Posted on

The Marcion Chronicles

At Thoughts on Antiquity, Ben C. Smith is just starting a series that promises to be very interesting. He’s covering the formation of the New Testament canon — that is, the official list of books accepted as Sacred Scripture, the books that could be read in the liturgy and cited as authorities. His first posting is up, and it covers the Marcionite canon. You might want a little background first…

Marcion was one of the most notorious — and devastatingly successful — heretics of the early Church. He believed that the creator of the Old Testament was not the same deity as the New Testament’s good God, the Father of Jesus Christ. In fact, Marcion set the two “gods” in opposition to one another: There was the evil creator who trapped and tormented humans in this vale of tears, and there was the good God who wanted to rescue his faithful from the clutches of the creator.

Marcion was fabulously wealthy, a shipbuilder. Think of George Steinbrenner, if he wanted to go one better than buying the Yankees, and start a church instead. Marcion was the son of the Bishop of Sinope (in modern Turkey), born around 110 A.D. As a young man, he led a devout life, but managed to get himself into trouble with a young woman who was consecrated to virginity. This infuriated his bishop-father, who excommunicated him. Marcion begged to be taken back, but his father feared the gravity of the scandal. So Marcion packed his moneybags and left for Rome.

To his credit, he seems to have sincerely repented of his sin and led a chaste life afterward. But there are worse sins, and Marcion soon fell to one in particular: the pride that makes a brilliant theologian want to reinvent Christianity or edit out the difficult parts. In Rome, Marcion attracted disciples by preaching against the Old Testament and its “god,” by impugning the Jews and their law, and by railing against marriage and childbearing, which only trapped more souls in this material world. His Bible, which was quite small, consisted of parts of Luke and the Pauline letters, with most of the Old Testament references clipped out.

Marcion’s money enabled him to get the word out, borne no doubt by his own ships to lands far away. Around 150, St. Justin Martyr wrote that Marcion’s heresy had already spread everywhere. A church so far-flung needed a structure, so the son-of-a-bishop set up his own clergy and hierarchy. Only the unmarried were allowed to be baptized.

Irenaeus reports that his own master, St. Polycarp (who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John), once met Marcion during a trip to Rome. Marcion asked the old man: “Don’t you recognize me?” Polycarp answered: “Of course I recognize you. You’re the firstborn of Satan.”

Tertullian tells us that Marcion eventually went penitent, and the Church accepted him back, but only on the condition that he should lead his wayward flock back with him. Death, however, prevented him from completing his penance. We don’t know when he died.

Marcion’s heresy continued to spread after his death, until Constantine made it illegal in the fourth century. Yet pockets of Marcionites remained in the hinterlands as late as the ninth century.

Even today, we find hints of Marcionism in otherwise devout Christians. They say, “I’m a New Testament Christian,” and they dismiss the teachings of the Old Testament. Or they speak of the law of Moses as if it’s the very antithesis of the Gospel — something Jesus never did. They act as if they have nothing to learn from the prophets or from Abraham and Isaac, Moses and David. Their religion is “me and Jesus,” but — like Marcion — they’re missing the religion of Jesus.

Posted on

Free Book

Bread and Circuses alerts the world to a 1913 Source Book for Ancient Church History from the Apostolic Age to the Close of the Conciliar Period, now posted online in PDF format. It’s a collection of primary texts in English translation, with minimal commentary, arranged by themes within the various periods. The book begins with Tacitus on Nero’s persecution and continues to the seventh ecumenical council, so we’re talking about the entire patristic era. The author is Joseph Cullen Ayer, Jr., Ph.D., professor in the divinity school of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. B&C describes the book as “moderately useful,” and he’s probably right, since quite a few documents have turned up since 1913, and others have been identified, dated, and edited with greater accuracy. Still, this collection’s free, and it doesn’t take up space on your bookshelves.

Posted on

‘Take My Life. Please.’

Today’s the feast of two martyrs named Genesius.

Our warm-up act is Genesius the Comedian (d. 286 or 303). With a name like that, who can resist? Genesius was the leader of a theatrical troupe in Rome, performing one day before the Emperor Diocletian The script called for these wise guys to make fun of the Christian rites, and Genesius was supposed to pretend to receive the Sacrament of Baptism. But a funny thing happened on the way to the punch line: When the water had been poured out on him, he proclaimed himself a Christian. Diocletian at first thought it was all part of the joke. But gradually it became clear that Genesius meant it. Suddenly, the emperor was not amused. For spoiling the party, Diocletian ordered the comedian to be tortured and then beheaded. Genesius must have had quite a following, though. We know that he was venerated at Rome as early as the fourth century: a church was built in his honor very early, and was repaired and beautified by Gregory III in 741.

