Friday, October 4, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Chapter Two] Final Edit

The Substitution Myth

Wherever people have tried to piece together the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘where’ and ‘how’ of the Jesus story they inevitably hit a brick wall because at bottom no one knows why this story is supposed to mean. People certainly feel an emotional connection with Jesus looking up at him hanging from a cross. But why redemption is supposed to have been made manifest through this suffering, no can quite explain. We know that Jesus announced his intention to be killed in Jerusalem, proceeded to go Jerusalem and annoyed the Jews to such a degree that he ended up fulfilling his original prediction. What does any of this have to do with redemption?

Most serious academics have given up trying to make sense of the redemption. They look instead to understanding ‘the historical Jesus’ as if the gospel is a banana and theology is the peel. ‘The ancient believers were wholly superstitious,’ we tell ourselves, ‘and so they believed in something they didn’t quite understand.’ Yet surely there was an underlying logic to salvation. In other words, couldn’t it simply be that Christians participated in their rites and by so doing they believed they were going to receive redemption?

This is very different of course than saying that just by dying on the cross Jesus ‘saved us.’ There is a strange passivity that characterizes the modern Christian understanding salvation which is sometimes hard to explain. If we go back to the gospel narrative we see Jesus chooses a group of disciples and they all ran away. Does this mean Jesus failed? Is this the only way this story could have been interpreted? Or do we acknowledge that perhaps their running away was part of the redemption?

Of course we know that Jesus predicted Peter’s denial. How then do we explain Peter being made head of the Church? Could it be that the gospel that has come down to us had something critical taken away from it which, if restored, would completely change the way we look at Christian redemption? If that were true most of us agree that would be a big deal. The reality is that a recently discovered manuscript demonstrates that this is exactly what took place in earliest Christian antiquity. In 1958 an American scholar named Morton Smith was working in a monastery near Jerusalem when he found a copy of a letter written by another Church Father who lived around the same time as Irenaeus. In this letter he makes mention of a second baptism which Jesus gave to a disciple just before the crucifixion narrative begins. This story was part of a longer ‘secret’ gospel of Mark which was used in Alexandria and other places.

But what if the gospel that has come down to us had something critical taken away from it which, if restored, would completely change the way we look at Christian redemption? That would be a big deal, right? The truth is that we know that is actually happened. In 1958 an American scholar named Morton Smith was working in a monastery near Jerusalem when he found a copy of a letter written by another Church Father who lived around the same time as Irenaeus. In this letter he makes mention of a second baptism which Jesus gave to a disciple just before the crucifixion narrative begins. This story was part of a longer ‘secret’ gospel of Mark which was used in Alexandria and other places.

This discovery was a very big deal in the last century. It made the front page of the New York Times. Many books were written on the subject but ultimately the monastery didn’t like all the attention they were getting. After all the kind of individual who decides to become monk rarely fits the ‘people person’ profile. The manuscript was taken by the monks and a great controversy erupted at the beginning of this century as to whether the text even existed. However it turns out that one of the discovery’s biggest critics actually went to the monastery and held the text in his hands and even photographed it. It is only a vocal minority in scholarship who now doubt its authenticity.1

At least part of the motivation for the continuing doubt about the discovery among religious people is that it completely turns upside down our understanding of Christian redemption. Now it turns out that St Mark did not think that Christian redemption came from Jesus being hung from a cross but instead a baptism that he instituted just before he was crucified. If St Mark originally wrote his gospel identifying ‘redemption’ with a secret baptism rite and then this passage was subsequently removed this state of affairs might imply that the excision occurred in order to change our definition of salvation.

Is that too crazy an assumption? Let’s look at matters from another perspective. As we just noted the story of Jesus in the gospels now in our possession has him simply fulfill his own prediction of dying as a martyr by goading his enemies. Almost the exact same situation appears in another text written by Irenaeus of Lugdunum - the Martyrdom of Polycarp. In this well-known document Irenaeus tells the story of his teacher Polycarp predicting that he is going to be killed and then he annoys the authorities to such a degree he ends up fulfilling his own prophesy. Sound familiar?

The standard explanation for the parallels with the Jesus story is that author of the Martyrdom of Polycarp ‘imitated’ the gospel. Yet is this the case? Couldn’t the similarities be explained by an effort to make Jesus more like Polycarp? It is only because we don’t see Irenaeus’s editorial hand in the surviving canonical gospels that we think they actually preserve the testimony of the original disciples of Jesus that we suppose the Martyrdom of Polycarp imitated the gospels rather than the other way around. Irenaeus’s teacher was a very controversial figure.

