One God in Multiple Persons: A Christian Idea?

The notion of multiple persons in the godhead is normally thought to be a Christian innovative change to Judaism’s distinctive monotheism. But is it? UC Berkeley professor Daniel Boyarin, in his book The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, provides compelling evidence that the trinitarian, or at least binatarian, notion of God, has roots deep in Jewish history – virtually from its beginnings.

This should not be a complete surprise. Throughout the Torah, that is, the first five books of the Jewish Tanakh or Christian Old Testament, there are multiple references to a multipersonal God as well as a multiple number of gods. Most readers are familiar with God’s statement in Genesis: “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness” (1:26 NET). Later, “the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil” (3:22). In the story of the tower of Babel, “the LORD said… ‘Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech’” (Gen. 11:6-7). Who is us?

Nor is the existence of multiple gods contested in Torah. In the story of the Exodus, God tells Moses and Aaron that “I will pass through the land of Egypt…and I will attack all the firstborn in the land of Egypt… and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment” (Exodus 12:12). Later, Moses and the freed Israelites sing, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?” (Exodus 15:11). One of the ten commandments instructs God’s followers to “have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). God declared to the Israelites that “the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords” (Deuteronomy 10:17). This sentiment is echoed in other places in the Bible such as Psalms 136:2 and Daniel 2:47.

A divine council or heavenly host is mentioned several times in the Hebrew scriptures. “The LORD came from Sinai…he shone forth from Mount Paran; he came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand” (Deuteronomy 33:2). A vision granted to the prophet Micaiah revealed “the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left” (2 Chron. 18:18). Job refers to “a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them” (Job 1:6, cf. 2:1).

The upshot of this Jewish henotheism (attendance to one particular god among many) is that the Israelites proclaimed their God the highest god: “The LORD is great and certainly worthy of praise; he is more awesome than all gods. For all the gods of the nations are worthless, but the LORD made the heavens” (1 Chronicles 16:25). Solomon declared that he would “build a great temple, for our God is greater than all gods” (2 Chronicles 2:4). Even in New Testament times, these same beliefs persisted: “If after all there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things…” (1 Corinthians 8:5).

All of the foregoing is evidence that the ancients did not consider the divine realm in simplistic terms. Even today there remains among Jews and Christians widespread belief in multiple divine beings: angels, archangels, demons, and Satan, even if they are not referred to as “gods”. And, as far as Christians are concerned, the one God exists in three persons. Where and how did the idea of a multipersonal God arise?

Boyarin points to the possible origins for such belief going back as far as the Canaanite period of Israel’s history. The highest god in the Canaanite divine realm was ‘El, a sky god and a god of justice. His younger associate was Ba’al, a storm god, a rider on the clouds, and a god of war. A small group in southern Canaan, the Hebrews, called Ba’al “YHVH” (Yahweh). Ultimately, the Hebrews merged ‘El and Yahweh into one God but the different functions of the original two were hard to blend seamlessly. The residual effects of this tension manifested itself in representations of an alter ego or junior partner for Yahweh evident throughout the Biblical canon.

The figure of the Angel of the LORD is a reminder of the distance early Hebrews felt existed between them and ‘El in the Canaanite period and the closer relationship they once had with Ba’al/Yahweh. In Biblical texts, Yahweh made his presence known to humans in his alter ego, the Angel of the Lord. The angel’s first appearance makes this clear. Hagar, the slave of Abraham, is cast out by (or flees from) Abraham’s wife Sarah. The Angel of the Lord gives orders to Hagar to return to Sarah and makes several prophecies after which she responds, “You are a God of seeing. Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” Though the Angel is a unique person it is also God. The Angel of the Lord is referred to elsewhere in Genesis, as well as in Exodus, Numbers, Judges, 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, Psalms, Isaiah, and Zechariah.

The Angel of the Lord as alter ego for God is memorably documented in its appearance to Moses “in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” (Exodus 3:2). Later the Angel identifies itself: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (3:6).

As late as the second century BCE, Jewish writers are still wrestling with the notion of a binatarian God as shown in the book of Daniel. Many Christians are familiar with Daniel’s revelation or dream:

“While I was watching, thrones were set up, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His attire was white like snow; the hair of his head was like lamb’s wool. His throne was ablaze with fire and its wheels were all aflame…I was watching in the night visions, and with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man was approaching. He went up to the Ancient of Days and was escorted before him. To him was given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty. All peoples, nations, and language groups were serving him. His authority is eternal and will not pass away. His kingdom will not be destroyed.” (Dan. 7:9, 13-14 NET)

No one disputes that the “Ancient of Days” is God. Multiple thrones, likely two, have been set up according to the vision. Approaching God on the clouds (like Ba’al) is a figure called the “son of man” to whom God gives “ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty.” In other words, God shares with his junior partner divine honors. And not only honors but eternal authority over all humanity. This “son of man” in fact is given a kingdom. One might say he is being treated like a son of God.

