A wild thought about scripture

One of the things that has deeply struck me as I have been rereading the ancient sources like John and Paul as I am writing chapters for my book

The Gnostic New Age

, is that our assumptions make all the difference to our understanding of what a text says. 

Now this is not a new revelation for me.  I have known this since I was an undergraduate.  But knowing it intellectually is very different from really experiencing it.  Scholars know this.  But, by and large, we don't do anything about it.  We continue to read texts as we have been trained to read them (as orthodox Christians have read them for centuries), and there is great turmoil if someone suggests otherwise. 

We assume that the orthodox Christian reading of scriptural texts is the author's intent.  We gloss and harmonize what doesn't fit.  We do it unconsciously so that the text fits our preconceived mental frames.

With the work I have been doing (some of it in cognitive studies), I have come to see that the assumption that the orthodox Christian reading of scriptural texts is the author's intent is simply wrong.  The authors of the New Testament texts were not orthodox.  They were not even proto-orthodox.  They had their own ideas, many of which were innovative, revolutionary, and wild.

What makes the text orthodox is its interpretation, one that is imposed upon it by later readers who had a stake in how the Christian tradition was unfolding.  We simply have inherited this interpretation and consider it authorial.

There was a war over these texts and their meaning, a war that continues today.  It was an early war too.  This is not about Gnosticism at the end of the second century that somehow got the interpretation of the texts all wrong.  This is about the first century.  It is about Palestine and Samaria.  It is at the root of the Christian faith. 

Paul of the letters is far removed from the author of the Pastorals who tries desperately to tame Paul's wildness, or Luther's Paul who is further excised of any charisma.  John of the Gospel is far removed from the domestication that the Elder in the Johannine letters imposed on John and later orthodox church leaders picked up and developed. 

Once I was able to dislocate myself from my orthodox training, I have come to see that both Paul and John were impacted by Gnostic spirituality.  It forms the center of their concept of the Christian faith.  Both were reacting to Judaism, which they saw as a religion that did not really know the true God or what he actually wanted.  Both preached liberation from the old forms of Servant spirituality that was the cradle of all the Near Eastern religions.  Both believed that the experience of God, the revelation of God, was what mattered, and it was to be experienced by everyone through initiation.  Both were transgressors who understood the old Jewish scriptures in ways that subverted its accepted meanings.  And on and on.

I guess what I am saying is that I think there is more work that needs to be done on Christian origins, work that demands we set aside our assumptions about orthodoxy, and come to see the wild innovative nature of the early Christian communities.

Jesus on the Road to Nicaea 3: Anti-Semitism

If we are going to talk about turn-of-the-century Christian literature and the development of a Christian self-identity, then we are going to have to be ready to face anti-


. It infuses this literature. It is explicit as well as implicit.

This is a topic that is difficult to broach because we are talking about hatred that, when mobilized by those in power, leads to terror, violence, and death. It is very tough to look at this literature and not feel shame and guilt.

What I think has been happening in scholarship as a way to dampen this shame and guilt in post WWII modernity is a


of the conflict between the Jews and the Christians in this period as an


-Jewish conflict. In my opinion, this revision of history (whether intentional or unintentional) serves to soften the shame and guilt by suggesting, however


, that Christianity is not guilty of originating anti-


because 1) Christianity didn't really exist yet and 2) the conflict was a conflict that arose among Jewish brothers and sisters. The desire to revise the history of Judas is part of this scholarly trajectory (whether intentional or unintentional), either wishing Judas away or wanting him to be a hero that later traditions demonized. All of this effectively works toward exonerating the earliest Christians, so that the Christian tradition is not inherently at fault for anti-


(and therefore we don't need to change anything essential to Christianity today), and so we can return to being brothers and sisters as we were before the conflict arose.

There are many things about this revision of history that I am uncomfortable with, especially the argument that anti-


arose as an


-Jewish conflict, which effectively ends up shifting the blame for the origin of anti-


on Judaism rather than Christianity (although I don't think that this was the intention of the academic argument).

So in my posts when I discuss the separation of Christianity and Judaism, I will be addressing this issue openly. It is correct that Christianity is a Jewish movement during this period, BUT it also is a movement that is taking on a self-identity that is beginning to define itself against Judaism or superior to Judaism. So when the Christian tradition was forming as its own unique religion (when it was identifying itself as something other than Jewish), it generally did so by defining itself over and/or against Judaism rather than in continuity with it. Even its attempt to keep the Jewish scriptures was done in terms of superiority, the Jewish scriptures become the "old" covenant


by the "new." The Jewish ways of interpreting their scriptures were discarded as foolish and ignorant, while the Christian way was understood to be God-inspired.

This process of self-identification occurred gradually and at different times for different Christian populations and some groups chose to keep closer ties to Jewish traditions than others did. Anti-Semitism originated within this environment. It is at the core of the original process of Christian self-definition. What this means for Christianity today and in the future is something that I think the churches still need to address, especially since the anti-Semitism that was the consequence of early Christian self-definition became part of the Christian scripture when texts like the Gospel of John were canonized.

Jesus on the Road to Nicaea 2: the lay of the land

Christianity on the threshold of the second-century was very much involved in self-definition. And depending on where you might have lived, the Christianity you would have known, and the Jesus you would have known, would be very different.

Keep in mind that at this time there was no New Testament. Scripture was the Jewish scriptures, which themselves were still in the process of canonization. The Christians were reading the Torah and the prophets and the wisdom literature.

