Friday, August 6, 2010

Unraveling the Perplexing Role of Eunuchs in First and Early Second Century Christianity

Let's start with an admission which isn't said enough in the study of religion. We know almost NOTHING about the Jewish and Christian religions in the period between the Jewish War and the Bar Kochba revolt. We have a lot of legendary details that some sort of gathering of rabbis occurred at a place called Yavneh. But this isn't firm history. It's no better or worse than stories about Nero being the son of a proselyte or Monobaz, the prince of Adiabene and support of the first Jewish revolt being the son of Agrippa.

The only reason scholars accept the Yavneh story is that we have no better information about the period. If it weren't for the surviving writings of Josephus for instance we might have fallen into the trap of thinking that Agrippa was Monobaz's father too.

Indeed if we are to be very clear (and honest) about the history of the period between 70 - 140 CE we would admit that nothing can be ruled out. There was a Jewish tax which Vespasian enacted taking money that was traditionally directed toward the temple. But beyond that we have no idea how Jews reconciled themselves with the loss of their sacrificial altar in Jerusalem.

There are stories in the rabbinic tradition about ascetic movements emerging which encouraged an abstention from wine and meat consumption. These traditions sound remarkably similar to Marcionitism and related early Semitic Christian beliefs. Figures like Elisha ben Abuyah - 'the Other' as he was also known - seem suspiciously Marcionite too. The image of this Aher proudly riding his horse on the Sabbath seems as much a caricature as Epiphanius's statements that Marcionites who are said to have fasted on the Sabbath to allegedly demonstrate their contempt for the Jewish God!

We aren't getting reliable information about any tradition in this historical black hole.

I have long argued that the traditional dating of Marcion to 140 CE is worthless because it is based on the fact that the Catholics had no 'real historical figures' from before this period. The information is only as old as the oldest Catholic witness.

This frustrating situation plays havoc with our ability to make sense of the perplexing role that ritual castration had in the period. There is for instance a curious passage in the Talmud which references the existence of 'castrated Sadducees' presumably from the aforementioned 'black hole' period:

A certain eunuch [gawzaah] said to R. Joshua b. Karhah [Baldhead]: 'How far is it from here to Karhina [Baldtown]? 'As far as from here to Gawzania [Eunuchtown],' he replied. Said the Sadducee to him, 'A bald buck is worth four denarii.' 'A goat, if castrated, is worth eight,' he retorted. Now, he [the Sadducee] saw that he [R. Joshua] was not wearing shoes, [whereupon] he remarked, 'He [who rides] on a horse is a king, upon an ass, is a free man, and he who has shoes on his feet is a human being; but he who has none of these, one who is dead and buried (lit., 'one for whom a grave is dug) is better off.' 'O eunuch, O eunuch,' he retorted, 'you have enumerated three things to me, [and now] you will hear three things: the glory of a face is its beard; the rejoicing of one's heart is a wife; the heritage of the Lord is children [Ps. CXXVII, 3]; blessed be the Omnipresent, Who has denied you all these!' 'O quarrelsome baldhead,' he jeered at him. 'A castrated buck and [you will] reprove! he retorted (or alternatively in Rashi R. Han.: O castrated goat. I do but rebuke, not quarrel with thee).[Shabbat 116b]

I don't know what to do with this story. It is well established that the terms 'Sadducee,' 'min' (i.e. heretical Christian) and 'Epicurean' are typically substituted in the period. Does this mean that we have a recollection of some sort of ritualized castration tradition WITHIN Judaism in the period before the Bar Kochba revolt? And what of the Bar Kochba revolutionaries with their strange practice of abandoning phylacteries and 'severing their finger' to make them invincible in battle? Are these all garbled references to castration rituals or something else?

The bottom line is that it is difficult to make sense of any of this just as it seemingly impossible to reconcile Leviticus's (Leviticus 21:16 ff.; Leviticus 22:24) rejection of the eunuch with Daniel's status as a eunuch in Judaism from the very earliest period.

How could the Jews have venerated Daniel as a eunuch? How could he alone have been the one prophet who knows the exact timing of the appearance of the messiah and the end of Judaism? It is a perplexing problem which finds no easy answers. So what do scholars do? They do what they always do - ignore it.

But there it is staring us in the face.

Then there is the strange interest of the Marcionites in Daniel, which becomes a little more understandable when we see that the Marcionites who baptized only virgins and eunuchs must have taken Daniel to be the only acceptable prophet. This is also why the Marcionite spent time interpreting his prophesies.

