Book Review of “Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ” by William Horbury

My review of William Horbury’s Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ can be found at its Amazon page…and also below:

A Fine Complement to Hurtado

In Larry Hurtado’s How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, he takes issue with this book (Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ) by William Horbury. Yet, if you want to better understand Christian origins, you really need both books. This is because the authors’ findings complement each other in very helpful ways.

Regarding Kipling’s six honest-serving men, Hurtado answers when, who, and where while Horbury addresses what, how, and why. Hurtado makes clear (not just in his aforementioned book, but also in Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity and in One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism) that devotion to Jesus as a godlike figure began in the period 30-50 C.E. with Jews in the Roman province of Judea. Horbury shows that Jesus was so venerated because he was fulfilling Jewish messianic expectation, and that the forms of devotion were those historically associated with that expectation and with the veneration shown royal leaders in the Greco-Roman world. Where Hurtado and Horbury disagree is on the degree of veneration, or worship, offered. While Hurtado takes pains to delineate devotional practices, neither author defines “worship” clearly enough for readers to be able to sort out exact differences between them. This inexactitude on this one aspect, however, is secondary, given the broadly complementary nature of their respective findings.

Horbury first shows how messianism – the belief in a coming Jewish messiah – is found in the Old Testament. He then narrows his focus of time on the Second Temple Period and broadens his focus on literature to include the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Targums, Qumran texts, rabbinical literature, and more – showing that expectation of this messiah was commonplace throughout the period. He then shows that, while messianism manifested itself in varied forms with expectations that differed and at times seemed to conflict, it was a concept common enough among Jews that if one of them made reference to “the messiah coming” no fellow Jew would ask “What’s a messiah? or “What makes you think such a person might be coming?” Lastly, Horbury shows how the matrix of messianic expectation during the Second Temple Period in the Greco-Roman world provided context in which Jesus was understood – and responded to – in the weeks, days, and years after the first Easter by his disciples.

Horbury writes for the scholarly guild so he can be tedious and difficult for a layman to read. Nonetheless, his erudition brings to light for everyone the pulsating expectation for God’s messiah in the time leading up to Jesus of Nazareth. Trying to read the New Testament apart from an understanding of that expectation can lead to many false conclusions. Horbury is an excellent resource for achieving that understanding.

Another source for understanding the messianic expectation, and one that is easier to read and understand, is Walter Kaiser – especially his The Messiah in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, Horbury deserves commendation for his densely-packed contribution to a better understanding of Christian origins. I am very happy that I have read him as well as Kaiser and others. As Jesus Himself said, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). No Jew ever spoke more truly than that One.

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