Magnum opus remains a term best reserved for the crowning achievement of a scholar’s life and work, the pinnacle at the top of decades of research, writing, and sharpening arguments. These great works comprehensively examine and engage their field of work and, at their best, even redefine the field for years to come. Such is Larry W. Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003. 746pp.). Hurtado’s magnum opus—now approaching fifteen years old—not only transformed the field of early Christian studies, but also continues to offer insights and ways forward for contemporary scholars.
Lord Jesus Christ presents a historical analysis of the beliefs and practices which constituted devotion to Jesus as a divine figure in earliest Christianity, arguing that the key feature of early Christian circles was the prominence of Jesus in faith and practice. In contrast to perspectives—such as William Bousset’s Kyrios Christos—which argue that Jesus devotion was a relatively late development, Hurtado examines a wide swath of early Christian sources and argues that exalted views of Jesus emerge well within the first decades of Christianity. Further, he indicates that the intensity of this devotion to Jesus was unique to the socio-religious climate of the first century Mediterranean world, especially early Christian’s simultaneous devotion to Jesus as divine and adherence to exclusivist monotheism.
Hurtado’s approach eschews the naïve assumption of Jesus’ being understood as divine from the beginning of the movement bearing his name, as well as offering a critique of the religiongeschichtliche Schule approach which eviscerates the theological ramifications of studying early Christian understandings of Jesus as Lord. The genesis for Lord Jesus Christ resides in William Bousset’s Kyrios Christos, which Hurtado simultaneously problematizes and employs as the model for this study. Especially problematic are Bousset’s portrayal of “son of man” Christology, “Hellenistic” Christianity, and distinctions between “Palestinian” and “Hellenistic” worldviews. Against these crucial missteps Hurtado rightly emphasizes the centrality of “Christ devotion” across early Christian culture, not only examining early doctrinal positions concerning Jesus but also excavating the practices which emerge from material and visual culture.
After an introduction in which Hurtado clearly outlines the motivations behind his study and his research route, the first chapter offers a contextualization for monotheistic faith and devotional practice in first century Palestine, situating early Christianity within Jewish and Greco-Roman religious practices. Building on this information, chapters two, five, six, and ten form the heart of Hurtado’s argument concerning the centrality of Jesus for early Christians. Chapter two examines early Pauline Christianity, especially Paul’s Christological language and the functionally binitarian worship of Pauline communities. After setting up the gospel context of “Q”, in chapter five Hurtado engages “Jesus Books” (the Synoptics) and their renditions of Jesus, best understood as literary promotions of Jesus devotion which were broadly representative of Christian beliefs. Hurtado’s sixth chapter examines the crises of Christology reflected in the Johannine community, which he views as ultimately wrestling with questions about Christian devotion to Jesus and underscoring Jesus’ divine status and heavenly origins.
After a rapid fire (albeit a 400-page one) examination of Pauline and Gospel perceptions of Jesus as divine, Hurtado considers other early Christian conceptions of Jesus, most notably the infancy gospels and Gospel of Thomas (chapter seven), later Pauline and second-century texts (chapter eight), and the “radical diversity” of Valentinian and Marcionite Christianity (chapter nine). Although non-proto-orthodox writings display something of a different perception of Jesus (especially regarding his relationship to the deity of Jewish scriptures), Hurtado argues that second century proto-orthodox views of Jesus devotion were congruent with the patterns witnessed amongst the earliest Christian writings.
In his tenth and penultimate chapter, Hurtado examines later expressions of proto-Orthodox Jesus devotion as expressed in the collection of gospel accounts, revelatory writings, worship and prayer, martyrdom, nomina sacra, and doctrinal developments. Overall, Hurtado indicates that the earliest Christianity provided the foundation—the major convictions, parameters of belief, and practices—for subsequent (proto-) orthodox understandings of the centrality of Jesus, his divinity, and his role in worship. That is, a high Christology cannot rightly be thought of as a later development of Christian thought (though Christology itself was later developed), but rather that early Christian devotion to Jesus erupted at an amazingly early point and formatively shaped subsequent ideas of proper Christian worship and devotion.
From the start, Hurtado argues for the “indisputable centrality of the figure of Jesus in early Christian devotion” and seeks to undertake a new historical analysis of Jesus devotion, goals in which he succeeds wildly. The cumulative force of his argument—that the earliest Christians viewed Jesus as divine Lord and Christ—is nothing less than overwhelmingly convincing and paradigm changing. That said, scholars belonging to the Bauer/Ehrman/Pagels school of thought will likely criticize Hurtado’s seeming normatization of now canonical materials as representative of the earliest “Christianities”, especially Hurtado’s “reading backwards” from Pauline writings into Judean Jewish Christianity in chapter three. Yet here Hurtado’s arguments are well supplemented by recognitions from biblical studies indicating Paul’s use of existing materials, and his interpretations naturally fit the forms of early Christian faith that Paul himself seems to be engaging with in his early epistles. Perhaps the one lacuna of this tome surrounds the relative neglect of canonical writings which are neither Pauline nor Gospels. As Hurtado devotes five pages and a couple paragraphs to Revelation and the Catholic Epistles, respectively, conceptions of Jesus within these writings stands as a potential area for future research.
Lord Jesus Christ stands as a game-changer in the study of early Christianity and the history of Christian doctrine (especially Christology) and comes highly recommended for anyone engaged with these subjects. Hurtado’s prose reads easily and his argumentation comes across with clarity, brevity, and precision. Although he commends this volume to readers of all sorts, the length of Hurtado’s work and the sophistication of his argumentation might better lend its contents to upper-level undergraduates, graduate students, and professional scholars. Jesus’ question of “Who do you say that I am?” continues to motivate much discussion today, and Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity magnificently provides the early Christian Church’s answer to that all-important question.