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Ebionitism’s Dual Christologies

It is frequently claimed that the earliest christology was “adoptionist,” the theological claim that ontologically (by nature)  Jesus was nothing but human, nothing but “mere man.”   This ancient “reductionist-humanistic” concept did, however, allow for an exalted view of Jesus as Messiah, great high priest, the “Prophet like Moses,” and other Jewish-Messianic affirmations.  It also permitted Jesus to be a risen prophet, one whom God raised up from the grave as a seal of approval.  Moreover, it allowed this risen Jesus to be an angelic being, glorified and exalted into heaven and standing at God’s right hand, carrying God’s name in him, and waiting fto carry out a “second coming” in which he will judge the world.  This adoptionist Jesus – properly understood not as a god or God, but as God’s agent – may even be addressed in the Maranatha prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus.”

But all of these glorious affirmations still pertain to the monotheistic, Jewish Jesus, a man, a prophet, a righteous Israelite rewarded by God.  God’s reward, as mentioned, was to raise Jesus into heaven.  This heavenly reward is necessarily an aspect of adoptionism.  Clearly, a risen Messiah to whom one can pray has par excellence been adopted (as “Son”) by God.  Yet Ebionites and other early Jewish Christians believed that Jesus’ adoption by God began even earlier, in his earthly life, before his death and resurrection.

It was claimed that Jesus, a devout Israelite, excelled all others in piety, obedience and righteousness (as reflected in Luke 2:51-52), so that, by the time he was baptized by John in the Jordan, Jesus had reached the pinnacle of holiness, and so was “ripe for adoption.”  Indeed, say  Jewish Christian sources, it was at his baptism that Jesus was “officially” adopted as God’s son: the heavens opened, the holy Spirit descended on Jesus “like a dove,” and God’s voice proclaimed him “Son.”  This early Jewish christological understanding extends even into the canonical Gospels and the Pauline writings.

It is generally maintained among scholars that this “low” adoptionist christology characterised only the early, “Jewish” period of church formation.  So-called “higher” christologies which made more explict divine claims for Jesus, are held to be much later developments in the tradition.  The idea is that the “Jewishness” of low/adoptionist christology indicates its plausibility, because notions of higher christology had not yet had time to evolve.

Adoptionist christology, it is claimed, is in keeping with Jewish perspectives about prophets, inspired or” holy”people, and the monotheistic/singular-unitary nature of God.  Higher christology, it is claimed, is the product of later theological reflection and possible importation of pagan, Hellenistic ideas about god-men and demigods. 

However, some expressions of early Jewish christology actually contain both “high” and “low” concepts about Jesus.

For the Ebionites, Jesus was the adopted son of God, the Prophet like Moses, whose righteousness caused God to embrace him in a filial relationship at his baptism and then to “set the seal” on the act by raising Jesus from the dead.  For the Ebionites, Jesus was the Messiah in the sense of carrying out messianic goals during his ministry.  (Interestingly, they also held that messiahship is potentially everyone’s birthright, maintaining that all Ebionites, and those who enter that fold, are oiled with the same messianic chrism that anointed Jesus.  Adherents can, like Jesus, perform the messianic task.)

Thus far, Ebionitism qualifies as a typically “low” christology.  However, Ebionites also claimed a kind of “high” christology, because they involved their Christ in the field or schema of heavenly pre-existence. Ebionites typically claimed that Jesus, the wholly human but divinely-adopted prophet also embodied God’s holy Spirit.

To return to the baptism scene: Ebionites claimed that the “Spirit Like A Dove” that descended on Jesus was a type of pre-existent, heavenly “Christ” sent down to abide in Jesus.

This spirit was thought to be more or less interchangeable with the Adam Kadmon, or heavenly primal Adam; Yahoel, God’s chief assisting angel; Metatron, the Angel of the Throne; and the Standing One or heavenly Son of Man.

For the Ebionites, Jesus was a man adopted and risen to heaven by God. But he was also the embodiment on earth – or if the term may be used – the incarnation of a pre-existent celestial being.  The Ebionite Jesus thus carries in him the dual dignity 1) of a righteous human being and 2) the numinous character who incarnates a revealing tutelary spirit, who is pre-existent and closely related to God.

To reiterate:  Ebionitism claims a dual christological significance to Jesus’ baptismal adoption, an adoption that   simultanesously consists of:

granting to Jesus a filial relationship to God

– and –

the entering into Jesus of a pre-existent celestial tutelary spirit, perceived, conceptualized and symbolized as a dovelike spirit.

The Ebionite Christ thus exemplifies a synthesis of both “low” and “high” christologies, because:

on the one hand he is the obedient-and-rewarded prophet,

and on the other hand he is the recipient of a pre-existent, heavenly being.

It is therefore possible to think that the Ebionite Jesus speaks in two voices: one, the voice of the Jesus “the carpenter’s son,” the obedient-but-transformed/adopted human mystic, “Jesus the Galilean”;  the other, the self-revealing, incarnating Spirit, or Adam Kadmon, primal Son of Man, holy angel.

This christological paradigm  is worked out in Islam by the separation of the the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) personal voice from the Voice of God speaking through him.  The New Testament does not often or obviously separate the two voices, but a close reading will find them implicit in many texts, most pointedly in John’s Gospel.

John’s Jesus, embodying the Spirit and will of the Father and being the vehicle for the Logos’ incarnation, speaks with the Voice of the Divine, such as in the “I am” statements.  Many of the Johannine Jesus’ statements can be read as self-revelations of the Spirit incarnate in him (“I come from the Father and return to the Father; I know the hidden things of God; before Abraham came to be, I am,” etc.).  Here – theoretically at least -is the incarnate heavenly Spirit speaking through Jesus.

At other times John’s Jesus looks more like a human mystic reflecting on and talking about what it is like to incarnate God’s spirit and to be filially united with that God and his spiritt (“the Father and I are one; when you see me, you see the Father; I am a man who hears and obeys the word of God;  the Father is greater than I; I can do nothing of my own will, only by God’s will,” etc.  Here – theoretically –  Jesus the Galilean mystic is speaking about himself.

These  considerations indicate that the dichotomy between high-late and low-early christologies is at least partially dissolved in Ebionitism’s combination of the two.  For a fascinating discussion of the possible “two voices” of Jesus, the reader is referred to Stevan L. Davies’ book, Jesus the Healer (Continuum Publishing Company, NY 1995,  especially pp. 151-169).


Jesus and Shamanism

(For Nazrudin)

Identifying the historical Jesus is no easy task.  Some deny his existence altogether; others find as many identities for him as searches performed, with Jesus often ending up  strangely congruent with the researcher’s own christological views.  An old admonition to biblical scholars goes something like, “Beware of the Jesus you are comfortable with.”  The present writer finds the work of New Testament scholar Marcus J. Borg helpful in this matter.

Addressing theories claiming that the figure of the New Testament Jesus is mostly an amalgam of mythological – and especially pagan mythological – conventions,  Borg suggests an alternative view.

From what we now know from global comparative religious studies, Borg says, Jesus can be identified as fitting among several different types of religious practitioners.  That is, Jesus, and figures like him, abound in documented spiritual “types” found in religions across the world.  Obviously, these people are not fictions in the present or from the past.  They are real, and not myth.  It is not necessary, Borg claims, to leap to paganism and mythology to delineate Jesus, because, like documented contemporary religious figures, Jesus, too, was real, and not myth.

Borg applies the criterion of comparative religious typology to Jesus and finds that Jesus has in common with global religious types such attributes as:

Spirit person or holy person, familiar with God, Spirit, heaven, the underworld, ancestors, etc. 

Charismatic mediator, a person whose personality draws to himself or herself others in his/her group, and who mediates between the (earthly) group and heaven.

Transformative sage, a person who delivers wisdom teachings (such as parables, metaphors, koans) designed to cause inner spiritual transformation in the recipient.  A subset of this category might be called Teacher of Enlightenment, defined as one who is mystically, spiritually enlightened (who has attained bodhi or samadhi), or has at least undergone several powerful enlightement experiences (one who has had satoris).

Wonder worker, healer, exorcist, a person who cures illnesses and “heals” the social stigma attached to diseases; one who influences his/her environment and the “heart”  in little understood ways; one who expels demons or “unclean” spirits considered as causes of mental, physical and spiritual malaise.

Social prophet, a person who attempts to change the religious status quo in the interests of intensification of the tradition, supplementation of the tradition, or evolution of/breaking with the tradition.

Renewal movement founder, a person who reforms and transforms the religion and/or its traditions to the extent that s/he is considered to be the leader of a new, sectarian group within the larger religious grouping.

Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament easily fits with all of these observed, documented figures and categories.  Conversely, these figures and categories reflect what is written of  historical figures like Jesus.   The present posting will explore Borg’s suggested comparative categories at a very primal point in the Gospel story: namely, the traits of Jesus’ ministry that have strong affinities with shamanism.  We will also avail ourselves of the scholarly work of the late Morton Smith, Alan F. Segal, Larry Hurtado, Bruce Chilton, Robert Eisenman, Hugh Schonfield and many others.

