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Christ’s Laughter: Docetic Origins Reconsidered
GUY G. STROUMSA
Fritz Stolz in memoriam
One of the most radical heresies of early Christianity, Docetism, maintained that Jesus did not really die on the cross but only appeared to do so. Some docetic conceptions go further, denying Jesus a physical body altogether. This article argues that a claim that Jesus’ sacrifice was not really accomplished appeared among the very first followers of Jesus. For first-century Jews Isaac provided an obvious model of someone who—in his akedah (“binding”) as described in Genesis 22—had almost been sacrificed, but not quite. The figure of Isaac, which soon became a typos, or figura, of Christ for the church fathers, as the Akedah was understood as a sacramentum futuri, must have been the source of this docetic interpretation of the crucifixion. Various gnostic texts and traditions describe Christ laughing in heaven while Simon of Cyrene is being crucified in his place. This laughter of Christ has not so far been properly understood. This article proposes to see in it a reference to the etymology of Isaac’s name, yzh≥aq (“he will laugh”). This etymology was widely known among first-century Jews. Philo, for instance, discusses it on various occasions, even claiming that Isaac was actually the son of God, not of Abraham, and that his mother Sarah was a virgin when she conceived him.

I One of the most radical attitudes to be found among the early Christians, Docetism soon became a generic term for some of the worst heresies fought by the church fathers. Oddly enough, this puzzling phenomenon does not seem to have elicited enough scholarly attention. In 1957 Gustave Bardy, who claimed that “les origines de cette erreur sont obscures,” lamented the lack of a full-fledged monograph on the topic, and no such monograph has appeared in print since then.1
1. Bardy, “Docétisme,” DSAM 3 (1957): 1461–68; see 1462. The Heidelberg dissertation of P. Weigandt, Der Doketismus im Urchristentum und in der theologischen
Journal of Early Christian Studies 12:3, 267–288 © 2004 The Johns Hopkins University Press

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Moreover, there is no general agreement upon a convincing definition of Docetism, and one is at a loss as to the focal point of the docetic worldview. The two main approaches relate either to Christ’s incarnation or to his passion: either Christ was not really incarnated, as the divine and matter could not have a common ground, so Christ would be totally spiritual in nature; or Christ was indeed incarnated, but did not really suffer on the cross. These two views are not identical. The first, being broader, is inclusive of the second. Most scholars seem to support the first approach and find the roots of Docetism in Platonic thought, or in what is sometimes called, rather nebulously, “Graeco-Oriental Dualism.”2 For them, Docetism argues that the human nature of Jesus is only a semblance. For the second opinion, which focuses on the crucifixion, Jesus’ death, rather than his very corporeal existence, was the scandal that the first Docetists sought to avoid. J. G. Davies, in a paper read at the Sixth Oxford Patristics Conference and published in Studia Patristica in 1962, seems to have been the first to suggest this idea.3 Soon thereafter Norbert Brox seconded him with new arguments.4 According to both scholars, Jewish motives (for Davies) or Jewish-Christian ones (for Brox) should be identified, together with “Graeco-oriental” dualism, at the origins of Docetism. It should be pointed out, however, that the views of Davies and Brox do not seem to have become the majority opinion. As knowledgeable a scholar as Basil Studer remarks that the docetic tendency makes sense

Entwicklung des 2. Jahrhunderts (diss., Heidelberg University, 1961), was never published. An analysis of Weigandt’s main argument can be found in M. Slusser, “Docetism: A Historical Definition,” SCe 1 (1981): 163–72. Slusser also quotes various definitions of Docetism offered since the days of Baur. I wish to express my thanks to Clemens Leonhard, Giovanni Filoramo, David Runia, Mark Silk, Shmuel Herr, and Jonathan Cahana for their comments on a draft of this paper, as well as to the three anonymous readers for JECS who saved me from various mistakes and infelicities. A version of this paper was read at the Fourteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies (Oxford, August 18–23, 2003). I wish to thank the conference organizers, and in particular Professor Frances Young, for inviting me to deliver one of the “morning lectures.” Another version was read at the University of Zurich on April 16, 2004. Finally, I wish to thank Professor Christoph Uehlinger for his pertinent remarks and great generosity. 2. J. G. Davies, “The Origins of Docetism,” SP 6 (1962): 13–35; see 13. Similar expression in N. Brox, “Doketismus: Eine Problemanzeige,” ZKG 95 (1984): 301–14. 3. Davies, “Origins of Docetism.” 4. See Brox, “Doketismus.” See further W. Schoedel, Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, To the Trallians 9–11 and To the Smyrnaeans 2–3, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 152–61 and 225–29.

as it is against such doctrines that the author of 1 and 2 John. 6.6 (LCL 2:42–43): hous Dokètas kaloumen. 1995). for his part. at least according to 5. historically and theologically defined movement. See for instance G.”5 Charles Munier. Studer. It is probable that “docetic” doctrines were already present in the first Christian century.” In other words. Clement Strom. 8.7.” The developed character of Valentinus’ doctrines.17. seems to argue. Docetism is related to those who claim that birth is evil and is therefore upheld by Julianus Cassianus. Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress. Strecker. 9. See M. A. is only found in Clement of Alexandria’s Stromateis. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton: Princeton University Press. “Docetism” is no more a fixed set of doctrines than “Gnosticism” is. Georg Strecker proposed to distinguish among three different claims: (1) the one according to which Simon of Cyrene was the substitute of Jesus on the cross (a claim made by Basilides. Commentary on the Johannine Letters. only Valentinians should be considered docetists.” argues that Docetism was born “from the difficulty to conciliate Jesus Christ with Hellenistic conceptions about God’s transcendence.12.7 A similar caution should be used with the construct of “Docetism. who echoes Bardy when he states that “les commencements du docétisme sont insaisissables. 407–13. for instance.27. 7.STROUMSA/CHRIST’S LAUGHTER 269 only within a Platonic context. Munier.102. however. while Eusebius refers briefly to the “Docetes.1 (Berlin: De Gruyter. is probably responsible for the commonly held view that Docetism owes its rejection of the physical body to the influence of the Platonic negation of matter. B.” as if it referred to a stable. 1996). Williams. 69–77. 3. “Docetism. adding that “strictly speaking. here 409. Eusebius Hist. the father of encratism. Seeking to offer a taxonomy of three different kinds of docetic attitudes. See in particular 2 John 1. as well as by Marcion and Valentinus. C. for whom Christ’s body was “psychic. 6. esp.” ODCC 1:244a. but rather a theological option that shows up in a wide variety of early Christian texts. While many of those doctrines we often refer to (rather vaguely) as “gnostic” also reflect a docetic attitude. “Où en est la question d’Ignace d’Antioche?” ANRW 2.”9 For Clement. .8 The first appearance of doke\tismos. 1993).”6 What is clear is that in modern scholarly usage “Docetism” does not refer to any clearly definable sect but rather to an attitude. Eccl.” Michael Williams has made a convincing case for questioning the hypostatic use of the concept of “Gnosticism. “Docetism” is by no means identical to “Gnosticism. and in particular his complex conception of Christ.

