Continuatum a parte sexta.
I have argued in this series for a layered sense of Jesus’ reception: the historical Jesus, both as perceived by the ancients and by modern scholars, as a first-century Jewish apocalyptic and social prophet who was born sometime between 6 and 4 BCE and died on a Roman cross on the orders of Pontius Pilate sometime between 27 and 30 CE, and was understood by his followers to have been raised from the dead; who was then proclaimed by his followers as Messiah or Christ, Son of God, and Lord, in the form of the kerygmatic Jesus of the New Testament and the church’s early preaching and theology; which preaching formed the basis of the church’s dogmatic Jesus in the “ecumenical” councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon, delineating Jesus as one divine hypostasis in two natures, one fully divine, the other fully human, consubstantial both with God and with us; and which preaching proposed a cosmopolitan Jesus to the Roman Empire as the supreme cosmic and hypercosmic power, the savior and preserver of the universal realm, and the ultimate teacher of both exoteric virtue and esoteric knowledge about the true nature of things, by which deification can be attained.
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What I have primarily described in the past entries is how Jesus was perceived by people who believed in him, both Jews and gentiles, and what belief in him sounded like to Jews, Greeks, and Romans who did not believe in him. This is certainly the primary court of reception for the earliest belief in Jesus, but it is not the only theater that matters: Christianity also took root in the farther East, in Mesopotamia, Persia, India, Tibet, China, and Mongolia, where, it should be noted, Jesus frequently read as yet another savior deity (alongside the then-still-nascent bhakti movement) and a teacher of moral virtue and salvific wisdom, promising a method of personal transcendence on par with those on offer in the various yogic and Buddhist lineages. When, in the third century CE, the Iranian prophet Mani proposed a new religious system in which he, as the Apostle of Jesus Christ, came to restore the true religion whose founders included Jesus, Buddha, and Zoroaster, it read to many Mediterranean Christian eyes as heresy, but to many others as a genuine prophetic movement (just as Montanism did) and salvific gnosis (just as the teachings of Valentinus and Basilides had). That Jesus could be thought, spoken of, and depicted like a Buddha by both missionaries of the Church of the East operative in Buddhist lands as well as by Mani and his followers suggests the syncretic potential of the kerygmatic and dogmatic Jesus in a world that was populated with divine and human saviors and specialized teachings promising the fulfillment of human potential (and arguably, the farther East was more replete with such entities than the West was). When, much later on, the Prophet Muhammad would identify Jesus as his closest prophetic forbear—and, on the academic reading of Islamic origins that I adhere to, saw himself as the herald of a returning, messianic Jesus who would finally bring about the kingdom once the Romans had been ejected from Judea and the Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem (perhaps I will devote a separate article to Islam at some point)—what should be clear is that the “orthodox” Christianity of the ecumenical councils, the Roman Churches (miaphysite and dyophysite), and the Church of the East (headquartered by 800 CE in Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the new capital of the Sasanian Empire) did not have a monopoly on the religious value of Jesus for premodern people. Those early Christians deemed heretical by some of their contemporaries and the later generations who survived their debates—varieties of Jewish Christ-followers like Nazarenes and Ebionites, proto-gnostic groups like the authors of the Gospel of Thomas and the Nag Hammadi literature, Marcion and his followers, the Valentinian and Basilidean “gnostics,” the Montanists, the Manichaeans, proto-Muslims—could and did all see themselves as true followers of Jesus, truly committed to his teachings and the original apostolic deposit. It is not necessarily the case that all of them had equal such claim to legitimacy: from the contemporary vantage, if the Nazarenes and Ebionites can be discerned as real groups of Jewish Christ-followers operative in the second to the fourth or even the seventh centuries CE in some places and descended in some direct way from the Jerusalem community headed by James, then it is obvious that they had the supreme claim to continuity with Jesus and the apostles at the level of teaching and praxis, which is likely what made the “Great Church” figures who knew, wrote about, and disliked them so uncomfortable about their existence. (By comparison, very little is said at all about them in the rabbinic literature of the period; whether this means that they were not part of