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Sub-Saharan Patristics

While I was out of town, the New York Times ran a long and fascinating travel piece on Christian Ethiopia, “Ethiopia Opens Its Doors, Slowly,” by Joshua Hammer. It ran on September 17, so it will only be free for a couple more days. Check it out.

Hammer takes us on “what Ethiopians call ‘the historic tour’ — a several-day circuit through ancient Christian kingdoms that flourished in the northern highlands beginning in the fourth century A.D. According to legend, Syrian monks crossed the Red Sea then and converted the Aksumite king, Ezana, from paganism to Christianity.”

He visits sites whose religious significance goes back even further than that. Ethiopia’s Jewish community traces its origins to Solomon’s philosophical dalliance with the Queen of Sheba. And that was a full millennium before the Ethiopian eunuch made his remarkable appearance in the Acts of the Apostles.

Our guide treks to sixth-century monasteries as well as the country’s famous monolithic churches — carved out of a single mass of rock. He even hovers near “The Treasury,” where Ethiopian monks claim to house the real Ark of the Covenant (pace Indiana Jones). “No one but a single monk is allowed to see the sacred artifact — and few people are permitted to see him — though replicas, known as tabots, are brought out once a year for the Timkat celebration of Christ’s baptism on Jan. 19.”

Hammer describes the liturgy and architecture with respect, if not quite reverence. Do you remember Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom”? Well, Hammer’s tone reminded me, just a little, of Marlin Perkins’ voice-over explanation of the mating rituals of caribou. But, for the New York Times on religion, that’s pretty good. I found only one real groaner, in the author’s description of “Ethiopian Christianity, which combines belief in the Holy Trinity with some of the myths and the symbols of the Old Testament.” I mean, don’t all Christians do that? (Pace Marcion.)

The story‘s worth the trip. A pilgrimage would be even better.

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Today’s the feast of St. Matthew, the evangelist who got the New Testament off to a royal start. The Fathers testify, overwhelmingly, that Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew (or maybe an Aramaic dialect). A witness of Matthew’s own generation, Papias said: “Matthew composed the oracles in the Hebrew dialect, and everyone interpreted them as he was able.” Irenaeus echoes: “Matthew among the Hebrews did also publish a Gospel in writing in their own language.” The Sicilian Bee, St. Pantaenus, went to India, where he found converted Jews who read “the writing of Matthew in Hebrew letters.” In the third century, the critical scholar Origen gave his two cents: “the first Gospel was written by Matthew … who delivered it to the Jewish believers, composed in the Hebrew language.”

Here’s Jerome’s entry on Matthew, from his profiles of illustrious men:

Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria, who use it. In this it is to be noted that wherever the Evangelist, whether on his own account or in the person of our Lord the Savior, quotes the testimony of the Old Testament he does not follow the authority of the translators of the Septuagint but the Hebrew. Wherefore these two forms exist “Out of Egypt have I called my son, ” and “for he shall be called a Nazarene.”

If you’re looking for an excellent, short study edition of Matthew, with ample light from the Fathers, try this one.

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Go to Cleveland

Yesterday, I drove with David Scott to see the exhibit “Cradle of Christianity” at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s an overwhelming experience. In one large room, we saw the casket of Caiaphas, the only surviving inscription of Pontius Pilate, a very early Christian altar and baptismal font, plus reliquaries, chalices, crosses — and a very large portion of the Temple Scroll from Qumran. The exhibit closes soon. If you can drive there, please do. You don’t want to miss this rare opportunity to stand so close to the material remains of Christianity’s origins.

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That which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands

The Fathers of the Church

The new edition is here!

I don’t own a copy yet, but I saw three crates destined for the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, whose good folks are handing over a copy to anyone who donates $50 or more (and asks for one).

New in this edition are writers from the Syriac and Coptic traditions and from the lands of modern Africa, Iraq, and Iran. I’ve added eleven more ancient writers and beefed up the sections dedicated to Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen. In a concession to my academic friends — and as an acknowledgment that the book is widely used as a college text — I’ve also added endnote references for all quotations. I’ve added an index. And I’ve expanded the recommended-reading section, which is now more than twice as large as in the first edition, and now subdivided and annotated.

