Tag Archives: Deity

Has the Cognitive Science of Religion (Re)defined ‘Religion’?

I recently read a very interesting paper from the journal Religio by Czech Classicist Juraj Franek entitled “Has the Cognitive Science of Religion (Re)defined ‘Religion’?” In it, Franek suggests the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) cuts through the Gordian knot of essentialism and “social constructionism” and provides an empirically established definition of the category of religion. The argument is very well researched and generally well reasoned, and I want to comment on some of the insights it raises, but there are some significant gaps that I believe fundamentally undermine the conclusion. In following, I’ll outline the paper and explain where I believe Franek has missed some critical observations.

Franek begins with defending the need to arrive at a definition of religion, pointing out that there are significant social consequences to the delineation of the category (for lawyers and jurors, questions of tax exemption, conscientious objection, etc.), but also that the study of religion needs at least a proximate definition if it is to be able to “demarcate the object of its study” and “formulate its basic theoretical postulates.” In light of this, the question merits engagement.

Next, Franek gives a representative sample of definitions that have been offered by authoritative voices within the field of CSR. What they all have in common is the assertion that religion is essentially about belief in and interaction with supernatural agents. He states,

barring some minor differences, every single assessment of the nature of religion cited above explicitly identifies superhuman, supernatural or counter-intuitive agents as a differentia specifica of religion: A belief or an action can be considered religious if and only if it entails the involvement of counter-intuitive agents. Since the acceptance of this principle is virtually unanimous in the CST, I find it justified to speak about a ‘cognitive definition of religion’ with the concept of counter-intuitive agents operating as its definiens.

The phrase “counter-intuitive agent” references a concept central to CSR that is founded on the observation that humans have evolved a cognitive predisposition to sensitivity to agency in their environment. This predisposition is a by-product of an evolutionary adaptation that favors the hyperactive detection of agents. Natural selection favored those who intuitively assumed there was an agent with a mind behind given events or circumstances. It’s better for survival to think the dark shape in the shadows is a bear and be wrong rather than think it’s a big rock and be wrong. The by-product of this adaptation (the distinction between an adaptation and a by-product of an adaptation is critical to CSR) is that we tend to think things are happening for a reason, and specifically one that is determined by some kind of agent. While this opens the door to positing all kinds of different agents behind the way things happen, those agents that are minimally “counter-intuitive,” or that violate a minimal number of our intuitive understandings about the way things work, tend to be most memorable, and therefore most salient. (Note that “counter-intuitive” does not necessarily mean “false,” since human intuition is not infallible.) This is what CSR scholars understand to be the cognitive framework responsible for our conceptualization of deities.

To contextualize these definitions of religion, Franek moves on to the traditional definitions that have been offered outside CSR, first highlighting the essentialist definitions of Edward Burnett Tylor and Émile Durkheim, which he suggests represent the poles of a definitional continuum. Tylor insists “belief in Spiritual Beings” are the essence of religion, while Durkheim rejects that idea and defines religion as “a system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things . . . which unite all those who adhere to them in a single moral community, called a church.” In the mid-twentieth century came a new essentialist-eschewing approach to understanding religion that Franek describes as “social constructionism.” He divides these into “power-innocent” and “power-based” conceptualizations, with Wittgenstein and his “family resemblance” description representing the former, and the latter, Foucault and Bourdieu with their perspectives on structuring power. Smith, McCutcheon, and Fitzgerald are included in the power-based discussion, but their observations about the invention of the category of “religion” during the Enlightenment are overlooked.

Moving on to analysis, Franek lists the concerns a CSR definition must resolve: (1) how is it different from Tylor’s essentialist definition? (2) what about religions without concepts of deities (primarily Buddhism)? (3) how does it overcome the concerns raised by those who insist “religion” is a social construct? and (4) is it power-based? These four concerns are resolved for Franek in quite short order:

  1. In a lengthy discussion of “cross-cultural universals,” Franek appeals to Kant and Chomsky and cognitive modularity to insist that the CSR definition is not theoretically essentialist so much as empirically universal.
  2. Franek appeals to Ilka Pyysiäinen’s work to insist even Buddhism fits the CSR definition, since it generalizes from “deities” to “counter-intuitive agents,” like Buddha, the buddhas, and any other “counter-intuitive agents” that populate, we are to assume, every last tradition categorized by scholars as “religion.”
  3. Franek rejects the “social construct” category, since CSR identifies this predisposition to counter-intuitive agents in our very “cognitive architecture.” It’s innate, not culturally constructed.
  4. CSR can sidestep accusations of being “power-based,” according to Franek, since it is the product of empirical research that can and should be free from power manipulation.

My concerns with Franek’s argument begin with the fallacy of essentialism and of defining conceptual categories, which I’ve briefly described in the last paragraph of this post. These concerns come from the field of cognitive linguistics, which I was surprised to find entirely absent from Franek’s paper. The appeal to Chomsky and cognitive modularity signal either a lack of awareness of the field or a rejection of it. This is particularly peculiar in light of the fact that Wittgenstein’s linguistic theory, which Franek engages in some detail, set the stage in many ways for cognitive linguistics and its insights into categorization.

Next, if counter-intuitive agents are to be considered the empirically determined essence of the category “religion,” then we need some accounting of how the category so accurately developed in the process by which European colonialist ideologies divided up the world and its traditions. With no real concept of “counter-intuitive agents,” how did writers and rulers so perspicuously keep the category so clearly and so accurately delineated? Why did no one raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of Buddhism through so many centuries when it was for so long devoid of supernatural beings? Franek directly cites Smith, McCutcheon, and Fitzgerald, but overlooks the implications of their description of the origins of “religion” as a category. Yes, counter-intuitive agents pre-existed that development, but they also extend well beyond the category that developed, and this raises another concern. If counter-intuitive agents are a necessary feature of religion, they’re certainly not sufficient. Counter-intuitive agents, as an innate part of our cognitive architecture, are found everywhere. Does Smith’s invisible hand render capitalism a religion? What about millennials who refer to the agency of “the universe”? What about the personification of the nation or justice? Even the anthropmorphizing of “science” or “evolution” that is found in thinking about and describing their will and what they do could be said to produce a counter-intuitive agent.

As Smith, et al., also highlight, one of the results of the Western Enlightenment era construction of religion is a view of religion as fundamentally about belief, which means religion is really being analyzed through a Protestant Christian lens. Franek’s definition fails to escape the gravitational pull of that cultural construct, and even though he mentions practices, the definition is still essentially focused on the belief in counter-intuitive agents. This is problematic on its own, but also in light of modern research that shows even within traditions widely accepted as religious, some faithful adherents marginalize the importance of belief in deities or outright reject their existence. I personally know multiple individuals who identify as firmly Jewish and Christian, but also identify as staunchly atheist. If staunch atheists can be religious, belief—and particularly belief in counter-intuitive agents—cannot essentialize the category. The chart below shows the results of a Pew Research study regarding belief in “God or a universal spirit.” Note how many adherents to different religions, Christian and non-Christian, do not believe in deity.

In light of these concerns, I don’t believe we can insist the Cognitive Science of Religion has successfully defined religion. I don’t think that conclusion at all undermines CSR’s contribution to understanding the cognitive foundations of religion and religious belief and practice, but I don’t think its findings overcome the theoretical and methodological problems with attempting a definition of a modern cultural construct like religion.


Mark Smith on “The Three Bodies of God”

The newest issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature has been released, and it features an article by Mark S. Smith entitled “The Three Bodies of God” that I found both interesting and somewhat problematic. Here’s the abstract:

Considerable attention has been devoted to God’s body in the Hebrew Bible, but its widely differing representations have not been addressed. This article sketches out a typology of three types of divine bodies, based on different scales, locations, and settings in life: a natural “human” body; a superhuman-sized “liturgical” body; and a “cosmic” or “mystical” body.

The primary literature with which Smith interacts includes Benjamin Sommer’s The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, Esther Hamori’s “When Gods Were Men”, and Andreas Wagner’s Gottes Körper. As with these authors, Smith seems to presuppose a great deal of harmony tying the various conceptualizations of deity together, as if the various ways the biblical authors presented the deity constituted only slight variations on a small number of canonical forms. While Smith cites Knafl’s book on anthropomorphism (here), he doesn’t engage her discussion of the lack of theological consistency between and even within the sources. I think her methodological precision in that regard could have greatly improved Smith’s analysis. It came across as reductive, and simplified issues that are really quite complex.

My main concern is that Smith blithely borrows interpretive lenses from around the ancient Near East to fill in gaps and shade nuance in the brief descriptions and discussions of God’s form. For instance, in evaluating the anthropomorphic form of God suggested in his noisy movement through the garden in Gen 3:8, Smith compares the scene to Egyptian garden motifs that depict a larger-than-life sized king. “This divine body,” he states, “would seem to be on the scale of human bodies, only somewhat taller.” I don’t see any indication, however, that artwork from elsewhere in the Near East bears in any way on how we interpret the size of the deity here. He continues by cautioning that no body is really required by the narrative’s use of the root HLK in the hithpael, since it is used elsewhere without reference to a body, but this seems to suggest that Smith insists on defaulting to an incorporeal deity, only proposing a body if the narrative leaves no other option. This retrojects modernist theological sensitivities into a period of time during which no such sensitivities can be detected (see Shamma Friedman’s helpful discussion here, in addition to my Oxford master’s thesis, here).

This tendentiousness continues in the discussion of God’s “superhuman ‘liturgical’ body in Exodus and Isaiah.” The three passages under discussion here are Exod 24:10, 33:22–23, and Isa 6:1(–4). In the first, the elders of Israel “see the God of Israel,” and describe a transparent sapphire stone under his feet. Smith rightly notes that the size of the divine body is “not made explicit,” but borrows the footprints of the deity from the floor of the temple at ‘Ain Dara to force the issue:

The footprints of the deity carved into the sanctuary floor at ‘Ain Dara might suggest that divine feet on the flooring of the heavenly palace is what is seen in Exod 24:10. Not only would this fit the verse’s mention of the “pavement of sapphire”; it would also be suggestive of the superhuman scale of the divine feet (e.g., in 2 Sam 22:10//Ps 18:10, Nah 1:3, Hab 3:5; cf. Zech 14:4).44 By implication, the rest of the divine body that goes unmentioned in Exod 24:10 would also be superhuman in scale.

While ‘Ain Dara does have enormous feet carved into the sanctuary floor, I see no reason why it bears in any way on our interpretation of Exod 24:10. Smith continues by insisting Exodus 33–34 “supplies a more explicit witness to the superhuman-sized God” because God covers Moses with his hand while passing by (literally, “I will cover my palm over you”). Smith does not even address the possibility that this just means God will cover Moses’ face or eyes, but interprets it to suggest “a hand that is itself the size of a human. God’s body, by implication, is much larger (it might be imagined to be about sixty-five to seventy feet).” God is also not walking, according to Smith, since the verb there is ‘BR, a root that is not uncommonly used to refer to walking. “This mysterious and unique manifestation of the divine also seems to be nonphysical, perhaps the divine glory sweeping by the mountainside.” There is no explanation of why or how anything about the pericope seems nonphysical.

Next, Smith interprets the highness and loftiness of the throne on which YHWH is sitting in Isa 6:1 as an indication “the text suggests a ‘mental image’ of the deity seated about fifteen feet high. In the vision of Isaiah, therefore, YHWH is represented as seated about ten times human size.” He points out that this would match Exodus 33 as well as Baal’s enormous throne in KTU 1.6.i.56–65. The possibility that a human-sized throne is just located high up in the air is not addressed.

The next section of Smith’s paper treats God’s “cosmic ‘mystical’ body,” which is described in Isa 66:1, for instance, as big enough to use heaven as his throne and the earth as his footstool. That this is not just poetic, but a reflection of an actual conceptualization of the divine body, is assumed. Smith discusses the treatment of God’s appearance in Ezekiel, but I would rather refer readers to Herring’s Divine Substitution than flesh out my thoughts on that passage here.

Smith concludes with a discussion of the extra-biblical literature and traditions that help inform the development of these conceptualizations of deity. The first two are called “traditional,” while third is a development catalyzed by interaction with later Babylonian literature (“informed by astronomical learning”) and the development of a “one-god” worldview.

I think Smith’s discussion is a bit reductive and relies too heavily on the interpretive lenses he borrows from the art and literature of the wider ancient Near East. More methodologically careful analysis could have been conducted within the same amount of space. The conclusions drawn about the historical development of these notions of deity are also a bit simplistic, in my opinion. A great deal of scholarship is available that provides much more detail and insight. Aside from the lack of engagement with Knafl’s typology of anthropomorphism, Smith nowhere shows any awareness of David Aaron’s wonderful treatment of conceptualizations of the divine, Biblical Ambiguities: Metaphor, Semantics, and Divine Imagery. While I don’t expect anyone publishing in the field to be aware of it, I would also point to my Trinity Western University thesis on the conceptualization of deity in the Hebrew Bible, available here.

Thesis Posted

I am making my recently defended master’s thesis available in PDF format at this link. The title and an abbreviated abstract are below.

“You Will Be Like the Gods”: The Conceptualization of Deity in the Hebrew Bible in Cognitive Perspective

This thesis has two primary goals: (1) to analyze the contours and extent of the generic category of deity in the Hebrew Bible, and (2) to propose a semantic base for the term. It begins with a description of the fields associated with cognitive theory, and particularly cognitive linguistics. Chapter 2 examines the cognitive origins of notions of deity and discusses how this heritage is reflected within the biblical texts. The third chapter examines the conceptualization of Israel’s prototypical deity, YHWH, beginning from the earliest divine profiles detectable within the text. In Chapter 4 the discussion returns to the generic notion of deity, highlighting references within the biblical text to deities other than YHWH. The conclusion synthesizes the different sections of the thesis, sketching the origins and development of the Hebrew Bible’s representation of both prototypical and non-prototypical notions of deity. Implications for further research are then briefly discussed.

