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5.0 out of 5 stars The importance of revelatory experiences in early Christianity, 29 Dec. 2007
This review is from: How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions About Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Paperback)
The author explains the deliberately provocative title in its two aspects: the book investigates how Jesus of Nazareth came to occupy such a lofty position so early in the history of the religion, and the remarkable nature of this early devotion as a historical phenomenon. The work investigates both the claims about his significance and the pattern of devotional practices in the first and early second centuries. Having read The Authentic Gospel of Jesus by Geza Vermes at the same time, I found this book highly illuminating and thought-provoking.

Instead of dissipating after the crucifixion, the movement flourished. The death of Jesus triggered a much more startling level of devotion that far surpassed the commitment of his followers during his life on earth. The author shows that this devotion was so momentous that it played a pivotal role in the complex early Christian efforts to articulate doctrines about Jesus and God throughout the next few centuries. This is confirmed in Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew by Bart Ehrman, a compelling study of diversity in early Christianity.

Part One is titled Issues & Approaches. The first chapter is a critical review of the various historical approaches to understanding the emergence of this devotion. The next presents the major evidence for considering this development as initially totally within second-temple Judaism. In other words, it represents an innovation in the strictly monotheistic religion of the time. The social costs of Jesus-devotion, which were often heavy for early believers, are discussed in chapter three whilst the last one studies the key Pauline text of Philippians 2: 6 - 11 as an expression of worship.

Part Two: Definitions & Defense, also consists of four chapters. The first addresses controversies associated with the term Monotheism in Roman-era Judaism in order to fully understand the religious tradition from which the worship of Jesus arose. The next compares this early Christian worship to the attitude of his followers while he was alive. There is an enormous difference. Hurtado analyses how the four Gospels portray people giving homage to Jesus with particular emphasis on the Greek word "proskynein" which means To worship, Give homage, Reverence. A significantly heightened level of devotion is evident in the early church.

Chapter seven investigates the hostility and opposition that this phenomenon provoked in Judaism. Opposition appeared early; Jesus-devotion was considered to be outrageous, as blasphemy and a direct challenge to monotheism. The next chapter seeks to explain in historical terms such a drastic innovation within a religious tradition. Hurtado argues that innovations are due to powerful numinous experiences or revelations. He draws upon an impressive body of studies in the history of religion and in modern social-scientific research of new/emergent religious movements, including William James' classic The Varieties of Religious Experience. He clearly believes that these spiritual experiences were pivotal in establishing devotion to Jesus Christ.

The Epilogue provides a summary of the argument, concluding that revelatory experiences as key factor accord with the evidence from earliest Christianity and best explain how Jesus came to be regarded as divine. Such a view casts new light on the earliest expressions of the faith that has proved to be one of the most influential religious innovations in history. It certainly makes logical sense in view of the plethora of religions thriving in the Roman Empire at the time, the absence of significant books in this movement at the beginning and the low level of literacy at that time. Missionary activity alone does not adequately explain the phenomenon.

Nor is it a thing of the past. In more modern times these experiences have been associated with Marian devotion and officially recognized by the largest Christian church. Some of the famous occurrences include Lourdes in 1858, Fatima in 1917 and Medjugorje in 1981. Although it must be said that these apparitions do not represent the same type of religious innovation but rather seem to indicate the survival or re-emergence of a widespread and prehistoric "mother goddess" figure; see Cult of the Black Virgin by Ean Begg.

There are footnotes throughout the text. Appendix 1 contains the opening remarks to the First Deichmann Annual Lecture Series by Horst-Heinz Deichmann whilst Appendix 2 is a discussion of the reasons for studying early Christian literature at Ben-Gurion University by Roland Deines. The book concludes with three indices: of Modern Authors, Subjects, and Scripture & Other Ancient Sources. I enjoyed reading this book; Hurtado is a very thorough scholar but he never "lost" me as a lay reader. I'm looking forward to reading his highly esteemed book Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity.
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