Early High Christology and the Legacy of Larry Hurtado (1943–2019)

Centre for the Study of Christian Origins

His first blog post—before academic blogging was a thing—featured 18 humble words: “As time permits, I hope to offer some worthwhile comments on early Christianity and perhaps other subjects too” (July 5, 2010). As of today, his blog has more than 2 million pageviews. His name is Larry Hurtado, and on November 26 he went to be with the Lord.

He’s one of the most influential New Testament scholars you’ve probably never heard of.

Hurtado wrote mainly for an academic audience, expressing his views on early Christianity through monographs, articles, and scholarly conferences. (Only in 2018 did he write his first truly popular-level book, Honoring the Son.) I remember the frustration I felt when, long after masters-level studies, I was just discovering his writings. I wondered, Why hadn’t anyone mentioned this guy before? While it’s unfortunate that Hurtado wasn’t more widely accessible to lay audiences, his ideas have still made their way from the academy to the pew through hundreds—if not thousands—of students, scholars, professors, and pastors deeply influenced by his work.

Profound Influence

Despite being born and educated in the Midwest, Hurtado’s academic career began in Canada (1975–1996, Regent College and University of Manitoba) and ended in Scotland (1996–2011, University of Edinburgh). He helped make New College at Edinburgh a powerhouse of biblical studies. He published around a dozen books (as author or editor) and was particularly prolific in shorter, technical writings. Upon his retirement he was named emeritus professor of New Testament language, literature, and theology.

In October 2018, Hurtado announced he’d been diagnosed with AML, a form of leukemia. Initially the treatments seemed effective, but this past summer it returned aggressively. I was one of likely several people whom Hurtado informed that he wouldn’t be able to fulfill some writing-project commitment—for he only had weeks, at most months, to live. Though he remained engaged in writing incisive pieces on his blog as late as a week ago, the University of Edinburgh announced that he died in his sleep on November 26, at the age of 75.

Others who knew Hurtado personally, such as Mike Kruger and Tommy Wasserman, have reflected on their warm relationship with him. I only knew him professionally, and in a limited way. But like many others who knew him from afar, he profoundly influenced me. I wish to reflect on his legacy from that perspective as a way to summarize his effect on scholarship as well as on scholars—both of which will linger for decades to come.

Effect on Scholarship

It’s nearly impossible to summarize more than 45 years of scholarly work for someone as prolific as Hurtado. But there seem to have been three main themes in his work, each of which substantially advanced New Testament (NT) scholarship.

1. Textual criticism and manuscripts

Many familiar with Hurtado are surprised to learn he made contributions to biblical textual criticism ever since completing his PhD in 1973. His main work can be summarized along two lines. In terms of understanding the NT’s wording, Hurtado pushed to re-evaluate long-held positions (e.g., the “Caesarean” text type) and to engage more deeply the textual data. Hurtado was also a pioneer in studying manuscripts as artifacts through which, as a kind of window, we can peer into the early church. He developed important theories about nomina sacra (an abbreviation system for certain words such as “Jesus,” “God,” or “Lord”) and how the early Christian preference for the codex (versus the scroll) may have been shaped by the early church’s worship practices and beliefs. Due to Hurtado’s labors, the case for the integrity of the process by which the NT was copied and passed on has been strengthened.

2. The Gospels and Paul

While not typically considered an exegete or biblical commentator, Hurtado did write one well-received commentary on Mark and has, ever since, been a major voice in Markan studies. His work on the “Son of Man” has been particularly important. But he’s probably made an even larger difference on the study of Paul’s epistles. Though he never, so far as I am aware, picked a side in the New Perspective vs. Old Perspective debates—he was not one to think in terms of “sides” anyhow—Hurtado was nevertheless pivotal in one area. Coming out of an era in which many Pauline scholars saw the apostle as an innovator who, more or less, cloaked pagan concepts in Christian garb, Hurtado pushed strongly in the other direction. Paul, he argued, was less of an innovator and more of a proclaimer of the Hebrew Scriptures, now reoriented around Christ. Hurtado, then, was often viewed as a founding member of a new kind of “history-of-religions” (religionsgeschichte) school of thought, which argues we can only really make sense of Paul (and the Gospels) if we understand his Jewish background and formative influences. This reorientation—which of course isn’t fully attributable to Hurtado, though he was a key voice—has had a comprehensive effect on NT scholarship in recent decades.