Book Review: Stephen L. Herring, Divine Substitution: Humanity as the Manifestation of Deity in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East

Stephen L. Herring. Divine Substitution: Humanity as the Manifestation of Deity in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments, Vol. 247; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013. 244 pp., $65.00, ISBN: 978-3-525-53612-4.



Read the Introduction here

This publication is an unrevised edition of Dr. Herring’s 2011 University of Aberdeen doctoral thesis. I was pleased to see it in print in the exhibit hall at this year’s annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, and I immediately reserved the one available copy. Dr. Herring was my Biblical Hebrew instructor during my time at the University of Oxford, and I recall being intrigued by our discussions about his thesis topic during our many meetings in his cramped little office nestled deep in Yarnton Manor’s attic. The conceptualization of deity in the ancient Near East has been of interest to me since I began my academic career, and Divine Substitution tilts at one of the more prominent issues of that disappointingly underrepresented field of study, namely the nature and function of divine images in the Ancient Near East (“image” in the technical sense of a deity’s cultic representation—Akkadian ṣalmu, Hebrew צלם). More specifically, Herring aims to describe how ancient Mesopotamians viewed cultic images as some manner of manifestation of the divine presence of their patron deities, and how—under Mesopotamian influence—three biblical text segments, Genesis 1, Exodus 34:29–35, and Ezekiel 36–37, employ that ideology vis-à-vis humanity.

Divine Substitution’s journey begins where the question of the image’s relationship to its patron deity has found the most currency in recent years: Assyriology. The textual and archaeological data are most abundant between the two rivers, and as we will see, Herring hedges his methodological bets by choosing biblical text segments commonly assigned a Mesopotamian provenance. Some conceptual groundwork must be laid first, and Herring interacts with scholars like C. S. Peirce, T. N. D. Mettinger, Z.Bahrani, and others to show some precedence for the notion that the ancient concept of the cultic image was distinct from the modern concept of representation as mimesis. Herring’s review of the scholarship is brief yet insightful (I would have liked to see Gradel or Gell cited), but he is forced to punt with the summarizing statement that “somehow these material objects have actually become the manifestation of their god” (21).

Herring’s second chapter goes into greater detail regarding the dynamics of images and divine presence in ancient Mesopotamia, describing vivification rituals, explaining the implications of a deity’s abandonment of their image, and examining cases of images with human patrons. Particularly important for this chapter is the discussion of humans themselves as divine images. Five references in Akkadian to a human as an “image” (ṣalmu) of a deity are discussed. Four refer to the king—the divinely sanctioned intermediary between the heavenly and earthly realms—while one refers to an āšipu priest. That a priest was considered a divine image at least once is not without significance for Herring’s analysis. He acknowledges the “functional” interpretation of the application of the term ṣalmu to the king, but insists the application of the same designation to the priest indicates something more is going on: “we would certainly go wrong in thinking that the expression only reflected the functional aspect of kingship, since the āšipu would not have been ignorant of (nor flippant with) the conceptualization of ‘cult images and the rites by which they were animated with the life of the deity’” (45–46). In simpler terms, as the priest was not exercising divine kingship, the “functional” interpretation must be inadequate; some ideology of transubstantiation must tie these usages together. Citing E. M. Curtis, Herring suggests the king’s identification as an image derives from the priestly identification.

I would argue, however, that this proposal runs the risk of drawing too sharp a distinction between ontology and functionality in ancient Mesopotamia. In my view, the two notions are really different sides of the same coin (as with palace v. temple). We need not shackle functionality to kingship, or insist priestly functionality takes precedence. The context in which the priest qualifies as the “image of Marduk” is that of a conjuration. He is exercising divine agency in the same way the king does in maintaining the cosmic order. Both functions make manifest divine power and authority, which I would suggest is the foundational criterion for identification with a given deity. They are “images” of the deity insofar as they exercise the agency associated with that deity (and here Pongratz-Leisten is helpful).

Chapter 3 paints an informed and detailed picture of ancient Israel’s cultic development from iconism to aniconism. In short, Israel had a longstanding history of divine imagery. The nation most likely had anthropomorphic cultic images dedicated to YHWH in their earliest cultic contexts, but we have no positive evidence at this time of this practice. What we do have are firm indicators that several non-anthropomorphic cultic objects—standing stones, asherahs, the ark—functioned in early Israel as divine images. Intimate familiarity with the dynamics of divine imagery is also evinced in the polemics of later prophets and Deuteronomistic authors; even in vehemently rejecting the practice, the biblical authors betray its thorough saturation of their culture and worldview.

With that, Herrings turns to “The Image of God in the Hebrew Bible,” the core of his dissertation. In this chapter, Herring examines Genesis 1, Exodus 34:29–35, and Ezekiel 36–37. The relevance of Genesis 1 is self-evident given the use of the Hebrew צלם in reference to the creation of humanity, but the other two segments require increasingly lengthy justifications for their inclusion in the analysis that revolve primarily around the strength of their connections to Assyria-Babylon.

The main thrust of these sections is that the biblical authors were heavily influenced by the ideological environment of the Babylonian Exile, and adapted for their own purposes the Mesopotamian notion of a human as a divine image. For the authors of Genesis, humanity was created as an “image” of God, which brought the divine presence near in a templeless age and universalized it for an Israel extending beyond its regional boundaries.

For the author of the Exodus portion—and P’s fingerprints are all over it—Moses represented that divine image, most explicitly when he descended from Sinai with a face that radiated either light or horns (or both—Herring dedicates several pages to analysis). The divine presence had earlier been represented by a cloud and a pillar of fire, but during Moses’ time on the mountain that presence was completely absent, compelling the people to fill that void with the production of the golden calf, a Yahwistic cultic image. Moses’ reappearance, clothed in the divine presence and carrying the divinely composed tablets, rhetorically punctuated the contrast between the human origins of the calf over and against the divine origins of Moses’ endowment (note the conceptual parallel of the calf and a horned Moses).

The segment on Ezekiel requires the most methodological nuance and care from Herring, who starts by demonstrating the rhetorical unity of the text as well as its exilic provenance. It is not a part of P, but it occupies an ideologically overlapping position (here Kutsko is prominent). The author’s rhetorical campaign against cultic images is highlighted in the analysis, and particularly the characterization of Mesopotamia’s cultic images as deaf, dumb, blind, and without breath—a characterization that is projected onto those humans (including Israel) so vacuous as to participate in the use of said images. Israel’s restoration, however, is described using imagery of revivification that is argued by Herring to reflect humanity’s primeval creation in Genesis as well as the Mesopotamian rituals that imbued cultic images with the divine presence. Ezekiel’s infusion of the Spirit parallels the Mesopotamian pīt pî ceremony and sets up a model for Israel’s endowment with the Spirit and subsequent obedience to the divine will. It is not wood and stone that the divine presence—the Spirit of YHWH—inhabits, but humanity.

