Deified Messiah? Show Me…
How This Got Started
Well, I can’t say this is the first time I ever got an entire blog post dedicated to me. But I will say this is the first time I ever rated a whole blog post based on such a small amount of input.
I recently made the acquaintance of a fellow named Peter, who runs a blog site called Orthodox Messianic Judaism. I visited there thinking to find frummies from the Orthodox Jewish world. That’s not who Peter is, though. And that’s fine. Peter seems to be a generally nice fellow, and definitely passionate for Hashem.
However, just after I began following his blog, Peter posted an article naming five congregations that appear to represent themselves as some sort of Orthodox Messianic, Jewish style. He was actually asking for input regarding their legitimacy.
That was when he offered the following statement:
I do not yet know where these organizations stand on the Divinity of Yeshua. However, I sent out some emails, asking whether they believed Yeshua was HaShem or merely a created being.
Now, I hold no adverse opinion towards those who hold to the equating of the Messiah with the God of Israel. Heaven knows, I was once firmly entrenched in that camp, myself! I merely believe they are in error, lacking training in certain areas of Jewish thought and interpretation.
And so, I offered a response to Peter’s question:
It seems to me that deifying the Messiah is only a priority if one carries such a doctrine over from church theosophy. Judaism has always had room for a variety of expression regarding the nature and character of Mashiach. Christianity, on the other hand, has made trinitarian doctrine a watershed, a definition for whether one is inside or outside of “the camp”.
I believe Tehillim/Psalms 89 contains the key to understanding the nature of Mashiach. Everything in that psalm applies equally to David, to Solomon, and also to Yeshua. Once we wrap our heads around that idea, we are on our way to a Biblical perspective.
I had hoped this would lead to a discussion of Psalm 89 and the Jewish perspectives relevant to properly understanding how we apply that text to Yeshua. Unfortunately, my invitation to discussion was ignored. Instead, Peter responded with a strongly worded missive on the centrality of a deified Messiah, including…
The Scriptures affirm that not only was a perfect sacrifice needed to take away sin but also that this perfect Sacrifice had to be G-d Himself…. if you deny the Divinity of Yeshua then you deny the power of His forgiveness and you deny HaShem Himself. Furthermore, if you affirm Jewish Law (which rightly prohibits worship of created beings) and you affirm that Yeshua is not HaShem but merely a created being then this is what happens: worship of Yeshua is outlawed!
That post contains numerous assumptions and logical flaws, some of which we will get to in a few minutes.
Just for the record, I normally would have left the topic alone, and allowed Peter to go whatever direction he considered right. He certainly has the right to his views, arriving at them through whatever logic he deems appropriate. However, he subsequently invoked my name in his post, making it a personal challenge.
And yesterday David Negley attacked Messianic Judaism on an existential level—attacked the very heart of our faith—by claiming that believing in Yeshua as HaShem is a lie of Christianity.
Just to put a fine point on the situation… I suggested that a deified Messiah is only one view among others, and that the circle-the-wagons mentality in making the doctrine a priority is a remnant of Christian thinking. Instead of considering the possibility that I might be correct, Peter chose to double down on his doctrine. So now, we address his reaction. He began by stating his basic logic in the following points:
- Surveying all the 1st Century Jewish literature, one thing was universal: Jews believed, based on Torah, that Creatorship was unique to HaShem.
- The Apostolic writers attributed Creatorship to Yeshua.
- They believed salvation was impossible unless G-d Himself was providing the atonement.
- The Torah itself says that the Messiah is Divine and therefore to reject the nature of the Messiah is to reject HaShem.
I won’t go into the implied claim in the first bullet point that Peter has read “ALL” relevant extant 1st century Jewish literature. That would be picking at nits. But I will treat each of the sections that Peter offered up, containing numerous references that he believes back up each of his points. I suggest we take a look at those references, and see if they really support the views suggested.
CREATORSHIP UNIQUE TO HASHEM
G-d says He made all things in the universe alone–by Himself (Isaiah 44:24).
This is exactly true. I couldn’t say it better.
The Apostolic Writings affirm that Yeshua made all things
This, however, is insupportable. What texts does Peter offer to support his claim?
“…there is one Lord, Yeshua HaMoshiach, through whom all things were created” (1 Corinthians 8:6)
“All things were made by Him; and without Him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3)
Do you see the mistake in the interpretation of these two passages? The Messianic Writings affirm that Yeshua is the agent through whom Hashem created the universe, not the Creator, himself!
Moreover, the text says that Yeshua is G-d (“…the Word was God,” John 1:1).
Now, this is a particularly sticky wicket that has long been used to support the doctrine of a deified Messiah. I have long been reluctant to confront this issue head-on, but it seems the time has come to start addressing the passage directly.
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος
καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν
καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος
This verse is best translated as…
In beginning was the word
and the word was with God
and divine was the word.
Note that last phrase carefully. Most of us were taught to say, “The word was God”. But that isn’t what it says. The term θεὸς is usually translated “God” when used with a definite article, ὁ θεὸς. We see this usage earlier in the verse—”the word was with/toward God”. But when used without a definite article, we have a special case, called an “anarthrous noun”. When a noun lacks a definite article, there are generally two ways to render it:
- It may take an indefinite article. That is, if it isn’t definite, perhaps it is indefinite, one of many. In this case, the result of such a translation would give us a support for polytheism—”the word was a god”. Clearly, not a valid option for a monotheistic Jew.
