Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Jesus and the God of Israel (Chapter 3: "Most High")

Amazingly, I am going to be able to fit all of my comments on chapter 3 of Bauckham's Jesus and the God of Israel in one post! Follow the labels back to see the earlier posts.

Chapter 3 is about “The ‘Most High’ God and the Nature of Early Jewish Monotheism”

Of all the chapters I have read, I have found this one to be the most informative. In it B calls for listings and tables of divine names and titles in early Jewish literature to see which are popular and which are not in particular genres and in particular provenances. I think such an extensive study would be most useful indeed!

This chapter takes a small step towards this with a study of the term “Most High.” He tries to account for its high frequency, its significance, and how it sheds light on early Jewish monotheism.

Of course, to do this he must rehearse defining “monotheism” and “inclusive” versus “exclusive” monotheism. Again, inclusive monotheism, in B’s definition, is when the highest God is superlative in a gradient set—the highest god is strongest, wisest, loftiest, developing out of older polytheisms of Rome, Greece, and the Near East. Exclusive monotheism differentiates not only in degree, but also in kind, which is how he sees early Jewish literature with few or no exceptions, since God is the creator and ruler of all things. (I would argue that this, too, would develop out of older polytheisms of Rome, Greece, and the Near East, since Marduk, too, is the creator—or orderer—and ruler of all things in the Enuma Elish in much the same way YHWH is in Jewish literature). I would actually call Bauckham’s model of “inclusive monotheism” just “classical polytheism,” but that might just be a matter of semantics (I am increasingly thinking that neither “monotheism” nor “polytheism” carry much explanatory power—ironically, I am seeing this through the disputes B has with others, when they are saying the exact same thing, but one calling it monotheism, another saying monolatry, and another polytheism). Recognizing the Israelite-Jewish matrix that was polytheistic or inclusively monotheistic (in B’s definition), however, B writes:

“Because these definitions of God’s uniqueness drive an absolute difference in kind between God and ‘all things’, they override any older gradient features of the Israelite-Jewish worldview (such as survive in some of the vocabulary used) and create an essentially binary view of reality.” (109)

In fact, this is quite a sophisticated observation, noting (in other words) how older terminology sediments, persists even as such terminology shifts in meaning. “Most high” may have originally presumed a “gradient” pantheon (whether we call it “inclusive monotheism” or simply “classical polytheism”). This definition of divinity, again, was inculcated (or perhaps maintained) by monolatry.

In this chapter, I see a lot more qualifying remarks, and recognitions of changes from the early Israelite-Jewish matrix into what emerged in the (late?) second temple period.

“Early Judaism turned monolatry (which had originally been concomitant of henotheism) into a powerful symbol of exclusive monotheism.” (109).

Unlike his earlier chapters, B is no longer equating monolatry (“practical monotheism”) with monotheism, but sees more of a process, perhaps a “dialectic” (I would say “dialogic”) process between them. With such statements as these, I am not sure we can completely label Bauckham as providing a “static” model of Jewish conceptions of God as James McGrath has recently said in his latest book (Only True God, 12-15), although, to be fair, this essay was not available when McGrath’s book was in press and B’s earlier work (and his earlier chapters in this same book) do present a fairly static view. Yet now these qualifying statements in this chapter are forcing me to reevaluate this. Perhaps B sees more dynamism between Israelite and second temple literature and more static in late second temple Judaism and early Christianity.

On the issue of worship, B also notes:

“While appropriate honour might be accorded high-ranking creatures (but not in contexts where it might be mistaken for divine worship, and so usually not to angels or to rulers who claimed divinity), worship was different because it was acknowledgement of the transcendent uniqueness of the God of Israel.” (109).

With all of these qualifying remarks, nuancing his model to a greater degree than before in this book, B gets down to business and discusses the term “Most High.” It occurs 31 times in the Hebrew Bible (outside of Daniel; he excludes Daniel here and places it in Second Temple literature due to its late date). Then it occurs 284 times (minimum!) in literature 250 BCE-150 CE. In the OT, with partial exception of genesis, the title is exclusively in poetic passages, usually the Psalms. In Second Temple literature, all genres employ it. Moreoverly, 250 out of the 284 occurrences appear in Palestinian literature, making it much rarer in the Diaspora, a statistical imbalance that needs explanation.

