Christ as History: Fr. Bernard Lonergan’s Christology, Part One


One wonders what Fr. Bernard Lonergan would have made of the short text we have known as the “gospel according to Mary Magdalen”, specifically the lords of the underworld (or lowlands) apparently revealed to her by the quasi-historical person we know as Jesus.  The first of these was known as Christ

While historians are still working on piecing together the personage referred to as Jesus, whether Jesus was a diminutive of Joshua/Joseph, or an amalgamation of persons, or an actor inn a life size theatrical production of a much earlier story makes little difference, since it is the notion of Christ that we are dealing with.  The term itself is a re-spelling of the Greek Khrystos – “anointed” – the spelling was changed in the mid 16th century to appear of Hebrew origin rather than obviously of Greek origin.

In a Christology that goes as far as to equate Christ and history we need to first disabuse ourselves of the notion that history, whatever the intent of historians, depicts “what actually happened” in any sense.  Hegel’s claim that history is ‘rational’ is itself a revelatory claim, based on an experience that ‘happened’ to Hegel (and most likely simultaneously to Holderlin) circa 1805. This revelatory experience was of the nature of revelation itself, and this reflexivity demonstrated to Hegel the movement of rational history: a forwards and backwards projection, where the forward projection anticipates what future historians will want to know, and the backwards projection accepts, rejects, and reevaluates the body of evidence known as the historical ‘record’.  What is relevant, acceptable, to the historical record is a priori determined by the revelation, and despite revision retains that basic determination, since the revisions themselves are made in light of a body of evidence derived from it.

Of course, the forward projection began for a reason, and that reason was itself revelatory.  Christianity is the only major world religion without a base set of morals, acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, and specific, doctrinaire goals (of course some sects have these things, but there is very little that is common to all Christianity).  Instead it begins with the witnessing of an event, a change or transition, in which the person known as Jesus (or just Jesus for convenience sake), God become man, accepted the ultimate punishment for sin, and in doing so left the notion of sin itself behind, there being no further judge to pass judgement.

Were Christianity that simple, though, it would likely have remained a minor sect among many.  Instead from its revolutionary roots it became the state religion of the largest empire of its time.  Whether Constantine was sincere or not, it could only do so since a certain isomorphism between the worship of Caesar and that of Christ had crept into Christianity itself.  The first conflation of this is in the synoptic gospels themselves, described here (with two notable errors):

“researchers claim Jesus was simply telling his followers to render Caesar’s coin back to Caesar because it was against First and Second Commandment for Jews to use or carry Caesar’s coin. The coin inscription, which is not mentioned in the Bible, states Caesar is a god. And these coins were also considered graven images, idols of other gods. Both of these conditions were forbidden by commandments.”

Jesus was certainly calling the coin blasphemous, but not only to Jews, as his teachings were intended for gentiles as well.  The Denarius coin, with Caesar’s image, does not state that Caesar is (a) god but that Caesar is the son of (the) god.   That god is Janus, the last god of the Romans, and the protector of the mint.  The coin is not only an object of false devotion (mammon), but a doubly false one, without the god’s imprint and thus not even ‘real’ money.

“Son of god” had become a common phrase for “lord” amongst the Koine speaking Roman lower classes and slaves, and in the Epistle to the Romans, Paul uses it in that sense.  The gospel references to Jesus as the “Son of God” were written after that epistle and indicate that the authors misinterpreted Paul’s colloquialism as a literal statement.  That statement would have not been any sort of challenge to Judaism, where all Jews were in any case “sons of God”; the challenging phrase in the Gospel is “Son of Man”, i.e. he who will replace man.  This is echoed in the fragment attributed to Mary Magdalen where she tells the others to go out “having been taught how to be true human beings”.

As the cult of Caesar waned into Constantine’s time, for economic reasons faith in Roman money had to be shored up.  The isomorphism of Jesus Christ as lord, as son of (the) god, and its popularity among the more rebellious classes allowed the Christ-story to stand-in for the cult of Caesar.  The historical record, itself originally an analogy from bookkeeping, adopted the symbology and some of the content of both the Christ and Caesar stories.  As the core of the historical record, in a very real sense Christ is the symbol of history itself.  The related notions of “Lord Jesus Christ” and “Christ the King”, ludicrous if literally applied to Jesus, gain their sense from this series of transitions, conflations and substitutions, all of which recall the movement of history itself as such.

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