Home » When Did Judaism Stop Believing in a Divine Messiah?

When Did Judaism Stop Believing in a Divine Messiah?

by Dr. Eitan Bar
9 minutes read

The doctrine of the divinity of Christ and the concept of the Trinity are perhaps the most challenging Christian beliefs for Jews to accept. While Christianity posits that Jesus is the divine Son of God and a part of the Holy Trinity – consisting of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Judaism firmly upholds the belief in a singular, indivisible God. This fundamental difference creates a theological divide between the two faiths, as the notion of God taking human form and the idea of a triune deity directly contradict the principle of monotheism held by modern Judaism. Consequently, the doctrines of Christ’s divinity and the Trinity serve as significant stumbling blocks in the theological dialogue and understanding between Christians and Jews.

But in fact, Jews often misunderstand the Christian concept of the Trinity, thinking that Christians believe in three separate gods rather than one. They also sometimes believe that Christians think Jesus, a human, turned into a god. For example, Rabbi Daniel Ballas has written:

According to the Christian belief, the creator of the universe is three gods, whom they call the ‘Holy Trinity’. The ‘Trinity’ is the name given to their group of gods.[i]

Evidently, the notion of the New Testament teaching a belief in three gods or a group of gods is either a misunderstanding or a straw man argument. In fact, the New Testament consistently teaches that God is one:

One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:6)

We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.”
(1 Corinthians 8:4)

Of course, the term “Trinity” is not found in the New Testament. Instead, it is a traditional name for the three persons of God. At the same time, the very beginning of the Bible, the first two verses of Genesis, reveal the Creator as more than one distinct person: “God” and “the Spirit.” Genesis 1:1-2 states, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” A few verses later, it is written: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness’” (Genesis 1:26). In this instance, God refers to Himself in the plural. Despite Judaism’s belief, it is clear that God did not consult with angels during the creation process, as evident in Nehemiah 9:6.

Other books in the Bible, such as Proverbs, Isaiah, and Daniel, describe a third figure, “the Son,” in addition to God and the Spirit of God. In the book of Isaiah, for example, God refers to the Messiah as His child and son, attributing His own divine attributes to the Messiah:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

This child is no ordinary one, for he is not only destined to inherit David’s throne, signifying his lineage as the Messiah, but he also embodies the divine titles, such as “Mighty God, Everlasting Father,” reserved solely for God. Jewish sages have also interpreted this passage as a prophecy foretelling the divine nature of God’s Messiah.

Dr. Ruth Kaniel, a Jewish scholar with a doctorate in Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, discusses the concept of the Messiah in ancient Judaism. According to her research, the belief in a divine Messiah is not foreign to ancient Jewish thought, and various ancient Jewish sources point to a figure that is God-like:

The ‘Messiah’ was regarded as the ‘Son of God,’ a notion subtly alluded to in the Bible, the accounts of the prophets, and the Book of Psalms.[ii]

Even beyond the Bible, Jewish writings demonstrate that ancient Judaism held the belief that the Messiah would be the Son of God. For example, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, document 4Q246, known as the “Son of God Scroll” and dating back to the third century BCE, the Jewish expectation for the Messiah is described. This particular scroll interprets Daniel 7:13, asserting that the Messiah would indeed be the ‘Son of God.’

Many might be surprised to learn that the concept of the Trinity is not entirely alien to rabbinic Judaism, albeit under a different name: “Herez Deshlosha,” or the Secret of the Three. For example, Rabbi Zvi Nashi explains that in the book of Zohar (Jewish mysticism):

The same Holy and Ancient One is revealed in three heads that are included in one head, and he is the head that is exalted three times. The Holy Ancient One is described as three, and even the other lights that are exalted from its source are included in the three.[iii]

This statement, which could easily be mistaken for a Christian quote, is in fact a quintessential Jewish thought on the one God manifesting Himself in three distinct persons.

Yet, the most compelling revelation comes from a prominent Jewish scholar, Prof. Benjamin Sommer (Jewish Theological Seminary), who openly acknowledges that the concept of the Trinity is in fact a very Jewish concept. Below are few quotes from his book “The Bodies of God”:

For all the trouble that Jewish and Muslim philosophers have had with this notion, the trinity emerges as a fairly typical example of the fragmentation  of a single deity into seemingly distinct manifestations that do not quite undermine that deity’s coherence. It is appropriate, then, that Christian biblical commentators connect the trinity with Genesis 18, the story of the three visitors who came to Abraham’s tent, because that passage presents a banner example of the fluidity of Yhwh’s selfhood (p. 132).

Classic language of trinitarian theology, such as μια οὐσία, τρεῖς ὑπόστασις [sic] (one nature, three persons, or one substance, three manifestations), applies perfectly well to examples of Yhwh’s fluidity in the Hebrew Bible and to the fluidity traditions in Canaan and Mesopotamia (p. 133).

The presence of God and of God-as-Jesus on earth is nothing more than a particular form of this old idea of multiple embodiment, and hence no more offensive to a monotheistic theology than J and E sections of the Pentateuch (p. 133).

Some Jews regard Christianity’s claim to be a monotheistic religion with grave suspicion, both because of the doctrine of the trinity (how can three equal one?) and because of Christianity’s core belief that God took bodily form. What I have attempted to point out here is that biblical Israel knew very similar doctrines, and these doctrines did not disappear from Judaism after the biblical period. (p. 135).

In summary, Judaism has long recognized God, the Spirit of God, and the Son of God as persons or manifestations through which the one God reveals Himself. But what about the other objection? Did Jesus become God?

