An little noticed reference to speculation on Adam and the Merkabah in Ben Sira

I am finishing up a detour in my research schedule. Work on a small book on John 5 (forthcoming later this year) has forced me to revisit Ben Sira 50, my favourite Jewish text outside Hebrew Bible. Reading through Otto Mulder’s rich and detailed treatment of the chapter (O. Mulder, Simon the High Priest in Sirach 50: An Exegetical Study of the Significance of Simon the High Priest as Climax to the Praise of the Fathers in Ben Sira’s Concept of the History of Israel, Leiden: Brill, 2003) I noticed for the first time the importance of an odd expression in the Hebrew text at 50:27.

In 50:27 the author sums up all that has gone before with the words:

Instruction concerning insight and the mastery/ruler of the wheels (מושל אופנים),
by Simon, ben Joshua, ben Eleazar, ben Sira,
Who pours forth in pure elucidation,
Who makes to effervesce with understanding.

What does the mysterious expression “mastery/ruler of the wheels” (מושל אופנים) mean?

Mulder argues convincingly that it must have something to do with Ezekiel’s chariot vision, that includes repeated references to the wheels of God’s throne (Ezek 1:15–16, 19–21, cf. Ezek 3:13; 10:6, 9–10, 12–13, 16, 19; 11:22). But why the reference to a “ruler” or “mastery” (מושל)? In Ezekiel 1 the one who sits, ruler-like, on the wheeled chariot is God, or rather “the appearance of the likeness of the Glory of the LORD” (1:26–28); mysteriously shrouded in light, something like fire and all the colours of the rainbow. But he is not referred to as “ruler” in that text.

I am not yet entirely certain how to explain the expression מושל אופנים here. But several observations point towards a remarkable conclusion.

1. Three times already in the foregoing section Ben Sira has referred to, or used the language of, Ezekiel’s throne vision:

49:6 “Ezekiel saw a vision and told of the different features of the chariot (זני מרכבה)”.

This refers to the whole description of the throne of God in Ezek 1:4–25. Then we have Ben Sira 4916b:

“And above/over all the living creatures (כל חי) (is/was) the beauty of a man/of Adam (תפארת אדם).”

This echoes Ezek 1:26:

“And from above the dome which was over (עַל) their heads (the living creatures’) something like lapis lazuli, the likeness of a throne and upon (עַל) the likeness of the throne a likeness as an appearance of a man (דְּמוּת כְּמַרְאֵה אָדָם) upon it (עָלָיו) (above it).”

Then we have Ben Sira 50:7b where, when Simon the high priest comes forth from the sanctuary in heavenly splendour he is

“as a bow appearing in the cloud (כקשת נראתה בענן)”.

This echoes the climax of Ezekiel’s call vision where it says, in Ezek 1:28,

“as the appearance of of the bow in a cloud on a day of rain (כְּמַרְאֵה הַקֶּשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בֶעָנָן בְּיוֹם הַגֶּשֶׁם) such was the appearance of the splendour all around. This was appearance the likeness of the Glory the Lord (כְּבוֹד־יְהוָה)”

The niphal form of the verb “to see” (נראתה) in Ben Sira 50:7b picks up descriptions of the glory of the Lord appearing in Exod 16:10; Num 17:7; Isa 60:1–3.

2. In Ben Sira 49:16 the historical figure Adam is allusively identified with the man-like figure (דְּמוּת כְּמַרְאֵה אָדָם) that Ezekiel sees on the throne in his vision.

3. In Ben Sira 50:7 it is the high priest who is allusively identified with the Glory of God (who appears in human-like form) in Ezekiel’s vision.

4. Whilst these verses of Ben Sira allude or refer to Ezek 1 and its vision of a human-like divine form on the throne, other parts of the text demonstrate an interest in Ps 8 and its praise of a humanity which, though weak and insignificant, is exalted over all creation. The language of Ps 8 runs through the whole of the chapter in its Hebrew original (see my annotated translation of Hebrew of Sira 50).

