Let’s once again imagine the canonical gospels in the thought-world of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Specifically, this time let’s focus on how Stoic philosophers thought about gods like Hermes (the Roman Mercury) and Heracles (the Roman Hercules) and then imagine what those philosophers might have thought about Jesus as they listened to a reading of the gospels.
Jesus is not the sort of messiah we normally think of when we think of “the Jewish messiah”. He is centred in heaven and acts as sustainer of the universe and the source of all spiritual wisdom, and so forth, rather than a Davidic king sitting on a throne in Jerusalem with all nations coming to bow to him. (We have addressed the various ideas of Jewish messianism several times before but here we are focusing on Knox’s interesting explanation for this more spiritual or heavenly concept of Jesus as messiah.)
Knox points out that Jesus is not explicitly described as a “saviour” (even though he clearly is a saviour) until the very latest books in the N.T. For Knox, this avoidance of the label can be explained by a reluctance to associate Jesus with the many other divine and human “saviours” that populated the Hellenistic landscape.
It is well known that the general desire of the hellenistic age was to find gods who were ‘saviours’. ‘Salvation’ might take many forms. . . . even Philo can describe Augustus as Soter [=Saviour] and Euergetes [=Benefactor], though normally such titles are reserved for the God of Israel and only applied sarcastically to rulers. . . .
[Flaccus] arrested thirty-eight members of our council of elders, which our saviour and benefactor, Augustus, elected to manage the affairs of the Jewish nation after the death of the king of our own nation . . . (Philo: Flaccus 74)
In Syll 347 (= 760)8, an Ephesian inscr. of A.D. 48, the Town Council of Ephesus and other cities acclaim Julius Caesar as θεòν επιφανή … καί κοινòν του ανθρωπíνου βíου σωτήρα, and in a i/A.D. Egyptian inscr. … reference is made to Nero as τώι σωτήρι καί ευεργετηι (cf. Lk 2225) τή[ς] οίκουμένης : cf. the description of Vespasian … tòv σωτήρα καί ευεργετην. (Voc. Gr. N.T. p.621 σωτήρ )
Jesus the Logos; comparing Heracles the Logos
Here we come to an interesting point, one that I had “sort of” known for some time, but Knox makes its significance clear:
Knox adds a detailed discussion of two examples (Asclepius and Sarapis) of this identification of a saviour god with the supreme God (Zeus) and of the descriptions by Aristides of this highly exalted god that match Philo’s account of the Logos. Cf. Wisdom 9:18ff.
But at its best the cult of a saviour could rise above man’s immediate needs of peace, health, and prosperity; a particular deity could be regarded as the manifestation of God in the cosmos, and be addressed by the votary in more or less monotheistic language as the saviour both of the worshipper and of the whole universe or one particular aspect of it. As a saviour in this sense he could be equated with the Logos or one of the Logoi through which the supreme deity ordered the universe, or with the supreme deity himself; which position was given him depended on his traditional position in the Pantheon or on the extent to which the worshipper was concerned to observe the proprieties of Stoic-Platonic theology. (38)
And then a detail even less expected for many of us who are not professional classicists:
Heracles is a particularly interesting specimen of this theology. (39)
[Destroying tyrants and establishing kingdoms was] what made him Saviour of the earth and of the human race [τῆς γῆς καὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων σωτῆρα] . . . (Dio Chrys. 1.84)
Saviour and Logos
Heracles was not only a “saviour” who delivered the world from barbaric tyrants and introduced civilization through the good governance of kings. But he was also the Logos who gave “strength and cohesion to the cosmos”. Thus the philosopher Cornutus identifies Heracles with the Logos that is the power and mind responsible for sustaining the universe:
‘Heracles’ is universal reason [= Ἡρακλῆς δ’ ἐστὶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς ὅλοις λόγος], thanks to which nature is strong and mighty, being indomitable as well, and it also gives strength and power to its various parts. The name comes, perhaps, from the fact that it extends to heroes [hērōes] and is what makes the noble famous [kle(izesthai)]. For the ancients called heroes those who were so strong in body and soul that they seemed to be part of a divine race. ….. Both the lion skin and the club can be a symbol of force and nobility; for the lion is the most powerful of the beasts, the club the mightiest of weapons. Traditionally, the god is an archer because he extends everywhere and because even the path of his missiles is somehow unwavering—and it is not an irrational commander who faces his enemies with his trust in weapons like this. The Coans have an apposite tradition according