Jewish Foundations: The Divine Name & Heavenly Beings Become Human

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Jewish Foundations of Christianity — Significance of God’s Name  . . . . .

We have seen how pre-Christian ideas within something we might loosely call “Judaism” could conceive of a clear connection between a “Son of God” (who is a Saviour figure) and an “image of God” and how both of these entities could receive the exalted name of God himself.

The Name Above All Names

This brings us to the famous hymn cited by Paul in Philippians 2 and its declaration that the Son of God was, at his exaltation, honoured with the name exalted above all names. What is this name? Here is one train of thought:

The second prominent angelomorphic tradition in this pericope is the teaching of the Divine Name and its investiture: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the Name [το ονομα] which is above every name“. The referent of “the Name” is not the name ‘Jesus”, but the Divine Name. This is clear from his inclusion of κυριος [=Lord], which the LXX [=Septuagint or Greek Old Testament] uses to translate the Tetragrammaton [=YHWH], in the confession of 2.11: κύριος Ἰησοῦς χριστός [= Lord Jesus Christ]. The significance of this ascription cannot be overestimated. It is indisputable evidence that lays bare the ancient roots of this Christology in angelomorphic traditions that grew from the Divine Name Angel of Exod 23.20-21. The unparalleled status and enthronement of the one who possesses the Divine Name is also emphasized in Eph 1.12-23:

[. . .] the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints [. . .] which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.

That is from Charles A. Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents & Early Evidence (p. 339 – my own bolding as always).

Here’s another take, this time from Darrell D. Hannah, Michael and Christ: Michael Traditions and Angel Christologies in Early Christianity (pp. 143-144)

On Fitzmyer’s opposing view that pre-Christian copies of the LXX did not use κύριος for יהוה  Hannah says “Fitzmyer is too cautious. he does not take into account the evidence of Philo, whose text of the LXX clearly renders יהוה with κύριος. Nor can Fitzmyer account for the overwhelming substitution of κύριος  for the tetragrammaton in Christian MSS if it were not the traditional rendering.

The earliest text which implies Jesus possessed the divine Name is Phil. 2.6-11. After recalling Jesus’ death on the cross followed by his exaltation, the hymn continues, God καὶ ἐχαρίσατο αὐτῷ τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα, ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ . . . [=has given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . ]  Many commentators agree that “the name above every name” can only be κύριος, which in the LXX renders יהוה, and which is explicitly attributed to Jesus in vs. 11. The phrase ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ must then be translated “at the name of Jesus”, i.e., the name which belongs to Jesus, rather than “at the name Jesus”. In other words, the Lordship of God, and His Name which guarantees that Lordship, now belong to Christ.

Significantly, the hymn culminates in transferring to Christ an OT text (Isa. 45.21-23) which declares the universal worship of the one God, but does it in a way which does not set up Christ as a rival to that one God (vs. 11).

In many ways this text parallels 1 Cor. 8.6, where Paul seemingly modifies the Shema to include a confession of Christ as κύριος. The deutero-Pauline Eph. 1.20-21 and the author of Hebrews 1.4) provide later but important parallels to Phil. 2.6-11. The three texts taken together imply a conjunction between Christ’s exaltation and his possession of a new name. 

This bestowal of the divine Name upon Christ at his exaltation and in consequence of his obedience, it must be admitted, differs significantly from the Exodus angel who possesses God’s Name so that he can take God’s place in leading the Israelites (Ex. 23.20-21, 32.31-33.6), and from Michael’s being given knowledge of the Name as the secret oath by which the world was created (1En. 69. 13-25), and even from Yahoel’s (ApAb.) possession of the Name as the key to his status as the principal angel. However, there is a significant similarity with Metatron’s reception of the Name on the occasion of his exaltation to heaven and his elevation over the heavenly hosts in 3 Enoch 4-12 (= §§5-15). Two other NT passages, Rev. 19.11-16 and John 17.11-12, offer parallels to the Exodus angel’s, Michael’s and Yahoel’s possession of the Name. 

(I’m not quite sure I understand why Hannah says “it must be admitted” that the bestowal of the divine Name upon Jesus “differs significantly” from the other instances.)

Moshe Idel, in Ben: Sonship and Jewish Mysticism, notes the possibility that the name Jesus itself is related to its “Hebrew theophoric form Yehoshu’a” (יהושוע) which contains (significantly according to many readers in ancient times) the letters of the divine Name — y-h-w. Page 24:

I wonder to what extent this passage [Phil 2:9] is related to the potential theophoric aspect of Jesus’s Hebrew name Yeshu‘a, which could be understood as derived from Yeshu’a, namely Joshua and from the more explicit Hebrew theophoric form Yehoshu’a. Gieschen [see above] has concluded that in some instances in the Greek Bible, reference to the name of Jesus implies that he possessed the divine name, namely the Tetragrammaton; by accepting this conclusion we may understand some examples of early Christianity as dealing with a theophoric mediator, in which the Son of God has not only some replica of the form of God, but also a divine name.

