Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Key notions defined series: 5. God

Having completed my main review of the New Testament (and some Old Testament) texts, cataloguing almost 500 passages, I am "celebrating" that milestone by publishing a part of the paper that helps me in the processing and weighing of these texts, which is currently entitled Chapter 2: Key Notions Defined. It also is an opportunity for me to tidy up these definitions. Here is the next one:


Oh my God, she’s beautiful!” exclaimed the younger sister to her older sister, Millie, cradling the new-born baby in her arms.

O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame”, writes the Psalmist 3000 years ago, pleading to Israel’s all-powerful, universe-creating, divine council-presiding and nation-founding God, Yahweh, to keep his country and people.

What we mean when we say a word like “g-o-d” can vary a lot (see “Deity”). One of the questions of this paper is do we understand that the “God” of Paul is the same “God” of Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa and the other fourth century religious authorities, and if it is redefined what does that mean for us?

Dr. Carl Mosser also informs us that the word God – θεός or theos, in Greek – might not originate in Greek as a being. In early antiquity it was frequently used in an adjectival sense, i.e. of that divine realm. For Greek-speaking Jews who carried belief in Yahweh, ultimate supreme creator and presiding among the heavenly council (Psalm 82), the fullest sense of theos in the first century was of “that ultimate one, the God of Israel” when prefixed by “ho” (the). However, because theos does not originate in Hebrew, but in Greek, it seems possible that it came to be used increasingly as a noun with the expansion of its empire into Jewish areas. Mosser notes that the earlier more generic sense was not instantly replaced and that in the first century both usages could be happily used alongside, relying on context to communicate the intended meaning. Dr. Winfried Corduan, who makes an interesting case for original monotheism (that monotheistic religions did not “evolve” from a pantheistic root), might take issue with this slow shift in usage from one language into another.

Dr. Paula Fredriksen is also in agreement with Mosser, however, that we need to be careful about the application of words like “deity” and “god” in the early Christian era. In the ancient world, it was a commonly held view, monotheistic cultures included, to see other divine gods as present and active, but that towering above them all was the one True God, the Creator of all things.

The Old and New Testaments, with a possible few exceptions, like Isaiah, seem to accept and presuppose the existence of other gods, and yet Christians are often sheltered from this more ancient form of monotheism. Indeed, Psalm 82 and other Old Testament passages  would suggest a more plural divine picture, but all the same: allegiance and worship were reserved for God Almighty, El Shaddai, as shown in Exodus 6:3 as YHWH.

Some of the most famous words in the Old Testament are the ten commandments given to Moses, and the very first, and possibly most important of these seem to pre-suppose other gods:

You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God (Exodus 20:3-5).

Another final point we stumble over a few times in the paper is the issue of this definite article preceding “theos”: ho (the). In Greek, you get a strong idea of the subject being a specific being when this definite article is used, i.e. “ho Theos”. First century believers – like Arabic-speaking Christians in North Africa to this day – are quite comfortable about saying “the God” all the time. When it is without the article, well, that is a big debate!

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