theology

The Persecution of Christians in Eusebius

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Koenig wrote that “Religious tolerance is something we should all practice; however, there has been more persecution and atrocities committed in the name of religion and religious freedom than anything else.” This post will look at the persecution of Christians through Eusebius’ Historica Ecclesiastica and other primary and secondary sources.  

It is difficult to apportion blame for this persecution, or whether individuals can even be held responsible, for truly the greatest contributors to persecution are those who do nothing when they have power to make a difference.  Eusebius like Lactantius implies that blame lies with Galerius though his implication does not directly name him; instead addressing Galerius as the long accepted “prime mover in the calamitous persecution.”[1] Lactantius agrees with this claim announcing that, due to his mother’s conceived hatred against the Christians for not following her ways, she instigated Galerius to destroy them.[2]  Why would Eusebius make the suggestion that Galerius was responsible? Barnes asserts that Eusebius was a prime supporter of Constantine and wrote in his reign.[3] His support for Constantine suggests that he could not offend those related to the Emperor, such as Constantius who reigned during the same period as Galerius as he would be indirectly offending Constantine himself.  It is also possible that Eusebius had a personal vendetta against Galerius, blaming him for the persecution of his fellow Christians.

Eusebius’ account also suggests that divine judgement was responsible for the persecution of Christians.  Eusebius expresses that “increasing freedom transformed our character to arrogance and sloth.”[4] Eusebius goes on to explain that divine judgement, God himself, gradually began to order things and the persecution began with the Christians in the army.  This indicates that Eusebius thought the Christians brought the persecution upon themselves for ignoring sins and abusing their own freedom. Eusebius’ suggestion of divine judgement further indicates that he was attempting to put a positive spin on the circumstances, making it appear that persecution was part of God’s ultimate plans, God being infallible. Barnes asserts that the purpose for this suggestion was to strengthen the belief that “God intervenes in history to ensure that the Christian Church shall prosper.”[5] This indicates that Eusebius may have even been suggesting that the persecution had its benefits in the prosperity of Christianity by laying the blame of the persecution in divine hands.

The account by Eusebius and other scholars shows that the persecution affected different areas with varying intensities, some greater than others. For instance, Eusebius describes the persecution at Thebais where people were subject to wild animals and other horrendous tortures.[6]  An analysis of Eusebius’ account of Thebais, Antioch and Nicomedia among others gives us the impression that though the Christians suffered horribly, there was always a faith that could not be taken from them, that there was a “most wonderful eagerness…in those who had put their trust in Christ.”[7] This gives us the impression that many Christians saw the persecution as a chance to prove their loyalty to God.

 The place where the persecutions appear to be carried out with the greatest intensity according to Eusebius and Lactantius was not a location in the geographical sense.  Eusebius highlights that the army was a key target and starting point of the persecution.[8]  An assessment of the army being central to the persecution suggests that there was an aim to strengthen the loyalty of military powers.  Eusebius also asserts that Nicomedia was a focus point.[9]  From this account we gain the impression that the intensity in Nicomedia was to primarily strengthen imperial powers. 

Other areas where we see an intensity of persecution as told by Eusebius were Antioch and Tyre.  ‘Historica Ecclesiastica’ recounts the “ordeal of the Egyptians who championed the faith so gloriously at Tyre.”[10]  Eusebius also indicates the great intensity in Egypt and Syria, stating that “we should feel equal admiration for those of them [Egyptians] who were martyred in their own country.”[11]  This statement also suggests that the persecution was wide spread.

Religion is more apparent in history than any other reason for persecution.  The persecution of the Christians under Diocletian is one such example where the persecution had varying consequences to the population and church even with the introduction of an edict of toleration.[12] The edict of toleration would have provided the majority of the Christians with a sense of relief.   Though, the sheer number of volunteer martyrs mentioned by Eusebius and Lactantius implicate that for the few the edict removed their chance to show their devotion.  Momigliano asserts that one such response is that some Christians voiced resentment in light of those who “survived in fear”[13] through the persecution rather than in physical pain. An analysis of this suggests that there may have been some resentment for the minority who appeared to seek the persecution.[14]  

The edict also created consequences in relation to ‘conscience’ and the unification of the church.  Chadwick assesses that there were many problems of conscience as a result of the persecution and that one such response was the rise of certain militant extremist groups such as the Donatists.[15]  The Donatists counted even the smallest of physical punishments as a worthy martyrdom and saw those who denied their faith, as traitors.  This suggests that militant ideas forced a widening division focusing on the legitimacy of certain clergy members. Chadwick assesses that these problems of ‘conscience’ in light of the persecution led to many adaptations of the law to meet particular cases. [16] 

Eusebius explains another ramification of the edict’s responses was that it set bishops against each other due to certain cleric’s militant ideologies.[17]  In achieving this, the church was further divided even though Constantine appears to be looking for a means of unification.  An evaluation of the responses to the edict suggest that it created a new though less severe bout of persecution, this time between the various factions of the Christian population.

The persecution of Christians under Diocletian is one example of the many religious conflicts throughout history.  Through primary and secondary sources we see where the blame of this persecution is aimed and that the persecution looked towards securing military and imperial power.  The persecution had several ramifications, showing us that even with an edict of toleration the church lay divided.  We do however see one continuing theme; that even in the face of extreme controversy and persecution, faith stood tall in the hearts of many even in the face of death.


[1]: Eusebius, Historica Ecclesiastica, Book 8 (Eusebius, The History of the Church, Penguin (London 1989), p.280 – Eusebius addresses Galerius as “the author of this edict” rather than by name.  Further reference to Galerius as the prime instigator of the persecution is found on p.281 as the man whom Eusebius wrote of on the previous page.

Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History was rewritten at least twice in light of the persecution, Eusebius wishing to leave a permanent account of the martyrs of his day

[2] Lactanius, De Mortibus Persecutorum,, 11-13 in Stevenson, J., A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD337 (London 1987), p.271 – Lactantius recounts the nature of Galerius’ mother in regards to the Christian religion not agreeing with her own and how she made sure her hatred continued in her equally superstitious son.

[3] Barnes, T.D., Constantine and Eusebius (London 1981), p.150

[4] Eusebius, op.cit, p.257

[5] Barnes, op.cit., p.162

[6] Eusebius, op.cit., p.265

[7] Ibid., p.265

[8] Ibid., p. 260 – primary attack on the army as an example as well as a means to secure military power on the part of the Arian persecutors

Lactanius, De Mortibus Persecutorum, 31.1-52.5 (Creed, J.L. (trans.), (Oxford, 1984), p.49

[9] Eusebius, op.cit., p.261 – significant centre of imperial power in the period, by securing the power of the imperial forces you secure more significantly the population which they rule over

[10] Ibid., p.264

[11] Ibid., p.264

[12] Barnes op.cit., p.159

[13] Momigliano, A., The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963), p.80

[14] Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (Glasgow. 1993), p.66 – provided a link to the apostles

[15] Chadwick, H., Studies on Ancient Christianity (Hampshire, 1984), p.XX47

[16] Ibid., p.XX47

[17] Eusebius, Vita Constantini, 22.1-61.1, Cameron, A. & Hall, S.G. (trans.), Eusebius, Life of Constantine (Oxford, 1999), p.115, book II 61.2-62

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An Introduction to Lucian of Samosata: Ancient Science Fiction?

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Long before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon in 1969, Lucian of Samosata and a band of heroes were travelling in outer space, encountering alien life-forms, interplanetary war and artificial intelligence. Lucian’s ‘True History’, and successive writings like Kepler’s ‘Somnium’, illustrates that dreams to reach the moon and beyond have long been in the minds of humanity. Lucian calls his work ‘The True History’. He claims it to be false and yet is there some truth after all? Where have Lucian’s claims come from? Is there mythological and ideological basis behind Lucian’s imagined journey? And has this fake ‘true’ history acted in any way to inspire humanity to make their dream of moon landing a reality?

At first appearance the True History appears almost absurd. Wine flavoured fish, talking trees, horse-vultures, sun and moon inhabitants at war, Ostrich-slingers, catapulting of huge radishes, winged acorns ridden by dog headed men, pirates sailing in giant pumpkins, cloud centaurs…etc. The story is certainly a bit different. After a war between the races of the Sun and Moon, on his subsequent trip to the underworld, he is put on trial for being alive in the land of the dead, and he meets a myriad of famous characters: the most famous of these being Homer. Lucian’s account claims the ‘true’ reason why Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey…basically why not?…

Lucian’s view of truth

Lucian opens his history by stating that “Men interested in athletics and in the care of their bodies think not only of condition and exercise but also of relaxation in season; in fact, they consider this the principal part of training. In like manner students…after much reading of serious works may profitably relax their minds and put them in better trim for future labour.”

Lucian’s main concern is the relationship between truths and lies. He associates lying with the poets, historians and philosophers who ‘wrote many marvellous stories’, such as Ctesias of Cnidos and Iambulus. He asserts that his own work will allude to these ‘liars’ in an approach which is mocking and amusing. Lucian from the very start confesses that he draws satirically on the fashionable tales of the past, but what is more imperceptive is the way he draws off the very truth of human character to look to certain things and ask questions as many a scholar and poet which he draws on has done previous. Lucian admits that he himself has turned to lies but defends his choice to tell them by admitting that there is nothing worth telling that has happened to him in his monotonous life. He justifies this by claiming he will be far more reasonable in his lies that the others. Lucian continues on a tradition of illustrating the human condition through fiction.

In his declaration and following introduction, Lucian parodies the preliminary works of Socrates at the commencement of his apology and Ctesias who claimed to be telling the complete and unvarnished truth. Lucian uses authorial and narratorial voices and in doing so exemplifies the way in which the truth and fiction are constantly threatening to coalesce. So Lucian is looking to show how the falsehoods can be presented as truths. But in doing so he is still presenting us with human truths which are the foundation of natural thought processes and with cultural ideologies in his context.

The journey – reasons and significance

The journey in the ‘True History’ is indicative of imaginative expressions, expressions of our desire to give shape and being to change. Lucian uses his writing to explore topics such as generic transformation, the construction of both individual and communal subjects and the contemporary sense of an ending. Augustine of Hippo explains this concept of expression and need for explanation well in his sentiment that “it is the mind that looks for things that are being looked for by the yes or any other sense of the body (since it is the mind which directs the sense of the flesh); and it is the mind that finds what is being looked for when the sense comes upon it.” Lucian is essentially displaying a sense of self and a questioning of life’s questions by developing the enquiries already laid out for him in myths and history.

The trip across the sea

Lucian’s voyage across the sea illustrates the journey, the physical portraying imaginative and inner thought. The physical outward journey of the travellers and our narrator is used by Lucian to present the inward mental journey. In doing this Lucian is presenting truth as well as fiction. It echoes the works of Homer in the Odyssey as a parody of the search for philosophical truth. McKee attests that the sea voyage embodies many of the elements of the tradition of allegorical interpretation of the Odyssey. I argue that this attestation has merit as Odysseus’ wanderings are paralleled in the major stages of the voyage in Lucian through successive episodes of peril and discovery. In Lucian however they are in the form of the moon journey, the whale and the Land of the dead.

The Sea had become a natural association with the philosophical journey by the time Lucian penned his so-called history. It had also become a standard symbol for Homer and epic poetry. Romm makes a fair analysis of the the analogy between Homer and the Oceans concluding that it was an especially popular concept in the late first and second centuries AD, when Lucian of Samosata was composing his works. Many of Lucian’s contemporaries use the image of the sea journey in their works. Longinus, On the Sublime. 35.3-4[1] and Quintilian, Inst. Orat. 10.1.46 to name but a few.[2]

Lucian’s voyage also demonstrates myth being used to parallel narrative to create symbolic readings. Lucian draws on the images and cultural understandings of myths such as the labours of Heracles to display his truths and questions. Lucian starts by travelling through the pillars of Heracles in 1.5 and arriving at the island of the Vine-women where the voyagers find an inscription recording the visit of Heracles himself in 1.7. This voyage across the sea has also been suggested as another part of the trip to the underworld imagery where the voyage across the sea is reminiscence of the river Stix. And the three-headed horse vultures in 1.11 who guard the moon are parallel to the Cerberus character of myth. The Whale episode in Lucian 2.1 when the travellers are trapped inside and escape by setting fire to the innards, killing the whale is reminiscence again of Heracles’ adventures in the rescue of Hesione by killing the sea-monster from the inside. I argue that this is a paragon of the Heraclean ideal of virtue where fighting from inside represented battling against illusion and falsehood itself. The whale episode has also been compared to a form of ‘descent for knowledge’ which is paralleled in Plato’s allegory of the Cave and Plutarch’s cave of Trophonius in de Genio Socratis 590A-592D.[3] This is a kind of journey for truth which is a search for knowledge in relation to an escape from a prison-like space of darkness where one is isolated from reality. The episode ends when knowledge has been gained and the voyagers escape back into the real world. This entrapment with eventual resolution is a recurring theme in the True History which is seen throughout Graeco-Roman epic. It illustrates how the mind searches for truth through knowledge and experience but only at the presentation of an intellectual torpor of lack of genuine original knowledge.

Lucian also parallels Plato’s use of initiatory journeys of the mind and soul which comes from a long tradition of mythical episodes. Plato’s Republic, for instance, relates the myth of Er in 614B-621D where Er recounts how his soul left his body and travelled to a place of judgement where the souls of the judged were separated between the good and the bad. The good souls went right and up and the bad went left and down (614B-E). This episode in Plato parallels Lucian’s account of the Isles of the Blessed and the Wicked in 2.29-31.

The journey to the moon

The journey to the moon illustrates the natural instinct that humans have to look up and wonder. It is a caricature of the human imagination as Kerslake puts it. Lucian’s portrayal of the moon and the sun at war partly illustrates the disagreement between the various groups of philosophers. Again Lucian presents far more truth in his fiction. The trip to the moon parodies the soul’s journey to the beyond, an idea that has obsessed the human mind since the beginning of time. It could even be related to the boarding of Charon’s boat, if indeed the idea is that the voyagers are all ready dead as some scholars have suggested. I argue that Lucian may have been echoing the journey to the afterlife but that he was doing it in the sense of the wonderings of the living and hence the voyagers are not dead. Death does not work as well with later parts of the narrative where they cannot remain on the Island of the Blessed because they still live. The war between the sun and moon peoples also satirises the wars of the Homeric tales.

Trip to the underworld

The trip to the underworld in the True History further demonstrates Lucian’s wish to find truth and the human desire to learn what comes after death. The Isles of the Blessed and the Wicked are an imaging of the afterlife as well as a way of posing questions to the dead which stayed at the forefront of the intellectual mind in the period. McKee asserts that Lucian here parallels Plato’s dialogue Phaedo which described the final hours of Socrates’ life when he tells his followers that he does not fear death because the soul of a moral person ‘departs to the place where things are like itself – invisible, divine, immortal and wise; where on its arrival, happiness awaits it, and release from uncertainty and folly, from fears and gnawing desires, and all other human evils.’ This theme of thanatology illustrates Lucian’s conscious and unconscious need to explain the hereafter. It is a theme which still overwhelms the modern consciousness. We just need to look at modern media to see that it is a part of human nature to search for such truths. For example Philip K Dick’s novel Ubik which presents the afterlife as a strange and unnerving limbo, or Logan’s Run.

The underworld instalment includes the Isle of the Blessed, where the travellers are told that they cannot remain because they still live. Thus they can only stay seven months before they must leave and later be judged for their life’s actions upon their actual death. The episode shows what is termed by Holliday as, the ‘journey of the soul.’  This subsidiary journey of knowledge also includes the meeting of Homer and many of the philosophers whose writing’s and ideals Lucian is parodying in the True History. Ctesias and Herodotus also appear suffering punishments on the Isle of the Wicked because of their habit of lying so seen by Lucian.

The journey to discover the truth of life and death is continued in the concluding shipwreck episode of the True History. At the beginning of the narrative, Lucian tells us that the voyage’s goal is to reach the telos of the sea. Telos has many meanings in the Greek language but is also associated strongly with death and finality. The shipwreck episode has this sense of finality the equivalent of death and signifies the ending of the voyage and thus the end of this particular search for truth and knowledge.

Significance

We see that Lucian of Samosata was influenced by sources which he used to portray the ideas of truth and falsehood but have Lucian’s narratives stemmed from a deeper ideology and influenced later ones. We can see why many scholars have previously focused on how close Lucian’s True History is to modern day science fiction as science fiction is both symptomatic of cultural disruption and an expression of our desire for advancement and knowledge, using the future and the surreal to comment of the present and familiar as Lucian does.

The True History is also significant as it continues a theme very close to Lucian’s personal values. This theme is vastly seen in his earliest pieces such as his ‘Instructions for writing history’ where he bade the historian first to get sure facts, then tell them in due order, simply and without exaggeration or toil after fine writing. Lucian’s quest for the truth continues as he advises that the historian should aim not less at an enduring grace given by Nature to the Art that does not stray from her, and simply speaks the highest truth it knows. The dialogues of Lucian also aim at protecting against false opinions by bringing the satire of the likes of Aristophanes and the sarcasm of Menippus into disputations that sought to dispel false idols before setting upon discovering the truth.

You can see why it isn’t generally mentioned among the classics. The ‘True History’ seems a bit far-fetched for any audience. But if you want to read something different, written way back in the second century before the advent of Stargate, Mars Attacks and Independence Day, then I suggest you give it a look. And as we have seen, there is much truth behind Lucian’s fantasy. The basic structure of the True History deals with the concept of separate worlds between the living and the dead which is analogous with religious ideals. Parody and allusion are used constantly to create Utopian visions combining history and myth to answer questions of the mind and soul.[4][5] The True History is a means of commenting on the existing or potential conditions of Lucian’s field and society in fantastical settings. This is not so far removed from the political and social criticism of modern Science Fiction, for, in the ancient context especially; philosophy incorporates not only metaphysical, but also political and scientific concerns.


[1] Therefore even the whole world is not wide enough for the soaring range of human thought, but man’s mind often overleaps the very bounds of space. When we survey the whole circle of life, and see it abounding everywhere in what is elegant, grand, and beautiful, we learn at once what is the true end of man’s being. 4 And this is why nature prompts us to admire, not the clearness and usefulness of a little stream, but the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine, and far beyond all the Ocean.

[2] I shall, I think, be right in following the principle laid down by Aratus in the line, “With Jove let us begin,” and in beginning with Homer. He is like his own conception of Ocean,which he describes as the source of every stream and river; for he has given us a model and an inspiration for every department of eloquence.

[3] “He said that on descending into the oracular crypt his first experience was of profound darkness; next, after a prayer, he lay a long time not clearly aware whether he was awake or dreaming. It did seem to him, however, that at the same moment he heard a crash and was struck on the head, and that the sutures parted and released his soul. As it withdrew and mingled joyfully with air that was translucent and pure, it felt in the first place that now, after long being cramped it had again found relief, and was growing larger than before, spreading out like a sail; and next that it faintly caught the whir of something revolving overhead with a pleasant sound.  When he lifted his eyes the earth was nowhere to be seen; but he saw islands illuminated by one another with soft fire, taking on now one colour, now another, like a dye, as the light kept varying with their mutations.

[4] Utopian visions – utopian philosophical schemes, such as Plato, may also have been an important source for Lucian; these are parodied most extensively in the visit to the Isle of the Blessed, but some of the details of the life of the moonmen seem to be drawn from utopian visions – (ferguson (1975), Doyne Dawson (1992)

[5] Swanson (1975) suggests that Lucian’s VH ‘exposes philosophy, ostensibly a mode of inquiry into truth, as being patently effective, once it has come to a terminus in belief, only to the degree that it serves falsehood’ and proposes that the narrative can best be categorized as “philosophical science fiction”. P.230-231

 


 [A1]The man in the moone – Page 135

  books.google.com.auFrancis Godwin, William Poole – 2009 – 176 pages – Preview

Appendix B: From Lucian of Samosata, The True History [The ironist Lucian of Samosata (c. 125-c. But it is in Lucian’s True History that the moon is properly explored. The translation excerpted below is that of Francis Hickes,

Collected Ancient Greek Novels – Page 619

  books.google.com.auB. P. Reardon – 2008 – 827 pages – Preview

LUCIAN A TRUE STORY TRANSLATED BY BP REARDON Introduction The name of Lucian is well enough known, but usually one thinks of him not as a writer of romance but as a satirist. He did, however, write some works that we should characterize

Lucian and the Latins: humor and humanism in the early Renaissance – Page 187

  books.google.com.auDavid Marsh – 1998 – 232 pages – Preview

Lucian, True History. 1.3. For the Odyssey as “lying” model for Lucian. see Dane 1988, 70-73, “The Traveler’s Tale and the Lie”; for the Odyssey as the primordial hypertext of Western literature, see Genette 1982, 200-201. 20.

