And now to finish chapter 2, "Early Pauline Christianity," of Larry Hurtado's Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity.
Hurtado believes that because we find references to Jesus' preexistence in Paul's undisputed letters, the idea of Christ's personal preexistence appeared "astonishingly early in the Christian movement" (125). To me, this question all stands or falls on the matter of the Philippian hymn. If, as the majority of scholars believe (cf. 119), Philippians 2:6 refers to the preexistent Christ, then Hurtado is ultimately correct.
However, if we were to leave the Philippian hymn aside, I do not believe the situation would be nearly as clear as Hurtado thinks it is. If the Philippian hymn understands Christ to preexist literally, then we have no reason to think the other passages do not imply the same. But if we did not have the Philippian hymn, the situation would be far from clear.
Hurtado acknowledges that Paul draws on Jewish wisdom traditions (126). And we must agree with Hurtado that it is astounding that the group of disciples who were so devasted by the crucifixion in AD30 believed Jesus preexisted before coming to earth by AD50. Without the Philippian hymn, we would more likely go with Dunn and Murphy-O'Connor and see the language of 1 Cor. 8:6 and Col 1:15 as figurative depictions of Christ as the wisdom of God.
But Dunn's Adamic reading of the hymn is not convincing, and no other alternative hypothesis has come close to challenging the majority position.
Jesus' Redemptive Death and Resurrection
Hurtado makes an excellent case in this section that an understanding of Christ's death as having atoning significance was pre-Pauline. One interesting suggestion he makes is that this conception might have been somewhat defensive on the part of the earliest believers, to explain why it was that the messiah died. But for Paul, it justified the mission to the Gentiles, for with Christ's death as the basis for atonement, the distinction between Jew and Gentile was no longer focused on cultus.
In the remainder of the chapter Hurtado presents his signature idea that the earliest believers worshipped Jesus in unprecented ways for a Jew while preserving monotheism. On the one hand, he believes that worship is the appropriate term, going beyond the "reverence" and "veneration" that scholars like Dunn and Maurice Casey propose prior to the Gospel of John (137 n.132).
At the same time, "Jesus is consistently reverenced with reference to God" (151), as an "extension of the worship of God." I will confess that I do not fully grasp the distinction Hurtado is drawing here between himself and Dunn at this point, other than the English semantics of the word worship. I'll keep working to grasp it.
The section argues 1) that this worship was early (marana tha), 2) that worship is the right word, not least because of the "pattern" or "cluster" of devotional phenomena, 3) prayer through Jesus name to God was a regular feature, with a few apparent prayers to Christ, 4) confessions of Jesus as Lord in public worship, 5) baptism in Jesus' name, 6) a cultic meal known as the Lord's Supper, 7) hymns about Christ, and finally 8) prophecy, some of which was understood to be Jesus speaking to the assembly. Hurtado rightly notes that this incorporation of Jesus into public worship is unprecedented in the history of Judaism.
I remain unsure of the real distinction between Hurtado and others here. That this incorporation of reverence for Jesus is unprecented within the history of Judaism seems clear. That the early Christians did not think it violated monotheism is even clearer. That it looked like the kind of worship pagans gave to other gods and hero cults seems clear too.
But whether Hurtado has given us a good sense of using "worship" in reference to these practices rather than "reverence" or "veneration," I'm not sure at this point.