Dunn, Hurtado, and the worship of Jesus

Sun, 25/07/2010 - 16:10

There should be a copy of J.D.G. Dunn’s Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? waiting for me when I next get back to the UK. In the meantime, I have been reading Larry Hurtado’s polemical essay-length review of the book, which contributes to the ongoing and mostly courteous ‘dialogue’ between the two scholars.

Two questions stand out which seem to me to highlight the fact that New Testament Christology does not take adequate account of the fact that the relationship between Jesus and God is determined, in the first place, according to an eschatological narrative – that is, it gains its shape and parameters from the story of the tumultuous journey that the people of God were having to make from Second Temple Judaism under judgment to an eventual ‘inheritance of the nations’ under the lordship of Jesus Christ. The first question has to do with the nature of certain appeals to the risen Jesus in the New Testament; the second with the reasons for Paul’s violent persecution of early Jewish believers.

This review of the review of a book that I haven’t yet read (caveat lector) can be seen as a continuation of the discussion in two recent posts regarding whether Jesus claimed to be God or acted as though he thought he was God.

Prayer to Jesus

Hurtado notes an ambivalence in Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? over the possibility that prayers were offered to Jesus. On the one hand, Dunn maintains that all prayers ‘as such’ – that is, instances where the words proseuchesthai and proseuchē are used – are addressed to God. On the other, there are places in the New Testament where some sort of request appears to be directed to Jesus.

There are a few texts texts where believers are said to ‘call upon the name of the Lord’ (e.g., Rom. 10:12-13; 1 Cor. 1:2). It seems likely that behind the phrase ‘call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ is Joel 2:32, which Peter cites in his Pentecost sermon: ‘And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Acts 2:21). Paul quotes the same verse in Romans 10:13: it is only by calling on the name of Jesus that Jews will be saved from the sort of national disaster envisaged by Joel and by Peter and encapsulated in Paul’s phrase ‘vessels of wrath prepared for destruction’ (Rom. 9:22). Zephaniah 3:9 may also be relevant: ‘For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord.’ Also listed here is Stephen’s appeal, at his martyrdom, to the one who has just appeared to him as the ‘Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’ (Acts 7:56): ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’ (7:59).

A second type of ‘prayer’ to Jesus is illustrated by the Aramaic phrase maranatha (‘our Lord, come’), which Paul inserts in 1 Corinthians 16:22, and which is now generally recognized to have reference to a future ‘coming’ of Jesus. The prayer ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ in Revelation 22:20 has an apocalyptic setting: the belief is that Jesus will come soon with the clouds, as the Son of Man who has received the right to rule, to deliver his church from persecution, to overthrow their enemies, and to be vindicated in the sight of the nations (cf. Rev. 1:7; 22:20).

Thiselton notes the relevance of Jude 14-15 in relation to this terminology: ‘Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.’ This is a quotation from 1 Enoch 1:9, which, if it originally circulated in Aramaic, may well indicate an apocalyptic source for maranatha in 1 Corinthians 16:22.1

In Didache 10:6 the cry Maranatha concludes the prayer of thanksgiving, at the end of the Eucharistic meal; but the immediate context is eschatological. The prayer is that the church will be delivered from all evil, perfected in love, gathered from the four winds into the kingdom, when ‘this world’ passes away (10:5-6; cf. 9:4; 16:1-8).

The rather indirect petitions in 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17; 3:5, 16 also presuppose the vividly apocalyptic narrative outlined in the two Letters. Paul’s ‘prayer’ is that the Lord will strengthen the churches so that they will be morally and spiritually intact on the day of Jesus’ ‘coming’ to deliver them from their persecutors and judge their enemies (cf. 2 Thess. 1:7-10; 2:8).

The thought, therefore, in both these types of appeal is quite specific: people call on the name of the Lord Jesus or call on the Lord Jesus to ‘come’ in response to an eschatological crisis, as a cry for deliverance from the consequences of wrath.

The revelation of God’s Son

The second issue concerns the reasons why Saul of Tarsus persecuted the fledgling church. Dunn maintains that this had nothing to do with the offence of ‘Jesus-devotion’; what upset Saul was that they were a threat to “his (fundamentalist) understanding of what being ‘in Judaism’ demanded… loyalty to the law and adherence to the Pharisaic halakoth” (5). Hurtado argues, to the contrary, that ‘Jesus-devotion was already such as to be objectionable to devout Jews such as Saul of Tarsus within the earliest years’.

It seems to me that Hurtado is correct to insist that the offence provoked by the early Jewish believers had to do directly with the person of Jesus and not merely with disloyalty to the Law – if that is a fair account of Dunn’s argument. But I think that Hurtado does not give sufficient attention to the eschatological context when he argues that:

in this devotional pattern Jesus features in such a programmatic way that we can say that he is included as a recipient of worship with God, specifically meaning by “worship” the sorts of corporate devotional actions by which a given religious group expresses and maintains its relationship with its deity.

Ananias, responding to the Lord in a vision, says that Saul of Tarsus ‘had authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name’ (Acts 9:14). He is then told, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’

The point of controversy here (compressing things rather and recalling the earlier argument) would appear to be the claim, on the one hand, that it is only in the name of Jesus that Israel has any hope of surviving the coming judgment; and on the other, that this ‘name’ will be proclaimed to the nations as the basis for the vindication of Israel’s God. In Galatians Paul writes that his assault on the church was interrupted by the revelation of God’s ‘Son’ to him, ‘in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles’ (Gal. 1:13-16).

This is why Paul opposed the ‘name of Jesus’ (Acts 26:9) and sought to make the believers ‘blaspheme’, presumably by calling on the name of Jesus (Acts 26:11). He will come to understand that the salvation of Israel through Jesus precludes the salvation of Israel through torah-observance, but that is a secondary matter at this point.

Conclusion

This has been only a sketchy and partial analysis, but the evidence examined by Hurtado in his review essay suggests that the ‘devotion’ to the exalted Jesus that we find in the New Testament cannot simply be translated into a generalized Trinitarian idiom. Devotion to Jesus appears to be inseparable from the understanding that by raising Jesus from the dead and giving him the name which is above every name, God has made him the one through whom the eschatological transition will be effected: he is the one who will judge Israel, he is the one who will rescue his followers from persecution, he is the one who will defeat the enemies of the people of God, and he is the one who eventually will rule over the nations. If Jesus is in some sense ‘worshipped’, it is inasmuch as he represents or constitutes the hope of the early church – and not least the early suffering church – that God would be with them and that they would be vindicated.

It must surely be significant, in light of this discussion, that the Jesus who confronts Saul on the way to Damascus is explicitly identified not with God but with the disciples whom Paul is bent on destroying (Acts 9:5) – and that Paul then comes to understand his mission as a call to suffer for the sake of the name by which Israel would be saved (9:16).

  • 1. A.C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1349-50.

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