Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity

Article excerpt

Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. By Larry Hurtado. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003, xxii + 746 pp., $55.00.

Since 1979 Larry Hurtado, Professor of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, has been publishing studies of the rapid rise of high Christology in early Christianity among believers staunchly committed to Jewish monotheism. This detailed volume represents the crowning climax of his labors thus far. Taking each NT corpus in turn, and including studies of significant early Christian trajectories of the second century, Hurtado's work thoroughly refutes the evolutionary hypotheses of Wilhelm Bousset in Kyrios Christos (German original, 1913) and many who have followed him, alleging that the high Christology of the NT emerged only gradually and in largely Hellenistic circles that warped the original message of Jesus, a simple Galilean rabbi. While eschewing an explicitly apologetic motive in his writing, Hurtado repeatedly stresses that the rapid rise of belief in Jesus' divinity within Jewish monotheism is unparalleled in the history of religion. Although beyond his explicit claims, the logical implications of his volume are that the early Christian portraits of Jesus were, in fact, substantially accurate.

A short review can merely highlight some of the most significant historical and exegetical findings. With respect to Jewish backgrounds and against the claims of scholars like Hayman and Barker, first-century Judaism was staunchly monotheistic. Exalted claims could be made for angels and patriarchs, but worship was reserved for God alone. Yet it is precisely worship that we see the first Christians consistently directing to Jesus.

Hurtado begins his review of NT material with Paul-because of the first-hand nature of his undisputed epistles and the pre-Pauline creedal information that probably takes us back to the church's beliefs at the time of Paul's conversion, only a few years after the death of Jesus himself. Central to Paul's own Christology are Jesus' divine sonship, regal Messiahship, and cosmic Lordship, set in the larger contexts of preexistence and redemptive death. First Corinthians 8:4-6 provides a classic illustration of how Paul can attribute the identical divine actions in creation to Jesus as to Yahweh, all the while insisting there is only one God and one Lord. If this is not yet explicit trinitarian thought, it is at the very least "binitarian." Regularly, Paul addresses prayers to God and Jesus (or "through Jesus"), baptism is performed "in Jesus' name," and Jesus plays the role in the celebration of the Lord's Supper that the gods did in pagan cults. Yet two of the most obviously pre-Pauline confessions or hymns, Phil 2:6-11 and 1 Cor 15:3-6, embrace this lofty Christology at still earlier dates.

Paul's writings offer windows into early Judean Christianity as well, not hesitating to raise issues on which Paul disagreed with more Torah-centric Christians. Striking in its omission, however, is any debate over his high Christology, which surely would have appeared (in either Acts or Paul) had this been a first-generation disagreement. On the other hand, Saul's intense persecution of early Jewish Christianity was doubtless fueled by his perception that its reverence for Jesus crossed a boundary of that which was appropriate for God alone. The sermons in the early chapters of Acts also disclose lofty titles for Jesus that do not become prominent in the rest of the NT and thus seem to reflect authentic tradition-the leader or author (archegos) of life, the righteous one (dikaios), and the servant (pais).

The hypothetical Q document has, of course, become a storm center in recent research. Hurtado proves a particularly expert navigator here. While recognizing the probability of the early existence of such a document, the countless hypotheses surrounding its composition and excavation quickly turn speculative. …