HOW can we Catholics … we Christians … be sure about things like whether Jesus rose from the dead? Whether He is in fact God?
How can we be sure we aren’t being fed centuries-old propaganda, cooked up long after the deaths of Christ’s contemporaries?
It’s something we can never be 100 per cent sure about – which is where faith comes in.
But Professor Larry Hurtado, author of such books as How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God, has come up with some pretty solid supporting evidence to show that not long after the death of Christ his followers were proclaiming his divinity.
The professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology in the University of Edinburgh was recently in Brisbane as a guest of Archbishop John Bathersby.
The professor’s conclusions followed 30 years of research into the earliest known Christian texts such as the manuscript of the Gospel of Mark (now dated to the first century AD) being held in Washington’s Smithsonian Institute.
In presenting these conclusions, he provided an alternative viewpoint to the academic theory that the understanding of Jesus’ divinity came much later in the history of the Church.
Some extreme views have even claimed that the belief was developed as a kind of recruiting tool to attract new members. (“Hey guys, let’s start telling everyone our founder was the Big Fella Himself.”)
Professor Hurtado reached his conclusions after engaging in painstaking, dogged research. Among other skills, this required an intimate understanding of the nuances of the ancient languages used in the scriptures – Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic.
He has conveyed these findings in ways that have continued to excite and enthuse many seekers after the truth of the origins of early Christianity.
‘I’ve had emails from all over the world thanking me for helping to make the implications of quite complicated research easy to understand – even from the inmates of Georgia Penitentiary,’ he says.
The professor said his research has a special significance for Christians today.
‘For the last few decades Christians have felt that official Christianity is in decline,’ he said, ‘which is all the more reason to look at the operation of Christianity in the first three centuries.
‘It was a time of rapid growth despite huge obstacles – Christianity was not an official state religion, indeed there was considerable persecution, yet it succeeded becoming a robust and evangelistic religion.’
Professor Hurtado’s research led him to discover crucial evidence on the timing of early Christian beliefs in Jesus’ divinity, so important to the nurture of the infant religion.
In his book Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, Hurtado writes: “Christians were proclaiming and worshipping Jesus, indeed living and dying for his sake, well before the doctrinal/creedal developments of the second century and thereafter.”
What this means to the average punter is that the early Christians, within the first century of Christ’s death, believed profoundly that something extraordinary had happened ‘that Jesus had risen from the dead, that He had been seen, that He was divine’ and that this belief propelled them forward in an evangelistic enthusiasm.
This belief had not come about gradually.
‘It was more in the nature of an explosion,’ the professor said.
Writers like the influential Wilhem Bousset in such books as Kyrios Christos had denied this, saying that this belief had happened much later, many years after the early Jewish Christians.
According to Bousset, the belief that Jesus was divine had happened in churches whose members were predominantly former Gentiles, and so more generous than the Jews in whom they called ‘lord’ or ‘god’.
In Bousset’s model, the monotheistic Jewish Christians had finally overcome their scruples and gone along with the Gentiles.
Bousset’s ideas were a major starting point for Professor Hurtado when he set out on his journey of discovery in earnest in 1979.
His goal was to write a critique of Bousset’s work and the dominant paradigm which it represented.
To do this he would need to write a book of similar depth to Bousset’s.
Ten years of intense study led Professor Hurtado to write the book One God One Lord.
‘But I knew it was by no means equivalent to Bousset’s work,’ he said.
‘It was more like a down payment on a much larger project.’
Nevertheless, respected critics hailed the work as a ‘classic’ and as ‘one of the most important and provocative Christologies of all time’.
Another 10 years and in 1999 the professor was ready to write the ‘big book’.
As with his earlier work, his beliefs as a Christian made his task more challenging.
‘My beliefs meant I had devotion towards the figure of Jesus,’ he said.
‘However, the discipline of historical study meant I needed to distance myself emotionally to understand this as a historical phenomenon.’
Professor Hurtado’s realisation of how soon the recognition of Jesus’ divinity came after his earthly ministry led him to reflect on his own faith.
‘Looking at the rawness of these beliefs struck me in a powerful way,’ he said.
‘Seen from the perspective of their times, the claims of the early Christians must have seemed audacious, outrageous and blasphemous inventions.
‘It was actually a challenge to my own faith. I had to think: Can I handle this?’
But again the professor persevered, covering original sources from the beginning of Christianity to the second century.
His next book, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God, was published in 2005. Some idea of the research involved is that footnotes alone often took up nearly a whole page.
The book immediately received extraordinary interest.
Long research covering all available literature meant the professor could finally say he was confident the book was ‘the only one he knew of that was equal to Bousset’s depth of coverage’.
Not only this, he could also claim that it ‘effectively called into question some of Bousset’s conclusions about the history of the acceptance of Jesus’ divinity’.
But, talking to the professor, it seems equally important to him that as a believing Christian he has been able to penetrate deeply into an essential aspect of his faith.
Indeed his studies have filled him with a clear vision for the way forward for Christianity as it faces many challenges to its viability.
‘If you want to study a period to find the path to renew the Christian faith, forget the medieval or Byzantine periods,’ he said.
‘If we can rediscover the dynamics of the first three centuries we will get powerful resources for living as Christians in a secular age.
‘Christendom’s dead. Long live Christianity!’
Professor Hurtado’s lectures at Stafford and Upper Mt Gravatt can be purchased on CD by contacting Adult Faith Education on (07) 3336 9168. A sample of his presentation and the option to order online is available at bne.catholic.net.au/faithlife/aferesources