Friday, October 18, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Chapter Sixteen] Final Edit

Mastering a Slave Religion

It is difficult to maintain a straight face sometimes when prominent scholars question the authenticity of the Letter to Theodore. Their presupposition it would seem is that it is unbecoming of a Church Father to practice deception. Why would Clement of Alexandria encourage his followers to deny that Mark wrote the gospel or that there even was a secret gospel of Mark? The answer they don’t seem to want to consider e is that Christianity might have been a crypto-religion right from the beginning. The imperative to hide the truth from outsiders is made explicit in Jesus’s justification for using parables and is now at last made manifest in the restored understanding of Peter’s denial before the authorities.

Celsus of course testifies to this exact phenomenon, he says it loud and clear – i.e. Christianity was a secret association. It could be no other way because it was part of the attraction of being a member of a fugitive faith. The fact that Irenaeus wanted to Christians to behave in an entirely different manner – that is to openly declare themselves as believers and die as martyrs – is of no consequence to this discussion. As noble a sentiment as this sentiment may have been, it simply was not shared by the tradition associated with St Mark.

We should pay careful attention to the manner in which Christians are described to not only cultivate 'secrecy' but moreover long for 'redemption' in the account of the Markan tradition in Gaul. That the majority of Christians who perished in the persecution were slaves is made explicit from the surviving testimony of the Church Father. As such their attachment to a mystical doctrine of 'redemption' had extra significance in the eyes of the contemporary authorities. They must have worried that Christianity was part of a broader effort to get slaves to help overturn the social order. The adoption rites of the Markan faithful must have been understood as part of that plan to take over the world.

If we limit ourselves for the moment to the situation in Gaul for instance is not hard to imagine the easy with which heretics might have found hiding places in its wooded regions. Already at the time of Commodus we see the future Emperor Septimius Severus struggling with the problem of runaway fugitives in his backyard. Severus is said to have governed all of Gaul – an area close to that of modern France - with no military force under his command, and only a five hundred strong Urban Cohort at Lugdunum. After the revolt in Egypt and Syria it might not be unreasonable to assume that his predecessor simply overreacted with the discovery of large numbers of Christians under his watch.

Roman historians report that a certain Maternus led a band of deserters and runaway slaves to terrorize the countryside during the reign of Commodus. 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. The Christians of St Mark must have been mistaken for a similar group of troublemakers and the authorities reacted with typical harshness against them.

Historians have uncovered a pattern of such desperadoes living in the wilderness of Gaul including the defeated soldiers of Clodius Albinus long after 197 CE.1 This problem only became more pronounced as time went on. By the third century they were a permanent fixture in Gallic as the bagaudae were potent insurgents for the next two hundred years. There is even some discussion in later sources that these rebels were identified as the Christians that a fabled Theban Legion refused to fight against in Gaul at the end of the third century. The point is that Christians continued to be identified as fugitives and insurgents in Gaul into the sixth century.

To this end the reason again the persecution of Markan Christians in Gaul might have been so severe was owing to the fact Gaul was poorly governed and offered a lot of places where troublemakers might use to hide and avoid capture. A large number of runaway slaves seemed to have found refuge in the wilderness here. Irenaeus himself frequently describes the heretics as ‘foxes’ in woods and country homes. The job of the heretic hunter is to make a lot of noise so as to drive them out of their hiding places so as to expose them and ultimately kill them.2

To this end it is extremely significant that Irenaeus reports that these modern fugitives 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.3

What is really being said here is that the followers of Mark were part of a crypto-tradition which had already mastered the ability to avoid detection by the Imperial authorities. All other attempts to translate this passage and what follows entirely miss the point. They themselves were almost wholly made up of slaves many of them fugitives. So it is that we should take a second look at the most explicit reference to the Markan heretics in Gaul with respect to what it tells us about their persecution. Irenaeus writes:

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.

This passage obviously reports on those heretics whose ‘magical protection’ – the Homeric helmet of invisibility – failed them and had exposed by the authorities.

