Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Nature of Jesus [Part Four]


Little by little we are edging toward the ultimate question - should we assume the existence of a real individual named 'Jesus' behind the gospel narrative merely because it is convenient?  In other words, there is nothing exceptional about the life of this crucified man other than the early appeal to him being divine.  Unlike Moses, Joshua, David and Mohammed there really is no historical 'accomplishment' to speak of in the gospel.  If Jesus is assumed to be a 'great teacher' it is unusual if not quite incredible to honor his legacy by eating his flesh and blood and seek 'communion' with him.  The assumption here is clearly that Jesus was of a divine nature that adherents sought to 'absorb' into their souls. 

The deeper we look into the problem of Christian origins the more clearly we uncover that there is no surviving 'historical Jesus' tradition that has come down to us.  We have no direct evidence that anyone interpreted the gospel as if Jesus was merely mortal, as if blood and flesh eating rituals were not part of the liturgy etc.  To be certain there are reports as early as Irenaeus which speak of a Jewish tradition 'poor (= ebion) in understanding' which apparently only knew Jesus to be a mortal man.  Yet even here the evidence is contradictory. 

Irenaeus certainly thought that Jesus was a material man of flesh and blood.  Nevertheless as we just saw, he also supposes that he was a supernatural being, a prototype for a new humanity the union of mortal flesh and divine spirit in one 'perfect' man.  The fact that he was God as well as man was deeply significant for Irenaeus.  It was the fulfillment of a master plan set forth from the time of Creation.  The same claim must have been put forward by members of the heretical tradition which saw Jesus as a wholly divine being.  For them he was the hidden prototype of humanity - a 'spiritual man' kept hidden from the world and even its Creator. 

It is so natural for us to simply 'strip down' all these myths originally rooted in the supernatural Jesus in order to find some glimmer of a historical individual.  But does it actually work?  Is there a real Hercules behind the cleansing of the Augean stables?  A real Theseus behind the story of the Minotaur?  For the moment we should at least consider the fact that Irenaeus is aware of a 'Jewish' tradition behind the gospel of Matthew which saw Jesus as nothing more than a mortal man.  He identifies this tradition as having produced the earliest gospel but few scholars will go along with him. 

It is quite difficult to believe that Matthew - rather than Mark - represents the earliest gospel source used by all other written documents.  Why then does Irenaeus claim that it is the ur-text behind all others?   The most obvious answer is that it is gospel closest to his own theological worldview.  Perhaps Irenaeus emerged from a Jewish-Christian milieu.  We will never know for certain.  All that is clear is that Irenaeus goes out of his way in two places in Against Heresies to make a plea to members of this 'human Jesus' tradition to embrace the notion that he was divine. 

In one of his books he declares "vain also are the Ebionites, who do not receive by faith into their soul the union of God and man, but who remain in the old leaven of [the natural] birth, and who do not choose to understand that the Holy Ghost came upon Mary, and the power of the Most High did overshadow her." [Adv Haer 5.1.1]   The union of spirit and flesh embodied in the person of Jesus as "showing forth a new [kind of] generation; that as by the former generation we inherited death, so by this new generation we might inherit life." [ibid]. 

The union of spirit and flesh in the person of Jesus is likened by Irenaeus not surprising to "the commixture of the heavenly wine." He says that the Jewish heretics who reject his doctrines "wish it (the wine) to be water of the world only, not receiving God so as to have union with Him, but they remain in that Adam who had been conquered and was expelled from Paradise."  In what immediately follows we see Irenaeus in no uncertain terms Irenaeus identifies "His hands" - i.e. the Son and the Spirit - as forming through the sacraments of the Church "a living man, in order that Adam might be created [again] after the image and likeness of God."  [ibid]

It seems at times that scholars don't take Irenaeus's emphasis on 'co-mixture' seriously enough.  They often appear to 'close one eye' to when reading his lectures to help them preserve the 'real historical Jesus' at least in their own minds.  Irenaeus's emphasis that Jesus was the embodiment of a mixture of flesh and spirit was likely developed out of what is often called an 'adoptionist' interpretation of the gospel.  In other words, the man who entered the Jordan was adopted by the Spirit as 'Christ' through its descent on to the waters from heaven. 

Nevertheless it is important to note that Irenaeus rejects the existing interpretation of the Ebionites in favor of the doctrine of the Virgin birth.   He writes in another place:

how shall man pass into God, unless God has [first] passed into man? And how shall he (man) escape from the generation subject to death, if not by means of a new generation, given in a wonderful and unexpected manner (but as a sign of salvation) by God-- [I mean] that regeneration which flows from the virgin through faith?

Again, the 'virgin' here isn't simply a belief that he was born of untouched woman but specifically the notion that in her womb 'spirit and flesh' united to form the perfect man.  Jesus on the Cross is the ultimate symbol of the perfect union of God and man, displacing the original notion in the Jewish tradition as aforementioned that his flesh received the Holy Spirit at baptism. 

Why the sudden revaluation?  Certainly the surviving writings of Justin Martyr witness the same emphasis on the Virgin birth.  Yet were they there originally or whether they added later in order to reinforce Irenaeus's original innovation?  Even more perplexing is Irenaeus further claim that unless the Ebionites accept the Virgin birth - and presumably give up their adoptionist practices - the wonderful union of flesh with spirit will remain inaccessible to them:

how shall they receive adoption from God if they remain in this [kind of] generation, which is naturally possessed by man in this world? And how could He (Christ) have been greater than Solomon, or greater than Jonah, or have been the Lord of David, who was of the same substance as they were? How, too, could He have subdued him who was stronger than men, who had not only overcome man, but also retained him under his power, and conquered him who had conquered, while he set free mankind who had been conquered, unless He had been greater than man who had thus been vanquished? ... [and for this reason] the Son of God was made man, assuming the ancient production [of His hands] into His own nature, as I have shown in the immediately preceding book. [ibid 4.33.4]
It is difficult to believe that people who were used to believing Jesus received the Holy Spirit at baptism would have felt accepting the Virgin birth would move them closer to union with God.  As such much of Irenaeus's arguments seem perplexingly anti-intuitive. 

Why should the Virgin birth - an event which only happened to Jesus - strengthen the claim that God was now at the end of time making the Holy Spirit freely available to all who wanted it?  Could it be that it had something to do with introducing eating the flesh and blood as a substitute for perpetual water cleansings?  It is difficult to say with any degree of certainty. 

According to Irenaeus Jesus is venerated in the Church because he is the exemplification of the perfect 'God man' which justifies the hope of Christian communion.  To strip divinity away from him in order to 'recover' his mortal being is utterly foolish because his union of spirit and flesh in his person is alone the only justification joining the faith. 

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