Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Chapter Nine]

On Being a Slave of Christ

It is difficult not to read Irenaeus's surviving writings as a confusing mess because they have been preserved, by an large, as entangled confusing messes.  Nevertheless once we start to take a look at the account of the followers of Mark in Book One as the original account of the persecutions of 177 CE in Gaul it is amazing to see how much the information starts to take shape.  In a previous chapter we noted that Irenaeus has an interesting relationship with the concept of martyrdom.  In spite of the fact that he thinks the contemporary Imperial government was divinely sanctioned and often times was 'doing the work of God' on earth, he consistently attacks those heretics who aren't jumping at the chance to get themselves killed by the divinely sanctioned Roman government. 

The traditional understanding of these passages are that Irenaeus was boasting that the Catholic Church had so many more martyrs than the heretics.  However a close examination of the evidence reveals the exact opposite.  It is difficult to find a Catholic martyr in the 'golden age' of the Church's friendliness with the Imperial government.  There are strong reasons for thinking than none of the surviving account of martyrs under the rule of Commodus were Catholics.  In each case a careful scrutiny of the accounts reveals the victims held heretical beliefs rather than orthodox ones.1

So it is that we are left with the unusual interpretation of Lot's wife in the Book of Genesis to guide our interpretation of Irenaeus's understanding of martyrdom.  The upshot here is that Irenaeus wanted to establish 'living statues' of dead people to warn heretics against 'double-mindedness' - that is to encourage them to repent and come over to the Catholic Church.  To this end it is not surprising that the single greatest practical concern that Irenaeus had with the heretical tradition was its view that “witness-bearing is not at all necessary.”  If heretics simply 'hid in the woods,' falsely adopting the appearance of being Catholic believers and maintained their original views in secret, they would be able to continue to perpetuate beliefs and texts that the Roman Church Father wanted eradicated.

The single greatest living example of this type of crypto-faith in contemporary Christianity is the person of Clement of Alexandria.  His student Origen was a similar example in the third century.  Indeed the Alexandrian tradition as a whole demonstrates the delicate juggling act that 'those of Mark' had to perform in order to avoid being exposed for holding heretical beliefs.  As late as the middle of the third century Dionysius, the Pope or bishop of Alexandria, voiced the concern of members of his flock that they felt 'uncomfortable' with the Roman sacraments being imposed upon them.2  Why should they have to be re-baptized when they had already received baptism from the tradition of St Mark?  Not surprisingly Alexandrian Christians figured prominently in insurgent efforts against the Roman state during the Crisis of the Third Century.3  The concerns of Celsus and the administration of Marcus Aurelius may have been founded on good information after all. 

So it is when we go back to Irenaeus's description of the rites of the 'followers of Mark' in Gaul we should pay careful attention to the manner in which they not only invoke 'secrecy' but moreover escape and ultmately 'redemption.'  After all 'redemption' was a very powerful terminology when applied in the context of rites carried out on slaves like the martyr Blandina.  Indeed a detailed examination of the Letter of the Christians from Vienne and Lyons and related fragments of Irenaeus reveals that the persecution involved slaves in great abundance.  When we put the two accounts of the persecutions together we see that they pray to their cosmic Mother and when “she hears these words, she puts the Homeric helmet of invisibility upon them, so that they may invisibly escape the judge.”

The ‘Homeric helmet’ is mythical object mentioned in the Illiad, its characteristic of rendering the occupant unseen develops because the Greek word for invisibility (aidos) sounds like the name Hades, a name for the ruler of the underworld. In fact instead of ‘helmet’ the text literally speaks of the ‘dog-skin’ [kuneen] of invisibility.  This echoes repeated mention of other early references to those of Marcion being associated with 'dog-like spirits' and dogs generally.4  What is really being said here is that the followers of Mark were part of a crypto-tradition which mastered the ability to avoid detection by the Imperial judge. All other attempts to translate this passage and what follows entirely miss the point.

