Review: Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? (Chapter 1)

I’m currently going through James Dunn’s Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? quite slowly, and I thought I’d share my thoughts on each chapter. I’ll hopefully have the first two chapters up by the end of the weekend and then a chapter a week until I’m through. As I will dedicate an entire post to each chapter, they will be more thorough and evaluative than a traditional review.

Dunn, James D. G. Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence. Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox, 2010. ISBN 0664231969. Pp. viii + 168. $20.00.

This brief volume from James Dunn seeks to provide a closer and more nuanced look at a question that has been the focus of a number of scholars of the New Testament and Second Temple Judaism, namely, whether or not Jesus was considered divine and worshipped by the earliest Christians. The book is dedicated to Dunn’s “partners in dialogue,” Richard Bauckham and Larry Hurtado, who are responsible for two landmark studies in this field, Jesus and the God of Israel (and earlier essays which comprise the volume), and Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (and subsequent essays). Dunn explains in his introduction that he has not written this book to confront Hurtado and Bauckham’s positions, per se. He agrees with much of their discussion, but is concerned that the focus needs to be expanded to ensure that the “whole picture is brought into view” (4, emphasis in original). The scope of Dunn’s investigation is, however, narrow. He is focused simply on the question of whether or not Jesus was worshipped by the first Christians. His first two chapters seek to define terms for the remainder of the discussion. The first chapter examines the language of worship and the second examines its practice. From there he moves into discussion of monotheism during  Second Temple Judaism and the nature and function of other divine during this time period. Lastly, the spotlight is turned on Jesus himself as the data which has been presented is synthesized with the evidence found in the New Testament. His concluding chapter briefly provides his answer to the question, “did the first Christians worship Jesus?” The remainder of this first post will examine his introduction and first chapter.

As Dunn is keen on acknowledging the complexity and nuances of his inquiry, it stands to reason that he has been methodological in his approach. A brief look at the title of his book raises a number of questions for which one will expect to find answers within its pages. First among them, what specifically does Dunn mean by “first Christians”? Will he carefully delineate this category? Next, what does it mean to “worship”? Most people today presuppose what it means to “worship,” but this presupposition rests on modern lenses. Can we extrapolate from the New Testament a sense of what might comprise “worship” when the word did not exist back then? (No Greek word is totally formally equivalent to the modern Christian concept of “worship.”) Third, why only the New Testament evidence? Certainly the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Jewish texts, and Greco-Roman literature will inform the investigation. A glance at the scripture index reveals numerous references to the Old Testament, to Josephus and Philo, and to Old Testament pseudepigraphic texts. Lastly, if the evidence draws from “the New Testament,” does this mean the “first Christians” are those who existed during the initial composition of the texts which would ultimately become the New Testament? Many of the texts of the New Testament are quite late. Some of these questions Dunn answers directly and some he answers indirectly. My review will address them as the answers surface in the discussion.

The introduction to this book is short and to the point. Dunn would like to examine the origin of the notion of the Trinity, which he explains provides the grounds for Christian worship of Jesus. He provides a systematic description of the process by which he hopes to accomplish his goal. This was an especially helpful (and increasingly rare in modern scholarship) part of the book. Briefly, he will (1) attempt to define “worship,” (2) determine what worship of the God of Israel involved, (3) examine how God’s “self-revelation” was viewed within Israel, (4) try to determine whether or not Jesus was a monotheist, and (5) attempt to ascertain what it meant to Christianity for Jesus to be exalted to the right hand of God. His thesis statement immediately follows:

What I hope will become apparent is that the first Christians did not see worship of Jesus as an alternative to worship of God. Rather, it was a way of worshipping God. That is to say, worship of Jesus is only possible or acceptable within what is now understood to be a Trinitarian framework.

