Resurrection & Incarnation in the second century

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 23

Evangelical Christians view the bodily resurrection of Jesus as “the most important event in the history of the world.” For them, Jesus’ resurrection from the grave is proof positive that He was the Son of God, that He was God in the flesh, and that He was the Lynchpin of history.

Of course, the bodily resurrection means that Jesus overcame death (point #2 in the above link). That’s a very powerful message, for the fear of death is a basic instinct in both man and animal. The Christian promise is that since Jesus overcame death, we can too, for “we have died with Him and will also live with Him” (point #3 above and Romans 6:8).

Astonishingly, this was also the gnostic message before Catholic Christianity took the field in mid-II CE. In gnosticism properly so called (that is, gnosticism lacking the later mythological elements of aeons, planets, and intermediaries) Jesus also overcame death, and the gnostic follower of Jesus can likewise overcome death (GTh 1). The huge difference between the gnostic and the Catholic was that, for the gnostic, ‘Jesus’ was a spiritual entity. It didn’t have flesh. For gnostics, in fact, the flesh was evil. The idea that God would take on human flesh was a complete non-starter in gnosticism. That is why the existence of Catholicism represents the radical denial of gnosticism. The two were opposed from the beginning.

The Church Fathers (and their descendants—academic defenders of Christianity today) caricature(d) the gnostic denial of the fleshliness of Jesus by portraying gnostics as “docetists”—those who denied that Jesus of Nazareth had a body. Gnostics never had such a quaint view, still much popularized. Gnostics asserted that Jesus was spirit. They maintained that Jesus could not have a body and, hence, that Jesus of Nazareth was pure fiction. In other words, what academics pejoratively label “docetists” were none other than the Jesus-mythicists of ancient times. Such gnostic-Jesus mythicists were everywhere in the second century, for Catholicism was then just getting started.

Hand-in-hand with the gnostic denial of Jesus’ flesh was the disparagement of the creator god, of the creation, and of materiality in general. In my opinion, the Church Fathers conveniently labeled this entire worldview “Marcionite” and asserted that it was a late and despicable heresy that postdated Catholicism. Thus Justin Martyr:

And there is Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even at this day alive, and teaching his disciples to believe in some other god greater than the Creator. And he, by the aid of the devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies, and to deny that God is the maker of this universe, and to assert that some other being, greater than He, has done greater works. All who take their opinions from these men… (First Apology, Chp. 26)

Note the words “who is even at this day alive.” It was important for Justin that ‘Marcion’ be a latter-day figure, someone whose tenets by no means antedated Catholicism (and thus could be claimed as more authentic than Catholicism). In his other citation regarding Marcion (there are only two), the same late dating is carefully included in Justin’s diatribe:

And, as we said before, the devils put forward Marcion of Pontus, who is even now teaching men to deny that God is the maker of all things in heaven and on earth, and that the Christ predicted by the prophets is His Son, and preaches another god besides the Creator of all, and likewise another son. And this man many have believed, as if he alone knew the truth… (First Apology, Chp. 56)

Justin’s First Apology was written in mid-II CE. But if Marcion were teaching at that time, then how can Tertullian place Marcion in the apostolic age? Tertullian writes: “the Marcionites, whom the Apostle John designated as antichrists, when they denied that Christ was come in the flesh…” (AM 3.8) The Apostle John (also an invented figure, of course) was accorded an exorbitantly long life by the Church Fathers (extending even to 120 years) precisely so that he could be made to validate later Catholic doctrine. Even with a lifespan of 120 years, however, John (if born ca. 1 CE) would have died about 120 CE—still decades too early to be “teaching” when Justin was writing.

Similarly, Papias asserted (according to the sixth century Bishop Fortunatus) that “he who wrote down the Gospel, John dictating correctly the true evangel [Gospel], was Marcion the heretic.”  So, Marcion wrote down the Gospel of John?! Oh well. (I recently discussed the non-existence of Marcion here.)

But I digress and would like to return to my opening topic, namely, that Evangelical Christians view the bodily resurrection of Jesus as “the most important event in the history of the world.” This is a convenient and expedient shortcut to vindicate the many astonishing claims of Christianity. After all, if Jesus of Nazareth resurrected bodily from the grave, then Jesus must indeed be/have been God’s Son, must be part of the holy trinity, and Christianity must be The One True Religion.

The second century Catholics were well aware of the compelling power of the bodily resurrection—which is one reason they invented that astounding notion. Already, the Gospel of Peter (which, in all likelihood, preceded the Gospel of Mark)  focusses on the bodily resurrection and on machinations by “the scribes and Pharisees and elders” (vss. 28–29, 45) to have soldiers guard Jesus’ tomb, in order to prevent the claim that Jesus is raised from the dead. The Toldoth Yeshu (an early Jewish anti-gospel)—which, incidentally, places Jesus in the time of King Alexander Janneus—goes even farther (6.21, 7.28, etc) in describing involved machinations between Jews and Christians to hide and find the body of Jesus (see here on this website).

However, an earlier stratum preceded the Catholic focus on the bodily resurrection of Jesus, a stratum that is today all but forgotten. That stratum can lead us to the genesis of Christianity itself. Consider: before a divine Jesus could be made to resurrect bodily from the grave, God had to be born in flesh and blood. That problem had first to be solved, before attention could be given to the resurrection.

The solution taxed the incipient Catholics—M.R. James’ 1924 book, The Apocryphal New Testament, contains over a dozen nativity accounts! More have been discovered since that time. Scholars date some of these accounts far back into the second century CE. This makes sense, for—as noted in the preceding paragraph—the Catholics had to pay attention to the problem of the Incarnation at a very early time. In contrast to current scholarly opinion (which holds that the early chapters in GMt and GLk were later additions), I maintain that elements in the fabulous and wide-ranging nativity stories reflect early and profound attempts to grapple with the awesome challenges of making God into man.

Ask yourself: How would you solve this problem? We will see in a forthcoming post that the incipient Catholics struggled with a number of colorful ‘solutions,’ most of which were quickly rejected but which survive in obscure and long marginalized texts ranging from Armenia to Ireland.

To be continued…

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website www.NazarethMyth.info.

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