Crucified God: origin and original meaning of the concept (Couchoud continued)

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by Neil Godfrey

Peter Paul Rubens - The Crucified Christ - WGA...Continuing the series of Couchoud’s The Crucified Christ — archived here. In this chapter Couchoud attempts first of all to account for the origin of the concept of Christ crucified and then to address what this meant for Paul and his churches, in particular its mystical and timeless character.

The greatest gift of Paul to Christianity was the Cross. Christians had been accustomed to interpret the prophecy of Isaiah that Jesus Christ had died for our sins. The usual notion — you might call it the orthodox interpretation — was suggested by the word Lamb in Isa. liii. The earthly temple had its counterpart in Heaven, and the Paschal Lamb has its celestial image in Jesus Christ. He was led to the slaughter in sacrifice, and his blood washes their sins from them who are bathed in it. Such is the picture drawn by John, the authorized prophet of the mother-church of Jerusalem. The Jew would understand how the sacrificial death of the Lord would wash away his sins. This idea would give new significance to baptism and to the Easter, which thus became interassociated and symbolic of the sacrifice of the Heavenly Lamb. In the general wreck of Jewish rites this preserved the Easter (Paschal) Feast among Christians. (p. 67)

Couchoud writes that Paul accepted this interpretation overall. In 1 Corinthians 5:7 he reminds Christians at the approach of Easter that “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.” Like John, he wrote that the shedding of blood brings redemption. Jesus Christ, he said, was a “ritual victim” or “propitiation”  — Romans 3:25.

But meditation on the sacred texts led him to enunciate a new interpretation of unheard-of boldness. 

Two years ago I posted “They pierced my hands and my feet”: Psalm 22 as a non-prophecy of the crucifixion. If the argument there is watertight then the first part of Couchoud’s view of what inspired Paul to imagine the crucified Christ falls apart. But see also the wikipedia article They have pierced my hands and my feet. I would need to revise that earlier article to see whether it is premised on the Septuagint being a translation of an earlier Hebrew text. If the Jewish scriptures were, as some scholars have argued (e.g. Thompson, Lemche, Wajdenbaum, Wesselius) Hellenistic products, then is it not reasonable to posit the Septuagint as the original version — the legendary letter of Aristeas notwithstanding? I have had other thoughts on a plausible catalyst for the concept but I’ll save those till the end. Will let Couchoud hold the floor for now.

Only the first part would break down if the contents of the linked post hold. There are two parts to Couchoud’s view on what inspired the concept of the crucified God; the second half of the post is about the nature of this belief — its mystical character and its non-temporality (non-historicity).

The Origin of the Concept (Couchoud)

Psalm 22 depicts the bitter suffering of a god-fearing believer. Couchoud suggests these verses might be read as a companion to Isaiah’s depiction of the expiatory slaying of the Servant – especially since it is followed by Psalm 24 presenting the triumph of the King of Glory.

Here is the Septuagint of the Psalm in translation:

O God, my God, look upon me!
Why hast thou forsaken me? . . .
O my God, I shall cry to the daytime towards thee,
And thou shalt hear me not
In the night and I shall have no oblivion. . .

I am a worm, not a man;
Reproach of men, rejected of the people,
All who see me make mock of me
Make mouths at me and shake their heads;
The Lord was his hope: let him deliver him,
Let him save him, since he is vowed to him. . .

Numerous bulls have compassed me:
Fat buffaloes beset me round.
They have opened their mouth upon me,
As a lion ravening and roaring.

Like water my bones are poured out
And scattered:
My heart like wax is melted in my bosom;
My potsherd my strength is dried up.
My tongue cleaves to my jaws;
To dust of death thou hast brought me down.

For many dogs have compassed me:
Assembly of rogues have beset me round.
They have pierced my hands and my feet.
They have counted all my bones.
They have looked me over and stared at me;
They have shared my garments among them,
On my vesture they have cast lots.

Thou, O Lord, take not away from me thine aid,
Look to my succour!
Deliver my soul from the sword
And from the tearing of the dog by only life.
Save me from the maw of the lion,
From the horn of the unicorns my destruction.

I shall recite thy name to my brethren:
In the midst of the ekklesia will I sing it.

The above fantastic picture probably depicted originally the sufferings of a sick man who thought himself prey to demon torturers. I have highlighted the two details that Couchoud singles out for particular attention — “the two that evoke a vivid picture of the crucifixion.”

The cross was seen as an ultimate in human cruelty. Rome used it abundantly to maintain power through fear.

