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Basic Worldview:
104 Why Christianity?

History of Judaism Study

Introduction, Purpose, Definitions and Terminology
Timelines: Jewish and Gentile Writings and Thought
Eliminating Potential Sources of Complex Monotheism
Was Jewish Complex Monotheism Borrowed from the Greeks?
The Hebrew Bible Teaches Complex Monotheism - Part 1
The Hebrew Bible Teaches Complex Monotheism - Part 2
Complex Monotheism after the Close of the Hebrew Bible
Philo Affirms Complex Monotheism in Pre-rabbinic Judaism
Criteria of Biblical Monotheism, Christianity & Pre-Rabbinic Judaism
New Testament Christianity as a Sect of Judaism
When Was Complex Monotheism First Rejected?
Simple & Complex Monotheism before the Rabbinic Period
What Separates Biblical Judaism & New Testament Christianity?
God's Sovereign Choice of Abraham & His Offspring
Summary, Conclusions, and Implications

The Criteria for Maintaining or Violating Biblical Monotheism and New Testament Christianity within the Context of Pre-Rabbinic Judaism

As we have seen, in the world of pre-rabbinic (and even early rabbinic) Judaism, monotheism was not defined as the rejection of multiple, simultaneously-existing, hypostatic, personal manifestations of YHWH. In his book, Two Powers in Heaven, Segal explains that prior to the middle of the second century AD the determining factor used by Judaism to identify a violation of monotheism was the belief that the divine persons were truly independent and contrary authorities.

From our study of tannaitic times it has become clear that Samaritans, Christians and other sectarians were grouped together and condemned in rabbinic heresiological writings and in liturgical ordinances because there was a phenomenological similarity between them from the rabbinic perspective: they all compromised monotheism by positing more than one authority in heaven. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 153

All of this strongly suggests that various Gnostic ideas ultimately go back to Jewish heterodox traditions where they may or may not have been heretical in nature. The opposing configuration of deities insure that at least two (perhaps many) independent deities were present. Therefore it seems clear that the rabbis would have considered it heretical. When the powers were complementary – as they seem to be in the apocalyptic literature of the first century, in some of the Gnostic and much of the Christian literature – the independence of the second power is a moot question. It is often possible that the later traditions in heretical literature are the survivals of heterodox but not necessarily heretical exegesis, brought into new context. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 250-251

In the quotes below Segal remarks about a Talmudic discussion concerning the angel Gabriel. Relevant to our study is Segal’s explanation that no violation of monotheism occurred if the figure in question was not considered to be a separate power independent of or contrary to YHWH.

Elsewhere, R. Hilfi (PA 2) the son of Samkai, reports that R. Judah (PA 2) felt the repetition meant that divine punishment was carried out by the angel Gabriel. While Gabriel was not considered a separate, independent power by the rabbis, the tradition attests to the existence of exegeses which allowed the tetragrammaton to signify a being other than Israel’s one God. Obviously that very doctrine was enough to worry the rabbis. Though this midrash does not mention “two powers,” it involves a concept coming perilously close to that heresy, stopping only before the overt postulation of separate authority. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 130-131

R. Isaac gives an example of heretical belief, testifying that some people alleged that Michael and Gabriel were associations of God in creation. God may have created the middle, but each angel created other parts of the firmament. By means of a double entendre, R. Isaac uses Ps. 44:24 to ask the rhetorical question: “Who was associated with me in the creation of the world?” The answer, of course, is that no one, not even an archangel was given such an honor. This unnamed doctrine seems related to the Gabriel, Michael and Metatron speculation discussed previously. However, other elaborate angelologies may have been involved, for beliefs in angelic mediation were commonplace throughout Judaism. What is dangerous, of course, is the notion that some principal angel could be said to usurp God’s independent power. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 137

In the quotes below, Segal discusses pre-rabbinic and rabbinic traditions about the “angel of YHWH,” the Logos/Word/Memra, and the “shekhinah.” As he repeatedly stresses, these types of Jewish conceptions of divine, hypostatic persons were only considered to be heretical when and if they were viewed as independent beings separate from God with their own authority.

