Review of Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel

Review of Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel August 1, 2009

Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) appeared after my own recent book on monotheism and Christology, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context, had been completed. I thus welcome the opportunity to write this review and continue the conversation between Bauckham and myself on this topic of mutual interest.

Jesus and the God of Israel is not the “big book” on this subject which he is apparently still working on, but rather includes a revised version of his earlier book God Crucified : Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament as well as several other studies, both previously published and forthcoming, several of which those of us who are interested in this topic will have heard him read as conference papers. As Bauckham acknowledges, a thorough and in-depth study of the texts and issues highlighted in this book is still needed, and he does not claim that the present work accomplishes this (pp.x-xi). Nevertheless, it contributes in interesting and exciting ways to the ongoing scholarly exploration of this area. While I am persuaded that Bauckham is wrong about certain key points, I would add that even when he is wrong he is asking excellent questions, and providing interesting and creative answers that will, even when not ultimately persuasive, nevertheless serve to move our thinking forward and open up new and fruitful avenues of inquiry.

Bauckham groups previous approaches to the topic of monotheism and Christology into two main categories (pp.2-3):

1) Those who claim that Jewish monotheism was “strict” in New Testament times, and thus either deny that there is any sort of “divine Christology” in the New Testament, or attribute such a Christology if present to a radical break with Judaism;

2) Those who claim that Jewish monotheism was less “strict” and that its mediator figures and exalted partiarchs provided a precedent for the divinization of Jesus.

Bauckham then goes on to emphasize his differences from both these approaches, being persuaded on the one hand that Jewish monotheism in this period was indeed “strict”, while also believing that high Christology was possible in that context (p.3).

The subtitle of Bauckham’s book contains the key terminology he has introduced into the scholarly discussion of monotheism and Christology, namely “divine identity“. In contrast with previous scholarship that has focused on “function” and/or “ontology”, Bauckham seeks rather to focus attention on the question of who God is rather than either what divinity is in the abstract, or what God does (although in fact Bauckham focuses a lot of attention on the latter as intrinsic to his understanding of “divine identity”). If there is one key weakness to Bauckham’s work, it is his failure to take the time to clarify in detail what exactly “divine identity” means. At times, it becomes clear that Bauckham’s usage of this terminology is far from self-explanatory, and that the phrase does not seem to use “identity” in the way it usually is in English. One common place to encounter it nowadays is of course in referring to identity theft. Bauckham’s references to more than one person sharing the “divine identity”, and even to an identity that the Son shares with the Father, seems at times to be at odds with the terminology itself (see e.g. pp.3-4, 236, 263, 265). This does not necessarily mean that Bauckham should use other terminology, but it does suggest that more attention needs to be paid to clarifying the meaning of “identity” as he uses it, before we can hope to have this terminology clarify texts from ancient Judaism and Christianity (see p.154 for a helpful discussion of the concept, one which is nevertheless much too brief to justify the concept as the foundation for all that precedes and follows in the book).

Bauckham himself focuses (somewhat ironically, in view of his attempt to get away from earlier categories such as “function”) on characteristics of divine identity that are often specifically about what God did and does. Being persuaded (and asserting on numerous occasions throughout the book) that there was a clear line of division between God and all else in Judaism in this period, Bauckham emphasizes, in particular, God’s creation of all things and rule over all things as defining the “divine identity” and distinguishing God from all else. The divine name is mentioned as well, as name and identity are obviously closely related. Yet Bauckham spends relatively little time on this most unique facet of the divine identity (no one but YHWH is YHWH, after all!), perhaps because in texts from ancient Judaism (as well as the Samaritans), God’s name was something that he seems to have been willing to share with others. The angel Yahoel in Apocalypse of Abraham is the classic example, but if one explores beyond the New Testament period, then the figure of Metatron (referred to in Rabbinic texts as “the little YHWH”) also requires consideration, as does the Samaritan notion of Moses’ investiture with the divine name. If God is willing to share this arguably most unique facet of the divine identity, what does this suggest about Bauckham’s assumption that anyone who is at any point included in the divine identity must, by implication, have eternally been part of that identity? In fact, that line of argument seems to be little more than a restatement of the classic argument that “function implies essence”, and seems to provide no better evidence of its truthfulness.

If “identity” is moved beyond the level of the individual to the corporate level, as in the case of family identity, then we can see how such a notion might well fit some of the relevant textual evidence. Family identity can be shared – through marriage or adoption, a new person can be incorporated into a family. Yet, presumably because of a desire to avoid “adoptionism”, this manner in which identity might be shared with someone who did not previously possess it remains largely unexplored.

Bauckham rightly emphasizes the role of worship as making the distinction for Jews in practice between the one true God and all others. Exclusive worship gives expression to Jewish belief in God’s uniqueness, rather than the divine uniqueness itself being defined in terms of monolatry (pp.5-6, 11-13). Bauckham’s assertion on numerous occasions that there was no “gradation” of divinity from God on the top down through an uninterrupted hierarchy is never justified, and once again the irony is that the question of whether there was an absolute difference in essence separating God from all other existing things seems to be an ontological one. If ontology and function are eschewed, and worship is not what distinguishes God from all else but merely a recognition of the distinction, then what does God’s distinctiveness consist of? In addition to Philo’s definition of the relationship of the Word to both God and creation in a way that suggests there was indeed the sort of ambiguity Bauckham denies (Who is Heir of Divine Things? chapter 42 § 206), later Jewish mystical works illustrate well how emanationism continued to exist in a Jewish context, in conjunction with affirmations of “monotheism”, i.e. exclusive devotion to one God. At any rate, Bauckham repeatedly asserts the existence of a clear dividing line, but does not provide the sort of evidence necessary to corroborate the assertions. Although I believe he is correct to identify God’s ultimate role as creator and sovereign as key facets of the “unique divine identity”, Bauckham’s attempts to deny that God shares these prerogatives with others fails to do justice to the evidence.

