These three books can be grouped together under the heading of the biblical and historical origins of the church’s belief in the deity of Christ. All three espouse some version of the “early high Christology” (EHC) viewpoint, that is, the view in New Testament and early Christian studies that the church’s belief in the deity of Christ originated very early, within the decade after the resurrection of Jesus. Martin Hengel, Larry Hurtado, and Richard Bauckham are the foremost advocates of this position, but there are many other scholars working along similar lines, such as Aquila Lee and Chris Tilling.
This book is a follow-up to his much bigger Lord Jesus Christ (2003), but this would be a great place to start if you want to get the essence of Hurtado’s argument in a shorter form. Hurtado focuses on the worship of Jesus, and various other aspects of reverence for and devotion to Jesus in the early church, as the basic data that demonstrate that the early church believed in the deity of Christ from basically the beginning. This is quite surprising given that the first Christians were all Jewish believers in Jesus and as such would have been committed to the monotheistic principle that divine worship ought to be given only to the one true God. The worship of Jesus alongside God is therefore a “striking innovation” in cultic practice. It may be utterly surprising and difficult to explain, but the sure fact is that religious devotion and worship were given to the exalted Jesus very soon after his resurrection, and this is what led the early church to the conviction that Jesus was God. I appreciate much of what Hurtado has to say. I enjoyed his interpretation of Philippians 2:6-11, particularly when he takes on the big name, James D. G. Dunn, who famously uses what he calls “Adam Christology” in an attempt to deny the clear implication of Jesus’ preexistence.
However, for me, Hurtado’s emphasis on the worship of the exalted Jesus is not sufficient as a causal explanation of EHC unless one also gives a prominent place to the self-consciousness of Jesus as God’s Son (see Aquila H. I. Lee’s book below). Since the self-consciousness of Jesus is totally missing in his reconstruction, Hurtado ends up with a very strange answer to the question, “Why did the early church worship Jesus?” He says they did so because they had various revelatory (charismatic?) experiences in worship in which they felt that it was God’s will for Jesus to be worshipped. In obedience to God’s will, they simply worshipped Jesus. Then, on the basis of these religious experiences, they drew the conclusion that Jesus must be divine. This seems completely implausible to me. I do not see how the early Christians as Jewish monotheists could have credited such revelatory experiences in the first place, unless there was already something in place to prepare them for it. This is where I would see the self-consciousness of Jesus and his own claims to be the Son of God setting the foundation, with the resurrection and exaltation of Christ acting as God’s confirmation and vindication of his claims. With that thought in mind, I turn now to the next book, which makes just that argument.
This doctoral dissertation was written by Aquila H. I. Lee under the supervision of I. Howard Marshall at the University of Aberdeen. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is a masterful treatment of an important question, namely, how did the early church arrive at the belief in Jesus’ divine preexistence? His argument in a nutshell is that this belief begins with Jesus himself. The foundation of belief in Jesus’ preexistence was Jesus’ own self-consciousness as God’s Son, which Lee rightly argues was understood by Jesus in a higher sense than messianic sonship, since it had to do with Jesus’ consciousness of an intimate filial relationship to his Father and his sense of mission as the preexistent Son who was sent into the world. The earthly ministry of Jesus and his own statements about his unique relationship to the Father (e.g., Matt 11:27) laid the foundation. Then Jesus was raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand, an event that was interpreted through the lens of Scripture, especially Ps 2:6-7 and Ps 110:1. The exaltation of Christ as interpreted through the lens of these two Psalms was the catalyst that took the raw material of the foundation of Jesus’ own self-consciousness and crystallized it into the church’s belief in Jesus’ ontological deity and eternal preexistence. Both elements were necessary – both the foundation (Jesus’ self-consciousness of divine Sonship) and the catalyst (seeing Christ as the exalted Son through the lens of these two key Psalms). Lee also rightly emphasizes that the church did not view the exaltation of Christ as the conferral of a new status that he did not possess before, but as the confirmation or manifestation of his preexisting divine status. Indeed, so great was the exaltation of Jesus that the early Christians (being strict monotheists) could only have regarded his exaltation to divine glory as appropriate if he really was God’s divine Son all along. Only within a pagan polytheistic worldview is it possible to envision a mere man receiving apotheosis or divinization after death. There are many other details to Lee’s argument, but that is the heart of his argument. Get it, read it, and study it!
Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, Chris Tilling, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature – A Response to Bart D. Ehrman (Zondervan, 2014)
This is a pretty amazing book just in terms of the logistics of its production and publication. First, Mike Bird had to get HarperOne to give him a prepublication copy of the manuscript of Bart Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God. Next Ehrman’s arguments had to be analyzed. Then Bird had to throw together a crack team of New Testament scholars, get them to write individual essays replying to parts of Ehrman’s argument, and edit the essays into a coherent package so that the book could be published at the same time as Ehrman’s book. I would say Bird and his team did a pretty good job given the short time constraints (“over the Christmas break of 2013,” according to the Editor’s Preface). All of the authors are influenced by and relied heavily on the EHC arguments of Hurtado and Bauckham, and adding some of their own particular spin to the EHC mix – particularly Simon Gathercole and Chris Tilling. The chapter by Craig Evans is an excellent response, on purely historical grounds, to one of the claims of Ehrman, namely, that Jesus was not buried as the Gospels say he was and that therefore the discovery of the empty tomb was not a factor in causing the disciples to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead.