Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Chapter Two]

In the end, the truth about the Catholic Church is already known to us.  No one who has ever sat and stood through one of its services can doubt its original from Roman values.  Is there anyone, anywhere at anytime in history who was struck by the Jewishness of its sacramenta?   Yet at the very same time, we can't trust the arbitrary 'sense' of Protestants throughout the ages to help us restore the authentic core of the religion.  In order for us to get to that understanding, we first have to uncover how it was that the religion became corrupted in the beginning - or at least near to the very beginning

It all comes down to Irenaeus's effort to please the Imperial government.  As we shall see this effort culminated in its embracing - or as some might say a little more cautiously, imitating - the Imperial cult of the Emperor as cosmocrator (world ruler).  What is important for us to know, is that the development of this practice has been traced by scholars from the beginning of the Empire and there is a noticeable spike in the interest in the decade following a massive rebellion that started in Egypt c. 172 CE.  One can make a strong case that the rule of Commodus was defined by this insurgency and that it prompted him to test the loyalties of all subjects that might be suspected of harboring revolutionary sentiment. 

It is very important to note along these very lines that it was Commodus made invictu (= invincible) a component of the imperial title.  He also had the sun God prominently portrayed on his coins.  To this end it can be argued that Commodus was at once regarded by his subjects as world ruler (cosmocrator), the earthly representative through whom shone the divinity of Sol Invictus (the Invincible Sun).  The actual titles he used to reinforce this understanding were Pacator Orbis (pacifier of the world) and Dominus Noster (Our Lord).

We can also see this concept expressd in a marble sculpture, an almost entirely intact bust of Commodus as Hercules found in the ruins of an imperial palace on the Esquilin in Rome [see Plate 1].  In superb technical execution, the flabby debouched Emperor is reproduced with all the strength of Hercules, apples of the Hesperides in hand as a testimony to the deeds he has performed. And this entire bust of Imperator Caesar L. Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Pius Felix Sarmaticus Germanicus Maximus Britannicus Pacator Orbis Invictus Hercules Romanus Pontifex Maximus Pater Patriae rests on a pedestal as fine as lace — a symbolic portrait indeed. The bust pedestal comprises a heavenly orb encompassed by a zodiac, so that the Emperor appears as Cosmocrator.1

The important thing for us to see then is that it was the fear of an immanent collapse of Imperial authority that caused Commodus to reinforce the supernatural basis to his authority.  The Catholic Church in particular parroted this line and modified its worship because it saw the immediate advantage of doing so.  By seizing the initiative and transforming the very nature of Christian worship, Irenaeus and his followers distinguished what they claimed was the true faith of the apostles of Jesus from what was supposed to be "later heresies."  Yet we shouldn't fall into the trap of assuming that because their tradition effectively 'won out in history' that their claims to be apostolic were substantive. 

Let's take a parallel example from the same region where Christianity is understood to have emerged.  The Jews and Samaritans had lived side by side on another for centuries.  The Samaritans had been enjoying a greater deal of favor from the Imperial government than their Jewish cousins up until the reign of Commodus.  Yet their refusal to incorporate language imitating the Imperial cosmocrator cult can be argued to explain their falling out of favor with the government from the time of Commodus onward.  By contrast obvious changes to the Jewish liturgy which echoed the language of Imperial propaganda can explain why the Jews experienced much greater peace during the period. 

As the Cambridge History of Judaism notes Rabbi Judah Hanasi introduced the motif into the Emet ve-yatsiv."The career of Judah Hanasi is generaly acknowledged to have spanned the reigns of Commodus to Carcalla.  This prayer that he is said to have modified is one which must be said by Jews in the morning and the evening as part of their religious obligation.  It immediately follows the Shema, which is itself the core of the morning and evening liturgy and tradition says that no interruption may be made between the end of the preceding third paragraph of the Shema and the first words of these prayers. 

