Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Parts Five and Six]


It has long been noticed by scholars that the Old Latin text of the New Testament seems to echo phrases and terms found in the heretical canon. In other words, the Roman Church with its strange emphasis on celibacy and its unleavened host might well have ultimately resisted at some of Irenaeus’s reformations. At the core of our research will be the assumption that what passes now as ‘orthodoxy’ do not the original doctrines and texts of the Christianity but instead the results of a systematic effort of reconstitution in the late second century. It will be our assumption that when we find the original doctrines they will be more in line with Jewish practices and interpretations owing to the fact that the earliest Christians were Jewish sectarians.

To this end it is important to note that when we saw St Paul mentions the equivalents of reshit (first fruit) and misharotam (lump of mixed dough) in the same sentence in the Epistle to the Romans, we should have expected to find a Biblical passage which connects these two terms. A thorough examination of the Pentateuch reveals that misharotam only appears at Exodus 25:14 in the passage cited earlier regarding the Israelites exit from Egypt. It would seem at first glance that the apostle then ‘made up’ the connection between ‘first fruit’ and ‘mixed dough.’ It is difficult to see what connection he could have made between these two ideas, but that hasn’t stopped many scholars from engaging in idle speculation.

The key to unlocking the original context of St Paul’s vision here is to remember that at the time the apostle was writing most Jews couldn’t read Hebrew. They used instead Aramaic translations of the scriptures which are commonly referred to as targums (targumim singular ‘targum’). It is in the targumic literature that we at least see the ultimate context for the statement in Romans 11:16 is in fact the Aramaic translations of Numbers 15:18 which deal – not surprisingly with the bread offerings demanded of the ancient Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.

We read in the Targum Onkelos, which dates from the period just before the Christian era that God commanded Moses to:
Speak with the Israelites and say to them: ‘'When you enter the land to which I am bringing you, 19. when you eat of the bread of the land, set aside a portion before the Lord. 20. Set aside the challah as a portion from your first dough. Just as one sets apart from the threshing floor, so shall you set it aside. 21. Give it before the Lord as a portion from the first of your dough in your generations.

The original Hebrew passage here has the construct form reishit, "first of," here and in verse 21, but Onkelos treats it as if it was only reish, "first." More importantly for our consideration the targumist treats arisoteikhem here and in verse 21, as misharotam in Exodus 13:34, both meaning "dough.” Indeed the Greek translation of the section has the exact terms used by the apostle – ‘aparchen phuramatos.’

Yet the context is deeply significant for our understanding of the Pauline interest in this passage. We have now made clear that the ‘first’ or ‘head’ identified as ‘holy’ in Romans 11:16 is the part of the lump which is set aside for God. The implication clearly being here that the aparche ‘first fruit’ are the arche or archai (= ‘rulers’) of the community – i.e. the priests – who now receive the portion set aside for God. Nevertheless there are serious difficulties with this passage we have to overcome. The traditional interpretation of St Paul’s writings is that he preached freedom from the Law. How is it now that the laws governing entry into the Promised Land become the model for the community of Christians?

The answer it seems is to consult with the writings of Philo of Alexandria a Jewish writer and Platonist whose ideas were deeply influential over early Christianity. Philo makes clear in his Sacrifices of Cain and Abel that the ‘mixed lump’ here describe symbolically represented the body of Israelites:

And he has commanded us to take a portion not only from the things which have just been mentioned, but also from the entire mass in combination. And the command is couched in the following words: "And it shall be, when ye eat of the fruit of the land, that he shall take a part to offer up has a heave-offering unto the Lord: ye shall offer up a cake of the first of your dough for a heave-offering as ye do the heave-offering of the threshing-floor, so shall ye offer it." (Numbers 15:19) Now speaking properly, if we must avow the exact truth, it is we ourselves who are this dough; since many essences are kneaded and combined together that we may be made perfect: for the great Creator having mingled and kneaded together the cold and hot, dry and moist, opposite properties, has made out of them all one distinct combination, ourselves, from which the expression dough is applied to us.

Already it should be obvious to anyone reading this material that the traditional assumption that the Roman Catholic term ‘mass’ is based on the late Latin missa ‘to send out’ is less certain. There is a strong case that can be made that it derives from the term lump ‘massa.’

The idea is clearly that the lump of humanity sitting in the pews made from the lump of clay "lump of clay" (massa luti) that is Adam which is in effect also a "lump of sin" (massa peccati). This understanding is at least as old as the Ambrosiaster a commentary on St Paul’s epistles written between 366 and 384 which was deeply influential on later Church Fathers in the West. The point clearly is that Christianity is rooted in the idea that the massa consecrated to God in Numbers 15:19 – 21 represents the same community in Adam raised with Christ – the ‘leaven.’ In case of the Roman Mass the ‘raising’ is done invisibly as – unlike the Eastern rites – the host appears to still be unleavened. Jesus is still understood to be present, albeit secretly.


