36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
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).
The immediate positives, whether or not you agree with the author's overall premise - or his outcome - is that he doesn't distract the reader with side notes on the unreliability of the texts or the discussion of tensions between various early Christian communities. While I may disagree with his synopsis of Paul's monotheism to a large extent, and his synopsis of John's to a much lesser degree, he sees the two communities united in a singular monotheistic belief. Further positives include McGrath's refusal to attack modern, developed doctrines, but insists on a balanced survey of both the `roots' and the `blossoms.' The point of this book seems to be a presentation of a belief that Judaism and Christianity were united in their monotheistic believe for several centuries, not to undermine either the divinity of Christ of to present the Gospel message as wholly misunderstood.
In his chapter on Paul's monotheism, while I find his initial points wholly undigestible, I find that he ignores crucial passages in favor of others. Since this book is not an argument in favor of one position over another, but a presentation of a position, I can understand the author's use of certain passages over another, and his avoidance of translation issues.
In the fourth chapter which is coincidently about the Fourth Gospel, the author presents an excellent view of John's intent - at least according to the author. I remember reading once, that John was the most Jewish Gospel of them all, and indeed, McGrath highlights the `Jewishness' of it in such a way as to make me understand the rabbi more. In this chapter the author tackles the Prologue (including an extensive look at the textual variant in John 1.18), equality with God, the `I AM' passages, and Thomas' confession. It is this chapter which is I believe is the cross section with McGrath's hypostasis and what we may accept as something similar to orthodox Christianity. The author sees John's Jesus as something more than the exalted agent of Paul's monotheism, but as the embodiment of the Name of God (p63). The author does a fair treatment of Philo's use of Logos and connects it to John's (although I would contend for a different origin of Logos).
The final chapter of the book is an excellent response to Segal's work on the Two Powers Heresy in ancient Judaism. In this chapter co-written with Dr. Jerry Truex, McGrath dialogues with Alan Segal's theory on the Two Powers Heresy in early Rabbinic Judaism. Segal interprets this theory as a `principal angelic or hypostatic manifestation in heaven was equivalent to God.' (p124, n1). Segal's point, I believe, is that he feels Christianity developed from this hypothetical heresy supposedly found in 1st century Judaism, or at the very list, Segal believes that the two powers heresy found in later Jewish sources refer to the burgeoning Christian movement.
In this chapter, McGrath sufficiently answers - from what I could find in the endnotes and other responses from various sources to Segal - Segal's theories, especially the redating of such theories. He notes the 'shortcomings' in the theory which forgets redaction time in the Mishnah and Tosefta. The author does well in making the point that it is possible that either this heresy didn't exist in the 1st century Judaism (which would prevent Judaism and Christianity from separating over it) or that it simply was not considered a heresy (which would prevent Judaism and Christianity from separating over it).
In answering the dating and general thoughts by Segal, McGrath also begins to answers the questions regarding the separation of Judaism and Christianity. A theory (p92) is developed by McGrath which relates that the separation, in part, came from a need to redefine Monotheism in light of the end of sacrificial worship. While previous generations of Judaism allowed for divine agency, after the destruction of the Temple, a line had to be drawn which focused worship only on God, removing any allowances for worship of a secondary individual. It came down to creation - the lines began to be drawn. While it was not the notion of a divine agent being worshiped which first separated Judaism and Christian, as sacrificial worship ended, and monotheism was seemingly redefined, the idea of worshipping Christ as God became a severe separator.
McGrath's conclusion leaves nothing to be desired except a follow-up exploring the cross section of theology and history. While I do not think that he puts forth in his conclusion any new ideas, he attempts to safeguard theology produced by centuries of speculation. He draws the point out that both Judaism and Christianity faced some of the same issues from the very start - drawing lines around monotheism in a changing world. While I may not agree fully with the doctrines that he is trying to defend, he does allow that certain seeds in the New Testament does allow for a unity of the Son with the Father, as expressed by later Church Tradition.
This book is small, readable, and copernicum.
The author of the book is James F. McGrath an associate professor of religion at Butler Universty and the author of John's Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology and The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith. He also maintains a biblioblog, Exploring our Matrix.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2013
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. Other theories are discussed, such as views that see clear departure from the monotheism of Judaism to a more Gentile oriented polytheism, however, it is clear the other theories will take a back seat in the discussion. McGrath also the different forms Jewish monotheism could take (rhetorical, creational, liturgical, etc.) as well as introducing the question of inclusivity in monotheism. Before explicitly engaging the question of the New Testament texts, however, McGrath aims to establish that monotheism was held by Second Temple Jews and how it was held.
Chapter 2 purposes to define Jewish monotheism - if it actually existed. This was a wise call by McGrath because much of the current monotheism discussion is decided in the definition. Thus, it is crucially important to establish what is and is not meant by Monotheism. In short, McGrath concludes that, yes, 1st century Jews were monotheists, however, they were not modern monotheists. There was much diversity within Jewish monotheism, and much freedom. A wide variety of practices were acceptable for a "one God only" Jew. What is the dividing line? For McGrath it is sacrifice. If a Jew were to sacrifice to another being, he would be stepping out of the bounds of Jewish religion and embody apostasy. One could bow, pray, invoke, etc. others and still be "orthodox" (forgive the anachronism), however, sacrificial worship would cross the line. This demarcation is fundamental to the rest of McGrath's argument.
Chapter 3 considers monotheism in the writing of the Apostle Paul. Only three texts are engaged thoroughly: 1 Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 1:15-20, and Philippians 2:10-11. Regarding 1 Cor. 8:6, which has been considered by exegetes like N.T. Wright and James Dunn as a reformulation of the creedal Shema, is denied any radical mutation. McGrath argues that the inclusion of Jesus as Lord is not inclusion within the Shema, but rather alongside it. Colossians 1:15-20 is considered to be an example of Agent Christology. And Philippians 2 is likewise considered as Agent Christology, another example of Paul speaking of how God exercises his reign through his subordinate mediator. The giving of the divine name is granted, thus McGrath considers kyrios as the name of God, however, he denies it ontological force. Stating rather, that it is an example of God bestowing his name in order to display the transfer of power and authority to an Agent. Thus, on McGrath's account, Paul is within the bound of Jewish monotheism - he has made no development regarding a godhead.
Chapter 4 considers the Gospel of John. McGrath discusses the prologue and deems it an example of Philo-esqu Wisdom poetry. He also states that theos is not a significant move for John because the divine name, as in Philippians 2, could be granted to other figures and monotheism be maintained. This also applies to his consideration of the "I am" sayings. The other feature of his evaluation of Johannine Christology is the debate in John 5 and John 10 regarding Jesus' claim of divinity. He is accused of fellow Jews of making himself equal with God. McGrath notes that Jesus denies there claims, and even affirms the oneness and uniqueness of God the Father in John 17:3. Like in Paul, for McGrath, Johannine Christology is predominately Agent Christology. Jesus represents the Father and is granted his power and authority as a subordinate agent.
Chapter 5 tackles the book of Revelation. McGrath denies that the worship of Jesus is significant in the writing because, for example, the Christian martyrs are promised worship by their persecutors, thus, worship is not enough to express divinity. McGrath states that all examples of cultic sacrificial worship are aimed toward the Father primarily, and perhaps secondarily to the Lamb. Once again, any lofty titles attributed to Jesus are compared with the angel Yahoel. Revelation, like all the other texts considered, is not deemed a breach of contemporary Jewish monotheism.
Chapter 6 is basically a response to the work of Alan Segel regarding the "Two Powers" heresy relayed by the Rabbinic sources. McGrath argues, against Segal, that none of the texts suggest that the "Two Powers" heresy had precedent in the 1st century - most likely even the second - and that it was mainly a response to Gnosticism, not Christianity. McGrath also notes that he thinks the Christian development of the Trinity is best explained by the adoption of Creation ex nihilo. While Philo could call Divine Logos neither uncreated nor created (because Creation was itself blurred), the doctrine of ex nihilo demanded a stance. Arius went with Logos on the side of Creation, Athanasius went on the side of God.
McGrath concludes by restating his argument that early Christianity did not depart or mutate Jewish monotheism within the 1st century. He briefly considers the theological implications of his research. In short, traditions are living and developing, thus, his research makes no judgement on current trinitarian doctrine. He suggests that the New Testament writers may have well set up the way to a plurality in the Godhead, which, has provided a rich statement on God's eternal nature coupled with His nature of Love. For love demands more than a monad and the Trinity provides that. Also, in light of the variety within Jewish monotheism, McGrath raises, though does not answer, the question to Protestants, whether Catholic saint prayer is not without "orthodox" precedent.
