The Trinity – a Pagan invention, or an ancient Jewish idea? – Part 1
The writer next to the Old City (Photo: Tuvia Pollack)
A common Jewish objection against Christianity or against Messianic Judaism is that the theology of the Trinity is a gentile idea, developed in the 4th century by Catholic scholars, and that there are no Jewish sources for these beliefs.
However, anyone who has dug around in the sources of the early church fathers knows that the decisions that were made in the 4th century were mostly just an affirmation of the doctrines and the New Testament canon that had already been established organically during the past few hundred years. There were discussions about the nature of Jesus as God and man, etc, but the basic ideas of the trinity and Jesus being God were already established. The discussions were about the exact nature.
Why were these doctrines so basic already? Because they are very clear in the New Testament. “Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” “Me and my Father are One.”
An objection we often hear is that there are historic sources pointing to the Evionites as a sect of Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah, but didn’t see him as divine. The claim is that these were Jesus’ original followers, but that they eventually died out, and that the gentile church with their pagan-inspired trinity theology took over. It’s a nice story if you don’t believe in Jesus, but it doesn’t hold up.
First of all, we know from the New Testament that Paul fought against false prophets and Judaizers. We shouldn’t be surprised that sects of Jews who believed in Jesus but denied his divinity existed. The fact that they existed doesn’t mean that they were Jesus’ original followers. Second of all, who says that the idea of trinity didn’t exist within Judaism before Jesus? The doctrine is actually present in the Old Testament if you only know where to look for it.
Why can’t we find any Jewish sages speak of it? That is expected. Following the split of Christianity, that doctrine must have been scrapped and censored. However, there are a few remnants. A number of clues in ancient writings that seem to point to the idea of the trinity being present in Jewish thought before Jesus, and even lingering on a few hundred years after.
After reading a number of books on the subject, such as “The Great Mystery, or How Can Three Be One,” by Rabbi Tsvi Nassi (1800 – 1877), and “The Messiah in the Old Testament,” by Dr. Risto Santala (available to read for free online), I was myself convinced that the idea of the trinity had existed long before Jesus, at least in some form or another.
I used the knowledge from these books to write parts of a chapter in my book, “The Secret Scroll of Magdala,” where one of my main characters, Daniel, sits together with his wife Naamah and studies Torah together with their rabbi, Yishmael. Daniel and Naamah are Nazarene Jews (Christians) while Yishmael is a Pharisee.
Since it seems that it will be a while before my book gets published, I thought I’d share a small part of this specific chapter with you. It takes place in the synagogue of Jericho in the spring of year 68 AD, just a few weeks before the Romans sacked the city.
I want to make clear that these characters and the story are fictional. It is based on ideas from the above mentioned books, but I have also added a lot of my own imagination and assumptions, based on my own personal beliefs.
Naamah considered herself fortunate. It wasn’t considered proper for women to study Torah, yet her husband, Daniel, was not only supportive, but encouraging her to learn more. Now she was sitting together with Daniel and Jericho’s rabbi, Yishmael, in the synagogue’s study center. The walls were lined with shelves filled with scrolls of all shapes and sizes. There were a number of tables throughout the room. During the day Yishmael would use this space to teach boys and men of all ages who wanted to deepen their knowledge of the Torah. Women were not allowed. That’s why Yishmael had his lessons with Naamah and Daniel in the middle of the night. There was a cold white light from the full moon that shone through the windows. Oil lamps were scattered throughout the room and cast flickering shadows. They were carefully arranged so that they would provide the needed light, but still not be too close to a scroll. One little mishap, and all the scrolls would be lost forever.
***(skipping a part of the chapter that is not relevant)***
Naamah had been scrolling the Torah scroll backwards a bit while they were talking, and now she had found the part she had been looking for.
“Rabbi, can I ask you something? Who is God talking about here?” She pointed to a section of the scroll. Yishmael peered down at it. Naamah wasn’t sure, but didn’t she notice a hesitation? Some sort of insecurity? He slowly read through the section she had pointed out.
“See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him. If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you.”
Yishmael looked up.
“Look… some of the wisest rabbis in the world have discussed who this angel might be for centuries.”
“And…? Have they reached a conclusion?”
Yishmael took a long breath and closed his eyes. “I am not sure I should tell you.”
Yishmael didn’t reply. His eyes were closed, and Naamah saw that his lips formed soundless words. He was praying. He opened his eyes and looked at her and Daniel.
