Mark reports an incident in which a scribe asked Jesus, “What commandment is first of all?” Jesus replied using the words of Scripture, “Hear, Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Mark 12:29; Deut 6:4). In Mark this statement introduces the first commandment. The statement is the beginning of what Israelites called “the Shema” (Deut 6:4-9) from the Hebrew word for “hear.”
This part of the answer in Jesus’ response, oddly, is omitted by Matthew (22:36) and Luke (10:26-27), making Matthew and Luke disagree with Mark by their omission of the idea of the oneness of God. This statement (the Lord is one) was voted gray by the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar by a mail vote. There were no red votes; 40 persons voted it pink, 53 voted it gray and 7 black (the weighted average of the vote indicated the saying had a 0.44 percent chance of being original with Jesus), which necessitated a gray color in The Five Gospels.1 The color gray signified that “Jesus did not say this but the ideas contained in it are close to his own.”2 The principal rationale for the negative vote is that the saying has singular attestation; that is, it only appears in Mark.3 Singular attestation for the saying, however, should not disqualify the saying, since the Seminar voted numerous sayings with singular attestation as originating with Jesus (for example, Luke 10:30b-35). A second objection to the saying being something Jesus said is that it is an integral part with the dialogue in which it is embedded. But that is also true of other sayings of Jesus approved by the Seminar (for example, Luke 9:59-60, Mark 2:27-28, Matt 22:21).
Had Jesus grown up in a social context that was even nominally religious he could scarcely have helped being familiar with the Shema or even speaking its words numerous times:
“You shall teach [these words] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be a frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the door posts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:6-9).
That “the Lord is one” became Judaism’s confession of faith; it both stresses Yahweh’s exclusiveness, and emphasizes that Yahweh is “an integral person, not divisible into a number of other Gods or forces.”4 If the Book of the law discovered in the temple (2 Kgs 22:8-13) and that was responsible for the reforms of Josiah in 622 BCE (2 Kgs 23:1-25) was the Book of Deuteronomy, as is generally assumed,5 the Shema subsequently would have played an important role in the religious life of the Israelite. I see no serious argument causing me to doubt that Jesus shared the view of the Shema that “The Lord, our God, is one Lord.”
Mark 12:29, however, surfaces a serious clash between Jesus (if he actually shared this idea) and contemporary Christianity. Jesus’ statement “the Lord, our God, is one Lord” seems to me to be something very different from Christianity’s the Lord, our God, is three persons in one.6 What do you think?
Missouri State University
1“Voting Records,” Forum (6,3-4 September/December 1990), 271.
2Robert Funk and Roy Hoover, eds., The Five Gospels (Macmillan, 1993), 36-37.
3Five Gospels, 104-105.
4J. A. Wharton, “Shema, The” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 321-22.
5 J. Kenneth Kuntz, The People of Ancient Israel (Harper & Row, 1974), 317-27.
6 C. W. Hedrick, “Public Image and a Triune Deity,” Blog: Wry Thoughts about Religion: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/searchq=public+image+and+a+triune+deity