Bauckham seems to be right to claim that there is a distinctiveness about early Christianity’s exalted portrayal of Jesus (p.231). But he is unwilling to entertain seriously the possibility that it is a difference of degree rather than kind. Believing that Jesus is not merely the Anointed One but the one through whom God will reconcile all things to himself, and believing that their salvation had been accomplished during their own time, it is not surprising that the earliest Christians depicted Jesus as God’s superlative agent, claiming that Jesus does everything that any divine agent has ever done and more. But ultimately, if we are talking about New Testament times, monotheism is preserved not by including Jesus fully within God’s identity (although eventually Christianity would indeed do just that), but by ultimately subordinating Jesus as God’s agent to God (and to God alone). Thus in the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, the one who has been given the divine name before the creation of the world; but he still does only what he sees his Father do, and calls his Father “the only true God”. In Paul, Jesus is exalted to the highest possible rank and given the name above all names; but this is still done “to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11), and in the end God is said to not be among the “all things” subjected to the Son, who in the end hands over the kingdom to the Father, so that “God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15).

It would be impossible even to attempt to address every detail of Bauckham’s argument here (and I hope to spend some time in the near future working on the Scriptural echoes in key Christological passages and Bauckham’s interpretation of them). But a key example should be highlighted, one that remains at the level of assertion. Bauckham says more than once that in 1 Corinthians 8:1-6, “Paul is not adding to the Shema` a ‘Lord’ the Shema` does not mention. He is identifying Jesus as the ‘Lord’ whom the Shema` affirms to be one” (p.101; repeated nearly verbatim along with much other material on p.213). Although Bauckham claims that “lord” was “a term which was, in fact, used in many pagan cults” (p.212), he cites no evidence, and thus it remains within the realm of possibility that the “lords” to whom Jesus corresponds in this passage may be those Paul alludes to as being “on earth”, human rulers who underwent a post-mortem apotheosis and/or who claimed to rule humans as appointees of God. Moreover, Bauckham’s approach often seems to be guilty of “prooftexting”: however plausible his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 8:6 might seem in isolation, a glance at the book’s index shows that he has made no attempt to take into account and address the subordinationist language Paul uses elsewhere in the same letter (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). This absence is particularly noticeable on p.216, where Paul’s use of the language of “all things” is discussed apart from this Pauline clarification. Perhaps most important, however, is the difference between what most interpreters who wish to find in Paul a key step on the road to Nicene Trinitarianism understand Paul to have meant, and what Paul himself wrote. No one claims that Paul wrote that there is “one God, who is Father and Son (and Spirit), and one Lord, who is Son and Father (and Spirit)”. And no one, to my knowledge, claims Paul meant that the Father alone is God and that Jesus alone is Lord (even Lord of the Father). And so unless one understands Paul to be adding to the Shema a Lord who is not mentioned therein, but who reigns on God’s behalf as Lord of all things other than God himself, presumably the alternative is to say either that Paul is not always consistent, or that he did not express his meaning particularly clearly either here or elsewhere, or that he is indeed redefining monotheism in a radical way, without however ever having felt the need to explain or justify this in any of his letters.

In the final chapter Bauckham provides an example of the potential for theological appropriation of his understanding of who Jesus is and who God is. Much is said about the meaning of the language of Psalm 22 in Jesus’ “cry of deriliction” from the cross that is helpful and insightful. Yet I believe the final chapter also illustrates precisely what work needs to be done if Bauckham is to offer a coherent and persuasive interpretation of the New Testament’s Christology in terms of “divine identity”. For while he says much about God’s identification with the godforsaken in this chapter, he never explains what it could possibly mean for someone to be forsaken by another whose identity he shares. Those who have explored such questions within the context of classic Trinitarian theology, with its language of “essence” and “persons”, have found much to say that is of interest, but also many difficulties and many aspects that had to be simply be left as mysteries. If it is not clear that the concept of “divine identity” makes better sense of the New Testament’s Christological data than other concepts and terminology, the attempt to “take it to the next level” and make theological use of it seems to fare no better, and may in fact serve to highlight the difficulties of the concept more generally.

Having been extremely critical in this review, I nevertheless strongly recommend that anyone interested in questions of Christology and monotheism read this book. Bauckham’s views are becoming very popular in many circles, and even those who are not persuaded by his case need to engage what he has written. As I said at the outset, I am persuaded that Bauckham is wrong in a number of important respects. But the texts (both canonical and extracanonical) that he discusses are key ones, and the interpretative possibilities he raises are interesting and provocative. For this reason, even those who in the end disagree with him will find few dialogue partners that are his equal.

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