Margaret Barker
The Great Angel:
A Study of Israels Second God


Jesus was worshipped by his followers and hailed as Son of God, Messiah and Lord. For centuries the churches have used these titles, and they now mean something very important to millions of people. Scholars of the ancient texts, however, are less certain about them, and how it could have been possible for monotheistic Jews to have worshipped Jesus. Here lies the great problem. Did the first Christians worship Jesus and what did they mean when they used these words to describe their beliefs about him? What would a man from first century Galilee have understood when he heard Son of God, Messiah and Lord?

    The titles have been explained in various ways, but often so as to show that their original meaning was other than that which the Christians eventually adopted. They were brought into Christian thought from a pagan background, it is said, and thus represented a later understanding of Jesus which became incorporated into the New Testament, or they were a paganized understanding of what had originally been Palestinian titles. The worship of Jesus cannot possibly have begun among the first Jewish Christians since their monotheism would have made such a practice unthinkable. The problem is solved by explaining that Son of God was adopted from Greek mythology or the claims of contemporary royal families; that Messiah was no more than the usual designation of nationalist leaders who wanted to rebel against Rome; and Lord was a courtesy title which unfortunately was confused by the Greek Christians with the Old Testaments version of the divine Name and thus Jesus became divine and was worshipped like one of the local Greek gods.

    Versions of these ideas have been popular with New Testament scholars for most of the twentieth century, their hidden agenda being to emphasize the humanness of Jesus and to show that his divinity was a later development and an unfortunate one at that. Hengel has shown how there was an alliance between Jewish and Protestant scholars in this task; the former wished to reclaim Jesus for Judaism, but obviously only on their terms, and the latter felt unhappy with the more mysterious and supernatural aspects of the Gospel stories. [1]

    A straightforward reading of the New Testament, however, does suggest that Jesus was seen from the beginning as more than simply human. Long before the first Gospel was written down, Paul could quote a Christian hymn, presumably one which his readers would recognize, and therefore one which was widely known.
though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil.2.6-11)
Similarly, at the beginning of Romans, Paul quotes what seems to be an early statement of Christian belief:
the gospel of God concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead. (Rom.1.3-4)
All the titles are there: Son of God, Lord and Messiah.

    It has been the practice to treat the titles separately, as if each designated a different aspect of belief, and the separate strands were only brought together by the creative theologizing of the first Christians. I should like to explore a different possibility, namely that these three titles, and several others, belonged together in the expectations and traditions of first-century Palestine, and that the first Christians fitted Jesus into an existing pattern of belief. The rapid development of early Christian teaching was due to the fact that so much of the scheme already existed; the life and death of Jesus was the means of reinterpreting the older hopes. This is not a new idea; from the beginning Christians have claimed that Jesus was the fulfilment of the hopes expressed in the Old Testament. Our problem is to know exactly what those hopes were, and how they were expressed in first century Palestine. What did the key words mean?

    The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has forced us to redraw the picture of Judaism in the time of Jesus; many of the old certainties have been destroyed by this new knowledge. Many of the sources for New Testament background studies (writings of the rabbis, the gnostic texts) have now been shown to belong to a period two or three centuries later than the time of Jesus. They cannot be used to illuminate the world in which the Christian message was first formulated. [2] Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they cannot be used as evidence for Christian belief as we usually understand it. We have to use these materials differently, and to listen carefully to what they are saying. In the course of reading in this area I have become increasingly aware of another set of possibilities for understanding them, and it is this I want to explore.

    The investigations range over a wide area, and cannot be in any sense comprehensive. What has become clear to me time and time again is that even over so wide an area, the evidence points consistently in one direction and indicates that pre-Christian Judaism was not monotheistic in the sense that we use that word. The roots of Christian trinitarian theology lie in pre-Christian Palestinian beliefs about the angels. There were many in first-century Palestine who still retained a world-view derived from the more ancient religion of lsrael in which there was a High God and several Sons of God, one of whom was Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel. Yahweh, the Lord, could be manifested on earth in human form, as an angel or in the Davidic king. It was as a manifestation of Yahweh, the Son of God, that Jesus was acknowledged as Son of God, Messiah and Lord.

    Please note that I have kept the Hebrew divine name as Yahweh wherever the Old Testament is quoted. In the New Testament and in the early Christian writers I have used the Lord as the conventional translation of kyrios.

1   M. Hengel, The Son of God. ET London 1974, ch.2.

2   P.S. Alexander, Rabbinic Judaism and the New Testament, ZNW 74 (1983), pp. 237-46.