Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 15: The New Prophecy and the Development of Popular Christianity

Born under the pressure of the Zealot guerrilla war and the struggle against Greco-Roman oppression, the messianism of the First Century pertained exclusively to a Judaism that was on the road to reformation, hostile to the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

The sects that speculated on the secret name of the Messiah only agreed on Joshua in the 80s and 90s. They developed a philosophical and esoteric doctrine that was hardly propitious for wide distribution. The Elchasaite Christians, who aroused the suspicions of the governor of Bithynia, Pliny the Younger, offered, no doubt, the very first example of a Christianity established in more open milieus. They practiced social aid to widows, orphans, and the disinherited; and, imitating the proscriptions honored in the Phariseean communities, they prayed to and celebrated the God-Messiah (christo quasi Deo, in the words of a letter written by Pliny).

Their numerical importance had not yet aroused the distrust of the authorities beyond Bithynia, the region nearby Phrygia, where the cults of Attis and Mithras were still dominant. In Bithynia, there grew the first de-Judaicized and exoteric Christianity, a mass Christianity of the kind that stimulated the Saint-Sulpicean imaginations of people like Sienkiewicz and tutti quanti,[1] who, an age later, rejuvenated the martyrs of the New Prophecy so as to throw them into Nero’s lion’s den.

It isn’t useless to insist upon it: the Church behaved towards the various Christianities from which it issued like Stalin, who excluded from history all of the first Bolsheviks in order to erect Lenin as a holy apostle. “True” Christianity – the one that gave a historical existence to Jesus; invented Mary, Joseph, the Child, the popular agitator, the enemy of the Jews, and the good thief put to death under [the reign of] Tiberius; grouped together the apostles of rival churches, finally united into a great mass movement; and mentioned Pontius Pilate for the first time – also engendered new thinkers, including Tertullian, who, placed under the names Phrygian heresy, Montanism, Pepuzism, and Encratism, would be thunderously expelled from the Church in the Fourth Century.

At the time when the Marcionite Churches brandished the authority of the Apostle Paul on the basis of programmatic letters and clashed with the traditional Judeo-Christian communities, the Christianity preached by the prophet Montanus became successful in Phrygia and soon after in North Africa, Palestine, and Asia Minor, and then turned towards Rome and won over Gaul.

Montanus addressed himself to the disinherited, slaves, artisans and rich people who had renounced their goods, and not to the exegetes who were well versed in the interpretation of mythological writings or to the biblical rats who nibbled on words in order to nourish their ascendency over a handful of disciples.

The important thing was no longer gnosis, knowledge, the learning that disentangled the obscure paths leading to salvation, but faith, pistis, the feeling of belonging to the army of the Christ, of being disposed to sacrifice one’s life for him as he sacrificed his life for the benefit of mankind, whatever the nation or social class to which they belonged.

The movement that was propagated under the name New Prophecy countersigned the birth of a veritable, modern Christianity, stripped of its Judaism, a Christianity that rejected Gnostic intellectuality and [instead] taught the principles that remained alive until the decline of Catholicism and Protestantism: sacrifice, the renunciation of the goods of this world, voluntary poverty, the taste for martyrdom, the consecration of suffering, chastity, virginity, abstinence, misogyny, the execration of pleasure and the repression of desire.

Although variously received according to the region and the Church – the Marcionites and the pneumatics scorned it, while the bishops tolerated by the imperial power dreaded its ostentatious pretensions to martyrdom – the New Prophecy attracted a large membership and, for the very first time [in the history of Christianity], organized a powerful federation of Churches in which the rival bishoprics of Cephas, James, Thomas, Clement, and Saul/Paul, and even certain fringes of Naassenism and Sethianism, were subsumed. This was the evangelic Christianity dreamed about by the millenarians and apostolics in struggle against the Church of Rome, which, born in the corruption of temporal power, would remain in power and corruption.

Around 160, the prophet Montanus, in whom Christ was supposedly incarnated, preached the good word in Phrygia and Mysia. Two prophetesses, Prisca (or Priscilla) and Maximilia, assisted him, which was an innovation that was in flagrant contradiction with Judeo-Christianity and Marcionism.

The New Prophecy announced the end of time. It was a millenarianism to which Irenaeus and Hermas were receptive. Asceticism was erected as its rule of conduct. The faithful, invited to repent, to fast and to purify themselves of their sins, would inaugurate the New Jerusalem, destined to be concretized in the locations of the two market towns of which all traces have been lost: Pepuza and Tynion.

