Athanasius: On the Incarnation (Part 2)

In my prior post about Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, I wrote about the first two sections of the work, according to the outline I provided there.  In today’s post I’ll discuss the last three major sections — a couple of noteworthy items from each section.

Regarding Christ’s Death and Resurrection

a8a76d2521e47fc0b4f7e516f2a525d5In the prior post I noted how Athanasius argues for Christ’s uniqueness as God-become-human.  In chs. 20-32, we see more of the same.  He starts out with what sounds like a preacher’s refrain: “It was not for another” to bring us to incorruptibility, to recreate us in God’s image, to make mortals to be immortal, and to teach us the truth about God.  Then, in ch. 22, he says that Jesus was, in a way, uniquely qualified to conquer death, since he was actually “the Life” (cf. John 14:6) and did not have death in him.  (Again, this does raise questions about how fully Jesus had become human, right?)

A second interesting feature of this section is when Athanasius takes up some questions that folks may have — and these seem to be honest questions from seekers, not necessarily objections from opponents (as he’ll do in the next two sections — although see ch. 25).  So, if someone asks why Jesus couldn’t just have died in a private place rather than in the public, ignominious crucifixion, Athanasius says that people would have said he just died from the “normal” weakness of human flesh (ch. 21).  Should he have fled from the Jews in order to preserve his immortal body?  No — because he had to publicly demonstrate his conquering death so all would know that it had been conquered (ch. 22).  Wasn’t there just any other way than the shameful cross?  No — he had to take a curse upon him to redeem us from the curse that came in the garden (ch. 25).  Why did he wait until the third day to be resurrected?  Because if it had been immediate, people would have said he hadn’t really died, and if it had been a month later, people would have forgotten some of the things that he had said (ch. 26).  Some good questions, right?

In a similar vein, one of the things I really appreciate about this text is that it’s pretty realistic about human nature.  Besides the questions that he asks in this section — legit questions! — we also get more imagined results to some of the “what ifs” of the Gospels?  We especially see this in ch. 23, where he says things like…

  • If Jesus had just hidden his dead body away and then reappeared, saying he’d been raised from the dead, then no one would have believed him, AND they would have trusted him even less when he talked about the resurrection!
  • If the disciples hadn’t actually seen Jesus die, then there’s no way they would have been as bold to say that he had been raised from the dead.
  • If the Jewish leaders hadn’t actually seen Jesus die, then it would have been even easier for them to explain his supposed resurrection away.

Concerning Objections from “the Jews”

Where section 3 has some pretty direct relevance for me in my context — we have a number of people in my part of the world who question the Christian narrative, the stories of Scripture, and especially the centrality of Jesus in life — section 4 is not as much so.  The reason is that this part concerns objections that (real or imagined) Jews of Athanasius’ time made against the Christian claims concerning Jesus.  So, if you (the reader) do live in a place where there are a number of Jews, and if you happen to be involved in conversations about religion, then Athanasius’s text might be helpful.

The most noteworthy part of this section (starting at ch. 33), in my mind, is that we have two different kinds of testimonies that are made.  First, we get some repetition of the texts that are in the New Testament, in places like Matthew’s Gospel or the book of Acts.  Examples of this type especially come from the book of Isaiah, including Isa. 7:14 about a virgin conceiving a child (Matthew 1), the famous “Servant Song” in Isa. 52-53 (Acts 8), and Isa. 65:1-2 about God’s reaching out to a “disobedient and rebellious people” (Romans 10).

However, there are also other passages that don’t appear in the New Testament, like Deuteronomy 28:66, which says, “You will see your life hanging before your eyes, and you will not believe” (reflecting the Septuagint text more than the Hebrew).  In ch. 35 of his text, Athanasius rather naturally connects “life” with Jesus, and the idea of “hanging” with “hanging on the cross, thus making the text a prophecy of Moses against the Jews who would reject Jesus.  In fact, there are a number of these kinds of texts — and the fact that several of them are also quoted in other early Christian writings makes us think that there must have been some common body of texts that writers knew and could draw from for their purposes.  In fact, this is the 100th anniversary of the publishing of Rendel Harris’s Testimonies (also available for free in GoogleBooks), which was dedicated to the question of whether there was even a text that was known, copied, and consulted by the church fathers, but is now lost to history.

Concerning Objections from “the Greeks”

The last portion of the text is concerning with refuting objections that Gentiles (“Greeks”) may make.  For example, Athanasius returns to engagement with Greek philosophers (as he did early on, in ch. 2.  He says in chs. 41-42 that some philosophers teach that the cosmos has a body (see this discussion of Stoic metaphysics) but also that God’s Logos (a generic term for a mediating presence between God and humanity) also pervades the universe.  If the Logos can be in a cosmos with a body, he asks, why can it not be in a human body?  Then, in ch. 43, he refers to Plato’s understanding of the cosmos’s slipping into corruptibility (perhaps from Plutarch’s Moralia) to argue that it is not unreasonable to think that God saw the same in human beings, especially since in both narratives God steps in to fix the problem!

he-the-resurrection-2003Later in this section, starting in ch. 46, he returns to the problem of idolatry that he dealt with in his Against the Heathens.  Here, he argues from common experience: what’s the deal that there are so many different gods, worshiped in so many different places — especially since people tend to say that gods only have authority in local places?  Doesn’t that mean they are weak?  In fact, it means they are weak demons (see the last post) who are deceiving people, and Jesus, the Truth, comes to drive away their deceits.  And as a result, “by means of simple words and by means of humans not wise in speech” (ch. 47), he was able to point folks toward resurrection and immortality!

Toward the end, Athanasius continues his argument from experience and turns it to exhortation for his Christian readers.  First, he notes (to the Greeks) that none of their kings, heroes, or rulers ever did some of the things Jesus did — like making a body for himself from a virgin alone (ch. 49), or converting human beings from all over the world from their idols (ch. 50), or showed and taught that virginity is both good and possible for humans (ch. 51), or united in peace people who legitimately hated each other (ch. 52), or despoiled the worship of the idols and the work of the magicians (ch. 53)?  Implied answer: no one.  And, as he closes, he notes that Christians’ lives can also be exemplary, because it is not enough simply to learn about Jesus — one must live his ways as well.  I will close with Athanasius’s own words from ch. 57:

“…[I]n addition to the study and knowledge of the scriptures, there is needed a good life and a pure soul and the virtue which is according to Christ, so that the mind, guided by it, may be able to attain and comprehend what it desires, as far as it is possible for human nature to learn about the God Word [i.e., Jesus]”

Image credits: because Athanasius’s text comes from and reflects a very different culture, I’ve decided to use art from a different culture — the amazing He Qi from China.  His crucifixion is from www.pinterest.com/pastorpathiggin/beautiful-art/; his Nativity painting is from sacraparental.files.wordpress.com; and his resurrection is from puthudoznika.blogspot.com/.

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho: Part 2

Well, it’s already my last post on Justin Martyr, and today I’m going to share some more thoughts about the second part of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho.  In my first post about this work, I noted how there are three main sections to the text.  Here I’ll talk about the second, which starts at chapter 48 and focuses on arguments that Jesus really is the Messiah, and the third, which starts at chapter 109 and emphasizes how Christians are therefore the true recipients of God’s promises.

You won’t be surprised to learn that these parts contain a LOT of quotations  — and a lot of really long ones! — of the Old Testament.  And of course, it’s not surprising because of both the audience (it’s a dialogue with Jews, and the Old Testament is our common ground of Scripture) and Justin’s writing habits (we saw in the First Apology that he is quite capable of building his arguments off of the Old Testament prophets).  Also, as was the case in the First Apology, Justin quotes a lots of texts that are quite familiar to us (for example, multiple chapters on Psalm 22 [the one that starts “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”]) as well as some that are much less familiar in discussions about Jesus (like an extended discussion of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah).

But what else do we see in these two sections?

The Bible and the Holy Spirit

Because I think a lot about Christian attitudes regarding the Holy Spirit’s role in the production and interpretation of the Bible, I forget that some Jews also believe that God’s spirit was working in the prophets.  Justin assumes as much in chapter 55, when Trypho challenges him to prove “that the prophetic Spirit ever admits the existence of another god” (i.e., in the Scriptures).  It’s a point of common ground that I don’t always remember.  (See also ch. 114 for another discussion of the Spirit’s activity in Scripture.)

Also, many modern readers will appreciate Justin’s attitude about the “perfection” of Scripture.  At one point (ch. 65) he absolutely rejects the idea that any one part of Scripture could contradict another part, presumably because God was speaking it through God’s spirit!  Rather, he says there are confusing parts, then we need to rethink our interpretation.  Incidentally, you may know that Christians in the ancient world did not all agree on the former point; famously, Origen argued that confusing parts of Scripture were actually put there on purpose by the Holy Spirit — to make us think and dig more deeply into the spiritual riches that surely lay beneath the surface.

Finally — and happily, for those of us who think that we aren’t that good at discerning the meaning of Scripture — Justin also believes that God gives us special gifts in interpreting the Bible (ch. 119).  This belief is not as developed at the later idea that it is actually the Holy Spirit (i.e., God in God’s own essence) who empowers our interpretation, but the seeds of that later idea may be here.

