How ‘Strict’ Was First Century Jewish Monotheism?

Bauckham2In 2008, Paternoster published a collection of essays entitled Jesus and the God of Israel: ‘God Crucified’ and other studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity. In that collection, Richard Bauckham – the former Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews, Scotland – addresses the question of how early Jewish converts to Christianity came to view Jesus as divine and how this practice was understood within the context of their monotheism. But before defending his own view, Bauckham rejects two common responses to that question.

The first response says that Second Temple Judaism was ‘strictly’ monotheistic and left no room for multiplicity within the category of what Jews considered divine; therefore, worship of Jesus must have been a later accommodation to Greek polytheism. However, this view runs up against the mountain of scholarly evidence that Christology was very high and very early in the life of the Church.

Richard Bauckham argues that the early Christians saw Jesus Christ as fulfilling the divine role of Creator and Sovereign
Richard Bauckham argues that 1st Century Jewish Monotheism was subtle enough to allow for ‘diversity’ within God’s identity.

The second response claims that Jewish monotheism in the 2nd Temple Period was ‘non-strict’ because there were traditions that spoke of mediatory figures (such as angels or exalted human beings) having a semi-divine status. Those traditions suggest that Jewish monotheism was sufficiently complex to allow for the worship of an exalted human intermediary – in this case, the Jesus whom early Christians believed was resurrected from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God the Father.

To counter this second response, Bauckham argues that the scholarly foray into semi-divine subordinate intermediaries is an explanatory dead-end. Jewish monotheism was strict enough to prohibit the worship of any being other than the one true God, who alone was the Creator and Sovereign over all other things.

However, Bauckham maintains that Jewish monotheism was subtle enough to allow for ‘diversity’ within the ‘divine identity’. It isn’t exactly clear what notion of ‘identity’ Bauckham is working with because the two pages he offers as explanation are not very illuminating (see ‘God Crucified’, pp.6-7). But he does argue that there is Jewish precedent for making important distinctions within God Himself.

For example, some Jewish traditions portray the divine “Word” and “Wisdom” as participating in (and even advising!) God’s creation of the world and his sovereign rule over it. In these traditions, the divine Word and Wisdom were understood as distinct aspects of God’s identity, yet not so distinct as to be viewed as separate agents acting on God’s behalf. Indeed, for Second Temple Jews, the acts of creating and sovereignly ruling the cosmos were the very markers that identified YHWH as God Himself. Thus, “the meaning is clearly that God had no one else to advise him. His wisdom, who is not someone else but intrinsic to his own identity, advised him” (p.17).

Bauckham’s conclusion is that soon after the resurrection, Jewish Christians came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the human embodiment of God’s word and wisdom. They also saw Jesus Christ as fulfilling the divine roles of Creator and Sovereign, ascribing to him an exalted status above all powers and even giving him the divine name YHWH (p.24-25). This role goes far beyond the status ascribed to divine-human figures in the literature of Second Temple Judaism – though perhaps with the exception of the Book of Enoch where a son of man figure is seated on the divine thrown at the future judgement, and worshiped (p.15).[1] 

Given the exceptional nature of devotion to Jesus after his supposed resurrection and the exalted claims made about him, Bauckham concludes that the early Christians’ view of Jesus was unprecedented in the history of Jewish thought – thinkable, but unprecedented.

Needless to say, the early Christians were not concerned (as the later Patristics were) with the problem of how two distinct natures – one human and another divine – could be united in the person of Jesus Christ. Neither did they subscribe to a merely functional view of the Jesus’ divinity, saying that he acted as God by fulfilling the roles of Creator, Sustainer, Sovereign, etc., as if these roles could have been delegated to someone else (p.30-31). Bauckham’s point is, firstly, that only YHWH can execute these roles, and secondly, that they identify not simply what he does, but who he is as God. If these two points are correct, then we cannot (as some theologians do) separate the study of Christology into metaphysical categories that distinguish between God’s nature and his actions, as if Jesus was divine only in the sense that he acted as God. Indeed, such a distinction was foreign to the early Christians’ understanding of God’s identity.[2]

[1] For other possible exceptions where exalted human figures share God’s throne, see N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus, pp. 99-106.

[2] In my estimation, N.T. Wright’s view in The Challenge of Jesus (1999) favours a more functional interpretation of Christ’s divinity, whereas for Richard Bauckham, the functional and the ontic cannot be separated.

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