From our study of tannaitic times it has become clear that Samaritans, Christians and other sectarians were grouped together and condemned in rabbinic heresiological writings and in liturgical ordinances because there was a phenomenological similarity between them from the rabbinic perspective: they all compromised monotheism by positing more than one authority in heaven. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 153

Real traditions of a “second God” were present in Judaism as early as the time of Philo. Though the rabbis are opposed to the whole notion, Philo seems only to be opposed to the naïve forms of the belief. (Footnote 14: Italics added, Quest. In Gen. ii¸ 62 Philo Suppliment I, p. 150, tr. R. Marcus. Eusebius (P.E. VII, 13, 1) credits Philo with the term “second God,” denoting the logos. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 163-164

Philo understood the descriptions of the “angel of YHWH” in scripture, together with other passages which the rabbis found dangerous, as references to the logos or one of the two principal powers of God. Based on Philonic evidence, we should expect traditions about mediator and principal angels to appear in other writings contemporary to Philo. However, the variety of conceptions about mediators and principal angels in intertestamental documents can only be summarized with difficulty, for the characteristics and names of the mediator differ widely in each document, suggesting that no single consistent myth underlies the whole…Certainly not all the figures related to the scriptures under consideration can be automatically included in the heresy. For instance, we have already seen that many angels and mediators appear in rabbinic literature where they add color to midrashic stories but where they could not be considered heretical….To start with, these general considerations help us remove some obvious phenomena from consideration as heresy. Memra, yekara and shekhinah are used in the targumim and midrash in reference to the dangerous passages to denote the presence of God. But they are never clearly defined as independent creatures. It rather appears that rabbinic concepts of memra, shekhina, yekara avoid the implications of independent divinity and possibly are meant to combat them. We also know that Philo even saw “the Word” or logos as an angel. But there is nothing inherently heretical about such descriptions. It may be anachronistic to apply second century rabbinic categories of heresy to earlier phenomena. The best we can say is that ideas like this might have been seen as heretical in some contexts. More importantly they certainly formed the background out of which heresy arose. Of course from the survey of rabbinic documents and Philo, we know that the judgment that a particular conception of mediation violated the canons of monotheism was also partly a matter of individual opinion. Philo could even use the phrase “second God” to describe the logos without thinking that he had violated the monotheistic basis of his religion….Clearly some of the same issues which Philo discussed were important in first century Palestine as well… – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 182-183

Obviously then, it is not the tradition itself which defines the heresy but the treatment of the angelic figure or hypostasis as an independent deity. We have no evidence that the early heresy involved a feminine manifestation of God. We know from the rabbinic texts that some of the beliefs which the rabbis opposed explicitly involved an angel whose function was to guide the believer and who carries, contains, or possesses the divine name (Ex. 23:21 f.). Again, not every belief of this sort will be heretical. But as a preliminary field for inquiry in the intertestamental period, it is reasonable to look among the variety of angelic mediators for some evidence of the kind of beliefs which the rabbis called “two powers” heresy. The idea of a separate hypostasis of the divinity must be functionally equivalent to being an angelic presence. Because of the complexity of the phenomenon, only the broadest outlines can be suggested. Nor will it always be possible to define a sectarian belief as heresy….But it is possible to show that both inside and outside of the rabbinic community, the existence of a principal angelic creature did not seem to be at issue; rather, it was the identity, title and function of the second figure that occupied apocalyptic and mystical Jews’ imagination. Among that figure’s characteristics we should be especially interested in any that would have impressed the rabbis as compromising monotheism. A staggering variety of angelic mediators developed during this period… – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 186-188

While the evidence abounds for the existence of dangerous scriptural traditions there is not much evidence that angelic or hypostatic creatures were considered independent enough to provide definite targets for the “two powers” polemic. Of course, our knowledge of first century Judaism is quite limited. In the extreme Gnostic systems, where the power with the Hebrew name opposed a higher power, the heresy is clear. But we have no solid evidence that such systems existed in apocalyptic literature before the early second century…But we cannot altogether dismiss the possibility that some apocalyptic groups posited an independent power as early as the first century or that other groups, among them the predecessors of the rabbis, would have called them heretics. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 200-201

As indicated in the quotes above, in the quotes below Sommer and Segal further clarify that the objection against independent authority was not necessarily applicable to Jewish sects that did not view the hypostatic persons of God as separate beings with independent authority and contrary intentions. It is important to notice that both authors include Christians among Jewish sects who did not violate ancient Judaism’s concept of monotheism because they did not believe in separate deities.

Since we know from the previous passage that “two powers” referred to Christians and not extreme Gnostics, we have to conclude that “two powers” was a catch-all term for many different groups – including Christians, Gnostics, and Jews…The rabbis are saying that many varieties of Jewish sects – including Christians and Gnostics – are guilty of violating an essential premise of Judaism, even while they think they are exegeting scripture correctly…Although the designation is apt from the rabbinic perspective it is also exaggerated from the Christian one. In fact, neither apocalyptic, mystical, nor Christianized Judaism affirmed two separate deities. Each understood itself to be monotheistic, giving special emphasis to one divine hypostasis or manifestation. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 58-59

The Persistence of the Fluidity Model –the notions of divine fluidity and multiple embodiment, these notions did not simply vanish. On the contrary, they recur in rabbinic literature, in various forms of Jewish mysticism, and in Christianity….What I intend to do here is merely to give a sense of how postbiblical literatures give witness to the notion of a single God whose manifestations take action on their own without becoming sufficiently independent to impugn the oneness of that God. – Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, p. 126

Because first-century, Jewish sects (like Christians) did not view hypostatic persons of God as independent authorities (or as separate beings), Segal states that there is no guarantee that such groups would have been considered to be heretics due to the fact that they may not have been actually violating the Jewish concept of monotheism. In the second quote below, Segal cites the Jewish-Christian Apostle Paul’s letters (in the New Testament) as an example of first-century Jewish writing that did not compromise the existing Jewish idea of monotheism.

Given these ambiguities in Christian traditions, do we have any guarantee that Christians were more susceptible to the charge of “two powers” than other apocalyptic groups? Previously, we have seen that it was difficult to know on the basis of apocalyptic thought alone whether any apocalyptic angelology or doctrine of mediation could have been found offensive to monotheism. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 216

In a sense, it is no surprise to see so many of the themes of the “two powers” controversy show up in Christianity. We should expect to find Christians seek out “two powers” exegesis. What is surprising is that both sides of the argument show up. Paul can argue that some Jews compromise monotheism, even while maintaining that he does not. Apparently, even with Christianity the “two powers” controversy was evidenced. This suggests that some Christians were certainly guilty of “two powers” speculation, that others were accused of it but might have thought the charge untrue, and that still others might not have been charged at all. Having found certain evidence that Christianity was involved in “two powers” polemic in the first century, we have discovered that traditions which we saw for the first time in rabbinic literature of the second century already existed in the first century. But what is the guarantee that Jews of the first century would have reacted in the same way as the second century rabbis towards these apocalyptic and Christian concepts of mediation? Perhaps they would have taken a more tolerant attitude toward these ideas of mediation as Philo did even while maintaining strict adherence to law and monotheism. Perhaps the term “two powers” is anachronistic as applied to the first century. After all, not all kinds of Christianity can be said even to be guilty of the crime. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 215

In fact, Segal notes that the earliest rabbinic objections contain no distinct identification of Christians. While Segal believes that Christians should be included in the larger category identified by the rabbis, Segal notes that Christians are not actually identified as violating the existing criteria for biblical, Jewish monotheism.

Although the best candidates for the heresy, both on internal and external evidence, are Christian there is no distinctively anti-Christian polemic at first. Therefore we should continue to assume that the Christians were but one of a number of apocalyptic or mystical groups who posited a primary angelic helper for God. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 262

The book of Acts shows stresses that Christian evangelism began in the synogogues and expanded as the Jews rejected it. The Christian documents do not go into detail about the rabbinic grounds for the rejection. I feel the rabbinic evidence examined in this study clarifies the issue. It shows us that the rabbis opposed any group which emphasized a primary mediator. Christians were probably not uniquely condemned for there is nothing uniquely anti-Christian in the polemic. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 155

As we have seen, Christianity did not have a particularly unique concept of God when considered among the Jewish sects of that period. We already know that the critical issue for establishing heresy involved the potential independent authority of the hypostatic persons of God.

However, we have also seen that early Jews and Christians who believed in a multiplicity of God’s personhood didn’t actually exhibit the kind of independence that later rabbinic texts were concerned with. Therefore, even if we use the standards articulated by the rabbis, Jewish and Christian sects which did not posit a separation and independence among the divine hypostatic persons of YHWH cannot appropriately be considered heretics or violators of Jewish monotheism. Consequently, in the quote below Segal begins by acknowledging that there is room for debate concerning whether certain groups, such as Christians, actually compromised monotheism, even if the rabbis placed them into the very broad category of “two powers” sects. Moreover, Segal concludes by stating that only “some kinds” of Christianity could be considered “two powers” heretics. In between, Segal notes that the beliefs of Christianity concerning the Godhead were quite similar to a good number of other Jewish sects of that period. Such remarks make it less and less likely that Christianity can be deemed out of the norm of Jewish monotheism.

But since there is no uniquely anti-Christian theme in the rabbinic attack, we cannot conclude that Christians were the only offending group. One may disagree as to whether or when these groups began to compromise monotheism, which was the force of the rabbinic criticism, since many different positions within Judaism defended themselves with “two powers” arguments. But the terminology itself is apt, because it tells us the categories in which the development of Christianity was seen. It tells us that Christianity was probably one of a number of similar sects. It may have been unique in that it identified a messianic candidate with the manlike figure in heaven who was going to judge the world. It may also have been unique to identify a contemporary rather than a hero of the past with an angelic being. But the theme was not, insofar as anyone can prove, the Christian application of a redeemer myth of a single, Gnostic pre-existent, divine savior who was going to descend to the earth, save those who received him, and reascend to heaven. Rather Christianity was one among a plethora of different sects with similar scriptural traditions. The single Gnostic pattern, if there is one, seems to be a rather sophisticated re-understanding of the Christian model. To summarize, the one sectarian movement within Judaism about which we have considerable evidence is Christianity. There is warrant to believe that “two powers” heresy was manifested in some kinds of Christianity in the first century. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 218

Furthermore, the fact that New Testament writers did not intend to contradict the oneness of God is generally acknowledged by scholars.

