Generally there’s a gap between people great at explaining what the words of the Bible mean (its cultural, linguistic, and genre contexts), and what the Bible means (the transcendent, spiritual worth of the text). Thus Michael Heiser, N.T. Wright have excellent works explaining the original plain meaning of the Old and New Testaments, while C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton are great at explaining what the Bible means and what Christianity is.
Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI, is a rare man who can do both.
This short volume primarily focuses on the Gospel’s Christmas accounts, as well as Luke’s retelling of Jesus being found in the temple. In this book Benedict uses the text to show not just how Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled, but the meaning of the magi, the reaction of Jerusalem, the apocalyptic nature of the event, and so on.
This book is short, easy to read, and great. Ratziner displays a mastery of textual analyses on par with Heiser and Wright. That he wrote this being the public face of the largest religion in the world is astonishing,
When I wrote my impressions of the Gospel According to Matthew, I noted it began with an ending — with a genealogy that normally serves to close a section of the Torah. I did not catch how Luke did the same thing. Near the beginning of Luke’s gospel is reference to the Book of Enoch — the gospel opens with a genealogy containing 77 generations (70 from Enoch on):
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 Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Janna, the son of Joseph, the son of Mattathiah, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, the son of Maath, the son of Mattathiah, the son of Semei, the son of Joseph, the son of Judah, the son of Joannas, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmodam, the son of Er, the son of Jose, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonan, the son of Eliakim, the son of Melea, the son of Menan, the son of Mattathah, the son of Nathan, the son of David, the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Salmon, the son of Nahshon, the son of Amminadab, the son of Ram, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, 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 3:23-38
This mapping of 77 generations to forever is derived from Enoch:
To Michael likewise the Lord said, Go and announce his crime to Samyaza, and to the others
who are with him, who have been associated with women, that they might be polluted with all their impurity. And when all their sons shall be slain, when they shall see the perdition of their beloved, bind them for seventy generations underneath the earth, even to the day of judgment, and of consummation, until the judgment, the effect of which will last for ever, be completed.
Then shall they be taken away into the lowest depths of the fire in torments; and in confinement shall they be shut up for ever. 1 Enoch10:15-16
The implication of is even greater than I had imagined. The message is not simply, the previous chapter is over. Rather, the previous world is over. All things are made new in Jesus, for He is the beginning and the end.
The Adoration of the Magi
Another reference I missed is how Luke comments on Matthew’s magi. Luke’s later magi, a wicked man, is named bar Jesus, as if to drive the point home. Compare Matthew’s account of Christmas:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magoo from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” Matthew 2:1-2
To Luke’s of the early church age:
Now when they had gone through the island to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. This man called for Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the Magus (for so his name is translated) withstood them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. Acts13:6-8
Benedict explicitly notes that magi had a range of meanings in the time, from expert scientist to devious fraudster. But the double use, plus the name reported of the wicked magi, is interpretted by Benedict as making the point that religion can open or close one to God, depending on the nature of the religion and how one receives it.
Gentiles and the Bible
Benedict seems aware of the stories from ancient Canaan. He identifies the Star of Bethlehem with a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter that occurred around 6 BC. Throughout the Mediterranean and near-east Saturn a longer was associated with the Creator God Cronos or El, and Jupiter with the presiding god of a younger generation, Zeus or Ba’al or Marduk. Thus a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter could be read as the Ba’al-of-El or the Zeus-of-Cronos. At the time of the first Christmas many peoples recognized the existence of the Creator God, but the Jews were conspicuous in worshiping him.
Benedict argues the Magi went to Jerusalem as the recognized Temple of the Creator God, familiarized themselves with ‘local’ relevant prophecies (such as of the King of Israel to be born in Bethlehem), and proceeded accordingly. I find this treatment brilliant, as it both incorporates Christianity as the completion of astrology, while also deeply humanizing the motives of the magi themselves.
The Scholastics of the Time
A major development in the 20th century was a move away from Scholasticism (which viewed Christianity primarily as a set of truth-propositions to be accepted) to the current period of re-utilizing the Bible and the Church Fathers as sources, which sees Christianity primarily as a relationship between the believer and God. Benedict was a major champion of the re-utilization or resourcement, as an academic, as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II, and as Pope. The current, Benedictine, era thus can see critical references to “experts of the law” as applicable to the now-defeated Scholastics.
Benedict discovers an additional dig, as the magi are leaving Jerusalem
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: Matthew 2:3-5
apparently none of the “Chief Priests and scribes” bothered to apply their intellectual knowledge of the signs and of Herod’s nature, to preventing the massacre in the Bethlehem. Perhaps they simply couldn’t. As my friend Michael Lotus noted, it was Christ’s acts which took a cynical statement of politics:
And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” John11:49-50
and turned it into a religion of salvation.
The Tradition and the Bible
I have Protestant friends who struggle with the Catholic and Orthodox doctrine of the Bible and Sacred Tradition. Instead of defensively arguing for Tradition from the Church’s authority, Benedict does so on a textual basis. It is clear, he states, that the story of Christmas derives from a family Tradition — of Mary’s recollections.
But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Luke2:19
Benedict does not push this point, but I think it is meaningful. The Bible itself is derived from the knowledge of people who knew Jesus for years or decades. That the Bible was the total, complete, and only method of transmission of this memory is not a natural claim.
But this introduces an unresolved question. Benedict says Mary’s reply to the angel is not explicable in the text, and is a “riddle” (or “mystery”). The text itself states that Mary is betrothed to Joseph, and the regular mechanism of conceiving a child in the near term seems pretty obvious. What is going on?
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. …
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”
Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” Luke 1:26-27,31-34
According to Benedict, we don’t know.
It’s interesting comparing The Infancy Narratives to Pope Francis’s Laudato Si or On Heaven and Earth . Francis is thought provoking and moves the reader to action. But Benedict can explain complex issues in more detail in a clear and thoughtful way.
I am very glad I read this book. I indirectly owe it to Fr. Harrison Ayre and Fr. Anthony Sciarappa whose Clerically Speaking podcast often discusses Ratzinger’s writings in very approachable terms. Even with that recommendation, though, I didn’t expect the clarity of writing or the masterful handling of the biblical text. This book is excellent reading for anyone wanting to learn more about what the Bible says about the first Christmas.
So many of the chapters of the Qur’an are interpretive mash-ups — of Mary and Miriam, of Abraham and Peter, Moses and Joshua — that I wonder if the mash-ups are the essence of the chapters, and not just a feature of them. Specifically, I wonder if the chapters of the Qur’an are literally homilies, which follow a two-readings, a psalm, and a gospel as in most liturgical churches. So for the twelfth chapter, Joseph, and perhaps others, I will begin by presenting a list of readings that implicit in the chapter, and then discuss the particular narrative of the chapter itself.
A Reading, from the Book of Genesis:
And it came to pass after these things that his master’s wife cast longing eyes on Joseph, and she said, “Lie with me.”
But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Look, my master does not know what is with me in the house, and he has committed all that he has to my hand. There is no one greater in this house than I, nor has he kept back anything from me but you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”
So it was, as she spoke to Joseph day by day, that he did not heed her, to lie with her or to be with her.
But it happened about this time, when Joseph went into the house to do his work, and none of the men of the house was inside, that she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside. And so it was, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and fled outside, that she called to the men of her house and spoke to them, saying, “See, he has brought in to us a Hebrew to mock us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. And it happened, when he heard that I lifted my voice and cried out, that he left his garment with me, and fled and went outside.”
So she kept his garment with her until his master came home. Then she spoke to him with words like these, saying, “The Hebrew servant whom you brought to us came in to me to mock me; so it happened, as I lifted my voice and cried out, that he left his garment with me and fled outside.”
So it was, when his master heard the words which his wife spoke to him, saying, “Your servant did to me after this manner,” that his anger was aroused. Then Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were confined. And he was there in the prison Genesis 39:7-20
“Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance. For these reasons the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. Therefore, having obtained help from God, to this day I stand, witnessing both to small and great, saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come— that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead, and would proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles.”
King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you do believe.”
Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian.”
And Paul said, “I would to God that not only you, but also all who hear me today, might become both almost and altogether such as I am, except for these chains.”
When he had said these things, the king stood up, as well as the governor and Bernice and those who sat with them; 31 and when they had gone aside, they talked among themselves, saying, “This man is doing nothing deserving of death or chains.”
Then Agrippa said to Festus, “This man might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” Acts 26:13-23,23-32
Give the king Your judgments, O God,
And Your righteousness to the king’s Son.
He will judge Your people with righteousness,
And Your poor with justice.
The mountains will bring peace to the people,
And the little hills, by righteousness.