Yet in order to completely understand the passage in question we have to make sense of the significance of the Valentinian insistence that they are the ‘head’ or ‘first’ whose holiness the rest of the ‘lump’ depends. There is little explanation in the writings of St Paul. The third century Christian exegete Origen of Alexandria acknowledges that the saying comes up suddenly and then the apostle seems to abandon his train of thought “as if it were a stray.” When Origen does get around to explaining the material even his answers are unduly enigmatic. For he says that ‘my Lord Jesus Christ … is the firstfruits of all, or “first portion,” as we have it in the present passage of the Apostle, corresponding to what is said elsewhere about him, “He is the firstborn of all creation.” For all who are saved are engrafted into this root, and from this holy, first portion the entire lump of the human race is sanctified.”

So for Origen there are three parts to the saying in the Epistle to the Romans. There is the ‘root’ who is Jesus which ‘the first portion’ – the priests – are engrafted to and then they in turn sanctify the entire lump of humanity. Of course it is interesting to note that Origen avoids referencing the ‘priests’ entirely. Does this have something to do with Irenaeus’s efforts a few generations earlier to cut off the Valentinians who identified themselves as the priestly class of Rome?   The key is to understand how Jews and Christian interpreted this original material in Numbers and then compare that to what Irenaeus records the heretics say about the passage.

Let's continue with Philo’s interpretation of the material in what immediately followed our last citation. For still commenting on Numbers 15:19 – 21 that “of this combination (i.e. the ‘lump’) in which body and soul, two most important divisions, are united, the first fruits are to be consecrated” – the first fruits being represented by the priests. This is reinforced again in the first book of his Special Laws where he notes that because the Levites weren’t given a share of the land “that God was their inheritance, having a reference to the things offered to God; for the sake of two objects, both that of doing them the highest honour, since they are thus made partners in those things which are offered up by pious men, out of gratitude to God.”

Indeed specifically referencing Numbers 15:19 – 21 Philo says that “God commands those who are making bread, to take … of all the dough, a loaf as first fruits for the use of the priests, making thus, by this legitimate instruction, a provision for those men who put aside these first fruits, proceeding in the way that leads to piety; for being accustomed at all times to offer first fruits of the necessary food, they will thus have an everlasting recollection of God, than which it is impossible to imagine a greater blessing.”

Moreover and with specific reference to the situation in Rome before the coming of Irenaeus we hear that Philo connects aparche ‘first fruit’ with its etymological root arche or ‘ruler’ exactly as we have previously suggested noting:

from all which circumstances it is plain that the law invests the priests with the dignity and honour that belongs to kings; since he commands contributions from every description of possession to be given to them as to rulers; and they are accordingly given to them in a manner quite contrary to that in which cities usually furnish them to their rulers; for cities usually furnish them under compulsion, and with great unwillingness and lamentation, looking upon the collectors of the taxes as common enemies and destroyers, and making all kinds of different excuses at different times, and neglecting all laws and ordinances, and with all this jumbling and evasion do they contribute the taxes and payments which are levied on them. But the men of this nation contribute their payments to the priests with joy and cheerfulness, anticipating the collectors, and cutting short the time allowed for making the contributions, and thinking that they are themselves receiving rather than giving; and so with words of blessing and thankfulness, they all, both men and women, bring their offerings at each of the seasons of the year, with a spontaneous cheerfulness, and readiness, and zeal, beyond all description.

Philo’s interpretation of Numbers 15:19 – 21 was highly influential being incorporated into the writings of Ambrose of Milan almost word for word in the second book of his Cain and Abel only now with a superficial Christian coloring.

Ambrose for instances begins his discussion with the very idea we just saw in Philo’s first citation – “we are a composite of diverse elements mixed together, cold with hot, and moist with dry. This admixture is the source of many pleasures and manifold delights of the flesh.” However Ambrose goes on to note that “these are not the first-fruits of this body of ours.” Unlike Philo he explicitly identifies ‘the spirit’ as the portion of the ‘head’:

Since we are composed of soul and body and spirit, the first place is held by that mixture in which the apostle desires that we find sanctification.' "And may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved sound and blameless until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The first-fruit of this admixture are those of the spirit, that is to say, the creative and generating thoughts that emanate from the soul in its vigor. Only those thoughts are first-fruits which are devoid of malice and wickedness and all kinds of wrong-doing.

Indeed it is hard not to see that Ambrose’s interpretation of the material is exactly the same as the Valentinians especially given the fact that “malice and wickedness” here is a Pauline reference to ‘leaven.’

As such when the Valentinians understood that “the expression ‘first- fruits’ denoted that which is spiritual” they clearly meant the priestly class of the Roman Church before the coming of Irenaeus. Similarly the reference to “the lump" meaning “the animal Church, the lump of which they say He assumed, and blended it with Himself, inasmuch as He is ‘the leaven’” – we are witnessing an unmistakably early reference to the significance of Jesus as a spiritual being – i.e. the leaven – which transforms the ordinary leavened bread of the Mass into a ‘divine substance’ which perfects the individual who consumes it.

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.