When I first became a Christian, I had a friend whose family were Jehovah’s Witnesses. This means that I was immediately launched into the world of apologetics in the area of Christology. In response to my trinitarianism, I was told that Jesus obviously could not be God because he’s clearly called God’s son. At the time, my church worship services usually ended with a doxology where we sang the end of the Christ Hymn in Philippians: “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Therefore, my response was something like, “Jesus is God—he’s called Lord in this passage!” To this, I would add a couple of references from John’s Gospel. This never convinced my Jehovah’s Witness friends and admittedly it wasn’t a very sophisticated argument. However, now that I’ve been studying the Bible and theology academically for a decade, I have come to realize that my citation of Philippians 2:10–11 was a better argument than I knew at the time.
My studies of Paul have since focused most on understanding his soteriology in its Jewish context. However, I have never lost my interest in growing to better understand New Testament Christology. I’ve tried to stay up to date on the research and have worked through the most of the scholarly titles on the subject, especially those that focus on Paul. I have pieced together what I believe is a nuanced historical case for how the early church came to believe that Jesus is God while maintaining what can be rightly called monotheism. When it comes to Paul, the argument that I have found most compelling is that in several passages he quotes Old Testament texts about Israel’s God, Yahweh, and applies them explicitly to Jesus. I just got around to reading David Capes excellent study on this subject (Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul’s Christology [Baylor University Press, 2017]), which has now probably become my favorite book on Paul’s Christology.
Capes did an excellent job in this study showing that Paul regularly quoted or alluded to OT passages about Yahweh with Jesus as the referent. His study includes an extensive treatment of Paul’s use of the noun κύριος (“Lord”) in reference to Jesus, which the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible most often used to translate the divine name, Yahweh. He argues convincingly, against the scholars like Wihelm Bousset, that the early Christian practice of calling Jesus “Lord” was not the result of pagan influence after Christianity spread into the Gentile world, but it originated in the context of earliest Jewish Christianity in Palestine. The kind of monotheism that characterized Judaism during this period was not identical with later Rabbinic Judaism, so that the earliest Christians could identify Jesus with Yahweh within a nuanced monotheistic framework that incorporated figures like the angel of Yahweh as well as Yahweh’s Word, Wisdom, and Glory.
I really have nothing negative to say about Capes’ study. I found his treatment to be thoroughly convincing from beginning to end. In this post, however, I’d like to supplement what Capes argued by emphasizing a point that he only mentions once in passing (as I recall). In commenting on Paul’s use of Isaiah 45:23 in Philippians 2:10–11, Capes observes “The claim that ‘every knee shall bow’ an ‘every tongue confess’ belongs to one of the more important monotheistic passages of the Old Testament…” What I find significant about this observation is that Paul (and the original writer of this pre-formed tradition) did not apply just any Yahweh passage to Jesus; Paul applied one of the most emphatically monotheistic passages in the Hebrew Bible to Jesus. If we were only expected to think of Jesus’ relationship to Yahweh in terms of agency, as some scholars have suggested, then we would not expect Paul or other NT authors to apply passages that speak of Yahweh in terms of his “transcendent uniqueness” (to borrow Richard Bauckham’s phrase). But that is precisely what we have here and in a number of other passages. This suggests that the early Christians saw Jesus’ relationship to Yahweh in terms that go beyond agency categories so that Jesus is identified with Yahweh. In what follows, I want to look more closely at the use Isaiah 45 in Philippians 2, and two additional examples of New Testament writers (another text from Paul and one from Hebrews) applying Old Testament passages that emphatically stress Yahweh’s uniqueness in comparison to anyone else, especially other divine beings.
Isaiah 45 in Philippians 2:10–11
Scholars have long recognized that Isaiah 40–55 is the most emphatically monotheistic section in all the Hebrew Bible. This section of Isaiah is about God’s promise to sovereignly and powerfully bring his people out of exile after they have been justly punished for the persistent violation of their covenant with Yahweh (e.g., Isa 40:1–2, 9–11; 42:1–9). This section stresses Yahweh’s sovereignty, omnipotence, and uniqueness and we see these themes highlighted in chap. 40 and repeated throughout the larger section. There is no one to whom one can liken Yahweh because he is incomparable (40:18, 25–26). Yahweh alone “sits above the circle of the earth,” “stretches out the heaven,” and “brings princes to nothing and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness” (Isa 40:22–23). That Yahweh is in a category of divinity all his own is probably most emphatically stated in Isaiah 43:10: “‘You are my witnesses,’ declares Yahweh, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.” Similarly, in Isaiah 44:6–8 Yahweh, “the King of Israel” says “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me?… Is there a God beside me? There is no rock; I know not any.”
The theme of Yahweh’s transcendent uniqueness continues in chap. 45 as God’s sovereignty becomes the emphatic theme. He forms light and darkness and makes peace and creates calamity or evil (v. 7). God is the potter and his creation the clay. Therefore, his ways are beyond the scrutiny of human beings (vv. 9–13). In vv. 14–25 we see these truths of God’s universal kingship culminate with a vision of his being worshiped universally in the world as “all the ends of the earth” are invited to turn to Yahweh to be saved (v. 22). The result will be that all people will bow the knee and swear alliance to Yahweh alone (vv. 23–25). Paul’s application of this passage to Jesus, I suggest (following David Capes) goes beyond his role as Yahweh’s eschatological agent (a theme present in this section through the “servant of Yahweh” figure) and includes him within the unique identity of Yahweh. In Isaiah 42:8 Yahweh declares his name and states his refusal to share his glory with another. However, Paul says that Jesus has received “the name that is above every name” so that at his name will all bow and confess that he is “Lord” (i.e., Yahweh). I believe the application of this Yahweh text would be irresponsible on Paul’s part if it were not his intention to identify Jesus with Yahweh.
