Heiser-elohim, gods and spirits

I am reading Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm.

His reading of Psalm 82:1 is what led him to question what he had been taught about the nothingness of gods other than the Lord. Sometimes the Hebrew word elohim refers to YHWH, the mysterious name of the God of Israel. But sometimes it is plural. In the one verse, Psalm 82:1, it is both.

First, the psalm says that elohim has taken his place in the divine council. There it is clearly singular and refers to Israel’s God. But then it says that he holds judgment in the midst of the elohim. Clearly this time it is plural and refers to other beings, the members of the divine council.

Heiser gives this listing of the uses of elohim in the Hebrew Bible:

Thousands of times it means the Lord, the God of Israel

Sometimes, as in Psalm 82, it means members of the divine council.

Sometimes it refers a god worshiped by another nation. Examples are Judges 11:24, where Jephthah’s speech to the Moabites refers to what “Chemosh your elohim gave you.” or 1 Kings 11:33 where three different deities of the nations, including a goddess, are called elohim.

In the poem in Deuteronomy 32, demons or evil spirits seem to be called elohim (v. 17).

In 1 Samuel 28:13 the ghost of Samuel is called an elohim.

Sometimes elohim refers to angels or the angel of the Lord. He gives Genesis 35:7 as an example. That requires some explanation. Most people probably think it refers directly to God. I would have used Psalm 8:5 about man being created a little lower than the elohim. But that is also a controversial passage.

It seems that the category, angels, overlaps with the beings that make up the divine council?

The deceased Samuel as elohim raises for me the issue of ancestor veneration and how much the practice of deifying ancestors in other Ancient Near Eastern cultures influenced Israel.

Maybe Heiser will take that up at some point.

Anyway, Heiser wants to open our eyes to the many uses in the Bible of elohim that do not refer to the God of Israel.

He particularly emphasizes the times that a question like “who is like you among the gods” gets asked. This rhetorical question gets asked in the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:11) and in other words in Deuteronomy 3:24. Statements that God is higher than the gods or most high above them occur in other places.

Heiser thinks it is a mistake to say that these gods only exist in the sense that idols exist. He does not take the gods as symbols or illusions.

He does not accept the arguments of those who say that the negative statements in scripture about having no gods besides the Lord or that there is “no god before me” means that the gods do not exist. It would, he says, be a poor form of praise or worship to say to God, “You are greater than something that does not exist.”

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Heiser-a not-so-pure monotheism

My new reading project is The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible by Michael S. Heiser.

The reason I am looking at this book derives from something I’ve been thinking about for a while that came to the front of my awareness while reading Paula Fredriksen’s book Paul, the Pagan’s Apostle.

She looked at the passage in Philippians 2:10 where Paul says that every knee will bow and specifies that these “knees” are in heaven, earth and the underworld. So he was talking about the three-decker universe widely ridiculed as pre-modern and superstitious. Some of the “knees” that would bow belonged to divine beings.

Philosophical monotheists deny the existence of more than one divine being. But the writers of the Bible do not seem to share this philosophical monotheism. They oppose idolatry and claim that the Lord is an incomparable and most supreme being. But they do not deny the existence of other divine beings.

Heiser’s beginning text is Psalm 82, which starts off:

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment (NRSV).

We will see that there are other passages in the Hebrew Bible that also assume the existence of other gods.

So what are we to make of this? One approach widely adopted is to assume that there was an evolution of God from this kind of semi polytheism to a more pure monotheism.

But if Paul was among the semi polytheists, that seems to me to undercut the notion of the evolution of God.

If, say, Second Isaiah represents an evolved monotheism, then Paul is reverting to a more primitive worldview.

But even the late Isaiah texts seem to me ambiguous. “I am, and there is no one besides me.” in Isaiah 47:10 could simply mean that there is no being so timeless or powerful as to rival the Lord. It does not necessarily point to an evolution from Psalm 82 and other such passages.

Michael Heiser makes a solid, academic case for his position that the Bible teaches a cosmology that includes an “unseen realm” of divine spirits. But I will have a lot of hard questions to ask of that position. I have watched him on YouTube (he has his own channel),  So I know that he and I live in different theological worlds. He often assumes his readers and followers are evangelical, social conservatives.

Although I am no progressive, I have different assumptions about the Bible than he has. I don’t want that to unfairly bias my view. But I still intend to raise questions.

