Monday, January 11, 2010

Two Powers in Heaven

Monday after the First Sunday of Epiphany
January 11, 2010

The Lord be with you

I have recently finished the book Two Powers in Heaven by the Jewish scholar Dr. Alan F. Segal, publisher Brill Academic Publishers, Inc., © 1977. The sub-title is Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism.

Within Rabbinic Judaism, as it is expressed in the Mishnah (compiled around 200 AD) and the Gemara (compiled around 500 AD) (the Mishnah and Gemara together comprise the Talmud) there was a polemic against a position known as “two powers in heaven.” Segal reviews first the Talmudic evidence, and then the extra-Rabbinic evidence in an effort to identify what group(s) this polemic was against.

Excluding biblical evidence, the earliest written evidence Segal considers is the Jew Philo (20 BC – 50 AD) who described the “logos” as a mediator and even as a “second god.” He also considers the New Testament witness and the witness of the Church Fathers. He reviews “Merkabah mysticism,” a form of Jewish mysticism that emerged after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD. Segal considers what can be known about Gnosticism in his target time as well. This is not a complete listing of the types of information Segal considers, but this sampling indicates that he was thorough.

Belief in “two powers in heaven” was the charge/heresy the rabbis accused groups/people of who broke with monotheism. Sometimes they were accused of believing in “many powers in heaven.”

While tentative, he concludes that a “radical Gnosticism superceded rather than preceded Christianity as a target for the rabbinic debate.” In other words, while certainly Christians came to be accused of this belief, they were not the original targets. Instead, Rabbis modified a pre-existing category to fit the Christian Faith.

Professor Segal’s book is well written, well researched, well foot-noted, and has had a significant impact on the understanding of this topic. However it is not a book for everyone for two reasons. First, he has to assume a general knowledge of Jewish history from say 500 BC to 500 AD, and many (most?) people simply do not have that knowledge. If he didn’t make this assumption the book would be two or three times longer. The second reason is that he has to assume that the reader is familiar with standard abbreviations used in the Talmud and other ancient documents. This includes a general knowledge of traditional dating for the material found in the Talmud. Still, I enjoyed the book.

You may be wondering why a Lutheran Christian pastor might be interested in the arguments of Jewish Rabbis from 200 to 500 AD. First of all, the Talmud represents the main-stream view of Rabbinic Judaism, and this tradition became Orthodox Judaism. Therefore the arguments they developed became the standard Jewish arguments for countering Christianity. If you plan to reach out to Jewish people today, knowledge of the standard counter-arguments to a Christian understanding of many Old Testament passages can be quite helpful. If you know where the land-mines are, so to speak, it is easier to diffuse them. This was not why I read the book. It was, though, a pleasant side-benefit.

The reason I read the book was to get a clearer picture of the diversity of thought among the Jews in the first few centuries of the Christian Era. It is obvious to anyone who reads the New Testament that there were divisions among the Jews. There were Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Rabbis, Essenes, Hellenized Jews, and so on. It is also clear that some Jews quickly embraced Christianity while others quickly rejected the Faith. If we continue to consider what happened historically in the first few centuries AD, we find that in many areas Judaism actually disappears as entire Jewish populations become Christian. My question was: What was the intellectual milieu in the Jewish community that allowed Christianity to find such a positive responsive?

I think many tend to view First Century Judaism through anachronistic eyes. That is to say, we tend to think of First Century Jews as being pretty much like Twenty First Century Jews. However this book demonstrates that there was a great deal of divergence of thinking in the Jews of Jesus’ day. Often this difference of thinking centered on Old Testament passages that spoke of Jesus. However these groups did not put it all together. When someone like St. Paul came along and showed how Jesus was the being these passages were speaking of, many Jews received Jesus as their Lord and Savior. As Segal observed, “This leads one to suspect that Christianity was the first to synthesize the various divine agents at creation by identifying all of them with the Christian messiah.”

It seems that when Paul wrote “But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman …: (Galatians 4:4), he meant more than just the Roman Peace, Roman roads, or the general use of the Greek language throughout the Roman Empire. He also meant the mind-set of many Jewish people; people who had been pondering the plural references to God, people who had been pondering the “Man of God,” “Angel of the Lord,” and so on, passages in the Old Testament. Who knows how many times Paul’s experience in Berea (Acts 17:10-12) was repeated by other Believers as they shared the Gospel of God’s grace in Christ Jesus with Jews in the first few centuries after the Resurrection of our Lord. May the Lord of the Church continue to bless efforts to reach all people, including Jews, with the message of salvation.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

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