As a means toward interfaith understanding of Islam’s vindication and re-establishment of true monotheism among the Heavenly Revelations, we are analyzing James D. G. Dunn’s arguments in his book Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence. Dunn is a British New Testament scholar and professor emeritus at the University of Durham
In Part 2 of this series, we referred to Dunn’s intention to explore whether and in what sense Jesus was “worshipped” during the days of his prophetic teaching career—or after Jesus’ followers had been left to function without him. (You can see his book here http://www.wjkbooks.com/Products/0664231969/did-the-first-christians-worship-jesus.aspx.)
We found a need to look carefully at Paul: Who he was—and who he wasn’t.
We also noted that the Christian Scripture (New Testament of the Bible) which the Church has passed down through the centuries is in the Greek lingua franca language, not in the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus and his mentored Disciples.
Also of significance for the question of reliable information concerning Jesus is that
most of the New Testament was written by people other than those Disciples who knew Jesus intimately
and none of Christian Scripture came through the hand of Jesus himself.
Finally, we noted that in order to understand how the Church arrived at her doctrine of the “Trinity,” which assumes the “divinity” of Christ, there were other incremental steps to be taken along the way.
Assessing the Question
On this path, we keep uppermost in our minds Dunn’s all-important question, “Did the early Christians worship Jesus?” Some Christian scholars, Dunn notes, have argued for an unqualified ‘Yes’ answer, “that Jesus was worshipped more or less from the beginning of Palestinian Jewish Christianity as one who shared or was included in the unique identity of the one God of Israel” (p. 4).
As a word of caution, though, such a response begs the question. If one rejects the legitimacy of Paul and depends only upon the voices of the chosen Disciples of Jesus (A.S), would one reach the same conclusion? The clear ‘Yes’ answer is an assumption on the part of those who want to believe that Christian Scripture is ‘God’s [personally authorized] Word.’
It is true that the existing canon of Scripture was clearly authorized by the Church, but without any hint of authorization from Jesus. Thus—for those who are ready to equate the Church’s say-so with the authority of God—Christian Scripture is not to be questioned in regard to an accurate portrayal of the historical and spiritualized Jesus, as well as in terms of a normative practice and orthodox belief of “Christians.”
For those who follow the Church, Paul is unquestionably an authorized actor in the business of teaching God’s truth. But, how so? Let us delve further into who Paul was—and wasn’t. Surely, whom we worship and how we worship and whether that kind of worship is suitable to whom God is and whether that worship is approved by God, a correct answer to all of these derives from who speaks authoritatively for God—assuming that we want to please God based on reliably true guidance through His authentically-sent spokespeople.
Muslims and Christians agree that Jesus (A.S) spoke authoritatively for God, but what can we say about Paul? Was Paul sent by God?
Was Paul the Prophet of Someone Called the “Lord Jesus Christ”?
A Muslim’s question to be put to the Church, then, would logically be: In the light of what Paul claimed about himself, was he a prophet speaking for God, picking up the unfinished mission of Jesus (A.S), when Jesus’ own words claim that he had finished the mission given him by God:
Bible, John 17:4: [Jesus spoke to God, saying:] I have shown your glory on earth; I have finished the work you gave me to do.
How is it that Paul could claim that Jesus (A.S) had given him a job to complete? (Jesus had never laid eyes on Paul, much less taught him.) Isn’t it the essence of what Paul claims, that he was divinely instructed to preach his own “gospel” message and that those instructions came directly from the heavenly, “risen” Lord Jesus Christ, who had spoken to him in spiritual visions:
Bible, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 1:1, 11-12: From Paul, whose call to be an apostle [i.e., a divinely-mandated messenger] did not come from human beings or by human means, but from Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from death….Let me tell you, my friends, that the gospel I preach is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any human being, nor did anyone teach it to me. It was Jesus Christ himself who revealed it to me.
