Relationship versus Theology
In his description of the sense of Jewish self-identity that preceded Christianity, Boyarin has forgotten a key element in that sense of self-identity. The Jewish people did not just see themselves merely as a community; they saw themselves as a community that stands in a special relationship with God. Obviously, some Jews took this relationship more seriously than did others, but being a Jew meant being tied up with God. This central feature of Jewish self-identity was shared by every man woman and child who saw themselves as part of the larger Jewish community.
A prerequisite for sharing a relationship with somebody is an ability to identify that somebody. If it is a group of people that share a relationship with somebody, as in the situation of Israel sharing a collective relationship with God, then the nation will need to be able to identify God on a national level. This would require a uniform definition of God that is shared by the nation. This definition would have to be clear and simple. If the Jewish people are going to relate to God as a nation, each Jew needs to be confident that whichever group of Jews he or she stands with, they worship the same God. It is not enough that they call God by the same name because you don’t have a relationship with a name and you don’t worship a name. We need to find the common Jewish understanding of the One that they were having a relationship with.
This understanding of God shared by the Jewish people will not be a theological formula or creed, because you don’t have a relationship with a mathematical equation. It needs to be something concrete that everyone could relate to on the level of the heart.
So what was it? How did the Jewish people perceive God in the pre-Christian world? How did the Jewish people understand the One that they were tied to in covenantal relationship?
If we search the Jewish Bible for an answer to this question, we will not find a creed or a mathematical formula. The Bible opens with the words: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth”. The God of Israel is above and beyond heaven and earth and all that exists in heaven and earth are His creations. The Jewish concept of God shapes the Jew’s view, not only of God Himself, but also of all existence. God is the One Creator and every detail of existence is viewed as His subject. The One that the Jewish people related to was the One that is outside of the confines of heaven and earth and the Jew saw heaven and earth and of all their inhabitants as subjects of this One God. The Jew stood apart from all of the pagan nations that surrounded Israel because they all found themselves in a relationship with some feature of finite existence; be it the sun, the moon, or any other force of nature. The Jew saw all of these as fellow subjects of the One who created them all.
This is the concept of God that is shared by all Jews from the time of the exodus onward. It is this Being who is identified by the fact that He is outside of existence as we know it that Israel shares her covenantal relationship with.
Yes, there were many teachings floating around, and there still are many teachings floating around that address questions such as; how does an infinite God appear to the prophets? How does an infinite God interact with a finite world? But whatever answers are given to these questions, they do not affect the basic relationship with God. God always remains outside of the existence that we see and comprehend.
Pointing to any inhabitant of heaven and earth, be it a human, an angel, a star or an animal and encouraging a devotional relationship with that entity is the most serious violation of Israel’s relationship with the God who is above and beyond heaven and earth.
This then was the constant. When a Jew joined his or her fellow Jews in worship, they may not have been confident that their fellow Jews subscribed to the same teachings that explain how God appeared to the prophets. But of this they were sure; that their fellow Jews were NOT worshiping an inhabitant of heaven or earth but that their hearts were directed to the One who stands outside of the confines of heaven and earth.
When the Church encouraged devotion to Jesus as a deity (regardless of when this devotion surfaced in Church history), the Church was encouraging a different relationship than the relationship of Israel with her God. The Church was pointing to an inhabitant of this earth and demanding that human hearts direct their devotion towards that entity. The Churchmen may have used the Jewish teachings that explain God’s interaction with this world to justify the relationship that they were encouraging, but they were encouraging a different relationship. The fact that the Logos theology of the Church is similar to some of the Jewish teachings on God does not make Christianity Jewish. The teachings may be similar, but the relationships that they are encouraging are diametrically opposed to each other. In Judaism these teachings are used to explain a relationship with an entity that stands outside of the confines of nature, while in Christianity these same teachings are being used to justify a relationship with an entity that is inside the confines of nature.
Whenever it was that the Church introduced the idea that the hearts of human-kind ought to relate to Jesus as their supreme master they had crossed the line and moved out of the range of Jewish self-identity – according to every understanding of Jewish self-identity that ever existed.
How did this happen? How did the Jewish followers of Jesus come to adopt a belief that is the antithesis of the self-identity of the Jew?
There are several possible answers to this question; it is possible that the Jewish followers of Jesus were not the ones who introduced this non-Jewish belief into the Christian community but that this belief was a later, Gentile, development. It is possible that the Jewish followers of Jesus were so taken in by their devotion to Jesus that they elevated him to the status of divine without consciously realizing that they had violated the core of their standing as Jews before God.
Many theories can be proposed to explain the phenomena of Christianity’s move towards the deification of Jesus. But the one theory that is impossible is that the original Jewish belief system allowed for the deification of a human. Such a theory violates every understanding of Jewish self-identity that the historical record has bequeathed to us. Such a theory takes the covenant that stands at the heart of the Jewish Bible and renders it meaningless.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal