The mysterious nature of God is not something new to the New Testament. Time and time again, from Creation through the history of Israel, God interacts with this present world in ways that are the action of God, but are not the totality of God. I wrote at length about the way the Hebrew Bible describes the Presence, Shechinah, Glory, Word, Theophanies, and Indwellings of God in Yeshua Our Atonement (chapter 3, “The Divine Glory over the Cherubim,” and chapter 8, “The Divine Glory Incarnate”). You can order Yeshua Our Atonement here.
So it’s not as if Yeshua came on the scene in Galilee and started a new theology of God. Nor is that the apostles took some pure monotheism of Judaism and corrupted it with Greek philosophy. I know many people, Jewish and not Jewish, think something like this must have taken place.
Perhaps this suspicion is because the church fathers were steeped in Greek philosophy (for example, Origen used concepts from Aristotle to formulate his explanation of the Son eternally generating from the Father). Using Greek philosophy was the right thing for them to do. Their audience needed the ideas of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish Messiah and apostles put into categories more familiar to them. And Judaism itself was from early on influenced by Greek philosophy as well.
Although I find no fault in Greek thought and I am not advocating some kind of pure Hebrew-ism as an alternative to Western thought (the so-called Hebraic vs. Hellenistic mindset idea), I do think it interesting to try and describe the Divine Messiah and his relationship to the Eternal God in terms that are drawn from Judaism and the Hebrew Bible.
I think the Jewish apostles already did this for us. Their approach was first and foremost one of story. Whereas the Greek philosophical way includes defining things and relationships with precision, the Israelite way was to define things with story.
The Fourth Gospel (John) does this by saying, “All things were made through him” (1:3). Paul does this by saying, “For by him all things were created” (Col 1:16). How did they find a connection between Yeshua (the very human person in whom they believed) and the creator of all things? They came to the conclusion that Yeshua was the Spoken Word who was God’s agent in creation.
You may ask, “Did God use an agent in creation?” Genesis says, “And God said . . . and there was . . .” In other words, God sent forth his voice, his Spoken Word, and all things were made. The apostles were not the first to speculate on the Spoken Word of God being an aspect of God but not the totality of his being. Philo of Alexandria and the Aramaic Targums (paraphrases) speculated about it. Neither were the apostles the last Jews to consider the mystery of God’s Word as an aspect of his being (rabbinic writings contain many such speculations). See Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels for an in-depth exploration (you can see my review here).
If, in fact, Yeshua was more than a man — if he was the Word born as a man — then he was divine. He was not all there is to God. The Spoken Word in Genesis was an aspect of God’s being without being the totality of God.
Did Yeshua really have the power to create the universe? The Fourth Gospel reveals Yeshua in an act of creation (turning water into wine, 2:1-12). A story like that is intended to say, “There is more to this rabbi from Galilee than may appear on the surface.”
Were the apostles justified in equating Yeshua with this Spoken Word of God? Where would they get such an idea?
A good hint is found in the Fourth Gospel. John 1:1 gets a lot of attention. John 1:18 gets less. Before I quote it, you may notice various translations disagreeing. This is because there are three different readings available in the manuscripts. But see Raymond Brown for the compelling reasons to follow this reading:
No one has ever seen God;
it is God the only Son,
ever at the Father’s side,
who has revealed him.
This saying should raise some questions. No one has seen God? What is he talking about? Clearly Moses and others saw God, right? Not so, as texts like Exodus 33:20 make clear, “you cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live.”
Moses saw a manifestation of God, not his direct being. Yeshua alone has seen God’s direct being. In fact, it becomes apparent, Moses saw the Son (the pre-existent Yeshua) and not the Father.
The Jewish apostles became convinced of this after the resurrection. Before that, Yeshua seemed to them just a man. At his death they disbelieved (see Mark 14:50). After his resurrection they understood. The many mysterious things Yeshua had said about himself started to make sense. He was more than a man. The way he talked about the Father, of his absolute unity with the Father, only made sense once Yeshua’s Glory was revealed.
So, all this to say, what is an early Jewish way of describing the divinity of Yeshua? I think the following points are all early and formed a chain of understanding for the Jewish apostles:
- Yeshua spoke of God as his Father in ways that went beyond any ordinary person’s relationship to God.
- Yeshua’s hints of his divinity were vindicated as true by his return from death and ascension to glory.
- There was a longstanding background in the Jewish faith of God’s Agent sharing his power and nature, but not being the totality of his being.
- The Word in Genesis and the Glory in the Pillar and the Presence above the Cherubim are all examples of an emanation or radiance from God’s being who is equal with God but not the full being of God.
- The analogy of Son to Father is like Word to God and like Glory to Adonai; the Glory is God but not all there is to God.
- Men have seen some levels of the Glory, but have not seen the direct being of God ever.
- The Word and the Glory are the aspect of God he sends into the world to reveal and to act.
- Yeshua is this Word and this Glory.
- Yeshua is the Radiance (emanation) of God’s glory (Hebrews 1:3); as light and heat come from the sun without being the totality of the sun.
In a much later development in Judaism, kabbalistic thinkers described God in his direct being as the Ein Sof (the Without End) who cannot be seen or known by finite humans. We know God, said these kabbalists, though his emanations (Sefirot) which come to us at varying levels of potency.
In kabbalistic language, we could say Yeshua is not Ein Sof, but that he is rather the sum of all the emanations.
In the later development of Christianity, the church fathers described the Father as eternally generating the Son. Generating and radiating and emanating are all similar ideas. They also used another metaphor, that of begetting or conceiving. Conception of a child, unlike birth of a child, is something that happens virtually instantaneously. It would be wrong to describe Yeshua as the Son born of the Father. But to say he is the Son begotten of the Father comes closer to describing the mystery.
Yeshua existed before he was born. He was always at the Father’s side before time.
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