TrinityNeither the word Trinity nor the explicit doctrine appears in the New Testament, nor did Jesus and his followers intend to contradict the Shema in the Old Testament: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). – Encyclopedia Britannica

The second-century, Christian writer Theophilus did not believe in two separate divine beings. Rather, he insisted that there was only one God even though he expressed the Jewish belief in multiple, hypostatic divine persons. In keeping with existing Jewish traditions, Theophilus identified one of the hypostatic persons as the Logos on the basis of the first chapter of John’s Gospel, which teaches that the Word (Logos) was God and yet was with God (distinct from God somehow.) Furthermore, like Philo and the Targums, Theophilus speaks of the Logos of God. Theophilus’ use of the Logos is derived from the first chapter of John’s Gospel in which the Logos (or Word) is identified as God and also with God and as the creator of all things. Parallels to Philo are at this point apparent. Additional similarity to Philo is seen in Theophilus assertion of the existence of the Logos and his agency in creating while at the same time concluding that this did not mean that two different gods existed or that two different gods were involved in creation.

Several traditions corresponding to the rabbinic ones are found in another second century church father, Theophilus of Antioch. His relationship with midrashic traditions has been noticed before, but no conclusions have previously been drawn about his relationship to the “two powers” controversy. He too uses Christ as equivalent to logos, on the basis of John 1, but he uses several interesting scriptural quotations to prove his point. He witnesses to the traditions we saw in Philo in which the logos is described as God’s “place:”…Traditions like this which have Philonic antecedents may well be the kind of doctrine opposed by use of the tradition about Ishmael and Akiba….Theophilus also opposes the idea that two different gods were involved in creation….To combat such heresies, Theophilus even relies on polemic familiar from rabbinic tradition to show that while God may do His work through His logos manifestation, there is only one, unique God responsible for all divine actions….” Many powers in heaven” were heretical to both the church fathers and the rabbis. And, if church fathers shared the “many powers” polemic with the rabbis, they must have been aware of the charge of “two powers” as well. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 225-227

Like Theophilus, the second-century, Christian apologist Irenaeus also insisted that though there was more than one person of YHWH (the Father and Christ the Lord) there is only one, true God.

However, when Irenaeus defends Christianity against the Marcionite Gnostics, he himself uses “two powers” traditions. Jesus came from the Father, being foretold by the prophets in the following verses Ps. 110:1, Gen. 19:24, Ps. 45:7, Ps. 82:1 and Ps. 50:1. By quoting these passages he tries to show that the Old Testament made mention of both Christ (as Lord) and Father (as God) – though, at the same time, uniquely one true God. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 228

Elsewhere in his writings, Irenaeus explains that the Father and Son are one with each other. In his conception they were not two separate beings with independent authority. We should note that like his Jewish predecessors and Gentile contemporaries (including Justin Martyr and Theophilus,) Ireneaus derives and defends his beliefs from the Hebrew Bible.

But Jos. 22:22 has exactly the same string of divine names, as Ps. 50:1 – El, Elohim, YHWH – so it is equally likely to have been used as proof of plurality. Notice that Irenaeus uses the passage merely to prove that the Son is one with the Father. He could do this because the Greek translation of the psalm used a genitive plural to translate one name of God (Theos Theon Kyrios) making a total of two figures. The rabbis, writing later, have heard the implication of three different aspects of deity as dangerous. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 228-229

Segal explains that the views expressed by these second-century, Gentile Christians has historical precedent in first-century Judaism. Yet, Segal identifies Christian beliefs with Hellenistic Judaism.

Of particular interest is the relationship of the angelic figure to early Christology. Perhaps angelic christologies will turn out to be more important to the thought of the first century than the New Testament leads us to believe….It has often seemed plausible that a Hellenistic Judaism, like Philo’s but less sophisticated was the background for Justin’s and Theophilus’ writing. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 266

However, as we have seen, the presence of Complex Monotheism was present in Judaism well before the Hellenistic Period as well as in non-Hellenistic Jewish groups after the rise of Greek philosophical religion. Furthermore, as Segal and Sommer have both repeatedly observed, Complex Monotheistic beliefs among Jews and Christians are traced to passages in the Hebrew Bible itself. Therefore, while is true that we find Complex Monotheistic Jewish sects during the Hellenistic Period (the fourth century BCE through the second century CE), it is not accurate to identify these beliefs as the result of incorporating Hellenistic religious ideas.

