. The Real Christ...
The true Christian believer has ever been under pressure from the world. Paul wrote words of eternal relevance when he asked that we not allow the world to press us into its mould, but rather allow Christ to transform us. The acceptance of the trinity was a result of the world pressurizing the church. The Roman and Jewish worlds which surrounded the Christians had a way of divinizing human figures. If you concluded a man had been a hero, then you applied Divine language to him- a form of what the Greeks had called apotheosis. This is why some of the Rabbinic commentary on men like Moses and Elijah use God-like language about them, although clearly the intention was not to make them equal to the one and only God of Israel whom they believed in. Yet the Greek and Western world have unfortnately read the Hebraic Biblical documents through their own worldviews, and have missed the fact that Hebrew terms and approaches are quite different to their own.
There’s no lack of evidence that Christians did this with regard to the language used about Jesus, indeed there are examples of it in the New Testament. And it has also been observed that some of the exalted Jewish language used about Moses- e.g. “the one for and on account of whom the world was created”- was purposefully appropriated by Paul and applied to Jesus (1). Such glorified figures were also spoken of with the language of pre-existence, as if they had existed from the beginning of creation, even though that wasn’t literally the case. They were “ascribed a prior, heavenly status or existence, however that was understood” (2). But as Christianity generally turned against the Jews, as Jewish Christians were thrown out of the church or returned to the synagogues, the actual human roots of Jesus were overlooked. The Jewish background to the language of exaltation used about Him was no longer appreciated. Instead, Christ remained in the minds of many Christians with just the Divine titles attached to Him; and so they ended up concluding that He was God Himself. They preferred to stick with forms of wording which were comfortable and familiar to them, rather than searching out the meaning behind those words. And today, nothing much has changed. Christians still remain almost wilfully ignorant of the basic principle of ‘God manifestation’ which is found throughout Scripture, whereby Divine language can be used of a person without making them God Himself.
Vincent Taylor analyzes Paul’s hymn of praise to the Lord Jesus in Phil. 2:6-11 and concludes that it is an adaptation of a Jewish hymn which spoke of “the appearance of the Heavenly Man on earth” (3). Paul was writing under inspiration, but it seems he purposefully adapted a Jewish hymn and applied it to Jesus- to indicate the status which should truly be ascribed to the Lord Jesus. Col. 1:15-20, another poetic fragment which is likewise misunderstood by those seeking to justify the false idea of a personal pre-existence of the Lord, has also been identified as a Jewish hymn which Paul modified (4). We must remember that Paul was inspired by God to answer the claims of false teachers; and he was doing so by using and re-interpreting the terms which they used. Nearly all the titles of Christ used in the letter to the Hebrews are taken from Philo or the Jewish book of Wisdom (5). The writer to the Hebrews is seeking to apply them in their correct and true sense to the Lord Jesus. This explains why some titles are used which can easily be misunderstood by those not appreciating this background. For example, Philo speaks of “the impress of God’s seal”, and Hebrews applies this to the Lord Jesus. The phrase has been misinterpreted by trinitarians as meaning that Jesus is therefore God; but this wasn’t at all the idea behind the title in Philo’s writings, and neither was it when the letter to the Hebrews took up the phrase and applied it to Jesus. This sort of thing goes on far more often than we might think in the Bible- existing theological ideas are re-cast and re-presented in their correct light, especially with reference to the Lord Jesus. Arthur Gibson notes that “there is an important second level within religious language: it is a reflection upon, a criticism of, a correction of, or a more general formulation of, expressions which previously occur” (6). He even shows that the very Names ‘Yahweh’ and ‘El’ were an allusion to earlier contemporary gods of a similar name and meaning- but the only true God, Yahweh, the El of Israel, alludes to these false notions and presents them as applying solely to Himself.
Jewish Myths Deconstructed
In my study of the historical development of the common Christian understanding of Satan, I found that Jewish myths played a particularly strong role in influencing the early Christian positions- once Christianity started to depart from a purely Biblical approach (7). The same appears true for some elements of the false doctrines which led to the development of the Trinity. The apocryphal Jewish Book of Enoch held that the "Son of man" figure personally pre-existed (1 Enoch 48:2-6; 62:6,7). The idea of personal pre-existence was held by the Samaritans, who believed that Moses personally pre-existed (8). Indeed the idea of a pre-existent man, called by German theologians the urmensch , was likely picked up by the Jews from the Persians during the captivity. Christians who believed that Jesus was the prophet greater than Moses, that He was the "Son of man", yet who were influenced by Jewish thinking, would therefore come to assume that Jesus also personally pre-existed. And yet they drew that conclusion in defiance of basic Biblical teaching to the opposite. Paul often appears to allude to these Jewish ideas, which he would've been familiar with, in order to refute and correct them. Thus when he compares Jesus and Adam by saying: "The first man is of the earth, the second man is from heaven" (1 Cor. 15:45-47), he is alluding to the idea of Philo that there was an earthly and heavenly man; and one of the Nag Hammadi documents On The Origin Of The World claims that "the first Adam of the light is spiritual... the second Adam is soul-endowed" (9). Paul's point is that the "second Adam" is the now-exalted Lord Jesus in Heaven, and not some pre-existent being. Adam was "a type of him who was to come" (Rom. 5:14); the one who brought sin, whereas Christ brought salvation. Paul was alluding to and correcting the false ideas- hence he at times appears to use language which hints of pre-existence. But reading his writings in context shows that he held no such idea, and was certainly not advocating the truth of those myths and documents he alluded to.
