Friday, November 2, 2012

Celsus and the Redefining of Judaism and Christianity [Part Two]

How much truth can a soul bear? How much truth can a soul dare? Nietzsche.

The most fundamental problem in the study of early Christianity is the simple fact that most scholars are systemizers.  Why would this be a problem some might ask?  The answer is simple when we look to the writings of the early Church Fathers.  Irenaeus, and Justin and Hegesippus before him, present the reader with a ready made 'flow chart' of how the heresies arose.  The problem then is that scholars now have two choices - to accept the neat explanation of the origins of the Valentinians, Marcionites and other curious sectarian groups or strike out on their own.  Indeed the problem extends also to the 'system' offered by the Book of Acts which again comes down to the choice between 'order' and a chaotic unknown.

The short answer then is that Irenaeus (forget Justin and Hegesippus for the moment) offers the world a relatively simple model for explaining the origins of what was then called χριστιανισμός,  Not surprisingly when we look to Acts - a text which was completely rejected as spurious by most everyone besides Irenaeus and his circle - we already see the appearance of the term χριστιανός.  Of course the million dollar question is when was Acts written?  The tradition view of course is that it was composed by Luke a follower of Paul in the latter part of the first century.  But this understanding ignores the Marcionite objection to 'Luke's' existence let alone to his authority.  If we by contrast take the view of at least a few scholars of Marcionitism that Luke and Acts developed as reactions against Marcion, then the reference to χριστιανός seems to wholly reflect a mid-second century background.

It will not be my effort in this post to argue for the mid-second century dating for Luke-Acts.  My assumption from the very beginning is that the Antiochene interest and the address to Theophilus dates the text to that period.  But let's move now in a slightly different direction.  Let us assume that by Irenaeus's time the terms χριστιανός and χριστιανισμός were applied to a very specific understanding of what constituted 'the religion of Jesus.'  In other words, χριστιανισμός is a very loaded terminology.  If we break down the term back to χριστιανός the concept developed from a Latin term identifying 'Christos' as the proper name of an individual.  It is not a title of someone but again the proper name of someone who headed a group.  The χριστιανοι quite simply are 'those of Christ.'

The disappearance of the name 'Jesus' from the title of the association in his name is quite puzzling (for we now of the name 'those of Jesus' in other languages).  Why exactly did a Latin term which would lead one to believe that Christians were lead by someone with the proper name 'Christ' become authoritative within the community of Jesus devotees?  Surely they would have known better.  What has always gotten in the way of course is the assumption that Acts was written in the first century.  Once we accept the Marcionite argument that the text was a forgery directed against their tradition the parallel between Acts and Celsus becomes a little more problematic.

In other words, 'the mistake' in identifying the χριστιανοι as followers of a certain 'Christ' makes better sense if the term arose outside of Christianity proper.  Indeed one has to wonder whether there ever was a χριστιανισμός proper without the existence of a ιουδαισμος before it.  And when do scholars see the term arising?  As noted in a previous post, a very compelling case can be made that the concept of 'Judaism' only arose in the second century.  Celsus makes explicit reference to both ιουδαισμος  and χριστιανισμός and more importantly he makes the crucial argument that χριστιανισμός developed from ιουδαισμος.  Nevertheless he notes that most Christians deny this proposition.

It is at this point that the systemizers demonstrate their intellectual limitations.  They fall victim to choosing a neat package rather than delving into the depths and realizing that Celsus's argument is over-simplistic and dangerous.  For modern Jews and Christians - in other words for those assuming to belong to a pre-existent tradition, in one case ιουδαισμος and the other χριστιανισμός - the acceptance of the Greek terminology comes as second nature.  Nevertheless the reality is that the terms do not show up before the second century.  In fact Celsus's writings can be used to make the case that they were unknown before his treatise.

How on earth could the term 'Judaism' have only emerged in the second century if the religion of Moses pre-existed his True Account by many centuries?  As Origen is quick to acknowledge, the historical reality is that while there was one Law of Moses, there were many sectarian interpretations.  In an environment where Samaritans, Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Dositheans and the myriad of other groups referenced for instance in the writings of Hegesippus and other early authors the very concept of ιουδαισμος makes little sense.  The terminology could only have arisen in an age where a conscious effort to define 'orthodoxy' as such.

The standard interpretation of course is that Jamnia, Aquila and the Mishnah developed as spontaneous efforts within Judaism.  Yet even this seems silly in light of the lack of evidence for the very concept of ιουδαισμος before the second century.  It makes much more sense to argue that there was a conscious Imperial effort to reshape Judaism into something more manageable especially after the near disastrous Bar Kochba revilt (132 - 135 CE).  While Jamnia and Aquila are certainly to be dated before the revolt, the concept of ιουδαισμος is certainly post-revolt.  To that end, it is difficult not to begin to see that the paired terminology χριστιανισμός is also post-135 CE.  Indeed the fault line that defines ιουδαισμος and χριστιανισμός then no less than now is the question of the appearance of the messiah.

And this realization at long last opens the door to understand the origin of the strange term that started it all - namely χριστιανός.  Yes, it is certainly a Latin term.  Yes, it assumes as its starting point a gathering around a person with the name 'messiah.'  The ignoring of the expected name Jesus is now explained by the original fault line between ιουδαισμος and χριστιανισμός - namely the recent experience with the Jewish messiah Bar Kochba.  Let us take a look again at the reference which appears front and center in Book Four of Origen's Against Celsus:

For, arraying himself at the same time against both parties— against the Jews on the one hand, who deny that the advent of Christ has taken place, but who expect it as future, and against Christians on the other, who acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ spoken of in prophecy— he makes the following statement:

But that certain Christians and Jews should maintain (Ὅτι δὲ καὶ Χριστιανῶν τινες καὶ Ἰουδαῖοι), the former that there has already descended, the latter that there will descend, upon the earth a certain God, or Son of a God, who will make the inhabitants of the earth righteous, is a most shameless assertion, and one the refutation of which does not need many words.

Now here he appears to pronounce correctly regarding not certain of the Jews, but all of them, that they imagine that there is a certain (God) who will descend upon the earth; and with regard to Christians (περὶ δὲ Χριστιανῶν), that certain of them say that He has already come down. [Against Celsus 4.1,2]

Nothing has puzzled scholars more than the reference here to the idea that only 'certain' Jews hold that the messiah will appear in the future and moreover that only 'certain' Christians regarded the messiah to have already appeared.  Yet this is again only a demonstration of their victimization at the hands of their own nature as systemizers.

For once we accept as I noted in the previous post that Celsus almost certainly wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Bar Kochba revolt where a certain 'Simon' was acknowledged to have been the awaited messiah of the prophets does everything start to fit together.  At once we see that only 'certain' Jews saw the messiah as appearing in the future because of course Bar Kochba was still the awaited messiah.  This understanding carried forward into the medieval period.  The explanation given by Abarbanel of course was that the contemporary Jews mistook him as the messiah of David when he was the messiah of Joseph.  Pathetic distinction as it is, it demonstrates that the Jews never stopped identifying Bar Kochba as the messiah (in the original formulation clearly Agrippa was the messiah of Joseph cf. Rashi's statement that (a) Bar Kochba was his descendant and (b) Agrippa was the 'cut off' messiah of Daniel 9:26).

Yet even if the Jews in the period immediately following the failed revolt continued to accept this 'Simon' as the awaited messiah, it is important to note that ιουδαισμος ever since became defined as effectively 'waiting for the messiah to come.'  Why would the Roman Empire have chosen to encourage this definition?  Because it was clearly developed against the backdrop of the alternative - i.e. that the messiah had already come, he was Simon bar Kochba and another revolt was imminent.  To this end we can begin to see also then why it was so important to define χριστιανισμός in terms of 'the Jesus cult.'  In other words, if Judaism was defined as 'no messiah come yet' the alternative in this false election of 140 CE was defining 'those of the messiah' in terms of Jesus Christ rather than Bar Kochba.

To make this a little more understandable let's go back to Celsus original statement that only 'certain Christians' that the messiah already has descended.  This is yet another slap in the face to our inherited systematizing efforts for it is generally assumed that Christians believed in Jesus Christ.  Yet anyone who has ever gone through the pages of Origen's commentary on Celsus original anti-Christian treatise realizes at once that Marcionitism was particularly influential.  Origen often asks why Celsus can't come up with arguments against Catholicism and he satisfies himself with the answer that the truth of the Church was so strong he came away empty-handed (!).

The reality is that even though only 'certain' Christians believed the messiah had come and only certain Jews thought the messiah would only come in the future, the specific categories of ιουδαισμος and χριστιανισμός became defined by these minority positions in 140 - 150 CE.  This is absolutely mind-blowing and accounts for many of the strange statements in the True Account of Celsus.  Indeed if we go back to the dangerous oversimplification that Celsus reinforces - i.e. χριστιανισμός developed from ιουδαισμος - it is plain to see that this was not so much a scientific observation out in the real world as it was an imposition of what would be acceptable in the future.  In other words, Judaism would only be defined as belief in a future messiah, Simon bar Kochba veneration (= Simonianism for lack of a better term) was effectively outlawed and at the same time Christianity would only be defined as a tradition which venerated Jesus as the Christ, Marcionitism being also effectively outlawed.

Why then were Marcionitism and Simonianism lumped together as the chief heresies of the day?  Clearly there must have been some underlying connection between the two in the same way that ιουδαισμος and χριστιανισμός were connected as desirable religious forms.  Even without fleshing out the exact details of this formulation it is enough to see placing Celsus's treatise during the reign of Antoninus Pius helps explain why all the heretics mentioned by later Church Fathers appear in the same time period, why Marion is identified as being expelled from the church of Rome in that period, why the rabbinic tradition identifies Judah ha Nasi as being 'helped into bed' by Antoninus Pius and the like.  The only difficulty that remains is why Marcionites in Edessa adopted the same title of χριστιανισμός, but perhaps the absurdity only reinforces the same point - it was imposed on all Imperial subjects who chose to join this voluntary association.

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