The Great Angel

Israel's Second God


Barker, Margaret

What did "Son of God," "Messiah," and "Lord," mean to the first Christians when they used these words to describe their beliefs about Jesus? In this book Margaret Barker explores the possibility that, in the expectations and traditions of first-century Palestine, these titles belonged together, and that the first Christians fit Jesus' identity into an existing pattern of belief. She claims that pre-Christian Judaism was not monotheistic and that the roots of Christian Trinitarian theology lie in a pre-Christian Palestinian belief about angels-a belief derived from the ancient religion of Israel, in which there was a High God and several Sons of God. Yahweh was a son of God, manifested on earth in human form as an angel or in the Davidic King. Jesus was a manifestation of Yahweh, and was acknowledged as Son of God, Messiah, and Lord. Barker relies on canonical and deutero-canonical works and literature from Qumran and rabbinic sources to present her thoughtful investigation.


Margaret Barker. The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God.
Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price. Institute for Higher Critical Studies
JHC 4/1 (Spring, 1997), 152-155.

This is what we mean by "paradigm shift." In reading Margaret Barker's wide-ranging investigation one feels the tectonic plates shifting and coming together in a new configuration, or perhaps rather a very old one, as we see the outlines of primal Gondwanaland restored again. Barker strips off the blinders of the canonical redactors of the Old Testament, a job we thought we'd long ago completed. Just as fundamentalists continue in obedience to the faith of the Priestly Writer and the Chronicler and their retrojection of Second Temple Judaism into the Patriarchal and Mosaic periods, the rest of us have too easily been gulled into accepting the Mishnaic urgings that Post-Exilic Judaism was monotheistic.

Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we were content with the assumption that in Jesus' day Javneh Judaism already existed as a dominant mainstream. We were willing to take at face value the dictum of Josephus and the rabbis that prophecy had long since ceased in Israel, somehow not discerning that such an argument means precisely to clamp the lid on contemporary, inconvenient prophecies. Similarly, we have been too willing to let pass unexamined the assumption that Judaism was safely monotheistic ever since the Exile. Barker's case is that monotheism was a Deuteronomic novelty imposed with incomplete success onto Israelite faith just before the Exile, and that the suppressed traditions continued in full bloom, though not without the marks of impact, alongside monotheistic orthodoxy right on through the New Testament period, furnishing the categories, ready-made, for New Testament Christology. In the meantime, the old traditions had taken the forms of Apocalyptic, incipient Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Philonic Logos speculation. We have blithely assumed that these various thinkers, schools and groups hatched hugely complex mythologies ex nihilo overnight, like mushrooms after a rain shower. But Barker asks the obvious question of whether it is not a priori more likely that they were all variously working with very old traditions and variants of traditions, that their efforts lay mainly in fine-tuning and providing new slants to old mythemes and doctrines, those of ancient Israel outside Deuteronomic orthodoxy.

Barker's starting point is an untied loose end, Deuteronomy 32:8-9, which seems, on any straightforward reading, to make Yahweh one of the seventy sons of Elyon, i.e., not the high God, but rather the godling entrusted with Israel as his province, pretty much equivalent to the one like a son of man in Daniel 10:10-21 (whom Barker in fact makes the same character). Yahweh/the Angel of Yahweh (apparently synonymous even within the same texts) was the second God, later encountered under the various appellations of Metatron, the Memra, the Logos, even the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael, etc.

The pattern is much the same as in Canaanite religion, the cognate twin of Israelite religion: El is the elder high God, while Baal is his son, the virile young warrior who succeeds his father as divine king. In Daniel 7 we see not so much a fragment bor- rowed from El-Baal tradition, but rather a home-grown Jewish version of the same mytheme, picturing Elyon and Yahweh. And just as Baal had his divine consort, Anath, so did Yahweh: the goddess variously known in the Old Testament as Asherah, Ashtoreth, the Queen of Heaven, Eve, and Wisdom. In all this, Barker draws together much fascinating data discussed in earlier studies including Raphael Patai's The Hebrew Goddess and Alan Segal's Two Powers in Heaven.

