Ye Are Gods:
Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witnesses to the Divine Nature of Humankind
“Ye Are Gods”: Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witnesses to the Divine
Nature of Humankind
Daniel C. Peterson
Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious
in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders? (Exodus 15:11)1
And the Word Himself now speaks to you plainly, putting to shame your unbelief,
yes, I say, the Word of God speaks, having become man, in order that such
as you may learn from man how it is even possible for man to become a god.
(Clement of Alexandria, d. ca. A.D. 215)2
Latter-day Saints are fond of using John 10:34, itself a quotation from Psalm
82:6, to support their doctrine of eternal progression. The passage seems at
first glance to be evidence for the concept that men and God are, in some sense
at least, of the same species. Yet critics of the restored gospel often contend
that such arguments misrepresent the original context—and thus the real
meaning—of the two texts. Is their criticism true, or can the typical
Latter-day Saint use of these two passages be defended? We shall examine both
of them, starting first with John 10:22–39, in an attempt to determine
their original meaning. Then we shall consider whether the Latter-day Saint
understanding of the passages fits their apparent original sense and whether
it does so as well as, or even better than, rival understandings.
According to the Fourth Gospel, Jesus was at Jerusalem during the Feast of
Dedication, which took place in the winter. He was walking in the temple, in
the area known as Solomon’s porch. At this point “the Jews” demanded
to know “plainly” whether or not Jesus was in fact the Christ, or
the Messiah. Responding in a roundabout way, Jesus answered that his good works
would tell who he was, at least for those who were receptive to the truth. But
he followed that comment with a strong statement that clearly incensed his audience:
“I and my Father are one,” he declared.3 At this point, the Jews took
up rocks to stone him (see John 10:22–31).
Jesus then asked, in effect, “For which of my good works do you want to
stone me?” (John 10:32). His question was obviously ironic, and it is clear
that he actually knew the real reason for their anger. The Jews responded that
they weren’t stoning him for good works, but “because that thou, being
a man, makest thyself God” (John 10:33).
What kind of a claim was Jesus asserting? First, we must keep in mind that
the Greek here lacks the definite article. The Jews are, therefore, accusing
Jesus of making himself “a god,” but not necessarily of making himself
“the God.” He is not claiming to be the Father.4
This is consistent with the Latter-day Saint view of the Godhead, as well as
with the ancient view of the relationship between Yahweh and his Father that
will be sketched in this paper. The same view, or something very much like it,
also seems to appear in early Christian thought: “Justin,” Oxford’s
Henry Chadwick notes of an important second-century Christian thinker, saint,
and martyr, “had boldly spoken of the divine Logos as ‘another God’ beside
the Father, qualified by the gloss ‘other, I mean, in number, not in will.'”5
To understand what Jesus was claiming, we need to look closely at
John 10:27–29. In those verses, Jesus had spoken of his “sheep”
who “hear [his] voice.” Their destiny, the destiny of those who keep
the commandments of God and who, consequently, merit his rewards, is glorious,
and it is assured by the incomparable and irresistible power of God the Father,
for “no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.” “My
Father, which gave them to me,” Jesus declared, “is greater than all.”
But even in the midst of stressing the unique power and status of the Father,
Jesus included himself with the Father. He did so, first, by using almost exactly
the same language to describe his own power as he had used to depict that of
the Father: “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish,
neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:28). And then,
as if his meaning had not been clear enough, he announced that he and his Father
were “one” (Greek hen).6
Literally hen means “one.” But the context suggests that
this adjective be translated as “equal to” or “on a par with.”
Jesus claims far more than mere moral unity with God, which was the aim of
every Israelite; such moral unity would never mean that mortals had become
“god,” as Jesus’ remark is understood in 10:31–33. The very
argument in John, then, understands hen to mean more than moral unity,
that is, “equality with God.”7
Though confronted by a hostile and potentially violent audience, Jesus did
not back away from his claim to divine status. He did, however, implicitly respond
to their accusation that he was making himself God. (This was a common
allegation throughout his ministry.)8
But he replied that the designation was not his own. It was God-given and scriptural.
Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?
If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture
cannot be broken; Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent
into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God? (John
“Jesus’ reference to ‘Son of God’ in 10:36 does not weaken the argument
by reducing the claim from ‘god’ to ‘son of God,'” says Jerome Neyrey,
“because if one continues reading Ps 82:6, the two terms are considered
equivalent and parallel there (‘I said, “You are gods, all of
you, sons of the Most High“‘).”9
The argument seems to be that the unbelieving Jews were silly to assault Jesus
for so petty an offense as claiming to be the Son of God when, as an important
Catholic commentary observes, “the scripture itself, God’s own word, sometimes
speaks of mere men as ‘gods’ or ‘sons of God.'”10
“If there is any sense in which men can be spoken of as ‘gods,'” remarks
the accompanying note in the evangelical Protestant New International Version
of the Bible (or NIV), “how much more may the term be used of him whom
the Father set apart and sent!”11
“If scripture was not in error calling mortals ‘gods’ (Ps 82:6), then neither,”
writes Father Neyrey, paraphrasing the passage, “is there error in calling
the one whom God consecrated and sent into the world ‘the Son of God’ (10:35–
Having cited the Old Testament as a justification for his claim to divinity,
Jesus returned to the testimony of the good works that he had performed and
ended with the declaration that “the Father is in me, and I in him”
(John 10:38). Thereupon, provoked and angered once again by what they regarded
as arrant blasphemy, his audience again assaulted him, but he escaped unharmed.
Let us now examine the passage from the Hebrew Bible that underlies John 10:34.
Jesus identified the passage Ye are gods as coming from the “law”
(Greek nomos) of the Jews. Strictly speaking, of course, this is not
entirely accurate, if the term law is taken to refer, as it often does,
solely to the Pentateuch. For the passage is actually to be found in Psalm 82:6,
which would place it not in the Law or the Prophets, but in the Writings (Hebrew
ketûbim). It is to this psalm that we now turn.
1. God [ʾĕlōhîm] standeth in the congregation
of the mighty [ʿădat ʾēl]; he judgeth
among the gods [bəqereb ʾĕlōhîm].
2. How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the
3. Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and
4. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.
5. They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness:
all the foundations of the earth are out of course.
6. I have said, Ye are gods [ʾĕlōhîm];
and all of you are children of the most High [bənê ʿelyôn].
7. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.
8. Arise, O God [ʾĕlōhîm], judge
the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations.
To whom is Psalm 82 addressed? This is not the easiest of questions. The poem
is apparently very old, and its conceptual world is quite foreign to us.13
As one commentator notes, “Though this piece is one of the most perfectly
preserved psalms in the Psalter, the contents have given rise to numerous interpretations.”14
“Although its text is in almost perfect condition,” says another,
“and better far than the text of the vast majority of the Psalms, scarcely
any psalm seems to have troubled interpreters more or to have experienced a
wider range of interpretation and a more disturbing uncertainty and lack of
finality therein than Psalm 82.”15
In any event, it is clear that the interpretation of verses 6–7, the passages
most directly relevant to John 10, must depend on the interpretation of the
first verse.16 On the setting of that
initial passage, widespread agreement occurs among careful readers of the psalm.
“The scene,” says the Catholic Jerome Biblical Commentary,
“is the heavenly court.”17
The Hebrew phrase translated in the King James as “the congregation of
the mighty,” ʿădat ʾēl, would be more
accurately rendered as “the council of El” or “the council of
God.”18 And the final verse is,
clearly, the Psalmist’s exclamation after witnessing the proceedings of that
But here the consensus ends. Commentators have offered four distinct and apparently
conflicting identifications of the members of the divine court who are condemned
to death in verse 7: (1) They are Israelite rulers or judges, ordinary men.
(2) They are the rulers or judges of the other nations—again, apparently
ordinary human beings. (3) They are the people of Israel, gathered at Sinai
for the revelation of God. (4) They are the members of the divine council,
the gods (in Canaanite religion and, probably, in early Israelite religion)
or the angels (in later forms of Hebrew belief).19 Mitchell Dahood’s interpretation
stresses that these are pagan gods.20
The first three interpretive options would appear to be consistent with Jesus’
use of the passage in John 10, since his retort to the Jews can only have any
force if the phrase Ye are gods refers to ordinary human beings. The
fourth option seems, in contrast, to nullify Jesus’ argument as it is recorded
in John’s Gospel. It would scarcely have been convincing to the skeptical Jews
in his audience if Jesus, a seemingly ordinary and evidently mortal man, had
sought to justify his own claim to divinity by alluding to the divinity of some
other order of being manifestly (in their eyes) quite unlike himself.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the conservative Protestant New International
Version opts decisively for the application of the passage to ordinary human
beings, explaining that “The words Jesus quotes from Ps. 82:6 refer
to the judges (or other leaders or rulers), whose tasks were divinely appointed.”21
“In the language of the OT,” claims the NIV “—and in accordance
with the conceptual world of the ancient Near East—rulers and judges,
as deputies of the heavenly King, could be given the honorific title ‘god’ . . .
or be called ‘son of God.'”22 A common Jewish interpretation, which has
been identified by some commentators as that followed in John 10:34, says that
God’s standing in the “divine council” is equivalent to his standing
“in the midst of the judges.”23 And, indeed, there would seem to be
at least an element of truth in all this. Knowledge of good and evil and the
ability to distinguish or discern between them seem to be an essential part
of what it means to be divine. We recall in this context Lucifer’s promise to
Adam and Eve that if they partook of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge
of good and evil, their eyes should be “opened” and they would then
“be as the gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Though this
is often dismissed as a Satanic lie, it is manifestly not, since God himself
confirms a few verses later that, having eaten of the fruit of the
tree, “the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Genesis
3:22, emphasis added). “Accordingly,” write Cyrus Gordon and Gary
if we examine the story in Genesis objectively, we see that, while many elements
go into making up the whole picture, it is not so much an account of the “Fall
of Man” but rather of the rise of man halfway to divinity. He obtained
one of the two prerogatives or characteristics of the gods: intelligence;
but he was checked by God from obtaining immortality, which would have made
him quite divine.24
The element of disobedience is present in the story but only circumstantially.
To stress the “evil” and overlook the “good” in the text
would have no justification.25
With such considerations in mind, and in view of the obvious fact that the
use of the passage in John 10 requires that it apply to ordinary human beings,
“This interpretation of the psalm enjoyed considerable popularity during
a certain period of Johannine scholarship.”26
It was, for example, the position adopted by James E. Talmage in his 1915 treatise
Jesus the Christ, presumably drawn from the readings in conservative
nineteenth-century Protestant biblical scholarship that informed his book generally.27
Yet this interpretation does not seem fully to work. It runs into difficulty,
for example, when we read the New International Version’s own explanation that
“the congregation of the mighty” is “the assembly in the great
Hall of Justice in heaven.”28 Who
are these judges or rulers who are in heaven? The New International Version’s
editors try to overcome this rather apparent obstacle to their interpretation
by explaining that, “As if in a vision, the psalmist sees the rulers and
judges gathered before the Great King to give account of their administration
of justice.”29 But, as a standard
Catholic commentary observes, “obviously, the ‘gods’ cannot be human judges
for their punishment is to die ‘like men.'”30
If they were already mortals, this would hardly be a serious penalty. Rev. Derek
Kidner, a presumably conservative Protestant at Tyndale House in Cambridge,
England, is surely correct in his judgment that “Verse 7, with its simile,
like men, seems fatal to the view that these are human judges.”31
Moreover, those who insist that the ʾĕlōhîm of
Psalm 82 are simply mortal humans typically point to Exodus 21:6 and 22:8–9,
where the term has frequently (e.g., in the King James Bible) been translated
as “judges.” But there seems no particular reason, other than theological
squeamishness, to prefer such a translation. What these verses seem to describe
is a divinatory practice where a case is brought before “God” or “the
gods” for decision.32 Rendering
ʾĕlōhîm literally in these passages makes perfectly
good sense. In fact, the ancient Latin Vulgate does exactly that (deos),
as does the ancient Greek Septuagint (theos). These are, by a great
distance, the most important and influential translations of the Old Testament
in antiquity. Martin Luther’s 1545 translation, so central to the Protestant
Reformation, has Götter (“gods”), and the standard modern
Jewish version has “God.”33
This should be a sufficient sample to show that Exodus 21:6 and 22:8–9
provide very weak support (if, indeed, they provide any support at all) for
the notion that ʾĕlōhîm can ever denote merely human
judges.34 That interpretation seems
to be a rather late, rabbinic one, and, as Julian Morgenstern notes, “has
been approved, so far as I can see, by only one modern scholar, Kittel, and
has been definitively rejected by all others on ample grounds.”35
“Nor can it be denied that the fundamental meaning of ‘elohim
is ‘gods,’ and that only by a long stretch of the imagination and rather devious
and uncertain hermeneutics can the meanings, ‘rulers, kings’ or ‘judges,’ be
ascribed to it.”36 Lowell Handy
accurately summarizes the dominant view among contemporary scholars when he
declares of Psalm 82 that it “refers to ‘gods’ . . . and not ‘angels,’
‘rulers,’ ‘judges,’ or ‘tenured professors.’ ” 37
But there is another and, for Christians, more fundamental problem. It does
not seem that Jesus’ citation of a metaphorical use of the term god,
as applied to human beings, would go very far toward justifying his ascription
to himself of literal divinity. So understood, Jesus would seem merely to be
playing a word game, practicing a semantic sleight of hand, and, in fact, to
be committing the logical fallacy of equivocation, wherein a word surreptitiously
changes its meaning from one part of an argument to another. (The point of Jesus’
argument is not that the Jews are unrighteous judges, but that it is not blasphemy
for him to call himself divine.) It would be as if someone were declaring himself,
madly enough, to be a vast ball of fusion-inflamed gases. We would scarcely
be convinced if he were to offer, as evidence for the plausibility of his assertion,
the fact that Rudolph Valentino, Lucille Ball, and John Wayne are generally
called stars, and to demand that we, in fairness, grant the same title to him.
The third-century Christian writer Novatian seemed to understand the argument
If any angel at all subjected to Christ can be called God, and this, if it
be said, is also professed without blasphemy, certainly much more can this
be fitting for Christ, Himself the Son of God, for Him to be pronounced God.
For if an angel who is subjected to Christ is exalted as God, much more, and
more consistently, shall Christ, to whom all angels are subjected, be said
to be God. For it is not suitable to nature, that what is conceded to the
lesser should be denied to the greater. Thus, if an angel be inferior to Christ,
and yet an angel is called god, rather by consequence is Christ said to be
God, who is discovered to be both greater and better, not than one, but than
Yet certain New Testament scholars have seemed willing to accept the notion
that the argument advanced by Jesus rests on precisely that flagrant an equivocation.
“One stream of critical opinion,” writes Neyrey,
takes the citation extrinsically, on a literal level as a mere play on words.
If mortals, for whatever reason, can truly be called “gods” according
to scripture, then the term is not a priori preposterously applied
to Jesus. This type of explanation does not ask under what circumstances mortals
might be called “gods,” and it sees Jesus basically engaging in
an evasive maneuver.39
Another interpretation of Psalm 82 that would be consistent with its use in
the Fourth Gospel rests on the statement in John 10:35 that they are called
“‘gods,’ unto whom the word of God came.” “The Jews understood
the term ‘gods’ to be justified as applied to those who were the recipients
of God’s word; for this reason, this verse was often understood as having reference
to all Israelites.”40 Father Neyrey argues that this New Testament formulation
refers to the people of Israel as they were encamped at Sinai for the delivery
of the word of God to Moses. Considerable evidence, in fact, reveals that such
an identification flourished in Jewish circles in the early centuries of the
common era.41 Psalm 82, writes Neyrey, “was historicized in Jewish traditions
to refer to Israel at Sinai when God gave it the Torah, making it holy and so
deathless.”42 This deathlessness, he says, summarizing the data, was thought
to have made Israel divine. But that divinity was then lost through sin, and
Israel became mortal, merely human, once more.43
This interpretation has the advantage over the first two options in that it
allows for the punishment of “immortal” beings by a sentence of death.
In fact, claims Father Neyrey, it is the only interpretation of Psalm 82 that
“has any bearing on the argument in John 10.”44 Nevertheless, at least
two problems remain with the theory. First, the midrashic sources on which Father
Neyrey draws for his portrayal of Jewish belief are all later than the Gospel
of John, as Neyrey himself recognizes. Indeed, Jesus’ use of Psalm 82 in this
fashion would, if Neyrey’s argument is valid, be the first instance of such
use, with no clear parallel for at least a century or so.45 Second, it is far
from clear that Psalm 82 was originally intended to refer to the experience
of Israel at Sinai. Father Neyrey implicitly acknowledges this when, as we have
seen above, he passingly remarks that Psalm 82 “was historicized in Jewish
traditions to refer to Israel at Sinai when God gave it the Torah.”
In other words, it was reapplied.
It must be said in his defense, of course, that Father Neyrey nowhere claims
to be explicating the original meaning of Psalm 82. He intends simply to elucidate
its meaning in John 10. For this reason, though, his interpretation appears
unlikely to have much impact on the scholarly interpretation of Psalm 82 itself.
What do contemporary scholars think was the intent of the author of Psalm 82?
Who are the “gods” to whom it refers? This, as Morgenstern pointed
out years ago in his influential treatment of the text, is the crux of the problem.
Are they divine or human beings?46 (We seek, for now, to know the original meaning of
the passage, quite apart from its use in the New Testament.)
If John 10:34 must refer to ordinary human beings in order to have the force
Jesus intended it to have, Psalm 82 seems virtually incapable of being so interpreted.
Hans-Joachim Kraus remarks that the notion that Psalm 82’s “gods”
are human judges has been rendered indiskutabel (essentially, “not
worth discussing”) by modern discoveries.47
The consensus of contemporary biblical scholarship, I would judge, is that the
action depicted in this psalm occurs in the divine council, or the “council
of El,” just as the Hebrew text says.48
The Septuagint, which normally endeavors to avoid all anthropomorphisms and
routinely suppresses hints of polytheism, says this is all taking place “in
the meetingplace of the gods.”49
“It is clear in Psalm 82:6,” writes E. Theodore Mullen in his classic
treatment, “that the beings condemned to die (v. 7) are gods [ʾĕlōhîm;
bənê ʿelyôn], the members of Yahweh’s [Jehovah’s]
council, and not human rulers or judges.”50
It is striking that the same term, ʾĕlōhîm, is used
both for God and for the plural members of the audience to whom he addresses
his remarks; the shared title seems to imply, strongly, that they share some
kind of common identity. “In a courtroom scene,” one Catholic commentary
explains, “God accuses the elohim beings of injustice and lays
down the law to them.”51 Another
Catholic commentary, obviously troubled by the manifestly polytheistic implications
of the psalm, declares it to be “a poet’s fanciful picture of Yahweh, the
Supreme God, condemning the gods of the nations as non-entities.”52
But nothing here implies that these “gods,” whoever they are, are
unreal. They seem very, very real indeed.
Morgenstern argued, on the other hand, that verses 2–4 of Psalm 82 must
refer to humans, while Psalm 82:6–7 must refer to divine beings. Accordingly,
he concluded that the two portions of the psalm have nothing whatever to do
with each other and that one of the two must be an interpolation. (He identified
verses 2–4 as the interloper, retaining verses 6–7 as belonging
to the original text.)53 If Morgenstern is correct, the only way to save Psalm
82 from a charge of textual corruption (and he himself, as we have seen, commented
on the “almost perfect condition” of the text) is to find some way
in which the references to human beings in verses 2–4 and to divine beings
in verses 6–7 are not mutually exclusive or contradictory.
The Divine Council
We shall return to that issue. In the meantime, it will be helpful to survey
the concept of the divine council.54 To do so, I will be drawing on discussions
of the cuneiform texts recovered from Ras-Shamra, which is the modern Arabic
name of the site of the ancient city of Ugarit. It lies on the Mediterranean
coast of Syria at roughly the latitude of the northern tip of Cyprus. Ugarit
was a thriving seaport city at its height and the administrative center of a
small kingdom that traded in olive oil, wines, and grain. The site of Ras-Shamra
first attracted the attention of archaeologists in 1928, when a local peasant
stumbled upon a nearby tomb dating from the thirteenth century B.C. Since that
time, with exceptions during the Second World War and occasionally during the
troubles of the 1970s, excavation has proceeded with little or no interruption
at Ras-Shamra’s large tell, or mound.
“Cuneiform texts” take their descriptive name from the Latin word
for “wedge,” cuneus, because they were produced when writers
impressed wedge-shaped marks on clay by means of a reed stylus. When these clay
texts were baked or otherwise allowed to harden, they became very durable, and
they have tended to survive long beyond the time when papyrus and other writing
materials have decayed. Many of the documents found at Ras-Shamra were written
in the Akkadian language. But another class of texts proved to contain a previously
unknown Semitic tongue closely related to biblical Hebrew. This language is
now called Ugaritic.
The Ugaritic texts have come primarily from Ugarit’s royal palace. But probably
the most interesting documents, for our purposes, have emerged from a “priestly
library” located in the vicinity of the Dagon and Baʿl temples. The
most important of these texts come from the fourteenth century B.C. and include
literary myths and legends related to the religion of ancient Ugarit. These
documents are written in a style and a vocabulary highly reminiscent of the
Hebrew Bible, and have, accordingly, shed considerable light on what we now
term the Old Testament.55 “No student of the Bible today can progress far
without a working knowledge of the Ugaritic language and literature. . . . The
Ugaritic tablets confront us with so many striking literary parallels
to the Hebrew Bible that it is universally recognized that the two literatures
are variants of one Canaanite tradition.”56 “The relevance of Ugaritic
studies for reconstructing ancient Israelite religion is great indeed.”57
“It is absurd,” wrote the great W. F. Albright, “to try
to isolate any aspect of Hebrew literature from Canaanite-Phoenician influence.”58
From 1700 to 1200 B.C., the entire area from Ugarit in the north to the south
of Palestine was a cultural unit, and Ugarit was Canaanite culturally, if not
The Ugaritic materials recount the deeds of various gods and goddesses who
were important and very visible in the environment of ancient Israel—deities
such as ʾĒl, Baʿl, Asherah, and Anat—and even elucidate
obscure references in the Bible such as that to the legendary patriarch “Danel,”
who shows up in the book of Ezekiel as “Daniel.”60
In recent years, the texts recovered from Ras-Shamra have also awakened interest
in the idea of “the council of the gods” (Hebrew ʿădat
ʾēl; Ugaritic ʿadatu ʾili-ma), which scholars
now recognize as “a primary motif in both the Ugaritic and early Hebrew
traditions, as well as throughout the ancient Near East.”61
The latter phenomenon, that of the council of the gods, goes under various
names, and occasionally undergoes various metamorphoses, but one can easily
discern it across the spectrum of adjacent cultures beneath its shifting titles.
It is particularly evident in the civilizations nearest to the authors
of the biblical record. “The concept of the divine council, or the assembly
of the gods,” writes Mullen, the leading authority on the subject, “was
a common religious motif in the cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan, Phoenicia,
and Israel.”62 Furthermore, this concept showed an amazing uniformity across
considerable distances of time and space. It is a clear feature, for example,
of the relatively late Dead Sea Scrolls:
He judges in the council of gods and men.
In the heights of the heavens (is) his reproach
and in all the foundations of the earth
the judgments of his hand. (4Q511, frg. 10, 11–12)63
As Mullen observes, “The parallels between the council motifs in Mesopotamia,
Canaan, and Israel clearly show that the concept of the divine council must
be taken as one which was common to the ancient Near East.”64 In particular,
“the concepts of the council in Canaan and Israel are strikingly similar.”65
Indeed, “the pre-exilic literature of Israel depicts the council of Yahweh
in the same manner as does the description of the assembly of ʾĒl in
Ugaritic mythology.”66 “Our major evidence for the council motif in
the Old Testament is found primarily in Israel’s preexilic literature, especially
in the Psalms and other poetic writings where Canaanite influence is most easily
seen. But the concept of the council runs throughout the Old Testament as a
continuing theme of Yahweh’s power and authority.”67 In the postexilic
period, the influence of Hellenistic, Persian, and Babylonian religion upon
Judaism led to the development of a very elaborate angelology, which is surely
related to the concept of the divine council but is probably not to be identified
precisely with it.68
El in the Ugaritic Texts
The council is known by various names in the Ugaritic materials, including
“the assembly of the gods” and “the assembly of the sons of ʾĒl.”69
According to Canaanite belief, ʾĒl—or, as we shall most often
refer to him in this paper, El—was the creator-god.70
(Evidence strongly suggests that he was the original chief god of the Semites
generally.)71 As creator, however, he
also stood at the head of the pantheon as the “father of the gods”
or the “father of the sons of God” (ʾabū banī ʾili)
and was called the “ancient one,” the “patriarch,” and the
“eternal one.” Consequently, the gods, as his sons, were designated
collectively as “the sons of ʾĒl.”72
El was also called “the Father of Man” (ʾabū ʾadami).73
A Phoenician incantation from the seventh century B.C., found at Arslan Tash
in Upper Syria, depicts the father-god sitting, as it were, with his divine
consort and their children:
The Eternal One has made a covenant oath with us,
Asherah has made (a pact) with us.
