Monotheism In Interfaith Exchange – Part 5

So far, Dunn’s question in Part 4 has not really been answered, “How loosely was the term ‘god/God’ used in biblical texts and in ecclesiastical deliberations, and what was Jesus’ relationship to that term?”  We pick up again on this question shortly, when we also broach, in Part 6, the NT usage of the Greek word logos specifically in the Gospel of John.

BUT FIRST WE need to ask about who Jesus was within his social-political context. In so doing, we must look again at Paul, his claims affecting how we understand the Jesus movement  and Paul’s likely motivations.

Jesus In Context 

Always recalling biblical studies Professor James D. G. Dunn’s previously stated observation that the first ‘Christians’ were ‘those who call upon or invoke the name of Jesus,’ we find him moving, in his book, Did the First Christians worship Jesus?, to the question of:

 If worship defines the one worshipped as god/God, then who is to be defined as god/God, alone worthy of worship? (p. 91)

It is a sobering thought that god (God?) could be defined as anyone or anything worshipped by man—as if there is no independent truth apart from what man chooses to believe and to make his ‘god.’  Perhaps that is why Allah has directed man to tie his belief to objectively observable human prophets who receive revelation from God.

As an initial test of Jesus’ status among the first Christians, Dunn looks for evidence among the[biblical] New Testament Gospel accounts to answer the embarrassing question, which shouldn’t have to be asked: “Was Jesus a monotheist?”  Dunn informs us:

[This question] conjures up fanciful pictures of Jesus engaged in the great debates of the fourth and fifth centuries on God as Trinity, and the possibility of his [Jesus’] refusing to affirm the Nicene Creed, or even [of Jesus] siding with Jews and Muslims of later centuries in accusing Christians of tri-theism [three gods] (p. 93).

Put in another way, wouldn’t Jesus have shared the common beliefs of his fellow Jews of the time and wouldn’t he have affirmed, strictly and unreservedly, that “the Lord our God is one Lord” (Bible, Deuteronomy 6:4)? (p. 94).  For Dunn, Jesus passes this test of pure monotheism with flying colors—although there is a hint that Jesus once referred to himself in mystic visionary terms (Bible, Gospel of Mark 14:53-65, especially verses 60-64)

when responding to Bani Israel’s high priest, who was questioning him about his status as God’s chosen agent, the “messiah.”  Dunn interprets Jesus’ answer as somehow challenging the status and authority of God (pp. 100-101); more likely, though, is that Jesus in this passage would have been challenging the irresolute action of the high priest—since that high priest undoubtedly was protecting his vulnerable community from the chaotic uprising that most certainly would result from still one more popular messianic movement.

This time the messianic movement was Jesus’ call for reform within the ranks of Bani Isrâ’îl—and Jesus’ activities as messianic teacher of the Jewish masses were threatening the high priest’s secure status with Roman officials since the high priest was held responsible for social order in Roman-held Palestine.

Mystic Vision Of Supernatural Rescue

Among the cryptic words found on the lips of Jesus—within the Gospel books of the New Testament—are the problematic ones concerning “the Son of Man seated at the right side of the Almighty and coming with the clouds of heaven!” (Bible, Gospel of Mark 14: 62, with slight variations found also in the Gospel of Matthew 26:64

and in the Gospel of Luke 22:69).

Is Jesus quoted here as alluding to a prophetic event of past Hebrew experience, known to the High Priest,  so as to indicate that something equally dramatic is about to happen at the hand of a God-sent agent (namely, Jesus speaking as prophet), whom the authorities of his people are unwilling to accept as bringing divine guidance to their precarious state of affairs? The Jewish authorities were faced with putting down Jewish rebellion against their Roman colonial masters. If the rebels could not be controlled, then the privileged Jewish status within the surrounding pagan world could be lost entirely. In fact, the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem would  be destroyed within a few decades and the people exiled. Their leadership refused to accept the message of repentance to God as the means of their [political] salvation.

