Part 5: Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? book review

The fourth chapter of Dunn’s book is where the previous three chapters get incorporated into the New Testament texts. This chapter is, not surprisingly, the longest in the book. I won’t be able to discuss every detail of Dunn’s arguments, but I will try to highlight all of the major points he raises.

In this chapter, Dunn seeks to bring the discussion in ways which will answer these questions:

  1. Was Jesus remembered as a monotheist? Did he restrict worship solely to the God of Israel?
  2. What is the significance of the post-resurrection proclamation “Jesus is Lord?”
  3. In what sense is Jesus the embodiment of God’s Wisdom (and/or Word)? What was meant when Paul described him as the life-giving Spirit?
  4. In what ways did the Book of Revelation offer worship to the Lamb?
  5. How and in what ways did the early Christians call Jesus god/God?
  6. How were the terms “Last Adam,” “mediator,” and “heavenly intercessor” understood?

As to the first question of wondering whether or not Jesus was a monotheist, Dunn acknowledges that this line of inquiry would be shocking to those who suppose that Jesus is to be understood in line with the debates of the fourth and fifth centuries. It is argued that Jesus’ upbringing would have placed him firmly within the educational system of the synagogues of his time. This would have introduced him to the Shema of Israel, the central creed of Judaism which affirms the oneness of God. Jesus was remembered in Mark 12:28-32 as affirming the Shema as the foremost commandment (even above the command to love one’s neighbor). Dunn also recalls the previous discussion in which it was pointed out that Jesus sought out worship for God alone (Matt. 4/Luke 4.), the God who alone was good (Mark 10:17-18). I was actually surprised that Dunn did not talk about the clearest statement of monotheism in John 17:3, but this perhaps comes from his hesitation to attribute the sayings in the Fourth Gospel to the lips of the historical Jesus. Nevertheless, Dunn concludes that Jesus was indeed a monotheist.

The discussion moves onto the subject of Jesus as Lord. Dunn rightly points out that the master Christological text governing this topic, especially in the New Testament, is Psalm 110:1, where YHWH speaks to adoni to sit at his right hand until he makes his enemies his footstool. The title of ‘lord’ is simply a title given to a human master, but it is also used of pagan gods as well as the Roman Emperor. This brings about the issue of the YHWH (LXX kyrios) texts which were used of Jesus. Dunn proposes that this could mean one of two things: that in Paul’s thinking Jesus is Yahweh, or that God has bestowed his unique saving power on the Lord who sits at his right hand via Psalm 110:1. Dunn argues that the second option is more likely. He notes in Phil. 2:5-11, where the YHWH text of Isa. 45 is attributed to Jesus, that the final stanza of the hymn attributes worship ultimately to God the Father. In 1 Cor. 8:6, where Paul speaks of there being one God, the Father, and one Lord Jesus Christ, Dunn actually seems to have changed his mind on how this passage is to be interpreted. Previously, Dunn saw this verse as an affirmation of the Shema in which Paul split open to include Jesus within the creed of Israel. Dunn now argues, along with his student James McGrath (which he footnotes) that:

“It is quite possible to argue, alternatively, that Paul took up the Shema, already quoted in 8:4 (‘there is no God but one’), only in the first clause of 8:6 (reworded as ‘for us there is one God, the Father’); and to that added the further confession, ‘and one Lord Jesus Christ’…A distinction remains between the one God and the one Lord.”  

He goes on to state that this statement from Paul is the natural outworking of Psalm 110:1. When Dunn gets around to talking about 1 Cor. 15:24-28 he concludes that this passage, which while quoting Psalm 110:1, ends by placing God the Father as the one who will be “all in all” in which Christ will be included.

