Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Flattery and Lies in the Early Church [Part Eight]


The point of course here is that there is a fundamental difference between the heretics and the Catholic tradition. Everything we know about the heretical traditions points in the direction of a confrontation with the Emperor Commodus. It isn’t just the demonizing of the cosmocrator. We happen to know a little about the types of Christians who were punished under his reign. The short answer here is – it wasn’t the Catholics. As Eusebius notes “in the reign of Commodus, our condition became more favorable, and through the grace of God the churches throughout the entire world enjoyed peace, and the word of salvation was leading every soul, from every race of man to the devout worship of the God of the universe. So that now at Rome many who were highly distinguished for wealth and family turned with all their household and relatives unto their salvation.”

It is clear however that many Christians were martyred in the Commodian age and through the Severan period. Who are these Christians? The answer is clearly again that – they were heresies. The Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs from North Africa testify to their punishment for possessing “books and epistles of Paul, a just man.” A New Testament canon made up of only writings of Paul – indeed writings that go beyond mere ‘epistles’ – is clearly heretical. Eusebius confirms that in this age “those called Marcionites, from the heresy of Marcion, say that they have a multitude of martyrs for Christ.” Irenaeus seems to confirm the same fact but adds one important detail – he is actively helping the effort to track down and capture heretics.

The fox metaphor in Against Heresies is quite striking but rarely gets the attention deserved from scholarship. Irenaeus begins by noting that the Church is now filled with heretics who by “means of specious and plausible words, they cunningly allure the simple-minded to inquire into their system; but they nevertheless clumsily destroy them.” These evil men promote “blasphemous and impious opinions” about the Creator and so, Irenaeus warns that lest “some should be carried off, even as sheep are by wolves” he has deemed it to be his duty – after having himself “acquainted with their tenets through personal intercourse with some of them” - to develop a compendium of heretical groups and opinions.

The ‘heretics’ are accused of mixing philosophy and mythmaking with the sayings of the Lord from the gospel. But in order to ‘detect and overthrow’ this false knowledge, it has to be said, Irenaeus himself had to be a philosopher himself. Indeed at one point in his discussion, seeming to copy the opinions of the a contemporary pagan critic of Christianity, Irenaeus argues that these heretics stole their ideas from the philosopher Plato but ultimately misrepresented his ideas. Plato, it is said, was an exponent of monarchism – a theme which Brent demonstrates was current in contemporary neo-Platonic thought. Yet Irenaeus is now doing it from the perspective of ‘saving Christianity.’

“The Father” Irenaeus writes “is Lord, and Judge, and the Just One, and Ruler over all (pantocrator) … He saves those whom He should save, and judges those worthy of judgment. Neither does He show Himself unmercifully just; for His goodness, no doubt, goes on before, and takes precedency.” This is the god of Plato, Irenaeus argues, and the philosopher is “proved to be more religious than these men, for he allowed that the same God was both just and good, having power over all things, and Himself executing judgment.” Irenaeus goes on to cite various passages from the writings of the philosopher to prove his point.

Yet the heretics developing a system of their own – one that was not taught, Irenaeus argues, by the Lord nor his apostles – “gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand … adapting 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. “ They transfer passages in the manner of stones from a mosaic so that “the beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems” to make them fit together into the form of fox.

The point then is that Jesus is identified to be one of the heretics. He is a fox – a shrewd, clever thief who, in the parables of the age, always manages to deceive the true king of nature, the lion. Yet Irenaeus argues that “the jewels” which make up this gospel mosiac “which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king” had been rearranged to the “miserable likeness of the fox” through the mixing together of “old wives' fables” and “by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions.” Indeed Irenaeus zeroes in on the exact process of how this falsifying of the gospel took place, and demonstrates himself to be a master at the very same art in the process.

From the Latin word for "patchwork," the cento (or collage poem) is a poetic form made up of lines from poems by other poets. The term comes from the Latin cento, a cloak made of patches. This poetic skill seems to have originated from rearranging the lines in Homer – making a patchwork of unrelated phrases and sentences – in order to make it seem the author was saying something he never wrote or even imagined. So the heretics are said to support their opinions from ‘false gospels’ according to Irenaeus “like those who bring forward any kind of hypothesis they fancy, and then endeavour to support them out of the poems of Homer, so that the ignorant imagine that Homer actually composed the verses bearing upon that hypothesis, which has, in fact, been but newly constructed.”

The fact however that Irenaeus demonstrates his skill at creating a cento right before our eyes in the material that follows, naturally raises the question – which gospel is the cento and which the original? In other words, we have two gospel traditions – one which Irenaeus used to support the idea that Jesus was cosmocrator or pantocrator, the other that Jesus was a phantasmic ‘fox’ coming to the world as a stranger. Irenaeus in effect says – look I can make a cento just like they can. But it is not as if the heretics admitted that they were as skillful as Irenaeus.

Indeed upon close inspection Irenaeus’s argument is even more specific to the late second century environment that we might realize. After assembling his cento drawn from wholly separate passages in the Illiad and Odyssey he notes:

Now, what simple-minded man, I ask, would not be led away by such verses as these to think that Homer actually framed them so with reference to the subject indicated? But he who is acquainted with the Homeric writings will recognise the verses indeed, but not the subject to which they are applied, as knowing that some of them were spoken of Ulysses, others of Hercules himself, others still of Priam, and others again of Menelaus and Agamemnon. But if he takes them and restores each of them to its proper position, he at once destroys the narrative in question.

