The Scandal of the Incarnation: A Closer Look at the Incarnation in Jewish Thought

Introduction

In the introduction of his book called The Case For The Real Jesus, author and apologist Lee Strobel says that a basic search for Jesus at Amazon.com will produce 175, 986 books on the most controversial figure in human history. Opinions about Jesus can range from him being a social revolutionary, an eschatological prophet, a social reformer, a source of a higher power, or even an enlightened being. For the Orthodox Christian, Jesus is God incarnate.It is assumed that the incarnation (a key doctrine in Christianity and to Messianic Judaism) is a concept that is foreign to mainstream Judaism. In Judaism, there is a term called “avodah zarah” which is defined as the formal recognition or worship as God of an entity that is in fact not God. In other words, any acceptance of a non-divine entity as your deity is a form of avodah zarah.

Let’s look at what Jews for Judaism says about this issue:

“The Jew equates worship of Jesus with idolatry. A Jew sees no room for discussion of this issue. A man cannot be God and that’s all there is to it. The missionary effort to present scriptural quotations as evidence to support his devotion to Jesus, is wasted on the Jew. God gave the Jewish people an understanding of Himself before He gave them the scriptures. The Jewish people read scripture in light of their understanding of God. It was God Himself who gave the Jewish people their conception of God, and it is through the lens of this fundamental teaching that we understand all subsequent revelation. The words of the prophets do not have the power to alter that which God Himself has taught us. The exact opposite is true. Our conception of God is the criterion by which the prophet’s words are evaluated.” (see full article here)

The Maimonides Objection

Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), was a medival Jewish philosopher whose writings are considered to be foundational to Jewish thought and study. Maimonides asserted that since God is incorporeal, this means that God assumes no physical form. Therefore, God is Eternal, above time, Infinite, and beyond space. Maimonides also stated that God cannot be born, and cannot die. For Maimonides, the Messiah will be born of human parents, nor be a demi-god who possess supernatural qualities. And as of today, Maimonides objections have carried on throughout the Jewish community. Therefore, for some Jewish people, a divine Messiah is not even on the table for discussion.

Jacob Neusner and the Incarnation

Jacob Neusner is one of the most prolific scholars on Judaism. You can see his credentials here. By the way, he also wrote a book called A Rabbi Talks With Jesus.

As far as Christianity and Judaism finding common ground Neusner says there is an irreconcilable division between both faiths. As Neusner says:

“ Judaisms and Christianities never meet anywhere. That is because at no point to Judaism, defined by Torah, and Christianity defined by the Bible, intersect. The Torah and the Bible from two utterly distinct statements of the knowledge of God. The Torah defines Judaism, all Judaisms- and the Bible defines Christianities — all Christianities. The difference between Torah and the Bible cannot be negotiated, and those shaped by the one can never know God as do those educated by the other. That is why faithful Judaism can never concede to the truth of Christianity; at its foundations it rests on a basis other than the Torah of Sinai” (1)

But what I find interesting is that Neusner wrote a book called The Incarnation of God: The Character of Divinity in Formative Judaism (Binghamton, NY: Global Publications, 2001). In it, Neusner explains his view of the incarnation of the Torah in the person of the sage. Ibid., 202-210. Neusner elsewhere says:

Since rabbinical documents repeatedly claim that, if you want to know the law, you should not only listen to what the rabbi says but also copy what he does, it follows that, in his person, the rabbi represents and embodies the Torah. God in the Torah revealed God’s will and purpose for the world. So God had said what the human being should be. The rabbi was the human being in God’s image. That, to be sure, is why (but merely by the way) what the rabbi said about the meaning of Scripture derived from revelation. Collections of the things he said about Scripture constituted compositions integral to the Torah. So in the rabbi, the word of God was made flesh. And out of the union of man and Torah, producing the rabbi as Torah incarnate, was born Judaism, the faith of Torah: the ever present revelation, the always open-canon. For fifteen hundred years, from the time of the first collections of scriptural exegeses to our own day, the enduring context for midrash remained the same: encounter with the living God.” (Jacob Neusner, Midrash in Context: Exegesis in Formative Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 137)

I should note that even though Neusner makes these statements, he is in no way affirming the Christian view of the incarnation. However, it is fascinating that he has attempted to engage the topic.

The Shekinah

In the Bible, the Shekinah is the visible manifestation of the presence of God in which He descends to dwell among men. While the Hebrew form of the glory of the Lord is “Kvod Adonai,” the Greek title is “Doxa Kurion.” The Hebrew form Schechinah, from the root “shachan,” means “dwelling” while the Greek word “Skeinei” means to tabernacle. (2) The Shechinah glory is seen in a variety of visible manifestations such as light, fire,a cloud, the Angel of the Lord, or a combination of all of these. For the Jewish people, the ultimate manifestation of the Shekinah was seen in the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai (Ex.19:16-20).

In relation to the Torah and Jesus, it is also significant to note the following comment by New Testament scholar Oskar Skarsaune:

The Word became flesh and tabernacles among us” (John1;14, authors translation). In the Wisdom poem of Sirach 24, Wisdom becomes incarnate as the Torah given at Sinai-and at the very center of the Torah is the sacrificial service of the tabernacle temple). That is probably the meaning when Wisdom is said to make priestly service in the holy tent on Zion (Sirach 24:10). If Jesus was incarnate, this could make us understand that he not only taught the way of life, but that he had to be the true high priest, bringing the final sacrifice doing the final priestly service in “the holy tent.” At the very center of the Mosaic Torah are atoning sacrifices. Jesus, the Torah in person, atoned with his own blood. We see this in the Holy of Holies imagery in Romans 3;25. Hebrews also links the Wisdom Christology to the theme of Jesus as the high priest in chapters 5-11. (3)

What is interesting is that the rabbis could say that if two or three men sat together, having the words of Torah among them, the Shekhina (God’s own presence) would dwell on them (M Avot 3:2). So how does Jesus fit into this scenario? Perhaps we should recall that Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in MY name, I will be among them” (Matt 18:20). (4) In this case, Jesus is the walking Shekinah who has the authority to bring’s God’s presence to all humans. Hence, Jesus never pointed to the Torah or anything other than his own person.

Conclusion

In relation to the impossibility of an incarnation in Jewish thought, I find this quote to be rather interesting:

“I used to think the becoming incarnate was impossible for God. But recently I have come to the conclusion that it is un-Jewish to say that this is something that the God of the Bible cannot do, that he cannot come that close. I have second thoughts about the incarnation.” -The late Orthodox Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide.” (4)

I have barely scratched the surface in discussing the Jewish background of the incarnation. But we can conclude that the dogmatic assertion that the incarnation is the product of Hellenized thought is mistaken. I have written a post that discusses this issue in greater length here.

Sources:
1. Paul Copan and Craig A.Evans, Who was Jesus? A Jewish-Christian Dialogue. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2001), 125.
2.Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of Messiah: A Study of Prophetic Events (Tustin CA: Ariel Press, 1977), 409-432.
3. Oskar Skarsaune. In The Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity. (Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press, 2002), 337.
4. Skarsaune, 335-36

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