Thursday, April 4, 2019

Divine Embodiment in Jewish Antiquity: Rediscovering The Jewishness of John’s Incarnate Christ - a doctoral dissertation

Beginning with my January 20, 2019 post (link), I began to explore the issue of divine embodiment, creating a new LABEL—Corporeality and God— specifically for the topic (link). This post will be the sixth contribution included under that label/topic.

The first five threads concerning 'Corporeality and God' have to date elicited 99 comments. I suspect/hope that the dissertation I am about to introduce will stimulate some continued interest and discussion on this topic.

It was just a few days ago that I discovered Deborah L. Forger's 2017 doctoral dissertation— Divine Embodiment in Jewish Antiquity: Rediscovering The Jewishness of John’s Incarnate Christ—whilst engaged in online research (PDF). The following excerpts will serve as an introduction to this engaging and thought provoking contribution:

At the heart of this dissertation is my definition of the notion of divine embodiment. Divine embodiment for my purposes encompasses a wide variety of ways in which an aspect, or attribute, or personification of Israel’s supreme God enters into the created world, though much of my work centers on how these manifestations became localized or mediated through humans. These entities are not synonymous with Israel’s supreme deity, but they participate in the divinity of that ineffable and uncreated One, and thereby can also be considered divine. As a close corollary, I define human apotheosis as instances in which created humans, or human-like figures, either undergo the process of deification or are presented as being divine themselves. These figures, though created, also participate in the divinity of Israel’s supreme deity, and thus can also be considered divine.

Throughout this dissertation I intentionally employ the phrase “divine embodiment,” instead of “God’s embodiment” or “incarnation.” With respect to the notion of “God’s embodiment,” I draw a distinction between the words God and divine, because although Jews had a conceptualization of one supreme God who was uncreated himself, there were many other entities that could participate in that high God’s divinity and thereby be conceived of as divine as well. (Pages 8,  9)

A bit later we read:

...I suggest that within the period of Jewish Antiquity which I investigate, there were a number of ways that the “divine” could became “embodied,” and thus the notion of incarnation emerged out of the matrix of and not as a significant deviation from, other Jewish thought. Specifically, I claim that the description found in John 1:14 that the divine word became flesh (ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο) was just one of the many ways that Jews in the early centuries of the Common Era understood that God, or an aspect of God, was embodied, or took on a corporeal form. Thus, in the first century CE, both immediately before and in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple, the notion of divine embodiment was not antithetical to Jewish religious thought, but rather integral to it. (Page 13)


The primary question that I ask throughout this dissertation is why it is at this particular time in Jewish history that so many Jewish texts present a manner by which God can become embodied or humans can become deified. I do not assume that the authors of these texts necessarily knew one another. Nor do I claim that they were dependent upon one another. What I do observe, however, is the wide variety of ways that Jews in this period thought about how God and humanity could be connected through embodiment. Thus, though I posit a number of different ways that first-century Jews conceived of divine embodiment, I demonstrate how the Gospel of John’s description of this phenomenon both stands in continuity with other Jewish descriptions and is distinct from them as well. (Page 44)

Forger has cogently, and importantly, identified that more than one interpretation of what divine embodiment entailed was in existence during the life of Jesus Christ, and the subsequent emergence of Christianity as new religion. Forger also advances a somewhat provocative understanding of the term 'monotheism'; a term which is inextricably related to the issue of divine embodiment—note the following:

My dissertation makes this argument in three primary parts. In the first part, which also comprises chapter two, I re-contextualize one pivotal term—namely, the notion of ancient Jewish monotheism—with respect to my broader investigation of divine embodiment in the Second Temple Period. Such re-contextualization enables me to move past debates that have stymied progress in this arena, particularly the question of how early Christians, who were Jewish monotheists themselves, could have believed in a Jesus who was also divine. Wouldn’t that move have implied a step towards ditheism? My work in this chapter complicates and ultimately dismantles this assumption from two primary perspectives: First, I challenge the appropriateness of the term “monotheism” to describe Jewish belief during this period by showing that “monotheism” and its derived adjective “monotheistic” did not exist in antiquity. It was only in the midst of seventeenth-century CE philosophical debates that Henry Moore first coined the term. To impose it onto the ideological imagination of Jews living in the first-century CE is anachronistic and does not fully encapsulate the complexity of ancient Jewish beliefs about God. Second, I suggest that to use descriptors of a supreme uncreated God from whom all other reality flows is a better way of conceiving of God in the Second Temple Period, because this is the language that ancient Jews actually employed when describing God. I argue that though Jewish monotheism did not exist per se, since ancient Jews conceived of the oneness of the godhead in a complex and hierarchical manner, they did understand there to be a clear separation between the one uncreated God and all other reality. (Page 47)

Before ending this introduction to Forger's dissertation, I would like point out one more important aspect directly related to the issue of divine embodiment: the development of doctrine. Forger's contribution clearly demonstrates that the 'traditional' understanding of divine embodiment—contra the competing Stoic and cruder anthropomorphic views—emerged within a Jewish matrix, rather than a Hellenistic one.

Looking forward to further discussion on these important topics...

Grace and peace,