Review: Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? (Chapter 3)

Chapter 3 in Dunn’s book is entitled “Monotheism, heavenly mediators and divine agents.” The purpose of this chapter is the “clarify how restricted was Israel’s worship.” In it he discusses the monotheism of Second Temple Judaism and other possible objects of Jewish worship, namely angels, the Spirit of God, the Word of God, the Wisdom of God, and exalted human beings. In the end, Dunn will conclude that the divine intermediary figures he discusses are actually literary conceptualizations of God’s own presence, and thus in line with his conception of monotheism.

The first section discusses the Shema and Second Temple Jewish monotheism. Dunn follows the consensus of the last two decades in treating Deuteronomy as not-yet-fully-monotheistic, while asserting Deutero-Isaiah’s fully developed monotheism. A comparison of the two verses he shares from each book, however, reveals something peculiar.

4:35: “Yhwh is God; there is no other besides him”
4:39: “Yhwh is God in heaven above and on earth beneath; there is no other”

45:21: “There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is no one besides me”
45:22: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other”

The problem is that there’s no difference in the rhetoric here (Robert Gnuse makes the same comparison on facing pages on pp. 206–07 here). These texts say the same thing, and yet for Dunn, Gnuse, and others, they represent opposing sides of a very significant threshold. Why is Deuteronomy not yet monotheistic in saying “there is no other,” and Deutero-Isaiah is the “clearest exponent” of monotheism in saying, “there is no other”? It’s because Deuteronomy elsewhere makes frequent mention of other gods (4:19; 17:3; 32:8, 43), and Deutero-Isaiah does not. Can we really conclude that “there is no other” evinces strict monotheism as long as it doesn’t accompany the mention of other deities? I don’t believe we can, and an increasing number of scholars agree (Barr, MacDonald, Heiser). Oddly, none of these scholars, or any others focused on monotheism in the Hebrew Bible (Smith, Gnuse, Kaufmann) are found in Dunn’s bibliography. In his discussion of monotheism he only cites scholars that are first focused on Christian monotheism (Bauckham, Hurtado, Stuckenbruck). While that’s the arena in which he’s operating, if he intends to discuss monotheism prior to the Hellenistic period I would expect him to cite the standard scholarship.

Moving on to the New Testament and Josephus, Dunn makes the point that whether or not Judaism in the Second Temple Period was monotheistic or monolatrous, what was most important was that “only one was worthy to be worshipped as God, the God of Israel” (65). 1 Cor 8:5–6 states that though there be many gods, for Christians there is one God, namely the Father. Here I would like to raise another issue I see with Dunn’s presentation of this material. He uses the word “God” here with the capital “G.” Elsewhere he is careful to note that a semantic difference exists between “god” and “God” (62, 91), and even between “the god” and “God” (51). He appears to understand “Israel’s god” as the semantic equivalent of “God” with the capital “G” (62; although on p. 66 he seems to fumble the distinction in his reference to Exod 4:16). Using “God” with the capital “G” presupposes monolatry at the very least, but with Dunn more likely presupposes strict monotheism, so to say only one deity was worthy to be worshipped as the one deity worthy to be worshipped is not helpful. His statement on p. 65 is tautologous. Were other beings worthy to be worshipped as “gods” (with a little “g”)? Dunn’s not saying. He can only conclude that any discussion of “gods” that lay outside the bounds of the monotheism affirmed by Philo and Josephus is hyperbolic or symbolic, such as the statement that Moses was to act as a god to Pharaoh. Dunn does not discuss the scholarship regarding Moses’ apotheosis on Sinai (pp. 72–73 here, for instance). Notice he also refuses to address problematic texts like 4Q246, which states that every nation will worship (yisgedun) the people of God, and Rev 3:9, which says the “synagogue of Satan” will worship (proskuneisousin) the Christians in Philadelphia.

In his next section, Dunn addresses the important issue of angels in Second Temple Judaism. Immediately he asserts that angels are extensions of the divine identity. Several pericopes seem to confuse the identity of the angel with that of God himself (Judg 13:22; Gen 16:13; 32:30; Judg 6:22–23). This indicates the angel participates in God’s identity and is more of a hypostasis or an avatar than a distinct entity. He states that we can reach two conclusions about this usage of the biblical angel (emphasis in original):

Perhaps we should say they were abandoning the simplicities of an anthropomorphism that could speak of God as such appearing to human sight (as in Gen. 2—3). But a more sophisticated way of putting it would be to say that by speaking thus of the angel of the Lord they had found a way of denoting the reality of divine presence in such theophanic encounters without diminishing the holy otherness of Yahweh. The angel of the Lord in such stories was a way of speaking of God’s immanence without detracting from his transcendence. The angel of God both was God and was not God.