Rabbi Judah Hanasi is also said to have incorporated into the Mishnah the position of Rabbi Joshua ben Korha, which maintained that the first two paragraphs of the Shema reflect respectively the acceptance of the authority of divine sovereignty and the acceptance of the authority of the commandments.3  This opened the door to make the Jewish god look more and more like an Imperial monarch. The additional emphasis of the requirement of kingship in the blessing formulary came from Judah Hanasi and his students.  The saying "Blessed are You, the Lord our God, king of the world is not a statement of the Jewish god's opposition to the cult of Caesar but part of the well attested pattern of 'friendship' between Judah Hanasi and the Emperor.4

The new understanding of the God of Israel as the 'king of the world' also appears in a passage of the New Year Amidah which awaits the day when all humanity will proclaim: "The Lord, God of Israel, is king and His kingship rules over everything.”  By incorporating Imperial propaganda into the Jewish liturgy the Jewish leadership demonstrated that it recognized the authority of the Emperor and was willing to see him as a human reflection of their divine principle. This was not a 'counter-cultural' phenomenon but rather a clear case of ingratiating oneself to one's Imperial master.  The claims to the contrary merely result from an uncritical examination of the existing evidence. 

'R Antoninus' is actually attested as a Palestinian scholar of the last tannaitic generation (second and third centuries).  The Jewish Encyclopedia notes that only two Haggadot - i.e. the oral sayings compiled at the time of Judah Hanasi - (Mek., Beshallaḥ, introduction; idem to Ex. xiv. 7) and one Halakah(Yer. Hor. iii. 48a) have come down from him.  Both passages are centrally concerned, not surprisingly with the importance of kingship and the recognition of the Jewish god as 'king.' 

In the first-mentioned passage he illustrates the verse (Ex. xiii. 21): "And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them by the way," etc., by a simile:

A king had held court till darkness set in, his sons all the while attending him. On leaving the tribunal, the king took up a torch and lighted the way for his sons; whereupon the courtiers said to him, 'We will take up the torch and carry the light before thy sons'; but the king replied, 'It is not because I have none to do it in my stead, but I wish to manifest my affection for my sons, that ye may honor them accordingly.' Thus did the Holy One, blessed be He, make known His love for the people of Israel that the world might learn to treat them with honor. But, alas! not only does the world not do so, but it decrees upon them one mode of death after the other, each one severer than the last.

The Mekilta - a compilation of scriptural exegesis - in both instances gives "Antoninus" as the author, and so does Yalḳ., Ex. 228, 230, in which, through a transposition of words, Rabbi is introduced as telling something about Emperor Antoninus.

The reality is that there is nothing about the Christian use of cosmocrator that substantively different from what we see in Judaism or even paganism. As such it seems highly implausible to argue that any or every one of these faiths began appropriating Imperial language for the purpose of developing a ‘counter culture.’ Instead it seems far more reasonable to assume that the Emperor took the adoption of the cosmocrator motif as a sign of Judah's acceptance of the Roman Emperor as a living representation of the divine ruler.  In other words, it should be taken to represent an attempt at flattery and hypocrisy – in the most literal sense of the term - by factions within these all these separate religions, to solidify their hold on power within their respective communities.

In a famous story in Genesis Rabbah - an early rabbinic exegesis of the Book of Genesis - we hear the Judah Hanasi once told R' Afess to write a letter in his name to “our lord, the emperor Antoninus.” R' Afess wrote, “From Judah Hanasi to our lord, the emperor Antoninus.” Judah read the letter, tore it up, and wrote, “To our lord the emperor your servant Yehudah.” R' Afess asked him, “Rabbi, why are you lowering your dignity?" Judah Hanasi responded, “Am I better than my ancestor? Did he not declare (Gen. 32:5): 'Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Yaakov . . .'?  The point is immediately clear.  Judah Hanasi only appeared to be servile and ingratiating to the Emperor but in the end the nation of Israel would triumph over Rome.  

Yet Baumgartner points to a much earlier version of the same saying which makes the same point even more explicitly:

And thus our rabbi used to write to Antoninus: Your servant Judah prays for your well being in order to give honor to the Empire.5

As Baumgartner himself notes "I propose that some critics of R. Judah I and the story of R. with the Romans originated of his cooperation that he really was Antoninus's inferior."  Baumgartner goes on to add other examples of his closeness to Imperial cultural sentiment.  "R. Judah I, we are told, bathed publicly in Sepphoris on the 17th of Tammuz (TJ Meg. 1, 1, 70b), his conviction that it was not a fast day." This thus demonstrating his conviction that it was not a fast day but also that being naked in the company with Gentiles was in no way problematic.  As we shall see shortly Irenaeus similarly transformed the records of the Christian martyrs of the period.  

