Questioning a Common Assumption
Larry Hurtado challenges a common apologetic/Christological assumption: « The Church cannot believe about Jesus what he did not know to be true about himself. »
« As Jonathan Z. Smith showed in his little tome, Drudgery Divine (1990), the Deists set out to drive a wedge between the “historical” Jesus and the NT (and traditional Christian faith). Taking a cue from the Protestant argument that church teaching had to be based in the NT, Deists argued in turn that NT christological claims had to be based in Jesus’ own teaching. They then further argued that a critical approach toward the “historical” Jesus did not provide a sufficient basis for traditional christological beliefs. »
« And the result…was a great deal of mischief: Christian apologists producing contorted historical arguments…, and critics… contending that these claims were invalid… »
« But I’d like to make two observations. First, the earliest extant Christian texts themselves make it perfectly clear that the “high” notions about Jesus sharing in divine glory, exalted to heavenly status, worthy of worship, etc., all erupted after Jesus’ ministry, not during it, and that the crucial impetus for these notions was what earliest believers saw as God’s actions, particularly their belief that God had raised Jesus from death to heavenly glory. (See, e.g., Philippians 2:9-11; Acts 2:36). »
Indeed, …Jesus …likely generated the claim that he was (or was to be) Messiah, which seems to have been the cause of him being executed. But Messiah isn’t necessarily a “divine” figure [to be] given the sort of devotion the “risen/exalted”Jesus [received] in earliest Christian circles.
« [T]he remarkable escalation in the status/significance of Jesus to the “right hand” of God, to sharing the divine name and glory, and to the central and programmatic place he held in earliest Christian devotional practice all rested on the fundamental conviction that God has exalted him… »
My second observation is this: The fundamental theological basis given in the NT for treating Jesus in the “high” terms advocated is a theo-centric one: God’s actions form the basis of the responding christological claims and devotional practices. Considering this might be a really helpful move for all sides in any theological debate.
First, a quote: « The Church cannot indefinitely continue to believe about Jesus what he did not know to be true about himself, » J. W. Bowman, The Intention of Jesus (London: SCM, 1945), p. 108.
This is not really a historical claim but a theological one, and it reflects a common assumption: The assumption that the theological/religious validity of claims about Jesus rest upon what Jesus believed and taught about himself. In my book, Lord Jesus Christ (pp. 5-9), I’ve noted the irony of how this assumption has been shared by critics and advocates of Christian faith, and also how it has worked mischief in the historical investigation of Christian origins.
Operating on this assumption, apologists of traditional christological claims have striven to argue that Jesus really did teach them, e.g., that he is divine and worthy of worship. Typically, this has meant trying to show, for example, that the distinctive discourse that…
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