In a previous post, I discussed the evidence that the ancient Israelite authors of the Bible believed in the existence of multiple gods / divine beings. However, one could object that since I only looked at passages from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, it is possible that later biblical authors, such as the New Testament writers, had come to an understanding of monotheism via progressive revelation. Perhaps, it could be argued, God gradually revealed his monotheistic nature to the people of Israel, drawing them out of polytheism piecemeal until they finally came to understand that there was only one true God—Yahweh.
Some scholars have argued that later biblical texts demonstrate that Israelites began to deny the existence of other gods around the time of the Babylonian exile (circa 586 BCE). So, for example, in Second Isaiah (the book of Isaiah is understood by critical scholars to have been written by three different authors), God says the following:
“And there is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Savior;
there is none besides me.” (Isaiah 45:21, ESV)
There are several examples of similar language in Second Isaiah (see Isaiah 43:10-12; 44:6-8; 45:5-7, 14, 18). These sorts of statements appear to be categorical denials of the existence of other gods, and so the evolutionistic description of a gradual development away from polytheism toward monotheism seems to be validated. However, the biblical scholar Michael Heiser argued in his 2004 dissertation that the concept of multiple gods found in early Hebrew texts is also present in later portions of the Hebrew Bible and post-biblical Jewish literature. Rebutting the idea that later texts like Second Isaiah preach true intolerant monotheism, Heiser points out that these ‘denial statements’ might not be literally denying the existence of other gods, but might be better understood as statements of incomparability (i.e., claiming that no other gods are worthy of being compared to Yahweh). One reason for this is the fact that similar denial statements are found in early Hebrew texts (see Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; 32:12, 39). Since, as mentioned in my last blog post, these early writers clearly accepted the existence of other gods, it stands to reason that such denial statements must not be claiming that other gods do not exist, as that would create a transparent contradiction. Furthermore, we also have similar denial statements in Second Isaiah which are spoken not by God but by the city of Babylon (Isaiah 47:1, 8, 10). Surely such denial statements cannot be taken as denying that other cities existed, and therefore this passage gives us further justification for understanding God’s denial statements as claims of incomparability (Heiser, 2010: 2).
Heiser also shows that the sectarian texts from Qurman (i.e., the Dead Sea Scrolls), roughly contemporaneous with Jesus, appear to also accept the notion that many gods exist, often employing similar language for divine plurality to what is found in the Hebrew Bible (see Heiser, 2004: 183-224). The combination of evidence for a belief in divine plurality in late biblical texts and post-biblical Jewish texts raises the possibility that figures like Jesus of Nazareth and the Apostle Paul might have believed in a cosmology that was open to the existence of multiple gods.
Jesus of Nazareth—if the words preserved in John’s Gospel can be presumed to reflect his beliefs—may have said some things suggestive of a belief that multiple gods exist. You will recall from my previous post that Pslam 82 is a text which in no uncertain terms describes God presiding over a council of other gods. In the Gospel of John, Jesus directly quotes Psalm 82 when some Jews attempt to stone him for blasphemy. We read the following:
“The Jews answered him, ‘It is not for good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your Law: ‘I said, you are gods?’ If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘you are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the son of God’?” (John 10:33-36, ESV)
Commentators have tended to assume that Jesus is not taking Psalm 82 as referring to literal gods but rather to Israelite human judges, which justifies his claim to divinity since Jesus was Jewish. As I’ve mentioned, such a reading of Psalm 82 is not supported by the Hebrew text and is roundly rejected by scholars. This interpretation would therefore require Jesus to misinterpret the Pslam and simultaneously back-peddle his previous claim to divinity (see John 10:30).
However, Michael Heiser has argued that Jesus was not misinterpreting this Pslam, but was keenly aware of the fact that it refers to gods and used this belief to justify his claim to divinity. When Jesus says “If he called them gods to whom the word of God came,” advocates of the first interpretation assume that this refers to the revelation at Sinai, and thus all Jews are assumed to be called ‘gods’. But as Heiser points out, Jesus’ statement is more likely referring to God’s spoken words in the Psalm being directed to his heavenly council, and thus the divine beings are the ones “to whom the word of God came.” The fact that all of the spiritual beings in the divine realm are called ‘gods’ justifies Jesus’ claim to divinity because, like any ‘god,’ he was “consecrated” and “sent into the world” from the divine realm.
This might be a surprising realization for those who are newly acquainted with the idea that the biblical authors were not strict monotheists. Much of what we read in the Bible has been filtered through modern religious traditions, so much so that we tend to not even consider other less orthodox interpretations. I mentioned in another post that there is an intriguing theory that argues that Jesus believed he was using the power of the demon Beelzebub to perform exorcisms and healings. The comfortable picture of Jesus as a monotheist who wouldn’t dare use demonic powers begins to fall apart when we peer into the upper echelons of academic biblical research.
Photo credit: FreeImages.com/catzmagick
Heiser, Michael S. “The Divine Council in Late Canonical and Non-Canonical Second Temple Jewish Literature.” Dissertation, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, (2004).
Heiser, Michael S. “Should the Plural אלהים of Psalm 82 Be Understood as Men or Divine Beings?” Evangelical Theological Society Annual Meeting, (2010).
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