The following is an excerpt of N.T. Wright, "Who Was Jesus?", page 48 ff. This section is in response to atheist A.N. Wilson's book "Jesus".

One God

The belief that there is only one God is normally called 'monotheism'. Wilson claims repeatedly (e.g. pp. xvi, 20, 135, 157, 249f., etc.) that people who hold this belief would find it very difficult to believe that Jesus was 'the second person of the Trinity'. He claims, therefore, like many others, that to treat Jesus as in any sense 'divine' shows that one has moved off the proper territory of Jewish monotheism and has embraced instead a pagan, Gentile type of religion that would have shocked any good Jew, such as Jesus himself or his first followers.

Jewish Belief

What are we to make of this?[8] The first and most important thing to say is that Wilson has totally misunderstood what first-century Jewish monotheism was all about. It was never, in the Jewish literature of the crucial period, an analysis of the inner being of God, a kind of numerical statement about, so to speak, what God was like on the inside. It was always a polemical statement directed outwards against the pagan nations. 'The gods of the peoples are idols: YHWH [i.e. Israel's God] made the heavens' (Psalm 96.5). When Jews said they believed in the one true God, this was what they meant: that their own God was not merely a local or tribal deity, but was the God of the whole earth. This, of course, had immediate political consequences. If Israel was suffering at the hands of the pagans, her God would sooner or later redeem her. This is the basic meaning of Jewish monotheism, first-century style.

Significantly, within the Jewish literature of our period there are all sorts of signs that Jews developed ways of speaking about this one God which showed that they were not nearly so worried about the numerical analysis of God-on-the-inside as the later Rabbis were. (The Rabbis, of course, were faced with burgeoning Christianity, and developed the 'numerical analysis of God' idea partly as a way of arguing against it.) Jews spoke or wrote of God's 'Wisdom' as active in creating and sustaining the world. They wrote, movingly, of God's Law ('Torah') as an entity which had existed before the world was made, and which then acted in history, particularly in Israel's history. They spoke with reverence of God's 'Presence', his 'Shekinah', which dwelt in the Temple at Jerusalem. They spoke of his 'Word' ('Memra'), active in the world. Why did they do this?

They did it, regularly, in order to get round the problem of how to speak appropriately of the one true God who is both beyond the created world and active within it. Even when, as some scholars have argued, these 'manner-of-speaking' entities like Wisdom and Torah became regarded as virtually distinct beings, the Jews who referred to them didn't regard this as compromising their monotheism. They still believed that their God, the God of Israel, was the one true God, even while active through these various 'beings', and that all the other gods, the gods of the pagans, were mere idols. But they were holding on to the basic belief that this one God was both beyond the world and active within it.

The other problem you always face, if you declare faith in one true God, is to do with evil. Where did evil come from? What is this God doing about it? The Jews didn't have a clear answer to the first question, but they did to the second. This God had called Israel herself to be the means of blessing the world, of saving the world, of bringing light to the world. That's why (they believed) Israel came into being in the first place.

Monotheism and Early Christianity

What does all this do to our view of Jesus, of Paul and of the early Christians? It puts it in a very different light from the one you'd have got by reading Wilson. When he speaks of the early Christian belief that Jesus was somehow on the 'divine' side of the equation, what he doesn't notice is that the language used to convey this belief is all taken from precisely this Jewish stock. Jesus is the 'Word' of God. Jesus is the Wisdom through which the world was made. Jesus is, in some senses, the new Torah. And, in a move which has stupendous consequences, Jesus is the true Shekinah, the true presence of the one true God, the truth of which the Jerusalem Temple was simply a foretaste.[9]

This is one of the points at which, as I said earlier, Wilson seems to me close to the truth but separated by a hedge. He says, quite often, that one of the characteristic things Jesus did was to 'admit people into the kingdom'. But what on earth does that mean? It means, to be blunt, that Jesus was doing something, off his own bat, that normally happened through official channels. It must have had the same effect that you'd get if a total stranger approached you in the street and offered to issue you with a passport. The natural reaction in first-century Judaism to Jesus' declaration that someone's sins were forgiven would be that he seemed to think he was the Temple-system - building, priests, sacrifices, the lot - and especially that he seemed to think he was in the position of the Shekinah itself.

This, actually, isn't a wildly odd idea in first-century Judaism. The Essenes believed that their community was the true replacement for the Jerusalem Temple. The Pharisees seem to have thought that, in some senses at least, their ritual meals taken together in strict purity enabled them to recapture, privately, something of the sanctity you'd get by being in the Temple itself. They suggested, too, that when people studied the Torah (Law) it was as though they were in the very presence of the living God himself. What Jesus was doing was not stepping outside Jewish monotheism, with its normal variations, but acting within it in such a way as to draw the eye up to himself. He was implicitly taking the place of the Essene community, or of the Pharisees' fellowship: he was the place where Israel was to meet her God. This cannot be dismissed by saying it's a late idea, a Gentile myth, a pagan invention, a Pauline muddle, or anything else.

Which 'One God' are we Talking About?

Of course, this way of looking at thing demands a different view of 'God' from the one regularly held within the modern Western world. That, I think, is where a good deal of the problem seems to lie.