He will bring justice to the poor of the people;
He will save the children of the needy,
And will break in pieces the oppressor. Psalms 72:1-4
“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.” Mark 16:24-28
A Qur’anic Homily
The Qur’anic author believes there is a “Book” or Heavenly Scrolls with God, but the Qur’an itself is not this book. It is a collection of talks, elaborated stories, that highlight the best of the Torah and the Gospels:
We will recount to you the best narratives in what We have revealed to you of this Lectionary and prior to it you were indeed among those who were unaware of it. Qur’an 12:3
This Qur’an was written to more clearly express the morals in Torah and the Gospels:
There is certainly a moral in their accounts for those who possess intellect. This is not a fabricated discourse; rather, it is a confirmation of what was before it, and an elaboration of all things, and guidance and mercy for people who have faith. Qur’an 12:111
The twelfth chapter of the Qur’an, “Joseph,” explains how judgment works. Good judges and bad judges are described, both in public matters and private.
For instance, in the Bible and the Qur’an Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph, and then frames him for rape.
They raced to the door, and she tore his shirt from behind, and they ran to her husband [Potiphar]. She said, ‘What is to be the requital of him who has evil intentions for your wife except imprisonment or a painful punishment? He said, ‘It was she who solicited me.’
A witness of her own household testified: “If his shirt is torn from the front, she tells the truth and he lies. But if his shirt is torn from behind, then she lies and he tells the truth.’
Joseph, let this matter alone, and you, woman, plead for forgiveness for your sin, for you have indeed been erring. Qur’an 12:29
Yet the next we see Joseph, he is in prison. The judge has ‘compromised,’ like Pilate, leading to an unjust outcome.
Somewhat better is the king, who at least demands the truth, and gets it:
The king said, ‘What was your business, women, when you solicited Joseph?’ They said, “heaven be praised! We know of no evil in him.’
The prince’s [Potiphar’s] wife said, ‘Now the truth has come to light! It was I who solicited him, and he is indeed telling the truth. This, that he may know that I did not betray him in his absence, and God does not further the schemes of the treacherous. Yet I do not absolve my soul, for the soul indeed prompts to evil, except inasmuch as my Lord has mercy. My Lord is indeed all-forgiving, all-merciful!’ Qur’an 12:51-53
A wise judge, such as Joseph during his evaluation of his brothers, seeks evidence and considers it wisely.
“When he had furnished them with their provisions, he put the drinking-cup into his brother’s saddlebag. Then a herald shouted: O caravan! You are indeed thieves!.. The said, ‘The requital for it shall be that he in whose saddlebag it is found shall give himself over as its requital. Thus do we requite the wrongdoers.’ Qur’an 12:70,75
Joseph also judges — or balances — in theological matters. For instance, he uses dreams of bread and grapes (the raw material of the transubstantiation) to emphasize the need for absolute Monotheism and a lack of intercessors:
There entered the prison two youths along with him. One of them said, ‘I dreamt that I am pressing grapes.’ The other said, ‘I dreamt that I am carrying brad on my head from which the birds are eating.’ ‘Inform us of its interpretation, for indeed we see you are a virtuous man.’
He said, ‘Before the meals you are served come to you I will inform you of its interpretation. That is among things my Lord has taught me. Indeed, I renounce the creed of the people who have no faith in God and who also disbelieve in the Hereafter. I follow the creed of my fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
It is not for us to ascribe any partner to God. That is by virtue of God’s grace upon us and upon all mankind, but most people do not give thanks.
O my prison mates! Are different masters better, or the God, the One, the All-paramount? Qur’an 12:36-38
And likewise Joseph prays for his brothers, not of his own initiative (Which would have been arrogant in the Qur’anic author’s eyes) but as a response to a request (which was to help those of weak faith)
They said, ‘Father! Plead for forgiveness of our sins! We have indeed been erring!.’
He said, ‘I shall plead with my Lord to forgive you; indeed He is the All-forgiving, All-merciful.’ Qur’an 12:97-98
Joseph is a type of Christ, calling others to follow him:
They said, ‘Father! Plead for forgiveness of our sins! We have indeed been erring!.’
He said, ‘I shall plead with my Lord to forgive you; indeed He is the All-forgiving, All-merciful.’ Qur’an 12:97-98
And even using his clothes to mediate his presence to others:
Take this shirt of mine and cast it upon my father’s face, he will regain his sight, and bring me all your folks.’
As the caravan set off, their father said, ‘I sense the scent of Joseph, if you will not consider me a dotard.’ Qur’an 12:93-94
Joseph is an icon of what a judge, a balances, a man should be. “Are you really Joseph?” in the reunion between Joseph and Benjamin could be replaced with, “Are you really what I should be?”
They said, ‘Are your really Joseph?”‘
He said, ‘I m Joseph, and this is my brother. Certainly God has shown us favor. Indeed, if one is Godwary and patient, God does not waste the reward of the virtuous.’
They said, ‘By God, God has certainly preferred you over us, and we have indeed been erring.’
He said, ‘There shall be no reproach on you today. God will forgive you and He is the most merciful of the merciful. Qur’an 12:90-92
The cause of these though is the Lord, and it is the Lord’s power without intercession which allows any of this to work.
And as with Christ, Joseph leave us with a prayer, a variation of the Our Father.
My Lord! You have granted me a share in the kingdom, and taught me the interpretation of drams. Originator of the heaven and earth! You are my guardian in this world and the Hereafter! Let my death be in submission, and unite me with the Righteous. Qur’an 12:101
Unites his father with his brothers:
And he seated his parents high upon the throne, and they fell down prostrate before him. He said, ‘Father! This is the fulfillment of my dream of long ago, which my Lord has made come true. He was certainly gracious to me when He brought me out of the prison and brought you over from the desert after that Satan had incited ill feeling between me and my brothers. My Lord is indeed all-attentive in bringing about what He wishes. Indeed, He is the All-knowing, the All-wise.’ Qur’an 12:100
And as with Genesis, in all of this, there is a shock.
The first book book with a Bible ends with the last of the Patriarchs, entombed, a mummy:
So Joseph died, being one hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt. Genesis 50:26
To any who know typology, and what Egypt represents, the penultimate lines of Joshua are no less shocking:
When they entered into the presence of Joseph, he set his parents close to himself, and said, ‘Welcome to Egypt, in safety, God willing!’ Qur’an 12:99
The only thing more shocking in the Bible, perhaps, is the next Joseph who enters Egypt:
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”
When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Matthew 2:13-15
Hans Urs von Balthasar is a short summary. I don’t have a firm grasp of the man Balthasar. But at a high level, it appears that Balthasar is similar to GK Chesterton in his focus on the codependency of mysticism and theology. That is, Balthasar sees Thomas Aquinas’s system view of God to be as true and valid as Francis of Assisi’s mystical vision. He also sees the Church Fathers as a “source” of the faith which has been neglected in favor of Aquinas’s “summary” of theology. Balthasar focuses on Glory as a goal of worship. The book does not spend enough time on Balthasar’s seemingly odd ideas about the Son, or his role in Catholic intellectual history.
I’ve become more aware of Balthasar over the last year, primarily from social and new media. Taylor Marshall, author of The Crucified Rabbi, greatly dislikes Balthasar. On his show he dedicated an episode to criticizing Balthasar and his ideas:
Meanwhile, Robert Barron, author of To Light a Fire, admires Balthasar greatly. He’s also put out his own videos — shorter but punchier, praising the man. A similar view has appeared on Catholic podcasts like Clerically Speaking* and Credal Catholic
Balthasar focuses on the “Glory” of God. Doxa, or “Glory,” is a form of belief that contrasts with (and complements) episteme. Thus the relationship between Glory and Theology is more obvious in Greek than it is in translation in Latin and in the West. Indeed, the demand that Aquinas’s theology have a mystical pairing is close to the Orthodox criticism of Catholicism.
The word doxa picked up a new meaning between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC when the Septuagint translated the Hebrew word for “glory” (????, kavod) as doxa. This translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was used by the early church and is quoted frequently by the New Testament authors. The effects of this new meaning of doxa as “glory” is made evident by the ubiquitous use of the word throughout the New Testament and in the worship services of the Greek Orthodox Church, where the glorification of God in true worship is also seen as true belief. In that context, doxa reflects behavior or practice in worship, and the belief of the whole church rather than personal opinion.
But more often than “Glory,” Balthasar uses the word “Beauty.” I don’t understand what Balthasar means by using “Beauty” as a strict synonym, or his purpose in seeming to adopt the German romantic tradition into Catholicism. I am unsure if this is a culture touchstone that Balthasar uses to demonstrate his point, or indicates goals beyond the recovery of Glory into Christianity.
According to the book, Balthasar also shared ideas that fit less well with the Catholic or Orthodox traditions. He seems to see the Son as inferior to the Father, and insists that it was the Father who raised the Son, and not the Son who raised Himself. This changes the view of Good Saturday away from the Harrowing of Hell and towards the suffering of Christ in hell. Yet Balthasar’s insistence that the Christian re-presents the procession of the Trinity may fit with the Shepherd of Hermas.
I would have enjoyed a greater discussion about Balthasar’s role in Catholic intellectual history. Balthasar gives an important focus to Mary and prayer, in a way that’s presented as a change from neoscholasticism. This fits with what I have heard before, that it was Balthasar influence (and those with similar views) influence on the Second Vatican Council that helped center these in the Church’s teachings, and pivot away from the specific scholastic process that had been common before. Yet how his thoughts related to others in that council, what was the cause and what was the effect, is left unanswered in this short volume.
I read Hans Urs von Balthasar: Rediscovering Holistic Christianity in the Audible edition.
Recently I read Paul, N.T. Wright’s biography of The Apostle. Paul fits within other books I have read that emphasize the Kingship of Christ in the Kingdom of Israel, the Kingdom of Heaven. Wright emphasizes faithfulness to this King, and the freedom that following the King gives to His subjects. Along the way N.T. Wright reconstructs Paul’s journeys, creating a chronology that is both traditional and revisionist.
Heaven and Earth
The oldest Christian creed we have is the Apostle’s Creed. Paul’s missionary journeys took place about halfway between the first of Christ and the writing of the Creed, in A.D. 120. It concludes:
I believe in the Holy Ghost,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
“The Apostles Creed“
Christians look forward to a resurrected body and everlasting life. Heaven is not promised as a place of living. Though having one’s own body, a physical existence, is promised.
This brings up a distinction between C.S. Lewis, who Wright reminds me of, and Wright himself. Both were Anglican, both had a knack for talking to a Catholic and Reformed audience simultaneously, and both have a delightful British writing style. But there’s a striking difference. Lewis focuses on Christianity as a philosophy, or even cosmic worldview.
The Weight of Glory focuses on dimensional projection, and The Great Divorce on an image of heaven, hell, and purgatory. Yet if there’s a central difference between Wright and Lewis, it’s that Wright emphasizes Christ’s mission in this world, and not a platonic understanding of the next world. Our home is earth, the Kingdom of Heaven is already here in part, and the promise of the future is the resurrection of the dead on a new earth, and not eternal souls living in Heaven. I suspect Wright would state that Lewis’s Christianity was less bodily and more abstract than anything written in the Bible, and that such Platonism was not a legitimate development of doctrine, but a forgetting of the good news of the Bible: the Heavenly Kingship of Jesus Christ. To give a brief illustration, the first mention of “Heaven” in each of the gospels is either announcing Heaven breaking into earth, or Heaven as the location that God lives:
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Matthew 3:1-2
It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-11
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” Luke 2:13-15
And John bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ John 1:32-33
Heaven is not promised as a location for us to live in either the Creed or the gospel text. But the invasion of Heaven into this world, a royal brigandry against the forces of darkness, is:
But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house. He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad. Matthew 12:25-30
By Faithfulness to the King You Are Saved
The Bible was written for us but not to us — it was written to the Jews and later Romans of the near east thousands of years ago. Understanding its message for us requires understanding how it’s message would have been understood by the people to whom it was written.
A consequence is an sudden ending of the debate around “justification by faith alone” or “justification by faith and works” — the great dispute between the Catholic and Protestant faiths. If Christ’s Kingship is literally true, then the Biblical term “faith” is better translated and “allegiance” or “faithfulness,” and the distinction between “faith” in Christ and working for Christ melts away. The Greek word translated as ‘faith’ — pistis — refers to the faithful obedience of a subject to a king, or a soldier to a commanding officer. Consider the two passages that had been held up by these rival groups of Christians — the message is the same:
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has pistis but does not have works? Can pistis save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also pistis by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have pistis, and I have works.” Show me your pistis without your works, and I will show you my pistis by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that pistis without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that pistis was working together with his works, and by works pistis was made perfect? James 2:14-22
and Paul’s justification “by faith” becomes
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 pistis in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by pistis 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
According to Wright, Paul argue that God’s righteousness refers to His continued upholding the covenant with Israel. God is a conquering Sovereign who upholds a terms of surrender with a lesser party, in spite of repeated breaches by the lesser party. When Paul speaks of righteousness, Wright argues, is not speaking of individual entrance into heaven — but that in spite of Covenant breach by the inferior party (Israel), but superior party (God) would remain loyal. This makes sense to me. The Old Testament description of Covenant is clearly along the lines of an Status-of-Forces or Instrument-of-Surrender, so it makes sense this theme is continued in the New Testament as well.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by pistis.”
For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.) Romans 1:6,5:17
Freedom in the Kingdom
A “kingdom” reading of the Bible involves at least two offices Christ establishes — the Queen Mother (Mary) and Prime Minister (Peter). Wright elides the issue, noting that (whatever was said in the Gospel itself) by the time of Paul’s ministry a de facto office of “pillar” had been established that included Peter, as well as James and John
And when James, Cephas [Peter], and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I also was eager to do. Galatians 2:9-10
Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.” Matthew 17:1-9
Paul though at least seems to subvert the new Christian government, whether based on Peter’s Prime Ministership or these “pillars.” He derived his apostleship directly from Christ, and not from the Twelve. This is a challenge to a fully incarnate understanding of the Kingdom, as Paul emphasizes the Sovereign is still God in Heaven:
But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ. Galatians 1:11-12
Though Paul argues that in doing so he is not subverting the government, but enjoying his “right” as a subject of Christ:
Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
My defense to those who examine me is this: Do we have no right to eat and drink? Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? 1 Corinthians 9:1-5
It is this sort of “freedom” — not a reading of Reformation-era concerns against the Curia, but Paul’s actual position within the Kingdom of Heaven, that he talks about when he speaks of freedom from the law. The Kingdom of Heaven does not have a rule of law by a rule by Christ:
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:2-4
This is a profound point I did not grapple with before. God is greater than the Covenant, and greater than the Prime Ministership he appointed. Whether in the old or new Israel, the reality of the Covenant and the Papacy are confirmed and not undermined by the righteousness of God in upholding them along with the direct access of the believer to God. Thus when Elijah tried to lift the Covenant, he emphasized the superiority of God over the merely human King of Israel. With Christ, we now have a righteous King, but are left with merely human Prime Ministers — Popes. This is a view — that the Pope is Christ’s Prime Minister, but a Prime Minister who presides over free subjects, is perhaps best reflected in a document Wright does not mention — the Second Vatican Council. Note how the Council not only restates Paul’s message on freedom, but insists on God’s “righteous” upholding of the terms of His kingdom, as God upholds His covenant.
It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed. Dignitatis Humanae, A.D. 1965
The Journeys of Paul
Wright reconstructs Paul’s travels in terms of major political cities in the Empire. A typical pattern of Paul was first to appear in the Jewish synagogue, and then elsewhere in the city:
But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down. And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, “Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on.”
Then Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said, “Men of Israel, and you who fear God, listen:
So when the Jews went out of the synagogue, the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath. Acts 13:14-16,42
This is in keeping with the literal Kingship of Jesus Christ, whose arrival is announced to the country he is king of — Israel — and then to the newly liberated areas of the gentiles. While Heiser emphasizes Christ’s kingship over supernatural forces and powers — the Canaanite gods and the like — Wright emphasizes that it is Caesar himself who is now subjugated. Caesar had been called…
A Savior who has made war to cease
and who shall put everything in peaceful order;
and whereas Caesar,
when he was manifest,
transcended the expectations of all who had anticipated the good news,
not only by surpassing the benefits conferred by his predecessors
but by leaving no expectation of surpassing him to those who would come after him,
with the result that the birthday of our God signaled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him Priene Calendar Inscription, 9 B.C.
From the beginning, the Church used this rhetoric to make an identical but opposite point: the King is here, but the King is Christ.
Wright also addresses the question of the order of Paul’s travels, and where documents were written. The imprisonment traditionally ascribed to Paul’s stay in Rome, Wright places in Ephesus. If so, this is only obliquely referenced as part of the “uproar” mentioned by Luke:
And about that time there arose a great commotion about the Way. For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Diana, brought no small profit to the craftsmen…
But when they found out that he was a Jew, all with one voice cried out for about two hours, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!”
