Friday, September 27, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Chapter Seven]

 Who Were the Martyrs of 177 CE?

Many books have been written about the heresies. Most of them focus on the one aspect of the bad guys the Church Fathers will let us see - their corruption of scripture. Yet there is a much bigger story that inevitably gets neglected owing to the limits of our ability to know things about the earliest period of Christianity.  When exactly did the Catholic Church take effective control of the religion of the religion of Jesus?  This is a very difficult question to answer as there is so little information available to us to develop a timetable of events.  Yet there is what we might call 'the first event' in the story of the Church - the persecution in the Rhone valley in what is now southern France in the last years of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. 

The fact that it is Irenaeus who provides us with this earliest historical information turns out to be quite problematic.  How accurate are his reports about the persecution?  How reliable is his reporting about other aspects of the Christian culture of Lyons or as it was known in antiquity - Lugdunum?   Perhaps the first thing that should be said about Lyons is that it was the metropolis which ruled over the three regions of Gaul - Gallia Aquitania, Gallia Belgica and Gallia Lugdunensis.  It was a large urban center which ultimately become the focus of an important military battle in 197 CE.  Clodius Albinus would make his last stand here and by his defeat, Septimius Severus was established as the sole Emperor for the next fourteen years. 

Twenty years earlier Clodius Albinus, then just a young soldier, was officially recognized by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius for serving with great distinction, during the rebellion of Avidius Cassius in 175.  His merits were acknowledged by the Emperor in two letters in which he declares that without Albinus the legions in Bithynia would have gone over to Avidius Cassius and as a result we assume, history may have turned out very differently.

The idea that Lugdunum should have such decisive importance just before and just after the reign of Commodus should not be seen as mere coincidence.  One may even notice a pattern with respect to Alexandria approximately five years before and five years after the two dates in Lyons.  The bottom line was that the Empire was falling apart at the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius.  In spite of the fact that he has long been hailed as 'the philosopher king' Commodus's father seems to have been broadsided by the impending collapse of Roman society.  Indeed, after repeated barbarian invasions and the revolt of Avidius Cassius, Marcus Aurelius seems only to barely held on to power through the most desperate of tactics.  

We shall argue in more detail in subsequent chapters that the rebellions in Alexandria from 172 - 175 were a factor in the persecution of Christian in Gaul.  After all, the center of Markan Christianity was very near the epicenter of the original revolt and there is good reason to believe that Irenaeus's original reporting from Lugdunum testifies to a large presence of related forms of Christianity.  In fact, as Candida Moss professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame has noted there is significant import in the fact that the persecution of 177 CE occurred in two different regions of Gaul - i.e. Lyons and Vienne.  This was not a limited local 'action' but something which signaled a broader Imperial policy against a specific type of Christianity rather than Christians in general. 

At the core of the mystery surrounding this important event is determining what role Irenaeus had in the persecutions.  The story developed by the fourth century Eusebius - namely that he succeeded the martyred Pothinus as the bishop of Lugdunum and was asked by the church to carry letters "while they were still in prison, to the brethren throughout Asia and Phrygia, and also to Eleutherus who was then bishop, negotiating for the peace of the churches."  Almost everyone thinks that Irenaeus wrote the letters that pretend to be from the martyrs of Lyons.  Yet more significantly the letters seem to have been used as a pretext to curb the influence of the so-called New Prophesy movement associated with the region of Phrygia in Asia Minor.1

The fact that Irenaeus is our only witness for the events of the persecutions in the Rhone valley in 177 CE is thus entirely problematic.  He lied about the circumstances of their composition and moreover had deep political motivations behind this pious forgery.  Moss rightly notes that it is difficult to note which parts of the testimony is historical or fiction however it will be argued here that the mystery can ultimately be unraveled as long as we continue to question Irenaeus's role in the persecutions.  Eusebius's invention of him being made bishop in Lugdunum conflicts with his ties to Asia Minor and more importantly the fact that we hear repeated echoes of his abiding presence at Rome.

