On God and Justice II

Full title: Was Jesus sent by the Lawgiver?

 In part 1, I addressed the moral contradictions in the Mosaic Law. In part 2 we will look at the moral contradictions that are implicit in the “orthodox” tradition of the Crucifixion.

 The moral contradictions are obvious right away to any rational person: orthodox tradition tells us that “God”, out of his abundant love and mercy, sent his own Son to die so that God can forgive us for our sins against his Law. But if “God” is really so loving and gracious then why should he insist on the cruel death of his own innocent Son just so he can forgive us? Why doesn’t God just give us an honest pass as true love and true mercy would require? Submitting one’s own innocent Son to a most cruel death is not a demonstration of a pure mercy or love. In truth the whole concept is contradictory and hypocritical – in the worst way.

The historic reality is that early Christians have never agreed on the Gospel and crucifixion of Jesus, especially in terms of the theological and ethical frame-work. This same disunity is also reflected in the New Testament writings. In this article we will look at some of this historical evidence: and I will show that the “orthodox” tradition of Jesus is based on an historical consensus that never was…

Historically the Gnostics and Marcionites always denied that Jesus was sent by the Lawgiver to die for the sins of “man.” In heretical circles the crucifixion of Jesus was seen to represent something entirely different from the “orthodox” myth we know today. For the Gnostics the crucifixion was not central to the Gospel. The Gnostics focused instead on Jesus’ teachings. In terms of historic Gnostic texts, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Philip, both focus on the teachings of Jesus and say nothing of supposed events in his life, or of the crucifixion. Nowhere in these writings do we learn about the need for Jesus to die on the Cross so that mankind can be saved. Other Gnostic texts which reflect this same pattern are the Gospel of Mary and the Apocryphon of James. In both of these texts the emphasis is on the secret teaching that Jesus shares with his Apostles (including Mary Magdalene).

The Catholic Fathers also report that the Gnostics placed no emphasis on the crucifixion. Irenaeus reports that the Valentinian Gnostics denied that Jesus experienced passion or agony, and that the crucifixion was meant to be a symbol of Gnostic myth, where the Pleromic Savior stretched himself forth to give form to Sophia’s miscarried substance (Achamoth; Against Heresies, 1.7.2). That bloody miscarriage in turn was a symbol of Sophia’s unruly passion, which the Savior came to rectify (ibid. 1.4). The bloodied, outstretched and tormented Jesus symbolized how the Savior had taken Sophia’s agony unto himself, and rectified her defect into a form that was redeemable. Needless to say, the Gnostics denied that Jesus’ death and resurrection had anything to do with saving the flesh. They maintained instead that salvation is accomplished through the attainment of a perfect “gnosis” of God. Once that gnosis has been perfected, the elect will enter in with Sophia, and Jesus, into the “Bridal Chamber”, and hence, into the Pleroma (ibid. 1.7.1.; see also NHC: Gospel of Thomas, #s 75, 114; Gospel of Philip, 70:10-22; cf. Mt. 22:1-14).

The Gnostics also maintained that the Old Testament prophecies, which the “orthodox” assigned to Jesus, actually reflected the utterances and passion of Sophia. This form of interpretation is preserved clearly in the Gnostic text Pistis Sophia, where Marry Magdalene and the other Apostles quote those familiar passages from the biblical Psalms, which are said to be the supplications of Sophia in her time of suffering. (See also Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.7.3-4, 1.30.11.) The role of Sophia in the Old Testament is covered in my article “Gnostics and the Old Testament”.

