Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Jesus as Roman Demi-God [Part Eighteen]


There are almost two millennia that separate us from the Imperial court of Commodus. It is not surprising then that we have such a difficult time making sense of what happened in that age. Contemporary historians were not kind to Commodus. Nevertheless in recent times there has been something of a revaluation of his historical significance. Late Christian historians speak of his piety so it is difficult to know what to make of the Emperor’s association with Hercules. Could it be that Commodus was actually sincerely devoted to this popular demi-god? What was it that he saw in the son of Zeus and Alcmene?

Ancient writers attribute his Hercules obsession to his inclination to the profession of a gladiator, an explanation accepted by most modern historians. According to this view, Hercules was for Commodus the great hero of sport, the great killer of men and animals, the patron of gladiators. One could reasonably well argue that the reverse is actually truer: Commodus became a gladiator because he wanted to imitate and to equal the god of his choice, not vice-versa. Indeed we should argue that his devotion to Hercules may be traced back much earlier than his interest in blood sports.

While many Roman Emperors before him partook in the cult of Hercules Commodus does not seem to have been satisfied with being the mere protege of Hercules, nor with the prospect of apotheosis after death. Commodus desired while still alive to be Hercules himself a god, the incarnation, the epiphany of Hercules on earth. Thus he allowed himself to be designated Hercules Romanus, to use the emblems of Hercules, and to appear as the god himself in inscriptions and on coins. The objects found in Britain, described above, fit in admirably with all that is known of this characteristic of Commodus, and have thus an importance more than local.

A passage in Dracontius from the end of the 5th century describes Commodus in a very different way from Dio's evil tyrant – “Another princeps, the poet Commodus Augustus, a good man through his pietas, states in a short discourse: “A good advice, teachers, repeat after me: be good in life if you want to be a god.” It is undoubtedly ‘Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius’ who is referred to here - the passage cannot be explained away by referring to an error. Commodus is presented as an imperial exemplum bonum, complementing a group which further constituted Caesar, Augustus and Titus. According to Dracontius, the last Antonine ‘set to verse the expectation that he would become a god, and urged other leaders to follow his example of goodness’. The passage may be linked to a more positive reputation of Commodus in the provinces, or to the emperor’s tolerant attitude towards Christianity - leading to a slightly more friendly historiography.

Jordanes’ and Malalas’ descriptions of Commodus are much more positive, and though they are not the most trustworthy of sources, they do testify to a tradition in which Commodus was perceived as a good emperor, at least in the provinces, and one who deserved divinity.123 It is, finally, noticeable that Malalas (12.1; 283) explicitly states that Commodus was an ‘avid builder and religious man (hieros)’. Not only is the similarity to Dracontius’ pietate bonus striking, there is also an almost direct opposition to senatorial criticism, which condemned both Commodus’ religious attitude, and his lack of building activities.

While it may be argued that Commodus failed in his quest to become divine, it may well be the key to unlock how Christians won him over. One can argue that Irenaeus and company tapped into his passion and his ambition to become a god and provided him with a group willing to believe he was the second coming of Christ. What’s more the Hercules, ruler of the lower world paradigm continued to be influential for thirty more years after the death of Commodus during the rule of the early Severan Emperors. Thus the Irenaean interest in defining Jesus in Herculean terms – i.e. the Virgin Birth – had a sympathetic audience in the Imperial court.

There’s at least one more curious reference to Hercules in the writings of Irenaeus. As we mentioned earlier, the Church Father argued that the heretics shifted around the sayings of the four gospels into one ‘cento gospel.’ We’ve already tackled one side to this curious testimony. What we didn’t mention is that what Irenaeus presents us with is a cento poem about Hercules that presents the demigod in terms that are strongly reminiscent of Christ:

Thus speaking, he sent forth from the house, deeply groaning (Od. x. 76)
The man Hercules, conversant with mighty deeds (Od. xxi. 26)
Eurystheus, son of Sthenelos, of the seed of Perseus (I1. xix. 123)
To bring from Erebus the dog of hateful Pluto (II. vii. 368)
And he came forth like a mountain lion, haughty in his strength (Od. vi. 130)
Rapidly going through the city, while all his friends followed (II. xxiv. 327)
Both maidens and youth, and patient old men (Od. xi. 38)
Lamenting him with pity as destined for death (I1. xxiv. 328)
But Mercury and gleaming-eyed Minerva escorted him (I1. xi. 626)
For she knew well in her own mind the cares of her brother (I. ii. 409)

After citing the work Irenaeus adds "What simple minded person would not be misled by these verses and would not think Homer composed them in this way with such a sense (hypothesis)? Whoever is acquainted with Homer will recognize the verses but not the sense (hypothesis) given to them, knowing that certain ones were spoken of Odysseus, some of Hercules, others of Priam, and others of Menelaus and Agammemnon"

Again, the illustration is to demonstrate again that the heretics have corrupted the gospel as a Homer cento. Yet in the process Irenaeus has demonstrated his own adeptness at this kind of literary falsification – the same kind assumed to have created the four gospels in a tenth-century Arabic text by the Mu‛tazilite theologian ‛Abd al-Jabbar, “The Establishment of Proofs for the Prophethood of Our Master Mohammed which has been long derived from a much earlier Christian source. Scholarly opinion is split on whether Irenaeus wrote the verse or took it from a Valentinian opponent. Nevertheless it is worth noting that he never says it was produced by his enemies.

Dominic Unger provides us with a detailed summary of opinion on the authorship of the cento. Rousseau observed that some have thought Irenaeus himself wrote this cento, notably H. Ziegler, Irenaus der Bischof von Lyon (Berlin 1871) 17. J. By contrast Danielou, The Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture, vol. 2 of A History of Early Christian Doctrine before the Council of Nicaea, trans. JA Baker (London and Philadelphia 1973) 85, thinks that Valentinus himself composed this cento and that he gave it an allegorical meaning in reference to the Gnostic tenets, particularly in regard to the sending of Savior who is surrounded by angels and accompanied by Christ and the Holy Spirit. RL Wilken, "The Homeric Cento in Irenaeus, 'Adversus haereses' I,9,4," VC 21 (1967) 25-33, doubts that Valentinus wrote it and gave it this alleged allegorical meaning, since Irenaeus gives no such indication, and he quickly forgets about the cento. He wished merely to show how the Gnostics misinterpret Scripture by distorting the passages when lifting them from their context. Benoit 6o-61, flatly denies that Irenaeus wrote this cento.

So let’s take a careful look at what is being said. Hercules, the subject of lines one and two, is sent by Eurystheus to deliver Pluto's dog from Erebus. In this mission he is accompanied by Mercury and Athena. In line 5 Hercules is compared to Odysseus, who in turn was compared to a mountain lion; and in lines 6-8 he is compared to Priam who is accompanied by his mourning friends. According to Danielou this seems to signify the sending of the Savior who is surrounded by angels and accompanied by Christ and the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere Danielou had discussed in general terms the use of Hercules as a symbol of Christ in the apologists (p. 77), but here, he believes the text allows us to be more precise.

The cento recounts three episodes from Homer with certain elements in common but ultimately transforms them to make Hercules the lead character. It speaks of the mission of a hero to accomplish a difficult task. Further it describes Odysseus and Hercules, who brave the kingdom of death. Finally it describes Priam as he goes to Achilles and requests the corpse of Hector. Danielou comments: "That which Valentinus wished to describe is the mission of Christ, sent by the Father into the domain of death to free those bound by death. And that mission represents an imposing task in which Christ appears as a hero" (83). Danielou then proceeds to cite other instances in this period which show how gnostic writers draw parallels between Christian and Homeric figures.

The point is that even if Danielou is right, the cento betrays the Christian identification of Christ with Hercules during the reign of Commodus. How and why would this have developed? The most likely explanation would be that they were being carried along by Imperial theological headwinds. And then we come back to our original point. Who more likely than Irenaeus, would have carried along by these winds given that he is already so close to the Emperor’s court at the time he was writing Against Heresies?

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