Monday, January 29, 2007

The First News of Jesus: Tiberius, Pilate and Christian History

I've been thinking about this post for a while and decided today was the day to give it a run. Part of what I'm trying to do here is to rectify my own tendency to get caught up with broader themes without getting down to the nitty gritty. So what I decided to do was to look at a particular incident reported in Eusebius about the Emperor Tiberius. First, the text from Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History (taken from the CCEL Fathers library)

And when the wonderful resurrection and ascension of our Saviour were already noised abroad, in accordance with an ancient custom which prevailed among the rulers of the provinces, of reporting to the emperor the novel occurrences which took place in them, in order that nothing might escape him, Pontius Pilate informed Tiberius of the reports which were noised abroad through all Palestine concerning the resurrection of our Saviour Jesus from the dead.

2. He gave an account also of other wonders which he had learned of him, and how, after his death, having risen from the dead, he was now believed by many to be a God. They say that Tiberius referred the matter to the Senate, but that they rejected it, ostensibly because they had not first examined into the matter (for an ancient law prevailed that no one should be made a God by the Romans except by a vote and decree of the Senate), but in reality because the saving teaching of the divine Gospel did not need the confirmation and recommendation of men.

But although the Senate of the Romans rejected the proposition made in regard to our Saviour, Tiberius still retained the opinion which he had held at first, and contrived no hostile measures against Christ.
4. These things are recorded by Tertullian, a man well versed in the laws of the Romans, and in other respects of high repute, and one of those especially distinguished in Rome... .

Eusebius goes on to extensively quote the Apology of Tertullian 5,1-2 as evidence for this story. This is, of course, in keeping with Eusebius' methods which tended to feature extensive quotes of earlier authors (were they, even in Eusebius' own time, hard to find?). Note that Eusebius provides a Greek translation of the Tertullian's Latin and that most scholars think it a rather bad one.

What interests me, though, is not Eusebius' methods or use of translations so much as the history of this incident. This incident strikes anyone moderately familiar with the classical tradition about Tiberius as a bit odd. It is not, for instance, mentioned in any classical source despite its obvious usefulness for corroborating the charge of superstition so frequently leveled at Tiberius by the almost exclusively hostile historical witnesses. By itself, Tiberius' dabbling in astrology which reached such a point that he could not bring himself to return to Rome in the last years of his life gives evidence for this charge. Still, favouring such a new and outlandish cult would, to many of Tiberius' critics, have been a very useful stick to beat the dead emperor with. Yet, they don't.

This alone has led to many scholars dismissing this incident entirely out of hand as pure fabrication. At best, this incident is an inference from the assumption that Pilate would have submitted a report about the death of Jesus. Furthermore, Tiberius, at the time of Jesus' crucifixion, had just executed his manipulative lieutenant, Sejanus, and instituted a reign of terror against the Senate and the Imperial family to purge disloyal elements from the Roman state. The seeming coincidence of Pilate's Acts which coincide with this account has been dimissed by Roman historians from Gibbon onwards as just a little too convenient to be taken as corroboration of Eusebius' account.

Clearly, this view has much merit, but I wonder if there aren't elements in this account which may reflect an actual report and debate at the time of Tiberius. The fact of a report, I think, is relatively unchallenged. As Tiberius' legate, I would expect that Pilate would report on unusual occurrences in his province. Even if we accept the minimal position of Jesus' crucifixion and a body of people running around saying he had been resurrected, Jesus' death and the events which followed were unusual enough to report. I doubt we have the current Acts of Pilate are the actual report because there is widespread evidence for the forgery of these Acts by both Christian and pagan sources (Eusebius reports one such pagan forgery in HE, 9, 5).

Nor is it improbable that Tiberius might have sent this report on to the Senate nor that the Senate might debate over whether this Jesus was a new god. Given the religious conservatism of the Romans, it would not be a surprise that such a debate would end in the denial of godhood status for Jesus. Yet, in Tertullian, at least, the whole point of citing this debate wasn't to make a claim that the Romans perversely ignored Jesus' divine claims, but, rather, that, despite the Roman accusations that Jesus is just a new god and, hence, falls under the category of superstition not devotion, the Romans could and did create new gods when it suited them. It is Eusebius who converts this story into evidence for the resurrection which the Romans perversely disregarded. The seemingly throw-away comment in both that Tiberius favoured Christian claims merely serves to reinforce Christian claims that their faith has lived in harmony with Roman authorities from its very beginning.