And the Christians were producing their own writings and these were circulating. Someone had collected Paul's letters into a little book, and that was traveling around. Books that contained stories and sayings of Jesus were also circulating and this was known as the memoirs of the apostles and also the "gospel."

The eyewitness generation was dead. The second generation was old and beginning to die. So they were busy trying to set down their memories and interpretations and practices.

The end of the world hadn't arrived, even with the destruction of the Temple. This delay continued to be a major problem, and two things resulted. First there was an intensification of apocalyptic expectations, dreams, visions, and hopes. It is in this period that Revelation is written, the visions of Hermas are recorded, and millenarian hopes emerge. Second there is a feeling of settling down and waiting, of postponement and the continued need to set into place a church as a permanent institution. So this is the period when different communities put into place hierarchies of power, and women begin to struggle to stay in power. The easy charismatism of the early movement is vanishing (or perhaps better, going under ground).

The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. The Jews were trying to redefine their traditions so that they would survive in synagogues without the Temple and the cult. The Christians were part of this redefinition. The first generation had been Jewish. The second generation was beginning to experience turmoil and conflict in regard to this relationship. In the 80s, we hear about a serious conflict between Christian Jews and other Jews over how the traditions should be interpreted. Thus the author of the Gospel of Matthew reveals a Christian self-definition that is trying to win the Jewish debate and emerge as the new Judaism. This is probably taking place in western Syria, around Antioch. But then we begin hearing references in texts like John (I think from Alexandria) that they were no longer welcome in the local synagogues in the 90s CE. And the language in this text shows a community that has begun to define itself as something other than Jewish. There are the Jews and there are us, the gospel says.

I realize there has been the desire in recent scholarship to downplay the separation between Judaism and Christianity in this period, even pushing it to Nicaea. But this position just cannot be supported from the literature unless we turn a blind eye on half of what this literature says. The separation is something well underway by the beginning of the second century, and,

depending on the community you were involved with


may already have been achieved by mid-second century

(as we will see for certain with Marcionite Christian churches and the Sethian Christian churches and, I would argue, for some Apostolic Christian churches).

It is my opinion that during this struggle emerged a radical monotheism in the Jewish tradition which shut out the possibility of divine mediators, while Christianity developed further the earlier monaltrous Jewish tradition which reserved worship for the 'big guy' but recognized particular angels as intermediaries who could be called upon for aid. The Angel of YHWH is particularly important in this regard, as is the KAVOD figure and the NAME itself. All of these represent the hypostasizing of the hidden YHWH who was beyond direct contact. I'm not sure what to label this form of worship, but it is not the radical monotheism that the Jewish rabbis decided upon and enforced.

Jesus on the Road to Nicaea 1: the controversies

This is the beginning of a new series of posts following the previous series called Creating Jesus. In that series, we looked at the foundational stories and three major emergent christological paradigms in the earliest literature.

The Jerusalem paradigm was the earliest, viewing Jesus as a human being born of human parents who was possessed by the spirit at his baptism. He died the death of a Jewish martyr and received the reward of the martyr: resurrection from the dead and exaltation as an angelic being, in his case, the Angel of YHWH. Baptism cleansed of previous sins, anointing gave the spirit, and eucharist was an apocalyptic party anticipating the Messianic banquet in heaven and the coming of Jesus as the YHWH angel of Judgment. Pious living in imitation of Jesus the Righteous One is the heart of salvation. This paradigm became very popular in the east, particularly moving through Mesopotamia and eastern Syria, although it appears to be the ground for the other two paradigms and was not unknown in the west.

The Antiochean paradigm developed quickly. Although I am not certain if it first fermented in Jerusalem and then was taken to Antioch, or if it originated in Antioch, it became the dominant paradigm in Asia Minor and western Syria. It also traveled west to Rome and became exceedingly popular there. In this paradigm, the possession is moved back to the womb. The Angel YHWH possesses the fetus from the time of conception or the quickening. Mary becomes a virgin who bears a child who already is divine. Jesus is a full human being with an additional aspect to his soul, a special angelic augment. This is an embodiment christology. Baptism and anointing deliver the spirit of Jesus to the believer, so that the person has already been resurrected as Jesus was. Jesus' death functions as a universal atonement. Eucharist is a sacrificial renactment of Jesus' death and is a serious ceremony of mourning rather than a celebratory party.

The Alexandrian paradigm is the final one. In it, we move back further to a pretemporal "moment" when the Logos existed as God. The Logos was the mind of God and this is what descends into flesh and becomes Jesus. This is an ensoulment christology where the mind of God functions as the "human" soul of Jesus. Jesus is YHWH walking on earth as a human being. Baptism is rebirth, a transmutative process that recreates the believer in God's image. Eucharist involves consuming a divine body which acts as the medicine of immortality. The person who eats the sacred body finds that his or her own body-soul is slowing transformed into that same sacred body. It is a process of glorification or theosis: becoming god.

Now these are the three foundational christological and ritual paradigms which fuel the controversies of the second century and eventually lead to Nicaea. Keep in mind that the second century authors do not necessarily know of these as separate paradigms. Each author will have a tradition that he learned which usually corresponds to his geographical location and the paradigm of the school he attended. But he will also know the paradigms embedded in the things he had available to read and consider "scriptural." Sometimes these authors will mix elements together from the different paradigms, or they will impose upon other paradigms the dominant paradigm they have learned, or they will develop one and not discuss the others at all. It is necessary for us to be flexible and read our sources carefully to determine what is actually going on.

