Friday, September 20, 2013

Book Snap: James Dunn's "Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?"


From the September 2010 E-Block. This is a guest review by Jonathan Kendall.  With this posting I'm actually now up to speed on posting all E-Block material over 3 years old, so there won't be any new postings on the Ticker from that material until next month -- and we'll also see postings in general here otherwise only if I have a book to review, or something to say. (And actually, in the next 2-3 weeks, I might...we'll see.)

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Along with N. T. Wright, it seems that James Dunn is well on his way to reaching (or perhaps has already reached) the pinnacle of this generation of NT scholarship, joining the company of what, IMO, was a party of one five years ago, the colossal Tϋbingen scholar, Martin Hengel. Among many other accolades, Dunn currently sits beside Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham on the cutting edge of Christological research. I find that this short, yet crucial, addition to the growing library of fresh Christological insights does not disappoint [Spoiler alert henceforth!].

Consistent with prior patterns, it is scarcely shocking that Dunn remains the most cautious of the three leading scholars of early Christology. In tackling the title question, Dunn opts for an answer of “generally no,” the first Christians did not worship Jesus. Generally Jesus was not offered direct cultic worship (based on a study of the relevant vocabulary, latreuein and proskynein, etc.). Jesus was not typically the recipient of prayer, and was not typically the recipient of hymns (Rev 4:9-11, 5:13-14 serve as exceptions). Rather, prayer was offered to the Father, albeit in Jesus’ name. Jesus was the subject of hymns, but not typically the recipient of the hymns, etc. While Dunn does not attempt to completely extract the force from exceptional passages, he is compelled to water them down substantially by providing alternative interpretations (with varying degrees of success, IMO).

For example, regarding the early Christian hymn inherent to Phil. 2:5-11, Dunn concludes that “this hymn clearly affirmed that the Lord Jesus was on the other side, the divine side, of the act of worshipping the one God,” but he does not concede that direct worship of Jesus is the only potential implication of the passage. Rather, it could “simply be saying that the worship of the one God is now to be expressed by confessing Jesus as Lord,” especially in light of the closing verse of the hymn, “to the glory of God the Father.” (pp. 106-107)

Earlier Dunn argued that while it is remarkable that the early church applied certain OT Kyrios passages to Jesus (in this case Joel 2:32), he also states that this may simply indicate either that “Yahweh has bestowed his own unique saving power on the Lord who sits on his right side, or that the exalted Jesus is himself the embodiment as well as the executive of that saving power.” (pp. 104-105) In support for the “transfer of divine authority” interpretation, Dunn cites as examples times when the divine authority, in the appointment of heavenly judges, was applied to famous OT saints in some Second Temple Jewish literature (e.g. Adam and Abel in Testament of Abraham 11, 13), Melchizedek (11QMelch 13-14), Enoch and Elijah (I Enoch 90:31; Apocalypse of Elijah 24:11-15), and even NT saints (Matthew 19:28/Luke 22:30; I Cor. 6.2-3) [note 31 on p. 107].

Appointment to the role of a heavenly judge is unarguably a highly-exalted role, and Dunn reminds us elsewhere of highly exalted prophets, even on rare occasions seated on heavenly thrones (pp. 84-88) [Interestingly, Richard Bauckham demonstrates elsewhere that aside from what was said of Jesus in the NT, only divine Wisdom and the “Son of Man” are said at places in the relevant literature to be seated on heavenly, divine thrones; the case of Moses by contrast in The Exagogue of Ezekiel the Tragedian was in the context of a dream, symbolizing his “earthly” rule over Israel at the time of the Exodus and beyond – cf. Bauckham’s “Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity.” Eerdmans. 152-81]. However, the simple fact remains that in the case of Joel 2:32, a passage and function that was applied to God (Lord, Kyrios) in the OT was applied by the early Christians to Jesus. I find Dunn’s alternative explanation to be ad hoc.

Similar “less astonishing” explanations are invoked to explain the Christology of I Cor. 8:6 and 15:24-28 (pp. 107-112) and Romans 9:5 (pp. 132-133), and so on. Even the hymns sung to Christ/the Lamb in Rev. 4:9-11 and 5:13-14 are explained within the context that “Apocalyptic visions major on the grandiose and the bizarre, on startling symbolism and hyperbole.” (p. 131)

While Dunn’s cautionary measures provide important reminders of Christ’s functional subordination to the Father (cf. e.g. John 5:36-43; I Cor. 3:23; 11:3), he is not always convincing, IMO, in explaining away the NT instances of direct worship accorded to Christ.

Dunn does point out that “Divine Agency” figures (i.e. Wisdom, Logos, Spirit) were not objects of cultic devotion (cf. the discussion in pp. 72-84). Moreover, he points out that even the great angels Eremiel and Yahoel (the latter who carries the divine name of Yahweh!) in the Apocalypse of Zephaniah and the Apocalypse of Abraham, respectively, explicitly deny the offerings of worship that come their way (pp. 69-71). In the case of exalted angels, however, these later texts may be a reaction to later Judaism’s confusion over the mysterious divine figure (typically identified as the “Angel of the Lord”) in the much-more-ancient OT Scriptures, a figure who is often identified as God, who sometimes elicits the prostration of those to whom he reveals himself, and refers to the ground around him as holy (cf. e.g. Exodus 3:2-6; Joshua 5:13-15; Judges 6:11-13; 13:3-23; etc.). I think in particular that the “Angel of the Lord” establishes OT precedent for the direct worship of a “Divine Agent,” which should instruct us not to adopt what are often forced explanations of NT data that indicate that Jesus was sometimes the direct recipient of such worship.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to understand Dunn as not falling on the side of a very high Christology. Dunn argues that just as the OT “Angel of the Lord,” “Lady Wisdom,” “God’s “Word,” (Logos) and even “Spirit of God” were expounded under the rubric of “Divine Agency,” so the same was applied by the early Christians to Jesus. In fact, while Dunn believes Wisdom to be a personification that shares in exclusively divine functions according to Second Temple Judaism, he demonstrates how Wisdom and Logos Christology specifically are applied by the early church to Jesus (pp. 116-29). The implications of this are immense.

Of the OT “Angel of the Lord,” he writes:

Clearly in these cases it is impossible to distinguish between the angel of Yahweh and Yahweh himself; they are obviously one and the same person. Or at the very least we have to say that the narrators of these stories neither saw any need to make a clear distinction nor thought it important to do so. The point that emerges presumably is that the tellers of these stories were primarily intent to indicate the reality of the divine presence in these theophanic experiences. It is not that they wished to deny either the otherness of Yahweh, or that God was invisible to human sight...but a more sophisticated way of putting it would be to say that by speaking thus of the angel of the Lord they had found a way of denoting the reality of the divine presence in such theophanic encounters without diminishing the holy otherness of Yahweh. The angel of the Lord in such stories was a way of speaking of God’s immanence without detracting from his transcendence. The angel of God both was God and was not God. Alternatively expressed, the angel of God was God’s way of manifesting himself to his servants without manifesting himself. The angel of God was not God as such but could be said to be God in his self-revelation. (pp. 67-68, emphasis original)

Parenthetically, I would remark that Dunn’s claim of bringing “the divine presence into humans’ daily reality” should not be underplayed. Recall that even the place on Earth where the divine figure stood was sometimes expressed as holy ground in such theophanies (cf. e.g. Exodus 3:2-5; Joshua 5:13-15).

Regarding God’s Spirit, Wisdom, and Word (the latter two Dunn goes on to demonstrate were applied to Christ – pp. 117-124), he summarizes:

Even more so, the Spirit, divine Wisdom, and the Logos were variously used as ways of speaking of God’s immanence without infringing on his transcendent otherness. They enabled sages and philosophers to do what would otherwise have been impossible – to speak of the actual interaction of God with his creation and with his people. (p. 90)

Nor does Dunn fail to acknowledge the astonishing nature of the early Christian claims that the only way in which appropriate devotion and prayer could be offered to God (the Father) is through Jesus, or that Jesus was the very subject of the hymns offered to God, or that salvation is only made possible by Jesus:

That Jesus was central to early Christian worship is not to be doubted. He was the reason why their prayers could be offered with confidence and the principal subject of their hymns. It was his name they invoked; they appealed to him in times of personal crisis. And their praise of God naturally included praise of Christ. He was himself the sacred space in whom they met as his bodily presence (‘body of Christ’) still on earth. It was his day on which they met most regularly. Their sacred meal was his supper, the key elements his body and blood. 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. Their entry into the divine presence was possible not only because of what he had accomplished (Good Friday and Easter), but through him and in him. (p. 57)
Jesus is to be understood categorically as a divine agent on par with Wisdom and Logos, the embodiment of God expressed to mankind (pp. 123-125).

Indeed, it is because of these and other such devotional factors (six in total as espoused by Larry Hurtado), all of which lacked precedent except in application to God prior to the time of Jesus (cf. his “One God, One Lord,” T & T Clark: 1998, 99-114), that Hurtado could conclude that this amounted to the worship of Jesus.

Dunn, however, demurs in that God (the Father) is always the ultimate “target” of early Christian devotion. He also takes issue with Bauckham’s vocabulary in regards to ascribing Jesus a place within the “Divine Identity” (pp. 141-144), opting instead throughout the book for “Divine Agency.” Dunn’s objections notwithstanding, I start to wonder if the disagreement is simply a matter of semantics. Despite Dunn’s reluctance to accord certain NT passages that apply direct worship of Jesus their full Christological due, it seems to me that the inevitable implication of Dunn’s book-length argument is that Jesus somehow shares in the “Divine Essence” (again, we’re back to semantics) with God the Father, though I don’t think he ever makes such a bold statement (one way or the next). In any event, Jesus is the visible expression/manifestation of God, but is at the same time not God the Father (pp. 122-23).

Again, Dunn generally does not tend to diminish the force of early Christian texts that carry divine implications in reference to Jesus (except where implications of direct worship are involved). Jesus is the figure exalted above the angels who resides at the right hand of God. OT Kyrios texts originally applied to God and that convey exclusively divine functions or offices are commonly applied to Jesus by the NT authors. Jesus is the agent through whom God created the universe and mankind. Jesus is ascribed as the source of the outpouring of God’s Spirit! Jesus was even given the titles of God/god (cf. p. 145, Dunn’s concluding thoughts; on Jesus as God/god cf. the discussion on pp. 132-136). Though Dunn may decline the provision of an unqualified “yes” or “no” answer to the title question, his Christology is nevertheless a high Christology.

In sum, Dunn has made yet another indispensable contribution to the expanding library of early NT Christology, providing important balance to the other monumental studies on offer by the likes of Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, and others.

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