For more detailed discussions of how Jewish ideas of the sacrifice/binding of Isaac were a template for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for Paul and the evangelists refer to the posts in the archives for Akedah and Levenson: Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. This post looks specifically at how the Servant of Isaiah 53 came to be associated with Isaac.
Before the origins of Christianity the idea that Isaac was a willing volunteer to be sacrificed at his father Abraham’s hand was part of the smorgasbord of Jewish theological understandings. How did this notion arise? The answer to that question brings us to another Jewish idea that became the raw material from which Paul or other earliest Christian exegetes, including the authors of the gospels, drew inspiration for their teachings about Jesus Christ.
In the Genesis 22 narrative Isaac is a passive figure. The focus is entirely on Abraham’s faith and pious actions. Yet in the writings of Josephus, 4 Maccabees, and Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (Biblical Antiquities) and the subsequent Palestinian Targum focus turns to Isaac as knowing what God requires of him and willingly, even enthusiastically, seeking to be sacrificed. Where did that idea come from?
In 4 Maccabees the blood of the (Maccabean) martyrs of the mid-second century BCE is said to atone for the sins of Israel, and by offering to die they imitate Isaac.
In the Palestinian Targum we finally see clues that explain how this interpretation of Isaac came about: Isaiah 53, the famous passage about the Suffering Servant, was linked to two just men who were prepared to die to save Israel.
There exist at least two midrashic passages in which the self-offering of a just man mentioned in the Torah is interpreted by quoting Isaiah liii. The first relates to Moses’ intercession for Israel after the worship of the golden calf. He implores God either to pardon his people, or else to blot his own name from the Book of Life (cf. Ex. xxxii. 32). According to Sotah 14a, Isaiah liii. 12 refers to this event:
He delivered his soul to death… and he took away the sins of many.
The second text, Sifre on Numbers xxv. 13, §131, applies the same verse of Isaiah to Phinehas, who was considered to have endangered his life by his zeal for God. His self-sacrifice and atonement are given a permanent value, and will continue to expiate Israel’s sins until the time of the Resurrection.
Vermes adds a third reference, one that applies Isaiah 53’s Servant directly to Isaac.
Jacob, called the young one, and Abraham, called the old one, are there, and Isaac, the Servant of the Lord (‘abda de YHWH) who was delivered from bonds by his Master. (Targum of Job 3)
Isaac is identified as the Servant of the Lord because of the midrashic interpretation of Isaac being “bound” by Abraham and then freed from those bonds.
It is precisely on account of his having been bound, i.e. because of his self-sacrifice, that Isaac appears to have been given the title, “Servant of the Lord”.
It would seem, therefore, safe to assume that the targumic haggadah on the Akedah resulted from the association of Genesis xxii and Isaiah liii. In addition, it is almost certain that this association was due to reflections on the significance of martyrdom. If the blood of martyrs is viewed by God as an expiatory sacrifice, a fortiori, the self-offering of Isaac atoned for the sins of his descendants.
From that point, from the association of “binding” and “unbinding” in Genesis 22 with the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the figure of Isaac was delineated with other characteristics of that Isaiah 53 passage:
Isaiah’s servant, like Isaac, is compared to a sacrificial lamb
Isaiah’s servant, like Isaac, was ordained by God to be sacrificed
Isaiah’s Servant was cut off from the land of the living yet was promised to see his descendants. (Refer above to the links to archives where Levenson shows that some Jewish interpreters even believed Isaac’s blood had been spilled but that God restored him to life again.) Most significantly, the Servant is the just man who offers himself, in submitting to God’s will, for the sake of cleansing the sins of Israel.
In a recent post we saw how Paul was able to find “Christ crucified” “on a tree” in the Scriptures. Geza Vermes as early as 1961 elaborated on the above explanation for how Jewish interpreters were constructing concepts that were picked up and applied by Paul and other pioneering Christian authors.
(Another interesting point brought out in Vermes’ discussion is that the Jewish interpreters also viewed the daily sacrifices as serving the purpose of reminding God of the sacrifice of Isaac, the truly valuable sacrifice because it was that of a righteous man, not a mere animal. But that’s another discussion. )
This post concludes my presentation of Huizenga’s chapter The Matthean Jesus and Isaac in Reading the Bible Intertextually. It first addresses verbal allusions and thematic correspondences between Genesis 22 and the Gethsemane and arrest scenes in the Gospel of Matthew; it concludes with a consideration of the reasons the Gospel author may have used Isaac in this way and the significance of his having done so. I also draw attention to Huizenga’s argument that while we have historical evidence for the likelihood of Isaac being used as a recognizable model for Jesus we have only later Christian exegesis to support the more widely held current view that Isaiah’s Suffering Servant was used as Matthew’s template.
