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Jesus as the Divine Agent of God

Jesus as the Divine Agent of God


One tenet of Christian theology that has been carefully defined over many centuries is the identity of Jesus as God. The historically orthodox teaching of Christianity is highly specific, and its biblical foundation is taken for granted in a confessional context. The case is different for critical scholarship. The topic has been approached from a number of directions for more than a century. Did Jesus think he was God? Did the authors of the gospels think he was? Did Paul? Does the Revelation portray him as God? Does the Old Testament?

I believe the evidence overwhelmingly supports a firm ‘no’ in answer to all of these. Proponents of the belief that Jesus is God have several proof-texts at the ready, or perhaps they have a favorite theological defense from a well-liked author that they can recite. For example, a claim often repeated is that ancient Jews enforced a strict division between God and the things he made. There is Creator and there is creation, and the two are in mutually exclusive realms; they never overlap, and the boundary between them is solid and insurmountable.

Understanding what Jesus’ earliest followers thought about him requires first exploring the theological context of various ‘divine agents’ found in ancient Judaism. This groundwork is time-consuming but necessary. The examples that I will sort through are commonly grouped into three categories. I will follow this convention, then I will also provide a brief summary of tropes involved before moving on to the New Testament.


In the historical narrative of the Hebrew Bible—which spans from Genesis through Kings—we find a recurring character called the Messenger of Yhwh (also translated ‘Angel of the LORD’). This angel makes his most prominent appearances in Genesis and Judges. Generally when this angel shows up the narrator will speak of ‘Yhwh’ and the ‘Messenger of Yhwh’ interchangeably. This has led many readers to believe that the angelic messenger is Yhwh himself, a distinction of ‘persons’. But referring to the messenger as if they were the sender was a common shorthand in ancient Near Eastern cultures. An example is seen in Gen 44 when the patriarch Joseph sends a servant to deliver a message to Joseph’s family, yet the narrator treats the messenger as if he is Joseph in-person. Whole books of the Hebrew Bible contain prophets speaking in the first-person as if they are Yhwh.

This notion is spelled out in Exodus. After Yhwh has taken the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt, he prepares them for their journey across the desert to find the land promised to their ancestor Abraham. Yhwh, through Moses, informs the people:

Exodus 23.20–21

‘I am going to send an angel in front of you … listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him.’

This is not an identification of the angel as God, but as the representative of God’s presence and authority. He fulfills a unique role in the story as God’s agent.

In the sixth century BCE, after the Judeans had been taken into exile by Babylon, the priest Ezekiel received a vision. Ezekiel was considerate of a taboo on depicting God’s physical appearance, so when he sees in his vision an enthroned human-shaped figure in heaven, he makes sure to establish three steps of distance between God and the vision: Ezekiel saw ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Yhwh’ (1.28). Later, Ezekiel has another vision of a human-shaped figure. His description of the second figure is similar to the first, implying that they might be the same individual. But then Ezekiel adds more distance between God and the vision by mentioning the second figure took him ‘in visions of God’ (a vision in a vision?) to Jerusalem, where he then saw ‘the glory of the God of Israel … like the [first] vision’ (8.4). Gathering up the two visions and making note of how Ezekiel strains to avoid saying he saw God himself, the second figure is probably not meant to be God at all. However, we might ask if the first figure is supposed to be God either, or perhaps an agent representing God, similar to the Messenger of Yhwh’s role.

Ancient Judaism is commonly identified as ‘monotheistic’, but this is a misnomer because they did not deny the existence of other gods. Judean literature mentions other deities all the way up to the first century CE. The more accurate term would be ‘monolatrous’, meaning although they accepted that many gods exist, they worshiped just one god, Yhwh, whom they believed was the supreme creator of all things. Because the Judean religion evolved out of Canaanite culture, they also inherited the idea that there were seventy nations in the world, each nation ruled by one of the seventy gods of the chief pantheon. By the second century BCE Judean interest in angels had spiked, and they were identified with these gods. Literature from the time reflects traditions about who these angels were, as well as their ranks. The most common tradition found in the literature was of four or seven archangels, with Michael being the seniormost. The Book of Daniel, circa 165 BCE, mentions Michael as ‘the prince, the protector of your people [Israel]’ (12.1), but he is not distinct in this role. Michael is but ‘one of the chief princes’ (10.13), mentioned alongside ‘the prince of the kingdom of Persia’ (10.13) and ‘the prince of Greece’ (10.20). These angelic princes were equivalent to the gods of the seventy nations. This means that, within this conceptual framework, Michael is located as the ‘god’ of Israel, his authority delegated to him by the supreme creator God. Parabiblical literature (e.g. Testament of Abraham, Joseph & Asenath, 2 Enoch, 3 Baruch) frequently identified Michael with the ‘commander of the army of Yhwh’ from Josh 5.13–15 (‘commander-in-chief’ in the Septuagint), and he carries out this role during his brief appearance in Rev 12. The Dead Sea Scrolls even present God as having appointed Michael to be the ruler of a heavenly kingdom ‘in the midst of the gods’.

1QM 17

He will send eternal succour to the company of His redeemed by the might of the princely Angel of the kingdom of Michael. With everlasting light He will enlighten with joy [the children] of Israel; peace and blessing shall be with the company of God. He will raise up the kingdom of Michael in the midst of the gods, and the realm of Israel in the midst of all flesh.

Similar to how Ezek 8 describes an angel with language taken from the depiction of God’s glory in Ezek 1, chapter 10 of the Book of Daniel describes an angel whose appearance resembles how God is presented in Dan 7. However, the context this angel is found in makes it difficult to identify him with God, since he is only able to appear before Daniel after Michael came to help him overcome an obstacle in his path. Three centuries later, another angel in the Revelation of Zephaniah is described with imagery borrowed from Ezek 1. When Zephaniah falls down to worship this angel, thinking he is God, the angel forbids him from doing so: ‘I am not the Lord Almighty, but I am the great angel, Eremiel’ (Rev Zeph 6.11–15).

Written around the same time as the Revelation of Zephaniah is another apocalyptic text, the Revelation of Abraham. This book tells the story of how Abraham came to follow the god Yhwh after having rejected his father’s business of making idols. Abraham’s revelation comes in the form of God’s voice instructing an angel to approach Abraham.

Revelation of Abraham 10.3–4, 8

I heard the voice speaking, ‘Go, Yahoel of the same name, through the mediation of my ineffable name, consecrate this man for me and strengthen him against his trembling.’ The angel he sent to me in the likeness of a man came … ‘I am Yahoel, and I was called so by him who causes those with me on the seventh expanse, on the firmament, to shake, a power through the medium of his ineffable name in me.’

Following from the earlier passage from Exodus, this author gives the chief angel the name Yahoel, which is literally just God’s two most important names in Hebrew combined (Yhwh and El). Readers would be mistaken in thinking this angel is God, however. Later in the book Abraham and Yahoel together bow down to worship God, and the two recite a song addressing God.

