Monthly Archives: September 2005

Menocchio, the peasant, on cheese and maggots (Reformations 4)

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

Carlo Ginzburg’s classic social historical study of an obscure peasant living in Italy provides a fascinating window into popular culture during the late medieval and reformation periods. Menocchio, a peasant miller who considered himself among the poor and yet was also literate at a basic level, was put on trial in Italy during the later inquisitions, church run court-cases against heresy (in the late 1500s). As one witness put it, Menocchio “is always arguing with somebody about the faith just for the sake of arguing – even with the priest” (Ginzberg, p. 2). His well-documented testimony and the perspectives of other peasants and priests on his views (from the court records) provide a picture of an independent thinker who was nonetheless in some respects reflecting a deeper stream of medieval popular religion, as Ginzburg argues.

Quite captivating is Menocchio’s view on creation, his cosmogony, which draws on the analogy of putrefaction:

I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time, and he was made lord, with four captains, Lucifer, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael” (Menocchio as cited by Ginzburg, pp. 5-6 )

The inquisitorial judges just could not get their minds around these elaborate and imaginative ideas of a relatively uneducated peasant. The angels emerged like worms in rotting cheese? God was created as one of these angels? Where did you come up with this stuff, and why do you insist on continually sharing your strange ideas with others (was the sentiment)?

More on Menocchio and popular religion later, which you can also read about in Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (trans. by John and Anne Tedeschi; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992 [1980]).

Ginzburg was among the pioneers of “microhistory“, a type of social history which focusses attention on detailing what we can known about one particular individual, family or village, for instance. You can read an online interview with him about microhistory and his work on the witches’ sabbat here.

Another social historian that engages in microhistory is Natalie Zemon Davis, well known for her book on The Return of Martin Guerre: Imposture and Identity in a Sixteenth-Century Village (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983). As you may know, Martin Guerre’s story was also made into a film (in French, 1982) followed by a less historically-injected Hollywood version called Sommersby (1993), which was instead set in post-Civil War America (rather than a 16th century French village).

Menocchio, the peasant, on cheese and maggots (Reformations 4)

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

Carlo Ginzburg’s classic social historical study of an obscure peasant living in Italy provides a fascinating window into popular culture during the late medieval and reformation periods. Menocchio, a peasant miller who considered himself among the poor and yet was also literate at a basic level, was put on trial in Italy during the later inquisitions, church run court-cases against heresy (in the late 1500s). As one witness put it, Menocchio “is always arguing with somebody about the faith just for the sake of arguing – even with the priest” (Ginzberg, p. 2). His well-documented testimony and the perspectives of other peasants and priests on his views (from the court records) provide a picture of an independent thinker who was nonetheless in some respects reflecting a deeper stream of medieval popular religion, as Ginzburg argues.

Quite captivating is Menocchio’s view on creation, his cosmogony, which draws on the analogy of putrefaction:

I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time, and he was made lord, with four captains, Lucifer, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael” (Menocchio as cited by Ginzburg, pp. 5-6 )

The inquisitorial judges just could not get their minds around these elaborate and imaginative ideas of a relatively uneducated peasant. The angels emerged like worms in rotting cheese? God was created as one of these angels? Where did you come up with this stuff, and why do you insist on continually sharing your strange ideas with others (was the sentiment)?

More on Menocchio and popular religion later, which you can also read about in Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (trans. by John and Anne Tedeschi; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992 [1980]).

Ginzburg was among the pioneers of “microhistory“, a type of social history which focusses attention on detailing what we can known about one particular individual, family or village, for instance. You can read an online interview with him about microhistory and his work on the witches’ sabbat here.

Another social historian that engages in microhistory is Natalie Zemon Davis, well known for her book on The Return of Martin Guerre: Imposture and Identity in a Sixteenth-Century Village (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983). As you may know, Martin Guerre’s story was also made into a film (in French, 1982) followed by a less historically-injected Hollywood version called Sommersby (1993), which was instead set in post-Civil War America (rather than a 16th century French village).

The Coptic Gospel of Thomas and an interesting online debate (NT Apocrypha 13)

The Coptic Gospel of Thomas (available online here), not to be confused with the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (see my earlier post) or the Acts of Thomas, is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus without any narrative framework (just sayings), many of which have parallels in the canonical gospels. It seems quite clear, however, that The Gospel of Thomas is independent of these other gospels in the forms of the sayings it preserves, including the following version of the banquet parable which offers little interpretation and differs from the spin that other gospels have Jesus put on this parable:

“Jesus said: Someone was receiving guests. When he had prepared the dinner, he sent his slave to invite the guests. 2The slave went to the first and said, “My master invites you.” The first replied, 3″Some merchants owe me money; they are coming to me tonight. I have to go and give them instructions. Please excuse me from dinner.” 4 The slave went to another and said, “My master has invited you.” 5The second said to the slave, “I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day. I shall have no time.” 6 The slave went to another and said, “My master invites you.” 7The third said to the slave, “My friend is to be married, and I am to arrange the banquet. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me from dinner.” 8The slave went to another and said, “My master invites you.” 9The fourth said to the slave, “I have bought an estate, and I am going to collect the rent. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me.” 10The slave returned and said to his master, “Those whom you invited to dinner have asked to be excused.” 11The master said to his slave, “Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner. 12Buyers and merchants [will] not enter the places of my Father (Gospel of Thomas 64 trans by Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer, as linked below; see the parallels in Matthew 22 and Luke 14, both depending on the so-called Q-source).

There is an interesting discussion of the early dating and gnostic or non-gnostic nature of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas here (re-presented on Davies’ site; this originally took place back in 1996 on the Ioudaios list, so opinions may well have changed). Bill Arnal (U. of Regina) and Stevan Davies (College Misericordia), two experts (who both argue for an early date but with differing opinions on method) engage one another in a lively and somewhat spontaneous manner that is not characteristic of journal articles, for instance. The same site hosts the “scholars” translation of Thomas by Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer (cited above). Stevan Davies also runs the Gospel of Thomas homepage.

“Forgery” (deceit) or “pseudonymity” (admiration): Ehrman’s take (NT Apocrypha 12)

View other posts in the New Testament Apocrypha series.

One of the issues that has been raised in discussing Ehrman’s Lost Christianities is his free use of the term “forgery” in reference to early Christian literature (especially apocryphal literature; e.g. pp. 29-32 or thereabouts). Nor is he adverse to using accompanying notions of active “deceit” as well. He claims that ancient authors just about unanimously agreed in condemning the practice of presenting one’s own work as though by another respected figure (citing only the physician Galen, who had come across someone selling a work falsely in his name during his life-time). Certainly concepts such as forgery, deceit or related notions of conspiracy make for exciting reading, and Ehrman’s book is indeed intended for broad audiences (and still would have been exciting without these terms). Yet there is also a sense in which this take on writings that claim to be authored by some important figure of the past (apocryphal Gospels and Acts) is quite misleading.

More appropriate, I would suggest, is a recognition that, although moderns may see such practices of pseudonymity (“false-name” authorship) as improper or even criminal (I take plagiarism by students as a crime!), the ancients had very different cultural concepts when it comes to attributed authorship and the free use of figures (and their authority) from the past. The fact that the practice of attributing a work to some respected figure of the past was widespread in the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds, and that the ones doing this almost always liked or respected the figure whose identity they were “borrowing”, suggests that something other than deliberate deception and forgery was going on. Ehrman is far more on track when he briefly mentions, but does not explore in any detail, the fact that philosophers (neo-Pythagoreans) frequently produced writings in Pythagoras’ name with intentions involving (primarily) admiration and respect. Namely, they wished not only to give a hearing to their writings by calling on Pythagoras’ authority, but also to show just how well they (imagined they) could continue to express what Pythagoras would say if he were still around. They “forged” for the love of Pythagoras, so to speak, and their intentions were focussed on inspiring similar respect or honour for this philosopher on the part of their readers or hearers. This is, in large part, what was going on in the case of most early Christian apocryphal writings attributed to apostles or other respected figures. We are better off steering away from value-loaded terms in the study of religion and in avoiding misconceptions about active deceit or underhanded dealings in relation to writings of the past, even if the language of conspiracy would make things seem far more exciting.

(Excuse the lack of references to page numbers in Ehrman here [except the one section whose page numbers I remembered, hopefully], since I do not have the work with me at the moment. I had to express myself when it came to me nonetheless).

UPDATE: Definitely see the ongoing discussions in the comments section. Some time ago (1999) Edgar M. Krentz presented a “Pseudepigraphy Bibliography” on the b-greek discussion list, which may guide you to some important discussions of the pseudonymity or pseudepigraphy phenonenon.

