Did Paul Split The Shema In 1 Cor. 8:6?

Beginning in the 1990s, New Testament scholars began to promote a novel interpretation of 1 Cor. 8:6. I am not sure who the first scholar was to set forth this interpretation but it has been promoted by such luminaries as Simon Gathercole, Richard Bauckham, N. T. Wright, Ben Witherington, Larry Hurtado, James Dunn (though he changed his mind later) and others. This then novel interpretation has since become nearly unanimously accepted within NT scholarship and has become a favored apologetic argument. This interpretation of 1 Cor. 8:6 has been defined in various ways – Paul is expanding the Shema to include Jesus; Paul is adding Jesus into the Shema; Paul is including Jesus in the divine identity; and most popularly, Paul is splitting the Shema.

Incredibly, some have proposed that Paul has taken the Shema, the Jewish creed found in Deut. 6:4, and has divided the elements of it between God the Father and the Lord Jesus, thus making Jesus part of the creed. From the Hebrew scriptures Deut. 6:4 reads:

Hear, O Israel, Yahweh (is)our God, Yahweh (is) one.

This seems rather straightforward. Yahweh is Israel’s God and he is one. Now my purpose in this article is not to delve into the various ways in which we could understand Yahweh’s being one, but to show the nonsensicalness of this novel interpretation of 1 Cor. 8:6. The real problem arises when we read the passage from the Greek LXX:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord (Gr. kurios) our God (Gr. theos), the Lord (kurios)is one.

Here the name Yahweh has been replaced with the Greek word kurios meaning lord, master, a word denoting one who has absolute authority over others. This was done because the Jews had developed a practice of not saying the name of God, the Tetragrammaton, out loud when reading scripture, but instead replacing it with adonai, meaning Lord. Eventually this led to replacing the name when translating the scripture into other languages, like Greek, with the word from the other language that meant lord. In Greek the word that best translates adonai is kurios. Now it is important to understand that kurios is not a translation of the tetragrammaton, but a translation of adonai which is substituting for the tetragrammaton. Therefore, kurios is a substitution for Yahweh.

Now lets look at 1 Cor. 8:6 – “Yet for us there is but one God (theos), the Father
. . . and one Lord (kurios), Jesus the Messiah.”

What the proponents of this novel approach to this passage are suggesting, is that, based on the Greek of Deut. 6:4, Paul is applying theos to the Father and kurios to Jesus, thus splitting or dividing up the Shema between the two and so including Jesus in the identity of Yahweh.

The first thing I want to say in response is that the Hebrew is cleary equating Yahweh with God in the statement “Yahweh (is) our God” and then stating that this God, Yahweh, is one. The Greek, likewise, is equating kurios with our God and then stating that this kurios is one. Yet when we look at Paul’s statement we see that he is differentiating between the one God, who is the Father, and the one Lord who is Jesus. So, whereas the Hebrew and Greek of Deut. 6 :4 involve an equation between the words Yahweh and God and between Lord and God, Paul’s statement demands a distinction between the one God and the one Lord. This shows that Paul’s statement is not dividing the Shema between the two persons, but rather that Paul is doing something else.

Second, I do think Paul has the Shema in mind here, but that it is fully covered in the statement “For us there is one God, the Father,” by itself. Let’s compare this statement with the Shema. The words ‘for us’ correspond to the word ‘our’ in the Shema; the ‘one’ corresponds to the ‘one’ in the Shema; ‘God’ here corresponds to ‘God’ in the Shema; and ‘Father’ here corresponds to ‘Yahweh’ in the Shema. Paul’s allusion to the Shema in this passage simply marks out the Father as the one God, known in the history of Israel as Yahweh. Hence, the Shema is fully covered in this first statement of Paul. Then, to this ancient confession, Paul adds the further necessary confession of the one Lord (kurios), Jesus the Messiah. This would seem to eliminate the possibility that kurios in this verse is being used as a stand-in for the name Yahweh, since the name Yahweh has already been alluded to, in the first clause, under the one God, the Father. So kurios must be understood here in it’s normal lexical meaning of lord, master, denoting one who has absolute authority over others.

