Markus Vinzent's Blog

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Christ’s Resurrection in Nicola Spanu, review: Early Christianity and the Making of the New Testament by Markus Vinzent

I have to say that I have really enjoyed reading this book. In particular I have appreciated the author’s effort to locate the making of the New Testament inside the context of the debates held by different school masters and their pupils on the crucial points of the nature of the Christian religion. In my book Plotinus, Ennead II 9 [33] ‘Against the Gnostics’ – a Commentary (forthcoming, 2011/2012) I have made the effort to do the same thing, by showing that Plotinus's philosophy sprung from the debates that followed his lectures. The Enneads themselves are nothing but lecture notes systematized by Porphyry after Plotinus's death.
With regard to the constitution of the canon of the four Gospels, I wonder whether Justin and his pupils might have had a role in such an enterprise. I think of Justin because he was a contemporary of Marcion and, like him, an esteemed teacher who founded his own school in Rome, where Prof. Vinzent supposes that the canon of the four Gospels was established. It is evident that only someone with a strong philosophical and religious education could have started such a difficult enterprise and Justin possessed these requisites.
With regard to Prof. Vinzent’s interpretation of the theme of Christ's Resurrection in early Christian authors, honestly it puzzles me the way in which he and the other scholars he quotes attempt to demonstrate the decreasing importance of the Resurrection of Christ after Paul on the basis of the fact that this concept, though sometimes present in post-Pauline Christian literature, does not possess in it the same centrality as in the authentic Pauline letters. With regard to 1Clement, for example, Prof. Vinzent quotes Aland's position, according to whom 1Clement's conception of Christ as ‘the firstfruit, when God raised Him from the dead’ (1Clem. 24:1) is a ‘depressive’, ‘almost marginal mention of the Resurrection of Christ’. The reason of my perplexity is that, given the non-systematic nature of most of the literature we have (which was the expression of constant dialogue and interaction between opposite views), the fact that a certain theme can be objectively marginal (as in the case of Christ's Resurrection in 1Clement) must not necessarily imply that this theme is de facto marginal and irrelevant for the author of the text considered, who can simply have decided to give priority to other concepts instead of those which we, from our point of view, suppose that he should have treated more deeply.
For example, it strikes me the fact that such a fundamental concept as that of the Son as image of the Father's substance (see Hebrews 1:3) is not further developed by the author of this epistle, although its importance was, I think, fundamental for Christians of the first two centuries, because it concerned the very nature of the Son of God. On the other hand, if we supposed that this idea was irrelevant for Christians of the 1st and 2nd century, it would be very difficult to explain why the author of the epistle gave this theme such a prominence by introducing it right at the beginning of the epistle.
I think that in case my criticism were correct, it would not at all put at risk the general structure of Prof. Vinzent’s thesis, because the centrality that Christ's resurrection undoubtedly has in Marcion could well be the final result of decades of academic confrontation on this theme (which in this case would have been central for Christians even before him). With Marcion the debate on Christ's Resurrection would have simply reached a further (and crucial) stage of its development. 
I have found very interesting Prof. Vinzent’s reconstruction of the debate around the true nature of Christ’s body, which for Tertullian is neither that of a demon nor that of a ghost. I think that some conceptions developed by Porphyry on the condition of the souls of the deceased could be relevant for this topic. In the lost treatise On the Styx (which we possess only in a few fragments preserved by Stobaeus) Porphyry says that the souls of the unburied retain a ‘reflected image’, an εἴδωλον, of their physical body and of the clothes they wore at the moment of death (ὃτι δ΄οἱ ἄταφοι ἔξω τοῦ ποταμοῦ διατρίβουσιν εἴδωλον φέροντες τοῦ σώματος καὶ τῶν ἀμφιεσμάτων τοῦ σώματος, δηλοῖ τὰ τοιαῦτα.) (See Porphyry, Περὶ Στυγός in: Stob. II. 1. 32. [II. 14. 9-15 3. Wachsm.], 92-94). All souls possess an εἴδωλον of their physical body but the souls of the unburied and of those who have gravely sinned during their earthly life are punished by retaining the memory of their sinful acts, which they are forced to relive until they are judged worthy of entering the Acheron, where they are granted oblivion of their earthly experience (ibid., 27-47).
In the sentence no. 29 of his Sententiae ad intelligibilia ducentes Porphyry describes the descent of the soul through the heavenly spheres, from which it receives a pneumatic body. During its life, the soul's actions leave an imprint on this pneumatic body that becomes an εἴδωλον, an ‘image’ of the soul’s physical body, which does not abandon the soul even in Hades. (See Porphyry, Sententiae ad intelligibilia ducentes, ed. E. Lamberz, [Teubner, 1975]) Other works by Porphyry which could be interesting are De Regressu Animae 290F 2-5, p. 238 Smith = Augustine, De civit. dei, X. 9. (the fragments of the De Regressu Animae have been collected by J. Bidez, Vie De Porphyre [Gand, 1913]); Ad Gaurum VI. 1. p. 42 5-11 Kalb; De Abstinentia II. 39. 1.
This doctrine was endorsed by Christian authors as well. Synesius for example writes: ‘This psychic pneuma, which famous men have called pneumatic soul, can become either a god or a multiform daemon or a ghost (εἴδωλον) and in this one the soul suffers punishments’ (Τό γέ τοι πνεῦμα τοῦτο τὸ ψυχικόν, καὶ πνευματικὴν ψυχὴν προσηγόρευσαν οἱ εὐδαίμονες, καὶ θεὸς καὶ δαίμων παντοδαπὸς καὶ εἴδωλον γίνεται, καὶ τὰς ποινὰς ἐν τούτῳ τίνει ψυχή). (See id., De insomniis. 7. 2.)
I have thought it useful to cite these conceptions because it seems to me that they are in tune with the Christian debate around the nature of Christ's resurrected body as demonstrated by the fact that Synesius, a Christian bishop (although later than Marcion), wrote about them. Maybe Tertullian knew about these ideas on the afterlife, later on referred to by Porphyry and Synesius (but they must have certainly been developed before them) and stressed the material nature of Christ's body in order to differentiate it from the pneumatic body or εἴδωλον of the deceased and daemons. On the contrary, Marcion's position seems to be more in line with Porphyry's, who in the same sentence 29 says that on the occasion of their descent on earth the most perfect souls (to which Christ’s soul could be associated) receive a pneumatic body of ethereal nature from the stars, while more imperfect souls receive their pneumatic body from inferior natures such as, in hierarchical order, the sun, the moon and finally the humid vapours.
I am sure that Prof. Vinzent’s book will play a fundamental role in fostering the scholarly and non-scholarly debate about such an important theme as Christ’s Resurrection and the making of the New Testament and constitute the solid ground on which further studies will follow.

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