Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Making Jesus Into God: Four Reviews (Part 2)

AP: We are picking up with our review of four books dealing with how Jesus went from being just a man to becoming a divine being and worshiped by his followers. Part 1 of the series is available here. We are still dealing with William Horbury's Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ (London: SCM, 1998) in this post.

So, Horbury's next step, after describing messianic prototypes and pre-Christian messianic hopes, is to emphasize the essential coherence of messianism over centuries of development and consolidation, say, up to the end of the first century AD. The figure of the messiah, despite having many features in Judaism, always preserves the union of messianic hopes with the succession of kings and rulers or prominent "Israelite" figures: Enoch, Melchizedek, Moses, Joshua David . . . to the ten or eleven "messiahs" (John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth included), arising from the death of Herod the Great to the end of the Great War between Rome and Israel in AD 66–70. Even when the people think of deliverance from above, by God himself or by his agents (e.g., angels), it is something coherent with the above, because the whole group is viewed around the divine kingdom on the earth exercised through the king, called "Messiah." The central thesis of Horbury is therefore to affirm the existence of a cause-and-effect link between this flourishing pre-Christian messianism and that which occurred in the Herodian epoch and and those that followed, in which the cult of Christ is born as divine messianic entity. Both messianisms are centered on the figure of a messiah king. The similarities between Christian worship and that offered to heroes and sovereigns in the pagan world should not be surprising, says Horbury, because Jewish messianism, by veneration of kings and messianic figures, shared many traits with these Gentile cults, mainly the Greeks, with respect to human persons.

Hence, it must be emphasized, says Horbury, that Christian messianism finds itself in continuity with the Jewish conceptions before and after Christianity of veneration and exaltation of the rulers of Israel. The worship of Christ, the "anointed one," like the Israelite monarchs, is arises when the first followers of Jesus recognize his character as one of a celestial messianic king. Realizing this and accepting its consequences led them, according Horbury, to worship Christ as God, a being who to whom is involves proskynesis (the act of prostrating oneself before a divine being). Now, the followers of Jesus believed that his messianism had already begun during his earthly ministry, but that it became evident and intensified with his exaltation by God through the resurrection. And from heaven he will return to earth to definitively install his kingdom. The chief features of the living and exalted Christ are to be fully "lord and king/messiah."

An interesting point for Christians in the argument of our author is that pre-Christian Judaism had already developed the notion of a messiah with angelic-spiritual and celestial traits, characteristics then assumed by Christianity. Pre-Christian Jewish texts point out, first of all, the relationship of angelic tasks to the work of the messianic figures and then, more clearly, the conception of a messiah with true angelic and suprahuman features. Horbury points out how a certain idea regarding ​​the preexistence of the Messiah is created within Judaism, if not as a concrete figure, then at least as a concept. The messiah should probably be understood as follows: Just as the Jews were convinced that the law given to Moses was eternal and pre-existed in the divine mind before the creation of the world, so also the concept of the Messiah existed in the mind of God before the the creation of the universe. Naturally, this messiah is spiritual and heavenly. Around the Christian era, the idea that the Messiah is human but also endowed with celestial virtues and powers can be seen as a manifestation and "incarnation" of the divine Spirit. Throughout history many Jewish groups, including Christians, have had their own messiahs. The latter, however, who have developed this spiritual aspect of messianism to the present day, but all of it is profoundly Jewish at its core.

There may be a methodological problem in this book, namely Horbury's abundant use of chronologically post-New Testament Jewish texts to supplement the sources of Israelite messianism and the origins of Christianity. I am referring to the midrashim (Jewish writings that take the place of one or several texts of Scripture, and which are rewritten in a homiletic or theological perspective to express a notion that does not appear clearly in the biblical text), to the targumim (paraphrase translations of the Hebrew text of the Bible, which were read on the Sabbath in synagogues; which ordinary people did not understand well since their usual language in Israel was Aramaic, not Hebrew; which incorporated in the original text complementary phrases or eliminated seemingly scandalous sentences, variations that give us clues about what was theologically thought of in the synagogues of those times) and rabbinic literature in general, composed from the third century AD. This system of reading theological notions taken from later sources backwards is heavily problematic given the difficulty of the date of composition. Horbury, of course, urges the reader to accept this stepping stone, although the texts cited in reinforcement are late in date. They serve at least to detect common exegetical trends that continue in Judaism without perceptible variations, secure lines of evolution, and discover texts of the Old Testament that were considered always considered messianic in nature, etc.

So, in summary, although assisted by the environment of similar pagan cults in their exaltation of human beings to divine entities, the cult of Christ derives directly and concretely from the very ancient veneration of the Jewish "messianic" sovereign (whether or not the word "messiah" appears) endowed with special virtues. According to Horbury, titles conferred to Jesus as Christ or Messiah in the New Testament––Lord, Son of Man, Son of God, Savior, High Priest (Hebrews), and God (John, Hebrews, Titus, and 2 Peter)––point to a direct derivation of this Jewish, earthly, spiritual, heavenly, and powerful in divine gifts form of messianism.

Horbury's book is an shining display of scholarship, but it does not convince me of its argument. I do not get to see in Jesus' messianism a unique relationship of cause and effect, but only one of the important causes, no doubt, that leads to his worship. But I do not see clearly a line of continuity between the simple veneration on the part of the Jews of the first century to the messianic figures of his past and the explosion of the Christian cult to Jesus that is witnessed in the letters of Paul. I do not think it proper to describe Jewish veneration by its messianic heroes as a "cult." Nor do I see spontaneously, recalling the tenor of Paul's letters, the first Christian testimonies of Christ's worship, that the apostle had conceived Jesus as a sort of monarch figure, an angelic/spiritual king, which would have favored such a cult (despite his designation of Jesus as "life-giving spirit" in 1 Cor. 15:45). I think two things that Horbury points out are correct. First, the notion of Jesus' preexistence, at least of the concept of messiah, points to the right path in the generation of the divinization of Jesus and his worship. Second, judging from the content of Peter's first discourse, recorded in Acts 2, the consolidated messianism of Jesus after his resurrection forms one of the solid foundations of such a cult (but not the only one). It remains unclear in Horbury's work how the passage of Jesus' divinization took place, and what psychological reasons led the early Christians to worship their Messiah when their fellow Jews did not surrender to the figures, which, according to Horbury, were almost the same.

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