Sunday, 22 July 2012

Did the first Christians worship Jesus?

Jesus wasn't a Christian. That's not surprising because a Christian means a follower of the Christ, i.e., the Messiah. He didn't follow himself, obviously. So I do wonder why people keep repeating that on discussion groups. What I think it has to do with is more a question of how they followed Jesus. I've been reading a book by James Dunn which attempts to answer that kind of question; it's called "Did the first Christians worship Jesus?"

There's a lot of confusion around today, not least because of titles attributed to Jesus such as "Son of God". Greek mythology knows of sons of Gods, born when the gods procreated. Within later Christianity, "Son of God" carries with it implications of deity, as with the formulation of the Trinity. But within first century Judaism, "Son of God" is not a title which conveys attributes of deity. It simply means "Messiah". The trouble is that we read back into the texts meanings that aren't there.

While Dunn's explorations in this book have implications for how Christians perceive Jesus, it should be noted this is a work of scholarship - he is looking at how early Christians perceived Jesus, not how he does, or how you and I might. That degree of historical detachment must be a prerequisitite of any academic examination of the history otherwise it becomes too coloured by personal beliefs, and we end with what George Tyrell described as "looking into a well, in which we see our own face reflected in the dark water deep below", a position which was clearly elucidated by Schweitzer in his "Quest for the Historical Jesus" in which he showed how a failure of historical criticism led to portraits of Jesus that said more about the painter than subject.

So did the first Christians worship Jesus? The answer is complex, but as Dunn points out early on, a "proof text" approach is too simplistic - some texts suggest no, where Jesus refuses to accept worship which he says is due to God alone, and some texts suggest yes, Thomas confession of "my Lord and my God", for example.

Dunn examines the terminology carefully, and shows that, for example, the Greek word used for "worship" (proskynein) implies "the appropriate mode for making a petition to one of high authority who could exercise power to benefit the petitioner" - while not necessarily implying  that the person of high authority is also divine. Other Greek words used in the context of worship - worship (latreuein, epikaleisthai), are examined, along with the traces of the earliest hymns in the New Testament.

What Dunn is trying to do is examine the background of Jewish monotheism in the 1st century, and one of the interesting things that he points out is that while it ruled out worship of other gods, it didn't take a strictly logical form as some kind of mathematical unity - the development of the wisdom literature, and thinking about angels, meant that while the Jews had one God, that God made himself known and revealed in diverse ways. Christianity arose in Judaism, and strict monotheism would seem to pose problems:

"In some ways this is the most difficult issue: that in the New Testament Jesus is sometimes called 'god', or should we say 'God'? If 'god', is not that a step towards polytheism - Jesus as a second god beside the creator God? If 'God', then how are we to make sense of the first Christians' clear memory that Jesus called for worship to be given only to God, and himself regularly prayed to God as his God and Father? The data itself poses as many questions as it resolves."

But as Dunn points out, in the understanding of monotheism in 1st century Judaism, there was a greater flexibility in how monotheism was perceived, while retaining the core value. Angels became "theophanic", means by which God revealed himself, and there was also a development of the ideas of Spirit, Wisdom, and Word of God in these ways, in which, for example, the Wisdom of God, is spoken of in ways which almost convey a distinction between the Wisdom of God and God, and yet is not separated out from God. The logos/Word of God is also developed in a similar way in Philo.

The LORD made the earth by his power; by his wisdom he created the world and stretched out the heavens.

For Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things. She is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; so nothing impure can find its way into her. For she is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God's active power, and image of his goodness. Although she is alone, she can do everything; herself unchanging, she renews the world, and, generation after generation, passing into holy souls, she makes them into God's friends and prophets; for God loves only those who dwell with Wisdom. She is indeed more splendid than the sun, she outshines all the constellations; compared with light, she takes first place, for light must yield to night, but against Wisdom evil cannot prevail.

But for all this development, there is never a point at which the emanation of God, as Wisdom, is worshiped apart from and distinctly from God. Likewise Dunn argues that: "in earliest Christianity, Christ was never understood as the one to whom sacrifice was offered, even when the imagery of sacrifice was used symbolically for Christian service"

It is only later, in Gnosticism in particular, that there is a radical separation of these "emanations" of God from God, and Sophia, for example, becomes a subject of worship in her own right, and this, of course, is retained in New Age revivals of Gnosticism (although they eschew the asceticism and the notion that the world of matter is evil).

As a reaction to that, and Christian developments of the Trinity, which seemed to imply polytheism, later Judaism become more strictly monotheistic (although its less orthodox offshoots such as Kabbalah retained the earlier approach within a monotheistic setting). Islam, of course, began with a very strict idea of monotheism which was at radically at odds with this theophanic thinking.

