Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Nature of Jesus [Part 5, 6, 7, 8]


It has always been taken for granted that that the gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were actually written by men of the same names. According to the Church tradition that has come down to us, the gospels Matthew and John were penned by eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus which Mark and Luke were authored by assistants of disciples. While Irenaeus puts forward Matthew as the earliest gospel, scholarship generally supports the primacy of Mark.

We have very little reliable information regarding the circumstances behind their composition. While Clement of Alexandria tells us that Mark wrote his gospel at the request of members of the equestrian class in Rome, we hear Irenaeus identify Mark as the ‘spiritual gospel’ of Jesus while Matthew is said to be the gospel of ‘Jesus the man.’

When we go outside the writings of the Fathers of the Church the perspective suddenly changes. Those traditions which understand Jesus to be a wholly supernatural being vehemently deny that any of the gospels were written by disciples. The Marcionite sect understood that the original gospel was written by St Paul – a remarkable statement owing to the fact that it contradicts the foundations of modern orthodoxy.

In the Catholic tradition by contrast it is claimed that Paul never wrote a gospel, this despite his vehement affirmation to the contrary. In other words, we see the statement recorded more than once in many different ways - ‘according to my gospel …’ The answer from the Church Fathers is that Paul didn’t really mean to say ‘gospel,’ and furthermore ‘the gospel according to Paul’ was written by Luke, and in a way that turns around almost every proof used by the Marcionites to prove that Jesus was a supernatural being.

The traditional approach of scholars has been basically to go along with whatever the Catholics says about their opponents. Yet in recent years the situation has begun to turn around. More and more scholars are at least giving the Marcionite claims a second look, especially since they don’t seem to be entirely self-serving.

For instance claiming, as the Marcionites did, that Paul wrote a gospel about a spiritual man Jesus ‘in the spirit’ – that is, according to revelation or a heavenly ascent, does not help their cause against the Catholics in any way. By contrast, emphasizing the primacy of Matthew as ‘the gospel of Jesus the man’ – that is a ‘material man, a man of flesh and blood written by many authors entirely independent of one another, and according to independent eyewitnesses only serves to reinforce the reliability of that testimony.

Who wouldn’t want to verify an account according to four different perspectives? It is a policeman’s dream to find four witnesses to a crime. But when we look closely the three synoptic witnesses – that is Mark, Matthew and Luke – are for the most part copies of one another – even outright forgeries. What we have here are not separate witnesses at all but accounts manipulated to reinforce a particular theological point of view.

To this end, the situation that exists between the ‘spiritual man’ and ‘material man’ tradition is far different upon closer examination. The Catholic canon is clearly reactionary and goes out of its way to marshal a series of cleverly designed forgeries to overcome their opponents. Who can believe that Jesus was a phantom floating down from heaven? But how else can his walking on water, his passing through angry mobs and his fly be explained?

At the bottom of hearts we want Jesus to be a man; we want the orthodox to win because it demands less work from us. It does not require us to think. Yet the evidence clearly suggests that our existing canonical gospels are all slightly reworked versions of an original Marcionite gospel – each with little bits of added material, words and phrases tweaked here and there. To this end, even if Jesus really was a human being, we find that the Catholics could only prove that scenario by corrupting and falsifying the gospel of the supernaturalists.

We find ourselves in a very odd situation, indeed.


There is of course a very good explanation for why Irenaeus would have needed to capture the Marcionite gospel and ‘repair’ it in many different ways. If you are trying to develop an ecumenical tradition, one which embraced as many believers as possible and brought them under one tightly defined understanding of orthodoxy, you simply couldn’t ignore the Marcionites – especially if you were writing c. 170 CE.

At the time Celsus the pagan wrote against Christianity – perhaps 178 CE – the Marcionites figure prominently in his polemic. This makes clear that they could not have been ignored by Irenaeus only a few years earlier. Furthermore since Celsus makes reference to the Catholics – i.e. the ‘great Church’- and to its fourfold canon of gospels quite specifically, it would stand to reason that, if we continue to follow our original set of assumptions, that Irenaeus had already completed his efforts to bring harmony to the fold.

Celsus’s reference to the manufacture of the fourfold gospel is quite enlightening in this respect. He says that an original gospel or gospels were falsified in order to ‘answer objections’ that were raised by outsiders about the claims typically made by Christians. First and foremost among these is the claim that Jesus was a god.

According to our supposition in the beginning there were only gospels, unconnected and entirely at odds with one another. As Celsus notes over and over again, there were many Christian groups in earliest antiquity and they literally stood on street corners arguing with one another from slightly different gospel texts. At some point in that long history of disputation along came a canon of four writings – four gospels written supposedly independent from one another – which all agreed, and which began the process of bringing all the feuding parties under one big tent.

How else could such a thing have been accomplished other than forgery?

While there were many gospels by the time of Celsus we should imagine that they all went back to two basic prototypes which emerged at a very early period - one according to the belief that Jesus was wholly divine, the other that he was entirely human. Where scholars speak of an ‘ur-text,’ we had better refer to the concept of two gospels, set entirely against one another, each side accusing the other of forgery.

The fourfold gospel harmony of Irenaeus turns around the central observation of Celsus – one that must have been made by countless observers watching Christians scream at one another on street corners. In the period before the introduction of Irenaeus’s fourfold gospel harmony, the existence of many witnesses only proved that the Christians could not have a ‘true account.’ After all, there were many different gospels, many different claims, where all disagreed with each other.

Then all of a sudden, in the twinkle of an eye, an artificial ‘harmony’ emerged. The ‘great Church’ picked four texts – most of which had never been seen before – in order to demonstrate the exact opposite proposition. A multitude of witnesses now all agreed.


If we get back to our original point a clear fact emerges from history, namely that in the beginning there was no ‘true account’ in Christianity. The multitude of sources disagreed with one another. It was for this reason that Celsus chose this as the very name of his book against the religion – i.e. ‘the True Account.’ Only now Celsus’s point was deliberately ironic - the Christians do not agree, their gospel divided, those who believe will not be saved.

At the earliest point in this debate were two gospels – one which affirmed Jesus as a man, the other Jesus as a god. The big question still remains – how did Irenaeus manage to bridge the chasm that existed between them?

Let us start with the clearest certainty. Neither of these gospels acknowledged the Virgin Birth.

Indeed as we saw earlier, the new ecumenical faith was founded on the fusion of ‘Jesus was a man’ and ‘Jesus was God.’ But how did we get there? If we believe the surviving texts of Justin, the Virgin birth was already present in his gospel. That means, before Irenaeus set apart manufacturing four separate witnesses to the one gospel, Justin had in front of him a gospel which witnessed the Virgin birth.

Indeed the fact that the Valentinians also testify to the existence of ‘Jesus passing through Mary as water through a tube’ and that information makes its way into the Irenaeus’s early writings it stands to reason that Irenaeus did not invent the understanding. As Peter Lampe demonstrates there are reasons to believe that Justin was not originally hostile toward the Valentinians. They may even have shared a single gospel.

It is especially interesting to observe that Justin’s student Tatian is intimately associated with a ‘harmony of the gospels’ worked out into a single text. In other words, at least four different sources went into creating this ‘Diatessaron’ – at least that’s the name the later Catholics used to refer to this text. It was also later claimed that Tatian used Matthew, Mark, Luke and John but this merely part of Catholic propaganda. Four gospels may have been used, but they weren’t necessarily our four texts. Tatian’s text has disappeared and we can’t even be sure it was manufactured by Tatian at all.

We should seriously consider the possibility that it was Justin who developed the Diatessaron rather than his student Tatian. After all, his extant writings only make reference to the term ‘memoirs of the apostles’ and the like. In other words, he acknowledges the existence of unfinished or unpolished sources which testify to the words and deeds of the Lord. But does this terminology also justify the creation of a harmony of sources in a completed narrative – i.e. a Diatessaron, a harmony of four? I think it does, and it offers us a clue as to where Irenaeus got the idea for his set of four independent gospels.

It was Justin who fashioned a finished ‘harmony gospel’ developed from at least four different sources. What if Irenaeus claimed to reproduce the original four texts as the cornerstone to his new order? It is worth noting that even as Irenaeus identifies Tatian and his followers as heretics he does not mention the existence of the Diatessaron as a point of contention. This coupled with the fact that many of the contemporary Fathers seem to have used one or another gospel harmony of this sort, it may well have been the basic foundation – the template if you will – for the falsification of four texts that agree even when standing on the own.

The point then is that when Justin made his harmony, the individual hypomnemata (= ‘memoirs’) likely were presupposed not to agree. After all, it was these four gospels which provided the ammunition for the partisans shouting at one another in the gathering places in the Empire. A generation later Irenaeus still publicly embracing the long dead Justin offers to produce the material behind the harmony that had already won widespread acceptance. A masterful deception, one that was only slightly undone by the fact he didn’t take as much time with John as the others leaving a number of critics unhappy with his final product.


We should suppose then that it was Justin who invented the idea of a Virgin birth. It was likely fixed to the opening words of his gospel harmony. The idea that the divine Spirit entered Mary's womb and fashioned a divine earthly man Jesus helped Justin avoid claiming that God’s being – his very nature - was subject to change. Now the baby Jesus was understood to be created ex nihilo in the Virgin's womb. His flesh mingled with spirit from the very start, exactly reproducing the constitution of the heavenly man.

So it is that Celsus’s words seem entirely justified. This gospel was a ‘fourfold effort’ to ‘answer objections’ like that most pressing issue of how a man could be God. Celsus, in the course of writing his polemic drew from many anti-Christian treatises. By far the most frequently used source was a narrative written from the point of view of a Jew disputing with one or a group of Christians. In the course of his citation from this source Celsus makes reference to the Panthera myth – i.e. the idea that Jesus was born out of wedlock to a woman seduced by a soldier named Pandera or Panthera.

This same seduction narrative is found in various forms in the rabbinic literature. While the original source is now lost, Celsus does mention the name of a specific polemic – the Dispute Between Jason and Papiscus – which presents a similar debate now only told from the Christian perspective. Celsus’s source was very different and more closely resembled the work cited in the pages of the Hodêgos of the seventh century monk Anastasius the Sinaite. In that text, no less an authority than Philo of Alexandia is made to utter the words:
should you adduce his birth from a virgin (as proof for his divinity), without seed as they say, the begetting of Adam (appears) more noble and more striking, a formation by the very hands of God and a vivifieation through God's own breath, and it was purer than the nine-month fetation of Jesus in his mother (terminating in) filth and wails and mess … Now if you tell us that Jesus was taken up into the heavens as God, surely the prophet Elias was taken up more gloriously in a blazing chariot and with horses of fire. Calling Jesus the God of heaven must be reckoned as the most outrageous of your blasphemies, for God Himself said to Moses that "No man shall see my face and live." Further, our Scripture witnesses that "No one has ever seen God. No man has seen or is able to see God." How is it that Christian preachers are not ashamed to proclaim Jesus as God?

The point we should take note of here is that the Virgin birth was developed as a way of reconciling the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. It presents a far more credible account of the ministry of Jesus – at least again superficially – than the Marcionite notion of a flying phantom.

Of course, as we hear noted in Justin’s debate with the Jew Typho, this whole notion of a ‘Virgin birth’ seems to draw inspiration from pagan myths. Not only did Jews undoubtedly find such a view abhorrent we can show evidence that the Marcionites felt the same way. In fact, when we look to the writings of Tertullian, a strong case can be made that the Latin writer developed a lost treatise written originally by Justin against the Marcionites into an anti-Jewish polemic.

No one has ever been able to explain why Tertullian’s Against the Jews copies entire sections almost verbatim from the third book Against Marcion. The two parties must have shared many of the same views, not in the least of which, as we shall see – their disgust with the Virgin birth narrative. There is little question among scholars that much of the material common to both texts is drawn from the writings of Justin. Now we can take matters one step further.

At a critical juncture in the original debate, Tertullian – taking over arguments originally made by Justin – accuses the Marcionites of ‘borrowing from the Jews’ when it comes to their idea of Jesus as a ‘man of war.’ The same argument finds its way preserved in Against the Jews, no less than equally critical reference to the Marcionite identification of the nature of Jesus’s flesh being exactly like the ‘men’ who visited Abraham and the ‘man’ who wrestled with Jacob in the wilderness.

The fact that both passages identify angels by the name ‘man’ (= ish) has escaped the notice of scholars. This will be critical to our reconstruction of the original Marcionite understanding of the person of Jesus. That such a ‘Jewish view’ was authentically Marcionite can be demonstrated by appealing to other reports about the sect in the writings of the Church Fathers. Ephrem the Syrian confirms the Marcionites saw Jesus as a ‘man of war’ and the so-called Dialogues of Adamantius confirm the interest in the angels who visited Abraham.

What we can start to see happening here is the idea that Virgin birth narrative was specifically set up against the Marcionite notion of Jesus as ‘ish’ – that is an angel named ‘Man.’ In other words, the Marcionites were not denying that Jesus was a ‘man’ but rather, that he was ‘the Man’ the ‘spirit Man’ who existed in heaven before the creation of the world and who appeared throughout the Pentateuch as a visiting ‘stranger.’

In short, the Marcionites weren’t denying that Jesus was a man, only that he was born a man according to a human birth.  While this is distinction might seem entirely unnecessary.  After all, what type of man didn't come from a woman's womb?   It really reinforces the critical distinction which has been missed by previous generations of scholars.  Even the name Jesus was, according to the heretics, a false construct.  His real name, the name he gave to his disciples but which was subsequently corrupted by demons was not Yeshu, but Eeshu - that his 'His man,' the man of God.

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