Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Letter of Hadrian to Servianus

I have just demonstrated that NOT A SINGLE scholar has cited the letter from Hadrian to Servianus to help reconstruct the origins of Christianity since the nineteenth century.

Not a single one.

It isn't that Hadrian is an unreliable source. It isn't that anyone has any serious doubts about the authenticity of the statement or has developed those suspicions into a reasoned academic paper.

What Hadrian is saying is so completely 'out of the box' that we don't know what to do with it. So they push it into the corner.

Of course the same thing happened with Morton Smith's discovery of To Theodore. Here was a letter which argued for the primacy of the Alexandrian tradition. It challenged our inherited assumptions about the Gospel of Mark, the New Testament canon and the history of Christianity.

So what did we do?

We allowed a couple of third rate academic conspiracy theories to do the work 'killing the evidence' for us.

Seriously. Is there anyone out there who doesn't believe that scholarship already has its answers developed ahead of time and then just arranges a series of show 'displays' to bolster or enhance those inherited presuppositions.

As I once asked earlier ... what would it take for these people NOT TO PERPETUATE the inherited belief that Christianity was always about 'Jesus Christ'? What would it take for these people NOT TO PERPETUATE the inherited belief that the heresies were somehow inferior witnesses to 'the truth' in Christianity than the Orthodox?


The real problem for them of course is that Hadrian's letter, quoted in one of our best sources for information about the rule of this Emperor - the Historia Augusta - cannot be argued to be a deliberately hostile witness to Christianity. Indeed a careful reading of the CONTEXT of the letter reveals something that previous generations of scholars hadn't even noticed before.

The actual context for the citation of the letter was to demonstrate that Hadrian wanted to shelter one of his generals, Iulius Saturninus Augustus, from the 'religious excesses' of the Egypt. We read:

Saturninus was a Gaul by birth, one of a nation that is ever most restless and always desirous of creating either an emperor or an empire. To this man, above all the other generals, because it seemed certain that he was truly the greatest, Aurelian had given the command of the Eastern frontier, wisely charging him never to visit Egypt. For, as we see, this far-sighted man was well acquainted with the Gallic character and feared that if Saturninus visited this turbulent land he might be drawn by association with the inhabitants to a course toward which he was by nature inclined. For the Egyptians, as you know well enough, are puffed up, madmen, boastful, doers of injury, and, in fact, liars and without restraint, always craving something new, even in their popular songs, writers of verse, makers of epigrams, astrologers, soothsayers, quacksalvers. Among them, indeed, are Christians and Samaritans and those who are always ill-pleased by the present, though enjoying unbounded liberty. But, lest any Egyptian be angry with me, thinking that what I have set forth in writing is solely my own, I will cite one of Hadrian's letters, taken from the works of his freedman Phlegon, which fully reveals the character of the Egyptians.

From Hadrian Augustus to Servianus the consul, greeting. The land of Egypt, the praises of which you have been recounting to me, my dear Servianus, I have found to be wholly light-minded, unstable, and blown about by every breath of rumour. There those who worship Serapis are, in fact, Christians, and those who call themselves bishops of Christ are, in fact, devotees of Serapis. There is no chief of the Jewish synagogue, no Samaritan, no Christian presbyter, who is not an astrologer, a soothsayer, or an anointer. Even the Patriarch himself, when he comes to Egypt, is forced by some to worship Serapis, by others to worship Christ. They are a folk most seditious, most deceitful, most given to injury; but their city is prosperous, rich, and fruitful, and in it no one is idle. Some are blowers of glass, others makers of paper, all are at least weavers of linen or seem to belong to one craft or another; the lame have their occupations, the eunuchs have theirs, the blind have theirs, and not even those whose hands are crippled are idle. Their only god is money, and this the Christians, the Jews, and, in fact, all nations adore. And would that this city had a better character, for indeed it is worthy by reason of its richness and by reason of its size to hold the chief place in the whole of Egypt. I granted it every favour, I restored to it all its ancient rights and bestowed on it new ones besides, so that the people gave thanks to me while I was present among them. Then, no sooner had I departed thence than they said many things against my son Verus, and what they said about Antinous I believe you have learned. I can only wish for them that they may live on their own chickens, which they breed in a fashion I am ashamed to describe. I am sending you over some cups, changing colour and variegated, presented to me by the priest of a temple and now dedicated particularly to you and my sister. I should like you to use them at banquets on feast-days. Take good care, however, that our dear Africanus does not use them too freely."