So it is that the reader should pay close attention to what Irenaeus says in what immediately follows also namely that:

Such are the words and deeds by which, in our own district of the Rhone, they have deluded many women, who have their complicity seared with a hot iron. Some of them, indeed, make a public confession; but others of them are ashamed to do this, and in a tacit kind of way, despairing of the life of God, have, some of them, apostatized altogether; while others hesitate between the two courses, and incur that which is implied in the proverb, "neither without nor within;" possessing this as the fruit from the seed of the children of knowledge. 

We have already seen how this passage relates to the martyrdom of Blandina.  However it is incredible to witness the incredible amount of force being used against the heretics.  These unfortunate victims were ‘cauterized’ with a hot iron. Indeed Celsus knows of a whole class of Christians who are called 'cauterized in the ear.'

Why would the Imperial government have taken a hot iron and branded the victims of the persecution of 177 CE?  Clearly it has something to do with the practice of marking runaway slaves with stigmata.  Origen rightly attributes Celsus’s knowledge of this term to some exposure with 1 Timothy 4:2 – “in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their complicity seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them who believe.”  The only place that Celsus could have got this and other information about the Christians heresies which appear in his True Account was from the writings of Irenaeus.  Irenaeus is the earliest and most consistent witness to the Pastoral Epistles.5

Celsus's attestation of 1 Timothy in the context of actual branding of Christians can be argued to be one of the clearest examples that these spurious scriptures – i.e. the so-called Pastoral epistles - writings were actually written in the late second century.  There is a pattern of contemporary allusions disguised as 'ancient prophesy' in these writings.  The obvious implication is that at least this portion of 1 Timothy was written after the persecutions of 177 CE. Indeed Irenaeus offers unqualified support to these fabrications claiming the writings themselves are ‘predictions’ that the branding of false witnesses of Paul will occur in his day!6

It is now an incredible coincidence that with these adulterated letters of Paul, both the apostle and Irenaeus stand united against these martyrs of Gaul and with their Roman persecutors!  The specific portion of the text that deals with this can be translated ‘searing their consciences’ because – as Irenaeus would argue – those who survived were compelled to re-examine their involvement in ‘false teachings’ and come over to the true Church.  The example of martyrs like Blandina will apparently be enough to shake most of them out of their complacency or 'double-mindedness.'

We shall take up this theological reinterpretation of contemporary history in our next chapter. It is enough to say right now the seeds are already present in 1 Timothy 4:2 for the offering of a historical 'olive branch' being offered to those victims of the persecution by Irenaeus and his tradition. Continuing with our developing understanding of the document, it is important to note that in Rome the followers of Marcellina are said to be similarly afflicted by this cruel form of punishment. Marcellina herself is alternatively identified as a Carpocratian or Marcionite heretic.  It was against this group that Irenaeus earlier declared his condemnation that "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."

Who was this Marcellina?  Irenaeus speaks of her and her followers as being “cauterized in the right ear-lobes of the persons with a burning iron.”   Celsus mentions Christians generally as being called “cauterized in the ear” in the same breath as Marcellians.  If Celsus read Irenaeus as we suggest we can also be certain that these Marcellians would have been branded in the ear with a hot iron.  Yet Celsus speaks of two different groups - the Marcellians and the Harpocratians of Salome, rather than the 'Marcellina of the Carpocratians' in our surviving material.  Once again we must suppose that Celsus had access to an earlier version of Irenaeus's writings - the account of the followers of Mark - which suffered as a result of heavy re-editing.

The underlying sense is that the Marcellians were followers of someone named Marcellus or Marcellina - perhaps 'the son' or 'daughter of Mark.'  We cannot forget the fact that the early account of the Acts of Peter presents the report of a Roman senator named Marcellus associated with Peter.  This 'Marcellus' as we noted can be demonstrated to have developed from the person of St Mark.  He also figures as a double for Marcion in the account of Mani's coming to Harran in the Acts of Archelaus.7

We only begin to make real progress again when we turn to the reference of the followers of the Valentinian Heracleon “those whose ears were branded with fire.” Could the punishment originally inflicted on followers of Mark have actually been extended to other heresies?  It is interesting here that like the Markan heretics there is an explicit identification of the practice being related to a ‘baptism by fire’ or martyrdom.  This echoes the same pattern of references that exist in literature related to the followers of Mark.

