Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Part Three]


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 above the 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 of whom we will have a great deal to say later.

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 likely have 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, Valentinians were under the umbrella 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.  

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

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