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Exalted Human Claims in the time of Jesus

October 14, 2017

The discussion of Andrew Loke’s new book in which he proposes that Jesus saw and spoke of himself as “truly divine” reminded me of some interesting Qumran fragments and the discussion about them.[1]

These fragments are often referred to by scholars as portions of a “Self-Glorification Hymn” in which an unidentified human figure (it seems) portrays himself as exalted to heavenly status, sitting prominently among “the gods” and given vast heavenly secrets.  The texts in question are:  4Q471b and 4Q491c, and also 4Q427 (which is a portion of 4QHodayot (the Qumran “hymn collection”).[2]

The speaker in 4Q427, for example, declares himself “a friend of the king [likely here God], companion of the holy ones [angels],” and claims to have an incomparable glory given to him.  In 4Q471b, the speaker declares “who is like me among the gods,” and “who can be compared to my glory.”  In 4Q491c also, the speaker likewise claims an incomparable glory, and says “I am counted among the gods and my dwelling is in the holy congregation.”[3]  And note that the speaker of these texts is portrayed as apparently still living a mortal existence.

The point is that such notions of heavenly exaltation of selected human figures were in the air of second-temple Jewish tradition, which is why I wrote that Loke’s proposal that Jesus saw himself as bearing some kind of “divine” status is not inconceivable, in principle.  The question is whether the extant Gospel traditions provide us with evidence that Jesus actually did teach his disciples something along these lines.

The fragmentary nature of these Qumran manuscripts, and the absence in the fragments of any explicit identification of the speaker, have combined to generate various scholarly proposals about who this figure is.  Martin Abegg, for example, reviewed briefly previous scholarly proposals (e.g., by Maurice Gaillet, Morton Smith, and John J. Collins), concluding that “the Teacher of Righteousness [a figure mentioned in some other Qumran texts], the acknowledged founder of the Qumran community, is a strong candidate.”  Abegg also suggested that it is possible that the claim of heavenly ascent was made on his behalf by the author of the text(s).[4]

Abegg proposed that we may have a somewhat analogous kind of claim and experience portrayed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:2-5, where, among his “countless visions” Paul describes being caught up into “the third heaven” and hearing marvellous things that he is not free to share.

But Morton Smith (one of the earlier scholars to comment on these Qumran texts) went much farther, proposing that they support his claims that Jesus himself had similar visionary experiences and even “founded a mystery cult” with himself as its object.[5]  Smith pointed to the narratives of the transfiguration (e.g., Mark 9) and resurrection-experiences as reflecting the sort of mystical experiences that Jesus promoted.[6]

Smith’s proposals about Jesus and his supposed “mystery cult” haven’t caught on with other scholars, regardless of their individual religious stances.  But in an earlier work, J.D.G. Dunn urged readers to consider more seriously what sort of piety and religious life/experiences Jesus may have had.[7]  I agree.  A historical approach to Jesus should make ample room for him as a devout Jew of his time, not a modern systematic theologian (or liberal Protestant, or Cynic teacher, or whatever), but a Jewish man who not only talked about God but likely had religious experiences as well.

[1] Curiously, I don’t recall Loke dealing with these texts.

[2] These and other Qumran texts are available in Hebrew and English translation in Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls, Study Edition (2 vols.; Leiden:  Brill; Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1997-1998, paperback edition, 2000).

[3] In Qumran texts, heavenly/angelic beings are often referred to as “gods” (Hebrew: elim].

[4] Martin Abegg, “Who Ascended to Heaven?  4Q491, 4Q427, and the Teacher of Righteousness,” in Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. Craig A. Evans and Peter W. Flint (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 61-73, citing 72.  In a more recent study, Eric Miller proposed that the figure in these texts is Enoch, and the texts are an imaginative literary meditation on him (as reflected also in portions of 1 Enoch and other texts):  “The Self-Glorification Hymn Reexamined,” Henoch 31.2 (2009):  307-24.

[5] Morton Smith, “Two Ascended Into Heaven: Jesus and the Author of 4Q491,” in Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. J. H. Charlesworth (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 290-301, citing 291.