And when the city clerk had quieted the crowd, he said: “Men of Ephesus, what man is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple guardian of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Zeus? Therefore, since these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rashly. For you have brought these men here who are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of your goddess. Therefore, if Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a case against anyone, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you have any other inquiry to make, it shall be determined in the lawful assembly. For we are in danger of being called in question for today’s uproar, there being no reason which we may give to account for this disorderly gathering.” And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.
After the uproar had ceased, Paul called the disciples to himself, embraced them, and departed to go to Macedonia Acts 19:23-24,34-41,20:1
Wright also identifies the Letter to the Ephesians (whose initial line “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus” does not occur in the oldest surviving manuscripts) as a catholic letter, and the same as the supposedly lost Letter to the Laodiceans. Wright’s new chronology of Paul has other implications too. He does not find room in this chronology for some of the pastoral letters, leading the possibility open that either Paul traveled extensively during his pre-trial imprisonment in Rome (possible, as he was a citizen) or even was acquitted. The earliest extra-biblical mentions of Paul are ambiguous here:
Through envy Paul, too, showed by example the prize that is given to patience:
seven times was he cast into chains;
he was banished;
he was stoned; having become a herald, both in the East and in the West,
he obtained the noble renown due to his faith; and having preached righteousness to the whole world,
and having come to the extremity of the West,
and having borne witness before rulers,
he departed at length out of the world,
and went to the holy place,
having become the greatest example of patience. 1 Clement 5:5-7
Another example is Paul’s fundraising efforts to Jerusalem. The Apostle repeatedly mentions this effort in his letters:
But now I am going to Jerusalem to minister to the saints. For it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem. It pleased them indeed, and they are their debtors. For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister to them in material things. Therefore, when I have performed this and have sealed to them this fruit, I shall go by way of you to Spain. But I know that when I come to you, I shall come in the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ.
Now I beg you, brethren, through the Lord Jesus Christ, and through the love of the Spirit, that you strive together with me in prayers to God for me, that I may be delivered from those in Judea who do not believe, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, that I may come to you with joy by the will of God, and may be refreshed together with you. Romans 15:25-32
but their reference to it by Luke in Acts is brief, does not address the raising of the money, or how the money was received. The brief mission is bracketed by Paul (at trial) saying he had a clean conscience and no one disputed his mission.
This being so, I myself always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men.
“Now after many years I came to bring alms and offerings to my nation, n the midst of which some Jews from Asia found me purified in the temple, neither with a mob nor with tumult. They ought to have been here before you to object if they had anything against me Acts 24:16-19
So what does this mean? I don’t know. Its interesting Paul refers here to the “pillars” as Holy Ones, the same terms used for high-ranking functionaries of God in Daniel when translated to Greek:
‘This decision is by the decree of the watchers,
And the sentence by the word of the holy ones,
In order that the living may know
That the Most High rules in the kingdom of men,
Gives it to whomever He will,
And sets over it the lowest of men.’ Daniel 4:17
This is both a high praise (being compared with angels!) and a subtle knock (like the angels, subject to a higher power). What’s the purpose of including this reference in such a moment? As I said — I don’t know.
N.T. Wright’s biography of Paul made The Apostle a fascinating man for me in a way he wasn’t before. I knew the focus on Christ’s Kingship, Paul’s dual identity as both Jew and Roman, and about his travels. But I hadn’t thought to consider the chronology of Paul’s actions, or how the events in Paul’s letter interact with Luke’s recording of similar events.
In my impressions of When the Church was Young by Marcellino d’Ambrosio, I said how much I enjoyed the work, but wish I could read a more academic companion to it. Introduction to Patristics by David Meconi is that companion. And When the Church was Young is the superior book.
There are no substantial disagreements between the texts. Both begin with the apostolic fathers like Justin Martyr and Polycarp. Both end before John of Damascus. Both reference the Shepherd and the Protoeveangelium The fundamental difference is that the Church was Young attempts to presents a narrative church history and emphasizes memorable personal anecdotes or events in the lives of the Fathers, and how their lives intersected. Patristics is organized in a rough chronological order but primarily around major academic themes. But except for the slightly deeper discussion of heterodoxy, the Church was Young provides more memorable information than Patristics.
While Patristics (unlike the Church was Young) is more about what now-heterodox ideas were believed by some Church Fathers, that benefit does not overcome the other burdens in the text. For instance, take Origin (AD 184 – AD 253), a teacher of the saints who himself was never canonized. Both books addressed major moments of his life, including the arrest of his father, his rivalry with his bishop, and his arrest and torture by the Romans. And from Patristics (but not from the Church Was Young) I learned that Origen believed that even demons could come to repentance and salvation. But the Church was Young provides more context around the catechatical school in Alexandria, the continuity of Origen with other Fathers before and after, a more vivid description of the man in general.
The situation is even worse with another heterodox church father, Tertullian (AD 155 – AD 240). Both books credit Tertullian with coining the term Trinity (in Latin “Trinitas”) to refer to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Both conclude with Tertullian all but leaving the Catholic Church. The Church was Young establishes Tertullian’s belief in rigor and confessed impatience. It concludes with Tertullian joining the Montanists, “a rigorist sect.” This is implied to be a pattern in North Africa, and the implications for the Islamic conquest are left to the reader. Patristics does not establish Tertullian’s personality or reasons for leaving, aside from to joining a “gnostic” sect.
Montanism held similar views about the basic tenets of Christian doctrine to those of the wider Christian Church, but it was labeled a heresy for its belief in new prophetic revelations. The prophetic movement called for a reliance on the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit and a more conservative personal ethic.
Neither book nor Wikipedia make the comparison, but the focus on the Holy Spirit’s new age of revelation recalls the Blessed Joachim of Fiore, a personal favorite of Jordan Peterson:
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
There are a lot of lose ends, and neither work is a complete overview. But from When the Church was Young I can at least ask the question. Patristics, despite being more dry, provides less depth
Reading Introduction to Patristics probably helped me re-encode information I already learned in When the Church was Young. It was not very long, and along with The Orthodox Christian Church helped orient me to better understand this stage of the Church’s history.
Church Fathers are the ancient writers, sometimes bishops, sometimes saints, who defended the orthodox catholic church during the first several centuries. I became interested in the early Fathers as I began to realize the great role they have in teaching the faith, especially in the Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and the implicit role they have in destroying it, according to Mormon thinking.
The age of the early Fathers begins as the first students of the Apostles wrote, and ended with the dawn of two new civilizations: Medieval Europe and Islam. During this era core, teachings of the Church — such as how many persons of Christ are there (one), how many substances Christ has (two, true man and true God), and how many persons are Christ (one, there’s only one Jesus Christ, Son of God) — were written down. This era includes fathers who lived before, during, and after the First Council of Nicaea, whose words became binding on all Catholics after the council.
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only-begotten;
that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
By whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth;
Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;
He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.
But those who say:
‘There was a time when he was not;’ and
‘He was not before he was made;’ and
‘He was made out of nothing,’ or
‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’
or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’
— they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.
When the Church was Young traces the development of Nicene Christianity from the immediate post-apostolic era to just before the rise of Islam. The oldest of the Church Fathers are those who knew and learned from the apostles For instance, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp may have actually known the Apostle John. Gregory the Great, one of the very last Fathers in this book, overlaps with the Middle Ages. Indeed, his papacy is the close of the Patristic period and at the opening of *Medieval Christianity: A New History.
When the Church was Young reads like a quicker prequel to Medieval Christianity, like Ball Lightning is a breezy prequel to The Three Body Problem. The major points of development are presented, and the time around the Arian Heresy in particular is very well reported. I learned a lot from this book.
That said, while this is an introductory history of the early Church through the Fathers, it is not a neutral history. In Christian theology, people who propound beliefs that are later called heretical are not themselves heretics, as they did not have the advantage of the Church’s teaching when writing their ideas. D’Ambrosio, whose interest is in teaching correct Christian beliefs, does not spend much time on heretical or abandoned beliefs of the early Church Fathers. This leads to an accurate if biased depiction of the early Church. This is particularly obvious in the section on Origin, who is repeatedly defended against accusations of heresy without ever which of his beliefs were identified as heretical.
In How God Became King, Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright criticized the out-sized importance the Nicene Creed, and its derivatives, have in Christianity. The Nicene Creed was written to refute Arius, and insist that Christ was God, not a creature. The fathers were successful in this. Christological precision is important, but not more important than the person of Christ, His kingdom, or His teachings. Indeed, while I find the Mormon rejection of the Nicene Creed (on the complaint the concept “substance” is not found in the Bible) hypocritical, as Mormonism itself imports Greek philosophy into its cosmological system, Mormons are certainly right that the focus on the Greco-Roman interpretation of the Scriptures, instead of the Hebrew con-text of the written Word, has clouded much of our understanding. Marcellino D’Ambrosio does not seem to realize this. Worse, the hygienic purity of terms in Greco-Roman philosophy can lead to a lack of awareness of the “unseen realm,” and the world of flesh, demons, and supernatural entities which inhabit the cosmos.
