H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 37)

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Justin Martyr

“For I have proved that it was Jesus who appeared to and conversed with Moses, and Abraham, and all the other patriarchs without exception, ministering to the will of the Father; who also, I say, came to be born man by the Virgin Mary, and lives for ever.”
(Dial. Trypho 113)

Exegesis of Jewish scripture by the Church Fathers

In the penultimate section of his article (pp. 66–69), Dr. Detering highlights a faulty exegetical strategy of the Church Fathers: “The direction does not lead from the historical Jesus back to Old Testament figures, but the reverse: from an allegorical exegesis of the Old Testament to a historical Jesus.”

In other words, the starting point was not a historical Jesus—it was the copious fund of Jewish scripture, with its myriad narratives, figures both historical and invented, miracles, prayers, and wisdom. In his long and distinguished career, the mythicist scholar Rev. Thomas Brodie has analyzed the sequence of how the Septuagint informed first Matthew’s “logia,” then the early Pauline epistles, then (according to Brodie) GMark, and finally GJohn and GLuke-Acts.

Detering cites a remarkable passage from Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho (emphases added for subsequent discussion):

[Justin speaks:] “Moreover, in the book of Exodus we have also perceived that the Name of God Himself which, He says, was not revealed to Abraham or to Jacob, was Jesus, and was declared mysteriously through Moses. Thus it is written: ‘And the Lord spake to Moses, Say to this people, Behold, I send My angel before your face, to keep you in the way, to bring you into the land which I have prepared for you. Give heed to Him, and obey Him; do not disobey Him. For He will not draw back from you; for My Name is in Him.’ Now understand that He who led your fathers into the land is called by this name Jesus, and first called Auses (Oshea). For if you shall understand this, you shall likewise perceive that the Name of Him who said to Moses, ‘for My Name is in Him,’ was Jesus. For, indeed, He was also called Israel, and Jacob’s name was changed to this also. Now Isaiah shows that those prophets who are sent to publish tidings from God are called His angels and apostles. For Isaiah says in a certain place, ‘Send me.’ And that the prophet whose name was changed, Jesus [Joshua], was strong and great, is manifest to all. If, then, we know that God revealed Himself in so many forms to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses, how are we at a loss, and do not believe that, according to the will of the Father of all things, it was possible for Him to be born man of the Virgin, especially after we have such Scriptures, from which it can be plainly perceived that He became so according to the will of the Father? (Chp. 75.)

The above reveals some of Justin’s views regarding Jesus in mid-II CE. We note the following in order:

(a) “the Name of God Himself which, He says, was not revealed to Abraham or to Jacob, was Jesus
COMMENT: Elsewhere (and in many places) Justin equates Jesus with the Logos: “Reason (or the Word, the Logos) Himself, who took shape, and became man, and was called Jesus Christ” (First Apology 5). “Name” is a particular (though not exclusively) Semitic concept for “power, essence.” The Hellenistic equivalent is the Logos, by which Justin means the potency of creation, the essence of all being, eternal, divine, and co-existent with the Father (cf. Rev 19:13). In stating that “the Name of God himself… was Jesus,” Justin is summarizing the essence of the Christian faith. He expands on this in chp. 61 of Dialog with Trypho:

“I shall give you another testimony, my friends,” said I, “from the Scriptures, that God begat before all creatures a Beginning, [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos; and on another occasion He calls Himself Captain, when He appeared in human form to Joshua the son of Nun
     The Word of Wisdom, who is Himself this God begotten of the Father of all things, and Word, and Wisdom, and Power, and the Glory of the Begetter, will bear evidence to me, when He speaks by Solomon the following: ‘If I shall declare to you what happens daily, I shall call to mind events from everlasting, and review them. The Lord made me the beginning of His ways for His works. From everlasting He established me in the beginning, before He had made the earth… When He made ready the heavens, I was along with Him, and when He set up His throne on the winds: when He made the high clouds strong, and the springs of the deep safe, when He made the foundations of the earth, I was with Him arranging. I was that in which He rejoiced; daily and at all times I delighted in His countenance… Now, therefore, O son, hear me. Blessed is the man who shall listen to me, and the mortal who shall keep my ways… But they who sin against me, trespass against their own souls; and they who hate me love death.’ (Prov. 8:22–36.)

