The Sarcasm of Julian

February 25, 2007

Julian the Apostate, Roman Emperor (361-363) of the Constantinian dynasty, wrote a letter to the city of Edessa, where the Arians had been harassing the Gnostics. Here is an excerpt, in which Julian’s sarcastic take on asceticism displays his sharp, dry wit.

Therefore, since by a most admirable law they have been advised to prefer poverty, in order to journey by the easier way to the kingdom of heaven; in order that we may assist their people to this, we have ordered all the money belonging to the church of the Edessenes to be taken away, so that it may be given to the soldiers. I have also ordered that their possessions are to be added to our private domain; in order that being in poverty they may be prudent and not be deprived of the heavenly kingdom, which they still hope for.


More Gnosticism

February 24, 2007

From Delbert Burkett’s An Introduction to the New Testament and the Origins of Christianity, another nice description of Gnosticism…

Gnostic Christians generally thought of salvation as immortality of the soul rather than resurrection of the body. The soul originally existed in a divine realm of light and was itself part of that light. Below this realm of light was the material world, a place of darkness, ignorance, and evil. When the soul descended to the material world, it became trapped in a physical body. The physical body had a negative impact on the soul, enslaving it to various passions and making it forget its true origin and divine nature. Salvation for the soul consisted of recalling its true origin and nature, a knowledge that would allow the soul at death to return to the divine realm. The progress of the soul was impeded by various evil powers that ruled the material world. In some branches of Gnosticism, it was aided by a divine being who descended from the realm of light to reveal the saving knowledge to the soul. Gnostic Christians identified this figure as Jesus or Christ. Some regard him as a purely spiritual being with no physical body.


February 23, 2007

From “Early Christianity And Edessan Culture”, chapter 6 of Steven K. Ross’ Roman Edessa, a nice summation of Gnosticism which highlights its Neoplatonic influence;

Gnosticism (or ‘Gnosis’) as a philosophy remains ill defined, as is to be expected of an esoteric movement that, until the discovery in this century of a secret cache of texts, was known primarily through the writings of its detractors. Although it is misleading to speak of a unitary ‘Gnostic religion’, it can in general be said that the Gnostics stressed salvation from the evils of existence but de-emphasized both ‘faith’ and moral behaviour, or good works, as paths to it, putting their trust instead in insight, or the knowledge of certain mysteries known to an elect few who would uniquely be saved. Along with this soteriology went a dualistic cosmology and theology that, like Marcion (himself often counted among the Gnostics), tended to deprecate the world and even the heavenly bodies as the work of an inferior Demiurge. The Gnostics spoke instead of an invisible or ‘stranger’ God, indescribable and in the unseen heaven, as the true source of all good, and the one with which the adherents of gnosis – trapped in a world of darkness and matter – must strive to be reunited.

For the Gnostics, salvation came through escaping Plato’s metaphorical cave, where they had been mistakenly imprisoned by a lesser, clumsy God.

Bardaisanites vs. Marcionites

February 21, 2007

Bardaisan’s son Harmonius received his education in Athens, a hotbed of intellectual pursuit and learning. True to his name, he became an accomplished composer, and on return to Edessa he set his father’s writings to catchy tunes. Bardaisan and his followers would spend rowdy evenings drinking wine and singing these songs. By day they would go hunting, with Bardaisan’s unparalleled archery skills on full display. Bardaisan taught that God had not created the world ex nihilo, but had simply shuffled the pre-existing elements (water, earth, fire and light) into a specific order. With each new generation, the elements merged into an increasingly purer form, and thus procreation was encouraged. Moreover, it seemed that the world had been created to be enjoyed by humankind.

Bardaisan’s ideas were at odds with the Marcionites, a black-clad vegan sect who practiced abstinence. They believed that the material world lay sandwiched between a good God and an evil God. The body was considered evil and tainted, and thus sexual intercourse was forbidden, as was the consumption of meat. Not surprisingly, the two sects were is stark contrast to each other, and competition for adherents was fierce. I know which side I would join.

More on Bardaisan

February 20, 2007

Bardaisan is really growing on me – an intriguing Edessan local, and a man who brewed his own blend of early Christianity, paganism, neoplatonism, and anthropology. From F. W. Norris’ entry on Bardaisan, in the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity;

The teaching of Bardaisan has Gnostic elements, such as a dualism of darkness and light and the view that the material world was created by beings lesser than the one God. Yet he seems to have been a convinced monotheist who avoided a physical dualism. Bardaisan evidently was much interested in astrology and the ways that customs and tradition influenced people’s thoughts, but he had some sense of the importance of human freedom. Although good and evil beset men and women, each person who is in Christ can choose, because Christ countermands the force of the planets. Little is known, however, of Bardaisan’s doctrines concerning the body and the soul, positions that would clearly specify how much he represented Gnostic views.


February 20, 2007

Bardaisan was a Edessan man-about-town; a philosopher, poet, courtier, astrologer, historian, sportsman, evangelist, and fashionista. He considered archery to be an art form, and his skills in it were unsurpassed. He could ‘paint’ portraits of people with arrow-holes upon a target. In his text The Book of the Laws of Divers Countries, he discusses the problem of free-will;

The nature of man is, that he should be born, and grow up, and rise to his full stature, and produce children, and grow old, eating and drinking, and sleeping and waking, and that then he should die. These things, because they are of nature, belong to all men; and not to all men only, but also to all animals whatsoever, and some of them also to trees. For this is the work of physical nature, which makes and produces and regulates everything just as it has been commanded. Nature, I say, is found to be maintained among animals also in their actions. For the lion eats flesh, in accordance with his nature; and therefore all lions are eaters of flesh. The sheep eats grass; and therefore all sheep are eaters of grass, The bee makes honey, by which it is sustained; therefore all bees are makers of honey. The ant collects for herself a store in summer, from which to sustain herself in winter; and therefore do all ants act likewise. The scorpion strikes with its sting him who has not hurt it; and thus do all scorpions strike. Thus all animals preserve their nature: the eaters of flesh do not eat herbage; nor do the eaters of herbage eat flesh.

Men, on the contrary, are not governed thus; but, whilst in the matters pertaining to their bodies they preserve their nature like animals, in the matters pertaining to their minds they do that which they choose, as those who are free, and endowed with power, and as made in the likeness of God. For there are some of them that eat flesh, and do not touch bread; and there are some of them that make a distinction between the several kinds of flesh-food; and there are some of them that do not eat the flesh of any animal whatever. There are some of them that become the husbands of their mothers, and of their sisters, and of their daughters; and there are some who do not consort with women at all. There are those who take it upon themselves to inflict vengeance, like lions and leopards; and there are those who strike him that has not done them any wrong, like scorpions; and there are those that are led like sheep, and do not harm their conductors. There are some that behave themselves with kindness, and some with justice, and some with wickedness.

Palmyrene Dandyism

February 18, 2007

The Scriptores Historiae Augustae on Herodes, son of Odeanathus…

…he was the most effeminate of men, wholly oriental and given over to Grecian luxury, for he had embroidered tents and pavilions made out of cloth of gold and everything in the manner of the Persians. In fact Odeanathus, complying with his ways and moved by the promptings of a father’s indulgence, gave him all the king’s concubines and riches and jewels that he captured. Zenobia, indeed, treated him in a step-mother’s way, and this made him all the more dear to his father. Nothing more remains to be said converning Herodes.