Haer. K.13 While it is by no means my intention here to offer a review of all the evidence on early Christian Docetism. Grant. The New Testament Apocrypha (Cambridge: Clarke.” to use Paul’s terms (1 Cor 1. . the idea of Christ having possessed a body of flesh. as it were. McCant. 1. both retain. Tröger. Schneemelcher and R. Pace R. 13. “a stumbling block [skandalon] to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.24). “The Gospel of Peter: Docetism Reconsidered. that he remained impassibilis. M. Commentary on the Johannine Letters. W. W. Wilson. and (3) the claim that Jesus Christ was indeed crucified but did not suffer. 12. On the text.24. I shall begin with the Second Treatise of the Great Seth. and only then were the docetic attitudes broadened. to include also the very incarnation. see W. finally. in both “Graeco-Oriental and Jewish thought. (2) the one affirming that Christ left Jesus just before his death on the cross (according to Cerinthus and the Gospel of Peter 10). 14. I submit. does not lie in Platonic elements. “Gnostic Origins and the Basilidians of Irenaeus. the very historical core of Docetism. that Docetism may have influenced early Christian conceptions of martyrdom. does not offer a real analysis of this text and only refers to the parallel about the suffering Simon and the laughing Christ in the views attributed to Basilides in Irenaeus Adv.”12 To my mind. which were wholly absent from Christian origins. 11. however.270 JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES Irenaeus). It is only at a later stage. unfortunately. however. “Doketistische Christologie in Nag-Hammadi-Texten: Ein Beitrag zum Doketismus in frühchristlicher Zeit. rather vague formulations in their hypotheses.” VC 13 (1959): 121–25. Tröger.” Kairos 19 (1977): 47–52. For their minds did 10.” 16. at least in its earliest phases. came first.4. “Origins of Docetism. McCant’s conclusion that the Akhmim fragment “should not be considered docetic” reflects a rather limited and rigid conception of Docetism. This rejection. but in the rejection of Jesus’ passion on the cross. which they think happened. Davies.11 While the two above-mentioned articles of Davies and Brox point in the right direction in the search for the origins of Docetism. a particularly powerful text (extant in Coptic translation) that has been called one of the most interesting texts from Nag Hammadi relating to Docetism:14 For my death. Strecker. I shall discuss a few texts that I hope will shed some new light on the origins of Docetism and shall emphasize its roots in the earliest stages of Christianity. as his nature is pneumatic (the claim of the Docetics fought by Ignatius). 1991). See J. They nailed their man up to their death. 1:216–27.” NTS 30 (1984): 258–73. [happened] to them in their error and blindness. 72. and both argue for a “twofold” origin of Docetism. see 51.

But in doing these things. VI on Matthew and Hom. S. Another.30–56.17 While it is true that the Second Treatise of the Great Seth does not specifically say that Simon was crucified in Christ’s place.16 Indeed.” in Homo religiosus: Autour de Jean Delumeau (Paris: Fayard. ed. Laughing Gods. Gr. “Their man” is the body of Christ.23. whose translation I have quoted. Gilhus. it is hard to argue (as Gregory Riley. Riley (see no. 18.. Gilhus too. See also I. however. The Laughing Savior: The Discovery and Significance of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Library. although a specialist of Gnosticism. . 18 below). 1997). they saw me.STROUMSA/CHRIST’S LAUGHTER 271 not see me. Dart. Another was the one on whom they put the crown of thorns. Le Brun. Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies 30 (Leiden: Brill. seems to do) that this text has no docetic proclivities. another text from Nag Hammadi. As for me. first published in 1976. See J. refers to this and similar passages but without offering any real interpretation of them. Nag Hammadi Codex VII. we read: When he had said these things. See B. “‘Jésus-Christ n’a jamais ri’: Analyse d’un raisonnement théologique.18 The cosmic cruelty of this laughter seems to evoke Siva’s mythic destruction of the demons’ cities rather than Christ’s traditional compassion. G. and reprinted in a revised and expanded edition under the title Jesus of Heresy and History: The Discovery and Meaning of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Library (San Francisco: Harper. The topical texts here are some Homilies of John Chrysostom and a text of Ambrosius. who was Simon. “What am I seeing. who is glad and laughing? And is it another person whose feet and hands they are hammering?” The Savior said to me.2) 55. 1997). I saw him [the Savior] apparently being seized by them. They were hitting me with the reed. from antiquity to modern times a quite common image of Christ in the Christian tradition (albeit not the only one) is that of a stern figure who could cry at times but had never laughed. their father. “He whom you see 15. Seth (NHC VII. 1988). XV on Hebrews and to Ambrosius’ De officiis ministrorum 1. O Lord? Is it you yourself whom they take? And are you holding on to me? Who is this one above the cross.102 on Luke 23. does not deal at length with this passage and its parallels. Trans. 431–37.19. another was the one who lifted up the cross on his shoulder. they punished me. for they were deaf and blind. and I was laughing at their ignorance. This passage is not the only one mentioning Christ’s laughter. This laughter of Christ is reflected in the title of John Dart’s introductory book to Christian Gnosticism. Weeping Virgins: Laughter in the History of Religion (New York: Routledge. they render judgment against themselves. on the one hand. 17. 137–38.15 One does not have to be a Christian to be taken aback by the image of Christ laughing when watching from heaven as the poor Simon of Cyrene carries his cross and suffers in his place. it was not I.25. In the Apocalypse of Peter. And I said. Pearson. was the one who drank the gall and the vinegar. 16. Le Brun refers to Chrysostom Hom. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the riches of the archons and the offspring of their error and their conceit. 1996).

ibid. 243).4) 89. ed. (Or “the uncontainable one.4) 41. And this people has done me no harm. and left before them a shadow of herself resembling herself. of course. The Concept of Our Great Power (NHC VI.” See A. In the Hypostasis of the Archons Eve “laughed at [the authorities] for their folly and their blindness. 241). 67 n. .” according to John Turner’s translation. 1977].2) 34. I am he who was within me. and F. finally. The Gnostic Scriptures (New York: Doubleday. 2000).1–4 (trans. 25–26.3–21 (trans. in order to show it to the archons. See also B. Nag Hammadi Codex. glad and laughing.23–26.35–38. namely.. 4:89. and in their clutches. But he into whose hands and feet they are driving the nails is his physical part.14–42.” It is this shadow. who did not suffer on the cross. Hypostasis of the Archons (NHC II. Valentinian Exposition (NHC XI.2) 139.”20 The text entitled The Concept of Our Great Power describes how the ruler of the archons “found that the nature of his [the Savior’s] flesh could not be seized. avoiding being caught by the evil archons. 22.23 In the Valentinian Exposition. Garcia Bazan. at least.3) 31. is the living Jesus.3) 81. Pearson. F.”19 Various other texts from Nag Hammadi reflect the same docetic perception of Jesus. the Lord says to James that he will reveal to the “authorities. Wisse. Brashler. R. Peter (NHC VII.” Elsewhere in the same text. The Letter of Peter to Philip (NHC VIII. But we are the ones who have suffered at the transgression of the mother.”21 In the First Apocalypse of James the Lord is quoted as saying: “James.”22 Two other texts. I quote the translation of Bentley Layton. Apoc. 88.15–22 and 30. Jesus is a stranger to this suffering. Piñero. The Nag Hammadi Library in English [San Francisco: Harpers. that “he cannot be seized. Robinson. W. Sophia “laughs since she remained alone and imitated the ‘ungraspable.3.. Textos gnosticos: Biblioteca de Nag Hammadi III (Madrid: Trotta. First Apocalypse of James (NHC V. Never have I suffered in any way. 1987). in Robinson. 71. which is the substitute. J. J. ibid. that they catch and defile. nor have I been distressed. 23. Schoedel. mention the laughter of a feminine figure behaving in a manner similar to that of the docetic Christ. Montserrat Torrents..39–43). 397). 20. 24.” or archons. in Pearson. Layton does not deal with Eve’s laughter in his commentary to his edition of the text in HTR 69 (1976): 31–101.’”24 The figure imitated by 19.272 JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES above the cross. The Letter of Peter to Philip offers a similar vision of things: “My brothers. Nag Hammadi Library. she became a tree. in J.” HTR 69 (1976): 413–15. 21. do not be concerned for me or for this people.15–22 (trans. 439). “‘She Became a Tree’—A Note to CG II. 287. In a note to his recent translation of the text Antonio Piñero offers the following explanation (which explains very little): “La sonrisa del Salvador puede ser una inversión gnóstica a los escarnios de lo que veían la crucifixión (Matt 27.

”) does not really solve the riddle.25 To these texts one should add some “gnostic” traditions retained by the patristic heresiographers. in particular. or rather the views of some of his followers. yet I suffered not . sWbe) when answering a question from John or some other disciple. As noted by the editors of this text. but this does not affect its significance for our present task. does not really offer an interpretation of this laughter of Christ.” (p. being transformed by the other. who cannot suffer through his capture by the archons.26 Finally.4 (trans. Gnostic Scriptures. Kaestli. E. Rather. 269 n. A. Orbe states: “El tema de la risa merecería estudio” (2:229). Basilides und seine Schule: Eine Studie zur Theologie. where the Savior laughs (or smiles. The question has been raised whether Irenaeus’ report really reflects Basilides’ doctrine. Ménard. Ménard translates as “l’insaisissable” and offers the following commentary: “Le rire est l’apanage des êtres célestes. 1996). a certain Simon of Cyrene was forced to bear his cross for him. . 27. See also. Orbe. You hear that I suffered. CCA 2 (Turnhout: Brepols. Haer 1. for his part.e. For further references to the theme of laughter in gnostic sources and traditions. however. where Eve laughs at the powers (text parallel to that from the Hypostasis of the Archons quoted in n.27 “So then I have suffered none of those things which they will say of me. Eric Junod and Jean-Daniel Kaestli. 116. where Sophia Zoe laughs at the Archontic authorities. . And unto the nations belonging to them it [the intellect] appeared on earth as a man.13. so that he was taken for Jesus.. 1976).1) 22. Hence he did not suffer. assumed the form of Simon and stood by. E.12. . in particular the views of Basilides according to Irenaeus of Lyon. 1:381–412 (el docetismo gnostico) and 2:229–37 (on the theme of laughter). i.und Kirchengeschichte des zweiten Jahrhunderts (Tübingen: Mohr. . . celui du Christ par exemple . and he performed deeds of power. where the Archons laugh at the Archigenitor because of his foolishness. yet I See J.27.24. These texts are referred to by one of the anonymous readers for JECS. 76). some rich pages in A. 1985). and that I was pierced. 25. L’exposé valentinien. 23 above). les fragments sur le baptême et sur l’eucharistie. Irenaeus Adv. . and it was he who was ignorantly and erroneously crucified. Ménard’s remark (“Le rire de la Sophia vient de ce qu’elle a voulu imiter l’Insaisissable sans être pour autant dans le monde des syzygies . 601. Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi 14 (Québec: Université Laval.26. laughing at them [irrisisse eos]. . Layton. 242). .STROUMSA/CHRIST’S LAUGHTER 273 Sophia seems to be he who cannot be caught. 1983). eds. See also On the Origin of the World (NHC II. Junod and J. . while Jesus. the Acts of John preserve a famous description of Christ’s docetic nature quite similar to the “gnostic” traditions quoted above.5) 113.-D.. the dissociation reflected in this text between the Savior and the man on the cross fits quite well Eastern Valentinian christology. see W. 26. Cristologia gnostica (Madrid: Biblioteca des autores cristianos. who adds the Apocryphon of John (NHC II. 58. Löhr. Löhr. Acta Iohannis. . and 112.

the Lord has them in derision. Section Textes 14 (Quebec: Laval. Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi. refers to some of the parallels. les fragments sur le baptême et l’eucharistie (NH XI. and J. and others which I know not how to say as he wills. nor even Antonio Piñero. that this laughter. . that I was hanged. on his side. 29. notes the strangeness of this laughter. . 111–25. 30. nor Bentley Layton. L’Exposé Valentinien.” in Studien zum Menschenbild in Gnosis und Manichäismus. which has been identified by various scholars as “typically gnostic” and as directly related in its origin to both gnostic mythology and Docetism. Section Textes 6 (Quebec: Laval. Ménard.23–26 in the prayer of Peter and John after their release by the Sanhedrin. 76. as Psalm 2 deals with the messianic drama. are enough to highlight the importance of the motif of laughter on the part of Christ. in an article published long ago. to interpret Christ’s laughter as a reflection of Ps 2. See also Prov 1.” 121–25. Nagel (Halle: Abt. 1982). And going down I laughed at them all when they told me what they had said about him. 2). One cannot say. that blood flowed from me. 2). ed. he was taken up. without any of the multitude seeing him. noting that the laughter underlines the blindness and ignorance of the archons and of their creatures as well as their inability to distinguish reality from illusion.30 The only serious suggestion I am aware of is that of Robert Grant.” This proposal must be taken seriously. Textos gnosticos. L. “Gnostic Origins. however. P.4: “He who sits in the heavens laughs [yoshev bashammayim ish≥aq]. See Piñero. Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi.” Neither Junod and Kaestli. My proposal. . 106 and n. calling the Messiah “God’s son” (v. . who proposed. which are certainly not the only ones harboring a docetic view of the Savior. and n.31 I hope to offer here a more convincing interpretation of Christ’s laughter. Cf. Painchaud. 8). 70. adding that it is typical of “celestial entities. however. is quoted in Acts 4. Le deuxième traité du Grand Seth (NH VII.” When he had said these things to me. 101–102. Bröcker. 90. G. “Lachen als religiöses Motiv in gnostischen Texten. .” offer any substantial interpretation. is not exclusive of Grant’s suggestion. Grant. has been adequately explained. 35. The same chapter. yet it did not flow. 1979). as an early conflation between two different themes might have contributed to the development of the idea of Christ’s laughter. who refers only to “a gnostic inversion.” .28 The texts briefly discussed above. . Wissenschaftspublizistik der Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg. 31. as he secretly avoids the passion on the cross. Jacques Ménard. in the commentary to his edition of the Second Treatise of the Great Seth.29 Louis Painchaud. 28. yet I was not hanged. 1985). Acts of John. moreover.22–26: “I will laugh at your calamity.274 JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES was not lashed.

Harl. 1–21. II As is well known. The Lord “was going to offer the vessel of the spirit as a sacrifice for our sins.5. it is important to underline the context of this laughter.3 (LCL. in order that the type established by Isaac. A. “La ‘ligature’ d’Isaac (Gen 22. offered his only and beloved son in sacrifice to God. ed. Brock. This laughter. thanks both to his birth and to his near sacrifice. and J.”34 From then on. It seems that in various texts the Savior’s laughter (or that of a heavenly figure seeking to imitate him) is directly related to his ability to avoid death at the hands of the archons. Barnabas also mentions the two goats of Yom Kippur (Lev 16. might be fulfilled. or his replacement by a substitute (such as Simon of Cyrene) that the Savior avoids death. O.33 After the New Testament. “Genesis 22 in Syriac Tradition. 33. On this concept.7–9). like God. Daniélou. Casetti. P. 35. M. Kirsopp Lake): hina kai ho tupos ho genomenos epi Isaak tou prosenekhthentos epi to thusiastèrion telesthèi. then. in his turn. 34. esp. Apostolic Fathers 1:364–65. 4. who points out that Melito is the single author to relate the binding of Isaac to that of Jesus. Keel. intended to sacrifice his own son. 1950). 1986).9) dans la Septante et chez les Pères grecs. or sacramentum futuri. 365. the biblical patriarch Isaac is presented in early Christian literature as a typos of Christ. trans. Babylonian Talmud Yoma 62a–68b. Hadas-Lebel. See for instance J. It is either through his transformation at the last moment. Haer. Daniélou. Barnabas 7. in a 32.32 While Isaac is not alone among the major figures of the Old Testament to be thus perceived. he certainly has a pride of place. See further S. and he laughs at having succeeded in averting the evil archon’s scheme. the earliest text to refer to Isaac explicitly as a typos of Christ is the Epistle of Barnabas. whose faith drew him to obey God’s order. one of which is sent to Azazel. Latin. would grant him the gift of sacrificing his only and beloved son for the redemption of all his posterity.STROUMSA/CHRIST’S LAUGHTER 275 Before going any further. Schenker (Fribourg-Göttingen: Editions universitaires.35 Isaac carried the wood for the burnt offering. who notes that in the Syriac tradition Isaac . his disappearance. Abraham. so that God. or Syriac will refer to Isaac as a typos of Christ. Cf. Caquot.” See also M. focusing in particular on the Akedah in Genesis 22. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. 457–72.” in Hellenica et Judaica: Hommage à Valentin Nikiprowetzky. Irenaeus Adv.” in Mélanges Dominique Barthélemy: Etudes bibliques offertes à l’occasion de son soixantième anniversaire. ed. who was offered upon the altar. see in particular J. Riaud (Leuven: Peeters. Sacramentum futuri: Etudes sur les origines de la typologie biblique (Paris: Beauchesne. and A.4: “Abraham.” Biblica 28 (1947): 363–93. 1981). “La typologie d’Isaac dans le christianisme primitif. many patristic authors writing in Greek. would appear to be integral to the docetic interpretation of Christ’s passion.

Ibid. 1976].” emphasizes the difference between Isaac and Christ: and he carried the wood on his shoulders as he was led up to be slain like Isaac by his Father. Ibid. See R. for hu- and the ram are a combined type of Christ and that we do not find there the allegorical or anagogical interpretation familiar from the Alexandrian tradition.38 Origen does not pursue this line of interpretation and does not link Isaac’s laughter to Christ.37 Origen devotes one of his most powerful Homilies on Genesis to the biblical figure of Isaac. L. 40.”40 Later. 1979). Wilken.39 “That Isaac carried himself the wood for the burnt offering. I am using the edition of L. Christ’s resurrection from the dead. 38.276 JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES prefiguration of Jesus carrying his cross. .1 (SC 7bis [Paris: Cerf. Stroumsa. Homélies sur la Genèse 7. He does say. the Jewish Community at Sardis. 7. On the role of the Akedah in these polemics.1 (SC 7:216–17). Origène. 212–35). Hall. “Melito. 74–77. and the Sacrifice of Isaac. lies in the fact that according to the biblical text Isaac was eventually not sacrificed. Doutreleau. hoped that he would be resurrected. for he was a model of the Christ who was going to suffer. 36. Melito of Sardis deals with the parallelism between the two figures in his Peri Pascha. 64).6 (SC 7:222–23). “Isaac means laughter or joy” (Isaac risus uel gaudium interpretatur). 8.36 Melito. deal with the ram as a typos of Christ. where I tried to connect rabbinic and patristic interpretations with the different contexts and parameters of Jewish and Christian identity. Abraham’s faith was based upon his knowledge that Isaac was the prefiguration of the truth to come. who has been called “the first poet of Deicide. “Herméneutique biblique et identité: L’exemple d’Isaac. while Jesus did die on the cross. The major difference between the two figures. 39. this is the figura of Christ who carried himself his cross.” TS 37 (1976): 53–69. 8. whereas Isaac did not suffer. But by being merely the model of Christ he caused astonishment and fear among men. OECT (Oxford: Clarendon. But Christ suffered [epathen]. Fragments 9 and 10 in the edition and translation of S. he adds that while Abraham offered to God a mortal son who did not die. The two following fragments. willing to sacrifice his son. Melito of Sardis. of course. “God. see G. is dedicated to the Akedah (pp. G. believing that what had never taken place would happen. According to him.” RB 99 (1992): 529–43. that Abraham. 194–95). 37. 11 and 12. The next homily. Wilken rightly insists upon the significance of Melito for the central role of the Akedah in the polemics between Jews and Christians in late antiquity but is wrong when he claims that the Akedah played only a minor role in early Christianity during the first one hundred or one hundred and fifty years (p. however. Peri Pascha and Fragments. J.

but [only] in the flesh. Adversus Marcionem 3. is the typos of the divine nature of Christ. refers to Christ (ho Kyrios) laughing with scorn at the ignorance of those who crucified him in Origen’s Commentary on Matthew 13. Germanus of Constantinople. cuius hic aries forma est]. and did at that early date set forth the death of Christ. similarly.41 In the next paragraph Origen discusses the ram. Homilies on Genesis 8. OECT [Oxford: Clarendon. remained “in incorruptibility” [Verbum uero in incorruptione permansit. 42. which is Christ according to the spirit. Tertullian. et pertulit mortem. antequam immolaretur. Hence. In order to explain the double type of Christ he notes that Christ is at once human. the typos of Christ is double: while Isaac. Perkins. Ibid. spinis Iudaicis 41. This is why he is at once victim and high priest. did not suffer death. In other words. Evans. which was indeed slaughtered. Origen. Cf. who was sacrificed.18. born of a virgin. and the Logos of God. of whom Isaac is the image.2 (ed. as another typos of Christ. This conception will become widespread. 180. P. The Gnostic Dialogue (New York: Paulist Press.9. 43.9 (SC 7:230–31). 1999]. Origen quotes here from LXX Ps 2. quod interpretatur Risus) and the ram of the Akedah as referring to Jesus (Quis ergo illo figurabatur.: St Vladimir’s Seminary.8 (SC 7:228–29). delivered to death an immortal Son” (Abraham mortalem filium non moriturum obtulit Deo. the archons who betrayed him are laughed at and derided by the Lord. 84–85). who did not die. cuius imago est Isaac].43 Augustine too discusses both the meaning of Isaac’s name (Isaac.Y. himself carried the wood for himself. On the Divine Liturgy (ed. to begin with. Adversus Judaeos 13. “Here is the lamb of God.” The Logos.STROUMSA/CHRIST’S LAUGHTER 277 mans. 1:224–25). E. Meyendorff [Crestwood. but [only] in his flesh. Origen points out that the parallelism between the Akedah of Isaac and the crucifixion of Christ relates precisely to the fact that Christ. Deus immortalem filium pro hominibus tradidit morti). For Tertullian. however. sed caro.42 In other words. at least in his divine nature. N. sed in carne. 8. For Tertullian. is the typos of his human nature.636. Isaac as a figura of Christ also often appears in Latin authors. the ram too is parallel to the crucified Christ with the crown of thorns. P. . Christ suffers. And so Isaac. John said. coming from on high. so that difficulty of understanding might make request for the grace of God. also in the East. types and figures needed to be covered in obscurity. 1972]. who takes away sin from the world. and trans. like Isaac. nisi Iesus. 1980). and he underwent death. see for instance. quod est secundum spiritum Christus. the ram.4. when delivered up by his father for a sacrifice. and trans. of which the ram is here the form [Patitur ergo Christus. in parallel to Isaac. Tertullian. who when surrendered as a victim by his Father carried the wood of his own passion.

” RAC 18 (1998): 910–30. “Isaac le Patriarche. Isaak’s Opferung christlich gedeutet: Eine auslegungsgeschichtliche Untersuchung (Tübingen: Mohr. and the bibliography at the end of Jacob and Schrenk. It should be pointed out that a similarly central place of the Akedah seems to be found among Jews. and D.31 and 32 (San Agustin.5. Livre I.” VC 15 (1961): 214–55. its full significance seems to be still ignored. H. RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology. See for instance I. 73–81. (egela de kakeinos tou thanatou lelumenos).5. “Isaak I (Patriarch). trans. Much has been written on the figure of Isaac in Christian literature and art.” in From Dura to Sepphoris: Studies in Jewish Art and Society in Late Antiquity. Augustine. 148–53. 1950).44 He also knows that Isaac is a figure of Jesus but does not seem to be particularly interested by the topic. Schrenk. 45. “Typologie d’Isaac.” Further on. quod interpretatur risus) is of course an old and popular one. 1978]. when delivered from death . Sacramentum futuri. Daniélou. Supplementary Series 40 (Portsmouth. Kessler. FC 23 (Washington.23.” He then goes on to interpret this laughter as the joy of the Christians. 1960). Marrou. Lerch. it is we who rejoice and laugh on account of salvation. “Art Leading the Story: The Aqedah in Early Synagogue Art. I am using the text in Clément d’Alexandrie.” . M. and Gribomont.47 A passage from Clement of Alexandria’s Paedagogus deserves special attention in our present context. I. C. Jacob and S. See. Ennarationes in Psalmos 51.45 In iconography too the importance of the sacrifice of Isaac seems to reflect its similitude to the crucifixion in Christian culture throughout the ages. 46. “Isaak I (Patriarch). he adds: 44. 49 In the context of discussing the various ways in which men and women can be called children—and thus in need of education by the divine teacher—Clement writes. This etymology (Isaac. Isaac means laughter [gelôs hermeneuetai ho Isaak].21. See also the English translation by S.2. 2000). ed. is reasonably wellcharted. Gribomont. Speyert van Woerden. He too laughed.” 381. Wood. Augustine. J. SC 70 (Paris: Cerf. like Isaac. It does not testify to any real knowledge of Hebrew. Weiss. ed.48 While this intriguing text has received some notice (Jean Gribomont calls it “une page curieuse. Daniélou.46 This tradition. 2:298–99).” and Jean Daniélou speaks of “ce passage très remarquable”).5. . 48. See E. 1. 49.278 JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES coronatus?).3–1. rejoicing in the salvation offered by Christ.: Catholic University of America.” 47. as reflected in synagogue mosaics such as the ones from Beit Alpha and Sepphoris. Biblioteca de autores cristianos [Madrid. Harl. Journal of Roman Archaeology. idem. for example. “The Iconography of the Sacrifice of Abraham. Le Pédagogue. La ciudad de Dios. namely. 1954). “Isaac le Patriarche. L. “The word Isaac I also connect with child. which has been much studied. which seems to have been included in most lexica and commentaries in antiquity. I.” 363–93. D. Christ the Educator.” DSAM 7 (1970): 1988–2005.C. De Civitate Dei 16. . “Typologie d’Isaac. Levine and Z. adding: “That which is signified by the prophet may be interpreted differently.

. exactly like Isaac was released from sacrifice [mè pathôn. ressuscita sans avoir souffert (dans sa divinité) exactement comme Isaac fut libéré du sacrifice. Such a full-fledged Docetism is of 50. For Jesus rose again after his burial.” Bardy. this Alexandrian tradition is also reflected by Origen. although he had been crucified. yielding the precedence in suffering to the Logos. . and he equates this lack of suffering with Isaac’s avoidance of sacrifice. as the Lord the wood [of the cross].STROUMSA/CHRIST’S LAUGHTER 279 The king. But Isaac did not suffer. without having suffered. But he was not immolated as the Lord. prophesying that the Lord would fill us with joy. did not suffer. .51 It is worth noting that Clement. and furthermore the endurance which works together with them and their embrace. who beholds our laughter from above. 51. One can speak here. Isaac only bore the wood [of the sacrifice].3) 74. notes that Photius (Bibliotheca 109) accuses Clement of having taught docetic doctrines in his Hypotyposes. “Docétisme. and looking through the window. He also relates Isaac’s laughter to the joy of the Christians.” 1466. 5. . Both Marrou and Harl seem puzzled by the text here. Moreover.50 While many other patristic authors refer to the similarities between Isaac and Jesus. and a sacrifice as the Lord. as the scripture says. underlines the fact that at least in his divine nature Jesus did not suffer. Clement (who like them also recognizes the difference between the two figures: Isaac did not suffer and is therefore inferior to Jesus) seems to be the only one to go beyond insisting on the etymological meaning of Isaac’s name (yzh≥aq: “he will laugh”)—a meaning that he could easily have learned from Philo and Jewish Alexandrian traditions with which we know he was familiar. a child as a son. . then. as we have been redeemed from corruption by the blood of the Lord. thanks to his resurrection. and the blessing. is Christ. who is a type [typos] of the Lord. and Harl’s translation: “. looks at the thanksgiving. in a way. also connects this laughter directly with Isaac’s last-minute escape from sacrificial death. and the gladness. . his not having been slain hints at the divinity of the Lord. as their Lord. in which Jesus is said not to have suffered. and the rejoicing. A full-fledged docetic perception. for he was the son of Abraham. it is tempting to see here something similar to Clement’s remarks about laughter and salvation. would contradict the central myth and the central ritual of Christianity: a sacrifice. as Christ. kathaper hierourgias apheimenos ho Isaak]. where Marrou considers the text to be corrupt. of a semi-docetic perception. And he [Isaac] laughed in a secret way [egela de mustikôs].”. . One of the anonymous readers refers here to the Gospel of Philip (NHC II. adding that while the passage is here frustratingly fragmentary. . He himself [Christ] is Isaac [for the passage may be interpreted otherwise]. See SC 70:152 n. the Son of God. Clement.25–75. however. however. as also Origen after him.2: “Some have entered the kingdom of heaven laughing . As we have seen above.

see D. “Le sacrifice d’Isaac et la mort de Jésus. I owe this reference to Clemens Leonhard. Band I: Gen 22: 1–19 im Alten Testament. 1978). I shall not deal here with the original meaning and function of the myth as it appears in Genesis. Lévi. I. J. 1991). when the very notion of sacrifice is rejected. The significance of this unique text goes far beyond the story of the Akedah.53 Swetnam has also offered a detailed status quaestionis. Docetism is meaningless. Analecta Biblica 94 (Rome: Biblical Pontifical Institute.” Revue des Etudes Juives 64 (1912): 161–84. Hughes. III It is a fact beyond dispute that the Jewish hermeneutical tradition on the Akedah in Genesis 22 is very old and can be followed through the different literary genres from the Second Temple period. 90–92. which have attracted scholarly interest for a long time. 53.52 This fact entails. can be documented as having started very early. Leonhard argues. Wissenschaftliche Monographien zum Alten und Neuen Testament 78–79 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag. besides its obvious central role in Hebrews 11. See also R. 54. there is reason to believe that they are reflected in significant fashion in the New Testament. Daly.54 The most seminal article on the topic. 175–86: “The Sacrifice of Isaac. inter alia. as a “mitigation” of human sacrifice. however.280 JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES course conceivable only in a religious system where there exist other sacrifices.: Catholic University of America. D. Die Opferung/Bindung Isaaks.17–19. im Frühjudentum und im Neuen Testament. has highlighted the deep significance of the Akedah in various writings of the New Testament. reprinted in idem. J. Kundert. The most recent monograph on the Akedah in the Jewish tradition and the New Testament is L. 1981). in particular. 2002). Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece (New York: Routledge. Swetnam. the results of which need not be repeated here. who is preparing various critical remarks of some of the conceptions of this work to appear in his book on Passover and Easter. remains Israel Lévi’s study of the connection between the Akedah and the death of Jesus.55 Lévi was seeking to refute the argument of Abraham 52. Band II: Gen 22: 1–19 im frühen rabbinischen Texten. For parallels in Greek religion. James Swetnam’s monograph on Jesus and Isaac. Christian Sacrifice: The Judeo-Christian Background before Origen (Washington. Indeed. that the intricate connections between the Akedah and the crucifixion.” 55. Le Ravissement du . published in 1912. and 65 (1913): 138–143. that the importance of the Akedah for the understanding of Passover has been overstated in the history of research. D. It should lead us on the way to an interpretation of Christ’s puzzling laughter in the gnostic texts mentioned above and to a new suggestion about the origins of Docetism. Jesus and Isaac: A Study of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the Light of the Akedah.C. in particular.

Rosenberg. such as those in Beit Alpha and Sepphoris.. The Binding of Isaac and Messiah: Law.e. Lévi showed that the old identification of the place of the Akedah as the Temple Mount pointed not only to temple sacrifices but also to the Messiah. See for instance J.) Agus. he was able to show quite convincingly that the Jewish sources relating the Akedah not only to Passover—as for instance in Jubilees (ch. A. the significance of the Akedah in the Jewish liturgy of the New Year (Rosh ha-Shana) was a later development. Isaac. From Dura to Sepphoris. “Redemption and Genesis XXII. 1994).57 Further studies followed the path opened by Lévi. 1973). 2003). without changing in any drastic way the picture drawn more than ninety years ago by Lévi. 1967). “The Sepphoris Synagogue Mosaic and Its Story. or akedah) was conceived. J. in particular. Spiegel. Other connections with Passover in Jubilees: the completion of Noah’s ark. According to him. The continued centrality of the Akedah among Jews throughout late antiquity is reflected in the various synagogue mosaics describing it. as having a merit which could save Israel from the consequences of its sins.e. ed. Yahalom. Patlagean (Paris. see now D.” JBL 65 (1946): 385– 92. Stökl Ben Ezra. Scripture and Tradition in Judaism: Haggadic Studies. 58. See further R.c.56—but also to the Rosh ha-Shana ritual (prayers as old as the first century c. and G. The Last Trial: On the Legends and Lore of the Command to Abraham to Offer Isaac as a Sacrifice (New York: Pantheon. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 163 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. argued Lévi. Studia Post-Biblica 4 (Leiden: Brill. made a more systematic analysis of targumic sources. 57.58 Both Schoeps and Vermes insisted on the significance of the Akedah for some of the earliest Christian texts and doctrines. For Isaac’s sacrifice and Yom Kippur. (R. “The Sacrifice of Isaac in Paul’s Theology. For seminal studies of the motif of the Akedah in rabbinic Judaism. Although Lévi’s study has been criticized for his anachronistic use of Jewish liturgy. E. Schoeps. before the emergence of Christianity. In the Messie à sa Naissance et autres essais. One should be grateful to Evelyne Patlagean for having made Lévi’s important studies easily available. The Impact of Yom Kippur on Early Christianity: The Day of Atonement from Second Temple Judaism to the Fifth Century. a text from the third century b. see S. H. 2nd. Martyrdom. The cumulative evidence showed. that the sacrifice of Isaac (or rather his binding. Louvain: Peeters. Hans Joachim Schoeps and Geza Vermes.’” JBL 34 (1965): 381–88.STROUMSA/CHRIST’S LAUGHTER 281 Geiger. such as Paul’s epistles (Schoeps) or the formulation of the Eucharist (Vermes). 193–227. and Jacob’s dream in Beth El. “Jesus. 18). Vermes. 143–72. and Deliver- . Abraham’s offering in Sichem.” reprinted in idem. which had taken place in late antique Mesopotamia and which reflected a Christian influence on rabbinic Judaism.) could not possibly have been redacted under a Christian influence. Moreover. A. 56. and the ‘Suffering Servant. while the ritual connections between Isaac and the blowing of the shofar on Rosh ha-Shana were directly linked to messianic prayers.” in Levine and Weiss. 83–91. E. ed.

61.e. “The Aquedah.” Discoveries in the Dead Sea 7 (2000): 263–91. VanderKam. and Jesus that of Isaac. 1988). God took the place of Abraham.61 ance in Early Rabbinic Religiosity (Albany. la transposition allait de soi. Dieu prenait la place d’Abraham. Le Déaut. ed. 59. Jubilees. 175–86. the transposition was obvious.15. Analecta Biblica 22 (Rome: Institut Biblique Pontifical. Levenson. see Daly. the Targums remained living literature for more than a millennium. see R. La nuit pascale: Essai sur la signification de la Pâque juive à partir du Targum d’Exode XII. D. Daniélou. For the Akedah at Qumran and in other early Jewish texts. the redeeming virtue of Isaac’s sacrifice was transferred to the death of the crucified one. At the same time. Last Trial. On the importance of the Targumim.) The four versions of the Palestinian Targum essentially agree in their interpretation of the Akedah. Antiquities 1. the lengthy and somewhat romantic passage on the Akedah in Josephus’ Antiquities contains most of the essential features of the targumic tradition. and Pseudo Jubilees.282 JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES conclusion of his study Lévi argued that Paul combined the Akedah and Isaiah 53 in his conception of Christ’s redemptory death: “Once Paul had accepted the principle of the divine Sonship of Jesus. mentions Isaac’s blood (18. “Sacrifice d’Isaac. Sacramentum futuri. Hayward.. ch. Christian Sacrifice. (On the other hand.). See esp.”59 It is the almost undisputed consensus that the Targums represent major testimonies of Jewish conceptions in the later part of the Second Temple period. Other early sources corroborate these conclusions. referring to the Jewish doctrine according to which Isaac had voluntarily offered his life for his people (cf. 1995). The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press.5).” in The Quest for Context and . “Angels at the Aquedah. The Liber Antiquarum Biblicarum. and J. pp.: SUNY. 1993). 38–44 on Isaac’s ashes in later Hebrew traditions.42. The Sacrifice of Isaac in the Three Monotheistic Religions. Analecta/Studium Biblicum Franciscanum 41 (Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press. esp. N. and J. Pasch. Lévi. la vertu rédemptrice du sacrifice d’Isaac passait à la mort du crucifié. 100). “The Present State of Research into the Targumic Account of the Sacrifice of Isaac. en même temps.” JJS 32 (1981): 127–50. See further Athanasius Hom. For a summary of research. Bernstein. See further the articles in F. Thus. 14–15.60 The connection they see between the Akedah and Passover is clear: Isaac is considered to be a sacrificial victim—who may even have been actually sacrificed—and Abraham prays that his own obedience and Isaac’s consent be remembered.Y. The best study is Spiegel. a tradition echoed in the Targum on 1 Chr 21. and it stands to reason to assume later accretions from the rabbinic period. 1963). and R. or PseudoPhilo (a text written in Hebrew before the end of the first century c.8. C. see M. Josephus. 6.222–36.” 163–64: “Une fois admis par Paul le principe de la filiation divine de Jésus.” 60. et Jésus celle d’Isaac. Manns.