As Allen Brent of King's College London has repeatedly demonstrated, there was no such a thing as a 'papacy' at this point in history.  The Church wasn't so sophisticated as to direct residents of Asia Minor to parishes in Gaul and then back and forth to Rome to confer with the bishop of Rome.  Eusebius's invention of Irenaeus's role as 'bishop of Lugdunum' is a smokescreen to explain his role in the persecutions.  Indeed the writings of Irenaeus do not bear witness to his being a bishop nor to him being a resident of Gaul as some have supposed.

The one reference at the beginning of Against Heresies actually says in the earliest and most reliable manuscript that he lived 'among the Delphians' and this reference seems to have been corrected by Florus, deacon of Lyons in the ninth century.1   Delphi was not in Gaul but a place in Greece.  The answer to solving the mystery is to be found in its context and comparing it to that other famous Irenaean forgery - the 'we' sections of the Acts of the Apostles.  Acts makes a reference to a pneuma pythona - a spirit of the Pythian oracle of Delphi - in a section where Luke has been introduced into the narrative.  It may strongly be assumed that this 'Pythian spirit' reference was penned by the very same author who identifies himself as living among the Delphians.

In the story in Acts Luke says that he and Paul were going to the place of prayer when "we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, 'These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.' She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her."  The context of the 'among the Delphians' statement in Against Heresies is very similar.  Irenaeus says that he is not at like the Valentinians; he cannot match them in terms of eloquence and sophistication.  But they are false witnesses of the spirit or pseudo-prophets who claim to be spiritual but are not really so.  Irenaeus was telling his reader that he lived among false-prophets and goes on to apologize in advance for his plainness of speech - "thou wilt accept in a kindly spirit what I in a like spirit write to thee simply, truthfully, and in my own homely way."2

As such it is pointless to dwell too much on the claim that Eusebius invents of Irenaeus as a presbyter of the parish of Lyons at the time of the persecutions or in fact that he later became the bishop of the city.  This explanation only became necessary as a result of Irenaeus's role in the persecutions which we shall demonstrate in due course was problematic.  Irenaeus strangely took the side of the government in the persecutions.  In his original original account, as we shall see shortly, the alleged 'victims' had it coming after all because they were heretics who followed a certain wicked individual named Mark.  The Imperial authorities gave them a chance to repent and come over to the true Church.  Since many did exactly this - the persecutions and the government's handling of the crisis were divinely sanctioned.3

It was only during the subsequent reign of Victor that Irenaeus attempted a rewrite of history, forging not only the letters from the victims to the church of Rome and those of Asia Minor but also the very episcopal succession list which is now in Book Three of Against Heresies.  As we have already seen the original account of the Markan sect in Gaul was one of those documents that came back to haunt Irenaeus.  Even though it was written against the adherents of Mark in Gaul, the text resonated with the followers of St Mark in Alexandria.4  Irenaeus eventually had to correct his account of the secret baptismal practices of the sect and its association with chapter ten of the Gospel of Mark.  Now we will broaden that understanding and see that Irenaeus attempted to use the persecutions of 177 CE to justify excluding other heretical groups like the Valentinians and the New Prophesy movement of Asia Minor - a move that would ultimately backfire on him. 

As noted earlier Candida Moss has drawn a lot of attention to this persecution, raising doubts about the accuracy of the reporting of the ancient accounts of the martyrs. She accepts that Christians were indeed punished but not necessarily for the reasons given in apologetic documents. Moss does not deny that ancient Romans did execute some Christians because they were Christians. Rather she successfully demonstrates that they were prosecuted for failing to abide by the prevalent social contract of the age.

Moss also notes that some of the terminology was not known at the time Irenaeus was writing - most significantly the distinction between "confessors" i.e. Christians in prison who have been condemned but not yet put to death and martyrs.  Yet the reality is that the term does appear in the account of the followers of Mark when they are said to have been 'seared with a hot iron.'5  The difficulty is that most people have not identified that there were two different accounts of the same persecutions developed at different times of Irenaeus's career. 

It is important to note that in the later 'official account' of the persecutions when Irenaeus was cozy with Victor the bishop of Rome there is a strong effort made to identify the reworked martyrs of Gaul as upstanding members of Roman society. As Roy Ward, Professor of Religion at Miami University has noted the document goes out of its way to say that Christians had no ethical reservations about going to the baths, that many spoke Latin, and had a high social rank in society.  This was clearly developed to counter the actual facts in the case and which find reflection in his original account - namely that they were slaves, inherited strange customs from the Jews which set them apart from the rest of the society and tended to say their prayers in barbaric languages like Aramaic.5

One could argue in fact that Irenaeus's purpose was to re-make Christianity in his own image – i.e. that the apostles sanctioned a complete kowtowing to Imperial authority and reflect what we might call an underlying ‘middle class’ sensibility. In other words, it is because Irenaeus 'cares what the neighbors think' the portrait of Christians that emerges from the Letter of the Christians from Vienne and Lyons goes out of its way to whitewash its portrait of the martyrs who died in 177 CE.   To this end, we references like the claim that one famous martyr actually gave up his heretical dietary restriction while in prison. The bottom line is that no Catholics were among the victims in Gaul because his Church hadn't even been invented yet. 

The first three books of Irenaeus's Against Heresies really make no substantive reference to specifically Catholic martyrs being in the world.  In many ways the very concept of 'martyr' is completely foreign to Irenaeus's monarchian way of thinking.  Irenaeus believed so strongly that God was the one ruling force in the world that he couldn't help but come down on the side of the authorities.  Since he confesses in Book Four that he and many others in the Roman Church were very close to the Imperial government, it was hard for him to sympathize a great deal with those who got in the way of this cozy relationship.

Nevertheless by the time he had established himself with the court of Commodus the actions of Marcus Aurelius against the churches of Alexandria and Lugdunum were a distant memory.  To this end in the very same book as Irenaeus confesses the presence of many 'individuals of faith' in the household of Caesar he speaks for the first time also of

the Church does in every place, because of that love which she cherishes towards God, send forward, throughout all time, a multitude of martyrs to the Father; while all others not only have nothing of this kind to point to among themselves, but even maintain that such witness-bearing is not at all necessary, for that their system of doctrines is the true witness, with the exception, perhaps, that one or two among them, during the whole time which has elapsed since the Lord appeared on earth, have occasionally, along with our martyrs, borne the reproach of the name … and have been led forth with them [to death], being, as it were, a sort of retinue granted unto them. For the Church alone sustains with purity the reproach of those who suffer persecution for righteousness' sake, and endure all sorts of punishments, and are put to death because of the love which they bear to God, and their confession of His Son; often weakened indeed, yet immediately increasing her members, and becoming whole again, after the same manner as her type," Lot's wife, who became a pillar of salt.

While this might sound like a lot of religious propaganda to some, the reference to 'the typology' of Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt later is critical because it makes clear that Irenaeus is referencing the martyrs of 177 CE.  

To this end it is very strange that Irenaeus does not mention witnesses of the Catholic in the immediately aftermath of persecutions in Vienne and Lyons.  Clearly Irenaeus is not making reference to 'holy martyrs' being made under the very Commodian government for which he expresses such love and devotion.  Eusebius and later Christian writers also echo this glowing praise for this Emperor who established nothing short of a golden age for the Church.  Irenaeus is echoing the point of view developed in his forged letters 'sent by the imprisoned churches of Gaul' by his hand.