Lucian‘s True history

  books.google.com.auLucian (of Samosata.) – 1902 – 117 pages – Snippet view

LUCIAN: HIS TRUE HISTORY. EVEN as champions and wrestlers and such as practise the strength and agility of body are not only careful to retain a sound constitution of health, and to hold on their ordinary course of exercise,

Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a sourcebook of basic documents – Page 471

  books.google.com.auThomas K. Hubbard – 2003 – 558 pages – Preview

10.11 Lucian, True History 1.22 The True History was a kind of science fiction novella, based on fantastic voyages to faraway places populated by strange races with unique customs. I should like to describe the novel and unusual things

Trips to the Moon – Page 33

  books.google.com.auLucian of Samosata – 2007 – 100 pages – Preview

Lucian’s True History, therefore, like the Duke of Buckingham’s Rehearsal, cannot be half so agreeable as when it was first written; there is, however, enough remaining to secure it from contempt. The vein of rich fancy, and wildness of

Utopian thought in the Western World – Page 103

  books.google.com.auFrank Edward Manuel, Fritzie Prigohzy Manuel – 1979 – 896 pages – Preview

Virtually all the major Utopian themes of the novelistic Greek Utopias are parodied in the True Story of Lucian. This second-century rhetorician and satirist had served as an administrator for the Romans in Egypt, and in the spirit of

The library of wit and humor, prose and poetry: selected from the …: Volume 4

  books.google.com.auAinsworth Rand Spofford, Rufus Edmonds Shapley – 1894 – Snippet view

THE TRUE HISTORY. (Translated by W. Tooke.) [LcciAN, a classic satirist and humorist of the first merit, Lucian was one of that class of men who do not readily embrace any form of religion — men whose sharp critical eyes see too

Lucian‘s science fiction novel, True histories: interpretation and … – Page 5

  books.google.com.auAristoula Georgiadou, David Henry James Larmour – 1998 – 254 pages – Preview

Allegory was well-established as a literary and philosophical technique before Lucian’s day and was current at the aim is to propagandize social change, imaginary voyages like Lucian’s The True History, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

 

Philology: Introduction to the Significance of Language Analysis

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When you first enter an ancient history or archaeology degree you are introduced to several sets of material evidence. Notably, the archaeology, material evidence, and philological evidence. But the philological side is more often than not rarely mentioned again. This is quite a shame considering some of the most interesting and revealing information comes from the ancient written sources. People generally fall into the trap of ignoring the writing in favour of the archaeology and artefacts and frankly you can’t really blame them because humans are naturally attracted to pretty visual things. I see this every day with the likes and shares on my Facebook page. But philology is all important too and if students can learn even a little about ancient writing and textual criticism, a whole new side to history and analysis opens up to them as it should.

DSCN0428BB - Clay Tablets with Liner B Script
DSCN0428BB – Clay Tablets with Liner B Script (Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis))

Philology is derived from the Greek terms φίλος (love) and λόγος (word, reason) and literally means a ‘love of words’. It is the study of language in literary sources and is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics. Philology is generally associated with Greek and Classical Latin, in which it is termed philologia. The study of philology originated in European Renaissance Humanism in regards to Classical Philology but this has since been combined to include in its definition the study of both European and non-European languages. The idea of philology has been carried through the Greek and Latin literature into the English language around the sixteenth century through the French term philologie meaning also a ‘love of literature’ from the same word roots.

Generally philology has a focus on historical development. It helps establish the authenticity of literary texts and their original form and with this the determination of their meaning. It is a branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development and relationships of a language or languages. This makes it all the more significant to study as language is one of the main building blocks of civilisation.

There are several branches of philological studies that can also be undertaken:

Comparative philology is a branch of philology which analyses the relationship or correspondences between languages. For instance, the commonalities between Latin and Etruscan or further flung languages of Asian or African provinces. It uses pre-determined techniques to discover whether languages hold common ancestors or influences. It uses comparison of grammar and spelling which was first deemed useful in the 19th century and has developed ever since. The study of comparative philology was originally defined by Sir William Jones‘ discovery in 1786 that Sanskrit was related to Greek and German as well as Latin.

Cognitive philology studies written and oral texts in consideration of the human mental processes. It uses science to compare the results of research using psychological and artificial systems.

Reconstruction of the missing Greek text on th...
Reconstruction of the missing Greek text on the Rosetta Stone

Decipherment is another branch of philology which looks at resurrecting dead languages and previously unread texts such as done and achieved by Jean-Francois Champollion in the decipherment of Hieroglyphs with the use of the Rosetta Stone. And more recently by Michael Ventris in the decipherment of Linear B. Decipherment would be key to the understanding of still little understood languages such as Linear A. Decipherment uses known languages, grammatical tools and vocabulary to find and apply comparisons within an unread text. By doing so more of the text can be read gradually as similarities and grammatical forms become better understood. The remaining text can then be filled in through further comparison, analysis, and elimination of incorrect solutions.

Textual philology editing is yet another branch of philology with includes the study of texts and their history in a sense including textual criticism. This branch was created in relation to the long traditions of Biblical studies; in particular with the variations of manuscripts. It looks at the authorship, date and provenance of the text to place it in its historical context and to produce ‘critical editions’ of the texts.

Significant Examples:

The importance of philology is exhibited in its use and achievements. Without philology the bible translation would be even more wrong, trust me read it in the original Greek. We would not be able to translate hieroglyphs, Linear B, Linear A, Sanskrit, any ancient language. Our entire written past would be blank, we would not have the information we have now on mathematics, social structure, philosophy, science, medicine, civilisation, transport, engineering, marketing, accounting, well anything really, knowledge would not have been rediscovered or passed on without the ability to study texts and language. Understand the love of words.

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This site is aimed at similar people who are interested in archaeology, ancient history, philology and epigraphy. Interesting stories, archaeological tidbits and blogs will be put up as I partake in digs myself and come across things to share.

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Differentiation of Christians and Jews in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries

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Pontius Pilate asked ‘What is truth?’ Both Christians and Jews viewed themselves as the portrayers of truth; The Romans viewed both as conveyers of false religion.  But how and why did the Christians differentiate themselves from Jews in the second and third centuries and how did the Romans distinguish the Christians and the Jews from each other? This essay will explore the how these groups were differentiated and distinguished in this period and what implications the Roman perspective has for the way we view the relationship between Christians and Jews.

Antonio Ciseri's depiction of Pontius Pilate p...
Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting Jesus to the people.

In order to assess how and why Christians differentiated themselves from Jews in the second and third centuries it is necessary to explore texts by Christian writers in this period. Unfortunately there is a limited corpus of texts available from the second and third centuries. Despite this, the words of writers such as Aristides, Tertullian, Ignatius and Justin give us some understanding of the differentiation made and why they were distinguished by the Christians.  Regardless of which group is being referred to, the overriding theme is prescription of correct practices.

In examining the Christian texts, one of the main points of differentiation relates to the concept of truth.  The Christians saw themselves as the conveyors and students of truth and the Jews as a people who had erred from true knowledge.  Aristides, a second century writer, asserts that the Christians have come nearer to truth and genuine knowledge than the rest of the nations and the Jews have strayed from truth and instead make observances to angels and not to God.[1]  Tertullian, writing from the end of the first century and into the second, in his Apology also makes this differentiation, explaining that with truth comes hatred of truth, Jews are strangers to the truth and hence Christians are the enemies.[2]

The Christians also differentiated themselves from the Jews in terms of origins.  Tertullian explains that the Christians traced the origins of their religion to the reign of Tiberius, from Jesus the ‘son of God.’[3]  Aristides also expresses this in his Apology, saying that the Christians trace their religion to the Messiah.  Aristides explains that this is a significant difference between the Jews and the Christians as the Jews trace their origins of their religion from Abraham, ‘who begat Isaac, of whom was born Jacob. And he begat twelve sons who migrated from Syria to Egypt; and there they were called the nation of the Hebrews, by him who made their laws; and at length they were named Jews…’[4]  The Christians appear to be very determined, moving through the second and third centuries to express that there was little place in the Christian religion for Jewish laws and customs, this may be a significant reason why the Christians differentiated themselves in relation to origins.  But Christian writers in most cases do not attempt to completely divorce themselves from origins from Abraham.  Justin, for instance, asserts that Christians are the true spiritual descendants from Abraham; this terminology though still gives a distinct sense of differentiation between the Christians and the Jews.[5]

Christian texts from the second and third centuries illustrate that customs and laws were also used as a basis for differentiation. Frend assesses that Christians saw themselves as the ‘true Jews’, ‘the true vine’, but rejected Jewish ceremonial law.[6]  It was the rejection of this claim by Jews and Romans alike that led to the Christian’s often precarious situation.[7] One of the most evident of these differences is that of food laws.  Barnabas lays out the food-laws of the Jews; “Ye shall not eat swine, nor an eagle, nor a hawk, nor a crow, nor any fish…”[8]  Jews were also distinguished often by their clothes and dwellings in a separate quarter of the urban community, distinctions that the Christians rejected explicitly.[9]  Aristides also outlines some of these distinctions; he explains that unlike the Christians, the Jews celebrate the beginning of months, feasts of unleavened bread and a great fast, and fasting and circumcision and the purification of meats.[10]  Tertullian again illustrates how the Christians differentiated themselves from Jews in this way, stating that ‘we neither accord with Jews in their peculiarities in regard to food…sacred days…bodily signs, nor in the possession of a common name;’ which he suggests surely the Christians would if their God and religion were the same.[11]  The Didache even lays out the situation in reference to fasting and how Christians should make a point of fasting on days which are not fasting days of Judaism, of ‘hypocrites.’[12]

Justin Martyr
Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr wrote that the Jews ‘did not recognise Christ even when He came…He was crucified by them.’[13] In examining how the Christians distinguished themselves we see that many saw the Jews’ unrecognition of Jesus as Son of God as a key point. The Jews were seen as having rejected Christ and so were rejected by Christ.  The rejection of Christ by the Jews is an important point when assessing why the Christians took the liberty to differentiate themselves from the Jews so explicitly.  Aristides expressed that the Jews were the murderers of Jesus; pierced and crucified by them.[14]  Not only did the Jews reject the basis for the Christians origins but expressed it as blasphemy as Justin notes with Barchochebas, the leader of the Jewish revolt, who gave orders that Christians alone should be led to cruel punishments unless they would deny Jesus Christ and utter blasphemy.[15]

Melito in relation to the Jews and their rejection of Christ appears to even accuse them of deicide.[16]  The Jews are said not to have understood that which their own prophets predicted and therefore did not recognise Christ when he did come and so in seeing Jesus treated him with contempt.[17] In comparison, the Christians embraced him despite their lack of knowledge and prophecy.  In the minds of the Christians the Jews had killed Christ which is probably why this accusation of deicide appears in the likes of Melito. It seems a fair assessment that this ideology of the Jews would have been a key factor in why the Christians wished to be defined apart from the Jews as they had rejected the saviour, especially since the Christians saw themselves as the chosen people, despite lacking the wealth and the antiquity of the Jews.  Whether this rejection was out of ignorance or divine will is a subject which was debated and questioned even in the period under examination.

Throughout the majority of Christian texts addressing the Jewish religion a recurring theme of differentiation is the idea of old and new.  For instance, Tertullian asserts that the Jews had false trust in their ‘noble ancestors’; and Ignatius advises in his letter to the Magnesians not to be led astray by ‘old fables’ and that the Jewish converts walked in ‘ancient customs’ where as the Christians walked in a ‘new hope’.[18] The Christians did not have the antiquity that the Jews had and differentiated themselves through a sense of newness and regeneration.  Barnabas illustrates this stating that he made us new by the remission of sins he made us ‘another type’, that we should have the soul of children, as though he were creating us afresh.”[19] This idea of Christianity as new is also seen in the Roman texts but is seen in a different, more negative light.  Ignatius in his letter to the Philadelphians expresses that in the end Christianity was seen by the Christians as the superior group and their teachings and religion was to be preferred before all others.[20]  The Jews were seen as the lesser group and should only relate to the Christian teachings to show the superiority of the Christians.