     Thus, Justin inherited the concept of a pre-existent, universal, divine, ‘rational power’ from Judaism—which Justin above calls by many names, including “Logos.” Gnostics had a similar conception, where the power of God is a spiritual agent, ‘light’: “Jesus says, ‘I am the light that is in them all. I am the All, and the All has gone out from me and the All has come back to me. Cleave the wood—I am there; lift the stone and you will find me there'” (GTh 77). The Sethians held that a secret, saving (= “Ieshua/Iesous”), knowledge had been transmitted by God to Adam’s son Seth, and then to posterity in an unbroken—and covert—lineage through all generations.

The Church monopolized salvation by limiting the Word/Logos to Jesus the Nazarene, the ‘only Son of God.’ This works when the aspirant no longer has direct access to the divine—as was the case before the invention of Jesus the Nazarene. Afterwards, however, the aspirant had to go through the Church in order to access the diving—which was, of course, the whole point. The Catholics replaced the search for gnosis with belief in Jesus the Nazarene. The mechanism by which the Church did this was essentially literary: the canonical gospels. And though this very successful mechanism, the Church henceforth arrogated to itself all “truth.”

Another way of looking at Church origins is that the Hellenist ‘Christians’ took over a gnostic (and Jewish) view and hypostatized it: the universal Jesus/Word became flesh, sarx = Jesus the Nazarene, a theios aner who was a man and at the same time the exclusive and universal potency (Logos) of God and the essence of all being—the divine “Word made flesh.” That, of course, is no longer either Jewish or Gnostic. It is specifically ‘Christian.’

Justin certainly did not invent the “eternal logos” doctrine. Philo of Alexandria, one century earlier, knew a semi-divine logos which he also identified with the “Angel of the Lord.” Furthermore—as we have seen—the pre-Markan Jewish Christians knew the concept of Jesus/Joshua as the indwelling Power of God. This eternal Jesus/Joshua and the semi-divine Logos of Philo naturally and organically developed into the Hellenist Christian Logos doctrine:

And though the devil is ever at hand to resist us, and anxious to seduce all to himself, yet the Angel of God, i.e., the Power of God sent to us through Jesus Christ, rebukes him, and he departs from us. (Dial. Trypho 116)

The major difference between proto-Mark (primarily Hebrew) and post-Mark (primarily Hellenist) Christianities regarded the nature of ‘Jesus’: for the former, Jesus was a divine, universal spiritual entity; for the latter, Jesus was God in the flesh, an absolutely unique figure of history—Jesus the Nazarene.

(b) “I send My angel before your face… to bring you into the land which I have prepared for you… for My name is in Him”. For Justin, all the Jewish prophets were angels of God (see below, point [d]). At Prov 8:23 (cited above), however, Justin writes that the Logos/angel “calls Himself Captain, when He appeared in human form to Joshua the son of Nun.” The link between Joshua ben Nun and Jesus Christ is evident to Justin:

“Yet after this you made a calf, and were very zealous in committing fornication with the daughters of strangers, and in serving idols. And again, when the land was given up to you with so great a display of power, that you witnessed the sun stand still in the heavens by the order of that man whose name was Jesus [Joshua], and not go down for thirty-six hours, as well as all the other miracles which were wrought for you as time served; and of these it seems good to me now to speak of another, for it conduces to your hereby knowing Jesus, whom we also know to have been Christ the Son of God, who was crucified, and rose again, and ascended to heaven, and will come again to judge all men, even up to Adam himself.” (Dial. Trypho 132)

There is a long tradition in Jewish scripture of angels representing the Power of God and appearing in human form (cf. Jacob wrestling with the angel at the brook of Jabbok). Thus, we have identified three strands that preceded and informed the Markan figure Jesus the Nazarene: (1) the Jewish-Christian mobile, spiritual Jesus (‘Power/Wisdom of God’); (2) the Philonic Logos (also approximating Divine Wisdom); and (3) the OT concept of angels as God’s emissaries/representatives in human form (Gen 32:23).