In the Letter of the Christians from Vienne and Lyons almost every martyr is Catholic. Even those Christians who start the narrative with questionable beliefs before suddenly become transformed under the dispensation of Spirit coming from the Catholic martyrs.  Yet there are still clear signs even in this account that what we have before us is a deliberate transformation of his original description of the Markan martyrs of the Rhone twenty years earlier.  We should pay close attention to his statement in Book Four that these heretics held that “such witness-bearing is not at all necessary.” It should be noted that this isn’t the same thing as saying that the followers of Mark weren’t slaughtered in Lyons. Rather it is only a confirmation that they didn’t embrace the idea of recklessly throwing themselves at the authorities in order to get into heaven in the manner of the portrait he developed of his master Polycarp.6

Indeed the clearest example of this thinking is that of Clement of Alexandria – himself a follower of Mark as we have already demonstrated. He cites Jesus's very words in Matthew 10:23, when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another" to justify his own escape from the Imperial persecutions against the tradition of Mark in Alexandria under Septimius Severus c. 202 CE.  An even stronger counter argument to reckless martyrdom can be seen from a gnostic text discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt where an anonymous writer declares "These are empty martyrs, since they bear witness only to themselves. And yet they are sick, and they are not able to raise themselves. But when they are 'perfected' with a (martyr's) death, this is the thought that they have within them: 'If we deliver ourselves over to death for the sake of the Name we will be saved.' These matters are not settled in this way. But through the agency of the wandering stars they say they have 'completed' their futile 'course.'"

The question of course becomes - why if Irenaeus thinks he is living in the 'year of favor' and that God is guiding the hand of the Emperor Commodus to direct the new Israel into the Promised Land does he take such an active interest now promoting martyrdom?  Could it be that it was the threat of punishment which was swelling the ranks of his Church given that it was granted favored status?  The answer ultimate goes back to Irenaeus's equally puzzling interest in the typology of Lot’s wife.  After all, the story in Genesis is hardly very inspiring.  Lot's wife being turned to stone as punishment for disobeying the angel's command not to look lack at the destruction being wrought in Sodom.  Indeed after their mother's death Moses says that Lot's daughters slept with their father.

One might think that Irenaeus would do his best to avoid such unusual passages in the Bible.  However he seems to plunge right into them in order to use them for even more surprising interpretations of Church doctrine.  Not surprisingly again Irenaeus's interest in this peculiar passage finds echo in an addition in Luke with Jesus now declaring "Remember Lot's wife" (Luke 17:32).  The Marcionites argued that this was not originally found in the gospel but rather resulted from Catholic forgery.7  Yet what exactly was Irenaeus's point in using Lot's wife being turned to stone by God?

Charles Hill of the Reformed Theological Seminary has devoted a great deal of attention to this perplexing passage but ultimately does little more than attempt a summary the contents of Against Heresies.  He writes “the essence of this typology sees the daughters as two synagogues, or churches, one from the Jews, one from the Gentiles, 'who gave birth to children begotten of one and the same father' (4.31.1).  When we go back to Irenaeus’s original statement however we see it is actually see that it centrally focused on martyrdom. We read:

For the Church alone sustains with purity the reproach of those who suffer persecution for righteousness' sake, and endure all sorts of punishments, and are put to death because of the love which they bear to God, and their confession of His Son; often weakened indeed, yet immediately increasing her members, and becoming whole again, after the same manner as her type," Lot's wife, who became a pillar of salt. Thus, too, [she passes through an experience] similar to that of the ancient prophets, as the Lord declares, "For so persecuted they the prophets who were before you;", inasmuch as she does indeed, in a new fashion, suffer persecution from those who do not receive the word of God.

Perhaps the reason Hill passes these details over in his summary is that he can't figure out what the heck any of this has to do with Lot's wife being turned to stone.  How can Lot's wife be understood to be like those "who are put to death for the love which they bear for God"?  Even more peculiar is the allusion to the incest between Lot and their daughters in what follows - "yet immediately increasing her members and (thus) becoming whole again." 

