Christian Colligation of Apologetics Debate Research & Evangelism
Jesus's Divinity Within Jewish Monotheism
By Christopher Price
This piece offers a defense of the view the early Christians believed Jesus to be divine. And not just divine in a generic sense. The Greeks believed that a number of individuals were "divine," including half-humans like Hercules. But first-century Jews believed that only one entity was Divine: God. While angels and demons were spiritual, they were in no sense divine. God was God. There was no other. Accordingly, it is my contention that the early Christians thought Jesus was divine in the Jewish sense of being God, or at least a manifestation of God.
The Jews described their one God in different ways. For the purposes of this piece, I'll place them in two categories: 1) titles; and 2) attributes. Most discussions of Christology--the study of the nature of Christ--focus only on the first--titles. While I believe it is clear from many different New Testament scriptures that the early Christians used Titles to describe Jesus as God, they also clearly believed Jesus was God as evidenced by assigning attributes to Him which were clearly reserved to God. Moreover, they did so in a distinctly Jewish way that at the same time abided by the monotheistic tradition of first century Judaism.
Jesus Clearly Given Title of God
I begin by focusing on those verses by which early Christians clearly call Jesus by the title of God. Bear in mind that there may be some overlap in my use of scriptures in the different sections. This is not an exhaustive list, but I intended it to contain the most straight-forward of the scriptures expressly identifying Jesus as God.
Jesus Clearly Ascribed the Attributes of God
The second way that the early Christians indicated their belief that Jesus was God is in their assignment to him of attributes distinctly reserved for God. Moreover, they did so in a distinctly Jewish manner, preserving their monotheism. To begin with, it is necessary to discuss those attributes that first century Jews uniquely assigned to God:
A. Three Unique Attributes of God
(Isah. 40:26, 28; 37:16; 42:5; 45:12; Neh. 9:6; Psalm 86:10; Hos. 13:4; 2 Macc. 1:24; Sir. 43:33; Bel 5; Jub. 12:3-5; Sib. Or. 3:20-35). God was the only agent of Creation. "I alone stretched out the heavens [and] ... by myself spread out the earth." Isah. 44:24. There was no helper, assistant, servant, etc. that assisted God in any manner in creating the universe. Ibid.; 2 Enoch. 33:4; Josephus C. Ap. 2.192.
2. God is the Sole Ruler of all things
(Dan. 4:34-35; Bel. 5; 3 Macc. 2:2-3; 6:2; Wis. 12:13; 1 Enoch 9:5; 84:3; 2 Enoch 33:7; Antiquities 1:155-156). God is like the greatest Emperor, sovereign over all of His creation. While he has vast numbers of servants, they are invariably portrayed as only carrying out His will. No one shares governing responsibilities with Him. (Dan. 7:10; Tob. 12:15; 1 Enoch 14:22; 39:12; 2 Enoch 21:1. God is above all.
God alone created all things; all other things, including beings worshiped as gods by Gentiles, are subject to him. These ways of distinguishing God as unique formed a very easily intelligible way of defining the uniqueness of the God they worshiped that every Jews in every synagogue in the late Second Temple period would certainly have known.Richard Bauckham, God Crucified, page11.
3. God is the only being deserving of worship
This flowed from the first two. Because God is the sole Creator and Ruler of all things He alone should be worshiped. This fact was well-known in the Roman Empire. Jews worshiped God alone. No other entity--not even the Emperor--was worthy of worship. They were so serious about it that they were likely to go to war or riot if they believed their vastly superior Roman overlords were inclined to force them to dilute this principle.
B. Early Christian References to Jesus' Possession of God's Unique Attributes
Now that we have discussed three distinct attributes of God, we will see how the early Christians--even prior to the New Testament writings--assigned these same attributes to God. They did so in distinctly Jewish language and while maintaining a belief in Jewish monotheism.
