Jesus: When was he first worshiped?

James D.G. Dunn was my doctoral supervisor. I have visited with Jimmy most every year since the early 1980s at the annual academic conferences, and this sketch of his newest book needs to be seen in that light. In many ways, this book returns to the sort of work he was doing in the 1980s when I was his student and which established the kind of scholarship he does. Reading the book was like sitting in the seminar room in Nottingham, flanked by Goldingay and Casey, with Dunn engaging two scholars — Hurtado and Bauckham — in typically Dunnian form.

The question Jimmy Dunn asks is actually slightly different than the title of this post: Did the first Christians worship Jesus? This question, the subject of Dunn’s newest book Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?: The New Testament Evidence, surfaces from the claims of Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham, both of whom contend that Jesus was worshiped by the Christians early, within just a few years. That question gets modified as the study proceeds.

It would take a long review to do full justice to this book, and it would complicate the review to engage with the subtleties of this debate with Hurtado and Bauckham, so I want to focus on Dunn’s major conclusions because he is taking issue with both of these scholars and contending, in essence, that they have overstated the evidence.

1. When it comes to the terms for “worship,” though there is evidence these terms were used of Jesus, there is a reserve on the early Christians’ part. He says “Generally no” or “only occasionally” [but this opens up a fissure into the whole issue. It’s like the deity of Christ discussion: are we looking for evidence that his deity pervades everything, as we will find in later discussions, or are we looking for evidence that one or more NT statements make that claim. Once one finds one incontestable, or at least one instance, the Christian’s instinct is to say “So, yes, they did worship Jesus.”] Dunn thinks the NT shows Jesus is both the source of worship and the object of that worship.

2. When it comes to the practice of worship, the evidence is similar: few prayers are addressed to him, few hymns to him, no sacrifices to him. What we find is that Jesus is wholly bound up with their worship. This provokes another question: was their worship possible without Christ?

3. Monotheism, heavenly mediators and divine agents: worship was always of God, though angels and Wisdom and Logos etc were seen as the immanence of God. The rising of Christ to heavenly status was indeed possible within the world of the earliest Christians.

4. The most significant chp in this book concerns the NT evidence, and this chp flows out of Dunn’s major work on the development of early Christian christology (Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry Into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation). The earliest Christians saw him as a prophet without peer, they called him Lord, they invoked him in prayer, they identified him with Word and Wisdom; thus, they called him God. Yet, this same Jesus called someone God, the Father. The God of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus was seen as the presence of God, the immanence of God. Thus: “the first Christians did not think of Jesus as to be worshiped in and for himself” (146). “He was not to be worshipped as wholly God, or fully identified with God, far less as a god” (146). And this leads to his big conclusion:

If he was worshipped it was worship offered to God in and through him, worship of Jesus-in-God and God-in-Jesus.

Christian monotheism, if it is to be truly monotheism, has still to assert that only God, only the one God, is to be worshipped.

So the distinctive element of Christianity is that God is to be worshiped through and in Jesus Christ.

5. Thus there is a danger of Jesus-olatry, a worship of Jesus that detracts from the one true God. Earliest Christian worship of God through and in Jesus Christ does not diminish monotheism. The Christian claim is that in Jesus God has revealed God’s self. All Christian worship worships the one God, the Father, through and in Jesus Christ.

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  • Rick

    “Monotheism, heavenly mediators and divine agents: worship was always of God, though angels and Wisdom and Logos etc were seen as the immanence of God. The rising of Christ to heavenly status was indeed possible within the world of the earliest Christians.”

    However, Hurtado has written:
    “In my analyis of “ancient Jewish monotheism”, with a number of other scholars, I’ve noted that in the second-temple period Jewish concern about “one God” was also able to accommodate this or that figure as a kind of “principal agent” or “vizier”, set over God’s retinue of angels, etc, and in various ways second only to God. (I’ve laid out the specifics at some length in One God, one Lord.) But I’ve also emphasized as crucial that none of these figures is incorporated into the devotional life of ancient Jews in ways that really compare with the role of Jesus in the devotional life of earliest Christian circles. That is, the decisive new thing about Jesus in these circles (in my view) is precisely that: He is quickly and programmatically incorporated into their devotional practice (the specifics laid out likewise in One God, One Lord)…It’s a bit of a puzzle and disappointment, therefore, that occasionally I’ve found my position characterized as ascribing the worship of Jesus to Jewish principal agent traditions”

  • Rick

    “few prayers are addressed to him, few hymns to him, no sacrifices to him. What we find is that Jesus is wholly bound up with their worship.”

    Hurtado writes in a 2010 essay about Dunn’s view:

    “…it is worth noting that the Gospels portray Jesus as a devout Jew, and also that
    the devotional practices that erupted so early in Christian circles are not read back into their accounts of Jesus’ ministry. It appears that Dunn sees this as indicating (and so justifying today) some reserve about Jesus as recipient of worship. But the NT texts explicitly make the cultic veneration of Jesus as based on, and the response to, God’s resurrection and exaltation of him to heavenly glory (e.g., Philip. 2:9-11; Acts 2:36; Rom 1:1-2). So how could one expect NT authors to depict the “pre-Easter” Jesus demanding that he be worshipped? Even in the Gospel of John, which explicitly portrays Jesus with the hindsight of the post-Easter revelation of “the Paraclete”, the author distinguishes between what was perceived and practiced before and after Jesus’ resurrection.5 In any case, the rationale given in the NT for cultic veneration of Jesus is God’s exaltation of him, not that the Galilean Jesus commanded it.”
    According to Hurtado, we should not expect it pre-Easter, we do see it in Paul (although Dunn does not think it is as clear there), and we do see it in Revelation (Dunn acknowledges that about Revelation).

