The Absence of Jesus in Discussions of Conversion in a Few Second-Century Writings

While it is difficult for us today to think of salvation in terms that exclude Jesus’ life, death, or resurrection, there appears to have been some Christian groups that understood God’s plan of salvation apart from these events of Jesus’ earthly existence. In what follows I want to look at three second-century texts that speak of conversion without mentioning Jesus’ life, death, or resurrection.

Theophilus to Autolycus

Theophilus was a second century bishop of Syria Antioch and an apologist. According to Jerome, his three volume apologetic was “well fitted for the edification of the
church” (Lives, 25, 347–419). At the beginning of the three volumes, Theophilus self identifies as a Christian: “And furthermore, you call me a Christian as if I were bearing an
evil name, I acknowledge that I am a Christian. I bear this name beloved by God in hope of being useful to God” (1.1). Theophilus never mentions the name or the person of Jesus in his three volumes. Nevertheless, he does speak about how God saves people: “For God gave us a law and holy commandments; everyone who performs them can be saved and, attaining to the resurrection, can inherit imperishability (2.27).” There is a hope of resurrection but no discussion about Jesus or his resurrection. Turning to a life of
immortality is not by knowing about Jesus but by “keeping the commandments of God” (2.27). God’s Logos does appear in the three volumes but is not identified with the person of Jesus. Rather, the Logos is innate within the “bowels” of God, who generates (γεννάω)
the Logos with the help of Sophia (2.10). The Logos was generated for the purpose of creating all things and enlightened the prophets about the creation and Torah (2.10; 3.11). Although the Logos is the divine mediator, speaking and acting on behalf of God (2.22),
the Logos’ role in salvation is to reveal God’s commands to the prophets, who in turn reveal them to all humanity (3.11). Again, obedience to these divine commands, not the work or knowledge of Jesus, is the means of salvation (2.27).

Minucius Felix

In another apologetic text, we encounter a debate between a (uneducated) Christian (Caecilius) and a Philosopher (Octavius), where Jesus is mentioned only a couple of times. This first mention of Jesus is in Octavius’ attack on Christians for following a criminal who was crucified: “There are also stories about the objects of their veneration: they are said to be a man who was punished with death as a criminal and the fell wood of his cross, thus providing suitable liturgy for the depraved fiends: they [Christians] worship what they deserve” (9.4). Caecilius’ response to Octavius’ charge reflects the second mention of Jesus: “Now, you ascribe to our religion a criminal and his cross. You are not even remotely correct in supposing that either a criminal could have merited or an earthly creature been able to be though a god” (29.2). He goes on to argue by analogy that it is not unreasonable that Christian recognize the human Jesus as a god because human
“emperors and kings” are upheld as great men and gods. Although Caecilius does not consider emperors and kings to be gods, it nevertheless defends the Christian belief that Jesus is to be venerated as a God. In his defense against Jesus being a criminal, Caecilius argues that the cross is not a symbol of indictment against Jesus because the cross is a symbol of nature and natural order: “…[T]he sign of the cross is fundamental to the order of nature [and] that it forms the framework of your [Octavius] own religion” (29.8). Thus, the conversation about Jesus in Minucius Felix is in relation to the cross, but there is no attempt on the part of Caecilius to present Jesus and the cross as points of salvation for humanity. It might then be surprising that Octavius becomes a Christian after he listens to Caecilius’ lengthy defense of Christianity. In his final words of approbation, Octavius says, “We have both won in a sense: it may sound outrageous, but I claim victory too, for while Octavius is victorious over me, I am triumphant over error” (40.1). Conversion, then, is not recognizing the actual work of Jesus on the cross but realizing that Jesus is not a criminal and that it is completely reasonable for Christians to worship the man Jesus as a god. But, this is just an isolated examples within a larger debate about a defense against anti-Christian accusations concern praxis and ritual. Overall, Octavius is converted from error because Caecilius proved to be the better philosopher––Jesus and the cross are simply one small part of that philosophical defense.

Acts of John

In the Acts of John (AJ), the apostle John travels around Asia Minor healing the afflicted and performing miraculous acts (cc. 18–86; I am excluding from this discussion John’s gospel message [cc. 87–105] and the Metastasis of John [cc. 106–115], because these accounts are significantly different than cc. 18–86). It is through healing and miracles that conversion takes place and conversion is either spoken of in terms of resurrection imagery or is the result of resurrection. Thus, the repeated trope is basically, God/Jesus (they are indistinguishable in the AJ) is a healer and physician who heals/raises the lost who are afflicted so that they might become believers in the one true God. It is remarkable, then, in light of all this language and imagery of suffering and resurrection, that Jesus’ suffering and
resurrection is never mentioned. Furthermore, conversion does not take place because the lost person believes in Jesus’ ministry, death, or resurrection, but rather because the person accepts that it is the one true God/Jesus who heals/raises from the dead. (This is not a eschatological bodily resurrection. Rather, in the AJ, at death a soul is either translated directly to God or is eternally damned––the flesh is merely a substance that disintegrates into nothing.)

