Son of God

31 January, 2010

yahwehnameOne of the claims that is very explicit in the New Testament is that Jesus is the Son of God. Moreover he is God himself. Apologists have noted that this idea would be utterly unthinkable in the Jewish context of Jesus’ life. No Jew could hear this without thinking it blasphemy, and so those that turned to this new idea would have to have been convinced by something extraordinary. The only thing that could be so extraordinary would be that Jesus was in fact God. Others took a different view. Rationalists of the 19th century all the way through to characters in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code have posited that Jesus himself was just a normal human, preaching a message of love and tolerance (and happily ignoring the end-times apocalyptic quotes of Jesus). They think that the son of God idea came from the neighbouring Hellenistic cultures. After all, gods, demi-gods,  cult heroes, saviours born of virgins and so on were common place in the Greek world. As Christianity expanded it is natural that the new converts would start to include their own pre-held beliefs in their liturgy and rituals and eventually their theologies as well.

But it wasn’t just the Greeks who had the idea of Sons of Gods. The Jews themselves were once polytheistic and even by the time of the destruction of the Temple (70 CE) they had not entirely come round to pure monotheism. Just as future Christians would read back into the early churches their own brand of Christianity, so too did the Rabbinic Judaism formed in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem read its own monotheism right back to the beginning of their history. They were certainly correct that a form of monotheism had been the mainstay (or at minimum a very powerful force) of Judaism since at least the Exile in the sixth century BCE. The Deuteronomists give us vivid descriptions of the overturning of the pagan rituals that were performed in Judah just prior to the Exile. Sacred groves to Asherah, the wife of Yahweh were burned and statues removed from the Temple. Although portrayed as removing foreign influences it is clear that these were natives beliefs that were being challenged and changed. Despite the reformers best efforts the belief in multiple deities continued. The high god, El-Elyon and his son Yahweh, were separate beings for many Jews.

In addition to snippets of old belief the remain in the Old Testament we also have evidence of what other groups of Jews believed around the time of the emergence of Christianity. The writings discovered at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) reveal a more complicated picture of Judaism than some imagined. The writings of the Alexandrian Jew Philo show a theology that is perfectly content with a second God: the Logos – the son of the All Mighty. Jewish Gnostic writings are replete with descriptions of the angels, the sons of the God Most High. The argument that no Jew would ever tolerate the idea of someone being the son of God is manifestly false.

An interesting aspect of the title ‘Son of God’ within the Old Testament is that it can refer to different kinds of beings. The word translated to God was sometimes El (the High God) and sometimes Yahweh (God of Israel). The phrase Son of El was always used to describe heavenly beings, recognised as either Gods or Angels. Whenever the phrase is Son of Yahweh it refers to human beings (or sometimes the population of Israel). Most often this is done in the case of the King, he is made the son of Yahweh in a ceremony, the words of which are also used on Jesus when he is baptised. Does this imply Jesus was seen as the new King? Not at all. In each case where he is referred to as the Son of God he is the Son of El Elyon. Jesus was no mere mortal, he was an angelic being, a divine god. And which god? Over and over he is called Lord, the same translation into the greek that is used for Yahweh himself. Jesus was Yahweh. His very name means Yahweh Saves (or Yahweh is Salvation) and he is referring to himself. There was no need for centuries to pass and for legends and more impressive credentials to accrue to Jesus, it was there from the start. The stories of Jesus are the stories of Yahweh, returned to the world and ready to end it, all in preparation for a new world that never came.

Another Hebrew Flood Story

20 February, 2008

RavenEl, the High God, was upset. He was strolling along with Noah, a most virtuous man, and saw that the world had become corrupted. It wasn’t clear what has caused this corruption but nonetheless El decided to destroy all of the living things since it had worked so well for some of the other Gods. He did have a thing for the unblemished Noah though, and thought he would spare this mortal. El gave Noah detailed instructions on how to build the Ark, how many cubits in length it should be (300), what wood to make it out of (gopher wood), how many people to bring (himself, his wife, his sons and their wives), how many animals to bring (two of each, male and female), how much food to bring (enough for everyone for an unspecified time), how many bathrooms to have (none, like the starship Enterprise), how much to charge at the breakfast bar (50 shekels, it’s a seller’s market), what colour to paint it (light blue) and how much to pay the contractors who did all the work (it didn’t matter, they’d all be dead soon enough).

All the animals and birds came, two by two, into the Ark. Seven days later El split open the fountains of the Deep, and opened the doors in the sky, and the waters flooded in. For forty days and forty nights it rained, and the waters grew strong. All the people and animals and birds died in the flood. After a hundred and fifty days El wondered why it was so quiet and suddenly remembered his favourite Noah. El ate some fibrous nourishment and then passed a wind over the Earth so that the waters decreased. He closed the fountains of the Deep and the trapdoors in the sky. Five months after the start of the destruction the Ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The water kept receding, and three months later the tops of the mountains appeared. Noah let a raven go and it went back and forth until the water dried up. Nevermore would the raven return to Noah. Finally, a year after the start of the flood, the Earth was again dry and El told Noah to leave the Ark, since Noah couldn’t do anything without El’s say so, even though he knew it was safe from the whole raven incident a few months before.

The bewildered animals, birds and humans stepped out onto this newly devastated world and gave thanks to El for not killing every living thing. El said to Noah, “Be fruitful and multiply. I give you dominion over all living things, you can eat what you want as long as you don’t eat the blood. Oh, and if any human kills any other human then they shall be put to death since they killed something in my image. Let’s see, what else…”

“Oh mighty El, ” inquired Noah, “how can we be sure that you wont try to kill us all again with another flood? Or if you don’t, what about another of the Gods, because I’ve heard a lot of stories about how this sort of thing keeps happening.”

“Tell you what little favoured mortal, I shall establish a covenant with you and with all the creatures of the earth. I will put my rainbow in the clouds and whenever I, or anyone else, tries to flood the world we shall see the rainbow, and it will remind us of you and your campy ways. Thus we shall never again try to flood the world. It’s useful to have little reminders like that I find.”

And so the might El, king of all the Gods, finally managed to stop everyone from trying to flood the entire Earth.

Based on the P account contained in Genesis