Trinitarian Jewish Thinking Before Jesus

Posted By on April 27, 2011

Many of you know I have a longstanding interest in what scholars call Jewish binitarian monotheism. My site on the two powers in heaven is an introduction to that topic. With that backdrop, I am at times asked about Jewish trinitarian thinking prior to Christianity.† There was such a mindset within Judaism before the Christian era. I recently got my hands on a copy of a class work in New Testament study by one of my favorite New Testament scholars, J. C. O’Neill. I love his work because he thinks outside the box in a number of articles, going beyond the normative academic parroting. He was no evangelical (a good thing in many respects) but he had no problem with pointing out logical and methodological inconsistencies in the way scholars think and present their views. (No surprise I like him, I guess). In his scholarly book, Who Did Jesus Think He Was? (Brill, 1995) he has a fascinating chapter entitled, “The Trinity and the Incarnation as Jewish Doctrines.”

Keep in mind as you read that, while the Jewish thinking might seem strange and convoluted to us, and might not reflect exegetical methods we’d use, that isn’t the issue. The issue is this: Jews before Jesus were thinking in trinitarian terms — that the one God of Israel was also three — and that God would become human and die for sin as messiah. So much for the notion that such doctrines depend on post-first century scribal fiddling. Any scholar familiar with binitarian Jewish monotheism (even apart from O’Neill’s essay) isn’t going to be saying such things (I know this puts Bart Ehrman in the cross-hairs, but he is not the only one guilty of this thinking or this oversight).

O’Neill’s chapter and others are accessible through the title’s page Google Books; that’s how I made the PDF.

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15 Responses to “Trinitarian Jewish Thinking Before Jesus”

  1. blop2008 says:

    Nice, will def look at this for my trinitarian studies, once Im done with binitarianism and christology.

  2. blop2008 says:

    Man,, and .ca have it but over a hundred. Eisenbrauns doesnt have it, so now Im left with google books preview which ends at p. 108.

  3. Ilia Panayotov says:

    I agree that there were trinitarian notions and ideas before the rise of Christianity but I’m not entirely convinced by this chapter. It seems to me that scholars often interpret texts in light of their own unjustified presuppositions but some of the passages in this chapter do appear to be interpolations. They really sound way too familiar to the story of the Gospels, especially the part with the despising and the crucifixion.

    Also, I thought 1st century Jews expected a militaristic King Messiah who would overthrow the Roman yoke and establish his kingdom and this is why many Jews were (wrongly) disappointed by Jesus’ actions after the triumphal entry. He didn’t start an armed rebellion but He preached in the Temple; He didn’t even oppose giving taxes to Caesar but often opposed the religious authorities of the day. Then He was condemned by the Jewish court and suffered execution. I think many were just not expecting this type of King. The resurrection was the event that proved to people that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

    • MSH says:

      you’d have to understand his arguments against interpolation, which would require going beyond this article. I think part of our (and most modern scholars’) problem is that we don’t think as abstractly as the ancients — we are tied to strict “rules” (or our own making in many cases) for exegesis, and just aren’t thinking like they thought. Granted, I would not buy all the connections the ancients saw, either, but the real point is that they were thinking this way. But again, the interpolation issue is assailable, but it goes beyond this essay. O’Neill simply shows that one *can* regard these elements as Jewish without necessary appeal to interpolation (which is something of a reflex, as he notes – “sounds Christian, so it must be”).

      • Ilia Panayotov says:

        Yeah, I think I accept his arguments against interpolation in certain passages, but some other passages he quotes are, I think, best explained as Christian interpolations. I’m not a scholar but that’s what they appears to me.
        But I did like the part where he explains there is a common presupposition in scholarship that any a bit more developed concept of a Trinity (or Christology) *must* be of “later” origin. I recently read some articles regarding the date of the Book of Daniel and the consensus view is that it was written during the Maccabean period. After I finished reading, I came out with the impression that the only reason its dated that late (and not in the 6th century) is because of a philosophical presupposition against genuine prophecy fulfillment.

  4. Jeremy says:

    Dr. Heiser,

    I read through the first half of the article and skimmed the rest. So the main gist I’m hearing is that this Trinitarian stuff was present to various degrees in ancient Judaism, and not something that was just created out of the blue by Christians after Jesus. I really enjoyed the power point presentation you did on the two powers, but this is article is kind of overwhelming. One thing that’s overwhelming is the sheer number of texts that he cites that I have little to no familiarity with. Realizing there’s so much out there I don’t know about leads to doubts about the things that I DO know about, such as my trust in the OT/NT. I also didn’t come away with a conclusive feeling that the texts hadn’t been edited or written by later Christians. Some of the language is just SO Christian sounding that it stretches credibility to believe it is pre-Christian. And supposing that there is this strong pre-Christian Trinitarian/incarnational thinking. It doesn’t necessarily strengthen my belief that Jesus is God Incarnate, but makes me wonder what if Jews of this certain strain of thinking tried to force the human Jesus into this category, and the result that we get is the New Testament. (Which I don’t believe, but the occasional doubts do creep in).

    All that said, I think this is a fascinating topic. I loved your two-powers slide show and found it much more concise and persuasive. I’d love to see your own summary of this article in more popular/accessible language. How much longer do we have to wait for your book? Thanks again for all you’re doing.


    • MSH says:

      thanks; and understood; it’s “high” reading.

    • Ilia Panayotov says:

      I know this wasn’t addressed to me but I felt like responding to some of the doubts: There was a binitarian (or even trinitarian) theology in Judaism prior to the 2nd century AD (I know that thanks to Dr. Heiser’s work) but the New Testament didn’t “force” Jesus into the category of the Second Power. They described Him in that category because (1) He himself claimed implicitly and sometimes explicitly to be the Second Power (Implicit: his right to forgive sins, His interpreting and revising the Law,etc; Explicit: His sayings about the Son of man, the Son of God, the “I AM” sayings, etc). (2) His Resurrection served, among other purposes, to show that His teaching and claims were, in fact, true (Divine Verification). After that the disciples could freely attribute to Him all the divine qualities and attributes, knowing that He is the real Person behind the OT descriptions of the Second Power. Of course, the Holy Spirit played a big part in the development of their understanding and the writing of Scripture.

      However, I don’t think there were any explicit notions in Ancient Judaism of a dying and rising Messiah so the disciples couldn’t have used such ideas to make up the resurrection story and then be willing to go to their deaths for not denying its veracity. (And remember, their leader, who they thought was the promised Messiah, was condemned by the religious authorities as a heretic and was executed by crucifixion, which would mean He was accursed by God (Deut 21:22-23). The best these fishermen and tax collectors could do would be to go home or find another Messiah, not make up an outlandish resurrection story and start a massive movement, endangering their own lives in the process. Not to mention that the story would be easy to refute if it wasn’t true – just look in the tomb and see the dead body).

  5. Kendall Sholtess says:

    This is all very interesting. Thank you so much for this blog and for the information contained therein. However, I am wondering why you don’t say more about the Holy Spirit. I am very unclear about that as regards to what the Old Testament says about his relationship to this material. I don’t see much mention of him.

    • MSH says:

      Just haven’t gotten to it yet. Funny you should bring this up. I came across some good stuff on this in Ezekiel this past weekend. I’ll put this on my to do list for the blog.

  6. Tallen says:

    Looking at this idea, it does make sense. So my question is how do you answer Trinitarian proof texts? These seem to indicate a tri-something or other.

    For instance:

    And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:16-17, KJV)

    • MSH says:

      NOTE: Those who have read my “Myth that is True” draft will see some familiar material in what follows – and some new stuff that won’t make it into the book.