The natural human desire to downplay our own sin, and that of our race, led Judaism to misinterpret the fall of Adam. They ended up calling Adam "the Heavenly man" and believing that he was somehow alive and would be re-incarnated in the Messiah. Philo, the great Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, popularized this view. In The Real DevilI comment how this kind of corrupt Judaism was partly responsible for Christianity's adoption of pagan notions of the Devil. But the same observation holds true in seeking to explain how early Christianity also became corrupted in its understanding of Messiah-Jesus. Philo argued that there were two "Adams" referred to in Genesis (based on his failure to reconcile Gen. 1:27 with Gen. 2:2). Paul was fully aware of these false ideas, and specifically alludes to them when explaining how "the first Adam" was the historical Adam we meet in Genesis; and the "second Adam" is a term only applicable to the Lord Jesus Christ after His resurrection.
Martin Hengel suggests that Christians attempted to answer the Jewish ideas of pre-existent Torah, Wisdom and Logos by developing the idea that Jesus pre-existed, as a kind of answer to their claims (10). This would indicate that the Christians simply sought to make their Jesus attractive to the surrounding world, paying more attention to justifying their beliefs and silencing other alternatives than to simply proclaiming the Biblical Christ. And so many have repeated that error over history. Origen's reply to Celsus, a critic of Christianity, reveals how a wrong understanding of Jesus developed in response to the criticisms received by Christianity. Celsus claimed that the Christians were making Jesus out to be a God by worshipping Him (as quoted by Origen in Contra Celsum 8.12). The response should've been that worship of Jesus doesn't require Him to be one and the same person as God- for the same Greek words used in the New Testament about 'worship' of Jesus are used about worship of men. But instead, Origen took the path of justifying the idea that Jesus is God.
C.H. Dodd throughout chapter 3 of his classic The Interpretation Of The Fourth Gospel gives ample reason to believe his thesis that John's Gospel was written [partly] in order to deconstruct the popular teachings of Philo in the first century- and there are therefore many allusions to his writings. Thus John records how in vain the Jews searched the Scriptures, because in them they thought they had eternal life (Jn. 5:39)- when this is the very thing that Philo claimed to do. This approach helps us understand why, for example, the prologue to John is written in the way it is, full of allusion to Jewish ideas about the logos. How John writes is only confusing to us because we're not reading his inspired words against the immediate background in which they were written- which included the very popular false teachings of Philo about the logos. Thus Philo claimed that God had two sons, sent the younger into the world, and the elder, the logos, remained "by Him"- whereas John's prologue shows that the logos was an abstract idea, which was sent into the world in the form of God's one and only Son, the Lord Jesus. Dodd shows how constantly John is referring to Philo- e.g. Philo denied any possibility of spiritual rebirth, whereas John (Jn. 3:3-5) stresses how needful and possible it is in Christ. The very abstract views of Philo are challenged when John comments that the logos has become flesh- real and actual, handled and seen, in the person of the Lord Jesus. Philo claimed that the logos was an Angel- whereas John effectively denies this by saying that the logos became a real and actual human being. Those Christians who claim Jesus was an Angel- and they range from Jehovah's Witnesses to those who claim Jesus appeared as an Old Testament Angel- should all stand corrected by John's argument against Philo. In chapter 11 of his book, Dodd makes the observation that there was a tension between Jewish monotheism, and the many gods of Greek mythology. He shows how these ideas were reconciled by bringing the gods into some kind of family relationship with each- thus Hermes and Apollo became sons of Zeus, and all were seen as emanations of the one God. This is highly significant for any study of how the Trinity came into existence- the stage was set for the idea of a small family of gods to develop, all supposedly emanations of one God.
I wish to share a theory which to me is significant in explaining the way that Jewish conceptions came to influence Christian misunderstanding of Jesus. My suggestion is that the Samaritan Christians came to import into their theology a view of Jesus which was based upon the mixture of Jewish-pagan ideas which they had held before their conversion to Christianity. The letter to the Hebrews is clearly intended as a rebuttal of wrong understandings of the Lord Jesus, and as noted above, the language used about Jesus in Heb. 1 clearly alludes to incipient Gnostic ideas of a pre-existent redeemer who was in some ways 'God'- and the writer is clearly debunking those ideas. I write more about this in The Divine Side Of Jesus. My suggestion is that Hebrews was written specifically to Samaritan Christians. For starters, it was Samaritans who called themselves Hebraioi; the Jews tended not to use that term (11). And the reasoning of Hebrews is all drawn from the tabernacle rather than the Jerusalem temple, which the Samaritans didn't accept. The list of the faithful in Heb. 11 is drawn only from the Pentateuch and Joshua, which were the only Old Testament books accepted by the Samaritans. Justin (First Apology 26) and Irenaeus (Against Heresies i.23.1-4) both claimed that it was the Samaritans who were the first Gnostics. John Macdonald in his extensive work The Theology Of The Samaritans demonstrates that the Samaritans actually believed in a binity, two Gods, called "The true one", and "The Glory" (12). They reasoned that the two accounts of creation in Genesis were the work of these two beings, and that Moses in Ex. 34 met two beings each called "Yahweh". And yet the Samaritans were monotheists. They justified their belief in only one God much as trinitarians do today- they argued that the one God was incarnated in the other one, so that there was one God in a kind of binity (13). And so in my opinion this group of Hebrew Christians were likely to revert to their original beliefs, and make Jesus out to be an incarnated God. And it is to them that the letter to the Hebrews is written. It's significant that John's Gospel pays attention to the theme of the Samaritans, and John 1 is full of allusions to Genesis 1 and Exodus 34- the two passages which, as shown above, the Samaritans used as the basis for their belief in a binity of Gods. It's perhaps noteworthy that Paul mentions false apostles in Corinth claiming to be 'Hebrews' rather than Ioudaioi, Jews (2 Cor. 11:22). Significantly, a "Synagogue of the Hebrews", i.e. Samaritans, has been uncovered at Corinth (14). Harry Whittaker and I have offered independent studies showing the existence of a 'Jewish plot' against Paul's work throughout the first century; perhaps that thesis needs to be honed a little and applied specifically to this group of Samaritan Christians (15).
