Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Chapter Eight]

Lost in the Woods

It would be nice if all of our knowledge of early Christianity has developed from 'firmest of certainties,' yet the actual situation is far different from this.  The reality is that there is surprisingly little in the way of 'good evidence' for what Christians believed or practiced from sources that lived in a much later period.  Even the writings of Irenaeus cannot escape this difficulty.  The monolithic 'Five Books Against Heresies' is a composite work made up of countless 'lectures' (homilountos) which themselves were used by other contemporaries to develop catalogs of their own.1  The particular 'arrangement' of Irenaeus's writings that has come down to us as Against Heresies should not be regarded as the original word on Irenaeus's opinions.  It represents rather his last word, that is, it represents a compilation established late in his life or perhaps after his death.2

It is critical that we keep this in mind when we examine the persecution of Christians in the last decade of the rule of Marcus Aurelius.  Irenaeus at least twice explicitly references the persecution of 177 CE in Gaul.  In his first reference to the historical event he makes clear that he feels the Imperial handling of the event was fully justified.  'Those of Mark' after all were heretics, reasons Irenaeus, schismatics of the worst kind who had it coming to them.  We can be certain that this account at one time existed as a 'stand alone' text much like the account of the Valentinians which now encircles it in the first of the five books Against Heresies.  Over time even this pairing of the followers of Mark with the Valentinians gave way to an even broader catalog of heresies which became our first book Against Heresies.3

Our complete Five Books Against Heresies was certainly in the hands of Epiphanius in the late fourth century.  Nevertheless it is clear that there were stages in the development of this text.  Both against the Valentinians (chapters 1 - 12 of Book One) and “the work written against Marcus himself and his successors by the most holy and blessed Irenaeus" (chapters 13 - 21) circulated as separate works and as we just proposed - an intermediary text which inserted 'Against the Markans' into 'Against the Valentinians' preceded Book One of Against Heresies as we now have it.4

It would go beyond the scope of this investigation to bring up the dozen or so 'source criticism' attempts to deconstruct the literary sausage that is the 'Five Books Against Heresies.'  The bottom line is that it is not the least bit controversial to suggest that Irenaeus's account of 'Against those of Marcus' was established as early as a few weeks after the persecutions of 177 CE. Most people think that the contents of the first two books in this series were written in close proximity to this date.  Where we will differ from previous scholarship on the text is that insertion of 'Against the Markans' into what was originally the wholly separate account of the Valentinians was a later editorial effort written around the same time as the letters of the Christians from Vienne and Lyons and with the same literary purpose - that is to impugn the reputations of other 'heretics' by associations with the disgraced followers of Mark.5

Just as the letters of the Christians from Vienne and Lyons introduced the New Prophesy movement into Gaul, this Valentinian-Markan proto-text sought to extend the punishments recently directed against the followers of Mark to Irenaeus's Valentinian rivals in Rome.  This was the original purpose for the introduction of the text.  By making the followers of Mark essentially Valentinians the original precedent established by the persecutions of 177 CE now had a broader application.  It is important to note however that the entire account of  'Against the Markans' is missing from Tertullian's Latin text of Against the Valentinians.

By transforming the Mark of the Markan sect into a contemporary Valentinian Irenaeus also had the advantage of salvaging the Gospel of Mark.  Yet it is plain by an even superficial examination of the original title of the work Against the Markans that 'Markan' or Marcosion (Gk. Marcosiwn) appears in a deliberately altered form to deflect the original identification of the sect as Marcion or 'Marciwn' - the name of the heretic who is said to have possessed the longer, secret gospel of Mark.6  In due course another one of Irenaeus's works against 'those of Marcion' where he attempts to demonstrate their corruption of the Gospel of Luke and the Epistles of Paul was completely disentangled from this "work written against Mark and his followers."

It is quite dizzying to keep track of all Irenaeus's treatises in their various forms.  Yet the understanding that they all started off as 'lectures' greatly assists our understanding.  Irenaeus may well have been an important enough figure that he - like Origen a half a century later - had secretaries writing down his very dictations.  The notion that these addresses were given orally also opens the possibility for more than one person taking notes at these lectures and the development of conflicting accounts of the same homily. 