I forgot to conclude a series I began some weeks ago so let’s at least start to bring this one to a close. I was discussing Leroy Huizenga’s thesis that the Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew has been crafted from the Jewish stories of Isaac. Two reasons this has not been noticed before are suggested. Matthean scholarship has been
“fixated on the formula quotations to the exclusion of other forms of Matthean intertextuality”;
“redactional-critical, not narrative-critical”
. . . thus, scholars miss the cumulative narrative force of the many allusions to Isaac. (p. 70, The Matthean Jesus and Isaac in Reading the Bible Intertextually)
The previous two posts in this series covered various Jewish views of the sacrifice of Isaac in the pre-Christian and early Christian eras. Isaac came to be understood as going willingly and obediently to his sacrificial death, offered up primarily by God himself, with his sacrifice having a saving or atoning power. All this happened at Passover and on the Temple M0unt. Some of the following post will make more sense if those two previous posts are fresh in mind.
(In what follows I single out some of the more striking features of the argument and am not attempting to reproduce all of the facets and nuances Huizenga addresses. Much will be assertions of examples of intertextuality with only a little of the argument for them. This post is an outline of a chapter that is a synopsis of a thesis.) Continue reading “Matthew’s Jesus crafted from the story of Isaac”
This post continues Leroy Andrew Huizenga’s argument that the Gospel of Matthew’s Jesus is modelled on Second Temple Jewish beliefs about Isaac being bound in order to become a sacrificial offering at the hand of his father Abraham (an episode known as the Akedah). Huizenga’s argument depends on their being much more to the Jewish understanding of this event than what we read today in Genesis 22. The first post looked at evidence we have from before the first century (the Dead Sea Scrolls and Jubilees) that
Isaac was believed to have been a willing participant freely offering himself up as a sacrifice;
this was believed to have occurred at Passover — indeed explains the institution of the Passover;
this happened was said to have happened on Mount Zion
God himself was thought to be the one who behind the scenes was offering him up as a sacrifice
this event was understood to have had some form of saving or life-giving benefit.
This post looks at the evidence from the first century itself for the prevalence of such views of Isaac and the Akedah — the time acknowledged as the era when Christianity and the Gospels were coming into being.
Of particular significance is Huizenga’s point that the first-century evidence itself further points to these understandings being long embedded as part and parcel of Jewish culture. They were not recent innovations.
Moreover, the concise manner of presentation of these aspects in the latter three texts reveals their antiquity and pervasive cultural currency: recent innovations would require detailed presentation but longstanding legends need only the slightest mention for their evocation. Isaac’s willingness, for instance, functions as a resource, not a novelty, an explanans, not an explanation. (p. 67 of Reading the Bible Intertextually, chapter 5 The Matthean Jesus and Isaac)
Leaving aside Huizenga’s argument for a moment, this reminds me of the cryptic references in the Book of Genesis to the fallen angels procreating with human women before the flood. The passing remark presupposes a knowledge of what we read in the apocryphal literature and is thus one of several reasons to think of Genesis as being a late composition. Continue reading “Isaac Bound & Jesus: first century evidence”
If one reads the Genesis 22 account of Abraham’s offering of Isaac there is very little reason to think that it has very much to do with the details of the Gospel narrative about Jesus. And that’s the problem — it is too easy to read Genesis 22 as if the canonical text so familiar to us was all there was to read and know among Jewish readers of the Second Temple pre-Christian era.
Some scholars neglect the potential significance of Isaac for the Gospel of Matthew due to an anachronistic and often reflexive focus on the canonical forms of Old Testament texts. (p. 64, The Matthean Jesus and the Isaac of the Early Jewish Encyclopedia, Leroy Andrew Huizenga, in Reading the Bible Intertextually)
Huizenga uses the analogy of the difference between a dictionary and an encyclopedia to explain. It has been customary to compare specific details of Gospel narratives with potentially corresponding texts in the Old Testament and decide on the basis of one to one correspondences of semantics whether there is a real relationship between the two. This is like consulting a dictionary to find a direct one-to-one theoretical explanation of a word. A better approach is to explore relationships through “an encyclopedia” that speaks of actual experiences in the way the words have been used and interpreted in cultural knowledge and traditions. In short, this means that
Scholars must ask how Old Testament texts were actually understood within Jewish culture when the New Testament documents were written and not assume that any “plain meaning” of our canonical Old Testament text was the common, obvious, undisputed first-century meaning. (p. 65)
So when one reads in Matthew what appears to be a verbal allusion to Genesis 22, it is valid to ask what that allusion meant to those whose understanding of Genesis was shrouded in other literary traditions and theological ideas of the time. It is not just about what we read in our canon. It is about what Jews of the day wrote and understood and acted upon in relation to their scriptures that is the key.
