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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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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Baptism: From John to Jesus to Paul

Baptism comes from the Greek word baptizo which means “to immerse” in the sense of making clean with water. Ritual washings were commonplace in the first-century, Greco-Roman world. The purpose was not hygienic but sacred: such washings symbolized purification in anticipation of performing some holy ritual or entering sacred space. From archaeological discoveries, it appears that ritual washings were widely performed in Jewish Palestine at that time. Washing pools, called miqva’ot, have been found all over Israel, inside homes, beside synagogues, and around the ruins of the Temple.

Jewish priests were most concerned with remaining ritually pure due to their frequent presence in the Jerusalem Temple. Rules governing the need for priestly purity are articulated in the book of Leviticus in the Torah. Other reasons for ritual washing by Jews were established around the time of John the Baptist. Evidence of more widespread practice of ritual washing can be found in the New Testament gospels. Pharisees had taken upon themselves the purity requirements normally reserved for priests which included a number of ritual washings. These included washing the hands before eating (Exodus 30:17-21) and ritually washing cooking and eating items (Lev. 11:32ff; 15:12). Jesus is portrayed as speaking out against focusing on such matters when weightier points of the law were being ignored (Mark 7:6-9).

Ritual washing for repentance and atonement from sin perhaps has its origin among the sectarian group of Jews known as Essenes (4Q414). Originally a priestly group that separated itself from the Jerusalem Temple in the 2nd c. BCE, the Essenes established themselves by the banks of the Dead Sea at a place called Qumran. Since the Temple was deemed unacceptable for sacrificial atonement for sin, the Essenes turned to other means of atonement such as prayer, righteous living, and ritual bathing.

It is unclear, and frequently debated, whether John the Baptist was an Essene or was exposed to Essene ideas. There are several clues in the gospels that lend credence to the theory of some connection between the two. John, like the Essenes, had an apocalyptic worldview. He proclaimed that the end of the world was about to occur. God would soon exercise his wrath against the sinful and redeem the righteous. John encouraged the people to get right with God now. Rather than waiting until they could get to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices for their sins, the people should repent before John and submit to his washing as a sign of atonement. (It is unclear, according to the textual evidence, whether John’s baptism brought on repentance or was a result of it; in any event, repentance was a prime ingredient.) This procedure may have alarmed the priests in charge of the Temple who reserved the right, per Torah, to pronounce sins forgiven (e.g., Lev. 4:20, 26, 35, etc.). There is evidence in both the gospels and in the writings of first-century Jewish historian Josephus, that John aroused enmity from both the leading priests and the political authorities in Galilee. Among the reasons were the crowds attracted by John, his claim that political realities were about to change, and, no doubt, his pronouncement of forgiveness for sins (Matt. 21:23-27, 32). John was of priestly descent according to the Gospel of Luke (1:5, 13).

It is incorrect to characterize John’s baptism as an initiation or an intentional “once for all” washing. If John’s baptism for repentance was performed only once it was because John did not think the world would last much longer. In John’s view, one would not have had time for repeated washings to prepare for the new age. Neither John nor his baptizands could know that the world would not end and that neither God nor his messiah would not establish His rule after all.

Our earliest gospel, Mark, indicates that Jesus was baptized by John in the same way as everyone else (Mark 1:1-18). Later gospels, apparently embarrassed by this acknowledgement of John’s superiority or the notion that Jesus had sins to repent, mask the event. The Gospel of Matthew creates an extended conversation between Jesus and John wherein John admits his inferiority but baptizes Jesus anyway. Luke has Jesus baptized after John is imprisoned (so who performed it?). The Gospel of John does not even mention it. It should be remembered that these are Christian texts designed to highlight Jesus as the hero, even at John’s expense. Nevertheless, it appears that some of Jesus’s followers were baptized by John as well (John 1:35-37; Acts 1:21-22). They were all apocalyptically oriented, believing that the end was just around the corner.

The arrest and ultimate execution of John must have caused many to rethink the imminence of the Day of the Lord. John clearly was not the messiah since he died before doing the things a messiah was expected to do. Jesus picked up the apocalyptic and prophetic mantle of John and ran with it. He took his message to the towns and villages, not limiting his missionary field to watery places as John may have done in order to effect baptisms. Whether Jesus baptized or not is debated (John 4:1-2). He probably did for a while but the gospels in general play down a specifically baptizing mission for Jesus and his disciples before Easter.

