The Trinity: Questions and Answers
Note: Elaine the correspondent is fictional, but Karol Joseph is real and serves on the staff of Jews for Jesus. She can be reached by e-mail.
I wanted to write to you concerning an area that has been particularly troubling for me.
The area has to do with The Trinity. I know you and I have talked about this issue many times before, the notion that Jews believe in one God, not three, but my friend Jerry challenged me on some of the things you’ve said, and that’s raised some questions that I hope you can answer. For example, he showed me how the word echad in the Hebrew Bible doesn’t always mean a compound unity, so that its use in the Shema wouldn’t necessarily be speaking of any kind of plurality of the Godhead. He showed me verses, such as Exodus 9:7 and 2 Samuel 7:23, that demonstrated the use of echad in the singular, and talked about how the rabbis have always thought of this as an absolute unity rather than a plural unity as the Christians have. He even showed me where Maimonides, in his Thirteen Articles of Faith, used the Hebrew yachid, rather than echad in speaking of the unity of God specifically to reinforce the Jewish belief in an absolute unity and to dismiss any notion of a plurality.
Similarly, Jerry also showed me that arguing that the use of the word Elohim in the Hebrew Scripture speaks of a plural god isn’t exactly correct, since in Semitic languages elohim is also often used when referring to gods, kings, anyone in power to express their greatness or majesty. He said that it wouldn’t be so unusual to use the word in that way, and showed me verses to demonstrate that when Elohim was used to speak of our God, it would be followed by a singular pronoun for God (e.g. Genesis 1:5). Anyway, I’d be curious to hear your response to these two specific issues, and what that means relative to your argument that God is Father, Son and Spirit. I guess what I’m saying is that this puts me back at square one with regard to understanding how the Trinity can be Jewish, especially after listening to Jerry repeat time and again that Christianity borrowed the whole idea of the God-man from the surrounding pagan religions!
I hope that you’ll have time to respond to this letter in the midst of all your work.
It was good to hear from you. I hope that the answers I can give you on this subject can convince you of the truth about Jesus. Let me assure you at the outset that there are answers to any and every argument that Jerry, or an anti-missionary, can throw out at you, so if you continue to have questions, we can talk about them.
When it comes to The Trinity, I hope that I can give you in this letter just a brief glimpse and insight into what is perhaps the most complex “mystery” of the entire Bible. As I’ve studied this matter some, I have come to be amazed at how utterly Jewish the New Testament is when it speaks of God, the Son of God and the Spirit of God. Hopefully I will be able to convey some of that in this letter; the rest we’ll have to go into more detail when we’re together.
At the outset I should say that Jerry was correct in what he told you about the use of the Hebrew word echad; it isn’t always used as a compound unity, although it can be, and often is, used that way. The word echad, like the English word “one” can be used in either way, as a compound unity (e.g. one month) or as an absolute unity (e.g. one earth). He’s also correct in what he told you about the word elohim; that it can be used as a term of majesty and grandeur when referring to a single person. You should note, however, that this doesn’t exclude the notion of a plurality of the godhead; it only means that you can’t rely on the use of that word alone to prove that God is a plurality.
In the same way, there isn’t a single scripture in the Hebrew Bible that proves that God is an absolute unity. Some of the anti-missionaries might try and point you to Zechariah 14:9, “The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name” as a statement of the LORD’s absolute unity, but if you look at the New Jewish Version of the Bible you’ll see that this isn’t what’s meant. In that version the text reads, “The Lord alone shall be worshiped and shall be invoked by his true name.” Rather than talking of His absolute unity, it’s speaking of His exclusiveness, His aloneness.
It’s the same with the Shema, Deut. 6:4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” It was really a statement that we shouldn’t worship any other God, not a statement about his nature. Ibn Ezra, the great Jewish sage, translated the Shema, “…the Lord our God, the Lord alone,” and it is translated that way also in the New Jewish Translation. It is interesting to me that the real issue in the Shema wasn’t originally the unity of God at all; rather it was the “aloneness” of God, that He was the only God that we would worship. It is a declaration of exclusive allegiance to YHVH, the Lord alone. So, it was in the midst of peoples who worshiped many gods, that our God revealed Himself as the only God, the only one we should worship. That’s why the ten commandments begin with the command… “you shall have no other gods before me.”