If these cryptic words of supernatural rescue are correctly recorded verbatim (and if we can come across their precise allusion), then they bring us to the question of what do they mean to Jesus’ teaching—and how are they related to an alternative [Pauline] teaching of Jesus as ‘Lord.’ There is voluminous evidence for the concept of Jesus as ‘Lord” in the writings of Paul—but it is a different story when it comes to the Gospel books of the NT, which narrate the sayings and doings of Jesus.  Recall that “LORD” is a title regularly used of God, and of Him alone, in the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”).

The common modern Christian catchphrase ‘Jesus is Lord,’ Dunn notes in his book here under scrutiny:

is the core affirmation of Christian faith, and it can be traced back firmly to … the visionary experiences … of Jesus as risen from the dead and exalted to heaven. (pp. 101-102)

Dunn refers to 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 [quoted below] as evidence that this belief came from the earliest Christians—even before Paul’s conversion (p. 102). It seems that Dunn wants to interpret Paul’s statement as meaning that Paul got his message from Jesus’ Disciples/”Apostles” and passed the same belief system on to the Christians in Corinth

[located on the coast within the Peloponnesian Straits of ancient Greece]:

Bible, Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 15:1-8:  [Paul writes:]  And now I want to remind you, my brothers, of the Good News which I preached to you, which you received, and on which your faith stands firm. That is the gospel, the message that I preached to you. You are saved by the gospel if you hold firmly to it—unless it was for nothing that you believedI PASSED ON TO YOU WHAT I RECEIVED, WHICH IS OF THE GREATEST IMPORTANCE: THAT CHRIST DIED FOR OUR SINS, AS WRITTEN IN THE SCRIPTURES, that he was buried and that he was raised to life three days later…that he appeared to Peter and then to all twelve apostles…to more than five hundred, … most of them still alive … then … to James … last of all … to me. [italics added]

Did Paul receive his message [of salvation from sin] from Jesus’ Disciples? The above biblical passage does not have Paul saying from where he got his “gospel” teaching! Paul in this verse simply says that what he had received he passed on. Paul claims in his Letter to the Galatians (1: 6-7…11-12…17-19) that he got his message from no man, but rather  from the (spiritualized, raised-to-heaven) Jesus Christ:

 I am surprised at you! In no time at all you are deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ, and are accepting another gospel. Actually, there is no “other gospel,” but I say this because there are some people who are upsetting you and trying to change the gospel of Christ … Let me tell you, my friends, that the gospel I preach is NOT OF HUMAN ORIGIN. I DID NOT RECEIVE IT FROM ANY HUMAN BEING, NOR DID ANYONE TEACH IT TO ME. IT WAS JESUS CHRIST HIMSELF WHO REVEALED IT TO ME … nor did I go to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me. Instead, I went at once to Arabia, and then I returned to Damascus. It was three years later that I went to Jerusalem to obtain information from Peter, and I stayed with him for two weeks. I did not see any other apostle except James, the Lord’s brother.

Yes, Paul did pass on what he had “received”; the point which Paul was emphasizing, above, in his Letter to the Galatians was that his message came from the visionary Jesus Christ—whose company he cultivated, presumably during his time in “Arabia”; most tellingly, Paul avoided the companionship of the Disciples mentored by Jesus, those charged with spreading Jesus’ teaching to the Jewish Diaspora. In a fit of outrage at having his message questioned and abandoned, Paul vigorously denies having received “his” gospel from those who knew Jesus intimately!

The Problem Of Paul

A crucial fact you need to know about Paul is this: Jesus did not ‘appear’ to Paul at the same time, or even in the same manner, that he ‘appeared’ to Peter and all twelve Apostles after the events of his Last Week in Jerusalem—that is, Jesus did not appear to Paul “in the flesh”; in fact, Paul had never met Jesus in real life. Paul’s ‘meetings’ with Jesus were exclusively visionary (Bible, Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-10; Galatians 1:11-12, 15-16) and Paul’s relationship with Jesus’ actual Apostles was ‘stormy’ at best—according to Paul’s own description of events and relationships (Bible, Galatians 1:16b-22; 2:1-2, 6, 11, 13; 3:1).

