Monday, 29 February 2016

Did Simon Magus Go to Rome?

Okay, folks, back to Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, specifically 2.13-14. Here we see the report that Simon Magus came to Rome during the reign of Claudius and there he contended with Simon Peter. This story can in fact be broken down into three distinct claims: that Magus (as I will call him henceforth to easily distinguish him from Peter) went to Rome during Claudius's reign, that Peter went to Rome during Claudius's reign, that there they interacted. Let us consider the first claim in this post.

The report that Magus went to Rome undoubtedly dates back to the mid-second century at the latest. It is found in Justin Martyr's First Apology 26, which in fact Eusebius cites as his source on this matter. It should be noted that there is nothing particularly unbelievable about the account. It was not at all uncommon for "oriental" teachers to travel to Rome. If Magus was active in Samaria in the 30s, as per Acts 8, then it's not at all inconceivable that he was active in Rome sometime in the 40s through mid-50s. Yet I have reason to pause, and the reason that I have to pause has to do with something else that Justin says, namely that there was a statute devoted to Magus standing on the river Tiber, bearing the inscription Simoni Deo Sancto, "To Simon, the holy god."

The interesting thing about this statue is that it's likely been discovered. In 1574 a statue was found on Tiber island, pretty much where Justin said it should be, bearing the inscription Semoni Sanco Deo. Now, I'm hardly an expert in Roman religion or archaeology, but from what I have read the general consensus is that this is a reference to the god Semo Sancus. Now, the coincidence of place and inscription would seem to make it likely that this is the statue to which Justin is referring. He has apparently misread the inscription as a reference to Simon Magus. This raises the possibility that Justin inferred from this statue that Magus came to Rome.

Frankly though that seems a bit of a leap for Justin to have made. If all he knew about Magus came from Acts 8 it is not clear to me why he would associate Magus with the statue and create for him a journey to Rome just to account for the statue's existence. It seems to me much easier to account for Justin's misinterpretation of the inscription to Semo Sancus if he already had reason to think that Magus had spent time in Rome. From whence would he have gotten such a reason? One suspects that it might have something to do with the fact that Justin is himself from Samaria. As such, it seems likely that when he tells us in Apology 26 that all the Samaritans worship Magus he is aware of a Magus-cult in his homeland. It is not at all inconceivable then that he had access to no longer extant traditions (oral or written) about Magus, and that these traditions referred to a journey to Rome. Indeed, absent such accounts I have a hard time accounting for how he came to believe that the statue referred to Magus. It seems moreover likely that the source(s) in question dated Magus's visit to Claudius's reign: there is no mention of Peter in Apology 26, which means that Justin probably is not drawing inferences about the visit from any material that puts Peter in Rome during that reign. This also raises interesting questions about whether later accounts about the Magus and Peter in Rome, such as those found in the Acts of Peter and the Pseudo-Clementine literature, might also draw in part upon such non-Christian sources.

Now, whether or not Magus came to Rome still remains an open question, but I do think it likely that this tradition predates Justin and comes from non-Christian sources. Combined with the fact that such a journey is not at all implausible I am inclined to provisionally affirm that Magus did in fact travel to Rome during Claudius's reign.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Fiction and History

James McGrath put up an insightful post on his blog today, in which he discusses the mythicist habit of superficially comparing figures such as Hercules, Sherlock Holmes, and Robin Hood to Jesus of Nazareth. His point, as I read it, comes down to this: the fact that there are fictional characters in literature does not mean that all characters in literature are fictional. James of course is right: so obviously right that it is profoundly disturbing that he even has to make such a point. What follows is an amplification of response that I made to James's post on his FB wall.

In that post I suggested that the problem with mythicists is that they simply are not familiar with either the philosophy of history or the work of historiography. It goes deeper than that, I realize upon reflection: they are not in fact familiar with even the basics of how storytelling works. The problem really is a failure on mythicists' part to distinguish between story and fiction. My late grandfather regularly told stories about his WWII service. They weren't fiction, even if at times they were probably a bit embellished. He really did meet my grandmother whilst stationed in England. He really did serve in north Africa, southern Italy, and the Netherlands. And that summary of things that my grandfather did is itself a story, however short, and still not fiction. He really did tell these stories. I know, because at least later in his life I was probably his primary audience.