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The sign above the cross

In the gospels only Gentiles call Jesus king of the Jews. The Magi, Pilate, and the Roman soldiers use the term. Jews prefer King of Israel (John 19:21 below is kind of an exception, but those Jews are quoting the inscription that Pilate wrote) .

This seems, in the case of Pilate, to reflect antisemitism.  Pilate seems to show his contempt for the Jewish leaders by making the sign over the cross read “the king of the Jews”. According to John 19:19-23 Pilate interacted with the authorities this way:

19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written” (NRSV).

Probably, king of the Jews meant king of Judea. Herod Antipas and other tetrarchs ruled outside of Judea, but Rome directly ruled Judea. So Pilate thought in terms of his province. He did not share the theological idea of “Israel”.

Claiming to be king of a province ruled by a Roman governor was a political crime, treason or insurrection. It was disloyalty to the emperor. In all four gospels Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” In all four gospels the charge written on the inscription over the cross includes the phrase.

The reason I think this is the most securely historical part of the passion story is not just that all the gospels have it, but that it is not linked to a prophecy. One of the suspicions about the historical character of the passion narrative is that the story was constructed to fit prophecies from the Hebrew Bible. But the inscription seems to reflect an actual political accusation against Jesus of disloyalty to Rome.

But it also seems to me to reflect Pilate’s antisemitism. It mocked the people he ruled. This naked, bleeding, defenseless man is a fitting king for you, Pilate seems to be saying.

The gospels insist that Pilate was reluctant, that he knew Jesus was no threat. We may suspect that this is an interpretation that the early church, which hoped to be tolerated by Rome, found convenient. However, it is likely that Pilate had a dislike for the religious authorities who brought Jesus before him, that he was not inclined to comply with their wishes.

From Josephus, we see Pilate as ruthless and unmerciful. So I find it entirely possible that Pilate might have crucified Jesus just to mock the Jerusalem authorities. The crucifixion might have been his idea of an antisemitic joke.

The inscription over the cross, as reported in John 19:19-20 has led to the use of the letters INRI on paintings, crosses, tables, pulpits, cloths, and banners. It is shorthand for the Latin words of the inscription.

When I was a pastor, people would sometimes ask me what INRI meant. I tried to explain.  But this visual would have worked better:

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Why the good news he preached got Jesus killed

It is holy week and I am continuing to think about what historically led to the crucifixion.

Most studies about the historical Jesus assume some things about the synoptic gospels. They assume that Mark was written first and is closer to the historical Jesus than Matthew and Luke. The exception to this is where Matthew and Luke use an assumed source, Q, which was written before Mark. Q, however, has to be inventively reconstructed from the material missing from Mark, but which Matthew and Luke have in common.

I went to seminary in the 70s and 80s at Brite Divinity School, at TCU in Fort Worth. One of the benefits of that was that I was exposed to scholars teaching at other seminaries nearby. Dale Moody was as Southwest Baptist, while Victor Furnish and William Farmer were at Perkins Seminary at SMU.

William Farmer did not accept the usual theory about the synoptics. He supported the two-gospel hypotheses. This denied the existence of Q and the priority of Mark. According to Farmer, Mark was a secondary conflation of Matthew and Luke.

Now I think there are several reasons why Farmer was wrong about Mark. I believe I may have picked up on the mockery of his theory that it made Mark a Reader’s Digest condensed version of the Matthew and Luke.

The interesting and more valid thing, though, is that this view forced Farmer to take a different approach to the historical Jesus. What was closest to Jesus, according to him, was not Mark or a hypothetical Q, but the parables. The parables were a distinct product of a distinct mind. So in the parables, when analyzed using form criticism, one could get closer to the authentic Jesus than in any other way.

For a brief statement of this view, look at his article about the “Teaching of Jesus” in the Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, Supplementary Volume.

Basically, from the parables, it looks like Jesus’ gospel was one of God’s willingness to accept repentant sinners without respect to the outward respectability of their lives. The prodigal son and the elder brother (Luke 15:11-32), the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15), the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) and the great banquet (Matthew 22:1-10 and Luke 14:16-24)–all these attack a conventional and restrictive notion of who is in and who is out of the kingdom.

Combine this with the likelihood that Jesus did go out of his way to eat with and socialize with people considered sinners, and you get a pretty good idea of the thrust of his ministry.  He brought good news to the morally marginalized.

So the question is why his preaching caused some to resent him so much that they encouraged or went along with a Roman death sentence against him.

The first thing that comes to my mind is the Jonah effect.  Jonah could only feel vindicated if God’s wrath fell upon others.  So, like Jonah, there were people in Jesus’ day who desperately wanted God to exclude and punish sinners.  Jesus upset their ideas of order and justice.

When I think about particular groups though, here are some possibilities.

The Romans hated excited crowds.  Jesus tended to attract excited crowds.  That may be just about all the Romans understood about Jesus.

The temple authorities and those aligned with Herod hated any threat to their place at the top of the food chain and the hope for accommodation with Rome.

The Zealots would have hated the attitude of Jesus toward tax collectors and seen him as a threat to a real revolution.

The Pharisees may have been divided about him because he regarded some of them as petty and self-righteous.

The masses blew hot and cold because Jesus’ words about the nearness of the Kingdom of God  inspired their hopes, but disillusioned them by depending on divine intervention rather than social and political empowerment.


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The disillusionment of the masses and Jesus’ Passion

As the Christian holy week approaches I am thinking about some of the background for the events that led to Jesus receiving the death penalty.

C. H. Dodd was a twentieth century, English New Testament scholar who put a lot of stress on the Gospel of John, which he saw as promoting realized eschatology.

One of his arguments was that John was sometimes more historically accurate than the synoptics. For instance, John reports that Jesus went to Jerusalem several times for festivals, while the synoptics compress everything that happened in Jerusalem into a single, final Passover visit. Dodd has been followed on this in more recent scholarship by none other than Paula Fredriksen, whose book on Paul I have just been posting about.  This is in her Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

For a Galilean Jew, frequent attendance at Jerusalem festivals is likely.

A particularly important point for Dodd was that the feeding of the masses was a turning point for the ministry of Jesus. All the Gospels report the feeding of the masses. Mark has a duplicate report (both a feeding of 5,000, and a feeding of 4,000). Dodd recognized that the whole Bread of Life discourse that John attached to the event was theologically constructed.

But in John 6 the story culminates in a crises. And Dodd conjectured that something like this actually happened. John describes the crises this way:

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself (John 6:5 NRSV).

Jesus made a choice to reject worldly power.  This same choice is reflected in Matthew and Luke in the story of Jesus’ temptation after his baptism.

Dodd thought he saw signs in the synoptics that Jesus ministry changed after the feeding episode. Some of his support turned away and he traveled mostly outside of Galilee.

At any rate, we should think that the problem for Jesus was not just that some powerful people were hostile to him, but that his approach had disappointed the masses. Jesus had not taken up the Zealot cause, though one of his disciples seems to have been a Zealot. It was not just that Jesus did not support the violence of the dagger men—terrorists and assassins. He refused to lead any kind of organized resistance to Rome.

The gospels report that the crowds did not have Jesus’ back. Whether the crowd crying “crucify him” to Pilate was real or just a dramatic feature enhancing the story, Jesus’ crucifixion was the result of popular disillusionment as much as it was of hostility by the elite.

So one narrative that has much to commend it is that Jesus rejected an attempt to make him a liberating king and what he must have seen as a false messiah.

Luke has the two on the road to Emmaus say, “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). This was a hope that Jesus had failed to fulfill long before Good Friday. So it is probable that Jesus had alienated both a conservative, Herodian/Sadducean power structure and the radical Zealot movement.

One of the things Dodd pointed out was that the gospels did not treat the feeding of the masses the way they treated other miracles by saying that people marveled. With the feeding of the masses it is said that the crowds did not understand.

This misunderstanding seems to have plagued even the disciples.  So the falling away of supporters is both a historical reality that opened the way for his crucifixion and also, from a devotional point of view, part of his passion.  The pain of physical torture must have been paralleled by the pain of alienation from family, disciples and the masses.

C. H. Dodd’s little book, The Founder of Christianity, is now downloadable here.

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Herodians and the death of Jesus

Since I am between reading projects, I am going to write a few posts about the end of Jesus ministry and historical life.  For many Christians, the next two weeks are a time to reflect on the last days and torturous death of Jesus.

As you know if you have read me before, I take a critical or analytical approach to the Bible. However, sometimes my results are pretty conservative.

Today, I ask what was behind the hostility to Jesus that finally led to his crucifixion. This is not obvious because the gospels often have an agenda that reflects a life-situation for the writers at least four decades after Jesus’ life. For instance, the gospels give the Pharisee party a major role in the controversies and growing hostility to Jesus. Yet there is good reason to think this reflects later conflicts between the disciples and some synagogue authorities rather than the situation in Galilee and Judea in Jesus’ time.

