Jewish theology holds to a strictly monotheistic faith, that is, faith in only one God. Both Deuteronomy 6:4 and Exodus 20 — two bedrock passages of Jewish life — begin with a strong affirmation of their monotheism. However, Christians claim that Jesus is God, but also that Jesus, the “Son of God,” is distinguishable from “God the Father.”
How can God the Father and Jesus the Son be one God?
This is a challenge for Christianity because the same Jewish text that teaches monotheism is a part of Christian Scripture. Early Christians were Jews, and they saw Jesus as their Messiah. Various solutions to this question were developed by the early Church, but only after tremendous effort and volumes of written material.
Even today, we still wrestle with this question. Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to believe that Christians simply got it wrong?
Was Monotheism Considered Under Threat?
In light of this challenge, it may seem reasonable to reject Christianity. But if it’s true that the Christians were so out of line with their Jewish predecessors, we are faced with a different issue: Of all the challenges tackled by the New Testament authors, why did they spend practically no time reassessing Jewish monotheism?
Why don’t we have any text from Paul or Peter saying, “Hey everyone, I know that the Scriptures teach monotheism, and I know we’re getting a lot of criticism from the Jews about this, so let me help you out”? Other challenges to Jewish thought were discussed, such as the inclusion of the Gentiles (Eph. 2–4), the Messianic fulfillment of prophecy (Acts 18:28), the switch from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant (Rom. 1–11), and why the Messiah had to suffer (Heb. 9–10).
If the divinity of Christ threatens monotheism — the very soul of Jewish faith and practice — and if the authors who defended Christianity against their Jewish opponents affirmed the deity of Christ (Phil. 2:6; Col. 2:9; Heb 1:3, 8), why are they virtually silent here? It’s clear enough that the New Testament authors argued that Jesus was God, but they don’t spend much time explaining how this could be.
Was the Deity of Christ a Gradual Invention?
Some scholars have proposed that the deity of Christ “snuck its way in” over a long period of time. They often look to angelic or heavenly figures in the Jewish Scriptures, suggesting that Jesus was originally given that kind of status as a “stepping stone” for the eventual recognition of His deity.
The challenge with this view is that (1) Affirmation of Christ’s full deity appears far too early for it to have evolved from demigod status, and (2) The “stepping stone” of intermediary, angelic figures is still too far of a step to full deity.
Jews have always maintained the distinction between God and high angelic creatures. Having come from the same theological convictions, the early Christian Jews would likewise have kept heavenly creatures in their place, utterly separate from the transcendent creator God who alone deserves their worship. The solution to this predicament, I think, is found in a ground-breaking work by Cambridge scholar Richard Bauckham.
In 1998, Bauckham published a small book titled God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, which became Chapter 1 in his larger book, Jesus and the God of Israel.
His larger book proposed a new way of understanding Jewish thinking: That the deity of Christ was never a threat to monotheism to begin with. Rather, affirming the deity of Christ was already possible in the way that first-century Jews understood their own monotheism. “What has been lacking in the whole discussion of this issue,” writes Bauckham, “has been an adequate understanding of the ways in which Second Temple Judaism understood the uniqueness of God” (page 4).
If you fancy a dense theological read, I highly encourage you to pick up Jesus and the God of Israel. But if you’re looking for a simplified summary of Bauckham’s argument, I’ll break it down here.
Understanding Monotheism as Divine Identity
Bauckham shifts our focus on what the divinity of God meant for the Jewish people. Rather than seeing it as an essence or nature of God (What is divinity?), the first-century Jews viewed God’s divinity in terms of God’s identity (Who is this divine God?).
Bauckham argues that according to early Jewish thinking, God is identified as divine because of His unique, one-of-a-kind relation to the world. Two of the most salient relations are that God is the creator of all things and sovereign ruler of all things. They are features of His identity to which God alone can lay claim: Only God created the world. Only God has sovereign authority over all things. Only God is to be worshiped.
Jewish monotheism found its place. When we view God’s divinity in terms of His unique identity and relation to this world, we can understand how any aspect of God’s identity is no threat to monotheism. Bauckham points out that the Jews understood that God’s word, wisdom, and Spirit did things that only God does, but this was no concern for them because each is part of who God is.