Segal offers the later-dating Gnostic view in contrast to the Christian views expressed by Paul and second-century writers. The Gnostics, whose system of teachings emerged after the Complex Monotheism within Jewish-Christian groups, are an example of heretical teaching violating monotheism for positing contrary, independent divine authorities. Segal explains that the heretical belief of the Gnostics probably developed and diverged from earlier, non-heretical Jewish traditions in which the multiple, hypostatic figures were complementary.

Therefore the evidence is that opposition to Christian exegesis preceded opposition to extreme Gnostic exegesis. In this case, the key factor in separating radical Gnosticism from earlier exegesis is the negative portrayal of the demiurge. Whenever the second figure in heaven is negative, we are dealing with a radically Gnostic system. Not until then can we say definitively that a Gnostic heresy is present. In all the earliest traditions, the second figure is always seen as a complementary figure, suggesting the notion of a divine helper who carried God’s name is the basic concept which developed into heresy, not a redeemed redeemer. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 262

Beginning with the New Testament period (circa 30-100 AD) early Christian beliefs were at home within Jewish traditions. Though there were differences related to the full nature of the Messiah’s work and the particular identification of the Messiah, like the Bar Kokhba revolt, early Christianity was a Jewish messianic movement.

Ante-Nicene PeriodFirst century Christianity possessed a basic cohesion based on the Pauline church movement, Jewish character, and self-identification as a messianic movement... wikipedia.org

Premillennialism – The concept of…earthly messianic kingdom at the Messiah's coming was not an invention of Christianity. Instead it was a theological interpretation developed within the apocalyptic literature of early Judaism.... – wikipedia.org

Bar Kokhba – Enraged by these measures, the Jews rebelled in 132, the dominant and irascible figure of Simeon bar Kosba at their head. Reputedly of Davidic descent, he was hailed as the Messiah by the greatest rabbi of the time, Akiva ben Yosef, who also gave him the title Bar Kokhba (“Son of the Star”), a messianic allusion. – Britannica.com

The earliest Christian texts (including the New Testament itself) are part of vast tradition of pre-rabbinic, Jewish messianic and apocalyptic literature.

The Apostolic Fathers - According to conventional reckoning, the earliest examples of patristic literature are the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers; the name derives from their supposed contacts with the Apostles or the apostolic communityThey all belong to the late 1st or early 2nd century and were all to a greater or lesser extent influenced…by the profoundly Jewish atmosphere that pervaded Christian thinking and practice at this primitive stage...Almost all the Apostolic Fathers throw light on primitive doctrine and practice…But the real key to the theology of the Apostolic Fathers, which also explains its often curious imagery, is that it is Jewish-Christian through and through, expressing itself in categories derived from latter-day Judaism and apocalyptic literature (depicting the intervention of God in history in the last times) – Encyclopedia Britannica

It was only after several centuries that Christian theology began to exhibit non-Jewish tendencies as it became adapted to Hellenistic culture culminating in the fourth century under figures such as Constantine and Augustine.

Patristic Literature – The ante-Nicene period – During the first three centuries of its existence the Christian Church had first to emerge from the Jewish environment that had cradled it and then come to terms with the predominantly Hellenistic (Greek) culture surrounding it. – Encyclopedia Britannica

But the well-documented presence of Complex Monotheism within pre-rabbinic Judaism demonstrates that Christian Complex Monotheism (the Trinity) was not an invention of fourth century sources such as Constantine, the council of Nicaea, or Augustine. On the contrary, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, Jewish sectarian literature from across the spectrum of the greater Jewish religious community, and the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers demonstrate that Complex Monotheism was a well-established Jewish and Christian doctrine more than three centuries before the time of Constantine.

In fact, in the first and early-second centuries AD, the Jewish-Christian sect remained closely related to the rabbinic sect. Many of the beliefs that today distinguish modern rabbinic Judaism from Christianity were not yet established in early, second-century rabbinic communities. (The same can be said of many of the doctrines and practices of the modern Christian church. For a fairly concise study of this topic please see our articles on the History of the Early Church.) Through the early second century AD, Christianity and rabbinic Judaism developed in tandem with one another using similar terms and similar arguments against those who posited independent divine hypostases. As we will see, this relationship continued until the rabbinic authorities developed new definitions of orthodoxy which excluded Jews and Jewish-Christians for belief in Complex Monotheism.

