Review: Did The First Christians Worship Jesus?

Did The First Christians Worship Jesus? is a continuation of an ongoing academic discussion on the nature of early Christian worship, between Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham and James Dunn. In this work, written at a level suitable for the general readership, Dunn notes that he does agree in principle with the writings of Hurtado and Bauckham, but that in this volume he wants to wrestle with those passages that seem to contradict the idea that the early Christians worshipped Jesus. If in fact the early Christians were hesitant to worship Jesus, Dunn believes that it is important to stop and ask why this is.

Dunn explores this by asking five primary questions: 1) What is worship, and does worship define God? 2) What did worship involve? 3) How was God’s self-revelation understood in biblical Judaism? 4) Was Jesus a monotheist? 5) What did Jesus’s exaltation to the right hand of the Father mean to the early Christians?[2] Dunn’s thesis is that, in the early Church, the worship of Jesus was not an alternative to the worship of God, it was a way of worshipping God. More precisely, the worship of Jesus was (and should be) wholly Trinitarian; that is, “Worship of Jesus that is not worship of God through Jesus, or, more completely, worship of God through Jesus and in the Spirit, is not Christian worship.”[3]

Dunn argues that the original question, “Did the first Christians worship Jesus?” is too narrow, and when taken at face value it should be answered in the negative. Better questions to ask, Dunn suggests, are “was the earliest Christian worship possible without and apart from Jesus?”[4] and, “did the first Christians include Jesus within this restricted worship, or did they somehow loosen the restrictions?”[5] Dunn is attempting to guard against the possibility of Christomonism, or in his words “Jesus-olatry”, wherein the worship of Jesus replaces the worship of God.

This book, while written at an easily-accessible level and marketed to the general Christian public, makes the reader feel like they have walked into the middle of a conversation without any prior context of the conversation. As well, because Dunn states that he is in agreement with Hurtado and Bauckham, the subtle arguments that he is making in relation to their broader conversation will probably be lost on those who have not fully followed the conversation. As such, Larry Hurtado’s review[6] helps to guide readers in understanding the broader conversation, as well as pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of Dunn’s argument.

From a theological perspective, Dunn’s book is useful because he affirms and wants to ensure that all discussion of Christian worship is Trinitarian in nature. At the same time, the question needs to be asked if Dunn’s fear of “Jesus-olatry” is overblown. An examination of the Patristic development of Christology, even though it is extends beyond the first century data that Dunn is analyzing, would be useful to explore, particularly some of the early writings of Justin Martyr and Tertullian, to see if the worship of Jesus actually displaces the worship of God the Father. (Though space does not permit, I would argue that the development of the doctrine of the Trinity prevents this from occurring). That being said, Dunn’s worry about “Jesus-olatry” does not warrant criticisms that Dunn is undermining the foundations of Christian orthodoxy with his scholarly examination of the biblical texts.[7]



[1] James Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus: The New Testament Evidence (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 58.

[5] Ibid., 60.

[6] Larry Hurtado, review of Did the First Christians Worship, by James Dunn, Journal of Theological Studies 61 (2010): 736-40.

[7] See for example, Paul Owen, review of Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence, by James Dunn, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54 (2011): 645-47.