First, a quote: “The Church cannot indefinitely continue to believe about Jesus what he did not know to be true about himself,” J. W. Bowman, The Intention of Jesus (London: SCM, 1945), p. 108.
This is not really a historical claim but a theological one, and it reflects a common assumption: The assumption that the theological/religious validity of claims about Jesus rest upon what Jesus believed and taught about himself. In my book, Lord Jesus Christ (pp. 5-9), I’ve noted the irony of how this assumption has been shared by critics and advocates of Christian faith, and also how it has worked mischief in the historical investigation of Christian origins.
-Dr. Larry Hurtado
“Questioning a Common Assumption,” May 13, 2014
Larry Hurtado’s Blog
Dr. Larry Hurtado has been prolifically writing on something rather compelling over the past few days. Did Jesus know he was Divine during his “earthly ministry?” Did Jesus know he was to be an object of worship?
I think most Evangelicals would assume the answer to those questions is a resounding “yes,” but here we have one of the most preeminent New Testament scholars in the world drawing that assumption into question. I think Hurtado’s comments deserve further scrutiny.
(NOTE: I should mention here that I have no intention of matching my meager brain power and limited knowledge of New Testament scholarship with Dr. Hurtado’s. I merely want to bring this issue to my readership in order to explore what he presents on his own blog and to see what responses his viewpoints elicit here.)
Looking at the evidence in the New Testament, Hurtado concludes that the “high” view of Jesus as Divine Messiah didn’t emerge until what he calls “post-Easter.”
But I’d like to make two observations. First, the earliest extant Christian texts themselves make it perfectly clear that the “high” notions about Jesus sharing in divine glory, exalted to heavenly status, worthy of worship, etc., all erupted after Jesus’ ministry, not during it, and that the crucial impetus for these notions was what earliest believers saw as God’s actions, particularly their belief that God had raised Jesus from death to heavenly glory. (See, e.g., Philippians 2:9-11; Acts 2:36).
To underscore the point, the remarkable escalation in the status/significance of Jesus to the “right hand” of God, to sharing the divine name and glory, and to the central and programmatic place he held in earliest Christian devotional practice all rested on the fundamental conviction that God has exalted him and now required that Jesus’ exalted status be recognized, and that he should be reverenced accordingly.
My second observation is this: Why should this be taken as some kind of threat to the theological legitimacy of traditional Christian faith?
This sounds like it was only after the resurrection that it was known to anyone else including Jesus that he was indeed the Divine Son of God the Father.
I think a lot of people would find that startling, but as Hurtado says above, why should that be a threat? And yet on the aforementioned blog post and two others, many, many comments were generated, some of them rather “impassioned.”
Indeed, more explicitly than any of the other Gospels, GJohn makes it clear that the author saw and accepted a distinction between what he regarded as the level of understanding of Jesus among his followers during his earthly life and the subsequently enhanced level of understanding in the “post-Easter” period.
But my point here is that even GJohn doesn’t make the high Christological claims affirmed by the author rest simply (or even particularly) on demands and teaching of the earthly Jesus. Instead, the text fully affirms that the realization of Jesus’ glorified/glorious status came subsequently, through the revelations of the Spirit.
-Hurtado, Jesus and Christology: The Gospel of John as a Case Study, May 14, 2014
Hurtado wrote this as a follow-up to his prior missive, which continued to inspire passionate discourse, and based on those comments, he wrote a third blog post, Jesus, “Pre-existence,” etc: Responding to Questions on May 15th.
He breaks his response down into four points to which he comments on his blog at length:
- His response to his emphasis that the NT makes God’s actions (esp. in raising Jesus from death and giving him glory) the basis for the “high” Christological claims and the remarkable devotional practice in which Jesus was included with God.
- His position about texts such as John 1:1-2, where, of the “Logos” (here, the “pre-incarnate” identity/form of the incarnate Jesus), we read: “he was with God and he was God”.
- What we are supposed to make of statements ascribing “pre-existence” to Jesus (to use the typical theological buzzword). If you entertain these, how could Jesus not have known this and spoken of it?
