One God in Multiple Persons: A Christian Idea?

The notion of multiple persons in the godhead is normally thought to be a Christian innovative change to Judaism’s distinctive monotheism. But is it? UC Berkeley professor Daniel Boyarin, in his book The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, provides compelling evidence that the trinitarian, or at least binatarian, notion of God, has roots deep in Jewish history – virtually from its beginnings.

This should not be a complete surprise. Throughout the Torah, that is, the first five books of the Jewish Tanakh or Christian Old Testament, there are multiple references to a multipersonal God as well as a multiple number of gods. Most readers are familiar with God’s statement in Genesis: “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness” (1:26 NET). Later, “the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil” (3:22). In the story of the tower of Babel, “the LORD said… ‘Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech’” (Gen. 11:6-7). Who is us?

Nor is the existence of multiple gods contested in Torah. In the story of the Exodus, God tells Moses and Aaron that “I will pass through the land of Egypt…and I will attack all the firstborn in the land of Egypt… and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment” (Exodus 12:12). Later, Moses and the freed Israelites sing, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?” (Exodus 15:11). One of the ten commandments instructs God’s followers to “have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). God declared to the Israelites that “the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords” (Deuteronomy 10:17). This sentiment is echoed in other places in the Bible such as Psalms 136:2 and Daniel 2:47.

A divine council or heavenly host is mentioned several times in the Hebrew scriptures. “The LORD came from Sinai…he shone forth from Mount Paran; he came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand” (Deuteronomy 33:2). A vision granted to the prophet Micaiah revealed “the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left” (2 Chron. 18:18). Job refers to “a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them” (Job 1:6, cf. 2:1).

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Spirit-Possession: A Hallmark of the Earliest Church?

In his groundbreaking work, Jesus the Healer: Possession, Trance, and the Origins of Christianity, Stevan L. Davies makes the case that scholars have largely overlooked a major component of early Christian culture and ideology: that of spirit possession. Most readers of the gospels are familiar with Jesus exorcising demonic spirits from a number of victims but overlook the entire cultural predilection for belief in, and literary reflection on, spirit-controlling phenomena which are evident throughout the gospels and letters of Paul. These texts are, after all, the earliest written Christian material. Remarkably, the high valuation of spirit-possession quickly diminishes in later New Testament texts and, by the second century, such spirit-centered faith is largely deemed heretical.

If you tune your ears properly, references to spirit possession begin to reveal themselves especially in the Gospels of Mark and John and in the letters of Paul. But first, a bit of discussion about the phenomena itself. As Davies points out, spirit possession is a cross-cultural and timeless phenomenon not restricted to any particular faith system or geographical location. Modern Western culture is generally only familiar with the concept of demonic possession showcased in various popular books and movies. But the actual phenomena itself continues to exist. Though considered less common in the West, spirit possession is reported more frequently in cultures that are receptive to it as an explanation for certain behavior that Western culture describes scientifically. Virtually every contemporary religion acknowledges spirit possession, usually of the destructive kind, and exorcistic formulae and methodologies have been devised to deal with it. Western psychiatry subsumes these phenomena under the category of dissociative disorders and treats them accordingly. Usually, psychiatry focuses on treating what are usually destructive dissociative states (known in other cultures and in religious parlance as demonic possession). Rarely are positive, or beneficial spirit-possession events studied, treated, or even acknowledged. In fact, with this Western cultural bias strongly entrenched, modern readers fail to recognize the evidence for the belief in, and welcoming of beneficial, or holy, spirit possession that is reflected throughout parts of the New Testament.

Right from the start, the Gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel in the New Testament, describes as spirit-possession the events that transpire at Jesus’s baptism.

“Now in those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan River. And just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight.’ The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. (Mk. 1:9-12 NET)

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Jesus and Paul Mention Them – But Who are the “Sinners”?

You might be asking why such an obvious question is being addressed in this post. Aren’t sinners just anybody since everybody sins? Well, not so fast. It turns out the Greek word for “sinner,” hamartōlos, had some specific meanings in the New Testament depending on how it was used. After we look at some examples from the gospels and the writings of Paul, this should become clear.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, the stereotyping of other cultures and peoples were the norm. Romans, for example, divided the world into Romans, Greeks, and barbarians. Jews divided the world into Jews and Gentiles. These categories came replete with stereotypical characteristics that were often negative in nature. This is not surprising since these were dyadic cultures who measured self-worth in terms of how one adhered to group norms. Freedom of expression was much more limited than today. Being judged an honorable first-century, Mediterranean individual depended on how closely you complied with the norms expected for your group. There were gender norms, racial and tribal norms, clan norms, religious norms, social status norms, and so forth. Falling outside these expected norms resulted in being castigated by your group. You became “the other”, an outsider – a member of a group other than the one you were expected to belong to.

Paul is the earliest author represented in the New Testament. He was a Hellenistic (Greek acculturated) Jew and as such he shared ideas with other Hellenistic Jews of the Diaspora (the land outside Israel). He demonstrates his contemporary predilection for stereotyping “the other” as part of his recollection of a conversation he once had with the apostle Peter. Paul summarized the conversation in his letter to the Galatians. In speaking with Peter, Paul shared with him the notion that they were not members of “the other,” that is, the Gentiles. He pointed out that they were “Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners” (Gal. 2:15). Paul is not differentiating Gentile sinners from Jewish sinners; Gentiles as a group were categorized by most Jews to be irredeemable “sinners.” They did not have the Torah and so their overall behavior repeatedly violated it. Consequently, not having Torah, they had no means of atonement, a merciful feature of Torah for Jews. Gentiles were, as a class, “sinners.” According to most Jewish thought, there was no salvation outside Torah.

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“The Apocalypse is Coming!” But Where Did It Come From?

Even in the 21st century, we are not without our warnings about the end of the world – euphemistically referred to as “the apocalypse.” Cults continue to arise predicting the end and even forecasting specific dates as to when it will happen. Movies and TV shows offer fictional recreations of the apocalypse. The atom bomb was supposed to usher in the age of the apocalypse. Climatologists warn that life as we know it will end if certain changes to our behaviors are not enacted. Are fears of the apocalypse a modern phenomenon or do they reach back deep into our collective history?

Apocalyptic notions actually began within Judaism and came to full flower in the 2nd century BCE. The Greco-Roman world generally viewed history in cyclical patterns in keeping with their observations of the rotation of the stars and planets and the repetition of the seasons. Kingdoms rose and fell, life came and went, the sun appeared every morning. Jews of the Biblical age (the Old Testament period) also tended to see history in this way. Their past was marked by repetitive, covenantal milestones in which the Jewish people would at times be faithful to God and be rewarded with blessings, and at other times be disobedient to God and be punished with various calamities. This is sometimes referred to as a Deuteronomistic view of history, named for one of the books of Torah.

But things changed for the Jewish people while they were under the domination of the Greek successor-kings to Alexander the Great. In the 2nd century BCE, the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes of Antioch, Syria, forbid Jews in Israel from practicing their religion under penalty of torture and even death. In this new situation, whenever faithful Jews tried to be obedient to Torah and to God, they reaped punishment instead of blessing. Only acquiescence to pagan Greek demands resulted in the cessation of punishment. Good was rewarded with misery; evil collusion with blessing. The world view, for these Jews, had been turned upside down.

This upside-down view of the world is at the basis of apocalyptic thinking. How could Jews reconcile the incongruency that resulted from the fact that obedience to God led to punishment? They began to accept the notion that the world was not under the direct control of God but of God’s evil opponents. These forces of evil were envisioned as being led by an anti-God figure, often identified as Satan. Satan’s dark forces were temporarily in charge of planet earth. Their own human minions, the pagans, were acting on behalf of Satan and against the will of God. The world was indeed turned upside down: evil (paganism) was rewarded with power and wealth, goodness (Judaism) with persecution and suffering. How long would God let this happen?

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Did Paul Think Jesus was Pre-existent?

This may seem like a question with an obvious answer to many Christians who have grown up believing in the Trinity. Trinitarian doctrine was developed after decades of debates over the nature of Christ and the Godhead in the early church beginning in the second century. But Paul lived in the first century and wrote his letters around the middle of that century. He was an observant Jew who came to have trust in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. What did he think about the Messiah/Christ’s origins?

