A Look at the Jewish Background of the Christology of Jesus

I have been plowing through Marvin Wilson’s Exploring Our Hebraic Heritage: A Christian theology of Roots and Renewal. It is a wonderful read. In this book, Wilson says the following:

  “ The God of Israel was distinct in other ways. Yahweh had an invisible presence; he was pure spirit (John 4: 24). On occasion, however, he manifested himself in visible form. Appearances of the angel of the Lord, and the pillar of smoke by day and the fire by night in the wilderness, were external manifestations of the presence of God. God himself is an incorporeal being; he does not have a body. But the Old Testament often describes God in anthropomorphic and anthropopathic language. (1)

The Torah strictly forbids images and idols of Israel’s God (Exod. 20: 3-6). Yahweh could not be represented in material form. Since Yahweh was incorporeal, Israel’s religion could not be destroyed. When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in a.d. 70, Judaism was not destroyed. Judaism simply became a religion of the home, a new “temple in miniature.”  Throughout Israel’s history, it was God’s intention that his people grasp that he was different from other deities. He was an infinite, invisible, transcendent Being, not some local, destructible, concrete entity shaped by human hands. Divine Presence was not to be equated with physical form or works of art. Yahweh could be worshiped at the Temple in Jerusalem or he could be worshiped away from the Temple. When Israel worshiped by the waters of Babylon in captivity, God was there.

Today,  in theological literature and ecumenical discussion, the Tetragrammaton is usually pronounced “Yahweh.” Whether this pronunciation is exact, or not, must remain uncertain. The lengthy tradition — from Second Temple times — of not taking this sacred name on one’s lips resulted in its pronunciation becoming lost. To avoid possible misuse of the name in synagogue liturgy and Scripture reading, Jews began to render the Tetragrammaton “Adonai,” a tradition that has continued to this day. Today, in addition to Adonai, sometimes other expressions are used in addressing God. These names include Ha-Shem (“ The Name”), Ha-Makom (“ The Place”), Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu (“ The Holy One, Blessed Be He”), Shekinah (“ Divine Presence”), Ribono shel Olam (“ Master of the World”), Ein Soph (“ Infinite One”), and others. Many Christian scholars, when reading Hebrew texts, usually pronounce the Tetragrammaton “Adonai,” out of respect for the Jewish tradition. (2)

Let’s heed  these comments by Wilson and take a look at how they apply to Jesus. First,  note that Wilson says:

“Today, in addition to Adonai, sometimes other expressions are used in addressing God.These names include Ha-Shem (“ The Name”), Ha-Makom (“ The Place”), Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu (“ The Holy One, Blessed Be He”), Shekinah (“ Divine Presence”), Ribono shel Olam (“ Master of the World”), Ein Soph (“ Infinite One”), and others.”

“The Name”

What is significant is the statement in Acts 4:12: “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other Name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” How could Jesus be declared as the only one whom God’s salvation is effected? In the ancient world, a name was not merely what someone was called, but rather the identification of the being and essence of its bearer.  James R. Edwards summarizes the importance of this issue:

“In the ancient world, a name was not merely what someone was called, but rather the identification of the being and essence of its bearer. To the Jewish people, an idol could not properly have a “name” because it has no being represented by the name (Is. 44:9-21). The “name” to which the apostles refer does not signify an event, but a person, in whom the authority and power of God was active in salvation. The saving activity of God was and is expressed in the name of Jesus Christ. The name of Jesus is thereby linked in the closest possible way to the name of God. “No other name” does not refer to a second name of God, but to the unity of God with Jesus, signifying one name, one nature, one saving activity. The shared nature of God and Jesus is signaled in the most striking way by the custom of the early church to pray to God in the name of Jesus.” (3)

So just as in the Hebrew Bible where the name of God represents the person of God and all that he is, so in the New Testament “the Name” represents all who Jesus is as Lord and Savior. Furthermore, as Jean Danielou says:

The beginning of the Christology of the Name are already found in the New Testament. On the one hand Old Testament texts mentioning the Name are frequently quoted in the New Testament. Thus Acts 15:17, quoting Amos 9:12, reads:  ‘All the Gentiles upon my Name is called….’ Paul (Rom 2:24 mentioned Is. 52: 5 ‘The Name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’ The same Epistle quotes Ex. 9:16: ‘that my Name might be published abroad in all the earth’ (Rom. 9:17). ….In these various quotations the Name can in fact only mean Yahweh, but it is hard to see why these texts should have been collected in messianic dossiers unless the Name had appeared to have some relation to Christ. There are, moreover, some passages in which this relationship is explicitly stated. Thus Joel 3:5: ‘Whoever shall call upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved’ is quoted in Acts 2:21 and 4:12 in a somewhat indeterminate  sense. But the same text is repeated in Rom 10:12,as follows: ‘(Christ) is the same Lord (Kurios) of all, and is rich unto all that call upon him: for, Whosoever, shall call upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Here the Name is clearly that of Christ;…. (4)

The Shekhinah,

Once again, note that Wilson says:

“Today, in addition to Adonai, sometimes other expressions are used in addressing God.These names include Ha-Shem (“ The Name”), Ha-Makom (“ The Place”), Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu (“ The Holy One, Blessed Be He”), Shekinah (“ Divine Presence”), Ribono shel Olam (“ Master of the World”), Ein Soph (“ Infinite One”), and others.”

Regarding the Shekhinah, Wilson says:

“In Scripture, the glory of God must not be solely thought of as a localized phenomenon whereby the divine presence is limited to certain holy precincts such as those described above. In Isaiah’s inaugural vision, the seraphim declare, “the whole earth is full of his glory (kabod)” (Isa. 6: 3b). In this and other texts is a “great universalizing” of God’s presence in the world.  Indeed, the psalmist also speaks of nature, “God’s other book,” singing an ineffable song of the presence of God: “The heavens declare the glory of God . . . their voice goes out into all the earth” (Ps. 19: 1a, 4a). In contemporary Judaism, the Hasidic community places considerable emphasis on the manifestation of God’s presence everywhere, especially the celebration of his immanence within the created order. In the post-biblical period, the rabbis used the term shekhinah to refer to God’s indwelling presence in the world. The Hebrew root shakhan means to “dwell,” “stay,” “settle,” “inhabit.” While the Shekhinah had a special attachment to the Temple in Jerusalem, the presence of God may be revealed and embraced anywhere. The Shekhinah could be experienced in the stillness of a moment contemplating the beauties of nature or in the exuberant joy of performing a sacred deed. The rabbis particularly emphasized that the Shekhinah is present when two people come and sit together to study Torah (Mishnah Abot 3: 2, 6). In a similar way, Jesus assured his followers, “For where two or three come together in my name there am I with them” (Matt. 18: 20; see also Col. 1: 19). As one rabbi observes, “The Shekhinah is always associated with God’s nearness. . . . God cannot live together in the same environment with sinfulness. The presence of one excludes the presence of the other.” (5)

I should also note that for the Jewish people, the ultimate manifestation of the Shekhinah was seen in the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai (Ex.19:16-20). Therefore, in relation to the incarnation, the Shekhinah takes on greater significance in John 1: 1-14. As John says, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” “Dwelt” (σκήνωμα), means to “live or camp in a tent” or figuratively in the NT to”dwell, take up one’s residence, come to reside (among).”   As already stated, the Greek word “Skeinei” means to tabernacle. John 1:14 literally says,” the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.”

Fascinating stuff indeed!

Sources:

  1. Marvin R, Wilson, Exploring Our Hebraic Heritage: A Christian Theology of Roots and Renewal (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 139-140.
  2. Ibid, 124-125.
  3. James R. Edwards,  Is Jesus the Only Savior? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Group, 2005.
  4.  Jean Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, trans. John A. Baker (London,: Darton, Longman&Todd; Philadephia,: Westminster Press, 1964), 149.
  5. Wilson, 169-170.
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