In general the Gnostics believed that Jesus was the “Son” or messenger of an “unknown Father” and that the latter is distinct from the Lawgiver. Irenaeus summarized the Gnostic position in these words: “Their object in this is to show that our Lord announced another Father than the Maker of this universe, whom, as we said before, they impiously declare to have been the fruit of a defect” (i.e. a miscarriage; Against Heresies, 1.19.1). The various Gnostic schools actually differ on the details of Sophia’s miscarriage. The Valentinians represent the ‘moderate’ position. They maintained that Sophia’s miscarriage was rectified by the primordial Savior and this became the “lower Sophia” or “Achamoth.” Achamoth in turn created the “Demiurge” as a workman; but the workman has no awareness or understanding of the spiritual universe (ibid., 1.5). In contrast, the Sethians and Naassenes maintained that Sophia’s miscarriage took the form of the wicked “Yaldabaoth” and that the latter created the cosmos in opposition to his mother (NHC: Apocryphon of John, 9:25-10:15; Irenaeus, ibid., 1.30.4-5). Both schools agree that the Demiurge/Yaldabaoth is the Lawgiver, and that the Lawgiver is by nature at odds with spiritual virtue. At best the Lawgiver is just, but not good: and that Jesus was sent from the Good Father who was unknown to the world (cf. Gospel According to John 1:17-18, 17:25).

The Marcionites had their own elaborate concept of the crucifixion, and the justice that it symbolized. Unfortunately no Marcionite writings have survived the great Roman/Catholic purge. The following report is from an early Catholic witness named Eznik the Armenian. He reports that the Marcionites believed that Jesus had been sent by the “stranger” God out of compassion for Humans, because of their suffering and death under the Creator and his Law. Jesus was sent to minister to mankind. But when the Creator detected him he caused Jesus to be crucified. From this point the Marcionites defined the redemption of Humanity entirely in the terms of the crime that Jesus suffered at the hands of the Lawgiver. According to Eznik’s account Jesus arranges for the redemption of Humanity through a “Lawsuit” against the Creator – on account that Jesus, being innocent, died an unjust death. Appearing in the form of his deity Jesus prosecuted the Lawgiver according to his own Law: “Thou shalt not murder.” The Lawgiver concedes guilt and begs for mercy, and offers Human souls as payment for his crime. According to the account Jesus accepted Humans (i.e. all believers) as a ransom:

Then Jesus, leaving him, took and seized Paul, and revealed to him the purchase price and sent him to preach that we are purchased with a purchase price, and that everyone, who believed in Jesus, has been sold by the just to the Good.” (Robert M. Grant, Gnosticism, Harper & Bros., NY, 1961, pg. 103f.)

The Marcionite tradition is clearly shaped by the moral problems that accompany the “orthodox” view of the crucifixion. Why is it considered justice for an innocent man to die for the sins of others? Why should an innocent man’s blood be able to wash away the sins of the guilty? Isaiah chapter 53 implies that this is possible: but this passage is in reality part of a book that is filled with violence and injustice. For the Marcionites the solution to this problem was found in Paul’s writings. In Ephesians 1:14 the church is referred to as being “released by ransom” (apolutposin). But why was this ransom paid? Orthodox tradition says the ransom was paid to fulfill the justice demanded by the Law; and that Jesus died in order to fulfill the penalty that the Law demanded. But this in turn runs into contradictions: Why is it just for an innocent man to die for a crime he didn’t commit? And, why should those who killed Jesus be held accountable when they were merely fulfilling the will of the Lawgiver, who sent him to die?

Again, the solution to these problems could be found in Paul’s writings, and in other New Testament writings as well. Paul believed that Jesus had paid a ransom through his blood, and that Jesus freed everyone from bondage under the Law. The key to understanding this, and to setting forth the crucifixion in an ethically ordered context, is to realize that Paul did not believe that the Law of Moses was given by God. God sent Jesus, but God did not send the Law… Paul’s doctrine in this regard is part of a pattern that is found throughout the New Testament–and which “orthodox” theologians have steadfastly ignored from Roman times onward to this very day. When this obscure concept is brought into view, the crucifixion doctrine becomes comprehensible, and meaningful, as we shall see.

Let us now look at some examples from the New Testament which show where Paul made distinctions between the Law, the Lawgiver, Jesus, and the Father.