The so-called Anonymous Treatise on Baptism identifies the Markan secret baptism or redemption rite with this same this 'baptism by fire.'  The 'fire' appears to be the molten heat associated with the branding iron which just came out of the intense heat of a stoked fire.  Irenaeus also identifies the martyrs of Gaul as being seared with hot metal in his second report however the branding iron has now completely disappeared.  For we read: Sanctus also nobly endured all the excessive and superhuman tortures which man could possibly devise. For the wicked hoped, because of the continuance and greatness of the tortures, to hear him confess some of the alleged unlawful practices. But he opposed them with such firmness that he did not tell them even his own name, nor that of his nation or city, nor if he were slave or free. In answer to all these questions, he said in Latin, "I am a Christian." . . .He gave this confession to every question placed to him. Therefore the governor and the torturers determined to subdue him. When every other means failed, they at last fixed red-hot plates of brass to the most delicate parts of his body [emphasis mine]. And these indeed were burned, but he himself remained inflexible, unyielding, and firm in his confession. He was refreshed and strengthened by the heavenly fountain of the water of life which issues from the belly of Christ. But his body bore witness to what had happened. It was all wounds and welts, shrunk and torn up. It had externally lost the human shape. In him Christ suffering worked great wonders, destroying the enemy. He was an example to the others that there is nothing fearful where there is the Father's love, and nothing painful where there is Christ's glory. For the wicked after some days again tortured the Witness. They thought that, since his body was swollen and inflamed, if they were to apply the same tortures they would gain the victory over him, especially since the parts of his body could not bear to be touched by the hand. Possibly he would die from the tortures and inspire the rest with fear. Yet not only did no such thing happen to him, but even, contrary to every human expectation, his body unbent itself. It became erect during the subsequent tortures and resumed its former appearance and the use of its limbs. The second torture turned out through the grace of Christ a cure, not an affliction.

As already noted there is a conscious effort in his account of the persecution to transform the participants into men and women of good standing – i.e. professionals, educated men and the like. Here and elsewhere Irenaeus goes out of his way to make it seem many – if not most - spoke Latin, the language of the ruling class. It is difficult to explain this transformation, unless of course the exact opposite was true – i.e. the participants principally were up of the ‘worst sort’ of people in the Empire, slaves and men of a most ‘rustic’ character. 

Indeed elsewhere in the Letter and related literature we see Irenaeus seems to confirm the large number of slaves among the persecuted.  He says that "when the Greeks, having arrested the slaves of Christian catechumens, then used force against them, in order to learn from them some secret thing [practised] among Christians." This reflects the statement in the Letter itself that "some heathen household slaves belonging to our people were also seized, since the governor had commanded that all of us should be examined publicly." Blandina was one such Christian slave who belonged to a Christian master.  Yet when we go back to the original report of the persecutions we have to wonder whether Irenaeus's reworking of Sactus's exposure to 'hot metal' was yet another deliberate attempt to recast what was originally from the Roman point of view at least an Imperial effort to recapture runaway slaves and put down a possible insurgency. 

Why on earth would the Empire have branded countless Christians in the ear with a hot iron unless they were runaway slaves?   Roman fugitive-slave hunting involved extreme cruelty. Masters, who bore the basic onus of recovering their runaways, employed harsh methods to deter the escape of slaves who were considered disobedient or flight risks. These measures might include heavy chaining, permanent disfigurements from identifying brands, intentional scars, and—most commonly—tattooed letters, which our sources call stigmata. In extreme cases, masters might tattoo “Arrest me, I am running away” across a slave’s face or forehead, a practice alluded to in the Satyricon. Other masters forced slaves to wear humiliating iron collars, inscribed with messages such as tene me quia fugi (“Arrest me, for I have run away”), commonplace enough to remain recognizable as the abbreviation TMQF.8

Of course the specific idea of ‘branding in the ear’ is something of anomaly. All examples of people being ‘branded in the ear’ happen much later in history. Nevertheless the specific association with violence to the ears and slavery can be found in the Jewish laws related to servitude (eved ivri). The legislation of Exodus and Deuteronomy includes the eventuality that the slave refuses to go free when his term of servitude is up, prescribing that his master bore his ear through with an awl and subjugate him in perpetuity (l'olam).

