Skip navigation to content

Adela Yarbro Collins

ABSTRACT: "THE WORSHIP OF JESUS AND THE IMPERIAL CULT"

Adela Yarbro Collins

In this paper I affirm the contributions of Larry Hurtado in his book _One God, One Lord_ to the question of the origins of the worship of Jesus and attempt to move the discussion forward by clarifying some terms, adopting a significantly different view of the cultural situation of the earliest followers of Jesus and bringing into the discussion some further types of evidence that are both relevant and significant. I offer some observations about the terms "monotheism" and "worship." Concluding that the brief Aramaic prayer _maranatha_ is the oldest prayer addressed to Jesus, I argue that it has its origin in the affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah. Another very early piece of evidence for the worship of Jesus is the hymn or poem in Philippians 2. Although it is a novel formulation in the history of religion, it has deep Jewish roots, as is widely recognized. In my study I emphasize the ways in which it is indebted to Greek and Roman ideas and practices. As far as we know, only God was worshiped in communal contexts in Jewish circles of the first century CE. I argue that the worship of Jesus by his followers after his death was both inspired by and a reaction against the worship of heroes, benefactors, rulers and especially the Roman emperor. The last section of the paper explores the use of the epithet "Son of God" in the Gospel according to Mark in light of the use of similar phrases for the Roman emperor in the late first century BCE and the early first century CE.


Summary of response by Joel Marcus:

In this paper Collins has highlighted the contributions of non-Jewish religious culture for the understanding of the origins of the worship of Jesus. There are significant parallels in the history-of-religions materials that she cites, but there are also discrepancies and problems about applying this material to the early Christian view of Jesus. For example, Collins argues that the closest parallels to the transition between incarnation and kenosis in the hymn in Philippians 2 come in Greco-Roman traditions about gods and goddesses assuming the form of human beings. Yet in these stories the god assumes the _appearance_ of a human being, rather than being _transformed_ into one. A closer parallel might be found in the Jewish traditions about the fall of Adam, whose descent from a godlike state involved real transformation into a mortal.

Likewise, it may be that worship of Jesus arose in part as a polemical response against worship of the emperor, but it may be better to read the ending of the hymn in Philippians 2 and the Christology of Mark as polemical responses to non-Christian Jewish understandings of monotheism. The use of Isa 45:23 would then be a deliberately provocative, even scandalous "liberation" of a classic text supporting the strict montheistic position (cf., e.g., 1 Cor 8:5-6, John 17:11, 21, 23 and Mark 2:7 with Deut 6:4 [the Shema]). A preference for inner mutations of Jewish traditions over invasion by outside pagan influences may reflect a theological bias by the respondent, but this approach is also more interesting and aesthetically pleasing. In any case, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. (JRD)


(c) 1998
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the authors.

Contact details

St Mary's College
The School of Divinity
University of St Andrews
South Street
St Andrews
Fife KY16 9JU
Scotland, United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)1334 462850
Fax: +44 (0)1334 462852