Christology in Second Temple Judaism

This is a paper I wrote in 2009 for a seminary course on Pauline Theology, entitled, “Christology in Second Temple Judaism.” I hope it is informative, but also a bit of a window into my thinking and interests eight years ago as a seminarian.


From the earliest beginnings of Christianity, one of the churches central teachings has been that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah of Israel and the divine Son of God.  Though debated and not formalized until the councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, the Nicene view of Jesus as a divine figure was present in the earliest Christian writings.  Each of the Evangelists in his own way presents Jesus as a divine figure.

One of the most remarkable aspects of NT christology, from an historical perspective, is Paul’s understanding of Jesus as God.  Scholars have noted that the Pauline corpus is marked by a high christology, including the implicit and explicit equation of Jesus with God.  This is not to say that Paul is explicitly Trinitarian, but his theology does present Jesus and the Holy Spirit in divine terms.  This was one of the key differences between Christianity and Judaism that led to the great “parting of the ways” attested first in the book of Acts and then later in the patristic and Rabbinic writings.  Yet Paul, a rabbi trained in the strict tradition of which Tannaitic and Rabbinic Judaism would be heirs, does not see fit to explain a truth that would become such a stumbling block to generations of his countrymen, namely, how Jesus and YHWH can both be God.

There are several possible reasons for this phenomenon.  Some have suggested that Paul is consciously deviating from his Jewish peers, simply making baseless assertions in order to develop a new sect.  Others, like Vermes, deny that Paul equates Jesus with God (2006, pp. 196-97).  Some sympathetic Jewish scholars, such as Neusner, understand Paul’s Jewish thought but reject it on exegetical and theological grounds.

The goal of the present study is to show the various divine or semi-divine portrayals of messianic figures in the Judaism of Paul’s day, and to demonstrate that Paul’s christology, while innovative, was within the stream of Judaic thought up to that point.

Pauline Christology

Vos remarks on Paul’s Christology:

The deepest-sounding notes in Paul’s melodies of heaven find their point of unison in God the Father through His Son.  Of a Jesu-latry such as would have forced the First Person of the Trinity into the unknown, uncultivated background Paul knows nothing.  The deity of Christ surely needs not any repression of fact to prove its apostolic provenience.  Paul’s religion was from the very outset of his Christian life “theocentric,” and it could never have become so “Christocentric” as it actually is, had not the rich, religious occupation with the Saviour secured for the latter the indisputable place wherein He appears in the closest unity with the Father. (1994, p. 303).

Yet much of Paul’s teaching regarding the relationship of Jesus and God is ambiguous.  In order to understand the christology assumed behind his writing, his corpus must be considered in its entirety.  In four particular passages in different epistles, Paul speaks simultaneously of God’s oneness and Jesus’ divinity (Wright, 1999, pp. 106-07).

1 Corinthians 8:4-6

In this passage, Paul alludes to the Sh’ma, the central creed of Judaism found in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”  Discussing the issue of meat sacrificed to idols, Paul emphasizes that all the gods of the pagans are worthless, but the one God of the Bible is truly God.  Into this creed, he inserts Jesus as Lord: “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (v. 6).  This subtle phrasing equates Jesus with the Father as κύριος, translating the Tetragrammaton.

Philippians 2:5-11

This passage, possibly a previously formulated hymn known to Paul’s audience, contains three explicit phrases that equate Jesus with God.  First, Jesus is the image (μορφή) of God, just as Adam was; but, unlike Adam, he was equal with God in that he did not have to seize (v. ἁρπάζειν, n. ἁρπαγμός) that equality (v. 6).  Second, after his incarnation and crucifixion, Jesus is exalted over every power in heaven and on earth (v. 10).  Finally, every tongue will confess on the last day that Jesus is Lord.  Once again, Paul uses θεός to refer to the Father and κύριος to refer to Jesus, two terms that are equated in the Hebrew Bible.