To understand the question adequately, one needs to review the beliefs of first-century Romans and Hellenized (Greek-acculturated) Jews with regard to the divine and earthly realms. Unlike the pervasive opinion today, the dividing line was rather porous between these two realities. Gods often crossed over into the mundane world of humans and humans were often known or believed to have been elevated into the divine realm. Their presence in the divine realm did not turn these beings into God (with a capital “G”). They may have been considered as gods or lesser divinities but they did not take on the identify of Zeus, Jupiter, or Yahweh. Daemons, angels, and other beings existed in the divine realm, according to common belief, without being God.

When early Jewish believers in Jesus the Messiah claimed that he had risen from the dead and was now seated at the right hand of God, they did not mean to say that he was God/Yahweh. They could not do so without violating their monotheistic, or better, henotheistic, beliefs. To say that Jesus was now divine, however, was not a violation of Jewish faith in Yahweh. Jews believed that a number of humans had been divinized in the past. Torah described Enoch as going to heaven (Gen. 5:24); 2 Kings 2:11 tells of Elijah’s ride into the next realm. Later Jewish traditions spoke of Moses ascending to heaven (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 4a; Pesikta Rabbati 20:4; Josephus, Antiquities 4:325-6). Jesus spoke of Abraham as residing there (Luke 16:19-31). This relocation did not make any of these patriarchs God. Neither was Jesus, strictly speaking, God, according to Paul.

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Was Jesus Born on December 25?

The Christmas season often leads to many questions about the historicity of events surrounding the birth of Jesus. In this post, I would like to survey the historical evidence for the celebration of Christmas and the establishment of its date which did not necessarily happen at the same time. It may be surprising to learn that the Eastern and Western Churches initially recognized Christ’s birthday on different days! But in both regions of the church, the feast of Christmas only began to be celebrated in the fourth century.

Christmas was not immediately seen as important to the earliest Christians as Easter was. Debates about the date of Easter ran throughout the second century. Some in the early church celebrated Jesus’s resurrection on the first Sunday after Passover (based on New Testament gospel accounts) while others focused on the death of Jesus and celebrated it on the night of Passover, whatever day of the week it occurred.

The earliest evidence for dating the birth of Christ by members of the Eastern Church (going clockwise around the Mediterranean from Greece to Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt) can be traced to the second century as well. Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria, Egypt (c. 150-215), believed that Jesus was born on November, 18 in 3 BC (more about how Christ can be born “before Christ” later). In his book Stromata (“Miscellanies”) Clement also noted that followers of the Gnostic heretic Basilides chose May 20 as Jesus’s birthday. As we will see below, Clement may have confused the Basilidean’s reckoning of Jesus’s conception (the incarnation) with that of his birth.

Epiphanius, the fourth-century bishop of Salamis on the island of Cyprus, wrote in his book Panarion (“Medicine Chest”) that a group of heretics called the Alogoi (“anti-logos”), opponents of the theology expressed in the Gospel of John, thought that Jesus was born in the year equivalent to 9 AD! Nevertheless, they dated Mary’s conception to either June 20 or May 21, the latter in agreement with the date given by the followers of Basilides for Jesus’s birth according to Clement but probably misunderstood as the date of his incarnation. Epiphanius himself accepted June 20 as the date of Mary’s conception. To arrive at the date for Christmas, he followed a tradition in which it was said that Mary’s pregnancy lasted seven lunar months less four days (202 days). An inclusive count results in Jesus’s birth being on January 6, the most popular date in the East for this event. Epiphanius accepted the year of Jesus’s birth as equivalent to 3/2 BC.

The Christian theologians of the western church (going clockwise around the Mediterranean from North Africa to Spain, Gaul, and Italy) also accepted the year of Jesus’ birth as 3/2 BC (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius). The Christian-generated Roman City Calendar (Chronograph) of 354 AD (probably reflecting the situation from as early as 336) gave the accepted birth date of Christ as December 25.

Future Eastern bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, wrote in 386 that within the previous ten years, his church and others in the East had begun to follow the Western dating of Christmas as December 25. He supported his conclusion based on details he derived from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1.

