Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Enigma of Devotion...

Early Christian devotion to Jesus certainly justifies attention, for it is remarkable in a number of respects. First, this high reverence for Jesus in early Christian circles contrasts strongly with the very negative treatment of him by others, both during his historic lifetime and thereafter. Initially, Jesus was probably a follower of the fiery contemporary prophet of national repentance known as John “the Baptiser,” but after John’s arrest and execution by Herod Antipas (the Roman client-ruler of Galilee), Jesus emerged more saliently as a prophet-like figure in his own right. He clearly and quickly became a controversial and polarizing figure for many, perhaps most, who had occasion to consider him seriously, and he remains so today.
By all indications, during his own historic lifetime Jesus became known in at least parts of Roman Judea through the proclaiming the immanent arrival of God’s “Kingdom.” To judge from many of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament Gospels, the coming of God’s kingdom would comprise a genuine “regime change,” and it represented values and purposes significantly different from those dominant in the religious and social structures of his day. In addiction to proclaiming and teaching about God’s kingdom, Jesus also seems to have engaged in other activities that had the effect of drawing further attention to him but were primarily intended to demonstrate something of the power and purposes of the divine kingdom that he announced. These other actions included calling a band of followers, pursuing an itinerant teaching activity, and taking controversial positions on some matters of religious practice. Both followers and opponents perceived Jesus as being able to perform miraculous healings and other deeds of supernatural power.
In view of the nearness of God’s kingdom and the radical differences that it represented, Jesus seems to have urged his hearers to commence re-ordering their attitudes and behaviour accordingly, and immediately: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The were to live their lives in the “now” with a view toward, and their conduct shaped by, the future (but imminent) full manifestation of God’s rule.
…Jesus activities clearly generated responses that ranged from a devoted following to mortal opposition, and these reactions to him became much more significant than was probably realised at first. The mortal opposition was manifest in Jesus’ arrest, his denunciation by the Jerusalem Temple authorities, and his brutal execution under the authority of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. In the Roman arsenal of execution measures, crucifixion was the particular option for those of lower social orders, especially those deemed guilty of threatening Roman rule. The aim was not simply to terminate an offender’s life; it was a public degradation and humiliation of the victim, and was intended to exhibit to all onlookers (and it was conducted as public spectacle) the consequences of daring to challenge Roman authority.
But against all odds, as it must have seemed at the time, in Jesus’ case crucifixion did not have the result intended by his executioners. The form of his execution certainly indicated that he had generated severe hostility. But his grisly death did not by any means end the controversy that he had ignited over what to make of him and his message. Instead, with surprising rapidity, the controversy only became greater, and his followers exhibited a much more startling level of devotion to him. Perhaps within only a few days or weeks of his crucifixion, Jesus followers were circulating the astonishing claim that God had raised him from death and had installed him in heavenly glory as Messiah and the appointed vehicle of redemption. Moreover, and still more astonishing, these claims were accompanied by an emerging patter of devotional practices in which Jesus figured with an unprecedented centrality. For example, Jesus’ name was invoked as part of the process of initiation into the early circles of those who identified themselves with reference to Jesus. In short, from a surprisingly early point after his death, Jesus’ followers were according to him at a level of devotion that far exceeded their own prior and impressive commitment to him during his lifetime.
- Larry Hurtado, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?, pg. 3-5

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