Category Archives: Literature

Tertullian I: Ascetic Theologian

I had this idea that I was going to put everything I had on Tertullian in one post with a caution that it would be long. Well, I’m at over 6600 words right now and still have six major and several minor areas he covers to write about. I don’t know what the final word count will be but I’d guess somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 words. That’s not long, that’s hideous. Instead I’m going to break this into sections because, well, I want people to read them. However, since part of the reason for this blog is for my own benefit as a way to refer back to things, I’m also going to post the monster after I’ve posted the sections. I’ll make sure everyone’s aware that all of the information in that post has already been covered. The title of that post will be, “Tertullian: The Whole Thing.”

I had no idea just how important Tertullian was to the evolution of Christianity. I’ve read books and articles speaking about him in terms such as, “The First Latin Theologian” or, “The Founder of Latin Christianity” and had always figured on these as exaggerations. Now? While labels such as these are overly simplistic and minimize the complexity of how things actually developed, they are indicators of his importance. In looking at his writings I can see direct influences on Christianity to the present day, often transmitted through Augustine. As I was reading through his material I was struck by how his thoughts on the nature of God, the nature of Christ, women, asceticism (maybe) and other aspects of Christianity are seminal and in some cases very close to current Christian Doctrine. He represents the beginning of a break from Platonism and turning away from the knowledge of ancient philosophers, though even he couldn’t escape them completely. I knew Tertullian was important but I had no idea just how much.

To this point most of what I’ve read from pre-Nicene authors has represented a fairly steady progression. Authors such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus show that Christianity was gradually evolving. Ideas, concepts and practices are developing into those that would become common during the Medieval and even Modern periods. With Clement there’s a break, a move away from dogma and back to patterns of Classical Platonic thought where the journey is as important as the destination. This is what makes him so interesting to me. With Tertullian there’s a sharp break in the other direction. There is right and there is wrong. There is truth and there is untruth. There is belief and there is error. He uses a philosophical method of argument; extensive, convoluted logical appeals in support of his position. But this isn’t, apparently, for the purpose of entering into a debate but to reveal and defend the truth. 1

For the most part, I’ll be inserting citations to Tertullian’s material into the text rather than as footnotes. I will have a few notes but as these posts will be heavy on direct quotes I thought this would be cleaner. As I was writing this I realized that short sound bites don’t do Tertullian justice. To get a feel for his arguments, you really need the argument.


Woodcut image of Tertullian. From Wikimedia Commons.

As usual, I’m going to start this off with a brief biography.

Tertullian spent his early life in Carthage, received an extensive classical (philosophical) education, and appears to have converted to Christianity relatively late in life, around 197 or so when he was in his mid-30’s (he is believed to have been born around 160). His early writings indicate a strict, ascetic view of Christianity which becomes more pronounced around 207 and becomes extreme around 215-220. A key aspect of his development is Montanism. Montanism was founded in the middle of the second century and was considered a heresy, primarily because, contrasting with mainstream Christianity, they believed that people continued to receive prophetic visions from God while mainstream opinion was that Christ was the last prophet and this phase of Human development ended with the apostles. Where this sect influenced Tertullian and his writings was in its extreme asceticism. Montanists did not believe in marriage (and certainly not remarriage) and thought the world no longer needed children as the last days were approaching. Tertullian’s writings became particularly strident when a schism developed in the Church and he began writing to defend Montanist beliefs. From the standpoint of posterity, this is also where he got in trouble as much of what he wrote during this period was too extreme for the Church to accept. This is likely the main reason he was never canonized. I was in the middle of reading material from this period when I posted about my dislike for him. Having had a few days to think about it, guess what – I still don’t like him. But I see that he was important and think I can make a decent post. 2

Tertullian seems to have achieved the rank of presbyter, not bishop, but this didn’t reduce the importance of his writings. Jerome says that he lived to extreme old age but as he’s not heard from after about 225 this is questionable. 3

My overall impression of Tertullian is that he looked to describe Christianity in as simple of a way as possible. For him, there are very few grey areas. The world is composed of contrasts, conflict, and opposites. Something is either right or wrong, good or evil. There are a few exceptions to this but in most cases these involve the newly converted. For example, marriage to a non-Christian is strictly forbidden, particularly for women, but if you were already married when you converted, continuing that marriage is OK. He has similar views on military service. Based on my limited knowledge of philosophy, it appears that I may need to read up on Stoicism. He certainly isn’t Platonist, not with his emphasis on a world in conflict, absolutes, and good vs evil. Plus he comes out and tells us he’s relying on Stoics. 4

In comparing him with other Christian authors, much of what he writes reminds me of Augustine. This was more of a sense than my being able to match quotes but, while he is more extreme in some cases, much of it is reminiscent. I’ll wait until I get to Augustine to try to match specifics back. He also comes across as something of an anti-Clement. Clement of Alexandria believed philosophy was useful, that Christians should vigorously study and learn, they should be moderate in dress and sexual relations and they should participate in various aspects of Roman life. I’ll expand more on this as I get into the post but Clement and Tertullian are at odds in many areas.

One other interesting Tertullian characteristic, and one which echoes a similar evolution in Augustine, is how his views changed over time. With Augustine these stricter, more absolute views resulted from conflicts with Pelagians and Donatists. With Tertullian these arose due to conflicts with the mainstream Church. His Montanist sympathies resulted in, once the Montanist-mainstream Church conflict got going, a series of what can only be called apologies but in this case defending Montanist views and explaining why these were consistent with scripture and should not be a reason to cast out the sect. As I read his material, the use of the term Psychic became indicative of something written during the period when this conflict existed. 5

Tertullian was always strict and ascetic, even in his early writings. Clearly the Montanist views on areas of Christian life such as marriage, fornication and adultery, and the folly of pleasure, appealed to him. Honestly, what I was reading of his often reminded me of something which might have been written into a rule or as guidance for a monastic order. Things were extremely strict but his views on the nature of God and Christ were fairly Orthodox for the time. Another significant influence was his belief that the Last Days were near. Why should anyone have children or marry, or do anything pleasurable which might distract them from preparing for God’s judgement?

He wrote on a wide variety of topics. I have a feeling that if I could force myself to read him again I’d find even more to write about but specific areas I’ll be covering are (not necessarily in this order):

  • The Trinity
  • Baptism
  • Original Sin
  • Purgatory
  • The Nature of Christ
  • Philosophy
  • Repentance, Penance and the Remission of Sins
  • Women
  • Military Service
  • Pleasure
  • Sex and Marriage
  • Miscellaneous Things I find Interesting

I’ll combine some of these so don’t expect 12 posts but there will be several. Also, I’m going to leave the same bibliography for all posts at the bottom of the page even though I may not use something in a particular section. And if this reads like it’s been chopped into pieces, this will be because it’s been chopped into pieces.

1 I’ve just started reading Origen’s De Principiis and he’s much more in the Clement style. He proposes questions and things to think about, often without giving definite answers. I have no idea if there was any sort of “Alexandrian” vs “Carthaginian” type of Christianity developing around this time (actually I have an idea or two but I’ll wait until I read further to post about it) but the differences in their styles are pronounced. It will be interesting as I move forward to see if Tertullian’s absolutism begins a progression of the Church in that direction or if this is something which is set aside, to be picked up later by Augustine. The reality is it’s probably a mix of the two as the Arian controversy of the 4th century helped create an Orthodox camp which held fairly strict views on various aspects of Christianity.

2 I’ve mentioned this before but want to remind everyone that when I use terms like “the Church” or “mainstream Christianity”, what I mean by this is the branch of early Christianity which would evolve into the Orthodox Catholic Church. Prior to Nicaea there was no “the Church” in the sense that we understand it today, though things seem to have been moving in that direction.

3 Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men (De viris illustribus), LIII.

4 Tertullian, de Anima (On the Soul) V.

5 Tertullian’s use of Psychic does not resemble the modern, English usage of the word but is used to represent a Christian who is ruled by his or her animal passions.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

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Posted by on December 31, 2013 in Literature, Religion


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Tales From Apocrypha 4: Touring Hell in the Apocalypse of Peter

I’m in the middle of one of my lulls when it comes to history. My work that I get paid to do has been quite full and I was involved with a major conference last week. And I was unexpectedly elected as Vice Chair of a committee at this meeting so it doesn’t look like this will ease up. At least my presentation went well though I had a bit of a “gulp” moment when I realized that I would be discussing preparedness for radiological emergencies with an audience which included someone from Japan. Between that and the absolutely gorgeous fall weather we’ve had around here my history reading has been playing third fiddle to my job and working outside. This will end eventually and I’ll dive back into history but this blog may be fairly quiet for a time.

Or maybe not. One of the advantages of having spent several months last winter reading non-canonical texts is that I have a reservoir of 232 (just checked my sources spreadsheet for the number) apocrypha to draw on. I suspect that I could come up with at least a couple of dozen of these which I think are interesting enough to write about.

Most readers of this blog will be at least somewhat familiar with Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy or La Comedia. Dante was not the first to receive a guided tour of Heaven and Hell. While Dante’s is the most detailed, these types of accounts had been around since the earliest days of Christianity. The earliest known example is the Apocalypse of Peter. I’ll be abbreviating this as AP for the rest of this post.