to which he lives with Hebe,198 as one more perfect than her in intelligence—as it is said: “The hands of the young are fitter for action, but the souls of the older are better by far.”203 I suspect that it is more plausible that the service to ‘Omphale’ refers to him [the god]; through it, the ancients showed again that even the strongest ought to submit themselves to reason and to do what it enjoins, even if its voice [omphē] (which it would not be extraordinary to call ‘Omphale’) happens to call for the somewhat feminine activity of contemplation and rational inquiry. It is also possible to explain the Twelve Labors as referring to the god, as Cleanthes in fact did. But ingenuity should not always win the day. (Cornutus, Greek Theology, 31)
Seneca, also a Stoic philosopher, appears to have taken the same Stoic idea of the Logos (or head) spreading its health through the whole body when he instructed the young Nero, substituting Nero for the Logos of the empire:
To a great extent, Caesar, we may hope and expect that this will come to pass. Let your own goodness of heart be gradually spread and diffused throughout the whole body of the empire, and all parts of it will mould themselves into your likeness. Good health proceeds from the head into all the members of the body: they are all either brisk and erect, or languid and drooping, according as their guiding spirit blooms or withers. Both Romans and allies will prove worthy of this goodness of yours, and good morals will return to all the world . . . (Seneca, Of Clemency, 2.II.1)
Stoics sometimes wrote of God as if he/it were an immanent force permeating all; other times, though, they spoke of God as a first cause and transcendent ruler over all. Seneca declared God to be the
divine reason [= logos] which permeates the whole world and all its parts. . . . [A]ll things stay in place thanks to him, because he is their stayer and stabilizer. . . . [H]e is the first cause of all, the one on which all the other causes depend. (On Benefits 7.1-2)
Have recent posts here about two “son of man” sayings of Jesus missed their mark (claiming to be references to Daniel 7) if the term “son of man” was simply a common way for a speaker to refer to himself?
Vermes argued that, in addition to being a normal term for “man”, the Aramaic bar nasha, “son of man”, was also a conventional substitute for the first person pronoun, “I”. — Casey, 1991:48
Casey a few years later drew a similar conclusion:
[A]s we try to recover the original force of sayings of Jesus which used this idiom . . . [w]e must go back to the term ‘son of man’ being bar (e)nāsh(ā), an ordinary Aramaic term for ‘man’, used in an idiomatic way in a general statement which refers particularly to the speaker with or without other people. — Casey, 2010:361
I have bolded key thought changes and background coloured examples to (hopefully) assist with easier reading. I have also kept the original page breaks with in-place footnotes.
A Read Herring: “The Son of Man” as Periphrasis for “I”
In order, however, to proceed into my own inquiry into the evidence of Mark for the “Son of Man” in early Judaism, I must first show why I do not accept the conclusion of Geza Vermes, who argued that it is just a circumlocution for “I.” In a series of articles, culminating in an important essay published as “Appendix E” to the third edition of Matthew Black’s Aramaic Approach,7 Vermes attempted to revive a theory that had been advanced and abandoned a century ago to the effect that “The Son of Man” is merely an ordinary Aramaic locution by which someone refers to themselves in the third person, hence “I.” I think it can be taken as granted that given Vermes’s exhaustive investigation, his study should be considered definitive,8 and if it fails, we can consider that suggestion as rejectable.9 Although an entire array of scholars have already disputed Vermes’s conclusion, none have, I think, shown that the interpretations of rabbinic literature adduced by him, do not stand, and that there is, therefore, no evidence whatsoever for the argument that in Aramaic, “son of man” can mean “I” (that it means a human being is, of course, not in doubt at all).10 I thus accordingly
7 G. Vermes, “Appendix E: The Use of Bar Nash/Bar Nasha in Jewish Aramaic: An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (ed. Μ. Black; 3rd ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, Clarendon, 1967), 310-28; P. Haupt, “The Son of Man = Hic Homo = Ego,” JBL 40 (1921).
8 P. Owen and D. Shepherd, “Speaking up for Qumran, Dalman and the Son ofMan: Was Bar Enasha a Common Term for ‘Man in the Time of Jesus?” JSNT 81 (2001): 84.
9 And it has been rejected by a host of scholars, from Fitzmyer through Jeremiah to Colpe, for all of which references see A. Yarbro Collins, “The Influence of Daniel on the New Testament in Daniel: A Commentary on the Book Daniel (ed. J.J. Collins; Hermeneia; Min-neapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 94, n. 30.