rabbinic society or they were tolerated as part of rabbinic society is a point of debate.) The Gospel of Thomas almost certainly preserves some authentic logia of Jesus that do not appear in the canonical New Testament; its Jesus is really no more otherworldly or strange, too, than the Jesus of the Gospel of John. Marcion was certainly correct to assert as he did that Jewish Scripture, read literally, presents a god that is ontologically and morally limited and cannot be the supreme principle of reality; where he was mistaken was in a.) assuming that the New Testament, even the authors of his heavily edited New Testament like Luke and Paul, had really embraced a different god or b.) that Second Temple Jews and the New Testament authors always read Jewish Scripture literally and straightforwardly. Contemporary scholarship allows us to peel back some of Marcion’s assumptions further to unveil the literary and theological evolution of the biblical YHWH from the earliest texts of the Torah (J and E) to the latest (D) and as seen in the relevant books of the Former and Latter Prophets that correspond to these authors; by the time one gets to the authorship of the Ketuvim, especially the Wisdom literature, one is clearly working with a more exalted and transcendent deity, one who is entirely absent as a character from the postexilic Book of Ruth and is not even mentioned in the Book of Esther. The God of the Bible is not a static deity, but a composite picture of the divine woven together from many phases of Israelite and Judean history and from partisans of different theologies whose viewpoints were all compiled in the aftermath of the Assyrian and Babylonian Exiles when their differences were rendered negligible by the task of Jewish survival as a distinct ethnos in the Near East and Mediterranean. Marcion could not and would not have known that in part because the redactive efforts of Ezra were so successful in presenting the Pentateuch as a single, larger work by the hand of a single author, its main character, Moses.
Anyway, Valentinus and Basilides and other gnostics also had their points in favor of their systems: they preserved, to a greater degree than did some other streams of Early Christianity, the apocalyptic language and worldview of the Jesus Movement, albeit outside of a Jewish context in which, originally, the Creator God was opposed to lesser godlings who were put in charge of and mishandled his creation, but in their hands became a narrative of opposition between the metaphysically supreme God, the Father of Jesus, and an ontologically and morally inferior Demiurge, the God of the Hebrew Bible. Their Marcionite mistake mixed with their apocalyptic vantage rendered the gnostic viewpoint which could be found in Scripture difficult to affirm in other quarters of Christianity, and has retained “gnosticism” as an insult down to the present. Indeed, as Christianity came more and more to identify and be seen as a philosophical school, one that largely concurred with the Middle and Neoplatonists about the nature of reality, direct affirmation of the gnostic elements indigenous to Christianity became more difficult. Irenaeus wrote a generation before Origen and Plotinus would write their respective works, both of which deal with the major claims of the gnostics and seek to decisively refute them; by the end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth, it was not licit in philosophy, pagan or Christian, to seriously maintain that the created world was inherently evil, its cosmic soul capable of vice, or that its craftsman was anything less than the supreme Nous of God. These ambient culturally accepted truths, represented not least in the voluminous writing of Augustine, is likely what rendered the appreciable aspects of Manichaeism invisible behind the veil of its Marcionite and gnostic leanings. Here again, contemporary scholars can trace the ambiguity and parallelism between the mainstream, orthodox views and the heterodox views that patristic writers attempted to paint as fringe (but this implies that they were not, for why else devote so much effort to them?); as I have written on, Christianity ultimately had to take a middle ground between Neoplatonic and gnostic ideas about creation, in a balancing act between a philosophically necessary monism (for God to be God in the ultimately meaningful sense, as Plotinus, Porphyry, and Proclus all correctly described) and the inescapably apocalyptic dimensions of the inherited apostolic and ecclesiastical preaching. In a real way, many of the dualisms that the Fathers resisted, both Western and Eastern, were no less ultimate monisms than the positions that they themselves embraced; but in the rhetorical context of antiquity, it was easier to malign an alien Jesus, preaching an alien God, than it was to carefully sift through polemic to arrive at a balanced and charitable presentation of alternative views. (In that respect, antiquity is not very different from the present.)
