Book Review of “How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions About Earliest Devotion to Jesus” by Larry W. Hurtado

My review of Larry Hurtado’s How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?  Historical Questions About Earliest Devotion to Jesus can be found on its Amazon page…and also below:

Hurtado Is a Godsend

This book is mis-titled. The title should be “When on Earth Did Jesus Become a God” because this is the question Hurtado answers. He actually says very little about “how,” other than telling us that it was due to “powerful revelatory experiences.” Despite the misnomer, however, I still give the book five stars because answering “when” as effectively as he does is a big, big deal.

The core of the book is Part I, consisting of four chapters. This material was first delivered as a series of lectures to Israelis at Ben-Gurion University. Two appendices by sponsors of the lectures give the context for the series (better communication between Jews and Christians about areas of common historical interest). Part II is comprised of four stand-alone essays, originally published in various journals, brought together here because they each reinforce an aspect of the lectures’ topic.

Hurtado takes an historical approach to the subject rather than a theological one. Thus he pays close attention to the practices disclosed in the New Testament and other documents of Second Temple Judaism. He is cautious in drawing conclusions and seldom, if ever, pursues red herrings. His goal is to demonstrate that veneration of Jesus to a godlike status came almost immediately in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection. It could not have arisen decades later as a result of syncretic influences from Gentiles. Here, he has arrived at a conclusion and he presses it with indefatigable zeal. Scholars may quibble with the edges of his argument, but its core is unassailable: it was Jewish believers who first gave Jesus godlike devotion, not Romans, Greeks, or anyone else.

The chassis on which Hurtado builds his argument are the seven letters of Paul whose authorship is practically unquestioned by modern scholarship (liberal and conservative). Those epistles are Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. There is also broad scholarly consensus that these letters were written between 50 and 60 C.E. When read, these letters make reference to practices and perspectives which were commonly accepted among believers in Christ from Jerusalem to Rome at the time of the writing. Just a little investigation takes these practices and perspectives back to within weeks or months of the crucifixion of Christ. As I said above, Hurtado does not deal with these passages as a theologian would. Rather, he examines them as a historian. His circumspect writing style gives sufficient regard for opposing views. But in the end, Hurtado has the compelling evidence on his side. You cannot read those letters of Paul without acknowledging that he had to expend no energy whatsoever in convincing his recipients that Jesus was the most exalted being in heaven and on earth other than God Himself. Nor did he have to convince them to call upon Jesus, practically speaking, as if He was God. It was, as Hurtado would say, an “astonishing and unprecedented innovation” in Judaistic practice. And this exalted view of the resurrected Messiah was obviously well in place by the mid-1st Century, spearheaded entirely by Jews.

While I would not charge this book with any weaknesses, there are questions that this book, having made its case, has raised. I hope Hurtado and other scholars will address these questions, using Hurtado’s work here as a foundation. Among these are:

How? That is, how did believers come to venerate Jesus so highly? What precisely was communicated in those “powerful revelatory experiences” that caused them to link Jesus’ name with God’s in an unprecedented (at least in degree) way? This would include delineation of the degree and quantity of difference applied when Jewish believers in Jesus went beyond the “principal agent” analogies. It would also include scriptural warrant, because we almost always see scripture employed to validate a revelatory experience to the receptee when we read the New Testament. Revelation would be “according to the scriptures.”

What? What exactly was the level of veneration given to Jesus? Hurtado uses words like exalt, venerate, reverence, devotion, and worship in practically synonymous ways. There are shades of difference in at least some of these words and, along with knowing how believers came to regard the resurrected Jesus in such an esteemed way, it would be good to know exactly how esteemed – and did that level of estimation change at all before the close of the century? (That is, deal with the later canonical texts such as John as well as the early texts such as Paul – with regard to this point.)

In summary, Hurtado’s book looks beyond the millennia that separate us from nascent Christianity and takes us directly into the 1st century, demonstrating to us in lucid ways when Jesus went from being a great prophet of Israel to being much more than its prophet. It was sooner, not later.

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