Why on earth would the death of martyrs be like Lot's wife and the expansion of the Church be like the incest between father and daughters?  Hill does notice one important clue that serves to unlock the entire mystery.  He points to uncanny parallels exist between this description of Lot’s wife in the writings of Irenaeus and the account of Blandina the martyr in Lyons.  Hill begins by noting that Lot’s wife:

stands as a pillar of salt, ‘indicating that the Church also, which is the salt of the earth (Matt. 5.13), has been left behind within the confines of the earth, and subject to human sufferings,’ but also ‘typifying the foundation of the faith "makes strong, and sends forward, children to their Father’ (propempusa tous ouios pros ton Patera auton)

and immediately adds that:

an interesting parallel to this expression in 4.31.3 is found in the Epistle of Vienne and Lyons” where “Blandina the martyr is compared to a noble mother (the church) who sent forth her children before her victorious to the King (nikephorous propempsasa pros ton basiliea).

For Hill this “is interesting because it is often suspected that the Epistle was written by Irenaeus.”  However goes no further to explain the parallel or the reason Irenaeus makes it twice other than to say that Irenaeus’s conception of Lot’s wife ‘is different’ than Clement of Rome before him. 

Yet is this really so?  Is the understanding of Clement really that 'different' from Irenaeus's understanding?  Or is it that Hill doesn’t want to acknowledge the underlying truth of 'the typology of Lot's wife' because of what it says about Irenaeus and the circumstances of the origins of the Catholic Church?  For if we consult the passage in 1 Clement – probably written by Irenaeus himself again – we hear it said that:

On account of his hospitality and godliness, Lot was saved out of Sodom when all the country around him was punished by means of fire and brimstone, the Lord thus making it manifest that He does not forsake those who hope in Him, but gives up those who depart from Him to punishment and torture. For Lot's wife, who went forth with him, being of a different mind from himself and not continuing in agreement with him [as to the command which had been given them], was made an example of, so as to be a pillar of salt to this day. This was done that all might know that those who are of a double mind, and who distrust the power of God, who become a judgment and a sign to all succeeding generations [emphasis mine]. 

In other words, it would seem that Hill can’t believe that Irenaeus would view Blandina the martyr as being of a ‘double mind.’ Yet at the same time he has already spotted that Irenaeus clearly equated Blandina with Lot’s wife.  Could it be that Irenaeus argued for a parallel because he originally harbored the view that Blandida was guilty of the crime of being 'double-minded'?

It would seem that a careful view of the evidence reveals that indeed Blandina was one of the Markan 'pseudo-martyrs’ whose double-mindedness was buried in the original report of the anonymous noble women duped by the followers of Mark.   We say there of these 'false witnesses' that:

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;"[emphasis mine] possessing this as the fruit from the seed of the children of knowledge." 

It is absolutely impossible not to see that Lot’s wife’s ‘double-mindedness’ is an epitome of the conundrum that the Markan women of the Rhone valley found themselves in – and undoubtedly too for the historical Blandina, that is before Irenaeus developed a caricature of her in his later hagiography.

In other words, the three texts line up as reflections of one underlying historical truth - there was a persecution in Gaul in 177 CE which originally involved only the followers of Mark and for which Irenaeus developed a complex mystical interpretation using the example of Lot's wife in the Bible.  When Irenaeus almost fifteen years later went on to develop a completely made up account of the same historical event he didn't just invent things out of thin air.  He transformed the 'double-minded' female followers of Mark who couldn't make the choice between suffering for their beliefs or coming over to the Catholic Church into the figure of Blandina.  In so choosing death she as a living martyr of God became a symbol against double-mindedness, that is Irenaeus was essentially saying that by killing the heretics we turn them into statues witnessing the cause of the 'great Church.' 

As such there was no disconnect between Irenaeus's original siding with the Imperial government and his later praise of martyrdom.  After all, the only good heretic was a dead one, or at least with respect to those individuals who refused to confess their sins and come over to the Church.  The real effort was in rooting out 'double-mindedness.'  The sacrifice of the martyrs was divinely ordained because it served the purpose of ultimately purifying Christianity.  We should therefore expect that all the martyrs who were killed during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus and the later Severan Emperors - a period stretching for over fifty years were not only heretics but specifically unrepentant followers of Mark. 

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