In his description of the goals of his third chapter, Dunn makes a revealing statement. He says, “we will look at how that self-revelation was perceived within Israel and in the religion within which Jesus and the first Christians (all Jews) grew up” (emphasis mine). For Dunn, the “first Christians” from his book’s title are all Jews. This carves out a very clear chronological boundary that critically complicates his methodologies. The “first Christians” are those who lived prior to the sanctioning of the preaching of the gospel to Gentiles (Acts 10:34–48). How many texts do we have in our New Testament that were composed prior to this event? None. The later texts may discuss events which took place before those of Acts 10, but they do so within a later framework that had a different view of Jesus. Dunn cannot use the evidence of the New Testament to evaluate the question of whether or not the “first Christians” worshipped Jesus with the definition he employs of “first Christians.”

The first chapter, “The Language of Worship,” surveys the worship vernacular used in the New Testament, with the ostensible aim of determining what exactly “worship” means. His survey includes the word normally translated “worship” (προσκυνειν) and related words, like “reverence, venerate, praise, glorify, adore, express devotion to, and so on” (8). His chapter is divided into sections entitled “To worship,” “Other vocabulary,” “Related Terms,” “Doxologies,” and “The language of benediction.” Dunn examines the usage of the associated words and explains what these data mean to the question of whether or not Christ was worshipped. A distinguishing characteristic of early Christianity, he points out, is the frequent use of the verb επικαλεισθαι, “to call upon,” in reference to Jesus. At the same time, while a number of words normally associated with worship are used in reference to Jesus, these words can also be used in other contexts that do not necessarily indicate formal worship. Dunn highlights the fact that some of the worship vocabulary is not used, or is only rarely used, in reference to Jesus; rather, it seems reserved exclusively for God. λατρευειν, “to serve,” for instance, is never used for “cultic devotion” of Christ. Similarly, the verb ευχαριστειν, “to give thanks,” is only once ever used in reference to Jesus, and then (Luke 17:16) it seems to be thanks for services rendered, not in the sense of worship. These are significant considerations for Dunn, and his first chapter concludes with what might be called a qualified “yes” in response to the book’s main question. His qualification is as follows: “In all this we would have to speak of something like a reserve or caution in the language of worship insofar as it was used in reference to Jesus.”

Dunn’s first chapter provided a great deal of information on the use of the words today translated or associated with worship (although he is incorrect that προσκυνειν translates the Hebrew root שחה; it translates the root חוה.), but it was disappointing in that it did not seem to acknowledge that what we identify today as worship does not necessarily bear on what first century Jews identified as worship. I would have like to have seen some discussion of how we determine what it meant for ancient Jews to worship. Rather it seems the meaning of worship was presupposed. For instance, the section on doxologies begins, “Characteristic worship language includes the terms doxazein ‘to glorify,’ and to give glory (doxa) to.” How did Dunn arrive at this conclusion? This chapter is ostensibly aimed at determining what worship was, but it seems rather to simply be asserting what it was. Additionally, a Protestant framework seems to be informing the book’s presuppositions. Returning to the introduction, Dunn’s summary of his third chapter begins, “worship is the human response to what is perceived as God’s self-revelation.” Again, the nature of worship is simply asserted, but “self-revelation” also has a Protestant ring to it. Dunn addresses the Catholic view of Mary, but only briefly. He shares the story of a trainee priest who responded to the presumption that Mary was venerated but not worshipped with the comment, “we worship her but do not adore her” (18–19). I imagine many Catholics might raise objections to this presentation of their beliefs. This is not to say Dunn misrepresents the young priest, but that his perspective may not be representative. In any case, the Catholic point of view is only briefly raised within a discussion that is distinctly Protestant.

Another concern might be raised regarding Dunn’s reticence regarding sources. It is true that he has limited himself to the New Testament evidence, but some have called his preference for Second Temple Jewish literature tendentious. Is he avoiding Greco-Roman literature? In determining the nature of worship in Roman-ruled Palestine in the first century CE, one might find much of value in incorporating as much from Greco-Roman sources as possible. After all, that is really the only way to ensure the “whole picture is brought into view.” Dunn provides valuable information in this chapter, but seems to me to miss the mark. Perhaps the second chapter, which addresses the act of worship, will resolve some of my concerns.

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