After the Resurrection, Did Our Lord Need Purification?

Of all of Jesus Christ’s post-resurrection appearances, this one is, in many ways, the most intriguing:

Meanwhile Mary was standing close outside the tomb, weeping. Still weeping, she leant forward into the tomb, And perceived two angels clothed in white sitting there, where the body of Jesus had been lying, one where the head and the other where the feet had been. “Why are you weeping?” asked the angels. “They have taken my Master away,” she answered, “and I do not know where they have laid him.” After saying this, she turned round, and looked at Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. “Why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” he asked. Supposing him to be the gardener, Mary answered: “If it was you, Sir, who carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away myself.” “Mary!” said Jesus. She turned round, and exclaimed in Hebrew: “Rabboni!” (or, as we should say, ‘Teacher’). “Do not hold me,” Jesus said; “for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my Brothers, and tell them that I am ascending to him who is my Father and their Father, my God and their God.” (John 20:11-17 TCNT)

There have been many explanations of Jesus’ statement “Do not hold me” to Mary Magdalene; in this piece I’ll look at two of the oldest interpretations, from Origen.  Both of these date from the first half of the third century.  The first one we’ll look at is probably the earliest, from his Commentary in John, VI, 37:

 And having by His passion destroyed His enemies, He who is strong in battle and a mighty Lord required after His mighty deeds a purification which could only be given Him by His Father alone;  and this is why He forbids Mary to touch Him, saying, “Touch Me not, for I am not yet ascended to My Father; but go and tell My disciples, I go to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.”

This is a pretty bold statement about someone who, as we saw last week, was sinless.  Origen was given to bold statements, which got him in trouble in life and in death.  But Evangelicals routinely blurt out stuff like “Jesus took on our sin,” so how did he get rid of it?  That’s a question that most evangelicals, as is often the case, don’t have a good answer for.

Simply put, Origen looks at Jesus’ death, resurrection and victory as a very high form of spiritual warfare, from which Jesus emerged victorious for himself and the rest of us.  Some kind of “recovery” after the battle is natural to posit.  It was in this situation that he told Mary Magdalene not to touch him.

Later in life he had the chance to discuss this issue again.  Origen wasn’t above changing his mind about things (as was the case with the transmigration of souls) and in his Dialogue with Heraclides he states the following:

If the spirit was put into the hands of the Father, he gave the spirit as a deposit. It is one thing to make a gift, another thing to hand over, and another to leave in deposit. He who makes a deposit does so with the intention of receiving back that which he has deposited. Why then had he to give the spirit to the Father as a deposit? The question is beyond me and my powers and my understanding. For I am not endowed with knowledge to enable me to say that, just as the body was not able to go down to Hades, even if this is alleged by those who affirm that the body of Jesus was spiritual, so also neither could the spirit go down to Hades, and therefore he gave the spirit to the Father as a deposit until he should have risen from the dead. . . . After he had entrusted this deposit to the Father, he took it back again. When? Not at the actual moment of the resurrection, but immediately after the resurrection. My witness is the text of the gospel. The Lord Jesus Christ rose again from the dead. Mary met him and he said to her: “Touch me not.” For he wished anyone that touched him to touch him in his entirety, that having touched him in his entirety he might be benefited in body from his body, in soul from his soul, in spirit from his spirit. “For I am not yet ascended to the Father.” He ascends to the Father and comes to the disciples. Accordingly he ascends to the Father. Why? To receive back the deposit.

Allegorists like Origen are criticised for playing “fast and loose” with the literal meaning of scripture.  But in reality they often “nit-pick” the scriptures for fine points, and do so better than more “literal” interpreters.  That is the case here.

Origen, in common with both the New Testament and Philo, considered human nature in three parts: body, soul and spirit.  “Then Jesus, with a loud cry, said: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” And with these words he expired.” (Luke 23:46 TCNT) Origen doesn’t simply take Jesus’ words as a figure of speech: he states that Our Lord placed his spirit up with his Father on a temporary basis.  The body then went to the tomb and the soul, with his divine nature, “…went and preached to the imprisoned spirits, who once were disobedient, at the time when God patiently waited, in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared; in which some few lives, eight in all, were saved by means of water.” (1 Peter 3:19-20 TCNT)

But that wasn’t the end of it: “And referred to the resurrection of the Christ when he said that ‘he had not been abandoned to the Place of Death, nor had his body undergone corruption.'” (Acts 2:31 TCNT) The Resurrection was simply the beginning of putting the pieces back together; the body was reunited with the soul, and then the Father returned his spirit to the Son.  But in Mary Magdalene’s early encounter, Our Lord had not been reunited just yet.