“Very well. I will tell you. Most rabbis agree that the angel God refers to here is not a regular angel. After all, it says malach – which also means messenger. Since God says that ‘my Name is in him,’ he cannot be an angel, but another type of messenger. Most rabbis agree that this is about… Metatron.” His voice went down to a whisper.
A shiver went down Naamah’s spine. “Metatron? ‘Next to the throne’ in Greek? Is that the angel that is closest to God?”
“Yes and no. Since no one can see God and live, this Metatron hears God’s words and tells it to the humans that God speaks to. Whether it is Abraham, Moses, Elijah, anyone. No one actually spoke directly to God, but to Metatron. Therefore, Metatron is God. Or rather, he is more God than he is an angel. Some speak of him as the Word of God. Depending which language you speak, it becomes Davar, Mimra, or Logos. In Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek.”
“So let me see if I understand. You say this is a messenger of God who actually is God but he is also an angel?”
“Well, not really. He is the Word of God, so he is constantly coming out of God. The psalm says ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you.’ Many say that this must be Metatron, since he is constantly begotten of God, as he is always his connection to human beings. One must even draw the conclusion that Metatron was the one who said this to Moses as well. And Metatron was therefore in the pillar of cloud that walked before the people of Israel in the desert.”
“I have a question about this,” Daniel said. “This Metatron – was he created by God, or did he always exist as a part of God?”
Yishmael went silent again. Naamah thought she could really see how he was thinking back and forth whether to tell them more or not. He got up from his seat and went up to the window. Looking back and forth, to make sure no one was listening. As he came back to talk to them he lowered his voice.
“I am not allowed to tell you this.”
“Because it is too easily misunderstood. Our wise rabbis have decreed that what I am about to teach you must be kept secret unless the student is at least forty years old, and has studied Torah for at least ten years. You are both far from fulfilling these criteria.”
“But why those restrictions?”
“Because it can be wrongly interpreted as idol worship. People might think that it means that we believe in three gods. Of course we don’t. God is one, and one only. But he is also three. This is what we call raz deshlosha – the secret of the three.” Yishmael was whispering again.
Naamah felt a cold shiver tingle throughout her body. They were being told the deepest secrets now, she knew that. Yishmael got up again and went to bring another scroll. He opened it up, and pointed to a section. Naamah immediately recognized that it was the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
“Read this section.”
Naamah eyed the part he had pointed to and started to read with a trembling voice.
“I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord, the deeds for which he is to be praised, according to all the Lord has done for us — yes, the many good things he has done for Israel, according to his compassion and many kindnesses. He said, ‘Surely they are my people, children who will be true to me’; and so he became their Savior. In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. Yet they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit. So he turned and became their enemy and he himself fought against them.”
Naamah looked up at Yishmael with a puzzled look.
Yishmael smiled. “Who do you think is the angel of his presence? Who can that be if not Metatron, right? The one messenger that conveys God’s actual presence. This is Metatron who leads them out of Egypt in the pillar of cloud, redeeming them, lifting them up, carrying them. And then, when the text speaks of how we rebelled against God, which led to the Babylonian captivity, it says that we grieved his Holy Spirit. So we can see three manifestations of God’s presence here. The Father, the Metatron, and the Holy Spirit. This has been a secret knowledge among Pharisaic rabbis for hundreds of years. It has been conveyed from mouth to ear only, never to be written down, due to the sensitivity. If the Sanhedrin finds out that I have told you, I might lose my license to be a rabbi. But I trust you.”
“So you are telling us that God is three but still one?”
“Exactly. The same God. But in some sort of mystical way, that we can’t fully understand, he is also three. Every day during the prayers we say the Shma, right? Shma Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad – Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. We say his name three times, and then we confirm that he is One. Three but still one.”
“But how can we know that these are ‘parts of God?’ How can we know that they are not angels?” Naamah wondered.
“Well, how did God create the world?”
“God created the world through his Word. By saying things. ‘Let there be light.’ So Metatron cannot be a created being. He has always been with God, since eternity. In a way he is God – or at least part of God. Why do you think God said ‘Let us make mankind in our image?’ Why do you think that the very word for God, Elohim, is in plural form in Hebrew? God is so more complex than we can imagine, even if he is One. When God said ‘Let there be light’ – that was the light of Metatron.”
To be continued.. (Go to Part 2)
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Tuvia Pollack is a teacher and translator at the Jerusalem Assembly and also an unpublished writer of historical fiction novels depicting Judeo- Christian relations throughout history. Articles published here originally appear at his blog on tuviapollack.com.