Review: Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? (Chapter 4)

Dunn’s penultimate chapter, entitled The Lord Jesus Christ, is his longest and is where he makes the majority of his case. The previous three sought to define terms and provide background for this chapter’s investigation of the presentation of Jesus within the New Testament. Dunn begins by stating that up to this point the most consistent answer to the question, “did the first Christians worship Jesus?” is that he was not generally the object of worship, even though his name was invoked within worship contexts. Given Jesus’ participation in the worship of God, Dunn shifts the focus from the how and what of worship to the question of whom. He breaks the chapter down into eight sections: (1) was Jesus a monotheist? (2) ‘Jesus is Lord’; (3) Word, Wisdom and Spirit; (4) the testimony of the Apocalypse of John; (5) Jesus as god/God; (6) the last Adam, mediator, heavenly intercessor; (7) How helpful is it to re-express the issues in terms of ‘divine identity’? (8) Conclusion. This chapter is intended to respond to the approaches of Bauckham and Hurtado. The former is opposed to interpreting early perspectives on Christ in light of the vernacular associated with wisdom, word and spirit. Dunn believes that since that is how early Jews and Christians spoke about divine identity, it is helpful in evaluating Christ’s connection to divine identity. Hurtado sees devotion to Christ as a unique mutation of Second Temple Jewish theology. Dunn will largely agree with Hurtado in this regard.

Dunn’s discussion of Jesus as a monotheist focuses primarily on Jesus’ perspective on the Shema. He draws inferences regarding Jesus’ upbringing, evaluates relevant sayings attributed to him in the New Testament, and then looks at his disciples’ position on the question. As might be expected, Dunn finds the Shema, and thus the monotheistic ideal, to be fundamental to Jesus’ upbringing, message, and impact on his disciples. The next section investigates the term “Lord” (kyrios) used in reference to Jesus. Was it used simply as a secular sign of deference, or does it imply some manner of divine connection? One of the more important discussions in this section is the the appeal in reference to Jesus to Hebrew Bible texts mentioning Yhwh. In the Septuagint Yhwh was rendered with kyrios (although see here). In 1 Cor 1:8, for instance, Paul refers to “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” a clear adaptation of the eschatological “day of Yhwh.” Was Jesus being identified with Yhwh, or was he simply identified with Yhwh’s saving power? Since Paul and others always distinguish between Jesus and God, Dunn prefers the latter.

The possibility that the New Testament is simply proof-texting, and that a systematic Christology should not be extrapolated from a synthesis of all these references is not explored by Dunn. He cites Heb 1:6 and 8 on p. 136, which appropriate references to Yhwh (Deut 32:43) and the king (Ps 45:7), respectively, as references to Jesus. He decides that synthesizing the original intent of each Hebrew Bible text and their usage in Hebrews is the best way to understand what they mean, but more likely, in my view (and the view of others), is that the author is simply proof-texting. Many of these quotations and allusions are likely meant to be reinterpreted in light of the Christian gospel and not their original context. Ps 8:4–6, which refer exclusively to humanity, are quoted in Heb 2:6–8, where they are used exclusively in reference to Christ. The argument is made that the reference is still being made to humanity, but that Christ is also being read from the passage in relation to his soteriological relationship to humanity. I disagree, though. I don’t see any justification for reading Heb 2:6–8 as a reference to humanity. Every word surrounding the quotation links the text exclusively to Jesus, and portion of the psalm which explicitly link it to humanity are excised in the quotation (specifically Ps 8:6a: “you have given them dominion over the works of your hands,” which would undermine the Christian notion that creation is the work of Christ’s hands). Dunn describes the author’s re-readings of these texts as a “balance” that he maintains in fleshing out his view of Christ’s mission. The appeal to texts referencing the king and God reach a “climactic revelation through the Son” in the second chapter, where the author brings it all around to appeal to texts referencing humanity in an effort to express the “divine purpose for humankind fulfilled now in Christ” (139). I suggest these texts are better read as re-readings of texts that simply had more currency within Second Temple Judaism when read in another light. Another example of this is Ps 82:6 quoted in John 10:35. The author is not trying to suggest Jesus’ reading should be synthesized with the text’s original meaning, he’s just communicating its contemporary understanding as a reference to something with which it originally had absolutely nothing to do.

This tendentiousness is found elsewhere. In discussing whether or not Paul persecuted Christians because of their devotion directed to Christ, Dunn cites Gal 1:13–14:

You have heard of my way of life previously in Judaism, that in excessive measure I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it; and that I progressed in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my people, being exceedingly zealous for my ancestral traditions.

For Dunn, the “implication is clear” (114) that Paul is intentionally trying to link the nature of his persecution of Christians with the specific nature of his zeal for his ancestral traditions. It can “only mean that Paul had persecuted the first Christians because he saw them as some sort of threat to his (fundamentalist) understanding of what being ‘in Judaism’ demanded of Jews, their loyalty to the law and adherence to the Pharisaic halakhoth” (114). While a connection is made between his zeal for ancestral traditions and his persecution of Christianity, to say it can “only mean” that it had specifically to do with a “(fundamentalist) understanding” of the law and “adherence to the Pharisaic halakhoth” is a bit of a stretch. Exactly which “ancestral traditions” were being offended is not indicated.

