Using Inference to the Best Explantion: What Caused the Birth of Christology?

Over on Larry Hurtado’s blog, he discusses some of N.T Wright’s work as well as some of the issues with the early Jesus devotion issue.
If you aren’t familiar with Hurtado’s work,  he discusses six features of the religious devotion of early Christianity that indicate a significant mutation in the Jewish monotheistic tradition: (1) hymnic practices, (2) prayer and related practices, (3) use of the name of Christ, (4) the Lord’s Supper, (5) confession of faith in Jesus, and (6) prophetic pronouncements of the risen Christ.
Derek Leman summarizes Hurtado’s work when he says:  
“What did the early believers do in their descriptions of Yeshua’s exalted status and what did they not do? They did describe him on a level equal with God (“the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”). They corporately and individually showed devotion to him in ways reserved by Jews for God alone (hymns, prayer in his name, prayer to him, calling on him, a ritual meal in his presence, creeds about him, and in some cases prophecies given by him from heaven). They obeyed him, believed they were in him, believed he was present, imitated him, and received mysterious communication from him giving themguidance and peace. They had a simple creed about Yeshua, “Yeshua is Lord,” and said it was only possible to affirm this if one had been empowered by the Holy Spirit. They had a simple Aramaic prayer which they used at their weekly ritual meal, “marana tha [Our Lord, come!],” whereas we have no evidence of Jews invoking angels or other agent figures for God in any comparable manner. They used the Shema and a well-known passage from Isaiah 45 about the uniqueness of God as texts about Yeshua. They made analogies and used careful circumlocutions to describe the mysterious relationship between Messiah and God without getting overly specific (“image of the invisible God,” “the radiance of the glory of God”). They made use of the linguistic differentiation between Lord and God as a way of describing Messiah in relation to God (“God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” “there is one God, the Father . . . and one Lord, Jesus Christ”). They described heavenly visionary experiences of Yeshua in heaven, having his own divine glory (“the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” “his face was like the sun shining in full strength”). They did not say “Yeshua is God” directly, but described his divinity always in relation to God (“the Word was with God, the Word was God”). They did not try to specify the relationship between Yeshua and God beyond a certain mysterious vagueness. They did write as those who had encountered something incomprehensible which they felt compelled to believe and put into practice but which they were reluctant to describe with too much precision.” 

 Anyone who studies historical method is familiar with what is called historical causation. Historians seek out the causes of a certain events. As historian Paul Barnett says, “The birth of Christianity and the birth of Christology are inseparable both as to time and essence.” (1) One thing for sure: the birth of Christology was very early and not something that was invented much later in Church history.

We must not forget that within Judaism there is a term called “avodah zara” which is defined as the formal recognition or worship as God of an entity that is in fact not God i.e., idolatry. In other words, the acceptance of a non-divine entity as your deity is a form of avodah zara. (2) As of today, traditional or Orthodox Judaism still upholds the position that Jewish people are forbidden to pray and worship anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9).

Paul’s Letters are the earliest records we have for the life of Jesus. We know that from about AD 48 until his death (60 to 65 AD) Paul wrote at least 13 of the New Testament’s books. They are also the earliest letters we have for the Christology of Jesus. To read any objections to Paul’s Letters, see here.

In their book The Jesus Legend, The: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy say,

“During the reign of Pilate and Herod, when Caiaphas was high priest, we find a Jewish movement arising that worships a recent contemporary alongside and in a similar manner as Yahweh-God. To call this development “novel” is a significant understatement. In truth, it constitutes nothing less than a massive paradigm shift in the first century Palestinian Jewish religious worldview.” (3)

Explanations try to show how something happened. That is, what is the cause for something that has happened. So let’s look at the options on the table and see if we can come up with an explanation that explains the data at hand:

