Ask a Scholar

Jesus Worship by Larry W. Hurtado

Q. When did the worship of Jesus, as God, rather than Messiah, Lord, and Savior, begin? And by whom?

A. First I have to address the wording of the question. It could be asking when/whether Jesus came to be “God” or when “God” came to be re-signified as Jesus. There’s no evidence that Jesus replaced God or overwrote God (so to speak), at least not in the first couple of centuries. Subsequently, there have been Christians for whom God was Jesus, pure and simple. But that’s not what scholars find in the earliest centuries.

But I presume that you actually mean “when and where did Jesus first come to be reverenced as somehow really sharing in God’s status, or glory, and so the rightful recipient of worship along with God?” This has been a contested question for at least a century or more. Pretty much everyone is agreed that Jesus didn’t receive worship during his ministry. The key questions contested are how soon and where after Jesus’ crucifixion did it begin.

One view is that the worship of Jesus as divine first appeared in the later decades of the first century, and likely in Gentile Christian circles (see the works of Dunn, Casey, and McGrath). But, over the last century or so, most scholars have agreed that the worship of Jesus as the divine “Lord” (Greek: Kyrios) began very early, within the very first years after Jesus’ crucifixion.

In an influential book Kyrios Christos, Wilhelm Bousset took this view, contending that this was the form of Christian faith that the apostle Paul was introduced to after his “conversion,” typically dated ca. 30-35 C.E. But Bousset also insisted that this treatment of Jesus as divine Kyrios couldn’t have happened in a thoroughly Jewish context (in which monotheistic concerns dominated), and so he placed the development in diaspora sites such as Antioch and/or Damascus (in Syria), where, he posited, pagan models of the divinization of heroes could have been influential.

In the last few decades, however, a growing number of scholars have argued that the earliest expressions of cultic reverence of Jesus as Lord were, indeed, in the very earliest years (likely earliest weeks or months) after Jesus’ crucifixion, but (contra Bousset) initially in Jewish circles of the Jesus-movement and in Roman Judaea (Palestine). Among the relevant works is my own One God, One Lord. Without getting into the details, my emphasis is on the constellation of specific devotional practices that expressed a reverence for Jesus as divine Lord.

Paul’s letters give every indication that the kinds of Jesus-reverence that he knew and affirmed were also practiced among Jewish circles of believers. The Aramaic liturgical expression, “Maranatha” (= “O/our, Lord, come!” cited in 1Cor 16:22), is one of several pieces of direct evidence that Jewish, Aramaic-speaking believers invoked the risen/exalted Jesus as “Lord” in their corporate worship gatherings. The basis for this remarkable development was apparently the convictions that God had exalted Jesus as “Lord,” that Jesus now shared God’s glory, name and throne, and that God now required Jesus to be reverenced accordingly (e.g., Phil 2:9-11).

Larry W. Hurtado, "Jesus Worship", n.p. [cited 28 Apr 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/jesus-worship

Contributors

Larry W. Hurtado

Larry W. Hurtado
Emeritus Professor, University of Edinburgh

Larry W. Hurtado is emeritus professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology in the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Fortress Press, 1988), Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003), and How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Eerdmans, 2005).

 

Changing one's beliefs and self-identity from one religion to another.

Jews who live outside of Israel or any people living outside of their native land.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

An early (second century) Christian leader and theologian whose writings attacked heresies like gnosticism.

Service or a religious vocation to help others.

A religious system characterized by belief in the existence of a single deity.

Of or related to a religious system characterized by belief in the existence of a single deity.

(n.) One who adheres to traditional or polytheistic religious and spiritual belief and practice systems; sometimes used to refer broadly to anyone who does not adhere to biblical monotheism.

Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.

1Cor 16:22

22Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord. Our Lord, come!

Phil 2:9-11

9Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,10so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on ea ... View more

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