We believe in one God…
One of the things I have most appreciated about my academic study of religion is a newfound appreciation for Christianity’s Jewish background. My first religion course in college was on Judaism, actually— “Early Judaism,” i.e. Judaism of the Second Temple period, that time after the exile and before 70 CE. Of course, my college New Testament introduction and my later seminary courses also emphasized the stories of ancient Israel and the significance of this religious background for Jesus and his Jewish community.
In particular, I have found it fascinating to ponder the enormity of the Jewish commitment to monotheism. In seminary I learned that some scholars believe Israel was originally henotheistic—worshipping only one god but accepting the potential existence of many. Over time, they say, Israel increasingly emphasized that YHWH was not only the stronger god or the proper god to worship, but YHWH was indeed the only real deity. The others were merely idols fashioned by human hands and imaginations. Some more conservative Christians are disturbed to think about Israel potentially believing in other gods, but however things happened, Israel’s dedication to YHWH was radical in their polytheistic surroundings.
Many of us who grew up in a Western context find it enough to simply accept the existence of one God, so I appreciate Judaism’s emphasis on not only the number of gods but also the identity of the true God. God has a name YHWH, typically translated “the LORD” or read by Jews as “Adonai.” The character of this God matches what we might assume in some ways—but in some regards we may be surprised.
The Hebrew Scriptures always emphasize that YHWH is compassionate, forgiving, a lover of social justice, and a powerful force to be reckoned with, among other things. Some passages actually explicitly or implicitly compare YHWH to other peoples’ gods. For example, unlike Baal who doesn’t answer, YHWH never sleeps, always available to his people (1 King 18). Unlike Marduk, YHWH didn’t make people to be his slaves but to be co-reigners over the earth (Gen. 1, as compared to the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish). And in contrast with the sexual overtones of most religions, Judaism’s God transcended gender.
We who are Christians are also devoted to this one God who revealed himself as YHWH to Moses at the burning bush and rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. This story is our heritage—with all of its rich descriptions of God’s character and actions and instruction for us. When I say with the Nicene Creed that I believe in one God, I like to pause and remember that this is not just any abstract deity that I worship but a deeply personal God who has interacted with human beings throughout history. And the better I get to know this God, the more I feel grateful that YHWH, in particular, is the one real deal.
This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.
It’s in the title, but I’ll say it again: Jesus was Jewish.
For those of you who have grown up in church, I’m not sure if this has been emphasized, but it sure wasn’t for me. I don’t think I ever heard anyone seriously talk about Jesus as a first-century Jew until I got to college. Jesus was always a nice guy, a prophet, maybe even God incarnate… but Jewish? Not in my church, at least.
If you grew up with a Bible storybook, you probably remember Swedish Jesus. I’m not sure why anyone would ever think Jesus had blue eyes, but apparently many American illustrators have been convinced. And if Jesus wasn’t Swedish, he still wasn’t Jewish. Though Sunday School portrayals of Jesus probably reflected more of my white American culture than I knew, Jesus was, in theory, supposed to be somehow removed from the messiness of life. He probably didn’t throw up, definitely didn’t poop, and was also very “cultural neutral.” Otherwise how could Jesus be relevant to our Gentile lives? To China and Guatemala and South Africa and 98% of my elementary school?
I’ll save questions of relevance for another day and focus on the simple fact that this isn’t true: We were wrong.
Jesus wasn’t a person devoid of everything that makes humans human. Even if it’s hard to believe, he not only threw up and pooped, but he had to learn to walk as a baby, he probably had a favorite food, and he enjoyed laughing with his friends. And he lived at a specific time in a specific place. In fact, Jesus lived as part of a specific people, speaking their language, keeping their customs, and otherwise surprising us by how very little he is like most of those who follow him today. But even in his difference, he was like us—like us, Jesus had a culture.
So the next time you think of Jesus, remember that he kept the Sabbath (albeit, not always how the Pharisees preferred), ate kosher, and went to synagogue. He was circumcised as a baby, visited the temple with his family for holy days, and grew up hearing stories about Abraham, Moses, and David. He referred to Jewish texts in his teaching and declared the arrival of the kingdom of the Jewish God YHWH, eventually convincing his followers that he was the Jewish Messiah (for which the Greek translation is “Christ”).
While I will never be able to fully understand first-century Judaism, the bit I have been able to learn as a 21st-century white American Gentile (relying on the scholarship of others, I might add), has been very meaningful to me. As I get to know Jesus’s culture better, I can better understand Jesus himself and better understand the message he was trying to communicate to his friends. The story may be good by itself, but it all makes more sense—and feels more colorful and textured and delightfully complex—when we begin to understand where Jesus fits in context.