Many have argued that the idea of Yeshua’s divinity was a late development. This is commonly applied to the Fourth Gospel as a principle for detecting layers of sources. What I mean is, people will say the gospel of John was written in layers, by multiple hands. An early and simpler version of the gospel, it is said, did not have the strong theme of Yeshua’s divinity. Supposedly Greco-Roman ideas are the source of the divinity doctrine. So as the movement for Yeshua became less Jewish and more Roman, the doctrine developed and the Fourth Gospel underwent several edits and additions.
First, Larry Hurtado has made what is perhaps the best case that the worship of Yeshua (which itself implies divinity) was early, very early, during the predominantly-Jewish stage of the movement (see his book How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?). A huge piece of evidence? Philippians 2, which is a hymn Paul is quoting because he knows the Philippians give it credence. So this hymn has been around long enough to be considered authoritative. That means it could easily be from the 40′s or at latest the 50′s.
Second, and what this post is all about, in John 5, we see Yeshua making an argument related to his divinity, which is thoroughly Jewish in character and not something which would arise in a Greco-Roman type of thought. Raymond Brown, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, points out that Yeshua’s argument about why he does his work on the Sabbath (rather than waiting for the six working days) is a Jewish argument.
The controversy and Yeshua’s response are explained as follows:
THE CONTROVERSY: And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath.
YESHUA’S RESPONSE, PART 1: But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
REACTION: This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
YESHUA’S RESPONSE, PART 2: So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
(John 5:16-24 ESV)
What is the Jewish argument which Yeshua is making?
- What we are to do on the Sabbath is to imitate God in his rest (Gen 2:2).
- All life on earth is continually sustained by God, even on the Sabbath.
- Therefore it is lawful to sustain life on the Sabbath as this is what God is doing (“my Father is working until now,” i.e., even on every Sabbath since creation).
God did not completely cease work on the Sabbath, men were born and died, and only God can give life. Yeshua has just healed a man so incapacitated he cannot even move on his own. In giving this man mobility, Yeshua is giving him fuller life. Thus, Yeshua fixes his redemptive work on the Sabbath in light of God’s work.
This style of argument is Jewish in nature. It is based on a text, an idea strongly rooted in Judaism. Yeshua does not cite Genesis 2:2, nor does he have to. The Sabbath principle is foundational. But it is not foundational in Greco-Roman thought. On the contrary, the Roman sources lampoon the Jewish people for laziness for needed a seventh day rest.
Brown alludes to other commentaries which list rabbinic arguments that God does not get tired or need to rest and that no child would be born and illness healed on the Sabbath if it was thought that God ceased all his labors on the Sabbath. It is not from life-giving but from creating that God rests on the Sabbath.
It is not the kind of argument that would suit later Christianity. This section in John 5 is profound, reflecting on Yeshua’s transcendent authority (vss. 20-24), at resurrection (vss. 25-29), the judgment according to works (vss. 22-23, 30, 45), the judgment given over to the Son (vs. 22), the Son as Life-Giver (vs. 21), the witnesses to Yeshua’s identity (vss. 30-44), and Yeshua as the ultimate subject Torah points to (vss.45-46). Yeshua’s teaching that he works as his Father works and does what his Father is doing is saying, in essence, “Life does not cease on the Sabbath and my Father works to sustain life as do I.” The implication is not that Yeshua, by virtue of his identity, is exempt from the Sabbath law. It is, rather, a halachic statement: doing whatever promotes life on the Sabbath is permitted and Sabbath restrictions should not promote death or suffering to continue.
John 5 is one more piece of evidence that the divinity of Yeshua is an early development, a Jewish one, and not a late, Greco-Roman-inspired doctrine.