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Ancient Israelite Hypostasis Introduction

Triunity

Ancient Israelite hypostasis - hints of the trinity

The nature and role of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 is the central text of this study.  The passage has been debated for centuries.  There are at least two words in it which render the interpretation extremely difficult (qanah and amon).  How one decides to understand these terms affects how one views God’s nature.  In the passage, Wisdom speaks to humanity in the first person and even claims to have attributes like God.  Wisdom declares that she was in the beginning with God.  Before anything at all was made, she was there.

I believe that unlocking the two enigmatic words, especially amon, will thereby enable us to see that Wisdom is more than a poetic device; YHWH, though one, was not exactly alone in the beginning.  The New Testament affirms that God is manifest in three distinct persona also known as hypostasis.  In fact, hypostasis was a word that the early church adopted in order to help clarify the nature of God as a trinity.

It is a common assumption that the idea of a God with hypostases (variable manifestations of attributes) began with the Christian age.  The concept underlying the trinity is commonly assumed to be a new type of theology invented by the Church – something foreign to Judaism.   I have also heard it said whether in the university setting or in the streets of Jerusalem and beyond, that Jews could accept Jesus if he hadn’t claimed to be the Son of God.  In other words, the fact that God could in any way be made manifest on earth is somehow thought to be foreign to any true Jewish thinking.  This, however, is not the case.

Proverbs 8 and its interpretation are central in this issue in that it was later interpreted in Second Temple Jewish writings as God having a hypostasis.  In other words, the notion that God’s nature was a complex unity was already a reality before the Church or even the New Testament Writers.  The concept, as will be demonstrated in the body of this paper, is of great antiquity.  The ancient believer seems to have always tended to regard God as possessing some type of intermediary, which was not simply an angel; the intermediary was dependent and yet somehow distinguished from God.  It was both God almighty and yet separate from him.  What is important to notice about the phenomenon in Israel is that the hypostases did not become deities in their own right.  What began as a hypostasis in other cultures often became a deity entirely distinct from the original god.

The Importance to the Believer

Understanding that the ancient Israelites believed God to have a hypostasis shows that the Church’s stance was rather more of a new title than a new concept.  The concept itself is very ancient.  Furthermore, if Wisdom was indeed a hypostasis of God, then it further strengthens the case made by John, Paul and just about all of the New Testament writers that namely: in the beginning, a prototype –logos, Torah – was next to God the father.  This paragon, archetype was next to God during the process of creation and perhaps as John suggests, was the one through whom all was made.

And so, the central theme of this thesis is to show that the notion of hypostasis was not a new invention of the Church, but was rather something that had its roots in antiquity and was very Jewish.  This will be done through the examination of extra-biblical and biblical against Proverbs 8.  Based on the environment in which it was written and the language employed, there are good reasons to believe that the author(s) was writing more than one meaning in mind.  One of those, however, was the same belief underlying the words of Jesus, “I and the Father are one.” (John, 10:30)

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The following is my M.A. thesis that I submitted at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2000. My intent was to demonstrate that the concept of the triunity of God was not an idea that originated with the early Christians but was subtly understood by the ancient Israelites. I debated whether or not to publish this (here on my site), because, like many things in life, we learn more with time. There may be some things that I would state differently today from eleven years ago when I wrote this. I certainly have an even greater love for God’s Word today than I did then. I believe that my writing style has also improved since then. So, I guess just read this with caution – there are typos, the Hebrew and special characters didn’t come through and my tenor was academic – to rework parts of it would take just too much time.    I hope you enjoy. – Doug March, 2011

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ANCIENT ISRAELITE HYPOSTASIS

A Study of the Continuum of Hypostasis in Ancient Israel

Douglas M Hamp
MA Thesis
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
July 2000

Preface

The Identity of Wisdom in Proverbs 8.

Introduction:

The Bible is an eclectic book containing many different traditions and stories.  Its diversity is part of its attraction.  There is one axiom, however, from which the Bible, taken as a whole, does not seem to deviate – only the God of Israel is worthy to receive glory and worship.  Though the Bible may not deny the existence of other gods (Ex. 20:3),[1] neither does it give any place whatsoever to other gods to receive glory, honor or praise alongside YHWH, the God of Israel.

The thesis of this study is to show that, despite the strong biblical and Second Temple period injunctions against worshiping other deities, the worship of God’s attributes and or cultic objects (hypostasis) was native to ancient Israel.[2]

Exodus 20:3-5 provides an excellent example of how God himself, as understood by the author, prohibits the worship of any other gods.

