Without a doubt, the Jewish perception of God has been fundamentally one of terror. It is not as though the Jewish people did not also have a profound love for their Creator–because this is also evidently true. But in a very real sense, to the Jew, God has always been utterly Transcendent, Wholly Other, the Real, the Unapproachable, the Un-image-able. This is indicated no more clearly than in the first two commandments of the Decalogue:

You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.[1]

 In these two commands we are exposed not only to the preeminence of Yahweh over other “gods” but we also see the terror that is threatened for those who refuse to recognize such preeminence by “imaging” Him. The Apostle Paul, a strict Jew, continuously affirmed this idea into the NT epoch. Paradoxically, he also asserted that Jesus was the image of the invisible God. In Paul therefore, the OT axiom that God is un-image-able is inviolably collapsed in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the implications of which give the Incarnation soteriological and aesthetic value.


Judaism’s Exclusive Monotheism


First-century Judaism was exclusively monotheistic. Although the term “monotheism” could be liberally applied to the Greco-Roman religious world of the first century, the monotheism of the Jews was quite particular. Greco-Roman monotheistic rhetoric has been found in non-Jewish sources during the Greco-Roman era. But as Larry Hurtado has shown, this “pagan monotheism” was nothing more than “the recognition of all gods as expressions of one common divine essence or as valid second-order gods under a (often unknowable) high god, and, as such, as worthy of worship.”[2] Such a definition would not suffice for Judaism, whose God was “represented as one and unique, as creator, ruler and king, residing in heaven, all-powerful, all-seeing, omniscient, as father of Israel, as savior, as judge, as righteous, terrible, merciful, benevolent and forbearing.”[3]

In his book God Crucified: Monotheism & Christology in the New Testament, Richard Bauckham maintains that not only were the first-century Jews monotheistic but they were adamantly, self-consciously monotheistic. He evidences his thesis in two ways: (1) by asserting that the Jewish insistence on reciting the Shema twice daily was a self-conscious reminder that their allegiance was to God alone and (2) by showing that keeping the Decalogue ensured pure allegiance to Yahweh.[4] The Shema went as follows: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4). And as Bauckham notes, it continues with the requirement of total devotion to this one God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:5).[5] Both the Shema and the Decalogue therefore served to assert the absolute “uniqueness of Yahweh as the one and only God.”[6] But this uniqueness was not merely intellectual assent. It was also, and perhaps primarily, an accord of belief and praxis that emphasized exclusive worship and obedience to Yahweh.

In recent years, not a few scholars have disregarded the traditional perspective of Jewish monotheism in favor of alternative non-Unitarian models. Most notably, Peter Hayman claims that even through the Middle Ages Jewish religion maintained a “dualistic pattern” and that “functionally Jews believed in the existence of two gods.”[7] The first God was “the supreme creator God, the other his vizier or prime minister, or some other spiritual agency, who really ‘runs the show’, or at least provides the point of contact between God and humanity.”[8] In rejecting the majority belief that Jewish monotheism made a decisive break with pagan polytheism, Hayman proposes an auxiliary account, invoking support from five[9] axioms: (1) indications that a doctrine of creation ex nihilo is not found until well into the Middle Ages; (2) references to the possibility of mystical unity with God and to ideas of metamorphosis of human figures (e.g., Enoch) into heavenly/angelic beings; (3) the prominence of angels in ancient Jewish texts, and prohibitions against worshipping them; (4) evidence of Jewish practice of magic involving the invocation of a variety of heavenly figures (usually named angels) along with God as sources of magical power; (5) the alleged survival of a divine consort of Yahweh in post-exilic references to Wisdom and Logos.

Of these five axioms, only the last four will here elicit any discussion.[10] However, for the purposes of this paper axioms 2,3, and 4 will be amalgamated. Therefore, the remaining two axioms (axiom 2-3-4 and axiom 5) represent two categories[11] of intermediary figures in Jewish religion. The first might be called “principal angels and exalted patriarchs.” These are figures such as Enoch and Moses; even the angels Michael and Gabriel could be included. They are figures that are given important parts in God’s economic action over the world. Hayman insists that the theme of self-identification with God and the exaltation of these patriarchal and angelic figures are found “virtually everywhere in Judaism.”[12] Drawing largely from Jewish mysticism, Hayman even asserts that Daniel 12:3 resonates with ideas of mystical apotheosis.

The second category includes personifications of God Himself (e.g. Logos and Wisdom). In Hayman’s mind, “Wisdom is a primordial being… the mother of all things,” who becomes known as a “second god” in Philo, legitimizing the dualistic pattern and functional two-god theology of Second Temple Judaism.[13]

Responding to the former category, Richard Bauckham accuses Hayman and others of a less-than-careful reading of the disputed texts. While it is true that the principal angels enjoy rank and responsibility over aspects of the created order, they never participate in God’s rule over it. In fact, there are many accounts in Jewish literature where these angels are clearly identified as servants of God, not co-regents of the universe.[14]

Turning to the latter category, both Bauckham and Hurtado adamantly claim that scholars like Hayman have misunderstood the thread of thought in the Jewish mind concerning Wisdom and Logos. Bauckham prefers to call these figures personifications or hypostatizations of aspects of God. Hurtado simply uses attributes. Regardless of the language employed, both men agree that the Word and the Wisdom of God are not to be viewed as other-than God but rather as “intrinsic to His own identity.”[15] And while Hurtado is comfortable with claiming that Wisdom was God’s “vice-regent for the guidance and care of his elect people,”[16] at the same time Bauckham asserts that Wisdom is placed within the unique identity of Yahweh, leaving room for a real distinction within God’s identity without compromising Jewish monotheism.

Jewish monotheism was something that was regularly proclaimed from pre-exilic Jewish writings through Second Temple literature. And while there may be rhetorical anomalies in the writings that seem to imply the existence and worship of multiple beings, perhaps it’s best to “take people as monotheistic if that is how they describe themselves.”[17] The patriarchal and angelic beings should not be considered as vice-regents or viziers of God. They were highly respected figures but always considered as distinct from the unique identity of God. Wisdom and Logos on the other hand surely should, without stating that they are somehow depicted as subordinate beings. Rather, they ought to be viewed as aspects of the very hypostatized unique identity of God, aspects with real distinctions within God’s strict monotheistic identity.


[1] Exodus 20:3-6

[2] Larry Hurtado, “What Do We Mean by First-Century Jewish Monotheism?” Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers, no. 32 (1993): 355

[3] Ralph Marcus, “Divine Names and Attributes in Hellenistic Jewish Literature,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, (1931-32): 48

[4] Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology In The New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1999): 6

[5] Bauckham, God Crucified, 6

[6] Bauckham, God Crucified, 6

[7] Peter Hayman, “Monotheism – A Misused Word In Jewish Studies?” Journal of Jewish Studies 42, no. 1 (1991): 14

[8] Hayman. “Monotheism,” 2

[9] These axioms are taken from Hurtado’s survey

[10] Axiom 1 is not one that I find to be any serious threat to monotheism so I have chosen to leave the debate over ex nihilo’s origin for another time.

[11] Larry Hurtado, One Lord, One God: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism. (London: T & T Clark, 1998): 17. Hurtado divides the intermediaries into three categories but I have chosen to follow Bauckham’s model of unifying the exalted patriarchs and the angels into one group.

[12] Hayman, “Monotheism,” 5

[13] Hayman, “Monotheism,” 14

[14] Bauckham, God Crucified, 18-19

[15] Bauckham, God Crucified, 21

[16] Hurtado, One God, 44

[17] Hurtado, “What do we Mean”