God is timeless; the Incarnation, like anything else in the material world, took place in time.  The fact that the process is not instantaneous should not surprise us.  The thing that we should never take for granted is not that it happened in time, but that it happened at all.

Much of this article is based on Crehan, J. H.. (1950) “The “Dialektos” of Origen and John 20:17″ Theological Studies, 11, 368-373.

The Meaning of Outside the Camp: A Good Friday Reflection

If I had to pick a favourite Bible verse or passage, it would be this:

The bodies of those animals whose blood is brought by the High Priest into the Sanctuary, as an offering for sin, are burnt outside the camp. And so Jesus, also, to purify the People by his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go out to him ‘outside the camp,’ bearing the same reproaches as he; for here we have no permanent city, but are looking for the City that is to be.  (Hebrews 13:11-14 TCNT)

I first picked up on this while working as the webmaster for the Church of God Chaplains Commission; v. 12 was their theme scripture, as it is for Outside the Gates Ministries, the current ministry of Dr. Robert Crick, the Commission’s director for many years.

One use of this passage: the following video, produced for the Commission:

Verses 11, 12 and 13 each take the reader “outside” something.  For v. 12 it is outside the gate.  That’s pretty straightforward: Jerusalem, like most ancient cities, was walled, and to enter or exit same you went in and out of gates.  Jesus Christ was taken through one of those gates outside of the walled city to be crucified and suffer.

But what about “the camp” in vv. 11 and 13?  It’s tempting to read that as an analogy for Jerusalem also, but there’s more to it than that.  To dig a little deeper we’ll have recourse to Philo Judaeus.  The relationship between Philo and the New Testament is subject to some dispute but there’s no question both of them drew to varying degrees from the same well, and no where is that clearer than in the Book of Hebrews.

A little introduction to Philo’s concept of the human person is in order.  Drawn from Greek philosophy and psychology, it posits the existence of an immortal, immaterial soul in each of us, joined to a body while on the earth.  The baser “passions” of the soul came up from the physical body, with its desires and irrationality.  The ideal was for the soul to gain mastery over these passions which, in Philo’s Jewish context, was necessary for us to be oriented Godward.  This runs contrary to much of the spirituality/emotionalism nexus that dominates these days, but the result in the society we have speaks for itself.

It is in this context that the following should be understood:

We have, then , in Jesus, the Son of God, a great High Priest who has passed into the highest Heaven; let us, therefore, hold fast to the Faith which we have professed. Our High Priest is not one unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has in every way been tempted, exactly as we have been, but without sinning. (Hebrews 4:14-15 TCNT)

The idea of Jesus’ sinlessness even while human, expressed more directly here than anywhere else in the New Testament, is one that also bears repeating.

In Allegorical Interpretation III, Philo divides the passions into two types: those of the breast, the “angry passions” which need to be excised completely, and those of the belly, which are related to our embodied state.  The latter too need to be excised.  But then Philo comes to the obvious question:

Is it then possible for us, who are bound up in our bodies, to avoid complying with the necessities of the body? And if it is possible, how is it possible?  But consider, the priest recommends him who is  led away by his bodily necessities to  indulge in nothing beyond what is strictly necessary. In the first place,  says he, “Let there be a place for thee outside of ‘the camp;” (Deut. 23:12)  meaning by the camp virtue, in which the soul is encamped and fortified; for prudence and a free indulgence in the necessities of the body cannot abide in the same place. After that he says, “And you shall go out there.” Why so? Because the soul, which is abiding in companionship with prudence and dwelling in the house of wisdom, cannot indulge in any of the delights of the body, for it is at that time nourished on a diviner food in the sciences, in consequence of which it neglects the flesh, for when it has gone forth beyond the sacred thresholds of virtue, then it turns to the material substances, which disarrange and oppress the soul.  How then am I to deal with them? “It shall be a peg,” says Moses, “upon thy girdle, and thou shalt dig with it;” (Deut. 23:13) that is to say, reason shall be close to you in the case of the passion, which digs out and equips and clothes it properly;  for he desires that we should be girded up in respect of the passions, and not to have them about us in a loose and dissolute state. On which account, at the time of the passage through them, which is called the passover, he enjoins us all “to have our loins girded,” (Exodus 12:11) that is to say, to have our appetites under restraint. Let the peg, therefore, that is to say reason, follow the passion, preventing it from becoming dissolute; for in this way we shall be able to content ourselves with only so much as is necessary, and to abstain from what is superfluous. (Allegorical Interpretation III, LII)

From this we can see the following:

  1. “Outside the camp” was a nasty place.  In addition to burning the sacrifices (Heb. 13:11), Philo reminds us that it was the place where people and their sin was sent for purification of one kind or another.
  2. Since Jesus had no need for purification (Heb. 4:15), the reason he went “outside the camp” was not just to get outside of Jerusalem proper, but also to both experience our passions (in the Incarnation) and to achieve purification on our behalf as both sacrifice and priest at the same time (in the crucifixion and resurrection.)
  3. For us to go “outside the camp” does imply a need for purification, which is a process whose perfection is beyond human effort but whose initiation and pursuit involves some decisions and actions on our part.

We tend to make God’s becoming man a commonplace business.  Philo and the Greek world, however, did not: God was way up there and we were way down here.  The same sharp bifurcation is also very strong is Islam. For God to become one of us is amazing in many ways, we should never take it for granted.

And what about us going “outside the camp?” I think there are two levels we can interpret that.

The first is that, since Jesus bore our sin and the reproaches of being executed as a criminal, we should do likewise in the world, and not just hide “inside the camp.”

The second is that, since we bear the sins caused by our own embodied state, we should seek liberation and purification from same, and do so by sharing in his sufferings.  That’s a “penitential” concept of Christianity that’s not fashionable in many circles, but it should be.

As we celebrate the great work of redemption that our God has done for us, let us keep the following in front of us:

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2 KJV)

Happy Nowruz to the People of the "King of Kings"

Today is Nowruz, the spring equinox festival of the Iranians.  To my Iranian friends, who have meant so much, hope you’ve had a good festival season (it runs about two weeks back in the old country.)

Last November I ran a piece about the Persian origin of the term “King of Kings,”  which most Christians are unaware of.  Since that time I’ve come to realise something else about the New Testament’s use of the title that I had never thought about, and I dare say most Christians hadn’t either.

Let me repeat the use of the title in Revelation:

From his mouth comes a sharp sword, with which ‘to smite the nations; and he will rule them with an iron rod.’ He ‘treads the grapes in the press’ of the maddening wine of the Wrath of Almighty God; and on his robe and on his thigh he has this name written– ‘KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.’ (Revelation 19:15-16 TCNT)

Any inspection of the maps at the back of the Bible will show that most of the action of the New Testament takes place in the eastern half of the Roman Empire.  (See below.)

Facing that eastern half was the Persian Empire, first Parthian and later Sassanid.  The two sparred for basically the same territory ISIS is fighting for today for about half a millennium, until the rise of Islam.

The Persians called their highest ruler the “King of Kings.”  They could use this as a battle cry, as the Roman historian (who actually served in this theatre of war) Ammianus Marcellinus noted at the Battle of Amida in 359:

Our men extolled the prowess of Constantius Caesar, ‘lord of all things and of the world,’ while the Persians hailed Sapor as Saanshah and Peroz, titles which signify ‘king of kings’ and ‘conqueror in war.’ (Res Gestae, 19,2)

Coming back to John the Revelator, he states that Jesus Christ will come back as a conquering king using the title that the enemy in the east used for their ruler.  This not only lifted up the lordship of Jesus Christ; it was highly subversive, and John’s readers in the seven churches would have picked up on that.

N.T. Wright emphasises that the early church’s message was that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.  John’s use of a Persian title for the returning Messiah drove that message home in a way that believers–and those who persecuted them–would not miss.

And as for the Iranians today, it is my prayer that you will know the peace and love that comes from the eternal “King of Kings.”

Getting it Right on Palm Sunday

We’re coming up on Holy Week.  Churches will be rolling out their Easter musicals.  Because people don’t go to church on Good Friday like they used to, churches will also put the Passion narrative on Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday…what’s that all about?  It is, strictly speaking, the celebration of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, beginning what Bossuet calls “the last week of the Saviour.” The cheering crowds spread palm fronds along the way as he entered the city on a donkey.

For South Floridians, Palm Sunday echoes Palm Beach.  But that’s complicated too.  First the Town of Palm Beach doesn’t take kindly to people entering on a donkey.  Second, the church I grew up in, which made little palm crosses for everyone to wear, became the church of the double cross.

Further north, the battle cry for houses of worship is “…let’s do it the way the Baptists do it!”  Baptists for years preached against the liturgical year, but now Lifeway features Advent paraphernalia.  But they still can’t sing what they’re supposed to on Easter, and things aren’t better the week before.

It’s time for improvement.  The proper hymn for Palm Sunday is “All Glory, Laud, and Honour,” depicted in the highly English performance below.  (Personally I think we did a better job back home with our paid youth choir, but I digress…”

Dumping at Last the "Contract on the Episcopalians"

The ACNA has released their “Texts for Common Prayer.”  It’s something I’ve mentioned from time to time over the years.  But it’s obvious; if the ANCA plans to be a real church and a real Anglican province, they need to have a real prayer book.  The danger has always been that liturgists who were clumsy, revisionist or both would get into the process and ruin this important task.

