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Tertullian VII: The Nature of Christ and Flesh

Tertullian’s writings spend a lot of time focusing on sin. It may be surprising then to find that he considers flesh to be blameless, without sin (other than what Adam gave it). Sin is vested in the soul and will. Something done without volition is not sinful. God created the flesh of man and it is good; a suitable vessel for the soul. Before his disobedience, Adam’s flesh was without sin; it is not inherently sinful or evil. If it was not good why would man be bodily resurrected? Most importantly, if it was not good, why would God have sent his son to dwell in it?

On the Flesh of Christ (de carne Christi) is largely an anti-heretical text written against various groups such as the Valentinians and Marcions who deny that Christ assumed the flesh as he would not have so demeaned himself. Keep in mind these groups believed that matter and/or flesh was corrupt or evil and that only the spirit was good. In this treatise Tertullian says that when Christ assumed the aspect of man he assumed all aspects of man including a fleshly existence and everything that comes with it. Tertullian isn’t quite as explicit as I’ll be but his inference is pretty clear. Do babies get diarrhea and poo all over their mothers? Then Christ as a baby may have messed all over his mother. Do Human bodies get sweaty and smell bad? Then Christ got sweaty and smelled bad. Is dying by crucifixion a shameful death? Then Christ died a shameful death.

In unlocking the door to man’s salvation, the Son of God was willing to accept every single aspect of the Human condition. Christ became hungry, he may have snored, he had excretory functions, and when he was hung from a tree he suffered. He did not have to do all of this, he chose to do all of this for man’s salvation. The denial of this by heretics, that Christ would not have subjected himself to such ignominy, is also a denial of man’s resurrection. And that Christ was able to assume the flesh and yet be wholly without sin, shows that in and of itself, flesh is sinless.

As with his other arguments, Tertullian builds this theme piece by piece and I’ll try to capture a sense of this by offering some quotes. Keep in mind that his thoughts on this are not confined to this one treatise. Tertullian uses his various themes in various places.

“’Away,’” says he[Marcion], ‘with that eternal plaguey taxing of Cæsar, and the scanty inn, and the squalid swaddling-clothes, and the hard stable. … Spare also the babe from circumcision, that he may escape the pain thereof; nor let him be brought into the temple, lest he burden his parents with the expense of the offering; nor let him be handed to Simeon, lest the old man be saddened at the point of death.'” On the Flesh of Christ, II

and:

“Come now, beginning from the nativity itself, declaim against the uncleanness of the generative elements within the womb, the filthy concretion of fluid and blood, of the growth of the flesh for nine months long out of that very mire. … Of course you are horrified also at the infant, which is shed into life with the embarrassments which accompany it from the womb … Christ, at any rate, has loved even that man who was condensed in his mother’s womb amidst all its uncleannesses, even that man who was brought into life out of the said womb, even that man who was nursed amidst the nurse’s simpers. … If Christ is the Creator’s Son, it was with justice that He loved His own (creature) … Well, then, loving man He loved his nativity also, and his flesh as well. … Inquire again, then, of what things he spoke, and when you imagine that you have discovered what they are will you find anything to be so ‘foolish’ as believing in a God that has been born, and that of a virgin, and of a fleshly nature too, who wallowed in all the before-mentioned humiliations of nature?On the Flesh of Christ, IV

also:

“The sufferings attested His human flesh, the contumely proved its abject condition. Would any man have dared to touch even with his little finger, the body of Christ, if it had been of an unusual nature; or to smear His face with spitting, if it had not invited it (by its abjectness)? Why talk of a heavenly flesh, when you have no grounds to offer us for your celestial theory? Why deny it to be earthy, when you have the best of reasons for knowing it to be earthy? He hungered under the devil’s temptation; He thirsted with the woman of Samaria; He wept over Lazarus; He trembles at death (for ‘the flesh,’ as He says, “is weak”); at last, He pours out His blood.” On the Flesh of Christ, IX

I hope these are enough quotes to show where Tertullian was going with this.

