I have been reviewing James McGrath’s book, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context. While I do not want to give away the ‘spoilers’ so to speak, I want to give an honest review, so here it goes:
During the first chapters of the book, McGrath lays out well his understanding of monotheism in ancient Judaism, which he continues to build upon in later chapters. It is here, as any good author does, that he plants seeds which is brought to fruition as he progresses. It is also here where he gets my attention with such motifs for monotheism as worship and creation.
McGrath approaches the subject with care, and almost apprehension, so as to not go too far too fast. He writes for the common reader, often explaining himself in more detail than perhaps he should – but this is to the reader’s advantage. Further, from time to time he leads his readers back to previous explanations, reminding them before he proceeds.
By now, most of you know that I have been reviewing James McGrath’s latest book, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context. This will be my last in the series of the rolling reviews, with a final review to follow sometime this week.
In this chapter co-written with Dr. Jerry Truex, McGrath dialogues with Alan Segal’s theory on the Two Powers Heresy in early Rabbinic Judaism. Segal interprets this theory as a ‘principal angelic or hypostatic manifestation in heaven was equivalent to God.’ (p124, n1). Segal’s point, I believe, is that he feels Christianity developed from this hypothetical heresy supposedly found in 1st century Judaism, or at the very list, Segal believes that the two powers heresy found in later Jewish sources refer to the burgeoning Christian movement.
This, besides the endnotes, is the major problem of the book. While some may find it pleasing to see McGrath dialogue with others on this subject – primarily Hurtado and Bauckham, it feels to me as if I am joining a trilogy on the last few pages of a book. While I do not dismiss the need for such dialogues, especially in this field, I feel that more attention should have been given to establishing arguments independent of other works, not based as a response to them (if this was possible).
In this chapter, McGrath sufficiently answers – from what I could find in the endnotes and other responses from various sources to Segal – Segal’s theories, especially the redating of such theories. He notes the ‘shortcomings’ in the theory which forgets redaction time in the Mishnah and Tosefta. The author does well in making the point that it is possible that either this heresy didn’t exist in the 1st century Judaism (which would prevent Judaism and Christianity from separating over it) or that it simply was not considered a heresy (which would prevent Judaism and Christianity from separating over it).
Further, the author(s) begins to delve into answering the direction of monotheism in Judaism based on sacrificial (cultic) worship which had to take place due to destruction of the Temple in 70 a.d. McGrath makes comments in regard to failed Messiahs, such as Bar Kochba (and by virtue other Messiahs that had been tried as criminals before Rome, found guilty, and executed), which should open the conversation up to why Judaism and Christianity began to diverge. It is here that he makes great strides in winning me over to a portion of his argument concerning the separation of Judaism and Christianity, that it was not monotheism (of the 1st century version of Monothesim) which separate the two, but perhaps a single (failed) Messiah.
McGrath briefly discusses the issues around Rabbi Akiba and his endorsement of the failed messiah figure of Bar Kochba(p87-89). Because of his endorsement of a leader who was later rejected by the Jews because a failed revolt and subsequent execution at the hands of the Romans, later passages in the Talmud associated with the Rabbi a (vague) reference to the belief in ‘two powers.’ While this is a passing discussion (concerning the failed Messiah) it is a hint of the separation, I believe.
In answering the dating and general thoughts by Segal, McGrath also begins to answers the questions regarding the separation of Judaism and Christianity. A theory (p92) is developed by McGrath which relates that the separation, in part, came from a need to redefine Monotheism in light of the end of sacrificial worship. While previous generations of Judaism allowed for divine agency, after the destruction of the Temple, a line had to be drawn which focused worship only on God, removing any allowances for worship of a secondary individual. It came down to creation – the lines began to be drawn. While it was not the notion of a divine agent being worshiped which first separated Judaism and Christian, as sacrificial worship ended, and monotheism was seemingly redefined, the idea of worshipping Christ as God became a severe separator.
This chapter, like the one on John’s monotheism is again, copernicum.