I was disturbed to learn of the early church practice that the Sacrament of Reconciliation could be obtained only once or twice a lifetime. Something like this is referenced in Shepherd of Hermas, but I did not realize Shepherd was either reporting a literal procedure, or itself had been taken literally, later on. In my current state I participate in this sacrament bi-weekly, and if anything this does not seem enough. I do not think I would have done well with the early Christians, who seem to live lifestyles of the religious orders in particular, except as someone like the church father Ambrosia of Milan who was not baptized until just before he was named a bishop.
I enjoyed reading When the Church was Young. I have a better grasp of the life of the early Church, controversies which shaped the terms and phrases used and the learning about the ecclesiastical transition into the Middle Ages. I wish the narrative had contained more depth on what the Fathers actually believed, and I would have enjoyed learning about John of Damascus, who commented on the Qur’an, and viewed it as a form of Arianism.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable. Burnt Norton I
Four Quartets is composed of four poems — “Burnt Norton” (1936), “East Coker” (1940), “The Dry Salvages” (1941), and “Little Gidding” (1942). Each of the poems is broken into five parts.
I did not know much about T.S. Elliot before reading The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings last year. After that I was aware that T.S. Elliot vaguely traveled in similar circles to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and in some way considered himself a Christian. Like most I could recognize at best two famous lines, both without context, both from Little Gidding V.
So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
and, even more cliche
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The best comparisons for Four Quartets are the literary prophets in the Bible. Like Ezekiel, Elliot alienates the reader to achieve an effect and like Isaiah, Elliot looks toward the Incarnation. Elliot is in dialogue with Jeremiah and John the Revelator over the beginning of the Incarnation, and like the author of Lamentations examines its end.
The prophet Ezekiel and certain post-modern writers use alienation effect to jolt the reader into realizing he is reading. Elliot combines the prophetic and post-modern styles, drawing attention to the composition of the text to draw attention to its authorship.
Ezekiel alienates his reader in many ways, but the passing mention to his wife is a great example. No one who is paying attention can read the passage and not immediately realize the book he is reading has an author, and the author has chosen to share exactly this level of detail:
So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died; and the next morning I did as I was commanded. Ezekiel 24:18
Until I read Four Quartets I did not comprehend the alienation effect apparent even earlier in the Bible. The great Biblical translator Robert Alter noted the parts of the Hebrew Bible, especially Genesis and Exodus, are “fraught with background.” They read as if other writing is being incorporated by reference, and the comprehensibility of text can suddenly decline. This is often used as evidence of the Documentary hypothesis, that the Hebrew Bible had multiple authors and with “redactors” whose actions betray a lack of artistic unity. Surely passages like this are evidence of an ancient and half-remembered source-text?
Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.”‘
And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the LORD met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and made it touch his feet, and said, “Surely you are a bridgeroom of blood to me!” So he let him go. Then she said, “You are a husband of blood!” — because of the circumcision.
And the LORD said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he went and met him on the mountain of God, and kissed him. So Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD who had sent him, and all the signs which He had commanded him. Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel. Exodus 4:22-29
But Elliot’s text has the same fraughtness, but is unquestionably the artistic work of one man:
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see the dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie —
A dignified and commodius sacrement.
Two and two, neccesarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche botokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn, or in rustic laughter East Coker I
Naive “higher critics” of the Bible may argue that Ezekiel is simply poorly written, and that Exodus combines multiple strands that were poorly literary together. But no one can accuse Elliot of sloppiness or of being the pen name for a school of intellectuals that span centuries.
The prophet Isaiah begins with what appears to be a historic narrative and transitions into poetry that transcends time and even reason. Isaiah promises a male-child — a created being — who is treated as an Egyptian God-King, enthroned with five superlatives, with the claim he is the Creator.
For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called
Prince of Peace Isaiah 9:6
The reign of this Creator-creature will transcend time:
Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. Isaiah 9:7
Elliot combines these themes, just as explicitly and just as cryptically:
The hint half guessed, the gift half
understood, is Incarnation.
Here is the impossible union.
Of spheres of existence is actual
here the past and future
Are conquered, reconciled The Dry Salvages V
The still point of history, around which everything revolves
At the still point of the turning world. Neither
flesh nor fleshless:
Neither from nor towards; at the still point,
there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither
movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to
place it in time. Burnt Norton II
(Un)Like Jeremiah, like John
Elliot takes this one further. The logical consequence of a Creator-creature is that, just as every creature has a mother, so must the Creator. To the prophet Jeremiah, it seemed that this proved the Creator-creature was the point at which logical analysis must end:
Do you not see what they do in
the cities of Judah and
in the streets of Jerusalem?
The children gather wood,
the fathers kindle the fire, and
the women knead dough, to make cakes for the Queen of Heaven; and
they pour out drink offerings
to other gods, that they may
provoke Me to anger. Jeremiah 7:17-18
Elliot reads Jeremiah as if there must be sarcastic quotes around the Queen of Heaven noted in Jeremiah. Elliot’s Queen is a woman adored by God, as recorded by John:
Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.
And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days. Revelation 12:1-6
Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships, those
Whose business has to do with fish,
and those concerned with every lawful traffic
And those who conduct them
Repeat a prayer also on behalf of
Women who have seen their sons or husbands
Setting forth, and not returning: Figlia del tuo figlio [daughter of your son],
Queen of Heaven.
Also pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them
Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell’s
Perpetual angelus. The Dry Salvages IV
Like the Lamentations
Elliot’s focus is the Incarnation — the life, death, and resurrection of Christ — as the focus of history. Within this triptych it is blood, death, and Good Friday which is the center of the center
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood —
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good. East Coker IV
And the total abandonment of the Passion:
but conscious of nothing — I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing;
wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing;
there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness of the dancing East Corker III
As the Lord sacrificed Zion
How lonely sits the city
That was full of people!
How like a widow is she,
Who was great among the nations!
The princess among the provinces
Has become a slave!
She weeps bitterly in the night,
Her tears are on her cheeks;
Among all her lovers
She has none to comfort her.
All her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
They have become her enemies. Lamentations 1:1-2
He also sacrificed her daughter, her King:
It would be they same at the end of the journey.
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. Little Gidding I
The eldritch horrors of Elliot:
The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
It hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the hermit crab, the whale’s backbone; The Dry Salvages I
match the blasted, earlier creations, of history:
The Lord has purposed to destroy
The wall of the daughter of Zion.
He has stretched out a line;
He has not withdrawn His hand from destroying;
Therefore He has caused the rampart and wall to lament;
They languished together.
Her gates have sunk into the ground;
He has destroyed and broken her bars.
Her king and her princes are among the nations;
The Law is no more,
And her prophets find no vision from the Lord. Lamentations 2:8-9
Out of the whale came the prophet Jonah, who shared the good news with gentiles.
Out of Jerusalem, the corrupted city of the Temple, came the flowing blood of Christ.
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now always —
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one. Little Gidding V
The Shepherd of Hermas is early Christian apocrypha.
Shepherd was probably written about the same time as 1 Enoch,2 Esdras, and The Protoevangelium of James but the style is modern. Shepherd is also archetypical, and reads like a compansion to Jordan Peterson. Its Christology is mainstream — with the exception of a novel Procession of the Trinity. Like other apocryphal literature its purpose was to provide a bridge to Christianity — in the case of Shepherd, that community is well-off Romans.
The framing of Shepherd reminds me of C.S. Lewis, in particular his use of a fictionalized version of himself as the narrator in The Great Divorce.
Just as the framing device in Divorce is a Lewis on bus ride, the frame for Shepherd is a long walk interrupted by visions:
Twenty days after the former vision, brothers, I saw another — a representation of the tribulation that is to come. I was going to a country house along the Campanian road, which is about one and-a-quarter miles from the public road (the district is one that is rarely traveled).
“The Fourth Vision”
The author at turns ironically chides himself:
They were stubborn and eager to place themselves, wishing to know everything and yet knowing nothing at all. Because they were unbending, understanding left them, and foolish senselessness entered into them. They praise themselves as having wisdom, and though they are destitute of sense they desire to become teachers.
“The Ninth Parable”
And at other times, is heavier in his self-criticism:
“Because, sir, I don’t know if I can be saved!” I replied.
“Why is that?”
