Tag Archives: Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?

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.


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.

Deuteronomy:
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”

Isaiah:
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.


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.


Review: Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? (Chapter 1)

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.

Dunn, James D. G. Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence. Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox, 2010. ISBN 0664231969. Pp. viii + 168. $20.00.

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.