This is a special example of the inter-relationship between Christian and Jewish communities because Dt. 32 is especially important to the rabbinic polemic against “two powers.”…It may even be the case that the church’s usage contributed to the evolution of standard terminology within Judaism. The exegetical issue dates from the first century but the terminology was standardized in this context. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 242

[Based on discussion of the Pseudo-Clementine literature] Though the method of definition differs, the basic identification by both Jews and Jewish Christians of sectarian groups (rather than gentile nonbelievers) is good evidence that both the rabbis and the Jewish Christians are dealing with similar opponents and the same traditions. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 258

By the time of Irenaeus, a legend had developed that Marcion had asked Polycarp for recognition as bishop only to be rebuffed by the words “I recognize you – as the first-born of Satan!” The term “first-born of Satan” has a Hebrew equivalent which seems to have had a similar and contemporary use within Jewish exegesis – as a term of reproach for someone who did not follow the accepted tradition of scriptural interpretation….Such common terminology between Jewish and Christian communities is important to us because it points to a relationship between them. We already have good evidence that such a relationship existed, based on corresponding terminology and exegesis in the rabbis and church fathers. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 234-235

A historical investigation reveals that the teachings of the New Testament Jewish community are entirely in sync with existing Jewish beliefs that the one, true God was manifested in multiple, simultaneously-present, divine, hypostatic persons. For instance, in Christian scripture, Jesus is understood as the incarnation of the Logos (Word) and, as such, he is identified with Jewish terms that were used to refer to the multiple, simultaneously-existing, hypostatic, personal manifestations of YHWH. Segal explains that Philo used the Greek terms “kyrios” and “logos” both as references to the divine manifestations of God and to God himself.

Yet sometimes Philo uses kyrios and logos to refer to the two powers of God and other times to refer to the logos and the highest God, being-in-itself. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 175

Earlier we read the following quote in which Segal notes that the Greek word “kyrios” (meaning “Lord”) is equivalent to the use of “Lord” in the Hebrew Bible as a substitute for the tetragrammaton (YHWH.) The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible from the second century BC, uses “kyrios” where God’s divine name (YHWH) occurs in the Hebrew text.

These are equivalent to the logos which as a second God can also be given the title “Lord.” (kyrios – YHWH). This doctrine, which allows that “place” is a divine creature called Lord, cannot strike us as innocent, especially when we know that “Lord” is synonymous with the tetragrammaton… – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 162-163

Kyrios – The reasoning here being, that at the time the Septuagint was written, when reading out loud, Jews pronounced Adonai, the Hebrew word for "Lord", when they encountered the name of God, "YHWH", which was thus translated into Greek in each instance as Kyrios. And the early Christians, as speakers of Greek, would have been deeply familiar with the Septuagint. – wikipedia.org

Below Segal provides examples from New Testament passages showing that the Jewish authors of those passages intended to identify Jesus with these titles that pre-rabbinic and early rabbinic Judaism used to discuss the hypostatic persons of the one, true God. Such New Testament passages show that early Christians did not see Jesus as a separate being from God even though they viewed Jesus as a distinct person or hypostasis within the Being of God.

Rev. 19…Many different images are jumbled together in this description. Divine warrior imagery is prominent but the divine warrior has been identified with the messiah (Ps. 2) and Jesus, based on the “son of man” tradition in Daniel. Furthermore, many divine titles are applied to the figure: “true and faithful,” “King of Kings,” “Lord of Lords” are all divine attributions in Judaism. Lastly and more importantly, he has appropriated the ineffable name, which is identical with “Word of God” (v. 13). On this basis, it seems safe to consider that many Christians identified Christ with God’s principal angel, who carried the divine name, because of his resurrection. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 213

In [John] 5:21, relevant to the same issue, the gospel states that “…just as the father raises the dead and grants life, so also the Son grants life to those whom he wishes,” applying Dt. 32 to Jesus in the same way that the rabbinic community applied it to God. In Jn. 8:58-59, Jesus appears to apply the divine name to himself, after which the Jews take up stones against him, implying that he had blasphemed the divine name or attempted to lead others astray…Jesus’ claim to the divine title “I am” foreshadows the trial scenes where he seems guilty of blaspheme. – Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, p. 216

The historical and biblical evidence documented by scholars like Sommer and Segal demonstrates that the New Testament conception of God is just one, fairly ordinary example of the Complex Monotheism displayed by biblical, pre-rabbinic, and early-rabbinic Judaism.

