In today’s post, we’ll look at just when the early Christians thought Jesus became Divine. Was he already Divine while he was alive? Or did he become Divine after he was resurrected? Or something else entirely? We admit that this borders on a debate about the number of angels on the head of a pin, but we’ll try to make it interesting.
Didn’t everyone who followed Jesus think he was the son of God? Maybe some did. But many merely thought that Jesus was a very good teacher, and a good man. But they did not think he was a direct incarnation of God.
What does Jesus say about himself in the Gospels? This is kinda complicated because the Gospels were not eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, and were written several decades after Jesus’ death. We acknowledge that certain passages in the Gospels indicate that Jesus identified himself as one with God, or maybe even Divine. But Biblical scholars such as Bart Ehrman say it is not clear whether Jesus actually made these statements. Dr. Ehrman posits that Jesus probably thought he was a regular guy during his lifetime, but he was going to return at the end of times (which was supposed to be really really soon) as the Divine Messiah.
What did the disciples think? When Jesus was crucified, his disciples were totally shocked. This was not how it was supposed to turn out. But at some point (and this is where things get really murky), the early followers regained hope when some of them claimed they had seen Jesus and that he was alive again. Word spread. And some (all?) of his followers believed it. According to Dr. Ehrman, the story of the resurrection meant that Jesus had really been favored by God after all.
But why was he not there to talk to people about it (except for the random visions)? More murkiness. The story evolved over time that it was because Jesus had gone to heaven to be with God.
Soooo, it looks like in the period right after Jesus’ death, most of his followers had the idea that a) Jesus was human while he was living here on earth, but b) became a Divine being after his death and resurrection. This way of thinking evolved over the centuries, amid years of Roman persecution, a split from Judaism, and in-fighting among various Christian sects. Eventually we get to the Council in Nicaea in 325 CE, where the majority vote was that Jesus had always been the Divine Son of God, even during his life on earth. Period. No further debate. Moving on.
Last week we talked about the Gospel of Philip and its reference to Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene. A scandalous post. But fun. This week we dug out some other posts from Bart Ehrman speculating on whether Jesus was married or not.
Cultural standards? Some sources (and we have probably cited them here) have said that most Jewish men in the time of Jesus were married, and it would be highly unlikely for Jesus not to be married. However, it was not impossible for a Jewish man to be single in those days. The Jewish sect called the Essenes for example. Paul himself openly declares in 1 Corinthians that he is single and celibate (the text is silent on whether that was by his choice or not; Paul was a bit of a boor … and a bore … at times).
Mary featured after the Resurrection. Out of all four gospels, Mary Magdalene is mentioned only once as being present during Jesus’ entire public ministry. The passage is Luke 8:1-3, where we are told that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, along with a large group of other women, financially supported Jesus and his disciples. That’s it! That’s what it says. She is not singled out as special in any way to Jesus. But Mary M takes on a more prominent role after Jesus’ resurrection. Specifically,she was with the first group of women who found the empty tomb.
Inconsistent with other mentions of Jesus’ family. Mary M is always called “Magdalene” in order to identify which Mary she is (Magdala is a town along the Sea of Galilee). She is not Mary the mother of Jesus, or Mary the sister of Martha of Bethany, or Mary the mother of Joses. She is never identified as Mary, the wife of Jesus. If they were married, that would be inconsistent with other parts of the gospels that talk freely about Jesus’ other family members.
So, even though it’s not as much fun to speculate about, at least according to Dr. Ehrman, Jesus and Mary M probably did not have a ‘thing’ going on.
Let’s talk conspiracy theory this week. In the Gospel of John (written 70 years after Jesus’ death) there are four references to an unnamed disciple. This disciple was at the Last Supper, the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and on the Sea of Galilee in one of Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection. The gospel writer calls him “the most Beloved Disciple.” Who was this?
