Friday, August 9, 2013

Jesus the Roman Demi-God [Part Eleven]


It goes without saying that modern believers take offense at the comparison between Jesus’s birth narrative and those of Greek myths. Yet it is interesting to point out that Christians in the second century had a completely different take on matters here. We have in our possession several ancient texts where Church Fathers respond to the insults of Jews and pagans. One of the most important of these texts is the Dialogue with Trypho, which is a notorious expansion of an original discussion between Justin Martyr – a Christian of mid second century Rome – and a Jew named Trypho. In that text we find Church Father responding to accusations that his Virgin Birth narrative sounds a lot like the fabulous narratives associated with pagan demigods.

The Jew begins by noting the Christian misrepresentation of Isaiah - "the Scripture has not, 'Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,' but, 'Behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son,' and so on” and proceeds to correctly identify Isaiah speaking about the near contemporary Jewish king Hezekiah rather than Jesus. But he adds that the Christian story of Jesus sounds Greek and that:

you ought to feel ashamed when you make assertions similar to theirs, and rather[should] say that this Jesus was born man of men. And if you prove from the Scriptures that He is the Christ, and that on account of having led a life conformed to the law, and perfect, He deserved the honour of being elected to be Christ,[it is well]; but do not venture to tell monstrous phenomena, lest you be convicted of talking foolishly like the Greeks.

Yet this is not the surprising part. What is almost unbelievable is the fact that Justin allegedly acknowledges that fabulous birth narratives like that associated with Hercules were developed by the Devil from Isaiah’s prophesies including the Virgin Birth – “when they tell that Hercules was strong, and travelled over all the world, and was begotten by Jove of Alcmene, and ascended to heaven when he died, do I not perceive that the Scripture which speaks of Christ, 'strong as a giant to run his race,' has been in like manner imitated.”

It would seem at first as if the comparison between Jesus and Hercules began in the middle of the second century. But then we see that Justin actually goes so far as to cite the contents of Lukan virgin birth narrative almost verbatim:

and that He became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God; and she replied, 'Be it unto me according to thy word.'

Much the same thing appears in his Apology to the Emperor Antoninus Pius. So now the question arises – just when was this Lukan narrative developed? Before the mid-second century, as this citation from Justin taken at face value would suggest or as we have supposed, that they came from the hand of Irenaeus?

It is difficult not to overstate the degree to which Irenaeus involved himself in scriptural forgeries. It isn’t just that the evidence from the Marcionites attests to this fact. For centuries scholars have basically shrugged their shoulders and said that they see no reason to disbelieve Irenaeus’s claim that it was the Marcionites who ‘shortened’ the canonical texts of the gospel of Luke and Paul. The overlooked fact is as we have demonstrated time and again here that Irenaeus was associated with a gross manipulation of the writings of Isaiah – mixing scriptural passages from the prophet and other prophetic writers.

We have already seen Irenaeus use the fused passages of Isaiah and Micah and Isaiah and Malachi. By far the most influential textual manipulation in the history of Patristic literature was Irenaeus’s inserting of Isa 8:4 into Isa 7:10-17 and its addition to the writings of his favorite Roman Church Father – Justin Martyr. Let us at least tentatively accept that this is yet another example of Irenaeus ‘editing’ the writings of Isaiah – in this case to allow for the preposterous understanding that Isaiah was prophesying the coming of a heavenly figure in the flesh of man born from a virgin.

As we just noted, in the actual writings of Isaiah it is plain that the prophet is referring to a child already born or about to be born in 700 BCE. What was miraculous then 700 BCE was the sign of divine intervention in history, symbolized by the birth and the change in political circumstances coinciding. The Prince of Peace is in the first instance this child in 700 BCE. The angel says or Luke says the same power is to act again, more powerfully, in the birth of Jesus but the textual manipulation has already been presupposed. Otherwise there would be no reason to think that Isaiah’s prophesy had already come to pass in the time he was living.

The edited text appears betrays its composite nature at several key junctures and in several different texts related to Irenaeus. Yet we are only interested in the aforementioned section – the deliberate inserting of Isa 8:4 into Isa 7:10-17:

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, before he knows or prefers the evil, and chooses out the good; for before the child knows good or ill, he rejects evil by choosing out the good. For before the child knows how to call father or mother, he shall receive the power of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria in presence of the king of Assyria.

It is impossible to overstate how this coupling of Isaiah 7:14 and the material that follows 8:3 was in the early Church. The understanding that Isaiah wrote it this way seems to dominate the early tradition associated with Irenaeus. Not only does Justin cite it this way – allegedly ‘before’ Irenaeus - but a text loosely copied out by the third century Latin Church Father Tertullian from the hand of Irenaeus also witnesses the same understanding.

