Old Testament scholar Bernard M. Levenson says that to regard the Shema as an assertion of monotheism is "a view that is anachronistic. In the context of ancient Israelite religion, it served as a public proclamation of exclusive loyalty to YHVH as the sole LORD of Israel..."1

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.b (Deuteronomy 6:4) [NJPS]
Note b: Cf. Rashbam and Ibn Ezra; see Zechariah 14:9. Others “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” [And the LORD shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one LORD with one name.d Zechariah 14:9]

Of the NJPS rendering of Deuteronomy 6:4 Levenson states:

NJPS correctly departs from the more familiar translation, “The LORD [YHVH] our God, the LORD is one” (see translators’ note b). Each of the two interpretations is theoretically possible because, in Hebrew, it is possible to form a sentence by simply joining a subject and a predicate, without specifying the verb “to be.” The Hebrew here thus allows either “YHVH, our God, YHVH is one” or “YHVH, is our God, YHVH alone.” The first, older translation, which makes a statement about the unity and the indivisibility of God, does not do full justice to this text (though it makes sense in a later Jewish context as a polemic against Christianity). The verse makes not a quantitative argument (about the number of deities) but a qualitative one, about the nature of the relationship between God and Israel. Almost certainly, the original force of the verse, as the medieval Jewish exegetes in translators’ note b recognized, was to demand Israel show exclusive loyalty to our God, YHVH – but not thereby to deny the existence of other gods! In this way, it assumes the same perspective as the first commandment of the Decalogue, which, by prohibiting the worship of other gods, presupposes their existence.2

Levenson notes the similarly of meaning with the First Commandment:

You shall have no other gods besides Me. (Deuteronomy 5:7)

This first commandment takes for granted the existence of other gods; its concern is only to ensure Israel’s exclusive loyalty to YHVH. This perspective, called “monolatry,” is found frequently within Deuteronomy (see 6.4; 32.8-9, 43; 33.2-3, 27). The idea of monolatry is often expressed by representing YHVH as the ruler of the divine council (see 32.8 n.; Psalm 82; 89.6-8; cf. Exodus 15.11). That perspective almost certainly represents an earlier form of Israelite religion. Ancient Near Eastern sources similarly envision a chief god ruling over a council of other gods. During the Babylonian exile, perhaps under the influence of Second Isaiah, a very different understanding developed. Radical “monotheism” affirms God’s greatness, not by portraying Him as more powerful than other gods but, instead, by denying the existence of other gods altogether (see 4.15-31 n; Isaiah 43.10-12; 44.6-8, 45.5-6, 14, 18-19, 22).3

In other words, where the Torah states there are gods (plural) and Israel is to worship only YHVH, under the Rabbinic teachings of the Second Temple period, the existence of any god other than YHVH was denied.

If this is so, then it seems the Fourth Gospel's statement "...the Word was God" is meant to serve as a correction to this wrong understanding of monotheism and the nature of God.

Is John 1:1 meant to correct what Levenson calls radical monotheism and to restore a proper understanding of the qualitative nature of God?

1. Bernard M. Levenson, The Jewish Study Bible, Edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 380
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., p. 375

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    Also, of note: Block, Daniel I. “How Many is God? An Investigation into the Meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4–5.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. June 2004: 47/2, p. 192–212. – Der Übermensch Oct 10 '20 at 17:58
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    What do you mean by 'radical' monotheism? Do you mean Unitarianism? – Sola Gratia Oct 10 '20 at 18:46
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    How can you more or less radically believe in only one God (monotheism)? – Sola Gratia Oct 10 '20 at 19:39
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    What is indicated is that God has more to express (than in previous revelation within Israel) and what he has to express (word) is a Person who was from the beginning (before that previous revelation). So, yes, this is additional revelation but you would need to prove that kai can carry the meaning 'that is to say' or another emphatic rendering, from other places first, before expanding its meaning in this particular place beyond what is properly gathered from its general usage. But +1 for an interesting rendering. – Nigel J Oct 10 '20 at 19:53
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    @NigelJ The explicative καὶ is discussed in BDAG 3rd edition p. 495. Lists several examples, Romans 1:5, Matthew 8:33, John 1:16 among others. – Revelation Lad Oct 10 '20 at 20:43

Here, I will assume that "radical monotheism" means "extreme monotheism" or the equivalent of Unitarianism; that is, God/YHWH is a single God, indivisible and one person, AND that YHWH is the ONLY God.

There are thus, two matters here:

  • Is God a single person?
  • Are there other gods, lesser, false or otherwise.

The second question is easier than the first. The NT recognizes that there are gods other than Jehovah, for example:

  • 1 Cor 8:5, Paul talks about "many gods" and "many lords"
  • Phil 3:19, Paul talks about people who make a god of their stomach

However, these references also say that such gods are false gods and that there is only one true God, the Father, 1 Cor 8:6.

