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Review Essay: “Did the First Christians Worship Jesus”

July 22, 2010

I’ve written a commissioned review of J.D.G. Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus, which is to appear in due course in Journal of Theological Studies.   I sent him the JTS review and he and I have had several email exchanges since then, which I found very stimulating.

As the subject of this book is central to my interests, I have also written a larger review-essay on the book, which I’ve posted on the “Essays, etc” page of this site.  The exchanges between Dunn and me were helpful in prodding me to a fuller engagement with his book.  Based on Dunn’s responses, I believe that I’ve represented his views accurately.  I can’t say, however, that I’ve persuaded him in my criticisms!

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  1. 1- Dr hurtado said “We remember that early Christian devotion to Jesus was not a cultus of its own . Jesus is
    praised and acclaimed as their Lord “to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11). Devotion to Jesus did not involve confusing him with God or making Jesus a second god” ( One God , One Lord , page 121 ).

    Does this mean that early christians believed that God is greater than Jesus ? and that Jesus is subordinated to him ? what does it mean” not to confuse him with God ” , you Sir ( professor Hurtado ) told me that they believed Jesus is divine , so how can they believe that Jesus is divine and at the same time not confusing him with God , they understood him to be God or not ?

    2- If God is worshipped for his own right , but Jesus is worshipped with reference to” God the father ” , Isn’t this two grades of devotion , one grade ( i.e devotion to the father ) is higher than the other (i.e devotion to Jesus ) ?

    3- you said (In the new testament , worship is offered in the Holy Spirit . But it is not so clear that the Spirit is seen as the recipient of worship . In noting this , I am not adopting any critical stance as regards the later and more developed trinitarian worship practices of christian tradition ) (At the Origins of Christian Worship , page 63 and 64 )

    How could it be that later developments be correct while we know that the earliest christians didn’t believe in such things ? Isn’t the earliest thing is the right thing ? Do christians today have to ” worship Jesus in reference to God the Father and abandon worshipping the Holy spirit ” Or ” worship each one of the three for his own right ?

    Thank you sir , I really enjoyed reading large portions of your books , and I am on my way to finish reading two of them .

    • I’ll try to respond briefly to your queries by numbering my comments to correspond with your numbered queries.
      1) There is no question that in the NT (and in classical Christian doctrine) Jesus is functionally subordinate to God the Father. E.g., Jesus is sent by the Father, not vice versa. Jesus redeems people for God the Father, not vice versa. In 1 Cor. 8:4-6, all things are “from God” and all things are “through” Jesus. I.e., Jesus is the agent of creation. Even in the Nicene Creed, the Son is “God from God, Lightfrom Light, true God from true God“, i.e., the Son’s divine status is expressed with reference to God the Father. This subordination of the Son to the Father led to questions about “ontology” in the second-fourth centuries, with different answers given, the one that became “orthodox” picturing one divine nature shared by Father & Son. But even so both in the understanding of divine operation and in worship practice there is a subordination of the Son (Jesus) to the Father.
      2) The aim in the NT emphasis on Jesus being worshipped as the unique expression (“word”, “image”, “son”, etc.) of God isn’t to set up two levels of worship, but instead to avoid di-theism (two gods).
      3) “The right thing to do” is a theological question, not a historical one, and my research focuses primarily on historical questions. Churches will have their means of determining “the right thing to do”, and these means vary. Some will perhaps feel that “the earliest” is “the right thing”. But others will say that there should be allowance for growth and development.
      In any case, my observation is correct that the Spirit is not in the NT typically the recipient of worship, but more the enabling power of worship. But by the fourth century, the Nicene Creed refers to “the Holy Spirit, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified”. But, as I say, these are matters for churches to work out for themselves.

  2. Morten Beckmann Klepp permalink

    Dear Mr. Hurtado.

    Given that Phil 2,6-11 is an eschatological text, where cultic reverence is given to Jesus (to the glory of the Father) as an event that has not yet occurred, how helpful is this text to the question of whether the first Christians worshipped Jesus?