Yet baptism would not be forgotten after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. This indicates that it was always part of the program of the Jesus movement even if rarely mentioned in the gospels. According to the gospels, which may be suspect at this point, John promised that God would send someone who would baptize with spirit/fire as well as water (Mat. 3:11). This spirit baptism seems to have begun after the resurrection. An early Christian belief was that the Spirit of God empowered the followers of Jesus to continue to spread the message of the end times by ensuring that the people would be found in a righteous state. This was the focus for John, Jesus, and Jesus’s disciples; it was not about individual salvation.

The New Testament Acts of the Apostles dates the first “baptism” by the Holy Spirit (as fire) to the first Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) after the resurrection. Tongues like fire are said to have alit upon the disciples after which they proceeded to baptize with water and spirit. Sometimes the spirit was conferred afterward by the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6; 8:16-17). Other times the conferral of the spirit preceded baptism (Acts 10:44-48). Generally, though, it seems that the two were meant to go together (Acts 19:5-6).

Whether Paul was baptized or not is debatable though he probably was (Acts 9:17 only describes a laying on of hands to confer the spirit to Paul). His primary concern, of course, was not so much the righteousness of the Jewish people but how to include the nations (non-Jews) in God’s promise of everlasting life. The nations were comprised of sinners with no means of atonement since they did not subscribe to Torah. Paul adapted the spirit baptism of the Palestinian Jesus-movement for the nations in order to “justify” (make righteous) non-Jews before God. For non-Jews, being made righteous could not simply be a matter of ritual washing. That was alright for Jews who were the chosen people of God guided all their lives by Torah. More was required for non-Jews.

Paul came up with the idea of a non-Jew being baptized “into the death” of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:3-4). This joining in the death of the god was not unheard of in the Greco-Roman world; ritual washings were part of the process of joining certain mystery cults in Paul’s day (e.g., the cults of the Great Mother and Attis, Isis and Osiris, Mithras, etc.). By joining in the death of the god (e.g., Osiris, Mithras, Jesus), the believer might also join in his/her rebirth. Paul was cautious about guaranteeing this rebirth, or resurrection as apocalyptically-minded Jews understood it. He only speaks of the “hope” of resurrection (Romans 5:2; Galatians 5:5; 1 Thess. 1:3). Nevertheless, this process in effect atoned for the sins of the non-Jew (though Paul used other terms like “redemption” rather than atonement or even forgiveness). After such baptism the spirit of God (conferred in the process) would work within them, according to Paul, as evidence of their adoption as “sons” of the God of Israel. These “gifts of the spirit” included speaking in tongues, prophesying, healing, etc. (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:1-13).

Paul seems to have adopted and adapted baptism for his non-Jewish audience but did not consider his own personal calling to specifically include baptizing. He claims that he did baptize on occasion but apparently left most of the work to his assistants (1 Cor. 1:14-17). Paul never addresses in his letters the subject of baptizing a person multiple times. Again, this is likely due to his apocalyptic outlook. Paul expected the return (parousia) of Christ at any moment (1 Thess. 4:15-17). There should have been no reason or time to conduct multiple baptisms. In fact, Paul does not seem prepared for the situation in which the baptized Christ-follower continues to sin. He instructs his communities to throw the sinners out (1 Cor. 5:5; Rom. 16:17)! Had Paul a longer-range mission in mind, he might have developed some protocols for treating the sinning believer. On one occasion he does counsel forgiveness and readmission (2 Cor. 2:7-10).

The event horizon has as much to do with the administration of baptism as with the rationale behind it. Regardless of who performed it, the early Christ-community saw baptism as a last-minute “righteousing” to prepare the people (“Jew or Greek”) for God’s coming or the coming of His messiah. No thought was given to the failure of that day to materialize. How might baptism have been conceived if the day were thought to be far off? Would the ritual have even been instituted?

Baptism appears to be a residual ritual left over from a first-century apocalyptic movement, one that had to be reinterpreted if it was to be kept as a rite within the emerging non-Jewish religion known as Christianity. It developed, in fact, as a non-repeatable initiation rite as well as a sign of spiritual cleansing for members in the young church (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 13, 166). Baptism as initiation was not foreign to Judaism either, with some texts advocating such a process for non-Jews (especially/only women? See Joseph and Aseneth 14:12-13, 15) to be admitted to Judaism. Christians eventually added a trinitarian formula to the baptismal rite, washing the initiate in the “name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19; Didache 7.1, 3). In time, Christian baptism would only be performed on converts who had successfully spent up to a year being instructed in the faith and who could memorize a Christian creed or properly answer a set of doctrinal questions (catechism). Orthodox and Conservative Jews continue to practice ritual washings for purity or holiness’s sake, especially at festivals, often following Biblical prescriptions where possible.