Jesus is believed by christians to have been divine, the son of God. Many christians believe he very clearly made that claim during his life, and his disciples just kept on believing it after he died.
However non-believers generally believe Jesus was not divine, but rather a small time prophetic teacher and healer, but legends grew about him after he died until, half a century later, his followers started claiming he was God.
What’s the historical evidence?
Larry Hurtado’s lifetime study
Larry Hurtado retired 5 years ago as Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. His main area of research, expertise and writing was on this very question – “the origins and development of “devotion to Jesus” in earliest Christianity”.
Jesus devotion as a sign of belief
Hurtado has spent more than 30 years of academic study sifting the historical evidence. He concludes that the best place to discern what early christians believed about Jesus’ divinity is not their creeds or written beliefs (for these took time to be developed) but in their worship.
He draws 5 main conclusions:
Early christians worshiped Jesus
The book of Revelation (likely one of the last books of the New Testament to be written) in several places portrays Jesus being worshiped, and we know worship should only be given to God. But we can see devotion to Jesus much earlier, in these practices in the early church:
- singing hymns about Jesus;
- invocation and confession of Jesus;
- prayer offered through Jesus and/or in Jesus’ name, and (less typically) even to Jesus;
- ritual use of Jesus’ name in baptism;
- “the Lord’s Supper” in which Jesus is the presiding presence; and
- prophecy inspired by Jesus and uttered in his name.
Jesus appears to have been worshiped alongside God (“binitarian worship – Jesus didn’t replace God, nor was he worshiped alone, but was only worshiped together with God). This wasn’t a blasphemy, but how they honoured God.
Hurtado says these things are “without precedent” among first century Jews, who had a theology that recognised semi-divine figures like angels and exalted roles for Old Testament figures like Moses, Elijah (as in the Transfiguration) and the patriarchs, but these figures were never worshiped.
It happened very fast
It appears that devotion to Jesus began very soon after his death – probably within 2 years – and therefore was not the result of slow pagan influences.
It was based on religious experience
Hurtado believes visionary experiences of the resurrected Jesus (which even secular scholars believe are probably historical), such as those recorded for all the apostles as well as many other people in the weeks after Jesus was crucified, plus those given later to Paul, Stephen and John (as recorded in Revelation), were a major factor in the worship of Jesus.
The worshiped Jesus was the historical Jesus
It was important for the early christians that the Jesus they worshiped was not some “unearthly” figure, but the same man who taught, healed and prophesied in Galilee, hence the writing of the four gospels. Jesus made a major impression on his followers, leading to his centrality in their later religious life.
Historians are not agreed on whether Jesus was recognised as Messiah or divine (in Jewish thought the Messiah was not divine, but a chosen and exalted person). But it seems likely that any claims to divinity were subtle, hidden and not properly understand by the apostles until after they had resurrection visions.
So there was a rapid transformation in their thinking in the months after Jesus’ death.
Social and political outcomes
Their belief in Jesus and their zeal for him had negative social consequences for the early christians (to say the least!). Hurtado suggests they were willing to suffer in Jesus’ name because their devotional practices helped instil great faith and perserverance in them.
If these conclusions are correct, devotion to Jesus as divine was not a later development as Gentile christians adopted pagan practices, but arose among monotheistic Jews who were closely acquainted with the man Jesus who was executed in Jerusalem.
They apparently thought divinity was consistent with Jesus’ teachings and actions.
Hurtado answers his critics
While many scholars accept Hurtado’s conclusions, some have been challenged.
In a recent blog post (Reiterating the Basics on Jesus-Devotion), Larry replied to several alternative views.
Who agrees with Hurtado?
Hurtado points out that German scholar Martin Hengel and several others had come to this view before him. And my reading suggests many scholars now accept his conclusions.
An angel cult?
Some suggest there may have been an angel cult in first century Judaism, that might explain the devotion to Jesus without implying that his followers saw him as divine.
But Hurtado points to studies that he regards as conclusively showing this wasn’t the case.
In his book, How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman argues that Paul believed Jesus was an angel, not divine. But in response, Hurtado says that no major studies over the last 70 years come to this conclusion, and Ehrman’s book hasn’t made much of an impression on other scholars working in the field. (I have discussed this previously in a post on Bart Ehrman.)
Hurtado further defends his view that Jesus devotion began very early. Against those who argue that the Gospel of Mark shows a non-divine Jesus, Hurtado says that the devotion recorded in Paul’s letters pre-dates Mark by two decades (probably). Besides, he says, Mark doesn’t present any theology of Jesus and nothing in Mark contradicts Hurtado’s conclusion.
Hurtado’s conclusion seems to stand scrutiny by other scholars, and seems to be gaining wide acceptance.
So while any claims to divinity are muted and cryptic in the gospels, the early devotion to Jesus alongside God forms a strong basis for the later development and formulation of Christology of Jesus as the divine Son of God.
Early Devotion to Jesus: A Report, Reflections and Implications. Larry Hurtado, Expository Times 122/4 (2010).
Reiterating the Basics on Jesus-Devotion – blog post by Larry Hurtado, October 7, 2016.
I have addressed this question before on this blog, in How on earth did Jesus become God?.
Photo: Statue of Jesus on the Charles Bridge (Karlův most) in Prague (MorgueFile).