Over the years I have heard the objection from my Jewish friends that Judaism does not believe that the Messiah is divine. In other words, the entire belief in Jesus’ deity is a Christian invention that developed much later in church history. In dealing with this objection, here are a few things to think about.
Jesus as the Wisdom of God
One aspect of looking at Jesus’ deity draws on Israel’s Wisdom literature. Israel’s 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. In examining the following texts, it can be observed there are amazing similarities. Hence, it would be hard to deny that the “high” Christology of the New Testament was not greatly influenced by Wisdom Christology. By the way, Christology is the study of the person of Jesus. 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.
One passage in the New Testament that plays a pivotal role to the deity of Jesus is John 1: 1-3, “In the beginning was the 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. Scholars who specialize in Christology have labored to find an explanation for pre-existence in Judaism that can form the background for Christology. 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). (1)
Jesus as the Shechinah
Also, in the Bible, the Shechinah is the visible manifestation of the presence of God in which He descends to dwell among men. The Hebrew form Schechinah, from the root “shachan,” means “dwelling” while the Greek word “Skeinei” means to tabernacle. The Shechinah glory 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.
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.” As already stated, the Greek word “Skeinei” means to tabernacle. John 1:14 literally says,” the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.”
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, R. 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 may 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 Oskar 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.” (2)
Jesus and His Speaking Authority
There is also a relationship between Jesus as the figure of Wisdom and Torah. 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” (Matt 18:20). The rabbis could speak about being persecuted for God’s sake, or in his Name’s sake, or for the Torah’s sake; Jesus spoke about being persecuted for and even loosing one’s life for his sake. Remember, the prophets could ask people to turn to God, to come to God for rest and help. Jesus spoke with a new prophetic authority by stating, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). (3)
The Swedish rabbi Marcus Eherenpreis says,
“A difference appears immediately that from the very beginning constituted an unbridgeable wall of separation between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus spoke in His own name. Judaism on the other hand, knew the one I, the divine Anochi (the Hebrew word for I) who gave us the eternal commandments at Sinai. No other superhuman has existed in Judaism other than God. Jesus sermons began, “I say to you.” Here is a clash between that goes to the inner core of religion. Jesus’ voice had an alien sound that that Jewish ears had never heard before. For Judaism, the only revealed teaching of God was important, not the teacher’s personal ego. Moses and the prophets were human beings encumbered with shortcomings. Hillel and his successors sat where Moses sat.” (4)
In their book Putting Jesus Back In His Place: The Case For The Deity of Christ, authors R.M. Bowman and J.E. Komoszewski note that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cites not one single rabbi or religious authority. Instead, he says “I say to you,” thirteen times in this one sermon (Matt. 5:18,20,22,28,32,34,39,44;6:2,5,16,25,29). He even challenged his hearers to base their own lives on his words (Matt. 7:24,26). Within the Hebrew Bible, the prophets would introduce God’s message with a formula such “thus says the Lord” (over 400 times) or “the word of the Lord came” to such and such a prophet (about 100 times). As just stated, Jesus introduced his comments by saying “I say to you” (about 145 times). What is even more significant is that seventy four or seventy-five times, Jesus used the introductory locution that appears to be unparalleled: “Amen I say to you” (often translated “Truly I say to you”). Scholars have found no precedent in the Hebrew Bible, nor have scholars found any precedent in the rest of ancient Jewish literature.
Son of Man
It is also important to examine the issue of Jesus and blasphemy in ancient Judaism. In ancient Judaism, God was blasphemed when, among other things, one ascribed divine powers to oneself or laid claim to dignity and position. Claiming to be the Messiah was not a blasphemous claim. However, it is evident that one reason Jesus was accused of blasphemy was because he claimed he had the authority to forgive sins (Mk. 2:7). According to Mark 14:62, Jesus affirmed the chief priests question that He is the Messiah, the Son Of God, and the Coming Son of Man who would judge the world. This was considered a claim for deity since the eschatological authority of judgment was for God alone. Jesus provoked the indignation of his opponents because of His application of Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 to himself. The term “Son of Man” in the time of Jesus was a most emphatic reference to the Messiah (Dan. 7:13-14).
“As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. I looked then because of the sound of the boastful words which the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was slain, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the ancient of days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” (Dan. 7.9-14)
Jesus’ claim that he would not simply be entering into God’s presence, but that he would actually be sitting at God’s right side was the equivalent to claiming equality with God. And of course, we see the chief priest accuses Jesus of blasphemy (Mk. 14:63-65). Jesus was also accused of blasphemy by asserting his authority to forgive sins (Mk. 2:7). Scribes did not forgive sins. Forgiveness was a divine prerogative of the God of Israel. It is also evident that one reasons Jesus was accused of blasphemy was because He usurped God’s authority by making himself to actually be God (Jn. 10:33, 36). Not only was this considered by the Jews to be blasphemous, it was worthy of the death penalty (Matt. 26:63-66; Mk. 14:61-65; Lk. 22:66-71;Jn.10:31-39;19:7).
