Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 17: Three Local Christianities: Edessa and Bardaisan, Alexandria and Origen, Antioch and Paul of Samosata


While the New Prophecy, for the first time and despite the dissent of a minority of the bishops, concretized the project of a Christianity that attempted the conquest of the Greco-Roman Empire and ended up unifying the rival churches, there were three cities in which the oldest Judeo-Christian traditions guarded their particularities and perpetuated their privileges as ancient communities.

Such was the case with Edessa, Alexandria and Antioch, the fortresses of Esseno-Nazarenism.


Bardaisan of Edessa

Starting from the First Century, Edessa was a hub of Christian expansion.

“The structure of the archaic Christianity of Edessa,” Drijvers writes, “shows the existence of varied groups with diverse opinions that fought against and complained about each other.”[1]

Established in Edessa, in the First Century, at the same time that it agitated spirits in Alexandria, Antioch and Ephesus, was a system of beliefs that issued from Essenism and engendered, on the foundation of local particularities, Churches that obeyed their own laws and doctrines.

The community or ekklesia of Edessa was placed – no doubt due to the missionary activity of some disciple of Thomas – under the patronage of Jude or Thomas, fancifully elected “witness” of the Lord.

This organization had to orient itself in the current of the Second Century according to the logia attributed to Joshua/Jesus and supposedly compiled by Matthias or Thomas. The Churches of Edessa perpetuated a Judeo-Christianity of the Elchasaite type and no doubt evolved towards anti-Semitism without, it seems, tipping over into either Marcionism or Montanism.

In Edessa in 201, the first building intended for meetings of the believers and taking the name “church” was constructed. It was destroyed shortly afterwards by a flood, [which might be taken as] the sign of a singular carelessness on the part of the tutelary God.[2]

Around 180, one of the Churches, led by Bishop Palut, attempted to impose its authority on all Christians. His adepts called themselves “Palutians.” The struggles for precedence among the diverse Churches of Edessa lasted until the Fifth Century, when the Palutian faction assured power for themselves and, rallying to the theses of Nicaea, embraced Catholicism. Consequently, this faction hastened to label as heretical the Churches that had shown hostility towards it in the past.

Such was the fate of the work of Bardaisan (or Bar Daysan), who offered an original example of one of the many syncretisms whose successive stratifications composed the Christianity of the first four centuries.

Born in Edessa in 144 or 155, Bardaisan belonged to the aristocracy and received a serious philosophical education before converting to the new religion in 180. (For a time, he adhered to the Valentinian school.) His vast learning also embraced astrology, ethnology and history. With his son Harmodius, he composed some 150 hymns in honor of the Syrian churches.

His Dialogue on Destiny and his Book of the Laws of Countries, from which his disciple Philip compiled his teachings, did not escape the destruction ordered by the Church, although Eusebius did authorize the citation of a few extracts.[3]

When Caracalla dealt a mortal blow to the independence of Edessa in 216, Bardaisan went into exile and reached Armenia, where, according to Moses of Chorene, he pursued historical research and worked for the propagation of Christianity. Thereafter his teachings accorded a growing place to the idea of liberty.

One cannot exclude the possibility of an encounter between Bardaisan and an Indian ambassador sent by the Emperor Heliogabalas around 218. One believes that Bardaisan died in 222, leaving behind disciples and Christian communities that continued to exist until the Fifth Century.

Bardaisan’s philosophical Christianity situated itself at an equal distance from the New Prophecy, the ascetic rigor and fantastic masochism of which he rejected, and from an ecclesial current that aimed at making itself into a recognized authority in the social order of Rome.

If he took up from the Valentinian Theodotus the trinitarian conception – Father, Son and Pneuma-Spirit (or Sophia) – that triumphed at Nicaea, Bardaisan was opposed to Marcion and he rejected the [idea of a] demiurgical creation. According to Bardaisan, the world was the work of a Good God, because, despite its imperfections, salvation entered into mankind’s possibilities. Thus Ephrem the Syrian was wrong to denounce the influence of Bardaisan on Mani, the founder of the Manichean religion. If the Bardaisanites excluded from their canon the two epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, no doubt this was due to Marcionism, which presented versions that were anterior to the Catholic corrections.