Deuteronomy 6:4 in 1 Corinthians 8:6
A number of scholars have come to the conclusion that in 1 Corinthians 8:6 Paul has reformulated the classic monotheistic confession of Israel, the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4, so that it includes Jesus in the statement that Israel has only one God, Yahweh. A comparison of these two texts makes this apparent. I have tried to show the emphasis on the shared terms “one,” “Lord,” and “God”:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (Deut 6:4)
…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)
It is possible to render Deuteronomy 6:4 as “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone.” Moreover, Jesus’ participation in creation is probably intended to evoke common Jewish notions of Yahweh’s Wisdom, a hypostasis of an attribute that is indispensable to Yahweh’s identity, character, and power (see esp. Proverbs 8:22–31; Sirach 24:2, 9; Wisdom 7:22–27; 8:4; 9:4, 9–11). Of course, the LXX usually renders the divine name as κύριος, which is the term that Paul applies to Jesus. For Paul, the two divine terms in Deuteronomy 6:4 refer respectively to the Father (“God”) and Jesus Christ (“Lord”). This is significant because Deuteronomy 6 goes on to speak of the exclusive devotion that Israel was to have for Yahweh—“You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (v. 5). This text was at the heart of Jewish belief that they were to worship and honor Yahweh and no other God. Paul’s context has to do with the way Christians should relate to the idol worship of their neighbors. Some have knowledge that idols are really nothing and for us (we Christians) there is only one God (1 Cor 8:4). Where it Paul’s intention to bring in Jesus alongside Yahweh as another deity, this would not be the text to use. Instead, he reappropriated the terms for God found Deuteronomy 6:4 so that Jesus is identified with Israel’s God.
Deuteronomy 32:43 in Hebrews 1:6
In Hebrews 1:6 the writer quotes Deuteronomy 32:43 to make the claim that Jesus is greater than all angels. The verse says, “And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’” Scholars were unsure what text the author was referencing until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The version of Deuteronomy discovered there differs at 32:43 from the previously received Hebrew text by saying, “Rejoice, O heavens, together with him; and bow down to him all you gods.” This reading is now rightly favored in modern translations and you can compare the English Standard Version to King James Version to see the differences in the text. The reading we have in the Greek translation of the OT is similar, but instead of “gods” it has “sons of God,” which would have been problematic for the author because he is distinguishing “the Son” from the angels. Therefore, we have good reason to believe that he was quoting the reading we discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls, because this text would fit his rhetorical purposes much better. What is remarkable about this is what it means the writer was saying about Jesus. If you read Deuteronomy 32 in context you will see the point is the lordship of Yahweh over all other “gods.” In v. 8 it is Yahweh “the Most High” who divided the nations and assigned lesser gods (“the sons of God”) over them. But Yahweh has kept Jacob as his own people (v. 9), so that they are not to worship the gods of the nations. Yahweh alone has just delivered them and he alone will continue to guide them (v. 12). Israel had already transgressed their covenant with Yahweh when the “sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently” rather than Yahweh, the God of their fathers (v. 17, 21). This is foolish because Yahweh is Lord over these lesser gods. These gods will not be able to rise up and protect Israel (vv. 37–38). Yahweh alone will be able to do so: “‘See now that I, even I am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand’” (v. 39). Such a monotheistic statement in this context means that there is no god who is able to rival Yahweh’s power. He has delegated authority to all other deities (the “sons of God”) and even they must bow down to worship him (v. 43).
It is Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews who is to be worshiped by the lesser gods (i.e., angels). The author of Hebrews is applying this passage about Yahweh to Jesus in order to make the point that Jesus is greater than the angels. For this author, Jesus is not one of the lesser divinities of Deuteronomy 32. He is the supreme God to whom all other gods are to bow down in worship—he is Yahweh. I think this is remarkable and the evidence suggests that the author intentionally selected a passage about the superiority of the God of Israel to all other heavenly beings, which expresses Yahweh’s transcendent uniqueness when compared to all other “gods,” and applied it in his context to make his case that Jesus is superior to all the host of heaven. Again, the selection of this text and its application to Jesus implies the highest imaginable Christology, one which identifies Jesus with Yahweh.
It is fascinating to observe the many texts that New Testament authors apply in trying to come to grips with who Jesus is. It is remarkable that they often choose passages that describe Yahweh in order to do so. But it is stunning to see the texts they sometimes select. In these instances, and probably more, the New Testament authors select passages from Israel’s scriptures that are among the most explicit and forceful in expressing that Yahweh is unlike any other and that he alone is to be obeyed and worshiped. The selection of these Yahweh passages are best explained if the early church came to believe that Jesus should be identified with Yahweh. It is especially significant to recognize that many scholars believe that Philippians 2:6–11 and 1 Corinthians 8:6 were not originally Pauline compositions, but that he reappropriated these creedal statements for his context. This means that G. B. Caird was right in saying that the earliest New Testament Christology is already the highest. The identification of Jesus with Yahweh happened quickly in the very earliest circles of Christianity.