I’m exploring the possible implications of the fact that Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t a 21st century Western Christian, but a deeply committed 1st century Palestinian Jew. As such, he’d have recited the ‘Shema’, from Deuteronomy 6. In English Bibles this is usually translated as ‘Hear, O Israel. The LORD is God. The LORD is one.” A more literal translation would be, “Hear, Israel. Yhwh (is) God. Yhwh (is) one.” Biblical Hebrew is written without vowels, but it’s most likely that the Jewish God’s name was pronounced ‘Yahweh”, except that, because it was ‘sacred’, it wasn’t pronounced at all.
In ancient times, knowing and using a name was linked with ‘having power over’. In Genesis 3, Adam’s naming of all the living creatures is part and parcel of his having “dominion over them”. So when Jews recite their scriptures, and come upon their God’s name, they show their humility and respect by substituting either the word meaning ‘the Name’, or the word meaning ‘Lord’. When English Bibles use ‘LORD’ they’re either honouring that Jewish tradition or, perhaps, they’re disguising the possibly unwelcome fact that the Judeo-Christian God was originally the Israelite tribal god Yahweh – as in, ‘Local boy makes good’.
As a devout Jew, Jesus is reported as saying that “not the least point nor the smallest detail of the Law will be done away with” and, as we’ve just seen, that Law unequivocally states that there is but one God – not two, nor three-in-one. It’s therefore inconceivable to me that Jesus could ever have said or implied, “I am Yahweh”. Had he done so, he would, of course, have used one of the substitute words, just as we use the comfortably generic word ‘God’, but his hearers would have known that the uncomfortably specific ‘Yahweh” was what he meant. Even if such a thought had ever crossed his mind, it seems to me that the actual words would have stuck in his throat, and certainly not crossed his Jewish lips.
I’ve written elsewhere about the Gospels being a bit like an archeological dig, in that they’re made up of earlier and later, oral and written material. In the earliest material in the first three Gospels, Jesus himself makes no claim to be God. He only does so in the latest Gospel, that of John, which was written between 90 and 100 CE, and which paints a very different picture of Jesus from the earlier three. Here he no longer teaches using brief one-liners and everyday parables acceptably focused on God and his kingdom, but launches into extended ‘theological discourses’ focused chiefly on himself and his ‘divine’ status. What’s going on here is surely this – that the writer is putting onto Jesus’ lips, the steadily developing ideas of the Christian Church about him, as of the end of the 1st century.
If you’re interested in the historical process of how this happened and further progressed, I’d recommend the well researched and very readable book by Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina – “How Jesus became God – the Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.”
In this 21st century, we now know, whether or not we give it the attention it deserves, that we live in an infinitely large universe in which our planet Earth is an infinitesimal speck of cosmic dust. The idea that a ‘God’ of this inconceivably vast cosmos could possibly be, or even wish to be, ‘incarnated’ in a human being is not one that I can any longer credibly and honestly entertain. This is NOT to say, however, that it’s an idea which is entirely without meaning and worth. On the contrary, what it means to me is that Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most important human beings to have lived on our planet. He has helped to shape not only Western, but therefore to a significant degree, world history and culture over the last 2,000 years.
It seems sad to me, and unhelpful, that so many of us throw out the baby with the bath water. I’m including here, Christians who hold to the comforting ideas that Jesus is God and has ‘died for their sins’, while seeming to pay far less attention to the radical and challenging values and principles that can be found in his way of life and in his teaching. Of this, ‘Trumpism’ and its ongoing support by the so-called ‘Christian Right’, seems to me to provide one of today’s most egregious examples of this.
If some of these radical and challenging values and principles were to be more widely focused on, accepted, prioritised and put into practice, that would surely make a manifest difference for the better to our individual lives, to our relationships, to our national and international affairs, and to our world as a whole. If only …..