Jesus’ real Apostles were the Twelve Disciples mentored by him and commissioned to pass on his message—to the scattered Bani Israel people in Diaspora among the nations. The Apostles—having split up and spread out in all directions from Jerusalem—were busy accomplishing the task of calling the worldwide Jewish people to the message given them by the earthly Jesus when Paul came on the scene with his own “gospel of Jesus Christ.” Paul then had the chutzpah to claim that it was Jesus’ Disciples who had “perverted” the “gospel” version that Paul was teaching—a message not from the earthly Jesus but a message claiming to be based on the supernatural power resident in the risen-to-heaven “Lord Jesus Christ.”

At odds with Dunn’s conclusion that the ‘apotheosis’ (deification) of Jesus took place before Paul’s conversion and charismatic teaching career—based on Dunn’s reading of 1 Corinthians 15:3 [above, in capital letters]—is the fact that Paul refused to listen to, or associate with, Jesus’ Disciples/ Apostles (Bible, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 1:17-19; 2:6) and that he claimed to have gotten his teaching, not from the Apostles at all, but “directly” [in visionary form] from the risen-from-the-dead Jesus Christ:

Bible, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 1:11-12;  2:6 … 9:  Let me tell you, my brothers, that the gospel I preach is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor did anyone teach it to me. It was Jesus Christ himself who revealed it to me. … But those who seemed to be the leaders – I say this because it makes no difference to me what they were; God does not judge by outward appearances—those leaders, I say, made no new suggestions to me. … James, Peter, and John, who seemed to be the leaders… [italics added]

So, if we believe Paul in his own words—as recorded in the Christian New Testament  scripture—then the ‘gospel of Christ’ (Gal. 1:7) is his own teaching, which he claims to have received as revelation from the exalted and deified Christ. We know also from Paul’s wording that there were others (Jesus’ Disciples!) who challenged Paul by teaching ‘another gospel’ (Gal. 1:6). What Paul ‘passed on’ to the ‘believers’ at Corinth (1 Corinthians 15:3 above), then, was what Paul got in personal visionary experiences, not from apostolic teaching—as apostolic teaching was clearly at odds with Paul’s teaching, Paul himself complains!

Weren’t those that Dunn refers to as the ‘first Christians,’ then, actually the followers of Paul and not at all the followers of Jesus or of his Apostles! The transmutation of the “gospel” message according to the teaching of Jesus—Arabic injîl in the Quran—to the “gospel” according to Paul’s writings, is actually chronicled within Christian scripture. The process begins with the acceptance of Paul, then the infamous persecutor of Jesus-followers, on the part of Barnabas:

Bible, Acts of the Apostles 11:25-26:   Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul. When he found him, he took him to Antioch, and for a whole year the two met with the people of the church and taught a large group. It was at Antioch that the believers were first called Christians. [italics added],_Mersin

Through this association Paul gained his initial credibility, and then charismatic appeal. In the end, Barnabas left Paul in disagreement, overtly over the choice of travel companion. The Church credits the two with opening the way for non-Jews (“gentiles”) to be part of the widened Christian movement with Paul’s message of  universal ” salvation” in any of its various interpretations.

Notes on the above-quoted verse (Acts 11:26):

  • ‘Saul’ was the original Hebrew-language name of Paul; ‘Paul’ is a Greek-language name, used after his conversion.
  • The two cities mentioned, Tarsus and Antioch, are located in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea coast in Asia Minor, the first in modern-day Turkey and the second in Syria—both remote from the nerve center of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem.
  • The Greek word used in this verse, translated “Christians” (Greek: christianoi), means “Christ initiates,” reflecting its mystery cult association; in that context it also implies “those who call upon Christ”—a far cry from a link with Jesus’ Judaism, in which one “calls upon” God alone!

The First “Christians”

‘Those who call upon or invoke the name of Jesus,’ as Dunn repeatedly refers to them, were the ‘first Christians,’ and they started with those associated with Paul in the city of Antioch, in what is now Turkey. In fact, however, from the beginning—before Paul crashed the scene—the followers of Jesus were not called ‘Christians’ but rather ‘Nazarenes,’ as we know from a reference to them by a Roman official (Bible, Acts 24:5).