Galatians 4:1-7

Galatians 4 is one of Paul’s explanations of the roles of the members of the Trinity.  Verse four assumes the preexistence of Jesus as the Son of God, sent into the world to redeem the Father’s chosen people.  The Holy Spirit—“the Spirit of His Son”—is sent into the hearts of believers in order point them to the Father.

Colossians 1:15-20

Here again Paul refers to Jesus as the “image of God,” though here he uses εἰκών (Gen. 1:26).  Like Elohim in Genesis 1:1, Jesus is the creator of all things (Col. 1:16).  Paul may have in mind certain Jewish traditions that made God’s embodied wisdom or memra his creative agent (cf. TgN, FrTg of Gen. 1:1).  For Paul, Jesus exists from the beginning and is the Creator-God.  In Jesus dwells the fullness (πλήρωμα) of God (Col. 1:19).

Second Temple Messianism

During the long and broad second temple period, many changes occurred in Judaism.  At least four are particularly relevant to the present study.

First, because a majority of Jews now lived outside of the land of Palestine, Judaism needed to become a more portable religion.  This necessitated the solidification of a written Scripture, which had not played a prominent role in religious life to this point.  Most scholars believe that the Pentateuch came into its final redacted state at during this period.  Because text was now important and most Jews spoke a language other than Hebrew, translations into Aramaic (Targumim) and Greek (LXX) became necessary.

Second, given that no Davidic scion arose to become king (or that the ruling empires suppressed such claimants), the priests and Levites became the ruling class in Palestinian Judaism.  This pattern began with Ezra and Jeshua, and continued into the Hellenistic period through the Hasmonean dynasty.  The Pharisees of the Roman period gave way to the Tannaim and the rise of Rabbinic Judaism.  Royal Davidic messianism is nearly absent from most forms of contemporary Judaism.

Third, competing sects diverged over interpretation of newly solidified texts.  Outside of Palestine, Jewish communities in Greece and Asia Minor, Babylon, and Egypt developed different interpretative traditions, demonstrated in the numerous apocryphal and pseudepigraphical books, midrashic exegesis, and re-written biblical histories.  Within Palestine, Sadducees, Pharisees, and various ascetic and rebel groups competed for followers.

Finally, in order to reconcile the promises of land and blessing in the Torah with their present state of servitude and dispersion (Neh. 9:36), Jewish interpreters developed apocalyptic traditions of interpretation.  Some of these traditions are considered part of the Latter Prophets (Ezekiel, Habakkuk, Zechariah, etc.).  The most important apocalyptic works for this study are Enoch, Daniel, and the Psalms of Solomon.  While divergent on many particulars, apocalyptic works have in common the belief that the God of Israel will someday break into history, punishing those who oppressed his people, and restoring devout Jews to his kingdom.  In most apocalypses, these eschatological plans are accomplished through a messianic figure or figures.

What follows will be a brief selection of passages in second temple literature, some of which contain a messianic figure construed as divine.  While it is impossible to make normative statements about such a wide spectrum of literature, the goal is to show the presence of this belief rather than its prevalence or ubiquity.


The scene of Daniel 7:9-14 is the throne room of the Ancient of Days.  In this judgment scene, the four beasts are killed, and the Son of Man (בר אנשׁ) is given dominion over all peoples, nations and tongues.  There was much speculation as to the meaning of the reference to “thrones” (כרסון), plural.  R. Akiva famously speculated that these were two thrones: one for David (the Son of Man) and one for YHWH.  Akiva considered this to be Simeon ben Kosiba, whom he called bar kokhba, or “son of the star” (Wright, 1999, p. 105).  Christians read this passage, with Psalm 110:1, as referring to Jesus, who claimed to be the messianic Son of Man, seated at the right hand of the Father (Matt. 26:64; Acts 2:33, 7:55-56; Rom. 8:34; Heb. 1:3, 8:1, etc.).


