Monday, July 29, 2013

Flattery and Lies in Early Christianity [Parts One to Five]

Chapter 1 
 Flattery and Lies

There are few challenges in life more daunting than trying to making sense of an unreasonable belief. For the most part at least, unreasonable beliefs originate with unreasonable people and their appeal tends to be limited to like-minded individuals. The ignorant tend to shy away from rationalizing their superstitions and when they attempt to do so the effort rarely satisfies anyone outside the circle of true believers to the faith.

The question must arise then, why even attempt to make sense of the tradition that Jesus was a supernatural being? Scholarship seems to do a very good job separating the ‘historical Jesus’ from the literary tradition associated from the ‘gnostic Jesus’ – or as Tjitze Baarda once termed it ‘the flying Jesus’ – the Jesus who appears in the manuscripts discovered buried near Nag Hammadi, Egypt and hostile reports of the Fathers of the Church.

The rational part of our brain tells us that the latter is a fanciful distortion of the former. As such, much ink has been spilled on the manner in which all the fanciful distortions related to one another – in other words, the way one silly text relates to another silly text. But no serious effort is spent attempting to prove that the historical Jesus is a distortion of the flying Jesus. Such an endeavor would be foolish because men can’t really fly, angels don’t exist and any tradition which presents Jesus in this light is irrational. Any effort to take seriously unreasonable beliefs is necessarily unreasonable and not worthy of serious consideration.

While these assumptions appear perfectly justified to the casual observer the reality is that by limiting what we are willing to consider at the outset of any investigation, effectively determines the outcome of what is possible in early Christianity. For instance, we never even allow the possibility that Jesus developed from pre-existent mythological expectations within Jesus, that Jesus might have been a title applied to a historical individual rather than a proper name and similar proposition to even ‘come to the table’ as it were. The only scenarios which are taken seriously by ‘serious scholarship’ assume at the very outset that the first Christians were shared their serious sensibility – i.e. that they were incapable of the absurdity that they exclude from the outset of their investigation.

In my mind at least, it is the very morbidity of the ‘seriousness’ that is the greatest absurdity. From what we know of the first Christians, they were utterly incapable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality. They lacked the critical reasoning skills to prevent a lie, a distortion, a misunderstanding to be planted among their members and ultimately ‘bear fruit’ in the gospel. A good example here is the Passion narrative – the core of the Christian experience. The events which form the basis to the entire faith of Christianity have no discernible source – credible or otherwise – for their testimony.

Put another way – if Mark’s is the first gospel, there is no sign from the pages of this narrative where he got his information about the crucifixion of Jesus. While the gospel narrative is framed as a history, the question must remain – is the historical framework which is developed before and after the Passion merely an artistic embellishment, an attempt to ground ‘the myth that saves people’ in something that sounds reasonable in order to make the Christian religion be taken seriously by ‘serious men’ in the ancient world.

Indeed for all the efforts of ‘serious men’ in scholarship today to ‘make sense’ of Christianity, they overlook the most important single piece of evidence that survives from antiquity to help us understand how the gospel of Mark – the earliest surviving gospel - was made. They love to repeat the words that Mark wrote on behalf of Peter, a testimony recycled over and over by the Fathers of the Church in many different ways. Nevertheless our earliest testimony about its composition makes clear that it was specifically manufactured for the ‘serious taste’ of the Imperial government of Rome.

Clement says quite specifically that “Mark, Peter's follower while Peter was preaching publicly the Gospel at Rome in the presence of certain of Caesar's equestrians [equitubus, i.e., members of the equestrian order] and was putting forward many testimonies concerning Christ, being requested by them that they might be able to commit to memory the things that were being spoken, wrote from the things which were spoken by Peter the Gospel which is called according to Mark. [Clement Hypotyposeis from Adumbrations in 1 Peter 5:13]. In other words, the text upon which all other gospels developed was written specifically for the ‘serious’ tastes of ‘serious men.’

Yet this should hardly inspire anyone’s confidence that we have before us in the gospels anything that proves that Jesus was a ‘man of history.’ For if we suppose that Christianity developed within another milieu entirely – i.e. that of Jews or residents of ancient Palestine – it is difficult to imagine that the gospel as it is now preserved for us, is a faithful representation of that culture. We must suppose that ancient Jews were incapable of exaggeration, averse to flights of fancy – of believing in something that had no basis in historical reality – that they shared the ‘seriousness,’ the slavish devotion to historical accuracy as the audience for which the gospel was written.

Everything we know about Jews at the beginning of the Common Era contradicts these assumptions. The religious writings discovered at Qumran make plain that they actively waited and expected a divine visitation from God or someone other divine being. The writings which survive from Jews in this period and preserved in other sources reinforce the idea that a being like Jesus – a being who could fly, walk on water, pass through crowds untouched, heal by word or contact with his substance – would if anything have been more enthusiastically received if it had been ‘discovered’ that he were a visiting angel or some divine power.

To this end then we must stop attempting to project our own slavish devotion to seriousness as a precondition to having ideas heard or examined. All we do by our tradition approach is make ‘white people like us,’ – men of a shared sensibility and worldview - the ultimate measure of all things to do with Christianity. This is a very dangerous methodology to follow when in fact we know that we are dealing with something which originated from a completely different cultural milieu and one which certainly was not prone to self-censor ‘unserious’ ideas and beliefs. As noted above, the more incredible, the more exaggerated the claim, the more likely we should suppose that it would be taken seriously.


So we return to our original problem of making sense of an unreasonable faith. This shouldn’t be understood at all in a derogatory way. I know a Catholic priest says exactly this about his tradition – it can’t be made sensible. It requires nothing short of the submission of our intellect especially when it comes to the divinity of Christ.

Yet we should suppose that reason can at least make some progress in understanding even the most irrational doctrine. The difficulty it would seem is reconciling the claim that a man was at once God. As we already noted, various divinities are identified as appearing on earth in the Bible. The question isn’t whether such a being was actually crucified but as the actual text of the St Paul’s letter insists the reality that that Jesus was condemned to be crucified in the presence of the Jews – “before whose eyes was Jesus Christ proscribed as crucified.” In other words, the only thing that Paul seems to care about is the fact that Jews were guilty of wanting him dead.

The issue then is not whether or not the New Testament was originally convinced of Jesus’s material being. The issue was ambiguous enough to allow for many interpretations of the evidence. The only thing that mattered to Paul was what the Jews thought they saw in Jerusalem and what they did with the man they thought they saw in Jesus at the time of his crucifixion. In other words, the gospel and related texts are above all else theological texts which had little or no interest in historical reality as we know it today.

The current orthodoxy affirms that Paul wrote before the destruction of the temple. Yet there are ample signs that he wrote when the end of the Jewish religion was near or had already occurred. The critical issue for Paul was the destruction itself. The historicity of Jesus and the circumstances of his crucifixion were filtered through that cataclysmic event and that event alone. He and his contemporaries ‘knew’ that Jesus was real because of the destruction in the same way that a superstitious person ‘knew’ it was going to be a bad day when they learned it was Friday the 13th.

While it is natural for us to think in terms of ‘Jesus the man’ and the historical reality associated with that understanding – the first converts to Paul’s mythological explanation to the destruction only cared about the comfort that this message gave to them. There may well have been a man "crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again" to use a later re-interpretation of the original myth. But the questions before us are – does ‘man’ necessarily mean ‘mortal man’? Must this man have actually been named ‘Jesus’ or could ‘Jesus’ have been a merely title or some other mythical association with that crucified individual?

The actual situation is more complicated than previously recognized because the concept of ‘man’ is so fundamental to the theology of St Paul. Jesus is the prototype of the ‘heavenly man’ which is juxtaposed against ‘the earthly man’ made after Adam. The same conception is found in the frequent juxtaposition of ‘new man’ versus ‘old man,’ ‘inner man’ versus ‘outer man,’ ‘perfect man’ versus ‘corruptible man,’ and ‘spiritual man’ versus ‘natural man.’ We shall examine these instances shortly.

It should be noted that ‘man’ is used in a special sense in the betrayal narrative which has deep significance for the early Church Fathers. For instance, when Peter is questioned by the authorities about his relationship with Jesus, both Hilary of Poitiers and Ambrose of Milan say that Peter did not deny Jesus as much as he rejected their claim that he was a man. In other words, Peter spoke ambiguously for he said he knew not the man, because he knew Him to be God. " I was not with Him whom ye call a man, but I withdrew not from the Son of God," says S. Ambrose. I know not what thou sayest, — that is, I understand not your profanity.

Our surviving tradition does not prepare us for the variety of interpretations in the early Fathers. If anything it has done its best to shield us from them.


Before we venture into the realm of the unknown, the mysterious tradition that Jesus was an angelic power associated with cosmic redemption, it is important to prepare for our journey by explaining how our tradition – the Catholic tradition – managed to take so far away from understanding Jesus this way. It all starts with an understanding of what infuriated the Catholics about the heretical system – the cause of the dispute which ultimately led to a complete break between the two traditions.

Our Patristic sources, despite an obvious tendency toward exaggeration, make clear that at the core of the heretical worldview was a belief that the early Catholics found deeply offensive. The Marcionites in particular – a group usually associated with a ‘second century dualist’ named Marcion – held that Jesus was a divine being who came from a heaven of this world – i.e. a lower heaven which contained the seven planets. Jesus did not create the world, was unknown to the Creator and his Law and had as the focus of his mission, the bringing into acquaintance of the world to the existence of the previously unknown Father god.

What stands in the way of our proper understanding the Marcionites is the incapacity of many scholars to properly understand the sect. First and foremost, that the first great ‘heresiologist’ Irenaeus of Rome uses the term ‘gnostic’ in a particularly unique manner which leads to the exclusion of the Marcionites from being included in that category. The reality is that the Marcionites were repeatedly identified by other contemporaries of Irenaeus as radical Platonists and since gnostikos is a positive technical term which developed in Plato’s writings it stands to reason that the Marcionites identified themselves as possessing this cognitive quality – i.e. to be ‘brought into acquaintance’ with the Father.

Where scholarship basically screws up is not to realize that Irenaeus has completely shaped the use of the term ‘gnostic’ for all other Church Fathers thereafter. He was reacting against the use of the term by his contemporaries – and undoubtedly one rival in the Imperial court in particular - Florinus of Rome who used this term to explain why Irenaeus ‘didn’t understand’ what he was saying – i.e. that Irenaeus was just too stupid to comprehend the things passed on by their common master Polycarp – a man we will have a great deal to say about later in our discussion.

As a result of this bitter personal exchange between Irenaeus and Florinus in the Imperial court and before Victor the bishop of Rome, the term ‘gnostic’ came to denote ‘those who opposed Irenaeus’s teachings at Rome.’ That is why all the groups identified by Irenaeus as ‘gnostics’ happen to reside in the capitol and in some sense belonged to the tradition which Irenaeus was actively trying to reform.

So it is that in Book One of his Against Heresies Irenaeus begins by attacking Valentinus as having “adapted the principles of the heresy called ‘Gnostic’ to the peculiar character of his own school.’ (Adv Haer 1.11.1) Valentinus came to Rome in the first half of the second century. That the gnostics go beyond Valentinus and his followers is clear from the follow up statement that Valentinus again “agrees with those falsely called Gnostics, of whom to we have yet to speak.” Who are these ‘first gnostics’? It is difficult to say with exactness but again it seems that another group which settles in Rome is also condemned for identifying themselves as such a generation after Valentinus’s arrival there.

Irenaeus draws from a historical work written by a certain Hegesippus it is said that “from among these (Carpocratians) also arose Marcellina, who came to Rome under [the episcopate of] Anicetus, and, holding these doctrines, she led multitudes astray. They style themselves Gnostics.” A number of scholars have already noted that this sentence is quote more exactly from Hegesippus in the writings of another Church Father from the fourth century named Epiphanius who records it as “a certain Marcellina who had been led into error by them [the disciples of Carpocrates] paid us a visit some time ago. She was the ruin of a great number of persons in the time of Anicetus, bishop of Rome, who succeeded Pius and his predecessors.”

Hugh Lawlor examined three independent attestations of the same original report of Hegesippus and concluded “it seems as though in the original document the assumption of the name ' Gnostics ' by heretics was described as a new thing.” Yet this can hardly be taken seriously be anyone. Surely Platonists had been using the term ‘gnostic’ in discussions about the cognitive abilities of individuals and groups ever since the time of Plato. Indeed it is Hegesippus, a most unsophisticated writer, who is struck by the unfamiliar philosophical terminology, and comments on the unusualness of the original formulation.

Why then does Irenaeus continue to make reference to this or that sect’s self-identification as ‘gnostic’ with suspicion and disgust? This understanding is the proper starting point for any discussion of early Christian origins and has not been properly comprehended by scholars to this day. For what has been ignored by most is the fact that Irenaeus’s placing of Matthew in the position of ‘first’ among the gospels is connected by his treatment of the term ‘gnostic’ with suspicion. Irenaeus is appealing his writing to an unsophisticated readership who thought they had some connection to Jewish or Aramaic traditions.

To this end, it is not the use of the term ‘gnostic’ by the various Platonist Christian groups which should draw our attention but rather the suspicion of Irenaeus and his audience to Greek education. The Marcionites no less than groups identified as specifically ‘gnostic’ undoubtedly drew from the same pool of technical philosophical terminology, yet it was only a smaller subset of groups (i.e. Valentinians, Carpocratians etc) who are condemned for being gnostic. The reason for this is plain – at the time Irenaeus was writing the Marcionites had already separated and become a distinct community, with its own ecclesiastical hierarchy. In other words, the groups and individuals Irenaeus identifies as 'gnostic' are the groups and individuals he and his readership interacted with and considered at least at one time 'brethren.'

This point is brought home quite forcefully in Peter Lampe's recent discussion of the period - i.e. up until the middle of the reign of Pope Victor (c. 192 CE), Valentinians were considered part of the Roman Church. It was Irenaeus who chased them out or forced them to give up their ways. But the reality is that at its core, Irenaeus's Against Heresies is about 'identifying' and 'refuting' those who have an exaggerated interest in the importance of cognitive learning - i.e. that only the enlightened go the best place in the afterlife. The reason for Irenaeus's hostility is equally discernible from the aforementioned discussion - Irenaeus is writing to unsophisticated cretins, the kind of people today who might listen to right-wing talk radio and share a similar suspicion of the ‘educated elite.’

This explains a lot about the attitude of our sources against these alternative faiths and why they are called ‘heresies.’ The term comes from the description of ‘schools of philosophy’ in ancient Greece. One early version of Irenaeus’s work is even called the ‘Philosophumena.’ So there is a clear anti-intellectual character to the attack against the believers in the supernatural Jesus which stems principally from suspicion about the value of knowledge versus faith.

It isn’t simply enough to say that the gnostics valued knowledge ‘too much.’ It is equally valid to argue that the orthodox were unduly suspicious of rational discourse, demonstrating that the tradition developed from the ranks of the rabble, individuals who were convinced by displays of magic, the supernatural etc. The traditional distinction between 'Jewish' and 'Greek' learning is equally deceptive given the fact that a synthesis of cultures is already displayed in Alexandria. Jews could absorb 'Greek philosophy' and still maintain their 'Jewishness.'

The key thing to see is that Irenaeus and his horde did not think so. They posited the existence of a 'pure' Christianity untouched by Greek learning - a proposition which may or may not be historically accurate. We just don't know enough about the origins of Christianity to affirm the claim that the gospel was established 'out of simplicity' rather than learning. The 'primitive Church' is a nice myth, one that was clearly promoted by Irenaeus. But was it true or - as we should suspect - one that developed from the anti-intellectual character of the community Irenaeus appealed his message? This is the ultimate question.


There are many curious things about earliest Christianity. Perhaps the most unusual is the unusual attitude that was developed in the late second century toward ‘knowledge falsely so-called’ by the men who followed Irenaeus in particular. Jesus, whoever or whatever he was, accomplished very little in his lifetime. Unlike truly great men like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar there were no monuments or historical legacies to explain where his greatness lay. The tangible legacy associated with Jesus is his teachings and the mystery religion which developed from them.

It is unusual then to find Irenaeus arguing essentially that knowledge was a dangerous thing, something which needed to be controlled and censored. The heretical position was rather straight forward. They taught that this knowledge that Jesus brought “has not been openly divulged, because all are not capable of receiving it, but has been mystically revealed by the Saviour through means of parables to those qualified for understanding it.” Moreover they argues that “the consummation of all things will take place when all that is spiritual has been formed and perfected by knowledge; and by this they mean spiritual men who have attained to the perfect knowledge of God, and been initiated into these mysteries by Wisdom. And they represent themselves to be these persons.”

Pretty straightforward right? Open the pages of any gospel and you find enigmatic sayings which require explanation. The heretics suggested that Jesus had established a priesthood specifically for the purpose of explaining these things, pointing people in the direction of being initiated into the sacred mysteries he established. This is what Jesus wanted – or so it would appear. Yet Irenaeus argues the exact opposite. He writes that these men:

boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.

Irenaeus’s point is that the gospels used by the heretics were corrupted for the purpose of reinforcing the mystical doctrines they espoused. The sayings appeared in a different order from the gospel gospels, new sayings were added, sentences and words were deleted or added all in order to create a very different portrait of Jesus .

Indeed Irenaeus likens the gospel to a mosaic, a picture made up of hundreds – if not thousands - of little stones. While the Catholic gospel arranges the stones to make Jesus appear as a great king, the heretical texts take the same stones – the stories, sentences and words that make up the true gospel – and rearrange them to make Jesus look like a slippery fox, saying one thing openly and another secretly. As Irenaeus notes “the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.”

This of course sounds very convincing. Irenaeus is constructing the ‘McDonald’s of spirituality - i.e. walk into the same store anywhere in the world you get the same basic menu. In fact when Irenaeus gets around to explaining what his ‘rule of truth’ is, a truth which he claims goes back to the apostles and ultimately Jesus – what we end up getting is a completely reactionary doctrine developed clearly against the pre-existent beliefs of the heresies. In other words, it is patently obvious that Irenaeus has studied the beliefs of his enemies in quite detailed terms and has developed ‘the real beliefs of Jesus’ in opposition to those philosophical doctrines.

We see the very same thing within the Roman Church before the coming of Irenaeus. As we will demonstrate in our next chapter the Valentinians clearly saw themselves as occupying a priestly rank within the Christian community. Irenaeus’s efforts ‘expose the errors of their beliefs’ isn’t anything close to being a ‘scientific effort’ to report on the ‘beliefs and practices’ of alternative faiths.’ It really amounts to be a justification on the part of Irenaeus to justify his stripping them of their power and traditional order rank within the Roman Christian community.

Irenaeus must have tapped into at some popular resentment against the rule of these ‘elite.’ But at the same time we must also see this effort in the greater context of a philosophical challenge to Palestinian religious forms in the age. Christianity was not the only Palestinian religion to experience a complete gutting of their priestly classes. The Samaritans experienced a similar transformation – albeit at the hands of the Imperial government – in the same period that most Christians were suffering but Irenaeus’s newly fashioned tradition was prospering – i.e. the age which began with the rule Commodus until Antoninus Severus.

Indeed we see a pattern emerge in where on the one hand, Palestinian religious forms which claimed to be compatible with Greek philosophy were severely punished and clearly lost power in the age of Commodus. On the other hand, ‘traditional forms’ of these religions – i.e. those who had no pretense of competing with the knowledge of the Greeks and governed themselves essentially as an ignorant superstition were spared and indeed prospered in this very same age. If the traditional Samaritan and Christian leadership were deposed at the end of Commodus’s reign, the new rabbinic tradition with its Mishnah and the new orthodoxy of Irenaeus based on a fourfold canon took advantage of the situation and consolidated its control over their respective communities.


One of the most original books ever written about early Christianity is Allen Brent’s The Imperial Cult and the Development of Church Order. Brent is one of the world’s leading experts on Patristic writings and Christian iconography. He has examined a number of sources starting with Luke-Acts of the New Testament canon for signs that Christianity eventually imitated imperial theology. In specific, the development of monarchical church order – that is a ‘monarchy,’ the rule of a single person - can be fruitfully viewed as the mirror image of, or as he puts it – a contra-cultural response to, imperial religiosity.

To put this in plain English, Brent sees a link between the theological and religious developments of the second and early third century and the growth of a stronger central (episcopal) power, in particular in the churches of the great metropolitan cities. His research makes clear that the Christian social construction of reality in the first centuries was fashioned in interaction with their pagan and imperial counterparts, the church order developing at an equal rate to and similarly with the priesthood of the imperial cult.

Where many critics have attacked Brent for going too far, a strong case can be made that he does not go far enough. He notes for instance that in many early texts such as those associated with the writings of Ignatius, the alleged bishop of Antioch at the beginning of the second century, there are strong signs of two contradictory voices speaking in the same text – one arguing for a divided church, another shouting on top of this original layer a call to arms to fight on behalf of the ecclesiastical monarchy.

While Brent doesn’t get too deeply involved in trying to resolve the schizophrenic nature of many of these early texts, the obvious explanation given what we see attested from other sources, is that the monarchical layer was added by a later hand. Lucian of Samosata for instance sarcastically speaks of Ignatius ‘sending couriers from the underworld’ to account for the constant revisions to the original text of his letters. It will be our contention then that our earliest source for many of these early Church Fathers – the late second century figure of Irenaeus – is in fact the most likely corruptor of this material, adding in details to make Christianity appear more favorable to its Imperial masters.

Indeed this is what Brent can’t possibly acknowledge and be taken seriously by his peers. The surviving gospels and early Christian writings have been systematically corrupted for a specific worldly purpose. It is not the case, as some conspiracy theories like to pretend, that the Imperial authorities literally dictated what Christian writers should writer. A better case can be made rather that those groups within Christianity, Judaism and pagans all vied to curry Imperial favor – i.e. those who went the furthest to please ‘the big boss’ ended up surviving and thriving in this extremely chaotic age.

We will limit our interest to one part of Brent’s study – the use of the term cosmocrator that is ‘world ruler.’ While Brent’s efforts culminate on the parallels between the reign of the Emperor Caracalla and the monarchian bishop of Rome Callixtus c. 221CE it is better to go back to the time of Commodus and Irenaeus thirty years earlier. Of course, the parallel here is not exact. Irenaeus was not a bishop of Rome; he was rather an advisor, a theologian, a thinker – we aren’t exactly sure what Irenaeus was or why he was so influential.

We are quite sure that Emperor Commodus, a man who reigned as world ruler from 180-192 CE, preserves one of the artistic representations of the cosmocrator concept that survives from antiquity. As Brent notes Commodus made invictu (= invincible) a component of the imperial title and had the sun God portrayed on his coins. Yet he was at once regarded as world ruler (cosmocrator), through whom shone the divinity of Sol Invictus (the Invincible Sun). This is demonstrated in a marble sculpture, an almost entirely intact bust of Commodus as Hercules found in the ruins of an imperial palace on the Esquiline.

In superb technical execution, the flabby debouched Emperor is reproduced with all the strength of Hercules, apples of the Hesperides in hand as a testimony to the deeds he has performed. And this entire bust of Imperator Caesar L. Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Pius Felix Sarmaticus Germanicus Maximus Britannicus Pacator Orbis Invictus Hercules Romanus Pontifex Maximus Pater Patriae rests on a pedestal as fine as lace — a symbolic portrait indeed. The bust pedestal comprises a heavenly orb encompassed by a zodiac, so that the Emperor appears as Cosmocrator.

Brent argues that the identification of the Emperor as cosmocrator ‘caused’ Christian to envision Christ in a similar way - i.e. part of a ‘counter-culture’ where their Lord was the only true world ruler. The identification may have been to represent this in late Church history, but this doesn’t explain the parallel development in all contemporary religious forms. For instance Rabbi Judah Hanasi, who flourished from the time of Commodus to Emperor Caracalla, introduced the Jewish liturgy. Indeed the cosmocrator motif into the Emet ve-yatsiv and incorporated into the Mishnah the position of Rabbi Joshua ben Korha, which maintained that the first two paragraphs of the Shema reflect respectively the acceptance of the authority of divine sovereignty and the acceptance of the authority of the commandments.

As has been noted by many studies of early Judaism the authors of the requirement of kingship in the blessing formulary were students of R. Judah Hanasi. In this cultural context the blessing should be understood as saying "Blessed are You, the Lord our God, king of the world. The emphasis on the God of Israel as the king of the world also appears in a passage of the New Year Amidah which awaits the day when all humanity will proclaim: "The Lord, God of Israel, is king and His kingship rules over everything.”

The reality is that there is nothing about the Christian use of cosmocrator that substantively different from what we see in Judaism or even paganism. As such it seems highly implausible to argue that any or every one of these faiths began appropriating Imperial language for the purpose of developing a ‘counter culture.’ Instead it seems far more reasonable to assume that the Emperor took the adoption of the cosmocrator motif as the acceptance of the Roman Emperor as a living representation of the divine ruler worshipped in each culture. In other words, it should be taken to represent an attempt at flattery and hypocrisy – in the most literal sense of the term - by factions within these all these separate religions, to solidify their hold on power within their respective communities.

Email with comments or questions.

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