Category Archives: Patristics

A History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe

The book A History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe (2 vols., 1865) is a seminal piece of literature. This well written work helps to provide valuable insights for the modern reader with the backstory on the conversion of Europe from a mystical to a rational society.

Written by William Lecky, an Irish-Anglican historian and politician (1838–1903), he greatly succeeded in studying and narrating the complex and evolving web of rationalism, morals, miracles, the supernatural, Catholicism, and Protestantism into a systematic and comprehensive portrait.

This book assists this blog in three different ways. Firstly, it demonstrates why the patristic writings were blotted out of the modern history on the doctrine of tongues. Lecky provided the logic behind this notable absence. (The following article on this blog The Historical Rejection of Patristics and its Legacy covers this in detail.)

Secondly, the book provides some history behind the doctrine of cessation in the protestant movement. He gives some hints as to why this doctrine arose.

Thirdly, he contributes to another interest of this blog and that is with the intersection of faith and mental health. He outlined a period that was consistently engaged in moral and spiritual purity – one which was percieved to bring them safety, health, stability, and protection from the elements. It was the antidote for humanities ills. Science was considered tertiary in this struggle for security. The greatest enemy to these four aims was the devil and his army of angels. Society felt that the active pursuit and limitation of the powers of evil would ensure their personal physical, emotional, and spiritual security. This allowed the excess imagination of many to run wild and caused countless executions. This supernatural crusade was especially against women. Many of whom were accused of being witches. Most of these women today would likely be listed with some form of mental illness, but back in this period, there was little concept of such a thing. It is a sad chapter in Western history. However, this was not always the exclusive approach by the Church. Jean Claude Larchet demonstrates in his book Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing that at least from the Eastern Christian Church perspective, the treatment of mental health by the institutional church has had some progressive and merciful aspects too.

The reader must keep in mind that the irrational social response to the fear of the unknown cannot be restricted or blamed on the christian faith. It is a problem of the human psyche. Today we wrestle with the same problems of fear. Our world has significantly changed after the events of 9/11. The ever apparent fear of terrorists at the door have weakened citizen rights and has created serious suspicion upon any Muslim or anybody who looks Arab. The United States decision to ban citizens from seven Muslim dominated countries from entering their land underscores this irrationalism. This is but one of many examples. North American society is now driven by an irrational culture of fear in almost all of its decision making.

Many readers will not have the time to soak in Lecky’s voluminous treaty. The following are snippets from his work. The book itself is available at the Online Library of Liberty.

Quotes from A History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe

Pg. 27 “There is certainly no change in the history of the last 300 years more striking, or suggestive of more curious enquiries, than that which has taken place in the estimate of the miraculous. At present, nearly all educated men receive an account of a miracle taking place in their own day, with an absolute and even derisive incredulity which dispenses with all examination of the evidence. Although they may be entirely unable to give a satisfactory explanation of some phenomena that have taken place, they never on that account dream of ascribing them to supernatural agency, such an hypothesis being, as they believe, altogether beyond the range of reasonable discussion. Yet, a few centuries ago, there was no solution to which the mind of man turned more readily in every perplexity. A miraculous account was then universally accepted as perfectly credible, probable, and ordinary. There was scarcely a village or a church that had not, at some time, been the scene of supernatural interposition. [Pg. 28] The powers of light and the powers of darkness were regarded as visibly struggling for the mastery. Saintly miracles, supernatural cures, startling judgments, visions, prophecies, and prodigies of every order, attested the activity of the one, while witchcraft and magic, with all their attendant horrors, were the visible manifestations of the other.”

Pg. 32 is in reference to cleansing the nation of perceived evil, and of demons, witchcraft and sorcery, the author goes into great detail showing the innumerable deaths that were caused by this superstitious conflagration.

Pg. 32 “Such was the attitude of the Church of Rome with reference to this subject, but on this ground the Reformers had no conflict with their opponents. The credulity which Luther manifested on all matters connected with diabolical intervention, was amazing, even for his age; and, when speaking of witchcraft, his language was emphatic and unhesitating. ‘I would have no compassion on these witches,’ he exclaimed, ‘I would burn them all!’ In England the establishment of the Reformation was the signal for an immediate outburst of the superstition; and there, as elsewhere its decline was represented by the clergy as the direct consequence and the exact measure of the progress of religious scepticism. In Scotland, where the Reformed ministers exercised greater influence than in any other country, and where the witch trials fell almost entirely into their hands, the persecution was proportionately atrocious.”

Pg. 36 “Indeed, the philosophy of madness is mainly due to Pinel, who wrote long after the superstition had vanished; and even if witchcraft had been treated as a disease, this would not have destroyed the belief that it was Satanic, in an age when all the more startling diseases were deemed supernatural, and when theologians maintained that Satan frequently acted by the employment of natural laws.”