Mary Magdalene? This one is the most fun to talk about. Certain novelists sell a lot of books based on this theory. And DaVinci’s Last Supper painting does show a very feminine-looking disciple at the table. But most Biblical scholars think the use of the male pronoun in the text limits the gender to male. Plus Mary Magdalene is mentioned separately as being present at the tomb along with the Beloved Disciple.
One of Jesus’ brothers? The Beloved Disciple is also likely someone not named elsewhere in the Gospel of John. The only disciples not named in the Gospel of John are the “other” James, the “other” Jude, and the “other” Simon, and Matthew. These four (some scholars think even Matthew was a brother) were all part of the Jesus family.
Brother James. According to arguments presented by scholar James Tabor, Jesus’ brother James is the most likely candidate for the Beloved Disciple. He may have been one of the original 12 (i.e. the “other James”), and therefore was likely a part of Jesus’ inner circle. Plus, at the scene of the cross, Jesus gives the care of his mother Mary over to this Most Beloved disciple. Jewish tradition would have logically made that the next oldest brother.
There’s lots more, but we’ve only got three bullets per week.
This week we ran across a new Biblical scholar named James Tabor. He writes some good stuff. This week we are going to take up some of the things he says regarding Joseph.
Where did Joseph go after the birth of Jesus? Joseph is never mentioned again after the birth narratives in any of the Gospels. Maybe he died early? All the references to family in the Gospels mention Jesus’ ‘mother and brothers’. Even at the crucifixion. But no Joseph. This makes it seem likely that Joseph died early, whether because he was substantially older than Mary or for some other unknown cause.
Conspiracy theory. If Joseph died soon after Jesus’ birth without having other male children, Jewish law would have Joseph’s brother marry Mary so as to carry on the lineage. Far-fetched? Maybe not. It comes up in a discussion in the Gospels where Jesus is asked about a woman who is widowed seven times and each time successively marries a brother of her first husband (Mark 12:19-22). Why would that come up randomly in a Gospel account?
Sure, then where is this brother mentioned? Though seldom recognized he is mentioned in the New Testament (John 19:25). His name is Clophas. You know what Clophas means in Greek — the Replacer.
Well, this presents a conundrum. Putting theological debates aside, we have always assumed Joseph was the father of Jesus. But if Joseph died childless, then Mary the widow would have been required to marry Joseph’s brother. Does that mean Clophas was the father of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Is it too far-fetched to think that Clophas might have been the father of Jesus?
Most of us have heard the text from Matthew that was supposed to be from Isaiah saying “Behold a virgin will conceive …” Was that what it really said? And what was the intention of Isaiah when he wrote it in the 700 BCE timeframe?
First, the virgin birth story was not part of the Christian tradition until the 90s CE. Paul (writing in the 50s) said nothing about it. Mark, the first gospel, was written in the 70s, and said nothing about it. Mark even portrays Jesus’ mother as thinking that her adult son might not have been so special at the time. Look at this from Mark 3:20-21.
20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (New International Version)
The original Hebrew in Isaiah 7 does not say, “Behold a virgin will conceive”. It says, “Behold a woman is with child”. These two statements have different connotations. The Christian Church has known of this mistake since the middle years of the 2 nd Century, when Trypho the Jew pointed it out to Justin Martyr (there’s that guy again) in a written dialogue whose contents are still available.
The second thing that is wrong with Matthew’s text is that the child who is anticipated by Isaiah was to be a sign to the current King Ahaz of Jerusalem, who was under siege by armies from the north and from Syria. The sign was for King Ahaz to not give up — Jerusalem would not fall. It had nothing to do with something to occur 700 years later.
These ruminations largely come from Bishop Shelby Spong’s essay on Isaiah.