1. Jesus participates in God's sole rule over all things
Important to this point is the Christian use of the Old Testament. In particular, it is the Christian use of Psalm 110:1 that reveals the Christian belief that Jesus participated in God's exclusive rule. The importance of this verse to early Christians is the fact that it is the Old Testament verse most often alluded to in the New Testament. It reads: "The Lord says to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'" It's "twin", which early Christians sometimes combined 110:1, is Psalm 8:6: "You make him to rule over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet."
While it is certainly true that these verses may be open to interpretations other than that the person being talked about was given a place in God's sovereign rule over all things, the point is not how some people might have interpreted these scriptures, but how the early Christians used them. For we are seeking to understand how the Christians were using Jewish imagery and thought to express the divine nature of Jesus. Significantly, the early Christians were about the only ones who were focusing on this scripture during the Second Temple age. Second Temple Jewish literature contains almost no allusions to it. In other words, only Christians used this in any sense as a messianic scripture.
It is clear that when the early Christians used these verses and stated that Jesus had authority over "all things," they were assigning Jesus the attribute normally reserved to God: the sole Ruler of the universe. Listed here are a few of the extant examples in the New Testament:
a. Matthew 11:27: "All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him." (See also Luke 10:22)
b. 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."
c. Rev. 3:14: "Write this letter to the angel of the church in Laodicea. This is the message from the one who is the Amen the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation"
d. Eph. 1:21-22: "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 high authority and exaltation, above every one of God's created beings.
e. Matthew 28:18-20: "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
Such language as "far above all rule and authority" and over "every name" and "all things" being subject to Him is Jewish language describing God's authority.
The spatial relationship between Jesus on the divine throne and the angelic powers is precisely how Jewish pictures of the heavenly realms portrayed the relationship between the divine throne and the angelic powers subject to God. The point is that Jesus now shares God's own exaltation and sovereignty over every angelic power.
Bauckham, op. cit., page 33.
e. Hebrews 1:1-4: "God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they."
This is perhaps the most important scripture demonstrating Jesus' participation in God's sole rule over all things. Because this scripture shows Jesus both as Ruler and Creator of all things--and as an object of worship, I'll focus on the first attribute here. Jesus is the "heir of all things," the "radiance" of God's glory," and the "exact representation" of His nature who upholds "all things."
2. Jesus as the Creator of all things
Jesus is clearly thought by the early Christians to have been the creator of the universe. This attribute is reserved only to God in Second Temple Judaism. The early Christians nevertheless are clear that Jesus created all things. Let us look at the relevant scriptures, beginning with the one we just left off with:
a. Hebrews 1:2: "[I]n these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world."
b. John 1:1-3: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made."
c. 1 Cor. 8:6: "[Y]et for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live."
d. 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."
As with the Philippians passage discussed below, most scholars believe this passage is a prePauline hymn of worship to Jesus.
e. Hebrews 1:10: "He also says, "'In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.'"
3. Jesus as worthy of worship
As discussed above, only God was worthy of worship in Second Temple Judaism. Nevertheless, the early Christians worshiped Jesus.
a. Hebrews 1:6: "And when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says, 'and let all the angels of God worship Him.'"
Not only is Jesus worthy of worship, but He is worthy of worship by the angels, who are higher than man in the order of the universe.
b. 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."
At the name of Jesus "ever knee should bow, in heaven and on earth" is the worship of Jesus. Here again, we have Jesus having the "name that is above every name"--a clear reference to Yahweh. Additionally, the existence of Philippians 2:6-11 itself is evidence of worship. Most scholars believe it was a hymn of worship to Jesus that predates Paul's ministry. Finally, we have Jesus as the 'form of God' and having 'equality' with God, which are clearly claims of Jesus' divinity."
c. Revelation 5:
This entire chapter is a vivid portrayal of every creature on earth and in heaven worshiping Jesus. It ends with this sentence,
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!"
d. Matthew 28:16-17: "Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him. . . ."
The early Christians were quite emphatic from the first that they were monotheists in the same sense the Jews were. But at point after point, not least in what are probably the earliest strata of the New Testament, we find that when the Christians are worshiping this one true god, the creator, they are doing so with reference also to Jesus. This, of course, brought about all sorts of headaches for the later Father, who struggled to provide a rationalization for the practice, but the practice itself, rather than the (sometimes tortuous) theological explanations, shows every sign of being a centra feature of Christianity from the beginning.
N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, page 362.
The Jewish Monotheistic Nature of Jesus' Divinity
The extraordinary thing about the early Christian belief that Jesus was God is that they articulated it within a framework that preserved Judaism's monotheistic character. Later this doctrine--along with consideration of the Holy Spirit--would be articulated as the doctrine of the Trinity. But the early Christians did not have access to the later, more Greek influence language used to articulate the Trinity, so they used language inherent to the Judaism from which they arose. I have already discussed the uniquely Jewish monotheistic way in which the early Christians described Jesus as possessing the unique attributes of God. Moreover, I've discussed the use of the Jewish "I AM" language and of Jesus having the "name above all names." But there is more. And that more helps us explain how the early Christians could describe Jesus as Divine, while remaining good monotheists.
A. First-Century Jewish Monotheism
Crucial to this part of the discussion is an understanding of the nature of first century Judaism's monotheism. It is frequently thought--and argued--that Judaism monotheism has no place for a God that reveals Himself in different manifestations. This is incorrect. The reality of the situation within first century Judaism is actually just the opposite.
Jewish monotheism in this period was not an inner analysis of the being of the one true God. It was not an attempt at describing numerically what this God is, so to speak, on the inside. Instead it made two claims, both of them polemical in their historical context. One the one hand, Jewish monotheism asserted that the one God, the God of Israel, was the only God of the whole world; that therefore the pagan gods were blasphemous nonsense. . . and that the true God would one day decisively defeat these pagan gods....
N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, page 63.
Within the most fiercely monotheistic of Jewish circles our period--from the Maccabaean revolt to Bar-Kochba--there is no suggestion that 'monotheism', or praying the Shema, had anything to do with the numerical analysis of the inner being of Israel's god himself. It had everything to do with the two pronged fight against paganism and dualism. Indeed, we find strong evidence during this period of Jewish groups and individuals who, speculating on the meaning of some difficult passages of scripture (Daniel 7, for example, or Genesis 1), suggested that the divine being might encompass a plurality.
Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, page 259.
Within this Jewish monotheism, there was actually variety and flexibility in describing the manifestations of God in the world. While God was transcendent, he chose to intervene in the world through manifestations that N.T. Wright describes as "five-language sets,": "Wisdom, Torah, Spirit, Word, and Shekinah." What Saint Paul Really Said, page 64. Of the five, Wisdom and Word are the most relevant to our discussion. As explained by Richard Bauckham, the Word and/or Wisdom "represent Jewish ways of making some form of distinction within the unique divine identity, especially with reference to the work of creation." Bauckham, op. cit., page 40. There is evidence from such Jewish literature as 2 Enoch which states that God had no advisor in the creation of he World, but that "His Wisdom" was His advisor. 33:5. Similarly, 1 Enoch is clear that God alone rules the universe, but depicts his Wisdom as participating in the exercise of His sovereignty. 84:2-3. Summarized, Wisdom and Word are not separate entities from God, they ARE God. "In a variety of ways they express God, his mind and his will, in relation to the world. They are not created beings, but nor are they semi-divine entities occupying some ambiguous status between the one God and the rest of reality. They belong to the unique divine identity." Bauckham, op. cit., page 21.
