How Christ Jesus became Flesh – the role of the Celestial High Priest (Couchoud continued)

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing here my series of posts from Paul-Louis Couchoud‘s The Creation of Christ. Full set of posts are archived at Couchoud: Creation of Christ. In this chapter Couchoud finds a pivotal place for the Epistle to the Hebrews as a significant stepping stone between Paul’s Jesus, who had nothing more than “an appearance or form” of flesh, and the “historical” Jesus who appeared on earth as a man.

Again I have machine-copied the entire chapter (pages 119-123). This post follows the one in which Couchoud outlined his view of how the Christian churches or Christianities of the very late first and early second century turned to the stability of teachers and bishops and the Jewish Scriptures as anchoring authorities to replace that of discredited prophets. Keep in mind that this is all before the first gospel of the life of Jesus has appeared.

And again I have slightly altered some of the formatting of Couchoud’s chapter by indenting longer quotations, moving footnotes inline and identifying them by curly brackets {  } . I have also added bold highlighting.

p. 119



The problem which offered the greatest difficulty was the presentation of Jesus. Gropingly a clearly defined picture was sought.

In the Epistle of James, Jesus is the Lord whose coming is imminent, the Judge who is at the door (James v. 7-9). He is also the “Worthy Name” called on by Christians (James ii. 7). No allusion is, however, made to his sufferings. The Syrian who wrote this epistle when he would counsel patience in adversity, referred to the sufferings of Job, and not of Christ (James v. 10-11; cf. 1 Peter ii. 19-25).

The Jesus of the Roman Hermas had nothing in common with the Jesus of St. Paul. No mention of passion, not even of his death. His name is not even mentioned. He is the very venerable angel, the holy angel, the glorious angel (Hermas, Vis., v. 2; Mand., v. 7: . . . . Sim., v. 4, 4: . . . . ; Sim., vii. 1 and 3 ; ix- 3 ; . . . . ). He is just a superior archangel of colossal stature. Hermas gives us to understand, without saying it precisely, that he is the archangel Michael. {Michael in the eighth Similitude fulfils the same function as the Son of God in the fifth and ninth Similitudes.} The six other archangels follow him on his right and his left, nor can they approach God without him (Hermas, Sim., ix. 12, 8). Angels are at his orders; Penitence, who takes on the aspect of a shepherd; Punishment; Thegri, who closes the maws of monsters. Other angels are his adversaries: the angel of Voluptuousness and of Deceit, the angel of Evil. If he is not God’s begotten son, he has become his son by adoption, thanks to his meritorious labours. The First-born of God, the beloved son and heir, is the Holy Ghost who sends to the prophets the Angel of the prophetic spirit (Sim.,

p. 120

and 6; Mand., xi. 9; he also appears to Hermas as an old woman, the Church). The second son is the Flesh. Hermas tells how God chose for himself a “flesh,” a “faithful servant, accepted and esteemed.” He gave him the charge of establishing angels over his people as guardians. The Servant was not satisfied with this only. At the price of great toil, he cleansed the people of their sins, and God re­joiced in the work of his Servant. With the consent of his beloved Son and of his angels, he makes the Servant co-heir with the beloved Son, causing “the holy ghost to dwell in this flesh which he had chosen.” The Servant, promoted to be Son of God, became “the Lord of the people, having received omnipotence from his father.” He it is who transmits the commands which God gives to the people (Sim., v. 2 and 5-6). None, unless he has received his Name, may enter the kingdom of God (Sim., ix. 12, 8).

The mystery of Jesus is scarcely to be recognized in this savourless, invertebrate story. Jesus has lost not only the potent and scandalous cross which he owed to St. Paul, but even the primitive features which he owed to Isaiah. His expiatory death is diluted into a labour of purification. Everything about him is as vague and formless as an effaced relief. Nevertheless he has gained a new trait, the only one to which Hermas holds. He personifies the Flesh, which has become associated with the Holy Ghost. Hermas clearly points the moral on account of which the flesh ill befits an archangel.

“Never let the thought rise in thy heart that this flesh is perishable. Do not use it up in defilement. If thou soilest thy flesh, thou defilest the Holy Ghost” (Sim., v. 7, 2).