Further, we should unpack this contention that Tiberius implicitly accepted the claims of Jesus' divine status. I think we have to be very careful here about what, if anything, that acceptance meant. There is no suggestion, for instance, that Tiberius gave up any of his worship of other gods nor, indeed, his vicious propensities so prominent in our sources. Nor does there seem to be any indication that he was trying to install Christ as the only god of the Roman Empire. What is far more likely is that, if he was trying to do anything, Tiberius was hedging his bets and attempting to syncretize this new god into the Roman religious system. The Senate blocked a formal acceptance of this syncretization, but Tiberius clearly thought it worthwhile to tolerate the cult implicitly, possibly because it was so small and localized, so hardly worth crushing. Perhaps he thought it was a form of hero worship--that halfway house between mere human existence and divinity-- which was localized to a particular area and characterized by localized festivals and cultic activity. I don't know, but I think Eusebius may have been reaching in using this as evidence for acceptance of the reports of resurrection.

Now, we come to the last question that any Christian historian should ask himself: why does this story matter? Isn't this just a misguided attempt to harmonize pagan and Christian history in order to serve a transparently apologetic purpose. Well, in a sense. Yet, if we accept this story as garbled evidence for the first reaction of the Roman state to Jesus of Nazareth, do we see here a good example of how different the world views represented by the Romans and the early Christians were. The Romans saw these reports, if I'm right, as a minor point of religious law which could be dealt with quickly and easily in a senatorial debate, while Christians continue to recognize the death and resurrection of Jesus as the hinge-point of all history. The almost ho-hum, routine atmosphere of the Senate's answer shows no effort to engage with this momentous event in a way a Christian would recognize. This is just another odd report from the provinces. Even Tiberius only saw it within the same restriction of a common Roman worldview in which he was willing to incorporate the new cult, but not really to engage in its teachings.

As Christians, we have faced incomprehension at least as much as we have faced hostility or even acceptance. This is as true today as in the Roman period. This story is merely evidence of how far that incomprehension went at the time of Jesus. Yet, the power of Jesus is that, from that insignificant beginning in Judaea, Jesus' life, death and resurrection has proven to be so analamous and so difficult to contain within any worldview that he bursts out of it. The Romans dismissed the death of Jesus and stories of his resurrection almost reflexively, yet they were unable to completely suppress the import of those events. Tiberius, the Roman Senate and, indeed, Pilate seem to have been clueless about what Jesus represented. The Romans themselves would eventually be forced to come to terms with this strange Judaean prophet.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Patrisics Roundup-January 18-24th, 2007

Hello, patristic-bloggers et al,

It has been another busy week in patristics land. Here are the offerigs for this week.

Mike Aquilina on The Way of the Fathers gives us a link to his conversation on the Fathers on Amplify!, commemorates the feast days of Sts. Sebastian and Agnes, quotes St. Thomas More on the Fathers.

William Weedon posts Patristic Quotes of the day featuring St. Maximos the Confessor, and St. Augustine .

Trevor at On the Temple Doorstep, tells us about a patristics game he tried out on his son (anyone know where we can get it!!!!).

John at kata Iwannhn quotes Peter Leithart on why the Fathers and the Reformers were so focused on the theological controversies of the day and we interest ourselves in the trivialities of politics.

Nick at Pass the Peace tells us about his encounter with Baptist Catholics, who retain a free-church theology, but pursue an interest in the Fathers. Sounds good to me.

Fred Sanders on Middlebrow offers us a review of the Council of Chalcedon and the doctrine of the Trinity.

Death Bredon at the Patristic Anglican reminds us about the decisions on images made at the 7th Ecumenical Council and follows up with his observations on St. Basil's Canon.

Jim Davila on PaleoJudaica lets us know about books on Syriac Fathers which we can download for free.

Rick Brannon on ricoblog posts his text and commentary on Didache 11

Danny Garland on Irish-Catholic and Dangerous posts St. John of Damascus on the Eucharistand St. John Chrysosthom on St. Paul's Conversion.

Chris Johnston at The Saint Ambrose reviews Richard Foster's Steams of Living Water; a book which helped inspired my own search of the treasures of patristics and the rest of our Christian tradition.