You shall have no other gods before Me.You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me. 

Isaiah would go so far as to deny the existence of any other god besides the God of Israel (Isa. 43:10,11; 44:6; 45:6).  He emphatically states that God will in no way share his glory with another.

I am the LORD, that is My name; And My glory I will not give to another, Nor My praise to carved images.  (Isa. 42:8)

Thus, we can see from these two texts, (two major representatives of biblical tradition – Torah and Isaiah demonstrating various eras of composition), that God is depicted as not willing that another receive worship in his stead.[3] The writers of the Pseudepigrapha were also well aware that their God was a jealous God.  The Apocalypse of Zephaniah, written sometime between 100 BC and 100 AD,[4] reminded its audience of the importance of worshipping God alone.  The seer of the vision saw a ‘great angel’ like the angel in Daniel 10:5.  In fact, he was so over-taken by the figure that he said, “I rejoiced, for I thought that the Lord Almighty had come to visit me.”  The seer believed that he had seen the Almighty and fell on his face to worship.  Upon doing so he was cautioned “He said to me, ‘Take heed.  Don’t worship me.  I am not the Lord Almighty…’”[5] Obviously, the injunction against worshiping creatures was still clear in the mind of the Second Temple period Jew and moreover, the Talmud specifically prohibits such worship.[6] This is not to say that people never worshiped angels.[7] Regardless of what they actually did, however, the Jewish cultic conscience still regarded it as not normative in the Jewish faith.

In the Similtudes of Enoch (48:5), people fall down and worship a being other than YHWH.[8] “All those who dwell upon the earth shall fall and worship before him [the Son of Man]…”  J. Collins suggests that there was an assimilation of the Son of Man and the Deity.  “While the title messiah plays a minor role in the Similitudes, it is all the more significant that the identification of Messiah and the Son of Man can be assumed …  In many respects he seems to be assimilated to the Deity (who also sits on the throne of his glory).”[9] Many of the examples in the late Second Temple period portray him as assimilated to God.  While Collins’ is not the only view on this complex issue, and while the Son of Man is not always assimilated, I nevertheless, agree with his point.  Many texts ascribe glory and adulation to some one other than YHWH; behavior normally reserved for God.  Some texts indicate that the ‘anointed one’ will dwell in the midst of God’s people as their King.  (I Enoch 45)  And still other texts indicate that it is a figure other than God who will purge the impurity of God’s people.[10]

Sometimes, however, the figure was not the ‘anointed of YHWH’ but rather an attribute of YHWH (Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-27).  Rabbinic literature, most probably recording an older tradition, shows that even the altar of God was praised.[11] In the religions of the ANE, these claims were not so incredible; polytheism had existed for many years and was considered the norm.  In fact, Jews and subsequently Christians were occasionally thought of as not having religion since they believed in only one God.[12] Thus, why would a society so deeply moved to acclaim that there was only one God, envision that other entities and even inanimate objects could actually have a share in God’s praise?  The many martyrs during and after the time of the Maccabees should be recalled as a case in point.  Rather than yield to the religious atrocities of the Greeks, many preferred to die than to eat pork and offer sacrifices to the gods.  Thus, one cannot conclude that the worshippers of YHWH took their beliefs lightly.  And so we are left with the dilemma of how this plethora of dissident texts arose.  Did these seemingly radical ideas of polyvalent worship come from an origin foreign to Judaism?  Did they originate in the Second Temple period?  Were they primarily Greek in origin?  The study of ancient Israelite hypostasis seeks to answer these questions.

Plan of Study

Method: In order to determine if a given text contains a hypostasis, it must meet the following criteria: 1) Is the entity in question an attribute, abstract quality or cultic object of another entity?  2) Is the entity in question understood to have the ability to act autonomously of the original entity?  3) Is the entity still considered to be a logical part of the original entity?  If these three criteria are met then we know that we are dealing with a hypostasis.

Structure: In order to argue the above proposals, many issues need to be examined: 1) non-Israelite hypostases, 2) Israelite-extra-biblical hypostases 3) biblical hypostases 4) and a brief survey of Second Temple hypostases.  Hypostasis outside of Israel will be the first issue to be addressed.  This is important so that we may see what polytheistic cultures understood hypostasis to be in contradistinction to a culture claiming to be monotheistic.  Next, examples of Israelite extra-biblical hypostasis will be considered to show how religion outside of the pages of the Bible related to God in order to show that cultic practice and belief was congruent both in and outside of the Bible.  Once we understand what was happening outside of the textual witness of the Bible, we shall turn inward to see the parallels between the biblical and extra-biblical evidence.  And finally, to demonstrate the prevalence of hypostasis, a brief survey of Second Temple texts will be conducted.