“Because I never spoke a true word in my life, but have always spoken deceitfully to everyone, and made lies out to be truth. No one ever contradicted me, but rather believed my words. How can I live since I have acted like this?”
“The Third Commandment”
In The Seven Storey Mountain Thomas Merton ensnares the reader by first writing ina secular or licentious way, and then (all while retaining a present-perfect point-of-view) transitioning to a more discerning perspective. Shepherd does the same — the gazing upon a naked woman is at first denied to be lustful:
The master who raised me sold me to a woman named Rhoda in Rome. Mayn years after this I met her again, and began to love her as a sister. Some time after I saw her bathing in the Tiber river, and I gave her my hand and drew her out of the river. The sight of her beauty made me think to myself,” I’d be a happy man if I could get a wife as good and beautiful as she is.” This was the only thought that passed through my mind — this and nothing more.
“The First Vision”
until the truth is revealed, and the narrator of the Shepherd’s self-criticisms become not-so-gentle after all:
With a smile she [a woman in a vision] replied, “The desire of wickness arose in your heart. Isn’t it your opinion that a righteous man commits sin when an evil desire arises in his hearth? In such a case there is sin — and the sin is great, for the thoughts of a righteous man should be righteous. By thinking righteously his character is established in the heavens, and he will find the Lord merciful to him in everything. But those who entertain wicket thoughts in their minds bring death and captivity on themselves, especially those who set their affections on this world and the glory in their riches, and don’t look forward to the blessings of the world to come.
“The First Vision”
I am not aware of any of the books of scripture which use such an unreliable narrator — though of course some (as Robert Alter has explained at depth) were at least using the tools of fiction.
I am grateful that I finished Dr. Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief immediately before beginning Shepherd. Just as the narative similarity to C.S. Lewis stories makes me suspect Lewis took notes from Shepherd, the self-conscious use of archetypes in Shepherd imply a similar understanding of the collective unconscious. (Either the author of Shepherd and Carl Jung came to very similar conclusions about archetypes, or Shepherd is one source document for Jung’s theory.)
This is true both in its prescriptions,
Instead ask the Lord, so that you may receive understanding to know them. You cannot see what is behind you, but rather what is before you .So whatever you cannot see, let it alone, and do not torment yourself about it. Make yourself the master of what you do see, and don’t waste your energy on other things.
“The Ninth Parable”
Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world.
Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
… and in more complex allegories:
I also saw other stones which had been thrown far away from the Tower and landed in the public road; and they did not stay on the road, but were rolled into a pathless place. I saw other stones falling into the fire and burning, and others falling close to the water yet not capable of being rolled into it, even though they wanted to enter.
“The Third Vision”
Peterson’s interpretation of the “path”:
The unknown is yang, cold, dark and feminine; the known yin, warm, bright and masculine; the knower is the man living in Tao, on the razor’s edge, on the straight and narrow path, on the proper road, in meaning, in the kingdom of heaven, on the mountaintop, crucified on the branches of the world-tree — is the individual who voluntarily carves out the space between nature and culture. The interpretation of words in relationship to these prototypes (unknown, knower, known) is complicated by the fact of shifting meaning: earth, for example, is unknown (feminine) in relationship to sky, but known (masculine) in relationship to water; dragon is feminine, masculine and subject simultaneously.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg 90
The same is true of the archetype of the water-beast…
I had gone on a little farther when, suddenly, I saw dust rising up as high as the heavens about two-hundred yards away. “Are cattle approaching and raising the dust?” I thought out loud. Then I saw more and more dust rising, and I started to think it was something sent from God. The sun shone out a little and suddenly I saw a mighty beast like a whale, a hundred feet long and with a head shaped like an urn, and fiery locusts were coming out of its mouth. I began to weep, and to call on the Lord to rescue me from it, but then I remembered the words I had heard: “Doubt not, O Hermas.”
Therefore, my brothers, clothed with faith in the Lord, and remembering the great things He had taught me, I boldly faced the beast. Now it came on with such noise and force that it could have easily destroyed a whole city, yet when I came near it the monstrous beast stretched itself out on the ground, showing nothing but its tongue, and did not move at all until I had passed it be. “The Fourth Vision”
… which likewise is addressed by Peterson:
The battle of a god against an ophidian or marine monster is well known to constitute a widespread mythological theme. We need only remember the struggle between Re and Apophis, between the Sumerian god Ninurta and Asag, Marduk and Tiamat, the Hittite storm god and the serpent Illuyankas, Zeus and Typhon, the Iranian hero Thraetona and the three-headed dragon Azhi-dahaka. In certain cases (Marduk-Tiamat, for example) the god’s victory constitutes the preliminary condition for the cosmogony. In other cases the stake is the inauguration of a new era or the establishment of a new sovereignty (cf. Zeus-Typhon, Baal-Yam). In short, it is by the slaying of an ophidian monster — symbol of the virtual, of “chaos,” but also of the “autochthonous” — that a new cosmic or institutional “situation” comes into existence. A characteristic feature, and one common to all these myths, is the fright, or a first defeat, of the champion (Marduk and Re hesitate before fighting; at the onset, the serpent Illyunakas succeeds in mutilating the god; Typhon succeeds in cutting and carrying off Zeus’s tendons). According to the Satapatha Brahmana (1.6.3-17), Indra, on first seeing Vrtra, runs away as far as possible, and the Markandeya Purana describes him as “sick with fear” and hoping for peace.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg 117
The similarity with Peterson is all the more notable, as while Peterson’s theory of the Son redeemer the Father seems to be original to him, Shepherd‘s concept of the Son proceeding from the Holy Spirit is likewise unique.
The “procession of the Trinity” refers to the way the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit relate to each other, considering that each Person is eternal and co-equal with the others. For the past thousand years the main question in the Procession has been whether the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the Father alone, or from the Father and the son. Western and Eastern Christians to this day pray the Nicene Creed differently, with Western Christians adding the words in bold to strew the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the son:
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
While this difference in formula may or may not be theological, there is a unity in this difference: almost all contemporary Christians profession either a Father-Son-Spirit procession, or a Father-Son and Father-Spirit co-procession.
The view of the Shepherd of Hermas seems to be different, and describes the Father, then the Spirit, and then the Son.
God caused that holy, pre-existent Spirit which created all things to dwell in a body which he chose. The body into which that holy Spirit was placed served the Spirit, walking rightly and purely in humbleness, never defiling that Spirit. The body obeyed that holy Spirit at all times, laboring rightly and virtuously with Him and not faltering in any way. That wearied body served in humility, but was mightily approved to god with the Holy Spirit, and was accepted by Him. This courageous course pleased God because e was not defiled in the earth but kept the Spirit holy. Therefore He called His Son and the glorious angels as fellow councilors, so that this body might be given a place of honor — since it had served the Holy Spirit blamelessly — and that it would not seem to have lost the reward of its service. For the body in which the Holy Spirit dwelt that has been found without spot of defilement will receive a reward. The Shepherd of Hermas, “The Fifth Parable”
This is confusingly even laid out in a parable, when it’s revealed that the “son” of the story is in fact the Spirit!
“The field is this world, and the lord of the field is He who created, perfected, and strengthened all things; the son is the Holy Spirit, and the slave is the Son of God.
“The Fifth Parable”
In a footnote the translator insists on using “holy Spirit” for “Holy Spirit,” and debates what seems to be a straw-man argument that Shepherd is adoptionist — that it argues Jesus was a holy man who was simply adopted as Son of God, perhaps in the manner of his ancestor David. But I don’t think that this is a point. Rather, Shepherd was written for a Roman audience used to philosophical monotheism, who could more easily view the Spirit as proceeding from the Father, and the Son in some way as coming from the Spirit. I would argue, though, that by using this Procession of the Trinity both the writer and the readers missed one of the central but most confusing claims of Christianity: that the Creator became a creature.
Thus, while Shepherd misses out on an important Christian message, its lack of easy compatibility with the Nicene Creed is not as terrible as it may seem. The Creeds are not the central statements of Christianity. As N.T. Wright notes, they are statements against specific heresies. To the best of my knowledge, the Father-Spirit-Son procession was simply unknown or irrelevant to the Fathers who promulgated the Nicean creeds, and thus was not intentionally condemned.
The Romans and the New Testament
The non-canonical Messianic works I have read — 1 Enoch, 2 Esdras, Protoevangelium, and now Shepherd all translated Christianity to populations with their own traditions. 1 Enoch tells an exciting story of the war of angels, 2 Esdras emphasizes the Jewish nature of Chrstianity, and Protoevangelium turns the Holy family into the stars of a melodrama with a recurring cast.
