Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?

Front Cover of Book

Front Cover of Book

On occassion I will also post reviews to ParanormalChrist…Here is the first of many installments.  This is a book review I wrote  and was published in Review and Expositor: A Baptist Consortium Theological Journal over James Dunn’s little monograph, “Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?”   This an edited and amended version so as to make my points, and the text, more clear.  I hope you enjoy this debate about First Century Christianity and New Testament.  But even more, I hope it deepens your faith and creates a passion for critical inquiry into the paranormal reality of the Christ.*

Here is a question that very few Christians ever get around to asking, “Did the first Christians worship Jesus?”  This may seem like a strange question upon many eyes and ears, yet it is one that has a diverse witness across the New Testament.  Jesus did not worship himself nor did he ever promote himself as an object of worship.  So at what point did the Christian church quit proclaiming the proclamation of Jesus, i.e., the “Kingdom of God” and start proclaiming, “Jesus is God so let’s worship him”? At what point did worship shift from being directed to the God of Jesus (as even Jesus taught), to worshipping Jesus as God?  What was the historical transition?  What was the role of Jesus in early Christian worship and how was devotion to Jesus understood in the very fluid context of the first century?  To these questions, James D. G. Dunn, attempts to provide some clarity using a text that is most near and dear to many practicing Christians: the New Testament.

In so doing, Dunn, who is a Pauline scholar by trade, resumes his recent scholarly forays into the tradition of Jesus in this fascinating discussion of early Jesus devotion.  Dunn has written extensively on the theology of Paul and early Christianity, proving himself to be well qualified for the delicate task of handling the content of Christian dogma.  As an addendum to his larger works, Jesus Remembered and Beginning from Jerusalem, Dunn is here focusing his attention directly to the topic of the worship of Jesus within the context of early Christian monotheistic convictions; the issues are many, and the questions difficult, but the result is a brief text with great implications for those who are not deterred by the very provocative title.

On the surface it would appear that the tradition of Jesus as God, and as an object of worship, would be the presumption of the New Testament authors, yet such is not necessarily the case.  Dunn asks at the outset, “Would Jesus himself have welcomed his being confessed as equal with God?”  In other words, did Jesus want to be worshiped?  He continues, “The way to an answer may be more difficult or challenging than at first appeared, and the answer to the question may be less straightforward than we like.”  Indeed, as Dunn will point out, an objective look at the New Testament is not uniform on this question and pluralistic approaches to Jesus devotion is the only singularity in this sacred text on Jesus.

In searching for an answer to the problem of Jesus devotion, Dunn structures his text around the topic of worship within the context of monotheistic belief.  If one is to understand whether or not Jesus was worshiped  one should first understand the various rubrics of worship within the first century.  So Dunn explores the idea of Jesus being worshiped by studying the means, and objects, through which early Christians worshipped.  Thus, the four chapters of the book are formed by Dunn’s understanding of what constitutes essential worship, and theistic persuasions, within the canonical witness of both Old and New Testaments.

First, he defines what worship is and secondly moves on to discuss the practices and sacred places of worship.  Thirdly, he explores the question of to whom worship was given or directed.  The final chapter examines the role of Jesus within these three areas of worship and explores in brief detail the New Testament witness on the matter. He concludes with a summary of the entire text and his findings.

A strength of Dunn’s investigation is his attempt to not only engage the New Testament text and its diverse witness on this subject, but it’s attempt to engage the text while maintaining constant dialogue with two of his theological contemporaries and New Testament authorities Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham.  Both of these scholars have also recently published monumental works on early Christianity and the tradition of Jesus.  The personal interaction between these three scholars proves as the larger academic conversation from which Dunn is working.  Through constant conversation with the New Testament, and his colleagues, Dunn notes areas of weakness and strengths across their various positions, offering an alternative approach to their conclusions when necessary.  At every turn, however, Dunn is gracious, even in disagreement

An unexpected strength of the text is Dunn’s erudite handling of orthodoxy and the history of early Church dogma.  He is comfortable using the Greek metaphysical language of the councils and offers insight into how these ancient formulations may cause more confusion than clarity.   He is aware that his results will have implications for how we understand historical doctrines such as the Trinity, and also how we understand various heresies, such as modalism.  With brief warning, Dunn points out that if we misidentify Jesus and his relationship to the Father, we could again fall into the trap of Modalism, a belief that the God of the Old Testament and Jesus is the same being.  This leads us to “Jesus-olatry,” turning the icon into an idol and fails to be consistent with the witness given to us in the New Testament.

For Dunn, the New Testament offers a range of meaning and images that the authors felt necessary to talk about Jesus and their devotion to him.  He ultimately concludes his book asking for reserve on the question of whether Jesus was worshipped and points his readers to embrace the New Testament concept of Jesus as a means through which worship is directed to God, rather than the object at which our worship stops.  For Dunn, this is the New Testament evidence summarized.

While many would read the title of this text and assume this is a scholar with an agenda, Dunn is really attempting to let the New Testament speak for itself on the matter of Jesus as an object of worship.  Dunn is not promoting any specific Protestant perspective, nor is he attempting to deconstruct Catholic orthodoxy.  The book is about seriously engaging the plurality of the New Testament witness on an area that is pivotal to contemporary Christian witness, faith and practice.  Thus, this is an excellent, concise and clearly written text for anyone who takes the bible critically and seriously…and wants to deepen their faith by more than emotional appeal.  And for all Christians who affirm the tradition of the priesthood of all believers, this book is important as we daily do ministry in the world and attempt to understand the role Jesus played in ancient worship and the role he must play for each of us as we offer praise to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit.

2 thoughts on “Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?

    • I don’t think the Eucharist as an act of Thanksgiving would be inconsistent with what we find in early Christianity and even in Jesus’ first breaking of bread…but certainly the recapitulation of violence seems problematic to me…as well as the Aristotelian logic of transubstantiation. It is dubious to center an entire theology of sacrifice on one Johannine text and then construct a theology in which God is complicit in human sacrifice. It’s one thing to sing about the blood of Jesus, quite another to get some on our shoes in worship. Ive not written extensively about Eucharist but I’d dare say that there is more happening at a structural level via the community of a common bread and cup…then there is about a mystical transaction that is lost in utter ineffability. But you ask a good question, “would Jesus condone RC theology on the Eucharist and would he favor self worship?”. If you read Dunn, which I would encourage, he reminds us that worship is directed to God through the Christ; Christ is not the object at which our faith stops in worship…and invoking trinity doesn’t help here as the logic of Greek Trinitarian theology is usually self-affirming and not helpful on any level of being, unless being is best defined as a being beyond our own being, which I think a robust theology of incarnation would call into question since incarnation is Gods insistence that human-being matters.

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