Worship in the New Testament

I’ve come across the claim that “worship” in the NT is either a) unique or b) ubiquitous. That is to say, some people claim that only Jesus is worshipped in the NT, while others claim that many people  are worshipped in the NT.

Both claims are flawed in that they seek to absolutize the evidence into a clear principle rather than following where the evidence leads. In the OT there are several instances of worship (basically bowing) being offered to humans as a sign of respect, yet the NT authors reframed the term to make it an action that is exclusively offered to God an Jesus in the positive sense, an offered to others in a negative (idolatrous) sense. So let’s look at worship (προσκυνέω) in the NT.

(note on methodology: We will concern ourselves only with occurrences of προσκυνέω, which may leave other occurrences of worship out of the mix, but is also an objective criterion for studying how the term was used formally.)

 

Usage by Author

We find the word 60x in the NT, divided thusly:

34x (57%) in the Gospels and Acts (Mt 13, Mk 2, Lk 3, Jn 12, Acts 4)

1x (2%) in the Pauline Epistles

24x (40%) in Revelation

2x (3%) in Hebrews

If we group John’s Gospel with Revelation, the usage by John accounts for 60% of the occurrences. Even if we consider the two texts to have different authors, it is worth noting that Revelation by far has the highest frequency of use, followed by John and Matthew. Mark, Luke, Paul, and Hebrews barely use the term. The 7 Catholic Epistles never use the term.

 

Usage by Object

To what or whom was the worship directed in the NT?

In Paul (1 Cor. 14:25) the object is God.

In Hebrews the first object of worship is the Son (1:6, citing Dt. 32:43)

“Rejoice, ye heavens, with him, and let all the angels of God worship him; rejoice ye Gentiles, with his people, and let all the sons of God strengthen themselves in him; for he will avenge the blood of his sons, and he will render vengeance, and recompense justice to his enemies, and will reward them that hate him; and the Lord shall purge the land of his people.” (Brenton)

The second object is unidentified (11:21, citing Gen. 37:31)

“And he said, Swear to me; and he swore to him. And Israel did reverence, leaning on the top of his staff.” (Brenton).

In Mark the object is Jesus (2x, 100%), in both cases before the Resurrection.

In Matthew the objects are Jesus (11x, 85%), Satan (1x, 8%), and God (1x, 8%). The latter 2 are mentioned in the same passage (the temptation narrative), and only 2 of the 11 times that Jesus is the object of worship are post-Resurrection.

In Luke we have the same 2 instances from the temptation narrative that Matthew recounts, 1 for Satan and 1 for God. The only other instance is directed towards Jesus post-Resurrection.

In Acts we have 2 occurrences of worshipping (God) in Jerusalem/Temple, a mention of idol worship, and Peter being worshipped.

In John we have 11 references to worship of God (10 of which are in chapter 4), and 1 of worship of Jesus.

In Revelation the first object of (future) worship are the readers in Philadelphia (3:9)

” behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.”

Primarily God is worshipped (10x, 42%), and the beast/image/dragon/demons are worshipped 11x (46%). An angel is worshipped 2x (8%), and in both cases the one worshipping (the author) was corrected by the angel for such behavior.

Overall in the NT, we see this breakdown of objects of worship:

God (27x, 45%)

Jesus (16x, 27%)

Satan/Beast/Demons/Idols (14x, 23%)

An Angel (2x, 3%)

Peter (1x, 2%)

 

Conclusions

A few remarks are in order.

First, positive worship accounts for 72% of occurrences, applied only to God and Jesus, while negative worship accounts for the other 28%.

The implication is that only God and Jesus are to be worshipped, according to NT usage. However, it should be added to this that Jesus is worshipped after the Resurrection only 3x, and the remaining 13x occur from his birth to his ministry. We cannot, therefore, conclude that Jesus was only to be worshipped as the triumphant resurrected Christ. His worship was instituted when he was an infant (Mt. 2 with the visit of the Magi).

We can also add that this does not mean that the resurrected Christ was worshipped with any frequency in the NT. Although the Gospel narratives have only a short account of Jesus post-Resurrection, we do not find in the writings of Paul, Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude any mention of worshipping Jesus, God, or any other entity. They are silent on the issue, which indicates that when Jesus was worshipped post-Resurrection, it was not a new development in the NT trajectories, but a continuation of the worship that Jesus received throughout his life.

