Were the Disciples/Apostles Idol Worshipers?

Anyone who studies historical method is familiar with what is called historical causation. Historians seek out the causes of a certain events. As historian Paul Barnett says, “The birth of Christianity and the birth of Christology are inseparable both as to time and essence.” (1) One thing for sure: the birth of Christology was very early and not something that was invented much later in Church history.

We must not forget that within Judaism there is a term called “avodah zara” which is defined as the formal recognition or worship as God of an entity that is in fact not God i.e., idolatry. In other words, the acceptance of a non-divine entity as your deity is a form of avodah zara. (2) As of today, traditional or Orthodox Judaism still upholds the position that Jewish people are forbidden to pray and worship anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9). So to this day any Christian or Messianic Jew who says Jesus is divine is called out as an “idol worshiper.”

This quote was taken from the Jews for Judaism website:

“The Jew equates worship of Jesus with idolatry. A Jew sees  no room for discussion of this issue. A man cannot be God and that’s all there  is to it. The missionary effort to present scriptural quotations as evidence to  support his devotion to Jesus, is wasted on the Jew.  God gave the Jewish people an understanding of Himself before He gave them the  scriptures. The Jewish people read scripture in light of their understanding of  God. It was God Himself who gave the Jewish people their conception of God, and  it is through the lens of this fundamental teaching that we understand all  subsequent revelation. The words of the prophets do not have the power to alter  that which God Himself has taught us. The exact opposite is true. Our  conception of God is the criterion by which the prophet’s words are evaluated” ( http://www.jewsforjudaism.ca/resources-info/resources-in-judaism/essaysycb/the-testimony-of-scripture?vm=r&s=1

First, I thought the word’s of the prophets were God’s words as well. But let’s take a look at the New Testament and see if the disciples/apostles thought they were committing idolatry.

Paul’s Letters are the earliest records we have for the life of Jesus. We know that from about AD 48 until his death (60 to 65 AD) Paul wrote at least 13 of the New Testament’s books. They are also the earliest letters we have for the Christology of Jesus. To read any objections to Paul’s Letters, see here.

As pointed out by Richard Bauckham in his work on this topic, Paul believed that  Jesus was God by attributing attributes to him that were distinctly reserved for God. And he did so in a distinctly Jewish manner while also preserving  monotheism. There were three attributes that first century Jews uniquely assigned to God:

1. God is the Sole Ruler of all things

2. God is the Sole Creator of all things

3. God is the only being deserving of worship

So let’s look at how Paul matches up the data here:

1. Jesus participates in God’s sole rule over all things

Phil: 3:20-21: “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.”

Eph. 1:21-22: Paul speaks of Jesus being ”far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet…”

Here, Jesus is clearly given the authority to rule above every one of God’s created beings.

2. Jesus as the Creator of all things

Jesus is clearly thought by Paul to have been the creator of the universe. This attribute is reserved only to God in Second Temple Judaism. Paul makes it clear that Jesus created all things.

Col. 1:15-16: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”

3. Jesus as worthy of worship

As discussed above, only God was worthy of worship in Second Temple Judaism. Nevertheless, Paul discusses the worship of Jesus. Since God is the sole Creator and Ruler of all things He alone should be worshiped. Even within the Roman Empire, Jews worshiped God alone. No other entity was worthy of worship. Here is one of the earliest Christological texts:

Philippians 2:6-11: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

In their book  The Jesus Legend, The: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy say,

“During the reign of Pilate and Herod, when Caiaphas was high priest, we find a Jewish movement arising that worships a recent contemporary alongside and in a similar manner as Yahweh-God. To call this development “novel” is a significant understatement. In truth, it constitutes nothing less than a massive paradigm shift in the first century Palestinian Jewish religious worldview.” (3)

Explanations try to show how something happened. That is, what is the cause for something that has happened. So let’s weight the options on the table and see if we can come up with an explanation that explains the data at hand:

