An Independent Being?

I finished James D.G. Dunn’s Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry Into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation.  In this post, I want to continue what I was talking about in yesterday’s post about Dunn—-that whole issue of whether wisdom, the Memra, and the logos were believed by Jewish or ancient Israelite thinkers to be independent beings from the transcendent God.  I’ll cover some of the same ground that I covered yesterday, while also mentioning some other stuff.

Where do I start?  Well, I guess I’ll start with wisdom, and see what happens!  Was wisdom in Proverbs 8 and Sirach considered to be a separate being from the transcendent God?  As I said yesterday, I can see Dunn’s point that the answer is “no”, that what we’re dealing with in Proverbs 8 is a poetic personification of wisdom whose aim is to make the point that God is wise.  Dunn, however, appears to go a step further: Dunn seems to believe that wisdom in Proverbs 8 is not a hypostasis because the concept of hypostasis came later.  I raised questions about that claim in my last post, but I did not offer specifics.  Here, I’ll refer to a post that I wrote a while back when I was blogging through the book, Ancient Israelite Religion.  In summarizing P. Kyle McCarter’s “Aspects of the Religion of the Israelite Monarchy: Biblical and Epigraphic Data”, I said the following about the “Yahweh and his Asherah” inscription from Kuntillet ‘Arjud:

“[McCarter] refers to examples in Northwest Semitic religion in which a goddess is a hypostasis or manifestation of a god. For McCarter, YHWH’s Asherah was his visible manifestation, which appeared in the cult. And that manifestation was marked with a wooden pole, which is called an Asherah. YHWH’s Asherah is somewhat like YHWH’s consort, but it’s also like YHWH’s Shekinah—his manifestation, which conveys the transcendent God to humans. And the pole is a symbol of that visible presence.”

For McCarter, the concept of a hypostasis did exist in the ancient Near East.  But I want to make two points.  First of all, Dunn is skeptical about the History of Religions School, which was interested in finding parallels between the biblical writings and surrounding cultures.  Dunn says at one place in his book that, just because wisdom (or a goddess of wisdom) was a personal being in parts of the ancient Near East, that doesn’t mean that wisdom was a personal being in Proverbs 8.  For Dunn (if I’m understanding him correctly), many of the writings of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism were monotheistic, and that should be taken into consideration when we look at the treatment of wisdom, the Memra, and the logos.  Second, in reading about McCarter’s essay, I’m a little unclear about what exactly a hypostasis is.  Is it necessarily a personal being who extends from or manifests the transcendent God, who is another being?  Within Trinitarian theology (if I understand it correctly), I’d say that the answer is “yes”.  But could a hypostasis simply be how a god chooses to manifest himself, without being an independent being from that god—-which is essentially how Dunn understands wisdom, the Memra, the logos, and even the angel of the Lord in parts of the Hebrew Bible?  God may choose to be transcendent, but there are times when God chooses to be imminent.  Perhaps, say, the logos is when God chooses to be imminent.

Let’s move on to the Memra.  I was reading pieces of Michael Brown’s Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume Two: Theological Objections, and Brown listed some passages in which the term Memra is used in targumim.  To be honest, I did not get the impression in reading those passages that the Memra was believed to be a being separate from the transcendent God.  Rather, the targumim appear to use the term “Memra” to refer to God.  Why?  Probably for the same reason that biblical priestly writings and rabbinic writings often try to avoid referring to God doing something directly (instead using the passive): as a way to honor the majesty and transcendence of God.  The targumim may be saying when they use the term Memra that God is doing something, but they do not want to say explicitly that God did it, out of respect for the divine.  That’s just my impression, and I must admit that I have not read every bit of scholarly literature about the Memra.

Now for the logos.  As I said yesterday, I think that Philo considered the logos to be a personal being, perhaps an angel.  A problem in my post yesterday was that I was also trying to say that the logos was a way for God to make himself imminent.  Can an angel do that, without (in some sense) being God?  Michael Brown quotes a few scholars who maintain that Philo regarded the logos as a personal being, a second god, if you will.  On page 22, Brown refers to passages that demonstrate that Philo saw the logos as the firstborn, an archangel, a governor and administrator, and the chief of God’s powers.  That sounds like a personal being!  And yet, Brown goes on to say that “Philo’s description of the logos may have been philosophical, speaking of divine attributes in highly personified terms” (page 22).  So Philo’s logos was not necessarily a personal being, according to Brown.

I’d like to turn now to the angel of the Lord.  In parts of the Hebrew Bible, the angel of the Lord is said to speak, and yet we also read that God is speaking.  There are a number of Christians who maintain that the angel of the Lord was Jesus Christ in his pre-existent state, who was a messenger from God, yet also was God himself.  Others regard the angel of the Lord as a hypostasis.  Dunn’s position is that the angel of the Lord in those passages is God himself, and that, over time, angels were conceptualized as beings who were independent from God.  But I’m not overly convinced by Dunn’s argument.  If Dunn is right, why couldn’t those passages in the Hebrew Bible have simply said that God was speaking, if that is what they meant?  Why did they use the phrase “messenger of the Lord”? 

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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