Our first example is from 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:4. In this passage Paul makes an undeniable distinction between the “fading glory” of the Lawgiver, which Moses concealed, and the “open faced” glory that Jesus receives from the Father, and which represents the life-giving glory of the Gospel. There can be no doubt that Paul did not identify Jesus or the Father with the Lord God in Exodus 34:27-35; where Moses spent 40 days in the presence of the Lord, and bought the new tablets of the Law down from Mount Sinai. See my article St. Paul and the god of this world for a detailed analysis of this passage (2 Cor. 3:12-4:4).

Our next example is from Galatians 3:10-4:9. Here Paul explicitly states that the Law is not identical with the “promise” that was made to Abraham (3:17) and that the Law was “ordained by angels” (3:19). Paul’s aim here is to argue that Christians do not need to be circumcised because Christians are under the promise made to Abraham; whereas “circumcision” is part of the Law of Moses. The problem is that Paul’s argument is in fact at odds with the Law itself–or what we today call “scripture.” The Law in fact says that “God” gave the rite of circumcision to Abraham as a sign of his faith in God, and of the Covenant (Genesis 17). Paul has imposed a different theology into his reading of the Law. The Law itself says that Moses received the Law from God (Ex. 20, etc.). Paul says that the Law was ordained by angels and that all people are under the Law just as heirs spend their youth under the authority of guardians and stewards (4:1-3). Paul also equates the Law with the “elements of the cosmos” and that all who are subject to the Law are in “bondage” (4:3). It is at this point that Paul introduces Jesus and the Father into the equation. The Father sent Jesus to redeem those who were under the Law so that they might be liberated from “bondage” and be adopted as children of the Father (4:4-7). Paul next makes the point that those who observe the Law do not know God, and render service to those “who by nature are no gods” (4:8). Paul then warns the Galatian Christians away from the Law of Moses with this question: “But now, after you have known God…why turn again to the beggarly elements, wherein you desire to be in bondage?” (4:9)

If you follow Paul’s reasoning closely, the following paradox becomes evident: Paul believed that his fellow Jews did not know God, and that God could not be known or worshipped through the Law. This concept is also reflected in Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 10:18-19, “Behold Israel after the flesh: are they which eat of the sacrifices not partakers of the alter? What say I then? That the idol is anything, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is anything?”

More astounding is that Paul actually does not distinguish between the Law/circumcision and the pagan traditions which were followed by the Galatians (=Gauls). For Paul these traditions represent the service to angels: which Paul equated with the visible heavenly bodies (hence the observance of “times” and “months”, Gal. 4:10). The unresolved question at this point is whether there is a unity between Jesus’ Father and these angels, or the “guardians and stewards.” Paul made statements in other letters which indicate that the answer is no. We will examine these passages below.

Getting back to our immediate subject: another example of where the Law of Moses is associated with the authority of angels is in Colossians 2:13-18. In this passage we learn that Jesus “nailed the Law” to his cross, and that he “made a spoil of the principalities and powers” (Col. 2:13-18). Thus through his crucifixion Jesus condemned the Law and made a spoil of the “principalities and powers.” Note that there is a relationship here. The writer goes on to warn his readers not to follow the Law, because such service is the “worshipping of angels” (2:18). Note that in this passage there is a relationship between the “angels” and the “principalities and powers” and the Law. Jesus has rendered all of these as obsolete.

The notion that Jesus’ death condemns the “authorities” is also found in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8. Here Paul writes of the “mystery” which God “ordained before the aions”, and how that if the “rulers of this aion” knew this mystery then they would not have crucified the “Lord of glory.” Orthodox Christians today presume that Paul refers to all in the world who are in positions of authority. Paul is construed to mean that all worldly kings, emperors, governors and priest are all guilty for what a relatively small group of people did at Jerusalem. Is it really that simple? Or does Paul actually refer to the angels when he refers to “authorities”, or to the “rulers of this aion”?