The three controversies that become bound up with christology are the Jewish-Christian controversy (How Jewish are we as Christians?); the Gnostic controversy (Should we as Christians worship YHWH or another god who lives beyond this universe?); the Monarchian controversy (How monotheistic are we as Christians?).

Next time we will begin to look at the Jewish-Christian controversy (although I hope you notice that all three of the controversies I have outlined are REALLY Jewish-Christian controversies).

Creating Jesus 24: Transmutative Soteriology

As I finish up the final paradigm, the one in which God's Logos or Reason functions at Jesus' soul, so that God is literally a human being walking around on earth, I want to address how this alters the pattern of salvation. Because we have here a christology in which God and the flesh meet, forming an extraordinary human being, the goal of this paradigm is for all humans to experience this same transmutation, a perfecting that alters their humanity in the same way that it had altered Jesus'. This is a process called theosis and it is captured in the words of many of the church fathers from the east, "God became man so that man can become God."

How was this achieved? Largely it happens through the sacraments. It begins through baptism when one is "reborn of water and spirit" (John 3:5). It is a REBIRTH. The person's soul is literally born anew. It was believed that the waters purified the person while the spirit infused the soul, altering it so that the soul and person was created anew reflecting God's image.

This transmutation was maintained through the person's participation in the eucharist. In John 6, the author is not speaking about cannibalism, eating the flesh and blood of the historical Jesus. Rather the person is supposed to consume a sacred or divinized flesh, the extraordinary body of God. This body the person's eats is "the bread of life" which has "come down from heaven." This heavenly bread is Jesus' divinized flesh, and when consumes, yields life eternal to the one eating it. This incorporation of the sacred body worked like divine medicine, immortalizing the person over time. It is familiar to us in our adage: "You are what you eat."

So here, in John's gospel, we have our third and final paradigm, one that understands the eucharist as an experience of at-one-ment in contrast to the sacrifical model familiar to the Pauline tradition of "atonement." The devotee incorporates the sacred elements to imitate the ensoulment of Jesus, since at the moment of consumption a unification between God and the human is experienced. When this happens regularly, a process of transmutation is undergone, and eventually theosis will be achieved.

Since I got a very positive response to continuing this series beyond the foundational paradigms, I have decided to move forward into the second-century and trace with you what happened to these paradigms in the theology and practices of the Christians up to Nicaea. So my posts will begin a "new" series called Jesus on the Road to Nicaea.

Creating Jesus: To Chalcedon?

Pastor Bob has asked me to take us to Chalcedon in terms of christology. I can certainly do this...but I don't want to bore my readers with the same subject for an extended period of time. I can cover all the controversies to Nicaea, Nicaea, and its fallout, but only if this is something that will interest you.

As for James McGrath's post today, arguing for a possession christology in John. I do not find these arguments convincing. There is no prophetic tradition from Judaism in which the prophet is ever God. No prophet would ever claim "I AM" for himself or "I and the Father are one." Now the Kavod and Angel of the Lord traditions do help to explain this, as they also help to explain the distinction that Jesus is the son and a mediator figure (which I have explained in earlier posts in this series). But prophet traditions do not. The spirit in prophetic tradition is always a temporary possession of a full human being and never makes the possessed God himself.

This is not to say that prophetic traditions have not influenced early strata of Johannine traditions. They have, particularly Samaritan understandings of the Prophet-like-Moses. But these traditions have been reconfigured within a Hellenistic model of anthropology in which the Logos descends into flesh. The language is not language of descent into a full human being, into a "man", but of the descent of God's Reason into flesh. This is ensoulment language not possession language.

Perhaps it would be helpful to know that in Hellenistic philosophy, particularly that influenced by Plato, God was conceived as The Good and The One. When he thinks (which is all he can do) he is Mind-Logos within which exists all thoughts and patterns for the universe. Plato perceived these to be "forms." Some of the first Christians thought of them as little logoi. Origen, in fact, says that these little logoi became our souls when their love for God began to cool off and they fell down into matter and became psyches. Only one little logos remained completely attached to God and this is what Origen thought became Jesus' soul.

Creating Jesus 23: Ensoulment christology

I have been on vacation, and now that I'm back for a couple of weeks at least, I want to try to finish up the Creating Jesus series.

We were discussing Johannine understandings of Jesus last time. What we have in John is something different from the other gospels. The Johannine perspective is an ensoulment perspective. In other words, the Logos (God's mind) descends and takes on flesh. So Jesus' soul is the Logos. This means that he is different from ordinary human beings who do not have God's Logos as our souls. The divine aspect of Jesus is not an appendage to Jesus' soul; it is Jesus' soul.

There is in this paradigm a fusion of Logos language and Hellenistic anthropology with Angel of Yahweh traditions. The word Logos is appropriate because it would have been understood by the Hellenistic populace to describe a substitute psyche. God's Reason is ensouled in Jesus.

The result? God walks around on earth as a human being. Jesus' body is the New Temple in which God's presence walks. He is the Glory, God's manifestation, visible in his person, his signs and wonders, and his crucifixion. Because of the ensoulment paradigm, the Kavod is made to assert characteristics of Reason, characteristics that would otherwise be foreign to its tradition, particularly the assertation that the Glory or Kavod is personalized as Jesus' soul so that a particular person, Jesus, becomes the earthly manifestation of the hidden God (John 1:18).

