The Legacy of Larry W. Hurtado: New Testament Studies and Early Christian Origins

Holly J. Carey

The impact of Larry W. Hurtado’s work on the study of the New Testament and early Christian origins has been broad and deep, leaving a lasting impression on biblical scholarship. As indicated by the title of a 2015 festschrift published in his honor (Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism [T&T Clark, 2015]), Hurtado had three primary areas of interest and expertise in New Testament scholarship. He began his scholarly career in text criticism, concentrated much of his exegetical work on the Gospel of Mark, and contributed significant and novel insights into early Christian worship.

The Text Matters

With regard to ancient Christian texts, Hurtado’s work came full circle over the course of his scholarly life. He began his work on text criticism with his published dissertation. In Text-Critical Methodology and the Pre-Caesarean Text: Codex W in the Gospel of Mark (Eerdmans, 1981), he focused on the relationships among several ancient Christian manuscripts and argued that they did not indicate influence of an early Caesarean text-type on Mark. Although this work is necessarily an extremely detailed text-critical study (not for the faint of heart!), one of Hurtado’s greatest attributes is already on full display, namely, his determination to connect the many intricate details of scholarly study to the larger goal of understanding the text as a whole. Whereas biblical scholars can often be inclined to miss the forest for the trees, his careful work in text criticism was always done to serve that larger purpose. In this particular case, to aid in our knowledge of how Mark’s Gospel was transmitted through ancient Christian communities over time. Hurtado continued his interest in ancient Christian texts throughout his publications and in his teaching. (I once took a 12-hour trip with him and a group of fellow PhD students to Dublin simply to view in person some ancient Christian manuscripts at the Chester Beatty Library!)

One of his most accessible works on Christian manuscripts is The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006). In it, Hurtado argues that it is not only the words of these early Christian texts that are important for understanding early Christian communities of faith, but even the physical characteristics of these ancient texts can tell us something about the early church. For example, he discusses how novel it was for early Christians to make use of the “less-dignified” codex (book form) as their preferred medium, rather than opting for the more “sophisticated” scroll. In other chapters, he explains how such features as the nomina sacra (abbreviations of divine names/words) and the staurogram (symbols of the cross) give clues to early Christian understanding of Jesus. Ultimately, Hurtado was interested in what these unique features have to say about the Christian communities for which these texts were written. This book in particular serves as a useful tool for helping us understand the world of Jesus and his followers in a more tactile way.

The Gospel of Mark

Hurtado’s early text-critical work in the Gospel of Mark surely led to his particular interest in this first Gospel. He first wrote a commentary on Mark in 1983, and later revised it for the New International Biblical Commentary series (Mark [Hendrickson, 1989]); it can now be found in the more recently published Understanding the Bible Commentary series (Baker, 2011). Consistent with the series, Hurtado’s commentary is an accessible and more generalized examination of the Gospel. Although he includes some critical engagement with scholars, his focus is more on an overview of the text itself, including helpful insights along the way. Not surprising, of particular focus for Hurtado is the cultural background of the New Testament and the ways this knowledge can aid in our understanding of the Gospel itself. Not all biblical scholars can write in a manner that appeals to both technical and highly trained scholars in their field and those with less formal training such as laity or new students. Hurtado has that ability, and it is evident in the way that he approaches this study of Mark’s Gospel. He combines both depth of insight with ease of understanding, emphasizing the ways that significant and meaningful observations of the text can help illuminate our understanding of the story of Jesus.

Never one to shy away from a difficult text, Hurtado tackles the question of the ending of Mark’s gospel in one of his most important essays on the subject: “The Women, the Tomb, and the Climax of Mark” (in A Wandering Galilean: Essays in Honour of Sean Freyne, ed. Zuleika Rodgers, Margaret Daly-Denton, and Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley, JSJSup 132 [Brill, 2009], 427–50). He weighs in on the much-debated issue of whether the author intended to end his Gospel with the words, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8, NRSV), or whether some other original ending has been lost. (The overwhelming consensus among Markan text-critical scholarship is that the other “longer” and “shorter” endings of Mark were later additions to the Gospel.) In the essay, Hurtado argues that the women did not fail to tell the good news of Jesus’s resurrection, but rather that they were acting as was expected in their culture—that is, they told the news privately to those of Jesus’s inner circle. Here Hurtado draws on first-century beliefs regarding the restricted role of women, who were encouraged to limit their influence to the home (the private sphere), and discouraged to have a public persona of any kind. Thus, for Hurtado, Mark 16:8 does not contain a rebuke of the female disciples in the story, but rather depicts them as the first of Jesus’s followers to indeed share the gospel news.