Once we have seen what hypostasis was in the various contexts above, an examination of Proverbs 8:22-31 (a transitional text) shall ensue since Wisdom was so often interpreted as a hypostasis – evident in Second Temple literature (discussed in this paper).  I believe that this passage is perhaps the most salient example of hypostasis in the Bible.  Demonstrating it to be an example of hypostasis will, in my opinion, seal the case for hypostasis in Ancient Israel and Second Temple Judaism.

Issues to be addressed: 1) ancient and modern debate over Proverbs 8 including a discussion of the key words – qªnªh and especially amon, 2) source of the word amon and its meaning in Proverbs 8 and 3) how the meaning which I propose enhances the claim that Wisdom is an example of Ancient Israelite hypostasis.

The central question underlying the study of Proverbs 8: did its author intend Wisdom to be an Israelite hypostasis?  After discussing the various debates concerning its interpretation, I will discuss the context of the passage which I consider to be an important clue for its understanding.  Item 2, therefore, will deal with the Egyptian context that scholars generally agree underlies Israelite Wisdom texts.[13] While it may, however, seem that an Egyptian background to Israelite Wisdom literature would naturally preclude the proposal that hypostasis was native to Israel, it in fact does not.  Israel, like every nation of old (and modern as well), was affected by its surroundings, including Egypt just as she was affected by Israel and her neighbors.

Once all of the proposed material has been surveyed, it is hoped that we will understand that the author of Proverbs 8 was referring to Wisdom as a hypostasis of God and consequently, the conflicting ideas of the late Second Temple period will be recognized as representations of hypostasis rather than solely a borrowing of pagan elements (Hellenistic, Persian etc.) which were incorporated into Israel’s faith (including Second Temple Judaism).  Moreover, the seemingly ‘unorthodox’ statements ascribing praise, glory and exultation to one other than God, were not heresy; rather they were a very ancient form of understanding God’s presence in this world – a conception native to Judaism.

Terminology

Personification

In the ancient Near East, there was a phenomenon whereby an attribute or cultic object was personified, that is to say, it had characteristics of a person.  A biblical example of personification is Exodus 15:14-15.

The people will hear and be afraid; Sorrow will take hold of the inhabitants of Philistia. Then the chiefs of Edom will be dismayed; The mighty men of Moab, Trembling will take hold of them; All the inhabitants of Canaan will melt away.

Here the personification is not of a divine attribute, but is sorrow (or writhing) itself.  Furthermore, the poet continues by saying not simply that the people will tremble, but that “trembling” will take hold of them.  This type of speech is a device to add excitement and suspense to the account.  There is no reason to assume that the author had in mind an entity such as Trembling who would literally take the people into its arms. [14] Another example, perhaps more convincing, is Ps. 98:8:  “Let the rivers clap their hands…” Here too the poet is using personification to exalt God – a device which the author uses to brings to life an otherwise inanimate idea or thing for the sake of embellishment and elaboration.

Hypostasis

There is a subtle, but important difference between a personified object and a hypostasis.  A personification was never equated with god, (though it may have been considered a god in extra-biblical mythological texts).  In the Bible, the personified object was not equal to God.  Hypostasis on the other hand was thought to be an accurate representation of the deity.

The term hypostasis is a term which has been in use for millennia.  The word is Greek in origin and was used in several contexts.  Its basic meaning was standing under, supporting.[15] By the time of the Church Fathers it was used to designate the three persons of the Trinity.[16] The word also was employed in Platonic and Stoic philosophy[17] as well as everyday usage.  Bible and Ancient Near East (ANE) scholars have employed the term to describe the process of regarding an abstract quality of a deity[18] as a real entity, e.g. wisdom, glory, presence, name (see especially Ex. 33); or a cultic aspect of the god, e.g. the temple, or cultic apparatus e.g. the sacred tree etc…  Though the actual Greek word hypostasis, does appear 21 times in the LXX and once in the New Testament (signifying substance, ground, hope, foundation, and burden), it never denotes, however, any type of abstraction which stands in the place of another.  Currently, it is used to describe the process whereby the essence of the deity is assimilated into another form or manifestation.  One Biblicist suggests this understanding: “a quality, epithet, attribute, manifestation or the like of a deity which through a process of personification and differentiation has become a distinct (if not fully independent) divine being in its own right… Such local manifestations, or hypostases, were not understood to be foreign gods adopted into a polytheistic pantheon.  Rather they were abstract aspects of Yahweh that were personified and given substance.”[19]