      I don’t really care about proof-texts, so I don’t spend much time thinking about them. The above does not have Jesus, for example, cast as a second Yahweh figure in any overt terms. However (and there are textual reasons that this is so — I’ll just drop some hints due to space), if it is designed to draw on exodus imagery / subduing of chaos imagery, then Jesus (the one emerging from the water – like the Israelites, who subdued the dragon of Egypt – cp. Psa 74:14 and Ezek 29:3), then that speaks to OT son of God imagery (cp. Exod 4:23; Hos 11:1). Once you get the son of God element in there, the monogenes (unique because identified with Yahweh) son of God idea elsewhere in the NT kicks in, and so you have binitarian flavoring. Then you get to the Spirit and have to look back at his role in creation (subduing chaos, which is symbolized by the untamed sea and the sea monster in ANE thought) and in the wilderness journey. You then can flesh out a “triangulated” (pun intended) relationship between the three. But that’s a LONG way from proof-texting (you actually have to know what’s going on in biblical theology). So, this example may be used as a prooftext by many, but it’s actually got a lot more going for it under the hood in terms of godhead thinking.

      Other prooftexts are more vacuous and deserving of that label.

      • Tallen says:

        This leaves me a bit confused. I am not trying to argue against what you have said for that is making some sense to me as I understand things at this time, but trying to rid myself of this confusion. You say that the Spirit is “he”, so I am wondering how this is explained in a Binitarian view. Are you identifying the Spirit as the Spirit of the Father or in terms that YHWH is a Spirit?

        Also are you familiar with the book “Jehovah Jesus” by Robert Dodd Weeks, available free from Google books. Is this what we are discussing? He seems to be saying the same things from a purely biblical position. He is maintaining that YHWH is one, and that the Son is the only direct creation who is begotton of the Father. This “two powers” realtionship exists in the Son who is the conduit, for lack of a better term right now, that all of the rest of Creation is created through and the word that the Father has use to speak to His people. (Hope that makes sense.)

        • MSH says:

          I’d have to know precisely what paragraph or section that is giving rise to the question. Generally, binitarian thinking is pretty evident in the OT, but trinitarian less so (hints are there). What happens is that binitarian vocabulary or motifs get applied to the Spirit on occasion, and at times the binitarian persons are present (e.g., God and the Angel of YHWH) and the Spirit is present amid the vocab and motifs, some of which is attributed to the Spirit.

  7. The most important verse to me is:Act 3:22 For Moses truly said to the fathers, “The Lord your God shall raise up a Prophet to you from your brothers, One like me. You shall hear Him in all things, whatever He may say to you.
    We must NEVER forget that Jesus operated as a Prophet for Gods Voice..When He said all the “I Am” words..And lets not forget Jesus Main Mission was to Bring God’s Spirit to Dwell within the Followers of Jesus …that being said..God is All About Living in Us..and speaking thru us..that the Apostle Paul calls “Walking in Gods Spirit”.
    Lately the Lord has been Teaching me the Psychology between the Male and some say ..Our Better Half..or Other Half and the Oneness of Adam who was both Male and Female before being Separated..IOW a Compound Unity or Echad
    After all It was God who said..”It is Not Good for Man to be Alone”
    Therefore there is a possibility that the Personality we call God was never Alone …in that other Dimension where God Lives ….”Where Spirit is King”
    And that is what God is made of…Spirit…and Love….but in order to have Thinking..Feelings/Emotions and a Will… God would Need His Other half..Lets call that “His Soul “where Love Dwells to come and Save Mankind….Where am I going with This ?

    I’m Thinking His Soul or His Love is the “Word”.. Proceeding out of Himself…and Coming INTO Our Dimension…”The Word” who came to Live IN Flesh, Firstly in the Flesh of the Last Adam and right from His Conception.
    And we are likewise made in God’s Image With Spirit and Soul but thru Sin..we became only a “Soul with a Hole”..where Gods Spirit once Lived. ….Oh who can Fill that Hole Again…I think you know..< Selah

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