The God and Dying Messiah Debate Preceded Christianity

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by Neil Godfrey

In my last post I finished off with some reservations about Boyarin’s interpretation of the two heavenly figures in Daniel 7 as two deities. This post lets Boyarin explain a little more what he thinks is going on here.

We have on the one hand the two figures, one like a son of man and the other an Ancient of Days, in heaven. Thrones are set for both. The Ancient of Days is clearly God; yet the one like a son of man enters upon the clouds — an evident sign that he is also a divinity.

Against this view stands the continuation of the story in Daniel 7. The one like the son of man appears in the train of four symbolic beasts that represent gentile kingdoms. The vision ends — after the appearance of the one like the son of man — with the downfall of those kingdoms and the rise of a kingdom of the holy people. From this perspective it seems clear that the one like the son of man must be symbolic after all.

Daniel 7:15-28 (NIV)

15 “I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. 16 I approached one of those standing there and asked him the meaning of all this.

“So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: 17 ‘The four great beasts are four kings that will rise from the earth. 18 But the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever.’

19 “Then I wanted to know the meaning of the fourth beast, which was different from all the others and most terrifying, with its iron teeth and bronze claws—the beast that crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. 20 I also wanted to know about the ten horns on its head and about the other horn that came up, before which three of them fell—the horn that looked more imposing than the others and that had eyes and a mouth that spoke boastfully. 21 As I watched, this horn was waging war against the holy people and defeating them, 22 until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the holy people of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom.

23 “He gave me this explanation: ‘The fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will appear on earth. It will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it. 24 The ten horns are ten kings who will come from this kingdom. After them another king will arise, different from the earlier ones; he will subdue three kings. 25 He will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws. The holy people will be delivered into his hands for a time, times and half a time.

26 “‘But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. 27 Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’

28 “This is the end of the matter. I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.”

Boyarin continues with the imaginary argument between Aphrahat (see previous post) and his Jewish opponents:

Those Jews who were Apharat’s opponents could clearly have retorted, then: “Is a heavenly being or junior God subject to oppression by a Seleucid king who forces him to abandon his Holy Days and his Law for three and a half years? Absurd! The Son of Man must be a symbol for the children of Israel! (p. 43, my bolding, as always)

So we have a quandary. Boyarin arbitrates:

Both sides of this argument are right. 

Undeniably the one like the son of man is portrayed with all the imagery of a deity; undeniably he represents the people of Israel.

No wonder the commentators argue. The text itself seems to be a house divided against itself. 

Boyarin’s answer?

The answer to this conundrum is that the author of the Book of Daniel, who had Daniel’s vision itself before him, wanted to suppress the ancient testimony of a more-than-singular God, using allegory to do so. In this sense, the theological controversy that we think exists between Jews and Christians was already in intra-Jewish controversy long before Jesus. (p. 43)

Now here is where Boyarin gets interesting.

In every other instance in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) where a figure rides the clouds we are seeing a vision of God. It follows that in Daniel 7 the one like a son of man is also God, “a second God, as it were”. Recall my recent post on implications of Ezekiel’s chariot vision.

The implication is, of course, that there are two such divine figures in heaven, the old Ancient of Days and the young one like a son of man. (For the ubiquity of this pattern Boyarin cites another volume I now have on my reading list.)

Such Jews would have had to explain, then, what it means for this divine figure to be given into the power of the fourth beast for “a time, two times, and a half a time.” 

So it would seem, . . . .

A descent into hell — or at any rate to the realm of death — for three days would be one fine answer to that question. (p. 44)

No new thing under the sun

I’ll quote Boyarin’s words a little more:

The Messiah-Christ existed as a Jewish idea long before the baby Jesus was born in Nazareth. ‘That is, the idea of a second God as viceroy to God the Father is one of the oldest or theological ideas in Israel. Daniel 7 brings into the present a fragment of what is perhaps the most ancient of religious visions of Israel that we can find. Just as seeing an ancient Roman wall built into a modern Roman building enables us to experience ancient Rome alive and functioning in the present, this fragment of ancient lore enabled Jews of the centuries just before Jesus and onward to vivify in the present of their lives this bit of ancient myth. 

The rest, as they say, is Gospel. But the point is that these ideas were not new ones at all by the time Jesus appeared on the scene. They are among the earliest ideas about God in the religion of the Israelites, comparable to the ancient relationship between the gods ‘El and Ba’al in which “Ba’al come near in his shining storm cloud. ‘El ins the transcendent one” ‘El, the ancient sky god of all of the Canaanites (his name comes to mean just “God” in biblical Hebrew) was the god of justice, while his younger associate, named Ba’al by most of the Canaanites — but not the Israelites, who called him YHWH — was the god of war. In the biblical religion, in order to form a more perfect monotheism, these two divinities have been merged into one, but not quite seamlessly. . . . A God that is very far away generates — almost inevitably — a need for a God who is closer; a God who judges us requires almost inevitably a God who will fight and defend us . . . . “(p. 44)

No doubt such a view was opposed by many Jews; we clearly read of this opposition in the later rabbinic writings. Equally clearly that polemic must have been directed at other views among Jews whose voices have been all but totally lost today.


