1 Corinthians 1.18-31
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Psalm 71 seems incongruous in the context of Holy Week. I am sure it has been chosen in the lectionary because it is a lament, a prayer of someone in desperate trouble, and particularly a prayer of someone who is conspired and plotted against, and so obviously appropriate to the story of Jesus’ arrest. But it is also explicitly the prayer of an old man – “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent” – whereas we tend to think of Jesus as a young man. In the tradition of the church, He is crucified at the age of 33 – this is largely based on St Luke’s gospel, which says that Jesus was “about thirty” when He began to teach.
That is the tradition of the church, and yet there is an alternate tradition which goes back to St Irenaeus of Lyons. Irenaeus was a Greek-speaker, born in what is now Turkey in around about 115, and he was a Christian in the tradition of St John the Evangelist: Irenaeus learned the faith from St Polycarp, who in turn learned the faith from St John. Irenaeus travelled west, first to Rome, and then to France. Several of his writings have survived, and he was a strong defender of the Christian faith against the various forms of Gnosticism that undermined it.
Irenaeus believed that Jesus was in his forties when He died. This he said was the tradition that had been handed down to him, and he cited as his proof the rebuke of the Jewish leaders to Jesus in John 8.57: “you are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham!”. If Jesus were in His early thirties, it would have been much more natural from them to have said “you are not yet forty years old”. The fact that they used fifty as their reference point suggests that He was visibly past His fortieth birthday.
And if we look at the biblical evidence, it is possible to make a case for Irenaeus’ argument. We don’t have all that much to go on, but scholars have generally settled on the idea that Jesus must have been born before 4BC, since that is when Herod the Great died. Pontius Pilate left the governorship in Jerusalem in 36AD, so if you do the maths you can see that it is not impossible that Jesus was in His early forties when He was crucified. In the end we just don’t know, and I think most scholars would find a younger age more likely, but it is an interesting thought nevertheless.
What I think is more interesting and more helpful is the theological reason that underpins Irenaeus’ view. Irenaeus developed an idea known as recapitulation to explain how Jesus saves the human race. In Jesus, the whole of human life is rerun without all the mistakes and wrong turns; He lives in full obedience to God’s will, even to the point of death on the Cross, living always for others, free from the self-centredness that is the root of the sin that separates us from God and from each other. For Irenaeus, it was important that Jesus made it to forty, since for the ancients forty was the beginning of old age, the last stage of human life. For us, who increasingly expect to live to ninety, the idea of forty as old is faintly comical. But Irenaeus wanted to be able to argue that in Jesus the whole of human life had been recapitulated and redeemed, from infancy to old age.
I think we can dispense with the slightly clunky idea that Jesus had to have lived through all ages of human life, whilst still holding on to the central concept of recapitulation. Jesus certainly passes through the major phases of life from infancy to maturity, He encounters a wide range of human experiences and emotions, and He also faces the agony of betrayal and arrest and trial and torture, and the ultimate loss of death.
In Jesus the gap between God and humanity is closed; human life is rerun in accordance with God’s will; centuries of disobedience and selfishness are healed in the obedience and selfless of one man; and even the agony of betrayal, abandonment and death are redeemed and taken up into the heart of the Godhead.
And so we can face death in the knowledge that Jesus has trodden this path before us, and that in His recapitulation of each stage of human life, and most especially in His passion and death, He has overcome sin and suffering and death from the inside.
In the +Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.