Saturday, August 3, 2013

Jesus as Roman Demi-God [Part Three]


The obvious question which stands before us is – why would Irenaeus bothered to fuse together the Jewish Christian and Pauline traditions?  This must have seemed to be a Herculean task given their shared animosity against one another. Why not just leave things as they were and develop one particular school of thought in the direction he sought? The answer as we will demonstrate in this section is that the Ebionites had something that Irenaeus desperately wanted to maintain – that is, an understanding of Jesus was fundamentally rooted in kingship. They were also the first to translate the entire experience of Jesus ministry into a typology of the future.

What was it that the Pauline tradition offered Irenaeus? The answer should be obvious. At its core, the ministry of Paul was directed at ‘the nations.’ It wasn’t just that the Pauline tradition wasn’t encumbered any longer by the legal restrictions of Judaism. The Ebionite understanding of ‘Christ’ was strictly rooted in David. Irenaeus wanted to keep the interest in kingship without limiting the type of king that could be compatible with Christianity to those which accorded with strictly Jewish typologies.  In short, by fusing Ebionite and Pauline doctrines the door was opened to recognizing specifically Imperial cosmocrator theology.

Let us begin by acknowledging that the speech of Peter in Acts 2 is an authentic preservation of tradition associated with the earliest Jewish Christian sect. We can now move on to being quite certain that this very same Jewish sect wrote the speech in Acts 13 but did not attribute it to Paul. In other words, someone – i.e. Irenaeus - adapted a speech originally made by Peter or ‘one of the Twelve’ now adapted to the very enemy of Ebionitism all for the sake of ecumenism.

Indeed as has been long noted by scholars, the language in Acts 2 and 13 is very similar. The only real difference is that Paul’s speech does not make explicit reference to an enthronement. Both however emphasize the importance of the royal line culminating with David. Paul tells us that it was “from this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he [David] promised.” Indeed even though “the people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus” by “condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath” once “they had carried out all that was written about him … God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem.”

This again is the Jewish Christian frame of reference. The Jewish scriptures can be understood typologically. Paul on the other hand originally denied that the Law contained any ‘types’ for understanding Jesus. Jesus according to the earliest Pauline tradition came outside of the Law into the world as a stranger. The Ebionites on the other hand sought for signs and typologies within the Law to explain Jesus’s ministry. Nevertheless it has to be stressed even here that there is among the Ebionites a bizarre fixation with the significance of Jesus’s post-resurrection activity especially that need to be explained.

Just as we saw with Peter’s speech in Acts 2 where Jesus is understood to be enthroned in Jerusalem on David’s throne, the speech by Paul delineates a ‘Galilee to Jerusalem’ framework for Jesus’s activities which culminate in an important expression of ‘bodily incorruption.’ Both discussions necessarily assume that Jesus’s ministry culminated after he had died and been raised again in the flesh. As we read:

God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay. As God has said, “‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.’ So it is also stated elsewhere: “‘You will not let your holy one see decay. “Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.

While scholars like Craig Evans connect this with the empty tomb, this can’t possibly be the correct context for this passage. It is more likely to be reflective of a specifically Jewish Christian interest in the post-resurrection ministry of Jesus.

Indeed a careful reading of the writings of Irenaeus attests to a continuous echo of this early Jewish Christian doctrine. In the middle of Book Three of Against Heresies we read Irenaeus declare that “this is also made clear from the words of the Lord, who did truly reveal the Son of God to those of the circumcision--Him who had been foretold as Christ by the prophets; that is, He set Himself forth, who had restored liberty men, and bestowed on them the inheritance to incorruption.” Notice again the reference to the specific ‘revelation of the Son of God’ to the ‘circumcision’ through his death and resurrection.

Irenaeus preserves the very same idea a little later in the same book when he says – speaking of Jesus – that “the very same King who gathered from all quarters the faithful to the marriage of His Son, and who grants them the incorruptible banquet” and again somewhere else that “man has been renewed, and flourishes in an incorruptible state, so as to preclude the possibility of becoming old, [then] there shall be the new heaven and the new earth, in which the new man shall remain [continually], always holding fresh converse with God.” All these statements are clearly reflective of a Jewish Christian cultural milieu which Irenaeus has adapted for his own purposes.

Irenaeus is also one of the few Church Fathers to comment on Peter’s speech at Pentecost, citing it word for word in Against Heresies and putting it up against the heretical idea of Jesus’s Christhood:

Thus the apostles did not preach another God, or another Fulness; nor, that the Christ who suffered and rose again was one, while he who flew off on high was another, and remained impassible; but that there was one and the same God the Father, and Christ Jesus who rose from the dead; and they preached faith in Him, to those who did not believe on the Son of God, and exhorted them out of the prophets, that the Christ whom God promised to send, He sent in Jesus, whom they crucified and God raised up.

Irenaeus so rarely mentions Jesus’s Christhood or ‘what makes him Christ’ that it is significant that this early Ebionite testimony helps define the entire scope of that understanding. It is an idea which clearly predates Irenaeus, and Irenaeus uses it and other New Testament references like it to combat the heretical notion of a ‘Christ from above’ - the most common citation of Christ with the definite article.

Irenaeus’s point is simple and straightforward - all the New Testament writings demonstrate that Peter thought Jesus was the Jewish messiah. In other words, not just Acts chapter 2 but also other parts of Acts and other scriptural texts. Irenaeus goes to point to his Gospel of Matthew to prove that Peter got the idea from Jesus himself saying:

The Lord Himself, too, makes it evident who it was that suffered; for when He asked the disciples, "Who do men say that I, the Son of man, am?" and when Peter had replied, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God;" and when he had been commended by Him [in these words], "That flesh and blood had not revealed it to him, but the Father who is in heaven," He made it clear that He, the Son of man, is Christ the Son of the living God. "For from that time forth," it is said, "He began to show to His disciples, how that He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the priests, and be rejected, and crucified, and rise again the third day." He who was acknowledged by Peter as Christ, who pronounced him blessed because the Father had revealed the Son of the living God to him, said that He must Himself suffer many things, and be crucified; and then He rebuked Peter, who imagined that He was the Christ as the generality of men supposed.

Yet what isn’t acknowledged often enough is that this was in fact an altered version of the original gospel text. Clement of Alexandria a contemporary of Irenaeus’s makes clear that his version of this saying has Jesus congratulate Peter for recognizing him as the ‘Son of God.’ In Mark and other texts used by the heretics great significance was attached to Jesus rebuking Peter for identifying him as the Christ – the very understanding Irenaeus is trying to combat with his commentary.

The point we should draw from this example is that Irenaeus is not inventing the idea of Jesus being the Jewish messiah. He is drawing it from a pre-existent Jewish Christian understanding which he doesn’t go into any detail explaining. He specifically employs the testimony of these men to reject the Pauline understanding of ‘Christ’ as a heavenly title for Jesus. But it should also be emphasized that the heretical – and in particular Marcionite – understanding of this descent from heaven is quite literal. There is no allegory or typology with respect to the main narrative. Jesus came down to earth to literally save humanity through a specific plan established by the Father from the time before the world was created.

It is the Jewish Christian approach to the gospel narrative – and the post-resurrection ministry in particular – which is rooted in typology, and it was this tradition of symbolic reinterpretation of the gospel narrative which eventually allowed Irenaeus to take the gospel narrative and transform it into a ‘typology’ for the era of Commodus’s rule.

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