10 It should be noted that Norman Perrin, A Modern Pilgrimage in New Testament Christology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 70, makes major use of this untenable argument to make his case that all Christological use of “The Son of Man” must be post-Easter, an argument that is, in this respect, repeated by Lindars, Jesus, Son Man.
essentially agree with Hans Lietzmann as cited by Vermes to the effect that “His main findings are that the term is a common one, and that it is used as a kind of indefinite pronoun (ברעש = jemand; לית בר נש- niemand; בני נש= Leute). It is, he writes, ‘die farbloseste und unbestimmteste Bezeichnung des menschlichen In-dividuums’ (p. 38). He then goes on to postulate what seems to him to be the only logical corollary: as a designation בר נש is by nature inapplicable to any particular man, let alone to Jesus, the greatest of all men (p. 40).”11 Lietzmann put the question brilliantly; his answer, on the other hand, that the Son of Man must be a Hellenistic terminus technicus is a non-sequitur, for even if semantically and syntactically “Son of Man” in Aramaic means indeed just a person and nothing else, pragmatically (by which I mean in the case of a particular set of syntagms), the “Son of Man” as a citation of Daniel could certainly have come to mean the Christ already in Hebrew/Aramaic. An example, just to make this clear, would be the following: “Rav” simply means “Rabbi,” but for the majority of Orthodox Jews in the U.S., “the Rav” means one and only one Rabbi, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik OBM. Let us, then, have a look at Vermes’s evidence.
In order to make his case, Vermes must demonstrate the alleged use of בר נש as a circumlocution meaning “I.” Although he gives several examples, in every one of these, rather than seeing a circumlocution for “I,” we can see quite a (different idiom. I shall first discuss an example that Vermes seems to consider particularly strong.12 In the first:
Jacob of Kefar Nibburayya gave a ruling in Tyre that fish should be ritually slaughtered. Hearing this, R. Haggai sent him this order: Come and be scourged! He replied, should בר נש be scourged who proclaims the word of Scripture? (Gen. Rabba vii 2)13
Vermes wishes to claim that, “theoretically, of course, bar nash may be rendered here as ‘one’, but the context hardly suggests that at this particular juncture Jacob intends to voice a general principle. Hurt by his opponent’s harsh words, he clearly seems to be referring to himself and the indirect idiom is no doubt due to the implied humiliation.”14 Vermes here simply confuses the semantics and the pragmatics of the sentence. Of course, pragmatically the speaker is referring to himself, but semantically he is using a general expression. An example from English will make this clear. In the famous and brilliant lyric from Guys and Dolls, Adelaide sings plaintively: “In other words, just by waiting around for that
11 Vermes, “The Use,” 311.
12 Vermes, “The Use,” 321-2.
13 Genesis Rabbah (eds. J. Theodor and H. Albeck; Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1965), 51. Ver-mes’s translation.
14 Vermes, “The Use.”
little band of gold […] a person could develop a cold!” Of course, pragmatically she is referring to herself; it is her own situation of which she complains, but semantically “a person” in English is an indefinite pronomial form and not a circumlocution for “I.”15 The same is true for this example and, mutatis mutandis, all the other ones that Vermes cites. But another should be cited, because, at least, of the mutatis mutandis:
When R. Hiyya bar Adda died, son of the sister of Bar Kappara, R. Levi received his valuables. This was because his teacher used to say, The disciple of בר נשא is as dear to him as his son. (Yer Ber. 5b)
There is not the slightest justification to see a circumlocution for “I” here either. Rabbi Hiyya has expressed a general principle that the disciple of a person is as dear to him as his son and the conclusion was drawn on the pragmatic level (in several senses) that he intended his disciple to be his heir.
Another example cited by Vermes turns out to be a counter-example:
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoh said: “If I had been standing on Mt. Sinai at the hour that the Torah was given to Israel I would have demanded of the Merciful One that that human being would have been created with two mouths, one to be busy with Torah and one to do with it all of his daily needs.” Then he changed his mind and said: “If even with only one, the world cannot subsist because of all of the delations, if there were two all the more so!” [Palestinian Talmud Shabbat chapter 1, halakhah, page 3b]
Now it is obvious here, pace Vermes, that the Rabbi is not referring to himself as “that man” here, for then he would be, as well, accusing himself of being an informer, which he hardly was and hardly would do.16 There can be no doubt that here, as well, we must understand “הדין בר נש” here as “One,” German “Mann”, and nothing else. There remains not even one example in which the term Son of Man is a periphrastic usage for “I.”
In all of Vermes’s examples, then, “general principles are stated which are applied in the context of the narrative to an individual, usually the speaker.17 Vermes’s argument fails totally because he does not even once observe the
15 Vermes’s citation of the answer “You […]” as confirmation of his thesis hardly needs refuting. Nathan Detroit, of course, would comfort Adelaide by saying: “Ah baby, you’ll be married soon.” That still doesn’t make “a person” = “I” semantically.
16 This consideration also thoroughly discredits Lindars’s reading according to which bar nesha here means “anyone (…) who was as deeply conscious of the divine generosity as Simeom himself,” Lindars, Jesus, Son of Man, 22. Even more sharply than with respect to the interpretation of Vermes, one would ask: Is this the class of people one would suspect of being informers to the Romans and even more so had they two mouths? I think the conclusion is inescapable that here (with or without haden=this), the meaning is the human being in general.
17 See examples cited Vermes, “The Use,” 323-7. For similar conclusions reached by slightly different methods, see Μ. Casey, “Method in Our Madness, and Madness in Their Methods: Some Approaches to the Son of Man Problem in Recent Scholarship,” JSNT 42 (1991): 18.
difference between semantic (lexical) meaning and pragmatic meaning or between sense and reference. There is, therefore, no evidence, whatsoever for “son of man” being used in Aramaic texts as a circumlocution for “I,” as Lietzmann realized.18
I conclude, therefore, that Vermes has adduced no convincing evidence that “Son of Man” was ever used as a circumlocution for “I” even in the Palestinian Aramaic of Late Antiquity; still less has he witnesses for the Aramaic of the first century. Vermes’s argument thus fails to convince on lexical philological grounds, in spite of its superficial attractiveness for the interpretation of some verses within the Gospels. Given that Vermes’s alleged idiomatic usage of “son of man” as periphrasis for “I” proves to be a ghost, another explanation of this genuinely weird usage must be sought. Lietzmann (and a host of others) have sought the explanation in the positing of a “Heavenly Man” or Anthropos myth underlying Christology. Rejecting (as have, I think, most interpreters by now) such far-fetched and far-flung explanations, to my mind, the only plausible one that remains is that of the great Jewish theologian and scholar of the last century, Leo Baeck, who wrote: “Whenever in later works ‘that Son Man,’ ‘this Son of Man’, or ‘the Son of Man’ is mentioned, it is the quotation from Daniel that is speaking.“19 In other words, I fully accept (as I think wë must) Vermes’s hypothesis of an Aramaic origin (in the oral traditions that lie behind the Gospels) for the phrase, “The Son of Man,” but deny his interpretation of that Aramaic
18 For another review of Vermes’s evidence, arriving, however, at different conclusions, see Lindars, Jesus, Son of Man, 19-24. Lindars accepts only one example as fully relevant and builds his entire case on that, the example being y Shevi’it 38d: [Rabbi Shimon] sat at the mouth of the cave [where he was hiding from the Romans] and he saw a hunter catching birds. He spread his net. He heard a voice from heaven [ברה קול], say dimus [Dimissio], and it was freed. He said [to himself], “a bird does not perish without Heaven, so much more so a human being!” Lindars chooses to translate this as “How much less a man in my position,” without any warrant other than the alleged article on bar nesha. Given, however, the philological state of the Palestinian Talmud, as well as the centuries later date in any case, to build an entire interpretation of the Son of Man on this one highly doubtful example, seems almost to constitute scholarly legerdemain. There is no reason to imagine that Rabbi Shimon means a man in his position as opposed to any human whatsoever. Once again, a simple generic is being used and applied by the speaker pragmatically to himself. A bird doesn’t perish except by the will of Heaven, still less a human being, [so why am I hiding here]? What is most important to recognize is that if this idiom is operative, for instance, at Matthew 8:20: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but bar enasha has nowhere to lay his head,” it could only mean that foxes have holes and birds have nests but humans have nowhere to lay their heads, which is palpably false (Lindars, Jesus, Son of Man, 30), so despite the apparent similarity of this one single exemplum from late-ancient Palestinian Aramaic, we must resist the temptation to treat them as the same linguistic form, pace Lindars, Jesus, Son of Man, 29-31. Lindars’s own solution to this problem involves pure philological fantasy, nothing more or less. In another, longer version of this argument, I will provide further argument against Lindars’s position. Insofar as it depends on Vermes’s flawed conclusions, it is, in any case, untenable.