Here’s advance notice from some critics I admire:

“The first edition of this book rather quickly established itself as the standard popular introduction to the Fathers. This new edition raises the standard. . . Aquilina shows us the Fathers as true fathers, and he demonstrates their crucial role as witnesses to Sacred Tradition — indispensable guides to the Church’s interpretation of Scripture. They are witnesses to our continuity with the apostles, and to the unity and universality of the apostolic faith. Yet, as we see in this book, they are not uniform voices. Theirs is a rich diversity that enhances unity. What Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were for Israel, the Fathers are for the Church. Reading this book, one grows more Catholic by the page. It will surely be a classic.”
Scott Hahn, Ph.D.
Pope Benedict XVI Chair in Biblical Theology and Liturgical Proclamation
St. Vincent Seminary, Latrobe, Pa.

“Too many Christians suffer from historical amnesia. The Church very much needs a popular rediscovery of the early Fathers, and this book admirably makes such a discovery possible. It will be of great benefit to numerous Christians.”
Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap.
Honorary Theological Fellow, Greyfriars, Oxford
Capuchin College, Washington, D.C.

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Maria Monk in Her Scriptorium (and Auditorium)

Maria Lectrix has been a busy little Buckeye, posting audio files of St. Gregory the Great’s “Pastoral Care” and St. Augustine’s “On Catechizing the Unlearned” — not to mention her ongoing Aswan Dam-sized project of reading St. Irenaeus’s “Against Heresies.” The iPod was made for this.

She has also transcribed several dozen more pages of Thomas Livius’s great work on The Blessed Virgin in the Fathers of the First Six Centuries.

This lady is, without a doubt, the Cassiodorus of western Ohio.

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Circus Maximus

I just returned from vacation to find plenty of good entertainment at Adrian Murdoch’s excellent blog, Bread and Circuses.

He points to an online translation of a sixth-century life of Joshua the Stylite.

He treats us to St. Gregory Nazianzen’s splenetic description of the emperor Julian the Apostate.

And he piles on more archeological evidence for Roman trade with India in the first centuries A.D. See here, too.

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Fathers in the Myst

Some years ago, Scott Hahn and I put together a guided anthology of the Church Fathers titled Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians. We culled 50 meditations from the works of eight Fathers — six of those Fathers were also Doctors of the Church — and all of our selections had something in common.

What was that something? (Take a deep breath now.) They were mystagogical.

That’s a big word, and it’s unfamiliar to many modern Catholics. But both the word and the thing it represents were an integral part of the life of the early Christians.

The early Church had a clear process by which seekers found a teacher, and the teacher guided them gradually through stages of inquiry, purification, and illumination. The process could take several years, and it culminated in a final phase called mystagogy (pronounced MIST-uh-go-gee), which literaly means the “revelation of the mysteries.” What are the “mysteries” revealed in mystagogy? The mysteries are the sacraments, which are themselves revelations of God’s eternal mystery that surpasses all understanding (see Eph 3:19). Everything in the earthly life of Jesus was a sign of that mystery (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 515); and now, in the age of the Church, the mysteries of Christ’s life have passed over into the sacramental mysteries.

In the process of initiation, the goal was divinization through the sacraments, but doctrine was an indispensable means to that end. St. Basil defined out goal this way: “as far as humanly possible, to be made like God. Without knowledge, though, we cannot be made like Him; and knowledge cannot be achieved without lessons.”

As the last phase of initiation, mystagogy came only after the seeker was no longer a seeker, but a Christian — newborn to divine life in baptism and made one with Christ in Holy Communion. Indeed, all the previous stages served as needed preparation for the last. Only a purified mind and body could be worthy vessels of the mysteries. Only an enlightened soul could “see” the invisible reality that is present in every sacrament.

Yet it was the promise of this end that drew the seekers onward through the long and sometimes grueling course of learning and purification. The mystery of God, after all, is ultimately what attracted them to the faith, though it had been only glimpsed — as through a glass, darkly — in the rites and prayers of the Church.

Even today, what draws many people to the faith is the very stuff of mystagogy: the Church’s rituals, its ancient tradition, its mystical life, its rich interpretation of the Bible, and the bold promise of communion with God. Mystagogy, then, is the fulfillment of all the teaching that has gone before, and is the only suitable conclusion to that teaching.

Yet mystagogy is also the work of a lifetime, and the words of the Church Fathers are always timely witnesses to the Christian meaning of current events, of the sacraments, and of our own inner lives.