We have already seen how this material relates to martyrdom of Blandina. She was according to Irenaeus, Lot’s wife revidus. Yet if we look carefully we also see that there was an incredible amount of force being used against the Markan 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 else would the Imperial government have taken a hot iron and branded the victims of the persecution of 177 CE unless they were slaves? The fact that Irenaeus confirms this very fact to us elsewhere makes clear that the Roman persecutors are reported to be engaged here in the practice of branding runaway slaves with stigmata.

Origen attributes Celsus’s knowledge of this term to some exposure with 1 Timothy 4:2 which reads “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.” Yet this seems doubtful. Celsus was not confusing scripture with history. It makes far better sense to assume that he is reporting contemporary punishments directed against Christians from reliable sources. In fact we should believe that he and Irenaeus – the real author of the Pastoral writings – were commenting on the same contemporary phenomena.4

In Irenaeus’s case of course we see the Church Father was falsely attributing knowledge of the future trials of Christians back to St Paul. Indeed pseudo-Paul, like Irenaeus, actually supposes that the branding of heretics was a good thing. After all he reasons, they were bad people who promoted ‘unsound doctrine.’ Their punishment was entirely deserved. To this end, it is should be seen as an incredible coincidence that these adulterated letters of Paul, should share Irenaeus’s hatred of the original martyrs of Gaul and his understanding that their Roman persecutors were effectively instruments of divine retribution.5

As noted earlier we are not the first to suggest Irenaean authorship of the so-called Pastoral Epistles. Paul is made to speak about the ‘searing of the consciences’ of the heretics 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 Blandina was established by God accordingly to help shake them out of their 'double-mindedness.'

The followers of Marcellina in Rome are similarly said to have been afflicted by this cruel form of punishment by Irenaeus. Marcellina herself is alternatively identified as a Carpocratian or Marcionite heretic.6 Irenaeus speaks of her and her followers as being “cauterized in the right ear-lobes of the persons with a burning iron.” Celsus mentions some Christians at Rome as being similarly called “cauterized in the ear” in the same breath as Marcellians.7 The underlying sense that we have gotten from the material is that the Marcellians actually derived their name from Marcellus which was a cognomen developed from the praenomen Marcus and Marcellina should merely be identified as a self-described daughter of Mark.8

The Valentinian Heracleon also makes reference to “those whose ears were branded with fire as a seal.” Here again we see 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. We already saw De Rebaptismate identify the Markan secret baptism or redemption rite with this same this 'baptism by fire.' The 'fire' may well have been 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.9

Indeed Irenaeus describes these persecutions in the following terms "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." Why on earth then would the authorities 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.10

Of course the specific idea of ‘branding in the ear’ is something of anomaly. 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? The answer may be found in Irenaeus’s writings and his lost original report about the Markan sect.

For we read in the Philosophumena that the followers of Mark “allege that they could not easily declare (to another) what is thus spoken unless one were highly tested, or one were at the hour of death, (when) the bishop comes and whispers into the (expiring one's) ear. And this knavish device (is undertaken) for the purpose of securing the constant attendance upon the bishop of (Marcus') disciples, as individuals eagerly panting to learn what that may be which is spoken at the last, by (the knowledge of) which the learner will be advanced to the rank of those admitted into the higher mysteries.” The author says that he has deliberately maintained silence in regard of these higher mysteries owing to the fact that he does not want their information to reach the minds of his hearers.

Irenaeus also reports that ‘cauterizing the ears’ was the proper antidote to the various attempts of these heretics to spread their evil doctrines. With respect to his teacher Polycarp he reports:

And I can bear witness before God, that if that blessed and presbyter had heard any such thing, he would have cried out, and stopped his ears, exclaiming as he was wont to do: O good God, for what times have You reserved me, that I should endure these things? And he would have fled from the very spot where, sitting or standing, he had heard such words. This fact, too, can be made clear, from his Epistles which he dispatched, whether to the neighbouring Churches to confirm them, or to certain of the brethren, admonishing and exhorting them.

