2011-04-29

The Suffering Son Revealed in Vision?

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by Neil Godfrey

My verse for the day is 2 Peter 1:17

For he received from God the Father honour and glory when such a voice came to him from the Excellent Glory: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

The author is describing a visionary experience. While most of us familiar with the Bible have probably assumed the author is referring to the Transfiguration scene in the synoptic gospels, a more attentive reading suggests that this passage is independent of the synoptic scene, and that the synoptic authors more likely created their transfiguration scenes from a tradition of visions such as we read here in 2 Peter. (My point is not to argue that particular case here, but one argument for it is available online here.)

A little while ago I was discussing Paul’s visionary experiences and comparing them with the sorts of vision we also find described in the Ascension of Isaiah. I have since created a special archive for my posts discussing visions, and this post about the vision in 2 Peter will join that archive.

The detail in 2 Peter 1:17 that has been quietly tapping away in the back of my head is the refrain: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

These are the same words spoken “from the Excellent Glory” to Jesus when he emerged from the waters of baptism in the Gospel of Mark. That evangelist chose these words to introduce Jesus at the outset of his ministry on earth. Yet I suggest they were originally known to that author through familiarity with claims of certain apostles to have heard the words in a vision of the glorified Son of God.

As explained in previous posts, one of the preparations one had to undergo prior to receiving a vision was to focus intently on certain scriptures (Old Testament). So what passages would have inspired the hearing of these words?

There is a passage in Genesis where a heavenly voice says something very similar:

Take your beloved son, the one you love, and offer him up as a burnt sacrifice (Genesis 22:2).

Isaac was taken up to a mountain to be sacrificed. The vision in 2 Peter, and visions in the Enochian tradition generally, were associated with a holy mountain. (I know tradition has Isaac sacrificed on Mount Moriah and the Enochian visions were associated with Mount Hermon. But was the visionary taken up to “a mountain” as others ascended to a heavenly temple? 2 Peter is certainly very “Enochian” with its emphasis on fallen angels and related future judgments.)

And another in Isaiah:

This is My servant, whom I uphold,
My chosen one, in whom I delight.
I have put My spirit upon him,
He shall teach the true way to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1)

And we know that the following chapters in Isaiah speak of the redemptive suffering of that same servant.

No doubt I remain influenced by a work by Levenson that argued Isaac was displaced by Jesus in a certain Second Temple sectarian mythology of an atoning sacrifice.

I can understand a gospel author taking such a phrase and applying it to Jesus from the moment he appears on stage. The heavenly voice of favour marks him for (redemptive) suffering and destruction. (And visions were also associated with locations beside waters.)

The passage in 2 Peter could possibly be evidence that this Son was revealed – in vision – in majestic form as a conqueror, yes, but also as a Son who had suffered, even been slain as Isaac had been. Is that why the verse for the day speaks of him being bestowed with honour and glory? Had he not had honour and glory for a time prior to this moment?

The vision was said to confirm the prophetic word (1:19). Was that not the word of Isaiah, and of Genesis?

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Neil Godfrey

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17 thoughts on “The Suffering Son Revealed in Vision?”

  1. The “beloved son” references in the Epistle to the Hebrews (1:5, 5:5) are equally, if not more, enigmatic. Where and when is God supposed to have said this? Usage of the enthronement Psalm indicates a selection by the Father, who adopts his son “today.” So did the author of Hebrews envision this ceremony occurring in Heaven, before the incarnation, or afterward, once he had demonstrated his righteousness and sacrificed himself?

    In Acts 13:33, Paul cites the same verse (Psalm 2:7), after relating the stories of the resurrection and the appearances to the disciples. So, did God’s selection (adoption?) happen directly after he was raised from the dead?

    The confusing nature of the “beloved son” references seems to indicate that the early Christians were using the second Psalm as a proof text, but there wasn’t general agreement as to when it was applied and exactly what it meant. Mark seems to have liked the idea of the baptism as the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry. But he’s also aware of the “Hear Him!” story of the Transfiguration.

    When I was a Christian, I had no doubt that Peter’s recounting of the story in 2 Peter 1:17 referred to the Transfiguration. However, the Synoptics clearly say the “well pleased” version of the announcement happened at the Baptism. So when was it? The incarnation? Birth? Baptism? Transfiguration? Resurrection? Enthronement?

