The Jewish Background of the Incarnation in The Gospel of John

In the introduction of his book called The Case For The Real Jesus, author and apologist Lee Strobel comments that a basic search for Jesus at Amazon.com will produce 175, 986 books on the most controversial figure in human history.1 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.2 For the Orthodox Christian, Jesus is God incarnate. For the unbelieving Jewish person, Jesus is simply another failed Messiah in the history of Judaism. And for the Muslim, Jesus is regarded as a prophet, but is certainly not God in human flesh.

Furthermore, for some in the Jewish community as well as liberal theologians, the Orthodox Christian claim of Jesus as the incarnate Word of God is the product of the Hellenization or the “Gentilization of Christianity.”3 As church historian Adolph von Harnack said, “The Christological dogma is a product of the spirit of Hellenism on the soil of the Gospel.” 4

So who is Jesus? For the Christian, the doctrine of the incarnation affords its founder (Jesus), to stand apart from any other founder of a world religion.

The following questions need to be asked: (1) Is the doctrine of the incarnation the result of the Hellenization or the Gentilization of Christianity? (2) How can the apologist utilize one of the most Christological passages in the New Testament (John 1:1-3) to demonstrate that Jesus is the incarnate Word of God? (3) What role does Jewish categories such as “Wisdom,” “Word,” and “Shechinah,” play in communicating Jesus as the incarnate Word of God?

A Divine Messiah?

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.5 Therefore, God is Eternal, above time, Infinite, and beyond space. Maimonides also stated that God cannot be born, and cannot die.6 For Maimonides, the Messiah will be born of human parents, nor be a demi-god who possess supernatural qualities.7 In his famous apologetic work Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Matyr is given a response to whether there is even a Messiah-confession that relates to faith in the incarnation. Trypho the Jew says the following about this issue:

Those who affirm Him [Jesus] to have been a man, and to have been anointed by election, and then to have become Christ, appear to speak more plausibly than you [Christians] who hold to those opinions which you express. For we [Jews] all except that Christ will be a man [born] of men, and that Elijah, when he comes, will anoint him. But if this man appears to be Christ, he must certainly be known as man [born] of men (Dial. 49:1,emp. added). 8

Wisdom Christology

Within Judaism, the description of divine attributes as personified beings is a feature of ancient Jewish language. In relation to descriptions of these divine attributes, Wisdom is the most prominent example.9 First century Jews were strongly monotheistic, so to them, the figure of Wisdom was not a second God. Wisdom is described not only as a personification of God, but as a separate person from God.10

One passage in the New Testament that plays a pivotal role to the deity of Jesus is John 1: 1-3, “In the beginning wasthe Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” The theme of incarnate Word of God is displayed in other New Testament Scriptures such as 1 Cor. 8:6; Col.1:15-17; Heb.1:2-3; Rev.3:14). The point of these Christological passages is that God created the world through Jesus and by Jesus.11 Scholars who specialize in Christology have labored to find an explanation for pre-existence in Judaism that can form the background for Christology.

Therefore, 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.12 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.” 13

During the Intertestamental period, a Jewish person who was trying to keep the commandments that had been prescribed within the Torah would be considered somewhat odd.14 Therefore, the concept of Wisdom became increasingly important because of the challenge of Hellenism. This was one of the tensions that were on the hearts of the authors who penned The Book of Sirach, The Wisdom of Solomon, and The Book of Wisdom.15 Written during the period between the Old and New Testaments, they provide a valuable background for the importance of Wisdom in the New Testament. As just stated, Prov.3:19; 8:29-30 stress the importance of the Wisdom of God in the mediatorship in creation. There are several passages in the Johannine prologue that demonstrate the author was familiar with the Wisdom literature:

John 1:1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Wisdom of Solomon 9:9: With you (God) is Wisdom, who knows your works and was present when you made the world.

John 1:4: In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

Proverbs 8:35: For he who finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD.