The classical Greek myths related to the founding of the colony of Cyrene in North Africa (Libya) are worth knowing about alongside the biblical narrative of the founding of Israel. This post is a presentation of my understanding of some of the ideas of Philippe Wajdenbaum found in a recent article in the Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, and that apparently epitomize his thesis, Argonauts of the Desert.
When I wrote a series of posts on resonances between the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes and several features of Old Testament narratives, I confessed I did not know how to understand or interpret the data. But someone else does. Philippe Wajdenbaum in 2008 defended his anthropology doctoral thesis, “Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible.” He applies the structural analysis of myths as developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss to the Bible, something Lévi-Strauss himself never got around to doing, although he did eventually encourage biblical scholars to do so. This post looks at one detail of a detail-rich article in the 2010 Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament (Vol. 24, No. 1, 129-142), “Is the Bible a Platonic Book?” (After a few more posts on this my next project will be to see if the same type of analysis can be used to suggest origins of the Gospel myths.)
This post concludes the series outlining key aspects of Levenson’s argument that the Christian narrative of the atoning and saving death and resurrection of the Beloved (Only) Son was borrowed from late Second Temple Jewish midrashic interpretations of their scriptures about Isaac, Joseph and others. While the cosmic significance of this event is attributed to Jewish apocalyptic, the story itself is a natural evolution or mutation of a Jewish idea that had been on the burner for some time.
Levenson concludes by drawing the two Beloved Son narratives together, and then showing the Christian counterpart in a similar Jewish parable. Rather than seeing Christianity as a “child” born of the “parent” of Judaism, Levenson concludes that it is more accurate to see the two religions originating as sibling rivals, each competing for their father’s unique blessing.
The Isaac christology
Among tales of the beloved son in Genesis, the aqedah (“binding of Isaac”) is unique. The father, Abraham, directly and deliberately brings about the symbolic death of his favoured son.
We can refer to the attributes of Jesus that derive from this narrative and its Second Temple era interpretations as an Isaac christology. The action hinges on the pious intention of the father, and later, on the godly willingness to be a sacrifice on the part of the beloved son.
The other beloved son narratives
In other cases (Abel, Ishmael, Jacob and Joseph) these die or nearly die from homicidal intent of their older brothers (or mother). In the cases of Jacob and Joseph the drama concludes with a reconciliation of the beloved son with those who sought to murder him (Esau, the other sons of Jacob). This reconciliation is an implicit or explicit acknowledgment that the plots of the would-be killers, like Abraham’s willingness to kill Isaac, were part of divine plan for good.
The Joseph christology
We can refer to the attributes of Jesus that derive from this narrative as a Joseph christology. That is, the event turns on the malignancy of the slayers. Both father and son are unwitting pawns in a divine drama. But the one difference with early christology is that there was no reconciliation with those who turned against and betrayed the beloved son. One of the earliest examples of this is seen in the parable of the wicked husbandmen.
Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen
Even though this parable appears towards the end of the synoptic gospels, it is a central parable to inform the reader about the fate and function of Jesus Christ, and the plan of God. It is tied tothe opening baptismal scene of Jesus, and again to the central episode of his transfiguration, but the focus on “the beloved son“. So when the beloved son appears again in this parable, it is in the context of the baptized and transfigured Jesus about to claim his true inheritance:
Then He began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a place for the wine vat and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. Now at vintage-time he sent a servant to the vinedressers, that he might receive some of the fruit of the vineyard from the vinedressers. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent them another servant, and at him they threw stones, wounded him in the head, and sent him away shamefully treated. And again he sent another, and him they killed; and many others, beating some and killing some.
Therefore still having one son, his beloved, he also sent him to them last, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those vinedressers said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him and cast him out of the vineyard.
“Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the vinedressers, and give the vineyard to others. Have you not even read this Scripture:
The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief cornerstone.
This was the LORD’s doing,
And it is marvelous in our eyes?
And they sought to lay hands on Him, but feared the multitude, for they knew He had spoken the parable against them. So they left Him and went away.
Mark 12:1-12; Matt. 21:36-46; Luke 20:9-19
This parable is born out of key narrative themes in the Jewish scriptures and has firmly stamped those themes on the role and function of Jesus Christ. Note the following:
The theme of supersessionism (excluding possibility of reconciliation), as is central to the stories under the heading of the “Joseph christology” outlined above. The chief characteristics of this are:
The hostility of those who have been on the fields for the longer time towards the beloved son,
and their intent to murder him so that they can take his inheritance for themselves,
but the reversal of all they hoped for when they are the ones who are totally removed and replaced by the beloved son.
Complete reliance on the scriptures of the superseded Jewish people for this story; the irony of the claim that the Jewish people have been replaced by the Church jusxtaposed against the founding of this claim on the scriptures of those same Jewish people.under the heading of the “Joseph christology” outlined above.
The parable is clearly a development of the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7
Now let me sing to my Well-beloved
A song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard:
My Well-beloved has a vineyard
On a very fruitful hill.
He dug it up and cleared out its stones,
And planted it with the choicest vine.
He built a tower in its midst,
And also made a winepress in it;
So He expected it to bring forth good grapes,
But it brought forth wild grapes.
“And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
Judge, please, between Me and My vineyard.
What more could have been done to My vineyard
That I have not done in it?
Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes,
Did it bring forth wild grapes? And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard:
I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned;
And break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will lay it waste;
It shall not be pruned or dug,
But there shall come up briers and thorns.
I will also command the clouds
That they rain no rain on it.”
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant.
He looked for justice, but behold, oppression;
For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help.
While this Jewish parable found fault with the vineyard itself, the Christian adaptation has found fault instead with the tenants. These refuse the rightful payment to the owner and murder his messengers.
One of the Jewish scriptural themes that has been embraced here by the parable is the traditional tale of the Jews killing the prophets sent to them (Nehemiah 9:26):
But they became disobedient and rebelled against You,
And cast Your law behind their backs And killed Your prophets who had admonished them
So that they might return to You,
And they committed great blasphemies.
Another prominent Jewish scriptural narrative theme is the motive for murder being the coveting of the inheritance. This is found in another parable, in 2 Samuel 14:4-11, as told by the wise woman of Tekoa:
Now when the woman of Tekoa spoke to the king, she fell on her face to the ground and prostrated herself and said, “Help, O king.”
The king said to her, “What is your trouble?”
And she answered, “Truly I am a widow, for my husband is dead. Your maidservant hadtwo sons, but the two of them struggled together in the field, and there was no one to separate them, so one struck the other and killed him. Now behold, the whole family has risen against your maidservant, and they say, `Hand over the one who struck his brother, that we may put him to death for the life of his brother whom he killed, and destroy the heir also.’ Thus they will extinguish my coal which is left, so as to leave my husband neither name nor remnant on the face of the earth.”
Then the king said to the woman, “Go to your house, and I will give orders concerning you.”
The woman of Tekoa said to the king, “O my lord, the king, the iniquity is on me and my father’s house, but the king and his throne are guiltless.”
So the king said, “Whoever speaks to you, bring him to me, and he will not touch you anymore.”
Then she said, “Please let the king remember the LORD your God, so that the avenger of blood will not continue to destroy, otherwise they will destroy my son.”
And he said, “As the LORD lives, not one hair of your son shall fall to the ground.”
It is the clan or family who wishes to kill the surviving son, so the reader can assume that their motive is not entirely one of disinterested justice. They are the ones who will assume the inheritance by acting so heartlessly against the mother.
This parable also cannot help but remind one of the struggle in the field between Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:8):
Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they werein the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
But in particular the parable of the wise woman of Tekoa’s parable reverberates with the sounds of Sarah’s insistence that the elder step-brother of her son be expelled (even into the face of death in the desert) so that her son alone could be secured the inheritance:
Therefore she said to Abraham, “Drive out this maid and her son, for the son of this maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac.” (Genesis 21:10)
The same themes of
are at the heart of the well known story ofJacob and Esau. The extended narrative of Genesis 25-32 is told to justify the lateborn son, Jacob, assuming the privileges of the older, Esau. The whole narrative turns on the love that the mother, and God, have towards Jacob, the younger, and the conflict this generates with the older brother, Esau, who is loved by Isaac (Gen.25:28; Mal. 1:3). The consequence is, again, the intent by the older son, Esau, to murder the younger, Jacob, for the inheritance.
Paul’s contribution again
This parabolic midrashic slant of the old Jewish narratives was not the unique intellectual property of synoptic authors. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians contains a passage in the same midrashic tradition of the very same narrative cluster.:
Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free. (Galatians 4:28-31)
Just as the Hebrew scripture’s narrative functioned to justify the inheritance going to the younger son over the older son of Abraham, so the midrashic play on the same narrative validated the claim of the Church over the Jews as the rightful heirs of God.
The author of that passage in Galatians had the same objective as the author of the original narrative of Isaac and Ishmael.
And the Christians are brought into this drama because of the earlier identification of the promise to Abraham with Jesus:
Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. (Gal.3:16)
Christian anti-semitism witnesses to midrashic character of Christian message
The early Church claimed to be the chosen of God in place of the Jews, and asserted that God had dispossessed the Jews in favour of the devotees of Jesus Christ. If the Christians portrayed the Jews as their persecutors, the same Christians also saw it as their God-given right to cast out and dispossess the Jews. And the same Church concocted the written testimony to their claim out of their own midrashic interpretation of the Jewish scriptures.
