The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context

TOTG.jpgMcGrath, James F.

The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context

Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009. Pp. ix + 155. Hardcover. $40.00.

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With thanks to the University of Illinois Press for this review copy!


James F. McGrath (Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, Indianapolis, IN) has published broadly in the fields of early Christology and second temple Jewish/Christian monotheism.1 The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context (hereafter TOTG) in many ways represents a distillation of this body of work as well as a refinement and advancement of it.


McGrath’s project is an investigation into just how the earliest beliefs about Jesus factored into second temple Judaism’s monotheistic commitments, the driving question being to what extent were they continuous/discontinuous with it? Was Christianity a monotheistic faith alongside Judaism? Was either religion monotheistic at all? Or did Christianity depart from Judaism’s monotheistic scruples, and if so, at what point? McGrath wants to avoid anachronism at all costs, so while it’s commonly argued that the various NT texts depict Jesus as God in the flesh and as one worshiped by the early Christian community, McGrath suggests that this might be reading later beliefs back into the earliest texts. Chapter 1 is spent introducing the issues of monotheism and some of the popular explanations (e.g., Bauckham’s view of divine identity, Casey’s evolutionary model, Hurtado’s focus on cultic devotion) for what we see happening with Jesus. By appealing to the concept of agency McGrath counters claims that Jesus performing seemingly divine actions, being addressed with divine epithets, and even being honored in ways similar to how God is honored, makes Jesus divine. Jesus is said to perform such works and receive such honors because he is God’s agent par excellence, but this is not evidence that Jesus is God himself, as other agents of God in Jewish literature receive the same types of things.

But what of those scholars such as Larry Hurtado who want to push past the rhetoric in written texts and move into other areas such as cultic devotion in the actual Christian communities? McGrath is game to do so, and in fact, this a significant point of focus in TOTG. Where McGrath differs from Hurtado is not in the importance of cultic devotion as it is in what constitutes the devotion that is due to God alone. Hurtado includes a range of data to include prayers offered to the risen Lord, hymns sung unto the risen Lord, the invocation of Jesus’ name in liturgical settings, and more.2 McGrath argues that we can find examples from archeological discoveries (e.g., ancient epigraphic evidence from Jewish funeral steles [30]) and early Jewish literature (e.g., Philo, 1 Enoch) of others being the recipients of such devotion. McGrath draws the line at sacrifice (chapter 2) which “whether literally or metaphorically,” he says, “is never said to be offered to Jesus.” (54) With this framework in place McGrath examines Paul’s epistles (chapter 3), the Gospel according to John (chapter 4), and the book of Revelation (chapter 5), all with a mind to see what they say about (a) monotheism, (b) Christology, and (c) worship.

A large portion of his chapter on “Monotheism in the Letters Attributed to Paul” is taken up by an excursus into 1 Corinthians 8:6 (38-43) where McGrath argues that Paul is not splitting the Shema (à la Dunn, Wright, Bauckham, Hurtado, et al.3) and somehow including Jesus inside of it, but rather expands it and adds Jesus alongside of it. (39) He makes his case by referring to passages of Scripture (1 Tim. 2:5; 1 Thes. 1:9-10; 2 Sam. 7:22-24) that use “a supplemented Shema” (42) and make additions alongside of it (i.e., “one mediator, the human being Christ Jesus” [1 Tim. 2:5]; the return of Jesus from heaven [1 Thes. 1:9-10]; “one nation that God went out to redeem as a people for himself” [2 Sam. 7:22-24]). This is offered as evidence that something can be added to the outside of the Shema without challenging affirmations of God’s oneness, so while Paul was most certainly “making an unusually exalted claim regarding Jesus” this “was not by definition incompatible with ‘monotheism.’”4 (43) The other major point McGrath makes in his discussion of Paul is that Paul’s Christology must have been within the accepted bounds of Jewish monotheistic faith since he mentions no controversy over it and never seeks to defend it against detractors as he does with his views on the Law. (52)5

When examining “Monotheism and the Gospel of John” McGrath focuses on four points: First, John’s Prologue (1:1-18) in which John’s Logos, much like Philo’s, was the “only boundary marker between God and creation, and the edges were blurred slightly on both sides,” (57) so again, the thing that marked God out as unique was that he “alone [was] worthy to receive sacrificial worship,” and this as opposed to the Creator/creature divide that scholars such as Bauckham argue in favor of. Second, in reference to John 5 & 10, where many suggest Jesus is claiming equality with the Father, he suggests that monotheism was never the issue, because John affirms that there is only one God elsewhere (see e.g., John 17:3). He says, “[t]he issue is whether Jesus has been sent by God and is obedient to God, or whether he is a rebellious, glory-seeking upstart who claims divine prerogatives for himself even though God has not in fact sent him.” (59) So Jesus, as God’s agent, was indeed functionally equal to God as were other agents in Jewish literature. Third, Jesus’ “I Am” statements in John 8 cannot be taken to mean “I am YHWH” since Jesus constantly defers to the Father and speaks of his subordinate role. Fourth, Thomas’ confession of Jesus as Lord and God in John 20:28 is not out of the ordinary when compared to a broader corpus of early Jewish literature.

