It is a commonplace in St. Paul’s theology for the apostle to refer to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ as a unified phrase (cf. Rom 1:4, 7; 5:1, 11; 6:23; 7:25; 8:39; 15:6, 30; 16:20; 1 Cor 1:2-3, 9-10; 8:6; 15:57; 2 Cor 1:2-3; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2-3, 17; 5:20; 6:23; Phi 1:2; 2:11; Col 1:3; 1 Thess 1:1, 3; 5:9; 2 Thess 1:1-2, 12; 2:16; 1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Phil 1:3). Within the context of 1 Corinthians 8:6, St. Paul makes this formulation based on integrating Christ into the shema of Deuteronomy 6:4. This formulation ultimately became the basis for the phraseology of the Nicene Creed. The relationship between these two persons, the Father and Christ, and what this relationship reflects about the divinity of Christ himself has been the subject of much modern speculation. An older consensus of both believing and unbelieving scholarship attempted to frame this usage within an evolutionary chain of development in the development of Christology and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. This model, however, presumes that the Second Temple Judaism practiced by the apostles was characterized by unitarian monotheism.
As described in last week’s post, unitarian monotheism is not an adequate description of the ancient religion of Israel nor of Second Temple Judaism. Ancient religions of the Mediterranean basin and the Levant, including Israelite religion, were united on a variety of basic facts in their vision of the spiritual world. These facts included the existence of numerous divine beings that existed under the rulership of a most high God, that some of these powers were malign, that at some point in the past divine wrath had expressed itself in the form of a flood, that surrounding that event there had been a part human, part divine race of giant tyrants against whom a war was raged, and many more besides. While much of this was rejected by later Rabbinic Judaism in favor of a simpler unitarian monotheism with a greater moral than spiritual emphasis, none of these conceptions was directly denied in the ancient Israelite or Second Temple periods. Rather, these were accepted as reality by Israelites and later Judeans, but were re-conceptualized within a spiritual and physical created order under the reign of Yahweh, the God of Israel. The other spiritual powers were seen as creations of Yahweh to serve as his divine council, some of whom at various points rebelled. The great heroes and men of renown, part human and part divine, were reconceived as demonic tyrants and their creation seen to be a demonic act of angelic apostasy. The flood was not a result of divine peevishness or rage, but of Yahweh’s desire to purify his creation from the corruption brought about by both fallen spiritual powers and humanity.
One of these elements taken as spiritual fact but reconceived relates to the relationship of Yahweh to his divine council. All ancient religion of the Mediterranean and the Levant acknowledged the existence of such a council of divine beings. In fact, the number of members of Yahweh’s council, 70 or 72, established in Deuteronomy 32:8 and Genesis 10, parallels the number of members of the divine council in Canaanite conceptions of that council. Another common element is the conception that beneath the authority of the most high God, the council is presided over by another person who is conceived of as a son of the most high God. In Canaanite religion, these figures were El and his son Baal. In Greek religion, these figures were Chronos and Zeus. Parallels exist within all of the ancient religious beliefs of the region. The stories of the ascent of Baal, Zeus, and their parallels to this exalted position presiding over the divine council are formative stories for the religion of their respective cultures.
One common element that unites all of these mythological stories outside of Israel is that the being who ascends to preside in the council was not originally in that position. Not only that they were glorified to it, but that they ascended by means of violence or rebellion. Zeus attacked his father and imprisoned him, along with the other titans, in Tartarus. Baal slays Yam and Mot and is enthroned at the head of the council after leading a successful rebellion to overthrow its previous leadership. Within the pages of scripture, these rebellions in the divine council are acknowledged, though once again reconceived. First and foremost, the rebellious members of the council did not succeed in overthrowing the rule of Yahweh and were instead thrown down. Ezekiel directly parallels the story of Baal’s divine rebellion with the defeat and throwing down of the devil in Eden (Ezek 28:12-19). By the time of the New Testament writings the identification of these divine usurpers with the Devil was firmly set within Second Temple Jewish understandings. It is reflected frequently in the New Testament text where, for example, a slightly corrupted form of one of Baal’s titles is used as a title for the prince of demons (Matt 10:25; 12:24, 27; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15, 18-19). Zeus is directly identified with Satan (Rev 2:13). St. Peter identifies the place of imprisonment of the rebel angels from the time of Noah as Tartarus (2 Pet 2:4).