The very efforts of the Church to dispossess the Jews of the Torah witnesses to the midrashic character of the most basic elements of the Christian message.
Paul’s and the Gospel’s message compared
According to Levenson, Paul never blames the Jews for death of Jesus. For Paul, the death of Jesus is always the consequence of the sacrifice of a loving God.
The parable of WIcked Husbandmen, though, has no trace of any notion of child sacrifice. Rather, it resembles the story of Joseph, whose father has no intention that his son be killed. Note also that the gospels have Judas as the wicked betrayer of Jesus, the beloved son and true heir, just as Judah was the betrayer of Joseph, the beloved son. That Judas might stand in for the Jews cannot be far from any reader’s mind. Levenson comments:
The father’s gift has been recast as the brothers’ crime. (p.230)
A Rabbinic analogy to Christian supersessionism: both replace Isaac
Levenson continues, p.230: “If doubt remains about the midrashic character of the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen or its pronounced participation in the intertextuality of the Jewish Scriptures, the following rabbinic midrash should help dispel the doubt and shed light on the Jewish-Christian debate to which the parable bears witness:”
For the LORD’S portion is his people” [Deut 32:9]. A parable: A king had a field which he leased to tenants. When the tenants began to steal from it, he took it away from them and leased it to their children. When the children began to act worse than their fathers, he took it away from them and gave it to (the original tenants’) grandchildren. When these too became worse than their predecessors, a son was born to him. He then said to the grandchildren, “Leave my property. You may not remain therein. Give me back my portion, so that I may repossess it.” Thus also, When our father Abraham came into the world, unworthy (descendants) issued from him, Ishmael and all of Keturah’s children. When Isaac came into the world, unworthy (descendants) issued from him, Esau and all the princes of Edom, and they became worse than their predecessors. When Jacob came into the world, he did not produce unworthy (descendants), rather all his children were worthy, as it is said, “Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp” [Gen 25:27]. When did God repossess His portion? Beginning with Jacob, as it is said, “For the LORD’S portion is His people / Jacob His own allotment” [Deut 32:9], and, “For the LORD has chosen Jacob for Himself [Ps 135 :4] (Sifre Deut. 312)
According to Levenson, in both the gospel parable and in this rabbinic midrash,
the climactic act of election is the final one, the one occasioned by the arrival of the son. In both passages, the point is to justify the preference for the latecomers at the expense of those whom they dispossess, the non-Israelite descendants of Abraham in the case of the midrash, the Jews in the Christian parable as we have interpreted it.” (p.231)
That rabbinic culture transmitted a parable on these matters so similar to the Synoptic text and its alloforms in Thomassuggests that the prominence of the “beloved son” in the canonical Gospels — or at least of the concept underlying it — is not incidental to the meaning of the Gospel passage. Rather, both texts would seem to have had their origins in the dispute of Jews and early Christians over the identity of the beloved son and the community that harks back to him.The only way in which a dispute of this sort could be carried on was through the exegesis of the only scripture either community knew — the Hebrew Bible.
Paul had replaced Isaac as the beloved son with Jesus and the Church, and this rabbinic midrash replaces Isaac with Jacob and the Jews as the beloved son.
The biblical texts on which the two contending groups focused are, in each case, those that speak of the origins of the faithful community and the legitimation of its separation from its unworthy competitor, and, in each case, the legitimation derives from God’s new and definitive act of election. (p.231)
This rabbinic midrash testifies to the “deeply Jewish character of the parallel New Testament exegetical moves and for the similarity of the ways in which the two communities laid a midrashic claim to the patrimony of Abraham.”
Both Jewish and Christian communities rely on Genesis; both use Genesis to compose texts that completely dispossess their rivals. In both the Jewish and Christian parables the former tenants are totally uprooted and repudiated — there is no compromise, no longer any room for any blessing at all for the former tenants.
The break is total: contrary to what biblical archetype might have suggested, the Jews and the Church are not even related . . . .
The Jewish-Christian relationship is thus not one of parent-child as often portrayed, but one of two rival siblings competing for their father’s unique blessing.
I’ve done nothing more in these posts than present some key parts of Levenson’s argument. I have not discussed it in relation to other studies or possible implications for certain other hypotheses for Christian origins. In future posts, however, I do expect to refer back to significant points made by Levenson in this book, bringing them to throw additional light on other interpretations of the origins of Christianity.
The primary purpose of this series in the meantime is to do my little bit towards making more widely accessible some of the biblical scholarship that rarely gets read beyond the study rooms of academia.
There’s much more in the book — especially in relation to early Canaanite sacrifice and the notion of human sacrifice (both literal and symbolic) in what are sometimes thought of as “early bible times”.
