Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? by James D. G. Dunn

In the introduction to his latest book, James D.G. Dunn writes:

The title of this book is of course controversial–intentionally so, because the issue itself is unavoidably controversial–Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The immediate answer that most Christians will want to give is, ‘Of course they did.’

Such Christians might well be surprised–possibly even disturbed–by the answer Dunn gives in his conclusion. The book is brief–only 151 pages, not including the bibliography and indices–but his examination of the evidence is very thorough, and his conclusion is well argued. He frequently interacts with the work of two other British scholars who have paid considerable attention to this question–and answered it in the affirmative–Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham.

One problem that confronts anyone who seriously engages with this question is the meaning of the term “worship.” Dunn suggests that, whatever else it might mean, it amounts to an affirmation of the deity of the one worshipped. His first chapter considers the language of worship in the New Testament, which clearly demonstrates the problem. The most common word translated as “worship” is the verb proskynein, which generally means “(fall down and) worship, do obeisance to, prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, welcome respectfully,” according to the authoritative Bauer-Danker lexicon. Often the word is indeed used to denote an action directed toward God. Other times, however, these same words simply mean bowing down or prostrating oneself before a superior, as when Jacob bows down before his brother Esau (Gen 33.3 LXX), or when a slave in one of Jesus’s parables falls down on his knees before his master (Matt 18.26). So when proskynein is used to describe an action done toward Jesus, which is it? An affirmation of his deity (worship), or merely bowing down before a superior?

Other terms are similarly ambiguous. The ones that are not–such as the verb latreuein and it’s corresponding noun, latreia–describe actions that are always directed toward God, never to Jesus. As far as the language of worship goes, the answer to the question would seem to be, as Dunn puts it, “‘Generally no’, or ‘Only occasionally’, or ‘Only with some reserve.'”

Dunn next looks at the practice of worship, which is divided into four categories: prayer, hymns, sacred places/times/meals/people, and finally sacrifice. With the exception of sacred meals, where the “Lord’s dinner/supper” (later, the “Eucharist”) seems to reflect “a devotion to Christ that at least is not far from worship,” there is little that would change the tentative answer reached by the end of the first chapter. Dunn finds that the distinctive practice of the earliest Christians might suggest that the question itself is misguided. He suggests instead that we should be asking whether early Christian worship was possible without reference to Christ, and also whether such worship was in part directed toward him, or only to God.

Dunn takes the next several chapters to answer these questions. He looks at how early ways of expressing “high christology” compare with Jewish ways of conceiving the immanence of God during the Second Temple period, for example, as Spirit, Wisdom, or Word. Since early high christologies appropriated these ideas, the question of whether they were ever considered the proper object of worship is quite relevant. He also questions whether the NT writers thought of Jesus as sharing in the “divine identity” of the one God of Israel, as Richard Bauckham maintains, ultimately concluding that they did not.

Dunn concludes his book with his final answer to the question. He notes that

there are problems, even dangers, in Christian worship if it is defined too simply as worship of Jesus. For, if what has emerged in this inquiry is taken seriously, it soon becomes evident that Christian worship can deteriorate into what may be called Jesus-olatry. That is, not simply into worship of Jesus, but into a worship that falls short of the worship due to the one God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This struck me as quite an honest admission from someone who is apparently an Evangelical (something I’ve had difficulty confirming). But this will not surprise anyone familiar with Dunn’s work. I have always found him to be an honest and rigorous scholar.

I really enjoyed this book. Dunn, a Scot who taught for many years at the University of Durham, always writes in an engaging and accessible style. He is quite thorough in his investigation, and I think he weighs the evidence carefully and fairly. I sometimes wondered if he wasn’t being a little too thorough, considering “evidence” that would scarcely make a difference regardless of how it was evaluated, but this is a minor quibble. The implications of his basically negative answer are not insignificant, but I imagine this will be most true for those Protestants who are loathe to admit any serious post-biblical development to their understanding of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, this book raises some questions that every thoughtful Christian should think about, and I highly recommend it.


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