In a previous article on this blog, “Anthony Buzzard, the Shema, and the Trinity,” I discussed Unitarian writer Anthony Buzzard’s misrepresentations of my statements about the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) in Putting Jesus in His Place, which Buzzard quoted out of context in a recent YouTube video. After Buzzard and I exchanged comments there, Dale Tuggy, on his blog about the Trinity, offered four observations or opinions on the matter. In his fourth point, he agreed with me that the Shema is not a “definition” of God, so no comment on that point is needed here. I appreciate Tuggy’s efforts and will respond to his first three points here.

1. According to Tuggy, what Buzzard probably meant was not that Jews in the biblical era were “anti-trinitarians” but that they held to “the view, roughly, that the one God ‘is unipersonal,’ that is, just is a certain self, person, or intelligent agent.” Tuggy thinks I should concede that this is what Jews at the time believed.

So much depends on precisely how words are understood here. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity views God as a single, intelligent being. If one stipulates that a single, intelligent being is by definition a “person,” then by that definition the Jews believed that Yahweh, the Lord God, was one person. By that definition, Trinitarians also believe that God is one person.

Trinitarian theologians have said for centuries that the term person as used in articulating the doctrine of the Trinity is used analogously, not univocally, to its usual reference in the context of human “persons” (or angelic persons). Specifically, Trinitarianism maintains that God is one intelligent being but that within the ontological unity of that singular divine Being exist three distinct “persons” (hypostases). In the context of this theological discourse, the term person has a somewhat different meaning or definition than it does in the context of speaking about finite beings such as humans or angels. It does not denote an individual being, such that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would be three different beings. Rather, it denotes a distinct locus of relationality within one infinite, transcendent Being.

Jews prior to and at the time of Jesus did not use terms such as “self,” “person,” or “intelligent agent” to explicate the sense in which they understood God to be one. Had they been introduced to such terms and given the mental map to negotiate their usage, you might contend that they would have described God as one such self or person or agent. But lacking any knowledge of or context for thinking about the possibility of distinct persons within one Being, they could not have advocated a Unitarian view.

I think what Buzzard is after is an admission that the Jews in Jesus’ day were unaware of any such distinction and thus their view by default closely compares to the Unitarian position; they thought of Yahweh as a single being without qualification and in that respect their view would have looked like the Unitarian view. Stated properly, this point is one to which I at least would assent. What most Trinitarians, I think, would claim was that the pre-Christian monotheism of Judaism lacked knowledge of the distinct persons and therefore looked like an implicit “unitarian” doctrine because of what it lacked, not because it precluded new information about distinct “persons” within the one God. But this is not what Buzzard said. He explicitly claimed that I had conceded “that Jesus was a Unitarian monotheist.” The only reason for the qualification Unitarian is to claim that Jesus advocated a form of monotheism that was overtly unipersonal (in the sense of precluding any plurality of “persons” within God’s being) and thus explicitly incompatible with the doctrine of the Trinity. I know Buzzard thinks this was so, but he also knows, and knew, that I don’t—and so to assert that I had conceded that claim was recklessly false. This leads to my response to Tuggy’s second point.

2. According to Tuggy, “Buzzard can be forgiven for thinking that Bowman is conceding, on the page in question, that Jesus believed the Shema was true in the sense then understood by his fellow Jews.” He can of course be forgiven for misunderstanding what I said; but he was corrected and yet refused to acknowledge that he had misunderstood my meaning. What Jesus brought was not an understanding that contradicted what the Jews of his day consciously thought about the meaning of the Shema, but an understanding that challenged their tacit limited understanding. Can Buzzard be forgiven for continuing to claim I had made the concession that Jesus affirmed Unitarian monotheism even after I repeatedly explained to him that I had done no such thing? That is the pertinent question here.

3. Tuggy thinks my reference to John 10:30 as including Christ in the unity of the Shema “is surprisingly wild,” and he dismisses this view as a “recently popular thing.” Really? Should we try not to learn anything new in our study of the Bible? Tuggy claims this view has nothing going for it except that “a few heavyweights have used that sort of talk.”

I won’t take the time to go into detail here, but I will simply point to three elements of the text that support my “wild” view. (1) If one removes Jesus’ self-reference in the verse, I think most people would see an allusion to the Shema. That is, if Jesus had said, “The Father is one,” the Shema would be a natural allusion. (2) The Jews perceived Jesus’ statement as a blasphemous claim to be God (vv. 31-33). This doesn’t make sense if Jesus was claiming only to be committed to God’s purpose or that he was doing God’s will. It makes perfect sense if Jesus was alluding to the Shema and including himself in it. (3) Immediately prior to making this statement, Jesus had applied to himself the words of another exclusive monotheistic statement from Deuteronomy:

“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me;
I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal;
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deut. 32:39).

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish,
and no one will snatch them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,
and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
I and my Father are one” (John 10:28-30).

YHWH says, “I make alive”; Jesus says, “I give eternal life.” YHWH says, “and there is none that can deliver out of my hand”; Jesus says, “and no one will snatch them out of my hand…and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” Having clearly alluded to one of the most explicit and emphatic monotheistic statements in Deuteronomy (and in the entire corpus of the Hebrew Scriptures), Jesus then claims to be “one” with the Father in language that his Jewish hearers took as a claim to be God.

One common objection to this interpretation is that John 10:30 uses the neuter hen for “one” instead of the masculine heis, which appears in the Septuagint translation of Deuteronomy 6:4. But in this context, had John used heis, the statement might have been misunderstood as affirming that Jesus was the Father. Neither John nor any other NT writer felt obligated to follow the Septuagint wording slavishly when alluding to the OT. The other common objection is that John 17:21-23 proves that Jesus in John 10:30 was only claiming to be one in purpose with the Father. Again, this argument fails to explain why the Jews thought Jesus’ statement in John 10:30 was blasphemous. The two passages are not talking about the same aspect of the unity that the Son shares with the Father. I have discussed this point about John 10 and John 17 in more detail on another blog.

I think the allusion to Deuteronomy 6:4 in John 10:30 has a lot more going for it than the names of a few heavyweight scholars.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, September 4th, 2014 at 4:09 pm and is filed under Biblical studies, Christology, Trinity. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. a reply to Robert Bowman on biblical monotheism, the Trinity, and the Shema | Trinities    Sep 10 2014 / 3am:

    […] to Rob Bowman for his thoughtful reply to my previous post regarding the Shema and his argument with Sir Anthony […]

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