    • Good question. If Philip 2:6-11 were all we had, then it would be not all that different perhaps from the visions in 1 Enoch were “the Elect One” is portrayed receiving homage from the nations. But there are other data that are commonly taken into account. (I must be brief here.)

      First, the acclamation in Philip. 2:9-11, “Kyrios Iesous Christos”, is echoed in other passages that more specifically reflect liturgical practices: e.g., 1 Cor. 12:1-3; Rom 10:9-13. So, we know that acclamation of Jesus as “kyrios” was a feature of Pauline churches, and from 1 Cor 16:22 (“maranatha”) likely also in Aramaic-speaking churches as well.

      Moreover, Philip 2:6-11 is widely taken by scholars as a Pauline appropriation/adaptation of what is likely the text of an early Christian odes/hymn. If so, then it is not a visionary scene but an artifact of early Christian worship, in which Jesus is the subject hymned. There are additional data that shape the common scholarly judgement that such “christological songs/odes” were a feature of earliest Christian worship circles, and that Philip 2:6-11 is reflective of actual worship practice. I point to my own little book, At the Origins of Christian Worship (Paternoster, 1999; Eerdmans, 2000).

  3. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Wow I am glad I stumbled on this blog. I have been reading all of professor Hurtado’s books and articles on Christology I can get my hands on ever since I came across his excellent book ‘One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism’ a few years ago. Hurtado’s work is a pleasure to read because of the good natured character of his interaction with other scholars, and because his transparent scholarship (generous footnotes) allows the reader to view not only his conclusions but the train of thought that has led him to certain positions.

    I picked up James Dunn’s new book in Waterstones last week, and I knew Hurtado would have something to say about it, and so I arrived at this site while searching for reviews. I have read Dunn’s book and Hurtado’s expanded review on this site. I was looking out for a response to what I thought was an interesting observation made by Dunn. He notes that while PROSKNEIN denotes various degrees of reverence/worship, and is used of God, Jesus and others, the NT texts only approvingly present LATREUEIN as being directed to God. (Matt 4:10/Luke 4:8) Dunn suggests one possible text where LATREUEIN may have been used of Jesus (Acts 13:2) but argues that the OT flavour of the passage points to the Lord God rather than the Lord Jesus Christ. I have gone back to ‘One Lord, One God’ and ‘Lord Jesus Christ’ but I cannot find any discussion of that particular point. Has Hurtado discussed this somewhere I have overlooked?

    I agree with Dunn’s comment: “Bearing in mind that the LATREUEIN word group is the nearest expression for the offering of ‘cultic worship’, the fact that it is never for the ‘cultic devotion’ of Christ in the New Testament is somewhat surprising for Hurtado’s main thesis and should be given some attention.” (Page 15)

    • In Acts 13:2, the verb is actually leitourgein, and the phrase here is leitourgounton de auton to kyrio, “While/as they were worshipping the Lord”. In the context, it’s not entirely clear who “the Lord” is, but in the context it’s just as likely that it is Jesus.

      One other expression that needs to be considered is the appropriation of the OT word for cultic worship, “call upon the Lord”. The NT writings reflect the use of this expression and the ritual action it designates as directed to Jesus: e.g., Acts 2:21; Rom 10:9-13, etc.). This expression as used in the NT seems to = the ritual acclamation & invocation of Jesus, and more generally treating him as recipient of cultic devotion. Indeed, Paul can describe believers simply as “those everywhere who call upon the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). Dunn treats this in his “Did Earliest Christians Worship Jesus?” book, but I am not entirely sure that he correlates it adequately in his general conclusions.

      Certainly (to make the point yet again), earliest believers would resist the idea that their devotion to Jesus involved him being treated as a distinguishable deity, a second god. They clearly intended their devotion to him to comprise obedience to and worship of God, Jesus’ divine status always articulated with reference to God (the Father).

      • Just a few layman thoughts on Acts 13:2 and the use of LATREUW in reference to Jesus.

