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Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?: The New Testament Evidence
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95 of 107 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 2010
Format: Paperback
I probably should preface this post with a disclaimer that this should not be thought of as your typical review. I studied for my PhD under Jimmy Dunn. He is my Doktorvater, mentor and friend. I also didn't receive this book from the publisher - in fact, I ordered my copy from the UK before it was released in the US so as to have a chance to read it sooner. I also had a chance to read an earlier draft of Did The First Christians Worship Jesus? a couple of years ago and to discuss it with Jimmy and another of his former students. And when my copy of the published book arrived, I found that my own recent book on monotheism and Christology (The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context) was cited in the notes on numerous occasions. And so I make no claim to being an "impartial observer" but am rather an engaged participant in the ongoing conversation about monotheism, Christology, and worship that encompasses Jimmy, many of his former students, and a wider community of scholars as well as many others interested in the subject.

The book begins with an acknowledgment of two principal dialogue partners: Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham, both of whom have published numerous studies on this topic, interacting with Dunn and with one another. In posing the question that is the title of the book, and identifying his key conversation partners, Dunn also emphasizes that mere citation of texts will not answer the questions, and that his scholarly interaction with others is less a matter of "agreement" or "disagreement" than one of nuance and an attempt to bring further precision and clarity. The introduction ends with an identification of key sub-questions that will be the focus of the chapters in the remainder of the book.

Chapter 1 is on the language of worship, and addresses the breadth of the term "worship" in English as well as the range of meanings of relevant terms in Greek. Prostration (one of the key words for "worship" in the New Testament) indicated a recognition of superiority and dependence on the one to whom the gesture was being made, but the gesture itself does not consistently indicate a recognition of the divinity of the one to whom prostration is offered. And when it comes to a term that more consistently has God as its object, Dunn writes, "In no case in the New Testament is there talk of offering cultic worship (latreuein) to Jesus" (p.13). The chapter also touches on doxologies and benedictions, and includes some discussion of the degrees of reverence/devotion/veneration found in certain strands of the Christian tradition. At the end of the first chapter, Dunn is already clearly seeking to neither overstate nor downplay evidence - and having sought to be balanced, his initial answer to the question posed by the title is "'Generally no' or 'Only occasionally', or 'Only with some reserve'" (p.28).

Chapter 2 focuses on the practice of worship, and here too Dunn emphasizes that the evidence is not as clear cut as we might like. Practices such as prayer, singing, and animal sacrifice are all mentioned, as are sacred times, places and meals. Dunn draws attention to the lack of sacred sites in the New Testament (to the extent even that Jesus' tomb was not a focus of attention as a destination for pilgrimage in the New Testament literature, as far as we can tell). What is more, we have reference to priests who joined the Christian movement, but no reference to priests serving as priests within that context. And once again, "in earliest Christianity, Christ was never understood as the one to whom sacrifice was offered, even when the imagery of sacrifice was used symbolically for Christian service" (p.56). Yet Dunn also suggests that Jesus is somehow on "both sides" of the process of offering his death sacrificially. This chapter ends with the suggestion that the question posted by the book's title may perhaps be too narrow or even misleading.

Chapter 3 moves onto the topic of monotheism, heavenly mediators and divine agents. Dunn is critical of Bauckham's rejection of agency as a helpful category on the one hand, and his adoption of identity as somehow preferable (p.61). The figure of the "angel of Yahweh" provides an example of a figure who "both was God and was not God" (p. 68). Personified divine attributes like Word and Wisdom, as well as exalted human beings, are discussed.

Chapter 4 is on the Lord Jesus Christ, and begins by returning to that important and yet still too often neglected question of whether Jesus was a monotheist. This is obviously of crucial importance, since it is problematic to envision Paul undertaking a significant revision of the very Shema that Jesus affirmed as axiomatic of his own outlook and emphases.