Letter to the Editor re last week’s entry on Thomas the Twin. The following comprehensive observation came from one of our readers in eastern Ohio. Worth a read:
The twinning with different sires is most prevalent in my experience of the story of Leda and the Swan. Leda, raped (or seduced) gives birth to two sets of twins: Helen and Pollux as well as Castor and Clytemnestra. Helen and Pollux were by Zeus, yet Castor and Clytemnestra were of her husband. Somewhere in preparing for Mythology, I read some learned explanation that the Greeks believed children could be of combined male traits from multiple fathers. I recently ran across a better explanation… sheep, it seems, can ovulate multiple ova. It would have been observable to the ancients that the traits of different rams might be seen in twin or triplet lambs. A smart guy from a bronze age culture extrapolating sheep sex to higher primates would see observable, factual biology in twins by different parents. Our modern science may confuse us when it comes to the writings of the ancients…
Probable Answer: As usual, it’s a little complicated. The Gospels give different accounts on this. Luke says the Jewish religious authorities did it. Mark and John indicate the Romans did it. Matthew says the Jewish Sanhedrin arrested him, but ultimately the Romans carried out the crucifixion. Most Biblical scholars today believe the Romans did it for political reasons, at least according to Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman.
If the Romans did it, why did they care? The Romans did not care if Jesus was offending the Jewish religious authorities. And Jesus merely taught about love and forgiveness and the coming Kingdom of Heaven, right? Well, yes. And it’s that last thing that may have caused the problem. Pilate and the Roman authorities did not like anyone saying they were ‘king’ of anything. Rome was in charge, not the Jews. And word got out that Jesus was touting himself as King.
But did Jesus say this publicly? No. That’s where things get more interesting. Jesus knew that saying things like that in public might not go over well. But he did talk to his disciples about it. And this might be yet another explanation of the Judas betrayal story — Judas may have reported to the Romans about a coming kingdom with Jesus in charge.
Then why did Luke write that it was the Jewish religious authorities?Remember that each of the Gospel writers had an agenda when they took the pen 30-50 years after Jesus’ death. Luke was a Gentile writing to a Gentile audience during a time of great political unrest between the Jewish people and the Roman government. And if you are trying to market to a Gentile audience and not offend those in authority, you place the responsibility for the death of your spiritual leader on someone else. Luke spends a lot of ink constructing a story where Pilate and Herod (son of THE Herod) both wash their hands of the situation, leaving the blame to the Jewish authorities.
Did you know that there is a recently-discovered book called the Gospel of Judas. Yep. Seems like an oxymoron, but there it is, found in 2006 in a crypt in Egypt (where else?). It’s 26 pages written in Greek.
Any good stuff in there? You bet. The big reveal in this book is when Jesus tells Judas “you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” According to certain scholars, Jesus was saying that Judas, by helping him get rid of his physical flesh, was really helping to liberate the true divine being within Jesus.
Sooo, Judas was a real person? Probably, although we do not have any eyewitness accounts to Judas’s activities. Our earliest Christian sources of anything related to Jesus are the letters written by Paul. And he never mentions Judas. The Gospels of the New Testament are therefore our earliest accounts of the man. The four Gospel writers never claim they were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus. And historians have long recognized that they were produced by second- (or third-) generation Christians living in different countries from Jesus (and Judas), speaking a different language (Greek instead of Aramaic), and addressing different audiences.
And what about his last name — Iscariot? No one really knows. In those times people did not have last names. So the second word attached to the person’s first name would be a reference to a characteristic or the person’s place of origin. If we like intrigue (and why else would you read 3BT?), several scholars argue that ‘Iscariot’ comes from a group of zealots during Jesus’ time who wielded knives and were proponents of violence against the establishment. This might also explain Judas’ betrayal of Jesus — Jesus was not as radical as Judas wanted him to be.
Brief Theological Rabbit Trail
What does ‘liberating the true divine being’ mean in the first bullet above? In the diversity of early Christian thought, a group known as Gnostics believed in a secret knowledge of how people could escape the prisons of their material bodies and return to the spiritual realm from which they came. Unlike the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, or Dan Brown novels, the Gospel of Judas says that Judas Iscariot alone among the 12 disciples understood the meaning of Jesus’ teachings and acceded to his will.