Monday, May 26, 2014

Ehrman Chapter 2: Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism

I am working through Bart Ehrman's, How Jesus Became God, on Mondays.  Here are the posts so far:

1. Divine Humans in Ancient Greece and Rome

Today is chapter 2, "Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism."

In this chapter, Ehrman aims to show that there was a spectrum of "divinity" within Judaism just as within the Greco-Roman world. For most of this review, I want to take the examples he gives and put them into my own sense of the flow of Jewish thought.

A key point comes at the end of the chapter and is worth starting with: "It is absolutely the case that by the time of Jesus and his followers most Jews were almost certainly monotheists" (83). So what is his point in the chapter then?  It would seem to be this: Humans nonetheless, "could share some of the authority, status, and power of that one God." I am good with this assessment.

However, I'm not sure that is the same thing as the next sentence: "Even within a strict monotheism, there could be other divine beings and the possibility of a gradation of divinity." I don't think that's quite right. The sentence before shows that, in Judaism, it was really only when a being was representing God in a very, very narrow sense that we come anywhere close to saying such a being "shared" in the "authority, status, and power" of the one God.

That is to say, in Judaism we only get divine language used of other beings in a derivative way. No being comes close to such language on its own but only in some special relation to the one God, in a representative or reflective sense. And even then, it's not like we have a lot of examples of this sort of thing.

Old Testament Henotheism
So we start with some OT passages he mentions that reflect a henotheist view. Yes, Israel not only had its share of polytheists (the sort Elijah contended with). Yes, the Israelites were mosly henotheists and "monolaters" who only worshiped Yahweh while not denying the existence of other gods (e.g., Ps. 82; Deut. 32:8-9).

Nothing new here. Again, even he says, "by the time of Jesus and his followers most Jews were almost certainly monotheists" (54). So this is fun historical background... largely irrelevant to the question of what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus.

The Old Testament King 
It might shock you to know that the Israelites could refer to their earthly king as "God," but there's nothing to see here. This is well known. Psalm 45 was originally a wedding psalm for a king. But, as Michael Bird points out, there was no confusion for anyone in ancient Israel between the king and God himself (42). The king as God's representative on earth is clearly distinguished from the God in 45:7.

The question, again, is whether this aspect of Israelite thought centuries before Jesus is relevant to the time of Jesus. It does seem to me that the incident in the play by Ezekiel the Tragedian (ca. 200BC) does indicate that some Jews at the time of Christ could think of an earthly king "sharing" the honor due God in a derivative way. But I disagree with the way Ehrman puts it.

Ehrman puts it this way: The stars "bow down in worship to Moses, who has been transformed into a being even greater than they" (61). I don't agree. They bow down to Moses because he is sitting on God's throne, representing the one God. It is a derivative bowing, not an instance of Moses himself being transformed into the divine. I have argued this elsewhere.

The Angel of the Lord
The Angel of the Lord is an interesting figure in the early OT. Genesis and Exodus seem to consider this messenger of Yahweh so much to be identified with Yahweh that those who see the angel are said to see God. John Collins puts it this way, "there is no substantive difference between the deity and his agents" (57).

An interesting history lesson. But is it relevant to the time of Jesus? It was some 1000 years earlier or so.

Angels Having Sex
I'm not sure this is really relevant either to the topic of how the earliest Christians came to equate Jesus with God. Yes, many Jews did believe that angels could have sex with women. 1 Enoch explains Genesis 6:1-2 in this way. As a side note, Dale Martin might suggest that many Jews thought of angels as truly masculine such that they didn't have "to assume human shape" (63). Isn't it just as likely that these Jews assumed angels were literally male?

Exalted Angels
Ehrman mentions a number of exalted angels, but you can't blur Psalm 82 with the Prayer of Joseph or the Apocalypse of Abraham. They are separated by numerous centuries. Is Ehrman's implied argument:
  • The word God is plural in OT Hebrew and can mean "angels."
  • There are angels who come to earth in the Prayer of Joseph and Apocalypse of Abraham
  • Therefore, we can say that these angels who come down to earth in later texts are gods come to earth.
Maybe I'm missing something but this logic doesn't seem to work. The meanings of words at any one point in time are a function of that point in time, not hundreds of years earlier.