CLARIFICATION (Mon, Sept 19): Just to clarify what I am or am not saying here (also see comments): I am saying that Ehrman’s blanket use of “forgery” to describe a variety of different writings is likely to obscure a variety of things that were actually going on, especially in terms of motivations behind writing a document in the name of someone else. In some, perhaps many, cases using the term “forgery” to describe apocryphal writings would give a false impression to the modern reader, especially implying negative motivations of deceit on the part of ancient authors in question. Motivations are very difficult to determine (even among contemporaries let alone someone living over a thousand years ago in a different culture), but in engaging in historical study we are better off not assuming negative motivations (on the part of our historical subjects) unless there is actual evidence of such. In other words, we need to approach writings that claim authorship by an important figure on a case by case basis, attempting to assess what is going on (and what motivations may be involved) in a particular case. There is a sense in which my objections to Ehrman’s approach arise more from historiographical concerns (from how I approach history) than they do from any specific concerns or positions about the pseudonymity issue. Hope this clarifies things even though there are so many more issues to deal with that will never be sufficiently solved.

I just pulled out my marked up version of Bruce M. Metzger’s classic article (“Literary Forgeries and Canonical Pseudepigrapha,” Journal of Biblical Literature 91 [1972] 3-24), which does begin to try to sort through the variety of motivations that may have been involved in pseudepigraphy (e.g. financial gain, malice and defamation, respect, modesty, practicing one’s rhetorical abilities, etc, etc), as well as the differing receptions of such writings. It is worth a read, if you’re interested.

FURTHER UPDATES:
(Sept 28): Now see Loren Rosson‘s ongoing discussion of lying and deceit, which includes a post on ancient pseudepigraphy (bouncing off of my post here). We’ll likely continue to disagree, but it’s certainly an interesting issue to explore.

(Oct 1): Stephen Carlson now weighs in on the debate with the view that “forgery” is the appropriate term (in contrast to my position). I disagree with his interpretation of the Serapion v. the Gospel of Peter case. The position of Rosson, Carlson, and Ehrman makes it very difficult to make sense of how it was that so many (educated) authors DID attribute their work to a respected figure of the past. Are we to imagine that, in an environment where (as they argue) almost everyone rejected the idea of pseudonymity, that so many authors (of the Enoch literature, of Daniel, of a lot of apocryphal literature, etc, etc) were doing so and would be very self-conscious that they were doing something “deceitful” or “bad” (which everyone else rejected–but not all the rest of the authors that were doing so, presumably–confused). This is just a minor, but important, problem with that position.

By the way, my position arose not from the Metzger article (which I had forgotten about and had read years ago [my memory is not that great;] and only dug out in hindsight to see what he said, and with which I disagree on important points). My position, as I have stated, arises from my problems with Ehrman’s position based on his interpretation of particular evidence (e.g. the Thecla case) and from my overall approach to history, which avoids imagining I can understand the motivations or intentions (whether “deceitful” or otherwise) of a large number of different persons in antiquity (see above and comments). The term forgery entails active and self-conscious deceit, with the implication that it is a “crime” (in my Webster’s dictionary and in popular usage, at least). This is not an appropriate blanket term to use in reference to writings in the name of a respected figure in antiquity, though there may be a few cases where it’s closer to the mark than some other terms.

Jesus said: Let the children. . . get lost? (NT Apocrypha 11)

Several early gospels portray a Jesus who has a positive view of children and who even uses the analogy of the child to explain what qualities are necessary to enter God’s kingdom:

“People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them” (Mark 10:13-16 [NIV]; compare Matthew 19:13-15; Luke 18:15-17; Gospel of Thomas 22).

Quite different is the apocryphal Acts of Thomas‘ take on what Jesus might say about having children at all (available online here). Many of the second and third century Acts, which relate stories about the disciples of Jesus, emphasize the need to maintain an ascetic lifestyle in order to follow Jesus in an ideal way. This includes the need to avoid bodily things, especially sex, whether in marriage or not. In the Acts of Thomas, Jesus’ supposed twin brother, Thomas, makes his journey to India in order to preach the gospel of continence, and he happens to attend a wedding of the local king’s daughter. Following the wedding, the new husband enters into the bridal-chamber to consummate the marriage only to find what appears to be Thomas, but is really his twin brother, Jesus (down from heaven), lecturing the man’s new wife. Both then listen as Jesus teaches them about sex and children:

“Remember. . . what my brother [Thomas] said to you. . . that if you abandon this filthy intercourse you become holy temples, pure and free from afflictions and pains both manifest and hidden, and you will not be weighed down by cares for life and for children, the end of which is destruction” (12; trans. from Schneemelcher with adaptations).

