Is the Incarnation pagan? Is the Trinity in the Scriptures?
Many have heard of a familiar criticism of Christianity from our other monotheistic friends. The doctrines of the “Trinity” and the “Incarnation” are teachings that others critique as polytheistic, pagan and an invention of Christians in the first few centuries after Christ. These claims are not only not true, but fall flat to the demonstrable and strong hermeneutic of continuity between the old testament and the new testament. Between the God that visited Abraham and the God that became human for us in Christ Jesus. The Myth that the Trinity and the Incarnation is a “violent hermeneutic” of the Bible is the Myth that we are going to bust today.
The ‘Memra’ of God in the Jewish Targums
Born in 25 BC, Philo of Alexandria was a Hellenistic Jewish Philosopher. In his writings Philo discusses the “Logos” or the Word of God. We can find a very similar concept in the following prologue of the Gospel of St John. The word of God according to Philo was the ‘Spiritual mind of the Transcendent God’. This philosopher predated Christianity but the “word of God” was not just a stand alone concept from one Jewish Philosopher and he wasn’t borrowing the Logos concept from the Greeks. His reflections on the Logos scratches on the surface of the Jewish understanding of the “Memra” of God in the scriptures, the aramaic term for “the word of God”. A targum largely reflects midrashic interpretation of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). The earliest Targums date from the time after the Babylonian Exile (6th century BC). A targum frequently expanded on the Tanakh with paraphrases, explanations and examples. In our case they are ancient Jewish translations of the Tanakh. When we read Targums mentioning the Memra of God, we find a surprising similarity with the Gospel of John.
“From the beginning with wisdom the Memra (Word) of the Lord created and perfected the heavens and the earth … And the Memra (Word) of the LORD said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light by His Memra (Word). A (Genesis 1:1–3; Targum Neofiti) “My Memra (Word) shall be unto you for a redeeming deity, and you shall be unto My Name a holy people.” (Targum Yer. to Lev. xxii. 12, as quoted in Jewish Encyclopaedia). “When the Word of the LORD (Memra) shall be revealed to redeem his people, he shall say to all the nations, ‘See now that I am he who is and was, and I am he who will be in the future….’ and he, by his Word (Memra), will make atonement for the sins of his land and of his people.’” (Deuteronomy 32:39, 43; Targum Pseudo Jonathan) The Memra of God is an ancient Jewish concept found in Jewish Targum.
The Memra of God is God
In these Targum translations of the Tanakh, we see that the Memra of the Lord isn’t simply words of God that we understand in communication, but as a surrogate for God. In the Book of Exodus God says, “I will be with you,” and in the Targum Onkelos it translates, “My Memra will be your support.” Also in Exodus we are told that Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet the Lord, in the same Targum it is translated that they were brought to the Memra of God. Also in Genesis it reads “Yahweh shall be my God,” and in Targum Onkelos it speaks of the Memra of Yahweh.
The Memra of God became flesh
Some monotheists argue that God cannot be a man and also God at the same time. I would like to invite you to keep that thought in your mind as we look at some passages from Genesis. Hopefully you will start to see that God can surprise us and challenge our understanding of what He can do. Let’s look at the story of the three visitors to Abraham. 1 The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. 3 He said, “If I have found favour in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.” 6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.” 7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree. 9 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There, in the tent,” he said. 10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.” Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?” 13 Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” 15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.” But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.” Genesis 18:1-15 In verse 1 It says that the Lord appeared to Abraham and in describing that, he mentions Abraham meeting three “men” and bowing to them in verse 2. In verse 8 the men ate the food that Abraham had prepared. In verse 10 one of the “men” says to Abraham that He will come back in a year and that Sarah will have a son.
In verse 13 and 14 it is now the Lord repeating what was said in verse 10 to Abraham again. We can see from this that at least one of the “men” was a manifestation of God. The one that looked like a man, that spoke in verse 10 was the Lord, the Lord ate food with the other “men” and spoke to Abraham in a human-like way. It makes us think, if it’s possible for God to come down in a human form to Abraham and remain one God, then is it unreasonable to consider God taking on human nature at a future time and be with his people in Jesus Christ? Is that really a completely un-jewish concept? Also is it not reasonable to be open to the possibility of specifically the Memra (word) of God taking on human nature in the same way?
Let’s also consider the Incarnation in a different way. In the Hebrew Bible, the “Shechinah” is the visible manifestation of God’s presence dwelling among men. “Schechinah” comes from the root “shachan,” which means “dwelling” while the Greek word “Skeinei” means tabernacle. In the Tanakh, the Shechinah can be found in many places Gen.3:8; 23-24; Ex.3;1-5; 13:21-22; 14;19-20; 24; 16:6-12; 33:17-23; 34:5-9. In these passages, the Shechinah has a variety of visible manifestations such as “light”, “fire”, “cloud”, “the Angel of the Lord” (Malakh YHWH), and more. In the Temple, the Shechinah continued to dwell in the holy of holies. When the Jews returned from Babylonian captivity, the second temple was finished, but the Shechinah was not there. In Haggai 2:3-9 we read that the Shechinah would return in a magnanimous way. If we look to the second temple, we will never see the Shechinah return as it was destroyed in 70 AD. However, if we look to Jesus Christ, we see the Shechinah: In the Gospel of John it says “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” As stated before, the Greek word “Skeinei” means tabernacle so John 1:14 literally reads, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.”
I hope you can see, after reading this article, that the Blessed Trinity wasn’t an invention by early Christians, not a concept borrowed from the Greeks, but something with deep roots in the Tanakh, something very familiar with the Jews. The Word of the Lord was with God in the Beginning, He was there throughout the story of Israel and became flesh to dwell amongst us in Christ. I hope you now realise where to find the Shechinah, that is with Jesus Christ, God made man. Be like Abraham and welcome this visitor into your home and you’ll then find the Lord in your midst and during this Advent and Christmas season, be like the wise men, who found the baby Jesus and recognized the Lord in their midst.