So why would the Imperial persecutors then have specifically ‘branded the ears’ of Christians? All we have to do is look at the entire passage describing the beliefs and practices of the ‘pseduo-martyrs’ among the Markan heretics in Irenaeus’s Against Heresies one more time. According to Irenaeus’s account of the wicked ‘magician’ named Mark his followers continue his magical practices long after his disappearance. Indeed it was not Mark but his adherents who have "deceived many silly women, and defiled them” in Lugdunum. He goes on to say that:

They have moreover proclaiming themselves to be "perfect" so that no one can be compared to them with respect to the immensity of their knowledge, not even the apostles: They assert that they themselves know more than all others, and that they alone have imbibed the greatness of the knowledge of that power which is unspeakable. They also maintain that they have attained to a height above all power, and that therefore they are free in every respect to act as they please, having no one to fear in anything. For they affirm, that because of the "Redemption" (apolytrosis) it has come to pass that they can neither be apprehended, nor even seen by the judge. But even if he should happen to lay hold upon them, then they might simply repeat these words, while standing in his presence along with the "Redemption:" 

What follows is a short prayer said to have been uttered by the Markan heretics and then the material we started our investigation is referenced – i.e. the prayer acting as a Homeric helmet of invisibility which allows them to escape from the judge.  The context of these rites being being performed on runaway slaves transforms its meaning complete.  'Redemption' is clearly to be associated with the act of liberating slaves from their earthly masters.9

It would not be hard to imagine why the Imperial government would have been involved in a large gathering of fugitivi in the ungovernable province of Gaul.  It is even more easy to understand what so many Markan heretics would have chosen this locale to reconstitute themselves after the devastation in their traditional heartland near Alexandria.  There is a clearly a sense that the rebellion of 172 - 175 had moved to Gaul.  Indeed there is some evidence to suggest that Avidius Cassius established the precedent of treating the rebels of Boucolia near Alexandria - which certainly included Markan Christians - as slaves.

The Historia Augusta in relating Cassius rigor notes that he treated the soldiers under his command in a like manner.  With any sign of a lapse of discipline "he had them arrested and crucified, and punished them with the punishment of slaves."  Moreover speaking specifically of the revolt near Alexandria we hear "and so, having stiffened military discipline, he conducted affairs in Armenia and Arabia and Egypt with the greatest success.  He was well loved by all the eastern nations, especially by the citizens of Antioch, who even acquiesced in his rule, as Marius Maximus relates in his Life of the Deified Marcus. And when the warriors of the Bucolici did many grievous things in Egypt, they were checked by Cassius, as Marius Maximus also relates in the second book of those he published on the Life of Marcus."

To this end, even though Cassius subsequently failed in his bid to seize the throne, the policy of severity against the Markan tradition and to punish them like slaves seems to have been established before 177 CE.  So we read Irenaeus concludes that in his “own district of the Rhone” these men “have deluded many women, who have their complicity seared with a hot iron.” If we follow our thesis for a moment that the existing Letter of the Christians from Vienne and Lyons is a reworked attempt to recast the original Marcite martyrs of 177 CE as Catholics, it is interesting to note how the document begins:

The slaves of Christ residing at Vienne and Lyons in Gaul to the brethren throughout Asia and Phrygia, who have the same faith and hope of redemption as ourselves, peace, grace, and glory from God the Father, and from Christ Jesus our Lord 

How utterly uncanny that as Irenaeus commences his 'rebaptized' history of the persecutions of 177 CE he starts with the very same themes as he left in his account of the Marcites - slavery and redemption!

Of course it cannot be denied that these martyrs are portrayed as 'slaves of Christ' rather than Mark.  Moreover their redemption is now figurative rather than literal.  However it is plainly evident that the two texts represent a successive revision of history.  It is difficult now not to suspect that the underlying context of the ‘invisibility cap’ reference - i.e. Homeric helmet of invisibility - is a recognition that the leading Christians of the Rhone valley may have been associated with fugitive slaves.  It is highly probable that it wasn't just fugitivi who received 'the punishment of slaves' as it had been a proscribed tactic for dealing with rebellion since the revolt of 172 - 175 CE.