Nowhere in the NT (except perhaps Hebrews) is cultic worship more at the forefront than in the book of Revelation. With this in mind McGrath turns his attention to how this plays out with reference to God, Christ, and angelic beings. The wide range of meaning (from bowing to full-fledged sacrificial worship) for the verb προσκυνειν (and its cognates) is noted before restating the working assumption that sacrificial worship is offered to God alone. Throughout Revelation, according to McGrath, God is the “recipient of worship… its principal focus… the sole or primary recipient of the worship that is offered” (73) even when the Lamb is included in the devotion received by God. When the Lamb is included it’s merely adulation, honor, and praise that he receives which is “noteworthy, but it is neither unique nor without precedent,” (76) and he never receives sacrifice, except in the case of Revelation 14:4 (cf. 20:6 where another cultic image appears, i.e., believers as ἱερεῖς τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τοῦ χριστοῦ [priests of God and Christ]), which shouldn’t be “pressed too far” because it’s metaphorical. (73) God and the Lamb/Christ share the throne and titles in the book of Revelation but this also “stands within Jewish agency tradition.” (74) But more to the point, McGrath judges it “unlikely that worship is used in Revelation to make a subtle Christological point” (75) since not only are God and the Lamb the recipients of worship, but Christians are as well (Rev. 3:9). It is suggested that angels refuse worship because they are “fellow servants of God together with Christians, and thus Christians are to regard themselves as equal to them.” (79)

Having argued throughout that early Christian devotion to Jesus did not violate first century Jewish monotheism McGrath turns his attention to later rabbinic literature in an attempt to ascertain at what point Jews and Christians “parted ways” over monotheism.6 In dialogue with Alan Segal’s work on the subject McGrath challenges the understanding that the “two powers” heresy can be traced back to the first century, opting rather to see it as arising at some point in the first half of the third century (87). He posits that the burgeoning doctrine of creation ex nihilo and the demarcation between God and creation in the third century provided the grounds upon which rabbinic Judaism would formulate its denial of the “two powers” heresy. “In response to both Gnosticism and to Christianity, the oneness of God was defined in terms of the denial of a ‘second power in heaven’ who functions as, and could thus be confused with, God. In previous times, the distinguishing factor between the one God and other gods and angelic beings was worship, meaning specifically the sacrificial cultic worship of the Jerusalem temple.” (93) McGrath asserts that it is therefore anachronistic to read these later rabbinical concerns into first century texts.

The concluding chapter offers a summary of all that came before it as well as some points of consideration for what this study means, e.g., for the doctrine of the Trinity, for Catholic-Protestant relations, and for our understanding of the development of doctrine.


Now before I move on to my criticisms I’d like to offer some positive remarks on what I think McGrath got right, with a couple of caveats. I think he’s correct to approach the primary sources inductively and seek to define monotheism from the sources themselves and not later constructs.7 I also think that McGrath is correct to pay attention to actual devotional practices, although his investigation is unbalanced in that he gives too much weight to devotional practices at the rhetorical level. And this is where my positive assessment ends. I’ll now focus on the most extreme points of disagreement.

Sacrificial Worship

McGrath follows J. Lionel North in identifying sacrifice as the dividing line between what constitutes the unique worship due to God alone and what is acceptable for beings other than God.8 However, North admits, as McGrath does, that blood sacrifice was tied to the temple. This is of no small significance since Jewish Christians were never the leaders in the Jewish temple. The type of sacrifice that McGrath would expect to see would be impossible on these grounds alone since no provision was (or could be) made for Jesus to receive sacrifice in the temple. There’s also the glaring issue of Gentiles never offering sacrifice to God in the temple. By North and McGrath’s reasoning Gentile Christians never worshiped God (or at the very most only a small minority did)!

Where McGrath and North part company is that North goes on to point out that after the destruction of the temple in AD 70 “bloodless sacrifices” such as “prayer, Torah-study, and philanthropy” were acceptable substitutes for animal sacrifice, indeed, “the New Testament knows of, indeed urges, that ‘bloodless’ sacrifices be offered.”9 North simply denies that such was ever offered to Jesus but bloodless sacrifices were offered to Jesus in the form of prayers (e.g., Acts 1:24-25, 7:59-60, cf. “calling on the name of the Lord” in e.g., Rom. 10:13; 1 Cor. 1:2, which is an expression regularly invoked in settings of cultic worship in the OT [e.g., 1 Chron. 16:8; Ps. 116:13; Zeph. 3:9]).10 Also, it’s quite surprising that McGrath ignores 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 in his treatment of Paul’s letters even though he is clearly aware of its relevance (see 117 n. 36). This text is significant because Jesus is contrasted with the pagan deities to whom sacrifice is offered; hence he functions in Paul’s mind as an object of worship in the same manner that the pagan deities do to the pagans.11

And as noted above, McGrath denies that even metaphorical sacrifice is offered to Jesus (at least in Paul), yet this ignores Romans 16:5 in which Epenetus is said to be the ἀπαρχὴ τῆς Ἀσίας εἰς Χριστόν (firstfruits of Asia to Christ) drawing from the imagery of the firstfruits sacrifice offered to God in the OT (e.g., Exod. 23:16, 19). Revelation 14:4 also speaks of the 144,000 as being offered as ἀπαρχὴ τῷ θεῷ καὶ τῷ ἀρνίῳ (firstfruits to God and the Lamb)12 which McGrath suggests should not be “pressed too far” since it’s metaphorical and it “need mean no more than that this group represents the first of a larger group to be dedicated to God and the Lamb.” (73) This is precisely the type of devotion that McGrath argues God alone receives. The firstfruits offering was “the first of a larger group to be dedicated to God” and this dedication occurred in a cultic setting. It’s no coincidence that the setting in Revelation 14 is also cultic. This seems too convenient a dismissal in light of the strong emphasis given to sacrificial worship as a divider between agency and deity.

