In this monumental work, the fruit of more than twenty years of research, Hurtado sets out to show that devotion to Jesus as divine was not a later development within Christianity, but emerged very early among Jesus' followers. He argues that devotion to Jesus was exhibited with an intensity and diversity of expression that was unparalleled in the religious environment of that time. Moreover, this intense devotion to Jesus—including reverencing him as divine—occurred within Jewish-Christian monotheism and not just within Gentile-Christianity as most scholars have held since Bousset's influential Kyrios Christos of 1913. Hurtado examines the New Testament texts and related literature, some available only recently, and devotional practices of the time including prayer and worship, the use of Jesus' name in exorcism, baptism and healing, ritual invocation of Jesus as "Lord," martyrdom, prayer postures, and the scribal practice known as the nomina sacra to reach these startling and sure to be controversial conclusions. This is an important and groundbreaking book to be read and seriously considered.
In his introductory chapter, Hurtado explains "I have basically three main points to make. First, ...a noteworthy devotion to Jesus emerges phenomenally early in circles of his followers [ca. 30-50 C.E.], and cannot be restricted to a secondary stage of religious development or explained as the product of extraneous forces....Second, devotion to Jesus was exhibited in an unparalleled intensity and diversity of expression, for which we have no true analogy in the religious environment of the time....The third thesis is that this intense devotion to Jesus, which includes reverencing him a divine, was offered and articulated characteristically within a firm stance of exclusivist monotheism, particularly in the circles of early Christianity that anticipated and helped to establish what became mainstream (and subsequently, familiar) Christianity" (pp. 2-3).
Successive chapters are devoted to "Forces and Factors" i.e. Jewish monotheism, Jesus, religious experience and the religious environment of the time; "Early Pauline Christianity;" "Judean Jewish Christianity" as evidenced in the letters of Paul and Acts: "Q and Early Devotion to Jesus;" "Jesus Books" i.e. the Synoptic Gospels; "Crises and Christology in Johannine Christianity;" "Other Early Jesus Books" such as Secret Mark, the Gospel of Peter, Infancy Gospels, and the Gospel of Thomas; "The Second Century—Importance and Tributaries;" "Radical Diversity" that is, heresies; and, finally, "Proto-orthodox Devotion" of the late second century, a sort of potpourri chapter including finding Jesus in the Old Testament, the fourfold gospel, visions and revelations, worship and prayer, martyrdom, the nomina sacra, and later doctrinal developments of the latter half of the second century.
History-of-religions scholars such as Bousset argued that the emergence of devotion to Jesus as a divine figure was a process of syncretism which resulted from the influence of pagan religion of the Roman era upon Hellenistic Christians more susceptible to such influence than were Palestinian Jewish Christians. But Hurtado believes that experiences of the risen Jesus in heavenly glory, such as those experienced by Jesus' disciples after his resurrection and later by Paul, made them feel compelled by God to radically reformulate Jewish monotheism in such a way that they included Christ with God as the recipient of cultic devotion. After examining Paul's christology and its close connections to Judean Christian traditions and early Judean Christianity as reflected in Acts, Hurtado concludes "the most influential and momentous developments in devotion to Jesus took place in early circles of Judean believers. To their convictions and the fundamental pattern of their piety all subsequent forms of Christianity are debtors" (p. 216).
Hurtado's last chapter contains some of the more intriguing evidence he has to offer. But this evidence is from the second half of the second century and does little to bolster his argument that devotion to Jesus as divine was a very early development. For example, he points out the interesting scribal practice known as the nomina sacra, a list of words that were written in a curious way by Christian scribes. The earliest examples are the names "Jesus," "Lord," "Christ" and "God." Hurtado argues because the names God and Jesus were given the same treatment this is an indication of equivalent reverence for God and for Jesus. But by the Byzantine period some fifteen words were also given this scribal treatment including "David," "Jerusalem," "Israel," and "heaven." Since in Christian manuscripts these words occurred very frequently it is difficult to see how this practice can be construed as anything more that scribal abbreviation of frequently recurring and easily recognized words. Thus the nomina sacra do not seem to advance Hurtado's thesis. Hurtado admits the term "god" is applied to Jesus only a few times in the New Testament and in the patterns of liturgical prayer preserved in texts of proto-orthodox circles direct prayer to Jesus was not common. Moreover, not only was Jesus defined entirely in relation to God as God's "Word," "Son," "Image," and "Christ," he was also represented as "appointed," "exalted," "enthroned," and given a "name" above all others by God. This consistent portrayal of Jesus seems to militate against the "binitarianism" which Hurtado argues emerged very early.
We owe Hurtado a considerable debt for his careful analysis of many decades of scholarly research and for bringing forth fresh evidence about devotion to Jesus in earliest Christianity. While his argument that Jesus was reverenced as divine from a very early period is not entirely convincing to this reviewer, I would recommend everyone read and carefully consider Hurtado's important work and judge for themselves.