Pg. 37 “It may be stated, I believe, as an invariable truth, that, whenever a religion which rests in a great measure on a system of terrorism, and which paints in dark and forcible colours the misery of men and the power of evil spirits, is intensely realised, it will engender the belief in witchcraft of [pg. 38] magic. The panic which its teachings will create, will overbalance the faculties of multitudes. The awful images of evil spirits of superhuman power, and of untiring malignity, will continually haunt the imagination. They will blend with the illusions of age or sorrow or sickness, and will appear with an especial vividness in the more alarming and unexplained phenomena of nature.”

Pg. 63 “Amid all this strange teaching, there ran, however, one rein of a darker character. The more terrible phenomena of nature were entirely unmoved by exorcisms and sprinklings, and they were invariably attributed to supernatural interposition. In every nation it has been believed, at an early period, that pestilences, famines, comets, rainbows, eclipses, and other rare and startling phenomena, were effected, not by the ordinary sequence of natural laws, but by the direct intervention of spirits. In this manner, the predisposition towards the [Pg. 64] miraculous, which is the characteristic of all semi-civilised nations, has been perpetuated, and the clergy have also frequently identified these phenomena with acts of rebellion against themselves. The old Catholic priests were consuin mate masters of these arts, and every rare natural event was, in the middle ages, an occasion for the most intense terrorism. Thus, in the eighth century, a fearful famine afflicted France, and was generally represented as a consequence of the repugnance which the French people manifested to the payment of tithes. In the ninth century, a total eclipse of the sun struck terror through Europe, and is said to have been one of the causes of the death of a French king.”

Pg. 69 “We find then that, all through the middle ages, most of the crimes that were afterwards collected by the inquisitors in the treatises on witchcraft were known; and that many of them were not unfrequently punished. At the same time the executions, during six centuries, were probably not as numerous as those which often took place during a single decade of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the twelfth century, however, the subject passed into an entirely new phase. The conception of a witch, as we now conceive it—that is to say, of a woman who had entered into a deliberate compact with Satan, who was endowed with the power of working miracles whenever she pleased, and who was continually transported through the air to the Sabbath, where she paid her homage to the Evil One—first appeared. The [Pg. 70] panic created by the belief advanced at first slowly, but after a time with a fearfully accelerated rapidity. Thousands of victims were sometimes burnt alive in a few years. Every country in Europe was stricken with the wildest panic. Hundreds of the ablest judges were selected for the extirpation of the crime. A vast literature was created on the subject, and it was not until a considerable portion of the eighteenth century had passed away, that the executions finally ceased.”

Pg. 81 “When the belief is confined to the lower class, its existence will be languishing and unprogressive. But when legislators denounce it in [Pg. 82] their laws, and popes in their bulls; when priests inveigh against it in their pulpits, and inquisitors burn thousands at the stake, the imaginations of men will be inflamed, the terror will prove contagious, and the consequent delusions be multiplied.”

Pg. 84 -85 “I know, indeed, few stranger, and at the same time more terrible pictures, than are furnished by the history of witchcraft during the century that preceded and the century that followed the Reformation. Wherever the conflict of opinions was raging among the educated, witchcraft, like an attendant shadow, pursued its course among the ignorant; and Protestants and Catholics vied with each other in the zeal with which they prosecuted it. Never was the power of imagination—that strange faculty which casts the shadow of its images over the whole creation, and combines all the phenomena of life according to its own archetypes—more strikingly evinced. Superstitious and terror-stricken, the minds of men were impelled irresistibly towards the miraculous and the Satanic, and they found them upon every side. The elements of imposture blended so curiously with the elements of delusion, that it is now impossible to separate them. Sometimes an ambitious woman, braving the dangers of her [Pg. 85] act, boldly claimed supernatural power, and the haughtiest and the most courageous cowered humbly at her presence. Sometimes a husband attempted, in the witch courts, to cut the tie which his church had pronounced indissoluble; and numbers of wives have, in consequence, perished at the stake. Sometimes a dexterous criminal availed himself of the panic; and, directing a charge of witchcraft against his accuser, escaped himself with impunity. Sometimes, too, a personal grudge was avenged by the accusation, or a real crime was attributed to sorcery; or a hail-storm, or a strange disease, suggested the presence of a witch. But, for the most part, the trials represent pure and unmingled delusions. The defenders of the belief were able to maintain that multitudes had voluntarily confessed themselves guilty of commerce with the Evil One, and had persisted in their confessions till death. Madness is always peculiarly frequent during great religious or political revolutions; and, in the sixteenth century, all its forms were absorbed in the system of witchcraft, and caught the colour of the prevailing predisposition.”

Pg. 86-87 “It is very difficult for us in the present day to do justice to these works, or to realise the points of view from which they were written. A profound scepticism on all subjects [Pg. 87] connected with the Devil underlies the opinions of almost every educated man, and renders it difficult even to conceive a condition of thought in which that spirit was the object of an intense and realised belief. An anecdote which involves the personal intervention of Satan is now regarded as quite as intrinsically absurd, and unworthy of serious attention, as an anecdote of a fairy or of a sylph. When, therefore, a modern reader turns over the pages of an old treatise on witchcraft, and finds hundreds of such aneedotes related with the gravest assurance, he is often inclined to depreciate very unduly the intellect of an author who represents a condition of thought so unlike his own. The cold indifference to human suffering which these writers display gives an additional bias to his reason; while their extraordinary pedantry, their execrable Latin, and their gross scientific blunders, furnish ample materials for his ridicule. Besides this, Sprenger, who is at once the most celebrated, and, perhaps, the most credulous member of his class, unfortunately for his reputation, made some ambitious excursions into another field, and immortalised himself by a series of etymological blunders, which have been the delight of all succeeding scholars.”