Compare what we read in the opening of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Recall our recent posts that show how some pre-Christian Jewish literature (including Ezekiel) hypostatises the glory of God and his image. These attributes of God can appear or be manifested in other persons acting as God. Recall also how these Jewish ideas associated God placing his name in a person with that person becoming a Son of God and being worthy of worship alongside God.

In this context the Epistle to the Hebrews sounds far more Jewish, certainly within that cluster of Jewish ideas that appeared to follow the logic of Ezekiel’s chariot vision and the angel of the Lord in the Book of Exodus.

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.

For to which of the angels did He ever say:

You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You”?

And again:

“I will be to Him a Father,
And He shall be to Me a Son”?

But when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says:

“Let all the angels of God worship Him.”

Moshe Idel concludes (pp. 24-25) that his letter or treatise touches four different aspects in which the name of God and name of Jesus are similar:

  1. Both divine names are higher than those of the angels. Even angels could have some form of theophoric name (that is, a name with “god” or ’el as part of it) but Jesus alone appears to have had some form of theophorism that relates to the letters of the Tetragrammaton (Yehoshu‘a).
  2. Both names are associated with the emanation of radiant light. Here it is not the shape or image thatis addressed by the luminosity that is important. The Wisdom of Solomonmade an association of God’s wisdom and light long before Christianity”:
    • 7:24 For wisdom is more moving than any motion: she passeth and goeth through all things by reason of her pureness.
    • 7:25 For she is the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowing from the glory of the Almighty: therefore can no defiled thing fall into her.
    • 7:26 For she is the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of his goodness.
  3. Both names have a morphic similarityappropriate for a Father and Son. Bothare associated with the image, the form, the “stamp” or “character” of God. Various early Christian writings link the glory of God with the face of Jesus. (Recallthe significance of the face in theprevious post.) Recall also:
    • Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.
  4. Those with the divine name are worthy of worship. In other Jewish writings other individuals with the divine Name — Adam, Enoch, Metatron — are also worshiped.

So what sort of Sonship is involved here? We don’t read anything about being born of a virgin or coming into existence from the thigh or head of Zeus.

Idel places the Hebrews passage in the same tradition as Psalm 2:7. Both point to the exalted adoption of an elite figure in a certain moment. Hebrews follows in the Jewish tradition of associating Sonship of God with specific attributes and applying these all to a “historical” person:

To summarize . . . . I see this passage as consisting of a collection of sonship principles already found separately in earlier Jewish sources, and their application to a specific historical figure, who became, for the first time in such an explicit manner, the center of a full-fledged son-cult. (p. 25)

Other “historical” figures include Adam and Enoch. Not that Idel thinks they were truly historical; he means that they were historical in the thinking of the time in question.

Other Christian passages that address this Jewish tradition of the name of God:

Revelation 19:

12 His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself13 He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. . . .  And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written:


Is the reference to the thigh intended to remind us of the Jacob story in Genesis? Recall Jacob wrestling all night with the “angel” (later Jacob refers to him as God) until the angel finally wounded him in the thigh before changing his name to the theophoric Israel.

So Heavenly Beings Could Become Human

But notice what was believed about Jacob according to certain Jewish writings. In the Prayer of Joseph (found in Origen) —

I, Jacob, who is speaking with you, am also Israel, an angel of God, and a ruling spirit. Abraham and Isaac were created before any work. But, I, Jacob, who men called Jacob but whose name is Israel am he who God called Israel which means, a man seeing God, because I am the firstborn of every living thing to whom God gives life. And when I was coming up from Syrian Mesopotamia, Uriel, the angel of God, came forth and said that I [Jacob-Israel] had descended to earth and I have tabernacled among men and that I had been called by the name Jacob. He envied me and fought with me, and wrestled with me saying that his name and the name that is before every angel, was to be above mine. I told him his name and what rank he held among the sons of God. Are you not Uriel, the eighth after me? And I, Israel, the archangel of the power of the Lord and the chief captain among the sons of God? Am I not Israel, the first minister before the face of God? And I called upon my God by the inextinguishable name. (p. 26)

That’s not the Jacob we read about in Sunday school.

So early Jewish religious ideas, some of them at least, believed that “historical” persons in the Bible had a pre-existence in heaven. (The date of this prayer is uncertain. It may have arisen in the first or second century of the Christian era but we don’t know. J. Z. Smith finds the parallels between this prayer and the thought of Philo — early first century — significant.)

That sounds bizarre at first. Weren’t they born through a mother’s womb? Again, recall my previous post where I noted how Levenson shows why we must be careful to avoid anachronistic “biological” thinking when it comes to understanding God’s claims to sons. The birth of Jacob was unusual enough to make it clear God was involved there somehow, and recall that God’s claims over-rule any human, even biological, ones.

Peter R. Carrell in Jesus and the Angels: Angelology and the Christology of the Apocalypse of John acknowledges that is it at least possible that this Prayer of Joseph emerged as a Christian-era attempt to deny any uniqueness to Jesus. There is no evidence of any such polemic, however, as he further notes.

