The first four chapters of this collection include the inaugural Deichmann lectures given at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. Their aim is to promote the study of New Testament texts as an important feature of second temple era Judaism. The last four comprise previously published lectures that amplify and defend the basic thesis adumbrated here and in his previous major work, Lord Jesus Christ. To put it succinctly, Hurtado contends that a careful analysis of evidence relating the rise of Christianity indicates that the exalted status of Jesus was an innovation of contemporary Jewish (not pagan or Hellenistic) religious practices inaugurated by the earliest followers of Jesus after his death. In the world of contemporary biblical scholarship, this thesis is revolutionary and, to put it mildly, provocative. The fact that he has been able to generate this discussion is a testimony to the breadth and profundity of his grasp of material related to early Christianity.
One example of his argument is to explore the dynamics of second temple Jewish worship. Here he shows that, while several sorts of exalted intermediaries (Moses, Enoch, Michael) were countenanced in this context, worship itself was strictly focused on the one God. Christian practice followed this, with the startling exception of including the exalted Jesus in this worship (chapter 2). This constitutes a creative innovation by the Jewish disciples of Jesus, something Hurtado recognizes challenges accepted scholarly views (chapter 1). Indeed, Hurtado points out that it was probably those devout Jews who did not accept the exalted status of Jesus who first saw the problematic implications of these practices of his earliest disciples (chapter 7).
Another example involves Hurtado’s examination of the social consequences of devotion to Jesus (chapter 3). Pagan society expected reverence for or allegiance to cultural ideals, including civic ceremonies honoring local gods. Once the convert began devotion to the exalted Christ in the context of Jewish monotheism, these sorts of activities were precluded, straining both familial and economic relations. In spite of this, the new faith flourished. The compensation consisted in the nourishment provided by profound religious experiences associated with the exalted Jesus.
This raises the major difficulty associated with Hurtado’s thesis. He claims that the historical evidence alone, without any prior commitment to a faith tradition, supports the argument he makes. Here (in chapter 8) he expressly addresses problems this raises; and, among his several observations, he appeals to the way a “minor founder” might try to renovate a tradition, but in the process produces a new tradition. This is the way in which “revelatory experiences” of the risen Jesus dramatically functioned so that they led to a new tradition. While this is helpful, it still does not address the major philosophical obstacle of explaining how an experience presumed to be “transcendent” can have “empirical” consequences discernable by the historian. The recent magisterial work of Martin Jay on the philosophical problems associated with the concept of experience indicates this limitation.
Still, Larry Hurtado’s thesis is brilliantly argued and supported by a wealth of historical insight. Anyone interested in the origins of Christianity must take his work into account.