Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Jesus' cross as symbol

In his discussion of symbolic interpretations of the exodus among the Church Fathers (viz., Origen and Gregory of Nyssa), Ron Heine highlights Origen's very interesting connection between the Exodus traditions and the gospel. Of course, some New Testament texts already make this connection. But I found the following very interesting:
Origen connects God's statement that he has seen his people's affliction in Egypt and has come down to deliver them from their taskmasters and from pharaoh (Exod. 3:7–8)—Origen inserts "pharaoh" into the statement—with the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. "For he did indeed set us free from Egypt and its leaders whom he nailed to the cross to make a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross." Christ is the "true Lamb," who has "freed us from the servitude of the world ruler of this present darkness." The passover lamb slaughtered in Egypt was the type. Egypt means darkness, Origen says, and pharaoh, Egypt's governor, "means dissipater, because he dissipates the works of virtue done in the light by means of his princely power." (Ronald Heine, Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church: Exploring the Formation of Early Christian Thought [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 86; citing Origen, Treatise on the Passover 47, 49 [Heine's emphases]).

Heine is discussing Origen's symbolic (= typological) reading of Egypt and Pharaoh as the world and the devil, respectively. But what caught my eye was Origen's symbolic reading of Jesus' crucified body. Notice what Origen says has been nailed to the cross: "Egypt and its leaders." This idea has its forerunner, perhaps, in 1 Pet. 2.24, which itself reads Isa. 53 symbolically in light of the salvific effects of Jesus' death. "He himself bore our sins in his body upon the tree" (ὃς τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν αὐτὸς ἀνήνεγκεν ἐν τῷ σώματι αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τὸ ξύλον; hos tas hamartias hēmōn autos anēnenken en tō sōmati autou epi to xylon). Of course, Origen hasn't abandoned the "literal" reading of the crucifixion, for Christ's victory over Egypt and Pharaoh (= the world and the devil) happened "in the cross."

It seems to me that in such short measure (Pasch. 47) Origen reads Jesus' crucified body as the instrument as well as the object of judgment. Thus the flexibility and adaptability of symbols in (some of) the Fathers' reading of the Bible, and thus the enduring power of those symbols.

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