It is a common misunderstanding that Jews rejected Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah because his followers declared that he had been made divine. Quick reflection ought to dispel such a notion. All of Jesus’s early followers were Jews and all of them believed that he was divine. So how could monotheistic Jews make the claim that Jesus resided with God in heaven and still consider themselves Jews?
The answer is that divinity was a much broader concept in the ancient world. The heavens of both pagans and Jews were populated by many divine figures. Among the Romans, a number of chief gods like Jupiter (Zeus), Juno (Hera), Pluto (Hades), and Mars (Ares) populated the celestial realms competing for space with localized, ethnic deities like Isis and Osiris in Egypt, Cybele in Anatolia, and Mithras from Persia. Tribal and clannish gods filled out the ranks of the supernatural along with the daimones, nature gods, and spirits. Even humans could enter the divine realm. Pharaohs were considered gods as were certain Roman emperors.
The Jewish world was little different. Although all Jews recognized YHWH as their chief god, there were divine “sons of God” (Gen 6:2-4; Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7) angels (Gen 1:26, 24:7; Exod 3:2; Num 22; etc.) cherubim (Ezek 10) and seraphim (Isa 6) in the heavens. The Watchers were a special class of angel (1 Enoch 1-36). Satan (Matt 4:10, etc.) and other hostile supernatural forces were acknowledged to exist by the time of Jesus. Mastemah (Book of Jubilees), Belial (Prov 6:12 “adam beli-yaal”), and Asmodeus (Tobit 3:8, 16) joined their ranks. Even humans were acknowledged to become divine. The Torah tells of Enoch who “walked with God, and then he disappeared because God took him away” (Gen 5:24, NET). The historical books of the kings told how “suddenly a fiery chariot pulled by fiery horses appeared . . . and Elijah went up to heaven in a windstorm” (2 Kgs 2:11, NET). Later Jewish speculation about Moses concluded that he, too, had become divine probably owing to the Torah’s claim that God “buried him in the land of Moab near Beth Peor, but no one knows his exact burial place to this very day” (Deut 34:6, NET). Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were thought to be living in heaven by the time of Jesus. The gospels attest to Jesus’s belief in their divine nature, as well (Mark 9:4, 12:26-27; Luke 16:22).
So, there was no a priori reason why a Jew could not believe that a human had been made divine. That was, after all, the claim made by all his followers. Christ had risen and would come again. Most Jews, however, objected to the idea that Jesus of Nazareth had become divine, not that a human could not ascend to live with God.
Jesus’s followers did not make the claim that the risen Christ was synonymous with YHWH or God the Father. Even the apostle Paul, who some revere as the founder of Christianity, subjugated Christ to God the Father (1 Cor 15:28). But some Jewish believers could go so far as to identify Christ with an integral aspect of God the Father. Take for example the concept of God’s Wisdom.
Paul identified Christ as God’s Wisdom. Wisdom, normally described in feminine terms due to the word’s grammatical gender, was conceived by some as an anthropomorphized expression of, or manifestation of God. Though God’s Wisdom was God’s, she could function independently on God’s behalf. We learn a lot about Wisdom from the Bible (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes), as well as from a number of intertestamental Jewish texts (the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Ben Sira) considered authoritative by many Jews in the Greek-speaking world at the time of Jesus and Paul and now found in the apocryphal or deutero-canonical sections of modern Christian Bibles.
Wisdom was God’s first created entity and assisted God with the creation itself. Wisdom, speaking for herself, proclaimed that . . .
“From eternity I was appointed, from the beginning, from before the world existed . . . When he established the heavens, I was there; when he marked out the horizon over the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above . . . when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him as a master craftsman, and I was his delight day by day, rejoicing before him at all times, rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth, and delighting in its people.” (Prov 8:23-31, NET).
Notice what Paul says about Christ as God’s Wisdom: “But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the Wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24, NET) and God “is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us Wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30, NET). Paul called Christ “the Wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery, that God determined before the ages for our glory” (1 Cor. 2:7, NET).
Notice how people traditionally had a bad habit of rejecting God’s Wisdom.
Wisdom calls out in the street, she shouts loudly in the plazas; at the head of the noisy streets she calls, in the entrances of the gates in the city she utters her words: “How long will you simpletons love naiveté? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge? If only you will respond to my rebuke, then I will pour out my thoughts to you and I will make my words known to you. However, because I called but you refused to listen, because I stretched out my hand but no one paid attention, because you neglected all my advice, and did not comply with my rebuke” (Prov 1:20-25, NET).
This is just how Christ was portrayed in the gospels: rejected yet vindicated by his followers.
“To what then should I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, yet you did not dance; we wailed in mourning, yet you did not weep’ . . . The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But Wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Luke 7:31-35, NET).
This is the closest that Jews would come to identifying Jesus Christ with God himself. It is not quite the same as saying that Jesus was one of three persons in the Godhead, as later trinitarian Gentile Christians would creedalize, but it was close. It should cause us to reassess the “high christological” statements made about Christ throughout the New Testament. Perhaps quite a few of them were actually acceptable to many Torah-observant Jews.