HF139 - Jesus the Word of God
Christian theology has evolved through the centuries. Much has been under the tutorage of the Holy Spirit, yet there are some things we accept as Christians today that may not have fit very well with the early Jewish believers.
What I wish to do in this study is reach back into the Jewish matrix of Christianity to show some of what the earliest Christians believed about Jesus. To appreciate the study we will need to take on the mindset of the early Christian Jew.
The study to follow will also provide insights into certain Hebrew terms used in the new covenant writings. You will recognize them. But since this is a rather broad subject, I hope that discussions on the forum will further develop the study.
This is Bible Study HF139 - Jesus the Word of God.
There has often a tendency to view New Testament theology as totally unattached to anything the Jewish people believed during the time of Christ. This is quite untrue. Actually the New Testament writers wrote from concepts that were very much present in second temple Judaism. This helps us see another reason that the Jewish people were already prepared for the Messiah. (That is a study in itself.)
A case in view has to do with one of the Jewish beliefs that God had a Son, and that this Son made appearances in the earth throughout the generations of man. And though the term 'Son' was not always used to explain the appearances, it was certainly one of the terms used. You find these beliefs in the writings of Philo, in the Targums, and in a number of other extra-Biblical writings. But you can also find them in the Scriptures themselves if you know what to look for.
One of the first extra-Biblical places we see the idea of God having a son is in the Targums. The Targums were the Hebrew Scriptures loosely translated into Aramaic. Aramaic was the common language of the Jews both before and after Christ. Hebrew was the temple language. Most of the people did not speak Hebrew as a language of communication. And so in the synagogues the Scriptures would be read in Hebrew and then in Aramaic.
Take note on how Genesis 1:1 is translated in one of the Targums: "From the beginning with wisdom the Memra of the Lord created and perfected the heavens and the earth." The Neofiti Targum actually has it this way; "From the beginning with wisdom the son of the Lord created and perfected the heavens and the earth."
The term 'Memra' is the Aramaic word that translates into Greek as 'Logos.' So we see that the idea of a son and logos were not foreign to the Jews during the time of Christ. Memra is used extensively in the Targum translations. [There were a number of Targums. They contained the various modes of thinking of the peoples before and during the time of Christ.]
Here are some samplings from the Targums. Every time you see the term Memra, simply think Logos, or the Word, or think, 'Jesus' Himself.
Gen1:27 - "And the Memra of the Lord created the man in his own likeness; in a likeness from before the Lord he created him; male and his partner he created them."
Gen2:8 - "And the Lord God had planted a garden in Eden from the beginning and he placed there the first Adam." (Recall Paul spoke of the first and the last Adam.)
Gen3:8 - "And they heard the sound of the Memra of the Lord God walking within the garden in the breeze of the day..."
Gen12:7 - "And the Memra of the Lord was revealed to Abram and said to him: 'To your sons I will give this land.' ..."
Gen15:6 - "And Abram believed in the name of the Memra of the Lord and it was reckoned to him as righteousness."
The one thing to keep in view is that the term Memra spoke of personality. It was the Jewish way of relating to the unseen God, in saying that the Most High God did all His personal communication and revelation through the one called 'the Memra.'
Let's come to the writings of Philo. Philo took what the Hebrews believed and translated it into the primary lingua of the time, which was Greek. The form of Judaism that Philo wrote from was contemporary with the origins of Christianity. Anyone who reads Philo will hear the same language being used by John and Paul.
As Philo was presenting the Judaism of His day into Greek, here are some of the terms he applied to the Logos of God. (Some are Targum terms.) He called the Logos, the King, Shepherd, High Priest, Covenant, Rider on the Divine Chariot, Archangel, Firstborn Son, the Beginning, the Name, He who sees, the Form, the Glory, the Shekinah, and the Messenger of Great Counsel. There are other terms, but this gives an idea of just how very Hebraic the New Testament really is. We find some of these terms used by the apostolic writers.
But there is a statement by Philo that later caused considerable consternation among what developed into rabbinic Judaism. Philo wrote, "For nothing mortal can be made in the likeness of the Most High God and Father of the Universe but only in that of the second God, who is His Logos."
Philo was not using the expression 'second God' with a view to many gods, but rather in the sense of God who can and has been seen, with God who cannot be seen. However, there was the belief in a noted distinction between what was called Yahweh Most High, and the lesser Yahweh, or, the Memra. This distinction had to do with God coming forth from God, which brings us back to all the many terms used to describe God who has and can be seen.
