Writings on Christianity

Jesus as Yahweh the God of Israel


How could any Jew in the first century have considered Jesus to be God? How do understanding Jewish notions of monotheism from that period help us in this question?  British evangelical scholar Richard Bauckham has given us one of the best answers to these questions in his essay “God Crucified” (found in Jesus and the God of Israel).  Bauckham argues for a “divine identity Christology.”  This approach claims that the first century followers of Jesus—followers who came from a strictly monotheistic Jewish Background (only one true God in all of existence) —assigned to him the highest possible view their Jewish understanding would allow: they understood Jesus as possessing the divine identity of Yahweh, the God of Israel.

In Jesus’ time, Jewish believers held a strict monotheism.  Bauckham convincingly argues that they were “highly self-conscious monotheists in this sense: they saw their worship of and obedience to the one and only God, the God of Israel, as defining their distinctive religious way in the pluralistic religious environment of their time” (5).  Thus, even though the cultures around them were pluralistic (worshiped many gods), the Jews themselves were monotheistic in practice and belief.  The best evidence of this is found in two of their most important texts: the Shema (Deut 6;4-6) and the Decalogue—10 Commandments (Ex 20:2-6) (5).  These texts were recited daily by pious Jewish believers and emphasized the exclusivity of Yahweh.  For a first century Jew, Yahweh, the God of Israel, was uniquely God and uniquely deserving of worship.[1]

There are two traits which the Jews understood Yahweh to be especially unique in: He alone was sole Creator and Ruler of the universe (9).  What then makes the statements of the Jesus’ first followers—men and women who were Jewish—so astonishing is that they assign Jesus these very qualities and identity!  These two traits are combined with several other incredible moves: Jesus is identified with the divine Name of Yahweh and receives worship.  Bauckhman summarizes: “They include Jesus in the unique divine sovereignty over all things, they include him in the unique divine creation of all things, they identify him by the divine name which means the unique divine identity, and they portray him a accorded the worship which, for Jewish monotheists, is recognition of the unique divine identity” (19).

What do we make of these facts?  Only that the Jews assigned to Jesus the highest possible status their theology would also them; they included Jesus with the divine identity of Yahweh, the God of Israel.  Bauckham argues that this was “the highest possible Christology—the inclusion of Jesus in the unique divine identity” and that this theology “was central to the faith of the early church even before any of the New Testament writings were written, since it occurs in all of them” (19).  Thus, the church began with a high Christology (viewing Jesus as God) from the beginning.  Amazing!

In my next few posts I’ll examine how the NT writers assigned Jesus to be the within the unique identity of Yahweh in the four categories of Ruler, Creator, possessor of the Divine Name, and recipient of worship.

[1] In his article, Bauckham deals with objections to this thesis (Segal), showing that while there may have been some belief in intermediate figures in Judaism, there was no blurring of the lines between Yahweh and these other figures (9).

By Tom Schmidt

Christian, husband of Rach, Church Planter,musician,

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