Other details of the psalm suggested a non-human, an infernal crucifixion; the bulls, the fat buffaloes, the dogs, and the unicorns. (p. 69)

Then two psalms later, the paean of an unappreciated king. Again the Septuagint (Ps. 24:7-10) in translation:

Lift up the gates, O ye Princes! [Princes = ἄρχοντες (archons)]
Open, ye everlasting doors!
The King of Glory shall come in.
Who is this King of Glory?
The Lord strong and mighty,
The Lord strong in battle!

Lift up the gates, O ye princes!
Open, ye everlasting doors!
The King of Glory shall come in,
Who is the King of Glory?
The Lord of Miracles, it is He,
He is the King of Glory!

And who are the mysterious Princes to whom the order is given to lift the gates? They obviously do not know the King of Glory, since they ask who he may be.

Paul was obsessed by the idea of an unceasing struggle with Satan and his demons. These two divine revelations had a mystic meaning for him. Jesus Christ, who died for our sins, had been crucified. The demons are the Princes of this World (2 Cor. iv. 4); Satan is the God of this World (this Era), who has his principalities (.ἄρχαι) and his powers (Col. ii. 15). They have crucified Him not knowing that He is the Lord of Glory. Compelled to open to Him the Everlasting Doors, they have been made a mock of, are vanquished and overthrown.

So Paul refers to this Psalm in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8

We speak wisdom among the perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world [=Time/Era], neither of the princes of this world who are overthrown;

But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, a wisdom which is hidden, which God ordained before the world, unto our glory :

Which none of the princes of this world knew; for if they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory.

The title “Lord of Glory” is a reference to Psalm 24. The Princes, the Archonites, who have crucified Jesus are evidently those of the Psalms.

Paul teaches, moreover, that the crucifixion of Jesus caused the overthrow of the Principalities and the Powers. In Colossians he tells how

Having spoiled Principalities and Powers,
He openly made a show of them,
Triumphing over them by the Cross (ii. 15)

Paul thus adds to the interpretation of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, the humiliation and sufferings of the child and slave of God, the idea of the crucifixion by demons. The words in square brackets are from footnotes in Couchoud.

He was not only put to death, but he was also crucified. He was put to death, not as a Lamb, but as a Man. The manner of death is thus emphasized, and is to be read with the description in Enoch of the investiture of the Heavenly Man where the latter receives his title. The uttermost abjection precedes the loftiest elevation. Paul uses similar language in Phil. ii. 6-11: —

Who being in the form of God,
Thought it not robbery to be equal with God: [unlike Satan who would place his throne above the clouds to be equal with God. . .]
He disappeared
And took upon himself the form of a slave,
Become in the likeness of men.

And being found in fashion as a man
He humbled himself,
And became obedient unto death,
Even the death of the cross.

Wherefore God hath highly exalted him,
And given him a name which is above every name:
That at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow
Of beings in heaven, in earth and under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess;
Lord Jesus Christ
To the Glory of God the Father. [A similar revelation is made in the Ascension of Isaiah. Paul never taught that Jesus appeared in the flesh, but only in the form of a man. The words in Col. i.22 are a later addition; similarly in Rom. i.3 and Gal iv . . . ]

The Holy Name comes from Enoch, and the death on the Cross is Paul’s addition.

Defence and “fleshing out” of the concept

So despite the support of these two psalms the idea that Christ was crucified was strongly opposed by many. Certainly there was nothing contrary here to the prophecy of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. It even gave meaning to the words “He made his grave with the wicked” – Isa. 53:9. Paul claimed Christ was buried, which would not be the case with a sacrificial Lamb.

Why the objection? Chiefly that crucifixion was not a form of sacrifice. No blood was spilt. It was a death penalty, a damnation. As per Deuteronomy 21:23, everyone that hangs on a tree is cursed by God.

This was positively scandalous — to make Christ the Accused of God!

But for Paul crucifixion was a sacrifice and blood was spilt (Romans 5:9). For Paul the sacrifice of the Lamb was still to be seen in the crucifixion.

But how did Paul defend the idea of one crucified being cursed?

Paul was inspired to a remarkable reply. In Deut. xxvii. 26 we read: “Cursed be he that confirmeth not the words of this law to do them.” An impossible obligation. Therefore all who feel it a duty to carry out the laws of Moses are accursed. The crucifixion expiates this curse (Gal. iii. 10-13). Christ by his death has “blotted out the writing of ordinances that were against us . . . nailing it to the cross” (Col. ii. 14).

So Paul found in the crucifixion a weapon to use against “the Hebrews”. This is why he reminded his Galatian churches when they were beginning to apply circumcision and the law of Moses that he had preached to them the contrary — the Crucified Christ (Gal. 3:1).

