Thursday, August 1, 2013

Flattery and Lies in the Early Church [Part Ten]


The point of all of this is that it raises questions about the Church that we were left with after the fifty years of Commodian-Severan influence. Is the ‘counter-culture’ interpretation of Brent the best way to explain the borrowing from Imperialism in the orthodoxy of Christianity and Judaism, or as we would suggest – was it simply imposed upon the various religious forms in order to assure their survival? There is one last pattern, perhaps the most important that we have to take a look at, and that is the role of prominent philosophers in the persecutions of the Commodian period. In other words, was the type of gathering embodied in Julia Domna’s philosophical ‘round table’ part of a broader effort to actively reshape religious culture?

It is important to note that when we hear that ‘sophists’ gathered at her table, that there is no equivalent in the modern world to a sophist. Indeed Barbara Levick on her book on Julia Domna notes there are “ rather there are a number of partial equivalents: inspirational preacher; television pundit; political adviser; mystic guru.” As she notes “The court was a magnet. The first occasion in the reign of Severus when men of culture are mentioned as being assembled at court is during the imperial tour of Africa, when the emperor gathered 'men of talent from all over the world'.” The list of men gathered in Julia Domna’s circle is quite interesting - Philostratus and Philiscus: the two historians Dio and Maximus; the three jurists Papinian, Ulpian, and Paulus; Antipater and Galen.

The group is generally regarded to have had an important political significance for the rule of Septimius Severus. Yet most of them have strong careers of service dating back to the time of Commodus. Galen was also the tutor of Commodus, and had long hung about Imperial courts. Philostratus was certainly familiar with the Emperor’s court but never mentions any of the excesses of Commodus in his writings. The list goes on and one. The successful among this class of men moved from Imperial court to Imperial court by means of flattery, receiving one of four chairs of philosophy in the Empire as reward for the rendering of good service.

One such philosopher who was rewarded for his good service in the reigns of Septimius Severus and Caracalla was the eminent Aristotelean commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias. He became the head of the Peripathetic School in Athens c. 198 – 200 CE but he is remembered by the Samaritan people in perpetuity for his role in the holocaust perpetrated by the Emperor Commodus against their people. The full entry in the Samaritan Chronicle reads:

After Eleazer, ‘Aqbun was High Priest for 23 years. ln the days of this ‘Aqbun, terrible hardships fell upon the Samaritans from Commodus the king — worse than anything that had befallen them from Hadrian. He forbade them to read the Torah; he closed the schools of learning and (forbade) all instruction in the Law. He bolted shut the Synagogues. The High Priests fled, The High Priests fled, as did the wise men, from the tyranny of Commodus the king on account of the great number whom he killed and crucified in every place.

The reason for this (persecution) was a debate that took place in his presence between Levi and a man from his (Commodus') community called Alexander Aphridisias, from Aphridisias, concerning the coming-into-being of the world. Alexander said that its Substance and Prime Matter were eternal and that the Creator only provided the Form and Accidents. Levi replied that Substance and Matter need an originator, just as Form and Accidents do. To this, Alexander retorted, "This would lead to a situation where the world would not be possible and where God would have no power to bring it into being. . For, if he had the power from the first, then before that it cannot have been possible. And yet, if before that it were impossible, this would be a restriction, and there can be no restriction on his power."

Levi said that the world was possible of existence ab aetemo and that no time could be conceived in which the coming-into-being of the world could not be conceived. "lf it were to be supposed that the world simply 'existed' without being created and it be tried to prove that this belongs to the realm of possibility, then this would be a figment of the imagination — an intellectual fiction — and the world would be insubstantial and immaterial. And if something were to exist such as Matter and Substance, then it would exist de se. This existence must be either possible or necessary. lf it were possible, then the argument would be as before. lf it were necessary, however, then it would share with the first Almighty One in eternal existence. And if it did thus share, it would not change either in toto or in paribus, for change is an effect and an effect presupposes an Agent. For the one thing cannot be both Matter and Agent under any aspect.

The debate between them dragged on, with argument and polemic . The situation reached the stage where the possibility of the Creator's "Speaking" was denied. And the Mission of the Messengers is (implicitly) denied by whoever denies that the trustworthy Message has been uttered .( 690) Perhaps more of the discourse of this question ought to have been given here. But I have related it as I found it, and as much as I could cope with.

The situation became such that Commodus took umbrage, and said, "These people have perverted our faith, and have maliciously watered down what our sect regards as traditional, and they have acted in a hostile manner towards us.” So, he stretched out his hands, and many of their wise men were burnt to death; and the eyes of some of them were put out with red-hot iron pokers. He wiped out a great number of people, taking the Books of Chronicles which they had, as well as the Hymns which used to be recited over the Offerings.

In his day Galen the Physician had been an instructor of Commodus . Commodus ordered that the flesh of swine should be sold in every place and that it should be used with all that was eaten and drunk, so as to defile the Samaritans. He also forbade the Samaritans to open a Synagogue for themselves to pray or to read (the Torah) in. Many of the priests fled as from the sword. He took 100 elderly men from among the Chiefs of the Samaritans, and said to them, "Worship the idols". They refused, so he had them burnt to death. He captured 40 priests and dipped a bunch of grapes in pigs' fat and said to them, "Eat it !" They refused, so he heated iron pokers in a fire until they became red-hot and then put them in their eyes. Then he captured another 40 and said to them, "Eat this bunch (of grapes)". They refused, so he crushed them under the stones of the wine press. Then he took 40 of the High Priests "Eat this bunch (of grapes)". They refused, so he had them flung from the top of the fortress and no one dared bury them

He crucified numbers of them, and (other) people he beheaded and the dogs ate their corpses. The Chiefs of the Empire said to him, "If you want all "these Samaritans to embrace our religion, and to bow down to images, then summon their High Priest ‘Aqbun, for he is their model. Compel him to bow down, and all the others will follow him". Now ‘Aqbun was an extremely wealthy man. They sought him, and out of fear he hid himself. They looked for him in the Mountains and in caves, but they did not succeed in finding him. So the king instructed his servants, "Confiscate his wealth and burn down his house.”

This they did, and in burning down his house, they burnt in it the Prayers, the Songs of Praise and the Hymns which used to be recited on the Sabbath and Festivals and which had been handed down from the days of Divine Grace. And it was said to the High Priest 'Akbon: "All that is yours has been taken and your house is burnt down". And he answered and said "All is from God and it belongs to God, and if they have obtained mastery over me and my abode, I submit myself to affliction and destruction but I will not disavow God nor Moses, His prophet, nor His law." So they seized his two sons and the King said to them: "Worship idols." And they said: "We will die, but we will not worship other than God the Merciful."

And they inserted sticks under their nails and they flayed them alive and they put them to death with all torture and they cast their corpses to the dogs; and they hanged on the walls of Nablus thirty-six priests and they did not take down their corpses until they fell of themselves. And in the days of this King Commodus (may God curse him) none taught his son the Torah, except one out of a thousand and two out of a myriad secretly. And Commodus ruled thirty-two years and he died (may God not have mercy on him).

The Samaritan Chronicler is clearly using multiple historical sources no longer available to us. But the testimony of the Samaritan persecutions dovetails perfectly with what we have reconstructed from Christian sources.

The Samaritan tradition was utterly transformed in the same way the Christian tradition was in Rome and elsewhere in the Empire. The starting point is always – philosophy. In other words, those traditions that resisted the incorporation of the cosmocrator concept into their liturgical practices just so happen to be the ones who suffered persecution and ultimately were marginalized over the course of the next hundred years of history in the Empire. Can we prove that the rabbinic tradition and Catholic Christianity thrived in the age that followed because they accepted the cosmocrator concept? No of course not. But if it was ‘coincidence’ that they willingly accommodated themselves to ‘the ruler of the world’ and ended up being socially relevant and Samaritanism and heretical Christianity ended up in ruins for their decision to resist, then we should perhaps have a second look at our definition of historical causality.

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