The Bible and the Jews

I was not aware that apparently some ancient Jews and Christians argued about the reliability of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.  In ch. 68 (and elsewhere), Justin alludes to a practice of denying that a particular passage was in the Hebrew whenever Christians made a point from the Septuagint.  I don’t know how much to trust Justin’s characterization, but it suggests that at least some of the Jewish-Christian arguments over Scripture were arguments over translation and textual criticism.   (Note: there are parallels here to Muslim-Christian debates over whether Christians falsified the Bible to emphasize the divinity of Jesus, as many Muslims argue.)

By now we are used to Justin using the Bible to make some harsh claims against the Jews.  Multiple examples appear in this last part of the text, for example, his ch. 123, where he says that the Jews fulfill a hard word from Isaiah — that they are not only not wise or understanding, but even sly and treacherous!  One wonders how Justin’s dialogue partners reacted here.  Probably not well.  But later in that section, Justin does still betray the belief that the Jews can actually come to a belief in Jesus — they aren’t wholly lost.  And in fact, that is where the Dialogue ends — with Justin wishing his interlocutors well, expressly hoping that they will come to the Way of Jesus through their continuing search for wisdom.

Surprising Arguments

Every once in a while, Justin just makes an argument that is surprising.  One example of “surprising” meaning “lame” can be found in ch. 87, where Trypho asks about Christians’ applying Isaiah 11:1-3 (“There shall come forth a branch out of the root of Jesse”) to Jesus.  Specifically, Trypho asks about the part that says that the “spirit of God shall rest on him,” thus resulting in various spiritual gifts.  Trypho asks how Jesus could acquire these if, as Christians say, he had the Spirit from his conception and thus already possessed them.  As part of his response, Justin says that the Spirit’s “resting” on Jesus referred to his “ceasing” or “stopping” to be among the Jews, only to re-emerge among the Christians.  I find this wholly implausible — I think he’s just getting a shot in at the Jews!

But there are also parts where “surprising” equals “thought-provoking.”  Earlier we saw Justin refer to Jesus as God’s “angel” and a “lord” of human beings (e.g., ch. 61), and we might have wondered what that meant in terms of Jesus’s divinity.  In ch. 127, then, Justin gives us a bit of a clue.  He refers there to passages in the Pentateuch where “the Lord spoke to Moses” or “God went up from Abraham.”  In doing so, he says that we “should not imagine that the Unbegotten God Himself” (sic) descended or ascended from any place.”  He seems to think that God “the Father” lives in heaven and only there, and that for God to come to earth, God would require some kind of mediator.  This belief, of course, gives credence to the idea that Jesus is divine, in that he is God-come-to-earth, but Justin starts from who and what God is in God’s essence to help us understand the “theophanies” of the Old Testament.

Don’t forget that next month we’ll be reading two works by Athanasius.  I’m going to start with his Life of Antony, which you can try to buy online or get at your library.

Image credits: http://elibtronic.ca/http://www.theworkofgodschildren.org, and www.amazon.com

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Part 1

Introduction

I was a little slow getting started in our reading club for the first month of the year, but before January is over, I’ve got a couple of more posts about Justin Martyr, this time with his Dialogue with Trypho (I’m using Thomas Falls’s translation).  This second text from Justin is longer, but it’s also different.  While the First Apology is written to the Roman authorities and refers to Christians’ contact with their surrounding culture, the Dialogue presents a scenario where a Christian is talking to a Jew about Jesus and Scripture.  So, first a few particulars about the text overall:

  • Tradition (following Eusebius) tells us that Justin lived in Ephesus for a time, and that city is supposedly the setting of the Dialogue.  In fact, he opens by describing an encounter with some people on a “broad avenue,” and Ephesus certainly had those (see the picture on the right).
  • The “Trypho” of the title describes himself as a “Hebrew of the circumcision” who is a “refugee from the recent war.”  He is probably talking about Bar Kochba’s revolt, which was finally crushed by the Romans in ca. 135 CE.  Presumably after fleeing Palestine, Trypho has now settled in Corinth (where there was a synagogue, at least in the first century).
  • The Dialogue consists of three major types of arguments, as the editors of my translation suggest in their introduction to the text: 1) explanations as to why Christians don’t obey the law of Moses; 2) arguments that Jesus really was the true Messiah; and 3) the conclusion that Christians are the “true heirs of the divine promises.”  In other words, you will find here both a great deal of discussion about Scripture and also some of the standard questions and responses that have existed between Jews and Christians for 2,000 years (for example, in chapter 43, whether Isaiah 7 was talking about a “virgin” bearing a child, or just a “young woman”)!