Pg. 102-103 “The foregoing pages will, I trust, be sufficient to elucidate the leading causes upon which witchcraft depended. They will show that it resulted, not from accidental circum stances, individual eccentricities, or even scientific ignorance but from a general predisposition to see Satanic agency in life. It grew from, and it reflected, the prevailing modes of religious thought; and it declined only when those modes were weakened or destroyed. In almost every period of the [Pg. 103] middle ages, there had been a few men who in some degree dissented from the common superstitions; but their opinions were deemed entirely incomprehensible, and they exercised no appreciable influence upon their contemporaries.”

Pg. 114-115 “From the publication of the essays of Montaigne, we may date the influence of that girted and ever enlarging rationalistic school, who gradually effected the destruction of the belief in witchcraft, not by refuting [Pg. 115] or explaining its evidence, but simply by making men more and more sensible of its intrinsic absurdity.”

Pg. 119 “The history of witchcraft in Protestant countries differs so little from its history in Catholic ones, that it is not necessary to dwell upon it at much length. In both cases, a tendency towards the miraculous was the cause of the belief; and the degree of religious terrorism regulated the intensity of the persecution.”

Pg. 157 “Nothing could be more common than for a holy man to be lifted up from the floor in the midst of his devotions, or to be visited by the Virgin or by an angel. There was scarcely a town that could not show some relic that had cured the sick, or some image that had opened and shut its eyes, or bowed it head to an earnest worshipper.”

Pg. 159 “All this has now passed away. It has passed away, not only in lands where Protestantism is triumphant, but also in those where the Roman Catholic faith is still acknowledged, and where the mediæval saints are still venerated.”

Pg. 161 “If these propositions be true—and I scarcely think that any candid person who seriously examines the subject can [Pg. 162] question them—they lead irresistibly to a very important general conclusion. They show that the repugnance of men to believe miraculous narratives is in direct proportion to the progress of civilisation and the diffusion of knowledge.”

Pg. 163 “We find, accordingly, that from the very beginning, Protestantism looked upon [Pg. 164] modern miracles (except those which were comprised under the head of witchcraft) with an aversion and distrust that contrasts remarkably with the unhesitating credulity of its opponents. The history of its sects exhibits, indeed, some alleged miracles, which were, apparently, the result of ignorance or enthusiasm, and a very few which were obvious impositions.”

Pg. 169 “Middleton met it by an attack upon the veracity of the Fathers, which was so eloquent, so uncompromising, and so admirably directed, that all England soon rang with the controversy. He contended that the religious leaders of the fourth century had admitted, eulogised, and habitually acted upon principles that were diametrically opposed, not simply to the aspirations of a transcendent sanctity, but to the dictates of the most common honesty.”

Pg. 171 “If the Fathers were in truth men of the most unbounded credulity and of the laxest veracity; if the sense of the importance of dogmas had, in their minds, completely superseded the sense of rectitude, it was absurd to invest them with this extraordinary veneration. They might still be reverenced as men of undoubted sincerity, and of the noblest heroism; they might still be cited as witnesses to the belief of their time, and as representing the tendencies of its intellect; but their pre-eminent authority had passed away. The landmarks of English theology were removed. The traditions on which it rested were disturbed. It had entered into new conditions, and must be defended by new arguments.”

Pg. 186 “Whatever is lost by Catholicism is gained by Rationalism; wherever the spirit of Rationalism recedes, the spirit of Catholicism advances. Towards the close of the last century France threw off her allegiance to Christianity, endeavoured to efface all the traditions of her past, and proclaimed a new era in the religious history of mankind. She soon repented of her temerity, and retired from a position which she had found untenable. Half the nation became ultramontane Roman Catholics; the other half became indifferent or Rationalist.”

Pg. 194-195 “. . .and the spirit of Rationalism has become the great centre to which the intellect of [Pg. 195] Europe is manifestly tending. If we trace the progress of the movement from its origin to the present day, we find that it has completely altered the whole aspect and complexion of religion. When it began, Christianity was regarded as a system entirely beyond the range and scope of human reason: it was impious to question; it was impious to examine; it was impious to discriminate. On the other hand, it was visibly instinct with the supernatural. Miracles of every order and degree of magnitude were flashing forth incessantly from all its parts. They excited no scepticism and no surprise. The miraculous element pervaded all literature, explained all difficulties, consecrated all doctrines. Every unusual phenomenon was immediately referred to a supernatural agency, not because there was a passion for the improbable, but because such an explanation seemed far more simple and easy of belief than the obscure theories of science. In the present day Christianity is regarded as a system which courts the strictest investigation, and which, among many other functions, was designed to vivify and stimulate all the energies of man. The idea of the miraculous, which a superficial observer might have once deemed its most prominent characteristic, has been driven from almost all its entrenchments, and now quivers faintly and feebly through the mists of eighteen hundred years.”