But more to the heart of McGrath’s insistence on sacrifice as the unique feature of worship due to God, there are plenty of texts that undermine this understanding, some of which McGrath notes and dismisses (Philo, Legat. 116; LXX Esther 13:12-14) and some that he ignores (Dan. 3; Acts 10:25-26; 14:11-15). In some of these texts Jews refuse to prostrate themselves so as not to violate their monotheistic commitments (Philo, Legat. 116; LXX Esther 13:12-14; Dan. 3) because to do so would be more than the mere act of bowing, it would constitute worship that is due to God alone. In the other texts Jews refuse such honor because they don’t want to be taken as competition to God (Acts 10:25-26; 14:11-15) and thus receive the worship that is due to God alone. So it won’t do to simply note that “worship” has a broad range of meaning and is ambiguous (7, 18, 29, 72, 75) but then treat every use of the προσκυ- wordgroup to denote prostration when applied to anyone other than God. (7, 18-19, 50, 75, 78) To do so simply begs the question.13

Controversy, or, the Lack thereof

Following James D. G. Dunn, McGrath insists that the apparent lack of controversy over Paul’s Christology is evidence of lack, rather than lack of evidence.14 It’s not surprising that Paul mentions no controversy over his Christology, the reason being, quite simply, that he was writing to believers with like-minds. So McGrath is surely correct when he says, “That Paul does not defend the exalted status he attributes to Christ suggests that he did not need to.” (52) But he’s on less firm footing when he continues, “Paul’s portrait of Jesus was firmly within the boundaries of first-century Jewish belief in God as one: Jesus offers himself to God ‘for us’ but is never himself envisaged as the recipient of sacrifice.” (52) When we do find Paul defending a particular position against opponents it’s always an intramural debate such as in Galatians where Paul argues against the so-called Judaizers. Paul has to defend his position on the Law against other believing Jews who are causing trouble within the community. We don’t find him taking the time to address non-believing Jews directly, although Hurtado has argued that there is plenty to be gleaned from the NT, including Paul’s letters, which supports that there was opposition to Christ devotion prior to AD 70.15 Hurtado’s article directly addresses the argument that McGrath is making, insomuch as it addresses the argument that Dunn made a decade earlier. Unfortunately, McGrath doesn’t interact with this material at all.

Errant Trajectories

McGrath seems to assume at times that some sort of ditheism or departure from monotheism is what would/should have resulted had Jesus been accorded the type of worship reserved for God alone, so e.g., we read statements like:

  • “Nothing whatsoever in this passage [1 Thes. 1:9-10] hints that a departure from monotheism could be envisaged by either the author or his readers. The same, I suggest, is true in I Corinthians 8 as well.” (42)
  • “And so, given the important roles and status which were attributed to various mediator figures within the context of first-century Judaism, there is no reason to suggest that Paul’s presentation of Jesus as God’s agent, who occupies a unique role as mediator and has delegated to him the functions and honors of God, would have been felt to be a denial of belief in ‘one God.’” (52)
  • “However, Jesus is never understood to be ‘one Lord’ in any sense that opposes the ultimate sovereignty of the one God…” (53)
  • “If John had been asked in his day and age, ‘Are Christians monotheists?’ I am convinced that he would have answered with an unreserved ‘Yes.’” (69)
  • “And so the depiction of Christ in the Book of Revelation represents a development within the context of Jewish monotheism rather than a development away from Jewish devotion to only one God.” (76)

But it is precisely a move away from monotheism that scholars like Hurtado and Bauckham argue against in their published work!16 Rather they see devotion to Jesus as an innovation within Jewish monotheism and thus not a violation of it.


Coupled with the narrow definition of exclusive worship as sacrificial worship, agency is used as a catchall concept that can explain away literally any and all data that would otherwise be seen as evidence of a divine Christology.17 McGrath notes that agency has to do with representation and delegated authority. He cites various examples from the ancient world and quotes the rabbinic dictum, “the one sent is like the one who sent him.” (14, 59) We find this sort of agency represented throughout the Gospels (e.g., Matt. 10:40; Luke 10:16; John 13:20), yet John presses Jesus’ relationship with God beyond these bounds in expressing how the Father and the Son are intrinsic to one another, hence we read statements from Jesus like, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9) and “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (14:10-11 cf. 10:38).18

So we can agree that agency can be used to explain the authority that Jesus possesses but we will challenge that it can explain the cultic devotion that he receives. Apostles in the NT and even angels can be seen as fulfilling the role of God’s agent, a point that McGrath recognizes. (14) They were sent with a divine commission to act on God’s behalf, and while they were to be received just as God should be received they were not worshiped as God is to be worshiped. Notice that Peter, Paul, Barnabus, and an angel/messenger all rejected worship on the basis of their not being God (Acts 10:25-26, 14:11-15; Rev. 19:10).19 A mere agent receiving worship on behalf of God or in God’s place would be blatant idolatry and a violation of the second commandment (Exod. 20:4-5).20 Jesus on the other hand received worship without incident.