An additional clue is that in this passage Paul refers to a “mystery” that “God ordained before the aions” (1 Cor. 2:7). Paul here alludes to a revelation that is above and beyond what has been revealed in the Law and the Prophets (OT). And then there is Paul’s quote of Isaiah 64:4, “It is written, ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those that love him’.” (1 Cor. 2:9)

The discerning reader will recognize that Isaiah 64:4, whether quoted from the Septuagint (Greek OT) or from the Masoretic Text (Hebrew OT), says the exact opposite of what Paul’s twisted quotation says. The original passage says that no man knows the plans or actions of any other god aside from YHWH. Paul says that no man knows what “God” has planned.

This irony regarding Isaiah 64:4 can also be seen when it is compared with the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John 17:25, “O righteous Father, the world has not known you.” Isaiah 64:4 says the opposite, viz. that YHWH’s existence and providence is so obvious that no one can deny it. (More on John below.)

Paul’s peculiar quotation of Isaiah 64:4 implies that Paul believed that YHWH did not know the plans that “God ordained before the aions” for if YHWH had known these plans he “would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (Of note is that the Gnostics assigned the OT prophecies of Jesus to Sophia, not YHWH. Sophia was one of the “aions” who knew what “God” planned. She revealed these things through the prophets, viz. the plan for salvation. E.g. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.30.11.)

I want to point out further that Paul’s quote of Isaiah 64:4 is part of a pattern when it comes to his general interpretation of the Old Testament. On a number of occasions Paul has quoted OT passages either out of context or in a modified form – the purpose being to extract some other meaning outside of the context and tradition of scripture. On other occasions Paul simply ignores what the scriptures say and asserts his own interpretation of what is supposedly said. An important example is where Paul simply ignores the fact that, according to Genesis 17, “God” gave the rite of circumcision to Abraham as a sign of the covenant. And, again, another example is where Paul says that the Law was “ordained by angels.” In this pattern it is obvious that Paul’s theology, and concept of history, is rooted in some theological school that is outside of scripture. 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 indicates that Paul laid claim to a secret tradition that took priority over scripture.

One more example from the Pauline circle is the passage in Hebrews 2:2-4. Here again is a pattern where the Law is from the angels (2:2) whereas “salvation” was first spoken by the Lord (2:3) with “God” also bearing witness “both with signs and wonders” (2:4). The writer goes on to make an intriguing statement in verse 5, “For unto the angels hath [God] not put in subjection the world to come…” The statement here implies that the (then) present world was ruled by angels, and they spoke the words of the Law (2:2). Jesus was sent by the Father save mankind from the angels and the Law. In verse 14 we learn that Jesus died so that “he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” By comparison, in 2 Corinthians 3:7 Paul refers to the Law of Moses as the “ministry of death.” And in 2 Cor. 3:12-4:6 Paul describes Moses as blinding the Israelites through the Law in the same way that the “god of this world” blinds the Israelites to the Gospel and Glory of Christ. And in 1 Cor. 15:24-28 Paul says that Jesus will deliver his authority up to the Father “when he shall have put down all rule, and all authority, and all power. … The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”

Paul’s statements over all in 1 Cor. 15:24-28 indicate that he did not believe in the simple unity of God and authority. The enemies of God who rule now must be put down. Death here represents the power of the Law. Again, Paul tells us in 2 Cor. 3:7 that the Law of Moses “inscribed in stone” is the “ministry of death.” In Philippians 3:5-8 Paul calls the Law “rubbish” or “dung.” (This shows that 2 Cor. 6:14-18 cannot be from Paul!) And in Galatians 4:1-9 Paul equates the Law with pagan traditions and the worship of the celestial bodies (for which our 7 day week is still named). Even the pagans get married! (cf. Gal. 3:28)

Further evidence that Paul did not believe in the “unity” or “monarchy” of God can be seen in 1 Cor. 15:28. Here we learn that Jesus must “put down all rule, and all authority, and all power” (vs. 24) and then return his own authority to God, so that “God may be all in all” (vs. 28, ho theos panta en pasin). Here Paul has admitted his opinion that not all authority is from God, or in God. (The related question of why the theology of Romans 11:36 contradicts 1 Corinthians 15:28 is an important issue that will be addressed in a future article. Paul’s quotation of Psalms 110 in 1 Cor. 15:24-28 also raises important issues which will be addressed in a forth-coming article regarding the mystery of Melchizedek, which is a Gnostic symbol of the unknown God.)

