2010-07-28

How Philo might have understood Christ in the NT epistles

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by Neil Godfrey

Philo was a Jewish philosopher in Egypt who died around 50 ce. Much of his literary work was an attempt to explain Jewish beliefs in the language of Greek (or Hellenistic) philosophers.

Curiously (for us at least) he spoke of “a second God” who was a manifestation of “the High God”. This second God was the Logos.

Why is it that he speaks as if of some other god, saying that he made man after the image of God, and not that he made him after his own image? (Genesis 9:6). Very appropriately and without any falsehood was this oracular sentence uttered by God, for no mortal thing could have been formed on the similitude of the supreme Father of the universe, but only after the pattern of the second deity, who is the Word [Logos] of the supreme Being (Questions on Genesis II.62)

On the face of it, this suggests that at least a significant number of Jews at the time Christianity was apparently emerging believed in “a second deity” — and if so, this would throw interesting light on the origins of Christianity with its belief in God the Father and his Son, also a deity, Jesus Christ.

The Christian belief, ever since rabbinic Judaism (after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce), has stood in stark contrast to a supposedly monolithic monotheism of Jewish belief that permits no other God being apart from the One God. Jewish beliefs before 70 ce, on the contrary, are not so clear cut. Some scholars have gone to great pains to define what precisely was meant by “monotheism” when ancient Jews appeared to simultaneously recognize companion deities or at least very high angelic powers of some sort.

One scholar, Alan F. Segal, in a famous work, Two Powers in Heaven, attempts to explain Philo’s passage by suggesting he his following the Greek philosophers who found it inconceivable that a highest and purest deity could directly interact with the mundane creatures of this world, and so required some sort of mediating manifestation of himself to do this “dirty work”.

Another scholar, Margaret Barker (The Great Angel) is not persuaded by Segal’s explanation. She believes it is far more likely that Philo took the ideas of a mediating divinity from existing Jewish beliefs and adapted or described them in terms of Greek philosophy. That is, he did not attempt to play with the facts of Jewish beliefs to make them sound palatable to Greek philosophers. He merely used philosophical language to describe Jewish beliefs.

Barker cites H. Wolfson’s 1948 two volume study on Philo as one of her supports:

With the example of Scripture before them (the Jews) were not afraid to make use in the description of their own religion of terms used in the description of other religions, but whatever common terms they used the difference was never blurred for them between truth and falsehood in religious belief . . .

Barker adds:

Elyon, God Most High, was never Zeus; Shaddai, Almighty, was never Hermes, even though for Greeks these were their special titles. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek existing Greek words were used both for the descriptions of God and for the terms connected with worship.

Wolfson’s view of Hellenistic Judaism may be over-rosy, but it still seems very unlikely that Philo could have invented a second deity and still have retained any credibility as a Jewish philosopher. (p.117)

This is a vast topic, so further discussion will have to be delayed for some other time. See also Margaret Barker’s online article, Text and Context.

Barker also notes the descriptions of other early Jewish writers, including where the earlier Qumran texts differ in favour of her argument from the Masoretic (current Hebrew) text.

To these she adds the other names Philo attributes to the Logos:

  • King
  • Shepherd
  • High Priest
  • Covenant
  • Rider on the Divine Chariot
  • Archangel
  • Firstborn Son

. . . and within this context believes that the Logos Philo describes reflects Jewish beliefs of his day in a mediating being separate from the High God.

But to cut to the chase.

Compare the descriptions of Jesus Christ in the Epistle to the Colossians with the terms used by Philo to describe this “second deity”, the Logos.

Colossians 1:15-20

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.
17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist/hold together.
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 may have the preeminence.
Reconciled in Christ
19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell,
20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.

The following is taken from pages 151-152 of The Great Angel:

i. He is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15)

Now the image of God is the Word (Philo: On Special Laws 1.81)

ii. He is the firstborn over all creation (Col. 1:15)

And even if there be not as yet any one who is worthy to be called a son of God, nevertheless let him labor earnestly to be adorned according to his [God’s] first-born word, the eldest of his angels, as the great archangel of many names; for he is called, the authority, and the name of God, and the Word, and man according to God’s image, and he who sees Israel. (Philo: On the Confusion of Tongues, 146)

iii. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, . . .  All things were created through Him (Col. 1:16)

The Word, by which all the world/universe  was made. (Philo: On the Special Laws I.81)

iv. in Him all things consist/hold together. (Col. 1:17)

this universe is held together by invisible powers (Philo: On the Migration of Abraham 181 “The Word was the chief of the powers.” MB)

v. He is the beginning (Col. 1:18)

his first-born word, the eldest of his angels, as the great archangel of many names; for he is called, the authority [the beginning], and the name of God, and the Word, and man according to God’s image, and he who sees Israel. (Philo: On the Confusion of Tongues, 146) — (See also the final quotation in this post from Allegorical Interpretation.)