Though I found the book very provocative and fair towards it dialogue partners, I was ultimately unconvinced. In large part due to the limited considerations involved - heck, it's only 104 pages of body text! There was too much that went unspoken of. Much of Hurtado and Bauckham work was ignored, which on my account, is a necessary feature of any book on Christology. If not Bauckham, at least more with Hurtado - he is the leader in the field. At best, McGrath has shot some holes in a waterfall. Far too much of Hurtado's considerations have gone untouched.
Another weakness was simple semantics. When he states, "They haven't departed from Jewish monotheism", with Hurtado, I say, "Yes, exactly." However, what he means by that is, "they have not identified Jesus with God as a rightful recipient of divine worship". With that, I must say, "No, I disagree." McGrath's criterion for a breach of monotheism is much too narrow. To limit it to sacrificial worship seems very unhelpful, being that early Christians did not sacrifice at the Temple at all (as far as we know). To say that Christ's atoning sacrifice is offered to the Father answers nothing, because, obviously, he could not offer himself to himself!
Revelation seems clearly to identify Jesus as a recipient of cultic worship with God. He is in Heaven, on God's Throne, and the two receive worship together. The Lamb is even offered the prayers of the saints. That seems to be including Jesus with the Father as objects of cultic worship - which even McGrath sometimes suggests is reserved for God alone. That seems to be worship of a different kind than what the martyrs receive.
Regarding the Pauline text in 1 Cor. 8:6, I do not think McGrath's account was adequate. Because the Greek Shema uses kyrios, not just theos, to refer to God, and Paul (who McGrath grants is employing the Shema) identifies Jesus as the kyrios, it seems warranted to consider it reformulated, with Christ included within, not just alongside of.
There's more to be said, for example, I am doubtful of the dismissing of the use of divine names as simple parallels to Yahoel. It must be granted that Jesus has a completely different role in the Christian worship gatherings than Yahoel ever embodied. Granted, I am no expert, but I began to wonder what the early Christians could do to convince McGrath of High Christology.
While I appreciate McGrath's work, and I think he delivers some excellent contributions, especially regarding Segal's work and Agent Christology throughout the New Testament, I am left unpersuaded. I remain with Hurtado and the Creeds. My bias may have prescribed it, but alas, I hold my ground.
I look forward to engaging any future work that McGrath publishes and I hope to refine my understanding of his argument as well as flesh out some of my critiques more in the months to come. He is an excellent example of respectful, academically rigorous dialogue, and I still commend this book as a provocative look at early Christological matters.
Note: This book was received free of charge in exchange for an honest review.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 27, 2012
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... sometimes described as bearing God's name, and entrusted with God's authority and power? Were they worshipped as God, as part of God or kept separate?
And how did a Christian understanding of monotheism differ from a Jewish one - if it was different...?
This short book isn't a defense or apologetic for Monotheism (either Jewish or Christian) but is rather a history of the doctrine, tracking the multiple currents within the two diverging faiths. And though it's a short book (104 pages without endnotes (Endnotes! I hate endnotes! I always loose my place flipping back and forth to read them.)) it's not a simple book. McGrath holds a dialogue with both ancient and contemporary authors. Sometimes I felt like I was watching a roundtable discussion between theologians, most of whom were unfamiliar to me.
But, that's not to say that I haven't come away from the book having learned nothing. I was especially interested in the very Jewish way that McGrath approached monotheism within the gospel of John. (So much so that I've already placed my order on-line for another of McGrath's books - John's Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology (though I managed to find a used copy for much MUCH less than the $132 new price!)). What does it mean -from a Jewish (Christian) viewpoint - when John says that Jesus was accused of blasphemy for making himself God when he was "a mere man" (John 10:33)? What does it mean when Jesus utters the words "when you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am..." - using absolutely the unutterable name of the Only True God for himself? I am intrigued by his answer and I want to read more.
The chapters on Monotheism in the letters attributed to Paul, and win the book of Revelation were also informative and engaging. But I found myself at the book's end, wondering why there weren't chapters on the monotheism in the synoptic gospels, and the other epistles... I always want to read more.