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McGrath Response

November 17, 2010

Dr. James McGrath has let me know of his response to my review of his book, The Only True God, which he has posted on his own blog site:

Interested readers should consult his comments, which he offers as both clarification and defence of some major emphases in his book.  (My review is on the “Essays, etc” page of this bog site.)  In the spirit of further friendly discussion, I’ll allow myself a few further coments by way of rejoinder.

First, I remain unpersuaded by McGrath’s spin on the objections to Jesus-worship put in the mouth of Trypho in Justin’s Dialogue.  McGrath’s view that the only thing Jews found objectionable about reverencing Jesus was that he was a crucified man implies that worship of some more acceptable figure would have been palatable to Jews.  But we know very well that Jewish scruples about God’s uniqueness extended to forbidding inappropriate reverence of any figure, even high angels, patriarchal heroes, etc. (as demonstrated in my book, One God, One Lord, and as Bauckham and Stuckenbruck have shown further).  The Dialogue has to be read in the context of what we know about such Jewish scruples.  So, e.g., in Dialogue 65, I think it’s pretty clear that Trypho is portrayed objecting to the idea that God’s glory is shared with any other figure.

McGrath’s response about the absence in Paul’s letters of a defence of Jesus-devotion seems to me ill-conceived.  Sure, “Christianity” began as a movement in 2nd temple Judaism, and through the first several decades Jewish believers remained prominent.  Moreover, as Paul’s own behavior indicates, Jewish believers continued to identify themselves as Jews as well as believers in Jesus.  All true.  All beside the point, which is that Paul’s letters in the main deal with matters internal to the congregations addressed (with the notoriously debated circumstances of Romans a possible exception).  We have in Paul’s letters no defence of Jesus’ messianic status either; and yet McGrath insists that this was the big issue for Jews.  Reason:  Paul’s letters aren’t good sources for whatever arguments were used to try to persuade Jews of the gospel. 

On the question of whether Jesus was “worshipped”, McGrath still hasn’t dealt with the whole constellation of reverential/devotional actions set in the cultic context that I offer as both unprecedented and significant.  I reiterate my frustration over this.  Contra McGrath, there is nothing in the Similitudes of Enoch that provide direct analogies for the specific phenomena that I’ve repeatedly itemized.  The “Elect One” is not invoked to form the worship circle.  The name of the “Elect One” is not invoked over the body of the elect (e.g., in baptism) as the rite of initiation.  There is no ritual confession of the “Elect One” referred to as part of the worship activities of the elect.  There is no sacred common meal at which the “Elect One” is the cultic host.  We have to deal with specifics, not generalities.

So, with all gratitude for McGrath’s efforts to put across his views with clarity and for his gracious and cordial handling of the discussion, I have to reiterate my criticisms of the substance of his book.  I hope that our exchange will be both stimulating and practically useful to others interested in the historical issues and evidence.

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  1. Dr. Hurtado: “the whole constellation of reverential/devotional actions set in the cultic context that I offer as both unprecedented and significant.”

    I think this has great weight in the 1st century Jewish context, but is there no precedent at all in Ezekiel’s accusation regarding secret rites? And some of these items do seem to have a precedent in other Middle Eastern practices, i.e., Egypt etc. Shouldn’t there be some pressure from these ‘outside’ influences?

    Still struggling to get a grip on this subject…


    • Let me emphasize (again) that what we’re looking for is evidence of actual cultic groups/practice in second-temple Jewish tradition. So, e.g., the accusations in Ezekiel purport to pertain to 6th century BCE practice. So, also Elephantine is irrelevant. And that various divine beings are reverenced in various polytheistic cultures (Egypt, Rome, whatever) is true but irrelevant. The question is how a second being gets so programmatically reverenced in the group-worship of a body of devout Jews (and subsequent circles led and formed by Jewish believers).

  2. If the earliest Christians worshipped Jesus as part of the “godhead,” it is truly amazing that the record on the issue is so thin.

    You say Paul’s letter’s aren’t a source of arguments that were trying to persuade Jews of the gospel. But if they were so parochial why are they “scripture?”

    It is truly unbelievable that the issue would not have come up anywhere in the earliest writings, because the change in the theology of YHWH would have been a major source of contention in the Jewish community. If christians were worshipping as Jews and they didn’t believe that YHWH was one, they could not have co-existed in peace.

    How could James have been a respected Jewish religious leader and believe that Jesus was god? How could it be that they fought so hard over eating meat and speaking in tongues and so many other things, but not the change in the nature of god?

    Even more unbelievable is that such a distinct change in the status of god would not be directly mentioned once anywhere in the christian scripture. We have 66 “books” written over a course of a thousand years, supposedly inspired by god, and not a single one explains god’s true nature? Worse, most of the scripture — the entire Hebrew bible and parts of the Christian one — actually encourages the Hebrew idea that “the lord thy god is one.”

    • The main problem with your statement is its anachronism and you imputation (to me) of things I haven’t said. Read carefully what I’ve written (esp. in publications where there is space to set out things more adequately). Then come back to me with a question informed by what I’ve written. I don’t recognize my position in your statement, so the questions are irrelevant. Sorry.

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