In the mystagogical homilies of the great doctors of the early Church — Basil, Ambrose, Cyril, Chrysostom, and Augustine — we recognize the sacramental rites of our own times. There is little difference between the prayers explicated by St. Ambrose, for example, and the prayer we today call the Roman Canon.

And these Father-Doctors preached with the grace to stir our souls, even after more than a millennium and a half. In the fourth century, a pilgrim from Spain witnessed the mystagogy in St. Cyril’s church, and she wrote down what she saw for her friends at home: “While the bishop discusses and sets forth each point, the voices of those who applaud are so loud that they can be heard outside the church. And truly the mysteries are so unfolded that there is no one unmoved at the things that he hears to be so explained.”

Read St. Cyril today, and see if you can hold back the applause. Then move on to Ambrose, Chrysostom, Augustine …

It’s all conveniently packaged for you in Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians.

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Roman Roundup

In the year 64, a huge fire destroyed a large part of the city of Rome. Nero was Emperor at the time, and the rumor spread that he had started the fire himself, then “fiddled while Rome burned.” Nero was the sort of Emperor you could believe wild rumors about. He certainly did take advantage of the destruction: he built himself a gigantic palace on land cleared by the fire.

The Empire had no official policy on Christianity. There were local persecutions, but nothing so far had been dictated by the Emperor himself. But Nero needed someone to blame. Since the Christians were an unpopular cult, he accused them of setting the fire. Then he set about killing as many as he could get his hands on. Some were crucified in the usual way, but Nero could be much more imaginative than that. He liked to think of himself as an artist, and he applied all his creativity to the art of killing Christians.

Some of them were sewn up in animal skins and thrown to hungry wild dogs. Others were doused with pitch and became human torches for Nero’s garden parties. Even Tacitus, the pagan historian who hated Christians and thought they all deserved to die, was appalled by Nero’s cruelty. Tacitus pointed out that Nero’s methods had one effect no one had counted on: ordinary Romans started to have sympathy for the Christians, who met such horrible and unjustified punishments so heroically.

In the midst of these horrors, Peter and Paul both came to Rome—Paul in chains, Peter willingly. Eusebius tells us that they both died on the same day.

Peter was crucified. This time, he didn’t deny Jesus or try to run away. He made only one request: he asked his executioners to crucify him upside-down. He said he wasn’t worthy to die the same way as his Lord.

Paul, who was a Roman citizen, couldn’t be crucified. That was one of the privileges of being a citizen. Instead, he was beheaded—a quick, neat death, compared to the slow agony of crucifixion.

Nero’s persecution established a precedent for the persecutions to come. From now on, Christianity was a more-or-less illegal cult, and the punishment for it was death. But it also made the Christians much more visible, and it made them objects of sympathy. By creating so many martyrs, Nero may well have been responsible for thousands of conversions.

Nero’s persecution had set the official face of the Empire against the Christians. But the Romans had as yet no official policy against Christianity as such. For the next few decades, where persecutions broke out, they were usually responses to popular riots against the Christians—riots which the authorities blamed on the Christians.

So Christians lived in an uneasy uncertainty. They might live their lives in peace, or they might be called upon suddenly to give up everything for the sake of Christ. There was no way to know. And yet more and more pagans were turning Christian all the time. As the Good News spread outward from Palestine, it seemed to encounter everywhere huge numbers of people who had been waiting to hear it.

The persecutions stopped at the end of Domitian’s reign. Nerva, a virtuous and kindly Emperor, succeeded him, and he allowed all the Christians who had been exiled to return to their homes—including the ancient Apostle John, who returned to Ephesus from his exile on the remote island of Patmos. But virtuous and kindly Emperors didn’t usually last long, and in a little over a year Nerva was succeeded by Trajan, who renewed the persecutions. Still, Trajan wasn’t about to have a bloodbath on his hands, and he set the policy that would become the law for more than a century after him.

Trajan’s policy is preserved in a letter he sent to his friend Pliny, who had been sent to sort out problems in Bithynia in the year 111. Pliny had asked what to do about the Christians he found there. Trajan’s answer was very sensible, from the pagan point of view: “There’s no one rule that will cover every case. Don’t go looking for these people. But if someone points them out and they are found guilty, they must be punished; except that if the accused denies that he is a Christian, and proves he isn’t by worshipping the gods, he should be pardoned for reforming, no matter how suspicious he might have been. But no anonymous accusations can be admitted in evidence against anyone; they set a very bad precedent and don’t suit our modern ideas.”