It is a rather clever theological claim, blending Hellenistic philosophy and anthropological knowledge with Angel of the Lord and Kavod biblical traditions. By so doing, the author of John has God himself manifested in history as Jesus.

Creating Jesus 22: God's psyche

I have been home doing improvement projects lately, so the blog has been quiet on my end. Back in the office for the day today, so here is the next post.

There has been some activity in the comments to my last post about whether or not the Logos is really God or just sharing his nature. This discussion is a Nicene discussion, and is reading John in light of those later theological wars. John was read and claimed to support both the Arians and the anti-Arians and the marginal Arians. It was read to be a subordinianist document - that the Son was the Logos (lesser or other than God), a mediator between God the Father and humanity. And it was read to be a homoousian document, identifying the Father with the Son. It came to be read as a document that supports the two-natures doctrine that prevailed at Chalcedon, as well as the monophysite position.

So John is a difficult document to work with, especially if we are trying to understand the text as a pre-Nicene document. But if we look internally, we see that the author appears to have understood Jesus to be the pre-existent Logos, God's very mind, and that this mind came to exist in flesh. So what we have here is an ensoulment Christology. In other words, God's mind or psyche (=soul in English translation) took on flesh and became a human being. Thus Jesus didn't have his own normal human soul or psyche like you and I have. His soul or psyche was God's mind. Quite literally he was God manifested as a human being.

Again, Sophia traditions cannot explain Jesus' equivalence with the eternal God. It appears that we are dealing again with the Angel of YHWH traditions, the manifestation of God that bears his NAME, the Tetragrammaton. The NAME in Jewish traditions was understood to be a hypostasis of God's eternal nature, and thus, was viewed as equivalent to him. The NAME was instrumental in creation and was present in the Angel of YHWH. So what we seem to be seeing in the Johannine gospel is retrospective thinking about the embodiment model. Jesus' identification with the Angel of YHWH is pushed back pretemporally, from pre-existent to precosmogonic.

This traditional Jewish thinking is combined with Hellenistic-Greek understanding about the origin of the human being, particularly the origin of the psyche or rational aspect of the human being. The psyche or soul fell from the heavens into the material body. This becomes a human being and is birthed from the womb. So what we have in John is the idea that God's Logos, his mind becomes a soul embodied as Jesus.

More on this in the next post.

Creating Jesus 21: What about the Gospel of John?

So far I have discussed the earliest paradigms: The Jerusalem Paradigm where we find a possession christology and a behavioral soteriology; The Antiochean Paradigm where we have an embodiment christology and a sacrificial soteriology. The Jerusalem paradigm survived in the eastern formations of Christianity and is still prominent in the traditions of the Syrian and Assyrian orthodox churches. The Antiochean paradigm is most familiar to westerners because it survived most prominently in the Roman Catholic tradition which also means that it survives in the Protestant reform movements.

The third paradigm is most prominent in Alexandrian traditions and our earliest source for it is the Gospel of John. It is also known in some eastern Syrian literature because there was an ancient road that connected Alexandria with Edessa and news and ideas spread quickly across this route. I do not have an answer to the question of John's birthplace, but I have been leaning lately toward Alexandria for a host of reasons that are too involved to comment on here.

This paradigm knows the other two, and represents the height of retrospective teaching about Jesus. Jesus is not a great Angel or a spirit who descends and embodies a human being at baptism or in the womb. His pre-existence is moved a step back, to a time before creation. He is God's reason or logos. The Logos IS God, the text says. He is God's mind that becomes flesh.

Although scholars have opted in the past to explain this by noting parallels with sophia traditions - traditions about God's wisdom - these parallels have never been able to explain the identification of the Logos with God existing from the beginning. Sophia is never God from the beginning.

How is this to be explained? More on this in my next post.

Creating Jesus 20: A ritual shift

Paul is quite clear that Jesus' death was a cosmic event that defeated the powers who crucified him. Since he was an embodied angel, his death had more significance than that of an ordinary man dying, even more than a martyr. Paul knows the tradition that God is a great Judge and lawmaker. Whoever breaks his law is subject to the penalty of death. Since everyone had broken the law, everyone receives the death penalty.

The solution Paul develops begins with the martyr's death which atones for the sins of Israel. But with Paul, we discover this is universalized. The Gentiles have been grafted onto the tree. The atonement is efficacious. It is not something earned by righteous behavior. It is a benevolent act accomplished by God through a divine being Jesus, the one who was equal with God but emptied himself to be born in the likeness of a man (Phil 2:5-7). This benevolent act was part of a plan that God had put into place to defeat Satan and his army of angels that had been battling against the archangels since the beginning of time. The defeat of these cosmic powers and authorities began when they crucified Jesus (1 Cor 2:6-7; Col 2:15; Eph 6:12; cf. 1 Cor 15:23-28). This is what Ephesians is about (although we can argue if Paul wrote it or someone else).

This cosmic understanding of Jesus' death as the beginning of the defeat of the demonic powers that rule the world meant that there had to be a ritual shift too. So baptism wasn't just about cleansing from sins. It became about dying with Jesus. Paul reasoned that if at baptism you were cleansed and received the holy spirit by invoking Jesus' Name, the spirit one received must be Jesus' own spirit. Because the person was possessed by the Christ, the person became Jesus participating in his death and its atonement and provisionally resurrected as Jesus was.

This shift is also evidenced in the performance of the eucharist. It could no longer be a Messianic party with joy and celebration in anticipation of paradise. It became about ingesting a sacrificial meal, about reacting the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for all gathered.