So then, holding such an opinion about the Egyptians Aurelian forbade Saturninus to visit Egypt, showing a wisdom that was truly divine. For as soon as the Egyptians saw that one of high rank had arrived among them, they straightway shouted aloud, "Saturninus Augustus, may the gods keep you!" But he, like a prudent man, as one cannot deny, fled at once from the city of Alexandria and returned to Palestine. There, however, when he had begun to reflect that it would not be safe for him to remain a commoner, he took down a purple robe from a statue of Venus and, with the soldiers standing about, he arrayed himself in a woman's mantle and then received their adoration. I have often heard my grandfather tell that he was present when Saturninus thus received adoration; "He began to weep," he would tell us, "and to say, 'The commonwealth has lost an indispensable man, if I may say so without undue pride. I have certainly restored the provinces of Gaul, I have recovered Africa, seize by the Moors, I have brought peace to the provinces of Spain. But what does it all avail? For all these services go for nothing when once I have claimed imperial honours.' "

Then, when those who had clothed him with the purple began to hearten him, some to defend his life and others his power, he delivered the following speech: "My friends, you do not know what an evil thing it is to rule. A sword suspended by a hair hangs over your head, on all sides there are spears, on all sides arrows. You fear your very guards, you dread your very attendants. Your food brings you no pleasure, your journeys no honour, your wars do not meet with approval, your arms call forth no enthusiasm. Remember, moreover, that they find fault with a man of any age as ruler. Is he an old man? He is deemed incapable. Is he young? They go on to say that he is mad as well. Why should I now tell you that Probus is beloved by all? In wishing me to be a rival of his, to whom I would gladly yield place and whose general I desire to be, you do but force me to an unavoidable death. One solace I have for my death: I shall not be able to die alone." This speech, according to Marcus Salvidienus, was really his own, and, in fact, he was not unlettered, for he had even studied under a rhetorician in Africa and attended the schools of the teachers at Rome.

The point of course is that there is no way that anyone can claim that this letter was in any way an attempt to defame Christianity. What emerges from the letter actually presents the religion as having thoroughly penetrated deep into Egyptian culture already at this very early date. It is Hadrian who argues that these Christians, Samaritans and Jews 'really' appropriated their traditions from the traditional worship of Greeks in Egypt.

What is of particular interest to us of course is that the general character of the Egyptians towards sedition helps explain the persecutions against Alexandrian Christianity in the later period. If - as the author suggests - the Egyptians and Egyptian Christians in particular were just waiting to support any notable person and a revolt against the Roman state it is no wonder that as the Empire began to disintegrate later Emperors felt compelled to attack and curb the influence of this religion.

Indeed notice that just before Commodus' rise to power the general Avidius Cassius at first suppresses an Egyptian revolt before he himself became a leader of an insurrection. Commodus was very much haunted by Cassius' rebellion for as the Historia Augusta notes while his father Marcus Aurelius was kindly disposed towards the family of this rebellious general '[a]nd so the descendants of Avidius Cassius lived unmolested and were admitted to offices of honour. But after his deified father's death Commodus Antoninus ordered them all to be burned alive, as if they had been caught in a rebellion."

If you are interested in reading how this observation fits within my greater understanding of the workings of Secret Mark WITHIN the contemporary Alexandrian Church please go here

If you want to read more about how Alexandrian Christianity was rooted in the Jewish traditions of Alexandria, Philo of Alexandria and more feel free to purchase my new book here

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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