The Islamic reception of Jesus is in some ways the first and still major response to the more or less fully developed Christology of the late antique Church. The Jewish reception of Jesus precedes this and has evolved together with Christian claims, and represents both a more vital and a more challenging perspective. Jesus and his original followers were Jews; in the first century, the primary missionary activity of Jesus’ followers in Judea and the Diaspora was directed at other Jews speaking Greek in Hellenic and Roman poleis in the context of the synagogue; and after the death of James the Just, Jesus’ adelphos, the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and the probable but uncertain destruction of the community residing there, there remained pockets of Jewish Jesus-followers scattered around the empire and surrounding regions who attempted to model a Jesus-oriented Judaism. Some of them were the authors of the Gospels and other New Testament documents; some of them, like the authors of the Pseudo-Clementine literature, were, like the New Testament documents, so thoroughly appropriated by gentile Christians as to be invisible to their early readers; some of them we have but scraps of information about, whether because their own literary production was low or because their works were destroyed by more official Christian (or antagonistic non-Christian) sources. For many centuries, Jews were an important minority in the Roman ecosystem: around six million in an empire of sixty million, as Robert Louis Wilken points out in The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, the Christian presence must have seemed negligible to them, as most missionary efforts towards the empire’s Jews in the first century on the part of the apostles failed and few Jews in the successive centuries actively sought to join gentile communities (though some did). Prior to complete awareness of what Christianity was, it may well have been that Jesus’ status as a Judean prophet, a charismatic healer, a martyr, and potentially even as having experienced some kind of postmortem glorification would all have been agreeable but ultimately irrelevant to most Jews living in the empire. Those Jews who believed in the immortality of the soul and the sophianic character of the prophets, as, for example, Wisdom of Solomon describes (“Wisdom, entering into holy souls, makes them friends of God and prophets”; Wis 7:27) would have found nothing objectionable in the idea that Jesus of Nazareth had been a wise and virtuous man who preached adherence to the Torah and was rewarded after unjust suffering with heavenly glorification; that is exactly the kind of thing that many Diaspora and Judean Jews believed happened to righteous people. Moreover, if reports like that in Acts 11:19-20, which suggested that Jewish exorcists operative around the Mediterranean were willing to utilize Jesus as a name of power in the process of driving out demons without themselves being Jesus-followers, reflect any genuine historical memory, then it may well be the case that Jewish exorcists, healers, and miracle workers saw Jesus as a colleague and perhaps as a kind of saintly intercessor capable of assisting with their operations. Claims for Jesus’ messianic identity without a messianic era underway were and are incredible to most Jews, but at least in the first few centuries, belief in Jesus’ messianic identity was not enough to push someone beyond the bounds of normative Judaism; Josephus’ account of the death of James the Just (Antiquities XX.9.1) implies that people outside of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem knew about it and respected it and its leader as pious Jews, despite apparently not adhering to the group’s apocalyptic and messianic beliefs (or at least, not enough to join up). Even Paul’s communities were bothersome to Jews not on the grounds of their particular doctrines about Jesus as a divine, exalted being so much as because of the social danger that Paul’s preaching put the Diaspora synagogues in by asking Greeks and Romans to abandon the obligations of their inherited piety to worship the Jewish God alone (as Paula Fredriksen has argued so vigorously and rightly). Minimally, Jesus-following Jews were initially no stranger or less Jewish than the Essenes at Qumran, the Pharisees, or highly Hellenized Diaspora Jews like Philo; indeed, its membership, we are told in Acts, reached across the spectra of possible Judaisms and drew followers from many geographic, socioeconomic, and theological backgrounds. I do not mean to suggest that there was no Jewish polemical engagement with Jesus or his followers in the first few centuries; there were obviously Jews in Jesus’ lifetime who did not like him or agree with his message, and there were obviously Jews who did not like his followers or approve of their message. One does not have to buy the obviously exaggerated picture of Jewish anti-Christian polemics found in early Christian sources, like the Johannine threat of being expelled from the synagogue or the views of the Jewish interlocutor in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho. As Claudia Setzer rightly says, “tolerance likely was the most common Jewish response to early Jesus-followers.”Josephus found them “gullible but inoffensive”; he supports the Pharisees who spoke up about the injustice of James’ execution by the high priest in 62 CE. This comports with the depiction in Acts of “benign neglect” on the part of Jewish leaders (Acts 5:34-39; 23:6-9). Even Justin’s Trypho, while critical, is nevertheless friendly. All of this suggests that “Jews who did not believe in Jesus continued to see Jesus-believers as part of their community for some time,” given that they could participate in and affirm “Israel’s core identity” through common devotion to “God, Torah, and Temple.”