Creating Jesus 19: A complementary soteriology

The christology known to Antiochean sources especially is what I call "embodiment" christology. What this means is that Jesus was perceived as a full human being possessed by a spirit or angel from the womb. The important point is that he is a full human being, with his own psyche (=soul) and physical body. The spirit or angel is an extra something that he has from conception or quickening. Jesus functions as a container or vessel for the resident angel.

The rest of the Jerusalem paradigm survives intact. He still dies and is exalted to heaven where he is (re)-installed. As this great angel YHWH he will be revealed in the heavens, descending with a cry of command, the archangel's call. He will usher in God's kingdom after he destroys its enemies. He will sit in judgment. This tradition is carried on as late as the testimony of the Ebionites who taught that Christ was created like one of the archangels and was appointed by God to rule over the future age (Epiph., Pan. 30.16.2-4). This is also evidence that some of the Jerusalem sources were aware of this tradition, although it is impossible for me to tell if they picked it up after the paradigm was developed in Antioch, or were responsible for creating it in the first place and passing it on to Antioch.

What kind of soteriology is set into place when this christology is developed? Consider again the Jerusalem paradigm where Jesus' transformation into a glorified, divine being happened as the result of his righteous actions and piety, as a reward for upright behavior and obedience. It meant that anyone could imitate him and expect a similar reward - gradual transformation and eventual resurrection and divine body-status-immortality.

This soteriology could only work if Jesus was just like you and me. But what happened once he was an embodied angel from birth? A son of God from conception? Jesus didn't have to work for his divinity. He had already in the womb.

The road to salvation had no choice but to shift. It had to engage the power of the divine Jesus rather than the human Jesus. Redemption had to happen because of a divine action rather than a human action that could be imitated and repeated. This meant a fuller engagement with martyrological interpretations of Jesus' death which were already existing anyway. This is what Mark is about. So the efficacy of his death for sin atonement of sins of Israel was drawn out and universalized.

This doesn't mean that the behavioral soteriology from Jerusalem vanished or was replaced by the divine redemptive action. No. It survives and fuses with the sacrificial so that the sacrificial emerges dominant while the behavioral recedes into the background. It caused trouble though. Consider it. If a divine action redeemed the human being, then what was the benefit of good behavior? Paul has to face this trouble and he tries to explain it in Romans 12-13, where he says that good behavior is the outcome of a person's redemption and transformation, rather than the cause.

More on Paul in the next post in this very long series.

Creating Jesus 18: What Justin reflects

I know that many of my readers have concerns about what, if anything, second century texts can tell us about Christian origins. To limit ourselves to texts authored in the first century does not serve any of us well, especially when the ancient mindset was traditionalist and memorial. They worked to pass on in writing the oral and written traditions they had received from others before them. This doesn't mean that these traditions were passed on without development or shifts, but it does mean that we need to mine the second century materials for what they have passed on.

Justin Martyr is a case in point. He is teaching in Rome in the mid-second century. And his work assumes the Antiochean paradigm that we had located in the earlier materials. He knows Jesus as the YHWH Angel and that this Angel embodied as Jesus through the virgin womb. Jesus is the Son, the Angel of YHWH, who speaks from the burning bush, visits with Abraham, wrestles with Jacob, appears to Joshua. He writes, "Therefore, neither Abraham, nor Issac, nor Jacob, nor amy man saw the Father...but only him who, according to his [God's] will, is both God, his son, and Angel, from the fact that he ministers to his purpose. Whom he also has willed to be born through the virgin, and who once became fire for that conversation with Moses in the bush" (Dial. 127,4).

The Angel YHWH embodied the man Jesus, from the time of conception or quickening in the virgin womb.

Creating Jesus 17: A divine fetus

When the early Christian Jews concluded that the appearances of the YHWH Angel prior to Jesus' birth must also have been Jesus somehow, this gave Jesus a pre-existence and it shifted the paradigm. No longer was he a normal human being born of normal human parents. Somehow this great Angel had been embodied either at Jesus' conception or his quickening. In other words, a human fetus was possessed by this Angel, rather than a human man at his baptism. The Christians shifted his possession to the earliest moment possible. The idea that an angel can possess a human being is possible because the ancient people understood "spirits" and "angels" to be equivalents. This is also the case with the word "powers." The angel was a spirit who like a demon could possess a human being.

The virgin birth stories are related to this shift. The story of womb-possession is very prominent in Luke's gospel, which parallels John the Baptist's conception with Jesus'. John the Baptist was "filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb" (Luke 1:15). Jesus' conception is understood similarly, as the Holy Spirit, the Power of the Most High, coming upon Mary so that her child would be the holy Son of God. Keep in mind that angels are sons of God. And prophets are called and consecrated (which means a descent of the Holy Spirit into them!) from before they came into the womb of their mothers (see Jer 1:5; Isa 49:1; cf. Gal 1:15).

In Matthew, the relationship of Jesus to the Holy Spirit is framed in terms of agency. Mary is found "having [a fetus] in her womb FROM the Holy Spirit" (1:18). This is another shift in this christological pattern. It moves the concept of a divine fetus to divine parentage rather than spirit possession. This shift may have been popular with Hellenistic audiences familiar with stories of gods siring heroes.

I think it is significant that since these two authors think that the embodiment of the Spirit happened to the fetus in the womb, both Matthew and Luke independently shift the Markan baptism account of possession of the Spirit "in" Jesus (eis: Mark 1:10) to "upon" him (epi: Matt 3:16; Luke 3:22). Since he has had the Spirit in him since the womb, the baptism is reconceived as an outward anointing of the Spirit.