191 L. Baeck, Judaism and Christianity: Essays (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1958), 28-9.
phrase. In what follows in this necessarily brief paper, I shall try to show how the hypothesis of literary allusion to Daniel in this phrase enables stronger readings of a pair of Markan loci.
Boyarin, Daniel. 2010. “The Sovereignty of the Son of Man: Reading Mark 2.” In The Interface of Orality and Writing: Speaking, Seeing, Writing in the Shaping of New Genres, edited by Annette Weissenrieder and Robert B. Coote, 353–62. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
Casey, Maurice. 1991. From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God: The Origins and Development of New Testament Christology. Cambridge, England: JClarke ; Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press.
———. 2010. Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching. London ; New York: T&T Clark.
The background to the following post is The Gospel of John as a form of Jewish Messianism? (Part 2). It presumes some awareness of how in some Jewish quarters Daniel 7’s Son of Man was being interpreted in a way that led to controversial Jewish texts like the Similitudes of Enoch and the Gospel of John.
In my view Jesus was entirely unnecessary for the formation of Mark’s Christology, as he is the fulfillment, not the provocation of that Christology. — Boyarin, 354
Before the Gospel of Mark was written, even possibly before the figure of Jesus was existed in anyone’s mind, there were Jews who interpreted Daniel 7 to claim that the Messiah, the Christ, would be divine human and known as the Son of Man. Again on the basis ultimately of Daniel 7 those Jewish sectarians believed that the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of Man, would be a divine human with the “Father God” (“Ancient of Days”) having granted him total sovereignty on earth. The author of the Gospel of Mark was one of those who embraced this belief about the messianic prophecies. He chose to fit Jesus into that divine Son of Man messiah or christ template in his gospel.
(This notion of Christ was not the same as the one advanced by Paul. Paul never spoke of the messiah as a Danielic Son of Man figure. Perhaps the author of the gospel acquired the Danielic view of the Christ after Paul had done his work.)
Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, is the about the Messiah as a divine human (which is not to deny a Markan contribution to the development of such ideas). This article, in its present form, is intended as an answer to the question of “how the ‘Son of Man’ . . . came to appear on Jesus’ lips in Mark’s Gospel, or for that matter in the tradition as a whole.” My simple answer is that the “Son of Man” was on Jesus’ lips, because he was a first-century, Palestinian Jew, and “Son of Man” was the name that these Jews used for their expected divine-human (Christological!) redeemer. (354)
What evidence for this view can be found in the Gospel of Mark?
5 And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question thus in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins“—he said to the paralytic—
Boyarin argues that Mark 2:10 is meant to recall Daniel 7:14.
20 Indeed, even were it possible (which it is not) to entertain Vermes’s suggestion on
philological grounds, it would be excluded here. If Jesus is not identifying himself by a known title, then his claim to be the one (the only one) who has authority to remit sins would be unrelenting personal arrogance and indeed blasphemy. For this point, see Μ. Hooker, The Son of Man in Mark: A Study of the Background of the Terms “Son of Man” and Its Use in St Mark’s Gospel (Montreal: McGill University Press, 1967), 84.—22 See too, “In claiming this divine prerogative Jesus classes himself as the Son of Man into the category of the divine, and his superhuman act of healing is the sign for this claim. So already in 1927 O. Procksch suggested that here ‘the Son of Man’ stands for the Son of God,” S. Kim, “The ‘Son of Man’ as the Son of God” (WUNT 30; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1983), 2.—24 J. Marcus, Mark 1—8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 530. See too Kim, “The ‘’Son of Man’,” 90.
