Book Review of “Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity” by Larry W. Hurtado

My review of Larry Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity can be found on the book’s Amazon page…and also below:

Hurtado’s Magnum Opus

At 653 pages of text, this is Dr. Larry W. Hurtado’s magnum opus in more ways than one. This book covers “devotion to Jesus” in the first two centuries of Christianity. More specifically, that’s from 30 CE to 170 CE. This contrasts with his seminal book (only 168 pages) published earlier in his career, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, which tracked the same subject but with a laser-like focus on the first twenty years of Christianity (30 CE to 50 CE).

What Hurtado calls “devotion to Jesus” is, generally speaking, what others might call Christology. However, this is more than just a semantic difference. Hurtado writes more as an historian than as a theologian. This makes his work on early Christianity particularly innovative and informative. Hurtado focuses on the devotional practices of early Christians, not just their stated or inferred beliefs. The absence of constant theologizing gives his work a fresh feel. His writing style also employs a vast English vocabulary which allows him to phrase his findings in ways that don’t carry sectarian connotations.

The structure of the book is that Hurtado moves progressively through the period covered by patiently sifting through the documents one sub-period at a time: Paul’s letters, Q, the canonical gospels, other gospels, and so on. This is what makes the book so long, but it is never tedious. Hurtado generally embraces the views of mainstream scholarship on such issues as “only seven of Paul’s letters being genuine.” Yet, he let’s the evidence speak for itself – which means that Jesus is venerated early and greatly in history. This puts to flight any liberal notions that Jesus was a good man who, through the passage of time and the process of syncretism with pagan myths of the day, was eventually regarded as holding godlike status long after his crucifixion by Roman authorities. Hurtado forcefully shows that Jesus was venerated to godlike status by Jews…and almost immediately after his crucifixion. Hurtado never gets it down to “three days after,” but he says what amounts to the same thing in every other possible way.

There are two critical issues of the first two centuries that Hurtado does not cover, which was disappointing for me. One was the crisis that some devotees to Jesus must have gone through when the eschatological time frame was exceeded. That is, Jesus had promised to return before that generation passed away. What happened in the waning days of that generation? The other was the “Gentilization” of the church, which probably occurred around the same time. The second-century church fathers were Gentiles but the first-century church leadership was all in the hands of devout Jews (the twelve apostles, Paul, and others such as Barnabas, Apollos, Priscilla, and Aquila). What was happening in that transition period? These two issues have great bearing on devotion to Jesus and deserve to be addressed in historical studies.

If you are going to read only one book of Hurtado’s, I suggest it be How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus. It focuses on the key point of Hurtado’s career-long research (that Jesus was reverenced quickly, greatly, and Jewishly), is accessibly written (the material began as a series of lectures to non-specialists), and is accessibly priced. However, if you are someone who is devoted to Christ and have the time to learn more about the history of days immediately after His resurrection, then just one Hurtado book is not enough (It certainly wasn’t for me). And you will certainly want to absorb his magnum opus.

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