The Psalm 8 allusions are also applied, in a way that is similar to the Ezekiel 1 allusions, to both Adam (in 49:16a–b) and to the high priest (see esp. vv. 11–13). The combination of Ezekiel 1 and Psalm 8 in the poetic praise of Adam and Simon at the climax of Ben Sira’s wisdom book then presents an explanation of the mysterious phrase מושל אופנים in 50:27a. The verb משל “to rule” is used for humanity’s position of authority in creation in Ps 8:

4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  5 Yet you have made them a little lower than the angels, and crowned them with glory and honour. 6 You have given them rule (תַּמְשִׁילֵהוּ) over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.

Ben Sira’s instruction in the “rule” or “mastery” of the wheels must have something to do with a vision of humanity exalted to position equivalent to, or identical with, the position of the human-like Glory of God that Ezekiel saw. That vision, says Ben Sira 50, is available in the liturgy of the temple. It is available, above all, in the ministry of the high priest. In that ministry there is the human-like Glory of God which Ezekiel saw. He is the one who shows us what it means to be given rule over all the works of God’s hands. He is the one who has a “mastery of the wheels of the divine chariot”.

In his own way, Ben Sira was a merkabah mystic, who provided his disciples an interpretation of Ezekiel 1.

And his remarkable poem in praise of Simon the high priest is surely of inestimable importance for any account of the earliest beliefs about Jesus who was also seen, in his own way, as the fulfilment of the vision for humanity in Psalm 8 (1 Cor 15:27; Eph 1:22; Phil 3:20–21; Heb 1–2).

King Solomon and N. T. Wright’s Pauline Theology

Earlier in the year, in June, I presented a paper on Solomon in 1 Kgs 3–4 at the Son of God Conference at St Andrews:

Abstract N. T. Wright has argued that Pauline theology is indebted to a Jewish and biblical notion that the king is a representative, incorporative figure. This paper offers fresh evidence from the portrayal ofSolomon in 1 Kings to support this understanding of the ideal Israelite king. In recent publicationsP. Leithart, G. Beale and John Davies have pointed to ways in which Solomon is portrayed as the image of God; as a new Adam. Additional observations, arising from a reading of 1 Kings 3–11 in relation to Genesis 1–3 and traditional language for Yahweh in other parts of the Hebrew Bible,confirm this approach to the account of Solomon’s early years. Equally, through a subtle use of poetry and prose, the narrative claims that one reason for Solomon’s early success as a king was the way in which he represented or summed up the whole nation, in a quasi-priestly fashion.

I have now have a worked up copy of the paper that will shortly be submitted for publication. There is now a copy on my Academia.edu page and I have opened a session for discussion. All thoughts greatly appreciated.

On the transcendence of conflict in scholarship

I observe that in scholarship—as in life generally—the truth often lies between and beneath or above conflicting arguments. Too often we are prone to taking sides and binary thinking. Our emotions and personal, relational, allegiances colour our perception. Rarely does the truth lie entirely with one side of a conflict, especially where sides have become entrenched over many years of heated debated. Commitment to listen to and discern the truth in both sides can lead to a new perception that simultaneously both stands with and critiques the two (or more) sides.  A new, third, perspective that transcends both sides of the argument can then emerge. With that higher order perspective it appears the two warring parties shared a common misunderstanding, but that each has keys to unlock the door to the third way.

Labuschagne’s Numerical Secrets republished

I have just seen that Wipf and Stock have now published Casper Labuschagne’s formerly out of print Numerical Secrets of the Bible (originally published in 2000 by Bibal Press). This is a seminal work in biblical numerical criticism or, as Labuschagne now calls it, “arithomology”. Although the book has not received the attention it deserves, I reckon it is one of the most important pieces of biblical scholarship to appear in the last twenty years. It has helped me in my own work on both Old and New Testaments and, in particular, stimulated my thinking about the early confession in 1 Cor 8:6 when I first sat down to write Jesus Monotheism in 2012.

Some of Labuschagne’s claims will no doubt remain controversial, but I notice that quite a few prominent scholars have now made contributions to the field of biblical arithomology in line with his seminal study. (See the scholars I cite in Jesus Monotheism, Volume 1, pp. 39–56). Its principal theses deserve widespread attention. Every library should own a copy.

Larry Hurtado’s review of Jesus Monotheism, Volume 1. Volume

Prof. Larry Hurtado (Edinburgh University, Emeritus) has written a careful and balanced review of Jesus Monotheism, Volume 1, available here (but sadly only accessible to members of the Society of Biblical Literature) and he has posted some additional words about the review on his blog.

