Review: Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? by James D.G. Dunn

In the introduction to his latest book, James D.G. Dunn writes:
The title of this book is of course controversial--intentionally so, because the issue itself is unavoidably controversial--Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The immediate answer that most Christians will want to give is, 'Of course they did.'
Such Christians might well be surprised--possibly even disturbed--by the answer Dunn gives in his conclusion. The book is brief--only 151 pages, not including the bibliography and indices--but his examination of the evidence is very thorough, and his conclusion is well argued. He frequently interacts with the work of two other British scholars who have paid considerable attention to this question--and answered it in the affirmative--Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham.

One problem that confronts anyone who seriously engages with this question is the meaning of the term "worship." Dunn suggests that, whatever else it might mean, it amounts to an affirmation of the deity of the one worshipped. His first chapter considers the language of worship in the New Testament, which clearly demonstrates the problem. The most common word translated as "worship" is the verb proskynein, which generally means "(fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully," according to the authoritative Bauer-Danker lexicon. Often the word is indeed used to denote an action directed toward God. Other times, however, these same words simply mean bowing down or prostrating oneself before a superior, as when Jacob bows down before his brother Esau (Gen 33.3 LXX), or when a slave in one of Jesus's parables falls down on his knees before his master (Matt 18.26). So when proskynein is used to describe an action done toward Jesus, which is it? An affirmation of his deity (worship), or merely bowing down before a superior?

Other terms are similarly ambiguous. The ones that are not--such as the verb latreuein and it's corresponding noun, latreia--describe actions that are always directed toward God, never to Jesus. As far as the language of worship goes, the answer to the question would seem to be, as Dunn puts it, "'Generally no', or 'Only occasionally', or 'Only with some reserve.'"

Dunn next looks at the practice of worship, which is divided into four categories: prayer, hymns, sacred places/times/meals/people, and finally sacrifice. With the exception of sacred meals, where the "Lord's dinner/supper" (later, the "Eucharist") seems to reflect "a devotion to Christ that at least is not far from worship," there is little that would change the tentative answer reached by the end of the first chapter. Dunn finds that the distinctive practice of the earliest Christians might suggest that the question itself is misguided. He suggests instead that we should be asking whether early Christian worship was possible without reference to Christ, and also whether such worship was in part directed toward him, or only to God.

Dunn takes the next several chapters to answer these questions. He looks at how early ways of expressing "high christology" compare with Jewish ways of conceiving the immanence of God during the Second Temple period, for example, as Spirit, Wisdom, or Word. Since early high christologies appropriated these ideas, the question of whether they were ever considered the proper object of worship is quite relevant. He also questions whether the NT writers thought of Jesus as sharing in the "divine identity" of the one God of Israel, as Richard Bauckham maintains, ultimately concluding that they did not.

Dunn concludes his book with his final answer to the question. He notes that
there are problems, even dangers, in Christian worship if it is defined too simply as worship of Jesus. For, if what has emerged in this inquiry is taken seriously, it soon becomes evident that Christian worship can deteriorate into what may be called Jesus-olatry. That is, not simply into worship of Jesus, but into a worship that falls short of the worship due to the one God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This struck me as quite an honest admission from someone who is apparently an Evangelical (something I've had difficulty confirming). But this will not surprise anyone familiar with Dunn's work. I have always found him to be an honest and rigorous scholar.

I really enjoyed this book. Dunn, a Scot who taught for many years at the University of Durham, always writes in an engaging and accessible style. He is quite thorough in his investigation, and I think he weighs the evidence carefully and fairly. I sometimes wondered if he wasn't being a little too thorough, considering "evidence" that would scarcely make a difference regardless of how it was evaluated, but this is a minor quibble. The implications of his basically negative answer are not insignificant, but I imagine this will be most true for those Protestants who are loathe to admit any serious post-biblical development to their understanding of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, this book raises some questions that every thoughtful Christian should think about, and I highly recommend it.

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Blogger TheraP said...

This is a beautiful review, Prickliest. And a fascinating topic. For clearly Jesus, in the Gospels, was pointing always to the Father. He preached the Kingdom. He prayed to God. Only upon Pentecost did the disciples in any way feel moved to witness to what God had done in Christ. And the "church" in Jerusalem continued within Judaism for a quite some time.