All of these passages I have cited above show that the theology in Paul’s writings is something radically different from what orthodox tradition has made it out to be. This in turn means that Jesus’ crucifixion likewise means something radically different. Jesus was not simply the Son and Messiah of the Lawgiver. The scriptures we have examined show that the theology and meaning are much more sublime than that. Jesus is the manifestation of a higher, divine reality that the Old Testament cannot contain – at least not in terms of the traditional Judeo-Christian reading. Paul was not reading the scriptures that way; and neither were his fellow ministers.

In my opinion, only the Gnostics and Marcionites have grasped the deeper truth that some New Testament writers were reaching for in their conceptions both of the Gospel and genuine spiritual/mystical experience.

I want to conclude with one last passage which once again shows this pattern that Jesus was not sent by the Lawgiver. This passage is from the Epistle of 1 John chapter 4. Taken at face value, this passage seems to be from an “orthodox” Christian:

“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but test the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. (2) Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: (3) And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and is that spirit of anti-christ…”

And then in verses 10-12 we read,

“Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his own son to be the propitiation for our sins. (11) Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. (12) No man has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. (13) Hereby we know that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us his Spirit. And we do testify that the Father hath sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world.”

The discerning reader will notice that this passage is not, in reality, from an “orthodox” writer. The rhetoric in verses 2 and 3 seems orthodox, if not a little too orthodox. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if those references to the “flesh” were added by a later Catholic scribe. But overall this is not a problem for me. The actual problem appears in verse 12, in italics. In this verse we learn that no man has ever seen God. But according to orthodox tradition the Father of Jesus was seen and known in the Old Testament. Here is a fine example from Deuteronomy 34:10, “And there arose not a prophet in Israel like unto Moses, whom YHWH knew face to face”.

But again the passage in 1 John 4:12 says that “No man has seen God at any time”. This passage in verse 12 is, moreover, remarkably similar to the passage in John 1:17-18,

“For the Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. (18) No man has seen God at any time…”

In the one other passage where this language appears, the message is that Moses did not receive the Law from God. The Old Testament makes clear that “God” appeared to Israel (Exodus 20). The Gospel of John makes clear that this was the nature of the doctrine of the Pharisees: “We know that God spoke unto Moses: as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is” (John 9:29). Here the Pharisees were denying the assertions of Jesus and John the Baptist.

In the Gospel of John Jesus also makes clear that he did not play the role of the Lawgiver in the Old Testament: “Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuses you, even Moses, in whom you trust.” (Jn. 5:45) (Note: I do believe that the text of John has been tampered with. An example may be seen in a comparison of the three verses in John 5:45-47. The latter two verses appear to be an attempt by an “orthodox” scribe to obscure what Jesus said in verse 45. Another example is in John 4:21-24. The problem here is that verse 22 doesn’t fit. See my article “Gnostic Enigmas in the Gospel of John” for an analysis.)

The reality that Jesus was not sent by the Lawgiver completely changes the moral dynamic of the crucifixion. The morally ambiguous and pathetic “orthodox” tradition is discredited. Why Jesus came and died is a sublime mystery that all Gnostics must work out for themselves. Both the New Testament writings and the Gnostic writings contain insights and clues into the sublime mystery that is concealed both in the Gospel, and in the Crucifixion. –jw

By James M. West. Copyright © 2007, 2012. All Rights Reserved.

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