Barker discerns the narrowing of Israelite polytheism into monotheism in passages like Deut 6:4, the Shema, "Hear O Israel, Yahweh your God is one Yahweh" (obviously a corrective to a belief in many Yahwehs or gods) and Second Isaiah 43:11, which protests against apparent competitors within Judaism that Yahweh is the one and only savior. In other words, Yahweh and Elyon have been consolidated. Such a consolidation had been thought to stem from a much earlier period. Barker asks whether many Pentateuchal traditions which presuppose the divine conflation must not be redated into a later Sitz-im-Leben.

This elimination of other deities, this fusing of Yahweh with Elyon, seemed to those who did not accept it a blasphemous usurpation by an arrogant lesser deity (or his priestly patrons, which came to the same thing), and the rejection of this Deutero- nomic Yahweh-exaltation survived into Merkabah mysticism as the punishment of Metatron the Little Yahweh when mystics confused him with the ultimate deity. It survived into Gnosticism as the rebuke of Saklas, the demiurge who vainly imagined himself the highest deity. It may even be reflected in the myth of the fall of Satan who aspired to be like Elyon and ascend to the mount of the divine assembly.

The ejection from the pantheon of Wisdom, the Queen of Heaven (Barker argues for the identity of the two), was already bemoaned by her devotees in Jer 44:15-19. Is it this sympathy which survived into Apocalyptic Wisdom traditions as the myth of the descent and reascent of rejected Wisdom, unable to find a dwelling among recalcitrant men? Was this also the origin of the Gnostic myth of the Fall of Wisdom, poised between an Unknown Father (the old Elyon "unknown" to monotheistic orthodoxy) and an arrogant demiurge who created the world and lied to his creations?

Barker's suggestions are consistently striking, illuminating both the biblical text and the history of traditions adjacent to the Bible, such as Gnosticism and Philonism. Tucked away in the vast compass of the volume is her new theory of the origins of Gnosticism, that it was a mutation not of early Christianity or even of disillusioned Jewish Apocalyptic, but of pre-Deuteronomic Israelite polytheism. One might view her suggestion as a twin to or an extension of Paul Hanson's theory of the origin of Apocalyptic as a popular reaction against Second Temple hierocratic Judaism, repristinating ancient mythemes for new purposes.

In thus providing a surprising Israelite (not just Jewish) pedigree for Gnosticism, Barker means to make superfluous the theories of Reitzenstein and others which trace Gnosticism back to Hellenistic and Iranian sources. Similarly, she seeks to stultify the widespread position that New Testament Christology and, later, the doctrine of the Trinity were derived from Hellenistic speculation or the Mystery Religions. Her conclusion is that when early Christian theologians quoted the Old Testament theophanies as Christophanies, they were not merely proof-texting the Old Testament in the service of an alien Christ-concept, but that they meant to say that in their belief the exalted Jesus had become identified with Yahweh the Son of Elyon, that he was the lesser and second God who had been manifest as such in the Old Testament theophanies.

Fair enough, and an interesting and plausible reading of the evidence which should occasion much debate. But one wonders if Barker is still drawing too bold a line between Judaism and Hel- lenism, a line that Martin Hengel has managed largely to erase. Specifically, one wonders if we have an either-or or a both-and situation when it comes to theories (such as those discussed by Jonathan Z. Smith in his Drudgery Divine) which interpret the death and resurrection of Jesus in the categories of the Hellenistic religions of Attis, Osiris, Adonis, etc. Judaism, too, was part of Oriental Hellenism. These other religions grew from Near-Eastern roots. When we prefer to understand Jesus as an analogue to Yahweh/Baal, what is the difference? Baal is already the same, pretty much, as Adonis/Adonai, isn't he?

And here one wonders if Barker might not be willing to take her thesis a step farther and explain the origin of the myth of Jesus' resurrection as one more piece of polytheistic Yahweh tradition. If Yahweh was in so many ways parallel to Baal the Son of Elyon, why should this not have extended to the death and resur- rection concept? It was by a resurrection victory that Baal became king of the immortals. Why not with Yahweh? Perhaps this aspect of the earlier Yahweh cycle had been successfully expunged by the priestly editors. But, a la Barker, we may surmise that it, too, hung on in the popular and sectarian imaginations, emerging into the light of history again when the mytheme was claimed for Jesus-Yahweh.

