The claim that Jesus was the Messiah is one of the beliefs separating Judaism from Christianity. We have explained the Jewish understanding of the Messiah, especially that Judaism never understood the Messiah to be anything more than a human being chosen by God to bring the era of peace and love foretold by the prophets of Israel.
We have also explained that Judaism could not accept a reinterpretation of the messianic promise into a purely spiritual state without any historical and political consequences. In short, Judaism understands the redemption as having to occur in the real, political world and not only in the hearts of believers. Since Jesus did not liberate the Jewish people from the Roman yoke and did not end warfare and hatred among individuals and nations, Judaism was not able to accept the messianic claims made for Jesus.
We now come to an even more serious matter. While the question whether Jesus was or was not the Messiah is undoubtedly one of considerable importance, it is hardly comparable in seriousness from the Jewish point of view to the claim that Jesus was God.
Let us first try to understand the Jewish view of God and his relationship to man. From the beginning, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) very sharply distinguishes between God and man. God is the creator of heaven and earth, for whom nothing is impossible. Man is a creature of God. He is undoubtedly God’s most noble creature, created after all other creatures had been brought into existence. Man is given dominion over all creatures (Genesis 1:28). The most astounding and theologically significant statement is the declaration that man was created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Were the difference between God and man anything other than absolute, the statement that man was created in the image of God would hardly have the power it does. It strikes us as one of the Bible’s most significant statements because of our prior understanding of the difference between God and man. Given the magnitude of that difference, we are overwhelmed by God’s love for man to the extent that a similarity is asserted to connect man with God. The exact meaning of the likeness that obtains between God and man is not easy to define. Nevertheless, it is clear that creation in the image of God bestows upon man the unique dignity that he possesses.
But in spite of the dignity of being created in the image of God, it would be a grave error, from the point of view of the Hebrew Bible, to overlook the absolute difference between God and man. It is easy for man to forget the difference. When the serpent tempts Eve (Genesis 3:5), he tells her that if she will eat of the forbidden fruit, “your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods ….” A similar theme can be felt in the Tower of Babel incident (Genesis 11:1-9), in which men decide to “build ourselves a city and tower with its top in the heavens, and make a name for ourselves.” Here, as well as in the decision to eat of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, man aspires to some form of divinity, and invariably this is met by God with the greatest disapproval. Ezekiel (28:2) condemns the prince of Tyre for claiming to be God: “In your arrogance you say, ‘I am a god; I sit throned like a god on the high seas.’ Yet you are a man and not God, though you consider your thoughts the thoughts of God.” In the Hebrew Bible it is essential for man to accept his creaturely status and not to confuse himself with God. Whenever man yields to the temptation to confuse himself with God, he incurs God’s anger and is severely punished.
Parallel with man’s temptation to confuse himself with God is the horror of the Hebrew Bible at idolatry. Idolatry is the worship of false gods. In the Hebrew Bible only the God of Israel is God. Unlike the other gods of the ancient Near East, the God of Israel is the supreme ruler of the whole universe, so that nowhere can man escape his jurisdiction. The other gods are material creations of man, and to worship them is the worst possible transgression against the creator of the world. The Ten Commandments make this very clear (Exodus 20:2-6). After stating “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery,” the text continues:
You shall have no other gods to set against me. You shall not make a carved image for yourself nor the likeness of anything in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God. I punish the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I keep faith with thousands, with those who love me and keep my commandments.
This passage makes clear the revulsion of God at all material representations of the divine. Any worship directed at a material being, whether created by human artistry or a natural object or living thing, is idolatry. The true God, who created the world and chose the people of Israel, is an invisible God who cannot be contained by anything material.
In Deuteronomy 4:15-21 we read:
On the day when the Lord spoke to you out of the fire on Horeb, you saw no figure of any kind; so take good care not to fall into the degrading practice of making figures carved in relief, in the form of a man or woman, or of any living animal on earth or bird that flies in the air, or of any reptile on the ground or fish in the waters under the earth. Nor must you raise your eyes to the heavens and look up to the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of the heaven, and be led on to bow down to them and worship them; the Lord your God assigned these to the various peoples under heaven. But you are the people whom the Lord brought out of Egypt, from the smelting furnace, and took for his own possession, as you are to this day.