They could not accept the doctrine of the Crucifixion and keep the Mosaic Law at the same time, or, “if righteousness come by the Law, then Christ is dead in vain” (Gal. ii. 21). He himself, if he still preached the circumcision, he would no longer preach the crucifixion, and “the scandal of the cross” (Gal. v. 11) would cease. This is the “offence” for which they are persecuted, and it is “only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ” that certain of the Galatians would impose circumciion in the others. Rather than face the obloquy of preaching the crucifixion, they would renounce their Christian freedom. The faithful on the contrary should hold fast to the scandalous Cross, in which was freedom. (p. 72)

Couchoud sees the Gentiles having even greater difficulty with the Cross than the Hebrew brethren. Lucian (On the Death of Peregrinus) mockingly speaks of “their impaled sophist”. The idea of a God on a stake was absurd, grotesque.

What power could there be in such an extremity of helplessness and shamefulness? How could this Christ save, if the devils of hell could wreck their will on Him thus?

Paul looked inward for the answer to this. He himself was a “crucified”. He had a thorn in his flesh and was buffeted by Satan, standing in jeopardy every hour, dying daily (1 Corinthians 15:30-31). He even saw himself as a gladiator condemned to death in the amphitheatre (I Cor. 4:9). His life was one of privations and humiliations (1 Cor. 4:11-13). But through the worst he and his companions would rise up undismayed (2 Cor. 4:8-9).

So from where did Paul draw this power that grew greater as his sufferings increased? He himself, he said, was only weakness. It was the power of God in him. Out of weakness God brings forth strength.

The Corinthians, too, were the weak of the world, but God made them his Elect and through them God confounded the wise (I Cor. 1:26-29).

So Jesus was crucified in weakness but lived by the power of God (2 Cor. 13:4). The devils thought they had defeated him on the Cross but in fact they were the ones thus vanquished. Having passed through death he was invested with Power and with the Name above all names and before which all must bow.

So the Cross of Jesus appears to the ignorant of the world a sign of weakness and folly, but is in fact the most potent and profound plan of God (1 Cor. 1:18, 22-24)

Humanly speaking, the crucifixion of Christ is the projection on to the divine plane of the tortured life of Paul. If such a novel and such a shocking picture of a god had value, it was because it had its origin in a very vivid and intense experience of suffering.

The Mystic Union with the Always Crucified

This mystic union of Paul with the Crucified is pushed as far as identification with God.

For Paul,

Jesus was not  He Who Has Been Crucified, but He Who Is Always Crucified, in whom the Cross is a living source of power.

Couchoud expands:

Paul suffers on the Cross of Christ, “I am crucified with Christ . . . I do not live, Christ liveth in me” (Gal. ii. 20). On this Cross bearing both Jesus and Paul, what is brought to nothingness? The Law of Moses, of course: sin, death, the flesh with is affections and lusts” (Gal. v. 24). “By the cross of Jesus the world is crucified to me and I unto the world (Gal. iv. 14). “. . . Our old man has been crucified that the body of sin might be destroyed” (Rom. vi. 6). This is the everlasting crucifixion in which the fleshly and sinful body is ever being destroyed and the invisible body of glory is ever being formed. (p. 75, my emphasis)

Baptism plunges the believer into union with the Cross. To be baptized is to be buried with Christ and to rise with him. What is left in the tomb: the world, flesh, sin, law. The Christian no longer lives in the world or in the flesh.

[I have been recently reading Greek magical papyri and one belief coincidentally may be seen as having an interesting parallel here, though I do not suggest a direct link of any sort — it was believed that the act of drowning led to an apotheosis — a divination. Thus a devotee would drown a cat or a falcon in a ceremony that meant its deification.]

By the union complete with Christ, the mystic shall taste the newness of life hidden with Christ in God till Christ “shall appear, then shall ye appear with him in glory” (Col. iii. 4).

The Crucifixion Can Only Be Understood as a Non-Temporal Event

The lofty mysticism of Paul can be understood only by placing on a non-temporal plane the life of Jesus with the crucifixion, the burial, and the resurrection. These holy deeds have not been done once and for ever. They are eternal, neither of yesterday, to-day, nor to-morrow. Their doing will never cease till the Last Coming. They are existent in a changeless present.

There is no longer any differentiation of personality in this mystic union. Paul suffers with Jesus, Jesus with Paul. “The Sufferings of Christ abound in us,” said Paul in 2 Cor. 1:5. “Everywhere we bear with us the body of the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be made manifest in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10).

