Did the Early Christians Worship Jesus?

My first question in my first ever Post Graduate seminar at the University of St Andrews, St Mary’s School of Divinity: “Did the Early Christians Worship Jesus?” It’s actually a question from James D. G. Dunn’s book, written primarily in response to Larry Hurtado’s “Lord Jesus Christ, Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity.

Hurtado answers with a vehement “yes!” Dunn replies with a “maybe, but improbable.” So how did two eminent theological heavyweights, both experts in christology, come to such different conclusions? The answer is quite complicated, requiring deep reflection and careful analysis of relevant biblical texts (both Old and New Testaments), extra-biblical material, 2nd Temple Jewish and Hellenistic materials, as well as scholarly work up to modern times.

Underlying the question is an even more basic one: How on earth did Jesus become a divine figure since Judaism from which he emerged was radically monotheistic? That basic question has confounded biblical scholars for a long time.

So, actually, we might have to begin with the old German History of Religions School which answered the question with an emphatic “no!”

This is not the place for an in-depth study of all the issues. I simply wish to paint with a broad brush in a manner that is palatable for internet blogging. In so doing, I acknowledge the risk of oversimplification and so refer the reader to further reading, not just through the links, but a bibliography at the end.

In the latter half of the 19th century, and well into the mid-20th century, a group of German biblical scholars based in Göttingen, best exemplified by Wilhem Bousset’s seminal work, “Kyrios Christos,” — while acknowledging a “High Christology” in the New Testament writings about Jesus — opted to see it as a late 2nd Century development that was highly influenced by Hellenistic/Pagan religions, which would have had no problems with a human figure such as Jesus becoming divinized (apotheosis). The relative advantage was that Jewish monotheism remained somewhat intact, so to speak.

But such a picture of the origins of the Christian religion became highly untenable, especially in light of a careful study of the New Testament texts themselves, as well as a better understanding of the historical period we now refer to as 2nd Temple Judaism.

To better illustrate the point, here is a chart of the 1st Century, with thanks to N. T. Wright!

The chart begins with John the Baptist and ends with the final writings of the New Testament, dated circa 90 AD by the majority of scholars. Everyone involved in the debate acknowledges the existence of a “High Christology” in the New Testament, even the old German school. That is not the question.

The question is when, how, and why did “High Christology” develop?

1. Religionsgeschichtliche Schule

For the old German school, the answer to

  • “when,” is 2nd to 4th Centuries;
  • “how,” through Pagan religious syncretism; and
  • “why,” because of the influx of Gentiles into an originally Jewish messianic cult centered around Jesus.

But obviously such answers do not take into account the actual historical setting for the writings of the New Testament, thereby negating the historical reality of the beginnings or origins of Christianity.

But since the mid-20th Century, the tide has shifted to better reflect the historical reality from the ground up:

  • “when,” mid-1st century (possibly as early as 3 years after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus);
  • “how,” through 2nd Temple Judaism, and not Paganism; and
  • “why,” as early believers began to reflect on the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return of the Lord and Messiah Jesus.

2. The Importance of Paul

Obviously, from the chart, we have to acknowledge the importance of Paul’s writings since they are the earliest examples we have. It would have been even nicer if we had some material from the early Christian period prior to Paul, but unfortunately none such thing exists. And so it is no surprise that much of the debate centers primarily on the writings of Paul, at least the seven letters which are recognised by scholars as authentic: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.

However, what Hurtado does so well is demonstrate that much of the material in Paul antedates him since he seems to assume that his readers are well aware of certain issues in his writings. Further, Paul’s formative religious tradition was Judaism, even his sense of calling as “apostle to the Gentiles” is from the Jewish perspective of the nations coming to worship the God of Israel, and he continually identifies himself as a Jew; thus rendering the Hellenistic/Pagan syncretistic model untenable. In fact, a careful reading of Paul demonstrates a thoroughly recognisable Jewish view of the world.

…it is clear that the very Jewish categories of Abrahamic promise, covenant, the purposes of God giving the Torah, and other matters as well, all continued to be of vital meaning and importance for Paul. (“Lord Jesus Christ,” pg. 89)

For example, the Aramaic pithy prayer, Marana-tha! “Our Lord Come!” (1Cor 16.22) antedates Paul since he mentions it without reserve and with the assumption that his Christian audience in Corinth, of all places, are familiar with it.