One last speculation suggested by Barker's opus. (Surely one of the marks of a seminal work is that it immediately suggests more trajectories for research than it can possibly follow up.) Barker makes the archangels aspects of Yahweh and thus instantiations of the second God. She notes at one point that various Gnostics pictured one of the archangels with the face of a donkey (Origen, Conta Celsum VI. 30; Apocryphon of John 2.1.11). If both the Old Testament Yahweh and the exalted Jesus were supposed to be more or less equivalent to one or more archangels, one wonders whether we do not have here the best hint we are ever likely to get as to the origin of the pagan belief that Jews worshiped the head of an ass in their temple, and of the pagan graffito showing the crucified Christ with an ass's head. Could these representations actually reflect some type of vanished Jewish and Christian sectarian iconography? There is much to think about.


Copyright Institute for Higher Critical Studies, 1997

Darrell J. Doughty

Institute for Higher Critical Studies

Drew University, Madison, NJ, 07940



The Angel of God's Presence in Abraham 1:15-16

by Barry R. Bickmore


One of the most striking extra-biblical accounts in the Book of Abraham is the story of Abraham's harrowing escape from the idolotrous priests who were about to sacrifice him.

"And as they lifted up their hands upon me, that they might offer me up and take away my life, behold, I lifted up my voice unto the Lord my God and the Lord hearkened and heard, and he filled me with the vision of the Almighty, and the angel of his presence stood by me, and immediately unloosed my bands; And his voice was unto me: Abraham, Abraham, behold, my name is Jehovah, and I have heard thee, and have come down to deliver thee, and to take thee away from thy father's house, and from all thy kinsfolk, into a strange land which thou knowest not of...." (Abraham 1:15-16)

Certainly the passage seems innocuous enough at first glance, but upon reflection certain phrases in this passage become troubling. The angel figure who came to save Abraham is identified as the "angel of [God's] presence", a rather unusual phrase, but on the other hand the angel identifies himself as Jehovah! Was the "angel of the presence" merely a messenger, speaking as if he were Jehovah, or was this actually the manifestation of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The answer is given away when Jehovah says, "I have heard thee, and have come down to deliver thee...." And so we can be certain that Jehovah himself was the "angel of God's presence".

Now, within LDS theology, this designation is certainly not a commonplace, but on the other hand it would be an acceptable one for Jehovah (or Yahweh), who was the preincarnate Jesus Christ. Thus, Jehovah is the Word, the messenger (or "angel") of salvation, the Son of God who is one in Godhead with His Father (Elohim or El Elyon = "God Most High"), but in another sense a "second God", the greatest of the sons of God. In other words, for Latter-day Saints it would not be a contradiction to designate Jehovah as both an "angel" and "God".

No doubt this is blatant heresy for both modern Judaism and mainstream Christianity, which make no distinction between Elohim and Yahweh, but recently many (non-Mormon) scholars have begun to recognize that not only were the Most High God and Yahweh conceived of as distinct beings in the oldest stratum of Israelite and early Christian thought, but Yahweh (and later Jesus) were given the designation "Angel of the Presence". In this essay we will examine some of the evidence for this interpretation.

Yahweh and the Angel of Yahweh

Was Yahweh God, or an angel, or both? Margaret Barker has recently given a great deal of evidence that He was originally considered both God and the chief angel in her book, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God. According to Barker, Yahweh was originally believed to be the greatest of the sons of God Most High. However, after the Exile a faction arose who, in reaction to the pagan pantheons, began to equate Elohim and Yahweh - and hence some of the later passages in the Bible make no distinction between the two. (It is perfectly acceptable for Latter-day Saints to believe that the Bible text has been thus corrupted, but for us there are other possibilities, as well. God may well have directed his prophets to emphasize the oneness of the Godhead in order to discourage belief in a pantheon of gods at odds with each other. See Alma 29:8; D&C 19:4-12; 3 Ne. 26:8-11; 2 Ne. 31:21.) This faction eventually became the majority in Israel, but the minority who still believed the older doctrine was never completely stamped out, and eventually this movement provided the basis for the Christian revelation. In order to show that Yahweh was originally thought of as both God and an angel, Barker demonstrates that an ancient Old Testament figure known as "the Angel of Yahweh" was actually equated with Yahweh himself.