The finality of God’s prohibition against worshipping anything material could not be more clear, whether the object worshipped is a statue or a living animal or a human being.
It is in the light of this that the Christian claim that Jesus was God must be evaluated.
Let us first make clear that this is indeed the claim that Christianity makes. Sometimes this is overlooked in the heat of discussion. We hear it said that to be a Christian one must accept Jesus as one’s personal savior, as the Messiah, and as the Son of God. We have already made clear that in Judaism, and to Jews of the time of Jesus, the Messiah was not God but a human being. The term Son of God is often used in the New Testament in connection with Jesus, but this is not an assertion that Jesus was God. The term Son of God is used frequently in the Hebrew Bible to refer to the people of Israel (e.g., Deuteronomy 14:1, Isaiah 1:2) or the anointed king of Israel (2 Samuel 7:14, Psalm 2:7, 89:27). In many instances where Son of God occurs in the Hebrew Bible, of which we have given only a small sample above, the term clearly means “elected or chosen by God.” By no means does this mean that the people of Israel or the king of Israel is God in any sense. Nevertheless, we cannot escape the fact that classical Christianity asserts that Jesus was God. And it is this claim that makes it so serious for a Jewto embrace Christianity.
How did Christianity come to hold this opinion, which is so deeply unacceptable from the Jewish point of view? It was formally embraced at the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.), which declared that the Son was “begotten, not made” and “of one essence [homoousios] with the Father.” This determination was a response to and rejection of the view of Arius, who taught that the Son was a created being who was not of the substance of God and was not eternal. While even for Arius, Jesus had certain divine qualities, he was by no means an equal of God but possibly a lower divinity. It is this view that the Council of Nicaea rejected. By speaking of the Son as homoousios (of one essence) with the Father, the council took the fateful step of refusing to subordinate Jesus in any sense to his Father, to whom Jesus prays in his last agony on the cross. Both the Son and the Holy Spirit are not creatures of the invisible God of the Hebrew Bible but equal persons with him.
At first glance, this doctrine sounds like an abandonment of monotheism (the teaching that God is one) and a reversion to polytheism (the teaching that there are many gods). The church, however, has traditionally rejected this interpretation and insisted that in spite of the threefold nature of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), each person of which is the full equal of the others, there is also a oneness in God that makes the Christian triune deity continuous with the one God of the Hebrew Bible. While the Christian insistence on the oneness of God, in spite of the three co-equal persons in him, is a source of satisfaction to Jews because it keeps Christianity within a monotheistic framework, it must also be said that Judaism finds a “three that are one” doctrine virtually impossible to understand, especially in light of the teaching that only one of these persons became man. It is not our intention to impose a simplistic requirement for “rationality” on religious teachings. Nevertheless, such teachings must be intelligible if they are to be believed, and it is precisely this that is questionable in the teaching of the trinity.
Almost all Jewish scholars and many Christian scholars believe that the doctrine of the full divinity of Jesus is not to be found in the New Testament and would have been abhorrent to the Jew Jesus. There are a number of instances in the New Testament in which we find Jesus himself making almost explicit denials of his divinity. In Luke 18:18-19 we read: “A man of the ruling class put this question to him: ‘Good Master, what must I do to win eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’” The reply of Jesus makes clear the distinction he draws between himself and God. In Matthew 12:32 Jesus says: “Any man who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but if anyone speaks against the Holy Spirit, for him there will be no forgiveness, either in this age or in the age to come,” thereby distinguishing between himself and the Holy Spirit. In speaking of the end of days Jesus says (Mark 13:32): “But about that day or about that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son; only the Father.” One cannot resist asking how the Son and the Father can be equal persons of God when there is knowledge available to the Father that is not available to the Son. It is for these reasons, among others, that it is highly unlikely that Jesus would have found the teaching of his divinity acceptable.
