Honoring the Son
When did Christians begin to worship Jesus as God? Some scholars believe that the ascription of divinity to Jesus only happened in the latter part of the first century or in the beginning of the second. Honoring the Son: Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice is the latest offering by Larry Hurtado, in which he argues that worshipping Jesus as God was an early Christian practice. Honoring the Son is, in fact, a brief synopsis (95 pages including indexes) of Hurtado’s work over the past few decades. This book, edited by Michael F. Bird, is part of the Lexham Press series known as “Snapshots.” Larry Hurtado is Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh and, beginning with his first book entitled One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, has written extensively on this topic for over thirty years.
Hurtado insists that the expression of early Christian devotion is an area that has been greatly neglected by scholars in answering the question of when Jesus began to be worshipped as God. He states, that “. . . in Western cultures, scholars and the general public have come to regard doctrines and confessional statements as the key expressions of religion, almost to the exclusion of anything else, and typically to the neglect of early Christian worship practices” (p. 3). Following an introductory chapter (which discusses the plan of the book and the scholarly context of this topic), Hurtado examines “Worship in the Ancient World” (Chap. 2). I found his contention that, “In the ancient Roman world, worship was the key expression of ‘religion,’ not beliefs and confessional formulas” (p. 1) to be insightful. In other words, it is the practice of sacrifice and petitioning the gods for favor(s), as well as, expressing thanks through gifts, that most characterized Roman-era religion. Thus Hurtado insists that, “In a truly historical approach to early Christianity, worship practices must be a central matter, and not sidelined or relegated to a place of secondary importance” (pp. 25-26).
Chapter 3 entitled, “Ancient Jewish Monotheism,” asserts that the Jews adhered strictly to the worship of one God. While there might be the acknowledgement that other gods existed (see e.g., Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor. 10:19-20), or the power of certain angelic beings, or other enigmatic figures (like the portrait of Melchizedek in the Dead Sea Scrolls), cultic devotion and worship was only and always reserved for the one God of the Jews. This contention is important for a couple of reasons: 1) Bart Ehrman’s suggestion that Paul thought of Jesus as an angelic figure and “angels were worshipped in Jewish circles, and so Jesus was worshipped”(p. 17) is shown to be erroneous; and 2) that early Jewish believers would quickly make the transition to worshipping Jesus along with God is extraordinary and unprecedented in the first century Jewish world! This prompts the question of what could possibly cause these early Jewish believers (Paul among them), to so quickly worship Jesus, when the worship of anyone but God was considered anathema? Furthermore, while Ehrman, and more skeptical scholars, would attempt to equate the worship of Jesus as God with the Roman practice of emperor worship, Hurtado shows that this is untenable. First of all, Jews never succumbed to the practice of emperor worship. No doubt the Maccabean crisis had an importance influence on the exclusiveness of Jewish worship. One implication of this, then, is that “it was more unlikely that pagan notions of apotheosis or practices such as the emperor cult could have been influential in the origins of Jesus-devotion” (p. 41).
Chapter 4 is entitled “The Early Christian ‘Mutation.'” Hurtado explains, “By the term ‘mutation’ I mean a development that has both recognizable connections with the ‘parent’ religious tradition (in this case ancient Judaism) and also identifiably new features that distinguish the development from its parent tradition” (p. 42). The discussion centers on Paul’s letters, the earliest extant evidence of Christianity. In these letters, written been 50-60 A.D., Jesus is regularly referred to as “the Christ,” the unique “Son of God”, and “Lord.” Passages from the Old Testament originally referring to Yahweh are also applied to Jesus (e.g., Joel 2:32 is applied to Jesus in Romans 10:9-13); he is referred to as the One “through whom are all things” (1 Cor. 8:6), and is celebrated as being “in the form of God” and being exalted to God’s right hand (Phil. 2:6-11). Hurtado states, “. . . the programmatic place of Jesus in earliest Christian devotion amounts to a novel and historically significant ‘mutation'” (pp. 48-49). Furthermore, he argues that “. . . the evidence strongly points to the origin of the cultic veneration of Jesus as lying in thoroughly Jewish circles of the Jesus movement such as the Jerusalem church” (pp. 49-50). He also states that this is now the dominant view among scholars who have recently worked on this question.
Chapter 5 entitled, “Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice,” gets to the heart of Hurtado’s thesis that the exaltation of Jesus to the status of deity is clearly observable in Christian expressions of worship. In this chapter he looks at the language of prayer, invocation (calling on) and confession, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, hymns (including psalms and spiritual songs), and prophecy. An examination of each of these expressions of worship demonstrates an early recognition of Jesus’ divine status by believers.
Chapter 6 provides a summary and conclusion, reiterating previous points made in this short book. Among matters I have not yet mentioned, Hurtado believes that the early persecution by Jewish contemporaries (including Saul of Tarsus) can be explained by “. . . the reverence given to Jesus in circles of Jewish believers from the earliest years” (p. 67).
The book concludes with an appendix entitled, “Lord and God.” This appendix, previously published in The Christian Century in 2014, is a review of Bart Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God, .
I have wanted to read some of Hurtado’s works for a number of years, but have allowed other (reading) pursuits to block my path. For people like me, Honoring the Son is a great introduction to Hurtado’s thoughts and research on this important topic. It will make you want to read more! I would highly recommend it for students, pastors, and teachers. While Hurtado does transliterate Greek words and use words like “dyadic,” he is always careful to explain their meaning. The conciseness of this book belies the importance of this topic and the value of Hurtado’s insights, yet at the same time it makes a complex subject accessible and easily digestible for the beginning inquirer. Lexham Press, and Michael Bird, are to be commended for producing the Snapshot Series which presents a reader with the big picture of important topics like this one.
Honoring the Son: Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice is currently on Pre-Pub (available June/July 2018) at Lexham Press and Amazon USA / UK
Many thanks to Lexham Press for this free review copy. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.