Saturday, February 03, 2007

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.

You can purchase this helpful and readable book from the Eerdmans webpage here.

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.

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At 2/03/2007 10:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris, in what way does this book differ from "Lord Jesus Christ"?

At 2/03/2007 10:57 PM, Anonymous Patrick George McCullough said...

Ditto to anonymous' question.

At 2/03/2007 11:25 PM, Anonymous Gorilla Bananas said...

We gorillas have never accepted the Hurtado thesis. If God had wanted Jesus to be considered divine, He would have given him a white beard; not because God actually has a white beard, but because the humans of the first century would have expected a divine being to have one. Once again, a human theologian talks through his hat and misleads everyone with his spurious conjectures.

At 2/04/2007 7:43 PM, Anonymous vynette said...

"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)."

I suggest that these arguments were a warning to the Phillippians to guard against self-righteousness and works glorifying

In these arguments 'proof' is found for Jesus' 'divinity'. Shorn of Paul's qualifying statements, verses 5-8 appear to support the accepted teaching. Paul leaves no doubt, however, as to when Jesus existed in the 'form of God' for he continues in verse 9:

"Wherefore also God highly exalted him, and gave unto him the name which is above every name..."

It was after Jesus became "obedient unto death, yes, the death of the cross". Jesus existed in the 'form of God' after the crucifixion. It was as a man that Jesus emptied himself and took on the form of a servant. (See also John 5:27, Ps.71:16)

It is a pity that the point of Paul's utterance - the warning against self-righteousness - has become the servant of later doctrinal imposition.

At 2/04/2007 11:01 PM, Anonymous One of Freedom said...

This looks like a worthwhile book for my Christology course. I'll have to look it up. I'm reading "Resurrection of Jesus" by Gerd Ludemann and just finished the Challenge of Jesus by the dancing Anglican! My prof. studied under Schillebeeckx and is encouraging me to dig into Jesus: An Experiment in Christology.

At 2/05/2007 5:34 PM, Anonymous Derek Brown said...


Fantastic review...and in just 500 words! I have not actually looked at this little work of Hurtado's yet as I considered it a mere popular treatment of material covered elsewhere (e.g. LJC), but now I am glad to see he has continued to develop his thoughts both on opposition to early Christology and on the religious experience of the earliest Christians. These are two highly neglected, yet highly important, factors in the development of Christology. Thanks for the heads up.

At 2/06/2007 3:19 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Patrick and anon.
The scope of LJC is much broader in terms of the chronological range it encompasses. LJC aims to compete with Bousset. In this book, Hurtado adds little that is new to LJC (except, if I remember rightly, in chap. 3), and instead presents his main arguments in a more concise form.

I like your argument!

Thanks for your comments. While the context certainly is about the ethics in the first few verses of Phil 2 (though not really self-righteousness), Paul is still saying something theological in the verses that follow. So I don’t think Hurtado is attempting a ‘later doctrinal imposition’, but is simply asking what the christological significance of Paul’s words are. Your argument that ‘It was as a man that Jesus emptied himself and took on the form of a servant’ is doing much the same thing as Hurtado, seeking the significance of these words, and it appears to me that what you claim isn’t something Hurtado would dispute – at this point, anyway.

I have a rule: only read those whose name you can pronounce. Leave the Schlikseebeeks alone! Good collection of essays is found in the recent collection Contours of Christology.

Derek, thanks for your kind words!

I can do a short review when I want, honest guv!

‘opposition to early Christology and on the religious experience of the earliest Christians. These are two highly neglected, yet highly important, factors in the development of Christology’.

I couldn’t agree more!

At 2/06/2007 8:19 PM, Anonymous Patrick George McCullough said...

Thanks, Chris! Good to know.

At 8/17/2008 7:51 PM, Anonymous Alethinon61 said...

Hi Chris,

Nice review, but when can we expect your full thesis to appear? Please let us know when it's complete, and how we can obtain a copy for perusal.

While I appreciate Hurtado's writings, I'm not sure he can overcome the objection that you mentioned which other scholars have noted, i.e. the lack of Jewish opposition to the cultic devotion about which he speaks. If this devotion did suggest a certain "binitarian" character, as Hurtado asserts, then the lack of such opposition would surely have to constitute a most startling example of inexplicable lacunae in the biblical record.

As you are probably aware, Jimmy Dunn is one of the scholars who addresses Hurtado's thesis. In his The Parting of the Ways, he says the following specifically in reference to the lack of evidence for Jewish opposition to early Christ devotion:

"The silence on this score cannot be because we have no means of knowing what Jewish reaction to earliest Christian theology was at this stage; on the contrary, we can see well enough from the literature of first generation Christianity that Paul's understanding of the law was a sore bone of contention for those who valued their Jewish heritage highly. Had Paul's christology been equally, or more contentious at this time for his fellow Jews, we would surely have heard of it from Paul's own letters. The absence of such indicators points in the other direction: that Paul's christology and the devotional language of the earliest Christian worship did not cause any offense to monotheistic Jews. So far as both Paul and his fellow Jews were concerned, early Christian devotion to Jesus still lay within the bounds of the Jewish understanding of God in his dealings with his world and people." (ibid), pp. 205, 206

This is one of a number of serious challenges to Hurtado's thesis.


At 11/28/2008 5:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is Jesus not "lord" in the sense prescribed by Ps. 110:1 (Acts 2:34-36) which governs NT Christology? That second Lord of the key text Ps. 110:1 is not YHVH (which would make an impossible two YHVH's) but the human lord (Adoni). This title is not a designation of Deity, but in all of the 195 occurrences of adoni, it refers to a human, or occasionally, angelic superior. If Jesus is adoni (my lord),not the Lord God (adonai) unitary monotheism is maintained and the Father remains the single YHVH.


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