Herring’s fifth and final chapter summarizes the dissertation and draws some conclusions. In brief, the three text segments reflect the Mesopotamian notion of the divine image, endowed through ritual vivification with the divine presence. The provenance of handmade objects is transferred from the craftsman to the divine through these rituals, according to Mesopotamian ideology, but the biblical authors reject the efficacy of such rituals, repeatedly polemicizing cultic images on the grounds that they are the lifeless products of human effort. At the same time, however, they make use of these literary and ritual conventions in their conceptualization of humanity as the cultic image of God, endowed with the divine presence at creation (Genesis 1), at Sinai (Exodus 34), and at Israel’s restoration (Ezekiel 36–37).

Herring’s dissertation joins a growing field of scholars that looks to the rich literary and cultic history of Assyria-Babylon for guidance in understanding the nature and function of deity in the Hebrew Bible. Benjamin Sommer, for instance, proposes a “fluidity” model for understanding the “unbounded” nature of God’s bodies (plural!) and the pluriform manifestations of divinity in the ancient Near East (here). Michael Hundley’s work focuses on divine presence as reflected through ritual and temple (here and here). Spencer Allen’s UPenn dissertation examines the various localized manifestations of Baal, Ishtar, and YHWH. Pongratz-Leisten, focusing only on Assyria-Babylon, proposes a cognitive model of divine agency to flesh out the representation of divinity in cultic objects and, more particularly, astral phenomena. Herring’s work is particularly innovative in uncovering the employment of humanity as a vehicle of for the divine presence, although he avoids promoting any particular view about how that divinity was communicable. Here Gell and Pongratz-Leisten could make a constructive contribution.

Certainly Herring’s argument is strongest where the literary links with Mesopotamia are most explict, namely Genesis 1, but his treatment of Moses’ divinity is sensitive and measured. He is not the first to suggest Moses was considered divine (the text says so, after all), but his discussion of the literary patterns of divine presence and absence helps to better contextualize that divinization as well as the production of the golden calf. The connections are more tenuous in Ezekiel, but Herring’s discussion of the role of the Spirit of God ought to convince even the most skeptical critic of comparative studies that, whatever the primary literary allusions and goals, the author is incorporating some species of the notion of vivified divine images into a more complex and layered rhetorical pastiche. I think most significant going forward is Herring’s highlighting of the implications of this research for the study of Second Temple Judaism, messianism, and early christology. It may be some time yet, however, before the adoption of Assyriological insights into the conceptualization of deity trickles down to those scholarly arenas.

Besides my desire for some discussion of the way in which the image shared in the divinity of the patron deity, a concern I have is with the implied assumption that this notion of communicable divinity derives exclusively or even primarily from a genetic link to Assyria-Babylon. My perception of such an assumption may well be a misreading of a decision on Herring’s part stemming from a concern for length or methodological grounding, but I would argue that Israel likely drew their own similar ideologies of cultic imagery and communicable divine agency from a shared and broad conceptual matrix. Israel had their own cultic images prior to the exile that were no doubt thought to be divine in some sense (cf. the Ark of the Covenant or the references to the asherah in the inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qôm). The literary affinities that crop up in P and Ezekiel, from my point of view, reflect stylistic choices more than underlying conceptual borrowings. Having said that, I would highly recommend this book to students and scholars interested in the Hebrew Bible’s conceptualization of deity and/or humanity.

Pongratz-Leisten’s “Divine Agency and Astralization of Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia”

While writing my thesis on  biblical conceptualizations of deity in cognitive perspective, a very helpful article was Beate Pongratz-Leisten‘s article from Reconsidering Revolutionary Monotheism (her introduction to the volume is here), entitled “Divine Agency and Astralization of Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia.” I believe her discussion of divine agency, which incorporates some insights from cognitive theory, is particularly relevant to biblical notions of deity and to christology (you’ll notice if you’ve read Peppard’s look at the christology of Mark that they develop some of the same approaches to the notion of the divine). I highlight this paper now because Pongratz-Leisten has made a draft of her article available on academia.edu. If you’re interested in the topic, you should definitely give it a read.

Review: Journal for Trinitarian Studies and Apologetics (2)


The first article I’ll be engaging in my extended reviews is “Jesus’ Claims to be God: Answering the Objections,” by Edward L. Dalcour, senior lecturer of the North-West University Faculty of Theology. This post will broadly present the author’s main thesis before treating individual sections. Along the way, some issues of definitions and methods will be discussed as the material warrants.[1] This will make this review much larger than the others, but many of the articles appeal to the same presuppositions and definitions, so it should help to set the stage for some of the discussion to come.

Dalcour’s article is aimed at supporting the traditional Trinitarian notion of Jesus as one of the three persons constituting the one being that is God. Ostensibly, the article seeks to answer objections to this ideology, but in reality the few objections presented are weak hermeneutic claims broadly attributed to “all unitarian groups” (93). There is one section directly addressing the New World Translation’s rendering of “I have been” for John 8:58’s ἐγὼ εἰμί, but the bulk of the article is dedicated to positive exegetical support for the assertions that (1) the New Testament declares Jesus to be “God the Son,” (2) it does so in “the most unequivocal and explicit way” (114, all emphases will be in original), more so “than if he had literally said: I am God” (94), and (3) salvation is predicated upon acknowledgement of Jesus’ identity as God.

Methodological Considerations

The second proposition listed above is the starting point for Dalcour’s discussion. The premise for the idea that “I am God” would not have been explicit enough is the claim that the word “god” had a variety of meanings in the Bible “according to the context in which it appears” (94–95). In addition to “the true God,” the Greek θεός can also refer to “false gods,” and the Hebrew אלהים can refer to judges (Exod 21:6 and 22:8–9), angels, and “false gods.” None of these entities were gods “by nature,” and the entities actually thought to exist were only called “gods” because they operated as God’s representatives. Thus, Jesus’ claim to be God would have been understood rather as a claim to be a representative of God.

There are multiple methodological problems with this claim, and I use this opportunity to make some general comments about method and definitions that will bear on subsequent article reviews. First, Dalcour’s English phrase “I am God” is not as ambiguous as he would have you believe. “God,” with a capital G, is a title designating a very specific divine entity within the contemporary Judeo-Christian worldview. On the other hand, “god,” with a lowercase g, simply designates a member of the generic noun class “deity.” It normally follows an indefinite article in the kinds of ambiguous singular predicate nominatives Dalcour is describing. “I am God” and “I am a god” are quite different claims. The latter actually reflects the ambiguity Dalcour suggests, but he is markedly reticent to use such terminology. Even in his statement that angels, judges, and false gods are not “by nature, God,” he refuses to refer to the generic category (“not, by nature, gods”). His comment, as a result, does not mean angels, judges, and false gods are not deities, but rather that they are not YHWH himself. (He also fails to provide any evidence for such a qualification, or for the presumption that the Jews of Second Temple Palestine were so concerned with ontology.)