I am grateful for a careful and thorough review. In particular, from one who is a, if not the, leading scholar in the field I am thankful for the words of the last paragraph:

“This book reflects impressive acquaintance with a large body of primary data and a wide swath of scholarly literature and prolonged and energetic engagement with the issues discussed. … The book is also the first installment on a remarkable big-idea project … [that] deserves (and will require) careful study and will surely create interest in the projected volumes in which Fletcher-Louis will explicate fully his own “new paradigm” of how the remarkable devotion to Jesus reflected in the New Testament first emerged.”

I have just one comment and one quibble.

1. I think that Jesus had a divine self-consciousness and that was one of the decisive factors that precipitated what others now call “Christological monotheism”. (I signal in JM1 that this is where my argument will end up in volume 4). Hurtado thinks that to make that argument I will have to give to John’s Gospel a position of superiority over the Synoptics. Hurtado here assumes the view of most NT scholars that, whilst Jesus in John thinks of himself as a pre-existent being who has come from heaven, that that incarnational Christology is lacking in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

But for the record, I don’t read the synoptics this way and the main lines of my argument will be made without dependence on John. I arrived at my view of Jesus, his divine self-understanding, and a model to explain the origins of the earliest beliefs about him quite independently of any in-depth study of John’s Gospel. Though I do also now think that John’s account of Jesus’ life is supporting (and also, in some ways, complicating) witness for the view of Jesus that I will layout in volume 4.

2. Hurtado slightly misrepresents my claims for the relationship between the Similitudes of Enoch (1 En. 37–71) and the origins of Christological monotheism. He says:

First, in chapter 5 he urges that the Similitudes of Enoch and “related texts” reflect “a pre- Christian Son of Man expectation that prepared the way for a high and fully divine Christology” (172). Indeed, Fletcher-Louis characterizes the Similitudes as providing “a golden key to unlock the puzzle that is the origins of Christ devotion” (180) … Moreover, Fletcher-Louis urges that “the historical Jesus claimed he was ‘the Son of Man’ … now attested in the Similitudes and 4 Ezra” and that in doing so “he also claimed an identification with Yhwh-Kyrios.”

The first sentence is a fair quotation and representation of what I say. However, the second takes my words out of context and the third entails a little editing that I fear might give the misleading impression that I think Jesus knew the Similitudes and that he specifically claimed to fulfil its Son of Man expectation.

(To be fair to Hurtado, he graciously sent me a copy of the review before it was delivered to the publisher and asked for my comment. That was some time ago and I cannot now recall why I did not pick up these problems in the precise wording of his account of my treatment of the Similitudes).

Early on in my chapter on the Similitudes I flagged up the possibility that the Similitudes is “a golden key to unlock the puzzle that is the origins of Christ devotion” (p. 180). There are now weighty arguments for thinking that the Similitudes was a causal factor in the origins of Christ devotion. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which Christ devotion was caused by Jesus’ own belief, or his followers’ belief, that the Similitudes‘ Son of Man expectation was fulfilled in his life. But with many other things that I say—in the immediate context of the “golden key” statement, in the rest of the chapter and in the conclusion to chapter 6—I indicate that matters are not so straightforward.

As I will explain in volumes 3 and 4, I think the Similitudes is a supporting witness to one part of a multi-factorial explanation of the origins of Christ devotion. It is not a golden key that solves the main questions that the quest for Christological origins must address. But it does, providentially, help to explain what we would know anyway from Old Testament and New Testament texts and their own account of the events, experiences and beliefs that precipitated Christ devotion. Jesus may have known the Similitudes of Enoch (or, more likely, he knew an earlier version of the text that we now have). But it is far from certain that he did know it and nothing in the new paradigm that I will offer in Jesus Monotheism, volumes 3 and 4 depends on him—or his earliest followers—knowing it and giving it an authoritative status.

