James D. G. Dunn, Did The First Christians Worship Jesus?

James D. G. Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?: The New Testament Evidence (SPCK/Westminster John Knox, 2010)
Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?: The New Testament EvidenceI 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.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    Agency is a good term for Dunn to use.1 Corinthians 8:6'For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Cor. 8)'Jesus was the agent through whom all things came and the agent through whom all things lived.

  • http://afeatheradrift.wordpress.com Sherry Peyton

    Thanks for this. It was most helpful to me in understanding where Dunn is coming from.

  • Anonymous

    "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 don't understand what it means to go too far in the other direction. If the biblical authors didn't see Jesus as a member of a "godhead," if he was not worshipped as such by early followers, if the proper concept of his status in the literature is as god's agent, then it seems to argue that the concept of Jesus as part of the trinity was a later development whose truth is dependent upon the concept of church authority or progressive revelation. Now, those maybe fine concepts, but the vast majority of christians don't understand their beliefs to be based on such grounds. They are under the (false, I would say) impresion that their beliefs about the nature of divinity were passed down from the earliest christ-followers.But back to my original question. It seems the evidence points out that Jesus' identity as divine was a later concept, which indicates that he did not teach it and it doesn't say so in the bible. Therefore, its truth stands on shaky grounds. How does noting those facts constitute "going too far?"pf

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    That's a great question, and my shorthand is open to misunderstanding. What I understood him to mean is that a recognition that the first Christians as a rule did not worship Jesus need not result in a paring away of all "Jesus content" from Christian worship. Jesus' mediatorial role, as the "human face of God", still has a place. Christians worship God, but do so "in Christ" and "through Christ" (not to mention "in the Spirit"). That language originally was reflective of Christian worship more than (or probably rather than) of a metaphysical understanding of God as Triune. And so I think Dunn is saying that such threefold language has its origins in Christian worship, and need not be eliminated in an attempt to return to a more original approach.I don't know if that clarifies things…I should have more coffee before trying to comment!

  • Christopher

    As a pastor who wants to get up to speed concerning the current debates on monotheism,Christology and worship, what books, besides this one by Dunn, should I read.

  • Anonymous

    James, thanks for making an effort to respond. But your point: "And so I think Dunn is saying that such threefold language has its origins in Christian worship, and need not be eliminated in an attempt to return to a more original approach…" is John Hobbins-ian in its awkwardness.I know you are trying to restate Dunn's opinions, but that is a deft line to walk. So the evidence is that Jesus didn't claim to be god and the bible doesn't say there is a trinity or a godhead. But we should believe it because the concepts have roots in the later practice of the religion? That's a very weak argument. And it's why, as I've said before, that fundamentalists don't countenance rational analysis of the bible, because the result is not favorable to belief.Christopher: if there is one book you should read, it is "When Jesus Became God" by Richard Rubenstein. Great history of the fourth century, and how the doctrine of the trinity was established.pf

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    Anonymous, while I don't find the trinity language useful, I wouldn't fault those with a traditional attachment to it. i don't think God gets to upset by these sorts of things and at this point a ultimate definition of God isn't necessarily clear. I think for some the identification of Jesus as God creates a misunderstanding of the nature of Jesus of Nazareth. Did he have power over the laws of the universe? Did he know every thing, could he ever be mistaken? Many say yes, yes, and no. I think they are mistaken. On the other hand, we know that early Jews sacrificed animals at any convenient place and called God by his proper name, -, whatever it was. I don't think Judaism is invalid unless they go back to these practices even though someone like Elijah would have a fit if he knew that his ancestors would be abandoning the use of the Name and the burnt offerings.

  • Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

    James,I wonder why the Col. 1:15-20 account of Jesus is not used alongside of I Corinthians 8:6?NET:1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation,1:16 for all things in heaven and on earth were created by him – all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers – all things were created through him and for him.1:17 He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him.1:18 He is the head of the body, the church, as well as the beginning, the firstborn from among the dead, so that he himself may become first in all things.1:19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell 36 in the Son 1:20 and through him to reconcile all things to himself by making peace through the blood of his cross – through him, whether things on earth or things in heaven.Considering the language used by Paul in describing Jesus Christ it would seem that the equality with God and Phil 2:6 would be of supreme interest to any one trying to describe what the First Christians believed.Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for all these comments. Bryant, there are a lot of aspects to the issue that your question seems not to consider, such as (1) Colossians may not be authentically by Paul. Dunn's suggestion in his commentary is that it may have been written by Timothy under Paul's guidance, and he thus seeks to account for how the letter can seem to be so Pauline and yet so non-Pauline at the same time.You also don't mention (2) the Wisdom background to the language, which is relevant because most understand the similar pre-existence language applied to Wisdom and Torah in works like Wisdom of Solomon or Baruch literally, and so it is unclear why we should assume that Colossians 1:15-20 is saying anything other than that Christ embodies God inasmuch as God can be encountered, God's Wisdom. This is of course my way of putting it – for Dunn's, see his Christology in the Making.I'm not sure if this answers your question. But your question/statement seems to leave out of consideration both the background to the language in Colossians and Philippians, and the fact that in Philippians equality with God is something not grasped at the beginning, and the ultimate superiority of God to all things is affirmed at the end, just as it is in 1 Corinthians 15. pf, I don't think you're understanding what I'm saying or what Dunn is. Both are presumably my fault, since I'm trying to summarize Dunn!Jimmy himself said in an e-mail that my quotation of only part of his final paragraph might give an incomplete impression, and so here it is in full:"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."I'm also going to add that to the review itself.Christopher, it really depends what you're most interested in. My book The Only True God is a lot like Dunn's, focused on the New Testament evidence and its immediate context in history, for the most part. If you're interested in the history of the development of Christian doctrine and the debates leading up to the Council of Nicaea, R. P. C. Hanson's The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God is enormous but illuminating. But you may be more interested in contemporary issues in theology and inter-religious dialogue. I have a book that is more focused on that on my shelf, which I'll be reviewing sometime this summer, if all goes well. But let me know what you're most interested in, and perhaps I can be more helpful!

  • Anonymous

    James, thanks for the reply. I appreciate Prof. Dunn's attempt to clarify as well. And though I understand the point, it still does not make sense to me. First, it goes against the grain of how Christianity has been practiced. I understand that makes it no less true. Second, if Jesus is not special by nature, then what makes him the central focus of worship more than, say, Moses and Elijah?Third, if he is not special by nature, it seems far less likely that the extraordinary claims about him (for excample the miracles) are still true.And I fail to see the majesty of Christ absent his miraculous nature. If you strip the story of its supernatural elements, jesus is a prophet — to be sure, single-minded and devoted to a high degree — but what makes him so special that he is singled out as the vessel of worship? His death? His resurrection? Those things don't involve who Jesus was necessarily. Prof. Dunn does a great service by his research. I read his book about the variance in early chistian belief and thought it was amazing. However, I think the facts that he elicits lead to different conclusions. Pf

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    I'm sure the very first Christians did think of Jesus as special by his nature.As 1 Corinthians 8:6 says '…and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.'Jesus Christ was the Lord through whom all things came, in the eyes of the very first Christians.

  • http://mikew1584.wordpress.com/ mikew1584

    PF, I agree with your points. As much as I like Jesus as he is presented, I can't see him personally having a special relationship to God apart form anyone else. I don't think this dooms Christianity, but it would require mythologizing Jesus so the focus isn't on the Galilean carpenter and more on what he represents as a type. Jesus' followers thought that the Jews had a special relationship to God and the Messiah of the Jews also had a special relationship with God. George Washington will always be the first president of the U.S.A. but being the eternal president of the human race or creation maybe not. By the same token, Jesus' followers can believe that he is the Messiah, but that he personally is the intellect and heart of God apart from anyone else can't be substantiated. On the other hand Christianity frequently offers the followers of Christ incorporation with Jesus, and in that sense it might be said that all who are like Jesus reflect the Word of God.

  • Anonymous

    Steven Carr, is someone else posting in your name? You seem different. The verse you cite clearly differentiates Jesus from YHWH, in fact it is a favorite verse of unitarians for that reason. God the father is divine, Jesus is below him as lord (not the Lord). What's more, the book was written decades after Jesus died. I don't think it speaks to what Jesus or his immediate disciples taught. Pf

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    1 Corinthians was written decades after the events and so is not representative of what was believed about Jesus by the earliest Christians?'God the father is divine, Jesus is below him as lord (not the Lord).'There is but one Lord, through who all things came….In Paul's eyes, Jesus was involved in creating all things, as he was the one true Lord.Which obviously meant that Paul never worshipped Jesus, confirming Dunn's theory.As Dunn says, it would not have been controversial for the earliest Christians to claim that a crucified criminal had been the agent through whom God had created all things.The case for that being controversial is 'suprisingly weak'.