Believer/Unbeliever, Faithful/Infidel, What is best?

A question of properly translating πιστός and ἄπιστος in Byzantine Greek Church literature.

Should they be translated as believer/unbeliever, or faithful/infidel?

The translation of believer is not difficult to accept, though it is a tad ambiguous in today’s English, but unbeliever is too neutral. It does not reflect the intensity ascribed to by the majority of the original writers. Infidel may be better suited. It is a strong word that has near racist implications based on religious grounds, and has especially been propagated by media coverage of radical Islamic actions against those who do not share their beliefs. In reference to some Byzantine Church writings, infidel feels closer to the writer’s intent. Fidelis, which is the opposite word to unfaithful, and should be considered to replace believer is not used in contemporary English jargon so that is eliminated. Faithful is a better alternative than believer because it is more specific to matters of faith. Unfaithful has shifted in contemporary English to indicate a serious breech of trust in a marriage or partnership, and is ruled out. So I think faithful/infidel should be used more often in translating many Patristic texts.

This question has come up a number of times while I have been translating ecclesiastical Greek works. Didymus of Alexandria in past readings, and presently, John Chrysostom’s work, De Sancte Pentecoste have urged this question. Both these authors are by modern definition, fanatical Christians. Their use of these words are strongly charged, and I think using believer/unbeliever underplays their intent. However, the use of faithful/infidel may make too close an association with the modern readers idea of reckless fanaticism, and may be an overstatement.

There is no denial that this type of fanaticism existed. The distinction between faithful–infidel was so strong that infidels had lost status as fully human. I cannot pretend to know a detailed history of the words in question, nor trace the etymology in any minutiae, but can only offer general assumptions. I do know the definition of infidels being less than human had existed until the 8th century under the great European leader Charlemagne. Charlemagne previously forced conversions on all his defeated territories. If they refused, they would be killed, with perhaps the Jews being the only exception because of their religious heritage – though their status was considered one of the lowest ranks. This destruction of the pagans who refused to convert was considered a normative practice, and brought on the ire of two Church leaders, Alcuin of York, and St. Paulinus of Aquiliea who “insisted that conversion was the work of God, not of man, and instruction should be in terms the people could understand and not based on fear.”(1)

Perhaps there are other alternatives and ways to translate which I have overlooked and am not aware of. Any feedback by translators or historians who have grappled with this problem, and have come up with a solution would greatly be appreciated.

References   [ + ]

Origen on Knowledge

How to properly translate and understand Origen when he uses knowledge words.

Origen, a third century Church Father considered by many historians to be a great writer and thinker, was very much steeped in Greek literature, structure and thought. This was very much reflected in his writings.

This is especially found in the catena ascribed to him on I Corinthians.(1) See Origen on the Gift of Tongues for the actual translation One is hard-pressed to comprehend the semantics of his knowledge words. This applies to the majority of his other works as well.

Understanding these three words: γνώσις–gnôsis, εἲδησις–eidêsis, and επιστήμη–epistêmê are critical. These words all pertain to different nuances of the word knowledge. First of all, the English vocabulary does not distinguish between different forms of knowledge as the Greeks did. It is a problem of the limitations of the English language. The demand is then to do some dynamic translating which requires personal interpretation. So the the culture, background, and time-frame must be understood to properly reflect Origen’s intent.

The second problem is understanding what Origen meant specifically by these words. The concepts of gnôsis, eidenai and epistêmê have not been static and it depends on which era, culture and religion it is being used in. He was one of the first Christian authors attempting to integrate such terms and may not reflect medieval usage or what we modernly understand these terms to be.

There have been many attempts to distinguish these words with mixed results. Here are a number of examples:

  • Ellen Pagels attempted to do this in her book The Gnostic Gospels:

    …gnosis is not primarily rational knowledge. The Greek language distinguishes between scientific or reflective knowledge (‘He knows mathematics’) and knowing through observation or experience (‘He knows me’). As the gnostics use the term, we could translate it as ‘insight’, for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself… Yet to know oneself, at the deepest level is to know God; this is the secret of gnosis.”(The Gnostic Gospels, p xviii-xix) Bentley Layton provides a similar definition in The Gnostic Scriptures: “The ancient Greek language could easily differentiate between two kinds of knowledge… One kind is propositional knowing – the knowledge that something is the case (‘I know Athens is in Greece’). Greek has several words for this kind of knowing-for example, eidenai. The other kind of knowing is personal aquaintance with an object, often a person. (‘I know Athens well’; ‘I have known Susan for many years’). In Greek the word for this is gignoskein…The corresponding Greek noun is gnosis. If for example two people have been introduced to one another, each can claim to have gnosis or aquaintance of one another. If one is introduced to God, one has gnosis of God. The ancient gnostics described salvation as a kind of gnosis or aquaintance, and the ultimate object of that aquaintance was nothing less than God” (The Gnostic Scriptures, p 9).”(2)As

  • The influential modern German Philosopher Martin Heidegger added his own thoughts to this:

    To know a person is sometimes eidenai, sometimes gignoskein, which, with the noun gnosis, often has the flavour of knowledge by acquaintance. Epistasthai, ‘to know, etc.’, is, for Heidegger, ‘to be on top of [vorstehen, lit. ‘stand before’] something, know one’s way around it’ – he associates it (controversially) with histanai, histathai, ‘to place, set (up)’, ‘to stand’. The derived noun episteme, ‘knowledge’, means approaching something, knowing one’s way around it, mastering it, penetrating its substantial content (XXIX, 49). Aristotle gave it the meaning of ‘science’, but in a sense distinct from modern scientific ‘research [Forschung]’ and ‘experiment’ (AWP. 74/121. Cf. XIX. 31ff., 91ff.)(3)Michael Inwood. A Heidegger Dictionary. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. Reprinted 2000. Pg. 112 as foundA Heidegger Dictionary

    Science can be one of the common terms used for epistêmê, but it conjures up the wrong images in the English reader’s mind. The translator should emphasize skill or expertise within this context.

  • The above solutions do not easily work with Origen’s Commentary on Corinthians. A more religious framework is needed. This can be found at Wikipedia:

    Gnosis (from one of the Greek words for knowledge, gnôsis is the spiritual knowledge of a saint[1] or mystically enlightened human being. In the cultures of the term (Byzantine and Hellenic) gnosis was a special knowledge or insight into the infinite, divine and uncreated in all and above all,[2] rather than knowledge strictly into the finite, natural or material world which is called Epistemological knowledge. [3] Gnosis is a transcendential as well as mature understanding.[4] It indicates direct spiritual experiential knowledge[5] and intuitive knowledge, mystic rather than that from rational or reasoned thinking. Gnosis itself is obtained through understanding at which one can arrive via inner experience or contemplation such as an internal epiphany of intuition and external epiphany such as the Theophany.(4)As found at: Wikipedia.

    At first reading, one may conclude that this Wikipedia text was a result of medieval Christian writings, so more inquiry has to be done. Stanford University’s webpage on philosophy is a good starting point. They outline the usage by the neo-Platonic position of Plotinus, whom Origen studied with, “In the first place, epistêmê refers to the particular cognitive state of the first hypostasis from the One, Nous, in which there is an identity between knowledge and what is known (VI. 6. 15). Our souls gain true knowledge by the presence of Nous, although Nous knows non-discursively while our souls characteristically know in a discursive way (V. 9. 7; IV. 3.18). It does all these things with certain knowledge (epistêmê) and not by opinion (I. 3. 4).”(5)As found at: Here Plotinus defines epistêmê as a “certain knowledge.”The translator has to be careful about the Christian definition of gnosis, as the early Church fathers such as Clement used the term but made it distinct from the actual term used by the gnostic movement itself. “To be sure, he constantly opposes the concept of gnosis as defined by the Gnostics.”(6) here.

  • Another Wikipedia articles describes the problem also can be found in a number of contemporary languages: “In 1865, philosopher John Grote distinguished between what he described as “knowledge of acquaintance” and “knowledge-about”. Grote noted that these distinctions were made in many languages. He cited Greek (gnônai and eidenai), Latin (noscere and scire), German (kennen and wissen), and French (connaître and savoir) as examples.”(7) The reference is found at Wikipedia.

  • Arthur Versluis, in his book, Magic and Mysticism: an Introduction to Western Esotericism, is one of the best sources for defining the early Church understanding of these words. He documents their use by Origen and other Christian leaders in this same time-frame:

    If heretical Gnosticism in its various forms died out relatively early, the concept of gnosis did not disappear from the Christian world. While heresiarchs like Valentinus and Basilides were remembered in the context of diatribes against them, still the concept of an orthodox Christian gnosis did continue into the medieval period through the work of those we might call “orthodox gnostics:” chiefly Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and most of all, Dionysius the Areopagite. These figures, and particularly the latter two, were imensely influential in later Christianity, and they insisted on the possibility, indeed, the necessity for direct experiential spiritual knowledge. Of these three seminal Christian writers, Origen discusses gnosis the least and largely by implication. For instance, in his Commentary on John, Origen distinguishes between “The Somatic [Bodily] and the Spiritual Gospel” and insists on the importance of both. He affirms the bodily coming of Christ but also affirms the immense importance of John’s “eternal Gospel,” properly called the “spiritual Gospel,” which concerns the “mysteries” and “enigma” of Christ’s life and words. We must, Origen concludes, be Christians “both somatically and spiritually” and partake in the Word (Christ) (I.9). And in his De Principiis. Origen alludes to the celestial “ordering and arrangement of the world,” to the “holy and blessed orders” through which humanity can ascend back to the condition of happiness from which many have fallen (VI.2). Here Origen is referring to the hierarchic orders of thrones, principalities, and dominions, of angelic hierarchies that, by implication, are realms through which humans can ascend to return to their divine condition. But whereas Origen is somewhat oblique about gnosis-it exists as a concept implicit in his work-Clement of Alexandria is much more implicit. In his Stromata, or Miscellanies, Clement writes at length about how “the gnostic alone is truly pious” (VII.1) and affirms that gnostic souls “surpass in the grandeur of contemplation” even the “holy ranks,” for the gnostic who is perfect in virtue and contemplation attains to the “nearest likeness possible to God and his son.” Clement is not at all endorsing heretical Gnosticism but rather is insisting on how gnosis is “a perfecting of man as man, [which is] consummated by acquaintance with divine things,” for by gnosis is faith perfected” (VII.10) In brief, the “gnostic soul, adorned with perfect virtue, is the earthly image of the divine power” (VII.11). The “life of the gnostic,” in Clement’s own view, is “nothing but deeds and words corresponding to the tradition of the Lord” (VII.16).(8)Arthur Versluis Magic and Mysticism: an Introduction to Western Esotericism.  Pg. 37

