Defining Jewish Preexistence – part 1

I apologize to my faithful and loyal readers for my months of silence. I have been in the process of contributing to a book regarding three different views of Christology (in addition to my full teaching load of undergraduate courses). Rest assured, this blog is alive and well. You will seeing more of me in the future. Huzzah!

high-def-space-sun-earth-wallpaperOne of the things which I have learned regarding how preexistence is used within the pages of the New Testament is that it overlaps with the hopes, theologies, and lingo of Second Temple Jews (and their successors) in their understanding of preexistence. It is my firm conviction that interpreters of the New Testament who fail to properly set biblical texts regarding preexistence within this Jewish framework will result in flawed and confused conclusions. This post will be the first of many which will examine Jewish texts (and some Christian) which attempt to recreate this contextual resource.

Today’s text comes from the Jewish midrash on the Book of Genesis known to scholars as B’reshith Rabba (“Genesis Rabba”). It reads similar to the Mishnah (for those familiar with the Mishnah’s style), offering rabbinic commentary on various biblical passages. It is mostly written in Aramaic with the remainder in Hebrew. It was probably written in the 5th century CE, so I grant that it is somewhat dated. Nevertheless, it demonstrates rather significant and noteworthy lines of thinking which can be traced back to the Second Temple period (as we will soon see).

Its opening chapter and verse make an interesting comment regarding God’s plans and purposes:

“The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors. Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world, while Torah declares, ‘In the beginning God created,’ ‘beginning’ referring to the Torah, as in the verse, ‘The Lord made me as the beginning of His way.’” (Gen. Rab. 1.1)

The author begins with an illustration of an architect who uses plans and diagrams in order to create his project. This illustration is then applied to that way God consults his Torah in order to create the world, thereby equating the Torah with the plan/diagrams and the world with the architect’s project. While every Jewish reader of the five books of Moses is well aware of the fact that Torah was not officially given until Sinai (in Exodus 19-20), the author of Genesis Rabba thinks otherwise. For him, the Torah is so important and valuable within the plans and purposes of God that it must have preexisted. This author goes so far as to say that Torah was consulted by God when he created the world as indicated in Gen. 1:1. Torah is also equated with the personified Lady Wisdom (Prov. 8:22).

The author of Genesis Rabba is not content with simply ascribing this status to Torah. He goes on to speak of quite a few other things which came before the Genesis creation:

“Six things preceded the creation of the world; some of them were actually created, while the creation of the others was already contemplated. The Torah and the throne of glory were created…The creation of the Patriarchs was contemplated…[The creation of] Israel was contemplated…[The creation of] the temple was contemplated…The name of Messiah was contemplated.” (Gen. Rab. 1.4)

In effect, six things preexisted and were with God from the beginning: Torah, the throne of glory, the Patriarchs, Israel, the temple, and the name of the Messiah. These things are divided into two groups. The former, which include the Torah and the throne of glory, were actually in existence before the creation of the world. The latter four (Patriarchs, Israel, the temple, and the name of the Messiah) were “contemplated” by God. In other words, these four things were in God’s mind, plan, and purposes from even before the Genesis creation according to Genesis Rabba.

While it would be interesting to speculate on the meaning of the preexistent Patriarchs, Israel, and temple, I wish to focus on the name of the Messiah and the way in which it preexists. Genesis Rabba is not teaching a literal preexistence, as in, something which physically and tangibly exists prior to its creation with God. Rather, this sort of preexistence resided in God’s contemplation, his mind, and his thoughts. I will call this “notional preexistence” in order to distinguish this from “literal preexistence.” The author of Genesis Rabba argues that the Torah and God’s throne literally preexisted. But the Patriarchs, Israel, the temple, and the Messiah’s name only notionally preexisted.

I think that a reasonable question can be proposed which asks, “How would the author of the Fourth Gospel be understood if he shared the theology of Genesis Rabba?”

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6 thoughts on “Defining Jewish Preexistence – part 1

  1. Very good. This makes sense. Jesus began an manifest existence when he was born in the first century B.C.. But the forces that necessitated that were present for all time in the unexpressed potential in the cosmos. Gods mind is the totality of all that could be. It exists out side time so all thing always have been. Jesus followers thought he embodied the mind if God, which has alwsys been.

  2. This type of pre-existence is called “Jewish pre-existence” by A. Harnack (in Appendix 1 to vol. 1 of his History of Dogma, and F.C. Porter “Pre-existence of the soul in the Book of Wisdom and in the Rabbinic works). Porter builds off of Harnack’s observations, but the essential idea in both is that Jewish texts have an idea of pre-existence that is fundamentally different from that espoused by Greek thinkers influenced by Plato.

  3. Hi Dustin,

    This is interesting, but unless one could establish that the writer of the 4th Gospel actually had “the Genesis Rabba” in mind, or that he understood that there was a conceptual distinction between “notional preexistence” and “literal preexistence”, I’m not sure that the Jewish midrash would be helpful.

    Rivers 🙂

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