Review of Bart Ehrman’s ‘How Jesus Became God’ (part 2 – Psalm 82)

ehrmancovertopIn this second installment of my response to Ehrman’s work on christology ‘How Jesus Became God’ I will interact with his exegesis of Psalm 82.

On page 57 Ehrman begins a new section in which he wants to demonstrate how texts within the Bible and relevant Jewish literature describe angels as both “God” and “human.” His first example comes from Psalm 82, which is small enough to quote in full:

1 God takes His stand in His own congregation; He judges in the midst of the rulers (Heb. elohim).
2 How long will you judge unjustly And show partiality to the wicked? Selah.
3 Vindicate the weak and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and destitute.
4 Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.
5 They do not know nor do they understand; They walk about in darkness; All the foundations of the earth are shaken.
6 I said, “You are gods, And all of you are sons of the Most High.
7 “Nevertheless you will die like men And fall like any one of the princes.”
8 Arise, O God, judge the earth! For it is You who possesses all the nations.

Now I must readily admit that the psalm in itself does not explicitly indicate to whom God is speaking. Are the ones rebuked actually angels, as Ehrman contends? Ehrman argues, based on 82:1, that “God’s own congregation” refers to the heavenly angelic council, and cites the opening chapters of Job as a parallel. However, angels are never mentioned in Psalm 82. Likewise, the Hebrew word translated as “congregation” in my translation above, edah, is no where mentioned in Job 1-2. The word edah is, however, mentioned with reference to the congregation of Israel when they gather together as a group (Pss. 74:2; 111:1; Prov. 5:14; etc.).

It would also be strange for God to rebuke angels for failing to take care of the needy, fatherless, weak (Ps. 82:2-4). These commands were given to Israel, and in particular, their leaders (as often seen in the rebukes of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and others).

Much more likely is the 82nd psalm referencing Israel’s human judges. Yes indeed, they are called elohim, the Hebrew word for God, in 82:1, 6. This is not surprising in light of the fact that judges are elsewhere called elohim (see Exod. 21:6; 22:8, 9, and perhaps Ps. 58:1). This point is readily admitted by standard lexicons (BDB p. 43; HALOT 1:53). The judges were responsible for taking care of the needy within the congregation of Israel.

The interpretation of the rebuked in Psalm 82 as the Israelite judges is strengthened when we look at the Talmud. In b.Sahn 6b-7a the rabbis render Ps. 82:1 as:

“And it is said, ‘God stands in the congregation of God and in the midst of judges he judges.'”

“Now perhaps a judge might say…”

R. Judah said [the statement by the judges], “Mr. So and so, you are liable. Mr. So and so, you are innocent.”

“It is a religious duty to say to them, “Do you want me to judge the case or to arbitrate it?”

The rabbis seem fairly conformable with ascribing the important functions of the elohim to the judges. Note what also said in b. Sota 47b:

For it is said, “He judges among the judges” (Ps. 82:1).

Another piece of data which is deemed helpful is the Targum on the Psalms. I will quote its rendering of Psalm 82 here in full (italics are the Targum’s emendations, not my own):

1.     A hymn composed by Asaph. God, his presence abides in the assembly of the righteous who are strong in Torah; he will give judgment in the midst of the righteous judges.

2.     How long, O wicked, will you judge falsely, and lift up the faces of the wicked forever?

3.     Judge the poor and the orphan; acquit the needy and the poor.

4.     Save the poor and needy, from the hands of the wicked deliver them.

5.     They do not know how to do good, and they do not understand the Torah, they walk in darkness; because of thisthe pillars of the earth’s foundations shake.

6.     I said, “You are reckoned as angels, and all of you are like angels of the height.”

7.     But truly you will die like the sons of men; and like one of the leaders you will fall.

8.     Arise, O Lord, judge all the inhabitants of the earth; for you will possess all the Gentiles.

Note how in verse 1 the congregation  are the righteous ones who are strong in Torah. The elohim in 82:1 are clearly identified as the righteous judges. Verse two labels them as wicked, albeit their previous designation as righteous. The fifth verse states that the judges don’t know Torah (otherwise, presumably, they would vindicate the helpless). Verses six and seven make the contrast between their reckoned status as angels and their humbled status as the sons of men.

In short, it seems that Ehrman’s interpretation of Psalm 82 does not, after closer scrutiny, actually support his claim that angels are described as God and human. The psalm seems better suited if interpreters identify the rebuked elohim as God’s judges, the human rulers who judge on God’s behalf, thus effectively taking the title of elohim onto themselves as God’s agents.




7 thoughts on “Review of Bart Ehrman’s ‘How Jesus Became God’ (part 2 – Psalm 82)

  1. Excellent points! The Targum references were particularly insightful. I agree that Ehrman’s interpretation lacks support and really doesn’t fit the context.