Perhaps too much is being emphasized out of these words. Origen quotes I Corinthians 12:8-10 in the Header 48 “ἄλλῳ δὲ λόγος γνώσεως” and it simply means gnôsis as knowledge with no hidden, secret or divine meaning. The Septuagint also reflects this with epistêmê meaning only knowledge, ἐν πολλῷ χρόνῳ σοφία, ἐν δὲ πολλῷ βίῳ ἐπιστήμη.” “In length of time is wisdom, and in long life knowledge.”(9)As found at Elpenos Job 12:12

The modern Pentecostal movement may provide a clue. They make this distinction. There is an intellectual knowing, which is the result of using ones deductive reasoning and then there is knowing — a type of knowledge that changes ones perceptions and decision making processes, resulting in transformation, personal growth and changed behaviour. It is the prime impulse that motivates the Christian life and witness. It is not necessarily possessed by those with intellectual ability. They also believe that the intellect on occasion can impede the real knowing.

One also has to factor in two more important things: Origen was firstly a Christian religious zealot, and he not only was influenced by Greek philosophy, but by Jewish writings as well. He cannot be interpreted solely from classical Greek influences but all three. There isn’t strong enough evidence to demonstrate that Origen departed substantially from the Biblical use, but it is fair to assume a slight shift had occurred based on his play of gnôsis against eidenai, but not to the degree many of the above authors have suggested. With these above in mind Origen means gnôsis to be simply knowledge, the type that changes ones world-view and thought processes, ultimately being expressed in action. This is why Clement could write, “the gnostic alone is truly pious”.(10)IBID. Arthur Versluis, Magic and mysticism: an introduction to Western Esotericism.Pg. 37 So it is best to be left as ‘knowledge’. Eidenai is simply a factual knowing. ‘Grasping’ or ‘comprehending’ may be the most suitable English words as it refers the attempt to understand something from an intellectual perspective. Epistêmê is the skill, art or expertise in acquiring facts.

One must understand as well that Origen wasn’t trying to use mysterious philosophical words in his time to illustrate some esoteric christian life. He was attempting to be very practical. His concern in his coverage of I Corinthians was not in the literalness of the text but a personal application; how a person can be transformed and make positive decisions for daily living.■

References   [ + ]

Antisemitism in the Ancient Church

Trying to make sense out of the antisemitism found in a large corpus of Christian literature.

If anyone begins to read ecclesiastical writings with keen interest, it will be inevitable that one has to struggle with the anti-semitic remarks in ancient Christian literature. Anti-semitism is an over-simplification. This was a small part of a much larger problem. The church viewed anyone outside of the christian community as less-than-human especially Scythians (Russian type of peoples). The political and military aspirations of Christianity in some epochs sought to annihilate any person or communities that that did not embrace its message. Jews were lucky, due to their theological history, and were often spared. Although they got to live, they were second class citizens. At least they could tell their story of oppression. The many other pagans and whole unclassified communities who refused to convert have stories that will never be told.

Many familiar with Patristics will normally go first to the thoughts of John Chrysostom and will surprisingly find that he held the Jewish people with contempt. If he spoke today and wrote contemporary pieces on the Church and Jews, he would be charged with a hate crime under Canadian law.

It may be fairer to treat him in a little better light, but not much more. His intentions were defensive more than offensive because Judaism was a competing religion for his adherents. There existed at that time a warm relationship between Christianity and Judaism that allowed both parties to freely intermingle on many points, and there was a strong attraction by many of his adherents to Judaism. This proved to be a great challenge to Chrysostom to address. It was not a case of the stereotyped lowly Jew versus the Goliath of the Graeco-Roman Christian religion. It was a match of equals.

Antioch had a history of good community and Jewish relations, which undermined Chrysostom’s and the Church’s influence.

The following is a demonstration of how he reacted, and it is ugly:

“But the synagogue is not only a brothel and a theater; it also is a den of robbers and a lodging for wild beasts. Jeremiah said: “Your house has become for me the den of a hyena”. He does not simply say “of wild beast”, but “of a filthy wild beast”, and again: “ have abandoned my house, I have cast off my inheritance”. But when God forsakes a people, what hope of salvation is left? When God forsakes a place, that place becomes the dwelling of demons.”(1)Chrysostom. Against the Jews. Homily 1, 3:1.

