Recently I have been doing some work on the Gospel of John and first-century Jewish monotheism. Anyone who explores the high Christology in John is forced to ask how it would have (or could have) emerged within a monotheistic context. How could early Jews have believed in the one true God of Israel, and also have believed that Jesus was divine?
There are many scholarly works that prove helpful in this discussion, but one of the best is the collection of essays by my doktorvater, Larry Hurtado, in his wonderful book, How on Earth Did Jesus Become God? (Eerdmans, 2005).
For the past twenty-five years Larry has been at the forefront of historical investigations into the origins of Jesus devotion within early Christianity. With his groundbreaking work One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Fortress Press, 1988; reprint T&T Clark, 2003), Hurtado laid forth the argument that worship of Jesus amongst early Christians was much early than previously thought—a monumental fact given that such devotion arose within circles of Second-Temple devout Jews. In 2003, he published Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, which in many ways is a capstone work that continues his fundamental investigation into early Jesus devotion and draws together much of his research over the past two decades.
How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God? is a more compact presentation of Hurtado’s prior research and pulls together a number of previous publications on the subject (mainly journal articles) as well as material from the Deichmann Annual Lecture Series at Ben-Gurion University in Israel.
All the chapters in the volume are helpful, but the first two are the most foundational. In chapter one, Hurtado gives us the lay of the land by surveying the variety of other approaches to Jesus devotion within early Christianity, offering a brief critical review of each of them, so that his own approach can be seen in contrast to its scholarly competitors. In particular, he sets his sites on the “evolutionary” approach most aptly represented by William Bousset’s Kyrios Christos (1913), which argued that worship of Jesus arose with Gentile Christian circles heavily influenced by the pagan Greco-Roman cult.
It is here that the key historical issue at hand is crystallized. The challenge, argues Hurtado, is not simply explaining how Jesus was seen as divine by early Christians, but rather the challenge is explaining the manner in which he was seen as divine. Early Christians drew a sharp line between their worship of Jesus and all the other pagan gods of the Greco-Roman world. Jesus was not simply a new addition to a pantheon of gods they already believed in, but was considered to be the only God rightly deserving of worship.
The exclusive nature of such worship is monotheistic at the core and suggests a Jewish origin, not a pagan-Gentile one. It is such remarkable devotion to Jesus, within a monotheistic context, that demands some sort of serious historical explanation. Hurtado declares, “But it was a major and unprecedented move for people influenced by the exclusive monotheistic stance of Second-Temple Judaism to include another figure singularly alongside God as the recipient of cultic devotion in their worship gatherings” (25).
In chapter two, Hurtado continues his response to the evolutionary model by developing a larger argument for why devotion to Jesus originated from within a monotheistic Jewish context. Hurtado bases his argument on two primary pillars: (a) He argues that such devotion to Jesus can be traced so far back into the first century (even to the 40’s) that an evolutionary model simply does not have time to work; and (b) the demographic origin of such devotion in the earliest followers of Jesus is decidedly Jewish (particularly in the crucial first few decades). Even though diaspora communities were influenced broadly by pagan culture, there are no reasons to think that such influence would have caused Jewish believers to question the uniqueness of the one true God of Israel; indeed, the opposite seems to be the case.
Hurtado concludes, therefore, that the earliest devotion to Jesus was in some sense “binitarian.” Christians worshiped Jesus not a second god, but worshiped him alongside the one true God of the Jews. Such a radical and astounding “mutation” within early monotheistic Judaism cannot be accounted for, argues Hurtado, by the evolutionary model (or, for that matter, most other current models).
Overall, this volume by Hurtado continues to expand his already compelling argument that worship of Jesus was a remarkably early innovation that demands rigorous historical investigation. Perhaps more than any other scholar in recent years, Hurtado has doggedly pursued this one issue and has thankfully caused the scholarly community to engage in deeper and more thorough historical reflections on the subject.
Thus, he has succeeded in shifting the terms of the debate over the origins of Christianity and the nature of the historical Jesus. Instead of getting drawn into endless discussions about historical sources, redaction criticism, and the like, Hurtado has refreshingly streamlined the discussion by asking simple questions about the origins of the beliefs and practices of early Christians. Such beliefs and practices cannot simply be observed by the modern scholar but they demand historical explanations for their existence. It is at this point that the biblical explanation (early Christians experienced the resurrection of Jesus) shows itself to be the most compelling.
Note: Much of this review of Hurtado’s book was originally published in the Westminster Theological Journal 68 (2006): 369-372.