Friday, March 30, 2012

Early Christian Reception of the Sons of God Myth, part III


Augustine rejects a literal interpretation of the sons of God myth in De Civitate Dei. Augustine sees the narrative of Genesis 6:1-4 as the original account of the mingling of the heavenly and earthly cities, when those who had previously organized a society around divine morality and the greater good lapsed into the lesser morality of earthly desire.[1] Augustine is aware of a number of textual issues that arise when comparing the Hebrew text, which he deems to be ambiguous, and the Septuagint, which, in Augustine’s time, had manuscripts that read both οῖ υῖοὶ τοῦ θεοῦ  and aggeloi τοῦ θεοῦ .[2] Augustine appeals to texts in the Bible in which righteous human beings were referred to as angels, thereby providing grounds for a metaphorical interpretation of the text.[3] Augustine identifies the sons of God or angels of God with the line of Seth although he does not provide a rationale for this identification.[4] The description, according to the LXX and old Latin text, of the offspring of the sons of God and daughters of man as giants does not denote any spiritual or otherwise otherworldly character to their fathers. Augustine points to the frequent occurrence of human beings with well above average height.[5]
            Chrysostom offers perhaps the most erudite argument for rejecting a literal interpretation of the sons of God myth, one that retains its merits in light of biblical scholarship. Chrysostom begins by rejecting the identification of the sons of God with angels on textual grounds. While the term “sons of God” appears in other parts of Scripture, at no point is there an explicit identification of the sons of God with the angels of heaven or with the fallen angels.[6]  Chrysostom continues to refute the interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4 as an account of angelic descent on the grounds of canonical intertextuality. By Chrysostom’s time, the canon of Scripture is largely set. The canonical account of the fall of angels recorded in the Apocalypse of John implies a fall of the angels before the advent of man in Chrysostom’s interpretation.[7] Finally, Chrysostom dismisses the angelic descent interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4 on the grounds that a being created incorporeal cannot become corporal for the sake of having intercourse with a corporal being.[8] Chrysostom identifies the sons of God with the descendents of Seth on the grounds of the use of the term sons of God in other parts of Scripture. Chrysostom, when exegeting the passage in his homilies on Genesis, notes that Scripture applies the term sons of God to human beings.[9] Chrysostom alludes Psalm 29:1, “give to the Lord, o sons of God, glory and power,” and Psalm 82:6-7, “I say to you, you are as gods, you are all sons of God the most high, but you will die like men,” in addition to John 1:23 which says, “Chrysostom explains the term γὶγαντεζ as denoting men of considerable physical stature and ability.[10] Thus, for Chrysostom, the myth of the sons of God is explainable in entirely human terms.
A point of convergence exists between Chrysostom and Theodoret of Cyrus. Chrysostom at one point states that the descendents of Seth were identifiable with the sons of God in virtue of Enosh (Seth’s first born) having started the tradition of calling upon God by name.[11] Chrysostom, however, only makes mention of this interpretation of Seth’s line in passing. Theodoret, however, supplies us with more complete illustration of this argument.
            Theodoret begins with a detailed exegesis of the text of Genesis 6:1-4 that explicitly identifies the sons of God with human beings. The instance in question can be found in Genesis 6:3. Theodoret observes that after the sons of God copulate with the daughters of man, God responds, “my spirit shall not abide in these men forever, for they are flesh; their life span will be one hundred and twenty years.” For Theodoret, this text demonstrates the purely human identity of the sons of God in the Genesis narrative. Had the sons of God been angels, the text would have pointed towards angelic antagonists, rather than specifically mentioning “these men.”[12] Theodoret argues that God’s establishment of a set life-span is only appropriate to human beings, angels being immortal spirits and not subject to a finite duration.[13] Additionally, Theodoret argues that if the narrative recorded a primordial instance of angelic descent, then the narrative would implicitly implicate God with injustice. [14] The narrative, if taken to indicate an instance of angelic dissent, would present the angels as the causative agents of sin resulting in the deluge. Indeed, to Theodoret’s mind, if the sons of God were angels who had descended from heaven, the general evil that grew in God’s sight would have been the result of the angels raping the daughters of man.[15] As such, God would have punished human beings for the transgression of angels creating an instance of divine injustice.[16] Like Chrysostom, Theodoret also points to the instances in Scripture where sons of God is used as an appellation for human beings. In particular, Theodoret interprets Psalm 82:1-2 with its divine council imagery as referring to human beings in its use of the term sons of God,