As an amateur scholar and a generalist, I probably am unaware of some of the intricacies of the historical Jesus studies.

I just want to make a simple point that makes sense to me and may shed some light on the historical situation. That point is that when the gospels mention the party of Herodians, they are probably in touch with a historical reality from the time of Jesus. Mark 3:6 says:

The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him (NRSV).

The Herodians would have been supporters of Herod Antipas, who had killed John the Baptist. Jesus’ connection with John would have been reason for distrust and hostility between Herodians and Jesus. Rome granted Antipas the position of Tetrarch (literally, the ruler of a fourth part, a subordinate ruler) for 42 years. He did not rule in Judea but in Galilee and across the Jordan.

The Herods were Edomites who had converted to Judaism. The most important thing to know about their dynasty is that it gave a certain hope for political autonomy to many Jews.

Rome allowed Antipas a lot of autonomy. He, for instance, conducted his own foreign policy and independently waged war against Nabatia.

The Herods represented a Hellenization of Jewish culture (Herod Antipas had been educated in Rome) that was unacceptable to other parties. But there was some hope that Rome would eventually allow a Herod to rule a relatively free Jewish state.

Notice that this hope was entirely non-apocalyptic and non-messianic. It was a this-worldly political hope in a dynasty that was not derived from David, The Sadducees were probably not a separate party from the Herodians, but overlapped largely with them. They had a stake in Herod’s temple. And they did not believe in the resurrection—in other words, they were non-apocalyptic.

The apocalypticism of John and Jesus would have been at odds with the Herodian hope.

I am agnostic about whether Herodian hostility to Jesus had anything to do with his healings as Mark 3:6 implies. But in Mark 12 we have a connection that seems more promising.

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said (NRSV).

The Herodians asked him about paying taxes to Caesar. This question seems to fit the Herodians more than the Pharisees. The Pharisees were sometimes willing to engage in civil disobedience against Rome, according to Josephus. But the Herodians hoped to be able to accommodate Rome. And the tax question shows a willingness to use Roman law as a weapon against Jesus—which is what eventually happened.

Luke has dropped Mark’s references to the Herodians. However, Luke has an appearance of Jesus before Herod as part of his passion story. And Acts 4:27, which may come from an old source, lists Herod first among those responsible for Jesus’ death.

The fragmentary Gospel of Peter (here) seems to say that Herod issued the order for Jesus’ death.

Perhaps these traditions go back to the fact that Herodians played a key role.

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Another Nathan and the sun chariots

I am trying to decide what book to use for a new reading project.

Meanwhile, here is a discovery and a mystery concerning ancient Israel.

He removed the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun, at the entrance to the house of the Lord, by the chamber of the eunuch Nathan-melech, which was in the precincts; then he burned the chariots of the sun with fire (2 Kings 23:11 NRSV).

This verse is part of a list of actions King Josiah took as part of his reforms.

In Jerusalem recently some small artifacts have come to light, found in structures apparently ruined in the Babylonian conquest around -586.

One of the artifacts is a beautiful blue stone seal. Pictures here.

The one I want to talk about is the clay seal that has the words “LeNathan-Melech Eved HaMelech”.  This is Hebrew for “belonging to Nathan-melech, servant of the king.”

I do not know for sure that the name refers to the same person whose apartment was near the entrance to the first temple.  But it is striking that we find the same name from the same period.

Nathan-melech is the same as the prophet in David’s court–with “melech” appended.  Melech means king or royal.  So the name may imply dedicated service to the king.  If he was a eunuch as 2 Kings says, he may have been attached to the kings service to the exclusion of other things like marriage and family.

In Egypt eunuchs oversaw the harems.  But there was more of a stigma attached to this sexual minority in Israel.  Jezebel had eunuchs (2 Kings 9:32-33).

The verse says that the kings of Judah (it sounds like the author did not know which ones) had dedicated the horses to the sun.

This was probably a depiction of the myth that a chariot and horses drew the sun across the sky.  I am most familiar with this from stories about the Greek god, Helios.  It was part of a lot of mythologies.  But in Egypt, Ra more often rode a boat across the sky. Since we don’t know which kings made this dedication, I wonder how much the author knew about the origins of the monument.

Josiah no doubt observed that it was being used in an idolatrous fashion, like the copper snake Hezekiah also destroyed (2 Kings 18:4).





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