A little late, but Christian Bible studies features an interview with Christopher Hall on Habits of the Highly Effective Bible Readers which features a discussion about why Protestants have been turning more and more to the Fathers.

Phil Johnston on Pyromaniacs also discusses the relationship between the Fathers, the Reformers and sola scriptura.

R posts on Caught by the Light on a talk by Barbara Lymen about orthodoxy and diversity in the early Church. This has a decidedly Anglican pro-diversity lean, but is worth a look at.

Father Z on What does the Prayer Really Say features a patristic (and beyond) catena on the conversion of St. Paul.

Adrian Murdoch on Bread and Circuses continues his discussion about Synesius of Cyrene.

Please do let me know about any broken links or problems.



Monday, January 22, 2007

Patristics Carnival II

Announcing Patristic Carnival II which will be hosted by Kevin Edgecomb at bibliocalia.

The Patristics Carnival is devoted to the best blog entries dealing with Patristics and Christian Apocrypha (defined as the period between AD 70-750). It is published on a quarterly basis. The current carnival features entries from December 1st, 2005 to Feb. 28th, 2007. Entries in history, theology, religious studies and philology are welcome. You can nominate either your own entries or entries written by another person.

You can submit entries by e-mailing your nominations to:
or our submissions page on Blog Carnival.

The Carnival will be posted in early March.

We are also looking for a host for the next Carnival, due for posting in June. If you are interested, please e-mail the patristics carnival e-mail and Kevin will pass it along to me.

Okay, everyone, get out there and find your favourite entries over the last few months! I look forward to the results.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

Sulpicius Severus, Life of Martin 3 and 4

In the last installment of the Life of Martin, we learned about Martin's upbringing and his conversion. The next passage deals with the famous incident in which Martin gives a beggar half of his military cloak, only to discover that the beggar was Christ. Since I translated that passage on the occasion of the St. Martin's Day, last November, I refer my readers back to that post here.

Let's continue the story with the story of Martin's discharge from the army.


(4) Meanwhile, after barbarians attacked Gaul, Julian Caesar gathered an army at the city of Amiens and began to pay a donative to the soldiers. As was the custom, each man was summoned until it was Martin’s turn. (2) Martin, thinking it was truly the opportune time to seek a discharge because he did not think it honest, if he who will not serve received a payment. “Until now” he said to the Caesar, “I have served you. (3) Allow me to be a soldier for God: one who will fight should receive the bonus. I am a soldier of Christ. It is not right for me to fight.” (4) Then, the tyrant turned to him and growled that Martin withdrew from military service because of his fear of the battle, not because of religious devotion. (5) Martin, unshaken, on the contrary even more resolute because terror inflicted on him, said “If you impute this to cowardliness, not to faith, tomorrow, I will stand unarmed in the battle line and, protected by the name of the Lord Jesus and the sign of the cross, not by shield or helmet, I will break through the enemy’s army unharmed.” (6) Therefore, it was ordered that he be thrust into custody, so that he would prove that that he would be thrown unarmed before the barbarians. (7) On the next day, the enemy sent peace emissaries and surrendered. From this, would anyone doubt that this victory belonged to that blessed man who was saved from being sent unarmed into battle. (8) Although, to be sure, the Holy Lord would have been able to save his soldier amid the shields and spears of the enemy, nevertheless saint’s gaze would have been violated by the deaths of others, He took away the necessity. (9) Christ held back no another victory for His soldier than that no died and that the enemy was subdued without bloodshed.

I find this incident interesting on several levels, but I think we need to place ourselves historically first before we can explore the theological implications of this passage.

Presumably, this event would have happened sometime after August, 355 AD, when Julian (later the Apostate) had been appointed Caesar in Gaul by his cousin, the Emperor Constantius II. The frontiers of Gaul had been under severe strain for much of the decade after the overthrow of Constantius' brother, Constans, who had been murdered by the usurper, Magnentius. Magnentius had taken advantage of Constans' unpopularity in the army (possibly due to his rather authoritarian personality and his propensity for disappearing into the shrubbery with young men) and taken control of the West. This immediately led him into conflict with Constantius II who was rushing westward, eager to avenge the death of his brother and uphold the claims of the Constantinian dynasty. This forced Magnentius to strip the Rhine/Danube defences to confront Constantius in Pannonia (modern day Yugoslavia) where he lost in a hard fought battle at Mursa. The Germans and Sarmatians on the border quickly perceived the weakened forces facing them and quickly broke through the defences. With the renewal of Persian activity in the East, Constantius found himself overwelmed with the need to restore the defences on the Rhine and the Danube as well as shoring up the defences in the East.