Mehrdad Fatehi’s work The Spirit’s Relation to the Risen Lord in Paul is also worth noting here because he shows that Jesus is said to be present and active among the churches through the Spirit in Paul’s letters. Paul uses a pattern of language about the Spirit in connection to Jesus that is only used in other Jewish literature about the Spirit in connection to God. In other words, not even the concept of agency can account for the kind of relational connection Paul makes between God and Christ via the Spirit.21 This bespeaks a significant lacuna in McGrath’s project, that is, the relational aspect of monotheism and Christology.22

And lastly, one wonders why, if the types of reverence that Jesus was accorded did not violate monotheism, we don’t see more of it throughout Jewish literature. One might think that such a common feature of second temple Judaism would be more widespread.

The Shema and 1 Corinthians 8:6 Sans Context

Perhaps the biggest problem with his chapter on Paul is his treatment of 1 Corinthians 8:6. To start, some of his alleged parallels (i.e., 2 Sam. 7:22-24 & 1 Thes. 1:9-10) are doubtful. Neither passage employs “one God” language nor can be convincingly argued to be presenting an “expanded Shema” on verbal grounds, i.e., we find no reference to יהוה/κυριος (Lord) or אלהים/θεος (God) being אחד/εἱς (one).23 The conceptual ties between these passages seem forcefully applied as well but, for the sake of argument, let’s say that these are examples of an “expanded Shema.” So what? At best this shows that the Shema can be used to various ends, which is exactly what we see throughout Paul’s epistles (e.g., Rom. 3:30; 1 Cor. 8:4-6; Gal. 3:20; Eph. 4:4-6; 1 Tim. 2:5).24

But the bigger issue, arguably, is McGrath’s myopic treatment of 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 without reference to its purpose and function in the larger unit of 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 and how Paul draws from Deuteronomy in response to the issue of idolatry.25 1Corinthians 8:1-3 begins Paul’s argument in terms of a “relational monotheism” where “whoever loves God is known by God” (1 Cor. 8:3).26 That love is foundational for the Shema (which extends past Deut. 6:4) is evident in the command to “love the LORD with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:5 cf. 1 Cor. 16:22 where Paul says, “Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord.”) In 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 Paul goes on to reiterate that there is “one God” (cf. Deut. 4:35, 39) before calling for exclusive devotion to the “one God, the Father” and the “one Lord, Jesus Christ” (cf. Deut. 6:4) over and against idols (Deut. 4:15-31; 5:7-9; 6:14-15 cf. 1 Cor. 8:4-13; 10:7, 14-21).27

More important than Paul’s “splitting” or “adding to” the Shema is that he takes a section of Scripture calling for exclusive devotion to YHWH and uses it in the service of calling for exclusive devotion to God and Christ.  Paul’s argument, which he began in relational terms and then built into exclusive devotional terms, will combine the two in 1 Corinthians 10:16-2128 before concluding with the rhetorical questions, “Are we trying to provoke the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (cf. Deut. 4:24; 5:9; 6:15; 32:16, 21). God’s jealously is foundational for why he calls Israel to exclusive devotion. Paul plays on this theme in arguing that the Corinthians cannot share their allegiances with anyone other than the Lord Jesus Christ without provoking his jealousy, thus the Lord relates to believers as God relates to Israel in Paul’s argument.

Exaggerated Evidence

McGrath cites the discovery of two Jewish funeral steles from the late second or early first century BC that invoke angels along with God the Most High and the Lord as evidence that invocation or prayer to figures other than God did not constitute worship proper and therefore did not violate monotheism.29 It should be noted that McGrath uses this to insist that “cultic worship” which includes “prayer, hymnic adoration, invocation and other practices” (29) is inadequate as a boundary marker for monotheism, but as Clinton Arnold notes, “There is no cultic worship of angels reflected in this text.”30 These steles do not provide reason to believe that Jewish groups gathered regularly to worship angels so we have no analogy for the religious practices associated with Jesus in the early Christian communities. Where there is evidence of genuine cultic worship in the form of inscriptions of Jews offering thanks to God in a temple of Pan, McGrath dismisses it as “retain[ing] the character of exceptions that prove the rule.” (33)31

McGrath also makes too much of the names “Yahoel” and “the little Yahweh” (74, 122 n. 7) in saying that “the transfer of designations to God’s agent (including ones that normally belong to God alone) is a frequent feature of Jewish and Christian texts from this period.” (74) First of all, two examples do not constitute a “frequent feature” and no more evidence is offered in support of this claim.32 Secondly, “the little Yahweh” is a title that comes from 3 Enoch which is not a text from “this period.”33 McGrath is obviously aware of this (89) and even at one point says that “the use of documents dating from centuries after the time being studied would be considered methodologically suspect.” (83) So Hurtado is surely correct to say, “Given the late date of 3 Enoch, we must be cautious about taking the ideas in it as indicative of Enoch traditions in the pre-Christian period.”34

McGrath quotes Philo Her. 206 in part 7 times (13 [2x], 56, 57 [2x], 69, 92) where he presents the Logos as “neither uncreated nor created,” which is then offered as evidence against the Creator/creature divide being what marked YHWH’s uniqueness. It is by no means certain that Philo’s Logos is as “blurry” as McGrath suspects.  Kenneth Schenck says that “In this passage Philo puts the Logos on the created side of the equation.”35 When read in context we notice that the Father is said to have given birth to everything and that he gave a special gift to the Logos to stand between the extremes.  One could argue that this was not always true of the Logos. But even if McGrath’s case for this “blurriness” in Philo can be made, it’s a stretch to attribute to this view some sort of widespread acceptance among second temple era Jews.


