Let me extend my thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for providing me a copy of James D. G. 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.
Very interesting, and it makes perfect sense. I personally have always thought Jesus meant that when He said He was “the way” to God, that all he meant is that He understood what God was all about and was telling and showing the people of the time how God wanted them to live and conduct themselves. I have no problem thinking of Him as a conduit of God; the supernatural idea of Him actually BEING God never quite worked for me. So I’m never sure what to say if someone asks if I’m a Christian. I believe in the things Jesus said and how he lived; but to think He is my actual Savior and that His death expunges my sins, can’t quite get to that. I always felt that if there IS a God (never quite sure of that either), He is probably more magnanimous than one expects based on the various Biblical stories, especially in the Old Testament. I think everyone sins, and that they alone are responsible for their sins, and that God will sort it out in the end, whether they meant well or not in this life. I can’t even believe in a Hell, because I always feel that there is so much more to anyone’s iniquity than just their deeds; surely there are extenuating circumstances for many “evil” people. I really like the idea of reincarnation, because it gives people more than one chance, more than one life, to perfect themselves. Who is to say how evil one might be if one were put in the same circumstances as someone else who became evil?
Maui, I think believing that Jesus showed a way is most Christian. I don’t believe in some God imposed sacrifice for our sins stuff either. I believe Jesus willingly gave himself rather than back down on his beliefs. I believe God exalted him for it, and gave him a special divine status as our mediator, making him as Dunn suggests, the face of God. Dunn’s analysis is stunningly right for me at least. I also agree, I don’t believe in a hell other than the self-imposed one we create in our lives. To suggest a real one for those judged badly would suggest that God isn’t much of a creator after all, and would suggest he chose not to be the best creator. Thanks so much for your thoughts. They really do help clarify my own.
I personally have always thought Jesus meant that when He said He was “the way” to God, that all he meant is that He understood what God was all about and was telling and showing the people of the time how God wanted them to live and conduct themselves.
Something like that, yes. An expression of his understanding of God, perhaps.
the supernatural idea of Him actually BEING God never quite worked for me.
You’re not alone in that one.
So I’m never sure what to say if someone asks if I’m a Christian. I believe in the things Jesus said and how he lived;
Beliefs are not all that important, actually. I call myself a Christian because I was raised one, because it’s a tradition I understand, because it’s sometimes motivational, because its language sometimes works and because of the stories it espouses.
I’d like to think I might be open to positive influence from other, any, all, faiths and none, too.
but to think He is my actual Savior and that His death expunges my sins, can’t quite get to that.
You can keep the first part of that by having a wider, non-individualistic, understanding of salvation. See Tikkun Olam, “saving the world” and Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy for more.
The second half of that is dubious altogether. If the theory of substitutionary atonement leads you to think God is somehow an abusive parent, then dump it and move on. Jesus preached peace through distributive justice, not through violence; you can see his death as the state’s rejection, through violent means.
I always felt that if there IS a God (never quite sure of that either), He
God is not a “he”, much less a “He”! God is not some (super)being, capable of understanding or being limited in finite terms; you cannot separate God as an object from the universe or any part of it, nor from any forces that operate in the universe either. Therefore do not say “if there is a God”, because that’s meaningless; say rather that God is, and rejoice. 🙂
I can’t even believe in a Hell, because I always feel that there is so much more to anyone’s iniquity than just their deeds
If only some people thought there was more to deeds than iniquity.
I don’t believe in a Hell either. There’s no Biblical authority for one; the languages of “sheol” in the Hebrew bible, and of “outer darkness” and “fire” etc in the New Testament do not add up to one single coherent picture, but they do represent ideas that people had at the times they were written.
Tim, I really like your reply to Maui. I’ve been down on blood atonement for a long time, and find that it helps me see God so much clearer.
I do believe that God exalted Christ in a special way that gives him power on earth. In that sense, Jesus still forgives sins as he did on earth. But as I see it, he does that as a “face” of God to us.
