Part 1 of my now-two-part review of Bird, et al., How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature is now posted at Near Emmaus. In this segment I respond only to the contributions of Bird, of which I am quite critical. Please have a look and feel free to comment here, there, or anywhere.
Tag Archives: Book Review
Brian LePort has kindly posted my review of Bart Ehrman’s new book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee at Near Emmaus. Check it out and let me know what you think here or there.
Book Review: Stephen L. Herring, Divine Substitution: Humanity as the Manifestation of Deity in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East
Stephen L. Herring. Divine Substitution: Humanity as the Manifestation of Deity in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments, Vol. 247; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013. 244 pp., $65.00, ISBN: 978-3-525-53612-4.
This publication is an unrevised edition of Dr. Herring’s 2011 University of Aberdeen doctoral thesis. I was pleased to see it in print in the exhibit hall at this year’s annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, and I immediately reserved the one available copy. Dr. Herring was my Biblical Hebrew instructor during my time at the University of Oxford, and I recall being intrigued by our discussions about his thesis topic during our many meetings in his cramped little office nestled deep in Yarnton Manor’s attic. The conceptualization of deity in the ancient Near East has been of interest to me since I began my academic career, and Divine Substitution tilts at one of the more prominent issues of that disappointingly underrepresented field of study, namely the nature and function of divine images in the Ancient Near East (“image” in the technical sense of a deity’s cultic representation—Akkadian ṣalmu, Hebrew צלם). More specifically, Herring aims to describe how ancient Mesopotamians viewed cultic images as some manner of manifestation of the divine presence of their patron deities, and how—under Mesopotamian influence—three biblical text segments, Genesis 1, Exodus 34:29–35, and Ezekiel 36–37, employ that ideology vis-à-vis humanity.
Divine Substitution’s journey begins where the question of the image’s relationship to its patron deity has found the most currency in recent years: Assyriology. The textual and archaeological data are most abundant between the two rivers, and as we will see, Herring hedges his methodological bets by choosing biblical text segments commonly assigned a Mesopotamian provenance. Some conceptual groundwork must be laid first, and Herring interacts with scholars like C. S. Peirce, T. N. D. Mettinger, Z.Bahrani, and others to show some precedence for the notion that the ancient concept of the cultic image was distinct from the modern concept of representation as mimesis. Herring’s review of the scholarship is brief yet insightful (I would have liked to see Gradel or Gell cited), but he is forced to punt with the summarizing statement that “somehow these material objects have actually become the manifestation of their god” (21).
Herring’s second chapter goes into greater detail regarding the dynamics of images and divine presence in ancient Mesopotamia, describing vivification rituals, explaining the implications of a deity’s abandonment of their image, and examining cases of images with human patrons. Particularly important for this chapter is the discussion of humans themselves as divine images. Five references in Akkadian to a human as an “image” (ṣalmu) of a deity are discussed. Four refer to the king—the divinely sanctioned intermediary between the heavenly and earthly realms—while one refers to an āšipu priest. That a priest was considered a divine image at least once is not without significance for Herring’s analysis. He acknowledges the “functional” interpretation of the application of the term ṣalmu to the king, but insists the application of the same designation to the priest indicates something more is going on: “we would certainly go wrong in thinking that the expression only reflected the functional aspect of kingship, since the āšipu would not have been ignorant of (nor flippant with) the conceptualization of ‘cult images and the rites by which they were animated with the life of the deity’” (45–46). In simpler terms, as the priest was not exercising divine kingship, the “functional” interpretation must be inadequate; some ideology of transubstantiation must tie these usages together. Citing E. M. Curtis, Herring suggests the king’s identification as an image derives from the priestly identification.
