Date: Sat, 2 May 1998 13:37:12 -0400 From: firstname.lastname@example.org To: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: Adoptionism: the earliest faith? ADOPTIONISM: THE EARLIEST CHRISTIAN FAITH? -- or when did Jesus become the Son of God? by Yuri Kuchinsky What was the earliest Christian faith? What did the earliest Christians really believe in? Did they really see Jesus as God, as the Son of God, or perhaps even as a mere mortal man? Of course our present orthodox creed, formulated in 325 AD at Nicea, insists that Jesus was both man and God at the same time, and in equal measure. But was this really the original belief? This doesn't seem so. It is very likely, on the other hand, that while the earliest Christians may have seen Jesus as a great teacher and healer, extraordinarily righteous and wise, and possessed of certain very special gifts and powers, they still saw him primarily as a flesh and blood human being. And they seemed to consider him as such until a certain crucial moment in his life when God adopted him as His Son. Such a view was seen as heretical by the Church Fathers of the second century and later, and it is known as "Adoptionism". Who were the early Adoptionists? Quite a wide variety of Adoptionist Christians are attested in the early Christian times from various sources. Among them were both the Jewish-Christian groups such as the Ebionites, and the Gentile Christians, such as the followers of the "heretical teacher" Theodotus who was active in Rome at the end of the second century. So the Adoptionists' beliefs were clearly far from uniform. TWO TYPES OF ADOPTIONISM In general, two types of Adoptionism are found in our earliest sources: the Resurrection-Adoptionism, and the Baptism-Adoptionism. Resurrection-Adoptionist Christians believed that Jesus became the Son of God only at the moment of his Resurrection, whereas, on the other hand, the Baptism-Adoptionists saw the moment of the Baptism of Jesus as a big turning point. Both these types of Adoptionism are well attested in the NT, and this should indicate that the roots of Adoptionism may indeed go back to the most primitive layers of the Christian tradition. I will consider here the material for the very early Adoptionism as adduced by Bart Ehrman in his book THE ORTHODOX CORRUPTION OF SCRIPTURE. [Ehrman, Bart D., THE ORTHODOX CORRUPTION OF SCRIPTURE: the effect of early Christological controversies on the text of the NT; New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.] In this book as a whole, Ehrman sets as his goal to determine which passages of the NT are likely to be "the orthodox corruptions of the Scripture", i.e. added by the later orthodox editors in order to counter various beliefs that they charged were "later heresies". And he finds quite a few of these. I agree with Ehrman for the most part. Many such corruptions are to be found in the NT, or so it seems. Of course, one may naturally assume that these "later heresies" that the later orthodox (or "proto-orthodox", as Ehrman styles them) editors tried to eradicate may have in fact been actually the _genuine earliest traditions_ that they were trying hard to suppress. This, indeed, seems quite likely to me. So, in other words, the later "proto-orthodox" editors may have been trying to impose on the Christian believers views that were, in themselves, later corruptions of the original faith. Ehrman focuses on the large number of key NT passages the readings of which are in doubt, and the mss evidence for which is often quite contradictory. His procedure is to try to determine the earliest readings of these important passages. He finds and discusses many such questionable passages that, according to him, the later orthodox editors and commentators tried, on their own authority, and often without much real validity, to impose as the authoritative Scriptural texts. Of course, today's conservative commentators will tend to reject outright any idea that the early orthodox editors of the NT would do such a thing as try to tamper with the Scriptures. But such a view is rather naive. We have quite a lot of evidence demonstrating that the earliest doctrinal struggles in various early churches were very common and also very bitter. And we also know that all sides in these disputes accused each other of altering the texts of the Scriptures. In particular, the doctrinal struggles at the time of Marcion (in Rome ca. 140 AD) are a very important case in point, because this was precisely the time when the basic canon of the NT was being finalized. This was the time when the four canonical gospels were first assembled together, so a lot of editing was surely being done at that time. It is useful to remember that no special reverence was accorded to the texts of the gospels previous to that time, since none of them were "canonical" previous to the time of Marcion, whose idea it was in the first place to compile the first Christian canon. ADOPTIONISM IN THE NT Ehrman deals in some detail with the early Adoptionists in Chapter 2 of his book, and he outlines carefully the two types of Adoptionist beliefs as mentioned above. As he makes clear, the roots of Adoptionism may indeed go back even to the foundational layers of the Christian tradition, ... adoptionistic Christologies can be traced to sources that predate the books of the New Testament. (p. 48) According to Ehrman, the earliest such tradition can be found in Paul's letter to the Romans. And this tradition is clearly Resurrection-Adoptionist, i.e. it maintains that Jesus was adopted by God, His Father, at the moment of his Resurrection from the dead: [Christ Jesus ...] who came from the seed of David according to the flesh, who was appointed Son of God _in power_ according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead. (Rom 1:3-4) According to Ehrman (p. 48), the words "in power", (underlined above) are a late addition; this is just one of the many examples of the later "orthodox corruptions" of the original Pauline text, a corruption that was meant to lessen this text's Adoptionist implications. Of course this addition merely lessens the Adoptionist meaning of this passage, and doesn't quite eliminate it completely. If we take this quite Adoptionistic statement of Rom 1:3-4 as originally written by Paul, and there's no reason we should doubt it, this would place this sort of a belief very early indeed. Further support for the view that Jesus became the Son of God only at the moment of Resurrection can be found also in Acts 13:32-33. Ehrman considers that the speech of Paul in Chapter 13 contains some valuable preliterary sources embedded in the Book of Acts: ... a form-critical analysis of Paul's speech in Acts 13 reveals traditional material that has been incorporated in a surprisingly unedited form. Here Paul makes the following pronouncement: What God promised to the [Jewish] fathers he has fulfilled to us their children, by raising Jesus from the dead -- as it is written in the second Psalm, "You are my Son, today I have begotten you". (Acts 13:32-33) And Ehrman adds, The force of the final clause should not be minimized: it is on the day of his resurrection that Jesus receives his sonship. (p. 49) Ehrman also analyses a number of other similar passages, such as Acts 2:36, 10:42, and 17:31, where the Sonship is most likely associated with the Resurrection. WHICH FORM OF ADOPTIONISM WAS THE EARLIEST? Of the two types of very early Adoptionism, the tradition that God adopted Jesus as his son at the moment of his Resurrection seems like the more ancient one. This tradition may have been the earliest form of Christian belief. Indeed, it may be the original tradition that formed in the first days and weeks post-Easter under the influence of Peter (or perhaps under the influence of Mary Magdalene). I should add that there is also substantial evidence elsewhere to indicate that the earliest Christian tradition was that Jesus was assumed into the Heavens right at the moment of his death on the Cross. See for example Lk 23:43, where Jesus tells one of the criminals who were crucified along with him, "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise". Clearly these words imply the Resurrection on the same day as Crucifixion, and they are in contradiction with the 3 days in the Tomb story. Also, similar conclusions can be reached from a careful analysis of the last chapters of the gospel of Mark. What was the original ending of this gospel? This matter is still disputed. But there are good indications that "the 3 days in the Tomb" was a later addition to this gospel. It also seems like various rather confused traditions of "the 3 days in the Tomb" in other gospels also were later additions to the Christian faith. (This matter is quite complex since these Tomb burial traditions, with their various chronologies of the amount of time spent in the Tomb, are quite confused, and betray rather abundant signs of later editorial work. Loisy has dealt with all these matters in some detail. The problem is that various canonical accounts would indicate variously either 3, or 2, or even less than 2 days in the Tomb.) The view that the earliest post-Easter movement may have been Resurrection-Adoptionist was formulated as far back as in 1901 by the German scholar William Wrede in his book THE MESSIANIC SECRET. According to Wrede, Mk's famous doctrine of the Messianic Secret was really primarily an attempt by Mk to hide and to disguise this fact. I.e. Mk was attempting to explain away why the belief that Jesus was the Messiah, so widespread later when Mk was composed, was not well known from early on. On this theory, Mk is really suggesting that, when Jesus was still alive, nobody could really understand that he was the Messiah; the disciples understood finally only _after_ Jesus was already crucified. So, accordingly, Mk's was a bold attempt to pre-date the Messianic status of Jesus back into his earthly ministry, an attempt that on the whole succeeded quite brilliantly. WRITINGS OF LUKE Since the last example of Adoptionist theology as analysed by Ehrman was in the Book of Acts, composed by the author of Luke, can the author of Luke therefore really be said to have been an Adoptionist? Not so, according to Ehrman, since our canonical text of Lk also contains other passages that are explicitly anti-Adoptionist. So what we have here on the whole is the generally orthodox Lukan text where some remnants of ancient Adoptionist doctrine are buried. And Ehrman is helping us to discern these semi-submerged bits and pieces of the older traditions. Thus, the canonical texts of the "writings of Luke", as a whole, will certainly not give us an obvious Adoptionist reading, because, as Ehrman suggests, the thrust of these Adoptionist passages in strongly countered by ... their incorporation into the wider context of Luke-Acts, where Jesus is the Son of God already at his birth (Lk 1:35). (p. 49) Nevertheless, perhaps we can go here even further than Ehrman goes in his book. The question may be asked if the text of Lk as we have it was really the original text of Lk. It is entirely possible, and, as seems to me, even probable that there originally was an earlier and shorter (basically Adoptionist) gospel of Lk that was later substantially re-edited and expanded. (And the same theory also applies to the text of Acts.) These views were proposed many years ago by Alfred Loisy. According to this theory, in the course of this secondary reworking and expansion, there would have been added to Lk e.g. the Infancy Narrative, the first 2 Chapters, with their explicit anti-Adoptionist theology. So I think it is possible to make a case that the earliest version of Lk was Adoptionist after all. Further examples of Adoptionist theology contained in Lk, as adduced below, can add strength to this hypothesis. BAPTISM-ADOPTIONISM As mentioned above, the second type of early Adoptionist theology was associated with the belief that Jesus became the Son of God at the moment of his baptism. According to Ehrman, in comparison with the Resurrection-Adoptionist belief discussed above, the existence of such a Baptism-Adoptionist belief seems to be attested far wider in our NT sources. This may be the case perhaps because the belief that Jesus was adopted as a Son of God at baptism supplanted the earlier Resurrection-Adoptionist belief at a very early stage. According to Ehrman, Lk preserves our earliest textual witness for the belief that Jesus was adopted by God at his Baptism. When Jesus was baptised, the voice from heaven was heard: You are my Son, today I have begotten you. (Lk 3:22) Some mss also preserve an alternative reading of this passage (which is a harmonisation with Mk 1:11), You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased. Ehrman argues strongly in his book that "today I have begotten you" was original to Lk, a view that some commentators tended to dispute. He shows that the orthodox editors of the second century, or even later perhaps, consciously altered the meaning of this sentence to introduce "in you I am well pleased". And so, this harmonizing variant reading would have been introduced because the orthodox editors would have been uncomfortable with the Adoptionistic character of the original verse. Also, Ehrman cites many other such passages where the idea of adoption at baptism is evident as an early tradition (p. 67ff; e.g. Lk 9:35, 23:35, Acts 10:38, Jn 1:34, 1 John 5:18). And he also cites other texts where, according to him, the idea that Jesus was the Son of God already _before_ his baptism was introduced by the same people and for the same purpose. Such orthodox corruptions would have been Mk 1:1, Lk 2:43, Lk 3:21, Mt 1:18, and Eph 4:9. EARLY DEBATES It is clear that the debates between the Adoptionist and the proto-orthodox commentators were going strong for many generations in the early centuries of Christianity. Both sides in these debates were offering scriptural passages that seemed to support their views. Since we possess such a large number of variant readings for certain key passages, it is clear that for great long time these scriptural passages were not fixed permanently, but remained rather fluid on the whole. Editors and scribes of all persuasions did tinker with the text -- that much is clear: ...the wording of these passages was by no means etched in stone. To the contrary, scribes who transmitted the texts occasionally changed them to make them "say" what they were already known to "mean". (p. 97) Ehrman demonstrates in his book that the orthodox editors were far from averse to altering some key scriptural passages in order to enhance the theological positions they favoured. And