This reading follows a fairly standard understanding of these texts (espoused also by Friedman, Gieschen, and Hurtado), but it ignores a critical aspect of the text’s interpretation, and that is its textual stability. The relevant pericopes show a bit of confusion in the versions. Judg 6:11–23 describes Gideon’s interlocutor as an “angel of Yhwh/God” (11, 12, 20, 21, 22) and as “Yhwh” (14, 16), but the Septuagint has “angel of Yhwh” throughout. Josephus describes him as a phantom in the form of a young man. When Moses speaks with Yhwh in the burning bush, the pericope is prefaced in Exod 3:2 with “an angel of Yhwh appeared to him in a blazing fire.” It is God himself who speaks in the rest of the story. In the Vulgate, however, verse 2 only mentions Yhwh. Where Yhwh comes to kill Moses in Exod 4:24, the Septuagint, Jubilees, and some Rabbinic material call him an “angel of Yhwh.” Where God comes to visit Baalam in the night in Num 22 and 23, the Samaritan Pentateuch interpolates “angel” in 22:9 and 23:4 to insist it is the “angel of God” visiting him. In the Targums “angel” frequently appears where the Hebrew has God himself speaking to humanity, appearing to humanity, or operating in moral gray areas.

We see in later versions the tendency to interpolate the “angel” where it protects God’s transcendence and invisibility. This is what’s taking place in the stories Dunn cites (that earlier editors were above the textual manipulations of later editors is ludicrous). In most of the pericopes discussed above the humans at some point fear that they will die because of their theophany (Gen 16:13; 32:30Judg 6:22–23; 13:22). This is a clear allusion to Exod 33:20, but that text does not prohibit seeing an angel, it prohibits seeing God himself, and specifically his face (cf. LXX Exod 33:20). The people in these narratives were originally said to have seen God himself. The “angel” was added later when it became unacceptable for God to personally visit humanity (during the exile and after). Dunn’s reading accepts the final form of the text without argument. His interpretation is artificial. Now, during the first century CE these texts certainly appeared in much the same way we have them now, so his reading works for this time period, but he certainly shows no sign that he is aware of this issue, and his attempt to read this anti-anthropomorphism into the texts’ original composition is misguided (see here for an argument that God’s total incorporeality wasn’t asserted until the middle ages). His reference to the “simplicities” of such an anthropomorphism as being confined to the first chapters of Genesis is astonishingly myopic. Even if we omit the texts above, Abraham fed God; Jacob wrestled with God; God stood before Moses in Exod 17:6, spoke with him “face to face,” and appeared to the elders of Israel on Sinai; Ezekiel saw him in vision, as did Isaiah, Micaiah, and even Stephen. Dunn’s position is blatantly modern.

His discussion moves on to mysticism in Second Temple Judaism, but his section avoids discussing the possibility that angels were worshipped or were made the objects of cultic activity somewhere in Second Temple Judaism. This is peculiar considering the point of the chapter is to “clarify how restricted was Israel’s worship” (60). The other sections directly address whether or not the spirit, word, or wisdom of God were worshipped, and yet here it is omitted (there is only an oblique reference to the fact that apocalypses characteristically have angels warn people about worshipping them). Stuckenbruck’s Angel Veneration and Christology is cited in this section (71, n. 33), but no page numbers are given, and it is not cited in relation to anything involving angel veneration. Certainly he’s aware of the debate (he cited one of the debate’s landmark publications), and it would be quite simple for him to just accept Stuckenbruck’s conclusions without fully engaging his antagonists, but he doesn’t even do that. He just ignores the question.

In the next section, focused on the spirit, wisdom, and word of God, worship is central to the discussion. As with his section on angels, Dunn’s primary thesis is that these entities were not conceived of as distinct from God’s identity, but rather as literary extensions of it. I believe he’s correct in most of his analysis, but one cannot help but notice the contrast in this section’s treatment of worship and the lack thereof in the previous section. Note conclusions from each of the three subsections: “Notably, we do not find any hint that worship was offered to the Spirit of God” (74, emphasis in original) “Perhaps most significantly of all, we know of no cult of Wisdom within Israel” (78). “The thought of worshipping the Logos as a divine being other than God would never have entered Philo’s head” (84; note the discussion continues to move outside the New Testament evidence where Dunn’s argument has too little data within it).

The final section before this chapter’s conclusion discusses the possible worship of exalted human beings. Dunn reviews the evidence associated with Moses, Elijah, and Enoch. All three have rich traditions associated with their ascents to heaven. In each case these humans are recognized as having been raised to some level of divinity, but, again, there is no sign they were worshipped. Dunn discusses 2 Peter 1:4 and notion of theosis, mentioning that this is a significant doctrine within Orthodox Christianity. Here, again, Dunn exposes his Protestant bias by flippantly dismissing the legitimacy of theosis, asserting,

No doubt this can be attributed to the influence of Greek thought, particularly the Platonic idea that there is a spiritual part of humanity that really belongs to the heavenly worlds and that can recover its true, godlike nature. Such influence is evidence already in Second Temple Jewish literature. So it is hardly surprising to find it in the New Testament, even though 2 Peter 1:4 is an isolated example.