Chrysostom vehemently wanted to break the relationship for his own political purposes:

“Many, I know, respect the Jews and think that their present way of life is a venerable one. This is why I hasten to uproot and tear out this deadly opinion. I said that the synagogue is no better than a theater and I bring forward a prophet as my witness. Surely the Jews are not more deserving of belief than their prophets. “You had a harlot’s brow; you became shameless before all”. Where a harlot has set herself up, that place is a brothel.”(2)IBID. Chrysostom. Against the Jews. Homily 1, 3:1.

Another clue that motivated Chrysostom’s posture was a third group called the Anomoeans:

“And so it is that I hasten to anticipate this danger and prevent it. This is what physicians do. They first check the diseases which are most urgent and acute. But the danger from this sickness is very closely related to the danger from the other; since the Anomoeans’ impiety is akin to that of the Jews, my present conflict is akin to my former one. And there is a kinship because the Jews and the Anomoeans make the same accusation. And what charges do the Jews make? That He called God His own Father and so made Himself equal to God. The Anomoeans also make this charge—I should not say they make this a charge; they even blot out the phrase “equal to God” and what it connotes, by their resolve to reject it even if they do not physically erase it.”(3)IBID Chrysostom. Against the Jews. Homily1, 1:6

This group appears to be a popular quasi-Christian group that integrated both Christian and Jewish elements together and re-defined the Trinity.

One must understand also that Chrysostom had no patience or mercy for anyone or any faith outside of the Christian message.(4)Chrysostom. Homilies Against the Jews. Homily 1, 4:9

Chrysostom’s message against the Jews contradicts the positive and warm relationship with the Jewish community espoused by Origen – a Church leader whom he respected.(5)The Jews in the Writings of Origen

Chrysostom was also known to have a brazen tongue and little tolerance for those even within the Church. He was banished for virulent language against a benefactor and leader, the Empress Eudoxia. He took contest against her because she erected a lavish statue of herself. He made some scathing remarks in regards to this(6)“Again Herodias raves; again she is troubled; she dances again; and again desires to receive John’s head in a charger.” Schaff, Philip ed. NPNF2-02. Socrates and Sozomenus Ecclesiastical Histories by Salaminius Hermias Sozomen and Socrates of Constaninople. Pg. 150 and was banished to Armenia for this protestation.(7)

The over-zealousness of his rhetoric inside and outside the Church and his subsequent banishment labeled him an extremist by his own peers. This person cannot be held as the definitive example of Jewish-Christian, or any other Church relation. Neither can he be held as a representative of the official Church position during his time or any other.

The Jewish based The Encyclopedia Judaica also believes there were both negative and favourable relations between the Jewish and Christian communities in the third and fourth centuries. It wasn’t a scene that can be pictured as black and white antisemitism.

This did change over time. The complete separation of Greek Christianity from its Jewish foundation can be traced back to the emperor Constantine, who issued a decree over the celebration of Easter:

“under the 79th header, which is the first Council of Antioch itself, this is expressed with these words, “If anyone would be bold enough to change the definition of the holy and great council which was by the Nicean gathering, in the present devout and reverenced leader Constantine, regarding the solemn healing of the passover, we assess those to be excommunicated and banished of the Church, if then they should remain unmoved, obstinately against that which they have decreed as good. And this also was decried to the laity. If then those who are presiding over the Church,either episcopates, presbyters, deacons, should attempt to alter this definition, through the subversion of people and disturbance of the Church, to separately gather, and to celebrate the Passover with the Jews, this holy synod declares this (person) a stranger from the Church. Not only himself but any who should proceed to cause with manifold corruption and agitation. Not only are such kind removed by a minister, but also those who should attempt to communicate afterwards with the damned, they are damned.”(8)My own translation taken from, Liber de Paschate: Praefatio

This was the official beginning of legal ostracization of the Jews from the Christian realm and the loss of any Jewish identity within the movement — a movement originally founded by them.

Why such a strong statement? If the Jewish people were recognized as the people of God and holders of the oracles of God, then two possibilities could occur:

  • The power of religion, which was the base of any governmental authority in ancient times, would shift from Rome to Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders would be the ones establishing law, spiritual piety and directing the national social conscience. This would undermine the Roman governmental system.

  • The Romans and the Greek populace with such pride in their own identity could not be forced to adapt to a foreign religion belonging to a minor territory. They would naturally overthrow any monarchy or leadership that proposed such a thing.

The only option the Roman leadership had to retain their own power and integrate the originating Jewish faith into their own system was to scrub out the Jewish element and make it into a Greek identity.

And that is what Constantine started with the decree.

Neither Chrysostom nor Constantine can be declared official icons of fourth century Jewish-Christian dialogue. There were other powerful voices within the Church which promoted a different position.

