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There’s a quiet but dramatic change going on within christianity, about our understanding of the death of Jesus. Critical non-believers often seem to be unaware of it. Many christians seem to be unaware of it too.
But it is making a major difference to how christians see God, the scriptures and their faith. And Easter is a good time to think about it.
The Pool of Bethesda – model in the Israel Museum Picture taken by deror avi on 18th August 2006 (Wikipedia)
Fifty years ago, when I was a young christian, there was a clear division in New Testament studies between scholars who defended historic christianity and more secular scholars who took an extremely critical view of the New Testament and saw little of historical value in the gospels.
Half a century later, and things are very different, and secular scholarship is much more confident of historical facts about the life of Jesus as recorded in the gospels. Much of the change has occurred this century. Here is a brief summary.
The New Testament gives us a lot of information about Jesus, but there aren’t many other historical references to Jesus in the first century to support the New Testament information. Some sceptics claim this indicates Jesus was an invention or a legend.
So there has always been great interest in two references in the writings of Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, who wrote towards the end of the first century. In particular, there are arguments about whether one or both references are genuine, or were added later by those copying the text.
(Being before the printing press, Josephus’ works were preserved by manual copying. The earliest extant copies in the original Greek date from the 10th or 11th century, but there is a Latin translation from the 5th century, and the main reference to Jesus was quoted earlier by christian writers.)
I’ve blogged about this before, almost 4 years ago, so it’s time to check out the latest score.
More than half a century ago, christian apologist CS Lewis presented a simple argument for belief in the divinity of Jesus. The argument wasn’t original to him, but it went like this. We cannot think of Jesus as merely a good moral teacher for good moral teachers don’t claim to be the son of God. Either he was a fraud, or he was deranged, or he spoke the truth. And who would want to say he was a liar of deranged? Those fond of alliteration soon labelled the argument “Liar, Lunatic or Lord?”
It was a convincing argument at the time, but is commonly disdained these days. What is the basis for the negativity? And can the argument be resurrected, or not?
When expert historians examine the life of Jesus as recorded in the four gospels, the stories they question most are those of his birth. (Christian scholar Craig Keener didn’t even discuss Jesus’ birth in his monumental The Historical Jesus of the Gospels.)
So how critical should we be when looking at these familiar stories? How much is true and how much is uncertain or unlikely? Where they differ, should we trust Matthew or Luke?
Some relatively recent analysis gives us extra confidence in Luke’s version of events.
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 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”.
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:
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Last post (I’m beginning to see a pattern here) I looked at a number of scientific and historical facts where a bunch of non-experts challenge the consensus of the real experts. These areas were:
On all of these matters, there is substantial agreement among the experts (scientists, historians, psychologists, etc) but the consensus is often challenged and disbelieved by sceptics. They ask us to believe them rather than the experts, and tend to accuse the experts of some sort of conspiracy or bias.
We all know that experts are sometimes wrong (though more often right). And most of us like to feel free to go against the experts on occasion. So when should we trust the experts?
I seem to have had this feeling of deja vu before! 🙂 Conversations on the internet where the topics were very different, but the discussions seem to go in the same direction.
The other person might be an atheist or they might be a christian, but I seem to end up saying the same things.
Before we read a book, we will often want to know who wrote it and whether we can trust them to give us accurate information. It is therefore understandable that people might wonder who wrote the 27 books of the New Testament.
Last post I discussed the writings of New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. One of his books discusses the authorship of the books of the New Testament, and he concludes that quite a few of them (at least a third) are forged, that is, not written by who they claim to be written by.
So I searched the internet to find what other qualified scholars had to say on this matter, and have found that there are few easy answers. There are widely different views on the authorship of some books, with conservative and critical scholars often disagreeing strongly with each other.