The AP exists in two versions; a Greek version which is quite fragmentary discovered in Egypt during the winter of 1886-87 and a more complete Ethiopian version known from 1910. The Greek text appears to date from the 8th or 9th centuries and the Ethiopian from the 7th or 8th. Based on references to it from early Christian authors, particularly Clement of Alexandria, who according to Eusebius considered it canonical, it is believed to date to the first half of the second century and to have originated in Egypt. 1

The AP begins while Peter, James, John and Andrew accompany Jesus to the Mount of Olives in Mark 13. In addition to the apocalypse Jesus describes, Peter has been granted a more detailed vision which is depicted as basically a continuation of what is given in the Gospel. Guided by Jesus, he is given a tour of Hell and Heaven where he sees the punishments given out to various categories of sinners. As it is the more complete version, I’ll use the Ethiopic translation from Schneemelcher and Wilson (2003) pp 625-35 for my comments.

The detail is nothing like in Dante but the AP has separate sections of Hell reserved for different sorts of transgressions. As I think these are interesting, I’ll list the sections of Hell, their descriptions, and who is sentenced to spend eternity there (the AP has no purgatory and no indication that anyone will ever escape his or her punishment).

  • Verse 7: People who have blasphemed will be hung by their tongues over a fire.
  • Verse 7: Women who fornicate will be hung by their hair and necks and men who fornicate by their thighs in a burning pit.
  • Verse 7: Murderers and those who aided them will be cast into a fire full of venomous creatures as the souls of those who were murdered by them watch.
  • Verse 8: Women who had abortions are buried to their necks in excrement while lightning from the eyes of the children they killed pierce them. The milk from the breasts of these women produce creatures which eat their flesh and that of their husbands who were complicit. Women receive the most attention in this one but men get theirs too.
  • Verse 9: Ezrael casts the burning bodies of those who persecuted the righteous into a dark place where a wrathful spirit torments them and a worm eats their intestines.
  • Verse 9: The slanderers and those who deny Christ have their eyes put out with hot irons and chew their tongues.
  • Verse 9: The deceivers, particularly those who slew the martyrs by lying, have their lips cut off and are tormented by a fire that enters their mouths and burns their entrails.
  • Verse 9: Those who coveted wealth are dressed in rags and impaled upon a pillar of fire.
  • Verse 10: Those who practiced usury are cast into a place of filth which they are immersed in to their knees. Not that I’m going to rank these or anything but this one seems relatively mild compared to the others.
  • Verse 10: Those who worshiped idols are repeatedly thrown down from a high place, driven back up it by demons, then thrown down again.
  • Verse 10: Ezrael has prepared a place near the preceding torment into which all idols are cast and burned and those who made these idols or followed devils are tormented in eternal chains of fire.
  • Verse 11: Those who have not honored their father and mother stumble while on a high place and roll down into a place of fire and fear only to have to climb back up and repeat the process.
  • Verse 11: Related to the previous, those who love their sins, did not obey their parents, or honor their elders are hung up to be eaten by flesh-eating birds.
  • Verse 11: Maidens who did not remain virgins until marriage receive the same punishment (carnivorous birds) as the previous.
  • Verse 11: Disobedient slaves chew their tongues and are tormented by fire.
  • Verse 12: Those who claimed to be righteous but weren’t are stricken blind and dumb and cast onto coals of fire.
  • Verse 12: Sorcerers and sorceresses are hung upon a whirling wheel of fire.

Peter is also granted a vision of heaven and sees the Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah. Heaven is depicted as a garden, fragrant and beautiful. As with this post, the AP devotes far more time to Hell than to Heaven.

There is an attempt to make the punishment fit the crime though I’ll admit that the significance of some of the punishments escapes me. One other interesting note is the appearance of the Angel of Death (or punishment), Ezrael (Azrael). He is not mentioned in either the Old or New Testament, or at least not in what the Catholic Church determined to be canonical. As he is not mentioned in the Greek fragments, only the Ethiopian, and as he is more prominent in Islam, this may be a case where early Islam influenced early post-Arab Conquest Egyptian Christianity. I’m sure someone’s written about this someplace but I haven’t come across it.

Also, while there’s nothing in this text to indicate that this will be his role, as Peter has sometimes been considered the holder of the keys to Heaven, I suppose it makes sense that he’d get a closer look at what he’d help consign souls to. It would be pretty tenuous to use this one text as part of the origin of that tradition but I still found it interesting.

Image of Saint Peter from about 1390 by Andrea Vanni. Note the keys.
Later medieval images of Peter often show him with the keys to Heaven.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Early Christians were as fascinated with what Hell was like as Dante. The AP doesn’t have the literary value of Dante and is far less detailed, but I found it interesting when I came across it and thought it was worth sharing.

1 For a fuller discussion of the discovery, dating and transmission of the AP see Schneemelcher and Wilson (2003) pp 621-5. They believe it was likely first written about 135. For Eusebius see his Ecclesiastical History VI.14.1. In my edition he refers to this as the Revelation of Peter.

Coogan, Michael D., ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Edition With the Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010). ISBN:9-780-195-28955-8.

Ehrman, Bart, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2003). ISBN:978-0195-14182-5.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, C.F. Cruze, trans. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (1998). ISBN: 978-1-56563-371-7.

Schneemelcher, Wilhelm and Wilson, R. McL., eds., New Testament Apocrypha Volume Two: Writings Related to the Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Subjects. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press (2003). ISBN:9780664227227.

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Posted by on October 13, 2013 in Literature, Religion


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Tales From Apocrypha 3: The Gospel of Thomas

I started this post about six months ago and part of the reason was to use the Gospel of Thomas as an illustration of various early Christian groups originating independent of one another. Unfortunately, I don’t recall exactly where I was going with that so instead I’m going to talk about what I find most fascinating about the Gospel of Thomas; simply that it may provide a window into very early Christianity.

Before I get started on that a quick review of what seems to be the most prevalent scholarly thinking on the development of the Canonical Gospels is in order. New Testament scholars generally believe that the Synoptic Gospels; Mark, Luke and Matthew, originated from two main sources. One of these consisted of oral stories circulating about Jesus’ life, accounts of what he did. The second is some source, commonly identified as the Q or Quelle source, which contained a list of Jesus’ sayings. These stories and sayings were then combined to form the Synoptic Gospels. 1

The Gospel of Thomas has been among the most analyzed, critiqued and written about of all Apocryphal works. It is unlike any of the Canonical Gospels as it provides no details of Jesus’ life. It is a sayings gospel. The Gospel of Thomas includes 114 quotations from Jesus. Nothing more, nothing less. 2 The Gospel was only recently discovered among the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945 however once it was analyzed historians realized that they already possessed fragments of it in Coptic from Oxyrhynchus, dated from before 200 CE. 3 The version found at Nag Hammadi dates from the early fourth century.

Nag_Hammadi_Codex_IIfolio 32 of Nag Hammadi Codex II, with the ending of the Apocryphon of John, and the
beginning of the Gospel of Thomas. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is some debate about the date the Gospel of Thomas was written and this is pretty important. The Nag Hammadi version is believed to have consisted of an early version which had been added to over the years, resulting in a final version which became more widely disseminated from around 140-200. The interesting point for me within this context is the earlier material which some historians believe originated in the early second century while others believe it may have been written earlier, perhaps as early as about 40. I find the argument for an early date persuasive (to be fair, at this time I have not read a detailed explanation of why it may be later).

One argument for the possibility of an early date for GT is when we compare phrases from Thomas to those in another Gospel. Helmut Koester writes, “If one considers the form and wording of the individual sayings in comparison with the form in which they are preserved in the New Testament, The Gospel of Thomas appears to have preserved a more original form of the traditional saying(in a few instances, where this is not the case, the Coptic translation seems to have been influenced by the translator’s knowledge of the New Testament gospels), or presents versions which are independently based on more original forms.” 4 Bart Ehrman writes, “Many of these sayings are pithier and more succinct than their canonical counterparts. Is it possible that Thomas presents a more accurate version of the sayings than, say, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (there are fewer parallels to John)- that is, a closer approximation to the way Jesus actually said them?” 5

Here are some examples from Wikipedia where Thomas includes the same general message as one of the canonical Gospels but in a shorter form: 6

Thomas 8: And Jesus said, “The person is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of little fish. Among them the wise fisherman discovered a fine large fish. He threw all the little fish back into the sea, and easily chose the large fish. Anyone here with two good ears had better listen!”

and Matthew 13:47-50: “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

or Thomas 107: Jesus said, “The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the largest, went astray. He left the ninety-nine and looked for the one until he found it. After he had toiled, he said to the sheep, I love you more than the ninety-nine.”

with Luke 15:3–7: Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” 7

Following the same reasoning as the historians I’ve quoted above, to me it’s logical that the shorter, less detailed saying would usually be the earlier one. There’s no law which says this must be the case but it’s much easier to argue that someone took a short saying, the meaning of which confused some folks, and expanded it to make its message clearer than for someone to have taken a detailed, fairly clear message and made it shorter and less clear. Now not every saying in Thomas is paralleled in the New Testament and obviously the proposed earliest date of 140 for the text found in the Nag Hammadi manuscript postdates the writings of the Gospels by half a century or more. However it is reasonable to think that at least some of the sayings included in it were not edited and are very early.

Where the Gospel of Thomas is fascinating is this window it provides (or may provide) into very early Christianity, well before it would have been considered anything more than a Jewish sect, possibly even before Paul’s letters. Where the canonical Gospels are a merging of oral stories told of the life of Jesus combined with his sayings, teachings and parables into a narrative, Thomas is more of a raw form; a component, possibly, of what came to be the Gospels of the New Testament. 8

NOTE: This is a link to an online version of the Gospel of Thomas.

1 Hopefully folks realize this is woefully oversimplified. For example, most of Mark is included in Matthew and Luke, but the latter two incorporate considerable additional material, resulting in some historians’ belief that they must have had an additional source or two. BTW, these three are called Synoptic because they share so much material. John is significantly different.