In the realm of philosophy of history, Hayden White read 19th-century historiographical works as literature, examining along the way such matters as their politics and metaphysics, and yet he will hardly deny that the matters that they discuss took place. He could do this because they are in fact literature, but literature that aims to tell us about an actual past. Michelet was a great story-teller, yet he didn't make up the French Revolution, or the centuries leading up to it. He coined the term Renaissance as part of his story-telling, yet no one disputes that it is a perfect word to describe what was happening three hundred years before his time. In Whitean terms we typically describe the Nazi era as a basically romantic story, entailing a descent into darkness followed by a great triumph of light. Yet the Nazi era actually happened. And indeed Hitler and the Nazis so happened that they have profoundly impacted our storytelling. For instance, the six first six Star Wars movies, however imperfectly, draw heavily upon the storytelling motifs and imagery generated by the Nazi era. By mythicist reasoning it would be legitimate to argue that there was no Nazi era, no Second World War, because the story is so similar to other stories that are clearly fiction. Yet that is absurd.

The gospels are clearly stories, but they are not fiction. Samuel Byrskog sums this up brilliantly in the title of his monograph Story as History, History as Story. The gospels are stories, yes, but they are stories that aim to tell history, not fiction. They use all sorts of literary techniques, and of course their understanding of what qualifies as history is not the same as ours, but they do intend to tell us things that happened. That is fundamentally different from what is going on with stories of Sherlock Holmes, Hercules, or Robin Hood. Does it follow that every single thing recorded in the gospels is exactly what happened? No, that would be a non sequitur. It does mean that superficial comparisons between two phenomena with fundamentally different aims cannot be treated as if they lack such distinction. Story can be and often is fiction, and it can be and often is history. I figured that out about the time that my first-grade teacher explained to us the difference between fiction and non-fiction.

Friday, 12 February 2016

On Eusebius and Post-Enlightenment Ethnocentrism

Before I continue blogging my way through Eusebius I should explain my interest in him more precisely, as that will explain why I select the specific chapters that I write upon. My interest is the missionary expansion of the church and the development of its core institutions. Actually, my interest is really the latter, but you really can't talk about the latter without talking about the former, as I think it clear that the core Christian institutions were developed to facilitate the early Christian mission, viz. to spread the gospel of Christ Jesus to all nations. My interest in Eusebius is to consider what data he might offer to us about this missionary expansion and institutional development.

Implicit in that final sentence is a philosophy of history, which I have worked out in length in my forthcoming monograph related to Lonergan, Ben Meyer, and historical Jesus studies. Here I want to add empirical insights that inform my thought and which do not in fact appear in that book. Perhaps they should, but there was so much to do in that book and really these insights would require an entirely separate book to really, adequately, develop. In any case, I have become convinced that ancient peoples in general knew more about their own histories than we often give them credit for. For instance, I think it remarkable that when the archaeologist Andrea Carandini recently found the earliest stratum of the Roman forum it just happened to date to pretty much exactly when Roman historians such as Livy said that Romulus laid it down. No doubt much of the material surrounding the founding of the forum is legendary and hagiographic, but the chronological synchronicity would constitute an astonishing coincidence if treated as such. More reasonably we should conclude that Livy had access to material that allowed him to state the date of the founding of Rome with a high degree of accuracy.

This is just one example, and I am regularly astounded by the degree that textual and archaeological data tend to converge in various contexts in the ancient world. It is crucial to note that we see something similar in emergent Christianity. The extent to which the archaeological data surrounding Christian holy sites converges with what we know about these sites from textual data is really quite astonishing. Now, of course, we're not talking about all details lining up perfectly; that would be a ridiculous burden to demand. But we're talking about sufficient convergence that it greatly reduces the possibility that the textual data regarding these sites are pure fictions. Again, I emphasize: I do not see this as a particularly Christian phenomenon, but rather as a general phenomenon throughout ancient history. I think that ancient peoples were in fact better historians than we often allow.