And all the sons of El,
And the great council of all the Holy Ones.74
The storm-god Baʿl was among the children of El. In Ugaritic literature
he is the protagonist of an extremely important cycle of stories according to
which he is linked to a sacred place known as Mount Zaphon. (This mountain
has been identified as the Jebel al-Aqraʿ, located near the mouth of the
Orontes River in northern Syria.) The story cycle tells of his battle against
Lotan, or the Leviathan, and of his struggles against such adversaries as Yamm
(“Sea”) and Mot (“Death”). Biblical depictions of Yahweh’s
encounters with watery enemies (as at Isaiah 51:9–10 and Psalm 74:13)
may reflect Ugaritic influence. Along the way, Baʿl perishes and returns
to life—a motif that evidently proved very appealing to Canaanite believers.
One of the most difficult and perplexing issues in the study of the religion
and mythology of the Canaanites is the relationship between the high god El
and Baʿl, who was the clearly subordinate god of weather and storms. (“Baʿl,”
we might note here, merely means “lord.” It is not, as such, a proper
name.) Though Baʿl was commonly referred to as “the son of Dagnu”—biblical
Dagon, chief god of the Philistines (as at Judges 16:23, 1 Samuel 5:2–7,
and elsewhere)—El was also called his father and creator.75
Both Baʿl and El were depicted in the Canaanite materials as functioning
kings. “While the major emphasis of the Ugaritic texts is upon the rise
of Baʿl to his dominant position among the gods, the myths never lose sight
of the position and importance of ʾĒl, the only god given the title
malku, ‘king.'”76 Was
there any rivalry between Baʿl and El? Evidently not.77
This was probably because their kingships did not conflict, but were focused
upon quite separate spheres. Mullen believes that the kingship of El is to be
distinguished from that of Baʿl in the sense that El was king over the
gods within the pantheon—distributing their assignments or stewardships
among them—but Baʿl, although subordinate to El, was king over the
cosmos.78 “While it is important
to recognize that the ‘executive’ functions of the cosmos, the maintenance of
order and fertility, belong to Baʿl as king, the decision as to which god
shall possess the position of administrator of these functions belongs solely
to ʾĒl, who sits at the head of the pantheon.”79
Thus in Canaanite belief, we seem to have a father-god who had delegated administrative
authority over the world to his divine son—rather like the Latter-day
Saint view of the relationship between Elohim and Jehovah.80
While Baʿl came near to mortal men and revealed himself in the storm cloud,
El was transcendent, relatively aloof from the world of humankind. Baʿl
was sometimes described in cosmogonic terms as the creator, but theogony (the
origination of deities) was ascribed only to El, in his unique capacity as progenitor
of men and gods.81
Indeed, El himself appears to have been the son of earlier generations of divine
beings, who continued to enjoy a shadowy and rather vague existence in
The god ʾĒl stands at the ‘transition point’ between these olden
gods, the natural pairs like his father (Heaven) and mother (Earth) and the
deities who are active in the cultus. ʾĒl’s role as creator fits
into the theogonic scheme: he fathers the gods who take part in the cultus
and the myths associated with the cult. . . . [ʾĒl] is the transition
figure, standing as the last king in the generations of the olden gods and
the first and supreme king in the cosmogonic myths.82
Sons of God in the Old Testament
The Canaanite terminology of “the assembly of the gods” and “the
assembly of the sons of El” finds its parallels in the Hebrew Bible. In
Psalm 29:1, which has long been recognized by scholars as an Israelite adaptation
of an older Canaanite hymn, members of the council are referred to as bənê
ʾēlîm.83 The King
James translation renders this phrase as “the mighty.” The same Hebrew
phrase occurs at Psalm 89:6, where the King James Version has “the sons
of the mighty.” Neither rendition is adequate. In both passages, the New
Jerusalem Bible (or NJB), to choose one of the best of the modern translations,
gets things precisely right by translating bənê ʾēlîm
as “sons of God.” Harvard’s Frank Moore Cross offers his own rendition
of the opening verses of the psalm, which he sees as addressed to the divine
Ascribe to Yahweh, O sons of ʾēl,
Ascribe to Yahweh glory and might;
Ascribe to Yahweh the glory due his name.
Fall down before Yahweh who appears in holiness.84
In Genesis 6:2, 4, and Job 1:6; 2:1, the members of the divine council are
designated as bənê hā-ʾĕlōhîm (“the
sons of God”). Psalm 97:7 addresses kōl-ʾĕlōhîm
(“all [ye] gods”). There may once have been even more such references,
since the evidence is rather clear that the Old Testament text has been tampered
with in this regard.85 Thus, for instance,
following the Masoretic text of the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 32:8 KJV tells
us that, “When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance,
when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according
to the number of the children of Israel [bənê yiśrāʾēl].”
But the standard Greek Septuagint version of the same verse says, rather, that
he set the bounds of the people “according to the number of the angels
of God”, and some Septuagint manuscripts even read, instead of “the
angels of God,” “the sons of God”.86
This is significant, in view of
the admitted fact that the Greek translation of the Old Testament has occasionally
preserved traces of readings which are manifestly superior to those of the
Masoretic text. That text, it should be remembered, was constituted centuries
after the Septuagint was already in vogue in the Greek-speaking portion of
the Jewish and Christian world.87
And, indeed, contemporary scholars contend that it is very likely that the
original Hebrew reading of the passage was bənê ʾĕlōhîm
(“sons of God” or “sons of [the] gods”) or, perhaps better
still, in light of new evidence from Qumran, bənê ʾēl
(“the sons of El”).88 In view
of such evidence, Marvin Tate writes of Psalm 82 that “the conceptual horizon
of v 8, and of the entire psalm, is that of the assignment of the gods to each
nation as patron deities, who would be responsible for the welfare of each nation.”89
Wherever it appeared, “The council was headed by the high god of the pantheon:
Anu in Mesopotamia, ʾĒl in Canaan, and Yahweh in Israel.”90
In other words, the Mesopotamian Anu, Canaanite El, and Israelite Yahweh or
Jehovah were functionally equivalent. Indeed, the equivalence of Canaanite El
and Yahweh may have been more than merely functional. Various scholars have
argued that the original god of Israel was El. (William Dever believes that
a twelfth-century open-air hilltop sanctuary located in the territory of Manasseh
belonged to El.)91 In the earliest Israelite
conception, according to this view, father El had a divine son named Jehovah
or Yahweh.92 El, or Elyon (“the
Highest” or “the Most High”), and Yahweh were distinct.93
Indeed, the apparent original reading of Deuteronomy 32:8–9, explained
immediately above, seems to indicate a number of “sons of El,”
among whom Yahweh was the most prominent.94
“Jewish monotheism, which gave birth to the Christian movement, was not,”
reports John J. Collins, “as clear cut and simple as is generally believed.”95
According to Larry Hurtado,
Jewish monotheism can be taken as constituting a distinctive version of the
commonly-attested belief structure described by Nilsson as involving a “high
god” who presides over other deities. The God of Israel presides over
a court of heavenly beings who are likened to him (as is reflected in, e.g.,
the OT term for them “sons of God”). In pagan versions, too, the
high god can be described as father and source of the other divine beings,
and as utterly superior to them. In this sense, Jewish (and Christian) monotheism,
whatever its distinctives, shows its historical links with the larger religious
environment of the ancient world. . . .
This commitment to the one God of Israel accommodated a large retinue of
heavenly beings distinguished from God more in degree than kind as to their
attributes, some of these beings portrayed as in fact sharing quite directly
in God’s powers and even his name.96
Professor Hurtado is aware that some will find his picture of Judaism difficult
or disturbing. “Part of the problem in estimating what Jews made of heavenly
beings other than God ‘ontologically,'” he writes, “is that scholars
tend to employ distinctions and assumptions formed by Christian theological/philosophical
tradition.”97 If we are to understand earliest Christian and Hebrew thinking,
however, we must seek to understand it on its own terms. Unfortunately, neither
post-Nicene trinitarianism nor Hellenistic presuppositions about the metaphysical
virtues of oneness provide useful guidance in such matters.
There was a continuum of divine beings in ancient Hebrew belief. “Yahweh
belongs to this class of beings,” writes Peter Hayman, “but is distinguished
from them by his kingship over the heavenly host. However, he is not different
from them in kind.”98 Interestingly, as Christopher Stead points out, the
original and “basic meaning” of the term homoousios, which
played so important a role in the formulation of classical trinitarian doctrine
at the Council of Nicaea, was something like “made of the same kind of
stuff.” It had a “quasi-material” sense to it.99 The “gods”
of Psalm 82, says one conservative Protestant discussion, are “divine beings
. . . who share the divine nature (but who are subject to Yahweh) and who minister
in the heavenly realm.”100
Gradually, it seems, El faded into the background as Yahweh, his preeminent
son, came to the fore. A similar process seems already to have occurred among
the Canaanites themselves. Rather unexpectedly, the extant Ugaritic mythological
literature revolves almost entirely around Baʿl, or Baʿl-Haddu as
he was often known, despite the fact that El was his father and the chief of
the gods and despite the fact that Canaanite liturgical texts clearly show that
El was worshiped with sacrifices. Together with his consort, Asherah, El played
only a secondary role in the mythology. Furthermore, while temples dedicated
to Baʿl have been discovered, no temple or shrine to El has yet been found,
and it would seem that Baʿl succeeded El as the major deity in the popular
worship of Syria-Palestine by sometime shortly after the middle of the second
millennium before Christ.101 (It may
not come as much of a surprise to learn that, in certain ancient circles, the
names Yahweh and Baʿl seem to have been regarded as interchangeable.)102
This fact is probably to be understood in light of the already mentioned fact
that, in Canaanite understanding, El had apparently granted Baʿl administrative
responsibility over the world of humankind, and that Baʿl was, accordingly,
the divine being with whom humans had most contact. It would appear that El
had already, in the Ugaritic literature that we now possess, begun the “fade”
that would become virtually complete in the Bible. Eventually, for Jews too,
the Father was utterly invisible, almost as if he had been absorbed by the Son.
With its unembarrassed references to “the Gods,” the Book of Abraham
in the Pearl of Great Price belongs to the period prior to Yahweh’s absorption
of the functions of El and the divine council. By the tenth century B.C., however,
El and Yahweh had come to be identified with one another.103
(Professor Cross derives the divine name Yahweh from a verbal sentence
[yahwe ṣebāʾôt, “he [pro]creates the divine hosts”]
that occurs commonly in the Hebrew Bible, but which, he contends, is commonly
mistranslated as “Yahweh [or Lord] of hosts.” The hosts in question
are, of course, the hosts or armies of heaven, the sons of El, and Cross argues
that the name Yahweh was originally part of an epithet pertaining to El. Accordingly,
the original phrase would have read “El [pro]creates the divine hosts.”)104
It is obvious from the Bible, in any case, that the name Yahweh or Jehovah
was not the name commonly used for God by the patriarchs:
And God spake unto Moses, and said unto him, I am
the Lord: And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the
name of God Almighty, but by my name Jehovah was I not known to them. (Exodus
Thus, after roughly the tenth century before Christ, no evidence of any distinct
Israelite cult of El is extant, except in his guise as Yahweh.105
This would seem to explain the otherwise rather puzzling fact, noted by many
students of early Israelite religion, that, although El (ʾĒl) is the
name of the high god of the Canaanite pantheon, the word ʾēl
is frequently used as an epithet of Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures. Moreover,
although the Old Testament denounces the worship of the other gods and goddesses
of the Canaanites, evidently no trace of any polemic against El is present in
it. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that the members of the divine council
are never described in the Hebrew Bible as “the sons of Yahweh,” just
as the Canaanite myths regard the council as composed of the “sons of El”
but never of the “sons of Baʿl.” “Ugaritic literature nowhere
presents Baʿl as engendering other gods of the pantheon. This function
belonged only to ʾĒl.”106
Likewise, Mark Smith remarks that, while sexuality was ascribed to El, Yahweh
was never described as sexually active.107
Neither the phrase sons of Yahweh nor anything analogous to it appears
in the Bible. It is, I think, also significant that Jesus, whom Latter-day Saints
identify in his antemortal state with Yahweh or Jehovah, is said several times
in the New Testament to be “the Son of the Highest” but is never himself
identified as being “the Highest.”108
Nor is he ever called “son of the Lord.” Designation as “the
Highest” seems, thus, to belong uniquely to the Father. But it must surely
be Jesus’ identification as “the Son of the Highest” (a phrase whose
plural form is equated in Psalm 82:6 with the term elohim) and his
self-identification as “the Son of God” (John 10:36) that inflamed
the Jews against him.
In any event, “The most striking similarity between the council in Ugaritic
and in early Hebrew literature is the role played by the high god—ʾĒl
in the Ugaritic texts and [eventually, at least] Yahweh in the Old Testament.
Both are depicted as creator, king, and absolute ruler of the gods.”109
Both, therefore, preside over the divine council or assembly.
The Council as Corporate Entity
What was the character of the assembly of the gods in Ugaritic and Hebrew materials?
“The very raison d’être of the council was to pass judgment,
in both the heavenly and human spheres.”110
One of El’s primary roles, as a wise patriarch, was to sit in judgment. “We
see ʾĒl as the figure of the divine father,” writes Cross.
ʾĒl cannot be described as a sky god like Anu, a storm god like
Enlil or Zeus, a chthonic god like Nergal, or a grain god like Dagon. The
one image of ʾĒl that seems to tie all his myths together is that
of the patriarch. Unlike the great gods who represent the powers behind the
phenomena of nature, ʾĒl is in the first instance a social god.
He is the primordial father of gods and men, sometimes stern, often compassionate,
always wise in judgment.
While he has taken on royal prerogatives and epithets, he stands closer
to the patriarchal judge over the council of gods. He is at once father and
ruler of the family of gods, functions brought together in the human sphere
only in those societies which are organized in tribal leagues or in kingdoms
where kinship survives as an organizing power in the society. He is a tent-dweller
in many of his myths. His tent on the mount of assembly in the far north is
the place of cosmic decisions.111
In Hebrew, Phoenician, and Canaanite sources, “The council of the gods
met to decree the fate of both gods and humans.”112 It was not only
a royal court, but a judicial court or quasi-legislative assembly.113
Thus in 1 Kings 22:17–23, the Lord, speaking before the council,
decrees the death of Ahab. In Isaiah 6, surrounded by angelic hosts, the Lord
calls the prophet Isaiah and declares the impending doom of Judah. And Isaiah’s
experience has a clear parallel in Ugaritic or Canaanite mythology: “Keret
seems to have participated in the divine assembly, much as the prophet Isaiah
in his inaugural oracle saw the proceedings in Yahweh’s cosmic temple and took
part in its actions.”114 In Judges 5:23, we read the condemnation of Meroz,
delivered by an angel, for his failure to send an army to the aid of Israel.
In Zechariah 3:1–10, an angel of Yahweh, as messenger of the council,
proclaims the high priest Joshua free of iniquity.115 Job 1:6–12 and 2:1–6
record the decision made by Yahweh before the council to allow the testing of
Did the divine council, which Mark Smith terms a “collectivity of deities,”116
exist merely to rubber-stamp the decisions of the high god, or did it possess
some authority of its own? “All the gods, even the highest in the pantheon,
were subject to the decisions of the council,” writes Mullen, speaking
of the Canaanite evidence.117 But “the god ʾĒl is equivalent to the
entire council. The decree of ʾĒl is the decree of the gods.”118 Once
the theogonic struggles of the Canaanite mythology were over, with El firmly
seated and established on his throne, the military allies who had helped him
attain victory disappeared into the background. They seem to have ceased to
possess any kind of individual existence or personality.119 “When the high
god issues his decree from the chambers of his tent, the action is tantamount
to the issuance of a decree from the assembly, for the power of the council
of the gods is expressed only through the decree of ʾĒl.”120 “To
address the council was to address ʾĒl, and vice versa.”121 We see,
in the surviving Canaanite materials, a kind of corporate deity, in which a number
of gods functioned as if they were, in fact, one god: “In the Ugaritic
material the assembly appears frequently as the recipient of sacrifices in the
liturgical texts. In Phoenician inscriptions they are invoked in blessings and
curses. . . . [T]he assembly of the gods continued as an active
object of worship. This can be explained by the fact that the assembly, in Canaanite
thought, had no true existence apart from the decree of the high god ʾĒl.”122
“Like ʾĒl, the divine assembly is offered sacrifices, a fact that would
seem to indicate that the council was in some sense hypostatized, becoming an
entity unto itself”—a situation that continued into post-Ugaritic
Parenthetically, it is noteworthy that the same process of hypostatization,
of turning an abstraction into a substantial reality, occurred in the case of
the Christian Trinity. And, clearly, although mainstream Christianity has gone
seriously off course with its Aristotelian and Neoplatonic metaphysical musings,
the move was not entirely illegitimate. Jesus did say, during the exchange
reported in John 10, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30). Elohim
truly is a plural word. One is strongly tempted to see these notions as shedding
light both on Israelite “monotheism” and, even, on the nature of the
Godhead itself. Common Latter-day Saint teaching that the oneness of the Father,
Son, and Holy Ghost consists in their absolute unity of purpose seems to fit
quite nicely with the earliest doctrines of the Hebrews and their Semitic cousins,
and it accords with both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. The Nicene concept
of the Trinity, by contrast, draws on Greek philosophical concepts that have
no root whatsoever in the Bible or the biblical world.
P. Kyle McCarter observes that even Israel’s pagan neighbors were capable of
viewing their gods as plural from one aspect and, from another, as one, even
though they lacked the assistance of Aristotelian ontology.124 A similar process
occurred, for instance, in the case of the Mesopotamian council. Anu was the
head of the pantheon, but when the divine assembly invests Marduk with power,
“[his] decree is Anu.” (This may explain, by way of analogy, how,
in the theology of ancient Israel, Yahweh could legitimately become El.) “When
the gods granted him kingship and the power of decree, he became equivalent
to the assembly itself.”125
As it was at Ugarit, so it was also in Israel: “The word and decision
of the council are the same as the decree of Yahweh. The council only serves
to reemphasize and execute his decision. Its members carry out his decree exactly
as commissioned.”126 Thus Mullen can speak of “the decree of Yahweh,
which is the decree of the council.”127 In Hebrew writing, just as in the
documents from Ras-Shamra, the military retinue of Yahweh continued to be active,
although not individuated.128 “The heavenly host . . . have
little existence apart from Yahweh. They march with him and they worship him.
More importantly, they carry out his decisions. Their existence is clearly depicted
as being dependent upon the decree, the word of Yahweh.”129 “The members
of the council are clearly inferior to Yahweh. . . . The ‘Holy Ones’
who constitute the assembly are gods, but they are not Yahweh’s equals.”130
“The ‘gods’ are the divine beings who function as his counselors and agents.”131
As Susan Niditch observes of these celestial beings,
The presence of angels . . . seems to imply an author who imagines Yahweh
surrounded and accompanied by a retinue of heavenly beings. . . . God is not
alone in heaven but, like any king divine or human, has a large support staff.
Such images go back millennia in ancient Near Eastern portrayals of the deity
and are continued in the religion of Yahweh, in which one particular deity
Typologically stylized scenes of the realm of heaven are found in 1 Kings
22:19–22, Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1–3, and Daniel 7. In each case a
seer receives a glimpse of the divinity, who is seated on a throne surrounded
by his courtiers, angelic or cherubic beings arranged to his right and to
his left. The visionary observes, overhears, or participates in the activities
of the divine court.133
Thus in the Phoenician, the Canaanite, and the Israelite sources, “the
divine council has no authority or power apart from the high god. Though a full
hypostatization does not seem to have taken place, the assembly and the decree
of the high god are inseparable.”134 Nonetheless some differentiation among
the members of the heavenly court does seem to be evident, for another aspect
of the divine council in Hebrew tradition, obviously related to its juridical
function, was the assignment of its members to oversee the various nations as
their stewardships—a notion that appears to be fundamental to the interpretation
of Psalm 82.135 We see this, for example, in Deuteronomy 32:7–9,
to which we have already alluded. In the New Jerusalem Bible translation, this
passage reads as follows:
Think back on the days of old,
think over the years, down the ages.
Question your father, let him explain to you,
your elders, and let them tell you!
When the Most High [ʿelyôn] gave the nations each their
when he partitioned out the human race,
he assigned the boundaries of nations
according to the number of the children of God [bənē ʾēl],
but Yahweh’s portion was his people,
Jacob was to be the measure of his inheritance.
As we have seen, the King James Version of the Bible probably does not convey
the original intention of the passage. Contemporary scholarship tends to agree
that the idea underlying Deuteronomy 32:8 (which the text itself claims to be
a very old one) is that “the Most High,” the supreme deity (presumably
El), assigned the various peoples of the earth to his sons, reserving the children
of Israel to his preeminent son, Yahweh or Jehovah.136 But the concept lasted
a very long time, even if in somewhat altered form. “For this is the office
of the angels,” wrote the second-century Christian apologist Athenagoras
of Athens, “to exercise providence for God over the things created and
ordered by Him; so that God may have the universal and general providence of
the whole, while the particular parts are provided for by the angels appointed
over them.”137 This, of course, cannot fail to remind us of the Canaanite
understanding that El was king over the gods within the pantheon, distributing
their assignments or stewardships among them.
The Host of Heaven
At ancient Ugarit, the Canaanite mother of the gods and wife of the chief god
El, Athirat or Asherah, was believed to have seventy divine sons.138 These gods,
the offspring of El and Asherah, were assigned as guardians to the various nations
while El himself, as the creator and father of mankind, had no special relationship
with any particular ethnic group.139 They are almost certainly to be connected
with the seventy angels assigned by ancient Hebrew lore to the nations of the
earth.140 Traditional Jewish belief holds that there are seventy (gentile) nations,141
and also, not surprisingly, that the languages of humankind likewise number
seventy.142 (The Savior’s appointment of the seventy in Luke 10:1 can only be
properly understood in this context. Similar conceptions must also explain the
seventy elders of Israel mentioned in Exodus 24:1, 9, and Numbers 11:16, who,
significantly for this study, stand in much the same relationship to Moses as
that of the New Testament seventy to Christ—and, ideally, that of the
seventy nations to God.)
For the most part, the transcendent father god delegated direct executive responsibilities
to the members of his council. Israelites were, therefore, not to worship the
gods of the nations and not to relinquish their uniquely elevated status, for
their god was none other than Yahweh, the most important son of El. In this
context, it is instructive to recall the warning given in Deuteronomy 4:15,
19 (compare 17:3):
Take . . . heed . . . lest thou lift up thine eyes
unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even
all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them,
which the Lord thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven.
The early second-century B.C. apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus, also known as
the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach, seems to reflect a modified form of the same
concept—modified in that, by this period, with El almost completely forgotten
as a distinct patriarchal deity, Yahweh himself was the god who had chosen Israel—when
it says, “For every nation he appointed a ruler, but chose Israel to be
his own possession.”143 Similarly
testifying to the notion is the pseudepigraphic book of Jubilees, which
dates to approximately the same era:
But he chose Israel that they might be a people
And he sanctified them and gathered them from all
of the sons of man because (there are) many nations and many people, and they
all belong to him, but over all of them he caused spirits to rule so that
they might lead them astray from following him.
But over Israel he did not cause any angel or spirit
to rule because he alone is their ruler and he will protect them. (Jubilees
Despite the rather cynical twist that Jubilees puts on the celestial
rulers of the other nations when it declares that God intended them to mislead
the gentiles, the general view of the divine council in ancient literature is
far more positive. These angels, gods, or sons of God seem to be the “watchers”
who are the guardians of the earth according to such pseudepigraphic texts as
1 Enoch.144 They had been
assigned the task of ruling, and of ruling well. “The crux of the interpretation
of [Psalm 82] revolves about vv. 2–4,” remarks Mullen, “which
concern the problem of the dispensation of justice. As we have seen, this task
was specifically given to the members of the divine council. In Deut 33:3, the
‘Holy Ones’ are called specifically the ‘guardians of the peoples.’ It was their
task to administer justice rightly.”145
Still, as Moritz Steinschneider observes, among the Israelites the notion of
being turned over to the stewardship of another angel or prince was regarded
as a punishment.146 According to 1
Enoch 89:59–90:22, 25, the seventy angels of the council were appointed
(instead of God, who had rejected his people) to rule over Israel until the
day of judgment. At that time, according to 1 Enoch, the angels themselves
will be judged as having been too harsh on the Israelites. The relevance of
this notion to Psalm 82 should be immediately apparent.