The depiction of Jesus being worshipped is largely confined to the Gospel narratives, and accounts for 23% of the total usages in the NT, and 48% of the usages in the Gospels (with God coming in a close second place at 45%).

Outside of the Gospels only Hebrews speaks of worshipping Jesus (referenced as the Son of God), and the author does so through the application of Deuteronomic song (referencing God himself as YHWH and El) to Jesus. We can ad to this that the words were said to have been spoken (or sung) to the Israelites by Moses and Jesus the son of Nun (Dt. 32:44). The author of Hebrews clearly identified the Son of God as YHWH/El, and not simply as a son of God (since the song reads “let all the sons of God strengthen themselves in him.”)

We can conclude that worship in the NT is confined exclusively to Jesus and God. Other beings are worshipped (Satan, Peter, the Beast, idols, an angel) but theses occurrences are portrayed as negative. Only Jesus and his Father, God, are the proper objects of worship according to the NT authors.

Thanks for reading!

 

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The Christology of Hebrews Chapter 1

I recently got into a discussion about the assertions that the author of Hebrews makes in the opening chapter of his letter and I was invited to unpack just how I interpreted what the author was doing. Given that it is a somewhat complex topic that is not germane to a short comment in a thread, I decided to make a blog post about it.

 

Hebrews 1

The passage in question is this:

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,

Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;

Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high:

Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.

For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?

And again, when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him.

And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.

But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom.

Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.

10 And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands:

11 They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment;

12 And as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.

13 But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool?

14 Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?

The passage is a beautiful exposition of the identity of the Son of God. By using a series of different scriptural quotations the author makes his point about just who the Son actually is, and he also adds his own assertions/rhetorical questions both prior to and after this string of quotations.

Here is a listing of the quotations used:

Verse 5: Ps. 2:7b and then 2 Sam. 7:14

Verse 6: Dt. 32:43 (see this paper for more info on the text critical issues involved)

Verse 7: Ps. 104:4

Verses 8-9: Ps. 45:6-7

Verses 10-12: Ps. 102:25-27

Verse 13: Ps. 110:1

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the author’s use of Scripture in this chapter is that he asserts that the words of David directed towards God are actually the speech of God directed towards the Son! This issue is a problematic one for non-Trinitarians, and one which I will address here. But first we need a little background.

 

Jewish Monotheism

Jews believed in One God. They might have admitted to other “gods” existing, but such entities were not on par with the One God. Only God was worthy of worship, only God created everything, only God chose Israel and spoke by the Prophets.

In the created realm there were humans, animals, inanimate objects, and angels. The gods of the nations were thought to be either in the angelic realm or else simply imaginary. They were no gods at all, even if men worshipped them as gods.

The way that God was spoken of by Jews was diverse but rather consistent. God was called  El, YHWH, the Lord, Father, the Rock, and other titles. The primary titles were ‘el, ‘elohiym, and Yĕhovah/Yahweh. This final name is a proper name of God revealed directly to Moses, and the variation of how it is rendered is due to the Hebrew text lacking consonants. It is called the Tetragrammaton because it is 4 consonants (YHWH); he vowels between those letters are inferred, leading to the different renderings as Yĕhovah/Yahweh.

The Greek terms corresponding to these Hebrew titles/names are fairly consistent: El and Elohim are ὁ θεὸς (God), and YHWH is κύριος (Lord). The second is quite important, since when reading the Hebrew word YHWH, the reader would not pronounce the Tetragrammaton but would instead pronounce the word as Adonai (Lord). This was due to the belief that YHWH was such a holy name that it should not be pronounced, except once a year by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement.