then. ed. according to Jewish tradition. all seem to accept as a premise that the earliest conception of the passion of Jesus had been predicated upon his death—and resurrection. Segal. Tigchelaar.29) seems to be directly related to both the paschal lamb and Isaac. there existed also. A. The obvious implication of this Meaning: Studies in Biblical Intertextuality in Honor of James A. however. See further J. just as Abraham had replaced his own son by a substitute sacrifice. C. also happened at Passover. beyond the Epistle to the Hebrews. that the story of Jesus’ redemptory sacrifice must be seen directly in its light. B. Nuit pascale. two possible Jewish interpretations of the Akedah. It appears now in even stronger light. The fact that this theology can only be properly and fully understood within the context of the Akedah has already been pointed out many times since Lévi’s article. on the secondary identification of the Last Supper with the Pessah meal. “The Sacrifice of Isaac in 4Q 225. 70. whose sacrifice. another possibility for essentially exegetic minds: namely. If. . had not really died on the cross but had been saved in extremis by his father and replaced by a substitute sacrifice. The Hebrew Passover from the Earliest Times to A. Moreover. See Le Déaut. dramatic consequences for the sacrificial theology expressed in various texts of the New Testament. Biblical Interpretation Series 28 (Leiden: Brill. this sacrifice is sometimes perceived (in direct contradiction with the biblical text!) as Isaac’s voluntary self-immolation and as having actually taken place.” in The Sacrifice of Isaac: The Aqedah (Genesis 22) and Its Interpretation. While this suggestion. 201–10. one (following the biblical text) according to which Isaac had been bound but not killed and the other according to which he had actually been immolated. Garcia-Martinez. the first Christians were keenly aware of Isaac as a typos of Christ. just like Isaac. Noort and E. London Oriental Studies 12 (London: Oxford University Press. 62.62 There were. To give just one (but central) example: “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin from the world” (John 1. Sanders.e.D. There is no doubt that Lévi’s conclusion regarding Paul should be both sharpened and also applied to other New Testament texts.” Biblica 83 (2002): 211–29. This material has. 241–46. prima facie. See further J.STROUMSA/CHRIST’S LAUGHTER 283 The early date and the importance of the redemptory conception of Isaac’s sacrifice are quite striking. Scholars. E. which strikes me as logically plausible. Jewish and Christian Traditions 4 (Leiden: Brill. Evans and S. Fitzmyer. ed. The Akedah was indeed so obviously present in the minds of Jews in the first century c. Talmon. “The Sacrifice of Isaac in Qumran Literature. 1963). Themes in Biblical Narrative. 2002). cannot be proven. it should be accepted at least as a working hypothesis. and F. I believe. as it seems. that Jesus. A. 1997).

Sadly. 222–23). who is presented as carrying the wood to his own sacrifice. All. Quod Det. Philo Leg. All. Fragments of both Demetrius the Chronographer (in the third century b. Charlesworth.64 (To be sure. 1985). I shall presently seek to strengthen my case with some circumstantial evidence from Philo of Alexandria. See further the very interesting appendix (“Note complémentaire sur le symbolisme d’Isaac”) in A. Philo Abr. For Philo. N.c. respectively.83 (LCL 1:328–29). See J.e. 3. 177 (LCL 6:86–87. IV When dealing with the traditions on the meaning of the name “Isaac” as laughter or joy. Isaac.) and Philo the Epic Poet (at the turn of the second century) reflect an interest in the figure of Isaac. By far the most obvious and significant source for the passing of Jewish Hellenistic traditions to the early Christian authors is of course Philo. which might prove highly relevant to our present task.) Philo knows that the name Isaac means “laughter”—in Chaldean. He comes back to this meaning of the name on various occasions. Philo Abr. 201–202 (LCL 5:201–2). Indeed. .”66 For him. Cher. Let us then review some of Philo’s perceptions of Isaac. nor have the passages of his Questions in Genesis dealing with Genesis 22 (the chapter relating the Akedah). 1. remain quite scarce. 88–89). Isaac’s name is connected to the fact that “laughter is the outward and bodily sign of the 63. indeed. La notion d’alliance dans le Judaïsme aux abords de l’ère chrétienne (Paris: Seuil. Jaubert.83 (1:358–59). 137. as reflected in Clement and Origen. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City.11.e. 3. Gleaning through Philo’s works.82 (LCL 1:200–201). Nom. Leg. 157 (LCL 5: 212–13. 64.). the figure of Isaac in Philo does not seem to have attracted much attention. the fact that Philo moves freely between the literal and “historical” registers demands an extra caution on our part. This is perhaps due to the puzzling fact that Philo’s treatise On Isaac has not survived. 171. 65. brings some remarkable contributions to our theme.: Doubleday. or its remains. in different contexts.218 (LCL 1:448–51). See also 2 Maccabees 16..63 Such traces. I postulated that these were Jewish Alexandrian traditions.J. 124 (LCL 2:284–85).65 Isaac not only means “laughter” but also “happiness. 66. however. 1963).284 JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES hypothesis is the existence of a docetic interpretation of Christ’s passion at the very origins of the new faith. 20 (a work of the first century c. 2:848 and 2:781. however. 8 (LCL 6:12–13). Mut. 3. ed. 491–94. he tells us. was not actually slain. has kept for us various references to Isaac. Jewish Hellenistic literature.

according to Philo’s esoteric teaching.6 (“The Lord hath made laughter for me .68 Such references are enough to point to the origin of Clement’s and Origen’s etymologies of Isaac’s name. By it the soul is filled through and through with cheerfulness. rather than Abraham. the 67. the Lord begat Isaac. 73. Philo Quod det. but a work of the Uncreated One [ergon de tou agenètou]. 70. sowing and begetting happiness in men’s souls. Philo Praem. and joy is in fact the best and noblest of the higher emotions. All. rejoicing in the Father and Maker of all. 69. and of joy.” to be heard only by initiates [ô mustai!]. hôst’ einai to legomenon toiouton: Isaak de gennèsen ho kurios. to de epoièsen ison tôi egennèsen. 42 (LCL 2:34–35). i. Philo Quod det. Nom. 72. for he is himself Father of the perfect nature.72 The idea that God. is Isaac’s father. is Isaac’s real father. God may with perfect truth be said to be Isaac’s father. 131 (LCL 5:208–11). 124 (LCL 2:284–85). Isaac is “the only example of freedom from passion beneath the sun.”73 Here Philo uses. who has no passion and is perfect happiness and bliss. . 3. All.STROUMSA/CHRIST’S LAUGHTER 285 unseen joy in the mind.” and according to Sarah’s unerring witness God is the maker of laughter. Leg.”70 Philo goes further: For God is the Creator of laughter that is good. or joy.71 Philo comes back elsewhere to this striking teaching: that God. so that we must hold Isaac to be not a product of created beings. Philo Leg. 2. not Abraham. 71.219 (LCL 1:450–51): Ho gelôs estin hè khara.69 More explicitly even: “Laughter is the outward and bodily sign of the unseen joy in the mind. and he reflects the nature of the incorporeal God.” so that what is said is of this kind. Isaac (alias laughter) is happiness personified. Mut. laughter in bonam partem. speirôn en tais psychais kai gennôn to eudaimonein. and purely spiritual (asômatos).” higher than Abraham and Jacob.e.59 (LCL 1:260–61). Philo Cher. obviously. In his treatise On the Cherubim Philo has a long paragraph introduced with a reference to a “divine mystery” reserved to “the initiated who are worthy to receive the holiest secret. The “laughter” is joy. and “made” is equivalent to “beget. But for Philo. . autos gar patèr esti tès teleias physeôs.”) by stating: This is a “holiest teaching. showing full awareness of his audacity: he opens his interpretation of Gen 21. . is surprising enough. the good emotion of understanding. 31 (LCL 8:330–31).”67 As such. For if “Isaac” means “laughter.. But this is not all. Philo Abr. 31 (LCL 8:330–31). 68. and joy is in fact the best and noblest of the higher emotions. Philo Praem. 46 (LCL 2:232–33). 201–4 (LCL 6:98–101).