Irenaeus argued later that the ‘rich women' had been ‘deceived’ by the heretical followers of Mark.  He wanted to give them an opening to join his new Church if they repented from their former ways.  So he argued effectively that they never intended to get involved in giving aid and abet the harboring of slaves and had been 'misled' about the meaning of Christian‘redemption.’ Once again we stand before the range of meaning and the implication of the term 'redemption.' As noted earlier it goes back to the idea of ‘re-purchasing.'  Interestingly also is that the start of the revolt near Alexandria is similarly connected with the "women of the Bucoli" attempting to "give gold as ransom for their husbands" - in short, redemption.10

The concept of redemption is at the heart of the Jewish religion. It comes from the idea of the Jews formerly being slaves. But whole epochs in history are understood in terms of a similar but ultimately political understanding of 'redemption.' In this case however we have to suppose that the Imperial authorities caught on to the Markan tradition being involved in 'stealing' of possessions of another – but now with far greater contemporary political and social implications. Here in our new understanding of the ‘branding in the ear’ reference there is an unmistakable break with the social order mentioned by Moss and which would be sure to lead to the prosecution of Christian believers.

Slavery was an essential component of social order. The Romans lived in perpetual fear of a slave revolt like the one organized by Spartacus. To this end another clear thing that is echoed in both of Irenaeus's accounts of the persecutions in the Rhone valley - slaves were undoubtedly tortured with hot irons, possibly even in the ear. Irenaeus also seems to imply in his fragment that the same means were used against their masters. Thus in his original account of the same persecutions of Lyons – only then originally as a justified slaughter of heretics – Irenaeus denies the ‘witness’ of these martyrs because of the incorrectness of their beliefs.

Indeed it is because they hold that Jesus came to repurchase slaves back from their ‘temporary’ owners – i.e. the actual families who bought them in the Roman Empire – their claim to represent the Christ has been invalidated. Irenaeus portrays these unfortunate women in the Rhone valley as victims of ‘love potions,’ incantations and other spells, being drawn into the act of harboring fugitive slaves and perpetuating nonsense about ‘another Lord’ other than the Lord of this world because of magic used by the priests of Mark.

Long before Celsus another pagan writer Chaeremon had maintained that the Jews had been runaway slaves.11 Celsus developed this even further, maintaining that Moses had been no more than a half-educated sorcerer (1. 21; 5.47) who organized these fugitives to organize a successful revolt against the state. The ancient Israelites ran away from their masters, plundered Egypt and used their spoils to found their new religion. The same thing seems to have been argued about the Markan heretics and passed on to Celsus's writings from Irenaeus.12  It is important to note that Celsus warns of the very same forces being at work in the underground Christian movement. The implication is clearly – watch out lest these irrationally rebellious offshoots of Judaism do what the Jews did to in Egypt to the Romans.

Celsus was writing at the very time of the persecutions in Lugdunum and elsewhere. His argument that the Christians were really only Jews possessed by an irrational demon who have now rebelled not only from their ‘true God’ – i.e. the god of the Jews – but as part of their demonic possession are further planning to overthrow the Roman state. As noted earlier in our work, Celsus’s speaks approvingly at one point of Irenaeus’s tradition because they recognize the god of the Jews and thus go back to the tradition beliefs of their ancestors. Apparently Celsus acknowledged that this tradition was tolerable because they worked toward upholding the existing social order.

Whatever the case may be, Celsus no less than Irenaeus justified the slaughter of ‘heretics’ until they go back to the god of their forefathers. This is part of the ‘rehabilitation’ of the Christian religion developed by Celsus when they might finally learn to serve in the Emperors army and sacrifice to the ruling spirits which protect his realm. To this end it is difficult not to see that Irenaeus would have seen ‘the branding of the ear’ – the painful experience of having a red hot iron plunged into the side of their head – as a ‘typology’ predicted in the writings of the Old Testament. This punishment was in effect a symbolic statement as it were against the claims of the followers of Mark that they had successfully ‘redeemed’ themselves from their masters – both temporal and spiritual.

