A few months ago, I was watching a debate on the show Faith Under Fire. The short debate was between William Lane Craig and Rabbi Tovia Singer on the Trinity. As usual, Rabbi Singer objected to the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. He quoted the passage Numbers 23:19 “God is not a man.” At first glance, this goes back to when I wrote a post called The Problem of God’s Visibility and Invisibility. I wanted to note the following quote by Marvin Wilson. He says:
“The claim that Jesus is God incarnate is foundational to traditional Christianity but is one of the most difficult concepts for Jews to understand. Going back to early Israelite history, Jews have had a fundamental theological resistance to the idea of God becoming a man. The command to make no image or physical likeness of God has generally led Jews to prefer keeping the worship of God as an abstraction. Jews usually avoid concrete representations or physical symbols of God. It is held that to believe in such would be a departure from the idea of pure monotheism and would compromise the teaching of God’s incorporeality. Christians, however, point to theophanies in the Old Testament. These temporary physical manifestations of God, they claim, indicate that God did occasionally choose to manifest himself in human form to his people. At the end of the day, however, both Jews and Christians subscribe to monotheism. Though paradoxical and mysterious to many, most Christians in the creedal tradition would be comfortable describing themselves as Trinitarian monotheists.”-Wilson, Marvin R, Exploring Our Hebraic Heritage, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
2. The problem with quoting Numbers 23:19 is that last four words are ordinarily omitted, which are “that He should lie.” This “lifting out of context” is analogous to taking the scripture, “There is no God,” and omitting its preface, “The fool has said in his heart . . . ” Thus has nothing to do with God’s composition. It is about His character. The contrast here is between God and Man, and the point is that God, unlike man does not lie.
3. We would never reject the doctrine of the incarnation based on one verse that is lifted out of its proper context. For that matter, we don’t develop a full blown understanding about the nature of God based on one or two passages. The late Orthodox Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide said,
“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.” (1)
Let’s see if we can offer some support to Lapide’s comments:
1. Jesus as the Wisdom of God
One aspect of looking at Jesus’ deity draws on Israel’s Wisdom literature. Wisdom literature includes books such as Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon. Protestants do not accept Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon as part of their canon. Wisdom is described not only as a personification of God, but as a separate person from God.
Scholars who specialize in studying the deity of Jesus have labored to find an explanation for pre-existence in Judaism that can form the background for the deity of Jesus. As Oskar Skarsaune notes in his book In The Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity, “The question becomes which thing or person-which X-is playing an imperative role in Judaism in statements such as “God created the world through X,” then the answer can be explained by glancing at the Jewish writings of the Second Temple period; the only explanation for such an X is the Wisdom of God.”
For example, some of the Scriptures speaking of the Wisdom of God are seen in Prov. 3:19, “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth, By understanding He established the heavens,” as well as in Prov. 8:29-30, “When He set for the sea its boundary so that the water would not transgress His command, when He marked out the foundations of the earth; then I was beside Him, as a master workman.” Here is a look at some Wisdom texts:
1. Wisdom: is seen with God at creation (Prov. 8: 27-30; Wis. 9:9; Sir. 1:1). Jesus: is seen with God at creation: John 1: 8.
2. Wisdom: God created the world by Wisdom (Wis. 7:22; 9:1-2; Prov. 8:27). Jesus: God created the world by the Word (Jesus): John 1:3.
3. Wisdom: Is the “pure emanation of the glory of God” (Wis. 7:25-26). Jesus: is the “Reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being ” (Heb. 1:3; Col 1:15).
4. Wisdom: Invitation to draw near, bear Wisdom’s yoke and learn (Sir. 51:23). Jesus: Invitation to draw near and take “my yoke….and learn from me” (Matt 11: 28).
5. Wisdom: Whoever finds wisdom finds life (Prov. 8: 35; Bar. 4:1). Jesus: Is the giver of life (John 6: 33-35; 10:10).
6. Wisdom: People reject Wisdom and find ruin (Prov. 1: 24-31; 8:36; Sir 15:7). Jesus: People who reject Wisdom are lost (John 3:16-21).
