Monday, February 20, 2012

The Next Chapter of the Myth of Jesus Christ [Part One]

It is common knowledge that the name of our western collection of sacred writings comes from the  common Greek word meaning 'book.'  The Bible is supposed to be 'the book,' the last word on God, yet there have perhaps been more books written to clarify the meaning of this book than any other written text.  It was perhaps the height of foolishness to bind together ancient Jewish and Christian writings as one book.  Indeed it took a very long time to get Christianity to even agree what should be included in this collection.  Nevertheless the underlying mythological concept behind this daringly foolish act was that one God spoke through the various individual voices that together made up 'the Book.'

We shall pay particular attention to this notion of 'one God' speaking through Jewish and Christian scriptures in this chapter.  It was an extraordinarily controversial assertion.  The difficulties spread out in all directions.  Jews and Christians couldn't agree on the most basic details.  Which God for instance was doing the 'announcing' to the prophets and apostles?  Was it one God or two or many different divine powers speaking through the various Biblical texts?  Were the writings of the Bible equally holy?  

Scholars rarely mention often enough how little we know about the most critical period for the development of the three surviving Biblical traditions - that is the start of the so-called 'Common Era' from which our calendars originate.  There is little in the way of reliable history of this gestation period.  We certainly have the writings purporting to be from a near contemporary Jewish eyewitness named Joseph (Greek 'Josephus').  We also have the testimonies of apologists for the surviving Jewish and Christian traditions which make periodic references to dissenting opinions to their own who are dismissed as 'heretics' or 'sectarians.'  Yet it is extremely difficult task to attempt to filter out the exaggeration and hyperbole inherent in this literary genre.  

The Christian anti-heretical writings are particularly problematic.  Most of the surviving texts have titles which start with the word 'Against' and then the name of a particular person or group that the author wanted to pick a fight with.  Often times we know very little about the person or thing the 'right thinking' Christian was writing against.  Indeed early Christian writers had a tendency to reuse older texts and pass them off as their own.  The canonical Gospels of Matthew and Luke can be viewed for instance as little more than forgeries of the Gospel of Mark.  In the same way the anti-heretical texts themselves are preserved in the hands of third and fourth century Church Fathers but often date back to second century figures whose original views had become outdated in terms of the ever shifting sands of orthodoxy, exposing them to the very charge of heresy they leveled at their ancient opponents.

It is incredible to see the freedom that third century Christians had at manipulating original material.  The Latin Christian writer Tertullian of Carthage for instance somehow managed to turn an original lost treatise by the second century saint Justin Martyr into both a treatise against the Jews and a sect supposedly bitterly opposed to Judaism.  This particular sect - the Marcionites - will be of great interest to us.  They seemed to have been the beating heart as it were of the controversy over whether the scriptures associated with traditional Judaism should be included in the 'canon' of religious writings associated with the religion of Jesus.  

These so-called 'Marcionites' are mentioned by just about every second and third century Church Fathers in the West and they continued to exist in the East until the rise of Islam in the seventh century.  The Patristic writings tell us that this legendary founder of this sect - a man named 'Marcion' -  had a notion one day to limit the sacred writings down to those associated with a single apostle, the man called 'St. Paul' by the Catholic tradition.  The way the Church Fathers present the idea, it would seem that 'Marcion' was the innovator and the Catholics the keepers of the original tradition.  Yet there are a number of reasons to question this notion.  

The earliest writer to mention Marcion by name was a Catholic writer from Rome in the late second century named Irenaeus.  If one took Irenaeus's opinions at face value, Marcion was an individual motivated by hatred for the God of this world and his Church.  Irenaeus tells us that Marcion:

advanced the most daring blasphemy against Him who is proclaimed as God by the law and the prophets, declaring Him to be the author of evils, to take delight in war, to be infirm of purpose, and even to be contrary to Himself. But Jesus being derived from that father who is above the God that made the world, and coming into Judaea in the times of Pontius Pilate the governor, who was the procurator of Tiberius Caesar, was manifested in the form of a man to those who were in Judaea, abolishing the prophets and the law, and all the works of that God who made the world, whom also he calls Cosmocrator. 

The very same idea keeps getting recycled over and over in the writings of later Church Fathers down to the fifth century.  Many modern apologists for the orthodox tradition tend to get swept away by all the hyperbole in writers like Irenaeus and Tertullian and basically toe the ancient party line.

However a number of astute observers have noted a practical advantage that the smaller, sleeker Marcionite canon possessed over its Catholic rivals (if such a tradition even existed at the time Marcionitism was getting started).  As Everett Ferguson notes:

on a more practical level the spread of the Marcionite canon (and, consequently, also of the title of the new creation) could have been considerably facilitated if Marcion's New Testament was circulated in one single codex — as opposed to the canon of the Greater Church which was too bulky.

It is very important for the reader to come to terms with this concept.  The current Catholic notion of a combined 'Old' and 'New' Testament in one 'book' was simply unworkable in the earliest days of Christianity.  This is why we never hear it espoused until a much later period.  The official shape of the Marcionite canon - one gospel followed by a number of letters from the same apostle - just happen to fit the technological limits of the time.

Another important scholar, David Trobisch has made a very compelling case that the Christian use of the codex helped define the tradition.  The old way of reading books was to have individual scrolls assigned for each text.  The codex however was a Roman technological invention were a great number of texts could be bound together as one collection of writings.  Trobisch's point is that the dominant use of the codex reveals a Christian scribal culture that is quite unified, organized, and able to forge a new literary path by employing a revolutionary technology that would eventually come to dominate the entire Greco-Roman world. Christianity was ahead of the curve as it was. It represented the modern equivalent of an e-business that managed to master the applications of a new paradigm to its advantage. Yet Marcionitism in particular clearly embodies the notion of a portable religion which was so critical to the overall success of Christianity.

We get a glimpse of this cultural landscape in the so-called Passion of the Scillitan Martyrs, a company of twelve North African Christians who were executed for their beliefs on July 17, 180. The martyrs take their name from Scilla (or Scillium), a town in Numidia. The narrative originally preserved in Latin witnesses how difficult it was for the Roman administration at the end of the second century to check the influence of this portable religion and its codex of writings:

Saturninus the proconsul said to Speratus: Dost thou persist m being a Christian?
Speratus said: I am a Christian. And with him they all agreed.
Saturninus the proconsul said: Will ye have a space to consider?
Speratus said: In a matter so straightforward there is no considering.
Saturninus the proconsul said: What are the things in your chest?
Speratus said: Books and epistles of Paul, a just man.

Saturninus the proconsul said: Have a delay of thirty days and bethink yourselves.
Speratus said a second time: I am a Christian. And with him they all agreed.
Saturninus the proconsul read out the decree from the tablet: Speratus, Nartzalus, Cittinus, Donata, Vestia, Secunda and the rest having confessed that they live according to the Christian rite, since after opportunity offered them of returning to the custom of the Romans they have obstinately persisted, it is determined that they be put to the sword.

The important point to see about the codex however was that it - rather than some arbitrary theological doctrine - was defining the shape of orthodoxy.  The earliest Christians likely limited their canon to the writings of a single apostle because that it was all the technology could support at the time especially before members of the faith became established in particular cities and could set up libraries and book collections.

It is therefore important to see that the so-called Marcionite tradition was probably the first out of the gate with a specific codex of writings.  The decision to limit the canon to a single apostle wasn't so much to exclude other interesting or relevant documents but quite simply due to the fact that it would be impossible to expect missionaries to wander the earth with shelves of books.  By contrast the Catholic tradition would often devote a single codex to just two or more gospels.  This already betrays its nature as a secondary or even reactionary tradition.  It is no wonder then that the late second and third century Fathers took aim at the implications of Marcionitism.  They did so from the comfort of vast sees which oversaw whole provinces and in the case of Irenaeus, from the vantage point of the Imperial court.

Email with comments or questions.

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