        I personally think that the use of the articular KURIOS favors Jesus as being in view in Acts 13:2. Now, I did only quickly skim through Acts so I could be wrong, but it looks as if the only use of the articular KURIOS with God the Father as the unambiguous referent is in 7:33 (not counting textual variant in 2:34, or 2:25 where TON KURION is used for adonai and not for the tetragrammaton). There are however quite a few ambiguous cases and Acts 13:2 is of course one of them. Other examples would include 5:14, 9:31, and the identity of the Lord who is to be prayed to in 8:22-24 and more. In light of how rarely the article is used with tetragrammaton substitute in the Septuagint –a practice that to some extent is carried over to the New Testament when referring to the divine name– and how often the articular KURIOS is used with reference to Jesus (probably due to the titular use of KURIOS in Psalm 110, but a title which in the NT carries the full implications of the divine name, Phil 2:9) I think it is quite possible that Jesus is the one receiving LEITOURGEW in Acts 13:2 given that I do not find a grammatical reason for the article being there (but my greek is horrible so I could be wrong on that). But then again, I’m no scholar :p

        Now turning to LATREUW, I do not think that we should forget the possibility of Jesus receiving latreuô in Revelation 22:3: KAI hO QRONOS TOU QEOU KAI TOU ARNIOU EN AUTHi ESTAI, KAI OI DOULOI AUTOU LATREUSOUSIN AUTWi

        AUTWi could refer to either God or the Lamb, although the latter is perhaps to be preferred (cf. similar constructions in Rev 11:15, 20:6); but I would argue that the antecedent of the pronoun is actually both the Father and the Lamb. After all, this is the book that presents God and the Lamb as both being the Alpha and the Omega (1:8, 22:13), sharing one throne (22:3), and according to the author both God and the Lamb make out the new temple (21:22) and both of them are closely connected to the light of the new city (21:23). Furthermore, note that v. 4 in chapter 22 says that “his name will be on their foreheads” while in Rev 14:1 the name which is written upon the believers is that of God and the Lamb. I think there is a distinct possibility that this verse indicates that latreuô is indeed given to the Father and to the Son.

        Just my two cents 🙂

  4. Dr Hurtado , in your essay , you dealt with the question ( Why paul persecuted christians ? )

    your answer (Dr Hutado) : because of their devotion to Jesus

    but Dr Dunn answer is : because christians were not loyal to the law and Pharisaic halakoth

    well , I think Dr Bart Ehrman’s answer is the most plausible to this question : because christians were proclaiming a suffering messiah . Paul himself said that this is a stumbling block to the jews , I think this is a clear answer from paul .

    Jews did expect a very powerful messiah , not a suffering one , so may be they considered it a blasphemy to proclaim a suffering messiah ( = this is what early christians did , so they get themselves persecuted )

    So , if we consider dr Bart Ehrman’s answer to this question , wouldn’t the “- devotion to Jesus – answer ” be out of the picture ?

    • Well, no. Indeed, Bart’s proposal (not particularly his, as it’s been offered by a number of others) is simply one specific version of Jesus-devotion: i.e., the reverence given to Jesus expressed in the messianic claim.

      This is indeed likely included, in my view, in the objectionable things about early Christians from the standpoint of other Jews. But the key question is this: What sort of objectionable beliefs or behaviour would have prompted the Phinehas-zeal response given by Saul of Tarsus? Based on ancient refs, e.g., Philo’s list of behaviour that merited such treatment, I’m not so sure that proclaiming a crucified messiah was enough. Maybe, but not so clearly.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        Paul says Christians were persecuted on the issue of circumcision and asks rhetorically in Galatians 5 why he was still being persecuted if he had (supposedly) compromised on the issue of circumcision.

      • Paul asks rhetorically why he’s being persecuted if he still preaches circumcision (Gal. 5:11). Note: He doesn’t specify who’s doing the persecution, but those he’s arguing against in the epistle seem to be fellow Jewish believers, who seem to have gone into the Galatian churches questioning his authority and the adequacy of his gospel.