The primary function of the members of the divine council in Canaanite tradition
was to serve as heralds, as the messengers who delivered or even executed the
decrees of El, which (as we have seen) were the decrees of the council. “After
the commissioning of the messenger, the message was delivered in precisely the
same words that had been given to the divine couriers. The form of the message,
as repeated, leaves no doubt as to the concept of the authority of the messenger—the
envoy had the same authority as the deity who dispatched him.”147
Likewise, the primary function of the members of the divine council in the Hebrew
Bible was to serve as heralds, as the messengers who delivered or even executed
the decrees of Yahweh.148 Our word
angel, of course, reflects this: The Greek angelos simply
Prophets as Messengers
Canaanite deities who served as envoys of the council could be described as
“messengers” or “angels,” using the Ugaritic equivalent
of the virtually identical Hebrew word. But the same word could be applied,
in Hebrew, to human prophets as messengers.149 One inescapably thinks of the
biblical prophet known to us as “Malachi.” This may or may not be
a personal name; it means, in Hebrew, “my messenger.” The “angels”
of the seven churches of Asia (in Revelation 1–3) may similarly be simply
the human representatives of those churches. In both Revelation 19:10 and 22:7–9,
an obviously supernatural or superhuman angel describes himself as a “brother”
to John the Revelator and even identifies himself as one of the prophets.
“God dwells in a parallel realm,” writes Niditch regarding the Israelite
tradition, “a king surrounded by courtiers, but lucky mortals may at times
join the council’s meetings.”150
“Thus the prophet becomes in effect the malʾāk or herald
of Yahweh’s council, and like a supernatural ambassador mediates the divine
for our present purpose, Hebrew tradition could make human beings serving in
the role of prophets the equivalent, at least temporarily, of Canaanite gods.152
“The Israelite traditions of the council,” Mullen notes,
while paralleling those of Canaan and Phoenicia, introduce a new element—the
prophet as herald/courier of the council. In the Ugaritic myths, the messages
of the council (ʾĒl) were carried by divine beings; in Hebrew prophecy,
the decree of Yahweh was delivered by the human prophet. The similarity between
the divine messenger and the human prophet is remarkable. Both carried the
absolute authority of the deity who dispatched them. They, in effect, represented
the presence of the deity in the decree.153
Commenting on the dramatic scene depicted in Isaiah 6, Morgenstern observes
In its basic features the situation here is quite similar to that of 1 Ki.
22.19–23. Yahweh needs a messenger to fulfill His purpose with the object
of His judgment and His sentence of destruction. But whereas there one of
the “host of heaven” offers himself for the service and is accepted,
here apparently none of the serafim seems qualified for
this particular task, and the Deity must therefore have recourse to a mortal
being who has providentially appeared upon the scene at just the right moment
and who, after due preparation, through a process of purification which, impliedly,
strips from him some of the disqualifying conditions of human nature and endows
him with certain qualities of divinity, such as ability to understand divine
speech, offers himself spontaneously for this service.154
“The very designation nābīʾ, ‘one who is called’
(cf. Akkadian nabīʾum) implies the background of the council,
for the prophet was called to proclaim the will of the deity which was issued
from the assembly.”155 (Cross
interprets Isaiah 35:3–4 and 40:1–8, with their plural imperatives,
as samples of the instructions given to members of the heavenly assembly.)156
“The prophet’s role is clear—he is the herald/courier of the council,
whose task it is to deliver the judgment of the assembly.”157
Form-critical analysis of the prophetic forms of
speech has yielded the information that the prophet’s office is that of messenger
and that the fundamental message he brings is the judgment, Gerichtswort.
The oracle of judgment properly carries overtones of a judicial decree or
verdict, and rests upon a basic legal metaphor. More concretely, the prophet
is the messenger of the divine court or council, and his authority rests upon
the absolute authority of the council, its great Judge or great King who pronounces
the judgment which the prophetic messenger is to transmit. The prophet himself
receives the word of the Judge and court normally in vision or audition, most
frequently the latter.158
It is apparent from a study of the relevant Old Testament passages that Hebrew
prophets conceived themselves as standing in Yahweh’s assembly.159
A few examples should make this clear. First, however, an understanding of the
Hebrew term sôd is crucial for appreciating these passages.
In the Old Testament, that word denotes confidential discussions or secrets
(as at Proverbs 3:32 and 11:13). It also refers to the council setting in which
such confidential discussions are conducted, or to a circle of intimate friends.160
In fact, the two meanings must always be kept in mind together, for, as a recent
discussion of the term notes, “sod never in Biblical Hebrew came
to express a simple ‘secret,’ but only a ‘counsel’ or ‘decision’ taken in secret
‘council,’ that the wise man does not bruit about.” Thus sôd
has “the dual meaning ‘council/counsel’ (Ratsversammlung/ Rat), i.e., the
body and the decision of the body.”161
“Which of them,” Jeremiah asked rhetorically of the false prophets
who opposed him, “has stood in the council [sôd]
of the Lord, seen him and heard his word? Which of them has listened to his
word and obeyed?”(Jeremiah 23:18 New English Bible, or NEB).162
Clearly, Jeremiah was implying that, while the pseudoprophets had never been
admitted to the divine council and so could claim no valid authority for their
declarations, he, Jeremiah, had been and therefore could assert such authority.
Access to the decrees of the council was the unique qualification of true prophets.
“Surely the Lord God will do nothing,” declared the prophet Amos,
“but he revealeth his secret [sôd] unto his servants
the prophets” (Amos 3:7).163
Of false messengers, the Lord said to Jeremiah: “I did not send these prophets,
yet they went in haste; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. If they
have stood in my council [sôd], let them proclaim my words
to my people and turn them from their evil course and their evil doings”
(Jeremiah 23:21–22 NEB). Attacking Job as a pretentious but ordinary man,
a man who had no corroborating authority for what he was saying, the uncharitable
Eliphaz asked him, “Do you listen in God’s secret council [sôd]
or usurp all wisdom for yourself alone?” (Job 15:8 NEB). Mullen’s summary
of the biblical data is succinct:
The prophet is the herald of the divine council. He delivers the decree of
Yahweh, which is the decree of the council. The authority of the prophet as
the herald/messenger of the assembly is that of the power which sent him.
He is the vocal manifestation of the deity who dispatched him. The parallel
position of the prophet and the messenger-deity in Canaanite literature makes
this fact undeniable. . . . The Hebrew prophets, like the messenger-deities
described in the Ugaritic myths, are clearly envoys who carry both the message
and authority of the divinity who dispatched them. In the case of the prophets,
this was Yahweh, and ultimately the council that surrounded him.164
Such concepts underlie the accounts of Yahweh’s interactions with the members
of his court, as they are recorded in Isaiah 6:1–8 and 1 Kings 22:19–23.
In the latter passage, the prophet Micaiah informs Ahab of Israel and Jehoshaphat
of Judah of his vision of a heavenly council: “I saw the Lord sitting on
his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and
on his left. And the Lord said, Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and
fall at Ramoth-gilead? And one said on this manner, and another said on that
manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said,
I will persuade him” (1 Kings 22:19–21).165 (Note the strongly
anthropomorphic character of this and other passages relating to the heavenly
council.)166 Isaiah, on the other hand, in his account of his own call to prophethood,
“heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go
for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me” (Isaiah 6:8).167
We thus see, in biblical and other ancient references to the council of El,
a blurring of the distinction between mortal human beings and angels, between
mortal human beings and gods. This blurring is further evident in the fact,
noted by contemporary scholars, that both Canaanite and Hebrew texts seem to
suggest that the term gods could have been used, very anciently, for
deceased human beings.168 Thus, for
instance, when Saul, who went to the witch of Endor to attempt a seance with
the deceased prophet Samuel, asks her what she saw as the process began, she
replies, “I saw gods [ʾĕlōhîm] ascending out
of the earth” (1 Samuel 28:13).”169
“The ‘gods’ (ʾĕlōhîm or, more frequently, ʾēlîm)
are the souls of the dead, deified in Sheol,” says Niditch. “Concepts
of the dead as ‘gods’ . . . were probably popular among Israelites throughout
their history.”170 In the apocryphal
Wisdom of Solomon, which likely dates to the latter half of the first century
B.C., the wicked, summoned for divine judgment, are astonished to see a righteous
man (whom they had mocked and oppressed while in mortality) exalted in the presence
How has he come to be counted as one of the children of God and to have his
lot among the holy ones?171
Their surprise is understandable. He has indeed risen high. As we have seen
above, the terms holy ones and children of God (or sons
of God, as the New English Bible renders the Greek) commonly refer to the
members of the divine council, the assembly of the gods. “The ‘heavenly
court’ that played a large role in Hebrew thought . . . now is seen,” observes
the noted Catholic scholar Roland Murphy of this text, which was probably written
just a few decades before the birth of Christ, “as a goal, a group to whose
ranks one might aspire.”172
And such views were perhaps not as isolated as one might at first assume.173
The covenant community at Qumran worshiped El alone as God, but recognized a
large court of heavenly beings subordinate to him (archangels, angels, the ʾēlîm,
the Holy Ones). It is often impossible to distinguish, with any certainty, whether
heavenly angels or earthly Qumranites are intended in a given text, and “the
concept that the Qumran male could evolve into angelic status indicates that
the categorical distinction between angels and humans had broken down.”174
Consider the following texts, for example:
He has given them an inheritance in the lot of the holy ones,
and with the sons of heaven has He associated their company
to be a council of unity and a foundation for a holy building,
to be an eternal plantation for all coming time. (1QS xi.7 f.)175
The perverted spirit didst Thou cleanse from much transgression,
that he may take his place in the host of the holy ones
and enter into community with the congregation of the sons of heaven,
and Thou hast cast for man an eternal lot with spirits of knowledge. (1QH
. . . who came together for Thy covenant . . .
and arrange themselves before Thee in the fellowship of the holy ones. (1QH
To them whom God elects He gives this as an eternal possession
and gives them a share in the lot of the holy ones,
and to the sons of heaven does He join their circle [sôd]
“It is . . . expressly said,” remarks Helmer Ringgren, “that
the members ‘stand in one and the same lot as the angels of the presence’ (1QH
vi.13), and it is apparently thought that the elect as the result of their entrance
into the community become in some way citizens of the kingdom of heaven.”179
Several texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that a human being could
hope to be enthroned among the gods.180 “Even in a conservative Jewish
community like Qumran, such an idea was not taboo.”181 Thus, for instance,
the anonymous speaker in column 1 of fragment 11 of 4Q491 declares that
El Elyon gave me a seat among] those perfect forever,
a mighty throne in the congregation of the gods.
None of the kings of the east shall sit in it
and their nobles shall not [come near it].
No Edomite shall be like me in glory,
and none shall be exalted save me, nor shall come against me.
For I have taken my seat in the [congregation] in the heavens
And none [find fault with me].
I shall be reckoned with gods
and established in the holy congregation. . . .
In my legal judgment [none will stand against] me.
I shall be reckoned with gods,
and my glory with [that of] the king’s sons.182
Similarly, several hymns from the Qumran community praise God for the grace
that he bestows upon sinful humanity, demonstrating beyond cavil that belief
in an exalted potential for humankind is not incompatible with a profound sense
of human unworthiness and a reliance upon divine mercy.
I thank you, Lord,
because you saved my life from the pit,
and from Sheol and Abaddon you have lifted me up
to an everlasting height,
so that I can walk on a boundless plain.
And I know that there is hope
for someone you fashioned out of clay
to be an everlasting community.
The corrupt spirit you have purified
from the great sin
so that he can take his place
with the host of the holy ones,
and can enter in communion
with the congregation of the sons of heaven.183
For your glory, you have purified man from sin,
so that he can make himself holy for you
from every impure abomination and blameworthy iniquity,
to become united with the sons of your truth
and in the lot of your holy ones,
to raise the worms of the dead
from the dust, to an [everlasting] community
and from a depraved spirit, to your knowledge,
so that he can take his place in your presence
with the perpetual host
and the [everlasting] spirits. 184
And he will not be able to compare with my glory. As for me, my place is with
the divinities, [and glory or splend]our for myself I do not [buy them] with
gold or with refined gold or precious metals. . . .
Sing, favoured ones,
sing to the king of [glory,
be happy in the assem]bly of God,
exult in the tents of salvation,
praise in the [holy] residence,
exalt together with the eternal hosts. . . .
Proclaim and say:
[Great is the God who works wonders,]
for he brings down the arrogant spirit
without even a remnant;
and he raises the poor from the dust [to an eternal height,]
and extols his stature up to the clouds
and cures him together with the divinities
in the congregation of the community. 185
Likewise, the fragmentary Melchizedek scroll recovered from Cave 11 at Qumran
seems to identify Melchizedek with the god who rises to judgment in Psalm 82;186
elsewhere in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Melchizedek is identified as the archangel
Michael. In a play about the exodus from Egypt written by Ezekiel of Alexandria
in the second century B.C., God, who is depicted in the form of a “noble
man,” gives Moses his scepter and his royal crown and allows the prophet
to sit upon his throne; a host of stars fall to their knees before Moses in
an attitude that can only be described as worship.187 The angels Uriel and (Ye)remiel,
who appear frequently in Jewish texts after the close of the Old Testament,
may be “heavenly personifications” of the human biblical prophets
Urijah or Uriyahu (see Jeremiah 26:20) and Jeremiah.188
Slavonic or 2 Enoch—a text of very uncertain date and provenance,
but one without any clear Christian features—offers a first-person account
of a mortal human’s purported entry into the divine council:
And I fell down flat and did obeisance to the Lord.
And the Lord, with his own mouth, called to me, “Be brave, Enoch! Don’t
be frightened! Stand up, and stand in front of my face forever.” And
Michael, the Lord’s greatest archangel, lifted me up and brought me in front
of the face of the Lord. And the Lord sounded out his servants. The Lord said,
“Let Enoch come up and stand in front of my face forever!” And the
glorious ones did obeisance and said, “Let him come up!”
The Lord said to Michael, “Take Enoch, and extract
(him) from the earthly clothing. And anoint him with the delightful oil, and
put (him) into the clothes of glory.” And Michael extracted me from my
clothes. He anointed me with the delightful oil; and the appearance of that
oil is greater than the greatest light, its ointment is like sweet dew, and
its fragrance like myrrh; and its shining is like the sun. And I gazed at
all of myself, and I had become like one of the glorious ones, and there was
no observable difference.189
The very important first-century Rabbi Johanan is reported to have declared,
citing Isaiah 43:7, that “The righteous are destined to be called by the
name of the Holy One, blessed be He, for it is said, ‘Everyone who is called
by my name, him have I created, formed and made that he should also share my
glory.’ ” Rabbi Elazar, in the second century, explained that “The
trishagion [i.e., ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’] will be said before the righteous as it
is said before the Holy One, blessed be He.” “In a later passage in
the Tanhuma and in the condensation in Bereshit Rabbati,” remarks Morton
Smith, commenting on these statements, “this potential divinity and predicted
worship are presented as the direct consequences of man’s being the image of
“Jews were quite willing,” writes Hurtado,
to imagine beings who bear the divine name within them and can be referred
to by one or more of God’s titles (e.g., Yahoel or Melchizedek as elohim
or, later, Metatron [Enoch] as yahweh ha-katon [“the lesser
Yahweh”]), beings so endowed with divine attributes as to be difficult
to distinguish them descriptively from God, beings who are very direct personal
extensions of God’s powers and sovereignty. About this, there is clear evidence.
This clothing of servants of God with God’s attributes and even his name will
seem “theologically very confusing” if we go looking for a “strict
monotheism” of relatively modern distinctions of “ontological status”
between God and these figures, and expect such distinctions to be expressed
in terms of “attributes and functions.” By such definitions of the
term, Greco-Roman Jews seem to have been quite ready to accommodate various
In Daniel 12:3, we read that, in the future resurrection, “they that be
wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many
to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.” This concept is echoed
by the Savior himself, at Matthew 13:43: “Then shall the righteous shine
forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” “Be hopeful,”
the author of 1 Enoch advises the faithful,
because formerly you have pined away through evil and toil. But now you shall
shine like the lights of heaven, and you shall be seen, and the windows of
heaven shall be opened for you. . . . [Y]ou are about to be making a great
rejoicing like the angels of heaven. . . . [F]or you are to be partners with
the good-hearted people of heaven. (1 Enoch 104:2, 4, 6)
Second Baruch, a Syriac text whose Hebrew original probably dates to
the period between A.D. 100 and 120, says of “those who are saved”
they shall see that world which is now invisible to them, and they will see
a time which is now hidden to them. And time will no longer make them older.
For they will live in the heights of that world and they will be like the
angels and be equal to the stars. . . . And the excellence of the righteous
will then be greater than that of the angels.192
“In the idiom of apocalyptic literature,” John Collins observes of
such passages, “the stars are the angelic host. When the righteous dead
become like the stars, they become like the angels; in the Hellenistic world,
to become a star was to become a god.”193
But the notion that we can become stars when we die long predates the Hellenistic
era. The famous Greek comic poet Aristophanes refers to it as a well-known idea
in his play Peace, written around 421 B.C.194
The great third-century Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria believed
that faithful humans could take the place of fallen angels.195 “The life
of the soul,” writes one scholar in summary of Origen’s views,
is a journey in which it learns about God, and a completion in which it knows
God. . . . If the soul was virtuous enough in this life, it had nothing to
fear from the heavens, where indeed it would receive new opportunities to
become like God. In this journey too there were different levels of achievement
and so different levels of glory among those who ascended to heaven. As the
stars differed in their shining according to their merits, so too there was
not one fixed destiny for the soul after death but many different ways in
which it might travel.196
Deification in Early Christianity
It is important to note that, in the familiar manner of Hebrew literary parallelism,
Psalm 82:6 equates “gods” with “children/sons of the Most High.”
Jesus Christ, as we have seen, is identified several times in the New Testament
as “the Son of the Most High,” and this seems to have infuriated his
Jewish audience. Thus, it is remarkable that Luke 6:35 promises faithful disciples
that, if they love their enemies and do good and lend without expectation of
return, their reward shall be great: “Ye shall be the children of the Highest.”
Since, biblically, the “children of the Highest” or of the “Most
High” are “gods,” ʾĕlōhîm, this
seems in itself to be a promise of deification.197
As St. Augustine points out, “If we have been made sons of God, we have
also been made gods.”198 It is
scarcely surprising, then, that faithful disciples will, at the end of time,
participate in rendering divine judgment as do the elohim of Psalm 82 (see,
for example, Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:29–30).
St. Justin Martyr, a very important early Christian writer (d. A.D. 165), was
expressly discussing Psalm 82 when he wrote to Trypho that
the Holy Ghost reproaches men because they were made like God, free from
suffering and death, provided that they kept His commandments, and were deemed
deserving of the name of His sons, and yet they, becoming like Adam and Eve,
work out death for themselves; let the interpretation of the Psalm be held
just as you wish, yet thereby it is demonstrated that all men are deemed worthy
of becoming “gods,” and of having power to become sons of the Highest;
and shall be each by himself judged and condemned like Adam and Eve.199
“We have learned,” Justin wrote elsewhere, “that those only
are deified who have lived near to God in holiness and virtue.”200 (Of
course, it is only such persons who would be qualified, even potentially, to
be divinely designated as judges.) Expressly discussing Psalm 82, Origen wrote
of the angels and the gods, mentioning in this connection the “thrones,”
“dominions,” “powers,” and “principalities” alluded
to in several places by the apostle Paul. On the basis of the biblical passages,
he declared, “we see that we men, who are far inferior to these, may entertain
the hope that by a virtuous life, and by acting in all things agreeably to reason,
we may rise to a likeness with all these.” Concluding, he cited 1 John
3:2, varying slightly from the text as we have received it: “It doth not
yet appear what we shall be; but we know that when He shall appear, we shall
be like God, and shall see Him as He is.”201 “Christians,” Origen
are benefactors of their country more than others. For they train up citizens,
and inculcate piety to the Supreme Being; and they promote those whose lives
in the smallest cities have been good and worthy, to a divine and heavenly
city, to whom it may be said, “Thou hast been faithful in the smallest
city, come into a great one,” where “God standeth in the assembly
of the gods, and judgeth the gods in the midst;” and He reckons thee
among them, if thou no more “die as a man, or fall as one of the princes.”202
Other church fathers took similar positions. They do not seem to have entertained
the notion that the psalm was condemning sinful mortal judges.203 St. Irenaeus
(d. ca. 200) and Clement of Alexandria identified the “gods” of Psalm
82 as virtuous or saved human beings who had received adoption.204 “Each
of them,” observes Annewies van den Hoek, “firmly integrated human
divinization, as viewed through the Psalm text, into the larger scheme of their
theologies of salvation.”205 Clement writes of “the future life that
we shall lead, according to God, and with gods.”206 “‘God stood in
the congregation of the gods,'” Clement quotes from the Psalm.
“He judgeth in the midst of the gods.” Who are they? Those that
are superior to Pleasure, who rise above the passions, who know what they
do—the Gnostics [i.e., those who know], who are greater than the world.
“I said, Ye are Gods; and all sons of the Highest.” To whom speaks
the Lord? To those who reject as far as possible all that is of man.207
On this wise it is possible for the Gnostic already to have become God. “I
have said, Ye are gods and sons of the highest.” And Empedocles says
that the souls of the wise become gods, writing as follows: —
“At last prophets, minstrels, and physicians,
And the foremost among mortal men, approach;
Whence spring gods supreme in honours.”208
Tertullian (d. ca. A.D. 225) taught that it is impossible for humans to become
gods—unless they receive godhood from God himself. “For we shall
be even gods, if we shall deserve to be among those of whom He declared, ‘I
have said, Ye are gods,’ and, ‘God standeth in the congregation of the gods.’
But this comes of His own grace, not from any property in us, because
it is He alone who can make gods.”209
Clement of Alexandria, too, acknowledged the Redeemer’s essential role in theosis,
the common Christian Greek term for human deification. Of those saved in heaven,
he explained that “they are called by the appellation of gods, being destined
to sit on thrones with the other gods that have been first put in their places
by the Saviour.”210 “If
one knows himself,” wrote Clement, “he will know God; and knowing
God, he will be made like God. . . . [H]is is beauty, the true beauty, for it
is God; and that man becomes God, since God so wills.”211
St. Irenaeus exhorted Christians to follow “the only true and stedfast
Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent
love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is himself.”212
Likewise, St. Athanasius, the great Alexandrian father of the Nicene creed,
recognized that deification came through the incarnation and atoning sacrifice
of Jesus Christ, and not solely because of human nature. (Like Irenaeus and
Clement, Athanasius saw the “gods” of Psalm 82 as evidence for divine
adoption.)213 In fact, it was his
insistence upon salvation as deification that led Athanasius to oppose Arianism.
He felt that an only partially or metaphorically divine Savior, a redeemer who
was not fully God, would be unable to deify us.
For therefore did he assume the body originate and human, that having renewed
it as its Framer, He might deify it in Himself, and thus might introduce us
all into the kingdom of heaven after His likeness. For man had not been deified
if joined to a creature, or unless the Son were very God; nor had man been
brought into the Father’s presence, unless He had been His natural and true
Word who had put on the body. And as we had not been delivered from sin and
the curse, unless it had been by nature human flesh, which the Word put on
(for we should have had nothing common with what was foreign), so also the
man had not been deified, unless the Word who became flesh had been by nature
from the Father and true and proper to Him. For therefore the union was of
this kind, that He might unite what is man by nature to Him who is in the
nature of the Godhead, and his salvation and deification might be sure.214
“For,” insisted Athanasius, “as the Lord, putting on the body,
became man, so we men are deified by the Word as being taken to Him through
His flesh, and henceforward inherit life everlasting.”215 “He was
made man that we might be made God [or gods].”216 “For He has become
Man, that He might deify us in Himself . . . and that we may become henceforth
a holy race, and ‘partakers of the Divine Nature,’ as blessed Peter wrote.”217
In another text, Tertullian again draws upon Psalm 82 as biblical justification
for terming Jesus Christ the Son of God:
If, indeed, you follow those who did not at the time endure the Lord when
showing Himself to be the Son of God, because they would not believe him to
be the Lord, then (I ask you) call to mind along with them the passage where
it is written, “I have said, Ye are gods, and ye are children of the
Most High;” and again, “God standeth in the congregation of the
gods;” in order that, if the Scripture has not been afraid to designate
as gods human beings, who have become sons of God by faith, you may be sure
that the same Scripture has with greater propriety conferred the name of the
Lord on the true and one-only Son of God.218
Again, there is nothing here to hint or suggest that an early Christian writer
saw the “gods” of Psalm 82 as evil. Quite the contrary. Mark D. Nispel
makes the underlying reasoning of the passage explicit for modern readers as
it relates to John 10. “The scripture calls righteous men ‘gods’,
the argument goes, therefore how much more so should the Son of God receive
the title ‘God.’ The requirement, as it were, of this argument, as also in the
Gospel, is the minor premise that righteous men or believers are called
‘gods.'”219 St. Cyprian (d. A.D. 258), the bishop of Carthage, understood
the argument in precisely the same way. “But,” he wrote, “if
they who have been righteous, and have obeyed the divine precepts, may be called
gods, how much more is Christ, the Son of God, God!”220
“We cast blame upon Him,” said St. Irenaeus concerning God,
because we have not been made gods from the beginning, but at first merely
men, then at length gods; although God has adopted this course out of His
pure benevolence, that no one may impute to Him invidiousness or grudgingness.
He declares, “I have said, Ye are gods; and ye are all sons of the Highest.”