In this manner the mystery of Jesus is re-edited to be a foundation for the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh and to forge a weapon against the spirituals who claimed that the defilement of the flesh left the spirit untouched.

Goodman Hermas was in good company here. The great dogma of the Roman Church of the second century was the resurrection of the body. {See the strange proof which Clemens draws from the fable of the phœnix (Clem., xxv).} The glorious, spiritual body,

p. 121

which Paul had enthusiastically promised and of which Christ was the new Adam, was not enough. Just like the Jews, the Christians desired the resurrection of the flesh. No longer was the flesh scorned, as it was by Paul. Having passed through tribulation, it had become sanctified and deserved reward. Hence the endowment of Jesus with a body.

The trumpery theology, the debauch of angels, of this inexhaustible prophet called for a reply; and the teacher in the Epistle to the Hebrews gave it in an olympian manner. He presented a new interpretation of Jesus, drawn from the writings of St. Paul and from the Apocalypse.

Jesus was no longer a super-angel; they are but wind and fire. Nor is there any other Son of God mightier than he. He is the First-Born, mirror of God’s Glory, Image of his Being. Jesus is no co-heir, but sole legatee of All. Ever­lasting Spirit, through him God created the world. Sole Mediator, he alone can redeem the sins of men, and that by his blood only, for “without shedding of blood is no remission” (Heb. ix. 22)—a fundamental axiom of Christ­ianity.

Whereas the Jews, to obtain the remission of sins, shed the blood of animals, Jesus shed his own blood once and for all and, when he enters the Holy of Holies of the Celestial Temple, he is fixed for ever in this august gesture. The Christ of Hebrews is the Eternal Offering even as the Christ of St. Paul was the Eternal Crucified.

To be this, Jesus did not merely come to earth in human semblance, as Paul had taught, but took on a real body of flesh and blood. On this point prophet and didascalus are agreed, but the didascalus buttresses his opinion with texts.

“And the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour ” (Psalm viii).

Therefore Jesus was for some time as a man.


“Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; but a body hast thou prepared me” (Heb. x. 5; Psalm xl. 6).

God had made Jesus a veritable body. In Psalm xxii:

“I will declare thy name unto my brethren” (cf. Heb. ii. 12),

p. 122

Jesus treats men as his brothers. It follows, then, that

“it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest . . . in that he himself has suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted” (Heb. ii. 17-18);

and again,

“We have not a high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted like as we are, but without sin” (Heb. iv. 15).

To teach that Jesus possessed a real body of earthly flesh and blood could lead to but one inevitable deduction—that he had really and historically existed. Yet such an idea is not that of the author of Hebrews. He does not behold Jesus illumined by the harsh light of historical truth, but bathed in the soft ethereal radiance of the Bible. Lo, Jesus is the mysterious Melchisedek, fatherless, motherless, with­out origin or ending, everlasting high priest to whom Abraham paid tribute. Behold, he is the star which arises from Judah in defiance of the privilege of Levi. He is the Crucified of Psalm xxii who offered up prayers and suppli­cations (Heb. v. 7) unto him that was able to save him. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews considers the Crucifixion, which is at the same time the priestly sacrifice, as taking place in heaven. Since expiatory victims had to be burned without the camp (Heb. xiii. 11), Jesus suffered with­out the gate—i.e., not in this world.

“Let us go forth unto him without the camp . . . for here we have no continuing city” (xiii. 13-14).

Here is the earth. Jesus suffered in the flesh, but not on earth.

To bring Jesus to earth, he had by some means or other to be cut loose from the Bible in which he originated. The means were at hand.

Jesus was no longer the mystic figure with which St. Paul could so passionately identify himself. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews does not think of becoming part of Jesus, but of following Jesus, of imitating him in his act of sacrifice. Jesus was then half materialized; he had ceased to be wind and fire like the angels, and was a man like us, though a man of another world.

Paul could never agree that the Saviour was both flesh

p. 123

and spirit, for, said he in 1 Cor. xv. 50,

“flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.”