Montanus’ syncretism drew abundantly from the great competing religion, that of Attis. From this epoch came communion through the bread and wine identified with the flesh and blood of the Messiah, as it was used in the rituals of Attis. For the voluntary castration of the priest of Cybele-Attis was substituted the castration of desire, abstinence and the virtue of virginity, to which some believers showed themselves to be so attached that they preferred torture to their renunciation.

Their provocative taste for martyrdom soon attracted the aggressive ardors of the crowds, always disposed to let off steam at the expense the weak and the resigned, and those of the functionaries who were delighted to furnish diversions from their plundering and abuses of authority.

Around 166 or 167, the pogroms in Smyrna involved the death of a bishop named Polycarp. Thereafter, Polycarp – the putative author of a letter from the Church of Smyrna to the community of Philomelium, in Phrygia, and consequently suspected of adhering to the New Prophecy – was celebrated in the Acts that exalted his martyrdom. But Eusebius of Caesarea, revealing the proceedings of the Church, took care to add an anti-Montanist interpolation to it, as Campenhause has proved.[2]

The New Prophecy dominated Carthage, where Tertullian would shine, and in Lyon, where Irenaeus defended their millenarianism and asceticism. In Rome, the New Prophecy enjoyed the favor of at least one bishop, [the future pope] Eleuterus. Several pogroms that indiscriminately massacred Jews and Christians decimated the adherents to the New Prophecy in Lyon and Vienna in 177 and in Palestine in 178. Tertullian would sing the praises of the martyrs of Scillita, lynched in 180. The persecutions that the new Christians attracted, like a lightening rod attracts lightening, engendered in willingly anti-Semitic mindsets [the perpetration of] massacres that were not encouraged by the insidious consent of the procurators who played the role of Pontius Pilate washing his hands, but were ordered by the imperial power.

The quest for martyrs even provoked the repugnance of their persecutors. Did not Tertullian report, in a protest that was addressed to the pro-consul Scapula – Ad Scapulam, 5, 1, from 212 or 213 – that in 185 the pro-consul of Asia, Arrius Antoninus, encountered a group of Christians carrying knotted cords around their necks and asked to be executed? The pro-consul sent them back, telling them that if they wanted to commit suicide, there were cliffs and precipices from which they could throw themselves.[3]

Such an ostentatious propensity for death sanctified by torments aroused the prudent reprobation of the bishops, the community leaders who wanted to negotiate for the freedom of worship, and even simple Christians who estimated that continence and privation were sufficient to guarantee their happiness in the beyond. These same reservations were expressed in the middle of the Third Century, when Novatian’s movement revived the New Prophecy in its most extreme aspects; and in the Fourth Century, when the Donatists and the Circumcellions excommunicated the lapsi, the priests who had abjured by arguing that a living priest was better than a dead one when it came to propagating the faith.

The New Prophecy thus encountered the hostility of certain leaders of ekklesiai. The Episcope of Anchiale, in Thrace, took measures against its adepts in 177, while the persecution was raging in Lyon. A certain Themison produced against the new Christianity an Epistola ad omnes ecclesias, which Rufinus hastened to interpret as a definite reference to Catholicism. (In reality, Montanism founded the first actually popular ecclesial universality, a catholicon, which was no longer elitist, as Marcion’s had been.)

The bishop Melito of Sardis also stood up against the prophetic rage of Montanism in On the Christian Life and the Prophets. He had the best reasons in the world to do so, because, in the manner of Justin, he addressed to the emperors apologies and appeals in favor of a religion for which he solicited tolerance. One could also cite [in this context] Theophilus of Antioch and Athenagoras.

Around 195, Apollonios of Ephesus, a personal enemy of Tertullian, affirmed that “Montanus and his crazy female prophetesses” were hanged (this is hardly surprising) and that “Priscilla and Maximilia gave themselves up to debauchery” (which sounds more like [an allegation made by] Eusebius).[4]

According to Runciman, “In the Sixth Century, the congregations of the Montanists burned themselves alive in their churches rather than submit to the persecution of Justinian. In the Eighth Century, the remainder of the sect perished in a similar holocaust.”[5]

Reduced to the state of a marginal sect by 331, christened the “Phrygian heresy,” “Montanism,” and even “Pepuzism” ([by] Basil [of Caesarea], Epiphanius [of Salamis], the codex of Theodosianus, and Augustine of Hippo, who borrowed it from Epiphanius), the New Prophecy formed the foundations of Greco-Roman Christianity. It is ironic that the New Prophecy’s extreme masochism furnished the history of the Church with a good part of its official martyrology.

The Catholics thus appropriated Blandina and her companions from Lyon. The Acts that exalted the torture of the faithful, who were thus assured of eternal bliss, made use of Montanist propaganda. In the Third Century, two works achieved a remarkable popular success: The Martyrdom of Montanus and Lucius and The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, which took the form of a letter to the Church of Carthage (Montanist) that recounted the torture of two virgins put to death in 203, under Septimius Severus, who prohibited all proselytism among Jews and Christians.

The martyrdom of the Montanist Perpetua inspired a vision, which was attributed to her and was supposed to harden the convictions of future victims. In it, the author evoked a refrigerium, a place of preservation in which the martyr, refreshed and washed of his wounds, waited for the dawn of his glory and sometimes manifested himself to the living to exhort them to religious duty. The refrigerium – in which the tortured person, endowed with a new body, prepared to shine at the side of the God thanks to an imminent ascension – would much later give birth to [the idea of] purgatory.

It is more than probable that, in their first versions, the Acts of Andrew, Pilate, Paul and Thecla, Peter and [other] apostles emanated from the “propaganda services” of the New Prophecy. Many would be submitted to revisions in an easily calculated manner.

Prediction-making, which was among the activities little valued by the clergymen who aspired to exercise their priesthood with the benediction of the State, risked lending itself to untoward abuse. The seer arrogated to himself the right to change the Law and the laws, since God had spoken through his mouth.

If one can believe Epiphanius of Salamis’ Panarion (II, 1, 18), Montanus proclaimed: “I am neither an angel nor a messenger, I am the Lord, the all-powerful God, present before you in the form of a man.” Montanus clearly marked a rupture with the conception of a Messiah who claimed he was the angelos-christos, the messenger-angel of God. (Between his two “Marys” [Priscilla and Maximilia], Montanus concretized in human form the personage of Jesus, who had until then been abstract, a secret and sacred name, an angel descended from the heavens and resurrected in the beyond to assure the salvation of all through his sacrifice.)

The remark [attributed to Montanus], which disavowed Judeo-Christianity and Marcionism, implicated the human character of Jesus and his nature as a divine being, as a spirit capable of reincarnating himself in other prophets.

Tertullian was not mistaken: it is the man possessed by the spirit who can pardon, not the Church: “The Church will no doubt accord pardons for sins, but [this would be] the Church of the Spirit, through a spiritual man, not the Church as the ensemble of bishops” (De pudicitia, 21, 17). This was competition that the Catholic Church could not tolerate. It claimed to unite in itself the temporality of the Son and the incarnation of the spirit that spoke through the Church’s voice, proffering truths – orthodoxies – and condemning to death the prophets who followed each other from the Ninth to the Seventeenth Centuries.

Nevertheless, the New Prophecy contented itself with following, to the letter, the Apostle, the only apostle to the Second Century (in 220, Tertullian still did not know an authority other than Paul). And the first Letter to the Corinthians proscribed prophecy without any circumlocutions: “He who prophesizes edifies the assembly [...] I prefer that you prophesize. He who prophesizes is superior to he who speaks in tongues.”

The New Prophecy accorded to whomever spoke by the Spirit “the full power to renew traditional eschatological conceptions from top to bottom.”[6]

Prophecy entered into the practices of the majority of Christian communities. It was prescribed by the Didache. It reappeared in the Seventeenth Century in Pietist sects, which willingly identified themselves with primitive Christianity. Priscilla, practicing ecstasy, foreshadowed Mechthild of Magdeburg, Beatrice of Nazareth, Hadewijch of Antwerp and Theresa of Avila, when she [Priscilla] affirmed that the Christ had visited her and slept near her, at Pepuza, taking the form of fire and penetrating her with his wisdom.

The New Prophecy was also concerned with millenarianism, the imminence of the end of time, and the instauration of the kingdom of God on earth. Tertullian of Carthage and Irenaeus of Lyon were its ardent defenders. Montanus was the Holy Spirit descended to the earth. “Maxilmilia was the last prophetess, after whom one must only expect the end of the world.”[7]

In each millenarianism, the same scenario was reproduced: “The New Jerusalem will descend from the heavens to Pepuza. The Montanists received exceptional promises that would be kept at the End of Days. Due to the impending end, ethical demands took on an exceptionally acute depth.”[8]

For Tertullian, avoiding martyrdom was clinging to a world condemned to impending destruction. “Do not desire to die in your bed or in the languor of fever,” he wrote in De fuga, “but rather in martyrdom, in order to glorify he who suffered for you.”

In sum, did not the tortures inflicted by the mob or by the justice system enclose in good logic an existence from which asceticism prescribed the removal of all pleasure?

Tertullian, an adept and philosopher of the new current, laid the foundations for a new Christian morality, with which Catholicism compromised, but Calvinism and Protestantism in general desperately tried to promote. Respectful of the abstinence extolled by its adversary, Marcion, the New Prophecy nevertheless gave a completely different meaning to its asceticism. The Marcionites and the supporters of [the idea of] a bad world created by the crazy God refused pleasure, procreation, and food that wasn’t frugal, so as to not ratify a work that they denigrated. The Christians of the New Prophecy rejected neither the world nor the flesh; they only wanted to purify them and purify themselves, so that that the Spirit would descend to and reside upon the earth without the hindrances of materiality.

Long fasts rejected the pleasures of terrestrial nourishment and exalted spiritual communion. The refusal of amorous relations did not pursue a will to extinguish the race of men, as it did among the Gnostics who were “beyond the world,” but limited pleasure to procreative coitus in the manner of the Essenes. “It is not permitted, once one is a Christian, to contract a second marriage, because only the contract and the dowry separate marriage from adultery and fornication” (Tertullian, De pudicitia). The hatred of women shared by Tertullian, Epiphanius, Augustine and the master thinkers of the Church was accompanied by the worship of virginity. The idea of Mary, virgin and mother of the Christ, certainly drew from the legends of Montanist propaganda.

(Note the following with respect to the hatred of women. The Elenchos said: “The relations of man and woman are the work of pigs and dogs.” Tertullian: “Woman, you are the door to the Devil. It was you who persuaded the one [Adam] whom the Devil did not dare to attack directly. It was because of you that the Son of God had to die: you must always go about dressed in mourning and in rags and tatters.”)

Montanism also preached (for the first time in the history of the Christianity) the resurrection of the body, which Saul/Paul had so oddly borrowed from the Pharisees. In his De resurrectio carnis, Tertullian says, “Of those who deny the resurrection of the flesh, the prophetess Prisca said: they are flesh and they hate the flesh.” By dying, the martyrs exchanged their torn bodies for bodies of glory that would enter into the divine cohort of saints, the veritable celestial Church.

Both virginal and penetrated by the Spirit, the prophetesses of Montanus aroused the reprobation of many community leaders. Tertullian insisted on celebrating their chastity in De exhortatione castitatis; the author of the Elenchos (around 230) reproached the new Christians for “letting themselves be guided by weak women [femmelettes]”; and Origen, who pushed abnegation to the point of self-castration, referred them back to the Apostle Paul who constituted their supreme authority – that polymorphous Paul, first erected against Marcion, his inventor, and then against the anti-Marcionites: “Women, the Apostle said, must keep quiet in the ecclesial communities. Here is a prescription that the disciples of the women, those who let themselves be instructed by Priscilla and Maximilia, have not obeyed.”

(Note that Priscilla believed that the Epistle to the Laodiceans, a text from 160 or 170 that was originally Marcionite and placed under the name of Paul, was authentic.)

The New Prophecy and the Christian Philosophers of the Second Century

The New Prophecy threw the paving stone of faith into the pond of the many Christian Gnosticisms. Pistis, which brought the exalted crowds to [undergo] ordeals and [experience] a fervent conviction that polytheism knew nothing about, exercised a kind of fascination for Greco-Roman mindsets that Judaism had previously exercised and that, since the last war of the Jews, xenophobia had condemned.

“True” Christianity swept away the theological arguments from the Gnostic systems. The fabrication of texts redesigned the personage of the Christ Jesus with the realism of everyday existence. This fabrication reduced speculations about the angelos-christos to a secondary plane and bluntly mocked the intellectual Christians who had been diverted from the study of the Jews and their Scriptures and who had thrown themselves into Greek mythology and Platonic scholasticism.

Justin the Apologist, Irenaeus of Lyon, the author of The Shepherd and Tertullian all launched a philosophical offensive – implicitly supported by the army of the Christ, which scorned death in the name of the Living Spirit – against what Irenaeus called “so-called gnosis.”

Justin the Apologist

Although his death [roughly] coincided with the birth of the New Prophecy, Justin belonged to Hellenized and anti-Marcionite Christianity: the search for martyrdom; the recuperation of the Jewish Scriptures; the care taken to invite the State to recognize this religion, purged of its Semitism, which was odious to the Greeks and Romans; and a Church whose pacifist and non-violent ideals did not contravene public order.

Born around 100 in Flavia Neapolis [Nablus], in Samaria, Justin was initiated into philosophy and, in particular, Plato and Stoicism. He founded schools at which he taught a Christianity that had broken with Essenean Judaism without rejecting the texts of the Scriptures.

Drafted around 135, after the defeat of Bar Kokhba and in the wave of anti-Semitic hysteria that followed it, Justin’s Dialogue with the Jew Trypho affirmed that – the Christians having freed a truth from the Scriptures that the Jews no longer understood – the Bible by all rights belonged to the Churches of the Christ. (At the same time, a Diatribe against the Jews by Apollonius Molon and On the Jews by Philo of Byblos were circulating.)

Though his Messiah was still related to the angelos-christos of Judeo-Christianity and Marcionism, Justin rejected Marcion’s aggressive dualism. Justin’s Good God confronted, not the Demiurge who had created the world, but the Adversary, the fallen angel, the bloody rebel raised against the Divine Order: Satan the tempter.

Justin’s schools were celebrated in Asia Minor and Rome. He wrote a lampoon of Marcion that has been lost. Tatian, his disciple, discovered in the New Prophecy the application of Justin’s lessons: one must follow the example of the Christ through the purity of one’s mores and self-sacrifice taken to the point of martyrdom.

Among the first [followers] of the new religion, Justin lay the bases for recognition by the central State (it is possible, in this sense, that the morbid extremism of the Montanists displeased him, as it was repugnant to Melito of Sardis, but it is also true that Tertullian, another apologist, found nothing distressing in it). Justin published an Apology to the Roman Senate in Favor of the Christians. Several years later, around 154, he reiterated [his points] in a Second Apology to Antoninus the Pious in Favor of the Christians. (These Apologies reflected the new political line of the Churches. A federation, with Rome at the head, could assure the State of a religion of change, a solution in which Christianity could be substituted for Rome’s weakening polytheism and the solar cult of the Emperors. Thus, Quadratus of Athens wrote to Hadrian and Aristide; Justin wrote to Antoninus, who reigned from 138 to 166; and Melito of Sardis and Apollonaris of Hierapolis wrote to Marcus Aurelius, who reigned from 169-177. Did not Athenagoras of Athens, the ruler from 177-178, declare in his Petition in Favor of the Christians that “the Empire and Christianity have grown side by side. The prince has nothing to fear, but everything to gain by the conversion of the Empire”?)

But these efforts were in vain. The Greeks and Romans did not care to distinguish Christians from Jews, or Justin’s friends from the multitude of sects – Sethians, Cainites, Nazarenes, Elchasaites, Marcionites, Judeo-Christians, Valentinians and anti-Marcionites – that supported the idea of a crucified and resuscitated Messiah in whose name the other cults were excluded as idolatries, while Rome, like a good State merchant, had freely tolerated them.

Religious fanaticism appeared particularly odious to the Greeks and Romans. Their interests proscribed searching for it in Palestine. Did not Deuteronomy (17:12) enjoin that “he who gives in to pride and does not want to obey the authority of the priest who serves YHWH your God, nor the sentence of the judge, will die and thus you will extirpate the evil from Israel”?

Therefore, what did Justin ask of the Emperor? The help of the State against those contemptuous of the Holy Spirit – by which one meant the partisans of Simon of Samaria and all those who could be identified with them. Ammianus Marcellinus would have been able to write in the Second Century what he had established in the Fourth: “The wildest animals are to be feared less by men than the Christians.”[9]

Intolerance: such was still the reproach that Celsus, in his True Discourse (178-180), addressed to the people he found indistinguishable (Jews and Christians), to the sectarians of the crucified Serpent, the God with the head of a donkey (Seth) and a magician named Jesus.

The laurels of the martyr with which Justin found himself encumbered were as necessary to his fanaticism as was the taste for death celebrated by Tertullian and the Christians of the New Prophecy. There was a bad quarrel between Justin and the cynical philosopher Crescents, who challenged the former to take his scorn for existence to its logical end. The conflict became inflamed; a trial ensued. Crescens found an ally in the prefect Junius Rusticus, a Stoic philosopher who had initiated Marcus Aurelius into the doctrine of Epictetus. The polemic ended dramatically with the decapitation of Justin in 165.

A dialogue, which has been preserved, played on the meanings of “gnosis” – science, learning and knowledge.

Rusticus: “You who know (you who have knowledge, learning), how can you imagine that, if I have you decapitated, you will be resurrected and rise to the heavens?”

Justin: “I do not imagine it, but I know it from certain science.”

