Modern Jewish Scholars on the Embodied, Multipersonal Old Testament God


Several quotes by Jewish scholars who affirm that the Old Testament teaches, and pre-modern Judaism adherents believed, in an embodied and multipersonal YHWH.

The purpose of this is not to uphold what ancient or modern Jews think as some sort of infallible authority. Rather, it is to point out that:

1) The Old Testament is far from indisputably clearly portraying a unitarian God;
2) What modern Judaism teaches is not what previous eras of Jews believed (and hence tying back in to point 1);
3) The concept of a multipersonal, embodied God is not conjured up out of paganism by polytheists-in-disguise Christians (which ties in to points 1 & 2).
4) Why don’t the NT writers seem to spend any time explaining or arguing how one God can be many (multiplural), or be embodied? The Unitarian would of course argue that it’s because the NT doesn’t actually teach the Trinity or God in human form. But what if the reason is simply because it wasn’t an issue for Second Temple Jews because they already accepted such a concept? So arguing for God being embodied and multiplural would be like arguing to the Jews that God created the universe – unnecessary preaching to the choir. The only ‘innovation’ was to declare that the one who was the embodied multiplural YHWH was Jesus of Nazareth.

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It became clear that “two powers in heaven” was a very early category of heresy, earlier than Jesus, if Philo is a trustworthy witness, and one of the basic categories by which the rabbis perceived the new phenomenon of Christianity. – Alan F Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism

Although official rabbinic theology sought to suppress all talk of the Memra or Logos by naming it the heresy of “Two Powers in Heaven” (b. Hag. 15a), before the rabbis, contemporaneously with them, and even among them, there were many Jews in both Palestine and the Diaspora who held on to a version of monotheistic theology that could accommodate this divine figure linking heaven and earth. Whereas Maimonides and his followers until today understood the Memra, along with the Shekhinah (“Presence”), as a means of avoiding anthropomorphisms in speaking of God, historical investigation suggests that in the first two centuries CE, the Memra was not a mere name, but an actual divine entity functioning as a mediator. – Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity, p.116

Philo, writing in first-century CE Alexandria for an audience of Jews devoted to the Bible, uses the idea of the Logos as if it were a commonplace. His writings make apparent that at least for some pre-Christian Judaism, there was nothing strange about a doctrine of a manifestation of God, even as a “second God”; the Logos did not conflict with Philo’s idea of monotheism… Other versions of Logos theology, namely notions of the second god as personified Word or Wisdom of God, were present among Aramaic-, Hebrew-, and Syriac-speaking Jews as well. Hints of this idea appear in Jewish texts that are part of the Bible such as Proverbs 8.22–31, Job 28.12–28 – Daniel Boyarin, LOGOS, A Jewish Word: John’s Prologue as Midrash

No Jew sensitive to Judaism’s own classical sources, however, can fault the theological model Christianity employs when it avows belief in a God who has an earthly body as well as a Holy Spirit and heavenly manifestation, for that model, we have seen, is a perfectly Jewish one. A religion whose scripture contains the fluidity traditions, whose teachings emphasize the multiplicity of the shekhinah, and whose thinkers speak of the sephirot does not differ in its theological essentials from a religion that adores a triune God. Note that the Christian beliefs that Judaism rejects are not specifically theological in nature. The only significant theological difference between Judaism and Christianity lies not in the trinity or in the incarnation but in Christianity’s revival of the notion of a dying and rising God, a category ancient Israel clearly rejects. – Benjamin D Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel

There can be little doubt however that early Jewish theologoumena related to such a [hypostatic, supernal] son existed, as the books dealing with Enoch – in particular the Ethiopian one – and Philo’s views… concerning the Logos as Son or firstborn convincingly demonstrate, and likewise there can be little doubt that they informed the main developments in a great variety of the nascent Christologies. In the course of time, due to the ascent in Christianity of both the centrality and cruciality of son ship understood in diverse forms of incarnation, it seems that Jewish authors belonging to rabbinic circles attenuated and in some cases even obliterated the role of sons as cosmic mediators. Nevertheless, some of these earlier traditions apparently survived in traditional Jewish writings that were subsequently transmitted by rabbinic Judaism… An explanation of a verse from Exod. 23:21, and its adoption in the Talmudic passage… served as one of the anchors for the return of older material dealing with the Great Angel as son of God, into the Judaism of the Middle Ages. – Moshe Idel, Ben: Sonship and Jewish Mysticism

It may be said that the Jewish mystics recovered the mythical dimension of a biblical motif regarding the appearance of God in the guise of the highest of angels, called ‘angel of the Lord’ (mal’akh YHWH), ‘angel of God’… or ‘angel of the Presence’ (mal’akh ha-panim) which sometimes appeared in the form of a man. Evidence for the continuity of the exegetical tradition of an exalted angel that is in effect the manifestation of God is to be found in a wide variety of later sources. – Elliot R Wolfson, Through a Speculum That Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism

In the passage from Nahmanides’ Commentary to the Torah discussed by Pines, Nahmanides explicitly takes issue with Maimonides (and with the tenth-century sage Sac adia Ga’on by inference), and seeks to characterize the fundamental difference between his tradition and Maimonides’ Aristotelian world view. The difference centers around the inclusion or exclusion of the divine manifestation within the godhead. Nahmanides posits an organic or continuous relationship between God’s being and that of the angel – that is, they are both immanent in the same divine substance. – Daniel Abrams, The Boundaries of Divine Ontology: The Inclusion and Exclusion of Metatron in the Godhead, Harvard Theological Review (Volum 87, Issue 3, 1994)

From several texts it is clear that the demarcation between God and his angel is often blurred. – Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary

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Also, here is Daniel Boyarin from 5:00 and especially 7:00 to 9:18 stating that it’s Maimonides and his fellow medieval rabbis who overturned Tanakh, Talmud and Mishna up to that point and gave modern Judaism its non-embodied God.

And from 1:36:00 for about a minute he outright states that Maimonides’ main influence was the surrounding Islamic thinkers.

[Note too that the Islamically-influenced Maimonides also replaced echad (compound one) in the Shema with yachid (absolute one).]


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