But since we could not sustain the power of divinity, He adds, “But ye
shall die like men,” setting forth both truths—the kindness of
His free gift, and our weakness, and also that we were possessed of power
over ourselves. For after His great kindness He graciously conferred good
[upon us], and made men like to Himself, [that is] in their own power; while
at the same time by His prescience He knew the infirmity of human beings,
and the consequences which would flow from it; but through [His] love and
[His] power, He shall overcome the substance of created nature. For it was
necessary, at first, that nature should be exhibited; then, after that, that
what was mortal should be conquered and swallowed up by immortality, and the
corruptible by incorruptibility, and that man should be made after the image
and likeness of God, having received the knowledge of good and evil.221
“It is a curiosity,” writes Nispel, “to note the large place occupied
by the concept of salvation as deification in the theology of the Greek
fathers and at the same time how little attention western scholarship
has given to this idea.”222 It is perhaps especially puzzling since the
doctrine is not utterly absent even from the fathers of the West. For instance,
St. Augustine of Hippo (d. A.D. 430), perhaps the greatest of all the early
Christian fathers, wrote of Christ that “He that justifieth doth Himself
deify, in that by justifying He doth make sons of God. ‘For he has given them
power to become the sons of God.’ If then we have been made sons of god, we
have also been made gods.”223
Modern Western scholars who have given thought to the subject often presume
that the doctrine of deification arose under Greek influence after Christianity
had spread among the pagans of late antiquity.224 But, as the examples cited
in this essay should make abundantly obvious, the doctrine has its roots in
Jewish sources and originated well before Hellenism had taken hold of Christian
theology. Even A. N. Williams, who appears to be unaware of the early origin
of deification teaching, offers a useful caveat for those who would dismiss
it as a pagan-inspired aberration. “Early in the Christian tradition,”
from the third century onwards, theosis became the dominant model of the
concept of salvation. The Fathers writing on deification drew on two sources:
the Bible and the Platonic tradition. . . .
The early tradition can be viewed as too indebted to the pagan tradition.
. . . This view, however, vastly underestimates the importance of biblical
warrants in early Christian writing on deification. Chief among the biblical
sources was 2 Peter 1:4: “Thus he has given us, through these things,
his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape
from the corruption that is in the world because of passion and may become
participants in divine nature.” Other texts of importance include Psalm
82:6, John 10:34 (quoting Psalm 82), Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 15:49 and
2 Corinthians 8:9.225
Nispel goes yet further, contending that
the origin of this concept among the early fathers is largely to be found
in the church’s Christological use of Psalm 82 in the east and west as early
as the late first century. This can be demonstrated by observing that Psalm
82:1, 6–7 were regularly used as Christological proof texts in the early
collections of testimonia against the Jews, and further, that the
use of these texts required that all believers in some way be considered “gods.”
. . . The use of Psalm 82 as a proof text for deification in the later fathers
of the East is well known.226
And there is, of course, an abundance of language in the New Testament that
would suggest something like a doctrine of exaltation for the righteous saints.
“To him that overcometh,” says Christ in Revelation 3:21, “will
I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down
with my Father in his throne.” “And I saw thrones,” says John
the Revelator himself in Revelation 20:4, 6, “and they sat upon them, and
judgment was given unto them. . . . Blessed and holy is he that hath part in
the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall
be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.”
Images of royalty and reign recur. “And round about the throne were four
and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed
in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold” (Revelation
4:4; compare Revelation 4:10).
John J. Collins, in his Hermeneia commentary on the book of Daniel, helps to
elucidate such passages, pointing out that
The background of this notion lies in ancient traditions about the council
of ‘El, where the gods sit on their “princely thrones.” In the later
period, compare Matt 19:28, where the apostles are promised that they will
sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, and Rev. 20:4 (“and
then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom judgement had been
“And when the chief shepherd shall appear,” says 1 Peter 5:4,
6, “ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. . . . Humble
yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in
due time.” At 1 Corinthians 6:2–3, the apostle Paul, irritated with
the Corinthian Saints for their propensity to take one another to court, demands
of them, “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? . . . Know
ye not that we shall judge angels?” Presumably he is reminding them of
things they already know. “Paul’s understanding of salvation,” says
James Tabor, “involves a rather astounding (at least to modern ears) scheme
of ‘mass apotheosis.'”228 Indeed, Paul speaks of the exaltation of faithful
Christians as an event so certain that, in a sense, it has already occurred:
God, he says, “hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in
heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6).
The Spirit himself joins with our spirit to bear witness that we are children
of God. And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs
with Christ, provided that we share his suffering, so as to share his glory.
In my estimation, all that we suffer in the present time is nothing in comparison
with the glory which is destined to be disclosed for us, for the whole creation
is waiting with eagerness for the children of God to be revealed. . . .
We are well aware that the whole creation, until this time, has been groaning
in labour pains. (Romans 8:16– 19, 22 NJB)
One is forcibly reminded of the French philosopher Henri Bergson’s declaration
that “the universe . . . is a machine for the making of gods.”229
Such a phrase might not have seemed altogether inappropriate to Paul as a description
of his own view:
And all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory
of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter
and brighter glory; this is the working of the Lord who is the Spirit. (2
Corinthians 3:18 NJB)
We are well aware that God works with those who love him, those who have
been called in accordance with his purpose, and turns everything to their
good. He decided beforehand who were the ones destined to be moulded to the
pattern of his Son, so that he should be the eldest of many brothers; it was
those so destined that he called; those that he called, he justified, and
those that he has justified he has brought into glory. (Romans 8:28–30
Commenting on this passage, Tabor explains that
Jesus’ transformation or glorification foreshadows that of the many “in
Christ” who follow. “First-born” [=New Jerusalem “eldest”]
as used here is therefore anticipatory, pointing toward recapitulation. It
means more than preeminence; it implies there are those who will be “later-born.”
The equation of Jesus the Son of God, with the many glorified sons
of God to follow is God’s means of bringing into existence a family
(i.e., “many brothers”) of cosmic beings, the Sons of God,
who share his heavenly doxa [“glory”]. Or, to put it another
way, Jesus already stands at the head of a new genus of cosmic “brothers”
who await their full transformation at his arrival from heaven. 230
Nearing his own death, Paul reflected that
I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course,
I have kept the faith:
Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness,
which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to
me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7–8)
This is a familiar passage, quoted often among Christians. But its familiarity
should not be permitted to obscure its implications nor to dull its force.
Professor Tabor draws out the full and stunning meaning of the apostle’s language:
One must not miss the radical implications of Paul’s understanding of the
destiny of the elect group. Paul develops his exegesis from Gen. 1:27 and
Psa. 8:6 as well. These texts speak of man in the “image” (eikōn)
of God, having “all things placed under his feet.” Paul interprets
this in the light of Christ, who is the “image of God” (Rom. 8:29;
2 Cor. 3:18) and has been given all rule and authority (1 Cor. 15:24; Phil.
2:10) with “all things” subject to him. So it takes on the vastly
expanded meaning of cosmic rule, power, and exaltation. What is said
of Jesus as glorified Son of God, is also said of those “many brothers”
who follow. In the wider context of Hellenistic religions, it makes little
sense to speak of an exalted, heavenly, group of immortals, who are designated
“Sons of God,” as human beings. The old rubric, “Gods
are immortal, humans are mortal” is apt here. Paul’s understanding of
salvation involves a particularly Jewish notion of apotheosis [deification],
and would have been understood as such by his converts. . . .
I would argue that this idea of heavenly glorification
is the core of Paul’s message. . . . Paul is consumed with two great insights—the
vision he has had of the exalted and glorified Christ whom he knows to be
the crucified man Jesus, whose followers he had once opposed; and his conviction
that by grace through faith this same heavenly glorification is the destiny
of the elect group.231
“He that overcometh,” says the voice of “the Alpha and Omega”
in Revelation 21:7, “shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and
he shall be my son.” This language of our potential to be adopted as the
children or sons of God is highly significant, and particularly so in view of
our earlier discussion about the Savior’s argument in John 10. “Jesus’
reference to ‘Son of God’ in 10:36 does not weaken the argument by reducing
the claim from ‘god’ to ‘son of God,'” wrote Father Neyrey, “because
if one continues reading Ps 82:6, the two terms are considered equivalent and
parallel there (‘I said, “You are gods, all of you, sons of
the Most High” ‘ ).”232
It seems clear that, in adopting us as his children, God makes us like his Son
Jesus Christ. He appoints us his heirs and exalts us to the position of, precisely,
gods. Such, at least, is the teaching of the New Testament.
You must see what great love the Father has lavished on us
by letting us be called God’s children—
which is what we are!
The reason why the world does not acknowledge us
is that it did not acknowledge him.
My dear friends, we are already God’s children,
but what we shall be in the future has not yet been revealed.
We are well aware that when he appears
we shall be like him,
because we shall see him as he really is (1 John 3:1–2 NJB).233
But we cannot leave the ancient Semitic council of the gods behind just yet.
There is more to be learned about it that will help us to understand its function
in the Bible and its relevance to the issue of human deification more clearly.
Just as it was the duty of every individual Israelite, of the priests, and of
the nations to praise the Lord, the members of the divine council were also
there to praise God.234 Thus, again, we read in Psalm 29:
Ascribe to the Lord, you gods [bənē
ʾēlîm], ascribe to the Lord glory and might.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to his name; bow
down to the Lord in the splendour of holiness. (Psalm 29:1–2 NEB)235
In Psalm 89, the divine assembly is summoned to hymn the incomparable greatness
of the Lord, Yahweh or Jehovah:
Let heaven confess your wonders, Yahweh,
Your faithful deeds in the council of holy ones.
For who in the heavens compares with Yahweh?
Who may be likened to Yahweh among the gods [bənē ʾēlîm]?
The god terrible in the council [sôd] of the holy ones,
Great and dreadful above all around him.
Yahweh, god of hosts, who is like you? (Psalm 89:6–9)236
Psalm 148 likewise calls upon the heavenly host to praise God:
Praise ye the Lord. Praise ye the Lord from the heavens:
praise him in the heights. Praise ye him, all his angels: praise ye him, all
his hosts. Praise ye him, sun and moon: praise him, all ye stars of light.
Another interesting text on the praise offered God in the divine assembly is
the Septuagint Greek version of Deuteronomy 32:43. The first two lines of that
verse are omitted in the Masoretic Hebrew text and therefore also in the King
James Version, which is based on that Hebrew tradition. They read:
Rejoice with him, O heavens!
And prostrate yourselves to him, all you sons of God!
Such passages can hardly fail to remind us of the question posed to Job, which
is often used by Latter-day Saints as a text illustrative of premortal existence:
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the
earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. . . . When the morning stars sang
together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4, 7)
Note the parallelism of this passage, which seems to make “the sons of
God” equivalent to “the morning stars.” It comes as little surprise,
therefore, to learn from Mullen that “the stars are seen in both Ugaritic
and Hebrew literature as members of the council.”237 Stars and gods (in
some cases, the deified dead) were commonly linked in early Semitic thinking.238
(In classical pagan thought, too, as well as in early Christian belief and in
Hellenistic and late antique Judaism, stars were often regarded as divine or
angelic and, significantly, as akin to human souls. Indeed, the souls of human
beings were sometimes thought to have originated in the stars, and human salvation
consisted in a return to the stars.)239 As an example of early Semitic thinking,
consider the following fragmentary passage from an ancient Canaanite text:
[And tell,] that the sons of ʾĒl may know,
[And that] the assembly of the stars [may understand]
[——] the council of the heavens [may ?]240
In this light, Lehi’s prophetic call, as it is described at the very beginning
of the Book of Mormon, takes on yet another dimension. An eighth–seventh-century
B.C. surge in piety directed toward the heavenly bodies is detectable not only
in the biblical text but in visual symbolism recovered from the western portions
of the Neo-Assyrian empire. Such symbolism is notably present in seventh-century
B.C. Judah, out of which Lehi emerged.241
There is evidence that Yahweh was regarded as a sun god,242
and some scholars believe that the Jerusalem temple was, from its beginning,
a solar shrine.243 Certain recently
recovered materials also seem to fit the Egypto-Hebraic cultural background
that 1 Nephi claims for Lehi: A 649 B.C. tablet recording a land transaction
includes stellar and lunar symbolism accompanied by the name of the property’s
Judahite owner; of the witnesses to the transaction, one was apparently Egyptian.
A seventh-century B.C. tablet from Haran, which may have been the homeland of
astral symbolism, shows not only stars but the name Laban and an Egyptian
ankh sign (the symbol of life).244
Characters bearing the name Laban appear, of course, both in Genesis
24–31 (where it is associated with Haran) and in 1 Nephi 3–4. Thus,
Lehi’s prophetic call appears, in these regards as in others, to fit precisely
the time and place claimed for it:
[Lehi] was carried away in a vision, even that he
saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded
with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising
their God. And it came to pass that he saw One descending out of the midst
of heaven, and he beheld that his luster was above that of the sun at noon-day.
And he also saw twelve others following him, and their brightness did exceed
that of the stars in the firmament. (1 Nephi 1:8–10)245
Here, not only the Son of God (the “One”) but his twelve apostles—who
are not generally regarded as divine—are evidently premortal beings who
have been sent as representatives of the heavenly council.246 And Lehi’s prophetic
authority is seen, furthermore, to rest at least in part on his having had access
to the council.
In both Canaanite and Hebrew traditions, the stellar members of the divine
assembly were sometimes also viewed as warriors.247 Thus the song of Deborah
exults that “They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought
against Sisera” (Judges 5:20).248 Ugaritic legends recall the attempt by
the god Sea, or Yamm, to seize control of the divine council, and his defeat
at the hands of El’s son, Baʿl.249 In the Bible, too, Yahweh is surrounded
by divine soldiers who fight on his behalf:
Yahweh from Sinai came,
He beamed forth from Seir upon us,
He shone from Mount Paran.
With him were myriads of holy ones
At his right hand marched the divine ones,
Yea, the purified of the peoples. (Deuteronomy 33:1–3)250
Who are these divine soldiers? Although the passage is difficult and ambiguous,
it should be noted that the “holy ones,” the “divine ones,”
seem in the passage just quoted to be identified with “the purified of
the peoples.” Is there a possible reference here to postmortal human beings?
We have already mentioned evidence that suggests that, in very early Israelite
and Canaanite belief, the dead could be referred to as “gods.” However
that question may be answered, though, it would seem that Psalm 68:18 speaks
of the same moment in history when it reads:
The chariots of God are two myriads
Two thousand the bowmen of Yahweh
When he came from Sinai with the Holy Ones.251
But this was not the only conflict possibly involving members of the assembly.
Eliphaz, addressing Job, implied that things have not always been altogether
right even within the divine council itself:
Shall mortal man be more just than God? shall a
man be more pure than his maker? Behold, he put no trust in his servants;
and his angels he charged with folly. (Job 4:17–18)252
“It is a noteworthy fact,” writes Kurt Marti of Psalm 82, “that
Yahweh does not, as a matter of course, dispute the godhood of the gods in this
ancient psalm. On the contrary, he calls upon them to finally take their godhood
seriously or, in other words, to act among human beings in a divine way.”253
The psalm, says Handy, “assumes the existence of deities who rule aspects
of the cosmos independent of, but under the jurisdiction of, the head deity.
They have become corrupt and now are condemned to oblivion for their misbehavior.”254
In the third Christian century, Origen of Alexandria and others believed that
an angel stands watch over every nation and that each angel would be held accountable
for the handling of his stewardship. Moreover, Origen, who equated stars with
angels, taught that they were capable of sin and, citing 1 Corinthians 15:41,
thought that the varying degrees of glory in the heavens reflected or foreshadowed
God’s judgment of them.255
Similarly, Isaiah 24 seems to speak of judgment for misdeeds in the heavens,
as well as for those committed here below: “And it shall come to pass in
that day, that the Lord shall punish the host of the high ones that are on high,
and the kings of the earth upon the earth” (Isaiah 24:21).256
We recall here too the rhetorical question posed at Isaiah 14: “How art
thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” (Isaiah 14:12).
(Especially intriguing is the fact that the Hebrew words rendered in the King
James Bible as “Lucifer, son of the morning” could just as easily
be translated as “morning star, son of dawn”—which draws us
again into the astronomical imagery often connected with the divine assembly.)
Incidentally, Mullen and Cross locate El’s legendary dwelling place, Mount Zaphon,
in the Amanus mountain range, to the north of Ugarit.257
This seems clearly related to the allusion to the fall of Lucifer in Isaiah
14:13–14, where we read his boast, “I will ascend into heaven, I
will exalt my throne above the stars of God [kawkabī ʾēl]:
I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation [Hebrew: the mount of the
council (of El?)], in the sides of the north [Hebrew: Zaphon, i.e.,
the sacred mountain]: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will
be like the most High [ʿelyōn].”258
Yet, although Satan or Lucifer is named among the sons of God at Job 1:6 and
2:1, Christ saw him “as lightning fall from heaven” (Luke 10:18).259
Thus war in heaven took place at least once.260
And Lucifer, as we all know, did not fall alone. The pseudepigraphic text 1
Enoch 86:1–6 has many stars falling from heaven to earth.
Accordingly, there was a danger that such rebellious members (or former members)
of the assembly would lead people on earth astray. We have already noted, in
another context, that the book of Deuteronomy warns against being misled in
such a manner. But that passage bears repeating here:
Take . . . heed . . . lest thou lift up thine eyes
unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even
all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them,
which the Lord thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven.
(Deuteronomy 4:15, 19; compare Deuteronomy 17:3)
To worship the heavenly bodies was to worship “other gods.” “These
olden gods, completely demythologized in Israel’s liturgical life, were
not viewed as active members of the cultus. The Israelite cultus could recognize
the worship of Yahweh alone.”261 Deuteronomy 17:2–7 stipulates capital
punishment for anyone who “hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped
them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not
commanded” (Deuteronomy 17:3; compare Jeremiah 19:13). But the warnings
were not always heeded:
And he [Manasseh, king of Judah] did that which
was evil in the sight of the Lord, after the abominations of the heathen,
whom the Lord cast out before the children of Israel. For he built up again
the high places which Hezekiah his father had destroyed; and he reared up
altars for Baal, and made a grove [ʾăshērāh],
as did Ahab king of Israel; and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served
them. And he built altars in the house of the Lord. . . . And he built altars
for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. (2
Jeremiah prophesied of a future period when such sins would be done away with
and their perpetrators would be punished, if only posthumously:
At that time, saith the Lord, they shall bring out
the bones of the kings of Judah, and the bones of his princes, and the bones
of the priests, and the bones of the prophets, and the bones of the inhabitants
of Jerusalem, out of their graves: And they shall spread them before the sun,
and the moon, and all the host of heaven, whom they have loved, and whom they
have served, and after whom they have walked, and whom they have sought, and
whom they have worshipped: they shall not be gathered, nor be buried; they
shall be for dung upon the face of the earth. (Jeremiah 8:1–2)
Psalm 82, Again
Let us return, now, to a consideration of Psalm 82 itself. Perhaps it will
be wise to repeat the text of the psalm, this time in one of the newer translations—one
that is informed by recent scholarship (especially in the wake of the discoveries
God [ʾĕlōhîm] takes his stand in the court
of heaven [or “assembly of God”; ʿădat ʾēl]
to deliver judgement among the gods themselves [bəqereb
How long will you judge unjustly
and show favour to the wicked?
You ought to give judgement for the weak and the orphan,
and see right done to the destitute and downtrodden,
you ought to rescue the weak and the poor,
and save them from the clutches of wicked men.
But you know nothing, you understand nothing,
you walk in the dark
while earth’s foundations are giving way.
This is my sentence: Gods [ʾĕlōhîm] you may
sons all of you of a high god [or “of the Most High”; bənê
yet you shall die as men die;
princes fall, every one of them, and so shall you.
Arise, O God [ʾĕlōhîm], and judge the earth;
for thou dost pass all nations through thy sieve. (Psalm
We need not take Psalm 82’s portrayal of judgment and condemnation within the
divine council as literally accurate, as representing an actual historical event
(although, obviously, it might), any more than we are obliged to take as literally
true the depiction of Satan in Job 1–2, freely coming and going within
the heavenly court and even placing wagers with God. The psalms are, after all,
poetry. Much as the Thousand and One Nights—though the events
narrated in them are fictional—convey a wealth of background information
about the details and assumptions of the culture that produced them and that
they claim to depict, Psalm 82 and related texts tell us a great deal about
the theological presuppositions of the writers of scripture. And we have seen
that the concept that underlies both Psalm 82 and Job 1–2—that of
a council of divine beings surrounding the supreme God—is surprisingly
widespread in and out of the Bible and surprisingly consistent wherever it appears.
The author of Psalm 82 seems to be expressing, in poetic and perhaps even fictional
form, something like the idea that we have already met in the book of Jubilees,
according to which the obvious evil and disorder of the world is to be blamed
on the gods who were assigned to the other nations of the earth. The psalm thereby
exalts Israel’s God, Yahweh, as alone reliable and competent to govern not merely
Israel, but the whole planet. Thus, in what might be described as an outburst
of inspired local patriotism nicely caught in Mitchell Dahood’s rendition of
the psalm’s final verse, the poet calls upon his deity to assume universal command:
Arise, O God, govern the earth,
rule over all the nations yourself!264
“Yahweh’s position,” writes Mullen of this poem, “. . . is in
the midst of the gods [bəqereb ʾĕlōhîm].
This corresponds exactly to the other Israelite conceptions of the position
of Yahweh in his council—he is enthroned, surrounded by the other deities.
. . . Yahweh is clearly the central god in the assembly, the deity about whom
the other council members gather.”265
Still, he is simply “the preeminent member of the divine assembly.”266
“Among the gods there is none like unto thee, O Lord,” says Psalm
86:8.267 This is, as we have seen,
a common motif—and a rather odd one for those who wish to insist on the
supposed strict monotheism of Hebrew religion: “While the monotheistic
tendencies of Israelite religion prohibited the worship of other gods,”
Mullen remarks, “divine beings surrounded Yahweh in his council.”268
“Despite the tendency of interpreters to view the Hebrew materials from
a monotheistic viewpoint,” Mullen observes elsewhere, “it is apparent
that the biblical materials themselves envisioned Yahweh surrounded by his heavenly
court, the lesser deities who made up the divine entourage.”269
Professor Cross agrees:
In both Ugaritic and biblical literature, the use
of the first person plural is characteristic of address in the divine council.
The familiar “we” of Gen. 1:26, “Let us make man in our image
. . .,” Gen. 3:22, “Behold the man is become as one of us . . .,”
and Gen. 11:7, “Come, let us go down and let us confound their language
. . .,” has long been recognized as the plural address used by Yahweh
in his council.270
The situation was the same in Canaanite lore. The Phoenician account of Sanchuniathon,
which is recorded by Philo Byblius, indicates that El was surrounded by allies
who were named after him: “And the allies of Elous, who is Kronos, were
surnamed Eloim”.271 This attempted
etymology leaves little doubt that these warrior allies were the Ugaritic ʾilm
or bn ʾilm, the “gods” or “sons of God.” “They
were no doubt the minor deities who surrounded ʾĒl,” writes Mullen,
who proceeds to observe that “ʾĒl’s retinue was composed of gods
who were named and fashioned after him.”272
How, then, was ancient Israelite religion different from the faith of those
who surrounded the Hebrews? We must avoid imposing later notions and anachronistic
judgments, particularly those derived from Hellenistic philosophy rather than
from the biblical data, upon the early Israelites.
In many “monotheistic” traditions the gap between God and human
beings is filled by the intermediary forces of angels, constellations, and
demons. The world of divinity becomes a kind of complex bureaucratic system,
or an emanated chain of being according to the neo-Platonist conceptions of
emanation, from the one to the many. . . . Hierarchical . . . conceptions
of the world of divinity stand in opposition to the picture of simple unity
of the philosophers, and as a result the conception of idolatry is conceived
differently. The metaphysical gap between those who reject paganism and the
pagans becomes smaller, since pagan conceptions also involve a pantheon with
one god at the head. What distinguishes them is not the answer to the question
of what forces there are in the world, but rather the answer to the question
of who one is permitted to worship, of whether worship must be exclusive to
the figure at the head of the hierarchy. The exclusivity of God, as the only
metaphysical power who constitutes unity within himself, is undermined, and
the argument turns upon the exclusivity of the worship of one power. . . .
[I]ntermediate forces exist and have influence, but their worship is nevertheless
Such, it seems, was the view of “the world of divinity” among the
early Israelites. Thus, Psalm 89:6–9 reads,
The heavens praise Thy wondrousness, O Yahweh,
Likewise Thy trustworthiness in the assembly of the gods.
For who in the skies can be compared with Yahweh;
Who among the gods is like unto Yahweh?