The significance of all this in our present context is that Paul and the apostolic writers of the New Testament were already up against the idea that Jesus = God. Michael Goulder sums it up: "There is evidence that these 'Hebrew' missionaries introduced new doctrines to the ... churches in... the teaching that Jesus was God become man [and] a glorifying and dehumanizing of his earthly life" (16). The apostles dealt with these ideas by alluding to and deconstructing the Gnostic and Samaritan ideas which were at the root of them- and that, in my view, is the basis of many of the passages which are seized upon by trinitarians in support of their idea, whilst of course ignoring the mass of Bible teaching to the contrary. As I have shown elsewhere, passages such as John 1 and Hebrews 1 are in fact full of emphasis upon the fact that Jesus is not God Himself; but their allusion to the prevailing views and literature leads to their use of phrases from that literature which are seized upon by careless Bible readers as evidence for their preconceived idea of a trinity.
The Jewish View Of Angels
The Jewish obsession with Angels influenced the early Christians in the area of Christology [i.e. theories about Christ], just as it did on the topic of the Devil. Chapters like Hebrews 1 and Colossians 2 deal with this in detail, stressing that Jesus was not an Angel [something which the Watchtower movement of today needs to consider more fully]. The Jewish Testament Of Daniel 6.1 exhorts Israel to "draw near unto God and unto the angel that intercedeth for you, for he is a mediator between God and man". This is alluded to by Paul in 1 Tim. 2:5, when he underlines that to us there is "one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus". Clearly Paul is alluding to the apostate Jewish angelology and correcting it- as in Hebrews 2, the point is laboured that Jesus was a man and not an Angel, and He is the only mediator. 3 Enoch [also known as The Hebrew Book Of Enoch] spoke much of an Angel called Metatron, "the prince of the presence", "the lesser Yahweh", who appeared as Yahweh to Moses in Ex. 23:21, sat on "the throne of glory" etc (3 Enoch 10-14). Early Jewish Christianity appears to have mistakenly reapplied these ideas to Jesus, resulting in the idea the first of all Jesus was an Angel, and then coming to full term in the doctrine of the Trinity. J. Danielou devotes the whole fourth chapter of his survey of the development of Christian doctrine to the study of how Jewish views of Angels actually led on to the Trinity (17). Paul's style was not to baldly state that everything believed in by the Jews was wrong; he recognized that the very nature of apostasy is in the mixing of the true and the false. He speaks of how Jesus truly has been exalted and sits at God's right hand (Rom. 8:34) and has been given God's Name, as the Angel was in Exodus (Phil. 2:9-11); but his whole point is that whilst that may indeed be common ground with the Jewish ideas, the truth is that Jesus is not an Angel. He came into physical existence through Mary ("made / born of a woman", Gal. 4:4), and as the begotten Son of God has been exalted above than any Angel. The language of Heb. 1:3-6 clearly alludes to the Metatron myth and deconstructs it in very clear terms. For Jesus is described as "being the effulgence of his glory, and the very image / pattern of his substance, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had made purification of sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; having become by so much better than the angels, as he hath inherited a more excellent name than they. For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, This day have I begotten thee? and again, I will be to him a Father, And he shall be to me a Son? And when he again bringeth in the firstborn into the world he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him".