The true followers of Jesus, by contrast to the followers of Paul, were seven centuries later to be referred to in the Qur’an (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:113) as  naârâ, a transliteration of the proper name “Nazarene.”

What NT scholars, including Dunn, consciously or subconsciously realize but apparently do not accept as significant is that the core teaching of Jesus was sidelined or lain aside, early on, in deference to the teaching of Paul.  One can only conclude that they have been thrown off track by the fact that the story and message of Paul have been paired with that of Jesus within the canon of the Christian scripture—and by the fact that the final knighting of Paul has put him beyond suspicion as spokesman for Jesus and developer of Jesus’ message.

In fact, the evidence for this very insight is found within the NT itself!  Christians typically accept the teachings of Paul as ‘Gospel truth,’ so to speak, and they interpret the dramatic, event-filled story

of Jesus as a run-up to Paul’s interpretive teaching—even in the face of patent contradiction between the teachings of Jesus and Paul.

Traditional NT scholars try to reconcile Paul with Jesus, on the assumption that the two have always been part of the same belief system. What happens to scholars who are willing to recognize and articulate this intrusion of Pauline interpretation into the story of Jesus? Some of them convert to Islam. And the others?  Well, maybe they haven’t yet considered the corrective witness of Prophet Muhammad œ and the Quran. Yeah, it is almost as if Dunn were writing this study for Christians confronted with these very suggestions and anomalies.

Paul’s Motivating Force

Back to Dunn’s text: As to Paul’s reason for having persecuted the followers of Jesus before his ‘conversion’ to the Christian ‘Way’—whose primary spokesman he would become—Dunn notes that Paul himself attests to his zeal for his ancestral traditions (Bible, Paul’s Letter to the  Philippians 3:6,

and, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 1:13-14);

Dunn interprets this to mean that the Jesus people were a threat to Paul’s fundamentalist understanding of ‘Judaism’ as well as a threat to Israel’s losing her set-apartness to God in a predominantly pagan, Græco-Roman cultural world (pp. 113-114).

More to the point, I suspect, is that the then-current increasing popularity among Jews for following Jesus was a threat [from Imperial Rome] to the survival of Paul’s own Bani Israel/ ’Jewish’ people in Palestine. The first followers of Jesus clearly were Jews who were attached to Jesus in preference to standing with the Jewish establishment. Perhaps, also, Paul felt that unless he stepped in and did something drastic, there would no longer remain Pharisaic Judaism as he knew it—or Judaism at all. What did happen was that Pharisaic Judaism survived in the form of Rabbinic Judaism.

What If…?

Not only was the survival of Judaism at risk. If the Jewish people as a whole, with their leadership, had followed Jesus as their prophet, there would be no Christianity, either; instead, there would be a different kind of Judaism that included Jesus as a great reviver or reformer prophet. There would be no compromised monotheism, no deification of Jesus. So maybe instead of asking, “Why did Paul persecute the followers of Jesus before his conversion,” we should ask, “Why did Paul apparently ‘convert’ to a form of religion different from the religion of Jesus, his fellow Jew?” Or, perhaps…Did he remain a covert Pharisaical Jew and not convert at all? Did he simply pretend to convert and then, by design, proceed to alter—and thus eliminate—the greatest challenger to his historical Judaism?

In view of the fact that Paul’s ‘gospel’ differed dramatically from the Gospel of Jesus as found in the opening sections (Gospel books) of the New Testament, we can argue that Paul did not convert to Jesus’ Gospel (injîl) at all, even though Paul is today generally celebrated as ‘the second founder’ of the worldwide religion that venerates Jesus, called ‘Christianity’!

In fact we can say that Paul was the first ‘Christian’ and that his activity served to supplant the genuine teaching of Jesus. Whereas Jesus continued pure monotheism and called for his people to return to their trust in God, Paul, by contrast, violated monotheism in teaching a ‘Lord Jesus Christ’ as deserving of worship alongside God. So, just how was this substitution, or hijacking, maneuvered?

