How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?

by Michael Kruger

Recently I have been doing some work on the Gospel of John and first-century Jewish monotheism.  Anyone who explores the high Christology in John is forced to ask how it would have (or could have) emerged within a monotheistic context.  How could early Jews have believed in the one true God of Israel, and also have believed that Jesus was divine?

There are many scholarly works that prove helpful in this discussion, but one of the best is the collection of essays by my doktorvater, Larry Hurtado, in his wonderful book, How on Earth Did Jesus Become God? (Eerdmans, 2005).

For the past twenty-five years Larry has been at the forefront of historical investigations into the origins of Jesus devotion within early Christianity. With his groundbreaking work One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Fortress Press, 1988; reprint T&T Clark, 2003), Hurtado laid forth the argument that worship of Jesus amongst early Christians was much early than previously thought—a monumental fact given that such devotion arose within circles of Second-Temple devout Jews. In 2003, he published Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, which in many ways is a capstone work that continues his fundamental investigation into early Jesus devotion and draws together much of his research over the past two decades.

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How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God? is a more compact presentation of Hurtado’s prior research and pulls together a number of previous publications on the subject (mainly journal articles) as well as material from the Deichmann Annual Lecture Series at Ben-Gurion University in Israel.

All the chapters in the volume are helpful, but the first two are the most foundational. In chapter one, Hurtado gives us the lay of the land by surveying the variety of other approaches to Jesus devotion within early Christianity, offering a brief critical review of each of them, so that his own approach can be seen in contrast to its scholarly competitors. In particular, he sets his sites on the “evolutionary” approach most aptly represented by William Bousset’s Kyrios Christos (1913), which argued that worship of Jesus arose with Gentile Christian circles heavily influenced by the pagan Greco-Roman cult.

It is here that the key historical issue at hand is crystallized. The challenge, argues Hurtado, is not simply explaining how Jesus was seen as divine by early Christians, but rather the challenge is explaining the manner in which he was seen as divine. Early Christians drew a sharp line between their worship of Jesus and all the other pagan gods of the Greco-Roman world. Jesus was not simply a new addition to a pantheon of gods they already believed in, but was considered to be the only God rightly deserving of worship…

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