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.
I have two negatives, one of which is a matter of style more than anything. First, the book relies upon endnotes, and there are an abundance of them. I feel that this takes away from a good conversation when you have to constantly look at notecards in the back of the book. To be honest, I skipped the ends notes until I read the chapter, then went back and reread both.
The second negative is the constant dialogue with other authors. 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).
The immediate positives, whether or not you agree with the author’s overall premise – or his outcome – is that he doesn’t distract the reader with side notes on the unreliability of the texts or the discussion of tensions between various early Christian communities. While I may disagree with his synopsis of Paul’s monotheism to a large extent, and his synopsis of John’s to a much lesser degree, he sees the two communities united in a singular monotheistic belief. Further positives include McGrath’s refusal to attack modern, developed doctrines, but insists on a balanced survey of both the ‘roots’ and the ‘blossoms.’ The point of this book seems to be a presentation of a belief that Judaism and Christianity were united in their monotheistic believe for several centuries, not to undermine either the divinity of Christ of to present the Gospel message as wholly misunderstood.
In his chapter on Paul’s monotheism, while I find his initial points wholly undigestible, I find that he ignores crucial passages in favor of others. Since this book is not an argument in favor of one position over another, but a presentation of a position, I can understand the author’s use of certain passages over another, and his avoidance of translation issues.
In the fourth chapter which is coincidently about the Fourth Gospel, the author presents an excellent view of John’s intent – at least according to the author. I remember reading once, that John was the most Jewish Gospel of them all, and indeed, McGrath highlights the ‘Jewishness’ of it in such a way as to make me understand the rabbi more. In this chapter the author tackles the Prologue (including an extensive look at the textual variant in John 1.18), equality with God, the ‘I AM’ passages, and Thomas’ confession. It is this chapter which is I believe is the cross section with McGrath’s hypostasis and what we may accept as something similar to orthodox Christianity. The author sees John’s Jesus as something more than the exalted agent of Paul’s monotheism, but as the embodiment of the Name of God (p63). The author does a fair treatment of Philo’s use of Logos and connects it to John’s (although I would contend for a different origin of Logos).
The final chapter of the book is an excellent response to Segal’s work on the Two Powers Heresy in ancient Judaism. 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.
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).
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.
McGrath’s conclusion leaves nothing to be desired except a follow-up exploring the cross section of theology and history. While I do not think that he puts forth in his conclusion any new ideas, he attempts to safeguard theology produced by centuries of speculation. He draws the point out that both Judaism and Christianity faced some of the same issues from the very start – drawing lines around monotheism in a changing world. While I may not agree fully with the doctrines that he is trying to defend, he does allow that certain seeds in the New Testament does allow for a unity of the Son with the Father, as expressed by later Church Tradition.
This book is small, readable, and copernicum.
The author of the book is James F. McGrath an associate professor of religion at Butler Universty and the author of John’s Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology and The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith. He also maintains a biblioblog, Exploring our Matrix.