In other words, by physically preventing sound to come through the ears the individual is in fact saving his life from eternal damnation. It would thus be a good and indeed holy act to have the Roman persecutors seal shut the ears of the catechumen. They will note end up condemned forever in the hereafter.

Indeed in one part of the Philosophumena – a section of the text that Celsus certainly read in 177 CE11 - this point is even made more explicit. The true believer is likened to Odysseus cauterizing his ears in order to avoid the teachings of the wicked Sirens:

The pupils of these men, when they perceive the doctrines of the heretics to be like unto the ocean when tossed into waves by violence of the winds, ought to sail past in quest of the tranquil haven. For a sea of this description is both infested with wild beasts and difficult of navigation, like, as we may say, the Sicilian (Sea), in which the legend reports were Cyclops, and Charybdis, and Scylla, and the rock of the Sirens. Now, the poets of the Greeks allege that Odysseus sailed through (this channel), adroitly using (to his own purpose) the terribleness of these strange monsters. For the savage cruelty (in the aspect) of these towards those who were sailing through was remarkable. The Sirens, however, singing sweetly and harmoniously, beguiled the voyagers, luring, by reason of their melodious voice, those who heard it, to steer their vessels towards (the promontory). The (poets) report that Odysseus, on ascertaining this, smeared with wax the ears of his companions, and, lashing himself to the mast, sailed, free of danger, past the Sirens, hearing their chant distinctly. And my advice to my readers is to adopt a similar expedient, viz., either on account of their infirmity to smear their ears with wax, and sail (straight on) through the tenets of the heretics, not even listening to (doctrines) that are easily capable of enticing them into pleasure, like the luscious lay of the Sirens, or, by binding one's self to the Cross of Christ, (and) hearkening with fidelity (to His words), not to be distracted, inasmuch as he has reposed his trust in Him to whom ere this he has been firmly knit, and (I admonish that man) to continue stedfastly (in this faith).

In an uncannily similar manner then Celsus reports “certain among the Christians are called 'cauterized in the ears … and others are styled Sirens, who betray and deceive, and stop their ears, and change into swine those whom they delude.”

It seems highly likely that these two accounts are ultimately related and moreover that Irenaeus was going so far as prescribing the correct antidote to the spread of heretical teachings.12 In short, brand their ears with hot iron bars to prevent the spread of false doctrines. To this end, Irenaeus’s account of the pseudo-confessors of Mark makes clear followers had "deceived many silly women, and defiled them” in Gaul and to have moreover proclaimed:

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’

These rites are clearly being performed on runaway slaves and where ‘redemption' is to be associated with the act of liberating slaves from their earthly masters.12 The attitude of Roman society towards the slave population was that they were brutes who were easily influenced by persuasion. The branding of the ear was clearly conceived as preventative medicine to prevent future revolts.

The uncovering of a large gathering of fugitivi in the ungovernable province of Gaul would have prompted the severest of punishments from the authorities. As we have already seen there is a clearly a sense that the rebellion of 172 - 175 had by now 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." In other words, Cassius had likely started the practice of branding slaves in the ear in Egypt under orders from Caesar and it was subsequently carried over to the provinces.

As such we should see that 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. Irenaeus testifies that in his “own district of the Rhone” these men “have deluded many women, who have their complicity seared with a hot iron.” His Letter of the Christians from Vienne and Lyons begins moreover with the specific mention of redemption – i.e. “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.”

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 the price of ‘re-purchasing' slaves. Nevertheless it often gets overlooked that Dio Cassius identifies the very same concept being at the heart of the original revolt in Boucolia – i.e. the "women of the Bucoli" attempting to "give gold as ransom for their husbands" - in short, redemption.13 To this end we must now conclude that the specific punishment of ‘branding the ear’ of the heretics with a hot iron was chosen as a carefully conceived strategy for dealing with the threat of a Markan Christian revolt. The only question left is determining what that original strategy was, who thought it up and what purpose it was supposed to serve.


7 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.
8 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.
9 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.
11 (Fr. 1 ; van der Horst)  

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