Letter to Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson:
January 16, 1997
Bradley Shavit Artson, Rabbi
Mission Viejo, California 92691
Dear Dr. Artson:
A Jewish scholar and friend of mine passed on to me a copy of your response to "John", an adherent of "Messianic Judaism". You may remember that you informed him that Peter and Andrew generated one version of Christianity and that later Paul generated another. You wrote: "Paul deviated from that biblical definition [of a flesh and blood mortal Messiah who serves God], insisting that the Messiah was himself divine. Most people who claim to follow Jesus see him not as a mere teacher or even as a prophet, but as God." With your permission, let me say that I agree with one aspect of your thinking but disagree with another.
I certainly agree with you that most individuals who call themselves Christians subscribe to the doctrine of the Trinity. When I was a devout Baptist, that was my thinking. Furthermore, I agree with you that the teachings of the Hebrew-Aramaic scriptures leave no room for the view that the Messiah could be the Almighty God and Creator.
Bradley, where I disagree with you, and others who feel similarly, is on the notion of a Pauline Christianity in contradistinction to an earlier more Jewish Christianity. What I mean to say is that Paul's comments about the Messiah are not inconsistent with the other Christian Greek Scripture writers or the Hebrew-Aramaic writers. Now, I know that you find that difficult to accept but let us examine at least two areas where you feel there is disagreement.
Consider what Paul wrote about the relationship between Jesus Christ and God in the following passages:
(1) 1 Corinthians 11:3 "But I want you to know that the head of every man is the Christ, in turn the head of a woman is the man; in turn the head of the Christ is God."
(2) 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 "Next, the end, when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has brought to nothing all government and all authority and power. For he must rule as king until God has put all enemies under his feet. As the last enemy, death is to be brought to nothing. For God subjected all things under his feet. But when he says that 'all things have been subjected', it is evident that it is with the exception of the One who subjected all things to him. But when all things will have been subjected to him, then the Son himself will also subject himself to the One who subjected all things to him, that God may be all things to everyone."
(3) 2 Corinthians 1:3 "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of tender mercies and the God of all comfort."
(4) Ephesians 1:3 "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."
(5) Ephesians 1:17 "That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the accurate knowledge of him."
(6) Colossians 1:13-15 "He delivered us from the authority of the darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son of his love, by means of whom we have our release by ransom, the forgiveness of our sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn or all creation."
Now, let us pause for a moment and reflect upon what Paul wrote. First, he made it clear that even the resurrected Jesus in heaven is not on the level of God. He is clearly subordinate, not equal to God. In some ways, Paul argues, it is like the subordination of a wife to her husband. When the imperfections of life here on earth are erased, then Jesus will turn over "all" to God and "all" , which includes Jesus, will forever be subject to God. יחיח חאלחים חכל בכל Since it is absence any meaning for God to be subject to himself, then it follows that Jesus is one being and God is another. Therefore the "Pauline" Christ is a being subordinate to and distinct from God. This puts Paul at odds with "Churchianity" not Biblical Christianity.
From another perspective, Paul told us that Jesus is now the "image" [εικων] of
God. Now, the implication is that Jesus' 'imaging' is considerably stronger than
Adam's 'imaging' [צלם] of God as reported by the writer at Genesis 1:27. But
whatever, one thing ought to be transparent, you cannot be an image of yourself
for you are yourself. If Jesus is the "image" of God as Paul related, then he
cannot be God.
Paul informed us that Jesus was the "firstborn of all creation". Logically, if Jesus was the "firstborn" [πρωτοτοκος] of all creation, he was a member of creation, a created being. The Creator is without a beginning, asserted the psalmist at Psalm 90; the Messiah had a beginning. This disconnection is a major disconnection, and Paul was one of those who made that disconnection. The so-called "Born Again Christians" have labored with these passages. One strategy has been to give "firstborn" an alternative meaning. But theological stretching is not always invisible.
One more passage from Paul may be even more enlightening:
Hebrews 5:7-9 "In the days of his flesh [Christ] offered up supplications and also petitions to the One who was able to save him out of death, with strong outcries and tears, and he was favorably heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered; and after he had been made perfect he became responsible for everlasting salvation to all those obeying him."
Paul's Messiah was a flesh and blood Messiah who suffered and died. Like the Messiah mentioned by Isaiah at Isaiah 11:2 he had a "godly fear" of the Creator. Like the Messiah of Isaiah 53, through his death others are 'made whole' or find salvation. Isaiah 53 stated it well. Let us use the English translation called TANAKH--THE HOLY SCRIPTURES to examine relevant verses in Isaiah 53:
Verses 4 and 5 "Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing, our suffering that he endured. We accounted him plagued, smitten and afflicted by God; But he was wounded because of our sins, Crushed because of our iniquities. He bore the chatisement that made us whole, And by his bruises we were healed."
Verse 12b "And [he] was numbered
among the sinners, whereas he bore the guilt of the many and made intercession
Again, Paul's Messiah like Isaiah's Messiah was a human who was largely rejected and despised by those to whom he came. He was not a part of a mysterious Trinity.
Let us turn to the question of a "divine" Messiah, a "godlike Messiah". As a rabbi, you must be aware that in the Hebrew-Aramaic Scriptures, angels of God have been designated "gods", in some restricted sense obviously. That would make angels, in a way, "divine". Let us look at two passages that have been cited by Jewish and Christian scholars:
Psalm 8:4, 5 "What is mortal man that you keep him in mind, And the son of earthly man that you take care of him? You proceeded to make him a little less than GODLIKE ONES [ Hebrew: אלחים/gods]"
The Septuagint translates אלחים as "angels".
Psalm 136:2 "Give thanks to the God of the gods."
I probably do not have to inform you that Jewish sages have understood for hundreds of years that the "gods" or "godlike ones" here are the holy angels. Having said that, does not it make perfect sense that a resurrected Messiah could have a similar status? Indeed, the Messianic citation at Isaiah 9:6,7 made the case more forcefully than the Christian Greek Scriptures. There Isaiah wrote: " For there has been a child born to us, there has been a son given to us; and the princely rule will come to be upon his shoulder. And his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. To the abundance of the princely rule and to peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and upon his kingdom in order to establish it firmly and to sustain it by means of justice and by means of righteousness, from now on and to time indefinite. The very zeal of 1r1 r" of armies will do this." I do not have to tell you that this did not happen to Isaiah's son and for that reason for years Jewish scholars recognized this as a Messianic passage. On that score, we must consider that the Messiah would be called a "Mighty God." Notwithstanding that, Isaiah made it plain that this person is not the True God since it is the True God that is placing him in all these roles. Although Paul nowhere calls Jesus by the title "god" or "Mighty God", the Hebrew Bible placed the Messiah in that category as is evidenced above.
History is the witness that the doctrine that Jesus is the True God developed AFTER apostolic Christianity. If you have ever read the 'Church Fathers', as I have, you would have seen the evolution of this dogma as it developed after the apostles, including Paul, had gone. The earliest 'Fathers', men like Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr and Hermas presented Jesus as a created being subordinate to God. These men lived after Paul and the Apostles were dead but before the Trinity heresy developed.
I have more to write about your reply to John but perhaps this letter will
determine whether or not you are interested in a constructive dialogue on the
matter. I am one of Jehovah's Witnesses living in San Diego. Perhaps you are
aware that Jehovah's Witnesses subscribe to Biblical Christianity not the
"Christianity" that developed later and survives to this day. On a more
compatible note, I also teach Modern Hebrew for a local secular college and I
have frequent dialogues with Jewish friends on topics like The existence of God,
Why does God permit suffering?, The evolution-creation controversy etc.