A second point within this treatise relates this to the lack of inherent sinfulness in flesh. First he describes the heretical argument for why Christ must have only appeared to have been present in the flesh:

“But since Apelles’ precious set lay a very great stress on the shameful condition of the flesh, which they will have to have been furnished with souls tampered with by the fiery author of evil, and so unworthy of Christ … The world, then, must be a wrong thing, according to the evidence of its Creator’s repentance; for all repentance is the admission of fault, nor has it indeed any existence except through fault. Now, if the world is a fault, as is the body, such must be its parts — faulty too; so in like manner must be the heaven and its celestial (contents), and everything which is conceived and produced out of it. And ‘a corrupt tree must needs bring forth evil fruit.’ The flesh of Christ, therefore, if composed of celestial elements, consists of faulty materials, sinful by reason of its sinful origin; so that it must be a part of that substance which they disdain to clothe Christ with, because of its sinfulness, — in other words, our own.” On the Flesh of Christ, VIII

However by taking a fleshly body, Christ has removed the stain of sin from it:

“In the flesh, therefore, we say that sin has been abolished, because in Christ that same flesh is maintained without sin, which in man was not maintained without sin. Now, it would not contribute to the purpose of Christ’s abolishing sin in the flesh, if He did not abolish it in that flesh in which was the nature of sin, nor (would it conduce) to His glory. For surely it would have been no strange thing if He had removed the stain of sin in some better flesh, and one which should possess a different, even a sinless, nature! Then, you say, if He took our flesh, Christ’s was a sinful one. Do not, however, fetter with mystery a sense which is quite intelligible. For in putting on our flesh, He made it His own; in making it His own, He made it sinless.

Flesh in and of itself is not sinful. It can carry sin. Adam gave it sin. But Christ has removed it. Through Christ, man’s flesh can become sinless, worthy of resurrection.

I’m not sure how influential this theme was on the development of Christianity. Did the Pelagians pick up on it and use it to declare that men could live completely sinless lives? Did Augustine oppose Tertullian when he wrote against the Pelagians or did he perhaps show that you can’t use this treatise without also considering Tertullian’s thoughts on Original Sin? I’ll be looking for this as I move forward.

One of the reasons I enjoyed this theme is that for once, Tertullian shows a glimpse of empathy toward people who weren’t him. Humans aren’t a complete messed up bucket of sins; the capacity for good is a part of every person’s being, incorporated into their flesh by a perfect God who creates nothing which isn’t good. This capacity for good is so much a part of man that God saw it as a fit attire for his son. It’s nice that he’s willing to provide this hopeful message regarding the Human condition. Without this treatise, I think someone reading Tertullian could be forgiven for thinking that he believes the Human Race is a pathetic, sinful mess.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 6: The Principal Works of St. Jerome. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

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Posted by on January 16, 2014 in Religion

 

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Book Review: The Historical Jesus in Context

The Review

Before I get to the review for this book I want to throw in a few quick comments (click on the above link if you want to skip this). First, it has been over a year since I posted a review. The reason for this is fairly simple. Ever since I began a concerted effort to read about Early Christianity I have largely encountered books I feel unqualified to write a review of. I’ve offered comments as something has caught my attention but for the most part I haven’t felt myself able to give an opinion on the quality of a book.1

Second, more related to the review which will follow is that I have never doubted the existence of a historical Jesus. My reasons, not being a Biblical scholar or even highly familiar with first century AD religion or source material discussions, have centered around one basic fact. He is too frequently mentioned in sources dating from a period too close to his death for him to not have existed. I have read/heard arguments such as, “We have nothing he wrote himself,” or, “There are no monuments or inscriptions dating from when he was alive with his name on them,” or even, “Nothing was written about him by someone who knew him personally.” This last is more debatable but it’s generally believed that the Gospel and other source authors were not among Jesus’ disciples.2

These are unrealistic standards. If we were to judge the existence of all people mentioned in source material similarly, history would be an empty thing. Non-elites didn’t write, or have monuments built to them. If we need to strike Jesus from history as someone who actually lived, then history will need to be rewritten in terms that will eliminate the existence of most non-elite individuals, and many elites. By the standards used to judge the probability of someone’s existence, there is plenty of evidence that a man named Jesus, a traveling teacher/preacher/rabbi in Judea, existed near the beginning of the first century. Within 10-15 years of his death, accounts of Jesus were told to large numbers of people who would have had every reason to be skeptical of this individual’s existence if they had not been pretty certain that he had lived. From a historical perspective, there are literally buckets of references to Jesus, chronologically close enough to when he lived to make his existence highly probable.