James Dunn quotes Tertullian, Justin, Epiphanius and Clement as all believing that the Lord Jesus was an Angel: "so too Jewish Christians of the second and third centuries specifically affirmed that Christ was an angel or archangel... Justin's identification of the angel of Yahweh with the [supposedly] pre-existent Christ" (18). It was this Jewish obsession with Angels, and the desire to make Jesus understandable as an Angel, which led to the idea that He personally pre-existed and was not quite human. And hence the specific and repeated emphasis of the New Testament that the Lord was not an Angel but because He was a man and not an Angel He has been exalted far above Angels (Phil. 2:9-11; Col. 1:16; 2:8-10; Heb. 1; 1 Pet. 1:12; 3:22; Rev. 5:11-14). It's the same with the idea of Melchizedek, whom the Qumran community and writings understood as an Archangel. The commentary upon Melchizedek in Hebrews stresses that he was a man ("consider how great this man was...", Heb. 7:4)- therefore not an Angel. He was a foreshadowing of Christ, and not Christ Himself. It would appear that the commentary upon Melchizedek in Hebrews is actually full of indirect references to the Qumran claims about Melchizedek being an Angel and somehow being the Messiah. Sadly, too many trinitarians today have made the same mistake as the Jews- arguing that Melchizedek was somehow Jesus personally. We examine that view in yet more detail in section 1-13. The Jews of Qumran were quite obsessed with Angels- they also suggested that Gabriel was somehow the pre-existent Messiah. Bearing that in mind, it would appear that the descriptions of the Angel Gabriel announcing the conception and birth of Jesus are almost purposefully designed to show that Gabriel and Jesus are not the same but are two quite different persons (Mt. 1:20,24; 2:13,19; Lk. 1:11,19,26-38; 2:9).
The Jews believed that the shekinah, the physical light of glory associated with the tabernacle, was somehow a personal being associated with a Messiah figure. Paul deconstructs this idea in 2 Cor. 3:17,18, where he says that the shekinah seen on the face of Moses was a fading glory of the Old Covenant, having been made insignificant by the glory of Christ. Thus Paul is attacking the common Jewish idea by saying that the Lord Jesus was not the shekinah but is superior to it. Indeed, he so often makes the same point by stressing that the glorification of the Lord Jesus was at His resurrection and ascension. He became "the Lord of glory" by what He suffered, and received this glorification at the resurrection and ascension. If the Lord's glory was somehow pre-existent before that, the wonder and personal significance of the resurrection for Jesus is somehow lost sight of; the idea of suffering and then being glorified, as a pattern for us, is quite lost sight of. And yet this was the repeated theme of Paul's inspired writings. Note in passing how when describing the shekinah cloud in which the Angel dwelt, Paul comments that the cloud was mere water, for at the Red Sea it played a part in symbolizing Israel's baptism "into Moses in the cloud [water above them] and in the sea [water on both sides of them]" (1 Cor. 10:2). Moses and not the shekinah cloud was the type of Christ. Yet Justin Martyr and many other careless Bible readers, coming to Scripture in order to seek justification for their preconceived trinitarian ideas, have interpreted the cloud as being the Angel which was supposedly Jesus. Hebrews 1 clarifies that God spoke in Old Testament times through Angels and prophets- but not through His Son. This He began to do in the ministry of the human Jesus. That path of thought alone should remove all possibility that any Old Testament Angel was in fact the Lord Jesus.
We may wonder why John is at such pains to point out that Christ "came in the flesh", and why he pronounced anathema upon those who denied that (2 Jn. 7-9). It seems to me that his converts had come up against Jewish attempts to re-interpret Jesus in terms of apostate Jewish thinking about Angels and the whole nature of existence, the kind of heresy battled against in Hebrews and Colossians. Take Jewish views of the Angels who appeared to Abraham. Josephus says they "gave him to believe that they did eat" (Antiquities 1.197); Philo claimed that "though they neither ate nor drank, they gave the appearance of both eating and drinking" (Abraham 118). The Bible states simply that they ate. And that Jesus likewise ate after His resurrection. John emphasizes that the Lord Jesus had been fully tangible, the disciples touched and felt Him (1 Jn. 1:1-4); and that His death was equally real (1 Jn. 1:7; 2:2; 4:10; 5:6-9). And he presses the point that this is what had been believed "from the beginning", indicating that already new ideas were coming into the Christian communities about the nature of Jesus. This of itself shows that the whole issue of who Jesus is does matter; that the Christ was and is the real Christ was for John crucially important, as it is for me. Hence this book. The inspired apostle didn't simply shrug off these new ideas as well meaning misunderstandings. He speaks against them in the toughest possible terms.
The Jewish Background To The Logos
Much has been made of the similarities between Jn. 1:1-3 and the 'Wisdom' literature of the Jews. Judaism believed in a number of intermediaries who interceded between God and Israel- Wisdom, the Shekinah [glory], the Logos / word. The Torah [law] had become so elevated and personified that it was spoken of almost as a separate 'God' (19). John and Paul are picking up these terms and explaining their true meaning- Jesus is the glory [shekinah] of God, He alone is the one and only true mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). By stressing that the mediator was "the man Christ Jesus", Paul is also taking a swipe at the Greek idea of a superhuman mediator between the world and the world's creator, sometimes called a "second God". And when it comes to the Logos, John is explaining in his prologue that the theme of all God's word in the Old Testament was ultimately about Jesus, and that 'word' became flesh in a person, i.e. Jesus, in His life and death. Understanding this background helps us understand why John appears to use very 'Divine' language about the logos. He's doing so because he's alluding to the mistaken beliefs of Judaism and showing where the truth really lies in Jesus.
