WE HAVE BEEN looking at Dr. James D. G. Dunn’s study of the use of words in the Christian New Testament (NT) (compared with Hebrew/ Jewish usage in the Old Testament—since Jesus conformed to the model of a Jewish prophet), words meaning “worship”—as well as the concepts of “monotheism,” “God”/ “god” and Jesus’ “exaltation to heaven.”
Recall that, like the title of his book, Dunn has been asking the question, “Did the first Christians worship Jesus?” Presumably a “Yes” answer would justify the Church’s continuance of worshipping Jesus throughout the centuries. The other side of the coin, a “No” response, should be a wake-up call for would-be followers of Jesus that neither should they worship—or assent to ascribing supernatural powers for—anyone other than the unique and only Deity Himself.
Christian Worship And Jesus’ Worship
In regard to hymns (religious songs of praise or worship), sacred spaces and times, and cultic offerings of material goods, Dunn goes on to find the same sort of pattern mentioned in Parts 1-3. He continues, to his credit, to be reluctant to go against the strict monotheism that Jesus clearly stood for throughout the Gospel narratives. And yet his thorough consideration of the other-than-Gospel texts of the NT compels him to the conservative conclusion that the early Christian expressions of ‘worship’ reflected their conviction that Jesus was the one who had brought God near to them and thus their prayers to God were rightfully to be offered through Jesus. (We lay aside for the moment the logical fallacy of this conclusion for a Jewish follower of Jesus, acknowledging that this way of thinking would be acceptable for followers of Paul, who came from the pagan culture of the time.)
Implying a softening towards this concept—basically out of need to reconcile Paul with Jesus—Dunn thus reformulates his question of inquiry to: ‘Was earliest Christian worship possible without and apart from Jesus?’:
Was earliest Christian worship so closely bound up with Jesus that inevitably he [=Jesus] 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? (p. 58) (italics added)
There is a disturbing admission implied here. While, on the one hand, the Jewish followers of Jesus appear to have held firm to the example of Jesus in worshiping exclusively the one God, on the other hand the non-Jewish, “Christian” followers of Paul were encouraged to continue in their pagan sensibilities as to what Deity was. For them, spiritual force was resident in their fellow beings, whether human, animal or plant. For Paul to equate the spiritualized “Christ” with the ultimate powers of the universe needed no argument for a pagan mind:
Bible, Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 1:19-23: This power working in us is the same as the mighty strength which he [=God] used when he [=God] raised Christ from death and seated him at his [=God’s] right side in the heavenly world. Christ rules there above all heavenly rulers, authorities, powers, and lords; he has a title superior to all titles of authority in this world and in the next. God put all things under Christ’s feet and gave him to the church as supreme Lord over all things. The church is Christ’s body, the completion of him [=Christ] who himself [=Christ] completes all things everywhere.
Paul wraps his theology in manifold metaphors attractive to the spirit of the day. In spite of claims to “monotheism,” the Church has re-defined her parameters of this concept. Before we continue along this line, let us touch base with our standards of right and wrong when it comes to obeying God—living in conformance with His Guidance—through following the example and teaching of His prophets. Note that we are talking about obeying God through following His prophets, not worshiping God through worshiping His prophet, nor praying to God through the name of His prophet, nor praying directly to God’s prophet as a means to reaching God!
No Mixing of Prophethood with Divinity
For Muslims there is no possibility of mixing divinity with prophethood. We hold Prophet Muhammad (A.S) in the highest esteem as authoritatively speaking directly from God; we constantly ask God to reward him; we follow our prophet’s teaching and example—as if we are following God Himself. We hold all prophets, including Jesus □ and Moses □, in the same highest regard:
Say [O Prophet]: “If you love God, follow me, [and] God will love you and forgive you your sins; for God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.” Say: “Pay heed unto God and the Apostle.” And if they turn away – verily God does not love those who deny the truth. (Sûrat Al ‘Imrân, 3:31-32)
Now whenever God and His Apostle have decided a matter, it is not for a believing man or a believing woman to claim freedom of choice insofar as they themselves are concerned: for he who [thus] rebels against God and His Apostle has already, most obviously, gone astray. (Sûrat Al-Aḥzâb, 33:36)
Say [O Muhammad]: “If the Most Gracious [truly] had a son, I would be the first to worship him!” (Sûrah Al-Zukhruf, 43:81)
It is made even more clear in the Quran that God has no “son”:
He does not beget and He is not begotten; and there is none like unto Him. (Sûrat Al-Ikhlâṣ, 112:3-4)
‘Godly’ Not God
In spite of this utmost attention paid to our noble, God-sent prophets, we do not ‘worship’ them; rather, mankind has always known through them how to worship God, and has directed worship to God alone, following prophetic example. In the days of Prophet Muhammad (A.S), his Companions prayed ‘alongside’ him, in imitation of him, since he was their exemplar—never directing their worship to him.
