Why Would God Become a Jewish Man? A Look at the Jewish Background of the Incarnation
“I used to think the becoming incarnate was impossible for God. But recently I have come to the conclusion that it is un-Jewish to say that this is something that the God of the Bible cannot do, that he cannot come that close. I have second thoughts about the incarnation.” -The late Orthodox Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide.” (1)
Over the years I have heard the objection that the deity of Jesus was something that was invented by the Christian Church. For the Muslim, Jesus is regarded as a prophet, but is certainly not God in human flesh. Furthermore, for the majority in the Jewish community, it has been said that the incarnation doesn’t find it’s roots in Judaism. I have also heard the objection that Jesus never claimed to be God.
In order to cover all these issues, I would have to type up several posts. So I hope to clear up a few issues here:
For starters, there are some good reasons as to why Jesus would never say “I am God.” The Hebrew Bible forbids worshiping anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9). For Jesus to ever say something so explicit would insinuate that he was calling upon his audience to believe in two “Gods”- the God of Israel and Jesus. And to Gentiles this would allow Jesus to fit nicely into their polytheism (the belief in many gods).
In Judaism, there is a term called “avodah zarah” which is defined as the formal recognition or worship as God of an entity that is in fact not God. In other words, any acceptance of a non-divine entity as your deity is a form of avodah zarah. (2)
Remember, no Greek or Roman myth spoke of the literal incarnation of a monotheistic God followed by his death and physical resurrection. The attempt to say that the Jewish believers were simply emulating the Gentiles in their polytheism won’t work. After all, there are several references to the negative views of Gentile polytheism (Acts 17: 22-23; 1 Cor 8:5). The New Testament shows that the early Jewish believers have negative views of gentile polytheism (Acts 17: 22-23; 1 Cor 8:5). The Jewish people regard Gentiles as both sinful (Gal 2:5) and idolatrous (Rom 1:23). Also, the old argument that Jesus’ divinity was simply borrowed from paganism or some sort of mystery religion is overly problematic. Scholars were showing the inherent problems with this thesis as far back as the 1970’s. If anything, the Jewish people were resistant to Hellenism and paganism.
Titles for Jesus
So as we look at the incarnation, we can observe that several of the Christological titles for Jesus in the New Testament find their foundation in Judaism. So let’s look at some of these titles and see if we can learn about the Jewish background of the incarnation.
One aspect of looking at Jesus’ deity draws on Israel’s Wisdom literature. Israel’s Wisdom literature includes books such as Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon. Protestants do not accept Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon as part of their canon. In examining the following texts, it can be observed there are amazing similarities. Hence, it would be hard to deny that the “high” Christology of the New Testament was not greatly influenced by Wisdom Christology. By the way, Christology is the study of the person of Jesus. First century Jewish people were strongly monotheistic, so to them, the figure of Wisdom was not a second God. Wisdom is described not only as a personification of God, but as a separate person from God.
One passage in the New Testament that plays a pivotal role to the deity of Jesus is John 1: 1-3, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” The theme of incarnate Word of God is displayed in other New Testament Scriptures such as 1 Cor. 8:6; Col.1:15-17; Heb.1:2-3; Rev.3:14.
The point of these Christological passages is that God created the world through Jesus and by Jesus. Scholars who specialize in Christology have labored to find an explanation for pre-existence in Judaism that can form the background for Christology. As Oskar Skarsaune notes in his book In The Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity, “The question becomes which thing or person-which X-is playing an imperative role in Judaism in statements such as “God created the world through X,” then the answer can be explained by glancing at the Jewish writings of the Second Temple period; the only explanation for such an X is the Wisdom of God.” (3)
For example, some of the Scriptures speaking of the Wisdom of God are seen in Prov. 3:19, “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth, By understanding He established the heavens,” as well as in Prov. 8:29-30, “When He set for the sea its boundary so that the water would not transgress His command, when He marked out the foundations of the earth; then I was beside Him, as a master workman.” Here is a look at some Wisdom texts:
1.Wisdom: is seen with God at creation (Prov. 8: 27-30; Wis. 9:9; Sir. 1:1). Jesus: is seen with God at creation (John 1: 8).