[6] Smith, “Two Ascended,” 298-99.

[7] J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians As Reflected in the New Testament (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975).

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24 Comments
  1. Hi Larry,

    I have a question about this:

    “The point is that such notions of heavenly exaltation of selected human figures were in the air of second-temple Jewish tradition, which is why I wrote that Loke’s proposal that Jesus saw himself as bearing some kind of ‘divine’ status is not inconceivable, in principle.”

    I assume that you would agree that there is an important distinction to be made between a proposal that Jesus saw himself as bearing “some kind of ‘divine’ status” (emphasis here on “some kind”) and one that holds that Jesus saw himself as bearing Loke’s proposed “truly divine” status, correct?

    I assume that the “truly” was thrown in to suggest that what Jesus was really claiming was to be YHWH, or at least the literal embodiment of YHWH on earth, as you suggested may be the case. If that *is* the case — and I can’t think of another reason to add “truly” — then there really is a significant chasm between the exaltation of agents of God in the 4Q texts and what Loke is proposing with respect to Jesus, wouldn’t you agree?

    ~Sean

    • I suspect that you’re correct that Loke meant by “truly divine” a rather robust inclusion of Jesus in the “being” of God. And so, yes, that would be a major step up from the sort of exaltations described in the Qumran texts that I cited.

      • Dear Professor Hurtado,
        In my book I use “truly divine” to denote (A) being on the Creator side of the Creator–creature divide and (B) of equal ontological status as God the Father (p.13; in my book I explains that A entails B, and vice versa). I agree with you that it would be a major step up from the sort of exaltations described in the Qumran texts that you cited. That was the reason why I did not deal with these texts in my book (in response to footnote 1 of your post).

  2. John Mitrosky permalink

    Another interesting text about an exalted human at the time of Jesus is within “The Psalms of Solomon”, which is usually dated to 40 B.C.E. Psalm 17 of this text, in particular, tells us of the reincarnation of a Davidic messiah soon to come, only unlike the former David, the new David is a non-military messiah who can only destroy with “the word of his mouth” (17:24; 35; 36).

    • Yes, John, but “reincarnation” is, I presume, your metaphor and not really what the text portrays. Also, the messiah of Psalms of Solomon isn’t presented as sharing in divinity, so not really an analogy for the other texts.

  3. Charlesworth, Professor James permalink

    Larry
    In my monograph focused on Psalms 151-155 and 156 [which I have identified] there is an exceptional exaltation of David; here is a paragraph from chapter two:

    The most important reference in MS RNL Antonin 798 (= Psalm 156) to David is in 1.23. While it is well known that David was heralded as a prophet in antiquity, especially from the attributions in Hebrew and especially in Aramaic (the Targumim) of Psalms 14, 18, 103 and in the Targumim of Psalm 49:16,[i] and Psalm 51:13-14, quite startling is the claim that David is “above the angels” and “king” for “eternity.” Recall that line:

    Above all the angels you (O God) made his (David’s) greatness.
    And king of all the nations you placed him for eternity.
    In the future the exalted status of Enoch, Melchisedek, the person of the Self-Glorification Hymn, Moses, Solomon, the Righteous Teacher, Hillel, Jesus, and Paul needs to be rethought.

    James Charlesworth
    PROFESSOR OF NEW TESTAMENT LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE
    Princeton Theological Seminary

    • Larry, I would like to ask James a question. My understanding is that you are quoting from Targums which would be Rabbinic literature. Is that correct?

      • No, Geoff. Charlesworth cited extra-canonical texts of the 2nd temple period. The Targums and rabbinic literature are from a much later period.

    • John Mitrosky permalink

      Dear Professor Charlesworth,

      May I please take this opportunity to say I believe your essay, “Can We Discern the Composition Date of the Parables of Enoch? is the most interesting paper ever written on the subject! Thank you so much for that. Placing the documents composition in the Hulah Valley also makes so much sense to me, especially for how it illuminates Q 11:24-26. I was wondering if you still hold to the view that chapters 70-71 is foreshadowed in chapters 37-69? It has always seemed more logical to me that Nickelsburg’s conclusion of the original third parable 70:1-2 is correct and the rest of 70-71 is a later addition..