Baumgartner points to one other absolutely significant example of Judah's 'reforms' which we can view as betraying his corruption of traditional values:

R. Judah I not only wanted to end the observance of the three minor fasts, he wanted to abolish the more stringent day of national mourning, the 9th of Ab.  All these actions provoked opposition: we are explicitly told that "the sages" blocked the attempt to abolish the 9th of Ab What justification could R. Judah I offer for these innovations.  Alon and Urbach have both suggested that R. Judah I believed that his were days of prosperity, peace, and national restoration.  Observance of these fasts was therefore no longer mandatory. Perhaps R. Judah I believed that he was living in the messianic age

As we shall see shortly of our examination of the writings of Irenaeus writing in the age of Commodus, the exact same understanding is repeated over and over again.  In the language of Irenaeus, living in the time of Commodus was the 'redemption' prophesied in the typology of the ancient Israelites coming to the Promised Land. 

Yet the parallel developments of not only the same 'messianic' association with the reign of Commodus but at once the shared adoption of the cosmocrator interest points to a nefarious underpinnings to the system.  Commodus demanded these changes not only from Jews or Christians but all the people under his rule.  It should be remembered again that Commodus was the first to be addressed as ‘our Lord.'  This demand upon all the people of the Empire is reflected in an intriguing piece of evidence from Dio. Complaining about Commodus' treatment of senators in the amphitheater, Dio writes, “For in addition to other things, we used to shout out whatever we were commanded, especially the following words continuously: 'you are master (kurios) and you are first and you are of all men most fortunate'.”

Against this backdrop of corruption and Imperial favor in the Jewish tradition at the time of Judah Hanasi we see the exact opposite manifesting itself in the chronicles of the Samaritans - the northern Israelite neighbors of the Jews.  Indeed the Samaritans experienced an age ruthless persecutions owing to their refusal to adhere to the Emperor's wishes.  The full entry in the Samaritan Chronicle reads:

After Eleazer, ‘Aqbun was High Priest for 23 years. ln the days of this ‘Aqbun, terrible hardships fell upon the Samaritans from Commodus the king — worse than anything that had befallen them from Hadrian. He forbade them to read the Torah; he closed the schools of learning and (forbade) all instruction in the Law. He bolted shut the Synagogues. The High Priests fled, The High Priests fled, as did the wise men, from the tyranny of Commodus the king on account of the great number whom he killed and crucified in every place.

The reason for this (persecution) was a debate that took place in his presence between Levi and a man from his (Commodus') community called Alexander Aphridisias, from Aphridisias, concerning the coming-into-being of the world. Alexander said that its Substance and Prime Matter were eternal and that the Creator only provided the Form and Accidents. Levi replied that Substance and Matter need an originator, just as Form and Accidents do. To this, Alexander retorted, "This would lead to a situation where the world would not be possible and where God would have no power to bring it into being. . For, if he had the power from the first, then before that it cannot have been possible. And yet, if before that it were impossible, this would be a restriction, and there can be no restriction on his power."

Levi said that the world was possible of existence ab aetemo and that no time could be conceived in which the coming-into-being of the world could not be conceived. "lf it were to be supposed that the world simply 'existed' without being created and it be tried to prove that this belongs to the realm of possibility, then this would be a figment of the imagination — an intellectual fiction — and the world would be insubstantial and immaterial. And if something were to exist such as Matter and Substance, then it would exist de se. This existence must be either possible or necessary. lf it were possible, then the argument would be as before. lf it were necessary, however, then it would share with the first Almighty One in eternal existence. And if it did thus share, it would not change either in toto or in paribus, for change is an effect and an effect presupposes an Agent. For the one thing cannot be both Matter and Agent under any aspect.

The debate between them dragged on, with argument and polemic . The situation reached the stage where the possibility of the Creator's "Speaking" was denied. And the Mission of the Messengers is (implicitly) denied by whoever denies that the trustworthy Message has been uttered .( 690) Perhaps more of the discourse of this question ought to have been given here. But I have related it as I found it, and as much as I could cope with.

The situation became such that Commodus took umbrage, and said, "These people have perverted our faith, and have maliciously watered down what our sect regards as traditional, and they have acted in a hostile manner towards us.” So, he stretched out his hands, and many of their wise men were burnt to death; and the eyes of some of them were put out with red-hot iron pokers. He wiped out a great number of people, taking the Books of Chronicles which they had, as well as the Hymns which used to be recited over the Offerings.