But a more intriguing reference I think is the one from Ephrem where he suggests that the Marcionites took an interest in John because he was a 'virgin.' I asked Tjitze Baarda this morning if he had the original Syriac to tell me what word appears here in Ephrem. He wrote back:

For Mitchell I have to travel to the library and that takes too much time now. From your text I gather that the Syriac word behind virgin is betula’, ‘virgin’, which means an unmarried man, a single (bachelor or widower), a celibatarian, then ‘a chaste man’, (just as betula’ / betulta’ (= feminine) means: virgin, maiden, celibatarian woman. The Syriac language has several words for eunuch: gawaya (just as in other semitic languages) or mehayman (lit. trustworthy). Although I think that eunuchs could live as a virgin, I do not know how the Aramaic speaking Syrians would think about them.

The point here is that I think we can discern a distinction between the Christian tradition of Marcion, the Montanist Church of Tertullian and the Syrian Church of Ephrem with regards to their being founded by a 'virgin' or a 'eunuch.'

Marcion is said to be the founder of the Marcionites. He was a self-castrated eunuch (Tertullian AM Book 1) who took an interest in Daniel the eunuch prophet.

Montanus is said to be a eunuch by Jerome. His tradition (cf Tertullian De Monogamia) said that John was a eunuch (spado) but his status is compared with Elijah who also said to have been a spado before him.

Ephrem says John was a 'virgin' (see also On Virginity 15) but he is consistently compared with Joshua who is also a 'virgin.' Ephrem is also acknowledges the tradition that Daniel was a eunuch.

My guess is that it is impossible to imagine that the Marcionites were anything other than the most extremely ascetic sect in Christianity. As such since Tertullian thinks John was a eunuch after Elijah's example, the Marcionites must have held that John was a eunuch after Daniel's example; it is only Ephrem who is the source about information of the Marcionites who will only go so far as to acknowledge John as a 'virgin.'

Now if we go back to the original comments in Ephrem, the Marcionites are understood to see John as unique among the disciples standing on the mount at the Transfiguration. Jesus is clearly an angel (or more accurately THE angel, the angel of the Presence or some related Marcionite formulation). But the Marcionites also emphasized that John was 'like' Jesus because Marcion shared the same 'state.' But it comes down to one of two interpretations - either 'virginal' as Ephrem or 'cockless' as the Marcionites and the Montanists).

Now let's go through the references to 'John' in Ephrem.

The first is a fragmentary one which I take to mean that the Marcionites again never heard of 'John the Baptist':

About John, again, from whence ... let the Jews therefore be asked whether John did come, or no. . . . [If he says] that John did come, from whence hast thou this, O Marcion ? Perhaps he says from the testimony to Isu. [Ephrem Against Marcion Book One]

I will develop a post one day about the ambiguity about 'John' and the possibility that Catholics just invented him to reformulate the original understanding of Jesus announcing the coming of John (now flipped in the Catholic idea of 'John the Baptist' and otherwise unknown figure heralding Jesus).

I understand Ephrem to be rejecting the Marcionite position that Jesus heralded the coming of John and positing instead the Catholic idea that 'John the Baptist' came for Jesus throughout all of what follows including that which immediately comes after the last citation:

The Jews say that in the days of the Messenger the King's Son also comes, seeing that John also when he [heard] the report of [Isu] that he had come [asked] him, 'Hast thou then come, or look we for another ?' And he (i.e. John) does not say, 'they look,' but 'we look,' in order to show that he and his contemporaries, in his own days and in those of his contemporaries, were looking for Him.

This is clearly to distinguish from the Marcionite position that this John is John the disciple as the entire John baptized by John introduction to our gospel narratives were totally wanting in Marcionite gospels and all that followed about John. Tertullian says that the first reference to John happens in the Marcionite equivalent of Luke chapter 5 at the dinner banquet scene.

In any event Ephrem continues immediately after the last reference by emphasizing the traditional Catholic assumptions about John the Baptists connection with Elijah:

If therefore the Jews say that if Elijah comes the Messiah also has come, and (as) John thought concerning Isu, when He came, that He was he, was not this because he firmly believed that he was to come in his own days, even John's ? On that account he thought concerning Him, when He came, that it was he, or did not even John know when the Messiah was to come? And why then did he (i.e. John) come? If he came to smooth the way before Him, then he came to clear away stones. But if he came to call sinners to repentance and to baptize the repentant, he was sent to purge away sins by means of water. It is evident that these were prepared as it were for the guest-chamber of Him that was to come, and it is manifest that He has come. If He dwells in pure hearts, He is therefore spiritual; but if He who was coming was not spiritual, because He was David's Son, let him (i.e. Marcion) explain to us which was the way that John (was) smoothing for Him. For in honour of kings, or kings' sons, ways are levelled and stones cleared away before them. But before (the coming of) this One he said that minds should be purified. What is probable ? That David's Son . . . not to David himself ? Or can it be that David also, in the days of his sovereignty, was dwelling in minds and not in palaces? And if David was dwelling in palaces, and also David's son is to dwell in palaces, what (was) John preparing for him ? Minds instead of palaces ? Or can it be that John smoothed ways and prepared palaces, though he was not even dwelling in the cultivated land?

