To understand something is to link it up with a concept or story; to communicate it is to link it up to a concept or story that is shared (and includes the process of building these shared concepts). –Sister Y
Earlier this year I read From Jesus to Christ: Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus. I loved it as a study of the early evolution of doctrinal thought- the very early, inter-book re-framing of the Jesus tale told between the different Gospels. There are two general moves that occur in the book’s readings of the Gospels that I thought were fascinating: the broad cultural context switch and the different viewpoints on the Jesus story that the gospels tell.
I hate to have to say this, but since this blog post is public: It might be more useful to keep in mind that my focus here is on rhetoric and not the actual content of Christianity.
Cultural Context Switching
Concepts are socially maintained. The symbols that originally are meant to recall one concept can be scrapped or abandoned and re-appropriated in new contexts. As a simple example, the inverted cross in modern life is interpreted as a Satanic symbol. In medieval Catholic tradition it was a symbol for the humility of St. Peter, who was marked for crucifixion and requested to be crucified upside down because he felt unworthy to die the way his messiah did.
From Jesus to Christ starts by juxtaposing two cultural zeitgeists that compete and occasionally fuse in early Common Era thought in that region: ‘Hellenistic Paganism’ (with classical Greek metaethics), and Hellenistic Judaism. At that point in its culture, Hellenistic thought had been spread widely by Alexander two centuries before, building Greek koine as the language of trade of both ideas and goods. The Hellenistic mythology had developed into something highly allegorical and was especially skilled at manifesting even foreign gods as symbols of broad universal truths. By contrast, Hellenistic Judaism faced an ideological crisis crafted by their new awareness of their own rigidity. Interestingly, a miracle translation of their holy scripts into Greek (I won’t bore you with the details) allowed for a radical shift in their thought by organizing their old symbols and stories around Greek words that connote different, broader concepts. The book notes that the Jewish thought leadership did “not so much appreciate Greek thought as simply appropriate it” They went to great lengths to explain that older ideas are better and the Torah was older than the Greek tradition. Their worldview involved, for example, an insistence of a much older “lost” Greek translation that was familiar to Socrates and Plato, Pythagoras and Homer.
So effectively did Jewish apologetic make its case that one pagan, Numenius of Apamaea, finally asked, “What is Plato but Moses speaking Greek?”
Hellenistic Judaism was an active religion of conversion that aspired to be, like the allegorical Hellenistic mythology that it adapted concepts from, the religion of the world.
The Matthean Jesus complains, “You Pharisees cross land and sea to make a single convert!”
The “Matthean Jesus” takes me to the other interesting maneuver the book outlines in its first part.
Fredriksen treats the Gospels as literary texts, almost as if they were plays or novels. So we get Mark’s Jesus, Luke’s Jesus, and so on. These literary creations give us all we shall ever know of Jesus the man. In this respect Jesus is like Socrates, about whom we know nothing more than Plato chooses to tell us. And the Gospels are not biography or history; they were written for religious reasons, to convey a message. Fredriksen’s presentation of the ways in which the different Evangelists altered their stories to bring out their particular theological viewpoints is illuminating and sometimes entertaining.
By far my favorite part of this book was Fredriksen’s outline of the different Gospel’s “Jesuses”. I’ll very broadly sketch out these images, but I recommend the book because it is far more textual and convincing. I’ll outline the books of the Gospel as the author did, in backwards-chronological order. The author did this deliberately to avoid reading into a “developing, linear” reading of Jesus between the books. I remind my readers that I’m looking at this from a standpoint where doctrinal details are besides the point.
John (Cosmic): “The Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” Written the longest after Jesus’ lifetime, the book of John is far more Greek than Jewish. He starts with the beginning of the universe, emphasizing the timelessness of the Messiah. Jesus’ opponents in this iteration are Jewish Pharisees who, sadly, cannot see beyond the material world. Jesus often uses wordplay and symbols hinting at his cosmic origin while his in-book audience doesn’t understand. The intended reading audience, John’s community, also has Jesus’ special knowledge (and notably, not much “Jewish” knowledge- John makes asides to explain Jewish words). The reader identifies with Jesus especially because of their beliefs about their personal divine selection in a dark, ignorant, and Devil-ruled world.
Luke/Acts of the Apostles (Universal): Unlike the Great Cosmic Drama of John, Luke writes as a historian, hoping to supercede other existing narratives of Jesus and the early church with his own evident scholarship. He uses a secular chronology (“in the days of Herod, king of Judea…”) and symbolic geography. He carefully defines and assigns a myriad of important Christological titles, tying the titles to the history of Israel. Jesus is a socialite, teacher, and equal-opportunity messiah to tax collectors and pharisees alike. Occasionally the Jewish people shift between audience and accidental opponents in Jesus’ lamentations. Jesus is an extreme pacifist and a humanist.
Matthew (Polemic): Matthew starts with a lineage that is very different from Luke’s. Their respective points were to establish Jesus’ pedigree: Luke the universalist traced Jesus to Adam/God; Matthew cuts at Abraham, emphasizing the messiah’s Jewish origin. Matthew is a scripturalist more than the others, and goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the Jewish scriptures predicted a messiah, and this was that messiah. He quotes scripture over 60 times. “This took place to fulfill what the Lord has spoken through the prophet.” (Tellingly, according to the author Hebrew [aalmah->”young girl”], translated to Greek [parthenos, either “young girl” or “virgin”]) Matthew is aggressive. Matthew’s Jesus spars with the Jewish Establishment, who are portrayed as evil (their language mimics Satan’s own language when Jesus speaks with him in the desert). The Jewish people call for Jesus’ death with gusto, in this version. Matthew is equally callous towards the implied existence of other churches claiming to be Christian.
Mark (apocalyptic): Mark predates “Q”, the source of sayings that Matthew and Luke had access to. Mark starts en medias res, rushes through some of Jesus’ travels, and ends with the empty tomb and the “trembling, frightened women”. The tone is obvious: The return of the Son of Man is imminent, certainly within Mark’s generation. “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.” Mark writes just after the 66-73CE Jewish War. The destruction of the Temple during that war was a very recent and symbolic gesture that loomed large. Jesus’ enemies were the enemies of Mark’s Gentile Christianity. Jesus was “in a sense the victim of the Jewish insurgency”, according to the book.
Paul’s Letters: Paul was Jesus’ contemporary (though they never met). He did meet some disciples personally. He didn’t actually write his letters until he was well-established in his church, and from then he claimed his message came directly from the Risen Christ (as opposed to the men that he knew from the late Jesus’ inner circle). His letters only reveal half a dialogue, of course- and some of the letters are apparently not written by him after all. Paul is especially vicious towards his opponents within the church. His focus is more on Gentile Christianity as opposed to the Jewish mission that he doesn’t seem to care for. His relationship with the original disciples were “complicated and occasionally difficult”. Paul’s letters demonstrate the serious politics within a community that was already are familiar with The Message. His view of Jesus is fragmented because communicating Jesus is not his priority in these letters- his main concern is the more concrete task of building and maintaining an institution. Paul is in my opinion one of the most interesting biblical figures.
The bizarre social games underlying the goals and tactics in each Gospel is exciting and edifying to me. My next post will briefly reference it, but I’d love to read more about it some time.