It was only in later centuries that Jewish tolerance of Jesus-followers would wane in the wake of the emergence of the gentile churches, their own rhetorical anti-Jewish polemics, and the social supremacy of Christianity. The evidence of Jewish response to Jesus in late antiquity does not properly begin until one consults the Babylonian Talmud (the Bavli), whose earliest passages can be dated to the third or fourth century CE and which was not finally edited until the 7th century CE. The “information” about Jesus that one finds there tells us more about the authors of the Bavli and their social situation than it does about Jesus. As Peter Schafer puts it, “[T]hese (mainly) Babylonian stories about Jesus and his family are deliberate and highly sophisticated counternarratives to the stories about Jesus’ life and death in the Gospels—narratives that presuppose a detailed knowledge of the New Testament, in particular of the Gospel of John, presumably through the Diatessaron and/or the Peshitta, the New Testament of the Syrian Church.”These are “polemical counternarratives that parody the New Testament stories, most notably the story of Jesus’ birth and death.” The goal here is to contradict “this Christian sect that impudently claims to be the new covenant and that is on its way to establish itself as a new religion (not least as a ‘Church’ with political power)”; but “this message was possible only under the specific historical circumstances in Sasanian Babylonia, with a Jewish community that lived in relative freedom, at least with regard to Christians—quite different from conditions in Roman and Byzantine Palestine, with Christianity becoming an ever more visible and aggressive power.” In both Palestine and Babylon, however, the people bothering to deal “in this particular way with the question of Jesus and Christianity…was no doubt an elitist society of the rabbinic academies.” Indeed, “[t]he creators and addressees of this discourse were the rabbis and their students, not the ordinary Jew who did not have access to the rabbinic deliberations—although the possibility cannot be ruled out that the academic discourse also penetrated into synagogues and therefore did reach the ‘ordinary man[.]’” The Talmudic Jesus is the son of a whore, a bad student, a heretic, and the magical power his followers wield is a dangerous threat to the rabbis’ own magical power; according to the Talmud, he was executed for sorcery by Jewish rather than by Roman authorities (as a way of reclaiming agency) and is condemned to eternal hell (hence no resurrection for him or his followers; each chapter of Schafer’s book deals with one of these facets of the portrait). But the Bavli’s Jesus—a response, again, to Christian anti-Judaism in a social and political context where it was safe to offer one, but also implying, directly, that the rabbis read and knew the Gospels and interacted with Christians and their ideas, suggesting something of a polemicized academic collegiality that is difficult to find in Christianized Rome—was the primary basis for other medieval portraits. But Jews also, however begrudgingly, made use of Christian beliefs about Jesus in their own ongoing messianic discourses: long after Jesus himself became unacceptable for Jews on the grounds of Christian anti-Judaism, the attractive aspects of Jesus’ kerygmatic and dogmatic portrait were still finding reception in some Jewish circles. Modern Jews have engaged in something of a reclamation of Jesus as a figure of Judaism, originally because they “optimistically believed that uncovering the historical figure of Jesus would both reveal a pious Jew and, consequently, overcome Christianity’s anti-Jewish prejudices.” Moses Mendelssohn, Jacob Emden, Abraham Geiger, Joseph Salvador, Heinrich Graetz, Levi Herzfeld, and Joseph Derenbourg all read Jesus and the New Testament as products of Second Temple Judaism. Geiger “suggested both that Jesus himself was part of the liberalizing Pharisaic movement of his day, and that his teachings were nothing new or original; consequently, they attracted few Jewish adherents.” Elijah Benamozegh, Kaufmann Kohler, Leo Baeck, Joseph Eschelbacher, Felix Perles, and Samuel Cohon all embraced the image of the first-century pious Jew, Jesus, in Europe and the United States, and won reception not only in the Reform Movement (of which Geiger himself was an architect) but also among many Orthodox Jews, like Elias Soloweyczyk (who translated the Gospel of Matthew into Hebrew). Probably more famously, 20th century figures like Stephen Wise, Martin Buber, Arthur Marmorstein, Claude Montefiore, Hirsch Perez Chajes, Joseph