2 As far as I know Thomas has never been identified as the Q document mentioned above however it has often been described in terms such as, “similar to what the Q document may have been.”

3 For me the most useful introduction is by Helmut Koester in Robinson (1990), pp 124-6. If your preference is for a more detailed analysis, see Hennecke, et al. (1973) pp 278-307.

4 Helmut Koester, “The Gospel of Thomas,” p 125 in Robinson (1990).

5 Ehrman, Lost Christianities (2003) pp 55-6.

6 OK, here I have to admit something. Not sure if I should be embarrassed by this or not. When I began writing this post back whenever, I recalled someone having done a very nice job comparing sayings in Thomas with those in the canonical Gospels demonstrating that while they are similar, in many cases those in Thomas were shorter and simpler. I was sure this was in one of the books I’d read on it – my “Apocrypha Collection” includes 13 books and I have more on the Gnostics and other heresies. One of the reasons I’ve taken so long publishing this post is I couldn’t find this comparison. Until today when I Googled the term, “Gospel of Thomas Comparison Matthew” which took me to Wikipedia. I’ve not used it as a source before but we use the tools we are given (I’m still convinced this is in a book I have here, someplace). Anyway, take that for what it’s worth. I categorize Wikipedia as useful for quick reference but not dependable (IOW I like to double check what it says – then again, I’d give someone the same advice if we were talking about me). But since Wikipedia uses me as a source, I suppose it’s time I return the favor.

7 (2013)

8 I think it’s important to note that the Gospel of Thomas was found among Gnostic documents and there are hints of a Gnostic emphasis on secret knowledge in it, enough that early Christian writers such as Hippolytus, Origen and Eusebius consider it heretical. However these hints are subtle compared with texts such as The Apocryphon of John. To me Thomas fits in the category of, “not Gnostic but something which contains material which is appealing to Gnostics.” Of course then there’s the discussion of what exactly we mean by the terms “Gnostic” and “Gnosticism,” is this another “ism” which has become so generalized as to be virtually useless, etc. I’m not going there, not today anyway but if you want to, Meyer(2005) discusses this scholarly debate in his introduction, pp x-xiii.

Ehrman, Bart, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2003). ISBN: 978-0195-14183-2

Ehrman, Bart, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2003). ISBN:978-0195-14182-5.

Ehrman, Bart and Plese, Zlatko, The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2011). ISBN:978-0-19-973210-4.

Hennecke, E., Schneemelcher, Wilhelm and Wilson, R. McL., eds., New Testament Apocrypha: Gospels and Related Writings, Volume 1. Trowbridge, Wiltshire: Redwood Press (1973). ISBN:978-0-334-01111-8.

Meyer, Marvin, trans. & ed., The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus: The Definitive Collection of Mystical Gospels and Secret Books about Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperCollins (2005). ISBN: 978-0-060-76208-7.

Pagels, Elaine, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. New York: Random House (2005). ISBN:978-0-375-50156-2.

Robinson, James M., ed., The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures Complete in One Volume. New York: HarperCollins (1990). ISBN:978-0-06-066934-8.

Wikipedia, Gospel of Thomas, page last modified August 19, 2013. (last accessed August 26, 2013).


Posted by on August 31, 2013 in Literature, Religion


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Tales From Apocrypha 2: The Acts of Andrew or When Christianity Goes Off the Rails

Some Apocrypha, such as The Acts of Peter, are just plain good stories. Others show a very different form of Early Christianity, what came to be known as heresy. And then there are those which were likely considered Orthodox (or trending toward what would become Orthodox) but while reading it I came across something which made me say, “What the wha-huh?” Or something like that. The Acts of Andrew(AA) is in this last category.

Based on Schneemelcher and Wilson(2003), The AA was likely composed around 150 in the Eastern Empire. It isn’t exactly a heretical text but was used by some groups such as the Manichaeans and Priscillianists due to its extreme asceticism and hints of dualism. Various folks were uneasy about its use including, eventually, the Decretum Gelasianum (ca. 492-96) where it is listed as banned due to its use by heretics. Despite this, it appears to have been popular and survives in several texts and Gregory of Tours included a heavily edited version in his Liber de miraculis (one of his books which I don’t have). Schneemelcher and Wilson(2003) use several texts to complete the story, including Andrew’s Martyrdom from the Passio Andreae. 1

In addition to heretical tendencies (or at least being the sort of book heretics thought they could use) it appears heavily influenced by Classical themes. In particular Andrew’s death resembles that of Socrates as he was visited by various friends and acquaintances and had conversations with them before he was crucified.

Statue of St. Andrew in Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The bulk of the AA takes place in Patra, Greece. Through his preaching in the city Andrew has converted Maximilla, the wife of the proconsul Aegeates. And not just converted; Maximilla has vowed to never again have sex which Andrew calls “a polluted and foul way of life.” 2 Unsurprisingly, Aegeates is angered by this and pleads with her to change her mind but Andrew meets with her regularly and urges her to stay strong and pure.

(from this point forward I’m recounting from the Passio Andreae)

So far so good. A married person withdrawing from the marriage bed is pretty far on the ascetic side of Christianity and not something the Church generally approved of but it’s not unheard of. Various passages of scripture such as Matthew 19:6, “Therefore what God has joined let no man separate” and 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 where Paul says, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” and, “Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set of time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again” support the idea that sex is a part of marriage and one in which each person was expected to participate. I believe that Gratian was the first to formally codify this, in the 12th century, but it was in effect long before that. However, though leaving an unwilling husband (or, more rarely, a wife) to pursue an ascetic lifestyle is at the edge of mainstream, it is sometimes found in Medieval literature, including hagiography.

However Aegeates is a powerful man, used to having his way, and isn’t about to give up easily. So Maximilla, helped by generous bribery, talks her maidservant, Eucleia, into sharing her husband’s bed and he (the AA doesn’t explain exactly how but the inference is that this is God’s will acting through Andrew) never realizes that this isn’t his wife. This goes on for eight months until Eucleia gets greedy, starts asking Maximilla for ever-increasing gifts, and brags to her fellow servants about who she’s spending her nights with.

However, “Maximilla, thinking that Eucleia was not gossipy but faithful because of the gifts she had given her …” (faithful seems a strange term to use considering she’s been shacking up with someone else’s husband for the better part of a year) is unaware that her plan is about to fall apart. 3 She returns to her home and is seized by some of the servants who threaten to expose the plot. Maximilla gives a thousand denarii to each slave who promises not to tell her husband about this. Despite this, the slaves tell Aegeates.

As you might expect, he’s not pleased. He tortures Eucleia who tells him everything, “slandering her mistress.” I’m reading this whole thing thinking, she tells him the truth under torture and it’s slander? Well, “As for Eucleia, he cut out her tongue and cut off her hands and feet, ordering that she be cast out and after some days without nourishment she became food for the dogs.” 4 Following this he returns to pleading with Maximilla to return to him. Urged on by Andrew, she refuses and Aegeates has the apostle thrown in prison.

Maximilla continues to visit Andrew every day and he urges her to continue as she has begun, “Let it be yours henceforth to keep yourself chaste, pure, holy, undefiled, sincere, free from adultery, unwilling for intercourse with the alien, unbent, unbroken.” 5 The remainder of the narrative is predictable. Aegeates, not getting his wife back, eventually crucifies Andrew (though Andrew does have an interesting conversation with the cross as if it were a person). Meanwhile Maximilla is called “pure,” “undefiled,” “holy” and “… supplied with the blessed love of Christ.” 6

So I’m reading this narrative thinking to myself, Is this for real? Seriously, even if asceticism is a good thing, how does Maximilla, and by proxy Andrew, come off good in this? Let’s list the transgressions:

1. Breaking the marital bond.
2. Lying and deception, and for eight months.
3. Prostitution (not sure what else to call Maximilla giving buckets of gifts to Eucleia to persuade her have sex with Aegeates)
4. Adultery – and a double whammy here as Maximilla fools her husband into being an unwitting adulterer and pays Eucleia to be an adulteress.
5. Bribery (in order not to get caught in a lie)
6. Responsible for Eucleia’s death – indirectly at least – and not a very pleasant one.

And so, IMO, this is an example where Christianity tried to go “out there”, well beyond what could be justified, even in the pursuit of asceticism. Some of this story strikes me as absurd. In the previous quote Andrew tells her to remain free from adultery but apparently it was OK for her to turn two other people into adulterers. This “pure” individual pays someone to have sex with her husband. With all this, the text continued to be used though there are versions without some of the more explicit details. In any case, I do not see how any group, whatever their belief system or values they tried to promote, could view the actions of Maximilla and Andrew as positive.

1 This is footnoted in Schneelmacher and Wilson (2003) as from, “Ed. Th. Detorakis, Acts of the Second International Congress of Peloponnesian Studies I, Athens 1981/2, 325-52.

2 From the Codex Vaticanus 808 version of The Acts of Andrew 5 in Schneelmacher and Wilson (2003).

3 Schneelmacher and Wilson (2003), from the Detorakis edition of AA, p 140 – this edition isn’t broken into chapters.

4 Schneelmacher and Wilson (2003), from the Detorakis edition of AA, p 141.

5 Schneelmacher and Wilson (2003), from the Detorakis edition of AA, p 145.

6 Schneelmacher and Wilson (2003), from the Detorakis edition of AA, p 151.

Coogan, Michael D., ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Edition With the Apocrypha, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010). ISBN:9-780-195-28955-8.

Schneemelcher, Wilhelm and Wilson, R. McL., eds., New Testament Apocrypha Volume Two: Writings Related to the Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Subjects, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press (2003). ISBN:9780664227227.