2.Wisdom: God created the world by Wisdom (Wis. 7:22; 9:1-2; Prov. 8:27). Jesus: God created the world by the Word (Jesus) (John 1:3).
3.Wisdom: Is the “pure emanation of the glory of God” (Wis. 7:25-26). Jesus: is the “Reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being (Heb. 1:3; Col 1:15).
4.Wisdom: Invitation to draw near, bear Wisdom’s yoke and learn (Sir. 51:23). Jesus: Invitation to draw near and take “my yoke….and learn from me (Matt 11: 28).
5.Wisdom: Whoever finds wisdom finds life (Prov. 8: 35; Bar. 4:1). Jesus: Is the giver of life (John 6: 33-35; 10:10).
6.Wisdom: People reject Wisdom and find ruin (Prov. 1: 24-31; 8:36; Sir 15:7). Jesus: People who reject Wisdom are lost (John 3:16-21).
7.Wisdom: Has its dwelling place in Israel (Sir. 34:8; Wis. 9:10; Prov. 8:31). Jesus: Has come from God into the world (John 1:1; 9-11). (4)
As Skarsaune says:
“Jesus appears in roles and functions that burst all previously known categories in Judaism. He was a prophet, but more than a prophet. He was a teacher but taught with a power and authority completely unknown to the rabbis. He could set his authority alongside of, yes, even “over” God’s authority in the Law. He could utter words with creative power. In a Jewish environment zealous for the law, only one category was “large enough” to contain the description of Jesus: the category of Wisdom.” (5)
2. Lord (Gk. Kyrios)
One of the most common Christological title that Luke uses in the book of Acts in regards to Jesus is “Lord.” In Acts 1:24, the disciples address Jesus as “Lord” and acknowledge that he knows the hearts of all people. Hence, the willingness to do this place Jesus in a role attributed to God in Jewish expectation.” For a Jewish person, when the title “Lord” (Heb. Adonai) was used in place of the divine name YHWH, this was the highest designation a Jewish person could use for deity.
As Baker”s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology notes:
“While kyrios was common as a polite, even honorific title for “sir” or “master, “calling Jesus “Lord” to imply divine associations or identity was by no means a convention readily adopted from the Roman world. In Jesus’ more Eastern but militantly monotheistic Jewish milieu, where the title’s application to humans to connote divinity was not only absent but anathema, the title is an eloquent tribute to the astonishing impression he made. It also points to the prerogatives he holds. Since Jesus is Lord, he shares with the Father qualities like deity ( Rom 9:5 ), preexistence ( John 8:58 ), holiness ( Heb 4:15 ), and compassion ( 1 John 4:9 ), to name just a few. He is co-creator ( Col 1:16 ) and co-regent, presiding in power at the Father’s right hand ( Acts 2:33 ; Eph 1:20 ; Heb 1:3 ), where he intercedes for God’s people ( Rom 8:34 ) and from whence, as the Creed states, he will return to judge the living and dead ( 2 Thess 1:7-8 ).” (6)
3. Jesus is given “The Name”
What is even more significant is the statement in Acts 4:12: “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other NAME under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” How could Jesus be declared as the only one whom God’s salvation is effected? In the ancient world, a name was not merely what someone was called, but rather the identification of the being and essence of its bearer.
James R. Edwards summarizes the importance of this issue:
“In the ancient world, a name was not merely what someone was called, but rather the identifi cation of the being and essence of its bearer. To the Jewish people, an idol could not properly have a “name” because it has no being represented by the name (Is. 44:9-21). The “name” to which the apostles refer does not signify an event, but a person, in whom the authority and power of God was active in salvation. The saving activity of God was and is expressed in the name of Jesus Christ.The name of Jesus is thereby linked in the closest possible way to the name of God. “No other name” does not refer to a second name of God, but to the unity of God with Jesus, signifying one name, one nature, one saving activity. The shared nature of God and Jesus is signaled in the most striking way by the custom of the early church to pray to God in the name of Jesus.” (7)
So just as in the Hebrew Bible where the name of God represents the person of God and all that he is, so in the New Testament “the Name” represents all who Jesus is as Lord and Savior.