I suspect that the supposition that ancient peoples were not very good historians is a lingering side-effect of a colonialism that assumes that only post-Enlightenment western Europeans have sufficient rationality to speak accurately about the past; after all, we see similar doubts about other peoples' capacity to know the past in 20th century discussions about oral traditions in non-western contexts. It is not a coincidence, I think, that such peoples are often treated as being "living ancestors": that somehow, in looking at our contemporaries we are looking into the past and seeing our forerunners. The paternalism is astounding: yes, we say, you have your own histories, but we, your much-more-enlightened colonial leaders, are going to tell you what your history really is. It's simply the colonization of the past, and it's little surprise to see a similar colonization happen of our own past. We tend to have a very low opinion of the intellectual capacities of peoples whose historical experience does not include our Enlightenment. I reject this opinion, and with these less ethnocentric eyes turn to Eusebius, asking how an ancient historian might have yielded data useful for us, cognizant of course that he was working inescapably at the level of his time.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History 1.13

In 1.13 we have the fantastic (both in the sense of "wonderful" and "fanciful") Legend of Abgar, in which King Abgar of Edessa (likely Abgar V, if a real, historical, person is in view) writes to Jesus, asking him to come and heal him of his ailments and offering to give him asylum in his kingdom. If that was all that we had the story might be plausible: it is not incredible that Jesus's fame spread to Edessa. Orbis tells me that you can make the round trip from Jerusalem to Edessa in about five weeks, and about the same from Damascus to Edessa. The possibility that Abgar, sitting in Edessa, could have heard about Jesus, operating in the Galilee and to a lesser extent Judea and the Decapolis, is not far-fetched, nor is the idea that a desperately ill monarch might reach out to any miracle-worker of whom he hears in the hope of being cured. Yet this is not all that we have, and the whole should give us pause.

What should give us pause is that Jesus sends a reply to Abgar. Eusebius moreover has putative access to a copy of both Abgar's letter and Jesus's reply. Properly speaking, there is no reason to exclude the possibility that Jesus wrote Abgar a letter, perhaps via dictation, but it certainly would be otherwise unprecedented. Moreover, the letter as preserved in EH 1.13 reads as a précis of the post-Easter kerygma. It reads more like someone at some remove trying to sound like Jesus rather than like Jesus himself. It seems highly unlikely that here we have extant, written words from Jesus. Most commentators on Eusebius that I have read seem inclined to think that Eusebius is here the unwitting victim of fraud, and this strikes me as highly likely.

What interests me the most is a story that follows after these letters, in which one Thaddeus, already encountered in 1.12, is sent by Thomas to Abgar in Edessa. Eusebius is copying this explicitly from a no-longer extant source, which he states was found appended to the letters just discussed: together they made up a unit. Thaddeus cures Abgar of his illness, and Abgar facilities his preaching in Edessa. No mention is made in the text quoted of mass conversion in Edessa: not even Abgar is said to convert (although in 2.1 Eusebius states that he did, as did the entire city of Edessa, but this seems to be his inference, not something that he find in his sources). It is such a rich narrative. First, the narrative leads to me conclude that this Thaddeus is not understood to be the one numbered among the Twelve, for two reasons. First, the narrative explicitly identifies Thaddeus as one of the Seventy, thus giving us a source for Eusebius's statement in 1.12 that Thaddeus was among that number. It seems probable that if whomever produced the narrative wanted us to think this was Thaddeus of the Twelve he would have identified him as such. Second, that he is sent by one of the Twelve, Thomas, seems to indicate that he was understood as being subordinate to that group, rather than a member in his own right. With this Thaddeus we are probably dealing not with the member of the Twelve but with an otherwise-unattested but similarly-named individual (it's worth noting that in later versions of this story he is known as Addai).