His solution was to turn to a cousin to lead the army. The problem, of course, was that Constantius II had, early in his reign, murdered most of his family in Constantinople in order to remove threats to his imperial power. Julian's father died and he and his brother was sent to honourable, if obscure captivity. This couldn't fail to embitter Julian against Constantius. Nor did it help that, when Constantius faced the revolt of Magnentius, he made Julian's brother, Gallus, Caesar in the East and quickly deposed and executed him for plotting for more power. The charges probably had some basis as Gallus was rather rash in his enjoyment of power, but it did little to endear Constantius to Julian. When the time came for his elevation to the status of Caesar, Julian accepted it with the air of a man condemned to death.

Constantius, of course, was no fool and he placed more controls on his cousin than on Gallus. The idea was that Julian would be a mere imperial figurehead and that Constantius' generals would conduct the efforts to restore the Gallic defences. Fortunately (or unfortunately for Constantius), Julian proved less pliable and more talented in military matters than expected. Quickly, Julian gained real command in Gaul and achieved significant successes against the German defenders. This, ultimately, would lead to Julian's revolt against Constantius and, after Constantius' death on his way to confront the rebels, Julian's rise to power. Julian, of course, is the last pagan emperor and only ruled for three years before being killed in an ill-advised invasion of Persia.

One of the interesting elements here is that Severus describes Julian as a tyrant which strikes me as somewhat premature. Julian did persecute the Church to mild degree (there were indications that that persecution was escalating), but only when he was sole emperor. At the time of this incident, presumably around 356 AD, he was ostensibly Christian and was maintaining a very conciliatory policy with pagans and Christians in general. By all accounts, Julian's administration in the West was unusually benign and it was only in the last year of his life that he began to adopt a less reasonable position on the Christian question. This can be shown that Julian's objection to Martin's request for discharge was that of a general addressing a shirker, not a pagan attacking a Christian. With the growth of monasticism, these kinds of withdrawals were beginning to be become common and, I'm sure, Julian was not interested in encouraging the trend, given his concern in defending the Empire and the general crisis in recruiting sufficient manpower for the army in the Empire at this time.

Yet, one wonders what led to Martin's decision to withdraw from the army at this point. It is entirely possible that most of Martin's career had been spent in garrison duty, so that this mustering of the army and the imminence of battle the next day is what brought on the crisis which led to Martin's withdraw from the army. In garrison duty, it would be entirely possible that Martin could pursue the nearly monastic life he was leading in the army without the necessity of killing anyone which would be a grave breach of the 10 Commandments and the teachings of Jesus at the time of his arrest. This would explain that, when his courage is doubted, Martin offers to stand unarmed in front of the army to prove that he was no coward. It also explain why Severus states that the surrender of the enemy was to allow Martin's gaze from being violated by the inevitable slaughter around him, even if he did not participate in it. I think this is what Severus seems to be setting up, although I must admit I find it hard to believe Martin had seen no combat in the 350s, amid the collapse of the Gallic defences. Still, it does say interesting things about the conflict of Christian values and war, doesn't it?

The miracle, of course, is an interesting one when we start thinking about the early Christian attitude to war. There is no doubt that Christians were in the army and that this was permitted by many Christian communities. Indeed, the most severe problems with this military service tended to be the necessity to sacrifice to pagan gods on a regular basis which would have forced the Christian soldier to confront idolatry quite regularly. Yet, there is an undertone of repugnance for killing which makes these military saints interesting in the light of debates over Christian pacifism. That, of course, is another discussion.


Friday, January 19, 2007

Patristics Roundup-January 11-18, 2007

Here is the new roundup. Technical difficulties slowed me down this week, but the volume of patristic posts seems to be less this week.

Here we go (yea, ha!)

