Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Marcion and Aquila [Part One]

There has been a growing number of people who believe that the story of Jesus as told in the gospel is a myth.  In our modern parlance of course, a 'myth' is taken to be something which is untrue.  If a political candidate for instance, speaks of the 'myth of job creation' he is denying a claim of increased employment.  This is certainly the way that many understand the 'myth of Jesus Christ.'  For them denying the historical character of the gospel narrative proves that Christian salvation is a facade.

I look at thing rather differently of course.  It has to be conceded that if Jesus was a 'Galilean peasant' for instance, it would be expected that less information would survive about his life than - let's say - Julius Caesar.  I have heard it said by religious apologists that in reality there are just as many historical references to Jesus.  I have never investigated the matter because quite frankly I really don't care one way or another.  My angle on the story is simply that there was an important community in earliest Christian antiquity which did not believe that Jesus was a historical individual and I happen to care a great deal about recovering their tradition.

The Marcionites, as they are now called, are said by early Patristic sources to have been a followers of a certain individual named Marcion.  Marcion had a life roughly contemporaneous with a much more famous resident of Pontus, a Biblical translator named Aquila.  A compelling case can in fact be made that Aquila and Marcion might well be the same person.

While Aquila is always identified as a Jewish proselyte, Marcion is said to have appealed his message to Jewish proselytes.  There is a story in the canonical book of Acts that Aquila and his wife Priscilla had lately come from Italy because Claudius commanded all the Jews to leave Rome due to agitation in the Jewish community due to "Chrestus".  The author of Acts is clearly developing an original narrative which appeared in the Roman historian Suetonius (d. 130 CE).  It was well known by then Marcion's church used the title Chrestos (= good, kind man), instead of Christ, (= anointed).

Yet perhaps the most compelling reason to connect Aquila with Marcion is the tradition that he opposed circumcision.   Concerning Aquila's conversion to Judaism, Jewish legend says that Aquila was the son of Hadrian's sister. Always strongly inclined to Judaism, he yet feared to embrace it openly in the emperor's proximity. He, therefore, obtained permission from his uncle to undertake commercial journeys abroad, not so much for the sake of profit as in order to see men and countries, receiving from him the parting advice to invest in anything the value of which was temporarily depreciated, as in all probability it would rise again.

Epiphanius, for instance, relates that Aquila was by birth a Greek from Sinope in Pontus, and a relation (πενθερίδες) of Hadrian, who sent him, forty-seven years after the destruction of the Temple (that is 117, the year of Hadrian's accession) to Jerusalem to superintend the rebuilding of that city under the name of "Ælia Capitolina," where he became first a Christian and then a Jew. A reflection of the alleged adoption of Christianity by Aquila, as related by Epiphanius, may be discerned in the following legend of the Babylonian Talmud in reference to the proselyte Onkelos, nephew of Titus on his sister's side.

According to this, Onkelos called up the shade of his uncle, then that of the prophet Balaam, and asked their counsel as to whether he should become a Jew. The former advised against it, as the Jews had so many laws. and ceremonies; the latter, with characteristic spitefulness, replied in the words of Scripture, "Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity" (Deut. 23. 7). He then conjured up the founder of the Church, who replied, "Seek their peace, seek not their harm; he who assails them touches the apple of God's eye." These words induced him to become a Jew (Giṭ. 56b, 57a).

It is important to note that it is Jesus who finally converts Onkelos to Judaism in Gittin 57a.  Yet it is clearly to a form of Judaism which rejected the necessity of circumcision.  As such the following Midrash deserves notice: Aquila is said to have asked R. Eliezer why, if circumcision were so important, it had not been included in the Ten Commandments (Pesiḳ. R. xxiii. 116b et seq.; Tan., Lek Leka, end; ed. Vienna, 20b, reads quite erroneously "Agrippa" in place of "Aquila"), a question frequently encountered in Christian polemic literature.

Similarly he is said to have demanded an answer from Rabbi Eliezer to the following question: "Is the whole reward of a proselyte to consist in receiving food and raiment?" (see Deut. x. 18). The latter angrily answered that what had been sufficient for the patriarch Jacob (Gen. 28. 20) should be sufficient for Aquila. When Aquila put the same question to Rabbi Joshua, the latter reassured him by expounding "food and raiment" as meaning metaphorically "Torah and ṭallit." Had not Joshua been so gentle, the Midrash adds, Aquila would have forsaken Judaism (Eccl. R. to vii. 8; Gen. R. lxx. 5; Ex. R. xix. 4, abbreviated). The purport of this legend is to show that at the time Aquila had not been firmly convinced.

A very similar narrative about Aquila is preserved in Epiphanius's Weights and Measures.  We are told here that in the twelfth year of Hadrian (128 - 129) Aquila became known.  It was then that Aquila published his Greek translation of the Bible.  Yet Epiphanius also relates that at the very beginning of his reign, in 117 CE he came to Jerusalem and decided to rebuild the ruined temple of Jerusalem:

And he took the Aquila mentioned above, who was a Greek interpreter, since Hadrian also was a Greek - now Aquila was related to the king by marriage and was from Sinope in Pontus - and he established him there in Jerusalem as overseer of the work of building the city. And he gave to the city that was being built his own name and the appellation of the royal title. For as he was named Aelius Hadrian, so he also named the city Aelia.  So Aquila, while he was in Jerusalem, also saw the disciples of the disciples of the apostles flourishing in the faith and working great signs, healings, and other miracles ... So Aquila, after he had been strongly stirred in mind, believed in Christianity, and after a while, when he asked, he received the seal in Christ.  But according to his former habit, while yet thinking the things of the heathen, he had been thoroughly trained in vain astronomy, so that also after he became a Christian he never departed from this fault of his, but every day he made calculations on the horoscope of his birth. He was reproved by the teachers, and they rebuked him for this every day but did not accomplish anything. But instead of standing rebuked, he became bold in disputation and tried to establish things that have no existence, tales about fate. Hence, as one who proved useless and could not be saved, he was expelled from the church. But as one who had become embittered in mind over how he had suffered dishonor, he was puffed up with vain jealousy, and having cursed Christianity and renounced his life he became a proselyte and was circumcised as a Jew. And, being painfully ambitious, he dedicated himself to learning the language of the Hebrews and their writings. After he had first been thoroughly trained for it, he made his translation. He was moved not by the right motive, but (by the desire) so to distort certain of the words occurring in the translation of the seventy-two that he might proclaim the things testified to about Christ in the divine Scriptures to be fulfilled in some other way, on account of a certain shame that he felt (to proffer) a senseless excuse for himself.  And this second translation by Aquila  came about after such a (long) time as this, the number of the years of which we have written above. But we must say, beloved, the words of it are incorrect and perversely translated, (words) which carry condemnation for him in the very translation which he made. But having explained the differences between them above, we think that that will suffice here also. But after this Aquila and his translation Antoninus, surnamed Pius---- translated, "devout"----succeeded King Hadrian and reigned for a period of twenty-two years.

It is important to note that the very same ideas are present in descriptions of Marcion - i.e. him being a 'Jew' or a Christian who succumbed to Jewish teachings.  Yet in our next section we will draw attention to the fact that this description of Aquila fits in with what we know about Judaism in the shadowy bar Kochba.  Understand this struggle, understand the origins of Marcionitism.

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