New publications on Adam in Second Temple Judaism

I see that the recent volume of articles from the 13th conference of the Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Associated Literature (Tradition, Transmission, and Transformation from Second Temple Literature through Judaism and Christianity in Late Antiquity, edited by M. Kister, M. Segal, and R. A. Clements, Leiden: Brill, 2015) includes two important articles dealing with Jewish and early Christian traditions about Adam:

Menahem Kister, “Hellenistic Jewish Writers and Palestinian Traditions: Early and Late,” pp. 150–230.

Sergey Minov, “Satan’s Refusal to Worship Adam: A Jewish Motif and Its Reception in Syriac Christian Tradition,” pp. 230–72.

In recent decades some New Testament scholars have sought to downplay the existence of well-defined traditions surrounding Adam in Jewish thought that might have informed early Christian, especially Pauline, ideas about Christ as a new or second Adam. Both Kister and Minov concur with the approach I take in Jesus Monotheism (in, for example, volume 1, chapter 7), that there were indeed a number of traditions that explored Adam’s originally exalted, “divine” (my word) or cosmic status. They each make fascinating observations on the likely continuity between such traditions as they appear in a variety of Second Temple sources (especially Philo and the Pseudepigrapha) and later Christian sources and Jewish ones (rabbinic texts, piyyutim, targums).

Both also favour the view, for which I argue in depth in Jesus Monotheism, Volume 1, chapter 7, that the now famous story of the angels worshipping Adam as the image of God in the Latin Life of Adam and Eve 12–16 is pre-Christian and Jewish. Indeed, Minov makes a number of observations that buttress my argument that the story makes very little sense as the product of a Christian author, but very good sense as the work of a Jewish exegete explaining the meaning of the idol language in Genesis 1:26–28.

I particularly appreciate Minov’s discussion of the ways that The Worship of Adam story figured in later Christian debates with Muslims, who evidently knew a form of the legend and included it the Quran (see Quran 38:71–78; 2:30–36; 7:10–19; 15:26–35; 17:61–65; 18:50; 20:116–17). Minov notes the evidence that in the medieval age some Christian authors rejected the story (though some also affirmed it) because it was treated as authoritative by Muslims. I did not include any discussion of this feature of its tradition history in Jesus Monotheism. Volume 1. But I would now add Minov’s data to the case for thinking that the absence of The Worship of Adam story from some versions of the Primary Adam Books (known to us in Latin, Greek, Georgian, Armenian and Slavonic) is best explained on the theory that, over time, Christian scribes, editors and redactors of an originally Jewish collection of Adam stories removed the adoration of Adam because of it was theologically and apologetically embarrassing. Minov’s discussion suggests that for some Christian tradents of older, traditional Adam stories, The Worship of Adam story was awkward because, inter alia, it seemed to support Islamic tradition and thought. To what degree this was a factor in its suppression, I am not competent to judge. But that it was a factor is surely likely.

Audio Interview on Jesus Monotheism 1

For those interested, there is a 47 min interview with Matthew Bates over at OnScript about my Jesus Monotheism Volume 1.

The interview may be useful for anyone wanting an audio summary of the argument of the four volumes and of volume 1 (5:15 – 17:31 minutes into the recording).

I was also struck by the way a good deal of the discussion that Matthew led focused on an excursus at the end of volume 1. When writing the first volume I had not anticipated that that part would garner so much interest. Others, besides Matthew, have indicated to me that to their mind it is an important part of my unfolding argument.

In that excursus I offer a new explanation of the fact that in the Jewish and biblical texts there is both a clear and strong distinction between God the Creator and his creatures, on the one hand, and that there is also plenty of evidence that Jews were happen to use “divine” or “god” language for angels and for exalted or divinely chosen human beings. Until now scholars have played these two phenomena off against each other. Richard Bauckham, for example, insists that the absolute distinction between the Creator and creation and his understanding of that distinction means he plays down or denies the presence of “divine” or “god” language for created beings. Others, for example James McGrath, have used the presence of such “divine” and “god” language for created beings to challenge the view that first century Jews held to the kind of distinction between Creator and creatures on which Bauckham insists. In Excursus B I offer a theological model that can explain both the clear and strong distinction between the Creator and the creation and also the presence of “divine” or “god” language for creatures. In short, because God is God he is sovereign and therefore he is able, in his sovereign freedom, to share his own life and identity with whomever, or whatever, he chooses. A kind of “deification” or “theosis” was possible for first century Jews precisely because God is God and because he is utterly distinct from all that he creates he is also, paradoxically, not bound by, or constrained within, his own otherness. He is able to enter time and space, take on materiality, manifest himself in a creature (in being and action), and take up creaturely existence into his own eternal divine identity.