John 1:11: He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

1 Enoch 42:2: Wisdom went forth to make her dwelling among the children of men, and found no dwelling place.16

Wisdom and Torah

The role of Wisdom and Torah plays an imperative role in the ongoing Jewish-Christian dialogue. But is there any possibility that Christianity and Judaism can find common ground? According to the immanent Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, 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 Judaism’s- 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. 17

Given Neusner’s credibility in both Jewish and Christian scholarship, his comments should not be discarded. However, just as there are passages in the Intertestamental literature and the book of Proverbs about the personification of wisdom as an associate in the creation process, there are also passages that speak about the identification of Wisdom and the Torah. The Torah being seen as preexistent is also seen as an agent of creation. In Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 1:1, it says:

The Torah declares: “I was the working tool of the Holy One blessed be He” [cf. Prov. 8:29 “I was with him as a master worker” (Hebrew, amon)]. In human practice when a mortal king builds a place, he builds it not with his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors. Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world, while the Torah declares, “By ‘The Beginning’ God created” [Gen 1:1], “The Beginning” referring to the Torah, as in the verse, “The Lord made me The Beginning of His way” [Prov. 8:22]. 18

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 5-11.19

The Word/The Memra

In the Hebrew Bible, the “Word” is discussed in a manner that takes on an independent existence of its own. As seen in John 1:1-2, the “Word” has a unique relationship with God; all things were made through Him. In this passage, John is emphasizing that the Word is with God and yet God at the same time. Paul taught a similar theme in 1 Cor. 8:6 when he says “For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.”

There are other New Testament passages that communicate that the Word is Messiah Himself (Eph.3:17 and Col. 3:16; 1 Pet.1:3; John.8:31; 15:17). Furthermore, there are also other passages in the Hebrew Bible that speak of the significance of the Word such as Ps. 33:6,“By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,” while in Ps.107:20 the divine word is sent on a mission: “He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction.” But why is the Christological title “Word” so significant in relation to Jewish monotheism in the first century?

In Judaism, one of the most common themes was that God was “untouchable,” or totally transcendent. Therefore, there had to be a way to describe a connection between God and his creation.20 Within Rabbinic thought, the way to provide the connection or link between God and his creation was what was called “The Word” or in Aramaic, the “Memra.” 21 The Targums, which were paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures play a significant role in how to understand the Memra. Since some Jewish people no longer spoke and understood Hebrew but grew up speaking Aramaic, they could only follow along in a public reading if they read from a Targum.

The Aramic Targums employed the term “Memra” that translates into Greek as “Logos.”22 While John’s concept of the Logos is of a personal being (Christ), the Greeks thought of it as an impersonal rational principle. A good way to try to understand the term “Memra,” is to see what a passage in Genesis would have sounded like to a Jewish person hearing the public reading of a Targum. In Gen.3:8, most people who would have heard the Hebrew would have understood it as “And they heard the sound of the Word of the Lord God as He was walking in the garden.”23 Therefore, it was not the Lord who was walking in the garden, it was the Memra’ (Word) of the Lord. The Word was not just an “it”; this Word was a him.”24

The Shechinah Glory

In the Bible, the Shechinah 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 isKvod Adonai, the Greek title is Doxa Kurion.25 The Hebrew form Schechinah, from the root “shachan,” means “dwelling” while the Greek word “Skeinei” means to tabernacle.26 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 Shechinah was seen in the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai (Ex.19:16-20). Therefore, in relation to the incarnation, the Shechinah 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.”

Conclusion

The identity of Jesus  continues to be a stumbling block for people for people who come from a variety of religious and spiritual backgrounds. However, Jewish categories such as “Word,” and “Wisdom,” and “Shechinah” lend credence to the truth of an incarnate Messiah who came into the world to redeem mankind. In a televised interview, the late Orthodox Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide said the following:

“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.”27

Hopefully, Lapide came to realize that Jesus  was and is the incarnate Word of God. And for that matter, may the Christian community provoke Israel to jealousy (Rom 11.11), by demonstrating the fact that the Jewish Messiah is not the product of the Hellenization of Christianity.