(c) “the name of Him who said to Moses, ‘for My name is in Him,’ was Jesus.”—This bold statement makes Justin’s view quite plain: the “name of Yahweh” is/was Jesus from primordial times.

(d) “Isaiah shows that those prophets who are sent to publish tidings from God are called His angels and apostles”. This shows that, for Justin, the prophets (including Moses and Joshua ben Nun) were god’s “angels.” In his view, the Jewish prophets themselves were God’s emissaries/angels. Justin’s conceptual mixing of the fleshly and spiritual has now almost reached the complete mixing of divine and human found in ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’

Justin Martyr and the New Chronology

Justin Martyr lived c. 100 to c. 165 CE. According to the New Chronology presented in these posts, he was thus a contemporary of (a) Marcion of Pontus; (b) the invention of Jesus the Nazarene/of Nazareth; and (c) the writing of the canonical gospels. In this sense, the New Chronology is a ‘late’ chronology—the canonical gospels are three-quarters of a century later than commonly held, and the beginnings of Christianity (as we know it) are a full century later. As we shall see in the next (and final) post in this series, however, in my opinion the New Chronology is also an early chronology, in that the true beginnings of Christianity extend back to the early first century BCE—to the obscure prophet known to history as Yeshu ha-Notsri.

Justin is one of the first witnesses to what we can call normative Christianity. He knows Jesus Christ in the flesh, and he also defends the resurrection of the flesh (cf. On the Resurrection). While he does not verbally quote from a canonical gospel, Justin knows the virgin birth (i.e. GMt/GLk), crucifixion of Jesus under Pontius Pilate, Jesus entering Jerusalem on an ass (Mt 21:2 ff., cf. Dial. Trypho 53), etc. Justin even refers to “scripture” in which “Jesus commanded to love even [our] enemies” (Trypho 85). But the concept of this scripture seems still unstable and not yet graced by the term euaggelion: in several places Justin refers not to a “gospel” but to “memoirs of the apostles” (Trypho 103, 106 etc).

Justin Martyr is a critical witness to Christian beginnings because he flourished during those critical decades of the second century, decades that witnessed the birth of the Christian religion as we know it.

(e) “according to the will of the Father of all things, it was possible for Him to be born man of the Virgin”—This is the hypostatizing of the spritual Jesus discussed above in the first point above. Justin must have known the nativity stories in GMt and (or) GLk. My suspicion is that all four canonical gospels were penned in fairly quick succession in the decade 140-50 CE. This fits in well with the evidence we have from Justin’s writings.

(f) “we have such Scriptures, from which it can be plainly perceived that He became so according to the will of the Father.”—This shows that Justin, writing c. 155 CE, already knows two or more canonical gospels. This sort of data contributes to a terminus ad quem for canonical gospel formation. (The terminus a quo was certainly Marcion, early II CE.) Of course, Justin flagrantly engages in circular reasoning when he argues from the gospels themselves.

But Justin does not always argue from the latter-day gospels. He also sees Jesus virtually everywhere in Jewish scripture (cf. point [c] above)—bringing the Israelites out of Egypt (Moses), leading them into the Promised Land (Joshua), and even as synonymous with Israel (Jacob):

“He speaks therefore in the passage relating to Judah: ‘A prince shall not fail from Judah, nor a ruler from his thighs, till that which is laid up for him come; and He shall be the expectation of the nations.’ And it is plain that this was spoken not of Judah, but of Christ. For all we out of all nations do expect not Judah, but Jesus, who led your fathers out of Egypt. For the prophecy referred even to the advent of Christ: ‘Till He come for whom this is laid up, and He shall be the expectation of nations.’ Jesus came, therefore, as we have shown at length, and is expected again to appear above the clouds.”
                    (Dial. Trypho 120)
 
Jacob was called Israel; and Israel has been demonstrated to be the Christ, who is, and is called, Jesus. (Dial.Trypho 134)

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