In the interview Matthew Bates indicated that he was intrigued by this proposal, though not that he is yet convinced by it. (He had only read that part of the book the night before). I am also keen to know what others think of it. But I do think that it gets to the heart of some underlying problems in the recent history of the study of the earliest beliefs about Jesus. My sense is that many (or most?) New Testament scholars have worked with questionable and unexamined assumptions about what it means to be God and what it might or might not mean for first century Jews to have said “Jesus is God/divine” in a first century Jewish context. 

For example, I agree with Larry Hurtado that all talk of Christ’s divinity is an essentially theocentric matter; it has to do with who God is and God’s relationship to Christ, as Hurtado has recently reminded his readers in his two most recent blog posts (for July 19th and 20th, 2016). However, I part company with Hurtado when he appears to deny to the human Jesus of Nazareth his own divine identity and self-consciousness. I have the impression that Hurtado’s denial of that possibility is largely the result of his conviction that Jewish theology could not have allowed such a possibility. No Jewish man could have thought of himself in the terms that everyone agrees John describes and that many of us also think the Synoptics describe. And if I read him rightly, Hurtado seems to think that it really does not make sense, within the conceptual framework of Jewish monotheism, to say that the man Jesus of Nazareth is divine (and therefore worthy of worship). As I have explained at length in volume 1 of Jesus Monotheism, for Hurtado (and for many other modern NT scholars) it is only the exalted and glorifed Jesus, the Christ, who is divine and worthy of worship. This all makes clear and tidy conceptual sense if the Jewish God has the kind of identity that Bauckham has described. Hurtado operates, it seems to me, with a similar understanding of God to Bauckham.

On the other hand, if first century Jews took for granted the kind of understanding of the divine identity that I have sketched in Jesus Monotheism Excursus B, then it might well make sense that the historical Jesus thought of himself as “divine” and that, within the conceptual framework of Jewish monotheism, there would be reasons for concluded that he was right about that self-understanding. Our theological categories and philosophical assumptions bear directly on the historical task of assessing what Jesus of Nazareth could or did say and think.

 

 

Jesus’ “Equality with God” in John’s Gospel

I have just returned from an enjoyable and stimulating conference in Italy on John’s Gospel and Jewish Messianism organised by the Enoch Seminar. The invitation to give a main paper to an international group of specialists on John and Judaism gave me the opportunity to explore my thinking on John’s testimony to the character and origins of the earliest beliefs about Jesus and his divine identity.

In short, I argued that we can make best sense of the dramatic altercation regarding Jesus’ work on the Sabbath and his “making himself equal with God” in John 5 once we situate that episode in the setting that the author of the Fourth Gospel has given it (an episode in Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem in the 30s C.E.). John 5 presents a plausible account of an event in the life of Jesus the Jew, once we recognise that the logic of the drama relies (1) on first century Jewish responses to patterns of pagan Ruler Cult in which kings are given “honours equal to the gods” (isotheoi timai) and (2) biblically-grounded and well-known beliefs about the “divine” identity of Israel’s high priest and a coming high priestly “one like a son of man”.

On my fresh reading of the passage, John 5 is a valuable witness to one part of the account of Christological origins that I will lay out in volume 4 of my Jesus Monotheism. So I was encouraged that the paper was well received and that it generated a lively and positive discussion.

I have posted a copy of the paper (that includes a fuller abstract) on my academia.edu page.

N. T. Wright and Israel’s Representative Messiah

I’m getting ready to speak at a symposium on the theme of Divine Sonship at St Andrews (Scotland). My paper tackles a question raised by N. T. (Tom) Wright’s work on Paul and offers new evidence to support one of Tom’s more controversial claims.[1]

Wright thinks (as a growing number now do) that when Paul uses the word “Christ” he means “Messiah”. Christ is not simply a name (as in “Crispin Fletcher”). It is a title or an honorific that identifies Jesus as Israel’s (royal) messiah (not unlike “Crispin the Arrow Maker”). Wright also contends (more controversially) that Christ and Messiah both refer to a king who is a representative figure; someone who sums up in himself the people of God, Israel, and who as a truly human being is the true Adam. For Wright this helps explain other features of Paul’s theology, such as his language of being “in Christ” and his talk of justification by faith. It is also one feature of Wright’s work that has been less convincing than others, since there seems to be very little real evidence that Jews (and the Bible) thought of the Messiah as such a representative figure. Many Pauline scholars think it is possible to make good sense of Paul’s theology without the representative messiah idea.