3. Early Christology

Hurtado is most famous for his work on “early high Christology.” In an age when many NT scholars believe the idea of Jesus’s divinity evolved rather late in the game, Hurtado was trenchant—for decades!—in his view that it emerged quite early. But he took a different tack on the question: rather than going around in circles about the concepts of early Christians, he focused on their behaviors. Did the early church, and even the apostles, worship Jesus as fully God? Hurtado’s mountain of scholarship on this subject yields one main conclusion: yes, they did. For him, this Christ-shaped pattern of religious devotion not only pushed Christianity beyond Judaism—in his words, it was a kind of “binitarian” mutation of monotheism—but it also shook up a pagan world growing bored with the Caesar cult and pantheon of antiquity. For Hurtado, worship of Jesus is the key sign that what Nicene language later expresses has roots stretching back to the beginning. In the NT guild, this was—and still is—groundbreaking.

Influence on Scholars

A common refrain one hears about Hurtado is that he was respected by NT scholars across the board, even those who disagreed with him. But I want to reflect on his legacy from a slightly different angle. Nearly every NT scholar I know in their 30s or early 40s would, if asked, list Hurtado as one of their top five influences, even if they didn’t know him personally. Why? I can think of four reasons.

1. He’s a godfather of this generation’s work on Christology and textual criticism.

If you follow academic publishers, you’ve likely noticed the seemingly unending stream of dissertations defending—or critiquing—the early roots of divine Christology. And each will invariably interact with the same two scholars: Richard Bauckham and Larry Hurtado. Though disagreeing with each other in various ways—and each receiving their fair share of criticism—their respective work on early Christology has birthed something of an industry, which includes not just seasoned scholars (Richard Hays, Simon Gathercole, Francis Watson, and so on), but a younger generation profoundly shaped by their work (Matthew Bates, Wesley Hill, Chris Tilling, Kavin Rowe, and so on). Hurtado, for his part, has plowed a way for NT scholars to take seriously how the confessional positions articulated in the fourth century and beyond go back to the pages of the NT. This seemed impossible four decades ago. It’s almost commonplace now.

Hurtado is also one of the godfathers of the next generation of textual critics. Though not getting the airtime among laypeople it deserves, textual criticism has been undergoing a quiet renaissance over the past few decades. And Hurtado has been one of the most influential mentors and inspirations for a new crop of text critics, not only in terms of studying the text but, specifically, in studying other manuscript features (“paratext”). It’s fitting, then, that perhaps the last book Hurtado officially endorsed was by a group of younger scholars deeply indebted to him.

2. He exemplified rigor.

It might surprise to learn that Hurtado was initially a local pastor (1971–1975). In academia he kept his theological convictions close to the vest, though at times his sincere Christian convictions shone through. Some critics took issue with this: they believed his conclusions about, say, early Christology were due to his Christian biases. Hurtado responded by remaining committed to solid, rigorous, painstaking scholarship. To the extent he believed in a fully divine Jesus Christ is one thing; but if nothing else, he went to great lengths to show the data demonstrates that the apostolic circle did. In other words, Hurtado’s goal was to follow the data where it led. If that ended up being a “conservative” or “orthodox” conclusion, so be it; the arguments stand on their own.

While not all would agree with this approach, it has shown an entire generation of scholars like myself that it is possible, even necessary, to be ruthlessly honest and rigorous with the data—and that such a pursuit will often support a historically orthodox position, rather than undermine it. In other words, whether he wanted to or not, Hurtado modeled how real scholarship need not run antithetical to devotion. Thus, to the extent we see a new crop of NT students critically engaging Scripture while remaining committed to credal orthodoxy, Hurtado deserves some of the thanks.

3. He took his vocation seriously.

One striking thing about Hurtado was that he was never shy about calling others to task if he felt they misrepresented his arguments. He did it to me, in fact! On the one hand, this could seem a bit off-putting; but on the other, it shows that Hurtado took the academic study of Jesus and the NT seriously. It was not a game to him. It was not about getting some books published, making tenure, playing your cards, and so on. It all mattered.

4. He’s an example of long (academic) faithfulness in one direction.

I don’t know about Hurtado’s personal walk of faith. But from a scholarly perspective, I’m grateful for the example he sets for what can happen when you focus on a small number of things, do them well, and keep at it for more than four decades. By soldiering on—beating a fairly small number of drums but doing so loudly and faithfully—he shaped not only his doctoral students but also innumerable others through his writings.

While all scholars will occasionally see someone cite an article or book they wrote, few really change things. But Larry Hurtado did.

NT scholarship in 2019 is not the same as it was in 1975 when Hurtado got his start. The work being done on Christology, textual criticism/manuscripts, and the OT/Jewish background of the NT wouldn’t be what it is today without him. To be clear, this doesn’t mean everyone agrees with Hurtado on everything—myself included. But things are different now. And for that, I am thankful.

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