A god who inspires awe in the council of the gods,
Who is great and fearful beyond all those who surround Him.274
This is also the worldview presupposed in Psalm 82. “That other gods exist
alongside Yahweh, the psalm does not deny. It is, rather, concerned with the
question, To which god do precedence and predominance belong? Naturally, another
question stands behind that one: To which people do precedence and predominance
belong?”275 In the Dead Sea Scrolls,
we read of the “God of the gods” (ʾēl ʾēlîm)276
and of the “prince of the gods” (śār ʾēlîm):
“Behold, Thou art prince of the gods and king of the honored ones, Lord
of every spirit.”277 Biblically,
God is commonly referred to as the “Lord of hosts,” but he is also
“Prince of princes,” “God of gods, and Lord of lords.”278
Who were these other divine beings? Specifically, who were they in the Hebrew
biblical context? It will be useful here to recall the four major interpretations
that have been offered of the “gods” condemned to death at Psalm 82:7:
(1) They were Israelite rulers or judges, ordinary men. (2) They were
the rulers or judges of the other nations—again, apparently ordinary human
beings. (3) They were the people of Israel, gathered at Sinai for the revelation
of God. (4) They were the members of the divine council, the gods or the angels.
Mullen (whose widely recognized and highly esteemed scholarship on the divine
council we have been following, to a great degree, in this paper) recognizes
only three leading interpretations for the gods of Psalm 82. They were, he writes,
either (1) Israelite rulers or judges, (2) rulers or judges of the other nations,
or (3) members of the divine council, the angels or the gods. He argues that
“the latter two must be combined in order for us to interpret the text
correctly,”279 and it seems clear
that he is correct. But an interpretation of Psalm 82 that makes its “gods”
angelic or divine superterrestrial rulers of other nations seems to leave Jesus
liable to a charge of proof texting in John 10, vulnerable to the accusation
that he misapplied the passage in his dispute with the Jews. If Psalm 82 applies
to the divine council, and if the Jews to whom Jesus addressed his comments
were—because they were Israelites and because they were mortal—completely
distinct from the members of the divine council, it seems clear that Jesus’
statement to them is inaccurate in its use of the Old Testament and, essentially,
beside the point. This is, nonetheless, the option accepted by quite a number
of commentators. The Catholic Jerome Biblical Commentary, for instance,
seems to damn with faint praise when it says forthrightly of Jesus’ response
to the Jews that “this was good rabbinic exegesis, which disregarded the
original sense and context of scriptural words.”280
I suspect that I am not alone in feeling uncomfortable with such a solution.
Is there any way of maintaining the interpretation of Psalm 82 that modern scholarship
has largely and (I think) convincingly settled on, without accusing the Savior
of misuse of the passage? It seems to me that there may well be such a possibility.
We should, I am convinced, think in this regard of the remarkable vision of
premortal humanity granted to the patriarch Abraham and recorded in Abraham
Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences
that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many
of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good,
and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers;
for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good;
and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before
thou wast born.
Here we have God standing in the midst of premortal spirits who are appointed
to be rulers, in a scene that is really a textbook instance of the motif of
the divine assembly. These are premortal human beings. Can they truly be called
“gods” in any sense?
Humans as Sons of God
Yes, they can. We should first note Psalm 8:3–6, in which the Psalmist
addresses an important question to God. The passage reads as follows in the
King James Version of the English Bible:
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art
mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast
made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and
with honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands;
thou hast put all things under his feet.
Our concern here is specifically with verse 5, which, in the King James translation,
places human beings “a little lower than the angels.” This is a strong
statement and one that is often quoted in order to illustrate the majesty and
dignity of humankind. Yet, even so, it is too weak. The Hebrew word underlying
KJV “angels” is actually elohim. The “angels” of
Psalm 8:5 KJV are, literally, “‘elohim’ beings, the members of the heavenly
court.”281 The passage should
therefore almost certainly be translated, rather, as “thou hast made him
a little lower than God” or, even, as “thou hast made him a little
lower than the gods.”282
But biblical thought on the subject goes even further than that. Writing to
the saints at Ephesus, the apostle Paul spoke of “one God and Father of
us all” (Ephesians 4:6).283 How
literally did he mean it? Preaching on Mars Hill in Athens, to a pagan audience,
Paul approvingly cited one of their own pagan poets—the third-century
B.C. Aratus of Cilicia—to make his case that human beings are God’s “offspring”
(Acts 17:28–29).284 The word
rendered “offspring” by the King James translators is the Greek genos,
which is cognate with the Latin genus and means “family”
or “race,” or “kind,” or, even, and most especially interesting
for our present purpose, “descendants of a common ancestor.”285
Paul was saying that human beings are akin to God—the word kin
is itself related to genos—or, to put it differently, that he
and they are of the same genus. (The Latin Vulgate rendering of the same passage
uses exactly that word, genus.) What does this mean? The great third-century
philosopher Porphyry of Tyre explained in his Isagoge, one of the most
important and widely read treatises on logic from the ancient world, that the
primary meaning of the term genos or genus refers to
a collection of things related to one another because each is related to
some one thing in a particular way. In this sense, the Heraclids are said
to be a family [genos] because of the relationship of descent from
one man, Heracles. The many people related to each other because of this kinship
deriving from Heracles are called the family of the Heraclids since they as
a family are separate from other families.286
Porphyry’s explanation that the nature of a genus consists at least
partly in its separation from other genera seems to accord very well
with the argument at Acts 17:29, where Paul contends that, because we and God
are of the same genus, “we ought not to think that the Godhead
is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.”
Such things, such genera, he says, are separate from our genus,
and, hence, are not appropriately worshiped by human beings. They are beneath
“The basic language of the Bible and of the Christian religion,”
wrote G. Ernest Wright, albeit in another context,
is an anthropomorphic language, drawn from the categories of personality
and community. Confusion with metaphors drawn from other realms should be
avoided because there is a basic relatedness and kinship between God and human
life which does not exist in the same sense between God and nature.287
Aratus’s declaration, which Paul endorsed, may perhaps represent a quite venerable
position among Greek thinkers. “One is the race of men with the gods,”
wrote the great fifth-century B.C. lyric poet Pindar, using the same word, genos,
that appears in Acts 17.288 The so-called
lamellai, or “Golden Plates,” found in tombs in Thessaly,
Crete, and Italy are among the most intriguing documents from antiquity and
provide still further evidence. These lamellai were apparently placed
in the hands of the dead to remind the soul of powerful phrases that it was
to use when confronting the powers of the underworld; they would thus help the
soul to attain salvation. Among them is a plate from Petelia, dating to the
mid-fourth century before Christ, that seems to make a point rather similar
to Paul’s own. Describing the terrain and the guards that the deceased soul
will encounter in the spirit world, the text advises him to declare, “I
am a child of Earth and starry Heaven; but my race [genos] is of Heaven
alone.”289 In other words, the
deceased person belongs there, in heaven; he is akin to heavenly things and
not to the mundane objects of earth.
That Paul intended to call his audience’s attention to the familial resemblance
and relationship that exists between God and humanity receives support from
a survey of translations of Acts 17:28–29: The King James rendering of
genos as “offspring” is followed by the New American Standard
Bible, the New International Version, the Amplified Bible, the Rheims New Testament,
the New American Bible, the New English Bible, and the New Revised Standard
Version, as well as by Hugh Schonfield’s so-called Authentic New Testament.290
The New Jerusalem Bible says that “We are all his children.” The modern
translation by J. B. Phillips concurs.291
Likewise, the 1990 Arabic New Testament says of God that we are his abnāʾ
(“children”).292 The modern
Hebrew New Testament, using a word derived from the root meaning “to beget,”
also says that we are God’s “children” (yəlādîm).
The paraphrastic Living Bible explains that we are the “sons”
of God. The modern French version called Bonnes Nouvelles Aujourd’hui
agrees, reporting that we are his “enfants.”
William Tyndale’s 1525 New Testament has “generacion,” and identifies
humanity as “the generacion of God.” The Calvinist Geneva Bible of
1560 follows Tyndale, using precisely the same terms. The Oxford English
Dictionary cites Tyndale’s use of the word as an illustration for the meaning
of generation as “offspring, progeny.”
The 1950 Arabic Catholic New Testament, published in Beirut, says that we are
God’s dhurriyya, which means that we are his “progeny,” “descendents,”
“children,” or “offspring.”293
The 1972 Turkish Bible uses precisely the same word (in its Turkicized form
[zürriyet]), with precisely the same meaning.294
Western versions have used analogous language. Deploying a word obviously cognate
with the term genos, the 1556 Latin translation prepared by the Calvinist
Theodore Beza says that we are the progenies of God. We are also progenie
di Dio, or “God’s progeny,” according to the 1914 Italian Bible.295
This is the same word that the University of Chicago’s Constantine Trypanis
chooses to translate genos in the original passage of Aratus’s astronomical
poem Phaenomena, from which Paul was quoting.296
The 1991 Hebrew translation of the Bible Society in Israel says that we are
God’s ṣeʾṣāʾīm, using the common modern
Hebrew word for “descendants.” The popular-language German translation
of the New Testament entitled Die Gute Nachricht says, “Von ihm
stammen auch wir ab” (“We also descend from him”).297
The roughly equivalent modern-language Spanish New Testament entitled Dios
Llega al Hombre, straightforwardly indicates that “Somos familia de
Dios” (“We are the family of God”).298
The 1904 translation of the Bible into Farsī or Persian says that we are
of the nasl-i Khudā, “the lineage of God.”299
Martin Luther’s historic German Bible renders Acts 17:28 as “Wir sind
seines Geschlechts” (“We are of his race”) and expands on this,
in the next verse, by saying that we are “göttlichs Geschlechts”
(“of divine race”).300 This
is a very strong claim. One of the standard manuals of German etymology explains
that the word Geschlecht means, essentially, “what strikes out
in the same direction”301 or
“things of similar kind.” “It was chiefly used in the sense of
‘descent [Abstammung], [noble] extraction,’ and in the sense of ‘people
of the same descent [Abstammung].’ “302
Konstantin Rösch’s early twentieth-century Catholic New Testament concurs
with Luther, explaining that “Wir sind von seinem Geschlecht” (i.e.,
again, “We are of his race”), “von Gottes Geschlecht” (“of
God’s race”), as does the 1958 translation by Rupert Storr (“Sind
wir doch seines Geschlechtes”), which proceeds, like Luther’s, to speak
of our “divine race” (“Sind wir nun so göttlichen Geschlechtes”).303
Ulrich Wilckens’s 1972 translation uses precisely the same terminology.304
The relatively recent Einheitsübersetzung, which takes its name
from the fact that it represents a collaborative effort on the part of the Roman
Catholics and the major Protestant denominations of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland,
renders the passage even more strikingly: “Wir sind von seiner Art,”
it says, which means “We are of his type,” or “We are of his
kind.”305 James Moffatt’s early
twentieth-century translation declares that “We too belong to his race.”306
“Car nous sommes aussi de sa race,” says the original Jerusalem Bible,
as produced by the Ecole Biblique, which reads in the following verse that we
are “de la race de Dieu”: “We are of his race . . . of the race
Thus for Paul, humans are the offspring or the children of God. They are, as
in the words of the Hebrew Bible, bənê ʾĕlōhîm.
Accordingly, it seems reasonable to conclude that, for Paul, just as in ancient
Semitic belief, God is the father of man (ʾabū ʾadami)—or,
as the epistle to the Hebrews (12:9) puts it, “the Father of spirits.”307
“Wherefore David blessed the Lord before all the congregation: and David
said, Blessed be thou, Lord God of Israel our father, for ever and ever”
(1 Chronicles 29:10; compare Psalm 89:26). The Jewish opponents of Christ described
in John 8:41 merely reflected traditional Hebrew belief when they claimed God
as their father.308 “Ye are the
children [bānîm] of the Lord your God,” declares Deuteronomy
14:1.309 This is also the doctrine
that appears to undergird Hebrews 2:11, where that epistle says of Christ, the
divine Son, and of those whom he saves, that “both he that sanctifieth
and they who are sanctified are all of one [ex henos]: for which cause
he is not ashamed to call them brethren.”310
And again, those whom Christ calls “my brethren” in Matthew 25:40
are not limited to believing Christians, as if Jesus were summoning us only
to treat with kindness the poor and afflicted whom we find theologically acceptable.311
The Latter-day Saint understanding that humans are of the same genus
or species as God is thus clearly biblical. “The line separating
the divine from the human in ancient Judaism was not as absolute as is sometimes
supposed.”312 As the distinguished Anglican church historian Alan Richardson
contends, the theologians who produced such classical creeds as the famous Definition
of Faith of the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon, unduly dominated by the
philosophy of their day, exaggerated the gulf between divine and human. And
they have been enormously influential in subsequent Christian thought. Still,
centuries of creedal Christianity notwithstanding, says Richardson, “God
and man are fundamentally akin.”313
But can human beings be called “gods” now? In an
obvious sense, no. Yet just as an acorn is much more to be called an oak than
it can be termed a soup or a submarine or even a palm tree, there is another
sense in which they clearly can be termed “gods” even now.
And at least some early Christians were apparently quite willing to do so. The
illustrious third-century church father Clement of Alexandria, for example,
wrote that Heraclitus, the equally illustrious pre-Socratic philosopher, correctly
declared that “Men are gods, and gods are men.”314
And, once again, we must note that Clement does not limit application of this
dictum to Christian believers. (Heraclitus obviously cannot have had any such
limitation in mind since he lived, a pagan, several centuries before Christ.)
The first-century A.D. Life of Adam and Eve, a Jewish text, has the
angels worshiping the newly created Adam, at God’s command.315
Even sources reluctant to come right out and say it acknowledged that the term
god could be used in various ways, some of which were applicable to
human beings: “Learn this also,” says Peter in a passage from the
third-century Clementine Homilies that bears obvious relevance to the
controversy recorded in John 10:
The bodies of men have immortal souls, which have been clothed with the breath
of God; and having come forth from God, they are of the same substance, but
they are not gods. But if they are gods, then in this way the souls of all
men, both those who have died, and those who are alive, and those who shall
come into being, are gods. But if in a spirit of controversy you maintain
that these also are gods, what great matter is it, then, for Christ to be
called God? for He has only what all have.316
Note, incidentally, that humans are said here to be of the same “substance”
Some will object, of course, that the thesis advanced by this paper violates
monotheism. But ancient Jews and Christians would, it seems, have disagreed,
and we must be careful neither to impose our own assumptions on the Bible and
other early texts nor to presume that our presuppositions are necessarily correct.
While some might suppose that the other “gods” were so in name only,
Origen of Alexandria insisted that “Scripture distinguishes between those
gods which are such only in name and those which are truly gods.”318 “And
by this name ‘gods,’ ” said Origen, “we are not to understand the
objects of heathen worship (for we know that ‘all the gods of the heathen are
demons’), but the gods mentioned by the prophets as forming an assembly, whom
God ‘judges,’ and to each of whom He assigns his proper work.”319 In fact,
Origen was scornful of those who refused to take language of “gods”
and deification as literally true. “Whilst there are thus many gods and
lords,” he wrote,
whereof some are such in reality, and others are such only in name, we strive
to rise not only above those whom the nations of the earth worship as gods,
but also beyond those spoken of as gods in Scripture, of whom they are wholly
ignorant who are strangers to the covenants of God given by Moses and by our
Saviour Jesus, and who have no part in the promises which He has made to us
The eminent evangelical scholar Larry Hurtado warns against
a tendency to proceed deductively from a priori presumptions of
what monotheism must mean, instead of building up a view inductively from
the evidence of how monotheism actually operated in the thought and practice
of ancient Jews. There seems to be an implicit agreement . . . that more than
one transcendent being of any significance complicates or constitutes a weakening
of or threat to monotheism.
“It is clear,” he continues, “that ancient Jews were not characteristically
monists or unitarians, but does this mean that they were not monotheists?”
a tendency to proceed as if we can know in advance what “monotheism”
must mean, which turns out to be a very modern, monistic form of monotheism,
and can accordingly evaluate ancient Jewish texts and beliefs as to whether
or how closely they meet an a priori standard of “pure monotheism.”321
Whether or not a community is monotheistic, according to Hurtado, is not to
be deduced from “this rather Aristotelian approach,” and not by judging
the implications of its doctrines, as we see them, against the standard of our
own theology. Instead, the crucial indicator is to be found in the community’s
worship practices, in its liturgy, and in its self-understanding. He urges scholars
to work more inductively, gathering what “monotheism” is on the
ground, so to speak, from the evidence of what self-professed monotheists
believe and practice. In fact, I suggest that for historical investigation
our policy should be to take people as monotheistic if that is how they describe
themselves, in spite of what we might be inclined to regard at first as anomalies
in their beliefs.322
We should take as “monotheism” the religious beliefs and practices
of people who describe themselves as monotheistic. Otherwise, we implicitly
import a definition from the sphere of theological polemics in an attempt
to do historical analysis. . . . If we are to avoid a priori definitions
and the imposition of our own theological judgments, we have no choice but
to accept as monotheism the religion of those who profess to be monotheists,
however much their religion varies and may seem “complicated” with
other beings in addition to the one God.323
The monotheism of the early Hebrews and, indeed, of the early Christians need
not look exactly like the monotheism that normative Christianity expects today,
centuries after the great ecumenical councils synthesized the doctrine of the
Trinity. When Trypho the Jew demanded that the second-century St. Justin Martyr
“show us that the Spirit of prophecy [i.e., the Bible] admits another God
[i.e., Jesus] besides the Maker of all things,” Justin didn’t instruct
him in the mystery of one God in three persons. Trinitarianism hadn’t yet been
formulated. Rather, he set about, quite cheerfully and at considerable length,
to do exactly what Trypho had requested—concluding with a discussion of
Psalm 82.324 Similarly, albeit no doubt surprisingly to some, early Christian
monotheism did not rule out the teaching of human deification:
The description of salvation as deification is at first glance an unlikely
development in early Christian theology. In the case of worshiping the pagan
gods or honoring deified rulers, the earliest Christian authors explicitly
and vehemently reject the idea of any creature being considered a god as this
was contrary to the church’s monotheistic confession. Pagan deification is
roundly decried as deriving from the serpent’s temptation of Adam and Eve
in Paradise that “you will be like gods”, which event is even pinpointed
as the original source of pagan polytheism. In addition to disobedience, it
was the belief in other gods and the desire that Adam and Eve “themselves
could become gods” which burdened “the soul of man like a disease.”
This activity of the early fathers reflects their conflict with the surrounding
culture. On account of this refusal to venerate the gods and worship the emperor,
the church in places suffered persecution. And the rejection of such pagan
ideas of deification earned the early Christians the label “atheists”.
Clement of Alexandria simply follows the tradition before him when he completely
rejects the pagan deification of the heavens, of people, of passions, and
of bodily shapes and calls it all “the manufacturing of gods.” The
idea and language of deification, therefore, would seem unlikely to find a
positive use in Christian doctrine. Nevertheless, a well-known and deeply
traditional description of salvation as deification in the early fourth century
is explainable as a natural development of the church’s theological use of
Psalm 82 in the late first and early second centuries.325
However unlikely it may appear, a doctrine of human deification was present
across the early Christian church, very much including Clement of Alexandria
himself. Nispel is at pains to distinguish pagan theosis from a Hellenized
Christian version of human deification, and to separate both from a very early
Christian doctrine of divinization that arose on entirely biblical soil.326
And it must frankly be admitted that the later mutation of the doctrine of human
deification, as it appears in the church fathers, tends to move further and
further away from the very literally conceived doctrine of the early Christians
and their biblical forebears. For one thing, the doctrine of divine anthropomorphism,
of a corporeal deity, gradually disappeared from official Christian teaching,327
and any concept of theosis divorced from belief in an anthropomorphic
God must inevitably differ sharply from the earlier doctrine that presupposed
such a deity. A related development saw the emergence, in Christian thought,
of a chasm between God and humankind, with the Greek fathers, particularly,
insisting on the unapproachable superessential ousia— the ontological
uniqueness—of God.328 Such concepts
and such language are, of course, utterly foreign to the Bible, as to the first
Christians. But even the later Hellenized doctrine of theosis recalls
the richer teaching of the early church—of which it is, albeit distorted,
a conspicuous fossil remnant—and foreshadows the full concept as revealed
in the restoration.
Once we have divested ourselves of certain theological prejudices that are,
apparently, foreign to ancient Hebrew and early Christian thought, the Latter-day
Saint claim that God and humankind are akin seems a promising basis upon which
to resolve the apparent disagreement between the reference of Psalm 82:6 to
heavenly gods and the reference of John 10:34 to mortal human beings. For John
10 must apply to human beings, or its narrative makes no sense, yet it must
also involve genuinely divine beings or Christ’s argument comes down to little
more than sophistic equivocation. The Latter-day Saint position also seems to
suggest a way to deal with Morgenstern’s charge of textual corruption against
Psalm 82, by showing that, even if verses 2–4 are taken as referring to
human beings, this is not necessarily incompatible with the clear reference
to divine beings in verses 6–7. Finally, the Latter-day Saint conception
of humanity and divinity seems to allow a reconciliation of the broad contemporary
consensus that Psalm 82 is speaking of celestial beings with the necessity,
in order to see Jesus’ argument as logically respectable, that it also refer
to human beings.
The precise details of the psalm remain somewhat difficult, and perhaps there
is no real point in trying to pin them down with theological precision in any
event. Psalm 82 is poetry, not a treatise on systematic theology. But its broad
underlying conception of man and God, interpreted from a Latter-day Saint perspective,
makes sense. “The theme of human divinization” is indeed, as Annewies
van den Hoek has written, “implicit in the Psalm. . . . The Psalm text
and its Johannine interpretation . . . provide the legitimatization for followers
of Christ to identify themselves as ‘gods’ or ‘angels,’ just as Rabbinic traditions
do for the Israelites.”329 Again, as St. Justin Martyr said, “let
the interpretation of the Psalm be held just as you wish, yet thereby it is
demonstrated that all men are deemed worthy of becoming ‘gods,’ and of having
power to become sons of the Highest.”330 Moreover, it seems to accord with
what we are now learning about very early Hebraic and pan-Semitic ideas.
We have seen that little or no distinction is made in the biblical texts between
mortal human prophets as heralds of the divine council, on the one hand, and,
on the other, gods as heralds of the divine council. We have noted that ancient
biblical and Semitic documents appear to use the term gods for deceased human
beings. We have learned that, according to at least two Jewish texts from the
period just before the birth of Jesus, the righteous dead can be exalted to
participation in the heavenly council. (Indeed, it may be worth noting that,
in the epigraph to this paper from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the reference is to
a singular “council of gods and men.”)331
Moreover, we have seen abundant Jewish and early Christian evidence for a doctrine
of theosis or human deification. We have seen that, from a Latter-day
Saint perspective, the premortal spirits of humankind seem to be included in
the membership of the divine assembly.332
We have also noted that biblical and other relevant ancient documents appear
to describe both gods and humans as the children of God.
Once again, we recall the four standard interpretations of the “gods”
in Psalm 82: They were either (1) ordinary mortal Israelite rulers or judges,
(2) ordinary mortal rulers or judges of the other nations, (3) the ordinary
mortal people of Israel gathered at Sinai for the revelation of the law, or
(4) angelic or divine members of the council of El. Any of the first three would
be compatible with Jesus’ use of the passage in John 10. Unfortunately, though,
none of the three seems, on its own, to be compatible with the best recent scholarship
on the original intent of the psalm itself. Only combined acceptance of the
fourth interpretive option and one or more of the first three can make consistent
sense of both Psalm 82 and John 10 without accusing Jesus, in the New Testament,
of misrepresenting the real meaning of the former passage. More basically, only
if the genus “gods” and the genus “humans” overlap can the
Savior’s application of Psalm 82 to mortal human beings be a legitimate one.
We have seen that, according to both the apostle Paul and a plausible reading
of the Hebrew Bible, they do overlap. Yet, to my knowledge, in all Christendom
it is only the Latter-day Saints, to whom a doctrine of the antemortal existence
of human beings and of their literal kinship with God has been revealed, who
recognize that gods and men form a single class, differentiated along a spectrum
of holiness, wisdom, and power. Consequently, it would seem that the Latter-day
Saints are in a uniquely strong position to reconcile the original sense of
Psalm 82 with the Savior’s use of it in John 10.
It is a very great pleasure to offer this article in tribute, however inadequate,
to Professor Richard Lloyd Anderson. If his life’s work consisted only of the
two books Understanding Paul and Investigating the Book of Mormon
Witnesses, he would still rank among the most significant scholars of the
restored church. But, of course, he has given us much more still.
I wish to thank my friends and colleagues Professors William J. Hamblin
and Stephen D. Ricks for helpful comments on various drafts of this paper. Roger
D. Cook, Daniel McKinlay, Stephen D. Ricks, Royal Skousen, John Tvedtnes, and
Bryan J. Thomas assisted with important references. While making final adjustments
to the essay, I profited from the lengthy and revealing e-mail exchange between
Professor Hamblin and a professional anti-Mormon named James White on the interpretation
of Psalm 82 that has been posted, complete and unedited, at http://www.shields-research.org/Critics/A-O_01b.html.
(Mr. White has also placed a cropped and vigorously “spin-doctored”
version of that exchange at his own web site.) Of course, the argument and the
conclusions (and any attendant errors of fact or judgment) are mine alone.
1. Unless otherwise specified,
biblical quotations in this paper are taken from the King James Version.
2. Clement of Alexandria, The Exhortation
to the Greeks 1; English rendering from G. W. Butterworth, trans., Clement
of Alexandria (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953), 23.
3. John 10:30.
4. Compare the distinction made by Philo,
On Dreams 1:229, between the being who is “truly God” and
who is, accordingly, uniquely identified by use of the Greek article with the
word for God, and he who is divine by extension or analogy, for whom
the article is omitted. Philo Judaeus, or Philo of Alexandria, was a contemporary
of Jesus and John. “Philo does not seem to regard the use of ‘God’ as a
designation for the Logos as improper,” writes John J. Collins, “although
he clearly distinguishes between the supreme God and the intermediary deity.”
See John J. Collins, “Jewish Monotheism and Christian Theology,” in
Aspects of Monotheism: How God Is One, ed. Hershel Shanks and Jack
Meinhardt (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1997), 93; compare
96. Logos, of course, is the term used for Jesus in John 1.
5. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church
(Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1967), 85–86.
6. My analysis here is indebted to that
of Jerome H. Neyrey, ” ‘I Said: You Are Gods': Psalm 82:6 and John 10,”
Journal of Biblical Literature 108/4 (1989): 651–53.
7. Ibid., 651–52. The relevance
of this to passages in the Bible (e.g., John 17:11, where the same Greek word,
hen, is used) and in the Book of Mormon where the Father, Son, and
Holy Ghost are said to be “one” should be obvious. Such terminology
does not, though, commit us to seeing Jesus and the Father as somehow ontologically
“one,” in the fashion of traditional trinitarian metaphysics. Larry
W. Hurtado, “What Do We Mean by ‘First-Century Jewish Monotheism’?”
Society of Biblical Literature 1993 Seminar Papers, ed. Eugene H. Lovering
Jr. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993), 351, is right to recognize “the rather
flexible ability of ancient Jewish monotheism to incorporate a plurality in
the operation of the sovereignty of the one God.” Hen is the neuter
form of the Greek “one”; heis is the masculine form. “I
note in passing,” Hurtado continues (on pp. 356–57), “that monotheistic
rhetoric, e.g., the use of heis and monos formulae in references
to the divine, can be found in non-Jewish sources of the Greco-Roman period
as well. . . . But in religious practice, this pagan ‘monotheism’ amounted to
the recognition of all gods as expressions of one common divine essence or as
valid second-order gods under a (often unknowable) high god, and, as such, as
worthy of worship. This was categorically different from the exclusivist monotheism
of Jews who rejected the worship of beings other than the one God of the Bible.”
Is it altogether different, though, from early Christianity, which encouraged
worship both of God the Father and of Jesus Christ?
8. See, for example, John 5:18; 10:33;
and 19:7, 12. An analogous accusation is frequently made against the Latter-day
Saints. We are, our critics charge, “the God Makers.” Our response
should be analogous, as well. For a brief survey of some of the voluminous evidence
for early Christian teaching of a doctrine of human deification, see Daniel
C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, Offenders for a Word: How Anti-Mormons
Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Aspen
Books, 1992), 75–92, which gives numerous references for further reading.
9. Neyrey, “I Said: You are Gods,”
653, emphasis in the original source.
10. Raymond E. Brown, John A. Fitzmyer,
and Roland E. Murphy, eds., The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood
Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 2:446 [63:120]; hereinafter referred to as JBC.
11. Kenneth Barker et al., eds.,
The NIV Study Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1985), 1617n; hereinafter referred to as NIV.
12. Neyrey, “I Said: You Are
13. Mitchell Dahood, Psalms II:
51–100 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1968), 269, dates the psalm to the
period before the Israelite monarchy. So, too, do Kurt Marti, Die Psalmen
73–106: Annäherungen (Stuttgart: Radius, 1992), 59; Hans-Joachim
Kraus, Psalmen: 2. Teilband (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag,
1966), 570. On the other hand, Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51–100,
Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 20 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), 333–34,
sees it as relatively late.
14. E. Theodore Mullen Jr., The
Assembly of the Gods: The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature
(Chico: Scholars Press, 1980), 228.
15. Julian Morgenstern, “The
Mythological Background of Psalm 82,” Hebrew Union College Annual
14 (1939): 29–30. Kraus, Psalmen, 569, also affirms the excellent
state of the text.
16. See Reginald C. Fuller, Leonard
Johnston, and Conleth Kearns, eds., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture
(Nashville: Nelson, 1975), 472; hereinafter referred to as NCCHS.
17. JBC, 1:591
[35:98]; compare NCCHS, 472.
18. Helmer Ringgren, The Faith
of Qumran: Theology of the Dead Sea Scrolls, expanded ed., trans. Emilie
T. Sander, ed. James H. Charlesworth (New York: Crossroad, 1995), 202, says
that among the common terms the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls used for their
own community was ʿēdāh, or “congregation,”
“an ancient term for Israel’s cult-community.” The term also appears
in such passages as Numbers 26:9; 31:16; Joshua 22:17; and Psalm 1:5. Clearly,
though, its use to indicate earthly councils of mortal humans no more implies
the humanity of Psalm 82’s ʾĕlōhîm than the existence
of earthly thrones implies the mere humanity of God because he is described
biblically as sitting upon a throne.
19. See Mullen, Assembly of the
Gods, 228 n. 195; compare Neyrey, “I Said: You Are Gods,” 647.
One minority strand of interpretation that we can safely ignore even takes Psalm
82:6 as ironic: When the psalmist, speaking for Yahweh, says, “You are
gods,” this interpretation maintains that he is really saying something
along the lines of “You call yourselves gods!” (NCCHS,
472.) But there seems nothing in the text to suggest this, and it is not at
all obvious that Jesus would have strengthened his position by quoting to the
Jews an ironic description of mortal human beings as gods which really intended
precisely the opposite. Dahood, Psalms II, 268, 270, takes a more sophisticated
but related view, with some actual grounding in Hebrew usage, but his interpretation,
too, seems to make impossible any unified understanding of Psalm 82 and John
10. Nor does it appear to have found much acceptance among other scholars.
20. See Dahood, Psalms II,
21. NIV, 1617n.
22. NIV, 873n.
23. NCCHS, 472. And, in
fact, Psalm 82:2–4 could be seen as supporting something like this interpretation.
According to this view, Psalm 82:5, then, would simply affirm “you are
divinely appointed judges.”
24. Cyrus H. Gordon and Gary A. Rendsburg,
The Bible and the Ancient Near East, 4th ed. (New York: Norton, 1997),
25. Ibid., 37 n. 9.
26. Neyrey, “I Said: You Are
27. James E. Talmage, Jesus the
Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1962), 489, 501. Malcolm R. Thorp,
“James E. Talmage and the Tradition of Victorian Lives of Jesus,”
Sunstone 12 (January 1988): 8–13, discusses the bibliographical
resources that Elder Talmage drew upon for Jesus the Christ. Of course,
Elder Talmage’s deservedly revered work, while surely correct in the broad picture,
has never been held to be either canonical or inerrant in all its details.
28. NIV, 873n. For the heavenly assembly,
see such biblical passages as Psalm 89:5–7 (where the King James translation
rather obscures the proper meaning); 1 Kings 22:19; Job 1:6; 2:1; and Isaiah
29. NIV, 873n.
30. JBC, 1:591
31. Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150:
A Commentary on Books III, IV, and V of the Psalms (London: Inter-Varsity,
1975), 299. Rev. Kidner’s example and the examples of others cited in these
notes indicate that it is misguided to suggest that rejection of the interpretation
of Psalm 82’s ʾĕlōhîm as human judges simply reflects
lack of faith. (This is the accusation leveled by Mr. White in his exchange
with Dr. Hamblin.)
32. See Numbers 5:11–31 for
a possible parallel.
33. Martin Luther, Die gantze
Heilige Schrifft Deudsch , ed. Hans Volz (Munich: Rogner & Bernhard,
1972); Tanakh—The Holy Scriptures: The New JPS Translation according
to the Traditional Hebrew Text (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society,
34. It is true that both the Septuagint
and the Vulgate render ʾĕlōhîm as “angels”
at Psalm 8:5. But that fact is entirely consistent with the theological evolution
presupposed in this paper.
35. Morgenstern, “The Mythological
Background of Psalm 82,” 30. And, as Morgenstern points out in n. 3 on
the same page, even Kittel eventually abandoned it.
36. Ibid., 38; compare 75.
37. Lowell K. Handy, “The Appearance
of Pantheon in Judah,” in The Triumph of Elohim: From Yahwisms to Judaisms,
ed. Diana V. Edelman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 40. The interpretive ancient
Aramaic Jewish Targum to Psalm 82:6 didn’t hesitate to flatly change the text
from “gods” and “sons of the Most High” to “angels,”
in order to lessen the passage’s impact.
38. Novatian, Treatise concerning
the Trinity 20, in Ante-Nicene Fathers (hereinafter ANF),
ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (1885; reprint, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson,
39. Neyrey, “I Said: You Are
40. JBC, 2:446 [63:120].
41. See Neyrey, “I Said: You
Are Gods,” 654, 655–59, 662. See also Morton Smith, “The Image
of God: Notes on the Hellenization of Judaism, with Especial Reference to Goodenough’s
Work on Jewish Symbols,” in Morton Smith, Studies in the Cult of Yahweh,
ed. Shaye J. D. Cohen (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 1:121.
42. Ibid., 648.
43. See ibid., 656.
44. Ibid., 649.
45. See ibid., 647, 663.
46. See Morgenstern, “The Mythological
Background of Psalm 82,” 30–31.
47. Kraus, Psalmen, 570–71.
The conservative Tate, Psalms 51–100, 340–41, likewise
dismisses the “human judge” interpretation.
48. NCCHS, 472; Kraus, Psalmen,
569–74. In his e-mail exchange with Mr. White, Dr. Hamblin summarizes
a search of twenty-two commentaries on Psalm 82. Twelve had been published in
1970 or before (going back to Calvin in the sixteenth century). Of these, eight
hold that the psalm’s “gods” are actually human judges, while three
allow that they might be either earthly judges or celestial beings, and one
(which appeared in 1968) insists that they are heavenly persons. Ten of the
commentaries had been published in 1971 or later. All of these, not excepting
even conservative Protestant writers, declare the “gods” of Psalm
82 to be celestial beings. My impression is that Dr. Hamblin’s sample is representative.
The discovery of the Ugaritic materials has affected biblical studies dramatically,
here as elsewhere (on which, see below). Earlier interpretations of Psalm 82
were offered on the basis of less information and knowledge.
49. Tate, Psalms 51–100,
329 n. 1.d, points out that “It is probable that the Greek versions represent
a variant Heb[rew] textual tradition. . . . It is unlikely that the [Septuagint]
translators would have gone to the plural . . .’gods,’ without finding it in
the Heb[rew] texts.” Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz, “Jahwe
und seine Aschera”: Anthropomorphes Kultbild in Mesopotamien, Ugarit und
Israel: Das biblische Bilderverbot (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1992),
147–48, contend that the original phrase was “council of the gods,”
rather than “council of God,” the text having, they say, been altered
in the direction of monotheism by later editors. For other examples of such
possible editing to suppress an earlier polytheism, see Morgenstern, “The
Mythological Background of Psalm 82,” 39 n. 22, 118 n. 167.
50. Mullen, Assembly of the Gods,
51. JBC, 1:590 [35:98].
52. NCCHS, 472. From conservative
Protestants, compare Alton H. McEachern, Layman’s Bible Book Commentary:
Psalms (Nashville: Broadman, 1981), 104–5; G. C. D. Howley, F. F.
Bruce, and H. L. Ellison, A Bible Commentary for Today (Grand Rapids,
Mich.: Zondervan, 1979), 659. Kidner, Psalms 73–150, 297, says the beings
involved are angels.
53. See Morgenstern, “The Mythological
Background of Psalm 82,” 31–35, 38, 71–73, 114.
54. Usefully concise accounts are
G. Ernest Wright, “The Faith of Israel,” in The Interpreter’s
Bible, ed. George A. Buttrick et al. (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury,
1952), 1:360; E. Theodore Mullen Jr., “Divine Assembly,” in The
Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman et al. (New York: Doubleday,
55. Interpreters should, however,
bear in mind the important caveats offered by Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger,
Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel, trans. Thomas
H. Trapp (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 11–12, 395–96, and by Gordon
and Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, 89. Morton Smith,
“The Common Theology of the Ancient Near East,” Journal of
Biblical Literature 71 (1952): 135–47, had offered a similar
caution many years before, but then proceeded, as the title of his article indicates,
to sketch numerous parallels between the varied theologies of the Israelites
and their neighbors.
56. Gordon and Rendsburg, The
Bible and the Ancient Near East, 88–89; compare 20, 88, 138 n. 11.
Some readers will recognize Cyrus H. Gordon, the eminent author of Ugaritic
Textbook (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1965).
57. Theodore J. Lewis, review of
The Ugaritic Baal Cycle, vol. 1, by Mark S. Smith, Journal
of Biblical Literature 118/1 (1999): 170.
58. William F. Albright, Yahweh
and the Gods of Canaan: A Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths (Garden
City: Doubleday, 1968), 255.
59. See ibid., 114–16.
60. Ezekiel 14:14, 20; 28:3; see
Gordon and Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, 289. He
is not to be confused with the Daniel of the Babylonian captivity, who has a
biblical book named after him.
61. Mullen, Assembly of the Gods,
3; compare 284; see also Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic:
Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1973), 44–45, 183, 186; Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan,
62. Mullen, Assembly of the Gods,
113; compare Morgenstern, “The Mythological Background of Psalm 82,”
39 n. 22, 40. At pages 113–14, Mullen contends that the Egyptian “synod
of the gods” is of less relevance to the Bible than the concepts of other
Near Eastern cultures. Dahood, Psalms II, 269, identifies Psalm 29:1–2;
77:14; 89:6–9; 95:3; 96:4; and 148:2 as alluding to the divine council.
63. As rendered in Florentino García
Martínez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English
(Leiden: Brill, 1994), 373–74.
64. Mullen, Assembly of the Gods,
115. I would contend that the notion survives even into the sacred text of Islam,
dictated in the seventh century A.D. Both Qurʾān 37:8 and 38:69 speak
of al-malāʾ al-aʿlā, the “exalted assembly”
or “high council,” which is clearly placed in heaven and associated
with the angels of God’s presence.
65. Mullen, Assembly of the Gods,
120, 147, 278–79, 283–84.
66. Ibid., 5; compare 181, 208–9.
67. Ibid., 116.
68. See ibid., 113 n. 1. Mullen sees
the beginnings of “individualization of the members of the council”
in Job 1–2, Zechariah 3, and Daniel 7, which he evidently dates to a relatively
late period. On the terminology for angels in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which includes
“sons of heaven” (1QS iv.22; xi.8; 1QH iii.22), see Ringgren, Faith
of Qumran, 83–84. “Sons of heaven” may have been a reverential
euphemism for the older “sons of El” or “sons of the Most High.”
Morgenstern, “The Mythological Background of Psalm 82,” 58–59,
65–66, offers some interesting insights into the shift from a council
of gods to an angelic hierarchy, which is already occurring within the Bible
itself. Compare Wright, “The Faith of Israel,” 360. It is instructive
to note that the third-century B.C. Greek translation of the Old Testament,
the Septuagint (“LXX”), routinely rewrites the Hebrew gods
to read angels. Examples include Psalms 8:6 and 97:7 (=LXX 96:7). The
fifth-century A.D. Syriac Peshitta does the same at Psalm 82:1.
69. Mullen, Assembly of the Gods,
70. See ibid., 13–15. Mullen
notes that some of the epithets applied to El as creator-god are applied, in
the Hebrew Bible, to Yahweh.
71. See Cross, Canaanite Myth
and Hebrew Epic, 13–15.
72. Ibid., 15, 42–43; Mullen,
Assembly of the Gods, 15; Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God:
Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco,
1990), 21; see also Keel and Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God,
113–16, where El’s position as father of the gods is compared to that
of Amun in the Egyptian pantheon. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan,
234, alludes to legendary accounts of El sacrificing his “only” son
for the sake of humankind; the Greek word translated by “only,” monogenēs,
is rendered as “only begotten” in the King James Version of the New
73. Cross, Canaanite Myth and
Hebrew Epic, 15–19, 42–43, 180; Mullen, Assembly of the
Gods, 24–25, 32, 250 n. 225; Gordon and Rendsburg, The Bible
and the Ancient Near East, 97.
74. The translation is from Cross,
Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 17.
75. Mullen, Assembly of the Gods,
16, 19, 21–22.
76. Ibid., 84.
77. Ibid., 92–109, takes issue
with the commonly held idea that Baʿl actually deposed El.
78. See ibid., 9 n. 3, 84–85,
92, 109–10, 119–20.
79. Ibid., 41.
80. Compare Conrad E. L’Heureux,
Rank among the Canaanite Gods: El, Baʿal, and the Rephaʾim (Missoula:
Scholars Press, 1979), 3–28.
81. On this point, see Cross, Canaanite
Myth and Hebrew Epic, 43.
82. Mullen, Assembly of the Gods,
44–45; compare 109–10, 146; see also Cross, Canaanite Myth and
Hebrew Epic, 40–41; and L’Heureux, Rank among the Canaanite Gods,
83. See Cross, Canaanite Myth
and Hebrew Epic, 151–52, 152 n. 23.
84. Ibid., 155; compare 152 (in Hebrew).
Professor Cross discusses the proper interpretation of the phrase bənê
ʾēlîm at pp. 45–46.
85. On the notion that the Old Testament
as we now have it suppresses important facts about ancient Israelite religion,
see William G. Dever, “Folk Religion in Early Israel: Did Yahweh Have a
Consort?” in Shanks and Meinhardt, Aspects of Monotheism, 27–56;
Keel and Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God, 11–12,
390–91, 396; Othmar Keel, Goddesses and Trees, New Moon and Yahweh:
Ancient Near Eastern Art and the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic
Press, 1998), 49–50; Susan Niditch, Ancient Israelite Religion
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 23, 27, 31.
86. Compare Psalm 82:6; possibly
also Genesis 6:2–4 and Job 38:7. Wright, “The Faith of Israel,”
360, flatly pronounces the Septuagint variant “the correct text.”
(Writing at the very beginning of the 1950s, he may not have known about the
Dead Sea Scrolls version mentioned immediately below.) Perhaps significantly,
the ancient Arabs, a Semitic people who were akin to the Hebrews, seem to have
identified at least certain angels as the sons or daughters of God, and to have
spoken of them, also, as gods and goddesses. See the critique of this idea offered
by the rigorously monotheistic Qurʾān in the early seventh century
(e.g., at 16:57–59; 17:40; 21:26–29; 23:91–92; 37:149–53;
43:16–19; 52:39; and 53:19–28).
87. F. C. Conybeare and St. George
Stock, Grammar of Septuagint Greek (1905; reprint, n.p.: Hendrickson,
88. See Emanuel Tov, Textual
Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 269, 365;
also Mullen, Assembly of the Gods, 119 n. 19; 202–3 n. 153; compare
Smith, Early History of God, 7, and 114 n. 138, where it is suggested
that the Masoretic text was tampered with in order to suppress anthropomorphism.
89. Tate, Psalms 51–100,
90. Mullen, Assembly of the Gods,
91. See Dever, “Folk Religion
in Early Israel,” 29; Keel and Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images
of God, 118, also suggest the possibility. Ringgren, Faith of Qumran,
48, writes that “The usual designation for God [in the Dead Sea Scrolls]
is the archaic ʾēl.” They also use the term “the
Most High” (ʿelyôn), e.g., at 1QS iv.22.
92. See Smith, Early History
of God, 7, also 18; compare Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study
of Israel’s Second God (Louisville: Westminster, 1992). See also Larry
W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish
Monotheism, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Clark, 1998), and Collins, “Jewish
Monotheism and Christian Theology,” 81–105, for rather different
but, I think, relevant and intriguing approaches. Smith, Early History of
God, 22, proposes, in the development of Hebrew religion, “an early
stage when Israel knew three deities, El, Asherah, and Yahweh.” I discuss
this subject in my article “Nephi and His Asherah: A Note on 1 Nephi 11:8–23,”
in Mormons, Scripture, and the Ancient World: Studies in Honor of John L.
Sorenson, ed. Davis Bitton (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998), 191–243. On
Asherah, see now also Dever, “Folk Religion in Early Israel,” 27–56;
P. Kyle McCarter, “The Religious Reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah,”
in Shanks and Meinhardt, Aspects of Monotheism, 74–80. Yahweh
seems also to have been worshiped among ancient pagan polytheists in Syria in
the first and second millennia before Christ. See Gordon and Rendsburg, The
Bible and the Ancient Near East, 38 n. 11, 113, 250–51; also Keel
and Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God, 314 n. 35. Gordon
and Rendsburg believe that Yahwism was originally non-Hebraic.
93. See Morgenstern, “The Mythological
Background of Psalm 82,” 120, 120 n. 175.
94. See, for example, Smith, Early
History of God, 7, 21; Baruch Halpern, “‘Brisker Pipes Than Poetry':
The Development of Israelite Monotheism,” in Judaic Perspectives on
Ancient Israel, ed. Jacob Neusner, Baruch A. Levine, and Ernest S. Frerichs
(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 85; John Day, “Asherah in the Hebrew Bible
and Northwest Semitic Literature,” Journal of Biblical Literature
105/3 (1986): 387, 387 n. 9; Peter Hayman, “Monotheism—A Misused
Word in Jewish Studies?” Journal of Jewish Studies 42/1 (1991):
1–15; Dietrich and Loretz, “Jahwe und seine Aschera,” 155–
57. In our Bible as it currently reads, see Job 1:6 and 2:1, as well as Psalm
29 (in its original Hebrew), Psalm 82, and Micah 4:5.
95. Collins, “Jewish Monotheism
and Christian Theology,” 82. For a somewhat different approach, arguing
for a pre-Christian Jewish “ditheism,” see Ioan P. Culianu, “The
Angels of the Nations and the Origins of Gnostic Dualism,” in Studies
in Gnosticism and Hellenistic Religions, Presented to Gilles Quispel on the
Occasion of His 65th Birthday, ed. R. van den Broek and M. J. Vermaseren
(Leiden: Brill, 1981), 78–91. Culianu seems to have been unaware of the
original reading of Deuteronomy 32, just presented.
96. Hurtado, “First-Century
Jewish Monotheism,” 365, 367; compare Smith, “Common Theology,”
97. Ibid., 364 n. 69.
98. Peter Hayman, “Monotheism—A
Misused Word in Jewish Studies?” Journal of Jewish Studies 42/1
99. Christopher Stead, Philosophy
in Christian Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 167.
Latter-day Saints, of course, can easily affirm that of the Father,
Son, and Holy Ghost.
100. Willem A. VanGemeren, ed.,
New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 376.
101. See Frank Moore Cross, “Yahweh
and the God of the Patriarchs,” Harvard Theological Review 55
(1962): 234; compare 241– 42; Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic,
48; Mullen, Assembly of the Gods, 9, 10, 88, 93; Albright, Yahweh
and the Gods of Canaan, 119–20.
102. See Keel and Uehlinger, Gods,
Goddesses, and Images of God, 205, 260–61, 279; Albright, Yahweh
and the Gods of Canaan, 199–200.
103. Smith, Early History of
God, xxiii, xxvii, 8–12, 15, 19, 21, 22, 23, 89, 146, 161, 163; Raphael
Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, 3rd ed. (Detroit: Wayne University Press,
1990), 133; Cross, “Yahweh and the God of the Patriarchs,” 253–57;
Otto Eissfeldt, “El and Yahweh,” Journal of Semitic Studies 1
(1956): 25–37; J. A. Emerton, “The Origin of the Son of Man Imagery,”
Journal of Theological Studies 9 (1958): 225–42; Keel and Uehlinger,
Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God, 113–14, 207 n. 31, 232, 280,
311–12; Gordon and Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East,
144–45. Herbert Niehr, “The Rise of YHWH in Judahite and Israelite
Religion,” in The Triumph of Elohim, 45, summarizes the majority
view but appears vaguely to disapprove of it. Frank Moore Cross certainly believes
that Yahweh inherited (at least) the epithets of Canaanite El, but insists that
Yahweh was equated with El at a very, very early period. See Cross, Canaanite
Myth and Hebrew Epic, 52, 71, 72, 186. Patai, Hebrew Goddess, 128, and
Halpern, “‘Brisker Pipes Than Poetry,'” 80, discuss the common motif
of the withdrawal of the elder gods.
104. Cross, Canaanite Myth
and Hebrew Epic, 65, 70–71, 105.
105. See Smith, Early History
of God, 9. Which is not to say that there is no evidence of worship of
El by Israelite individuals in later times. Keel and Uehlinger, Gods,
Goddesses, and Images of God, 310–11, cite inscriptional evidence
for such veneration during the Iron Age IIB–C period (900–586 B.C.);
compare the materials discussed at 208–10, where the context, though geographically
near, appears to be non-Israelite. I use the term cult, of course,
in its primary and original religious sense, without pejorative intent. See
Peterson and Ricks, Offenders for a Word, 193– 212, for a discussion
of the term and its frequent abuse by critics of the church.