This essay demonstrates one of Hurtado’s underlying interpretations of Mark’s Gospel as a story that was primarily a message of hope. In an area of the discipline where many have viewed this Gospel as one focused wholly on Jesus’s suffering, Hurtado would often push back against that more one-dimensional view of the Gospel, both in his writing and in his conversations. For him, Mark was not simply a message of the cross; it was a message of death and resurrection.

Worship of Jesus in Early Christianity

Hurtado’s most extensive work was done on the subject of early Christian worship, particularly the ways a religious movement born out of Second Temple Judaism (with its distinctive commitment to the worship of one God) came to view Jesus as one who was worthy of worship alongside God. The magisterial Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003) was a culmination of ten years of research on the subject, and it remains the formative and most extensive single volume on early Christian worship. In it, Hurtado recognizes that the worship of Jesus as divine was a remarkable shift in Jewish worship of the first century, but not in the sense that it marks some break that happens as a result of Gentile influence. He argues that one of the key clues to understanding how faithful Jews could regard the worship of Jesus as compatible with their singular worship of God was to study their practices together as the church developed in the first and second centuries. Practices such as prayer and worship, baptism, the use of the title “Lord” for Jesus (often used as an invocation), the application of the nomina sacra to Jesus, and the function of Jesus’s name in exorcisms and other miracle-working, according to Hurtado, demonstrate the fact that early Christians saw an “overlap in functions between God and Jesus” as well as in the honor accorded them both (134). Hurtado refers to all of these practices as “binitarian” worship, arguing that early Christians did not see this as contradictory to their beliefs as Jews, nor as a break from Judaism’s exclusive worship of God because they regarded Jesus as a divine figure who shared in God’s own divine nature.

The tome is a detailed and lengthy work, covering a wide range of subjects and perspectives, and engaging thoroughly with scholars of early Christianity. He discusses such matters as cultural factors of influence, Pauline Christianity, Judean Christianity, Q, the Gospels, extra-canonical Christian writings, changes in Christianity between the first and second century, and the impact of disputes between non-orthodox and orthodox Christian movements.

Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ led to various smaller projects that either splintered off from or clarified his initial work. The following book on the subject—How on Earth Did Jesus Become God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Eerdmans, 2005)—condenses much of the earlier work, although adding a discussion of the persecution and cost that early Christians experienced because of their worship of Jesus. Later, Hurtado published Ancient Jewish Monotheism and Early Christian Jesus-Devotion: The Context and Character of Christological Faith (Baylor University Press, 2017), a volume of collected essays on the subject that spans his decades-long study of early Christian devotion. And in the intriguingly titled Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2017), he highlights the ways early Christians rejected the cultural norms of Roman worship and practice, underscoring the important function of Christian writings of faith in their understanding of their identity in Christ. Aimed for an educated lay audience, Destroyer of the Gods is a particularly helpful study on the historical context of early Christianity in the Greco-Roman world.

The written works of Larry Hurtado have made a profound impact on the area of New Testament and Christian origins. His ability to communicate clearly, to write accessibly about complicated subjects, to weigh the evidence, and to think carefully and critically about long-held assumptions and/or views of early Christianity made him one of the most influential biblical scholars of our time. More than that, however, Hurtado’s work consistently disclosed his concern for biblical scholarship to be useful to the community of faith. He firmly believed that historical inquiry, knowledge, and sound scholarship would illuminate the texts we read in ways that would shape belief and praxis. In his life and in his scholarship, Larry Hurtado’s contribution to the world of biblical studies cannot be overstated. He leaves behind a legacy of good and faithful work from which pastors, laity, and scholars will benefit for years to come.

Posted Oct 21, 2020