TOTG is an ambitious book for its size and I’d like to say that its brevity is the reason for its shortcomings. One might say that McGrath couldn’t do what he set out to do simply because he didn’t afford himself enough space to do it. In what space he does take up (a scant 104 pages of main text and an additional 26 pages of endnotes), McGrath fails to present compelling arguments for primary points. On a brighter note I can say that McGrath writes well, although at times it wasn’t clear who his intended audience was, e.g., he goes through great pains to explain what monotheism is and is not, which assumes the reader is unfamiliar with the subject, but then he doesn’t interact with key texts because they are “well-known.”36 But to whom are they well-known? The bibliography as well as the ancient source and subject indexes are welcomed features even if the endnotes were a chore. I want to be more enthusiastic about this work because of my respect for its author; unfortunately, the work itself won’t allow it. While I can’t recommend TOTG as a source of useful study, I think it merits engagement from scholars in the field.37


1 See John’s Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology (SNTSMS 111; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); w/ Jerry Truex, “‘Two Powers’ and Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism,” JBS 4/1 (2004): 43-71, w/ Truex, “Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism: A Select Bibliography” in Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism (eds. Loren T. Stuckenbruck and Wendy E. S. North; JSNTSup 263; London: T&T Clark, 2004): 235-42; “Johannine Christianity – Jewish Christianity?” Koinonia 8/1 (1996): 1-20; “Going Up and Coming Down in Johannine Legitimation,” Neot 31/1 (1997): 107-18; “Prologue as Legitimation: Christological Controversy and the Interpretation of John 1:1-18,” IBS 19 (1997): 98-120; “Change in Christology: New Testament Models and the Contemporary Task,” ITQ 63/1 (1998): 39-50; “A Rebellious Son?: Hugo Odeberg and the Interpretation of John 5.18,” NTS ­44/3 (1998): 470-73; “Christology on Two Fronts: A New Testament Model for ‘Doing’ Christology in a Pluralistic Context,” R&T 6/1 (1999): 65-82. Unpublished works include a number of societal paper presentations. The influence of McGrath’s former work is evident throughout the present volume.

2 See Larry W. Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions About Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 28; cf. idem., One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Christian Monotheism, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 100-114; idem., “The Binitarian Shape of Early Christian Worship,” in The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism: Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus (eds. Carey C. Newman, et al.; JSJSup 63; Leiden: Brill, 1998), 187-213, reprinted as chapter 3 of At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Early Christian Devotion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 63-97.

3 See James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 1989), 180; idem. The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 253; Hurtado, One God, One Lord, 97; idem. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 114; N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992), 129; idem., The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992), 362; Richard Bauckham, 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), 97-104; Gordon D. Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study (Peabody, MA: Hendricksen, 2006), 89-94; 502-04; 562-64.

4 McGrath goes on to highlight the fact that exalted claims are also made of Abel son of Adam in The Testament of Abraham 12-13 and the Elect One in 1 Enoch 61:8; 62:9.

5 Less important for McGrath’s purposes are texts that appear to be speaking of Jesus’ personal preexistence and role in creation (Col. 1:15-20), which McGrath sees as metaphorical, but even if taken literally such language wouldn’t “move beyond the bounds of first-century Jewish monotheism” (47) since such language is used of Wisdom without issue. The title “Lord” and application of OT YHWH texts to Jesus are “intended to present Jesus as God’s agent, who shares in God’s rule and authority.” (49) Other beings such as the angel Yahoel in the Apocalypse of Abraham are invested with God’s name (cf. Enoch-Metatron who is called “the little Yahweh” in 3 Enoch).

6 This chapter is a revision of an article co-authored with Jerry Truex (see n. 1 above).

7 Unfortunately this approach is not taken consistently throughout this volume. McGrath says, “We shall attempt to take into account all relevant types of evidence and, most important, the perception of outsiders regarding what was typical of Judaism in this period. By doing so, we can get a glimpse of what Jewish belief and worship looked like in this period and what kinds of ‘worship’ were offered and to whom.” (22) I won’t deny the validity of examining all possible evidence, but how outsiders perceived Jewish beliefs and practices is ultimately irrelevant.

8 J. Lionel North, “Jesus and Worship, God and Sacrifice” in Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism (eds. Loren T. Stuckenbruck and Wendy E. S. North; JSNTSup 263; London: T&T Clark, 2004): 186-202.

9 North, “Jesus and Worship,” 199.

10 John 14:14 (“If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” [NRSV]) is noteworthy for this point as well since Jesus assures the disciples that he will answer their prayers. There is some textual variation in this verse but the inclusion of με is supported in the earliest manuscripts: P66 P75 א B W Δ Θ 060 ƒ13 28 33 700. See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 208; Philip Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2008), 309.

11 See Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, 145-46; cf. Fee, Pauline Christology, 131-33; Robert M. Bowman Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007), 67.

12 “The presentation of saints as ‘firstfruits’ develops further the idea of Christians as sacrifices to the Lord. In the OT the ‘firstfruits’ of the harvest were offered to God at the sanctuary to show that they especially belonged to him and to signify that he was the sovereign owner of the whole. The offering of the ‘firstfruits’ also foreshadowed that the rest would soon be gathered in accordance with the Owner’s sovereign provision. In this manner the rest of the harvest was consecrated to God so that it could be used by his people for their everyday needs. In the same manner, ἀπαρχὴ in the LXX refers to a sacrificial offering to God as ‘firstfruits’ at the sanctuary.” (G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation [NIGTC; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999], 742).