The reason for Dalcour’s equivocation is the fundamentalist position that YHWH, the God of Israel, exhausts the category of deity. The being of YHWH and the category “deity” are coterminous. There is no deity beyond the being of YHWH. It is thus impossible to be “a god” in the fundamentalist worldview. “Ontological monotheism” precludes it because YHWH leaves no space in the category. This is why the phrase “the deity of Christ” doesn’t mean “Christ’s divinity,” but “Christ’s identity as God.” Ironically, it is also why the frequent reference to other entities as “gods” throughout the Bible must be interpreted as mere honorific titles lent to representatives. Dalcour actually interprets the word to mean the one and only thing his theology allows it to mean, despite his claim that it can mean different things. Observe his comments on Exod 7:1:

‘See, I make you as God [Elohim] to Pharaoh.’ Of course, Moses was not actually made true deity, but only as God’s direct representative, he was made ‘as God’ to Pharaoh.

In other words, and in contradiction to his comment that “the term God in Scripture has an assortment of meanings according to the context in which it appears,” the word does only mean “God” (i.e., YHWH). The difference, for Dalcour, is that the title is simply borrowed by those who are operating as his “direct representative.” This is not a different “meaning,” it’s just a metonymic use with the exact same meaning. There is also a problem with Dalcour’s rendering of Exod 7:1. The Hebrew does not say “as God,” the Hebrew says נתתיך אלהים לפרעה, “I have made you a god to Pharaoh.” There is no hint whatsoever of the comparative particle “as.” Again, Dalcour cannot allow for a different meaning, despite explicitly stating that it has different meanings. Divine power has been given to Moses in Exodus 7, allowing him to function in the role of a deity in his dealings with the Egyptian king. “Deity” is not ontological here, but functional. This is how the term should be understood in Hebrew.[2]

This brings us to his examples about angels and judges. Simply put, the Hebrew אלהים never referred to human judges. I have discussed this previously here, but I have provided a more detailed discussion in this document. For this review, I make some summarizing comments and then move on. The Hebrew word for “judges” in Exodus 21–22 is פללים, as is made clear by Exod 21:22. Additionally, there is no reason for the individuals mentioned in each section to go before judges; appearance before judges is presupposed, as v. 22 also makes clear. The verse calls for whatever penalty the judges levy, meaning the verse presupposes the case has been heard by judges. These law codes were to be applied and enforced by the judges, so there is no need to prescribe appearance before them. The plural verbal forms in Exod 22:8–9 are likely to be understood as reflecting a singular sense, as in 1 Sam 28:13–14. The best reading is thus “to/before God.”

Next, while all angels were certainly deities in early Israelite religion, not all deities were angels. Angels were the servile lowest class of deity. Above them were the “sons of God,” who were the operative deities who had relative autonomy and were often petulant and lascivious. The story of their escapades with human women in Gen 6:2–4 is an example. Angels were not conceived of as disobedient within the Israelite worldview until the exilic and post-exilic periods, and that reading was itself rejected around the turn of the era in favor of a human reading (this is why the angelic reading of Gen 6:2–4 was vehemently rejected by many early Jewish authors and rabbis).[3] The presence of the “sons of God” in heaven and at the creation of the world (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7), their contrast with humans (Gen 6:2–4; Ps 82:6–7), and their direct inheritance of rule over the nations from El Elyon (Deut 32:8–9) makes it absolutely undeniable that they were conceived of as deities. Dalcour’s conflation of the two classes of deities reads later theological constructions into the Hebrew Bible. There is nothing to suggest the two were equated prior to the Greco-Roman period.

The next problem with Dalcour’s claim is actually the ambiguity he asserts for the term “god” in the Greek. “I am God” is quite unambiguous in English, but Greek lacks the definite article, meaning “I am God” is grammatically indistinguishable from “I am a god.” In the Greek, Dalcour’s concern for vagueness is justified, although his arguments in other portions of the article flatly ignore the very concern he expresses. In fact, many of them actually rest upon the very rejection of that vagueness. For instance, of Jesus’ claim to be one with God in John 10:30 he states, “the response of the Jews in verse 10:33 is an irrefutable confirmation of Jesus’ claim of being equal with God—God Himself: ‘For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (107). The term is supposed to be ambiguous, though. Dalcour equivocates once more. The verse could just as accurately be rendered “make yourself out to be a god.” Given Dalcour’s explanation of the inadequacy of the term θεός to specifically designate God himself, we would expect him to suggest this reading. He does not, though. In fact, he asserts that ambiguous predication to be an “irrefutable confirmation” that Jesus is God himself. Evidently is it explicit enough when Dalcour needs it to be. He also insists John 1:1 and 20:28 declare Jesus to be God himself (116), but again, we’re dealing with that ambiguous and indeterminate noun that just doesn’t serve to do what Dalcour wants it to do. He is arguing out of both sides of his mouth.

In reality, John 10:33 is best rendered as “a god,” since Jesus’ rebuttal is a scripture that designates other humans “gods” in the generic sense (according to the then contemporary reading of Ps 82:6).[4] That response would be a ridiculous strawman if the accusation were that he claimed to be God himself, rather than a member of the generic class of deity. That makes little sense. The Jews’ accusation is best understood to reflect a claim to be divine in the generic sense. To paraphrase Jesus’ argument, “why are you getting upset that I, as the son of God, am a deity, when your own scriptures, which you consider authoritative, call other humans deities?” No identification with the being of YHWH is at all intimated.

The third problem with Dalcour’s claim is his inconsistent notion of “context.” Above he refers to the individual literary contexts of each occurrence of the word “god,” but in his discussion of “sons of God” he claims that in a “Semitic (Jewish) context, to be the ‘son of’ something meant that one possesses or shares the nature of that something” (103). This again asserts a fundamental concern for ontology in early Judaism, but it also asserts an incredibly broad context, specifically the context of all Jewish language and literature. This is a bizarre claim, since it basically invalidates the influence of all possible literary contexts. He declares the phrase to mean the exact same thing no matter the immediate context, since the wider “Jewish” context establishes a single, consistent, and figurative (!) meaning.

This is nonsense, however, since “son of” can certainly refer to a variety of things within a “Jewish context,” including literal male genetic descendance. Figuratively, it refers most often to a shared functionality, rather than a shared essence, as in “sons of the prophets” (1 Kgs 20:35; 2 Kgs 2:3, 5, 7, 15; 4:1, 38; 5:22; 6:1), or “sons of Belial” (Judg 19:22; 1 Sam 2:12; 2 Sam 23:6; 1 Kgs 21:10). Dalcour is asserting a specific metaphorical sense for the phrase in all its usage within Jewish literature, although he then goes on to directly reject that sense. Immediately after stating the “son of” means one shares in the essence of the nomen rectum, he states that humans who are called “sons of God” (John 1:12) are so “by adoption.” Suddenly, “son of” does not mean a shared essence. Evidently the broad Christian ideological context obliterated the universal Jewish context. He elaborates even further, though:

Even though the phrase “son(s) of God” was applied to angels and men, when applied to Jesus, it was in a context of essence or nature. Whereas Christians are sons of God by adoption, Jesus is the Son of God by nature—which was a clear claim of deity.

