Review: Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? (Chapter 2)

Chapter 2 of Dunn’s volume is aimed at determining “how the first Christians practiced worship” (29, emphasis in original). Dunn asserts four elements of worship during the time of Christ: (1) prayer to a deity, (2) hymns sung to and in praise of a deity, (3) sacred space and time set apart for the worship of a deity, and (4) the surrender of dedicated goods to a deity. He dedicates a section of the chapter to each of these elements. The goal is to determine if these elements were present in early Christian activity focused on Jesus.

The first section splits the discussion on prayer into focus on the gospels and then on the rest of the New Testament. In the gospels, Dunn finds the most common references to prayer utilizing the words proseuchesthai and proseuche. These terms are exclusively used in reference to prayer to God, and Jesus also instructs his followers to pray to God. Others terms commonly associated with prayer but also with simple requests and petitions are used in reference to God and Christ. John’s gospel is unique in its use of aitein and erotan (both petition words) and in the absence of the more common words for prayer. The pattern is similar elsewhere in the New Testament. Certain petitions can be addressed to Jesus, God, or to others, but prayer, as such (as well as erotan and aitein), is only addressed to God. Dunn’s analysis in this section is careful to navigate the nuances in meaning associated with these words. Does “calling upon” someone who is not present constitute prayer? Paul appealed to Jesus three times concerning his unnamed issue. Stephen called upon Jesus to receive his spirit when he was stoned. But at the crucifixion many thought Jesus was calling upon Elijah. Did they think that normal? The invocation of angels was also common in mystical texts from around this time period. Dunn concludes by stating that the answer is not clear. We have examples of people evidently calling upon Jesus in prayer, but certain language was restricted exclusively to God. We also cannot be sure what exactly constituted formal worship through prayer in this time period.

Dunn’s next section addresses hymns sung to God, which he asserts have “been an expression of worship from time immemorial” (30). The biggest question associated with the hymns found in and around the New Testament is whether or not they were actually addressed to Christ. Statements by Pliny and Ignatius hint in that direction, and Richard Bauckham suggests some messianically appropriated psalms do the same; but Dunn argues the situation is a bit more complex, as the Christian proclivity to read Christ into these psalms may evince more hermeneutic practice than liturgical. Of equal interest to Dunn are possible hymns found in Phil 2:6–11 and Col 1:15–20. While Christ is clearly the subject of these hymns, there is no clear sign they were sung to Christ. As Dunn points out, the only example of hymns sung directly to Christ are shouts of praise from Revelation. I question the importance of this, as well as the notion that hymns constitute formal worship. Psalm 45 is explicitly addressed to the king (“I address my verses to the king”) and refers to the king as a deity (elohim). The Song of Songs is a hymn addressed to and about a lover (“Ah, you are beautiful, my love; ah, you are beautiful”). While hymns no doubt played a role in worship, I think it remains to be shown that hymns constitute, without exception, worship. This section, like the first chapter, would have benefited from more discussion of how we determine whether or not these things comprise worship, rather than assuming they do and examining how they appear in the New Testament. Granted, attributions of glory and honor, etc., are not difficult to approximate to worship, but I do not think it should just be assumed. Dunn’s appeal to Pliny and Ignatius brings up another issue: Dunn appears to be willing to incorporate extra-biblical texts where they help his argument. Where they do not contribute to his point, they appear to be out of bounds (for instance, his discussion of proskynesis in the first chapter could have been richly supplemented with Greek literature).

Moving on, Dunn discusses sacred space, sacred times, sacred meals, and sacred people. For Dunn, these institutions were fundamentally altered or completely eradicated with the advent of Christianity. Christ introduced a spiritual form of worship that transcended the physical, doing away with the need for sanctioned places of worship, and sanctioned leaders of worship. Christ functioned as the Christian sacred space, and every Christian was an extension of that. Sacred times and sacred meals remained, and in them we find evidence of a movement toward the worship of Christ. The holy day changed to Sunday in honor of Jesus. The holy meal was hosted by, and consisted of, Jesus. Dunn hedges his bets here, concluding, “Clearly envisaged here is a devotion to Christ that at least is not far from worship” (51). Concerning sacred persons, Dunn leaves no room for doubt: “the belief that worship and approach to God require an order of priesthood is no longer valid” (52). Sacrifice is equally obsolete. Christ’s sacrifice made it unnecessary to continue the practice (see Hebrews 10).

Several comments in this section would benefit from revision, in my opinion. For instance, the unilateral rejection of a priesthood or anything approximating it does not square with ordination to different offices of authority discussed in Acts and the Pauline corpus, nor with the need for one with authority to lay on hands to give the Holy Ghost (Acts 8). Peter was certainly a figure many of the earliest Christians felt had some position of authority that granted him power that could aid them in their enjoyment of the blessings of the gospel, if not also in soteriological capacities. Additionally, a priesthood developed rather quickly after the biblical period if we accept Dunn’s characterization of the first Christians, and it was governed by that priesthood until the Reformation. Is Dunn taking this opportunity to imply that a Christianity led by a priesthood is a corrupt Christianity? His picture of the first Christians strikingly resembles modern Protestantism. Next, the claim on page 52 that the first Christians “did not need anyone to mediate between them and God or the Lord Christ” ignores the statement in John that no one can come to God but through Christ’s mediation. A small quibble, but Dunn’s absolute terms are a bit misleading. His dismissal of sacrifice also has a ring of presentism. He states on pp. 52–53, “Today we would find horrendous the never-ending rivers of blood that flowed from the altar(s) in most temples.” I’m sure this is true for many, but not for all. Heightened sensitivity to blood is an urban phenomenon. Cutting off an animal’s head or handling its entrails with bare hands might complicate tweeting about the horror of it all for the modern urbanite with an iPhone he wants to keep clean, but that has to do with cultural conditioning, not with the nature of Jesus’ gospel. Sacred space was also quickly reappropriated by Christianity. Eusebius calls the cave now under the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a “holy place” and even a “holy of holies.” Dunn says that no such ideology is found in the New Testament, but if it was absent there it quickly developed, and he’s in no position to prove a negative. Regarding sacred times, Dunn is again not looking hard enough at the data. For instance, on p. 49 he brings up, as an indication that Paul may have disapproved of the Sabbath, his criticisms of the “festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths” from Col 2:16. He does not explain that Paul is directly alluding to Hos 2:11 and Isa 1:13. Those authors certainly be accused of rejecting the Sabbath.

Overall this chapter did not seem well thought out, and the rhetoric was a bit hyperbolic. In his conclusion, Dunn states that his investigation has necessitated a slight revision of his question. He states, “what we have seen in this chapter is the earliest Christian conviction that Jesus was wholly bound up with their worship: that he was the one who had brought God near to them; that prayers were offered to God through him, and appeals made to him were not thought of as odd. . . . So the question is not so much ‘Did the first Christians worship Jesus?,’ but rather, ‘Was earliest Christian worship possible without and apart from Jesus?'” These are  notions that have led in the past to conclusions of an angelomorphic Christology (a book which Dunn criminally does not have in his bibliography), but Hurtado and others have waved those conclusions away. Dunn’s next chapter will show that his methodologies allow him to just ignore the question.

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