Next post we will look at Justin Martyr who preserves this paradigm in its entirety.

Creating Jesus 16: The Virgin Birth

We already discussed how the first memories of Jesus were that of a human son. Paul knows the tradition that "God sent forth his son" and he was "born of woman" (Gal 4:4).

Scholars question whether or not the actual father was Joseph because of the way the traditions in Matthew and Luke are recorded. They suggest that Mary's pregnancy happened outside of wedlock, although within her betrothal period and Joseph seems surprised, needing a vision from an angel to convince him to marry Mary.

Of course this is very much a hot button topic, since Mary has become in the religious tradition the Queen of Heaven and Holy Mother, perpetual Virgin, and so on.

For my own reasoning, I don't trust any of the information given in the virgin birth stories, not even the references to Mary's pregnancy outside of wedlock. These references all appear to me to be part of a growing story to portray Mary as non-sexual, a virgin whom Joseph didn't even touch, so that she can properly birth a god. Paul doesn't yet know this, only that God's son was "born of woman." This phrase is idiomatic and means something like "born a human being." His reference to "son" may be a reference to his status as Angel, since angels were known in the tradition to be sons of God.

What I do know is that the genealogies which both Matthew and Luke preserve (despite their very different versions of Jesus' virgin birth) trace Jesus through Joseph's line. The early teachings from Jerusalem also agree that Joseph is Jesus' real dad. So the earliest traditions appear to me to be that Joseph was Jesus' father. This gets overlaid with the virgin birth stories when they develop.

More to come...

Creating Jesus 15: On to Antioch

We are not done with our discussion of early Christology and its development. What we have covered so far is what appears to have been the earliest Christological paradigm. It certainly isn't Nicene! In fact, we are a long way from Nicaea. I am willing to post my thoughts on the subject up to Nicaea, but that is a long haul. So let's concentrate on the foundational biblical materials and the first layer of paradigms.

You can imagine that certain questions must have arisen almost immediately in regard to the Jerusalem paradigm and the exaltation of Jesus as the YHWH Angel. Everytime the community would read or listen to stories from their scriptures about the YHWH Angel, they must have wondered how these stories about the Angel were connected to Jesus. It is impossible for me to determine who first raised these questions, but what I do know is that their answers were already known to Paul at the time he became a primary leader and missionary of the Antiochean church. So the Antiochean Christians were definitely discussing it, and had even developed liturgies based on their answers. It is a dominant paradigm in western Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and becomes the dominant meta-paradigm in Rome and the West. It is not unknown to some of the sources associated with Jerusalem, so whatever was going on, it was communicated between Jerusalem and Antioch.

What was the reasoning? It probably went something like this: if Jesus had been exalted at his death, becoming the YHWH Angel, he must have been the YHWH Angel in scriptures like Gen 16:7, 22:15, Ex 3:2-14, 23:20-21 too. This means that Jesus must have existed as the YHWH Angel before his earthly advent. So it must be that this YHWH Angel descended from heaven and somehow embodied Jesus at Jesus' conception or birth.

This is what the much-debated Phil hymn is all about (2:5-7). Jesus had been in the form of God and did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. This is a reference to the YHWH Angel who is God's manifestation or equivalent. This divine being empties himself and is born in the likeness of men.

Next time we will discuss the virgin birth.

Creating Jesus 14: Jerusalem soteriology

When you have a possession christology in which Jesus is a full human being with human parents, who is a righteous man filled by God with the Holy Spirit, so righteous that he is resurrected from the dead and exalted to the Name Above All Names, the way salvation works for everyone else corresponds. So texts with associations with early Jerusalem understand the path of salvation in a very particular way, a way that I can only describe as "imitative." Since Jesus started out as a human being like everyone else, that meant other human beings could imitate him and receive the same rewards.

This is the earliest soteriological teaching I have been able to reconstruct from the literature:
1. baptism by invoking the Name which cleansed the initiate of past sins so that his or her soul could receive the Holy Spirit just as Jesus had at his baptism. Anointing to receive the Holy Spirit appears to have been a later addition to the ceremony (cf. Acts 8:14-17).

2. righteous living in imitation of Jesus and putting into action his teachings about Torah. The Holy Spirit aided the person to meet this end. There was no penance for post-baptismal sin, no way to atone for it. Your goal was to perfect yourself with the help of the Holy Spirit (the same spirit that had been Jesus' - thus the language of Christ's spirit in Paul) who indwelled you (cf. Matt 5:48; James 1:4; Didache 1-6; Barn 18-21). This path of piety was faith. Faith wasn't belief. It was living your life in accordance with God's will which had been communicated through Jesus.

3. eucharist was a thanksgiving meal, a joyous party, celebrating the imminent return of Jesus as the Judge, and anticipating being part of the banquet that would take place at that time. The meal may have had a covenantal aspect where the Christian Jews affirmed that they were the New Israel through the death of the Righteous One, Jesus (1 Cor 11:25-26; Luke 22:14-18).

4. at death or the eschaton, whichever occurred first, the faithful would be resurrected and rewarded in heaven with glorified bodies and exaltation (i.e. thrones, crowns, white robes, Name, etc).

