Title: Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?
Author: James Dunn
Bibliographic Info: 191 pp
Publisher: SPCK (2010)
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With thanks to SPCK publishers for the review copy.
As the title suggests, this book is on the issue of whether the earliest Christians did in fact worship Jesus as God. Dunn starts the book off with an introductory overview of early Christology, in which he mentions the notable authors Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham. While Dunn says he substantially agrees with both of them on some issues, he wants to make sure that the whole picture of early Christology is being brought into view.
The first chapter tackles the basic, yet tricky, question of what worship means. Dunn takes worship (Greek: proskynein) to imply “the appropriate mode for making a petition to one of high authority who could exercise power to benefit the petitioner” (pg. 10), while not necessarily implying that the person of high authority is also divine. Dunn does recognize a couple of special cases in the New Testament of this word being used of Jesus which move beyond the sense of someone merely acknowledging the authority of Jesus as being higher than their own (e.g. Heb 1:6, Rev 5:14). Dunn also discusses other Greek words for worship (latreuein, epikaleisthai), as well as other words and phrases that denote similar feelings (“blessed is…”, “glorified”, “give thanks to…”, etc).
The following chapter takes this issue of worship a step further by looking at worship in practice. This is done by examining four distinguishing features which worship entailed: 1) Prayer, 2) Hymns, 3) Sacred times, places, and meals, and 4) Cultic Sacrifice. Dunn acknowledges a few places in the New Testament where Paul evidently understood Christ as the one to whom we should pray to. He does not see hymns being sung to Christ (except in Revelation), but rather see’s them (e.g. the Carmen Christi of Philippians) as hymns sung to God praising Him for Christ. Dunn then also discusses the relevance of such things as the Eucharistic meal, the Sunday Sabbath, etc, as being sacred times and meals appropriated for Christ, as well as whether sacrifices were offered to Christ (in a literal or metaphorical manner). He concludes this chapter by saying that the question is not really, “Did the first Christians worship Jesus” (as that is too simplified of a view), but rather, “Was the earliest Christian worship possible without and apart from Jesus?”
That question then leads onto the next chapter. Here, Dunn looks at important types of figures in Jewish literature, such as angels (especially theophanic angels), the Spirit, Wisdom, and Word of God (particularly Philo’s understanding of it). Dunn concludes that the Angel of the Lord, while not being God, brings the real presence of God to us. Furthermore, that there is not hint of worship offered to the Spirit of God, and that Wisdom was not regarded as a semi-divine intermediary, but rather as a way of speaking of God’s activity in creation. The chapter closes with a brief look at exalted patriarchs and their relevance to this topic.
Dunn then spends the next (and final) chapter specifically focused upon Christ. He starts off with asking if Jesus was a monotheist and what this implies, as well as what we can infer about Jesus’ religious beliefs from His upbringing. Then what Paul meant by saying that “Jesus is Lord” is discussed, which includes looking at some select passages from Paul, as well as a special look at Revelation. Dunn also examines how Jesus is described as Wisdom, Word, the Spirit, last Adam, mediator, and heavenly intercessor.
The book ends with an overall conclusion, bibliography and three indices (ancient sources, modern authors, subjects). In the conclusion, Dunn asserts that orthodox Christianity is by and large guilty of “Jesus-olatry.” What Dunn means by this is that instead of offering praise to God the Father through Jesus and in the Spirit, we are offering praise to Jesus. In Dunn’s words, “Jesus is absorbing the worship due to God alone.” (pg. 147). Also, as to the question of the book’s title, Dunn says, “So our central question can indeed be answered negatively, and perhaps it should be.” (pg. 151)
While I am not well enough versed in Christology to offer a thorough critique of what Dunn says, there is one thing that he says which I would like to say something about:
In some ways this is the most difficult issue: that in the New Testament Jesus is sometimes called ‘god’, or should we say ‘God’? If ‘god’, is not that a step towards polytheism – Jesus as a second god beside the creator God? If ‘God’, then how are we to make sense of the first Christians’ clear memory that Jesus called for worship to be given only to God, and himself regularly prayed to God as his God and Father? The data itself poses as many questions as it resolves.
These problems and questions were raised in the early church, and through their interpretation of Scripture alongside the authority of apostolic tradition and teaching, the answer was that God is a triune being!
While I disagree with Dunn’s conclusions, I still appreciated reading this book. He raises interesting questions against Hurtado’s and Bauckham’s ideas of early Christian monotheism and the worship of Jesus. While I do see the New Testament as teaching (elemental) Trinitarianism, there are still one or two passages I have trouble with fitting in that framework (1 Cor 15:24-28 being the primary one).
The only negative about this book I have is that it is a rather small book (with a relatively larger than normal font size). Add to that the fact that there is a decent amount of footnotes, and it leaves me wishing Dunn had put a lot more meat into this book. I think that he could have provided a much deeper conversation with Hurtado and Bauckham.