Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jesus, the ancient Jews and monotheism

Skip this one unless you like theology.  Recently I've corresponded with a Dominican Friar called John who lectures in philosophy and theology at San Antonio University in the USA.  I raised some theological questions with him, including whether Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. This particular question interests me because I have a God-fearing cousin who says Jesus did so claim. I disputed this with him, on the grounds that the only gospel where these claims appear is John, and John is not to be relied upon.  I quoted the views of the Jesus Seminar on this point; but he dismissed them as heretics. Our debate was sadly not a fruitful one ...   

Anyway back to John the Dominican.  On the question of Jesus' use of titles and his knowledge of his divinity, he says this:-
“I doubt that Jesus ever referred to himself as explicitly divine, although I do think that he may have seen himself as the prophetic embodiment of the "son of man".  It is so obscure that it is not clear that the apostles would have picked it out for him if he had not used it about himself.  But what exactly he meant by using this title is simply unknown. Jesus' intuition about his divine mission and mandate certainly did not become fully clear to him until the end of his career - and even he did not expect the resurrection (although he clearly expected some kind of divine vindication). This is a whole other discussion, but I think that it is quite interesting and hardly settled.”
On the reliability of John’s gospel, he has this to say:
“I do not think that John is reliable as a historical document in the modern sense - it is certainly not intended that way.  It is clearly an explicit theological reflection on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus written by someone who was very close to someone who had been there. I think that the author is trying not only to clarify Jesus' identity (both human and divine), but also to help explain what Jesus' identity says about the God that Jews have always believed in.  So Jesus' consciousness acts as a point of meditation and reflection on the plan of God.  That said, the author may well have believed that Jesus has explicit rational consciousness of his identity and mission from the beginning; it is possible, but I don't think that it is probable.”
Ancient Hebrews did not refer to their deity as God

I asked John the Dominican about the development of monotheism, and the question of when the Jews came to believe in one God; and I sought his comment on the words used in the original Greek and Hebrew of the Bible, which are commonly rendered into English as “God”, and what if anything we lose by this translation. He startled me by offering this:
“I am pretty sure that the ancient Hebrews did not mean to refer to their deity as God - God is a term that emerges out of Greek philosophy, and only becomes the general term for the divine powers or forces in early years of the Roman empire.  Monotheism is a concept that was created long after the Hebrew texts were written and only applied to them subsequently. Like any outsiders trying to understand the language system of another, sometimes it is best to just leave certain words or colloquialisms as they are and over time, if we use them frequently enough, we will get the sense of what they really meant. This is why we should not ever fully trust translations - they are always tentative and in need of revision.”
Later he elaborated:-
“I think that the Hebrew people believed that YWHW was their God and the one ‘true’ God - greater than any 'puny' gods of the pagans.  I think that this means that they did not deny the existence of other ‘principalities and powers’ in the world, but denied their power to ‘save’ - they had no ultimate power over human destiny. For the Hebrews their God was the Lord - he had power over all. Jesus would have probably used the term Lord (addonai) to refer to God. He seems to reject reliance or belief in gods other than YHWH as superstition, but does seem to acknowledge other ‘spiritual’ or invisible forces or powers in the world.  But these are not God, and the Lord has power over all of these forces.  What I am saying is that the Jews did not know that they were monotheists - unlike Islam which explicitly claimed to believe in ‘one’ God.  The Hebrews seem mainly to be interested in their God and his power.  The Greek system will categorize them as monotheists, but this is too narrow to explain the rich notion of the Hebrew people's relationship with their God.” 
That’s what I got from John the Dominican.  Karen Armstrong in her History of God draws attention to Psalm 81 (82).  
“ God presides in the great assembly. He judges among the gods. ‘How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality to the wicked?’ “ (World English Bible)
The Psalms, it turns out, are amongst the oldest books in the Old Testament and we have in this passage the clear view that the Jewish god is one amongst many.  Incidentally, most translations I've seen don’t even give God the presiding role in the divine assembly - he upbraids the other gods from the floor of the meeting, so to speak. 
Armstrong provides an alternative translation by John Bowker – “Yahweh takes his stand in the Council of El to deliver judgement among the gods.” So El is the presiding god here, not Yahweh.   
In the New International Version they put “gods” in quotes. The typographical equivalent of holding your nose I suppose.