Fluidity in Christianity – It is immediately evident that the fluidity traditions from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East found expression in Christianity. The most obvious example of fluidity in Christian thought is the notion of the trinity. For all the trouble that Jewish and Muslim philosophers have had with this notion, the trinity emerges as a fairly typical example of the fragmentation of a single deity into seemingly distinct manifestations that do not quite undermine that deity’s coherence. – Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, p. 132-133

Given that the New Testament’s Trinitarian conception of God is consistent with pre-rabbinic Judaism’s conception of God, it is no surprise that Christians writers come to the same types of conclusions as their pre-Christian Jewish counterparts when examining the same passages of the Hebrew Bible. Earlier we examined quotes from Sommer explaining how Genesis 18-19’s account of God’s visit to Abraham provides a clear display of the Complex Monotheistic view of God. 

Genesis 18, a J text, provides one of the most revealing cases. At the outset of that chapter, we read, “Yhwh manifested Himself to Abraham amidst the trees of Mamre while Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent, at the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and saw three men coming toward him” (Genesis 18.1-2). The juxtaposition of these two sentences (which are from a single Pentateuchal source) implies that Yhwh appears in the form of three men, or, at least in the form of one of the three men. 8 Abraham, however, does not realize that his visitors are not human. He directs his attention especially to one of these men, whom he addresses in the singular, using the obsequious courtesy normal in the ancient Near East: “My Lord, if you find me acceptable, please do not pass by your servant” (18.3). All three men subsequently speak in 18.9; in 18.10 one visitor, still not identified explicitly, predicts or promises to return months later, at which time Abraham will have a son. Thus this visitor speaks prophetically, which is to say, in God’s voice, though whether this is because the visitor is God or merely represents God is not made clear. (The alternation between singular and plural continues throughout this passage.) Finally, in 18.13 the narrator stops being coy and simply refers to one of the visitors as Yhwh. Two of the visitors leave, and the one who remains with Abraham is now clearly identified as Yhwh (18.22); Abraham’s knowledge is now parallel to the reader’s, for in the discussion that follows it is clear that Abraham now knows who the remaining Visitor is. The other two beings are subsequently refer to as angels (19.1) It is clear that Yhwh appears in bodily form to Abraham in this passage; what is less clear is whether all three bodies were Yhwh’s throughout, or whether all three were Yhwh’s at the outset of the chapter but only one of them is by its end, or whether the other two were merely servants (perhaps human, perhaps divine) who, for no clear reason, were accompanying Yhwh. In any event, the being who certainly was Yhwh was less than the deity’s full manifestation. The visitor was not recognizable as God to Abraham at the outset, and he (He?) acts with a humility unbecoming a deity as h/He stands waiting before Abraham (at least according to what even traditionalist scholars regard as the original text of verse 22). Further, even though the visitor is clearly identified as Yhwh by the middle of the chapter and refers to God in the first person while speaking, h/He announces h/His intention to “come down” from heaven to observe Sodom and Gomorrah in verse 21 – even though H/he is already down on earth at this point. This visitor clearly is and is not identical with Yhwh; more precisely, He is Yhwh, but is not all of Yhwh or the only manifestation of Yhwh; rather, He is an avatar, a “descent” of the heavenly God who does not encompass all of that God’s substance. – Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, p. 40-41

Endnote 8: Most commentators avoid acknowledging this, but as Greenstein, “God of Israel,” 57, points out, “Although most exegetes both classical and modern day shy away from acknowledging that the Lord himself is one of Abraham’s three visitors, only such a reading accounts for the repeated sudden addresses of God to Abraham (e.g., vv. 13, 17, 20) and the fact that without assuming that the Lord is a member of the trio, the third visitor disappears without a trace (while the two travel to Sodom, cf. 18:16 and 19:1). Assume that God is one of the three, and there are no gaping holes in the plot and the verses make sense in their present sequence.” – Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, p. 199

The quote below is a continuation of the quote we looked at above from pages 132-133 of Sommer’s book, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel. We have included the earlier portion of this passage (which we quoted above) in order to show the contextual and conceptual relationship provided by Sommer’s commentary. As we can see, Sommer is discussing how the Christian interpretation of Genesis 18-19 fits with the biblical author’s portrayal of the events recorded in that passage. Sommer’s conclusion at the end of the quote below is important. He summarizes that New Testament teaching about “The presence of God and God-as-Jesus on earth is nothing more than a particular form of this old idea of multiple embodiment, and hence no more offensive to a monotheistic theology than J and E sections of the Pentateuch.”