Jewish Influence On The 'Pre-existence' Idea
The false notion that the Lord Jesus literally pre-existed and was then somehow incarnated, or re-incarnated, was a pagan idea that had become popular in Judaism around the time of Christ. In fact the road to the Trinity began with Justin and other 'church fathers' coming to teach that Jesus personally pre-existed- even though they initially denied that He was God Himself. The Qumran sect, some of whose followers became the first Christians, believed that the "Teacher of Righteousness" pre-existed as the former prophets and would be an incarnation of them. This explains why they thought Messiah had previously been incarnated as Moses, Elijah and the prophets. In this lies the significance of the account in Mt. 16:14-18. Jesus enquires who the people think He is- and the disciples answer that the popular view is that Jesus of Nazareth is Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets reincarnated. But this was exactly who first century Judaism thought Messiah would be (20). So the crowd view was indeed that Jesus was Messiah- but "Messiah" as they understood Messiah would be. The significance of the incident lies in Peter's affirmation that Jesus, whom he accepted as Messiah, was not a re-incarnation of a pre-existent prophet but was the begotten Son of God. Note in passing that the false doctrine of pre-existence is connected to the pagan myth of incarnation and re-incarnation. If, for example, Jesus really was existing in Old Testament times, then somehow He would have had to have been re-incarnated in Mary's womb.
Peter's rejection of these ideas and declaration instead that Jesus is the Son of God gave the Lord Jesus great joy; and so too will our faith in Him as the actual Son of God, not a pre-existent being somehow incarnated inside Mary. The Jesus who to this day remembers early childhood with Mary knows full well that He didn't pre-exist before that. We too, you and I, know how frustrating it is to have our origins and essential being misunderstood, and to hear others insisting that their false images of us are in fact true. It may not mean that we break all relationship with them just because of this- but it is surely so that our correct understanding of the nature and essence of Jesus rejoices His heart and draws us closer in our relationship. This is my perspective on the issue of "So how important is it to reject the idea of a pre-existent Jesus?". I cannot speak for His ultimate judgment of men and women, although I do know that many will call Him "Lord, Lord" at the last day and realize they never knew Him and He never knew them (Mt. 7:22,23). All I can say is that correct understanding of our Lord's nature will deeply enrich our relationship with Him- and this is what the daily essence of following Him is all about.
We know from Acts 8 that people from Samaria formed a significant part of the earliest Christian community. Yet all converts are prone to return to their former beliefs in some ways at some times. The Samaritan view of Messiah was likewise that he would be the re-incarnation of a prophet, specifically Moses (Jn. 4:19,25). It therefore seems likely that the idea of a pre-existent Christ / Messiah developed as a result of the early Jewish and Samaritan converts returning to their previous conceptions of Messiah. For these were less taxing to their faith than the radical idea that an illiterate Jewish teenager called Marryam in some dumb Galileean village actually conceived a baby direct from God Almighty. Uninspired documents such as the Preaching Of Peter and the Gospel Of The Hebrews also make the false connection between Jesus and a re-incarnated Moses, Elijah etc. Clearly enough, the idea of a pre-existent, incarnated Jesus had its roots in paganism and apostate Judaism. The descriptions of Jesus as a "man", a human being, have little meaning if in fact He pre-existed as God for millions of years before. The descriptions of Him as "begotten" (passive of gennan in Mt. 1:16,20) make no suggestion of pre-existence at all. And the words of the Lord Jesus and His general behaviour would have to be read as all being purposefully deceptive, if in fact He was really a pre-existent god. There is no hint of any belief in a pre-existent Jesus until the writings of Justin Martyr in the second century- and he only develops the idea in his dialogue with Trypho the Jew. The Biblical accounts of the Lord's conception and birth just flatly contradict the idea of pre-existence. This contradiction leads trinitarians into the most impossible statements. Take Kenneth Wuest, leading Evangelical and trinitarian: "Jesus proceeded by eternal generation as the Son of God from the Father in a birth that never took place because it always was" (21). This is meaningless verbiage- all necessitated by a desire to accept the Trinity tradition above God's word. And Wuest makes that incredible statement in a book entitled "Great truths to live by". Nobody can live a victorious spiritual life on the basis of such 'truths'.
Time and again we have to remind ourselves that in reading the Bible, we are reading literature which was relevant to the time in which it was written, and which is inevitably going to freely use the current terminology without as it were giving footnoted explanations for 21st century readers. The whole language of pre-existence in Heaven must be understood against the Jewish background in which it was first used in the Biblical writings. "When the Jew wished to designate something as predestined, he spoke of it as already 'existing' in heaven" (22). Moses (especially in The Testament Of Moses 1:13,14), the Torah etc. are all spoken of in this sense in Jewish writings of the time. "Attribution of preexistence indicates religious importance of the highest order. Rabbinic theology speaks of the Law, of God's throne of glory, of Israel... as things which were already present with [God] before the creation of the world. The same is also true of the Messiah... in Pesikta Rabbati 152b it is said that "from the beginning of the creation of the world the King Messiah was born, for he came up in the thought of God before the world was created". This means that from all eternity it was the will of God that the Messiah should come into existence, and should do his work in the world to fulfill God's eternal saving purpose" (23). We must not read the New Testament through Greek / Western eyes, but rather try to understand it against its original Jewish / Hebrew background of thought. It's a failure to do this which has given rise to trinitarianism and its associated misconceptions. Thus when we read of Jesus being "with" God, the Greek / Western mind can assume this means sitting literally together with Him. But time and again in the Hebrew Bible, the idea of being "with" someone means [according to the Brown, Driver and Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, p. 768] to "be in one's consciousness, whether of knowledge, memory or purpose". Thus Job speaks of how what God plans to do to him is "with God", i.e. in His purpose (Job 23:14); David is spoken of as having the idea about building a temple "with" him (1 Kings 8:17; 2 Chron. 6:7)- and there are multiple other examples (Num. 14:24; 1 Kings 11:11; 1 Chron. 28:12; Job 10:13; 15:9; 23:10; 27:11; Ps. 50:11; 73:23). It is this refusal to read the Bible within its own Hebraic context which has led to so much misunderstanding, and adopting of doctrines and positions which simply don't stand up to closer Biblical scrutiny.
