Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Jesus as Roman Demi-God [Part Eight]


In a strange way our conversation has now come back full circle to the silliest part of our previous discussion. We have to now ask ourselves why we must assume that Polycarp was a good guy after all?   Why does everything come down to the question of who was a more faithful to his original ‘principles’? What if Polycarp had no principles to begin with? In other words, this saint may well have been a sinner. After all, as we have already demonstrated Polycarp, Florinus and Irenaeus seemed to hang around Imperial courts. Hardly the place you’d expect to find a virtuous man or a group of saints. What if the only principle that Polycarp instilled in his disciples was how to flatter powerful and influential figures? What if this was all there really was to Irenaeus and Florinus’s historical dispute?

We shouldn’t be unduly cynical but it is difficult to find any other substance to the fight between these two men. Indeed one might even argue that Against Heresies was developed for the very purpose of discrediting Florinus. Why else would Book One begin with the Valentinians – a sect Florinus is later associated – even though Simon and countless others preceded these men? Florinus was the most influential ‘Valentinian’ in history and yet his name isn’t even mentioned in the pages of this work. The answer is clearly – Irenaeus is relentlessly undermining the original typologists of Rome.

Just as Irenaeus would later use ‘the Old Testament’ as the source for his typologies, the previous generation of students of Polycarp used myths passed on by word of mouth. As Irenaeus complains over and over again in Book Four – “it is congruous that those earthly things, indeed, which are spread all around us, should be types of the celestial.” In other words, the narrative of the gospel is not supposed to be understood to be typical of the myths of the gnostics. For example at another point in the same book Irenaeus again complains that these men “say that the Lord's passion is a type of the extension of the Christ above.” In other words it points to a process or an event in the highest heavens.

Irenaeus goes on to say that Florinus’s group “are refuted in the other particulars [of the Lord's passion], for they have no semblance of a type to show with regard to them. For when did the Christ above have vinegar and gall given him to drink? Or when was his raiment parted? Or when was he pierced, and blood and water came forth? Or when did he sweat great drops of blood? And [the same may be demanded] as to the other particulars which happened to the Lord, of which the prophets have spoken.” In other words, it isn’t that Irenaeus is saying that the gospel narrative isn’t ‘typical’ – that it doesn’t point to – something else.  Yet what was it that Irenaeus thought all the signs in the gospel pointed to?

To answer this question we have to go back to that famous statement from Polycarp that we saw Irenaeus use to glorying in the presence of many Christians in the Imperial court – “if God had not accorded this in the typical exodus, no one could now be saved in our true exodus.” The idea here is clearly that Polycarp sanctioned ‘something’ as being like the escape of Israelites from Egypt. But what? It is worth noting that Irenaeus immediately adds as a clarification the statement “that is, in the faith in which we have been established, and by which we have been brought forth from among the number of the Gentiles.” How is the conversion of Gentiles in Rome ‘like’ the Exodus? The answer is found in another statement in the same book.

A little earlier in Book Four Irenaeus examines the ‘typology’ of the description of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Genesis. Regarding the latter he says that “if anyone will look into Jacob's actions, he shall find them not destitute of meaning, but full of import with regard to the dispensations.” The struggle of Jacob and Esau is typical of Jesus’s birth Irenaeus alleges because “in Christ every blessing [is summed up], and therefore the latter people has snatched away the blessings of the former from the Father, just as Jacob took away the blessing of this Esau. For which cause his brother suffered the plots and persecutions of a brother, just as the Church suffers this self-same thing from the Jews. In a foreign country were the twelve tribes born, the race of Israel, inasmuch as Christ was also, in a strange country, to generate the twelve-pillared foundation of the Church.”

The language here is very similar to the ‘typical Exodus’ material insofar as Christianity is now said to be established and derive great wealth from ‘strangers’ – i.e. non-believers. In that section we read it said that contemporary Christians who hang out in the Imperial court “are proved to be righteous by whatsoever else we do well, redeeming, as it were, our property from strange hands … For whatsoever we acquired from unrighteousness when we were heathen, we are proved righteous, when we have become believers, by applying it to the Lord's advantage.” But the idea again is that according to Irenaeus’s understanding of typology, the gospel narrative was typical – not of gnostic myths – but the establishment of Christianity in Rome and in particular, the Imperial court.

We can see this a little clearer when we notice that in the middle of these references to Polycarp in Book Four there aretwo statements which seem to come directly from the mouth of the followers of Florinus. As Irenaeus begins to explain how the Church coming to the Imperial court is like the Israelites coming to the Promised Land, the Florinians say “But God hardened the heart of Pharaoh and of his servants” – thus contradicting the claim of a typology because the scriptures foretell that the chosen people will be rejected by the king as Florinus was historical rejected. Moreover as we have already seen Irenaeus receiving untold wealth from Caesar is contradicted by the typology of Exodus where God found fault with the Israelites “because the people did, by God's command, upon the eve of their departure, take vessels of all kinds and raiment from the Egyptians." This is an indirect allusion to the Golden Calf incident, as the Israelites used the Egyptian gold to build this idol.

Indeed these words and those which follow really only make sense if we imagine Irenaeus to be engaged in a pretend debate with Florinus and his circle. These imaginary objections that are thrown up from time to time are clear indications that the person or people Irenaeus has in mind have learned about typologies from Polycarp. In other words, they can’t be Marcionites. To answer the objections Irenaeus proceeds to ‘bring up things Polycarp said’ – in the case of the last objection, that Polycarp said ‘this is the typical Exodus’ and moreover “with respect to those misdeeds for which the Scriptures themselves blame the patriarchs and prophets, we ought not to inveigh against them, nor become like Ham, who ridiculed the shame of his father, and so fell under a curse; but we should give thanks to God in their behalf, inasmuch as their sins have been forgiven them through the advent of our Lord; for He said that they gave thanks [for us], and gloried in our salvation.'

Clearly then there can be no doubt that Irenaeus has Florinus – not Marcion – in mind when he developed this long section of text. His purpose is equally clear. It isn’t simply a manner of justifying a new Israel among the Gentiles but one whose power is consolidated in Rome. This is above all else an illiterate Church. Throughout the various books that make up Against Heresies Irenaeus boasts about the intellectual short comings of his community. Yet Book Four marks a significant change over the other texts – and where each book in the series developed in chronological succession. For Book Four clearly marks a period of ascendance for Irenaeus. He is no longer the bitter critic of other traditions in Rome but has now realized his own ambitions of spiritual and political power.

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