Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? part 3 book review

James Dunn gives Chapter 2 the title ‘The practice of worship.’ As we have seen thus far into the book, the act of paying homage to a superior is not quite as simple a subject as one might have previously thought. The terms are complex and at times confusing. This chapter seeks to answer how the early Christians practiced worship. The prologue of the chapter sets out the journey of research and evidence which Dunn plans to cover:

1-   The examination of prayer as the act of adoration, confession, petition, and intercession from an inferior to a superior.

2-   Any/all hymns sung are clearly an expression of worship.

3-   Sacred space which is offered to the deity where worship is given, including the individuals who work/promote this space and the times/appointments for this sacred worship.

4-   The act of animal sacrifice to appease the deity was common among the religious cults as an expression of worship.

Dunn seeks to answer in what ways was cultic devotion, a term with Hurtado utilizes, given to Jesus by the early believers.

The subject of prayer is taken up first. The Gospel accounts are studied together before Dunn moves onto the rest of the NT documents. Within the four Gospels, Jesus is regularly found praying to God. Even the Lord’s Prayer found in Matt. 6/Luke 11 depicts Jesus commanding his followers to pray specifically to the Father. The verb deesthai which is commonly translated ‘to request’ is used with God, Jesus, and the disciples as the object. John’s Gospel uses a completely different set of verbs than the Synoptics. If the disciples ask anything of the Father, albeit in Jesus’ name, it is promised to come to pass. On a few occasions Jesus himself is said to be the one to whom requests can be directed.

 Within the rest of the NT evidence prayer language is specifically directed to God. Within the Epistles, the verb deēsis (‘to pray’) is always used of God. Dunn notes the interesting request of Paul in 2 Cor. 12:8-9 in which he parakalesa (‘appealed’) to the Lord in what seems to be a situation of prayer. Since Lord is most often a designation for Jesus within the Pauline corpus, it would seem that Paul is most likely directing his appeal to him in this passage. Dunn leaves open the question whether the much discussed Aramaic ‘Maranatha’ is a prayer to Jesus or not. He also cites 2 Thes. 2:16 where the Lord is invoked to comfort the Thessalonian believers.

Dunn summarizes his findings by stating that prayer language was most commonly addressed to God. He also reports that prayer language is not usually applied to Jesus, but he was regarded as one to whom appeals and requests could be made.  Dunn asks if this like the later Christian appeals made to dead saints. He concludes that the answer is not as clear cut as we would have hoped for.

The early Christian hymns are focused on next. What seemed interesting to me was the fact that the songs located in the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel, such as the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, the Benedictus, etc. These hymns, Dunn points out, are hymns to God, but about Christ. The most controversial hymns found in Phil. 2 and Col. 1 also depict Christ as the subject. What they were not, Dunn argues, were hymns sung to Jesus, but rather hymns sung about Jesus. This is an important distinction which Dunn wishes to press, especially because he thinks that Hurtado misses this point in his writings.

Hymns (or are they songs of praise?) are clearly offered to the Lamb in the book of Revelation. Dunn admits that these examples found in John’s Apocalypse are the only clear New Testament examples of hymns sung to Christ.

Sacred space/times/meals/people are given the next treatment of study. Sacred space was super important to the Jews living within the 2nd Temple period. The Temple was understood as the place where God’s holy name dwelt upon earth, the axis mundi for the Jewish people. The early Christians began to identify themselves as the new temple of God. They also were designated as a kingdom of priests, and thereby no longer needing the High Priest to intercede on their behalf. Some early Christians, notably Stephen, held negative attitudes towards the Jerusalem Temple. The Book of Hebrews goes the farthest in explicitly saying that the temple, as far as Christians are concerned, has become obsolete.

Sacred times also were a matter of transition from the Jewish faith to the early Christian faith. Jews celebrated the festivals and the weekly Sabbath as part of their religious devotion and identity. The early Christians did not seem to regard the festivals as important any longer. In fact, the first day of the week, which was understood at the day of Jesus’ resurrection, was soon established as the day of Christian celebration.

Communal meals are also discussed by Dunn. While the local pagan cults offered meat to their respected deities in their love feasts, Christians within the Roman world were perceived as celebrating the Lord’s Supper in honor of the risen Christ. This celebration was not merely an act of remembrance but also a time of bonding with Jesus within the sphere of food and drink. Dunn states that this form of devotion is not far from worship.  

