Why and when did Christians start believing that Jesus is divine? Did Jesus himself indicate that he considered himself divine? The two questions seem an obvious pair. Both are of perennial interest to scholars and laypersons, believer and skeptic alike. Yet the two questions are not always addressed together.
The central thesis of Andrew Ter Ern Loke’s monograph, The Origin of Divine Christology, is that the answer to the second question also answers the first. Specifically, Loke proposes that “Jesus was regarded as truly divine in earliest Christianity because its leaders thought that God demanded them to do so through the following way: A sizeable group of them perceived that Jesus claimed and showed himself to be truly divine, and they thought that God vindicated this claim by raising Jesus from the dead” (p. 1). Hence Loke pushes the conversation from “early” to “earliest” in the strictest sense: he claims that the best explanation of the historical data is that Jesus himself indicated his own divinity both before and after the resurrection. Hence, while Loke builds throughout on Larry Hurtado’s work on devotion to Jesus in early Christianity, he also seeks to improve on Hurtado’s hypothesis by positing that Jesus’s own teaching, vindicated by his resurrection, is a better explanation of the origin of high Christology than that offered by Hurtado, who gives early believers’ religious experiences a more crucial role (see esp. pp. 119–22).
After an admirably clear introduction (ch. 1), Loke rehearses the evidence, now fairly widely accepted, that the highest Christology was present among the earliest Christians (ch. 2). The next two chapters respond to objections to this conclusion, dealing first with objections involving exalted figures in early Judaism (ch. 3), then a variety of objections regarding earliest Christian beliefs and practices (ch. 4). In ch. 5 Loke argues for the widespread extent of this high Christology among the earliest Christians, and criticizes accounts of early Christology that, in his view, fail to account for this widespread extent. Loke then offers a positive case for tracing the earliest highest Christology back to Jesus’s own teachings, based on, among other factors, the earliest Christians’ evident concern to pass on Jesus’s teachings, the difficulty of regarding a human Jesus as also truly divine, and the strong probability that a number of other peculiar early Christian beliefs and practices originated with Jesus. Chapter 7 assesses evidence for the origin of highest Christology in the Gospels, and ch. 8 offers a conclusion that provides not only an excellent summary of Loke’s historical case (pp. 200–1), but also a fascinating discussion of two possible counter-examples to his argument, the deification of Haile Selassie (1892–1975) by Rastafarians, and the deification of Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1902–1994) by members of the Elokist Chabad Jews (pp. 202–8).
In my estimation, the book succeeds in advancing its central thesis and critiquing alternative explanations, whether of those unconvinced of early high Christology (e.g., Ehrman) or those convinced of it but whose explanations do not treat Jesus’s own testimony to his divinity as a decisive factor (e.g., Hurtado). The book offers no new exegesis, and little new historical evidence, but it advances the historical study of early Christology particularly by noting the widespread extent of high Christology among the earliest Christians and the lack of debate on the issue among them, and inquiring after an adequate historical cause. Loke is fair and scrupulous in his interaction with alternative views, and because of the fullness with which he catalogues and critiques alternate explanations his monograph also serves as a useful overview of recent scholarship on early Christology.
I do have three relatively minor critiques to register. First is the distracting number of spelling and formatting errors. To name just a few: Hebrew written backwards (pp. 28, 40), grammar and spelling errors (pp. 41, 84, 93, 97, 105 and so on), missing spaces (p. 60), and a Greek dative out of context (pp. 76, 97). Second, more substantively, while I appreciate Loke’s use (following Wesley Hill’s book Paul and the Trinity [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015]) of trinitarian concepts as heuristic tools for reading Paul, I would demur from the “social” model of the Trinity evident in his definition of trinitarian persons (pp. 19–20), and I find his assertions that “Jesus represents YHWH” (p. 30) and that Jesus is “within the being of YHWH” (pp. 91, 97) to be somewhat wide of the mark. Third, especially when handling questions related to how Jesus can be both human and divine, or whether Jesus’s subordination to the Father presents a problem for divine Christology, I found some of his answers insufficient (e.g., pp. 18n18, 20, 54n1, 83, 93, 174n13). These issues cry out for what patristic scholar John Behr calls “partitive exegesis,” a reading strategy that recognizes that while Jesus is a single ascriptive subject, some scriptural assertions of him speak of him as God, and others speak of him as man. To Loke’s credit, he does occasionally highlight the importance of the incarnation for answering these questions (pp. 81, 157), but a more programmatic use of incarnational conceptions would have rendered his response to these challenges more substantive and persuasive.
Yet these criticisms detract little from the overall worth of the work, which is considerable. I warmly commend the book to all interested in the New Testament, Christology, and the origin of Christianity’s most distinctive beliefs.