- What about subsequent creedal controversies and formulations? E.g., the three “persons” (or “hypostases”) that comprise the “Trinity,” etc.?
I don’t want to re-create the full content from Hurtado’s blog and reader comments, but I do want to draw attention to one particular paragraph (for full context, please use the links I provided and read all three of Hurtado’s posts):
But I suspect that if Paul were asked whether Jesus was the “second person of the Trinity,” he would likely have responded with a quizzical look, and asked for some explanation of what it meant! Were the patristic texts and creedal statements saying something beyond or distinguishable from what the NT texts say? Certainly. Does that invalidate those later creedal discussions and formulations? Well, if you recognize the necessity of the continuing theological task (of intelligently attempting to articulate Christian faith meaningfully in terms appropriate and understandable in particular times and cultures), then probably you’ll see the classic creedal statements as an appropriate such effort. But that’s a historical judgement about that later period, and/or a theological judgement. And my emphasis is on the historical question of what the NT texts say and how to understand them in their own historical context.
-Hurtado, Jesus, “Pre-existence,” etc: Responding to Questions
This goes not only to what Jesus thought of himself prior to his crucifixion and resurrection, but what Paul and the Jesus-believing Jews (and Gentiles) believed about the nature of Christ relative to God during the Biblical period.
Did Paul believe in the Trinity? Again, an Evangelical wouldn’t miss a beat in saying, “Yes, of course,” but again, we have Hurtado, who we have every reason to believe is presenting a credible case from current NT research, saying that Paul wouldn’t have a clue about the Trinity.
I should mention that Derek Leman at Messianic Jewish Musings has been writing a great deal about the Divinity of Jesus lately, and a lot of his perspectives are based on Hurtado. His own research and conclusions will be presented in his forthcoming book Divine Messiah, which should be available for digital download from Amazon as early as May 23rd, so maybe Leman’s text will offer some insights.
In addition to my recent commentary on Zetterholm and the implications of his research on our view of the Church, I’ve recently read an article at Bible History Daily called The Origin of Christianity by Noah Wiener, which is a review of Geza Vermes’ work, From Jewish to Gentile: How the Jesus Movement Became Christianity (November/December 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review).
By contrast, the early second century Epistle of Barnabas shows a distinctly gentile Christianity in its presentation of the Hebrew Bible as allegory instead of covenantal fact. The clearly divinized Jesus in this document is distanced from the Jewish Christians and the divide between the Christian communities continued to widen over time. Geza Vermes writes that after Hadrian’s suppression of the Second Jewish Revolt, the Jewish Christians quickly became a minority group in the newly established church. At this point we can see the origin of Christianity as a distinctly non-Jewish religion; late in the second century, the Jewish Christians either rejoined their Jewish peers or become part of the newly gentile Christian church.
The implication here, as I’m reading it, is that many of the Biblical truths we hold onto as Christians were conceptualized and codified after the Gentiles formed the Christian Church and left Jesus-worship within the Jewish context. In other words, the Jewish apostles and disciples wouldn’t have imagined many of the theologies developed later by the Gentiles in relation to their own understanding of scripture (the Tanakh/Old Testament) and of the teachings of Messiah. In fact, Jesus himself, even “post-Easter,” may not have seen/see himself as “the second person of the Trinity,” at least not using that particular language.
This isn’t to deny the Divine nature of Messiah, the profound mystery of him being “the visible image of the invisible God,” (Colossians 1:15) or his sitting at the right hand of the Father in all exalted honor and glory, but exactly how we see the nature of Jesus may be based more on Evangelical assumptions and long-cherished traditions than how the original authors of the Gospels and Epistles actually understood the nature and character of Messiah.
It seems clear then, that the origin and development of Christianity as a completely separate entity from the ekklesia we see recorded in the Bible, departed from the original theological and doctrinal template taught by the apostles, and I imagine Paul, witnessing the Evangelical Church of the twenty-first century CE, would find little if anything to relate to or even recognize as devotion to Messiah, Son of David.