#1: Religious Syncretism

While there were various Jewish sects during the time of Jesus, religious syncretism is a form of idolatry. First, the Jewish Scriptures forbids worshiping anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9). Following the exile and subsequent intertestamental struggles, it can asked whether Jews still fell prey to physical idolatry. Some skeptics assert that since Israel always had problems with idolatry in their early formation, it would not be a challenge to assert they could fall into idolatry again by worshiping one of their own countrymen as God. But this is problematic; To assert that Israel’s previous problems with idolatry which would lead to further into idolatry in the Second Temple period leads me to cry “anachronism.” Remember, idolatry is rarely mentioned in the Gospels. But there are warnings about idolatry in other portions of the New Testament( 1 Cor. 6:9-10 ; Gal 5:20 ; Eph. 5:5 ; Col 3:5 ; 1 Peter 4:3 ; Rev 21:8). Paul instructs believers not to associate with idolaters ( 1 Cor .5:11 ; 10:14 ) and even commends the Thessalonian for their turning from the service of idols “to serve the living and true God” ( 1 Thess1:9) (see Walter A. Elwell’s Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, pgs 364-365). So I guess my question is the following: Why would Paul or the early disciples commit an idolatrous act (by saying Jesus is divine) and but then later speak against idolatry? It seems rather inconsistent.

#2 Hellenism or Polytheism?

The syncretism objection is related to the Hellenism/Polytheism possibility. The first followers of Jesus were exclusively Jews. The book of Acts gives a reference to the early followers of Jesus as “the sect of Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). However, it is asserted that as the Christian faith spread, it became a predominately Gentile based religion. By the time of Jesus, Jews had encountered the impact of Hellenistic culture for three hundred years. The word “Hellenistic” was given to describe the period of history that started with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. and ended when Rome conquered Alexander’s empire in 30 B.C .It is also safe to say that several forms of Jewish culture during the Roman period were somewhat Hellenized. This is why it is often argued that the incarnation grew out of Hellenistic presuppositions. But as Paul Eddy points out in his article Was Christianity Corrupted by Hellenism? from the middle of the third century BC, while Jewish Palestine had already experienced the effects of Hellenism we need to remember that Hellenism did not tend to infiltrate and ‘corrupt’ the local religious traditions of the ancient world. Rather, people maintained their religious traditions in spite of Hellenistic influence in other areas of their lives. Also, there are also references to the negative views of gentile polytheism (Acts 17: 22-23; 1 Cor 8:5). Gentiles were regarded as both sinful (Gal 2:5) and idolatrous (Rom 1:23).

#3: The Deity of Jesus is Legend?

As I already said, the earliest documents for the Christology of Jesus are Paul’s Letters. In them, we have one of the earliest confessions of the deity of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 8: 5-6:

“For though there are things that are called gods, whether in the heavens or on earth; as there are many gods and many lords; yet to us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we live through him.”

Here is a distinct echo of the Shema, a creed that every Jew would have memorized from a very early age. When we read Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which says, “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is our God, the Lord is one,” Paul ends up doing something extremely significant in the history of Judaism.

A glance at the entire context of the passage in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 shows that according to Paul’s inspired understanding, Jesus receives the “name above all names,” the name God revealed as his own, the name of the Lord. In giving a reformulation of the Shema, Paul still affirms the existence of the one God, but what is unique is that somehow this one God now includes the one Lord, Jesus the Messiah. Therefore, Paul’s understanding of this passage begets no indication of abandoning Jewish monotheism in place of paganism.

For a Jewish person, when the title “Lord” (Heb. Adonai) was used in place of the divine name YHWH, this was the highest designation a Jewish person could use for deity. Furthermore, it would have been no problem to confess Jesus as prophet, priest, or king since these offices already existed in the Hebrew Bible. After all, these titles were used for a human being. There was nothing divine about them.

#4: The Christology of Jesus can be explained by the disciples experience with Jesus before the resurrection and the post-resurrection appearances.

I think if we look at these four options, #4 explains the paradigm shift that is mentioned above. To read further, see our resurrection resource page. 

NOTE: See our 28 Suggested Readings in Christology

Sources:
1. Paul Barnett, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2005), 8.

2. David Berger, The Rebbe, The Messiah And The Scandal Of Orthodox Difference, 160-174.

3. Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Books, 2007), 132.

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