And so, hypostasis in this paper will be defined thus: an attribute or cultic object of a god (or man)[20], that is regarded as a supernatural being which is distinct from the original and is invoked (or cursed) alongside a god (or in place of) and is given the same reverence and honor (or fear) which the particular god is given.[21] The phenomenon of hypostasis can be observed by the fact that a worshipper addresses a cultic object and/or attribute of a god either independently or in conjunction to the primary god as a worthy and comparable substitute for the primary deity.  That is to say, the worshipper seeks a relationship with the deity’s hypostasis in addition to or as a proxy by which he may access the primary deity.[22]

How is hypostasis different than polytheism?  The dividing line between the two is perhaps thin, but nonetheless important.  Polytheism admits that there are many deities in the cosmos.  The various gods act independently of one another and have different levels of power.  However, to worship one is not to worship another.  The important distinction is witnessed in particular, in the relationships of the gods of Mesopotamia.  The gods can beget, hate, deceive and war against one another just as humans do.  So, worshiping Shamash (the sun god) is not same as worshiping Nergal (the god of pestilence).  These gods could plot against and hold one another hostage, which could ultimately result in death.[23] Hypostasis, especially in the Hebrew Bible, is very different from polytheism in Mesopotamia[24] and elsewhere.  Both the biblical and extra-biblical examples of hypostasis in Israel never addressed the hypostasis as an entity entirely independent of YHWH.  There was always a nexus between the two.

 

Summary and Conclusion to Thesis

Our study has been concerned with Hypostasis in ancient Israel.  We have sought to discover whether or not this phenomenon was something that was native to Israel or was rather an element imported into her borders.  While there is no doubt that hypostasis existed outside of her borders, Israel definitely had its own version of hypostasis.  Foreign influence aside, Israel had a native belief that God was a God who could be made manifest in several forms.  However, unlike the surrounding pagan countries, the Bible never incorporated these hypostases as entities that should receive praise, worship and honor in God’s stead.  Rather, they had a place next to him, and according to Proverbs 8 even assisted God in the creation of the world.  They did not, however, become the central focus of worship.

Having concluded that hypostasis was an occurrence which existed in ancient Israel and in our core text of Proverbs 8, we may now also conclude that the intermediary figures in the Second Temple Period, were also regarded as hypostases.  For after all, they were regarded as entities which came from heaven, sat on God’s throne, were endowed with God’s power and like God, received worship and praise.

And so the three intentions of this study have been met.  It has been demonstrated that God from very early times of the Israelite cult was regarded to have hypostases, despite the strong injunctions against worshiping other deities. The phenomenon of hypostasis was not the incorporation of foreign gods into an Israelite pantheon.  The hypostases were regarded as separate entities and yet considered to be YHWH.  Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22-31 was understood by its author to be a hypostasis – who helped with creation and yet was hidden from it – thus demonstrating that the author, like the other biblical authors reviewed, understood God to have a hypostasis.  And lastly the entities of the Second Temple period were hypostases of God mostly native to Israel\Judaism and were not sole borrowings of Greek ideas.  Hypostasis was a phenomenon which pervaded many areas of religious life and was a means by which the worshipper could address a distant god locally.  Understanding the reality of ancient hypostasis helps the modern person better understand the message of ancient religious texts (non-Biblical), the Bible and perhaps, ones own desire to have a mediator between oneself and the transcendent.

Hypostases in the Ancient Near East Part One

Hypostasis in Biblical Literature Part Two

Hypostasis in the Second Temple Period Part Three

Hypostasis, Proverbs Eight, and Wisdom Part Four

Ancient Israelite Hypostasis Bibliography Part Five


[1] McCarter relates to the  (ëemaÿ) (Deut. 6:4) “as if it were a polemic against the practice of worshiping local manifestations.”  He states that “the context shows clearly that the concern of this verse is not with the unity of Yahweh himself or even the centralization of his worship.  The subject is the exclusiveness of his worship, as Deut 6:5 shows: ‘You shall love Yahweh, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.’  Israel has one god, and he is a ‘jealous god’ (Deut 6:15).” P. K. McCarter, (1987), p. 142.

