Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Jul/12

7

In the Beginning

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Much as I am not a fan of the public nuisance better known as Karen Armstrong, the opening two paragraphs of a review she has written for the FT today caught my eye:

Over the course of his long, distinguished career, Geza Vermes, the first professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford university, has made a major contribution to our understanding of the historical Jesus. In Christian Beginnings, as in his groundbreaking work Jesus the Jew (1973), he shows that Jesus would have been a recognisable and familiar figure to his contemporaries. A healer, exorcist and compelling preacher, he was the latest in a line of charismatic prophets who existed for centuries alongside the established priestly tradition and offered an alternative form of Judaism, based on vision, ecstasy and miraculous healing, and frequently in conflict with the Israelite ruling class.

In this book, however, Vermes takes the story further, showing how the human figure of Jesus became increasingly other-worldly until, at the Council of Nicaea in 325, he was declared fully divine. Vermes points out quite correctly that in much of the New Testament, Jesus is perceived as “a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders and signs” (Acts 2.22), a typical definition of a charismatic prophet. In Judaism, the title “Son of God” was simply a human being who enjoyed special intimacy with God and had been given a divine task: kings, prophets and priests – and the entire people of Israel – were all called “sons of God” in this sense…

7 comments

  • mike shupp · July 9, 2012 at 3:31 am

    That Jesus Christ was one of many Jewish mystics and reformers was a point made back around 1900, and accentuated by the Dead Sea scrolls. We’re not on new ground here, even if the matter isn’t being stressed in your Sunday school.

  • Lynn Maudlin · July 10, 2012 at 7:48 am

    Actually, in the Hebrew scriptures, ‘bene Elohim’ (sons of God) was used to indicate angelic beings, not humans who enjoyed special intimacy with God (six occurrences).

    Jesus referred to Himself as “the Son of man,” which is also how the Lord addressed Ezekiel throughout that prophetic book. Jesus referred to God as “the Father” and, in that context, Himself as “the Son,” but I don’t know any case in which Jesus referred to Himself as “the Son of God.”

    Using the term, “sons of God,” to mean humans who are in God’s special favor doesn’t show up until the Christian scriptures. Is there extra-Biblical use that Vermes cites?

  • Lynn Maudlin · July 10, 2012 at 8:01 am

    Failed attempt to edit comment (!!); there is one place in John 10:36 where Jesus says, “Do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (the point clearly being that it’s only blasphemy if it’s not true.

    It starts when Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” and the Jews take up stones to stone Him for blasphemy – they certainly understood that He was claiming a unique relationship with the Father and not simply the typical definition of a charismatic prophet.

  • Polichinello · July 11, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    This is an old argument. The idea of Jesus’ divinity is located both in the Gospels and Paul’s letters. No, you don’t have to believe in it, nor do they come right out with a Nicene formulation, but it’s rather clear that the early Christians viewed Jesus as something more than just a really good guy. Indeed, the way he forgave sins and asserted his future role as the judge of mankind–he claimed the Danielic title of ‘Son of Man’–is pretty good evidence that he saw himself being of angelic or near divine status.

    Of course, there were other Jewish preachers effecting cures, casting out demons and even rising from the dead, but none of them had a following that attached divine status to him that we know of. And when this was made clear, the other Jews of the time quickly rejected the Christians in a way they did not do with other more orthodox Jewish preachers.

  • Author comment by Andrew Stuttaford · July 13, 2012 at 3:08 am

    Mike, agree with you about that. I was more interested in the argument that it took a while before Jesus’s divinity was accepted.

  • Author comment by Andrew Stuttaford · July 13, 2012 at 3:12 am

    Polichinello,

    Here’s more from Armstrong’s piece:

    St Paul, who took Christianity into the gentile world, believed that at his resurrection Jesus was raised by God to an exalted status, far above most humans, but still inferior to the Father. Vermes notes that Paul consistently prayed to God – not to Jesus. It was John, the author of the Fourth Gospel, written in about 100AD, who set the pattern for the future. His Jesus is the Logos, the Word of God who had existed with the Father before the creation of the world; the Son was a transcendent figure who came from Heaven and was somehow one with the Father.