But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” This verse is the crux. Once we have excluded the possibility of “the Son of Man” being simply, another way of saying “I,” then I think it must be conceded that it is a title, here.20 The Son of Man has authority (obviously delegated by God) to do God’s work of the forgiving of sins on earth. From where could such a claim be derived if not from Daniel 7:14, in which we read that the One Like a Son of Man has been given, “authority, glory, kingship;” indeed an “authority that is eternal that will not pass away”? The term that we conventionally translate as “authority” in its New Testament contexts, έξουσία, is, of course, exactly the same term which translates Aramaic שלטן(compare Strong’s #7985)in the Septuagint, so what Jesus is claiming for the Son of Man is exactly that which has been granted to the (One Like a) Son of Man in Daniel. Given the meaning of the Aramaic Vorlage in Daniel, “authority” strikes me as a rather weak rendering; “sovereignty” would be much better. Sovereignty would surely explain why the Son of Man has the power to remit sins on earth. According to this tradition, then, there may be no question; this Jesus claims to be the Son of Man to whom divine authority on earth, “under the heavens” (Daniel 7:27) has been delegated. In contrast to most interpreters, I would argue, moreover, that this One to whom authority has been delegated, as a divine figure, is a redeemer king, as the Daniel passage clearly states, and thus ripe for identification with the Davidic Messiah, if not always clearly so identified.22 I thus here directly disagree with Yarbro Collins’s assumption that the title “Son of Man” conceals as much as it reveals or that we cannot understand that the audience of Mark already understood the epithet. I find much more compelling in this instance the statement of Joel Marcus:
This conclusion [that the “Son of Man” in the Similitudes is pre-Christian] is supported by the way in which Jesus, in the Gospels, generally treats the Son of Man as a known quantity, never bothering to explain the term, and the way in which certain of this figure’s characteristics, such as his identity with the Messiah or his prerogative of judging, are taken for granted. With apologies to Voltaire, we may say that if the Enochic Son of Man had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him to explain the Son of Man sayings in the Gospels.24
I would only shift the terms of the last phrase to indicate that what this means is that the usage of the Son of Man in the Gospels joins with the evidence of such usage from the Similitudes to lead us to consider this term used in this way (and more importantly the concept of a second divinity implied by it) as the common coin — which I emphasize does riot mean universal or uncontested — of Judaism already before Jesus. (359 f)
To continue from the first part first part of this post:
The Double Bind
For the similar quandary on the question of Jesus as the Messiah in Pauline scholarship Reynolds directs readers to a section of Novenson’s Christ Among the Messiahs; coincidentally the section he cites has been set out in an earlier post here: Christ among the Messiahs — Part 1.
Thus, on the question of Jesus as the Messiah, Johannine scholarship finds itself in an interesting place not unlike that of Pauline scholarship. Johannine scholars, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, have recognized the Palestinian Jewish nature of the Gospel of John, but by and large, they have understood John’s Christology as a corrected, theologized, or Christianized version of Jewish messianology. Meanwhile, scholarship on Jewish messianism has acknowledged the diversity of early Jewish messianic expectation, but at the same time, the Fourth Gospel is almost never referenced as an example of this expectation. This situation appears counterintuitive, but there may be ways to move beyond the apparent impasse.
Jewish “High Christology” Preceded Christianity
The first instance of a move “beyond the apparent impasse” that Benjamin Reynolds discusses is the argument of Daniel Boyarin. For Boyarin, the “high christology” we find in the Gospel of John is all part of the same set of ideas that had been expressed in the Jewish works of the Parables of Enoch, 4 Ezra 13 (and 2 Baruch). In these Jewish texts we read of a messianic figure who
judges the wicked
is the Servant of the Lord
is seated on the Lord of Spirit’s throne
But let’s read Boyarin’s own words:
The proposal being advanced in this paper is that at least since Daniel and almost surely earlier, there had been a tradition within Israel that saw God as doubled in the form of an old man and a younger human-like figure, sharing the divine throne (or sharing, rather, two equal thrones). Although not necessary for the present argument, my guess is that this doubling of the godhead within much of Israel’s tradition goes back to the original El/Y’ merger. The vision of Daniel 7 . . . represents this tradition . . . .
After introducing the Similitudes of Enoch and 4 Ezra 13 into the discussion as further evidence of this Jewish concept of a “second anthropomorphic divine figure” who is associated with the Messiah, Boyarin is persuaded that such Jewish literature should be seen as the backdrop for the divinity of Jesus:
It is this view of God, given full rein in Enoch, that explains the development of High Christology as fully explicable within Jewish religious history, with the enormous innovation on the part of the Gospels being only the insistence that the divine man is already here as a historical human being and not as a prophecy for the future. Apocalypse now! This provides, in my view, a much more appropriate historical explanatory model than one that depends on visionary experiences of Jesus on the Throne allegedly ungrounded in prior speculation, as per the view of, e.g. Larry Hurtado and others who advance similar views.
Ouch! I have been one of those who has been prepared to accept those “similar views”.