As we have already seen Irenaeus's reporting about the Markan heretics in the Rhone valley, their coreligionists in Alexandria took direct aim at his claims about their religious practices.  This suggests some sort of link between St Mark and the persecuted Christians in Gaul.  It is worth noting that the previously untranslated Acts of Mark preserved at the library of the Stavronikita monastery in Thrace, northern Greece suggests that Mark engaged in missionary work in Gaul.  Indeed it should be noted that some New Testament canons 'to the Galatians' appeared first among the Letters of Paul - 'Galatians' being a linguistic term which can be identified as meaning 'to those of Gaul.'7  It is very tempting to identify the Galatians first ordering of the Pauline letters as Irenaeus's invention.8

More significantly however is the testimony of Sulpicius Severus, writing from Gaul, that Mark was originally from Egypt but travelled into the parts of Gaul about the Rhone and the Garonne, then crossed the Pyrenees into Spain.  Jerome echoes the same tradition without explicitly referencign Sulpicius.  The Acts of Mark also makes a possible reference to Mark's missionary activities in Spain also when he references his journey “to the West, to the Gauls."  Each of our sources recycles the same information to make it seem as if Mark was contemporaneous with them.  Nevertheless the original Mark was clearly from the first century.

It was Irenaeus who made the first report about 'followers of Mark' in Gaul - Mark is completely absent from the region.  He objects that the followers of Mark were not only overrunning the region and causing mischief for the leading families of the region but specifically, as we shall see shortly, encouraging runaway slaves to join his movement.9  This must have been of the reason the official authorities were so concerned about the appearance of these followers of Mark associated as they were with the tradition at Boucolia near Alexandria.  At the height of tensions along the German border a group already suspected of being involved in the rebellion of 172 - 175 CE was now appearing in great numbers in Lugdunum and Vienne.

It is not hard to imagine the easy with which heretics might have found hiding places in the wooded regions of Gaul.  Already at the time of Commodus the future Emperor Septimius Severus is said to have governed all of Gaul with no military force under his command, with the exception of the five hundred strong Urban Cohort at Lugdunum. But he had a large province which covered an area close to that of modern France.  Roman historians report that it was in this period a certain Maternus led a band of deserters and runaway slaves to terrorize the countryside.  Herodian says that he collected a huge mob of desperadoes and "at first they attacked and plundered villages and farms, but when Maternus had amassed a sizable sum of money, he gathered an even larger band of cutthroats by offering the prospect of generous booty and a fair share of the loot. As a result, his men no longer appeared to be brigands but rather enemy troops."

Maternus is said to have attacked the largest cities and released all the prisoners, no matter what the reasons for their imprisonment. "By promising these men their freedom, he persuaded them to join his band in gratitude for favors received. The bandits roamed over all Gaul and Spain, attacking the largest cities; a few of these they burned, but the rest they abandoned after sacking them."  Eventually it is said that Maternus went to Rome to assassinate Commodus during one of the religious festivals but was himself captured and beheaded.  Scholarship has uncovered a pattern of such desperadoes living in the wilderness of Gaul including the defeated soldiers of Clodius Albinus long after 197 CE.10 

As such we can see that at least part of the reason why the persecution of Markan Christians in Gaul might have been so severe was that Gaul was poorly governed and offered a lot of places where troublemakers might use to hide and avoid capture. While Christians may not be traditionally viewed as revolutionaries, the contemporary writings of Celsus make clear they were viewed as such by the authorities.  More significantly perhaps is the large number of runaway slaves that they seem to have attracted.  We need only think of the bagaudae were groups of peasant insurgents who arose during the third century, and continued until the end of the Western Empire particularly in the less-Romanised areas of Gaul and Hispania, where they were "exposed to the depredations of the late Roman state, and the great landowners and clerics who were its servants."11

To this end, there is a consistent theme in the writings of Irenaeus encouraging the need to bring the heretics 'out into the open.'  As we with respect to a related heresy in Rome "they abuse the name, as a means of hiding their wickedness; so that "their condemnation is just," when they receive from God a recompense suited to their works."  So also we see at the end of Book One of Against Heresies where, as we have already noted, Irenaeus transitioned his original discussion of the redemption baptism of the Markan sect with a false identification of similar practices among the Valentinians.  His purpose again was to make it seem that the Markans were just one part of a much larger problem which needed the immediate attention of the authorities. 

This is we see Book One conclude with words that echo the experience of Roman legions in the woods looking for runaway slaves, revolutionaries or Christians.  The Christian threat is not over, declares Irenaeus, there is still the 'problem' of the continued presence of Valentinians in the Roman Church.  So we read him declare:

It was necessary clearly to prove, that, as their very opinions and regulations exhibit them, those who are of the school of Valentinus derive their origin from such mothers, fathers, and ancestors, and also to bring forward their doctrines, with the hope that perchance some of them, exercising repentance and returning to the only Creator, and God the Former of the universe, may obtain salvation, and that others may not henceforth be drown away by their wicked, although plausible, persuasions, imagining that they will obtain from them the knowledge of some greater and more sublime mysteries. But let them rather, learning to good effect from us the wicked tenets of these men, look with contempt upon their doctrines, while at the same time they pity those who, still cleaving to these miserable and baseless fables, have reached such a pitch of arrogance as to reckon themselves superior to all others on account of such knowledge, or, as it should rather be called, ignorance. They have now been fully exposed; and simply to exhibit their sentiments, is to obtain a victory over them.

