Christian orthodoxy believes that Jesus Christ had both a human nature and a divine nature. The human nature is the one that suffered death on the cross. It was his divine nature that enabled the Resurrection. One of the main heretical interpretations of the nature of Jesus Christ, Docetism, argues that Christ was the divine nature of Jesus Christ and that Jesus, the human being, was only an illusion. This heresy first appeared near the end of the second century. Some Christian scholars argue that the Gospel of John was a naïve form of Docetism. The theological implications of Docetism are immense.
For instance, if Jesus the human was only an illusion, then he did not die on the cross, nor was he resurrected from the dead. Christian orthodoxy argues that the crucifixion and the resurrection are the instruments of man’s salvation and redemption from sin. However, if the body that was crucified and supposedly resurrected was only an illusion, then we can argue that redemption never occurred. In other words, Jesus never die for our sins. That also makes the Eucharist invalid. Since Jesus had no body then he had no blood. Transubstantiation (in the loosest sense of the word: the doctrine that the bread of the Eucharist is the body of Jesus and the wine is the blood) is invalidated and therefore, the ritual has no efficacy.
The heresy of Docetism reappeared throughout the first millennium in various forms. I am not going to go into great detail on all its variants. If you are interested, I suggest you read the Wikipedia article on Docetism. Suffice it to say that the heresy we call Docetism caused a great deal of consternation in the various Christian communities in the early centuries A.D. The doctrine of Docetism was emphatically denied at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. there were several other major decisions made at that counsel, the first really ecumenical Council in the history of Christianity. We will discuss that counsel and its decisions in a separate post which shall be coming shortly.
I want to close this post with some comments about my own understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ. I am inclined to accept the idea that Jesus the human being really did exist, even though there is very little, if any, corroborating evidence outside of both canonical and noncanonical Christian texts. As a historian, some sort of records from the administration of the province of Judea during the rule of Pontius Pilate would be most helpful. However, such records do not exist. Nor is there any evidence that the Emperor Augustus ever ordered any kind of Empire-wide Census of the people ruled by Rome. It is this census that is the impetus for Joseph and Mary leaving Nazareth and going to Bethlehem, so that Jesus could be born in the city of David as prophesied by Isaiah. I am skeptical that Jesus was born or even ever lived in Bethlehem. If he truly did exist, it is more than likely that he was born in Nazareth, which is in Galilee. Jesus is, after all often referred to in Scripture as being from Galilee.
One last comment: according to Scripture, Jesus and his parents fled to Egypt when Jesus was a small child, probably around two years old. The next time he is referenced as being back in Judea was when he was about 12 and his family had gone to Jerusalem for Passover. Jesus had wandered off at his parents found him sometime later in the Temple or near the temple arguing Scripture with the Jewish elders. That is a very interesting reference for me.
Assuming that Jesus did spend about 10 years in Egypt, where would he have gone in Egypt? The logical answer is Alexandria, which at that time had a very sizable Jewish community. In fact, it was the center of Jewish learning. The 70 Jewish scholars who supposedly translated the Torah from Greek into Latin were all from Alexandria. It has been a long-standing Jewish tradition that precocious Jewish boys were sent to a yeshiva, and intensive “Bible study” presided over by whatever Jewish elders/scholars were available. I would imagine that there were some rather formidable Jewish scholars in Alexandria in the first century. Perhaps Jesus got scriptural training far beyond anything that even the elders in Jerusalem were privy to and therefore Jesus knew more about Jewish law in Scripture than they did.
Whatever the case may be about what happened in those years in Egypt, Jesus and his family did return to Nazareth somewhere around 12 or 15 A.D. Nazareth was where Jesus grew to manhood. Nazareth was the town Jesus called home for the rest of his life. It was where his mother lived at least until the Crucifixion. What happened to Mary after the crucifixion is open for speculation. If Jesus was truly a convicted criminal worthy of crucifixion, that it is possible that his family, including his mother, would have been in danger as well and probably fled the area. Perhaps even fleeing Judea altogether. Christianity has many apocryphal traditions, often conflicting, about what happened to the family of Jesus. I include Mary Magdalene as part of his family, because the evidence from Scripture, both canonical and noncanonical, suggests that they had a rather intimate relationship. If you read Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code or saw the movie, you know of what I speak.
As I said above, I am willing to accept the idea of Jesus as a historical figure. I am not prepared to accept him as anything other than human. Does that mean that Jesus did not have at least a spark of divinity? We will answer that in future posts. I do not want to give away too much at this point. I want to develop my argument very carefully, or at least as carefully as I can, given the restrictions on my ability to do intensive research. Until next time, peace!