    I’m wondering now whether people thought of it as something that God “says,” not something God “said.” But it could just be that the earliest notion was that it happened at the point when Christ was raised above all men and exalted to the throne, and that the “beloved son” pronouncement got pushed back in time as conceptions of Christology changed.

    In any event, it’s hard to square the doctrine of the Trinity with the idea of Jesus becoming God’s son on a certain day. It’s amusing to me now to see literal fundamentalists argue that when God says, “This day have I begotten thee,” it’s obviously meant to be taken figuratively. So there’s the hard and fast rule for whether something is literally true or not: Does it fit with your received doctrine? No? Then it needs to be understood allegorically.

  2. I would have to agree that Psalm 2:7 is a likely source for the “This day I have begotten thee” idea. It’s interesting though that the Ebionites, according to Epiphanius (yeah, yeah, I know), at least had a more “realistic” interpretation of it: “On this account they say that Jesus was begotten of the seed of a man, and was chosen, and so by the choice of God he was called the son of God for the Christ that came into him from above in the likeness of a dove.”

    I don’t know what the source for the Transfiguration is, but I noticed this statement in the link that Neil provides, in which Doherty writes:

    “Kelly, however, has decided (op.cit., p.319) that the Gospels’ “high mountain” evolved into “holy mountain” over the course of time, assuming the Gospel tradition to be earlier. But 2 Peter’s words are almost certainly there because they appear in the Psalm, and Mark may have been forced to eliminate the “holy” because there was no mountain that could be called such in Galilee where he set this story.”

    This made me think of a line from the Gospel of the Hebrews cited by Origen, in which Jesus says, “Just now my mother, the Holy Spirit, took me by a lock of my hair and lifted me up to great Mount Tabor,” and while I can’t say whether it refers to a transfiguration as James R. Edwards suggests, Mount Tabor is a “holy mountain” located in the Galilee.

    Just some thoughts. I wouldn’t know what to make of these things.

    1. You know, I’ve never thought much about the Transfiguration, other than it seeming to serve the purpose of showing how Jesus was “cooler” than Elijah and Moses, and received their blessings. But as I’ve searched around the web a bit more, I see that Origen’s citation of the Gospel of the Hebrews seems to be the source of what made some Christians after him think that Mount Tabor could have been where it “happened” (thank you Charlesworth’s Jesus and Archeology on Google books). It seems impossible to say from what Origen cites if the Ebionites believed this, and I don’t recall if they even beleived in the Transfiguration at all (I’ll have to check some other sources to confirm that).

      1. Hm, interersting. I have to admit that as much as I like Eisenman, I have yet to consider deeply every idea idea he has, including the “fuller” and “whitening” theme running through Christian literature. But this snippet of Price’s review of JBJ makes me want to take another look at how this might tie in with the Transfiguration:

        “Eisenman sees various Jamesian themes floating around to link up in entirely different forms elsewhere in Christian scripture. For instance, the Transfiguration has Jesus glimpsed in heavenly glory as Stephen saw him and James proclaimed him. And of course “James” is there on the scene. The “fuller” element is repeated in the form of Jesus’ shining clothes, whiter than any fuller on earth could have bleached them. Again, in the Recognitions, Saul is pursuing James and the Jerusalem saints out to Jericho (the vicinity of the Qumran “Damascus”), and somehow they are protected by the spectacle of two martyrs’ tombs which miraculously whiten every year. There is the whitening element linked with Saul’s persecution. Again, at the empty tomb (recalling those martyrs’ tombs), we meet a “young man” (the epithet applied to Saul in Acts’ stoning of Stephen) who is dressed in white and sitting at the right, this time, of Jesus’ resting place.”

  3. Responding to Tim’s post above,

    You may already be aware of it, but for anyone who is not, I have posted a series on Jewish scholar Levenson’s “Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son”: http://vridar.wordpress.com/category/book-reviews/levenson-death-and-resurrection-of-beloved-son/

    Beloved Son is almost a technical term for the one chosen for redemptive sacrifice.