        The text doesn’t answer the question of why he persecuted Jewish believers prior to his own conversion-experience. I’ve laid out the relevant evidence & argument in my essay on “Early Jewish Opposition” in my How on Earth did Jesus become a God? book.

  5. Pastor Bob permalink

    What about the hymn in Col. 1:15-20? “The image of the invisible God.”

  6. Dr. Hurtado, thanks for beginning to blog and to for making your essays available to your readers. I just received my copy of Dunn’s book and was very happy to see your post about your review. For those of us working in adult education in a church setting and attempting to point interested lay members to quality online resources, your site is extremely helpful. I hope you are able to continue to find time to blog on a regular basis.

  7. Pär Stenberg permalink

    Great review. Even though I disagree with Dunn on issues on Christology, I have a lot of respect for him and his work so I will be sure to give this book a read.

    Thank you for making these things so easily available for us.

  8. Thank you professor Hurtado for your comment on my questions . I really appreciate it

    I know that there are texts in the NT talking about divinity of jesus , like the one you mentioned (john 1 – 1 ) . But , let me put my question in other words . If we suppose that there is a debate between you and James dunn about divinity of jesus , and if we suppose there is no text in the NT speaking about divinity of jesus , and the only evidence we have at our hands is this practice of devotion , so would you consider this evidence ( remember it is the only evidence you have at your hands ) sufficient to prove that christians believed jesus was divine ? , and would professor James dunn agree with you that it is a sufficient and clear proof that christians really believed jesus was divine ?

    Thank you sir

    • There are differences between Dunn and me on these matters, which you’ll detect from the review-essay. Among them:
      –Dunn hesitates to say that Jesus was worshipped in NT texts, preferring to soften the nature/level of reverence given.
      –I tend to think that the reverential practices are such as to add up to Jesus being worshipped, although Dunn and I agree that the reverence given to Jesus was typically expressed with reference to God (the Father), and Jesus was not reverenced as if he were a god in his own right.
      –I think that the practices we see in NT texts = treating Jesus in ways that in that setting would be taken as treating him as divine.

  9. Steven Carr permalink

    Professor Hurtado
    I think other Jews would likely have regarded Jewish believers as at least stupid and their views ridiculous, and their worship practices perhaps as deeply offensive, even endangering the first commandment.


    Paul refers to this in his laconic way in Romans 10:16
    ‘But not all the Israelites accepted the good news.’

  10. david permalink

    I wanna thank uou for this great site

    I am going to read your book on devotion to jesus , I am sure I will enjoy it . I don’t have yet the book of James dunn . But I want to understand some point . Do you see that this devotion to jesus is an evidence that early christians considered him God ? Does James dunn consider this devotion an evidence that early christians considered that Jesus is God ?

    Does this devotion mean that early christians believed that jesus is equal with God , or it is just they linked him with God in the practice of worship but still beleiveing that God is higher than him

    thank you

    • I have to be somewhat technical in response to your questions, or very precise and circumspect. Your phrasing “considered him [Jesus] God” raises the question of what you mean. The Christians reflected in the NT texts consistently refer to “God” (often “God the Father”) and Jesus. Jesus never displaces “God” in their discourse.

      As the key example, John 1:1. “The Word [for this author the pre-existent Jesus] was with God and the Word was God”. The whole sentence has to be maintained, not simply one part or the other. That is, the author seems to be saying both that the Word is really, truly and unquely divine, just as “God” is, but is at the same time personally distinguishable from “God”. Indeed, elsewhere in John (e.g., 17:1ff) Jesus speaks of sharing God’s glory, speaking on behalf of God, being sent forth from God, etc. Even in GJohn, we see asserted both unique unity of “the Son” with “the Father” and also that the “Son” is distinguishable.

      I’ve tried to be as exact as I can in characterizing early Christian devotion in my various publications. My focus has been on the nature of earliest Christian devotional practices and what they signify. This is mainly because in the ancient religious environment, what we mean by “religion” (not a word they used) was most obviously exhibited in worship-practices. And ancient Jewish tradition placed the greatest weight on worship in distinguishing Jewishness from the larger religious environment.