The beloved Son made peace by means of blood (Col. 1.20); one thinks of the Word as the heavenly high priest. Later in the chapter Paul speaks of the Word of God as “The mystery hidden for ages  and generations but now made manifest to his saints . . . (Col. 1.26). (p.152)

Epistle to the Hebrews

i. His Son . . . through whom also He made the worlds; (Heb. 1.2)

ii. who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, (Heb. 1.3)

for as those who are not able to look upon the sun itself, look upon the reflected rays of the sun as the sun itself, and upon the halo around the moon as if it were the moon itself; so also do those who are unable to bear the sight of God, look upon his image, his angel word, as himself. (Philo: On Dreams, 1.239)

iii. and upholding all things by the word of His power, (Heb. 1.3)

this universe is held together by invisible powers (Philo: On the Migration of Abraham 181 “The Word was the chief of the powers.” MB)

iv. purged our sins (Heb. 1.3)

v. We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens,  (Heb. 8.1)

For there are, as it seems, two temples belonging to God; one being this world, in which the high priest is the divine word, his own firstborn son. The other is the rational soul, the priest of which is the real true man, the copy of whom, perceptible to the senses, is he who performs his paternal vows and sacrifices, . . . (Philo:On Dreams, 1.215)

vi. He is also Mediator of a better covenant (Heb. 8.6)

“cf. 1 Tim. 2.5, there is one mediator between God and men, and Questions on Exodus II.13, the Word was appointed as Judge and Mediator” MB, p.152

Other NT epistles

Jesus was manifested in the flesh (1 Tim. 3.16), the Shepherd and Guardian (1 Pet. 2.25) and the heavenly king who ruled under Another (1 Cor. 15.28), cf. ‘setting over it [the creation] His true Word and Firstborn Son who shall take upon him its government like some viceroy of a great king . . . .’ (On Agriculture 51) (p. 152)

* For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. (1 Peter 2:25)

* And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all. (1 Cor. 15:28)

For God, like a shepherd and a king, governs (as if they were a flock of sheep) the earth, and the water, and the air, and the fire, and all the plants, and living creatures that are in them, whether mortal or divine; and he regulates the nature of the heaven, and the periodical revolutions of the sun and moon, and the variations and harmonious movements of the other stars, ruling them according to law and justice; appointing, as their immediate superintendent, his own right reason, his first-born son, who is to receive the charge of this sacred company, as the lieutenant of the great king; for it is said somewhere, “Behold, I am he! I will send my messenger before thy face, who shall keep thee in the Road.” (Philo: On Husbandry, 51)

Additionally Philo informs us that . . .

The Logos was the Name of God

his first-born word, the eldest of his angels, as the great archangel of many names; for he is called, the authority [the beginning], and the name of God, and the Word, and man according to God’s image, and he who sees Israel. (Philo: On the Confusion of Tongues, 146)

Man was made in the image of the Logos

Why is it that he speaks as if of some other god, saying that he made man after the image of God, and not that he made him after his own image? (Genesis 9:6). Very appropriately and without any falsehood was this oracular sentence uttered by God, for no mortal thing could have been formed on the similitude of the supreme Father of the universe, but only after the pattern of the second deity, who is the Word [Logos] of the supreme Being (Questions on Genesis II.62)

The Logos was the angel of Yahweh who guided Israel in the desert

for until a man is made perfect he uses divine reason [Logos] as the guide of his path, for that is the sacred oracle of scripture: “Behold, I send my angel before thy face that he may keep thee in the road, so as to lead thee into the land which I have prepared for thee. Attend thou to him, and listen to him; do not disobey him; for he will not pardon your transgressions, for my name is in Him. (On the Migration of Abraham, 174)

The Logos was the Covenant

Since then all steadiness, and stability, and the abiding for ever in the same place unchangeably and immovably, is first of all seen in the living God, and next in the word of the living God, which he has called his covenant (On Dreams, 2.237)

The Logos spoke from above the cherubim

But the divine word which is above these does not come into any visible appearance, inasmuch as it is not like to any of the things that come under the external senses, but is itself an image of God, the most ancient of all the objects of intellect in the whole world, and that which is placed in the closest proximity to the only truly existing God, without any partition or distance being interposed between them: for it is said, “I will speak unto thee from above the mercyseat, in the midst, between the two Cherubim.(On Flight, 101)

. . . the one his beneficent power, in accordance with which he made the world, and in respect of which he is called God; the other his chastening power, according to which he rules and governs what he has created, in respect of which he is further denominated Lord, and these two he here states to be divided in the middle by him standing above them both. “For,” says he, “I will speak to you from above the mercy-seat, in the midst, between the two Cherubims;“{Exodus 25:22.} that he might show that the most ancient powers of the living God are equal; that is to say, his beneficent and his chastising power, being both divided by the same dividing Word. (Who is the Heir?, 166)

