Friday, August 2, 2013

Jesus as Roman Demi-God [Part Two]


Let us start with the argument for ‘Jesus the man.’ This is the guy we all think appears in the pages of our existing gospels. We think to ourselves – let’s ignore the Virgin Birth and the even stranger sounding idea that Mary was ‘god bearer. Let’s turn a blind eye to the claims of Jesus knowing ahead of time he was going to be crucified, buried and raised from the dead. Let’s imagine that most of the gospel exaggerates his magic powers and the degree to which he performed miracles, all the talk about ‘eating his flesh and drinking his blood.’ Whatever is left after that, supposedly, is the starting point of historical truth.

Even if you attempt to strip the gospel of all of these ‘objectionable’ parts, the problem becomes that what you are left with isn’t interesting enough to start a religion. As pagan critics noted already in the second century, most of the moral teachings of Jesus had already been established in the writings of Plato and other Greek philosophers. Why then was Jesus an important teacher? His sublimity was certainly not so great so as to have had him mistaken for a god. All that we are left with is a claim that he was ‘the Christ.’ But is there any surviving remnant of the original argument for Jesus the messiah of the Jews, the son of David – without reference to Jesus’s divinity?

Indeed there is one surviving fragment of what such an argument might originally have looked like in the canonical Acts of the Apostles. It is there we find two speeches – one given by Peter, the other Paul – that seem closely related to one another and different enough from the rest of the material in the text that we may consider them from some common lost source. One strong possibility is the mention of “another Acts of Apostles” associated with a Jewish Christian sect called the Ebionites mentioned in the writings of a fourth century Church Father named Epiphanius. He says of this other acts that “there is much thoroughly impious material, and from them arm themselves against the truth in deadly earnest.” If our version of Acts is developed from this early Jewish Christian text we can likely include Acts narrative about Stephen in the list of appropriated material from the original Ebionite text based on Epiphanius’s description.

For the moment at least let’s begin by taking a careful look at Peter’s speech in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 2 for signs of the Jewish Christian belief in Jesus the Jewish messiah. Peter begins by telling his Jewish audience that “Jesus of Nazareth” was “a man accredited by God” to them “by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him.” This language strongly supports the idea that the community denied Jesus’s divinity because God is understood to only be acting through the man Jesus. Peter goes on to speak about Jesus’s crucifixion and death to the same Jews specifically referencing God raising “him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”

The idea that Jesus ‘suffered’ on the cross is course well established among us. Yet for the first Pauline Christians it was explicitly denied. Jesus was a wholly divine being who only appeared to suffer on the Cross. At once we can see the seams in Irenaeus’s artificial hybrid Jesus – half man, half God – manifest itself to us. The Jewish Christians must have held that the founder of Christianity suffered on the Cross while the Pauline Christians denied that this ever happened. It should also be noted that according to Epiphanius the Jewish Christians hated Paul and held he was a heretic. Again we see the monumental task that Irenaeus had in attempting to reconcile these two traditions.

If we go back to Acts chapter 2, we see Peter remind his Jewish audience while “the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day” Jesus was something better. Peter adds that David was a prophet who “knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it.”

What is puzzling about this description of course is that this idea of Jesus sitting on David’s throne does not agree at all with what appears now in our gospels. This point wasn’t lost on the great fifth century Christian exegete John Chrysostom who struggles with what he should do with this speech, as it is so much at odds with the official Imperial dogma of the Church of his day. Chrysostom asks:

How did He “seat Him upon” David’s “throne?” For the kingdom after the Spirit is in heaven. Observe how, along with the resurrection, he has also declared the kingdom in the fact of His rising again. He shows that the Prophet was under constraint: for the prophecy was concerning Him. Why does he say, not, Concerning His kingdom (it was a great matter), but “Concerning His resurrection?” And how did He seat Him upon his (David’s) throne? Why, He reigns as King over Jews also, yea, what is much more, over them that crucified Him. “For His flesh saw no corruption.” This seems to be less than resurrection, but it is the same thing.

As Chrysostom rightly notes, this argument from Acts chapter 2 is not aimed at a Gentile audience. It seems to have developed in an entirely Jewish setting with the most puzzling aspect of all, again, being the idea of Jesus actually sat on David’s throne – a chair perhaps located in his sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Chrysostom is far more comfortable thinking in terms of Jesus ascending to heaven after his resurrection and sitting on a heavenly throne. This is the understanding of our New Testament. Yet buried within the writings of one of the evangelists – i.e. Luke – is a much early Jewish Christian text which has been obviously translated into Greek and put into a completely different context. It is interesting to note that the Alexandrian Church Fathers say the same thing about Luke’s ‘loose translation’ of our Epistle to the Hebrews usually attributed to Paul. We are told by Clement of Alexandria that “as for the Epistle to the Hebrews, he [Clement] says that indeed it is Paul's, but that it was written for Hebrews in the Hebrew tongue, and that Luke, having carefully translated it, published it for the Greeks; hence, as a result of this translation, the same complexion of style is found in this Epistle and in the Acts.” And moreover that the words which appear at the beginning of Hebrews - i.e. 'Paul an apostle' were "naturally not prefixed" because "in writing to Hebrews who had conceived a prejudice against him and were suspicious of him, he very wisely did not repel them at the beginning by putting his name."

There clearly seems to be a pattern with regards to the writings associated with ‘Luke’ insofar as every text seems to go back to earlier – and ‘heretical’ – material now accommodated to later Imperial orthodoxy. The Gospel of Luke is clearly understood by the Marcionites to have been a deliberately corrupted version of their gospel and a growing number of contemporary scholars now agree with that assessment. Yet for the moment at least, let’s stand back and look at the three texts which are said to have been written by this ‘Luke’ figure.

The gospel of Luke, a text which the Catholics say was written by Luke for Paul, is really the gospel which the Marcionites say was written by Paul after a heavenly revelation. At least some of the Acts of the Apostles goes back to an original ‘Acts of the Apostles’ written by a first century Jewish Christian sect which hated Paul, only now our canonical Acts of the Apostles embraces Paul and says that Peter and he made up in Antioch rather than condemning one another. Finally, Clement of Alexandria says that Luke manipulated an original letter of Paul’s in such a way that it might be acceptable to the very same Jewish Christians who hated Paul.

It sounds to me like there should be no doubt that someone in early Christianity – if not Irenaeus himself – was manipulating first century texts so as to establish greater ecumenism in the Church …

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