The impetus for my writnig this article was a recent debate between Carlos Xavier and Sean Luke, a graduate from Trinity Evangelical Divinty School, on this very subject – Did Paul Split the Shema? One argument of Mr. Luke, who took the affirmative position, was based on the semantic connection of v. 6 to v. 5 of 1 Cor. 8. I don’t know if this argument is original to Mr. Luke or if he derived it from the scholars mentions earlier; most of what he argued seemed to be simply a repeating of what those scholars have said. His argument was that the ‘lords’ of verse 5 are in a sense synonymous with the ‘gods’ i.e. both the ‘many gods’ and ‘many lords’ mentioned by Paul were deities, and so because these ‘many lords’ of v. 5 are being contratsed with the ‘one Lord’ of v. 6, then the Lord of v. 6 must be a divine Lord. He sees the clause “just as there are many gods and many lords” as confirmatory of Paul’s concession that “for if indeed there are so-called gods.” So the many gods and many lords of the second clause are both referring to the so-called gods of the first clause. Therefore, Luke thinks the many lords must be understood as deities just as the many gods are. And then this means that when Jesus is called the ‘one Lord‘ this must be understood as a divine Lord, rather than just a human lord. While I can agree with Luke that the many gods and many lords may be referring back to the phrase “so-called gods”, I do think he is begging the question by assuming that the many lords must be divine in nature. Here’s why.

In between the two clauses just mentioned there is another clause which Luke completely ignored in his argument – “whether in heaven or on earth.” A literal rendering of the Greek of the first two clauses of v. 5 would read:

“For even if it is so that there are those being called gods, whether in heaven or on earth . . .”

Paul acknowledges that there are those who are being called ‘gods’ by other people and that these who are called gods are found both in the heavens and in the earth. Is it not reasonable to assume that those being called ‘gods’ who are in heaven are beings that are considered ontologically divine and that those being called ‘gods’ who are on earth are beings who are not considered ontologically divine i.e. human rulers? That human rulers were called by the title ‘god’ is a fact of ancient history known to everyone who has studied ancient history. Not only was this true among gentile nations but even from a Jewish perspective human rulers, such as kings, could be designated as ‘gods’1. The mistake that many make is to assume that when these human rulers were called ‘gods’ that meant that it was thought that they were actual deities. But this is not the case. Rather they were called ‘gods’ because they had power over others and because they were regarded as ruling on behalf of some actual deity. It was their status that was considered divine not their ontololgy. Everyone knew that the Emperor of Rome was a human being ontologically, but was called a god by virtue of his status as supreme ruler. In this regard he was also designated ‘Lord’.

So I propose that when Paul said there are many gods and many lords, the many gods corresponds to those so-called gods in heaven i.e. those considered as actual deities; and the many lords corresponds to those so-called gods on earth i.e. human rulers, who often were also designated ‘Lord’2. Hence, when Paul differentiates between the one God, the Father, and the one Lord, Jesus the Messiah, he is distinguishing between the one actual deity worshipped by believers, the Father, and the one absolute human Lord, who has absolute authority over all believers, Jesus the Messiah.

To my mind, this is a much simplier explanation of Paul’s words and doesn’t involve all of the complications that come with saying that Paul has split the Shema and included Jesus in the identity of God.


  1. See Ps. 82 – see also my article on Psalm 82 which shows the ‘gods’ mentioned there to be human kings. See also Ps. 45:6.
  2. See Acts 25:26 where the Roman Emperor is called to kurio, the Lord. See also Rev. 17:14 where the Lamb is designated “Lord of lords” i.e. King of kings.

Author: Troy Salinger

I am 60 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 37 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 41 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

4 thoughts on “Did Paul Split The Shema In 1 Cor. 8:6?”

    1. I mean I came to believe that Jesus was the savior and lord of humanity. At first I believed he was part of God, i.e. the trinity, because that was what I was taught. But after 35 yrs I, by God’s grace, have come to believe he is simply human.


      1. Ok. Thank you. The messiah was foretold and all about a virgin birth, etc. Jesus did have God’s spirit at birth and he studied the scriptures as most boys did. He came to realize he was the one predicted. All through this he was the son of God, not God the son.
        Text me. 703.371.6760. Cheers.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Good article, Troy. I have always thought the ‘splitting the Shema’ interpretation of Deut. 6:4 to be rather strange, because that would imply that the previous verse should be understood to mean, “just as there are many gods and many Yahwehs.” I wonder how the scholars who support this interpretation justify this odd reading.


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