Bardaisan did not divide men into three classes, despite the commonly-held Gnostic opinion of the Second Century – hylics, psychics and pneumatics – but distinguished in each person three levels in the ladder of consciousness: the soma, the psyche, and the pneuma. Through the Christ, God provided the model of a gradual elevation that traced out the path of salvation.

The Bardaisanites obviously knew nothing of the canonical gospels, but referred to the Acts of Thomas and the logia that composed the gospel attributed to the mythical apostle of Edessa.

Drijvers detects the influence of Philo of Alexandria, transmitted by the Jewish milieus, which were well established in Edessa.[4] The Essenean and Judeo-Christian doctrine of the two paths, Light and Darkness, left traces in Bardaisan’s conception of liberty.

This conception proceeded from a spirit of divine origin, which, united with the soul, descended through the seven spheres of the planets (the Hebdomad) in order to implant itself in the human body at the moment of birth. Because the soul was subjected to the influence of planetary forces, which it must cajole at the time of its future ascension, the hour of birth determined the course of [the person’s] existence and distributed fortune and misfortune [into it].

In his goodness, God nevertheless permitted man to escape from the unavoidable. United with the soul, the spirit arrogated for itself the privilege of influencing circumstances. Knowledge of the horoscope intervened in salvation in a decisive manner. Adam made bad use of such a gift and did not authorize his soul to return to the place of its divine origin, which Bardaisan called the “nuptial chamber of Light.”[5] (The Gospel attributed to Philip, from the same era, evoked the relations between redemption and koinon, “nuptial chamber,” in which the union with the Plerome, the Divine Totality or the Ogdoad, takes place. The soul, the spirit and the body give birth to quite piquant anecdotal translation [of this process]: “Three walk with the Lord at the same time: Mary his mother and his sister and Madeleine, whom one calls his companion. Because Mary is his sister, mother and companion,” Section 32.)

The coming of the Christ – still conceived as an angelos-christos, not as the historical founder of a religion – unveiled the soul’s path to salvation, the manner of untangling obscurity and darkness in order to vanquish the influence of the planets and assure the soul’s final redemption. Here Bardaisan expounded the theory of free will, the battle-horse of future Catholicism.

The envoy of God, Jesus filled no other mission than indicating, through the sacrifice of his flesh, the salvational path and the gnosis that taught one how to leave the obscure chaos of the body. Not an extreme asceticism, as was required by the New Prophecy, but a sacrificial exercise that elevated the spirit and united it with the breath of the soul, which held the power to vanquish the conjuration of the planetary injunctions and thus [was able the soul to] return to the light. He who identified with the Christ modified the astrological laws and increased his power over the macrocosm. Such were the teachings of Bardaisan. It was the thought of Simon of Samaria, but inverted by its antiphysis [rejection of nature] and denatured by the example of Christ. A thought that, even if Christianized, did not remain any less unacceptable to ecclesial authority, since Bardaisan entrusted the work of redemption in the hands of each person, without the help of any Church.


Audi

If one believes Michael the Syrian, the Archdeacon Audi (or Audie) belonged to the Bardaisanite community at the end of the Third or the beginning of the Fourth Century. To support his legitimate authority, he produced “apocalypses” and the Acts of the Apostles, which the Constantinian Church – adopting the political line of the “Palutians” – would condemn as “apocryphal.”

Grégoire Bar-Hebraeus, an Arab theologian in the Seventh Century, attributed to Audi ninety-four “apocalypses” (revelations). Underneath the scornful and anecdotal reduction that Bar-Hebraeus imposed on Audi’s ideas, the Bardaisanite doctrine of the descent and resurrection of the Spirit confronting the planetary Eons showed through: “(Audi claimed) that the Christ descended to all of the firmaments and that their inhabitants did not know him, and that his body was celestial, and that he was injured by the lance, and that he was not injured, that he was hung from the wood and that he was not hung.”[6]

Audi’s conception was not essentially different from that of Arrius, the quarrel about whom – at the same time – irritated the emerging tyranny of the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church. Audi rejected the decisions made in Nicaea. Exiled to Scythia, he would propagate his Christianity among the Goths.[7]


Origen of Alexandria

The fate reserved for Origen and his work revealed the falsification that was accomplished by the Church after the Constantinian turn. An authentic Christian martyr and a philosopher in the service of faith, he was condemned for heresy because, despite the revisions of his doctrine, his Christology was still that of an angel-messiah and his Jesus found its source in Joshua. In addition, he had sympathies for the New Prophecy, and he devoted himself to asceticism with a disconcerting rigor, which authorized him to scorn the apostate clergy of his era – the heritage of which the Constantinian Church would claim for itself.

Origen’s work was reduced, as if by chance, to tiny fragments, which were contained in several large volumes: so great was the zeal of Rufinus and other guardians of orthodoxy to reconstitute it and rectify it according to the correct dogmatic line.

Born around 185 to Christian parents in Alexandria, the city of all the doctrines, Origen was in his adolescence when his father, Leonides, surrendered to torture in 201 and then perished during the persecutions of the New Prophecy.

Origen was initiated into Neo-Platonist philosophy, which he tried to accord with Christianity. A disciple of Clement of Alexandria, he combated the work of Celsus [titled] The True Discourse, which was directed against the new religion. In Rome he met Hippolytus, a bishop and philosopher, to whom the Elenchos is sometimes attributed. In the same way that Hippolytus (like Tertullian and the Montanists) vituperated the laxity of another bishop of Rome, Callixtus – whom many historians have taken for a pope – Origen, who succeeded Clement as the head of the Christian didaskale of Alexandria, entered into conflict with the bishop [named] Demetrius. It is true that Origen pushed the concern for chastity to the point of self-castration, in order to resist, without beating around the bush [sans ambages], the temptations of the flesh. Forced into exile in Caesarea in 231, he died from tortures inflicted around 254 under the persecution of Decius.

Received badly by the clerical party of the lapsi, Origen – a century after his death – drew upon himself the displeasure of Epiphanius of Salamis, and he was then officially condemned by Emperor Justinian the First at the second Council of Constantinople in 553.

The Church reproached Origen for having neglected the historical character of Jesus-Christ, which was, no doubt, too recently invented and which the skill of Rufinus – who amended, expurgated and corrected everything that did not agree with this dogma – did not succeed in introducing.

Interpreting the Bible in an allegorical sense, Origen identified the Christ with an eternal Logos named Joshua, who returned to the Father without ceasing to be present in the spirit of the Christians. His commentaries on Jesus, son of Noun, explain, “God gave the name Jesus-Christ our Lord to him who is above all names. Therefore, the name that is above all names is Jesus (…) And because this name is above all names, over the generations no one has received it.” And Origen recalled the first mention of Jesus. It is found in Exodus: “God summoned Jesus and sent him to fight against Amalek.”

In her preface to the Homily about Joshua/Jesus, Annie Jaubert emphasizes the importance of the typology of Joshua: “The reason is that this typology constituted itself precisely in opposition to Judaism. No one being greater for the Jews than Moses, prophet and legislator, the Christians had to prove that the Old Testament, through the person of Jesus Nave, had already manifested the superiority of Jesus over Moses.”[8]

How can we not infer from such reasoning the appearance of Jesus as the mythical founder of Christianity at the beginning of the Second Century, a double of Moses that the Greco-Roman remake[9] erected as a Montanist agitator and then the founder of the Roman Church?

In fact, Origen preserved a Christianity whose spirit was originally formed in Alexandria, in the circles of Essenean, Nazarenean, Philonian and Elchasaitean speculations. Like Clement, he remained a Gnostic in the sense that knowledge unveiled to consciousness what the faith of the New Prophecy revealed to the body, that is, a purification in which access to salvation resided. In exchange for purification, God, in the infinity of his love, accorded a universal redemption in which the demons and the Devil himself could be saved.

Despite the calumnies of the so-called “Church Fathers,” the least limited of whom admired his erudition, Origen[’s ideas] would be perpetuated in the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Gregory of Nyssa, Johannes Scotus Eriugena and even Hildegarde von Bingen and Eckhardt.


Paul of Samosata, Bishop of Antioch

At the beginning of the Fourth Century, in Edessa, King Abgar – converted to the religion that had recently been recognized by the State – circulated personal letters addressed to Jesus-Christ and to which he had obligingly responded. Thus Abgar re-engaged for his own profit the operation engaged in by the Church in order to attribute the status of historical personages to Jesus, Paul and Peter. Later rejected as crude fakes, these letters only differed from the New Testament by their (too elevated) degree of improbability.

Like all of the potentates touched by the commercialism [affairisme] of Rome, King Abgar used Catholicism as an instrument of power. He reorganized the clergy of the city, conferred upon them a monarchal form, transformed the temples into churches and the traditional festivals into consecrations of the saints, and religiously marked out the space and time of the city, as the Church undertook to do at the level of the Imperium Romanum.[10]

Paul of Samosata, the bishop of Antioch in 260, anticipated King Abgar’s reforms by fifty years. To the title of leader of the Church of Antioch, he added those of Governor of the Syrian province of Commagene and Queen Zenobia of Palmyra’s Secretary of Finances.

Personage of the first rank in the region, Paul of Samosata was on the best terms with Zenobia, and favored a Syrian nationalism that aroused the suspicions of Rome and encouraged revolt by his peers and ecclesiastical rivals. A synod united in Antioch deposed him in 268.

Paul of Samosata’s doctrine showed the line of uncertainty in which the debate on the nature of the Christ was still stuck. For him, God had engendered the Logos that could be called the Son. The Logos inspired Moses and the prophets, and then Jesus, who was only a man when, during his baptism, the Logos entered him and transformed him into a perfect being. From then on, he accomplished miracles, triumphed over the sin in himself and in all men, with the result that his death redeemed and saved all of humanity. He pre-existed and judged the living and the dead.

Ironically, the synod that deposed Paul of Samosata would reject the term homoousios (consubstantial) by which he designated the identity of God and the Christ; this was the same quality that the Church imposed in the Fourth Century as the only Trinitarian truth.

Paul’s conception of the Trinity, it is true, took a personal turn that was hardly compatible with the idea that the Church would forge in the Fourth Century. According to Leontius of Byzantium, “he gave the name of Father to God, who created all things; the name of Son to himself, who was purely a man; and Spirit to the grace that resulted from the apostles.”[11]

Theodore of Mopsuestia attributed to Paul of Samosata a remark whose echoes – a thousand years later – still reverberated among the Amauricians and the partisans of the Free Spirit: “I do not desire the Christ because he had been made God, but because such as he was made, I was made, since this [godliness] is found in my nature.”[12]

The enemies of Paul of Samosata did not lie in an exaggerated fashion when they affirmed that, in Antioch, the psalms that were sung were less in honor of God than in his honor. Paul accorded a place for women in religious offices, but nothing permits one to affirm that this was not done in the manner of the Montanists and their virginal prophetesses.

The heresiologues detected his influence in the Nestorianism of the Fifth Century and in the Paulician movement that struggled against Byzantium in the Eighth Century.


[1] H. J. W. Drijvers, Cults and Beliefs at Edessa, Leiden, 1980, p. 194.

[2] Ibid., pp. 5 and 7.

[3] ID., The Book of the Laws of Countries: Dialogue on the Faith of Bardaisan of Edessa, Assem, 1965.

[4] ID., Cults and Beliefs at Edessa, op. cit., p. 222.

[5] Ibid., p. 219.

[6] E. Junod and J.-D. Kaestli, Histoire des Actes apocryphes des apotres, p. 41.

[7] C. Puech, “Audianer,” in Reallexicon fuer Antike und Christentums, 1950, pp. 910 sq.

[8] A. Jaubert, preface to Homélie sur Josué/Jésus d’Origène, Paris, 1960.

[9] Translator: English in original.

[10] H. J. W. Drijvers, Cults and Beliefs at Edessa, p. 196.

[11] Leontius of Byzantium, De sectis, 3, 3.

[12] Theodore of Mopsuestia, Une controverse avec les Macédoniens, Paris, 1913.


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



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