The question remains of how the Romans distinguished the Jews and the Christians in the second and third centuries. The Romans distinguished the Jews as a special people in contrast to other groups due to their imageless worship (ἀθεότης), refusal to participate in the traditional and their exclusiveness (ἀμιξία). This exclusiveness and separation from the rest of society was a key point of differentiation that the Romans made between the Christians and the Jews.  The Jews kept to themselves whereas the Christians interacted with the rest of the community.  Caecilius illustrates this, describing the Jews as a people who ‘skulk and shun the light of day, silent in pubic…the lonely and wretched race of the Jews…but the Christians! What marvels, what monsters to they feign!’[21] This indicates that the Jews were distinguished from the Christians as not only a separate group but as a people who purposely isolated themselves from society.  Tacitus also expresses this idea of isolation, explaining that the Jews sit apart at meals, sleep apart and do not associate with strangers and foreigners.[22]  The exclusivity of the Jews seems to have been also a way that the groups were distinguished.  Jews were exclusive, Christians were not.

There are unfortunately few pagan references to Christianity in the second century but from the few sources available it appears that Romans also distinguished the Christians from the Jews in relation to the idea of a third race the ‘genus tertium’, though this idea is often debated by modern scholarship. The Treatise Scorpiace, for instance, indicates that the designation of Christians as a third race was common in Carthage in the third century.[23]  This designation was made on the grounds of faith and is implicit of a distinction between the Jews and the Christians; the Romans being the first race, the Jews the second, and the Christians the third. Tertullian also refers to this distinction made by the Romans, stating ‘Tertium genus [dicimur] de ritu.’[24] This distinction of Ἕλληνες, Ἰουδαῖοι, and Γαλιλαῖοι is seen throughout literary evidence, both Christian and Roman, and appears to be a key way that the groups were distinguished by the Romans.  This distinction is one that was made in relation to Roman society and is not to be confused with other ideas of race distinction based on locality which was also a common distinction in the period, as the Christians and the Jews were ‘genos’ based within the Roman populace.

The Christians differentiated themselves from the Jews in terms of presenting themselves as a new hope, a new faith.  The Romans also made distinctions between Christians and Jews by distinguishing Christians as new.  Benko explains that Christianity was seen as a new superstition that could not claim the sanction of antiquity like Judaism could.[25]  Even Tacitus who describes the Jews as ‘perverse and disgusting’ admits that ‘Jewish worship is vindicated by its antiquity.’[26]  Christianity, like Judaism, was seen by the Romans as ‘perverse and disgusting’ but was distinguished by also being ‘foreign and new’ and therefore much worse than Judaism.[27]  Frend also asserts that in the second and third centuries the Jews needed not the introduction that the Christians did.  This further suggests that the Romans distinguished the Jews and the Christians as old and new.  The newness of Christianity and that Christians did not offer tangible substitute of loyalty to the Empire like the Jews did was regarded as proof of subversive intent.[28] Saying this, Christianity was seen as a new thing but not necessarily as a new religion in itself but an invading one, new to society, and Christians were seen as people who had turned their backs on the traditions of their forefathers.

Literary sources also indicate that the Romans distinguished Christians and Jews in relation to physical attributes, for instance, circumcision and imagery. The pagan writer Tacitus shows this distinction by asserting that the Jews adopted circumcision as a mark of difference from other men.[29]  A difference between the Jews and the Christians that the Romans also exhibited knowledge of was the idea of imagery and idolatry that was practiced by the Christians but not by the Jews.  Tacitus again alludes to this distinction, stating that the Jews ‘do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples.’[30]  This indicates that the Romans, not unlike the Christians, made distinctions between the two groups on a basis of customs as well as beliefs.

The Romans also distinguished Christians from Jews as they regarded Judaism as a genuine faith and Christianity as a subversive counterfeit.[31]  This, along with the distinction of old and new, relates significantly to the large number of stories about the Christians which contributed to the distinctions made.  Tertullian shows this distinction through accusations that the Christians killed children as part of holy rites, practiced incest and impious lusts.[32]  He explains that this was the type of thing that Christians had long been accused of and that no pains had been taken on the part of the Romans to elicit the truth of the accusations.  Frend also alludes to Octavius 150-160 which distinguishes the Christians as users of black magic, initiators of scandal and Bacchanalianism.[33]  Suetonius also accuses Christians of using magic and introducing a new and dangerous superstition.[34]  This is indicative of one means of distinction used by the Romans.  The Jews do not seem to be subject to such explicit accusations in this period as they were regarded as a genuine faith; the Christians on the other hand were distinguished as a superstitio through rumours and ideas created through distinct lack of knowledge.

The majority of points of distinction made by the Romans are of a particularly negative nature during this period, especially in regards to the Christians, who they regarded as new and dangerous.  Examination of some texts though illustrates namely two things; firstly that little was known about the Christians and so many distinctions were made in relation to rumours or other groups such as the Jews, and secondly that in this period there appears to have been a sense of leniency towards the Christians that distinguished them from the Jews on behalf of the Romans. For instance, under Hadrian in the second century the Roman imperial powers appear to have made a distinction in favour of the Christians.[35] Granianus thought it unjust to kill Christians without accusation or trial, to appease popular clamour. Hadrian wrote back saying that petitions and popular accusations should not be recognised.[36]  In light of the suppression of Jews in Asia Minor at the time this presents a distinction lenient to the Christians, despite Hadrian leaving the general question of Christianity rather vague.  It also expresses that while popular view was that Christians were a threat, Roman imperial powers saw them more as just a nuisance.

This sense of distinction is also seen in Pliny and Trajan’s correspondence.  These letters display a lack of knowledge in regards to the Christians and a leniency by imperial powers.  Pliny shows this lack of knowledge, stating that he does ‘not know what offenses it is practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent.’ Whether it is the name itself, even without offenses or only the offenses associated with the name that are to be punished.’[37] Pliny and Trajan do not appear to believe that Christians constituted a threat to the security of the State, though popular belief was that Christians detracted from the unified empire.[38]  Trajan almost seems tolerant and tells Pliny that Christians aren’t to be hunted but if denounced put to trial.[39]  The Roman perspective in many cases appears to be that the Christians were not a religious problem but one of disloyalty where as the Jews still paid their due to the Empire.  This suggests that the rulers were mostly acting on the demands of the pagan majority and common opinion.  In a period where the Jews were revolting and causing extensive problems, these ideas indicate a differentiation between groups.

The list of ways that the Romans distinguished Jews and Christians is diverse and variable throughout time and localities, so what is discussed above is a collection of some of the most widely spread and explicit ideas.  The way that the Romans saw the Jews and the Christians in the second and third centuries cannot be fully recognised in the present day, even when one attempts to fully explore these ideas and the branches of information and ideologies that spring from them.  Like the modern scholar, the writings of the second and third centuries were greatly hampered by bias and influence, and this again makes it difficult to assess how and why differentiations were made.  In order to create a better picture of how and why, a more extensive study needs to be made than is possible here.

The Roman perspective that we can reproduce from texts does have a variety of implications on the way we view the relationship between Christians and Jews in this period.  At first thought one might think that the Jews and Christians were both groups separate from Roman society and so understood each other’s predicaments.  This is the kind of idea the Roman perspective often implies.  There is the distinction of races; Romans as the first, Jews as the second and Christians as the third; despite this being a somewhat clear distinction by the Romans, the idea remains of there being the Romans and then the others.  The implication here is that the relationship between the Jews and the Christians was not a bad one, as they both fell into the category of degraded foreign cults.[40]  Other distinctions though are implicit of bad relations between Jews and Christians.  The distinction of old and new which is often imposed by the Romans has the implication that we view the relationship between Christians and Jews in this period on those terms, as a contest between old Israel and the new.[41]

As you can see, there are several ways that the relationship between Christians and Jews in this period can be viewed.  This is particularly influenced by whether one is looking at the Roman perspective as seen through the eyes of the Romans or of the Christians and Jews.  For instance, when looking at the Roman perspective of Christians in relation to accusations of magic, from the Roman writings we see mainly ignorance and rumour; but from looking at the Roman perspective from Christian writings we see an accusation of spreading rumours and hatred, accusations spread by the Jews to downsize and hurt the Christians, displaying a very negative relationship.  When looking at Roman writings, the implication is that we look onto the relationship between Jews and Christians with a limited knowledge and habit of distinguishing groups only to a certain point. When looking at the Roman perspective from Christian and Jewish texts, the way we view the relationship is fairly different, more severe and distinct but is influenced by the perspective of the groups in question themselves.  The Roman perspective in general implies a sense of ignorance or subjective thought in the way we view the relationship between Jews and Christians.

1250 French Bible illustration depicts Jews (i...
1250 French Bible illustration depicts Jews (identifiable by Judenhut) being massacred by crusaders

The Christians differentiated themselves explicitly from the Jews in the second and third centuries as can be seen in numerous Christian texts from the period.  This was done in relation to differences in customs, ideologies and philosophies such as origins, physical differences like circumcision and the idea of truth.  This differentiation was made based on ideas of competition and rivalry of old and new as well as clashes in ideology.  The Romans also took time to distinguish them on the basis of antiquity, origins, customs and accusation and this Roman perspective, which is seen in Roman, Christian and Jewish texts, has implications on how we view the relationship between Christians and Jews as the Roman perspective presents a different picture of the relationship than the Christian and Jewish perspectives and is generally a more available perspective due to the limitations of sources.


 

Bibliography

Modern Sources:

Adler, M., The Emperor Julian and the Jews, in The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol.5, No.4 (Jul.1893), pp.591-651

Barnes, E.W., Rise of Christianity (London, 1948)

Barnes, T.D., Legislation against the Christians, in The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol.58, Parts 1 and 2 (1968), pp.32-50

Benko, S., Pagan and the Early Christians (London, 1984)

Bickerman, E.J., The Name of Christians, in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol.42, No.2 (Apr., 1949), pp.109-124

Cochrane, C.N., Christianity and Classical Culture (London, 1968)

Frend, W.H.C., Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1967), pp. 155-172, 461-466

Hazlett, I., Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to AD 600 (Nashville, 1991), pp.52-64

Janssen, L.F., ‘Superstitio’ and the Persecution of the Christians, in Vigiliae Christianae, Vol.33, No.2 (Jun., 1979), pp.131-159

Keresztes, P., The Imperial Roman Government and the Christian Church, I: From Nero to the Severi, in ANRW II 23.1, pp.247-315

Keresztes, P., The Jews, the Christians, and Emperor Domitian, in Vigiliae Christianae, Vol.27, No.1 (Mar., 1973), pp.1-28

Lane Fox, R., The Spread of Christianity: Pagans and Christians (Canada, 2006), pp.428

Macmullen, R., and Lane, E.N., Paganism and Christianity 100-425CE: A Sourcebook (Minneapolis, 1992), pp.74-78

Macmullen, R., Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400) (London, 1984), pp.25-42, 132-138

Momigliano, A., The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963), pp.17-37

Poteat, H.M., Rome and the Christians, in The Classical Journal, Vol.33, No.3 (Dec., 1937), pp.134-144

