Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Question of the Nature of Jesus [Part One]

There are few challenges in life more daunting than trying to making an unreasonable belief sound reasonable.  Sure, some people are very good at doing just that.  Many famous lawyers have made a career transforming guilty people into victims, turning the weaker argument into the stronger.  This skill had a name in antiquity – sophistry.  The sophists were a class of instructor – the equivalent, one might say of university professor – who were especially vilified by idealist like Plato for their corrosive effect on traditional values.  Instead of looking upward to the heavens and the ideal world beyond the reach of our physical senses, these sophists held that man and his needs were at the center of the universe.  As Protagoras once noted, man was the measure of all things.

It is natural then to assume that a man or men are behind all important historical events.  The religious mind even attempts to introduce 'sin' as a causal agent where no human can be found responsible for catastrophes.  Yet there are unusual situations where we find a group emerge from history who argues against this anthropocentric world view which comes so natural to human beings.  They claim to be visited by aliens or angels - some extraterrestrial power - and the rest of the world laughs.

It will now be our job to defend just such a group as we look for the origins of Christianity and the gospel.

Indeed the assumption that a human being or moreover human needs and desires lie behind all things human will actually lead many to doubt the seriousness of our enterprise.  Why would anyone waste their time on the thesis that Jesus was not a human being?  The point here is that we will not argue against the idea that Jesus existed as much as attempt to understand the origins of the opposite point of view, which is very early and very prevalent in early Christianity.  The assumption that Jesus was a man first and became a god later smacks of the ancient sophistry of Protagoras.  Maybe a man does not lie at the heart of all things, after all. 

Perhaps we should restate things a little more carefully.  There may well have been a man "crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again ...."  However this man may or may not have been actually named 'Jesus.'  There are countless 'substitution' traditions which survive from antiquity - i.e. where a disciple, alternatively named Judas, Simon or even Titus is crucified in his place.  Very little attention has been paid to try and sort out this ridiculous sounding belief.  In the end, the man we call Jesus might end up having a completely different name.  

Undoubtedly related to this heretical understanding is the belief that 'Jesus' was a supernatural being who avoided suffering on the Cross.  It is a tradition more ancient than our earliest Church Fathers.  The canonical first epistle of St John - undoubtedly written in the second century - nevertheless witnesses the idea that the doceticism (= the belief that Jesus only seemed to human) existed as early as the time of the apostles.  A similar perspective is shared by Ignatius of Antioch, allegedly a student of this same John who lived in the second century and it is again echoed by his student Polycarp in the middle of the same century. 

It is true then that when we closely examine matters we find a tradition within the early Church which denounced these heretical views, but there are some important details that get overlooked.  Those who rejected 'doceticism' weren't that old and weren't really that numerous - at least initially.   Let's assume for the moment that there was no 'John' behind any of the material associated with his name - when do we suppose most of the 'Johannine literature' was pulled together?  The answer may surprise a lot of people.  It was most likely middle of the second century and no earlier.

To this end we find a very small 'Johannine island' in a sea of heresy in the second half of the second century.  There is a claim that a 'chain of authorities' exists, stretching back to over a century - but it is not true.  The person making the claim - a certain teacher named Irenaeus - lived in Rome, and his claims don't really go back to John at all.  Irenaeus seems to have been close to the aforementioned Polycarp who was the head of an explosively popular 'spiritual movement' in the middle of the second century.  But Polycarp was probably lying about his association with Ignatius and John, or perhaps more likely - Ignatius and John were invented by Irenaeus to bring Polycarp's teachings back to the time of Jesus.

The point here is that scholarship gets so deeply sidetracked with the whole 'Johannine tradition' that it fails to recognize its limited historical significance.  It is Irenaeus who is really behind the historical devaluation of the docetic tradition.  He uses people like Polycarp, Ignatius and John as sock puppets but there is very little substance behind his criticisms.  No one can deny that the idea of a wholly supernatural Jesus was extremely influential in the same period.  The reason that one belief became established orthodoxy and the other heresy has to do with Irenaeus's political influence.  Irenaeus found a seat in the inner circle of the government of Commodus.  That settled the issue once and for all.


It is amazing how scholarship goes round and round avoiding the impact of the bald statement that Irenaeus makes in one of books where he intimates his close association with "believing ones who are in the royal palace."  The great German scholar Peter Lampe notes a picture emerges of the Church during the reign of Commodus, one of the most brutal Emperors in history, which is extremely unsettling.  One of Irenaeus's students elaborates on his master's statement by specifically identifying Commodus's concubine Marcia and bishop of Victor quite specifically as these "Imperial believers."  The portrait that emerges of Marcia in other pagan sources confirms the association with Christianity but also brings to light a much darker side. 

Marcia was the furthest person one might have expected a prude like Irenaeus to have held up as an exemplar of virtue.  She was nothing short of a glorified whore who was actively involved in mass murder and the worst of political intrigue.  We are also told of her ability also to rescue individual Christians from punishment in the mines.  The idea that scholarship doesn't see a connection between the Johannine tradition emerging in an age where the Roman Church was governed by Imperial influence is extremely curious.  Indeed the influence continues into the reign of Commodus's successor where we see a continuation of this 'inner circle' of Christians in the Imperial palace and beyond.

The question isn't whether this or that member of the Imperial household was Christian - there were a noticeably large number of Christian on the Palatine at the turn of the third century.  The real question is not whether this inner circle had an influence on the Roman Church, but whether Irenaeus himself is the ultimate expression of this influence.  For, as has been duly noted by Lampe, at some point during the later period of Pope Victor's rule, the old Christian 'inner circle' was replaced by a new one.

At the beginning of Victor's tenure, a certain Florinus was widely influential.  In the later period Irenaeus appears, catches Victor's ear and Florinus is expelled.  Interestingly both Florinus and Irenaeus come from the circle of Polycarp.  However Florinus apparently held heretical views closely associated with those of the supernatural Jesus crowd.  Irenaeus acknowledges that Florinus spent much more time with Polycarp than he did but he nevertheless presses on with a complete revision of who their common teacher was and what his ties with John meant.

The important thing to see here is that when Irenaeus references those "believing ones who are in the royal palace" he is referencing Florinus in the past tense.  Florinus has been deposed, Irenaeus is moving in.  Indeed Irenaeus cites the very words of their common teacher Polycarp to justify his new influence over the movement.  We are told:

the presbyter remarked: For if God had not accorded this in the typical exodus, no one could now be saved in our true exodus; that is, in the faith in which we have been established, and by which we have been brought forth from among the number of the Gentiles. For in some cases there follows us a small, and in others a large amount of property, which we have acquired from the mammon of unrighteousness ... And as to those believing ones who are in the royal palace, do they not derive the utensils they employ from the property which belongs to Caesar; and to those who have not, does not each one of these give according to his ability?

Irenaeus is clearly celebrating some event in contemporary history, likening it to the glory of the Exodus of the Jews under Moses.  The Church, with its Imperial influence has emerged triumphant in world history, and like the ancient Israelites, they were going to the promised land with lots of 'looted' cash.

It is with Florinus and Marcia in mind that he addresses the remark regarding 'property which belongs to Caesar' and also himself - a figure 'new on the scene' in Imperial Rome.  It seems one of the great unexplained 'coincidences' in the period that both Irenaeus, Septimius Severus, his wife and household all emerge from Lyons before Rome.  Even if we assume some fluctuation in the dates of Victor's reign there is very little time for Lampe's suggestion of Irenaeus's successfully expelling Florinus, to actually work.

As Lampe writes, it was "easy for Victor to continue to consider Florinus as a brother. It is first Irenaeus who comes between them. He is the first successfully to draw clear boundaries" as to a distinction between orthodoxy and heresy.  Indeed his conclusion is that the believers in a supernatural Jesus asked for "fellowship with the other Christians but it also was offered to them in Rome well into the time of Victor."  Since Victor's reign only started in the last four years of Commodus's reign it stands to reason that Irenaeus's triumph over Florinus necessarily coincided with roughly with the change of Imperial administration.

Indeed Irenaeus's comments with respect to taking money from Caesar as part of the 'new Exodus' haven't directly implicated his own involvement.  It is only with a statement a little after the reference to his predecessors in the Imperial court partaking in graft that we hear Irenaeus's justification:

And, "When thou doest thine alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth." And we are proved to be righteous by whatsoever else we do well, redeeming, as it were, our property from strangers. But thus do I say, "from strangers," not as if the world were not God's possession, but that we have gifts of this sort, and receive them from others, in the same way as these men had them from the Egyptians who knew not God

The likening of receiving Imperial favors to the plundering of gold in Exodus seems very forced.  It is only when we follow the original argument to its logical conclusion that we understand what Irenaeus is really getting at.

For Irenaeus goes on to write "and from them (the plundered gold) was the tabernacle of God constructed" ignoring we must suppose the original criticism of the ancient Israelites - i.e. that they used the plundered Egyptian treasure to manufacture the Golden Calf.  The heretics are said to have reminded the Catholics of this very point - a point reinforced by Jewish groups as well.  Irenaeus however brushes them all aside and concludes this section "the whole exodus of the people out of Egypt, which took place under divine guidance, was a type and image of the exodus of the Church which should take place from among the Gentiles; and for this cause He leads it out at last from this world into His own inheritance, which Moses the servant of God did not [bestow], but which Jesus the Son of God shall give for an inheritance."

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