I would argue, however, that this proposal runs the risk of drawing too sharp a distinction between ontology and functionality in ancient Mesopotamia. In my view, the two notions are really different sides of the same coin (as with palace v. temple). We need not shackle functionality to kingship, or insist priestly functionality takes precedence. The context in which the priest qualifies as the “image of Marduk” is that of a conjuration. He is exercising divine agency in the same way the king does in maintaining the cosmic order. Both functions make manifest divine power and authority, which I would suggest is the foundational criterion for identification with a given deity. They are “images” of the deity insofar as they exercise the agency associated with that deity (and here Pongratz-Leisten is helpful).
Chapter 3 paints an informed and detailed picture of ancient Israel’s cultic development from iconism to aniconism. In short, Israel had a longstanding history of divine imagery. The nation most likely had anthropomorphic cultic images dedicated to YHWH in their earliest cultic contexts, but we have no positive evidence at this time of this practice. What we do have are firm indicators that several non-anthropomorphic cultic objects—standing stones, asherahs, the ark—functioned in early Israel as divine images. Intimate familiarity with the dynamics of divine imagery is also evinced in the polemics of later prophets and Deuteronomistic authors; even in vehemently rejecting the practice, the biblical authors betray its thorough saturation of their culture and worldview.
With that, Herrings turns to “The Image of God in the Hebrew Bible,” the core of his dissertation. In this chapter, Herring examines Genesis 1, Exodus 34:29–35, and Ezekiel 36–37. The relevance of Genesis 1 is self-evident given the use of the Hebrew צלם in reference to the creation of humanity, but the other two segments require increasingly lengthy justifications for their inclusion in the analysis that revolve primarily around the strength of their connections to Assyria-Babylon.
The main thrust of these sections is that the biblical authors were heavily influenced by the ideological environment of the Babylonian Exile, and adapted for their own purposes the Mesopotamian notion of a human as a divine image. For the authors of Genesis, humanity was created as an “image” of God, which brought the divine presence near in a templeless age and universalized it for an Israel extending beyond its regional boundaries.
For the author of the Exodus portion—and P’s fingerprints are all over it—Moses represented that divine image, most explicitly when he descended from Sinai with a face that radiated either light or horns (or both—Herring dedicates several pages to analysis). The divine presence had earlier been represented by a cloud and a pillar of fire, but during Moses’ time on the mountain that presence was completely absent, compelling the people to fill that void with the production of the golden calf, a Yahwistic cultic image. Moses’ reappearance, clothed in the divine presence and carrying the divinely composed tablets, rhetorically punctuated the contrast between the human origins of the calf over and against the divine origins of Moses’ endowment (note the conceptual parallel of the calf and a horned Moses).
The segment on Ezekiel requires the most methodological nuance and care from Herring, who starts by demonstrating the rhetorical unity of the text as well as its exilic provenance. It is not a part of P, but it occupies an ideologically overlapping position (here Kutsko is prominent). The author’s rhetorical campaign against cultic images is highlighted in the analysis, and particularly the characterization of Mesopotamia’s cultic images as deaf, dumb, blind, and without breath—a characterization that is projected onto those humans (including Israel) so vacuous as to participate in the use of said images. Israel’s restoration, however, is described using imagery of revivification that is argued by Herring to reflect humanity’s primeval creation in Genesis as well as the Mesopotamian rituals that imbued cultic images with the divine presence. Ezekiel’s infusion of the Spirit parallels the Mesopotamian pīt pî ceremony and sets up a model for Israel’s endowment with the Spirit and subsequent obedience to the divine will. It is not wood and stone that the divine presence—the Spirit of YHWH—inhabits, but humanity.
Herring’s fifth and final chapter summarizes the dissertation and draws some conclusions. In brief, the three text segments reflect the Mesopotamian notion of the divine image, endowed through ritual vivification with the divine presence. The provenance of handmade objects is transferred from the craftsman to the divine through these rituals, according to Mesopotamian ideology, but the biblical authors reject the efficacy of such rituals, repeatedly polemicizing cultic images on the grounds that they are the lifeless products of human effort. At the same time, however, they make use of these literary and ritual conventions in their conceptualization of humanity as the cultic image of God, endowed with the divine presence at creation (Genesis 1), at Sinai (Exodus 34), and at Israel’s restoration (Ezekiel 36–37).