Chrysostom misinterpreted Luke 1:9 as indicating that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was the Jewish high priest at the time of the announcement of John’s conception. This was because only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, the innermost and holiest part of the Jerusalem Temple. This entry could only be done on the Day of Atonement (Tishri 10; see Lev. 16, Num. 15:25, Heb. 9:7). Since Zechariah “had entered the temple of the Lord” when the angel announced John’s conception, Chrysostom concluded that Zechariah was the high priest and that Tishri 10 was the date of John’s conception. (In Chrysostom’s time, Tishri 10 fell on September 20.) Six months later, according to Luke 1:26, Mary received an angelic announcement that she would conceive. Chrysostom resolved that she had conceived the following month (April). Counting nine months out, inclusive of April, he affirmed that the month of Jesus’s birth was December. This was enough for Chrysostom to accept December 25 rather than January 6 as Jesus’s birth date.

Both dates, December 25 and January 6, were important in the ancient world. Both were variously given as dates of the winter solstice, the time when “the sun stands still” and the days begin to grow longer (today the solstice is calculated as December 21). Important pagan festivals were celebrated on these dates including Isis festivals in Rome. In Egypt, on January 5/6, a ceremony was held to mark the day of Kore, the virgin, who gave birth to Aion, a Hellenistic deity associated with time. Similar ceremonies were held at Petra and Elusa in Arabia according to Epiphanius. December 25, on the other hand, was the date of the pagan festival honoring Deus Sol Invictus (“the Unconquered God of the Sun”) who had been the official deity of the Roman empire since 274 AD. There were even Biblical allusions to the Messiah arising during the solstice according to some.  Malachi writes (4:2), “And for you who fear my name a sun of righteousness shall rise, and healing is in its wings.” As the December date gained supremacy throughout the Christian church, the January date, called the Epiphany, was kept to honor the coming of the magi, that is, the “manifestation” of Christ to the Gentiles, among other things.

Back to the question of how Christ came to be born “before Christ” (BC). This difficulty began with the method by which time was calculated in the ancient Roman world. In Jesus’s time and place, dates were reckoned with respect to the founding of Rome. The death of Herod the Great, for example, was recorded as occurring in 750 AUC (Anno Urbis Conditae = “from the founding of the city” of Rome). The year is equivalent by our modern reckoning to 4 BC. According to the Gospel of Matthew 2:16, Herod began looking to kill infants in Bethlehem who had been born within the previous two years (obviously, before Herod’s death). Thus, Jesus is reckoned by most scholars to have been born about 748 AUC (6 BC). But that still doesn’t answer the question of how Jesus came to be born “BC”.

After the advent of the Roman Emperor Constantine (r. 324-337), many Christians began to calculate time from the date of the greatest persecution to have ever been launched against them. This occurred under the former Emperor Diocletian who was crowned emperor on September 17, 284. Egyptian Christians, for example, began to calculate the “Diocletian era” as beginning on New Year’s Day of that year: August 29, 284. It was also known by some as the “Era of the Martyrs” and was a widely used dating method until the 8th century. Abyssinian and Coptic Christians still use it.

In the 6th century, a Scythian monk, Dionysius Exiguus (Dionysius “the short”), attempted to reconcile a number of different tables that were used for calculating future Easters. He ignored dates that had been calculated based on the era of the “tyrant” Diocletian, but began to number the years from what he considered to be the “Year of our Lord Jesus Christ,” that is, from his incarnation. Unfortunately, Dionysius ignored earlier attempts to date Jesus’s birth (as we saw above, many had concluded that it occurred in years equivalent to our 3/2 BC) and reckoned the birth of Jesus as occurring on December 25, 1 BC or 1 AD (scholars are divided on this point).

Dionysius’s efforts have resulted in the peculiar situation in which Jesus’s birth is now reckoned to have occurred “Before Christ” and, according to Dionysius, after Herod’s death despite New Testament evidence to the contrary. It is clear, however, based on the best evidence that Herod died in 750 AUC (in our reckoning 4 BC) and Jesus was born shortly before that.