Mike Aquilina at The Way of the Fathers tells us to be of good cheer on the occasion of the feast day of St. Hilary of Poitiers (one of the leading, if unsung, Fathers of the West), traces the papyrus trail of the Fathers on abortion., introduces us to St. Antony's tomb with a view, hooks us up with an interview he did about St. Antony

Danny Garland at Irish-Catholic and Dangerous continues his quoting ways by giving us what the doctor, Doctor Augustine of Hippo, ordered;

William Weedon on Weedon's Blog continues his Patristic Quotes with St. Maximos, St. Hippolytus, St. Jerome and St. Maximos again.

Chris at Exploring the Mystery starts a new series on the Apostles' Creed with a historical overview;

Yet, more praise for Mike Aquilina's book, The Fathers of the Church by Peter Rival on Utter Mutterings . frival continues his praise

Brandon on Siris continues to consider the development of doctrine with special reference to Nestorianism and Apollinarianism.

Darrell Pursiful on Dr. Platypus weighs in on the question of Protestants and the Fathers. All with a kind reference to yours truly!

Ben Smith on Thoughts on Antiquity continues his series on the canon with the conclusion of his thoughts on the Eusebian canon

handmaidleah on Christ Is In Our Midst posts the Nicene Creed, complete with Biblical references.

H West at Rural Suburbia contrasts Patristic precision about language with our own more lacksidaisical approach.

Father Nelson at Theology of the Body features St. Augustine on the Confession of St. Peter.

Adriam Murdoch at Bread and circuses introduces us to the Platonic philosopher and bishop. Synesius of Cyrene.

Father Alvin Kimel at Pontifications offers us excerpts from an Augustinian sermon on growing in justice.

Ben Smith on Thoughts on Antiquity posts his second part of the Eusebian canon. I haven't read it yet, but it looks all the rest of the series.

I hope you enjoyed the offerings!


Sunday, January 14, 2007

Claiming Paternity or Why the Church Fathers belong to Protestants too.

I've been thinking about this post for a couple of weeks now since a Patristic Roundup in which a post asked why Protestants wanted to quote the Church Fathers anyway. The gist of the comment is that Protestants aren't willing to listen to the clear testimony of the Fathers on the papacy (sic!), so why are they bothering?. I've been wanting to respond, but I decided that I also wanted to take my time to think out what I wanted to say. So, I'm going to slap on some Taize music (which is oddly appropriate) and get down to it.

To some degree, the surprise expressed by many Roman Catholics and Orthodox about the recent revival of Protestant interest in the Fathers is understandable. The Reformation slogan emphasizing sola scriptura as the basis of authority in Protestant theology did have the effect of stifling Protestant interest in the Fathers. Ultimately, in a Protestant theology, the Bible is perceived as the only necessary basis of authority in the Christian church, so it is less important to know what the Fathers have to say. In the more free church Protestant tradition, this emphasis on sola scriptura has led to a complete rejection of any writer after the Revelation of John as being unnecessary and, in fact, dangerous examples of the corrupted church which arose after the glories of the apostolic age. This has led to a kind of historical myopia and the attempt to create an ahistorical faith which most Roman Catholics and Orthodox associate with Protestantism in general.

Yet, it is interesting to note that most of the Reformers knew their way around the Fathers. Luther, Calvin and even Menno Simmons (representative of the early free church tradition) quoted the Fathers reasonably regularly. This makes sense because most of the early reformers (and many later ones) had a standard theological education through the universities which included a significant dose of patristics. Besides, in their controversies with their Roman Catholic opponents, they needed to challenge a particular view of the history of the Church, so the Fathers were part of that battleground.

Nor was this attention to patristics considered out of step with the larger principle of sola scriptura. The reality of this principle is not a rejection of anything outside the Bible (which is how it has often been read), but that anything outside of the Bible simply doesn't have the same authority. Sometimes those extra-biblical ideas are pernicious because they are in open conflict with what the Bible tells us, but, just as often, these extra-biblical ideas are simply speculative and, hence, not binding on the Church as a whole. This conditions Protestant views on the Fathers because it means that Protestants are always testing even the most revered Father against Scripture. This is contrast to the Roman Catholic or Orthodox tendency to emphasize continuity of apostolic teaching through the Fathers.

