Sunday, August 4, 2013

Jesus the Roman Demi-God [Part Four]


Once again we have to reinforce the idea that our existing approach to the assumed ‘Jesus of history’ was not shared by the first Christians. It wasn’t that the Jewish Christian tradition that preceded Irenaeus denied that Jesus existed in real historical time but rather that their approach to history was so completely bizarre that it didn’t allow for the development of a rational approach to the person of Jesus. The gospel narrative was above all else for these sectarians a typology of what was to come. It was as if the Jewish manner of reading the stories of the Pentateuch was applied to the recent historical events recorded in the gospel. In order to completely understand why this was so significant for Irenaeus we require a little bit of background on the Ebionites themselves.

It is the third century Church Father Origen who finally makes explicit why this post-resurrection ministry was so important to the Ebionites and what paradigm Irenaeus took away from the Jewish Christian sect. For, commenting upon Luke chapter 2:34 – i.e. the notion that Jesus will be a ‘sign contradicted’ Origen adds:

The virgin is a mother. This is “a sign that is contradicted.” The Marcionites contradict this sign and insist that he was not bora of a woman. The Ebionites contradict this sign and say that he was bom of a man and a woman in the same way as we are born. He had a human body. This tools "a sign that is contradicted.” For, some say that he came down from heaven. Others say that he had a body like ours, so that he could also redeem our bodies from sin by the likeness of his body to ours and give us hope of resurrection. (Horn. Luc. 17.4)

The first interpretation ‘he came down from heaven’ is Marcionite. But it is the second interpretation that is of interesting to us right now – i.e. the idea that Jesus died and was resurrected to “give us hope of resurrection.” This is the key to unlocking the reason for Irenaeus’s interest in the Ebionites.

Let us start with the original saying in Luke. The gospel of Luke was at first the Marcionite gospel, the gospel written by Paul and mentioned in his epistles. The first three chapters of Luke referencing among other things the Virgin Birth were added afterwards by a Catholic editor and probably Irenaeus. The origin of this material is not clear but it should be noted that much of it bears striking resemblance – almost word for word – with the surviving Mandaean baptism sect associated with John the Baptist.

The material Origen is citing comes from the mouth of a ‘holy man’ named Simeon as he holds the baby Jesus in his arms. It is then he declares – “this child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” The word here for ‘sign’ is semeion. The idea is that Jesus is a ‘sign’ but – according to Origen’s interpretation – the heretics will reject the true meaning of that sign in favor of their own invention. It is interesting to note that the original Pauline gospel argues the exact opposite – i.e. where Jesus explicitly declares that so ‘sign’ (= semeion) will be given to this generation. Once again we see the essential opposition between the Pauline and Ebionite traditions.

Of course Origen is only borrowing a much older interpretation of the saying which is solely directed against the Marcionites. For we read in a work likely written originally by Irenaeus but preserved in a loose Latin translation the clear understanding that ‘sign’ here means the sign of the Virgin Birth. In other words, the fact that Jesus was born to a virgin is meant to be taken as a sign which the Marcionites will reject. Irenaeus cites the words of Isaiah as he preserves them to reinforce his original point – “The sign is that of the nativity of Christ, according to Isaiah: Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb and shall bear a son. Consequently we recognize as a sign capable of being spoken against the conception and child-bearing of Mary the virgin, concerning which these Academics say, 'She bare and bare not, virgin and no virgin.'

If the Catholic editor of Luke added the material about the Virgin Birth including a ‘sign to be contradicted’ as a preparation for the rejection of his gospel, it is clear that Origen’s point isn’t that the Ebionites reject ‘signs’ but rather they share the specific Marcionite objection to the Virgin Birth. It is interesting to note however that when Origen explains the incorrect Jewish Christian interest in Jesus as a ‘sign’ Origen says that they focus instead on the his post-resurrection ministry. In other words, the Ebionites saw Jesus ministry as a ‘sign’ of what was to happen in the ‘end times’ which were imminent. Jesus’s entire ministry was seen as a typology of what was about to happen to them.

According to Irenaeus the correct way of understanding the ministry of Jesus is within the context of God coming down and entering a virgin’s womb, the child growing until he is crucified, killed and resurrected in ‘incorruptible flesh.’ As Irenaeus, Origen and indeed all the early Church Fathers note, the Ebionites only rejected the part about the ‘Virgin Birth’ in this formula. It was Irenaeus who took over the Ebionite formula that the resurrection was a sign illustrating the resurrection of the flesh to come for all humanity, adding the idea of a Virgin Birth for reasons we will investigate shortly.

Nevertheless we should catch our breath for a moment and simply realize how significant this discovery really is. For our inherited interpretation of the ministry of Jesus and the original ‘Jewish Christian’ understanding bear almost no similarity whatsoever. The Ebionite gospel is not ‘historical’ in our sense of the word. God established Jesus as a sign for what was to come in the resurrection. The rest of Jesus’s ministry – the walking around in Galilee and Judea - really has very little significance to it. All of what we take to historical takes a backseat to the part of the original gospel which most of us think is complete fantasy – i.e. the idea that man could be raised from the dead in ‘incorruptible flesh.’

We cannot be overstated how important the resurrection of the flesh was to Irenaeus and his followers. The writings of Justin Martyr emphasize the significance of this understanding to true orthodoxy and the doctrine continues in later writings down to Irenaeus. Irenaeus’s innovation however was to demonstrate through his falsifications of the Marcionite scripture that “the apostle [Paul] does manifestly and clearly declare the resurrection and incorruption of the flesh” also. This was again certainly not historically true but became so through the falsified Pauline canon and the subsequent ‘commentary’ that Irenaeus developed and which now survives in his name and that of his students.

Nevertheless before we go too far afield we should emphasize over and over again the underlying difference in worldview between the Marcionites and the Ebionites. The Marcionites really did believe that an angel actually came down to earth in a particular year. The Ebionites on the other hand, seem to less interested in history but rather take Jesus’s entire ministry – especially the post-resurrection ‘events’ – as a typology of ‘what was to come.’ What happened to Jesus is ‘real’ in the sense that it will ‘really’ happen to us. Its reality is established not in ‘history’ but in it being a ‘sign’ and ‘symbol’ of the ‘end times’ and final judgment.

The point of course is that it would have been impossible for Irenaeus to transform Marcionitism into the kind of religion Irenaeus wanted to develop – i.e. a flattering, Imperial-friendly ‘typology’ compatible with the cosmocrator cult of Commodus. Ebionitism was the typology obsessed Christianity needed for this transformation. The Pauline tradition after all viewed Jesus as a stranger where no typology could possibly be established beforehand. What Irenaeus needed was a typology driven religion centrally focused on reinterpreting Jesus’s ministry in terms of a second advent of kingship established among the Gentiles. It was for this reason then that the fusing together of Jewish and Pauline Christianity was absolutely necessary for Irenaeus. The surviving Catholic understanding of Jesus as a cosmocrator or pantocrator necessarily required this textual manipulation ahead of time.

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