Book Review – Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? by James D. G. Dunn (part 1)

I have been busy with 9 hours of graduate summer school. Now that I am done, I have (supposedly) much more time to read and get back to working on this quasi-blog I have.

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.

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16 thoughts on “Book Review – Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? by James D. G. Dunn (part 1)

  1. “-Fourthly, was Jesus as monotheist? Did Jesus affirm the oneness of God?” is an entirely anachronistic questions. Bauckham, in his Jesus and the God of Israel, devotes a chapter or two to going after this precise problem. James McGrath (whom Dunn sponsored for a PhD) makes the same argument.

    My focus has been on the very last portion. In my mind there is no question that Christian belief in the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus to Lord (over against Caesar) affected any previous messianic expectation thus forming a Christology.

  2. @John O

    very interesting, i’ve never heard anyone say that discussing or questioning Jesus’ monotheism was anachronistic. do you not feel the ancient Israelites were monotheists? or 1st-century Jews? like i said, interesting thoughts, but at first glance i don’t see how discussing Jesus and monotheism is anachronistic.

    @Dustin

    great initial thoughts, i hope you share more as you finish the book. Dunn is top notch, no doubt

  3. Reading the literature of the period you don’t see Jews writing “We’re monotheists, and they are polytheists.” ‘Monotheist’ is an idyllic label created by scholars to analyze religions according to their own standards. Therefore, no Jew would ever attribute that label to themselves. So, if we’re being historical (and not theoretical) about this, the question is not “Were Jews monotheists”, or “Did Jews attribute terms or attributes of later centuries classical definition of monotheism to themselves”. The only proper religious outlook on God that has ever fallen into the model of “monotheism” is the God of the Deists. And, no wonder, since these were both thought experiments of the Enlightenment.

    Did Jewish people believe and write about other divine beings (even if that writing could now be, or was intended to be read as metaphor)? Yes. This, according to the classical definition of monotheism excludes Jews from application with this label.

    Therefore, one cannot make any argument or syllogism with “But, the Jews were monotheists”. Dunn actually recognizes this fact, as I’ve read some of his shorter works. And it is no wonder, because he knows how difficult the task is. He knows he cannot pull this argument out with any weight.

    Were the Jews different than Greeks, or any other religion around them? Of course. The question becomes, what changed in the belief of the Jewish people that became known as Christians as a result of their experience with the resurrected Jesus and proclamation of him as Lord? Hence my comment.

    1. @JohnO,
      talking about monotheism that way is really splitting hairs. You are the one defining monotheism in these strict terms. In common usage, belief that there is only one ‘real’ god is monotheism. Given this definition, first century Jews were clearly monotheists (or at least some of them were) since there are strands decrying other gods as no gods at all going back to the OT prophets.

  4. Here’s a comment I left on a blog that did a review of this book:

    “For some odd reason, after reading the first of the two theses, I immediately sensed that “anxiety of the worship of Jesus,” that would later be developed.

    I understand the caution with which Dunn operates in his book, via your review, but it seems like he has not weighed the Pauline texts, affirming the worship of Jesus as God, because of what has precisely taken place in his resurrection and exaltation. I find a text like 2 Cor. 5:16 instructive here.

    Besides, there seems to be some confusion about Pauline monotheism. Should we merely understand Paul’s monotheist as an ordinary Jew without the benefits of the christological significance of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus?

    Yes, Dunn’s charge of “lax in Torah-observance” remains unconvincing in light of the NT data.”

  5. Hi Dustin Martyr

    Just to let you know Dunn’s conclusion to his question, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?

    I’ve read the whole book and according to Dunn the answer is ‘NO’

  6. Paul, like the title of the book, the “NO” you gave is provocative and is really not the whole story. A simple yes or no is not sufficient, as Dunn continues to point out.

    1. Chad, I think my summary is fair and not at all provocative. Dunn as a scholar hedges everything he says with caveats, but the message from Dunn is loud and clear: the first Christians did not worship Jesus.

      The conclusion I draw is that ‘orthodox’ Christians have been committing the serious sin of idolatry for the past 2000 years…

      Time for the church to repent I think

      1. And if Dunn, with all his hedging and caveats aren’t complete or miss evidence, his conclusion is not warranted.

        And just because the first Christians did not worship Jesus does not mean (a priori)that it is wrong for later Christians to develop such practices.

  7. ‘And just because the first Christians did not worship Jesus does not mean (a priori)that it is wrong for later Christians to develop such practices.’

    Actually it does. The earliest Christians were monotheist Jews who would never worship a man. If later gentile Christians decided mistakenly to start worshiping the Messiah, that was their error (and sin).

  8. Dustin, how delighful to see you enjoying and reviewing an interesting book on Christology by one of the masters of the subject. I would like to direct the conversation towards the remarkable testimony of Ps. 110:1, bringing on a former Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford (he was at my own college, Christ Church), Charles Bigg, DD. When he wrote the International Critical Commentary on I Peter he observed (p. 99): “We are not to suppose that the apostles identified Christ with Jehovah. There were passages which made this impossible, for instance Ps. 110:1.”I have been saying the same thing for many years, and it is wonderful to hear Dunn confirm this amazing truth: “Jesus is not identified with Yahweh, Jesus is not the God of Israel.”
    Finally the clouds are breaking up and light is beginning to shine. However, in reply to Johnny O, if we don’t care about the authority of the apostles, then the whole basis for the faith is altered. The apostolic position is that Jesus is the adoni, the non-Deity lord of Ps. 110:1 uniquely elevated to the highest position in the universe under the One God, the Father. “My lord,” adoni, is never a title of Deity.

  9. Reading some of the comments above makes one feel quite dizzy! Obviously the Bible has been ditched as the Christian norm, once one says, with Johnny O, that even if the biblical Christians did not worship Jesus as God, it does not matter if later they did worship him as God! What has happened then to the locus of authority for faith?

    Paul Williams, I am convinced, is facing the facts, the hard facts. There was a departure from the faith once delivered, and it is measurable once someone says Jesus is Yahweh, making two Yahwehs, which violates Jesus’ creed, that Yahweh is one Yahweh (Mark 12:29).
    James Dunn has, praise God, stated his view clearly that “Jesus is not the God of Israel, not Yahweh.” That should signal a huge concern for modern forms of the faith.

  10. Christ was resurrected and seated at the right hand of the Father. Christ was ordained a “mediator” between God and man. We pray in Jesus’ name, yet we, just as Jesus did, pray to the Father, worship the Father as did all the prophets of old and the apostles. Often, as noted above, Jesus would redirect the worship of himself back to the Father, echoing the shema, “only Him shall ye worship.” I agree with Paul. Further more we have, like the Pharisees and Catholics, allowed the tradition of men to dictate our worship and who we worship. We are following the proverbial “herd of cows.”

  11. I do agree with all of the concepts you have offered to your post.
    They’re really convincing and will definitely work. Nonetheless, the posts are very quick for starters. Could you please prolong them a bit from subsequent time? Thanks for the post.

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