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:
- An archangel of the power of the people of God is called Israel and is identified with the patriarch Jacob
- He was created before all the works of creation
- He claims ascendancy over Uriel as a result of personal combat
- By virtue of that personal combat over Uriel he now possesses the divine name
Israel is here identified with
- an angel of God
- a ruling spirit
- a man who sees God
- the first-born of all life
- the archangel of the power of the Lord
- the heavenly chief captain
- the high priest before the face of God
Israel is also shown to be an angel who descends to become the human patriarch in Genesis. Origen is using this Jewish prayer to support his argument that John the Baptist was also an angel who descended to earth to appear in human form.
Since this same archangel named Israel was created before any other creation, I am reminded of that curious passage we read in the Gospel of Thomas:
The disciples said to Jesus, “We know that You will depart from us. Who is to be our leader?”
Jesus said to them, “Wherever you are, you are to go to James the righteous, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.”
This James is the apostle and head of the church, but we should not forget James is the anglicized form of Jacob. I have not read anything to connect the two, so this comment is nothing more than a layman’s observation of what looks like a possibility. Such an idea might sound totally off the planet at first, but when one recalls the teachings of some early Christians that one was to become “as Christ”, to even surpass the master if possible, and when one recalls that the disciple’s name Thomas meant “Twin” and was meant to indicate a character-twin of Jesus, maybe a small measure of tolerance to at least ask the question might be permitted.
Here is the Prayer of Joseph as found in Origen’s commentary on John 2:31:
Should the piece; entitled “The prayer of Joseph,” one of the apocryphal works current among the Hebrews, be thought worthy of credence, this dogma will be found in it clearly expressed. Those at the beginning, it is represented, having some marked distinction beyond men, and being much greater than other souls, because they were angels, they have come down to human nature.
Thus Jacob says: “I, Jacob, who speak to you, am Israel, I am an angel of God, a ruling spirit, and Abraham and Isaac were created before every work of God; and I am Jacob, called Jacob by men, but my name is Israel, called Israel by God, a man seeing God, because I am the first-born of every creature which God caused to live.” And he adds: “When I was coming from Mesopotamia of Syria, Uriel, the angel of God, came forth, and said, I have come down to the earth and made my dwelling among men, and I am called Jacob by name. He was wroth with me and fought with me and wrestled against me, saying that his name and the name of Him who is before every angel should be before my name. And I told him his name and how great he was among the sons of God; Art not thou Uriel my eighth, and I am Israel and archangel of the power of the Lord and a chief captain among the sons of God? Am not I Israel, the first minister in the sight of God, and I invoked my God by the inextinguishable name?” . . . . . . . . . . . . .
We have made something of a digression in introducing this story about Jacob and appealing to a writing which we cannot well treat with contempt; but it certainly adds weight to our argument about John, to the effect that as Isaiah’s voice declares he is an angel who assumed a body for the sake of bearing witness to the light. So much about John considered as a man.
Does not this sort of sectarian Jewish belief throw a different perspective on the earliest synoptic gospel narratives (Gospels of Mark and Matthew) that portray Jesus as a representative or personification of Israel going into the wilderness for 40 days/years after passing through the waters of the baptism/the Red Sea? Matthew’s gospel mines the prophet of Hosea to tie the name of Israel to Jesus when he refers to the infant Jesus returning to Judea after fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod. We do know that Jesus was believed by many early Christians to have existed before all creation. It is a little startling to see evidence that some Jewish sectarians believed Israel himself was such a pre-existent angel.
In another context Alan Segal writes:
This leads one to suspect that Christianity was the first to synthesize the various divine agents at creation by identifying all of them with the Christian messiah. (p. 190)
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