Room for Two Gods in the Book of Daniel

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by Neil Godfrey

jewishgospelsHere is an argument for interpreting Daniel 7’s scenario of “one like a son of man/Son of Man” coming on clouds to the Ancient of Days as a reference to two divinities. It’s from Daniel Boyarin’s small book, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (2012). But be warned. I suspect many New Testament scholars would not agree with Boyarin. So who is this Boyarin? Jack Miles introduces him in the Foreword. (We met Jack Miles in an earlier post on gospel genre and narrative here in Vridar.)

“Daniel Boyarin,” a prominent conservative rabbi confided to me not long ago, “is one of the two or three greatest rabbinic scholars in the world,” and — dropping his voice a notch — “possibly even the greatest.” The observation was given in confidence because, quite clearly, it troubled the rabbi to think that someone with Boyarin’s views might have truly learned Talmudic grounds for them. As a Christian, let me confide that his views can be equally troubling for Christians who appreciate the equally grounded originality of his reading of our New Testament. . . . .

His achievement is . . . a bold rereading of the rabbis and the evangelists alike, the results of which are so startling that once you — you, Jew, or you, Christian — get what he is up to, you suddenly read even the most familiar passages of your home scripture in a new light. (p. ix)

Let’s begin with the passage in question, Daniel 7:9-14 (NIV)

9 “As I looked,

“thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
and its wheels were all ablaze.

10 A river of fire was flowing,
coming out from before him.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
and the books were opened.

. . . . . 

13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man [a human being] coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

So we have two figures here: an old one and another with the appearance of a young human being.

Note that there is more than one throne set up at the beginning. The older one is seated on his throne; so the younger one has his own throne and he is invested by the older one with an eternal dominion over the entire world.

In time — but not so understood by Daniel — this vision will become the meeting of God the Father with his Son.

Scholars have a long tradition (from ancient to modern times) of interpreting the “one like a son of man” as a symbol of the people of Israel during the Maccabean rebellion who eventually take control of their own kingdom after the demise of their Syrian rulers.

Others have taken an opposing view: this figure is not a symbol but a literal divine being. Boyarin cites a fourth century Persian Church Father as one of the earliest of these interpreters — Aphrahat. Opposing what was probably a Jewish interpretation Aphrahat is quoted as saying

Have the children of Israel received the kingdom of the Most High? God forbid! Or has that people come on the clouds of heaven? (p. 39)

Clouds, and riding on clouds. These are the signs of divine appearances or theophanies. Scholar J. A. Emerton nailed it when he wrote

The act of coming with clouds suggests a theophany of Yahwe himself. If Dan. vii. 13 does not refer to a divine being, then it is the only exception out of about seventy passages in the O[ld] T[estament]. (p. 40, my bolding. Quoting Emerson, “The Origin of the Son of Man Imagery,” JTS 9 (1958): 231-32)

Boyarin himself remarks

It is almost impossible to read the narrative here of the setting up of thrones, the appearance of the Ancient of Days on one of them, and the coming of him of the one like a son of man apart from stories of the investiture of young gods by their elders, of close gods by transcendent ones. (p. 40)

Even some of the Rabbis of the fifth and sixth century or earlier read the Daniel passage this way. Boyarin quotes from the Babylonian Talmud

One verse reads: “His throne is sparks of fire (Dan. 7:9) and another [part of the] verse reads, “until thrones were set up and the Ancient of Days sat (7:9). This is no difficulty: One was for him and one was for David. 

As we learn in the ancient tradition: One for him and one for David, these are the words of Rabbi Aqiva. Rabbi Yose the Galilean said to him: Aqiva! Until when will you make the Shekhina profane?! Rather, One was for judging and one was for mercy.

Did he accept it from him, or did he not?
Come and hear! One for judging and one for mercy; these are the words of Rabbi Aqiva. [BT Hagiga 14a]

(That is, both rabbis understood the Daniel passage was theophany, an appearance of a deity. R. Aqiva sees two divine figures in heaven, one God the Father and the other an apotheosized King David. Rabbi Yose was shocked at this view.)

Aphrahat wrote in the fourth century but his interpretation continues to be supported by some modern scholars. Matthew Black is one:

This, in effect, means that Dan. 7 knows of two divinities, the Head of Days and the Son of Man.  (My bolding. From “The Throne-Theophany, Prophetic Commission, and the ‘Son of Man,'” in Jews, Greeks, and Christians: Religious Cultures in Late Antiquity, 1976, 61)

Daniel Boyarin is emphatic. These two figures eventually became the first two members of the Christian Trinity.

Personally I’m in two minds on this one. Is it possible that the “son of man” image of Daniel 7 was originally conceived as a symbol? He does after all emerge as a foil against four animal images representing gentile kingdoms. But on the other hand I recently posted clear evidence that the author was drawing upon the image of Ezekiel’s chariot vision thus suggesting he certainly knew of views of the godhead that were unconventional and was prepared to work with them. (There are also well-known similarities in Daniel 7 with the Canaanite gods, El the aged one and the younger conqueror Baal, the rider of clouds.)

In a future post I’ll show how Boyarin’s interpretation here affects his view of some of the “son of man” sayings in the Gospels and how he challenges some conventional views of Christian scholars.

The main point of these posts is not necessarily what the author of Daniel or Ezekiel themselves thought but what we can clearly see of the way various Jewish authors and groups through the Second Temple era came to interpret passages like this one in Daniel.



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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Room for Two Gods in the Book of Daniel”

  1. Of course the traditional view that the Son of Man in Daniel 7 is Israel comes from the explanation in verse 18, that “the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever.” As you say, just as the wild beasts represent their nation, the Son of Man is Israel’s representative. Rabbi Aqiva’s idea that this is David would make sense as the king represented his people. And many of the so-called messianic prophecies applied to Jesus were really speaking of Israel, so applying them to Jesus would say that he is Israel’s new king. On the other hand, if Daniel 7 is describing Jehovah receiving authority from the Great God El, then he would be representing Israel as their God.

  2. I understand the connection between someone coming on the clouds and Jehovah or Baal. But I cannot understand the use of the phrase “Son of Man” ever being used to refer to either one. Can you explain this? I can’t help but think this has to be a human being, even if he is being made divine, similar to Enoch who became Metatron.

    1. Son of man in Daniel is not used as a title but simply as a description of a human figure as a contrast to the earlier figures of wild animals. Its use as a title was a later development in writings such as the Book of Enoch as you mention.

      1. Neil, I agree with you that the phrase describes the person as a human. Do you agree with me that this would then exclude Jehovah or Baal from being this Son of Man?

        1. Depends. I’m not sure there was a single clearly defined understanding about this. It seems that Yahweh could place his name in another and that other then in effect becomes another manifestation of Yahweh. So if Yahweh placed his name in a Son of Man . . . . .

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