Monday, October 18, 2010

Why Scholars Make Bad Lovers [Part Two]

We have been going through the various 'questions' that Peter Jeffery raised about the contents of the Mar Saba document discovered by Morton Smith in 1958. I think it is reasonable to say that halfway through our last post we dispensed with any serious objections that Jeffery brings forward in his relatively recent article in the Biblical Archaeology Review. What we now find ourselves engaged in is constructive speculation - unnecessary to defend against charges the Letter to Theodore is a fake (because the objections are so weak) - yet I believe useful to demonstrate how difficult to say anything definitive about the late second century/early third century period in Christianity.

All that we know for certain is that the writings attributed to 'Irenaeus' and 'Clement of Alexandria' were first developed in this period. To argue that something 'does' or 'does not' fit the milieu of the period isn't as easy as Jeffery likes to pretend. The Letter to Clement after all has been accepted into most collections of the works of Clement since the 1980s. Stephen Carlson identifies the text as 'too Clementine to be true.' Andrew Criddle, that it is 'hyper-Clementine.' Given the manner in which, by everyone's account, the contents of the Mar Saba fits the writings of Clement, it is very difficult to turn around and argue as Jeffery does that the same material doesn't fit the contemporary age.

I doubt very much that Jeffery ever so much as heard about the so-called hypomnemata of Hegesippus as Eusebius refers to it. My hunch is that even if he is familiar with Eusebius use of the material he has not read Lawlor's work on the subject, let alone that of Joseph Lightfoot or more recent work by Robert Lee Williams. If he was aware of this earlier source for the common material shared and not shared by Irenaeus, Eusebius and Epiphanius on the Carpocratians, their homosexual rites and other things related to heresy in the early Roman Church he would never have written his Secret Mark Unveiled. This now lost historical text was very influential in the early Church and it certainly provides the literary context for the Mar Saba document.

Jeffery wonders in his article why the Secret Gospel was secret, inferring that the whole idea of a secret gospel is out of touch with what we know of the period. Yet we just finished demonstrating that the pagan critic Celsus not only used this same hypomnemata but made as his principal argument against the heresies of Christianity. We noted also Origen not only tells us that Celsus's very 'first point' against Christians was that they "entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law" and whose fellowship "was more binding than any oaths."  Jeffery wonders how Clement could have encouraged secrecy and the swearing of false oaths, but his successor Origen provides a very good defence of why these things were necessary in the contemporary age.

Origen likens the situation faced by Christians in the Empire at that time to what a nobleman might feel being captured and forced to live among the barbaric Scythians.  Origen writes:

since, then, he [Celsus] babbles about the public law, alleging that the associations of the Christians are in violation of it, we have to reply, that if a man were placed among Scythians, whose laws were unholy, and having no opportunity of escape, were compelled to live among them, such an one would with good reason, for the sake of the law of truth, which the Scythians would regard as wickedness, enter into associations contrary to their laws, with those like-minded with himself; so, if truth is to decide, the laws of the heathens which relate to images, and an atheistical polytheism, are "Scythian" laws, or more impious even than these, if there be any such. It is not irrational, then, to form associations in opposition to existing laws, if done for the sake of the truth. For as those persons would do well who should enter into a secret association in order to put to death a tyrant who had seized upon the liberties of a state, so Christians also, when tyrannized over by him who is called the devil, and by falsehood, form leagues contrary to the laws of the devil, against his power, and for the safety of those others whom they may succeed in persuading to revolt from a government which is, as it were, "Scythian," and despotic. [Against Celsus 1.1]

Origen of course does not specifically address the willingness of his fellow Alexandrian Christians to 'swear false oaths' imposed upon them by the Romans with good reason.  Origen would be setting himself up for a charge of perjury.  Indeed we will bring forward an example from the time Origen was writing Against Celsus that shows that Alexandrians were still being forced to swear oaths - and presumably - continued to swear oaths falsely. 

