Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why the Question of the Historical Passion is More Important to the Study of Early Christianity than the Question of the Historical Jesus

I should be one of those people who does his best to destroy Christianity. I am Jewish, my family has had a not-so-good relationship with the Church for centuries and finally, I tend not to like groups of people who think they are authorities on a subject matter merely because they were born into the field of study. Nevertheless I find the subject of Christian origins quite fascinating mostly because I think I have a unique historical perspective which allows to contribute something important to the literature.

Indeed just the fact that I knew nothing about Christianity going into my studies was immensely useful. I didn't inherited the retarded notion that someone like Jesus could be considered to be 'the Christ' merely because billions of people of European ancestry say its possible. That was a huge bullet to avoid - the authority of white people on a uniquely Jewish subject matter (i.e. whether or not Jews could have reasonably expected to believe that someone like Jesus was their awaited messiah).

This is the 'game changer.' Once you can see how unreasonable it is to argue that God (i.e. Jesus) or anyone else in the first century would have accused Jews of not accepting Jesus as their awaited messiah, you naturally start looking around for plausible explanations of Christianity. The inherited paradigm that gets passed down through the ages simply doesn't work as a model for early Christianity (it was of course terribly effective to blame Jews for rejecting Jesus in subsequent generations for propaganda purposes - this cannot be denied by anyone).

So what is the real story of the Passion? Why is this strange ritual set up where two individuals stand before Pilate and the Jews ultimately choose someone else as their king? This is the million dollar question and it is one which few people have bothered to examine because they think they already know the answer.

It is for this reason that I couldn't care less about whether or not Jesus is a historical person. It is clear that generations of Christians thought so - at least from the time of Polycarp's visit to Rome. Yet it is also beyond question that as Polycarp was promoting his silly idea of Jesus's immediate family and their descendants filling the highest ranks of the Jerualem Church there was a strong counterposition which said that Jesus only appeared as a man and was instead God the Father come down to earth for the first time in human history. This is the 'Marcionite position' and it represents an under-reported and under-appreciated part of the early Christian milieu that I am particularly interested in.

The Marcionites clearly did not hold Jesus to be the messiah predicted by the Jewish prophets. They didn't call him 'Christ' and instead identified him as 'Chrestos' a title which ultimately derives I believe from the Hebrew word yashar which was believed by contemporary Jews to be the root of the name Israel.

To this end, I have concluded that the Marcionites looked to someone else as their messiah. The logical candidate is the figure of 'Paul.' Everything about the Marcionite apostle is messianic. His titles are messianic - 'the Paraclete' (Origen), 'the Apostle,' 'the Evangelist' (Tertullian), 'the Prophet' (Tertullian) etc. His role in the community as the sole lawgiver of the community is messianic - i.e. the author of the whole New Testament canon. His stature as the recepient of an unspeakable revelation is messianic. The list goes on and on and on.

For me then the question as to whether there was a historical Jesus really isn't that interesting. I think the role of the Marcionite apostle in the new Israel is far more intriguing. Here we have a real historical character acting in a predictable 'messianic' manner (predictable from the viewpoint of what one might expect from a Jewish messianic cult). His central argument that Moses didn't know God but only a lower manifestation of his presence is a recognized position with the rabbinic literature. It also leads to the obvious argument that the Marcionite apostle compared himself favorably with Moses, saying in essence that his epiphany was better than that which was revealed at Sinai.

Even though one can see how these claims might be viewed as blasphemous by contemporary Jews, we're all still talking the same language. We're all still engaging one another inter pares. It is only when the Catholic tradition emerges under the reforms of Irenaeus that Christianity seems entirely bereft of any Jewish character. To be certain the same 'Creator' is confessed as Jewish living in the late second century. Both traditions show off a recently collated 'collection' of acceptable views - i.e. the rabbinic tradition with its collection of acceptable halakhah artificially assigned to famous rabbis in the previous period; Christianity with its collection of acceptable gospel readings artificially assigned to four famous 'evangelists' from the previous period. Yet Christianity doesn't think or express itself as a Jewish sect any longer. It is now something absurdly Gentile.

All these points only clear the way however for our ultimate question - the problem that should be the focus of most research in the field of early Christianity. If the early Christians did not believe that the Jews were rightly condemned for rejecting Jesus as their awaited messiah insofar as the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by Roman armies in 70 CE, what is the purpose of the artificial 'set up' of the gospel narrative where the Jews chose bar Abbas over Jesus? Why did the earliest Christians living after the Jewish War think that this decision led to the end of the Jewish religion?

The fact that this question has not been satisfactorily answered by contemporary scholarly research leads to my assertion that the question of the historical Passion is more important to the study of early Christianity than the question of the historical Jesus.

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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