This led to a curious aspect of the Greek text of Scripture: when the Hebrew text had YHWH, the Greek text usually had κύριος. When the Hebrew text had Adonai, the Greek text also had κύριος. Hence there was no way of telling (by the Greek alone) if the κύριος written of was YHWH or Adonai. Even in the account of God revealing his name of YHWH to Moses (Ex. 6:3) the Greek has no literal rendering of YHWH and instead has κύριος. So when a Jew heard “Adonai” or “κύριος” they had to decide whether it was referring to the One God or was simply a title of respect that could be used of humans. (note: Adonai is a plural of Adown, just as elohim is a plural of el. This was a plural of heightened emphasis rather than actual pluarlity, at least in the minds of interpreters.) Just as Mr. or Sir Jones means “master” and “sire,” but we don’t actually consider Jones to be our Master like God is said to be; or when we hear “Lord Byron” we don’t assume that it denotes the same Lord as the phrase “Lord have mercy.”

 

Hebrews 1 and the Exegesis of Jewish Monotheism

While the authorship of Hebrews is a contested matter, we can safely assume that the author was either Jewish himself or was convinced of the truth of Jewish beliefs. This follows from his use of Jewish scriptures in his argument in chapter 1 and throughout the entire letter. As such, it is shocking (to us) how he appears to speak of Two Gods.

The implicit assertion is found in verse 8, but the previous verses set the stage and the verses which follow strengthen his point. It should be noted that while many modern Christians have doubts about the divinity of Jesus as opposed to his humanity, it appears that Hebrews 1 addresses the divinity of Jesus as opposed to his angelic status. The humanity of the Son is never mentioned explicitly in chapter 1.

The book opens (vs.1-2b) with the assertion that in these last days God spoke through his son rather than through the prophets. It follows that the Son spoke for God, but there is also an implication that he trumped the work of the prophets precisely because he spoke as a son rather than as a servant.

The Son is then said to be:

1) the heir of all things,

2) the one who God used to make the worlds

3) the brightness of God’s glory

4) the image of God’s person

5) the upholder of all things by the word of God

6) the one who purged our sins

7) the one seated at the right hand of God

(Note that rather than copying and pasting the original, I summarized the content and therefore the listing above contains some of my own interpretation of the words rather than a literal retelling. One should always defer to the original when in doubt, which would be the Greek text rather than my reworded synopsis.)

Verse 4 is where the angels come in: the Son was made to be better than the angels and by virtue of his inheritance the Son received a greater name than the angels.

At this point the description of the Son seems to rule out a (mere) human being, although it could be said that the description could apply to a perfect, high priestly, true human being on all points except one: that God made the worlds through the Son. This simply did not happen through a human in Jewish teaching.

Yet all of these points could possibly apply to an angelic figure, including the making of the worlds. It was affirmed by Jews that God was the creator of everything, but also that God made everything through Wisdom, a hypostasized (personalized) concept. Some Jews believed that Wisdom made everything by the power of God, and still other Jews believed that God made everything through angelic mediators.

This seems to be exactly what the author of Hebrews was addressing: the idea that the Son was Wisdom and an angelic mediator. His aim seems to clarify the latter and distinguish the Son from a “mere” angel, affirming that the Son was the Son of God, not merely a creation of God (as the angels were). There was a “genetic” connection, to use a modern metaphor.

So, verse 4 distinguishes the Son from all other angels, but still allows for the Son to be an angel himself. He could simply be the highest angel. Yet verse 5 makes clear that the identity of the Son is that he is God’s son, not simply one of God’s angel. Verse 6 has God telling all of his angels to worship his Son, which shows that the Son is higher than the rest of the angels, but admittedly still allows for the Son to be an angel. After all, the chapter began with the Son being sent by God to speak to humans, which is exactly the role of an angel.

While verses 4-6 set up a distinction between the Son and the angels: angels are not spoken of (here) as being “sons” nor are they (here) objects of worship. Yet it should be remembered that in some instances an angel could receive worship that was due to God alone, and that angels were sometimes called “the sons of God.” So the distinction is not absolute at this point.

It should also be pointed out that my analysis here is functional, not ontological. The angels could be exalted men, since an angel is simply an agent who brings a message. Verse 7 speaks of angels as “sprits,” and men have spirits; they are also “ministers,” and God appointed men to minister to him in the Temple and elsewhere.

Yet in verse 8 we have something rather different: the author of Hebrews boldly asserts that “to the Son” (or perhaps “regarding the Son”) God calls him (the Son) “God”! Not only is this bold on the face of it, but it is bold when we consider the Psalm that he is citing. On a plain reading of the Psalm it is clear that David is speaking of the One God. Yet the author of Hebrews tells us that God spoke those words to the Son. The One God called his Son “God.” This simply cannot be said of a (mere) angel or a (mere) man.