1 Lee Srobel. The Case For The Real Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2007), 10-11.

2 Ibid.

3 The first followers of Jesus were exclusively Jews. The book of Acts gives a reference to the early followers of Jesus as “the sect of Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). However, it is asserted that as the Christian faith spread, it became a predominately Gentile based religion. By the time of Jesus, Jews had encountered the impact of Hellenistic culture for three hundred years. The word “Hellenistic” was given to describe the period of history that started with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. and ended when Rome conquered Alexander’s empire in 30 B.C .It is also safe to say that several forms of Jewish culture during the Roman period were somewhat Hellenized. This is why it is often argued that the incarnation grew out of Hellenistic presuppositions. For more on this issue, see Ronald Nash. The Gospel and the Greeks (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.1992) and Adam H.Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed. The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Minneapolis, MINN: Fortress Press. 2007).

4 Oskar Skarsaune. In The Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity.(Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press, 2002), 322.

5 Rabbi Shraga Simmons.“Jesus as the Messiah,”http://judaism.about.com/library/3_askrabbi_o/bl_simmons_messiah3.htm/1999{accessed March 10, 2009}.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Oscar Skarsaune. Incarnation: Myth or Fact? (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House 1991), 14. Justin Matyr (100-165) was a Platonist but later converted to a Christian as an adult. Justin was turned over to the authorities and killed with some of his friends about A.D. 165 because of his outspoken Christian faith. Matyr, as an early Christian apologist wrote one of his most famous works called: Dialogue with Trypho (ca A.D 160) which was a recapitulation of a conversation which no doubt took place. Trypho, a Jew discusses with Justin whether Jesus is the Messiah and the continuing obligation of the Law.

9 Richard Burridge and Graham Gould. Jesus: Then And Now (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing House. 2004), 71-72.

10 Ibid.

11 Oskar Skarsaune. In The Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity.(Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press, 2002), 320-337.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Oscar Skarsaune, Incarnation: Myth or Fact? (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House 1991), 31. The intertestamental period is term that Protestant Christians use to refer to a period of prophetic “silence” between the Old and New Testaments.

15 The Book of Wisdom or Wisdom of Solomon or simply Wisdom is part of the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha are the seven books (Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus [also called ben Sira or Wisdom of Ben Sirach], Baruch, and 1 and 2 Maccabees) are included in the Septuagint (Greek) and Vulgate (Latin) versions of the Bible but are not found in the Hebrew or Protestant canons.

16 1 Enoch is part of the Pseudepigrapha which is written 200 BC to 200 AD. These works are not in the Hebrew or Protestant Bibles. Enoch is quoted in Jude 1:14-15 and by many of the early Church Fathers.

17 Paul Copan and Craig A.Evans, Who was Jesus? A Jewish-Christian Dialogue.

(Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2001), 125.

18 Oskar Skarsaune. In The Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity.(Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press, 2002), 329. Midrash comes form the Hebrew root ‘darash’, meaning to search or investigate. Midrash attempts, through minute examination and interpretation of the Tanach, to bring out the deeper or ethical meaning of the text. There are many different collections of Midrash. The largest collection is called Midrash Rabbah (The Great Midrash), which consists of a number of volumes. Midrash Rabbah contains volumes on the Chumash (Five Books of Moses) and the Hamesh Megillot (Five Scrolls, from Ketuvim). The Hebrew word for “law” is Torah. Torah means “direction, guidance, instruction.” There are 613 of the commandments in the Torah, which were decreed for the Jewish people.

19 Ibid, 337.

20 Michael Brown, Theological Objections, vol 2 of Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus(Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books, 2000), 18.

21 Ibid, 17-23.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of Messiah: A Study of Prophetic Events(Tustin CA: Ariel Press, 1977), 409-432.

26 Ibid.

27 Oscar Skarsaune, In The Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity(Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press, 2002), 335-36.

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