Angels and Veneration in Ancient Judaism

The following excerpt is from Monotheism, Principal Angels, and the Background of Christology by W. Hurtado, University of Edinburgh. This is a pre-publication version of an invited chapter to appear in The Oxford Handbook to the Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by Timothy H. Lim and John J. Collins.

Jewish traditions place stress on God’s uniqueness and authority compared to other heavenly beings. He the Creator and the King.

“Bauckham’s astute observation about the topos of angelic refusal of worship in certain Jewish texts was followed up in Stuckenbruck’s published doctoral thesis (1995), an important study in which he conducted a thorough survey of all references to the veneration of angels, and the limitations of it, in ancient Jewish texts, inscriptions and magical material.  Stuckenbruck noted that there was no evidence of a fixed ‘cultic devotion’ to angels, in the sense of angels being the recipients of corporate worship in the ways that God was in ancient Jewish settings. But he also contended that there were various uses of ‘venerative language’ with reference to angels: e.g., (1) occasional invocation of angels (but usually with God) for help, vengeance or protection, (2) angels presented as exemplary worshippers of God (e.g., 4QShirShabb), and (3) expressions of thanksgiving (to God) for actions attributed to angels (Stuckenbruck 1995: 200-3).”

“Yet he judged that none of these various kinds of ‘angel veneration’ was conceived as a substitute for, or infringement on, the worship of the one God, noting that ‘most often the venerative language [for angels] is followed by an explanation which emphasizes the supremacy of God’ (Stuckenbruck 1995: 201).”

“In summary, in second-temple Jewish tradition a firm commitment to the uniqueness of the one God, expressed both in religious rhetoric and in cultic practice clearly sat easily with beliefs about powerful and exalted adjutant figures, among which principal angels were prominent, sometimes portrayed as uniquely deputized to act in God’s name as God’s chief agent.  In its earliest expressions, Jesus-devotion was a distinctive example of this, albeit novel in ways noted and, of course, particularly noteworthy in terms of its historical impact, the risen/exalted Jesus portrayed as God’s uniquely glorious agent of creation and redemption.  The Qumran texts have added enormously to our store of evidence concerning second-temple Judaism, and help us thereby to reconstruct the religious context of earliest circles of the Christian movement.”

Why the laws of Moses aren’t always for Christians

Moses with the Tablets of the Law, Rembrandt, 1659.
Moses with the Tablets of the Law, Rembrandt, 1659.

People coming to the Old Testament for the first time often make the assumption that its laws were intended to be universal, for everyone. Such assumptions, however, are misguided, as they aren’t always even applicable for Christians.

Some laws were for everyone. An example comes from God’s covenant with all people through Noah, recounted in the book of Genesis, where God said, “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.” Now that needs some unpacking to understand it properly, but for now I simply want to point out that this law was one of the few that the apostles said non-Jewish Christians were required to follow when the issue of the law came up in the book of Acts.

Some laws were only for the twelve tribes of Israel. An example comes from God’s covenant with the twelve tribes of Israel through Moses, recounted in the book of Deuteronomy, where God said, “Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings anywhere you please. Offer them only at the place the Lord will choose in one of your tribes, and there observe everything I command you.” Not only would this law be impossible for non-Jews to observe, since it is geographically specific, but we should notice it is addressed exclusively to the twelve tribes, not the nations beyond them.

Some laws were only for the tribe of Levi. An example comes from the book of Leviticus, where God said, The Levites always have the right to redeem their houses in the Levitical towns, which they possess. So the property of the Levites is redeemable—that is, a house sold in any town they hold—and is to be returned in the Jubilee, because the houses in the towns of the Levites are their property among the Israelites. But the pastureland belonging to their towns must not be sold; it is their permanent possession.” The name of the book, Leviticus, should be seen as a big clue here.

Some laws were only for the priests chosen from the tribe of Levi. An example comes from the book of Leviticus, where God said, “The priest shall take a handful of the flour and oil, together with all the incense, and burn this as a memorial portion on the altar, a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord.”

Some laws were only for the High Priest. An example comes from the book of Leviticus, where God said, “This is how Aaron is to enter the Most Holy Place: He must first bring a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on. From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.”

So an important question to ask, in evaluating the applicability of Old Testament law, has always been: what was the context in which it was given? And that was even before Christ reframed the law for Christians.


Were the earliest followers of Jesus Jewish or Christian?

jewish-christianWere the early followers of Jesus Jews, not Christians? I have seen this question posed in a number of ways and I would like to suggest the question assumes a dichotomy which is largely false, or at least not so black and white as the question implies. For the truth is the bulk of the earliest followers of Jesus were BOTH Jewish AND Christian. And it is even more complicated than that, for by the time represented by the second diagram, which is when the bulk of the New Testament was written, the Jewish Christians included both Aramaic speakers and Greek speakers within their ranks. Indeed the evidence suggests that the bulk of the New Testament texts were written by multilingual Jewish Christians with mixed audiences in mind. They were servant-leaders who served as bridges between Pagan-born Christians (who’s numbers were increasing) and Jewish-born Christians (who understood the culture of Jesus from the inside). “But the Christian label didn’t come into existence till later!” I hear some say. True enough. Before we get too carried away though remember this: Christ and Messiah mean the same thing. So we could as easily speaking of people who acted as bridges between Messianic Jews and Messianic Pagans who both centred their hopes and way of life on the Messiah, Jesus.