Paul claims that the [supernaturally] “risen-[from-death]” Jesus Christ had spoken to him during his conversion experience:
Bible, Acts 26:14-15: [Paul recounts his conversion experience:] All of us fell to the ground, and I heard a voice say to me in Hebrew, “Saul, Saul! Why are you persecuting me?… “Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. And the Lord answered, “I am Jesus, whom you persecute.
Paul (previously known as Saul) claims to have been accorded the status of spokesman (=prophet?) speaking for the deified “Lord Jesus.” Surely, this Pauline innovation violates the concept of a true prophet of the Children of Israel who speaks to men with God’s authorized words! As a Hebrew standard by which to judge Paul, notice how the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah reported the following as being God’s prophetic word through him, warning against false prophets and condemning false prophesying:
Bible, Jeremiah 23:30-31: [God Said:] I am against those prophets who take each other’s words and proclaim them as my message. I am also against those prophets who speak their own words and claim they came from me.
Speaking to man with God’s words is precisely what [Prophet] Jesus (A.S) claimed for himself:
Bible, John 14:10: “The words that I have spoken to you,” Jesus said to his disciples, “do not come from me. The Father, who remains in me, does his own work.”
Jesus is fully within the Hebrew prophetic tradition; Paul is not.
This averred certainty [that Jesus was “worshipped” from the beginning]—on the part of “some scholars” referred to by Dunn—is in spite of the fact that no part of the New Testament claims to have been written at the hand of Jesus (A.S) or under his instruction, nor to have been written at the hand of his personal Disciples [except the brief letters of Peter and John].
Self-styled “Bible-believing” Christians tend to skip basic on-the-ground facts, and thus they remain blind to the red flag that is raised regarding Paul—whom they tend to take as the primary and last-resort spokesman for their belief system, in blatant disregard of the teachings of Jesus (A.S), whom thy revere, if not “call upon” in prayer and in “worship.”
Jesus’ teaching includes both his plain language wording and his wording which had intentionally been carefully coded [for sensitive political reasons]—designed to avoid the premature initiation of his final, “Last Week,” carefully-orchestrated prophetic sign. [This too I discuss elsewhere.]
It is to the credit of Dunn’s academic professionalism that he indicates how there is no immediately accessible simple ‘Yes’ answer to this question of whether Jesus’ followers “worshipped” him—and that the complete picture is more complicated than what some recent scholarship wants to hear coming from the earliest source texts. So as to elucidate what is actually at stake in his inquiry, Dunn proceeds to examine what he considers vital and decisive underlying components for answering whether the early Christians “worshipped” Jesus (p. 6):
- What did it mean to worship any god—or, God in the case of Israel’s deity, the God of Jesus—and accordingly what is the human response (“worship”) to what is perceived as God’s self-revelation?
- Was Jesus truly a Jewish monotheist?
- What did it mean to the first Christians that God had exalted Jesus “to his right hand,” (i.e., position of authority).
- Did this exaltation “contribute to Christians ascribing a divine status for Jesus?”
- And if so, “Did this involve a reassessment and restatement of the character of God…?”
One hundred and forty pages follow in explication of these three sets of inquiry. Biblical texts and related ancient sources are mined for profiles of ‘worship,’ ‘monotheism,’ ‘God’/’god,’ and the ‘exaltation’ [of Jesus], all with a view to answering Dunn’s stated research question:
Was Jesus “worshipped” by his original, Palestinian Jewish followers?
And let us extend this question further based on Semitic culture: If any of the Christian texts use a word [perhaps wrongly?] translated as “worship”—or suggesting worship in the reader’s mind, what would that imply? Would it imply: Sharing the essence of God? Or, political or social status? Or, reverence due to an accomplished and authoritative teacher? Or, the highest honor due to a prophetic guide?)
Note the similar situation in the Quran, in Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:31-35:
Thus He taught Adam the names [of created beings], all of them. Thereafter, He arrayed them before the angels. Then He said: Tell Me the names of these, if you are truthful [in saying that man is undeserving of this stewardship].