Herring’s dissertation joins a growing field of scholars that looks to the rich literary and cultic history of Assyria-Babylon for guidance in understanding the nature and function of deity in the Hebrew Bible. Benjamin Sommer, for instance, proposes a “fluidity” model for understanding the “unbounded” nature of God’s bodies (plural!) and the pluriform manifestations of divinity in the ancient Near East (here). Michael Hundley’s work focuses on divine presence as reflected through ritual and temple (here and here). Spencer Allen’s UPenn dissertation examines the various localized manifestations of Baal, Ishtar, and YHWH. Pongratz-Leisten, focusing only on Assyria-Babylon, proposes a cognitive model of divine agency to flesh out the representation of divinity in cultic objects and, more particularly, astral phenomena. Herring’s work is particularly innovative in uncovering the employment of humanity as a vehicle of for the divine presence, although he avoids promoting any particular view about how that divinity was communicable. Here Gell and Pongratz-Leisten could make a constructive contribution.
Certainly Herring’s argument is strongest where the literary links with Mesopotamia are most explict, namely Genesis 1, but his treatment of Moses’ divinity is sensitive and measured. He is not the first to suggest Moses was considered divine (the text says so, after all), but his discussion of the literary patterns of divine presence and absence helps to better contextualize that divinization as well as the production of the golden calf. The connections are more tenuous in Ezekiel, but Herring’s discussion of the role of the Spirit of God ought to convince even the most skeptical critic of comparative studies that, whatever the primary literary allusions and goals, the author is incorporating some species of the notion of vivified divine images into a more complex and layered rhetorical pastiche. I think most significant going forward is Herring’s highlighting of the implications of this research for the study of Second Temple Judaism, messianism, and early christology. It may be some time yet, however, before the adoption of Assyriological insights into the conceptualization of deity trickles down to those scholarly arenas.
Besides my desire for some discussion of the way in which the image shared in the divinity of the patron deity, a concern I have is with the implied assumption that this notion of communicable divinity derives exclusively or even primarily from a genetic link to Assyria-Babylon. My perception of such an assumption may well be a misreading of a decision on Herring’s part stemming from a concern for length or methodological grounding, but I would argue that Israel likely drew their own similar ideologies of cultic imagery and communicable divine agency from a shared and broad conceptual matrix. Israel had their own cultic images prior to the exile that were no doubt thought to be divine in some sense (cf. the Ark of the Covenant or the references to the asherah in the inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qôm). The literary affinities that crop up in P and Ezekiel, from my point of view, reflect stylistic choices more than underlying conceptual borrowings. Having said that, I would highly recommend this book to students and scholars interested in the Hebrew Bible’s conceptualization of deity and/or humanity.
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.
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.
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.
(HT Charles Halton) Robert Holmstedt has a thoughtful discussion up on Ancient Hebrew Grammar about reviewing books on their own terms. The objects of Robert’s critique are reviews by Korpel and Lim of his recent contribution on Ruth to the Baylor Handbook on the Hebrew Bible series. For those new to book reviews (like me), Robert provides the basic elements of a review, based on the model he was taught by his mentors (the first two are critical, and the third is optional but desirable):
- a fair summary of the contents,
- an evaluation of the book on its own terms (often with specific examples taken from the book),
- some connection to the field in which the book belongs, preferably using a feature that is either present (noted as done well or not so well) or absent (and thus needed) in the book itself.