The second major difference in the conception of ancient Israel and Judea is that in addition to Yahweh being the most high God, it is Yahweh himself who presides over the divine council. This is not a denial of the idea that there are two different divine roles. Rather, it is a belief in a second hypostasis, a second person, who is also Yahweh but presides over the council as the divine Son. This second hypostasis is the Yahweh who is seen throughout the Hebrew scriptures, with his divine Father remaining unseen and unseeable by human persons. He is referred to as the Angel of the Lord and the Word of God. The latter identification became very common in the Second Temple period such that the Aramaic Targums, whenever Yahweh was encountered visibly, inserted the Aramaic term ‘Memra’ or word into the text as explanatory. He appears in several significant passages of the Hebrew scriptures in this role as presiding over the council. It is this figure whom the New Testament writers teach has become incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ.
One of these texts is Psalm 82 (81 in the Greek). This Psalm prophetically describes a scene in which Yahweh who presides over the divine council is enthroned and issues judgment against the sons of God to whom the nations had been assigned in Deuteronomy 32:8. They have not served Yahweh nor have they governed justly. Rather, they have brought about wickedness on the earth and sought to be worshipped themselves as gods by the nations that Yahweh, the God of Israel, had assigned them to govern. There it is said that they will die like men, they will be defeated and destroyed. All of this will happen when God arises (anasta) to judge the earth. At which point, his inheritance will be not only Israel, but all of the nations (82:8).
Christ himself quotes this text in John 10:35-36. Christ has been accused of blasphemy and the Judeans are prepared to stone him for calling himself the Son of God. This last term can have several meanings, including that Jesus is the Messiah. Here, however, what occasions the charge of blasphemy is Christ’s statement that he and the Father are one. It is clear here that they understand Jesus to be claiming to be the Son of God who presides in the divine council, and he reaffirms that this is true by quoting Psalm 82. He points out that in the Psalm, those beings are called gods to whom the Word of God came. This is St. John’s favored term for the preincarnate Christ, drawn from the ‘memra’ theology of the Targums. Christ’s response is therefore clear, if the members of the divine council are called gods and sons of the Most High, then why would it be blasphemy for the Word himself to call himself the Son of God? His opponents clearly understand exactly who Christ is claiming to be, as they again seek to arrest and kill him.
Another of these texts is Daniel 7:9-14. Daniel’s vision in this passage is a reworking of a scene from the Baal cycle. At the end of the Baal cycle, after he has rebelled against the former leadership of the divine council, Baal is brought before his father El for a coronation. He is enthroned and proceeds to rule over the whole world. The understanding of the Judean people, however, is of course that the Devil’s attempted revolt was a failure and he was cast down to the underworld with the dead. In this picture, Yahweh is described enthroned using tropes common for describing the most high God in all religions. Then a second figure is introduced, who looks to Daniel like a human person. This human person is riding on clouds, a traditional depiction of Baal, which in other places is directly ascribed to Yahweh himself, over against Baal (cf. Ps 104/103). This vision, therefore, depicts a second hypostasis of Yahweh, one who is manifest as a human person. This vision, as it is interpreted to Daniel, concerns the latter days as this figure is enthroned and given a kingdom which will have no end.
Again, Christ cites this text in relation to himself. As described in Mark 14:61-63, as Christ stands trial before the high priest, he makes no response to the many and strange accusations being made against him by false witnesses. When the high priest directly asks him, however, whether he is the Messiah, Christ replies that he is. He then goes farther, however, by telling the high priest that he will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.” Here Christ is identifying himself as this second Yahweh figure having come into the world as man. Once again, the high priest’s immediate response is to accuse Christ of blasphemy and to tear his clothes. Merely claiming to be the Messiah wasn’t blasphemy in the first century AD. It was an unfortunately common occurrence. Claiming, however, to be the God of Israel obviously was. It is not a coincidence that Christ ascends into heaven accompanied by clouds and that this event is interpreted as his enthronement (cf. Acts 1:9; 2:34-36).
The religious narratives of the nations can thereby be seen to be false gospels. They are stories of victories which never took place and which were, rather, defeats. They ascribe a great victory over the ruling spiritual powers to rebellious spiritual powers who were judged and thrown down rather than victorious. The true gospel, the story of Christ’s victory, begins with Yahweh, God the Son, descending from the glory which he shared with the Father eternally (John 17:5) to be made man. The incarnate Son of God then waged warfare against the hostile spiritual powers oppressing humanity, against the power of sin, and against death itself. Arising victorious, he ascended back to his former estate, bearing with him our shared humanity, and is enthroned in the heavens over a kingdom without end. “‘He ascended’ what does it mean if not that he had also descended into the lower regions, that is the earth? The one who had descended is also the one who has ascended above all of the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Eph 4:10).