Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Chapter Eighteen] Final Edit

Bearing the Marks of Christ

According to Irenaeus’s account of Markan gnosis Jesus was the heavenly portion of the stigma or the sixth letter of the alphabet which 'fled' from the heavenly assembly. This letter, sometimes identified as ‘the lost sheep’ was ultimately 'redeemed' with the descent of Jesus. The 'disappearance' of the 'F' in heaven is attested by the fact that the episemon is not used in the Greek alphabet. Jesus redeems his own by having them branded with his sign. There are various individuals identified with this ‘lost sheep’ – Mary Magdala, Judas, Simon and even Paul.1

We have seen that from the very beginning, Christianity seems centrally focused on the redemption of fugitivi. The Roman persecution of Christians with branding irons in the late second century seems to have developed as a conscious imitation of pre-existent ‘sealing rites.’ What is the historical origin of this practice? There is certainly no way to definitively establish how this tradition began. Nevertheless it may be worth engaging in a little speculation.  

The Hebrew equivalent of the digamma or episenon is vav the sixth letter of the Semitic alphabet. There is a well establishment mystical association with this letter. Above all else it symbolizes man as Adam was created on the sixth day and men are supposed to work for six days. In the middle of the last century the French scholar A. Dupont-Sommer discovered a thin metal plate inscribed in Aramaic in which Christ is given the name vav.2 There are many other representations of the vav appearing as a substitute for Jesus.3 Yet none of these things gets us any closer to coming to terms with the origin of the Markan practice of symbolically branding their initiates with the sixth letter of the alphabet.

The closest we get to an early reference to this practice in Christianity is Revelations chapter 13’s mention of a charagma – stamp, brand – of three sixes. There we read:

The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is χξς'.

It shouldn’t be too hard to see that the ‘three sixes’ is simply a poetic outgrowth of the original practice of branding a single sixth letter which interestingly appears as the last figure in most cursive texts. The early fourth century writer Lactantius ties the marking to branding when he writes “as many as shall believe him and unite themselves to him, shall be marked by him as sheep; but they who shall refuse his mark will either flee to the mountains, or, being seized, will be slain with studied tortures.”4

The tradition associated with Irenaeus and Hippolytus associate the word ‘Latin’ with the numbers. This is an important clue. The basic idea in Revelations is that a Roman Emperor is trying to brand the faithful with a symbol.  The Psalms of Solomon, a Jewish text written in Greek of no certain period speaks of the destruction of the Jewish religion in the following terms:

When the sinner waxed proud, with a battering-ram he cast down fortified walls, and Thou didst not restrain (him).
Alien nations ascended Thine altar, they trampled (it) proudly with their sandals;
Because the sons of Jerusalem had defiled the holy things of the Lord, had profaned with iniquities the offerings of God.
Therefore He said: Cast them far from Me; it was set at naught before God, it was utterly dishonoured;
The sons and the daughters were in grievous captivity, sealed (sphragidi) was their neck, branded (episemw) was it among the nations.

It is amazing to see the very word episemon appear in a description of the Roman destruction and profaning of the temple.

While most commentators place the Psalms of Solomon at the time of Pompey’s capture of Jerusalem, their obvious connection with the Book of Baruch makes it possible that both are referencing the destruction of Jerusalem under Vespasian.  Whatever the case, it makes plain what happened to the Jewish captives in 70 CE even if Josephus - our lone surviving historical witness - does not specifically make reference to it.  The Jews were branded with a symbol, possibly the sixth letter of the alphabet. 

What Josephus does say however is that after the destruction of the temple the captured Jews were taken away as slaves. Indeed a careful reading of the passage which details these events makes clear the branding must have occurred:

And now, since his soldiers were already quite tired with killing men, and yet there appeared to be a vast multitude still remaining alive, Caesar gave orders that they should kill none but those that were in arms, and opposed them, but should take the rest alive. But, together with those whom they had orders to slay, they slew the aged and the infirm; but for those that were in their flourishing age, and who might be useful to them, they drove them together into the temple, and shut them up within the walls of the court of the women; over which Caesar set one of his freed-men, as also Fronto, one of his own friends; which last was to determine every one's fate, according to his merits. So this Fronto slew all those that had been seditious and robbers, who were impeached one by another; but of the young men he chose out the tallest and most beautiful, and reserved them for the triumph; and as for the rest of the multitude that were above seventeen years old, he put them into bonds, and sent them to the Egyptian mines [emphasis mine].

Josephus gives the number of those that were carried captive during this war was collected to be ninety-seven thousand. Those sent to the mines were first branded to ensure they would be easily recaptured if they escaped.  This is clear in a note from Suetonius from a slightly earlier period - "they were first disfigured by branding marks, and then he condemned them to the mines, to work on the roads, and to wild beast."  We will see shortly that Constantine actually abolished the practice because so many Christians endured this brutality in the third century. 

