Review of How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?
The following review will shortly appear in the journal Theology. Given that I only had 500 words, I did not try to present my own critique of Hurtado’s main arguments. I am writing a doctorate to do that.
How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus by Larry W. Hurtado (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005. 234 pages, pbk. £10.99/ $20.00)
When it comes to the question of early Christology and how Jesus came to be treated as divine, Hurtado is one of, if not the, world’s leading scholar. This book, based upon his 2004 Deichmann lectures (chapters one through four, titled ‘Issues and Approaches’) and earlier journal publications (chapters five through eight, titled ‘Definitions and Defense’), is offered as a compact presentation, for the general reader, of the issues involved.
The deliberately provocative title indicates that Hurtado is addressing the historical reasons that account for how Jesus came to be treated as divine. He doesn’t mean to imply that a historical study of these questions negates matters of theological truth, he is simply engaging with the issues as a historian. His own angle of approach into this field has focused upon early Christian devotion to Jesus, one which places his own thesis in a unique place on the map of modern scholarship in relation to early Christology (chapter one). For Hurtado, numerous early Christian practices indicate that Jesus was treated as divine, not next to the one God of Israel, or in such a way as to replace this God, but rather precisely as an expression of the will of God (chapter two). Indeed, it was this very devotion that strengthened and sustained the early Christians through all manner of persecution (chapter three). Hurtado then analyses the important passage, Philippians 2:6-11, and argues that the original context for this material was to defend devotion to Christ ‘for those whose religious outlook and world of reference were shaped by Jewish biblical traditions’ (chapter four, p. 106).
However, does such Christ-devotion imply that the early Christians couldn’t have been monotheists, as some have suggested? In response, Hurtado argues that it is the self-confessing monotheistic literature of Greco-Roman Jewish religion, inductively read, which should answer this question. One should not seek to impose a later definition of monotheism back on to the texts (chapter five). And did this homage of Jesus exist in Jesus’ own lifetime? Something like it did, Hurtado argues, but it was considerably developed in the early Church (chapter six). Some scholars have criticised Hurtado’s thesis for suggesting that the evidence for Christ-devotion really amounts to treating Jesus as divine, for this would have prompted serious opposition from fellow Jews for which there is no evidence. Hurtado responds by simply maintaining that such opposition did indeed exist (chapter seven). However, if Hurtado’s arguments thus far are correct, how can one account for the early development of full blown Christ-devotion? Hurtado points to the significance of early Christian revelatory religious experiences (chapter eight). Finally, two appendices are included which relate to the original lecture series and the university of Ben-Gurion.
This volume is a crisp and lucid overview of many of the important issues relating to early devotion to Jesus and the implications of this for Christology. Highly recommended.