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Impressions of “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief,” by Jordan B. Peterson

I was impressed by Jordan Peter’s 12 Rules for Life and before that, his series Introduction to the Idea of God. I knew that Peterson considered his earlier work, Maps of Meaning, the best summary of his beliefs, and that both 12 Rules and Introduction were specific applications of it. I waited until it was available on unabridged audio, narrated by the author, and read the book in that manner.

This post covers the material in Maps of Meaning in roughly the same order as the book does. First, I describe the psychological foundations Peterson presents for his theory, and how it ties into mythic stories.

Maps of Meaning is composed roughly in fourths, starting with a foundation in cognitive psychology, then mythic stories, then Christianity in general, and finally alchemy. Next, I give a history of the allegorical approach of Biblical exegesis, comparing Peterson with St Augustine. Following this, I highlight the two most important aspects of Jesus Christ for Jordan Peterson, as Redeemer and Logos. I then describe two paths taken by Peterson for applying Christianity in everyday life: the path mentioned in this book (alchemy) and one he seems to have adopted later on (a focus on the Holy Spirit).

Psychological Foundations

Peterson begins with a discussion of neuropsychology and cognitive psychology, emphasizing the biological foundations of thought. This is important because of Peterson basis his entire theory on the existence of a mental modular shared by not just humans but most animals: unknown-detection. Peterson argues that the the psychological process of habituation is not a simply a consequence of learning that a stimulus is neither harmful nor beneficial in the moment — rather, it is the primary result of a stimulus ceasing to be unknown and becoming known. Peterson inverts B.F. Skinner’s defense of behaviorism, noting that while establishing the full history of reinforcement schedules can be incredibly difficult, it is now easier to measure brain activity and detect the existence of mental maps of the known and unknown.

Carl Jung is heavily featured in Maps of Meaning. I had always considered the most controversial part of Jung’s psychology to be his theory of the "collective unconsciousness." Peterson cleverly (and I think fairly) rehabilitates Jung by arguing he worked before the modern understanding of cognitive psychology. Peterson explicitly states that the "collective unconscious" is a term for "episodic memory," a well-accepted theory of how narrative memory is formed. Specifically, because the human mind encodes events into its salient pieces, and the salience of those pieces has a biological foundation, the collective unconscious is simply those pieces which have been universally encoded by appropriately developed humans. Thus, the collective unconscious is part of our species cognitive extended phenotype.

If known and unknown are basic categories, in the way that pleasurable/hurtful and hot/cold are, then it makes sense that known and unknown act as characters in mythic literature. Peterson argues ‘known’ as a category is conceptually gendered as male or an old king, and ‘unknown’ as female or a monster, given the capacity of the known to inflict vertical rules and the capacity of the unknown to generate new things into being. Hence Peterson argues that stories involving a Great Father or Great Mother are in fact stories of the known and unknown.

Mythic Structures

Peterson then moves from experimental psychology to mythic literature. The central stories in religion and myth in human societies are part of the collective unconscious through their mapping to salient episodic memory:

  • the temporary capture of the Father by the Mother
  • a younger male, the hero, called to rescue the Father
  • the murder of a younger male by a brother or co-equal
  • the resurrection of the hero
  • the hero’s possession of a virgin
  • the hero’s kingship.

I don’t believe this specific series of events happens in any myth. But parts of it happen in stories. For instance, in the Ba’al Cycle the events occur out of order

  • Ba’al (hero) wishes to build a house for himself
  • God allows for a war between Ba’al on the monsters Yam (Sea) and Mot (Death)
  • Ba’al splits Yam in half with a club
  • Ba’al is killed by Death
  • Ba’al defeats Death
  • Ba’al builds his house

The same pattern can be seen in the Christian religion

  1. Creation falls
  2. The Son of God becomes a Creature
  3. The Son of God is born of a virgin
  4. The Son of God proclaims himself King
  5. The Son of God is murdered
  6. The Son of God returns from Hell
  7. The Son of God reigns at the right hand of God

Stories from Egypt, pre-modern Europe, and elsewhere are shown to be general instances of this pattern.

Peterson argues that one can deconstruct widely and deeply shared stories to understand the psychological constructs that generated them. That the stories, the structures, the archetypes, and their lessons are not merely a tax on human cognition but the method that it has operated in the social-political-moral for an extremely long period of time.

My son, hear the instruction of your father,
And do not forsake the law of your mother;

For they will be a graceful ornament on your head,
And chains about your neck
Proverbs 1:8-9

Allegorical Exegesis

It is after all of this — the psychological foundations of memory, the comparative religion or mythology — that Peterson begins his most controversial and most ambiguous point. Peterson then provides an extended allegorical apologia for Christianity.

