Completing Hurtado’s How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?

I finished Larry Hurtado’s How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?  Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus.

After reading this book, I still have questions.  First of all, Hurtado argues that the hymn in Philippians 2—-and the fact that Paul expects for his audience to regard it as authoritative—-indicates that there was not controversy early on in Christianity that Jesus was divine.  If early Christianity was so uniform about Jesus being divine and pre-existent, however, why do the synoptic Gospels appear to present a different picture, as least on the issue of Jesus’ pre-existence?  I tend to agree with James Dunn that we see different views on when Jesus became the Son of God within the Gospels—-Matthew and Luke place the time at Jesus’ birth, Mark puts it at Jesus’ baptism (or so some have argued), and John says that Jesus was pre-existent.

I’m still open to the idea that even the synoptics depict Jesus as divine, though.  When Mark says that John the Baptist was preparing the way for the Lord, he may be saying that Jesus was this Lord, for, in a sense, John the Baptist is preparing the way for Jesus.  If you buy into Markan priority, Matthew appears to correct Mark to make Jesus look more divine and less human, as when Jesus in Matthew 9 does not ask who touched him after the woman with the blood-problem touches his garment and is healed, whereas Jesus in Mark 5 does inquire that.  And Jesus in the synoptics walks on water and stills the sea, things that God in the Hebrew Bible does.  But, in my opinion, the synoptics do not really present Jesus as pre-existent.  How would Hurtado deal with what appear to be different Christologies in the Gospels?  Would he even acknowledge that there are different Christologies?

Second, Hurtado argues that Jewish authorities sought to kill Jewish Christians because of the Jewish Christian belief that Jesus was divine.  For Hurtado, Jewish authorities considered that belief to be blasphemous, the sort of sin for which the Torah prescribed the death penalty.  I’m not going to argue that there’s nothing to Hurtado’s case, for there may very well be something to it.  I have to admit that there is plenty in the New Testament about Jewish authorities wanting to put Christians to death, and part of that may have related to how Christians conceptualized Jesus.  But why were there times when Jewish authorities did not seek to put Christians to death?  Why did Jewish authorities flog Paul as someone under their leadership, rather than putting him to death?  Shouldn’t Paul get something more serious than flogging, if he were (in the eyes of many Jews) either undermining the Torah or encouraging the worship of another god?  And why does Josephus relate that James was highly regarded by a number of Jews (see here), if James was regarded as transgressing Jewish monotheism?

In my latest reading, Hurtado argued that Jewish Christians concluded that Jesus was divine on account of revelations that they received after Jesus’ death.  Hurtado does not think that Second Temple Jewish belief in agents of God—-beings who carried God’s name or had certain divine powers—-was sufficient to give rise to the Jewish Christian worship of Jesus as divine, for agents of God were not worshiped in Second Temple Judaism.  And Hurtado does not seem to believe that Jesus’ activity during his ministry was enough to give rise to the notion that he was divine, for, while Hurtado appears to believe that there were indications, Jesus’ divinity was not exactly explicit.  Therefore, for Hurtado, Jewish Christians had to get their idea that Jesus was divine from elsewhere, and Hurtado contends that it was through visions.

When I first read this, I rolled my eyes, for I thought that Hurtado was making an apologetic move—-that he was suggesting that the Jewish Christians could not have gotten their controversial idea that Jesus was divine from anything in history, and so they had to get it from God.  But that’s not Hurtado’s goal.  Hurtado appeals to social scientific studies to argue that visions can give rise to new ideas (against those who maintain that visions only reinforce ideas that people already had), and this is the case for a variety of religions.  In short, Hurtado is not privileging early Christianity.  Moreover, Hurtado acknowledges that, historically-speaking, the early Christians could have hallucinated.  But Hurtado’s point is that the early Christians had some experience that convinced them of Jesus’ divinity.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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7 Responses to Completing Hurtado’s How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?

  1. Thanks for this interesting intro and overview of Hurtado’s concepts, James. I haven’t read him but he sounds interesting.