Dunn again ignores Revelation, which not only states that the Philadelphians will be worshipped, but that he who overcomes will sit down on Christ’s throne as Christ is sat down on the Father’s throne. Numerous early Church fathers also favorably address the notion of divinization (see here for one Catholic blogger’s collection of these quotes). The dismissal of theosis on the grounds that it derives from Platonism is also rather perplexing given the fact that Dunn’s anti-anthropomorphism is almost entirely derivative of Platonism, as is much of his Trinitarian doctrine.

Dunn’s conclusion in this chapter reveal even more of his biases. His penultimate paragraph reads as follows:

In no case was the thought of worshipping other than God entertained. Or, to be more precise, when the thought did arise (worshipping a great angel?) it was quickly squashed. We can see, then, that for all that Second Temple Judaism had already created an atmosphere in which the question of Jesus being worshipped could arise, and arise as a natural corollary to the status attributed to him, it had provided no precedent to which the first Christians could appeal.

Dunn is arguing here that Jesus occupied an entirely unique and new station within Judaism. There was no precedent for his worship. I’m reminded of Jonathan Z. Smith’s book, Drudgery Divine, which discusses the historical view of Christianity as originally “unique,” but very quickly corrupted by “paganism.” Smith attributes this view to a Protestant bias and the apologetic need to reject any degree of outside influence on the development of Christianity. Dunn’s volume increasingly seems to me to be aligning with this position.


12 responses to “Review: Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? (Chapter 3)

  • Mike Gantt

    Daniel, thanks for reviewing Dunn’s book and for engaging with it on a chapter by chapter basis.

  • diglot

    Daniel, you said:

    The dismissal of theosis on the grounds that it derives from Platonism is also rather perplexing given the fact that Dunn’s anti-anthropomorphism is almost entirely derivative of Platonism, as is much of his Trinitarian doctrine.

    Dunn is not Trinitarian, at least, not in the historical-orthodox sense of “three co-eternal, co-equal persons”.

    Nice review by the way!

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comment. I wasn’t sure of his particular affiliation, but he seemed to me to be emphasizing some kind of Trinitarian perspective. I guess that shows what happens when you assume.

      • diglot

        You are right in that Dunn emphasizes at times a “kind of Trinitarian perspective”, for Dunn does seem to indicate that the early Christians worshiped God in a Trinitarian manner. But this is not equivalent to Dunn saying that early Christians worshiped a Trinitarian God where Jesus is ontologically Yahweh.

        You can label Dunn as Trinitarian, but only if you carefully nuance it. Unfortunately, I have seen a few Trinitarian Christian bloggers (apparently unfamiliar with his works) who seemingly think Dunn is a ‘orthodox’ Trinitarian who believes that Jesus is ontologically Yahweh. That is, however, an inaccurate representation of Dunn.

  • diglot

    By the way, Dunn is one of my favorite scholars to read. His works have challenged some of my own beliefs like no other writer has. I was a little bit disappointed by this book because it was very short and seemed more like a brief synopsis of the debate geared towards a layperson who hasn’t read any literature on the subject.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I appreciate the clarification. I have to admit I’m not educated in the finer points of modern Trinitarian thinking. It can get me into trouble sometimes, but I appreciate having understanding people around to correct me.

      I’ve enjoyed Dunn in the past as well (usually where he intersects with Second Temple Judaism), and a colleague of mine who is a huge fan of Dunn’s has said he doesn’t even recognize the writing as Dunn’s.

  • February 2011 Biblical Studies Carnival | A Fistful of Farthings

    […] O. McClellan continued his review of Dunn’s Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? here and here. In a related post, Daniel Kirk asked some pertinent questions on the […]

  • Mike Gantt


    Is this your last installment on your review of Dunn’s book? Although he has a chapter 4, I have not been able to find it on your site (you don’t seem to have a “search” function displayed, which has made it harder to find). Please advise as I have enjoyed your review (though you obviously have not enjoyed the book 😉

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Hi Mike. Glad to hear you’ve enjoyed my reviews. This is not the last chapter. I’ve got my last installment about halfway done, but it’s crunch time right now at school so I haven’t had time to finish it. I will hopefully have it up before the end of the month.

  • Mike Gantt

    No rush, Daniel. Glad to hear I haven’t missed it.

  • Prince

    the receipients in Rev 3:9 do not receive specifically ‘latreuo’ which is different to ‘proskuneisousin’

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      This is very true, but note that Jesus Christ also never once receives latreuo. There is no indication the honors that will be offered to those people will in any way differ from the honors offered to Jesus.

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