It’s all very hard to explain, since words are simply inadequate.
I truly thank you for the links!
I really like this: “Jesus was prayed to essentially as a conduit to God.” I appreciate you reviewing this book, though I don’t think I want to buy another one. Maybe I’ll put it on my wish list. . . .
I’m going to try to get ahold of the one you mentioned about Mary Magdalen. LOL…never enough books, never enough time to read them all.
I found that analogy quite helpful to my understanding too Jan.
John Anngeister said:
Sherry, thanks for the review – it is the first one I have bothered to read on Dunn’s new book. But his title has caught my eye before this (maybe in a longer review which I passed up), and I feel I ought to read it at some point.
I remember an ikon which has Jesus pointing to his heart with one of his hands and using the other to point ‘up’ off the local plane of points. My favorite image.
I don’t see Jesus as ‘the Father’ and therefore don’t worship the person Jesus in the place of the Father. Even though it comes close to that when I ‘apprehend’ the Father-God as very ‘Christlike’ and given to the whole human race. This makes me neither Jew nor Greek, and universalizes the Father-concept depicted in most of the ancient writings about Father-Gods who are merely concerned with their paternal relation with isolated and chosen peoples).
I do think it’s possible to combine a concept of the divine-human heart or consciousness of Jesus (the ikon image again) with the concept of his real pre-existent and divine sonship in a way which can and ought be a key to a true worship of his Father as our Father.
This all means that my beliefs about Jesus give him a central role in getting worship right. In this way it is possible for me to accept Jesus as a pre-existent divine being without believing he required our worship of himself rather than his Father – and yet doesn’t totally scandalize the church.
I may have to put this comment up on my own page (with a link to you of course – when and if I re-write it).
John I think I get what you are saying. I can see Jesus as being the pre-existent Word, in the sense of an aspect of God, whose work it was to create. I see Jesus human as truly human, exalted after his death, brought into the fullness of the One God. I’m not sure I’m totally logical here, but the introduction of the trinity has caused most people I think to think of their being three gods somehow one, and they just shrug. Various councils have struggled with this, and the language of the Nicene creed is the messy result, I suspect.
Sherry, it sounds as if we think pretty similarly about these spiritual issues!
Yes, The First Christians Worshipped Jesus as He tiold them to at the Last Supper: “Do This in Remembrance of Me”.
The Last Supper was the First “Mass”, with the Real Presence Body/Blood of Himself He changed in Essernce from Bread, Wine. Only Christ Himself has those Powers, which he gave to the Apostles Alone in anointing them.
Jesus Christ was no Mediator; He Was/Is The Messiah fulfilling the Old Testament.
The Best, All Bible Book on Christ is the widelly acclaimed “JESUS OF NAZARETH”, by Ratzinger, ak now as Pope Benedictt. Cardinal Ratzinger has been a Definitive Scholar.
Another Spoke at our ‘instant-megachurch’ of 2 1/2 years, holytrinityparish.net.
He is the Definitive Bible Scholar/Author/expert: Dr Scott Hahn, PhD. His Awesome, spellbinding All Day presentation is available at our Parish Website under Homilies, Speakers. CAUTION, He Proves The Catholic Church Is the Only Church Christ founded.
Dr Hahn has written Many Books On the Bible. He is The Major Bibnle Expert, having studied Greek, Latin as a Presbyterian Seminarian.
He Converted to R. Catholic Because as Presbyterian Seminarian, they hasd been taught to Study the First Centuries Sermons. He Noticed they focused MOST on the Real Presence Eucharist, He hated Catholicism, Preached against it, as a Presbyterian Minister, then Evangelical.
But he often returned to the First Early Church Sermons, on Everything, Including the Seven Sacraments, Not 2.
