Monday, June 10, 2013

Jesus is alive...

We sang a song in church last week, for which the main focus of the lyrics and the 'hook' of the tune was the words "Jesus is alive!" This phrase, in a variety of languages, has been one of the main declarations of Christian worship for the best part of two thousand years. But singing it this week made me question why. Why is this phrase a primary article of worship? Its not a statement about something Jesus has done (for us), but is rather a statement of belief in an attribute of Jesus.

In contemporary Christian understanding of Jesus, he has been alive for all of eternity past and will be alive for all of eternity future. Yes, there was that brief three day period when he was apparently - in some sense - dead, but that's barely a blip in an eternity of life. I realsed, when singing those words last week, that the message of the song wasn't 'Jesus is alive again, having been dead', it wasn't a celebration of resurrection 'Jesus is risen', but it was simply a statement of belief that the Christian God is a living God, not a lifeless one like the idols of the pagans.

Then I realised that this statement of worship pre-dates Christianity. Its all through the Old Testament too. God is 'the living God' (e.g. Deut 5:26; Joshua 3:10; 1 Samuel 17:26; etc.) and oaths in the OT were sworn 'as surely as Yahweh lives' (e.g. Judges 8:19; Ruth 3:13; 1 Samuel 14:39; etc.). I found myself thinking that the Christian declaration 'Jesus is alive' is basically an update of the OT statement about God. Then I searched and found that the phrase 'Jesus is alive' (or something equivalent) does not actually occur in the NT!

The most common phrasing for a similar thought that I found in the NT is Jesus / Christ 'has been raised', although there are a few 'has risen' type statements in the gospels. But the most common type of phrasing describes an action that was done by God to Christ - God (the active participant) raised Jesus (to whom no action is attributed) from the dead. The statement is not about something Jesus did or about his attributes. So if that's the NT way of thinking, then why has the 'Jesus is alive' type thinking come to be so dominant?

This return to OT-type thinking seems to be a post canonical shift. Its as if the OT thinking about God has been transferred onto the NT character of Jesus, making him the active participant. This looks like a harmonisation of Christian thinking and Jewish thinking. Some speculate this happened in the 2nd century resulting in the emergence of the 'Catholic' variety of Christianity.

Once again, I can't help but think that the conflict between nascent Catholicism and Marcionism is hiding somewhere in here. In Marcionism (the earliest form of Christianity we know much about!) the Father God who raised Jesus from the dead was emphatically not the same God as the God of the OT. This religion was completely distinct from Jewish thinking. Meanwhile, as Margaret Barker suggests, there was a popular non-monotheistic version of Judaism which meshed well with Christian thought - that Yahweh in OT times and Jesus in NT times were the same character - the son of Elyon, the Most High God. If this is true, then Yahweh, the living God, became Jesus, the God who is alive. Throw all this into a melting pot and fight it out until only one 'orthodox' hybrid religion emerges, and it is easy to see how the idea of Jesus as the living God could win out. Maybe.

Worth thinking about though.

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