The Shema only came to mean to the Jewish people that God was an absolute unity when it confronted Christianity claiming that God was a plurality. Maimonides did use the word yachid in his principles of faith, but he was doing that clearly in reaction to both Christianity and Islam, which were seen as threats to the Jewish faith and survival of the Jewish people.
We can also see from the New Testament that Jesus himself recited the Shema, Mark 12:28-30 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ something that he wouldn’t likely do if it contradicted anything he believed about the nature of God. Jesus affirmed the “oneness” of God, that He was the only God to whom all of our allegiance is due.
I hope you can see from this that the Shema can’t really be used to argue against Christianity’s view of God. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament use the Shema in the exact same way; to pledge allegiance to the one true God of the universe, YHVH.
So, we all agree that God is one. Yet, in some way we all also, Jews and Christians alike, that in some mysterious way, God is greater than one. He’s not someone that can be put in a box or dealt with in mathematical terms. God is certainly complex in his oneness, and it’s easy to see this in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament.
In the Hebrew Bible, we see this complexity in 1Kings 8:27, when Solomon builds the Temple for God: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” Yet God does come and fill the Temple, without diminishing any of his Godness that is still filling the heavens. We also see, in Gen. 19:24, Then the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah–from the LORD out of the heavens and in both cases it is God, YHVH, the LORD who was talking to Abraham, and the Lord who was up in the heavens. At the same time we see in the Scriptures God’s Spirit come upon the prophets, and on King Saul and David (who cries out in Psalm 51:11, Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.) What is clear is that God’s oneness is not as simple a matter as some would like to believe. And we see God reveal Himself as a man, often called “The Angel of the LORD,” who I’ll discuss further below.
What I’d like to show you is that in the Hebrew Scriptures and tradition is that there are definite understandings of an “eternal Son of God,” also called “the Word of the Lord” that in the New Testament is finally revealed as Jesus, the word made flesh that you and I have talked about before in John 1:14; and that the Holy Spirit, also called in the Hebrew Scriptures the Shekinah , is not only present in the Hebrew Bible, but serves exactly the same purpose as in the New Testament. My point is that although Christianity took these Biblical passages, and explained them in the doctrine of The Trinity (which might be better understood as God having a “tri-une” nature) it doesn’t make the concept any less Jewish.
What we need to realize is that God has revealed Himself in a number of ways throughout the history of our people, and in the last days He has revealed Himself in His Son, Yeshua. That’s what I’ll show you in the Hebrew Bible, and that’s exactly what the New Testament demonstrates as well.
The Hebrew Bible makes it very clear that no one can see God and live. Yet the Bible has examples of people seeing Him and do live. For example, Genesis 32:28-30 recounts the experience of Jacob and God, and saying, “So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” Perhaps the most significant account is of Abraham and the angels/men he encounters in Genesis 18. In verse 1 it says The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre. And it’s totally clear that this is God, who we see in the account is one of the three men who approach Abraham. Even the rabbis have a difficult time with this account since it is so clear that it is YHVH who reveals Himself.
These kinds of theophanies in the Bible were a problem for the Jewish people, who were concerned about making God too human in a sense. So we see in the Targums (the Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible that was commonly used in the first century), the substitution of the word memra introduced in every instance in the Bible in which God is represented as talking to a man, thus explaining away all the anthropomorphisms found in the text (Sidney S. Tedesche, “Logos” in The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, [New York, 1942] p. 167). The Word partook of the nature of God but was also sort of an emanation from him, a messenger who carried out His commands. Let me give you just one example to show what I mean. In Genesis 3:8, where the Scriptures say “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden…” The Targum reads that they heard the sound of the word of God, the memra, walking in the garden.
