In our discussions on it, we have been assuming that the Judaism of Jesus’ time was monotheistic, but, as is the way of modern scholarship, the nature of what we mean by monotheism has been questioned, indeed, to the extent that some, most notably Jimmy Dunn, have suggested we need a flexible and dynamic conceptualisation of it to allow for the Jewish willingness to envision a host of heavenly beings, including powerful figures likened to God and closely associated with him. [JDG Dunn Christology in the making (second edition; 1989), pp. 321-22] Some have even seen in this a ditheistic tendency and questioned the very idea that Judaism was really monotheistic in the commonly understood way; that, I shall leave to those who have read Margaret Barker’s Great Angel (1992) and have been convinced by it, although she serves a useful purpose in reminding us that we can proceed by evaluating ancient Jewish texts and beliefs in terms of how closely they approximate to our modern view of pure monotheism. I am more comfortable with Dunn’s view about the need for flexibility, and do not get too twisted up when we find Judaism attributing almost God-like status to other beings, even if that amounts to saying ‘if they say they are a monotheist, they are a monotheist.’ Were I learned in the texts, I would still query whether semantic arguments about the meaning of titles and phrases can really get us very far by themselves; this, as I am sure KG would affirm, is why an understanding of how Jews practised their faith is necessary. Here it seems to me that we can see that Jews did distinguish between God and angels and other beings (Moses and Elijah) clothed with God-like attributes, although, not being an expert in the field, it may be that Barker is correct and the Jews were really ditheists.
If, as I have suggested, the context of Jewish worship suggests they meant what they said when they said they believed in “one God’, then it is the same area – the context of worship – that we see what orthodox Jews found so odd about the early followers of Jesus; they participated in public, cultic, worship of Jesus which accorded Him what Jews knew should be reserved for the ‘One God’. Had this been of the nature of the veneration Peter was prepared to offer to Moses and Elijah, then it would seem odd for Christians to have been persecuted; everyone would have known what was going on, and it would have been clear that no blasphemy was intended.
The Jews were used to the idea that God presided over what might be called a ‘heavenly court’ of other exalted beings who were ‘sons of God’. It is some time since I read Nilssons’s ‘The High God and the Mediator’ (Harvard Theological Review 1963) but a quick library search suggests that the broad lines set out there have been accepted. That being so, it was open for Paul and the early Christians, who were, after all, overwhelmingly Jewish, to have enunciated their understanding of Jesus in these terms, and for their fellow Jews to have understood that they were simply adding Jesus to the list of exalted ones – ‘son of God’. Their fellow Jews do not appear to have done so, not because they were in some way prejudiced against the followers of Jesus, but because, from their observations, they were making other claims.
So, it does not seem to me wrong to argue that Jews did not need to read claims about Jesus being ‘God’ as blasphemous; there was a perfectly orthodox meaning which could be applied to such words; the difficulty was that the early followers of Jesus were not using it. What they appeared to be saying was blasphemy – namely that Jesus was actually the ‘One God’. But where on earth had they got such an idea? We know that later Christological arguments drew on Greek philosophical concepts, but that does not explain why such concepts were needed, or, indeed, where the early Jesus movement drew the idea which needed such formulation from.
It would be easy enough to say that what they must have meant was some variation of what an orthodox Jew would have meant when talking about ‘sons of God’, and had they articulated it that way, and had it been taken that way, we should, indeed be in the presence of a radical reforming movement within Second temple Judaism, and we might also be able to say that much later, this was taken over by Gentiles who changed it into something else. However, as Hurtado and others have argued, there is a difficulty here – or to be precise a twofold one: from the beginning the followers of Jesus were persecuted as though they were blasphemers; and they did not make what, had it been true, was the obvious defence – which was that they were perfectly orthodox. What they thought can be seen from the practices in which they indulged – all of which involved giving Jesus the kind of worship which God deserved.
With that attempt, however short, to clear the decks, let me return to the four-fold attempts to explain the origins of what one might call ‘high Christology’.