      Finally, the devotional/worship practices reflected in the NT texts comprise an utterly unique and novel development in ancient Jewish tradition, with a distinguishable figure (Jesus) incorporated into their devotional life, linked tightly with God.

      The doctrinal consequences and meanings of this then drove theological debate for the next few hundred years. But already in the NT we see efforts to link Jesus with God in astonishing ways. E.g., they speak of Jesus sharing and reflecting God’s glory, sharing the divine name, seated with God in heaven, etc. It’s pretty amazing.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        Professor Hurtado
        E.g., they speak of Jesus sharing and reflecting God’s glory, sharing the divine name, seated with God in heaven, etc. It’s pretty amazing.

        Would other Jews have regarded the early Christians as engaging in idolatry for speaking of Jesus of Nazareth sharing the divine name?

      • I think other Jews would likely have regarded Jewish believers as at least stupid and their views ridiculous, and their worship practices perhaps as deeply offensive, even endangering the first commandment. See my essay “Early Jewish Opposition to Jesus-Devotion” in my book, How on Earth Did Jesus become a God? (Eerdmans, 2005). I have proposed that this sort of opposition was involved in Saul’s (a.k.a. apostle Paul) violent actions against Jewish believers, which would = ca. 31-35 CE.

      • “There are two spheres of tradition, distinguished both by their concepts and by their history. The centre of the one sphere is the passion kerygma; the centre of the other sphere is the intention to take up again the proclamation of Jesus’ message. The Q material belongs to the second sphere… The concept of the passion kerygma remained outside this sphere. Thus the Q material proved to be an indpendent source of Christological cognition.” (Heinz
        Eduard Todt).
        This applies to the apostolic period 30 CE – 60 CE. The one sphere the passion kerygma, its Scriptural source the letters of Paul, the Gospels and the later writings of the NT. Only this sphere worshiped Jesus. For the other sphere, its Scriptural source is the earliest stratum of tradition, the Q1 material. For this sphere Jesus is regarded as the authoratative teacher and interpreter of the Jewish Torah.

      • Well, this is one (now somewhat dated) view, held by a minority of NT scholars. It is not persuasive to most, including me. See my own treatment of Q in my book, Lord Jesus Christ.
        It is counter-intuitive that Q supposedly represented some totally isolated version of Jesus-followers who somehow managed to remain totally unaffected by the Jesus-devotion everywhere else attested. And further counter-intuitive that a supposedly foreign body of material with foreign emphases was then supposedly so fully and freely adopted by the authors of Matthew and Luke.
        but see my book.

  11. For some odd reason, after reading the first of the two theses, I immediately sensed that “anxiety of the worship of Jesus,” that would later be developed.

    I understand the caution with which Dunn operates in his book, via your review, but it seems like he has not weighed the Pauline texts, affirming the worship of Jesus as God, because of what has precisely taken place in his resurrection and exaltation. I find a text like 2 Cor. 5:16 instructive here.

    Besides, there seems to be some confusion about Pauline monotheism. Should we merely understand Paul’s monotheist as an ordinary Jew without the benefits of the christological significance of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus?

    Yes, Dunn’s charge of “lax in Torah-observance” remains unconvincing in light of the NT data.

    Thanks, Dr. Hurtado, for this review. 😉

    • I would urge that to judge Dunn’s argument fairly you’d need to read his book, and not merely my review.

  12. Steven Carr permalink

    ‘The appointment of the Twelve is indicative of a sense that he was authorized to constitute the basis of the redeemed people of God ‘

    This is very clear. Thank you,

    Jesus appointed the Twelve, but , as Paul said, God appointed the apostles. At that time, Jesus not not yet been exalted.

    • Note that “apostles” doesn’t have one consistent referent in the NT texts. In Acts it seems mainly to = the Twelve (but cf. Acts 14:14, where it refers to Barnabas and Paul). But in Paul’s usage, the term has a wide range of referents: possibly including Silvanus & Timothy in 1 Thess 2:6; Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7; NB a female among the apostles!), and Paul’s reference to “all the apostles” in 1Cor 15:1-7.
      (But this takes us away from the topic of the worship of Jesus.)

