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“Two Powers in Heaven” is Back!

July 12, 2013

Surely one of the most significant books for the study of Christian origins of the last 40 years is by the later Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven. Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism, SJLA, 25 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977).  Segal probed early rabbinic references to Jewish “heretics” (“minim”) who were perceived as holding to two divine figures, thus violating the traditional Jewish concern for the uniqueness of the one God.  The book was originally a limited-run, expensive hardback, and for some time has been difficult to acquire.  The great news is that it is now available in a modestly priced softcover reprint thanks to Baylor University Press.  You can see the item in the BUP online catalogue here.

In an analysis that I found (and still find) persuasive, Segal identified two types of such “heretics” in these rabbinic reports:  (1) an earlier type in which two “complementary” divine figures are involved, and (2) a later type in which two opposing divine figures are pictured.  Segal cogently proposed that the latter type was likely Jewish “gnostics”, who referred to a good/high deity and an inferior/evil creator-deity (“demiurge”), and that the earlier type was likely Jewish Christians, who pictured Jesus as sharing divine glory and status with “God” (“the Father”).

For any scholar seriously interested in the questions about the emergence of early Jesus-devotion, and particularly the ancient Jewish context, Segal’s book remains highly important.  (Yes, Segal was a personal friend, but I stand by the judgment that this book is as signficant as I’ve indicated.)

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  1. FYI, I had to use this link to get to Schafer’s article:

    perhaps I am not alone

  2. I have read Dr. Heiser’s dissertation recently (though I’ve been following his work for a while). His main hypothesis, it seems, is that this bifurcation of God can be found even in the Old Testament times in accordance with Near Eastern divine councils. Would many agree with this – or is the duality within God usually seen as something much more recent, novel, and revolutionary (such as the Hellenistic period)?


    • Heiser’s main emphasis in the dissertation was that a “divine council” of heavenly beings is reflected in OT texts and continues on into 2nd temple Jewish tradition/texts too. I don’t recall so much an emphasis on a “bifurcation” in/of God. In any case, the point that I’ve emphasized for some 25 years now is that, whatever speculations about God in ancient Jewish texts (e.g., Philo’s references to the divine Logos, or the main “powers”), the more important matter (for ancient Jews) was cultus (worship, esp. sacrifice), and there is no indication of any duality in the worship practice of 2nd temple Jews. This is what makes the obvious duality in earliest Christian worship practice so noteworthy.

  3. I don’t recall him using the actual phrase ‘two powers in heaven’, but in his book The Jewish Gospels, Daniel Boyarin argues that a dyadic / binitarian view of God was common in second temple Judaism, ranging from Daniel to 1 Enoch to 4 Ezra to the NT, etc. Michael Heiser also argues the same, using the actual phrase in question. Is this view mainstream, and if so, wouldn’t it mean the earliest Christians were not unique in their ‘mutation’ of Jewish monotheism to include a second figure (Jesus) in the divinity of Yahweh?

    • For a hard-hitting review (deservedly so in my view) of Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels,” see my earlier note:

      On the point in question, Boyarin continues to make his case by (1) discounting the significance of the worship of a second figure (a bizarre stance in my view), and (2) by a dubious reading of the Jewish evidence. My recollection of Heiser’s work is that he doesn’t really agree with Boyarin. Heiser simply makes the point (that I made in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism) that in the 2nd temple period a variety of evidence indicates that devout Jews were able to accommodate the idea of a “principal agent” figure (to use my phrase), who could be portrayed sometimes as even sharing God’s name. But the crucial difference is that any such figure never was incorporated into the worship pattern in the way that Jesus was in earliest Christianity. In this (and it’s crucial in the ancient Jewish tradition), early devotion to Jesus did comprise a distinctive “mutation.”

  4. Joe permalink

    Forty dollars? When does the ten dollars e-book version come out?

  5. egwpisteuw permalink

    Yes, I put this book on my reading list after reading Michael Heiser’s Dissertation.

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