Nick Norelli on Sacrifice, Monotheism and Christology

Nick Norelli posted an entry on his blog about sacrificial worship, connecting it with James D. G. Dunn’s book Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? and also with my own book, The Only True God.

Nick questions whether animal sacrifice was the sine qua non – but doesn’t clarify the sine qua non of what, leaving his point somewhat obscure. But as far as my own views on the topic, animal sacrifice was the form of worship which par excellence indicated monotheistic allegiance in practice, both through that sort of sacrifice being offered to Yahweh alone in the Jerusalem temple, and through the refusal to offer such sacrifice to any other figure or in any other place. Neither Dunn nor I view animal sacrifice as the only “true” form of worship. But it was the one sort of worship that most Jews seem to have agreed could be offered to the one God alone and to none other. Addressing angels prayerfully, prostrating oneself before another person (the Greek term usually translated “worship” came to have a vague broad range comparable to the English word, but originally referred to prostration), and other actions could be offered to other figures but could also be part of the worship of the one God. And so these other actions did not serve to express monotheistic allegiance to the same extent or for as many Jews as animal sacrifice did.

Since the Greek word ἀπαρχή (usually meaning “firstfruits” in the Bible) was also used metaphorically, one should not make too much of it. The use of the term in and of itself does not clearly indicate a redefinition of monotheism or monolatry.

With respect to his claim that early Christians all felt that the sacrifice of Jesus meant they were to cease participating in the sacrificial worship of the temple, Nick is clearly in error. The Book of Acts in particular depicts Christians participating in temple worship (even Paul himself does so!). We should not read the viewpoint of the Epistle to the Hebrews into the entirety of early Christian literature.

The other instances Nick mentions, such as the Lord’s Supper, were connected with Jesus’ sacrifice to God, not sacrifice addressed to him. The difference is significant.

I will add that my point is not that we should have expected Christians to turn up at the temple insisting that animals be offered to Jesus. My point is simply that, had they done that, and had such actions been recorded and preserved, then we would have no doubt that they had either departed from monotheism, or included Jesus within the worship of the one God in the way that Bauckham, Wright and others suggest. But since they did not offer to Jesus the one sort of offering that would have made such a development unambiguous, we must rely on other things, such as what they actually say. And what they say explicitly suggests that, for the most part, Christians worshiped the God of Jesus, and approached God through Jesus’ sacrifice, praising Jesus as the representative of God’s dominion, but in no way giving unambiguous expression to a redefinition of monotheism.

That last point is crucial. When a person or group rethinks a core commitment, they can be expected to do so explicitly. If we found any other group of Jews continuing to assert that “God is one” and that this God is “the only true God,” we would remain persuaded of their monotheism, even if they made some statements that could be interpreted as subtle departures from monotheism. Emphatic statements of adherence, and no clear, unambiguous statements of rethinking, normally suggest that we are dealing with a person or group that has not departed from core convictions. I am not persuaded that this line of reasoning applies any less to early Christianity.

I thank Nick Norelli for keeping discussion of early Christology alive in the blogosphere!

  • Dave Burke

    The fact that we find no reference to sacrificial worship of Jesus in the NT but instead find Christians worshipping alongside Jews in the synagogues, suggests an ideological continuity rather than the breach we would expect if Jesus was now being worshipped by Christians as God.

    It is interesting that Jewish opposition to Christianity in the NT never involves accusations of polytheism, nor do the Jews ever allege that Christians have redefined God or elevated a man to the status of God. They are invariably infuriated when Christians claim Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah and insist that the Law is no longer required, but this is as far as it goes.

  • Ben

    What are your thoughts on Matthew 27:47, 49: When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘This man is calling for Elijah’ … But the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.’It seems to me that bystanders, though mistaken, thought Jesus was supernaturally communicating with Elijah.Also, on the subject of Monotheism and NT Christology I find it interesting that Bauckham (Jesus and the God of Israel, pg. 183) objects to relevance of ‘so-called intermediary figures’ because they ”were created by and remain subject to the one God, as his worshippers and servants, however exalted.” But isn’t that what the NT says of Jesus? “The firstborn of all creation” and “the beginning of God’s creation” (Col 1:15, Rev 3:14) suggest the former, as does “I live because of the Father” (John 6:57). What about the numerous statements that Jesus is subject to God (passim)? What about the phrase “The God and Father of our/the Lord, Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:6; 2 Cor 1:3; Eph 1:3, 17; etc.)? It suggests functional subordination and ontological division (i.e. Jesus is not the same God as his God). And also 1 Timothy 2:5, I don’t think Bauckham even cites it, much less tries to show how it fits with his exegesis of 1 Corinthians 8:6 (cf. Eph 4:4-6).

