Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Flattery and Lies in Early Christianity [Part Six]


It is difficult to take anything away from the brilliance of Brent’s work. His insight is penetrating, and the book successfully manages to demonstrate an overall pattern of Imperial influence over the shape of religion of the Roman state. Yet it was during the reign of Commodus – not Septimius Severus – that the paradigm used throughout the Severan dynasty. For instance with respect to Emperors being called ‘Lord’ it is sometimes contended on the basis of official inscriptions, that Severus was the first Roman emperor to be commonly called 'dominus noster' or the same with respect to kurios – i.e. that Caligula, Nero and Domitian had, in their time, claimed such a title, and Antoninus had been called 'Kyrios' in some Eastern provinces; yet for none of them did the title 'Lord' become a permanent appellation until Commodus’s successor.

Yet the reality is that Commodus was the first to be addressed as ‘our Lord’ – i.e. an inscribed altar from Dura Europos on the Euphrates shows that Commodus's titles included Pacator Orbis (pacifier of the world) and Dominus Noster (Our Lord). Moreover with respect to the use of kurios Carlos Nurena has There is also an intriguing piece of evidence from Dio. Complaining about Commodus' treatment of senators in the amphitheater, Dio writes, “For in addition to other things, we used to shout out whatever we were commanded, especially the following words continuously: 'you are master (kurios) and you are first and you are of all men most fortunate'.”

As such the parallels between the Severan Emperors and Commodus here and elsewhere show clearly that the latter borrowed from the former. With specific reference to the cosmocrator concept it is worth noting that McCann in her highly influential study of Severus Septimius notes that his use of this title was developed principally through his identification as Hercules – the god most associated with Commodus only a few years earlier. It was through this demigod that Severus became ‘cosmocrator of the lower world’ and there are a half a dozen examples of Severus literally carving out the name ‘Commodus’ from the bases of statues portraying Hercules.

What makes this so significant is that the Marcionite and Valentinian efforts to depreciate the cosmocrator during the reign of Commodus must have contributed to their downfall. The Valentinians called the Devil Cosmocrator “and the demons, and the angels, and every wicked spiritual being that exists, found the source of their existence” in him. Indeed he is quite specifically the ruler of the lower world in the Herculean sense – “their mother dwells in that place which is above the heavens, that is, in the intermediate abode; the Demiurge in the heavenly place, that is, in the hebdomad; but the Cosmocrator in this our world.”

To this end it would not be hard to see that this Cosmocrator who is the son of the Creator is at once a parallel to the Catholic understanding of Jesus – who like him is son of the Creator. Indeed Irenaeus does specifically identify God and his chosen man as ‘lord of the world’ in Proof of the Apostolic Preaching - “like God man was created free and lord of the world including its angels.” Irenaeus’s understanding here could certainly leave open the worship of the Emperor as fulfilling his very purpose in creating Adam and establishing Jesus for this very purpose – “now having made man lord of the earth and all things in it, He secretly appointed him lord also of those who were servants in it. They however were in their perfection; but the lord, that is, man, was (but) small; for he was a child; and it was necessary that he should grow, and so come to (his) perfection.”

We must remember that at the time Irenaeus was developing his doctrine that Jesus was above all else ‘the Lord’ the heretics vehemently denied this association – not because they hated Commodus per se but because Christianity had developed from a long tradition within Judaism which identified each divine name with a separate power in heaven. So it is that that we hear Philo argue – long before Commodus or the Severan Emperors that when Jacob saw the divine being hanging on the heavenly ladder that he switched gods afterwards from ‘the Lord’ (= Yahweh) to ‘God’ (= Elohim), from that of power and authority – ‘the god of bad men’ as he calls him – to the power of love and kindness or ‘the god Chrestos’ as he says somewhere else.

So we read throughout the writings of Philo the very same interpretation of Genesis chapter 35:

This also Jacob, the practiser of virtue, asked at the end of his most holy prayers. For he said, "And the Lord shall be to me as God." Which is equivalent to: He will no longer display towards me the despotic power of his absolute authority, but rather the beneficent influence of his universally propitious and saving power, utterly removing the fear with which he is regarded as a master, and filling the soul with affection and benevolence as felt towards a benefactor.

And again in another work:

therefore God is the name of the beneficent power, and Lord is the title of the royal power. What then can any one call a more ancient and important good, than to be thought worthy to meet with unmixed and unalloyed beneficence? And what can be less valuable than to receive a mixture of authority and liberality? And it appears to me that it was because the practiser of virtue saw that he uttered that most admirable prayer that, "the Lord might be to him as God;" (Gen 28:21) for he desired no longer to stand in awe of him as a governor, but to honour and love him as a benefactor.

In other words, long before the Christian heretics there was an understanding that Chrestos represented a power higher than the Lord of this world. The Jews of this and previous ages may have developed this conception for political purposes. The point is simply that by the time of the reforms at the time of Commodus, they had willingly abandoned this heritage in order to comfort Commodus, subjecting themselves solely to the cosmocrator.

There must certainly have been Jewish heretics who continued to secretly transmit the original beliefs regarding a power higher than the Lord of the world. We will bring forward a few of them momentarily. Yet the point about the corruption of Judaism under Commodus only serves to reinforce why Irenaeus represents a similar process within Christianity at the expense of groups and individuals who espoused traditional beliefs in that community. Yes to be certain Irenaeus eagerly reports that the heretics said that the cosmocrator was the Devil the opponent to Jesus. He says that the Marcionite tradition understood Jesus to be “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 … 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.”

It wouldn’t very difficult at all to turn around that antinomianism at the court of Commodus into something seditious – and certainly pagan writers like Celsus did exactly this. Yet we should also note that at least some early Christian writers have preserved the context for the belief in the power above the cosmocrator and it turns out to be derived from something other than hatred for the Emperor. Clement of Alexandria, writing at the very same time as Irenaeus demonstrates that Christianity appropriated the Jewish understanding of Philo with respect to Jacob’s experience at Bethel:

It is essential, certainly, that the providence which manages all, be both supreme and good. For it is the power of both that dispenses salvation -- the one correcting by punishment, as supreme, the other showing kindness in the exercise of beneficence, as a benefactor. It is in your power not to be a son of disobedience, but to pass from darkness to life, and lending your ear to wisdom, to be the legal slave of God, in the first instance, and then to become a faithful servant, fearing the Lord God. And if one ascend higher, he is enrolled among the sons. But when "love (agape) covers the multitude of sins," by the consummation of the blessed hope, then may we welcome him as one who has been enriched in love, and received into the elect adoption, which is called the beloved of God, while he chants the prayer, saying, "Let the Lord be my God.”

In other words, Irenaeus undoubtedly manipulated, misrepresented and ultimately took advantage of the fact that the earliest Christians believed there was a power above the ruler of the world. They all happened to live through the rule of an extremely paranoid young Emperor.

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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