Thursday, August 8, 2013

Jesus the Roman Demi-God [Part Ten]


The simple reality is that most people just aren’t aware of how ideas develop. Our culture has developed the Protestant idea of Jesus into a reality. This notion of ‘Jesus the ordinary man’ – even ‘Jesus the Jew’ – was not shared by the earliest traditions of Christianity. Nevertheless, because society has changed so much – especially with our collective emphasis on ‘keeping things real’ – it is difficult for many of us to appreciate how significant mythopoesis was to the early Church.

The bottom line here is that the more that Jesus was understood to be an ‘angel’ – even the ‘angel of great counsel’ - the less he can be understood to be ‘our Jesus,’ an ordinary man born of a human mother and father. This should not be seen to ‘disprove’ Christianity as such. It only demonstrates how far removed we’ve become from the original principles of our religion.

The early Christians at Rome used the Greek translation of the ‘Seventy’ – the earliest surviving version of the Bible - to modify this originally heretical idea that Jesus was angel. Once again, the Marcionites simply thought an angel or a god came down from heaven. This was the expectation of the Qumran sect of Judaism, whose documents were discovered near the Dead Sea. It is a thoroughly Jewish notion. Nevertheless, it was incompatible with the idea that Jesus was a human being – a ‘son of Adam’ – so at least some Greek speaking second century sectarians seem to have been ‘inspired’ by the prophet Isaiah’s mention of an ‘angel of great counsel’ – thinking it meant that he would be born as a ‘son’ to a woman.

However this understanding originally developed it was greatly changed by Irenaeus to conform to the Hercules myth. In no uncertain terms Irenaeus forged a text of the prophet Isaiah – a manipulated manuscript that comes up over and over again in association with Irenaeus – and put forward the idea that Jesus was to be born from the Father ‘lying down’ with Mary, with the aid of the Holy Spirit. The important thing that readers should take note of is that this not be taken to mean that the Virgin Birth narrative was originally derived from the Alcmene narrative. The Gospel of Luke is a second century text, so the specific details that develop from that text likely only appeared as Hercules came to the fore of Imperial theology.

Let us go back to the earliest attempts to develop the Virgin Birth narrative according to the Greek text of Isaiah 9:6. One of the earliest witnesses to the idea of ‘Jesus the angel of Great Counsel’ entering the womb of the Virgin appears in the Epistle of the Apostles, a text usually dated to the middle of the second century. It is there we read Jesus himself announce to the reader that:

For on that day when I took the form of the angel Gabriel, I appeared to Mary and spoke with her. Her heart received me and she believed. I formed myself and entered her womb. I became flesh, for I was alone my own servant in relation to Mary in the visible form of an angel.

As the Australian Patristic scholar of the twentieth century, Eric Osborne notes “the angel is simply the visible shape of the logos who brings about his own conception in the womb of Mary.” In other words, the concern of the Epistle is to show that the logos who is everywhere and who can take any form he wishes, produced his own incarnation and lived his earthly life without ceasing to be God and without ceasing to be in heaven.

This isn’t the only example of the early pre-Lukan example of adapting the Virgin Birth narrative to Isaiah 9:6. Florinus undoubtedly shared the opinions of Theodotus, cited in an earlier part of this discussion. However the basic idea common to many Valentinians was as Irenaeus explains was that “this Christ passed through Mary just as water flows through a tube” in other words not partaking of mortal flesh. This is an underlying similarity between the understanding of the Epistle of the Apostles and the Valentinians – Jesus is always the Logos. The Catholic by narrative implicitly assumes Jesus ‘grew into’ himself – i.e. it doesn’t have Jesus engage in adult conversation as soon as he leaves the womb as in the Quranic verses.

So it is that we have to stress that the Virgin Birth was not always ‘like’ the parallel Hercules myths. Originally there was a discernible difference between Jesus ‘self-directed’ dwelling in Mary’s womb and what was promoted by Irenaeus in the late second century. It is important to note that Irenaeus specifically attacks the Valentinian view. Luke was certainly developed to clarify Matthew’s – or the Jewish gospel’s - ambiguous reference to the incarnation – “she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” It is anyone’s guess what is really meant here.

Luke by contrast describes the visit of Gabriel foretelling what will happen to Mary in the following terms:

The Holy Spirit will come on (epeleusetai) you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you (episkiasei). So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

As Nolland notes in his commentary on Luke there is “not the slightest evidence that either of the (Greek) verbs involved has ever been used in relation to sexual activity or even more broadly in connection with the conception of a child” [Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, 54] This is certainly true. However, as Harvey repeatedly notes in his critical edition of Irenaeus – the first historical witness to Luke – Irenaeus’s canon seems to bear striking similarities with the Old Syriac edition of the scriptures. To this end when we look at the surviving Syriac texts of Luke we find a different set of verbs, one which clearly can be taken in a sexual sense.

Most translations of the Peshitta (in Syriac = ‘simple’) edition of Luke we find the following rendering:

The angel answered and said to her, The Holy Spirit will come, and the power of the Highest will rest upon you; therefore the one who is to be born of you is holy, and he will be called the Son of God

Notice at once that the Greek episkiasei means ‘obscured’ but the Aramaic term derives from a root gnn which means both ‘obscured’ and ‘to lie upon.'  The great authority on eastern Christianity Sebastian Brock of Oxford University has written extensively on this subject - mostly to show how later Syriac writers from the fourth century developed Old Testament parallels with this terminology.  Yet when we are dealing with a visit to a woman in a private residence and the next few words are a child 'who is to be born unto you' as a result of this visit - the meaning was clearly originally - 'will lie upon you.' 

In no uncertain terms then it would seem that the Greek translator chose a word which removes the sexual implication from the union of ‘the power of the Most High’ and Mary.  To this end we can see that the original text of Luke which is preserved in the Peshitta and related texts as follows:

The angel answered and said to her, The Holy Spirit will come, and the power of the Highest will lie upon you; therefore the one who is to be born of you is holy, and he will be called the Son of God.

Clearly then it makes far more sense to suppose that the Holy Spirit entered the house of Mary and the power of the Most High ‘lay down’ with her in a sexual sense - after all the next words describe her being with child as a result of this union. In fact this idea of two masculine divinities entering a woman’s private dwelling to impregnate the chosen female receptacle of the demi-god is found in the classic tale of Hercules too.

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