Friday, November 16, 2012

RBB12: Religions of Late Antiquity in Practice

Religions of Late Antiquity in Practice (Princeton University Press, 2000), edited by Richard Valantasis, is a completely different work than what I originally envisaged. Frankly, when I picked this book from a list of eligible treatises I had composed for this little exercise of RBB12, I thought it was a collection of essays focusing on religions of Late Antiquity. Instead, it is a collection of translated religious texts from Late Antiquity (from III CE onwards). The book holds 44 different texts (or parts of texts) by 36 different scholars. Not that I would have anything to complain about: previously I had read less than half of dozen of them, so most of the time I was simply delighted at the chance for reading about things a little bit later in time than what my PhD work usually entails. For another thing, this is a good place to break off from concentrating on the scholarly framework and deal with primary source material instead. With these thoughts, let me introduce five religious writings from Late Antiquity I found particularly interesting and see how they relate (or not) to Clement of Alexandria and his world of late II CE.

Evagrius Ponticus on Prayer and Anger (pp. 65-81); introduction & translation by Columba Stewart OSB

Initially influenced by Origen, later taught by Macarius the Great (the Egyptian), Evagrius Ponticus is remembered as "a systematizer of the spiritual theology of Origenist Egyptian monasticism" (65-66). He explores monastic life in his works Praktikos, Gnostikos, and Kephalaia Gnostica. For Evagrius (d. 399 CE), anger was the hardest passion to get under control in monastic life, but one who masters it (and all the other passions such as gluttony and pride)—which Evagrius calls apatheia, borrowing the old Stoic terminologycan become gnostikos ("one who knows"). Of the aforementioned works, Praktikos gives the instructions for getting these practicalities down, Gnostikos deals with teaching others once this "knowledge" has been attained, and Kephalaia Gnostica instructs with further "hidden realities" available to the gnostikos.
"All of the virtues prepare the way of the Knower [gnostikos], but above all is lack of anger. For one who has touched knowledge but is readily moved to anger is like someone who pierces the eyes with an iron pin." (Gnostikos 5, p. 71)
"It is shameful for a Knower [gnostikos] to be involved in a dispute, whether as victim or perpetrator. If he is the victim, it means he has not endured; and if he is the perpetrator, it means he has done wrong." (Gnostikos 8, p. 71)
As the Alexandrian tradition taught Evagrius, speaking of "spiritual knowledge" (pneumatikos gnosis) was an approved choice of terminology; from modern perspective it breaks down the categories of orthodox/heretical and mainstream/niche. Or, to put it differently: Was Evagrius a Gnostic? The question is meaningless. Some Christians (including Clement of Alexandria), even in Late Antiquity, could very well continue speaking of gnosis despite the war on knowledge other Christians were waging. Catch phrases such as "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God", spoken by Athanasius (On the Incarnation 54, 3), are naturally interpreted differently by many theologians past and present, but their roots lie in those early Christian ideas that emphasized salvific knowledge in Christ and the transformation of humanity in light of this enlightenmentyet another indication that the clear-cut orthodox/heresy divide remains anachronistic in the face of (early) Christian plurality of thought.

Iamblichus, de Mysteriis, Book I, The de Mysteriis (pp. 489-505); introduction & translation by Peter T. Struck

Here we have a treatise on ritual theory by the Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus (d. c. 325 CE), "the case for a practice of ritual acts as part of a philosophical program that aims for spiritual enlightenment" (489), which instantly reminds me of Clement of Alexandria's own philosophical program (but more on this in Scott Brown's article that is coming out as part of Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery?—a collection of papers from York Christian Apocrypha Symposium last year). Iamblichus supplements the Neoplatonist contemplation of the One with ritual practices he calls "theurgy" because, in his view, intellect alone cannot ascertain unity with the One. Ritual acts that are "inarticulable" and "beyond all thought" (2.11) must accompany the ascetic contemplation for the practitioner to succeed in his endeavour. The ritual theory functions by the principle that binds "everything to everything".
"[T]he whole cosmos together also is divisible and distributes itself about the single and indivisible light of the gods. But the light is one and entirely the same everywhere, and it is indivisibly present to all things able to participate in it ... It binds all existing things in each other and brings them to each other. It distinguishes by equal measures even things dispersed farthest away, and it causes end points to join to first principles; for example, earth to sky. It works out a single continuity and agreement of everything to everything." (1.9, p. 495) 
Further on, Iamblichus fits the ritual acts themselves into this scheme.
"Observing these things, then, the art of rituals also uses the correspondences and invocations appropriate to each division and environment." (1.9, p. 496)
And one final passage:
"For the divine in us, which is both One and intellectual, or if you wish "intelligible," is awakened into activity during prayers, and when it is awakened it strives after what is similar to it in an exceptional manner and links itself to perfection-in-itself." (1.15, p. 500)
The above explains how the ritual affects the divine in oneself to match like-to-like, and using ritual offerings (sacrifice) as an example, Iamblichus notes that "if some near or distant relationship or likeness exists [between the offering and the god it is offered to], even this is sufficient for the connection" (1.15, p. 501).