    As you point out, the Psalm 2:7 references (this day I have begotten you) is first used of the resurrected Christ. We find the same thought in the epistles where Jesus is made a son at the resurrection.

    But Psalm 2 is not about “the beloved Son” which is distinctly related to one such as Isaac, and for whom the suffering servant of Isaiah is a near equivalent.

    If we understand such a “beloved son” of God existing from a time we can consider as good as eternity, the idea of “this day I have begotten you” probably simply did not compute with many such speculators on the scriptures.

    But that verse did become a useful instrument as theological interpretations blossommed and expanded into increasing varieties of Son concepts.

  4. I’ve done some more thinking and reading of Eisenman about this subject. Mark (and Matthew and Luke following him) may well have had Mount Hermon in mind as the scene of the Transfiguration, as Nickelsburg suspects, especially considering that the disciples were near Caesarea Philippi around that time, and for the other reasons in the links that Neil provided. And there is no evidence that the line that Origen cites about Mount Tabor in the Gospel of the Hebrews refers to the Transfiguration, or that the Ebionites believed in a Transfiguration at all, regardless of what some later Christians made of it.

    We suspect that Psalm 2:7 is the likely source for the “Today I have begotten thee” idea, and Christians (including Ebionites) interpeted this as something that occured at Jesus’ baptism by John, and NT Christians also place it at the Transfiguration (or wherever else the author of the Letter to the Hebrews may have been thinking). But there doesn’t seem to be any “source text” for the idea of Jesus being transfigured. Instead, we have, as Eisenman points out, a confluence of bits of information, coincidental or not, elsewhere associated with James and the book of Daniel.

    First, the three disciples that witness the Transfiguration happen to have the same names as the “pillars” mentioned by Paul: James, Cephas (Peter) and John, “who were reputed to be pillars” (Gal. 2:9).

    Then we have the apparent reference to Daniel 7 concerning the son of man, who appeared before the ancient of days whose “raiment was white as snow” who came “with the clouds of heaven,” to whom was given “dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.”

    This appears to be on Mark’s mind, because in the last thing he writes before the Transfiguration, Jesus refers to himself as, “the son of man … when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels … the kingdom of God has come with power” (8:38-9:1), as as do Matthew (16:27-28) and Luke (9:26-27) following him.

    So there is that.

    But then, bearing the coincidence of “pillar” names in mind, consider what James says about Jesus in Hegesippus: “Why do you question me about the Son of Man? I tell you, He is sitting in heaven at the right hand of the Great Power, and He will come on the clouds of Heaven,” (EH 2.23).

    And consider that Acts, which doesn’t mention the election of James to lead the early church, like other Christian sources do, mentions instead the meaningless election to replace Judas Iscariot.

    And instead of mentioning the stoning of James, as Hegesippus, Clement of Alexandria and (arguably) Josephus do, we hear about the stoning of Stephen, who essentially says the same thing that James does when he is stoned in Hegesippus (including the “Lord and Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” part): “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the son of man standing at the right hand of God … Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” (Acts 7:56-60). Other scholars have pointed out this similarity.

    Why are elements of important events in the early church concerning James being found instead in other situations in canonical sources? Is this what’s also happening in the Transfiguration? There we have Paul’s “pillar” names (though now not referring to the “real” James), as well as more elements from the stoning of James in Hegesippus (and Clement): “Then [after being stoned] … a fuller took the club which he used to beat out the clothes, and brought it down on the head of the Rigteous One. Such was his martyrdom.”

    The only time the word “fuller” occurs in the NT happens to be in Mark 9:3 during the Transfiguration scene: “[A]nd he was transfigured before them [Cephas, James and John], and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (9:2-3).

    Maybe it all means nothing, but it’s very curious, and supports the idea that the NT gospels and Acts are trying their best to marginalize James. Why do you suppose they would want to do that?

  5. I think the “today I have begotten you” is never applied to Jesus’ baptism (or transfiguration) in the Gospels. The first time I am aware of anyone applying it to the baptism is Justin Martyr in Trypho 88, 103. That’s why I think the stress in the gospels is on the “beloved son” (not just “son”) as a technical term for one to be sacrificed.