76. In any case. The Messiah before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Berkeley: University of California Press. La Mère des dieux de Cybèle à la Vierge Marie (Paris: Seuil.” The first and best example of a woman who became a virgin again—in order to conceive from God—is Sarah before she conceived Isaac. 175–77. as it were. The conclusion seems to impose itself that there existed in first-century Judaism. 75. Incidentally.74 The idea of Sarah’s virginal conception of Isaac is certainly not a slip of Philo’s pen. God sows virtues. he makes what before was a woman into a virgin again. in allegorical fashion as it were. In his beautiful study of the avatars of the Great Mother in ancient Mediterranean and Near East religions Philippe Borgeaud has devoted a few pages to the early figure of the Virgin..286 JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES language of the Greek mysteries. Philo Cher. which he often does as a façon de parler. God’s Son. Philo’s introduction clearly shows that he is quite aware that he is going to present a higher. toward the end of the first century. 1996). 25. Borgeaud. 42–51 (LCL 2:32–29). Scholarly consensus views this conception as stemming from a mistranslation of ‘almah in LXX Isaiah. See P. where Knohl states that a combination of divine status and suffering is unknown before the Qumran hymns. who could hardly have avoided thinking of Isaac and his Akedah when reflecting on the crucifixion of 74. 2000). having escaped suffering on the cross. this conception of Sarah’s (renewed) virginity bears upon that of the virgin birth of Christ. For Jewish pre-Christian conceptions of the Messiah as Son of God. . all the elements needed for the emergence of a docetic theology of Jesus. as it were. this language. where a messianic interpretation of the suffering servant of Isa 53 is offered for the first time. esoteric interpretation of Moses’ work. the same teaching appears at least one more time in Philo’s works. 134 (LCL 2:404–5). The gist of this “holiest secret” is the following: while men and women have intercourse in order to beget children. but he does not deal with contemporary parallels to the early Christian figure.76 If Isaac had been offered in sacrifice by his heavenly Father for the redemption of his people and had escaped death. or at least in some trends in Hellenistic Judaism. does reflect the seriousness of his intent. See ibid. Philo’s discussion would seem to absolve the Christians from their supposed misreading and make the virgin birth an aboriginal part of their tradition. which should not perhaps be taken at its face value. Philo Post. “When he begins to consort with a soul. alias laughter. by a contemporary coreligionist of Paul. 87–89.75 The perception of Isaac as Son of God and born of a virgin. Son of God. see I. were present at the very origins of Christianity. These elements might well have been known to some of the first Christians. a conception of Isaac. Knohl. brings us to reconsider the idea of Isaac as typos of Jesus. born of a virgin. esp. Moreover.

2. cf. The acceptance of Jesus’ death. 153–79. and its transformation into the cornerstone of Christian theology. esp. or his “firstborn” (Agric. see for instance Qaest. when the docetic 77. 4.146). 51 and Som. Ambrose.” 389 n. Christ’s laughter as it appears in some docetic traditions reflects the fact that very early on (in the first century) some (Jewish) believers in Jesus and in his redemptory role considered him to be.-C. Gerson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1965). 640– 700. his figure could not but evoke instantly that of Isaac. 1935). De Isaac vel anima. was the invention of Paul’s religious genius. A long time ago Erwin Goodenough speculated upon the reasons for the lack of preservation of Philo’s De Isaaco and of the passages on Genesis 22 in his Questions in Genesis. If one also adds to these Philonian views his conception of the Logos as Son of God. destroyed Philo’s Life of Isaac and all the sections of his writings that would have commented upon the Akedah at length.” in The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus. See further Goodenough. Puech’s review in Revue de l’Histoire des Religions 116 (1937): 95–99. 1954). ed. Rist. For the first followers who believed that Jesus had sacrificed himself willingly for the sins of Israel. R. P. C. CSEL 32. But it was not the only possible interpretation readily available. the fact that he remained unable to substantiate his speculation on any real independent evidence prevents us from building anything upon it. 109 and Conf. . 12:90. 78. In a second stage. where Goodenough argues that the analogy Isaac-Christ would be “still more piquant” if Christians had not. Philo’s De Isaaco seems to have been lost quite early.79 If my analysis is convincing. Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism (New Haven: Yale. as Christian scribes found what Philo said about Isaac to be unacceptably close to what was said about Jesus Christ in the Christian tradition. 1. Puech also refers to Philo’s conception of the triune God. comments mainly on Song of Songs. 1996). cf. Bollingen Series 37 (New York: Pantheon. Abelis et Caini 60. 47. Goodenough argued that the disappearance of the Philonic texts on Isaac might not simply have been due to the vagaries of ancient manuscripts in late antiquity. Unfortunately. see J. Fug.1 (Vienna. “Plotinus and Christian Philosophy. 15. Gen. 403 and 413 n. Ling. Goodenough. See Daniélou. as he did in other occasions. ed.STROUMSA/CHRIST’S LAUGHTER 287 Jesus. “Typologie d’Isaac.215. Schenkl. In this text Ambrose refers to Plotinus. 79. 1896). 4:172–85. Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period. in his own work on Isaac. Isaac redivivus.8 on Gen 18. L. he would no doubt have followed it. By Light. as it were. one cannot but be impressed by the fact that so many elements usually considered to be specifically Christian are present in his works. and ibid.77 Had he had a copy of Philo’s work at his disposal. 153–57 and n. (New York: Pantheon. Goodenough claimed that these texts might have disappeared on purpose. 63. H.78 We do not know why the De Isaaco disappeared.6 (LCL 278–79) and De Sacr. See E. as Ambrose of Milan. apparently quite purposely.

80 Obviously. Jews were living not only with their myths but in them. I do not claim in any way that such a view of things is exclusive of other directions in the search for the origins of “Docetism. had reached a very high stature. as it came to reflect his sarcasm at the failed efforts of the forces of evil to kill him. Their myths had a historical significance. The mythopoieic power of the Akedah is still alive. 81. What I do claim is that in some way the figure of Isaac was central in this regard. Center for the Study of Christianity. not only most of its stones. we usually mean that many of the stones of the new religious monument built by Paul and the first generations of Christian thinkers and writers were Jewish stones. . There is certainly a possibility of conflation or meeting between two different interpretive directions. Stroumsa is Martin Buber Professor of Comparative Religion and Director. in relation to both his sacrifice (whether accomplished or not) and his miraculous birth.81 When we speak of the Jewish origins of Christianity. It would be the goal of another study to attempt a taxonomy of these laughters. as the recently stolen war memorial in the Sheffield cathedral testifies: it represents Abraham embracing Isaac and is surrounded by explicitly Christian memorials. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem 80. and nature. I owe this reference to my colleague Sara Sviri. was a Jewish creation. In contradistinction to Greeks. Christ’s laughter received a new turn.” Such a phrase is of course correct. also in other traditions such as some Arabic Sufi texts that describe the laughing Issa (Jesus) in bonam partem in opposition to the stern figure of Yahya (John the Baptist). there are different kinds of laughter of Christ. The constant re-presentation of the biblical myths in Jewish cult and liturgy reflected (and still reflects) what is usually called “the exegetical mind. Guy G. later evolution. For first-century Jews the figure of Isaac. for instance. for it would mean that much of the building itself.288 JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES attitude became more or less identified with gnostic dualism and antinomianism. but remains perhaps rather pale and does not express clearly enough the constant mythopoieic power of this obsession to insert the present (literally) into the cast of the past. To be sure. and history was Heilsgeschichte. Traditions such as those retained by Philo about Isaac born of God and of a virgin are cause for some dizziness.” Neither do I claim that the identification of the historical origins of a phenomenon is enough to understand its character.