The Logos is the Wisdom of God

Moreover, the soul falls in with a scorpion, that is to say, with dispersion in the wilderness; and the thirst, which is that of the passions, seizes on it until God sends forth upon it the stream of his own accurate wisdom, and causes the changed soul to drink of unchangeable health; for the abrupt rock is the wisdom of God, which being both sublime and the first of things he quarried out of his own powers, and of it he gives drink to the souls that love God; and they, when they have drunk, are also filled with the most universal manna; for manna is called something which is the primary genus of every thing. But the most universal of all things is God; and in the second place the word of God. (Allegorical Interpretation, II.86)

So,

what was it that was so distinctively new about Christianity and the Jesus Christ of the epistles again?

If Philo does indeed express the religious beliefs of many Jews of the early first century, one must ask if Christianity was quite possibly a natural evolution of a certain strand of Jewish thought. Another evolutionary branch after the fall of Jerusalem must surely be rabbinic Judaism.

At least such a notion must surely be more plausible than any proposition that Christianity began with something “inexplicable” after the death of a failed messiah as a crucified criminal, which “inexplicable event” led Jews suddenly exalt this person to divine status alongside God and to symbolically eat and drink his flesh and blood.

Why not explore the alternative, that the authors of the NT epistles were developing a Jewish idea of a spirit or heavenly entity as Christ, and not a recent historical figure at all? (I know, we have the “seed of David” and James the Lord’s brother to answer for, but what makes more sense? But I’ll hit on at least one of those in my next post, or the one after that, maybe.)

Other posts on Margaret Barker’s The Great Angel are archived under the Barker: Great Angel link at top of this post, or in the categories in the right margin of this blog.




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19 Comments

  • 2010-07-29 03:01:14 UTC - 03:01 | Permalink

    Neil, careful. You are starting to sound like a mythicist.

  • mikelioso
    2010-07-29 03:50:48 UTC - 03:50 | Permalink

    Christian theologians have found Philo’s work interesting for a while, and it is they we can thank for knowing about Philo as the Jews found his work a lot less compelling and did not preserve it, so Philo joins the ranks of Josephus as major sources of knowledge on first century Judaism preserved by Christians.

    It is interesting that when Christian theologians were working out the nature of Christ in relation to God they did not use the model Philo used. I am certain that the first Christians used this model, or something close to it developed by Philo him self, or perhaps from Jewish Philosophers working with Philo. I lean toward a direct use of Philo as the Gospel of Mark borrows the Jesus v. Barabbas bit from one of Philo’s works dealing with Caligula, so if G. Mark is familiar with this work, it is likely he is familiar with his philosophical text too.

    On Philo’s second God, I don’t see the need for a significant number of Jews to have held this position. Philo makes little use of the concept in the rest of his works, Paul doesn’t use it, so the next place someone may be using Philo’s second God is G. John. There is no evidence that Philo picked up the idea from any one and his reading audience would not have been very big. That he wasn’t shunned or, as far as we know, reprimanded could be explained by his second god essentially being the first God. Philo’s conception of God is similar to that of some Mystic Jewish sects that hold that God is ultimately non-existent, that it has no attributes the human mind can conceive of. What is perceived as God are spirits that emanate from the true God. So God’s mind may not be God, but it is his. Paul’s twist (if it is Paul’s innovation) is that these emanating spirits of God are Jesus the Christ. i think the difference of our views on this lie in my concluding that Paul thinks this Jesus the Christ was a man who died a while back on a cross outside of Jerusalem.

    On the implications of Philo and the development of Christianity, I would place Christianity in among groups looking to bring in Greek philosophy into Judaism. I can’t really say how soon Philo’s works were circulating in Palestine or how many other Jewish philosophers were developing thoughts like his. I have seen evidence for Jesus-less Gnosticism so Philo and the Christians were not the only ones doing Greek Jewish blends of religion at the time.

    “At least such a notion must surely be more plausible than any proposition that Christianity began with something “inexplicable” after the death of a failed messiah as a crucified criminal, which “inexplicable event” led Jews suddenly exalt this person to divine status alongside God and to symbolically eat and drink his flesh and blood.”

    The so called “inexplicable event” would also bedevil any Christ Myth theories since Paul makes the claim that he and a number of other people saw this Jesus thing, and it is a strong implication in Paul’s work that his Gospel begins with these “inexplicable events”. Of course there only inexplicable to those that want the aura of mystery around them, to preserve a special black box that within perhaps miracles happen. I would argue that there have been a large number of people claiming to see the Virgin Mary including some involving masses of people. I suspect that something similar is at work and that something is not spirits from heaven.

