By Jeff Boldt
Modern Christians wrongly tend to view the Old Testament as the record of a religion that Christianity replaced. Not only does this mean that we think the laws of Moses have been cancelled, but that our concept of God has changed in the direction of trinitarianism. In fact, however, God does not change, and it is evident from the Old Testament that he has always been a Trinity.
Contemporary Jewish scholarship (Alan Segal, Daniel Boyarin) has shown that “binitarianism” — the belief that there are “two powers” in heaven — was a live option for Jews at the time of Christ and for centuries after. For long after the parting of the ways between Jews and Christians, the rabbis continued to fend off binitarians from within and trinitarians from without. For an early example, take Jesus’ contemporary, the Jewish philosopher Philo, along with the writers of texts like the Book of Wisdom, Sirach, and the Palestinian Targums; all identified a second divine power as God’s “Word/Wisdom.”
The early rabbinic commentary, Genesis Rabbah, would identify this second eternal being with Torah itself, while our own St. Athanasius would hinge his biblical argument for the “consubstantial” nature of the Word on the identification of God’s pre-existent “Wisdom” as the “beginning” of God’s ways in Proverbs 8. Not to be confused with the idea of a first moment in time, “beginning” rather denoted a first cause, a head, or a firstborn — what in New Testament Greek is termed an arche: John’s “In the beginning (arche) was the Word” means that the Son of God was “in” God as the first cause of all things. And Paul will combine “beginning,” “head,” and “firstborn” in his description of Christ’s divinity:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col. 1:15-20)
Additionally, the idea that “the Son is the image of the invisible God” goes back to Genesis, where we are told that Adam is made in the image and likeness of God. Adam is a type, then, of a heavenly archetype; the blueprint of Adam is Christ. Again, the rabbis noticed that the word “likeness” was applied to the “figure like that of a man” whom Ezekiel saw seated on God’s throne (1:26) and who rode the Shekinah glory into the presence of the Ancient of Days according to Daniel 7. No doubt the New Testament identifies this divine likeness of a man with Christ who, after his resurrection, ascends on a cloud to a throne at his Father’s side. What should be noticed here is that already in the Old Testament there is a clear indication that in some sense the invisible God had a visible human form, that humans were replicated from a divine form, and that an Incarnation was not a conceptual impossibility.
The visibility of God was obvious in Torah where we find him walking with Adam and Eve in the garden, appearing as a man (or three) to Abraham, Jacob, and others. The Church fathers outright identify these theophanies with Jesus. What this implies is that our linear notions of time are somehow rearranged by the work of Christ. Remember that it was Jesus’ assertion of superiority over Abraham, who “saw him,” that got him killed (John 8:58). “Before Abraham was, I am” was Jesus applying to himself the divine name revealed to Moses at the burning bush: “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:14).
As is well known, the “I AM” is a play on God’s personal name, YHWH, which means something like “He who is.” It points both to the fact that God is the self-subsistent first cause of creation and to his consistency of character. Revelation riffs on the name this way: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8, 11). So when Jesus claims the divine name, he is both claiming divinity and indicating that his incarnate life reveals the perfectly consistent character of God; in other words, that incarnation and crucifixion were the plan from the beginning.
Early Jewish Christianity furthermore identified Jesus with the tetragrammaton — the four-letter personal Name, YHWH. Much of Hebrew Scripture, as well as the Greek and English translations, substituted the title “Lord” (notice the peculiar font) for the mysterious tetragrammaton to avoid taking his name in vain. The New Testament preserves respect for the name by rendering it as “Lord,” but it also parses out different titles to different trinitarian persons: the Father is frequently “God,” and the Son is frequently “Lord.” Thus when Philippians 2 says that Jesus received the name above all names, it means the tetragrammaton specifically: “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord [i.e. YHWH], to the glory of God the Father.”
In fact the distinction and semi-autonomy of the tetragrammaton is already indicated in Exodus 23:20-23 where God is distinguished from the Angel of the Lord enthroned within the glory-cloud that led Israel out of Egypt:
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. My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land.
The distinction in identity between God and his Angel led Jews to speculate about who this name-bearing messenger could be. Correlated with Daniel’s Son of Man, the most notorious answer was that this second divine power was Enoch, referencing Genesis 5:24 where he apparently ascends into heaven alive. In the intertestamental times and on to the present, a mystical literature has grown up around Enoch in which this ascended patriarch is transfigured into an angelic replica of YHWH. Perhaps proposed as a marketable alternative to Jesus by heterodox Jews, the divine Enoch made the mainstream rabbis unhappy; for God was not supposed to share his divinity with another. Thus, in the Talmud, Enoch receives a beating in heaven. Nonetheless, the early Church knew who this Angel actually was.
Finally, Jarl Fossum has shown that exegesis of Genesis 1 led first-century Samaritans to identify God’s creative Word, “Let there be …”, with the tetragrammaton-bearing angel of the Lord. Why? The repeated divine fiat is yet another conjugation of the Name of Yahweh: compare יהוה (YHWH) with יהי (YHY: “Let there be”) as well as אהיה (AHYH: “I AM”). The Word, therefore, that God utters to create all things is just a form of the name revealed to Moses and incarnated in Christ. Thus we come full-circle to see the interlocking conception of a second power in heaven that is at once Word, Wisdom, Beginning, Head, Firstborn Son, enthroned Image, Son of Man, I AM, Tetragrammaton, and Angel of the Lord. By now I hope you will see that there is quite a lot of evidence that the Trinity is in the Old Testament, though it would take a whole other essay to consider the Third Person of the Trinity.
Jeff Boldt has a Th.D. from Wycliffe College and serves as a priest in the diocese of Toronto.
Gieschen, Charles A. “The Divine Names in Anti-Nicene Theology.” Vigiliae Christianae 57, no. 2 (May 2003): 115–58.
Segal, Alan F. Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism. Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2012.