Some historians rule out the possibility that Jesus could be (or claimed to be) divine on the grounds that this idea is nonsensical and inconsistent with the Jesus’ monotheistic beliefs. They therefore argue that any such claims to divinity in the Gospel accounts must have been later inventions of the early church which got imposed onto the narratives about Jesus long after the fact. This scholarly tendency brings up important questions about what the term “God” actually meant to 1st Century Jews and how Jesus’ divinity could have been understood within that context. N.T. Wright addresses these questions in the chapter “Jesus & God” in his book The Challenge of Jesus (1999), from which I will be drawing heavily.
Wright argues that the term “God” in first-century Judaism should not be confused with the remote god of Deism, with polytheism, or with some mystical notion of “the sacred” that permeates all things. Rather, the Jews believed in monotheism and election. They affirmed the reality of one God who created all things and who acts in the world, but they also believed that this God chose the nation of Israel to be the vehicle through which the world would be healed (p.101-2). Monotheism and election are the twin pillars for the entire Jewish story – starting with creation and then moving to the call of Abraham, the exodus, monarchy, exile, and finally to the promise of restoration. Wright claims that these twin pillars are the foundation for five themes that hold Israel’s narrative together: God’s presence, law, Spirit, Word and Wisdom.
Wright also maintains that Jews in the Second Temple period had two important expectations that shaped the direction of their story as a people: “First, there was the expectation of the return of YHWH to Zion after his abandonment of Jerusalem at the time of the exile. Second, there was the tradition of the enthronement of YHWH and of one who somehow shared that throne” (p.103). These expectations are envisioned in a variety of ways in post-exilic literature. Some Jews thought of it in terms of a chosen agent through whom God would act, an agent who would be “vindicated, exalted and honoured in quite an unprecedented manner.” Other writings speculate about a human-mediator or angel sharing the throne of YHWH, or even of there being a “plurality of powers in heaven” (p.105). These speculations were the milieu in which the Jews understood God’s promise to return and be triumphant over Israel’s enemies.
What conclusions can we draw from this? We should be cautious not to latch onto any one of these speculations as the true or dominant one, but they do reveal that Jewish monotheism in the 1st-Century wasn’t as “strict” as some historians previously thought. It allowed for the possibility of an earthly mediator or agent who shares in the YHWH’s divine action and enthronement. The picture that emerges is a complex and multifaceted monotheism which allowed enough interpretive space for Jewish Christians to begin thinking of Jesus as divine – and as the co-recipient of worship to God the Father. In my next post, I will provide more details about how Jesus’ divinity was understood within this 1st Century context.
 See N.T. Wright’s book, The Challenge of Jesus (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1999), pp.96-125.
 Wright gives some helpful examples of early, high Christology in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Also see Richard Bauckham’s case against the view that belief in Christ’s divinity was the result of borrowing from Greco-Roman polytheistic religion. Also see, Lord Jesus Christ (2005) by Larry Hurtado.