    “the alternative, that the authors of the NT epistles were developing a Jewish idea of a spirit or heavenly entity as Christ, and not a recent historical figure at all? (I know, we have the “seed of David” and James the Lord’s brother to answer for, but what makes more sense?”

    It also makes sense that this development in Jewish ideas about heavenly entities was applied to a recent historical guru figure and thus no need to find unusual explanations for “seed of David” or James, the Lord’s brother, or lack of a tradition describing Jesus as a purely heavenly figure who was not a presence in the realm of vulgar human interaction (as a mortal man or spirit in disguise).

    • 2010-07-29 17:04:07 UTC - 17:04 | Permalink

      Not sure if I quite grasp your argument. Are you saying that the best explanation for Christian origins is that his followers really came to believe that he rose from the dead after his crucifixion, and they were able to convert others, Jews and gentiles, to this belief, and to the idea that he was also a divinity and creator and sustainer of the universe to be worshiped alongside God?

    • rey
      2010-07-30 04:44:33 UTC - 04:44 | Permalink

      “On Philo’s second God, I don’t see the need for a significant number of Jews to have held this position. Philo makes little use of the concept in the rest of his works, Paul doesn’t use it, so the next place someone may be using Philo’s second God is G. John.”

      Paul may not follow Philo’s concept of the second deity, but Paul has two deities in 2nd Corinthians 3-4, the god of this world and the God who said “let light shine out of darkness” (i.e. the God that sent Jesus into the world).

  • 2010-07-29 16:56:47 UTC - 16:56 | Permalink

    I think many who oppose the Christ Myth idea do so because they assume that a reference to a human Jesus by itself must imply historicity. Probably most (certainly a very large ratio) mythical figures who have appeared on earth have at some time been portrayed as human. And Jewish writings of the Second Temple period often speak of a Heavenly Man.

    So I don’t see the relevance of a figure being human to whether or not it is mythical.

    Re Philo, I am not saying that Philo himself influenced Christianity. I am simply noting the interesting (to me) example of the thinking around at the time of the composition of the NT epistles. These generally are thought to precede the gospels, and thus have a right to be used as indicators of the pre-gospel notions of Jesus among certain sects at least.

    Can it be denied that something equally interesting happens if we play a little mind game and read the NT epistles through the mind of, let’s just take one surviving example of another set of pre-gospel Jewish ideas from around the same era, say Philo?

  • mikelioso
    2010-07-30 03:09:45 UTC - 03:09 | Permalink

    Not sure if I quite grasp your argument. Are you saying that the best explanation for Christian origins is that his followers really came to believe that he rose from the dead after his crucifixion, and they were able to convert others, Jews and gentiles, to this belief, and to the idea that he was also a divinity and creator and sustainer of the universe to be worshiped alongside God?

    It is a simple argument. Effectively that is the line Orthodox Christianity and Gnostic Christianity used and they were quite successful. Only a few of the later generation of course would claim personal contact with the risen Christ, but only 500+ of the first ones made a similar claim. That he was a divinity to be worshiped along side God may not have been that wide spread. The Ebionites didn’t seem to hold to Jesus’ divinity so that may mean that this aspect was not have been a fundamental part of early Christianity. Paul doesn’t seem to consider Jesus as synonymous with God but does place him up very high in the hierarchy of things. It is hard to say how Paul’s positions and James’ compared since we don’t have any thing from that part of the church from that period to compare that is as reliably dated and authored as Paul’s letters. It may have been close though. While James seemed to have some popular support in Jerusalem, he was stoned to death which implies that some thought his ideas were, to say the least, unkosher.

    There have been a number of people in recent history who have claimed to be God, God’s right hand person, or to have miraculous power that have gotten surprisingly large followings and this is a skeptical age, so why such a thing 2000 yeas ago causes your brain to short circuit is beyond me.

  • 2010-07-30 07:23:13 UTC - 07:23 | Permalink

    I am still not clear, sorry. On the one hand you seem to be suggesting that most of the early Christians did not worship Christ as a divinity, and point to the Ebionites, a minority sect we know from late sources, as evidence for this. On the other hand, you seem to be saying that I am dense for not thinking that most early Christians did accept Jesus as a divinity from the get-go, and cite “recent history” as support without naming any specific examples of similarities to the early Christian beliefs.

  • mikelioso
    2010-07-31 05:13:52 UTC - 05:13 | Permalink

    I suggest that the first Christians did not worship Jesus as a god because that is my position, and is not quite the position you ascribed to me. But the position you attributed to me was hardly a stinking failure, while I think it didn’t come into being until some years after the beginning of the movement, it was the eventually the winning position, so probably not completely ridiculous to people of the time. As to some recent god men, messiahs, and miracle workers, Jehovah Wanyonyi, Father Divine, Lou de Palingboer, Mitsuo Matayoshi, Vissarion, Nirmala Srivastava, Mātā Amritanandamayī Devī, Claude Maurice Marcel Vorilhon, Jim Jones, David Koresh. All of whom were nearly as well received as Jesus at the time of Paul. Note that I am not arguing you are dense for not thinking that most early Christians did accept Jesus as a divinity, but as I said, God, or God’s right hand person, or to have miraculous power. I think reasonable people can debate what the first Christians thought Jesus was.

