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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Jesus Christ the Serpent

What do you think of the suggestion that Christ becomes a serpent?

At first glance the suggestion will be shocking to most people. It's not a title that we're familiar with, and certainly not comfortable with assigning to our Lord Jesus. I can't imagine Darlene Zschech sitting down to compose "Shout to the Lord" and considering the words "My Jesus, My Serpent, Lord there is none like you!" It would have to take someone either incredibly deranged or someone with incredible guts.

Gregory of Nyssa makes just this claim. We need to state at the outset that Gregory is allegorising, and for us with our scientific mindsets and methodologies we find it difficult to accept this as a "valid" hermeneutical method. In the 4th Century, though, it was commonly accepted practice. Gregory is dealing with the passage in Exodus 7:8-13 where Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh and in order to demonstrate that they come under God's authority they cast down the staff and it becomes a serpent. Amazingly, Pharoah's wise men and sorcerers are able to replicate this feat. Strangely, though, Moses' snake swallows the snakes of the wise men. For most of us this is just a strange addition to the story which we can rationalise away as having little to no significance to the greater meaning of the text. For someone who allegorises, like Gregory, these kinds of strange vignettes are exactly the verses to focus upon. These are the verses that must have a deeper, spiritual meaning since the surface meaning seems so strange to the naked eye. This is why Gregory has commentaries on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. You would be hard pressed to get a single sermon in a year in most churches from either of these books.

Gregory makes it very clear what he understands the serpent to represent.
The teaching is clear. For if the father of sin is called a serpent by Holy Scripture and what is born of the serpent is certainly a serpent, it follows that sin is synonymous with the one who begot it. (Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, Trans. A Malherbe and E. Ferguson (New York: HarperOne, 2006), pg 40.)
Gregory then applies 2 Cor 5:21 to his spiritual interpretation of the text; "he became sin who knew no sin". This is where the claim of Gregory is startling
This figure [the serpent] therefore is rightly applied to the Lord. For if sin is a serpent and the Lord became sin, the logical conclusion should be evident to all: by becoming sin he became also a serpent, which is nothing other than sin. (ibid, 40)
Again, this is shocking stuff to read, but there is a point to the shock tactics. Here Gregory is making a strong assertion about the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Here it is
For our sake he became a serpent that he might devour and consume the Egyptian serpents produced by the sorcerers.(ibid, 40)
In other words, he became sin (the serpent) in order to destroy sin, as well as the father of sin - the serpent (Gen 3); which for Gregory and many others in his time was assumed to be the devil. In the Exodus narrative the serpent reverts back to the staff, and for Gregory the meaning here is also significant. Christ not only becomes sin, he destroys sin, and then by his resurrection restores humanity back to its original condition.

What I find striking here is the boldness of this method. We must keep in mind that whilst the fourth century was a time of political freedom (compared to persecution!) for the Christian Church it was also a time when the label "heresy" was thrown around alot within the Church. Gregory himself seems to have spent every other week refuting a particular heresy or responding to an accusation of one leveled against him. So in the context of such an environment to have the bravery to make a claim such as this shows, I suggest, a great deal of intestinal fortitude on his behalf. The shock factor may be comparable with someone in our day and age suggesting that Christ becomes a terrorist in order to destroy terrorism (I've not read such a claim, nor am I suggesting it as a valid metaphor, but simply suggest this for the purpose of comparison).

Now we can't just leave this amazing metaphor without also highlighting the fact that Gregory leaves us a little bewildered later in the same text. Further in the Life of Moses, picking up Paul's language in Rom 8:3 where Christ comes in the "likeness" of sinful flesh, he suggests that Christ comes in the "likeness of a serpent and not a serpent itself... Sin is the real serpent" (pg 116). Whilst the metaphor shifts slightly, the point he is making remains consistent. Christ became sin (or at least in the "likeness" of sin), destroys sin and restores humanity as a result.
[Humanity], then, is freed from sin through him who assumed the form of sin and became like us who had turned into the form of the serpent... The voice of the Lord teaches clearly that the serpent lifted up in the desert is a symbol of the mystery of the cross when he says, "The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert" [John 3:14] (Life of Moses, pg 116-117).

1 comment:

  1. "The serpent is an equivalent of the fish. The consensus of opinion interpreted the Redeemer equally as a fish and a serpent; he is a fish because he rose from the unknown depths, and a serpent because he came mysteriously out of the darkness."

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