Revelation of Abraham 17.2, 4–13

And the angel knelt down with me and worshiped. … And he said, ‘Only worship, Abraham, and recite the song which I taught you.’ Since there was no ground to which I could fall prostrate, I only bowed down, and I recited the song which he had taught me. And he said, ‘Recite without ceasing.’ And I recited, and he himself recited the song: ‘Eternal One, Mighty One, Holy El, God autocrat self-originate, incorruptible, immaculate, unbegotten, spotless, immortal, self-perfected, self-devised, without mother, without father, ungenerated, exalted, fiery, just, lover of men, benevolent, compassionate, bountiful, jealous over me, patient one, most merciful. Eli, eternal, mighty one, holy, Sabaoth, most glorious El, El, El, El, Yahoel, you are he my soul has loved, my protector.’

God’s messenger is given God’s own name in order to best represent God to the man whom God wants to claim as a follower. This angel is not God, but a creature subordinate to God. However, one of God’s many ‘ineffable’ names is Yahoel, which is given to the angel to ‘mediate’.

Wisdom & Logos

The Book of Proverbs conveys wisdom teachings to the reader, most of which are exhibited in short, pithy sayings. Early in the book we run into a section that personifies wisdom as a woman who grants life (3.13–18). It is through this wisdom that God created the world (3.19–20). A few chapters later, the personification returns and ‘her’ relationship to God as his co-creator is elaborated upon (8.22–31). Here, the personified Wisdom is a sort of secondary god. She was not eternally pre-existent, but was made by God—‘created’, ‘set up’, ‘brought forth’—and proceeded to work alongside him in his creation of the rest of the universe. For the author of Proverbs, this is all a figure of speech; the lady Wisdom is not a literal being, she is a metaphor of God’s own wisdom and knowledge which he applied when creating all things. The metaphor proved popular, however, and later authors would build on it.

The Book of Sira, written near the beginning of the second century BCE, again treats Wisdom as a living being. Here she personifies not just God’s sapience but his speech: ‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High’ (24.1). The author of Sira even has Wisdom ‘incarnate’, so to speak, in the material world. She manifests as the Torah (24.23; cf. 1 Baruch 3–4). Again, this is not intended quite literally. The author is simply intending to communicate to the reader that the law which God gave to Israel derived from his own wisdom. Also following from Proverbs, Sira says Wisdom was created by God.

Sira 24.8–10

‘Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, “Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.” Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me, and for all the ages I shall not cease to be. In the holy tent I ministered before him, and so I was established in Zion.’

The authors of Proverbs and Sira are each so intent on avoiding the implication God has an eternally pre-existent equal—which would seemingly violate the refrain ‘God is one’ found across Second Temple literature—that even when they metaphorically identify God’s own wisdom as a personal being who worked alongside God, they stress that this Wisdom is God’s creation.

Nearing the end of the first century BCE, the author of the Book of Wisdom pushes the personification even further, giving Wisdom the additional identification as the 'word' (λογος, logos) of God (9.1–2). At this point, it becomes a legitimate question whether the author intends for his readers to recognize the lady Wisdom as just an elaborate metaphor, or as a literal, personal being who was created by God and worked alongside him in creating the universe. The author even delves into how Wisdom is, in so few words, the true ‘image’ of God.

Wisdom 7.25–26

For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.

The Book of Wisdom further depicts Wisdom as God’s co-regent.

Wisdom 9.4, 10

give me the Wisdom that sits by your throne … Send her forth from the holy heavens, and from the throne of your glory send her

Within just a few decades, the Judean-Alexandrian philosopher Philo wrote a series of theological tracts commenting on parts of the Torah. Philo was also a student of Platonism and Stoicism, and worked to syncretize elements from these Greek philosophies into the theology of his own Judean culture. The two key features, respectively, were that the material world was modeled after a superior, transcendent reality, and that the divine Logos (λογος again, connotating ‘reason, plan, word’) permeates the whole universe. For Philo, the material world and its components (humans in particular) were modeled in imitation of the Logos, and the Logos itself acts as the bridge between the material world and the transcendent God.

Philo doesn’t stop there. His Logos is not the personification of God’s own wisdom or rationale as in Proverbs and Sira, nor ambiguous as in the Book of Wisdom. The Logos is a fully personal being, whom Philo identifies by a variety of titles or names: Wisdom, the image of God, the firstborn of God, the eldest son of God, the archangel, the advocate, among others. In addition, contrary to the idea that there is an indisputably strict boundary between Creator and creation, Philo says outright that the Logos blurs this boundary.

Philo, Who Is the Heir of Divine Things? 205–206

And the Father who created the universe has given to his archangelic and most ancient Logos a pre-eminent gift, to stand on the confines of both, and separate that which had been created from the Creator. And this same Logos is continually a suppliant to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race … and is also the ambassador sent by the Ruler of all … saying, ‘And I stood in the middle, between the LORD and you’, neither being uncreated like God, nor yet created like you, but being in the middle between these two extremities

The Logos ‘stands on the confines’ between ‘created’ and ‘Creator’. Though not created in the manner of humans, neither is he ‘uncreated like God’. Philo is so opposed to splitting the unity of God or even implying his divisibility, he explicitly calls the Logos a god distinct from ‘the Father of the universe, the uncreated God’ (On Cherubim 44). Philo makes this claim in at least two ways. The first is his argument from the first chapter of the Torah.

Genesis 1.27

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

The Logos himself is the image of God, so for humans to be made after the image of God means they are two steps removed from God: ‘the image was modeled according to God, and as man was modeled according to the image’ (Allegorical Interpretations 3.96). Hence, the Logos is an ‘other god’ or ‘second god’.

Philo, Questions and Answers on Genesis 2.62

Why is it that he speaks as if of some other god, saying that he made man after the image of God, and not that he made him after his own image? Very appropriately and without any falsehood was this oracular sentence uttered by God, for no mortal thing could have been formed on the similitude of the supreme Father of the universe, but only after the pattern of the second god, who is the Logos of the Supreme Being

The second sort of argument Philo makes is grammatical, based on the Greek version of the Torah which he read. In Greek, nouns are articular (with the article) or anarthrous (without it). In English, we have ‘the’ as the definite article, indicating a specific noun, and ‘a(n)’ for the indefinite article, indicating the noun in a general sense. The article does not function in Greek the same way as in English, and context is used to indicate definite from indefinite. This sort of ambiguity enabled Philo to claim that when ‘god’ was articular it referred to the eternal, self-originate God, but when ‘god’ was anarthrous it referred to the second god, the Logos.

Philo, On Dreams 228–230

And do not pass by what is here said, but examine it accurately, and see whether there are really two gods. For it is said: ‘I am the God who was seen by you,’ not in my place, but ‘in the place of god,’ as if he meant of some other god. What then ought we to say? There is one true God only: but they who are called gods, by an abuse of language, are numerous. On this account the holy scripture on the present occasion indicates that it is the true God meant by the use of the article, the expression being ‘I am the God.’ But when the word is used incorrectly, it is put without the article, the expression being, ‘He who was seen by you in the place’—not ‘of the God,’ but simply—‘of god,’ and what he calls here is his most ancient Logos

Philo occasionally refers to the ‘one true God’ or ‘only true God’ (e.g. Allegorical Interpretation 2.68; Cherbim 27, 83; Heir 93, 169; Mating 103), the one whom he also regularly calls the ‘Father of the universe’. These epithets are never used in reference to the Logos. The passage above shows how Philo distinguishes the Logos as a ‘god’ different from the ‘one true God’. Although Philo believed that the Logos was a unique being, special in relation to God, he did not believe the Logos was himself the supreme creator. Certainly not (in later philosophical terms) a ‘person within the godhead’. The Logos was a created being—not created the way humans were, but created nonetheless—a ‘second god’ who was the expression of, and subordinate to, the ‘one true God’. Philo likens this relationship with an analogy: a sunbeam is certainly distinct and inferior to the sun from which it radiates, but when spoken of by itself that sunbeam may properly be called the ‘sun’.