#1: Religious Syncretism

While there were various Jewish sects during the time of Jesus, religious syncretism is a form of idolatry. First, the Jewish Scriptures forbids worshiping anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9). Following the exile and subsequent intertestamental struggles, it can asked whether Jews still fell prey to physical idolatry. Some skeptics assert that since Israel always had problems with idolatry in their early formation, it would not be a challenge to assert they could fall into idolatry again by worshiping one of their own countrymen as God. But this is problematic; To assert that Israel’s previous problems with idolatry which would lead to further into idolatry in the Second Temple period leads me to cry “anachronism.” Remember, idolatry is rarely mentioned in the Gospels. But there are warnings about idolatry in other portions of the New Testament( 1 Cor. 6:9-10 ; Gal 5:20 ; Eph. 5:5 ; Col 3:5 ; 1 Peter 4:3 ; Rev 21:8). Paul instructs believers not to associate with idolaters ( 1 Cor .5:11 ; 10:14 ) and even commends the Thessalonian for their turning from the service of idols “to serve the living and true God” ( 1 Thess1:9) (see Walter A. Elwell’s Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, pgs 364-365). So I guess my question is the following: Why would Paul or the early disciples commit an idolatrous act (by saying Jesus is divine) and but then later speak against idolatry? It seems rather inconsistent.

#2 Hellenism or Polytheism?

The syncretism objection is related to the Hellenism/Polytheism possibility. The first followers of Jesus were exclusively Jews. The book of Acts gives a reference to the early followers of Jesus as “the sect of Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). However, it is asserted that as the Christian faith spread, it became a predominately Gentile based religion. By the time of Jesus, Jews had encountered the impact of Hellenistic culture for three hundred years. The word “Hellenistic” was given to describe the period of history that started with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. and ended when Rome conquered Alexander’s empire in 30 B.C .It is also safe to say that several forms of Jewish culture during the Roman period were somewhat Hellenized. This is why it is often argued that the incarnation grew out of Hellenistic presuppositions. But as Paul Eddy points out in his article Was Christianity Corrupted by Hellenism? from the middle of the third century BC, while Jewish Palestine had already experienced the effects of Hellenism we need to remember that Hellenism did not tend to infiltrate and ‘corrupt’ the local religious traditions of the ancient world. Rather, people maintained their religious traditions in spite of Hellenistic influence in other areas of their lives. Also, there are also references to the negative views of gentile polytheism (Acts 17: 22-23; 1 Cor 8:5). Gentiles were regarded as both sinful (Gal 2:5) and idolatrous (Rom 1:23).

#3: The Deity of Jesus is Legend?

As I already said, the earliest documents for the Christology of Jesus are Paul’s Letters. In them, we have one of the earliest confessions of the deity of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 8: 5-6:

“For though there are things that are called gods, whether in the heavens or on earth; as there are many gods and many lords; yet to us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we live through him.”

Here is a distinct echo of the Shema, a creed that every Jew would have memorized from a very early age. When we read Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which says, “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is our God, the Lord is one,” Paul ends up doing something extremely significant in the history of Judaism.

A glance at the entire context of the passage in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 shows that according to Paul’s inspired understanding, Jesus receives the “name above all names,” the name God revealed as his own, the name of the Lord. In giving a reformulation of the Shema, Paul still affirms the existence of the one God, but what is unique is that somehow this one God now includes the one Lord, Jesus the Messiah. Therefore, Paul’s understanding of this passage begets no indication of abandoning Jewish monotheism in place of paganism.

For a Jewish person, when the title “Lord” (Heb. Adonai) was used in place of the divine name YHWH, this was the highest designation a Jewish person could use for deity. Furthermore, it would have been no problem to confess Jesus as prophet, priest, or king since these offices already existed in the Hebrew Bible. After all, these titles were used for a human being. There was nothing divine about them.

#4: The Christology of Jesus can be explained by the disciples experience with Jesus before the resurrection and the post-resurrection appearances

I have already pointed out that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for many historical issues within the New Testament.. So at this point, I would have to assume that skeptics can only say that the birth of Christology is simply false because of their metaphysical starting points (e.g., Jesus can’t be divine because the natural world is all there is, etc).

For those that are still hung up on the reliability of the New Testament, see our resource page.

Sources: 1. 1. Paul Barnett, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2005), 8.

2.  David Berger, The Rebbe, The Messiah And The Scandal Of Orthodox Difference, 160-174.

3. Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Books, 2007), 132.