Jesus as the Image of God

In my previous blog I dealt with the meaning and translation of the Greek word Christianos, traditionally translated “Christian,” arguing that this translation was not only problematic but fundamentally misleading.

The surviving writings from the first few centuries of the Christian movement, especially those in the canon, have dominated our imaginative reconstructions of the early Jesus movements. We see these writings as a window onto the ancient world—we imagine that they describe it the way it was. The canon makes them authoritative, implying that they are all we need.

Stress “surviving” because we are always under the tyranny of what survives. I will never forget my first experience on an archaeological site when the director remarked that what we see is at best about one to two percent of what was there. That’s a sobering thought. We must always temper our interpretations with the reminder that we are working with only a small portion of the evidence and this warning applies equally to both the written and material artifacts.

Evidence gets lost in a variety of ways. Fire, earthquakes, and wars have caused massive destruction in the past and on occasion, ironically, preserved a good chunk of the past, e.g., Pompeii. Neglect is also a major issue. But we also need to calculate at times on deliberate destruction. A newly prevailing orthodoxy will often attempt to eliminate the evidence of what it now deems heresy.

Besides calculating the loss of evidence, we need to ask whom the surviving evidence represents. While estimates of literacy in the ancient world are notoriously difficult and controversial, we are probably safe to say that the number of people with the literacy needed to write a gospel does not exceed ten percent in large urban areas and one or two percent in rural areas. The gospels represent elites, not common folks. Sitting around reading scriptures and gospels is not the main activity of Jesus followers. Very few would ever had read one of these texts. We need to rid ourselves of our printing press mentality. Ancient Bible societies were not producing Bibles for everyone to read.

Material culture has long interested me as a way around this elite tyranny of writing. Material culture offers us an entrance into the world of the average person. The problem here is twofold. Much of the surviving material culture from the ancient world also represents elites and we do not get Christian artifacts until after 185 CE, with most coming from much later periods.

The tyranny of writing, relying solely on writing for our understanding of the ancient world, has an unintended consequence. A word or sign is made up of two parts. The signifier is the sound or in writing the letters and the signified, the mental construct. A word creates meaning when the signifier/sound combines with the signified/mental construct. With a dead language like Greek, the signified is constructed by the dictionary meaning of the word. What a dictionary meaning does not include is the images associated with the ancient signified. The dictionary presents an abstracted verbal reconstruction of the signified in the target language. Often the dictionary makes this worse in using a gloss, i.e., a word equivalent in the target language. Thus, the signified then becomes the signified of the target language gloss with its associated contemporary images, confusing a contemporary reader into believing that an ancient text is in fact also contemporaneous instead of ancient.

It sounds complicated, but the implications are important. Modern translations of ancient texts, whether biblical or not, evacuate the imagistic aspect of the ancient signified. A translation is always less than what an ancient audience heard. This deficit is inevitable and can never be completely eliminated.

A group of scholars in the past few years have begun addressing the deficit and have begun to turn up and put together interesting results. Ally Kateusz’s paper “The Jesus Woman and the Jesus Women” at the Spring meeting of the Christianity Seminar is an excellent exemplar of this work.

She draws a line between text and material artifacts in a suggestive fashion. The following is a brief synopsis of the line of connection.

Galatians 3:28

You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer “male and female.”

In the SV translation “male and female” are in quotes because Paul is quoting Genesis 1:27:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (NRSV).

Kateusz argues that Paul is following in a Jewish exegetical tradition that understands the image of God to be both male and female. Therefore Paul, she argues, views Jesus’ body as both male and female in that he is the image of God.

As an aside: this way of understanding the Genesis text is a very different than that of many modern-day evangelicals. For them the significance of God creating male and female concerns heterosexual marriage. Neither ancient Judaism nor Christianity ever understood Genesis in that fashion.

Kateusz draws a line from Genesis 1:27 to Galatians 3:28 and then to Thomas 22:

Jesus said to them, "When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter ."

She further notes that 2 Clement in the late second century comments on this Thomas text. Thus, strong evidence exists of textually viewing Jesus’ body as both male and female.

Kateusz connects this textual evidence to images of Jesus that depict him with female characteristics.