The Didache and The Apology of Aristides are two other texts (that I can think of) where Jesus ministry and death is surprisingly absent when it comes to discussions about conversion. It seems, then, that it was not too uncommon for some Christian groups in the second century to not view Jesus earthly ministry, death and resurrection as salvifically significant. For me, this is perhaps one of the most striking and unexpected points of diversity within second-century Christianity.

New Upcoming Interview Series: “Monotheism and the Bible: Origins, Issues, and the Status Quaestionis”

Questions on the origins of monotheism, the nature of ancient Israelite religion(s), and debates over early christology in relation to monotheism have been the topic of much of biblical scholarship as of late. There has been much ink spilled over inquiries and proposals attempting to best characterize or understand the type of theism the earliest Israelites and the earliest Christians actually had. There are a great deal of incredibly interesting and paradigm-shifting studies out there but where do we begin? Those who are interested in looking into these questions from a historical-critical perspective may find themselves overwhelmed and possibly discouraged, especially when attempting to find what is worth reading and what isn’t. We are beginning a new interview series here at The Time Has Been Shortened to deal with precisely this problem.

The series is entitled “Monotheism and the Bible: Origins, Issues, and the Status Quaestionis“. We will be interviewing scholars who have written extensively and are considered authorities in their respective fields who will be giving us the status quaestionis (or the state of the investigation) regarding monotheism and the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and in the complex relationship between Christology and Monotheism in the New Testament. The series will consist of four interviews: two interviews on Monotheism and the Hebrew Bible and two interviews on Christology and Monotheism in the New Testament. The interviews will be most likely split up into two parts each due to breadth of a few of the questions.

First two interviewees in the Hebrew Bible section are as follows:

Nathan MacDonald

- PhD in Theology, University of Durham; MA, University of Cambridge (Honorary); MPhil in Classical Hebrew Studies, University of Cambridge; BA (honors, 1st class), University of Cambridge

- Sofja-Kovalevskaja-Preis Team Leader, Georg-August Universität Göttingen

- Reader in Old Testament, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews

- Author of “Deuteronomy and the Meaning of ‘Monotheism’” and “Not Bread Alone: The Uses of Food in the Old Testament

______________________________

Michael S. Heiser

- PhD in Hebrew Bible and Semitic Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison; MA in Hebrew and Semitics, University of Wisconsin-Madison; MA in Ancient History – Ancient Egypt and Syria-Palestine, University of Pennsylvania

- Academic Editor, Logos Bible Software, Bellingham, WA

- Dissertation entitled “The Divine Council in Late Canonical and Non-Canonical Second Temple Jewish Literature

- Authors the blog entitled: “The Naked Bible: Biblical Theology, Stripped Bare of Denominational Confessions and Theological Systems

 

Second two interviewees in the New Testament Section are as follows:

James F. McGrath

- PhD in Theology, University of Durham; BDiv (honors), University of London; Diploma in Religious Studies, University of Cambridge.

- Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature, Butler University

- Author of “The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context” and “John’s Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology

- Authors the blog entitled: “Exploring Our Matrix

______________________________

Larry W. Hurtado

- PhD in New Testament, Case Western Reserve University; MA in New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; BA in Biblical Studies, Central Bible College

- Professor Emeritus of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology, University of Edinburgh

- Director of the Center for the Study of Christian Origins, University of Edinburgh

- Author of “Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity“, “How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus“, and “One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism

- Authors the blog entitled “Larry Hurtado’s Blog: Comments on the New Testament and Early Christianity

 

We are excited about the interview series. Be sure to subscribe to follow the conversation.

My comments on Willits, “Paul and Matthew: A Descriptive Approach”

Before sharing my thoughts on Joel Willitts article, I think I should share some of my thoughts on the “school-of-thought” to which he belongs. First, in many ways I am in agreement with his “assumption” that Paul was a Torah-observant Jew (although, I will state my concerns with this claim later). Second, while I have a certain affinity with this “assumption,” I do realize that it is an “assumption” so when arguments are built on that foundation the results ought to be held cautiously. Third, I cannot stand arguments that negatively critique other “shools-of-thought” for necessitating certain  “shaky” assumptions, yet, then they allow themselves that very freedom.