    But John’s high Christology was by no means the norm. Other important texts of the late first century, such as the Didache and The First Epistle of Clement, either spoke of Jesus as God’s “Servant” or saw him in Pauline terms as man raised to high status but essentially distinct from, and inferior to, God. The tendency to deify Jesus seems first to have appeared during the second century in Syria and Asia Minor (where the Fourth Gospel was probably written). Thus, in letters written in about 110AD, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was the first to speak plainly and consistently of Jesus as God, while at the same time emphasising that Jesus was also entirely human – a paradox that later generations of Christians would struggle to resolve.

    The great theologians of the third century – Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Eusebius of Caesarea – all refused to put Jesus on the same footing as God. But in the early fourth century, a bitter dispute broke out in Alexandria between the presbyter Arius, who insisted that the Son had been created by God and raised to divine status after the crucifixion, and the bishop and his assistant Athanasius, who were equally adamant that Jesus was God tout court. Neither side could claim to be representative; both were stridently and unhelpfully extreme. Nevertheless, under pressure from the newly converted Emperor Constantine, who hoped that Christianity would become a unifying force in his far-flung empire and was appalled by this unseemly quarrel, at Nicaea the bishops signed a creed that reflected Athanasius’s views – and then went back to their dioceses to teach what they had taught before.

    I cut-and-paste, you decide.

  • Polichinello · July 13, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    St Paul, who took Christianity into the gentile world, believed that at his resurrection Jesus was raised by God to an exalted status, far above most humans, but still inferior to the Father.

    Colossians 12-19 KJV
    “Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light:

    13 Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son:

    14 In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins:

    15 Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:

    16 For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:

    17 And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.

    18 And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.

    19 For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell;”

    This is a snippet from a hymn the writer of Colossians is quoting. The idea of the pre-existent son can be found in Paul’s writing.

    Now to the idea that this is something Paul did to market Christianity to the Gentiles. This is doesn’t make sense because we have no record of any argument between Paul and the more Jewish believers over this issue, and it’s not as if Paul were one to hold back. At his most incendiary, he’s fighting about ham sandwiches and circumcision. I would think a dispute over Jesus’ putative divinity would rank a bit higher, but we have no evidence whatsover of any dispute along these lines, not in Paul’s writing, nor in the Acts of the Apostles. The only conflict that shows up is in later writings of people like Ireneaus, who describes the Ebionites, a mid-second century heresy.

    If the first-century Jewish Christians were really unitarians, why then did the more orthodox Jews feel a need to execute James? Why in 85 AD did they feel a need to curse them along with the Sadducees? This should put the figure of Jesus outside the norm of Jewish preachers.

    The funny thing is, the first disputes of this nature were really about Jesus’ humanity. The orthodox had to insist that Jesus was human and he was truly crucified. Thus John’s first chapter states the divine claim, but then goes one to argue against the gnostics that “the Word was made flesh.”

    Other important texts of the late first century, such as the Didache and The First Epistle of Clement, either spoke of Jesus as God’s “Servant” or saw him in Pauline terms as man raised to high status but essentially distinct from, and inferior to, God.

    This is arguing from an absence of evidence. Neither the Didache nor the Clementine epistle are theological tracts. They’re pastoral letters concerned with ritual and praxis.

    The great theologians of the third century – Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Eusebius of Caesarea

    Eusebius was not a “great theologian.” He was an historian. Origen and Clement are actually sources of trinitarian theology. That they put the Father first, is not a surprise, as that’s still understood today. The Son proceeds from the Father in the Nicene Creed. The persons have to be distinct, otherwise you slip into another heresy called modalism, sabellianism.

    Nevertheless, under pressure from the newly converted Emperor Constantine, who hoped that Christianity would become a unifying force in his far-flung empire and was appalled by this unseemly quarrel, at Nicaea the bishops signed a creed that reflected Athanasius’s views – and then went back to their dioceses to teach what they had taught before.

    The vote was 318-2. It wasn’t even close. If you want to say Constantine scared all these guys into voting his way, fine, then please account for how this same group seemed to hold up only a decade earlier under far harsher oppression from Diocletian.

    Ultimately, the trinitarian argument won because there’s no other way to reconcile belief not only in John’s Gospel (which the Arians never rejected), but also a great deal of the synoptics–where Christ took on God’s powers of forgiveness and judgement–not to mention the Pauline epistles.

    Armstrong, like so many liberals these days, is projecting. She’s claiming those nasty orthodox remade Jesus in their own trinitarian image (because they really, really wanted all those disputes! Ha!), but she’s trying to do the same thing: making a First Century Jew (generally someone with a worldview probably akin to Moqtada Sadr) into a 21st Century liberal.

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