But now faith willed it, and in Egypt the false Barnabas discovered in the Bible novel and curious proofs of the carnal existence of Christ and strange information as to his Passion in Jewish ritual. For him Jesus is the land promised to Abraham, and land means flesh. In Psalm lxix Christ on the cross declares that he was given gall for his meat and vinegar for his drink. He is the Scapegoat on whom all spat, who was crowned with scarlet wool and driven into the wilderness (Barnabas vi-viii; the author makes use of a text of Jewish ritual which is un­known to us). In such extravagant fashion does this author seek by gnosis to pierce the mystery of the Jesus of flesh and blood.

Yet a striking paradox was that he who would place the Son of God on a historic plane was to rob him of this carnal body, to deny it even in opposition to Rome and Alexandria.

The carnal body of Jesus and his historical existence are two separate theses which later became fused in one.

That person enigmatically referenced here is Marcion. That discussion is the job of the next post in this series.

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5 thoughts on “How Christ Jesus became Flesh – the role of the Celestial High Priest (Couchoud continued)”

  1. Well, this is a gross mistranslation:

    “Never let the thought rise in thy heart that this flesh is perishable. Do not use it up in defilement. If thou soilest thy flesh, thou defilest the Holy Ghost” (Sim., v. 7, 2).

    In this manner the mystery of Jesus is re-edited to be a foundation for the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh and to forge a weapon against the spirituals who claimed that the defilement of the flesh left the spirit untouched.

    Roberts-Donaldson has it with the correct “corrupted” not “perishable”. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/shepherd.html

    Not the same. Just like Paul, here we have the aggrandizement of the BODY Christ, when any good gnostic like “Jesus” will tell you the body profits nothing. From there the snowball just gets bigger and bigger, again like PAUL. Give Paul UP, and see Couchoud for what he is: an orthodox apologist.

  2. pp. 120-121: “The great dogma of the Roman Church of the second century was the resurrection of the body… The glorious, spiritual body, which Paul had enthusiastically promised and of which Christ was the new Adam, was not enough. Just like the Jews, the Christians desired the resurrection of the flesh. No longer was the flesh scorned, as it was by Paul. Having passed through tribulation, it had become sanctified and deserved reward. Hence the endowment of Jesus with a body.” (my emphases)

    p. 121: “… Jesus did not merely come to earth in human semblance, as Paul had taught, but took on a real body of flesh and blood.” (my emphasis)

    pp. 122-123: Paul could never agree that the Saviour was both flesh and spirit, for, said he in 1 Cor. xv. 50, ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption’. But now faith willed it…” (my emphasis)

    Couchoud correctly identified Jesus’ possession of a real body of flesh and blood as one of the main emphases of the Epistle to the Hebrews. And as the above quotes from The Creation of Christ show, Couchoud also realized that this teaching of the epistle was not in line with Paul’s.

    But, as I see it, Hebrews insistence that Jesus was not a bodiless spirit was just one element of its overall goal of providing a Judaized version of Paul’s (i.e. Simon of Samaria’s) teaching. To that end the epistle emphasizes not only the Son’s possession of a real human body, but also his very real suffering in that body. In view was Simon’s claim that the Son only apparently suffered. And Hebrews emphasizes that the visible world is good, its maker being the Father of Jesus. And that the Law, though merely a shadow of the future covenant, was still basically good and put in place by God. And that what the Son of God came to free mankind from was its sins. Jesus as divine high priest came to make propitiation for them. (See * at the end of this comment for some illustrative passages). Thus what we have in Hebrews is a pure proto-orthodox substitute for the blasphemous system of “Paul”/Simon of Samaria in which the Son of God came to free mankind from the bondage of the flesh and the sin-inciting Law both of which were imposed by the inferior angels who made the world.