To the Galatians Paul spoke of the scars of Jesus on his body — Gal. 4:17. But note in particular the “following astonishing words” to the Colossians (1:24):

I now rejoice in my sufferings for you
And I complete what was lacking in the afflictions of Christ
In my flesh, for his body,
Which is the church.

If the Colossians did not fully grasp the sufferings of Christ Paul grasped them in excess.

Jesus, Paul, and the Church have but one agony on a single cross. (p. 76)

Paul’s Legacy

Paul opened the doors of the future to Christianity with the Cross of Jesus. The first wave of enthusiasm for the new religion was to die out in disappointment; the Last Coming was long delayed. Humanity is occasionally seized with fits of wild hope such as this. The doctrine of the Cross fitted with the inmost needs of the human heart, and was destined to capture innumerable souls and to hold them therefore without ever satiating their longings. A Crucified God, who was not only put to death, but also suffered with all humanity, whose humiliation, abnegation, and love surpassed all that man could suffer, offered a new realm to religious fervour and discovered a limitless ocean of emotions, an infinity of sacrifices, a heaven of consolation. The Saint Bernards would count the wounds of Christ, the Saint Francises bear the stigmata, the Luthers sweep away all that is not of the Cross, the Pascals perceive the drop of blood which has been spilt for them, and the Bachs render in music the passion of the Crucified. Over half the earth to-day, on public buildings, temples, tombs, at crossroads, wherever a cross is raised, is a monument to the religious genius of St. Paul.

Paul was driven by a zeal to preach Christ Crucified lest he halt and the cross become of no effect (1 Cor. 1:17). He wept over the Philippians whom he learned became the enemies of the cross of Christ (Phil. 3:18). He could only attribute their obstinacy to their fleshly appetites. With the Corinthians puffed up with knowledge he resolved to know only Christ and Christ crucified. But the message of the Cross was not suitable for all to begin with. In his letter to new Christians, Thessalonians, there is not a word of the Cross. When he is seeking to establish common ground with Jerusalem he does not mention the crucifixion but holds up only the glory of the Heavenly Man (1 Cor. 15:3, 45-49).

The teaching of the Cross was not accepted immediately by all. There is no mention of it in the Apocalypse. It would require the passing of two more generations before the Christian world was to accept the invaluable gift which Paul had made it.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Crucified God: origin and original meaning of the concept (Couchoud continued)”

  1. This is a great topic, Neil. My internet time has been curtailed lately, but I’ve been trying to follow your latest posts, and I really like this one. I’ve been wondering lately why Jesus was said to have been crucified. Why wasn’t he pictured, as Celsus joked, as being pushed off a cliff, or what have you? Why specifically crucifixion? If Ps. 22:16 did say “pierced,” then that would be a satisfying answer for me.

    It seems to be debated, but it does look like the Bar Kochba Psalm 22:16 verse says “pierced.” If the Hebrew originally said this, it could explain why Mark and the Septuagint translated it this way. And it would be easy enough to change a vav to a yod in the interest of “de-Christianizing” the Masoretic text. I just finished reading an article about Pascal’s Wager that argues that there is no other usage in ancient Hebrew literature of “pierced” being selled the way that it is in this Bar Kochba psalm so that the word should be seen as ambiguous. But it would explain a lot if it does mean “pierced.”

    I still lean towards an HJ of sorts, though. I don’t see how using the OT (Greek or Hebrew) to “predict” Jesus is any different than how Hegesippus uses it to predict the death of James, or how the the Dead Sea Scrolls sect uses it to predict the life and death of the Righteous Teacher and other real events.

    Consider also that Paul thought that Jesus as someone Christians would meet someday (in heaven or in the air). If Jesus was entirely imagined using the OT, how does this make sense? And how does it square with Paul’s idea of how the dead are raised in 1 Cor. 15:35ff. (e.g., “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body”)?

    1. Mark alludes to the LXX version of Ps. 22:16 regarding the crucifixion, but doesn’t actually “translate” it from the Hebrew. My comment was rushed and poorly expressed. It doesn’t change much about what I said, but I wanted to point that out.

  2. Secular critics make the very same mistake as the Fundamentalists, however different the conclusions derived therefrom: the writings to the NT constitute our primary if not our sole source for knowledge of the man Jesus.
    Present historical methods and knowledge recognizes that none of the Jewish scriptures, the OT, is prophetic witness to Jesus, but also that none of the writings of the NT, the writings of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT are apostolic witness to Jesus as the early church mistook them to be. Thus they are not reliable sources for knowledge of Jesus. It further recognizes that Christianity which is based on the writings of the NT is not a reliable source for knowledge of Jesus. The real argument is: What is the real NT Scriprural source for knowledge of the man Jesus. We all need to at least get straight on what the question of the HJ is about.