The whole idea of a human being God Himself, or of personal pre-existence, are both Greek / Hellenistic concepts, and not Hebrew ones. "When the Jew said something was "predestined", he thought of it as already "existing" in a higher sphere of life... this typically Jewish conception of predestination may be distinguished from the Greek idea of preexistence by the predominance of the thought of "preexistence" in the Divine purpose" (24). The language of Jn. 1:1-3 is all about this- the logos preexisting in God's purpose. Significantly, the idea of 'apocalypse' alludes to this Jewish idea of predestined things 'existing' in Heaven with God; for 'apocalypse' means literally an unveiling, a revealing of what is [in Heaven]. In this sense the believer at the resurrection will receive what was already laid up in store for him or her in Heaven (2 Cor. 5:1; Col. 1:5; Mt. 25:34). Because of this, Hebrew can use past tenses to speak of that which is future (e.g. Is. 5:13; 9:2,6,12; 10:28; 28:16; 34:2; Gen. 15:18 cp. Acts 7:5). Things can thus "be" before they are created: "They were and were created" (Rev. 4:11). And thus when the Lord Jesus speaks of the glory which He had with God from the beginning (Jn. 17:5), there is no suggestion there that He therefore existed in glory from the beginning. He didn't ask for that glory to be restored to Him, as trinitarianism demands; instead He asked that the glory which He already had in the Divine purpose, be given to Him. Significantly, there is a Greek word which specifically refers to personal, literal pre-existence: pro-uparchon- and it's never used about the Lord Jesus.
The Jewish View Of Adam
There was a first century Jewish speculation that Adam would be re-incarnated as Messiah. Paul's references to Adam and Christ in Rom. 5:12-21 and 1 Cor. 15:45-47 are very careful to debunk that idea. Paul emphasized that no, Adam and Jesus are different, Jesus is superior to Adam, achieved what Adam didn't, whilst all the same being "son of man". And this emphasis was effectively a denial by Paul that Jesus pre-existed as Adam, or as anyone. For Paul counters these Jewish speculations by underlining that the Lord Jesus was human. The hymn of Phil. 2:6-11 is really a setting out of the similarities and differences between Adam and Jesus- and unlike Adam, Jesus did not even consider equality with God as something to be grasped for (Gen. 3:5). The record of the wilderness temptations also appears designed to highlight the similarities and differences between Adam and Jesus- both were tempted, Adam eats, Jesus refuses to eat; both are surrounded by the animals and Angels (Mk. 1:13).
A false understanding of the nature of the Lord Jesus is related to a wrong understanding of sin and the whole nature and need for atonement. There was a first century Jewish speculation that Adam would be re-incarnated as Messiah, and this was connected with the idea that Adam was somehow sinless. The Book of Enoch blames the fall of man on the sin of the [supposed] Angels in Genesis 6, rather than Adam's sin in Eden; and some early Jewish Christians likewise denied the fall of Adam, blaming humanity's problems rather on the supposed visit of Angels to the earth [according to their misinterpretation of Genesis 6] (25). In all this we see a refusal to face sin for what it is, and to dilute human responsibility for sin, blaming it rather on supposedly fallen Angels. It is this, on a psychological level at least, which appears to be the root cause for the misinterpretation on the Genesis 6 passage. I've written more about this in chapter 5 of The Real Devil. This failure to perceive the importance and nature of sin led to wrong thinking as to how salvation could be achieved. According to the Gnostics, mankind was to be saved simply by the act of "the Heavenly man" descending to earth and ascending back to Heaven (see the Naasene Hymn and Hippolytus in Refutations 5.6-11). The Biblical picture is very different. The Lord Jesus was born of an ordinary woman, human, with all our temptations (Heb. 2:14-18; 4:15,16), and only through His struggle against sin, unto death, can we be saved. This is a far different picture from that of popular Christianity, whereby [just as in the Gnostic theory], some non-human redeemer saved us merely by making a trip down to earth and back to Heaven again. Such a theory also says something about the nature of God- would He really forgive us all the hurt we cause Him, just because someone took a trip from Heaven to earth and back again? Is the God of the Bible really so tokenistic and so easily satisfied by ritual for the sake of it? The huge place accorded to the death and resurrection of Jesus by the New Testament writers is clearly enough a denial of the Gnostic idea of the Heavenly redeemer coming down to earth and ascending again for our redemption. And yet this mistaken idea is clearly behind the theology of mainstream Christianity- even though it utterly devalues the cross and resurrection. John's idea is that the Lord Jesus was 'lifted up' on the cross, and yet 'lifted up' is the term used for exaltation to and by God (Jn. 3:14 etc. all play on this idea). The Lord's ascension to Heaven wasn't therefore a 'going home', as required by the Gnostic pre-existence theory; it was a wonderful exaltation of "the man Christ Jesus" from earth to Heaven, in recognition of His supreme achievment. Truly has it been commented: "The dogma of Christ's deity turned Jesus into a Hellenistic redeemer-god, and thus was a myth propagated behind which the historical Jesus completely disappeared" (26).
