The Christian Monotheism of the Second Temple

by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon

001 John peter templeWhen, on the occasion of the arrest of Peter and John, the Church assembled to pray, a chief component in the prayer was the second psalm. That psalm was chosen, obviously, because it spoke of a collusion of God’s enemies against His Messiah:

“The kings of the earth rise up and the princes come together against the Lord and against His Anointed One.”

In the arrest of her two notable apostles the Church recognized the very collusion described in the psalm:

“For truly against Your holy servant (pais) Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, have gathered together.”

This meaning was—and is—perfectly plain.

What is perhaps not so plain—a point, indeed, that begs explanation—is the particular and striking way the Church invoked God at the beginning of the prayer:

“Lord, You are He that made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them.”

Why, in the context of this prayer, where the historical circumstance is very specific, do we find this direct and explicit attention to God as the universal Creator? What was there about the arrest of Peter and John that prompted the Church to introduce the doctrine of Creation?

This question uncovers, I believe, the relationship joining the Church’s Christological faith to the form of monotheism inherited from Israel. The Jews of the Second Temple did not just believe in and worship one God. They believed in and worshipped a particular and identifiable God—namely, the God who created all things. Israel’s God, they were persuaded—the God of the Exodus and the Covenant—was also the Lord and Ruler of all mankind, because He was the universal Creator.

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That is to say, the monotheism of the Second Temple was both universal and restrictive. It was universal inasmuch as it worshipped the Creator who was, by a righteous claim, the God of the whole human race. It was restrictive in the sense that only Israel knew this unique God. The rest of the human race was plunged in idolatry, a darkness rebellious against the light.

Two New Testament sources direct attention to this dark rebellion against the Creator: John and Paul. We may consider them in turn.

St. John speaks of this hostile darkness when he describes the revelatory light God put into the world by its creation through the Logos:

“All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.”

God’s Logos, John goes on, was not a static and ideal form in creation but a living, revelatory presence.

“In Him was life,”

he writes. God the Creator, through His living and abiding Logos, continued to reveal Himself to the human race:

“The life was the light of men” (John 1:4).

This living light, however, shines forth in a hostile environment, inasmuch as

“everyone who does evil hates the light and does not approach the light” 3:20).

This darkness is far from neutral:

“The light shines in the darkness (skotia), but the darkness avto ou katelaben.”

This last clause is ambivalent in the etymological sense that it has two meanings. It declares both that

“the darkness (skotia) did not conquer the light”

and that

“the darkness did not apprehend the light” (1:5).

St. Paul speaks of this hostile darkness when he describes the failure of men to discern the truth God reveals in the created order. Paul speaks of “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Because God’s

“invisible aspects (ta aorata) are perceived (kathoratai), being understood (nooumena) by the things that are made,” writes Paul, these men “are without excuse.”

Although they did, in fact,

“know God (gnontes ton Theon), . . . . their foolish heart was darkened (eskotishe)” (Romans 1:18-21).

John and Paul, in the course of their extensive ministries, had met this darkness many times. They understood the frustration of preaching the greater light of the Gospel to men already resistant to the light revealed in creation.

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The apostolic word to the world contained a principled premise: the light of God was all one; the redeeming God was also the creating God. When the Christians assembled to pray, then, at the arrest of Peter and John, they first invoked God as Creator. Jesus was not just any sort of Messiah. He was anointed by Israel’s God, the Creator and Ruler of everyone and everything.

 

 

 

About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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