Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence is a book I have been looking forward to for a long time now. James D. G. Dunn is by far my favorite biblical scholar. He writes well, does top-notch research, documents his positions thoroughly, and attempts to be vigorously honest with the evidence at hand. I was first introduced to him when one of my professors recommended his Christology in the Making back when I was 19 years old (which I have read four times now). Ever since then, I was hooked on Dunn. Not that I agree with everything he says, but I typically find him very convicing with his arguments.
This post and the ones to follow will be a book review with my comments on Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? I will cover the Introduction to the book in this post and work through each subsequent chapter in the following days. Feel free to offer any comments.
Dunn’s introduction to the book aims to explain the title which he gave to the book. Was worship ascribed by the early Christian believers to Jesus? If so, in what form did the prostration take? How was it understood by the worshippers? What did worship constitute in the minds of the early Christians communities? These questions, Dunn states, are not easily answered with a quick sentence or two. The evidence seems much more complex.
He begins by stating that Christianity stands at odds with the Jewish and Muslim faiths, both of whom reject the divine status which most Christians give to the Son of God. This creates a barrier and a tension between the groups. Dunn asks what was it that made the early Christians want to speak of Jesus in these divisive terms, understanding him as divine. What actually led them to worship a Galilean prophet as God?
Some would seek to try to answer the question by quickly citing the confession of Thomas in John 20:28, or the Christ-hymn in Phil. 2:5-11, or even point to the songs sung in the book of Revelation. Yet on the other side of the coin, Dunn reminds his readers that Jesus redirects worship to God during the temptation narratives in Matt 4/Luke 4. When the [rich young] ruler calls him ‘Good Teacher’ Jesus replies, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’ in Mark 10:17-18. Paul’s letters regularly state the relationship between God and Jesus as ‘the God of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (where God is the God of Jesus). The evidence, Dunn argues, is not as straight-forward as one might hope.
The book is dedicated to the two other leading scholars in the world who are currently writing on this subject: Richard Bauckham and Larry Hurtado. Both of these scholars’ works are regularly cited in the book and interacted with. Dunn respectfully and skillfully dialogues with these debate partners throughout the book. Dunn argues that their respected works on the subject of the worship ascribed to Jesus does not take the whole picture into account. He wishes to involve the difficult and complex texts into the argument, even those that butt heads with the respected positions Bauckham and Hurtado profess.
In the Introduction, Dunn outlines his plan of attack which will influence the presentation given throughout the book.
-First, he seeks to define what exactly is ‘worship’ and address whether or not one who was worshipped in antiquity proved that they were God (or a god).
-Second, he desires to know what exactly it means to ‘worship the Lord God and serve only him.’
-Then, Dunn wishes to know the exact relationship between the self-revelation which was perceived within Israel (and within the early Christian communities) and how this was articulated through the response of worship.
-Fourthly, was Jesus as monotheist? Did Jesus affirm the oneness of God?
-Lastly, Dunn seeks to understand how the conviction that Jesus had been exalted to the right hand of God influenced the understanding of the (divine?) status of the one they worshipped. Did this understanding alter the character and nature of God? Did it give a different meaning to the status of Jesus?
The study James Dunn has set out to conquer is no small task, it would seem. I am looking forward to digging further into the book. At this point, my feelings/comments are few, other than the excitement to continue reading on.
*Actually, at the writing of this post, I have finished the first two chapters. This book is to be highly recommended for anyone interested in this subject, scholar and lay person alike.