Friday, August 9, 2013

Jesus the Roman Demi-God [Part Twelve]


There are plenty of other examples of Irenaeus’s corruption of the Book of Isaiah and their projection into the past. Indeed the existing canon of writings associated with Irenaeus also betrays a systematic revisionist effort. The same passage often times cited in different ways or attributed to different prophetic authors. As such we should begin by acknowledging that anyone who claims that any ancient Christian writer speaking freely to us is either deluded or an outright liar. There are no unproblematic witnesses to the origins of the Church. As we have seen even the New and Old Testament writings have been manipulated in order to reinforce Irenaeus’s vision of how orthodoxy should be understood.

This reality makes it extremely difficult for us to claim we know anything about Christianity before the Commodian period. Indeed it is the exact same situation we find ourselves with respect to Judaism and Samaritanism. Perhaps owing to the imminent disintegration of the Empire, there can be absolutely no doubt that the rulers of the world involved themselves in the governance of Palestinian religious traditions.

The surviving Jewish, Samaritan and Christian orthodoxies can be traced back to a parallel emphasis on forced ecumenism initiated in the Commodian period. As we just saw the Samaritans seem to have resisted the Imperial effort and were ruthlessly suppressed never to regain their former greatness. There were certainly former Jewish and Christian forms of orthodoxy which resisted and were ultimately ruthlessly persecuted too. What survived from these ancient traditions are those forms of Judaism, Samaritanism and Christianity which adapted to the systematic assault against them in the years leading up to the collapse of the Empire in the middle of the third century.

So it is that Justin’s acknowledgement that Jesus greatly resembles Hercules and other pagan demigods seems to be yet another example of Irenaean rewriting of history. It is not a testament to the shape of Christianity in the middle of the second century but at its end. Indeed Irenaeus’s writings – now preserved in Tertullian’s loose Latin translation – provide further testimony to this phenomenon.

In the third book of Against Marcion we see him acknowledge that if we are not careful to explain the doctrine of the Virgin Birth we make Jesus resemble a second Hercules. In other words “if you say he was son of a human father, you deny that he is the Son of God: if you say son of God as well, you are making Christ into Hercules out of the old story: if only his mother was human, you admit that he is mine: if neither father nor mother was human, then he is not the son of man at all, and we must conclude that he told a lie when he called himself something that he was not.” In a strange way, this is yet another backhanded confession of Irenaean imitation effort.

This Latin text was set down during the Severan dynasty when the interest in Hercules had already waned. Nevertheless strong syncretic tendencies remained in the Imperial court. In the same way as we saw an interest in Hercules survive in Christian communities at Via Latina we have in the Imperial court another testimony to Irenaeus’s efforts in a sarcophagus associated with Marcus Aurelius Prosenes.

Prosenes was an imperial freedman, or Augustorum libertus, who was freed by Marcus Aurelius and the co-regent Commodus between 176 - 180 CE. We see that under Commodus, Prosenes begins a respectable career administering a series of court offices (supervising the transport of wine from Italy to Rome, particularly for the table of the emperor [mensa Augusti], director of the imperial gladiator games, .steward of the imperial assets, administrator of the treasure chamber) and ultimately advances to the most influential position of an imperial chief chamberlain under Caracella ("a cubiculo August!" ).

When Prosenes died in 217 CE – the same time as this work by Tertullian was published - he had a sarcophagus built for himself which reflected the strange religious mix of Imperial and Christian themes that was practiced in the house. Among various pagan scenes there is a reference to the contemporary Severan adoption formula - 'divus Commodus' (= Commodus the god) - side by side with a Christian terminology. Scholars have puzzled over how these two faiths - one in the Christian Father and Son and the other of the Imperial Marcus and Commodus could have co-existed in a single relic.

Lampe has argued that there may have been a conscious effort on the part of the artisans to present a “dual face” to the world - i.e. to hide Prosenes's Christian faith behind the Imperial cultus. Yet the more straightforward answer was that a pre-existent Christian syncretic cult established by Marcia in the household of Commodus continued through to the Severan period. We should suppose that in the same way that Florinus established a ‘secret doctrine’ to which all the signs of the gospel pointed to – one which was never put down into writing – Irenaeus had at the core of his typological exegesis, the future conversion of a Roman Emperor.

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