Jesus the Shaman

(The supposed crudity, ignorance and filth commonly associated in the West with shamanism will in this essay be regarded as mere prejudice.  As shamanic scholar Michael Harner has said, in addition to ethnocentricity, there is an equally biased form of perception: cognicentricity, the notion that one’s own cultural way of knowing is the only correct way.  The present writer eschews the condemnatory view of shamanism, and recalls that the earliest connotation of “enlightenment” was probably shamanic enlightenment: the perception of reality in an ineffable spiritual “light.”)

Consulting Morton Smith, we present a partial list of shamanic-magical traits ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament.

Jesus continued a ritual of water immersion begun by John the Baptizer, developed by Jesus, and practiced by Paul.  As Smith said, if we view primitive Christianity as a baptismal group, we see the rite as initiated by John, developed by Jesus as a (short) middle term, and culminating in Pauline baptism.  “Jesist” baptism effected union with the Holy Spirit and/or Jesus’ spirit.

In the miracle stories Jesus cures by touch, manipulation, by looking heavenward, sighing or groaning, invoking Aramaic phrases to affect the cure, anointing with a salve compounded with dirt and spittle, touching the afflicted person’s tongue or eyes, expressing anger at the demons responsible for illness, driving out  demons, instructing disciples to pray and fast before performing exorcisms.

In the “biographical” stories Jesus undergoes a ritual of water immersion administered by an acknowledged prophet, during which a dove-like spirit descends on him and a divine voice declares him to be “Son,” Jesus is then”driven” (Mark’s term)  into the desert by his newly-acquired spirit where he undergoes a shamanic ordeal of prayer, fasting and temptation during which “his” spirit defeats another, “unholy” spirit (“the devil”); and after which Jesus returns from his ordeal with a mission and the new power “to make anyone follow him” –  as well as the power to drive out evil spirits and to control them remotely, as well as to perform miraculous cures,  to still storms and to raise the dead; to communicate his exorcistic and healing powers to disciples, to provide food miraculously, to change water into wine, to walk on water, to make miraculous escapes and to travel invisibly.

Jesus claims to possess the keys of the kingdom,  undergoes metamorphosis and enjoys the gifts of precognition and telepathy; Jesus claims authority to interpret scripture, to establish and represent the Kingdom of God, and to reform tribal cultic practices;  Jesus introduces new rites that unite his followers to him, such as foot washing, baptism, and the eucharist; Jesus claims unity with supernatural beings and exclusive knowledge of his god.

Moreover,  Jesus continues to act posthumously, exhibiting invisibility, bilocation, materialization/dematerialization, and levitation; this risen or “post-Easter” Jesus is now claimed to have ascended to the heavenly realm, continuing to work wonders from that exalted location and who, in a monotheistic Jewish context  (!)  can now even be prayed to (the Aramaic Maranatha Prayer).  Jesus, the “man who came down from heaven,” who embodied a (or the)  Holy Spirit, is now a risen, radiant, star-like heavenly being.  He is, in fact, on the way to becoming an example of that peculiar christology condemned by the rabbis, namely, a “second Power in heaven.”

Jesus the Vision Questor

With Jesus’ immersion in Spirit one can plausibly theorize that he was enlightened or at least customarily experienced satori-like glimpses of enlightenment.  His culture did not possess the Eastern “psychology of enlightenment” that existed in Buddhism and Hinduism, but judging from the christological titles assigned to him by the early Jewish “church,” we may surmise that he had undergone a kind of “Jewish” enlightenment.  Surely his self-description as the Son of Man points to this.

Some maintain that this Aramaic expression  bar nasha, (in Hebrew, ben adam)was simply Jesus’ self-deprecating manner of indicating himself.  In this context bar nasha simply means “the man,” and Jesus was merely euphemistically referring to himself: “the Son of Man says this” was Jesus’ humble way of saying, “this man, this guy, I myself, say this.”

However, this view ignores Jesus’ sayings that ascribe a heavenly, mystical meaning to “Son of Man.” In his trial before the high priests, Jesus answers the question of his messiahship by saying in so many words, “You have spoken correctly: I am the messiah, and you will see the Son of Man coming with Power in the clouds with great glory.”  This is, if nothing else, a “high-christological” statement embedded in a deeply Jewish context, and it verges on the dreaded “Two Powers” heresy.  No wonder that on hearing the high priest tore his robes and charged Jesus with blasphemy.  In this context, “Son of Man” is can no longer be seen as an innocuous self-designation.

This is an explicit identification of the Son of Man with a celestial figure closely associated with “the Power” (God).  Jesus is calling himself this Son of Man, or is at least claiming an intimate familiarity, if not identity, with that heavenly figure. When we recall (in a safely) metaphorical sense that  the Torah already contained “two Powers'” heaven, Jesus’ statement becomes very bold and provocative.  Ezekiel, Isaiah and Daniel describe a Primal Man, Heavenly Man, Adam-like Man, the Adam Kadmon – a “Standing One” in heaven next to God’s throne.  He was sometimes called Metatron, the one who stands beyond the Throne. He was sometimes called Yahoel (“Yahweh, Junior”).  Yahoel was God’s chief assisting angel, who bore the divine Name and had the power to exercise divine judgment.  Jesus, the Son of Man on earth, certainly verged on acting as if he had the knowledge and authority of a Yahoel or an Adam Kadmon.

H.J. Schonfield envisions Paul’s Christ as the “unmanifest” Adam Kadmon made temporarily manifest in Jesus and then returning to his place in heaven; carrying with him his transformed humanity, in and as,  the risen, exalted, glorified Jesus.  Certainly Jesus’ earliest Jewish followers viewed him as standing by God’s throne, bearing God’s name, and charged with (eventually) administering God’s judgment.  In this early, primitive, monotheistic, Jewish context Jesus is Son of God and Son of Man, the functional equivalent of the Standing One, the heavenly Son of Man, Metatron, Adam Kadmon, the Primal Man, and Yahoel.

Clearly, given Jesus’ own mystical, parabolic  statements, self-designations, miraculous/’magical/shamanic deeds, and the claims made for him in the earliest forms of Christianity, it is extremely reasonable to view him as enlightened.  How did his enlightenment come about?  We can’t possibly know, but we can make educated guesses.

Some of the earliest Jewish views considered that Jesus became enlightened – i.e., was adopted by God, was granted the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and was charged with a mission – during his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptizer.  Some versions present this as a public event, others as a private vision where Jesus sees the heavens opened, a dove-like spirit descending on him, and hears the bat kol or divine Voice adopting him as “Son.”

Jesus’ presence among the crowds that flocked to see John indicates that he, too, was a religious seeker.  At the very least as a loyal Israelite, Jesus was likely to have been interested in the transformative (and inexpensive) potentials of John’s baptismal rite.  Moreover, the New Testament and other sources document a close connection between the Baptizer and the Galilean.  A plausible scenario is that, among other devout Kingdom-seekers, Jesus joined John’s movement, with John acting as mentor to the young pilgrim.  The New Testament may preserve elements of this when it mentions that before baptizing Jesus, John knew Jesus, was Jesus’ cousin, and recognized Jesus’s spiritual potential.

John’s Gospel reports that Jesus, after John’s having witnessed the descent of the spirit on his unusual cousin, began his own baptizing movement.  John’s Gospel states that Jesus himself baptized; then contradicts that claim by saying that only Jesus’ disciples baptized.  The irreducable point here, though, is the report that Jesus was baptized; was associated with John possibly as a disciple; received a holy spirit through John’s ritual; supported the practice of baptism, even to the extent of  starting his own version of it.

Moreover, John’s Gospel reports that Jesus in his baptizing ministry began to make more disciples than John was making.  In plausible deference to his old teacher, Jesus moved his activity away from John’s locale.  Here we have an example of Jesus the Spirit-filled leader of a new baptismal group, separate from, and becoming more popular, than John’s.  Moreover, Jesus’ new ministry probably contained a new teaching about the Holy Spirit, which is not surprising since Jesus had recently experienced a transforming encounter with God and God’s Spirit; in fact, Jesus’ form of baptism was actually said to convey the Holy Spirit or Jesus’ own personal spirit – a strikingly shamanic notion. In fact, John’s Gospel (chapter 3) sandwiches Jesus’ (secret, nocturnal) baptismal teaching about the Spirit between two chapters dealing prominently with Spirit, the Baptist, and baptism (chapters 2 and 4).  So here we see that the factors: Jesus, John the Immerser, baptism, reception of the Holy Spirit, are deeply shamanic and deeply connected in the New Testament portrayal of Jesus and his ministry.

As we have seen, Jesus the religious seeker underwent a water immersion ritual during which “the heavens opened” and a tutelary Spirit descended from those heavens.  He underwent a typically shamanic ordeal of prayer and fasting.  During that ordeal he found that his Spirit, or his new life in the Spirit, overcame another, evil spirit.  After this experience, Jesus the shaman became a “master of spirits,” able to understand the principles of their activities and able to cast them out – even remotely.  He spoke for his Spirit and the God represented by that Spirit, and communicated living experiences of his Spirit, and of himself, as the radiant Son of Man (e.g., the Gospels’ “Transfiguration,” resurrection and ascension narratives).  Even now he continues, claim the scriptures and modern Christians,  to be an effective messiah, a shaman-magician, a risen holy person, charismatically mediating the Sacred from heaven within human hearts united with his own holy spirit. In Messiah Jesus, the manifest and unmanifest Adam Kadmon,  the ultimate flourishing of Jewish shamanic enlightenment blazes forth.