One of his recent, of Many Books, is “Lamb of God”, in which he documents how the mysterious code of REVELATION Describes the LastSupperFeast/aka Mass.Christ was Always coded as The Lamb of God.
The Main Focus of the Earliest Church was The “Last Supper Feast” and especially the Real Presence Eucharist, consecrated by the One Priest ibn the Universe: Christ Himself. He anointed the Apstles Only with the Sacramental Powers for the 7 Sacraments He Founded. Because of the Rapidly growing Early Church, the Apostles finally Taught, Ordained as Christ did with Laying on of Hands, “Presbyters”, their highest Assistants, now known as Priests.
There was no Bible, and no Litercy Then. Church Bishops and experts Chose Which of Hundreds of holy books were MOST ACCURATE, at the Councils of Rome, Carthage, Ephesus in the 300’s. No Changes until Martin Luther Removed 7 years later he disagreed with.
Tony if you don’t agree, your issue is with the author. I don’t think Dunn’s conclusions are really outside Catholic Dogma much, at least as I’ve heard it explained by a good many Catholic theologians. I’m afraid I don’t care for Benedicts usual treatment of things. As to Scott Hahn, he is a Catholic apologist and frankly I don’t consider his material intellectually serious. He’s the one always drug out as an expert by the far right in the Church.
Blessings, my friend, as I always say, you are vehement in your defense of what you believe.
Sherry, Jesus Christ was 100% Human having to be educated, taught, and 100% God, Numerous Proofs Like the Verified Authentic Miracle Shroud of Turin proven conclusivelly the last 10 Years as His First “photograph’, Impossible to do by humans.Christ’s Blood Type in the 2 known samples was the type AB, a Minority type.
Christ was No Mediator; HE OBVIOUSLY WAS< IS GOD. Priests are his intermediary, representative on Earth. The Papacy is the Highest Stage of Priesthood.
Sherry, Scott Hahn is no “Apologist”. He is ALL Bible; The Bible expert in the Nation. He is No Spin.
He Bacame Catholic when he went to a Weekday Mornibng Mass at Masrquett, With Bible and Notebook; He say The Mass is ALL Bible, for almost 2000 years.
Pope Benedict wrote the Acknowledged All Bible description of Jesus Christ. No Spin, again.
There’s no “Apology” in The Church; only The Bible Citations for EVERYTHING Catholic, as Scott Hahn recently wrote his latest Book.
Includes Medals, Statues, Interpretations of The Word.
Scott Hahn always has been All Bible, as Anti-Catholic Prebyterian Seminarian. No apologies.
Zero “Defense”, Sherry; Only Explaing, Citing Authority (Historic, Bible, Scientific, Rational)
Tony, Scott Hahn is an apologist, which is simply defined as one who defends the faith. He does this as you correctly point out, by citing to scripture for every single proposition he makes. That is how dogma is defended.
Biblical exegesis is entirely different. It involves examining a subject or a piece of scripture–say for instance “was Paul a Pharisee?” and then looks to the words, definitions, relevant other texts of that time, such as Philo and Josephus, looks at literary and historical critical methodology, and attempts to answer the question. It may rely on scripture itself, but usually only for definitional matters. I can tell you that Scott Hahn is NEVER cited as a biblical expert by any biblical scholar I have ever read. He is a creature of the rightwing of the Church.
I don’t argue what he does, only that it has no interest to me. I’m interested in seriously understanding what the text meant to those who wrote it and read and heard it period.
These are two different things, and both have their place in Christendom.
Bob MacDonald said:
I worked for a day on a comment and eventually published it as a post here. My questions remain. They are around the meaning of worship and the use of Christ as a substitute for Jesus and the universality of the Spirit and the anointing / election of Israel. I can see just from the three reviews and the comment threads that one can take these discussions in many directions – but the schema remains.
