Twenty-five years ago, rabbinical scholar Alan Segal produced what is still the major work on the idea of two powers in heaven in Jewish thought. Segal argued that the two powers idea was not deemed heretical in Jewish theology until the second century C.E. He carefully traced the roots of the teaching back into the Second Temple era (ca. 200 B.C.E.). Segal was able to establish that the idea’s antecedents were in the Hebrew Bible, specifically passages like Dan 7:9ff., Exo 23:20-23, and Exo 15:3. However, he was unable to discern any coherent religious framework from which these passages and others were conceptually derived. Persian dualism was unacceptable as an explanation since neither of the two powers in heaven were evil. Segal speculated that the divine warrior imagery of the broader ancient near east likely had some relationship.

In my dissertation (UW-Madison, 2004) I argued that Segal’s instincts were correct. My own work bridges the gap between his book and the Hebrew Bible understood in its Canaanite religious context. I suggest that the “original model” for the two powers idea was the role of the vice-regent of the divine council. The paradigm of a high sovereign God (El) who rules heaven and earth through the agency of a second, appointed god (Baal) became part of Israelite religion, albeit with some modification. For the orthodox Israelite, Yahweh was both sovereign and vice regent—occupying both “slots” as it were at the head of the divine council. The binitarian portrayal of Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible was motivated by this belief. The ancient Israelite knew two Yahwehs—one invisible, a spirit, the other visible, often in human form.  The two Yahwehs at times appear together in the text, at times being distinguished, at other times not.

Early Judaism understood this portrayal and its rationale. There was no sense of a violation of monotheism since either figure was indeed Yahweh. There was no second distinct god running the affairs of the cosmos. During the Second Temple period, Jewish theologians and writers speculated on an identity for the second Yahweh. Guesses ranged from divinized humans from the stories of the Hebrew Bible to exalted angels. These speculations were not considered unorthodox. That acceptance changed when certain Jews, the early Christians, connected Jesus with this orthodox Jewish idea. This explains why these Jews, the first converts to following Jesus the Christ, could simultaneously worship the God of Israel and Jesus, and yet refuse to acknowledge any other god. Jesus was the incarnate second Yahweh. In response, as Segal’s work demonstrated, Judaism pronounced the two powers teaching a heresy sometime in the second century A.D.

Recommended Reading
The following items are important works with respect to the Jewish background of the exalted Christology of New Testament theology — Jesus as the second Yahweh, the second Power in heaven. Their inclusion here does not speak to a complete endorsement of their content.

Barker, Margaret. The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God. Louisville, KY: Westminster / John Knox Publishers, 1992

Bauckham, Richard, “The Throne of God and the Worship of Jesus” Pages 43-69 in The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism: Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus. Edited by C. Newman, J. Davila, and G. Lewis. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1999

Bauckham, Richard, God Crucified: Monotheism & Christology in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998

Boyarin, Daniel. “The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John,” Harvard Theological Review 94:3 (July, 2001), 243-284

Boyarin, Daniel, “Two Powers in Heaven; or, The Making of a Heresy,” Pages 331-370 in The Idea of Biblical Interpretation: Essays in Honor of James L. Kugel. Leiden: Brill, 2003

Fossum, Jarl E. The Image of the Invisible God: Essays on the Influence of Jewish Mysticism on Early Christology. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1995

Gathercole, Simon. The Pre-Existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006

Hannah, Darrell D. Michael and Christ: Michael Traditions and Angel Christology in Early Christianity. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 109. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1999

Hurtado, Larry W. “What Do We Mean by ‘First-Century Jewish Monotheism’?” Pages 348-368 in Society of Biblical Literature 1993 Seminar Papers. Edited by E. H. Lovering Jr. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993

Hurtado, Larry W. One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988

Hurtado, Larry W. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003

Hurtado, Larry W. “First-Century Jewish Monotheism.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 71 (1998): 3-26

Hurtado, Larry W. “Jesus’ Divine Sonship in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,” Pages 217-233 in Romans and the People of God. Edited by N. T. Wright and S. Soderlund. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999

Hurtado, Larry W. “The Binitarian Shape of Early Christian Worship.” Pages 187-213 in The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism, Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus. Edited by Carey C. Newman, James R. Davila and Gladys S. Lewis, Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism, ed. John J. Collins. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1999

Hurtado, Larry W. How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005

Lee, Aquila H. I. From Messiah to Pre-existent Son. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 192. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2005; reprinted Wipf and Stock, 2009

Segal, Alan F. Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977

VIDEO Presentation
Dr. Heiser on the Two Powers (May 2013): 1 hr., 21 min.