13 McGrath repeatedly emphasizes the importance of context when dealing with sociological issues so it’s surprising that he underplays its significance for linguistic issues such as determining a word’s meaning. He says, “The Greek word for “worship” (proskynesis) could denote a range of practices, from prostration before another individual to animal sacrifice. The practice of the former before figures distinct from God did not always raise controversy in a Jewish context, while the latter pretty much always did.” (7) This is true so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. One cannot assume that the lack of animal sacrifice automatically relegates every use of προσκυνεσις to prostration and nothing else. The context must be considered before making such judgments. On the determinative function of context see Moisés Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 137-69.

14 James D. G. Dunn, “How Controversial was Paul’s Christology?” in From Jesus to John: Essays on Jesus and New Testament Christology in Honour of Marinus de Jonge (ed. Martinus C. De Boer; JSNTSup 84; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), 148-67; reprinted in idem., The Christ and the Spirit, Volume 1: Christology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 212-28.

15 Larry Hurtado, “Pre-70 CE Jewish Opposition to Christ-Devotion,” JTS 50 (1999): 35-58; reprinted in How on Earth, 152-78.

16 So e.g., Hurtado says, “monotheism has to be reckoned as one of the important forces or factors that, together with other factors to be sure, helps account for the why and how of Jesus-devotion, particularly in the formative period and among those Christian circles that sought to maintain an authentic relation with the tradition of biblical monotheism. The Jesus-devotion attested in the New Testament writings, for example, operates in such a context. That is, Jesus is not reverenced as another deity of any independent origin or significance; instead, his divine significance is characteristically expressed in terms of his relationship to the one God. […] In other words, the vigorous Jesus-devotion promoted in New Testament writings and, as we shall see, perpetuated and developed also in Christian circles of the second century does not amount to a separate cultus offered to Jesus as a new second god.” (Lord Jesus Christ, 52-53, italics mine). Cf. idem., One God, One Lord, xiii. Bauckham’s category of the “unique divine identity” is formulated precisely to avoid the idea that early Christology can be equated to a move away from second temple Jewish monotheism; seeing Jesus as somehow “intrinsic” to the divine identity safeguards against any form or ditheism. In fact, Bauckham argues that “If Paul were understood as adding the one Lord to the one God of whom the Shema‘ speaks, [recall that this is McGrath’s position] then, from the perspective of Jewish monotheism, we would certainly be producing, not christological monotheism, but outright ditheism.” (Jesus and the God of Israel, 101).

17 It’s not unreasonable to think that if the type of sacrifice that McGrath is looking for was offered to Jesus it could be understood as acceptable on this concept of agency. All one would have to do is say, “Of course Jesus receives worship, he’s God’s agent par excellence.”

18 Notice that in these passages Jesus doesn’t merely speak of his delegated authority as he does elsewhere in the Gospel (e.g., 5:19-47); rather he speaks of the Father who dwells in him doing the works.

19 McGrath repeatedly highlights that προσκυνειν needn’t denote sacrificial worship but can be used of prostration in honor of a human. (19, 50) This is true so far as it goes but then one wonders why divinely commissioned apostles and angels/messengers would refuse such honor if it didn’t infringe upon the honor that was due to God alone.

20 The Israelites believed that they were worshiping YHWH himself when they made the golden calf (see esp. Exod. 32:4-5) and yet they were guilty of idolatry for worshiping something in place of God.

21 Mehrdad Fatehi, The Spirit’s Relation to the Risen Lord in Paul: An Examination of Its Christological Implications (WUNT II/128; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000).

22 See Chris Tilling, “Paul’s Divine-Christology: The Relation Between the Risen Lord and Believers in Paul, and the Divine-Christology Debate” (Ph.D. diss., Brunel University, 2009) which complements Fatehi’s work by examining Paul’s pattern of language concerning the risen Lord’s relationship to believers, a pattern of language that is used of God in his relationship to Israel. This, once again, goes beyond what we can expect of the concept of agency.

23 We do find reference toגוי אחד (one/unique nation) in 2 Sam. 7:23 but this is at best a strained connection.

24 See Suzanne Nicholson, Dynamic Oneness: The Significance and Flexibility of Paul’s One-God Language (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2010). Cf. Richard Bauckham, “Biblical Theology and the Problems of Monotheism,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation (eds. Craig Bartholomew, et al.; SHS 5; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 187-229, esp. 218-29, reprinted in idem., Jesus and the God of Israel, 60-106, esp. 94-106.

25 This omission seems intentional since McGrath is obviously aware of the connection (44, 52-53).

26 See chapter 4 of Tilling, Paul’s Divine Christology (forthcoming). In short, “relational monotheism” understands God’s uniqueness in his relationship to believers. Notice how Moses appeals to the superior relationship between YHWH and Israel when he asks, “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we call on him?” (Deut. 4:7)

27 See just a few verses earlier in 1Cor. 7:32-35 where Paul makes his case for a life of singleness and lists the benefit as εὐπάρεδρον τῷ κυρίῳ ἀπερισπάστως (“unhindered devotion to the Lord” NRSV).