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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “The God and Dying Messiah Debate Preceded Christianity”

  1. I’m reminded of the mind-body problem. If our minds are incorporeal (spiritual, even), then how can they affect our physical bodies? Similarly, if God is the perfect, omnipotent being, then he does not change; he transcends time and motion in space.

    How can he then affect the physical world? He needs some sort of mediation — his breath (spirit), his voice (word), or his thoughts (wisdom). These aspects of God eventually become personified and referred to as separate entities, sometimes angels, other times as apparent demigods.

    In Daniel are we seeing the early signs a fusion between these theological ideas of a mediator and mythology of the new, vigorous god who overshadows the old god (the Ancient of Days)? Or does it go back farther than that?

    1. Some scholars have found those divine mediator Platonic/Neoplatonic concepts woven through Genesis and Exodus. But that has implications for the date of heir composition that are somewhat uncomfortable for many.

  2. That’s well said. Much of religion is Platonistic, dualist: spirit vs. matter, word vs. world. So mediators are needed.

    By the way? Some scholars read “son of Man” to be just an ancient phrase for a “mortal.” But clearly it is only for a great mortal, almost a god, in the Bible. Interestingly, the prophet Ezekiel was called a “son of Man” over and over again, dozens of times.

    1. Yes, most of the OT references to “son of man” (all of them?) do refer to a mortal only — a human being. Even Daniel does — the figure is “like a man” while the others were like various beasts. The term gradually became a title in the other literature such as the Book of Enoch. Many scholars argue that Jesus used it mostly as a reference to a mortal but I’ll be posting on some of those interpretations shortly.

  3. Most of religion is overwhelmingly dualistic: Heaven vs. Earth, God over Man, spirit vs. flesh, etc.. However, often certain persons or agencies on earth are thought to be able to bridge the gap between gods in heaven, and men on earth. These intermediaries include: holy men, prophets, angels, and so forth. As intermediaries or “messengers.” The prophet Ezekiel – who is apparently called “the son of Man” 94 times or so – is an interesting case. The text seems to want to acknowledge his humanity. But it allows that Zeke can convey God to the world.

    Interestingly, Ezekiel is an exile, not in Israel. His god includes a god who manifests himself in an odd “bronze”and fiery, wheeled/winged visitation from the heavens (cf. Assyrian and other bronze statues?). This God sees many sins in Israel. In fact, he hears God – and “the spirit” it seems – condemning Israel.

    Is there a different god or sense of God in Ezek? The book of Ezekiel is mentioned explicitly only in apocryphal works: Sirach, and 4Mac.. Ezekiel himself lives on the margins of Israel. Yet although just a man, he conveys to us here on earth, a view of God. But is it to be sure a rather different view of God; a “spirit” often condemning the “house of Israel.” In this sense, he seems to suggest that at the margins of Israel were other ideas of God. Almost … other gods.

    Though Zeke is not mentioned much beyond his book in the Bible, he does seem rather like a prototype for Jesus, another “son of Man,” noting sins in Israel, from the margins (Galilee). Living on the margins, we suggest Jesus also took in some foreign ideas of gods as well. Probably Greek and Roman. And ANE notions of “dying and rising Gods,” in the case of Jesus. Interestingly Zeke also pictures eating the flesh of people, as a way of gaining strength. Clearly a proto-Eucharistic but also primitive religion cannibalistic notion.

    So we could indeed see Ezekiel’s god, even Zeke himself too, as prototypical Jesus. And see both as diverging somewhat from Israel’s God. Even as a rather different god. Relying on “bronze” images, and “spirit,” and the authority of a “son of man.” A kind of proto-humanism that sees to increasingly acknowledge the role that human beings, and their spirit, have in creating/conveying God.

    Successful efforts were made to suggest that this new ( notion of) God – and his intermediary “son” – should be integrated into the Bible, and the godhead of Israel. Though foreign or “marginal” origins, even foreign gods, are evident in the background. Including indications of the central role of Man, in creating/conveying gods.

    The book of Ezekiel therefore seems to present at the very least, a new idea of God. Even one opposing Israel at times. And a new sense of the agency or importance of man, in creating/conveying this and other ideas of the gods. Such things may be thought to be later interpolations. However, Israel was always surrounded by other gods, other religions, right from the start. We think that ideas from Babylon particularly became deeply integrated into Jews, during their stay in that country. Similar things seem to have happened much later, with “Jesus.” And his notion of a “son of Man.”

    1. So to put it simply: the second god in the Bible is Man himself.

      The prophets, angels, preachers, not only speak for God; they partially create him. Or at least his image as we know it.

      “Baal” by the way, was a general name for authorities, lords. Who as many authorities in ancient times, were taken for gods.

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