- It may represent a qualitative value, rather than a specific object. This is the option we take here. Rather than saying that Yeshua was God, the Eternal One, the Almighty Creator, we see that this famous passage only affirms that the Davidic heir is a representative of the Divine prerogative, just as his well-known forebear.
For the sake of brevity, I won’t pursue the numerous quotations from Bauckham, on the grounds that they don’t need to be addressed. They reflect the traditional conditioning of Christian authors, based upon flawed assumptions regarding the relationship between Hashem and the King of Israel.
THE APOSTOLIC WRITERS EQUATED YESHUA WITH HASHEM
Peter includes an entire section containing dozens of references supposedly identifying Yeshua as Hashem. He starts out with the claim:
Here are some places where Paul applies HaShem passages to Yeshua:
There’s only one problem with his little list. Almost none of the cited texts actually refer to Yeshua when read in context. Those few that do refer to Yeshua fail to prove the point alleged—that references to Adonai consistently prove that Yeshua is identified as God Almighty. The list is completely irrelevant to the topic at hand.
For my readers, I would like to mention an observation I made many years ago, as a young Bible college student:
Massive lists of verses tossed into a discussion are rarely there to support a point. They are merely there to obfuscate and to overwhelm a potential adversary. Actually running such lists of references almost always demonstrates that the texts do not support the contention of the author.
For an author who is using texts properly, in context, according to normal rules of grammar, two or three well-selected references will generally be sufficient.
THE TORAH SAYS THE MESSIAH IS DIVINE
While a bold claim is made by the title of this section, the actuality disappoints. One quotation, not from the Torah at all, based on an ambiguous passage in a difficult text (Zechariah 12:10) falls far short of the promise to “prove” a divine Messiah from the Torah.
YESHUA HIMSELF STATED THAT HE WAS HASHEM AND HIS FIRST-CENTURY JEWISH AUDIENCE UNDERSTOOD WHAT HE WAS SAYING
An interesting claim, to be sure. There was a time when I would have been in full agreement. However, I have come to view these key texts a bit differently. Further reading in first century sources and interpretive methodology have led me to understand Yeshua’s claims in terms of representative agency, rather than identity with the Father.
The entire book of Yochanon, for instance, is one massive missive on the “sentness” of Yeshua. He constantly reiterates that the Father is the Sender, while he is the Sent. The Father is the Master, while he imitates what he sees the Father doing. Those who do not understand the form of literature employed by Yochanon easily miss this, thinking the book is “simple”, “good for children”, and “comfortable” to read. In fact, this gospel is the most sophisticated of the four, representing kabbalistic mysticism, making prolific use of metaphor and midrashic interpretation. So, when one is claiming to “prove” anything based on Yochanon, it would be good to consider all the alternatives.
“56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple,” John 8:56-59
Christians interpret this exchange to mean that Yeshua is claiming eternal pre-existence, using the phrase, “I AM”, purely in order to justify their trinitarian doctrine. But such a usage would be more than ridiculous. Not to mention, bad grammar. It would communicate nothing to the knowledge of his audience, only serving to anger them. Rather than a defense of any kind, it would invite precisely the treatment Yeshua received. In today’s parlance, to assume Yeshua made such a statement, with the meaning assigned by Christian interpreters, would be a case of, “suicide by stoning”.
Rather, we should understand Yeshua to be referring to the context of Jewish discussion regarding the role and character of the Messiah. In the Talmud, we find two different lengthy discussions stating that there are seven things that pre-exist the creation of the world. One of these seven is “the Name of the Messiah” (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 54a; Nedarim 39b).
Adding to this, we understand that in Hebrew culture a “name” is representative of one’s character. We can therefore take these Talmudic passages to mean the idea of Messiah, not necessarily some trinitarian persona that is co-eternal with the allegedly singular deity we know as the God of Israel.
Thus, we can surmise that Yeshua is not asserting full-blown trinitarian Christian dogma of a co-eternal third person with the Father. Rather, he is much more likely to be referencing the rabbinic discussion of his own time. Before the world was created, the concept of Messiah was known to Hashem. More than that, Yeshua could claim Abraham had seen “my day”. In what way? Through the metaphorical “resurrection” of Isaac at the altar (Hebrews 11:19).
Here we see Yeshua referring to Himself as HaShem in such a way that leaves no doubt. Even the Jews listening to Him say it perfectly understood that He was identifying as HaShem. And, not believing that He was HaShem, they picked up stones to stone Him for what they believed to be blasphemy. Here’s a note about the unmistakable way Yeshua identified Himself:
So, no, this is not the unequivocal interpretation of that exchange. And in a tome that has massively failed to demonstrate its point so far, this citation gives the feeling of a last gasping breath when running out of air.
It is not my intention to be mean-spirited or antagonistic—only thorough. I bear Peter Vest no personal animosity. In fact, I hope we can develop a good and close working relationship in the future.
However, that said, I have gone through the Bible college classes where this sort of material is de rigueur…. I have read numerous books claiming to support the doctrine of a deified Messiah…. This not my first ride on the ferris wheel…. And I have found all share the flaws I have enumerated here. False referents and out-of-context cherry-picking of verses are the order of the day when theologians are hell-bent on shoehorning a Christian doctrine into a Jewish text.
It is my contention that there are only a very small number of verses that could even be legitimately (though erroneously) interpreted as supporting a deified Messiah when read in context. And that small number dwindles even further when one accounts for first century Jewish theological and cultural ideas such as “agency” and the “Memra” (to which we have not even needed to resort in this review).