Hurtado’s Thesis: Early Jewish Devotion to Jesus is evidence that Jesus had divine status
Dr. Larry Hurtado claims that the great degree of devotion displayed by early Jewish followers of Jesus is evidence that soon after Jesus' life on earth, Jesus’ followers came to understand that Jesus had some kind of divine status. Hurtado stops short of claiming that Jesus' followers believed outright that Jesus is “God”. The title of the book is “How on earth did Jesus Become a God”. But Hurtado sees the intense, worshipful devotion of Jesus’ early followers, even willingness to die, as evidence that they believed that Jesus had a divine status. Hurtado’s thesis is in step with recent scholarly efforts to discover evidence of 2nd Temple Period Jewish binitarian “two-power” theology as a backdrop from which Christian trinitarianism emerged.
Jesus didn’t think he was God
Hurtado’s views on the deity of Jesus are not in line with conservative Evangelical Protestant Christianity, so it is somewhat surprising to see Evangelical Christians touting Hurtado’s work as evidence for the deity of Christ and the Trinity. Hurtado has said he doesn’t think that Jesus claimed or thought himself to be God (See starting at 1 hour, 3 minute mark) Again, the title of this book is “How…did Jesus become a God?.” Evangelicals want to see in Hurtado’s scholarly work evidence that Jesus was considered early on by his disciples to be God. However, Hurtado’s claim is more nuanced, presenting Jesus as having “divine status” or being the object, along with Yahweh God, of “binitarian worship”. Hurtado claims that it was somehow the actions or declarations of God the Father (see below) that caused the blurring or confusion between Jesus and God. But for early Jewish Christ-followers, there was no confusion. The confusion only came much later with the Gentile led church fathers, and God the Father was certainly not the author of this confusion.
A Biblical Approach
A more biblical understanding of “devotion to Jesus” is that Jesus’ early followers were devoted not because Jesus is LORD (Yahweh) God or some other god/God along with Yahweh, but because Jesus is the human Lord Messiah who died for them, indeed was raised for them, exalted to the right hand of Almighty God in heaven, and granted authority over all as Yahweh God’s appointed King. For Jews, including early Jewish disciples of Jesus Christ, there are not two Gods. LORD (Yahweh) God is never confused with Lord Messiah.
By the 1st century, Jews had been longing for the Messiah to come for hundreds of years. When Messiah came, his followers realized that not only is the Messiah the King to whom all authority in heaven and earth is given, but that this same Messiah, their King, died for them, “freed us from our sins by his own blood” (Rev. 1:5). God didn’t die, but God’s chosen Messiah did. And then Messiah was raised from the dead by God (Acts 2:24, 10:40, etc.), and is now exalted by God to God’s right hand (Acts 2:33, Eph,1:20, Heb. 8:1, etc.). It should not be surprising that Jesus’ followers would show unprecedented devotion to their once dead, now raised by God from the dead Messiah Lord, seated at God’s right hand.
If Jesus is Worshipped, he must be God?
In some ways Hurtado seems to make the same old mistaken claim that “since Jesus is worshipped, Jesus must be God.” But Jesus was not worshipped by his early Jewish followers as God. New Testament Jewish Christology is not “God is Messiah”, but God in Messiah (Acts 2:22, John 10:38, 2 Cor. 5:19, etc.). In the days and decades following Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus was worshipped as the risen, glorified Messiah Priest King to whom all authority in heaven and earth is given. There was no blurring or confusion, as Hurtado postulates, for the early followers of Jesus concerning the differences between the LORD God and God’s designated chief representative, the Lord Messiah Jesus. The record of events associated with the disciples of Jesus in the decades after Jesus’ resurrection, the Book of Acts, shows no such confusion (e.g., Acts 2:22-34). The confusion developed later in the speculations of Gentile Greco-Latin church fathers.
Biblical Paradigm of Messiah Worshipped
The paradigm for intense homage and devotion to the Lord King Messiah comes directly from the Old Testament.
“Then David said to all the assembly, ‘Bless the LORD (Yahweh) your God.’ And all the assembly blessed the LORD (Yahweh), the God of their fathers, and bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD (Yahweh) and the king” (1 Chron. 29:20).
Similarly, Abigail called David “Lord” 13 times in one chapter of the Bible (1 Sam. 25). She worshipped David with her face to the ground.
Of Solomon it is written: ‘Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son...May all kings worship before him (before God’s designated human king), all nations serve him’” (Psalm 72:1, 11).
All the more so is homage and honor due to the promised greater Son of David, who will not only rule as King with all authority in heaven and earth given to him, but who “freed us from our sins by his own blood” (Rev. 1:5). Unlike David or Solomon, our King Jesus died for us. But God raised him from the dead. We shouldn’t be surprised at the devotion the Firstborn-from-the dead-King (Col 1:18, Rev. 1:5) deserves and receives.
How Did Jesus’ Followers Come to know that Jesus was a “God”? Hurtado: Religious Experience
Hurtado maintains that the way in which early believers came to understand that Jesus is a God (or has divine status) is through “religious experience”. By this Hurtado means dreams and visions. Hurtado writes:
“Within the early Christian circles of the first few years (perhaps even the first few weeks), individuals had powerful revelatory experiences…Through such revelatory experiences, Christological convictions and corresponding cultic practices were born that amounted to a unique mutation in what was acceptable Jewish monotheistic devotional practice of the Greco-Roman period” (p. 203, all of chapter 8).
Hurtado’s suggestion that it was religious or revelatory experience that brought about the “mutation” in monotheistic worship is an admission that there is no evidence in the New Testament for his theory that early Jewish followers of Jesus were worshiping Jesus as God, or as a God. Instead of explicit evidence in the New Testament, Hurtado must suggest unrecorded religious experience as the mechanism that brought about an apostolic binitarian form of worship. It must be stressed: None of this “religious experience” is recorded in the New Testament, or anywhere else for that matter. To repeat, Hurtado suggests that it was because of not-recorded-in-Scripture-religious-experience that early Jewish followers of Jesus began to worship Jesus as a God. Protestant Evangelical Christians should, to say the least, be very uncomfortable with Hurtado’s theory.
Early Christian Binitarian “two-power” theology, a bad omen for Trinitarianism?
While Hurtado (and others) may have set out to prove, albeit unsuccessfully, that there was “binitarian monotheistic” cultic worship of Jesus-as-God in 1st century, he shows that Trinitarian doctrine is a later development. Hurtado’s ideas are being touted by Evangelical trinitarians to show that Jesus is God. But Hurtado’s (and other’s) claims for an early binitarian Jewish Christian belief present real problems for Trinitarianism. If early Christian worship is only binitary, then Trinitarian worship is a later historical development. Showing Christian faith was at first binitary, proves that a trinitarian understanding of God is a later development and was totally foreign to Jesus and the early apostles. Hurtado makes no effort to show that Trinitarianism is found in the New Testament. Likewise, Hurtado makes no effort to show that Trinitarianism resulted from 1st century revelatory experience, as he suggests for binitarian belief. Trinitarianism is a development of a later century.
It is ironic that Evangelicals are promoting theories like Hurtado’s since in at least two ways Hurtado’s theories contradict traditional trinitarianism. Hurtado maintains:
- Jesus became a God, or at least was recognized to be a God, albeit of unequal or subordinate status to Yahweh God, sometime after Jesus lived on earth.
- Christian theology developed historically from unitarian, to binitarian, to trinitarian.
How, When and Where did binitary worship begin?
Hurtado is correct that Christian binitarian worship developed before trinitarianism. But he should be challenged by unbiased historians concerning the how, when and where Christian binitarianism developed. It is clear from early church fathers’ writings that binitarian, albeit unequal Father and Logos-Son understandings of the “godhead”, developed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, particularly in places like Egypt, Asia Minor, and Rome. The Father and Logos-Son theologies of the church fathers developed not from revelatory experiences, but from pagan influenced interpretations of Scripture. This is also the time that Jewish sources, rightly so, condemned this new “mutated” understanding of who the God of Israel is (see e.g., Justin Martyr Dialog with Trypho the Jew, dating from ca. AD 155).
Agency, or Not?
Further, Hurtado disagrees with the interpretations of other scholars who propose forms of 2nd Temple Period Jewish binitarian worship as a backdrop for the emergence of Christianity. Hurtado (rightly!) shows that what has been interpreted as binitary Jewish “monotheism” has in fact failed to realize the concept of agency, i.e., of the One God granting His attributes and authority (“attributes and functions”) to others. Jewish monotheism always distinguished between the One God and His agent(s). Hurtado takes this position vis-a-vis other binitarian claims since in his view the worship of Jesus is a unique “mutation”.
A Better, Biblical Model
Finally, the “binitarian”, “two powers” interpretations of Hurtado (Boyarin, Heiser?) is a misunderstanding of the biblical truth, that indeed there are two powers in heaven. 1) Yahweh God Almighty, and 2) the resurrected human, glorified Lord Messiah Jesus. In a vision Daniel saw the Son of Man come before the Ancient of Days. In Psalm 2 the human Messiah is told to “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool”. Jesus the human King Messiah is also a priest “who is seated at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Psalm 110 and Heb. 8:1). The once dead, resurrected, glorified Lord Jesus the Messiah is in heaven at God’s right hand. He is God Almighty’s chief agent, the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) “whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (Act 3:21).
“What is man that you are mindful of him…? You have crowned him with glory and honor…You have given him dominion over the works of your hands, you have put all things under his feet…” (Psa. 8:4-6, Heb. 2:5-7).