In the last two weeks I’ve read two books by Larry Hurtado. “How on Earth Did Jesus Become God” (Wm. B. Eerdmans 2005) and “Lord Jesus Christ” (also Wm. B. Eerdmans 2005). Both concerning the devotion to Jesus in the early church. I enjoyed them very much, and found sections quite transporting. But I found both books rather like walking into the end of an argument. Hurtado expends a lot of effort in both books arguing against a viewpoint I didn’t hold, and couldn’t see the merit in. In particular the “How on Earth Did Jesus Become God?” book didn’t appear to concisely answer its own question (it is a series of edited lectures and papers, rather than work composed from scratch). So this series is my attempt to synthesize and perhaps rephrase what might be his argument, if I’m understanding it. Any oddities here are therefore my responsibility, any nuggets of truth are probably his.
So here’s how I read it.
- In the very early period after Jesus’s death, one or more of his disciples had significant religious experiences that led to a significant religious innovation: the worship of Jesus. This was cultic, not theological.
- Jesus’s early followers were Jews, and therefore deeply embedded in a religious world that accepted a whole pantheon of spiritual beings (i.e. were etically polytheistic), but only allowed worship of one of them (i.e. monolatrous).
- Worship of two figures (Jesus and God) therefore produced a theological tension with the emic view that there was only one god.
- The development of Christology (i.e. the understanding of who or what Jesus was) was motivated by this tension.
That seems to me to be logical and sensible. Though, again, I confess I haven’t read the counter-arguments.
While reading the books (this bit isn’t contained in them, not that I can find, anyway), I found myself thinking in terms of this contradiction:
- I worship supernatural being A.
- I worship supernatural being B.
- Only one supernatural being is worthy of worship.
There are a few things that can resolve this:
- i) stop worshipping A or B;
- ii) emically decide that your worship of A or B isn’t ‘really’ worship;
- iii) emically unify A and B, to claim they are the same being;
- iv) abandon the last statement: your claim to be monolatrous.
Christianity initially seems to have done (iv) – the earliest descriptions of Jesus worship are based on the idea that Jesus is worthy of worship. And he is worthy explicitly because the capital-G God made him so. God raised Jesus to be the name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow (Phil 2:10 – Hurtado examines this hymn in some depth). This maintains an emic monotheism, but gives in to an explicit polylatry.
But that position seems to be relatively unstable – the temptation is to either see Jesus as not as worthy of worship (why worship the intermediate, when you can worship the real thing), or as too significant (how do you maintain your emic monotheism with Jesus around? – we see this temptation in John’s gospel with Jesus explicitly identified as divine in his own right). So it seems to have developed quite rapidly into (iii): what might be called binitarianism, the belief that Jesus is really the same being as the capital G, God. Christianity emically refuses to become polytheistic, and decides its polylatry is ‘really’ still monolatry.
But there are other ways it can resolve, and here I want to return to the example of Catholic saints. They receive cultic devotion that clearly shows that forms of Catholicism are polylatrous. But the resolution chosen is (ii), the catechism interprets this worship as not-really-worship (so a synonym such as ‘veneration’ is used, with a theological explanation of how veneration differs from worship). Emically it has a different status.
Certain forms of what we might call Gnosticism seem to have done (i) – they abandoned worship of the capital-G God, in favour of Jesus worship. Theologically treating the creator God, and his creation as wicked, and Jesus as the ultimate saviour from the trials of physicality.
I could also imagine resolving the tension by admitting a form of polytheism, by making the de-facto etic polytheism into an emic principal. Yes there are more than one God, and Jesus is the example. My knowledge of Jehovah’s Witnesses is not huge, but my understanding of their interpretation of John 1:1 is that they believe Jesus is a god. That may be an example.
So Jesus became a God because a religious experience motivated a religious innovation: that his followers should worship him (anathema to the monolatry of Judaism at the time). This led to theological tensions, which were initially resolved by claiming that the one God had made Jesus worthy of worship, and finally resolved by the emic decision that Jesus is the same as the one God and therefore is intrinsically worthy of that worship.
Does it make sense? Is it true?