by Dwight A. Pryor 1
The restoration of the Jewish homeland, Israel, and the reconnection of the Church to its Jewish roots are not unrelated phenomena. Many sectors of the Body Of Messiah today are being stimulated and enriched by the “nourishing sap” of Israel’s faith, scriptures and scholarship. We are discovering that there is scarcely a single NT subject that cannot be amplified, deepened, or balanced by a Hebraic perspective. As disciples of Yeshua, we are deeply indebted to Israel.
At the root of this renewal of the Church stands a Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth – Rav Yeshua. This itinerant first-century teacher with a keen sense of “high self-awareness” 2 surely is the cornerstone of the living temple God continues to build in our time. It is imperative and in every way advantageous therefore that we understand Yeshua – his person and his work, his mission and his message – in the full frame of his original Jewish matrix.
So compelling is his full humanity when seen in its Jewish setting that some people, in their explorations of their Jewish roots, have come to question the divinity of Jesus as the Son of God. Some even have dismissed this central Christian claim on the grounds that it is Hellenistic and not authentically Hebraic. They charge that a Greco-Roman accretion was added to the authentic Jewish faith Jesus passed on to his apostles and disciples. Is this true? In a twenty-year journey as part of what I would call the Hebraic Renewal community, I too have wrestled with this most pivotal of claims: that Yeshua was fully man and yet fully God-in-man reconciling the world to himself. In other words, that the NT claim of the One God as Father-Son-Holy Spirit does not violate (but amplifies) the central tenet of the Hebrew Scriptures and the core of Judaism’s ethical monotheism – the Shema of Deuteronomy 6.4.
Whatever our views regarding the status of Jesus as the Son of God, we all can agree that “the LORD is one (echad)”3 must be the starting point in our confession of faith, as well as the anchor to which we always return. It is clear is that Jesus,4 Paul,5 and the early Jewish church operated fully within the exclusive monotheism of Second Temple Judaism. It is equally clear, in the light of the sources available to us today, that a well-worn assumption entrenched since at least the 19th century must be jettisoned. It is almost axiomatic in Jewish and liberal Christian scholarship that the ‘god-man’ view of Jesus came into the church much later, under the corrupting influences of Hellenism. A common corollary is that this high Christology came in through the Hellenized Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus. In other words, the apostle Paul, not Jesus, was the founder of Christianity as we know it.
To the contrary, the NT letters provide impressive evidence that the earliest (Jewish) church had the highest Christology. It is not decades or centuries later that these high views of the Messiah and the unity of Father-Son infiltrate the Church; they are voiced, in classic Jewish expression, at the earliest stratum of Church worship. The exalted view of Jesus as the Son of God, therefore, was an understanding and a tradition that the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, drew upon, not created.
When the first believers in Yeshua assembled as the church, their worship typically included “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”6 Many of these hymn-like compositions and creedal-like confessions are preserved within the Pauline corpus and have been identified by textual scholars. Philippians 2.5-11 is perhaps the best-known example.7 Many of these date to the first two decades after the resurrection of Jesus, and they tell us much about the mindset of the first church regarding the divinity of Jesus.
While fully affirming the echad of the Shema, the first-generation Jewish believers unequivocally experience and venerate the risen Lord Jesus as the Son of God. Almost programmatically they unite him in their worship of Y/H/W/H, as inseparable from God and in unprecedented ways, as identified with him. In hymns they celebrate the work and person of Messiah; in prayers they address the Lord Jesus directly; they “call upon” the name of Yeshua as well as Y/H/W/H, including being baptized into his name; they “confess” that “Jesus is Lord”; and commemorate a covenant meal in his honor.8 These liturgical acts all go beyond the bounds of anything previously witnessed in Israel’s worship.
How do they explain theologically this devotion to a man and their veneration of him with the One God? They don’t – to the frustration of our western minds! These believers expressed their monotheism in the same manner Israel had done from the beginning – in their worship. Not abstractly with theological speculations, but with actions demonstrating loyalty, veneration and service. Not so much with propositional truths as with liturgical exclamations. For them the relationship of Jesus and God focused more on identity than divinity, and the truth was framed in textual associations more than theological affirmations.
For example, scriptures that apply to Y/H/W/H are now, in the light of the resurrection, applied to the Lord Jesus. The exclusive prerogatives of Adonai, such as creation and kingship, are now extended to Jesus – not as some external, albeit divine agent, but as someone within the very identity and oneness of God himself. This is a crucial point. This veneration of Yeshua with and connected to Y/H/W/H is impermissible unless he in some way is within the echad of God. Otherwise such attributions of scriptures, functions, authority, power, and identity to Jesus that apply exclusively to the God of Israel would violate the Shema’s monotheism.
