Thursday, August 15, 2013

Jesus as Roman Demi-God [Part Twenty]


We have already seen Irenaeus’s development of a cento poem in the name of Hercules. It should also be mentioned that there are also infrequent references to Hercules metaphors at other places in Against Heresies. The clearest example here is the likening of the proliferation of gnostic doctrines to the mythical Hydra of Lerna slain by Hercules near the end of long list of heresies in Book One. The Hydra being a monster of many heads, which would sprout more heads from the place where one was cut off. Each time Hercules bashed one of the hydra's heads, his companion Iolaus held a torch to the headless tendons of the neck. The flames prevented the growth of replacement heads, and finally, Hercules had the better of the beast.

The heretics themselves did not identify with the adversaries of Hercules but with the demi-god himself. This is clearly witnessed in an early third century development of Irenaeus’s original work. The Philosophumena makes mention of a ‘Justin’ who went out of his way to incorporate Hercules into Christian pantheon as we saw in the catacombs of Via Latina. Here the son of Zeus is the ‘uncircumcised’ precursor to Jesus. The historical details about who this Justin was happen to be very sketchy. All that is said with any certainty is that denies that is not ‘our Justin.’ Nevertheless this ‘heretic’ lived at the same time and shared the same name with Irenaeus’s favorite writer and many of his doctrines bear a striking resemblance to our Justin’s student Tatian.

Whoever this Justin was scholars almost universally agree that he was a Jewish Christian, who developed an entirely distinctive gnostic system. His three highest principles were: the Good One, Elohim and Edem. The Good One was raised above the other two, as he alone possessed foreknowledge. Elohim is called 'the father of all created things', and resembles the biblical Creator-God, as his name already indicates. Edem owes her name to the Garden of Eden. Elohim and Edem have sex creating the angelic creatures in the world and create Adam. But after getting to know the Good One and abandoning Edem, Elohim did everything he could to save his spirit (pneuma) in mankind.

According to Justin, Elohim sent his third angel, Baruch, to Moses and the prophets to spread knowledge of the Good One, but the first angel of Edem, Naas the serpent, enticed them so that they did not listen to Baruch. Eventually Elohim enlists the uncircumcised 'prophet' Hercules to defeat the twelve angels of Edem – which represent his twelve labours - but he failed as well. Finally, Baruch is sent to Nazareth and finds Jesus there, the twelve-year-old son ofJoseph and Mary, who is tending sheep. He is sent out to explain to the people what had happened in the beginning and to bring knowledge of Elohim and the Good One. When Naas failed to entice Jesus, too, he had him crucified, upon which Jesus gave back his body and soul to Edem, dedicated his spirit to Elohim and ascended to the Good One.

It is quite clear then that by the time Irenaeus expressed his love for Hercules there many earlier efforts within the Roman Church. The obvious question of course before us his how this could have happened? What about Hercules made him seem compatible with Jesus? We have lost touch with the ‘real Hercules’ of antiquity. We see him in terms comic superheroes and Disney animated movies. How could this ‘strong man’ be possibly mistaken for the Christian god?

The beginning of this understanding is to recognize that Hercules had a well-established philosophical interest with in ancient Greek culture which Christianity tapped into at a very early date. Indeed just as the ‘bad Justin’ saw the one demigod as the precursor of Jesus even our ‘good Justin’ drew from the writings of Plato’s contemporary Xenophon and his narrative of ‘Hercules’ choice’ to explain his own conversion to Christianity. In the course of explaining the importance of martyrdom Justin tells his readership that they should look at the example of the Greek demi-god to understand why Christians are so willing to die.

Xenophon’s narrative tells of Hercules coming to a place where three ways intersected and met two female goddesses - Virtue and Vice. As Justin explains:

Vice was in a luxurious dress, and with a seductive expression rendered blooming by such ornaments, and her eyes of a quickly melting tenderness, said to Hercules that if he would follow her, she would always enable him to pass his life in pleasure and adorned with the most graceful ornaments, such as were then upon her own person; and Virtue, who was of squalid look and dress, said, But if you obey me, you shall adorn yourself not with ornament nor beauty that passes away and perishes, but with everlasting and precious graces.

Even before Justin was became a Christian he saw Hercules as the epitome of the principle that “every one who flees those things that seem to be good, and follows hard after what are reckoned difficult and strange, enters into blessedness.”

Justin adds that while Vice “leads captive earthlyminded men, attaching to Virtue her own evil properties … those who understood the excellences which belong to that which is real, are also uncorrupt in virtue.” To this end he concludes “every sensible person ought to think both of Christians and of the athletes” are like Hercules owing to their “contempt of death.” So it is that we see confirmed that Hercules here represents – no less for the ‘good Justin’ than for his ‘bad’ twin doppelganger – a pagan forerunner of Christ. The same was also true for generations of Christians throughout the ages including the fourth century Church Father Basil the Great.

Basil makes reference to a speech delivered by the contemporary sophist Prodicus of Keos which developed the same theme. Hercules stood before Virtue and Vice, and Basil adds “at once, although they were silent, the difference between them was evident from their appearance.” For he notes:

On the one had been decked out for beauty through the art of toiletry, was drooping with voluptuousness, and led a whole swarm of pleasures in her wake. These things she displayed and, promising others still, she tried to draw Hercules to her. As for the other, she was withered and squalid, had an intense look, and spoke quite differently; for she promised nothing dissolute or pleasant, but but countless sweating toils and labours and dangers through every land and sea. But the prize to be won by these was to become a god. as the narrative of Prodicus expressed it; and it was this second woman that Heracles in the end followed.

The point then should be recognized here that Heracles – especially as we shall demonstrate within the great artists and philosophers of Athens – represented above all else the hope of being transformed into a divine being ‘through sweat and toil.’

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