It is through the stories of all our prophets that we know what the Creator wants us to grasp about Himself, but prophets do not take on divine essence due to their special mission with men and status with God. They remain human beings who have been ‘elected,’ or ‘anointed’ so to speak, by God for conveying His messages. Prophets, thus are ‘godly’ persons in the sense that they are highly conscious of God’s presence and respond obediently to God’s requirements. Godly persons are blessed by God and given access to true spiritual understanding.
The spiritual predecessors of those who were to become ‘orthodox’ Christians struggled for several centuries to gain the theological upper hand and ecclesiastical authority in opposition to dissenting views concerning Jesus and his teaching. Their canonical documents (the NT) give evidence for a deification (also termed “glorification” and “apotheosis”) of Prophet Jesus as having come about early on—and this push towards deification can be aligned with the work of Paul, if not credited to him entirely. In the non-Jewish, pagan community, this sort of god-man concept had long been firmly established—and that is where Paul’s adherents were to be found.
Having It Both Ways?
Overtly holding out against giving an unqualified ‘Yes’ to early Christian worship directed to Jesus—keeping in mind Jesus’ own strictly monotheistic practice and teaching, and thus honoring what Jesus’ personally taught followers would have believed and practiced as their worship—Dunn concludes that early Christian worship, nevertheless—based on the inclusion of Pauline writings in the NT—was best described as ‘in’ Jesus and ‘through’ him. And furthermore he explained that Christians felt that
…their entry into the very presence of God was possible not simply because of Jesus, by virtue of what he had done in the past in his mission, death and resurrection, but also by means of Jesus, by virtue of the continuing presence and ongoing role as the risen and exalted Christ (p. 59). (italics added)
Apparently it never occurs to Professor Dunn that the portrayal of the Jesus story in the NT, even in the writing of the Gospel accounts, has been shaped in such a way so as to allow for the Gospel accounts to harmonize with Paul’s later re-interpretation of the final events of the Jesus story: death by crucifixion in payment for the sins of the world [termed “atonement”], coming back to life after death [“resurrection”], and exaltation to heaven [to sit next to God and share God’s power].
James, Peter, and John—in addressing their epistles (letters) to the general followers of Jesus—speak in contradiction to Paul’s teaching, but Christian scholars blindly engage in gymnastics trying to convince the Christian-in-the-pew that those three bona fide leaders of the true followers of Jesus actually agree with Paul, when a plain reading indicates otherwise.
Angels And Divine Presence
Next Dunn sets out to address the question of ‘worship’ from a different angle:
But now we need to focus on the one worshiped. If we are to use the term ‘worship’ in a tight or narrow way (only God/god is to be worshipped), then we have to ask how loose or wide is the word ‘God’/’god’? We have clarified to some extent the term ‘worship.’ But now we have to clarify the term ‘God’/‘god’, and the relation of Jesus to that term. (p. 59)
Dunn lays out another equally long and detailed section of discussion, this time regarding a definition of ‘God’/’god,’ which can be summed up by listing these points (pp. 64-80):
- A model for constructing Christology (i.e., Paul’s theological teaching of a deified ‘Christ’) can be looked for in semi-divine figures in early Judaism, such as the ‘angel of the Lord’ tradition, as a way of speaking of divine presence. When Jesus is said to “embody” God, or at least to represent God’s presence, it is not a large step to deification.
- It can be argued, says Dunn, that in view of Israel’s long history (in the Hebrew Bible) of resisting the claims of other ‘gods,’ this made them not believers in monotheism (=there is only one God), but rather believers in monolatry (=only one god, Yahweh, our God, is to be worshipped—that is, worshiped exclusively).
- Angelic messengers may sometimes be said to speak in the first person (‘I’) as if they are God Himself (Bible, Genesis 21:17-18; 31:11-13; Exodus 3:2-6; 14:19-20, 24; Judges 2:1).
- Other phrases repeatedly used in the Hebrew Bible (OT) as ways of speaking of God’s presence are: ‘the Spirit of God,’ ‘the Spirit of the Lord,’ ‘God’s holy spirit’—as well as ‘the Wisdom of God,’ and ‘the word of the Lord.’
This last phrase, the word of the Lord occurs over 240 times in the Hebrew Bible, meaning inspired prophetic speech or God’s message spoken through a prophet (p. 79).