If in any way Jesus as the Son is outside the sphere of God’s echad – whether as a godly man ‘adopted’ by God and elevated to the highest place; or as a supernatural, ‘divine agent’, maybe even the first-born of all creation, come down from heaven as a man – in either case Yeshua the Son remains outside the echad of God and compromises his uniqueness, exclusiveness and indivisible unity. Quite simply, within a Jewish frame of reference, the risen Lord Jesus can be worshipped with HASHEM only if in some ontological sense he operates within the oneness of God, i.e., is divine. Y/H/W/H shares his glory with no one; worship/service is reserved exclusively for him alone.
Only in this light can we fully appreciate – and account for – the first church co-opting one of the strongest statements of exclusive monotheism in all the Tanakh, Isaiah 45.23, and applying it verbatim (from the LXX) to Jesus in Philippians 2.10-11, an early hymn of exaltation. But note the concluding words, which are typically Jewish in their tension yet balance: “Jesus the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Perhaps the most direct and dramatic illustration of the early church’s amplified monotheism is to be found in 1 Corinthians 8.4-6. First, Paul affirms the classic Jewish view by referencing the Shema: “We know that there is no God but one.” Then he enlarges that foundational truth by declaring, “Yet for us, there is but one God, the Father … and one Lord, Jesus the Messiah …” Here, the apostle takes the three key words from the Septuagintal rendering of Deuteronomy 6.4 – God (Theos), Lord (Kyrios), and One (Eis) – and applies “God” to the Father, “Lord” to the Son, and “One” to both! This NT magnification of the Shema is possible within the multiple dimensions of ehad, but permitted only if the Yeshua is within the sphere of Y/H/W/H’s unity-in-plurality.
When it comes to the ach’dut or unity of the echad of God, we stand at the foothills of a mountain range of revelation. We can never ‘explain’ the inner reality of God’s essence, anymore than the infinite can be circumscribed within the finite. We can try, however, to ‘define’ it as rationally and faithfully as the witness of Scripture permits. A discerning study of the Church Fathers will be helpful in this regard.9 Attempts by some within the Jewish roots movement to reformulate the unity of the Godhead in less ‘Hellenistic’ and more ‘Hebraic’ categories can be problematic.10 Unwittingly they may recapitulate ancient heresies, just clothing them in Hebraic dress. In defense of the Shema, they may be attracted to revived versions of Adoptionism, Modalism or even Arianism. But all these ‘explanations’ were rejected by the Church Fathers for good reasons – because each in its own way fails to do justice to the person of Jesus of Nazareth, as revealed in the Scriptures, and compromises the work of the cross.
In view of the uniqueness, the exclusiveness, and the unity of the echad of Y/H/W/H declared in Israel’s Shema – the Torah’s supreme affirmation of ethical monotheism – and in the light of the astonishing life, atoning death, and Spirit-empowered resurrection of Yeshua, let us never settle for mere ‘explanations’. Let us ask for wonder. And let us worship. With one voice and united hearts, let us join with the first Jewish church that confidently exclaimed, “Jesus the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!”
1 Dwight is the founder and president of the
Center for Judaic-Christian Studies in Dayton, Ohio. This article is excerpted
from an extended essay examining the meanings of echad (one) in the Shema, which
can be viewed online at www.jcstudies.com.
2 Jesus by David Flusser (Magnes Press; 1997), p. 118.
3 Echad relates 1) to the uniqueness of Y/H/W/H, as the one God who is utterly holy; 2) to the exclusiveness of Y/H/W/H, as the only God and the One Israel worships alone; 3) to the unity (vs. the singularity) of God, as indivisible and irreducible.
4 E.g., John 17.3
5 E.g., 1 Corinthians 8.4
6 Ephesians 5.19; Colossians 3.16
7 Other examples might include: Colossians 1.15-20 as a hymn; Romans 1.3-4 and 10.9-10 as creedal formulations; and Romans 8.15, Galatians 4.6, and 1 Corinthians 16.22 as fragments of early church prayers. Paul would have learned these while part of the church (for more than a decade) before being sent on apostolic mission to the Gentiles.
8 For a discussion of the devotion to Jesus in the context of Jewish monotheism, see L.W. Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans; 2003).
9 Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church by Harold O.J. Brown (Hendrickson; 1984) is a comprehensive but popular treatment of the subject.
10 The contrast between Hellenic vs. Hebraic thinking can be overdrawn, so that a useful distinction becomes a simplistic dichotomy. True, when Hellenism inappropriately intruded upon Jewish worship/service of the One and Only God it was to be resisted, even at the sake of one’s own life if necessary – as with the Maccabees. But in diverse ways, the culture, life and thought of Israel were influenced positively and edified by Hellenism. See Lee I. Levine’s Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity: Conflict or Confluence? (University of Washington Press; 1998). The Sages concluded that it was good for Japheth to dwell in the tents of Shem – i.e., for Greek to take residence within a Semitic setting (cf. BT Megilah 9a,b). Many rabbinic rules for interpreting Scripture have antecedents in Greek logic, for example, and the Septuagint, for all its problems, was enormously important for Jewish life and thought in the ancient world, including the NT community.