Shepherd of Hermas, the most philosophical and self-aware of the works, is a bridge for wealth Romans to the religion preached by the carpenter from Nazareth:
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Mark10:17-31
The Shepherd is patient with the rich, and provides a path for salvation even for those poor sinners who in material things are not as poor:
“Listen, he said. “The rich man has much wealth, but is poor in things that relate to the Lord becaues he is distracted by his riches. He offers very few confessions and prayers to the Lord, and those he does offer are small and weak, and hav eno power above. But when the rich man refreshes the poor and assists them in their needs, believing that what he does to the poor will be able to find its reward with God, he helps them in everything without hestitation. And the poor man, being helped by the rih man, prays for him, giving thanks to God for the one who gave him the gifts. The rich man continues in a zealous conern for hte poor man to make sure his needs are constantly supplied, for he knows that the prayer of the poor man is acceptable and influential with God. So both accomplish their work in their own way: teh poor man continues in prayer — which is the very riches he has received from the Lord — nand in this way pays back the one who helped him. The rich man, in the same way, unhesitatingly gives the poor man the riches he has received from the Lord. This is a great and acceptable work before God, because the rich man understands the purpose of his wealth, and has rightly carried out his duty to God by giving to the poor what the Lord has given to him.
“The Second Parable”
The Shepherd (as did later writers who referred to “Green Martyrdom“) also recognized as martyrs those who accepted partial mortification, whether by Roman persecution, loss of business, or friends:
The ones who returned their branches green with offshoots but no fruit are those who were not put to death, but have been afflicted because of the law and did not deny it.
“The Eighth Parable”
Finally, the Shepherd has an original teaching about the Harrowing of Hell and baptism. Heiser, in The Unseen Realm, notes the connection between these two passage as emphasizing that the fallen angels, who provoked the flood, were visited by Christ after the crucifixion…
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine long-suffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.
There is also an antitype which now saves us — baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him. 1 Peter3:18-22
… but Shepherd allegorically reads that passage as indicating the spirits who are preached to in prison by Christ as us, in this world, before our baptism.
“Even those who fell asleep had to receive the seal of the Son of God, for before a man bears the name of the Son of God, he is dead. Once he receives the seal, he lays aside his deadness and obtains life. The seal is the water: they descend into the water dead, and they rise up alive. So this seal was preached to those who had fallen asleep, and they took advantage of it so that they might enter into the kingdom of God.”
“The Ninth Parable”
This is an interesting interpretation. The Harrowing of Hell is normally considered a supernatural-historical event while baptisms are performed constantly — but perhaps they are not so different after all!
While Shepherd is a striking book — both very modern and very old in its style, both inclusive of a gentile readership and exclusive of our Procession of the Trinity, it was not read as any of these things when it was written.
It was read as proclaiming Christ, as calling people to holiness, as pleading with them to repent. Crying for us sinners to live the gospel in their lives:
“Therefore do good works, you who have received good from the Lord! While you delay in doing them the building of the Tower may be completed and you will be rejected from it — and there is no other tower to be built! The work on that Tower was suspended for your sake, and unless you hurry to act rightly, it will be finished and you will be excluded.”
“The Ninth Parable”
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).
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.
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
The Son of God becomes a Creature
The Son of God is born of a virgin
The Son of God proclaims himself King
The Son of God is murdered
The Son of God returns from Hell
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 Proverbs1:8-9
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
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. Luke3:23,36-38
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 Corinthians15:47-49
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. John19:17-18,23
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. Colossians2:13-15
… 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.
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?"
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
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. Galatians2:17-21
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. Matthew16:24-28
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, Revelations14:6
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.
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
The Reformation and Counter-Reformation, both well-intentioned, separated much of the Christian world from their heritage. The great Christian debates of the late middle ages were collapsed into a ridiculous dispute over faith and works. Christian festivals and popular culture were lost all over western Europe, as described by Phillip Jenkins in The Many Faces of Christ by Phillip Jenkinks. One such popular work, ironically most Central preserved in Islam, but still remembered in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, is The Protoevangelium [First-Gospel] of James. I once called it “Joseph/Mary fan fiction.” That’s correct. But the Protoevangelium takes place before the Gospels. Really, it’s a prequel.
Most Christian perspectives separate the Scriptures (that which was written down) and the Tradition (the guide to that which was written down, which itself was not written down). But it’s not always clear where one begins or one ends. Are the Catholic Deuterocanon, “Secondary” Scriptures like Tobit or Maccabees), part of the Scriptures or Tradition? What of prayers (like the Prayer of Mannasseh) and prayer-like works, such as 1 Enoch and 2 Esdras. Books in the above list are considered part of the Scriptures by at least some Christian traditions.
The Protoevangelium is not considered Scripture by anyone. But it captures much of the Tradition of many Christians. The Protoevangelium is something like the script of a nativity play, or a pre-cinematic of Christian films like The Passion of the Christ. Indeed, like Passion,Protoevangelium was written in an explicitly Catholic tradition, takes the Faith seriously, but also incorporates other devout but non-canonical and even imaginary material.
The Protoevangelium is to the Gospels what the Star Wars prequels were to the original trilogy. Like the Star Wars prequels, the Protoevangelium clearly takes place in the same “universe” as the Gospels and includes many of the same characters — to the point of implausibility.
A problem with prequels in general is that if the characters really did have these adventures, why were they forgotten? This happened to the Jedi in Star Wars. In the original film, Luke can hardly believe that Jedi were real. But only two decades before the Jedi were a highly visible arm of the central government with a large office building in the capital and a prominent role in economic rule-making. Is it really credible that everyone forgot this — that the mere existence of a government agency — be forgotten in twenty years?
There are many many articles, videos, and podcasts about this mystery, but the same could be asked of most popular prequels:
How did Joseph’s staff become not even a myth in the Gospels?
Why did everyone forget about Mary and Joseph?
Why did Jerusalem apparently become a much larger city in 30 years?
Of course, people can forget. Especially sick people. This is what distinguishes prequel-style blindness from the mental blindness of a legitimately dramatic figure, like King Saul in the Book of Samuel, where once-renounced individuals appear to be unknown, is the dual introduction of David son of Jesse. He is King Saul’s musician:
But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a distressing spirit from the Lord troubled him. And Saul’s servants said to him, “Surely, a distressing spirit from God is troubling you. Let our master now command your servants, who are before you, to seek out a man who is a skillful player on the harp. And it shall be that he will play it with his hand when the distressing spirit from God is upon you, and you shall be well.”
So Saul said to his servants, “Provide me now a man who can play well, and bring him to me.”
Then one of the servants answered and said, “Look, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a mighty man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a handsome person; and the Lord is with him.”
Therefore Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, “Send me your son David, who is with the sheep.” And Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a young goat, and sent them by his son David to Saul. 1 Samuel 16:14-20
yet when David offers to fight Goliath, Saul does not recognize him, and Saul’s assistant Abner does not point this out:
When Saul saw David going out against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is this youth?”
And Abner said, “As your soul lives, O king, I do not know.”
So the king said, “Inquire whose son this young man is.”
Then, as David returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul with the head of the Philistine in his hand. And Saul said to him, “Whose son are you, young man?”
So David answered, “I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.” 1 Samuel 17:55-58
But in Samuel this is an example of psychological realism: Saul’s mental decay has already gone, and is now accelerating as even loyal men, like Abner, no longer treat him like a competent actor. The priest’s forgetting of Mary and Joseph does not teach us a lesson though. It simply indicates Star Wars-quality writing.
The Protoevangelium gives back-stories for numerous characters in the Gospels, including Mary, Joseph, and even minor characters.
Mary, Mother of God
The story of uses Mary to parallel the life of Christ. Christ’s humanity is a vital part of the scriptures, and Christ’s shedding of blood is a lesson: God bleeds and suffers with men.
Mary likewise is a woman and not some abstract platonic spirit, and herself the daughter of a real woman.
The midwife said, “A girl.”
Anna said, “My soul exalts this day.” And she put her baby to bed.
After her days were completed, Anna cleansed her menstrual flow and gave her breast to the child and gave her the name Mary.
Day by day, the child grew stronger. When she was six months old, her mother set her on the ground to test whether she could stand. And after walking seven steps, she came to her mother’s breast. Protoevangelium 5:7-6:2
Mary was raised in the Temple itself and her approaching menstrual cycles were a topic of discussion for the High Priests:
When she turned twelve, a group of priests took counsel together, saying, “Look, Mary has been in the temple of the Lord twelve years. What should we do about her now, so that she does not defile the sanctuary of the Lord our God?” Protoevangelium 8:3-4
There are two obvious reasons for this. The first, the shocking claim that God was born of a woman, a claim that in much of the Muslim world can still get one killed, doubtless appealed to women. And the second, that Mary herself was a type of Christ, as is every mother.