In other words, when we apply this argument to the very shape of the gospel, Irenaeus says quite specifically that the heretics only admit one gospel but the Catholic retain the four original sources that the single ‘super gospel’ of the heretics drew from.

The only way that Christianity can combat the heresies is to acknowledge the ‘rule of truth’ – a creed, said by Irenaeus to have been passed down from the apostles of Christ “received by means of baptism.” This confession of faith will help the believer “recognise the names, the expressions, and the parables taken from the Scriptures” – i.e. the individual “gems” which have been ‘centonized’ by the heretics in their text and thus will allow him to recognize the proper context of the gospel or in Irenaeus’s words – “he will certainly not receive the fox instead of the likeness of the king. But when he has restored every one of the expressions quoted to its proper position, and has fitted it to the body of the truth, he will lay bare, and prove to be without any foundation, the figment of these heretics.”

The implication of Irenaeus’s argument of course is that the heretics falsely manufactured a ‘fox’ Jesus in their ‘fox’ gospel because they themselves were foxes. They took countless ‘gems’ from the original monarchical gospels Irenaeus’s possession and then rearranged them so as to create a Jesus, gospel and faith after their own image. Irenaeus saw it as his duty, as we just noted, to serve the cosmocrator by exterminating all these ‘foxes’ from the world:

I have laboured to bring forward, and make clearly manifest, the utterly ill-conditioned carcase of this miserable little fox. For there will not now be need of many words to overturn their system of doctrine, when it has been made manifest to all. It is as when, on a beast hiding itself in a wood, and by rushing forth from it is in the habit of destroying multitudes, one who beats round the wood and thoroughly explores it, so as to compel the animal to break cover, does not strive to capture it, seeing that it is truly a ferocious beast; but those present can then watch and avoid its assaults, and can cast darts at it from all sides, and wound it, and finally slay that destructive brute … I shall furnish means for overthrowing them, by meeting all their opinions in the order in which they have been described, that I may not only expose the wild beast to view, but may inflict wounds upon it from every side.

So it is that, not only do we find the Commodian period a golden age for the Irenaeus’s church – one in which Irenaeus, sitting in the Imperial court, goes so far as to declare is comparable to the entry into the Promised Land. It just so happens to be an age where heretics were being hunted down and ‘slaughtered’ – metaphorically or otherwise – by their own brethren, in service to the cosmocrator.

As Irenaeus declares in his own voice that just as Joseph served Pharaoh members of the ‘great Church’ presently serve Commodus:

And as to those believing ones who are in the royal palace, do they not derive the utensils they employ from the property which belongs to Caesar; and to those who have not, does not each one of these [Christians] give according to his ability? The Egyptians were debtors to the [Jewish] people, not alone as to property, but as their very lives, because of the kindness of the patriarch Joseph in former times; but in what way are the heathen debtors to us, from whom we receive both gain and profit? Whatsoever they amass with labour, these things do we make use of without labour, although we are in the faith.

… In what way, then, did [the Israelites] act unjustly, if out of many things they took a few, they who might have possessed much property had they not served them, and might have gone forth wealthy, while, in fact, by receiving only a very insignificant recompense for their heavy servitude, they went away poor? It is just as if any free man, being forcibly carried away by another, and serving him for many years, and increasing his substance, should be thought, when he ultimately obtains some support, to possess some small portion of his [master's] property, but should in reality depart, having obtained only a little as the result of his own great labours, and out of vast possessions which have been acquired, and this should be made by any one a subject of accusation against him, as if he had not acted properly.

… And [these objectors] allege that [the Israelites] acted dishonestly, because, for-sooth, they took away for the recompense of their labours, as I have observed, unstamped gold and silver in a few vessels; while they say that they themselves (for lot truth be spoken, although to some it may seem ridiculous) do act honestly, when they carry away in their girdles from the labours of others, coined gold, and silver, and brass, with Caesar's inscription and image upon it.

If, however, a comparison be instituted between us and them, [I would ask] which party shall seem to have received [their worldly goods] in the fairer manner? Will it be the [Jewish] people, [who took] from the Egyptians, who were at all points their debtors; or we, [who receive property] from the Romans and other nations, who are under no similar obligation to us? Yea, moreover, through their instrumentality the world is at peace, and we walk on the highways without fear, and sail where we will. Therefore, against men of this kind (namely, the heretics) the word of the Lord applies, which says: "Thou hypocrite, first cast the beam out of thine eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote out of thy brother's eye." For if he who lays these things to thy charge, and glories in his own wisdom, has been separated from the company of the Gentiles, and possesses nothing [derived from] other people's goods, but is literally naked, and barefoot, and dwells homeless among the mountains, as any of those animals do which feed on grass, he will stand excused [in using such language], as being ignorant of the necessities of our mode of life. But if he do partake of what, in the opinion of men, is the property of others, and if [at the same time] he runs down their type, he proves himself most unjust, turning this kind of accusation against himself. For he will be found carrying about property not belonging to him, and coveting goods which are not his.

In point of fact then, Irenaeus’s point is quite clear – we are all whores of Caesar, we all sit at the Imperial court and derive benefit from our association with the cosmocrator. It is dishonest and hypocritical to point figures. It is best to go along for the ride and give a percentage of the ‘mammon of unrighteousness’ to the poor.

Already with Irenaeus then, the ritualized ‘charity’ of the bourgeois manifests itself in plain view ...

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