28 Note the relational terms Paul employs throughout this passage: κοινωνία (“communion/participation” [vs. 16]), μετέχομεν (“partake/share” [vs. 17]), κοινωνοὶ (“partakers/partners” [vs. 18]), κοινωνοὺς (“participant/partner” [vs. 20]), and μετέχειν (“partake” [vs. 21]) in stating that the Corinthians cannot share in the Lord’s table and the table of demons.

29 McGrath suggests that if one were to argue that this was the case then they would “have to acknowledge the widespread persistence of Jewish polytheism well into the Hellenistic age.” (30) But this presses the evidence further than it can go since two funeral steles hardly constitutes “widespread persistence” and the alternative explanation of syncretism is viable (see Clinton E. Arnold, The Colossian Syncretism: The Interface between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae [WUNT II/77; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1995; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996], 46-7).

30 Arnold, The Colossian Syncretism, 44, emphasis mine. Cf. Larry Hurtado, “First Century Jewish Monotheism,” JSNT 71 (1998): 3-26, esp. 17-22, reprinted in idem., How on Earth, 111-33, esp. 121-29.

31 In a recent post on his blog entitled “Daniel Kirk, Richard Bauckham, and Rule Proving Exceptions” (Exploring Our Matrix, 14 Dec. 2010) online at accessed on 15 Dec. 2010, McGrath approvingly quotes J. R. Daniel Kirk as saying, “it made me wonder when we get to call something that falls outside our preferred paradigm an exception that ‘proves’ the rule rather than ‘shows us that the rule has important exceptions that might undermine the force of the argument.’” (J. R. Daniel Kirk, “Divine Identity Christology” [Storied Theology, 14 Dec. 2010] online at accessed on 15 Dec. 2010). I wonder the same thing with regard to the alleged exceptions that McGrath proposes.

32 Ironically, this is a frequent feature throughout the NT with reference to Jesus, e.g., “Lord of lords” (God: Deut. 10:17; Ps. 136:3 / Jesus: 1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 17:14; 19:16); “the First and the Last” (God: Isa. 44:6; 48:12 / Jesus: Rev. 1:11, 17; 2:8; 22:13); YHWH/Kyrios (God: Joel 2:32 [MT/LXX 3:5] / Jesus: Rom. 10:13); “I Am” (God: Isa. 41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 45:18; 46:4; 51:12; 52:6 / Jesus: John 4:26; 6:20; 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19; 18:5-6, 8).

33 3 Enoch is a late pseudepigraphical work, the “main kernel” (i.e., chapters 3-15) of which P. S. Alexander dates to between AD 450 and AD 850; see P. S. Alexander “The Historical Setting of the Hebrew Book of Enoch,” JJS 28 (1977): 156-80, here 161-62. Cf. John J. Collins, “Enoch, Books of” in Dictionary of New Testament Background (eds. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 317 and Craig A. Evans, Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies: A Guide to the Background Literature (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005), 31, who both date the text to between the fifth and sixth century AD. Also noteworthy is A. Murtonen’s suggestion that Metatron was modeled in part after Jesus. See A. Murtonen, “The Figure of Metatrôn,” VT 3/4 (1953): 409-11.

34 Hurtado, One God, One Lord, 55.

35 Kenneth Schenck, A Brief Guide to Philo (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 62.

36 See James F. McGrath, “Ecce Recensus: The Only True God Persuades a Skeptic” (Exploring Our Matrix, 20 July 2009) online at accessed on 16 Dec. 2010, where McGrath says, “As for the point that more discussion of primary source material outside of the New Testament could have been provided, I’m sure this is true. I tried to focus the most attention on neglected evidence, such as the statements of non-Jews about Jewish beliefs and practices, and the inscriptional and epigraphic evidence, rather than simply revisiting texts that are well-known, and so inevitably some well-accepted understandings of primary source material were at times assumed rather than defended.” (emphasis mine)

37 I’m aware that Larry Hurtado has written a review of this work and has carried on an extended dialog with McGrath concerning it. I have not yet had the opportunity to read through this material. In my opinion it would be beneficial to see Bauckham write a formal response since he bears the brunt of McGrath’s criticisms throughout this volume.


22 thoughts on “The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context

  1. Merry Christmas Nick. Thanks for taking the time to put together a truly excellent review. Your thoughtfulness and work is evident.

  2. I loves you!! <3 It was well worth the wait — a great review indeed.

    Personally I think the strongest case that McGrath has is the "lack of controversy"-argument. I've read Hurtado's article and although he makes some good points, I do not feel that it is convincing enough to once and for all defeat the "lack of controversy"-argument. If the early Christians were going around claiming that Yeshua was YHWH in the flesh, there would have been a far greater outcry then what we encounter in the NT (although perhaps I'm willing to agree that the Gospel of John reflects a controversial high christology). Where is the notion of the Messiah being God in Acts, or even a divine Son for that matter? If anything the controversies would have been at least hinted at. Sure, "calling upon the name of the Lord" and Paul's zeal for the blasphemous claims of the Christians most not be ignored; but yet I wonder if can't be explained by a super-mutation-mega-agency ascribed to Yeshua, since that would have not have cause THAT much of a controversy (or perhaps I reaaaally don't know what I'm talking about) compared to claiming that Messiah really is YHWH in Acts 2:21 (without any clarification on that issue[!])