Epiphanius, the fourth century Bishop of Salamis, wrote a book called the Panarion which was a polemic against certain groups that contested or challenged the institutional Church teachings. This writing is at times written in a condemning tone, almost a street-level vernacular. There are numerous references to Jews and movements within Judaism, but Epiphanius refrains from any serious attack on standard Judaism.

This isn’t always the case.

For example the Ambrosiaster document, first written in the fourth century and emendated up to the 13th illustrated Jews as antithetical to the Christian message. The Ambrosiaster writer(s) used the Jews as an abstract illustration of what one must not be.

Some go as far to say that the New Testament has an anti-semitic bias to it, especially from the book of John onwards. This may be taking it too far. Rabbi Dr. Pesach Schindler, a professor at the Hebrew University, directed another approach. He specifically addressed our Introductory Talmud class on the subject of antisemitism in the Bible, “You have to realize this was in-house fight.” The discussions in the New Testament are for the most part hostile tensions between various Jewish groups and individuals who were shooting fiery barbs at each other over Jewish legal issues. Third parties who are not Jewish that read these accounts can easily take it out of context.

This may be too simplistic, as the Book of John does appear in places to be written from a non-Jewish perspective and for a non-Jewish audience. It could easily be interpreted as critical of the Jewish race. One passage in particular, John 8:44 where Jesus stated, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire,” has given special license to many ignorant Christian leaders, movements and peoples over the centuries to treat Jewish people maliciously. Prof. Van der Horst, a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences cites this as one of the most destructive passages:

“In later Christian literature, that expression is picked up. This fatal short remark has had lethal consequences over two millennia. It cost tens of thousands of Jewish lives in later history, especially in the Middle Ages. This verse was taken by Christian Jew-haters as a license to murder Jews. These murderers thought: ‘If Jesus says that Jews have the devil as their father, we should eradicate them as best as we can.’

…I once argued before an audience of Christian ministers that if we were to confront John with the consequences of what he wrote, he would deeply apologize and say, ‘Please, delete it from my Gospel.’ Until the present day these words have their influence, because the average Bible reader cannot contextualize them in the first century when they were written.”(9)

It is not the actual problem of the Johanine writing, but the selective interpretation of it.

The great eighth century European ruler, Charlemagne, forced conversions on all his defeated territories. If they refused, they would be killed, regardless if they were Jews or otherwise. This brought on the ire of Alcuin of York who entreated Charlemagne that “that faith is a free act which cannot be enforced; that instruction, persuasion, love and self-denial are the only proper means for converting the heathen.”(10)History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. A.D. 590-1073.

Some would also want to single out the Jews as the object of Church oppression. This too is an overgeneralization. The Church had no respect for anyone who was not converted, whether it was a Barbarian German, Gaul, Spaniard, or a pagan. This was also extended to those within the Church realm too – Donatists, Montantists, Arianists, Marcionists, and the list goes on, were not treated much better. Those who were unconverted were considered less-than-human and did not have the same rights as those who were.

Chrysostom also reflected the spirit of the times. In this period the problem was not of antisemitism, but an issue of accepting a religion that did not have Greek or Roman origins, especially something as obscure as the Hebrew religion.

The Romans and Greeks considered the Hebrew religion unknown, foreign and non-Greek — everybody knew that the Greeks or to a lesser extent Romans were superior in every way. Nothing could originate outside of Greece or Rome that could be the center of their religion. The only way to make it universal within their world was to strip it of its Jewish identity, or any other nationality, and make it Graeco-Roman.

One must realize as well the writing style of the New Testament, which utilizes ‘the Jews’ in manifold ways within the texts was not written to mean from a non-Jewish standpoint. All the authors of the New Testament, with perhaps the exception of Luke, are Jewish. But then why is it written in such a third-party form? The Jewish historian Josephus utilized the same term, ‘the Jews’ in a similar context, as if he himself appeared to be a historian above Jewish bias, though his whole intention was to defend the Jewish people against antisemitism. This writing style is also found in the Talmud, though the frequency of usage is unknown,(11)Talmud Yerushalmi, Berakhot ix:1 as found in Ephraim E. Urbach. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Trans. by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1979. Pg. 81. Note here that R. Tanhuma was attempting to demonstrate the superiority of the Jewish religion over the Greek one. He recognized these two influences were in conflict. The New Testament writers were simply following the writing conventions of that time and it was not meant as a slight against the Jewish people.

What is one to make out of this? It is a human trait to want to lord over the vulnerable, the minorities, the poor, the widow, the orphan and rival groups. History is full of such examples of human nature. The Church has not been exempt. It is not simply a case against the Jews, but the Church’s stance against any group different than them. Other ethnic groups could also make a historical claim that they were discriminated against, but they were annihilated. The Jews escaping this pogrom because of their historic religious identity, still endured discrimination and were treated with lesser rights, but unlike the others, have lived to tell the story.

This is a dark part of our Christian heritage that many don’t know, or don’t want to know about. It is antithetic to the message Love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:38). Unfortunately the historic Church writings on the subject cannot be erased or rewritten. The only option is to use these as examples in the past as lessons in what not to do in building a better world.

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