Is it be like children or have no children?

UPDATE: Now see the interesting debates that are going on in the comments section of this post. Also, Tyler Williams has a fun response to my rhetorical question in jest: “Since I have three kids (and I enjoyed the process of contributing to their conception), I guess I’ll stick with the biblical Jesus!” Now I know what the font with the delete line through it is for;)

Readers around the world

It’s nice to see the counter for this blog go beyond the 5000 visitor mark (since May 2005, ranging from about 50-70 per day recently). My main website is approaching 60,000 since June 2003 (ranging from about 70-100 per day these days). It is even more rewarding to see the range of readers from across the world. In the past few days, for instance, there were visitors from: Indonesia, Philippines, Australia, Japan, China, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania, Slovenia, Ukraine, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, United Kingdom, and, of course, a good number of readers from United States and good ol’ Canada (“I am Canadian!”). One of the most rewarding things about a blog and a website is that you can share what you’re learning with people around the world with whom you would not otherwise have any contact! This really makes it all seem worthwhile. Thanks for coming!

UPDATE (Dec 2005): As I have switched to WordPress, I have lost that good ol’ detailed counter. Oh well

Bandits and their wild banquets: Lapiths and Centaurs

Bandits or pirates play an important role within many of the ancient Greek novels. In essence, these thugs come to embody just about every improper social and religious activity you can imagine, including human sacrifice and cannibalism (as I discussed in earlier entries on ethnography. They are also depicted as engaging in improper banqueting activity in other respects.

Apuleius’ Golden Ass (aka Metamorphoses) relates the story of a man who is turned into an ass through magic and goes on adventures towards his ultimate salvation from the goddess Isis. In the mean time, his adventures include capture by a guild (collegium) of bandits (6.31), whose meal etiquette is characterized thus:

They ate and drank in utter disorder, swallowing meat by the heap, bread by the stack, and cups by the legion. They played raucously, sang deafeningly, and joked abusively, and in every other respect behaved just like those half-beasts, the Lapiths and Centaurs (Metamorphoses 4.8, trans LCL).

According to Greek mythology, the wedding celebration of Peirithous, a Lapith, ended in utter violence between the two peoples due to the drunken behaviour of a Centaur (cf. Homer, Od. 21.285-304). So these mythical figures became the epitome of terrible and violent banqueting behaviour ever since, as evidenced in the title of Lucian’s satirical Symposium, or The Lapiths, and in many artistic representations (cf. Pausanias, Guide to Greece 1.17.2; 1.28.2; 5.10.8).

A Lapith struggles with a Centaur
(Parthenon metope, now in the British Museum)

The brigands in Apuleius’ novel have “principles,” by the way, which are manifest in their (foiled) plan to punish the girl and the ass in the most humiliating manner: by having the living girl sewn inside the executed animal and leaving them both in the hot sun for dogs and vultures to devour.

You can read more about such characterizations of wild meals or anti-banquets of bandits and other “low-lifes” in a paper I wrote here.

Troels on Syrian Antioch, and a Gospel of Peter near Antioch (NT Apocrypha 10)

Other posts in the New Testament Apocrypha series.

Troels has an interesting post on the archeology of Syrian Antioch (Antakya) and provides a couple of photos, including a mosaic of Soteria (Salvation), as well as links to his photo gallery on Stoa. He promises more to come on this important city, which was also an important centre of early Christianity.

Among the New Testament Apocrypha associated with, or in use around, Antioch is the so-called Gospel of Peter, which Serapion, bishop of Antioch (from 199 CE), at first thought harmless before giving it a more thorough read (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History book 6, chapter 12). He found that it played down the humanity of Jesus in what he considered a docetic manner: Christ only “seemed” (from dokeo) to be human. This is perhaps, though not certainly, the same Gospel of Peter — with the walking, talking cross and reference to a descent into hell (see History of Satan sub-category)– to be found in collections of NT Apocrypha (online here). There is a forthcoming article by Paul Foster (Edinburgh U.), to appear in New Testament Studies, that challenges the basis of the identification of Serapion’s Gospel of Peter with the partial Gospel we now have (I won’t go into details since it is not yet published–he was nice enough to provide me with an earlier version).