The allegorical approach — defending Christianity by asserting fundamental truths of the Bible without defending the Bible’s literal text — goes back at least to Augustine. As he wrote in Confessions:

Behold, Thou hast given unto us for food every herb bearing seed which is upon all the earth; and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed. And not to us alone, but also to all the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the earth, and to all creeping things; but unto the fishes and to the great whales, hast Thou not given them. Now we said that by these fruits of the earth were signified, and figured in an allegory, the works of mercy which are provided for the necessities of this life out of the fruitful earth.
St. Augustine, Confessions

Augustine is a forerunner to Peterson’s approach. The ending of Confessions is almost incomprehensible, as it is an extended description of the Christian religion and then a treatise on the Roman science of psychology. This did not make sense to me until I read Peterson and watched his series Introduction to the Idea of God, which combines contemporary psychological and the Christian religion.

What Peterson seems to do far better than Augustine, though, is to integrate the Semitic worldview into both Christianity and philosophy. Consider for instance their takes on the very beginning of the Bible:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
The earth was without form, and void; and darkness [a]was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.
Genesis 1:1-2

Augustine presents a wordy (not surprising) exegesis on the view that the waters were uncreated matter:

For should any attempt to dispute against these two last opinions, thus,

"If you will not allow, that this formlessness of matter seems to be called by the name of heaven and earth;
Ergo, there was something which God had not made, out of which to make heaven and earth;
for neither hath Scripture told us, that God made this matter, unless we understand it to be signified by the name of heaven and earth, or of earth alone, when it is said,

‘In the Beginning God made the heaven and earth; that so in what follows, and the earth was invisible and without form (although it pleased Him so to call the formless matter)’,

we are to understand no other matter, but that which God made, whereof is written above, God made heaven and earth."
St. Augustine, Confessions

Augustine emphasizes the unconditional nature of God, but ignores the near-eastern view of ordering as Creation that inspires the passage. (To their credit, Mormon theologians pick up this theme). Peterson tackles the same passage as Augustine, but I think derives a deeper meaning:

It is primordial separation of light from darkness — engendered by Logos, the Word, equivalent to the process of consciousness — that initiates human experience and historical activity, which is reality itself, for all intents and purposes. This initial division provides the prototypic structure, and the fundamental precondition, for the elaboration and description of more differentiated attracting and repulsing pairs of opposites:
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 228-229

It is his words immediately following the passage, however, that present a sotorology (theory of salvation) different than any I had heard before:

Light and darkness constitute mythic totality; order and chaos, in paradoxical union, provide primordial elements of the entire experiential universe. Light is illumination, inspiration; darkness, ignorance and degeneration. Light is the newly risen sun, the eternal victor of the endless cyclical battle with the serpent of the night; is the savior, the mythic hero, the deliverer of humanity. Light is gold, the king of metals, pure, and incorruptible, a symbol for civilized value itself. Light is Apollo, the sun-king, god of enlightenment, clarity and focus; spirit, opposed to black matter; bright masculinity, opposed to the dark and unconscious feminine. Light is Marduk, the Babylonian hero, god of the morning and spring day, who struggles against Tiamat, monstrous goddess of death and the night; is Horus, who fights against evil, and redeems the father; is Christ, who transcends the past, and extends to all individuals identity with the divine Logos. To exist in the light means to be born, to live, to be redeemed, while to depart from the light means to choose the path of evil — to choose spiritual death — or to perish bodily altogether.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 229

In what manner was Christ redeemed by the Father?

God the Son

The Redeemer

Christ’s genealogy explicit includes our Father-in-Faith, Abraham, as well as the biological father of the human race, Adam, and the father of all surviving humans, Noah.

Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, the son of Heli, … the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalalel, the son of Cainan, the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.
Luke 3:23,36-38

Jesus, the perfect man, literally redeemed his fathers. He redeemed his-step father, Joseph. His redeemed his fathers, and in His image we will live:

The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.
1 Corinthians 15:47-49

It was men…

who nailed perfection to the cross:

And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side, and Jesus in the center.,.

Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also the tunic. Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece.
John 19:17-18,23

And God the Father…

who nailed sin to the Cross…

And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.
Colossians 2:13-15

… and now is our Father.

And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this:

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:7-10

Not that God the Father is missing anything, or lacks anything. But Christ restores our relationship with God the Father, getting us back to a place where God the Father can be called our Father.

In the Roman liturgy, the Eucharistic assembly is invited to pray to our heavenly Father with filial boldness; the Eastern liturgies develop and use similar expressions: "dare in all confidence," "make us worthy of. . . . " From the burning bush Moses heard a voice saying to him, "Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." Only Jesus could cross that threshold of the divine holiness, for "when he had made purification for sins," he brought us into the Father’s presence: "Here am I, and the children God has given me."

Our awareness of our status as slaves would make us sink into the ground and our earthly condition would dissolve into dust, if the authority of our Father himself and the Spirit of his Son had not impelled us to this cry . . . ‘Abba, Father!’ . . . When would a mortal dare call God ‘Father,’ if man’s innermost being were not animated by power from on high?"

Catechism of the Catholic Church 2777

Man and God, the Suffering of Sin and Glory of Perfection, meet in our Lord Jesus Christ. But Peterson presents Christ as the mediator between order and chaos, as the line between Yin and Yang, the One in whom all things may hope, and the One without which there is no hope

The Logos

Peterson’s preferred term for Christ is logos, the Word:

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is the Logos — the word of God — that creates order from chaos — and it is in the image of the Logos that man ["Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Genesis 1:26)] is created. This idea has clear additional precedents in early and late Egyptian cosmology (as we shall see). In the Far East — similarly — the cosmos is imagined as composed of the interplay between yang and yin, chaos and order — that is to say, unknown or unexplored territory, and known or explored territory. Tao, from the Eastern perspective, is the pattern of behavior that mediates between them (analogous to En-lil, Marduk, and the Logos) — that constantly generates, and regenerates, the "universe." For the Eastern man, life in Tao is the highest good, the "way" and "meaning"; the goal towards which all other goals must remain subordinate.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 87

Peterson emphasizes this point, emphasizing the use of The Way to identify both the Logos and the Tao. All things outside the Logos are harmful. Order inside the Logos is the protective ruler, while Order outside the Logos is the tyrannical father. Likewise, Chaos outside the Logos is the Dragon, while Chaos inside the Logos is the virgin.

The hero is a pattern of action, designed to make sense of the unknown; he emerges, necessarily, wherever human beings are successful. Adherence to this central pattern insures that respect for the process of exploration (and the necessary reconfiguration of belief, attendant upon that process) always remains superordinate to all other considerations — including that of the maintenance of stable belief. This is why Christ, the defining hero of the Western ethical tradition, is able to say "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6); why adherence to the Eastern way (Tao) — extant on the border between chaos (yin) and order (yang) — ensures that the "cosmos" will continue to endure.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 152

Paul the Apostle argues that all things, both life and death, are beneficial in Christ:

"But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.
Galatians 2:17-21

This centralization of Christ, relative to Order and Chaos, may be visualized as showing the divine or redeemed nature of Order and Chaos within Christ, and that without Christ, which will be destroyed

The Spirit of Truth

The False Dawn of Alchemy

Peterson spends an extended part of the conclusion of the book on alchemy, which initially appears inexplicable (or a misguided defense of Jung), but the analogies become clear. Gold is to rocks what Christ is to man, the ideal toward which we strive

Gold was, furthermore, the ideal end towards which all ores progressed — was "the target of progression." As it "ripened" in the womb of the earth, lead — for example, base and promiscuous [willing to "mate" (combine) with many other substances] — aimed at the state characterized by gold, perfect and inviolable. This made the "gold state" the goal of the Mercurial "spirit of the unknown," embedded in matter
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 322

The alchemist was a sort of priest, working on beings without souls:

The alchemist viewed himself as midwife to Nature — as bringing to fruition what Nature endeavored slowly to produce — and therefore as aid to a transformation aimed at producing something ideal. "Gold" is that ideal.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 322

Peterson had a shaky grasp of the Catholicism that imbued the medieval work while writing Maps of Meaning. His assertion that alchemy was a belief that sacrifice if not priesthood was still needed after the Crucifixion might be shocking to the college protestants he may encounter teaching…

The alchemical procedure was based on the attempt to redeem "matter," to transform it into an ideal. This procedure operated on the assumption that matter was originally corrupted — like man, in the story of Genesis. The study of the transformations of corruption and limitation activated a mythological sequence in the mind of the alchemist. This sequence followed the pattern of the way, upon which all religions have developed. Formal Christianity adopted the position that the sacrifice of Christ brought history to a close, and that "belief" in that sacrifice guaranteed redemption. Alchemy rejected that position, in its pursuit of what remained unknown.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 344

This is unintelligible from a Catholic perspective

Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. But grace also includes the gifts that the Spirit grants us to associate us with his work, to enable us to collaborate in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Body of Christ, the Church. There are sacramental graces, gifts proper to the different sacraments. There are furthermore special graces, also called charisms after the Greek term used by St. Paul and meaning "favor," "gratuitous gift," "benefit." Whatever their character – sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues – charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church.
Catechism of the Catholic Church 2033

While certainly there were alchemists who wrote in a metaphysical way, it was at the time considered to be a physical science. St. Thomas Aquinas defended alchemical processes that actually work:

Many clerics were alchemists. To Albertus Magnus, a prominent Dominican and Bishop of Ratisbon, is attributed the work "De Alchimia", though this is of doubtful authenticity. Several treatises on alchemy are attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas. He investigated theologically the question of whether gold produced by alchemy could be sold as real gold, and decided that it could, if it really possess the properties of gold (Summa Theologiae II-II.77.2). A treatise on the subject is attributed to Pope John XXII, who is also the author of a Bull "Spondent quas non exhibent" (1317) against dishonest alchemists. It cannot be too strongly insisted on that there were many honest alchemists.
"Alchemy," Catholic Encyclopedia

If Peterson was more aware of the Christian tradition when he wrote this work, his concern might have been that the externalizing features of Protestantism (which deny man agency in the ongoing work of salvation) and Catholicism (which seemingly deny man the teaching authority, as that is possessed by the Church) both deny him agency.

Alchemy was a living myth: the myth of the individual man, as redeemer. Organized Christianity had "sterilized itself," so to speak, by insisting on the worship of something external as the means to salvation. The alchemists (re)discovered the error of this presumption, and came to realize that identification with the redeemer was in fact necessary, not his "worship" — came to realize that that myths of redemption had true power when they were "incorporated," and acted out, rather than "believed," in some abstract sense. This meant: to say that Christ was "the greatest man in history" — a combination of the divine and mortal — was not sufficient "expression of faith." Sufficient expression meant, alternatively, the attempt to live out the myth of the hero within the confines of individual personality — to voluntarily shoulder the cross of existence, to "unite the opposites" within a single breast, and to serve as active conscious mediator between the eternal generative forces of known and unknown.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 346

Which is to say, for Peterson, alchemy and not "Organized" (read: evangelical) Christianity took seriously the commandment

Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.
Matthew 16:24-28

There is no good King without a cross.

The Age of The Holy Spirit

Paul, immediately before describing living and crucifixion in Christ, talks about the importance of justification by faith in Christ. "Faith" is not an abstract mental idea or an emotional state. It refers to allegiance in Christ, of imitating Christ.

We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.
Galatians 2:15-16

Peterson comes to the same conclusion: the Spirit of the Law is not a watered down or easier Law, but a harder one: one that involves creatively combining the order of the Law with new events coming out of Chaos:

Denial of unique individuality turns the wise traditions of the past into the blind ruts of the present. Application of the letter of the law when the spirit of the law is necessary makes a mockery of culture. Following in the footsteps of others seems safe, and requires no thought — but it is useless to follow a well-trodden trail when the terrain itself has changed. The individual who fails to modify his habits and presumptions as a consequence of change is deluding himself — is denying the world — is trying to replace reality itself with his own feeble wish. By pretending things are other than they are, he undermines his own stability, destabilizes his future — transforms the past from shelter to prison.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 258

In the years since Maps of Meaning came out, Peterson seems to have talked about alchemy less and the Holy Spirit more.

Peterson’s later adaptation of the Blessed Joachim of Fiore’s understanding of Catholicism crosses the Catholic-Protestant divide in a very clever way. Emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit:

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you."
John 16:12-15

and the "everlasting gospel"

And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people,
Revelations 14:6

Joachim theorized that:

There are three states of the world, corresponding to the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. In the first age the Father ruled, representing power and inspiring fear, to which the Old Testament dispensation corresponds; then the wisdom hidden through the ages was revealed in the Son, and we have the Catholic Church of the New Testament; a third period will come, the Kingdom of the Holy Spirit, a new dispensation of universal love, which will proceed from the Gospel of Christ, but transcend the letter of it, and in which there will be no need for disciplinary institutions.
"Joachim of Fiore," Catholic Encyclopedia

It is easy to see how such a view, of progressive revelation and a direct experience with the Holy Spirit, complements Peterson’s view of the centrality of the imitation of Christ in the life of every believer.

Conclusion

The truth seems painfully simple — so simple that it is a miracle, of sorts, that it can every be forgotten. Love God, with all thy mind, and all thy acts, and all thy heart. This means, serve truth above all else, and treat your fellow man as if he were yourself — not with the pity that undermines his self-respect, and not with the justice that elevates yourself above him — but as a divinity, heavily burdened, who could yet see the light.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 353

The Kingdom of Heaven includes the parts of material Christian within Christ. The Kingdom of Heaven is not just within heaven

Christ said, the kingdom of Heaven is spread out upon the earth, but men do not see it. What if it was nothing but our self-deceit, our cowardice, hatred and fear, that pollutes our experience and turns the world into Hell? This is a hypothesis, at least — as good as any other, admirable and capable of generating hope — why can’t we make the experiment, and find out if it is true?
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 353

Impressions of “Eight Homilies Against the Jews,” by Saint John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom was a Doctor of the Church, Ecumenical Father, and Archbishop of Constantinople during the Roman Empire. His sermons were before the Catholic-Orthodox split, and our revered in most mainline Christian traditions. He addresses multiple simultaneously and clearly is concerned for his flock. His writing affirms core Christian beliefs on salvation, and can help Protestants and Catholics understand each other. But he also has falls. His attempt at a disputation against “Judaizers” is only partially coherent on Judaism, and unlike Augustine he appears not to have spoken to Jews about the meaning of the Old Testament.

But First, there’s no getting around this: John Chrysostom’s Against the Jews — a Doctor of the Church and Patriarch of Constantinople — directly and repeatedly blames the Jews for the murder of Christ

Against the Jews

Jesus died for our sins. We are at fault. And Christians more at fault than others, for we know the cost of sin and do it anyway.

In this context, Chrysostom’s words are both ironic and terrifying:

Is it not foolish, then, to show such readiness to flee from those who have sinned against a man, but to enter into fellowship with those who have committed outrages against God himself? Is it not strange that those who worship the Crucified keep common festivals with those who crucified him? Is it not a sign of folly and the worst madness?

Even if this was a truly held theological point, it is no longer a permissible one. The Council of Trent clarified that all sinners share the guilt for the death of Jesus. He died for John Chrysostom’s sins as much as for those of the Jews.

Should anyone inquire why the Son of God underwent His most bitter Passion, he will find that besides the guilt inherited from our first parents the principal causes were the vices and crimes which have been perpetrated from the beginning of the world to the present day and those which will be committed to the end of time. In His Passion and death the Son of God, our Savior, intended to atone for and blot out the sins of all ages, to offer for them to his Father a full and abundant satisfaction.
Catechism of the Council of Trent Article IV, Part 2, ‘Reasons why Christ Suffered’

In the same sub-part, it is clear that Christian sinners suffer more guilt for the death of Christ than the Jews:

This guilt seems more enormous in us than in the Jews, since according to the testimony of the same Apostle: If they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory; while we, on the contrary, professing to know Him, yet denying Him by our actions, seem in some sort to lay violent hands on him.

But even if Chrysostom was gravely wrong about the guilt of the Jews, his target was not actually people who we would call Jews!

Against the Judaizers

There seems to have been a Messianic movement in Christianity that called itself Jews, but kept up animal sacrifices and many of the Jewish festivals in the Bible. When Chrysostom attacks the so-called “Jews” for these sacrifices he’s entirely right! Using only the Old Testament, he successfully disputes the claim of these “Jews” that they are following Jewish law

And that is the reason why God commanded sacrifice [in Jerusalem] only: you have heard the Law that has now been read among us — it runs as follows: “For they shall bring their sacrifice to the doors of the Tent of Witness” — and it goes on to add the reason: “So that they will not sacrifice their idols and to the vain things which which they themselves engage in prostitution.”

Chrysostom is completely correct here. No branch of Judaism practices animal sacrifices outside of Jerusalem. Indeed, the Christian sacrifice is qualitatively different than the Jewish one. And while much of Christianity is is continuous with Second-Temple Judaism, the requirement for recurrent animal sacrifices is not one of them.

That said, much of Chrysostom’s attacks on Jewish-style ritual seems hyperbolic. This passage is emblematic: in two sentences Chrysostom incorrectly states that all Jewish festivals are forbidden outside Jerusalem, and that Jews would never control Jerusalem again:

I did enough to complete my task when I proved from all the prophets that any such observance of ritual outside Jerusalem is a transgression of the Law and sacrilege. But they never stop whispering in everybody’s ear and bragging that they will get their city back again.

Against Salvation by the Law

Chrysostom is on much stronger ground on another area: a firm rejection of both “works of the law” and “faith as a mental state only.” Certain passages read like they could be directly lifted from Reformation-era writers.

That he has justified our race not by right actions, nor by toils, nor by barter and exchange, but by grace alone. Paul, too, made this clear when he aid: “But now the justice of God has been made manifest independently of the Law.” But the justice of God comes through faith in Jesus Christ and not through any labor and suffering.”

as well as:

All, then, who run to Christ are saved by his grace and profit from his gift. But those who wish to find justification from the Law will also fall from grace. They will not be able to enjoy the King’s loving-kindness because they are striving to gain salvation by their won efforts; they will draw down on themselves the curse of the Law because from the works of the Law no flesh will find justification,

While others appear to be as “Catholic” as one would expect from this Catholic bishop, 600 years before the schism between east and west:

For their is one defense left to sinners after they have sinned: to confess their sins.

and:

Your good deeds will not only bring praise to you but also rapid release from your sickness. The nobility of your choice will win God to even greater good will; all the saints will rejoice at what you have done; they will pray for you from the bottom of their hearts.

The solution of course is that faith and faithfulness were not distinguished in Greek. Indeed, Chrysostom specifically preaches on the parable of the three servants to make that point. In this parable, a rich man gave us servants money to spend or invest. A foolish servant, who did not try to make any profit, was condemned by the rich man.

Like Paul in The Letter to the Romans, Chrysostom believes that laboring for Christ is categorically distinct from “works of the Law,” a legalistic interpretation of the Torah aimed at maintaining a distinctive Jewish ethnic identity as a matter of religion. The Greek word translated as “faith” or “believe” in English, ” pistis, also means “faithfulness” or “allegiance.” For instance, a venture capitalist who provides start-up capital to a new company would call that company’s director “faithful” if he can turn a profit on the money.

Then each of us will be able to hear those happy words: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; because you have been faithful over a few things I will set you over many; enjoy into the joy of your Master’

Both the Apostle Paul and Archbishop Chrysostom assumed what Reformation-era debaters on both side did not realize: the emotionally charged argument over “faith” from the beginning of the modern era was not a question of belief or works, but of whether a divine Rule of Law would save one from a Divine Judge. As in Samuel or Solomon, the answer was obviously not. John Chrysostom, who also wrote in Greek, displayed the same unity of understanding about faith.

And I say to you what Paul said to the Galatians: “Become like me, because I also have become like you.” What does this mean? He was urging them to renounce circumcision, to scorn the Sabbath, the feast days, and all the other observances of the Law.

It is this focus on splittism, dividing up one faith along sectarian lines, that drove both Paul’s and Chrysostom’s attacks on reforming Judaizers of their day. I suspect Chrysostom shares my view of both the Catholic-Orthodox split, and the Protestant Reformation:

Moreover, the first thing I have to say to the Judaizers is that nothing is worse than contentiousness and fighting, than tearing the Church asunder and rending into many parts the robe which the robbers did not dare to rip.

and

Fasting at tiffs or that time is not a matter for blame. But to rend asunder the Church, to be ready for rivalry, to create dissension, to rob oneself continuously of the benefits of religious meetings — these are unpardonable, these do demand an account, these do deserve serious punishment.

and finally

So let me finish my discourse at this point, and let us all pray together that our brothers come back to us. Let us pray that they cling fondly to peace and stand apart from untimely rivalry.

Like the money in that parable, good works can produce interest beyond their initial investment.

If somebody else does what you did, you will carry off the reward because it was you who gave him his start, it is you whom he emulated.

The goal of allegiance of Christ is not the ritual celebration of festivals or yearly fasting. These may be tools, but they are not the goal. The goal is to imitate Christ

Why are you a Christian? Is it not that you may imitate Christ and obey his Laws? What did Christ do? He did not sit in Jerusalem and call the sick to come ot him. he went around to cities and towns and cured sickness of both body and soul.

No fasting, no sleeping on the ground, no watching and praying all night, nor anything else can do as much for you as saving your brother can accomplish.

Writing before the debates over the Reformation, and being able to span them through his fluent Greek, he also cuts through another debate: does justification occur organically (by a change in our soul — implying the need for a state or place or cleansing if our soul is not sufficiently clean upon death) or mechanistically (where sins are simply not counted, due to Christ’s saving blood.)

The answer is both, and much more:

To show that David made this whole prophetic prediction in behalf of Christ when he said ‘Sacrifice and oblation you id not desire,’ David went on to say: ‘But a body you have fitted for me.’ By this he meant the Lord’s body which became our common sacrifice for the whole world, the sacrifice which cleansed our soul, canceled our sin, put down death, opened heaven, gave us great many hopes, and made ready all other things which Paul knew well and spoke of when he explained: ‘Oh, the depth of the riches and of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are his judgments and how unsearchable are his ways!’

Against Sin, but for the Sinner

Augustine and Chrysostom go by different ways to build empathy. Augustine’s methods are self-centered — you learn about his childhood, his parents, his job, his friends. Reading Confessions feels like meeting a new friend. The Catholic Church’s strong history of protecting Jews as an intellectual community doubtless owes a lot to Augustine’s personal struggle. It’s one thing ot say that serious interpretation of the Old Testament is necessary to understand Christianity — its another to see a Doctor of the Church reject Christianity as incoherent until Jewish hermenutics are introduced to him!

Chrysostom is completely different. After reading Eight Homilies I don’t know how old he is, how he became Christian, what his friends like to do, or how he came to his opinions. From Chrysostom you can hear the same Christian humanist voice that Pope Francis uses so well in our own day

A human being is worth more than the whole world. Heaven and earth and sea and sun and stars were made for his sake.

