Category Archives: Intertestimental Literature


2017-02-08

Divine Revelation Not Limited to the “Bible Canon”

by Neil Godfrey

Don’t think of books. Think of open databases, literary projects, both earthly and heavenly archives. Ben Sirach, for example, becomes a generative character or figurehead from whom writings flowed like canals from a river. That’s how Eva Mroczek, Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity, says we should understand the way ancient Jewish scribes (Second Temple and gospel era) thought of their writings and their literary environment.

Revelation originated from the heavens and could never be grasped in all its fulness by any mortal; there was always room for more understanding and knowledge of the spiritual. There were writings that only the chosen few saints had ever seen, writings preserved in the heavens. Enoch was secreted away and continues to write until the time of the end.

A sacred writing could never be bound complete between two covers or within a single earthly scroll. There would always be room for more revelation. Of the making of books there will be no end.

An “author”, at least the inspired author, a heavenly figure perhaps, who sowed the poetry of praise or the sayings of wisdom in a mortal scribe, might spawn many varied works over time. Hence “David” could author countless psalms, only a small sample of which were ever captured for our canon. Other Davidic psalms were extant, some were composed relatively recently. They were all in a figurative sense authored by David since psalms were attributed to him as a way of fleshing out further the character and life of David. It was not so much that David’s name was attached to a psalm to impute authority to the psalm; no, it was rather that David was associated with the psalm to enrich the narrative about David, to transform David in a way to enable him to speak to a new audience. This world of attribution was not unique to the Judea’s:

In fact, such a sense of character-driven literary creativity is attested elsewhere in the ancient world, in some theories about Homer from the Hellenistic period, where the character becomes the affective centre of the poetic creation. Poetry . . . is generated from infatuation with one of the characters, who is prior to, and drives the creation of, the narrative. (p. 56)

So in the case of the Psalms of David. . .

Making psalms “Davidic” is not precisely attribution, as little evidence exists for a claim that David personally composed the psalms, but dramatisation and historicization. But this process of dramatising and historicising psalms is motivated not by the texts of the psalms themselves, but by an interest in the character who comes to animate the texts. It is the desire to reflect and elaborate on particularly compelling aspects of David’s character — David the sufferer, the penitent, the pursued — that is behind the creation of the expanded headings. Put simply, dramatising the psalms in his voice gives this David more things to say. (p. 63)

We are not only talking about the Psalms of David and the different canonical counts of these but of the wider literary world — of writings attributed to Enoch, to Solomon, to Moses, to Abraham, to Zephaniah . . . . .

In many Second Temple texts, we see an awareness of a literary world that is ancient, varied, and not fully accessible. In texts like Enoch, Jubilees, and many traditions about the patriarchs from the Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, we see the notion of a long history of revealed writing stretching back long before Sinai, and forming part of the stories about Israel’s ancient ancestors. We see scribes recognizing the authority and divine origin of texts like the Enoch literature, Jubilees, and these patriarchal traditions, which present themselves not as derivative of or dependent on material we now call biblical, but indeed, prior to it. And while specific texts that have come down to us, like the Enochic material, are recognizably used in other literature, early Jewish texts also mention many writings that we cannot identify with any extant texts — writings that may have been lost, like the book of Noah, or were always only imagined, like the heavenly Book of Life.11 (pp. 116f.)

The authors of the scriptures (like Jubilees and the Temple Scroll) that not part of our canonical Bible did not appear to view their work as attempts to fill in the gaps or clarify and explain the canonical texts. These non-biblical texts do not present themselves as subordinate to the Pentateuch or Prophets, buy as new revelations from a divine sourceread more »


2017-01-30

The Teacher of Righteousness and Understanding the Authority of Fiction

by Neil Godfrey

One of the books I am currently reading is The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity by Eva Mroczek and I was intrigued by her discussion of how the scholarly community have debated the historicity of the “Teacher” who speaks powerfully of his experiences in the Thanksgiving Hymns of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many scholars have identified the Teacher of Righteousness (otherwise known from the Damascus Document) as the author of these hymns. Notice, for instance, the introduction to the Thanksgiving Hymns by Wise, Abegg and Cook:

The intensely personal tone of the songs known commonly as Thanksgiving Hymns stands in sharp contrast with the rest of the scrolls. The author speaks of himself in the first person and recounts an agonizing history of persecution at the hands of those opposed to his ministry. In addition, the writer describes having received an empowering spirit granting him special insight into God’s will (1QH3 4:38), opening his ears to wonderful divine mysteries (9:23), using him as a channel of God’s works (12:9), and fashioning him as a mouthpiece for God’s words (16:17). Indeed, in col. 26, he claims that no one compares with him, because his office is among the heavenly beings. These are bold affirmations for any leader, reminiscent of various messianic claimants of both ancient and more recent history.

The unique personal presentation of the work and the self-conscious divine mission of the author have led many researchers to conclude that the psalms were written by the Teacher of Righteousness himself. Some students have attempted a more refined analysis in order to isolate “true” Teacher psalms at the center of the collection (cols. 10—16 according to one, 13—16 in the eyes of another; see Hymns 10—13,15—20,23), noting that the themes of personal distress and affliction as well as the claim of being the recipient or mediator of revelation are especially strong here. Only one thing is sure: the debate will continue.

Michael Wise, Martin Abegg Jr, and Edward Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, 2005. pp. 170-71.

Eva Mroczek is writing about literary/philosophical character of Ben Sirach and finds a parallel with the Teacher of Righteousness who is sometimes said to be the author of the Thanksgiving Hymns among the Dead Sea Scrolls. From pages 98 and 99:

Another example of such a rhetorical strategy is the so-called Teacher Hymns in cols. 10-17 of the Hodayot or Thanksgiving Hymns from Qumran. These first-person compositions have been read by some Qumran scholars32 as the ipsissima verba of the Teacher of Righteousness, an enigmatic figure who appears as a founder and leader of the sectarian community in some Qumran texts. The hymns, then, were imagined to be the creative autobiographical work of this putative individual, and were mined for information about this mysterious figure’s life. For example, Michael Wise has extracted from these hymns not only data about the Teacher’s life, persecution, and exile but also insights into his spiritual life—and even his name.33

But over time, as Max Grossman has shown, scholars began to question the idea that the Teacher of Righteousness is the “author” of these texts—that this figure is a historically locatable individual who can be imagined as an individual creator of the textual products of the Qumran community.34 With regard to the poetic Thanksgiving Hymns, it is doubtful that they can be used to reconstruct the historical and interior life of a specific individual. An excellent critique of the tendency to read the Hodayot as autobiography comes from Angela Harkins,35 who argues that such a reading is rooted in Romantic ideas of individual authorship that are foreign to Jewish antiquity. . . . 

But no specific historical figure can be reconstructed from poetic hymns: they use familiar images and literary tropes, including first-person references to suffering and persecution that are not to be understood as biographical accounts of specific historical experiences. The “I” of the hymns can, instead, be understood in other ways . . . . The first-person voice is perhaps representative of the “office” of an inspired community leader and the ideal, exemplary teacher, rather than reflective of a specific historical personality.37 Or, as Harkins suggests, it is a “rhetorical persona” to be actualized by the reader in ritual performance: the reader embodies the “I,” and the text becomes an “affective script for the reader to reenact.”38

Okay, time to check out some of those end-notes. read more »


2014-11-23

The Influence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity

by Neil Godfrey

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

The Suffering Servant

13 Behold, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
14 As many were astonished at him—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the sons of men—
15 so shall he startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which has not been told them they shall see,
and that which they have not heard they shall understand.

53 Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him;
he has put him to grief;
when he makes himself an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand;
11 he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous;
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant is a major text for Christianity (in the New Testament it is used to interpret Christ’s death) but what did it mean to adherents of Judaism before Christianity?

Did any Jewish interpretations anticipate the meaning it held for later Christians?

To what extent were the authors of the gospels innovative in their use of Isaiah 53 (and Isaiah as a whole)? To what extent were they simply employing ideas they absorbed from their surroundings?

Is it possible that Christianity itself evolved in part from earlier sectarian understandings of Isaiah 53?

Martin Hengel brings us a little closer to answering these questions when he offers insights into the influence this text had on various ideas in Second Temple Judaism:

Hengel, Martin, ‘The Effective History of lsaiah 53 in the Pre-Christian Period’, in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (ed. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 75-146.