But even if this text has been influenced by Christian ideas, the idea of a heavenly being appearing to be human was not new to Judaism (cf. Gen. 18.1-8; Tob. 12:11-15). Hence this example need not be understood solely as a kind of apologetic strategem. It may well represent the possibility that some Jewish circles, even in the first century CE, comfortably accommodated

(i) the idea that an angel could take on human form, and

(ii) the possibility of pre-existence for a human being. (pp. 64-65)

And of particular interest for the emergence of Christianity, Carrell points out that this prayer

In particular . . . raises the question whether the idea that a heavenly being could become incarnate developed within Jewish angelology independently and (more or less) simultaneously as it developed within early christology. (p. 65)

Time does not permit me to address the Samaritans applying the divine name to Moses, or the possibility within early Judaism of a man becoming divine (as in the Enoch tradition), or the possible significance of the name Israel, and so forth.

I’m just beginning to learn what the research on this early Jewish literature has to tell us.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Jewish Foundations: The Divine Name & Heavenly Beings Become Human”

  1. I know mainstream scholarship thinks the “name” given to Jesus at his exaltation is “Kyrios” but I always thought the more natural reading is that he received the name “Jesus.” Though in the Septuagint it is often used as a translation of the Tetragrammaton, “Kyrios,” is really a title, not a name. “Jesus” is the only name given in the Philippians passage.

    By the way, I assume you’re familiar with Margaret Barker’s work? “The Great Angel” is especially relevant to your research here.

    1. Yes, I had tended to accept the name given was itself “Jesus”, too. But I had not read the arguments I have quoted above. I would like to see arguments contradicting the meaning of the “name OF Jesus” as opposed to “the name Jesus” from specialists in the languages and Septuagint/wider Jewish literature before tossing out the points made above.

      Yes, I have read Barker’s “Great Angel” and two other works of hers concentrating on Enoch. I want to go beyond her, however, and find out what the scholars specializing in this sort of this literature have been arguing without any necessary relation to Christianity. (I worry that Barker seems to be a little too close to the Mormons, too, and using her work to give them a few brownie points. Or maybe it’s her way of justifying the “social value” of her own research.) Barker has also written some stuff that I consider poor quality and even apologetic that worries me a little. I’d like to get a wider base for all of these interpretations than what she alone provides.

      1. I will take a look at the arguments in favor of the traditional reading. I always just took “the name of Jesus” as being equivalent to “Jesus’ name,” which would of course be “Jesus.” Regarding Barker, I share your worry. We should be wary of her conclusions. It’s her presentation of primary sources that’s important, not her particular conclusions (which are interesting, but often very speculative).

  2. I am suffering from mental dulling and exhaustion after reaching 2 Samuel in my self flagellating attempt to read the whole Old Testament. It has been an arid, depressing journey so far.
    I get the impression that, if you could go back to the original authors/editors, and quizzed them about what we are debating now, they would stare at us with incomprehension. Maybe we’re seeing patterns and connections where none exist. I also get the impression that both testaments, the old one particularly, were very hastily edited and authored in reaction to some existential crisis. In their haste to cut and paste and invent they can’t keep simple tales straight and repeat unlikely story lines as if they were stuck for original ideas.
    It seems to me that these ancient authors exhausted themselves in the urgent service of a wealthy privileged few – maybe that is why Yahweh inflicted haemorrhoids on the Philistines – it was the first thing that came to the long suffering author’s mind as a suitable divine punishment.
    I must take a break from this genocide, incest, trickery, thievery, stoning and infanticide. Yahweh ain’t getting to inflict the Philistine plague on me. No sir!

    1. Yeh, read cold like that it’s all pretty daunting and pointless.

      It’s good to read some modern views about the origins of those works and place the whole lot in some sort of meaningful framework. If, for example, the Judean state was founded by the Persians and Judaism itself originated from that time — and none of the OT writings existed prior to that — then things suddenly become interesting.

      Were the stories of patriarchal migrations from Mesopotamia or Israelites from Egypt myths being created to justify the migrations of Jews in Persian times? Were the conflicts with the Canaanites and Philistines myths to justify the takeover of the land by those being forcibly settled there as the proxies of imperial powers?

      Once you explore ideas like those you can later reject them if you find them wanting but they are a great way to get started.

      1. You are of course correct Neil about the fascinating origins and purpose of the text. I am drawn to the higher critical approach which I find quite exciting. What depressed me was how poorly written the OT text is so far. If this had been submitted by a high school student today it would have been severely marked down. Perhaps it sounds better in Hebrew (if there ever was an original Hebrew text) and any good qualities it may have had is lost in translation. I know the literary quality gets better in later books but just taking the revered Pentateuch itself I am at a loss to find any redeeming or inspiring features.
        I have just completed a Coursera series of lectures on the Bible’s pre-history, purpose and political future from Emory University and am currently going through Christine Hayes’ Old Testament lectures on Youtube from Yale and am reading her text book.
        I still think the whole thing is a rushed political job with us looking for deep theological clues such as in their use of the ‘Angel of the Lord’. If we could cross examine the author(s) I bet he/they wouldn’t have a clue as to what they themselves meant.
        In any case my ranting isn’t even on topic – so I’ll shut up now.
        Thanks for the great site. I always look forward to new posts.

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