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Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?

July 7, 2010

I’ve been asked by one reader of this blogsite what I make of Dunn’s new book, “Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?” (SPCK 2010). It’s one of the books awaiting sufficient time to read it for an invited review. But, indicative of his moral character and commitment to serious academic engagement, Jimmy sent me the manuscript early on and we exchanged a number of emails over the matters he discusses. I haven’t yet been able to check whether these made any significant difference to what he finally published.

From my recollection of the manuscript version, there are large areas of agreement, and disagreements seem to me largely in matters of emphasis or perspective. I won’t take up a lot of space here with details. But I think that Jimmy’s real concern is (too much to my mind) with those contemporary Christians for whom Jesus is in all practical terms the only deity there is. We see this in a lot of “popular” (i.e., untutored) “praise songs”, in a lot of informal prayers (e.g., “Heavenly Father, we thank you that you died on the cross for us”), and popular Christianity spirituality more generally (especially perhaps among Christians who don’t have the benefit of a historic liturgy to shape their prayer practice).

Also, it seems to me that in Dunn’s definition “worship” of Jesus would mean that he would have to be defined as a deity in his own right, almost a second god. He emphasizes (rightly I insist) that in the NT and “great church” tradition Jesus’ divine status is characteristically defined with reference to “God the Father”, and worship and prayer is more typically formally addressed to God (the Father) “through” Jesus or “in Jesus’ name”. Indeed, one of the emphases reflected in the Gospel of John, Paul, and Hebrews is Jesus as heavenly intercessor on behalf of believers. So, if “worship” is to be used the way Jimmy seems to use the term, then one might have to agree: Jesus isn’t to my mind typically worshipped apart from God the Father or as a (second) deity in his own right.

This is why and how I’ve used the descriptive “binitarian devotional pattern”, meaning both “God (the Father)” and Jesus typically figuring centrally in worship practices, Jesus figuring in a whole constellation of devotional practices that is unprecedented and without analogy at the time, and yet this devotion to Jesus typically represented as obedience to, and proper worship of, God (the Father). I have maintained that when we take account of the *pattern* and *constellation* of devotional practices in which Jesus figures centrally, in the ancient setting this would amount to Jesus being worshipped. I have repeatedly itemized the practices in question, and have invited other scholars to show precedents and analogies to refute my judgement, for over 20 years now, and thus far without any taker.

This doesn’t stop people from simply making unsupported statements (e.g., on some blogsites!!) that my claim is rubbish, an exaggeration, and that there’s nothing really novel in early Christian devotional practice. (Interesting, however, that these statements aren’t made by any of the scholars who’ve worked in the evidence, even any of those who demur from my own views).

As to the argument that only sacrifice counted for worship in the Roman world, and since no sacrifice was offered to Jesus he wasn’t worshipped, there’s a big problem: Early Christian worship gatherings didn’t involve sacrifice at all . . . to God (the Father) or anyone! So, the absence of sacrifice offered to Jesus is both correct and irrelevant.

To my mind the only way you can address the question is to do so inductively, asking what cultic practices characterized early Christian corporate gatherings, how they compare with synchronous religious groups/practices, and the place of Jesus in these practices. I submit that when you do that you must grant that (1) Jesus figures in their devotional practices (and religious beliefs) in an exceptional, unprecedented manner, (2) this is especially and most notably true of their corporate devotional practices by which they identify themselves as Christian circles; (3) and that in the ancient setting this was seen as amounting to worship of Jesus (as we know from their critics and opponents). I reiterate, however, that this was more typically a distinctive *incorporation* or enfranchisement of Jesus into the worship directed to God the Father, and that worship/reverence of Jesus was not typically intended in any way at the expense of God (the Father) but in response to God’s will. I think I’ve made this rather plain as my understanding of things from my 1988 book, “One God One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism” onward.

Oh, and one more indication of Jimmy’s good nature and character: I was very pleased and honored to discover when I opened my gift-copy of the book that he had dedicated it to Richard Bauckham and me.

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2 Comments
  1. Pär Stenberg permalink

    I know that I am a bit late, but for all it’s worth I want to bring attention to James McGrath’s comments on Huratdo’s post:

    http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2010/07/larry-hurtado-on-james-dunns-latest.html

    • Yes, this was drawn to my attention a few days ago. (I don’t have the time to surf blogdom myself. It’s hard enough I’m finding simply to keep up with my own site.) A couple of points in response.
      –Part of what McGrath mentions is both true but irrelevant: That Jewish believers (per Acts including Paul) continued to treat the Jerusalem temple as valid and participate in sacrifice seems to me highly likely. But I fail to see the relevance for Jesus-devotion. The Jerusalem temple made no provision for sacrifice to anyone else, for one thing.
      –More to the point, of course there is no dedicated sacrifice to Jesus. I’ve emphasized since my 1988 book, “One God, one Lord” onward that Jesus is not typically worshipped in NT texts *unto himself* as if he were a 2nd god, but always with reference to the one God. I.e., Jesus’ divine status is always articulated with reference to the one God (“the Father”). And the striking devotion to him (including cultic devotion) forms part of their devotion and worship of the one God.
      –I.e., Jesus is reverenced (1) in ways that collectively form the core of Christian worship, and (2) as obedience to and worship of the one God, of whom Jesus is referred to as the unique image and Son. Jesus is the cultic Lord by the will of God the Father.

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