ALTHOUGH the origins of beliefs about Jesus, and devotion to him as divine, have been a perennial topic of scholarly interest, the past several decades have seen particularly intensive investigation into the matter. This work has produced what now seems to be a groundswell of opinion which revises some earlier views.
One key finding now increasingly endorsed is that belief in Jesus as sharing in divine glory, and the rightful co-recipient of worship, emerged quite early and quickly in circles of Jewish believers in Roman Palestine. The letters of Paul (written c.50-60 AD) already presume the beliefs that Jesus is not only Messiah, but also the unique Son of God and the divinely exalted “Kyrios” (Lord).
Paul’s letters also presuppose a constellation of devotional practices, in which the risen/exalted Jesus is central. These practices include baptism in Jesus’s name, prayer to Jesus, the sacred meal (eucharist) in which Jesus presides as Lord, the ritual invocation and confession of Jesus as constitutive of the worship gathering, and the chanting of hymns/odes about Christ as part of worship. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 1.2, Paul refers to believers simply as “all those in every place who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ”, referring to the ritual invocation of Jesus as the distinguishing devotional action that identified them.
Certainly, therefore, these high beliefs and these devotional practices must have been already accepted and affirmed in the earliest circles of believers, for Paul seems to have embraced them enthusiastically as the result of his “Damascus Road” experience, which he describes as a personal revelation of Jesus as God’s unique Son (Galatians 1.15-16). This experience is commonly dated as having been within the first couple of years after Jesus’s crucifixion.
It seems, therefore, that the experiences of the risen Jesus, which began within days of his crucifixion, conveyed to his followers the conviction that God had exalted him to a heavenly and glorious status; and that it was God’s will that Jesus should be reverenced accordingly.
So, contrary to some earlier assertions, the development of remarkable beliefs about Jesus, and the accompanying reverence of him, were not the product of a lengthy incremental process, but something more like a volcanic eruption.
To be sure, over the next couple of centuries in particular, Christians explored ways of articulating Jesus’s status alongside God, drawing upon philosophical categories of the time. These further efforts did not, however, produce the decisive beliefs about Jesus as sharing in divine glory. Instead, one could say that they were made, in one sense, unavoidable by the very early eruption of the beliefs and worship practices witnessed in Paul’s letters, which take us back to within 20 years of Jesus’s crucifixion. The eminent German scholar Martin Hengel once famously observed: “In essentials, more happened in Christology within these few years than in the whole subsequent 700 years of church history.”
THE early date and the originating location among Jewish believers in Judaea also go against the assumption that belief in Jesus as divine could have emerged only in a setting influenced by pagan religious ideas and practices — that is, in cities such as Antioch or Damascus.
One piece of evidence is the Aramaic expression Maranatha that Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 16.22, and that reflects the invocation of Jesus in worship gatherings of Jewish, Aramaic-speaking believers. This and other pieces of evidence in earliest Christian texts point strongly to a Jewish Palestinian origin of the beliefs and practices that are reflected in Paul’s letters. Certainly, there is no hint that the beliefs and devotion to Jesus presumed in these was a matter of difference with other early-Christian circles.
To be sure, the earliest believers were not immune to their larger cultural and religious environment. But Roman-era Jewish tradition was characterised by a strong concern to avoid compromising devotion to the one God — Jews rejected the worship of other deities, and regarded as equally outrageous the worship of deified humans, such as Roman emperors. So it is hardly credible to invoke “emperor-cult”, or other expressions of “pagan” religion, as any direct influence prompting devotion to Jesus.
As time went on, we can see reactions against emperor-worship, for example, and other religious practices that early Christians regarded as idolatrous. One clear instance is the way the Book of Revelation counter-poses allegiance to Jesus, “the Lamb”, with allegiance to “the Beast” (likely the Roman emperor).
The increased usage of “Son of God” as a confessional title, evidenced in Christian texts dating from the late first century (such as the Gospel of John) and thereafter, may likewise be a reaction to the apparently increased usage of the title by the Flavian emperors in that period.
But, to repeat the point for emphasis, it is highly improbable that emperor-worship or other pagan practices served to instigate the Christological beliefs and devotional practices that erupted in the earliest years of the Jesus-movement.
In NT writings, Jesus’s high status is expressed by the use of terms and concepts derived from biblical (OT) and Jewish tradition. So, for example, the numerous NT references to Jesus’s position at God’s “right hand” ascribe to Jesus a uniquely high status: Jesus enthroned with God as universal ruler. Philippians 2.9-11 declares that God has given Jesus “the name above every name,” commonly taken as meaning that Jesus was given (to share) God’s name, with all that the divine name represented in biblical/Jewish tradition.
In 2 Corinthians 3.7-4.6, there are references to “the glory of the Lord,” in the context a reference to the Lord Jesus (3.18), and to “the glory of Christ who is the image of God” (4.4). These sorts of statements — that Jesus shares God’s throne, God’s name, and God’s glory — comprise a rather programmatic inclusion of Jesus into the highest conceptual categories expressive of divinity which were available in biblical/Jewish tradition.
But one might ask about the relationship of these earliest beliefs and practices to the later credal developments enshrined in the Nicene Creed, for example. In the second century and thereafter, Christians strove to articulate their faith by drawing on conceptual categories from the wider intellectual culture of their time. Also in this period, further questions arose about Jesus’s relationship to God (“the Father”). For example, is Jesus “the Son” to be thought of as of the same “essence” as God “the Father,” or is he of a different/lesser divine essence?
These questions, and their competing answers, came to a head at the Council of Nicaea in 325, and in the following period “Nicene” orthodoxy expressed the classical doctrine of the Trinity, in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were posited as sharing one divine nature/essence. These developments involved a different kind of discourse, and different concepts, that were shaped more by philosophical traditions of the time.
But Nicaea did not invent the divinity of Jesus, nor inaugurate the worship of him. Both Jesus’s divine/unique status, and the necessity for reverencing him in worship, were features of early Christian groups from the first years of the Jesus movement after Jesus’s crucifixion. From that astonishingly early point, Jesus of Nazareth, the earthly figure of Galilee, was also the divinely exalted Lord and Christ who shared God’s rule and glory, and was reverenced programmatically in the language and devotional practices already reflected in Paul’s Epistles.
Larry W. Hurtado is Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology in the University of Edinburgh. His major book on the topic is Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003).