    And since Hebrews is a proto-orthodox composition, it reads smoothly, without all the zigzagging that is present in the Paulines and that is due to the hand of an interpolator. Hebrews was, I submit, one of the earliest proto-orthodox attempts — at least among writings that made it into the New Testament — to create a Judaized substitute for Simonian/Pauline Christianity. With Couchoud, I would date it around 130 CE. I think it was probably written by the same person who just a few years later wrote 1 Clement. 1 Clement displays familiarity with Hebrews (see, e.g., 1 Clement 26). And the two writings have much in common. Both stand out by their extensive quotations from Scripture. The Greek of both is recognized as quite good. They share a number of expressions. At times they even betray the same laziness about looking up the source of quotations: “But someone has testified somewhere …” (Heb. 2:6); “For he has spoken somewhere about …” (Heb 4:4). Compare with 1 Clement’s “For it says somewhere …” (chapters 15, 21, 26, 28), and “For the Scripture somewhere says …” (42).

    And neither Hebrews nor 1 Clement gives its author’s name. Both writings try to pass themselves off as being letters to particular communities of the sub-apostolic period, but in reality they are theological treatises whose intended readership is all Christians of their author’s own day — the 130s. That author wrote Hebrews, I maintain, around 130 CE with the doctrine of “Paul”/Simon of Samaria in view. A few years later he followed the same method in composing 1 Clement, but this time it was Marcion’s teaching that was his target . (On the anti-Marcionite purpose of 1 Clement, see the article that Couchoud notes on p. 270: “L’Epitre de Clement Romain aux Corinthiens,” by Henri Delafosse / Joseph Turmel).

    As to the identity of the author: Irenaeus early on identifies the author of 1 Clement as Clement of Rome. And also early on Christians realized that the style of Hebrews was not that of the rest of the Paulines. That is one reason why so many in the early church refused to accept Paul as its author. But often this problem was “solved” by claiming that, although Paul should still be considered the author of Hebrews, someone else did the actual writing and in doing so imposed his own style on it. Clement of Alexandria said that the ‘someone’ was Luke. Origen, Clement’s student, said: “The account of some who have gone before us is that Clement, bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, and of others that Luke, the author of the Gospel and Acts wrote it” (Eusebius, History of the Church, 6.25). Thus these early Greek-speaking Christians saw incompatibility between the style of Hebrews and the Paulines, but no similar problem of incompatibility between Hebrews on the one hand and 1 Clement, Luke, and Acts on the other. For his part Couchoud sees Clement of Rome as the likely author of 1 Clement and the canonical versions of GLuke and Acts. I agree but would also include Hebrews among Clement’s creations.

    And with Couchoud I think Clement of Rome is a likely candidate for proto-orthodox interpolator of the Paulines. The Pauline interpolations would have been child’s play for the person capable of the kind of deception involved in the creation of Hebrews and 1 Clement. I, however, think that the ten letters in the Pauline collection were originally Simonian. And that various similar reworkings were essayed at Rome on a Simonian Gospel (UrMark)by Clement and his circle. The result: the appearance in the early 130s of our current versions of both the ten Pauline letters and of the three synoptic Gospels. The forging of the Pastorals and the addition of Acts to GLuke should be placed a bit later, perhaps around 150 CE. All of these had as one of their main goals the conversion of Simon and Simonianism into Paul and proto-orthodox Christianity.

    But was there no one to cry “Fraud”? In fact there was. Marcion. He claimed the Gospel and ten Pauline letters had been interpolated by Judaizers. And he apparently rejected Hebrews, the Pastorals, and Acts. We can only wonder what Marcion knew that we don’t. What did he learn at Rome in the late 130s from Cerdo the Simonian that led to his split from the proto-orthodox Roman church and the founding of his own church?

    [ * Some illustrative verses from Hebrews:

    — Jesus was “beset by weakness” (Heb. 5: 2), made “perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10), “tested through what he suffered” (Heb. 2:18), and “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). How could he have been perfected, tested, and learned obedience if his suffering was only in semblance? The author would have us conclude that the suffering must have been real, as real as the body Jesus bore. Again, Jesus was “tested in every way, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Being tested in every way short of sin surely includes real physical, bodily suffering. And Jesus “offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears” (Heb. 5:7). Do not the loud cries and tears testify to the authenticity of his suffering? Simonian denial that the suffering was real in effect turns the cries and tears into mere stage performance.

