British New Testament Conference Highlight: Andy Byers on 1 Cor 8–12

In the second chapter of Jesus Monotheism, Volume 1 I focus on the significance of 1 Cor 8:6 for the argument that “Christological monotheism” is a basic feature of Paul’s theology.

There has been a dispute in recent scholarship over the interpretation of the Shema in 1 Cor 8:4–6. N. T. Wright famously argued (in his 1991 Climax of the Covenant) that Paul splits open the Shema to include the Lord Jesus Christ in a new reformulated statement of biblical monotheism. Some, for example, James McGrath and James Dunn have argued that Paul does not split open the Shema, rather Jesus is added to it. Jesus is a messianic Lord, not the LORD. He is not included within the divine identity. I argue that on this one Wright is surely right (though McGrath has raised important questions which do need to be answered).

In the book, I perhaps should have given more attention to a more basic question raised by 1 Cor 8:4–6. Is there, in fact, any allusion or reference to the shema at all? It is surprising to find still today that one or two seem to think not. Whether we follow Wright or McGrath on this, both agree that Christ is brought into some kind of close relation to the one God and to the daily Jewish prayer that confesses belief in one God. This matters. No discussion of Pauline Christology can now avoid taking a view on 1 Cor 8:6.

A highlight of the 2015 (September) British New Testament Conference was a paper given by Dr Andy Byers. Byers made an argument that I wish I had included in my own discussion of 1 Cor 8:6. And he made it convincingly and succinctly.

Byers discussed the passages in 1 Cor 8–12 where Paul reminds his readers that there is “one” bread, “one” body (of Christ) (1 Cor 10:17; 12:12–27), and “one” Spirit (12:9–13). It has often been claimed that Paul’s oneness language in these passages comes from a Greco-Roman concordia discourse where the ideal society is harmonious and united. Byers argues that Jewish theological categories provide the primary source for Paul’s oneness train of thought and that these verses in chapter 10 and 12 flow out of the reference to the Shema in 1 Cor 8:6.

We know that at the time of the writing of the NT, Jews reflected on the ramifications of God’s oneness for their own identity. Josephus, for example, says:

Let there be one holy city in that place … and let there be one temple therein, and one altar of stones, … In no other city let there be either altar or temple; for God is One and the Hebrew race is one (theos gar heis kai to Hebraiōn genos hen). (Jewish Antiquities 4:200–201, cf. Against Apion 2:193; Philo On Virtue 7:35; 1QS 1:1–14; 2 Baruch 48:22–24; 85:14 etc …).

Just as Paul redefines God’s own unique identity in 1 Cor 8:6, in chapters 10 and 12 he appeals to the Jewish view that one God is reflected in one ethnic people, with a vision for a united and unique body of Christ—the Church. Paul’s pastoral vision is grounded in, what Byers memorably calls, an “ecclesiology of Christological monotheism.”

Byers’ had barely 25 minutes to explore the implications of this feature of Paul’s train of thought and I sensed that he was straining to get to points that he did not have time for. Certainly, his paper raises many interesting questions and fruitful possibilities. The way the oneness language is extended to the Spirit perhaps implies a trinitarian redefinition of monotheism for Paul (cf. 1 Cor 12:1–3 where Paul talks about the “the same Spirit … the same Lord … the same God.”) In particular, for Byers, it raises the possibility that in speaking of “one” body as reflective of the identity of the “one” God the community in Christ “are collective representatives of (and perhaps divinized participants in) the oneness of Israel’s God”. A high view of the Church and its connection to the one God is certainly in view, though, of course, the “one body” is not actually included in the identity of the one God, even though it serves as a representative of Him.

There is probably more evidence of the importance of the Shema for Paul’s train of thought in these chapters than Byers recognised. It has sometimes been pointed out that Paul’s concern for an undivided heart at the end of 1 Cor 7 reflects a contemporary Jewish view that total devotion to God described in the Shema creates an undivided, perfect heart (see, for example, Brian Rosner, Paul, Scripture and Ethics: A Study of 1 Corinthians 5–7, 164–5).

In any case, Byers study is, surely, the final nail in the coffin for the view that there is no evocation of the Shema in 1 Cor 8:6 and that Paul is not interested in the implications of the Christ event for the meaning of Deut 6:4. One way or another, we now have to take a view on what happens to the Shema that verse.

New Evidence for “Christological Monotheism” in 1 Cor 8:6

In the second chapter of Jesus Monotheism, Volume 1 I present some new evidence for thinking that Paul places the Lord Jesus Christ inside of a redefined, split-open, first line of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God the LORD is one”—Deut 6:4). Now the one God is a two-in-one God. He is both the one God the Father and the one Lord Jesus Christ.

Over the last 20 years much of my research has been on the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. One aspect of recent advances in Hebrew Bible scholarship has intrigued me, ever since I first came across it in reading Jon D. Levenson’s, Creation and the Persistence EvilSometimes there are clear numerical structures in the Hebrew text that reinforce or deepen the plain meaning of the text. For example, Genesis 1 has numerical patterns that help to make the point that the living God has created a world of order, structure and beauty. The text is a kind of icon: its numerical structures embellish or reflect the truths of which it speaks.

