Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Eastern Christology: Hellenistic?

This is from the book "In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity"
by Oskar Skarsaune

""Jewish scholars in antiquity, the Middle Ages and modern times have almost unanimously claimed that the idea that Jesus is the incarnate Word of God is un-Jewish, a product of Christianity's transplantation from a Jewish milieu to a Gentile-Hellenistic milieu. Liberal Christian scholars in modern times have said much the same thing, as for example, the great historian of dogma, Adolf von Harnack. His saying has become famous: "The Christological dogma.....is a product of the spirit of Hellenism on the soil of the Gospel."

Now, as Harnack was well aware, there is no way of holding the eastern creed to be basically Greek and un-Jewish, while at the same time holding John the Evangelist, or for that matter Paul, to be un-Greek and Jewish in their Christology. Therefore, according to many critical scholars, the process of "Hellenizing" Christianity must have begun very early, underway already in Paul, and seems to have reached a first climax in John 1:1-18 (the so-called Johannine Prologue).
In our time, the Jewish writer Pinchas Lapide has tried to understand this "Hellenization" in Christology as a conscious cultural adaptation. He says about Paul:

He brought the message of the Jewish Messiah to the pagan world with a commitment of complete faith.....He was successful in being a Greek for the Greeks and a Jew for the Jews. He possessed courage to display religious imagination. He knew that he would be rejected if he came either to Corinth or Rome and preached about an anointed Jewish Messiah who David's son. They would not understand what he was talking about. But for Greek and Roman ears, he would fare extremely well talking about an incarnate Son of God and a Logos, a divine Word who had descended in order to redeem the world. On the other hand, this made no sense to Galilean fishermen and shepherds. That was why Paul appeared in Jerusalem as a devout, faithful Jew proclaiming a Jewish Messiah, while for Greeks he spoke of a savior who was the Son of God.(7)


So this is the challenge we face in this chapter: Are Harnack, Lapide and a score of other experts correct in their evaluation of eastern Christology as utterly Hellenistic and un-Jewish?
Let us begin with an observation on the typical Hellenistic reaction to the dogma of the incarnate Son of God. Lapide would have us believe that this was something Gentile Hellenists would really appreciate, something they craved for, something they would embrace enthusiastically. But we have several authentic reports on the Gentile Hellenistic reaction, and it does not correspond to this picture at all. The available evidence shows, on the contrary, that most Hellenists reacted with disgust and contempt at the very idea of a divine incarnation, and with charges of blasphemy when they heard that the incarnate Son of God had suffered the uttermost shame of crucifixion. We will let one Gentile author speak for all. He is Celsus, a Platonist philosopher writing a polemic book against Christianity ca A.D. 175

God is good and beautiful and happy, and exists in the most beautiful state. If then he comes down to men, he must undergo change, a change from good to bad, from beautiful to shameful, from happiness to misfortune, and from what is best to what is most wicked. Who would choose a change like this? It is the nature only of a mortal being to undergo change and remolding, whereas it is the nature of an immortal being to remain the same without alteration. Accordingly, God could not be capable of undergoing this change..... Either God does change, as the Christians say, into a mortal body; and it has already been said that this is an impossibility. Or he does not change, but makes those who see him think that he does so, and leads them astray, and tells lies...Dear Jews and Christians, no God or child of God has either come down or would want to come down (from heaven)!


Tertullian once made a point of this difficulty, the offensiveness of the fact of the incarnation. It is as if he were striving to express the basic intuition that the offensiveness of the Christological dogma is precisely what makes it ring true. Nobody would have dreamt of inventing anything so offensive! Besides, Tertullian reminds us, Paul has warned us that in the gospel we meet the foolishness of God. But, he says to Marcion, if you eliminate the birth and the suffering of the divine Son from the gospel, there is no foolishness left.

Which is more unworthy of God, which is more likely to raise a blush of shame, that God should be borne, or that he should die? That he should bear the flesh, or the cross? be circumcised, or be crucified, be cradled or be coffined, be laidin a manger, or in a tomb?

The Son of God was crucified. I am not ashamed of it, because it seems shameful. And the Son of God dies, it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, precisely because it is impossible. (De carne Christi 5.1, 4) (9)

Thus, according to Tertullian, the very offensiveness of the Christological confession carries the conviction of its truth. This is not something we have made up.
So Celsus and Tertullian have made us aware of the true response to the concept of incarnation in the Hellenistic world. And that means that the Christian doctrine of the incarnation can hardly be the product of a milieu- the Hellenistic- that regarded this doctrine as a philosophical and theological monstrosity. Nor can it be the brilliant idea of someone trying to speak the way Hellenists liked." [1]




[1] pages 322-325 from the book In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity by Oskar Skarsaune

1 comments:

The Blogger Formerly Known As Lvka said...

God is good and beautiful and happy, and exists in the most beautiful state


...which is called engodment, and can be experienced by human beings made in the Image of God. It is precisely to make human beings capable of partaking of this divine state that the Son of God came down to us in human form. As for the rest of his arguments, none of them describe the Orthodox teaching on the Incarnation, being nothing more than strawmen.

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