Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?: The New Testament Evidence

By James G. Dunn

I probably should preface this post with a disclaimer that this should not be thought of as your typical review. I studied for my PhD under Jimmy Dunn. He is my Doktorvater, mentor and friend. I also didn’t receive this book from the publisher – in fact, it is still not available in the United States, and I ordered my copy from the UK so as to have a chance to read it sooner. I also had a chance to read an earlier draft of Did The First Christians Worship Jesus? a couple of years ago and to discuss it with Jimmy and another of his former students. And when my copy of the published book arrived, I found that my own recent book on monotheism and Christology (The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context) was cited in the notes on numerous occasions. And so I make no claim to being an “impartial observer” but am rather an engaged participant in the ongoing conversation about monotheism, Christology, and worship that encompasses Jimmy, many of his former students, and a wider community of scholars as well as many others interested in the subject.
The book begins with an acknowledgment of two principal dialogue partners: Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham, both of whom have published numerous studies on this topic, interacting with Dunn and with one another. In posing the question that is the title of the book, and identifying his key conversation partners, Dunn also emphasizes that mere citation of texts will not answer the questions, and that his scholarly interaction with others is less a matter of ”agreement” or “disagreement” than one of nuance and an attempt to bring further precision and clarity. The introduction ends with an identification of key sub-questions that will be the focus of the chapters in the remainder of the book.
Chapter 1 is on the language of worship, and addresses the breadth of the term “worship” in English as well as the range of meanings of relevant terms in Greek. Prostration (one of the key words for “worship” in the New Testament) indicated a recognition of superiority and dependence on the one to whom the gesture was being made, but the gesture itself does not consistently indicate a recognition of the divinity of the one to whom prostration is offered. And when it comes to a term that more consistently has God as its object, Dunn writes, “In no case in the New Testament is there talk of offering cultic worship (latreuein) to Jesus” (p.13). The chapter also touches on doxologies and benedictions, and includes some discussion of the degrees of reverence/devotion/veneration found in certain strands of the Christian tradition. At the end of the first chapter, Dunn is already clearly seeking to neither overstate nor downplay evidence – and having sought to be balanced, his initial answer to the question posed by the title is “‘Generally no’ or ‘Only occasionally’, or ‘Only with some reserve’” (p.28).
Chapter 2 focuses on the practice of worship, and here too Dunn emphasizes that the evidence is not as clear cut as we might like. Practices such as prayer, singing, and animal sacrifice are all mentioned, as are sacred times, places and meals. Dunn draws attention to the lack of sacred sites in the New Testament (to the extent even that Jesus’ tomb was not a focus of attention as a destination for pilgrimage in the New Testament literature, as far as we can tell). What is more, we have reference to priests who joined the Christian movement, but no reference to priests serving as priests within that context. And once again, “in earliest Christianity, Christ was never understood as the one to whom sacrifice was offered, even when the imagery of sacrifice was used symbolically for Christian service” (p.56). Yet Dunn also suggests that Jesus is somehow on “both sides” of the process of offering his death sacrificially. This chapter ends with the suggestion that the question posted by the book’s title may perhaps be too narrow or even misleading.
Chapter 3 moves onto the topic of monotheism, heavenly mediators and divine agents. Dunn is critical of Bauckham’s rejection of agency as a helpful category on the one hand, and his adoption of identity as somehow preferable (p.61). The figure of the “angel of Yahweh” provides an example of a figure who “both was God and was not God” (p. 68). Personified divine attributes like Word and Wisdom, as well as exalted human beings, are discussed.
Chapter 4 is on the Lord Jesus Christ, and begins by returning to that important and yet still too often neglected question of whether Jesus was a monotheist. This is obviously of crucial importance, since it is problematic to envision Paul undertaking a significant revision of the very Shema that Jesus affirmed as axiomatic of his own outlook and emphases.