This does not mean that he is identical to the person we meet through the Gospels. As with any other source of that period, particularly written several decades after the subject lived, we have almost certainly been presented with an idealized Jesus(though I don’t buy arguments that he didn’t at all resemble this portrayal). The Gospel authors had their biases and must be evaluated with this in mind. Much of what is included in them is likely based on oral traditions which are generally less reliable (though numerous oral traditions that generally agree with one another should be viewed as another factor in favor of his having lived). Individuals in the 2nd or 3rd centuries may have redacted the Gospels to add additional details. And I have never had any urge to publicly debate the miracle stories. If you were to ask me if it is possible for a person to walk on water, feed thousands of people from a few loaves of bread and a couple of little fish, heal people without ever meeting them, or rise from the dead I would say no. I would also say I have no problem with anyone who wants to believe these things(and for all you know I may believe these things). Those are matters of faith and I try very hard never to argue with someone over faith, except very close friends.

When it comes to Jesus, I find myself more interested in questions such as whether he actually ran the moneylenders and shopkeepers out of the Temple (let’s face it – he did something to piss the establishment off, to the extent that they executed him). How radical was he, with his devaluation of some matters of Jewish Law? And I enjoy discussions of how apocalyptic Jesus was or whether much of this was entered into his life by the authors of the Gospels, writing as they did (likely) shortly following the destruction of the Temple by Roman authorities.

So with all that out of the way, let’s get to the review.

The Review

His_Jesus

Levine, Amy-Jill, Allison, Dale C. Jr. and Crossan, John Dominic, eds., The Historical Jesus in Context, Princeton, Princeton University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-69100-992-9.

This is a collection of 28 essays designed to, as the title says, provide a context for Jesus’ life. As Levine says in her introduction, this book, “… provides information on cultural contexts within which Jesus was understood and perhaps even understood himself.” (1) How does Jesus, the man, teacher, rabbi and messiah fit into first-century Jewish and Roman society? Is he a radical outlier or can parallels be drawn between him and others of his time? How do the concepts, themes and ideas found in the Gospels compare with prominent themes from Jesus’ period? Where might some of these concepts, themes and ideas have originated from?

The essays in this volume are as follows:

  • Introduction by Amy-Jill Levine
  • 1. “Archaeological Contributions to the Study of Jesus and the Gospels,” Jonathan L. Reed
  • 2. “Josephus on John the Baptist and Other Jewish Prophets of Deliverance,” Craig A. Evans
  • 3. “Abba and Father: Imperial Theology in the Contexts of Jesus and the Gospels,” Mary Rose D’Angelo
  • 4. “Miraculous Conceptions and Births in Mediterranean Antiquity,” Charles H. Talbert
  • 5. “First and Second Enoch: A Cry Against Oppression and the Promise of Deliverance,” George W. E. Nickelsburg
  • 6. “Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Peter Flint
  • 7. “The Chreia,” David B. Gowler
  • 8. “The Galilean Charismatic and Rabbinic Piety: The Holy Man in the Talmudic Literature,” Alan J. Avery-Peck
  • 9. “Miracle Stories: The God Asclepius, the Pythagorean Philosophers, and the Roman Rulers,” Wendy Cotter, C.S.J.
  • 10. “The Mithras Liturgy,” Marvin Meyer
  • 11. “Apuleius of Madauros,” Ian H. Henderson
  • 12. “The Parable in the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic Literature,” Gary G. Porton
  • 13. “The Aesop Tradition,” Lawrence M. Wills
  • 14. “Targum, Jesus, and the Gospels,” Bruce Chilton
  • 15. “The Psalms of Solomon,” Joseph L. Trafton
  • 16. “Moral and Ritual Piety,” Jonathan Klawans
  • 17. “Gospel and Talmud,” Herbert W. Basser
  • 18. “Philo of Alexandria,” Gregory E. Sterling
  • 19. “The Law of Roman Divorce in the Time of Christ,” Thomas A. J. McGinn
  • 20. “Associations in the Ancient World,” John S. Kloppenborg
  • 21. “Anointing Traditions,” Teresa J. Hornsby
  • 22. “The Passover Haggadah,” Calum Carmichael
  • 23. “Joseph and Aseneth: Food as an Identity Marker,” Randall D. Chesnutt
  • 24. “The Pliny and Trajan Correspondence,” Bradley M. Peper and Mark DelCogliano
  • 25. “Imitations of Greek Epic in the Gospels,” Dennis R. MacDonald
  • 26. “Narratives of Noble Death,” Robert Doran
  • 27. “Isiah 53:1-12 (Septuagint),” Ben Witherington III
  • 28. “Thallus on the Crucifixion,” Dale C. Allison Jr.

