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


Anonymous said...


Could you clarify the Greek usage with regard to "like" and "likeness." The NT seems to use omoios and its derivatives. What would we expect to see in the Greek if the meaning intended was "just like" or "exactly like" or "the same as" or "equivalent."

Dr. Oz had two brothers on his tv program today, one of which donated a kidney to the other, giving up his job as professional football player to save his brother's life. The donator's kidney was said to be in the likeness of the receiver's kidney at the level of 99% certainty. Is that how we should think of Jesus, a 99% match to human flesh? How much is enough to condemn sin in the flesh - 51%??? The way I understand it the church Fathers came to the conclusion that it had to be a 100% match.

I personally doubt that there was any new impulse for Christological speculation from the late first century forward. Assuming mid-first century, the Paulines are already full of it. So that takes us back to the first vision or cognitive dissonance experience of the post-crucifixion Jesus.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Gene,
You ask tough but interesting questions. I start with you last one. I think that the earliest impetus toward "Christology" likely occurred during the public career of Jesus before the crucifixion. I suggest such an impetus at the end of my new book "The Wisdom of Jesus," coming out as I write this note (assuming they work the weekends). But the suggested impetus is highly speculative since we have no sources for the period other than the early church's propaganda texts.
With respect to your request for a statement that would suggest "fleshly equivalency" to common human flesh, I thought of several but this seems the best of the lot. Using 2 Peter 1:1 I came up with this: "His flesh was equivalent to our own."

I will try to do the Greek here:

ἱσότημον ἡμῖν ἰδιοῖς ἦν ἡ σάρξ αὐτοῦ

The trick in trying to put words in their mouths and trying to satisfy modern critics is to rule out all ambiguity. This is about as close as I can come. Perhaps a reader has a better suggestion?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Greek info, Charlie, and the heads-up on your latest book. I'll be ordering it as soon as I get my credit card replaced; seems like I'm one of the 500 members of my credit union who also had K-Mart accounts that were compromised by hackers. I hope your other readers will order same, and maybe there could be a discussion here of each chapter.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa