Faith For A New Generation

Something like 1,983 years have now passed since Jesus of Nazareth was executed, a timespan that few men have traversed with such prestige. So adaptable is the life of this man that generation after generation have grown up in rather extreme devotion to his legacy. But what is it about this apocalyptic sect that accounts for its staying power? Surely its not applicability, of which it has relatively little in today’s world. It seems, rather, that the power behind the Christian message is its assurance of safety at the end of all things, even if it seems that such an event might not be coming any time soon.

Unlike its predecessor, Judaism, the first century Jesus-movement was never intended to be a movement that spanned across generations. In fact, we have record of the panic that swept over the first Pauline-Christians when some among them were starting to die before their promised eschaton had come. When the converts in Thessaloniki are worrying whether or not those who have died are still among the saved, Paul reminds them of the coming resurrection of the dead and urges them not to worry about the time and place of the event; that is to say that it’s surely coming very soon, but it might not be tonight or tomorrow morning. In other words, they should continue going about their business and stop worrying so much–they won’t have to be explaining this conversion decision to their grandkids one day. And in fact, most of them probably never had to do so given Paul’s advocation of celibacy (see 1 Corinthians 7:29).

Judaism, on the other hand, was a long established tradition very much concerned with the practicalities of both daily and family life. There are rituals along life’s path from birth to death because traditional Judaism at its core is concerned with one thing–following the commands of God. Raising one’s children according to these commands is a part of following these commands. For Jews, how one’s children turn out reflects on the character of the individual, hence the popular Jewish proverb: Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.

Paul’s gospel, on the other hand, is not about going anywhere, but about accepting God’s gift that relieves all men from the condition of needing to go anywhere in the first place. If obedience to God’s commands comes out of this acceptance it is because of the freedom from sin experienced at having been accredited righteousness through faith in Christ. It makes sense, then, that Paul’s message is accompanied by a fast-approaching apocalypse and transformation–the pursuits of men for all things of the world, including holiness, have been made void in God’s gift of grace.

So we see why Paul never speaks of matters of raising children in his letters. Firstly, in light of this new identity, what need is there for procreation, the extension of man’s earthly identity? Secondly, what time is there for birthing offspring faced with the return of Jesus on the horizon? Thirdly, even if there were time to raise kids, what kind of message is this for children? Kids, I know you’re only three and can barely talk and don’t even know what your life is, but I think it’s time you give it up. This makes no sense to children, to whom the complexity of the human condition has yet revealed itself.

But Christianity has evolved. The apocalypse might remain a possibility in the eyes of some, but for many others salvation has become something to be attained at death i.e., faith in Christ during life allows entrance into God’s kingdom at death. Heaven is not coming to earth when Christ returns. People’s bodies are not being raised into spiritual bodies. Israel is not to be restored as God’s people. Faith in Jesus alone is sufficient for eternal heavenly life when you die.

This is Christianity’s power–that it can move freely from the specific to the general as it needs. What was once a message to Gentiles that they could be grafted into the Jewish faith through a messiah and participate in the coming resurrection of man is now a message for the world, Jews included, that acceptance of a fourth-century creed will save you from eternal punishment for your earthly sin.

In summary, it is difficult to say which message is more appropriate to teach children–that Jesus saves them from their sinfulness for admission into the afterlife or the original message of an existential escape from the trivialities of earthly existence. The first would be deceptive and the other a bit heavy for children to grasp. Still, it seems that if we do believe God loves us in our fallen state and that Jesus is our gift of God’s acceptance, we are impelled to pass along this message to younger generations however we are able to truthfully communicate it.

Christian Reincarnation?

Today in class we read an apocryphal (not in the Bible) text that alludes quite explicitly to a Christian idea of reincarnation. In this post I will discuss whether or not this idea is a novelty or a development of other ancient Judeo-Christian trends.

From the book of Ecclesiastes, 3rd century BCE:

All are from the dust. And to the dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?

One of the most definitive Jewish responses to this question comes onto the scene about a century after the composition of Ecclesiastes in the Book of Daniel, composed over the span of the 2nd century BCE. After an extensive prophetic outline of events to come, Daniel‘s prophecy culminates in a bodily resurrection and transformation of man:

But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

This tradition of resurrection and transformation is modified and championed throughout the Christian New Testament by the writings and posthumous traditions of St. Paul. For Paul, however, transformation is about becoming in the likeness not of a star or angel as in Daniel, but of the heavenly man, Jesus. As Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed– in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

This is fairly standard Christian narrative–those in Christ will be raised from the grave and changed, or sanctified, into perfection. But passages like these were not always read in antiquity as we read them today. Early Christians had many varying ideas about what exactly happened when we died as believers.

One of the more popular beliefs among early Christians is one that most modern westerners have historically ruled out–the transmigration of souls, or reincarnation. Could it be that Christianity was initially characterized by a belief so foreign to modern Christians? If so, it would not be the only instance of a fundamental disconnect between ancient and modern Christian faith. Let’s look at another passage from 1 Corinthians 15 before making any conclusions.

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life until it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. All flesh is not the same: Human beings have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another.