    Sorry for odd syntax and various typos, but my wife is forcing me to watch a Disney movie and she can not wait any longer.

    To summarize: hasiuhgfosjdvfoasdf sifduh f

    Blessing in the one Lord

  3. Sorry for the double post.

    Nick, I must ask. If one chooses not to view the angel of the LORD as Christophonies, would this character give the agency view more validity?

  4. Pär: Thanks! Personally, I’m not persuaded by the lack of controversy argument because the NT seems to bear witness to the ubiquity of belief in the deity of Christ. There’s no one trying to sneak into the Christian communities in order to deny the deity of Christ, in fact, the opposite is the case (see 1 John and anti-proto-docetic polemic). Concerning Hurtado’s article on the subject, I don’t personally find it very persuasive when it comes to the Gospels because I’m not of the opinion that each Gospel represents the situation of so-called Gospel communities (Crispin Fletcher-Louis offers some good criticisms of Hurtado on this point in a recent article). I think his case for Paul is better though. But more to the point of McGrath’s work is the lack of engagement with it. It directly addresses a main point of contention so it was a bit perplexing to not see it interacted with.

    As far as the Messiah being God in Acts I think a good case can be made from Luke’s use of κυριος with reference to Jesus. This, of course, carries over from his Gospel, so the two need to be read in conjunction. C. Kavin Rowe’s Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke is a great place to start. Then check out his article Acts 2.36 and the Continuity of Lukan Christology for a bit more. But there’s so much in Acts 2 that points in this direction — Peter (as Luke reports) makes several appeals to YHWH texts and applies them to Jesus, e.g., Acts 2:17-21 references Joel 2:28-32. The “great and terrible day of YHWH” in Joel becomes the “the Lord’s [i.e., Jesus’] great and glorious day” in Acts 2:20; “Call[ing] on the name of YHWH” in Joel 2:32 becomes “call[ing] on the name of the Lord [Jesus]” in Acts 2:21; Acts 2:25 cites Psalm 16:8 and Peter applies “kyrios” = “YHWH” to Jesus; etc. Believing in this kind of stuff was at least somewhat controversial since it got Stephen killed!

    As far as the angel of the LORD is concerned, I don’t think it adds any more validity to the concept of agency, but I don’t think it takes any away from it either. Agency is a valid concept that can account for God-sent agents acting on God’s behalf; but it can’t account for the type of cultic devotion that Hurtado points out and it can’t account for the relational Christology that Fatehi and Tilling point out.

  5. I’d suggest further following up on the connection of the concepts of “Messiah” and “Son of God.” The equation was not controversial. The understanding of that equation differed between the Christian and Jewish communities, the former of which had (and has!) experience of Jesus Christ as Son of God in a particular way that was more than was expected in the Messiah=Son of David=Son of God relationship as understood in first century Judea. “Son of Man” may also play into this understanding (though this needs more investigation), originating in the Hebrew ben adam, “son of Adam,” and coming by the first century to bear a connotation of not just “human” but as “the son of Adam par excellence” or “the legitimate heir of Adam,” i.e., the legitimate heir as ruler of the world, which is effectively the same thing as “Son of David,” in following all the genealogies of the OT, which is precisely what the proto-rabbis would have done. This would make sense of Christ, Messiah, Son of God, Son of David, and Son of Man as all correlative terms for the one expected individual Messiah, the expected heir of David.

    For the equation of Messiah with Son of David and Son of God, see especially:
    William Horbury, Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ (SCM Press Ltd, 1998)

    Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature (Eerdmans, 2008)

    I’m thoroughly convinced that this approach is the only fruitful one in understanding all of the NT usage of “Son of God.” The Divine nature of the Messiah is merely thus a continuation and extension of the OT conception of the Son of David. Other approaches need to take that into serious consideration.

    Excellent review, Nick! It was thoroughly enjoyable and very informative. It’s exemplary.

  6. Kevin: Thanks! I really do need to read Horbury’s book. As for the Collins’ book, I enjoyed JJ’s portion much more than AY’s.

    Pär: My pleasure.

  7. Oh, me too, on the JJC versus AYC front. Especially after the Horbury and some other discussions of Philippians 2 that I’d just read. The OT stuff by JJC was awesome. I think he and Horbury are closer to the same approach than either realize, differing only in nuance. And in that, I see more development on JJC’s part toward Horbury than vice versa.

    “Son of Man” studies still need to break out of their Religionsgeschichtliche Schule shell, though! (I couldn’t resist the potential for alliteration, there. Sorry!)

  8. Nick, thank you again for such a thorough, detailed review. I have posted some thoughts by way of response on my blog.

    But for those who may not click through, let me restate one of the key points in that post here: there have been more positive reviews that didn’t seem to engage with the book as substantially as your review did, nor give me as much helpful feedback to reflect on. And so while there are (unsurprisingly, I’m sure) points at which I disagree with your assessment, I am extremely grateful for your review, and would be delighted to continue the “bloggersation” to whatever extent you have interest in doing so. Thanks!

  9. James: Thanks for pointing your response out. Today is my daughter’s birthday so it might be a little while before I can take a look at it. At this point I will say that I’m content to let you have the last word since I had so many in the review. I’ve spent a lot of time with your work (I read it three times!) and don’t know that I have it in me at the moment to carry on an extended dialog but we’ll see what happens. Let me just thank you in advance for correcting any misunderstandings I may have had.

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