Friday, 2 June 2017

Lord Jesus Christ, by Larry Hurtado - Part 3: Opening words of "Centrality" hit the nail on the head

THE OPENING WORDS of Hurtado's magnum opus were instant confirmation to me that I was holding the perfect book for my area of interest. Page 1, line 1, reads:

The indisputable centrality of the figure of Jesus in early Christian devotion is the premise for this book.

My emphasis. Being the theological nut that I am, I had to share this line with a friend instantly. I knew there was going to be overlap between my thesis and Hurtado's, but the opening line?! What am I so excited about here exactly? Everyone knows that Christians worship Jesus, he's the big deal Christians are so excited about, right? The point is, as will become apparent, is that the first Christians weren't just random folk who wanted their sins forgiven. They were Jewish. It has taken me a fair while to move from "ok, sure, so they were Jews" to really allowing this thought to take root and truly marvel at the ramifications. The first followers of Jesus understood their master to be a Jew and themselves to be Jews, and saw no reason for them to quit their heritage and ethnic identity. The first Christians did not convert to Christianity from Judaism. They remained Jews and continued to attend synagogue meetings where possible.

The reason why word three of this 650 page (100 pages of references as well) epic is so meaningful to me is that "centrality" is what a hub is all about. There is an as-yet underdeveloped semantic tool that will be able to help us better understand what is going on when religious people apply words like "divinity", and it is to do with religious centricity. The religious hub is the dynamic centre around which all else turns, yes, like a wheel. Being religious, as Hurtado will point out in outstanding clarity, is not just about what you believe; it is also about what your beliefs bring you to do. What Hurtado calls "devotion" is a catch-all phrase that he will later go on to define with a number of other technical terms, like "giving obeisance", reverence, prostration, song... it's dynamic action. But for a monotheistic faith like Judaism, there is only one who occupies that central dynamic core with which the people interact in such a way. Until now. Now those Christian "converts" who remained Jewish had integrated Another into the key interaction point of the very core of their belief system: worship. So I like "centre"; I like "centricity"; I like "core"; I like "heart". The reason why my absolute favourite is "hub" finally as the most suited term for the incredible Jewish revolution that is going on through Christ, is that a hub is both perfectly central and moving.

Sorry for that excursion - I just wanted to make it clear why I place so much value on the general emphasis of the book. Let's get back to Hurtado's own introduction and stated aims, my emphases again:

"I have proposed that in this development we have what amounts to a new and distinctive “mutation” or variant form of the monotheistic practice that is otherwise characteristic of the Jewish religious matrix out of which the Christian movement sprang. In this book my aim is to offer a full-scale analysis of the origin, development, and diversification of devotion to Christ in the crucial first two centuries of the Christian movement (ca. 30-170 C.E.)." [p. 2]

Not much comment required here really, as it simply confirms my earlier comments. Regarding the extended analysis into the second century, this is an interesting inclusion which follows Bousset's own presentation, which Hurtado explicitly affirms as his useful trailblazer. For me, the latter sections of this analysis will also be useful given my conviction that the philosophical work done around the hermeneutical circle are correct in their methodology. Therefore, if we are to understand texts that seem to us of deep importance written 1950 years ago, a great way to fill out the understanding is to see how the first interpreters emphasised and prevented from "misconstrual". By decompressing the New Testament canon as Hurtado does very successfully in my view, we can see evidence of the hermeneutical circle already at work. Hurtado's "mutation" is put in quotes simply because he does not want to put off the readership by a term that has been viewed by some as pejorative (see p. 50). However, it prepares the reader well for the dramatical inclusion of God's divine "vehicle" (yes, he quite likes that term in this book) in the sacred centre reserved for the one true God of Israel.

Part 4 coming soon.

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