Worship in Early Judaism and Christianity

As I try to finish up my review of James Dunn’s book Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?, I’ve decided to start cataloging instances of worship in early Judaism and Christianity that is not directed at God. By “worship” I mean prostration before someone; sacrifice, hymns, prayers, or other kinds of liturgical praise offered to someone; sympathetic magic directed at someone; etc. A few examples pop into my head:

– 4Q246 1ii:7: All the nations will bow down before the people of God
– Rev  3:9: The “Synagogue of Satan” will come and worship before the feet of the Philadelphians
–  Hecataeus states (according to Diodorus’ Bibliotheca Historica 40.3.6) that the Jews “fall to the ground and worship” before the high priest (obviously this source is probably not reporting things accurately)
– A number of incantation bowls from late antiquity call upon angels by name to help ward off evil and protect people

Obviously this research is still in very early stages, but it should prove interesting!

25 responses to “Worship in Early Judaism and Christianity

  • Chris Taylor


    Are you going to distinguish between worship that is ‘of type religious’ versus worship that is not ‘of type religious’. By that, I mean it seems that worship is subjective and dependent upon the mind/heart of the worshiper. So one has to ask, what is in the mind/heart of the worshiper – is it religious devotion or something else.

    Just some thoughts.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the question. Since this is a time period when the notion of religion as distinct from culture is developing, I think that will be a tough thing to distinguish, but if the data makes a dichotomy like that evident it would definitely be worth noting.

      • Chris Taylor

        Religion distinct from culture. Interesting….

        Do you think when a person “worshiped” a non-God entity, they were showing the same reverence as they would a God entity?

        I’m thinking about prohibitions about worshiping other gods and then people Moses “worshiping” Jethro in Exodus 18. There is also a correlary Greek word for religious service which is latreuo I believe (my Greek & Hebrew is terrible, i.e. non-existent) (see Matt 4:10 regarding worship & service for what I’m getting at).

  • Rameumptom

    I recently blogged regarding the pool of Bethesda, where the sick and lame awaited an angel to disturb the water, so they could enter therein and be healed. Next to the pool is a shrine to the Semitic god of healing, Eshmun. So obviously, many people in Jerusalem were worshiping another deity. Of course, this may not be exactly what you were looking for….


  • Rameumptom

    Also, have you considered Asherah worship? Early Jews represented her in the temple with the Menorah, as well as a tree of life. And IIRC Margaret Barker suggests that Sophia represented the consort of God among some Christians.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I have looked at this briefly, and will have to come back to it, but Dunn actually talks a bit about Sophia in his book, and I think he’s on the right track that it was mainly a literary construct rather than a perceived independent deity. I want to spend more time looking into it, though.

  • Daniel O. McClellan


    I think that question depends on how we understand their conceptualization of deity. That’s part of what I’m hoping this research will illuminate. The angel in the book of Revelation forbids John to bow down before him (proskynesis) because he is a fellow servant, but that’s the verb used in Rev 3 to describe the worship of the Philadelphians. Latreuo is cultic worship, and, interestingly, it is never used in the New Testament in reference to Jesus. It is always service rendered to God alone. I hope that my research will help explain some of these phenomena.

    • Chris Taylor

      I recently went around and around with a guy on a blog of mine about this subject, so thats why this was interesting and familiar.

      I’m not very good in Greek or Hebrew but I have some marvelous tools that help 🙂

  • Reality Checker

    Interesting subject! If I may provide a comparitive modern source for your research to start, I was watching a world news broadcast of IBA the Jewish news organization and they reported on the celebration in poland of the birthday of the founder of hassidic Judaism -sorry – I’m didn’t remember his name. Anyway, some of the hassidic jews make a pilgrimage to his birthplace from all over the world since they hold him to have been a prophet. they news reporter interviewed one of the devotees who went on for some length to explain that hassidic Jews make invocation to him, becuasee he is closer to God and can intercede, delivering their requests directly to God. The Hassidic Jew went on to say this ascended prophet was like a direct messenger to God hence he could be invoked in prayer! WoW! I didn’t knew that Hassidic Jews had ascended figures like Catholic saints that are prayed to, The broadcast was yesterday on the IBA network, perhaps the broadcast is still available on their website.

  • meekmildmagnificent

    The Son of Man is worshiped in I Enoch in the Similitudes 48:5; 62:6-9; and implied in 46:5 and 52:4. Adam is worshiped in the Life of Adam and Eve. There is a hierarchy of worship in the Ascension of Isaiah. The spirit worships the Beloved or the Son, the Son worships the Father. Enoch is worshiped in 2 (Slavonic) Enoch. Frankly, the notion that only god is worshiped in 2nd Temple Judaism seems like a failure to pay attention to the sources.

  • eric bess

    So is the impetus for this sidequest research come from an objection on your part that because he was worshiped, he was considered to be God by the earliest Christians? Is that the conclusion Dunn comes to in his book?

  • eric bess

    I wrote that wrong, at work, and bumbling around, but I hope you get what I’m asking.

  • Robert C. Kashow

    Ah, it is you. I was trying to remember who was researching on this.

    Add 1 Mac 5.63-64 to your list. (Maybe).

  • [ad hoc] Christianity , Archive » Episode #14: Blogosphere roundup, April 6, 2011

    […] Musings of Thomas VerennaNew Roundup on Lead Codices and Additional InformationDaniel O. McClellanWorship in Early Judaism and ChristianityClaude Mariottini at Dr. Claude Mariottini – Professor of Old TestamentThe Water Systems of […]

  • J Pater

    Note the interesting mention of prayer directed at the sun in Josephus, Bellum Iudaicum 2.128. See the work of Steve Mason on the subject:
    text and commentary via
    and a 2005 SBL presentation (also published in Mason Josephus Judea and Christian Origins. Hendrickson 2009)

    Click to access S_Mason_Essenes_SBL2005.pdf

  • J Pater

    I should add that, as Mason notes, Josephus “tends to personify the sun and see it as a representation of God”. It may therefor not fall under what you call “worship not directed at God”. But it does suggest that (even in essentially monotheistic systems) worship of god may not be as unambivalent as dominant discours of that system suggests. Also the reference would have resonated differently with Josephus’ supposed Roman audience, as Mason notes.

  • Allen

    I’m surprised that no mention has been made of the prayer to Helios in the 4th Heaven of Sefer ha-Razim.
    “After you have seen him, bow before him and prostrate yourself and say this prayer…
    כן תשתחוה ותפול על פניך ארצה והתפלל את התפילה הזאת.
    Rather forceful commands to worship.

  • Allen

    Justin Martyr states that Simon Magus was worshiped by Samaritans, but whether Samaritans or inhabitants of Samaria are intended is far from clear.

  • anomynous

    According to the old Greek text (not the more common Theodotion version) the Son of Man is a recipient of religious service (form of Latreuo) in Daniel 7:14

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