Posted by on January 24, 2013 in Literature, Religion


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A War of Words: Primacy of the Visigothic Bishopric of Toledo

I’ve read a little on the Visigoths. One of the interesting things about a kingdom with a relatively weak central government (at least compared to the Merovingians and Ostrogoths) is all of the conflict. This probably wasn’t a lot of fun for the folks living back then but one of the results is that there are a fair number of sources written for the purpose of advancing the cause of various factions. The Visigothic Church suffered from this same lack of central organization and because of this there are a lot of textual sources. You get all of these regional sources like The Martyrs of Cordoba, Lives of the Visigothic Fathers and Lives of the Fathers of Mérida. This is in addition to the various Saints’ Lives used to promote individual churches.

Jamie Wood wrote an interesting article that appeared in the latest Journal of Early Christian Studies which examines another case of a Church using textual means to advance its interests.

In the late fourth century Jerome wrote De viris illustribus or Lives of Illustrious Men, a biographical list of 135 prominent Christians(mainly). This was supplemented by Gennadius who added an additional 91 names in the late fifth century. In the seventh century Isidore of Seville and Ildefonsus of Toledo followed this tradition by writing additional short biographies of prominent Christian figures. Wood believes that Isidore and Ildefonsus had very specific purposes in mind when they wrote these, which he proceeds to discuss. 1

Between Jerome and Gennadius, just 14 of their 226 figures were from Spain (I’m using Spain to indicate the entire Iberian Peninsula). Wood believes that Isidore recognized this shortcoming and set out to correct it “by deepening and broadening the bio-literary history of the Spanish Church.”(624) Isidore was not terribly selective in who he chose to write about and included, “as many Spaniards as he could find, irrespective of whether they had written anything of note or even if he had managed to read their works.”(624) Isidore engaged in an effort to enhance the status of Spain’s Christian past which was not restricted to his De viris illustribus but included biographical details where the Apostle James wrote to Spain and Paul proclaimed the nature of Christ in Spain. 2

Into this literary setting steps Ildefonsus, Bishop of Toledo from 659-667. Before discussing what he wrote I think it’s important to set the stage a bit. Before the Visigoths decided to make it their capital in the sixth century, Toledo was a nothing town – Wood calls it a backwater.(630) It had no political or ecclesiastical history which would make anyone sit up and take notice. Cartagena, as a Mediterranean port, was historically much more important to the Roman province of Carthaginiensis however it was devastated first by the Byzantine conquest of the 6th century and again when the Visigoths reclaimed it in the early 7th century. Once recovered, Cartagena began to regain its influence. It had lost its status as a metropolitan city however it regained episcopal status under King Wamba around 675. It is logical to believe that the Toledan Church felt threatened by Cartagena’s resurgence.

Map of the Visigothic Kingdom showing Toledo and Cartegena. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Besides Cartagena, Toledo would have lacked the sort of history associated with other Spanish bishoprics such as Tarragona, Braga, Mérida and Seville.(633) Isidore failed to mention a single Toledan in his De viris illustribus. Ildefonsus evidently decided that his city needed something to enhance its status.

Ildefonsus opens his De viris illustribus with a veiled criticism of Isidore, “Finally that wisest of men, Isidore, bishop of the See of Seville, following the same path, added to the list the best men he knew. But he departed this life without having looked into this matter fully.” 3

By necessity, Ildefonsus uses a different method from his predecessors. Jerome, Gennadius and Isidore were largely concerned with religious figures who had written though, as mentioned above, Isidore’s standards for this were a bit lower. Ildefonsus didn’t have that to work with. There were no great authors from Toledo. But there were great and saintly men. His hagiographical content swamps that of the others. His first figure, Asturius, receives a miraculous vision revealing the tombs of martyrs. Asturias’ successor, Helladius, while not an author was a worthy man who “… declined to write as he demonstrated things that ought to be written through the pages of his daily life.” 4

Another method Ildefonsus used was that of succession. Church fathers often wrote that the bishops of the great churches were endowed with their posts through Apostolic appointment and succession. 5 Ildefonsus followed this model by including seven bishops of Toledo among his 13 men and establishing historical continuity by naming the successors to Asturius.

This is fun stuff. Churches used all sorts of strategies to advance their causes. Besides cases which involved actual violence you have forged charters and other writings, the discovery of a prominent saint associated with a church and my personal favorite; the successive rewriting of the vita of the church’s saint where the saint becomes progressively more impressive. Sometimes this even turned into a competition with a nearby church where each church kept providing revised vitae. Sort of a medieval version of “my Saint can beat up your Saint.” Ildefonsus’ effort to advance the Toledan Church by associating important religious figures with it fits in nicely with these promotional efforts.

1 FWIW, I have Ildefonsus in Fear (1997) and Jerome and Gennadius in Schaff (2012) but I do not, as far as I know, have Isidore.

2 In Romans 15:24,28 Paul expresses his intention to travel to Spain. However as Romans is believed to be his last letter and he wrote it while a prisoner prior to his being taken to Rome as described in Acts, I think it unlikely, despite later assertions to the contrary by John Chrysostom and Cyril of Jerusalem, that he ever got there. For reference, Wood believes that Isidore wrote his De viris illustribus between 604 and 608(622).

3 Fear (1997), p 107.

4 For Asturias and Helladius see Fear (1997), pp 109-10 and 114-5, respectively.

5 For one of the earliest examples of this see 1 Clement 44 (written about 95) where he argues against the forcible removal of presbyters of the Church at Corinth. Other writers (I think Irenaeus but I’m not going to look for it) used similar arguments against heretics; that “correct” thinking resided with bishops who possessed the authority of Apostolic succession.

Fear, A. T., ed. & trans., Lives of the Visigothic Fathers, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1997). ISBN:978-0-85323-582-8.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Fifth Edition, Peabody Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers (2012). ISBN(for set):978-1-56563-116-8.

Wood, Jamie, “Playing the Fame Game: Bibliography, Celebrity, and Primacy in Late Antique Spain,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20 (2012): 613-40.


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Book Review: The Historical Jesus in Context

The Review

Before I get to the review for this book I want to throw in a few quick comments (click on the above link if you want to skip this). First, it has been over a year since I posted a review. The reason for this is fairly simple. Ever since I began a concerted effort to read about Early Christianity I have largely encountered books I feel unqualified to write a review of. I’ve offered comments as something has caught my attention but for the most part I haven’t felt myself able to give an opinion on the quality of a book.1

Second, more related to the review which will follow is that I have never doubted the existence of a historical Jesus. My reasons, not being a Biblical scholar or even highly familiar with first century AD religion or source material discussions, have centered around one basic fact. He is too frequently mentioned in sources dating from a period too close to his death for him to not have existed. I have read/heard arguments such as, “We have nothing he wrote himself,” or, “There are no monuments or inscriptions dating from when he was alive with his name on them,” or even, “Nothing was written about him by someone who knew him personally.” This last is more debatable but it’s generally believed that the Gospel and other source authors were not among Jesus’ disciples.2

These are unrealistic standards. If we were to judge the existence of all people mentioned in source material similarly, history would be an empty thing. Non-elites didn’t write, or have monuments built to them. If we need to strike Jesus from history as someone who actually lived, then history will need to be rewritten in terms that will eliminate the existence of most non-elite individuals, and many elites. By the standards used to judge the probability of someone’s existence, there is plenty of evidence that a man named Jesus, a traveling teacher/preacher/rabbi in Judea, existed near the beginning of the first century. Within 10-15 years of his death, accounts of Jesus were told to large numbers of people who would have had every reason to be skeptical of this individual’s existence if they had not been pretty certain that he had lived. From a historical perspective, there are literally buckets of references to Jesus, chronologically close enough to when he lived to make his existence highly probable.

This does not mean that he is identical to the person we meet through the Gospels. As with any other source of that period, particularly written several decades after the subject lived, we have almost certainly been presented with an idealized Jesus(though I don’t buy arguments that he didn’t at all resemble this portrayal). The Gospel authors had their biases and must be evaluated with this in mind. Much of what is included in them is likely based on oral traditions which are generally less reliable (though numerous oral traditions that generally agree with one another should be viewed as another factor in favor of his having lived). Individuals in the 2nd or 3rd centuries may have redacted the Gospels to add additional details. And I have never had any urge to publicly debate the miracle stories. If you were to ask me if it is possible for a person to walk on water, feed thousands of people from a few loaves of bread and a couple of little fish, heal people without ever meeting them, or rise from the dead I would say no. I would also say I have no problem with anyone who wants to believe these things(and for all you know I may believe these things). Those are matters of faith and I try very hard never to argue with someone over faith, except very close friends.

When it comes to Jesus, I find myself more interested in questions such as whether he actually ran the moneylenders and shopkeepers out of the Temple (let’s face it – he did something to piss the establishment off, to the extent that they executed him). How radical was he, with his devaluation of some matters of Jewish Law? And I enjoy discussions of how apocalyptic Jesus was or whether much of this was entered into his life by the authors of the Gospels, writing as they did (likely) shortly following the destruction of the Temple by Roman authorities.

So with all that out of the way, let’s get to the review.

The Review


Levine, Amy-Jill, Allison, Dale C. Jr. and Crossan, John Dominic, eds., The Historical Jesus in Context, Princeton, Princeton University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-69100-992-9.

This is a collection of 28 essays designed to, as the title says, provide a context for Jesus’ life. As Levine says in her introduction, this book, “… provides information on cultural contexts within which Jesus was understood and perhaps even understood himself.” (1) How does Jesus, the man, teacher, rabbi and messiah fit into first-century Jewish and Roman society? Is he a radical outlier or can parallels be drawn between him and others of his time? How do the concepts, themes and ideas found in the Gospels compare with prominent themes from Jesus’ period? Where might some of these concepts, themes and ideas have originated from?

The essays in this volume are as follows:

  • Introduction by Amy-Jill Levine
  • 1. “Archaeological Contributions to the Study of Jesus and the Gospels,” Jonathan L. Reed
  • 2. “Josephus on John the Baptist and Other Jewish Prophets of Deliverance,” Craig A. Evans
  • 3. “Abba and Father: Imperial Theology in the Contexts of Jesus and the Gospels,” Mary Rose D’Angelo
  • 4. “Miraculous Conceptions and Births in Mediterranean Antiquity,” Charles H. Talbert
  • 5. “First and Second Enoch: A Cry Against Oppression and the Promise of Deliverance,” George W. E. Nickelsburg
  • 6. “Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Peter Flint
  • 7. “The Chreia,” David B. Gowler
  • 8. “The Galilean Charismatic and Rabbinic Piety: The Holy Man in the Talmudic Literature,” Alan J. Avery-Peck
  • 9. “Miracle Stories: The God Asclepius, the Pythagorean Philosophers, and the Roman Rulers,” Wendy Cotter, C.S.J.
  • 10. “The Mithras Liturgy,” Marvin Meyer
  • 11. “Apuleius of Madauros,” Ian H. Henderson
  • 12. “The Parable in the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic Literature,” Gary G. Porton
  • 13. “The Aesop Tradition,” Lawrence M. Wills
  • 14. “Targum, Jesus, and the Gospels,” Bruce Chilton
  • 15. “The Psalms of Solomon,” Joseph L. Trafton
  • 16. “Moral and Ritual Piety,” Jonathan Klawans
  • 17. “Gospel and Talmud,” Herbert W. Basser
  • 18. “Philo of Alexandria,” Gregory E. Sterling
  • 19. “The Law of Roman Divorce in the Time of Christ,” Thomas A. J. McGinn
  • 20. “Associations in the Ancient World,” John S. Kloppenborg
  • 21. “Anointing Traditions,” Teresa J. Hornsby
  • 22. “The Passover Haggadah,” Calum Carmichael
  • 23. “Joseph and Aseneth: Food as an Identity Marker,” Randall D. Chesnutt
  • 24. “The Pliny and Trajan Correspondence,” Bradley M. Peper and Mark DelCogliano
  • 25. “Imitations of Greek Epic in the Gospels,” Dennis R. MacDonald
  • 26. “Narratives of Noble Death,” Robert Doran
  • 27. “Isiah 53:1-12 (Septuagint),” Ben Witherington III
  • 28. “Thallus on the Crucifixion,” Dale C. Allison Jr.

Each chapter follows a similar pattern. It discusses a particular facet of ancient Jewish or Roman life, talks about source material related to that facet, and then provides translated sources demonstrating what was discussed. Occasionally these may be full sources but more often they are a selection. These materials are then compared and contrasted with how Jesus was portrayed, primarily in the Gospels.

The book is not what I’d call a popular history but it is written at a fairly basic level. I don’t know for sure but it looks like something designed for use in an introductory undergraduate course on source and textual analysis in Early Christianity. A negative of this book is it’s not footnoted though most sources are referenced in the text. As I do not intend to deeply explore issues related to this topic, this was less of a negative for me than it would be for some books.

As can be seen from the Table of Contents, the breadth of topics is considerable. The portrayal of Christ as a messianic figure, his use of parables as teaching tools, comparing his miracle stories with others of the period, exploring Jesus’ knowledge of Jewish scriptures and how he uses them, and discussions of his lack of concern with Jewish ritual impurity (compared with moral impurity) are covered, as well as other topics. I will briefly touch on some of the topics and essays which were of most interest to me.

Craig Evans analyzed the writings of Josephus to determine how prominently messianic figures appear in first-century Jewish culture. Josephus is negatively disposed to these individuals however he mentions several of them and, in contrast, he discusses John the Baptist in favorable terms. In essence, Jesus as a messiah is not out of place during this time and place.

Charles Talbert’s chapter was one of my favorites. He discusses multiple cases of miraculous conception in ancient literature, some of them fairly prominent such as Achilles as the son of the God Thetis and Hercules as the son of Zeus. Of more interest, and possibly more applicable to the portrayal of Jesus, are figures such as Pythagorus, Alexander the Great, and Plato. Talbert spends some time discussing how divine begetting was often attributed to an individual who had lived a particularly notable life. Arrian, in Anabasis 7.30 says of Alexander, “And so not even I can suppose that a man quite beyond all other men was born without some divine influence.” (84) In discussing a passage from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 3.45 Talbert says, “One could not do what Plato did had he not been the offspring of a God! One reason the ancients used stories of miraculous conceptions and births was as an explanation of the superiority of the individual.” (85) For me, while I was certainly aware of miraculous conceptions in ancient literature, I had never grouped the birth of Christ with these.

Peter Flint compares how Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels with passages found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes had several messianic figures and in many ways their lives parallel the account of Jesus. However they differ in a couple of key points and Flint disagrees with prior analyses which describe an Essene precedent for either a killed Messiah or a sacrificial crucifixion to redeem man from sins.

Gary Porton, Bruce Chilton and Herbert Basser discuss prominent Jewish literature elements and their use by Jesus in the Gospels. Porton discusses parables found in rabbinic literature and believes that, “… one would expect the ‘historical’ Jesus to have taught throughout his life by parables.” (209). Chilton talks about a type of literature known as Targum. These are scriptural paraphrases where the general meaning of Hebrew scripture is rendered into the Aramaic most commonly in use in first-century scripture. He demonstrates that Jesus was well aware of and extensively used this literary form, indicating an extensive knowledge of Hebrew scripture. He also discusses one particular instance where the Greek translation provided by Luke misrepresents the Aramaic original. In Luke 4:16-30 Jesus is nearly stoned after speaking in a synagogue. Based on Luke, Jesus appears to provide a fairly traditional interpretation of Isiah however based on pronoun confusion, he is actually proclaiming himself not just as a divinely inspired preacher but as a full-on messiah who will personally see to the redemption of the souls of men from captivity. (252-4) Interestingly, Chilton describes a Jesus who knew and used Targum however he almost never used identical language and how he used scripture, “… shows that an innovative tendency is characteristic of his style of teaching.” (252) Basser describes how Jesus followed talmudic and rabbinic forms of teaching and argument, however his message in the Gospels is different from Judaic teachings.

A very useful chapter for me was authored by Jonathan Klawans. He discusses the difference between ritual purity and moral purity and how Jesus emphasized the importance of the latter but was not as concerned with the former. Ritual impurities are those which do not represent sin. For example, a woman is ritually impure during menstruation, however this does not demonstrate sin, just that she should avoid the temple during these times (interestingly, male genital emissions are also considered ritually impure). An individual who helped bury someone is ritually impure but not sinful – the dead must be cared for and buried – he or she must ritually cleanse him- or herself before entering the temple. In contrast, moral impurity such as sexual transgressions, bloodshed, and idolatry are sinful and result in long-lasting defilement which may not be removed simply by a ritual cleansing. Throughout the Gospels, Christ expresses little concern for ritual impurity. He and his disciples eat without first washing their hands, heal on the Sabbath and gather grain to eat on the Sabbath, all items prohibited under Jewish Law. Yet he is very concerned with greed, murder, adultery, etc. Klawans provides a useful analysis of Mark 7:1-23 in discussing this.

There were a few essays I considered less useful. I found Dennis MacDonald’s argument that the Gospels made extensive use of Greek epics unconvincing. The fact that Hector and Christ both died is certainly true however I do not see where the denial by Achilles to grant Priam his body resembles the account of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, similarly the death of Turnus in the Aenid. Marvin Meyer’s discussion and translation of the Mithras Liturgy was interesting, however he failed to adequately connect it to first-century Judaism which left me wondering what the point of the chapter was.

This is a good book. For me, it did what it was intended to do – provide me a contextual basis from which I could draw more insight into Jesus’ life, or at least his life as it is portrayed in the Gospels. Jesus comes across as a man of his times, a preacher/teacher who uses traditional Jewish literature, teaching methods, and whose messages are, in many cases, traditional. However he also comes across as a remarkable individual, even accounting for possible later redactions of the Gospels. While he uses traditional methods, much of his message is innovative. While bathing to remove ritual impurity is an every day aspect of Jewish life, the Gospel accounts provide a new, one-time-only, “baptism for life” for the remission of sins. Jesus breaks with Jewish authorities on what constitutes impurity. Once one recalls that in Rome, Emperors were commonly worshiped as deities, Jesus’ famous “Render unto God what is God and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” becomes a subversive denial of the Emperor’s divinity. Christ, depending on your viewpoint, was either an innovator or a radical, perhaps both. He was enough of each to earn the enmity of the Jewish establishment to the point of being executed.

There are areas left unexamined. In particular, I would have appreciated an account of Roman judicial practice in Judea during the period and an examination of how Christ’s trial, sentence and execution compared with normal judicial procedures. I have read where the trial and sentence is considered to have taken place very quickly and would have enjoyed a discussion of this. I would have also enjoyed more discussions such as Bruce Chilton’s discussing Aramaic/Greek translations and how this impacts determining the origin of Gospel accounts.3

This book will be valuable for a person who is just beginning his or her examination of first-century Christianity. My one recommendation is that you first read the canonical Gospels. These are frequently referred to and the Gospel accounts are compared and contrasted with other examples of ancient literature throughout.

1 It’s sheer coincidence that I’m posting something about Jesus on Christmas Day. I happened to finish this book over the weekend. Funny how that works out.

2 This is the biggest change in my preconceptions; that the Gospel authors were not Jesus’ companions. In essence, while some believe that Mark (considered the earliest Gospel) may have been written around 50 AD, most place it closer to about 70. The real disqualifier is that the Gospels were written in fairly high quality Greek. Jesus’ companions are unlikely to have known Greek and even more unlikely to have been able to write it.

3 One of the ways historians try to figure out when something in a Gospel account originated is by trying to reverse translate it from Greek into Aramaic. There are passages in the Greek which make no sense in Aramaic demonstrating, probably, something which was added a bit later, up to when the Gospel was written (later redactions are an entirely different matter). And there are stories which appear to make much more sense in Aramaic, indicating a fairly early origin. Of course most make sense both ways. And quite often the Gospels and Paul retain an original Aramaic word or phrase.


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Constantine, Panegyric and Conversion

I’ve been reading a collection of late antique panegyrics in Nixon and Rodgers (1994). Most of these are fairly standard though they do include some historical references not found elsewhere. The most interesting one for me (so far, I’m not done with the book) has been a panegyric in honor of Constantine delivered in Trier, probably in 313. 1

There’s a lot of historical information contained in this. It is largely an account of Constantine’s campaign against Maxentius, culminating in the Battle of Milvian Bridge and there are details I haven’t found elsewhere. But what has most fascinated me about this is that the panegyrist (who is anonymous) doesn’t seem to know what to do regarding Constantine’s religion. For those less familiar with these (I’m lumping sources titled as “Orations in honor of …” in this class as I can’t see a distinction), such speeches are generally filled with references to divinities and prior to this, including in earlier speeches in honor of Constantine, these references are to the traditional Roman Gods. As recently as 310, Constantine is referred to as divine and under the special protection of Apollo. 2

By 313 this had changed. The panegyrist expresses surprise that Constantine has ignored inauspicious omens and gone against the advice of soothsayers in offering battle. His patron God is not named and in fact the author considers him/her to be a mystery, known only to the Emperor, but clearly having dominion over lesser divinities. 3

Later the author asks, “… tell us, I beg you, what you had as counsel if not a divine power?” This nameless God, while creator of the world is also given Jupiter’s attributes, including casting thunderbolts. At the close of the panegyric this god is referred to as, “… you, supreme creator of things.” 4

The panegyric contains classical references. It is nothing like, for example, the orations given by Ambrose for Valentinian II and Theodosius. However something has changed and the (almost certainly pagan) author seems a bit at a loss as to how to deal with it. Constantine is given divine properties, but the panegyric contains a mix of attributing this divinity to the Emperor and to his relationship with this new, unnamed God. There is no story of a miraculous vision at Milvian Bridge and nothing about Constantine’s soldiers having any sort of symbol with them during the battle. In fact, the only way to equate this with Christianity is through the events of the subsequent quarter-century.

I found this panegyric fascinating. Eusebius provides a story of a sudden, extreme conversion, one which I’ve always discounted as a later invention, mostly (nothing to say Constantine didn’t have a dream or even was converted through it but he shows a lot of sympathy to the traditional gods for at least the next decade). Still, there is a distinct change in tone between the Panegyric given in 310 and that of 313. Constantine’s religious allegiance was different and this change appears to be associated with the campaign against Maxentius. Reports of this change were public enough to be picked up by an orator in Trier. Also interesting is how the panegyrist addresses it. He’s open in stating that he doesn’t know Constantine’s god but it is one who is new and different, and very powerful. Constantine is not exactly divine, but full of divinity anyway due to his relationship with this deity. It’s one of those moments of transition which show up in sources sometimes, before people have had much time to put a spin on things. Seriously cool stuff and I apologize for the brevity (new apology for me) but things are very busy right now and I wanted to get something on this out.

1 Nixon and Rodgers (1994), “XII. Panegyric of Constantine Augustus,” pp. 288-333. For this book I’ll reference the Latin verse locations as well as the pages of the English translation.

2 In Nixon and Rodgers (1994) see “VI. Panegyric of Constantine,” pp 211-53, particularly a first reference to his divinity at 1.5-2.5, pp. 218-21 and his relationship with Apollo on 21.4-21.7, pp. 248-51.

3 This combination of themes is covered at the beginning of the panegyric in Nixon and Rodgers (1994) at 2.1-2.6, pp. 295-6.

4 In Nixon and Rodgers (1994); for the initial quote, 4.1, p. 299; this god having Jupiter’s powers, 13.2-3, pp. 313-4; as supreme creator, 26.1, p. 332.

C.E.V. Nixon and Barbara Saylor Rodgers, eds., In Praise of Later Roman Emperors: The Panegyrici Latini, with introduction, translation, and historical commentary. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press (1994). ISBN: 978-0-520-08326-4.


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Quintus Aurelius Symmachus – Christian Enemy?

In 384 the Roman Senator and Prefect of the City of Rome, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus represented the Senate of Rome when it requested that the Altar of Victory be returned to the Senate House and state support for Pagan temples and ritual be restored. The Altar had originally been removed by Constantius in 357, restored by Julian, then removed again by Gratian in 382, along with funding for the temples and state cults. In 382 Symmachus represented the Senate in requesting that the Altar be restored and was not even granted an audience. Following Gratian’s death, the Senate tried again and again they chose Symmachus to represent them. Symmachus wrote an eloquent letter or relatione to Valentinian II, generally considered an outstanding example of Latin literature, asking for religious tolerance and requesting that the Altar and subsidies be restored. 1

Winged Victory statue found at Ephesus
Winged Victory statue found at Ephesus (from Wikipedia Commons)

Based largely on this event, Symmachus has come to be portrayed as a fervent defender of the traditional Roman cults and even, as his bio on says, “A leading opponent of Christianity.” 2

To a large extent (not entirely, see below), this characterization of Symmachus originated with Ambrose and was picked up by Prudentius. Ambrose seems to have been eager to paint himself as the person who went toe-to-toe with Symmachus to defend Christianity from attack. This conflict did not happen in this way and Ambrose’s counter to Symmachus’ letter in favor of restoring the Altar of Victory in the Senate and public support of state cults happened after the Senate request had been denied. 3

Prudentius, apparently writing shortly after Symmachus’ death around 403, wrote his Contra Orationem Symmachi or Reply to the Address of Symmachus in two books. In it Symmachus is described as an enemy attacking Christianity. 4 He is called a “silly pagan” and a “cunning workman” who possesses “the power of deception.” He “dares, alas! to attack our faith.” His voice is polluted with sin and speaks of “unclean monstrosities.” I could go on. 5

On closer examination, the characterization of Symmachus as an enemy or even an opponent of Christianity seems unjustified. While he does criticize some actions taken in the name of Christianity, in particular the plundering of pagan temples, he never, in what I have read, criticizes Christianity itself. While most of this characterization appears to have developed posthumously (even Ambrose’s letter was published later as part of a collection) he did have to defend himself from one accusation. Praetextatus(Prefect of Italy, Africa and Illyricum) obtained an Imperial order from Emperor Valentinian II permitting Symmachus, as Prefect of Rome, to investigate the spoliation of pagan temples and bring those responsible to justice. Symmachus was accused by an unnamed individual (Symmachus doesn’t name him but implies he is someone close to the Emperor) of imprisoning and torturing Christians during this investigation. Valentinian II wrote a public letter telling Symmachus to stop and free everyone. In response Symmachus wrote a passionate relatione explaining that he hadn’t even started his inquiry and that even Pope Damasus had written that no Christians had received any insulting treatment. If such malicious rumours against him persist then he asks (I’m sure this is rhetorical) that he be tried for his crimes. However serious this accusation may have been at the time, it can’t have stuck with him for too long as he was named Consul for 391. 6

Based on his writings and what is known of his actions, Symmachus does not appear to consider himself opposed to Christianity, however the more aggressive Christians chose to portray him this way. In fact, as Prefect of Rome Symmachus was partially responsible for the construction of a Christian church, what is today known as the S. Paolo fuori le mure. 7 He was also a friend of Christians such as Ausonius, writes letters of recommendation for Christians and asks his brother to help a Caesarian bishop whose city was unable to pay its taxes after the fisc was seized by a rebel. 8 Even Ambrose never attacks Symmachus personally, just his request, and the two exchange several letters following the Altar of Victory incident, not as friends but as a powerful bishop and powerful senator who respectfully conduct business with one another.

A closer examination of Relatione 3 (the one which Ambrose and Prudentius wrote against) shows that his argument is not so much against Christianity as in favor of tradition. The Gods of Rome have always protected her, how can they be ignored now? Disaster will result if the protectors are spurned. Already a famine has occurred, the likes of which Rome has never seen, where people are reduced to eating twigs and acorns.

In contrast to attacking Christianity, Symmachus frequently asserts that Christians (and the Emperor) should be allowed to worship as they see fit. “Of course, we can list Emperors of either faith and either conviction: the earlier Emperors venerated our ancestral religious rites, the later did not abolish them.” 9 “Everyone has his own customs, his own religious practices; the divine mind has assigned to different cities different religions to be their guardians.” 10 “Allow them [the Gods] to defend you, us to worship them.” 11

Within this, a very important passage deserves mention, as this has become one of the defining phrases of Symmachus: 12

It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same. We gaze up at the same stars, the sky covers us all, the same universe encompasses us. What does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for truth? Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret.

Symmachus does not come across, in this and his other writings, as particularly closed-minded about religion. He seems to believe (or at least he has adjusted to the reality of the new, growing religion) that people should be free to worship as Christians. However he does want the traditional support for state cults to continue. In his writings, this is to safeguard the Empire, and I have no reason to think he didn’t believe this. I’m sure various other factors play into this such as his role as a Priest, the importance of the cults being linked to his importance as an individual, and his sense of self. However he does not seem to be an opponent or enemy of Christianity, or even a rabid supporter of paganism, as he has sometimes been portrayed. From his writings, Symmachus seems more than anything to be a traditionalist. At times, this love for tradition is displayed in unexpected ways.

Shortly following the death of Vettius Agorus Praetextatus in 384 the Vestal Virgins proposed to erect a statue in his honor. Praetextatus was one of Symmachus’ closest friends and a staunch political ally. Symmachus offers his death as one of the main reasons why he asks Valentinian permission to resign as Prefect of Rome. Even so, he opposes the proposed statue. Symmachus writes to Nichomachus Flavianus stating that while Praetextatus is worthy of this honor, this has never been done before and may establish a dangerous precedent. 13 When the Emperor sent an ornate carriage for the Urban Prefect to ride in, Symmachus declines, both as he feels such opulence is inappropriate and in favor of tradition. 14

Ultimately, Symmachus’ passion for Roman tradition translates itself in Relatione 3 as passion for the state cults. I think it’s useless to try to separate the Roman religion from tradition. To Symmachus, the two will likely have been so intertwined as to be one. To him, supporting the state cults was part of what it meant to be Roman. Other religions had always existed and so he shows no opposition to Christianity, however the state must continue to revere the Gods. It was necessary for the continued health of the Empire and it was what had always been done. As an ardent traditionalist, he became an ardent supporter of the cults. 15

NOTE: I’ve used Barrow(1973) for my references to Symmachus’ relationes however an English translation of Relatione 3, about the Altar of Victory, is also available and for much less money in Liebeschuetz and Hill(2010).

Abbreviations used in Notes:

CS – Contra Symmachus
Rel – Symmachus’ Relationes

1 Relationes were official dispatches sent by Roman adminstrators to the Emperor. Some of these were simply to keep the Emperor up on what was going on but others were to ask for judicial review or to send greetings from the Senate (The praefectus urbi had a substantial judicial role and was also the titular head of the Senate). In judicial cases, Relationes accompanied the evidence and served to explain the situation more fully.

2 You can find the same language on several online sources (likely some have borrowed from each other) such as It is also present at an exhibit at the British Museum.

3 For additional details see McLynn(1994) p 264 and Sogno(2006) pp 50-1.

4 CS I, 651-5.

5 Respectively, CS II, 57, 201, 48, 673 and CS I, 636-8.

6 See Kahlos(2002) pp 95-6 and Sogno(2006) p 52 for an overview of this and Rel 21 in Barrow(1973) for Symmachus’ defense.

7 Kahlos(2002) p 93.

8 For Ausonius, see Symmachus’ Letter 1.13. In Letter 1.99 he recommends Ponticianus and in Letter 1.64 he asks for help for Bishop Clemens of Caesaria.

9 Symmachus, Rel 3.3

10 Symmachus, Rel 3.8

11 Symmachus, Rel 3.19

12 Symmachus, Rel 3.10. Kahlos(2002) pp 109-110 proposes that Symmachus was influenced by Themistius as you can find a similar message in Themistius Or. 5.68d-69a., addressed to Jovian in 364, “… while there exists only one judge, mighty and true, there is no one road leading to him …” and, “If you allow only one path, closing off the rest, you will fence off the broad field of competition.”

13 Based on references, this seems to be from Symmachus’ Letter 2.36. Kahlos(2002) pp 155-6 and Sogno(2006) pp 56-7.

14 Symmachus, Rel 4.3, “Get rid of this conveyance; its array may be more spectacular, but we have always preferred the kind whose use is the more ancient.”

15 Salzman and Roberts(2011) summarize this very well in their Introduction, pp xxxiv-xxxv.

Barrow, Reginald Haynes, ed., Prefect and Emperor: The Relationes of Symmachus, A.D. 384. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1973). ISBN: 978-0-19814-443-4.

Heather, Peter and Moncur, David, trans. & ed., Politics, Philosophy, and Empire in the Fourth Century: Select Orations of Themistius. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2001). ISBN: 978-0-85323-106-0.

Kahlos, Maijastina, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus: A Senatorial Life in Between. Acta Instituti Finlandiae Vol. 26. Rome: Institutum Romanum Finlandiae (2002). ISBN: 952-5323-05-6.

Liebeschuetz, J.H.W.G. and Hill, Carole, trans. & ed., Ambrose of Milan: Political Letters and Speeches. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2010). ISBN: 978-1-84631-243-4.

McLynn, Neil B., Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press (1994). ISBN: 978-0-52008-461-6.

Salzman, Michele Renee and Roberts, Michael, The Letters of Symmachus: Book 1. Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature (2011). ISBN: 9-781589-835979.

Sogno, Cristiana, Q. Aurelius Symmachus: A Political Biography. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-472-11529-7.

Thomson, H.J., trans. & ed., Prudentius: Volume I. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library (2006). ISBN: 978-0-674-99426-3.

Thomson, H.J., trans. & ed., Prudentius: Volume II. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library (2006). ISBN: 978-0-674-99438-4.


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On Libanius and Semi-Random Thoughts

I’m taking a brief detour from my reading up on early Christianity by diving into Libanius. This wasn’t intentional, at least the thought that this would be a detour. Part of the plan was to read more on 4th century culture overall, and look at both the philosophical arguments about various competing belief systems and how Christianity was integrated into existing culture. However, while it’s clear that Libanius doesn’t care for Christianity all that much, he doesn’t come out and directly contest it in his writings, not really. The changing culture of his times colors Libanius’ writings in less obvious ways but I’m going to save that discussion for later.

Instead I’m going to point out something which pops up all the time in sources, throughout the Medieval period (and I imagine before and after as well) which is a commonality to the way people talk about things today (professional historians or folks who’ve read a fair amount can quit reading now if you like). I informally title this, Kids These Days (consider this to be accompanied by a deep sigh). In Norman (2000), Libanius’ Oration 62 (using Norman’s numbering system) is titled, “Against Critics of His Educational System.” The title is pretty self-explanatory. Some individual or group accused Libanius of being a poor teacher of rhetoric and he sets out to defend himself.

I’m going to focus on this statement, “Instead I will proceed to the crux of this disastrous business. You see, parents no longer threaten their children or bar them from the table or the baths if they are negligent, nor yet do they punish them so, or threaten that they will expel them, disinherit them, leave their inheritance to someone else. They can’t approve but they dare not blame. They have changed position with them, so that the sons wear angry looks and the parents cower before them. Students get this licence and sleep, snore, drink, and get drunk, and hold high revelry, and make it plain to the teachers that, unless they put up with any and everything, they will go off to someone else and their fathers won’t stop them. And the wretched parents, as Andromache did, connive at their sons’ desires.” 1

Yup, those kids – they aren’t like they used to be. And it’s all their parents’ fault. This, along with wistful recollections of “the good old days” come up all the time in the sources. The reason I like this is it displays a commonality of attitudes and opinions from over 1500 years ago with those of today. Now Medievals and Ancients thought differently from us; I’m certain of it. The experiences which formed them as individuals and as groups were profoundly different from the experiences of those of us living today in western culture. They viewed the world through another lens, one which resulted in different thought processes, responses to stimuli, etc., etc., from us. (I have a draft of an entire post on this). However with all the differences between their world and ours, some common themes exist, including complaining about the younger(next) generation.

I’m pretty early on with Libanius. I’ve read A.F. Norman’s (2000) Translated Texts for Historians book and am currently finishing Cribiore’s The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch. I still have the four Loebs to go through but this has been interesting reading so far and if time allows, I’m planning to discuss him in a bit more depth once I finish. He has some interesting and somewhat surprising opinions on corporal punishment of students, less surprising yet disturbing comments on women, and overall there’s his bitterness. I’ll wait to expand on it later but he comes across as someone who is either unable or unwilling to change with the times. There are interesting contrasts to draw between Libanius and someone like Themistius. Both were classically trained pagans and as Roman culture changed Themistius thrived and Libanius complained.

On to the semi-randomness. I found this anecdote humorous anyway. Once I finish reading Libanius I plan to move on to Symmachus. I have a book of his letters translated by Salzman and Roberts (2011). The other English language translation of his material that I’ve been able to find is his Relationes (uncertain if this a complete or partial collection) by Barrow (1973). It seems that used copies of this are going for upwards of $200. Fortunately, Purdue libraries has a copy and in checking the catalog, I found that it’s available to check out. Ordinarily I would have expected this to be housed in the Humanities, Social Science and Education Library (HSSE – commonly pronounced “hissy”). Instead it’s in the Hicks Library Repository.

The repository is interesting. Basically, these books aren’t on shelves where you find one and take it to circulation to check out. Instead they’re stored in some fashion (I’ve never been back there) and to check them out you go to the repository desk, fill out a request card and the librarian gets it for you. I don’t think anyone will find it surprising that these books tend to be those not checked out very often.

Poor Symmachus – if he only knew. I had a meeting on campus yesterday and after it ended I headed to the lower level of Hicks, filled out the card, the librarian took it, and entered the information in the computer.

Librarian: “I’m sorry. This is available but we don’t have it here.” Uh-oh, modern technology (in this case the online catalog) has betrayed me again.
Me: “Where is it, HSSE?” (I was mentally wondering about parking availability near another library – HSSE is close though – and how well my leg would hold up if this meant extensive walking)
Librarian: “We have a repository for the repository for books which are checked out very infrequently. If you submit a request we’ll get it and send you an e-mail when it arrives.”

I found this funny. Ol’ Symmachus evidently doesn’t get much play. I’m not mad at all – I have four more volumes of Libanius to get through and am back on campus in about three weeks so I’ll request it a couple of days ahead of time. I’ve always believed that when it comes to the amount of his material translated into English, Symmachus is woefully underrepresented, at least when compared to how often he’s mentioned in modern books. The Salzman and Roberts volume is a step in redressing this, but this repository for the repository thing may help explain the reason for it.

Beyond that, I apologize for not posting much lately. I’m still working through my post-op backlog of work. I’ve also been working back through my old posts and fixing links in WordPress so they aim readers to WP, not Blogger. I’m back to August, 2010 and once I finish I’m going to close the Blogger site, except for a redirect post. And I’m about 1500 words into my Cameron review which I need to finish.

1 Libanius, Or. 62.24-5.

Barrow, Reginald Haynes, ed., Prefect and Emperor: The Relationes of Symmachus, A.D. 384. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1973). ISBN: 978-0198144434.

Cribiore, Raffaella, The School of Libanius in Late Antique Antioch. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press (2007). ISBN: 978-0-691-12824-5.

Norman, A.F., trans & ed., Antioch as a Centre of Hellenic Culture as Observed by Libanius. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2000). ISBN: 9-780853-235958.

Salzman, Michele Renee and Roberts, Michael, The Letters of Symmachus: Book 1. Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature (2011). ISBN: 9-781589-835979.


Posted by on February 4, 2012 in Blogology, Books, Literature


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Rutilius Claudius Namatianus and His Trip from Rome to Gaul

In 417 a wealthy Gallo-Roman by the name of Rutilius Claudius Namatianus traveled from Rome to his estates in Gaul. Then he wrote a poem about his trip, De Reditu Suo. And we have some of it, a big chunk of one book and a bit of a second. Cool, right?

Unfortunately, the poem doesn’t reveal quite as much about the fifth century as either Hydatius’ Chronicle or Salvian’s book on what God was really up to then, but it has some interesting information. In particular, following the sack of Rome and Visigothic occupation of much of Gaul, it provides another window into what contemporary inhabitants of the Roman Empire thought of things. In contrast to the above authors, Namatianus does not seem to believe the world is falling apart. Quite the opposite; based on this poem he believes things have turned a corner and are looking up. Besides showing the attitude of an elite Roman during this specific time it also is a nice illustration of how quickly things were changing in the second decade of the fifth century.

The edition I read is a reprint of something that was originally published in 1907. In many ways it’s equally interesting to read what folks thought about all this a hundred years ago though I’ll save a discussion of that for the end of this post.1

As usual, a brief bio seems to be in order, and this will indeed be brief. We don’t know when or where Namatianus was born and we have no idea when or where he died. We know little of him at all actually though we do find out that his father was pretty high on the Roman food chain and Namatianus tells us that the same held true for himself. 2

From the content of the poem we learn that Namatianus has estates in Gaul and is evidently a member of the wealthy landowning class. The point of this trip is that he is going to tend after his estates in Gaul which are in need of care.

The poet provides a great deal of detail about the trip, including how far his party traveled and what they saw each day. For the portion covered by the poem (not all of it survives) this is a sea voyage from Rome to Pisa with the poem ending after they left the Pisan harbor. This was not a single long sea voyage but a series of short legs as they traveled along the Italian coast and spent each night on shore. The editor of this edition believes the dates of the surviving portion of the poem are from September 22 to November 21. 3

Many people appreciate the poem for its descriptive elements and how Namatianus portrays the various cities and landmarks he passed along the way. For myself, I’m more interested in what it says about the state of the Empire in the year 417, when this trip took place.

At that time the Visigoths, who had been living in Gaul, had recently moved to Spain where they stayed for a brief period before they received lands in Gaul through a treaty signed in 418. The Visigothic journey through the Empire to that point was a fairly convoluted one. Alaric had sacked Rome in 410, then moved to the south of Italy where he died. His brother, Athaulf, took over the leadership and moved them back north into Gaul where they remained until being driven into Spain by Constantius in 415.

Namatianus makes several references in the poem to the Goths and the damage they have caused, both to Rome and Gaul. He speaks of how his Gallic fields have been marred by war and demand his attention so he can build anew. 4

Namatianus clearly believes that Rome will recover. Early in the poem he spends substantial time praising the city, professing his love for Rome and describing how, while she has been harmed, she has recovered from greater depths than this. The Goths are a temporary setback. Rome is eternal. The Gods (there is little doubt he is a pagan) have and will continue to protect her. Her greatness has perhaps been marred a bit but this is a small setback. Rome is recovering, as are his estates. In contrast to Hydatius, Salvian and Sidonius Apollinaris, Namiatus believes that, for this snapshot in time, 417, Rome is strong and in no danger. 5

There are two other items that caught my attention. First, Namatianus hates Jews. He absolutely reviles them. They are a “filthy race” and one is “An animal that spurns at human food.” An interesting question is whether he distinguishes between Jews and Christians. I suspect he is well-informed enough to do so. This does not, of course, mean that he believes the differences between the two are substantial. He may even be using his vilification of Jews as a way to express similar feelings toward Christians. He takes the opportunity to criticize the monks of Capraria as mad and says that they are punishing themselves deservedly for evil. It’s impossible to say if his feelings towards the monks are extended to all Christians but it is certainly possible. 6

He is even more vitriolic against Stilicho. Stilicho burned the Sybilline Books. He opened the protective barrier of the Alps and allowed Rome to be pillaged. The barbarians were invited into Rome, to commit murder. Nero was horrible for killing his mother but Stilicho was responsible for the death of the mother of the world. Namatianus reviles Stilicho more than anyone or anything else in this poem. 7

There’s one other passage that interested me. In this poem Namatianus discusses various friends of his who he meets along the way. One of these is Victorinus. Victorinus was apparently the deputy for the Prefect whose authority included Britain. While this is well after Rome had abandoned Britain, evidently a Roman official continued to be assigned responsibility for it. Did this mean Rome believed it would take Britain back or was this symbolic only? I can’t say, though based on the rest of the poem it seems likely that Namatianus believed Rome could regain everything it had lost (or at least he wrote a poem which made it seem like he believed it). 8

As I noted above, I went ahead and read through the introductory section. It’s interesting to see how thinking has changed on some items over the past century. For example, Keene does not believe Namatianus would have been capable of showing warmth to a Christian however there are plenty of examples of Christians and Pagans being good friends. There were zealots such as Ambrose and the mob at Alexandria that killed Hypatia however there were also Christians who believed themselves to be advanced philosophers and didn’t behave that way. Keene also depicts the trip as extremely dangerous and the poem does not give this sense at all and at that moment in time there is little reason for it to have been. 9

I don’t believe this poem tells us nearly as much as Hydatius, Salvian or Sidonius, but it does provide some information. In contrast to the writings of the three former authors, for Namatianus Rome is still strong, her future bright. At this specific snapshot in time the threat of the Goths has been lifted, the great landowners are still prosperous and with a little work, life will continue as it always has. One wonders what a poem of his would have looked like ten years later.

1 I debated ignoring the introductory section and decided to read through it, thankfully. I also want to note that while it includes both the English and Latin, the English and Latin do not match up on the facing pages but generally you had to flip a page or two further on to find the matching Latin. This raises an interesting dilemma for notation and I’ve decided that when I reference something the line number will represent where I found the Latin and the page number will reference the English which is what I’ll quote when a quote seems called for. I hope this is clear. Seems a strange way to publish a book but there it is. While my Latin is far from strong the poem contains many proper names and references to geographic locations so I was able to keep track reasonably well, I hope. I suppose this is as good of a place as any to mention that I found this a tough read. Namatianus’ style is florid at best. He’s often called, “The Last of the Roman Poets.” Personally, I think whoever is given that title should have written a better poem.

2 For Namatianus’ father see I.579-585, p 157 where he is Prefect of Tuscany, Quaestor, Prefect of Rome and the Imperial Treasurer. For Namatianus see I.561-4, p 155 where he says, “I of old by office held control over the palace and the soldiery guarding the pious Emperor.” which would make him Magister Officiorum and I.466, p 148 where we learn that he was Praefecti Urbi or Prefect of Rome, like his father.

3 There are several interludes where, for weather or other reasons, the travelers remained in one place for several days. For a discussion of the astronomical signs mentioned in the poem indicating the dates of the trip, see the Introduction, pp 8-9. Also, at the time of this edition the journey was believed to have taken place in 416 while a fragment of the poem discovered later indicates that it took place in 417.

4 For his ravaged lands, see I.19-34, p 111. For references to the Goths see I.39-40, p 113 and a lengthy passage referencing the fall of the Goths and recovery of the earth at I.141-154, p 121. Namatianus refers to them as Getae which can be used to refer to a number of barbarian groups however he’s specific enough with his references that it seems fairly clear that he’s discussing Alaric’s and Athaulf’s Goths.

5 This theme repeats itself several times but nowhere stronger than in this opening section, I.47-204, pp 113-121.

6 For Jews see, I.380-398, p 141. For the monks see, I.440-452, pp 145-7.

7 II.41-60, pp 165-7.

8 I.493-501, pp 149-51.

9 Introduction, p 24 for Keene’s discussion of Namatianus’ likely feelings toward Christians and p 13 for his describing the trip as difficult and perilous.

Rutilii Claudii Namatiani, De Reditu Suo Libri Duo: The Home-Coming of Rutilius Claudius Namatianus from Rome to Gaul in the Year 416 A.D., Charles Haines Keene, ed., George F. Savage Armstrong, trans. London: George Bell & Sons (1907), Nabu Reprint (2010). ISBN: 978-1-1763-8714-0.


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