    There are several points in your article that would be fun to discuss, and hopefully enlightening. But my time is short. A few summary points, however….

    I like that Hurtado is dealing with origins of the concept of Jesus’ divinity and how it came about. I’ve read a lot on Christian origins and NT scholarship and it still is puzzling… the issues are very complex, partly because our sources are limited. The visions angle is a significant one. I think we don’t even have adequate language or understanding of all the related phenomena we can experience, much of it culturally related. (I.e. things commonplace or at least occasional in one time and place are rare or virtually non-existent in others–certain forms of vision perhaps included. Certainly how visions or “apparitions” or various neurological phenomena or “paranormal” events are received and interpreted differ with time and culture).

    Given this alone, it is hard to reconstruct with much real understanding what various early Christians actually experienced and how it affected their belief systems. (Paul’s acct. in I Cor. 15 is one critical piece, however, coupled with his other references to his visions and such.) What is largely left out of the NT documents is any broad OR detailed picture of the political situation throughout the 1st century or at any key part of it, particularly the 60s leading up to and through the Jewish-Roman war ending in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. All this is really pivotal and rarely dealt with adequately… again partly because our info is sketchy.

    Josephus of course has more than any other existing source. Then the Dead Sea Scrolls need to be factored in for what they MAY indicate about 1st century conditions, beliefs, etc. I don’t know how many others he has persuaded, but Robert Eisenman goes to great length to build the case that The Righteous Teacher of Qumran texts is, in fact, the James the Just of the “early church” (misleading term) in Jerusalem.

    They were probably observant Jews, as even Acts seems to indicate, forming a new and fairly aggressive, growing sect among many of the time, viewing Jesus as Messiah, as raised by God and expected to soon return. (Jesus as well as apparently all his early followers of this branch, plus Paul and his followers–often in serious conflict glossed over in Acts–were apocalypticists. This meant somewhat different things to different people but included a political and nationalist core element for Jewish Jesus-followers other than Paul).

    I haven’t read nearly all of Eisenman’s extensive writing on this subject and related issues of deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls accurately, but he seems to have a solid approach, the appropriate credentials and has exposed some very fishy elements in how the Scrolls were handled for the first 40 or more years after their discovery, and how they have been translated and interpreted partly based on some of those problems. Of course he deals with Josephus carefully and other non-canonical relevant sources as well… From what I gather he is admittedly (among scholars and lay people both) one of the most qualified, if not the most, to deal with these complex and difficult issues… at the very least, he deserves a good hearing, but it’s tough for most people to give it because of his difficult writing style, organization, etc. I still encourage it however!


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your comment, Howard! I may give Eisenman a read at some point.


  3. In your post, I was most interested in the section where you state that Mark could have been attributing deity to Jesus when he states that John the Baptist was preparing the way for the Lord.

    Then you attempt to find places in Matthew that “make Jesus look more divine and less human.” And you give one example of Jesus doing “things that God in the Hebrew Bible does.”

    I personally believe your example of the story of the woman with the issue of blood does not necessarily apply to your thesis, because of similar abbreviations in Matthew and the other Gospels that cannot easily be forced into a theologically motivated explanation. And I believe there are several relevant passages that tie the words and deeds of Jesus to divine prerogatives that you could have included.

    But let me respond to the gist of your musings on the significance of the citing of Isaiah 40:3 attributed to John the Baptist in, not only Mark as you indicate, but in all the Synoptics and John.

    The clearest reading of this citation indicates that the Isaiah prophecy is taken as a direct reference to Jesus, thus making it a claim to his deity. Note also that each of the Gospels follows the Isaiah citation with a humble declaration by the Baptist of Jesus’ unqualified greatness.