Indeed the very same idea also appears in relation to the Jews in a passage from John Chrysostom ostensibly detailing a previously unknown 'Jewish revolt' under Constantine:

the Emperor saw what they tried to do, cut off their ears, and left on their bodies this mark of their disobedience. He then had them led around everywhere, like runaway slaves and scoundrels, so all might see their mutilated bodies and always think twice before ever attempting such a revolt. 'Yet these things happened very long ago,' the Jews will say. But I tell you that the incident is well known to those of us who are somewhat on in years and are already old men."

Chrysostom acts as if there was a recent revolt by the Jews that was put down by Constantine. However no such revolt ever occurred. Chrysostom has clearly taken a story about the destruction of the temple in 70 CE – perhaps Justin of Tiberias’s lost Chronicle – and recast it as recent history.

It is worth noting in a close parallel to the episemon, there are almost no native Hebrew words that begin with the letter vav. Most of the words found to being with the sixth letter are foreign terms. For instance the Latin word velum begins with a vav in Aramaic. So too we must originally suppose for the name Vespasian when the Jews were living under his rule.7 Could it be that episemon that the Jews were branded with derives from the first letter of Vespasians name translated into Hebrew (= vav)? Or is it simply that the Jews were identified as fugitives and branded with an F?

There were a number of other occasions when Jews are said to have been branded by their rulers. We read in the Hellenistic period in the document 3 Maccabees where Ptolemy IV wanted to brand them with a 'charakter' of the type that was impressed on the bodies of slaves and war captives. As Aryeh Kasher note there exists a papyrus dating from the start of the Ptolemaic period "dealing with sailors marked with the royal brand and with ways of recovering them if they fled. That the men were slaves or war captives employed as royal sailors and consequently branded with the king's brand was proven by those scholars, who also recalled the testimony in 3 Maccabees (II 20). The branding was usually done with a hot iron, to criminals as well as slaves and war captives."5

To this end it is certainly not clear whether the episemon that was stamped upon the Jews was supposed to denote ‘fugitive,’ Vespasian or even Liternius Fronto the leader of the soldiers from Alexandria mentioned in Josephus. Perhaps we will never know for certain. While one might expect a Roman V to denote the first letter in the name Vespasian. Vespasian after all was now the Emperor and the captives were presumably his property.  It was well established in antiquity that the letters F and V were the Latin representatives of the digamma. The digamma, the Latin V and the Hebrew vav all originally represented the vowel W sound.

In a famous passage Dionysius of Halicarnassus describes the digamma and explicitly declares, that it was the syllable ou written in a single letter, giving as an example in Greek Ouelia (Felia) the Latin Velia. The name Vespasian is similarly transposed into Greek i.e. 'Ouespasian.'6 The fact that the Aramaic texts of the rabbinic literature transpose the Greek spelling of the Emperor’s name rather than the expected use of a vav is unexpected. There are certainly a number of possible explanations. One might even attribute this to the stigma associated with the first letter of his name.7

To this end we may suppose that long before the persecutions of 177 CE there was a mystical understanding likely rooted in the cataclysmic events of 70 CE We quite possibly see some reference to this understanding in the apostle’s statements in his letter to the Galatians - "you see these big letters" (Galatians 6:11), "I bear the mark of Jesus branded on my body" (Galatians 6:14) as well as repeated mention of him being ‘the slave of God’ and ‘slave of Christ.’ We may argue that the implication of such branding to fugitive slaves was already recognized in the parable of the lost sheep, already branded with the same stigma, and restored to its original owner after 'wandering' or 'frisking' away.8

The idea then that Christianity originated from the circumstances of the end of Judaism with its surviving Jewish priesthood having been branded and thus rendered impure by the old Law of Moses is extremely interesting from a Marcionite perspective. As Gerhard Kittel notes there is a repeated juxtaposition between tattooing and circumcision in the Jewish community immediately after the destruction of the temple. The figure of Ben Stada – often identified as Jesus – is associated with such branding. “did not ben Stada bring forth witchcraft from Egypt by means of marks [biseritah] upon his flesh?” It is not clear why Jesus is called ben Stada or what ‘Stada’ means. Joshua Schwartz argues for an identification of Peter with Ben Stada.9

The bad kings of Israel like Jehoiachin are said to have set aside the sign of circumcision and had letters deeply tattooed on himself. As Kittel notes “it is no accident that the repudiation of circumcision is directly connected with tattooing here, for a royal parable brings the stigma of the Gentiles and the seal of Abraham (circumcision) into comparison.” Susanna Elm an Associate Professor of History at the University of California Berkeley has written an interesting study of traditions associated with tattooing in earliest Christianity and has noted that the situation is much more complex than most people realize.