[2] The appearance of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22-31 (a transitional text) illustrates a biblical example of hypostasis and serves as a transition point in the continuum of hypostasis which then emerges in the Second Temple period thereby making Israelite hypostasis of that period a native idea and not a sole borrowing of Greek ideas  I am not suggesting that they may not have borrowed from other cultures to shape the thought.  Rather, the history of hypostasis in Israel is ancient enough to render the need to find the kernel in the Greek culture unnecessary.

[3] See also Exodus 34:14; Deut. 5:6-9; Isa. 2:8; Rev 22:8,9 for other examples of created beings refusing praise.

[4]Charlesworth, (1985), notes that this text has a surprising lack of ‘Christian elements’

[5] Apocalypse of Zephaniah, 6:15.

[6] See Yeruëalmi BeruÊot, 9:13

[7] L. Stuckenbruck, (1995), offers further discussion concerning the worship of beings.

[8] J. Collins, (1995), p. 181.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (8-11).  The author suggests that, via him (the priest to come), sin shall be destroyed ‘in his priesthood sin shall cease’, lawless men shall repent ‘and lawless men shall rest from their evil deeds’ and ultimately through him the saints will obtain eternal life ‘and he will grant to the saints to eat of the tree of life’.  Generally these are attributes reserved for God Himself.

[11] See: Mishnah Suk. 4:5, and J. H. Tigay, (1986), p. 11.

[12]See: Kenneth, Scott, Latourette, (1953), for further discussion.

[13] Since Egypt seems to have been so influential on Israelite Wisdom literature, it stands to reason that the source of the enigmatic word amon may have an Egyptian background, which will hopefully shed light on its meaning.  Investigating the source of this word is in fact very important to the question of ancient Israelite hypostasis.  Since Proverbs is a transitional book, demonstrating that the author believed Wisdom to be a hypostasis will de facto confirm that its interpreters understood thus also.  I believe the word amon to be the crucial key to unlocking the meaning of the whole text.  Therefore, I will attempt to explain amon in light of the Egyptian semantic range of the word to clarify the author’s intent, which in my opinion, was nothing less than hypostasis.

[14] That is not to say that there are no mythological features here. Outside of the Bible Trembling may well have been a deity (the same being true for River in Ps. 98:8).  A reading of the passage in its entirety reveals the lack of a definite article on the word yam (Ex. 15:8).  This suggests a personal name: i.e. the Ugaritic sea goddess.

[15] See: Liddel and Scott, (1968).  See also: The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, (1975).  Other meanings include: some thing that stands under and supports; foundation b) the underlying or essential part or anything as distinguished from attributes; substance, essence, or essential principle; Greek; hypostasis – that which settles at the bottom; substance, nature, essence.

[16] Kenneth, Scott, Latourette, (1953), p. 161. It was adopted by the Christian forum of Nicene to help define the three persons (substance – substantia) of the trinity.

[17] Ibid.

[18] It may occasionally be used in relation to humans e.g. the evil eye.

[19] S. Dean McBride, (1969), p. 5.

[20] As will be demonstrated, the Evil Eye was considered a supernatural being derived from a person.  The eye stems from someone else’s supernaturally powerful ill will and psyche.

[21] I reject the idea as proposed by Meir, (1983), p. 39, that Satan in the book of Job is a hypostasis of God on the grounds that the hypostasis is in direct conflict with its originator.  A hypostasis of a god was considered to be a suitable substitution for the original deity.  Addressing the hypostasis was to address the original deity, as will be seen.

[22] As will be seen in the first example, hypostasis was not limited to the divine.  However, it is considered the comparable representation of the entity in question.

[23] See for example, the Descent of Iëtar.  Ereëkigal holds Iëtar prisoner in her realm of the netherworld and Iëtar eventually dies.  See: B. R. Foster, (1993), pp. 403-428.

[24]Of course in first millennium Mesopotamia there are texts that treat all gods as hypostases of one god, such as Aëëur.  See S. Parpola (1997) and K. Van Der Toorn (1997), for a discussion.

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One comment

  1. Very interesting! I am surprised that I may understand some of it. Wisdom vs. Logos has been a confusion for me; thinking that Wisdom might be Logos, but troubled because Wisdom does not seem to conform completely to the actions of Logos. This article seems to show that Jesus, God the Son, is a hypostasis of YHVH, Wisdom one also, although not equal to Logos. I could not really place Wisdom as part of the Trinity, as Logos is. Apparently there is room in Biblical thought for other hypostases of YHVH in addition to Logos. Perhaps Metatron or the Memra are hypostases. Thanks for the article. If you have time, please write me about whether Metatron and Memra are indeed hypostases.

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