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"Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? "

by James D.G. Dunn

James Dunn Book

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Other Book Reviews
by Barbara Buzzard:

"The Restitution of

Jesus Christ

by Kermit Zarley


"Letters Addressed to

Relatives and Friends

by Mary Dana


"Did Calvin Murder


by Standford Rives


"They Never Told Me

This in Church

by Greg Deuble


"To God Be the Glory"

by Joel Hemphill


"Tyranny of the Trinity"

by P. R. Lackey


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Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?

The New Testament Evidence

by James D.G. Dunn


A Review

by Barbara Buzzard



British New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn has recently written a scorcher of a book (2010). And he does it nicely — so nicely in fact that parts of it are reminiscent of the British phrase “Tom is helping the police with their inquiries” when the real meaning is that Tom is about to be charged with theft, arson, murder, etc! Nevertheless I am very grateful for the book even though I may at times sound ungrateful — I feel as if I am left in the classroom with my hand raised having more questions than have been answered. We who have felt the “sting” (British understatement!) of not adhering to the “system” look for fellow workers to achieve the tipping point. May the truth revolution be upon us!

Chapter 1, The problem: “The status accorded to or recognized for Jesus is the key distinctive and defining feature of Christianity. It is also the chief stumbling block for inter-faith dialogue between Christians and Jews, and between Christians and Muslims...The Christian understanding of God as  Trinity baffles them. To regard Jesus as divine, as worthy of worship as God, seems to them an obvious rejection of the oneness of God, more a form of polytheism than a form of monotheism.” The word “baffling” comes up frequently from both camps in any discussion of the Trinity, both Trinitarian and non. Surely we ought to proceed on a need-to-know basis. I do not believe understanding is denied us. “Secrets” were to do with pagan and mystery religions. God, however, does not withhold understanding from anyone who seeks. “The mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to His saints...Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:26-27).

After a very necessary examination of the language of worship, Dunn refers to Jesus as “the chief means and agent of God’s purpose to restore his creation to glory.” He concludes his first chapter (out of only 4!) with this: “The first answer to our question, ‘Did the first Christians worship Jesus?’ would therefore seem to be, ‘Generally no,’ or ‘Only occasionally,’ or ‘Only with some reserve.’”

In Chapter 2 he summarizes his findings by stating that prayer is always directed to God, indeed that Jesus prayed to his Father (and not the reverse!). He says of Jesus: “It was his name they invoked; they appealed to him in times of personal crisis...He alone was the priest through whom they could now come to God. His sacrificial death had dealt with their sins and opened the way to God.”

Chapter 3 (Monotheism, Heavenly Mediators and Divine Agents) opens by revealing this answer to his title question: “Most of the evidence so far considered discourages an unequivocal ‘Yes,’ and points at best to a qualified No!” He rightly wants us not to miss that “Not only was he the theme and content of their worship...but also Jesus was understood and bound up with their worship, as its locus and mediator. They worshipped in him and through him. Their entry into the very presence of God was possible not simply because of Jesus...but by means of Jesus.” Professor Dunn asks what the “oneness” of the creed of Israel, the Shema found in Deuteronomy 6:4, means and what “only” means. He then asks: “Given that Israel restricted its worship to God, the one God, did the first Christians include Jesus within this restricted worship...or did they regard the restrictions as excluding Jesus and as in effect forbidding the worship of Jesus?” Please note that Dunn’s colleague Bauckham insists on the impossible that Jesus be included in the “identity” of God, adding one to another but still achieving one as the sum!

Dunn clarifies what is meant by Jewish monotheism, i.e. that “Israel regarded its God as the supreme God, unique in relation to other beings designated as god, in a class of his own, as alone Creator, alone final Judge” (i.e. impossible to be 2 or more). Isaiah 45:21, 22: “There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is no one beside me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.”

“Certainly the oneness of God, or the conviction that only Yahweh was worthy to be designated God and worshipped as God, is well established by the first century CE. As the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo puts it early in the first century when commenting on the first commandment: ‘Let us, then, engrave deep in our hearts this as the first and most sacred of commandments, to acknowledge and honour one God who is above all, and let the idea that gods are many never even reach the ears of the man whose rule of life is to seek for truth in purity and guilelessness (Decalogo 65).’”

In Chapter 4, Dunn echoes the clarity of 1 Corinthians 8:6 “...yet for us there is one God, the Father” when he says “What matters is that only one was worthy to be worshipped as God, the God of Israel” and he states that Jesus is not the God of Israel!

Dunn is also remarkably clear and decisive regarding the Spirit of God. You will not find statements of this caliber in most popular theological works: “Notably, what we do not find is any hint that worship was offered to the Spirit of God. Neither in the language of worship nor in the practice or worship do we find it thought to be appropriate that the Spirit should be seen as the one worshipped or to be worshipped.”

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