Book Review of “One God, One Lord” by Larry W. Hurtado

My review of Larry Hurtado’s One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism can be found at its Amazon page…and also below:

A Seminal Book

Hurtado is a scholar of the New Testament and of Christian Origins. If you care at all about either of those two subjects, then I recommend his work to you in the strongest possible way.

This book is the foundational and seminal book of his distinguished academic career.

It was originally published in 1988, and stirred many responses in the academic world. Ten years later, however, when the second edition was published, Hurtado said he’d read nothing that would cause him to revise his argument. And so he didn’t. The only material change in the second edition was the inclusion of a 10-12 page additional preface (with over 30 endnotes!) that cataloged much of the interaction about the book that had occurred over the intervening decade.

Hurtado’s magnum opus is the 746-page Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, published in 2003. That tome covers the first two centuries of Christianity. This book, by contrast, focuses on the first century, and mostly on the period from 30 to 50 C.E. Whereas the larger book is more comprehensive, this book is more focused on the very earliest Christians and how they came to revere Jesus as more than a human being.

Another Hurtado book with which to compare this one is his How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, published in 2005. Its first four chapters (a little over one hundred pages) probably gives a more quickly and easily-digested version of his views than this book.

This book is scholarly. Of its 178 pages, 40 are endnotes and 10 are indices. (His other two books that I mentioned are also scholarly but have footnotes, which are vastly easier to deal with than endnotes.) All of Hurtado’s writing is academic, but it is also useful to laymen (which defines me). Nevertheless, you have to recognize that Hurtado is writing in discussion with his scholarly peers and that this sometimes takes his attention in directions that are not exactly where a layman wants to go.

Other comments I’d make about Hurtado’s writing style are that he’s easy to read as academics go. He also has an interesting ability to employ a word or phrase that you’re not expecting. Often, I think he’d rather coin a new term than to use an existing one that he thinks might carry theological baggage. This makes his findings more accessible and keeps them free of factional barbed wire.

Hurtado’s approach is to write as an historian and not as a theologian. This approach, I think, accounts for much of the fresh insight he brings to the subject. He seems bent on learning things, not defending things.

His purpose in this book is to show 1) that the exaltation of Jesus to godlike status was something that occurred from the very beginning of Christian communities (not something that occurred later through pagan influences), and 2) that Jewish monotheism’s belief in exalted divine agents is what gave these early disciples the conceptual framework to regard Him so highly. (After all, the first Christians were all Jews.) Hurtado does not say that 2) fully explains 1), but rather that it was an important part of a complex of factors that resulted in Jesus’ unprecedented exaltation.

Among other things, this book reveals that the earliest Christians had no awareness of God being a trinity. That was not part of how they negotiated an understanding of who Jesus was. By contrast, they saw Jesus as an agent of God elevated to unprecedented power and glory by virtue of His resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven.

I assume Hurtado is a Trinitarian, but, to his credit as an historian, he makes no attempt to impose that view in this book (or any of his others that I have read). He simply assembles and orders the facts; then sifts through them like a detective, letting them tell us what they can about the history of those early and profoundly important days when the message of Christ first went forth.

For more on the Trinity, see: 

There Is No Trinity; There Is Christ

Posts to Date on the Trinity Versus Christ

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