  13. Steven Carr permalink

    ‘Now, of course the Jesus of Galilee would never approve cultic devotion given to him.’

    This is a very clear answer to a question about the historical Jesus. Thank you.

    Could Jesus have approved of early Christian worship of him if he had regarded himself as God’s agent?

    After all,Jesus could appoint apostles, so he could perform some actions ‘on behalf of’ God, so to speak.

    • If by “Jesus” in your question you refer to the period prior to his death, this is disputed. Some (a few?) scholars (esp. Crispin Fletcher-Louis) contend that Jesus saw himself during his ministry as well-nigh the human embodiment of divine glory and so entitled to worship. This is proposed as an economical answer to the question of why earliest Christians then gave Jesus cultic reverence.

      Many scholars (most?), including yours truly think that Jesus operated with a strong sense of personal divine vocation and significance, perhaps even as messiah-designate, certainly with sense of a great deal of divinely-delegated authority. The appointment of the Twelve is indicative of a sense that he was authorized to constitute the basis of the redeemed people of God (the Twelve likely symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel). But there are problems with the idea that already during his ministry he saw himself as entitled to worship.

      Most importantly to my mind, to reiterate the point again, the NT texts (our earliest) rather consistently ascribe Jesus’ place in the devotional life of early Chrisitian circles to God’s exaltation/glorification of him in connection with Jesus’ resurrection. I.e., the particular divine actions that now require cultic reverence of Jesus are placed *after* Jesus’ ministry, and are not ascribed to Jesus but to God.

  14. Steven Carr permalink

    ‘ It’s interesting, but not historically relevant to judging whether early Christians did or not, nor is it necessarily decisive in theological terms. ‘

    This is an excellent point, which had simply never crossed my mind.

    I should have thought before posting. After all, Rastafarians worship Haile Selassi,and what he would have thought about being worshipped is not historically relevant to the fact of the worship.

    The essay is very good indeed, although I’m not sure I understand the reference to ‘this anxiety about Jesus being a recipient of worship’.

    In your essay, you write ‘Dunn contending that whether “Jesus himself would have approved of the worship subsequently given to him” is a question that “should not be ignored”.

    It would be interesting to know the answer to that question. Presumably the answer is that Jesus would not have approved.

    • The point I want to underscore is that *no devout Jew* would have approved anything like worship of Jesus or anyone, neither Jesus nor his own disciples . . . *unless* they had the firm conviction that God demanded it.

      In the NT texts, the rather consistent emphasis is that God exalted Jesus to share in divine glory, the divine name, etc., and now demands that Jesus be given cultic reverence (e.g., Philip 2:9-11; Heb 1:1-4, et alia). *This* is their basis, not that “Jesus would have approved”. That never comes up. The fundamental basis for the early Christian worship-pattern is *theo-centric*–the acts of God.

      Now, of course the Jesus of Galilee would never approve cultic devotion given to him. It wasn’t his to approve. But (since this invites speculation, let’s go with it), if God did exalt him to heavenly glory and required his acclamation, how could the exalted Jesus disagree??

      The anxiety of “what would Jesus approve” all seems historically to stem from 18th century Deist thought in which Jesus becomes the hero and Christianity the baddie. So, only what Jesus approved counts. So, the maniacal drive to determine exactly what the “historical Jesus” did or did not do, teach, approve, etc.

      Historical questions about Jesus are fine, in principle (I’m on the editorial board of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus). But we have to keep our questions straight and unconfused. The thing we call early Christianity is presented in the NT as primarily the response to *God’s* actions, albeit in Jesus, but both during Jesus’ historical existence and afterward.

  15. Steven Carr permalink

    Had Jesus wanted to be worshipped?

    • That’s one of the questions that Dunn engages. It’s interesting, but not historically relevant to judging whether early Christians did or not, nor is it necessarily decisive in theological terms. See my review-essay for a bit of detail.

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