    Also, Jesus was in the temple when he quoted Ps 82:6. He was almost certainly addressing the Sadducees and Pharisees. And we know they abused their elevated position of leadership by violating the principles of God’s law left and right. I think the implication, then, is that Jesus quoted this Psalm of judgment as an indictment on them. Malachi prophesied that the Messiah would do this very thing:

    “(3) He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD….(5) “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.” (Mal 3:3, 5)

  2. Dustin, I am enjoying your blog. I’m interested in your translation of בַּעֲדַת־אֵל as “in His own congregation”. The Hebrew of this whole verse, as you would know, is quite ambiguous, perhaps intentionally so, and difficult to translate. Not only does ‘elohim’ occur twice, and in such a way that translators almost universally translate it using two different words (the second variously as gods, rulers, divine beings, or similar), but between them we have ‘el’ which is often also translated as ‘God’ but here could mean ‘divine’ (hence some translations have ‘in the divine council’ while some transliterate as council of El). Your translation (“His own congregation”) is not a literal reading and I’m wondering why you opted for this choice. While there appears to be two distinct parties called ‘elohim’ the Hebrew text could quite easily have used בַּעֲדַתוֺ to make it clear that this is “his” council (i.e. belonging to the first elohim) but the use of the word ‘el’ seems to be a deliberate choice to avoid this.

    If this indeed is “His own congregation” then “presides” might have been a better choice for נצב than “takes his stand” which suggests that the first elohim (YHVH?) is a participant in the council (and acting as an accuser or prosecutor) . Julian Morgenstern argued for “presides” for precisely this reason (Julian Morgenstern, “The Mythological Background of Psalm 82,” Hebrew Union College Annual 14 (1939): 29– 126, 71). However, this is a grammatically awkward translation because in this text נצב appears as a niphal participle (HALOT 714f: to place oneself, to be positioned, stand; BDB, 662: station oneself, take one’s stand). It has the sense of supervising (to be set over) when accompanied by עַל (HALOT) but this is absent in Ps. 82:1. So while “takes his stand” might be the best grammatical reading it has theological implications as to whether ‘elohim’ is standing as a participant Prosecutor or presiding Judge. The grammar suggests he is a participant.

    The greatest difficulty for the interpretation that the second ‘elohim’ refers to human judges, in my view, is the expression כְּאָדָם תְּמוּתוּן “you will die like men” in verse 7 which would seem to rule out the possibility of these elohim being human.

    1. Hey Stephen. Good to hear from ya.

      I just copy/pasted the NASB. If I had to guess, I think el is acting as an adjective. The two elohims are clearly distinguished with the verbs; one being singular for YHWH and the other plural for the reproved.

      I see a contrast between the reproved, who should be properly representing YHWH/elohim with their agentival title (of elohim) by exercising social justice. Instead, they are not functioning as they should, so they will die as “mere mortals” (my translation of 82:7).

      I agree that God is a participant, but he is calling his audience to account. Perhaps the psalm is meant to depict something that readers are to catch a “hint hint” at. Who knows?

      I again admit that the details are vague in placed. It just seems that the human judges interpretation finds the path of least resistance. Thanks for replying.


      1. Hey, random internet stranger here.

        I think the parallel line כְאַחַד הַשָּׂרִים תִּפֹּֽלוּ in Ps 82.7 is pretty instructive, in suggesting that these are human rulers. But perhaps even more interestingly, אָכֵן כְּאָדָם תְּמוּתוּן has a rather close parallel in KTU 1.16 II, where Keret’s son asks his divine father if gods can die, _kmtm_ “like the dead” (=like mortals?): ‘ap ‘ab kmtm tmtn .I don’t even think that the interpretation of human rulers acting as divine “agents” is justifiable in Ps 82.

        Some other scattered points: you mention that “judges are elsewhere called elohim,” citing Exod. 21:6; 22:8, 9. Now, I should say that I haven’t looked at these passages in exhaustive detail, though I know that many have proposed a cultic ‘ordeal’ background to these, that indeed allows us to understood אֱלֹהִים here as the deity.

        Also, you say “It would also be strange for God to rebuke angels for failing to take care of the needy, fatherless, weak.” If I assume correctly that you might also make this comment if other _gods_ were in view – that is, that it’d be strange for _gods_ to be called out for “failing to take care of the needy, fatherless, weak” – I’d note that social justice was indeed in the domain of the deities in the ANE, where it’s ascribed to them directly (which also has parallels elsewhere in the Psalms: cf. 68.6; 99.4; Ps 132).

  3. Not sure how Psalm 82 can be referring to human judges where God states in Ps 82:7 that the ‘gods’ will receive the ultimate punishment – he will make them mortal and make them die and cease to exist?

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