Center of sarcophagus, Rome. Photo by David Edward Kateusz

The above image is from a sarcophagus from Rome dated around 350 to 375 CE, now in the Museo Pio Christiano, a part of the Vatican Museums. This Jesus is feminized with long hair and no beard, in contrast with Paul on the left and Peter on the right who have short hair and beards. For Kateusz, this is an image of Jesus as both male and female. Her essay has a number of these images. Technically this is an intersexed Jesus, formerly referred to as androgynous. (The classic article on this topic is Wayne Meeks, “The Image of the Androgyne.”).The intersexed image of Jesus according to Kateusz exists in a direct line from Paul to the Gospel of Thomas to the images in the third century until after Constantine. Ultimately the iconoclasts initiated a destruction of these images and so this image passed out of western Christian consciousness, except in the depiction of Jesus with long hair even to this day.

Furthermore, Kateusz connects this intersexed Jesus with women exercising leadership roles in early Jesus movements. Once again, she shows that Paul’s view of Jesus’ body as intersexed, both male and female, leads to his treating women and men with mutuality. (See also my The Real Paul, chapter 11.) She exhibits many images of eucharist with both men and women officiating at the table with women associated with the cup. A second-century image shows a man and woman at the table with the woman apparently holding a cup. This image was discovered in excavations underneath St. Peter’s in Rome. Even after Constantine these images persist. One surviving image depicts a man and a woman at the altar in Constantine’s St. Peter’s in Rome and another image depicts a similar scene in Hagia Sophia. Thus, images survive depicting men and women officiating at the altar in major Constantinian churches.

Even though later orthodoxy attempted a systematic eradication of the evidence, Kateusz makes a strong case that the intersexed Jesus does not represent some off beat, oddball position, but a major trajectory in early Christianity. She sees this Christology as based upon Genesis 1:27. Jesus as both male and female is the image of God. This Christology supports and undergirds a sharing of leadership roles in the early Jesus movements, especially and most importantly at the table.

Justin Martyr’s Logos Christology is well known. While the title Logos in Christian usage derives from the prologue of the fourth gospel, the content is Platonic. But another Christology functions in Justin’s work, a Kyrios Christology or what Wilhite terms a YHWH Christology. I prefer to speak of a Kyrios Christology rather than YHWH Christology because a) Greek is Justin’s language, and b) on the analogy of Logos Christology.

The logic of Justin’s Kyrios Christology is as follows. Jesus is the Logos and therefore the pre-existent God. Jesus as Kyrios (Lord) reinforces this; kyrios is the way the LXX (Septuagint, Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) translates the tetragrammaton YHWH (Yahweh). Jews vocalized YHWH as “Adonai,” the Hebrew meaning “lord.” For Justin the pre-existent Logos as Kyrios is the God encountered in the Jewish Scriptures (what would much later be termed the Old Testament).The following illustrates Justin’s exegetical logic. In his Dialog with Trypho, Justin employs Psalm 24 (23LXX–LXX and Hebrew numbering schemes are different at this point). Verse 3 asks: “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?” For “Lord” the Hebrew has YHWH, while the LXX has Kyrios. Trypho and Jewish exegesis read this verse as referring to Solomon, but Justin argues that it prophesizes Christ.

He then interprets the last verse of the Psalm in a similar fashion. “Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory” (v. 10). For “Lord of hosts” the Hebrew has YHWH Tzevaot, while the LXX has Kyrios tōn dynameōn. This allows Justin to conclude that since Kyrios (Lord) refers to Jesus the Messiah, therefore Jesus must be YHWH, i.e., God.

Wilhite concludes, “For Justin, the primary persona encountered in the Old Testament God is the preincarnate Christ.” He does not assume that God the father and God the son are distinct. In fact, those distinctions, based on the father/son metaphor, were introduced later on the way to Trinitarian theology to solve the problem created by Justin’s Kyrios Christology.

Whom do Justin’s writings represent? The philosophical argument represents the elites, certainly less than two percent of the Jesus followers. This contrasts with the intersexed Jesus who almost certainly represents the majority of Jesus followers.

Katuesz demonstrates a relationship between Christology and leadership roles. The orthodoxy that emerges out of Justin’s Christological moves will lead to a strong male leadership preference, as its Christology is inherently male.

What these papers illustrate is a pluralistic configuration of Jesus movements with different Christologies, different patterns of leadership, and different approaches to the Scriptures.

Kateusz, Ally. “The Jesus Woman and the Jesus Women,” Westar Christianity Seminar Meeting, Spring, 2019.Meeks, Wayne. “The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity.” History of Religions 13 (1974): 165–79.Scott, Bernard Brandon. The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge. Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press, 2015.Wilhite, David E. “Is Jesus YHWH?: Two De-Judaizing Trajectories of Marcion and Justin,” Westar Christianity Seminar Meeting, Spring, 2019.

Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and historical-jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.

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