Klausner, Solomon Zeitlin, Schalom ben Chorin, and Pinchas Lapide all claimed for Jesus both that he taught nothing new or beyond the bounds of Jewish belief and observance as well as, in the context of the reborn Israeli state, that he was a martyr for the cause of Jewish nationalism. Lapide is easily the most intriguing of these authors, as someone who affirmed the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection but rejected his messianic credentials, seeing him instead as a deified prophet of Judaism for gentiles. All of this stands behind the efforts of contemporary Jewish scholars of the historical Jesus, seeking in different ways to reclaim Jesus as a Jew of the first century both for history as well as for modern Jewish-Christian relations, like Paula Fredriksen, Amy-Jill Levine, and Daniel Boyarin. How much of this has filtered down to the lay level in the ordinary synagogue? From anecdotal experience, I might offer that a general sense of Jesus’ Jewishness—but also, therefore, his irrelevance to actual Jewish life—is pervasive in American Judaism at least, in its more progressive circles; whether this has translated into any warmer a relationship between Jews and Christians is quite unclear. It seems to me at least that the willingness to admire Jesus as a sage and prophet of Judaism, rather than as the founder of Christianity, and as a martyr for the Jewish cause, and to entertain even the possibility of some veracity to Christian claims without thereby signing off on Christianity’s entire self-understanding, is today, much as the Bavli’s Jesus was in antiquity, more likely to be the exercise of a free spirit of critical inquiry by a cultured, academic elite functioning in a pluralistic context than it is to be the sort of thing interesting to or relevant for laypeople.
Judaism and Islam both represent Abrahamic receptions of Jesus, then, as anything from an irrelevance to a heretic to a sage and prophet, in many ways in reaction against the kerygmatic and dogmatic depictions of Jesus by the early Christians. These, too, constitute part of the cosmopolitan Jesus: they are part of his reception by the wider world, closer to home to Christianity than other receptions premodern or modern. Another closely related such perspective, often ignored by modern Christians, is that of classical paganism. Greco-Roman pagans of late antiquity who were aware of Jesus and Christians fell mainly into one of three camps. The first camp, evident in the response of Pliny the Younger to the existence of a Christian community in his territory and in the satirist Lucian, is to regard Christianity as a marginal foreign cult with strange, exotic, and ridiculous beliefs; the second, evidenced in Celsus and Julian, is contempt; and the third, evidenced in Porphyry, Christianity’s most ardent and educated critic, is qualified respect. Porphyry took Christians at their word that Jesus was clearly a deified sage, a prophet of ethical monotheism elevated by God to divinity after death for the effort like other philosophers. What he objected to was the exclusivist and triumphalist tendency of Christian claims, and sought instead a way to graft the Christian movement back into the fold of Greco-Roman religion (which also included Judaism). In some ways, Porphyry forecasts the premodern and modern receptions of Jesus in South Asian religion. For many Hindus, Jesus is anything from a sage to a fully realized yogi to an avatar; Hinduism as it has come to the West through a variety of popular gurus has also brought with it this understanding of Jesus as held by figures like Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and Paramahansa Yogananda. Yogananda’s own two volume, 2,000+ page commentary on the Gospels, The Second Coming of Christ, is particularly striking for the way it showcases a practicing Hindu’s intimate devotion to Jesus (not least since Yogananda claimed to have witnessed apparitions of the risen and glorified Jesus every bit as credible and meaningful as the apparitions of Christ and the Virgin accredited to more mainstream Christian sources). In Buddhist circles, Jesus is sometimes appreciated for the parallelism between his teachings and those of the Buddha, and sometimes even described as a bodhisattva, a being who has committed to infinite rebirths until all beings are liberated from suffering. Indigenous peoples in Asia, Africa, and the Americas often respect Jesus even while they dislike Christianity: as a great prophet or wisdom teacher, an ancestor, a spirit being, etc. Bahai officially acknowledges Jesus as a divine manifestation alongside previous and posterior prophets.
