Jesus and the God of Israel (2)

JGI.jpgBauckham, Richard.

Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity

Grand Rapids, MI:Eerdmans, 2008. Pp. xii + 285. Paper. $34.00.

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With thanks to Lara Sissell at Eerdmans for this review copy!

In chapter 2 “Biblical Theology and the Problems of Monotheism” Bauckham presents a slightly altered version of his essay of the same title from Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Zondervan, 2004).  Immediately apparent was the decision to transliterate Hebrew terms whereas the original essay contained actual Hebrew characters.  This is a slight annoyance for the fact that such transliterations do not help the non-specialist because even if they can decipher the transliteration they still can’t read Hebrew, and it doesn’t help the novice Hebrew reader such as myself because I can actually sound out Hebrew when looking at Hebrew characters but struggle with the scholarly transliteration scheme.  This gripe aside, Bauckham actually has some good things to say in this chapter.

In the first half of it he mainly interacts with Nathan MacDonald’s Deuteronomy and the Meaning of ‘Monotheism’ (Mohr Siebeck, 2003).  MacDonald’s main contention is that Deuteronomy does not present a doctrine of God that can be described as monotheism when understood in terms of the Enlightenment’s view of monotheism.  Bauckham finds much of MacDonald’s presentation to be compelling but he takes issue with the claim that Deuteronomy doesn’t deny the existence of other gods.  The claim in and of itself is not so controversial but Bauckham doesn’t feel that it is properly nuanced and criticizes MacDonald for failing to give a proper account of “YHWH’s uniqueness vis-à-vis the other gods.” (p. 65)

Bauckham agrees with MacDonald that the categories of Enlightenment monotheism are inappropriate for reading the Biblical text but he points out the rather obvious fact that not everyone understands monotheism according to these categories.  That’s why in his work he has tried to use terms such as “exclusive Yahwism” (= monolatry) and “(late Second Temple period) Jewish monotheism” (p. 82).  This brand of monotheism understands God according to the categories that best define his uniqueness, i.e., the main thesis of Bauckham’s work as a whole (YHWH as Creator of all things and Ruler of all things).  According to this conceptual framework YHWH stands in a class far above the other gods whose existence Deuteronomy takes for granted.

The final section of the chapter is spent examining the Shema in the New Testament.  Bauckham focuses mainly on Romans 3:28-30; 1Corinthians 8:1-6; and John 10:30 offering a brief exegesis of each passage and showing how Paul and John included Jesus in the unique divine identity.  Regarding John’s portrayal of the Father/Son relationship Bauckham concludes:

So to say that Jesus and the Father are one is to say that the unique divine identity comprises the relationship in which the Father is who he is only in relation to the Son and vice versa. It is in the portrayal of this intra-divine relationship that John’s Christology steps outside the categories of Jewish monotheistic definition of the unique identity of the one God. It does not at all deny or contradict any of these (especially since the Shema’ asserts the uniqueness of God, not his lack of internal self-differentiation) but, from Jesus’ relationship of sonship to God, it redefines the divine identity as one in which Father and Son are inseparably united in differentiation from each other. (p. 106)

There’s not much (if anything) to disagree with here and I’d mention that this is bedrock of later Trinitarian thought.

Chapter 3 “The ‘Most High’ God and the Nature of Early Jewish Monotheism” examines the use of עליון/ὁ ὕψιστος, LXX (or אל עליון/ὁ θεὸς ὁ ὕψιστος, LXX) in Second Temple Jewish literature concluding the chapter with a table of every usage that Bauckham has been able to track.  Bauckham begins by commenting on the designations of “inclusive” and “exclusive” monotheism by interacting with a definition given by William Horbury in which he defines exclusive monotheism as denying the existence of beings whereas inclusive monotheism sees a supreme deity associated with but located above other spirits and powers.  Bauckham notes that the problem with Horbury’s definition is in his equation of “other divine beings” with “spirits and powers” and that if this is what constitutes exclusive monotheism then such a monotheism didn’t exist until the modern age.  But Bauckham rightly points out that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have always allowed for the existence of other divine/supernatural beings (e.g., angels, demons, jin) but that these other supernatural beings were creatures in distinction from the one true God who is Creator of all.  He says this is “no more a qualification of monotheism than the existence of earthly creatures is.” (p. 108)

He goes on to examine Deuteronomy 32:8-9 and argues against the interpretation that this passage shows some sort of ditheism.  He turns to early Jewish interpretations of the passage in Sirach, the book of Jubilees, and the writings of Philo in which they all understand the Most High and YHWH to be one and the same, not two beings.  Likewise, Bauckham shows how even in “Psalm 82:8, the most ‘polytheistic’ of passages in the Hebrew Bible, the idea of a real kinship of nature between ‘the Most High’ and his ‘sons’, the gods, is already contradicted by the former’s judgment that the latter ‘will die like humans’ (Ps. 82:7).” (p. 119)  One interesting feature of Bauckham’s examination is that ὕψιστος didn’t find use in Philo or Josephus because:

Unlike עליון, ὕψιστος is morphologically a superlative, which might be used in an elative sense (‘very high’), but can also be taken as a true superlative, meaning ‘the highest’ in a series. The latter was its meaning in ordinary Hellenistic religious usage. The god so called was the highest of the gods. This must be why Diaspora Jewish literature, for the most part, avoided it as a properly Jewish usage. (p. 121)

While this was informative and somewhat interesting, when compared to other chapters this one fell a bit flat.  Bauckham’s argument is well-reasoned but I question its overall impact on his work as a whole.  Perhaps it’s too early to tell how important this particular study is given that even Bauckham admits that more work needs to be done in this area.  Time will tell.

To be continued…



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