Humans who become angels
Again, it feels like he's mixing up some different times and places. So Enoch doesn't become an angel in Genesis or in most of 1 Enoch. There are some texts from around the time of Christ where humans become angel-like (2 Baruch). I do believe there are places where the dead are thought of as becoming angels (Acts 12:15). Basically, it's all over the map.

I'm waiting to see, though, any evidence yet that the earliest Christians thought Jesus had become an angel.

Hypostases and Philo
I think Ehrman goes too far in thinking of wisdom and word in Jewish thought as hypostases. I think for the vast majority of Jewish literature, wisdom and logos are simply personifications of God's attributes, spoken of poetically and figuratively. For example, I disagree with him in thinking that the Wisdom of Solomon thinks of wisdom as an actual being. She's still just an attribute of God, referred to poetically.

Even in Philo, I believe the word and wisdom of God are, more often than not, personifications of God's attributes. True, there are times in Philo where I think the Logos crosses a line and becomes an actual entity, "created but not created like mortals" (Heir 205-6). But there is no question in Philo's mind, even in this case, that the Logos is not "uncreated like God."

Philo's use of allegory and figural language requires some care in reading his comments. Without a sense of his overall point, you can easily mistake an allegorical comment for a literal one. For example, is Philo really talking about the literal Moses or does Moses represent something else, such as a characteristic of God.

Ehrman is right that the rabbis of the second century began to clamp down on how exalted some Jews had come to think of there being "two powers" in heaven (67-69). He is also right that, whatever the official position of a religion, people are going to believe all sorts of things on a popular level (50). I personally question whether Colossians 2 is about worshiping angels, but I suspect there were Jews who crossed the line in their devotion to angelic beings.

Is he suggesting that the earliest Christians had precedents for crossing a similar line? I guess we'll find out.

The Son of Man
Ehrman introduces us to the heavenly figure of Daniel 7 known as the "Son of Man." He is right that, in 1 Enoch, this figure sits on God's throne and judges the nations. This picture may very well have influenced the picture of Jesus sitting on a throne in Matthew 25.

I do want to make a strong distinction, however, between parallels like these generating the heart of early Christian understandings of Jesus and the possibility that the earliest Christians drew on some images like these to find ways to express what they already had experienced in relation to Jesus. In other words, resurrection faith came first. Drawing on existing imagery to describe these unbelievable events came second.

Larry Hurtado
I may have missed it, but I haven't seen a direct response to Ehrman's book on Hurtado's blog. But Ehrman does quote the classic One God One Lord at one point in support of his thesis. Hurtado concludes that "principle angel speculation and other types of divine agency thinking... provided the earliest Christians with a basic scheme for accommodating the resurrected Christ next to God without having to depart from their monotheistic tradition" (61).

I might selectively agree with Hurtado here, but I wonder whether Hurtado likes the way Ehrman paraphrases this quote: "to make Jesus divine, one simply needs to think of him as an angel in human form" (61).

I really don't think that's what Hurtado said. Hurtado, like me, believes that the earliest believers drew on Jewish precedents to describe their recent experiences. As far as I can remember, I don't think he holds to any sort of "angelic Christology," the belief that the earliest Christians saw Jesus as a kind of angel.

Next week: "Did Jesus Think He Was God?"

1 comment:

AlanB said...

I would agree that there is some basis (Daniel's angel of the Lord, etc.) for thinking that 2nd Temple-era Jews thought that the Messiah would be something more than an ordinary human being. But I also agree that none of those arguments amount to a convincing case for thinking that they would likely have thought that the Messiah would be the literal son of God, or some sort of manifestation of God himself.

The problem with Ehrman's thinking is that he thinks that the Jewish followers of Jesus believed in the same sort of magical demigod that Paul's Pagan followers believed in. In reality, I see no reason to think that they believed Jesus to have been anything more than another prophet (albeit the prophet above all others).