Modern religious movements, often especially those in the West that are designed to protest, in some way, the institutional Christianities emerging from premodernity and early modernity, have rarely been able to avoid Jesus entirely. Mormonism, at least, is not trying to, with its heavily revised Christology (and theology, and cosmology) as represented in the Book of Mormon and official teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS); at least in terms of their statistical distribution and growth, Mormons constitute a serious modern religious movement claiming to present the authentic Jesus in contradistinction to more mainstream Christian claims. Other new Christianities, like the Watchtower or Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists (who share a common origin in the Millerite phenomenon), do the same. More transgressive religious movements of the twentieth century, connected to esoteric wisdom traditions, occultism, fascination with the UFO phenomenon in relation to the space race, the growth of the counterculture of the 1960s and its psychedelic origins, the encounter with Eastern religions filtering Westward and the travel of Westerners to the East (especially along the hippie trail which was still active until the Iranian Revolution), and more have all more often than not made some use of Jesus, whether as an enlightened teacher, a divine incarnation, an extraterrestrial savior, a psychedelic being, or whatever. Western magicians have long regarded Jesus as an unrecognized master of their powers, just as did premodern Jews and some pagans. Mid-twentieth century perennialists like Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, saw Jesus as both an example and a teacher of the nondual wisdom they took to be the heart of every major world religious tradition. Even contemporary secularized, agnostic, and atheistic culture makes abundant use of Jesus, and not always antagonistically or parodically. The point has been internalized in modern receptions of Jesus enough: Jesus is not reducible to Christianity, nor Christianity to Jesus, such that the rejection of Christianity for its institutional corruptions, scandalous immorality, or complicity with an unjust status quo cannot be predicated of Jesus. Quite the opposite, in fact: resistance thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries have often found in Jesus a face for their own quests for liberation, both within and beyond traditional Christianities. The liberation theologies of South and Central American Catholics, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and different iterations of the Palestinian cause have all invoked Jesus, rightly or wrongly, as a symbol of their movements, just as have many of the powers they fought or fight against. Bob Dylan’s Christian phase (if it can be described that way) is an example of this trend from the musical world; one can find, from Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” to Green Day’s “Jesus of Suburbia,” a thread of Jesus’ inculturation in the world of American rock music presenting a figure of Jesus who is far more than his hallowed form, and can function as the literary avatar for many kinds of hopes and (often frustrated) desires.
Perhaps a summative statement of these wildly different takes on Jesus can be found in the way that Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, two monumental thinkers on twentieth and twenty-first century thought (for better or for worse, dependent on where one stands), see in Jesus the archetype of the fully realized human being. The exitus and reditus, katabasis and anabasis, death and resurrection of Jesus become, in Jungian and Campbellian thought, the central myth, the ur-myth, the archetype of all human becoming in the pangs of individuation: at a time when studies of Jesus in the West tended in an overtly historical direction and uses of Jesus in popular religiosity were trending much more mystical, Jung and Campbell sought a Jesus who, whatever else he was, was clearly a psychic symbol of the human being who had fully separated, but also fully reconciled, Self and Ego. Dependent on one’s context, this was not much different from saying that Jesus was the face of one who had realized that atman was brahman, that the innermost Self was far more than the finite Ego and was in fact identical with both World and God. In a sense, what these thinkers served to do was to bring home the import of theories of religion like, say, Mircea Eliade’s, which emphasized the role of ritual and myth in sacralizing space, time, and the human experience. Those who got hung up on Jesus’ historicity or dry, intellectual presentation in official theology were missing the power of Jesus as a living, Divine Idea, present to each as a possible door to walk through for a more holistic, healthy mind.
