Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Lord Jesus Christ, by Larry Hurtado, Part 5: Forces and Factors: "the decisive criterion"

"THE REAL CHALLENGE in historical understanding is to figure out not only what happened, but also how it happened and why." (p. 27)

If you were only to read one chapter of this book (comprising in all ten chapters), this would be the one to read. It's not that the book is anticlimatic or anything, it's simply that the subsequent chapters will be trauling through carefully demarked parcels of historical data to validate the hypothesis laid out here in chapter one. What a fantastic quest: it's not trying merely to say whether or not Jesus-worship took place in Jewish circles, it is, as Hurtado points out in the epigraph to today's post, to see how and why Christ devotion developed so early, so powerfully and in such a monotheistic context.

Before I outline the key parts of this chapter, I realised I have forgotten to mention up until now that in terms of chapter summaries, Hurtado himself usefully provides these at the close of each chapter. Because I am not on a general fact-finding mission but rather zeroing in on data useful to my own research project on first century trinitarianism including (thanks perhaps in part to Hurtado's own goals) the how and why of such an early Father-Son-Spirit emergence, I may not need to read the whole text. (By the way, I have, I think, stumbled over some exciting new ideas about this! I can't wait to share them on the blog, but am allowing some mulling and critical analysis time before airing them.)

Chapter "Forces and Factors" outline

  1. Jewish Monotheism (later we will see in worship, prayer
  2. Jesus (the polarising figure, just like Marmite...)
  3. Religious Experience (see also Religious Experience: Inside the "furnace")
  4. The Religious Environment
  5. Summary

1. Jewish Monotheism

Look at the context in which Christianity arose, says Hurtado: Roman-period post-exilic Judaism. In refererence to pp. 17-39 of One God, One Lord, he advocates again as he did thirty years previously that this period of Judaism represented a "defiantly monotheistic stance" - surprisingly, this is not a unanimous scholarly position. Some, like Heiser (mentioned before on this blog), Fossum (to whose work Hurtado responds in One God, One Lord), Peter Hayman, Margaret Barker and several more (whom Hurtado will tackle in the current chapter) maintain that some aspects of Jewish religious perspective on divine agency anticipated binitarian faith, via the Angel of the LORD or the hypostasized Name (of Yahweh). Hurtado doesn't buy into it ("I am not persuaded that a postexilic Jewish binitarianism has been demonstrated", One God, One Lord, p. 39). 

But weren't Jews spread out across the Roman world? Wasn't pagan Roman culture infused with worship to scores of deities? Surely Jewish belief in the pagan world must have been affected, right? Wrong - that is not where the evidence points. Hurtado, citing Lester Grabbe, "Language, dress, dining practices, intellectual categories and themes, sports, and many other things were widely adopted, but there could be no negotiating away the monotheistic posture of Jewish religion. As Lester Grabbe put it, “For the vast majority, this was the final barrier that could not be crossed; we know from antiquity of only a handful of examples of Jews who abandoned their Judaism", p. 30 (my emphasis). So, precisely where the roman world did not make firm distinctions between their culture and religion, hellenized Jews did, as inheritors of a tradition of the "jealous God" who covets the exclusive worship of his people.

So how on earth does Christ fit into this picture? There is no precedent. As Hurtado puts it: "In short, the incorporation of Christ into the devotional pattern of early Christian groups has no real analogy in the Jewish tradition of the period." p. 31.

Here ensues Hurtado's maintained position of defiant Jewish monotheism in the Roman period against Hayan and Barker. Against Barker, Hurtado points to a failed recognition on her part that something genuinely new emerged in Christian devotion to Jesus, stating at Kindle Location (KL) 666: "[significant and creative development of reconfigurations or variant forms of the religious tradition] is what I argue happened in the emergence and development of Christ-devotion in early Christianity: the reconfiguring of Jewish monotheistic practice and thought to accommodate Jesus with God as rightful recipient of worship under the impact of a set of factors". I note here that all this "reconfiguration" and "variant" talk here is directly equivalent to "mutation" language, as Hurtado himself concedes (refer back here; by the way, in One God, One Lord, Hurtado feels considerably freer with the use of the term prior to its criticisms, using it up to 62 times and often without the quotes). Here Hurtado is setting out why this is such a startling mutation in light of the strict monotheism he reports from the Roman Jewish worldview. In fact, it's a double Jewish refusal, since it not only refuses incorporation of outside deities from the pagan world into the Jewish matrix, but it also shuts shop to internal Jewish figures that rose greatly in prominence during the post-exilic period (Enoch, Moses, Yahoel, etc.), which is where Hayman had wanted to argue from. In neither case can there be found suitable recipients of cultic reverence. In Hurtado's most recent book Destroyer of the gods (2016), I believe he attempts to explain why the Jews were not subjecto the same pressures as the early Christians with regards to their refusal to comply with pagan worship rites.

A good final quote, actually, I think it's great, comes from KL 723: The evidence . . . shows that it is in fact in the area of worship that we find “the decisive criterion” by which Jews maintained the uniqueness of God over against both idols and God’s own deputies. . . even to the point of martyrdom, seems to me to reflect a fairly “strict monotheism” (my emphasis). Don't you just love Hurtado's understated style?! But he is correct - see Jan Assmann on a cultural understanding of Maccabean Jewish martyrs as the first example of any religious martyrdom as the fulfilment of a distinctively (and "intolerantly") monotheistic faith, Monotheism and its Political Consequences, 2005,  p145-146.

In the next post we will finish off Hurtado's assessment and defense of Jewish and Christian monotheism while introducing a couple of criticisms of my own. I also need to find a simple way to insert some simple diagrammes... Back soon!

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