Monday, July 22, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Part Two]


So we return to our original problem of making sense of an unreasonable faith. This shouldn’t be understood at all in a derogatory way. I know a Catholic priest says exactly this about his tradition – it can’t be made sensible. It requires nothing short of the submission of our intellect especially when it comes to the divinity of Christ.

Yet we should suppose that reason can at least make some progress in understanding even the most irrational doctrine. The difficulty it would seem is reconciling the claim that a man was at once God. As we already noted, various divinities are identified as appearing on earth in the Bible. The question isn’t whether such a being was actually crucified but as the actual text of the St Paul’s letter insists the reality that that Jesus was condemned to be crucified in the presence of the Jews – “before whose eyes was Jesus Christ proscribed as crucified.” In other words, the only thing that Paul seems to care about is the fact that Jews were guilty of wanting him dead.

The issue then is not whether or not the New Testament was originally convinced of Jesus’s material being. The issue was ambiguous enough to allow for many interpretations of the evidence. The only thing that mattered to Paul was what the Jews thought they saw in Jerusalem and what they did with the man they thought they saw in Jesus at the time of his crucifixion. In other words, the gospel and related texts are above all else theological texts which had little or no interest in historical reality as we know it today.

The current orthodoxy affirms that Paul wrote before the destruction of the temple. Yet there are ample signs that he wrote when the end of the Jewish religion was near or had already occurred. The critical issue for Paul was the destruction itself. The historicity of Jesus and the circumstances of his crucifixion were filtered through that cataclysmic event and that event alone. He and his contemporaries ‘knew’ that Jesus was real because of the destruction in the same way that a superstitious person ‘knew’ it was going to be a bad day when they learned it was Friday the 13th.

While it is natural for us to think in terms of ‘Jesus the man’ and the historical reality associated with that understanding – the first converts to Paul’s mythological explanation to the destruction only cared about the comfort that this message gave to them. 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" to use a later re-interpretation of the original myth. But the questions before us are – does ‘man’ necessarily mean ‘mortal man’? Must this man have actually been named ‘Jesus’ or could ‘Jesus’ have been a merely title or some other mythical association with that crucified individual?

The actual situation is more complicated than previously recognized because the concept of ‘man’ is so fundamental to the theology of St Paul. Jesus is the prototype of the ‘heavenly man’ which is juxtaposed against ‘the earthly man’ made after Adam. The same conception is found in the frequent juxtaposition of ‘new man’ versus ‘old man,’ ‘inner man’ versus ‘outer man,’ ‘perfect man’ versus ‘corruptible man,’ and ‘spiritual man’ versus ‘natural man.’ We shall examine these instances shortly.

It should be noted that ‘man’ is used in a special sense in the betrayal narrative which has deep significance for the early Church Fathers. For instance, when Peter is questioned by the authorities about his relationship with Jesus, both Hilary of Poitiers and Ambrose of Milan say that Peter did not deny Jesus as much as he rejected their claim that he was a man. In other words, Peter spoke ambiguously for he said he knew not the man, because he knew Him to be God. " I was not with Him whom ye call a man, but I withdrew not from the Son of God," says S. Ambrose. I know not what thou sayest, — that is, I understand not your profanity.

Our surviving tradition does not prepare us for the variety of interpretations in the early Fathers. If anything it has done its best to shield us from them completely.

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