‘We ought to understand Jesus within context first’ – some thoughts on doing theology

A friend of mine likes to occasionally post religious questions on Facebook to inspire conversation. Today, I saw:

Before his Resurrection, did Jesus know that the Earth orbits the Sun?

My short answer, ‘Yes.’ I don’t actually know if it’s right, mind you.

One other answer troubles me not by its conclusion (‘No.’) but by the premisses the commenter alluded to:

I would say that he didn’t know. To provide an adequate rationale to my postulation will take me far too long. I think a start is to unpack how much western thought about God and systematics we have unappropriately projected onto Jesus while he was on earth. (Not that I am against western thought or systematics but we ought to understand Jesus within context first)

I am not entirely sure where this author is going, frankly. But it hints at things that concern me. Somehow, this person believes that understanding Jesus within context will cause us to reject an understanding of Jesus that would allow him to maintain divine knowledge whilst incarnate on earth.

First, I imagine (perhaps falsely) this person holds a dichotomous position between ‘Hebraic’ and ‘Greek’ thought. This is the sort of position that sometimes leads people to reject theological concepts about God such as His eternity (as classically understood), His Trinitarian ousia, his omniscience (as classically understood), impassibility as well as the creatio ex nihilo.

These ideas and others are often thought to be ‘Hellenistic’ importations, falsely grafted onto the pure ‘Hebraic’ gospel. This is not true. They are, in fact, Christian doctrines developed through prayerful reading of Scripture and resistance to ‘Hellenistic’ philosophy. For example, it is in resisting Plato in their reading of Scripture that Christians posit creatio ex nihilo and divine eternity as classically understood.

Let’s talk, then, about the hypostatic union, since that’s really what’s in question.

The hypostatic union is the theologically incomprehensible complete union of the divine and human in the single person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ such that he is 100% God and 100% human. He has the properties of divinity and of humanity. But he is not two persons. He is one person. Some of us articulate this as Jesus existing in two natures, some think that divides him too far and makes him into a pantomime horse.

This immediately grabs you as a fine piece of Hellenistic philosophy, doesn’t it?

Except, of course, that no one knows how it works, and most people who try to explain it realise they can’t and choose, instead, to stand in awe before the mystery of God.

And, really, what resemblence does this owe to Jesus ‘within context’?

First, what is Jesus’ context? Hellenistic Judaism in the Greco-Roman world? The apostles composed their works in Greek and cited a Hellenistic Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. St Paul even quoted a Greek poet. John’s Gospel begins with its beautiful prologue on the divine Word.

Furthermore, throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus performs many miracles with no divine aid, no magic spells, and no invocation of any god. This sets him apart his contemporary miracle men, the Hebrew prophets, and the Apostles. He also rises from the dead in an unprecedented manner — no prophet or holy man is used as God’s instrument in the Resurrection, unlike when the prophets and Apostles do it. Jesus also seems to think he can forgive people’s sins. And when his earthly ministry is over, he ascends into heaven.

And that’s just from the Gospels, without turning to the earlier Christian writings of St Paul, who says some pretty heavy stuff about Jesus that points to him being God.

Jesus is God. He is also fully man.

How it works, of course, we cannot fully say. Hypostatic union.

But if we realise that Jesus is, in fact, fully man and fully God, how we determine divine knowledge during the incarnation is not merely some sort of question of Greek vs Hebrew, which is a false dichotomy.

But, frankly, no one reads or even tries to comprehend the Fathers anymore. If we understood them in their context, besides Jesus in his, we might find out that they are speaking the same theological language.

One Parthian shot. If ‘western’ is the problem, I present you with Ephrem the Syrian, one of the last exponents of Semitic, Syriac Christianity before it was ‘hellenised’. From his Hymns on the Incarnation:

From Hymn 8

Blessed is the Messenger who came bearing
a great peace.  By the mercy of His Father,
He lowered Himself to us.  Our own debts
He did not take up to Him.  He reconciled
[His] Lordship with His chattels.

Refrain: Glory to Your Dawn, divine and human.