Phillipians 2.6-11 is a foremost example of “High Christology” in Paul. Scholars agree that the hymn probably antedates Paul, and is remarkable in that it seems to attribute preexistence to the Lord Jesus Christ (although Dunn disagrees, preferring to see the “form (morphe) of God” as an allusion to Gen 1 and the “image (eikon) of God.” What Dunn sees as Adam-Christology). For Hurtado, this is a remarkable example of early worship of Christ to whom,

every knee should bend, and every tongue confess, “that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

There is also a remarkable allusion to Psalm 110.1: “The Lord (YHWH) says to my Lord (Adonay), “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” — to which Hurtado posits an early binitarian form of worship to the one God of Israel as reflected in Phil 2:6-11 by the Christian community.

Here, NT Wright sees a further allusion to one of the most severely monotheistic passages in the Old Testament, Isaiah 45:23b “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall sware” which has been consciously reworked around the person of Christ in the Philippian hymn; this coming from an Isianic passage where YHWH has declared previously, “There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is no one besides me” (Isa 45. 21b).

In some way then, very early on, Jesus has somehow been “identified” with the one God of Israel in a manner that does not compromise Jewish monotheism. Nor, as we have seen, does early Christianity draw from Pagan sources, but rather, they draw from the very scriptures of Israel to identify the risen Lord.

3. John and Revelation

By the time of the gospel of John and the book of Revelation, late in the 1st Century, we have a full blown “High Christology” in which Jesus is worshipped as God by the early Christian community.

Briefly, the gospel of John represents a Jesus tradition that is independent from the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), or from the hypothetical Q, even. It is regarded as late 1st Century and therefore, the last of the 4 gospels to be written. Generally speaking, the scholarly consensus is that the gospel of John reflects a highly developed theology in relation to the other gospels. That is, given more time to reflect on the nature and events of Jesus’ life, the gospel of John has perhaps a more robust Christology. This can be seen in its purpose statement:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (Jn 20.30-31)

The first thing to note are the two christological titles: Messiah & Son of God. They have been reworked from Jewish literature and attributed to Jesus throughout the gospel of John. Obviously, being the Jewish Messiah did not connote divinity in Judaism, nor did the title “Son of God.” Yet the reworking of such honorific titles for Jesus by the early Christian communities reflects a departure (or better yet, innovation) from Judaism because of the person of Jesus.

Such “innovation” is not a result of Pagan religious influences as we have seen, rather, they are a result of reflection on thoroughly Jewish categories; for example, in John, a thorough reworking of the Jewish concepts of Logos and Wisdom. And yet the breakthrough: the word (logos) became flesh (Jn 1.14).

“High Christology” is also reflected in John by the so-called “I AM” statements taken deliberately from the personal name of the Jewish God, YHWH. And in the climactic statement of the gospel in which the disciple Thomas remarks of the risen Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20.28).

To further reinforce the point, I turn lastly to the book of Revelation, written around the time of the Emperor Domitian in the late 1st Century in which explicit worship of Jesus is vividly portrayed as the lamb that was slaughtered but is now worthy to receive “power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev 5.12), and is then worshipped along with the one seated on the throne and to the lamb.

Conclusion

As we have seen, a full “High Christology” in which Jesus is worshipped as divine, or at the very least, exalted to a high position in the heavens, is readily demonstrable within the confines of the 1st Century, and well within the first generation of Christians.

This is not to say that a full trinitarian theology exists in the pages of the New Testament — actually Wright posits a high pneumatology in Paul too! — but rather that the seeds for the trinitarian and christological debates culminating in the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon are drawn from the scriptures themselves (NT), which in turn are drawn from the Jewish scriptures (OT) and not from pagan sources, even if the later debates up to the 4th century drew from Hellenistic philosophical descriptive language.

And so I answer the question with a resounding, “Yes, the early Christian community did indeed worship Jesus.” Such worship began very early after the resurrection of Jesus and continued to be further refined well within the 1st Century. The New Testament writings indeed do reflect an intense religious devotion to Jesus at a remarkably early point in the emergence of the Christian movement. As George Caird states: “The highest Christology of the New Testament is also its earliest.” To conclude, I wish to draw several strands together:

  • There has been a shift in biblical scholarship away from a late developing christology to an early “High Christology” within the 1st Century, given the biblical record.
  • a late, gradual “evolutionary” christology influenced by pagan religious ideas is no longer tenable, given the historical record. Actually, if we are to think in “evolutionary” terms, rather than a slow and gradual development, the resurrection of Jesus, circa 33 AD, functions as a “punctuated equilibrium” historical event that radically transformed Jewish monotheistic categories for the early Christians.
  • Christianity developed thoroughly under Jewish religious monotheism and not under the influence of Pagan or Hellenistic polytheism.
  • This is not to fault the scholarship of the late History of Religions school as they were working with the assumptions of an antiquated timeframe which placed the New Testament Writings, especially Paul, in the 2nd Century, a position that has been proven demonstrably false given 20th Century archaeology and scholarly findings.
  • It is disingenuous, if not downright dishonest, for scholarship in the 21st Century to continue to develop positions from an old historical paradigm that is no longer tenable; especially the Jesus Seminar and post-Bultmannians.