"Was this angel an agent of Yahweh, or was the angel the manifestation of Yahweh? The text is usually read as though the former were the case, but there is considerable evidence to suggest that the angel was Yahweh. It is this angel which is the key to recovering beliefs about Elyon [the Most High] and Yahweh and to the ultimate origin of Christian belief about Jesus." (1)

Barker goes on to present quite a bit of evidence for this thesis, among which is the following:

"Gideon saw the Angel of Yahweh, and this storyteller too identified Yahweh and the Angel of Yahweh. The Angel of Yahweh appeared to Gideon (Judg. 6:11-12), and introduced himself as Yahweh (Judg. 6.12). It is then as Yahweh that he speaks to Gideon (Judg. 6.14,16). The Angel of Yahweh disappears, and Gideon realizes whom he has seen. He fears because he has seen the Angel of Yahweh face to face (Judg. 6.22) but Yahweh reassures him that he will not die (cf. Exod. 33.20, where Yahweh said 'You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live')." (2)

In later texts the "Angel of Yahweh" disappeared from view as Yahweh and Elohim were fused, and many of Yahweh's functions were taken over by the archangels in popular thought.

"The Angel of Yahweh has no obvious heir in later texts. Although the so-called inter-testamental writings are full of angels, they are new angels with names.... After the reforms of the exilic period when Yahweh was fused with El-Elyon ["God Most High"], he certainly did become a more distant God, but angels were not 'invented' to fill the gap. The angels were those heavenly beings who had formerly been the sons of Elyon, the kin of Yahweh the Holy One. When Yahweh became Elyon, his roles were filled by other angels. Ideas about the angels were refined and elaborated over the centuries but in their essentials they remained the same." (3)

The "Angel(s) of the Presence"

Therefore, Yahweh was originally seen as both God and angel, but what of this strange title, "Angel of the Presence"? Barker intimates that this was once one of Yahweh's titles as well, which was later given to the archangels.(4) Segal explains that whoever was designated as the chief angel in the Isrealite literature was also given the title "Angel of the Presence":

"Of course, Gabriel and Michael are often seen as but two of the several archangels. Yet, whenever a configuration of archangels appears, one or another (often Michael or Gabriel, sometimes Uriel) is designated as the principal angel (often called "Angel of the Presence") or regarded as superior to the others." (5)

Barker explains further:

"In the Qumran Hymns there are the Angels of the Face (1QHVI) among whom the men of the covenant hope to stand, with no need of a mediator or a messenger to make reply; an interesting comment on the role of these angels. One version of the Testament of Levi says that Levi, when he was travelling through the heavens, saw the Angels of the Presence 'who minister and make propitiation to t he Lord for all the sins of ignorance of the righteous' (Test. Levi 3.5)." (6)

Accordingly, Luke and the apocryphal book of Tobit refer to angels who stand in the presence of God. "And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God...." (Luke 1:19, KJV) "I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand in attendance on the Lord and enter his glorious presence." (Tobit 12:15, NEB) However, Isaiah is the only Biblical writer to use the phrase "angel of his presence". Speaking of the goodness of Yahweh toward the house of Israel, the Hebrew text of Isaiah 63:8-9 (followed by the KJV) reads: "For he [Yahweh] said, Surely they are my people, children that will not lie: so he was their Saviour. In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them...." It is clear from the text that Yahweh saved his people by the "angel of his presence", but it is not at all evident that Yahweh was equated with this angel, although this is most certainly the case. The ancient translators of the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint or LXX, translated in the second and third centuries B.C.) knew of this tradition, and therefore made no reference to the "angel of his presence", but translated the verse in question as, "It was no envoy, no angel, but he himself that delivered them." (Isaiah 63:9, NEB) Clearly, Yahweh was the "angel of his presence".

Jesus as Yahweh and the "Angel of the Presence"

As Barker indicated, the belief in Yahweh as Israel's second God, the chief angel, was the basis of early Christian Christology. Many verses could be cited to show that Jesus Christ was equated with Yahweh, but for our purposes we need only reference Jesus' statement, "Before Abraham was, I am." (John 8:58, KJV) The Greek for "I am" is here identical to the Septuagint translation of Exodus 3:14 where Yahweh says "I AM THAT I AM." Clearly Jesus is identifying himself with Yahweh.

