One of the more important trajectories in New Testament studies of the past twenty years has been the attempt to discover distinctly Jewish roots for Christianity’s high Christology-the belief that Jesus was God incarnate alongside the invisible God of Israel. It may seem shocking that anyone would consider any part of Judaism would support such an idea. After all, as the Shema declares, “the LORD our God is one.” Shock notwithstanding, ancient Judaism does indeed provide the background to the Christian idea of a godhead, mainly through a teaching that Judaism once considered acceptable but then declared a heresy around the second century C.E.: the belief that there were two (holy and good) powers in heaven. This blog is devoted to making that scholarly discussion accessible and to go beyond it in some important ways.
Just over thirty years ago, rabbinical scholar Alan Segal produced what is still the major work on the idea of two powers in heaven in Jewish thought: Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism (Brill, 1977). Segal argued that the two powers idea was not deemed heretical in Jewish theology until the second century C.E. He carefully traced the roots of the teaching back into the Second Temple era (ca. 200 B.C.E.). Segal was able to establish that the idea’s antecedents were in the Hebrew Bible, specifically passages like Dan 7:9-13, Exo 23:20-23, and Exo 15:3. He was unable to discern any coherent religious framework from which these passages and others were conceptually derived. Persian dualism was unacceptable as an explanation since neither of Judaism’s two powers in heaven were evil.
The Jewish category of a “second power in heaven” caught the attention of scholarly specialists in New Testament origins and Second Temple Jewish monotheism since the exaltation of a second power in heaven became the hallmark of Christianity. New Testament scholars were stimulated by the work of Segal and others who followed to search for an explanation for the exaltation of Jesus by a Jewish sect whose adherents were willing to suffer death rather than deny monotheism. How could the early Christians simultaneously affirm monotheism and worship a second power in heaven? If Christianity derived from Judaism, was the exaltation of a second power a departure from Israelite religion? Was there such a structure in Israelite religion and if so, from whence did it derive?
Segal could not answer the question of where Jews got the two powers idea from their own Bible, what we typically refer to as the Old Testament. He speculated that the divine warrior imagery of the broader ancient near east likely had some relationship. I agreed in principle, but eventually found a more precise and coherent explanation. Tracing the two powers in heaven idea back into Israel’s most ancient religion was my own dissertation topic (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2004; available as a PDF via the right sidebar of this blog). I argued that the “original model” for the two powers idea was the role of the co-regent of the divine council. The paradigm of a high sovereign God (El) who rules heaven and earth through the agency of a second, appointed god (Baal) became part of Israelite religion, albeit with some modification. The two powers teaching was a surviving element in Common Era Judaism of the old pre-exilic divine council-and quite an explosive one given the issue of monotheism. I’ll be unpacking all this in this blog.