God’s Body

One feature of the Orthodox Jewish synagogue service is the hymn sung near its dismissal which repeatedly affirms that ‘God does not have a body’.  This particular hymn was added in the fourth or fifth century as a direct response to, and rejection of, Christianity.  On the surface, far removed as we are from the issues in the early debate between the nascent Christian and Rabbinical Jewish communities, we might assume that this is aimed at a rejection of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation.  In reality, however, the primary field of debate in that era was over the correct interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures which would become the Christian Old Testament.  The repeated reaffirmation that the Jewish believer ought not try to seek out God’s body is a direct rejection of a primary principle of the Christian understanding of these scriptures.  Even confining ourselves to a reading of the Old Testament texts, even just to the Pentateuch, the most uncontroversial element of the Hebrew canon, however, this affirmation in the synagogue service seems rather strange.  Yahweh, the God of Israel, is depicted in bodily form fairly consistently throughout.  This is not just a matter of reference to God’s strong right arm, or sheltering Israel under his wings, or other anthropomorphic statements regarding God which are clearly poetic imagery.  Rather, the God of Israel stands, walks, interacts with humans face to face, has conversations with them, touches them with his hand, and even eats with them.

And so, in Genesis 3:8, in Eden, we read that Adam and Eve hear the sound of God walking in the garden.  That this walking creates a sound argues that it is at least being portrayed as physical, bodily walking.  Later in Genesis 18, we are told that Yahweh appears to Abraham (v.1) and when this appearance is described, it is described as three men arriving at Abraham’s tents (v.2).  Abraham runs and secures food for his guests, and stands by them while they eat (v.8).  Two of the men depart to go down to Sodom and Gomorrah to find Lot and his family (v. 22).  We are later told that these two men are in fact angels (19:1).  Meanwhile, Yahweh remains with Abraham, and Abraham comes closer to him to speak more closely as he pleads for those in Sodom and Gomorrah who may be righteous (18:23).  After their conversation, God departs from Abraham and Abraham returns to his tent (v. 33).  Abraham’s grandson Jacob, the night before he prepared to reunited with his brother Esau, again encountered a ‘man’ who wrestled with him throughout the night (32:24).  This person touches Jacob’s hip, dislocating it during the struggle, and gives Jacob the new name of Israel (v. 25, 28).  Afterward, he names the place ‘the face of God’, because he says he had seen God face to face (v. 30).  If there is any ambiguity here as to the identity of the wrestler, God appears to Jacob again in Genesis 35:9-10 and repeats his words in giving Israel his new name.

To these three examples, dozens could be added from throughout the Old Testament scriptures.  Prophets see God enthroned and describe his physical appearance (Is 6:1, Ezek 1:26-27).  God appears physically enthroned above the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:2).  God writes his covenant on tablets given to Moses with his own finger (Ex 31:18).  At the same time, however, there is a tension present in the text, at least hinted at by the episode with Jacob, in that he comments on having seen the face of God and survived (Gen 32:30).  All of these clear statements that Yahweh, the God of Israel was seen and interacted with human beings in bodily form are conjoined with statements that no one can see God and live.  Possibly the apex of this tension occurs in Exodus 33.  We are told at the beginning of the chapter that as Israel sojourned in the wilderness, Moses set up the ‘tent of meeting’ at the edge of the camp.  He would enter this tent, the cloud of God’s glory would descend upon it, and God would speak with Moses (Ex 33:7-9).  We are told that in these meetings, Yahweh and Moses would speak ‘face to face’ as a man speaks to his friend (v. 11).  Mere lines later, however, Moses asks God to show him his glory (v. 18) and God tells Moses that this is impossible because no man can see his face and live (v. 20).  God then passes by Moses, protecting him with his hand, and allows him to see his back, but not his face, to preserve Moses’ life (v. 21-23).  This apparent contradiction was not lost on those who read these texts in the centuries preceding Christ.  In the literature they produced, the solution was reached that there were two hypostases of Yahweh, the God of Israel.  One of these appeared to human beings in bodily form, the other was unseeable.  As mentioned before in this series, there was then a great deal of conjecture as to the identity and origin of this second hypostasis, and he was drawn together with the ‘Word of God’, the ‘Angel of the Lord’, and ‘the Son of Man’ as one figure.

When the New Testament authors and the early Fathers speak of the divinity of Christ, they are identifying the person of Jesus Christ as this figure from the Old Testament, now incarnate in human flesh.  They do not need to theorize, or invent, or construct Binitarian or Trinitarian doctrine in order to elevate Jesus or explain their worship of him.  The idea of one God existing in multiple hypostases, in this case three eternally existent hypostases, was not a new idea.    When we understand this, we can better understand the teaching of the apostles.  To use but one example, when St. John the Theologian says that “no one has seen God at any time, but the unique God, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (Jn 1:18), he is not saying that in the Old Testament no one had ever seen God, but now they had seen Jesus, and Jesus had made God known to them.  Rather, St. John is saying that when God was seen in bodily form by the Old Testament saints, they were in fact seeing Christ, who makes the unseen Father known to men.  In the person of Jesus Christ, through the incarnation, we have now come to know the one true God personally and intimately, far moreso than the Old Testament saints were ever able.

And so, it is the unitarian monotheism of Rabbinic Judaism that is the innovation in the centuries after Christ, not the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.  In the second century, the idea that there was a second power in heaven, a second hypostasis of Yahweh, was made a heresy in Rabbinic Judaism.  There is an old rabbinic story of Rabbi Akiva himself needing to be corrected on this matter.  This was done in response to Christianity.  Likewise, the repeated affirmation in the synagogue that God does not have a body was an even later addition, despite its contradiction of the Hebrew scriptures, because of Christian uses.  Ss. Justin Martyr and Basil the Great, as well as Origen, all testify that in their respective eras, Jewish teaching still held that God had a body or a form.  These Fathers sought to correct this notion among Christian believers lest they think that God the Father had a body.  Christianity did not bring in foreign elements, pagan or otherwise, to Judaism in order to create a new religion.  Rather, Rabbinic Judaism cut off huge swathes of the belief and practice of Second Temple Judaism in order to create a deliberately non-Christian religion based in a denuded reading of the Hebrew scriptures.

4 comments:

  1. Dear Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for your work! I find your blog very refreshing, and it’s great to see serious wrestling with second-temple Judaism. The evangelical world has a wing that is working hard on “recovering” the Jewishness of Christianity. I appreciate your efforts to highlight the Christianity of Judaism.
    In Christ,
    Mark M.
    (St John the Evangelist, Tempe, AZ)

  2. Dear Fr Stephen,

    Thank you for this! I always felt the supposed hardcore, entrenched monotheism of 1st century Judaism morphed rather smoothly to the Trinitarianism evident in Acts. Difficulty resolved if the monotheism was not as hardcore as I was told.

    Harold

  3. What are some works you have read in this area that might help me understand this further? I’ve been of the mindset that trinitarianism is a later development and that the pure religion of the NT is monotheism with a human messiah. I’ve been wrestling with these concepts for some time having moved away from trinitarianism believing, as I said, it was a product of a Greek Neoplatonic reading of the NT.

    1. The two best books on this are “Two Powers in Heaven” by Alan Segal and “The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel” by Benjamin Sommer. In addition to being comprehensive surveys of, in the latter case, the religious thought of ancient Israel and its neighbors and in the first case Second Temple Judaism on this issue, both of them were written by Jewish scholars who had no particular interest in promoting the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Both are just trying to accurately reflect historical material. Segal’s book also discusses how, in the second century, Rabbinic Judaism retreated to unitarian monotheism as a reaction to early Christianity.

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