since the orthodox side eventually prevailed in these controversies, it is not so surprising that many texts with such evident "emendations", or "corruptions" of the scriptures are well preserved. Scholars generally agree that the stories of Miraculous Birth became accepted as standard Christian belief rather late along the trajectory of the historical evolution of the dogma. An important question to ask here is, Were these stories, found in Mt, and in Lk, really a part of the earliest versions of Mt and of Lk? The general belief among scholars at this time is that this is the case. But, according to Alfred Loisy, and some others, these stories may have actually been added to Mt and to Lk at a rather late stage in the redactional history of these gospels. The assumption of the "basic textual unity of the gospels" is very common in the NT field at this time, and this both among the liberal and among the conservative commentators. And so, such an assumption would clearly tend to stand in the way of seeing that, for instance, the Infancy Narratives of Lk, including Lk's version of the miraculous birth, seem, for a number of reasons, quite out of place when compared with the rest of Lk. Mk and Jn lack the Nativity Stories altogether, of course. This is where Bart Ehrman perhaps didn't go far enough in his analysis. In this case, the matter goes far beyond merely changing the meaning of a few words here and there. Here we are talking about "proto-orthodox editors" adding whole chapters to the gospels. And the evidence for this is quite strong. PAUL'S VIEWS It is clear that the baptism and the resurrection were seen by the early Christians as the key events in the earthly career of Jesus. This is certainly how Paul sees the earthly career of Jesus. In his writings, we don't get to see much about what else happened to Jesus the man in his life, how he grew up, and how he became the man he became. Neither do we get from Paul much about what Jesus said, about his sayings and teachings. We certainly don't get from Paul too many details about what other things he accomplished in his earthly career besides getting to be crucified. In spite of the fact that baptism was so important in the Pauline theology, we don't even learn from Paul if Jesus had been baptized by John the Baptist. And certainly we don't get to learn if Jesus, himself, baptised, and/or taught baptism to his disciples, certainly a very curious omission. Paul's baptism seems to be "the Baptism of the Cross", in any case, "to die and to be resurrected with Jesus". This is quite a special view of the Christian baptism since the water functions here as a symbol of death, rather than as a symbol of life, which is more common in Christian theology. (As Morton Smith remarked, this Pauline doctrine seems to be notoriously absent from our second century orthodox sources. [e.g. M. Smith, CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, p. 264,] So Paul's views were probably not typical for the second century, and they certainly were not very influential at that time.) General secrecy that early Christians seemed to associate with the baptism may be one explanation for some of Paul's curious omissions in this area. Also, the role of John the Baptist was probably simply not yet introduced as an item of faith by the time of Paul. Another possibility, and this would also explain the above peculiarities of the Pauline interpretation of baptism, may be that much of the baptismal theology as generally attributed to Paul may have been in fact added to his genuine writings at later periods of time. But this subject needs much additional investiagation in any case. If we would judge only according to the witness of Paul, this Baptism/Resurrection perspective seems like a very narrow filter through which the earliest Christians saw their Saviour. To come back to our general question of How the earliest Christians saw the Historical Jesus, the belief that Jesus was God already in his lifetime was still questioned even as late as in the fourth century. Indeed, Julian, writing ca. 361-3 CE, still claimed that: Neither Paul, nor Matthew, nor Luke, nor Mark had the audacity to say that Jesus is God. (_The Apostate_, ix. 326) According to Julian, it was Jn who first introduced this idea into the canon. So, it seems, the resistance to this idea that Jesus was God was very strong and very widespread in the early centuries of Christianity. Those who usually tend to see Christian history through the rather ahistorical lens of the Nicean creed may do well to consider all the evidence that Bart Ehrman presents in his book for the earliest Christian beliefs being quite otherwise from what we usually assume them to be. Best wishes, Yuri. Yuri Kuchinsky || Toronto || The goal proposed by Cynic philosophy is apathy, which is equivalent to becoming God -=O=- JulianClick here to go one level up in the directory.