Scholarship is used to thinking of the book of Isaiah as a collation of works originally by a number of authors (e.g. chapters 1-39 labelled Proto-Isaiah; 40-55 Deutero-Isaian; 56-66 Trito-Isaiah) but in the context Hengel is addressing the book was understood to be the unity we know today. Not only a unity but of prophetic significance as a whole. Hengel establishes early in his essay the point that from the Hellenistic period on the book of Isaiah (as a whole) was often treated in Judaism as work prophetic of the last days. So in Sirach (composed around 200 BCE — prior to the Maccabean era) we read of Isaiah the prophet:

24 He comforted the mourners in Jerusalem. His powerful spirit looked into the future, 25 and he predicted what was to happen before the end of time, hidden things that had not yet occurred. (Sirach 48:24-25 GNT)

Ben Sirach interprets Isaiah’s Servant — and prepares for the Gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark opens with a blend of prophetic passages from Isaiah and Malachi and allusions to the Exodus that lead directly into an Elijah scene. Two centuries earlier Ben Sirach similarly linked Isaiah, Malachi and Elijah in a pivotal prophetic time. Hengel does not draw the comparison with the Gospel of Mark (a comparison enriched by Elijah’s own association with Exodus and wilderness motifs) but I’m sure someone has:

Mark 1:2-4

Even as it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, Who shall prepare thy wayThe voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight;

John came . . . clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist . . . [i.e., in role of Elijah]

Malachi 3:1
Isaiah 40:3
Exodus 23:20

Sirach 48:1, 7, 10

Then the prophet Elijah arose like a fire . . . who heard rebuke at Sinai and judgments of vengeance at Horeb . . .

You [=Elijah] who are ready at the appointed time, it is written,

to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury, to turn the heart of the father to the son, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

Malachi 4:5-6
Isaiah 49:6

Hengel cautiously expresses some doubt as to whether Sirach “wished to identify the Servant [of Isaiah] directly with Elijah redivivus.” He does, however, along with other scholars he cites recognize that Sirach has given Isaiah 49:6 “a messianic or at least an individual interpretation”. (The significance of an “individual” interpretation lies in the various interpretations of the Servant passages: some reading the Servant as an individual but others at the time viewing the Servant as a literary figure representing Israel. Compare how the “son of man” in Daniel 7 was originally composed as a representative of the nation of Israel — in contrast to gentile nations represented by wild beasts — yet came to be interpreted by some as a literal, heavenly individual.)

Was the author of the Gospel of Mark writing in the context of a long-known intellectual tradition that played with piecing Isaiah’s Servant, Malachi’s Messenger, Exodus liberation and adoption tropes, and Elijah into scenarios of messianic end times?

The Book of Zechariah interprets Isaiah 53?

Martin Hengel takes us further back than the Book of Sirach and to the period of the immediate successors of Alexander the Great, the Diadochi. read more »


2014-07-06

Jesus Evolved From an Angel?

by Neil Godfrey
Ezekiel by Raphael

Ezekiel by Raphael

Some passages in the Old Testament throw up bizarre riddles for those of us who have always thought its various authors were strict monotheists in the same sense as we expect modern Jewish rabbis to be no-nonsense monotheists. For starters, there are those most curious passages where we read of an angel engaging earthly mortals in conversation and suddenly speaking as if they are God himself. Sometimes after such a conversation the human characters are even made to say they have just met or spoken with God. Then there are those passages in Ezekiel that read as if God were a human figure who gets off his throne and starts to guide Ezekiel around his temple. There are other riddles but let’s stick with these two types for now.

Now something even stranger happens when we turn to other Jewish writings from the centuries either side of the BCE/CE point. Various writings from that period appear to have picked up these riddles in the Scriptural canon and run with them into places we could never imagine any truly monotheistic rabbi would dare follow. They bring us into a heavenly world where it is often difficult to decide who is God and who is an angel. Sometimes there appears to be an angel so exalted that he appears to be God’s proxy or principal agent who does all of God’s work. That angel is sometimes depicted as very much in the form of a man.

To put it most bluntly, this literature introduces us to a “man” in heaven (or celestial figure in the form of a man) who is a manifestation of God Himself. That same angelic or celestial Man sometimes appears on earth — still as a manifestation of God — to communicate with mortals. He is sometimes called the Angel of the Lord but at other times he calls himself by the name of God. Further, this celestial “man” figure or divine manifestation) is known and experienced in visions.

This most highly exalted angel sometimes starts to look very much like the image we have of Jesus Christ, the “Son of Man”, at the right hand of God in heaven from our readings of the New Testament epistles and book of Acts. These Christian sources likewise speak of that Christ being revealed in visions.

