Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Devotion to Jesus in James

Larry Hurtado has done a tremendous amount of ground-breaking research into devotion directed towards Jesus of Nazareth.[1] Hurtado defines ‘devotion’ as: “beliefs and related religious actions that constituted the expressions of religious reverence of early Christians.”[2]
Exclusivist monotheism is the crucial religious context in which to view Christ-devotion in early Christianity, and was a major force shaping what Christ-devotion looked like, but monotheism hardly explains why devotion to Jesus emerged. What was the impetus? There are really two questions involved. (1) Why was there such a focus on, and thematizing of, this particular figure, Jesus? (2) Why did Christ-devotion assume the proportions it did in early Christianity, i.e., amounting to a new binitarian devotional pattern unprecedented in Jewish monotheism?[3]
At an astonishingly early point, in at least some Christian groups, there is a clear and programmatic inclusion of Jesus in their devotional life, both in honorific claims and in devotional practices. In addition, Jesus functioned in their ethical ideals and demands, in both interpersonal and wider social spheres.[4]
Based on this, I wish to suggest that the scattered Jewish-Christian communities, to which James writes, represents communities that were devoted to Jesus. More so, I wish to suggest that James is an exhortation to Jewish-Christians to intensify their devotion to Jesus by embracing and implementing the teachings of Jesus, which James viewed as authoritative for communal praxis and thus honouring to God.
Although having surveyed the epistle of James in an article on “Christology” in the Dictionary of Later New Testament and its Developments, Hurtado has not [to my knowledge] applied his insights to the letter of James regarding early Christian devotion to Jesus. This appears to be a depressing lacuna in Hurtado’s research, since I hope to show that James is an important piece of evidence when studying devotion to Jesus in early Christianity.[5] Hurtado lists six specific practices that constitute a novel and remarkable pattern of devotion to Jesus that is seen across the spectrum of our earliest sources.
    1. Hymns about Jesus sung as part of early Christian worship;
    2. Prayer to God “through” Jesus and “in Jesus’ name,” and even direct prayer to Jesus himself, including particularly the invocation of Jesus in the corporate worship setting;
    3. “Calling upon the name of Jesus,” particularly in Christian baptism and in healing and exorcism;
    4. The Christian common meal enacted as a sacred meal where the risen Jesus presides as “Lord” of the gathered community;
    5. The practice of ritually “confessing” Jesus in the context of Christian worship; and
    6. Christian prophecy as oracles of the risen Jesus, and the Holy Spirit of prophecy understood as also the Spirit of Jesus.[6]

In future posts, I'd like to explore some of these facets in James. What do you think?

[1] Studies devoted to this topic by Hurtado include, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003); How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (Eerdmans, 2005); One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Judaism (Fortress, 1988) and At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion (Paternoster, 1999)

[2] Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, pg. 3

[3] Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, pg. 53

[4] Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, pg. 4. Italics original.

[5] I find it annoying that James is so often neglected in NT research. Many books claiming to be thematically based on the writings of the NT, flatly ignore James. In a book devoted to the ethics of the NT, Richard Hays [The Moral Vision of the New Testament] offers a mere four references to James! Hurtado’s magisterial study offers a mere three references to James, and fails to interact significantly with this important document. Could this be evidence that Luther has infected modern scholarship to such a degree that many simply ignore James as a second-rate document?

[6] Hurtado, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?, pg. 28. See also Hurtado, At the Origins of Christian Worship, pg. 74-94


jdarlack said...

It seems that there's definitely a case for James' Christology applying to points 2, 3, 5 and perhaps 6. It's funy that you refer to the Jacobean lacuna as "depressing" and "annoying." Perhaps it would be better to look at it as an "opportunity." If even Hurtado hasn't written extensively on the topic, you should apply his "grid" of interpretation to James and publish it!

Derek Brown said...

I remember thinking similar thoughts when reading Lord Jesus Christ. The references to James are few and not central to his main points. I also think there is seen in scholarship an implicit lack of christology in James. I look forward to your further thoughts