I am pleased to report that, at least at one point, the ACNA has succeeded in undoing the dirty work of the 1979 BCP: they have excised the “Contract on the Episcopalians” from the baptismal rite.  You can read the new ACNA rite here but they’ve opted to revert to a more traditional Anglican approach of giving the world, the flesh and the devil the boot in baptism.

As most of my readers know, I believe that people should be of “riper age” before being baptised.  But the “Contract on the Episcopalians” has stuck in my craw for a long time, and kudos to the ACNA for putting it out of its misery.

If the Country Doesn't Make It, Will You?

This election cycle has been a wild one, and we’re not even halfway through the primary season.  Both parties are seeing broad-based revolts in their bases.  The Democrat establishment has done a better job of managing the upheaval, because they did what the Republicans did not: pick one candidate and get behind her.  Bernie Sanders would be doing a lot better today if the Democrats had split the vote against him the same way the Republicans have done with Donald Trump, although the candidate they’ve picked has some seminal weaknesses.

As for the Republican establishment, IMHO they deserve where they’re at.  Their current efforts are a miserable attempt to shove the “scab labour” out of the nominating process.  The more they try to do, the worse it gets.

The way Christians are handling this on, say, social media isn’t much better. The core problem is the idea that there is only one way to “vote Biblically,” which is all-pervasive, although there are variants on how to do this.  The Roman Catholics try to put some consistency by telling the faithful that voting for candidates that take certain positions is a mortal sin.  I find this a little amusing; there was a time when the Roman Catholic Church didn’t support the idea of the faithful voting at all, at least in certain countries.

Not voting at all brings up something Evangelicals in particular like to forget: the option for Christians or anyone else to choose their leaders is a recent one.  In New Testament times and for many years afterwards voting wasn’t an option.  Paul and the other apostles didn’t have to waste the believers’ time expounding upon which emperor would be the Biblical choice, something they might know since God used them to write the New Testament.  Caesar was there and that was it.

Christianity’s legalisation only thrust an unprepared church into a leadership role.  There was no time or impulse to develop the concept of a “Christian commonwealth,” and the result was that Christian emperors didn’t act any differently than their pagan predecessors.  That could be a wild ride, as anyone who is familiar with the Arian controversy will attest.  Absolute power was exercised arbitrarily.  Donald Trump, unpredictable and inconsistent as he can be, is a worthy successor of Constantine, Constantius and Valens.

There was another disconnect as well: Christians didn’t expect their rulers, even when they conquered by the Chi-Rho sign, to be the moral paragons we do now.  (The Church didn’t like to admit them to the priesthood when their time in secular rule ended, either.)  It took a massacre for Ambrose of Milan to force the hand of the Emperor Theodosius, but in general Christians recorded the less pleasant activities of their rulers with a minimum of moralization, as Gregory of Tours did with the Franks.  Islam was no different; the Ottomans broached the strictures of the Qur’an as they pleased.

This carried over even when democratic process took hold, as anyone familiar with the politics of the “Bible Belt” will attest.  Some of this was due to ignorance, but a lot of it was due to the attitude that those in power were by necessity both in the world and of it, and that it wasn’t the place for a good Christian.

It’s only been in recent years that Christians have seriously taken up the idea that their rulers toe the line Biblically.  How recent depends upon the place, but that attitude, while admirable in one way, defeats the purpose of Christianity in another.  It forces us to become too invested (financially, emotionally and otherwise) in the state.  In pushing for “righteous” leadership (which would exclude the likes of David) we too become both in and of the world.  The question we need to ask ourselves as American Christians before all others is a simple one: if the United States doesn’t make it, will we?

It is my opinion that, as a result of years of mismanagement, obsessively sexualised social policy (which has led to the breakdown of the family,) expensive warmongering, and strangling the economy with regulation while ballooning the debt, this country is headed for a crash.  I don’t think that it’s any longer a matter of if, but when.  It may result in the dismemberment of the country, much like the Soviet Union broke up in its own bankruptcy a generation ago.

Unfortunately American Christians have had the “God and country” thing drilled into them so unremittingly that they are unprepared for such a event and the many which will take place between now and then.  That, I think, is why Evangelicals support the likes of Donald Trump; they don’t have a game plan “after the ball,” to steal a term from our LGBT opponents.  And that’s sad, not a cause for anger, as many Christians think.

By “make it” I don’t mean that Christians will be living in the kind of mansions they think they’ll have in heaven, or hit the jackpot on the next money-making scheme.  What I mean, however, is that Christians need to realise that they have only one true country, to be free of unnecessary encumbrances, and to stick together when things get tough.  God will take care of the rest.

It’s still the question: when this country doesn’t make it, will you?  Time to think about it.