John also provides the best homily over the story of Cain and Abel that I ever encountered. Though he uses the Septuagint Bible, which translates some context different, it is so moving:

“Even so, Cain did not listen, he did not stop, he did commit that murder, he did bathe his hands in blood from his brother’s throat. But then what happened? God did not say: ‘Let him go now. What further use in there of in helping him. He did commit the murder, he did slay his brother….’

God neither said nor did anything like that. Instead, he came again to him, corrected him, and said: ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ When Cain said he did not know, God still did not desert him but he brought him, in spite of himself, to admit what he had done…

‘I have committed a sin too great for pardon, defense, or forgiveness; if it is your will to punish my crime, I shall lie exposed to every harm because your helping hand has abandoned me.’ And what did God do then? He said ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain shall be punished sevenfold!… For the number seven in the Scriptures means an indefinitely large number..

And Cain himself became a better man again. His trembling, his fear, the mental torment which never left him, his physical paralysis kept him, as it were, shackled. They kept him from leaping again to any other dead of boldness; they constantly reminded him of his former crime; through them he achieved greater self-control in his soul.”

This focus on pastoral service to individual sinners would largely be lost in the west until it was revived by the Friars. I wonder if this remained in the East and, if so, if its loss in the west was a result of Augustine’s autobiographical (and thus, self-centric) style).

Cain Punished

Chrysostom also is aware he is speaking to multiple audiences simultaneously. For instance, as Patriarch of Constantinople he has priests reporting to him. But as the foremost pastor of Constantinople he is also responsible for the souls of the common people. And as a literary figure his words would be read for centuries.

So he is careful to provide a hermeneutic key, or statement that is literally true, true in context, and true in how the document as a whole should be interpreted. Thus, threats of damnation or Hell must be read as a way to help people act better, and not a sign that God forgets about them

Mothers who love their children also do this: when their children cry, they often threaten to throw them to the jaws of wolves. Of course, they would not throw them to the wolves but they say they will to stop the children from bothering them. Everything Christ did was done to keep us bound together and living at peace with one another.

And just as God came down and was closest to Cain, the emotional meaning of the text is closest to the common believer. While Chrysostom was a pivotal father of not just Christianity in general, but of Orthodox branch in particular, he is careful to praise the common believer, and even flatter him, for good works

If you pour out many words and do everything in your power and still see that he refuses to heed you, then bring him to the priest. By the help of God’s grace the priests will surely overcome their quary. But it will all be your doing, because it was you who took his hand and led him to us.

For Understanding of the Gospel

Like his contemporary Augustine, John Chrysostom appears heavily influenced by Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophy. Thus he looks forward to heaven, correctly, but his goal appears to the pure spiritual life of heaven rather than a reincarnated life on the New Earth

He knew their obstinancy and shamelessnessm, their willfulness and disobedience; he knew that they would not easily choose to give up their former way of life, conducted with sacrifices and burnt offerings, and go toward the higher, more spiritual life of the Gospels

Indeed, Chrysostom appears to believe the “New Earth” is simply a metaphor for a heaven where our old friends the planets no longer exist

We are citizens of a city above in heaven, where there are no months, no sun, no moon, no circle of seasons.

Chrysostom is extrapolating on a passage in The Revelation to John.

The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light.
Revelation 21:23

Now, a lot is going on in this question. St. Thomas Aquinas spends considerable time on it in Summa Theologica. But that the sun is simply a lamp, and in bright places there is no need for it, is hard to agree with. Bright artificial lights can even now evenly illuminate indoor rooms more usefully than the sun. It does not mean the sun is not our Brother, or that we are not happy to be with him.

That said, some of Chrysostom’s inferences are thought provoking. When I first began writing these impressions, I thought that Chrysostom’s conlusion

We read: “Seventy weeks are cut short for your people, no longer does God say: “for my people.”

referring to this passage…

“Seventy weeks are determined
For your people and for **your holy city,
To finish the transgression,
To make an end of sins,
To make reconciliation for iniquity,
To bring in everlasting righteousness,
To seal up vision and prophecy,
And to anoint the Most Holy.
Daniel 9:24*

…seemed arbitrary, until I read the whole chapter, and saw “your people” and “your city” parralleled Daniel’s prayer to God.

“O Lord, according to all Your righteousness, I pray, let Your anger and Your fury be turned away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain; because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Your people are a reproach to all those around us.
*Daniel 9:16

In this context, Gabriel is literally repeating the phrase, but turning its meaning around. I feel like I did the first time I realized cities could be not just holy, but sacred. I don’t agree with Chrysostom’s inteprtation, but he translates correctly and is striking in his explanation.