Where the fourth evangelist differs from all of these [books written in the names of other prophets], as well as from those who exploited the Moses tradition, is in his conscious substitution of this tradition by the story of Jesus: ‘You search the scriptures,’ Jesus tells ‘the Jews’, ‘and I am the one to which they bear witness’ (5:39). The deliberate replacement of one founder-figure by another (the same step would be taken centuries later by Mohammed) is effectively the proclamation of a new religion. We may compare John with Matthew here, for whom Jesus is a second Moses, refining and purifying the law, but not replacing it (5:17). John, by contrast, puts the law aside, offering instead, in the name of Jesus Christ, ‘grace and truth’ (1:17). Similarly the Temple, the second pillar of contemporary Judaism, was for Matthew a place where Jesus’ disciples continued to offer their gifts: whereas in John the locus of Christian worship has shifted to a place of ‘spirit and truth’ (4:23)
(Ashton, p. 448)
This year I have read a proposal for another dramatic innovation that we find in this same fourth gospel. Gabriele Boccaccini picks up the recent publications of Larry Hurtado and Bart Ehrman that have sought to explain when and how “Jesus became God”.
Bart Ehrman and Larry Hurtado are the scholars who in recent years have more directly tried to address the question. For Ehrman [How Jesus Became God], the attempt to identify when and how Jesus “became God” is not the clear-cut divide that one would expect, but a much subtler discourse about how and when Jesus became “more and more divine,” until he climbed the entire monotheistic pyramid (almost) to share the top with the Father. Jesus, argues Ehrman, was first regarded as a human exalted to a divine status (like Enoch or Elijah before him), and then as a preexistent heavenly being who became human in Jesus and then returned to heaven in an even more exalted status.
Answering the same questions some years earlier, Larry Hurtado [Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity] traced the origin of such a belief by asking when Jesus began to be worshiped by his followers. In his view the devotion to Jesus marked a unique development within Jewish monotheism, even before the emergence of an explicit theology of the equality of Jesus with the Father. Jesus “became God” in the very moment in which he was worshiped.
(Boccaccini, p. 337)
Boccaccini finds both arguments problematic. Ehrman, for instance, does not really explain how Jesus is different from other figures in the Jewish “pantheon” who are also “divine” (e.g. Enoch, Elijah) and “preexistent”. “Being divine” and “being God” were not identical concepts in Second Temple Jewish belief systems. Angels were superhuman “divine” beings and divine beings could become human and humans could become divine. Preexistent divine beings like the Son of Man figure in the Parables of Enoch were not God; that figure was created at the beginning along with the angelic hosts. Thus in 1 Enoch 48:2-6 we read:
At that hour, that Son of Man was given a name, in the presence of the Lord of the Spirits, the Before-Time; even before the creation of the sun and the moon, before the creation of the stars [i.e., the angels], he was given a name in the presence of the Lord of the Spirits. He will become a staff for the righteous ones in order that they may lean on him and not fall. He will be the light of the gentiles and he will become the hope of those who are sick in their hearts…. He was concealed in the presence of (the Lord of the Spirits) prior to the creation of the world, and for eternity.
Hurtado is correct in pointing out that
Jesus was the only person in Judaism of whom we have evidence that he was worshiped by his followers;
But . . .
nonetheless, the force of the argument is somehow diminished by the fact that “veneration” was a common practice toward people of authority. Even within the Jewish monotheistic framework, different degrees of veneration could apply to divine beings other than, and inferior to, God.
Once again we see evidence of the ad hoc nature of arguments built upon the assumption of the historicity of Jesus.
After a closer look at Romans 1:3-4 in Ehrman’s case for the earliest Christians thinking of Jesus as a “mere man” who only became a Son of God at his resurrection, I had to try to get a better grasp of the next pieces of pre-Gospel (and pre-Pauline) evidence he offered: passages in several speeches in the Book of Acts. I suspected these would not be so assailable as his interpretation of the Romans passage but I was wrong.
Here are the exhibits:
“We preach the good news to you, that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled for us their children by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’” (Acts 13: 32– 33).
“Let the entire house of Israel know with assurance that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2: 36).
“the God of our fathers raised Jesus . . . This one God exalted to his right hand as Leader and Savior” (Acts 5: 30– 31).
Inconsistency would not be expected but….
As with the Romans passage Ehrman points out that the author of these passages, “Luke”, believed something quite different. Here in Acts Luke has the apostles preach their conviction that Jesus became the Son of God or was exalted to divine status only at the resurrection, while he himself (called Luke for convenience) actually believed that Jesus was the Son of God from the moment of his inception and birth. That’s why he wrote the nativity scene in Luke 1.
