Christ in the Old Testament (Part VIa)

Christ in the Old Testament, Theology


Christ in the OT 6 Christ the Word of God

Christ: The Word of God (Part I)

In the next several posts we will turn our attention away from Christ in the OT as he is found in more general ways like prophecy, types, and law, towards Christ as he is literally in the OT as a person or figure in Israel. We will do this through various words that came to be understood by Jews (at least for a time) and early Christians as words that were, for lack of a better term, hypostatically linked to a Second Person in the OT. We begin with “the Word.”

The word of God can be understood in two mysteriously united senses. The first is that of God’s speech. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” (Heb 1:1). These prophets put their words, their speech, down on paper which became Holy Scripture: God’s word. “They received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

logos_greekThe second way the Word of God can be understood is through God’s Son. “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:2). He is the Word of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … And the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). Many are familiar with the Greek word for “word” here. It is logos. But where does John get this idea? Is he just making it up?

Many read John here against the backdrop of later Greek Gnosticism. Yet, it is clear that John 1:1ff is a reflection on the OT (Genesis 1:1ff). Also, John is a Jew, and there are deep Jewish roots for seeing a figure in the OT who seems to be both God and yet not God. This fact may be profoundly surprising to many readers for the simple reason that modern Judaism is utterly Unitarian. To see plurality in a “Godhead” is, for today’s Jew, the ultimately blasphemy. “The LORD our, the LORD is one” (Deut 6:4). Period.

Many Christians have uncritically accepted this Unitarian view of God in the OT saying, “No one could possibly know about a Second Person in a Godhead from the OT. Only in the NT do we see this.” Never mind the implications of a theology that comes out of thin air like a magicians rabbit out of a hat, and never mind that the NT was using the OT to prove this theology, which would have been utterly unconvincing if they were just making it up. In fact, scholars are starting to uncover how in Second Temple Judaism (the Judaism of Jesus’ day), there were many Jews who had theological room for a Godhead. They are arguing, persuasively in my opinion, that John’s logos should not be read exclusively or even primarily through Greek philosophy, but rather Jewish OT lenses.[1] As a result, we can start to make sense of why so many Jews were actually being convinced by the arguments of the NT and early church of a Second God-Person being right there in the history of OT peoples.

A great place to see this is the line of thought is the monotheist Hellenistic Jew Philo (20 BC – c. 50 AD). Though he does not seem to have ever come into contact with Christians, and therefore never became one, he nevertheless writes, “Examine it accurately, and see whether there are really two Gods … There is one true God only … and what he here calls God (not ‘the God’ but ‘of God’) is his most ancient logos (Dreams 1.228-230).  Yet he also says, “No mortal thing could have been formed on the similitude of the supreme Father of the universe, but only after the pattern of the second deity, who is the logos of the supreme Being” (Questions on Genesis 2.62). As we will see in in Part VII, Philo was not thinking of the logos in terms of “logic” or “reason,” or even Torah (law), but in terms of a person. So how could Philo hold that there is both one God and yet a second God [his words]?

Just here, we should point out something that his contemporary Aramaic speaking Jews were doing. As they transmitted the Holy Scripture into their own common tongue, the Jews would create “Targums.” I like to think of Targums as paraphrases of the Scripture (like The Living Bible or The Message) that sometimes added Jewish tradition. Now, “memra is the Aramaic equivalent of the Greek logos. It occurs regularly in the Torah Targums. According to one scholar, “‘Memra’ is used as a buffer word, introduced apparently for some theological purpose, such as to avoid anthropomorphisms, to avoid making God the direct object or subject of actions connected with creation[2]

memraIn the Targums, “I have established my covenant between me and you” (Gen 17:7) becomes “I have established My covenant between my Memra and you.” “They heard the sound/voice of the LORD God” (Gen 3:8) becomes, “They heard the voice of the Memra of the Lord God.” They heard the voice of the word? Basically, Memra ends up becoming more than a personification of God. It becomes a kind of second God in the Targums, and this by monotheistic Jews. This was not Zoroastrian dualism with two equal but opposite gods (one good, one evil), but two good equal yet distinct persons of a Godhead. This seems to be a main source from which John is drawing upon his logos theology. In Part II of Christ and the Word, we will look at a couple of very interesting passages where the Word was actually seen as a person in a Godhead.

[1] Cf. Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (SJLA 25; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977); also Richard Bauckham, “The Throne of God and the Worship of Jesus,” in The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism: Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus, ed. C. Newman, J. Davila, and G. Lewis (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1999), 43-69; Daniel Boyarin, “The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John,” Harvard Theological Review 94:3 (2001): 243-84; M. J. Edwards, “Justin’s Logos and the Word of God,” JECS 3 (1995): 261-80; Larry Hurtado, “The Binitarian Shape of Early Christian Worship,” in The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism: Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus (ed. Carey C. Newman, James R. Davila, and Gladys S. Lewis; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1999), 187-213.

[2] Kevin Cathcart, Michael Maher, and Martin McNamara, eds., “Cathcart, Kevin; McNamara, Martin; Maher, Michael,” in The Aramaic BibleA: Targum Neofiti 1: Genesis, trans. Martin McNamara, vol. 1 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 38.

(By: Doug Van Dorn)

8 thoughts on “Christ in the Old Testament (Part VIa)

  1. Loving all this about the Person of Jesus in the OT, and worshipped, loved and trusted in by the saints long before Christmas!

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