We ended our previous Part 6 noting that if the Church had not accepted Paul as a valid spokesman for Jesus, then a “Christological” belief system—including the supposed divinity of Jesus, a divine son-ship relationship to God, a Trinitarian model of deity—could not have been possible in regard to Jesus, the faithfully monotheistic Hebrew prophet. We finish here our reading of Professor James D. G. Dunn’s book, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence (2010).
Sole Christian Spokesman
ILL-DISPOSED TO BLAMING Paul for being at the center of a move towards an illegitimate deification of ‘Christ’—Dr. Dunn sees Paul (p. 134) as
the clearest, perhaps the only, spokesman for the first generation of Christians still available to us.
Truly, this observation made by our biblical studies authority Dr. Dunn in his forthright book, here under elucidation, is an insightful and crucial observation. To be fair to Dr. Dunn, the illegitimacy of Paul may never have crossed his mind—however obvious Paul’s indefensible, maverick status may strike an outsider.
But let us ask a related, and I expect more insightful, question: Were Paul’s “Christological” writings (numbering 12 letters in the New Testament, ordered from “Romans” to “Philemon,” and dated at 45-62 of the Christian Era) a decisive influence not only upon the final form of the Gospel of John (dated at 80-95 CE) but upon the composition of the whole New Testament, as it eventually came together? It would seem that the later books (Gospels, Letters of Peter and John) were penned in order to set straight the distortions of Paul’s earlier writings!
Logos: From Philo To John’s Gospel
We return one more time to the Logos (“the Word”) and Dunn’s concluding discussion of Philo’s use of the term as a means of representing the immanent Presence of the transcendent One God of the Jewish revealed books, the Torah (Arabic: taurah). Dunn shows us a Philo clearly and unquestionably speaking metaphorically, but, in contrast, Dunn acknowledges (p. 135) that the introductory “Prologue” passage of the Gospel of John presents—perhaps ignorantly and unwittingly—a literal connection to God through means of Philo’s use of “logos”:
Philo was clearly willing to speak of the Logos as ‘God’…[b]ut he did so in clear awareness that in so doing he was speaking only of God’s outreach to humankind in and through and as the Logos, not of God in himself. John’s Gospel does not attempt similar clarification in his use of God/god for the Logos, pre-incarnate and incarnate, though he [John] uses language in regard to Christ that is very close to that of Philo in regard to the Logos. But in possibly making (or allowing to be read) a distinction between God (theos) and the Logos (ho logos) the Evangelist (i.e., John) may have had in mind a similar qualification in the divine status to be recognized for Christ. Jesus was God, in that he [Jesus] made God known, in that God made himself known in and through him [Jesus], in that he [Jesus] was God’s effective outreach to his creation and to his people. But he [Jesus] was not God in himself. There was more to God than God had manifested in and through his incarnate Word. [italics added]
Jesus As Prophet
Thanks to Dunn’s above explanation, we can understand where the first ‘Christians’ (that is, the first “Christ-initiates”) became derailed in the development of their use of the Jesus story. Ignorant of the teaching of Jesus, this Christian counter-movement, led by Paul, went off-track due to accepting Paul as legitimate interpreter of Jesus, even though Paul had never met Jesus and even though Paul actually avoided the company of those who had been mentored by Jesus.
By contrast, the authentic Jesus message and movement—the genuine version of what Jesus taught and did—is still preserved in the Gospel books of the NT. The original and pure version of the Gospel accounts must be understood strictly in terms of what Jesus himself said and did, in his capacity as spokesperson for God (i.e, ‘prophet’) and as a humble servant of God.
For Muslims, ‘prophets’ are the best of mankind, and they are the human beings most honored by God. Why are Christians so reluctant to think of Jesus as a ‘prophet,’ when, in Christian scriptures, others referred to Jesus in those terms (Bible, Matthew 21:11, Luke 7:16; Luke 24:19, John 4:19, John 6:14, John 9:17); likewise, Jesus referred to himself as prophet:
Bible, Matthew 13:57-58: Jesus said to them [the people in his hometown synagogue], “A prophet is respected everywhere except in his home town and by his own family.” Because they did not have faith, he did not perform many miracles there. (Also John 4:43-45)
Bible, Luke 13:32-33: Jesus answered them, “… ‘I am driving out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I shall finish my work.’ Yet I must be on my way today, tomorrow, and the next day; it is not right for a prophet to be killed anywhere except in Jerusalem…”
It is indeed a source of amazement—to the outside onlooker—that the compilers of Christian scripture would give so much weight to Paul as if he had been an intimate disciple of Jesus and thus a legitimate spokesman/interpreter of the historical Jesus.