  • Andrew Watson

    If you take the Gospels at their word, then all of the key leaders of the Movement( the Disciples) worshiped Jesus from his Resurrection onward. Paul is also a clear and vocal Christ worshiper.

  • tedstur

    “As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet
    with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and
    poured perfume on them.”

    Hmmm…. seems pretty early on to me.

  • DRT

    A church I used to attend would make the argument that only Jesus should be worshipped because we cannot know God, only Jesus. Then, they would make claims for the existence of god because they see evidence throughout their lives of the presence of a god. Those never added up, and wish they would read this since It seems much cleaner to adopt the above view of immanence and worship of God, I love it.

    I would also like to have Scot or someone unpack for me Dunn’s statement:

    Christian monotheism, if it is to be truly monotheism, has still to assert that only God, only the one God, is to be worshipped.

    Is this saying just what it is at face value, namely that Christianity does not assert this? Or merely well enough? Or…..

  • Wow, this is going to be very controversial within evangelical circles!

    I am still wondering if the way Dunn et al. approach the new Testament is entirely free of worldview commitments.

    That is do they consider it possible that Jesus may or may not have been God (even if he was not entirely Aware of it as N.T. Wright speculated)?

    Or doers he presupposes a kind of deism which guides him in picking, choosing and dating the various texts?

    I don’t know, I will have to read him before finding it out.

    According to my experience, liberals can be as biased as conservatives in some respects, and the Dogma “no supernaturally active God” can be as a hindrance as the Dogma “no contradiction in the Bible”.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • William

    The Deity and worship of Christ is non-negotiable biblically even if there was a transition in understanding or pre-theoretical, experiential approach to the triune God before formalizations in response to later heretical attacks.

  • Patrick Mitchel


    Granted, Jesus never ‘replaces’ or ‘displaces’ God in NT devotion; he was not to be worshipped only for himself as Dunn puts it. But it seems to me that Dunn’s push back against Bauckham and Hurtado lacks edge. They (and I generalise since they have distinct ways of framing things) would agree about the dangers of Jesus-olatry. But while some popular forms of Christian worship go there, neither Bauckham or Hurtado are proposing anything near this.

    Hurtado speaks at length of how the NT does not present a ‘new’ deity, there is continuity but also radical development in the understanding of God himself. His big point is that ‘The collective force of the NT on this point is that “God” must be understood and engaged devotionally in light of Jesus.’ [God in NT Theology, p.71]. Thinking about God cannot now be done without reflection on the centrality of Jesus.

    Absolutely, it isn’t simplistic. Unpacking NT Christology is rich and multi-layered, soaked in biblical themes and imagery that by definition is not scientific and formulaic language. But the big point it seems to me is how remarkable it is how the NT writers hold this tension between unhesitatingly including Jesus alongside / ‘in the identity of’ God, and yet uncompromisingly holding onto monotheism.

    There are echoes here of course of long trinitarian debates about God’s oneness held together with his threeness. Maybe I’m just thick, but Dunn is hard to pin down as to what he is actually contending for. He wants to affirm and defend oneness but doesn’t seem to want to side with Arius (?), yet seems overly reluctant / ambivalent about acknowleging the remarkably high Christology of the NT.

    Would love to have a chat sometime about your take on all of this!

  • Bob Wilson

    Scot, before taking your fine kingdom class at Regent (challenging your argument that Biblical ´justice´required full eschatological retribution), I took Hurtado´s great small class there focused on this issue. That class was full of ¨Jimmy says….,¨and I pressed him on Dunn´s language in the little book you cite. FWIW, my impression was that the differences are largely semantic, with perhaps slight difference on timing of the development of the worship of Jesus. Hurtado seemed to agree that how we Christians have often talked of Jesus as part of a Trinitarian Godhead problematically lacked the nuances of the New Testament´s own high and worshipful view of Jesus.

  • Tom Beeghly

    Thanks tedstur and Andrew…. Yes, Jesus was worshiped from the beginning. I like Thomas’ worship: “My Lord and my God.”

  • RonSimkins

    Thank you for the excellent summary of Dr. Dunn’s book. I appreciated the book, and appreciated your summary of his main points very much.

  • Dan Harvey

    When was our Lord Jesus first worshipped?

    Matthew 2:11 — And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him.

    Matthew 8:2 — And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him.

    Matthew 9:18 — behold, there came a certain ruler, and worshipped him.

    Matthew 14:33 — Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him.

    Matthew 15:25 — Then came she and worshipped him.

    Matthew 18:26 — The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him.

    Matthew 28:9, Post-resurrection, in the morning (or do you doubt that too?) — And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.

    Matthew 28:17 — Post-resurrection, the eleven disciples — And when they saw him, they worshipped him.

    Acts 10:25-26 — Peter meeting Cornelius — And as Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him, and fell down at his feet, and worshipped him. But Peter took him up, saying, Stand up; I myself also am a man.

    Revelation 19:10 — Angel to John — And I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me, See thou do it not: I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God.

    John Newton said it best in the late 1700’s —
    What think you of Christ? is the test
    To try both your state and your scheme;
    You cannot be right in the rest,
    Unless you think rightly of him.

    Dan Harvey