7. Wisdom: Has its dwelling place in Israel (Sir. 34:8; Wis. 9:10; Prov. 8:31). Jesus: Has come from God into the world (John 1:1; 9-11). (2)
Another aspect of Wisdom Christology is the figure who is a sage. Jesus fulfills the role of a sage by attributing the Wisdom literature to himself.
In the recent book called The Messiah Mystery: Toward A Perfect World, Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet (who thinks the Messiah has not come), says the following about one of the expectations of the Messiah. He says:
“His wisdom shall exceed even that of King Solomon; he shall be greater than all the patriarchs, greater than all the prophets after Moses, and in many respects even more exalted than Moses. His stature and honor shall exceed that of all the kings before him. He will be an extraordinary prophet, second only to Moses, with all the spiritual and mental qualities that are prerequisites to be endowed with the gift of prophecy.”
Jesus spoke about this messianic qualification 2,000 years ago. As it says in Matt. 12:42; Lk. 11:31: “The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.”
As Skarsaune says:
“Jesus appears in roles and functions that burst all previously known categories in Judaism. He was a prophet, but more than a prophet. He was a teacher but taught with a power and authority completely unknown to the rabbis. He could set his authority alongside of, yes, even “over” God’s authority in the Law. He could utter words with creative power. In a Jewish environment zealous for the law, only one category was “large enough” to contain the description of Jesus: the category of Wisdom.” (3)
The good news is we now have a new resource that deals with the theophanies topic.
The language of ‘christophanies’ is used technically by scholars to refer to appearances of the incarnate Son of God after his resurrection, as narrated in the New Testament Gospels and Acts. At a more popular level, though, the term is increasingly applied to alleged appearances of the pre-incarnate Son in the Old Testament.
That Jesus appeared to – and was even recognized by – the likes of Abraham and Moses is usually argued from several scriptural trajectories. The New Testament suggests that God the Father is invisible, inviting us to ask who conducted the Old Testament appearances; the mysterious Angel of the Lord has often been interpreted as a manifestation of the divine Son; and several New Testament passages imply Old Testament appearances of and encounters with Jesus. It seems obvious, indeed orthodox, to affirm that Jesus has always been at work in communicating with and saving his world.
However, Andrew Malone argues that, while Christ-centred readings of the Old Testament abound, christophanies prove to be a flimsy foundation on which to build. Despite apparent success, any scholarship commending the idea does not withstand close scrutiny. Malone carefully sifts the evidence to show that the popular arguments should be abandoned, and that the pursuit of Old Testament christophanies ultimately threatens to undermine the very values it promotes. He concludes that it better honours the Trinity and the text of Scripture to allow that the Father and the Spirit, as well as the Son, were themselves involved in Old Testament appearances.
4. Jesus as the Shekhinah
1. The Shekhinah is the visible manifestation of the presence of God in which He descends to dwell among men.
2. The Shekhinah glory is seen in the Hebrew Bible in places such as Gen.3:8; 23-24; Ex.3;1-5; 13:21-22; 14;19-20; 24; 16:6-12; 33:17-23; 34:5-9.
3. The Shekhinah is seen in a variety of visible manifestations such as light, fire, cloud, the Angel of the Lord, or a combination of all of these. The ultimate manifestation of the Shechinah was seen in the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai (Ex.19:16-20).
4. The Shekhinah continued to dwell in the holy of holies in Tabernacle and the Temple (Ex.29:42-46; 40:34-38; 1 Kin.8:10-13). Upon the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian captivity, the second temple was finished. However, the Shekhinah was not present in this temple. Haggai 2:39 is a critical passage since it discusses that the Shekhinah would return in an even different and more profound way.
5. 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.” John 1:14 literally says,” the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.”
6. The story of Jesus has tremendous parallels to the Shekhinah story in the Hebrew Bible. . In the beginning of the its history, theShekhinah glory appeared and disappeared before making a more permanent abode in the Tabernacle and Temple. It then departed from the Mount of Olives. In the New Testament, it first appeared and disappeared, and then came in a more permanent form in the person of the Messiah, abiding with Israel for a more extended period of time. Later, it too departed Israel from the Mount of Olives after a public ministry of three and a half years. Remember, God’s glory had departed from the temple via the eastern side and out over the Mount of Olives. (5)
7. Remember, the rabbis could speak of taking upon oneself the yoke of Torah or the yoke of the kingdom; Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” (Mt 11:29). Also, 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) ; Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be among them” (6)
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.” (Wilson, 169-170).