Commentary

Several parts of the first part of the text are interesting and reward some reflection:

  • In the introduction to the Dialogue (chs. 1-8), Trypho politely asks Justin to tell him something of himself and his philosophy.  Justin responds in a way that is perhaps surprising: he does not immediately tell him about Christianity, but rather about his journey to Christianity.  In a way reminiscent of Augustine’s Confessions, he describes a winding path on the search for truth: through Stoicism, then briefly to a Peripatetic teacher, and then to a (Middle) Platonist.  Like Augustine, Justin finds relief in the Platonist teaching about the possibility of incorporeal things that lie beyond the material realities of this world — he says it “added wings” to his mind, presumably allowing to imagine things beyond this troubled planet.  But then, one day on the beach, he met an old man who turned out to be a Christian.  The man did not directly convert Justin, but he planted seeds in his mind about the limits of the truth that the philosophers had access to.  Then, he told Justin about Jesus, specifically emphasizing his fulfilling of centuries-old prophecies (which is an important theme in his First Apology).
  • The second part of the Dialogue takes up that first major theme: why Christians don’t obey the law of Moses.  Besides his SUPER long quotations of the Old Testament, here are some things I found thought-provoking in this part of the work:
    • Trypho doesn’t understand how Christians’ lifestyle and beliefs fit together.  He seems to accept the possibility that they claim to follow the God of Israel, but he argues that if they do so, they should “observe a manner of life different from that of the Gentiles.”  Or, as he says more pointedly in ch. 10, “You place your hope in a crucified man, and still expect to receive favors from God when you disregard his commandments!”  At least here, he doesn’t question the Christians’ theological claims as much as he does their commitment to holiness.  Of course, this makes sense in light of God’s command to Israel to be a people who are holy and set apart.
    • Justin reads the “Old Testament” in more than one way.  On the one hand, he can read the Old Testament in a particularly “literal” way, namely, that Jesus is the literal fulfillment of many prophecies of the Old Testament (see especially chs. 31-39).  But then he can also see the Old Testament as something that is more symbolic or typological, as in his description of spiritual baptism (ch. 14), spiritual circumcision (ch. 16), and Christ as the anti-type of the Passover lamb (ch. 40).  In other words, there’s not just one attitude toward Scripture at work here
    • Justin comes across as pretty “anti-Jewish” rather often.  Despite the cordial nature of the conversation, Justin on occasion says things either implicitly or explicitly that are not terribly “sensitive” to our modern ears.  Examples include his suggestion that Christ’s new covenant means that God’s “old” covenant with Israel is no longer in force (ch. 11), that the Jews’ refusal to accept that Jesus is the fulfillment of some prophecies may mean that they’re just flat dumb (ch. 36), or that they don’t want to accept Christians’ claims because they’re afraid of death (ch. 44).  These aren’t the kinds of arguments that one might want to bring up when talking religion with one’s Jewish friends over coffee.
    • There’s an intriguing passage suggesting a rather “modern” perspective on gender relations.  In an explanation of why literal circumcision can’t be an act of righteousness (ch. 23), Justin says, “…the fact that females cannot receive circumcision of the flesh shows that circumcision was given as a sign, not as an act of justification.  For God also bestowed upon women the capability of performing every good and virtuous act.  We see that the physical formation of male and female is different, but it is equally evident that the bodily form is not what makes either of them good or evil.  Their righteousness is determined by their acts of piety and justice.”  Hear, hear!
    • And there’s a passage that suggests a rather “modern” perspective on inter-faith relations.  In section 46, Trypho asks whether trying to be a good Jew and also believing in Jesus will result in salvation.  Justin says yes, in his opinion, but Trypho asks if other Christians disagree.  Justin says that they do, but he also says he thinks that Christians shouldn’t shut out Jews who want to believe in Jesus, and that Jews shouldn’t tell Christians they have to obey the Mosaic law in order to be saved.  He wants a certain amount of tolerance on both sides.

So, given Justin’s description of his own story, the questions to end with are these: who have been important guides and conversation partners for you in your journey to and in Christianity?  Have you had mentors or companions on the journey?  If so, how have they helped you?

Image credits: www.guidedephesustour.com (Ephesus street), and http://ianvanheusen.com/ (Rembrandt’s Two Philosophers in Conversation), and https://garycottrell.wordpress.com/ (Aleppo Codex)

Suggested next click: Dialogue with Trypho, Part 2