In effect, this whole-hearted embrace of Paul turned the Church’s portrayal of Jesus’ teaching and Jesus’ nature into something better suited to a pagan Greek philosophical mind, leaving aside the fact that Jesus clearly lived the role of a Hebrew prophet.
Regrading Authentic Monotheism
It is evident that the case for true monotheism—outside the narratives about Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, that is, in the rest of the NT—suffers serious damage if one accepts the input of Paul to the story of Jesus.
The fact that Dunn goes to extraordinary lengths to excavate the NT evidence—so as to answer the worship-of-Jesus question as negatively as possible, in the light of Jesus’ own statements, “The Lord your God is the only Lord/God; worship/ serve Him alone” (Matthew 4:10, Mark 12:29, Luke 4:8)—only exacerbates the compromised claim for the NT to be an unblemished representation of belief for those who followed the true Jesus.
The fact that the Jesus story in its original Aramaic language—the language of Jesus and the language of his Disciples—was superseded by the Greek language version presents serious problems for us modern readers in interpreting critical meanings of words like ‘worship’, ‘deity’ and ‘Lord.,’ which Prof. Dunn has studied in depth in order to answer the question, Did the first Christians worship Jesus? The writings of Paul disclose translation mismatches and corruptive red-shifts of the basic concept of monotheism, now affecting the large worldwide population of Christians.
What, Then, Is ‘Christian’ Worship?
Dunn offers still more reformulations of his question and more tentatively and endlessly kaleidoscopic, but self-rejected, answers before his bottom line statement—as if in answer to having been cornered by Jews and Muslims in dead-end analogies aired in interfaith encounters. Yet, he is to be commended for his brutal truthfulness—even when we see him as failing to “connect the dots”:
The first Christians did not think of Jesus as [one] to be worshiped in and for himself. He was not to be worshiped as wholly God, or fully identified with God, far less as a god. If he was worshiped it was worship offered to God in and through him, worship of Jesus-in-God and God-in-Jesus. And the corollary is that, in an important sense, Christian monotheism, if it is to be truly monotheism, has still to assert that only God, only the one God, is to be worshiped. The Christian distinctive within the monotheistic faiths is its affirmation that God is most effectively worshiped in and through, and, in some real but finally unquantifiable sense, as (revealed in) Jesus. (p. 146)
Christ As ‘Icon’ Of God
Muslims would tend to consider this learned professor’s efforts—though executed honestly and to the best of his ability, within the constraints of his historical faith tradition—to be thorough, but ultimately a failure at presenting the Church as defining Jesus as “embodying” God in any meaningful, non-metaphorical, non-mystical sense. And this futility is all because of Dunn’s/the Church’s need to support the words of Paul as accepted spokesman for the Church. Paul further speaks of Jesus as an ‘icon’ (Greek, eikôn), or ‘likeness,’ of God:
Bible, Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 1:15: Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God.
Bible, Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians 4:4: …the Good News about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God
Muslims would consider utterly useless anyone’s effort to take the transcendent God and try to make Him become materialized in human affairs: God’s presence is with us through angelic and human prophetic guidance, through God’s ‘holy spirit,’ so to speak, the same ‘holy spirit’ (Arabic: rûḥ al-qudus) that has served God from time immemorial. Contrary to Paul, God is not with us through a mystically deified god-man, not even when that man was a godly human ‘prophet’ taken up to heaven.
The Nazarene Jesus
The Muslim is probably justified in accepting 99% of the Gospel books’ representation of Jesus—but only when historical context, language and culture are properly understood; the Muslim cannot accept Christian divergence from the witness of Jesus, namely, what resulted when the status of Jesus and his message were re-interpreted through the theological terminology and conceptual framework contributed by Paul.