Creating Jesus 13: The Jerusalem Paradigm

We now have all the pieces of the earliest christological musings in place, and we can talk about the first paradigm as it was developed by the first Christian Jews in Jerusalem. All that has gone on before in the twelve previous posts should not be taken to be linear development - i.e. first this happened, then that happened. Rather these strands of tradition came together in complexes that brought with them a number of associations and connections that become attached to Jesus simply because they were part of the complex.

There is a chicken and egg effect here. The first Christian Jews turn to these Jewish tradition complexes to understand Jesus' death, explain the visions they said they were having of the afterlife Jesus, and to reflect upon and remember his life. Then these complexes haul along associations that then serve to reinterpret who Jesus was, and so the reframing of a Jewish rabbi with messianic leanings as the Mosaic messianic Prophet, the Righteous One, the resurrected martyr, the exalted Angel YHWH-KAVOD who can intercede on our behalf formed in the teachings of the foundational movement.

What happens, as far as I can tell, is that the christology which forms gets tied to the soteriological teachings of the group. They go hand in hand. In the case of the Jerusalem paradigm, what you end up with is the christological teaching that Jesus was a complete human being born to human parents. Mary and Joseph are understood to be his biological parents (just as Matthew's and Luke's genealogies relate and the Ebionites later taught). At his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended, and it took up residence in him, possessing him as it did all the prophets of old. As God's Prophet, Jesus called people to repentance, taught people how to interpret correctly and follow the Laws so that they could live righteously and be prepared for the coming of God's judgment. Ultimately he was rejected. He suffered a terrible death as was foretold in the scripture, a death that atoned for the past sins of Israel. The Holy Spirit left him at his death. But because he was a righteous man and faithful to God, God rewarded him with resurrection from the dead, transforming him into an angelic body and exalting him to God's right hand as the principal YHWH Angel, vested with the powerful Name and enthroned. In this capacity, he will return to judge the living and the dead.

As a result of this teaching, the doctrine of the second coming was born, as well as the divinization of Jesus. Jesus was not divine during his lifetime, any more than any other prophet. He was a human being possessed by the Holy Spirit, exalted to divinity after his death.

In the next post, I will take up how this christology affected the group's soteriology and ritual practice. Then on to Antioch!

Creating Jesus 12: The Glory of the Lord

Jesus was not conceived to be exalted to the status of any angel of any rank. He was conceived to be the Angel of the Lord who bore the Name YHWH. This conception did not stand alone. The YHWH Angel was read alongside the GLORY by the early Jews and Christians. There are a number of passages in Jewish scriptures which describe YHWH as a bodily manifested god. His manifestation is called in Hebrew "the KAVOD of YHWH" which literally means "the weightiness of YHWH." It was translated by the ancients into Greek with the word "DOKSA" which means "reputation, honor, glory." When it refers to one's external appearance, it means that it is a splendid or glorious appearance. In English it is translated "GLORY." This figure is described by Ezekiel as humanlike, radiant, and enthroned. It acts as YHWH, and he interacts with it as YHWH. This manifestation of YHWH, the KAVOD, is also called in the literature the "IMAGE" of God and the "FORM" of God.

Of course those of my readers who know the Christian literature will realize that this application to Jesus was made very early in the tradition. He has the NAME of YHWH, he is the FORM of YHWH, he is the IMAGE of YHWH, he is the GLORY of YHWH. He has not only been identified with the ANGEL YHWH, but also the KAVOD, identified with the seated figure in Ezekiel's vision and the YHWH of HOSTS seen by ISAIAH.

As I said in my last post on the subject, this is the key to understanding the development of early Christology. Once the identification was made between Jesus, the YHWH Angel, and the KAVOD, there was no turning back. The Christian Jews had begun to understand Jesus as equivalent with YHWH.

As far as worship, it appears that our earliest sources tell us that they were calling upon Jesus' NAME in intercessory ways, including healings. Now there is ample (and I mean ample) evidence in Jewish literature and magical objects from the period that show that there were Jews who were calling upon angels to intercede for them and to facilitate healings. The magical evidence from amulets and gems shows that the use of the angels' names were considered to be very powerful indeed.

Many scholars in the past have tried to explain away this evidence and to impose modern rabbinic and christian orthodoxy on the past in order to state that the Jews were not really venerating angels or practicising angel intercession because we all know they were monotheists. This is anachronistic and apologetic. The evidence both in the literature and the physical objects matches. The late second century rabbis generally disapproved and tried to stamp it out and write down their oral traditions in such a way that their ancestors would appear to be monotheists. But what the rabbis were doing was creating monotheism themselves, perhaps in response to the rise of Christianity from the Jewish sources, and I might add, the rise of Gnostic systems from these same sources which also relied upon the YHWH Angel and KAVOD traditions to develop the Demiurge.

In my opinion, the academic discussion is usually backwards. The discussion should not be how monotheistic Jews could or couldn't have worshiped Jesus.

The discussion should be along these lines: what must Judaism have looked like at the time of Jesus to allow his Jewish followers to conceive of him as YHWH and begin praying to him and using his NAME for intercession?

The impulse to divinize Jesus was an impulse within Judaism, and the later Rabbis knew this and reworked the traditions to try to shut it down and create a post-temple Judaism, which was a revival of the type of Judaism embraced by the group of post-exilic priests who put together the pentateuch and tried to rewrite their old polytheistic ancestral traditions along monotheistic lines. It didn't work in post-exilic Judaism mainly because the YHWH Angel and KAVOD traditions survived, allowing for exegetical interpretations to develop in which GOD remains hidden while he operates through his manifestation, his equivalent enthroned in heaven.

