Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Real Jesus of History

Larry Hurtado at a recent blog post noted that "Jesus-devotion erupted rapidly and originated in circles of Jewish Jesus-followers in Judea."  No one doubts that the authentic Pauline letters use what is called 'high Christology' (= Jesus being treated as a god).  It is generally agreed thus that high Christology must have existed before roughly 60 CE.  If we assume as Hurtado does that Paul's Christology may not have differed significantly from that of the earliest followers of Jesus then we can put even earlier.

The problem of course with Hurtado's thesis is that it is hard to believe that Jews might be willing to believe a human being named 'Joshua' or Yeshu or whatever we imagine Jesus name to have originally been to have also been a divine.  I know for Hurtado doesn't doubt for a minute that this could be possible.  But anyone who lacks his dogmatic certainty has to step back before making the leap from Paul's 'high Christology' to actual followers of a man named Jesus. 

After all we know from the Pseudo-Clementine literature and other sources that Simon Magus seems to have communed with Jesus in a dream-like state.  In what must certainly have been a parody of our apostle Paul, Simon ridicules Peter's reliance on his time spent with Jesus.  'The information I get from my revelations where I see Jesus standing in front of me,' reasons Simon, 'is far superior to your recollection of what happened in Judea back in the day.'

While the Clementine literature pretends that Simon actually developed his argument this way we should feel confident that what we are really dealing with here is the collision of two Christian cultures - the one developed around a claim that Peter and twelve apostles passed on information about a historical man named Jesus and another associated with a figure named Simon regarding a Jesus who spoke in visions and revelations. 

The idea that Simon could confidently challenge an actual eyewitness of Jesus's ministry is simply poetic license on the part of the second or third century author.  By a certain period in Christian history there were communities of Christians living side by side - or perhaps even on top of one another in the very same communities - emphasizing two entirely different understandings of who or what Jesus was.  The fact that Hurtado wants to draw a straight line from Paul to Peter makes sense given that he is a dogmatic blowhard.  Nevertheless, for the rest of us we have to pause and look at the evidence over and over again before we can make that leap of logic. 

For instance there were clearly Pauline communities who never accepted Jesus as a historical man of flesh and blood born from a woman.  The Marcionites immediately come to mind.  Is there any compelling evidence to suggest that there were Pauline Christians before Marcion?  I've never seen it.  So let's suppose at least for the moment that the Marcionites provide a powerful argument to the effect that Pauline Christianity did not necessarily lead back to a community of witnesses of a human being of flesh of blood with the name Jesus.  Jesus was instead for this community a heavenly being who came down from the heavens by means of an immense mountain who had the appearance of a man of flesh and blood. 

All of this does not necessarily prove that Hurtado was wrong.  I can think of a number of early documents which support Hurtado's contention that Jews believed that Jesus was a man born of woman who was fully divine.  Celsus's Jew for instance seems to reinforce this understanding.  So too the alleged work of Philo known to Anastasius of Sinai.  Yet all of this only proves again what we already know - namely that many different sectarian groups of Christianity lived side by side in early antiquity.  I don't subscribe to the idea that we can simply project our beliefs on the earliest strata of Christianity.  This essentially remains an unknowable commodity as we have no surviving documents to describe to us Peter's original beliefs.

All of our surviving sources seem to develop out of Peter.  Mark for instance in writing his gospel.  Paul acknowledges Christians who existed before him and Peter quite specifically.  Tertullian makes reference to a heretical understanding of Paul developing his gospel to perfect what was lacking in Peter (an uncanny echo of Secret Mark).  The point again however is that nothing of Peter survives (ignoring the spurious canonical texts that bear his name).  This in itself is a most perplexing situation which is difficult for anyone to explain.  It is strange enough that Jesus didn't leave a gospel, why not also Peter?

The problem ultimately comes down to the fact that scholars haven't possessed the imagination to explain the name Jesus as anything other than the Greek translation of the Hebrew Joshua.  Without this breakthrough, we consistently come up against an appellation that clearly could only have belonged to a person of flesh and blood.  But make the case that Jesus - or more specifically Ishu - derived from a Hebrew title and specifically the common Samaritan epithet for Moses - i.e. 'his Man' or perhaps more formally 'the Man of God' ('is ha'elohom).  In other words, Ishu was the angel who came down the mountain from heaven at the beginning of the gospel was the divine figure 'is who wrestled with Jacob (so Clement) or who visited Abraham (so Marcion). 

The reason this is so important to consider is the fact that up until know we simply assume that Peter accepted that 'Jesus' was the name of his Savior.  I can't escape the suspicion that the early Christian communities were not only adoptionist but that those perfected individuals who came out of the baptismal waters were called 'men of God.'  This is plainly referenced over and over again in the writings of Philo and his understanding of term:

but him who is advancing in improvement he thinks deserving to receive benefits as from God in order that by means of these benefits he may arrive at perfection; and him who is complete and perfect he thinks should be both governed as by the Lord, and benefited as by God; for the last man remains for ever unchangeable, and he is, by all means and in all respects, the man of God [Philo De mutatione nominum § 25 (p.42) BP8]

All these things, therefore, the priest, that is to say, conviction, pollutes, and orders that they should be taken away and stripped off, in order that he may see the abode of the soul pure, and, if there are any diseases in it, that he may heal them ... And every soul that is beginning to be widowed and devoid of evils, says to the prophet, "O, man of God! hast thou come to me to remind me of my iniquity and of my sin?" For he being inspired, and entering into the soul, and being filled with heavenly love, and being amazingly excited by the intolerable stimulus of heaven inflicted frenzy, works in the soul a recollection of its ancient iniquities and offences: not in order that it may commit such again, but that, greatly lamenting and bitterly bewailing its former error, it may hate its own offspring, and reject them with aversion, and may follow the admonitions of the word of God, the interpreter and prophet of his will. For the men of old used to call the prophets sometimes men of God, and sometimes seers, affixing appropriate and becoming names to their enthusiasm, and inspiration, and to the foreknowledge of affairs which they enjoyed. [Quod Deus sit immutabilis § 139 (p.130, l.23 - P) BP8]

The Samaritan tradition has even more to help develop this understanding. Jacob and Moses here were similarly conceived.

My suspicion is that Ishu (= אישו) was originally conceived as a title of a particularly great individual within the community that developed into early Christianity but that Paul's innovation was to argue for a heavenly man (i.e. the man of God) who has vastly superior to the man made by Yahweh (= Adam).  This was the basis to the antitheses in 1 Corinthians chapter 15.  This was the being who vivified the souls of baptized Christians.  This was the real Jesus of history or if you will the figure Paul developed into our familiar 'Jesus' from the gospel. 

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