Part 6 – Did the Early Christians Worship Jesus? book review

Dunn’s final chapter contains his concluding thoughts on his study of early Christian worship. I will take the time here to discuss his conclusions and comment with my own.

Potential dangers and problems with a too-narrowly defined worship of Jesus: Dunn is quite nice and diplomatic when he writes this critique, but anyone familiar with American Christianity will soon realize what he is trying to get across. Many Churches, Christian songs, media, and books are worthy of the critique which Dunn calls “Jesus-olatry”- which is the giving of worship to Jesus which falls short of the worship due to God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Dunn compares this to idolatry, where the idol (in whatever shape or form) takes the place of the one true God. Then he comes out and says it: Jesus has been substituted for God.

This is a rather stunning critique indeed, but upon further reflection (a week after finishing the book) I think that it is well founded. Too many Christians think that Christianity is all about Jesus. Two examples will hopefully get my point across. I overheard a conversation between a young Christian and Jew who were about to eat lunch. The Jew asked the Christian to make the mealtime prayer “non-specific.” The young Christian was puzzled and asked his friend, “Well, I have always prayed to Jesus, who else is there to pray to?” His Jewish friend replied. “You can pray to the Father.” The Christian responded that he has never prayed to the Father, only to Jesus. I personally wonder if this Christian has ever read the Lord’s Prayer where Jesus commanded prayers to be directed to the Father who is in heaven. Dunn makes a similar point that the Father has almost been forgotten by citing another book which makes the same point. My second example comes from a Christian song called ‘One Way’ which I believe is still on the radio. Here is a Youtube link to it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lP8fHN53t0 . The chorus lyrics go like this: “One way, Jesus, You’re the only one that I could live for.” These examples, I hope, show that Dunn’s critique is very real and should be heard by all professing Christians.

Dunn’s second point deals with monotheism and the unity involved therein. He states that the evidence is fair enough to remind readers that God’s oneness is not a mathematical unity. God has revealed himself in the past through his Wisdom, Spirit, angels, and his Word, without detracting from him being the one and only God. Dunn does not say that this divides that God into something other than one (like two or three) but his point is that the one God of the Shema is that he has revealed himself in many ways, expressed his purpose and mission in different outlets and opportunities. As John 1:18 states, it was Jesus Christ who ultimately exegetes the Father to the world. Early Christians in the first century never worshipped the Holy Spirit, as he points out in a footnote.

I think I am persuaded by Dunn’s logic here, even though I agreed with his reasoning prior to reading the book. I just never came to the wording of the conclusion he has on my own. I do still see God as one, but understand his way of revealing himself in the terms of agency. Perhaps I need to nuance that and say that when God sends his angel, messenger, Spirit, prophet, king, or even Messiah out on a mission that God not only invests his authority in this agent but also his presence and identity. I think that too often Christians have confused the invested authority and titles given to these agents with the one who sent them. Nobody really thinks that Steve at your front door delivering Papa John’s Pizza really is Papa John. Steve is the agent delivering on behalf of Papa John’s. It is true in some sense to say that, “Papa John’s is at the door.” But we understand that Steve is only representing the business that sent him. Since the Ancient Near Eastern culture was fully a functionally agentival readers of the Bible need to take this area of context seriously.

This realm of agency (if that is the best way to define the concept) is used in Dunn’s closing thoughts. He states that “The only one to be worshipped is the one God.” Yet he goes on to say that hymns and petitions should still be offered to Jesus, but to the glory of God the Father. This is why Christians pray “in Jesus’ name” because prayer is offered to the heavenly Father but through Jesus Christ.

Here the direction is seems to be a vertical one, going up from the congregation to Jesus (as mediator) and then on up to the Father, God. This is not a horizontal rendering.

As for the answer to the question which brings about the title of the book, Dunn admits that it is less relevant, less important, and misleading. I agree. On the whole, early Christians reserved worship for the Father and expressed it in terms of point #3 above.

Of course, what we think of the meaning of the word ‘worship’ is much narrower that it is used in the Scriptures. The point must always be kept in mind when pursuing these topics.

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.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from (who or what)?

Ask yourself this question: is there a difference between “evil” and “the evil one”?

I think there is a significant difference. If you were to say to yourself the Lord’s Prayer, and you get to the end where it talks of “deliver me from…” what do you say next? Do you say “evil” or “the evil one”?

Some questions about this were raised in today’s Greek class. The phrase used is tou ponerou, which is in fact ambiguous. It could mean ‘of evil’ or it could mean ‘of the evil one.’ So how can we decide what it means? Can there be a definite answer given? Some say no, but I say yes. Just see…

In another of Matthew’s usages of this phrase, found in the parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matt. 13:36f), Jesus divides up the world into two mutually exclusive camps:

the field is the world; and the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil [one] –Matt. 13:38

This kind of labeling of two opposing camps is very common in the Judaism of Jesus’ day. Take for example one of the many occurrences found in the Dead Sea Scrolls:

the men of the lot of Belial -1QS 2.4-5

the men of Belial -1QH 13.26

all the lot of Belial -1QM 1.5

Belial, for those who aren’t familiar, is a name synonymous with the Devil and Satan.[1] Paul uses it in 2 Cor. 6:15 as the antithesis to Christ, similar to what we see in the parable. There are other examples found in the Jewish Pseudopigrapha.

My point is this: we can see that it was very common during the time of Jesus for Belial, a synonym of the Devil, to be used as a way of categorizing a group of people. This makes sense with the parable of the Wheat and the Tares, where Jesus specifically speaks of the devil in v.39. Therefore, if Matthew uses tou ponerou to mean “of the evil one” within his Gospel, it is highly likely that he has the definition in mind in the Lord’s Prayer.

What do you think? Does it make a difference if you pray for deliverance from ‘evil’ or deliverance from ‘the evil one?’


[1] BDAG 173.

Is the Lord’s Prayer a model?

Today in Sunday School we talked about the Lord’s Prayer and various ways to read it. Apart from my frustration that the coming kingdom of God element was not given the proper weight of discussion, it was overall a fine class. Here are some of my initial thoughts based on the discussions:

1- Matt. 6:7 has Jesus warning his disciples not to pray with “meaningless repetition,” which, sadly, most Christians do when they think of/pray this prayer.

2- Jesus commands believers to pray to the Father, not to himself. Jesus is never prayed to in the Bible, despite the mistranslation of Acts 7:59 in the NIV and NRSV.

3- I think that the book of John shows how early Christians were reading this prayer. John 17 is a place where Jesus gives an entire chapter to a prayer which upon careful examination, actually fits the model of the Lord’s Prayer. Consider the following:

‘Our Father who are in heaven’ – ‘Father’ opens the prayer in John 17.1 cf. vv. 5, 11, 21, 24, 25. Jesus looks up into heaven in v. 1.

‘Hallowed be thy name’ – Cf. the mention of ‘name’ in vv. 6, 11, 12, and 26. Also the use of “glory” language in vv. 1, 4-5, 10, 22, 24 along with the use of “holy” language in vv. 11, 17, and 19.

‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ – Jesus has accepted the work the Father gave him (v. 4) and work=the will of God (cf. John 5:30; 6:38-40); and Jesus glorified God on earth (v. 4).

the petition for bread – Jesus speaks of eternal life (vv. 2-3), which is earlier identified with Jesus and the bread of life (6:32-58); and note that 6:34 (‘Lord, give us this bread always’) might show John’s familiarity with the Lord’s Prayer.

the petition for forgiveness – the sanctification of believers (vv. 17-19) is their purification (cf. 15:3).

the petition for deliverance – v. 15 ‘I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one’

Any thoughts?