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The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context Hardcover – June 3, 2009

3.6 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“Sheds new light on the date and reasons for the division between Jewish and Christian monotheism. . . . Recommended.”--Choice


"An important corrective to the view that tends to interpret New Testament Christology in terms of Nicaea and later developments, thereby missing the Jewish intertextual and hermeneutical keys to interpreting many New Testament texts."--Review of Biblical Literature


"Provocative and valuable."--Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Book Description

Monotheism, the idea that there is only one true God, is a powerful religious concept that was shaped by competing ideas and the problems they raised. Surveying New Testament writings and Jewish sources from before and after the rise of Christianity, James F. McGrath argues that even the most developed Christologies in the New Testament fit within the context of first century Jewish "monotheism." In doing so, he pinpoints more precisely when the parting of ways took place over the issue of God's oneness, and he explores philosophical ideas such as "creation out of nothing," which caused Jews and Christians to develop differing concepts and definitions about God.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 168 pages
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press; 1st Edition edition (June 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 025203418X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0252034183
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,585,154 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dr. James F. McGrath is the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University. His PhD is from the University of Durham in England. His interests include not only early Christianity but also the Mandaeans, science fiction, and the intersection of religion and science. He blogs at Exploring Our Matrix on the Patheos web site.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
During the first chapters of the book, McGrath lays out well his understanding of monotheism in ancient Judaism, which he continues to build upon in later chapters. It is here, as any good author does, that he plants seeds which is brought to fruition as he progresses. It is also here where he gets my attention with such motifs for monotheism as worship and creation.

McGrath approaches the subject with care, and almost apprehension, so as to not go too far too fast. He writes for the common reader, often explaining himself in more detail than perhaps he should - but this is to the reader's advantage. Further, from time to time he leads his readers back to previous explanations, reminding them before he proceeds.

I have two negatives, one of which is a matter of style more than anything. First, the book relies upon endnotes, and there are an abundance of them. I feel that this takes away from a good conversation when you have to constantly look at notecards in the back of the book. To be honest, I skipped the ends notes until I read the chapter, then went back and reread both.

The second negative is the constant dialogue with other authors. While some may find it pleasing to see McGrath dialogue with others on this subject - primarily Hurtado and Bauckham, it feels to me as if I am joining a trilogy on the last few pages of a book. While I do not dismiss the need for such dialogues, especially in this field, I feel that more attention should have been given to establishing arguments independent of other works, not based as a response to them (if this was possible).
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Format: Kindle Edition
This is one of the first books that I went into with a pretty established negative bias. I have read Larry Hurtado's Lord Jesus Christ and have followed his work closely on his blog over the last year. I find his conclusions both persuasive and faith confirming. Thus, I hope you'll forgive my "unscientific" antagonism with which I approached James McGrath's challenge to Hurtado in his book, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in its Jewish Context (of course, on current postmodern philosophy, I'm just explicit in my bias, where others are not!). However, I will certainly intend to be as fair as possible in my review (hence, I've stated openly my prior prejudice).

Let me first give a brief sketch of the overall argument and outline of the book. I hope to represent his work well, and subsequently I will offer a few areas of perceived weakness.

Essentially, McGrath contends that early Christianity, as embodied in the New Testament, did not breach Jewish monotheism nor represent significant developments within Jewish monotheism (contra Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham). In more explicit, and admittedly anachronistic terms, the Christology of the New Testament is not one with the Christology of later Creedal Christianity. Jesus' status in relationship to God was neither novel nor remarkable, except for the fact that the he, as the agent of God, was also the crucified Nazarene.

Chapters 1 is devoted to methodology and the current state of research. McGrath's major conversation partners are, oddly, the folks that he is actually in relative agreement, Hurtado and Bauckham. He considers many of their contributions helpful, however, he makes clear that he does not see a redefinition of monotheism in the New Testament texts.
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Format: Hardcover
The first Christians were Jews. This point is often forgotten. They did not consider themselves to be converts to a new, different religion. It was, for them, a realization of truths already affirmed in their faith - that God was saving his people Israel, through his chosen and anointed servant, Jesus.

These Jewish Christians still believed in and worshipped only one god - the Only True God. This is the idea that set Jews (and early Christians, not yet understood as a separate group) apart from the rest of the world in the first century - their monotheism.

It wasn't until much later that Christians developed the doctrine of the Trinity to more fully express their understanding of the nature of God (the Father, the Son, and the Spirit). But the idea that Jesus could be described as the Son of God - that Jesus could be described as "the Word" who was with God in the beginning and who was, himself, God was not a new concept within that Jewish monotheism.

In his book, The Only true God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context, James McGrath succinctly describes how both Judaism and Christianity diverged from this common doctrine.

But this task isn't as straightforward as you might think. It would be relatively simple if there had been a uniform and monolithic understanding of what it meant to be monotheist (a term that was not used until recently). But there wasn't. Within Judaism during the centuries that led up to the time of Jesus and the first century after there were differing ideas of how to express this worship of only one God. Was it appropriate to worship the one true God in temples devoted to other pagan gods? Could one pray to the one true God using a different name?

And what of God's appointed agents...
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