Of course, we also have the writings of another, earlier, bishop of Antioch. Ignatius of Antioch wrote a series of letters to the congregations in Asia Minor as he made his way as a prisoner to Rome. He, too, criticizes other followers of Jesus who, in his view, downplayed the humanity of Jesus. You can read his letters online here.

Pink Floyd, Pompeii, and the Mysteries of Dionysos

I recently re-watched Pink Floyd’s “Live at Pompeii” (originally 1972) film which has now been released as a director’s cut DVD (also with the original version included). The live concert was recorded (with no audience, I might add) in the amphitheatre at Pompeii, with excellent results in sound. The new director’s cut version of the film adds considerable Roman archeological material as background (the original version had some). In particular, “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, which is mesmerizing to begin with, is now interspersed with shots of the paintings from the Villa of the Mysteries (Villa Item), which pertain to the mysteries of the god Dionysos (Dionysus) or Bacchus (which you can read about here). If you do like Pink Floyd’s music or you are interested in Roman archeology and the mysteries, then it’s well worth a watch. It also has the track “Madame Nobs” (recorded in a studio, not Pompeii) which is a blues tune with harmonica and live howling dog accompaniment (my son enjoys that the most).

Online resources for late-Medieval Christianity and the Reformations (Reformations 3)

ONLINE PRIMARY SOURCES

OTHER RESOURCES

NOTE ON USING THE INTERNET FOR STUDYING THE HISTORY OF RELIGIONS: Internet sites are not all equally valuable and reliable when it comes to historical information, and it is not always easy for everyone to distinguish which ones are reliable. Above I have limited myself primarily to sites which collect together or link sources from the time period we are studying (“primary sources”) and to sites with ties to legitimate educational institutions or produced by professors. This means that they will be relatively reliable. However, at this point in history, the internet is never a substitute for doing proper reading and research in primary sources, journal articles and books.

Other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

Online resources for the study of the Christian Apocrypha and “Gnosticism” (NT Apocrypha 9)

ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS ONLINE

RESOURCES ON CHRISTIAN APOCRYPHA AND GNOSTICISM

RESOURCES ON SPECIFIC APOCRYPHAL WRITINGS

ONLINE DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS ON APOCRYPHAL WRITINGS

(Thanks to Tony Chartrand-Burke [Atkinson College, York U.] for sharing with me the links he had already found in connection with his course on gnosticism).

Reformations: Continuity or disjunction? (Reformations 2)

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

One of the more important scholarly questions regarding the nature of the reformations of the 16th century is the degree to which the reformations had their roots in what preceded or were something new that broke from what preceded. Most recent scholars of the reformation period would answer that it is far more complicated than choosing between the two, but that many scholars in the past have emphasized the “new” to the neglect of continuity.

A very important work by Steven Ozment (The Age of Reform 1250-1550, 1980) argues strongly and convincingly that, in many respects, the reformations were strongly rooted in the intellectual and religious traditions of the late middle ages. And by that he does not mean simply things like the movements which followed the lead of Wycliff in England or Huss in Bohemia (in the late 1300s and into the 1400s), to which we will return. There is a sense in which the reformations would not have happened without the important influences of the spiritual traditions of the Franciscans and Dominicans or the intellectual traditions of scholasticism, or the reforming agendas of certain popes (which we will explain soon).

The cultural history of late-medieval Christianity is worthy of study in its own right, but it is also the place to look if you want to understand the reformations. Luther and other “reformers” were part of this late-medieval world despite the changes that their movements brought, namely the birth of a new branch of Christianity now known as Protestantism.

Reformations and Late-Medieval Christianity (1300-1650) course (Reformations 1)

Welcome to the ongoing discussion of Christianity in the late middle ages and the Reformations in connection with an undergraduate course. The outline for the course, which will also give you a sense of what topics and readings may be covered in blog entries, is available online here. (The course takes place on Thursdays).

I will do my best to write these entries in a way that will be of profit not only to the students in the class, but also to other readers who have an interest in the social and cultural history of Christianity and the Reformations specifically. (My own area of expertise is in the earliest period of Christianity and its Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts, about which I also do blog entries here). Feel free to leave comments or questions (by clicking on “comments” below and registering your name with blogger).

The nature of the blog genre requires that entries be somewhat brief and to the point (and hopefully interesting!). So reading this blog will by no means substitute for reading about the cultural history of Christianity (both primary and scholarly sources) for yourself in “good-old-fashioned” books or for attending the classes (if you are a student;). Come again!

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

The Diversity of Early Christianity course: Early Christian Apocrypha (NT Apocrypha 1.1)

Welcome to ongoing discussions about the “Diversity of Early Christianity” which will take place on this blog in connection with a graduate course on the New Testament Apocrypha and “Gnostic” writings (course outline here). (The course is on Wednesday evenings, by the way).

Although my brief blog entries on this topic will arise from what we are learning in the class, I will consciously write with both students and other regular or occasional readers of this blog in mind. Writing for this diverse audience will be a task well worth undertaking, I believe. Always feel free to post your questions or comments! (In order to leave comments, you will need to sign up with blogger, which is easy. Why not do it now by clicking on “comment” at the end of this entry. You can always just say “hello” on the initial sign up to make sure it works). I may also bring your comments or questions to the fore in subsequent blog entries (with the permission of the students in question, of course).

Today we will begin to get a general sense of the difficulties in approaching the various forms of early Christianity as well as the various theories, both ancient and scholarly, which have arisen to deal with issues of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” (including those of Eusebius, Baur, and Bauer as I discussed here). How to approach this topic from an historical viewpoint and what categories are most or least useful will be ongoing occupations as we read through writings in the early Christian Apocrypha (literally “hidden writings”). Bart Ehrman’s work on Lost Christianities will get us thinking early on and we will have an initial discussion of the entire work next week.

Throughout the course, we will focus our attention on two main things:

  1. We will be concerned with the types or genres of literature produced by Christians and in assessing the common characteristics of these genres, placing our discussion within the Jewish and Greco-Roman literary contexts.
  2. We will focus our attention on discussing and comparing the various forms of Christian belief and practice reflected in the writings.

I have already made several brief posts on the New Testament Apocrypha in the past few weeks as I was preparing for the course. You can read the earlier posts in the Apocrypha series by clicking here (the present entry is 1a).
Also feel free to browse some of the other entries here which deal with social and religious life in the ancient Mediterranean, as well as the cultural history of Christianity (the reformations of the early modern era are another ongoing topic this term in connection with another course).

Come again!

The brilliant student and the humiliated teacher again: Smart young Apollonius of Tyana (NT Apocrypha 8)

In previous posts I discussed stories of the birth and childhood of Jesus, including the story of little Jesus zapping his less-than-brilliant teacher dead in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (go here). This was, in a sense, an expansion and embellishment of Luke’s story of the wise young (12 year-old) Jesus amazing even the teachers of the law in the Temple at Jerusalem (Luke 2:39-51). In each case, the childhood brilliance is a sign of things to come in the figure’s adulthood.

Christian authors were not alone in relating stories of the childhood feats and miraculous doings of important persons, including stories of the child’s education. Philostratus wrote a biography of the first-century Pythagorean philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana, in about 220 CE. Included is the following story, reminiscent of Jesus’ school-days mentioned above:

“On reaching the age when children are taught their letters, he showed great strength of memory and power of application. . . [Apollonius had some good teachers who recognized his abilities.] However, his teacher of the Pythagorean system was not a very serious person, nor one who practised in his conduct the philosophy he taught. For he was the slave of his belly and appetites, and modelled himself upon Epicurus. And this man was Euxenus from the town of Heraclea in Pontus, and he knew the principles of Pythagoras just as birds know what they learn from men. For the birds will wish you ‘farewell,’ and say “hello” or “Zeus help you,” and such like, without understanding what they say and without any real sympathy for humankind, merely because they have been trained to move their tongue in a certain manner. Apollonius, however, was like the young eagles who, as long as they are not fully fledged, fly alongside of their parents and are trained by them in flight, but who, as soon as they are able to rise in the air, outsoar the parent birds” (1.7; trans. by F.C. Conybeare in Loeb Classical Library, with adaptations). Apollonius nonetheless is nice to this poor, ineffective teacher, says Philostratus.

This is not the sort of reputation a teacher wants, but it’s better than being zapped dead.

(The bird in the story reminds me of when I was twelve, in Indonesia for a year or so. No, I wasn’t brilliantly out-smarting any teachers. But I did like to stop by a local pet cockatoo on my way home from school who was known to say “Satu, dua, tiga, that’s ok, that’s ok.” Beats “hello”. I’ll let you figure out what satu, dua, tiga is, or go here).