Nevertheless, we should note those elements in the New Testament that made the Nicene development possible. While the Nicene definition almost certainly goes much beyond the New Testament interpretation of the status of Jesus, there are some features of the New Testament view that laid the groundwork for it. Essentially, this has to do with the New Testament view of the person of Jesus.
Who was he and how is he related to the figures in the Hebrew Bible?
In the Hebrew Bible, once we leave the Patriarchs, the key figures are the prophets of Israel, of whom Moses was the first and the greatest. A prophet is a messenger of God. He is sent by God to deliver a message to the people. As a messenger, the prophet does not speak on his own authority but on the authority of the One who sent him. The formula of the prophets is “Thus saith the Lord,” and when they utter this phrase they declare themselves to be speaking for the God of Israel, who sent them.
Jesus does not always speak as a messenger of God. While he occasionally refers to the Father who sent him, more often he speaks on his own authority. At times (Matthew 5:21 ff.) he contrasts what “you have been taught” with what “I say unto you,” a contrast that the Jewish mind finds most problematic. The question that arises in the mind of the Jewish reader of the New Testament is: Who are you? In all of Judaism it is God who teaches what is right and what is wrong. The prophets, as we have already pointed out, are messengers and spokesmen of God. The rabbis interpret the Written and Oral Law. They have the authority to legislate additions to the Law, but such additions are clearly recognized as rabbinic enactments and cannot contradict God’s law. Jesus lays down his own teachings, which he does not attribute to God but to himself. While this does not by itself signify that Jesus was considered God by the New Testament, it does mean that the New Testament attributes a very special status to Jesus beyond that of the prophets depicted in the Hebrew Bible. Occasionally, there are New Testament passages that seem to state the divinity of Jesus more clearly, though these are not passages that report the words of Jesus himself. An example of such a passage would be Colossians 2:9, which asserts that “it is in Christ that the complete being of the Godhead dwells embodied.” It should be noted that the Pauline authorship of Colossians has been questioned specifically because of its otherwise un-Pauline Christology.
It is difficult to determine whether the claim that Jesus was God is fully a post-New Testament development or whether it has a firm foundation in the New Testament itself. As we have already said, most Jewish and some Christian scholars believe that the teaching of the divinity of Jesus came into Christianity from gentile sources and was unknown to the original community of the followers of Jesus. Be that as it may, the fact remains that mainline Christianity, since the time of the Council of Nicaea, has adhered to this belief, and it is embraced by those Jews who convert to Christianity. From the Jewish point of view, this belief is idolatrous. The prohibition against idolatry, as we have seen, is one of the most severe in Judaism. According to Jewish law, there are only three transgressions that are so severe that when faced with a choice of transgressing or death, the Jew is commanded to sacrifice his life rather than transgress. One of these is idolatry. It is therefore important for Jews to know that a Jew who believes that Jesus was God in the sense asserted by the Nicene Creed commits idolatry as defined by Jewish law.
There is only one other point to be made. Does a gentile who believes in the divinity of Jesus in accordance with the Nicene Creed commit idolatry? As we will see in Chapter 6, while gentiles are not obligated to obey all the commandments that are obligatory for Jews, one of the commandments which is binding on gentiles is the prohibition against idolatry.
From the Jewish point of view, are gentile Christians idolaters?
The answer, according to the dominant Jewish view, is that they are not. In Jewish literature, the term that came to be used for the trinitarian concept of God was shittuf (partnership). The prevailing Jewish view is that belief in shittuf does not constitute idolatry for gentiles but does so for Jews. The reason for this is that the definition of what constitutes idolatry is different for Jews and gentiles. Belief in shittuf, the belief that God shares his being in equal partnership with Jesus and the holy spirit, is not idolatry by the standard of idolatry demanded of gentiles. But the very same belief held by a Jew constitutes idolatry by the standard applicable to Jews. It is for this reason that Judaism does not condemn Christian trinitarianism as idolatry unless those holding the belief are Jews who are bound by the covenant of Sinai.