The God of Islam, the God of Judaism and the God of Christianity – Part 2

Continuing from the last post, we will now look at Nabeel Qureshi’s argument about supposed trends in First Century Judaism toward a Multi-personal God, if you haven’t read Part 1 of this series I suggest you do to get the context of what we are talking about. Nabeel Qureshi in his discussion with Miroslav Volf (at around the 28 minute mark) says:

The Orthodox Jews today do not reflect first century Hellenistic Judaism; they reflect rabbinic Judaism, which was formed from the late second century onward, from the time of Jesus that was Hellenistic Judaism a different kind of Judaism. In that time many Jews did believe in one being God with multiple persons. Now, I suggest that, for anyone who’s shocked by that statement they read the works of two Jewish scholars one is named Alan Segal he wrote a book called two powers in heaven and another by the name of Daniel Boyarin an orthodox Jew. Both of them argue that there were beliefs of plural personhood in a single being of God during that time of Hellenistic Judaism.

First off, it is true that Orthodox Judaism reflects Rabbinic Judaism, but it’s also true that Rabbinic Judaism reflect Pharisaic Judaism which was around, and which was pretty popular during the first century. It’s also the case that Jews would claim that their form of Judaism goes back to Moses. Whether or not this claim is accurate is kind of beside the point, this is what Orthodox Jews today believe, which means to the Jew, Jews were always Unitarian. So it would be a little bit bizarre to say to a Muslim that the God of Islam is a different god than the god of Christianity while at the same time saying to the Jew that they hold to the same God. And do so on the basis of the idea that Jew’s are mistaken on what historic Judaism taught, and base that idea on groups that Jews would call heretics, not really Jews. There is much more evidence for Unitarian Christians early on than there is for multi-person in God believing Jews, so imagine the Muslim using the same argument against the Christian, would that argument fly? I doubt it.

What about these two Jewish Scholars, what exactly do they argue for and on what basis? Daniel Boyarin argues for Binitarianism within Judaism. He does so on the basis of Philo’s Logos theology (of which I’ve written about earlier in regards to the prologue of John), the Memra within the Aramaic Targums and the Gospel of John. Let’s take a look at his argument for Philo; part of it that would attempt a move toward Binitarianism in Philo is this:

Further, it can hardly be doubted that for Philo the Logos is both a part of God and also a separate being, the Word that God created in the beginning in order to create everything else: the Word that both is God, therefore, and is with God. We find in Philo a passage that could just as easily have fit into Justin’s Apologies:

To His Word, His chief messenger, highest in age and honour, the Father of all has given the special prerogative, to stand on the border and separate the creature from the Creator. This same Word both pleads with the immortal as suppliant for afflicted mortality and acts as ambassador of the ruler to the subject. He glories in this prerogative and proudly describes it in these words “and I stood between the Lord and you” (Deut. v. 5), that is neither uncreated by God, nor created as you, but midway between the two extremes, a surety to both sides. (Quis rerum divinarum heres sit 205-206)

It is interesting that Philo paints the logos as a mediator, and neither created (as we are) nor uncreated, but this is not Binitarianism. Binitarianism would require that Philo believed that there was one being of God inhabited by two persons. As pointed out in my earlier post on Philo, Philo believes the word is a second God (just as Justin Martyr does), as we can see in both his Questions and Answers on Genesis 2 where he says:

Very appropriately and without any falsehood was this oracular sentence uttered by God, for no mortal thing could have been formed on the similitude of the supreme Father of the universe, but only after the pattern of the second deity, who is the Word of the supreme Being; since it is fitting that the rational soul of man should bear it the type of the divine Word; since in his first Word God is superior to the most rational possible nature. But he who is superior to the Word holds his rank in a better and most singular pre-eminence, and how could the creature possibly exhibit a likeness of him in himself?

The Word is a second deity, a deity who is inferior to God. Not only is this not Binitarianism it is actually incompatible with Binitarianism. Other places he talks about the word being an angel, or an archangel for example in “On the unchangableness of God” chapter 37:

For then the diseases of the soul are truly not only difficult of cure, but even utterly incurable, when, though conviction is present to us (and this is the word of God, coming as his angel and as our guide, and removing the obstacles before our feet, so that we may travel without stumbling along the level road), we nevertheless prefer our own indiscreet opinions, to the explanations and injunctions which he is accustomed to address to us for our admonition, and for the chastening and regulating of our whole life.

Or “On the Confusion of Tongues” chapter 28:

And even if there be not as yet any one who is worthy to be called a son of God, nevertheless let him labour earnestly to be adorned according to his first-born word, the eldest of his angels, as the great archangel of many names; for he is called, the authority, and the name of God, and the Word, and man according to God’s image, and he who sees Israel.

This is not by any stretch of the imagination “Binitarianism.”

The article then moves on to argue from the basis of the term “Memra” use in the Aramaic Targums, which is the Aramaic word for “word”. Often the usage of the term is seen (since the time of Maimonides as Boyarin points out) as different way about speaking about God, avoiding anthropomorphisms and displaying reverence. Boyarin disagrees, he writes:

Surely, this position collapses logically upon itself, for if the Memra is just a name that simply enables avoiding asserting that God himself has created, appeared, supported, saved, and thus preserves his absolute transcendence, then who, after all, did the actual creating, appearing, supporting, saving? Either God himself, in which case, one has hardly “protected” him from contact with the material world, or there is some other divine entity, in which case, the Memra is not just a name.