For example, 2 Enoch 33:4 (not Jewish scripture, but gives insight into Jewish thought) says that God had no one to advise Him in His work of creation, but that wisdom was His advisor. Similarly, Psalms 33:6 says that all things were made by the “word of God.” Was it “the word of God” rather than God Himself? No, because the “word of God” is God Himself.
Adds Bauckham, “In a variety of ways, [the wisdom of God, the word of God, etc.] express God, His mind and His will in relation to the world. They are not created beings, 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” (page 17, emphasis original).
The Divine Identity of Christ
So just as God’s word, wisdom, and Spirit are part of God’s identity as the sole creator and ruler of the universe, so also is God’s Son, Jesus, placed in the same status by New Testament authors as the sole creator and ruler of all things. God’s Son is God in a similar way that God’s wisdom is God: they share the same identity as God.
Bauckham notes: “The understanding of Jewish monotheism which I have proposed will function as the hermeneutical key to understanding the way in which the New Testament texts relate Jesus Christ to the one God of Jewish monotheism. It will enable us to see that the intention of New Testament Christology, throughout the texts, is to include Jesus in the unique divine identity as Jewish monotheism understood it. They do this deliberately and comprehensively by using precisely those characteristics of the divine identity on which Jewish monotheism focused in characterizing God as unique. They include Jesus in the unique divine sovereignty over all things, they include him in the unique divine creation of all things, they identify him by the divine name which names the unique divine identity, and they portray him as accorded the worship which, for Jewish monotheists, is recognition of the unique divine identity” (page 19).
Many examples of this Christian activity are given in Bauckham’s book. His point is that the New Testament authors talked about Christ in a way that acknowledged Jesus as fully divine, but did not compromise their monotheistic commitments. To be sure, what they proclaimed about Jesus was unique; Jesus was the first and only expression of the Jewish God that had taken on a fully human body.
Rather than abstract expressions of God (such as His wisdom or word), we now have something physical. But this unique proclamation was nonetheless compatible with how the Jews understood monotheism. Rather than starting with the man Jesus, attributing divine attributes to Him, and explaining how He is “one” with God, the New Testament authors started with their one unique God and expanded their understanding of who God is by introducing Jesus. “Novel as it was,” writes Bauckham, “it did not require any repudiation of the monotheistic faith which the first Christians axiomatically shared with all Jews” (page 19).
Can God be More Than One Person?
One of the most challenging shifts required with the introduction of Jesus into the identity of God, is that God can no longer be understood as a single “person.” Rather, within God is an interpersonal relationship between Father and Son (and Holy Spirit, a subject outside the scope of this article).
We may think that Christians are asking too much for such a radical innovation, casting doubt that they have maintained monotheism by introducing Jesus into His divine identity. Bauckham recognizes this challenge but stresses that the Jews were open to the idea:
“While human identity may be the common analogy for thinking about the divine identity, the God of Israel clearly transcends the categories of human identity. The categories are used in awareness that God transcends them. In God’s unique relationship to the rest of reality as Creator of all things and sovereign Ruler of all things, the human analogies, indispensable as they are, clearly point to a divine identity transcendently other than human personhood. Nothing in the Second Temple Jewish understanding of divine identity contradicts the possibility of interpersonal relationship within the divine identity but, on the other hand, there is little, if anything, that anticipates it” (page 56).
Our discussion does not prove that the Jewish view of God is the correct view of God, or that the early Christians were correct about the divinity of Christ. But it does show that the deity of Christ needn’t contradict a monotheistic view of God, as clearly outlined in Deuteronomy 6:4 and other Scripture.
Many modern-day religious Jews and Muslims argue that Christianity’s view of Christ is not compatible with their own Old Testament. But instead of reevaluating the deity of Christ, perhaps we need to reevaluate who God truly is in light of who Christ is — the supreme unique creator and sovereign ruler of all the universe, unlimited in power and splendor … compelled by love to come down from His throne as the suffering servant who died for our sins.