POSTSCRIPT. I haven’t had the time nor space to cover Richard Bauckham’s, “Jesus and the God of Israel” in which he argues for an early concept of “divine identity” whereby Jesus participates in the divine identity of God within a monotheistic framework, a topic not without some controversy; nor the Jewish Talmudic scholar, Daniel Boyarin’s radical revision of Jewish monotheism in the 2nd Temple period, “The Jewish Gospels“; not that I agree with everything there.

For that matter, agreement is a rare commodity in modern christology studies, as we have seen with Dunn’s critique of Hurtado (and Bauckham). What this signals to me is that there is still much fertile soil to till and room for further reflection in christology some 2,000 years after Christ. Just when we think the topic has been exhausted, or that we are chasing rabbit holes, along comes a surprising innovation or new discovery that radically upsets everything.

So N. T. Wright thinks that while some major pieces of the jigsaw puzzle have been rearranged in surprising ways, there are still some major aspects of christology that have been left off the table entirely; especially the resurrection has been neglected in much modern christology as a basis for understanding Paul’s Jewish innovations. Without that, it seems the jigsaw puzzle just won’t “jig” together. He further inquires about Temple theology, especially the theme of YHWH’s return to Zion depicted so vividly in the gospels as Jesus enters Jerusalem. Consider the wealth of Old Testament allusions to this event that have been neglected.

In any case, there is much christology yet to be done! Until the Lord returns…

Some useful Links

http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/

http://richardbauckham.co.uk/

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008)

Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: New Press, 2012)

David B. Capes et al. (eds), Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children: Christology and Community in Early Judaism and Christianity (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007) Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall and Gerald O’Collins (eds), The Incarnation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

J. D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making (London: SCM Press, 1980)
—-, Did the First Christians W orship Jesus? (London: SPCK, 2010)

Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Richard B. Hays (eds), Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008)

William Horbury, Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ (London: SCM Press, 1998)

Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003)
—-, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005)
—-, God in New Testament Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010)

Loren T. Stuckenbruck and Wendy E. S. North (eds), Early Christian and Jewish Monotheism (London: T. & T. Clark International, 2004)

Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought W orld of the New Testament, vol. 1 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009)

N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991/Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992)
—-, Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK/Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996)

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4 comments

  1. Again, going back to my thing on phenomenology. What the Pauline writings appears to suggest, (also supported by Luke’s Acts) is that Jesus didn’t just disappear altogether after the ascension to later become a religious figurehead. Jesus kept appearing and communicating with some people. (At this point I will say that it may be safe to assume that he appeared to more people than mentioned explicitly in the text) So the high Christology, albeit not something that became popularized immediately, is something that was perhaps mediated and reinforced by the continued revelations of the Holy Spirit.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Pastor Charlie. So good to be able to dialogue with you and pass ideas around from the other side of the pond! You should dialogue with N. T. Wright about pneumatology as he too sees it as a crucial piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

  2. Really enjoyed reading your article.

    As a layman I am surprised that the question was ever asked, given the axiomatic nature of the question (the nature, or even definition, of being “Christian” is worshipping Christ). We also have the average now of very familiar Biblical accounts of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances, but it seems that even during Christ’s life there were plenty of people worshipping.

    I would take exception to one statement, that other early writings do not exist. I would instead say that they are not known to exist, or have never been discovered by modern scholars, rather than saying they don’t exist. Your article mentions the Q, so I would assume you agree that other writings may have existed that we have just never found.

    Looking forward to your next post!

    1. Keith! So good to hear from you! Thanks for the insightful contribution. It is true indeed that other early writings existed. We know for example that Paul wrote a letter to the Laodiceans which, unfortunately did not survive. And there is mention of another Corinthian letter.

      I’m actually skeptical about the Q hypothesis, preferring rather to see it as early oral traditions about Jesus rather than an actual independent piece of writing.

      But good catch!

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