According to Levenson the central elements of the Christian message derive from a reinterpretation and midrashic reworking of prominent tropes in the Hebrew Scriptures. In particular, the central Christian message and characterization of Jesus can be traced directly to the central motifs that lie at the heart of the old biblical stories and proclamations about the “beloved (and only begotten) son”. Further, these biblical stories have their antecedents in Canaanite mythology. The fundamental theme involves a father (human or divine) who willingly gives up his most beloved son to a bloody sacrifice, either out of love for another, or to save others from death. This is found most prominently in what have come to us as the writings of Paul, as well as in one especially famous gospel verse.
There is another parallel set of “beloved son” narratives that turn on the murderous hostility of the older siblings of that beloved son because of his destiny to inherit what they think should be their due. In this tradition, the father is an unwilling participant until the eventual miraculous return of his most beloved one. At that point the most favoured son assumes the full inheritance. Sometimes, but not always, there is reconciliation with the older siblings. This narrative enters the Christian message through certain plot and character details and another famous parable found in the synoptic gospels.
But at this point, in the series outlining Levenson’s book, ‘The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, we come to his final chapter where he begins by looking at how the very character of God was transformed by early Christianity through its midrashic reading of the Jewish scripture stories of “the beloved son”. As previous posts in this series demonstrate, the “beloved son” trope, also often accompanied with the notion of “the only begotten” son, is part and parcel with the plot or myth of the father delivering up his most favoured offspring to bloody sacrifice for a greater good.
This ancient Jewish (and earlier Canaanite) story, Levenson proposes, is the underlying source of the Christian message, beginning with the very concept of God as a being who loves humanity so much he will sacrifice his only son to save them. . . .
Note the Hebrew Scripture themes that underly this passage in Romans 8:28-35:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would bethe firstbornamong many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
The complex thoughts expressed in this passage are all surfacing here from Jewish scripture narratives:
Sometimes (e.g. Jacob and Joseph) he is really the last born, and acquires his firstborn status through divine or parental assistance, or through birth to a favoured wife, and must accordingly face the murderous rage of his older brothers.
The image (eikon) of his Son
This metaphor builds on the tradition that God created the individual man Adam in his own image, and that we are all in that image through procreation, the process blessed at creation;
Now the image of God is no longer mediated through Adam, but through Jesus, through supernatural regeneration that was manifested at Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is available only to those called and chosen. Jesus is the new Adam.
The Isaac motifs
The constellation of the first born son, predestination, chosenness, glorification — this combination is at the core of the Isaac story. Anyone familiar with the Jewish scriptures will not have the story of Isaac and other beloved sons catapulted to firstborn status far from mind when reading here of the plot of the firstborn experiencing predestination, being chosen and finally glorified. This pattern is the core of Isaac’s birth, near-sacrifice and ascent to the rank of patriarch. And in later Jewish interpretations, his near-sacrifice became in implied actual sacrifice and resurrection. (See the previous posts for details.)
The above passage stresses the love of God, and since in Jewish Scripture and Second Temple interpretations Abraham was the archetypical lover of God, his shadow may well cover the above passage:
Isaiah 41:8 — Abraham is known as the archetypical lover of God. (Below is a translation of the Hebrew; in the LXX the word is from the Greek “agape” for love (agapete), describing God as the lover of Abraham):
— And thou, O Israel, My servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, Seed of Abraham, My lover
Jubilees 17:15-18 While the original Genesis account spoke of Abraham’s fear of God, this passage from Jubilees points to a shift in Jewish interpretation of Abraham where it was his love for God that was stressed, and with everything working out well for him despite afflictions because of his love for God:
there were voices in heaven regarding Abraham, that he was faithful in all that He told him, and thathe loved the Lord, and that in every affliction he was faithful. And the prince Mastema came and said before God, ‘Behold, Abraham loves Isaac his son, and he delights in him above all things else; bid him offer him as a burnt-offering on the altar, and Thou wilt see if he will do this command, and Thou wilt know if he is faithful in everything wherein Thou dost try him. And the Lord knew that Abraham was faithful in all his afflictions; for He had tried him through his country and with famine, and had tried him with the wealth of kings, and had tried him again through his wife, when she was torn (from him), and with circumcision; and had tried him through Ishmael and Hagar, his maid-servant, when he sent them away. And in everything wherein He had tried him, he was found faithful, and his soul was not impatient, and he was not slow to act; for he was faithful and a lover of the Lord.
Everything worked out well for Abraham because of his love for God.
The shadows of Abraham’s character lurking in the above passage are confirmed as definitely his own when we read of the final test, the real proof, of God’s love:
He who did not spare (pheidomai) His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all
for now I am certain that the fear of God is in your heart, because you have not kept back (pheidomai) your son, your only son, from me. . . . because you have done this and have not kept back (pheidomai) from me your dearly loved only son
The evidence of God’s love for humanity is the same as was the evidence of Abraham’s love for God. In both cases the supreme test or sign of that love was the giving up of their only sons.
