Question: Don’t Christians believe in three gods?
Answer: Certainly not! It’s a very common misrepresentation that while Jews believe in one God, Christians believe in three. The fact is that Christianity is as firmly monotheistic as Judaism.
Christians believe that the One God exists in a way that finite humans can never fully understand—in three persons or personalities. This belief is not based on philosophical arguments, but on the Scriptures—both Old and New Testaments.
We affirm that the Hebrew Bible teaches the oneness of God. The cardinal affirmation of the Jewish people has always been the Sh’ma: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD” (Deut. 6:4). But along with the emphasis on the oneness of God, the Hebrew Bible contains a number of hints that he is at the same time somehow more than one.
One such hint is the number of times plural forms of names and words are used in reference to God. The common Hebrew word for God, Elohim, is itself plural in form. The singular counterpart of Elohim, namely Eloah, is used 10 times less than is the plural form. Plural verbs are sometimes employed with the name Elohim, as in Genesis 20:13.1 Plural pronouns are at times used by God in referring to himself, as in Genesis 1:26.2 Other descriptions of God are sometimes found in the plural, which is not always evident in our English translations (for example, Ecclesiastes 12:1,3 or Isaiah 54:54).
Even more striking is the very word used in the Sh’ma to proclaim the oneness of God: echad. This word allows for a plurality or diversity within the unity. This can be seen clearly in several passages. In Genesis 1:5, 2:24, Ezra 2:64 and Ezekiel 37:175, the oneness is the result of combining evening and morning, man and wife, the individual members of an assembly and two sticks, respectively. There is, however, another Hebrew word to describe an indivisible unity: yachid. The scholar Maimonides6, when composing his famous Thirteen Articles of Faith, substituted yachid for echad in describing the nature of God. Ever since, the notion of an indivisible unity of God has been fostered in Judaism; nevertheless, the Bible gives ample instances to show that there is a diversity within God’s unity.
The Zohar, the foundation book of Jewish mysticism, recognized that plurality-in-unity is not a foreign idea to Jewish thinking. While the medieval mystics’ notion is different from the Christian concept of the Trinity, the basic idea of a plurality within the one Godhead still holds. The passage from the Zohar, commenting on the Sh’ma, reads as follows:
“Hear, O Israel, YHVH Elohenu YHVH is one.” These three are one. How can the three Names be one? Only through the perception of Faith; in the vision of the Holy Spirit, in the beholding of the hidden eyes alone. The mystery of the audible voice is similar to this, for though it is one yet it consists of three elements fire, air, and water, which have, however, become one in the mystery of the voice. Even so it is with the mystery of the threefold Divine manifestations designated by YHVH Elohenu YHVH three modes which yet form one unity.7
In fact, besides God himself, there are two other personalities in the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures who are portrayed as distinct from, yet somehow the same as God. These other two are the angel of the Lord and the Spirit of God, or Holy Spirit.
The angel of the Lord is mentioned a number of times, but is also identified with God himself. For example, in Genesis 16:7 and 16:13 he is called respectively “the angel of the Lord” and then “the Lord.”8 Another example is Genesis 22:11-12. This particular individual is both distinct from and identified with God himself.9
Then there is the Spirit of God. God’s Spirit is spoken of in the Scriptures as a personality of his own, yet identified as God. Such passages include Genesis 1:2, Psalm 51:11 and Isaiah 11:2.10
In ancient times Israel was surrounded by polytheists and tended to absorb the idolatry of those nations. For this reason, it was necessary for the Scriptures to emphasize God’s oneness more than his “tri-unity.” By New Testament times, when idolatry was no longer such a problem in Israel, the idea of God’s “tri-unity” was more clearly articulated in the Scriptures. The three personalities just mentioned are portrayed in the New Testament as God the Father, God the Son (the Messiah Jesus) and God the Spirit—yet all without compromising the fundamental affirmation of the Sh’ma: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD,” an affirmation which Jesus himself termed “the most important commandment.”11
- “…when God caused me to wander from my father’s house…” The verb “caused me to wander” is plural in the Hebrew.
- “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…”
- “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth…” In the Hebrew “Creator” is a plural form.
- “For thy Maker is thine husband; the LORD of hosts is his name…” Again “Maker” and “husband” are plural forms.
- Genesis 1:5: “And God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.”
Genesis 2:24: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.”
Ezra 2:64: “The whole company together was forty and two thousand, three hundred and threescore,”
Ezekiel 37:15-17: “…take thee one stick…then take another stick…and join them one to another…and they shall become one in your hand.”
- Maimonides (1135-1204) is one of the greatest figures in Jewish history. Born in Spain, he was known as a rabbinic scholar, philosopher and even physician. His Thirteen Articles of Faith are accepted by Orthodox Jews as a binding statement of belief.
- Zohar, III: Exodus 43b, Soncino translation.
- Genesis 16:7a: “And the angel of the LORD found her…”
Genesis 16:13a: “And she called the name of the LORD who spoke unto her, Thou God seest me…”
- Genesis 22:11-12: “And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven and said…Lay not thine hand upon the lad…for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.”
- Genesis 1:2b: “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
Psalm 51:11: “Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me.”
Isaiah 11:2: “And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him…”
- Mark 12:29: “And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord;”