  4. Larry, you wrote:”The point is that such notions of heavenly exaltation of selected human figures were in the air of second-temple Jewish tradition,” Are there examples from the bible?

    • Geoff: I’m not clear what you mean. If by “the bible” you mean the Christian Bible, well, there wasn’t one yet in the 2nd temple period. The “scriptures” of that time were pretty much “Old Testament” writings, or what became the “Hebrew Bible”. In these writings, we don’t really have portraits of equivalently exalted human figures.

      • Larry, so how do you get the “air of second temple Jewish tradition” if you cannot get it from the OT?

      • Uh, Geoff, we ha quite a number of texts from that period! E.g., the Qumran material (several hundred manuscripts). The so-called “apocrypha” and “pseudepigrapha” a few dozen more texts. Do you need bibliographical suggestions?

      • Larry, it is amazing to me the that you cannot get the “notions of heavenly exaltation of selected human figures in the air of second-temple Jewish tradition” from the Old Testament, when you can from the very much larger body of the Scrolls. Why do you think that is so?

      • Well, Geoff, the major reason is that the bulk of OT writings were composed a good bit earlier than those that exhibit the flowering of this interest in the theme of the “heavenly/exalted” figure.

      • Larry, how much earlier do you think?

      • Geoff: The posting wasn’t about the composition-date of OT texts, but about the 2nd temple texts that evidence an interest in the idea of this or that human figure attaining a heavenly status. Let’s stay on topic, ok?

      • Larry, what I would really like to know is why this relatively sudden interest in the 2nd temple texts “that evidence an interest in the idea of this or that human figure attaining a heavenly status”. What would cause the writers to present such a disturbed view of themselves, especially in the light of other material found in Cave 4.

      • “A Disturbed view of themselves”?? The eschatological aim expressed in various Qumran texts is communion with the angels. And what other “material found in Cave 4” prompts your puzzlement? And the idea of a quasi-deified human isn’t confined to Qumran. It’s in 1 Enoch (parables), and then later in 2 Enoch and 3 Enoch.

  5. Hon Wai Lai permalink

    Prof. Hurtado, In advocating historians should understand Jesus as a pious Jew who was likely to have “religious experiences”, are you referring exclusively to visionary experiences like those experienced by Paul as reported in Corinthians? Construed broadly, the historical Jesus clearly had religious experiences, as he believed the Father regularly spoke to him in explicit terms, he performed actions which he (and his followers) believed to be encounters and conversations with demons, and the gospel accounts of the temptations in the wilderness (let’s assume there is a historical core to them) where the devil took him to exotic locations (okay, it’s not as exotic to Paul’s third heaven, but they are locations no normal humans in the era could have visited).

    • I’m not plumping for “exotic” experiences to the exclusion of more mundane ones. But the sort that you mention will seem exotic to many today.

  6. John Mitrosky permalink

    Thank you for this fascinating post Larry! One major difference I see between the exalted Qumran figure and Jesus is that the Qumran folks taught exclusive purity. Jesus, by contrast, taught inclusive purity. Furthermore, Jesus’ brand of inclusive purity was about eschatological morality, ethics, forgiveness, and celebrating gratitude and Thanksgiving to God. This religious spirit of inclusiveness would have likely been shunned by the Qumran group, in my opinion, and I suspect you would agree?

    • My posting made no suggestion that Jesus and the figure of the “Self-Glorification Hymn” shared the same stance in all matters, John. I only pointed out that the Qumran text may make it more plausible that Jesus could have had exalted religious experiences that generated the conviction that he was called to a unique mission. That’s all.

  7. Robert G permalink

    It is indeed fascinating to consider the possible religious experiences of Jesus and those he likely engendered among his disciples. A very strong sense of God as ‘our Father’ and perhaps a sense in which Jesus himself was in some unique sense God’s son. Add to that whatever public role or mission Jesus thought he was to play with respect to the coming Kingdom of God and we really do have the seeds of later devotion to Jesus that would develop after resurrection experiences.

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