    1. “What is the real NT Scriprural source for knowledge of the man Jesus.”
      I don’t understand how the “real NT Scriptural source” differ from the “NTScriptural source”, and how they can be differentiated.
      Outside “the writings of the NT, the writings of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT”, how do we have access to any knowledge of Jesus? Or any meaning for that name “Jesus”. Which Jesus are we speaking of then? He suddenly becomes shadowy, imaginary, evanescent. No way to circumvent the primary texts.

      If Couchoud’s description of Paul’s travails and tortured mind was read by a modern psychiatrist, he would probably identify a mental patient victim of an obsessive delusion of martyrdom.

      1. I don’t mean to contradict the general trend of this discussion, but I think it’s important we get our definitions straight. While you may hear some people use the term “primary source” as if it meant “the oldest material available,” I think, strictly speaking, that’s wrong.
        Yes, some scholars within the guild continue to refer to the collected writings of the New Testament as a primary historical source of the life and times of Jesus Christ and his apostles, and I’m sure they think they are. However, if we go by the defining characteristics most historians ascribe to primary sources, they fail to make the cut. For example, they are not:

        • Original materials. They clearly have sources (some written, some oral). Primary sources don’t have sources, unless they are transcribing eyewitness accounts, which is not the case here.
        • From the time period they describe. The writings of Paul might be from the 50s CE, but the gospels are certainly from a later time.
        • Unfiltered by later interpretation or evaluation. They are not merely colored by later interpretation; they are essentially all interpretation.

        They are secondary sources of unknown or disputed provenance. Sadly, it often appears that Biblical scholars want to accord the New Testament all the weight and respect due a true set of primary documents about the life of Jesus and his disciples without the inconvenience of passing muster. To be fair, the NT is a primary source for what Christians in the late first and early second centuries thought and believed, so they’re invaluable insofar as they relate to the history of early Christianity.

        Of course, the real insurmountable problem with the text of the New Testament is that it cannot be corroborated by external evidence. I know scholars like to point to Paul’s “testimony” of James and Cephas as a slam-dunk proof for the existence of Jesus. However, I’m reminded of a disarmingly simple quote by F.F. Bruce (decidedly not an agnostic or a mythicist when it comes to Jesus) in his commentary on the Gospel of John. Jesus tells his audience that the Father testifies to his authenticity, because, as Bruce puts it, “No one can witness his own signature.” (John 5:31 — “If I bear testimony of myself, my testimony is not true.”)

        Asking one book of the Bible to confirm the truth of another is a circular argument. The NT comes down to us from the Christian tradition. It survives in its present state because it was collected by Christians, protected by Christians, copied by Christians, and, yes, sometimes altered by Christians. Asking Paul to confirm gospel tradition is akin to witnessing one’s own signature.

        Now the careless reader may skim over the above and construe it as a condemnation of literary sources, a misguided polemic against the written word. It happens all the time. McGrath wonders what Neil has against literary sources. Ehrman can’t understand why mythicists want to “ignore history.” Goodacre warns that extreme skepticism will cause Herod, Pilate and Julius Caesar to vanish in an historical black hole.

        I have no idea whether these scholars are willfully disunderstanding the arguments presented here on Vridar, whether they are unable to grasp what we’re saying, or whether they just aren’t paying attention. All I can do is repeat the obvious: “The reason we generally accept the literary histories of Alexander, Herod, Pilate, and Augustus is that they are attested in primary sources (some literary, some not) that are externally corroborated. We are not playing favorites. Are you?”

        1. I do not dispute your point. What I meant by “primary” texts was the texts “now available as sources.” It is certain that these “now available” texts are not the originals, those that would qualify as bona fide “primary” texts in an absolute sense.

          Celsus had already commented on this point: “The Christian believers, like persons who in a fit of drunkenness lay violent hands upon themselves, have corrupted the Gospel from its original integrity, to a threefold, and fourfold, and many-fold degree, and have remodeled it, so that they might be able to answer objections.” (No. 27, Fragments from Origen’s “Against Celsius”)

          My point was simply that, when we define the concept of “Jesus Christ” in all our conversations, we are forced to resort to the “now available texts” as the starting basis for any discussion and further refinement, refutation, etc…, and treat him as the literary character defined by such “now available” texts.

          Barring some kind of miracle, we may never find the originals, the true “primary” sources in your absolute definition, and are fated to stay for ever with the literary character thus defined. Our perception of “Jesus” is phenomenological, based on our current documents.

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