4. Jesus is the New Temple
According to Jewish law, the claim to be the Messiah was not a criminal, nor capital offense. Therefore, the claim to be the Messiah was not even a blasphemous claim. (8) Why was Jesus accused of blasphemy? According to Mark 14:62, Jesus affirmed the chief priests question that He is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Coming Son of Man who would judge the world. This was considered a claim for deity since the eschatological authority of judgment was for God alone. Jesus provoked the indignation of his opponents because of His application of Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 to himself. Also, many parables, which are universally acknowledged by critical scholars to be authentic to the historical Jesus, show that Jesus believed himself to be able to forgive sins against God (Matt. 9:2; Mark 2: 1-12).
Forgiving sins was something that was designated for God alone (Exod. 34: 6-7; Neh.9:17; Dan. 9:9) and it was something that was done only in the Temple along with the proper sacrifice. So it can be seen that Jesus acts as if He is the Temple in person. In Mark 14:58, it says,”We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.’ The Jewish leadership knew that God was the one who was responsible for building the temple (Ex. 15:17; 1 En. 90:28-29).(9)
Also, God is the only one that is permitted to announce and threaten the destruction of the temple (Jer. 7:12-13; 26:4-6, 9;1 En.90:28-29). (10) It is also evident that one reasons Jesus was accused of blasphemy was because He usurped God’s authority by making himself to actually be God (Jn. 10:33, 36). Not only was this considered to be blasphemous, it was worthy of the death penalty (Matt. 26:63-66; Mk. 14:61-65). (10)
5. Jesus as the Shechinah
In the Bible, the Shechinah is the visible manifestation of the presence of God in which He descends to dwell among men. While the Hebrew form of the glory of the Lord is Kvod Adonai, the Greek title is Doxa Kurion. The Hebrew form Schechinah, from the root “shachan,” means “dwelling” while the Greek word “Skeinei” means to tabernacle.
The Shechinah glory is seen in the Tankah in places such as Gen.3:8; 23-24; Ex.3;1-5; 13:21-22; 14;19-20; 24; 16:6-12; 33:17-23; 34:5-9. In these Scriptures, the Shechinah is seen in a variety of visible manifestations such as light, fire, cloud, the Angel of the Lord, or a combination of all of these. The ultimate manifestation of the Shechinah was seen in the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai (Ex.19:16-20).
The Shechinah continued to dwell in the holy of holies in Tabernacle and the Temple (Ex.29:42-46; 40:34-38; 1 Kin.8:10-13). Upon the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian captivity, the second temple was finished. However, the Shechinah was not present in this temple. Haggai 2:39 is a critical passage since it discusses that the Shechinah would return in an even different and more profound way. Therefore, in relation to the incarnation, the Shechinah takes on greater significance in John 1: 1-14. As John says, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” As already stated, the Greek word “Skeinei” means to tabernacle. John 1:14 literally says,” the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.”
The story of Jesus has tremendous parallels to the Shechinah story in the Hebrew Bible. In the Hebrew Bible, the Shechinah would appear and disappear at certain times while eventually making a permanent home in the tabernacle and the temple; the Shechinah also departed from the Mount of Olives. Likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus as the visible manifestation of the Shechinah, also appeared and disappeared; He also departed from Israel from the Mount of Olives. (11)
Remember, the rabbis could speak of taking upon oneself the yoke of Torah or the yoke of the kingdom; Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” (Mt 11:29). Also, the rabbis could say that if two or three men sat together, having the words of Torah among them, the shekhina (God’s own presence) would dwell on them (M Avot 3:2) ; Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be among them” (12)
6. The Word/The Memra
In the Hebrew Bible, the “Word” is discussed in a manner that takes on an independent existence of its own. As seen in John 1:1-2, the “Word” has a unique relationship with God; all things were made through Him. In this passage, John is emphasizing that the Word is with God and yet God at the same time. Paul taught a similar theme in 1 Cor. 8:6 when he says “For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.”