Are either the dates January 6 or December 25 historically probable as the dates of Jesus’s birth? The oldest traditions agree that Jesus was conceived in the spring and born in the mid-winter. But we cannot say with certainty when or especially on what date Jesus was born. January 1 and December 25 have just as much chance as any of being historically correct. We can never know for certain, so maybe it is best not to worry about it and just enjoy the season. Merry Christmas.

My Students are the Greatest!

This fall semester came to a close today (final exams begin Friday). In recognition of a great semester, the students in my class on the Apostle Paul at UNCC surprised me with this wonderful tribute baked by one of them and backed by all of them. I was taken aback to be sure. What great young people – fully engaged all semester long and making my humble efforts at teaching so rewarding. (GOAT means “greatest of all time” – I didn’t know that, either.)

Paul Cake 2019

Did the Historical Jesus Really Tell His Disciples to “Eat My Body” and “Drink My Blood”?

The long-standing aversion by ancient Jews to cannibalism and the consumption of blood should require no discussion. Biblical injunctions or warnings against the former can be found in such passages as Lev. 26:29, Deut. 28:53-57, Jer. 19:9, Lam. 2:20, 4:10, and Ezek. 5:10. Instructions regarding the latter are found in Gen. 9:4 and Lev. 17:14. These prohibitions have been noted by many scholars in connection with statements attributed to Jesus at the Last Supper. Could Jesus have incorporated symbols of cannibalism and blood consumption during a Jewish Passover meal and instructed his Jewish followers to repeat it “in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19)?

Mark, widely regarded as the earliest of the New Testament gospels, quotes Jesus as saying:

“And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body [sōma].’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’ (Mark 14:22-24 ESV).

Note the Greek word translated here as “body,” sōma, and also the mention of “the [new] covenant.” One might also stop to ask: Who are the “many” (not all?)? The importance of these elements will be discussed below.

That Jesus sprang this shocking conceptualization on simple Jewish people at this high holy feast seems incredible to some. It certainly fails the criterion of contextual credibility. Neither does it satisfy the criterion of multiple independent attestation, as we will see. For the multiple occurrences testify not to the historical veracity of Jesus’s own utterance, but to the growing use of a Pauline invention.

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Agrapha – The Lost Sayings of Jesus

Those who have read my previous blog post, “Do We Have the Authentic Words of Jesus,” already know that the sayings of, and stories about, Jesus first circulated by word of mouth. Neither Jesus nor his immediate followers seem to have been educated to the point of being able to write. This was not uncommon in the ancient world where only 10% or fewer of the people could do so.

The stream of what scholars refer to as “oral tradition” flowed on without restriction, both geographically and linguistically, for centuries. It was probably not until at least four decades after the crucifixion that the first attempt at recording Jesus’s sayings in writing took place (the Gospel of Mark, if not earlier with “Q”). But the oral stream flowed on unimpeded. Picture the gospel authors as people dipping their buckets into the stream of oral tradition and capturing some of the contents in order to write it down. The authors do not capture all of the stream’s contents and the stream flows on. In fact, despite the appearance of numerous gospels between 70 CE and the end of the second century, the stream continued to flow, no one capturing everything in it. We can see evidence of this in the four New Testament gospels. Each gospel features sayings of Jesus not recorded in the other three. And there were more sayings besides these that were recorded in other written forms. They are called agrapha by scholars, meaning “not written,” i.e., in the four New Testament gospels.

Because of this uncontrolled stream that flowed for at least 200 years, scholars cannot help but ask if that stream became polluted over time. In other words, does every recorded saying of Jesus actually go back to the historical person? Clearly not. How one decides which are authentic is not the subject of this post. Instead, let’s take a look at some of the sayings attributed to Jesus that were captured in other written sources outside the four New Testament gospels. Perhaps some of these will strike you as something Jesus might actually have said.

A few sayings of Jesus not captured in the New Testament gospels can be found elsewhere within the New Testament. A well-known maxim attributed to Jesus is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Various forms of this saying were popular in the ancient world; Plutarch, for example, credits the 5th-century BCE Persian king Artaxerxes I with saying it. There is, of course, no a priori reason why Jesus could not also have said it. Another saying attributed to Jesus and found in Acts is, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 11:16).

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