Glorious is the Wise One Who allied and joined
Divinity with humanity,
one from the height and the other from the depth.
He mingled the natures like pigments
and an image came into being: the God-man.
O Zealous One who saw Adam
who became dust and the accursed serpent
eating him.  Reality dwelt
in what had lost its flavor.  He made him salt
by which the cursed serpent would be blinded.
Blessed is the Compassionate One Who saw, next to paradise,
the lance that barred the way
to the Tree of Life.  He came to take up
the body that would be struck so that by the opening in His side
He might break through the way into paradise.

From Hymn 12

Who indeed has seen the Babe Who is more ancient
than His bearer?  The Ancient One entered
and became young in her.  He emerged an infant
and grew by her milk.  He entered and became small in her;
He emerged and grew through her—a great wonder!

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Intercession: The heart of prayer?

El Greco, The Agonyin the Garden

I once read a book that said that worship was the most important form of prayer. This may be right, but I am not always certain that worship is prayer. Not etymologically, and certainly not in the biblical record. When St Paul exhorts people to pray, it seems often to focus on bringing petitions before God.

According to a little booklet I got of 30 days of prayer with Andrew Murray (purchased at Hull’s Family Bookstore, Thunder Bay, Ontario), intercession is the most important form of prayer.

I do not wish to say which of the forms of prayer — things like the Jesus Prayer or intercession or worship or confession of sins — is most important out of those that have been offered up as candidates. However, I think intercession should be at the heart of our prayer activity as we commune with God in our quiet place.

I hold this belief for several reasons. One is the etymological fallacy, that the English word ‘to pray’ originally means ‘to make a request’ — and the request is not always from God.

This is not, however, simply the etymology of English, but also the meaning of the Greek used in our Bibles. Luke 22:40, Christ tells the Disciples on the Mt of Olives to pray that they not fall into temptation, using the verb proseuchomai,* and then goes off to pray to the Father — once again, proseuchomai and that which he offers to God is a proseuche.** This Greek word, proseuchomai, means to make a request or offer a petition; its related noun means a request, a petition, or a vow, often one made to a god.

I believe that getting to the root of the words we see in any text is an important aspect of study. What does the Bible mean by prayer? What is its root? What is its cultural context? etc, etc.

Some famous Bible verses about prayer that use this Greek word (NIV):

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. -Acts 2:42

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. -Philippians 4:6

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. -Colossians 4:2

pray without ceasing -1 Thessalonians 5:17

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. -1 Timothy 2:1-8

Of course, a petition need not be intercessory. The standard form of the Jesus Prayer is a petition, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ But it is not an intercession.

Intercession, as an English word, is a particular form of petition. It is a petition made on behalf of someone else. The intercessor stands in the breach between a person or situation and the gracious God, pleading that Our Lord will have mercy and bring his love and mercy to bear on a particular situation.

So here I come to my final two reasons why I think intercession is at the heart of prayer. Not only is it biblical, it is also unselfish. It is an act of utter charity. Intercessions are not prayers about me — my cold, my loud flatmates, my financial situation, my research and so forth. Intercessions are prayers that are focussed on others.

As Christians, we are called to be servants of all. We are called to give up ourselves for others. We are called to live not for ourselves. We are called to live in complete charity.

Finally, intercession brings us before God in a bold way that some may think lacks humility. Who am I to ask anything for anyone else before God? God is God. He is the most powerful, majestic, awesome, beautiful being in the universe. He sustains all things by his hand and brought them into existence by a mere word.

This is why we must intercede before God for others. We need to learn that our God is not like the gods of the ‘pagans’. He is not distant. He is not so far beyond us that we cannot approach his throne ourselves. We do not need any mediator besides Christ (who is himself God!). He does not require long, complicated rituals for us to access him. He does not delegat the task of hearing petitions and intercessions to his minions.

God, Himself, wants to hear from us. He wants us to join him in his task of redemption, and this includes interceding for those around us.

We should do it in humility, but in love not quaking fear.

*For Hellonphiles or over-clever people, I always cite words by their lexicographical lemma so that my readers can find them in a dictionary. What would be the use of giving an infinitive when it is the first principal part that is needed?

**If I could do macrons, I would.

Codex Vaticanus and Me

Page from the 19th-century photo-facsimile of Vaticanus

I am currently engaged in the first semester of a year-long Master of Theology, ‘Theology in History’ at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity (hereafter known as ‘New College’).  In the year 2000, New College purchased a facsimile of Codex VaticanusVaticanus may well be the oldest manuscript of the Greek Bible we have (from the 300s).  If it isn’t, Codex Sinaiticus is.