And yet, in keeping with the most ancient Israelite tradition, Jesus was also believed to have been the chief of the angels. For example, Paul called Jesus "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature...." (Colossians 1:15, KJV) In the second century Justin Martyr called Jesus both angel and God:

"And that this power which the prophetic word calls God, as has been also amply demonstrated, and Angel, is not numbered [as different] in name only like the light of the sun but is indeed something numerically distinct, I have discussed briefly in what has gone before; when I asserted that this power was begotten from the Father...." (7)

In the third century Novatian also felt it necessary to explain how Jesus could be both angel and God:

"... because He is of God, is rightly called God, because He is the Son of God. But, because He is subjected to the Father, and the Announcer of the Father's will, He is declared to be the Angel of Great Counsel. Therefore, although this passage neither is suited to the person of the Father, lest He should be called an angel, nor to the person of an angel, lest he should be called God; yet it is suited to the person of Christ that He should be both God because He is the Son of God, and should be an angel because He is the Announcer of the Father's mind." (8)

Even as late as the early fourth century both Methodius and Eusebius could make the same claim:

"And this was Christ, a man filled with the pure and perfect Godhead, and God received into man. For it was most suitable that the oldest of the AEons and the first of the Archangels, when about to hold communion with men, should dwell in the oldest and the first of men, even Adam. And thus, when renovating those things which were from the beginning, and forming them again of the Virgin by the Spirit, He frames the same just as at the beginning." (9)

"Remember how Moses calls the Being, Who appeared to the patriarchs and often delivered to them the oracles written down in Scripture, sometimes God and Lord and sometimes the Angel of the Lord. He clearly implies that this was not the Omnipotent God but a secondary Being, rightly called the God and Lord of holy men, but the Angel of the Most High his Father." (10)

And even more interesting is Jean Danielou's claim that in certain early Jewish Christian traditions both Jesus and the Holy Spirit were believed to be the two "Angels of the Presence":

"But there was also another scheme, according to which the Son and Spirit were considered as the two Angels of the Presence transcending all others - as, for example, in the Ascenscion of Isaiah. In this text and II Enoch they appear as an adaptation of the figures of Michael and Gabriel, and it frequently happens that these two archangels are separated from the rest and treated on a common higher level." (11)


We have established that Abraham's identification of Yahweh with "the angel of his presence" was consistent with the earliest Israelite traditions, and also with the earliest Christian traditions. But if we assume, as the critics of the Book of Abraham do, that Joseph Smith created this remarkable document by applying his fertile imagination to the sources he had at hand, how did he come up with this strange designation for Yahweh? The only Biblical source for the phrase would have been Isaiah 63:9, but we have seen that this verse gives no hint that Yahweh was equated with "the angel of his presence". This conclusion can only be drawn when the Greek text is compared with the Hebrew. However, the Septuagint was not translated into English until 1851, so again we are at a loss to find a source for the Prophet. Consider also that we have not been able to find even a single case where Joseph Smith used this title to refer to Yahweh, aside from this solitary passage in the Book of Abraham. Therefore, we are forced to conclude that Joseph Smith was inconceivably lucky in his choice of words, or in fact the Patriarch Abraham chose these words to describe his God.


1 Barker, M., The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), p. 31.

2 Barker, The Great Angel, p. 34.

3 Barker, The Great Angel, p. 70.

4 Barker, The Great Angel, pp. 85-86.

5 Segal, A.F., Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1977).

6 Barker, The Great Angel, p. 86.

7 Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho 127, in ANF 1:263.

I corresponded with Prof. Margaret Barker sharing with her my opinion about the Golden Calf representing not anything Egyptian but a symbol for Yahweh as the Son of EL who's totem animal was the Bull. Calf to Bull, Son to Father. Those Israelites still worshiping the Israelite tribal god Yahweh as a Son of EL were to be "corrected" (i.e. terrorism) by Moses and the rabid monotheists promoting Yahweh to EL Elyon's position as the Most High.