Indeed in the material that immediately followed this original statement in Celsus, Origen tells us that immediately thereafter he references the barbaric origins of Christianity, giving barbarians "credit for their ability in discovering doctrines" but that the Greeks are more skilful than any others in judging, establishing, and reducing to practice the discoveries of barbarous nations.  He then goes back to the idea of "the Christians teaching and practising their favourite doctrines in secret, and saying that they do this to,some purpose, seeing they escape the penalty of death which is imminent, he compares their dangers with those which were encountered by such men as Socrates for the sake of philosophy." [Against Celsus 1.3]  Celsus goes on to link the Christian rejection of idolatry with Persian religious practces [ibid 1.5] and magianism (magic) generally. [ibid 1.6]  This argument is clearly intended only to stoke the fires and paint the heretics as spies for the contemporary rival of Rome. 

So it is that we began to see a methodology in Celsus's characterization of the 'secret association' of the Christian traditions outside the 'great Church.'  They will ultimately be charged with sedition at the end of his work.  Celsus is moving towards this argument from the very beginning and so we see Origen reference how many times the idea comes up in even the first few pages of his treatise:

Yet again  he frequently calls the Christian doctrine a secret system, we must confute him on this point also, since almost the entire world is better acquainted with what Christians preach than with the favourite opinions of philosophers. For who is ignorant of the statement that Jesus was born of a virgin, and that He was crucified, and that His resurrection is an article of faith among many, and that a general judgment is announced to come, in which the wicked are to be punished according to their deserts, and the righteous to be duly rewarded? And yet the mystery of the resurrection, not being understood, is made a subject of ridicule among unbelievers. In these circumstances, to speak of the Christian doctrine as a secret system, is altogether absurd. But that there should be certain doctrines, not made known to the multitude, which are (revealed) after the exoteric ones have been taught, is not a peculiarity of Christianity alone, but also of philosophic systems, in which certain truths are exoteric and others esoteric. Some of the hearers of Pythagoras were content with his ipse dixit; while others were taught in secret those doctrines which were not deemed fit to be communicated to profane and insufficiently prepared ears. Moreover, all the mysteries that are celebrated everywhere throughout Greece and barbarous countries, although held in secret, have no discredit thrown upon them, so that it is in vain that he endeavours to calumniate the secret doctrines of Christianity, seeing he does not correctly understand its nature. [ibid 1.7]

Indeed the paranoid Emperor Commodus seems to have treated the 'secret system' of Christianity no worse than other mystery religions of the period.  The fact that his concubine Marcia was a Christian, the fact that his court seemed to have enjoyed good relations with leading members of the Church at Rome did not prevent him from torturing and murdering large numbers of Christians.

So we read in the Historia Augustana a reference to the fact that Commodus seems to have had a strange habit of joining mystery religions if only to practice cruelty on its members:

He practised the worship of Isis and even went so far as to shave his head and carry a statue of Anubis.  In his passion for cruelty he actually ordered the votaries of Bellona to cut off one of their arms, and as for the devotees of Isis, he forced them to beat their breasts with pine-cones even to the point of death. While he was carrying about the statue of Anubis, he used to smite the heads of the devotees of Isis with the face of the statue. He struck with his club, while clad in a woman's garment or a lion's skin, not lions only, but many men as well. Certain men who were lame in their feet and others who could not walk, he dressed up as giants, encasing their legs from the knee down in wrappings and bandages to make them look like serpents, and then despatched them with his arrows. He desecrated the rites of Mithra with actual murder, although it was customary in them merely to say or pretend something that would produce an impression of terror [HA Commodus 9]

Cassius Dio makes specific mention of a Christian sect associated with Commodus's concubine Marcia seems to have been the only group - religious or not - to have benefited from Imperial rule in the period:

Commodus was guilty of many unseemly deeds, and killed a great many people. Many plots were formed by various people against Commodus, and he killed a great many, both men and women, some openly and some by means of poison, secretly, making away, in fact, with practically all those who had attained eminence during his father's reign and his own, with the exception of Pompeianus, Pertinax and Victorinus; these men for some reason or other he did not kill. I state these and subsequent facts, not, as hitherto, on the authority of others' reports, but from my own observation. On coming to Rome he addressed the senate, uttering a lot of trivialities; and among the various stories that he told in his own praise was one to this effect, that once while out riding he had saved the life of his father, who had fallen into a deep quagmire. Such were his lofty pratings. But as he was entering the hunting-theatre, Claudius Pompeianus formed a plot against him: thrusting out a sword in the narrow entrance, he said: "See! This is what the senate has sent you." This man had been betrothed to the daughter out of Lucilla, but had intimate relations both with the girl herself and with her mother;  in this way he had become friendly with Commodus, so that he was his companion both at banquets and in youthful escapades. Lucilla, who was no more modest or chaste than her brother Commodus, detested her husband, Pompeianus. It was for this reason that she persuaded him to make the attack upon Commodus; and she not only caused his destruction but was herself detected and put out of the way. Commodus also put Crispina to death, having become angry with her for some act of adultery. But before their execution both women were banished to the island of Capreae. 

There was a certain Marcia, the mistress of Quadratus (one of the men slain at this time), and Eclectus, his cubicularius; the latter became the cubicularius of Commodus also, and the former, first the emperor's mistress and later the wife of Eclectus, and she saw them also perish by violence. The tradition is that she greatly favoured the Christians and rendered them many kindnesses, inasmuch as she could do anything with Commodus. [Roman History 73.4]

I find it very difficult not to connect the authority of the Catholic Church in the period - indeed its very rise to prominence out of utter obscurity in previous ages - to the influence of Marcia. 

It is entirely speculative to suggest that this Marcia was the 'little Marcia' (Marcellina) who came to Rome in the middle of the second century and stayed on to have influence over the Church.  Nevertheless Hippolytus makes clear her influence over the Christian community in Rome at this time:

But after a time, there being in that place other martyrs, Marcia, a concubine of Commodus, who was a God-loving female, and desirous of performing some good work, invited into her presence the blessed Victor, who was at that time a bishop of the Church, and inquired of him what martyrs were in Sardinia. And he delivered to her the names of all, but did not give the name of Callistus, knowing the villanous acts he had ventured upon. Marcia, obtaining her request from Commodus, hands the letter of emancipation to Hyacinthus, a certain eunuch, rather advanced in life. And he, on receiving it, sailed away into Sardinia, and having delivered the letter to the person who at that time was governor of the territory, he succeeded in having the martyrs released, with the exception of Callistus. gut Callistus himself, dropping on his knees, and weeping, entreated that he likewise might obtain a release. Hyacinthus, therefore, overcome by the captive's importunity, requests the governor to grant a release, alleging that permission had been given to himself from Marcia s (to liberate Callistus), and that he would make arrangements that there should be no risk in this to him. Now (the governor) was persuaded, and liberated Callistus also. And when the latter arrived at Rome, Victor was very much grieved at what had taken place; but since he was a compassionate man, he took no action in the matter. Guarding, however, against the reproach (uttered) by many,--for the attempts made by this Callistus were not distant occurrences,--and because Carpophorus also still continued adverse, Victor sends Callistus to take up his abode in Antium, having settled on him a certain monthly allowance for food. And after Victor's death, Zephyrinus, having had Callistus as a fellow-worker in the management of his clergy [i.e. Callistus was Pope Zephyrinus's deacon], paid him respect to his own damage; and transferring this person from Antium, appointed him over the cemetery. [Philosophumena 9.7]

The point of course is that all our sources point to the Catholic tradition as benefiting from Marcia's favor.  If - as must have been the case - Clement and his Alexandrian Church were not direct beneficiaries of this goodwill it would have been in their interest to become at least hypocritical confessors of the Catholic faith.  It would have presumably been seen to spare them the unprecidented slaughter going all around them.

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