Yet, even granting this different attitude, I would argue that it is not inconsistent for Protestants to read the Fathers; only that they read them rather differently. What makes the Fathers so compelling to me is that, at their best, the Fathers, like the Reformers, are primarily concerned with what Scripture has to say. In Christian theology, it is an ever present temptation to allow secular learning to determine how we read the Bible in our attempt to make it relevant to the culture in which we find ourselves. In our own time, many theologians use their modernist or post-modernist education to reach our culture, sometimes to the point of allowing these philosophies to trump the Bible. In the patristic period, it was Greek philosophy (especially that of Plato) or rhetoric which served to trump the Bible. What makes the Fathers as good biblical exegetes as they are is that they resisted this temptation to greater or lesser extent. Even Origen, who by all accounts was heavily influenced by Platonism, could say that every word of Scripture had a meaning. Even when they indulged in allegory or typology, they took Scripture very seriously.

More important than this, the Fathers present a valuable alternative in how to write theology today. Unfortunately, for the last few hundred years, we've been too much in the habit of separating out our thinking from our praying, our theology from our spirituality. I honestly think that much of the unsound theology of the last centuries can be traced from this disconnect. The Fathers, in their very methods, refused to consider this division. Indeed, it never occurred to them. Theology was as much an expression of the Spirit as prayer or worship, if rightly guided. It is this desire to use the intelligence and discernment granted to us by God in a prayerful way which presents a rather different approach to the intellectualized, modernist faith which has characterized much Protestant theology in its various manifestations.

It isn't that Protestants need the Fathers more than anyone else does. All of us, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant, need to hear their wisdom and their teaching. It just happens that it has taken us Protestants this long to remember that we need that help from these early Fathers. We need encouragement, not incredulity, to continue our studies in the Fathers. They are, after all, our Fathers too.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Patristic Roundup- January 4-10, 2007

It was another busy week in the patristics garden! Wow! I never realized just how much patristic content there actually was out there.

Enjoy the offerings this week!


Mike Aquilina on The Way of the Fathers features a brief review of N.T. Wright's new book on Judas, links to a radio broadcast featuring Saint Synalecta, a brief review of Steven Shoemaker's book on the Virgin Mary's Dormition and Assumption.

Danny Garland on Irish-Catholic and Dangerous quotes Cardinal Newman on importance of the Fathers in his conversion to Catholicism, St. John Chrysothom on the Magi, St. Gregory of Nazianzus on the Baptism of the Lord, and St. Cyprian on praying constantly. . Wow, that is a lot of excerpts in one week!

William Weedon on Weedon's Blog offers Patristic Quotes of the Day by Prudentius, Maximos the Confessor, Maximos again and another on Maximos.

Sean Gallagher on The Criterion Online Blog asks the question Who is a Church Father?. The answer? Well, read on.

Father Tim Finagan on The hermeneutic of continuity (now there is a title for a blog!) gives a guide to the first four centuries of Christianity from a Catholic perspective including some excellent book references.

runandsew on The Catholic Answers forum asks did the Fathers teach Sola Scriptura. There's lots of references and lots of conversation.

TheGodFearingFiddle reflects on the Nicene Creed, the term Catholic and who gets to use it. . He continues his discussion in Were the Church Fathers Papists?

Philosophy on LJ offers a paper on Evolution, Patristics and the Philosophy of Science.

It seems to be the week for guides on how to get started on patristics. Derek the Anglican on haligweorc offers us his suggestions on how to get started on reading the Fathers, from, predictably, an Anglican perspective. Derek follows up with a guide to getting started with patristic hermeneutics.

Adrian Murdoch on Bread and Circuses features an article on the Christian poet Caelius Sedulius

A Hatfield on Trinitarian Life features a review of the Nestorian controversy about the Theotokos

Julie on Julie Unplugged has quotes Richard Hooper with a rather different opinion about the Virgin Mary. Hooper argues that the Virgin Mary was a sop given to women as compensation for Mary Magdalene's loss of apostolic status and the denigration of eternal feminine images in Christianity.

SELplana declares that the Apostolic Fathers didn't believe in the divinity of Christ. I wonder, are they reading the same Apostolic Fathers?

John Collins on 37 lissenfield offers some reflections on Bart Ehrmann's Misquoting Jesus

Trail mix offers reflections on the theological diversity of the patristic era

Rick Brannan on ricoblog starts to reflect on Clayton Jeffrey's book on the Apostolic Fathers and the New Testament and lets us know about an download of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology's 1905 publication on the Apostolic Fathers and the New Testament.. Two more books I have to add to my ever lengthening reading list!

