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Larry W. Hurtado Lord Jesus Christ Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity 2003

Larry W. Hurtado Lord Jesus Christ Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity 2003

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To some readers, perhaps some who are particularly interested in ancient
Christian intellectual engagement with culture or the formation of Christian
doctrines about the Trinity, to end this analysis with Justin is to break off just
when things start getting interesting. But I contend that the period I have char
acterized here as "earliest Christianity" is not only fascinating in its own right
but is also crucial for what comes thereafter.
"What comes thereafter" includes, of course, great figures such as the in
fluential bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus (with whom Bousset concluded his classic
study of earliest belief in Jesus); the prolific and broad-minded Clement of Al
exandria; Tertullian (that combative father of Latin-writing Christianity); and
Origen (who perhaps most fully represents the best of early Christian scholar
ship). Other interesting, though somewhat less imposing, figures of the same
period could be mentioned as well, such as Melito of Sardis and Hippolytus.
There were also further noteworthy efforts at religious innovation in the late
second and in the third centuries beyond those we studied here, among which
Montanism is particularly important.1

But I contend that what we have examined in these chapters, "earliest
Christianity" (ca. 30-170), provided the major convictions, and the parameters
of belief and devotional practice as well, that shaped the subsequent develop
ments in Christian tradition, which in turn came to be dominant and which
form our picture of classical Christian faith. The devotional practice of earliest
Christianity was particularly foundational for doctrinal developments. Though
beliefs, or at least fundamental convictions, were certainly there from the out-

1. Most recently, Christine Trevett, Montanism: Gender, Authority, and the New Prophecy

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

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THEREAFTER

set, the development of more sophisticated doctrinal formulations that fol
lowed was also heavily prompted, and decisively shaped, in the light of earliest
Christian devotional practice.
Christians were proclaiming and worshiping Jesus, indeed, living and dy
ing for his sake, well before the doctrinal/creedal developments of the second
century and thereafter that have received so much attention in histories of
Christian tradition. The early convictions about Jesus and the corresponding
devotion offered to him that became so widespread in earliest Christianity were
sufficiently robust to nourish the prolonged and vigorous efforts to articulate
Christian faith in persuasive doctrinal formulations.
Moreover, devotion to Jesus as divine erupted suddenly and quickly, not
gradually and late, among first-century circles of followers. More specifically,
the origins lie in Jewish Christian circles of the earliest years. Only a certain
wishful thinking continues to attribute the reverence of Jesus as divine deci
sively to the influence of pagan religion and the influx of Gentile converts,
characterizing it as developing late and incrementally. Furthermore, devotion
to Jesus as the "Lord," to whom cultic reverence and total obedience were the
appropriate response, was widespread, not confined or attributable to particu

lar circles, such as "Hellenists" or Gentile Christians of a supposed Syrian
"Christ cult."

Amid the diversity of earliest Christianity, belief in Jesus' divine status

was amazingly common. The "heresies" of earliest Christianity largely presup
pose the view that Jesus is divine. That is not the issue. The problematic issue,
in fact, was whether a genuinely human Jesus could be accommodated. Espe
cially in the second century, "proto-orthodox" Christianity comprised those
circles that regarded Jesus' human life as crucial in making his redemptive work
efficacious.

Additionally, in spite of the diversity, it is equally evident that Jesus was
central in all the forms of earliest Christianity, proto-orthodox or others, that
we can describe with any confidence. This centrality of Jesus, and the unique
ness of his status in the various religious convictions of earliest Christians, also
demanded, almost unavoidably, a new view of God.

As we have seen, in the second century, however, there were a few compet
ing options on what view of God was to be widely embraced as best represent
ing what Christians should confess. For example, was Jesus to be seen as an em
anation from the divine pleroma (the "All"), from which the elect themselves
had been separated? Was Jesus the representative of a hitherto unknown, alien

God who was not to be associated with the creator deity of the Old Testament?
Was it in fact totally inappropriate to link the God from whom Jesus came with
this world, creation, and bodily existence? Or was the Christian God properly

