Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Unsuccessful Mutations

"Unwrapping" my digital birthday gift of Larry Hurtado's most substantial work on early Christian devotion to Christ, I searched for his use of "mutation" as a way to understand how Christianity grew in the first century from within Judaism. Of course, I know what his thesis is in general terms, but it is important to understand in more detail the evidence arising out of first-century sources for how Jesus was reverenced religiously and from the offset.

A couple of initial surprises. One of the practices in modern evangelical church of confusing Jesus and the Father was apparently a first-century struggle as well in some areas. I've yet to cover Hurtado's development there.

Secondly, very intriguingly, Hurtado also uses mutation language to describe unsuccessful early forms of Christian thought and practice. In responding to (and grilling) scholar Burton Mack, Hurtado points out that Mack's Jesus had to be a Jesus closely associated with a Sayings Jesus, such as the one found in the Gospel of Thomas. And that brand of Christianity didn't make it.

A question instantly popped into my mind: why? What can we identify about Christianity streams that were successful? As usual, I referred back to my Triune Hub model, which builds on three major developments within successful Judeo-Christianity that mainstream scholars have described as mutations (the combination of these three (along with other data) points to the mutation of faith itself into a trinitarian shape). Let's state them again:

1. The future hope of restoration of judgement and salvation has tangibly begun in the resurrection of the Messiah - nobody saw that coming.

2. Jesus is worshipped alongside God (Hurtado - although I might suggest that Jesus mediates worship back to the Father) - nobody saw the ascension of the Messiah coming.

3. The collaborative/participative kingdom mutation - nobody expected God's people to be directly involved and empowered to achieve God's Divine Cleanup of the world.

Not only do these three central mutations seem to require some kind of trinitarian articulation to faith (in place of "unitarian"), but they might provide the response to unsuccessful mutations. The Sayings Jesus seems to fail on 2 or 3 of these counts, the docetic Jesus on at least the resurrection count I would think, the Marcian Jesus rejects the notion of mutation entirely (i.e. rejects Judaism). The later Arian and subordinationist Jesuses were also unsuccessful but were seated on a couple of centuries of successful mutations. This probably indicates why they may not have denied any of the above.

But this is where it gets really interesting. Unlike some Christian apologetics that may try to squash these three centuries of debates into a small and even contemporary timeframe, we need to see the subordinationist movement as very close indeed to orthodoxy. All the really whacky stuff had already been done away with. In the fourth century we are not asking "was Jesus a man" or "did the resurrection matter". Successful Christianity acknowledged the mutations and had, by and large, left Judaism by now by virtue not least of its trinitarian shape. The question was now to decide how Christ and the Holy Spirit integrate the hub of Christian religious thought and activity. The question is ontological. But my recent discovery via Paul Ricoeur is that the question may not be ultimately ontological (I have yet to decide), but is certainly not uniquely ontological. 

What I am proposing is that because the church zoomed in further on their trinitarian faith, because there was a strong sense of loyalty to the biblical texts (the canonisation of which was in some interaction with the doctrine), which assert that "the Father is greater than I", a paradox ensued. Was the Father really greater than the Son? By bringing in Platonic thought, metaphysics and ontology into the discussion, a platonic-metaphysical-ontological answer to this question was necessary that would not upset the balanced trinitarian faith inherited from the earliest mutations described above, yet would still satisfy the loyalty issue.

An Arian or subordinationist view, despite the negative characterisations we receive from successful Christian historians, could still have rejoiced in the resurrection of the Christ as an anticipation of their own future bodily resurrection, could still have worshipped Jesus religiously and still be acting to lovingly advance God and Christ's Kingdom. But by asserting, for the first time perhaps from within this successful adaptation framework, that one aspect may be lesser or greater than another, may have just been too upsetting to the foundational Triune Hub mutation.


  1. While your points 1. and 2. seem pretty much on target,,,,,
    You say:
    3. The collaborative/participative kingdom mutation - nobody expected God's people to be directly involved and empowered to achieve God's Divine Cleanup of the world.

    Sorry, this either seems naive or possibly misinformed by an over influence from some theological stream or tradition with which I am unfamiliar. The whole of the messianic expectation and eschatological prophetic movement leading up to the time of Christ was (ISTM) in general and in various Jewish communities and movements (the Essenes, the sicarii, even the Pharisees, etc.) were largely focused on this very element of OT prophetic tradition. The promise to Abraham that his descendants would be the light of the world, the prophecy that the seed of Adam and Eve would smash the head of the snake, that the anointed king of Israel and seed of David would conquer the world, etc., speak directly to this particular theme of participation in God's "Cleanup of the world."

  2. Hi Richard - thanks for your constructive comments :)

    Regarding the Divine Clean-Up of the world - you might be more familiar than you think, but first, *thank you*, it is precisely this kind of interaction that I believe allows us to hone our views and if necessary ditch the faulty ones. No problem with that, done it several times already! Indeed, the scholars I have in mind may not have dealt sufficiently with the participatory aspects you identify, which as you point out go right back in tradition to Abraham. Further, there is a strong and consistent theme throughout the Bible of divine agency, albeit in diverse forms as time moves on. I can't deny any of that and should have emphasised it stronger.

    However, the scholars I am referring to are John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright who specifically identify the participatory/collaborative kingdom as an important mutation of the preponderant Jewish outlook at the time. For Crossan, it is John's death which may have made Jesus re-think the apocalyptic (interventionist) message he had been hearing. And why not - perhaps reconnecting with the more biblical themes of agency at the same time?

  3. Ah, I was thinking of N T Wright as one who connects the biblical narrative arc as one of participatory transformation of the world. There are reasons to think that 2nd Temple Judaism had somewhat lost that emphasis, but I think most of the popular Jewish culture's apocalyptic emphasis had aspects like this in the extreme. Hence my questioning that point 3. I think it is quite difficult to judge the relative importance of texts and the cultural trends they portend 2000 years later. I'm not up on Crossan, but think he may a bit more speculative than N T. Thanks for your response.


Thanks very much for your feedback, really appreciate the interaction.