To be continued, inshâAllah, in PART 6

Written By

Growing up Christian, Dr. Linda Thayer came to realize in her teens, that Jesus as 'divinity' and Jesus as the second 'person' of a 'Godhead' (the doctrine of the 'Trinity') were philosophical constructs, evolved later and not part of the New Testament Gospel books' portrait of the Son of Mary. In her 30's, when working as Bible translations consultant and linguistic advisor in West Africa, she had already added all things Islamic to her reading list, along with Biblical Studies. She has three university degrees in linguistic science (BA, MA, PhD), with a minor in anthropology. She believes that her fellow Muslims need to be current with the thinking and findings of modern Biblical Studies in order to meet Christians halfway in understanding the prophetic mission and personal nature of Jesus. To this end, she writes of the historical phenomenon of the Jesus movement from an interfaith perspective that dovetails with the Quran and ahâdîth.

"You are invited to respond to the contents of the article and to engage in conversation about the issues raised."


  • “Recall that “LORD” is a title regularly used of God, and of Him alone, in the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”).”

    According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ‘adon, Lord, “usually refers to men. Sarah used it in reference to her husband (Gen 18:12)” (page 12). “When ‘adon appears in the special plural form, with a first common singular pronominal suffix (‘adona[y]), it always refers to God” (page 13).

    So, whether or not “Lord” refers only to God in the Hebrew Bible depends on whether it’s being used in the singular form or in the plural form.

  • In the New Testament, “Lord” is used for people and for God. It is used to address an individual like Philip with respect (John 12:21), for the master of a servant (John 15:20; Acts 16:16,19), for the Roman emperor (Acts 25:26); and for addressing one’s husband (1 Peter 3:6).

    Thus, in the New Testament it is context that determines whether or not the word indicates divinity. In the case of Jesus, as the messiah who will come and rule over Israel, it makes sense to call him lord without any attribution of divinity. It’s only later on that the church takes the word to mean divinity when used with Jesus.

  • “Paul’s ‘gospel’ differed dramatically from the Gospel of Jesus.”

    I don’t see where the author gets this. In Galatians, it’s clear that Paul recognizes Peter as the apostle to the Jews (Gal 2:7) and recognizes elsewhere that the Jews should continue to follow the law. Paul’s argument was that non-Jews didn’t need to become Jews or follow Jewish law, which the Jewish church agreed with (Acts 15), indicating that Paul’s gospel wasn’t different.

    • I do not get this from reading Paul. I get it from comparing the message of Jesus with Paul’s message about Jesus. There are a number of subtle and unsaid or under-emphasized interpersonal and political aspects to what is gathered into the Church’s approved document. Hopefully, you will get my drift as you read on.

  • It wasn’t just Paul who called Jesus “Lord.” Note that Peter also did in the speech at Pentecost, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2: 36, also check out Luke 24:34). As with Peter and others, calling Jesus “Lord” didn’t indicate divinity for Jesus for Paul.

  • I agree with you that calling Jesus by a name meaning something like “master, “or, “mentor” or, “rabbi” is something appropriate since a person with authoritative teaching deserves the highest respect and following. A person with teaching revealed by God is worthy of special title.
    But I see the English term “Lord” as having a checkered history. Once it translates a term applied to God, then we have the problem of clarifying the status of whoever else it applies to. But of course, we have that problem with any words we use to refer to God. The languages I am familiar with choose “he” (not “she” or “it”) to refer to God. Does that imply that God is more masculine than feminine (to use human imagery)? Does it imply that he is a special category of “person”? We use the facilities of the languages that we grow up in. The simple answer is that language has noun classes–and pronoun classes to coordinate with the noun classes. Two of the classes, in many languages, are typically named “masculine” and “feminine” simply because human and animal males and females belong in separate classes and are referred to respectively as “he” or “she”–or their equivalents–along with thousands of other nouns which are without biological gender properties.
    If “Lord” in both Hebrew and in English, has been used for human individuals, than one must find a unique term for God–or, be content with a less than perfect term. My concern is that “Lord” is being used for both God and Jesus–with the same understanding implied–by those who see Jesus as a form of God. In Islamic thinking seeing Jesus as a form of God (“incarnation”) demeans God since, in fact by necessity (to speak philosophically), He is utterly unique and utterly other than His creation. (Quran 112:1-4)