Casper Labuschagne (in his Numerical Secrets of the Bible) has recently called the study of numerical patterns and structures in the Hebrew Bible “Numerical Criticism”. This  methodology is in its infancy, it raises interesting theological questions about how far we should go looking for meaning beneath the plain and obvious sense of the scriptural text. Some of Labsuchagne’s colleagues are skeptical about the extent or significance of the numerical structures that he and others have identified. But some numerical patterns are indisputable and it is well-known that in a few places in the NT there is a similar use of symbolic numbers, for example, in Rev 13:17–18 with the number of the beast and a carefully worked out structure to the genealogy in Matt 1:1–17. In these NT examples, as with the Hebrew Text of the OT, numerical significance is conveyed by means of gematria: the assigning of numerical values to letters. (In Matt 1:1–17 there is a fourteen generation structure to Jesus’ genealogy which conveys the notion that he is the son of David. The consonants in David’s name in Hebrew have the numerical value 14: (dalet = 4) + (waw = 6) + (dalet = 4) = 14)

One day while relaxing in the bath in 2013, musing on Paul’s confession in 1 Cor 8:6, and remembering that in a footnote in his classic article on the verse (in his Climax of the Covenant) N. T. Wright had noted its numerical structure, it dawned on me that that structure might have profound theological significance. The verse comprises 26 words in two equal halves—the first acknowledging the “one God the Father” and the second the “one Lord Jesus Christ—each of 13 words. The numerical value of the Hebrew name of God (Yahweh) is 26 and the Hebrew word “one” has a numerical value 13 (half of 26). As I explain in the book, this cannot be a coincidence. It can only mean one thing: all parts of the confession refer to entities (or persons) who together comprise (or reveal) the one God, Yhwh. And the fact that, although the confession is formulated in Greek, it assumes a numerical structure that comes from the Hebrew language surely also measn that this distinctive reworking of Deut 6:4 was formulated, very early on, in a bilingual (Hebrew and Greek) speaking context. In all probability, it was formulated in Jerusalem in the first years or months after Jesus’ death.

My numerical criticism of the confession in 1 Cor 8:6 is my favourite part of the book. The text’s numerical structure weaves a beautiful, almost magical, meaning. The implications are far reaching and remarkable. And I will never forget the moment it dawned on me. As things stand, the rest of the argument of Jesus Monotheism (in the remaining three volumes) depends in part on the implications of this piece of numerical criticism. Perhaps I have missed something in my analysis. If so, I hope that somebody will do me the kindness of pointing out the problem sooner rather than later.

Recent progress in scholarship on the origins of NT Christology

In the first chapter of my Jesus Monotheism Volume 1 I describe the most important features of the emerging consensus view that very early in the history of the Christian movement the risen and exalted Jesus was accorded a divine identity. I could not possibly have started Jesus Monotheism with this chapter if I had written a similar book fifteen or more years ago. The field has changed dramatically in the last two decades.

When I wrote my doctoral dissertation (completed in 1996 + published a year later as Luke-Acts: Angels, Christology and Soteriology*) the study of Christology was dominated by approaches, positions and characters that are less important now. The most influential book back then was James Dunn’s Christology in the Making (1st edition: 1980). But when I set about the detailed research for the writing of Jesus Monotheism (in 2012) it quickly became clear to me that the work of Larry Hurtado (especially his landmark Lord Jesus Christ) and Richard Bauckham (with his shorter but equally influential Jesus and the God of Israel (and a number of others who have worked under their sphere of influence) has now changed the field dramatically.

I do not say much about the history of Christology scholarship in Jesus Monotheism and here are a view obvious ways in which the emerging consensus scholars have changed the field:

Then Now
A divine Christology resulted from external forces and factors, especially the early church’s exposure to Greco-Roman religion. A divine Christology appears from within a still young Jewish movement (based in Jerusalem and Palestine).
NT texts place Jesus Christ somewhere on a ladder of being: not quite fully “God,” but “transcendent,” “god-like,” “divine”—and subordinate to the one God. → Debates about how high a text’s Christology might be. A clear distinction between God and the world, with plenty of evidence that Jesus Christ was viewed as divine in the full sense. → Debates how exactly Jesus is identified with the one God of Israel.
A lengthy process of development from a low to a high view of Jesus Christ. Not much evidence of development. Strong signs of a sudden appearance of a widely held view of Jesus Christ as a divine figure.
Focus on texts, ideas and beliefs. Focus on texts, ideas and how practices (especially worship of Jesus) are evidence of Christian belief.
Texts (esp. the Gospels) analyzed to discover layers of Christological development. Less confidence that we can reconstruct layers of tradition beneath the texts. Increased focus instead on patterns, themes, the cumulative evidence of discrete bodies of texts (e.g. the Gospels and Paul).

In all these ways the academic debate has, to my mind, progressed in the right direction and I am grateful for all the work that others have done that has made my task a little easier.

* Although I stand by some of the arguments in that book (that is narrowly focused on texts in Luke-Acts), it does not represent my current thinking on most of the big questions of NT Christology.