Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Christianity: The End of the 'Two Powers' Tradition [Part One]

I haven't blogged in a while because well ... life is pretty busy when you're a parent.  But that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about things related to the origin of Judaism and Christianity.  In fact, I think I have made a lot of headway in some respects.

Since I have abandoned this blog I've come to accept that the ur-text of Exodus - preserved in a more original form in the Samaritan Pentateuch - was the basis for 'two powers' interpretation of the Torah . To put it bluntly, the oldest copies of Exodus seem to 'combine' information from Exodus and Deuteronomy making it clear that the Israelites saw one god on mount Sinai (= Yahweh) and heard another god in heaven.  Hence the expression in the oldest Jewish exegesis of Exodus from the circle of R Ishmael 'There are two powers!'

The copies of Exodus from Qumran for instance have the same 'incorporation' (in quotes because in reality the Masoretic text is in fact the result of a 'separation') of lines from Deuteronomy (and even more).  The solution to the problem raised by the original text of Exodus wasn't just removing the Israelites hearing another god speak from heaven.  R Akiva makes up an implausible explanation that time and space effectively 'bent' and the top of the mountain was at once also heaven.

The facts are that we know that the oldest representatives of Judaism represented the Jewish godhead in binary terms.  There was a power of judgment 'Yahweh' (or 'Lord' in Greek) and a power of mercy 'Elohim' (or 'God' in Greek).  The rabbis turn around the original understanding of which god was judging and which was showing mercy but it is basically the same difference - God was two not one.
It is fascinating to me that a text could be so explicit about two powers and yet Jews and Judaism proudly define themselves as monotheistic.  How did it occur?  Why did it occur?  The usual answer of course is that Jews steadfastly devoted themselves to Yahweh even though two divine names appear in the Pentateuch.  They were apparently so devoted that they had to invent another name for their beloved and only God!

Philo says somewhere that 'Lord' (Yahweh) was the god of 'bad man.'  Surely this explains where the idea that Judaism was always a monotheistic religion.  For the vast majority of the population the religion of Israel was fear of the judgement of Yahweh.  No doubt about it.  But our democratic prejudices aside Israel was above all else a theocracy.  The opinion of the rabble was never supposed to define the religion.  The priests had the final word.  They were effectively 'the true Israel.'  The reason otherworldly promises were never made to the canaille was - quite frankly - because they were deemed unworthy of any reward by their religious overseers.

To this end, we can begin to see that the twofold nature of Israelite society (= 'the good' portion being the priestly families, 'the bad' being everyone else) was clearly aligned with each of two separate powers.  As long as the original religion of Ezra continued with its sacrifices, the majority knew of only one God, those of priestly lineage knew of another better god.  This is clearly Philo's interpretation of the Bethel narrative.  After seeing god standing before him suspended from the two 'stairways to heaven' Jacob sings 'now "and the Lord (Yahweh) shall be to me as God (Elohim)" which Philo interprets to mean Jacob realized that there was a higher power beyond the one he was formerly devoted to (Yahweh).  That Jacob began to venerate Elohim in his place.

Readers of this blog will know that I have always found this passage fascinating but because of my Jewish upbringing I could never imagine another Jew knowingly put forward Yahweh as a lower power.  Now I see this presupposition on my part as the building block for the famous attack on Marcion - namely that to describe Yahweh as something less than all powerful was necessarily (from the stand point of a monarchian or monotheist thinker) tantamount to blasphemy.

For the angels going up and down two ladders were imagined by at least one prominent reader of Philo to mean that Yahweh stood at the center of a cross - a massive saltire (= X shaped) object.  To this end, the vision that the Pentateuch describes Jacob as partaking becomes the experience of the beloved disciple.  That Jesus was Yahweh was of course the 'great secret' (not a 'messianic secret' because there was nothing messianic about Jesus, he wasn't like David) of the early religion.  The early Christian mystics undoubtedly saw 'God on the (saltire) Cross' as the mystery prefigured by Bethel.  The way Jacob became divine, becomes the pathway for humanity to attain perfection.

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