It is in Dunn's discussion of the impression Jesus made on his disciples that I encounter the first points at which I really feel I would nuance things differently - or on one important point emphatically disagree. The latter relates to this: The Aramaic abba does not mean "daddy," but is simply the Aramaic word for "father" in the emphatic state (as the Greek translation of the term in the New Testament indicates clearly). As for nuancing things differently, Dunn states in this chapter that "John clearly felt free to attribute to Jesus words and sentiments that Jesus himself probably never uttered while on earth" (p.119). And yet in discussing how Jesus was remembered, Dunn cites the example of Jesus' authority as depicted in Matthew's "antitheses" (p.99). However, even if the latter incorporate more of Jesus' own words in something closer to their likely original form, we need to acknowledge that Matthew's portrait at this point is largely a result of the Gospel author's redactional activity, which is responsible for setting the sayings of Jesus in comparison and contrast with things found in the Jewish Law. And so it seems to me unwise to make too sharp a contrast between Matthew and John. Both represent impressions of Jesus, based to a greater or lesser extent on recollections about him; and both feel free to be creative with the words they place on Jesus' lips, once again to a greater or lesser extent. Nevertheless, it seems as though there is a widespread impression of Jesus' authority in the New Testament, which suggests that Dunn's larger point still retains its validity.

This chapter also includes treatment of key passages from Paul's letters, such as Philippians 2:6-11 and 1 Corinthians 8:6. In the latter, Dunn highlights that one God is affirmed, and what is said about the one Lord uses prepositions indicative of agency (p.109). And in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 it is felt to be particularly clear that "the kyrios title is not so much a way of identifying Jesus with God, as a way of distinguishing Jesus from God" (p.110). Dunn regards Hurtado's case for the Christ-devotion of the New Testament Christians having been controversial in their time as "surprisingly weak" (p.113), and draws attention to the lack of evidence for such controversy. Also in this chapter are treatments of the Book of Revelation, Jesus as God/god and Jesus as Last Adam.

The chapter concludes with a focused examination of Bauckham's language of "divine identity." If ancient technical terms for Trinitarian discourse such as persona tend to be misunderstood because of the difference of meaning between such ancient words in other languages and their nearest English equivalents, "identity" seems to be vague even in its current English usage (p.142). And so Dunn expresses his reservations, with a succinct summary of his concerns that is worth quoting: "I remain unclear as to the advantages that introducing 'divine identity' as they key term produces, and I remain concerned as to the dimensions and aspects of New Testament christology that the term 'identity' pushes to the side" (p.143). Returning to Paul's language, to the extent that Jesus shares in the "divine identity," Paul's language (and once again in particular the prepositions he uses) suggests that sharing of identity partial, with Jesus sharing in divine roles of agency but not as source (p.144).

The book's conclusion emphasizes that Christian monotheism, however much it has an important Christological aspect, should remain monotheism. The danger of "Jesus-olatry" is discussed (p.147). And in the end Dunn offers a negative answer to the question the book's title poses, while nevertheless seeking to highlight ways in which going too far in the other direction would also be problematic (p.151).

I hope it is clear from my summary that this book is full of rich and insightful content. Regular readers of Dunn's books will expect nothing less, and will not be at all disappointed. Did the first Christians worship Jesus? asks an important question, and Dunn's nuanced answers to this main question and key sub-questions make an important contribution to the ongoing scholarly conversation about monotheism, Christology and worship.

I would add here the final paragraph of the book, from p.151, to give readers a fuller sense of where Dunn is coming from and how he views things:

"So our central question can indeed be answered negatively, and perhaps it should be. But not if the result is a far less adequate worship of God. For the worship that really constitutes Christianity and forms its distinctive contribution to the dialogue of the religions, is the worship of God as enabled by Jesus, the worship of God as revealed in and through Jesus. Christianity remains a monotheistic faith. The only one to be worshipped is the one God. But how can Christians fail to honor the one through whom it believes the only God has most fully revealed himself, the one through whom the only God has come closest to the condition of humankind? Jesus cannot fail to feature in their worship, their hymns of praise, their petitions to God. But such worship is always, should always be offered to the glory of God the Father. Such worship is always, should always be offered in the recognition that God is all in all, and that the majesty of the Lord Jesus in the end of the day expresses and affirms the majesty of the one God more clearly than anything else in the world."

-- James F. McGrath is the author of The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context and John's Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series). This review originally appeared on his blog Exploring Our Matrix.
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43 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on September 16, 2010
Format: Paperback
Let me extend my thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for providing me a copy of James D.J. Dunn's latest, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?

Professor Dunn is Lightfoot Professor of Divinity Emeritus at the University of Durham in England. He is the author of numerous books and writings, and is accepted as an authority in the field. He put forth the PhD candidacy of Dr. James McGrath, Butler University professor, who occasionally stops by here for a comment and who has authored a book on Christianity and monotheism, and runs the blog Exploring our Matrix. I include this in fairness, since Dr. Dunn refers to McGrath's work and opinions in various footnotes throughout his book.

I am, as most of you know, no more than a humble amateur student of the Bible. It has been my privilege to read many books over the years, written by experts, and if I have come to have some small modicum of understanding, I hope that it come forth here in reviewing this work.

The question posed by Dr. Dunn is provocative to some no doubt, and undoubtedly, some would dismiss it with a "of course they did!" and go about their business. But the question is much more tricky that might be assumed, the answer is not what I expected, and I learned a good deal that I would not have assumed.

As anyone who has taken the time to try to understand what Jesus said and what he taught knows, understanding the mind of the first century Jew is essential to that understanding. The faulty interpretations that are so prevalent among "it says what it means and means what it says" crowd stem precisely from giving 21st century meaning to translated words of 1st century Jews.

If we try to attach our means, we most assuredly will get the wrong answer. Dunn thus begins by giving us a definitional tour of the word "worship". He concludes, and I think supports well that worship as understood in that time, was reserved for God the Father alone.

In chapter two, Dr. Dunn looks at prayer, hymns, sacred space, times, meals, sacrifice, and looks to see if there were relevant portions of New Testament writings that support that in action, the early church prayed to Jesus as God and so forth. He would argue that no such things were not present in the early liturgy as such.

Jesus was present to them assuredly, and thus God. Jesus was prayed to essentially as a conduit to God. This comports well with the NT evidence that Jesus is historically remembered by the community of followers as declaring that there was One God, and of course there are numerous instances where Jesus prayed to his Father.

Probably the most useful to me of the chapters was chapter three, in which Dr. Dunn presents examples of how God in the Hebrew scriptures often appeared to humanity in the guise of angels, Spirit, Wisdom and Word. This is where we start to see a sense of the Risen Jesus as Lord.

Jewish theologians often used these agents as a means of expressing God's contact and involvement with humanity. Jesus thus emerges as mediator between God and humanity. For Judaism in no way saw those agents of God or perhaps those "personas" of God to be other Gods. They were guises in which the One God could be experienced.

Early Christians, Dunn argues, also saw Jesus in this way, as the means by which to experience God. We are reminded in Chapter four, that Jesus commanded that the two great commandments were to love God (the Shema) and to love neighbor. In various sayings, Jesus makes most clear that he is NOT God the Father, as in for instance, Mark 10.17-18, when he is addressed as "good teacher" and replies, "No one is good but God alone."

What I discern here is really valuable. We are accustomed to thinking that of course Jesus is God. We, in our simplicity, don't really get what Trinity is, but we somehow think of their appearing to be three Gods, but not really. That is about the best we can do. This of course is precisely why Judaism and Islam both charge that Christianity is not a monotheistic faith.

Dunn helps us to see that we miss the incredible awe-inspiring reality of Jesus when we simply answer yes or no with no further attention. For Jesus embodied the most complete humanity that was envisioned in the concept of being made in God's image. He was the Adam who did not fail. He was the completion, the perfection of that which was first created.

Moreover, God so exalted Jesus, that he comes to be God for us. He shows us by his life and death, resurrection and teachings, who and what God is, in the fullest sense that we humans can comprehend. As Paul suggests, it is as if seeing through a glass darkly, but at least it is not opaque.

For all practical purposes, Jesus shows us God, yet is the prism through which we view God, rather than being God himself. As such he mediates God to us, and us to God. We pray in and through him and by him to the One God.

