÃ¯Â¿Â½ deity; Jesus was central in all forms of Christianity; and the Christian God is the God of the Old Testament now fully revealed through Jesus. Whether or not a reader believes that these Christians were correct in their assessment, Hurtado shows conclusively that that is what their beliefs were.
The smaller How On Earth did Jesus Become a God? emerges from lectures (chapters 1-4) to which are added previously published journal articles (chapters 5-8) that form some of the bases for Lord Jesus Christ. The title is a deliberate double entendre: how on earth could such a thing happen? And how did this phenomenon occur on earthÃ¯Â¿Â½this is, in historical terms? Because the early chapters result from public lectures to an audience of non-specialists, the material is more accessible than the same material found in Lord Jesus Christ. Initially he engages in a critical review of other attempts to address these issues. Then he assesses some of the social and political consequences for early Christians because of their devotion to JesusÃ¯Â¿Â½especially the costs of their allegiance to Jesus in the earliest periods. One interesting feature is his Ã¯Â¿Â½case studyÃ¯Â¿Â½ using Philippians 2:6-11 to study early Christian devotion to Jesus.
In the later chapters, we see more in-depth study of Jewish monotheism in the first century, early Jewish opposition to Jesus-devotion, and further light on the religious experience of the early Christians. The study of Jewish opposition is intriguing because, of course, not all Jews became so enamored of Jesus; many Jews opposed him and desired to kill him. And, in addition, his ministry generated the ire of the Romans to the extent that they eventually executed him.
One or the other of these books should be Ã¯Â¿Â½mustÃ¯Â¿Â½ reading for all students of early Christianity. The larger Lord Jesus Christ is not an easy read, but it richly repays the effort to wade through its contents. The cumulative effect of decade after decade of material showing early and profound reverence for (worship of) Jesus demolishes many liberal/critical agendas to posit that the worship of Jesus was a slowly developing myth based on similar religious patterns of the ChristiansÃ¯Â¿Â½ contemporaries. The weight and sound judgment of HurtadoÃ¯Â¿Â½s historical analyses undercut many of the claims of the so-called Jesus Seminar and its ilk.
If he is correct that their experiences of the risen Christ led these early ChristiansÃ¯Â¿Â½ to worship this One as Lord, this raises an intriguing question for modern Christians. Do we Ã¯Â¿Â½worshipÃ¯Â¿Â½ in order to generate an experience of the divine? Or do we worship because we have encountered Jesus, the one who requires that we worship God through his Son? To put it differently, are the words Ã¯Â¿Â½Jesus is divineÃ¯Â¿Â½ merely an abstract theological statement or do they reflect our experience of Jesus?
William W. Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament