Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Homeric Cento in Irenaeus, 'Adversus Haereses' I, 9.4 By Robert L Wilken

In the second volume of his Histoire des Doctrines Chretiennes, Jean Danielou discusses the relation between the thought of several early Christian fathers and certain aspects of Hellenistic culture.[1] He shows that, along with the interplay of Greek philosophy and Christian theology, there also existed an interesting and fruitful exchange between Christians and non-Christians concerning the poems of Homer. Summarizing the researches of men such as Pepin and Buffiere, Danielou outlines some of the approaches taken by Christians at this time to Homer.[2] Homer was not only a topic of discussion and controversy among orthodox Christian writers. Some gnostic writers also made use of him and were, in Danielou's words, "inspired by Homeric allegory". In particular Danielou refers to Valentinus and his school, and mentions, among other references, a citation of Homer in the Gospel of Truth.[3] To support the claim that the school of Valentinus used the Homeric poems, Danielou points to the Homeric cento cited by Irenaeus in Book I of the Adversus Haereses (9,4). According to Danielou this cento "was composed by Valentinus and interpreted by him in an allegorical sense" (p. 82). At the same time he admits that the sense of the cento, as intended by Valentinus, is difficult to determine. If Danielou is correct in his interpretation of the origin of the cento he has given us an interesting and significant piece of evidence for the understanding of Valentinian gnosticism and its practice of an allegorical exegesis of Homer.

The passage in Irenaeus reads as follows:

"Then, gathering together scattered phrases and names they transform them, as we have already said, from their true meaning to something forced from without. They are like those who set forth whatever hypotheses happen to strike them and then attempt to support them out of the Homeric poems, so that those who are inexperienced in Homer think he (Homer) composed the poem whose hypothesis was constructed only recently. Consequently many are misled by the well-ordered sequence of the verses and are uncertain whether Homer actually composed them or not. For example (6cs), one has written, by using lines from Homer, that Hercules was sent by Eurystheus to the dog in Hades." (Nothing should stop us from mentioning these as illustration since the same kind of attempt appears in both)

Thus speaking, he sent forth from the house, deeply groaning (Od. x. 76)
The man Hercules, conversant with mighty deeds (Od. xxi. 26)
Eurystheus, son of Sthenelos, of the seed of Perseus (I1. xix. 123)
To bring from Erebus the dog of hateful Pluto (II. vii. 368)
And he came forth like a mountain lion, haughty in his strength (Od. vi. 130)
Rapidly going through the city, while all his friends followed (II. xxiv. 327)
Both maidens and youth, and patient old men (Od. xi. 38)
Lamenting him with pity as destined for death (I1. xxiv. 328)
But Mercury and gleaming-eyed Minerva escorted him (I1. xi. 626)
For she knew well in her own mind the cares of her brother (I. ii. 409)

"What simple minded person would not be misled by these verses and would not think Homer composed them in this way with such a sense (hypothesis)? Whoever is acquainted with Homer will recognize the verses but not the sense (hypothesis) given to them, knowing that certain ones were spoken of Odysseus, some of Hercules, others of Priam, and others of Menelaus and Agammemnon" (1, 9.4; Harvey I, 85-87).

Danielou proposes an allegorical interpretation of the cento in accordance with Valentinian gnosticism. Hercules, the subject of lines one and two, is sent by Eurystheus to deliver Pluto's dog from Erebus. In this mission he is accompanied by Mercury and Athena. In line 5 Hercules is compared to Odysseus, who in turn was compared to a mountain lion; and in lines 6-8 he is compared to Priam who is accompanied by his mourning friends. According to Danielou this seems to signify the sending of the Savior who is surrounded by angels and accompanied by Christ and the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere Danielou had discussed in general terms the use of Hercules as a symbol of Christ in the apologists (p. 77), but here, he believes the text allows us to be more precise.[4]

The cento recounts three episodes from Homer with certain elements in common. It speaks of the mission of a hero to accomplish a difficult task. Further it describes Odysseus and Hercules, who brave the kingdom of death. Finally it describes Priam as he goes to Achilles and requests the corpse of Hector. Danielou comments: "That which Valentinus wished to describe is the mission of Christ, sent by the Father into the domain of death to free those bound by death. And that mission represents an imposing task in which Christ appears as a hero" (83). Danielou then proceeds to cite other instances in this period which show how gnostic writers draw parallels between Christian and Homeric figures.

Now, there is no question that Danielou offers a provocative and intriguing interpretation of the cento. It is certainly plausible and only demands a limited amount of imagination to see how it could be interpreted in Christian gnostic terms. The Homeric characters could be read as gnostic emanations. However, is there any reason to suppose that the cento had this meaning, especially since Irenaeus gives no indication it was understood in this fashion? Several questions remain unanswered. Why does Irenaeus so quickly forget about the cento without discussing its Christological sense? Why does he rapidly drop the cento to return to the main thread of the argument? What suggests that Valentinus composed the cento, or even that it is gnostic in origin? Irenaeus does not even hint at this. If Valentinus had composed the cento, would not Irenaeus have used this bit of information to further discredit Valentinian exegesis? As we shall see, Irenaeus has little or no interest in the cento itself; he is only interested in it as an illustration, and a good one at that, of how completely ridiculous words can appear when one does not know their sense or intention.

The cento as a familiar literary genre in Hellenistic times.

Numerous examples have been preserved from antiquity and several ancient authors describe how they were composed. For example, Ausonius, the fourth century poet, says that centos were composed by taking a number of different lines from different parts of a poem and joining them together in a new poem.[5] Tertullian says much the same thing in his De Praescriptione Haereticorum: "Homerocentones etiam vocari solent qui de carminibus Homeri propria opera more centonario ex multis hinc inde compositis in unum sarciunt corpus."[6] Centos could be composed out of any well known author such as Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, or Ovid. Most likely the practice of composing poems from random sayings of a famous poet originated in the circle of men who knew the writings intimately, as, for example, the rhapsodists.  Perhaps it began as a game among a select few, but later assumed greater proportions, especially as the cento was used for parody. Eventually it became possible for a poet to be called Vergilianus Poeta or Ovidianus Poeta if he devoted a good part of his efforts to such endeavors. We even know of one poet, Hosidius Geta,[7] who wrote a tragedy in this fashion. In later times this strange art was practiced by Christians to express Christian beliefs in the language of the ancient poets.[8]

But in the second century Christian writers did not take such a positive attitude toward the composition of centos. In the same passage cited above Tertullian censures the writing of centones, because they transform the original poems into something wholly different. "Vides hodie ex Virgilio fabulam in totum aliam componi, materia secundum versus et versibus secundum materiam concinnatis" (De Praescriptione, 39, 3). Tertullian seems to have in mind the same problem that Irenaeus does, for this treatise is written against heretics. Furthermore, the central issue for Tertullian, and the immediate context of the remarks about centones, is that of the interpretation of the Scripture. He even goes so far as to say that the Scriptures are particularly fertile for such endeavors. "Et utique fecundior divina litteratura ad facultatem cuiusque materiae" (39, 6).

Thus the cento was known to both Christian and non-Christian authors in the second century. Though it may have been possible to fool the unlearned if the cento had been skillfully constructed, anyone who had a knowledge of the poets could quickly discern that lines had been scrambled to fit a different sense from the poet's intention. If one knew the original argument of the poem, it was a simple matter to discover that the poem had been misused. Furthermore, both Tertullian and Jerome inform us that centos were sometimes cited by Christians as parallel cases to heretical interpretations of the Scriptures. Christians argued that as some men re-shaped the verses of Homer and Virgil to suit different purposes, so the heretics misshaped the words of Scripture to suit their purposes. The use of the cento, then, as a remarkable parallel of the pattern of heretical exegesis was established in Christian tradition.

Before proceeding to the Irenaean text we must ask whether we can say anything of its origin. We have already noted that Irenaeus himself gives no indication that Valentinus or another gnostic composed the cento. Did Irenaeus himself compose it? If not what is its origin? Ziegler thought that Irenaeus may have composed it, but he could not be certain. In any case he thought it showed that Irenaeus had been educated in the poets.[9] In the light of Irenaeus' opening comments it seems unlikely that he composed it himself. The phrase 6 ypacptov would seem to suggest that someone else wrote the cento; this is confirmed by the introductory i);, which I translate "for example". Of course, this could refer to Valentinus, but Irenaeus does not say so. Finally the "both" in the sentence immediately prior to the cento, seems to refer to the author of the cento, on the one hand, and the gnostic exegesis of the Scripture, on the other. Most likely the cento was composed by someone other than Irenaeus or Valentinus and was simply taken over by Irenaeus in this place. But as to who actually composed the cento, if it does not come from Valentinus or Irenaeus, scholars are at a loss to say.[10]

How then does Irenaeus use the Homerocento in I, 9.4? In the section immediately prior to the discussion of the cento, Irenaeus had sidetracked a bit from his survey of the teachings of the Valentinians.  Apparently he is satisfied with his statement of their doctrines, and he now proceeds to offer a partial refutation. Throughout the whole of Adversus Haeresus Irenaeus brings forth a number of arguments against his opponent. At this point he touches on one of his central concerns: the gnostic misinterpretation of the Scriptures.

"Such is their system (hypothesis), which neither the prophets proclaimed, nor the Lord taught, nor did the apostles hand it over ... They gather their views from unwritten sources, attempting to weave ropes of sand, while they seek to adapt, as plausible, the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the prophets to their own peculiar assertions, in order that their scheme (plasma) may not seem to be without testimony" (I, 8.1; Harvey p. 66).