In other words, the Roman government had a don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy for Christians. The government wasn’t going to go looking for them. And anonymous accusations—of which there had been plenty, sometimes in the form of posters hung up in the middle of the night—would not be allowed. The only way a Christian could be arrested was if one of his enemies was willing to accuse him, and risk the serious penalties that went with bringing false charges. Even then, the Christian had a way out. If he renounced Christianity, he would be pardoned.

So most Christians could live their lives in peace most of the time. The threat of death was always hanging over them, but it was seldom carried out. Christianity spread rapidly under those conditions: life was not impossible for the average Christian, but the heroic witness of the famous martyrs kept enthusiasm high. For there were famous martyrs, even under Trajan’s mild reign.

The Church wasn’t always persecuted. While Rome disdained Christianity, full-scale purges took place only sporadically. Especially bloody persecutions happened during the reigns of Domitian (81-95), Trajan (98-117), Antoninus Pius (138-161), Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Septimius Severus (193-211), Decius (249-251), Valerian (253-260), Diocletian (284-305), and Galerius (305-311). In between, some of the Emperors were sympathetic or at least indifferent to Christians, so there were long periods of peace. When Philip the Arab became Emperor in 244, rumor had it that he was actually a Christian. If that’s true, Philip deserves the honor of being called the first Christian emperor. Christian or not, he encouraged the Church to grow and prosper—which made the persecution under his successor, Decius, all the more terrible.

And in every persecution, the pagans made the same mistake. “Most Christians won’t be willing to die for their silly religion,” they seemed to think. “If we just show them we’re serious about it, they’ll come round to our way of thinking.” But it never worked that way. The Christians had an entirely different way of seeing things.

“Your cruelty is our glory,” the famous Christian theologian Tertullian wrote to the imperial authorities. And Rome could be ingenious in its cruelty. Thus, all the greater was the Church’s glory. St. Irenaeus described the shock of pagans who witnessed the willingness of Christians to endure lingering tortures and the “games” (as they were called, though being eaten by a lion had little sport in it) rather than renounce the cult of Jesus. Tertullian taunted the pagans that their most noble philosophies offered them nothing comparable to die for. Testing the resignation of Socrates, the famous Greek philosopher who was sentenced to death by poison, he found it wanting, when measured against the Christians’ eager embrace of death.

What the Romans couldn’t understand was that martyrdom was the ultimate imitation of Christ: accepting a cruel and unjust death, as Jesus did. There could be no greater proof of one’s faith than to choose death rather than apostasy. So the Christians recorded the trials and pains of the martyrs in almost unbearable detail. It was common teaching that the martyrs entered heaven immediately upon their death. Some of the early Christian writers taught that the martyrs earned a sort of “priesthood” by their endurance.

And that was true in a sense. A priest is one who offers sacrifice, and martyrs offered their lives in union with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Two of the most famous martyrs of that age, St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp of Smyrna, both used images of the Eucharist to speak of their dying. “I am the wheat of God,” St. Ignatius wrote to the Romans. “Let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.” And while he was being burned at the stake, St. Polycarp made a speech that sounds like a eucharistic prayer: “I give you thanks that you have counted me worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of your martyrs…among whom may I be accepted this day before you as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as you, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained.”

In 260, a new Emperor named Gallienus came to the throne. Things had been going rather badly for the Empire; the previous Emperor, Valerian, had been captured by the Persians. Gallienus revoked all the edicts against the Christians, and restored the property the previous emperors had taken from them. For the next four decades, Christians would live at peace in the Empire. Gallienus’ edict of toleration guaranteed their rights. It seemed as though Christianity had finally been accepted.

But if you think the story of the Roman persecution is over in 260, you haven’t read been visiting this blog very much! The worst was yet to come.

Read some books on the subject: Abbot Ricciotti’s The Age of Martyrs: Christianity from Diocletian (284) to Constantine (337), Herbert Musurillo’s The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford early Christian texts), and most especially Robin Darling Young’s In Procession Before the World: Martyrdom As Public Liturgy in Early Christianity.

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Saints Misbehavin’

Just finished reading a book I’d like to recommend to you: Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil-Worshippers Who Became Saints, by Thomas Craughwell. It belongs on this blog because half the profiles in the book are of men and women from Christian antiquity.