Through this model of Abraham God has established a “new aqedah” (binding of Isaac). Just as Abraham’s aqedah enabled the life of the nation of Israel (see previous posts), so the new aqedah by God, in return, enables the new life of the Christian.
Role of Love in the New Aqedah
For God so loved the world, that He gave (edoken) His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Familiarity makes for an easy sentimentalization of this passage. But the idea of “givine one’s only begotten son” is nothing less than the scriptural idea of God’s requirement that the firstborn son be handed over (given up) for a bloody sacrifice. The way the Son is “given” goes back to Exodus 22:29b:
you shall give me the first-born among your sons
The fathers gift is the bloody slaying of Jesus, in the same sense as the killing of the passover lamb.
The killing of Jesus, like the killing of the passover lamb, enables the life of others who were marked for death. And like the beloved sons in the Hebrew traditions, his death also proves reversible. He is, like them, miraculously restored to life and reunited with those who love him, but who had given up all hope for his return.
Linking the above to a new age and general resurrection
Whence the pivotal historical moment, the turning of the new age interpretation of Jesus’ death and resurrection? That comes from Jewish apocalyptic, not from the midrash of biblical stories of near loss and miraculous return of the beloved son.
But the resurrection idea came with the Pharisees and the rabbis who followed them. It was not part of the earliest biblical narratives. But imagine how the Pharisees and rabbis who believed in a resurrection must have read and thought about the stories of the beloved son. One can imagine the old stories being recast under the impact of that new belief, of the old stories of an averted death being recast as a resurrection. Levenson had earlier discussed the enigmatic appearance of “the ashes of Isaac” in the Second Temple period.
The story of Elisha and the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4:8-37 (cf 1 Kings 17:17-24) likely represents a reworking of the beloved son story in a different cultural context, with a belief in resurrection.
Given these resurrection stories in the Elijah-Elisha narratives, it may indeed be significant that the first gospel, the Gospel of Mark, is quite possibly modeled on much of the content and structure of the Elijah-Elishah saga (1 Kings 17 – 2 Kings 13). Levenson cites Roth, and I would add Brodie. Levenson comments:
Even those unpersuaded by the case must conclude theis: if already in a world in which people believed in wonder-working prophets, the death of the only and promised son could be reversed by his bodily resurrection, it is all the more the case that in a world in which the resurrection of the dead is a central tenet, like that of Pharisaic Judaism, the report of the son’s return from death need not be taken for a definitive break with the older pattern. The report of Jesus’ resurrection is the old wine in a bottle that is relatively new but hardly unique. (p. 224, my emphasis)
Both Canaanite and Jewish myths
As discussed in the earlier posts in this series, there was the old Canaanite theme of god, El, who offered his son, his only son, in order to avert disaster. This offered son was said to be the “monogenes“, the “only” son, or the “only begotten” son.
Philo of Byblos translates the name of the son of El, whom El offered, as Ieoud or Iedoud. Behind this Ieoud/Iedoud is the Hebrew word yahid, the favoured one, the same term repeatedly applied to Isaac:
Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac . . .
thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me. . . .
because thou . . . hast not withheld thy son, thine only son . . (Genesis 22:2, 12, 16):
One LXX translation of this word uses the Greek monogenes when it applies to Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11:34. Another LXX version combines monogenes auto agapete (she was his “only child and beloved” daughter).
So the resonances of Jewish and Canaanite myths lurk beneath the Christian message (outlined in the Romans passage at the beginning of this post) and the Christian God, although the Jewish myth of course dominates. In the Jewish myth the motive for giving up the beloved son was a love greater than that for the son, not fear of calamity, as was the motive in the Canaanite myth.
And when Jesus was the one identified as the son of the God, then God himself was transformed into the image of father Abraham.
I titled this post “remaking god in the image of abraham”, but I am not sure to what extent there was any real “re-make” — or if the remake was really about shifting the image of a godfather god who demands absolute fealty to one who guises that mafia-like godfather image beneath a “love” garment. Rather than a theological innovation, does the new myth represent a Stockholm syndrome — those who saw themselves captive to their godfather have come to love him, since they see themselves as totally dependent on him.
one more post to go ( i think) to finish off this series……
What was the origin of the idea that God sacrificed his beloved or only son to cover for the sins of his favoured people? Was it novel to the Christians? Was it the outcome of years of theological reflection searching for meaning in some historical event? Or was the idea already central to certain Jewish interpretations about their own identity in relation to the binding (and near sacrifice) of Isaac? And if so, was the Jesus christology little more than a direct hijacking of a set of Jewish beliefs about Isaac? I am not sure of the answer but as part of an attempt to find it I have been working through a series of posts outlining Levenson’s study of how some of the earliest Christian writers drew on longstanding Jewish traditions about “the beloved son” (epitomized in Isaac) to interpret the role and meaning of Jesus.
