Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sulpicius Severus, Life of Martin, 8

Just a short passage this week for the Life of Martin. Martin has already signalled his identification with Jesus, not only in word, but in practice, through his healing of the catechumen. We continue very much in the same vein in today's installment.

Not much later, while Martin was passing by the estate of a certain Lupicinus, a man honoured as befitting the age, he was received by the shouting and laments of a lamenting crowd. (2) When he anxiously stood nearby and asked for whom these tears were, he was told that one of the little slaves from the household had hung themselves with a noose. (3) When he understood this, he entered the room in which the body was lying. After the whole crowd was shut out, he stretched over the body and prayed for sometime. (3) Soon, his face gaining colour and his eyes drooping open on his face, the dead slave was raised. He struggled to get up with difficulty, he stood on his feet, clutching the right hand of the blessed man. In this way, he proceeded right up to the entrance of the house while the whole crowd watched.


To some extent, this passage seems a bit repetitive. That is, if Suplicius' point was that Martin was, in some way, imitating both the apostles and Christ himself and, as a result, was participating in their power and virtue in his own ministry, one incident would seem to show this. In its outlines, this story is really the same as the healing of the catechumen. A person dies in an undesirable time/way (the catechumen as a catechumen and, hence, not baptized or immune from attack from the devil--it we take that particular theology of baptism) and the slave who killed himself (not a problem in pagan circles, but a problem in Christian ones), then is raised by Martin to, presumably, escape an eternity of suffering (explicit in the catechumen passage, but implicit in this one). So why is this passage here?

Honestly, I'm not sure. One answer is the historical one. This incident happened at this point of Martin's real life story. Fair enough, although a tough sell to an modern audience who don't buy the whole saints, miracle and Christian thing. Yet, if we, as Christians, believe that miracles can happen, a strictly historical reading is not outside of the realm of possibility. The problem with miracles, of course, is that, by nature, they are improbable and, since history relies primarily on assessing evidence on the basis of probability, we as historians have a serious problem of proof. I can live with that because I don't think the historical realm is the only way to approach a text.

One thing that could be happening is that the point of the repetition is to express equality with the apostles. That is, both Peter and Paul raise someone from the recently dead and Jesus raised two people from the dead, so Martin raises two people. If this is so, we'd have to look for some resemblances between the episodes. What I propose is a bit complicated, but please accept it as trial balloon.

The healing of the catechumen seems to resemble the healing of Dorcas (Acts 9,36-43). In both episodes, the holy men (Peter and Martin) are away from the person who dies (the catechumen and Dorcas). In both cases, the holy men stumbled upon the early stages of the funeral, interrupt it and locked themselves in with the body. They emerge with the dead person. If I was to extend this parallel, I would also call attention to the healing of Lazarus by Jesus (Gospel of John 11) which follows a similar outline as these two episodes.

The healing of the little slave seems to match the healing of Eutychus (Acts 20, 9-12), largely because little time seems to have elapsed between the death and the arrival of the holy man. I think I might be stretching it for the slave incident in Sulpicius Severus, but I don't think we've even at the point of discussing funerals, but rather dealing with the initial shock (let me know if you think I'm way off base here). I had been hoping for a better link to the healing of the daughter of Jairus (Gospel of Luke, 8,40-1, 49-56), but, unfortunately, the parallel isn't as clean. Yet, Jairus set off to find Jesus before his daughter died (hoping for a simple healing), but, when news come that his daughter has died, Jesus hastens to the house and does the raising. So, sort of a parallel (Yes, I'm straining here).

A last point concerning the language. What I found striking is that the language in both of Sulpicius' passages is much more descriptive of the process of waking up than the biblical ones. In the biblical raisings, a calling out is sufficient to raise the dead. In Sulpicius, Martin has to drape himself over the bodies and pray for a while. Then, we have these very descriptive waking up moments which feature colour returning to the face and eyes languidly opening. Yet, the language used is different in both cases and bears no resemblance to the vocabulary of the biblical passages. I think this is the 4th century tendency to ornate and slightly archaic language, but it is a striking element of these passages.

I think that is it for the commentary. Have a good week!



TheGodFearinFiddler said...

A parallel could also be drawn between this passage and Elijah's healing from the OT in 1 Kings 17:19-21 where he stretches himself out over the child 3 times dont you think?

Phil S. said...

I really must remember to think out OT parallels too. There may be echo of Elijah intended here in Martin's method of healing both the catechumen and the slave.


Jim said...

It is I suppose, the fashion to deny that miracles happen, or did. But there are still things we do not understand, healings that make no medical sense, and in the midst of our enlinghtenment deluded rationalism, healers whose touch sometimes is effective.

I think it is pretty clear that there is an inverse relationship between legitimacy and TV coverage. That is the, "TV Evangelists" are magicians without the top hats. But, that does not mean that all miracles are frauds. Peter had to deal with imposters too.