Monday, 3 July 2017

Lord Jesus Christ, by Larry Hurtado, Part 11: Religious Experience

Christ-devotion quickly amounted to what may be regarded as an unparalleled innovation, a “mutation” or new variant form of exclusivist monotheism in which a second figure (Jesus) was programmatically included with God in the devotional pattern of Christian groups. Outside the Jewish-Christian circles in which this binitarian pattern arose, the characteristic force of exclusivist monotheism seems to have prevented any other figure being treated as rightful recipient of cultic devotion, just as this monotheistic constraint served in early Christian circles to work against any additional figures other than God and Jesus being accorded such reverence. (My emphasis. p. 64)

Despite what we noticed yesterday about the polarising effects of Jesus' words and actions, Hurtado is the first to recognise that this is hardly sufficient explanation for the mutation described above. Rather, it is the combination of the constraint of monotheism, the polarisation and religious experiences with "revelatory validity", as Hurtado aptly puts it, that will cause this initially-Jewish movement to "mutate". Similarly to the caution our author extends to the content of the polarisation Jesus caused, we also should satisfy ourselves not with the content of these experiences per se, rather see that these experiences did indeed validate the solidifying belief structures and devotional practices of the earliest Christian communities. Surely, I thought to myself, as I first read through this section with gusto back in May, we are going to be introduced to the central role of the Holy Spirit for these communities? How will Hurtado articulate that centrality within his "binitarian" model? While that question must be left to hang for the rest of the book, Hurtado obviously must integrate discussion at this stage on the Spirit.

First, he notes that these crucial experiences have tended to be sidelined in many historical studies, which prefer to focus on more theological doctrines. Gunkel, writing way back in 1888, is briefly alluded to as a watershed publication on the Spirit's importance for Paul. A few pages are available of this translated work are available as a sample on the Amazon website and are worth a visit:

It cannot be disputed that even at Paul's position at this point in his teaching [the period of his life when he was writing his epistles] can be properly understood and evaluated only when we first consider the ideas that were first available to the apostle within Christian circles. (p. 9)

We must designate Judaism as the real matrix of the gospel (p. 13)

In the matter of the Spirit's activities, we have to do with an ancient Hebrew or perhaps primitive Semitic conception that had undergone only slight changes in the apostolic age. 

In the eyes of the primitive Christian community [this daily experience of the Holy Spirit] render[s] the presence of the Spirit an undeniable fact. 

If the notion of Spirit in ancient Israel had not been uncommonly vivid, a fact that can often enough be proved with examples, then its origin and persistence throughout many centuries up to the apostolic age would be totally inconceivable.

We are dealing here with an idea that was unusually vital in primitive Christianity. (p. 14)

Impressive. Without having accessed this work yet in full, it seems clear that Gunkel had a similar project to Hurtado and ourselves today, although with respect to the Spirit.

Hurtado also cites again his great sparring partner, Dunn, with a great quote from Jesus and the Spirit:

Dunn insisted that we also have to grant “the creative power of his own religious experience—a furnace which melted many concepts in its fires and poured them forth into new moulds. . . . Nothing should be allowed to obscure that fact.” (LJC p. 66)

This is absolute dynamite. What these experiences provide for then is the veritable "furnace" that we are looking for that would permit such rapid reconfigurations of such slowly-developed religious worldviews as Jewish monotheism - and God's experiential Spirit is at the heart of that.

Hurtado explores some of the ins and outs of the argumentation in the literature that basically concludes that these experiences can be genuinely innovative, even if fuelled by traceable influences.

Time to delve into what those experiences must have been; top of the list is obvious: the resurrected Christ (pp. 71-72), which would have led to the following convictions:

(1) that God had released Jesus from death, so that it really is Jesus, not merely his memory or influence, who lives again; (2) that God has bestowed on Jesus uniquely a glorious new form of existence, immortal and eschatological bodily life; (3) that Jesus has also been exalted to a unique heavenly status, thus presiding by God’s appointment over the redemptive program; and (4) that those who were given these special encounters with the risen Jesus were divinely commissioned to proclaim Jesus’ exalted status and to summon people to recognize in his resurrection/exaltation the signal that the eschatological moment of redemption has arrived. (My emphasis. p. 72 )

