It seems that a growing number of scholars (thinking in particular here of Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham and others who approvingly cite them on this question, and now even Bart Ehrman) have in recent years been taking up the argument that the followers of Jesus took up the view that Jesus was exalted to a very high divine status almost from the moment he was believed to have stepped out of his tomb.
Why is this happening? One would think that the gradual evolutionary view that Jesus’ exaltation to the godhead would accord more with a “plausible historicity”. We are regularly reminded how Jews abhorred the notion of a human being considered divine (though with many qualifications given the Second Temple evidence for persons like Moses being thought of as divine by at least some Jewish authors) and that it must have been with the increase in numbers of gentiles joining the church that the notion of a divine human was conceived and grew.
There are, as we know, problems even with this evolutionary explanation. One of these is that the evidence we have points to a high Christology appearing in the record before we find the humanizing tendencies. But I won’t discuss any of those issues now. My only point here is to share something I read last night in M. David Litwa’s Iesus Deus:
In his oft-cited study, Judentum und Hellenismus, Martin Hengel demonstrated with impressive detail that “All of Judaism from about the middle of the 3rd century BC must in the strict sense by called ‘hellenistic Judaism.’ . . . .
Palestine had long been touched by the “spirit” (Geist) of Hellenistic civilization on almost every level: economically, politically, culturally, literarily, philosophically, and theologically.”
Curiously Hengel later “curtly” attempted to “cut off early christology from all Greco-Roman influence.” He denied absolutely and comparison between popular Hellenistic stories of deified humans (e.g. Heracles who died a violent death, Octavian being sent into the world as Mercury according to the poet Horace, etc.).
the earliest christology comes out of the Palestinian Jewish milieu — exactly the milieu that Hengel argued was radically pervaded by Hellenistic modes of thought.
We are thus asked to believe that, despite the fact that Palestine (not to mention other centers of early Christology) was hellenized centuries before the Christian movement, virtually no Hellenistic theological story or idea substantially affected the development of early christology.
By preserving christology from Hellenistic forms of thought, Hengel reinstated an old apologetic distinction between Jewish-Christian truth and Greek myth.
The Jesus story cannot be tainted with Greco-Roman myths.
And today it seems a growing number of scholars insist on a great gulf that no man can cross between “Jewish” and “Hellenistic”.
Judaism is thus made the comprehensive — even exclusive — context for christology.
And the earlier the high christology appears then the less time there is for any Hellenistic influence to be blamed. The earlier it is the more necessarily it is “Jewish” (as distinct from “Hellenistic”, supposedly.)
Not that Litwa is advocating a return to the mistakes of the “old school of religions” school. But that’s also another topic for another time.
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