Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bart Ehrman
on divine hypostases /

O Μπαρτ Έρμαν
περί των θείων υποστάσεων

Divine Hypostases

Scholars sometimes use technical terms for no good reason, other than the fact that they are the technical terms scholars use. When I was in graduate school we used to ask, wryly, why we should use a perfectly good English term when we had an obscure Latin or German term that meant the same thing? But there are some rare terms that simply don’t have satisfactory, simple words that adequately express the same thing, and the word hypostasis (plural: hypostases) is one of them. Possibly the closest common term meaning roughly the same thing would be personification—but even that doesn’t quite get it, and it too isn’t a word you normally hear as you stand in line at the grocery store.

The term hypostasis comes from Greek and refers to the essence or substance of something. In the context in which I’m using the term here, it refers to a feature or attribute of God that comes to take on its own distinct existence apart from God. Imagine, for example, that God is wise. That means he has wisdom. This in turn means that wisdom is something that God “has”—that is, it is something independent of God that he happens to have possession of. If that’s the case, then one could imagine “wisdom” as a being apart from God; and since it is God’s wisdom, then it is a kind of divine being alongside God that is also within God as part of his essence, a part of who he is.

As it turns out, some Jewish thinkers imagined that Wisdom was just that, a hypostasis of God, an element of his being that was distinct from him in one sense, but completely his in another. Wisdom was with God as a divine being and could be thought of as God (since it was precisely his wisdom). Other hypostases are discussed in ancient Jewish writings, but here I restrict myself to two—Wisdom and what was sometimes thought of as the outward manifestation of Wisdom, the Word (Greek, Logos) of God.
The idea that Wisdom could be a divine hypostasis—an aspect of God that is a distinct being from God that nonetheless is itself God—is rooted in a fascinating passage of the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs 8. Here, Wisdom is portrayed as speaking and says that it was the first thing God created:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
                 The first of his acts of long ago.
           Ages ago I was set up,
                 at the first, before the beginning of the earth . . .
           Before the mountains had been shaped,
                 before the hills, I was brought forth. (8:22–23, 25)

And then, once Wisdom was created, God created the heavens and the earth. In fact, he created all things with Wisdom, who worked alongside him:

When he established the heavens, I was there,
                 When he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
           When he made firm the skies above,
                 When he established the fountains of the deep . . .
                 Then I was beside him, like a master worker;
           And I was daily his delight,
                 Rejoicing before him always,
           Rejoicing in his inhabited world
                 And delighting in the human race. (8:27–28, 30–31)

God made all things in his wisdom, so much so that Wisdom is seen as a co-creator of sorts. Moreover, just as God is said to have made all things live, so too life comes through Wisdom:

For whoever finds me finds life,
                 And obtains favor from the Lord;
           But those who miss me injure themselves;
                 All who hate me love death. (8:35–36)

This passage can be read, of course, without thinking of Wisdom as some kind of personification of an aspect of God that exists apart from and alongside him. It could simply be a metaphorical way of saying that the world is an astounding place and that the creation of it is rooted in the wise foreknowledge of God, who made all things just as they ought to be. Moreover, if you understand the wisdom of the way things are made, and live in accordance with this knowledge, you will live a happy and fulfilled life. But some Jewish readers read the passage more literally and took Wisdom to be an actual being that was speaking, a being alongside God that was an expression of God.

This view led some Jewish thinkers to magnify Wisdom as a divine hypostasis. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in a book of the Jewish Apocrypha called the Wisdom of Solomon. The book is attributed to King Solomon himself—who is acclaimed in the Bible as the wisest man ever to have lived—but it was actually written many centuries after he had been laid to rest. Especially in chapters 7–9 we find a paean to Wisdom, which is said to be “a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty . . . for she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” (Wis. 7:25–26; Wisdom is referred to as “she”—or even as “Lady Wisdom”—because the Greek word for wisdom is feminine); “she is an initiate in the knowledge of God, and an associate in his works” (8:4).

Here too we are told that Wisdom “was present when you [God] made the world” (9:9)—but more than that, she actually is beside God on his throne (9:10). It was Wisdom who brought salvation to Israel at the exodus and afterward throughout the history of the nation (chaps. 10–11). Interestingly, Wisdom is said to have done not only what the Hebrew Bible claims God did (creation; exodus), but also what the “angel” of God did—for example, rescuing Abraham’s nephew Lot from the fires that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 (10:6).

In a sense, then, Wisdom could be seen as an angel, even a highly exalted angel, or indeed the Angel of the Lord; but as a hypostasis it is something somewhat different. It is an aspect of God that is thought to exist alongside God and to be worthy, as being God’s, of the honor and esteem accorded God himself.
The Word
In some ways the most difficult divine hypostasis to discuss is the Word—in Greek, the Logos. That’s because the term had a long, distinguished, and complex history outside the realm of Judaism among the Greek philosophers. Full treatment of the philosophical reflections on Logos would require an entire study, but I can say enough here to give an adequate background to its use in the philosophical circles of Judaism, especially regarding the most famous Jewish philosopher of antiquity, Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE–50 CE).

