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Fall 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 2 · pp. 224–225 

Book Review

Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity

Larry W. Hurtado. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003. 702 pages.

Reviewed by John E. Toews

Lord Jesus Christ is one of the most significant books in New Testament studies to be published to date in this century. It is the first book-length study of devotion to Christ and early Christian experience and worship since Wilhelm Bousset’s classic, Kyrios Christos: A History of the Belief in Christ from the Beginnings of Christianity to Irenaeus (originally published in 1913; Eng. trans., 1970, from the 4th German ed., 1965). Lord Jesus Christ builds on Hurtado’s earlier books, One God, One Lord (Fortress, 1988) and At the Origins of Christian Worship (Eerdmans, 1999), and numerous scholarly articles published in the last twenty-five years.

Hurtado focuses on the religious experience, or the religious behavior and practices of the early Christians, rather than on their beliefs and creeds. He explores the significance of Jesus for the religious life of Christians in the first two centuries of Christian history. Hurtado argues three basic theses: (1) an intense devotion to Jesus emerged early in the circle of his Jewish followers, not late and/or due to Hellenistic influence; (2) the intense expression of devotion to Jesus is unparalleled in the religious environment of the ancient world; (3) the intense devotion to Jesus, including the characterization of him as divine, was formulated within a theology of exclusivist monotheism.

Hurtado argues these theses over against Bousset and the “history of religions” school of interpretation which dominated most twentieth-century scholarly understandings. According to this interpretation, devotion to Jesus emerged slowly via an evolutionary process of religious syncretism. Hellenistic Christians imported pagan religious ideas and practices into the Christian churches which over time replaced the original and “purer” form of devotion among the earliest Jewish disciples of Jesus. Jesus, who was not considered divine in the earliest stages of Christian devotion, became a divine figure worthy of devotion through the influence of this evolutionary process.

Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ is one long argument with this history of religions interpretation. “Christ-devotion” (Hurtado’s phrase) within the framework of a profound Jewish monotheistic faith is already in the process of being routinized in the letters of Paul (that is, by 50 C.E.), which means it began in the earliest decades of the Christian community. Furthermore, this “Christ-devotion” was widespread among the Christian churches of the Roman empire, and without any good parallel {225} devotional models in the Roman world.

Hurtado argues this thesis through the history of the early Christian church from the earliest Pauline churches (ch. 2), the Judean Jewish Christianity (ch. 3), the community of the Q document (ch. 4), the Jesus books (the Gospels in ch. 5, the Johannine churches, ch. 6), other early Jesus books (e.g., Gospel of Thomas, apocryphal gospels, ch. 7), early second century writings (ch. 8), the radical diversity of gnostic and Marcionite writings (ch. 9), and the emergence of “proto-orthodoxy” (ch. 10).

Hurtado’s book is a must for libraries and teachers in biblical studies. The preaching of pastors will be greatly enriched by a careful study of this book. Readers of Direction will appreciate the generally conservative positions Hurtado takes on many critical and controversial issues. The extensive notations and bibliography will aid teachers and pastors wishing to pursue various topics. The book would have been helped by an editorial reduction of excessive redundancies.

Some Canadian readers will recognize Hurtado as a former faculty member at the University of Manitoba where a good number of Mennonite students studied with him. He has since moved to the University of Edinburgh.

John E. Toews
Adjunct Faculty
Fresno Pacific University and
Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California

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