In his post, Holmstedt takes issue with the fact that both reviewers level criticisms at the text which appear to neglect the stated purposes of the series. Lim criticizes Robert for not interacting with non-English scholarship, and Korpel criticizes him for not going deep enough into principles of Hebrew grammar. The purpose of the Baylor Handbook series, however, is not to provide a comprehensive commentary, but rather a handbook for the intermediate student of Biblical Hebrew. In light of that, Robert argues, Lim and Korpel rather miss the mark, and I have to agree. I read Holmstedt’s book as an intermediate student of Biblical Hebrew at Oxford and I thought it was incredibly helpful. Ruth is one of the most popular books to cover late in beginning Hebrew and in intermediate Hebrew, and I think this volume provides an incredibly valuable resource to that study. The writing is clear and concise, and the discussion engages the principles on what seemed to me to be just the right level. Whether or not I agreed with every reading (or the fundamental S-V order), I knew well the reasons for Robert’s readings. It seems book reviews are becoming increasingly scrutinized of late, and that’s not a bad thing. We should take special care to understand a book’s aims and goals before deciding if it has failed or succeeded. Too many reviews fail in this regard.
I said I wasn’t going to review this book because I didn’t feel I had much expertise to bring to a review, but I wrote one for Amazon anyway and figured I would post it here in case anyone might be interested.
Rollston, Christopher A. Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age. Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010. ISBN: 1589831071. Pp. xix + 148. $21.95.
Rollston’s volume provides an excellent introduction to Northwest Semitic epigraphy (with an aim to illuminating ancient Israelite scribalism and literacy) that engages academic concerns without sacrificing accessibility. Readers will be introduced to the history of the alphabet, its development over time, and its bearing on literacy and scribal education in ancient Israel. Numerous illustrations, many competently executed by the author, supplement the author’s discussions of the relevant scripts and their development. Contemporary issues like non-provenanced inscriptions and the presence of “scribal schools” in Israel are also handled with methodological care.
Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel is divided into two broad sections. The first introduces the history and nature of the epigraphic record, while the second examines the ancient scribal discipline and its relationship to literacy in ancient Israel. After a brief introduction which outlines important methodological considerations, Rollston’s first chapter briefly surveys the history of the alphabet, followed in the second with an analysis of the Phoenician script and its influence on writing in surrounding locales. The third chapter examines the form and function of the epigraphic record, providing a valuable introduction to the various media used to transmit the Northwest Semitic scripts, as well as representative examples of each. Rollston has written more technical publications on many of the inscriptions he discusses, and so in many cases promotes his own interpretations of the data, but his reputation for methodological caution should assuage any fear of being misled.
Rollston’s second section begins with a very brief (six pages) discussion of the reputation enjoyed by scribes in the ancient Near East. It is followed by an examination of evidence for scribal education in ancient Israel. This section of the book overlaps with recent publications on scribalism in ancient Israel by David Carr, Karel van der Toorn, and Bill Schniedewind. I found it provides a valuable supplement to those publications, treating the question of the existence of scribal schools from a more technical point of view. The next chapter engages the provision of monumental buildings for this formal education, arguing that such education is likely to have taken place in non-monumental contexts. Chapter 7 evaluates the extent to which ancient Israel was literate. Against the “minimalist” school, Rollston finds evidence for literacy among trained elites in Iron IIA. He has argued elsewhere that Israelite scribes were utilizing the Phoenician script as early as the tenth century, and the Qeiyafa inscription, which I do not believe was incorporated into our text, will no doubt be marshaled to support that conclusion in future publications. Rollston’s final chapter responds to a movement in the academy to prohibit the use of non-provenanced artifacts in academic publications. Rollston defends their use as well as the capacity of epigraphers to detect forgeries, for the most part, although he characteristically urges serious caution with all inscriptions of unknown origin.
I heartily recommend this volume to those who are curious about the discipline of epigraphy or the form and function of literacy in early Israel. Rollston is recognized as a methodologically thorough expert in the field of Northwest Semitic epigraphy, but is able to write engagingly despite the potential for dryness and overly technical jargon. While small quibbles might be raised here and there about the author’s confidence in some of his conclusions, such instances hardly undermine the book’s aim. For anyone looking to delve headfirst into Northwest Semitic epigraphy, to fill in gaps in the ongoing discussion of scribal education in ancient Israel, or just to learn about the nature of literacy in ancient Israel, this is the first book you should read.