The United Methodist Reporter is offering the latest headlines in the RSS format.
Q & A
Q&A: Devotion nothing new Mary Jacobs, Apr 7, 2009
Among the leading scholars on the origins of devotion to Jesus is Larry W. Hurtado, professor of New Testament language, literature and theology, and head of the School of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh.
Dr. Hurtado is also the host and teacher of Devotion to Jesus, a video course produced by Wesley Ministry Network. Staff writer Mary Jacobs recently interviewed him by e-mail.
The Da Vinci Code and other books have popularized the notion that Christ’s divinity was pasted into Scripture after Jesus’ death. Your response? It’s rather clear that earliest Christians believed that Jesus had been exalted to heavenly status next to God and sharing God’s glory, and felt themselves obliged to offer Jesus devotion: invocation of Him, baptizing in His name, and treating Him in ways otherwise reserved for God. This emerged so early that it precedes all our extant texts, in which this kind of Jesus-devotion is taken for granted. This religious conviction (that Jesus somehow shared in divine glory, status and significance) and the accompanying devotional practice were there explosively, quickly and early.
Jesus Seminar scholars such as Robin Meyers claim that Jesus’ assertions of his divinity were added in later versions of Scripture—never actually uttered by Jesus. It is clear to most scholars that the direct self-assertions that we have, especially in the Gospel of John, are heavily shaped by the religious experience and convictions of believers in the “post-Easter” period. No question: People came to believe things about Jesus that Jesus Himself didn’t teach. But this seems to have begun almost immediately after His execution. These believers were convinced that God had exalted Jesus and designated Him as “Son,” Messiah, etc. Christian belief was never confined to what Jesus taught, but included what God had done in, through and to Jesus. And these beliefs weren’t “added in later editions” of the Gospel of John or Paul’s letters, but were there long before any of these texts were composed!
Why are these claims coming along now? The claims that Jesus was simply a noble teacher or poet or activist or philosopher or whatever have been around for at least a couple of hundred years. Albert Schweitzer’s classic The Quest of the Historical Jesus surveyed such ideas. There have been wonderful archaeological finds and early copies of Christian texts found, but none of these point in any direction other than what we already knew: that Jesus seems to have become the object of intense religious devotion from the earliest moments of what became the Christian movement. If there is a challenge to Christians believing and practicing a similar Jesus-devotion today, it’s not to do with historical findings. The challenge is simply whether to align oneself with such a demanding religious standpoint.
What’s your response to Dr. Meyers’ assertion that the early church was “experiential” rather than “propositional”? It’s a facile and false set of alternatives. I’ve emphasized the important role of powerful religious experiences in shaping earliest Christian beliefs, and it’s clear that early Christianity was a rich “micro-climate” in which God was experienced and not simply talked about. It’s also clear that behavioral commitment was involved, that you were expected to live by certain teachings and that profound religious beliefs were involved. The gospel always involved declaring what God has done, what God offers, who Jesus is and how to respond: “propositions” as well as experiences.
My skepticism with The Da Vinci Code and the Jesus Seminar is that their conclusions seem way too coincidentally 21st century. Any scholarly work reflects the time and circumstances of the scholar—mine and anyone else’s. The Jesus Seminar originated in Reagan’s America, with Bob Funk (who by then had shed his previous Methodist faith) calling for this group to prevent fundamentalists from taking over the media, politics and America. Their work is really, well, quaint, in a way. There’s nothing radical or new about it; it’s actually terribly reminiscent of aspects of 18th-century Deism and then-trendy 1960s to ’70s culture.
And The Da Vinci Code, well, it’s a mulligan stew of combining bits of anti-Catholicism, popular conspiracy theory and other stuff. The book was a half-decent beach-read, but the movie was a complete bore.