Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament's Christology of Divine Identity

By Richard Bauckham
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2008). 285 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Trevor Craigen
21.1 (Spring 2010) : 105-108

The 1998 publication of Bauckham’s God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament becomes the first chapter of the book under review. Six other essays, compiled over a ten-year period, and an exegetical/ theological note have been added. All are independent, self-contained essays. Because they are all connected to Bauckham’s theme in his first book, some degree of overlapping occurs. To the author, these are working papers moving him towards the completion of a much more comprehensive study than that done so far—a study to be entitled Early Jewish Monotheism and New Testament Christology (xi). Interested in the “strict” monotheism in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism? Then a good deal of fresh material will be provided by the book being reviewed. Interested in NT Christology? Then the work has further grist for the mill as well. The author observes that the Jews of the period mentioned “drew the line of distinction between the one God and all other reality clearly, and were in the habit of distinguishing God from all other reality by means of certain clearly articulated criteria” (3). A paragraph or two later, he writes “[H]igh Christology is possible within a Jewish monotheistic context, not by applying to Jesus a Jewish category of semi-divine intermediary status, but by identifying him directly with the one God of Israel, including Jesus in the unique identity of this one God” (3). In fact, this was perhaps unprecedented in Jewish theology. “Their self-conscious monotheism was not merely an intellectual belief about God, but a duty of belief and praxis, involving the exclusive worship and exclusive obedience to this one God” (5). Monolatry and monotheism in tandem! Identifying Jesus with God is the important fact hammered home repeatedly in all these essays.

The author brings out in his treatment of high Christology the exalted Jesus participating in God’s unique sovereignty, and that Jesus also shares God’s exaltation above all angelic powers, being given the divine name Yhwh and being worthy of worship (22-25). Further, His pre-existence and his involvement in creation is not overlooked (26-30). Chapter One, with its multiple cross-references, is worth absorbing in a slow and thoughtful reading. The next chapter, Essay #2, deals with the problems of monotheism. Twelve pages interact critically and thoroughly with Nathan MacDonald’s Deuteronomy and the Meaning of Monotheism (62-74). MacDonald asserts that Deuteronomy simply does not present a doctrine of a monotheistic God. To him this doctrine comes from the Enlightenment. He may affirm the uniqueness of Yhwh but without denying the existence of other gods. He acknowledges that two statements in Deuteronomy 4 on there being no others besides Himself (4:35, 39) mean that Yhwh is unique (the only god who is God) and is the only god for Israel. However, this points to unrivalled power throughout the cosmos rather than a reference to the sole, alone, absolutely unique One (62-70). These other gods are non-effective deities, impotent nonentities, mere puffs of air, and powerless. The question on whether or not these divinities really exist is left unengaged. The scorn of the prophets and the psalmist heaped on idols and casting aspersion on their total inability to do or say anything valid is powerful and true. Bauckham expresses disappointment with MacDonald and his failure to deal systematically with Yhwh’s uniqueness vis-á-vis the other gods (65).

Essay #3 is entitled “The ‘Most High’ God and the Nature of Early Jewish Monotheism.” The key question is, How is the uniqueness of one God to be understood? Inclusive monotheism has God as the highest member of a class of beings to which He belongs. Exclusive monotheism on the other hand understands His uniqueness in terms of the absolute difference in kind from all other reality. Of course, exclusive monotheism does not exclude acknowledging the existence of many heavenly beings created by the one sovereign Lord. Special attention is given to the interpretation of Deut 32:8-9. Additional and separate treatment is also accorded to the Most High in early Jewish literature. The section on the Most High and the gods is quite instructive. One interesting reminder: “the difference of use between Palestinian and Diaspora Jewish literature must be related to the fact that the title ‘Most High’ . . . was in widespread use by non-Jews” (120-21). This made it a term for the God of Israel which Gentiles would readily understand and a term that could, for apologetic purposes, connect with Gentile usage. This is no doubt why it was in regular use by or for Gentiles in Diaspora Jewish literature. Several lists depicting the use of “Most High” in this literature are added for information.