Creating Jesus 11: The Name Angel

I hope that these posts aren't getting too long and disjointed. I worry that bits and pieces are getting lost in between the posts. I want to keep reminding us that this tagging of Jesus with these various titles and scriptures isn't a linear process. And when one tag is made, it brings with it a host of connected tags and ideas. I also want to keep reminding us that what we have, even in Paul, is the "end" of the process of tagging - I don't mean by this that the tagging doesn't continue, it does, but every author is giving us the result of the tagging process he is aware of. So what we have to do as scholars is try to figure out how that particular picture of Jesus came about. We have to work backwards, often against the grain.

So what we know from the early sources is that Jesus' death was central in the development of Christology, not so much that they were trying to give his death theological meaning (i.e. atonement or overcoming passions), but that they were trying to figure out why he died when they weren't expecting it, at least as a criminal. They begin with what would have been a very natural explanation - he was a prophet who was rejected and a righteous man of God who was martyred. His death was important because it was a martyr's death which atones for the sins of Israel. This explained to them the visions of him that they claimed to have had - it wasn't his ghost or his spirit, but his resurrected body! He was glorified and exalted to heaven, receiving the reward every martyr expects.

As a prophet, he wasn't just any prophet. He was a messianic prophet (remember I argued that they likely saw him as a Messiah during his lifetime). He must have been the Prophet-like-Moses, a real hero. Like Moses and the other Jewish heroes (including Enoch, Jacob, even Adam), he was highly exalted, given God's Name and enthroned.

This meant that Jesus had been transfigured into some kind of angelic body, since the body-resurrected was the body transformed into a star/angel. Again, there is one great angel that is most appealing to tag to him. The Angel of YHWH (=the Angel of the Lord). This was God's principal angel. He bore God's Name and Image, and operated as God's visible manifestation. As such he is either operating with God's power, voice and authority or he is indistinguishable from God. It is this early identification of Jesus with this angel and the Name of God that was invoked at baptism (Acts 2:38) and for healings (Acts 3:6, 16; 4:30; cf. 16:18; 19:13, 17). It was the Name that had the magic power to get the results they wanted, be it the drawing down of the spirit or healing.

The YHWH angel is SUPER IMPORTANT. Without understanding this angel and his early association with Jesus, it is impossible to explain early Christology in my opinion. This association with the Name Angel brought with it the title "Judge" too, created from a pesher of images from the scriptures (Zech 3:1-7; Isa 66:15-16; Mal 3:1-5). Keep in mind, where the Jewish scriptures reads "LORD", the Name YHWH is in the manuscript. YHWH and the angel YHWH were understood by many Jewish and Christian readers to be indistinguishable entities.

Also remember that Paul knows the tradition of the eschatological Judge as it is applied to Jesus, but he doesn't appear to know that Judge as the "Son of Man" (Rom 2:16; 14:10; 1 Cor 4:5; 11:32). This very old line of thinking is preserved in the Ps. Clem. materials associated with the Ebionites, the Jewish-Christians who have connections with Jerusalem. Jesus is appointed by God as the greatest of the archangels, the "god of princes, who is Judge of all" (Ps. Clem. Rec 2.42).

Creating Jesus 10: Investiture with Divine Name

I wish to emphasize that the process we are discussing was not linear, but organic and dynamic. One idea brought with it a complex of other ideas and fairly quickly you get a new mosaic or collage of images and explanations developing around one figure. As the first Christian Jews were trying to sort out Jesus' death, this sorting had real implications for how they recalled and came to understand his life and teachings. Whether the manner in which they framed his ministry as the Prophet-like-Moses was actually how his ministry played out is doubtful, but there were likely bits and pieces of Jesus' life that they saw corresponded enough with the expectations of the Prophet-like-Moses mentioned in Deuteronomy 18:15-16 that this framing made sense to them. In other words, if Jesus himself didn't present himself as some kind of prophet, his very earliest followers did because it is multiply-attested in all the layers of the tradition. Clearly his followers didn't identify him with any ol' prophet. They hooked him into the traditions of the Prophet-like-Moses, who was a messianic figure within Judaism and especially Samaritanism. The idea was that during the last days the prophet would come to restore God's law to its original intent, and this would prepare the faithful for the final Judgment.

So we find stories of Jesus' baptism where the Spirit anoints him just as other prophets were anointed in the past (Wis. Sol. 7:27). For our upcoming discussion, it will be important to note that Mark portrays Jesus as a fully human being, whose soul has been augmented by the Spirit of God when he was possessed with the Spirit at his baptism.

The other very important factor here is that the Moses traditions were part of a larger complex of traditions in which the Jews were discussing their heroes as figures so righteous and loved by God that they were believed to be exalted and transfigured (i.e. Enoch, Jacob, Moses, etc). The Moses traditions are quite fascinating because Moses is given such an exalted status in heaven that he is pictured enthroned (on God's throne!) as God's viceroy and mediator. In Samaritan traditions, Moses is so exalted and glorified that he is even given God's divine Name. It is this willingness to exalt heroes, to enthrone them, to invest them with the divine Name, that helps us explain how and why Jesus gets associated with the divine Name too. Very early in the tradition, we have the confession "Jesus is Lord" which means "Jesus is YHWH" (i.e. 1 Cor 12:3; Phil 2:9-11; Rev 17:14; 19:16; Acts 2:38). Like any other idea, once the Name is associated with Jesus, so too is a number of other traditional complexes which I will discuss in an upcoming post.