And now for something completely different: Genesius of Arles was a notary martyred under Maximianus in 303 or 308. At first a soldier, this Genesius became known for his proficiency in writing, and was made secretary to the magistrate of Arles. While performing the duties of his office the decree of persecution against the Christians was read in his presence. As he himself was a catechumen, he was outraged at the injustice. He threw down his tablets at the feet of the magistrate and fled. He was captured and executed, and so received baptism in his own blood. His veneration must be very old, as his name is found in the ancient martyrology ascribed to St. Jerome. A church and altar dedicated to him at Arles were known in the fourth century.

Posted on

The Holy Grail of Brazil

Good news for those of you who’ve been waiting sleeplessly for the Brazilian Portuguese edition of The Grail Code. It’s here. I’m holding it in my hands. Here’s the good word:

“O Código Graal”, Mike Aquilina e Christopher Bailey vão muito além das versões popularizadas por historiadores e arqueólogos sobre a busca do Graal,um tema recorrente, mas não menos instigante na literatura ocidental. A busca pelo cálice usado por Jesus na Última Ceia e, depois, por José de Arimatéia para recolher o sangue de Cristo crucificado impulsiona as lendas sobre o Rei Arthur, estimulou as maiores aventuras de Indiana Jones e mobilizou as pessoas a virarem as páginas de “O Código Da Vinci”. “O Código Graal” representa um tratamento lúcido para as lendas do Graal, baseado na história real, sem falsas teorias conspiratórias ou elementos da mitologia céltica. Para discorrer sobre a história verdadeira do Santo Graal, os autores estudaram séculos de crenças sobre a Santa Comunhão – da Palestina de Jesus Cristo até a Grã-Bretanha nas sombras da Idade Média, das cortes coloridas da França medieval até a Alemanha de Hitler -, a história da literatura européia e as diferentes idéias de amor e pecado. Ao fundamentar as lendas em seu contexto histórico e teológico, os autores, ambos jornalistas, corrigem grande parte das distorções da lenda, tal qual a conhecemos hoje, e mostram por que ela se tornou tão popular e como mudou ao longo do tempo.

I find it for sale — and immediate shipment — right here.

Posted on

Bart from the Start

Today is the feast of St. Bartholomew, who’s called Nathanael in John’s Gospel (Jn 1:45-51). St. Augustine paid tribute to our apostle in his Tractates on the Gospel of John. Here’s a snippet:

What sort of a man was this? … Hear the Lord bearing testimony to Nathanael: “Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!'” Great testimony! Not of Andrew, nor of Peter, nor of Philip was that said which was said of Nathanael, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile.” What great testimony! What was said of Nathanael was said not of Andrew, nor Peter, nor Philip, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile.” …

Jesus then saw this man in whom was no guile, and said, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile.” Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered and said to Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” … His words, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel,” were not dissimilar to those of Peter so long afterwards, when the Lord said to him, “Blessed art you, Simon Bar Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed it to you, but My Father in heaven.” And there He named the rock, and praised the strength of the Church’s support in this faith. Here already Nathanael says, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

Read the rest here (scroll down to number 16 and following).

(Today’s also my firstborn‘s birthday. He attained the mighty rank of Star Scout last night.)

Posted on

Meme of Noble Descent

The Curt Jester tagged me for this meme. But it’s only right to trace its lineage back to Michelle Arnold of Catholic Answers, who took her inspiration from no less than Brooke Shields. Brookie had bragged to a reporter that her family tree included Catherine de Medici and Lucrezia Borgia, Charlemagne and El Cid, William the Conqueror and King Harold II.

I did a little digging on genealogy sites a few years back. All my grandparents hailed from two little villages in Sicily, and a priest in the area told me that those villages had been settlements of refugees from Napoleon’s invasion of Malta. Since “Aquilina” is to Malta what “Smith” is to Pittsburgh, his history seems plausible. One of the leaders of Malta’s resistance against Napoleon was Salvo Aquilina, who was executed for his efforts. Maybe Salvo’s survivors weren’t as eager to go to the gallows, and so took the midnight boat to Sicily instead.

My correspondence with Aquilinas throughout the world has turned up an Aquilina in the rolls of Byzantine nobility, and a deed from the 1670s that refers to a parcel of land granted to the Aquilinas in the 1430s. If Malta still wants me, I’m ready to claim that land.

As for other famous forebears … Well, readers of this blog already know all about St. Aquilina of Byblos. She’s got the name, but we’ve yet to draw DNA from her relics. So I can’t claim her yet.

But all this is connected by dotted lines (or imaginary lines), since I didn’t do anything resembling real research. My father long ago warned me: “Don’t shake the family tree too hard, you never know what’ll fall out.”