  • http://restorationfellowship.org Anthony Buzzard

    Dr. McGrath,As a professor of NT, I have followed James Dunn's and your illuminating work on Christology. In the Bible belt one is likely to be regarded as sub-Christian if one is not prepared to say "Jesus is [i.e. is identified as] YHWH." Happily James Dunn now says in this latest book "Jesus is not YHWH, not the God of Israel." Might I suggest that Psalm 110:1 be allowed to speak to us much more loudly than has thus far been permitted. The second lord, adoni, is as you know the form of adon (lord) reserved exclusively for non-Deity figures (all 195 occurrences). In Mark 12 Jesus affirms that only one is the Lord God. By going on to cite Ps. 110:1 (the NT's all-time favorite quotation from the OT) Jesus showed that as Messiah he was destined to occupy the supreme position at the right hand of YHWH. Expressly, David knew Jesus to be adoni (my lord) certainly not Adonai. Unfortunately this simple language fact is not infrequently actually misstated on the internet (which is more understandable) — but even in commentaries. Luke after all saw that Jesus was the lord Messiah (Lk 2:11) who was the one YHWH's anointed (Lk 2:26). Two who are YHWH, i.e. 2 YHWH's, is unthinkable and is decisively excluded by Ps. 110:1. Well did Charles Bigg, regius professor of ecclesiastical history at Oxford, write: "The apostles did not identify Jesus as YHWH. Psalm 110 prevented this."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12112783430307058965 Ebenezer Sydney

    Mr Buzzard.How do you account for Jesus' saying at Mar 12.37; Mat 22.45 in reference to Ps 110.1 when he asks: "Since David himself called the Messiah ‘my Lord,’ how can the Messiah be his son?"Doesn't this somehow proof Jesus' Deity?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00497753051548808248 Xavier

    Anonymous…"…if Jesus is not special by nature, then what makes him the central focus of worship more than, say, Moses and Elijah?"If I could retort with another question: Why isn't it enough for most people to read that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah, naturally created Son of the one God of Israel [YHWH]? see Mat 1.1, 18-20; Luke 1.30-35.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03148092715058623143 Anthony Buzzard

    Ebenezer,The whole point of Ps. 110:1 is that the second lord, adoni, my lord is the title of non-Deity superiors, all 195 times. Adoni is the royal title for the king and other superiors. Anyone reading Ps. 110:1 would not imagine God speaking to God! In an inspired oracle, God is addressing David's lord, who as Messiah is also David's Son. Jesus makes them think. The solution is that, born as David's son, Jesus becomes by exaltation the lord of David. This is most unusual but true of Jesus as the only one yet resurrected and exalted to heaven.The second lord, being adoni, expressly defines the Messiah as non-Deity. However, on the internet and in some commentary, the Hebrew word for the second lord is misreported as Adonai (the Lord God, all 449 times). Information about adoni and its meaning seems not to have been easily available to the Bible-reading public.

  • Ijaz Chaudry

    Dear Mr Dunn,I was delighted to read excerpts from your book "Did Early Christians worshiped Jesus?", I agree with you that they did NOT. You quite appropriatley took views from Old & New Testament. However, there is a third source which also agrees with what you said in a very clear a precise way this is the Final Testament The Quran.Muslims are quite rightly understood to be generally bad. This is because Today's Muslims are lost and do not follow The Quran and follow dreconian laws of 6 century AD and worship Muhammad instead of God based on books called Hadith…I include few veres from the Quran to illustrate what I am saying about Jesus;[3:52] When Jesus sensed their disbelief, he said, "Who are my supporters towards GOD?" The disciples said, "We are GOD's supporters; we believe in GOD, and bear witness that we are submitters (Muslims)." Make No Distinction Among God's Messengers[3:84] Say, "We believe in GOD, and in what was sent down to us, and in what was sent down to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the Patriarchs, and in what was given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction among any of them. To Him alone we are submitters."[5:73] Pagans indeed are those who say that GOD is a third of a trinity. There is no god except the one god. Unless they refrain from saying this, those who disbelieve among them will incur a painful retribution.Kind Regards

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    "Dear Mr. Dunn"? Is this a letter you intended to mail to the author of the book reviewed here? If so, I should inform you that you inadvertently left it as a comment on a blog instead…

  • Ijaz Chaudry

    Hi James,Thanks for the reply. The letter above had two purposes, one to contact James D.G Dunn (which I did not manage which you have pointed out) second to air my views.I would be obliged if you could send me James D.G Dunns email address, because I have not been able to find it. I'll be gratefull if you can. Send it to ijazchaudry@hotmail.com.Many Thanks

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I do not believe that Prof. Dunn has an e-mail address that is shared publicly.


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