Tag Archives: Agency

SBL Paper Proposal Accepted

I am very pleased to have just been informed that my proposal for the Mind, Society, and Religion in the Biblical World unit of SBL’s 2017 annual meeting was accepted. My paper, which draws heavily from my dissertation, is entitled “Cognitive Perspectives on Divine Agency in the Hebrew Bible.” The abstract is below.

This paper will apply insights and methodologies from the cognitive science of religion to the study of the conceptualization of deity and divine agency in the Hebrew Bible, and particularly to the problem of the conflation of YHWH’s identity with that of the messenger of YHWH in a small number of early biblical narratives (e.g., Gen 16:7–13; Exod 3:2–6; Judg 6:11–23). The first part of the paper will argue that this conflation is a vestige of the early interpolation of the word mal’ak, “messenger,” in narratives where the deity’s interaction with humanity was considered theologically problematic. The second part of the paper focuses on the accommodation of that vestige within later biblical narratives and the cognitive mechanisms that facilitated it. More specifically, it will consider the influence of humanity’s cognitive predispositions to agency detection, teleology, and mind/body dualism on the development of mental as well as material representations of deity and divine agency in ancient Israel and Judah. Among other things, it will suggest the divine name, YHWH, functioned as a communicable vehicle for divine agency, the possession of which divinized the possessor and endowed them with the agency and authority of the God of Israel. The clearest expression of this ideology is found in Exod 23:20–21. The implications of this framework for the broader study of ancient Near Eastern instantiations of the material mediation of the divine will also be discussed.

I’ve presented related research on this topic before at SBL, but in the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible unit. Another proposal on the development of YHWH’s invisibility and incorporeality (see my previous blog post) was booted from the system because student members may only present one paper per meeting. While the accepted paper will help me refine some ideas central to my dissertation, I really would have enjoyed writing the other one, too.

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Markan Christology and the Messenger of YHWH

There have been several discussions floating around about Mark’s christology and the following putative summary of the same from Michael Bird:

The Marcan Jesus participates in the kyricentricity of Israel’s God. He is identified as a pre-existent heavenly figure who has come to earth, who carries divine authority, who embodies royal and priestly roles; and in his person, words, and deeds he manifests the holy presence, the redemptive purposes, and the cosmic power of the Lord of Israel.

A roundup of some posts is here. It’s been noted already that Bird’s blithe assertion of a Markan identification of Jesus as pre-existent seems to draw from the problematic conceptual trigonometry that Gathercole uses to try to suggest that pre-existence is implicit in the synoptic gospels, but I’d like to address a related claim that Bird published in How God Became Jesus (his response volume to Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God).

Bird says above about Jesus that, “in his person, words, and deeds he manifests the holy presence,” which I suggest is not incorrect, but is misconstrued by Bird and others to mean that Jesus is God. An agent can manifest the presence of their patron without actually participating in that patron’s being or ousia. We see it, in fact, in the Hebrew Bible’s messenger of YHWH. In How God Became Jesus, Bird rejects the notion that the messenger of YHWH provides a conceptual template for Jesus’ relationship with God. He first points out that,

the angel not only represents God but even embodies God’s presence, which explains why the angel of the Lord who appeared to Moses in the burning bush said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,’ and was the one who revealed the divine name to Moses (Exod 3:2, 6, 14). Paradoxically the angel of the Lord both is YHWH and is not YHWH.

Despite acknowledging that just like Christ, the messenger of YHWH is paradoxically identified with and distinguished from YHWH, Bird insists this has no connection to how Christ was conceptualized, since,

Christ’s person was understood as being distinct form God the Father, and his mode of divine presence was couched in far more concrete language, like ‘form’ of God, ‘glory’ of God, ‘image’ of God, and even ‘God enfleshed.’

In addition to the facts that the “person/being” distinction is utterly irrelevant to these texts and that the second concern is a difference of degrees, not kind, the passages Bird cites in the earlier quote are cases of interpolation (see here). They didn’t originally refer to the messenger as God. While it’s true the interpolated texts were later incorporated into a broader theology of presencing, this fact rather undermines Bird’s attempt to distance the conceptualization of the messenger of YHWH from the conceptualization of Jesus. The messenger became identified with God and God’s presence and authority in virtue of possessing God’s name, as we see in Exod 23:20–21:

Look, I’m sending a messenger before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to his voice. Do not rebel against him, because he will not pardon your transgressions, for my name is in him.

Christ’s possession of God’s name, in his own theophoric name as well as his repeated associated with “I am,” is conceptually identical. He has God’s name, therefore he presences God (reifies his presence) and exercises his authority. This notion of the “indwelling” of the name is found also in the Apocalypse of Abraham, where Yahoel is a name given to God, but also to an angel who meets with Abraham. The angel insists he exercises God’s power “in virtue of the ineffable name that is dwelling in me” (think also of the “place where my name will dwell”).

Interestingly enough, the Exodus 23 passage undermines one of the most common assertions that is made about Christ’s unique relationship with God in Mark. When Jesus forgives the man in Mark 2, the rhetorical bad guys wonder, “who can forgive sins but God only?” This is taken by some to be an accurate assertion of theological fact that means Jesus’ forgiveness of the man’s sins proves he is God, but a far more parsimonious reading has Jesus correct their misunderstanding by showing that he exercises that very power despite not being God. The objection that is usually lodged here is that there are no other examples anywhere of someone other than God having the prerogative to forgive sins. While this objection is an argument from silence, it’s also wrong. The messenger in Exodus 23, whose presencing of God is likely a reflection of those earlier interpolated texts, exercises precisely that prerogative in virtue of having God’s name in him.

The conceptualization of the messenger of YHWH in those Hebrew Bible passages where its identity is confused with that of God provide an exactly parallel conceptualization of the messenger as a figure that, in virtue of being endowed with God’s very name, presences God and exercises God’s authority. This is not to say that Jesus was originally an angel (which is what critics—including Bird—always seem to think angelomorphic christology means), but just that the messenger’s literary form and function as a representative of the deity offered a conceptual template for those nurturing and developing the Christ tradition. The cognitive architecture that predisposes us to conceptualize of agency and even identity as rather fluid and even communicable, as we see with the messenger and with Christ, is the subject of the doctoral dissertation I’m writing right now. Stay tuned!