Wherefore I have laboured to bring forward, and make clearly manifest, the utterly ill-conditioned carcase of this miserable little fox. For there will not now be need of many words to overturn their system of doctrine, when it has been made manifest to all. It is as when, on a beast hiding itself in a wood, and by rushing forth from it is in the habit of destroying multitudes, one who beats round the wood and thoroughly explores it, so as to compel the animal to break cover, does not strive to capture it, seeing that it is truly a ferocious beast; but those present can then watch and avoid its assaults, and can cast darts at it from all sides, and wound it, and finally slay that destructive brute. So, in our case, since we have brought their hidden mysteries, which they keep in silence among themselves, to the light, it will not now be necessary to use many words in destroying their system of opinions. For it is now in thy power, and in the power of all thy associates, to familiarize yourselves with what has been said, to overthrow their wicked and undigested doctrines, and to set forth doctrines agreeable to the truth. Since then the case is so, I shall, according to promise, and as my ability serves, labour to overthrow them, by refuting them all in the following book. Even to give an account of them is a tedious affair, as thou seest. But I shall furnish means for overthrowing them, by meeting all their opinions in the order in which they have been described, that I may not only expose the wild beast to view, but may inflict wounds upon it from every side.

The purpose of using such violent language is clear.  It was part of the very same effort which saw Irenaeus falsely identify the Markan heretics as adherents of a modern heretic who followed the teachings of Valentinus before establishing his own sectarian group.  Irenaeus was justifying disenfranchising all the other 'undesirables' within the Church by association with the Markan sect.

We are not the first to identify Irenaeus's motivation in this way.  Peter Lampe influential German theologian and Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany has pointed out “as late as the 180s Valentinians often held lectures before orthodox Christians — and then were shocked when Irenaeus urged withdrawal from their fellowship.”  He notes that “it was quite a long time before Victor took offense at Florinus. Significant is the manner in which that occurred. First an outsider, Irenaeus from Gaul, incited Victor to intervene against Florinus and to suppress his writings, which had circulated as far as Gaul."

At some point during the reign of Commodus Victor 'obeyed' and "Florinus had to lay down his priestly office; the separation was made.” In the middle of this controversy which certainly took place during the Commodian period – Irenaeus wrote a work entitled De Monarchia which we learn elsewhere “was addressed to the Roman priest Florinus "On the Sole Sovereignty, or How God is not the Cause of Evil."  Charles Hill has similarly pointed to other material from the Fourth Book of Irenaeus’s Against Heresies which he says belonged to the same lost treatise - "it would be a reasonable assumption that Irenaeus has simply brought over this argument from On the Sole Sovereignty, where it would have had a specific target, to AH 4.30.1, where it had a more general application.” Yet the same underlying pattern can be demonstrated - namely that Irenaeus went out of his way to develop untruths about the Valentinians in order to assist in his over all aim to justify their expulsion from the sanctioned community of Christians. 

The core argument behind Book One of Against Heresies - namely that the followers of Mark were only a smaller subset of the much larger grouping of Valentinian heretics - was specifically designed to fulfill this exact purpose.  The idea that there were more Valentinians than there were followers of Mark at any period of history is completely absurd.  The tradition of Mark survives until this very day whereas the number of individuals who learned the strange esoteric wisdom associated with with Ptolemy, Heracleon, Theodotus and Florinus couldn't have numbered more than a hundred or so even at the zenith of the traditions popularity.  The biggest single mistake of scholars is their continued effort to pretend Irenaeus was engaged in 'scholarship' or faithful reporting of any kind.  Irenaeus was far too successful to worry about the implications of his lies and inventions. 


6 Among the 'successors to Marcus was a group identified as Colarbassiwn from a heretic supposedly named Colarbassos.  The expected group name of 'those of Marcos' following this pattern of construction would be Marciwn (cf. the followers of Carpocras being called Carpocrasiwn from the same source).  The Greek text of Epiphanius however now has Marcosiwn - i.e. not removing the suffix -os - undoubtedly to uphold the existence of a wholly separate heretical group called 'the Marcionites' associated with an alleged person named 'Marcion.'

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.