Higher Critical Review

Margaret Barker.  The Great Angel, A Study of Israel's Second God.
Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992. xvi + 253 pp. $21.99

Reviewed by Robert M. Price. Institute for Higher Critical Studies
JHC 4/1 (Spring, 1997), 152-155.

This is what we mean by "paradigm shift." In reading Margaret Barker's wide-ranging investigation one feels the tectonic plates shifting and coming together in a new configuration, or perhaps rather a very old one, as we see the outlines of primal Gondwanaland restored again. Barker strips off the blinders of the canonical redactors of the Old Testament, a job we thought we'd long ago completed. Just as fundamentalists continue in obedience to the faith of the Priestly Writer and the Chronicler and their retrojection of Second Temple Judaism into the Patriarchal and Mosaic periods, the rest of us have too easily been gulled into accepting the Mishnaic urgings that Post-Exilic Judaism was monotheistic.

Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we were content with the assumption that in Jesus' day Javneh Judaism already existed as a dominant mainstream. We were willing to take at face value the dictum of Josephus and the rabbis that prophecy had long since ceased in Israel, somehow not discerning that such an argument means precisely to clamp the lid on contemporary, inconvenient prophecies. Similarly, we have been too willing to let pass unexamined the assumption that Judaism was safely monotheistic ever since the Exile. Barker's case is that monotheism was a Deuteronomic novelty imposed with incomplete success onto Israelite faith just before the Exile, and that the suppressed traditions continued in full bloom, though not without the marks of impact, alongside monotheistic orthodoxy right on through the New Testament period, furnishing the categories, ready-made, for New Testament Christology. In the meantime, the old traditions had taken the forms of Apocalyptic, incipient Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Philonic Logos speculation. We have blithely assumed that these various thinkers, schools and groups hatched hugely complex mythologies ex nihilo overnight, like mushrooms after a rain shower. But Barker asks the obvious question of whether it is not a priori more likely that they were all variously working with very old traditions and variants of traditions, that their efforts lay mainly in fine-tuning and providing new slants to old mythemes and doctrines, those of ancient Israel outside Deuteronomic orthodoxy.

Barker's starting point is an untied loose end, Deuteronomy 32:8-9, which seems, on any straightforward reading, to make Yahweh one of the seventy sons of Elyon, i.e., not the high God, but rather the godling entrusted with Israel as his province, pretty much equivalent to the one like a son of man in Daniel 10:10-21 (whom Barker in fact makes the same character). Yahweh/the Angel of Yahweh (apparently synonymous even within the same texts) was the second God, later encountered under the various appellations of Metatron, the Memra, the Logos, even the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael, etc.

The pattern is much the same as in Canaanite religion, the cognate twin of Israelite religion: El is the elder high God, while Baal is his son, the virile young warrior who succeeds his father as divine king. In Daniel 7 we see not so much a fragment bor- rowed from El-Baal tradition, but rather a home-grown Jewish version of the same mytheme, picturing Elyon and Yahweh. And just as Baal had his divine consort, Anath, so did Yahweh: the goddess variously known in the Old Testament as Asherah, Ashtoreth, the Queen of Heaven, Eve, and Wisdom. In all this, Barker draws together much fascinating data discussed in earlier studies including Raphael Patai's The Hebrew Goddess and Alan Segal's Two Powers in Heaven.

Barker discerns the narrowing of Israelite polytheism into monotheism in passages like Deut 6:4, the Shema, "Hear O Israel, Yahweh your God is one Yahweh" (obviously a corrective to a belief in many Yahwehs or gods) and Second Isaiah 43:11, which protests against apparent competitors within Judaism that Yahweh is the one and only savior. In other words, Yahweh and Elyon have been consolidated. Such a consolidation had been thought to stem from a much earlier period. Barker asks whether many Pentateuchal traditions which presuppose the divine conflation must not be redated into a later Sitz-im-Leben.

This elimination of other deities, this fusing of Yahweh with Elyon, seemed to those who did not accept it a blasphemous usurpation by an arrogant lesser deity (or his priestly patrons, which came to the same thing), and the rejection of this Deutero- nomic Yahweh-exaltation survived into Merkabah mysticism as the punishment of Metatron the Little Yahweh when mystics confused him with the ultimate deity. It survived into Gnosticism as the rebuke of Saklas, the demiurge who vainly imagined himself the highest deity. It may even be reflected in the myth of the fall of Satan who aspired to be like Elyon and ascend to the mount of the divine assembly.