Suddenly it is not the “Jewish” context that indicates a shared essence, but only the contexts in which Jesus alone is called “son of God.” He flatly contradicts himself in claiming the phrase specifically refers to shared essence in a “Jewish context” and then immediately claiming that only in those references to Jesus alone does the immediate context impose the sense of shared essence.[5]

The last broad methodological shortcoming I discuss is perhaps the most pervasive within the articles of this journal, and that is the claim that the scriptures must be read univocally:

We must take Scripture as a unit: All Scripture is theopneustos—“breathed out by God.” Hence, John 8:58 and the other absolute “I am” clams [sic] are all a part of 1:1 and 20:28, which are a part of 5:17 and 10:30. And these are a part of 1 John 5:20, which is a part of Romans 9:5; Philippians 2:6-11; and Colossians 2:9, which are all a part of Isaiah 9:6 and the prologue of Hebrews. In other words the entirety of Scripture must be considered when examining the “I am” claims of Christ.

There are several problems with this application of 2 Tim 3:16. First, the author of 2 Timothy never delineates what texts he believes to be scripture. That the modern Evangelical delineation of “Scripture” is intended is simply assumed by Dalcour. This, of course, means he is not engaging critics, but talking to people who already agree with him. It also conflicts with the scriptures themselves, as, for instance, the author of Jude obviously considered 1 Enoch to be inspired scripture.[6] Jude 1:14 states that Enoch prophesied (προφήτευσεν) of God’s coming in judgment with ten thousands saints, directly quoting 1 En 1:9.[7] Dalcour would never accept it as such, though, despite Jude’s clear belief in its inspired and authoritative status.[8] Even if one rejects the conclusion that Jude thought the text was scripture, the author unquestionably feels 1 En 1:9 preserves an authentic prophecy uttered by Enoch. Is the author of Jude mistaken here in taking 1 Enoch as the actual inspired prophesies of Enoch?

For the author of 2 Tim 3:16, “scripture” referred to the authoritative Jewish texts. There is no indication the author conceived of any texts that would subsequently be included in the then-non-existent New Testament as scripture. Certainly a couple later NT texts can be read to understand some Pauline texts as scripture, but that has no bearing on the position of the author of 2 Timothy, unless, of course, one commits to a circular argument by insisting that later texts must be interpreted univocally with 2 Tim 3:16 because 2 Tim 3:16 says so.

Next, the precise meaning of the word θεόπνευστος is unknown. We don’t know exactly what it meant to first century Christians to be “God-breathed”? Does that refer to the transmission of the scripture to the author, or all the way to the executed composition? Does  it entirely preclude any human filtering or influence? The fundamentalist answer will obviously be quick and decisive, but will also be based on nothing more than theological presupposition. “It means X to me today, so it meant the same to them back then.” There is no lexical or rhetorical context for the word in the first century CE, so there is simply no way to know how to answer the questions above. Even when the word does begin to show up in later literature, there is not enough specificity in its usage to say whether or not univocality is actually demanded by 2 Tim 3:16’s characterization of scripture. What ends up requiring univocality for modern Evangelicals is the imposition of Enlightenment-era philosophizing.

Next, univocality is flatly precluded by a number of texts from the Bible. For instance, Acts 15:16–17 ostensibly quote “the words of the prophets” in Amos 9:11–12 to defend the taking of the gospel to the gentiles, but in reality they quote a Greek testimonia that conflates the words of different prophets in v. 16 and then adapts the Septuagint’s misreading of Amos 9:12 in v. 17 (see my discussion here).[9] The resulting text has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the actual words of Amos 9, which refer only to the military reconquest of lands belonging to YHWH at Israel’s political height. We know the rendering must come from the autograph, since the Hebrew has no bearing at all on the question of taking the gospel to the gentiles. Only the Septuagint’s misreading bears on the context of James’ quotation. The author of Acts has James insist the prophets of the Old Testament say something they simply do not say.

Then there are the examples of outright disagreement between authors. For instance, Rom 3:28 says that “a person is justified by faith, and not by the works of the law.” Rom 4:1–4 argues that Abraham was not justified by works, asserting in v. 2 that if Abraham were justified by works, he would have something about which to boast. James 2, on the other hand, directly refutes Paul. In Jas 2:21 he responds to Paul’s assertion about Abraham, insisting he was indeed justified by works. In v. 24 he responds to Paul’s underlying claim about justification by works, stating, “You see, then, that a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” James flatly disagrees with the author of Romans and repeatedly emphasizes his position. Faith and works do not share a dichotomous relationship, but a vertical and dependent one. Faith is derivative of works, and thus salvation is very much dependent upon works. Many creative ways have been concocted to harmonize the two accounts, such as insisting Paul meant only the rituals of the law of Moses, or that James refers to a different kind of justification, namely public justification before people. Such eisegetic question-begging derives entirely and exclusively from the subjugation of the scriptures to modern tradition.

For these reasons and others, I can neither accept Dalcour’s insistence that we read the texts univocally nor the conclusions he rests upon that insistence. Univocality has absolutely nothing to support it; it does nothing but damage to the original message of the texts, and it serves only to obscure those aspects of the Bible that problematize contemporary conservative dogmas.

Dalcour’s Case

I now move on to the Dalcour’s arguments. He lists four claims found in the New Testament that he asserts “explicitly demonstrate that Jesus did indeed claim to be God, in the same sense as God the Father” (96):

(1) the seven ἐγὼ εἰμί declarations
(2) “The ‘Son of God’—in essence (i.e., God the Son)”
(3) John 10:30: “I and the Father are one”
(4) Jesus as “Alpha and the Omega,” “The First and the Last,” and “The Beginning and the End”

(1), (2), and (4) argue, essentially, that Jesus carried designations reserved in the Hebrew Bible exclusively for YHWH. (3) argues that Jesus’ claim to be “one” with God, and the Jews’ interpretation of his nature as God’s son indicating he is “equal” with God, is “irrefutable confirmation” of Jesus’ identity as God. Many of the details of these arguments, however, betray an inadequate understanding of the texts’ literary and cultural contexts. In the interest of space, I address only his discussion of the ἐγὼ εἰμί declarations and then draw some implications for argument (4). John 10:30 and “Son of God” have been discussed already.

Essentially, for Dalcour, Jesus’ seven “I am” claims (John 5:24, 28, 58; 13:19; 18:5, 6, 8) are non-predicated statements that allude directly to Deut 32:39 Heb. אני הוא; LXX ἐγὼ εἰμί), which was understood throughout Judaism to be a claim to self-existence which was attributed exclusively to YHWH. As a result, Jesus is claiming to be the “I am,” which is “a clear and absolute claim to deity” (97).