They said: Highly exalted be You! We have no knowledge, other than what You, Yourself, have taught us. Indeed, it is You, [Our Lord,] You [alone], who are the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.
He said: O Adam! Tell them the names of these [beings]. So when he had informed them of [all] their names, [God] said [to the angels]: Did I not say to you that I know [all] the [realms of the] unseen of the heavens and the earth, and I know what you reveal and what you conceal?
Then behold! We said to the angels: Bow [your faces] down to [receive] Adam [into life and to honor him]! So they [all] bowed down, except Iblîs. He refused and grew [greatly] arrogant. And thus did he become of the [rebellious] disbelievers.
Thereafter, We said: O Adam! Dwell, you and your wife, in the garden; and eat from it plentifully, both of you, wherever [of it] you so please. But you shall not come near this [single] tree [to eat of its fruit]. For, then, you shall both be of the wrongdoers.
Therein Allah instructs the angels to “bow down,” or, “submit,” to Adam, who had been taught “the names of things”—a kind of conceptual thinking beyond the capacities with which the angels were endowed.
Thus, Allah was making the human being the centerpiece of his creation and informing the previously created beings their own place in His world order. Allah was not asking the angels to “worship” human beings as if they had the essence of the One Deity; clearly the Quran teaches us that God is Almighty, singular, without partner or peer—the only One worthy of worship.
Regarding the Language of Worship in the Bible
Multiple vocabulary items are parsed in context by Professor Dunn in his process of laying out their double-duty, overlapping meanings. First, Dunn gives us the biblical Hebrew word shakhah (variously translatable as ‘bow down’ – ‘prostrate oneself’ – ‘make obeisance before’), a word which is used variously in the [Jewish] Old Testament (OT) regarding acts of homage to social superiors, kings and angels, as well as being used in description of a person standing before God in worship (pp. 8-9). Even this OT Hebrew word is NOT applied exclusively to the worship of God!
Next, we are presented with nine biblical Greek vocabulary roots—remember that the New Testament has come down to us in Greek, not in the [Aramaic] language spoken by Jesus (A.S). These nine are Greek roots related to worship or service to God or gods; and each is inspected for its boundaries of usage, but none passes the test of exclusive application to God alone.
Here are two of the initial conclusions reached by Dunn regarding the vocabulary relating to deity:
1. “Paul had no hesitation in linking “the Lord Jesus Christ” with “God our Father” in formally praying for blessing on the recipients of his letters.” (p. 27)
2. “…the fact that such worship language is used in reference to Jesus, even if only occasionally, is very striking. This would have been entirely unusual and without precedent in the Judaism of the time. For Christians to understand themselves and define themselves as ‘those who invoke the name of the Lord Jesus Christ’ in prayer must have marked them and their religious devotion as distinctive both within Palestine and in the wide Mediterranean world. The fact that this definition could be used as casually and as taken for granted, as it is in 1 Corinthians 1.2, assuredly indicates that invocation of the Lord Jesus in prayer was a regular feature of early Christian worship.” (p. 28)
Here is the verse, and its context, referenced above by Dunn as solid evidence of “worship” as advocated by Paul (not advocated or practiced by the Disciples who had been personally mentored by Jesus):
Bible, 1 Corinthians 1:1-3: [A letter] from Paul…to all who are called to be God’s holy people, who belong to him in union with Christ Jesus, together with all people everywhere who worship our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours: May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.
Although Prof. Dunn provisionally answers the worship-of-Jesus question as “Generally no,” or, “Only with some reserve” (p. 28), it is relevant to observe that once Paul is given credence in regard to speaking for Jesus, his reference to ‘Christ’ as ‘exalted to heaven’ becomes Paul’s opportunistic vehicle for launching—or solidifying—his teaching concerning the supernatural status of the Jesus whom he had never met.
Remember, Paul had never been included in the ‘inner sanctum’ of Jesus’ Companions. In fact, Paul had never met Jesus; and, most suspiciously indeed, Paul by his own account had done his best to avoid contact with the true Disciples (also called “Apostles”).