Fluidity in Christianity – It is immediately evident that the fluidity traditions from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East found expression in Christianity. The most obvious example of fluidity in Christian thought is the notion of the trinity. For all the trouble that Jewish and Muslim philosophers have had with this notion, the trinity emerges as a fairly typical example of the fragmentation of a single deity into seemingly distinct manifestations that do not quite undermine that deity’s coherence. It is appropriate, then, that Christian biblical commentators connect the trinity with Genesis 18, the story of the three visitors who came to Abraham’s tend, because that passage presents a banner example of the fluidity of Yhwh’s selfhood. The exegetical connection between Genesis 18 and the trinity occurs among the Church Fathers in the earliest centuries of Christianity, and it is found among commentators more than a millennium later. Christian commentators on this passage relate the doctrine of the trinity to precisely those elements of Genesis 18 that I emphasized in my treatment of that chapter in Chapter 2, where I read the story within the context of fluidity traditions in the ancient Near East. I focused attention there on the narrator’s coy refusal to be pinned down on the identity of the visitors and to some extent on even the number of visitors with whom Abraham spoke. Augustine, in his treatise on the trinity, emphasizes these elements, too, as he presents his argument that “the episode [is] a visible intimation by means of visible creation of the equality of the triad and the single identity of the three persons….For Augustine (and also for Luther), the three men are not literally the three persons of the trinity (one of whom had not yet been born in human flesh in any event), but the text’s wording is an intimation of the idea that, where God is concerned, three can in fact be one. One can summarize my reading of the same passage in very similar words: J’s wording of Genesis 18 reflects the old ancient Near Eastern belief that where a god is concerned, three, or two, or seven, or ten can be one. Classic language of trinitarian theology, such as (one nature, three persons, or one substance, three manifestations), applies perfectly well to examples of Yhwh’s fluidity in the Hebrew Bible and to the fluidity traditions in Canaan and Mesopotamia. The doctrine of the trinity crystallizes in post-New Testament literature, but the New Testament itself also attests to the persistence of the fluidity model. We have seen that ancient Near Eastern texts are perfectly comfortable envisioning a deity as possessing a heavenly body as well as several earthly ones; Yhwh could be at home in a heavenly palace and at Zion at one and the same time. That a deity came down did not mean that the deity did not also remain up. The presence of God and God-as-Jesus on earth is nothing more than a particular form of this old idea of multiple embodiment, and hence no more offensive to a monotheistic theology than J and E sections of the Pentateuch. – Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, p. 132-133

Immediately after the remarks above, Sommer provides some examples of New Testament teachings correspondent to Jewish traditions that we have already become familiar with.

The New Testament also gives evidence of fluidity of selfhood…Much the same can be said of the transfiguration (Mark 9.2-8, Matthew 17.1-9, Luke 9.28-36). In this clear reflex of the old kabod tradition, Jesus’ appearance suddenly changes, his face shines like the sun, and his clothing becomes extraordinarily bright. (Significantly, Luke 9.30 mentions the glory specifically.) This sort of fluidity differs from what we saw in the Hebrew Bible, where a small aspect of Yhwh’s self manifested itself in a mal’akh, but not in a human being. It also departs from the model we saw in Near Eastern texts, where one deity overlapped with another deity or became an aspect of another deity. 48 Nonetheless, the model it presupposes – that God’s self fundamentally differs from a human self, because God’s self can do things that human selves cannot do – draws on the basic religious intuition examined in Chapters 1 and 2. The implications of these findings for a Jewish understanding of Christianity are addressed in the next section. – Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, p. 132-133

Below, Sommer provides some conclusions regarding the relationship of New Testament conceptions of God with those offered by non-Christian Judaism.

Christianity in Light of Judaism’s Embodied God – This study forces a reevaluation of a common Jewish attitude toward Christianity. Some Jews regard Christianity’s claim to be a monotheistic religion with suspicion, both because of the doctrine of the trinity (how can three equal one?) and because of Christianity’s core belief that God took bodily form. 59 What I have attempted to point out here is that biblical Israel knew very similar doctrines, and these doctrines did not disappear from Judaism after the biblical period…No Jew sensitive to Judaism’s own classical sources, however, can fault the theological model Christianity employs when it avows belief in a God who has an earthly body as well as a Holy Spirit and heavenly manifestation, for that model, we have seen, is a perfectly Jewish one. A religion whose scripture contains the fluidity traditions, whose teachings emphasize the multiplicity of the shekhinah, and whose thinkers speak of the sephirot does not differ in its theological essentials from a religion that adores a triune God. – Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, p. 135-136

We can see that the New Testament Christian movement was as Jewish as any other Jewish sect. Consistent with Judaism at the time, the Judeo-Christian movement was interested in the Messiah and his work in the end-times. And like other Jewish groups, the Christian sect displayed the wider Jewish belief in Complex Monotheism (one God who existed as more than one, simultaneously-existing, divine person.) And like other Jewish sects, Christianity did not teach that the persons of YHWH possessed independent authority or acted in contradiction of one another, which was the characteristic used by the rabbis to identify heresy. In the next section we will continue to discuss these issues as we explore the uniqueness and lack of uniqueness of New Testament teaching within the sphere of Judaism prior to the close of the second century AD.