In terms of social (i.e. racial) impact, the most significant writings that drew on Jewish interpretative frameworks about the beloved son, in particular Isaac, are those attributed to Paul. (I place ‘replaced’ in quotation marks because Isaac was never replaced within Judaism, of course. Displaced would have been the more arms-length term to have used, and is in fact the word Levenson uses. But ‘replaced’ certainly would apply to those Jews and proselytes who originally transferred all the meanings bestowed upon Isaac to their Jesus and/or Christ figure.)
A corollary of this involves a rejection of the commonly assumed notion of Paul’s “universalism”. He is not by any means a “universalist”. He wants, rather, for a reversal of the Judaistic premise: his system places the gentiles in the favoured position of the Jews, and relegates the Jews to castaway status until their punishment is complete. Continue reading “Jesus supplants Isaac — the contribution of Paul”
According to what Eusebius tells us in his Praeparatio Evangelica, one passage Philo of Byblos wrote of sacrifice among the gods:
It was a custom of the ancients in great crises of danger for the rulers of a city or nation, in order to avert the common ruin, to give up the most beloved of their children for sacrifice as a ransom to the avenging daemons; and those who were thus given up were sacrificed with mystic rites. Kronos then, whom the Phoenicians call Elus, who was king of the country and subsequently, after his decease, was deified as the star Saturn, had by a nymph of the country named Anobret an only begotten son, whom they on this account called ledud, the only begotten being still so called among the Phoenicians; and when very great dangers from war had beset the country, he arrayed his son in royal apparel, and prepared an altar, and sacrificed him.’
Kronos or El sacrificed his son to put an end to the “very great dangers from war that had beset the country.” The same motif is found in the Bible where King Mesha also offered “his first-born son, who was to succeed him as king” to end the siege of his city. See 2 Kings 3:27. In both cases a king sacrifices his royal heir.
Elus is otherwise known as El, and is also known by the same name and in the same supreme role in the Hebrew Bible, and sometimes equated there with YHWH.
Iedud is, following Levenson, better spelled Iedoud to reflect Eusebius’s Greek.
Another manuscript tradition names this only begotten son of El Ieoud rather than Iedoud (Levenson, p.27).
The only begotten son
Ieoud is most likely the same as the Hebrew word yachiyd, the only, the solitary one, the only begotten.
Implicit in my series of notes on Jon Levenson‘s book, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, is that the Jesus story, in particular the fact of and meaning attributed to his humiliation and crucifixion, the saving function of his blood, his pioneer role and one with whom the faithful are to identify, should not be seen as unique developments. They arguably emerged within the context of a Jewish intellectual matrix that was attributing the same sort of theology to Isaac.
Certainly some of the clearest expressions of these meanings to the binding of Isaac are found in the rabbinic literature that was penned after the destruction of Jerusalem. But the earlier delineations of these interpretations are seen as early as the second century b.c.e.. Further, many of the rabbinic passages to which Levenson refers appear to derive from the earliest period of rabbinic Judaism. This is the same period in which the Christian gospels are also most commonly dated. (There are also what I believe are strong arguments — if not widely accepted ones — that the Pauline literature also dates from the late first or early second century.)
It is therefore no stretch to postulate the Jewish and Christian theological interpretations of Isaac and Jesus emerging in tandem, perhaps even in a dialogue with each other. For me it is also interesting that Levenson places some of the radical Isaac salvation and death and resurrection theology to the circumstances of the persecution of the Jews at the time of the Bar Khoba war (early 130’s c.e.) or possibly earlier. Interesting to me because this period, and its forerunner, the first Jewish war (late 60’s c.e.), set what I believe are the most plausible circumstances and explanations for both the emergence of Christianity and the course of rabbinic Judaism. Both naturally drew on pre 70 c.e. schools of thought (and Judaism pre 70 c.e. was a far from monolithic religious and thought system), but it was surely the crises of the Jewish wars that created the conditions that led to the real beginnings of these two trees. Both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism may be seen as natural (vacuum filling) replacements of what had been lost. (I’ve hinted at one aspect of this in an earlier thought about the tomb of Jesus being born out of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.)
But I’m getting way ahead of myself here, and sidetracked from the arguments of Levenson. Back to the business at hand:
Parts 1 and 2 have looked at the evolution of the aqedah through the Second Temple and early rabbinic period — from Levenson’s book. Its retelling moved away from the original Genesis 22 account and became identified with the Passover and all sacrificial lambs.