    As for the way James seems to have been written out of history by the “orthodox” scriptures, it is an interesting question. I wonder if it is related to the attempt to rewrite and bury the Nazarene name for early Christians, too. One wonders if there were indeed a band of brothers of the Lord in Jerusalem whose visionary experiences had an important role among the various early Christianities. If so, it was clearly not in the interests of “orthodoxy” to preserve any details of that memory.

    1. Actually there are some significant textual variants with respect to Luke 3:22. Codex Bezae (D) and several Latin mss read “today I have begotten you.” The conservative consensus (i.e., Metzger et al.) is that this isn’t the original reading. However, it has always seemed odd to me that a Lucan reading would assimilate toward Psalm 2.7 against the other synoptics.

      Does the variant in D point to influence by Just Martyr and Clement of Alexandria upon scribes, or does their version attest to an original reading that was “corrected” early on?

      I think Ehrman’s case is pretty good:

      http://books.google.com/books?id=Z4xXSlE_ZvcC&pg=PA120#v=onepage&q&f=false

      http://books.google.com/books?id=NHIBM3p83UcC&lpg=PP1&dq=the%20orthodox%20corruption%20of%20scripture&pg=PA62#v=onepage&q&f=false

      1. I should have expressed this as the “Psalm 2:7 idea” in any event (I guess I was showing my “Ebionite” bias), but I was unaware of these fascinating variants, Tim, and it’s not hard to imagine why the orthodox might have “adjusted” them.

        I forgot to add, concerning the Transfiguration scene, that another thing that strengthens the argument that it is based on the “son of man coming on the clouds of heaven” imagery in Daniel and James in Hegesippus is: “And a cloud overshadowed them, and voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved son,” (Mark 9:7).

  6. I’ve never heard of Green, McKnight and Marshall before, but I stumbled across their book “Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels” (1992) on Google books, in which they write on p. 840: “It is difficult to know whether there is any one OT passage to which the words “my son, my beloved” allude … It may be that there is no other allusion than to Psalm 2:7. However, there is another possibility, namely Genesis 22:2″ (in the LXX version).

    This subject has been quite unexpectedly interesting. Now I’m wondering, since we have evidence that the Ebionites used Psalm 2:7, including the “today I’ve begotten you” part, to refer to Jesus’ baptism, and that this is also used, in “corrected” form, in the Synoptics (excepting the Luke variants that Tim brought to my attention), AND Mark possibly betrays awareness of things that Hegesippus (who knew the Gospel of the Hebrews) mentions about James, could the Gospel of the Hebrews be the source of applying this verse to Jesus, which was then picked up (and “corrected”) by Mark and others after him? In other words, are the Synoptics reacting to the existence of the Gospel of the Hebrews?

    I know there is an argument made by Pierson Parker (“A Proto-Lukan Basis for the Gospel According to the Hebrews” JBL pp. 471-478 1940), which I haven’t read, that Luke knew the Gospel of the Hebrews, too. If this is so, perhaps it would explain the “mistake” in these 3:22 variants. Maybe the GH really is “Q.”

    1. Sorry to be commenting so much, but this has turned into an exciting subject. Though I’ve read a couple of posts that James Trimm posted on a discussion group over ten years ago, I don’t know much about him beyond his arguments for a Semitic origin for all of the NT (which didn’t convince me at the time) and that he has some sort of modern-day Nazarene ideology (which I do not subscribe to). However, in searching for information on Pierson Parker recently, I stumbled upon something interesting he has written on his blog (which I don’t follow) that deals with the question of whether the GH could be “Q.”

      http://nazarenespace.com/profiles/blogs/the-gospel-according-to-the-4

      Though I’ve seen this before, now I see more clearly that it touches on all the little things we’re discussing here, including the Western version of Luke (which I didn’t know what to make of at the time), and cites other scholars who think that the GH could be Q.

    2. As Levenson discusses in his “Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son” the idea of the “beloved son” being sacrificed can be traced back to pre-Israelite Canaanite religion — according to Philo of Byblos “Iedoud” was the name of the son sacrificed by El, and behind this name there appears to be the idea of beloved. Compare “David”. We need to weigh the possibility of the concept being known more widely than from our surviving texts. But even within the surviving texts the evidence extends beyond Genesis 22: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2008/06/29/remaking-god-in-the-image-of-abraham/

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