Up to this point in his book Irenaeus has been satisfied to present the teachings of the gnostic with only casual references to the strangeness and perversity of their teaching. Here he begins to foreshadow the direction of his refutation. The gnostics claim their teachings are deduced from the Scriptures, but they have actually received their doctrines from oral traditions originating in former gnostic teachers, not the apostles. If their teaching appears plausible when viewed in isolation, it certainly betrays its falsehood when one tries to superimpose it on the Scriptures.

The Scriptures simply will not bend to fit their scheme, and one must twist and turn and rearrange the sacred writings.

"They disregard the order and sequence of the Scriptures, and in so far as they are able they dismember the truth. They transform and re-make passages, making one thing out of another, deluding many by their wicked art of adapting the oracles of the Lord to their fabricated opinions" (I, 8.1; Harvey p. 67).

It is as though one took a beautiful statue of a king, tore it apart and made the form of an animal out of the materials, and then claimed that this was in fact the statue constructed by the artist. The gnostics patch together all sorts of fables and make their own strange connections out of the material of the Scripture, reshaping the oracles of God to their myths. Irenaeus follows up these general comments with specific and concrete examples of gnostic exegesis.

After he has cited a number of examples he says: "You see, my friend, the method which these men employ to deceive themselves: they abuse the Scriptures by attempting to support their own scheme out of them"(I, 9.1; Harvey, p. 80). Other examples follow which lead directly to the citation of the cento. On the basis of the context, it is clear that Irenaeus' primary concern here is the way which gnostics misinterpret the Scriptures. The Scriptures, argues Irenaeus, are not a collection of divine oracles and tales strung together in haphazard fashion; rather they are an ordered and organized expression of divine teaching whose proper sense and meaning can be discovered by the careful interpreter. But, the writings are susceptible to misinterpretation and one can pick and choose isolated sections or passages, place them together with others, and impose on them a sense they never intended. To the uninformed such a reading of the Scriptures may appear plausible, but to anyone learned in the Scriptures, such malicious exegesis can be detected immediately. For one discovers that the heretics have "twisted them" and turned them from their "natural
meaning to something forced".

Irenaeus rests his case here and proceeds to attack the gnostics anew from a different perspective. In the following section he says he will show how they differ among themselves. The cento served his purpose to illustrate the argument against their kind of exegesis of the Scriptures.  Now he can move on to other things. Consequently we conclude that the cento does not reproduce a gnostic allegory of Homer, and that there is no link between the content of the cento and the content of gnostic teaching. The cento is related to gnosticism, insofar as it provides a parallel to the gnostic way of interpreting the Scriptures.

The argument, then, that the cento was composed by Valentinus and interpreted by him in an allegorical sense rests on slim evidence. Irenaeus nowhere says that Valentinus composed the cento, nor does he label it as gnostic in origin. Irenaeus used the cento simply as an illustration of how men misunderstand and pervert writings when they rewrite them to suit their own purposes. Perhaps such an interpretation is more prosaic than that offered by Danielou, but it is certainly not less interesting. For it shows us something of Irenaeus' familiarity with classical authors, his awareness of how they were used in his own day, and his skill at putting such knowledge to work in a theological argument. If this interpretation of the passage is correct, we are in a position to relate our conclusions to the recent discussions concerning Irenaeus' relation to Hellenistic culture. A number of articles have taken up this theme and led to interesting consequences.[11]

Robert Grant writes:

"Too often we are content with a picture of Irenaeus as orthodox but rather stupid. The camera needs to be refocused and the picture taken over again. Irenaeus is certainly devoted to the Christian tradition. But he represents the confluence of Hellenism and Christianity no less distinctly than the apologists do."[12]

In a small way our comments about Irenaeus' use of the Homeric cento corroborate the investigations of recent years. It shows that Irenaeus was familiar enough with the Homeric poems to use them in a skilful fashion in his argument against the gnostics. Though he may have learned many things through the use of doxographies,[13] as some have shown, it seems likely to assume he read Homer at first hand. For he not only tells us that the cento is a scrambled version of Homer, gleaned from the Iliad and Odyssey, but he also tells us to whom the various lines refer. Furthermore, the several references to other parts of the Homeric poems elsewhere in the Adversus Haereses give further evidence of his ability to use Homer as illustration when the situation called for it.[14] When one considers that Homer was the backbone of Hellenistic education and that Irenaeus must have received something of a literary education, at least in part, it is not surprising to discover him using Homer without clumsiness.[15]

Finally, it should be observed that Irenaeus' use of the cento is not peripheral to the central argument of his work. In fact, it appears that the question of the hypothesis, the sense, the meaning of the Christian faith is at the very heart of his theological work. In opposition to the gnostics who scramble the Scriptures, imposing their hypothesis or meaning on the sacred writings, just as did the writer of the Homeric cento, Irenaeus affirms that it is only through the true hypothesis, preserved in the Church, that one rightly understands and interprets the Holy Scriptures.[16]

