Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Part Four]


The same problem arises when we consider the claim of Irenaeus and his part to represent ‘the true Church.’ Irenaeus only uses the term ‘Christian’ a handful of times in his writings. Never invokes the term ‘Christianity’ but obsesses instead over the term ‘Church’ (Ecclesia). The break with the heresies is whether or not they claim to belong to the Church. There are many signs in his writings that a break has taken place – one as we have noted Irenaeus was actively involved in creating.

In the middle of his discussion of the Valentinian heresy Irenaeus makes reference to a belief among the sectarians that “we of the Church” are ‘animal men’ – a subordinate class of human beings who do not possess the cognitive ability (= gnostikos) to understand the truth of Christianity and its writings. It is unclear here whether again Irenaeus is actually citing something said by Valentinians about another class of Christian or indeed a personal insult thrown at him by his rival Florinus and then applied to the Church as a whole.

Similarly there is the statement in what follows that “some of the Valentinians” are “in the habit of defiling those women they teach … as has frequently been confessed by those women who have been led astray by certain of them, on their returning to the Church of God, and acknowledging this along with the rest of their errors.” Leaving the question of whether Valentinians were rapists for the moment, it is clear again that at least according to Irenaeus’s conception, it is impossible to be a Valentinian and a member of the Church. The women will only be allowed back into the fold if they confess all of their sins – in this case especially ‘sins of faith.’

The Valentinians themselves are said to argue that the Demiurge looks after the affairs of the Church (Adv Haer 7.4) But further more interpret a particular saying in the writings of St Paul to have special significance for understanding their place in the Christian community:

And that the Saviour received first-fruits of those whom He was to save, Paul declared when he said, "And if the first-fruits be holy, the lump is also holy," teaching that the expression "first- fruits" denoted that which is spiritual, but that "the lump" meant us, that is, the animal Church, the lump of which they say He assumed, and blended it with Himself, inasmuch as He is "the leaven." (Adv Haer 1.8.3)

This is a most interesting passage as comes from the mouth of the Valentinians themselves. There are series of terms here that are taken from the Book of Exodus which are made to apply to two different classes within the Christian body.

The first is what is here translated here ‘first fruits’ or aparche. This is the usual Greek translation of the Hebrew term ‘reshit’ or ‘of the head,’ ‘of the beginning’ or 'of the first.'  For instance, reshit is the first word in the Pentateuch – i.e. ‘in the beginning’ (= be-reshit) so one can already see the strong possibility that something deeply significant about this terminology is about to manifest itself. The plain meaning of the term when applied to a class of people is that they were ‘rulers’ within the Church. In other words, just as we read in Number 24:20 ‘Amalek was of the head (reshit) of nations’ so much the spiritual class, the so-called ‘gnostics’ have been in the Roman Church before Irenaeus’s expulsion of them later in the reign of Victor.

The second reference phurama is the specific term used by the Book of Exodus to describe the mixed dough in the hands of the Israelites before they leave Egypt:

The Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the country. "For otherwise," they said, "we will all die!" So the people took their phurama before the yeast was added, and carried it on their shoulders in kneading troughs wrapped in clothing. The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The LORD had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.

It would seem that phurama or massa in Latin represented a class of people who were not yet perfect – and to follow the typical Christian interpretation of the Exodus narrative – and thus needed ‘leaven’ (i.e. gnosis) to be added to them before being allowed to enter the Promised Land (= the kingdom of God). This understanding seems to be reinforced in the early baptism rites with milk and honey being given to the catechumen after the completion of the initiation (= Ex 3:8 “I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey”).

The point of course is that it is Paul who indicates the existence of two classes of individuals and the notion that the ‘heads’ of the community need to be holy in order to keep the rest of the body holy. The Valentinians applied this saying to themselves insofar as they were the tradition leadership of the Roman community, something reinforced by Florinus’s standing with Victor before the arrival of Irenaeus. The implication of all of this is clearly that Irenaeus cut off the head of the traditional leadership in Rome to transplant his ideas of ‘orthodoxy’ in the community. We just haven’t yet figured out how this accomplished or why it was so widely accepted.

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