B thinks this title is a good test case because “most high” seems amenable to “inclusive monotheism” and can be found in widespread usage with regard to supreme deities in other systems of the Hellenistic and Roman periods—Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, etc., use this term. But as B would be the first to point out, the usage of the same term does not necessarily indicate the same meaning of that term, although it may.

To discuss this, he turns to one of his favorite texts: Deuteronomy (his other favorite is Second Isaiah). The extant passage of Deut. 32:8-9 has significant differences between the MT, LXX, and 4QDeutj. In this text the “Most High” apportions the nations either according to the number of the “sons of Israel” (MT; which, I think, makes very little sense in this passage), “angels of God” (LXX), and “sons of God/El” (Qumran). YHWH’s portion is Israel. These latter two make much more sense to me. Apart from manuscript variance in which, I think, the MT is perhaps the least reliable in this case, this text has two basic readings: (1) YHWH is one of the sons of the Most High (this is how Margaret Barker reads it, for example); (2) YHWH is the Most High, and when he gives the nations to members of his heavenly entourage, he keeps Israel for himself (so while others get governors, Israel gets the emperor himself). (1) is often pushed as the original meaning, but it is hard to maintain this meaning in the context of Deuteronomy (contra Barker). I think it might be the case of an older view of God (1) sedimenting itself into a new context, reinterpreted by the Deuteronomist writer as (2). I agree that in the current context of Deuteronomy it almost has to be (2), but it may be that (2) is aware of and trying to subvert (1) by using (1)’s own language. Nonetheless, in the Second Temple period, (2) was the dominant interpretation (no matter its earlier possible meanings)—see Sir. 17:17, Jub. 15:31-32; 16:17-18; Philo, Post., 91-2; Plant., 58-9. So, Sirach, Jubilees, and Philo, very different authors and very different readers all presuppose (2). This, I would note, does not disprove that (1) is not an earlier understanding, but it establishes (for the most part) its meaning in the late Second Temple Period (with Sirach offering our earliest reading)—and it is this later period that is B’s primary concern. B. notes that there is not a different reading from (2) until Basil of Caesarea and, moreover, this passage does not figure in the Rabbinic “two powers” controversy.

An important note on terminology in the Second Temple period surrounds the usage of “gods.” While the Hebrew Bible freely uses it for a variety of divine beings, Second Temple literature tends to avoid using “gods” or “sons of god,” etc., preferring “angels” or “rulers.” Qumran, of course, is the significant exception to this. Jubilees and Sirach might consider them to be the “gods” (falsely) worshipped by other nations, but that they exist and are worshipped as such, does not mean that they exist as gods in these texts; thus, no “inclusive monotheism.” So, even if the heavenly rulers of other nations (being apportioned to them by the most high) are “gods” does not mean they exist in the same capacity “as gods” in the same way YHWH does. He is primarily arguing contra Horbury at this point, but the problem with the argument is simply that they divine “inclusive” and “exclusive” differently, so the difference is not substantive but semantic.

Subsequently, B surveys “Most High” in early Jewish literature. Most uccurrences fall under three issues (with exceptions for poetic parallelism, habit, etc.):

(1) Temple, cult, and prayer: Most High is the one worshiped in temple worship, such as in ben Sira’s discussion of temple worship (Sir. 50:1-21). The temple is the “house of the Most High.” As such, it is associated with sacrifice, worship, prayer, thanksgiving, blessing, and praise. Melchizedek, Levi, and the Hasmoneans are all called “priests of the Most High.” I might suggest that the term in a cultic setting refers to God in the Most High place (the holy/cosmic mountain, the devir). (I wish he had spent more time on the cultic associations, because it is the aspect that I find most intriguing.)

(2) God as sovereign (seemingly most obvious association of “most high”). He discusses the holy of holies as the heights of heaven (which, in fact, probably should be mentioned under (1)), interlinking God’s sovereignty and cultic worship. Prayers with “most high” address God as supreme over all. Underlines God’s role as universal ruler and is connected with judgment.

(3) Use by or in relation to Gentiles: It is used in the literature by Gentiles to refer to Jewish God or by Jews referring to their God when in communication to Gentiles. Some uses here may be authentic, but probably a literary convention (especially with Gentiles referring to Jewish God as “most high” in Jewish literature!). This though links back to (2), since the title that denotes universal sovereignty would be the name most appropriate for Gentile usage (since they do not have the name “YHWH” revealed to them). In this way, the title “most high” in late second temple Judaism replaces “god of heaven” of early second temple Judaism.