One final passage worth noting is when Philo quotes from the Book of Zechariah.

Philo, On Confusion of Languages 61–63

‘Behold, a man whose name is the East!’ … applied to that incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image … the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom he calls the firstborn in another passage

The cited verse, LXX Zech 6.12, is traditionally read as a messianic prophecy. Philo applies it to the Logos instead. The context does not indicate he expected the Logos to literally manifest as the Messiah. Perhaps he thought the Messiah (if he believed in the concept at all; not every student of the Torah did) would be modeled after the Logos.

Exalted Humans

Wisdom/Logos is identified as God’s co-creator, a role not seen among any of the archangels of apocalyptic literature (unless we count Philo’s identification of the Logos as an ‘archangel’). The inverse is equally true: Wisdom/Logos is never the revelatory angel of apocalyptic visions. As we switch into the category of exalted humans, we will see tropes used for them that are missing from the above two categories, just as we may notice previous tropes absent in this category. We should not let these differences become a red herring, distracting us from the otherwise prevailing theme. We have already seen how beings created by God could have his names, authority, and activities invested in them, and we will continue to see this.

In the Testament of Abraham, the patriarch is taken by the archangel Michael to see two pathways outside ‘the first gate of heaven’. There, Abraham sees his ancestor Adam in a form resembling God.

Testament of Abraham 11.4, 8, 9

And outside the two gates of that place, they saw a man seated on a golden throne. And the appearance of that man was terrifying, like the Master’s. … Then Abraham asked the commander-in-chief, ‘My lord commander-in-chief, who is this most wondrous man, who is adorned in such glory?’ … The incorporeal one said, ‘This is the first-formed Adam who is in such glory, and he looks at the world, since everyone has come from him.’

Abraham himself achieved an elevated status in the late Second Temple period and after, though not to the extent of Adam. When God speaks to humanity, his fatherly voice is compared to Abraham speaking to Isaac (Testament of Levi 18.6), and Abraham receives the rare privilege of avoiding death altogether; his spirit is taken to heaven, but his body remains on the earth, preserved until the end of history (Testament of Abraham 7.15-16).

Mentioned earlier, the Dead Sea Scrolls depict Michael in a savior-prince role during the end times. In another scroll the obscure Melchizedek of Gen 14 is shown fulfilling a similar role. The common interpretation is that Melchizedek is somehow being identified with Michael. An alternate explanation may be that ‘Melchizedek’ in 11Q13 should not be understood as a name but as the title ‘king of justice’ (malkī ṣedeq), designating the archangel Michael in opposition to the satan-like Belial, who is elsewhere called ‘king of evil’ (malkī rešaʿ). Whatever the case (‘king of justice’ Michael or exalted human Melchizedek) scroll 11Q13 does not simply identify the figure as a savior. The author of 11Q13 quotes biblical texts which mention Elohim and El—translated as ‘God’ in reference to Yhwh—but he applies these names to Melchizedek.


For this is the moment of the year of grace for Melchizedek. And he will, by his strength, judge the holy ones of God, executing judgement as it is written concerning him in the songs of David, who said, ‘Elohim has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgement.’

The final portion of 2 Enoch, written around the end of the first century CE, formalizes an older tradition that Melchizedek was miraculously conceived in Sopanim, the elderly virgin wife of a priest, and was born after she died. The story goes on to show how important Melchizedek will become.

2 Enoch J 71.2, 17, 21

She conceived in her womb, but Nir the priest had not slept with her, nor had he touched her, from the day that the LORD had appointed him to conduct the liturgy in front of the face of the people. … And a child came out from the dead Sopanim. … And they called his name Melkisedek.

A surviving fragment of a lost book titled the Prayer of Joseph expands on an episode in Genesis, the one where the patriarch Jacob wrestles with an angel before receiving his new name ‘Israel’. In the brief fragment, the angel of the story is identified as Uriel, a name usually given to one of the four/seven archangels. The story takes a sudden turn, however, as Uriel attempts to put Jacob in his place. Instead of demanding the angel’s name (as in Gen 32.29), Jacob reveals he already knows it.

Prayer of Joseph A

‘I, Jacob, who is speaking to you, am also Israel, an angel of God and a ruling spirit. … I am the firstborn of every living thing to whom God gives life. … I had descended to earth and I had tabernacled among men and that I had been called by the name of Jacob. … Are you not Uriel, the eighth after me? And I, Israel, the archangel of the power of the Lord and the chief captain among the sons of God? Am I not Israel, the first minister before the face of God?’

Jacob/Israel’s situation here is the reverse of what we might have expected. Instead of a human Jacob being transformed into an angel-like being, we have the angel Israel descending into the material world and incarnating as a human. More than that, Israel is not just any angel, but is the first creation of God, superior even to the seven archangels, and is the chief-commander of God’s armies instead of Michael.

Second Kings begins with the ascension of the prophet Elijah into heaven. This episode left a major impact on readers to such an extent that Mal 4.5–6 (cf. Sir 48.9–10) predicted Elijah would return sometime before the Day of Yhwh, an event which was later identified with the apocalyptic final judgment. In a similar case, tradition emerged that Moses had not died as written in Deuteronomy, but had actually been taken to heaven by God (cf. Josephus, Judean Antiquities 3.96–97; 4.326). This belief in Moses’ ascension to heaven is found in apocalyptic traditions, where some believed he would return alongside Elijah (b. Soṭa 13b). The first generations of Jesus’ followers fully believed the final judgment was just over the horizon. While the authors of the synoptic gospels go out of their way to identify John the baptizer as the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy, one of their sources seems to preserve an earlier tradition that Elijah and Moses had indeed returned prior to the end times, as predicted, appearing alongside Jesus atop a mountain (Mark 9.2–8).

Moses’ exaltation goes further than Elijah. Sira says Moses was created ‘equal in glory to the holy ones’ (angels), permitted to see God ‘face to face’ (45.1–5; cf. Exo 33.11, but contrast Exo 33.23). The Testament of Moses says that Moses was ‘prepared [by God] from the beginning of the world to be the mediator of his covenant’. Moses, in a way, pre-existed his own birth. Philo likewise calls Moses ‘the god and king of the whole nation [of Israel]’, and even suggests Moses visited God in the immaterial supreme reality (Life of Moses 1.58). In the third century BCE, a Judean playwright called Ezekiel the Tragedian wrote an adaptation of the Book of Exodus, titled Exagōgē. In the story, Moses has a startling dream-vision.

Exagōgē 68–82

On Sinai’s peak I saw what seemed a throne so great in size it touched the clouds of heaven. Upon it sat a man of noble mien, becrowned, and with a scepter in one hand while with the other one he did beckon me. I made approach and stood before the throne. He handed over the scepter and he bade me mount the throne, and gave to me the crown; then he himself withdrew from off the throne. I gazed upon the whole earth round about; things under it, and high above the skies. Then at my feet a multitude of stars fell down, and I reckoned up their number. They passed by me like armed ranks of men. Then I, in terror, awoke from the dream.

This dream is intended to explain why Yhwh calls Moses ‘god’ (Exo 4.16; 7.1). That the playwright was willing at all, even in a dream, to depict Moses sitting on God’s heavenly throne, receiving the worship of angels (the ‘multitude of stars’), is remarkable.

Second Maccabees also has the revolutionary Judah Maccabee offer encouragement to his troops by describing a dream or vision he had. He first sees the recently-murdered high priest Oniah praying on behalf of ‘the whole body of the Judeans’. Judah then sees a second figure.

2 Maccabees 15.13–16

Then in the same fashion another appeared, distinguished by his grey hair and dignity, and of marvelous majesty and authority. And Oniah spoke, saying, ‘This is a man who loves the family of Israel and prays much for the people and the holy city—Jeremiah, the prophet of God.’ Jeremiah stretched out his right hand and gave to Judah a golden sword, and as he gave it he addressed him thus: ‘Take this holy sword, a gift from God, with which you will strike down your adversaries.’

Within Judah’s dream-vision, Jeremiah has evidently ascended to heaven and now acts as a sort of intercessor for Israel. He briefly returns to the mortal world to deliver Judah a sword from God, a symbolic demonstration that God has granted Judah victory in the upcoming battle.

Many students of the Hebrew Bible are familiar with prophecies concerning a descendant of David who will bring Israel to an idealized future. Individual contexts aside, the various passages traditionally applied to this ‘David’ call him the ‘shoot’ (Isa 11.1), ‘branch’ (Jer 23.5; Zech 3.8; 4Q174), ‘lion’ (Gen 49.9; 4 Ezra 12.31, 32), ‘prince’ (Ezek 34.24; 37.25), ‘king’ (Ezek 37.24; Psa 2.6), ‘son of David’ (Psa Sol 17.21–25), and ‘Messiah’ (Psa 2.2; Psa Sol 17.32). Some texts indicate that God invests his own divine authority into the Messiah by calling him the ‘son of God’ (Psa 2.7; 4 Ezra 7.28; 13.37–38; possibly 4Q246). For the king to be ‘son of God’ need not remotely imply the king is a divine being. Second Sam 7.12–14 has God refer to Solomon as his ‘son’, showing that this father-son relationship with God described a privileged status enjoyed by royalty.

When the Book of Ezekiel condemns Israel’s wayward ‘shepherds’ (34.10), God insists he will be their true shepherd (Ezek 34.11–15). The prophet then turns to say that ‘David’ will be the shepherd (34.23–24). This transfer of divine activity to ‘David’ did not mean Ezekiel thought of him as God. ‘David’ is warned against sinning (45.8–9), he has a much more limited role with offering sacrifices than the priests and Levites (45.13–25), he is prohibited from entering the temple (46.2), and he has children who will inherit his possessions when he dies (46.16–18). Even when traditions about this Messiah grew to fantastic proportions, making him the earthly savior-prince of Israel (thus a counterpart to heavenly Michael), he was still regarded as a fallible mortal man. His reign might last for decades, centuries, or even millennia (4 Ezra 7.28–29; 2 Bar 40.3; Sanhedrin 99a), but it would come to an end regardless.

One Like a Son of Man

One figure of apocalyptic literature is worth focusing on individually, first found in the Book of Daniel. In a dream mirroring the immense statue seen by Nebuchadnezzar in Dan 2, the titular sage watches as four monsters crawl out of the Mediterranean Sea, one after the other (7.1–8). At the height of the fourth beast’s power, Daniel’s dream turns attention to heaven, where God sits on his throne and casts judgment on the monsters (7.9–12). He then sees a final item in the dream:

Daniel 7.13–14

As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

In typical fashion for the apocalyptic genre, Daniel requires an angel to interpret the symbolism (7.15–28). The four monsters symbolize four kingdoms that will rule the world, but their terror will end when ‘the holy ones of the Most High’ and ‘the people of the holy ones of the Most High’ eventually inherit ‘an everlasting kingdom’ (7.18, 22, 27). The phrase ‘son of man’ is a common idiom in the Hebrew Bible that simply means ‘human’ or ‘mortal’. Here, the human-like figure (‘one like a son of man’) is a symbol for ‘the people of the holy ones of the Most High’ and their kingdom of justice, in contrast to how the four Gentile kingdoms are depicted in monster-like forms to symbolize their wickedness. The book’s subsequent visions (chapters 8, 9, and 10–12) reiterate components of Dan 7, and where they parallel the ‘one like a son of man’ we find Torah-observant Judeans who are rewarded by God (8.10–12, 24; 11.30–35; 12.1b–3). The Book of Daniel does not use ‘son of man’ as a title, nor is the human-like figure identified as the Messiah (though some scholars think he is supposed to represent Michael, per 12.1a). There may be hints of the suffering servant from Deutero-Isaiah behind Daniel’s human-like symbol, as well as the martyrs described in Dan 8 and 11–12.

The Book of Daniel is not the earliest example of the apocalyptic genre. Gen 5 contains a genealogy of the first ten patriarchs, and seventh in the list (5.21–24) is a puzzling line which says that ‘Enoch walked with God, then he was no more, because God took him’. This scant text grew into a much larger legend, and about a century before Daniel the legend was written down in apocalyptic form. First Enoch 1–36 describes how Enoch was summoned by God and his archangels to pronounce judgment over fallen angels, and then was taken on a journey to witness the hidden parts of the cosmos. In this text, the author prophesies about the punishment God will bring in the final judgment, and he uses the ancient flood as a sort of allegory for the end times. Over the next several centuries new sections were added to 1 Enoch by various authors, expanding on Enoch’s legend and how he remained in heaven after his original duties were finished. A rewrite of Genesis, called the Book of Jubilees, suggests Enoch will participate in passing final judgment on humans.

Jubilees 4.22–23

‘And he was taken from among the children of men, and we led him to the garden of Eden for greatness and honor. And behold, he is there writing condemnation and judgment of the world, and all of the evils of the children of men.’

The final section added to the book was 1 Enoch 37–71, most likely written in the second half of the first century BCE. These chapters relate a series of three ‘parables’ to the reader, each one a vision Enoch had that elaborated on the nature of the final judgment. Where the authors of the earlier parts of 1 Enoch identified the final judge as God, and had God delegate his activity to the archangels, this Book of Parables introduces a new persona, an individual identified by a handful of different epithets. At first this figure simply shows up, but as the visions carry on he becomes central to the Parables’ eschatology.

1 Enoch 38.1–2

the Righteous One appears in the presence of the righteous

1 Enoch 39.6–7

And in that place my eyes saw the Chosen One of righteousness and faith, and righteousness will be his days, and the righteous and chosen will be without number before him forever and ever.

1 Enoch 53.4

And he said to me, ‘All these things that you have seen will be for the authority of his Messiah, so that he may be powerful and mighty on the earth.’

1 Enoch 53.6

And after this, the Righteous and Chosen One will cause the house of his congregation to appear; from then on, they will not be hindered in the name of the Lord of Spirits.

This figure is not simply the Messiah who is Righteous and Chosen. The author initially borrows from Daniel.

Daniel 7.9–10

1 Enoch 46.1; 47.3

As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient of Days took his throne; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool … A thousand thousand served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgement, and the books were opened.

There I saw one who had a Head of Days, and his head was like white wool. … In those days I saw the Head of Days as he took his seat on the throne of his glory, and the books of the living were opened in his presence, and all his host, which was in the heights of heaven, and his court, were standing in his presence.

The one like a son of man appears alongside God as expected, but 1 Enoch makes a major change to the symbolism. Daniel’s son of man only appears in the dream-vision after God passes judgment from his throne; he represents the Judeans who will be rewarded for their faithful Torah-observance through a time of persecution. Because 1 Enoch identifies the son of man as the Messiah, he actively participates in the punishment of Israel’s enemies.

1 Enoch 46.3–6

‘This is the son of man who has righteousness, and righteousness dwells with him. … And this son of man whom you have seen—he will raise the kings and the mighty from their couches, and the strong from their thrones. He will loosen the reins of the strong, and he will crush the teeth of the sinners. He will overturn the kings from their thrones and their kingdoms’

The extent of his authority is then revealed.

1 Enoch 51.3

And the Chosen One, in those days, will sit upon my throne

1 Enoch 61.8

And the Lord of Spirits seated the Chosen One upon the throne of glory; and he will judge all the works of the holy ones in the heights of heaven, and in the balance he will weigh their deeds.

1 Enoch 69.26–28

And 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 his glory, and the whole judgment was given to the son of man, and he will make sinners vanish and perish from the face of the earth.

God’s unique activity as eschatological judge is transferred to the messianic son of man. And like Moses in another text, the son of man is here stated to be pre-existent.

1 Enoch 48.2–6

And in that hour that son of man was named in the presence of the Lord of Spirits, and his name, before the Head of Days. Even before the sun and the constellations were created, before the stars of heaven were made, his name was named before the Lord of Spirits. He will be a staff for the righteous, that they may lean on him and not fall; 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, and they will glorify and bless and sing hymns to the name of the Lord of Spirits. For this he was chosen and hidden in his presence, before the world was created and forever.

Whether this pre-existence is literal or metaphorical is not so important as the immense status the son of man acquires in the end; he was created by God for the express purpose of becoming the Messiah who will sit on God’s own throne, even receiving universal worship while seated there. The author also applies some Isaianic attributes to Enoch/the son of man: he is filled with spirit from God (49.3–4b; 62.2–3; cf. Isa 11.1–5), and he is the suffering servant (38.2; 62; cf. Isa 52.13–15; 53.11).

In a surprising twist, the last chapter of the Book of Parables depicts Enoch’s final disappearance into heaven, and has God explain why.

1 Enoch 71.1–12

And after that, my spirit was taken away, and it ascended to heaven. … And I fell on my face, and all my flesh melted, and my spirit was transformed. And I cried out with a loud voice, with a spirit of power, and I blessed and praised and exalted. And those blessings that went forth from my mouth were acceptable in the presence of that Head of Days. And that Head of Days came with Michael and Raphael and Gabriel and Phanuel, and thousands and tens of thousands of angels without number. And he 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 will not forsake you.’

Enoch himself is the Messiah who will sit on God’s throne. Later traditions followed this thread further. The late first century 2 Enoch says Enoch was chosen to ‘stand in front of [God’s] face for eternity’ (67.2). The fifth century book 3 Enoch does not have Enoch simply remain in heaven in a glorified state. He becomes the supreme archangel, named Metatron.

3 Enoch 3.2

‘I [Enoch/Metatron] have seventy names, corresponding to the seventy nations of the world, and all of them are based on the name of the King of the king of kings’

3 Enoch 10.1

‘the Holy One, blessed be he, made for me a throne like the throne of glory’

3 Enoch 12.5

‘he called me the “lesser Yhwh” in the presence of his whole household in the height, as it is written, “My name is in him.”’

Bringing us full circle to the Messenger of Yhwh, the author of 3 Enoch invokes Exo 23.20–21 to grant to Enoch/Metatron an attribute previously seen with other figures. We have an explicitly mortal man undergo a radical transformation to become the second god, and the delegation of all God’s divine authority is symbolized in the sharing of his name.

Tropes Used in the Literature

In the three categories we explored above we found a variety of ideas used to distinguish this or that figure as exceptional or unique. The chart below visualizes how often these tropes are used.

Grouping Michael, Eremiel, and Yahoel together as ‘Angels’, and Adam, Enoch, and Jacob together as simply ‘Patriarchs’, is somewhat cheating. However, either column would barely change if we limited them to solely, say, Yahoel or Enoch. For this reason, I opted in favor of these groupings but recognize the (minimal, in my opinion) conflation of these traditions.

As we shift into the first century and begin exploring the literature of the New Testament, we should keep this chart in mind.

The New Testament

The seven authentic letters of Paul represent the earliest surviving texts written by a Jesus-follower. In these letters, Jesus is identified as Wisdom (1 Cor 1.24), the image of God (2 Cor 4.4), and the son of God (Gal 4.4). Paul invokes Deut 30.12–14 for Jesus (Rom 10.6–9), similar to 1 Bar 3–4 referencing the same passage to describe how Wisdom became manifest in the material world in the form of the Torah. For Paul, Jesus is ‘the man of heaven’, and after the final judgment ‘we will also bear the image of the man of heaven’, (1 Cor 15.42–49). Paul here alludes to the same Platonic concept of an ideal superior reality which Philo adapted for the Logos. Paul says Jesus, like Wisdom/Logos, was the agent ‘through whom’ God created the universe (1 Cor 8.6). A few scholars think that Paul may even identify Jesus as an (arch)angel (1 Thess 4.16; Gal 4.14), though this interpretation is disputed. Hence, similar to the archangel Israel ‘descending to the earth’ to become the mortal man Jacob, Paul makes a few references to God’s son being ‘sent’ to live ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’, ‘born of a woman’ (Gal 4.4; Rom 8.3; Php 2.6–7).

What Paul never does is unequivocally identify Jesus as God. Many theologically conservative scholars insist he did, but have just a few verses to cite from the entirety of his seven letters before they must reach for questionably-constructed thematic arguments. Whether these arguments are convincing I will leave to readers to decide, but my focus here is on the texts frequently used.

One is in Romans, where Paul seems to call Jesus ‘the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised’.