    — The visible world is good, since Christ was he “through whom he (God) created the universe” (Heb. 1:2); “At the beginning, O Lord, you established the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands” (Heb. 1:10; Ps. 103:26); The God “for whom and through whom all things exist” (Heb. 2:10) was the Father of Jesus; And it is “by faith we understand that the universe was ordered by the word of God, so that what is visible came into being through the invisible” (Heb. 11:3). No place in this epistle for the Pauline stoicheia (element angels).

    — In typical proto-orthodox fashion the Law too, though it was only temporary, weak, a mere shadow of future things, and obsoleted by the coming of Christ, is still described as having been basically good. It pointed to “better hope” (7:19), a “better covenant, enacted on better promises” (8:6). It was something good that was replaced by something better. And in light of that: “Anyone who rejects the law of Moses is put to death without pity on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Do you not think that a much worse punishment is due to one who has contempt for the Son of God, considers unclean the covenant-blood by which he was consecrated, and insults the spirit of grace?” (10:28-29). Absent are any Pauline assertions that the Law was a bondage that incited sin and was enacted in order to increase it. And Paul’s assertion that the law was “ordained” (diatageis, Gal. 3:19) by angels gets changed into something acceptable: The angels that were present and spoke (laletheis, Heb. 2:2 ) the Law were only mediators of it. They did not make the Law; it merely came by way of them (dia) from God, much as “the great salvation” came from God by way of Christ (Heb. 2:3).

    — In place of freedom from bondage to flesh and Law the author of Hebrews substitutes freedom from sins. Jesus accomplished “purification from sins” (Heb. 1:3). He “appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice” (Heb. 9:26), “to take away the sins of many” (Heb. 9:28). He “offered one sacrifice for sins” (Heb. 10:11), and the holy Spirit testifies: “Their sins and their evildoing I will remember no more” (Heb. 10:17; Jer. 31:34). Jesus is the divine high priest who came “to expiate the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17), “for deliverance from transgressions under the first covenant” (9:15). Propitiation for sins is present in the Paulines too, but in a secondary and ambiguous role: “We are accustomed to regard the teaching of the substitutionary death of Jesus and his atoning sacrifice as a Pauline doctrine. But it is exceedingly difficult to say how far that teaching was clear and definite in the mind of the Apostle.” (The Religious Experience of Saint Paul, Percy Gardner, p. 192). The reason for the exceeding difficulty, I would argue, is because its presence is due to the hand of a proto-orthodox interpolator, and it conflicts with the genuine Pauline doctrine which held the flesh and Law primarily responsible for sin. In Hebrews we do not find the Pauline position that sin “clings indissolubly to the flesh, ‘dwells’ in the flesh, originates indeed in the flesh and its impulses” (Paul, p. 93 by William Wrede). Gone is the Pauline teaching that “Man then, through his mere earthly and bodily existence, is made subject to the power of sin. Sin is not merely to be found, as a matter of fact, in all men, but is a necessity” (Paul, p. 94, William Wrede). And the Law cannot be blamed either: “Every transgression and disobedience received its just recompense” (Heb. 2:2). In Hebrews the responsibility for sin is put squarely on man. It is “our consciences” (Heb. 9:14) that need to be cleansed from dead works to worship the living God; our “hearts” that need to be “sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” (Heb. 10:22). And we are repeatedly warned: “Harden not your hearts” (e.g., Heb. 3:8; 3:15; 4:7), “that none of you have an evil and unfaithful heart, so as to forsake the living God” (Heb. 3:12). ]

    1. A fascinating comment. But does not this interpretation run against reading Hebrews as placing the human high priest in the heavens? Not that that’s necessarily forbidden. But I raise this by way of conversation.

