Paul Tillich, A History Of Christian Thought


Intertestamental Period

We spoke yesterday about the preparation of Christianity in Hellenistic philosophy. Today we come first to the Hellenistic period of the Jewish religion. Of course, the Old Testament is the soil on which Christianity grew, but there is a long period between the end of the Old Testament and the appearance of the Christ. This period developed in Judaism ideas and attitudes which deeply influenced the Apostolic Age, i. e, Jesus, the apostles, and the writers of the New Testament, etc.

The first is the development of the idea of God in this period between the Testaments, (the inter-testamental period, as it is usually called.) It is a development towards a radical transcendence: God becomes more and more transcendent, and for this very reason He becomes more and more universal. But a God who is absolutely transcendent and absolutely universal has lost many of the concrete traits which the God of a nation has. Therefore names are introduced which try to preserve some of the concreteness of the divinity, names like “the heaven”: therefore we often find in the New Testament not “the kingdom of God” but “the kingdom of heaven”; or “the height,” coming down from the height.. . etc.; or “the glory.” All these words indicate the establishment of a more concrete God. At the same time, the abstraction goes on under two influences: 1) The prohibition against using the name of God; 2) In the fight against anthropomorphisms of the past seeing God in the morph , the image, of man (anthropos) the passions of the God of the Old Testament disappear. The abstract oneness is emphasized. This made it possible for the Greek philosophers (who had introduced the same radical abstraction with respect to God), and the Jewish universalists ,with respect to God, to unite. It was especially Philo of Alexandria who carried through this union, in the idea of God.

But if God has become abstract, then it is not sufficient to hypostasize some of His qualities, such as heaven, height, glory: more is needed. Mediating beings appear between God and man who become more and more important for practical piety.

There are three main concepts of this mediating character. First, the angels: they are deteriorized gods and godesses from the surrounding paganism. In the period of the prophets, when the fight with polytheism still was going on, they couldn’t play any role. But when the danger of polytheism was completely overcome as it was in later Judaism then the angels could reappear without too great danger of a relapse into polytheism. But even so, the New Testament is aware of this danger and again and again warns against the cult of the angels. These are the first figures which mediate.

The second is the Messiah: the Messiah has become a transcendent being, the king of Paradise. He is also called, in the Danielic literature, which is dependent on Persian religion, the “son of man” who will judge the world. In Daniel it is probably used for Israel, but it became more and more the figure of the “man from above,” as Paul describes him in I Corinthians 15. And when Jesus calls himself the “son of man” or when the very earliest tradition called him in this way, this also means “the man from above,” the original man, who is with God and comes down when the kairos is fulfilled.

Thirdly, these names of God are increased and become almost living figures. The most important figure is the figure of God’s wisdom, which already appears in the Old Testament: the wisdom which has created the world, which has appeared in the world, and which returned to heaven since it did not find a place among men an idea very close to the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel.