Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pleroma, Angels Ascending and Descending

For my Fishbane reading today (Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking), two points stood out to me:

1. The Babylonian Talmud Chagigah 12a presents Rab saying, "By ten things the world was created: By Wisdom, by Understanding, by Reason, by Strength, by Roar, by Might, by Righteousness, by Judgment, by Loving kindness, and by Compassion" (243). Fishbane says that, for Rab, these appear to be qualities of God's own nature, rather than things that he creates.

In a comment about a similar statement in 'Abot de-Rabbi Natan, however, Fishbane states that such qualities in the passage "are primordial entitities brought into being by God (as is Wisdom, according to Prov. 8:22), or are some other embodiments of divine attributes that 'serve' God as agents of His cosmic command" (246).

This reminds me of a post I did a while back, Tertullian the (Semi-)Arian? For the church father Tertullian, the Word who became Jesus Christ was the Logos Prophorikos. What's that mean? For Tertullian, God the Father had wisdom inside of him, and that wisdom is called the Logos Endiathekos. But, when God decided to create the cosmos, he emitted that wisdom so that it became a person, the Logos Prophorikos, who later was incarnated as Jesus Christ. In a sense, Jesus is the expression of God's wisdom. God produced a person who had his wisdom to be his agent, who would create the heavens and the earth.

And that appears to be some of the issue in these rabbinic texts. God has all of these good attributes inside of him, but did he create separate beings who embodied particular attributes and mediated them to creation? Is there an angel of justice, and an angel of mercy, etc.? We know from Exodus 12 that there is a death angel, a Mashchit. For many scholars, ha-Satan was a prosecuting attorney, someone who encouraged God to act according to strict justice. Is the rabbinic idea of different entities in a plenorama biblical?

In ancient thought, the Pleroma was a realm of various deities or supernatural beings. What's interesting is that Colossians 2:9 uses that word for Jesus Christ, saying that in him dwells all the Pleroma of the Godhead bodily. The passage may very well mean that there weren't a bunch of sub-deities (or, for certain Jewish thinkers, angels) in a Pleroma whom people had to appease. Rather, there's Jesus Christ.

That brings me to something else that Fishbane says. In commenting on Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer 3, Fishbane states: "The world is thus not the haphazard result of diverse divine attributes (like justice and mercy), but rather the product of reason and deliberation" (243). Many evangelicals define justice as strict punishment, as in burning in hell for all eternity, which people deserve if they aren't covered by the blood of Christ. For them, God punishes people in eternal hell if they aren't morally perfect, and that's God's justice. Mercy, however, is forgiveness. Rabbinic literature assumes this sort of polarity, for there's a passage that says that God did not create the world in strict justice or strict mercy. If there were strict justice, then nobody would be alive, since we're all sinners. If there were strict mercy, then the evildoers would be let off, and evil would be rampant.

But could justice be something other than God sentencing people to eternal hell for their imperfection? In her post, Just to forgive, Jamie Kiley refers to I John 1:9, which affirms that God is just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness. So is justice necessarily the polar opposite of forgiveness? Maybe it's God's righteousness, which is made evident both when he punishes and also when he forgives. And perhaps God does not have a split-personality with two conflicting attributes of justice and mercy (see my post, Does God Have a Split-Personality?), for the two are integrated with each other in some sense. Just a thought!

2. On pages 247-249, Fishbane discusses rabbinic passages about God ascending upon Abraham and Jacob. He brings in peculiar ideas that occur in rabbinic literature, such as the one that there's a heavenly form of Jacob engraved on the Chariot that God rides, and that, in Genesis 33:20, God actually calls Jacob God on earth (Babylonian Talmud Megilliah 18a; also, Genesis Rabbah 47:6; 69:3; 82:13).

I thought about John 1:51, where Jesus tells one of his disciples that he will see angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Within the history of biblical interpretation, people have read John 1:51 in light of the story of Jacob's ladder in Genesis 28. There, Jacob is on the run from his brother, Esau, and he sees a ladder that leads to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it.

I found Raymond Brown's comments in the Anchor Bible for John to be quite interesting. Brown states that some have interpreted John 1:51 in light of the passages that Fishbane discusses---the ones about God ascending on Jacob:

In the Midrash Rabbah LXVIII 12 on Genesis xxvii 12, we find that Jacob's true appearance is in heaven while his body lies on the earth, and the angels are traveling back and forth between them. Applying this to John, some suggest that Jesus is really with the Father as Son of Man, and yet he is on earth at the same time; the angels constitute the communication between the heavenly and earthly Jesus...It should be pointed out that the rabbinic source for the theory is no earlier than the third century A.D., although the interpretation of Genesis may be earlier. (90)

A heavenly Jesus and an earthly Jesus existing at the same time? That reminds me somewhat of a conversation I had with Polycarp, whom (if I'm correct) was saying that God was in heaven yet manifesting himself on earth, while being the same person. Polycarp can correct me if I'm misrepresenting him. But the idea also reminds me of something I encountered in the Shepherd of Hermas, an early Christian document from the first-second centuries C.E., if I was interpreting it correctly. See my post, The Shepherd of Hermas' Christology.

Brown discusses other ideas, though, such as the one that Jesus in John 1:51 was referring to himself as the ladder between heaven and earth. Others have asserted that Jesus is the new altar, since Jacob built the altar of Bethel in Genesis 28. The idea of a heavenly Jesus and an earthly Jesus, however, is intriguing to me, even though it looks strange and has a "heresy" feel to it! But perhaps one can still understand John 1:51 in light of certain rabbinic passages: Jacob was God on earth as God's representative (cp. Exodus 7:1), and so was Jesus (though many would argue he was much more than that).

Search This Blog