Longtime scholar of religion Richard Smoley has written a fascinating book about the origins of Western religion titled, How God Became God:
The book follows the historical, historical and ecclesiastical path of religion in the West, and therefore concentrates on Judaism and Christianity. Much attention is given to ancient Israel and the origins of its deity. Or perhaps we should say, “deities”.
As Smoley shows (and here his work dovetails with that of Margaret Barker and the late Alan Segal), in pre-Deuteronomic times, Israel had a binitarian theology. That is, the ultimate God was held to be El Elyon (the Most High), but this topmost father-god had a multitude of “sons”, who were conceptualized as other, lesser gods – or as angelic beings – who constituted El Elyon’s high council. At one point, the Most High appointed each of the world’s nations to an angel, a process by which the Council’s god/angels became a protector, benefactor, and judge of a particular earthly nation. Surprisingly, this scenario is embedded in the Jewish Bible itself, in Deuteronomy 32:7-9:
7 “Remember the days of old, Consider the years of all generations. Ask your father, and he will inform you, Your elders, and they will tell you. 8 “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, When He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples According to the number of the sons of Israel. 9 “For the LORD’S portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.… (Bible Hub)
From the inception of this belief, an ancient tradition looked to the “second God” or “Great Angel” of Israel as that nation’s guiding, tutelary, and judging deity, a literal Son of the Most High. He went by several names such as Yahoel, Son of Man, Heavenly Adam (Adam Kadmon), and Metatron, but for religious and historical purposes, his greatest name is Yahweh.
Far from the traditional, commonly received picture of Yahweh being the high God, in the earlier picture, Yahweh was God’s (El Elyon’s) Son, representative, servant, and Israel’s particular “deity”. Of course this means that Judaism, at least in part, contained a conception of “Two Powers in Heaven” – El Elyon and his Son, Yahweh. The situation is even more complex, per Barker, when it is realized that Yahweh the Son had a female consort – possibly a mother figure or simply a spouse. Thus a royal-divine dyad on earth was worshipped in Israel, along with a most high Father. Some of the prophets raged against the divine consort and urged that her symbols be permanently removed from the Temple. And, in any case, the ancient El Elyon-Yahweh dynamic plays a huge role in New Testament christology.
The New Testament Jesus identified himself with a Jewish figure called the Son of Man. In certain texts, he uses it as a circumlocution for “this guy”, i.e., “me, myself”. But in others, he seems to be speaking of the heavenly Son of Man who is enthroned next to the Most High, in which case he would have equally have been speaking of the Angel, Adam Kadmon, or of Yahweh (again, not as topmost deity, but as son of El Elyon). This makes sense of Jesus’ answer to the high priest Caiaphas’ question about his identity, where Jesus says that people will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with “Power” (another circumlocution designating God). And it would mean that Jesus’ frequent New Testament references to his own sonship in relation to God could in reality represent the ancient view of Yahweh’s son-like relationship to El Elyon.
This christology would mean that the New Testament Jesus is actually saying that he is not the high God, the Most High, but rather that he is the son of the Most High, Israel’s Great Angel. This in turn might explain why the earliest Jewish-Christian sects held that Jesus – unlike his later Trinitarian counterpart – is a divine Son, but of course cannot not be the Father-Creator-Most High. And this notion is supported in Patristic reports of several early Jewish “Christ cults” which claimed that Jesus had been a righteous man in whom the heavenly Messiah-Christ, the heavenly Adam (Adam Kadmon) “incarnated”.
The El Elyon/heavenly Father-to-Jesus/Yahweh/the Son relationship is only one of many refreshing and informative points of interest in Smoley’s book, which I strongly recommend for anyone interested in religion, religious history, and christology.