Did Paul believe Jesus to be God? The question may sound absurd, but it needs to be answered if we are to understand how a staunch Jew like Paul, without turning his back on his Jewish belief in the one true God of Israel, is able to declare that “Jesus Christ is Lord!” (Phil 2:11). What force does this declaration have for him?
First, it needs to be clarified that Paul is not a renegade Jew. It is a mistake to think that the Christian Paul abandoned the faith and traditions of his ancestors. It is, in fact, within the framework of Judaism—within Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, that Paul discovers the significance of the person of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah—Yahweh’s “Amen” to all his covenant-promises. In fact, it is Paul who attaches to the name of Jesus the title “Christ,” from the Greek Christos, which is the translation of the Hebrew Messiah.
The following passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians gives us an indication of how Paul sees Jesus in relation to the one true God of Israel:
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet 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 8:4-6).
In this passage, Paul handles the question of eating meat offered to idols in the pagan temples of Corinth. This is not a petty issue since almost all meat sold in the market has first been offered in a pagan temple. To refuse eating such meat would mean going vegetarian all the way. In denying the existence of idols, Paul reaffirms that there is but one God. He takes the traditional Jewish confession of the uniqueness of the God of Israel—the so-called Shema in Hebrew—and in an amazingly neat formulation, he introduces into the Shema the person of Jesus Christ. He redefines the very meaning of the words Jews use in their daily prayer to denote the one true God. He takes the word “God” and fills it with new content. Or rather, he discovers what its true content has always been (cf Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said).
Paul does not see Jesus as another god in addition to Yahweh. In fact, in many instances that he calls Jesus “Lord” (Kyrios in Greek), the term represents the Hebrew name of God—Yahweh. Paul’s reverence for Jesus certainly does not represent any weakening of his devotion to Yahweh—the one God of his ancestors. But he also does not represent Jesus as absorbed into the being of the one God, without an identity of his own. Paul defines Jesus Christ consistently with reference to God, and also defines God with reference to Jesus Christ. He invites his readers to see Jesus as retaining his full identity as the man Jesus of Nazareth, but within the inner being of Yahweh, the one true God of Jewish monotheism.
Excerpted from Glimpses of Paul and His Message
Bernardita Dianzon, FSP, is a member of the Daughters of St Paul. She obtained her Licentiate in Sacred Scriptures from the Pontifical Biblical Institute and her Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Loyola School of Theology, where she also teaches the Letters of St Paul and biblical Greek.