Each chapter follows a similar pattern. It discusses a particular facet of ancient Jewish or Roman life, talks about source material related to that facet, and then provides translated sources demonstrating what was discussed. Occasionally these may be full sources but more often they are a selection. These materials are then compared and contrasted with how Jesus was portrayed, primarily in the Gospels.

The book is not what I’d call a popular history but it is written at a fairly basic level. I don’t know for sure but it looks like something designed for use in an introductory undergraduate course on source and textual analysis in Early Christianity. A negative of this book is it’s not footnoted though most sources are referenced in the text. As I do not intend to deeply explore issues related to this topic, this was less of a negative for me than it would be for some books.

As can be seen from the Table of Contents, the breadth of topics is considerable. The portrayal of Christ as a messianic figure, his use of parables as teaching tools, comparing his miracle stories with others of the period, exploring Jesus’ knowledge of Jewish scriptures and how he uses them, and discussions of his lack of concern with Jewish ritual impurity (compared with moral impurity) are covered, as well as other topics. I will briefly touch on some of the topics and essays which were of most interest to me.

Craig Evans analyzed the writings of Josephus to determine how prominently messianic figures appear in first-century Jewish culture. Josephus is negatively disposed to these individuals however he mentions several of them and, in contrast, he discusses John the Baptist in favorable terms. In essence, Jesus as a messiah is not out of place during this time and place.

Charles Talbert’s chapter was one of my favorites. He discusses multiple cases of miraculous conception in ancient literature, some of them fairly prominent such as Achilles as the son of the God Thetis and Hercules as the son of Zeus. Of more interest, and possibly more applicable to the portrayal of Jesus, are figures such as Pythagorus, Alexander the Great, and Plato. Talbert spends some time discussing how divine begetting was often attributed to an individual who had lived a particularly notable life. Arrian, in Anabasis 7.30 says of Alexander, “And so not even I can suppose that a man quite beyond all other men was born without some divine influence.” (84) In discussing a passage from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 3.45 Talbert says, “One could not do what Plato did had he not been the offspring of a God! One reason the ancients used stories of miraculous conceptions and births was as an explanation of the superiority of the individual.” (85) For me, while I was certainly aware of miraculous conceptions in ancient literature, I had never grouped the birth of Christ with these.

Peter Flint compares how Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels with passages found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes had several messianic figures and in many ways their lives parallel the account of Jesus. However they differ in a couple of key points and Flint disagrees with prior analyses which describe an Essene precedent for either a killed Messiah or a sacrificial crucifixion to redeem man from sins.

Gary Porton, Bruce Chilton and Herbert Basser discuss prominent Jewish literature elements and their use by Jesus in the Gospels. Porton discusses parables found in rabbinic literature and believes that, “… one would expect the ‘historical’ Jesus to have taught throughout his life by parables.” (209). Chilton talks about a type of literature known as Targum. These are scriptural paraphrases where the general meaning of Hebrew scripture is rendered into the Aramaic most commonly in use in first-century scripture. He demonstrates that Jesus was well aware of and extensively used this literary form, indicating an extensive knowledge of Hebrew scripture. He also discusses one particular instance where the Greek translation provided by Luke misrepresents the Aramaic original. In Luke 4:16-30 Jesus is nearly stoned after speaking in a synagogue. Based on Luke, Jesus appears to provide a fairly traditional interpretation of Isiah however based on pronoun confusion, he is actually proclaiming himself not just as a divinely inspired preacher but as a full-on messiah who will personally see to the redemption of the souls of men from captivity. (252-4) Interestingly, Chilton describes a Jesus who knew and used Targum however he almost never used identical language and how he used scripture, “… shows that an innovative tendency is characteristic of his style of teaching.” (252) Basser describes how Jesus followed talmudic and rabbinic forms of teaching and argument, however his message in the Gospels is different from Judaic teachings.

