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Book Reviews > New Testament > Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity

Simon Gathercole
Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland

Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity
L.W. Hurtado
Details: 2003, Eerdmans, Amazon.comISBN: 0802860702
Posted: August 12, 2004

Larry Hurtado is well-established as one of the leading figures in what has been described as a ‘new history of religion school’. In the last two decades scholars such as Richard Bauckham and Martin Hengel have offered accounts of how the earliest Christian understandings of Jesus as divine were not the product of hellenistic influence many decades later than Jesus’ own time, but rather emerged organically from Jesus and his Jewish context. One of the key emphases of Hurtado’s approach is that he has not focused on the titles of Jesus (‘Son of God’, ‘Son of Man’, etc.), but rather has attempted to provide a history of the way in which Jesus was treated, particularly in the worship settings (‘Jesus devotion’) of earliest Christianity.

In the Introduction (esp. 2–3), Hurtado offers the main ideas which he argues for in detail in the main body of the book: (a) the ‘amazingly early’ date for such practices; (b) that ‘devotion to Jesus was exhibited in an unparalleled intensity and diversity of expression, for which we have no true parallel’; and (c) that this is nevertheless seen (by the participants, at least) as fully within the bounds of Jewish monotheism. Chapter 1 begins with a treatment of Jewish monotheism, and how the impact of Jesus and earliest Christian religion led to the reshaping of that monotheism. The second chapter focuses on the Pauline evidence, again incorporating reference both to the traditional titles (‘Christ’, etc.) and attributes of Jesus (pre-existence et al.), but also to ‘binitarian worship’, that is, devotion which includes Jesus as worthy of worship alongside God. Chapter 3 focuses on the evidence for earliest Christianity in Judea, using evidence from both Paul and Acts. Chapters 4–7 all focus on the Gospels, beginning with a discussion of Q, where Hurtado effectively rebuts the frequent charge that Q is ‘theocentric’ as opposed to ‘christocentric’. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 focus on the Synoptics, John, and apocryphal Gospels respectively. Here Hurtado makes creative reference to these ‘Jesus books’ (i.e. the Gospels) as ‘artifacts of devotion to Jesus’ (354). Finally, chapters 8–10 focus on other second century material, bringing the total to 746 pages!

There are, however, good reasons why this is such a big book. The amount of secondary literature which Hurtado includes in the discussion is extremely impressive, though the main text is not cluttered by minutiae. The chronological sweep (up to the end of the second century) similarly displays mastery of a wide field of primary sources. Perhaps the principal implication of emphasising the ‘astonishingly early’ (135) date of devotion to Jesus is to challenge the still popular model of NT christology whereby one traces a clear line of development – from prophet, to Messiah, to semi-divine figure, to the pre-existent logos found ultimately in John’s Gospel. Hurtado shatters this model by highlighting, for example, the fact (111) that even the earliest Aramaic-speaking communities called upon Jesus in prayer (1 Cor. 16.21: marana tha – ‘come, Lord’). He further exposes a number of standard presuppositions as arguments from silence, such as the view that because Mark does not have a birth narrative, he does not know about the virginal conception of Jesus.

In a book of this size, there are always going to be elements where one disagrees with points, or areas where one would like more clarification. For example, much is made of the role of worship and Christian experience as a key factor in the development of both Christ-devotion (64–65) and christological interpretations of Scripture (74). It is perhaps questionable whether we really have the evidence to back up this claim. Nevertheless, such minor criticisms as this pale into relative insignificance given the importance of this book. This synthesis is a masterful analysis of the scholarly paradigms in which NT scholarship operates, and above all, a powerful treatment of the primary sources.

Simon Gathercole

University of Aberdeen

Previously appeared in Themelios 29.3 (2004), p. 59.