Sanders, J.T., Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire: A Conversation with Rodney Stark, in Sociological Analysis, Vol.53, No.4 (1992), pp.433-445

Sherwin White, A.N., The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (Oxford, 1966)

Sordi, M., The Christians and the Roman Empire (London, 1986), pp.57-60

Wilken, R., Pliny: A Roman Gentleman, in idem., The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven, 1984), pp.1-30

Wilken, R., The Christians as the Romans saw Them (Michigan, 1984)

 

Ancient Sources:

Aristides, The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher, (Trans. From the Syriac Version, by Kay, D.M., University of Edinburgh) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/aristides-kay.html]

Barnabas, Epistle of Barnabas, from: Apostolic Fathers, Kirsopp Lake, (Loeb Classical Library) (1912)

Caecilius (in Minut. Felix, viii. f.), [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/harnack/mission.iv.viii.html]

Diadache (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html]

Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, trans. J. E. L. Oulton, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass. 1932)

Ignatius, The Letter to the Magnesians (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm]

Ignatius, The Letter to the Philadelphians (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm]

Josephus, trans H. St. J. Thackeray et al., Loeb Classical Library, Vols 1-10 (Cambridge, Mass, 1926)

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html]

Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-firstapology.html]

Melito, From the Discourse on Soul and Body (Trans. Roberts-Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/melito.html]

Pliny, Letters, Book X, 96-97 (Trans. Melmoth, W., Harvard Classics Series, reproduced from: Internet Medieval Source-Book, ed. P.Halsall [www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html])

Polycarp, The Epistle of Polycarp (Trans. Lightfoot, J.B.,) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/polycarp-lightfoot.html]

Tacitus, The Histories [http://www.novaroma.org/camenaeum/tacitus5.html]

Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian08.html]

Tertullian, Apology (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian01.html]

Tertullian, Scorpiace (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0318.htm]

The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (Trans. Hoole, C.H., (1885))


[1] Aristides, The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher, (Trans. From the Syriac Version, by Kay, D.M., University of Edinburgh) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/aristides-kay.html] Chapter XV

[2] Tertullian, Apology (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian01.html] Chapter 7

[3] Ibid., Chapter 7

[4] Aristides, op.cit., Apology

[5] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html]

[6] Frend, W.H.C., Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1967), p.130

[7] Ibid., p.130

[8] Barnabas, Epistle of Barnabas, from: Apostolic Fathers, Kirsopp Lake, (Loeb Classical Library) (1912), Chapter 10 – the food-law of the Jews

[9] Frend, op.cit., p.146

[10] Aristides, op.cit., Apology

[11] Tertullian, Apology, op.cit., Chapter 21

[12] Diadache (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html] 8:1

[13] Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-firstapology.html] Chapter 36

[14] Aristides, op.cit., Apology

[15] Justin, Apology, op.cit., Chapter 31

[16] Melito, From the Discourse on Soul and Body (Trans. Roberts-Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/melito.html] II 224-44

[17] Justin, Apology, op.cit., Chapter XLIX

[18] Tertullian, Apology, op.cit., Chapter 21 and Ignatius, The Letter to the Magnesians (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm] 8.1 and 9.1-2

[19] Barnabas, op.cit., 6.11

[20] Ignatius, The Letter to the Philadelphians (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm]

[21] Caecilius (in Minut. Felix, viii. f.), [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/harnack/mission.iv.viii.html]

[22] Tacitus, The Histories [http://www.novaroma.org/camenaeum/tacitus5.html] Book 5

[23] Tertullian, Scorpiace (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0318.htm] x.: a word to heretics who shunned martyrdom

[24] Tertullian, Apology, op.cit., I.xx

[25] Benko, S., Pagan and the Early Christians (London, 1984), p.21

[26] Ibid., p.22

[27] Ibid., p.22

[28] Frend, op.cit., p.192

[29] Tacitus, op.cit., Book 5

[30] Tacitus, op.cit., Book 5

[31] Frend, op.cit., p.208

[32] Tertullian, Apology, op.cit., Chapter 7

[33] Frend, op.cit., p.187

[34] Ibid., p.124

[35] Ibid., p.169

[36] Ibid., p.168

[37] Pliny, Letters, Book X, 96-97 (Trans. Melmoth, W., Harvard Classics Series, reproduced from: Internet Medieval Source-Book, ed. P.Halsall [www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html]) Book X, 96

[38] Sordi, M., The Christians and the Roman Empire (London, 1986), p.58

[39] Trajan in Pliny, op.cit., Book X, 97

[40] Benko, op.cit., p.21

[41] Frend, op.cit., p.133

Pre-Constantinian and Byzantine Christian Attitudes towards Images

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Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...
Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church. Illustrates Jesus’ description of himself “I am the Good Shepherd” (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11). This version of the image shows the detail of his face. The memorial window is also captioned: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs.”

Christian attitudes towards images in the early periods have been the subject of many scholarly debates over the more recent centuries.  First it seems necessary to look at the attitudes of Christians before the time of Constantine through the works of academics and Christian images themselves.  Scholars have often maintained that the attitude of the early Christians towards art was very negative.  Klauser set out to define proof of early Christian opposition to images based n the archaeology of the third and fourth centuries and believed that the attitude towards art was decidedly negative and aniconic.[1]  Finney assesses that the consensus view of images was primarily based on the Judaic roots of Christianity and Exodus 20:4.[2]You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters below.’[3]

It is difficult to analysis the attitudes towards images throughout both the pre-Constantinian and Byzantine periods let alone compare them and determine whether there was significant differences in attitudes between the periods.  One of the main reasons for the issues in analysis is the many varying opinions of recent scholars on the attitudes of early Christians.  Adolf Van Harnak for instance believed that early Christianity was undermined and thrown off track by Hellenic influence and that the new ideas and the manufacture of religious images was an intrusive and hostile move by the Greeks.[4] Klauser and Van Harnak among others appear to have set out to prove an opposition to images before the pre-Constantinian period.  This suggests that much of the evidence that scholars were examining of the era was in fact positive towards images.  So how is this positive view of images seen in the archaeology of the period and how does this attitude differ from the post-Constantine/Byzantine period if at all?

Klauser’s three step view of the changing attitudes of the early Christians towards artwork is an interesting standpoint by which to compare the archaeological and written evidence.  Klauser defined the pre-Constantinian period as iconophobic and aniconic on at least a clerical level.  The later periods are defined as a progression through the submission to pressures from the uneducated laity and then the introduction of images into the church itself as a compromise of early attitudes and practices that he describes as typically early Christian.[5]  With these points in mind it is possible to compare and assess the attitudes of the early Christians on art, keeping in mind that the views of the laity and the clerical classes would often differ.  Belting for instance explains that ‘whenever images threatened to gain undue influence within the church, theologians have sought to strip them of their power’[6] where as Klauser’s interpretation of attitudes includes the views of the people being a contributing factor in the placement of images in churches.

The Catacombs at Rome provide a unique standpoint from which the attitude to art and images can be analysed for the first centuries of the Christian religion.  Until recently with the works of Wilpert, the monumental nature of images in the catacombs has been widely ignored.[7]  The catacombs contain a large variety of early Christian artwork and imagery dating from the first to the fifth century AD.[8]  The evolution of imagery can through these examples be traces and in relation the attitudes towards images of the early Christians.  For instance, the earlier images in the catacombs consist of many traditionally pagan ideologies and symbols that have been inserted into a Christian context to serve as part of the new religion with either the same ideas behind them or an idea sculpted to suit a more Christian framework.  The images from the fourth and fifth centuries show an evolution to more crude and clumsy interpretations of the Christian artwork, indicating a change in attitude.  This suggests that the attitudes of the early Christian population pre-Constantine were largely based on a traditional foundation where as the later periods saw a change in attitudes and in relation a change in the imagery displayed.

Virgin and Child. Wall painting from the early...
Virgin and Child. Wall painting from the early catacombs, Rome, 4th century.

Pre-Constantinian attitude to images can also be assessed through the interpretations made of the images in the Rome Catacombs.  Richter asserts that the outcome of the art is very sure of itself indicating that the portrayal of images in a Christian context was a widely accepted and perhaps desirable part of the Christian tradition in the pre-Constantinian period.[9]  This idea is also expressed by the evidence of conformity to prototypes seen in the catacombs which suggests that certain images were widely displayed.  For instance, two images of the good shepherd in the catacomb of Domitilla which resemble each other in ‘conception and motive, but differ in important details…although evidently deprived from a common prototype.’[10]  Other images in the catacombs that appear to conform to a common prototype include the breaking of bread and the adoration of the Magi.[11]  Along with this evidence of commonality, scholars have asserted in recent years that the Christians wished to adorn the tombs of their loved ones with images like those that had been put up in their earthly homes, indicating a link to traditional classical antiquity that the early Christians seem to have continued in part whether purposely or subconsciously.[12]  These points indicate that the Christians of the pre-Constantine period actually held images in some regard despite the opinions of the likes of Van Harnak and Klauser.

Finney asserts that the early third century and before, though being a time of artistic license for much Christian artwork, was also a time of aniconism where many Christians did see images and the display of those images as being against their beliefs.  Finney though also attributed external forces to changing this view suggesting that the negative attitude towards images in relation to the early Christians was from near the beginning a part of their ideals but not so big a part of the overall christian attitude that I could not be swayed.[13]  For instance, in the pre-Constantinian period, Christians who carried out acts of violence directed at Pagan religious artworks would have ‘invited disaster’ suggesting that that attitude was pro-image or at least tolerant.[14]  This tolerance towards images is further evidence in Rome, Ravenna and in many other places in the west which saw works of great importance ‘executed in the early years of Christendom.’[15]

The attitudes of the early Christians towards images in the period of Constantine appear to be continually mixed.  The wide variety of ecclesiastical paintings and works of art displayed and attributed to this period suggests that the general attitude was positive rather than the negative view that Klauser and Van Harnak contribute.[16]  Constantine’s edict of Milan in 313 suggests that he aimed to impress the populace and express the new state religion in a way that would appeal to all.  These edicts saw a turning point in ecclesiastical history but not in art as the old pagan ideas and motifs were simply taken over and ascribed new meanings with few changes in style that could be attributed to the new faith.[17]  Constantine did this through the creation of elaborate churches, paintings and monuments to press the impression of the new religion of the state.[18]  This suggests that the general populace in the time of Constantine had an attitude that was decidedly positive and images were appealing rather than feelings concerning heresy. By impressing the populace in this manner it is indicative that the early Christians who were converted with the enforcement of the state religion and those who were already Christian were not opposed to images and they were accepted in this period as part of the religion itself.

Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as...
Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as patron saint of Istanbul, detail: Emperor Constantine I with a model of the city.

There are many elaborate examples of images being used in conjunction with the new religion early on.  Eusebius for instance describes in his ecclesiastical history the church at Type and its painting and architecture as well as describing in his Vita Constantini the Christian monuments at Constantinople, Nicomedia and Antioch and the architecture of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem.[19]  From these descriptions we can assess that the attitude of Christians in the Constantinian period was not entirely negative with Constantine himself (though he is reported to only have become a Christian on his deathbed) encouraging a taste for the liberal arts.[20]  Not only does this express the appeal of artwork to the people and the encouragement of its creation but it also illustrates that with the influence of traditional and pagan attitudes, which were still a significant part of Constantine’s thinking and the state’s, the Christians of this period appear to have acknowledged that art and in relation images had there place in society.

The attitude of early Christian is also illustrated through examples such as the early Christian mosaic at Deir Dakleh.  Dating to about the fourth century AD and discovered in 1918, the mosaic is a fine example of the high standard of art and workmanship that prevailed in the period suggesting that the attitude towards images and artwork was not completely negative.[21]  Artwork such as this indicates again that attitudes were not always towards the negative like many scholars believe but the degradation of the artwork and how like many images it was covered up over time suggests that either by the process of time or influence of changing views even the most highly of praised artwork saw a period where it was in a way downgraded in the hearts of the Christian population.

The use of images was continued in classical themes and elegance in a number of areas after the time of Constantine, for instance in Alexandria long after the adoption of Christianity.[22] This illustrates further that the attitudes were often mixed within the Christian populace as while many condemned it on the influence of Exodus and certain clerical groups and individuals, the artwork of the periods after Constantine before the era of the iconoclast still depicts many classical symbols and traditional images.  Such examples showing this include the niloctic landscape first applied to church decoration in the second half of the fourth century suggesting some symbolic meaning.  Also the famous letter of St. Nilus to Olympiodorus discussing the increasing number of biblical scenes in churches, and scenes on the walls of St. Maggiore in Rome dating to the fifth century indicate an acceptance of imagery despite much negative attention by the church.[23]

The attitude towards the image in the Byzantine period was influenced greatly between then and the pre-Constantinian era.  The constant attack on art by the Christians is seen with the belief that images were linked to atheism and superstition as well as sexual misconduct, a common complaint based on observed behaviour and a link to Judaism.[24]  Images were also condemned in light of apologist standpoints, though Clement applies platonic doctrine to refute the charge of atheism, seeing images as belonging to the plane of error and falsehood as related to platonic doctrine.[25]  For instance, some of the earliest Christian apologists interpreted the story of Diagoras as being in good sense when he ‘recognised a statue as a ‘mere piece of wood and he had the good sense not to confuse divinity…with hyle, which is created and perishable.’[26] This illustrates one of the most prominent attitudes of clerical society on and off throughout the periods which would have influenced the attitudes of the early Christians towards art as the Byzantine period went on despite the regeneration of positive iconophilic ideas and desire for images.

The attitudes towards images however would have like anything been subject to regional diversity and political, cultural and religious spheres of influence.[27]  For example, it is evidence that the elites of the fifth century suddenly and purposely turned against classicism and artistic tradition.  This can be seen in a series of diptychs made by officials in the west.[28]  The fifth century saw many conflicts surrounding this point though works of art continued to be executed in private and public sectors pointing to a continual desire for images in churches by the public and the clerical majorities.  For instance, the detail on the dome at the church of St George at Thessaloniki, showing Saints Onesiphorus and Porphyrius.[29]  This indicates that while in some areas the attitudes towards images were negative especially to the upper classes that held power, in other areas images were being embraced still by the population.

Icons in the Byzantine period are an excellent source of assessment of changing and differing views on images in the period that we can use in our discussion of early Christian attitudes.  Throughout the Byzantine period icons were continually the subject of debate throughout the empire and in a number of Councils in the eighth century.  Belting’s point is considerably the case in relation to iconography as these councils indicate that many ecclesiastical and political groups and individuals condemned the use of art when held a position of power.[30]  The debate over iconography is particularly illustrated as the icon became motive enough for murder and political repression.[31]

From the outset the display of icons was recognised as an adaption of many pagan practices and hence debate on their use appeared almost instantly.[32]  In the eighth century they became the subject of much debate, Gregory of Neo-Caesarea for instance said that ‘the foul name of images, falsely so-called, cannot be justified by the tradition of Christ, nor can it be justified by the tradition of the apostles and the fathers’ at the council of Nicaea in 787.[33]  The opinion of Gregory of Neo-Caesarea, as the tradition of Christians can not justify giving images a foul name, is just one example of one side of the debate that raged for several centuries.  The second Iconoclastic council, that of 787, condemned the definition of the first Iconoclastic council at Hiereia in 754 held under the rule of Constantine V. Both councils and the content of their debates illustrate the strong differing opinions between the iconoclastic and iconophiles factions in the Byzantine world and the mixed attitudes of early Christians on images in this period.

An Iconoclast is describes in the Oxford English dictionary as a person who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions or ‘a person who destroys images used in religious worship, especially one belonging to a movement opposing such images in the Byzantine Church during the eight and ninth century.’ The Iconoclasts were a faction that had a strong holding in Byzantine society and their attitude towards images is a prime example of what many early Christians thought of images.  This iconoclastic attitude is one of the main reasons that attitudes towards images would have differed from the pre-Constantinian period compared to the Byzantine period.  This attitude whether held by the many or the few within the Christian population had a great influence on the exhibition and creation of images in the public and private sectors.  The influence of the iconoclastic movement would have stuck in the mind of the Christians just as the influence of an historical event or opinion sticks in the minds of anyone as displayed in our own morals and values today; they are based if not completely then at least slightly on those of the past.

The attitude of the majority of the Christian populace is seen with the restoration of icons under Irene from 780 to 802AD during her joint reign with her son Constantine VI.  This illustrates that the attitudes of the populace which Irene is said to have represented were some what differing from that of the powerful clerical individuals and groups in the period.[34]

Hagia Sophia provides us with an excellent source of interpretation for attitudes towards images in the Byzantine period after the Iconoclastic periods.  Hagia Sophia envelopes the trends Byzantine artworks after the controversies that, as discussed above, ruled the eighth and ninth centuries of Christian tradition and thought and expresses a newly registered desire for images to be portrayed that in many ways parallels earlier models.[35] Hagia Sophia also shows us that the attitude of the early Christians in the Byzantine period paralleled in some ways those of the pre-Constantinian age as the Christians looked again to antiquity to help represent aspects of the Christian faith.  For instance, the representation of Christ in the Byzantine times in comparison to pagan representations of Hermes, Dionysis or Apollo, and also often Zeus, Hades and Poseidon.[36]

The attitudes of early Christians in the Byzantine period, though maintaining much of earlier positive vibes that are assessed with the existence and form of pre-Constantinian imagery, was however subject to the influence of the controversies of the centuries.  Morey asserts that the Christians, while they returned to a less negative attitude towards images, remained instinctively distrustful of sculpture and similar forms of imagery due to them being ‘too real’ in their depiction of supernatural themes.[37]  Hagia Sophia is a prime example of how images evolved over time after the Christians decided to look for an ideal ‘commensurate with both the humanity and the divinity of the Son of God.’[38]  The images of Christ and his associates which were for so long through blasphemous by much of the Christian population is seen at places like Hagia Sophia in abundance, displaying how the attitude towards images returned to a more desirable want for them.  The attitude to these images is further backed up by the existence of inscriptions in the same or similar contexts.  For example the inscription on the face of the apsidal arch bearing a similar line to that preserved in the Palatine Anthology, ‘Icons which the imposters here destroyed, the pious sovereigns have restored again.’[39]

Christian Attitudes towards images changed and differed through out the periods from pre-Constantine to the Byzantine period.  Not only was it subject to change over the natural course of time but due to the events that define some of this time; the reign of Constantine, the reigns of emperors after Constantine, the iconoclastic councils and the establishment of an attitude in the majority of the population which was pro-icons. Due to these influential events, edicts and the like, though the attitudes of the early Christians towards images in the Byzantine period were in some ways similar to that of the Pre-Constantinian period, they also differed.  The attitudes of the early Christians throughout the ages is seen in a large number of examples such as the catacombs at Rome in relation to pre-Constantine and the Hagia Sophia in the later times.  These show that attitudes differed over time though some ideas were maintained and renewed at intervals.


Bibliography

An Early Christian Mosaic at Deir Dakleh, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.34, No.193 (Apr., 1919), pp.144-145

Belting, H., Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (London, 1996), pp.1-14, 17-26, 30-36, 49-63, 102-109, 144-155, 164-173, 184-195

Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (London, 1993), pp.14-92

Cormack, R., Byzantine Art (Oxford, 2000), pp.1-37, 38-75

Downey, G., Education in the Christian Roman Empire: Christian and Pagan Theories under Constantine and His Successors, in Speculum, Vol.32, No.1 (Jan, 1957), pp.48-61

Finney, P.C., The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (Oxford, 1997), pp.1-15, 39-58, 69, 146, 229

Frend, W.H.C. Religion Popular and Unpopular in the Early Christian Centuries (London, 1976)

Frend, W.H.C., The Rise Of Christianity (Philadelphia, 1984), pp.600-610

Harl, K.W., Sacrifice and Pagan Belief in Fifth- and sixth-Century Byzantium, in Past and Present, No.128 (1990), pp.7-27

Hillgarth, J.N., Christianity and Paganism, 350-750: The Conversion of Western Europe (Pennsylvania, 1969), pp.46-65

Holy Bible: New International Version, Hodder and Stroughton (London, 1996), Exodus 20:4

Kitzinger, E., Byzantine Art in the Making: Main Lines of Stylistic Development in Mediterranean Art 3rd-7th Century (Massachusetts, 1980), pp.7-22, 45-66

Laistner, M.L.W., Christianity and Pagan Culture in the Later Roman Empire (New York, 1951), pp.4, 131-138

Mango, C., The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453 (Canada, 1986), pp. 3-21, 32-50, 55, 113-117, 123-181

Mathews, T.F., The Art of Byzantium (London, 1998), pp.7-9, 17-32, 43-70, 111, 137-143

Michaelides, D., The Early Christian Mosaics of Cyprus, in The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol.52, No.4, From Ruins to Riches: CAARI on Cyprus (Dec., 1989), pp.192-202

Morey, C.R., The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol.2, No.7 (Mar., 1944), pp.201-210

Richter, J.P., Early Christian Art in the Roman Catacombs, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.6, No.22 (Jan., 1905), pp.286-262

Spieser, J.M., The Representation of Christ in the Apses of Early Christian Churches, in Gesta, Vol.37, No.1 (1998), pp.63-73

Talbot Rice, D., Art of the Byzantine Era (London, 1997), pp.47-67, 132-135

Talbot Rice, D., Byzantine Icons, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.86, No.506 (May., 1945), pp.127-128

Treadgold, W., A History of the Byzantine State and Society (California, 1997)

Vermeule III, C.C., Roman Art, in Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol.20, No.1, Ancient Art at The Art Institute of Chicago (1994), pp.62-77

Whittemore, T., The Unveiling of the Byzantine Mosaics in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol.46, No.2 (Apr.-Jun., 1942), pp.169-171


[1] Finney, P.C., The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (Oxford, 1997)

Kitzinger, E., Byzantine Art in the Making: Main Lines of Stylistic Development in Mediterranean Art 3rd-7th Century (Massachusetts, 1980), p.9

[2] Ibid., p.15

[3] Holy Bible: New International Version, Hodder and Stroughton (London, 1996), Exodus 20:4

[4] Finney, op.cit., p.8

[5] Finney, op.cit., p.10

[6] Belting, H., Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (London, 1996)

Cormack, R., Byzantine Art (Oxford, 2000), p.1

[7] Richter, J.P., Early Christian Art in the Roman Catacombs, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.6, No.22 (Jan., 1905), p.286 – even though the source for this information is rather old in comparison to today’s newer resources, written 1905, it is still a well defined and structured description of the catacombs at Rome and holds significance evidence of points that are unchanged in the century since it’s publication.