    Also, it leaves a mystery surrounding a God-sent person like Jesus. To think of Jesus as God lacks clarity of meaning, even if such were possible. It fails to elevate Jesus properly, at the same time.
    “Lord” is currently used for Jesus by those who deify him as well as by people like yourself, who see him as a, let’s say, “rabbi,” to fit his context. And of course, we know that Jesus accepted this designation of “Teacher,” or “Rabbi” (John 4:31, et al). Muslims include this meaning in the term “prophet,” which is how we think of Jesus–not to demean him as some Christians would feel that we do, but to put him in the most exalted category available to humankind, in Islamic terminology.
    You say that “Lord” did not indicate divinity for Paul. What then do you make of the statement in [Paul’s] Letter to the Colossians 1:15?:
    “Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God.”
    Do you say that “Christ” indicates divinity, but that such attribute of divinity (labeled “Christ”) was secondarily attached to Jesus–whose essential nature was human and nowise divine? Or do you say that Paul did not write Colossians? The same for [Paul’s] Letter to the Philippians 2:6:
    “He always had the nature of God…”?
    Do you say that maybe Paul did not write Philippians? (We know that modern scholars question the authenticity of some of the New Testament Letters attributed to Paul.)
    I can accept your reasoning as stated, but I believe that most serious Christians would say that “Lord” when applied to Jesus refers to divinity. When Christians address Jesus in prayer, would you say that this is wrong? Can they address Jesus in prayer without attributing to him divinity?

  • Yes, for Christians, the term “lord” is problematic although it’s interesting that in the Spanish bible, “Lord” is translated as señor, which is also used with people to mean “mister.” That’s why it’s important to educate people on the meaning of the word in that era. It’s the same with the Qur’an in that some words can be distorted as when the Qur’an speaks of the “face” of Allah or the “hand” of Allah. Are we going to change the words in the Qur’an given from Allah because people misunderstand them? Or are we going to educate them?

    On Colossians 1:15, I addressed that Part 7 and wrote, In Genesis (1:27), we read that mankind was created in the image of God, but no one thinks that Adam or Eve are divine–including Paul, who, as the author notes, compared Jesus to the first Adam. Moreover, Paul’s student, Timothy wrote, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). If Timothy called Jesus a man, and Paul was his teacher, then it would seem that Paul didn’t consider Jesus to be divine but has been misunderstood by non-Jewish Christians and Muslims.

    What translation are you using for Philippians 2:6? All the ones I read have the word “form”, not “nature.” And the word in Greek is “morph,” which means form, a synonym for “image,” which goes back to Genesis. In fact, a careful reading of Phil 2:6 again supports the notion of Jesus as non-divine. My own translation of this verse is, Jesus “who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped.”

    Again, the ‘form of God’ is a synonym for ‘image of God.’ Adam was created in the image of God, and Paul is often comparing Adam (the first man) to Jesus (the second man). In the biblical account, Adam, and his wife Eve (Genesis 3:5), wanted to be like God, that is, equal to God, and tried to attain this equality by grasping the apple and eating it. Jesus, unlike Adam, does not seek to attain equality with God.

    Some scholars, following the lead of the early Greek church fathers, take “grasp” to mean “hold onto something already obtained.” But the primary reaming is “robbery” or a “prize to be grasped.” To use the “hold onto” meaning destroys the comparison between Adam and Jesus. Also, as far as I know, the “hold onto” meaning is found only in church writings, which are naturally quite biased and want the meaning to fit their theology, rather than take the normal meaning that fits the context. Even if it were a legitimate meaning in some contexts, in this context, it’s similar to saying, and just as absurd, that the money a bank robber seized from the bank was not to be seized because he already owned it.

    On the issue of prayer, I would need to re-read how the Bible presents this issue, but just hastily, it’s always been my understanding that Christians can pray “in the name of Jesus,” which has either the meaning “in the authority of Jesus” or “for the sake of Jesus.” No doubt, Christians pray incorrectly to Jesus as if he’s divine.

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