Two Gods in Heaven

Jewish Concepts of God in Antiquity

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Peter Schäfer
Translator(s): 
Allison Brown
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , March
     2020.
     192 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691181325.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Peter Schäfer’s Two Gods in Heaven: Jewish Concepts of God in Antiquity provides a comprehensible introduction to the concept of a second divine figure ruling next to God in early Jewish literature. This binitarianism is typically associated with Christianity’s model of God the Father and God the Son, but Schäfer proposes there was binitarianism among some Jewish circles as well. In summary, the author provides a detailed look at the concept of a “younger” or “lesser” God which stands beside the primary God in heaven.

While at first this theory may seem sensational to many readers, Schäfer provides several examples within biblical and extrabiblical texts supporting this idea, including but not limited to the Glorification Hymn from Qumran, the Third Book of Enoch, the Prayer of Joseph, the book of Daniel, and the Midrash. Schäfer explores multiple examples of a human becoming a godlike figure in heaven, a supreme angel standing beside God, the Metatron which contains God’s name YHWH, and the Son of Man. Schäfer also provides examples of the Babylonian Talmud’s rejection of such ideas of a second deity and explains that the presence of this opposition suggests the idea’s widespread influence and acceptance within Judaism. The author states, “Yet the contradiction and polemics cannot belie the fact that the opposed ‘heresy’ is to be found at the heart of rabbinic Judaism; that is the only explanation for the severity of the polemics” (130). After all, a rule is not needed when the prohibited action is not a concern. Hekhalot literature takes a more liberal view of this second divine figure (often called the Son of God or the Son of Man) than the Talmud, which therefore provides further proof of its acceptance among certain rabbinic circles.

In each chapter of the book, Schäfer brings to light a biblical or extrabiblical text which seems to support the theory that some early Jewish authors believed in a second God in heaven. For example, in chapter 6, Schäfer uses the Fourth Book of Ezra and explains its contribution to the second divine figure narrative. In 4 Ezra, the Messiah (the Son of God) completes tasks often ascribed to God: the judgment and destruction of wicked nations. The righteous people left standing, come to the Son of God to bring him offerings. This judgment, destruction, and worship is reminiscent of Isaiah 66; however, in that passage, the nations of the world bring offerings to God himself. The author points out that in the Christianized Latin translation of 4 Ezra, the name “Jesus” was added alongside the Messiah, proving that he is not the only one to interpret the 4 Ezra Messiah as separate from God.

While the main theory in Two Gods in Heaven is given numerous points of evidence from rabbinic and biblical texts, it could potentially be very interesting to put it through further research to refine the idea even more. For example, one could question how the Documentary Hypothesis, specifically with regards to the use of the two different names of God, might contribute to (or perhaps contradict) Schäfer’s theory.

One of the disquieting aspects of Schäfer’s theory is that in the many sources the author presents, there is no consistent name for this second figure.  He is known as the Son of God, Son of Man, Metatron, Michael, Enoch, and even Jacob, as in the Prayer of Jacob. This text claims that Jacob is the first born of creation and an angel of God and a ruling spirit. One should potentially consider when reading these numerous texts that perhaps not all of them were written to be taken too seriously. There is a tendency in scholarship to assume that because someone wrote it, they took it seriously. The reality is, often times we have little way of knowing what were serious religious texts, what were hypothetical musings, and what were merely “fan fiction”.

Two Gods in Heaven was written clearly; however, a basic understanding of rabbinic terms and literature would be helpful before reading this book. Terms such as the Bavli, Talmud, Hekhalot literature, and more are used frequently. The book combines a good mix of intelligent research with straightforward language. For the immensity and potential importance of the subject, the book is surprisingly short, but that also makes it more accessible to wider audience. This book would make a great supplement for college students studying early Jewish and rabbinic literature.

About the Reviewer(s): 

April Lynn Downey is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
June 19, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Schäfer is the Ronald O. Perelman Professor of Jewish Studies and professor of religion, emeritus, at Princeton University. His books include The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other and The Origins of Jewish Mysticism (both Princeton).

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