Gettysburg (Pa.), Lutheran Theological Seminary
(Vigiliae Christianae 21 (1967) 25-33; North-Holland Publishing Co., Amsterdam)

[1] Jean Danielou, Message evangelique et culture hellenistique aux lIe et IIIe siecles ("Histoire des doctrines chr6tiennes avant Nic6e", Vol. II; Tournai: Desclee & Cie., 1961) 73-101.
[2] Ibid., p. 80ff. J. Ppin, Mythe et Allegorie. Les origenesgrecques et les contestations judeo-chretiennes (Paris, 1958); F. Buffiere, Les mythes d'Homere et la pensee grecque (Paris, 1956); see also the recent work of Hugo Rahner, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery (London: Burns & Oates, 1963) especially pp. 331 ff.
[3] Apparently Danielou is referring to Evangelium Veritatis, 29, 11-14.
[4] Justin in Apology I describes several parallels drawn by his opponents between Christ and the sons of Zeus. Some refer to Dionysius and others to Hercules. In the latter case they refer to Ps. 19:5, "strong as a giant to run his course," for "they said Hercules was strong and traveled over the whole earth" (I Apol. 54).
[5] See the article by O. Crusius, Pauly-Wissowa, III, cols. 1929-1932, K. H. Schelkle, "Cento" in RAC, II, 972-973, both with bibliography; Eduard Stemplinger, Das Plagiat in der griechischen Literatur (Berlin: Tuebner, 1912) 193-195.
[6] Praescr. 39, 5. See the comments in Refoule's edition of the treatise, Tertullien, Traite de la prescription contre les heretiques ("Sources Chretiennes", No. 46; Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1957) p. 143, fn. 4. Cf. also Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, I, 39, 25: "Centones apud grammaticos vocari solent, qui de carminibus Homeri, vel Virgilii, ad propria opera, more centonario, ex multis hinc inde compositis in unum sarciunt corpus, ad facultatem cuiusque materiae."
[7] Mentioned by Tertullian: "Denique Hosidius Geta Medeam tragoediam ex Virgilio plenissime exsuxit" (Praescr. 39, 4); see also Crusius, op. cit., col. 1932. 
[8] See, for example, the Carmen de Incarnatione (PL 19, 773-780) composed of lines from the Aeneid, Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil.
[9] Heinrich Ziegler, Irenaeus der Bischof von Lyon (Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1871) p. 17.
[10] B.Borgen, De Centonibus Homericis et Vergilianis (Hauniae, 1828) p. 11 is not able to locate the cento in other ancient writers. He quotes it and discusses its content briefly; but he only notes that it comes from Irenaeus. Cf. also Johann A. Fabricius, Bibliotheca Graeca, edited by G. C. Harles (Hamburg: Charles Bohn, 1804) Vol. 7, 551.
[11] Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus and Hellenistic Culture, HTR 42 (1949) 41-51;
[12] Grant, op. cit., p. 51.
[13] Herman Diels, Doxographi Graeci (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1929) 170ff. Cf. Grant, op. cit., p. 42ff.
[14] For example cf. I. 12, 2 (Harvey I, 110), where Irenaeus refers to the opening of Book II of the Iliad. He writes that "these fancied beings" (Ennoea and Thelesis) are like Zeus in Homer who spent a sleepless night devising plans to honor Achilles and destroy many Greeks. Here Irenaeus accurately recounts the sense of the passage and uses it as illustration in his argument. See also I, 13.6; I, 23.4; II, 5.4.
[15] Cf. the comment of Henri Marrou: "Throughout the Hellenistic period his (Homer's) popularity never wavered... As long as Greek culture lasted, Homer was its dominating figure... The gigantic figure of Homer loomed on the horizon from primary school days. 'Homer was not a man but god' was one of the first sentences that children copied down in their handwriting lessons" (A History of Education in Antiquity (London: Sheed and Ward, 1956) p. 162. Concerning Irenaeus' literary education, it seems certain that his disavowal of literary pretentions in the preface (I. praef. 3) of his work is itself a literary device, and that his work betrays a conscious use of literary conventions. On this topic see Schoedel, op. cit., p. 27; Sagnard, op. cit.; Grant, op. cit., p. 47. Irenaeus was born and raised in Asia Minor, perhaps Smyrna.  Even if he did not go through the schools he must have had experience with the rhetoric so characteristic of Asia Minor and may have actually heard Aelius Aristides; see Benoit, op. cit., pp. 50, 55.
[16] See Philip Hefner, Theological Methodology and St. Irenaeus, Journal of Religion 44 (1964) 295ff

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