There are passages from The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs that seem to have incarnational or trinitarian leanings:

…Then I will arise in gladness and bless the Most High for his wonders because God has taken a body and eaten with men to save men.  So now, my children, obey Levi and you will be redeemed by Judah; and do not be lifted up against these two tribes because from them will arise for you the salvation of God.  For the Lord will arise from Levi as high priest and from Judah as king, God and man (Testament of Simeon 6:5-7:2)

And you will see God in the form of a man whom the Lord has chosen; Jerusalem will be his name (Testament of Zebulun 9:8-9, longer text).  (O’Neill, 1995, pp. 103-04)

The extent to which these works were influenced by Christianity is unclear; Christian influence is often assumed simply because the presence of these leanings.  However, O’Neill points out that Christian interpolation in these texts is unlikely because of the references to a Levite priest.

1 Enoch is a composite work, comprised largely of apocalyptic visions.  In the second section, known as the “Book of Parables” (chs. 38-71), there is a vision similar to that in Daniel 7:9-14.  In 1 Enoch 46, the exalted Son of Man is “chosen by the Lord of Spirits” to be preeminent in righteousness forever (v. 3).  Again, the extent to which this passage is influenced by Christian readings of Daniel is historically unclear, particularly because of its absence at Qumran.


VanderKam’s survey of messianic expectations in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date to the first century BCE, reveals a theology of dual messiahs: an Aaronic priest and a Davidic heir.  The “priestly eschatological figure” is mentioned in many texts, including 1QS IX.11 and CD XII.23-XIII.1 (referred to as משׁיח).  The “Branch of David” also plays a key role in the eschatology; cf. 4Q252 V.3-4: “Until the messiah of righteousness, the branch of David, comes, for to him and to his descendants the covenant of the kingship of his people has been given for the generations of eternity” (VanderKam, 1993, p. 211).  Manual of Discipline IX 11 makes reference to “messiahs of Aaron and Israel” (משׁיחי אהרון וישׂראל).  However, these messiahs are not considered equal with God: “4Q521 notes that heaven and earth or perhaps those in heaven and on earth will obey his (God’s) messiah—thus indicating that he is still subject to God” (VanderKam, 1993, p. 216).

Collins characterizes the agenda of Qumranic messianism:

Several documents among the Scrolls share the common understanding of the centuries around the turn of the era, that such texts as Isaiah 11 and Numbers 24 should be interpreted with reference to the Davidic messiah.  The Qumran texts, however, put their own twist on this common expectation, in so far as they typically subordinate the royal messiah to an eschatological priest, presumably in protest against the combination of kingship and High Priesthood by the Hasmoneans. (1994, p. 227)


Philo, an Alexandrian Jew in the first century CE, was concerned to show the superiority and complexity of Jewish philosophy in the Torah.  One of his many concerns is the classical problem of “the one and the many.”  In the God of the Torah he finds the solution.  In his commentary on Genesis 18, Philo sees two personified powers standing beside God: the creative power and the royal power:

The one in the middle is the Father of the universe, who in the sacred scriptures is called by his proper name, I am that I am; and the beings on each side are those most ancient powers which are always close to the living God, one of which is called his creative power, and the other his royal power. (O’Neill, 1995, p. 94)

Philo’s interpretation, though not trinitarian in the Christian sense, reveals that his contemporaries had acknowledged the Hebrew Bible taught some sense of plurality in the one God.

Rabbinic Messianism

The destruction of the second temple accelerated the shift in the pattern of Judaic religion toward synagogue life that had begun in the Babylonian exile and continued in the Hellenistic Diaspora.  Without a temple for sacrifice, the cultic focus became prayer and the reading of Scripture in the synagogue community (e.g., Dan. 6:10).  After the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE), royal Davidic messianism fell from prominence in Judaism.

