25 July: Inverse Virtue
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Cc: Synoptic, GPG
On: 25 July: Inverse Virtue
While we are waiting for the pizza, here at Papa's, and just to get
things started, here is something I have been noticing. Comments and
This is not the moment to announce it in any great detail (there will
be an announcement later, about a session at SBL), but in general, my
work on the NT texts and some of their noncanonical counterparts over
the past some years has led to the conclusion that there were not one
but two major early ideas of Jesus among his immediate followers.
THE TWO SYSTEMS
One, to which I have given the name Alpha Christianity, stemmed from
Jesus's teachings during his lifetime; almost necessarily (unless one
thinks, as the Gospel of John invites us to do, that Jesus spent his
lifetime predicting his death), these teachings were not based on his
death. There is ample witness in Mark, preserved and even sometimes
expanded in the later Gospels, that his teachings involved disputes
with the Pharisees about the rules of right conduct, which in Pharisee
hands had become very elaborate.
The other, Beta Christianity, is centered on Jesus's death, and sees
that death as an atonement for everyone else's sin. The human logic of
that position is not always obvious to the ten-year-olds in the Sunday
School classes, but it has roots in Jewish tradition, and
reinforcements of a sort in non-Jewish practices, and so is
The point of difference is the simple basic question of the
10-year-old: How do I get into Heaven? To this question, as
symbolically posed in a late story in Mark (I am not going to pause
here to redemonstrate the layering in Mark, though it makes possible
much more precision than heretofore about what the earliest evidence
for Jesus actually consists of), the answer is: (1) Obey the rules of
right conduct. By implication, God rewards personal virtue. (2) Give
away all your possessions, and join the Jesus community of that time.
This will remind us of the Ebionites, and contra some investigators, I
find that the Ebionite tendency at least in embryo is very early. Acts
gives a highly stylized vignette from that phase; the Mandaean texts
remember it, though of course they could have copied it from somewhere.
The Beta answer to the question is basically that salvation comes not
from anything you do or don't do, but from acceptance of Jesus's
atoning death. This of course became the majority position (see my
Jude paper at SBL for a glimpse at part of that process).
But the Alpha position also persists in otherwise Beta territory, if
only as an expectation of conduct, things that it is "meet and right"
for an otherwise saved (elect) person to do. Even Paul, the most
strenuous Beta advocate who ever lived, has things to say in this
category. We thus find the later Beta doctrine mingling in a way with
the older Alpha strictures. (We also find Alpha doctrine developing
entirely on its own, but that is another story).
So what? I would like to call attention to something else, perhaps a
third and popular belief, existing alongside the other more
theological ideas, which I have called the Inverse Virtue rule. It
goes roughly like this: The world and Heaven are not only different,
but opposed, and if you succeed in this world, you have used up your
chances of entry into the next. Your only hope is suffering, or
uncompensated good. Probably the most extreme expression of this idea
is Luke's parable of Dives and Lazarus. Lazarus, it will be recalled,
is damned not for anything he has done, but simply for having been
rich. Of a piece with this (though less morally outrageous) is the
frequent injunction not to do good that can be repaid, since if it is
repaid, there is no debt left for Heaven to fulfil. You want to incur
a debt on the good side of the ledger. You want not to be paid off in
this world, which cancels the debt and leaves you without a credit
balance in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Inverse Virtue principle can be seen as having analogues in Beta
theory: the death of a sinless person creates a world-sized debt in
Heaven, and thus balances the sins of all mankind. It is the payment
of this debt that Beta believers are invited to share in. God owes
you, not for anything you have done or not done, but because of Jesus.
On the other hand, it seems that the Inverse Virtue rule, as a matter
of history, came out of Alpha ideas. We see this, I suggest, in the
two layers of the Epistle of Jacob (formerly James, but enough
Anglican squeamishness already). The first layer is pure Alpha:
injunctions to good behavior, to deeds that merit forgiveness, to
deeds that can cancel and offset sins. (Popular Dauist morality in
China, which owes much to Buddhist influence there, gets into this
sort of thing in a big way). But the second layer is a set of
denunciations of the rich, who will be damned precisely for their
wealth, a little bit like Luke.
If we see certain early Jesus followers gradually becoming
impoverished, as there is reason to do, they might easily have
developed a rich/poor dichotomy, in which the poor alone are virtuous
and the rich are pre-damned. I think this is approximately what
happened, not to the whole spectrum of Jesus followers (we may suppose
that some communities were more fiscally sound than others), but to a
certain subset of them. I don't care to define that subset very
closely at the present time.
There is precedent in 1 Enoch, to mention only that (see also Sirach),
for the idea that ill-gotten wealth leads to perdition. Nothing
remarkable there, but it is the ill-gotten wealth, not exactly the
wealth as such, that is the sin. Zacchaeus in Lk 19 promises to give
half his goods (NB: not all) to the poor, and to restore any
ill-gotten gains fourfold. He does not divest himself utterly. This
does not greatly depart from the Enoch precedent, whereas the parable
of Lazarus (and the Magnificat of Mary, a hymn of hate against the
rich) go much further.
I take it as obvious that the idea of wealth as a sin, and of
uncompensated gifts as a virtue creating credit in Heaven, is much
developed in Luke. But developed from what? Neither Lazarus nor
Zacchaeus nor the Virgin Birth story in any of its features have
Markan precedents. How much of this idea can be detected in Mark? I
mentioned the "rich young ruler" (Mk 10). There might also be
mentioned the late story of the Woman with the Two Mites (Mk 13),
though that seems to be stretching it. Anything else occur to anybody?
There is always the proto-Lord's Prayer in Mk 11:25, which by human
forgiveness creates a sort of debt that Heaven must repay by forgiving
humans. This is not so much Inverse Virtue as a resonance theory (also
very well developed in ancient Chinese context, where it was probably
suggested by early notions of Pythagorean resonance): We do good in
order to provoke good elsewhere. This is distinct from the John B
notion of forgiveness (also probably shared by Jesus, at least early
in his career), which has to do with eliminating the normal
consequences of sin. The resonance theory is instead virtue provoking
Just wondering. As I said at the beginning, any suggestions are welcome.
And now, where's the pizza? They are certainly taking long enough about it.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Copyright © 2010 by E Bruce Brooks