Indeed he only names him ‘Polycarp’ once in the entire five volume compendium of his original lectures. All the other references to his teacher are as an anonymous ‘elder.’2 This strange refusal to name Polycarp is especially prevalent in sections of this work which come from debates with a fellow student of Polycarp about their common master’s legacy.3 The natural inference from this situation is that Polycarp was not his teacher’s original name. It is in fact a rare appellation, associated with slaves and seems to be associated with the declaration in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will brings forth much fruit (Greek karpon polun).”4

To this end, if as I have argued elsewhere, Polycarp is a messianic title equivalent to the Hebrew name Ephraim,5 the birth name of Irenaeus’s teacher is now lost to us. Nevertheless we are fortunate to have preserved for us a hostile account of Polycarp’s wild popularity in the Passing of Peregrinus by the pagan satirist Lucian of Samosata. In this narrative Lucian tells the story of a para-suicidal Christian maniac who repeated attempts to goad the authorities into killing him by fire. He is called ‘Peregrinus’ by Lucian because he is a stranger (Latin peregrinus) who often changes his name.

Because we now have two different portraits of the same man and his attempt to kill himself we can begin to understand why Irenaeus changed our canonical gospels. Most of good society had read Lucian’s negative portrait of Irenaeus’s teacher and especially his ongoing effort to secure a martyrs death for himself. Lucian attributes this effort to this man attempting to make a name for himself – i.e. self-promotion. However with the canonical gospels now making it appear that Jesus resembled Polycarp very closely, much of the sting of Lucian’s narrative is taken away.

The portrait of the Christianity that emerges from Lucian’s account also reinforces that not every believer took kindly to Irenaeus’s teacher’s new found popularity. There were many from the older faith who resented the innovations that this teacher of the ignorant rabble brought to the religion.6 To this end, we should begin to see that Polycarp’s ‘killing yourself to live’ obsession was an innovation within Christianity. It only became the rule because of the efforts of Irenaeus which may have included the subtle transformation of the gospels.

It is important to note that the traditions outside the Catholic Church did not believe that Jesus even suffered on the Cross. This understanding, labeled ‘docetism’ from the Greek word dokeo ‘to seem’, argued it only appeared to be Jesus enduring this torture but it was really inflicted on someone else. The understanding is preserved quite clearly in a gnostic text discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in the last century:

I did not succumb to them as they had planned… And I did not die in reality but in appearance, lest I be put to shame by them… For my death which they think happened [happened] to them in their error and blindness, since they nailed their man unto their death… It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. It was another upon whom they placed the crown of thorns… And I was laughing at their ignorance.7

The holy book of the Islamic tradition, the Quran, preserves much the same tradition “they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown to them.”8

This ‘substitution doctrine’ was attacked throughout the Christian history for its implications on Christianity of its redemption. By saying that Jesus did not actually suffer on the Cross, it was argued, the heretics were robbing humanity of its redemption. However it is plainly clear that the other traditions simply had a difference of opinion about how the Passion narrative demonstrated connected back to the Passover. For instance, in the story of the Exodus the Israelites are spared because they substitute their firstborn sons with a firstborn lamb. Similarly in the story of the sacrifice of Isaac which according to many ancient traditions happened at the same place and same date as the annual Passover slaughter, Isaac is ‘redeemed’ by the substitution of a ram.9

How exactly a ‘substitution doctrine’ can be argued to be incompatible with the gospel story is utterly perplexing to anyone with a real working knowledge of Judaism. Indeed the Muslim theologians make the exact opposite argument to defend the Quran’s understanding of the substitution of Jesus. Abu al-Barakat Hafiz al-din Abdallah b. Ahmad b. Mahmud al-Nasafi a fourteenth century a Hanafi legist and theologian, born in Nasaf in Sogdian (today's Qarshi in southern Uzbekistan) makes clear that for Muslims the concept is similarly rooted in the story of Abraham’s son “the redemption is the rescuing from slaughtering by a substitute”10 If as everyone seems to agree that Christian redemption is derived from the Jewish model, it is difficult to see why we should ignore the substitution tradition within early Christianity.