Additionally, the term is very highly prevalent in 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra. There are 68 occurrences in 4 Ezra alone! 2 Baruch uses it more in combination with other titles, like “Mighty One,” which appears 43 times in comparison with the 24 occurrences of “Most High.”

For the remainder of the chapter, B discussion how the “most high” relates to the “gods.” He notes that very few biblical texts use “Elyon” in the context of the council of lesser gods (Deut. 32:8-9; Ps. 97:9; Ps. 82:6). He claims that these are isolated, unusual cases and would not influence the early Jewish reader (!?!?). I will reiterate my objection to this reasoning. Just because something is isolated or rare or is not the dominant trend, does not mean it is not significant, important, or influential. An early Jewish reader may have, in fact, been fairly taken by these passages. Three passages is often the amount of evidence he presents elsewhere to make his points; for example, he only posited three readers for the “established” understanding of the Deuteronomy passage above.

He further notes that in many passages “Most High” does not necessarily mean “the highest of the gods” but could be locative—that God is “on high.”

Even Psalm 82, he claims, the most “polytheistic” passage, has its supposed polytheism contradicted by the judgment that the “sons” will die like humans (v. 71):

“The strong impulse to draw an absolute distinction of kind between YHWH and all other reality, characteristic of Second Temple Judaism, is here already at work, despite the use of the very old terminology that was not designed to express that.” (119)

He writes that you cannot read “forward” these passages’ reconstructed original meaning to be how they were read by later Jews. I agree on this point. He recognizes that the language of the divine council is an older concept and that in the Second Temple period (and even for most of the Hebrew Bible) the assembly does not really offer council, but just assembles to praise God. Earlier readings may not be how later Jewish readers took the passage. I would claim you cannot read backward either—just because something is the prominent understanding of a passage in a later place and time does not constitute its earlier meanings. He says these passages would be read in light of the monotheizing process already at work in the canonization process: “language that may originally have had polytheistic significance was refashioned in early Jewish use in the service of monotheism” (119). It is this process of retooling or, to take an earlier phrase of B’s, “refunctioning” older phrases, terms, or even broader patterns into a new context with a new meaning, such as “Most High.”

Ok, so what we’ve been waiting for in wading through some of the statistical data: why Palestine and not so much in the Diaspora? Diaspora usage mostly falls into the relations with Gentiles. “Most High” was of widespread usage among non-Jews, so it is a term a Gentile could readily understand and perhaps was used for apologetic purposes in Jewish engagements with Gentiles. (This implies, although B does not fully spell it out, that the Gentiles would associate the term with their own “Most High” of Zeus, Jupiter, Amun, etc.—would these be instances of “inclusive monotheism” when Jews (whether for apologetic purposes or not) somehow claimed their “most high” was basically the same as their “most high”? Might diaspora literature be more “inclusive” and Palestinian literature most “exclusive”?) In a way, this term was a place where Jews and Greeks (or Romans, etc.) could meet each other half-way (citing C.H. Dodd).

But this usage allows ambiguity—Greeks used the term primarily as a morphologically superlative whereas Jewish usage tended to be semantically superlative. Greeks see the “most high” has the highest in a series, but Jews use it for “God Most High.” So, this ambiguity and potentials for misunderstanding might be why Diaspora Jews avoided it for internal usage and only to meet Gentiles half way. When use by Philo, for example, he has to explain this differentiation of usage (Leg. 3.82).

B leaves open the issue of epigraphic usage, which is much muddier (although its ambiguity is itself an important datum). He also leaves aside the question of whether there was a general cult to Theos Hypsistos that spawned Jewish, Greek, and Christian usage. I find it disappointing that he does not triangulate his discussion by exploring epigraphic usages. A discussion of the Jewish epigram in the cave to Pan is an interesting case-in-point, although this may not be relevant for a chapter on “Most High.” It is something that is relevant to his more general discussion of ancient monotheism, nonetheless. Luckily, McGrath does discuss material remains in his book.

At the end of the chapter, B gives helpful tables of texts, provenance, and frequency of usage of the title “Most High.” I hope his further endeavors will seek out other divine titles in the same way. This is definitely the most informative chapter so far.

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