In the OT, YHWH is spoken about in plural or manifold terms. Here is a sample:

  • Zech 2:6-12 – the LORD (= YHWH) claims three times that He has been sent by the LORD.
  • Isa 48:11-16 – again, the LORD has been sent by the LORD.
  • Isa 63:7-16 – the LORD (described as a Father) sends His divine servant (the angel of His presence) and His Holy Spirit who is grieved (compare Ps 78:40).
  • Ex 23:20 – the angel of the LORD’s presence has the power to forgive sin (but will not). This and the previous reference clearly make the angel of the presence the pre-incarnate Jesus.
  • Hos 1:7 – the LORD saves by the LORD their God.
  • Prov 30:1-4 – the Son of God is as unfathomable as God Himself.
  • Ps 45 (quoted by Heb 1) talks about the “Son” being God in addition to God the Father.
  • Isa 9:6 - a prophecy about Messiah who would be, " ... mighty God, everlasting Father ... " (compare Isa 10:21 where YHWH is also called "mighty".)

This data is depite numerous OT statements that there is one and one only God, namely YHWH, Deut 4:35, 6:4, 32:39, Isa 44:6, 45:5, 6. However, none of these precludes the theoretical possibility that while YHWH is one ("echad" as per Deut 6:4) that TYHWH is more than one person.

Thus, I appear to agree with Bernard M. Levenson. So, what are we to make of John 1:1? The simplest and safest conclusion, in my judgement is:

John 1:1 - "The Word was god" - grammatically, this is a Greek logic category statement equivalent to saying, "My house is single story", or, "My car is a Ford". That is, Jesus is pronounced according to the later (somewhat confusing) doctrinal statements as composed of the same "substance" as God the Father because Jesus is in the category of God. [For a lengthier discussion about this see Daniel B Wallace, "Greek Grammar beyond the Basics", page 266-270, where he concludes that John 1:1c is a predicate qualitative statement, ie, a category statement.] This is consistent with other NT statements as well:

  • Matt 1:23, … and they will call Him Immanuel, which means, “[the] God with us”. (This declares Jesus as ὁ Θεός.)
  • John 1:18, “…but God the one and only who is at the Father’s side has made him known”
  • John 5:23, “so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent Him.”
  • John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.” (Compare Deut 6:4.)
  • John 20:28, “Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God.’” (This declares Jesus as ὁ Θεός.) [Compare this statement with Ps 35:23, “Contend for me, my God and Lord.” See also V24.]
  • Phil 2:5-8, “…Jesus Christ: who, being in very nature God…”
  • 2 Thess 1:12, “…according to the grace of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.”
  • 1 Tim 3:16, “Who was revealed in flesh …” [The antecedent of “who” is God in v15, according to NA28/UBS5, etc. The Byzantine text makes this explicit: “God was revealed in flesh …”.]
  • Titus 2:13, “…our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.”
  • Heb 1:8, “About the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, will last forever’”.
  • Heb 1:9, “therefore O God, Your God, has anointed You above Your companions with the oil of joy.”
  • 2 Peter 1:1, “…righteousness of our God [= ὁ Θεός] and Saviour, Jesus Christ.”
  • 1 John 5:20, “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true—in His Son Jesus Christ. He (οὗτός) is the true God and eternal life.” [Note: οὗτός never refers to the Father in John’s writings and nearly always refers to the Son.]
  • You wrote, "John 1:1 - "The Word was god" ...That is, Jesus is pronounced ... as composed of the same "substance" as God the Father because Jesus is in the category of God." This is where it goes pear-shaped. You are effectively saying, "in the beginning was Jesus". This is not what John writes or intends (obviously, or he would have said such) This is confusing what John writes and gives invalid exegetical results/conclusions. Your long list is based on a false premise. Then, there's all the texts about Jesus being a man only that refute these conclusions. – user48152 Oct 12 '20 at 0:50
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    @user48152 - you and I disagree - I agree with the evidence above. Jesus is God as per the above Scripture. – Dottard Oct 12 '20 at 1:31
  • For this question, you might want to consider the historical sequence of the different statements. John 1:1 (and the other statements within John) are made after the others and so are intended to be "the last word" on the matter. Fundamentally, current Jewish beliefs about the nature of God are inconsistent with the OT and, as Levenson states, a polemic against Christian beliefs (which can only mean a Trinitarian understanding of His nature IMO). – Revelation Lad Oct 12 '20 at 17:12
  • @RevelationLad - I fully agree. Current "conventional" Jewish thinking is noticeably different theology from 1st century Jewish thinking - Christianity would struggle to arise in current Jewish Theology BUT it blossomed in 1st century theology. – Dottard Oct 12 '20 at 20:26

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