Those who argue that Christ was certainly a historical figure on the basis that the NT epistles speak of him as having been “in the flesh” are often overlooking the contexts and real meaning of that descriptor.
Curiously, while we read in the epistles of Christ being “flesh” at some point, we never read of him living and dying on earth. His flesh form is sometimes set in juxtaposition, even if implicitly, to his spirit form. (This point I owe to Doherty in his most recent book, as I do some other points in this post.) God himself throughout the OT is well known to have taken many different forms. In these cases, we see “flesh” used as an expression of a doctrinal and mystical meaning, not primarily as a reference to some fleshly life-cycle.
That is not to say that there are other reasons for arguing that Jesus was historical, but it can be misguided to bring the “flesh” descriptor into the fray.
Firstly, note the difference between “flesh” and “body” in relation to Christ — or to any spirit being in the ancient Mediterranean world. A “corporeal body” can be attributed to Jew and gentile alike to spirit beings. The evidence for this is laid out (largely through Riley’s work, Resurrection Reconsidered) in earlier posts:
So leaving bodies behind, we focus on the mystical flesh alone.
For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace (Ephesians 2:14-15)
Here “flesh” serves a very specific doctrinal or better yet, mystical, function. The author is describing a mysterious spiritual process of making peace between two races and re-creating them as a single “new man” who exists “in himself”. That “peace process” was the abolishing of Jewish commandments and ordinances “in his flesh”.The law was abolished “in him” (or in his flesh) and the new spiritual “man” is created “in him” instead.
It appears that what happened in Christ’s “flesh” is something mystical that allowed other flesh (two peoples) to be recreated as one person “in him”.
But it is scarcely conceivable that the author means to say that the “new man” is to dwell in “his flesh”. That’s just too bizarre. We can infer from other places that he means the new man is to dwell in Christ as a “spirit” body or being.
So look at what the author is depicting here. There is nothing historical here at all. To think of this historically is to make complete nonsense of it. What the author is portraying is a being who appears “in flesh” in order to destroy something within that flesh, and so make a gateway for other flesh (mortals) to enter and live in him — in his spirit.
What we are reading here is something much more thrilling for an original reader and convert, I am sure, than a mundane crucifixion of a man between two bandits. What the reader begins to comprehend is a Christ being from God who has mystically enfolded them into his spirit self to thereby partake of divine life themselves, and to mystically “sit in heavenly places” — all as a result of raising them, too, from their spiritually dead state by destroying the commandments in his own flesh.
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:4-7)
The whole process of conversion for the mortal takes place “within Christ” himself. First Christ is “in flesh” in order to have the law destroyed in him — thus making a gateway or room for the “resurrected from the dead” convert to live and sit “in Christ Jesus” in heavenly places.
One best pictures this whole process as a heavenly being appearing for a moment in flesh in order to match the “dead” condition of the flesh below, and then in spirit in order to resurrect those spiritually dead below to sit with and in him in heavenly places.
As above, so below
The scene matches perfectly what we know of the ancient beliefs in “as above”, “so below”. Ancients, Jews too, believed the things and events on earth were the counterparts of things and events in heaven. We are all familiar enough with the heavenly temple and its sacrificial cult being an earthly counterpart of a heavenly temple and worship.
The Ephesians passage describing the activity of Christ as both flesh and spirit is in the exact same model as this.
Just as the heavenly being becomes flesh to die, so he is matching the condition of his chosen ones below in order to resurrect them, or convert them to a spirit life, just as he himself will become spirit again after his time in the flesh.
If we read this Ephesians passage in the way we know many ancients thought about their cosmological and metaphysical systems, we can begin to understand why there is no reference anywhere in the epistles to Jesus coming to live “on earth”. That would actually destroy the image the author was attempting to convey.
It would go against the grain of how we know ancients understood the relationship between conditions on earth and in heaven.
Forget the gospels. They were a much later development that robbed such passages in Ephesians of all their mystical power.
The Ephesians image above is actually very similar to another passage in Hebrews:
Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh (Hebrews 10:19-20)
Once again we see the mystical function of the flesh. It is a “gateway” to “the holiest”. It is something ordained by God in his Christ in order to allow sinful flesh to become righteous flesh and so enter the spirit life in the presence of God.
Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.
For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentile . . . (1 Peter 4:1-3)
As Earl Doherty comments on this particular passage, “this is a good example of the paradigmatic parallel between deity and devotee, the sharing of experiences (suffering ‘in flesh’) having results in the believer.” (p. 163 of Jesus: Neither God nor Man)
In these passages, then, we find “flesh” has as much a mystical function for the believer as does the “spirit” of Christ.
Gospel narratives destroy the mystical gospel of the epistles
To attempt to historicize of to anthropomorphize either would lead to something like a bare-bones of a gospel narrative, but all the meaning would be lost in such a gross literalization. And, of course, that is what largely happened. In the synoptics, at least, the spiritual meanings of Christ’s death have not been preserved. Unless, perhaps, one reads them symbolically.
The power of what Christ performed “in the flesh” in the passages above lies in its nonliteral and mystical meaning. It is an agent of God, who is also “in God”, who in heavenly places becomes flesh and once again spirit once the flesh is killed, who gives hope to the earthly believer and reader of these epistles.
Christ did not, at least for these epistle writers, become flesh to live a thirty- or fifty-year life-cycle on earth, only to die unjustly as a righteous martyr or in order to prove he could be resurrected again. No. In these epistles, Christ’s flesh was a mystical phenomenon that occurred in order to die — not to live on earth, but only for the moment of dying! And the dying was itself a mystical death that somehow abolished the commandments and joined different peoples together into “one new man” spiritually. And by doing this, his flesh-death opened the way for the believer to live anew “in Christ in heavenly places”.
There was no human life of Jesus to talk about because such a concept was irrelevant, and would only serve to deflect attention from what Paul called the real “power” of the gospel (Rom. 1:16).
When we see that this (the death in flesh primarily, and the resurrection) was the gospel — and that the complete gospel taught by these early authors is actually fully contained and explained in their epistles after all — then we can suddenly make sense of Paul’s boast that he intended to know “nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). We no longer have to explain our way around this by suggesting that he really meant a lot more that he didn’t have time or inclination to express. Christ crucified was the gospel. It was a mystical event that gave the convert mystical or spiritual power by opening his way to be “in Christ in heavenly places”.
Once this particular “Christ event” opened the way for the salvation of the believer, stories of miracles like healing the blind and walking on water must have been superfluous chaff by contrast — “another gospel” deserving of being “cursed” (Gal. 1:9) — unless they were read allegorically. And I think in the case of the Gospel of Mark, they really were originally read as parables: (as discussed in Notes on the fictive and parabolic nature of Mark’s gospel.)
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