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Thereafter

to be identified as the Old Testament deity who had created all things, had spo
ken truly through Moses and the prophets, and now was revealed more fully
and decisively through Jesus?
The last option was, of course, the one espoused by what I have called
"proto-orthodox Christianity," and this constellation of Christians (who, to be
sure, exhibited a certain variety of emphases and outlooks) developed across the
period of our analysis what amounted to a new and unique view of what the
term "God" meant. Granted, they drew freely upon Jewish tradition, as reflected
in their insistence that the one God was properly thought of as a personal deity
of love, purpose, justice, and faithfulness. The influence of Jewish tradition was
also reflected in their critique of pagan polytheism. Furthermore, like their Jew
ish coreligionists, they came to draw selectively upon philosophical traditions;
but in the earliest centuries they did so with considerable caution.
The sum of proto-orthodox Christian teaching about God, however, in
cluded critically new elements. Although they stridently professed sole alle
giance to the God of the Old Testament, their exclusivist monotheism some
times being tested by the threat of death, they also posited a real and radical
plurality, initially more focused on the "Father" and "Son," as somehow per
taining to the one God they worshiped to the exclusion of all others. That is,
earliest Christian faith in Jesus contributed to a literal reshaping of the mono
theism inherited from the Jewish/biblical tradition, initially taking things in a
"binitarian" direction, though a trinitarian model subsequently became domi
nant. I emphasize, also, that this reshaping of belief about God was accompa
nied and expressed by a corresponding "binitarian" pattern of devotional prac
tice, in which the exalted Jesus was included as recipient of reverence along with
God "the Father."

The struggle to work out doctrinal formulations that could express in
some coherent way this peculiar view of God (as "one" and yet somehow com
prising "the Father" and Jesus, thereafter also including the Spirit as the "third
Person" of the Trinity) occupied the best minds in early Christian orthodox/
catholic tradition for the first several centuries. But the doctrinal problem they
worked on was not of their making. It was forced upon them by the earnest
convictions and devotional practice of believers from the earliest observable
years of the Christian movement.
In addition to demanding this novel endeavor to incorporate plurality
within the one God, their faith in Jesus also involved a corresponding view of
human nature and hope. This correspondence was, in fact, the case for all the
forms of devotion to Jesus that we have surveyed, however various groups un
derstood his divine significance. In proto-orthodox beliefs, historically the
most successful of the early options, Jesus is emphatically portrayed as having

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THEREAFTER

become human irrevocably, and genuinely and bodily human at that, thereby
wedding himself, in an indissoluble union, with the human race. Proto-
orthodox Christians believed Jesus had suffered the awful reality of a brutal
death (that most fearsome feature of humankind's lot), and that in his resurrec
tion and exaltation he now prefigures and assures the glory that humans can
hope for, and for which they can dare to venture their all in the present arena of
historical existence.

Whatever one may think personally of the convictions of earliest Chris
tianity, they gripped and moved people to make commitments with far-
reaching consequences for them, and for subsequent Christianity as well. To
embrace Christian faith in earliest Christianity was to ally oneself with a small,
vulnerable religious movement, not with the mighty and venerable (and some
times oppressive) institution that it became in later centuries. For Jews and
Gentiles, such a commitment could jeopardize their relations with their ex
tended families; it almost certainly courted various forms of disapproval, even
hostility, from wider social circles. In the second and third centuries in particu
lar, it might mean denunciation to governmental authorities, and the threat of
state punishments. For Gentiles, embracing Christian faith certainly meant cut
ting themselves out of participation in the civic cults and various other facets of
the religious environment that functioned so heavily as expressions of social
solidarity. There were costs involved in joining this particular "voluntary asso
ciation" with its exclusivist demands, for which the closest analogies were prob
ably the consequences of proselyte conversion to Judaism. Given these costs,
those who did embrace devotion to Jesus must have found sufficient compen
sation in the fellowship into which they were baptized. Such was the religious
power of the message, the new identity, the religious experiences, and the new
relational bonding. In this message, this- new identity, these religious experi
ences, and these new relationships, the figure of Jesus was characteristically the
center, the inspiration, the example, and the authoritative teacher.

In earliest Christianity powerful dynamics of devotion and belief were
propagated with amazing success, then and subsequently, the effects of which
form a substantial part of the story of the Christian tradition down through the
centuries to the present day. It is remarkable that Jesus was so immediately cen
tral in earliest Christian circles. It is perhaps still more remarkable that Jesus
has remained the most distinguishing feature of Christianity, many Christians
through the ages insisting also that Jesus is the most important and perhaps the
most winsome feature of the Christian tradition.
The diversity of views of Jesus evident in the preceding chapters has its
counterpart in subsequent centuries, down to our own time. Christians, and
many outside Christianity as well, continue to wrestle with the question of

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Thereafter

what to make of Jesus. The story of devotion to Jesus in earliest Christianity
shows that the struggle erupted, volcano-like, at an amazingly early point.
Probably, the continuing vitality of Christianity will remain dependent upon
how fully Christians engage the question of Jesus, and how radically they are
willing to consider what devotion to him means for them.
Given the size and potential impact of Christianity in our world, the
question of what Christians will do about these matters could have conse
quences far beyond the circle of Christian faith. Indeed, in a real sense Jesus is
far bigger than Christianity, with an appeal that extends much wider than the
global Christian constituency. In our time, as in the famous Galilean scene
from the Gospels, for Christians and others as well, Jesus' question remains un
der lively debate: "Who do you say that I am?" The history of earliest devotion
to Jesus shows how answering that question can have profound ramifications.

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