  • 2010-07-31 09:27:13 UTC - 09:27 | Permalink

    The argument I have been making is that the earliest evidence of Christianity shows that Jesus was worshiped as an exalted divinity from the beginning of the movement. The epistles that predate the gospels even declare him to be the creator and sustainer of the universe. The evidence that we have shows that the move to humanize Jesus was a later development.

    Your argument that Christianity developed otherwise is theoretical, and lacks, I suggest, evidence to support it.

    But even the theoretical argument is, I think, without historical precedent. The list of names you cite simply don’t bear any comparison with your theory of how Christianity started. Some of the names were considered gods in their lifetime, but the movements collapsed after their deaths. This is the exact reverse of your theory.

    Other names you cite were/are never considered divinities at all, but merely prophets or saints.

    I think you are being a little unkind in accusing me of ascribing to you certain positions when I have, rather, attempted to ask you to clarify your views so I know how to respond to them appropriately.

  • mikelioso
    2010-07-31 16:20:26 UTC - 16:20 | Permalink

    I disagree over the idea that Christianity started with another God for Judaism. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.
    As I said in the introduction to the list, the names are of god men, messiahs, and miracle workers, as in the original post where I said that a number of people claiming to be God, God’s right hand person, or to have miraculous power had surprisingly large followings. That most fail does not disrupt the point because we expect most new religions to fail particularly of a radical type. Religions is a conservative enterprise. Most religious ideas fail to catch on, please don’t make me send a list because you know of many yourself. But can you accurately predict that none of the movements today around some charismatic fraud will be the next Christianity? And mythic Christianity is no success story, its lack of impact on Christianity other than supply is supposed creator demonstrating, I think a rather rapid decline. How many early forms of Christianity do you think may no longer have any evidence of their existence?

    I thought I saw sarcasm in your “I’m not sure if I grasp you argument” line, not an actual request for clarification. The position is a common Christian devotional one and I thought your were dismissing me a Christian fundamentalist of some type. It is the position of several that Jesus bodily rose from the dead, and he taught that he was God and his followers were all trinitarians and the Jews knew from the Old Testament that God was a trinity but in there evil denied it, you know traditional Christian stuff. My position is somewhat different. In a nut shell some of Jesus’ followers thought he was Messiah, some of these may have had backgrounds in Mystical forms of Judaism and/or Platonism. Some time soon after his death, some of his followers claimed to have saw him, probably as a vision, revealing a mystical bent. Over the next couple of decades followers of a more mystical bent speculate on the position of Jesus as Christ to God influenced by Jewish philosophy of the period. At first Jesus wasn’t identified with the deity but as fewer first generation Jewish convert joined the movement in relation to pagans, and Jews who were raised in Christian communities, the emphasis on the oneness of God broke down and more Pagan and esoteric ideas about divinity took hold. I don’t think any of this is particularly original and has all been said before I’m sure. I would be surprised if I innovated any of this.

  • 2010-07-31 17:11:26 UTC - 17:11 | Permalink

    The fact that none of the names you provide is an example of how Christianity is said to have started is significant. It suggests that the explanations usually offered for the origins of Christianity are without historical parallel.

  • mikelioso
    2010-07-31 17:40:53 UTC - 17:40 | Permalink

    Well no, none of them are Christianity, so I don’t think that that a group like the Church Universal and Triumphant for example, or Branch Davidians can be used as an exact example of how Christianity started. I suppose every such movement is different, new cults aren’t a franchise. What is your argument here?

    • 2010-07-31 20:54:02 UTC - 20:54 | Permalink

      We judge plausibility of events by analogy with what we know from experience or other learning. To propose that a movement began in a way for which there is no analogy in history is to propose something that is implausible. If we can point to nothing in human experience (history) that is comparable in any way to our speculations about how Christianity arose, then our speculations are against all we know of human experience, and therefore implausible.

  • mikelioso
    2010-08-01 04:09:16 UTC - 04:09 | Permalink

    I think you are mistaken in your suggestion that none of the cases mentioned are comparable in any way the to the development of Christianity. You can believe that there are no examples of a group believing that their founder is also a supernatural being, but would it be a rational belief? Out of curiosity do you think there are historical parallels for Doherty or another mythisist theories? Is it only the idea that people would exalt an actual historical founder that is so poorly represented in history? I feel I’m missing something in this and it’s making the conversation seem like some absurdest theater bit.