Dunn moves on to looking at how the NT authors pickup the themes of God’s Wisdom, Word, and Spirit and incorporate them into their discussions of Jesus. The first text (and most controversial in my opinion) is John 1:1-18. The author of the Fourth Evangelist has obviously taken up and developed the metaphor of the Word in ways which are coinciding with how other writers used it as a way to speak of God’s action in creation, revelation, and salvation. Dunn questions whether it is right to attribute to the Word the opening pronoun of ‘he’ (is can be translated as ‘it’). Dunn speaks of the common interpretation of the poem, that which speaks of Jesus’ preexistent life with God. He offers another option which points out that nothing written in the poem which would be strange to a Hellenistic Jew (such as Philo). Dunn makes the comment, “Properly speaking, then, it is only with 1.14 what Jesus comes into the story…Jesus is not the Word; he is the Word become flesh.” Jesus then is the one who personally reveals the character of the Logos, a character which previously was only able to be expressed in terms of personification. In Col. 1:15 where Jesus is said to be the image/eikon of God, this according to Dunn, should be read as Jesus embodying the wisdom which God wisely uses to act in his world. Jesus is God acting and outgoing, expressing the very purpose and character of God himself. Wisdom christology is also found in Heb. 1:1-3 in Dunn’s reading.

Dunn carries the discussion over to include the Apocalypse of John and the honors given to Jesus in it. In this book Jesus is seen in visions which are reminiscent to the Ancient of Days found in Daniel 7. Both God and Jesus share the Alpha and Omega titles. And at times they both share the same throne. Yet Dunn asks whether these descriptions were written to be understood as literal facts or not. He concludes by stating that the hermeneutical rule on interpreting the various apocalypses should not be ignored: to interpret them literally is to misinterpret them.

The title of ‘god/God’ is sometimes given to Jesus in the NT documents, although many of them are disputed for syntactical reasons. Dunn offers his opinion on the debate. Rom. 9:5 he leaves open, although his Romans commentaries state that answer should be negative. Titus 2:13, which Dunn reminds us that the thing which is to be revealed in the glory of our great God and Savior, he attributes to Jesus (but with some qualification). Matt. 1:23 is to be read as symbolical according to Dunn. John 1:1c is qualified with a parallel in Philo who distinguishes theos with the article and theos without it. 1 John 5:20 is left open as ambiguous. Heb. 1:8 is cited as quoting one of the looser elohim texts in the Hebrew Bible where the Davidic king is called ‘god’. The very next verse, Heb. 1:9, says that Jesus has a God. Dunn concludes by saying the following:

“The traditional attempt to capture this fuller portrait has been to emphasize the human as well as the divine in Jesus. But the distinction is too crude, already for the New Testament writers.”

Discussion of the Last Adam comes up with reference to 1 Cor. 15 and 1 Tim. 2:5. Dunn sees this line of thinking as the expressing of Jesus as the beginning of the new creation of God. Both Adam and Jesus are spoken of in ‘image’ terminology. 1 Tim. 2:5 is read as the natural outworking of Paul’s previous statement in 1 Cor. 8:6. The title of the heavenly intercessor is interpreted as one who, as the priest, becomes the intermediary between God and mankind.

Dunn then interacts with Bauckham and asks if it is really helpful to interpret all of this data in terms of ‘divine identity.’ He argues that this terminology runs the risk of actually confusing rather than clarifying. Dunn points out that the NT writers are careful to not identify Jesus with the one God of Israel. He goes on, “He is not the Father. He is not Yahweh.” Dunn suggests that the language of ‘divine agency’ or ‘plenipotentiary’ hold together the data better. Jesus is the one who embodied God’s immanence. The NT writers say that Jesus, as the divine agent, is never the source (‘ek’) of the act of the Creator, to where God the Father is constantly described as such.

Dunn concludes the chapter by stating that the best way to understand Jesus in light of all the evidence is to see that the early Christian writers saw him as God’s extension to the world in his redeeming action. Yet God remained the God and Father of Jesus. Jesus was not worshipped as wholly God. If he was worshipped, worship was offered to God but through Jesus.

The next chapter of the book is the Conclusion where Dunn wraps up all of the evidence surveyed and offers his closing remarks. I will reserve my own until that time. Thanks for reading.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Part 5: Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? book review

  1. Dusty

    Great review. Isn’t it amazing that this guy is basically an anti-trinitarian in disguise? He totally destroys the so-called third Person [HS] and absolutely denies that Jesus is “the one God of Israel…He is not the Father. He is not Yahweh.”

    Amazing stuff!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s