In his day Galen the Physician had been an instructor of Commodus . Commodus ordered that the flesh of swine should be sold in every place and that it should be used with all that was eaten and drunk, so as to defile the Samaritans. He also forbade the Samaritans to open a Synagogue for themselves to pray or to read (the Torah) in. Many of the priests fled as from the sword. He took 100 elderly men from among the Chiefs of the Samaritans, and said to them, "Worship the idols". They refused, so he had them burnt to death. He captured 40 priests and dipped a bunch of grapes in pigs' fat and said to them, "Eat it !" They refused, so he heated iron pokers in a fire until they became red-hot and then put them in their eyes. Then he captured another 40 and said to them, "Eat this bunch (of grapes)". They refused, so he crushed them under the stones of the wine press. Then he took 40 of the High Priests "Eat this bunch (of grapes)". They refused, so he had them flung from the top of the fortress and no one dared bury them

He crucified numbers of them, and (other) people he beheaded and the dogs ate their corpses. The Chiefs of the Empire said to him, "If you want all "these Samaritans to embrace our religion, and to bow down to images, then summon their High Priest ‘Aqbun, for he is their model. Compel him to bow down, and all the others will follow him". Now ‘Aqbun was an extremely wealthy man. They sought him, and out of fear he hid himself. They looked for him in the Mountains and in caves, but they did not succeed in finding him. So the king instructed his servants, "Confiscate his wealth and burn down his house.”

This they did, and in burning down his house, they burnt in it the Prayers, the Songs of Praise and the Hymns which used to be recited on the Sabbath and Festivals and which had been handed down from the days of Divine Grace. And it was said to the High Priest 'Akbon: "All that is yours has been taken and your house is burnt down". And he answered and said "All is from God and it belongs to God, and if they have obtained mastery over me and my abode, I submit myself to affliction and destruction but I will not disavow God nor Moses, His prophet, nor His law." So they seized his two sons and the King said to them: "Worship idols." And they said: "We will die, but we will not worship other than God the Merciful."

And they inserted sticks under their nails and they flayed them alive and they put them to death with all torture and they cast their corpses to the dogs; and they hanged on the walls of Nablus thirty-six priests and they did not take down their corpses until they fell of themselves. And in the days of this King Commodus (may God curse him) none taught his son the Torah, except one out of a thousand and two out of a myriad secretly. And Commodus ruled thirty-two years and he died (may God not have mercy on him).6

The Samaritan Chronicler is recognized to have used multiple historical sources no longer available to us. But the testimony of the Samaritan persecutions dovetails perfectly with what we have reconstructed from Christian sources at the time.  There were clear consequences for not playing ball with Commodus as well as tangible rewards for those that did. 

Indeed one may also draw one other inference from the Samaritan Chronicler - the pagan philosophers or 'sophists' as they were called, were a good barometer of the sentiment of the Imperial court.  As Barbara Levick notes in her book on the Imperial court at the time of Commodus's successor Septimius Severus that "the court was a magnet. The first occasion in the reign of Severus when men of culture are mentioned as being assembled at court is during the imperial tour of Africa, when the emperor gathered 'men of talent from all over the world'.”7 It should should be recognized that these men had strong careers of service dating back to the time of Commodus.  The medical writer Galen was not only part of the inner cabal of 'sophists' during the reign of Septimius Severus but also the tutor of Commodus.

Yet it is interesting to note that the figure mentioned in the Samaritan Chronicle - the eminent Aristotelean commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias - lived on and was ultimately rewarded for his good service to the Empire during the reigns of Septimius Severus and Caracalla. He became the head of the Peripathetic School in Athens c. 198 – 200 CE.  A similar sort of relationship between 'Imperial philosopher' and persecuted religion was that of Celsus of Rome and Christianity.  Unlike Alexander, there is no direct evidence that Celsus had intercourse with Christians before the persecutions of 177 CE or that his writings led to the slaughter of believers.  Nevertheless it is an important example of the pagan writers of the time 'recommending' as it were a complete transformation of a pre-existent faith owing their refusal to recognize the principle of 'monarchia.' 

It should also be noted, as something of an unexplained historical curiosity, that both the Samaritans and persecuted Christians had as their spiritual teacher, an elusive 'Pythagorean' named Mark ...

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