Julie at Happy Catholic finds her extended family among the Church Fathers, thanks to Mike Aquilina's book, The Fathers of the Church.


Sunday, January 07, 2007

Sulpicius Severus, Life of Martin 3

Happy Epiphany!

Well, okay, I'm a little late, but Epiphany is frequently translated to the nearest Sunday at my church, so close enough.

This week, I'm posting the third installment of my St. Martin series. In this passage, we start into the narrative per se with an account of St. Martin's childhood. It struck me as I was starting to work on the translation that it was vaguely appropriate to read this passage today. After all, Martin was born to pagan parents, so it is oddly appropriate on this day on which Gentiles first worshipped Jesus we begin the tale of Martin's early conversion.

So, let us begin.

Martin was born in Sabaria, a town in Pannonia, but he was raised in Ticinium in Italy. His parents were not of the lowest class in the world’s ranking, but were pagans (2) His father was, at first, a soldier; then, a military tribune. Martin himself pursued a military career in his youth among the imperial cavalry guards under Emperor Constantius. Then, he served under Julian Caesar. He did not serve however, of his own will because, from nearly his first years, the holy infancy of the famous boy aspired to divine service instead. (3) When he was ten years old, he fled, without the permission of his parents, to the church and demanded to be made a catechumen. (4) Then, he was converted completely to work of God in an amazing way. When he was 12 years old, he desired to be a hermit. He would have performed the appropriate vows, if the infirmity of age had not prevented him. Nevertheless, his spirit was always intent on the monastery or the church and he, at his young age, meditated on what he vowed and later fulfilled. (5)After an edict was published by the emperors that the sons of veterans should be enrolled into military service, his father, who begrudged him his happy ways, betrayed him when he was fifteen years old. He was seized, chained and entangled in military service. He was content with one slave as a companion whom he, the master, served in turn to such an extent that he would quite often remove his slave’s shoes and clean them. They would eat together and Martin would serve him rather more often. (6) For nearly three years before his baptism, he served in the army. Nevertheless, he was free from those faults with which that type of men are accustomed to be associated. (7) His kindness to his fellow soldiers was great , his love astonishing, and his patience and humility beyond human measure. There was no need to praise his thrift which he practiced to such a degree that, at that time, he was thought to be a monk, not a solider. For this reason, he won over all his fellow soldiers so that they adored him with astonishing affection. (8) Although he was not yet reborn in Christ, he performed good works like a candidate for baptism in by helping those who suffering hardship, bringing help to the miserable, feeding the needy and clothing the naked. He held back nothing from his military pay except for his daily meals. Since, he was not an inattentive listener to the Gospel, he was not accustomed to think about tomorrow.


Martin's origins are interesting because it is clear almost from the first sentence that his family was tied to the military. Certainly, one of the major recruiting grounds in the fourth century for the Roman army was border districts such as the region of Pannonia. His father clearly rose through the ranks, so this would suggest that he did not start among the privileged elite who would have had tribuneships from their youth. Yet, as Severus points out, having attained this rank, his family could be regarded as having some social distinction.

The law enrolling veterans' sons automatically into the army is likely one of a series of edicts dating from the 320s and continuing for the next few centuries which attempted to maintain the size of the Roman army in the face of widespread attempts by the sons of the military class to escape service. This has to be seen in the light of the growing burdens of the Roman state on its people and the consequence attempts to evade the onerous service imposed by the state. The preferred status of Christianity in the empire at this time opened yet another means to escape these demands: service in the Church. Presumably, this law was designed to close this door. The fact that it was repeatedly re-enacted over the next few centuries would suggest it didn't work very well

Martin's early encounters with Christianity are most notably for his early zeal. Indeed, his zeal is so great that Martin's story includes certain veiled allusions to Jesus' own life, especially in that, at the age of 10, he flees to the Church and demands to be made a catechumen (comparable to Jesus in the temple?). Similarly, his attempt to take vows as a hermit at 12 shows a similar degree of precocious faith. This is all the more remarkable because Martin was born and, presumably, raised pagan. Indeed, we can conclude that Martin's father remained pagan because he seems to have seen the law enforcing military service on veterans' sons to be an opportunity to separate Martin from the Church. It doesn't work, but the opportunity would have been tempting.