I had the opportunity of sitting in a glass room at New College’s library (well within sight of the librarians, I can assure you) and perusing this 6000-dollar volume.

It is a beautiful book.  The pages are heavyweight paper with an exact image of what Vaticanus itself, off in the Vatican looks like (not on vellum — 365 goats for the original are enough, thank you very much).  The pages are all funny sizes and shapes.  They have the holes in the pages where the real codex has its holes.  The decorations are reproduced in full colour.  The rubber stamps from the Vatican Library are clearly visible on the opening pages.

It is a thing of beauty.

Most of Vaticanus is written in uncials — big, block letters that are fairly square in shape and quite easy to read.  You can take a look at the late 19th-century photo-facsimile here (it is much less awesome than the new facsimile).  The first bit and last bit of this old book went missing at some point, so in the fifteenth century someone recopied the missing bits.  Those bits are harder to read, written out in minuscules — tiny, flowy script that runs together and is beautiful yet illegible to the untrained eye.  I deciphered ‘In the beginning, made’ from Genesis 1 before giving up.  No doubt the next word was ‘theos‘.

The beginning of each book has a non-iconic decoration at the top of the column and the first letter written large and in colour.  This makes reading easier, since both uncials and minuscules leave no breaks between words and lack serious punctuation.  The result is large, rectangular columns of text.  Very geometric.

Of course, the Psalms are verse.  Rather than three columns of uncials, you get two.  And they have indentations and uneven lines.  I liked the look of the Psalms in Vaticanus.

Scattered throughout this massive book are scholia, marginal writings by scribes.  They are mostly in minuscule, and there is a page in Proverbs where the margins are entirely filled with text, including the gap between the columns.  I didn’t notice this fact during my own perusal but only later when our professor brought the facsimile to class.  I wonder if that page is Proverbs 8 …

One scholion was comprised of several brief lines of uncial text that got gradually smaller until coming to a point, sort of like the blade of a dagger.

People tend to use these beautiful old books as sources for disembodied texts such as the New Testament, the Septuagint, the ancient classics.  Yet a look at Vaticanus makes you realise that these manuscripts are pieces of material culture.  They are remnants of an age long-past, held together sometimes by sheer force of will (in the case of the sixth-century Codex Alexandrinus in the British Library, divided into four parts, so not even sheer force of will kept that one together).

They are lovely.  They are pieces of art.  They exhibit very fine craftsmanship.

These days, palaeography and textual criticism are starting to look a bit more attractive to me …

And . . . done.

Yesterday I finished the Reading List Exams for U of T’s MA in Classics.  This was the conclusion of four days of intensity and spilling forth from my brain excessive amounts of information, some of which I wasn’t even sure was there until the pen hit the paper.  The Reading List looks like this.  My week looked like this:

Tuesday, 9:00 AM: Greek Verse translation exam.  Translate 2 out of 4 from Set A and likewise from Set B.  Passages taken from the Reading List, of course.  Did the passages from the Iliad, Hesiod’s Theogony, Tyrtaeus 9, Callimachus’ Hymn to Athena.

Wednesday, 9:00 AM: Greek Verse commentary exam.  Theoretically write something clever about 3 out 5 passages from sets A and B.  Only Emilia looks at it and says, “Hey, Set B only has four passages!”  Set A was similar.  Wrote the exam under much stress, wondering what would happen in these unforeseen circumstances.  Furthermore, would they discipline a prof who acts in such bad faith yet who is also published and publishing?  Commented on passages from Euripides’ Bacchae, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, and Homer’s Odyssey, book 6 from Set A, and Mimnermus, Sappho 31, and the parabasis of Aristophanes’ Acharnians.

Thursday, 9:00 AM:  Latin Prose translation exam.  Same format as Greek.  Translated passages from Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Book 21, Suetonius Life of the Divine Julius, Cicero, and from a letter of Pliny the Younger.

Friday, 9:00 AM:  Latin Prose commentary exam.  Same format that Greek was supposed to be, not what Greek was. Thankfully.  Commented on passages from Cornelius Nepos’ Life of Atticus, Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae, Livy Book 1, a letter of Cicero to Atticus, Seneca Letter 47, and Cicero’s speech Pro Archia.

And now, I’m done the Reading List!