Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Lord Jesus Christ, by Larry Hurtado, Part 13: The Religious Environment

MONOTHEISM CONTINUES TO be a major discussion point among historians of Christian origins, and we looked for quite some time at that factor (Parts 5, 6, 8, and 9), that is to say, a factor or force that influenced the worship of Jesus by the first generations of Christians. I think it can legitimately cause us to marvel afresh at how these factors combined to permit monotheistic Jews to worship a human being. There was a considerable lot more going on, however, within both Judaism itself and the imperialist Roman regime's religious dimension.

Hurtado does not want to shy away from the possibility that early Christians, presumably including those who penned parts of what we call the New Testament, would have been affected by the environment in which they lived, with its opportunities and constraints. I'd wholeheartedly agree. I'm trying to push as firmly as I can in my unsophisticated way toward a realisation that the principles of the hermeneutical circle apply constantly, are basic to our humanity, and certainly applied to the authors of the New Testament. For instance, first-century hermeneutics will be an important part of my argument for the gospel of Matthew's treatment of misconstrued understandings of Jesus' baptism and a reinvigorating of Jewish Christianity in his own day and age. The voie longue of Ricoeur says that if we want to understand best what happened at a point then we have to follow that circle and even identify our own place in it. Anyway, the point is that acknowledging influence is good, but can be developed, I think, usefully according to hermeneutics theory.

For the remainder of today's post, I propose to simply list the examples provided of influences affecting Christ devotion, bearing in mind that they were clearly not intended to be exhaustive.

Religious influences of external origin (Greek/Roman):

  • The literary genre of bios adopted by the four canonical gospel writers (I wasn't particularly clear at first how this was relevant to the question of Jesus-devotion, but when we take the experiences described in the previous post I was reminded of just how far we have gone in the post-modern West from the holistic thinking evidenced in these diverse early Christian communities)
  • Message differentiation, in a very real sense those early Christians were asking for trouble! Check this interesting connection Hurtado makes: the rising frequency in the Christological use of divine sonship language that we see in the Christian writings of the late first century and thereafter may very well reflect a reaction against the contemporaneous increase in the use of the same rhetoric in the emperor cult under the Flavians and thereafter. (p. 75)
  • Making a stand - following their great example, Jesus, who was vindicated by God after making his own stand at the cross, Christians would have been aware of the high potential costs of making a stand as a follower of the Way. Or... not. Jesus had set a polarizing set of wheels in motion, which the brutal regime would reinforce through various forms of pressure.

Religious influences of Jewish origin

  • Calling Jesus, Christos, "a claim directed to Jewish hopes of the time for God's messianic mercy" (p. 75)
  • Christian baptism echoing John's baptism. That is correct to file this under "Jewish", however, Ehrman, Crossan and others I feel are correct in identifying a particular strand of Judaism into which both John and Jesus fitted, that of Jewish apocalypticism, no doubt strongest in the occupied homeland. Regarding impact on cultic practices, a connection could easily be made between this pressing concern for divine world clean-up and eager charismatic expectations of Christ's return.
  • Hostile Jewish criticism, themselves under pressure from the Roman regime to enforce a peace of submission. In fact, some were even led to interpret Roman Emperors in a messianic light. Here again, I was initially unclear as to the direct effect on Jesus-devotion, but the basic point seems to be that this might have reinforced the polarization effect already described. What might the positive end of that polarization look like (this is my addition)? Devotion to Jesus can and could be a bonding and entrenching proclamation; a proclamation that is imbued with significance because, in the communal setting, we are bound to our common belief in the face of criticism and mistrust from the establishment and even close family members. I wonder if the experience of hostility from religious family members could have felt similar to that experienced in many Muslim countries today by indigenous converts, whereby in both cases believers could receive consolation and purpose in the communal worship context.
  • Clearer definition of the people of God in countering the Jewish Christian insistence of Gentile circumcision. Actually, this is just an example to the wider influence of Jewish religious practice and belief of what it means to be God's chosen people. It seems to me that there could be other Jewish theological influences affecting the cultus, but these examples give a good flavour.


  • Symbolic meals. I'm separating this one out as it seems to me that the young Christian community would have naturally integrated special meals, being influenced from both sides to that end. Jewish followers of the Way would certainly expect something along those lines, and so would Roman, Greek and other converts. I would expect meals to have a universal quality about them.

That's it! We have reached the end of factor no. 4, having already looked at Hurtado's treatment of monotheism, Jesus himself, revelatory religious experiences and now the religious environment. In tomorrow's post, we can summarise and I'll recall Hurtado's chapter structure alongside the corresponding posts from this series. Thank you for following along and your input.

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