Sacrifices were common both to the people of Israel as well as the local pagan cults within the first century. Sacrifice, as a ritual, was considered by many to be the ultimate criterion of deity. Israel understood this and thereby offered sacrifices to God alone. Offering to other gods was considered idolatrous, noting how the Jews refused to give incense to the Emperor on many occasions. Paul’s inherited belief statement found in 1 Cor. 15:3, which can be reasonably dated to around two years after the death of Jesus, regards his death as a sin offering to God. Dunn makes the important connection in identifying that the early Christians understood Christ’s death as meaningful and effective for sacrifice in a way similar to the sacrifices Israel had offered for many centuries. What is significant within the early Christian practices is that Jesus is not once understood or spoken of as the one to whom sacrifice was offered. In fact, Rom. 3:25 states that God put Christ forward as the atonement sacrifice!

Dunn concluded the chapter by gathering up all the evidence surveyed thus far. Prayers and hymns were quite similar to the regular practice in the other religious cults. Yet the early Christian gatherings for worship as well as their shared meals were unique. They had no sacred space offered to their deity. Jesus was often invoked and appealed to. He was likewise given praise within the same breath as praise to God. Dunn then makes a significant point regarding the evidence examined thus far. He writes that his original question, ‘Did the first Christians worship Jesus?’ is too narrow and perhaps misleading. He now asks whether early Christian worship possible apart from Jesus. Without giving a direct answer to this inquiry, he leads on into the next chapter: ‘Monotheism, heavenly mediators and divine agents’.

I have several feelings on this chapter. I will therefore state them in the following bullet points:

-The fact that the verb proseuchesthai (‘to pray’) is never onces used with Jesus as the object is significant. Yes Jesus is appealed to and called upon, but these designations are not as conclusive for unambiguous prayer devotion. Also, if ‘all power on heaven and earth has been given to Jesus,’ then surely he is able to hear prayers as an exalted human being. The latest Gospel, John, seems to depict Jesus as accepting petitions in some way. How much of this language is based on the polemic between late 1st century Judaism and the Johannine Community is still worth pondering…

-Jesus never commanded for his disciples to pray to him.

-Dunn’s question of whether or not the invoking of Jesus is similar to the not-much-later invoking of dead saints by the Catholic Church is an interesting question I would like to sit on for awhile.

-Yes, Jesus is unambiguously praised and sung to in the book of Revelation. Yet why is this possible? Note Rev. 5:9-10;

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.”

Jesus was worthy of song because he purchased humanity with his blood and redeemed them to God. This is a different argument for the reason for worship than what is given to the One sitting on the throne in Rev. 4.

-The fact that sacrifice, which was universally understood as an act of worship to God/a god, was never offered to Jesus is a point I had never considered. This is another thing for me to sit on.

-Dunn’s conclusion of this chapter is proof enough that the subject of worship involving Jesus is not a simple subject which can be settled in a few statements. I am now fully convinced that the issue is indeed complex and worthy of detailed study and consideration.


6 thoughts on “Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? part 3 book review

  1. Dustin wrote: What is significant within the early Christian practices is that Jesus is not once understood or spoken of as the one to whom sacrifice was offered.

    I’m not sure that’s accurate. It is true that we have no record of the early Christians burning animals or grain to Jesus in a religious ceremony, but we don’t have any record of them continuing to do that to Yahweh in the Jerusalem temple. Sometime after Jesus’ crucifixion such Levitical sacrifices were regarded as obsolete and superseded by Jesus’ sacrifice of himself. But from the very beginning the early Christians did sacrifice to Jesus in a spiritual sense, eg. relinquishing all that they had for his sake, enduring any affliction for his sake, losing their lives for his sake, etc. The NT clearly shows that these Christians were not merely making these sacrifices as a way to please God but were making these sacrifices out of personal love & adoration for Jesus himself – where Jesus was not merely God’s agent through whom Christians channelled their worship to God but Jesus was himself the focus, object, and motive of their personal devotion.

    1. Phil wrote…”Sometime after Jesus’ crucifixion such Levitical sacrifices were regarded as obsolete and superseded by Jesus’ sacrifice of himself”. On Pauls return to Jerusalem after his 3rd Journey, James says that Jerusalem is filled with believers, all who are zealous for the law. The church in Jerusalem were zealous in following Levitical practices towards the end of Pauls life!! A church zealous for the law would not have worshipped Jesus as we know worship!!

  2. @Dustin,

    I’m guessing in your last sentence you meant you’re “now” fully convinced the issue is complex rather than “not” fully convinced. is that right?

    great thoughts. can’t wait to read more of your posts on this book.

  3. I want to go on record as saying that earlier comments stating that Dunn is skirting the issue don’t take the struggle seriously. Dunn is doing all that can be done here, and doing it while straddling seemingly contradictory evidence (or at least evidence there is not a current category for). A simple yes or no is not adequate.
    Good job, Dustin.

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