Did the prophet Jesus consider any food forbidden?

Many have suggested to me that Jesus advocated the same food laws as Mohammed and Moses. The gospel of Mark, however, tells another story:

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honour me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)—  then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

Who is the Old Testament law for?

Woodcut-style-image-of-the-Biblical-Moses-bringing-the-ten-commandments-down-from-the-mountain--Stock-VectorWhen interpreting Old Testament law it’s important to recognise who it’s for. For while some laws were given to humans in general, other laws were given to the Israelites alone. And while some laws were given to the Israelites in general, other laws were given to the Levitical priests alone. And while some laws were given to the priests in general, others were given to the high priest alone. It is important therefore to pay attention to the context as well of the content of laws. Lest we apply laws in situations for which they were never intended.

How is the Christian church different?

How is the Christian church different from the Jewish synagogue, or the Muslim ummah, or the Buddhist Sangha, or the Wiccan coven? They are all words which refer to community after all. Is there any difference in your experience? Should there be any difference?

Jewish Jesus Art

Seder meal - last supper - jewish jesus Rod Borghese

You’ve seen many paintings of the last supper before, but probably not like this. Which is a pity. Because it is true that Jews at the time of Jesus actually reclined at tables.

Consider these verses from the gospel according to Luke:

When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. (Luke 7:36)

When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. (Luke 11:37)

When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. (Luke 22:14)

I had always wondered how they reclined. As always, a picture tells a thousand words. You will see more paintings by this artist, Rod Borghese, at Jewish Jesus Art.

How non-Christian was Christ?

Jesus-jew-prayingI consider it healthy for Christians to recognize that Jesus was a Jew. Given the origins of Christianity, I can only view the anti-Semitism of the past as a kind of religious schizophrenia.

Nevertheless, I think the pendulum has swung too far when I hear people denying Christ was Christian in any significant sense at all; that Paul was behind it all. At such times I can only say, ah, that’s just moving the problem sideways – Paul was a Jew too. In fact all the first Christians were.

In ancient Christianity, being a Jew and being a Christian was not mutually exclusive. It could be a both/and situation. Christian conversion did not require a “rejection” of Jewish practice and teaching but more of a “recentering”, whereby messianic testimony and imitation shifted to the centre of religious life and Mosaic ritual and law became more peripheral.

This understanding of Christ as central to Christianity, whatever form it takes, guides my assessment of the alternative Christologies that are sometimes offered by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and the Western Mystery Traditions. Many like to assert that Christians don’t have a monopoly on Christ, and to some extent I have to agree this is true. Christ transcends Christianity.

But none of their alternate Christologies centre on Christ in the way Christianity does. They may find a place for Christ in their philosophy, but it is always in a more peripheral, less authoritative capacity. He is not received as Christ, as Messiah. He is often not even accepted as monotheistic. How unJewish is that?

Is the Torah redundant?

The other day I was reminded of a conversation I had with Rabbi Zalman Kastel at the last Anabaptist peace conference. It started with a question about the Old Testament. He asked me, if I recall correctly, if I regarded the Jewish law as “superceded” or “redundant”.

After thinking this over I replied, “not exactly”. For, if I understand the apostle Paul correctly, what he was critical of was not Jewish Christians following Torah so much as the expectations of some that Gentile Christians should follow Torah.

Moreover, Paul wasn’t anti-Moses so much as Christ-centric. He still held Moses in high esteme, its just he held Jesus in higher esteme.

I would therefore prefer to speak in terms of Jesus “reframing” and the significance of Moses and the Torah, including the Ten Commandments, rather than “replacing” it.

I was however amused by this comic here, which I came across through web crawling, seemingly espousing the opposite view. Though I have no idea if the artist was Jewish or not I suspect it could prompt some interesting interfaith conversations.

Anti-Semitic leader discovers he’s Jewish


Last week I was thinking, I need to teach my sons about irony.

This week I found the perfect example.

“As a rising star in Hungary’s far-right Jobbik Party, Csanad Szegedi was notorious for his incendiary comments about Jews. He accused them of ‘buying up’ the country, railed about the ‘Jewishness’ of the political elite and claimed Jews were desecrating national symbols. Then came a revelation that knocked him off his perch as ultra-nationalist standard-bearer: Szegedi himself is Jewish.” Read more here.

JewPS – track Jews with your iPhone

JewPS: track Jews with your iPhone. At first glance I wondered if neonazi skinheads or the Islamic Jihad was behind this one, but noooo. According to Keren Hayesod and the Jewish iPhone community it’s a kosher GPS app that is coming soon for iPhones. I’m still not sure what to think. If it’s genuine I can only imagine how it will fuel underground cultural and religious evolution.