How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?

Larry W. Hurtado Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids November 2, 2005
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Hurtado gave the 2004 inaugural lectures for the Deichmann Annual Lecture Series, hosted by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel. These flowed out of focused research, systematized in his 2003 work, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), and they later became the first four chapters of How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? The other four chapters arose from previously published journal articles. Thus the book reads more like a compilation of various works than a single, sustained argument.

Though his original audiences vary greatly—from Israelis to “fellow scholars in Christian origins” (p. xi)—Hurtado manages to hold the loose ends together. He states, “This book represents an attempt to describe and understand in historical terms and as a historical phenomenon the devotion to Jesus” (p. 2, italics his).

Hurtado first overviews approaches to understanding the genesis of “Jesus devotion,” a phrase he uses throughout the book. “Jesus devotion,” he says, “is best understood as a remarkable innovation within, and as a novel expression of, the monotheistic piety characteristic of Second-Temple [Judaism]” (p. 32). Chapter 3 highlights the social consequences (both familial and political) for those who embraced this novelty.

Chapter 4 takes a somewhat different direction, centering on Philippians 2:6–11 as a case study of “Christian belief and piety, especially with reference to the place of Jesus in early Christian faith and practice” (p. 83). Undoubtedly this is Hurtado’s strength. His exegetical precision masterfully fills out the heartbeat of this passage.

The latter half of the book suffers from scattered overlap with the former, a weakness Hurtado recognizes (p. x). Chapter 5 wisely contends that one must study first-century Jewish monotheism inductively (p. 113). First-century Jews considered themselves monotheistic, as evidenced by their belief and practice. This, he says, heightens “the historical significance of cultic devotion or worship offered to the exalted Jesus” (p. 133).

Chapter 6 wrestles with the question, How is the homage given to Christ in the Gospels and that of the early church connected? And chapter 7 asks, When did Christianity and Judaism become disconnected? Both chapters reveal Hurtado’s skill as an exegete. Chapter 6 traces Greek words for reverence and worship related to Christ. Chapter 7 sketches early Jewish opposition to Jesus devotion, delineating that “ ‘Anathema Iesous’ (1 Cor. 12:3) is probably an outraged Jewish reaction,” the culmination of opposition (p. 177).

Chapters 6 and 7 highlight two weaknesses hinted at earlier in the book. A minor but telling point is the use of Greek font in one place (pp. 139–40) and transliteration in another (pp. 158–59). The book’s assembly feels haphazard rather than systematic. Further, Hurtado impairs his own argument about the origin of Jesus devotion by holding a professional distance from the authority of Scripture. Granted, he articulates his theses from a historical basis, but he seems to treat Scripture as merely a record, not revelation. He seems hesitant to claim too much theologically based on the biblical text alone.

Yet in conveying the significance of religious experience in theological innovation he boldly says, “Whether one chooses to consider these experiences as hallucinatory . . . or the acts of God, there is every reason to see them as the historical ignition points for the Christological conviction linked to them” (p. 194). One wonders why Hurtado left his firmest declaration for the end. Whereas many times he suggests a conservative position but stops short of affirming it, in chapter 8 he draws a line in the sand. Essentially he argues, “Whatever you believe about ‘revelation,’ you cannot deny the result is Jesus devotion.”

The calico composition of the book, coupled with its broad audience, may explain Hurtado’s softer statements. He encourages Christians and non-Christians alike to enter the dialogue about early Jesus devotion (p. 206). This suggestion sits in the epilogue, but it would have been more appropriate in the prologue.

Even with its fragmentary feel, this work functions wells as an introduction to the issues surrounding early Jesus devotion. Hurtado walks the reader through helpful definitions and historical arguments for the unique nature of distinctly Christian worship. For those possessing a basic theological education, though, it may serve as a refresher more than as essential reading.

—Joshua Bleeker with Glenn R. Kreider

July 1, 2007
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2007 vol. 164 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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