His next section, on the word, wisdom, and spirit of God, investigates the way these themes communicate early Jewish and Christian ideas of extensions of God’s identity. Logos Christology is particularly emphasized in this section. According to Dunn, the personification jargon used of the logos has not simply been transferred to Jesus, but rather Jesus reveals the personal character of the logos, who could previously only be conceptualized in “personification terms” (120). Dunn reasserts his anti-anthropomorphism, stating that Jesus makes known the “unseen and un-seeable God” (121). In a footnote he states that God’s invisibility was a “fundamental of Jewish thought.” He cites Exod 33:20 and Deut 4:12, but he does not address Exod 24:10 or the dozens of other scriptures that insist God was seen. One wonders if he prioritizes John 1:18 in his exegesis of those other texts.

Section 4.4 discusses the book of Revelation. In this book, says Dunn, “the deity of Christ is unqualified” (130). That it was written decades after the time frame that Dunn set in his introduction for the “first Christians” is not discussed, and the advanced christology is attributed to the text’s genre rather than its date. Dunn highlights five illustrators of the author’s high christology: (1) the Son of Man imagery from Daniel is conflated with the same book’s Ancient of Days imagery, (2) both Jesus and God call themselves the “Alpha and Omega,” (3) the worship offered to Christ is indistinguishable from that offered to God (proskynein in each case), (4) the throne of Christ and the throne of God are conflated, and (5) the “firstfruits” are offered to both Christ and God, and the believers will be priests to both. Neglected in this chapter are Rev 3:9 and 3:21, where the believers are said to receive worship (proskynein) from the wicked in the future, as well as to sit down in God’s throne as did Christ. Both these texts rather undermine the uniqueness of Christ’s position as illustrated by Dunn in points 3 and 4. Both texts are also ignored by Dunn elsewhere in discussions of the nature and meaning of worship in early Christianity. This negligence is stunning (on pp. 9–10 Dunn argues that Rev 3:9 “clearly implies the appropriate mode for making a petition to one of high authority who could exercise power to benefit the petitioner.” That such is the case over and against reading actual religious worship in Rev 3:9 remains to be seen, especially in light of v. 21).

The next two sections of chapter 4, “Jesus as god/God” and “Last Adam, mediator and heavenly intercessor,” examine Christ’s identification with deity and with other roles. Dunn is careful to paint an ambiguous picture of Christ’s identification with God in the first section, but he also reads quite a bit more into the proof-texting of some New Testament authors than I think is warranted. For instance, he discusses the appropriation in Hebrews 1 of different Hebrew Bible texts in reference to Jesus, but he accounts for the fact that they originally had subjects like God or the king by assuming some kind of “transferred sense” whereby the original subject is understood by the author of Hebrews to have been identified in some capacity with the updated application. This hermeneutic is extended in the following pages in discussing Christ as the “last Adam.” Dunn addresses the fact that Pss 110:1 and 8:4–6 are reapplied to Christ in New Testament literature, and then tries to reconcile that reading with the original context. The quotation of Ps 8:4–6 in Heb 2:6–9 is interpreted by the author, according to Dunn, in terms of its Christological as well as its human application, despite the fact that the author of Hebrews adapts the text exclusively to a messianic reading. That that author had to excise one of the psalm’s cola in order to make it applicable to Christ is overlooked.

The last two section of chapter 4 provide a reassessment of the idea of “divine identity” and then conclude the chapter. In the former, Dunn suggests that divine “equation” is a better term than divine “identity.” The first, he says, means that “for some values of A and/or some values of B, A and B are the same.” The “identity formula” means A and B are the same for all values. The chapter concludes with the notion that Jesus was not worshipped as fully God, or as a separate god, but that God was worshipped “in and through” Jesus.

In the conclusion to Dunn’s volume, he answers the titular question with a qualified “no.” Christ was not worshipped in and of himself. His qualification follows. God was worshipped through Jesus:

So our central question can indeed be answered negatively, and perhaps it should be. But not if the result is a far less adequate worship of God. For the worship that really constitutes Christianity and forms its distinctive contribution to the dialogue of the religions, is the worship of God as enabled by Jesus the worship of God as revealed in and through Jesus.

I find this conclusion unsatisfactory. Dunn’s retrojection of modern notions of Trinity and monotheism onto the question bear too heavily on his identification of worship in the early Church. He neglects a number of instances where worship was said to be offered, or potentially offered, to beings other than God. Most egregiously, he dismisses the worship of humans described in Rev 3:9 with a flippant and poor argument, despite the fact that he highlights the same honor said to be given to humans in Rev 3:21 as an indication of an unqualified high christology when given to Christ. He brings to the central question the presupposition that only God the Father can be worshipped (effectively begging the question), and sets off to describe a way to work Jesus into the equation. Not surprisingly, he arrives at a Protestant trinitarian understanding of early Christianity. The question could have been answered in a more illuminating manner without that presupposition. The book no doubt would have sold far fewer copies, however.


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