The ultimate question here is whether Elijah always has to be connected with John THE BAPTIST (i.e. a figure that comes before Jesus and then disappears in the narrative). We know that this is IMPLICITLY not necessarily the case as the Marcionite narrative is reported by Tertullian to completely lack any reference to anyone named John until the equivalent of Luke chapter 5.

What's more however is the fact that Tertullian has a tradition where Elijah is not necessarily linked with John the Baptist but John the disciple. We saw this time and time again in De Monogamia. More puzzling still for me as a Jew is the Christian emphasis that Elijah necessarily means 'the one who announces the messiah' according to Jewish belief. This is complete bullshit. Elijah IS the messiah. There is well known tradition in Judaism (and known to the Mandaeans strangely enough) that Elijah never died and will appear one day AS THE MESSIAH.

If the early Christians knew this tradition about a reincarnated 'Elijah' then it would follow that Tertullian's comparison of John the disciple eunuch with Elijah the prophet eunuch is developed from that tradition.

Notice also the important question that is lurking in the background at the conclusion of the last section. It is whether John is merely 'clearing the way' for Jesus or - presumably as the Marcionites hold - was 'establishing palaces' (i.e. the kingdom of heaven/God) for Jesus after his death. So we read:

that David's Son . . . not to David himself ? Or can it be that David (i.e. the Christ) also, in the days of his sovereignty, was dwelling in minds and not in palaces (as you hold)? And if David was dwelling in palaces, and also David's son is to dwell in palaces, what (was) John preparing for him? Minds instead of palaces? Or can it be that John smoothed ways and prepared palaces, though he was not even dwelling in the cultivated land

While the text becomes fragmentary it is plain to see that the Marcionites and the Catholics disputed the exact relationship between John and Jesus. We read in a very poorly preserved section that follows:

(I say) for if in truth he was His herald ... a Messenger for the King. Can it be that he who is coming is really persecuted like his Messenger ? . . . Or is he really killed like him ? But if at his coming [they did] not [recognise him, how does he] resemble him (i.e. John)?

And again in the section that introduces the Marcionite interest in Daniel the eunuch prophet:

But if thou sayest that therefore not (only) John is like Isu, but also Elijah and Jeremiah, who preceded him, thou sayest well. But are these whom thou citest like him or not? If they are like him, lo ! it is against thee that thou canst not turn round (?) and say that by chance, as it were, John only happened to be like him. But lo! thou saidst that there are many men of former times who are like John, and these are all like Isu, so that now we have found that humility existed before Isu. And if humility existed before him, what is that one new thing which he brought with him (and) which was not in those three (i.e. John, Elijah, and Jeremiah) and in their other associates who were like them ?

Why forsooth do they say that there was no fasting (in the world), seeing that when all the scattered groups (lit. fragments) of the followers of Marcion are gathered together they cannot keep the fast of Ezekiel, nor have they (ever) prayed, nor do they (now) pray, a prayer like that of the friends of Daniel? If they say, 'We are praying the whole day,' let us see whether their prayer is accepted. But perhaps they will say, '(It is.) for how do you know that it is not accepted ?' I say, 'From the fact that He does not do for them here (?) anything at all.' And if they say that He does (something) for them, let them show (it) us, and we will accept (it) ! For Daniel used to pray three times a day and by means of his prayer he interpreted dreams and brought back the People from Babylon, and angels used to come to him at the time of his prayer. But the Marcionites, because they pray more than Daniel, as they say, will not accomplish more than he, nor even as much as he, but less than he. But since they pray more than the righteous, as they say, and yet are not answered even as much as sinners (are answered), it is clear that, because they pray to one who does not exist, on that account they are not heard or answered when they pray. But if we pray concerning great and heavenly things, these are additions. . . . What is the new (kind of) prayer which he brought with him?

I will stop right there but I think if the reader followed the argument from the last post they will see that Ephrem is trying to use the Marcionite argument that (a) Jesus was cockless and John was like him (i.e. a eunuch) and (b) another Marcionite argument that there were other eunuch prophets BEFORE Jesus and John AGAINST THEM by moving on to another subject - namely the Marcionite idea that the Evangelium rendered the Law and the Prophets old and useless owing to it's status as a superior, more perfect revelation from a higher power.

I think the Marcionites argued that it was a revelation which was only understandable to eunuchs. But I also think that Ephrem is deliberately not referencing Daniel and choosing instead to put forward Elijah and Jeremiah in order to expand or loosen the original emphasis in Marcionite circles on castration in favor of mere 'celibacy.' Jeremiah after all was long celebrated as one who rejected marriage. But he was not, to the best of my knowledge, remembered by anyone as a eunuch.

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.