Friday, July 26, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Part Eight]


Since the orthodox are either or unwilling to explain whether Jesus is a heavenly or earthly man, it might be useful now to draw attention to the original beliefs of the heretics. For, despite all the bad press that they receive, there is at least a sense of honesty and consistency about them. The writings of the Church Fathers have been utterly redacted – perhaps several times – before reaching our hands. The later writers spend all their time arguing over terminology and avoiding saying something that might get them in trouble with the authorities. It is difficult to see the value in any of these testimonies outside of what they tell us about their enemies.

Let’s take the example of the Marcionites for a moment. We already saw how one Church Father, Tertullian of Carthage, took him to task for holding that the Eucharist bread was really Jesus’s flesh. This isn’t heresy now, nor does it ever seem to have been the accepted position of any ancient community.  The rule now is to speak out of both sides of your mouth and argument that a physical man can also appear as a loaf of bread after his resurrection.

Tertullian for his part takes the unprecedented step of saying that Jesus didn’t really mean it when he declared himself to be the bread of life; he was only speaking figuratively. As the Church Father explains it, “this is my body, he meant, the figure of my body.” Again, this is not the accepted way of interpreting the passage in any tradition today. In other words, the Marcionites and the orthodox now essentially agree that this is not a figure and that Jesus is really saying, the bread is my flesh.

Tertullian’s subsequent attempts to argue against a literal interpretation of Jesus’s words carry even less weight. The sacramental bread was never original conceived as being a mere ‘figure’ of divinity. Is the salvation it brings also understood to be only a ‘figurative’ salvation? To this end it is more useful to bring forward the writings of Irenaeus because at least takes the beliefs of the heretics head on.

Accordingly Irenaeus understands Jesus to be really and actually present in the sacramental bread. He agrees with their literal interpretation of his animating the Eucharist meal but argues that they should also accept that he was once a man:

When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him?--even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that "we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones." He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; but [he refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones,--that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body.

The heretics clearly did see him as “some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh.” Against this view, as we shall demonstrate shortly, Irenaeus put forward the Virgin Birth. Nevertheless it is should be readily apparently that there isn’t much to this understanding either. It is amounts to being the acceptance of a series of supernatural happenings which are then strung together in order to justify the existence of an underlying ‘historical Jesus.’

Yet the interesting thing is that this is as close as we get to the understanding that we prefer – namely that Jesus was a man like you or me living in ancient Palestine. There is no Christian group that is identified as unambiguously holding to this position before the time of Constantine. Yes there is certainly a sect identified as the ‘poor’ but the evidence is hardly convincing that they believed Jesus to be the name of the man who was baptized in the Jordan. Irenaeus tells us very little about the sect other than to say they were ‘like’ another sect which held that Jesus born from sexual intercourse between Mary and Joseph. Scholars fill in the rest and find exactly what they are looking for – i.e. a witness to the historical Jesus.

Nevertheless in order to really settle what the significance of the three sentences Irenaeus devotes to the Ebionites requires that we dig deeper into the surviving tradition. The fourth century Church Father Epiphanius of Salamis, drawing on a much earlier source makes clear in fact that the Ebionites did not in fact think that Jesus was the name of the man born of Joseph. Instead he is the name of an Adamic savior figure who – exactly in the manner of the Marcionites and other heretics – floated down from heaven at the beginning of the gospel narrative.

Epiphanius notes that the sect, which is especially numerous in the region now known as the Golan Heights, identified Jesus as a hidden power and say that some say that:

Adam is Christ—the man who was formed first and infused with God’s breath. But others among them say that he is from above; created before all things, a spirit, both higher than the angels and Lord of all; and that he is called Christ, the heir of the world there. But he comes here when he chooses as he came in Adam and appeared to the patriarchs clothed with Adam's body. And in the last days the same Christ who had come to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, came and donned Adam's body, and appeared to men, was crucified, rose and ascended. But again, when they choose to, they say, 'No! The Spirit—that is, the Christ—came to him and put on the one called Jesus

The clarification now that even the Ebionites held fast to Marcionite beliefs regarding the supernatural nature of Jesus is especially significant as it is in effect the death knell of the historical Jesus. Once the Ebionites fall, there are no Jewish Christian sects who can be construed to say what we want them to say about the existence of a historical Jesus.

Indeed if we compare this description of the Ebionites with what is said in the Fifth Book of Irenaeus’s Against Heresies about the sect there is no doubt about the accuracy of the statement. These Jewish Christians thought that Jesus was really a heavenly Man whose nature was entirely spiritual. Yet the reference to the coming of the Man who appeared to the patriarchs clothed with Adam's body, the same Christ who had come to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob came and donned Adam's body, and appeared to men” is particularly fascinating given the very same thing is intimated among the reports about the Marcionite sect. Only there the reference is even more specific – this spiritual Man is ‘Ish,’(pronounced 'eesh') the stranger who wrestled with Jacob and the leader of three angels which visited Abraham.

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