Martin's military career is, of course, striking. There is, for instance, no mention of actual fighting which, given the instability of the Danube border in the 340s and 350s, is a little surprising Both the Emperors Constans and Constantius fought several campaigns in the region against German and Sarmatian invasions; not to mention the revolt of Magnentius in which the decisive battle was fought at Mursa in Illyricum in 353 AD. We get no impression of Martin fighting in these battles, although he must have in some.

The image we have is rather of a soldier in peace, exercising Christian virtues. Likely, Martin (and Severus!) had in mind the advice of John the Baptist to soldiers that they should 'not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ (Luke 3, 14. NRSV). Martin, in these areas, is exemplary, but he goes farther and applies the standard of monasticism to his behavior both to his own slave and his fellow soldiers. Remember he still is a catechumen, so has not been baptized, but he is acting in the way that one would expect him to before his baptism. Given the temptations of the military life, this standard is all the more remarkable.

This image of Martin as soldier strikes me as interesting because of my own pacifist leanings. What fascinates me here is the implied contrast between the soldier of Christ like Martin and the regular, everyday soldier. With Martin, there is no violence or power, but rather there is a stress, as is appropriate to the soldier of Christ, on the Christian virtues: humility, service and faith. One wonders if we all acted like that soldier of Christ whether wars would even be possible.

Anyway, what do you think?


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Patristic Roundup- December 28th, 2006-January 3, 2007

Happy New Year and welcome back to the Patristic Roundup.

It was a bit busier week in the patristic garden, sparked, I think, by lots of saints days and post-Christmas apologetic hangovers. Here is my sample of the week that was in patristics.

Mike Aquilina at The Way of the Fathers has a look at the Old New Ages, the Manichees, on the occasion of New City Presses' new release on Augustine's writings on the Manicheans. On the occasion of the feast day of St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzus, Mike provides a series of excellent links for these Cappadocian Fathers. Mike also reports on ancient contraceptive techniques and the Father's condemnation of them.

A Hatfield on Trinitarian Life discusses whether it is appropriate to throw around charges of Nestorianism without careful consideration. Good point. We are sometimes too quick to conflate confusion with heresy.

Brother Theobad, with the help of an appropriate quote from Origen, makes the excellent point that the Fathers knew a few things about spiritual warfare before that phrase was every even thought of.

Integritus on the Catholic Answer Forum asks the perplexing question (to Roman Catholics at least) of why Protestants want to quote the Church Fathers. The discussion which follows is a good one. Still, I think I hear the whispering of a blog entry on this blog. Stay tuned!

William Weedon posts another Patristic Quote and again.

William St. Reflections considers the twin influences of Judaizing and Gnosticism on the formation of the Father's coherent view of both the Old and New Testaments.

James Swan at Beggars All: Reformation and Apologetics takes on a Roman Catholic take on the establishment of the canon in 382 AD.

Walter Snyder at Ask the Pastor deals with the question of the Lost Books of the Bible.

Conference Daily Updates features a review of John Cassian's Conferences in the Ancient Christian Writers series.

Stavros on My Greek Odyssey gives an excellent overview of the Greek influence on Judaism and Christianity from a rather Eastern Orthodox perspective.

Tiber Jumper on Crossed the Tiber reports on the Theotokos, Nestorius and the Council of Ephesus.

Brandon on Siris features St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzus including a passage from St. Basil's On the Holy Spirit (hey, I almost bought that today!)

Mark Christian on Transfigure Baton Rogue comments on R.R. Reno's excellent article on the revival of patristics in theologyin November's edition of First Things.

Stewart Rutledge on Fancy Latin Title struggles with Who is Church Father?

Christian Husband on Sacrifice my Sexuality reflects on the canon, the Fathers and biblical interpretation.

Rick Brannon on ricoblog resumes his translation series on the Didache (yah!!!), translating Didache 10

On the ninth day of Christmas Danny Garland on Irish-Catholic and Dangerous gave to me quotes from Saint Basil and St. Gregory Naziansus on the occasion of their feast day. On the tenth day of Christmas, Danny gave to me St. John Chrysosthom on abortion.