Blessed Joseph, Her Spouse
Joseph is specifically invited to be part of a Temple marry-a-virgin contest, and wins it by a miracle. No one in the Gospels ever mentions this, or thinks it relevant to events only a generation later.
Throwing down his ax, Joseph went out to meet them. And after they had gathered together with their rods, they went to the high priest. After receiving everyone’s rod, the high priest went into the temple and prayed. When he was finished with the prayer, he took the rods and went out and gave them to each man, but there was no sign among them. Finally, Joseph took his rod. Suddenly, a dove came out of the rod and stood on Joseph’s head. And the high priest said, “Joseph! Joseph! You have been chosen by lot to take the virgin into your own keeping.” Protoevangelium 9:1-7
Joseph is a widower, and old man, and the perpetual chastity of the Holy Couple is explained and more plausible in that way.
The Protoevangelium also dramatizes the confrontation between Joseph and Mary as the pregnancy becomes obvious. They are the second couple in this work, after Joachim and Anna, to be well textured.
You can hear their shouting:
In the sixth month of her pregnancy, Joseph came from his house-building and went into the house to find her swelling. And he struck his face and threw himself on the ground in sackcloth and wept bitterly,
And Joseph got up from his sackcloth and called her and said to her,
“After having been cared for by God, what have you done?
Did you forget the Lord your God?
You who were raised in the holy of holies, you who received from the hand of an angel, do you know how much you have humiliated yourself?”
Then, she wept bitterly, saying, “I am pure and I did not know a man.”
And Joseph said to her, “Where did this thing in your womb come from then?”
But she said, “As the Lord my God lives, I do not know where it came from.” Protoevangelium 13:1-2,6-10
Prequels often take place in small worlds, where characters who interacted in the original stories meet each other in different circumstances before.
And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law Luke 2:25-27
… turns out to have been the replacement for the father of John the Baptist!
Then, after three days, the priests deliberated about who they should appoint to take the place of Zachariah. And the lot went to Simeon. For he was the one to whom it had been revealed by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he saw the messiah in the flesh. Protoevangelium 24:12-14
Likewise, Salome, who in Mark’s gospel was with Mary Magdalene in caring for the body of the murdered Christ and entered the hole — the bomb — he was buried in:
Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him.
Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away—for it was very large.
And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. Mark 16:1-5
finds herself in the same situation, but for the newborn Christ!
And the midwife went in and said, “Mary, position yourself, for not a small test concerning you is about to take place.”
When Mary heard these things, she positioned herself. And Salome inserted her finger into her body. And Salome cried out and said, “Woe for my lawlessness and the unbelief that made me test the living God. Look, my hand is falling away from me and being consumed in fire.” Protoevangelium 20:1-4
There is beautiful writing in the Protoevangelium that echoes the best of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible story of Samuel’s parents, and the emotional pain of childlessness
Then Elkanah her husband said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? And why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than ten sons?”
So Hannah arose after they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat by the doorpost of the tabernacle of the LORD. And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed to the Lord and wept in anguish. 1 Samuel 1:5-10
is echoed here, in the pain of Joachim and Anna:
Then, Joachim was extremely frustrated and did not appear to his wife, but gave himself to the desert and pitched his tent there. He fasted forty days and forty nights. All the while, Joachim was saying to himself, “I will not go down for food or drink until the Lord my God visits me; prayer will be my food and drink.”
Then, his wife Anna mourned and lamented,
“I lament that I am a widow and I lament that I am childless.” Protoevangelium 1:1-2:1
But there’s a section which simply seems out of place. It happens once, it is very odd, and I don’t know what to make of it. A passage from the journey to Bethlehem…
When they came to the middle of the journey, Mary said to him, “Joseph, take me off the donkey, the child pushing from within me to let him come out.”
So he took her off the donkey and said to her, “Where will I take you and shelter you in your awkwardness? This area is a desert.”
And he found a cave and led her there and stationed his sons to watch her, while he went to a find a Hebrew midwife in the land of Bethlehem. Protoevangelium 17:10-18:1
… is suddenly interrupted with a bizarre passage when the tone — and narrator! — of the work changes:
Then, Joseph wandered, but he did not wander.
And I looked up to the peak of the sky and saw it standing still and I looked up into the air. With utter astonishment I saw it, even the birds of the sky were not moving. And I looked at the ground and saw a bowl lying there and workers reclining. And their hands were in the bowl. And chewing, they were not chewing. And picking food up, they were not picking it up. And putting food in their mouths, they were not putting it in their mouths. Rather, all their faces were looking up.
And I saw sheep being driven, but the sheep were standing still. And the shepherd lifted up his hand to strike them, but his hand remained above them. And I saw the rushing current of the river and I saw goats and their mouths resting in the water, but they were not drinking. And suddenly everything was replaced by the ordinary course of events. Protoevangelium 18:2-11
Eventually, the narrative resumes. The Joseph-narrated portions smoothly flow back into the standard third-person narration while talking about Salome, and by the end James is revealed to be the narrator.
I, James, wrote this history when there was unrest in Jerusalem, at the time Herod died. I took myself into the desert until the unrest in Jerusalem ceased. All the while, I was glorifying God who gave me the wisdom to write this history.
And grace will be with all who fear the Lord.
Amen. Protoevangelium 25:1-4
I do not know what is happening here. The Book of Ezekiel in particular breaks the reader’s expectations for dramatic effect, spiraling out from Jerusalem to Israel, the neighboring countries, and finally the trans-real Gog and Magog. But is this simply a case of pieced-together fragments that were recognized as such at the time? Is this why the Protoevangelium considered “not only to be rejected but also condemned” since A.D. 405? I don’t know.
The Faith Traditions
Three faith traditions contain material that either comes directly from the Protoevangelium, or else from the lost source that inspired by Protoevangelium: Orthodox Christianity, Catholic Christianity, and Islam. The story of Mary under the care of the Priest Zachariah in Islamic scriptures:
Right graciously did her Lord accept her: He made her grow in purity and beauty: To the care of Zakariya was she assigned. Every time that he entered (Her) chamber to see her, He found her supplied with sustenance. He said: “O Mary! Whence (comes) this to you?” She said: “From Allah. for Allah Provides sustenance to whom He pleases without measure.”
There did Zakariya pray to his Lord, saying: “O my Lord! Grant unto me from Thee a progeny that is pure: for Thou art He that heareth prayer! Qu’ran 3:37-38
Is clearly from the same tradition, with the same affection for the protagonists, as the Protoevangelium:
When she turned twelve, a group of priests took counsel together, saying, “Look, Mary has been in the temple of the Lord twelve years. What should we do about her now, so that she does not defile the sanctuary of the Lord our God?”
And they said to the high priest, “You have stood at the altar of the Lord. Go in and pray about her. And if the Lord God reveals anything to you, we will do it.”
And the priest went in taking the vestment with twelve bells into the holy of holies and prayed about her. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood before him, saying, “Zachariah, Zachariah, depart from here and gather the widowers of the people and let each one carry a staff. And the one whom the Lord God points out with a sign, she will be his wife.” So the heralds went out to the whole surrounding area of Judea and the trumpet of the Lord rang out and all the men rushed in. Protoevangelium 8:3-9
The Catholic affection of the Protoevangelium is not as explicit but widespread. The names of Jesus’s grandparents, Anna and Joachim, come from this work. Much western art doesn’t make sense without it.
An edited version of the Protoevangelium is included in New Advent’s The Fathers of the Church. And more popularly, a priest on the Catholic media site EWTN explains the work this way:
The Protoevangelium is not to be classed with the Gnostic writings of old, which were products of heretical groups, claiming secret knowledge. On the other hand, as you note, we cannot elevate this work to the level of Sacred Scripture, as it has no guarantee of inerrancy. This early work reflects at least some ancient traditions, held by at least some substantial part of the early Church. As to the general preference for the view that the “brothers” of the Lord are likely kinfolk, and not step-siblings from a previous marriage by Joseph, we have likely been strongly influenced by the Western Fathers, including Saint Jerome, who strongly dismissed the view that they were step-siblings. Saint Jerome had a great command of the ancient languages and customs, and while not an infallible source, is worth attending to. Answer by Fr. John Echert
These thoughts are echoed by a poster at a forum post for Orthodox Christians:
Is it Scripture? No. Is it infallible? No. Is it accurate in all its details? Probably not. Is it worthless? No. Does it preserve the earliest thoughts about the family life of Christ? Yes. Does it seem to be based on the early Church’s traditions? Yes. Is it the earliest coherent source on the Theotokos? Yes.