Jesus According to the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Christology
According to my understanding, ontology, hermeneutics, anthropology, and christology are so intimately related in Pauline thought that they cannot be separated from one another. The coming of Christ is, in fact, the perfect model for Paul's ontology, for just as Christ had a physical nature and a spiritual nature (Romans 9:5), and both are valuable, though the former is subordinate to the latter, so also the physical observances of the Torah and the people of Israel. On the present reading, the fundamental insight of Paul's apocalypse was the realization that the dual nature of Jesus provided a hermeneutic key to the resolution of that enormous tension that he experienced between the universalism of the Torah's content and the particular ethnicity of its form. Paul understood both the dual nature of Christ's person as well as the crucifixion in the light of the familiar platonic dichotomy of the outer and the inner, the material and the spiritual, or in Paul's own terminology, the flesh and the spirit. Jesus was explicitly of a dual ontology, having an outer aspect of the flesh and an inner aspect of the spirit, or in more properly hermeneutic terms: There was a Christ according to the flesh (ὁ Χριστὸς τὸ κατὰ σάρκα [Romans 9:5])—which corresponds to the literal, historical Jesus—and a Christ according to the spirit—the allegorical, risen Christ:
Concerning His son who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the son of God in power, according to the spirit of Holiness, by the resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:3–4).
περὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ τοῦ γενομένου ἐκ σπέρματος Δαυὶδ κατὰ σάρκα, τοῦ ὁρισθέντος υἱοῦ θεοῦ ἐν δυνάμει κατὰ πνεῦμα ἁγιωσύνης ἐξ ἀναστάσεως νεκρῶν
Jesus is the son of David according to the flesh but the son of God according to the spirit. This duality—if not dualism—is both ontological and hermeneutical or epistemological.
In the same category, it seems to me, is “So then, from now we know no man according to the flesh, and if we did know Christ according to the flesh, we will no longer [so] know him,” ᾭστε ἡμεῖς ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν οὐδένα οἴδαμεν κατὰ σάρκα εἰ καὶ ἐγνώκαμεν κατὰ σάρκα Χριστόν, ἀλλὰ νῦν οὐκέτι γινώσκομεν (2 Corinthians 5:16), in a context discussing the death and resurrection of Christ. There are two ways of construing this verse. Most commentators nowadays understand that the κατὰ σάρκα here modifies the verb, ἐγνώκαμεν, and not the Χριστόν, while Bultmann held that it indeed referred to the Christ, who in his aspect of according to the flesh represented the historical Jesus, “Christ in his worldly accessibility, before his death and resurrection.” Since we know for certain from Romans 9:5 that “Christ according to the Flesh” is a real entity in Pauline thought, I am inclined strongly to accept Bultmann's formulation. It is not, however, crucial for my argument. If “according to the flesh” refers to the Christ, then it explicitly marks the site of Christ's dual ontology; however, the usage of κατὰ and not another preposition will, in any case, mark that ontological difference as an epistemological one as well, as a mode of knowing, experiencing, or interpreting Christ. On the other hand, if it is the knowing which is according to the flesh, the hermeneutical moment is explicit, even though the ontological point is muted. Once more, as Bultmann remarked, “A Christ known κατὰ σάρκα is precisely what a Christ κατὰ σάρκα is” (Bultmann 1951, 1, 231).
In 1 Corinthians 10:18, Paul interprets a verse having to do with the offering of sacrifices and remarks that the verse deals with Israel according to the flesh, which means both Israel in its corporeal aspect, the “historical Israel,” as well as Israel interpreted literally. Here, too, Paul contrasts two ways of knowing and interpreting Christ: The inferior (from his perspective) Christians focus on, know, Christ according to his human, outer, according-to-the-flesh aspect—which, while clearly lower, is not “without reference to God”—while Paul and his followers know the crucified and risen Christ, who is known according to the spirit. However, very significantly, Paul does not entirely deny, of course, the importance of “Christ according to the flesh” either. The two Christs, or two ways of knowing Christ's dual nature, stand in the same axiological relationship one to the other as do the two Israels and, indeed, the two meanings (literal and spiritual) of the text as well.
Paul's entire thought and expression are generated by a very powerful set of analogical ratios. Among these sets of oppositions which can be gleaned from various places in his writings are
flesh spirit body soul humans God Jesus (before Easter) risen Christ literal figurative Israel Church works faith circumcision baptism traditional teaching revelation James Paul earthly Jerusalem heavenly Jerusalem (Jewish church) (gentile church) genealogy “Promise”
Sets of binary relations like this are a prominent feature of Pythagorean thought and expression. We know that Paul thought in such terms, as at one point he even uses the Pythagorean terminology for it (Galatians 4:25), συστοιξεῖ. I suggest that in his thinking and writing, the analogies among the relations generated by these lists of related ratios provide much of the heuristic energy which makes possible Paul's religious critique and innovation. Throughout this book I will be suggesting that the homologies of these ratios provide the force for Paul's thought and argumentation.
Paul describes historical Israel's existence as carnal, physical, material, and literal, and therefore it follows that the hermeneutical practices by which that historical Israel constitutes itself are also carnal; the Jews read only according to the flesh. They do not see beyond the fleshly literal meaning to the spirit behind the language. This brings us to the question of supersession. Richard Hays denies that Pauline theology is supersessionist (Hays 1989, 98–102). For Paul the Christian community stands in continuity with and not against the historical Israel. There has been, moreover, no rejection of Israel owing to their faults or flaws, as in some other New Testament theologies, nor, finally are the Christian believers free of either ethical or moral requirements or unsusceptible to sin (as the Corinthians apparently thought). Hays's reading then defangs Paul of his “anti-Semitism” without, however, as in the case of some modern liberal apologists for Paul, removing the teeth of Paul's critique. I would argue, however (and here, I think, the different hermeneutical perspectives of a self-identified Jew and a self-identified Christian show up): If there has been no rejection of Israel, there has indeed been a supersession of the historical Israel's hermeneutic of self-understanding as a community constituted by physical genealogy and observances and the covenantal exclusiveness that such a self-understanding entails. This is a perfect example of cultural reading, the existence of at once irreconcilable readings generated by different subject positions. What will appear from the Christian perspective as tolerance, namely Paul's willingness—indeed insistence—that within the Christian community all cultural practice is equally to be tolerated, from the rabbinic Jewish perspective is simply an eradication of the entire value system which insists that our cultural practice is our task and calling in the world and must not be abandoned or reduced to a matter of taste. The call to human Oneness, at the same time that it is a stirring call to equality, constitutes a threat as well to Jewish (or any other) difference. While it is not anti-Semitic (or even anti-Judaic) in intent, it nevertheless has had the effect of depriving continued Jewish existence of any reality or significance in the Christian economies of history.