A couple of years ago I was part of a panel discussion in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. The interviewer tossed me the question: 'Was Jesus God?' That's one of those trick questions that you can't answer straight on. It assumes that we know what 'God' means, and we're simply asking if Jesus is somehow identified with this 'God'. What we should say, instead, is: 'It all depends what you mean by "God".' Well, what do people mean?

When people say 'God' today (apart from using the word as a casual expletive) they are usually referring to a hypothetical Being who lives at some distance from the world, detached from normal life. This Being may occasionally intervene, but for the most part stays aloof, watchful, vaguely disapproving.

Now if that's the sort of view of 'God' you hold - and in my experience it's pretty common - then of course to ask 'Is Jesus God?' is laughable. Jesus was a full-blooded human being. As Wilson is fond of pointing out, Jesus had a reputation for being a party-goer, a drinker. The sort of company he kept made reputable people - including his own family - look down their noses with disapproval. It's ridiculous to think of Jesus as being 'God' in that high-and-dry sense, detached and disapproving. (If you want to see what such a Jesus might look like, the B-grade biblical movies of a few years ago will provide plenty of examples, with their dreary, dreamy Jesus-figures, who made lofty pronouncements and stared into the middle distance as though scanning the skies for angels.)

But supposing we started out with a different view of 'God'? We could perfectly easily run through the options. What about a Hindu God - a figure like Krishna, say? No, that doesn't look like Jesus either. What about a Muslim view of God, the stern Allah who demands total and blind obedience? No, that won't fit. But what about the Old Testament view of God?

In the Old Testament we find a God who yearns over the plight of his people, and indeed of the whole world. He hates the human wickedness which has defaced his world, and which destroys other humans, and its own perpetrators, as it goes along. Not to hate such wickedness would be, to say the least, morally culpable. But this Old Testament God is also one who, when people are in misery and at their wits' end, comes in person to deal with the problem. He rolls up his sleeves to get on with the job (Isaiah 52.10). (What Isaiah actually says is 'the LORD has bared his holy arm', but in my language that means that God rolled up his sleeves.) And Isaiah again, this time in chapter 63 verse 8, speaks of Israel's God sharing the distress and affliction of his people, and rescuing them personally.

Now: let us suppose that this God were to become human. What would such a God look like? Very much, I submit, like Jesus of Nazareth.[10] This is the really scary thing that writers like A. N. Wilson never come to grips with; not that Jesus might be identified with a remote, lofty, imaginary being (any fool could see the flaw in that idea), but that God, the real God, the one true God, might actually look like Jesus. And not a droopy, pre-Raphaelite Jesus, either, but a shrewd Palestinian Jewish villager who drank wine with his friends, agonized over the plight of his people, taught in strange stories and pungent aphorisms, and was executed by the occupying forces. What does that do to Christian belief?

The Christian doctrine of the incarnation was never intended to be about the elevation of a human being to divine status. That's what, according to some Romans, happened to the emperors after they died, or even before. The Christian doctrine is all about a different sort of God - a God who was so different to normal expectations that he could, completely appropriately, become human in, and as, the man Jesus of Nazareth. To say that Jesus is in some sense God is of course to make a startling statement about Jesus. It is also to make a stupendous claim about God.

Jesus and God

Once we grasp this possibility, there opens up before us a far better way of reading the early Christian language about God and Jesus than we find in Wilson's book. Wilson seems to be stuck in the belief (it's really a typical 1960s viewpoint) that the early church made Jesus divine by revising their Jewish beliefs in the light of pagan philosophical categories. It has to be said most emphatically that this simply isn't the case.

The evidence is actually quite clear. From the very earliest Christian documents we possess (i.e. the letters of Paul) right through mainstream Christianity to the fifth century and beyond, we find Christians straining every nerve to say what they found themselves compelled to say: not that there were now two, or three, different Gods, but that the one true God had revealed himself to be, within himself so to speak, irrevocably threefold. The whole point of the doctrine of the Trinity, both in its early stages in passages like Galatians 4.1-7, 1 Corinthians 12.4-6, 2 Corinthians 13.13, and Matthew 28.19, and in its later stages in the writings of the Greek and Latin Fathers, was that one could not say that there was a plurality of Gods: only that there was an irreducible threefold-ness about the one God. The Fathers drew on non-Christian philosophical categories, not to invent this belief, but to try to explain it to their contemporaries.

And, all the time, Christian belief in this one God was set over against the same paganism that Jewish monotheism had always opposed. What we find in early Christianity, in fact, is the same basic theological position that we find in Judaism: a belief in the one God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who was to vindicate his name, and his people, against the pagan 'gods'. The difference is that, for the Jews, this vindication was still to come, when this God would give them a great political and military victory over their enemies. For the Christians, the vindication had already taken place, when God raised Jesus from the dead.

This, then, is Jewish monotheism as it actually was in the first century, and in its reuse in the early church. It was not, as Wilson constantly suggests, a technical, philosophers' analysis of the inner being of the one God, marking a decisive shift away from the beliefs of Jesus. It was a polemical belief in the one true God over against all false gods, all idols. Jesus shared this belief; so did all early Christians, not least Paul. But there was nothing in it to stop them believing that the one true God was revealing himself, and had revealed himself, in, and even as, Jesus.

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