            “This is the title he gives to rulers, as indicated by what follows: ‘how long will you deliver unjust judgments and take the part of sinners? Judge in favor of the orphan and the poor, give justice to the lowly and the needy.’”[17]


            After having treated of the question regarding the nature of the sons of God, Theodoret progresses to establish the identity of the sons of God via the narrative of Genesis. Theodoret’s identification largely rests upon the variances between the LXX and Masoretic revisions of the text at Genesis 4:26. The Septuagint reads, καὶ τῷ  σηθ  ἐγένετο υἱός ἐπωνόμασεν δὲ τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Eνως οὗτος  ἤλπισεν  ἐπικαλεῖσθαι  τὸ  ὄνομα  κυρίου τοῦ θεοῦ (hoped to be called by the name of the Lord). Whereas the Masoretic text has the more familiar “at that time to invoke/call upon the name of Yahweh.” Theodoret knows of Aquila’s translation of the text, which follows closer to the Masoretic text, although he dismisses Aquila’s translation as a puzzling manner of expressing the same concept as that of the LXX.[18]Following the Septuagint, Theodoret argues that Enosh lived virtuously and was known as “God” among his contemporaries and his offspring were known as sons of God.[19]At this point in Theodoret’s exegesis, the Syriac traditions surrounding the figure of Seth begin to influence his thought. Theodoret presents Seth’s lineage as having isolated itself from the line of Cain until such time as Seth’s progeny found Cain’s line attractive and was lured by the technological innovation.[20]


[1] Augustine. De Civitate Dei. XV.22
[2] Augustine. De Civitate Dei XV.23 Augustine also makes note of Aquila’s translation that read “sons of the gods.”
[3] Augustine. De Civitate Dei.XV.23
[4] Augustine appears to find some significance in the etymology of Seth’s name as it appears in the Biblical text. Augustine describes Seth as a “son of the resurrection,” which appears to play with Eve’s exclamation after his birth in the LXX, ἐξανέστησεν γάρ μοι ὁ θεὸς σπέρμα ἕτερον.
[5] Augustine. De Civitate Dei. XV.23
[6] John Chrysostom. Homilies on Genesis 22.6
[7] John Chrysostom. Homilies on Genesis 22.7
[8] John Chrysostom. Homilies on Genesis 22.7
[9] John Chrysostom. Homilies on Genesis. 22.8
[10] John Chrysostom. Homilies on Genesis. 22. 12
[11] John Chrysostom. Homilies on Genesis. 22.8
[12] Theodoret of Cyrus. Questions on the Octateuch. On Genesis. Question XLVII. 20-25
[13] Theodoret of Cyrus. Questions on the Octateuch. On Genesis. Question XLVII. 10
[14] Theodoret of Cyrus. Questions on the Octateuch. On Genesis. Question XLVII. 20-25
[15] Theodoret of Cyrus. Questions on the Octateuch. On Genesis. Question XLVII. 20-25
[16] Theodoret of Cyrus. Questions on the Octateuch. On Genesis. Question XLVII. 20-25
[17] Theodoret of Cyrus. Questions on the Octateuch. On Genesis. Question XLVII. 45-50
[18] Theodoret of Cyrus. Questions on the Octateuch. On Genesis. Question XLVII. 35-40
[19] Theodoret of Cyrus. Questions on the Octateuch. On Genesis. Question XLVII. 40
[20] Theodoret of Cyrus. Questions on the Octateuch. On Genesis. Question XLVII. 60-65
copyright the author 2012