The ejection from the pantheon of Wisdom, the Queen of Heaven (Barker argues for the identity of the two), was already bemoaned by her devotees in Jer 44:15-19. Is it this sympathy which survived into Apocalyptic Wisdom traditions as the myth of the descent and reascent of rejected Wisdom, unable to find a dwelling among recalcitrant men? Was this also the origin of the Gnostic myth of the Fall of Wisdom, poised between an Unknown Father (the old Elyon "unknown" to monotheistic orthodoxy) and an arrogant demiurge who created the world and lied to his creations?

Barker's suggestions are consistently striking, illuminating both the biblical text and the history of traditions adjacent to the Bible, such as Gnosticism and Philonism. Tucked away in the vast compass of the volume is her new theory of the origins of Gnosticism, that it was a mutation not of early Christianity or even of disillusioned Jewish Apocalyptic, but of pre-Deuteronomic Israelite polytheism. One might view her suggestion as a twin to or an extension of Paul Hanson's theory of the origin of Apocalyptic as a popular reaction against Second Temple hierocratic Judaism, repristinating ancient mythemes for new purposes.

In thus providing a surprising Israelite (not just Jewish) pedigree for Gnosticism, Barker means to make superfluous the theories of Reitzenstein and others which trace Gnosticism back to Hellenistic and Iranian sources. Similarly, she seeks to stultify the widespread position that New Testament Christology and, later, the doctrine of the Trinity were derived from Hellenistic speculation or the Mystery Religions. Her conclusion is that when early Christian theologians quoted the Old Testament theophanies as Christophanies, they were not merely proof-texting the Old Testament in the service of an alien Christ-concept, but that they meant to say that in their belief the exalted Jesus had become identified with Yahweh the Son of Elyon, that he was the lesser and second God who had been manifest as such in the Old Testament theophanies.

Fair enough, and an interesting and plausible reading of the evidence which should occasion much debate. But one wonders if Barker is still drawing too bold a line between Judaism and Hel- lenism, a line that Martin Hengel has managed largely to erase. Specifically, one wonders if we have an either-or or a both-and situation when it comes to theories (such as those discussed by Jonathan Z. Smith in his Drudgery Divine) which interpret the death and resurrection of Jesus in the categories of the Hellenistic religions of Attis, Osiris, Adonis, etc. Judaism, too, was part of Oriental Hellenism. These other religions grew from Near-Eastern roots. When we prefer to understand Jesus as an analogue to Yahweh/Baal, what is the difference? Baal is already the same, pretty much, as Adonis/Adonai, isn't he?

And here one wonders if Barker might not be willing to take her thesis a step farther and explain the origin of the myth of Jesus' resurrection as one more piece of polytheistic Yahweh tradition. If Yahweh was in so many ways parallel to Baal the Son of Elyon, why should this not have extended to the death and resur- rection concept? It was by a resurrection victory that Baal became king of the immortals. Why not with Yahweh? Perhaps this aspect of the earlier Yahweh cycle had been successfully expunged by the priestly editors. But, a la Barker, we may surmise that it, too, hung on in the popular and sectarian imaginations, emerging into the light of history again when the mytheme was claimed for Jesus-Yahweh.

One last speculation suggested by Barker's opus. (Surely one of the marks of a seminal work is that it immediately suggests more trajectories for research than it can possibly follow up.) Barker makes the archangels aspects of Yahweh and thus instantiations of the second God. She notes at one point that various Gnostics pictured one of the archangels with the face of a donkey (Origen, Conta Celsum VI. 30; Apocryphon of John 2.1.11). If both the Old Testament Yahweh and the exalted Jesus were supposed to be more or less equivalent to one or more archangels, one wonders whether we do not have here the best hint we are ever likely to get as to the origin of the pagan belief that Jews worshiped the head of an ass in their temple, and of the pagan graffito showing the crucified Christ with an ass's head. Could these representations actually reflect some type of vanished Jewish and Christian sectarian iconography? There is much to think about.

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Darrell J. Doughty
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