      1. Neil,

        I’m glad it is not necessarily forbidden, because in fact I think Couchoud is wrong to place Jesus’ suffering in the heavens. He argues, based on Heb. 13: 11-14, that the location was not on earth. That passage includes the words that Jesus “suffered outside the gate”. Couchoud interprets this to mean that Jesus suffered outside this world. But his justification for that interpretation is, as I see it, very weak. He appeals to verses 13 and 14, “Let us go to him outside the camp… for here we have no lasting city”, claiming that the “here” in the last clause is intended to contrast Christians located on earth with a camp that was located outside it. I don’t think so. Couchoud left out the words “bearing his reproach” from verse 13 which, in full, reads: “Therefore let us go to him outside the gate bearing his reproach.” And the omitted words are important for they show the homiletic nature of the passage. They are a moral admonition: we should endure reproach like Jesus endured it outside the gate (without indicating whether that gate was somewhere on earth or elsewhere). And the reason we should endure it? A commonplace of homiletics: because this world is only temporary. Christian preachers regularly use that reason to motivate the faithful. Difficult moral practices are routinely urged on the faithful by reminding them: “Here nothing lasts forever. It is the next world that is eternal”.

        And the “go” in the words “Let us go to him” should be understood homiletically too. One moves spiritually from one place to another by faith, prayer, thought, and aspirations as, for instance, in “Let us then with confidence approach the throne of grace…” (Heb. 4:16); “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…” (Heb. 12:22). So by saying “Let us go to him outside the gate bearing his reproach”, the author of Hebrews is pretty much reiterating something he said a chapter earlier when he urged his readers:

        “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus … who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame… Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.” (Heb. 12: 2-4).

        Trading places

        In my opinion Hebrews, like the ten earliest Paulines, was written before the composition of a gospel that possessed a roving, teaching, miracle-working Jesus. The authors of these writings only knew a very basic Son of God myth, the outline of which comes through in what the early record says about the teaching of Basilides. That basic myth, I maintain, had the Son of God descending through the layers of heaven into this world for a few hours, taking on the appearance of a man (Simon Kyrenaios), and then, by means of another transformation, switching places with a failed messiah who was being led out of a Judaean city for crucifixion. The Son of God’s aim in surreptitiously descending and switching places with the failed messiah was to trick the “rulers of this world” (1 Cor 2:8) into unjustly killing him, thereby winning from them mankind’s freedom. After his burial he descended to the underworld to harrow it, and then rose back to his Father in heaven.

        One indication in favor of this Basilides-inspired scenario is that none of the sufferings of Jesus mentioned by Hebrews and the ten earliest Paulines seem to occur before the Simon Kyrenaios injection point. There is no suffering that can be clearly assigned to an incident before it. So, for instance, the letters say nothing about Jesus being crowned with thorns. Or clothed in purple. Or his being abandoned (by his disciples). Or denied (by Peter). Or any judicial proceedings (whether before Pilate or the Sanhedrin). Or his losing a popularity contest (to Barabbas). I find it telling that the passion information they do have can all be plausibly assigned to GMark’s crucifixion scene. We hear about the cross and crucifixion and the shame associated with that form of punishment. And we hear that Jesus “offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears” (Heb. 5:7), which can plausibly be assigned to GMark’s loud cries (Mk. 15: 34 and 37) and the single saying he relates of Jesus on the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” (the opening words of the supplicatory Psalm 22). And we are told there were revilings, reproaches, and that Jesus “endured such hostility against himself from sinners.” This strikes me as the kind of summary way one might lump together the hostile words and actions Jesus was the object of on the cross: from the soldiers (Mk. 15:23), those passing by (Mk. 15:29), the chief priests and scribes (Mk. 15: 31), and the criminals who were crucified with him (Mk. 15:32). The word “sinner” is wide enough to even take in the Roman soldiers as non-Jews (e.g. “We Jews by nature and not Gentile sinners” – Gal. 2:15). But there is no element that can be definitely assigned to the earlier part of the passion, before the cross is taken up by Simon Kyrenaios.

        Crucified by the rulers of this world

        Admittedly, one apparent problem with my basic myth scenario is that according to 1 Corinthians it was the “rulers of this world” who were responsible for the crucifixion of the Lord of glory, and by “rulers” it is more likely that spirits are meant — not the Romans. In response I would first point out that in my scenario, given the transformations of the Son of God, the spirit rulers of the world would have to be the ones responsible for the travesty of his death. Mere mortals could not have been expected to detect the divine transformations. It is the spirit rulers who should have detected and recognized the Son of God when he descended into the world and took on human appearance, just as, according to the Ascension of Isaiah, the spirits in each of the levels of the heavens should have recognized and worshipped him when he entered their areas of operation. It was their pride that prevented such recognition: “For they have denied me and said, ‘We are alone and there is none beside us’” (10:13). Had pride not blinded them, the spirit rulers of this world would have noticed the entrance of the Son of God onto the scene and prevented the crucifixion from going forward.