I may read the book - on your recommendation. I have often felt that sometimes the Trinity - and the Primacy of the Father - gets overlooked in a focus on Jesus, at least by some traditions and even in common parlance.

As a personal note, it took me a long time to feel "related" to Jesus - which is maybe strange as so many people "find" Jesus first. I felt connected to the Father. Connected to the Spirit. Even from early childhood. But "Jesus" eluded me. I finally realized that maybe I've always been relating to the Trinity from "within" the Son - that I hadn't "experienced" a relationship with Jesus per se as this was so intimately bound up with participating in the Trinity via the Incarnation. (not sure if that makes sense or is even correct, but I comfort myself with that thought)

4:51 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

TheraP, thanks for your comment.

The "Primacy of the Father," as you put it, was long ago rejected when the personae of the Trinity were deemed coequal with one another. I find this rather astonishing, and agree with the large number of scholars who point out that Jesus himself would have rejected this notion of coequality. He was apparently remembered as having asked, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone?" (Mark 10.18 = Luke 18.19). Even the Gospel of John, which has by far the "highest" Christology among the gospels, has Jesus say quite explicitly, "the Father is greater than I" (14.28). Even more explicit is Paul: "When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all" (1 Cor 15.28).

The impression from Dunn's book is that the earliest Christians saw Christ as a mediating figure between God and humanity. Worship was not directed to him, but through him. I think Dunn makes the case very strongly.

6:39 p.m.  
Blogger crystal said...

Every passage I can think of that seems to say Jesus is God is in John. Why is that gospel so different from the others?

4:45 a.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Crystal, excellent question. I think there are a few different reasons for that.

First, you have to consider that John was the last of the Gospels to be written. That Jesus is most human in the earliest Gospel, Mark, and most divine in the latest Gospel, John, is probably to be expected. (John actually demonstrates several layers of development, with some early stories that reflect a lower christology, but that's too complicated to get into right now.)

Consider also the situation of the community that produced it. Unlike the communities in which the Synoptic Gospels took shape, the community in which John was produced was being quite explicitly barred from the synagogues -- they were aposynagōgos, literally, "put out of the synagogue" (John 9.22, 12.42, 16.2). This is not something that happened during Jesus's lifetime; rather, it is something that happened in the Johannine community late in the first century, that was retrojected into the story of Jesus's ministry.

Only in John are "the Jews" as such portrayed as enemies of Jesus. Again, this is not something that could have happened earlier, when many Christians would still have identified themselves as Jews. This separation was undoubtedly painful for people within the Johannine community, and it is likely that some would have given it up so as not to be "put out of the synagogue." This probably explains why some parts of John are so concerned with drawing clear boundaries around the "in-group," and promising damnation to anyone who doesn't explicitly confess Jesus to be the Messiah -- something that is basically absent from the Synoptics.

Raymond Brown's The Community of the Beloved Disciple goes into this is in great detail. I read it in university, but I don't own it for some reason, and basically everything I've said here is from memory, so there's a lot more to it than that.

6:21 p.m.  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks for the link to the book.

Another question .... I had gotten the idea that just after Jesus died his followers were already not accepted in the synagogue - you know, Stephen was stones, Paul was rounding up Christians? But maybe they were just considered sort of dissenting Jews? Thanks.

3:27 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


One thing that is important to keep in mind is that the early church was quite diverse. Stephen, for example, was a leader of the Hellenists, mostly diaspora Jews who had probably been quite influenced by Greco-Roman ideas. It was these Christians who Paul was probably persecuting prior to his conversion. But there were other Christians whose practice was not very different from before they came to believe in Christ, including sacrificing in the Temple and praying in synagogues.

The reason Paul is thought to have targeted the Hellenists is that he was, at the time, particularly concerned with the blurring of the line between Jew and Gentile. The more conservative Jewish Christians (called "Hebrews" in Acts) insisted on maintaining that boundary, which would have been fine with Paul before his conversion. Of course, after his conversion, his view was the opposite -- the line between Jew and Gentile has been removed by Christ, and those who insist on maintaining it are not following the true Gospel.

3:04 p.m.  
Blogger crystal said...

So much to learn. Thanks :)

4:16 p.m.  

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