It is in Dunn’s discussion of the impression Jesus made on his disciples that I encounter the first points at which I really feel I would nuance things differently – or on one important point emphatically disagree. The latter relates to this: The Aramaic abba does not mean “daddy,” but is simply the Aramaic word for “father” in the emphatic state (as the Greek translation of the term in the New Testament indicates clearly). As for nuancing things differently, Dunn states in this chapter that “John clearly felt free to attribute to Jesus words and sentiments that Jesus himself probably never uttered while on earth” (p.119). And yet in discussing how Jesus was remembered, Dunn cites the example of Jesus’ authority as depicted in Matthew’s “antitheses” (p.99). However, even if the latter incorporate more of Jesus’ own words in something closer to their likely original form, we need to acknowledge that Matthew’s portrait at this point is largely a result of the Gospel author’s redactional activity, which is responsible for setting the sayings of Jesus in comparison and contrast with things found in the Jewish Law. And so it seems to me unwise to make too sharp a contrast between Matthew and John. Both represent impressions of Jesus, based to a greater or lesser extent on recollections about him; and both feel free to be creative with the words they place on Jesus’ lips, once again to a greater or lesser extent. Nevertheless, it seems as though there is a widespread impression of Jesus’ authority in the New Testament, which suggests that Dunn’s larger point still retains its validity.
This chapter also includes treatment of key passages from Paul’s letters, such as Philippians 2:6-11 and 1 Corinthians 8:6. In the latter, Dunn highlights that one God is affirmed, and what is said about the one Lord uses prepositions indicative of agency (p.109). And in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 it is felt to be particularly clear that “the kyrios title is not so much a way of identifying Jesus with God, as a way of distinguishing Jesus from God” (p.110). Dunn regards Hurtado’s case for the Christ-devotion of the New Testament Christians having been controversial in their time as “surprisingly weak” (p.113), and draws attention to the lack of evidence for such controversy. Also in this chapter are treatments of the Book of Revelation, Jesus as God/god and Jesus as Last Adam.
The chapter concludes with a focused examination of Bauckham’s language of “divine identity.” If ancient technical terms for Trinitarian discourse such as persona tend to be misunderstood because of the difference of meaning between such ancient words in other languages and their nearest English equivalents, “identity” seems to be vague even in its current English usage (p.142). And so Dunn expresses his reservations, with a succinct summary of his concerns that is worth quoting: “I remain unclear as to the advantages that introducing ‘divine identity’ as they key term produces, and I remain concerned as to the dimensions and aspects of New Testament christology that the term ‘identity’ pushes to the side” (p.143). Returning to Paul’s language, to the extent that Jesus shares in the “divine identity,” Paul’s language (and once again in particular the prepositions he uses) suggests that sharing of identity partial, with Jesus sharing in divine roles of agency but not as source (p.144).
The book’s conclusion emphasizes that Christian monotheism, however much it has an important Christological aspect, should remain monotheism. The danger of “Jesus-olatry” is discussed (p.147). And in the end Dunn offers a negative answer to the question the book’s title poses, while nevertheless seeking to highlight ways in which going too far in the other direction would also be problematic (p.151).
I hope it is clear from my summary that this book is full of rich and insightful content. Regular readers of Dunn’s books will expect nothing less, and will not be at all disappointed. Did the first Christians worship Jesus? asks an important question, and Dunn’s nuanced answers to this main question and key sub-questions make an important contribution to the ongoing scholarly conversation about monotheism, Christology and worship.
UPDATE: In an e-mail, Jimmy expressed appreciation for this “review” but also concern that my attempt to summarize his carefully-worded conclusion might not communicate his nuance as clearly and precisely as he did. And so I thought I would add here the final paragraph of the book, from p.151, to give readers a fuller sense of where Dunn is coming from and how he views things:
“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. Christianity remains a monotheistic faith. The only one to be worshipped is the one God. But how can Christians fail to honor the one through whom it believes the only God has most fully revealed himself, the one through whom the only God has come closest to the condition of humankind? Jesus cannot fail to feature in their worship, their hymns of praise, their petitions to God. But such worship is always, should always be offered to the glory of God the Father. Such worship is always, should always be offered in the recognition that God is all in all, and that the majesty of the Lord Jesus in the end of the day expresses and affirms the majesty of the one God more clearly than anything else in the world.” source