Skip navigation to content

Larry W. Hurtado


Larry W. Hurtado

Earliest Christian worship specifies two figures, God and Jesus, as recipients. After briefly defining "worship" and "binitarian," as used in this paper, I analyze the specific actions and phenomena that constitute the cultic devotion offered to Jesus in first-century Christian groups: (1) prayer; (2) invocation and confession of Jesus; (3) baptism in Jesus' name; (4) the "Lord's Supper"; (5) christological hymns; (6) prophecy as the words of Jesus. These are all phenomena associated with the congregational cultic setting, and they form a constellation or pattern that can be taken as a programmatic incorporation of Jesus into the worship of early Christian groups. This pattern is also novel both in comparison with other known Jewish groups and with pagan religious practice, and can be described thus as a distinctive "mutation" in Jewish monotheistic practice. It is, however, "binitarian" worship, in that the NT links the worship of Jesus with the one God and resists the accusation of worshipping two gods.

Summary of response by Alan F. Segal:

Professor HurtadoÕs paper builds from his extremely fine book _One God, One Lord_, which was published a decade ago. It is an example of cogency, simplicity, and clarity. Several of the criticisms that could be offered against this paper are wrong: The notion that Israelite religion was always binitarian can be disputed, for even if it were true, it would not be seen as true in this period. The argument that Christianity is not binitarian but trinitarian, hence could not be perceived as a two-powers heresy, ignores the fact that it is not so much what Christianity thought of itself that counts but how it appeared to its rabbinic critics. And there we see clearly that it was often described as binitarian or dualistic rather than trinitarian.

HurtadoÕs major premise is that Christianity represents a specific mutation in the Òtwo powersÓ firmament of sectarian Judaism because it worshiped the second power. In this regard the lack of rabbinic evidence specifically for Christ devotion is a bit puzzling. Of course, rabbinic evidence is from a later, more mature period when the rabbis agreed not to give overly much evidence of any heresy they wanted to defeat, so by itself, a lack of evidence is not totally surprising. I would, however, suggest that Hurtado look carefully at the rabbinic reports about a sectarian practice known as Ò_modim, modim_.Ó When it is first described in Mishnah, the rabbis suggest that a person offering such a prayer should be silenced; when the passage is further discussed in Talmud, it is further described as Òtwo powersÓ heresy. Indeed, the Didache does describe early Christian devotion of the LordÕs Supper as consisting of two prayers beginning with Ò_Eucharistoumen_,Ó which represents a credible translation of the Hebrew Ò_modim_.Ó It is possible that some confirmation of HurtadoÕs hypothesis has been staring us in the face all along.

Of course, it is not the case that no one else worshiped other powers than Christianity. Magical practice in Judaism and Christianity began its spells with exactly the same verb--_epikaloumai_--as Hurtado reports as characteristic of Christian invocations. The point here is not so much whether or not a mutation is unique, for nature shows us that they occur more often than we realize. However, for one to survive takes a fortunate correspondence between mutation and ecological niche. Therefore the occasional exception to the strict rule that Hurtado describes should by itself not endanger the theory.

(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