This idea of the memra, went back to the biblical verse in Psalm 33:6, “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.” The word is spoken of in personal terms in Isaiah 55 as being on a mission, Isaiah 55:10-11: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” The Bible also shows the word “running,” Psalm 147:15 “He sends his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly.”
What is especially interesting and telling is that while the Targums are full of “the Word of the Lord” to refer to God’s presence here on earth, the Talmud doesn’t mention it at all! The Jewish Encyclopedia explains the most likely reason:
In the ancient Church liturgy, adopted from the Synagogue, it is especially interesting to notice how often the term Logos, (this is the Greek word for the memra) in the sense of ‘the Word by which God made the world, or made His Law or Himself known to man,’ was changed into ‘Christ.’ Possibly on account of the Christian dogma, rabbinic theology, outside of the Targum literature, made little use of the term ‘Memra.’
The Jewish Encyclopedia, [New York and London, 1904] p. 465
We don’t see any mention of the Memra in the Rabbinic literature today, but that’s because it was suppressed in reaction to Christianity, not because it wasn’t seen as part of Jewish understanding in the first century. In fact it was this exact concept that the New Testament Jewish writers were communicating in speaking of Jesus as the Word, the Memra.
It is also this word, memra, in the Aramaic that corresponds to the Greek word logos that Philo used in communicating the concept of the “Word of God” to the Greek community. It wasn’t surprising for me to read in your letter that Jerry would raise the issue of Christianity borrowing this whole idea of the God-man from the surrounding pagan religions, for it’s in this context (as well as some others that I won’t go into right now) that he’s thinking of that issue. Jerry, and anti-missionaries such as Gerald Sigal, like to harp on the idea that the God-man was pagan, saying that the New Testament borrowed a Greek notion to make their whole new religion more acceptable to the Greeks. But this was totally untrue, and I think you can see that the idea of the logos was simply derived out of the Aramaic concept of the memra.
In addition to communicating God’s presence here on earth in His Word, we also see in the Hebrew Scriptures many verses that speak of “The Angel of the Lord,” who interestingly enough is often called the LORD Himself. I mentioned earlier Genesis 18, where it is God Himself speaking to Abraham, but is there physically as the Angel of the Lord (by the way the Talmud even says that this was God, there’s no way around it). This idea is also clear in the verses concerning Jacob and the angel he wrestles all night:
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
Who was this angel? The angel was clearly God, but come in the form of a man. Could it be the pre-incarnate Jesus? I believe it is. This would certainly make sense of all that the Bible teaches; that no one can see God in His unmediated glory and live, but that you can see the mediated glory of God. That’s exactly what the New Testament says, in John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”
Finally, with regard to the Son, let me simply say that the Hebrew Bible is filled with references to God’s son, and even Jerry would have to agree. In the Hebrew Bible, Israel as a nation was called God’s son (Exodus 4:22 Then say to Pharaoh, “This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son”); and the kings of Israel were called God’s son (Psalm 2:6-7 “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.” I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.”) Is it any wonder that the Messiah, the ultimate, ideal king of Israel, should also be called the Son of God in a unique way?
The New Testament says that Jesus was eternally “begotten” of the Father, he has always existed as the Son of God. I know this sounds a bit confusing; if it does then you’re probably catching on to some of the complexity of this issue. Suffice it to say for now that the Jewish writers of the New Testament saw in Jesus, the unique Son of God, the preexistent one. He was the Word of God, the Angel of the Lord, the Son of God (the Messiah of God!).
Just to make it all even more confusing for you, let me just add here something interesting I learned about Isaiah 9:6. Remember that verse that speaks of the names of the special child who would be born:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
I’m sure that Jerry must have discussed this verse with you, trying to demonstrate that the names weren’t the names of the child but rather of God. Well I learned that before the days of the medieval Jewish commentators and polemicists, a fully Messianic interpretation of these names was once again quite acceptable. It was only in reaction to Christianity that this needed to be rejected. In fact, Ibn Ezra wrote,
“There are some interpreters who say that ‘wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father’ are the names of God, and that only ‘prince of peace’ is the name of the child. But according to my view, the right interpretation is that they are all the names of the child.” This is exactly the Christian understanding of the text as well.
