Friday, October 24, 2014

“Jesus has come in flesh” Early Christian Confessions (continued)

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
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Early Christian Confessions: An Inter-textual dialogue

One of the earliest Christian confessions is "Jesus Christ has come in flesh" (1 John 4:2, 2 John 7; dated around the end of the first century; and Polycarp to the Philippians 7:1, dated middle second century).  These references all describe the statement as a "confession," that is, a formal statement of religious belief. The words of the confession do not connote, however, how the confessor understands the expression, but merely states that Jesus Christ "has come" to a location described as "in flesh," which begs the question: where was he prior to having come to the "in flesh" location?
The Gospel of John 1:1-18 may perhaps clarify somewhat his previous location.  John describes the Word as Jesus Christ (1:17), who existed before creation (1:1-5), and who later "became flesh" (1:14); that is to say the divine Word was "en-fleshed."  Oddly John 1:14 does not claim that Jesus Christ became human (ἀνθρώπινος), or even that he became a man (ἄνθρωπος), but rather that he became "flesh" (σάρξ).  Was the confession in the Johannine letters and Polycarp intended to communicate the idea that his being "in flesh" was a state foreign to his prior state, as is suggested by the second half of John 1:14: "and he took up (temporary) residence (ἐσκήνωσεν) among us"?  Not being equipped to read minds, all that I can say is that such an explanation is a possible understanding of the confession.
The confession basically only claims that Jesus Christ is not a "phantom," a condition suggested by the disciples' experience in Mark 6:50, where it is suggested that το the disciples he briefly appeared to be only a ghostly apparition.  On the contrary, the confession affirms that he is actual substantive flesh (and blood), such as the rest of us are (1 John 1:1).
            The confession does not speculate on the nature of his fleshly condition, but such a speculation does exist in Paul, where he states that the "flesh" of Jesus Christ was of a different kind than that characterizing the normal human condition.  Paul asserts that God sent "his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Romans 8:3)—meaning that his flesh only looks like that of the rest of us sinful fleshly human beings; his "flesh" is distinctly different.  These are very strange words indeed, suggesting that the flesh of Jesus was of a different sort and that it was only "similar" to the sinful flesh human beings share.
The Pauline statement and the idea also fit an early Christian hymn, which Paul quotes: that Christ was "born in the likeness of men" (Philippians 2:7); that is to say, he was not really a man or a human being, but he only appeared to be a man.
            A confession in 1Timothy echoes language similar to Philippians  2:7, the Pastor (a name given by scholars to the author of the Pastoral Epistles) begins a confession as follows: "he was made visible in flesh" (1 Timothy 3:16).  This statement takes up a middling position affirming that he was "visible in flesh" but not agreeing with either John 1:14, where he became flesh and Romans 8:3 where his flesh was of a different sort.  Prior to his having become visible in flesh, the suggestion seems to be that he was invisible, a state that is characteristic of deity (Colossians 1:15, 1 Timothy 1:17, Hebrews 11:27).
            Paul describes on one occasion that he came into the world in the manner of a human birth: "when the time had fully come God sent forth his son, born of a woman" (Gal 4:4), but the "sending forth" language suggests something more than a natural birth occurred.  The birth narrative in Luke also has the façade of a natural birth (Luke 1:31; 2:7), but clearly something else is going on (Luke 1:35).  Matthew's story also shares the façade of a natural birth, but clearly it is not (Matthew 1:18, 24-25).
            Summarizing the view that seems to be reflected in these early texts, it appears that Jesus Christ was not conceived as a human being. Rather he was a "divine Other," who did not share the human condition, but only took up residence among us "in flesh."  Imagine my surprise then to read the decision of the Council of Chalcedon (in 451 AD); in seeking to resolve the Christological disagreements in the church, the Council decreed that Jesus Christ was "truly God and truly man"; he had two natures, human and divine, both of which resided indivisibly in the same persona.  This orthodox creed, which has existed in the Western church since the middle of the fifth century, is that Jesus Christ was "fully God and fully human."  It is somewhat ironic, however, that the earliest followers of Jesus do not seem to share that confession.  What do you suppose might have been the motivation for ignoring the views of the earliest followers of Jesus?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University