Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Jaap Mansfield Demonstrates the Influence of Centos (= 'Patchwork Writings or Poems') in Christianity in the Commodian Period

Iren. Adv. haeres. I 9.3-5 argues that the use of scriptural passages by his Valentinian Gnostic opponents is to be condemned because by selecting and arranging these texts according to the pattern of their preconceived false system they falsify their real - i.e. original, meaning. In his view, this is not honest exegesis — to be honest, exegesis should concern itself with a continuous text and refrain from assembling what is dispersed — but comparable to the fabrication of a cento according to a pre-existing plot:

their [scil., the Valentinians'] whole plot falls to pieces — this false dream in defence of which they trample Scripture underfoot. When they have fabricated their idiosyncratic plot, their next step is to collect phrases and words which are found in widely scattered places [scil., in Scripture] and to transform these ... from what is natural to what is against against nature. Their method is similar to that of those who propose whatever plots happen to be at their disposal and as their next step attempt to flesh these out from the Homeric poems. As a result, less well-versed people may well believe that Homer wrote the lines for just this plot, although this has been fleshed out only a moment ago ...

Irenaeus provides an example of such a cento, an epyllion of ten lines describing Heracles' descent into Hades by means of lines from both Iliad and Odyssey, lines which in the original epics occur in entirely different contexts and for the most part, as he points out, originally are about other persons, viz. Odysseus, Priam, Menelaus and Agamemnon.11 In order to refute the heretics, Irenaeus therefore has to prove two things, viz. (1) that their collections of biblical quotations are made in a selective, tendentious and devious way, and (2) that the 'plot' is indeed an already existing one. He has already proved his first point in Adv. haeres. I, and especially in I 8, where he provides a dense texture of instances of their highly selective use and interpretation of passages in Scripture. The introductory paragraph of this chapter (Adv. haeres. I 8.1) is most instructive. Irenaeus compares the method of the heretics to that of a person who, using the tesserae of a mosaic representing the portrait of a king made by a great artist, rearranges these into the ugly shape of a dog, or a fox, and deceives the ignorant by declaring that this in fact is the portrait of the king by the great artist. He continues:

in the same way these (heretics), having stitched together old wives' talcs [literally: 'myths'] and as their next move having torn away words and sayings and parables from whatever place they choose, are prepared to adapt God's oracular utterances to their stories [literally: 'myths']

The ὑπόθεσις mentioned at Adv. haeres. I 9.3 is here called a cento (συγκαττύσαντες being a technical term in this context) of old wives' tales, and here too he says that the tales, or stories, arc adorned with a tissue of biblical quotations. Irenaeus proves his second point at Adv. haeres. II 14 where he demonstrates to his own satisfaction that the Valentinian system as a whole and as to its details derives from the ideas of the Greek poets and philosophers, that is to say from the 'old wives' tales' mentioned at Adv. haeres. I 8.1. In order to achieve this aim, he constructs a cento on his own from (the secondary literature on) these poets and philosophers, the bits and pieces of which are stitched together by means of interpretive comments which rather monotonously support the thrust of his main argument.

First, at Adv. haeres. II 14.1, he derives the main story, or myth, of the Valentinians from a Greek comic poet,14 arguing that they have transposed the poet's cosmogony and stolen his plot, only changing the names, i.e. giving new names to what was already there. This story (fabula), we may say, is their poetic ὑπόθεσις;,16 and the fact that Ire- naeus still thinks in terms of a given dramatic plot which serves as the foundation, or skeleton, for a cento explains why he begins his account with a paraphrase of a passage from Aristophanes' Birds." Next, at II 14.2, he repeats his allegation that the Valentinians have assembled a cento; this time, however, he no longer speaks of a collection of supporting biblical quotations but of a patchwork which has been stitched together from bits and pieces of various philosophical provenance.

... those things which have been affirmed by all those ... who are called philosophers they collect; as if they were sewing together a mule's blanket from a supply of the very worst rags, they have prepared for themselves a faked exterior by means of subtle exegesis — indeed introducing a doctrine that is novel because it has been fabricated now with unheard-of ingenuity, but on the other hand one that is obsolete and useless precisely because these ingredients have been sewn together ... from obsolete doctrines.

To a large extent, the Valentinian contents scattered throughout the interpretive sections of Irenaeus' philosophical cento at II 14.2-6 are parallel to, or even the same as those of the transposed comic fabula. Furthermore, the Valentinian ὑπόθεσις as to its philosophical aspect now to an equally large extent has become a cento itself, and in Irenaeus' own mule's blanket of philosophical abstracts assembled in order to prove this allegation we indeed find a concatenation of tidbits ultimately deriving from a plurality of philosophers (including traditional choice from Homer and Hesiod in their role as philosophical poets). The doctrinal ὑπόθεσις of the Valentinians is therefore according to Irenaeus a poetico-philosophical cento which (as we learned at Adv. haeres. I 9.3-5 and as is less clearly stated at II 14.2 by means of the words subtili eloquid), in order to disguise itself as a respectable Christian doctrine, has been covered by another cento, viz. one consisting of selected scriptural texts that have been interpreted in a perverse way.

Although he does not use the word Kevipcov, Clement of Alexandria, just as Irenaeus, accuses his Gnostic opponents of composing tendentious anthologies of scriptural quotations which they select in conformity with their own presuppositions. At Strom. Ill 38.1 he says that they pick out and stitch together quotations (λέξεις ... συγκαττύσαντες) from biblical pericopes, interpreting them literally instead of in the appropriate allegorical — that is, Clementine — way, and ibid. VII 96.2-3 he states

Though the heretics may be bold enough to avail themselves of the writings of the prophets [ie, they by no means use all of these to begin with, and secondly fail to use them in their perfect form or in such a way as the completeness and sublimity of the prophecy suggest. Quite the contrary: eclectically selecting statements that can be interpreted either way [viz., both literally and allegorically] they transfer these to their own doctrines, anthologizing only a few dispersed utterances, not heeding their [allegorical] meaning but sticking to the statement as expressed in the literal way. For in almost all their verbatim quotations you may find that they only pay attention to the words and distort their meanings ...

But as Le Boulluec has proved, Clement himself often enough interprets Scripture in the centonic manner he condemns when it is employed by the Gnostics. It all seems to be a matter of honesty and intention, or of who is right from the beginning. One may add that Clement's Stromateis is in fact a patchwork itself, for Patchworks is what this title means. It is crammed with centos, in which the concatenations of pagan, biblical and Gnostic quotations and abstracts of the most diverse provenance are glued together by means of interpretive and exegetical comments and commentaries. The Praeparatio evangelica of Eusebius is an equally gigantic cento, and so are the Eclogae and Florilegium of Stobaeus, though most of the time these authors, to an even more generous extent than Clement, have recorded their sources with painstaking precision. Of course Eusebius includes more text of his own than Stobaeus, but in Stobaeus too the selected pieces have been arranged according to patterns thought out in advance. In the Eclogae physicae, for instance, passages taken from a wide variety of sources have been inserted in a systematic framework according to a well-established sequence, as is clear from the chapter-titles. [Jaap Mansfeld, Heresiography in context: Hippolytus' Elenchos as a source for Greek philosophy p. 160 - 161]

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