The last post attempted to show that the idea of worshipping Jesus as God arose out of a purely Jewish milieu, and that it caused both the early followers of Jesus and the Jewish authorities great difficulties. How was it, however, that such a concept arose? If it was not the result of Platonic ideas (and unless one wishes to argue that the earliest Christians were influenced by Plato, it was not) whence came it? The zealous Jew, Saul of Tarsus discovered this on the road to Damascus.
Saul, who became Paul, is an important figure if we wish to understand how Second Temple Judaism saw the followers of Jesus, and how what those followers believed was compatible with Monotheism. This was not the view Saul took when he embarked for Damascus; it was the view he held by the time he got there. We do not know the exact date of the conversion of Paul, but most put it within a year or so of Christ’s crucifixion, and no later than the mid 30s. We know by his own confession (Galatians 1:13-14) that he persecuted the early Church, and we know, also, that what converted him was the revelation that Jesus held a unique and exalted status (Galatians 1:15-16); he suddenly realised that what the followers had been saying, and what he was persecuting them for – namely that Jesus and the Father were in some way one, was true. Far from being in some way incompatible with what he had been taught, this revelation was its fulfilment. This radicalised Paul’s life; it did not mean he ceased to be a monotheist.
Jesus had redeemed believers by becoming a ‘curse for us‘, and he now saw Deuteronomy 21:23 in a new light. That crucifixion which, before the revelation, had seemed evidence that Jesus came under God’s curse for being a false prophet, was now, in its light, a sign of the opposite. As he told the Corinthians in his second epistle to them, there was a veil over the reading of the Scriptures which could be torn away only by Christ; he had been blind, now he could see; but many others remained as blind as he had been.
Paul is keen to emphasise that he inherited a tradition. That tradition he continued, and it had accorded to Jesus the worship which, as a Pharisee he had thought reserved only to God; now he saw Jesus was God, there was nothing wrong with that worship, indeed, quite the opposite. But there was here no renunciation of Monotheism. We can see this clearly in what was probably Paul’s first letter – 1 Thessalonians – where he describes them (they were mainly a Gentile community) as having ‘turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.’
But this is monotheism as no Jew had ever understood it. This went beyond, as we shall see, the idea of Jesus acting as God’s agent, or his ‘wisdom’, although it had Jewish roots there. This was a monotheism in which a man whom many had seen and walked with, was to be identified with God – He was one with the Father. This had been revealed to Paul as it had to the earliest followers of Jesus by revelation: the Spirit had stripped away the veil from Scripture, revealing that Christ Jesus was Messiah and the fulfilment of the Law. Where once such a claim had infuriated Saul, it now inspired Paul. Let us now turn to examine why.