Essay #4 is a “meaty” chapter, basically treating the prevalence and centrality of the worship of Jesus in early Christianity, in terms of prayers, doxologies, and hymns. These are followed by brief descriptions of pagan perceptions of Jesus and their unfavorable response to the exclusive divinity of Jesus (127-40). Comments on 1 Cor 8:6 and Revelation show that the worship of Jesus was really divine worship, which was preceded by or accompanied by a rejection of polytheism. In Revelation, John represents Jesus as one who shares in the glory due to God. He is not just an alternative object of worship. Particularly interesting in the section “Missionary Christianity in the Apocryphal Acts” is that traditional Jewish monotheistic formulae intended to assert monotheistic worship against paganism are employed for the same purpose of proclaiming the deity of Christ. That the Christians were persecuted and martyred for “atheism” is a good reminder of an historical fact often forgotten that “atheism” meant the exclusive worship of the one Lord of heaven and earth, Yhwh of Israel, to the exclusion of all other gods (145). A repetitive note sounds when the author takes up patristic Christological development (146-50). One is left with the conclusion that either Christians were worshiping a creature, or Jesus belongs to the being of the one God who alone may be worshiped (150). That the early church clung tenaciously to the Jewish understanding of monotheism is the concluding observation.

Essay #5, “The Throne of God and the Worship of Jesus,” is a thorough presentation of “God’s heavenly thrones and other thrones,” “sitting and standing in heaven,” and “in the heights of heaven.” Again God’s absolute sovereignty over absolutely every reality is clearly pointed out. Again stress is upon monotheism which is “representative of one of the essential characteristics definitive of the divine identity” (164). Bauckham also takes time to look at “Figures on the throne,” namely wisdom, Moses, the Son of Man, and Jesus (167-82). The conclusion is the same as previously given, but what one realizes is that the repetitive note arises from a thorough examination of different materials, which nevertheless endorse the author’s thesis of divine identity applied to Christ in both Jewish and early Christian literature. Psalm 110:1 draws little more than a passing glance from Jewish writers, which is not the case with Christian writers of that time, who considered it a foundational verse. These men understood that the church’s doctrines were to be exegetically based. That is obviously why the conclusion being drawn by them came about.

Essay #6 covers Paul’s Christology of divine identity, and advises that early Christology was framed within the familiar Jewish framework of creational, eschatological, and cultic monotheism (185). An informative set of lists of Pauline references and the use of Yhwh is inserted into the main text—with an acknowledgement that it is based on Gordon Fee’s 2007 book on Pauline Christology. Eight OT references, accompanied by at least two NT passages, with a short explanatory paragraph of each, are used to introduce eschatological monotheism (191-93). Creational monotheism brings under its purview Rom 10:13 and Phil 2:6-11 as well as pertinent citations from Isaiah. Then 1 Cor 8:5-6 receives attention, stressing allegiance to the one and only true God in a polytheistic religious environment (210). Six categories in a listing of Yhwh texts with Jesus as referent, provides material which the author says should be examined in far more detail than can be given in this essay. The reader will probably stop and look over a few verses to see what is taking place between the NT and the OT verses. Bauckham considers his proposal of divine identity as going beyond the standard distinction between functional and ontological Christology. The thinking is not of divine essence or nature in Jewish theology but of divine identity; thus Jesus is intrinsic to the unique and eternal identity of God. One more set of listings of Yhwh texts with Jesus as referent, but outside the Pauline epistles, provide more information for personal study and reflection. However, one cannot avoid taking into his study of Jesus Christ, the questions of divine and human natures, of essence and co-inherence, and the kenosis. Bauckham’s treatment impressed this reviewer as being careful to tie all these important points of doctrine together for a complete picture of Jesus Christ, very God of God and very man of man. Obviously, this was not the author’s intention to deal with a specific period of time and its literature and doctrinal emphases.

Essay #7, a chapter in a forthcoming book edited by Bauckham and MacDonald, presents the divinity of Jesus in the letter to the Hebrews. The book just mentioned will be entitled The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Eerdmans, forthcoming). Again, the reader finds the repeated theme that Jesus is identified with God. Also, one has to remember that “for Jewish monotheistic faith what was most important was who God is rather than what divinity is, and thus Jesus shares the divine identity of Israel’s God (233).

Essay #8, “God’s Self-Identification with the Godforsaken: Exegesis and Theology,” is a study of the cry of dereliction (Matt 27:46; Mark 5:9). It is an appropriate thought-provoking close to a book so filled with an emphasis upon the worship of Christ Jesus.

A wealth of information pours forth from Jesus and the God of Israel in both text and footnotes. One can be forgiven if he stands a little ashamed after reading it at how much of Second Temple material he has forgotten or did not know and how much of early Christian and Jewish literature of which he was unaware. Bauckham’s gathering of all that information together is undoubtedly highly commendable. Read this book to fill in gaps in a knowledge of that early period in church and biblical history and perhaps even in the history of the development of Christology.