An interesting story in the 4th book of Maccabees.
Posted on 16 December 2014, 7:56
The problem that bedevils thinking about spiritual matters, is the misuse of poetry and metaphor, the very language of spirit. Take this quote from Mark 10.45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [cf Mt.20:28]
Failing to see “ransom” as a metaphor led some to ask who the ransom was paid to. Origen of Alexandria [184 – 253 CE] and others thought it was to the devil.
And this is what they came up with: “Essentially, this theory claimed that Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall; hence, justice required that God pay the Devil a ransom to free us from the Devil’s clutches. God, however, tricked the Devil into accepting Christ’s death as a ransom, for the Devil did not realize that Christ could not be held in the bonds of death. Once the Devil accepted Christ’s death as a ransom, this theory concluded, justice was satisfied and God was able to free us from Satan’s grip.” [Robin Collins: Understanding the Atonement] For the next one thousand years that became standard Christian theology. It was modified after that. Luckily, you were still allowed to call yourself Christian if you didn’t fully accept this strange story.
“Ransom” was a metaphor. Where did it come from? It came from the 4th Book of Maccabees, written perhaps when Jesus was alive, or perhaps in the previous century. It relates how a Greek tyrant (prior to the Romans) had tried to make Greeks of the Jews, and one of the ways he chose, was to force them to eat pork (forbidden in the Hebrew law). He picked a prominent priestly family, and put them to death, one after the other, by terrible tortures, for refusing to eat pork. Most of the eighteen chapters of that book describe the tortures in the minutest detail.
But here’s what we read in chapter 17: [Verse 17:] “The tyrant himself and all his council marvelled at their endurance,  because of which they now stand before the divine throne and live through blessed eternity.  For Moses says, “All who are consecrated are under your hands.”  These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honoured, not only with this honour, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation,  the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified—they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation.  And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an expiation, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been afflicted.”
The 4 Maccabees story was widely known in the time of Jesus, and the writer of Mark will surely have had it in his mind when he writes of Jesus [also] giving his life as a ransom for many.
We read in Mark 10.45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [cf Mt.20:28]. Now, Mark really should have taken two further words from 4th Maccabees, namely “As it were”. “Ransom” is a Metaphor. Metaphor. If those words had also been quoted, the world might have been spared rubbish that has helped to sideline the main teaching of Jesus, including the primacy of love, as opposed to the Jewish legalism, the Kingdom of Heaven, and God’s care of all his creation. Matthew 10:29- 31 (NIV): “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
If the writer of Mark has Maccabees in mind, he will have had in mind the martyrdom of that family, the price they paid for preserving the faith of Israel: here was Jesus paying the same kind of price, to bring Israel and the world into a truer understanding of God: Jesus was embodying love, forgiveness, utter faith in the Father, and the eternal nature of Spirit. He commended his spirit to the eternal Father, and assured the penitent thief that he would that day be with him in paradise. “My kingdom”, he had said, “is not of this world.” All this and more is surely the point of the cross.
“Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God is one.” That belief has no room for the Zoroastrian idea of a kind of battle between the God of Light and the God of darkness, as Origen’s theory about “ransom” seems to imply.
“God is love” we say, yet in our lives we are indeed sometimes confronted with the extremes of non-love, so much so that we can fear the destruction of all things, through global warming, nuclear warfare, famine and plague. Now, psychic research clearly shows the dual nature of humanity: Flesh and Spirit, a physical mind and body, with a spiritual self and a spiritual body. When we pray, we pray perhaps with our physical mind to our spiritual self or to the Universal Self, the Spirit that is in all that is. Our physical minds can conjure up fears, urges to violence, whatever. En masse physical minds can conjure up the greatest of evils. To steer away from all this, is the point of prayer and worship, the point of acts of communion, reminders to love and help others, and openness to creativity.
This need for prayers in common, jointly communing with Spirit, is the reason for the existence of churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. To all this, religious groups can add both truth and rubbish and sometimes find difficulties in distinguishing between the two.
How do I feel in that regard about being a priest in the Anglican Church, when one former Bishop of Durham agrees with St Paul, (and the universal evidence of the Inner World) about there being a spiritual body and a physical body, and when another former bishop thinks that resurrection must be that of a physical body, and when another bishop confesses that he has lost belief in any spiritual realm at all? I feel disturbed and uneasy, but get on with the business of prayer and worship, communion and love and service of others, and try to sort out the truth about things for myself. I do this knowing that each person worshipping beside me, will differ in their beliefs and prejudices from me, and from each other. But “All real life is meeting,” said Martin Buber. Meeting the Spirit that enfolds us all, meeting each other at such depth as is possible. Many individuals in churches also seek out others who seem to be following a spiritual path similar to their own, involving certain disciplines of meditation, psychical research, and Biblical studies… whatever. At the same time they also enjoy the togetherness of common worship with people of all ages, all stages of development.
With regard to the Scriptures, in the past sixty years I have found plenty of inspirational material to preach about. And plenty to ignore. What I would dearly like to happen in every church when we read the Bible is this: First that we need to sort out what the reforming message of Jesus was. I personally understand this message to be about the primacy of love over the law, that God is trustworthy and is Love, that all people without exception are God’s children, that God is in all, through all, and above all (this is called the Kingdom of Heaven), that the Spirit brings life, and that the Letter kills. “It was said by them of old time,” Jesus often said, “but I say unto you..” I understand John1.1 to be affirming that Jesus was an expression of the creative action of the mind of that Mystery we call God. I understand that the meaning of our lives involves our eternal selves sometimes learning from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that we sometimes encounter with our physical minds and bodies.
Of course other people may want to describe the message of Jesus in different terms: but however we describe it, could we not in the name of Heaven discuss whether this or that reading from the Old Testament is Christian, and consonant with mature human experience? Perhaps most of the Old Testament is wonderful stuff, but there is much that is like drunken Noah’s body needing to be veiled by his sons – which is a metaphor for what churches usually do about Old Testament instructions such as to stone disobedient sons and adulterous women (not men), the favouring of polygamy, strange dietary laws, and ethnic cleansing.
But we don’t distinguish. Gravely, we read the Old Testament in church as if each reading had equal value. At best this confuses, at worst it enables some people of ill-will to feel justified in preaching a hate-filled judgmental religion, true blasphemy.
I do suspect though that nearly all main-line churches would avoid highlighting any of their more controversial doctrines, and concentrate on the core business that I have already mentioned, of corporate prayer, communion, and service of others.
But to go back to the question of poetry and metaphor, how religion uses them, and misuses them. Poetry and metaphor constitute the language of relationship, of love, and of feeling expanded to include the universe. Plain prose can’t do it. Music and dance can also be such a language. But the trouble with languages of any kind, is that they are not mutually comprehensible. It has often been observed how much there is in common between all the great religions. But because of the different poetry and metaphors, it requires open and discerning minds to discover this. The differing languages are one problem. But the other problem is typified in the discussion about Jesus’ death being a “ransom”. When literal minded dogma mongers get hold of such words, they make structures of thought literally to kill for. It is good to remember that the word “religion” refers to what binds us together. And that binding is what true Spirit does. Those who do not understand the poetry of spirit turn such poetry into the opposite of binding, something that drives us apart.
Text of 4th book of Maccabees
Michael Cocks edits the journal, The Ground of Faith.
Afterlife Teaching From Stephen the Martyr by Michael Cocks is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.
His forthcoming book, Into the Wider Dream will be published Winter/Spring 2015 by White Crow Books.