In the tradition of the One Minute Manager, I will start with my negative comments. First, I was a bit saddened when I realized that three of the four first articles of this book amounted to a three-on-one fight with David Sim (I am including the next article in the three). While I do not agree with all (or many) of Sim’s conclusions it would have been nice to allow him a chance to respond here. Maybe he was given a chance and he declined or was unable, I do not know, but it seemed a bit unfair. Also, so far in this work I have not come across an actual critique of Sim’s work but there have been many assertions that his work is wrongheaded.

Second, Willits claims that in order for Sim to, “convince a reader, one has to agree to several controversial conclusion ― built on a growing mound of educated guesses ― about both Paul and Matthew.” I would have like him to actually named some of these “controversial conclusions” so that I can hold him, that is Willitts, to his same standard of judgment. What is the definition of controversial in a “post-consensus” era (his term)? Unfortunately, as is the trend so far in this work, this luxury is not afforded to the reader. What scholar does not forward a hypothesis that is built on some assumptions? The Conservative Evangelical school? The F.C. Bauer’s school? The New Perspective school? I think all do it to a varying extent and these assumptions should be allowed inasmuch as they are clearly stated up front as unverifiable.

Willits of course is explicitly guilty of not allowing assumptions for others while allowing them for himself in the article when he says, “I will be conducting the study on Matthew and Paul with the assumption that both were Torah-observant Jews and members of a new form of Judaism that has recently been labelled ‘apostolic Judaism.’” Now, excuse me if I can conceive of this statement as “controversial.” Does this mean that his work is as valuable as Sim’s?  Not only that but what exactly does it mean to say Paul was Torah-observant? I mean, from whose perspective is this label considered to be accurate? Paul does make statements that would lead one to conclude that at least some of the time he does not “keep” the Torah from a strict perspective. On top of that, we have a statement by a member of so-called “apostolic Judaism” (James) that claims if one breaks even one command then they have broken the whole Torah. Would James have considered Paul to be Torah-observant? I think much more work needs to be done in explaining this viewpoint before it can be assumed without this assumption being a problem or, dare I say controversial[1]. I am not in disagreement with this “school,”  I am very excited about its promise, but, I do not think it is good to try and have one’s cake and eat it too.

Third, Willits claims, “apostolic Judaism was allogeneic,” i.e., when related to Judaism it is, “genetically dissimilar but belonged to the same species.” While I like the biological image and agree this is a good direction to try, his assertion seems to demand more than what he has stated ― while Judaism was not normative “apostolic Judaism” was normative. I am not sure that this is a safe assumption considering it is the very thing Sim has tried to exegetically demonstrate as wrong! It is at least possible that Christianity was not monolithic or normative in its early stages.

Fourth, when discussing the theme of judgment-according-to-works he assumes that both writers are working with the same definition of the theme. Would Sim disagree that in some way both writers had an understanding of judgment-according-to-works as a reality (even if they nuance it differently? If Matthew understood this judgment to be “works of Torah” and Paul has explicit statements that can easily understood as countering this claim (e.g., by works of the Law no one is saved), then it seems reasonable for a scholar to follow that path to its logical conclusion. For the life of me I cannot understand why Willitts “descriptive” project would not include Jesus’ command to his followers, which only appears in Matthew’s Gospel, that if they did not keep all of the Torah they would be called least in the Kingdom? One would think a description of this theme in Matthew would have to account for that statement.

Fifth, I completely agree with Willitts, who quotes Mohrlang, that the biggest difficulty in comparing Paul to Matthew is that of genre. I really wish his article would have teased out and/or demonstrated how this can skew ones exegesis. Unfortunately, he does not do this. Instead he states that his opinion regarding the production of synthetic comparisons between two corpa via exegesis, “are counterproductive and unnecessary.” Again, it is unfortunate that he does not follow through on this statement since I cannot think of one reason why this claim would be true! He does, though, leave us with a quote worth thinking about, “There is a high probability when Matthew and Paul address the same topic that they deal with it for different reasons and to accomplish different ends.” Ok, great proposition but can you demonstrate this?

Finally, I would like to reiterate that I am very friendly with this “school” and its direction. I do believe that scholarship will benefit from the work that is produced based on its new assumptions. Just because comparing Paul and Matthew is hard, or difficult, that does not mean that scholars should not attempt the endeavor. Willitts prefers caution while Sim (appears to) like paradigm busting. Both polarities have their benefits and drawbacks.



[1] I am well aware of and have learned much from the work of Mark Nanos and Anders-Runesson.