You’ll recognize some of the names because they’re ubiquitous: Augustine and Patrick, for example. Others you’ll recognize because you read this blog so faithfully: Genesius and Hippolytus.

Still others you’ll know if you’ve dipped a little below the timelines of ancient Christian history. There’s Alipius, Augustine’s best friend, roommate, and co-star in his Dialogues. Craughwell informs us that Alipius was fond of bloody contests in the arena. (Today, he’d be into hockey.) St. Pelagia and St. Mary of Egypt were women of ill repute before they became women renowned for sanctity.

Thomas Craughwell has produced a collection that looks unflinchingly at the early, scandalous lives of twenty-nine saints. Whereas in the missal we see them identified as “Virgin” or “Martyr,” Craughwell’s chapter headings make up a strange litany indeed: “St. Callixtus, Embezzler … St. Hippolytus, Antipope … St. Genesius, Scoffer … St. Moses the Ethiopian, Cutthroat and Gang Leader … St. Fabiola, Bigamist.”

We know the Church Fathers best as teachers. Thanks to Thomas Craughwell, we can now come to know them as sinners in need of mercy — and who heroically corresponded to the mercy they were given. That’s what made them saints. And that ain’t misbehavin’. It’s the part of their life that most of us are best equipped to imitate.

This book — good-humored and wholly orthodox — carries the full weight of a treatise on God’s mercy, but in the guise of a little light reading.

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Spice and Spirit

Whenever I post on Christianity in ancient India, I see an avalanche of interest. There’s an abundance of plausible tradition concerning the Apostle Thomas’s work there. It’s affirmed by many of the Fathers and historians of antiquity. Modern historians, especially in India, have built libraries of evidence, judiciously sifted. Archeology, however, is problematic, since India’s climate is hostile to preservation (making it quite unlike, say, the deserts of Egypt). Paper, wood, pigment just don’t hold up.

Still, some excavations and underwater explorations have yielded results that favor the claims of the Thomas historians. The more the archeologists dig and dredge, the more we learn about Roman-Indian contact and sea trade — which seems to have been quite extensive. That was the point of last month’s links on the recent finds at the port of Muziris. Now comes a far more detailed analysis of the archeological data on Indo-Roman sea trade. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology is providing, free for download, “Evidence for Indo-Roman Trade from Bet Dwarka Waters, West Coast of India.” It’s well illustrated with photographs of cool stuff pulled from the ocean and the ground.

Right around the time of Christ, sailors discovered the trade winds that made travel to India much more speedy and safe. Ships could then sail the open sea, rather than hugging the shoreline as they formerly had done. Some of us find the timing providential. Some of us believe that the same thought probably occurred to St. Thomas. We can be fairly certain that it occurred to St. Pantaenus and others who took the spice route in their evangelical travels.

If you’re interested in the subjects of Christianity, India, and St. Thomas, I recommend the histories by Mundadan and Menachery, both available in India but difficult to track down in the States. You can usually find copies for sale (and quick, reliable shipment) from Merging Currents, a bookseller I’ve written about here. We should encourage the work of these historians, who face heated and sometimes irrational opposition from Hindu nationalists. Such critics accuse Christianity of having “anti-national designs,” and they speak of the churches as “instrument of the Western powers.” Some even claim that St. Thomas’s apostolate was a late invention of the Portuguese colonizers — this in spite of the ample testimony from the patristic era.

They are extremists, of course, but they have recently been influential in setting the limits of politically correct speech. Yet this conflict is unnecessary, as more moderate voices have long recognized. In 1955, India’s president Dr. Rajendra Prasad celebrated the early arrival of Christianity on the subcontinent: “Remember, St. Thomas came to India when many of the countries of Europe had not yet become Christian, and so those Indians who trace their Christianity to him have a longer history and a higher ancestry than that of Christians of many of the European countries.” For Prasad, who was himself a devout Hindu and close associate of Gandhi, that historical likelihood was “a matter of pride.” For anti-Christian extremists today, it’s a threat to their political agenda, as is the evidence of other East-West trade and collaboration. When we read about it and spread the word, we’re taking a stand against prejudice, and making a stand with Christian historians who must work in difficult circumstances. But it’s a virtuous act that’s a pure pleasure. So read up!