Furthermore, despite some complaints that the Messiah will not be divine, there are resources that speak to the issue of a pre-existent Messiah in what is called the Pseudepigrapha. As already said, the Pseudepigrapha commonly refers to numerous works of Jewish religious literature written from about 200 BC to 200 AD. Even though these works are not part of the Protestant Canon they are dated just before or around the time of Jesus. Therefore, they help provide the historian with valuable information into the Jewish religious life and thinking patterns at the time of Christ.The following examples were taken from The Messiah Texts by Raphel Patai.
“And there I saw him who is the Head of Days, and His head was white like wool, and with him was another one whose countenance had the appearance of a man And his face was full of graciousness, like one of holy angels. And I asked the angel who went with me and showed me all the hidden things about the Son of Man: Who is he and whence is he and why did he go with the Head of Days? And he answered and said to me: This is the Son of Man who has righteousness, With whom dwells righteousness, And who reveals all the treasures of the crowns, For the Lord of Spirits chose him.” (1 Enoch 46:1-3)
“He shall be a staff for the righteous. Whereon to lean, to stand and not to fall, And he shall be a light to the nations, And hope for the troubled of heart. And all the earth dwellers before him shall fall down, And worship and praise and bless and sing to the Lord of Spirits. It is for this that he has been chosen And hidden before Him, even before The creation of the world and evermore.” (1 Enoch 48: 4-6)
God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament
In his book God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, Richard Bauckham has asserted that an ontic/functional Christology distinction is not the correct approach to New Testament Christology. While some Jewish writers in the late Second Temple period consciously adopted some of the Greek metaphysical language, their understanding of God is not a definition of divine nature- what divinity is- but a notion of the divine identity, characterized primarily in ways other than metaphysical attributes. Bauckham suggests that in studying the relationship between Jewish monotheism and early Christology, it is imperative to understand the religious sects during Second Temple Judaism. The one God of Second Temple Jewish belief was identifiable by His covenant relationship with Israel. Various New Testament scriptures demonstrate that while the early Christians used titles to describe Jesus as God, they also clearly believed Jesus was God as evidenced by assigning attributes to Him which were clearly reserved for God. Moreover, they did so in a distinctly Jewish way that at the same time adhered to the monotheistic tradition of first- century Judaism.
While Greeks focused on philosophical matters of the nature of the divine, Jewish monotheism was more concerned with God’s divine identity.The God of Second Temple Judaism was identifiable by three unique attributes: (1) The God of Israel is the sole Creator of all things (Is. 40:26, 28; 37:16; 42:5; 45:12; Neh. 9:6; Ps 86:10; Hos. 13:4; (2)The God of Israel is the sovereign Ruler of all things (Dan. 4:34-35); (3) The God of Israel is also the only the only being worthy of being worshiped (Deut. 6:13; Ps. 97:7; Is. 45:23; Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9).
Jesus’ divine identity is affirmed by the fact that He is given the same attributes as God. Through Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, Jesus comes to participate as God’s sovereign Ruler over all things (Ps. 110:1; Matt. 22:44;26:64; Acts 2:33-35; 5:31; 7:55-56; 1 Cor.15:27-28; Phil. 2:6-11; Eph. 1:21-22; Heb. 1:3; 1 Pet. 3:22). Jesus is seen as the object of worship (Matt. 14:33; 28: 9,17; Jn. 5:23; 20:28; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 5:8-12). He is also the recipient of praise (Matt. 21:16-16; Eph. 6:19; 1 Tim. 1:12; Rev. 5:8-14) and prayer (Acts 1:24; 7:59-60; 9:10-17,21; 22:16,19;1 Cor. 1:2; 16:22; 2 Cor.12:8). Jesus is also the Creator of all things (Heb 1:2; Jn. 1: 1-3; Col. 1:15-16; 1 Cor. 8:6). The divine identity of God is seen in Jesus’ suffering, death, and glory.
1. Holmgren, F.C., The Old Testament: The Significance of Jesus-Embracing Change-Maintaining Christian Identity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1999, 157.
2. Skarsaune, O. Incarnation: Myth or Fact? St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House: 1991, 37.
3. ______. In The Shadow Of The Temple: Jewish Influences On Early Christianity. Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press. 2002, 331.
4. Skarsaune, O. Incarnation: Myth or Fact?, 33-34.