Wright on Types of Duality

Excerpt from N. T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, Vol. 1 of the series “Christian Origins and the Question of God” (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), pages 252-256.

(iv) Types of Duality

It is often said that some types of Judaism are characterized by ‘dualism’, or are in danger of falling into it. (1) ‘Apocalyptic’ is still often spoken of in this way; it is thought to be pessimistic, envisaging the only hope for the world in terms of a coming cosmic catastrophe; to have a distant view of Israel’s god which needs to be filled out by the presence of angelic mediators; and to divide the world into two, in the style of the Qumranic ‘War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness’ (1QM). Further, it used to be said, and still is in some quarters, that all this shows a derivation from the dualism of ancient Iranian Zoroastrianism. (2)

The problem with this is that the word ‘dualism’ is used in several quite different senses, by no means always differentiated. (3) Furthermore, the word ‘dualism’ itself is heavily loaded in some circles, often indicating disapproval; but several of the things which are asserted to be ‘dualistic’ are perfectly normal features of most if not all biblical theology, and we must make a careful distinction between that which the great majority of Jews accepted as normal and that with which some, exceptionally, flirted. I propose therefore that, to begin with, we refer to ‘dualities’, rather than ‘dualisms’, and save the latter term for certain specific dualities. There are at least ten types of duality, as follows.

1. Theological/ontological duality. The postulation of heavenly beings other than the one god, even if these beings exist at his behest and to do his will. This belief is called ‘dualism’ in some recent scholarship. (4)

2. Theological/cosmological duality. If pantheism is a classic form of monism, the differentiation between the creator god and the created order is often seen as itself a sort of ‘dualism’. (5)

3. Moral duality. The positing of a firm distinction between good and evil, e.g. in the realm of human behaviour. Most religions maintain some such distinction, but some forms of pantheism have tried to remove it, not least by labelling it ‘dualism’ and associating it with other dualisms that are deemed to be unwelcome.

4. Eschatological duality. The distinction between the present age and the age to come, usually reckoning the present age as evil and the age to come as good. (6)

5. Theological/moral duality. Expressed classically in Zoroastrianism and some forms of Gnosticism, this view postulates that there are two ultimate sources of all that is: a good god and a bad god. In ‘hard’ versions, the two are locked in struggle for ever; in ‘soft’ versions, the good one will eventually win. (7)

6. Cosmological duality. The classic position of Plato: the world of material things is the secondary copy or shadow of the ‘real’ world of the Forms, which are perceived by the enlightened mind. In many different versions, this view filtered down as a mainline belief of the Greco-Roman (and the modern Western) world: that which can be observed in the physical world is secondary and shabby compared with that which can be experienced by the mind or spirit. (In some modern versions the order is reversed, putting the material first and the spiritual second.) (8)

7. Anthropological duality. The human-centred version of cosmological dualism. Humans are bipartite creatures, a combination of body and soul, which are arranged in a hierarchy: soul ahead of body in many religions and philosophies, body ahead of soul in many political agendas. (9)

8. Epistemological duality. The attempt to differentiate sharply between that which can be known by means of human observation and/or reason and that which can be known only through divine revelation.

9. Sectarian duality. The clear division of those who belong to one socio-cultural-religious group from those who belong to another. (10)

10. Psychological duality. Humans have two inclinations, a good one and a bad one; these are locked in combat, and the human must choose the good and resist the evil. (11)

Where did first-century Judaism stand in relation to these bewildering and often-confused types of duality? There are at least four types that are embraced by most Jews of the period, and at least three that are usually rejected, with possibility of debate about the other three.

We have already made it clear that in rejecting pantheism Judaism embraced the distinction between the creator god and the created world (type 2). This reveals itself in the normal biblical language about heaven and earth: heaven is created by the one creator in order to be the location of himself and his entourage, whereas earth is where humans live. This is not, however, to be equated with cosmological duality (type 6), on which see below. It is, further, clear throughout Judaism that a distinction was maintained between good and evil in the realm of human actions: even Josephus, with his strong doctrine of divine providence, clearly thinks that some humans act wickedly (type 3). (12) Many if not most Jewish writings of the period show a belief in angels and other ‘supernatural’ beings (type 1). Virtually all second-temple Jews, with the possible exception only of the aristocracy, believed that they were living in a ‘present age’ which was a time of sorrow and exile, and which would be succeeded by an ‘age to come’ in which wrongs would be righted and Israel’s god would set up his kingdom (type 4). If any or all of this deserves to be called ‘dualism’, then most first-century Jews (and most early Christians) were dualists.

However, I think this would be a confusing conclusion. The word ‘dualism’ has obtained its primary force in modern discussion from three of the other types, which were emphatically rejected by most Jews of the period. In respect of type 5, we will search for a long time through first-century Jewish literature without finding any evidence of the belief that there is an evil force which is equal in power to the creator god, and when we do find such evidence we are justified in supposing that the majority of Jews would have regarded the idea as outside the limit of legitimate speculation. (13) Type 5 is thus widely rejected. Equally, Philo again provides the exception that proves the rule when it comes to types 6 and 7: Jews in general did not divide the world rigidly into the physical and the noumenal/spiritual, and even Philo himself shows at various points that, even if the ‘real meaning’ of a passage of scripture, or a Jewish ritual, is to be found in a spiritualized sphere, the material sense and performance are by no means to be despised or neglected. (14) He thus offers a soft version of types 6 and 7; most Jews would have rejected both in favour of a more integrated cosmology and anthropology. Most Jews would have held that heaven and earth, though themselves distinct, both reveal the divine glory; humans, though thoroughly at home in the space-time universe, are also open to the world of heaven, to the presence and influence of the divine. Worship and prayer are not attempts to reach across a void, but the conscious opening of human life to the god-dimension which is ever-present. (15)

The remaining three types are harder. With reference to epistemological duality (type 8), it is clear that many Jews of this period did make a fairly sharp distinction between what can be known by human observation and/or reason and what can only be known by divine revelation. This distinction has a long history, going back (for instance) to the story of Joseph in Genesis 41.14-28. An apocalypse claims to unveil secrets otherwise unknowable; a pesher commentary, the ‘true’ hidden meaning of a biblical prophecy; a discussion of halakah, that which was given orally by Israel’s god to Moses on Mount Sinai; a Philonic allegory, the secret hidden meaning of the text. Even Josephus appears to place considerable value on the ability to foretell the future, an ability which he claimed for himself as well as for others. Yet many Jews, such as Josephus himself, make the attempt to see what Israel’s god is doing within the ordinary world of observation, and devise logical rules whereby, with the aid of human reason, truth and holiness can be perceived. We will therefore probably not go far wrong if we postulate a wide spectrum of opinion on type 8. Similarly, sectarian duality (type 9) is obviously embraced by some, notably the Essenes and, to some extent, the Pharisees, and is rejected by those Jews who were in favour of a relaxed attitude towards their pagan neighbours. Finally, psychological duality (type 10) was held by the rabbis, with their doctrine of the two ‘inclinations’. But there is little early evidence for it.

These distinctions between different types of duality, and the analysis I have suggested, is not simply undertaken out of curiosity or for the sake of intellectual tidiness. It is most important in understanding the theological options that lay before first-century Jews, and the close interrelation of those options with the socio-political reality that they faced. (16) It may therefore help if we set out these types of duality in their three columns. Those on the left are more or less normal to all mainline Judaism; those on the right, definitely marginal. Those in the centre are held by some, but not all. It is only those on the right, I propose, that deserve the title ‘dualism’ proper; only they posit a radical split in the whole of reality.

regularly accepted possible marginal
1. theological/ontological 5. theological/moral
2. theological/cosmological 6. cosmological
3. moral 7. anthropological
4. eschatological
8. epistemological
9. sectarian
10. psychological


1. e.g., recently, Hayman 1991; Sanders 1992, 249f.

2. An example almost at random: Conzelmann 1969, 24; cf. Sanders 1992, 249. Sometimes quoted in this connection is 4 Ezra 7.50: ‘the Most High has made not one world but two’. See below, category (9).

3. The fullest brief account I know in relation to our literature is that of Charlesworth 1969, 389 n.1, distinguishing ten types which correspond quite closely with those below, which I worked out independently before coming across his article. Sanders (1992, 523 n.21) says that he has discussed the relation of monotheism and dualism in his forthcoming Anchor Bible Dictionary article on ‘Sin/Sinners (NT)’. In his present work he uses ‘dualism’ in a variety of senses in the same passage.

4. See again Hayman 1991.

5. e.g. Schürer 3.881, referring to Philo.

6. See von Rad 1965, 301ff. This feature is referred to as ‘dualism’ in e.g. E. Isaac’s introduction to 1 En. (in Charlesworth 1983), 9f.

7. cf. Perrin 1983 [1974], 128; Charlesworth 1985, 48 (on Jubilees). It is sometimes said that the Scrolls exemplify this sort of ‘dualism’: e.g. Schürer 2.589; Urbach 1987, 162f. For a sensitive discussion of this see Charlesworth 1969.

8. For the (standard) use of ‘dualism’ here; cf. e.g. Urbach 1987, 26, 75, etc.; and cp. Nickelsburg 1984, 216 on I En. 42.

9. The first of these is the classic Gnostic account of anthropology.

10. e.g. C. Burchard in Charlesworth 1985, 190f.

11. Charlesworth 1969, 389. This may apply in particular to the ‘two spirits’ doctrine in 1QS (discussed, but rejected, in ibid., 395f.); it certainly applies to the ‘two inclinations’ doctrine of the rabbis (cf. Schechter 1961 [1909] chs. 15, 16; Urbach 1987 [1975, 1979], 471-83).

12. e.g. the ‘two ways’ scheme in 1QS.

13. See the discussion in Rowland 1982, 92, with Mart. Isa. 2.4; 4.2 as examples of passages which perhaps go beyond this limit.

14. e.g. de Migr. 89-93, discussed in this context by Borgen 1984, 260f.

15. A good example of this belief in the immediate presence of the god-dimension of reality is 2 Kgs. 6.17.

16. See Segal 1986, 178: ‘the issue of monotheism was parallel to the issue of community composition.’

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