  • 2010-08-01 13:15:27 UTC - 13:15 | Permalink

    The examples you gave do not support your argument, which is, I understand:

    • that some of Jesus’ followers believed he was the Messiah and that some of these had some mystical or Platonist leanings, [I know of no evidence for this]
    • that after J’s death these followers claimed to have seen him, “probably” in vision [this goes against the evidence of the gospels]
    • over some decades more (Jewish) mystical followers came to speculate on J’s status in relation to God [again, evidence? if NT letters are the earliest evidence, then we have Jesus exalted to God status very soon after his death]
    • then as more pagans joined, the way was open to speculate that Jesus could be exalted to a divinity alongside God himself. [but are not the NT epistles the earliest evidence for Jesus being of God status — and are not these by Jews, not gentiles?]

    I think it is easy to confuse any movement that claims its founder is a God with the Christian origins models. But there are significant differences when one compares the “facts on the ground”, as they say.

    But compare

    Jehovah Wanyonyi: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jehovah_Wanyonyi He and his followers say he is God now — while alive on earth, now. (This has been common enough through history — e.g. ancient kings and emperors allow for some sort of comparison here.)

    Father Divine: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Father_Divine He claimed to be God while alive, and after his death his following dwindled away. This is the opposite of your model for Christian origins.

    Lou de Palingboer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lou_de_Palingboer – Again he and his followers sort of claimed he was God during his life time, but the movement withered after his death. Again, the reverse of your model for Christianity.

    Mitsuo Matayoshi: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitsuo_Matayoshi — Again, his followers declare him to be God right now while he is still pumping blood and breathing air. This is not the same as your model where years after his death and burial thousands of new followers who never knew him joined his cult and exalted him to God status. It is surely implausible to think that anything like this will happen after his demise.

    Vissarion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vissarion — He is Jesus Christ reincarnated. Would that Jesus had been so popular in his own day. So what happens after his death to this cult? Should we expect it to multiply with new followers who today have never heard of him?

    And the others:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nirmala_Srivastava#Spreading_of_Sahaja_Yoga

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sahaja_Yoga

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mata_Amritanandamayi (I think she’s only a saint now.)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_Vorilhon

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Jones — Jim Jones was never God and his movement kind of “died out”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Koresh — Again, no one has exated him to divine status through an ever expanding following since Waco.

    Now many religions have grown up around founding prophets etc. No question. We have the Mormons and JWs today as obvious modern examples. But I know of none that has over time come to exalt its founder to God status, especially through the influence of much later converts who never knew that person.

    As for the mythicist analogy in history. Sure. Look at William Tell. Now he somehow morphed out of a range of myths, some with similarities to Nordic legends, to become a “real historical person”.

    The god Rama also is believed to have been a real historical being by many Hindus.

    Many ancients believed that their gods came down to earth at various times in human form — “in the likeness of men” — to interact with humans before returning to heaven or the real “Mount Olympus.”

    Church fathers, such as Justin Martyr, quite openly acknowledged that such pagan beliefs were direct parallels with Christian beliefs. That’s not a mythicist argument. That’s the claim of Church Fathers. Of course, they explained it all away by saying that Satan had counterfeited the true belief to confuse mankind when Jesus appeared.

    The mythicist arguments that I respect are those that argue that Christ evolved out of various other philosophical and religious ideas of the times, and continues in that “mythical” dimension of heaven today. There is nothing unusual about that. What happened along the way was that a belief among some emerged that this god had also spent some time on earth before returning to his proper status in heaven. This particular belief became the dominant one within Christianity.

    The details vary. No parallels are exact in all details. If they were, they would not be parallel but identical — not two, but one.

    So we do know from human experience and history that it is quite plausible for myths to be the origins of people who were later thought to be historical. We also know that the Church Fathers themselves saw analogies between Christian and pagan beliefs about their gods appearing as humans and returning to heaven again, sometimes after a cruel death on earth.

    We also know that Second Temple period Jews themselves personified some of their spirit or heavenly entities, and were able to create stories or parables of sorts around them, such as Wisdom.

    But I don’t know of anything in history that compares with the idea that a real historical mortal attracted an ever growing following after his death among those who never knew him while alive, and that over time he was exalted to divine status. That sort of model just doesn’t sit with any human experience I know of.

    If I am wrong, and there are exceptions, then fine. I’d like to know.

  • mikelioso
    2010-08-02 05:16:27 UTC - 05:16 | Permalink

    Thank your for taking the time to such an in depth opinion of the ideas I support. I swear I don’t think there my own and could probably compile a list of works that influenced me, but I take lousy notes, so that would take awhile. I wouldn’t mind discussing it more but I don’t want to take space on your blog talking about my ideas.

    I think you are too dismissive of my examples based on the differences you find in them while overlooking the differences in the examples you provided to support the mythic Christ. William Tell is not worshiped by anyone, some segment of the ancient population probably always thought that the gods interacted in “real” history, none of the mystery religions made their founder into a recent figure in history. We are not going to find another religion that matches the development of Christianity exactly. But we can draw comparisons with other religions to examine how religions like this start and develop.