The ancients knew there was a mystery in God that was hard to grasp. Paul often spoke of this mystery. It also gives us pause to listen to Jesus when He said, "Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory I had with You before the world was." (John 17:5) And again, "What if you should see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before." (John 6:62)
And so the idea of the seen and the unseen God was very much a part of the Judaism of the time of Christ. The God who could be seen was not a created God. According to ancient Jewish belief, the Memra was 'begotten' of the Father before time, that is to say, God brought forth from Himself the Word. All other created things were brought forth through the Word. This is very much New Testament theology.
The early Jewish believers took what was commonly taught in Judaism of the day, and brought Jesus into the picture. This allows us to see how much of the ancient theology of the Jews was on course with the truth of Jesus Christ.
But you find these early Jewish concepts not only in the New Testament writings, but also in other writings of the early believers. Here are sampling from the Ante-Nicene writings:
[Epistle to Diognetus a.d. 130] "...God Himself, who is almighty, the Creator of all things, and invisible, has sent from heaven, and placed among men, Him who is the truth, and the holy and incomprehensible Word..."
"As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so sent He Him; as God He sent Him; as to men He sent Him; as a Saviour He sent Him..."
[Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians 30-107 a.d.] "...there is one God, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son, who is His eternal Word..."
[Epistle of Ignatius to the Philadelphians] "...there is but one unbegotten Being, God, even the Father; and one only-begotten Son, God, the Word and man..."
[Epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp] "Look for Christ, the Son of God; who was before time, yet appeared in time ..."
I realize this may seem weighty but it helps us relate to much of what is written in the New Testament. For example it helps us related to what Paul meant in saying that Jesus 'existed in the form of God." And, that "God had given Him the name that is above every name." The name in view is Yahweh.
It gets more interesting. The Judaism of the time of Christ spoke of God not only as Yahweh, but especially as El Elyon, or the Most High God. But they also spoke of the Memra [Logos] as Yahweh the Lord. With this in mind listen to Paul; "Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord [Yahweh] Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist for Him." (1Co8:6)
When the early Christians said that Jesus is Lord, they were saying that Jesus is Yahweh. We sometimes miss the weight of that statement. Jesus is the personal manifestation and express image of the Father. He is the brightness of His glory. And yet Jesus is the Son of the Father, God's Word made flesh. Such a mystery this.
Let's move on. Philo said that when Moses and the 70 elders went on the mount and saw God, the one they saw was the Logos. Throughout the Targums we see the same expression concerning the Word [Logos or Memra] who is the one seen among men.
Here are other Targum quotes:
"And I heard the voice of the Memra of Yahweh." (Isa6:8)
"And Yahweh shall cause the glorious voice of his Memra to be heard." (Isa36:10)
"Draw near unto my Memra, hear ye this ... And now Yahweh Elohim has sent me and his Memra." (Isa48:16)
And again from Philo:
"And I will separate you to my Name as a people of holy ones and my Word will be to you a redeemer God." (Exo6:7)
"I let myself be entreated through my Memra by them that enquired not from before me." (Isa65:1)
"By his Memra he will make atonement for his land and for his people." (Deu32:43)
"When the Memra of Yahweh shall reveal himself to redeem his people, he will say to all nations; behold now, I am He who Am and Was and Will be and there is no other God beside me; I in my Memra kill and make alive..." (Deu32:39)
There is no question that the early Jewish Christians saw Jesus as the answer to what had been long believed among them. This was the ancient faith realized. And this was the mystery Paul said that contained all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
"... hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God's mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Col2:2,3)
In bringing this part of the study to a close, I want to make mention of the ancient Greek translation of the Bible called the Septuagint (LXX). The primary reason that rabbinical Judaism rejected the Septuagint is because of its clear testimony to Jesus Christ. (The LXX was the Hebrew translated into Greek years before Christ. It was based on an even older Hebrew translation.)
So they rejected the Septuagint. They rejected Philo. They rejected the writings of Josephus. What was left? You may think, well, the Bible. Not so. They went about to produce their own writings, called the Talmud. The rabbis saw themselves as the finishers of all that God had to say. But that is a study in itself.
In any event where rabbinic Judaism claims to be normative or traditional Judaism, this is certainly not true. The rabbis greatly deviated from the beliefs of the ancient Hebrews. And so the Christian faith in its simplicity of devotion to Jesus Christ is the true religion of heaven. (I use the term religion in its good sense.)
I'll close out my part for now. Feel free to share your thoughts or ask questions.
Lawrence E. (Buddy) Martin, HF Host
"See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled." (Heb12:15)