Part 2- Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? book review

 Chapter 1 is entitled ‘The language of worship.’ Simple enough, one might say. But as I read on, I was amazed at actually how many words used in the Greek text denoted the act of ‘worship.’ Dunn begins by asking the question, ‘If the first Christians did worship Jesus what does that tell us about the status they accorded to him?’ In the 21st century, us western Americans only use the word ‘worship’ in one way: the act of giving reverence to God. But Dunn reminds his readers that the act was used much more widely in the ancient world. He notes how in the British legal system the judges are addressed as ‘Your Worship’.  These examples point to the fact that any act of giving reverence, respect or honor to a superior can be labeled as worship.

Dunn moves on to survey the words within the New Testament. His first subject for study is the verb proskynein, which translates the Hebrew equivalent shachah. This verb is used quite widely, as Dunn cites the prostration of Esau, Joseph, and King David. In 1 Chronicles 29:10 both YHWH and David are worshipped, sharing the same verb. Angels are also objects of worship. In the NT, proskynein is also used widely, of human kings in the parables of Jesus, of the Philadelphian Christians in Rev. 3:9, and of the simple request made of Jesus. BDAG defines proskynein as “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure”. After accounting for the entirety of the NT occurrences, Dunn points out that Jesus is statistically proskyneo’ed surprisingly only a few times.

The word latreuein, which is usually translated ‘to serve,’ is the next word investigated. Dunn points out that in each case, apart from one or two references to false worship, that latreuein is always used of God. Not once is it used of Jesus. In fact, Jesus himself is remembered as saying, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’ It would seem that the authors of the NT reserved latreuein for God alone. The accompanying noun latreia, denoting cultic service and worship, is also solely used of God (never Jesus).

Various other less frequent words are surveyed, most of which offer little substance to the argument. Dunn does acknowledge that Jesus is the object of the verb epikaleisthai ‘to call upon’. In four places Jesus is called upon for what seems to be prayer language and formula (even though the verb ‘to pray’ is never used of Jesus). In balance, Dunn lays out eight texts where it seems that the giving of thanks was generally understood as given to God, but through Jesus Christ. Jesus here is acting as the mediator, being a participant in the praising of God for what Christ has done.

The attention is moved into the subject of glory given to another, the act of glorifying. Texts are cited to show that God is glorified in the son of man. Jesus is also glorified in his disciples. Sometimes both God and Jesus are the recipients of glory, especially in the doxologies found at the end of the epistles. Dunn concludes by stating that Jesus is spoken of in ways which indicated that he now shares in God’s personal glory. Yet the act of sharing is as Dunn calls is an embodying of God’s glory, being the agent of God’s purpose to redeem creation.

As Dunn wraps up the chapter, he summarizes his findings by stating that there were rather limited findings as far as the worship of Jesus is concerned. Most terms equivalent to the act of worship are never used of Christ but rather reserved solely for God. Prayer language is likewise rarely invoked of the risen Jesus. Glory is attributed to Jesus, but as a whole Dunn argues that it is God ultimately being glorified for what Christ has accomplished. Jesus, Dunn concludes, is the enabler or medium of effective Christian worship found in the pages of the New Testament.

My own thoughts on this chapter are quite slim. Dunn accomplished a sweeping amount of worship research in only a few pages. I am aware that proskynein , the most common word for worship found in the LXX/NT, is used much more widely used than we use the term today. In the LXX, more than twenty different individuals are the proper object of this sort of worship, without reservation of the subject(s) involved. Therefore, it would be incorrect to state that just because someone is worshipped in the Bible proves that they are divine.

I also knew that latreuein was used solely for God and never of Jesus. This might raise a few eyebrows for those who take the subject of worship of Jesus too casually. I appreciated the discussion of glory and how it was articulated within the relationship between Jesus and God. I think the best example of this is the ending of the Christ-hymn in Phil. 2:5-11, where every tongue will confess that Jesus is kyrios, to the glory of God the Father. It is ultimately the Father who received glory because Jesus is receiving homage. Plus the fact that they hymn bases this all on the obedience Jesus carried out to the point of death.

I also think that the terms ‘agent’ and ‘embodiment’ need to be given their fair day in court. The culture in which the Bible is set in was one where masters commissioned their respected agents quite often. When this occurred, the agent carried the name and authority of the one who sent him. Thus, it would seem fairer to the texts at hand if we understood the relationship of Jesus to God in a vertical fashion rather than a horizontal one. As a whole, this seems to account for the evidence rather satisfactory, in my opinion.

I am hoping to post my review/comments of chapter two tomorrow. Stay tuned!

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8 thoughts on “Part 2- Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? book review

  1. Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?

    Is the answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’?

    What other answer can there be other than yes or no?

  2. In the Church of England the official liturgy at a wedding service used to be:

    With this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow . . .

    Another example of how in former times the word worship was not confined to religious devotion to God. Etymologically I think the word worship simply means to acknowledge someone’s intrinsic worth, be it much or little. I suppose the modern equivalent would be showing respect to someone.

    Dustin wrote: The culture in which the Bible is set in was one where masters commissioned their respected agents quite often. When this occurred, the agent carried the name and authority of the one who sent him.
    I see this as relevant to the way Jesus’ followers treated him before his ascension. But if his followers continue to ‘worship’ him when he is seated at the right hand of God and is therefore no longer acting as God’s agent, then Jesus-worship has a deeper significance. In heaven Jesus is not acting as God’s representative any longer because God himself is there and does not need an ambassador in his own throne room. In Revelation chapter 5 Jesus is an equal recipient of the same class of worship as God.

    1. So the first Christians did not worship Jesus.

      What did they not know about him that later Christians learned?

      1. Hi Steven

        I’m not sure they learned anything! There is an observed tendency for people throughout history to deify revered religious figures. It happened to Jesus later in the first century with people who never knew him. It happened to Buddha. Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, some thought was the incarnation of God during his life time. Then of course,Mary the mother of Jesus became the Queen of the Universe, the Mother of God.

        I could go on…

        I wrote an academic article explaining how I understand ‘The Apotheosis of Jesus of Nazareth’.

        http://www.bismikaallahuma.org/archives/2007/the-apotheosis-of-jesus-of-nazareth/

  3. The “word study” approach misses evidence. Bauckham’s work on `ta panta` (“all things”) of the later epistles, and on 1 Cor 8:6 shows why.

    Certainly all things work towards God’s glory – Judaism is incapable of saying anything else regarding events in their theological history. The deuteronomic historians and prophets gave them this ability to see history in this fashion.

    The inclusion of Jesus within doxologies, from a Judaic perspective, is *huge*, as no other sectarian writing ever does on such a sweeping scale as the NT does.

    It seems we are prizing certain evidentiary claims, while minimizing others.

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