How Could Jewish Monotheists Think Jesus Was Divine?

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.[1]

Chapter 5 of Wright's Book is entitled "Jesus & God"
Chapter 5 of Wright’s book is entitled “Jesus & God”

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.[2] In my next post, I will provide more details about how Jesus’ divinity was understood within this 1st Century context.

[1] See N.T. Wright’s book, The Challenge of Jesus (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1999), pp.96-125.

[2] 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.

8 thoughts on “How Could Jewish Monotheists Think Jesus Was Divine?”

  1. Both Larry Hurtaodo’s work detailing the importance of Jesus’ exaltation and Michael Heiser’s work on the Jewish concept of the Divine Council and the reality of a Co-Regent (Angel of the Lord/Divine Warrior/Wisdom) of that council add much to this topic as well.

  2. Any contemporary investigation of primitive Hebrew monotheism is hobbled, it seems to me, by pervasive anachronism. Speaking of ancient Hebrew “monotheism” is itself slightly anachronistic, as if the Hebrews were cognizant that they adhered to a radical new conception of the divine – unique to human history – that would one day become the dominant religious outlook of mankind known as the “Abrahamic Tradition”. They could not possibly have had any such prescience. The fact of the matter is that the modern concept of “monotheism” is precisely that – a composite result of considerable historical development from an eclectic stew of influences. People tend to look back at primitive Hebrew monotheism through the lens of all of the theological wrangling in the histories of Judaism, Christianity and Islam over this concept, which correspondingly twists the image.

    Today, Jews and Muslims are particularly eager to superimpose what I will call an “enumerative obsession” onto the psyches of the ancient Hebrews – one that mimics their own modern, reactionary abhorrence of Christian Trinitarianism – in regards to this issue. In other words, they try to make it out that the primitive Hebrews were making some definitive, metaphysical statement about the nature of God’s being when they stated the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), when I do not believe there is any convincing evidence in the biblical primary sources to substantiate this tendentious conclusion.

    The salient point in the Torah’s emphasis on the “oneness” of God, especially in the Pentateuch, is God’s uniqueness, preeminence and omnipotence above all other gods, not an idee fixe over the essentially monadic nature of the divine Being. A perusal of the earliest books of the Torah will confirm this. Notice that the Old Testament does not so much as deny the existence of other gods as it does stress their inferiority to YHWH. The plagues of Egypt were designed, not so much as to dispute the existence of the Egyptian gods as to humiliate them by demonstrating the God of Israel’s omnipotence over their putative dominions (the Sun, the Nile, etc.). Thus, Moses writes:

    “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them.” (Exodus 18:11)

    “Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” (Exodus 15:11)

    “And in all things that I have said unto you be circumspect: and make no mention of the name of other gods, neither let it be heard out of thy mouth.” (Exodus 23:13)

    The emphasis here is on the Lord’s uniqueness. He is the “only” God in the sense that he is the only one with which Israel has to do. Even the First Commandment is a restriction to keep God’s relationship with Israel an exclusive one, that they are to have “no other gods before me”.

    Of course, in the passage of time, it became progressively revealed that God was not only the preeminent God, but in fact the only God, as the gods of men’s design were merely figments. So by Isaiah’s ministry, YHWH states:

    “Fear ye not, neither be afraid: have not I told thee from that time, and have declared it? ye are even my witnesses. Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no God; I know not any.” (Isaiah 44:8)

    However, even here, the emphasis is on God’s uniqueness – that He alone is truly God, to the exclusion of all other contenders. It is not a metaphysical statement about the nature of God’s Being or how ‘solitary’ He is. Isaiah does not betray any kind of enumerative obsessive compulsion over the number “1”, as if it is somehow mystically holy in and of itself.

    Apparently, guarding God’s uniqueness did not prohibit Second Temple Jews from speculating about “multiple powers,” which you make mention of, or about the personality of the Logos, or conceptualize a shared throne, or other such concepts – notions that seem inconceivable coming from modern-day Judaism or Islam.

    And this is the problem. Because they are fundamentally reactionary religious movements responding to Christian revelation, Rabbinical Judaism and Islam have retrospectively ascribed anachronistic beliefs to primitive Hebrew “monotheists” in making them out to be unitarians-in-the-making before ideas even existed that would make unitarianism historically-exigent in the first place.

    The “monotheistic” Isaiah recorded YHWH:

    “Thus saith the Lord, thy redeemer, and he that formed thee from the womb, I am the Lord that maketh all things; that stretcheth forth the heavens alone; that spreadeth abroad the earth by myself” (Isaiah 44:24)

    But evidently, the equally radically “monotheistic” Paul did not seems to feel conflicted that even though God created the earth “alone” and by “himself”, Jesus was also a participant:

    “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him” (Colossians 1:16)

    That’s just my two cents, for what they’re worth.

    1. Hi Justin,
      I think anachronism is unavoidable in historical investigation. The present-time perspective of the historian will always influence (to some degree) how past words and contexts are understood.

      However, some of the historian’s understandings can be more or less anachronistic than others, and in the case of the word “monotheism”, scholars often do (as you mention) import the later developments of that concept (no doubt forged by reactions against Trinitarian) back into the ancient Hebrew mindset.

      I agree that the early Hebrews were probably henotheists in affirming the superiority and supremacy of YHWH in relation to others gods, and that later reflection eventually questioned the very existence of YHWH’s supposed rivals. But I think more needs to be said about what is implied by YHWH’s uniqueness. As you are probably aware, Richard Bauckham sees the divine identity of Israel’s God in terms of His unique status as good, creator, and sovereign. This unique status is affirmed and reinforced by the Jewish belief that YHWH alone is worthy of worship.

      You will be pleased to discover that I have now started Hurtado’s book Lord Jesus Christ (2003) which relates to this discussion. If devotion to Jesus as ‘Kyrios’ emerged very quickly within the ranks of his early Jewish followers, then either an unprecedented syncretism of pagan religion took place, or they did not believe that their concept of God precluded diversity with the divine identity, which (of course) would have prohibited devotion to Jesus as co-recipient of divine worship. Thanks for the book recommendation.

      1. Point well taken re the ineluctability of anachronism in historical investigation. I concur.

        If you are interested in probing more deeply into the issue of primitive Jewish monotheism and messianic expectation, after you are through with Hurtado’s book, I highly recommend that you turn to “The Pre-existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, And Luke” (2006) by the British Baptist scholar, Simon J. Gathercole. There is something of an academic cliche in biblical studies that says that only the Johannine biblical literature really conveys a notion of Jesus’ pre-existence. Gathercole takes this idea to task by explicating some of the ‘pre-existence’ messianic nuances in much of the Synoptic Gospel language that would have resonated with apocalyptic Jewish expectations as they can be deduced from an examination of contemporary non-canonical literature, especially the scrolls of the Qumran sect.

        I have a copy of this book on my shelf in Guelph; if you’d like it, it would be my pleasure to loan it to you.

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