The first point worth noting from this passage is that people are concerned about their new bodies at the time of this resurrection; they want to know what kind of body they will have when and if it happens. But Paul rejects this worry as misguided inquiry that is ignorant of the nature of heavenly bodies. The second point, then, is that if Paul is promoting a faith of reincarnation, it concerns spiritual rather than earthly bodies.

So we see that some among Christian converts were concerned with the possibility of reincarnation after death at the onset of hearing Paul’s teachings. And while it seems that the idea of earthly reincarnation largely faded out of Christian thought by the third or fourth century, I’ve come across at least one witness to such a belief from the second century. This brief text is an arguably gnostic-Christian work sometimes called The Coptic Apocalypse of Paul.

In what is preserved of the manuscript, the narrator details Paul’s mystical ascension up to the tenth(!) heaven. From the introduction, which alludes to a road leading to Jerusalem, we are led to infer that this ascension occurred during Paul’s revelation of Christ on the road to Damascus.

The portion of the text concerning the doctrine of reincarnation is from Paul’s experience in the fourth heaven. Paul here witnesses a soul “out of the land of the dead” trying to make it past the gatekeeper into the fifth heaven. The soul produces three witnesses from his past life to vouch for him, but none of them have anything good to say on his behalf.

From the text:

When the soul heard these things, it gazed downward in sorrow. And then it gazed upward. It was cast down. The soul that had been cast down went to a body which had been prepared for it. And behold its witnesses were finished.

The soul, then, was only able to make it to level four of ten in his ascension. Thus, he was sent back down into his body for what we can assume is another shot at a holy life. We do not know what kind of body this soul went into, but we do know that he had come from the grave, whereas Paul’s ascension happened not after his life, but before his ministry of the gospel even began. Such an ascension is in line with Paul’s resurrection and transformation, which is not only available upon death, but at the moment of Christ’s coming, dead or alive.

In summary, Christian reincarnation is alluded to in early Christian writings, but cannot be said to have been a majority opinion by any means. When it does appear, however, it is built into a wider Judeo-Christian framework. Of course, speculation of reincarnated holy beings is common throughout the bible, but rarely to an extent that could be construed as a doctrine of soteriology for the common man. What we find in The Coptic Apocalypse of Paul is without a doubt a hybrid doctrine drawing upon Platonic ideas of the soul as much as Jewish apocalyptic literature and Pauline hagiography.

3 Thessalonians

Today in class we took the hour to gather in pairs and compose apocryphal Christian texts. My partner and I blindly chose the hypothetical 3rd Pauline letter to the Thessalonians. We decided to compose it as a forgery, employing themes found in both 1 and 2 Thessalonians. This text begins with a mock of the traditional Pauline thanksgiving and elevates into an aggressive despair of violent force against its opponents.

The text reads:

Paul, Silas, and Timothy, with the approval of Peter,

To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and Peace to you by the most abundant mercies of our Lord. 

We should give thanks for you all and your perseverance, but who else can we fault for that our body is still here, at our last, awaiting the presence of our Lord? Nevertheless, we believe you have not stumbled so as to fall beyond recovery as did the Israelites, but that you have been temporarily made a stumbling stone for those of us also in Christ. We urge you not to listen any more to the teachings of false prophets and writers of fancy speech who claim that the day of the Lord is never to be seen, for they know not the light that we have received. Did we not demand you to cast out the idle and disruptive from among your midst? These are those who partake of the fruits of others’ hard labors. They are those of worldly wisdom and clever tongues, blind to the mysteries that are to come.

For as we predicted, the lawless one has come and is already among you and indeed is making a home and a multiplication before your very eyes. And do not be deceived as to think that the lawless one is without help from among your very own. But he himself is of your very own! Though he is not of the light within you, and neither those busy bodies that obstruct your work.

Remember our teaching: the lawless one must pass away before the day we are awaiting arrives, where we who have been made perfect will be glorified, but those who refuse to work in Christ now will be forever bound in slavery to their flesh. Therefore, brethren, why not prepare them for their future reward? You must drive these idle bodies out of your homes as we do prepare the way of the Lord. If you find any of these of wise speech and lazy habits, be sure to put them in the shackles of servants and permit them to work the fields, that we may eat of their labor as we do the work necessary before the coming of our beloved. If needed, be not afraid to enslave each one of them in whatever trade needed until the lawless one, who will be the last of them to leave you, is finally driven out.

The Lord be with you.

The theme of our text is the need of the community to rid themselves of the intellectual community that denies the apocalypse as a physical reality. We tied the “lawless one” mentioned in 2 Thessalonians to this group of people who are probably kin to ancient philosophers, without training in a trade and well-versed in popular philosophies in ancient Thessaloniki. Implicit in the text is the idea that this later generation has grown up in anticipation of the apocalypse, without concern for worldly matters and the doings of the market place. They have, however, traded many ideas with other religious sects and apocalyptic cults throughout their lives, arriving at the conclusion that their parents have been scammed into the expectation of a new earth that is not coming. Our text may have been written by an elder or even a youth from within the community who feels abandoned and betrayed by this generation of apostates. He wishes to encourage those who work faithfully in accordance with the post-Pauline work ethic and to scare those who have wandered away from the teachings of the group. This text may have been written near the end of the first century when the second and third generation Pauline converts are grieving the death of Paul and wondering when his prophecy will be fulfilled, if ever.