Further, the Lord Jesus is set up in so many ways as the example for us to follow- in a way that some cosmic being descending from outer space never could have been. In the same way as Jesus was the image of the invisible God in His character (Col. 1:15; 2 Cor. 4:4), so we are bidden put on the image of God (Col. 3:10), being transformed into His image progressively over time (2 Cor. 3:18), through "the renewing of your mind" (Rom. 12:2), being conformed to the image of Jesus our Saviour (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49). Thus the process of our redemption, through the perfect character of Jesus, becomes in turn a personal pattern for each of us who have been saved by that process. And it was only through the successful completion of that work of redemption that Jesus was "made" Lord of all (Rom. 1:4; Acts 2:36). This is a different picture to the Gnostic-Trinitarian idea of a pre-existent Lord of all descending to earth. Further, their theory gets somewhat confused when they claim that the Angelic appearances on earth in Old Testament times [e.g. the Angel with Israel in the wilderness] were actually appearances of Jesus on earth. If this is so, then when did Jesus come to earth to save men? Did He make several visits...? Why couldn't each of these visits have been enough for human salvation? The idea that the Lord Jesus was an Old Testament Angel is simply unsustainable in Scripture and needs to be rejected, along with all Gnostic-influenced views of Him. We know from Acts 14:11 that there was a strong tendency in the first century to believe that the gods could come to earth in the likeness of men; and trinitarianism simply reflects the fact that weak Christians in the early centuries sought to accomodate Christianity to their existing beliefs.
The Language Of Exaltation
As scholarship uncovers and analyzes more and more Jewish literature contemporary with and predating the New Testament, it becomes apparent that many of the terms of devotion used about Jesus are in fact borrowed from Judaism. This we would expect, seeing that the New Testament writers and the early Christians were largely Jewish. Judaism gave Divine titles to Messiah, speaking of Him in Divine terms (27)- and yet clearly enough, this didn't mean that the Jews understood Messiah as equal to God, for they were the world's fiercest monotheists. If the Jews of the first century were being asked to quit monotheism and accept trinitarianism, why is there no New Testament hint of the struggle this would have resulted in? Why doesn't Paul speak of how he struggled with it? For even today, Trinitarian preachers find their view of the Trinity to be the greatest stumblingblock for their Jewish audiences. Larry Hurtado sums it up like this: "Virtually all the Christological rhetoric of early Christians was appropriated from their environment" (28). We of course do the same- we describe a promising young footballer as "the next [Beckham]", or whoever is the football star of the moment. Likewise the word "awesome" came into strong vogue in the late 1990s as a superlative. We use the terms of exaltation which are current at our time. Thus reading the New Testament against its context, the highly exalted language used about the Lord Jesus was not in fact making any claim at all that 'Jesus = God' in a trinitarian sense. It was only because Judaism and Christianity parted company with each other that later generations of Gentile Christians came to forget the immediate Jewish context against which those terms were initially used- and conveniently mixed them with their own pagan ideas about gods coming to earth etc.
The Extent Of Jewish Influence
It may be wondered whether I'm not over emphasizing the influence of apostate Jewish thinking upon apostate Christian thinking in the first century. However there's ample evidence that such influence occured in other doctrinal and behavioural areas even amongst the early Gentile churches. The Songs Of The Sabbath Sacrifice was a document used in the Qumran community, claiming that the Angelic choirs of praise to God were reflected in the praises of the Qumran community. They saw themselves as praising God with the "tongues of Angels". A similar idea can be found in the Testament Of Job, which also uses the term "tongues of Angels" to describe how the praises of Job's daughters matched those of the Angels in Heaven. These two apocryphal writings include many phrases which are used by Paul in his argument against how the Corinthians were abusing the idea of 'speaking in tongues': "understand all mysteries (1 Cor. 13:2)... in a spirit speaks mysteries (1 Cor. 14:2)... speaking unto God (1 Cor. 14:2)... sing with the Spirit (1 Cor. 14:15)... bless with the spirit (1 Cor. 14:16)... hath a psalm (1 Cor. 14:26)" (29). It would seem therefore that the Gentile Corinthians were influenced by apostate Jewish false teachers, who were encouraging them to use ecstatic utterance with the claim that they were speaking with "tongues of Angels". And Paul's response is to guide them back to the purpose of the gift of tongues- which was to preach in foreign languages. My point in this context is that even in the Gentile church at Corinth, there was significant influence from Jewish false teachers. So it's no surprise to find that in the area of the nature and person of the Lord Jesus, which was the crucial issue in the new religion of Christianity, there would also be such influence by Jewish thinking.