Later Jewish explanations of the nature of God's monotheism should not prejudice our examination. The fact is that Jewish monotheism became more "strict" (for lack of a better word) after Christianity had begun to develop. "It was only with the rise of Christianity, and arguably under the influence both of polemical constraining and Hellenizing philosophy, that Jews in the second and subsequent centuries reinterpreted 'monotheism' as 'the numerical oneness of the divine being.'" Wright, NTPG, page 259.
B. Early Christianity and Jewish Monotheism
1. Jesus as the Wisdom of God
The discussion of the different manifestations of God in Second Temple Judaism is, of course, highly relevant to analyzing the Christian perspective on the nature of Jesus. Early Christians did not just consider Him to be a new god, or a sub-god, but believed that Jesus belonged to the "unique divine identity." Indeed, many early Christianity viewed Jesus as Wisdom/Word of God incarnated in the flesh. There are numerous verses illustrating this. The first is the most famous: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." John 1:1. While in less informed times some scholars argued that this was typically Greek thought, the discovery of Dead Sea Scrolls and advancements in our understanding of first century Judaism have discredited this idea. John 1:1 is an example of the thoroughly Jewish idea of the Word (and Wisdom) as a pre-existent part of God's unique monotheistic identity. To Christians, however, that Word/Wisdom had become incarnate in Jesus Christ. Further Christian scripture indicating that Jesus was the Word/Wisdom of God incarnate are Matthew 12:42/Luke 11:31 and Matt. 8:20/Luke 9:58 (compare to 1 En. 42.2 and Eccles. 24:6-22--Wisdom has "no dwelling place"); and the above discussed Christian belief in the preexistence of Jesus and His involvement in creation. An excellent discussion of this understanding is contained in Ben Witherington's Jesus the Sage and The Christology of Jesus.
2. The Shema
The early Christians explicitly proclaimed Jesus' divinity while explicitly proclaiming their monotheism. The key verses demonstrating this are Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and 1 Corinthians 8:6.
Deuteronomy 6:4-5 was the key Hebrew Bible passage demonstrating Second Temple Judaism's monotheism. It was the core of their religion. It reads:
"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."
Known as the Shema, it was the "basic Jewish confession of faith." Wright, WSPRS, page 66. It was recited three times a day by practicing Jews during Jesus' and Paul's times. It was a rejection of all that paganism stood for with its many gods, and a basic reaffirmation of Jewish monotheism. However, as we can see in Paul's letters, the early Christians took this basic Jewish affirmation of monotheism, and inserts Jesus into it by explicit reference to Deut. 6:4-5, the Shema.
The relevant passage is 1 Corinthians 8:6. It reads:
"yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live."
There is One God--through whom all things came.
There is one Lord, Jesus Christ--through whom all things came.
Paul is making an explicit statement that Jesus is God, while making an explicit statement that Christians still believe only in One God. Christianity did not add a new God to Jewish Monotheism, but recognized Jesus as a manifestation of the One God's unique identity. "Paul has in fact reproduced all the words of the statement about YHWH in the Shema..., but Paul has rearranged the words in such a way as to produce an affirmation of both one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. It should be quite clear that Paul is including the Lord Jesus Christ in the unique divine identity." Bauckham, op. cit., page 38. As stated by Wright, "Paul has redefined the very meaning of the words that Jews used, every day in their regular prayers, to denote the one true God... he has quoted the most central and holy confession of that monotheism and has placed Jesus firmly in the middle of it." Wright, WSPRS, page 66-67.
In sum, from its earliest conception, the young movement's Christology appears to have been the highest possible. Articulated in very Jewish terms--and consistent with Second Temple Judaism's monotheistic ideas--early Christianity clearly believed that Jesus was God.
Bauckham, Richard God Crucified Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1999
Witherington, Ben Jesus the Sage Fortress Press, 2000
Witherington, Ben The Christology of Jesus Fortress Press, 1997
Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997
Wright, N.T. What Saint Paul Really Said Fortress Press, 1996
©2003 Christopher Price
Questions or comments concerning this article or the use of this article should be directed to Christopher Price.