Response to Nick Norelli’s Review of The Only True God

As mentioned previously, Nick Norelli posted a very detailed and, from my perspective, very fair and useful review of my book, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context. There have been more positive reviews that did not leave me feeling as satisfied with the level of engagement as Nick’s did.
The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish ContextI am sure that no one will be surprised that I do not entirely agree with Nick’s criticisms at every point. And so I wish to respond to some of the points he made, more to clarify and nuance my understanding in response to Nick’s criticisms than anything else.

That I occasionally expressed myself in ways that were perhaps hyperbolic I acknowledge. In bringing funeral stele and other epigraphic data into consideration, I did take it too much for granted that one can extrapolate from such evidence to draw conclusions about popular piety. In fact, doing so is not at all unproblematic. But this can also be said about textual evidence, and probably to an even larger extent. Texts were largely produced by and for a literate elite, and it has often been suggested that emphases in texts may reflect the attempts of this elite to counter popular and prevailing thoughts, rather than giving expression to what most people thought. And so I think the issue is less whether I drew conclusions from epigraphic evidence that are too broad and sweeping, but how if at all we can tell.

This point may also be applied to Nick’s criticism that I drew on texts from outside of the period my study focused on, in particular 3 Enoch. As already mentioned, it is hard to know which texts if any reflect widely held views. And so I thought it significant that a figure other than God was viewed as able to bear the divine name and serve as God’s agent in a range of texts running from Deuteronomy through Apocalypse of Abraham and the New Testament into not only Rabbinic tradition but also Samaritan literature. The evidence from before, close to, and significantly later than the time of the emergence of Christianity suggests to me that we are dealing with a phenomenon that was widespread both geographically and temporally. The point was not to draw on 3 Enoch as though it already existed in New Testament times, but to use it and other texts to show the extent and scope of the tradition of having an exalted agent bear the divine name.

Nick wrote that I gave “too much weight to devotional practices at the rhetorical level“, by which I presume he means that I paid more attention to what was said regarding devotional practices rather than to the practices themselves. I certainly warn (p.17) that the rhetoric of monotheism on its own tells us very little. And in the case of earliest Christianity, all we have are texts, some of which depict or describe devotional practices. But it is only later that we can recover evidence of buildings, art, liturgical paraphernalia and so on from Christians – the very sort of evidence I tried to highlight in discussing Jewish monotheism in the pre-Christian era when it was available. And so there definitely are issues here, but I feel they have more to do with the surviving evidence than a methodological misstep on my part. And while it is certainly possible that Christians burst forth in praise and song, and only later sought to offer theological justification for their practices, there seems to be enough continuity between Jewish and Christian language and practices of worship that it would be surprising if a redefinition of monotheism came about inadvertently, if it came about at all in this period. And so looking at what is said may not be inappropriate. But if we would ideally look elsewhere, at what they did, then we find that we do not have the evidence we would need to discuss what Christians did, apart from what they wrote about what they did.

One point at which Nick’s assessment of my argument seems to me off target is when he emphasizes that I “part company” from Lionel North, inasmuch as I do not acknowledge that, in the post-70 period, a more diverse array of forms of worship became acceptable substitutes for blood sacrifice. On the one hand, I do not believe that I ever denied that this is the case with respect to non-Christian Judaism. On the other hand, it seems to me that in Christianity it was not that non-bloody sacrifices became acceptable in the wake of the temple’s destruction, but rather’s Jesus’ blood sacrifice was understood to offer everything that temple sacrifice could and more. And so Christians accepted this once-for-all blood sacrifice offered to God by Christ, rather than substituting other forms of worship for animal sacrifice. And this is precisely one of the features that makes it problematic to look at the earliest Christian worship expecting it to clarify Christians’ relationship to monotheism. If there is anything resembling a “parting of the ways” over worship in this period, it may have as much if not more to do with these contrasting ways of coping with the loss of the temple, than with the object of worship. And to the extent that the sacrificial death of Christ provided this for Christians, this was an offering of Christ made to God, and so does not provide any sort of sacrificial offering to Jesus that might have clearly indicated his inclusion alongside God as recipient of this sort of sacrifice. Again, it is clear that having Jesus offer sacrifice to himself would make little sense. My point is that the sacrificial view of Jesus’ death by its very nature is unable to indicate an inclusion of Jesus in the divine identity as recipient of worship. And so if there is evidence to be found for such a move on the part of early Christians, it would have to be sought elsewhere, expressed by other means.

As far as the accusation that I “dismiss” evidence from Esther and Philo regarding prostration before figures other than God, I sincerely do not feel that my discussion of these texts represents “dismissal.” I encourage readers to search for “Esther” in the online preview of my book on Google/Amazon, to see what I consider to be brief but relevant treatments of that text. As for Daniel, Nick’s review fails to mention that the refusal of Jews to bow before statues and human beings is combined with an instance of the king falling on his face before Daniel, paying him hommage, and even commanding that offerings (using technical terminology for meal offerings and soothing-smelling incense) be presented to him, without Daniel correcting him (2:46). The book also depicts Daniel bowing before an angel without the angel correcting him (10:15). And so if anything, the Book of Daniel illustrates well my point that Jewish scruples are not adequately summarized in terms of a blanket rejection of prostration before anyone other than God. I would further suggest, as I do in my book, that the distinction between the cases is centered on whether the would-be recipient of prostration and other forms of “worship” was an agent of the one God of Israel, or understood to be competing with that God for honor.

Nick also suggests that I do not respond directly enough to Hurtado’s points regarding the lack of evidence for controversy about Christology in Paul’s letters. This is certainly true, and that is largely because I encountered Hurtado’s publications about this only after the manuscript was completed. But it seems to me that Hurtado’s point – that these are letters to Christians and so do not engage non-Christian Jews directly – fails to adequately account for the lack of controversy, as James Dunn also argues. It does not seem to me that allegiance to one God alone was any less a matter of Torah observance than circumcision. And so the fact that Paul addresses the latter but not the former still seems to me to suggest that the exalted status he attributed to Jesus was controversial only because it was a claim about Jesus, a crucified Messiah whom non-Christian Jews did not accept as such, and not because of any alleged change to the configuration of Jewish monotheism.

But in closing, let me agree with Nick’s point about the book’s length. I am fully aware of the book’s shortcomings (pun intended) in this regard. This book emerged out of an attempt to explore the broader sweep of the New Testament in relation to my understanding of the Gospel of John, its Christology, and its development of earlier tradition, as set forth in my doctoral dissertation, John’s Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology. It began as explorations of side issues that had to be largely set to one side during my doctoral research, and which I continued to reflect on in the years immediately after finishing my PhD, a period in my life which found me teaching in Romania, in the Romanian language, and without access to all the books I might have wished to have at my disposal, and then returning to the United States for a year of adjuncting and then the start of a new job at Butler. It was only during my time at Butler that I was able to start to really turn these loose ends into a book, and I decided that at that stage it was better to publish and get critical feedback and begin conversations, than to wait until such time as I managed to produce a work the length of some other major studies of Christology – such as James Dunn’s Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry Into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation or even Larry Hurtado’s One God, One Lord, New Edition: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism. The Only True God is longer than Richard Bauckham’s God Crucified, but as that is a book I offer many criticisms of in my own, that too gives me pause. In the end, in the realm of scholarship ideas get presented and even printed in many stages of development and degrees of detail. As far as my own work on Christology and monotheism is concerned, I think I made the right choice to publish what I had done so far at the point when I did. And so the big question that remains for me is whether this is a subject to which I ought to return, so as to offer an even more thorough treatment of the topic in a future book.

Finally, let me thank Nick once again for his review. If the future finds me returning to writing about the subject of monotheism and Christology, I trust that both my thinking and my writing will be found to have benefitted from his critical feedback, and so I am extremely grateful that he took the time to offer such a thorough review. Thanks, Nick!

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14847912389789698622 Rod

    Well, executed, James. An appropriate and timely response.