I find this to be a strange argument given that the interpretation he is arguing against is not an ontological one, but rather one of reverence and avoiding anthropomorphisms. So for example if one replaces in a translation “the hand of God” with “the power of God” what’s obviously happening here is an act of interpretation, the hand of God is being interpreted as metaphorical. So when in the Targum the “Memra” of God replaces “God” or the Divine name it’s to avoid putting in the readers mind an anthropomorphized form physically doing something. It’s not that God didn’t do those things, it’s that he didn’t do them in the same way a human thinks about someone doing something (i.e. physically). One cannot deduce from this that God didn’t actually do these things but rather someone else did.

Even if one could deduce a second entity being implied, it still wouldn’t get one any closer to any kind of Binitarian theology, what it would do would be to get one to a Philo or Arian intermediary theology. Binitarianism is not God and his intermediary, it’s God as two persons, or two instances in one being, two hypostases in one Ousia.

Later in his article, Boyarin talks about how in the creation accounts, it is the Memra that says, “let there be” and so on. He then talks about the burning bush episode on mount Saini, and how it’s the Memra talking to Moses. Then arguing from how the “I am that I am” section is translated differently in the Palestinian Targum Boyarin writes:

On this verse the Palestinian Targum translates:” And the Memra of H’ said to Moses: He who said [1t3] to the world from the beginning, ‘Be there,’ and it was there, and who is to say [“lt3′] to it ‘Be there,’ and it will be there; and he said, Thus shall you say to the Israelites, He has sent me to you.”59 In other words, the declaration “I AM” has been glossed in the Targums by a reference to Genesis l’s “Let there be” and thus to the Word by which God brought the universe into being. In the verse following this one, as we have just seen above, this name for God-“He who said to the world ‘Be there’ “has become transformed into a divine being in its own right, the very word that was said, separate from but homoousios with God: “I, My Memra, will be with you: I, My Memra, will be a support for you.”

I first want to note that the idea that an intermediary was the one who spoke to Moses on the mountain is not new, it’s found in the bible itself in Acts 7:35 where it says:

“It was this Moses whom they rejected when they said, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’ and whom God now sent as both ruler and liberator through the angel who appeared to him in the bush.

So that doesn’t tell us much. However what about the strange rendering of “I am” said by the Memra of God? If we take Maimonides interpretation it works out quite well, God speaks in the third person so as to put the words in Moses’ mouth, and God says he or his word (as far as the reader is concerned to avoid an anthropomorphism) will be there. The “I am that I am” is replaced with a description of the creation. But there’s a further problem with Boyarin’s reading, it’s the Memra of God that is talking to Moses, and he is referring to the one who said “let there be” who in the Targum is the Memra of God, if this leads us to the creation two hypostases in God then those two hypostases are both the Memra of God. Therefore, the Binity would not be God and his Memra but rather the Memra of God and the Memra of God.

Nevertheless, even if we ignore that contradiction, and we ignore Maimonides perfectly valid interpretation, we’re still only left with an intermediary, not two persons in one being.

The book two powers in heaven by Alan Segal is the other Jewish work Nabeel Qureshi cites, for the purpose of this post I’m not going to go into that work as well. But I hope just taking a quick glance at Daniel Boyarin’s article will convince you to be sceptical when you hear Trinitarian apologists attempting to argue that first century Judaism not open to some kind of multiple person Godhead. When you hear these claims look at the citations, and see what the actual arguments are and on what basis, and check whether the evidence really actually has anything to do with a multiple person Godhead at all.

What is not contested is that God used mediators to represent him on earth. As we saw in Acts 7:35, and as you can read in Hosea 12:4:

He strove with the angel and prevailed,     he wept and sought his favor; he met him at Bethel,

In Genesis, it was Yahweh he struggled with. The model is there already in the Old Testament and the New Testament, so when we go to Philo or other places that model should take precedence over a multiple Hypostases in one Ousia. In addition, we know that language was used by Jews to avoid anthropomorphisms of God, and to show reverence to God by avoiding certain terms. That is also something one should remember when looking at these arguments.

So now, let’s return to Nabeel Qureshi’s argument. Really what he’s saying that on the basis of what seem to be very weak arguments and speculation on certain sects of Judaism which modern Jews reject, we can ignore the staunch Unitarianism of Jews throughout history, ignore the obvious fact that the God of the Jews is one person, and claim that the Jewish God is the same God as the Triune God of Trinitarian Christianity while insisting that the Islamic God is not because of its Unitarian claim, and rejection of Tritheism which it mislabelled as Trinitarianism.

I don’t know about you but the insistence that the God of the Christians and the God of the Jews is the same but not the God of the Muslims, and basing that insistence on the Trinity is starting look rather suspect. I get the feeling sometimes that this whole thing has much more to do with politics than it does sound theology.

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The God of Islam, the God of Judaism and the God of Christianity – Part 2

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