Review – Lord Jesus Christ by Larry Hurtado

This is a monstrous book in several ways. It is a doorstop of almost 770 pages, perhaps a third of which are footnotes. Other types of monstrosity are less obvious. Its subtitle is, “Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity.” Devotion is key - it is the product of Professor Hurtado’s devotion, his zealotry, and his worship of Paul.

What is Early?

While the book is nominally focused on “early Christianity,” Professor Hurtado defines that in a rather perverse way. When it comes to canonical and traditional documents, like the letters of Paul and the gospels, he uses the standard approach to dating - namely, estimating the date when the original, unknown text was created, before any redactions or alterations were made to it. This results in the earliest possible dates.

But when it comes to ancient Jewish-Christian documents like the Didache, he uses an entirely different and incompatible method of dating. Thus he describes the Didache as “an interesting early Christian document that may have a complicated and lengthy tradition history but reached its present form sometime between 100 and 150” (p. 82). Neither Professor Hurtado nor anyone else talks about when Paul’s letters or the gospels “reached their present form.” We have almost no idea when ancient documents reached their present form. These are not word processing documents where we have a history of revisions. In addition, these works were originally transmitted orally, and probably changed considerably before they were ever “published” in written form. Furthermore, the oldest complete manuscripts for most of these materials date from the fourth century, and there is relatively little evidence of what they previously looked like. A conservative estimate of when they reached “their present form” would be centuries after the dates assumed by Professor Hurtado.

By using this ploy to selectively exclude texts, Professor Hurtado can then say that the earliest Christians texts were those of his hero – the letters of Paul. Since Paul (sometimes) worships Jesus as a deity, Professor Hurtado claims that the earliest Christians, even though they were monotheistic Jews, worshiped Jesus as a deity. This is a sophisticated and fundamentally dishonest way of begging the question.

More than 500 pages later, Professor Hurtado approvingly cites one authority who called the Didache “‘the most important document of the subapostolic period.’ It is commonly accepted that Didache incorporates material much older still, among which the prayers are likely some of the oldest. Didache 8-10 is a body of very ancient liturgical material that is ‘without peer in the early period of Christian literature,’ this material including ‘the oldest formula for the Christian Eucharistic liturgy’” (p. 615).

The Didache never identifies Jesus as a deity, neither in its most ancient liturgical material nor anywhere else. Jesus is only a descendant of David, a very human messiah. This contradicts Hurtado’s central thesis, that the earliest Christians - of whom he uses Paul as a prototype - worshiped Jesus as a deity. By his ploy of giving “the current form” of the Didache a late date, he was able to exclude evidence which refutes his thesis.

Furthermore, by affirming that the Didache’s Eucharist is the most ancient form, he not only creates problems for his thesis, but for his hero as well. This was the earliest, traditional version of the Eucharist used by the apostles in the Jerusalem Church. But Paul said his version was traditional. Yet Paul’s version is radically different. It involves drinking the blood of Jesus and eating his body. The Didache’s Eucharist only involves drinking wine and eating bread, but in commemoration of Jesus. There is a world of difference.

A Word on Noah

While people today forget about God’s covenant with Noah, ancient Jews – including Jesus and the apostles – knew this was God's most basic covenant, more important even than His covenants with Abraham and Moses. After the flood, God told Noah, “I will establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood; there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth” (Genesis 9:11). Violating the covenant with Abraham or Moses might result in your own death and eternal damnation, but violating the covenant with Noah risks the destruction of the entire world. This applies to all descendants of Noah and his family – that is, all of mankind. The later covenants with Abraham and Moses applied to smaller and smaller subsets of mankind. (The covenant with Moses defines a nation of priests, a very small and select group.)

God’s covenant with Noah was a good deal. First, Noah and his offspring got to “multiply and fill the earth” (9:1). Furthermore, “Every creature that is alive shall be yours to eat; I give them all to you as I did the green plants” (9:3). In return, God demanded little: “Only flesh with its lifeblood in it you shall not eat. For your own lifeblood, too, I will demand an accounting” (9:4-5). That is, you can’t eat or drink blood, and you can’t spill it. These are the most basic laws of all.

To Jews of the ancient world, the idea of drinking blood was anathema. The idea of drinking human blood was a total abomination. That’s why the Apostolic Decree absolutely forbid consuming blood, even for Gentiles. The Jerusalem Church and the earliest Christians did not celebrate Eucharist by drinking the blood and eating the body of Jesus. To them, the mere thought of that would be far more revolting than cannibalism.

Hurtado on Paul and Maccoby

While Professor Hurtado was screening out Jewish-Christian texts like the Didache, he was also screening out some troublesome authors, including John Dominic Crossan and Hyam Maccoby. I focus on the latter.

Hurtado said, “I do not consider Hyam Maccoby’s claim (The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity) that Paul was not a Jew but the Gentile ‘inventor’ of Christianity and the father of anti-Semitism as justifying refutation here, for other scholars have adequately shown the faults in Maccoby’s argument, (e.g., J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, 1997, 70-76).”

In his 768 page doorstop, Professor Hurtado produces footnotes with many citations at the drop of a hat. But here, he specifically states that a number of scholars have refuted Maccoby’s claims, yet he only provides one citation, and that a very brief one. Its author was J. Louis Martyn. His 1986 review of Maccoby was published by The New York Times, and I discussed it in Paul Revealed (pp. 52-59). Not only did Martyn misrepresent Maccoby and fail to address his major claims, he misrepresented and lied about Martin Buber. He incorrectly charged Maccoby with accusing Paul of Gnosticism -- Maccoby said Paul invented a mystery religion – while also willfully misrepresenting Paul’s relation to Gnosticism. The review was the worst kind of hatchet job, and some of it was downright fraudulent. But the citation Professor Hurtado provided was to a book written by Martyn more than a decade after this review. Given a decade to get his act together, I thought it possible that Martyn might have come up something remotely plausible.

Guess what? Martyn simply reprinted his NY Times review as an appendix. Now the normal and proper way to cite a reprinted paper is to cite the original place of publication and then say where it was reprinted. Professor Hurtado certainly knows how to cite a reprint. Why did he screw it up? Virtually no one has heard of Martyn’s arcane book, while literally millions of people read the NY Times reviews, and anyone with internet access can retrieve them. If the best “refutation” you can come up with is utter garbage, it’s a lot easier to slip it under the radar in Martyn’s book than the New York Times.

Conclusion

Christians revere martyrs. Some zealots even dream of martyrdom. Mr. Martyn probably considered himself a martyr for sacrificing his integrity. Professor Hurtado is less courageous. He merely mumbles, “What he said!” and points to Martyn. It would have been far more intelligent not to have mentioned Maccoby at all. That’s what virtually all his colleagues did, explaining Professor Hurtado’s difficulty in finding “refutations.” Indeed, after thirty years of suppression, Maccoby is largely forgotten. But Professor Hurtado was so full of hatred he couldn’t help taking a cheap and foolish shot.

 

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