As my “research” stands, it permits me to imagine a lineage even more illustrious than Brookie’s. Heck, everybody owned Sicily for a month — Athenians, Byzantines, Germans, Africans, Arabs. And how about Malta? St. Paul and St. Luke, the Knights Templar — I could be a walking Da Vinci Code.

Thus I proceed with this meme, assuming, like Dan Brown, that everything I declare is FACT.

1. Which famous person would you most like to learn that you are descended from? St. Mary Magdalene. Even in reality, what a bloodline that would be!

2. Which famous person would you hate to learn that you are descended from? Nero. He was about as creepy a guy as I can imagine. The London Observer recently summed him up as “a psychopathic, debauched, wife-beating matricide.”

3. If you could be ancestor to any living famous person, who would it be and why? My son Michael, because he wrote a great book on St. Jude, which made him world-famous on the street where I live.

4. If you could go back in time and meet any known ancestor(s) of yours, who would it be? My grandfather, Calogero. My accurate genealogical information ends with him. He was a coal miner and, later, a school janitor, who was so beloved in our town that his obituary was a full-page news item in 1926, thirty-seven years before I was born.

5. Tag five others: you, you, you, you, and you.

Posted on

Five People Meme

The Divine Lamp tagged me for the “Five People Meme.” The question is: “If you could meet and have a deep conversation with any five people on earth, living or dead, from any time period, who would they be?” It’s hard to know what to make of the question. Some of my favorite authors (William Faulkner, Robert Frost) were not known for their sparkling and genial conversation. (Come to think of it, neither am I.) And I don’t know if I could emerge alive from a conversation with Evelyn Waugh or St. Jerome. I can’t imagine what I’d say to St. Augustine, other than “Can I have your autograph — and your blessing?” So some folks probably made my lists just because I know precious little about their biographies or personalities — or because I’ve heard one or two anecdotes that make them seem to be good company. As for the celebrities: At least for some of them, I’d like our conversations to turn into lessons. If I could host all five of them at once, it would make for quite a jam session.

1) The Blessed Virgin Mary (Hi, Mom)
2) St. Josemaria Escriva
3) St. Maximilian Kolbe
4) St. Ambrose of Milan
5) St. Ignatius of Antioch

1) Alvaro del Portillo
2) Solanus Casey
3) John Henry Newman
4) Pope John Paul II
5) Pope John Paul I

1) St. John Neumann
2) Bl. Francis X. Seelos
3) Bishop Michael O’Connor
4) Demetrius Gallitzin
5) Boniface Wimmer

1) Theodore Roethke
2) Wilfrid Sheed
3) David Scott
4) Phyllis McGinley
5) Flannery O’Connor

1) Paul Simon
2) Dion DiMucci
3) Eric Clapton
4) Scott Hahn
5) Rod Argent

Posted on

War Wounds

The ancient Lebanese port of Byblos “has survived the Romans, the Crusades and the armies of Alexander the Great but now it faces a 21st century menace, brought to its shores on a tide of war — oil pollution.” A heavy oil slick, produced by the bombing of a power plant, is now lapping at the old city’s fortified stone walls. It’s an estimated 10,000-15,000 tons of oil washing up on an 87-mile stretch of coastline. (Read more of the story here.)

A few months back, we posted on St. Aquilina, Byblos’s famous little-girl martyr of the third century. Pray for Lebanon. Pray for peace.

Posted on

St. Neon: Light in a Dark Time

Neon and his brothers Claudius and Asterius met their death in the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian (around 303 A.D.). Their stepmother denounced them as Christians to the proconsul of Cilicia, who tortured them and had them crucified. On the same day, a woman named Domnina chose to be scourged to death rather than renounce the faith. A widow named Theonilla was scourged before meeting her death by burial in hot coals.

All you holy men and women, pray for us!

Posted on

Friends, Romans, Christians … in Ancient India?

Back in July, I posted on the traditions of St. Thomas the Apostle’s work in India, suggesting a strong case for their plausibility, given the state of Roman trade with India in the mid-first century. Recent archeological excavations confirm what we read in the ancient geographers and naturalists: Rome was dependent on India’s spices, textiles, gems, dyes, and perfumes. Moreover, there were already well established Jewish settlements in India, and the synagogues would have been natural starting points for Thomas, as the synagogues of Europe were for other apostles.

Now come further hints that the evidence for Roman commerce has been plentiful all along, but suppressed. Pottery, coins, and other artifacts turn up regularly, but people in the villages would rather not have archeologists disrupt their lives (certainly a difficult situation). Rumor has it, too, that nationalist movements do not welcome evidence of ancient Indian Christianity or contact with the Roman West. It’s un-PC. Thus, the best policy is often to sweep the shards under the porch.