If I have understood Dr. Dunn at all, this is what I take from his book. This to me is deeply moving and satisfying. This is a book well worth your time. It is eminently readable and while you are free to get into the "nuances" all you wish, you can feel just as satisfied with a more general reading as well. Scholars will find much here to continue the ongoing study, but the average reader will gain much spiritually from the reading.
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27 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on August 13, 2010
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James D. G. Dunn examines and exegetes the New Testament evidence which points to a satisfying answer to this question of early Christian Christological belief and practice.

It is an honest and thorough investigation, and the conclusions that Dunn reaches are well-thought-out and resourceful. He does not just hold to traditional views, but considers the question from a variety of aspects, and gives ample space to differing viewpoints.

In this book, the theologian also is a true scholar, objective and erudite. He respects his New Testament sources, and treats them carefully.

This is a wonderful book, a book that anyone can learn from and benefit from, regardless of personal theology.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2011
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I like me some Dunn. I do not agree with him on everything, like his take on the Kingdom of God and what Jesus thought he would see in his day. However he is one of the most thorough and well thought out writers on the subject of Christ. If you believe Christ is God Almighty then this book may not do much to change your mind. However if you have an open mind he will make you think. When you look closely at the bible and what the church says you will see they do not seem to be saying the samething. Some people will never question anything when it comes to the bible. Some people question everything. I do not think either way is healthy. You should look into things and ask some honest questions. Keep asking questions until you have a handle on things. This book is for people wanting to understand how Jesus saw hmself. I think this is the most important thing we can understand. We can either listen to things that people say about him or we can focus more on what he said. The book also takes a look at the early believers and what they thought about him.

It seems to me that the biggest part of this problem comes from the word(s) we use for God today. If you do an in depth study into the word theos and the word elohim, you find that they are not telling you everything. In fact they are telling you very little about the words and what they mean. In my take on it you cannot trust the Greek way of looking at God. Those are the people who gave you the church you have today. The Jewish concept and in fact the Jesus concept of God is in the Jewish context. It cannot be changed or married to the Greek concept of God. They are two different things.
I know some people will say it was revealed to the Greek mind and that was part of the progressive revealation of God. All I can say is that it leaves the door open for another change down the road and I just do not agree with you. Be it what it may look for truth, make truth you God!!
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on December 16, 2010
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Excellent Work by Dunn. It was unbiased, humble, and an honest theological study on what the N.T. writers thought about worshipping Christ.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 8, 2014
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I came to this book having read the Hurtado volume ‘Lord Jesus Christ’ and being blown away by the thought that the earliest Christians viewed Jesus as God. I expected to find more of the same and was pleasantly surprised not to - quite. Dunn acknowledges Hurtado’s work (and Bauckham’s, who taught me at University many years ago) and whilst broadly agreeing with both, nevertheless challenges some of their findings. For instance, he disagrees with the former about the main opposition expressed to Christianity by Saul (before he became Paul), not opposition to ‘Jesus as God’ but the putting to one side the exclusivism of Judaism and the Torah. He disagrees with the latter in his concept of ‘divine identity’ as a new way of looking at the trinity.
I have for a long time been uneasy over the simplistic worship of Jesus that often forms part of charismatic-style worship, and Dunn has now helped me see why. Early Christians ascribed to Jesus much of what was ascribed to God, but fell short of actual worship of Jesus; worship of God in and through Jesus, yes, and I am happy with that.
One of the main reasons for this disquiet which Dunn brought out was that Jesus was not simply God reaching out to humanity, but also humanity reaching out to God, and this dimension is often lost in an all too simplistic worship of Jesus.
I found chapter 3, dealing with heavenly mediators and divine agents, such as Spirit, Wisdom and Word especially helpful in clarifying some of my thinking from other studies of early church history and theology.
The kindle edition which I bought had most of the usual links to footnotes, but there was no linking from the final indices to any part of the book, which was disappointing.
I thoroughly recommend the book for those involved in worship and liturgy, as well as those trying to understand more about the early church. It is a scholarly work, but easily accessible to most readers.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2013
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Dunn contends with the notion that Jesus was understood by the first Christians as sharing YHWH's "divine identity." He gives a helpful survey of NT (and other) material, ultimately pointing to a further nuanced understanding of early christology with more helpful distinctions.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on September 17, 2013
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How can one not appreciate such careful, knowledgeable, and open-minded scholarship! This book has many implications for better understanding the Bible without reconstructing it to fit our later creeds. I have already recommended it to several friends. Dr. Dunn is an amazing scholar, and this book ranks up there with his best.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2012
Format: Paperback
Dr. Dunn has written a more-or-less pro-orthodoxy examination of the NT that actually examines the subject rather than argues for orthodoxy and casually dismisses opposing opinions. He seems to have been stimulated to write the book by the arguments of Larry Hurtado (e.g., Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity) and Richard Bauckham (e.g., Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament's Christology of Divine Identity) who argued that the early Christians worshiped Jesus as God which (to my mind) puts the existence of an historical Jesus on somewhat shaky grounds.

