The contents of this post are nothing new; I am presenting some material that may be unfamiliar to some readers of the blog. All credit goes to Michael Heiser (PhD) and other scholars whose work in this field has contributed to a more nuanced understanding of Scripture. Links to articles and books by these scholars will be provided at an appropriate juncture.
The New Testament builds upon the proto-trinitarian ideas found in the Old Testament and in Inter-Testamental literature. The serious study of this literature helps us to understand the ideas that were part of the Jewish worldview during the Second Temple period, and they also help us to understand how Judaism and early Christianity interacted with the Greco-Roman world, which provides necessary context for Acts and the Epistles.
In the previous post, we looked at the “two Yahwehs” idea found in the Old Testament, in particular the idea of Yahweh in heaven and the Angel of Yahweh. In John’s Gospel, the author builds upon another name by which this “Messenger” is known in the Old Testament: the Word of the Lord. Modern scholarship of John’s Λογος (Logos)has tended to focus on the relation between this term and concept in the New Testament on the one hand and in Greco-Roman philosophy on the other. However, as Michael Heiser and others have shown, this term Λογος is also used by the translators and editors of the Septuagint (LXX) to render the Hebrew phrase debar haYahweh (דְבַר־יְהוָ֖ה), as found in verses such as Ezekiel 38:1: “And it happened that the Word of Yahweh [λόγος κυρίου] came to me, saying…”.
In prophetic contexts such as these, it is easy to pass over this construction and interpret it as meaning “the message”, perhaps imagining that Ezekiel experienced a voice in his mind proclaiming to him. However, a broader survey and deeper analysis of passages where we find this construction reveal that the “Word of Yahweh” stands for a “face-to-face” interaction. Below are a few examples.
“After these things the word of Yahweh came to Abraham in a vision” (Gen. 15:1)
“Now Samuel did not yet know Yahweh, nor was the word of Yahweh revealed to him yet.” (1 Sam. 3:7)
“And Yahweh appeared again in Shiloh: for Yahweh revealed himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of Yahweh.” (1 Sam. 3:21)
“Then the word of Yahweh came to Samuel, saying, ‘I regret that I have set up Saul to be king: for he has turned away from following Me, and has not performed My commandments.’ And it grieved Samuel; and he cried out to Yahweh all night.” (1 Sam. 15:10-11)
“Then the word of Yahweh came to me, saying…Then Yahweh Lord put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And Yahweh said to me, ‘Behold, I have put My words in your mouth.’” (Jer. 1:4,9)
These examples and others show that the prophetic formula “and the word of Yahweh came to me” means usually, if not always, that the prophet had a visual encounter with Yahweh in which Yahweh spoke to him. The “word of Yahweh” is a revelation of Yahweh’s character and His will, and this is a primary sense on which John the Evangelist draws in his depiction of Jesus as the “Word of God”; it is thus congruent with Paul’s depiction of Jesus as the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).
This idea is found not only in the Old Testament, but also in the words of Jesus Himself. “Not that any one has seen the Father, except He who is from God: He has seen the Father” (Jn. 6:46). This verse is difficult to interpret with respect to the word translated “from” (or sometimes “of”), which is παρα (para) in the original Greek. Jesus may simply be saying that He was sent by the Father, but He may in fact be hinting that He is “of the Father”: i.e. of one substance (ουσια in Greek) with the Father.
Nevertheless, the main thrust of the sentence is clear: Jesus is drawing upon the “two Yahwehs” idea of the Old Testament. He is saying that no-one ever saw Yahweh the Father; the form of Yahweh that was seen by people such as Adam, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, et al. was the Word, the Son of God. This idea was not difficult for the Jews of Jesus’ day to grasp. They knew the Scriptures and in them there was clear evidence of this idea.
Their objection, rather, was to the Incarnation, and to the fact that they did not like the message that Yahweh was preaching in their midst. Jesus succinctly sums up the objection of His people in this parable taken from Luke’s Gospel: “But his citizens hated him, and sent a message after him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14). These words are echoes of the words that Yahweh says to Samuel when the Israelites ask for a king: “And Yahweh said to Samuel, ‘Pay attention to the voice of the people in all that they say to you: for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them” (1 Sam. 8:7).
When Jesus claimed to be Yahweh who had visited Abraham at Mamre before the angels made their way to Sodom (Jn. 8:56,58), the people had trouble accepting the claim not because they disbelieved that Yahweh had come down to Abraham, but because they could not believe that the carpenter from Nazareth who stood before them was that same Being. “Then the Jews said to Him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” (Jn. 8:7) They expected someone more glorious, someone who would tell them what they wanted to hear.
Nowadays we approach such passages and we feel sympathy for the Jewish audience of Jesus’ day. We think, “How could He have expected them to understand, when they were raised on the words of the Torah, ‘Hear, O Israel, Yahweh your God, Yahweh is one’?” This thinking does a disservice to the Jews of Jesus’ day and to us. We must, of course, take into account that there were different strands of thought in Second Temple Judaism (Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, Hellenists). Nevertheless, in order to understand the context of the New Testament, we must suspend thoughts influenced by writers such as Hume and Locke. God could not have reasonably expected His people to respond to the revelation of Jesus if He had not amply prepared them. The fact that people did respond to Jesus’ revelation is evidence that they had sufficient material to conceptualize what was going on, even if they could not understand it fully.
The rejection of Jesus was motivated primarily by a refusal to submit to His kingship; the attacks on His status as the “Son of God” are to be understood in this light, and this is the way that Jesus presents the situation in His parables. The Son as the heir inherits and exercises the authority of the Father; but human beings are sinful and wayward: they do not wish to submit to God’s authority, to give up the pomp and privilege of this world.