Some commentators have identified this “son of man” figure in Daniel as the people of Israel. This is due to statements made later in the text by a divine interpreter who tells Daniel that “the holy ones of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will take possession of the kingdom forever and ever…Then the kingdom, authority, and greatness of the kingdoms under all of heaven will be delivered to the people of the holy ones of the Most High” (Daniel 7:18, 27). It is unlikely that that was the intent of Daniel’s dream vision. As Boyarin points out, Israel does not come “with the clouds of the sky” nor does it sit on a throne. The author of the book of Daniel has, according to Boyarin, adopted Daniel’s dream vision but, uncomfortable with the dual nature of the godhead reflected here, allegorized the son of man as the people of Israel. It is clear that other Jews did not accept this revised interpretation, however. One very important witness to the identification of the son of man as an individual divine being comes in the First Book of Enoch.

First Enoch is a composite work with parts being written in multiple stages from the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century BCE. The latest part, known as the Similitudes (or Parables) of Enoch, takes the son of man figure from Daniel’s vision and expounds further about him in a vision attributed to Enoch. It is worth reading in full:

“In that place I saw the spring of righteousness…and in that hour that son of man was named in the presence of the Lord of Spirits [God], and his name, before the Head of Days [God again]. Even before the sun and the constellations were created, before the stars of heaven were made, his [son of man’s] name was named before the Lord of Spirits. He [the son of man] will be a staff for the righteous, that they may lean on him and not fall; and he will be the light of the nations, and he will be a hope for those who grieve in their hearts. All who dwell on the earth will fall down and worship before him [son of man], and they will glorify and bless and sing hymns to the name of the Lord of Spirits [God]. For this reason he [son of man] was chosen and hidden in his [God’s] presence before the world was created and forever…In those days, the downcast will be the faces of the kings of the earth…because of the deeds of their hands. For on the day of their tribulation and distress they will not save themselves…for they have denied the Lord of Spirits [God] and his Anointed One [messiah/Christ].”   (1 Enoch 48)

A bit later, in chapter 69, Enoch sees that…

“…they had great joy, and they blessed and glorified and exalted, because the name of that son of man had been revealed to them. And he sat on the throne of glory and the whole judgment was given to the son of man…for that son of man has appeared and he has sat down on the throne of his glory, and all evil will vanish from his presence. And the words of the son of man will go forth and will prevail in the presence of the Lord of Spirits.” (1 Enoch 69)

Interestingly, according to the Similitudes, it is Enoch himself whose name is revealed to be the son of man: “That angel came to me and greeted me with his voice and said to me, ‘You are that son of man who was born for righteousness, and righteousness dwells on you, and the righteousness of the Head of Days [God] will not forsake you” (1 Enoch 71). In other words, a human has become deified as the son of man.

First Enoch envisioned the son of man as a preexistent, human-like figure (“before the sun and the constellations were created”) as well as the Jewish messiah (literally “anointed one”). In other words, he is a preexistent figure who comes to earth and is later exalted (back) into heaven. The currents of Jewish thought prior to and contemporaneous with the life of Jesus certainly led to the identification of Jesus by his followers (and, perhaps, Jesus himself) as this son of man/messiah. The son of man is a human-like figure (a son of man), who is also preexistent and shares power and glory with God, sits on a throne, rules and judges beside, or in place of, God, and is also the messiah (identified in scripture as a son of God [Psalm 2:7] and son of David [Isaiah 11:10]) with authority over an everlasting kingdom of righteousness.

It is unlikely then, that claims that Jesus was divine, preexistent, and the messiah were late developments in Christian thought. These may, in fact, have been among the earliest understandings of Jesus. Statements attributed to Jesus in Mark, the earliest gospel (ca. 70 CE), fit well within a Jewish context:

“The son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10)

“The son of man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28)

“Everyone will see the son of man arriving in the clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send his angels and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mark 13:26)

“You will see the son of man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62)

And in the words of Paul, written twenty years earlier…

“Then comes the end, when [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he has brought to an end all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be eliminated is death. For he has put everything in subjection under his feet. But when it says “everything” has been put in subjection, it is clear that this does not include the one who put everything in subjection to him [i.e., God the Father]. And when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:24-28 NET)

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