Yet the citation continues with another twist: God, still speaking to the Son, says that the Son’s God anointed the Son above the Son’s fellows. This is perplexing because the One God cannot be “anointed,” nor can the One God have a God. In the Psalm it is clear that the figure being anointed is not the One God, but the king (Ps. 45:1), yet verse 8 in Hebrews (Ps. 45:6) makes it explicit that the one being addressed has shifted from the king/warrior to the One God, apparently as an aside. The author of Hebrews makes clear that he interprets the Psalm differently than this, and that the king is God. Yet the king is God who has a God and has “fellows.” This seems to be impossible to say of the One God. Yet the fact remains that the author of Hebrews is asserting this very impossibility.

God is often spoken of as a king and a warrior. Could the Psalm be about God himself, and not a human agent? It could be, and the author of Hebrews seem to lean in this direction, but again there is the objection of the king having a God, and being anointed (Hebrews 1:9, Psalm 45:7). Whoever this figure is, he is God and he has a God, which John 20:17 applies to Jesus and in Hebrews is applied to the Son.

The specific words used for “God” in this Psalm are elohiym and θεός. These terms cannot be read as merely functional (like Adonai or κύριος). They apply only to the One God in a plain reading of the OT writings. The author of Hebrews points out to his readers that this is not the case, but rather that elohiym and θεός are rightful titles for the Son. The Son is both God and yet distinct in some ways from the One God who goes by the same name/title.

For the sake of easy reading I will here repost the end of Hebrews chapter 1 so the reader doesn’t need to scroll up to see the original:

10 And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands:

11 They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment;

12 And as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.

13 But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool?

14 Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?

Verses 10-12 move from the stunning assertion that the Son is God to the assertion that the Son is Lord. The idea that Jesus is Lord is nothing new, of course, but is often taken in the more mundane sense of “master.” But the author of Hebrews makes clear that the Son is Lord and God, making the “Lord” to mean YHWH. No human Lord laid the foundations of the earth or created the heavens. Only the Lord YHWH did this, and this idea was already mentioned in Hebrews 1:2. But again, the original context of the Psalm seems to apply to YHWH as the One God, leaving open the possibility that the actual work of creation may have been done by an imtermediary. The author of Hebrews affirms that it was done through an intermediary, namely the Son of God who is also God and Lord (YHWH).

We can see this when we look at the original in Psalm 102, and for your convenience I have listed below the verses that mention God/Lord by name, starting with verse 1:

Hear my prayer, O LORD (YHWH, κύριος), and let my cry come unto thee.

12. But thou, O LORD (YHWH, κύριος), shalt endure for ever; and thy remembrance unto all generations.

15. So the heathen shall fear the name of the LORD (YHWH, κύριος), and all the kings of the earth thy glory.

16. When the LORD (YHWH, κύριος) shall build up Zion, he shall appear in his glory.

18. This shall be written for the generation to come: and the people which shall be created shall praise the LORD (Jah, κύριος).

21. To declare the name of the LORD (YHWH, κύριος) in Zion, and his praise in Jerusalem;

22. When the people are gathered together, and the kingdoms, to serve the LORD (YHWH, κύριος).

24. I said, O my God (El, no word given in the Greek), take me not away in the midst of my days: thy years are throughout all generations.

We then come to verses 25-27, which are the ones cited in Hebrews 1:10-12. But we should note that the author of Hebrews has used the Greek version of the beginning of the citation. The Psalm English readers are used to is based on the Hebrew text, which begins:

“Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth”

while in Hebrews we read

“And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth”

This is better understood when we realize that the author of Hebrews is citing the LXX version of the Psalm, which includes “Lord.” Here is the Greek of both:

κατ᾽ ἀρχὰς σύ κύριε τὴν γῆν ἐθεμελίωσας (Ps)

καί Σὺ κατ᾽ ἀρχάς κύριε τὴν γῆν ἐθεμελίωσας (H)

The only difference between the two is the “and” which actually introduces the citation rather than forms part of it, and the transposition of the “you” (σύ).