The Mithras Liturgy and Sepher Ha-Razim (pp. 303-315); introduction & translation by Kimberly B. Stratton

Both of these texts are closely related to the genre of ascension texts found within Jewish apocalypticism and the Hermetic corpus. If Iamblichus provides the theoretical ritual framework for the contemplation of the wholly transcendent One, these texts provide the actual means for obtaining it. The magician in the Mithras Liturgy, by special preparations and special knowledge, ascends towards the god and "[l]ike ancient Christians undergoing initiation through baptism, the magician ... is reborn and receives, as a pledge of his new status, a newly fashioned horoscope." (304) Sepher Ha-Razim combines ancient Judaism and worship of Greek deities such as Helios and Aphrodite, and borrows the journey's end, the vision of Merkavah (throne-chariot of God), from the Jewish Hekhalot mysticism. In Stratton's view, the categories of religion and magic become completely blurred with this type of literature (not that these categories were too distinct anywhere else either: as Stratton notes, in Antiquity "much of what we would today label magic fell under the rubric of legitimate science and medicine. Other areas of religious practice, which we might also today designate as magic, such as divination or questioning an oracle, belonged to the highest, most solemn, and respected aspects of ancient religion, including the Delphic oracle, the Jewish temple, and the Roman auspices"; 303).

One of the distinct characteristics of the Mithras Liturgy is the use of voces mysticae or "special nonsense language" whicheven if at some point in the history of the liturgy the words were comprehensible utterances (in another, real language)have become garbled and even "deliberately cryptic" (307), pieces that help to separate the holy rites from the profane everyday speech. The context for the following passage is the magician being in the middle of heavenly ascent, surrounded by initially hostile forces.
"And you shall see the gods looking intently at you and charging at you. So, immediately put your right finger to your mouth and say: "silence, silence, silence, symbol of the eternal living god! Protect me, silence VEKHTHEIR THANMELOU." Thereupon, whistle a long shrill piping sound, after that smack the lips saying: "PROPROPHEGGEI MORIOS PROPHUR PROPHEGGEI NEMETHIRE ARPSENTEN PITEITMI MEOU ENARTH PHURKEKHO PSURIDARIO TUREI PHILBA" and now you shall see the gods looking at you kindly and no longer charging at you, but instead proceeding in their own order of affairs." (556-569; p. 308)
Did Clement of Alexandria has a specific ritual for the "initiation into the great mysteries" (Theod. II.2)? Recently, there has been a lengthy debate between Scott Brown and Peter Jeffery that touches on this subject. In other quarters, scholars like Bentley Layton have argued that there never were distinct rituals of initiation of chrism or bridegroom chamber, principally known to us from the Gospel of Philip; others have disagreed. The question has to be left open for now: depending on how we construct Clement's understanding of the longer Alexandrian Gospel of Mark and make it fit with his other writings, many answers could be provided.

Bishop Avitus of Vienne to His Excellency Ansmundus (pp. 232-234); introduction & translation by Maureen A. Tilley

Here we have a letter written by Alcimus Ecdicius Avitus (d. c. 519), bishop of Vienne, for which the context has to be deduced from this one text alone. It begins:
"When I was at Lyon, the person for whom you considered me worthy to intercede denied to me the accusation that the whole world was shouting. I am really amazed that after he came to his senses and admitted it, he should have asked you for this favor." (p. 232)

Furthermore, the recipient is instructed (regarding another man) that "you must censure this man vigorously. Declare my inclication to him." (234)

Clement, of course, does something similar, instructing Theodore that "one must never give way; nor, when they put forward their falsifications, should one concede that the secret Gospel [used by the Carpocratians] is by Mark, but should even deny it on oath." (Theod. II.10-12) Such occasional similarities have, naturally, no direct significance on the study of Clement's Letter to Theodore, but they can provide data for our assessment whether particular details should be deemed anachronistic or not.

Laws on Religions from the Theodosian and Justinianic Codes (pp. 263-274); introduction & translation by Matthew C. Mirow and Kathleen A. Kelley

For the final example of interesting Late Antiquity texts are these collections of Imperial laws on religion from IV to VI CE. Let us begin with two striking laws:
"No one shall have the opportunity to go to the public and debate concerning religion or to discuss it or give any advice about it. If anyone hereafter should think [doing just that] ... he shall be restrained with suitable punishment and fitting penalty." (CTh 16.4.2 [E264], 388 CE; p. 269)
"Henceforth let no one, whether he be a member of the clergy, the military, or of any other position whatsoever, try to discuss the Christian faith publicly with a gathered and listening crowd, seeking to cause an uproar and an opportunity for treachery." (CJ 1.2.17, 528 CE; p. 267)
Do we really have here an order not to discuss Christian faith publicly? Many of the statutes here seem to draw a firm line between public space (such as "any place built for the enjoyment of the people", found in CJ 1.3.26) and sacred space (such as "religious buildings" from the same ruling), and rule that different rules apply to each. The context for such laws, as Mirow and Kelley explain, are largely specific situationsthe ruling from CTh 16.4.2 stems from a certain Arian revolt in Constantinople in 387 CE, for instance. Nevertheless, one is tempted to ask if this is not an example of a gradual move away from the old Greek ideal of public debate? Does Clement already share this idea when he dismisses public discourse with the Carpocratians and instead favours shunning them?

Carpocratians are, incidentally, mentioned in CJ 1.5.5, 428 CE along with dozens of other groups from Arians to Valentinians, Borborites, and Manichaeans, all of whom are forbade to gather together.

And finally, an example of blurred categories I discussed above regarding Evagrius: CTh 16.10.1, 320/21 CE (p. 271) rules the following:
"If it should happen that a part of our palace or other public building has been touched by lightning, the custom of the former observance shall be retained and inquiry shall be made of the soothsayers what it may portend. These [portents] shall be carefully collected and recorded and brought to our attention."
For reasons that are left unknown, this is the only piece of traditional religious practice that is allowed to continue, but many others (such as the practice of astrology) are explicitly banned (but note the early date of this ruling!). It is useful, however, to keep in mind that "[t]he extent to which Romans complied with laws is uncertain" (264), as Mirow and Kelly put it, and that the interplay between the perceived "Christianization of the Roman Empire" and the actual nature of Late Antiquity religiosity remains very complex indeed.

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