Rabbinic Judaism was also competing with Christianity for the true religious inheritance of the Hebrew Bible.  As Neusner observes, “Christianity stands or falls on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ” (“Jewish-Christian Debates, p. 216).  Rabbinic Judaism had to deny such uniqueness, including the possibility of his divinity and any notion of the plurality of God.

Targumic Exegesis

There are several passages in the Hebrew Bible that the early church read as pointing to a divine Messiah.  As one would expect, the readings of the official Targumim of the Prophets and Writings differ significantly from the NT exegesis.

2 Samuel 7 is regarded as a key messianic passage in both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.  YHWH, speaking through Nathan, promises David that one of his descendants would build YHWH’s home (v. 13), and that YHWH’s relationship with him would be one of father and son (v. 14).  In the context, Solomon seems to be the object of this prophecy, since he was the one who built YHWH’s house.  However, Christians were eager to read this passage with Psalm 2 as referring to Jesus, who was called the Son of God and built a new spiritual temple (2 Cor. 5:1).

TgJ, reacting against such Christian exegesis, does not interpret 2 Samuel 7:14 messianically.  While the Hebrew expression of YHWH’s relationship to David’s son allows the equation to a father-son relationship, the Targumist “softens the anthropomophism” (Levey, 1974, p. 37), by changing the preposition ל־ to כ־:

MT: “I myself will be father to him, and he will be son to me…” (אני אהיה־לו לאב והוא יהיה־לי לבן)
TgJ: “I myself will be like a father to him, and he will be like a son to me before me…” (אנא אהוי ליה  כאב  והוא יהי  קדמי  לי   כבר)

TgPss of Psalm 2:7[1] makes a similar gloss:

MT: “He said to me, ‘You are my son; I have begotten you today.’” (‎אמר אלי בני אתה אני היום ילדתיך)
Tg: “He said to me, ‘As dear as a son is to a father, so are you to me; you are as innocent as if I had created you this very day.’” (אמר  לי חביב כבר לאבא  את לי אנת זכאה כאילו יומא דין בריתך)

These readings no doubt arose in response to the Christian portrayal of Jesus as the Son of God.

The Targumic reading of the Suffering Servant passages in Deutero-Isaiah differs from a traditional Christian portrayal.  Levey notes:

The striking feature of the Targumic Messianism here is a reworking of Deutero-Isaiah’s conception of the Suffering Servant into an exalted, proud, and aggressive personality, a champion who takes up the cudgels for the despised and downtrodden and suffering Israel, who wields destructive power over their enemies and subjugates mighty kings on their behalf.  He also restores Israel to national dignity, rebuilds its sanctuary, is a champion of Torah, metes out judgment to the wicked, and consigns them to Gehenna.  A new Messianic note is sounded in the intercessory power of the Messiah, who pleads for pardon for Israel’s sins, which are forgiven for his sake.  While this is intercession, it is no vicarious atonement; for the Messiah, though he is the servant and is willing to submit to martyrdom, does not suffer. (1974, pp. 66-67)

Levey observes that the Targumic and Christian readings are more similar in Deutero-Isaiah than in other sections of the Prophets.  He attributes this to Christian dependence on Jewish tradition rather than on the LXX, in which the church “could find no Messianic comfort” on this passage (1974, p. 67).

Talmudic Judaism

Messianism is not featured prominently in the Talmud.  However, the Talmud, like the Torah, often speaks of God in anthropomorphic terms.  God is presented as a personality (Neusner, p. 218), and human beings take their form and transcendent soul from his image.  However, though God is like man, there is an eternal distinction.  According to Bereshit Rabbah VIII:X, when angels mistook the newly created Adam for God himself, God put Adam to sleep, exercising sovereignty, the key distinguishing characteristic (Neusner, p. 219).

By the time of the Middle Ages, Maimonides’ “thirteen principles of Judaism” denied the possibility of God being trinity or incarnate, using Mishnah Sanhedrin X (Davidson, pp. 235-38).  These two beliefs characterize Jewish monotheism from the Rabbinic period to the present day.