For us as Muslims—onlookers from the outside, so to speak—the big questions should be these:
1. How is it that Paul became authorized to speak for Jesus, when Jesus’ actual Disciples [=”Companions”] were still alive and teaching?
2. Why were the voices of Jesus’ Disciples mostly missing [or silenced?] when the make-up (“canon”) of Christian scripture was officially approved some three centuries after Jesus?
Intention in Worship
Dunn next turns to the question of what was intended by the first Christians in their practices of prayer, singing of hymns (songs of worship), sacred space and times, and in the cultic offering of material goods.
It is clear, as Dunn shows, that in the [NT Gospel] narratives of Jesus, prayer was never addressed to anyone but God, and that Jesus refused even the least misguided overestimation of himself when he responded to others, times when any unguarded response on his part could have been perceived as making himself the like of God. The following exchange signals a Jesus figure who was very guarded in the terminology he accepted regarding himself:
Bible, Mark 10:17-18:
[Inquirer:] …Good Teacher…
[Jesus:] Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.
Later, when Jesus (A.S) comforts his Disciples (the Ḥawârˆ’ûn (or men around Jesus (A.S)) of the Quran) about his foretold imminent departure from them, he does not indicate that someone like Paul is to take over the charge of spreading his message, which he has specifically mandated for his trained Disciples. Rather, he promises them that when they ask of God (code-named ‘my Father’), that what they ask for ‘in my name’ (another coded phrase), then those things will God Himself give them—concerning the ‘fruit’ that they would ‘bear’ in their appointed mission of spreading his teaching:
Bible, John 15:16: [Jesus said to his Disciples:] You did not choose me; I chose you and appointed you to go and bear much fruit, the kind of fruit that endures. And so the Father will give you whatever you ask of him in my name.
Dunn refers to the above two biblical passages and their topics, but without fully and explicitly disentangling Jesus’ teaching and practice from that of the later Paul. However, he does find in Paul cause for concern:
Whatever else we may conclude from the restricted language of prayer and request, then, it is clear enough that Paul understood the exalted Christ as one who could be appealed to for help, a request or petition that can readily be understood as prayer (pp. 34-35).
Paul’s Reinvention of ‘Christ’
Be aware that ‘Christ’ is a title that has been added by Paul to the name ‘Jesus.’ Technically speaking, the Greek form ‘christos,’ (in English, ‘Christ’) is a translation of the Hebrew form meshiah (in Arabic, ‘masî ḥ‘; English, ‘messiah’), meaning one ‘anointed’ [with oil] to formally mark him out as having been chosen by God for a given task.
However, Paul fills the Greek form of the word ‘Christ’ with his own complicated theological meaning: In Paul’s writings, ‘Christ’ indicates the deified spiritual power of the one who [so Paul claims] died so as to ‘pay for’ mankind’s sin—the one whom God then ‘raised’ alive to ‘sit at God’s right hand’ [of divine power] in the heavens.
Thus, the prophet ‘Jesus’ (A.S) found in the ‘Gospel’ books of the NT—associated with the compiler names of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—becomes, in Paul’s writings [in the Greek language NT] variously: ‘Christ,’ or ‘Christ Jesus,’ or ‘Jesus Christ,’ or ‘the Lord Jesus,’ or ‘the Lord Jesus Christ.’
By contrast, in the Hebrew language Old Testament, ‘LORD’ (written with all capital letters in the English Bible) had been used to refer exclusively to God and never to prophetic voices. The reader of Paul in the Greek-language NT, understandably, is given to assume that Jesus—as ‘Lord’—must be in some sense ‘divine,’ even though this was not the message of Jesus in the Gospel accounts of his activities and teachings.
Such is the conclusion typically drawn by Christians—precisely because they have not been confronted with the possibility that Paul could have been out of order in claiming to speak for Jesus, whom he had never known, apart from his self-proclaimed, unwitnessed visionary experiences, and apart from his self-proclaimed status as spokesman for the exalted-to-heaven Christ [Jesus].