Scholars have speculated about the origins of this ‘mystery scroll’ of Isaiah which as we already noted, mixes and interpolates scripture from within and without Isaiah to make key arguments for Irenaeus about orthodoxy. Many have speculated that it was “a Christian scroll of Isaiah.” But we would argue that it is Irenaeus tampering with the writings of Justin to make it seem as if established figures from the past accepted his corruptions as canonical. In other words, the same thing he did with the gospel of Mark, Irenaeus is now doing with Justin Martyr.

It is amazing to see now that not only do Irenaeus and Justin share the same corrupt text of Isaiah but they also interpret it in the exact same way. Irenaeus interprets the reference to ‘the power of Damascus’ and ‘the spoil of Samaria’ with the visiting Magi from the Matthean birth narrative - not surprisingly either as most of the rest of Isaiah chapter 7 is cited there too. For Irenaeus the Magi are indicative of the power and spoils he takes victoriously from Damascus and Assyria. He "despoiled" them and gave them knowledge. This exact interpretation is found in Justin but Irenaeus never mentions he is citing a source; he makes it seem as if the idea came out of his own imagination.

So Dwight Jeffrey Bingham’s study of Irenaeus’s use of the Gospel of Matthew makes the very same observation. “Following Justin, Irenaeus understands the worship of the Magi to be indicative of Jesus' power to redeem, for he is Christ.” For both men Jesus though an infant is preparing to do battle with the representative powers of evil. As Bingham notes Justin and Irenaeus specifically “have Simon Magus, the Samaritan magician, the father of all heretics, in mind.” Moreover, he adds that in closing his arguments about the Magi Irenaeus emphasizes that God was made manifest in Judah and that he was declared to the Gentiles who did not seek him” noting that Isaiah specfically cites Isa 61:5 and adds “it occurs in support of this same thesis” elsewhere in the writings of Irenaeus “and is used by Justin with similar force.”

So by now we have established a corrupt second century manuscript of Isaiah used to argue not only for the Virgin Birth but specifically identifying the interpolated parts to the Magi. When we turn to Justin’s use of the material and common interpretation we stumble upon the ultimate proof that the agreement between the two men was more than coincidence. Irenaeus literally wrote the lines for his predecessor. This should hardly be surprising because it was a common occurrence in the Jewish and Christian tradition to associate your ideas with a famous person from the past and literally insert them into the page or write out a whole new work in his name.

This becomes plain when we analyze the writings of Justin, starting as he does noting that “at the time of His birth, Magi who came from Arabia worshipped Him, coming first to Herod, who then was sovereign in your land, and whom the Scripture calls king of Assyria on account of his ungodly and sinful character.” This is the first attempt on Justin’s part to explain Isa 8:4. He goes on to note that “the Holy Spirit oftentimes announces such events by parables and similitudes” adding that:

this king Herod, at the time when the Magi came to him from Arabia, and said they knew from a star which appeared in the heavens that a King had been born in your country, and that they had come to worship Him … For the Magi, who were held in bondage for the commission of all evil deeds through the power of that demon, by coming to worship Christ, shows that they have revolted from that dominion which held them captive; and this[dominion] the Scripture has showed us to reside in Damascus. Moreover, that sinful and unjust power is termed well in parable, Samaria. And none of you can deny that Damascus was, and is, in the region of Arabia, although now it belongs to what is called Syrophoenicia.

The names of places change over time and here it appears that Justin stepped into a time machine and ended up forty years in the future.

For as noted Biblical scholar Craig Evans points out, there exists a similar tradition in the aforementioned text of Tertullian ascribed originally to Irenaeus. “Damascus was reckoned to Arabia until it was brought into Coele Syria, on the division of Syria by Septimius Severus between 193 and 198 (Dio Cassius 53.12): Justin, dial. 78, seems to have previous knowledge of this rearrangement unless the observation is a later addition.” Justin had previous knowledge of a name change at the time of Irenaeus? Of course it is a later addition.

Yet the importance here should not be lost on us. It was Irenaeus who manufactured a corrupt version of Isaiah. Justin never knew the existence of this hybrid text nor did the evangelist Mark. Irenaeus was busily fabricating not only Old Testament material but also New Testament ones as well. The references to the Gospel of Luke can be similarly explained especially since Justin always uses the word ‘gospel’ in the singular – i.e. that he did not know of two gospels (i.e. Matthew and Luke) or more. There was just one gospel for Justin which undoubtedly did not include Luke’s Herculean virgin birth narrative.

Indeed the references to Justin speaking approvingly of the parallels between Jesus and Hercules and the rest of the pagan gods was probably added to the text by Irenaeus too.

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