Thursday, June 11, 2009

Creating Jesus 17: A divine fetus

When the early Christian Jews concluded that the appearances of the YHWH Angel prior to Jesus' birth must also have been Jesus somehow, this gave Jesus a pre-existence and it shifted the paradigm. No longer was he a normal human being born of normal human parents. Somehow this great Angel had been embodied either at Jesus' conception or his quickening. In other words, a human fetus was possessed by this Angel, rather than a human man at his baptism. The Christians shifted his possession to the earliest moment possible. The idea that an angel can possess a human being is possible because the ancient people understood "spirits" and "angels" to be equivalents. This is also the case with the word "powers." The angel was a spirit who like a demon could possess a human being.

The virgin birth stories are related to this shift. The story of womb-possession is very prominent in Luke's gospel, which parallels John the Baptist's conception with Jesus'. John the Baptist was "filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb" (Luke 1:15). Jesus' conception is understood similarly, as the Holy Spirit, the Power of the Most High, coming upon Mary so that her child would be the holy Son of God. Keep in mind that angels are sons of God. And prophets are called and consecrated (which means a descent of the Holy Spirit into them!) from before they came into the womb of their mothers (see Jer 1:5; Isa 49:1; cf. Gal 1:15).

In Matthew, the relationship of Jesus to the Holy Spirit is framed in terms of agency. Mary is found "having [a fetus] in her womb FROM the Holy Spirit" (1:18). This is another shift in this christological pattern. It moves the concept of a divine fetus to divine parentage rather than spirit possession. This shift may have been popular with Hellenistic audiences familiar with stories of gods siring heroes.

I think it is significant that since these two authors think that the embodiment of the Spirit happened to the fetus in the womb, both Matthew and Luke independently shift the Markan baptism account of possession of the Spirit "in" Jesus (eis: Mark 1:10) to "upon" him (epi: Matt 3:16; Luke 3:22). Since he has had the Spirit in him since the womb, the baptism is reconceived as an outward anointing of the Spirit.

Next post we will look at Justin Martyr who preserves this paradigm in its entirety.


Cecilia said...

And of course the next logical step is to take the YHWH Angel back to the beginning of time, the creation, in John.

Great series, professor. Thanks!

Pax, C.

April DeConick said...


You got it!!!

lightseeker said...

This and the last few posts have been especially helpful in clarifying the Christological development from Jewish concepts to western Hellenistic concepts.

Being possessed by or of (or "filled with") the Spirit/YHWH angel (whether as fetus or man), or having it "come upon" one during life, is a far cry from saying the man is one and the same as the YHWH angel or God and sired by God.

But it is also easier now for me to see that there could have been many strands of belief or perception among various people/groups early on that blurred the lines between divine, human or a mixture of both.

Thank you, April, for an enlightening, rich and thought-provoking series!

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for the interesting series, April. A minor point that appeals to Synoptic geeks like me: did Luke and Matthew change EIS to EPI "independently"? Of course those like me who think that Luke knew Matthew as well as Mark think that Luke was simply preferring Matthew here, as in a lot of the Matt. 3-4 // Luke 3-4 material. But it's worth bearing in mind too that many think EPI is from Q 3.21-22. There are several major / minor agreements in the baptism story and James Robinson has argued strongly in favour of the inclusion of this pericope in Q -- cf. the Critical Edition of Q.

Frank McCoy said...

Perhaps, though, Matthew changes Mark's description of the Spirit descending "eis auton" to a description of the Spirit coming "ep auton" at the baptism of Jesus to identify Jesus as being the Davidic Messiah--see LXX Isaiah 11:1-2, "And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a blossom shall come up from his root: and the Spirit of God shall rest ep auton".
Also, we can't look at Lk 1:35 in isolation. It needs to be interpreted in light of the preceding Lk 1:32-34, "(32) 'This one will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. (33)And he will rule over the house of Jacob into the ages and of his Kingdom there shall not be an end.' (34) But said Mary to the angel, 'How will this be, since I do not know a man?' (35) And, answering, the angel said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you (epi se) and the Power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the one being born will be called holy, the Son of God.'" This passage is, above all, an affirmation that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah, about whom God states, "I will be His Father and he shall be My son." (II Sam. 7:14)
If there is another Christology in Luke's birth narrative, it is that of Jesus also being the Logos. See, in particular, Lk 1:78, "Through the tender mercies of our God, by which will visit us the Anatole from heaven." This pre-existent heavenly Anatole is the Logos--see Conf (62-63), where Philo states, "Behold a man (idou anthrwpos) whose name is Anatole" (Zech. vi. 12), strangest of titles, surely, if you suppose that a being composed of soul and body is here described. But if you suppose that it is the Incorporeal one, who differs not a whit from the divine image (i.e., who is the Logos, the Image of God), you will agree that the name of Anatoles assigned to him quite truly describes him. For that man is the eldest son, whom the Father of all raised up (aneteile)..."
So, the full Christology of Luke's birth narrative appears to be that of the Logos incarnate in the flesh as the Davidic Messiah--with the Davidic Messiah being Son of God precisely because he also is the Logos--the eldest Son of God.
Compare John 19:5, 7, "Therefore, Jesus came forth outside, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple garment and he (i.e., Pilate) says to them, 'Behold the man (idou ho anthrwpos)!...Answered him the Jews, 'We have a Law and according to the Law he ought to die because he made himself Son of God.'" Here, Jesus is both the Davidic Messiah, the true King of Israel (who, as such, has a crown and a Tyrian purple robe) and the Logos (the Anatole who is beheld as an anthrwpos), making him Son of God. said...