    To demonstrate one that doesn’t trip on you most frequent complaints, of the founder being deified while alive and collapsing after there demise, I point to the Nation of Islam, an American racist sect. They have deified there founding figure, W. Fard Muhammad.

    12. WE BELIEVE that Allah (God) appeared in the Person of Master W. Fard Muhammad, July, 1930; the long-awaited “Messiah” of the Christians and the “Mahdi” of the Muslims.
    Found here
    http://www.noi.org/muslim_program.htm

    This wasn’t some thing he did or done while he was alive. And as a God, he is of course not really dead(except in the Nietzsche sense). For Fard’s back ground, go here
    http://www.finalcall.com/artman/publish/Minister_Louis_Farrakhan_9/The_Greatness_of_Master_Fard_Muhammad.shtml

    The article is edifying for a look at how a religious group handles the biography of its founder as well, how much of this is fiction? How is he presenting this man to conform to past examples?

    The comparison is far from exact but he was deified after his death and the Nation is holding its own in the religious market place since the 30’s, though exact figures are hard to come by. None the less since no one will confuse the Nation of Islam for Christianity feel free to dismiss the comparison.

  • 2010-08-02 20:29:26 UTC - 20:29 | Permalink

    The following is my take entirely. I am sure a simpler and more succinct response could suffice. But here I go nonetheless.

    Every analogy must by definition contain differences between the two entities being compared. If there were no differences we would not have 2 or more things, only the 1.

    The central point of your explanation, as I understand it, is that a mere man, some decades after his death, exalted to a divine status alongside God himself etc etc as a result of an influx of new converts who had never known him in the flesh. I think that is your argument in a nutshell.

    In support you offered a number of names that are to some extent comparable, apparently. But on closer examination, I think I have shown that none of the names you offered even approximates your model: in every case they are examples of people who either regarded the founder as God while alive, and the following of this founder withered to nothing after his death; in other cases, the founder was not considered divine at all, but the movements died with the founder, in effect. All this is what we would normally expect. But it is far removed from your explanation of Christian origins.

    In my rebuttals, or at least one of them, I also referred to ancient kings and emperors being considered divine. I took this detail for granted, assuming it was well known, but then again, I have a more extensive background in ancient history than many others, so maybe I was taking too much for granted.

    Roman emperors, for example, usually actually became literal divinities after their deaths. But the sense in which they became divinities by no means compares with the Christian model. They were added to the stars in the heavens, etc, but they were by no means declared to be the exclusive saviours of all mankind and creators and sustainers of the universe. We are not talking about Jesus becoming a mere divinity like just one more Roman emperor etc, but we are talking about someone who can sit on the very throne of God and be worshiped alongside this one sole God.

    Over the centuries, the traditional pagan “gods” were subsumed as angels and saints in heaven. They never approached the status of Jesus.

    My argument is that the best explanation for this is that Jesus was from the very beginning seen as a divinity alongside God– his manifestation and sustainer of all creation etc. — that is, the Logos and its equivalents in Hellenistic, Stoic and Jewish Second Temple thought.

    Now, if this is the case, is it plausible that such a mythical entity could ever come to be thought of as human on earth?

    My William Tell example, as I explained, was to demonstrate that it is quite possible for mythical entities to acquire a human real life historical representation. That is part of the analogy. I certainly don’t say it is the whole picture. Of course Tell is not worshipped. But the analogy does demonstrate the plausibility of a myth being transformed into a historical character.

    My references to the testimony of the analogies admitted by the second century church fathers further demonstrated that it is plausible for gods to be thought to have appeared in the likeness of humans before returning, sometimes through death, back to heaven.

    The one constant criticism of this analogy is that my model requires an example of anyone making a historical person in recent times a god. This is merely a matter of timing. The analogy itself holds. But as for the timing, we need to take stock of the specific case here. We are talking about a religion for which we find no clear external support till the very late first century or early second century. We are talking about a people who have been dispossessed, whose national/religious/cultural identity was destroyed in 70 ce, and again even more finally in the 130s. Explanations are demanded. Alternative identities, and continuities, are demanded.

    The answer comes in finding that a Second Temple entity worshiped under various guises for many decades, even generations, is said, perhaps by parable at first, like Wisdom, to have appeared incognito among that generation that began the destruction of “their world”, and whose rejection explained the reason for their demise.

    These groups, after 70, found themselves in opposition to another cluster of traditional Judaism, and who became the founders of “rabbinic Judaism”.

    Maybe there were others, such as the progenitors of the gnostics.

    They were all responses to the crisis of 70 ce. This is all consistent with the external evidence as we have it, and plausibly explains the data as we find it.