My sense is that this commissioning and eschatological status of the Christians' new era were profoundly connected to the marked and experienced empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Thus, we are not describing simply "visions" of the resurrected Jesus, but veritable "experiences" of him that empowered his followers with extraordinary purpose. Let us turn briefly to Gordon Fee's Paul, the Spirit and the People of God (Hodder & Stoughton):

The Spirit as an experienced and empowering reality was for Paul and his churches the key player in all of Christian life, from beginning to end. (xv)

In the case of the Spirit we are dealing with the essential matter of early Christian experience [...which] was how the early believers came to understand themselves as living at the beginning of the end times [...] the Spirit was guarantee that God would conclude what he had begun in Christ (= Paul's eschatological framework).  (emphasis original. pp. 2-3)

The experience of the Holy Spirit and of Christ through the Spirit seem to be central to Gunkel and Fee's perspective of these pre-Pauline communities, but Hurtado keeps his focus on the post-resurrection experience of Jesus. He continues from the previous citation on p. 72:... likely involved an encounter with a figure recognized as Jesus but also exhibiting features that convinced the recipients that he had been clothed with divine-like glory and given a unique heavenly status. This description appears to me reminiscent, although not for Hurtado, of the Daniel 7 depiction of the Son of Man. Regardless, it is this exalted experience of Christ that would lead to the necessity to venerate him accordingly, which as revealed and required by God himself, the mutation is not simply justified but mandatory.

We will pause there for today - in the next post we will look at three example forms that these religious experiences most certainly took.


  1. One problem I have with your and Hurtado's analysis is that the "special encounters with the risen Jesus" were limited to a very few and therefore the "experiential" aspect of early Christianity was merely hearsay for those who were not among the 500 (surely an exaggerated approximation) whom Paul claims witnessed the Jesus's glorified ascension. The absent had to rely only on the inspired and no doubt emotionally laden storytelling of the witnesses.

    The other problem is that seeing the glorified Jesus was essentially a one-and-done experience. Yes, it can be relived in memory but that means even those who saw the glorified Jesus had to focus primarily on the past to "re-experience" it and not entirely live in the present.

    We humans are neurologically wired to embrace stories, but that does not mean we actually experience the event in the same way as the original witnesses.

    On the other hand, a baptism of the spirit as described in the Didache and alluded to in The Gospel of Thomas could have possibly had an ongoing, experiential effect –– even for the multitudes who never saw the risen Jesus but who experienced the indwelling of the holy name aka holy spirit in their hearts.

    Clearly though, it is with greater cognitive ease that humans can be enraptured by stories having heroic, salvific and cosmic dimensions than it is for us to make an individual effort to actually feel the spirit within, which is mostly likely why the message of the Didache and G.Th has fallen so far out of favor that even their central premise — that truth and joy lie within — is generally received with extreme cognitive dissonance.

    A moment to moment revelation of the breath of God within — now that’s an experience. Hearing or reading about another’s experience is something else.

    1. Hi Gluscabi - thank you for your excellent response. Regarding the limited "one-and-done" experience issue - I don't think that is likely for the simple reason that encountering the risen Jesus clearly did not need to be situated pre-ascension, hence Paul's famous one. I see no reason to suspect that his encounter was isolated and that the more that occurred, the greater the psychological openness to such visions I think we could readily expect to increase.

      I checked GThomas - *thank you*, I stumbled over some really important stuff there about the Spirit. How remarkable that blaspheming of either Father and Son was perceived permissible in the gnostic circles out of which this text was composed, while denigrating the Spirit was more serious.

      I like the "moment to moment" picture you paint. My feeling is that it "simply" needs development within the eschatological framework provided by this eschatological presence and Jesus' kingdom teaching.

    2. Focus on the biblical context regarding blasphemy against the Holy Spirit might provide a completely different understanding of what the spiritual fault might be. It is not, as far as I can see, a matter of dissing the third more important person within a triune hub but rather considering a good work done by the spirit of God as that done by Satan. A different concept.

    3. Hi Richard, thanks for your comment. I'm not sure I fully understand your point though, sorry!


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