106. Mullen, Assembly of the
107. See Smith, Early History
of God, 164, 165. See also Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic,
23, 23 n. 56, 24, 43.
108. Mark 5:7; Luke 1:32, 35; 8:28.
For other occurrences of “the Highest” or “the most High,”
see Luke 1:76; 6:35; Acts 7:48; 16:17; and Hebrews 7:1.
109. Mullen, Assembly of the
110. Ibid., 226; compare 232.
111. Cross, Canaanite Myth
and Hebrew Epic, 42–43; compare 17, 39, 177, 189–90.
112. Mullen, Assembly of the
113. See Cross, Canaanite Myth
and Hebrew Epic, 105. On pp. 188–89, Cross discusses the biblical
motif of the divine rîb, or lawsuit, as it pertains to
the council of the gods.
114. Cross, Canaanite Myth
and Hebrew Epic, 179–80.
115. Ibid., 187, says that, “In
Zechariah 3:1–10, the prophet is shown the proceedings of the council
in the matter of Joshua the priest. Both the advocate, the malʾāk,
‘herald’ of Yahweh and the adversary stand in the council.”
116. Smith, Early History of
117. Mullen, Assembly of the
118. Ibid., 142; compare 227, 281,
282; compare Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 177.
119. See Mullen, Assembly of
the Gods, 185.
120. Ibid., 147; compare 209.
121. Ibid., 282.
122. Ibid., 185.
123. Ibid., 268–74, 279.
The quotation is from p. 268.
124. See McCarter, “Religious
125. Mullen, Assembly of the
126. Ibid., 207.
127. Ibid., 226, 282.
128. See ibid., 187; compare Morgenstern,
“The Mythological Background of Psalm 82,” 56, which suggests an earlier,
more individuated phase. See also Deuteronomy 33:2–3.
129. Mullen, Assembly of the
130. Ibid., 192; see also Morgenstern,
“The Mythological Background of Psalm 82,” 40, 43, 59.
131. Tate, Psalms 51–100,
335. Tate, writing in a distinctly conservative Protestant commentary series,
lists Genesis 6:2; Exodus 15:11; Job 1:6; 2:1; Psalms 8:6; 29:1; 82:6; 89:6–7;
95:3; and 96:4 in support of his view.
132. Niditch, Ancient Israelite
Religion, 42 (referring specifically to the story of Jacob’s ladder, in
133. Ibid., 44.
134. Mullen, Assembly of the
135. Dietrich and Loretz, “Jahwe
und seine Aschera,” 139. For manifestations of this belief in the
Judaism of the centuries immediately before and after the time of Christ, see
Culianu, “The Angels of the Nations,” 78–91.
136. Compare Deuteronomy 14:1–2.
Recall, again, Luke 1:32, 35, and the designation of Jesus as “the Son
of the Highest.”
137. Athenagoras, A Plea for
the Christians 24, in ANF, 2:142.
138. See Steve A. Wiggins, A
Reassessment of ‘Asherah': A Study according to the Textual Sources of the First
Two Millennia B.C.E. (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1993), 62–63
(drawing on the standard published version of the Ugaritic materials, Die
Keilalphabetischen Texte aus Ugarit, 1.4.VI.46, ed. Manfried Dietrich,
Oswald Loretz, and Joaquin Samartín, 70); Dietrich and Loretz, “Jahwe
und seine Aschera,” 134, 149, 154–57; Keel and Uehlinger, Gods,
Goddesses, and Images of God, 74 and 74 nn. 13–14; Albright, Yahweh
and the Gods of Canaan, 121.
139. See Dietrich and Loretz, “Jahwe
und seine Aschera,” 146, 148, 155.
140. Ibid., 149, makes the connection.
For the seventy angels, see Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews,
trans. Henrietta Szold (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America,
1969), 2:214; Moritz Steinschneider, “Die kanonische Zahl der muhammedanischen
Secten und die Symbolik der Zahl 70–73,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen
Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 4 (1850): 145–46; Samuel Krauss,
“Die Zahl der biblischen Völkerschaften,” Zeitschrift für
die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 19 (1899): 3; Moritz Steinschneider,
“Die kanonischen Zahlen 70–73,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen
Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 57 (1903): 481; Culianu, “The Angels
of the Nations,” 78–91. The notion of the seventy shepherds in 1
Enoch 89:59 may also be relevant here. The two articles by Steinschneider
offer useful surveys of the general significance of the number seventy in ancient
Semitic conceptions and beyond. Stephen D. Ricks was of great assistance in
tracking down most of the rabbinic and secondary references in this and the
immediately succeeding footnotes.
141. See, for instance, Israel
Slotki, trans., Sukkah, in The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Moʿed,
ed. I. Epstein (London: Soncino, 1938), 3:269 n. 9; Midrash Psalm 9:7;
Numbers Rabbah 14:10; Yalqut Shimoni; TB Sukkah 55b;
also S. Kent Brown, “The Seventy in Scripture,” in By Study and
Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley, ed. John M. Lundquist
and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 25–45;
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 2:214; Steinschneider, “Die kanonische Zahl,”
150–51, 169; Krauss, “Die Zahl der biblischen Völkerschaften,”
1–14; Steinschneider, “Die kanonischen Zahlen 70–73,”
481, 486; Samuel Krauss, “Zur Zahl der biblischen Völkerschaften,”
Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 20 (1900):
38–43. The seventy nations also appear in early Arabic folklore. See Steinschneider,
“Die kanonischen Zahlen 70–73,” 491.
142. See Henry Freedman, Shabbath,
in The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Moʿed, 1:420 n. 2; Targum Jonathan
on Genesis 11:7; Deuteronomy 32:8; Mishnah Sota 7:5; Mishnah Sheqalim
5:1; TB Shabbat 88b; also Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 2:214;
Steinschneider, “Die kanonische Zahl,” 153–55, 169.
143. Sirach 17:17 (New English
Bible; hereinafter NEB); compare Mullen, Assembly of the Gods, 236;
Krauss, “Zur Zahl der biblischen Völkerschaften,” 40–41.
144. See, for example, 1 Enoch
10:9; 12:2, 4; 14:3; and 15:2–3.
145. Mullen, Assembly of the
146. See Steinschneider, “Die
kanonische Zahl,” 156.
147. Ibid., 209–10; compare
140, 143, 144. Some Latter-day Saint readers may find it significant that the
message is delivered by the divine messengers in “precisely the same words”
as those in which they received it.
148. See ibid., 199, 205, 282;
Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 177.
149. Mullen, The Assembly of
the Gods, 212, 215.
150. Niditch, Ancient Israelite
151. Cross, Canaanite Myth
and Hebrew Epic, 187.
152. The situation sketched in
Exodus 7:1 may be relevant in this context: “And the Lord said unto Moses,
See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.”
See also Exodus 4:16.
153. Mullen, Assembly of the
Gods, 279; compare 283–84. Modern scripture clearly teaches the same
idea. See, for example, Doctrine and Covenants 1:38; 68:4; and 84:36–37,
89. Compare Exodus 7:1; Matthew 10:40; Luke 9:48; 10:16; and 1 John 4:6. Revelation
19:10 and 22:7–9 supply a case where an angel speaks as if he were himself
Jesus Christ; understandably but mistakenly, John twice falls down in worship
and is rebuked.
154. Morgenstern, “The Mythological
Background of Psalm 82,” 55–56.
155. Mullen, Assembly of the
156. See the discussions at Cross,
Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 171 n. 105, 173, 187–88.
157. Mullen, Assembly of the
158. Cross, Canaanite Myth
and Hebrew Epic, 189.
159. On this, see Mullen, Assembly
of the Gods, 218–20.
160. See the references in Francis
Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon
of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, n.d.), s.v. “sôd“;
also W. J. Harrelson, “Council, the Council, Council House, Counsel,”
in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George A. Buttrick
et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), 1:710.
161. Dennis Pardee, review of Gottes
himmlischer Thronrat: Hintergrund und Bedeutung von sod JHWH im Alten Testament,
by Heinz-Dieter Neef, Journal of Biblical Literature 116/1 (1997):
162. I use the New English Bible
here because the King James Version has clearly missed the implication of the
163. In this context, note the
humble disclaimer that Qurʾān 38:69–70 puts in the mouth of
Muḥammad: “I have no knowledge of the exalted assembly when they
argue. All that has been revealed to me is that I am to be a clear warner.”
Yet, in fact, Muḥammad does know such things as that which the Lord said
to the angels about his imminent creation of Adam (38:71–85). Since Muḥammad
cannot possibly have been present for the event as an ordinary mortal human,
this story, according to which Iblīs rebels against the divine decree to
bow before Adam, can only have come to him, in the view of believers, as revealed
information about the divine council.
164. Mullen, Assembly of the
Gods, 226. Again, one can scarcely avoid thinking of such passages as Doctrine
and Covenants 1:38; 68:4; and 84:36–37, 89.
165. On this passage, see Mullen,
Assembly of the Gods, 205–7.
166. Smith, Early History of
God, 101–2, 114 n. 138, comments on the notably anthropomorphic language
that generally appears in such accounts. Roger D. Cook, “How Deep the Platonism?
A Review of Owen and Mosser’s Appendix: Hellenism, Greek Philosophy, and the
Creedal ‘Straightjacket’ of Christian Orthodoxy,” FARMS Review of Books
11/2 (1999): 294–95 n. 64, supplies a good representative sample of modern
biblical scholars who recognize the anthropomorphic character of the Old Testament
portrayal of God. Morton Smith, in his articles “The Image of God,”
116–59, and “On the Shape of God and the Humanity of Gentiles,”
in Morton Smith, Studies in the Cult of Yahweh, 1:150–60, offers
excellent examples of anthropomorphic views among the ancient rabbis. Analogous
references could be furnished virtually at will but are properly the subject
of another paper.
167. Compare Abraham 3:27, which
fits perfectly into this ancient pattern. One Ugaritic text, recounting the
story of the ailing prince Kirta or Keret, depicts the supreme god El posing
the following formulaic question four times to the members of the divine assembly:
” ‘Who among the gods will cast out the illness, will drive out the sickness?’
No one among the gods answered him.” See Cross, Canaanite Myth and
Hebrew Epic, 181.
168. See Smith, Early History
of God, 128 (referring also to Akkadian and Phoenician materials); Mullen,
Assembly of the Gods, 261–64, 261 n. 241; Dietrich and Loretz,
“Jahwe und seine Aschera,” 48–49, 52 n. 27, 63–65,
66 n. 54, 68, 69 n. 66, 73 n. 73, 73–74; Keel, Goddesses and Trees,
120; Keel and Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God, 43, 45,
51, 53. See also Gordon and Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East,
92, 115; Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan, 168 n. 43, 203–6.
Brian B. Schmidt, Israel’s Beneficent Dead: Ancestor Cult and Necromancy
in Ancient Israelite Religion and Tradition (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns,
1996), denies that a cult of the dead existed in early Canaan and Palestine,
while conceding that, in doing so, he is going against “a virtual consensus”
(p. 267) among modern scholars. “In recent years,” writes Wayne T.
Pitard in AAR/SBL Abstracts 1998 (Annual Meeting 1998, Orlando, Fla.),
394, “a consensus seems to have developed concerning the identity of the
beings called rpum in the Ugaritic tablets. Most scholars today understand them
to be spirits of deceased kings and perhaps other members of the nobility.”
(His paper, “The Identity of the Rapi’uma, Again,” dissents from that
consensus.) For evidence of a cult of the dead among the ancient Arabs (one
that lingered even into Islamic times), see Ignaz Goldziher, Muslim Studies,
ed. S. M. Stern (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1966), 1:209–38.
The New Testament image of “Abraham’s bosom” as the destination of
the righteous dead and Abraham’s role in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus
(as arbiter and receiver of petitions) seem to imply a deified Abraham. See
Luke 16:19–31; compare Doctrine and Covenants 132:29.
169. 1 Samuel 28:13. See, too,
the discussion of Deuteronomy 33:1–3 on p. 532, above. Schmidt, Israel’s
Beneficent Dead, 201–20, considers 1 Samuel 28 fiction and redates
it to postexilic times, as part of his argument that there was no necromancy
in preexilic Israel. This is a move that presumably few conservative Protestant
critics of Mormonism would be willing to make.
170. Niditch, Ancient Israelite
Religion, 47, 48; compare 65–66, 84.
171. Wisdom of Solomon 5:5 NJB.
The New Jerusalem Bible note on the passage points to the ambiguity of the phrases
children of God and holy ones, showing, with several references
(including one to Psalm 82), that the terms can refer either to angels or to
the elect among postmortal humanity. To Latter-day Saints, of course, these
categories are not mutually exclusive.
172. Roland E. Murphy, The
Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, 2nd ed. (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 94. For the dating of the Wisdom of Solomon, I rely
on Father Murphy’s brief discussion at pp. 83 and 95 n. 2.
173. Again, see Peterson and Ricks,
Offenders for a Word, 75–92, for further references on this subject.
174. Charlesworth, introduction
to Ringgren, Faith of Qumran, xx.
175. As rendered at Ringgren,
Faith of Qumran, 85.
176. As rendered at ibid., 85–86.
177. As rendered at ibid., 127.
Ringgren, Faith of Qumran, 217, 228, says that, among those who produced
the Dead Sea Scrolls, the liturgy of the temple or of Qumran itself was thought
to have its precise counterpart in a heavenly temple, and the angels, who led
the worship in heaven, were also expected to participate in the ceremonies of
their earthly community.
178. As rendered at Ringgren, Faith
of Qumran, 127–28.
179. Ibid., 127.
180. See the discussion by John
J. Collins, “A Throne in the Heavens: Apotheosis in Pre-Christian Judaism,”
in Death, Ecstasy, and Other Worldly Journeys, ed. John J. Collins
and Michael Fishbane (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 43–58.
Thus, although Ringgren, Faith of Qumran, 47, is largely correct in
saying that “There is a general tendency within postexilic Judaism strongly
to emphasize that God is exalted and transcendent,” some of his statements
now require qualification: It is apparently untrue, for instance, that “Qumran
teaches salvation but not the deification which is found in Gnosticism.”
See Ringgren, Faith of Qumran, 119–20; compare 250.
181. Collins, “Jewish Monotheism
and Christian Theology,” 91.
182. As translated by Morton Smith,
in Studies in the Cult of Yahweh, ed. Shaye J. D. Cohen (Leiden: Brill,
183. 1QH XI 19–22, as rendered
by García Martínez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated,
184. 1QH XIX 10–13, as rendered
in ibid., 353.
185. 4Q427 frg. 7, col. I, 11–15,
and col. II, 7–9, as rendered in Hurtado, “First-Century Jewish Monotheism,”
186. See 11QMelchizedek (11Q13
[11QMelch]), in García Martínez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated,
139–40. Compare Culianu, “The Angels of the Nations,” 89.
187. See the discussion of these
two documents at Collins, “Jewish Monotheism and Christian Theology,”
188. See Culianu, “The Angels
of the Nations,” 89–91.
189. 2 Enoch [A] 22:4–10,
in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Apocalyptic
Literature and Testaments (hereinafter OTP) (New York: Doubleday,
1983), 1:137, 139; compare 2 Enoch [J] 22:4–10, in Charlesworth, OTP,
1:136, 138. See also Culianu, “The Angels of the Nations,” 87–89,
where Enoch is seen to have been granted a title that is elsewhere given to
the archangel Michael, who himself plays the role in the “council”
in certain documents that other texts reserve for God.
190. Smith, “The Image of
God,” 121. Compare pp. 140 and 146, where Smith notes the interesting equation,
in ancient Jewish sources, of the image of a tree, representing a Jewish saint,
with the menorah, representing God. The quotations from R. Johanan and R. Elazar
are found, with their references in the primary sources, on pp. 120–21.
191. Hurtado, “First-Century
Jewish Monotheism,” 364. For discussion of a truly rigorous monotheism,
see Daniel C. Peterson, “Al-Kirmani on the Divine Tawḥīd,”
in Proceedings of the Third European Conference of Iranian Studies,
Part 2, Mediaeval and Modern Persian Studies, ed. Charles Melville (Wiesbaden:
Reichert Verlag, 1999), 179–93. There is nothing remotely approaching
such a view among the biblical writers.
192. 2 Baruch 51:7–10,
12, in Charlesworth, OTP, 1:638.
193. Collins, “Jewish Monotheism
and Christian Theology,” 88.
194. See Aristophanes, Peace
195. See Alan Scott, Origen
and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991),
196. Ibid., 158–59.
197. This point is made in Dr.
Hamblin’s messages to Mr. White.
198. Augustine, On the Psalms
50.2, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (hereinafter NPNF),
ed. Philip Schaff (1888; reprint, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 8:178.
199. Justin Martyr, Dialogue
with Trypho 124, in ANF, 1:262.
200. Justin Martyr, First Apology
21, in ANF, 1:170.
201. Origen, Against Celsus
4.29, in ANF, 4:509.
202. Ibid., 8.74, in ANF,
4:668. Origen seems to have viewed himself and his fellow Christians as “God
Makers”—to use the anti-Mormon epithet hurled against the Latter-day
Saints in recent years —and to have regarded the fact as worthy of honor.
203. Perhaps Novatian (d. ca. A.D.
258), the rigorist schismatic who led the movement named after him, did, but
the text is not entirely clear. He links the “gods” with “the
men of the synagogue,” but also with angels. See Novatian, Treatise
concerning the Trinity 20, in ANF, 5:631. The fourth-century Constitutions
of the Holy Apostles or Apostolic Constitutions 2.26, in ANF,
7:410, identify the gods of Psalm 82 as the Christian bishop sitting in council
with his congregation.
204. Irenaeus, Against Heresies
3.6.1, in ANF, 1:419; Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor
1.6, in ANF, 2:215. See also Mark D. Nispel, “Christian Deification
and the Early Testimonia,” Vigiliae Christianae 53/3 (August
205. Annewies van den Hoek, ”
‘I Said, You Are Gods . . .': The Significance of Psalm 82 for Some Early Christian
Authors,” in The Use of Sacred Books in the Ancient World, ed.
L. V. Rutgers et al. (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), 219. I thank Paul Owen for kindly
bringing this article to my attention. He is, of course, not responsible for
my use of it.
206. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata
7.10, in ANF, 2:539.
207. Ibid., 2.20, in ANF,
208. Ibid., 4.23, in ANF,
209. Tertullian, Against Hermogenes
5, in ANF, 3:480. Latter-day Saints agree, of course. We cannot save
ourselves. We require the grace made available by the atonement of Christ. But,
by the same token, while humans can receive deification, there is no biblical
or patristic warrant for imagining that, say, dogs or canaries can. The innate
capacity to receive it must be present.
210. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata
7.10, in ANF, 2:539.
211. Clement of Alexandria, The
Instructor 3.1, in ANF, 2:271.
212. Irenaeus, Against Heresies
5 (preface), in ANF, 1:526.
213. Athanasius, Against
the Arians 1.39, in NPNF, 4:329.
214. Ibid., 2.70, in NPNF,
4:386. Compare Athanasius, On the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia
(=De Synodis) 51, NPNF, 4:477.
215. Athanasius, Against the
Arians 3.34, in NPNF, 4:413; compare ibid., 1.39, in NPNF,
216. Athanasius, On the Incarnation
of the Word 54, in NPNF, 4:65.
217. Athanasius, Letters 60.4 (“To
Adelphius”), in NPNF, 4:576; the reference is to 2 Peter 1:4.
Compare Athanasius, Letters 61.2, in NPNF, 4:578–79.
218. Tertullian, Against Praxeas
13, in ANF, 3:608.
219. Nispel, “Christian Deification
and the Early Testimonia,” 295.
220. Cyprian, Treatise
12; Three Books of Testimonies against the Jews 12.2.6, in ANF,
5:518. Nispel, “Christian Deification and the Early Testimonia,”
296, argues persuasively that Tertullian and Cyprian are mutually independent
sources on this question.
221. Irenaeus, Against Heresies
4.38.4, in ANF, 1:522.
222. Nispel, “Christian Deification
and the Early Testimonia,” 289.
223. Augustine, On the Psalms
50.2, in NPNF, 8:178. The reference is to John 1:12.
224. This is the position advocated,
for example, by evangelical scholars Paul Owen and Carl Mosser in their review
of How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation,
by Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, FARMS Review of Books 11/2 (1999):
225. A. N. Williams, The Ground
of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1999), 27.
226. Nispel, “Christian Deification
and the Early Testimonia,” 290–91; compare 292, 304. Van den
Hoek, ” ‘I Said, You Are Gods . . . ,’ ” 203–19, also emphasizes
the role of Psalm 82 in the development of the Christian idea of human deification,
although she concentrates on the later, more Platonized version of the doctrine.
227. John J. Collins, Daniel:
A Commentary on the Book of Daniel, ed. Frank Moore Cross (Minneapolis:
Fortress, 1993), 301. Note 212, on the same page, supplies useful references
for further reading on ancient belief in the heavenly enthronement of human
228. James D. Tabor, Things
Unutterable: Paul’s Ascent to Paradise in Its Greco-Roman, Judaic, and Early
Christian Contexts (New York: University Press of America, 1986), 9.
229. Henri Bergson, The Two
Sources of Morality and Religion, trans. R. Ashley Audra and Cloudesley
Brereton (New York: Holt, 1935), 306.
230. Tabor, Things Unutterable,
12, emphasis in the original.
231. Ibid., 18–19, emphasis
in the original.
232. Neyrey, “I Said: You
Are Gods,” 653, emphasis in the original.
233. John knows that we will be
like God but does not fully know what that will involve. So it is, too, with
the Latter-day Saints: We know that we will be like God, but what that
likeness precisely entails “has not yet been revealed.” Notions such
as creating and ruling over our own planets and ideas about how spiritual offspring
are created typically rest more on speculation than on revelation.
234. For the duty of mortals to
praise God, see, as a sample of the many references that could be cited, 2 Samuel
22:50; Ezra 3:10; and Psalm 117:1. On the praises of the divine council, see
Mullen, Assembly of the Gods, 205.
235. The KJV’s “O ye mighty”
fails, again, to represent the real significance of the Hebrew bənê
ʾēlîm. As we have seen at p. 502 above, the New Jerusalem
Bible renders that phrase as “sons of God.”
236. As translated by Cross, Canaanite
Myth and Hebrew Epic, 160.
237. Mullen, Assembly of the
Gods, 149 n. 65, 195–96. This may also be the case in 1 Enoch 104:2,
6. See also Keel, Goddesses and Trees, 104; Morgenstern, “The
Mythological Background of Psalm 82,” 93 n. 112, 96.
238. See Keel and Uehlinger, Gods,
Goddesses, and Images of God, 347; Dietrich and Loretz, “Jahwe und
seine Aschera,” 14, 48, 50–51, 63–65, 66 n. 54, 74, with
the accompanying references. For references to the deified dead as stars, see
especially pp. 63– 65, 66 n. 54, and 73–74. It may be significant
that, at p. 141 n. 13, Dietrich and Loretz suggest that the Hebrew śār,
which the King James Bible renders as “prince[s],” might be translated
as “shining one[s].” Morgenstern, “The Mythological Background
of Psalm 82,” 98 n. 120, sees in śār a title for an
angel or some “exalted, divine being.”
239. See Scott, Origen and
the Life of the Stars, for a fascinating treatment of the subject.
240. Cited in Mullen, Assembly
of the Gods, 195.
241. See Keel, Goddesses and
Trees, 59–120; also Keel and Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and
Images of God, 53, 290, 294, 314–16, 318, 345, 351, 358, 367, 369,
402; Gordon and Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, 266–67,
242. See Keel and Uehlinger, Gods,
Goddesses, and Images of God, 277, 279, 354, 389, 401.
243. See, e.g., Keel, Goddesses
and Trees, 103–4; Morgenstern, “The Mythological Background
of Psalm 82,” 60–63.
244. On these two tablets, see
Keel, Goddesses and Trees, 79, 100, 100 n. 19.
245. Compare 1 Enoch 86–88
for a very negative use of astral imagery.
246. Alert Latter-day Saints will
recognize the temple echo here.
247. In addition to what follows,
see Keel and Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God, 345, 347.
248. Joshua 10:12–13 should
perhaps also be read with this motif in mind. And Qurʾān 37:6–8
may reflect a related notion: “Truly, we have beautified the lower heaven
with the adornment of the stars, and as a protection against every rebellious
demon. They [i.e., the demons] do not listen to the exalted assembly and they
are bombarded from every side.” (All Qurʾānic translations, unless
otherwise identified, are mine.) Rudi Paret’s interpretive German translation
Der Koran (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1983), 312, proposes that the rebellious
demons of 37:6–8 are bombarded with stars. This suggestion accords well
with other passages. Thus, for instance, Qurʾān 21:32 represents God
as saying, “We have made the heaven a canopy well guarded.” In Qurʾān
41:12, we are told that God created seven heavens, of which he “beautified
the lower heaven with lamps and as a protection.” According to another
passage, these “lamps” were made in order to stone the demons [rujūman
lil-shayāṭīn] (67:5). Paret’s rendition of 67:5 says that
this was done “in order to chase them away . . . when curiosity led them
to draw too close to that lowest heaven.” Qurʾān 15:16–18
tells us that God guards the zodiacal signs in the heavens “against every
accursed demon” [min kulli shayṭān rajīm],
adding that any demon that manages to gain a hearing is pursued by “a manifest
flaming meteor.” It might be noted here that the terms rujūm and rajīm
both derive from a verb whose primary meaning is “to stone (someone),”
and only secondarily “to curse (someone).” In Qurʾān 72:8–9,
we are allowed to listen to reminiscences of some of the outcasts themselves:
“We touched the heaven, and we found it filled with terrible guards and
with meteors. We used to sit in various places to listen. But now, whoever listens
finds a blazing meteor lying in ambush for him.”