It has taken me longer than usual to prepare this post because the territory is so new for me. I’ve read about the various angelic figures in extra-canonical Jewish literature and I’ve read probably most of the apocryphal writings in which these figures prominently appear but I’ve never deeply studied this literature or its angelophany as a whole or in any depth. I’ve read Margaret Barker’s The Great Angel and other works of hers but their implications do not appear to register in the wider studies of Christian origins. Professor Hurtado’s argues that Christianity’s heavenly Christ does not truly bear a valid comparison with them because there is no evidence that any of these “Jewish” angels were ever worshiped. In my previous post I quoted Professor Boyarin’s response to that “criterion of dissimilarity”.

read more »


2011-06-13

Divinities appearing like men and men appearing like gods

by Neil Godfrey

This post begins a collection of quotations from ancient Jewish literature illustrating the a form of Jewish thought not so familiar with those of us whose knowledge has rarely extended beyond the canonical literature. Divine figures bearing the name of God appeared in human form on chariot thrones, and holy men of old like Adam, Abel, Abraham and Jacob were said to be divine and even archangels themselves. The notes are taken from Alan F. Segal’s Paul the Convert, but many of the quotations themselves are copied from online or other sources.

The human form of God was an important idea in Jewish merkabah mysticism. An “angel of the Lord” in the form of a man yet who represented or bore the “name of God” was said to have led Israel through the wilderness (Exodus 23:21); and a human figure appeared seated on the divine throne in Ezekiel 1, Daniel 7 and Exodus 24. All of these figures appear to be mediator figures who embody the sacred name of God (YHWH) himself.

This figure, elaborated on by Jewish tradition, would become a central metaphor for Christ in Christianity. (p. 41) read more »


2011-05-27

Another Possible Interpolation Conceded by Historicists of Old (and a question of heavenly trees)

by Neil Godfrey
"The Seed of David" by Rossetti Llan...

"Seed of David" by Rosetti: Image by Martin Beek via Flickr

Once more into the fray with A. D. Howell Smith in his arguments against the Christ mythicists of his day. . . .

This time it is with a historicist’s concession that Romans 1:3 — the statement that Jesus was born of the seed of David — could well be part of a passage that was only later added to Paul’s original letter.

Here is what he writes on page 135 of Jesus Not A Myth (1942) with my own emphasis and formatting:

Couchoud follows Rylands and other Mythicists in regarding the Crucifixion as a mystical and transcendental event. The Christ is slain by the “Archons” in some sub-celestial, but super-terrestrial, region.

Most careful readers of Paul’s Epistles will consider this view of his teaching as grotesque. Couchoud makes Paul a Docetist, one who believed that the body of Jesus was not of flesh, but only appeared to be so.

The phrase “born of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Rom. i, 3) may well be an interpolation, as it is part of a long, clumsy sentence, which is suspiciously overloaded with phrases that seem to be dragged in for polemic purposes. . . . . read more »


2011-03-02

Jewish Mysticism and Heavenly Ascent Legends and the Context of Christian Origins

by Neil Godfrey
Moses Comes Down from Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:25,2...

Image via Wikipedia

Some of the most interesting work I read to help expand my understanding of early Christianity comes not from traditional biblical scholarship but from classical literature and Jewish studies. Here are a few new questions about the religious world from which Christianity emerged I would like to investigate. They came to mind as I read an old article (1971) in the Jewish Quarterly Review by Dr Joseph P. Schultz, Angelic Opposition to the Ascension of Moses and the Revelation of the Law. I really do need to read a lot more from specialist Jewish studies that do not directly attempt to address New Testament literature. I feel such publications are giving me an unfiltered view of the broader context of religious thought contemporaneous with our earliest Christian records.

So what on earth led me to read a 1971 article in the JQR? Blame April DeConick for that. I was following up some footnoted articles, and footnoted articles in those articles, from her Voices of the Mystics (in which she discusses the relationship of the Gospel of John to mystic forms of Christianity), and one of those led me to the 1971 article. It is all interesting stuff when read alongside some of the New Testament epistles and the Ascension of Isaiah, too. But this post confines itself to general questions arising.

Ascension themes in Mesopotamian literature read more »


2010-12-02

The Second God among ancient Jewish philosophers and commoners

by Neil Godfrey
Angel of the Revelation

Image via Wikipedia

The Jewish philosopher Philo lived in Alexandria, Egypt, around the time of Jesus and Paul were said to have lived, and wrote many works arguing that the Bible stories were allegories of higher truths that had counterparts in Greek philosophy. One of the more striking features of Philo’s work is his concept of the Logos (or “Word”) of God. His discussions of the Logos find parallels in Gospel of John that begins with the Logos or Word of God existing with God, but also as God, and it was this Logos that created everything on God’s behalf. Philo’s discussion of the Logos or Word of God shares the same understanding as we find in John’s Gospel. Philo even calls the Logos “a Second God”.

Philo’s views are often considered esoteric and probably alien to the normal beliefs of the common Jews in Palestine and elsewhere (e.g. Casey). Some scholars (e.g. McGrath) go to great lengths to argue that when Philo spoke of a “second God” he was not really deviating from Jewish monotheism, and that modern readers simply need to adjust their definition of “monotheism” as it existed in early Judaism in order not to compromise the conventional wisdom about Judaism.

Margaret Barker, on the other hand, in The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, has tackled these beliefs of Philo and compared them popular Aramaic translations of the Hebrew scriptures that in some cases date back to pre-Christian times. read more »


2010-10-28

Israel (Jacob/James), an archangel created before all other creation

by Neil Godfrey
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
Image via Wikipedia

If Christianity mutated out of Jewish beliefs it is good to understand just how different many Jewish beliefs were before rabbinic Judaism came to dominate. (This post follows on from Divine human-like figures in Hellenistic Judaism.)

Origen preserves for us a Jewish text that offers us a glimpse of beliefs about angels and the nature of biblical heroes among the Jews in the late second century/early third century, and that appear to be consistent with what we know of Jewish sectarian views throughout the Second Temple period (that is, at the time of the emergence of Christianity.) While we have no evidence that this prayer is itself older than the second century, it is certainly Jewish and not Christian, and does serve to illustrate how different were early Jewish beliefs from what most of us tend to assume. I conclude with a few questions that one might ask in connection with early Christianity.

The prayer speaks of an archangel who is identified with the biblical patriach Israel (Jacob). Alan F. Segal in his Two Powers in Heaven draws out some significant details: read more »


2010-10-26

Divine human-like figures in Hellenistic Judaism

by Neil Godfrey
Damiane. The Ancient of Days. A fresco from Ub...

Image via Wikipedia

If we rely on the Gospels and Josephus for our understanding of Jewish religious beliefs of the first century we would miss some of the most colourful and relevant details that were the background to the emergence of Christianity. Summing up Jewish religion in terms of a neat threefold division of Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes probably had more to do with Josephus’s interest in portraying Judaism as a respectable, even superior, counterpart to non-Jewish philosophical systems of his day. Alan F. Segal lists some of the varieties of beliefs that appear to go back to the time before rabbinic Judaism established itself after the destruction(s) of Jerusalem and throughout the second century. I bypass his arguments for the pre-rabbinic (pre 70 CE) provenance of these beliefs in this post and simply list here some of the ideas making up the rich constellation of “Judaism” at the time.

Four “Dangerous” Scriptures

Later rabbinic evidence points to four Scriptural passages in particular at the centre of beliefs that proved to be heretical at least to those later rabbis.

It is worthwhile to point out that many of these dangerous exegetical traditions may never have been entirely separate at any point in their development. Biblical scholars have recently noticed the relationship between all works describing the divine warror figure (including both Exodus 15 and Daniel 7) and ancient Near Eastern mythology. (p. 184) read more »


2010-08-20

Two Adams, Human-Divine Mediators and Angels, and a very different view of early Judaism

by Neil Godfrey

The point of this post is to highlight, with reference to the sources, some of the less widely known beliefs among Jews around the time Christianity was emerging, and that would seem to have some resonances among Christian ideas we find in Paul and other early letters and gospels.

The Jewish world from which Christianity emerged is infinitely more complex than our traditional readings of the Old Testament and the beliefs of current Judaism. I would love to compile an outline of all its variations — or better still, find a book where this is already done. Till then, here are a few snippets that are worth keeping in mind whenever the subject of Christian origins is addressed.

  1. The human form of the Logos, God’s first-born, and Heavenly Man
  2. The Heavenly Man and the Earthly Man
  3. The human form of Wisdom
  4. The heavenly Adam
  5. Melchizedek and other vice-regents of God
  6. Divine Heavenly Patriarchs

The following is taken primarily from a chapter on Jewish sectarian texts (and from a few references in a chapter on Philo) in Alan Segal’s Two Powers in Heaven. read more »