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.

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