On Acts 13:32-33
In this pre-Lukan tradition, Jesus was made the Son of God at the resurrection. This is a view Luke inherited from his tradition, and it is one that coincides closely with what we already saw in Romans 1: 3– 4. It appears to be the earliest form of Christian belief: that God exalted Jesus to be his Son by raising him from the dead.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2014-03-25). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (p. 226). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
On Acts 2:36
The earliest followers of Jesus believed that the resurrection showed that God had exalted him to a position of grandeur and power. This verse is one piece of evidence. Here, in a preliterary tradition, we learn that it was precisely by raising Jesus from the dead that God had made him the messiah and the Lord. During his lifetime Jesus’s followers had thought he would be the future messiah who would reign as king in the coming kingdom of God to be brought by the Son of Man, as Jesus himself had taught them. But when they came to believe he was raised from the dead, as Acts 2: 36 so clearly indicates, they concluded that he had been made the messiah already. He was already ruling as the king, in heaven, elevated to the side of God. As one who sits beside God on a throne in the heavenly realm, Jesus already is the Christ.
More than that, he is the Lord. During his lifetime Jesus’s disciples had called him “lord”— a term that could be used by a slave of a master, or by an employee of a boss, or by a student of a teacher. As it turns out, in Greek the term lord in each of these senses was the very same term as Lord used of God, as the “Lord of all.” Just as the term Christ came to take on new significance once Jesus’s followers believed he had been raised from the dead, so too did the term lord. Jesus was no longer simply the disciples’ master-teacher. He actually was ruling as Lord of the earth, because he had been exalted to this new status by God. And it happened at the resurrection. The man Jesus had been made the Lord Christ.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2014-03-25). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (pp. 227-228). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
On Acts 5:31
Once more, then, in an early tradition we find that Jesus’s resurrection was an “exaltation” specifically to “the right hand of God.” In other words, God had elevated Jesus to his own status and given him a prominent position as the one who would “lead” and “save” those on earth.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2014-03-25). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (p. 229). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
So once again, as he argued in relation to Romans 1:3-4, here we find passages that are at odds with what the author of the larger two-volume work apparently believed. This is the foundation of the argument that these passages are adapted from very primitive Christian beliefs, relics that somehow hung around even into Luke’s day.
It seems that a growing number of scholars (thinking in particular here of Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham and others who approvingly cite them on this question, and now even Bart Ehrman) have in recent years been taking up the argument that the followers of Jesus took up the view that Jesus was exalted to a very high divine status almost from the moment he was believed to have stepped out of his tomb.
Why is this happening? One would think that the gradual evolutionary view that Jesus’ exaltation to the godhead would accord more with a “plausible historicity”. We are regularly reminded how Jews abhorred the notion of a human being considered divine (though with many qualifications given the Second Temple evidence for persons like Moses being thought of as divine by at least some Jewish authors) and that it must have been with the increase in numbers of gentiles joining the church that the notion of a divine human was conceived and grew. Continue reading “Why Scholars Now Argue for an Early High Christology”
Here’s another little gem from Jesus Not A Myth by A. D. Howell Smith (1942). Recall from my previous post that he is arguing against mythicism. It is refreshing to see someone tackle the arguments seriously and with respect for both the persons and the arguments of the mythicists of his day.
Howell Smith is addressing Couchoud’s interpretation of Philippians 2:5-11, in particular in this passage verses 9-10:
9. Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,
10. that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow
(How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God?) raises some interesting points about how Christians came to worship Christ alongside God. He focuses on the role of personal revelation (hallucination?). My initial response to his book was to think that his explanation was as vacuous as saying “God did it”, and that it was not an explanation at all. Indeed, he finds it necessary to defend his explanation against other scholars who do not give it the time of day. But I have come to think there is probably more to what he is arguing than I first understood, although he would disagree with my slant.
(Hurtado’s problem is greater than mine, however, because he is seeking to explain how a historical human of recent memory was exalted to be worshiped alongside God, and I don’t think Hurtado’s explanation is sufficient to explain that. But it may well go some way towards helping explain the development of the exalted Christ concept alongside God that we find in Paul’s and other New Testament letters. Hurtado also expresses disapproval of interpreting revelatory experiences as psychopathology and downplays related personal and social crises factors.)
what might have moved Jews in touch with their religious tradition to feel free to offer to Jesus the kind of unparalleled cultic devotion that characterized early Christian religious practice? (p.198)
How exalted was Jesus Christ in early Christian thought?
Pretty high up.
God made life, the universe and everything else through Jesus, and Jesus keeps everyone alive and everything in existence now:
yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. (1 Cor. 8:6)
has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; (Hebrews 1:2)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (John 1:1-3)
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. (Colossians 1:15-17)
And God has ordained that everything and everyone should worship him:
Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
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”.