Rather than simply arguing articles of faith and backing them up with NT quotes, Dunn takes the approach of getting to basics: What were the terms used for worship in the NT, what aspects of worship did they cover, and how (and to whom) were they applied. The result is a fascinating in-depth look at the early christian views of worship rather than doxologies. Believe me, anyone who is interested in worship of God rather than rather childish blind faith should read at least some of this as it is eye-opening without being overly philosophical. Once this ground work is laid, Dr. Dunn expands it to examine the worship or non-worship of Jesus as presented in the NT.

The best part of Dunn's examination is that he admits, up front, that the answer is complicated and he doesn't shy away from this complication in laying his ground work. When the issue of worship of God versus worship of Jesus is clear, he says so. Where it is not clear, he says so. The result is a layered argument that builds the case that the first Christians did not worship the earthly Jesus as God but that it became more complicated with the post-death Jesus. Fair enough and pretty reasonable when you think about it.

Of course, the answer is a bit more complicated and that is where I felt that Dr. Dunn lost a star in not acknowledging the next layer of complication. Many scholars have proposed that the four Gospels are inter-related with each successive author developing material from the previous author in different ways. Likewise, most scholars believe that at least some (if not most) of the pauline materials are not authentically pauline. Then there are all the layers of redaction in the different that cause changes in interpretation and outright contradictions throughout the NT. Yet Dr. Dunn presents the NT as an essentially monolithic work. That's understandable, his task was complicated enough without adding in considerations of the multiple schools of early "Christianity" that were eventually merged to form what we now consider Orthodoxy. My suspicion is that some of the complication that Dunn tweaks out in his examination results from this conflation of multiple "Christianities" including a few that believed that the Christ was the manifestation of God on Earth with no historical, bodily Jesus (in my opinion, that is the background of the man-god Jesus that is portrayed in the Gospel of Mark). I don't mind that he didn't delve into it in this volume but it would have been helpful had he at least acknowledged it (perhaps he did and I missed it).

Another aspect of this complication is, as another reviewer put it, "Which early Christians?".

My other complaint is, admittedly, a personal interest. I found no mentions of non-NT works from early Christian in the book. For instance, Dr. Dunn never acknowledges Ignatius's "Star Hymn" in his "Epistle to the Ephesians" where the Christ was equated with the Morning Star / Lucifer (c.f., "Revelation" 22:16). Was this Christ as the "second" to God or Christ as the redeemer sent by the divine Father to oppose and eventually overcome the earthly demogogue? Was this Christ revered as the messenger of the true God or worshiped as the true God? It may seem trivial but I believe that this was a strong strain of one of the streams of early Christians that eventually fused to form Orthodox Christianity and, so, could be important to Dr. Dunn's thesis.

Still, these faults are minor compared to the much more important task of clarifying the ground work for understanding of what it meant to "worship" Jesus and God. This Dunn has done admirably and I hope that Hurtado, Bauckham, and others make use of it in re-examining the foundations of their own arguments. Will this foundation help their arguments or hurt them? The answer is the complicated one: Yes.
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on March 7, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I've really enjoyed this book. I'm not a scholar so I tend to get lost from time to time. I also try to look up the biblical quotes in an effort to hold the author accountable. I recommend the book.
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