Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?

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.

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