Bob, I’ll pop over and read your response and answer there. No doubt this a difficult subject for some. Those who retain the generalized mantras of belief find some things hard to open up to.
i studied Bible from secular point of view. the first problem starts with the date of birth of Jesus. Bible says that on that day shepherds was outside with their sheeps. but two thousands years ago, according to the reasearch it was really cold in this region, so it is doubtful that shepherds took a walk in such weather.
Ariella, You must understand that those who constructed various writings that we now include in a book called the bible, didn’t adhere to our definitions of “history” and accuracy. Much in the bible is allegorical and moreover, since much of this was meant to be recalled from memory, stories were often constructed that were easy to remember. There were few copies of anything much.
I’ve never heard anything about weather being an issue, we don’t know the exact dates at all. We only choose dates because they seemed appropriate at the time to be good celebration days. Dec. 25 is quite arbitrary, though at the time it was to replace the winter solstice celebrations.
I think your conclusion of Jesus as a perfect & saintly human being, exalted and deified by his early followers because of his exemplary life and astounding miracles, is quite easily proven wrong.
Really? Prove it, then.
1. It is not MY conclusion
2. Your conclusion as to the conclusions reached by Dunn are incorrect.
3. Your linked post does not answer in any fashion your ill-conceived notions of what is being discussed here.
Better luck next time my friend.
Did I by any chance misunderstand your last four paragraphs?.. 😐
God so exalted Jesus, that he comes to be God for us.
Yes Lucian, I think you misunderstand completely. It’s very hard to discuss when you haven’t read the book. Jesus was not deified by his followers, precisely the opposite. God did so. Miracles were not discussed at all.
If I understand your place in faith, you are Eastern Orthodox? In any case, your attempt to answer a perceived argument by simply reciting scripture not even named by translation is impossible to respond to. You have voiced no interpretation and all scripture requires interpretation quite obviously.
Yes, you’re right, my article does not really cover that view. And my posts tend to be have a spartanic sancta simplicitas about them, that’s true. I am surprised that you didn’t recognized the “unknown” and “not even named” translation, though: it’s the King James version. 🙂
But the point still stands, I think: it would seem that the Apostles, disciples, and followers of Christ weren’t too familiar with the notion or idea of God-deifying-human-beings, otherwise their reactions would be out of character. And why stop at Jesus? Why weren’t some other righteous and holy human beings, like John the Baptist, John the Apostle, or the Virgin Mary, deified by God as well? 😐
The Dubay Rheims translation appears “similar to the KJV. Neither is a very good translation in any case.
I don’t see you point. God has used angels, and people, and the Word, Wisdom, as “faces” if you will. this is replete throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
I have no clue what “reactions” are out of character and to what? You make simplistic statements without explanation or proofs.
God exalted Christ, sitting him at his right hand, giving him powers, as a perfect mirror of God among his people. To ask why he didn’t do that to others is too silly to answer. Do I speak for God? Do you know that he did not?
We merely speculate on what the writings suggest based on a very long and complicated list of heurmeneutical tools we use to examine and interpret scripture.
Dunn is simply saying that early Christians saw Jesus as inextricably bound in God and God in Jesus, but that in the end there was still one God, the Father, the one to whom Jesus prayed. Worship was through him to God. If you don’t agree, then I suggest you contact Professor Dunn and explain his errors in exegesis.
this is replete throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
Was Yahveh ever worshipped through Isaiah? Did God ever deify Ezekiel? Did Baruch write of his master Jeremiah that he was the incarnation of the Word of God, because the Lord spoke through him many times? Did the Angels in the book of Daniel or Revelation accept worship from him or John? Did someone bow down to Moses or Elijah saying `my Lord and my God`? Were ancient converts to Judaism baptized `in the name of God, Michael, and Gabriel`? Etc.
Lucian, I don’t know your educational background, but you are failing to make any point here. All that you have said is accurate, none of the above were used as vehicles for worship. So what? I grow tired, and need to move on. Please read a bit more of current theology and perhaps we can have a meaningful conversation.