In his pamphlet Sects on the Auction Block, Lucien of Samosata, a contemporary of Justin, refused to cite the Christians. Nevertheless, it is possible that this author had the Christians of the New Prophecy in mind when he ironically pointed out the following in The Death of Peregrinus (quoted by Rougier in his Celsus against the Christians): “The unfortunate imagine that they are immortal and that they will live eternally. Consequently, they scorn ordeals and voluntarily surrender to death.”[10]

Goaded by the solicitations of collective masochism, the crowds only devoted themselves more easily to the bloody excesses by which they exonerated themselves from the repressions and setbacks they suffered. In these early instances, the victims did not succumb to the legal actions brought by Antoninus the Pious or Marcus Aurelius. The twenty-three-year-long reign of Antoninus counted among the least bloody in Roman history and were preserved in memory due to the suavitas morum (the gentleness of the morals of the emperor). Despite an excusable repugnance for sanctified morbidity, Marcus Aurelius did not depart from the principles instituted by Trajan: do not to seek out the disciples of the Christ, but only punish them if, denounced, they refuse obedience to the Emperor and the offerings of the traditional cults.

Hermas and The Shepherd

In Rome, around the middle of the Second Century, under the name of The Shepherd, there circulated a collection of texts collated in the manner of a novel, the author of which called himself Hermas. Held in great esteem by Christians for three centuries, it would be excluded from the canon by [Pope] Gelasius’ decree at the end of the Fifth Century.

A didactic work of Judeo-Christian inspiration, The Shepherd presented itself as a revelation. (Its author referred to the apocalypse of Eldat and Modat, now lost). It contained five visions (the last of which was actually an apocalypse), twelve precepts and ten parables. Its spirit, still close to the Essenean Manual of Discipline and the Writing from Damascus, brought together Nazarenism and the New Prophecy-in-gestation, without succumbing to Marcionite influence. Its dualism had nothing in common with the “two Gods.” It referred to the two spirits of The Rule of the Community: “God, who created man, placed before him two spirits so that (he is) guided by them until the moment of the visit: these were the spirits of truth and iniquity.”

An embarrassment to the Catholic Church, The Shepherd presented a Christian panorama that was completely different from the fanciful statements of the official history.

Hermas not only knew nothing of a historical Jesus, but didn’t even know the name “Jesus.” He knew nothing of Mary, Joseph, Pilate and their associates.

“The visions name the Son of God once, in a formula: ‘The Lord swore it by his Son,’ which doubles another one: ‘The Master swore it by his glory’ (6, 8, 4), which is suspect as a result.”[10]

The Son of God was the Spirit, the Great Archangel, sometimes named Michael.

Though Hermas and his associates resided in Rome, they never heard (and for good reason) anyone speak of the canonical gospels, nor of Matthew, Luke, Mark or John. Hermas’ only references were to the Bible, the one that Marcion called the “Old Testament.” If The Shepherd spoke of apostles, it did so in the sense of itinerant missionaries who propagated the Christian doctrine: the book distinguishes them from the didaskaloi, that is, those who taught (this was the era of the Didache, which was inspired by the Epistle attributed to Barnabas).

In 150, Hermas had no knowledge of a monarchal episcopacy, a fortiori of the “Ancient Pope,” who according to the historians then reigned over the Church’s destiny. “Those who were farsighted [presbytes] and bishops [episcopes] are synonymous for him.” Moreover, Hermas denounced the ambitious caste of the priests: in a Vision he compared them to poisoning apothecaries and, in the Ninth Similitude, to venomous reptiles.

As in Essenism and Phariseean practice, the Church was identified [by Hermas] with a community tasked with protecting widows, orphans, and the poor. It appeared to him as an old woman, and he appealed for her rejuvenation through the purification of the faithful.

Purity of mores and the necessity for penitence that washed the soul of its sins constituted the central articulation of Hermas’ Christian doctrine. In it, the old Essenean tradition married the movement of the New Prophecy at the moment of its birth.

Chastity was exalted in a scene that prefigured the adventures of Parsifal: Hermas resisted the temptation of women who cajoled and solicited his love. He did well, because – having triumphed in the test – it was revealed to him that, under the appearance of seductresses, “virginal natures” had been hidden. And “these virgins, who were they? They were holy spirits.” Thus the virgin martyrs of the New Prophecy acceded to their reality as saints, clothed, beyond the pangs of death, in resplendent bodies, haloed by virtue. Through a pleasing return of things, the Italian painters [of the Renaissance], grooming their mistresses in ecstasy for the churches, rendered these women with their native sensuality. (We know, for example, that Filippo Lippi’s Madonnas depicted the pretty nun whom he seduced and who abandoned the God of her convent for the God of love, the revelation of which haloed her.)

In accord with the future rigor of Tertullian and the new Christianity, Hermas rebelled against those who judged sins of the flesh to be of little importance. Nevertheless, his asceticism was opposed to the spirit of Marcion and his doctrine of the two Gods: “Believe that there is only one God [...] Thus believe in him and fear him, and through this fear be continent.” Faith (pistis) had the upper hand over gnosis (knowledge). On the other hand, if there existed a possibility of salvation through works, through good acts, in no case did Hermas refer to redemption accomplished through Jesus. In addition, questions of penitence and redemption were settled between the sinner and God, without the intervention of the priest. The faithful was he who, living in fear of displeasing the God of Goodness, banished earthly pleasures and nourishments from his existence: “He who commits adultery lives like the non-believers (tois ethnesin).” Calvin did not say anything different.

Irenaeus of Lyon

Around 180, Irenaeus, the bishop of a Christian community in Lyon, wrote a work against other Christians – principally the Marcionites and Valentinians – in which he attacked gnosis and [the pursuit of] salvation through knowledge. He related the entirety of these doctrines back to a unique source: the radicalism of Simon of Samaria.

His attempt corresponded to the New Prophecy’s rejection of philosophical elitism, esotericism, and even magical practices that were communicated in the name of the Messiah by a cultural class that was opposed to the faith of the simple believers, who in their turn were little interested in speculative quibbles and who obeyed an austere existence and a constant aspiration for martyrdom in order to assure their posthumous bliss.

Three years later, in Lyon and Vienna, pogroms put to death both Jews and the new Christians. The Marcionite, Valentinian and Marcosian Gnostics in all probability escaped from them because of their contact with the well-to-do classes (the “dames of the purple-bordered robes,” disciples of Marcos).

In Irenaeus’ desire to purge the Churches of the extreme influence that anti-Semitism accorded to Greek philosophy, he wrote – not Against the Heresies, which was originally a Latin and later work that suggested that its author spoke in the name of a Catholic Church and a well-established orthodoxy – but The Highlighting and Refutation of So-Called Gnosis.

Irenaeus opposed blind faith, the pistis of the simple people who followed the law of the Christ without asking any questions, to the abstract developments of the Gnostics, which, by virtue of his polemical conventions, he relayed in the form of a tissue of absurdities. He had an already Pascalian profession of faith, which inspired the “Happy are the poor of spirit” line that the authors of the Gospels attributed to Jesus:

“It is better, it is more useful, to be ignorant and know little, and to approach God through charity, than it is to appear learned and know much by committing blasphemy against the one they call the Demiurge.”[13]

Irenaeus had two good reasons to attack Marcion and Gnosticism. A partisan of the unification of the Churches, resolved to confer the supreme authority to a Roman bishop, he perceived the antithetical character of ecclesial monarchism and the belief in two Gods, one ungraspable, the other despicable.

In the second place, Irenaeus was the author of an Epideixis in which the Christian doctrine was explicated on the basis of the prophetic texts of the Bible, the same ones that Marcion had rejected as immoral and incoherent.

Irenaeus’ love for the prophetic tradition drew him to the Christianity of the New Prophecy and the Christ who was incarnated in Phrygia, thus arousing a wave of conversions everywhere in the Empire. In support of such a hypothesis, it is fitting to recall that Tertullian mentioned a bishop of Rome who was a partisan of the Montanist current, and one knows that Irenaeus intervened in favor of the new faith at the side of Eleuterus, a bishop of one of the churches of Rome between 170 and 190.

Annexed by Catholicism due to his hostility to gnosis and his defense of the monarchal principle in the Church, Irenaeus suffered the same fate as Origen, who was revised and corrected by Rufinus. The Epideixis disappeared. Irenaeus’ millenarianism, which was shared by Hermas and the New Prophecy, was eradicated from his work. The discovery of a manuscript in the Nineteenth Century was necessary to reestablish the millenarian “heresy” of this bishop, who had been sanctified by the Church at the cost of several instances of censorship.

The works of Irenaeus were recopied, revised, and stuffed full of interpolations (quotations from canonical gospels), while Tertullian, who was particularly erudite, knew no other gospel than the “Good Word” of Paul. Of the original text of the Refutation, there only remain Greek fragments of citations made by the author of the Elenchos and [other] notorious forgers: Eusebius of Caesarea, Epiphanius of Salamis and Theodoret of Cyrus.

Tertullian, Philosopher of the New Prophecy

Born around 160 in Carthage and issued from the aristocracy, Tertullian had a classical education. Breaking off his studies of rhetoric, philosophy and the law, he devoted himself to dissipation in his youth, only to suddenly renounce it, perhaps around 190, and converted to Christianity, which for the first time was massively propagating itself.

“We only got here yesterday,” Tertullian wrote in 197, “and already we have filled the earth and all that is yours: the towns, the islands, the fortified posts, the municipalities, the villages, the camps themselves, the tribes, the ten families, the palace, the senate, the forum; we have only left you your temples.”[14]

While persecutions most often took the form of pogroms – Tertullian himself took care to separate the wheat from the chaff in his Adversus Judeos – pro-consul Vigellius Saturninus decapitated eighteen Romanized Africans and Christians in the small town of Scillium in 180.

Tertullian was inflamed by the New Prophecy. “I was blind, deprived of the light of the Lord,” he moaned, “only having nature for a guide.”[15] This was why he was only in the world “to weep for (his) faults in the austerity of penitence.”[16]

Tertullian’s militant asceticism rejected the “dream-sunk poets who ascribe to the gods the vices and passions of men” and the philosophers who become “patriarchs of heresies.”[17] He admired Justin, Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch and Irenaeus, whom he imitated in a series of polemics against Marcion and the Valentinians.

Note that the New Prophecy professed a fanatical asceticism, though different from that of Marcion, for whom pleasure-seeking was a concession to the bad work of the Demiurge. “The God of Marcion,” Tertullian wrote in his Adversus Marcionem, “by reproving marriage as bad and sullied by shamelessness, acted to the detriment of chastity, the interests of which he had the appearance of defending.” If women had some importance in Montanist revelation – to the point that the author of the Elenchos mocked “their respect for the divagations of the weak women who indoctrinate them” – this was at the cost of a frankly claimed chastity, of the status of inviolable virginity (the martyrs preferred death to defloration). A spiritual movement par excellence, founded on the repression of desire, the New Prophecy responded to the entreaties of Tertullian: “By economizing on flesh, you will acquire the Spirit” (De exhortatione castitatis).

Tertullian extolled martyrdom (“Blood is the seed of the Christians”); condemned second marriages (in a polemic against the Carthaginian painter Hermogenes, who defended the eternity of matter, Tertullian reproached him for being married several times); appealed to continence; and scorned women and the pleasures of love.

Note that the taste for martyrdom was the doctrine that provoked hysterical adhesion to Montanism and provoked its backward surge and growing discredit. Did not Tertullian proclaim in his De fuga “do not desire to die in your bed, in the languor of a fever, but as a martyr, so that he who suffered for you is glorified”?[18]

Associating richness with luxury and debauchery, the New Prophecy directly attacked that part of the clergy that subsisted on tithes from the faithful and painlessly acclimated itself to the duties of faith and the compromises of worldly representation. This was why Tertullian, like the author of the Elenchos, rejected Callixtus, one of the principal bishops of Rome (his name was later given to an ensemble of catacombs), whom they reproached for his laxity.

The Church did not lack arguments for condemning Tertullian. But the importance of his apologetic works incited Catholicism to set him aside using other methods. His biographers insinuated that he only adopted Montanist views rather late, meaning by this that he was under the influence of Gatism, which unfortunately the vigor of his thought and style did not accredit. A lampoon of the heresies was even attributed to him: one in which anti-Gnosticism was placed next to critiques of Montanism!

[1] Translator: Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), the author of Quo Vadis. tutti quanti is Italian for “all the rest.”

[2] Frend, Martyrdom and Early Christianity, p. 288.

[3] Ibid., p. 293.

[4] Apollonios of Ephesus, quoted in Eusebius of Caesarea, Histoire Ecclésiatique.

[5] Runciman, Le Manichéisme médiéval, p. 23.

[6] Aland, Augustin und der Montanismus, 1960, p. 132.

[7] Epiphanius, Panarion, 48, 2, 4.

[8] Aland, op. cit., p. 126.

[9] Ammien Marcellin, quoted in Rougier, Celse contre les chrétiens, Paris, 1977, p. 13.

[10] Rougier, Celse contre les chrétiens, p. 13.

[11] P. Giet, “Un courant judéo-chrétien à Rome au milieu du IIe siècle,” in Aspects du judéo-christianisme, Paris, 1965.

[12] R. Joly, Introduction au Pasteur d’Hermas, Paris, 1968, p. 41.

[13] Quoted by Rougier, op. cit., p. 14.

[14] Tertullian, Apologétique, 37, 4.

[15] ID., De poenitentia, I, 1.

[16] Ibid., 4.

[17] ID, De anima.

[18] Translator: in an instance of bad editing, this passage repeats an earlier one in this same chapter.

(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! April 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)

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