One subplot to the main argument of my Jesus Monotheism project will be to argue that Wright is right about the representative connotations of the words “christos” (Greek) and its Hebrew equivalent (mashiach), and that there is good evidence, mostly passed over by scholarship in the twentieth century, that Jews took for granted the notion that the Messiah gathers up in himself a set of stories about the world, humanity and God’s chosen people. At least, this is all true provided we remember that “the Messiah”—the Anointed One—can mean the (true) high priest. There is lots of really obvious evidence—along with some hidden away in less well known or only recently discovered texts—that most of what Wright claims the word “Messiah” meant was indeed taken for granted in the biblical and Jewish understanding of the high priest messiah. I will get to that evidence in Jesus Monotheism volume 3. And it goes with some other evidence, that I will discuss next week in St Andrews, that there were times when the (true) king was also thought of as a representative figure and that God’s people could think of themselves as being “in the king”.

Wright himself has highlighted texts in 2 Samuel (19:41–20:2) and 1 Kings (12:16) where the people talk about having “a share” or “inheritance in the king” and their being “in David,” their representative. In St Andrews I present the evidence for thinking that, between those two texts, the important description of the early years of the reign of king Solomon also describes him as a representative figure. In 1 Kings 3–4 Solomon is a representative of God who makes the Creator truly present to his people and the world. In a sense he is God’s image and likeness; a true Adam.2 And he incorporates the people in such a way that in him, their representative leader, the people find the fulfilment of their own destiny; they get to be the people they were created and called to be. There won’t be time to explore this fully in St Andrews. But, in due course, I will argue that as a part of 1 Kings 3–11—a central text for the overarching conceptual structure of the whole of Genesis-2 Kings (the Primary History)—1 Kings 3–4 is a key witness to the development of a sophisticated biblical understanding of the true (priestly and royal) Messiah’s multifaceted, representative, identity.

[1] N. T. Wright, Paul and the faithfulness of God (Christian origins and the Question of God 4; London: SPCK, 2013).

[2] My argument at this point is indebted to three recent discussions of 1 Kings 3–4:

P. J. Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), pp. 42–52.

G. K. Beale, A New Testament biblical theology: the unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

J. A. Davies, “‘Discerning between Good and Evil’: Solomon as a New Adam in 1 Kings,” Westminster Theological Journal 73 (2011): 39–57.

The high priestly office and Jewish messianic hope

In late October last year I gave a paper at a conference at the University of Gloucestershire dedicated to 1 Enoch and Contemporary Theology. My topic was the political theology of the Similitudes of Enoch (1 En. 37–71) in its ancient context. The paper will likely appear in a published volume from the conference before too long. In the meantime I have posted a copy on my academia.edu page

Building on an earlier publication in which I had argued that some of the distinctive features of theSimilitudes’ messianism is a response to patterns of Greco-Roman ruler cult (at the end of the C1st B.C. or the early decades of the C1st A.D.), I argue that it is also indebted to an older and well-established, biblically-based, distinction between the priestly office and the person of the king. The high priest is an office not a person. The office transcends the identities of those who hold it. The way that works is especially clear in Ben Sira 50. The office pre-exists each incumbent and it will continue to exist after their death. The Similitudes, I contend, projects that distinction on to a mythological, eschatological, horizon. The Son of Man-Messiah (and Elect One) in 1 En. 37–71 is almost wholly devoid of personhood. He is simply the one-God-made-manifest with no separate, individual, identity (or personality) that would threaten the identity of the one God. He is, then, to the eschatological scenario what the high priestly office is within the liturgical context of the temple-as-microcosm.

This argument will make a small contribution to the account of biblical and Jewish theology that I will lay out in volume 3 of my Jesus Monotheism.