For instance the fifth century Armenian Church Father Eznik of Kolb had good sources to provide us a detailed understanding of at least one of the early sects mentioned by Irenaeus in his writings which continued to survive in his locale. He tells us that the followers of Marcion held that the Son of God healed the sick and sinful until the God of the Law became envious of him and had him crucified by the children of the Law. Yet at the very same time the sect believed that Christ did not really die on the Cross, but only seemed to.11

This identification of the Marcionites as one of the earliest representatives of ‘docetic Christianity’ is consistent throughout the writings of the Church Fathers. The idea must have been that Jesus gave his soul (cf. John 15:13) to his disciple before being nailed on the Cross. This substitution or redemption didn’t take place in the bodies of the participants but in their hearts or minds. Jesus’s soul was somehow passed onto Peter who fled the Passion narrative not as a coward but as someone carrying a precious treasure. It wouldn’t take much to transform the original Passion narrative which reinforced a substitution myth like that preserved among the Christian sects and Islam. Indeed the missing story identified by Clement of Alexandria in ‘secret’ Mark might make all the difference to restoring the original sense to the narrative.

Since Clement already tells us that Jesus baptized Peter alone of all the disciples it would make perfect sense if Peter was the beloved disciple who underwent the baptism of secret Mark.12 The missing section from the gospel of Mark reads:

And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, 'Son of David, have mercy on me.' But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan

It is important to note that once Jesus crosses the Jordan to go back to the other side his Passion narrative is about to begin. Jesus will enter Jerusalem, go to the temple and then be arrested as he and his disciples hide on the Mount of Olives.

Peter and Jesus stand in the midst of the group of Christians assembled there but the authorities don’t know where Jesus is. His presence is confirmed by the kiss of Judas. Why exactly it is believed to be so certain that the Jews got the right man is again perplexing. If the original narrative said the authorities recognized Jesus and summarily arrested him, there would be no wiggle room for this alternative explanation. Indeed the specific notion that Judas was in on the plot is specifically witnessed by Irenaeus.13 To this end, the heretics undoubtedly had a completely different gospel narrative where the disciples conspired together to offer up one individual to save the whole community.

Of course this understanding of ‘redemption’ is very different from the Catholic notion of Jesus and only Jesus’s redemptive offering. Now that Jesus is associated with a baptismal rite that transfers his soul into new initiates this redemption rite could have been perpetuated throughout the Empire. Every time there was a persecution of Christians, individuals could enter the water, take up Jesus’s example and die for one another and the greater community. Redemption wasn’t reduced to a one-time event. It was an ongoing process much as baptism continues to be within the church, only that it was exclusively performed on adults wanting to take on Jesus’s form.

The point here is not to side with any one interpretation but rather to make clear that the Catholic version of the Passion narrative was only one of many. They may have had the gospels which won out in history, but we shall also argue that this victory was mostly superficial. There are still plain signs that the false gospels of Irenaeus were built on top of a foundation that developed from the substitution tradition. The recognition of this hidden history to the Church helps liberate us from continuing to mistake the real Jesus of history for Polycarp of Smyrna.

If we assume for the moment that Irenaeus was indeed responsible for the establishment of the New Testament as a canonical set – as opposed to David Trobisch the Throckmorton-Hayes Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Bangor Theological Seminary who still sees Polycarp as the culprit – we can begin to see how he conspired to set the four texts against the original witness of secret Mark. The artificiality of our canon is to present multiple witnesses side by side to reinforce the idea that ‘all witnesses agree with our interpretation of redemption.’

Nevertheless Irenaeus has to pass on a report that another gospel of Mark existed in his own day, one which reinforced our reconstructed understanding of the Passion – “Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the Gospel by Mark, if they read it with a love of truth, may have their errors rectified.”14 What this means exactly is explained by this Church Father in other parts of the same treatise. Some of the heretics understood ‘Christ’ to be a supernatural being who came down to earth and entered into Jesus before leaving him just before the Passion. That is why Jesus declares ‘my God, my God why have you forsaken me’ while crucified.15

The idea now that the Gospel of Mark was the source of all these docetic beliefs opens the door to the notion that this was the original understanding of Christianity. Irenaeus’s superimposing of the legacy of his teacher Polycarp on to the Biblical canon distracts us from the real Jesus of history. Since the Gospel of Mark has become subordinated to ‘one of many witnesses’ rather than its rightful place as ‘the only witness’ to Jesus’s story, we have to inquire into whether or not anything survives of a tradition associated with this document. Irenaeus wants to make us believe that Mark was one of many, but reason dictates that not everyone would have agreed. Among these discarded heretics we will likely find the truth about what really happened to Christian redemption.


4 The more natural way of saying ‘much fruit’ in Greek is polun karpon (cf. the sixth century agricultural writer Cassian Bassus). To this end the saying in John could be interpreted as saying that if the community ‘abides’ in Jesus he will bring them one called Polycarp. 5 On Ephraim as a messianic name see Jastrow

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