Book Review: Larry W. Hurtado, Honoring the Son

Hurtado, Larry W.  Honoring the Son. Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice. Ed. M. Bird; Snapshots Series; Bellingham, Wash: Lexham, 2018. 95 pp; Pb.  $15.99  Link to Lexham Press

Lexham’s Snapshot Series attempts to engage “significant issues in contemporary biblical scholarship.” This new volume Larry Hurtado summarizes his major works over the last twenty years on what has come to be called “early high Christology.” His One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism was first published in 1988 (Fortress; second edition T&T Clark, 1998; third edition Bloomsbury, 2005). David Aune called Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2005) “one of the more important books on Jesus in this generation.” In addition to dozens of articles and reviews on an early high Christology since 1979, Hurtado published a shorter monograph, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Eerdmans 2005). In fact, Hurtado’s own works take up more than two pages in the eleven page bibliography in Honoring the Son.

In this short book, Hurtado addresses the question of early Christian devotion to Jesus as God. The earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish monotheists but the later creeds worship Jesus as part of a Trinitarian Godhead. As Hurtado observes in his chapter on the “scholarly context,” the consensus view is Jesus never claimed to be God  and his first followers did not worship him as God. There was a slow development of Trinitarian theology over the first century of the church. This consensus is based on the work of Wilhelm Bousset’s Kyrios Christos, a major influence on Rudolf Bultmann. First published in German in 1931 (English translation, 1970), Bousset argued early Christian devotion to Jesus appeared in diaspora settings like Antioch and Damascus rather than among the Jewish followers of Jesus. This view continues to be popular in the popular work of Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God (Harper Collins, 2014).

In contrast to this view, Hurtado argues the earliest Christians believed God required them to worship Jesus. Their devotional response to God led them to worship the Son. In the conclusion to the book, Hurtado points to John 5:22-23, “all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father.” One might object John is the latest of the New Testament writings, but Hurtado does not think this devotion to Jesus is a late Johannine development. On the contrary, it is a “concise and somewhat polemic expression of the matter set here in the context of challenge from Jewish critics of Jesus’s validity” (67).

To make this argument, Hurtado must first properly worship in the ancient world (chapter 2) as well as the nature of ancient Jewish monotheism (chapter 3). Unlike modern, western religious experience, ancient religion was not assent to a creedal statement, but rather ritual practice. For a Jewish person, any ritual practice not focused on God was idolatry. Jewish people in the Second Temple period adapted to the Hellenistic world in many ways, but Hurtado argues there is no evidence at all Jewish people gave any sort of worship to angels, biblical heroes or even God’s attributes such as Wisdom (32). There were no altars, sacrifices or public ritual devoted to any of these things, contra Bart Ehrman. Hurtado cites several examples, such as the angel Raphael in Tobit. Although this archangel is powerful, all prayers in the book are directed to God and Raphael tells Tobias to praise only God (Tobit 12:6-7).

Hurtado refers to the early Christian devotion to Jesus as a “mutation” (chapter 4). By this he means early Christian worship is in some ways similar to ancient Judaism, but worshiping the risen and exalted Jesus as God is a sudden and unexpected development. There was no slow progression from Jewish monotheism to adoration of angelic beings and eventually to Jesus as God. For Hurtado, Paul’s early devotion to Jesus as a recipient of worship in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 and other texts indicates an early high Christology. Because Paul never claimed a unique view of Jesus nor does he consider his worship of Jesus to be a radical development, Hurtado thinks Paul’s Christology follows the views of earlier Jewish followers of Jesus. Certainly Paul claims to have “passed on” traditions from those who were in Christ before him (1 Cor 15:3-5, for example). This means the eruption of “cultic veneration of the risen Jesus presumed already as typical of Jewish and gentile circles of the Jesus movement” prior to Paul’s letters (50).

One of Hurtado’s major contributions to the discussion of an early high Christology is his study of Jesus in the earliest Christian devotional practices (chapter 5). These include prayers and invocations, the practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, hymns, psalms, and prophecy. Hurtado offers a short summary and example for each of these examples, but for the meat of the argument readers will need to consult his far more detailed arguments in Lord Jesus Christ.

Conclusion: As David Capes says in his introduction to this slender volume, “behind each paragraph is an article or monograph. . .” (ix). In fact, the body of this book is a mere sixty-eight pages plus another seven pages of appendix, eleven pages of bibliography and five pages of indices. But brevity should not be mistaken for sketchiness. Hurtado succeeds in summarizes and updated the arguments made in his earlier and more substantial works and provides enough bibliographical material to enable the reader to explore the details of the argument of the book. The book is written to appear to layperson, student and professional interested in the development of a high Christology in the early church.

NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Larry W. Hurtado, Honoring the Son

  1. I’m only generally familiar with Hurtado’s work and stances. I’m wondering if in this book or others he is generally defending both the Synoptics/Acts and Gospel of John as historically accurate? And if so, does he find there consistent and “early” evidence of Jesus’ bodily resurrection? Or does he take another view of the Resurrection? (I’d guess not.)

    To me, his “early high christology” argument and actual physical, eye-witness or other substantive evidence of a unique and bodily resurrection are two different things… only partially related. Even IF Jesus-followers received (from Jesus or the H.S.) or quickly developed “high christology”, it didn’t necessarily come because they had had convincing direct experience with a bodily-raised Jesus. The Gospel “evidences” for such are extremely problematic, virtually impossible to see as consistent and substantive, and I believe can be explained fairly easily other ways. Does Hurtado address this all in a convincing way?

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    • On your first point, he really doesn’t address the historicity of any of the gospel materials in this little book. He may in the larger works but I don’t think it makes much of a difference if the Gospels were written before 70 or closer to the end of the first century. It is the letters of Paul are important, and a few people are going to deny Corinthians or Philippians are not early.

      I don’t think he actually says in this book that it’s the witness to the bodily resurrection that sparks the “mutation” that he calls in that early high Christology. But honestly, that’s what I think explains the adoration of Jesus as God prior to the writings of the apostle Paul. To me, this is the important point. If he can prove that Paul already is worshiping Jesus as God, or as he says in the book, God requires the Christian to worship Jesus as God, then you have evidence of an early high Christology.

      Whether he addresses it in a convincing when you’re not, that is for you to decide! Obviously I am going to think he’s convincing, others will still find him and convincing.

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