Who is the Lord in this Psalm? It is always YHWH (6 times strictly speaking, and 1 time the shortened form YH substitutes YHWH). The Lord in this Psalm is always understood as the One God, and the author of Hebrews asserts that it refers to the Son, just as earlier elohiym, θεός refers to the Son.

The chapter has one final citation, this time of Psalm 110:1. He cites only the second and third clauses of verse 1, but it is worth noting the clause he omits (note that it is a common Jewish rhetorical technique to omit a verse or part of a verse with the aim of the reader supplying the clause/verse himself; the omitted phrase is usually the most important one).

The LORD (YHWH, κύριος) said unto my Lord (‘adown, κύριος)

Sit thou at my right hand,

until I make thine enemies thy footstool.

The author of Hebrews essentially asks how it would be appropriate to speak to an angel this way. Yet he omits the most striking clause, the initial one that calls the subject of the action “Lord”  (‘adown, κύριος). Here we should point out that Lord is not the name of YHWH, but adown in the Hebrew. Yet there is no such distinction in the Greek, and we have already seen that the Son is Lord in the sense of YHWH, not merely adown or Adonai.

By omitting the initial phrase which speaks of “the Lord” speaking to “my Lord,” the knowledgeable reader’s attention is brought to bear specifically on this phrase. And when they look at it, it clearly says that the Lord spoke to my Lord, just as the author of Hebrews had earlier asserted that God had spoken to the Son and called him “God.” Without this treatment by the author of Hebrews, a Jewish Christian would read Ps. 110:1 as YHWH speaking to a human or angelic “Lord.” The author of Hebrews makes that reading impossible. There are two Lords (κύριος) and two Gods (θεός). The two have distinct functions and are not the same, but are also identified with the same unique titles. The Son is not an angel or a man, but God and Lord.

At this point the reader here has a few options:

  1. Affirm that the Son is a second God and Lord, even while being distinct from the first God and Lord
  2. Affirm that there is only one God and Lord, and so the Son must be that sole God and Lord
  3. Affirm that the author of Hebrews is wrong in his treatment of the OT citations
  4. Affirm that the author of Hebrews didn’t mean what he actually wrote

The only viable option for those who affirm that Hebrews is an inspired book is #1. Options 2-4 are all contradicted by the author of Hebrews and the notion of the inspiration of Scripture. It should be remembered that the idea of a second YHWH was already an idea extant in Judaism, forwarded by Philo, an Alexandrian Jew who simultaneously affirmed that the second YHWH/Lord/Logos was distinct from the One God yet still God.There was also the “Two Powers in Heaven” discussion in Jewish circles, which pointed to Metatron as an angelic second YHWH. The only novelty in the assertions made in Hebrews 1 is that the Son (Jesus) is affirmed to be that second YHWH, something that Philo would not have affirmed and that Jews who believed in a second YHWH like Metatron also rejected.

As always, thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

Dr Larry Hurtado on the Trinities Podcast

I just thought I would pass along this great interview of Dr Larry Hurtado by Dr. Dale Tuggy. Hurtado is an expert in early Christianity and until 2011 was a Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology at the University of Edinburgh. Tuggy is a professor at The State University of New York at Fredonia whose podcast series focuses on the Trinity.

Hurtado is on episodes 99 and 100, a great way to round out the first century for Tuggy. I think Hurtado is one of the best historical theologians in the world for early Christianity, and his approach is refreshingly honest and inquisitive. I highly recommend the following works by him (a full listing is here):

One God, One Lord, New Edition: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (1998)

At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion (1999)

Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (2003)

How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (2005)

The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (2006)

Mark (2011 reprint of a 1995 commentary)

Hurtado plays close attention to the earliest source material, and is careful to not read later ideas (especially regarding monotheism and credal formulas) into the early texts. They should speak for themselves and be understood in their own terminology. This avoids trying to shoehorn the thought of the writers of the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers into later Christological categories. It also avoids the notion that such 4th century categories were necessarily novel in content. Instead there is continuity as well as a shift in terminology and mental furniture, so to speak.

Hurtado has also written excellently on text criticism, particularly the feature of nominal sacra. I highly recommend looking through nearly 40 of his published articles here, which are all available as free pdfs.