Dalcour’s presentation of the meaning of the ἐγὼ εἰμί fails to address the vast majority of the exegetical issues associated with the phrase. He addresses none of the nuances of the use of the non-predicated construction throughout the Septuagint or the New Testament (e.g., John 6:20; 9:9), or the relationship of that construction to the predicated construction. He does not address the fact that the predicate is implied in several occurrences of the non-predicated construction, often indicated by a clear antecedent (John 4:26; 8:24; 18:5). Additionally, he shows no familiarity with several important English publications on the Hebrew and/or the Greek phrase in question.[10] Rather, he describes the interpretation of the construction as black and white, which is a gross misrepresentation.

There are several ways to understand the construction that Dalcour insists could have only been understood one way. In John 8:24, for instance, it is to be understood as “I am he.” Not only is this indicated by the presence of the antecedent (the one “not of this world,” i.e., the heavenly Messiah), but also by the response, “Who are you?” rather than “you are what?” or “No, you’re not!” The Jews miss the messianic inference,[11] not only undermining the connection with YHWH himself, but also proving incorrect the notion that such a connection was “clearly understood” by the Jews. It was not. Jesus had to assert his preexistent relationship with God vis-à-vis Abraham for them to blow their collective stack.

Jesus stresses a unique relationship with God in vv. 26 and 28, but also stresses his subordination to God and the inertness of his own will. That’s hardly the context for claiming to be the very God of the Old Testament. J. F. McGrath points out, quoting C. K. Barrett,[12] that it is nonsense to read John presenting Jesus as saying, “I am Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, and as such I do exactly what I am told.” That is exactly what Jesus claims in vv. 26 and 28, though. While the “I am” claim of John 8:58 appears to be absolute, and asserts a special relationship with God, there is simply no reason to understand that relationship to be one of identity or ontology.

The real ideological context of Jesus’ unique relationship with God and his name is the notion of divine agency. In the ancient Near East and in early Judaism one’s authority was connected with their name, and that authority was communicable along with the name. In the Hebrew Bible, God’s name is “in” the angel of YHWH, which grants him God’s authority to pardon or not to pardon sins (Exod 23:21). The temple in Jerusalem is also intended as the dwellingplace for God’s name, at least in the Deuteronomistic literature (2 Sam 7:13; 1 Kgs 5:5; 8:16, 18, 29; 9:3). In the first century Jewish Apocalypse of Abraham, the principle angel Yahoel (YHW[H]+El) bears God’s two names, and in chapter 10 it is explained that he exercises God’s power through that very name, which he describes as “dwelling in me” (vv. 3, 8). Phil 2:9 explains that God “highly exalted” Jesus, and “gave him the name which is above all names.” Complete subordination to the will of the divine patron makes sense of Jesus’ claim in John 8 to do what he is told. Jesus’ possession of God’s name is not unique within early Judaism, or even within early Christianity. According to Rev 3:12, he that overcomes will have God’s name and Jesus’ new name written upon him.

Jesus’ relationship with God in John is not one of identity, but agency. Ontology was not nearly as big a concern for Jews as functionality and authority. Concerns with ontology arose with the widespread assimilation of Greco-Roman worldviews in the second century CE and after.[13] As was explained above, the figurative use of “son of” in the Bible has nothing to do with “essence,” but rather with functionality. Dalcour repeatedly retrojects much later philosophical models and concerns into the texts of the New Testament. The fact that titles applied to YHWH in the Old Testament are appropriated by Jesus in the New Testament is not an assertion of ontological identity, but of divine agency. This extends also to the book of Revelation’s use of “Alpha and Omega” and other titles in reference to Jesus. The titles were appropriated for unique rhetorical circumstances, which meant they had specific reference to Jesus’ function as Messiah, but also reflected his connection with God.


Dalcour’s arguments only function within a fundamentalist Evangelical worldview, which means they’re not aimed at critics or the actual objections, but at others who already agree. Without already presupposing basically all the scriptural dogmas of modern Trinitarianism, a sustainable argument for the “deity” of Christ in the New or Old Testaments (in the sense of Jesus’ ontological identification as God) simply cannot be made. The evidence for the trinity’s slow development over time is quite clear, and the primary steps in the direction of that orthodoxy were taken during the apologetic era of the second century, when Christian ideologies were intellectualized and philosophized in an effort to facilitate their promulgation among the authorities and intelligencia of wider Greco-Roman culture.

This intellectualization caused orthodoxy’s eclipsing of orthopraxy, which is fundamentally responsible for Dalcour’s attempt to read the soteriological necessity of the trinity into John 8:24. As has been shown, however, John 8:24 does not refer to Jesus’ identity as God, but to his role as Son of God—the one “from above.” In other words, John insists on the belief that Jesus is the Son of God. This is consistent with the testimony of all the New Testament authors who address the question. The most repeated and ideologically significant claims about Jesus made throughout the New Testament are the assertions that he is the Messiah and the Son of God. Jesus himself links salvation almost exclusively with proper conduct and actions (he even identifies belief as a work), while other authors also give priority to the understanding of Jesus as (1) Christ and (2) Son of God. The authors of John themselves explain that this is the entire purpose of the existence of the gospel (John 20:31): “these things are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” For other examples of the priority of that identification, see Matt 16:15–16; 26:63; Luke 4:41; John 6:69; 11:27; Acts 8:37; 9:20; Rom 1:4; Eph 4:13; 1 Jo 4:15; 5:5, 10, 13.

[1] Some of my analysis will treat presuppositions that are commonly shared among Christian groups. It may seem unfair to challenge such suppositions in light of the journal’s own desription as “for the church and by the church,” but two observations, I believe, warrant such challenging. First, the journal ostensibly adopts an academic approach and interacts with several scholars whose work does not presuppose the relevant dogmas. As an explicitly apologetic endeavor, it cannot expect freedom from critical analysis. Second, there is really little reason for apologetics at all if a layperson or scholar demands that certain dogmas be ceded without argument. How can one demand dogmas like inerrancy be given a pass while directly engaging objections to dogmas like Christ’s identification as God?

[2] This is why David can be called אלהים in Ps 45:6–7. It is why Hezekiah can be called “Mighty God” in Isa 9:6. Kings were thought to be intermediaries between the divine world and the human world, thus they were not infrequently called “gods.” See the essays in Nicole Brisch, ed., Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond (Chicago, Ill.: Oriental Institute, 2008).

[3] See P. Alexander, “The Targumim and Early Exegesis of the ‘Sons of God’ in Genesis 6,” JJS 23 (1972): 60–71.