This set of mystical commentaries upon the writings of Moses is centered around a book called The Zohar, which was supposedly produced by Shimon bar Yochai, a rabbi of the second century. This book gives an insight, therefore, into Jewish thinking at that time. The Zohar often speaks of God as being "interconnected" within Himself, and often speaks of this interconnection in terms of tripilisms, i.e. three aspects inteconnected. Michael Lodahl comments: "The Zohar, near its
beginning, describes the sefirotic interconnectedness in this way: "Three issue from one and one is established on three; one enters
between two, two give suck to one, and one feeds many sides, and so all
are one (1:32b)."And so all are one": the rich, multivalent consciousness of God..." (30). This language is remarkably similar to that used in the Trinitarian creeds, and it's hard to imagine that Trinitarianism didn't partly originate from an apostate Judaism.
(1) See Larry Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion And Ancient Jewish Monotheism (London: T. & T. Clark, 2003) pp. 71-92.
(2) N.A. Dahl, "Christ, Creation And The Church" in The Background Of The New Testament , ed. W.D. Davies and D. Daube (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1964) pp. 422-443.
(3) Vincent Taylor, The Person Of Christ In New Testament Teaching (London: Macmillan, 1959) p. 62.
(4) Evidence provided in Rudolf Bultmann, Theology Of The New Testament (New York: Scribner's, 1965) Vol. 1 pp. 132, 176, 178.
(5) See J. Moffatt, The Epistle To The Hebrews (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1924) pp. 11,38; C.K. Barrett, The New Testament Background (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989 ed.) pp. 174-184.
(6) Arthur Gibson, Biblical Semantic Logic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981) p. 26. The same point is often exemplified in Jmaes Barr, The Semantics Of Biblical Language (Oxford: O.U.P., 1961).
(7) See my The Real Devil chapter 1.
(8) John Macdonald, The Theology Of The Samaritans (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964) p. 162.
(9) References in James Dunn, Christology In The Making (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980) p. 100.
(10) Martin Hengel, Acts And The History Of Earliest Christianity (London: S.C.M., 1979) p. 106.
(11) See John Hick, ed., The Myth Of God Incarnate (London: S.C.M., 1977) p. 67.
(12) John Macdonald, op cit., pp. 135, 221, 306.
(13) W. Bauer, Orthodoxy And Heresy In Earliest Christianity (London: S.C.M., 1972) pp. 44-60; H.G. Kippenburg, Gerazim And Synagogue (Berlin & New York: Gruyter, 1971) pp. 205, 316, 367.
(14) Mentioned in Bauer, op cit., p. 44.
(15) Harry Whittaker, 'The Jewish Plot', in Studies In The Acts Of The Apostles (Wigan: Biblia, 1991); and my 'The Jewish Satan' in The Real Devil (Sydney: Aletheia, 2007).
(16) Michael Goulder, in John Hick, ed., The Myth Of God Incarnate (London: S.C.M., 1977) p. 84.
(17) J. Danielou, The Theology Of Jewish Christianity: A History Of Early Christian Doctrine (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1964) chapter 4, 'The Trinity and Angelology'.
(18) James Dunn, Christology In The Making (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980) pp. 132, 150.
(19) H. Ringgren, Word And Wisdom (Lund: Ohlsson, 1947) pp. 165-171. See too his The Faith Of Qumran (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1963).
(20) See documentation in Oscar Cullmann, The Christology Of The New Testament (London: S.C.M., 1971) pp. 15,16.
(21) Kenneth Wuest, Great Truths To Live By (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952) p. 30.
(22) E.G. Selwyn, First Epistle Of St. Peter (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983) p. 124. Likewise Emil Schurer: "In Jewish thinking, everything truly valuable preexisted in heaven", The History of The Jewish People In The Age Of Jesus Christ (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1979) Vol. 2 p. 522.
(23) H. Mowinckel, He That Cometh (Nashville: Abingdon, 1954) p. 334.
(24) E.C. Dewick, Primitive Christian Eschatology (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1912) pp. 253,254.
(25) For documentation, see Oscar Cullmann, The Christology Of The New Testament (London: S.C.M., 1971) p. 170.
(26) Martin Werner, The Formation Of Christian Doctrine: An Historical Study Of Its Problems (London: A. & C. Black, 1957) p. 298.
(27) See William Horbury, Jewish Messianism And The Cult Of Christ (London: S.C.M., 1998); Nils Dahl, "Sources of Christological language" in his Jesus The Christ: The Historical Origins Of Christological Doctrine (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) pp. 113-136.
(28) Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion To Jesus In Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) p. 75.
(29) References for all this can be found in Andrew Perry,'The Songs Of The Sabbath Sacrifice And Tongues', Christadelphian Journal Of Biblical Interpretation, Vol. 2 No. 2 April 2008 p. 13.
(30) Michael Lodahl,
Shekhinah / Spirit: Divine Presence in Jewish and Christian
Religion (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992) p. 86. See too S.M. Bernard Lee, "An 'Other' Trinity," manuscript form of a paper presented at the Conference on Jewish Theology and Process Thought at Hebrew Union College, New York (April 13, 1986), p. 4. There are several references to the connections between the Zorah and the formulation of Trinitarian doctrine in Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the
Kingdom (New York: Harper and Row, 1981). Moltmann sought to justify the Trinity as a reflection of "the three modes of human freedom" which the Kabbalah speak of.
Duncan Heaster has written over 20 books, some of which contain material relevant to The Real Christ. And there is a host of other relevant material...