The Powers

Modern day Christians speak of a Trinity as "One G-d, 3 persons". Several terminologies are found in ancient writings.  Ante-Nicean believers talked of "3 substances" or used other terms. Middle Age Kaballism talks of "3 pillars."  What was the most ancient terminology?

"3 Powers" seems to be the oldest terminology. "Powers" is the easiest term to derive from the Hebrew wording since "Elohim" in Hebrew is derived from "El" meaning power or strength, thus "Elohim" could be interpretted as "mighty ones" or "Powers". In Ancient times, "Elohim" was probably read to mean "Powers".

Philo (20 BC - 40 AD) uses this terminology, seeing G-d as "3 Powers". At times, he attempts to differentiate between the "Powers" of God who are the Word and the Spirit, and the "powers" of G-d to create the universe by adding adjectives and referring to the "ministering powers" (of whom the Word is one (Q&A on Gen II, 34)) and his "chief powers" of creation and lordship. (See Q&A on Gen IV, 2 et seq). Another term he uses is "servant powers" to distinguish one type from another. But most of the time he just uses the term "Powers": without clarifying if he means the "servant powers" or "ministering powers" or "chief powers", leaving ambiguity as to whether he's talking about the "Powers" [big P] of the Word and the Spirit, or the "powers" [little p] of creation, etc.

Philo calls "the Word" the "Charioteer (hnoicon) of Powers (dunamewn)" (Flight & Finding, 101), whatever that means. Philo offers an explanation to the Philosopher as to why the Jewish scriptures describe their Monotheistic G-d as saying,

"Let us Make man..."

and says,

""Let us make" indicates more than one. So the Father of all things is holding parley (having a discussion with) with His Powers, whom He allowed to fashion the mortal portion of our soul..." (Flight & Finding , 68)

He makes reference to the "Powers" in several other places (such as Q&A on Genesis, 54), though he doesn't clarify with an adjective whether he means "chief powers" or "Ministering Powers", leaving you to figure that out from the context. Though here, it would seem obvious which is the case.

Philo wasn't the only one to use this terminology. Ignatius (30-107 AD) said:

"The Ministering Powers of G-d are good. The Comforter is holy, and the Word is holy - the Son of the Father - by whom He made all things, and exercises a providence over them all. This is the Way which leads to the Father" (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Philadelphians, Chapter IX)

The term "ministering powers" is one of the terms Philo uses to distinguish the term "Powers", when refering to the Father, Son and Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit), from other types of "powers" (creative power, kingly power, influenctial power, the exertion of force {e.g. a rock weighing something down}, etc). Here, Ignatius seems to be calling the Spirit/Ruach, Son and Father the "Ministering Powers".

James/Ya'acov HaTzadik is quoted by Hegesippus (c 170 AD) as saying,

"Why ask ye me concerning Yeshua the Son of Man? He Himself sits in heaven, at the right hand of the Great Power" (allegedly spoken in 63 AD)

With about a 100-110 year gap between the statement and it's quote, this could be paraphrased, but it does show that the use of the term "Power" to refer to the "Father" existed in the second century AD.

Tatian (110-172 AD), a Syrian, called Yeshua "The Power" saying,

"with Him were all things; with Him, by Word-Power , the Word Himself also, who was in Him" (Tatian's Address to the Greeks, chapter V, preserved in Greek)

Clement of Alexandria (153-217 AD) may have been using this terminology when he said,

"It is this same Father of His, then who being one is manifested by many/multiple powers And this was the import of the utterance, "No man knew the Father," who was Himself everything before the coming of the Son. So that it is veritably clear that the G-d of all is only one good, just Creator, and the Son in the Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever, Amen. " (Book I, chapter VIII of his writings)

There are other places where he uses this terminology, calling Yeshua "the Power of the Word" in The Stromata, Book VI, Chapter III and he tells us that when Paul says G-d "made all things by the`Word of His Power" this refers to the Son (The Stromata, Book VI, Chapter V) and says "the Lord is "the Power of G-d" (The Stromata, Book VI, Chapter VI). and he says that John "confesses that he is not worthy to baptize so great a Power." (Stromata, Book V, Chapter VIII) Clement even uses this term to refer to an angel in Chapter XV when he says,

"Did not the Power also, that appeared to Hermas in the Vision..." (The Stromata, Book VI, Chapter XV)

It is hard to find a writer after Clement who may be using this terminology. Dionysus of Rome (260 AD) does in Against the Sabellians, but it is rare after this. I can see why it dropped out of use by Greek and Latin speakers. It is a bit confusing. But the Hebrew term "Elohim" could be read "The Powers", so I can also see where it comes from.

The Acts of Addeus, which is pre-Nicean, but of uncertain date, says, "He is the adorable Son, and is the glorious G-d, and is the victorious King, and is the mighty Power".

The Jewish Zohar teaches that only the "middle grade" of the Godhead is properly called "Elohim", being composed of the Father, Ruach, and Word/Son and uses the term "Elyon" to refer to that part of G-d/Eloah that reaches into the Principality.  "Elohim" also refers to "judges" who are the "powers" or "authorities" of Israel. In English, we might refer the collection of judges, police officers, prosecutors, etc., as the "authorities", which would be very similar.

This language is in scripture, where it says,

"Hereafter shall the Son of man sit on the right hand of the Power of G-d. " (Luke 22:69)

Who is He at the right hand of? Ps 110 says He's at the right hand of G-d , as does Romans 8:34 and 1 Peter 3:22. Hebrews 12:2 says He's at the right hand of "the throne of G-d" and our earlier quote by Hegesippus (c 170 AD) of James the Just said "The Great Power". In Mark 14:62, it says,

"ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power" (Mark 14:62 KJV)

but this could have been translated,

"ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of the Power" (Mark 14:62)

The Greek version of Mark 14:62 contains a definite article here (thV or "the") that the KJV translators decided to drop from the sentence. The Aramaic version is also in emphatic state. The Latin Vulgate chose to spell the word for "Power" here as "Virtutis", not "virtutis", indicating a possible interpretation by early believers that "Power" here referred to a persona - the Father - not an abstract concept of "power" or "authority".

1 Cor 1:23-24 reads,

"But we preach Messiah crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Messiah the Power of G-d, and the wisdom of G-d." (1 Cor 1:23-24)

This construction seems odd to some people, but not if we read "the Power of G-d" as meaning "Messiah". The above does not read like a complete sentence unless we read "the Power of G-d" to be an adjective that modifies "Messiah". Some people read this as "Messiah, the Power of G-d, and the wisdom of G-d" or a list of 3 things, but in both Greek and Aramaic, there are no commas for lists and the word "and" generally separates each word in a list, indicating that this is a list with two items in it, and therefore "the Power of G-d" is probably describing "Messiah" here.

Augustine of Hippo (354-420 AD) tells us in On the Trinity, Book VI, Chapter 1 of his writings that both the term "Power of G-d" and "Wisdom of G-d" were interpretted as applying to Messiah by the believers of his age from this verse.

And Acts 8:9-10 says,

"there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the Great Power of G-d."

It seems the Samarians understood there was a "Power" of G-d, meaning a "person"/"power"/"pillar"/etc of the Godhead, and Simon's magic had swayed them into thinking that Simon was "the Power" or "the Word", instead of Yeshua. The Jews/Israelites in Samaria had apparently already heard of the doctrine of "the Powers" and concluded that Simon was the one that Philo called "The Charioteer of the Powers". But because of Phillip's preaching, they learned that Y'shua was "The Power", not Simon.

Even the Talmud uses this term. In Chagigah 15a the Talmud records a 'rabbi' saying "... Perhaps there are two Powers!" referring to the Father and what it describes as "Metatron", which other Jewish writings equate with G-d's Son, though this Talmudic section attempts to say that Metatron is not part of the Godhead. This Talmudic passage is an attempt to explain why G-d does NOT exist in the form of more than one "Power", and seems to be an answer to Christianity, but using the language that believers in the Messiah have apparently used.

The Principal Debate

2 schools of thought develop in the godhead models that are probably most heavily detailed by Philo (20 BC-40 AD) and the Zohar (2nd c AD or 13th c AD). Philo taught a godhead model where the Father was the principal, and his ministering Powers were the Word/Son and the Spirit. The Zohar taught a godhead model where there were 3 grades to the godhead of:

Now there is some debate as to how far back the Zohar can be dated, but it does seem that the Zoharic model of the godhead can be traced back to Philo's time, for Philo calls the Father the "Monad and the beginning" in Q&A on Exod, II, 68. But Philo also talked about a group of ascetics called the "Therapeutae" who worshipped "the Self-Existant One who is better than the good, purer than the One and more primordal than the Monad" (The Contemplative Life, 2) There's a lot of vagueness in these comments that make it hard to say for sure exactly what Philo was thinking. It is possible he was saying there was another group that believed in an Ayn Sof type concept that was not part of his thinking. But its also possible that he's using the word "Monad" differently in these sections. But if we look at other groups who used the same terminology as Philo and call the Father the "Monad", they seem to disregard the idea of an Ayn Sof that preceeds the Father. For example, one writer says a man named Heracles taught that,

"there existed first what he terms a Monad [13] and then out of that Monad (arose) two..."
(Tertulian {b160 AD} in Against all Heresies, Chapter 4)

If we go forward in time to the Valentians, we find a debate among the students in the school of Valentinus about the concept of whether the Father is the "Monad" or whether there is another Principle or co-Principal to/with the Father. Those who rejected the "Ayn Sof" concept tend to use Philo's terminology and refer to the Father as the "Monad", as if this term somehow indicates there is no "Ayn Sof" that preceeds him.

Valentinus (100-160 AD) wrote,

"Thus the Word of the Father goes forth into the All, being the fruit of his heart and expression of his will. He supports the All. He chooses and also takes the form of the All, purifying it, and causing it to return to the Father and to the Mother, Jesus (Iesus/Yeshua) of the utmost sweetness. ...  He appeared, informing them of the Father, the Illimitable One (which would be said "Ayn Sof" in Hebrew). " (from The Gospel of Truth)

He seems to be countering a possible argument that there is some sort of "Ayn Sof" that preceeds the Father by calling the Father "Ayn Sof" (actually the Latin equivalent of it) and equating Him with that term. Valentinus seems to have been labelled a "Gnostic" due mostly to his mystical ideas than his views on the gospel, since he believed in Yeshua as G-d in the flesh, the Messiah and Savior, saying "...He came in the likeness of flesh...He gave them thought and understanding and mercy and salvation and the Spirit of strength derived from the limitlessness of the Father" (from The Gospel of Truth). According to, Valentinians were allowed in Roman clergy up to 200 AD. They where branded as heretics in 326 AD. This is quite different from other "Gnostics" who were rejected as heretics from the beginning for their rejection of Yeshua as Savior and rejection of His Divinity.

But at least some in the school of Valentia believed in the concept. Tertulian discusses how leaders among the Valentinians taught the following;

"There comes, says he, before all things Proarche, the inconceivable, and indescribable, and nameless" (Tertulian, Against the Valentinians, Chapter 37)

So this would seem to parallel the concept of the "Ayn Sof", but with a different name; the "ProArche". Tertulian discusses this concept several places in Against the Valentinians, in chapter 7, 35 and 37. The author goes on to describe this belief system and how the "Proarche" relates to the "Monad", though it is somewhat of a confusing summary of the belief system by someone who did not believe it.

The "Ayn Sof" debate seems to center around two ideas. One is that as soon as you give some aspect of G-d a name, you've limitted His role, therefore there must be some sort of "Ayn Sof" that preceeds any part of G-d that has a Name. Oddly enough, people who promote this idea give this part of G-d is given the Name "Ayn Sof", creative at least a paradox in their argument. The other side says that if the "Father" is called "Father", meaning "Origin", then that, by definition, means He is the beginning of it all, or the "Principal" of the G-dhead. Does the term "Father"/"Origin" really limit His role? I'd say it simply describes Him as the source of everything, which is not limitting at all.


Is it possible that what the Zohar calls the "Ayn Sof"/"Elyon" is what scripture calls "the Father". And eminating from Elyon/Eloah the Father is ----- the Father. Perhaps, of the 3 "powers" of Elohim, the first is also called "the Father" being more "first" than the other "Powers", and perhaps this Power is also called "the Ancient of Days". The "Ancient of Days" is visibly seen in Daniel, yet Paul/Shaul says of the Father "no man has seen or can see." So perhaps Paul/Shaul was referring to the Father (beyond His Ancient of Days manifestation), while Daniel is discussing that part of the Father than visibly eminates as the Ancient of Days, which is not His entire Self.  The full connection is not completely clear, and so it is easy to see why multiple ideas emerged to explain these issues.


The possibility that "el" can mean "God" or "strength" or "strong" or "Mighty" has caused translators some fits. Nearly all translators have rendered the "el" in Ezek 32:21 as "strong" or "mighty", but in Ps 80:10, the phrase "אַרְזֵי-אֵל" = "ceders el" was rendered "ceders of G-d" by the ASV and "mighty ceders" by the RSV. The NIV notes that it was unsure whether to translate "El Elohe Israel" in Gen/Ber 33:20 as "G-d, the G-d of Israel" or "mighty is the G-d of Israel".

Different Terms

One place where early Christian writers used terminology different from ancient Judaism is in the term "Wisdom". Most early Christians used this term to refer to Yeshua, calling Him the "Wisdom" (see Dionysus of Rome (260 AD) in Against the Sabellians, Theophilus (circa 170-180 AD) Theophilus to Autoclytus, Book I Chapter III, and others), while most Jewish writers associated "Wisdom" with either the Father or Ruach. The Zohar associated the Ruach with "Wisdom" and the Father with "Understanding", while many/most other Kaballists reversed this, associating the Father with "Wisdom" and the Ruach with "Understanding".

Another place is in the view of the Ruach/Spirit as a maternal figure. There is much ancient Jewish literature that refers to the Ruach/Spirit as the "Mother", but this is rare in Christian literature. Among the exceptions are Valentinus (100-160 AD) and The Acts of Thomas (circa 1st or early 2nd century AD). But the Roman doctrines of Mary may have suppressed this concept within Christiandom.

The Evolution of the Terminology

While first century terminolgy described the Godhead in terms of "Powers", after the 2nd century, the terminology began to evolve based on the wording of Hebrews 1:3, which describes the Son as the  

"radiance of His [the Father's] glory and essence/expression of His substance (hupostastes)" (Heb 1:3)

This was used as the basis for describing the godhead with new terms. Origen (b185-d254 AD), a Greek writer, used the terminology as it appears in Greek version of Heb 1:3 (where "substance" here is "hypostases"), saying:

"We consider, therefore, that there are three hypostases, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Origen's Commentary on Yochanan, Book II, part 6)

This may have been about the time the terminology was evolving, since we already documented that Clement of Alexandria used the term "powers", but was a contemporary of Origen in terms of location, culture and language, both hailing from Greek speaking Alexandria, but being about 30 years apart in birth. 30 years is definitely enough time for terminology to change. Many people have had kids in their 20's who, by the time they became teenagers, were using terms their parents where completely unfamiliar with.

But different Greek writers meant different things by the use of "hypostases". For example, Origen's use of this aligns with the typical Trinity explanation of G-d being 3 but 1 at the same time. While Arian (3rd/4th century AD) said there were "3 hypostases" meaning 3 separate gods.

While Greeks used "hypostases" to mean two different things, the Latins were having trouble differentiating between the concept of an "essence" and a "substance", considering the two words to mean the same thing. The Latin writer Augustine (354 - 430AD) noted:

"For the sake, then, of speaking of things that cannot be uttered, that we may be able in some way to utter what we are able in no way to utter fully, our Greek friends have spoken of one essence, three substances; but the Latins of one essence or substance, three persons; because, as we have already said, essence usually means nothing else than substance in our language, that is, in Latin. " (Augustine, On the Trinity, Book VII, Chapter 4) and "Although they [the Greeks] also, if they pleased, as they call three substances three hypostases, so might call three persons three "prosopa," yet they preferred that word which, perhaps, was more in accordance with the usage of their language." (ibid, chapter 6)

So it appears that because they had trouble explaining what Heb 1:3 was saying in Latin, they needed a completely new term to describe the concept, and came up with "persons", which doesn't appear in scripture, but made comprehending the concept easier for them. The Latin term was the origin of the English terminolgy we have today. We see this Latin terminology used further back that Augustin, since the Latin writer Gregory Thaumaturgus, Bishop of Neo-Caesareia in Pontus (213-275 AD) also used this language saying

"All (the persons) are one nature, one essence, one will, and are called the Holy Trinity; and these also are haines subsistent, one nature in three persons, and one genus. But the person of the Son is composite in its oneness (unita est), being one made up of two, that is, of divinity and humanity together, which two constitute one. " (On the Trinity)

There is an interesting footnote at which says,

"The Western Church increased the confusion by continuing to regard u 9po/stasij as equivalent to ou'si/a, and translating it by Substantia or Subsistentia. It was not till the word Essentia came into use to express ou'si/a that the Western Church grasped the difference, so long accepted in the East, so as to use the words accurately. Meantime, however, there would seem to have grown up a difference in the use of the two words supposed to represent u 9po/stasij, of the same kind as that between u 9po/stasij and ou'si/a; Substantia being appropriated to the Essence of a thing, that which is the foundation of its being; while Subsistentia came rather to connote a limitation, i.e., Personality. Thus the West also became confused, and Substantia was held to be the true equivalent of u 9po/stasij. Hence the condemnation at Sardica (A.D. 347) by the Western Bishops of the doctrine of Three Hypostases as Arian. The confusion lasted long, but in 362 a Council was held at Alexandria, when this difference was seen to be a mere logomachy, and it was pronounced orthodox to confess either trei=j u 9posta/seij in the sense of "Persons," or mi/an u 9po/stasin in that of "Substance." ..."What do you mean," he says, "by hypostases or prosopa: You mean that the Three are distinct, not in Nature, but in Personality" And in the Panegyric on S. Athanasius (Or. xxi. c. 35), he remarks on the orthodoxy of the phrase mi/a ou'si/a, trei=j u 9posta/seij, that the first expression refers to the Nature of the Godhead, the second to the special properties of the Persons."

The Aramaic speaking believers began describing the Godhead as "1 Person, 3 Qnoma", a term that was also based on Hebrews 1:3, which reads in the Aramaic Peshitta as ...

"... by the power of His Word and He is the QNOMA that worked purification of sin..."

So like the European Churches, they derived their terminology from Hebrews 1:3 as well, though a slightly different part of it.

Now there is at least some evidence that Hebrew speaking believers continued to use the term "Powers" even after it had declined in use by believers in other languages. In the work " על אמונה המשיח והיהוד = On the Faith of the Messiah and the Jew", published in Hebrew original sometime between the 8th and 16th century, but written from a Catholic/Orthodox perspective (not from a Messianic Jewish perspective), we find it using the term "powers" even in a post-Masoret time frame. Could this mean that Jewish believers in the Messiah continued to use the original terminology? Did the Catholic/Orthodox writer of this Hebrew work obtain his terminology from Jewish believers? Perhaps so.

This work describes the Godhead as ...

and in the singular refers to each "member"/"power" as...

It is safe to date this writing to the middle of the Masoret period, because,

For a variety of reasons, this work is probably not authoritative on these terms in that it was not written by a Native Hebrew speaker or by a Jewish believer in the Messiah. But the writer does use Hebrew based terminology, not a literally translated Greek or Latin based terminology and may have taken the time to learn what terms were being used by Jewish believers in the Messiah. So it provides some, though not conclusive, evidence that there were Nazarenes who continued to use the ancient terminology even when the Gentile Church had evolved into using a different terminology. But the term "member" may have been derived from how they interpretted Hebrews 1:3 in the Hebrew version, where it reads "בגבורת חברו" instead of  "בגבורת דברו" as the Greek reading suggests.

The "member" terminology in Hebrew can also be found in yet another place. In Sebastian Munster's commentary on Chapter 17 of Matthew (page 103 of his 1537 publication), he quotes a Rabbinical source which describes the theology of believers as saying that they believed that the Father, Son and Spirit are "members" (מחברים) who are one, using the same word for "member" as used in "On the Faith."

Does Terminology Matter?

It really doesn't matter whether you describe G-d as 3 "powers" or "eminations" or "pillars" or "substances" or "persons"; the reason we have such a myriad of terms in existance is because no one has found one that everyone can agree on. Any attempt to describe Elohim using terms we are familiar with is an attempt to compare Him to something earthly, and there is not anything earthly that truly matches Him perfectly, so any word will not describe the fullness of who He is. We'd have to come up with a unique word that is used for nothing but describing Him. So any choice of words is likely to create some confusion.

Some have tried to suggest that the concept of the "Trinity" is a pagan concept because other religious systems have developed an idea of a 3-person god. Isa 8:19 says:

"When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their G-d? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?"

We are not to base our belief system on a reaction to what pagans do or don't believe. We are to base our belief system on scripture and what it has to say. Mithraics practiced baptism, but we aren't going to get rid of it just because pagans did it. The scriptures tell us to do it. Most religions practiced animal sacrifice even before the first pages of scripture were written. Many Mid-eastern religions called their god "YHWH", including a cow worshipping cult in Egypt. The Shintoists of Japan only eat kosher meat, emulating Jewish dietary laws to near perfection. We don't through out truth just because some pagan sect copied pieces of truth into their own practices. We base our belief system on scripture, not on pagan practices.