Tag Archives: Worship

Erin Darby on Judean Pillar Figurines


On Facebook I recently posted this interview of Erin Darby regarding her new book, Interpreting Judean Pillar Figurines. The book, which attempts a more methodologically grounded analysis of the function of JPFs in ancient Israelite practice, is based on the author’s 2011 Duke doctoral dissertation (available here) and is published in Mohr Siebeck’s Forschungen zum Alten Testament series. It looks like it will make a very welcome contribution to the field, and I look forward to digging into it. Check it out!

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.

Worship in Early Judaism and Christianity

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

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

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

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.