Quick Thoughts on Paul and the Trinity

Quick Thoughts on Paul and the Trinity August 18, 2015

Other bloggers have been drawing attention to Wesley Hill’s book, Paul and the Trinity. And you can read some of Hill’s own response to N. T. Wright on the Eerdmans blog, Eerdword. I was recently asked what I thought of it, and didn’t have a copy, and had not read it. But since it was drawn to my attention that Hill interacts with my book The Only True God, I thought I should check it out from the library and take a quick look.

Diving in at those points where my work was mentioned, I was disappointed to find an unpersuasively succinct attempt to dismiss rather than engage my point about the “one Lord” being added alongside rather than within the Shema in 1 Corinthians 8:6 (pp.116-117). Hill writes, “This interpretation neglects the fact that ‘one Lord’ is not something brought to Deut 6:4, as an additional ‘one’ alongside the ‘one’ God. Rather, κύριος is the divine name in apposition to ὁ θεός in Deut 6:4 itself…κύριος is the name of the ‘one God’…” (p.117).

This view of the Shema, and of the Greek words used in translations of it, seems to me to be badly mistaken. I see no evidence that Jews were confused, in the way that Hill seems to be, as to the nature, meaning, and possible referents of the Greek word κύριος, usually rendered into English as “Lord.” Perhaps Hill comes from a context in which, reading the Hebrew Bible in English, he was brought up to think of LORD rather than Yahweh as the name of God. But as a scholar, he ought to be aware, and to express himself in a manner that reflects the awareness, that this English LORD in all upper case letters, just like the Greek word κύριος in some Greek translations of the Jewish Scriptures, and the verbal substitution of אֲדֹנָי (adonai) in place of the tetragrammaton when reading the Hebrew Bible, are all circumlocutions for the divine name, and not the divine name itself. There are New Testament texts where κύριος serves in precisely this role, such as Philippians 2:9-12 – where it is clear that the divine name is in view, and that it is something bestowed upon Jesus by the one God when the one God exalts him, and not something that Jesus innately possesses. These points about Philippians 2 are themselves not done justice to in the chapters about that text – even though Hill shows he is aware of them, having mentioned my treatment of the passage in his introduction (p.11).

And so even if the title κύριος  in 1 Corinthians 8:6 stands for the divine name, other texts make clear that Jesus bears that name because God honored him by bestowing it upon him. And so, if one wishes to use Bauckham’s unhelpful terminology of Jesus “sharing the divine identity” (as Hill does), one can do so, but it must be in terms of God having graciously shared his identity – in the form of his name and sovereignty – with Jesus, who did not previously or inherently share in these things.

As a result of reading Hill’s treatment of the above points, I must say that I am unimpressed with the volume. Hill reads trinitarianism into Paul, and I don’t think anyone was in doubt that it is possible to do that (after more than a millennium and a half of precisely such interpretation). But the volume, in the tiny amount I’ve dived into it, seems to me to offer inadequate treatment of other possible interpretations, and as a result, nothing that would be likely to persuade a reader (or at least, a reader who did not already share Hill’s views) that Paul ought to be read that way, in his own time, context, and first-century Jewish thought world.

Have others read the book? If so, I’d value your thoughts on it, as I’d really like to know whether it is one worth picking up again at some point and reading cover to cover, or whether the rest is no more persuasive than the parts I read.

Of related interest, Crispin Fletcher-Louis’ book Jesus Monotheism : Volume 1: Christological Origins: The Emerging Consensus and Beyond is now available. There is more information on the book website, where you can also purchase a digital copy of the book for much less than the cost of a print copy.


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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    You know, James, the more I read your blog the more I like you. I had no idea you had written a book about this (which I will buy – don’t spend the royalty all in one place), but this is pretty much where I’ve gotten to in my own studies as well. About 99.99999% of the things people muster for the divinity of Jesus can be and are better explained by delegation.

    That is weird about the “Lord” thing; the entire utility of that title is that it -avoids- using God’s name. The only thing I can think of are early chapters in Exodus when God strongly identifies “The Lord” with His name, and even goes so far to say He had just now revealed that name, but I believe those occurrences are actually YHVH and rendered “lord” in English, not Adonai.

    • In most English Bibles, you can tell where the divine name appears because LORD is entirely in capital letters.

    • Jeff

      Hurtado notes in “The Earliest Christian Artifacts” the phenomena of “nomina sacra” — a scribal practice whereby names and words of special divine significance are instead written with just the first and last letter, with a line over the top. The four words most commonly represented in this way are theos, kyrios, christos, and iesous. He also notes that kyrios, when NOT referring to God, is not written in this way. I don’t know how early this practice begins, but certainly in the second century.

  • gapaul

    What are the stakes in this academic debate?

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      Richard Carrier regards the (alleged) high Christology of Paul as one of the pillars of his Jesus myth theory. http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/6923

      • Well, Carrier disposes of the Synoptic Gospels as easily as Paul and John, and so I am not sure that any conclusion about early Christology would lead him to change his mind.

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          Yes, it’s rather hypocritical of Carrier to appeal to the authority of others when he would simply dismiss what they said if they disagreed with him. In fact, he manages to do both things to the same person. In his review of Ehrman’s book, to which I linked, he seizes on what Ehrman says about the signs of a high Christology in Paul. However, Ehrman’s argument is that there was a mixture of views on the matter at the time when Paul was writing.

          When Paul writes to the church in Rome, which he didn’t found, he needs to get off on the right footing; so, according to Ehrman, he tones down his own Christology by citing an apparently pre-existing creed in Rom. 1:3-4. Carrier simply dismisses that sort of thing.

    • For the historian of religion, what is at stake is accurately understanding the early history of Christianity. For many Christians, what is at stake is the very question of who Jesus was understood to be by our earliest author to write about him.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I hope this doesn’t count as post necromancy.

    I have been working my way through Crispin’s book, and he makes a similar point about the Shema, and I remain unconvinced.

    I don’t know if this is Hill’s argument, but Crispin says that kyrios in 1 Cor. 8 means “lord,” and YHVH is also translated as “lord” in the OT. I think he makes “adonai” a link in that chain, too, I’ll need to go back.

    I found this unconvincing. In the Shema, YHVH is not a title but an actual name. In the context of 1 Cor., Paul prefaces his statement with “there are many gods and many lords,” and surely he does not mean there are many YHVHs. He means that, out in the world of the Corinthians, there are many other deities they worship and many other early powers they revere/worship, like Caesar, for instance, or perhaps even the Judean power structure.

    But in the kingdom of God, there is only one God – YHVH, and one lord – Jesus. It works just fine as a parallelism and a counter to both religious and national idolatry. Our kingdom has a king, a kyrios, a kaesar, and that man is Jesus. It also has a national deity – that is YHVH who has revealed Himself as the God of not only the Jews, but the nations. The polloi, as 1 Cor. 8 says.

    Maybe I’m reading this through my own biases (well, maybe nothing – I am), but unless you were starting with the idea that Jesus is a monotheistic manifestation of YHVH, I don’t know that’d I’d ever get that idea from 1 Cor. 8.

    Crispin claims that your literate, well-educated Jew (I guess Corinth was full of those?) would immediately make the connection because of the Shema, but it seems to me that such a person would be actively reluctant to make such a connection.

    Anyway, I’m only a little ways into the book. Maybe I’ll become more convinced. He intimates that Judaism has always had an idea of a second manifestation of YHWH, so I’m curious to see where he goes with this and if any rabbis are aware they have this idea.