What interests me the most is the question of whether this story, despite all the obvious fantasy surrounding the letters, might not in fact yield some data about Christianity's early expansion. Edessa is not that far from other places evangelized by the first Christians, such that it is hardly impossible that the Christian message was taken there quite early, perhaps already in the 30s or 40s (the 1.12 narrative mentions that Thaddeus went there in the 340th year of Edessa, or 29 C.E., but since we are also informed that this took place after Jesus's death such a date seems much too early). We have reason to think that Christianity is in Cilicia, Cappadocia, and Syria by this point, all of which are proximate to Edessa, and with the Acts 2 narrative, which mentions peoples from Mesopotamia present at Pentecost, there is good reason to think that there was some expansion in that eastward direction. The truth is, if we didn't have reference to someone like Thaddeus we'd likely have to invent him. The outstanding question is whether some ancient writer did exactly that.

In the final analysis we probably can't ever know with great confidence how exactly this legend originated. There might have been a Christian preacher who went to Edessa in the 30s and 40s, and his work in the region served as the initial impetus for the legend of Abgar. Or there might not have been, and the legend is a wholesale fiction. Thaddeus is the sort of figure beside whom we need to put a question mark: we can't rule out his existence and operations in Edessa, but neither can we definitively rule them in.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, 1.12

So, I'm rereading Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, with a desire to work through crucial issues related to thinking about the hisory of the first Christian decades. As I want to think carefully about these issues what better way to do so than to blog my way through the first two or so of books of the History? Of course, I won't blog on everything therein: I'm not writing a commentary here. And in fact I'll barely touch Book 1, as it is largely concerned with doctrinal matters which are not my primary concern at this point. The last two chapters, however, twelve and thirteen, are of some interest, and it is the former that I will discuss here, saving the latter for another day.

EH 1.12 is concerned with identifying certain figures otherwise referenced in the New Testament--Matthias, Thaddeus, Barnabas and Sosthenes--as members of the Seventy (or Seventy-Two) missionaries who were sent out by Jesus, according to Luke 10. Before we consider the question of whether these figures were among the Seventy let us consider the more modest question of whether they were plausibly followers of Jesus during his lifetime. Strictly speaking, nothing excludes such a possibility with any figure, although the probability that such was the case varies greatly. Matthias is identified in a much earlier source (Acts 1) as a follower of the earthly Jesus, such that inferring that he was such is very reasonable. If Thaddeus is the Thaddeus that is ranked among the Twelve (cf. Matt. 10:13; Mk. 3:18) then we can quite confidently identify him as one of Jesus's followers. Barnabas is presented as an early member or the Jerusalem community (Acts 4:36), thus making the possibility that he was a follower of Jesus tenable. Sosthenes is only known elsewhere through his association with Paul and in the 50s (1 Cor. 1:1; cf. Acts 18:17), thus making such an inference seem more tenuous. Matthias was almost certainly a follower of the earthly Jesus, Thaddeus quite possibly, Barnabas conceivably, Sosthenes not likely at all.

We encounter greater difficulty when connecting these figures with the Seventy. First, we need to recognize that EH 1.12 is closely-related to a genre that develops throughout Christian historiography and hagiography, namely of identifying as many of the Seventy as possible with figures elsewhere known in the broader tradition. Certainly, if indeed the Seventy existed as a discrete group then we cannot rule out that some of them might appear elsewhere as named individuals within early church history. At the same time, we should reckon seriously with the possibility that many, perhaps most, had names now lost entirely to history. This brings us to a second difficulty: I am not entirely convinced that the Seventy existed as a discrete group. My own inclination is to read the Synoptic sendings of the Twelve and the Seventy as thematic presentations of a recurring practice in Jesus's ministry. I suspect that there weren't just one or two sendings, but rather that Jesus sent out his disciples as he thought them ready for the work of proclaiming his message (shades of Gerhardsson here, although I'm not entirely persuaded by his focus upon verbatim memory). There might have been one or two instances which were particularly significant, in which larger groups were sent, but I am inclined to think that the Synoptists have presented a recurrent practice as compressed narratives. Among these might have been one or more of the figures mentioned in EH 1.12, more probably Matthias and Thaddeus than Barnabas, and all three much more than Sosthenes, but in truth we would be reaching judgment on this matter independent of Eusebius. I don't think that he adds much if anything here, and indeed I think it likely that the material upon which he builds is more likely hagiographic fiction than anything else.