‘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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Saint of the Week: St. Thomas the Apostle

Continuing in last week’s apostolic theme, let’s discuss St. Thomas now.  The Gospel of John is the only Gospel in which Thomas turns up as more than a name in a list.  The first occasion is John 11:16.  Jesus is going to go to Judaea, where it is likely that the leaders will kill him.  Thomas (called Didymus — which means “Twin”) demonstrates his zeal for the Lord, saying:

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

These words demonstrate that, regardless of how much Thomas understood at this stage of the game, he was committed to Jesus and to Jesus’ mission.  He was willing to join Jesus on a life-threatening undertaking, willing to die with him.  Such faith is impressive.

In John 20, Thomas turns up again in the famous “Doubting” Thomas story.  When Jesus first appears to the disciples after the Resurrection, Thomas isn’t there.  In the film The Gospel of John, we see Thomas at the market buying some food for the others.  He says that he won’t believe it and that he would have to put his hand in Jesus’ wrists and side before he would believe.

This unbelief is no more remarkable than that of the other disciples when Mary Magdalene and the women tell them the same Resurrection story, so we ought to be more gentle on poor St. Thomas and his reputation.

Jesus appears again to them, and when Thomas sees Him, rather than touching the wounds (as I saw him do in the Chester Mystery Plays), immediately falls to Jesus’ feet and worships Him, saying, “My Lord and my God!”

This is an appropriate reaction.

Thomas was also present for Jesus’ appearance on the shore when he and several other disciples were fishing together as recounted on John 21.  Given this tidbit of evidence, St. Thomas was likely a Galilean, and like Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John, was a fisherman.

And like Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John, Christ made Thomas a fisher of men.

With our Eurocentric view of Christianity, we tend to view the great spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire as being facilitated entirely by Roman sea-routes and roads and the widespread use of Greek as the common language of the Hellenistic world.

However, when we observe the pattern of movement in Acts, we see that the Apostles are not simply travelling throughout the Roman Empire, but are travelling throughout the Jewish Diaspora.  The first place they would go in each city was the synagogue, and if there was no synagogue, they would find whatever Jews and God-fearers there were and preach to them the Good News of Jesus.  Thus the Church spread beyond the borders of Rome to the diaspora in Mesopotamia and elsewhere.

Did you know that there is a Jewish diaspora in India?

According to Wikipedia, they arrived in Cochin, Kerala, about 2500 years ago and in Maharashtra 2100 years ago; others have arrived elsewhere more recently.  According to tradition, St. Thomas arrived in India about 2000 years ago.  Given the trade routes between the Eastern Mediterranean and India, such as from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean or the Silk Road, it is entirely plausible for a Jewish person to have made his way there, probably enjoying the hospitality of his fellow Jews of the diaspora along the way.

According to the Acts of Thomas, once he was in India, St. Thomas went about preaching celibacy.

I know, right?  You were probably thinking, “Jesus.”  Or “Eternal life.”  No.  Celibacy.  He shows up in the bedchamber of a royal wedding and convinces them to live together “chastely” rather than have sex.  And somehow, this manages to convert the king and various other persons in India.

St. Thomas continued preaching in India and the Church was founded there.  He ended up being martyred, no surprise if the Acts have anything to say about his method of evangelisation.  This martyrdom was after he converted a king’s wife, and he was pierced with spears by four soldiers.  Thus, the spear is part of his iconography.

In 1498 when the Portuguese showed up in India, they met Mar Thoma Christians who worshipped in Syriac and claimed descent from St. Thomas.  Because of the various activities of Roman Catholic and Protestant (esp. Anglican) missions in India, the Mar Thoma Christians have become divided amongst themselves (yay western Christianity!).  They are mainly in Kerala (notably where one of the Jewish diasporae is found in India).

His feast used to be December 21 (BCP), but is now on July 3 (BAS).  Celebrate accordingly.