Answering Jews for Judaism and the Idol Worship Objection

Anyone who studies historical method is familiar with what is called historical causation. Historians seek out the causes of a certain events. As historian Paul Barnett says, “The birth of Christianity and the birth of Christology are inseparable both as to time and essence.” (1) One thing for sure: the birth of Christology was very early and not something that was invented much later in Church history.

We must not forget that within Judaism there is a term called “avodah zara” which is defined as the formal recognition or worship as God of an entity that is in fact not God i.e., idolatry. In other words, the acceptance of a non-divine entity as your deity is a form of avodah zara. (2) As of today, traditional or Orthodox Judaism still upholds the position that Jewish people are forbidden to pray and worship anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9). So to this day any Christian or Messianic Jew who says Jesus is divine is supposedly guilty of idolatry.This quote was taken from the Jews for Judaism website:

“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” (http://www.jewsforjudaism.ca/resources-info/resources-in-judaism/essaysycb/the-testimony-of-scripture?vm=r&s=1

One way to answer this objection is to discuss what is called Implicit and Explicit Christology: Second, remember the following. As Marvin Wilson says:

   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. 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. (Marvin R, Wilson, Exploring Our Hebraic Heritage: A Christian Theology of Roots and Renewal (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 139-140).

Also as Everett Ferguson says:

The chastisement of the exile largely cured the Jews of the problem of idolatry. Although difficulties with syncretism continued (identification of the God of Israel with the Most High God of Hellenism) continued, the emphasis upon monotheism was one of the characteristics of Jewish belief. This was underscored in the daily recitation of the Shema. Along with their emphasis on his oneness, the Jews also emphasized God’s holiness and transcendence. They put equal stress on the personal nature of God and his nearness to this people. In contrast to Greek and Roman thought, for Jews, God is the measure of all things. The effort to preserve proper reverence toward God led the Septuagint translators, the rabbis, and the Targumists to modify some of the anthropomorphisms of the Bible. Instead of making God the subject, they employed the passive voice: “It was seen before God,” “there was happiness before God.” This practice may account for some of the passives in the Gospels. 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).

Let’s heed  these comments by Wilson and Ferguson 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.” (James R. Edwards,  Is Jesus the Only Savior? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Group, 2005).

So just as in the Jewish Scriptures 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;…. (Jean Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, trans. John A. Baker (London,: Darton, Longman&Todd; Philadephia,: Westminster Press, 1964), 149.

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.” (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).

The Aramic Targums employed the term “Memra” that translates into Greek as “Logos.”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.” 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.” (Michael Brown, Theological Objections, vol 2 of Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books, 2000), 18-23.

Conclusion

The idolatry charge is unwarranted and based on ignorance. Obviously, much more can be said. But for now, to assert the New Testament authors (who were Jewish) would be ignorant of the idolatry charge is nonsense. Just like then, Messianic Jews and Christians  are not guilty of idolatry.

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