It is the Christian’s inability to see Jesus apart from the construal of Paul that separates ‘the first Christians’—now to be understood as followers of Paul—from the monotheism of Jews and Muslims. Wouldn’t it be fair to ask, “Which version would Jesus pick—his own teaching as in the Gospel books of the NT: the ‘Nazarene’ version—or the ‘Christian’ version, that is, “the gospel of Jesus Christ” as preached by Paul?
In conclusion Dunn offers some words of caution on a practical level for Christians (p. 147):
…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 point out on several occasions, the calamity of idolatry is that the idol is in effect taken to be the god to be worshiped. So the idol substitutes for the 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 continues, alluding to the historical controversy over whether religious pictures (‘icons’) can be different from idols, suggesting the point that danger lurks in any short-cut to worship other than worship directed to God Himself!
It is this danger that helps explain why the New Testament refers to Jesus by the word ‘icon’ (eikôn)—the icon of the invisible God. For, as the lengthy debate in Eastern Christianity made clear, the distinction between an idol and an icon is crucial at this point. An idol is a depiction on which the eye fixes, a solid wall at which the worship stops. An icon on the other hand is a window through which the eye passes, through which the beyond can be seen, through which divine reality can be witnessed. So the danger with a worship that has become too predominantly the worship of Jesus is that the worship due to God is stopping at Jesus, and that the revelation of God through Jesus and the worship of God through Jesus is being stifled and short-circuited. (p. 147)
For Muslims, even the ‘icon’-mediated worship of the one true God is categorically forbidden. A correction to the faulty psychology of this practice is referred to in the Quran:
And out of whatever He has created of the fruits of the field and the cattle, they assign unto God a portion, saying, “This belongs to God”—or so they [falsely] claim—“and this is for those beings who, we are convinced, have a share in God’s divinity.” But that which is assigned to the beings associated in their minds with God does not bring [them] closer to God—whereas that which is assigned to God brings [them but] closer to those beings to whom they ascribe a share in His divinity. Bad, indeed, is their judgment!
And likewise, their belief in beings or powers that are supposed to have a share in God’s divinity makes [even] the slaying of their children seem goodly to many of those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God, thus bringing them to ruin and confusing them in their faith. (Sûrat Al-Anʿâm, 6:136-137)
Regarding Interfaith Dialogue
Thanks to Dr. James D. G. Dunn and his illuminating scholarly treatment, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus: The New Testament Evidence, we have been able to take an in-depth initial look at the Christian concept of “worship” related to Jesus and at the related issue of Jesus’ ‘divinity,’ according to Christian doctrine—as supported by their scripture, the New Testament.
Al-hamdulillah, the Church has preserved—available in the NT now available to us—documents that represent the gospel message (injîl) of God’s beloved prophet Jesus, as well as the process of its veiling and distortion. Crucial for interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians is getting across (1) that Muslims honor and believe in Jesus, and (2) that Muslims see a discrepancy between the teachings of Paul and those of Jesus, which Christians may not have considered.
If Christians cannot understand “Christological monotheism,” which follows from Paul’s convoluted argumentation, well, maybe they don’t need to. Christians simply need to wean themselves off their dependence upon Paul and commit themselves to a “Jesus only” policy. A basic acquaintance with Islam can open that door, pointing to a true interpretation of the Jesus of the Gospel narratives. We Muslims can help in this process by recognizing where Christianity went off the rails, in addition to having a clear understanding ourselves of Lâ ilâha illallâh – waḥdahu – lâ sharîka lahu.
In the next block of installments, inshaAllah, we look at a piece of the Church’s fourth century theological project working to define the meaning of ‘deity’ as applied to Jesus. We see how this long-drawn-out effort impacted on the development and entrenchment of her enduring “Christological monotheism.”
Encrypted concepts in the NT, like “Father”-“Son” and “son of God”-“son of man,” and even “Christ,” have long been misunderstood among those who give their allegiance to what has come to be acknowledged as “orthodox Christianity.” These we unpack, with the help of some straightforward hints from the languages/ cultures of Jesus and of the ‘Judaism’ (i.e., Hebrew religion) of his time and place, as compared with those of the Greek and Roman pagans of the same time and place.
To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 8.