June 7: Acts 2:22ff

This Sunday marks the octave of Pentecost, traditionally known as Trinity Sunday—commemorating the doctrine of the Trinity. Both historically and theologically, the orthodox Trinitarian doctrine—as formulated in the Apostles’, Nicene, Constantinopolitan and Athanasian Creeds—is derived primarily from questions about the person of Jesus Christ. The principal question is two-fold: (1) in what sense is Jesus to be understood or regarded as the “Son of God”, and (2) in what sense, or to what extent, is Jesus to be considered both divine and human? It is interesting to note the gulf that exists between the orthodox Christological formulae and much of the New Testament language used in reference to Jesus—language which could be, and has been, interpreted in a heterodox manner (see the note on Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy).

Consider, for example, the sermon-speeches in the book of Acts. According to the traditional-conservative view, these reflect the actual words (allowing for a modicum of translation and/or editing) of early believers such as Peter, Stephen, James, and Paul. Many critical scholars, on the other hand, see them as largely the creation of the author (trad. Luke), which may, to a greater or lesser extent, preserve earlier (oral) tradition as well. Either way, they represent some of the earliest kerygmatic statements (i.e. Gospel proclamations) regarding the person of Christ.

In light of the recent commemoration of the day of Pentecost (as narrated in Acts 2:1-13), it is worth looking at the great Pentecost speech/sermon of Peter in Acts 2:14-41. I will be discussing this in detail as part of a series of the “Speeches in the Book of Acts”, but for the moment allow me to isolate three Christological phrases:

    1. In verse 22a&ndra a)podedeigme/non a)po\ tou= qeou=
    2. In verse 33, a dual phrase—th=| decia=| ou@n tou= qeou= u(ywqei\$, th\n te e)paggeli/an tou= pneu/mato$ tou= a(gi/ou labw\n para\ tou= patro/$
    3. In verse 36kai\ ku/rion au)to\n kai\ xristo\n e)poi/hsen o( qeo/$

Each of these will be examined briefly over a series of three daily notes, beginning with the first today.

Acts 2:22: a&ndra a)podedeigme/non a)po\ tou= qeou=

This phrase is part of the key kerygmatic statement in 2:22-24, which begins as follows:

 &Andre$  )Israhli=tai, a)kou/sate tou\$ lo/gou$ tou/tou$:  )Ihsou=n to\n Nazwrai=on a&ndra a)podedeigme/non a)po\ tou= qeou= ei)$ u(ma=$
“Men, Israelites! hear these words/things—(of this) Jesus the Nazarean, a man a)podedeigm/enon a)po\ tou= qeou= unto you…”

The participial phrase in Greek is the central concern, and is to be translated with care:

a)podedeigme/non (apodedeigménon) is a participle form of the verb a)podei/knumi (apodeíknymi), a compound of the preposition a)po (apo, prim. “from”) and dei/knumi/deiknu/w (deíknymi/deiknúœ, “show, display, present”). The prefixed particle a)po is primarily an intensive, though here it is repeated as a preposition in the phrase. The entire expression a&ndra a)podedeigm/enon a)po\ tou= qeou= could be rendered literally “a man presented from God…” However, the compound verb a)podei/knumi often carries a more specialized meaning, such as: (1) “present (someone) in an office or position” (i.e., designate, appoint, etc) and (2) “present by evidence or argument” (i.e. demonstrate, prove, etc). Here the sense would seem to be that the special status of Jesus was demonstrated or legitimated publicly by God (a)po can indicate agency, better rendered in English as “by”), with the added nuance that Jesus was also from (a)po) God. With this in mind, verse 22 can be translated as follows:

“Men, Israelites! hear these words/things—(of this) Jesus the Nazarean, a man presented from/by God unto you (with) works of power and wonders and signs which God did/made through him in your midst, even as (you your)selves know”

Verses 23 and 24 continue with clauses (modifying “[this] Jesus the Nazarean…”):

23this (one), by the marked-out will [i.e. purpose] and foreknowledge of God, given out through (the) hands of lawless ones, fastening (him) toward (the stake) you took him up/away [i.e. put to death]
24whom God made stand up (again), having loosed the pains/anguish of death, according to (the fact) that [i.e. because] there was no power to firmly hold him under it”

This leads into the exposition of Psalm 16 in verses 25ff. The language and syntax of vv. 22-24 is colorful and rather awkward (as I hope the literal rendering above makes clear); later theologians and commentators certainly would use more consistent and systematic phrasing. For one thing, there is little in vv. 22-24 to distinguish Jesus from, for example, other prophets and chosen figures (such as Elijah), who, by the power of God, worked miracles (and even raised the dead). Consider again the phrase particularly in focus here, which states that Jesus was:

“a man presented by God [or from God] unto you (with) works… which God did through him…”

There is no suggestion of any “divine” status (in the orthodox sense of Jesus’ deity) prior to his death. Such language could be read in an adoptionistic sense. Adoptionism is a label applied to a range of early Christian beliefs and opinions whereby Jesus was an “ordinary” human being who was only “deified” (or, elevated to a divine status) after the resurrection. Another strand of thought held that Jesus was actually appointed/anointed/gifted as God’s Son at his baptism (cf. for example the variant reading [citing Psalm 2] in Lk 3:22). The view emphasizing the exaltation of Jesus upon his resurrection appears to have been more widespread and better accords with the depiction of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (cf. also, for example, in Romans 1:3-4). What then of the orthodox view of the Deity of Christ, in the more absolute, ontological, existential, or metaphysical sense? This will be addressed specifically following a discussion of the second and third kerygmatic phrases (from Acts 2:33, 36) in the next two notes.

Trinity/Triad in Ancient Egypt

In commemoration of Trinity Sunday (June 7, 2020), and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, it is worth considering some interesting, albeit rather loose, parallels to the idea (and mode of expression) attested in other ancient religious traditions. Perhaps the most noteworthy examples come from ancient Egypt, where the symbolism of the number three was, in a variety of ways, consistently applied to concepts of deity, especially in terms of triadic structures and formulae—involving groups of three deities. In ancient Egypt, as in other cultures, the number three could be used as a shorthand to indicate plurality and multiplicity (i.e. the first number after two, beyond duality). In Egyptian script, the plural could be indicated by three strokes or by repeating a sign three times.

Triads of Egyptian deities are well-known, with numerous and varied examples at hand in the surviving texts and inscriptions. What is significant is the way that these triads express both unity and multiplicity—the one and the many (three)—at times using both singular (“he”) and plural (“they”) pronouns when referring to the triad. This will be discussed further below.

Different sorts of triads, typical of the syncretistic tendencies in Egypt whereby deities (and/or conceptions and manifestations of deity) are combined and united in various ways. This fundamental syncretism distinguished Egyptian religion from the other cultures of the Ancient Near East, where such combinations are attested much less frequently. Three kinds of triads may be mentioned:

    • Mythological—that is, deities described in the manner of human beings (with personalities, etc) about whom tales (i.e. “myths”) may be told
    • Cosmological—the work of creation and natural phenomena described in terms of the actions of, and relationships between, divine powers
    • Theological—i.e., deities related to one other conceptually, in an attempt to describe the nature and characteristics of deity, often in somewhat more abstract terms.

One common “mythological” triad in ancient Egypt is the natural combination of father, mother, and child (son), reflecting the dynamic of the human family. The best known examples of this sort are: Amun-Mut-Knonsu (from Thebes), Ptah-Sekhmet-Nefertem (from Memphis), and Osiris-Isis-Horus (from Abydos). The king (Pharaoh) is often identified with the son in this triad, understood as a manifestation (or ‘incarnation’) of the deity on earth. A similar incarnation, in animal form, is the Apis bull; the Memphite theology surrounding the Apis identified it, for example, with the divine triad of Osiris-Atum-Horus, or Ptah-Re-Horus (cf. Morenz, p. 143).

Perhaps the most famous (and well-known) cosmological triad involves the manifestation of the Creator deity [Re] in the form (or symbol) of the sun during its daily course: Khepri in the morning, Re in midday, and Atum in the evening. These associations are known as early as the Pyramid Texts, but find their definitive formulation in the later Turin papyrus, in which the deity says “I am Khepri in the morning, Re at noon, Atum in the evening”. In the Book of the Dead, the Creator deity (represented by the Sun), is called “the aspect of the three” (Morenz, p. 145). With the setting of the sun, the deity Re is united with Osiris in the underworld (as Re-Osiris). A similar sort of combination was expressed, at Memphis in the late period, by the triad of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris.

A triadic construct, both cosmological and theological in nature, is the famous Ennead (group of nine deities) of the Heliopolitan theology. According to this cosmology, the universe is represented by three generations (comprised of four male-female pairs) of offspring from the Creator deity Atum, with whom they are ultimately identified. The best known theological triad from ancient Egypt is found in the Leiden Hymn to Amun (late 14th-century B.C.), which gives definitive expression to the identification of the Creator deities Re and Ptah with the high deity Amun (whose name means something like ‘the Hidden One’):

“All gods are three: Amun, Re, Ptah; they have no equal. His name is hidden as Amun, he is Re before (humankind, i.e. visible to them), and his body is Ptah.” (stan. 300)

This dates from the revivial of Amun-religion, in the time of Tutankhamun (following the reign of Akhenaten), and is similarly expressed, visually, on a trumpet from his burial treasure (cf. Hornung, p. 219):

Admittedly, these Egyptian triads, are quite different from the Christian trinity, in two important respects: (a) they are part of a highly developed polytheistic religious outlook, and are ultimately tri-theistic rather than trinitarian; and (b) there is no parallel whatever for the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit. Something roughly comparable to the idea of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God is, up to a point, found in Egyptian religious thought—i.e. the king (or the deceased) as the incarnate Son of the Creator (Re/Ptah/Atum)—but nothing like the Holy Spirit. What Christianity and Egyptian religion have most in common is the basic conceptual vocabulary of “one in three, three in one”, as applied to God, however different the overall religious culture might otherwise be. It is possible that this theological language (mode of expression) in Egypt exercised some influence on Christian theology during the two centuries prior to the council of Nicaea (and the establishment of the Nicene Creed). The importance of Alexandria is often cited as the connecting point with Egypt’s past, preserving ways of religious thinking and formulating that go back centuries. The first-century Jewish philosopher and commentator Philo of Alexandria offers an interesting comparison for how the ancient Egyptian triadic theological expression might have been preserved. In his Questions and Answers on Genesis, Philo comments on God’s appearance to Abraham in the form of three persons (Gen 18:1-2ff), and seeks to explain this in a manner not too dissimilar from the ancient Egyptian triadic formulation:

“…it is reasonable for one to be three and for three to be one, for they were one by a higher principle [kat’ a)nw/teron lo/gon]; but, when counted with the chief powers…He makes the appearance of three to the human mind. …. the spiritual eyes of the virtuous man are awake and see….he begins to see the holy and divine vision in such a way that the single appearance appears as a triad, and the triad as a unity.” (IV. 2, Loeb translation)

This statement by Philo lacks the ontological and metaphysical basis of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but, in its clear expression of God as both one and three—trinity (triad) and unity—it points in the direction the Trinitarian language utilized by believers, even to this day, as we attempt to approximate and express, in some manner, the mystery of the Godhead.

References above marked “Hornung” are to Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, transl. John Baines (Cornell University Press: 1982). Those marked “Morenz” are to Siefried Morenz, Egyptian Religion, transl. Ann E. Keep (Cornell University Press: 1973).

It has proven a challenge for Christians, over the centuries, to represent the Trinity visually in works of art; however, there have been a number of notable and worthy attempts. One of the most famous, to be sure, is the icon painted by Andrei Rublev in the early 15th century (c. 1410?). It draws upon the same Old Testament narrative (“The Hospitality of Abraham”, Gen 18:1-8) commented on by Philo (cf. above), but has been turned into a beautiful, stylized depiction of the Trinity. The tendency toward a kind of visceral realism in Western art, in the late Medieval and Renaissance periods, made the Trinity a more difficult subject matter for the visual arts; however, a pattern was established by Masaccio (c. 1427) in his altar fresco for the cathedral of Santa Maria Novella in Florence (second, below). This pattern, depicting the Father, Son (Christ on the cross), and Spirit (as a dove), was followed by Albrecht Dürer, in his magnificent “Adoration of the Trinity” altarpiece (1511) for the All Saints Chapel of the Landauer “Twelve Brothers House” in Nürnberg (third, at bottom).