“Exalted to Heaven”
Next, Dunn refers to prophet Elijah as one who in Hebrew scriptures (2 Kings 2:11-12) “had been taken to heaven without dying” (p. 35), adding that—in spite of this special privilege accorded to Elijah—in the Judaism of Jesus’ day there were no examples of appeals made to Elijah for his return from “heaven” or for his help. On the other hand, Dunn does inject the observation of one scholar, Alan Segal, that “in Jewish mystical texts all kinds of angelic beings are invoked” (p. 35).
Compare the Quran’s reference (in Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:158):
Rather, God has raised him to Himself. And ever is God overpowering, all-wise.
It refers to Jesus (A.S) as one whom God had “raised up to Himself,” or, “exalted in His presence”—not as one whom God had deified, but rather one He as honored for His own purposes—parallel to the story of Elijah in the Hebrew scriptures.
This is dramatically affirmed in the Quran’s subsequent verse.
And there is not [a single] one of the People of the Scripture save that every [last] one [of them] shall most surely believe in him [as the Messiah] before his death. Moreover, on the Day of Resurrection, he himself shall be a witness against them. (Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:159)
Moving to a Pauline understanding of Jesus, Dunn then highlights an instructive case as recorded in the ‘historical account’ book within the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, in which an appeal to a deified Jesus is put on the lips of the first Christian martyr, Stephen (p. 36):
Bible, Acts 7:59: They kept on stoning Stephen as he called out to the Lord, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!”
This portrayal of the dying Stephen’s appeal to “the Lord [Jesus]” Dunn takes to be a ‘prayer’—here, a prayer to a deified Jesus according to the text as it stands. This leads us to ask whether there is any evidence that “Jesus” in the above verse has been added to the original text—considering that the meaning of “Lord” as referring to Almighty God alone would be more in keeping with Jesus’ words elsewhere:
Bible, Luke 23:46: Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father! In your hands I place my spirit!” He said this and died.
Bible, John 19:30: Jesus … said, “It is finished!” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
To the example of Stephen calling upon a deified Jesus, Dunn likewise connects Paul’s appeals to Jesus (Bible, 1 Corinthians 16:22; 2 Corinthians 12:8-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17; 3:5, 16) as being pleas to one “translated to heaven” and regarded as “sitting at God’s right hand” (pp. 36-37).
Bible, 2 Corinthians 12:8-9: Three times I prayed to the Lord about this and asked him to take it away. But his answer was: “My grace is all you need, for my power is greatest when you are weak.” I am most happy, then, to be proud of my weaknesses, in order to feel the protection of Christ’s power over me.
In this same vein, Dunn again reminds us that the early ‘Christians’ were so-called because they were known in Greek as χριστιανοι (christianoi: ‘those who call upon or invoke the name of Christ [Jesus]’); yet he is still reluctant to give a definitive ‘Yes’ answer to the question of whether early followers of Jesus ‘worshipped’ him—meaning worship in the full sense in which they worshipped God. Instead, he holds back, but at the same time, he gives an instructive hint to his readers:
This also reminds us that a more prominent theme in the NT is Jesus as the one who prays for his followers rather than [as] the one prayed to (p. 37, note 28).
The glaring mismatch is quite striking between (a) the deified, ”exalted-to-heaven” “Jesus Christ,” “sitting at the right hand of God,” as offered by Paul and (b) the divinely-guided human prophet “Jesus” offered by the Gospel narratives. It suggests that something is wrong with the source documents of Christians, or the way that they were chosen and put together.
Is it possible that Paul’s Christ could be the same person as the human Jesus of the Gospel accounts, both found in the New Testament? The traditional Christian has been taught to believe so. The Muslim would say, “No way!”
In this state of affairs, how then can interfaith exchange take place? How does Dunn reconcile the two portraits of Jesus?
To be continued, inshâ’Allâh, in Part 4…