Friday, August 12, 2011

The Problem of Paul of Samosata

I have never been able to make nor heads or tails of Paul of Samosata, the bishop of Antioch at a crucial period in history.  There are so many conflicting bits of information which make it difficult to put piece together the whole story of his career.  Yet to steal a line from Oprah - there is one thing which I am sure of here.  The most obvious is that Paul's rise to power entirely assisted by the rise of the Palmyrean king Odenathus and Zenobia (c. 262 - 270 CE).

The story is told by Wikipedia as follows:

The defeat and captivity of the emperor Valerian in 260 left the eastern provinces largely at the mercy of the Persians; the prospect of Persian supremacy was not one which Palmyra or its ruler had any reason to desire. At first, it seems, Odaenathus attempted to propitiate the Persian monarch Shapur I; but when his gifts were contemptuously rejected (Petr. Patricius, 10) he decided to throw in his lot with the cause of Rome. The neutrality which had made Palmyra's fortune was abandoned for an active military policy which, while it added to Odaenathus's fame, in a short time brought his native city to its ruin. He fell upon the victorious Persians returning home after the sack of Antioch, and before they could cross the Euphrates inflicted upon them a considerable defeat.

Christian reports from the next century make it seem as if Paul was little more of a puppet of Zenobia. Athanasius distinctly calls her Paul's patroness (Athan. Hist. Ar. c. 71). Yet it is worth noting that his predecessor Demetrius was bishop of Antioch was taken to Persia as a captive by Shapur I in 253. Tradition says that despite being far from his see, Demetrius was not replaced as bishop until Paul of Samosata became bishop in 260. Could this mean that Paul was already on the Antiochene episcopal throne before the Palmyrean couple ruled the Middle East? I strongly suspect this is true which adds interesting new dimension to the question of Paul of Samosata.

Yet I have to acknowledge that I do not feel at all confident that any of our surviving sources tell us anything certain about the man himself. As Bart Ehrman rightly notes in his Orthodox Corruption of Scripture:

The sources for Paul's life and the two or three councils held to consider charges against him are relatively sparse and of varying degrees of historical reliability. Although there are fragmentary records of the conciliar investigation — the so-called Acta, preserved in manuscripts of the fifth and sixth centuries — most recent investigators have discounted their authenticity. There is also a letter addressed to Paul by six bishops at the council, the Epistula, which is now widely considered authentic but which proves problematic for knowing what Paul himself believed because it expresses only the theological affirmations of his orthodox opponents, not the heretical views it was drafted to oppose. Finally, Eusebius had apparently read accounts of the trial, and preserves the synodal letter that came out of it. This letter is normally taken to be authentic, and gives some clues as to Paul's Christology.

What is striking is that while the synodal letter explicitly states that Paul was deposed for his aberrant christological views, it scarcely deals with such issues per se, but instead focuses on Paul's haughty attitude and ethical improprieties. The bishops object to his strutting through the marketplace with bodyguards and adoring crowds, to his suspicious accumulation of wealth, to his decision to build a throne, tribunal, and secretum, to his preference of the title ducenarius to bishop, and to his indiscreet consorting with women. The fact that the council deposed him in favor of Domnus, the son of the previous bishop, Demetrian, makes one suspect that the proceedings had as much to do with rivalry and personal loyalty as with Christology (Eusebius, Hist. VII.30). Here one cannot fail to observe that Paul's christological error was not at all self-evident. At the first council convened to decide his case, his opponents could find no grounds on which to press charges (Hist Eccl. VII, 28); at the second it was only after the skillful verbal maneuverings of Malchion, a professional rhetorician whose services were acquired just for the occasion, that the opposition was able to expose the error of his opinions. It appears that Paul did not so much advocate a particular heresy as take a position with potentially heretical implications. On such terms, one wonders who would have been safe.

In any event, the christological charge against Paul is clear: the synodal letter likens him to the adoptionist Artemon, his spiritual "father." And so Paul was condemned for professing "low, degraded opinions about Christ," namely that Christ was "just an ordinary man" (koinos anthropos, Hist. Eccl. VII, 27); for disallowing the singing of hymns to Christ (VII, 30); and, most decisively for the council (but enigmatically for us), for refusing to confess that "the Son of God came down from heaven," insisting instead that Jesus Christ derived "from below" (Iesoun Christon katothen VII, 30). In effect, whatever the real agenda at the Council of Antioch in 268 ce, Paul was condemned for subscribing to the views of Artemon and his forebears among the Roman adoptionists. [The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture p. 53]

Yet I even lack confidence in this explanation. I need and want more information on the man Paul of Samosata and can't find any sustinance.

Schaff notes that on the defeat of Zenobia by Aurelian towards the end of 372, the Catholic prelates represented to him what they termed Paul's "audacity." Aurelian relegated the decision to the bishop of Rome and the Italian prelates, decreeing that the residence should belong to the one they recognized by letters of communion (ib.). The Italian bishops promptly recognized Domnus, Paul was driven with the utmost ignominy from the temporalities of the church, and Domnus, despite his irregular appointment, generally accepted as patriarch (ib.; Cyril Alex. Hom. de Virg. Deip.; Routh, iii. 358).

There is simply too much politics in all of this to make any real sense of it.

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