Romans 9.4–5

Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

Greek syntax is somewhat fluid, and lacked punctuation in Paul’s time, so we should question if the above translation (from the NIV, an extremely popular English version) accurately conveys what Paul intends to say. The first hint that something is askew is Paul’s use of the adjective εὐλογητός (‘praised’). Paul uses this word just three other times in his authentic letters, and it is found only once more in the New Testament, in a pseudo-Pauline letter. In these four other cases, εὐλογητός is used for ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus the Messiah’ (2 Cor 1.3; 11.31; Eph 1.3), and ‘God […] the Creator’ who is distinct from Jesus (Rom 1.25). This should compel us to understand Rom 9.5 in the same way. Below is another valid translation.

Romans 9.4–5

to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah. God, who is over all, be blessed for ever. Amen.

Chapters 9–11 of Romans form the conclusion of Paul’s argument that spanned all of chapter 1–8. With the above translation, 9.4–5 (the start to his concluding argument) forms a mirror of 11.33–36 (the end to his concluding argument). In these bookends, Paul turns to praise God for what he has accomplished or will accomplish through Jesus the Messiah.

The next passage is in 1 Corinthians.

1 Corinthians 8.6

yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus the Messiah, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

The Israelite creed, called the Shema, comes from Deut 6.4: ‘Yhwh our God, Yhwh is one’. The Greek translation of this text replaced the divine name with the title ‘lord’. Hence, many scholars argue, 1 Cor 8.6 demonstrates that Paul has ‘split’ the Shema (using the three key words ‘Lord’, ‘God’, and ‘one’) to include Jesus within the ‘identity’ of God. Others push back on the idea that Paul is modifying the Shema to include Jesus. The immediate problem is that the Shema begins by identifying ‘the Lord’ (Yhwh) as ‘God’, which is contrary to how Paul distinguishes the ‘one God’ and the ‘one Lord’ from one another. It would be completely contradictory to take the Shema’s insistence that Yhwh/God is ‘one’ to argue that he is actually two persons, ‘one God’ and ‘one Lord’. Just prior to this verse, Paul acknowledges the existence of ‘many gods’ and ‘many lords’ (8.4–5).

1 Corinthians 8.4–5

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords

If Paul intended for the word ‘lord’ to refer to ‘Yhwh’ per the Shema, these two verses would effectively be saying there are ‘many gods’ and ‘many yahwehs’. An interpretation of 1 Cor 8.4–6 more considerate of this context instead understands that Paul is contrasting the plurality of heavenly deities in non-Judean religions (‘many gods’) against the singular Judean deity (‘one God’), and the plurality of earthly rulers in non-Judean politics (‘many lords’) against the singular Judean ruler (‘one Lord’). Paul undoubtedly has the Shema in mind, but only in the first half of the verse: Yhwh, the one true God, is the Father. The second half of the verse is not Paul’s inclusion of Jesus within a split Shema; it is Paul’s addition of Jesus alongside a paraphrased Shema. This construction was most likely influenced by a psalm.

Psalm 110.1

Yhwh says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’

Across the New Testament, this is the most commonly-referenced passage from the Hebrew scriptures, used to identify the Messiah as God’s agent and co-regent. An overlooked component of the verse is that the ‘lord’ only sits at Yhwh’s right hand for as long as he has enemies. Presumably, once those enemies are defeated, his reign will come to an end, which is exactly how Paul understood the text. In common with other apocalypticists, Paul directly says that Jesus’ rule would eventually cease, with Jesus himself being made subordinate to God.

1 Corinthians 15.24–28

Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says, ‘All things are put in subjection’, it is plain that this does not include the One who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the son himself will also be subjected to the One who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

The third passage where Paul allegedly identifies Jesus as God is a poetic text in Philippians.

Philippians 2.5–11

Let the same mind be in you that was in the Messiah Jesus, who, though he was in the form of a god, did not regard equality with God as something to be seized, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

On a surface-level reading, this looks like Paul says that Jesus is ‘God’, who ‘emptied himself’ to become human; the phrase ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bend’ is even an echo of Isa 45.23, which speaks of Yhwh. The common interpretation overlooks the nuances of what else Paul says here. To begin with, Paul says Jesus is in the ‘form of a god’. The sense here is likely the same as Philo’s Logos, who is the true ‘image of God’, after whom humans were modeled. We might find a rationale for Paul’s choice of the word ‘form’ (instead of ‘image’) in another passage from Philo. He describes how the emperor Caligula tried to appear in the ‘form of a god’ (θεου μορφη, the same as Paul’s μορφη θεου) by dressing like Hermes and Apollo (On the Embassy to Gaius 110). Caligula’s imitation of the gods made him comparable to counterfeit money; he was superficially similar, but he had none of the qualities of the real thing.

That Paul is not saying Jesus is God should be obvious from the very next line of the poem. Contrary to versions which soften the harshness of the word (and some more idiosyncratic translations that change its meaning altogether), the verb here, αρπαγμος, has a consistently negative meaning in the Greek-language Judean literature of the time period, with the only real exception when it is used for a person being suddenly taken to heaven. Jesus, ‘though he was in the form of a god, did not regard equality with God as something to be seized, but emptied himself’. The passage distantly alludes to prophetic texts condemning the king of Babylon (Isa 14.12–15) or the king of Tyre (Ezek 28.1–2, 9–10). They each enjoyed a high station in life, but attempted to ‘seize’ equality with God, an arrogant desire for which they were condemned. Some scholars also see an allusion to Adam attempting to ‘seize’ equality with God by eating the forbidden fruit (cf. 1 Cor 15.21–22, 45–49; Rom 5.12–21). Unlike a belligerent emperor, Jesus fully manifested the qualities of God and so ‘was in the form of a god’, a proper image and reflection of the divine. Contrary to an arrogant king, Jesus gave up his elevated status to serve others. And opposite the ‘first’ Adam who disobeyed God, Jesus succeeds in obeying God even to his death.

This leads us into the second half of the Philippians poem, where Paul reshapes a verse from Isaiah to describe Jesus.

Isaiah 45.24

Philippians 2.10–11

By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.’

at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord

Paul says in verse 9 that Jesus has ‘the name that is above every name’ (cf. Eph 1.20–21). The consensus is that Paul indeed means that Jesus bears the name ‘Yhwh’, and for this reason Paul says everyone will bow down to Jesus and call him Lord. Yet this is only half of what Paul says in these three verses. The other half is that God exalted Jesus, and gave him the divine name. The universal praise granted to Jesus as ‘Lord’ is not for the benefit of himself, but for the one who exalted Jesus in the first place. Just as Jesus cannot ‘seize’ equality with God if he already had such equality, he likewise cannot be ‘exalted’ to a status he eternally held, nor he can be ‘given’ a name that was already his.

Though not written by Paul, a few passages from the Pauline pseudepigrapha are also worth consideration. Col 1.15–20 calls Jesus ‘the image of the invisible God’ and ‘the firstborn of all creation’, adding that (as in 1 Cor 8.6) ‘all things have been created through him’. Upon his incarnation, ‘in him all the fullness [of God] was pleased to dwell’. Far from saying Jesus is God, the pseudonymous author describes him with language reminiscent of Philo’s Logos, identifying Jesus as the first-created being, whom God used to create the rest of the universe.

