Jesus: When was he first worshiped?

Jesus: When was he first worshiped? September 9, 2013

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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