If it is correct, what you have described was superimposed by a Gentile world upon a Jewish prophetic religion that was persecuted out of existence. It is not the origin of 'Christianity'. said...

In fact it is a theological treatise.

Timo S. Paananen said...

Great series going on here!

I guess I'm still struggling with my natural inclination to put things (especially Christological development) in a clear-cut chronological order - your postings have made me see more concretely the possibility of various strands of belief existing all together at the same time. Thank you for that.

However, in part 13 you wrote: "At his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended, and it took up residence in him, possessing him as it did all the prophets of old."

In this post the example is another one: "prophets are called and consecrated (which means a descent of the Holy Spirit into them!) from before they came into the womb of their mothers".

Now I wonder, if Jesus was first deemed to be a prophet and a martyr, why in the Jerusalem paradigm he became possessed by the Spirit in baptism? Why not go all the way to the beginning at once - to the birth of Jesus - if the prophets of old could be seen possessed by the Spirit in this way also? Why create a baptism narrative and not a birth narrative right away? Is it just that they happened to pick those parts of OT they did, and later Christians picked some others like Jer. 1:5 and construed different stories based on those - random incident in history?

Surely, it could not have much to do with the thought of Jesus as a normal human, since the prophets were also normal humans, but could still be "called and consecrated" even before they came into the womb. Or maybe there's a difference?

Liam Madden said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Liam Madden said...

Dr. DeConick,
I've been curious to hear more about where/how/when the jump was made from seeing Christ as manifestation/incarnation of the NAME angel to LOGOS christology.

That the one could lead to the other seems reasonable, but I'm still interested in fleshing out the link. To my mind, it's not exactly a missing link, but apart from the implicit framing of Jesus as NAME angel or invested with the NAME that we find in the Thomas gospel. Can you point us to additional early evidence?

I was looking this morning at Gieschen's discussion of Philo's reliance on/use of angelomorphic traditions in the development of his LOGOS. Example:

"The Father, the Creator of the Universe, gave to his archangel and most ancient WORD the privilege of standing on the confines separating the creature from the creator. This same WORD is continually suppliant to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race which is exposed to affliction and misery; and is the ambassador sent from the ruler to the subject" (Philo qtd. in Gieschen 109).

Gieschen's point from Philo seems very important in the process of arguing for the linkage between the NAME Angel concept and the LOGOS in the expression of Christological concepts. As the above passage evidences, as far as Philo is concerned, the NAME Angel and the LOGOS are the same entity.

It seems to be your belief that the gospel writers who used LOGOS Christology shared Philo's belief in the relative equivalency of the NAME Angel and the LOGOS concepts, so we have a thread that stretches from Philo to the the gospels to Justin Martyr and even on down to Arius. Apart from these, in what other Christian writings of the 1st and 2nd century do you find the most pronounced evidence of the association/identification of the NAME Angel with the LOGOS?

Liam Madden said...

And in another striking passage from Philo we have:

"But if there be any as yet unfit to be called a son of God, let him press to take his place under God's first-born, the WORD, who holds eldership among the angels, an archangel as it were. And many names are his for he is called: The Beginning, the Name of God, His Word, the Man after His Image, and He That Sees..."
(Philo qtd. in Gieschen 109).

As Gieschen demonstrates, in this passage we see again that for Philo, the LOGOS is not abstract or "ideal" but instead angelomorphic in its character and manifestation.

H. S. Ryu said...

Thank you for another interesting post again.
Reading this post, I was thinking some modern people also don’t really distinguish "spirits" from "angels" or from "powers." I think some modern people don’t even distinguish God from energy, universe, higher consciousness, and so on. I think it is because people recognize these presences by feeling. The words themselves did not really capture their experience (feeling). Every word is a mere translation of their experience: mostly inadequate. Anyway, thanks for high quality blog posts.

pascal said...


I think 13 was the Jerusalem paradigm; ie. the very first attempts by his followers at making sense of the execution of Jesus in the weeks and months immediately following his death.

Those attempts were not a neat little bundle of rationales acquired overnight, along the lines of Mrs Keech and her Seekers, but a great deal more complex than that.

There were a lot of potential explanations ab initio, and as time went by the number expanded still further, since the more people became involved, the more possibilities were generated.

An immediate birth narrative would certainly fit the Mrs Keech and her Seekers paradigm, but it looks as if Jesus' followers had rather more complex mindsets...

Timo S. Paananen said...

Thanks, pascal, for your comments.

I agree that the situation for the first Jerusalem believers must have been a complex one and the possibilities (at least from a later perspective) for making sense of the death of Jesus infinitely diverse.

What I really wondered, was this: how far does the evidence allow us to go? Can we say why this and not that happened because of x and y? I guess not. Maybe all we can say is that the baptism narrative seems to have preceded the birth narratives (like April has done here), although both have derived proof texts from OT and (in my imagination) could equally well have been pulled off as early as the Jerusalem in the 30s.

But it didn't happen, and the evidence available seems so minimal that my curiosity will probably never be adequately satisfied.