The much later pseudepigraphical 1 Timothy makes an almost conscious decision to highlight the distinction between God and Jesus.

1 Timothy 2.5

For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and humankind, the Messiah Jesus, himself human

The Book of Hebrews is internally anonymous, but the author attempts to imitate Paul’s preferred figures of speech. The premise of the book is to illustrate how Jesus is superior to everything regarding the ‘old covenant’ (8.13): he is better than Moses, the temple, and the sacrifices. The opening chapter is where our immediate interest is. The book begins with a paragraph that resembles Wis 7.25–26, and adheres closely to Paul (Heb 1.1–4). The author then cites a handful of passages from the Hebrew Bible to show how Jesus is superior to angels (1.5–13). One text in particular is cited in favor of a trinitarian theology.

Hebrews 1.8–9

But of the son he says, ‘Your throne, O god, is for ever and ever, and the righteous sceptre is the sceptre of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.’

In quoting Psa 45.6–7, the author calls Jesus (the son) ‘god’. A few scholars have suggested alternate translations (e.g. ‘your divine throne’ or ‘your throne is God’), but neither has received much acceptance. The intention is to distance Jesus from being identified as God, but this is not necessary. We have already seen several figures called a ‘god’ subordinate to God by authors who did not think they were compromising their monotheistic/monolatrous convictions. The notion of a ‘God of god’ is even found in the very portion of the psalm quoted by Hebrews (‘Your throne, O god, is for ever and ever … God, your God, has anointed you’).

The three synoptic gospels call Jesus the Messiah, lord, son of God, and son of man, and a few passages show or imply that God granted divine authority to Jesus (e.g. Mark 2.10), but they never suggest belief that Jesus was the ‘incarnation’ of a divine being. Mark seems to imply Jesus first became the divinely-empowered agent of God at his baptism (Mark 1.9–11). Matthew and Luke shift this ordination back in time, showing that Jesus was ‘purpose-made’ to be the son of God via his miraculous conception to Mary. Matthew in particular shows strong familiarity with 1 Enoch. With language characteristic of Enoch’s Book of Parables, two passages in Matthew mention the son of man sitting on the throne of glory to pass judgment (Matt 19.28; 25.31–45). The second passage as a whole would be entirely at home in the Book of Parables. At the end of the book Jesus bluntly states he was given universal authority after his resurrection (Matt 28.18). The next verse is an oft-cited prooftext for trinitarian theology: baptism should be performed ‘in the name of the Father and of the son and of the holy spirit’. Yet the text does not define the relationship of these three entities. Use of the singular ‘name’ is mistakenly interpreted to mean the three share a single identity (i.e. the eternal God), but the same phrasing is used in incantations when multiple, distinct angels are invoked.

Jesus’ place in the other letters of the New Testament varies widely. He barely features in the letter of James (mentioned only in 1.1 and 2.1). This is in sharp contrast to Judah, 1 Peter, and 2 Peter, where Jesus is central to the authors’ messages, and his pre-existence may be inferred (e.g. Judah 4–5). It would be unsurprising if this was the case, given the explicit use of 1 Enoch by these authors.

The canonical form of the Revelation of John depicts Jesus as the ‘Lamb’ who is seated on God’s throne (7.17; 22.1, 3), and attaches a divine epithet borrowed from Isa 40–55 (1.8, 17; 2.8; 21.6; 22.13). In the first chapter, Jesus is portrayed as a figure who blends details of both the Ancient of Days and the one like a son of man from Dan 7. Still, Jesus is identified as the first-created being (3.14), and his enthronement with God is stated to have been a reward, one extended to all of God’s obedient followers (3.21). The one time the Revelation calls Jesus the ‘son of God’ (2.18) is in the sense of the privileged status enjoyed by royalty (à la 2 Sam 7.14), thereby pitching him against ‘Jezebel’ (2.20), named for the illegitimate harlot-queen from the Book of Kings. The depiction of Jesus as a warrior-king (19.11–16) who rules for a full millennium (20.1–6) derived from the same theological tradition behind 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch; most likely his reign concludes after the thousand years.

The Gospel of John opens with a poem about the Logos (usually translated ‘Word’). The one or two times when John calls the Logos by the term ‘god’ (1.1; possibly 1.18; cf. 20.28) are often seen as irrefutable proof in favor of trinitarianism. By now, we are familiar that ‘god’ can be applied in a secondary sense to a figure upon whom God invests his authority. The most obvious parallel to the Logos in John 1 is, of course, the Logos in Philo’s writings: the Logos was ‘with God’; God created all things through the Logos; the Logos is the source of life, light, and truth; the Logos is the ‘son’ of God (depending on which text tradition of 1.18 is the original). We could even apply Philo’s argument distinguishing articular ‘God’ from anarthrous ‘god’ to John 1.1: ‘the Logos was with the God, and god was the Logos’. (The third-century Christian theologian Origen makes this exact argument in Commentary on John 2.2. Similarly, the second-century theologian Tertullian used Philo’s same sun/sunbeam analogy to describe the relationship of Jesus to God in Against Praxeas 13.) With the exception of the Logos’ manifestation as a human (1.14), the theology of John 1’s Logos poem is indistinguishable from what we found in Philo’s writings. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 further mirrors Philo’s theology. Jesus (as the Logos) shared in God’s glory before the world was created (17.5), but this glory was given to Jesus (17.22).

The few occasions where Jesus is seemingly identified as ‘God’ have other, probably more valid explanations. When Jesus is accused of making himself ‘equal to God’ (5.18; 10.33), he rejects the accusations, insisting that he has only claimed to be God’s son, the one whom God sent, who only does what God has invested him with authority to do (5.19–24; 10.34–39). There is just one occasion when Jesus may indeed identify himself as Yhwh. He refers to himself with the phrase εγω ειμι, ‘I am’ (8.58), which is understood to be an allusion to Yhwh's self-declaration the Book of Exodus.

Exodus 3.14

God said to Moses, ‘I Am Who I Am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I Am has sent me to you.”’

Yhwh abbreviates his self-descriptive name as ‘I Am’. This is what readers find in Jesus’ statement in John 8.58. While the Hebrew phrase is usually translated ‘I Am Who I Am’, more critical treatments of Exodus tend to render the phrase along the lines of ‘I Will Be What I Will Be’, making the abbreviated name just ‘I Will Be’. Because the relationship between John 8.58 and Exo 3.14 is imprecise when reading from the Hebrew version of the latter book, readers sometimes turn to the Septuagint to preserve the connection. This is because LXX Exo 3.14 does use the phrase εγω ειμι, ‘I am’. However, the Septuagint version brings another problem with it. The full phrase ‘I Will Be What I Will Be’ is translated εγω ειμι ο ων, ‘I Am The Being’. Hence, the abbreviated name is given as ο ων, ‘The Being’, not εγω ειμι, ‘I Am’. Jesus’ statement does not appear to have any connection to either the Hebrew or Greek version of Exodus. The possibility John 8.58 was influenced by Exo 3.14 is much weaker than is commonly thought. This has led some readers to identify a series of ‘I am’ declarations from Yhwh in Isa 43 as the source of influence on Jesus’ choices of words. This maintains the idea that Jesus saying ‘I am’ is a statement of his identity as Yhwh.