[8] Ibid., p.287 – fifth century is the latest date that can be given to the catacombs images with any certainty as the latest inscription found in the catacombs does not go higher than this century.

[9] Richter, op.cit., p.290

[10] Ibid., p.290

[11] Ibid., p.292

[12] Ibid., p.292

[13] Finney, op.cit., p.9

[14] Ibid., p.39

[15] Talbot Rice, D., Art of the Byzantine Era (London, 1997), p.7

[16] Finney, op.cit., p.8

[17] Talbot Rice, op.cit., p.9

[18] Mango, C., The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453 (Canada, 1986), p.3

[19] Eusebius, Hist. Eccles X, 4.37ff – the church of Tyre (c.317) – describing painting in 63 – Mango, op.cit., p.9

[20] Cod.Theod XIII, 4.1 – edict of Constantine to the Praetorian Prefect Felix, posted at Carthage in 334 – ‘need as many architects as possible…encourage…a taste of liberal arts’ – Mango, op.cit., p.14

[21] An Early Christian Mosaic at Deir Dakleh, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.34, No.193 (Apr., 1919), p.145

[22] Talbot Rice, op.cit., p.14

[23] Mango, op.cit., p.22

[24] Finney, op.cit., p.40

[25] Ibid., p.43

[26] Ibid., p.49

[27] Kitzinger, E., Byzantine Art in the Making: Main Lines of Stylistic Development in Mediterranean Art 3rd-7th Century (Massachusetts, 1980), p.45

[28] Ibid., p.47

[29] Ibid., p.54

[30] Belting, op.cit., p.1

[31] Mathews, T.F., The Art of Byzantium (London, 1998), p.43

[32] Ibid., p.45

[33] Finney, op.cit., p.5

[34] De sacris aedibus Deiparae ad fontum, p.880, Mango, op.cit., p.156

[35] Morey, C.R., The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol.2, No.7 (Mar., 1944), p.202

[36] Ibid., p.202

[37] Ibid., p.202

[38] Ibid., p.202

[39] Morey, op.cit., p.206

Mark 7:31-37, The Healing of a Deaf and Mute Man

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Mark 7.31-37 records the miracle story of the healing of a deaf and mute Man.  This post will explore the verses and their connection to redaction, history and tradition.

Mark 7.31 describes the journey of Jesus and his disciples to the area in which this miracle of the healing of a deaf and mute man takes place.  When one looks at this journey on a map, the first thing that stands out is that Jesus appears to make a massive detour by going North and through Sidon from his starting point in Tyre. It is difficult to surmise why Jesus is said to take this root. Its absurdity indicates that the trail was historically accurate, simply because why would anyone make up such a detour and then not give pause to explain the addition. It has been suggested that Jesus took this route in an attempt to gain the necessary seclusion for the instruction of the Twelve which he had twice before failed to gain.[1] This is demonstrated in Mark 6.31-32, ‘Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat…So they went to a solitary place.’ Mark 7.24 closely precedes the miracle story in Mark 7.31 following.  It again demonstrates this required seclusions; ‘Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence a secret.’

Decapolis, the area of Jesus’ destination, was a ten-city group on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. Eusebius explains that the region included Hippose, Pella, Scythopolis, Philadelphia, Gerasa, Dion, Kanatha, Damascus, Raphana and Gadara (the site of the famous healing baths).[2] Each of the ten cities included numerous smaller settlements and dominated trade routes.  This presented Jesus and his disciples with an abundance of people, especially of the middle and lower classes, to which to expose to his teachings. Decapolis is also mentioned in Mark 5.20.  This occurrence acts as a preliminary exposure for the people of the region; ‘So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.’ This verse similarly parallels the reaction of the people in Mark 7.37. It is interesting to remember that the places mentioned in Jesus’ journey were inhabited by a large number of Gentiles, especially Decapolis which was a nominally Gentile region.

The state of the disabled man is interesting in its description.  The inability to speak clearly does not necessary mean that the man is neither dumb nor mute; more so it could be caused by the man’s deafness. The term μογιλαλον is a rarely found word which only again occurs in Isaiah 35.6; ‘Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the mute shall sing; for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.’ This verse in Isaiah and its preceding verses suggest that the wording of Mark was referring to a much earlier tradition from the Old Testament in Isaiah 35. Μογιλαλον could also mean ‘stammerer’ which would attest the man’s inability to articulate due to his deafness.

The movement away from the crowd in Mark 7.33 may have simply been to avoid the distraction and the unnecessary publicity. This verse could emulate the idea presented by Jesus’ journey mentioned above; an attempt to gain some seclusion in which to teach and perform his miracles. The reason for this act remains under debate. The act appears elsewhere in Mark 8.23 which could suggest a link to the secrecy motif in Mark and the association of Jesus’ identity and his actions which will be explored later in this paper.

Reasons that are possible for the act of taking aside from the crowd could be as simple as to conceal the manner of the cure, in order to be not distracted, and not to attract unwanted attention. This may be part of the historical Jesus, a window into his thought processes and attitude to what he was doing.  Similarly it is indicative of an addition by Mark in accordance with his motives to keep the identity of Jesus quiet within the population until the end; while maintaining Jesus’ relation to divinity and keeping the audience of his gospel informed.

Jesus’ methodology in curing the man is full of vivid detail which is indicative of the Markan gospel. Jesus put his fingers in the man’s ears. Then spat and touched his tongue. On first observation one notes that Jesus is identifying the ailments for everyone to see. There have been some hypotheses suggesting that Jesus is more so communicating with the man here saying that he understands his pain. This is a plausible hypothesis as it initially shows that Jesus can relate to human suffering. One hypothesis goes so far as to suggest that it is a form of sign language, while possible, the argument made in its favour is far too simplistic.

Medicine in this time and region was basically inexistent. Morton Smith explains that healing institutions and medicine remains primitive in Israel to this very day, and that in ancient times anyone with healing ‘powers’ was upheld in high regard by the population and highly sought after.[3] One of the main cures that healers provided was simply the placebo effect that accompanied the use of charms and medicinal cures. Jesus’ methodology for curing the deaf and mute man is indicative of the placebo healing method. Jesus was by then known for his cures and teachings and people really believed that they would be cured and hence were by faith alone in many cases. The healing in this story appears to be designed to evoke the co-operation of faith and to present the idea that, with faith, you will be opened to the will and teachings of Christ. Mark’s gospel often acted as a handbook, this story could have been used by Mark to convey this instruction. The ability of Jesus’ hands and saliva to heal is also suggestive to the audience of his divine nature. That he could remove the sins by simple actions.

The use of saliva was a significant and accepted remedy in the period and region. It is also seen in Mark 8.23, ‘He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spat on the man’s and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”’ The appearance of this cure in John 9.6 is implicit of the acknowledgement of saliva as a remedial cure; ‘Having said this, he spat on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes.’ The use of saliva was a well-known remedy mentioned even in Pliny the Elder. Pliny’s Naturalis Historia contains a whole chapter on the remedial uses of human saliva. Pliny first notes what Marcion of Smyrna says on the remedy before noting that Salpe (a female healing authority) believed that saliva could cure numbness if applied correctly.

  1. The Efficacy of Saliva

Stiffness is removed from any numbed limb if you spit into your bosom or if the upper eyelids are touched with Saliva. [4]

Placement of the hands in order to heal is repeated several times throughout the synoptics and could be interpreted as an acknowledged healing procedure in the period or an illustration of Jesus’ powers to heal. Mark 5.23 reads ‘Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.’ This healing touch is also expressed in Mark 6.56; ‘…they placed the sick in the market places.  They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.’  This suggests that Mark uses the touch of Jesus in Mark 7 as he does elsewhere, as a mark of Jesus’ divinity and that faith heals. Luke similarly emulates this healing technique and the message of divinity and faith in 4.40; ‘When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them.’ The touching of the ears is found in one notable synoptic comparison with Luke 22.51.  This verse tells of the who’s ear has been severed and Jesus heals him by touching the afflicted body part.

The look up to heaven and accompanying sigh in 7.34 give a connection to heaven and the divine that suggest that they are involved in the healing of the deaf and mute man. The sigh is an indication not that Jesus had difficulty in healing the man, but more likely a representation of the feelings Jesus felt.  This links back to Jesus’ human side, his ability to relate to humanity, to be human.  This is an important idea in Mark’s gospel as well as the other synoptics.  Luke particularly represents Jesus as the perfect ‘man’; as an example to humanity.

The sigh is an indication of Jesus’ emotions concerning the man and the compassion he feels towards him.  He is expressing his pity for the hardships of human life and the horrible things that can happen to undeserving people.  It is this form of human emotion and relation with Mark often likes to express in his gospel in relation to Jesus.

The magic word “Ephphatha!” used in Mark 7.34 could be a sign of the historical Jesus.  It means ‘be opened’ in Aramaic which many believe Jesus spoke along with Greek and Hebrew. Nazareth, where Jesus is said to originate from, was primarily Aramaic-speaking. The use of the word in this miracle story is implicit of the historical Jesus as Aramaic was a common language in the first century AD in Israel and the surrounding areas. The New Testament contains many examples of Aramaic (and Hebrew) additions, including Ephphatha. Some scholars believe that the gospel writers had access to Aramaic sources which they took from.  For instance, Q was possibly a collection of Aramaic writings. So the use of the Aramaic word and phrase may be representative of source material as well as the historical Jesus.

Other examples of the inclusion of Aramaic and Hebrew phrase are found throughout Mark.  Mark 5.41 includes the phrase Ταλιθα κουμ (טליתא קומי) which is Aramaic in a Greek transliteration. This generally translates to ‘Little girl, Get up.’ Mark 14.36 contains the Aramaic word Αββα (אבא) in Greek transliteration which is originally an Aramaic form borrowed into Hebrew. This phrase is also found in Romans 8.15 and Galatians 4.6. Εφφαθα (אתפתח) could be the passive imperative of the verb ‘to open’ and is also given in Greek transliteration, similarly to these other examples. Mark’s explanation of the word at the end of Ephphatha is indicative of his writing for a Gentile audience which he believed required him to provide some often highly detailed explanations.