It was in this context of theophany that Dunn argues that the early Christians seem to have reflected on Jesus, hence the way the phrasing of Jesus in prayers as what might be termed a "mediating agency" rather than prayers to Jesus - a Jesus-olatry.

So Dunn asks " Was earliest Christian worship so closely bound up with Jesus that inevitably he participated in the receipt of worship just as he participated in the offering of the worship?  Was earliest Christian worship in part directed to him as well as made possible and enabled by him?"

Part of his conclusion was that in the context in which God could be seen as mediating through diverse means, that "Jesus was God, in that he made God known, in that God made himself known in and through him, in that he was God's effective outreach to his creation and to his people.  But he was not God in himself" Thus, it would be better to see Jesus as an icon, a window through which the divine can be seen and experienced.  Within this context,  "the question of Jesus being worshiped could arise, and arise as a natural corollary to the status attributed to him, it had provided no precedent to which the first Christians could appeal."

But the icon is central in Christianity, and Christianity, Dunn concludes, has at the heart a worship which is enabled by Jesus and wherein God is revealed in and through Jesus:

"If what has emerged in this inquiry is taken seriously, it soon becomes evident that Christian worship can deteriorate into what may be called Jesus-olatry. That is, not simply into worship of Jesus, but into a worship that falls short of the worship due to the one God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I use the term 'Jesus-olatry' as in an important sense parallel or even close to 'idolatry'. As Israel's prophets pointed out on several occasions, the calamity of idolatry is that the idol is in effect taken to be the God to be worshipped. So the idol substitutes for God, takes the place of God. The worship due to God is absorbed by the idol. The danger of Jesus-olatry is similar: that Jesus has been substituted for God, has taken the place of the one creator God; Jesus is absorbing the worship due to God alone."

Dunn suggest we also consider the question: "Was the earliest Christian worship possible without and apart from Jesus?"

"Our central question can indeed be answered negatively, and perhaps it should be. But not if the result is a far less adequate worship of God. For the worship that really constitutes Christianity and forms its distinctive contribution to the dialogue of the religions, is the worship of God as enabled by Jesus, the worship of God as revealed in and through Jesus. Christianity remains a monotheistic faith. The only one to be worshipped is the one God. But how can Christians fail to honor the one through whom it believes the only God has most fully revealed himself, the one through whom the only God has come closest to the condition of humankind? Jesus cannot fail to feature in their worship, their hymns of praise, their petitions to God. But such worship is always, should always be offered to the glory of God the Father. Such worship is always, should always be offered in the recognition that God is all in all, and that the majesty of the Lord Jesus in the end of the day expresses and affirms the majesty of the one God more clearly than anything else in the world."


Tiggy said...

I don't think it's so much in the Wisdom Literature that the idea of Jesus as divine is spelt out as much as in the identification of him with the Logos and with the Second Adam. The Second Adam was second in terms of his earthly existence, but in fact he was before the first earthly Adam in terms of his primordial heavenly existence as Adam Kadmon or the Cosmic Christ. This is the thinking behind St. Paul's theology in Corinthians, which he would have learned from his tutor Gamalial. Jesus is therefore identified with God, though not with God the Father through his being identified as the earthly incarnation of the preexistent Logos (Word of God).

TonyTheProf said...

Now, but the later stages of the Wisdom literature (e.g. Job, Proverbs, Sirach, Baruch) present Wisdom very much as a divine mediation of God, able to be talked about in a personified way, in the same way that the Logos Christology did later with Jesus. Wisdom is personified in Hellenistic Judaism. She is light and a reflection of eternal light (Wisd. 7:26), identified with God's Word and God's law (Sirach 24:23, Wisd 9:1f), and with God from the start, and through Wisdom, the world is created. This is picked up by later Christian writers like Justin - "he is also called Wisdom and Day and Sunrise..." and Origen (De Principliis). It's this separation and personification of Wisdom that we see in comparative form in the Logos passages in John.

TonyTheProf said...

There is no indication in Paul of Jesus identified with God in any way other than mediating God.

Some things are very apparent. In 1st century Judaism, "Son of God" was a messianic title; it didn't mean 2nd person of the Trinity, and didn't necessitate divinity. Nor did the title "Lord". Praise is given in the New Testament not to Jesus, but "through Jesus" or "in Jesus name", which is not the same as worship of Jesus as such - e.g. "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, always give thanks for everything to God the Father", which very much sums up this position which might be described as Jesus as "mediator" of God.

That qualification occurs time and again, for instance "And so, in honor of the name of Jesus all beings in heaven, on earth, and in the world below will fall on their knees, and all will openly proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11)" - the glory is to God the Father, not Jesus.

A modern song like "On the altar of our praise / Let there be no higher name / Jesus Son of God" which has no mention of God the Father, would seem to be breaking from this tradition of mediatorship. Nowhere in the song is that qualified praise which is found almost everywhere in the New Testament.