Divine human-like figures in Hellenistic Judaism

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by Neil Godfrey

Damiane. The Ancient of Days. A fresco from Ub...
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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)

Daniel 7:9-10 and speculation about the identity of the son of man:

I watched till thrones were put in place,
And the Ancient of Days was seated;
His garment was white as snow,
And the hair of His head was like pure wool.
His throne was a fiery flame,
Its wheels a burning fire;

A fiery stream issued
And came forth from before Him.
A thousand thousands ministered to Him; “ I watched till thrones were put in place,
And the Ancient of Days was seated;
His garment was white as snow,
And the hair of His head was like pure wool.
His throne was a fiery flame,
Its wheels a burning fire;

Exodus 24 theophany and other passages picturing God in the form of a man

Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity. But on the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand. So they saw God, and they ate and drank.

The descriptions of the angel of YHWH who carries the divine name (e.g. Exodus 23:20-21)

“Behold, I send an Angel before you to keep you in the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Beware of Him and obey His voice; do not provoke Him, for He will not pardon your transgressions; for My name is in Him.

This might include passages in Scripture where YHWH and an angel are confused: Genesis 16:7-13Genesis 21:17-20; Genesis 22:11-16; Genesis 31:11-13; Exodus 3:2-6; Judges 2:1-5.

Verses describing God as plural (e.g. Genesis 1:26)

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness;

The human appearance of the mediator

The motifs of likeness and image, as well as the identity of the heavenly man, have been studied by several scholars. In the LXX ekion is used for [image] and homoiosis is used for [likeness].  .  .  . The Greek word homoiosis appears in other places where heavenly creatures with human characteristics are described. For instance, it appears in Ezekiel 1:10 with reference to the figure on the heavenly throne who has the likeness of man.  It also appears in reference to Daniel 10:16 where it describes the angel Michael who appears like “one who belongs to the sons of men.” Thus Genesis 1:26 in Greek can be connected with the throne vision in Ezekiel, “the son of man,” and the vision of an angel in Daniel by means of the likeness that Adam (before the fall) and various angelic creatures shared with God. (pp. 184-5)

Logos: a human figure

Wisdom of Solomon 18:15

Thine Almighty word [logos] leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne, as a fierce man of war into the midst of a land of destruction, . . .

Wisdom (Sophia): a human figure

Proverbs 8 and Proverbs 9:1f

Does not wisdom cry out,
And understanding lift up her voice?
She takes her stand on the top of the high hill,
Beside the way, where the paths meet.
She cries out by the gates, at the entry of the city,
At the entrance of the doors:
“ To you, O men, I call,
And my voice is to the sons of men.

Wisdom has built her house,
She has hewn out her seven pillars;
She has slaughtered her meat,
She has mixed her wine,
She has also furnished her table.
She has sent out her maidens,
She cries out from the highest places of the city,

Ben Sira 24 and Wisdom of Solomon 10 and 1 Enoch 42

Wisdom will praise herself, and will glory in the midst of her people. In the assembly of the Most High she will open her mouth, and in the presence of his host she will glory:  “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist.  I dwelt in high places, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.

She preserved the first formed father of the world, that was created alone, and brought him out of his fall,
And gave him power to rule all things.

Wisdom found not a place on earth where she could inhabit; her dwelling therefore is in heaven.
Wisdom went forth to dwell among the sons of men, but she obtained not a habitation. Wisdom returned to her place, and seated herself in the midst of the angels.


Of the meaning and significance of the word “angel”, Segal writes:

It should be noted that the idea of angel is wider than one might ordinarily think. “Angel” means messenger, therefore prophets (2 Chron. 36:15-16; Is. 44:26; Haggai 1:12-13; cf. Justin Dial 75, including John the Baptist Mt. 11:10; Mk 1:2; Lk 7:27) or priests (Malachi 2:7) or kings (2 Sam. 14:17, 20; 19:27; Zech. 12:8) or even the patriarchs (Prayer of Joseph . . .) or Moses as well as the leaders of the people, in their intercessory role, could be referred to as . . . angelos. We shall see that all these traditions were used to promote celestial functions for worthies of the past. In the intertestimental age, immortality (or resurrection) could be promised to the righteous in the form of ascent to angelhood. To the righteous is promised: “You shall shine as the lights of heaven. . . and the portal of heaven shall be opened to you. . . You shall have great joy as angels of heaven. . . You shall become companions of the hosts of heaven” (1 Enoch 104:2, 4, 6; cf. 39:6-7; Dan. 12:3; Mt. 13:43, 22:30). Therefore, almost any righteous person in the past could be called an angel. Especially righteous men were singled out as paradigms of angelhood. Christianity . . .  will appropriate these traditions while denying that the Christ is merely an angel. (p. 186)

Angelic mediators

A staggering variety of angelic mediators developed during this [intertestimental] period.

Angels were identified by name, Gabriel and Michael being among the earliest in the book of Daniel (6:21; 8:16; 10:13, 21; 12:1). These, along with Uriel, were among the archangels, and called Angels of the Presence.

A principal or archangel acted as Israel’s heavenly protagonist or guardian, presiding over judgment. Other roles: choirmaster, heavenly scribe, recorder of the merits of Israel, guide of the souls on their visionary ascents (1 Enoch 71:3; 11 Enoch 22; Apoc Abr 12ff; Life of Adam 25:20, 47; Aoc Mos 37; Testament Abr.)

In apocalyptic writings Enoch, Elijah and Moses are frequently described as men of God who are transported to heaven.

Will cite passages illustrating some of these beliefs, including Adam and Melchizedek and Jacob speculations, in a post to follow.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Divine human-like figures in Hellenistic Judaism”

  1. Unless angels could appear as women (cf. Zechariah 5:9), Sophia seems to be the only female in this exclusive club. It is therefore amusing that, in Philo’s writings, “even the most feminine of Jewish expressions of God, Sophia, has to be crammed into a male stereotype” (M. Scott, Sophia and the Johannine Jesus, p. 59). Philo feared that a goddess-like figure, like Isis, would impose a threat to Jewish male monotheism. He solved the problem by calling her “male” (De Fuga et Inventione 51-52). Early Christians identifying Jesus with Sophia were probably faced with a similar problem.

    In modern times, Catholics have written letters to the pope, imploring him to postulate that, in Proverbs, Sophia is really the Virgin Mary, pre-existent in Heaven.

    1. Speaking of Sophia, I remembering bookmarking an interesting gallery of images, but I don’t remember the source of my discovery.

      Here are some of Sophia from the 9th century through the 16th century C.E. Also included is Isis.

      1. The fresco from twelfth-century Urschalling (Bavaria) is fascinating. Apparently, there have been periods in medieval Europe when the Holy Ghost was thought of as a woman.

        1. Thank you, Neil, for those, too!

          Regarding the fresco Michael mentions, during discussion with friends a while back, one noticed that the cloak worn by the Father and Son could be only one shared cloak. It did appear the figures were joined in the lower portion with even the possibility of the folds of the cloak meeting to form an image of external female genitalia. I suppose there could be a theme of birth, generation.

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