The Jew who once became God

A rabbi goes to see his Catholic friend, a bishop. “Listen,” he says, “there’s something I’ve never quite understood about the Catholic church. it’s hierarchical, right?”
“Right,” says the bishop.
“So,” says the rabbi, “if you do a really great job as a bishop, you might become…what?”
“Well,” says the bishop, “if I’m fortunate, I might become an archbishop.”
“And if you do a really great job as an archbishop?”
“I suppose, someday, I could even be a cardinal.”
“And if you do a really great job as a cardinal?”
The Bishop, starting to get a little annoyed, answered, “I guess after that I could, theoretically, become the Pope.”
“And if you do a really great job as the Pope? Then what?” Asks the rabbi.
“What would you expect me to become after the Pope?!?” says the bishop, “God Himself?!?”
The rabbi shrugs. “Well,” “one of our boys made it!”

Jokes aside, the argument that Christianity advocates for the idolatrous idea of a human being evolving into a god is, unfortunately, a misrepresentation. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner states: “Turning a person into a god – by what name shall we call it if not idolatry?[iv]

Setting jokes aside, the argument that Christianity promotes the idolatrous idea of a human being evolving into a god is, regrettably, a misrepresentation. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner states: “Turning a person into a god – by what name should we call it if not idolatry?

First, let’s acknowledge that we all concur – the pagan notion of a human being evolving into a god is unmistakably idolatrous! However, this argument stems from a misunderstanding of Christian beliefs and constitutes a “straw man argument.” The New Testament does not teach that a human became God. On the contrary, the New Testament presents Jewish theology at its finest – a concept that was self-evident to Jews until about a thousand years ago. It asserts that the Messiah is the ultimate embodiment of God in human form. Throughout the Bible, we witness the longing of the fathers, prophets, and kings for God to reveal and manifest Himself. This hope is fulfilled in Christ. In Jesus, God approaches us, demonstrating that He is not a cold, distant, or unapproachable deity, but one who loves his creation and seeks to reveal Himself to us.

In other words, God is not a theoretical concept on paper, far removed and disconnected from humanity. Instead, He is a God of love who desires to reveal Himself to the creation He made, to be close and accessible, and to live and walk among us. This idea, as prophesied in the Bible and fulfilled in the New Testament, was actualized in the person of Messiah Jesus – the pinnacle of God’s revelation to humanity.

Now, if you are Jewish and the notion of “God revealing Himself to mankind through the Messiah” seems unfamiliar to you, and you suspect that it is not an authentically Jewish concept, consider what Prof. Ruth Kaniel, a Jewish scholar specializing in Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, writes about the Messiah in ancient Judaism:

The Messiah was perceived in the ancient East as the ‘Son of God,’ an approach that is also hinted at in the Bible, in the stories of the prophets and in the Book of Psalms.[v]

Likewise, Rabbi Abba Bar-Kahana, an Amora (great sage) and a priest who lived before the Talmud was completed wrote:

What is the name of the messianic king? Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: The Lord is his name, as it is stated: “This is his name that they will call him: The Lord is our righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6).”[vi]

Another example comes from Jewish prof. Ora Limor, who discusses the perception of the divine Messiah in Judaism in early Middle Ages:

During the days of Isidore of Seville, the beginning of the seventh century,…the Jews largely gave up the view that the Messiah would be God himself…here, too, the polemic [with Christianity] can be asserted outwardly as shaping attitudes inwardly. The current [in Judaism] who believed in the divinity of the Messiah was pushed aside, or at least spoke in a softer language, even if did not disappear completely, while the current that saw in the Messiah only a king of flesh and blood prevailed.[vii]

 Likewise, Daniel Boyarin, a Jewish Professor of Talmud, explains:

Many Jews believed that redemption was going to be effected by a human being, an actual hidden scion of the house of David—an Anastasia—who at a certain point would take up the scepter and the sword, defeat Israel’s enemies, and return her to her former glory. Others believed that the redemption was going to be effected by that same second divine figure mentioned above and not a human being at all. And still others believed that these two were one and the same, that the Messiah of David would be the divine Redeemer.[viii]

Many Israelites at the time of Jesus were expecting a Messiah who would be divine and come to earth in the form of a human. Thus the basic underlying thoughts from which both the Trinity and the incarnation grew are there in the very world into which Jesus was born and in which he was first written about in the Gospels of Mark and John.[ix]

In summary, Jewish scholars acknowledge that ancient Judaism once believed that the Messiah was the incarnation of God. However, it was during the Middle Ages when the rabbis, in opposition to the biblical prophets, decided to make a theological U-turn to distance Jewish theology as far as possible from anything resembling “Christian” beliefs. This shift, however, stands in stark contrast to biblical Judaism, which did indeed teach and believe in the divinity of the Messiah!

This article was an excerpt from my new book: “Why Don’t Jews Believe in Jesus.

[i] https://www.hidabroot.org/article/78994

[ii] Kaniel, “Sacredness and Sanctity”, pg. 43.

[iii] Zohar Part 3:1; in Hebrew by Rabbi Zvi Nashi, “Harez Desholsha”.

[iv] https://meirtv.com/alon-1500/

[v] Kaniel, “Sacredness and Sanctity”, p. 43

[vi] Eikhah Rabbah 3

[vii] Limor, Between Jews and Christians, pg. 83.

[viii] Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (2011), pg. 5

[ix] Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (2011), pg. 6

You may also like:

Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist