Part 4: Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?

 In the 3rd chapter, Dunn puts away the toys and brings out the big guns, err, the theological big guns. It is by far the most complex and important chapter up to this point. Since the end of the previous chapter the driving question was forced to be revised. Therefore, Dunn seeks the consideration of the following points:

  1. Generally, what did Israel’s monotheism entail?
  2. How did the mediation of angels small and great reflect the one true God of Israel?
  3. How were God’s Spirit, Wisdom, and Word understood by Israel?
  4.  In what sense were select human beings spoken in terms of apotheosis?

Monotheism is summarized in the first section. Dunn reminds his readers that the Shema denoted the oneness of Israel’s God. This is similar to what we read in the first of the Ten Commandments. Dunn cites both Philo and Josephus who both report in their writings that Jews understand God to be one, even amidst their pagan neighbors. Only one God was deemed worthy of worship: the God of Israel.

That being said, Dunn points out that the noun ‘god’ does not carry only one meaning within the pages of the Hebrew Bible. Moses, acting as God’s agent, was called ‘god’ in the book of Exodus. The Davidic king (probably Solomon) who ruled on God’s behalf was called ‘god’ in Psalm 45. Even human judges, who judge in place of God, are given the title ‘god’ on a few occasions. Dunn concludes this section that even though the Shema was of central and crucial importance for Jews it was not something which restricted the use of the title ‘god’ in metaphoric or poetic fashion.

The next section deals with angels/messengers who bear messages on God’s behalf. Within the Hebrew Bible there are various accounts of these messengers not only bringing forth the word from the LORD but also carrying his name and very presence. Sometimes the narrator of these accounts seemingly switches back and forth between the voice of the messenger and the LORD himself. Dunn argues that the best way to understand these accounts is to recognize that the angel was not God as such but could be said to be God in his self-revelation. The Hebrew concept of the ‘agent bearing the authority of the one who sent him/her’ seems to be the best piece of context in bringing the meaning of these passages to light. Dunn cites Exodus, various pseudopigraphal texts, and the Dead Sea Scrolls which identify the messenger as ‘the angel of the presence’. The Apocalypse of Abraham bears an account where the angel Yahoel is spoken of having God’s very name in him. Yahoel itself seems to be a combination of YHWH and el, the divine name and the Hebrew word for ‘god’. The level of the divine presence represented by this angelic messenger is at one of the highest levels possible.

Dunn turns next to the complicated subjects of defining God’s Spirit, Wisdom, and Word within the Hebrew Bible, apocrypha, and pseudopigrapha. These terms were used to express God’s interaction and intervention within his creation. The Spirit of God is defined by Dunn as “a way of characterizing God’s presence and power.” It also is used as a synonym for ‘breath’, God’s ‘presence’, and God’s ‘hand’. In the 2nd Temple literature the Spirit of God seems to have taken the role of a semi-independent divine agent. Various passages in the Psalms, Proverbs, Book of Wisdom, Judith, and even 2 Baruch depict the Spirit in ways which are more poetic and independent from God. The evidence, according to Dunn, seems to be describing how the unseen and invisible God can interact in revelation, salvation, and inspiration to his creation. Also, Dunn points out that worship is never ascribed to his Spirit in any text. He concludes from this fact that Israel never understood this poetic way of describing God’s action as something “semi-independent of God.” God reveals himself and is active by means of his personal and powerful Spirit/breath.

The pursuit of wise and honorable living came to be expressed by the personification of divine Wisdom within the literature of the Jews. In the Book of Proverbs Wisdom is depicted as a lady sought after by young men. She is also seen as God’s personal companion in the poetic reconstructions of creation. This same theme is picked up in Sirach as well as the Book of Wisdom. Dunn summarizes the available evidence to argue that Wisdom should be understood as metaphorical and poetic in nature, not as an independent being from God. In both Sirach and Baruch it is ‘Torah’ which is the ultimate interpretation of Wisdom.

God’s word is the general way of depicting God in his communication and speech with his creation. The various days in the Genesis creation are opened by with God speaking them into existence. Dunn points out that over 90 percent of the occurrences of ‘the word of the LORD’ refer to inspired prophecy. God’s word also seems to at times take on a personality of its own, such as when God establishes his word, or when the word gets praised, gets trusted in, and even hoped in. Many of the poetic sections of the Bible and the post-biblical literature speak of God’s word being the means of God’s creation, such as Psalm 33:6 where the word is used synonymously with his ‘breath’. Dunn argues that these passages hardly constitute the designation of a semi-independent or hypostatic status to the word itself. He cites Philo who in his most extended discussion of God’s creative activity likens it to an architect who plans the city he is building in a blueprint. For Philo, the Logos (word) is “the archetypal idea, the overall plan that comes to material expression in creation.” In similar fashion to God’s Spirit, the divine Word/Logos of God was never worshipped, even in Philo’s writings.

What might be the most surprising part of this chapter to readers unfamiliar with the subjects and literature would be the next section Dunn tackles: that of the exaltation of select human beings within Israel’s understanding. He points out that “we need to be alert to the fact that the concept of a human person being divinized was not unfamiliar in the world as Jesus’ time.” He cites evidence of Moses, Elijah, and Enoch all being exalted into the heavens. Other literature suggests that even Adam was thought of having been exalted to a heavenly throne. Dunn states that this evidence raises the possibility within monotheistic Judaism of a great human figure being exalted to heaven as permissible.

Dunn’s next chapter will seek to take all the evidence surveyed up to this point and place the New Testament rightly within this very context. As for my own comments, these are my thoughts at the moment:

-It is interesting that within a strict monotheistic religion that human beings appointed by God can rightly be called ‘god’. What is even more interesting is that when the book of Hebrews wishes to call Jesus ‘God/god’ that it cites one of these looser passages (Heb. 1:8-9/Psalm 45:6-7).

-Angels/messengers seem to unambiguously carry the divine presence and even God’s very name in the way which can only intelligently be understood under the principle of agency.

-I’m not sure what to think of the thought of exalted human beings, but it seems that figures of importance within the Israelite religion surely were honored with exaltation and even worship at times.

-Dunn’s assessment of Wisdom, Spirit, and Word need to be taken seriously by anyone looking at this subject in relation to Christology or multiple persons of the Trinity.

-Philo in particular should be read by anyone who wishes to make any definitive statements about the interpretation of John 1:1-18, especially his De Opificio Mundi 16-44.

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