There are certainly explicit mentions of the early Phrygian heresy engaging in such practices. Most famously Augustine alludes to their preparing the eucharist “as it were, from the blood of a year old child which they draw off from its whole body by means of minute puncture wounds, and to mix it with the flour, and whence make bread. If the child dies they consider him to be a martyr; if he lives he is considered to be a high priest.” The word here for puncture marks is stigmata and the association with puncturing is found in its verbal root stizw (= prick or puncture) which Elm notes “is quite straightforwardly ‘a tattoo-mark; especially of a slave or a soldier.’” Lucian referencing the Christian Peregrinus mockingly predicts that he will soon have his own cult with priests worshipping him with "whips or brand-marks or some such monstrosity."10

The reality is that the various pagan cults had already established the power of such brandings. The magical use of bodily markings is displayed in the Syrian cult of Atargatis and Philo of Alexandria laments of its appeal to some contemporary Jews.11 But what we are suggesting here is that the branding that came upon the victims of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem was involuntary. Indeed these markings would have instantly rendered the Jewish priesthood impure. How then did Judaism continue immediately go on in the complete profaning of those whose duty it was to perpetuate the worship of the divinity. It has always been my assumption that Christianity developed out of this historical problem. The heretical Markan tradition wasn’t so much expressing ‘antinomian’ ideas as it was historical transformation of Judaism into a fugitive religion after the destruction of the temple.

So it was that the letter branded on the heads of the priests necessarily took on some mystical significance. The natural outgrowth of this situation was to presuppose that it represented the ownership of the community by God. Elm points to similar ideas within neighboring pagan religions. A papyrus from the Ptolemaic period describes a runaway slave from Arargatis' central sanctuary in Hierapolis, ancient Bambyke in Syria, who had "barbarian letters" tattooed onto his right wrist. It has been argued that these represented the initials of Atargatis and her consort Hadad.12 Moreover Elm calls attention to Herodotus’s description of a temple devoted to an Egyprian god he calls Heracles: "If a slave, who-ever his master be, flees here and applies the sacred stigmata, giving himself to the God, it is forbidden to lay hold of him." Slaves who run away from their earthly master and "give themselves to the God," symbolizing this act through a voluntary application of 'sacred stigmata," will achieve immunity, and thus freedom from earthly bondage.”13

Again it must be noted that a Jew would have been forbidden to voluntarily enter a pagan sanctuary and partake in such a ritual. What we are supposing happened by contrast is that as part of the victimization of the Jewish nation in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple the priesthood and many others were actual physical branding with a letter by hot iron. The gospel of Mark develops from this reality as it was written almost at the same time as this took place. Jesus is specifically identified as the episemon, the very mark that was branded on the Jews. As Irenaeus and Clement have already reported to us, the tradition of Mark took it as especially significant the many places were the number six or episemon appeared because it was a foreshadowing of what it called the redemption of Israel.

To this it is not surprising that the Sibylline Oracles refer to the cross as the ‘illustrious episemon’ as we shall see the cross being conceived as with Justin Martyr as a six pointed star. Moreover it is important to note that Barabbas the man who is substituted for Jesus at the Passion is not only identified as named ‘Jesus’ in some of the earliest manuscripts but moreover specifically the episemon – i.e. “they had moreover then a prisoner episemon, named Bar Abbas.” The fact that this prisoner is released by the authorities should make it obvious that he was originally conceived as a symbol of the historical redemption.

As Helen Bond notes with the existing story “Peter and Barabbas each in their own way, form a contrast to Jesus that speaks to the situation of Mark's audience. Peter is a sympathetic character, however, who despite his betrayal is finally reinstated (16:7); Barabbas is an irredeemably negative example. He stands for those who have led God's people into revolution and bloody civil war, whose desire for power and self-aggrandizement (even if couched in nationalistic terms) can only lead to destruction.”14 Bond also recognizes that there are remarkable similarities between Jesus and Barabbas. “Not only could the phrase 'famous prisoner' (episemon) also be applied to Jesus, but the name of the second prisoner was quite possibly Jesus Barabbas. Matthew shows a particular interest in the etymologies of names (cf. 1:21, 23; 16:18); and although he does not explain Barabbas' name here, it seems unlikely that the irony of the name and its application to both prisoners would have been lost on him.”

What Bond does not recognize of course is that our surviving texts of the gospels only imperfectly derive their origins from a lost exemplar – the secret gospel of Mark. Jesus baptized Peter in a redemptive rite which led Jesus’s divine soul to enter Peter. We have already seen the manner in which there is great ambiguity in the original trial narrative. The figure named ‘Peter’ denies that ‘he is him,’ the physical anthropos or man they are looking for. It is clear however that Peter and Jesus are standing together in the same room just before Jesus is brought before the Sanhedrin.