Wholly absent from Chrysostom’s interpretation are attempts to explain away Bible verses through allegory. This both helps him and hurts him. Famously, Augustine suspected both the “whales” (from the Book of Jonah) and the “fishes” (from the Gospels) were symbols of what actually appeared:

Therefore will I speak before Thee, O Lord, what is true, when ignorant men and infidels (for the initiating and gaining of whom the sacraments of initiation and great works of miracles are necessary, which we believe to be signified under the name of “fishes” and “whales”) undertake that Thy servants should be bodily refreshed, or should be otherwise succoured for this present life, although they may be ignorant wherefore this is to be done, and to what end; neither do the former feed the latter, nor the latter the former; for neither do the one perform these things through a holy and right intent, nor do the other rejoice in the gifts of those who behold not as yet the fruit

As the Scriptures are composed of many genre, this means that sometimes that each hermeneutical approach is acceptable at times. The Book of Jonah reads like a comedy, if not a satire, and an allegorical explanation is only natural. Augustine’s attempts to explain away the miracles of the Gospels, though, perhaps are less admirable.

Unsurprisingly, there are several methods of interpretation which are missing entirely. There are no references to literary genres of the Bible. Temple literature, Canaanite mythology, Second Temple literature are absent from Chrysostom’s methods.

In Biblical times, a “covenant” was an instrument of surrender” dictated by the triumphant power to the weaker power, demanding allegiance in exchange for grace and justification. Contemporary Jews believe there are two operative Covenants in the Hebrew Bible — the Mosaic Covenant and the older Noahide Covenant through which God justifies the gentiles. Many Christians argue the complement, that the Mosaic Covenant is itself complemented by the new and everlasting covenant. Numerous other covenants, both secular and religious, can be identified.

But Chrysostom and Dumbrell make almost opposite errors. Dumbrell insists there is only one covenant. Chrysostom states that while there were old, they have been abrogated and only the new is operational.

Previously saying, “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Hebrews 10:8-10

What is “the first.” The clear meaning is “Sacrifice and offering burn offerings, and offerings for sin.” The second is doing God’s will — having lived faith. Chrysostom (incorrectly identifying the author of Letter to the Hebrews as Paul) writes:

In expalnation of this text Paul said: ‘He annuls the first covenant in order to establish the second.’

Dumbrell goes to the other extreme, arguing there is only one covenant in the entire Bible.

“What this means in real terms is that there is only one biblical covenant, with the end to be reached from the beginning always in view.”
William Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, pg. 8

For Celebration of the Mysteries

In keepng with the Orthodox tradition he would help found, Chrysostom calls Catholic sacraments “mysteries”:

If you approach the altar on the very day of the Sabbath and your conscience be bad, you fail to share in the mysteries and you leave without celebrating the Pasch. But if you wash away your sins and share in the mysteries today, you do celebrate the Pasch in precisely the proper way.

Yet Chrysostom implicitly seems to focus on the need for excitement by the congregation. Though he never explicitly says it, Chrysostom appears to be grant the Judaizers a great compliment: their mass is more accessible to an illiterate or marginal population. He specifically calls out the popularity of Jewish-type rituals for women:

For indeed, I know that most of the crowd that is drawn to go there is composed of women. Now then, the blessed Paul says, “husbands, love your wives”; and again, “The wife should fear her husband.” But I am seeing neither wives’ fear nor husbands’ love.

As well as other marginal populations and social outcasts:

But now that the devil summons your wives to the feast of the Trumpets and the turn a ready ear to this call, you do not restrain the, You let them entangle themselves in accusations of ungodliness, you let them be dragged off into licentious ways. For as a rule, it is the harlots, the effeminates, and the whole chorus from the the theater who rush to that festival.

At least part of the reason is the Jewish-typical festivals are more musical, and more ngaging

But you dsire to hear a trumpet! Then listen to the trumpet of Paul, the spiritual trumpet blaring out from the heavens and saying, “Take up the full armor of God.”

Having once attended a Messianic Synagogue with a friend, these strengths of Judaeo-Christian festivals can still be seen. In the Eastern Churches, John Chrysostom is still credited with having created the contemporary Orthodox Liturgy. The Orthodox Style, with its beauty and ritual, may owe much to Chrysostom’s need to compete with what we would now call a form of Messianic Judaism.

Final Thoughts

John Chrysostom’s Eight Homilies Against the Jews is a complex book. The repeated claim, that the Jews are to blame for the death of Christ, has been explicitly rejected since the Counter-Reformation by the Catholic Church. Perhaps the greatest Greek-speaking Christian intellectual since Paul, Chrysostom’s focus on face, grace, and imitation of Christ help us under salvation by allegiance to Christ, and not the Law. He humanize the Gospel, focusing on God’s love for the sinner and our need to care for each other. He provides a straight-forward, but not literal, interpretation of the scriptures that is a good complement to Augustine’s methods. And of course, he is the father of the Orthodoxy Liturgy.

I read Eight Homilies Against the Jews in the Kindle edition.