New study on Roman imperial statue bases and Troels on inscription erasures (Epigraphy 5)

Over on “Towards an Archaeology of Iconoclasm“, Troels mentions a new study by Jakob Munk Højte on Roman imperial statue bases. Troels then goes on to the question of the mutilation of inscriptions, and mentions a case in the Prytaneion (presidency building) at Ephesus which involves the obliteration of the goddess Artemis’ name (probably by Christians). Troels also promises some more entries on the topic, to which I will look forward.
Troels also mentions the relative commonality of the erasure of an emperor’s name in cases where an emperor was so disliked by other senators that his memory was “condemned” (damnatio memoriae) after his death. I happen to have on hand a photo of an inscription, now in the museum at Ephesus, that involves a dedication to the emperor Domitian in 88-89 CE (by the city of Klazomenae) (IEph 235). After the condemnation of Domitian’s memory, Domitian’s name was erased and the monument was rededicated to the emperor Vespasian. The erasure and re-inscription took place on lines two and four, with Domitian being replaced with “god” (theos) in line two and Germanicus being replaced with “Vespasian” in line four).

You can also check out some other monuments and statues in the Ephesus museum, as well as other Turkish museums, here.

UPDATE: Welcome to readers of Respectful Insolence (aka Orac Knows), a blog by an “academic surgeon and scientist” that covers just about everything you could imagine, including science and history (especially WW II and the Holocaust). If you are interested in Roman history and the history of religions in the Roman empire (including Judaism and Christianity, of course), you may (are sure to) find other entries of interest here.

“Are we. . . to listen to her?”: The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (NT Apocrypha 7)

There is a tendency among modern scholars and theologians to find in the ancient sources sentiments and views which accord with their own. This is especially the case when it comes to issues of gender and the evaluation of women’s place within certain varieties of Christianity. Thus, for instance, Dennis MacDonald’s study of the Acts of Paul and Thecla tends to cast Thecla in terms familiar from modern feminism (The Legend and the Apostle) . Yet a closer analysis of details in the story provides a more complex picture of how the author of that document viewed what we would call issues of gender. While there is no doubt that the Christians who used the story of Thecla were advocates of women’s leadership (Thecla is charged to go and preach the word of God by Paul, after all), there are also other elements such as the clear hints of Thecla becoming man, so to speak, in order to achieve her mission, as when she cuts her hair (25) and when she donnes a man’s cloak (40). This manly requirement is something other than what moderns consider women’s liberation.

There is a sense in which this is echoed, though in a different way, in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas‘s saying 114, in which Mary of Magdala (Mary Magdalene) is addressed by Jesus as follows: “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven” (trans. by H. Koester in J.M. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library. Revised ed. SanFrancisco: HarperCollins, 1990).

A very different sentiment (in terms of gender issues) and portrayal of Mary’s relation to Jesus is presented in the Gospel of Mary (of Magdala), a dialogue gospel written sometime in the second or early third century. There Mary is presented as the recipient of secret teachings from Jesus to which she and no other disciple was privy. After Jesus makes a final appearance to his disciples, teaches them about the coming dissolution of matter, and that the means to overcome matter was within them, he calls on them to go and preach the good news of the kingdom (8:20). Then as the disciples are in distress at the Saviour’s departure, Mary takes a leading role in comforting them and in sharing with them the secret teachings that she alone had received from the Saviour. The content of the message focuses on the ascent of the soul, which needs to overcome the Powers of the material realm in order to reach its proper home in the spiritual kingdom. The disciples’ response is less than receptive, as Thomas complains that these are awfully “strange” teachings (17:10-15). Peter goes further in jealously dismissing the whole thing based on gender: “Did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge and not openly? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” (17:15-20).

Mary’s reaction is great disappointment, and Levi chimes in appropriately calling Peter a hot-head. Levi says, “if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her?” (18:10). The result is that they do go out and preach, evidently accepting Mary’s revelation. The male disciples learning from Mary the true revelation of salvation is quite different than requiring that Mary be a man in order “to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

There is now a very useful and popularly accesible study of the Gospel of Mary: Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2003. This will give you a more balanced look at Mary Magdalene in myth and reality than something like the DaVinci Code, as you might imagine.