    Since this very natural reading of these related passages comes as a kind of thesis statement at or near the beginning of each of the Synoptics, several of your other “musings” seem irrelevant:

    (1) Pondering the question of when Jesus “became” the Son of God within the Gospels — whether at the time of his birth (Matthew and Luke) or at Jesus’ baptism (Mark) or that he always was (John)

    (2) Your opinion that the Synoptics do not present Jesus as pre-existent

    (3) Your questioning Dr. Hurtado about the presence of different Christologies in the Gospels

    The fact is: Since it is asserted at the outset that Jesus is Lord (Yahweh), there is no need to force varied uses of the title “Son of God” into irreconcilable discord.

    I think the idea that Jesus’ baptism MADE him the Son of God is far-fetched as is Bart Ehrman’s attempt to argue for a textual variant in Luke that would have the same implication.

    As to Luke’s statement that Jesus will be called the Son of God because of the nature of his birth, there is no need take this to be in conflict with the idea that Jesus is Yahweh.

    Logically and without rational conflict, Jesus can be called Yahweh — because he is — and, at the same time be called the Son of God — because of the Virgin Birth.

    Additionally, once the assertion of Jesus’ deity is in place at the outset of a Gospel, a direct discussion of his pre-existence is unnecessary, because pre-existence is necessarily implied in deity.

    Finally, your reference to “different Christologies in the Gospels” may amount to asking too much and may distract us from what is actually presented in these ancient texts.

    The fact that there is no uniform, thorough-going Christology in the Gospels — that answers all questions with a shared precision — does not take away from the fact that there is a common vision of who he is — expressed with a sense of wonder and devotion — that includes his deity.


  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Bobby. You could be right—-all of the synoptics (at some stage, or maybe even all stages) present Jesus as God. As I indicated in my post, I’m open to that (whether or not I used the best examples in every case). I wouldn’t say that eliminates every conceivable bump, though, as you admit in your last paragraph.


  5. I read quite a bit of material that are in the vein of Jesus studies, and my major concern with them is: They tend to treat Jesus as a mere topic to be discussed, rather than as someone who is knowable, known and to be loved and proclaimed.

    The New Testament documents — written out of devotion and love — are not a good source for the over-analysis that is typical of Jesus studies.

    I think we can establish, without much that can be questioned, that Jesus lived and that the Gospels and New Testament give a relatively harmonious view of who he was — and is — and what he did, does and will do.

    But as to the oral tradition, source analysis, redaction studies and the rest — these are surely overdone.

    Dr. Hurtado is one of my favorites on the topic of New Testament studies, but I think he too gets caught in the theoretical.

    For instance, I think he overdoes it when he limits the conception of Jesus worship as something that must be grounded in revelation that occurred post-resurrection. (In some places, he grants that the preparation for the exalted status of Jesus was laid in the apostles pre-crucifixion experience of Jesus — an idea that I wish he would develop more fully.)

    But I wrote to him suggesting that the revelation of who Jesus is came to the apostles during Jesus’ ministry, not later. They were convinced that God was speaking to them through Jesus and was acting in the powerful works Jesus performed. They had not worked through all that it meant to witness someone who spoke and acted like God and who received the “worship” of others — in such overt and extravagant expressions. And they had not absorbed the full significance of what he was telling them about himself, including his coming resurrection. But their experience of revelation about him should not be limited to their experience of the risen Christ.

    However the real difference between Dr. Hurtado and me is, apparently, in the attitude with which we approach the New Testament. He is very clinical, very objective, detached from the apostolic testimonies he studies. I come to them with a sense of awe for the one the apostles preached and taught about — and were willing to live and die for.


  6. jamesbradfordpate says:

    He may have that awe. It’s just that, as you probably know from your studies, even conservative scholars have to be clinical to be taken seriously by other scholars. I think it’s good, though, when scholars can combine passion with the clinical criticism—-I think of N.T. Wright.


  7. I don’t want to take up any more of your time. And I’ve got a lot to do. But I’ll close with this comment — a challenge to myself as well as Dr,. Hurtado, whom I greatly respect:

    You can’t filter out the passion if it’s real, anymore than you could dispassionately attend your own child’s funeral or yawn and say, “Oh well,” when you hear the voice of the Son of Man call you out of your grave in the last day.


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