Perhaps the most remarkable thing in the New Testament is that someone highly unlikely to attribute divinity to anyone but God (i.e. a Jew steeped in rabbinical tradition) is precisely the person who makes the clearest claims for the divinity of Christ. When we look at Paul we are looking at the first generation Christians and what we find Paul writing in the 50’s is remarkably consistent with what John wrote in the 90’s, and what the Church later expressed in the solemn language we repeat each Sunday in the Creed: “God from God, light from light, true God from true God...”. The writings of Paul are the earliest layer of the New Testament (the gospels came later) and if we look at his writings we see a clear affirmation of the divinity of Jesus.
As a missionary among Hindus in Pakistan I often met people who were quite happy to believe Jesus was also god or more precisely a god, alongside all the others. How different it would be to meet a Muslim who called Jesus ‘God’ or ‘divine’. What we see in Paul is very similar. Had he been a pagan Greek, it would have been easy for him to divinize Jesus and add him to the dozens of gods in the Greek pantheon. But for a Jew even to make a move in that direction was hitherto unthinkable, and there was no one more Jewish than Saul of Tarsus. And yet in many places he posits Jesus’ equality with God in the clearest possible terms. This is no late development. This is the bedrock of Paul’s conviction about who Jesus is and the only possible explanation for it is his conversion experience.
While making a point about eating food offered to idols Paul makes this assertion: for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Cor. 8:6). Paul is alluding to, indeed paraphrasing, the central Jewish confession of faith in one God, known as the Shema from Deut 6:4, something which very pious Jew said three times a day: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; Paul remains solidly a Jewish monotheist – but fits Jesus into this monotheism.
In Phil 2:6-11 Paul first of all states that Jesus was in the form of God but did not cling to his equality with God. He then goes on to make a statement for which, a few years earlier, he himself would have been prepared to stone people: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Anyone familiar with the Old Testament would realize that here Paul is paraphrasing one of most aggressively monotheistic passages in the scriptures. There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is none besides me. 'To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear' (Is. 45:21, 23). Isaiah is at the crucial point in Israel’s theological development when she realized that not only was Yahweh greater and stronger than the other gods, but that there simply were no other gods. Paul agrees totally with this, but now sees that this unique God has made himself visible and available in Jesus as in no other, and that Jesus is therefore worthy of all the worship and honour due to God. And giving Jesus this honour in no way detracts from God’s glory but in fact is a part of it.
Sadly the clash between monotheistic faiths can be a threat to world peace. Reflect on how monotheism, seen though the human face of Jesus, can be a tool for world peace.
© Fr. John Hemer, used with permission.
Image of Paul the Apostle by Meliore di Jacopo.