[4] See J. S. Ackerman, “The Rabbinic Interpretation of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John,” HTR 59.2 (1966): 186–91; J. H. Neyrey, “‘I Said: Your Are Gods’: Psalm 82:6 and John 10,” JBL 108.4 (1989): 647–663. Heiser rejects this understanding of Christ’s reading on the grounds, primarily, that John would be reading things into the text that were not there (here), but  eisegesis was quite common in New Testament interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. Cf. my SBL paper on the contemporary LDS reading of Psalm 82, here.

[5] Of course, there is nothing in any context that demands such a reading. In every instance where Jesus is called “son of God,” the context indicates the possession of divine authority and functionality, not nature or essence. It is always about what power Jesus has, not what ontology he has. The literary context of the phrase “son of God” will be discussed in more detail below.

[6] Here the fundamentalist approach runs into more problems. Even if a modern reader decides that they believe the apologetic notion that the quotation formula used does not indicate canonicity, the author of Jude unquestionably believes that 1 En 1:9 actually contains a prophecy uttered by Enoch himself.

[7] Cf. R. Bauckham, “A Note on a Problem in the Greek Version of I Enoch i.9,” JTS 32 (1981) 136–38 and the numerous discussions in L. M. MacDonald’s publications on canon: The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon. Second Revised Edition (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995); “Identifying Scipture and Canon in the Early Church: The Criteria Question,” in The Canon Debate (edited by L. M. MacDonald and J. A. Sanders; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002), 416–39; The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007); Forgotten Scriptures: The Selection and Rejection of Early Religious Writings (Lousiville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox, 2009). External evidence supports the authoritative position the book enjoyed in earliest Judaism and Christianity. For instance, there were more copies of 1 Enoch discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls than all other books of the Bible save Deuteronomy and the Psalms.

[8] It is Evangelical tradition and exegesis that is inerrant and inspired for Dalcour, not the scriptures in and of themselves. The Bible is subordinate to that tradition. This is nothing new, of course. All authoritative texts, whether religious or political, mediate the constant negotiation and renegotiation of a community’s past with its present, with the present taking priority. Those aspects of the texts and traditions no longer relevant to the community’s identity are reinterpreted, ignored, or sometimes even excised from the corpus. As an example, the New Testament has been read as supporting slavery for almost two millennia. Once that reading was no longer culturally prudent, it has either been culturally compartmentalized or flat out rejected. For more on communal memory, especially as it relates to the New Testament, see A. Kirk and T. Thatcher, eds., Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005).

[9] For more, see here, here, here, and, more recently, W. E. Glenny, “The Septuagint and Apostolic Hermeneutics: Amos 9 and Acts 15,” BBR 22.1 (2012): 1–26.

[10] For instance, R.E. Brown, ‘Appendix IV: EGŌ EIMI—I AM’, in The Gospel According to John (i-xii) (Anchor Bible Commentary, 29; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 533–38 P. B. Harner, The ‘I Am’ of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Johannine Usage and Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970); D. M. Ball, ‘I Am’ in John’s Gospel: Literary Function, Background, and Theological Implications (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996); C. H. Williams, I Am He: The Interpretation of ’Anî Hû’ in Jewish and Early Christian Literature (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000); A. Y. Collins and J. Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008), 178–81; P. N. Anderson, “The Origin and Development of the Johannine Egō Eimi Sayings in Cognitive-Critical Perspective,” JSHJ 9 (2011): 139–206.

[11] Note that in John 10:24 the Jews ask him to be explicit and tell them whether or not he is the messiah, the χριστός. He responds that he’s already told them, and they didn’t believe him. They never ask him if he’s God, they only ever ask if he’s the messiah.

[12] McGrath, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 61–62.

[13] For discussions of divine agency, see McGrath, The Only True God, 107–08: “The term ‘agent’ used here, like the term ‘angel,’ which is applied often to Jesus/the Logos in early Christian (and Jewish) writings, has to do with function and does not have ontological issues and considerations in view.” This concept was also found in the wider ancient Near East. Cf. B. Pongratz-Leisten, “Divine Agency and Astralization of the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Reconsidering the Concept of Revolutionary Monotheism (edited by B. Pongratz-Leisten; Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 140–52.

Words Meaning “Deity”

Maybe someone out there will find this useful. I’ve been analyzing the semantic ranges of the different ways the authors use the words that mean “deity.” As part of this research, I’ve been putting together a document that lists every occurrence of the three Hebrew words and one Aramaic word that mean “deity,” both generic (“god[s]”) and appellative (“God”): elohim, el, eloah, and elah. I finally finished and thought I would share. You can find the Word doc here and the PDF here. I list the word, the number of occurrences, the individual references, and then the number of occurrences by book. I go from the most common word (elohim: 2600 occurrences) to the least common (eloah: 58 occurrences). The next step is to separate out the references to Yhwh from the references to other deities.

Why is Elohim Plural?

‘Elohim (אלהים) is morphologically plural, but as everyone knows, it’s frequently used in reference to singular subjects (primarily the God of Israel). The Bible is not the only place this happens, though. The Akkadian word for “gods,” ilanu, frequently occured in reference to singular subjects in the Amarna Letters (almost always in correspondences written by Syro-Palestinians to Egyptians), in Akkadian texts from Ugarit, and at Taanach and Qatna. The Phoenician ‘lm is used the exact same way. This usage predates the appearance of this phenomenon in Biblical Hebrew and is no doubt at the root of it. The distribution of this kind of usage moves from the coast to the valleys and then to the highlands.

We know from patterns in the languages in which this phenomenon occurs that it most likely derives from the abstract plural. This is the expression of an abstraction through the plural form of the noun or adjective. We see this in Hebrew with ‘abot, “fatherhood,” the plural of ‘ab, “father,” and zequnim, “old age,” the plural of zaqen, “old,” among many others. Some of these terms were used in reference to an individual entity or object that exemplified the quality of the abstraction. For instance, in Dan 9:23 Gabriel tells Daniel that he is a hamudot, which, as an abstract plural, means “desirableness,” or “preciousness.” In this instance, the abstract should be concretized in reference to Daniel. He is not “desirableness,” but one who exemplifies that quality. He is highly esteemed. Joel Burnett suggests “concretized abstract plural” as a designation for this usage. The word ‘elohim still retains its other uses (the simple plural, etc.), but can be used to refer to singular subject. ‘Elohim, then, means “divinity,” or “deity.” The God of Israel exemplifies divinity.

For a more complete discussion, the best treatment is Joel Burnett, A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim (Atlanta, Ga.; Society of Biblical Literature, 2001), 7–24.

Second SBL Paper Online

I’ve posted my second SBL paper online here. This paper seeks to answer the question, What is deity in LXX Deuteronomy? It was presented in the section Unity and Diversity in Early Jewish Monotheisms, and suggests that the threshold of monotheism ought to be placed at the conflation of the angels and the Sons of God in the Hellenistic Period. Unlike the other SBL paper I posted, this one has been posted in a more formal format with full citations and a bibliography (which I was told after the session was quite informative). This paper will be revised and significantly expanded for my next master’s thesis, so your feedback is greatly appreciated.