Walter Riggans,Yeshua Ben David, [Crowborough, East Sussex: MARC, 1995] p. 370
Turning briefly now to the concept of the Shekinah, we also see in the Hebrew Scriptures that the shekinah was the presence of God here on earth. It was the Shekinah that filled the Temple (without diminishing God at all in the heavens or universe), and accompanied Israel into exile. There was even the notion in Judaism that the Shekinah in leaving with the people in exile was in a way God being disunified, and wouldn’t be reunited until Israel returned to the land. The designation of the Shekinah was specifically chosen when reference was made to the Divine Presence not at a definite place but in the midst of the people (Ephraim E.Urbach, The Sages, [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975] p. 43). The Shekinah expresses not only God’s presence, but also God’s nearness to His people. This Divine Presence brings God into the most intimate contact with human beings so that He even shares their sorrows. I think you’ll find the following excerpt from Everyman’s Talmud (p. 44-45) interesting. Read and see if this doesn’t sound like the Holy Spirit of the New Testament:
“And whence is it that when ten assemble for prayer the Shechinah is in their midst?… and Whence is it that when three sit and judge, the Shechinah is in their midst… There is also the statement of R. Simeon b. Jochai: ‘Wherever the righteous go, the Shechinah goes with them’ (Gen R. lxxxvi. 6). Just as prayer and sacred study make a person more sensitive to the Shechinah, sin has the reverse effect of driving it away so that the Presence is not felt and, for all practical purposes, is not existent there….
Another Rabbinic concept to indicate the nearness of God and His direct influence on man is that of Ruach Hakodesh (the Holy Spirit.) Sometimes it seems to be identical with the Shechinah. More often it is employed to describe the endowment of a person with special gifts. Prophecy, in the sense of the ability to interpret the will of God, is the effect of which the Holy Spirit is the cause. Its possession also endows one with foreknowledge…”
So, we can see that the correct question, with regard to the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, might not at all be whether or not He is the “third person of the Trinity” but rather, does the same Holy Spirit (the presence of God, who is both God Himself and yet somehow separate from Him) exist in the Hebrew Scriptures as in the New Testament. The answer is undoubtedly , yes. In fact, Jesus, in our view, can be seen as the walking Shekinah.
So, in a real sense, the Hebrew Bible is saying the same thing as the New Testament, that no one could see God, in His unmediated glory, and live. But we can see God, mediated in His Son, Jesus, and live… not just today, but forever! He is not only the memra, but He is also the walking Shekinah!
With this understanding, now you can read the words of Hebrews and understand how totally Jewish they are:
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.
It is amazing how each of these concepts, of God revealing Himself in His Son, of the Son being the radiance of God’s glory (the Shekinah glory), of the Son being the exact representation of God’s being, and of sustaining things by his powerful Word, spoke to the Jewish people of the first century of the truth of Jesus. What I’d like to do with you when we see one another next, is to then show you how this whole concept connects to what the Messiah would do. As a preview, if you like, just take a look on your own at Malachi 3 and see if you can tell what the prophet was saying about the one who would come to purify for sins, who would come in judgment.
I hope I’ve addressed the issues you raised in your letter, at least enough to give you a sense of assurance that what the Bible is saying about Jesus is true. I’m looking forward to seeing you soon and to talking about these matters further. May God bless you.
Karol Joseph is currently the Interim Team Leader in South Florida. Karol holds a master’s of arts degree in missiology with a concentration in Jewish studies from the School of World Missions at Fuller Theological Seminary. Jews for Jesus is a missions organization on the forefront of Jewish evangelism. The ministry is reaching Jewish people for their Messiah in 14 countries and 26 cities.