There are other New Testament passages that communicate that the Word is Messiah Himself (Eph.3:17 and Col. 3:16; 1 Pet.1:3; John.8:31;15:17). There are also other passages in the Hebrew Bible that speak of the significance of the Word such as Ps. 33:6,“By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,” while in Ps.107:20 the divine word is sent on a mission: “He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction.” But why is the Christological title “Word” so significant in relation to Jewish monotheism in the first century?
In Judaism, one of the most common themes was that God was “untouchable,” or totally transcendent. Therefore, there had to be a way to describe a connection between God and his creation. (14)
Within Rabbinic thought, the way to provide the connection or link between God and his creation was what was called “The Word” or in Aramaic, the “Memra.” (15) The Targums, which were paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures play a significant role in how to understand the Memra. Since some Jewish people no longer spoke and understood Hebrew but grew up speaking Aramaic, they could only follow along in a public reading if they read from a Targum. The Aramic Targums employed the term “Memra” that translates into Greek as “Logos.” (16)
While John’s concept of the Logos is of a personal being (Christ), the Greeks thought of it as an impersonal rational principle. A good way to try to understand the term “Memra,” is to see what a passage in Genesis would have sounded like to a Jewish person hearing the public reading of a Targum. In Gen.3:8, most people who would have heard the Hebrew would have understood it as “And they heard the sound of the Word of the Lord God as He was walking in the garden.” (17) Therefore, it was not the Lord who was walking in the garden, it was the Memra’ (Word) of the Lord. The Word was not just an “it”; this Word was a him.” (18)
Conclusion: Why the Incarnation?
One of the most important themes of the Bible is that since God is free and personal, that he acts on behalf of those whom he loves, and that his actions includes already within history, a partial disclosure of his nature, attributes, and intensions. The God of Israel is a God who is relational and wants people to come to know Him. The principle of progressive revelation means that God does not reveal everything at once. In progressive revelation, there are many cases where the New Testament declares explicitly what was only implicit in the Hebrew Bible. One of these truths is the Jesus is the long awaited Messiah who takes away not only the sins of Israel, but the entire world (John 1: 29; 3: 16). Although general revelation shows man is under condemnation, it is not sufficient for salvation. If the God of the Bible is a good God, it would make sense that He would give a fuller revelation of Himself to humanity.
In Matthew 16: 13-17, it says that when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.”
In conclusion, a question that we all have to ask is, “Who is Jesus?”
1. Skarsaune, O, In The Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity (Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press, 2002), 335-36.
2. Berger, D, The Rebbe, The Messiah, And The Scandal Of Orthodox Indifference. Portland, Oregon: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. 2001, 171-173.
3. Skarsaune, In The Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity. 320-337.
4. Holmgren, F.C., The Old Testament: The Significance of Jesus-Embracing Change-Maintaining Christian Identity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1999, 157.
5. Skarsaune, O. Incarnation: Myth or Fact? St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House 1991, 35-36.
6. This is available online at http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/jesus-christ-name-and-titles-of.html
7. These issues were pointed out in Edwards, J.R., Is Jesus the Only Savior? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Group, 2005.
8. See Bock, D.L., Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism: The Charge Against Jesus in Mark 14:53-65. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.
9. Craig, W.L., Reasonable Faith: Third Edition. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008, 307.
11. These points were laid out systematically in Fruchtenbaum, A.G, The Footsteps of Messiah: A Study of Prophetic Events. Tustin CA: Ariel Press, 1977, 409-432.
12. Skarsaune, In The Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity, 331.
13. Skarsaune, Incarnation: Myth or Fact?, 131.
14. Brown, M. Theological Objections, vol 2 of Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books, 2000, 18.
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