A very useful chapter for me was authored by Jonathan Klawans. He discusses the difference between ritual purity and moral purity and how Jesus emphasized the importance of the latter but was not as concerned with the former. Ritual impurities are those which do not represent sin. For example, a woman is ritually impure during menstruation, however this does not demonstrate sin, just that she should avoid the temple during these times (interestingly, male genital emissions are also considered ritually impure). An individual who helped bury someone is ritually impure but not sinful – the dead must be cared for and buried – he or she must ritually cleanse him- or herself before entering the temple. In contrast, moral impurity such as sexual transgressions, bloodshed, and idolatry are sinful and result in long-lasting defilement which may not be removed simply by a ritual cleansing. Throughout the Gospels, Christ expresses little concern for ritual impurity. He and his disciples eat without first washing their hands, heal on the Sabbath and gather grain to eat on the Sabbath, all items prohibited under Jewish Law. Yet he is very concerned with greed, murder, adultery, etc. Klawans provides a useful analysis of Mark 7:1-23 in discussing this.

There were a few essays I considered less useful. I found Dennis MacDonald’s argument that the Gospels made extensive use of Greek epics unconvincing. The fact that Hector and Christ both died is certainly true however I do not see where the denial by Achilles to grant Priam his body resembles the account of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, similarly the death of Turnus in the Aenid. Marvin Meyer’s discussion and translation of the Mithras Liturgy was interesting, however he failed to adequately connect it to first-century Judaism which left me wondering what the point of the chapter was.

This is a good book. For me, it did what it was intended to do – provide me a contextual basis from which I could draw more insight into Jesus’ life, or at least his life as it is portrayed in the Gospels. Jesus comes across as a man of his times, a preacher/teacher who uses traditional Jewish literature, teaching methods, and whose messages are, in many cases, traditional. However he also comes across as a remarkable individual, even accounting for possible later redactions of the Gospels. While he uses traditional methods, much of his message is innovative. While bathing to remove ritual impurity is an every day aspect of Jewish life, the Gospel accounts provide a new, one-time-only, “baptism for life” for the remission of sins. Jesus breaks with Jewish authorities on what constitutes impurity. Once one recalls that in Rome, Emperors were commonly worshiped as deities, Jesus’ famous “Render unto God what is God and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” becomes a subversive denial of the Emperor’s divinity. Christ, depending on your viewpoint, was either an innovator or a radical, perhaps both. He was enough of each to earn the enmity of the Jewish establishment to the point of being executed.

There are areas left unexamined. In particular, I would have appreciated an account of Roman judicial practice in Judea during the period and an examination of how Christ’s trial, sentence and execution compared with normal judicial procedures. I have read where the trial and sentence is considered to have taken place very quickly and would have enjoyed a discussion of this. I would have also enjoyed more discussions such as Bruce Chilton’s discussing Aramaic/Greek translations and how this impacts determining the origin of Gospel accounts.3

This book will be valuable for a person who is just beginning his or her examination of first-century Christianity. My one recommendation is that you first read the canonical Gospels. These are frequently referred to and the Gospel accounts are compared and contrasted with other examples of ancient literature throughout.

1 It’s sheer coincidence that I’m posting something about Jesus on Christmas Day. I happened to finish this book over the weekend. Funny how that works out.

2 This is the biggest change in my preconceptions; that the Gospel authors were not Jesus’ companions. In essence, while some believe that Mark (considered the earliest Gospel) may have been written around 50 AD, most place it closer to about 70. The real disqualifier is that the Gospels were written in fairly high quality Greek. Jesus’ companions are unlikely to have known Greek and even more unlikely to have been able to write it.

3 One of the ways historians try to figure out when something in a Gospel account originated is by trying to reverse translate it from Greek into Aramaic. There are passages in the Greek which make no sense in Aramaic demonstrating, probably, something which was added a bit later, up to when the Gospel was written (later redactions are an entirely different matter). And there are stories which appear to make much more sense in Aramaic, indicating a fairly early origin. Of course most make sense both ways. And quite often the Gospels and Paul retain an original Aramaic word or phrase.

 
 

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