The two most ancient monotheistic religions, as they exist today, are starkly incompatible with one another.  Nearly two millennia after the “parting of the ways,” several of the key doctrines of Judaism and Christianity make them mutually exclusive.  However, this was not the case when the Evangelists and the Apostle Paul wandered the Mediterranean as zealously faithful Jews.  Just as Christians subsequent to the apostolic age suppressed the Jewish heritage of their faith and pushed away their “older brothers” (Lk. 15, Rom. 10), so also Rabbinic theology went to great lengths to explain away certain “Christian” readings of the Hebrew Bible, precluding such doctrines as the Incarnation and the Trinity.

In seeking an understanding of the extent to which these doctrines would have been considered reasonable to a first century Jew, at least two errors in historical judgment are particularly to be avoided.  As has been shown, there are some critical historians who argue that the notion of a divine messiah was foreign to the Second Temple Jew, and therefore that Jesus (or, more likely, his followers) contrived a ridiculous parody of Judaism.  Second, there are those who would find traces of Christian doctrines in Judaism to establish Christianity as a completely derivative religion.

On the other hand, more devout Christian historians will argue the same opposing historical positions regarding the Incarnation and Trinitarianism in Judaism in order to validate Christianity.  A few, such as O’Neill, argue that both doctrines were present in the Judaism of Jesus’ contemporaries, and therefore the Jewish people should have recognized him as the divine Messiah when he came.

Others contend that, while the Hebrew Bible could have pointed Jesus’ contemporaries to Jesus, there were significant stumbling blocks to their acceptance of his messiahship, particularly his crucifixion.  Jesus’ life was the complete opposite of the prevailing messianic expectations; therefore, it is lamentable yet understandable why the Jews on the whole rejected Christianity.  Christianity, with its strange modifications to Judaism, must then be the vein of true religion, since it was too absurd to have survived unless the Spirit of God were animating it (cf. Hengel, 1982).

Some christologies of the Second Temple period, while diverse, do seem to admit of a divine messianic figure or figures.  These christologies, while not explicitly Christian, do make the apostolic witness to Jesus as divine Messiah at least plausible, historically.

The apostles and Evangelists found that the key stumbling block for Jews and Gentiles alike was the crucifixion.  The essence of the gospel message is that Jesus died for sins, was buried, and rose according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3-4).  The truth of the resurrection is the epistemological locus of Christianity.  No amount of argument from Paul with his Jewish brothers κατὰ σάρκα could convince them merely from biblical or traditional evidence that Jesus was the Messiah.  Only the Holy Spirit could have performed such a transformation of the heart (1 Cor. 12:3).


Collins, J.J. (1994). Messiahs in context: Method in the study of messianism in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In M.O. Wise, et al (Eds.), Methods of investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Khirbet Qumran site (pp. 213-29).  New York: New York Academy of Sciences.

Davidson, H.A. (2005). Moses Maimonides: The man and his works.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hengel, M. (1982). Crucifixion in the ancient world and the folly of the message of the cross. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Levey S.H. (1974). The messiah: An Aramaic interpretation. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press.

Neusner, J. & Chilton, B. (1998). Jewish-Christian debates. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

O’Neill, J.C. (1995). Who did Jesus think he was? Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill.

VanderKam, J.C. (1993). Messianism in the Scrolls. In E. Ulrich & J.C. VanderKam (Eds.), The community of the renewed covenant (pp. 211-16). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Vermes, G. (2006). Who’s who in the age of Jesus. London: Penguin.

Vos, G. (1994). The Pauline eschatology. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.

Wright, N.T. (1999). The challenge of Jesus. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[1] Levey points out that there is no “official” Targum of the Writings; however, Aramaic translations were made for all the Writings except for Daniel and Ezra-Nehemiah.  Regarding the dating of such material: “There is evidence that some of these Targumim contain material stemming from a very late period in Jewish history” (1974, p. 104).


About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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