        But, even more, I think it plausible that in the basic myth the involvement of the spirit rulers was viewed as more than mere non-prevention of the crucifixion of the Son of God. They would have been seen as the real instigators of the crucifixions of Jewish would-be messiahs, though of course their expectation was that only mere mortals would be the recipients of that punishment. Again, note the teaching of Basilides:

        “Those angels who possess the last heaven, which is the one seen by us, set up everything in the world, and divided between them the earth and the nations upon it. Their chief is the one known as the God of the Jews. Because he wished to subject the other nations to his own men, that is, to the Jews, all the other principalities opposed him and worked against him. For this reason the other nations were alienated from his nation. The unoriginate and ineffable Father, seeing the disastrous plight of men, sent his first-born Nous — he is the one who is called the Christ — to liberate those who believe in him from the power of those who made the world” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1, 24, 4, my emphasis).

        Now I’m not sure exactly how all the spirit princes of the nations, including that of Rome, supposedly “opposed and worked against” the Jewish spirit prince, but it seems plausible to me that at a minimum it would have entailed instigating the death of any upstart “King of the Jews” (Mk. 15:26) who tried to “save” (Mk. 15:31) the Jews from the Romans. And, in light of that, the Son of God could reasonably plan to be put to death by them too, if he could just manage to switch places, undetected, with a failed messiah being led away for crucifixion.

        So as I see it, the crucified messiah status of Jesus in GMark is something that originated in the basic myth. To construct GMark a cryptic allegorical life of Jesus (“Paul”/Simon of Samaria, I maintain) was later (perhaps as much as a century later) added to the basic myth, and the two parts were connected together and meshed. The meshing takes place primarily in the earlier part of the passion and the material for it was derived from incidents in the lives of other figures (e.g. Jesus ben Ananias, Carrabas, Simon bar Giora).

        But which one is the Son of God?

        The biggest problem with my theory is this: Basilides taught that two transformations of appearance took place to effect the switch . The appearances of both Simon Kyrenaios and of the man initially carrying the cross were changed. But where was the Son of God in all this?

        According to Irenaeus, Basilides held that the Son of God was the one who was initially carrying the cross and so, due to “the switch”, escaped crucifixion. It has been questioned whether Irenaeus understood this correctly. (“Here Irenaeus has undoubtedly misinterpreted his source…” – Birger A. Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, p. 140). It makes no sense to hold that the Son of God was the redeemer of mankind yet was not the one crucified. To make the crucified man some innocent bystander — not the Son of God — destroys the cosmic dimension of the crucifixion. It reduces it to the status of just another innocent man wrongly killed. Surely the ancients were not so naïve as to think there had never been such injustices and that there would not be many more of them in the future. No, what makes this crucifixion so crucially different and of world-changing consequence is that it was the crucifixion of the Son of God. In the basic myth the Son of God must have been the one who was crucified i.e. Simon Kyrenaios.

        Moreover it is very easy to see how Irenaeus could have made a mistake. First, the Basilideans were notoriously secretive. They claimed that “not one in a thousand, not two in ten thousand” understood their doctrine. But more than that, Irenaeus was writing at least fifty years after written gospels with a life of Jesus had made their appearance. The Jesus that Irenaeus, writing around 180 CE, knew was the Jesus of the gospels. Gnostics and proto-orthodox alike had gospels of which their most substantial part was devoted to the teaching and miracles of Jesus. So in trying to figure out which one of these figures was the Son of God, it would have been entirely natural for Irenaeus to choose the one who was initially carrying the cross; for it was he who in the gospels of the time had a public ministry of at least a year’s duration. It seems to me that in such circumstances it was almost inevitable that Irenaeus would confuse which one was which. His situation was much like that of Christians today who find it so hard to conceive of a Christianity that did not have a Jesus like the one portrayed in the canonical gospels .

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