We remember examples above of angels and humans being invested with Yhwh’s authority/name: the Messenger of Yhwh (‘my name is in him’), Yahoel (‘the mediation of my ineffable name’), and Enoch (‘the lesser Yhwh’). If John 8.58 does have Jesus claiming to be Yhwh, we should be inclined to interpret it only in this same indirect sense in context of these other examples. An additional problem with both Exo 3 and Isa 43 is the context for why Jesus says what he does. We are reading the conclusion to a dialogue with his opponents. They essentially ask him, ‘How old are you?’ to which he replies ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ If ‘I am’ is a statement of his identity, rather than his age, it does not resolve the conversation, especially because of the odd switch from past tense (was) to present (am). I think a more likely explanation for Jesus’ statement can be found by comparing it with a somewhat more obscure text.

LXX Psalm 89.2

Before mountains were brought forth and the earth and the world were formed, and from everlasting to everlasting, you are.

We have the same odd switch from past (Before this existed) to present (you are). This psalm explores the agelessness of Yhwh relative to the mortal world: ‘a thousand years in your sight are like the day of yesterday that passed and a watch in a night’ (89.4). Jesus’ answer is a declaration of his ageless existence. This reinforces Jesus’ identity not as God himself, but as the divine Logos, which existed with God ‘in the beginning’ (1.1), ‘before the world existed’ (17.5). Within the Gospel of John, Jesus is consistently misinterpreted by his enemies as equating himself with God. This makes it all the more important for readers to recognize the meaning of what Jesus says in his lengthy prayer before his crucifixion.

John 17.1–3

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your son so that the son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus the Messiah whom you have sent.’

Jesus addresses the Father as God, but he unambiguously sets himself alongside God rather than within God. Jesus’ desire is for people to know the ‘Father … the only true God’ and ‘Jesus the Messiah’, as opposed to ‘Father and Messiah who are together the only true God’. He maintains his distinction from God.


It is a genuinely difficult task for readers steeped in a world that is most familiar with post-Nicene, post-Chalcedonian Christian theology to read the New Testament apart from the context of these much later creeds. If one is able to overcome this anachronistic obstacle, it can be seen that the evidence we have available to us reveals Second Temple Judaism was not so monolithic and strict as to prevent adherents from ‘blurring’ the boundary between God and creation. Many of ancient Judaism’s theologians were comfortable with positing a being—whether an angel, or a man, or a god—who was preeminent above all creation but still a step under the sovereign God.

In my opinion of the evidence, wherever the New Testament texts convey the thought that Jesus existed prior to his mortal life, that he was a participant in the creation of the universe, or that he will deliberate the final judgment from the heavenly throne, this is the conceptual well they were drawing from. As a figure of Second Temple Judaism, Jesus is not unique for having tropes of divine agency assigned to him. Every one of them can be found in other Second Temple literature (the majority of them predating Jesus altogether), along with a few texts from somewhat later time periods. Arguably, what makes him unique is twofold: that he was a historical person from within living memory of the people who idealized him, and the sheer number of the divine agency tropes which were assigned to him. Yet even these two points should be tempered. The ‘one like a son of man’ symbolism in Dan 7 (and the ‘suffering servant’, if that did influence the author) is applied collectively to people still living at the time the Book of Daniel was written. Likewise, Enoch in the Book of Parables shares more than half of the divine agent tropes that are applied to Jesus in the New Testament.

The earliest followers of Jesus shaped their devotion to God around the accomplishments God achieved through Jesus. Hence, they directed their worship to God through Jesus, and sometimes even incorporated Jesus into their worship. Nevertheless, the first generations of Jesus-followers did not believe Jesus was ‘the only true God’. Within the lowest Christology of the New Testament, Jesus was the human Messiah chosen by God in his adulthood. On the other end of the spectrum, in the highest Christology, Jesus was the first-created being who condescended to become a human for a time, and was subsequently exalted to an even higher position than where he began. The name above all names, the divine throne, the authority for judgment—these were not things Jesus had to begin with. Wherever in the spectrum we look, the consistent belief was that God bestowed upon Jesus the very same universal power and dominion which God already had and Jesus did not.


Adela Yarbro Collins & John Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature

Bernd Janowski & Peter Stuhlmacher (editors), The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (tr. Daniel Bailey)

Camilla Hélena von Heijne, The Messenger of the Lord in Early Jewish Interpretations of Genesis

George Nickelsburg & James VanderKam, 1 Enoch 1

George Nickelsburg & James VanderKam, 1 Enoch 2

Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English

James Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Volume 1: Apocalyptic Literature & Testaments

James Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Volume 2: Expansions of the “Old Testament” and Legends, Wisdom and Philosophical Literature, Prayers, Psalms, and Odes, Fragments of Lost Judeo-Hellenistic Works

James Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?: The New Testament Evidence

James McGrath, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context

Larry Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism

Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle

René López, ‘Identifying the “Angel of the Lord” in the Book of Judges’, BBR 20.1, 1–18

Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity


  1. Anonymous14.5.23

    Great article Mark!

    I was wondering what your thoughts are on James P. Ware’s book entitled Paul’s Theology in Context. In it, James seems to argue that the scholarly consensus on Paul (today) is that he viewed Jesus as God, but he also said that there are a small minority of scholars (like Dunn, which you mentioned) who obviously don’t.

    1. Sorry, I haven't read Ware's book, so I can't comment on it.

      From what I have found, there is no clear consensus among scholars on Paul's view. There instead seems to be a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum we have the (theologically) conservative scholars who think Paul believed Jesus was 'God the Son, second person of the trinity', while on the other end we have the (extremely) critical scholars who think Paul believed Jesus was a plain human 'adopted' to become the divine son of God.

      In my experience of the literature, we may find two clusters of scholars: (1) one cluster somewhere close to the first end of the spectrum, which sees Paul as having believed Jesus is indeed Yhwh, the one true God, who took human form, while distinct somehow from 'the Father', but that Paul didn't really define this identity or distinction any more specifically than that, and (2) another cluster (perhaps larger than the first) found closer to the other end of the spectrum, which sees Paul as having believed Jesus was a preexistent divinity (i.e. a second 'god') who had a unique relationship to Yhwh God, but not that Jesus was Yhwh God himself.

      I think Larry Hurtado summarized it well when he said on his blog: As should be clear to any serious reader, in the NT Jesus is not worshipped “as God” (whatever that may mean) but, instead, with reference to God, as the Son of God, as the Lord appointed by God, as the “image” of God, etc. To be sure, Jesus is referenced as sharing the divine name and glory, and OT texts originally referring to “God” (YHWH) are interpreted with reference to Jesus, and, most importantly, in earliest Christian circles Jesus is accorded the sorts of reverence that are otherwise reserved for deities in the Roman era. So, there can be no question whether the exalted Jesus is treated in the NT as “divine.” But, at the same time, the NT (and early Christian writers generally) also distinguish God and Jesus, while also relating them uniquely to each other.