    That is ONE explanation for attributing divine status to a “recent’ historical figure — recent by about 60 years at the very earliest, probably longer, if we rely on external evidence for the existence of the gospels.

    We are not talking about a figure within the lifetimes of the first readers. The NT epistles only witness to this Logos/Christ figure as a heavenly being, and know nothing of the gospel narratives that came much, much later.

    Now, as for your new case-study, this is but merely a claim that a historical person was the mahdi. That is nothing. There have been probably dozens of Muslim leaders rising up through history claiming to be the Mahdi, and Jesus Christ, or Elijah, etc etc. We all know that without saying. Some of the names in your original list are the same — only time will tell if they last and become a major religion distinct from anything before them after they die. Historical precedent does not favour this.

    What we are talking about with Jesus is unique, if he really was a mortal historical person. His exaltation came, according to your thesis, by people decades after his demise who never knew him, and who came to exalt him as the co-creator and sustainer of the universe alongside God, and the only sole mediator and means of salvation for all mankind. Now that is something unique for any mere mortal.

    There is absolutely no historical precedent for this. The scholars and others who make this claim so often have to resort to things “not understood” – euphemisms for “miracles”! — to explain it.

    And it gets worse. This particular mortal was not even exalted as a divinity in his own lifetime, but died the death of a criminal! Not even his closest followers believed in his divinity till AFTER his death!

    All the historical precedents are on the side of the mythicists.

    All the historical precedents are against the historicists.

  • mikelioso
    2010-08-04 05:30:31 UTC - 05:30 | Permalink

    All the historical precedents are on the side of the mythicists.

    All the historical precedents are against the historicists.”

    Well I’m glad that has been settled!

    “Now, as for your new case-study, this is but merely a claim that a historical person was the Mahdi.”

    My Grandfather used to read the headlines of the papers and then draw all kinds of odd conclusions about the event without bothering to read the article, here you’ve read the last part of the sentence and skipped the first “12. WE BELIEVE that Allah (God) appeared in the Person of Master W. Fard Muhammad, July, 1930;” unless the Mahdi is the appearance of God as a person.

    “My William Tell example, as I explained, was to demonstrate that it is quite possible for mythical entities to acquire a human real life historical representation.”

    My examples were used to demonstrate the plausibility of a group believing a human being was a supernatural being or even God.

    “The one constant criticism of this analogy is that my model requires an example of anyone making a historical person in recent times a god. This is merely a matter of timing. The analogy itself holds.”

    The timing is by no means mere, Osiris and Dionysus had their “historical” lives in the far distant past, before history. Osiris is presented as an ancient Egyptian king and inventor of their agriculture, a very ancient king really, and Dionysus invades India 6451 years before Alexander according to Plinly. There is no parallel in the attribution of a heavenly god being a person recent history.
    http://www.theoi.com/Olympios/DionysosMyths3.html#India
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osiris

    What you seem to be saying is it is without precedent that someone would claim a real person is a god and that movement prosper, but there is precedent that someone would present a mythical person as a real person who is a god and that movement prosper. To the potential convert both ideas sound the same, some guy in the last few generations is a god. The evidence points to that(some guy in the last few generations is a god)idea having been readily accepted by a small but growing segment of the late classical world. What did not prosper are the ideas of Philo or any proposed second deities of second temple Judaism. You may argue that they are preserved in the various Christian sects, but that is only after they were converted into the historical Jesus, a crucified criminal of their grandparents generation.

    Now if we know that groups do claim from time to time that a person is a divine being, and that a group claiming that a “real” person is a God became Europe’s most popular religion, why is it so ludicrous that the group claiming that a person is a kind of god was founded by people that believed a real person was/is a kind of god? Is the unparalleled idea that a group converted a heavenly god into a recent historical person really much more plausible?

  • 2010-08-04 06:34:35 UTC - 06:34 | Permalink

    I have spent some time attempting to respond to your points in detail because you have raised a number of common misunderstandings of both the historicists own views and mythicism.

    My point about the Mahdi stands. I certainly did read #12, and have read more about the various mahdis that have appeared in history — within Islam. This is not very different from what was believed about Moses. The various attributes of the Mahdi are the same as many other Messiahs that have been written about — and very similar to the same claims of ancient kings and Pharaohs, too. Have posted details on all of this so won’t repeat here.

    Your last paragraph is now proposing a new argument — it is not what you were arguing earlier, which I summarized earlier, and which I was addressing. Your final paragraph is a very general description that no-one can disagree with. I agree with such a general claim. But it’s not what we have been discussing.

    To be clear about what we were addressing, I earlier repeated your argument to be sure I got it right. It might help if you could attempt the same — and summarize exactly what you think I am arguing, put it in writing, check it for feedback, and then argue to that. That’s what I attempted to do with your argument.

    This might help you avoid some of the confusion you express about both your own and my positions.

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