I will not try to judge whether or not Dunn’s efforts have been successful in finding a sufficiently “loose” or “wide” concept of “God,” and at the same time an authentic biblical turn of phrase within which to attach Paul’s “Christ” figure. It is that “loose” concept of “God”/”god” that would ultimately allow the Church to accept the doctrine of a “son of God” sharing the nature of the Creator within a three-fold “Godhead.”
Philo’s ‘Logos‘ As Metaphor For God
Regarding the category of metaphorical means in speaking about God, or, about His presence, Dunn goes on to say that the problem arises when such a metaphor becomes seen as a semi-independent divine agent (p. 73)— or as an intermediary with God (p. 81). A case in point is the ‘logos’ (a Greek vocabulary item, literally, ‘word’), a major feature in the writings of Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 50 CE).
Philo was a Jewish philosopher living in the time of Jesus and roughly concurrent with the writers of the NT. In his expositions on the revelation to Moses (the Torah), Philo adopts ‘logos’ as a key term, taken from Greek philosophy.
Within the context of Platonic Greek philosophy, Dunn (p. 81, italics added) informs us about Philo’s specialized usage of the Greek term ‘logos’:
In many cases Philo speaks of the Logos as though he/it were a real being distinct from God, acting as an intermediary between God and the world …
He/it is God’s ‘firstborn son, who shall take upon him its government like some viceroy of a great king’…
The Logos can even be described as ‘the second God’…
And from Stoic Greek philosophy Philo took:
“The concept of divine reason (logos) immanent in the world, permeating all things and present also in human beings” [italics added].
On Philo’s analogy, “the logos is the reasoning faculty of God in the act of creating the universe” and “the intermediary between God and humankind.”
“Beyond” the Logos is God himself, according to Philo’s explanation.
Thus for Philo, Dunn sums up, the Logos was (pp. 82-84):
A Greek way of referring to God: The Logos was never a divine being, but an extension of metaphorical speech.
The Logos was a Greek philosophical way of connecting—to help those steeped in a classical way of thinking—to the Hebrew concept of the one God in his self-revelation.
In Islam, attempting to define Deity in a metaphorical way is a non-starter; it does disservice and dishonor to the Transcendent One—who is above and beyond description or comparison: He does not beget nor is He begotten, and there is no one else like unto Him (Sûrat Al-Ikhlâṣ, 112:3-4). But for the sake of being on the same page with our Christian interlocutors, let us follow their logic to its conclusions.
One should remember that the pagan Greek civilization had a mythology revolving around their gods and goddesses, whose exploits among themselves and in the human arena, were less than ‘godly.’ Periodic ‘sacrifice’ of animals and plant crops was made to the various culturally mandated deities; this was seen as a way of pleasing the gods resident in all aspects of their surrounding environment and ensuring one’s own enjoyment of divine blessings.
To the extent that the Greek philosophers might have had a concept of a supreme Deity, we could wonder whether it would be possible to trace it back, with solid evidence, to an ancient, prophetically-revealed teaching. For those Greek thinkers, the world had not been “created” at a point in time; rather, it had always existed.
Thus, Philo, a Jew, was attempting—for the pagan—to bring the best of Greek philosophy to bear on understanding the Creator God of the Hebrew Bible. It is in this context that Philo introduces his use of the terminology Logos, which he discusses at length in his writings.
Godly, Not Deified
Before moving full-force into the NT’s portrayal of Jesus as ‘Lord’ and Jesus as ‘Logos,’ Dunn approaches the subject of exalted human beings in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, observing most importantly that none of them were deified. In the pagan Roman world the possible ‘divination’ of human beings was a familiar concept, but great figures in the biblical past, Dunn notes, like Moses, whose burial event and burial place were unknown (Bible, Deuteronomy 34:6), as well as Elijah and Enoch, who—like Jesus—were said to have been ‘taken up’ into heaven (Bible, Genesis 5:24, 2 Kings 2:1-25) were not later deified nor were they worshiped as God, in spite of their godliness and special prophetic status and end of life. (pp. 84-90)
This lends weight to our commonsense claim that neither was Jesus worshiped by those who received his direct teaching and followed him.Worship of Jesus by those who followed Paul is another story; the two teachers and their teachings must be kept distinct.
So, as yet Dunn’s question goes unanswered, “How loosely was the term ‘god/God’ used and what was Jesus’ relationship to that term?” We pick up again on this question in Part 6, when we broach the NT usage of logos in the Gospel of John. But as further needed background, first we backtrack (Part 5) to explore who Jesus was in his social-political context and, again, who his true followers were—and, were not.
To be continued, inshâAllah, in Part 5…