Friday, March 19, 2010

Eshdat Lamo

My seeming eternal friendship with Rory has born fruit yet again. We have been working on establishing the original context for the throne of St. Mark that I discovered in Venice and have argued - with almost every scholar who has ever studied this object - originally came from Alexandria in the period before the Islamic conquest.

I have argued with a number of others (Secchi, van Lohuizen-Mulder) that this was the episcopal throne mentioned in the Acts of Peter of Alexandria (c. 311 CE). If this is accepted then the throne goes back to at least the beginning of the third century if not the end of the second century - in other words to the earliest period that we have any information about Alexandrian Christianity.

Rory and I have been trying to figure out how the iconography on the relic might give us some context for how the throne was used. We have now settled on Deuteronomy 33 given the presence of ten torches - five on the left, five on the right - at the top of the object (see below).

The original context of Deuteronomy 33 was Moses being established as the king of Jeshurun (Israel). This is well established in Samaritan (and Jewish) literature. As Meeks notes (p. 196) all references to Moses as king go back to Deut 33:2. Here Moses is the lawgiver who has transmitted the divine legislation of Torah to the people and leaves Joshua as his successor to watch over the people and the Law. According to tradition Moses ascended from Sinai to heaven where he was enthroned as king of Israel. When he returned he brought down with him the heavenly fire, the Torah, as the basis to his rule.

The ten torches on the throne of St. Mark point to a similar context for Mark in Alexandria. Let's remember that the various Popes sat on A throne of St. Mark - I argue that it was this one - and were taken also to be living representatives of Mark's authority throughout the ages.

The present Alexandrian Pope continuous to use A throne of St. Mark to symbolize his authority and his ceremonial dress certainly make it look like he was understood to be a king (the American missionaries made that explicit in their early reports about how the Coptic Patriarch was understood by his believers - he was literally taken to be a living manifestation of God the Father, the earthly Christ.

The presence of the ten torches points to the Samaritan (and Jewish) idea of the original ten utterances as coming as heavenly fire. Rory has also pointed me to the various ancient translations of eshdat in the phrase eshdat lamo right at the start of Deuteronomy 33 - the passage we have been arguing is the scriptural context for the original historical enthronement of Mark - was taken to mean “the fire of Torah is with him ” or “fire of religion is with him.”

The word אֵשְׁדָּת (eshdat) appears only once in the Torah so the King James version renders Deut 33:2 “The Lord came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; He shined forth from mount Paran, and He came with ten thousands of saints: from His right hand went a fiery law [eshdat] for them."

The early Jewish interpretors used notrikon - a method where two words are combined into one or one word is divided into two - to explain this word eshdat. It was divided into two, the result being esh and dat - “fire and law" - this even though the word dat is Aramaic.

The original word eshdat is Persian interestingly enough ...

The Torah that is described by the word eshdat was made out fire not stone. But how can one distinguish between the fiery tables and the fiery text? To solve the problem, the fire was thought to have been composed of two colors, black and white. The tablets were made out of black fire and the letters were made out white fire. The Law thus looked like a blackboard with white words chalked on it. In the words of the Talmud, “The white fire was engraved on black fire and it was a mixed fire and carved out of fire.” This was the magical image the Law possessed prior to Mount Sinai. And in case the skeptical reader is too quick to reject this interpretation out of hand, s/he should be reminded that the King James Version thought that it was appealing and translated this word accordingly.

The point is that there is no very good reason for seeing the ten torches - five on each side of the throne of St. Mark (see previous posts) - as emphasizing that Mark like Moses was lawgiver - but more significantly - the bringer or 'restorer' (note the Samaritan emphasis) of the original ten utterances through the gospel.

Rory has also noted that the Samaritan interpretation of this passage is identical with the early Jewish one cited above. Moses is the 'king in Jeshurun' - i.e. that the meaning of the passage was that Moses BECAME king with the giving of the Torah.

In other words, Mark's enthronement AND identification as 'Evangelist of Alexandria' is again understood to be 'like Moses' or a replicating of Deuteronomy 33.

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