Skip to main content

McGrath, The Only True God: A Book Review

James F. McGrath, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context

[With thanks to the author for a review copy]

McGrath’s book has an argument that for many would seem counterintuitive, that the early Christians did not diverge from Jewish monotheism, even despite their veneration of Jesus. For McGrath this is simply because the modern conceptions of monotheism are not how 1st Century Jews would have defined their monotheism.  The book’s thesis is that while Christians, post Nicaea, are used to thinking about monotheism in terms of ontology, 1st Century Jews defined their devotion to the one God in terms of worship.  While Christians did worship Christ in some respects, McGrath argues that only sacrificial worship to Christ would have made Christ equal to God in a way that would constitute a breach of 1st Century Jewish monotheism.

The book itself has the rare virtue of being blessedly short, a mere 104 pages of text (not including notes, bibliography and index).  That being the case, what McGrath achieves within those pages is all the more impressive.  The book is intended to be accessible to those without a detailed knowledge of the field.  Thus the first chapter takes pains to explain clearly the important concepts and relevant methods.  This is done in a thorough but economical style.  In the second chapter McGrath turns to the question of how Jews in the Greco-Roman era would have understood their own monotheism in the context of a world where the worship of many gods was commonplace.  Given the book’s intention to be accessible to the non-expert it is a shame that some of the more obscure source passages referenced, e.g. Hecataeus of Abdera, do not appear in translation, instead the reader is reliant on McGrath’s précis of the relevant points.  Having established a working definition of 1st Century Jewish monotheism McGrath moves on to examine the writings of Paul (chp 3), the Gospel of John (chp 4), and Revelation (chp 5), against this definition.  In each chapter McGrath continues to develop his thesis and in each case finds the Christian elevation of Christ to be within the bounds of his definition of 1st Century Jewish monotheism.

The sixth chapter moves on from the Biblical material to discuss the “two powers heresy” within rabbinic literature.  McGrath argues that after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple Jewish monotheism was forced to redefine itself.  One result of this process was the rabbinic response to the two powers heresy which while probably originally targeted at the Gnostics came to encompass the Christians also.  McGrath concludes that certain ideas that were condemned in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries need not have been controversial in the 1st century.  Thus the schism between Christianity and Judaism over their respective understandings of monotheism is re-dated from the 1st to the 3rd century and, surprisingly, is a result of a change in the boundaries of Jewish monotheism rather than a developing Trinitarianism.  The final chapter briefly summarises the book’s findings and then offers some thoughts on their historical and theological implications.

McGrath’s book is excellently written, the only hindrance to the reader’s enjoyment being the use of endnotes instead of footnotes.  It consistently progresses through his argument with nuance but without wasting space on peripheral issues.  It engages with other scholarship in a respectful but efficient manner and represents a significant contribution to the field.  McGrath’s concluding thoughts are balanced and show a concern for further discussion and for the appropriation of the work by theologians.  I would suggest it is essential reading for anyone interested in NT background, Christology, or the historical development of Trinitarian theology.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

ANZABS 2018 program and abstracts

ANZABS CONFERENCE 2018
6-7 December, 2018


Venue: Wesley Hall, Trinity Methodist College,

202A St Johns Rd, Meadowbank, Auckland 1072

Thursday 6 December
9.30 am – REGISTRATION
10.00-10.10 – mihi
10.10-11.00 – Keynote speaker: Robert Myles – Fishing for Eyewitnesses in the Fourth Gospel
11.00-11.30 – Morning tea
11.30-12.00 – Lyndon Drake – Economic Capital in the Hebrew Bible
12.00-12.30 – Anne Aalbers – Resurrection and Celibacy: Two Sides of the Same Coin?
12.30-1.00 – Jonathan Robinson – "And he was with the beasts," (Mark 1:13): Ambiguity,
Interpretation and Mark as a Jewish Author
1.00-2.00 – Lunch
2.00-2.30 – Ben Hudson – Ethical Exhortation and the Decalogue in Ephesians
2.30-3.00 – Csilla Saysell – The Servant as 'a covenant of/for people' in Deutero-Isaiah
3.00-3.30 – Afternoon tea
3.30-4.00 – Jacqueline Lloyd – Did Jesus minister in Gaulanitis?
4.00-4.30 – Mark Keown – Jesus as the New Joshua
4.30 – AGM
Friday 7 December
9.30-10.00 – Ben Ong – Pākehā Readin…

Updated Current Research and Book Reviews

So, my PhD must be going well because I have just spent the morning updating my blog pages for Current Research and brand spanking new Book Reviews page. But it is not just procrastination, it is good to stop and and get an overview.

I had totally forgotten about half the book reviews I had done on this blog, they go back to 2009! I am still working on writing the sort of reviews I really enjoy reading, but now that I'm regularly doing reviews for journals it is great to also review books on this blog where I have stylistic freedom and no space limitations. I had always hoped this blog would be a good source of free books, but while it was a source of free books they were not good ones. Reviewing for journals (as a PhD student) has been much better and is helping me keep my broader education going even as I delve deep into my PhD subject. Looking at my old book reviews helps me realise how far I have come. Hopefully, much growth as a blogger, scholar and human being (perhaps not i…

Again, on Mark 2:23-28

I think this is different enough to the "solutions" shared earlier to be worth a post. I'm afraid I haven't had a chance to absorb it yet, been reading too much today, so I can't say if I think he is on to something or not, but do let me know what you think :-)


James M. Hamilton Jr. in "The Typology of David's Rise to Power: Messianic Patterns in the Book of Samuel" JSBT 16, 2012, 4-25, at p13 writes,

Considering the way that Jesus appeals to the Davidic type in Mark 2:23-28, Goppelt draws attention to the way that Jesus not only makes a connection between himself and David in Mark 2:25, he also links his disciples to “those who were with [David].”70 This would seem to invite Mark’s audience to make other connections between those involved in these two events. Much discussion has been generated by the fact that Mark 2:26 portrays Jesus referring to “the time of Abiathar the high priest,” when it appears that at the time, Ahimelech would have been the…