Re: Calling Jesus "God" in the NT

From: Larry W. Hurtado (
Date: Thu Sep 21 1995 - 10:36:01 EDT

May I interject a point in the discussion? There are *two*
distinguishable issues in fact on the table, which even NT scholars tend
far too much to confuse, or to think that the answer to the one settles
the other. They are: (1) does the NT every apply the term "theos" to
Jesus? and (2) does the NT support a view of Jesus as "divine" in the
way in which God the "Father" is thought of as divine?
        Please note that use of the epithet "god" either in Greek or in
Semitic languages does *not* necessarily indicate what people coming to
the term from a long-time Western cultural background load into it. In
Greek, for example, "theos" has a wide, wide semantic range and usage,
and can simply = someone manifesting power or authority. Please, please,
it is high time for NT scholars to do two things important for
philology: (1) careful study of contemporary (ancient) usage of terms,
more than often done, especially in terms thought theological
significant; and (2) some learning of modern linguistics, which could
refine and correct considerably the way philological discussions
proceed. Esp. on the latter: words are not carriers of fixed semantic
cargo, but acquire their meaning *when used in sentences*. So, where,
e.g., "theos" appears, we must always seek to understand it in the
context of the sentences in which it appears. There are in fact at least
a few instances of the eipthet applied to Jesus in the NT, no question.
But the real question is what they authors meant when they used the
term--it is not self evident simply by pointing to "theos".
        Second, however, even after all this philological work is done,
we have still not adequately dealt with the other (the real?) issue:
What is the perceived status/meaning of Jesus in the religious
life/thought of the NT writers? The answer to this requires much, much
more than simply tabulating the epithets (the now notorious
"christological titles") given to Jesus, though these are certainly
important matters involved. In my book, _One God, One Lord: Early
Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism_ (Fortress Press, 1988),
I attempted to focus on this latter question, and attempted to identify
the scope of relevant data that must be considered to answer it. This
involves esp. looking at the way Christ "functioned" in the religious
life and practice of early Christians, particularly in "formal" group
worship settings/contexts. I argue that Christ quickly became an object
of worshipping devotion in ways/actions otherwise reserved for God in
observant Jewish circles of the time, and that *this* shows a de facto
"divine" Christ in the really meaningful sense of the term for ancient
Christians. It took "mainstream/catholic/orthodox" Christianity a few
centuries to try to work up a doctrine of God adequate to the devotional
practice and its implications that had sprung up within the first few
years of the Christian movement.

Larry Hurtado, Religion, Univ. of Manitoba

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