From Faith To Religion

It is neither easy nor, perhaps, necessary to define the criteria whereby a faith, a way of devotion and commitment, such as the followers of Jesus gave to him in his lifetime and afterwards, turns into a religion. Such a question has institutional as well as conceptual aspects, and there is a difference between things as they saw them and our perception in the light of history. But a crucial moment must be Jesus' becoming an object of worship and prayer. The indications are that this preceded by some way the development of concepts that might give it formal validity. That is to say: if worship is something properly given only to the divine, then either to worship Jesus was implicitly to affirm his divinity or that which was offered to him before he was seen as divine was not truly worship; but the early stages of Christianity seem not to have observed these tidy distinctions.

Prayer to Jesus is evidenced very early—it is found in the language of Palestinian Christianity, Aramaic: maranatha, our Lord, come (1 Cor. 16:22). The belief in Jesus' exaltation to God's 'right hand' (Psa. 110:1; Acts 2:34-6) surely hastened the process: a heavenly, right-hand figure has a status of supreme mediator ship when it is a matter of approaching God. It is, however, often felt to be a revolutionary step when Jesus comes explicitly to be called 'God'—as he is most clearly of all within the New Testament in John 1:1, 18; 20:28; but compare Philippians 2:6-11 for an intermediate step. In one sense, this judgement is correct: Judaism affords no clear parallel to such exalted claims, certainly not with regard to someone who had so recently walked the earth and about whom memories and stories abounded (not to speak of his all too human suffering and death). It is here indeed that Judaism has seen, from the first century onwards, the blasphemy inherent in Christianity, surfacing already in the Gospel of John (e.g. John 5:18).

Yet once again the picture is less clear than has often been thought. Judaism's unambiguous monotheism, which came to stamp on all ideas that might seem to dilute it, was itself partly in reaction against Christianity's intolerable assertion of Jesus' divinity. The Judaism of the turn of the eras was in fact densely populated with heavenly mediators between God and the human race—not indeed divine, but conveyors of divine power, divine gifts and divine will. Angels, great figures of Israel's past now in heaven, like Enoch, Moses and Elijah, personified attributes of God like 'wisdom' and 'word'—all these, depicted vividly in the Jewish literature of the period, provided a basis for that small yet revolutionary and decisive shift which occurred in the case of Jesus—to identification as himself 'God'. It took conceptual elaboration in the terms of Greek philosophy to give anything like coherence to this way of thinking of Jesus—and the more Christianity advanced down that road, from the second century onwards, the more it was moving away from Jewish roots and developing its own independent terminology, making mutual comprehension with Judaism virtually impossible from then on. But in the immediate setting of Christianity's beginnings, communication, or at any rate common ground, was by no means lacking, and the factor that made the decisive difference was the extreme character of the devotion, amounting to worship, accorded to the human figure of Jesus, whose death and vindication were seen in the ways that have been described.

The development of divine language about him was aided too by the common Jewish understanding of the virtual identity brought about when a person bestows authority on an agent or a son who can serve as his plenipotentiary. It was probably in this framework that Jewish writers sometimes referred to a hero like Moses as 'God' or 'second God' (cf. Exod. 7:1 as a biblical basis). The Gospel of John shows clear evidence of this style of thinking, using it as the dominant model for Jesus' relation to God—and indeed for Jesus' followers' relation to himself (John 13:16; 20:21). It seems that this framework goes a long way to showing how this writer saw Jesus as 'God'. Certainly it would be anachronistic to attribute to him anything like the later Platonist framework in the light of which his words came to be read. In John it is one strand in the unprecedented concentration of terms and images used to describe the supreme role of Jesus—and that is where the innovative character of the book's achievement is to be located. So concentrated and pervasive is the supremacy of Jesus that there is indeed ground for seeing here a new religion; and the writer himself is not slow to recognize its incompatibility with the religion of 'the Jews' (John 9:22; 16:2) (Hurtado 1988; Borgen 1986).

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