Sunday, December 30, 2012

Understanding Zacchaeus as a Castration Metaphor

Why is Zacchaeus up in the sycamore tree? This has bothered me for some time. There seems to be no reason to add this detail to the narrative. Yes, to be certain, there is an interest in the 'least' or the 'little ones.' But that doesn't explain the strange image of this 'little one' sitting in a branch looking down at the crowd below.  The original audience of readings of the gospel would certainly have been aware of the sycamore tree and its fruit.  The name Zacchaeus means 'pure' or 'innocent' so in a sense there is a nature suggestion that the sycamore is the 'tree of life' and he its fruit.

This is certainly reinforced in several early Syriac manuscripts. Ephrem sees Zacchaeus's presence on the branch as connected with him being a 'fruit':

The sinful woman who had been a snare for men— he made her an example for penitents. The shriveled fig tree that had withheld its fruit offered Zacchaeus as fruit.[Ephrem, Hymns on the Nativity 4.39–41, in Kathleen E. McVey, trans., Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns (New York: Paulist, 1989), 92–93, slightly revised]

Yet there is a more detailed exposition which is deserving of attention, a pre-Chalcedonian poem by Cyrillona, a figure identified as "the most important Syriac poet after Ephrem," who was the greatest poet of the patristic age.

Cyrillona's writings are preserved in a single sixth-century manuscript in the British Library (BL Add. 14591) It is worth noting his take on the narrative given that he was intimately familiar with the sycamore tree.  I will draw from Carl Griffin's paper Cyrillona's On Zacchaeus, the modern name given to the poem which references this narrative.  Cyrillona understands the story of Zacchaeus to be that of a penitent finding salvation."For in the episode Jesus pronounces not forgiveness but the vindication of Zacchaeus: Jesus announces salvation to 'this house' because he sees that Zacchaeus is innocent, a true 'son of Abraham,' despite the post that he held, which branded him otherwise." 

Griffin also notes that the Syrian tradition which was very well acquainted with the sycamore tree saw its presence in the narrative as highly significant:

Early Syriac treatments of the story of Zacchaeus, as seen in Ephrem's Armenian Hymns, often focus on Zacchaeus's reception of Jesus into his home and his remuneration of those he had defrauded. In contrast, this poem begins with Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree and focuses exclusively on his descent and cheerful greeting of Jesus. Only twenty-four lines are devoted directly to the figure of Zacchaeus, and Cyrillona's discussion of him is very narrowly circumscribed. And here his sycamore tree is as important as the recumbent Zacchaeus.

Early exegetes saw the sycamore tree from which Zacchaeus descends as a rich and multivalent symbol. Cyrillona identifies it first as Zacchaeus's refuge when he escaped from Satan: "the sycamore was a harbor on the path; / he came down from it weary and found rest" (11–12). The symbol of the haven or harbor (lmina) has rich typological potential in the Syriac tradition, often connected liturgically with baptism, but used as well in a number of other associations. It was used as a metaphor for Christ as early as the Acts of Thomas, and in later liturgical usage (as also in the Manichaean psalms) Christ is called the "harbor of peace" and "harbor of life."  But while the sycamore certainly may be employed as a positive scriptural type, here the tree seems to be called a lmina less for its function as a harbor or port than as a portal from the life of sin to life in Christ.

Zacchaeus does not find rest or refuge in the sycamore, but rather in Christ upon his descent. Zacchaeus descends from the tree weary because, as becomes clear from the narrative, it is a symbol of the fallen world. Cyrillona associates Zacchaeus's sycamore with the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, since in Christ, the "barren fig" (sycamore) becomes fruitful—the tree of life.(12) This association is made explicit at the end of the text, when the penitent comes down from the tree, is planted again in paradise, and clothed in the "garment of mercy," which Adam lost (101–4). This typology is certainly not original to Cyrillona, but unique is his lyrical description of the very shade of the tree becoming luminous before Christ's splendor—a striking bit of poetic imagination (13–16).

This interpretation of the sycamore tree is certainly consistent in the Syriac tradition, however it does not make sense for Clement's exegesis of the material.  Most notably, Clement sees 'Zacchaeus' as completing the Question of the Rich Man as we have already noted.

I can't help wondering if Zacchaeus is in the tree as a sign that he is the fruit of the tree of life.  The reality is that the sycamore is a wild fig tree, quite different from the figs we are familiar with or grow in other parts of the world.  I suspect that the symbolism is actually tied to a specific feature of the fruit which would certainly have been known to people of the day.   Most notably that in the Middle East at least the harvested fruit could only come to 'maturity' (= perfection) if a small number of them were 'cut' with a knife.  As we read:

When the fruit of the fig is pierced, or "gashed," it causes the fig to produce ethylene gas. This gas helps the ripening process. Some people spray the fruit in order to induce ripening without piercing the outside surface of the fig. The gash can be anything from a small piercing like a pin-prick hole to a larger eighth-of-an-inch cut. As the fig ripens it expands, making the gash appear larger. Different types of pointed knives can be used to cut the skin. Gashing one helps the rest because the ripening occurs due to the gas produced, gashing one fig in the vicinity of other figs helps them all to ripen. Organic farmers usually gash a single fig in order to ripen a whole grouping of the fruit. If you have unripened figs at home, you can pierce one and the rest will ripen quickly.

In other words, Zacchaeus the 'pure' has already undergone this 'gashing' as part of his initiation into the 'mysteries of the kingdom of God' and now he is prepared to 'ripen' the rest of the bunch.  In short, the story is parable for ritual castration or at least was so interpreted among the Marcionites.

The references to Marcionite castration practices is well established in the literature.  I am just wondering whether Clement's analysis necessarily assumes that 'the pure' Zacchaeus is able to exude the 'spiritual power' of Jesus because he was 'cut' earlier in the narrative.

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