249. On this, see Cross, Canaanite
Myth and Hebrew Epic, 93, 97–99. Cross sees echoes of this story
in Psalm 24, explaining the otherwise rather strange image of the “gates”
being summoned to “lift up” their “heads” as an allusion
to the members of the divine council, waiting nervously by the gates of their
heavenly residence for the return of the warrior-god.
250. Translated by Cross, Canaanite
Myth and Hebrew Epic, 101.
251. Ibid., 102.
252. Furthermore, the council is
not immune to fear, at least according to one poetic text: Leviathan is described
in Job 41:25 as stirring up or frightening the ʾēlîm,
the divine beings or gods. The notion of conflict within the divine council
is very old, and it survives for a very long time. A recent and quite extensive
treatment of the theme is Neil Forsyth, The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat
Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987). Seldom if ever noticed
in this context is the seventh-century Qurʾān (38:69– 70), where,
it will be recalled, Muḥammad is told to declare that he has “no
knowledge of the exalted assembly when they argue [yakhtaṣimūna].”
A. Y. Ali’s harmonizing, apologetic translation tries to eliminate the negative
connotations of the verb yakhtaṣimūna by rendering the passage
containing it as “when they discuss (matters) among themselves.” A.
Yusuf Ali, trans., The Holy Qur’an, 2nd ed. (n.p.: American Trust Publications,
1977), 1231. But Paret’s “als sie miteinander stritten” (Der Koran,
321) and Arthur J. Arberry’s “when they disputed” (A. J. Arberry,
trans., The Koran Interpreted [New York: Macmillan, 1969], 163) certainly
capture much more fully the implication of the Arabic root kh-ṣ-m,
which gives us such common words as khuṣūm (“enemies”)
and khuṣūma (“argument,” “lawsuit”).
Medieval commentators generally recognized the note of strife contained in the
verb and connected it with the famous refusal by Iblīs, the diabolos
or Satan, to prostrate himself before Adam, which is recorded in the verses
immediately following (38:71–85). See, for example, al-Zamakhsharī,
Al-Kashf ʿan Ḥaqāʾiq al-Tanzīl wa ʿUyūn
al-Aqāwīl fī Wujūh al-Taʾwīl (Beirut: Dār
al-Maʿrifa, n.d.), 3:381–82; Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr al-Qurʾān
al-ʾAzīm (Aleppo: Maktabat al-Irshād, 1980), 4:42–
43; al-Qurṭubī, Tafsīr al-Qurʾān: Al-Jāmiʿ
li-Aḥkām al-Qurʾān (Cairo: Dār al-Shaʿb,
253. Marti, Die Psalmen
73–106, 62 (my translation). Discussing an ancient Babylonian
myth, Gordon and Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, 43
n. 20, remark, “Note that a god can die. Nor is Kingu a god who was resurrected.
We must avoid generalizing on the nature of divinity. Thus, far from being omniscient,
the gods of Mesopotamia are often ignorant and error-prone. In the Egyptian
pantheon, all the gods except Thoth are illiterate.” We need not admit
the Mesopotamian and Egyptian materials as accurate depictions of deity, of
course, but it is also important that we not impose upon biblical texts concepts
of the divine that really derive from Greek philosophical notions of perfection
instead of from the Bible itself. On this issue, see Daniel C. Peterson, “Editor’s
Introduction: Fictionary,” FARMS Review of Books 10/2 (1998):
v–xx. Thus it is insufficient, as a refutation of the proposition that
Psalm 82 means “gods” when it uses the Hebrew term that means “gods,”
to point out that these elohim don’t accord with the concept of God
in Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Anselm, or Thomas Aquinas.
254. Handy, “The Appearance
of Pantheon in Judah,” 40–41.
255. See the discussion at Scott,
Origen and the Life of the Stars, 123, 135–43, 156. Compare Athenagoras
of Athens, A Plea for the Christians 24, in ANF, 2:141–42.
256. The imagery of Ezekiel 28
may be drawn from a similar story.
257. See Cross, Canaanite Myth
and Hebrew Epic, 26–28; Mullen, Assembly of the Gods, 147–54.
258. The divine mountain, discussed
in fascinating detail by Richard J. Clifford, The Cosmic Mountain in Canaan
and the Old Testament (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), was
associated in common Semitic belief with the waters of life, which emerged from
its base, and was thought to be the place where both the gates of heaven and
the passage into hell could be found. It was the place of the test or river
ordeal at the entrance to Sheol, the world of departed spirits. See also Cross,
Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 38, 39, 113, for its link with Isaiah
14. The connections of the cosmic mountain to the temple should be obvious,
but are, in any event, worthy of another paper.
259. The Dead Sea Scroll fragment
11QMelchizedek (11Q13 [11QMelch]) interprets Psalm 82 in terms of the trial
of Satan and the gods/angels who followed him.
260. See Revelation 12:7. Compare
Moses 4:1–4; Abraham 3:22–28; and Doctrine and Covenants 29:36.
Also Book of Adam and Eve 13:1–6; Andreas Caesariensis, “Commentarius
in Apocalypsin,” in Patrologiae Graecae (hereinafter PG),
ed. J.-P. Migne (Paris: Migne, 1845), 106:325C; Arethra Caesareae Cappodociae
Episcopus, “Commentarius in Apocalypsin,” in PG, 106:665A;
Cassiodorus, “Complexiones in Apocalypsin,” in Patrologiae Latinae,
ed. J.P. Migne (Paris: Migne, 1845), 70:1411C; C. Detlef G. Müller, Die
Engellehre der koptischen Kirche (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1959), 9. Stephen
D. Ricks and Daniel C. Peterson, “The War in Heaven: A Comparison of Interpretations,”
Tangents III (Spring 1975): 99–105, summarily sketches the widespread
ancient motif of strife within the heavenly council, showing how post-Augustinian
commentators tried to explain it away, as well as how the restoration of a true
account of it through Joseph Smith has received support from modern scholarship.
261. Mullen, Assembly of the
262. For Josiah’s attempts to eradicate
such things, see 2 Kings 23:4–5.
263. The New English Bible, which
I am using here, suggests “of the Most High” as an alternate translation.
I consider it the preferable rendition.
264. Dahood, Psalms II,
268. On p. 271, Father Dahood explains that he takes the Hebrew kī
ʿattāh (“yourself”) as emphatic.
265. Mullen, Assembly of the
266. Smith, Early History of
God, 101. Smith’s brief discussion here is very useful.
267. Marti, Die Psalmen
73–106, 59, argues that this passage is preexilic and that Psalm 96:5
(“all the gods of the nations are idols”) represents the purer monotheism
of the period following the Jews’ Babylonian exile.
268. Mullen, Assembly of the
Gods, 279. On apparent polytheism in primitive, preexilic, or pre-Deuteronomistic
Hebrew faith (despite its tendency toward monolatry), see Smith, Early History
of God, xix, xxiii, xxvii, 25, 145, 146, 152, 154, 156; Keel and Uehlinger,
Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God, 2–5, 134, 140, 280, 385;
Dever, “Folk Religion in Early Israel,” 56; McCarter, “Religious
Reforms,” 67; Niditch, Ancient Israelite Religion, 95–96
(for a useful discussion of the Deuteronomic reform, see pp. 82– 88);
Gordon and Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, 85, 148–49,
180–81, 187–88, 232–33, 291–92. Smith, Early History
of God, contends (on pp. xxii, xxiii, xxxi, 1, 3, 4, 146, and 156) that
the Israelite religion was a subspecies of Canaanite religion and not something
utterly different; compare Keel and Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images
of God, 280; also Gordon and Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near
East, 51, 82, 87 (cf. the rather arbitrary methods used by biblical law
to differentiate Israelites from Canaanites, alluded to at p. 161). I would
judge that this view represents the current consensus among scholars. Cross,
Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 143, agrees, in any event. On pp. 190–91,
Professor Cross explains why, at a certain point in history, Canaanite religion
(to which Hebrew religion is manifestly very closely related) became a threat
and had to be opposed by the biblical prophets. Albright, Yahweh and the
Gods of Canaan, 153, remarks that, “Though the Patriarchs were unmistakably
immigrants from Mesopotamia, with historical traditions as well as religious
lore and customary law derived from the northeast, the Hebrew language and poetic
style were quite certainly Canaanite in origin.”
269. Mullen, “Divine Assembly,”
270. Cross, Canaanite Myth
and Hebrew Epic, 187 n. 176; compare Morgenstern, “The Mythological
Background of Psalm 82,” 58 n. 46. See also Isaiah 6:8. Compare the plurals
that are so characteristic of the creation narrative in Abraham 3:22–5:21.
The Qurʾān invariably uses the first-person plural for the speech
of God, which is typically, though not altogether convincingly, dismissed as
a “royal we.” If El was the original high god, of course, he rather
than Yahweh would be the speaker addressing the council.
271. In Greek mythology, of course,
Kronos was the father of Zeus. He seems to have been a pre-Hellenic deity, with
origins in Asia Minor. Zeus overthrew him and replaced him as the head of the
gods. See N. G. L. Hammond and H. H. Scullard, The Oxford Classical Dictionary,
2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 573–74. The analogy between this
episode and Yahweh’s or Baʿl’s displacement of El is difficult to miss.
Gordon and Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, 19 (compare
also 95, 97, and 107), point out the usefulness of even relatively late Greek
materials for the study of the ancient Near East.
272. Mullen, Assembly of the
Gods, 184, 185.
273. Moshe Halbertal and Avishai
Margalit, Idolatry, trans. Naomi Goldblum (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
274. As translated in Morgenstern,
“The Mythological Background of Psalm 82,” 66–67.
275. Marti, Die Psalmen 73–106,
59 (my translation; emphasis in the original). In Jewish tradition, it was the
Sadducees who, along with denying the resurrection, denied the existence of
angels or other divine beings; see Morgenstern, “The Mythological Background
of Psalm 82,” 40 n. 25, 124.
276. In 1QM xiv.16; perhaps also
in 1QM xviii.7.
277. 1QH x. 8–9.
278. At, respectively, Daniel 8:25
and Deuteronomy 10:17; compare 1 Timothy 6:15 and Revelation 17:14. See Morgenstern,
“The Mythological Background of Psalm 82,” 40–41 n. 25.
279. Mullen, Assembly of the
Gods, 228 n. 195.
280. JBC, 2:446 [63:120].
281. JBC, 1:577 [35:26].
282. The latter is the option preferred
by Mitchell Dahood, Psalms I: 1–50 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966),
283. See also Numbers 16:22; Malachi
2:10; Romans 8:16; and Hebrews 12:9.
284. It is crucially important
to note that Paul was addressing Athenian pagans. Some critics of Latter-day
Saint doctrine have claimed that humans are not naturally children of God, but
become such only through being born again in Christ. There is, of course, an
important sense in which this is true. (See, for example, John 1:12 and Doctrine
and Covenants 76:24.) Clement of Alexandria, in his Instructor 1:6,
in ANF 2:215, seems to suggest that it is in baptism that we are adopted
and become the children of God, and he connects this explicitly with an exegesis
of Psalm 82 (compare his Exhortation to the Heathen 12, in ANF,
2:205–6). But it is clear from Paul’s comments, as well as from the passages
from the Old Testament cited below, that non-Christians are also children of
God in some sense. (Clement, again, in his Exhortation to the Heathen 11,
in ANF, 2:202–3, speaks of Adam, the ancestor of all men, as
a child of God who disobeyed his Father. Yet few if any Christians other than
the Latter-day Saints believe that Adam was baptized, so, even from their point
of view, he must have been a child of God in some other sense than the one Clement
allowed for in the passage to which we alluded immediately above. The genealogy
of Jesus that culminates in Luke 3:38 relates Adam to God in the same way that
it relates Jacob to Isaac and Isaac to Abraham—that is, as son to father.)
Furthermore, the idea of kinship with God through covenant is fundamental to
the earliest layers of the Old Testament and long antedates the coming of Christ.
See Frank Moore Cross, “Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel,” in
Frank Moore Cross, From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient
Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1998), 3–21. Professor Cross’s
thesis is neatly summarized in Hershel Shanks, “God as Divine Kinsman:
What Covenant Meant in Ancient Israel,” Biblical Archaeology Review
(July/August 1999): 32–33, 60.
285. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur
Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian
Literature, 4th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 155;
see Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament,
trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 1:684–85.
For the meaning of the term in classical or pagan Greek (which is identical),
see any of the numerous editions of the standard Liddell and Scott lexicon.
The same term, genos, is used in the modern Greek translation of the
Bible (Athens: Biblike Hetairia, 1971).
286. Porphyry the Phoenician, Isagoge,
trans. Edward W. Warren (Toronto: The Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies,
1975), 28–29. Compare Plotinus, Enneads 6.1.3.
287. Wright, “The Faith of
288. Pindar, Nemean Odes
6.1. The phrase is admittedly ambiguous. It could also mean “one is the
race of men, another the race of the gods,” and is frequently, if not generally,
so rendered. However, I follow the interpretation of the passage advanced by
John C. Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion: A Study
in Survivals (New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1964), 65 and 65 n.
1, and endorsed by Stylianos V. Spyridakis, “Reflections on Hellenic Theanthropism,”
in TO EΛΛHNIKON: Studies in Honor of Speros Vryonis Jr.,
ed. John S. Langdon et al. (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Coratzas, 1993), 1:9, 16 n.
2. Dawson W. Turner, The Odes of Pindar Literally Translated into English
Prose (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1852), 371, gives the passage as “Men
and the Gods above one race compose.”
289. The Greek text of the plate,
in both transcription and reconstruction, is published at Günther Zuntz,
Persephone: Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia (Oxford:
Clarendon, 1971), 358–59.
290. See Hugh J. Schonfield, The
Authentic New Testament (London: Dobson, 1955), 234. The survey of translations
that follows is not meant to be exhaustive or systematic, but I believe it is
sufficiently comprehensive to be “statistically significant.” It rests
almost entirely on versions of the Bible in my home library.
291. J. B. Phillips, The New
Testament in Modern English (n.p.: Macmillan, 1958).
292. Al-Kitāb al-Muqaddas:
Al-ʿAhd al-Jadīd (Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-Muqddis fī
al-Sharq al-Awsaṭ, 1990). I have found only one translation obscuring
the genetic link between God and humankind that is so clearly the point of this
passage, and, perhaps not surprisingly, it is an Arabic version. The contemporary
New Testament called Kitāb al-Ḥayāt, which bears the
significant subtitle Tarjama Tafsīriyya (i.e., “An Interpretative
Translation”), says that we are God’s khalīqa, his “creation”
or “creatures.” (Kitāb al-Ḥayāt: Tarjama Tafsīriyya
[Cairo: Dār al-Thaqāfa, 1982].) One can certainly understand that
translators into Arabic would seek the least disturbing possible interpretation
of this passage, since the overwhelmingly dominant religious tradition of the
Arabic cultural region affirms, as a central article of its faith, that God
“does not beget, nor is he begotten [lam yalid wa lam yūlad]”
(Qurʾān 112:3)—a proposition that has obvious implications not
only for the thesis of this paper but for the central doctrine of Christianity.
The fact that even most Arabic Bibles seem, so far as I have been able to determine,
to support a genetic relationship between God and humankind is impressive.
293. Al-Kitāb al-Muqaddas:
Al-ʿAhd al-Jadīd li-Rabbinā Yasūʿ al-Masīḥ
(Beirut: Al-Maṭbaʿa al-Kathūlūkiyya, 1950).
294. See Kitabi Mukaddes: Eski
ve Yeni Ahit (Istanbul: Kitabi Mukaddes Sirketi, 1972).
295. La Sacra Bibbia (Rome:
Deposito di Sacre Scritture, 1914).
296. See Constantine A. Trypanis,
ed., The Penguin Book of Greek Verse (London: Penguin, 1971), 308.
297. Die Gute Nachricht: Das
Neue Testament in heutigem Deutsch (Stuttgart: Württembergische Bibelanstalt,
298. Dios Llega al Hombre:
El Nuevo Testamento de Nuestro Señor Jesucristo, 2nd ed. (Asunci—n:
Sociedades Bíblicas Unidas, 1970).
299. Kitāb-i Muqaddas
 (n.p., 1982). The relevant meanings for nasl given by F. Steingass, A
Comprehensive Persian-English Dictionary  (Beirut: Librarie du Liban,
1975), are “offspring, progeny, lineage, pedigree; relationship; stock,
race, breed, caste, family.” The term is a borrowing from Arabic, cognate
with the Arabic verb nasala/yansulu (“to beget”).
300. Luther, Die gantze Heilige
Schrifft Deudsch . More recent revisions of the Luther Bible have
retained his rendering of this passage. See, for example, Das Neue Testament
und die Psalmen (Stuttgart: Württembergische Bibelanstalt, 1956).
301. As close inspection might
suggest, Geschlecht derives from the same Germanic root as the verb schlagen,
“to strike.” German-English dictionaries typically give, as equivalents
of Geschlecht, “genus,” “kind,” “species,”
“race,” “family,” “stock,” and “generation”—as
well as “sex” and “gender,” which are obviously less likely
302. Günther Drosdowski, Paul
Grebe, et al., Duden Etymologie: Herkunftswörterbuch der deutschen
Sprache (Mannheim: Bibliographisches Institut, 1963), 215.
303. Konstantin Rösch, trans.,
Das Neue Testament (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1946); Paul
Riessler and Rupert Storr, trans., Die Heilige Schrift des alten und des
neuen Bundes (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 1958).
304. Ulrich Wilckens, Das Neue
Testament (Hamburg and Zürich: Furche, Benziger, and Theologischer
305. Die Bibel: Altes und Neues
Testament: Einheitsübersetzung (Freiburg: Herder, 1980).
306. James Moffatt, The Parallel
New Testament (New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1935).
307. Certain Hebrew biblical names
may reflect such an understanding: Consider, for instance, Abiel, the
eleventh century B.C. Benjaminite grandfather of King Saul and of Abner, his
military commander. Abiel means “God is my father,” or “El is
my father.” See 1 Samuel 9:1; 14:51. (Another Abiel, this one from the
tenth century B.C., is mentioned in 1 Chronicles 11:32.) The personal name Eliab
(“My God is father,” or “El is father”) is also worthy of
note. It is attached in the Hebrew Bible to at least six distinct individuals,
including the leader of the tribe of Zebulon in the time of Moses (Numbers 1:9;
2:7; 7:24–29; 10:16) and the eldest brother of David the king (1 Samuel
16:6). The common personal name Abijah, of course, may represent Yahweh’s
assumption of the role of El—as, for that matter, may Deuteronomy 14:1
(where the Hebrew word translated in the KJV as “Lord” is Yahweh).
The name Ahijah (“My brother is Yahweh” or “Yahweh’s
brother”) belongs to eight different characters in the Hebrew Bible, one
of them a prophet. (Compare, too, the Ahiah or Ahijah of Nehemiah
10:26.) It has long been argued in certain scholarly circles that the earliest
Semites—i.e., the proto-Hebrews and their relatives—saw themselves
as literally akin to their God or gods. See, for example, W. Robertson Smith,
The Religion of the Semites (1889; reprint, New York: Meridian Library,
1956), 39–61; George A. Barton, “The Kinship of Gods and Men among
the Early Semites,” Journal of Biblical Literature 15 (1896):
308. The Qurʾān, which
appeared in Arabia in the early seventh century A.D., describes both Christians
and Jews as believing themselves to be the “sons” or “children”
of God (abnāʾ Allāh). See Qurʾān 5:18. By
contrast, in John 8:42–44, Jesus uses a clearly distinct understanding
of covenant kinship (related, it seems likely, to the usage referred to in John
1:12 and Doctrine and Covenants 76:24) to deny their relationship to God because
of their sinfulness.
309. Compare Job 21:19; Hosea 1:10;
Malachi 2:10; perhaps also Genesis 6:2–4 and Job 38:7. Psalm 68:5 likewise
speaks of God as a father to human beings, but probably only in a metaphorical
310. It is worth noting, incidentally,
that the word henos, in the phrase ex henos (“of one”), is
simply the grammatically genitive form of the word hen (“one”)
that, as mentioned at the beginning of this essay, is used to characterize the
relationship between the Father and the Son in John 10:30.
311. See Matthew 25:31–46
for the context of the statement.
312. Collins, “Jewish Monotheism
and Christian Theology,” 88.
313. See Alan Richardson, Creeds
in the Making: A Short Introduction to the History of Christian Doctrine
(London: SCM, 1990), 86; see also 85–88. Perhaps there is significance
in the fact that there are two very widespread legends concerning the reason
for Satan’s fall: According to one, he fell because he rebelled against God;
according to the other (which is common in Jewish and Islamic lore), he fell
because he refused to do homage to Adam. Of course, in the latter case, he was
also rebelling against the express will of God.
314. Clement of Alexandria, The
Instructor 3.1, in ANF, 2:271. For a survey of the semantic range
and complexity of the term theos among pagan Greeks of the Roman period,
see S. R. F. Price, “Gods and Emperors: The Greek Language of the Roman
Imperial Cult,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 104 (1984): 79–95.
Price cautions his readers against imposing on antiquity modern “Christianizing
assumptions,” lest they fail to understand the evidence on its own terms.
Such a survey needs to be done for ancient Jews and Christians, as well, and
with the same caution in mind.
315. See Life of Adam and Eve
13, in Charlesworth, OTP, 2:262. The same notion appears in the Qurʾān,
where Satan refuses to worship. See Qurʾān 2:30–34; 7:11–22;
15:26–35; 17:61–62; 18:51; 20:120; and 38:75–86.
316. Peter, Clementine Homilies
16:16, in ANF, 8:316. The term god is not univocal even in the scriptures.
For a particularly striking example of this, where it is applied to a mortal
man, see Exodus 4:16 and 7:1. See also the note on Psalm 45:6 at NIV, 831. The
Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 2.26 (as translated in ANF,
7:410) says of the fourth-century Christian bishop that “he is, next
after God, your earthly god, who has a right to be honored by you.”
317. I thank Barry Bickmore for
reminding me of this passage. It is discussed in his very interesting book,
The Restoration of the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity
(Ben Lomond, Calif.: The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research,
318. Origen, Against Celsus
8.4, in ANF, 4:641.
319. Ibid., 8.3, in ANF,
320. Ibid., 8.5, in ANF,
321. Hurtado, “First-Century
Jewish Monotheism,” 354. Compare Wright, “The Faith of Israel,”
322. Hurtado, “First-Century
Jewish Monotheism,” 354–55.
323. Ibid., 356. (I cannot resist
remarking the structural similarity of Professor Hurtado’s argument to that
advanced in Peterson and Ricks, Offenders for a Word.) Hurtado cites
Orthodox and Catholic veneration of Mary as an example of a practice that might
trouble Protestants like himself, but declares that Protestant historians, as
historians, must nonetheless accept such veneration as a genuine manifestation
of monotheism. His suggestion of a more inductive approach may actually bring
those who accept it to a more biblical way of thinking: “I have repeatedly
pointed out,” wrote W. F. Albright, “that the Hebrew Bible is the
greatest existing monument of empirical logic and that this logic is more exact
than formal logic in some important respects. After all, it is based on the
cumulative experience of men, and not on postulates or presuppositions which
may or may not be correct, as is inevitably true of most postulational reasoning
outside of mathematics and the exact sciences.” Albright, Yahweh and
the Gods of Canaan, 177.
324. See Justin Martyr, Dialogue
with Trypho 55–124, in ANF, 1:222.
325. Nispel, “Christian Deification
and the Early Testimonia,” 290–91.
326. As at ibid., 292, 301–3.
327. For a good discussion of this
subject, see David L. Paulsen, “Early Christian Belief in a Corporeal Deity:
Origen and Augustine as Reluctant Witnesses,” Harvard Theological Review
83/2 (1990): 105–16; David L. Paulsen, “The Doctrine of Divine Embodiment:
Restoration, Judeo-Christian, and Philosophical Perspectives,” BYU
Studies 35/4 (1995–96): 6–94.
328. See, for example, the discussion
of Van den Hoek, ” ‘I said, You Are Gods . . . ,’ ” 203–19,
which focuses mostly on the later, Platonized version of the doctrine of human
deification and notes the gulf that the Platonized Fathers insisted on retaining
between God and humankind.
329. Ibid., 208, 209.
330. Justin Martyr, Dialogue
with Trypho 124, in ANF, 1:262.
331. 4Q511 frg. 10, line 11, as
given in García Martínez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated,
332. Perhaps Novatian, Treatise
concerning the Trinity 20, in ANF, 5:631, had something analogous