Early Christian Apocrypha and the historiography of early Christianity (NT Apocrypha 6)

Before approaching the study of the diversity of Christianity reflected in writings such as the early Christian Apocrypha, it is important to be familiar with some of the main historical theories that have been put forward regarding the nature and varieties of early Christianity (especially with respect to notions of “orthodoxy” and “heresy”). Historiography (the study of how history is written and what “spin” historians put on their materials) is very important. Here I have chosen to simplify the discussion by briefly outlining three historians’ viewpoints in terms of unity (Eusebius), duality (F.C. Baur), and diversity (Walter Bauer, with an “e”). For a proper understanding you will need to study these and other works for yourself, as well as the ancient documents that these historians use to build their theories.

  1. Eusebius and Unity (Ecclesiatical History, c. 311-323 CE): The traditional view of early Christianity emphasized the unity of early Christians and downplayed any tensions or struggles among them. Truth, unity and orthodoxy (right belief) came first and were strong; error or heresy came later and was always in the minority. The emphasis on unity can already be seen in the Acts of the Apostles’ history of the early church, but this came to expression in a more comprehensive historical theory with the first major church historian, Eusebius (who built upon what many anti-heresy writers had been saying for a while). This theory posits that from the beginning all Christians agreed and got along: the church was a “pure and uncorrupted virgin” (3.32.7-8; some relevant passages from Eusebius are now available here on this website). But, subsequently, through the work of the devil, errors or heresies were introduced (usually pictured as beginning in the second century). These errors were readily recognized as such and successfully battled by representatives of “the universal and only true church” (such as Hegesippus), who “held to the same points in the same way, and radiated forth to all. . . the sobriety and purity of the divine teaching. . . [O]ur doctrine remained as the only one which had power among all” (see 4.7.1-14). Orthodoxy came first and was in the majority, heresies later and in the minority. Many, though not all, of the writings we call the New Testament Apocrypha would be considered heretical by Eusebius.
  2. F.C. Baur and Duality (mid-late-1800s): The theory of F.C. Baur and the so-called Tübingen school is quite thorough-going, but its main contours can be simplified thus: Early Christianity was characterized by a fundamental conflict between a particularistic Jewish form (Peter) and a universalistic Gentile form (Paul). The second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians was very important here. This thesis (Jewish-Petrine Christianity) and antithesis (Gentile-Pauline Christianity) finally settled into a synthesis (catholic Christianity) in the second and subsequent centuries (F.C. was influenced by the dialectical philosophy of Hegel). Most early Christian writings and Christian groups, including writings in the Apocrypha, can be understood and categorized based on this struggle. On the one hand, the Acts of the Apostles reflects an attempt to hide and smooth over the battle. On the other, a writing such as the Pseudo-Clementines (in the Apocrypha), which has Peter battling Simon Magus (a cipher for Paul), shows that the battle really continued beyond the time of the canonical Acts (which F.C. dated to the second century). Baur would tend to trust the apocryphal Pseudo-Clementines over the canonical Acts of the Apostles (in terms of its reflection of historical reality). Although there is certainly truth in observing a tension between Pauline and other Jewish forms of Christianity (read Galatians!), most scholars now see a problem with this oversimplified picture of just two main camps in early Christianity, with just about everything fit into this dual framework.
  3. Walter Bauer and Diversity (Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 1932, translated into English in the 1970s): Walter Bauer wrote what can be considered among the most influential works in the study of early Christianity. Turning the traditional theory of Eusebius on its head, Walter argued that heresy came first, orthodoxy later. Not only that, but the various forms of Christianity often called “heresies” were, in fact, in the majority. When orthodoxy began to emerge in the second and subsequent centuries, it continued as the minority for some time until the church at Rome increased its hold on Christianity elsewhere. Walter continued to use the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy” despite the fact that his own theory began to deconstruct these very notions. Most who study early Christianity now recognize that, although Walter’s theory clearly has its problems, Walter was at least correct in emphasizing that various forms of Christianity existed from early on, and that “orthodoxy” only developed later in an attempt to get the diversity under some control. He was also correct in deconstructing the Eusebian view of the orthodox, united church threatened by later heresies, which does not accurately reflect what actually went on in the first centuries of Christianity.

As I said, this is certainly a simplification of the matter, but a basic acknowledgement of the diversity of early Christianity will be essential as we discuss the Apocrypha further and as we attempt to see what specific Christians in particular places were thinking, doing, and writing about. Certainly we will observe some common denominators among followers of Jesus (at least they followed Jesus [as each understood that]!), but there were also important differences that we need to attend to in mapping out early Christianity.