I might borrow Jung’s focus on Jesus as archetype, then, to describe the cosmopolitan Jesus’ reception as a whole, down to the present. Some non-Christians receive the kerygmatic and dogmatic Jesus as true; some do so and become Christians, others do so by integrating him or parts of him into their existing religious frameworks; others neither accept nor reject him, and still others object to different features of his presentation by the historic Churches as misleading or false. But Jesus is by now an unavoidable part of the world’s religious and cultural inheritance: it is possible to believe or disbelieve in Jesus and the veracity of his glorification, but not to sidestep his existence as an Idea. After two millennia of Jesus’ reception in orthodox Christianities, heterodox Christianities, and non-Christianities, he is a fundamental feature of the human imagination, whether this is pleasant or unpleasant; if Christianity disappeared tomorrow, Jesus would not, anymore than the disappearance of Egyptian religion meant that the gods and beliefs of the Egyptians fully disappeared from ritual, art, text, theology, or cultural imagination.The success or failure of Christianity, then, cannot be regarded as the sole criterion for the ultimate meaning of Jesus' identity or the impact of his mission. Christianity itself, understood as Christianismos, "Christianism" coined in opposition to Ioudaismos, "Judaism" or "Jewishness," by Ignatios of Antioch, is itself a transformation of the original Jesus Movement as its demographics and social positions continued to shift over time. Modern Christians, even when they belong to traditions sourced in antiquity, are experiencing similar transformations in belief, praxis, and belonging that have yet to be fully accounted for, for the same reasons: human society and culture change as a function of time, and so to do religions, ensconced as they are in these wider trends. Modern Christians, for instance, whether they are happy about it or not, are now influenced by the pluralism of Jesus’ archetypal impact on global culture, and they are themselves culture-makers, inventing new portraits of Jesus from their own experiences and education in a very different setting from that where Christianity first emerged. This is inevitable, normal, and healthy.
Is Jesus the Archetype a diminution of the historical, kerygmatic, dogmatic, and cosmopolitan Jesus I have so far charted? Certainly he can be, at least if posited as the important alternative to any other sort of inquiry into Jesus’ identity. From low-brow satire like South Park’s “Imaginationland” trilogy, in which Jesus resides in the eponymous psychic realm, to somewhat higher-brow entries like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (which does not directly depict Jesus but does tacitly suggest that human religions originate from the Dreaming, the realm of the Endless One, Morpheus), do try to suggest that Jesus is less than fully historically real and certainly that Christian beliefs about him are not ultimate descriptions of metaphysical reality. But it is also possible for people closer to and invested in Christianity to affirm Jesus as Archetype: indeed, if Jesus is Divine Nous and Logos, then his return with his humanity to the right hand of God can only ultimately mean that his earthly life has been, as that of Moses in Philo’s corpus, noeticized.
Yet Christians continue to insist, even when they are more educated about and sympathetic to their neighbors and their reception of Jesus, on the kerygmatic and dogmatic proclamation that Jesus is “coming again to judge the living and the dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end” (as the Nicene Creed puts it). They look forward, that is, to some kind of historical or transhistorical vindication of their faith in Jesus, or at least some clarification of the final meaning of that faith. It is at last thither that I turn next.
Continuandum in parte octava.
Claudia Setzer, “Jewish Responses to Believers in Jesus,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd ed., eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 732.
Setzer, “Jewish Responses to Believers in Jesus,” 732.
Setzer, “Jewish Responses to Believers in Jesus,” 733.
See Peter Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 23.
Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud, 23.
Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud, 23-24.
Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud, 24.
Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud, 24.
See Schafer, The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).
Susannah Heschel, “Jesus in Modern Jewish Thought,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 737.
Heschel, “Jesus in Modern Jewish Thought,” 737.
I owe this point to a friend.
I really enjoyed this - many thanks for the effort you put into this piece. Moreover, I can’t wait for what you’ll say about your last point. I would just note that as to those Christians hoping for some sort of vindication of their faith, I suppose one could say that Jesus has already answered that question in some sense - one of the Gospels has him saying that when the son of man returns to earth he will not find any. And I guess I’d say to those looking for some sort of clarification, don’t expect some sort of tweak in the narrative of Jesus or its meaning. Faith itself will cease and if it is remembered at all, it will be seen as a distant birth pain arising from us coming out of nothing but the heart of God. At least this is how I read Dickinson’s last stanza from her poem “I felt a funeral in my brain” - from memory: “and then a plank in reason broke, and I dropped down and down, and hit a world at every plunge, and finished knowing - then.
I'm sure I'm not the first to say this, but have you considered publishing this series as a book? It would be on my shelf in a heartbeat.