Regarding the Shekhinah, N.T Wright also says:
In particular, in postbiblical Jewish writing the idea of the presence of God in the Temple was given the name Shekinah, the “tabernacling, abiding divine presence,” the personal presence of the glory of God. So, when John continues by saying, “We gazed upon his glory, glory like that of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1: 14), we should get the point loud and clear. All this means that we should be able to read John with more sensitivity to the nature of his “high Christology.” Obviously he thinks Jesus was and is fully divine (as well as fully human, but he doesn’t need to make that point in the same way). But this doesn’t mean he is simply saying “Jesus is God” in the way of some rationalist apologists. John’s “high Christology” remains very, very Jewish, very much rooted in Israel’s scriptures. His chosen vehicle for his matchless opening statement, the logos, draws not so much on Platonic or Stoic ideas as on the living Word of the Old Testament, as, for instance, in Isaiah 55, where the word goes out like rain or snow and accomplishes God’s work (55: 10– 11). This work, God’s great act of rescue, rooted in the accomplishment of the “servant of the LORD” in chapter 53 and the renewal of the covenant in 54, brings about the new creation in 55, with the thorns and thistles of Genesis 3 and Isaiah 5 replaced by wonderful trees and shrubs (55: 12– 13). It is (in other words) the creator God, and it is Israel’s God, who has become human in and as Jesus of Nazareth. Once we get the speaker turned to the right volume, we can hear this clearly and hear it in relation to everything else, rather than allowing it to drown out all other voices and strands of early Christian music. With this as our framework, we should be able to read right through John and discern what he is actually doing. His Jesus is a combination of the living Word of the Old Testament, the Shekinah of Jewish hope (God’s tabernacling presence in the Temple), and “wisdom,” which in some key Jewish writings was the personal self-expression of the creator God, coming to dwell with humans and particularly with Israel (see Wis. 7; Sir. 24). But this Jesus is no mere ideal, a fictional figure cunningly combining ancient theological motifs. John’s Jesus is alive; he moves from one vivid scene to another, in far more realistic dialogue with far more realistic secondary characters than in most of the synoptic gospels.-( N. T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (p. 103).
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.” Also, to repeat what Ferguson says:
The divine name Yahweh was not pronounced expect in connection with the temple service instead of Yahweh. A number of substitutes for the divine name came into common use. The Targums regularly used Memra (Word) instead of the personal name of God. Other favorite substitutes were “the Name” “Power” (cf. Mark 14:62). “Heaven” (cf. the preference in Matthew for kingdom of heaven instead of kingdom of God), “Glory.” Sanctification of the name entered into “the Holy One blessed be he.” (Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Third Edition, pg 538).
There is much more that can be said about the Jewish background of the incarnation. We need to point out to our Jewish friends and others that Jesus’ deity is not the result of Hellenism or paganism. Skarsaune sums the issue up quite adequately by saying the following:
“A point of view that seems to be gaining in scholarly research is that the oldest incarnation texts of the New Testament are not Hellenistic but Jewish. It means that if one is going to understand the concept of incarnation historically, one needs to understand it has arisen in a Jewish environment in which one was accustomed to differentiate sharply between the Creator and the created (Romans 1:25). It must be said that the building blocks of the incarnation are Jewish. Belief in the incarnation arose among Jews who considered it from Jewish presuppositions.” (7)
1. Skarsaune, O. In The Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity (Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press, 2002), 335-36.
2. Holmgren, F.C., The Old Testament: The Significance of Jesus-Embracing Change-Maintaining Christian Identity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1999), 157.
3. Skarsaune, O. Incarnation: Myth or Fact? (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House: 1991), 37.
4. Fruchtenbaum, A.G, Messianic Christology: A Study of Old Testament Prophecy Concerning the First Coming of the Messiah (Tustin CA: Ariel Ministries, 1998), 109-110.
5. Fruchtenbaum, A.G., The Footsteps of Messiah: A Study of Prophetic Events (Tustin CA: Ariel Press, 1977), 409-432.
6. Skarsaune, In the Shadow of The Temple: Jewish Influences On Early Christianity, 331.
7. _____. Incarnation: Myth or Fact? 131