The ancient Greek philosophers known as the Stoics had extensive discussions of the divine Logos. The word Logos does mean “word”—as in the thing you speak—but it could carry much deeper and richer connotations and nuances. It is, obviously, the word from which we get the English term logic—and that’s because Logos can also mean reason—as in, “there is a reason for that” and “that view is quite reasonable.” Stoics believed that Logos—reason—was a divine element that infused all of existence. There is, in fact, a logic to the way things are, and if you want to understand this world—and more important, if you want to understand how best to live in this world—then you will seek to understand its underlying logic. As it turns out, this is possible because Logos is not only inherent in nature, it resides in us as human beings. We ourselves have a portion of Logos given to us, and when we apply our minds to the world, we can understand it. If we understand the world, we can see how to live in it. If we follow through on that understanding, we will indeed lead harmonious, peaceful, and enriched lives. But if we don’t figure out the way the world works and is, and if we don’t live in harmony with it, we will be miserable and no better off than the dumb animals.

Thinkers who saw themselves standing directly in the line of the great fifth-century BCE Plato took the idea of the Logos in a different direction. In Platonic thinking, there is a sharp divide between spiritual realities and this world of matter. God, in this thinking, is pure spirit. But how can something that is pure spirit have any contact with what is pure matter? For that to happen, some kind of link is needed, some kind of go-between that connects spirit and matter. For Platonists, the Logos is this go-between. The divine Logos is what allows the divine to interact with the nondivine, the spirit with matter.

We have Logos within our material bodies, so we too can connect with the divine, even though we are thoroughly entrenched in the material world. In some sense, the way to happiness and fulfillment is to escape our material attachments and attain to spiritual heights. Among other things, this means that we should not be too attached to the bodies we inhabit. We become attached by enjoying physical pleasures and thinking that pleasure is the ultimate good. But it’s not. Pleasure simply makes us long for more and keeps us attached to matter. We need to transcend matter if we are to find true meaning and fulfillment, and this means accessing the Logos of the universe with that part of the Logos that is within us.

In some respects it was quite simple for Jewish thinkers who were intimately familiar with their scriptures to connect them with some of these Stoic and Platonic philosophical ideas. In the Hebrew Bible, God creates all things by speaking a “word”: “And God said, Let there be light. And there was light.” Creation happened by means of God uttering his Logos. The Logos comes from God, and since it is God’s Logos, in a sense it is God. But once he emits it, it stands apart from God as a distinct entity. This entity was sometimes thought of as a person distinct from God. The Logos came to be seen in some Jewish circles as a hypostasis.

Already in the Hebrew Bible the “word of the Lord” was sometimes identified as the Lord himself (see, for example, 1 Sam. 3:1, 6). In the hands of Philo of Alexandria, who was heavily influenced especially by the Platonic tradition, the Logos became a key factor in understanding both God and the world.

Philo maintained that the Logos was the highest of all beings, the image of God according to which and by which the universe is ordered. God’s Logos was, in particular, the paradigm according to which humans were created. It is easy to see here that Logos is taking on the function also assigned to Wisdom, which was thought to be the creator and ordering factor of all things. In some sense the Logos is in fact “born” of Wisdom. If wisdom is something that people have within themselves, then Logos is the outward manifestation of the wisdom when the person speaks. And so, in this understanding, Wisdom gives birth to Logos, which is, in fact, what Philo himself believed. Moreover, as the mind is to the body, so the Logos is to the world.

Since the Logos is God’s Logos, it is itself divine and can be called by divine names. Thus Philo calls Logos the “image of God” and the “Name of God” and the “firstborn son” (e.g., Agriculture 51). In one place he indicates that God “gives the title of ‘God’ to his chief Logos” (Dreams 1.230). Because the Logos is God, and God is God, Philo sometimes speaks of “two gods” and in other places speaks of Logos as “the second God” (Questions on Genesis 2.62). But there is a difference for Philo between “the God” and “a god” (in Greek between o theos—meaning “God”—and theos—meaning “god”). Logos is the latter.

As a divine being apart from God, Logos obviously sounds a lot like the Angel of the Lord discussed at the beginning of this chapter. And in fact, Philo sometimes maintained that Logos was indeed this Angel of the Lord (e.g., Changing of Names 87, Dreams 239). When God was manifest to humans, it was his Logos that made the appearance. Here we see Philo’s Platonic thought at work and combining with his knowledge of scripture. God does not have direct contact with the world of matter; his contact with the world is by means of his Logos. God does not speak directly to us; he speaks to us through his Logos.

In sum, for Philo the Logos is an incorporeal being that exists outside God but is his faculty of thinking; on occasion it becomes the actual figure of God who appears “like a man” so that people can know, and interact with, its presence. It is another divine being that is distinct from God in one sense, and yet is God in another.

* Bart Ehrman,
How Jesus Became God:
The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee
[Πώς ο Ιησούς Έγινε Θεός:
Η Ανύψωση ενός Ιουδαίου Κήρυκα από τη Γαλιλαία

HarperCollins, 2014,
pp./σσ. 70-75.

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