IOL carried a story yesterday, “Ancient Indian Port Faces Extinction,” by Jeemon Jacob. It concerns a village in Kerala, a region traditionally associated with St. Thomas’s apostolate. In fact, it concerns a port that might have been St. Thomas’s landing in India. Excerpts follow:

Pattanam, India — Pottery shards, beads, Roman copper coins and ancient wine bottles litter the strata beneath this small seaside village in India’s southern Kerala state.

The 250 families, mostly agricultural labourers, who live in Pattanam, 260km north of Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram, find the objects pretty, but would rather dig up the ground and build larger homes.

But according to archaeologists KP Shajan and V Selvakumar, they may be destroying the remnants of Muziris, a well-documented trading port where Rome and India met almost 3 000 years ago.

Muziris mysteriously dropped off the map.

They say that, based on remote sensing data, a river close to Pattanam had changed its course and the ancient port may have been buried due to earthquakes or floods.

The two are worried construction activity in the village will destroy evidence about the existence of the port before they get the chance to examine it scientifically.

“There is no doubt that Pattanam was a major port that is linked to Indo-Roman trade,” Shajan said. “But we can’t confirm whether it was Muziris. We need more collaborative evidence to support our findings.”

A majority of the families that live in Pattanam are demolishing old tiled-roof structures and replacing them with concrete buildings right in the middle of the 1,5km zone where Shajan and Selvakumar say Muziris was possibly located.

Muziris was a port city mentioned in several ancient travelogues and scholarly texts as a major centre of trade between India and Rome, especially in pepper and other spices around the second century BC to probably as late as the sixth century AD.

Christianity may have been introduced to the sub-continent through Muziris, historians say. But Muziris mysteriously dropped off the map – maybe to war, plague, or disaster.

The two archaeologists say they want to find out for sure and have asked local preservation groups to help.

Kerala’s Historical Research Council, an independent body that promotes research in history, says it has written to the Archaeological Survey of India, which is in charge of protecting monuments and historical places, to take steps to protect Pattanam.

But KV Kunjikrishnan, a professor of history, says neither the government nor the Archaeological Survey of India has responded.

“The construction activity in the area may destroy vital evidence of historical importance,” says Kunjikrishnan.

Pattanam housewife Sheeba Murali says ancient beads pop out from the ground after heavy rains and the 30-year-old history graduate, like some other villagers, collects them and hands them over to the archaeologists.

Villagers say they used to get gold coins from the site, but kept the finds quiet.

“Nobody admits whatever things they get. We are scared that the government may take over our land for archaeological survey,” says villager Arun Rajagopal.

It was from Rajagopal’s land that the two archaeologists discovered beads, layer of bricks, wine bottles, jars, pendants and copper coins.

Selvakumar says the ancient bricks, which the villagers used to build their homes, bore a close resemblance to those used 2 500 years ago.

“During my excavations I collected a wide range of pottery which goes back to the historic date. Amphorae, roulette ware, beads, nails and several other artefacts such as copper coins were also recovered,” he says.

But Sheeba says villagers will continue building new homes.

“My children need a decent place to stay when they grow up. But I am thrilled to live in a place where history sleeps,” she says.

I’d quibble with the estimate of 2,500-3,000 years ago. Roman trade with India seems to have begun to boom right around the middle of the first century, with the discovery of the trade winds that made open-sea sailing possible. Other than that, the story — like so much of the painstaking Indian research I mentioned in my July post — gives us a clearer vision of a certain world, a lost world — a world where, I believe, St. Thomas walked.

UPDATE: Bread and Circuses posts links to useful background material on the port of Muziris.

Posted on

The Queenship of Mary

Today’s feast, the Queenship of Mary, was fixed on the calendar by Pope Pius XII in 1954. But, of course, it has deep roots in the age of the Fathers. In the fourth century, St. Ephrem addressed the Blessed Virgin as “Queen.” In the eighth, so did St. Andrew of Crete, who called her “queen of the whole human race.” But my favorite Father on Mary’s queenship is St. John of Damascus, a contemporary of St. Andrew. In his Three Sermons on the Dormition of the Virgin, St. John imagines King David, who danced before the Ark of the Covenant, dancing as Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant, arrives in heaven. Such should be our festive attitude on this great day. St. John says: “Let us dance in spirit with David; today the Ark of God is at rest. With Gabriel, the great archangel, let us exclaim, ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Hail, inexhaustible ocean of grace. Hail, sole refuge in grief. Hail, cure of hearts. Hail, through whom death is expelled and life is installed.'”

If you’re so inclined, you can pick up audio of St. John’s first homily on the Dormition at the site of Maria Lectrix.