In the subsequent scene the name change to Jesus the Son of the Father is made. The understanding would have been seen as entirely superficial to the original tradition of Mark because they – like Clement – knew that Jesus had just baptized Peter and that he contained within him the divine soul of Jesus, hence the reference to other Jesus and Jesus’s statement before Pilate ‘behold the man.’ The underlying assumption of the tradition would have been that all that was crucified was the physical anthropos or Adam. As Irenaeus notes about the original interpretation of the lost gospel of Mark “those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the Gospel by Mark, if they read it with a love of truth, may have their errors rectified.”

Yet we should finally see that this is not the incorrect way of reading Mark but in fact the only way we can ever properly understand the original concept of redemption. As Elm notes, the Book of Revelations is grounded in the very same branding/slave tradition. The address to the seven churches in Asia Minor begins:

The revelarion (apokalypsis) of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show• his slaves (tois doulois autou) must soon rake place; he made it known by sending his angels to his slave (doulos) John

The one addressed to the church in Philadelphia, similarly states:

Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world .... I am coming soon .... I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God .... (Rev 3. 10-13)

And then again, Elms notes, in Revelation 7.2-3 we read:

I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal (sphragis) of the living God, and he called out with a loud voice ....Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the slaves (douloi) of our God with a seal on their foreheads

The point of course is that God’s sealing is understood to be juxtaposed against the “number of the beast” mentioned earlier with Revelation 14 mentioning “the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were one hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads."

As Elm notes “the slaves of God, marked with his seal on their forehead, are contrasted in Rev 13.16-19 and 20.4 to those subject to the Beast, who, in turn, bear its mark, "that is the beast's name or the number that Stands for the name," placed on their right hand and on their foreheads. Rev 20 then promises those who had proclaimed the truth (martyrein), had not sacrificed to the Beast and hence did not bears its marks, eternal rulership as "priests of God and of Christ" (Rev 20.6).  Elm goes on to note that this understanding of the significance of sealing and branding never quite disappears from the writings of the later Church Fathers. While these writers typically refer disdainfully to the pagan practice of religious tattooing there are countless examples of a parallel symbolism in Christianity.

 It is said for instance that the martyr Glyceria had the mark of the cross inscribed on her forehead so that all could see it.15 The hero of the Acta Maximiliani refused to accept the military tattoos because his forehead is already marked by Christ; a possibly late fourth-century story speaks of a Jewish convert who upon baptism perforated his ear, declaring himself a bond slave of Christ marked by his seal. Procopius of Gaza and Theophylact Simocatta both mention Christians who bore the sign of Christ tattooed on the arms and foreheads, much like the statues of Livia and Augustus, whose crosses, carved into their foreheads during late antiquity, still here for us to see.

While Theodoret of Cyrhus spends a great deal of time condemning pagan tattooing he can also speak of the bishops present at Nicaea who had suffered in the Great Persecurion, as bearing "in their bodies the marks of Christ." Shortly before, Constantine bad issued an edict stipulating that those sent to work in the mines should no Ionger be tattooed on their foreheads (minime in eius facie scibatur) - probably aware that some Christians bad recently suffered exactly such a fare. However, Hilary of Poitiers, in an invective against the "Arian" Constanius II says: "On your order the [orthodox] bishops ... have been deposed, and now their ecclesiastic foreheads have been rein-scribed with the title "condemned to the mines." Again according to Theodoret, when Valen's anti-Nicene policies led to bishop Damasus of Rome's condemnation to the copper-mines of Phaeno, he went "with the mark of the sacred Cross upon his brow."

These texts, all of them from the late fourth/early fifth century, refer to stigmata received as a result of religious persecution, either by "pagans" or at the band of "Arian" heretics. In this context, stigmata are signs of martyrdom designating a "confessor." Bur these were not the only markings symbolizing martyrdom. In the 340's Ephrem of Nisibis wrote that it was the meaning of asceticism to be like a martyr, to make each member of one's body a martyr "worthy of suffering." Ascetics were to imitate Christ: mortification took the "place of the nails ... and of the thorns," "to carry the pain of the cross .... If you are truly his, put on his suffering." To be an ascetic meant "subjugation of the body," "everyone who bends his neck and serves in this institution, is regarded as dead."

Interestingly Severian of Gabala instructs his catechumens that the seal of baptism is a sign that renders the receiver recognizable to God's angels in the hereafter; without it they are lost like unbranded sheep. John of Damascus states that "through baptism we receive the holy Spirit dwelling in us, which is a royal seal with which the Lord brands his own sheep." John Chrysostom explains that through baptism the Christian has become a king, priest, and prophet; he has been sealed in the same manner as soldiers whose forehead has been sealed with the emperor's sphragis: like a soldier who deserts, he who deserts Christ's service be recognized by all men.


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