  • Anonymous

    When a person or group rethinks a core commitment, they can be expected to do so explicitly.

    That sure seems to me to be what the author of John is doing.  As I understand it, the idea of an exalted agent who was nonetheless human was familiar to first century Jews while the idea of God incarnate was completely unknown.  

  • Ivan

    In your post you stated that angels were also prayed to. Can you give us references please? It would be much appreciated.

    Best,

    Ivan

  • Isaiah_burton

    James, I was just curious as to what you think about Phil. 2:5 in relation to Jesus as deity. I’m curious how you would translate that verse and what do you think that it and the surrounding verses are saying about the issue, if anything.
    Also, certianly many people or groups like to make clear breaks when they rethink core commitments, but don’t extinuating circumstances sometimes apply? In the case of early believers it seems that they originally wanted to reform Judaism (not create something totally new) and if they had made a big deal about who they believed Jesus really was it would have put that process in exteme jeopardy.

    • Dave Burke

      Isaiah,

      >>
      In the case of early believers it seems that they originally wanted to
      reform Judaism (not create something totally new)
      >>

      I agree.

      >>
      and if they had made a
      big deal about who they believed Jesus really was it would have put
      that process in exteme jeopardy.
      >>

      How so? The process was already in jeopardised by the Christians’ rejection of the Law and their insistence that Jesus was the Messiah. They were expelled from synagogues, beaten in public, and incarcerated with the High Priest’s approval.

      It’s difficult to see how an additional revelation about Jesus could have made things any worse than they already were. And is it really credible that Christians would have preached their life-saving message without ever mentioning that Jesus is God?

      • Isaiah_burton

        Yeah, but when pushing a bunch of information on people you usually don’t do it all in one step. Like when teaching children math you start with addition, then go on to subtraction, you don’t start with algebra. Early believers may have drastically changed there views on the efficacy of the law but it seems that they still followed it. They also were not anti temple and their belief in Jesus as the messiah wouldn’t have been that strange, the Jews were looking for a messiah. While these differences were enough to cause the split between Christians and Jews, that was nothing compared to saying Jesus was God incarnate, to Jews who recited the shema! Like algebra, I don’t believe that they were hiding its existence, but that they were teaching basics in order to help others come over time to understand the entirety of their message.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Ivan, in The Only True God I discuss evidence from Jewish funerary steles found in Delos, which invoke God and his angels in the vocative to protect the tomb. See also this web page of Meir Bar-Ilan’s.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Isaiah, I find it hard to believe that the earliest Christians radically rethought the central monotheistic emphasis of Judaism (not denied it, to be clear, but rethought it and reformulated it in a significantly innovative way), and then in a calculated manner avoided giving clear expression to it in their literature and speech, so as to avoid giving excessive offense.

    It seems to me that there is a simpler explanation for why the Christlogical statements in earliest Christian sources seem not to have been controversial: they weren’t, or at least, not in and of themselves. As I argue in a couple of places, I think what was controversial were not ideas like the Logos or an exalted figure bearing the divine name, but the application of such ideas to Jesus, who had been crucified and who had been rejected by Jewish leaders.

  • Dave Burke

    Isaiah,

    >>
    Yeah, but when pushing a bunch of information on people you usually don’t do it all in one step.
    >>

    True, but you do give them an overview of the subject, and you explain why they need to know what you’re telling them.

    >>
    Like algebra, I don’t believe that they were hiding its existence, but
    that they were teaching basics in order to help others come over time to
    understand the entirety of their message.
    >>

    What basics did they teach to help others arrive at the conclusion that Jesus is God? I’m looking in the book of Acts right now, and I honestly can’t see anything that would lead people to embrace that idea. The apostles were even baptising people into the Christian faith without ever mentioning Jesus’ deity. What does that suggest about the importance of this idea in their overall theology?


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