The ancient Greek Gods, Zeus and company, were known to have encounters with men and women. The Gods assumed human disguise for these encounters and in some cases even appeared as animals. Zeus is particularly famous for his liaisons with human females. In the form of a swan he consorted with Leda and had two children with her (Castor and Pollux). Here is another example: Zeus came to Alcmena and "becoming like" her husband Amphitryon, Zeus "lay down" with her and she bore two sons, Hercules and Iphicles. I only know of one instance where these divine human disguises were described as "fleshly" (in order to distinguish the personal presence of the Gods from their material statues). Such intimate situations clearly suggest that there was "fleshly" contact. This description is similar to that in the Valentinian Gospel of Truth (possibly 2nd century), where Jesus "came by fleshly form" (31:4-6).
The writer of Hebrews noted that as children "shared blood and flesh, he [Jesus] himself similarly shared these" (Hebrews 2:14); some manuscripts add the word "misfortunes" to clarify the indefinite "these" of 2:14. "Sharing" flesh and blood is imprecise. It is scarcely a claim that Jesus was human, but only a claim that he was "human-like," as were the Greek Gods described.
Twice more Hebrews uses "flesh" to describe Jesus. In Hebrews 5:7 the writer refers to "the days of his flesh." The expression suggests that the "days of his flesh" constituted only a temporary passage of time in an otherwise longer existence and that he himself was not to be identified by "flesh" in the same way the rest of us are; his fleshly state was something he only "shared" temporarily with us. Flesh and blood were only the means by which he opened up for us "a new and living way" into the presence of God (Hebrews 10:20).
A somewhat rambling creedal-like statement appears in the Epistles of Ignatius (early second century):
There is one physician
Fleshly and spiritual
Born and unborn
God in man
In death true life
Both from Mary and from God
First capable of suffering and then incapable of suffering.
(Letter to the Ephesians 7:2)
The statement shows the difficulty Ignatius had in describing Jesus precisely, and reveals the potential for misunderstanding statements that attempt to be comprehensive and yet brief. This statement is clearly dualistic even as it gropes toward a unified description for the nature of Jesus.
The strange passage in John 6:51-58, where Jesus promises eternal life to the one who "eats his flesh and drinks his blood," is generally taken as an anachronistic allusion to the church's celebration of Eucharist. Ignatius seems to echo this John passage when he described Eucharist as the "medicine of immortality" (Letter to the Ephesians 20:2). These latter passages suggest that there was something special about the flesh of Jesus. It was not simply common human flesh, for "his" flesh possessed a spiritual power, and was the means by which he brought eternal life. Hence "his flesh" was hardly ordinary.
Judging from this evidence, it appears that in the early days of the church (later 1st and early 2nd centuries) there existed no uniform way to describe Jesus as Christ. There were attempts to form some kind of plausible explanation that would do full justice to what everyone knew (i.e., he was a man) and to what everyone believed (i.e., he came from God). So one might say about this early period that wide speculation existed, but that no definitive explanation emerged, which claimed general acceptance. In truth, there never has been a description satisfactory to everyone. While the "definitive" Chalcedon statement ("truly God and truly man") ended speculation in 451 for the orthodox churches, on the fringes of orthodoxy speculation continued—and still continues.
What do you suppose was the impulse giving rise to all the Christological speculations in the late first and early second centuries?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University