Since the Jewish god proscribed boring into the ear as a mark for slaves as a symbol of their perpetual enslavement to their masters and Romans branded the faces of runaway slaves, the two ideas must have come together as a mark for those fugitives claiming to have received ‘redemption’ from the existing world order. Indeed in the years immediately following the persecutions, Celsus testifies that not only were there a great number of victims of this ‘searing with hot iron’ the pagan also indicates that a battle was brewing between the heretics and the Catholic over how best to interpret the persecutions.

Were these persecuted victims 'holy martyrs' as the sectarians themselves claimed, or were they justly scourged by God for their previous sinful beliefs? While some might argue that the wholly sanitized Letter of the Christians from Vienne and Lyons portrayed Blandina and Sanctus and the rest of the victims as holy martyrs, we demonstrate in due course that Irenaeus still preserves for us a clear sign that they were not always regarded as such - even by Irenaeus himself. It will be our assumption that the Church Fathers have deliberately understated the degree to which Christianity was at bottom - a slave religion. This is hardly surprising and scholars have done their part to play along.

As much as people pretend that they don't pay attention to class or status, it is only natural for people to take pride in worldly success. To this end, few people want to admit that Christianity was principally a religion of the lowest strata of Roman society, as Celsus repeatedly and explicitly proclaims. There were of course wealthy converts to the new religion as well as tradesmen and all different sorts of 'rustic' individuals too. But in the end, Christianity was increasingly viewed by the Imperial authorities as a dangerous social experiment because it seemed to be consolidating its position among the those who were deemed likeliest to revolt against the social order.

If it will be allowed that the vast majority of Christian believers at the end of the second century were illiterate slaves, it stands also to reason that those called 'cauterized in the ear' were branded with a Roman letter F. As we shall see in our next chapter, Origen complains that Celsus has misunderstood his sources, but this seems a most unlikely scenario. All the evidence points to Christianity being disproportionately comprised of fugitive slaves - and those who were not were certainly sympathetic to their plight. The letter they were stamped with was the first letter of the Latin word fugitivus or 'fugitive.'

Few people will recognize however that this very same Latin symbol had a 'secret life' within the Greek alphabet. It would seem that our familiar 'F' also existed in the Greek language as an archaic letter called 'digamma' - because it looks like two overlapping 'gamma' or Г - episemon or stigma. The last reference is particularly interesting as it demonstrates that the Greek's identified their letter 'F' 'brand' or 'mark.' The letter fell out of disuse but at some later period it came to denote was the σ-τ (s-t) which begins a number of words related to the passion of Christ - i.e. stigmata and stauros or 'cross.'

Again no one seems to know exactly when any of this occurred.  Could the Marcites have been the initiators of the use of the episemon in place of 'st'? All that is known is that they were famous for their interest in numerology and this substitution transforms the value of the word 'cross' to a value of 777 = st (6) a (1) u (400) r (100) ο (70) s (200) just as Irenaeus points to their interest in the six letter name of Jesus as having a value of 888.  The episemon originally stood for the sound /w/ and only remained in use only as a symbol for the number "6."  It was however interestingly re-introduced into the Coptic language of the community of St Mark in Alexandria where it has been preserved in documents to this very day.

In our next chapter we will demonstrate that the followers of Mark purposefully developed a mystical understanding of this F letter or episemon as early as the second century as a result of their mistreatment in the revolt of 172 - 175 CE.  Irenaeus was aware of its application in the persecutions of 177 C in Gaul.   This 'lost' sixth letter was key to the entire Marcite hermeneutic. They used it to calculate the secret meaning of words and names and most significantly as the very symbol of the person of Jesus.  In fact, this mystical understanding will be key to our finally cracking the historical identify of these mysterious sectarians and how they were forced to join the Catholic Church under the threat of the cruelest torture and even death. 



11 (Fr. 1 ; van der Horst)

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