During the reign of the emperor Antoninus Pius in the middle of the second century, an unnamed Roman matron furtively became a Christian and not only left her old way of life behind but invited her husband to do the same. When this proved ineffectual, she decided to leave him and wrote up a repudium , a lawful bill of divorce. Her outraged husband went to the authorities and revealed his wife’s new creed, whereupon she was arrested. He went on to denounce his wife’s teacher in the faith, Ptolemaeus, who was also duly shackled. When asked if he bore the name of Jesus Christ, Ptolemaeus joyfully declared that he did and was condemned to execution. Seeing such a brutal, albeit “legal,” injustice, a certain Lucius loudly denounced the cruelty of the Roman official, Urbicus. Turning to Lucius, Urbicus inquired whether he, too, was a Christian. Lucius’ reply of “ Certissime ” earned him a place alongside Ptolemaeus in the executioner’s chamber. When a third, unidentified onlooker also protested such treatment, he was ordered to join the others in martyrdom that day. Upon hearing of this chain of cruelty, Justin Martyr wrote his Second Apology to the Roman senate, protesting that Christians were maltreated for no other reason than because they bore the name of Christ.


How did Christian allegiance become a matter of Roman law and, even more importantly, an offense for which one would joyfully die? Scripture lacks any clear and irrefutable equation of Jesus of Nazareth with the enfleshed Logos who partakes of the very nature of God the Father: even the confession of the apostle Thomas (in John 20:28), “My Lord, my God,” would be interpreted by the heresiarch, Arius, as Thomas’ thanking God for Jesus’ return. So how did Christ’s first disciples come to develop ways of defining and understanding his divinity, and how did the assurance of his divine nature develop so quickly?


In Lord Jesus Christ , the University of Edinburgh’s Larry Hurtado sets out to answer these questions, and his thorough examination of the primary texts and much of the scholarship surrounding the first two centuries of Christianity provides him with three main theses. First, he demonstrates that Christian devotion to Jesus was immediate and was intrinsically connected to his followers’ communal conviction that he alone possessed the power to save. Hurtado makes it clear that Christianity had a fluid relationship with the cultures and religions of the empire, both shaping them and being influenced by them, but he argues that Christ’s exalted status is neither a later development nor a borrowing from other cults around the Mediterranean. Unlike some current groups of scholars, Hurtado is deeply sensitive to the first Christians’ unique claim that Jesus was God incarnate.


Accordingly, his second argument is that Jesus stands as an unprecedented and unparalleled figure. Regardless of how he has been understood, such allegiance and constancy have been given to no other man in history. The third and most sustained argument that Hurtado presses throughout is that the first friends of Jesus came to develop a way of worshiping and speaking about the Son of Man in a way that avoided ditheism (the making of Jesus into another god alongside or subordinate to the Father).


Christ’s perfect union of divinity and humanity is the central mystery of the Incarnation, and, as de Lubac pointed out a generation ago, the abjuring of this paradox marked the heretics of the early Church, not her faithful adherents: the Adoptionists and Docetists were the ones who refused to live with the ultimate inscrutability of the God-Man. The believing Church, by contrast, looked for the most fitting and faithful way to express this paradox. That is, as inheritors of the old covenant, Christians sought to demonstrate the reasonableness of only one divine and eternal being, while as initiates into the life of Jesus, they also sought to show how Christ’s glory consummates God’s action ad extra and reveals the triune nature of God in a way that never puts monotheism at risk.


To make these points, Hurtado proceeds by way of the textual, the historical, and the creedal. The first seven of his ten chapters are given over to close textual studies. Hurtado opens by treating the “religious environment” of Jesus’ day and then proceeds to examine the Pauline evidence of Christ’s messiahship, the commonality of the Synoptic Gospels with the Gospel of John, and then the other early “Jesus books” (as the noncanonical accounts of Christ’s life are called). The goal here is to show how Jesus received a soteriological importance without precedent. As Hurtado puts it, “Overall, we get the impression of a remarkably well-established pattern of prayer in which Jesus figures very prominently, either as a recipient or as unique agent through whom prayer is offered. Moreover, there is simply no analogy in Roman-era Jewish groups for the characteristic linking of Jesus with God in the prayer practice reflected in Paul’s letters.”


Similarly, the Gospels reveal a soteriological consistency in which Jesus is presented not only as an eschatological instrument but as salvation itself (e.g., John 14:6). Hurtado is excellent at guiding the reader through the subtle differences between the Gospels on this point as well as at showing how the devotion to Jesus presented there is strongly paralleled in such extrabiblical writings as The Protoevangelium of James , The Gospel of Peter, and The Gospel of Thomas .


An historical overview of the second century is given in Chapter8, and the emphasis here is on Christianity’s struggle to understand its Jewish roots as it finds itself being more and more structured by the ethos and the religious expressions of gentile converts. The proven success and new distinctiveness of Christianity at the turn of the first century prompted not only attacks by the empire’s literati but also an orchestrated apologetic effort on the Church’s behalf. The anonymous Letter to the Hebrews captures this emergence from a new Jewish sect to a developed and distinctive creed, and Hurtado explicates the main points of each section of that letter before turning to the later Pauline epistles as well as the “pastoral letters” of Timothy and Titus.


The final two chapters take up creedal questions, examining what Hurtado calls “radical diversity” and the “proto-orthodox” tendencies both inside and outside the early Church. As Christians began to formulate what their newly found faith meant, they discovered that some expressions and images corresponded with their growing “rule of faith” and others fell outside of what was doctrinally acceptable. The major struggle here was to preserve Christ’s divine humanity against docetic and gnostic tendencies. The errors of Valentinus and Marcion are thus exposed before Hurtado analyzes other influential texts, both biblical and extrabiblical, which express Christ’s godliness: The Book of Revelation, The Ascension of Isaiah , and The Shepherd of Hermas .


This is a fine andhefty tome. Hurtado’s attention to the many Christian currents flowing into the second century is superb. Perhaps it is because one finds so much here that one looks for more. There are two additional areas that could have been better developed: communal worship and episcopal authority. First, the sacramental structure of the Church is indispensable to understanding the development of Christianity. Devotion to Christ was made possible because the early Church understood how the sacraments effected his continued presence on earth. Baptism and Eucharist occupy central places in, for instance, the letters of Ignatius and the apologiae of Justin, as well as in the Didache .


Second, Hurtado reduces the “mono-episcopacy” to a footnote and simply refers the reader to an encyclopedia entry. Closer attention, however, should have been paid to the question of why men like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna labored unceasingly to foster and preserve Christian allegiance to Christ’s ecclesial representatives on earth. For the first centuries of Christianity, one’s devotion to Christ was, in a large part, measured by one’s devotion to the bishop.


Hurtado approaches the early Church with an integrity and thoroughness that should be a model for historians and theologians working in this area, where hard evidence is sparse and key terms are often ambiguous. Perhaps he relies too much on twentieth-century Anglo-American scholarship, but his work will prove helpful for any reader interested in the first two centuries of Christianity, particularly in the question of how unwavering devotion to the divine person of Jesus so rapidly became a sine qua non of the first believers’ lives. His writing is uncomplicated and illuminating, and his sensibilities are evangelical in the best sense of the term.


David Vincent Meconi, S.J. is a member of Campion Hall at Oxford University and is currently working on issues of human divinization in the Latin Fathers.

Articles by David Vincent Meconi

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