In the days of Jesus, ailments such as deafness and muteness were often seen as either punishment for sin or possession by demons.  Jesus’ ability to cure these ailments presents him as one who can forgive sin and overcome demons.  This picture of Jesus would have been a powerful illustration of who Jesus was.  This may account further for the secrecy at the end of the story in relation to Mark’s addition of the Messianic secret.  The curing of the man highlights the identity of Jesus, so though the actual command for secrecy does not deal with the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, the miracle story as a whole attests to the fact.

Mark 7:37 expresses the amazement of the people who witnessed the miracle. This amazement is a logical reaction to witnessing such an act; even in this enlightened day one still is in awe of even a simple magic trick.  But why was this added to this particular story? Firstly, it is by far not the first inclusion of the reaction.  It appears numerous times throughout Mark (Mark 6.51, 5.42, 1.22, 16.8). The multiple uses of this reaction indicate that Mark is attempting to highlight the extraordinary nature of Jesus’ acts and teachings.  This amazement in turn would have provided a base for the revelation of Jesus’ identity at the end of the gospel. It is difficult to isolate whether this feature is redactional or historical, it is too logical a reaction for this to be determined; it could be both.

The amazement in hand with the people’s reaction in talking more about the miracle also says something of the Jesus presented in Mark’s gospel. It presents Jesus as a man of humility in that he wishes not to proclaim his own achievements; he is seen as a modest soul. This could be interpreted as Jesus setting an example, a form of his teaching.  Jesus, as the messiah, is not likely to be represented as one in danger of being ostentatious. The taking away from the crowd, the amazement expressed by the people and their talking of the act is implicit of the historical Jesus in that he would have recognised that there were those that saw him as an evil doer.  By taking the man away from the crowd Jesus limits the audience to only those who may have faith already or a wish for faith.  The amazement expressed by the audience and the modesty of Christ mean that others are more likely to believe what they are told.

The people talk more about the act the more Jesus asks them not too, which is essentially a logical and human reaction to being amazed or on hearing something unusual. Mark’s motive and Jesus’ attitude will be discussed below concerning this addition but first one should consider the message that this verse conveys in relation to its placement and context. It can be interpreted readily as if our ears are open to the teachings of God and Christ then we will have our tongues loosened to praise and prayer.[5] So while this verse appears to be an act of human nature, it also potentially holds an important message which coincides with Mark’s purpose.  It is instructional in that it outlines the benefits and result of opening oneself to God’s teachings; just as the man who is healed is ‘opened’ to the world.

The line ‘he has done everything well’ is an interesting point for interpretation It is plausible that this line refers to the idea which is pushed in all the synoptics that Jesus is the exemplar man. Luke particularly raises this view of Jesus. Mark 7.31-37 emulates that Jesus is indeed human in that he understands human reaction and emotion.  It also, in this line, expresses that he is what humans should be; someone who does things well, to the best of their ability, who understands others and forgive sins (just as he forgives the sins which are metaphorically the ailments of the deaf and mute man.)

Mark 7.36 expresses Jesus’ command to the witnesses not to tell anyone of the event that had taken place. This is not the only indication of secrecy in the Markan gospel; Mark 1.43-44, Mark 5.43 and Mark 7.24, and their synoptic counterparts (Matthew 8.4 and Luke 5.14 for 1.43-44, and Luke 8.56 for Mark 5.43) exhibit this also. There is evidence to suggest that these miracle stories and this command for secrecy was not directly to do with the messianic secret because the actual identity of Jesus is not an issue. Mark’s secrecy motif though indicates that the gospel writer did acknowledge these acts as works of the Messiah.[6]  This indicates a link between Jesus’ commands and the Messianic secret. It is possible that this was the originally use of these sayings, to provide a link between the identity of the Messiah and the acts that he performed.  When one considers redaction then Mark could have recorded the verses without their original sense (the link to the identity of the Messiah), if he chose to interpret them in a different way.

Jesus’ wish for secrecy appears obvious, but this assumes the attitude of Jesus based purely on his words and not on reaction.  With Jesus telling the people not to talk of the miracle, they talked more.  By this time Jesus would have surely been aware of the reaction people would have to his miracles and his commands.  Jesus’ intention could have been a form of reverse psychology which acted as a catalyst for the spread of the story.  This is though an issue of interpretation, attitude and redaction criticism which remains in contest.

Mark 7.31-37

31.) Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis.

32.) There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged him to place his hand on him.

33.) After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spat and touched the man’s tongue.

34.) He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means, “Be opened!”).

35.) At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue loosened and he began to speak plainly.

36.) Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.

37.) People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

Matthew 15.29-31

29.) Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down.

30.) Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them.

31.) The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

Luke 4.38-44

38.) Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Jesus to help her.

39.) So he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them.

40.) When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them.

41.) Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Christ.

42.) At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them.

43.) But he said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”

44.) And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.

Matthew 15.29-31 provides us with the means for synoptic comparison for the healing of the deaf and mute man miracle in Mark. Matthew’s version is a summarised version but still maintains several key features of the Markan version. These include; Jesus’ journey down the Sea of Galilee, the great crowds that confront Jesus and his disciples, the healing miracles (though they are more general and there is no detail in Matthew), the amazement of the people and their clear need to tell and praise what they had seen. Matthew’s version does not have the same emphasis and focus that Mark’s has but it maintains its placement and essence.

Matthew’s version is likewise placed between the two feedings and straight before the feeding of the 4000. The two feedings in Matthew illustrate the Markan priority Matthew generally exhibits; however the healing here, while having similarities, is outside the Markan priority.  This was probably in part due to Matthew’s differing motives and foci, but there is also evidence that Matthew decided to take this story from a separate independent source.  This is seen in the Greek wording in comparison to Mark. Unlike the feedings, the healings in Matthew have very few of the same words and phrase that Mark uses.  The only initial similarity in wording is seen in the ‘Sea of Galilee.’ One would expect that Matthew would at least use the same term for mute or amazement if he was taking from Mark, but he does not.  This suggests that Matthew and Mark both had sources which told of Jesus’ journey and healing of men but these sources were independent to the authors and both made their choices based on personal preference, if indeed they had a choice or more than one source. Matthew for instance, was not so concerned about the secrecy motif and so did not require additions concerning identity and secrecy.

Luke again only summarises the healing of many and does not recall the instance in Mark 7.31-37. Luke 4.38-44 tells of many people bringing Jesus various kinds of sickness and Jesus laying his hands on them healed them. Luke does not maintain the placement that we see in Matthew and Mark. Luke does though emphasise that Jesus wished to keep his title as the Son of God quiet; he silences the demons that shout ‘You are the Son of God!’ and would not allow them to speak because ‘they knew he was the Messiah’ (Luke 4.41). This indicates that Luke, like Matthew, knew of stories telling the journey and healings of Jesus but sources or at least motives differed between the synoptics.

Luke 4.43 emphasises an idea which, as discussed, could be behind the long detour that appears in Mark 7.31. Luke 4.43 expresses the travelling that Jesus must do to spread the word of God; this is expressed in Mark in the journey Jesus takes to Decapolis. There is also the need for privacy to teach which complements the idea that Jesus wished to get away from the crowds; if not to keep his divine identity a secret, then to teach his disciples in peace. Luke 4.44 shows that Luke’s audience and motive were unlike Mark’s which may explain the summarising of this miracle. Luke clearly highlights synagogues and Judea. From this, we see that Luke wrote for a Jewish audience or at least one with foreknowledge of Jewish customs. Luke, and similarly Matthew, did not need to provide such a Gentile orientated and specific miracle, so they could have easily decided to omit it or summarise it. Mark’s audience and motive benefitted from the inclusion of this miracle in full.

The miraculous healing in Mark 7.31-37 is part of two cycles of stories which each contain a water based miracle, three healings and a feeding. The healing of the deaf and mute man is accompanied by the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 6.45-51), and the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7.24-30). The placement of the miracle in Mark 7.31-37 is interesting considering its placement between the two feeding stories in Mark (the feeding of the 5000 and of the 4000). The healing of the blind and mute man illustrates the opening of the mind, mouth and ears.

During the feeding of the 5000, the disciples question the motives and actions of Jesus which requires Jesus to use strong imperatives. During the feeding of the 4000, after the miracle story has occurred, the disciples are more cooperative and confess their lack of understanding. The healing of the deaf and mute man represents the need for open ears to the teaching and actions of Jesus, and it is with this understanding that the attitude of the disciples appears to change as seen in the second feeding. This is further shown in the use of words within the two feedings; ‘During those days ANOTHER large crowd gathered’ (Mark 8.1), the repetition of ‘How many loaves do you have,’ and ‘ this remote place.’ The repetition suggests that the two feedings are meant to be at least associated with each other if not with the miracle stories which separate them.

Mark 7.31-37 is indicative of Mark’s writing for a specific audience. Mark probably wrote for the Christian community of which he himself was a part of; a mainly gentile audience. This is exhibited in Mark’s explanatory remarks such as with Ephphatha, ‘which means “Open up”’.  A Jewish/Palestinian audience likely would be aware of its meaning due to its Aramaic and Hebrew connections; a Gentile audience would require the explanation. Mark’s decision to write in Greek also suggests that his audience was made up of non-Jews. If Mark was writing for a Jewish audience it falls to reason that he would not have included such explanations and language.

Mark’s audience is important because the audience is in the role of the ‘privileged observer.’ In this role they are able to experience things that only the character of Jesus is privy to, such as the meaning beside the seclusion from the crowd, the importance of the detour in his journey and the actions of sighing and looking towards heaven before undertaking the healing miracle act. This is emphasised elsewhere in Mark, for instance, at the baptism when God speaks “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Only Jesus and the audience are privy to this event.

Where this miracle story originally was sourced from is highly debatable, especially since the synoptics do not have specific parallels. As discussed earlier, both Luke and Matthew have accounts of Jesus healing the deaf and the mute; however, these accounts are highly generalised in comparison to Mark.  From other parallels it is fairly certain that Luke and Matthew had access to Mark.  This makes for an interesting point of enquiry, especially for Matthew who usually expressed a Markan priority. It is possible that Luke and Matthew both decided that the miracle was not significant enough to express the Markan priority in this case.  Considering the differing motives of all three synoptics, this is plausible, especially when one considers that they did not make entirely the same decision. This is seen in Matthew’s placement of the healing miracle account at the same point as Mark’s where Luke decides to place it closer to the beginning of his gospel with even less emphasis.

All the synoptics appear to have knowledge of the healing miracles which suggests that both Luke and Matthew either used independent sources or summaries or made the personal decision to summarise the account. It is plausible that Mark’s choice to include the account in detail was a decision relating to his audience and motifs.

Mark could have viewed this story as an opportunity to express the link to his Gentile audience. Tyre, Sidon and Decapolis, as mentioned, were historically areas of non-Jews; this would have created an association which appealed to his audience; made them part of Jesus’ journey and teachings. Matthew and Luke did not require this association with their not specifically Gentile audiences. Mark’s secrecy motif is also strongly expressed in this miracle story and Mark could have consciously chosen to convey the story with this in mind, catering his account to further highlight and evolve this motif to include not just the identity of Jesus in himself but his identity through the acts which he performed.

The parallels to this miracle story are not confined to the biblical texts. There are parallels which suggest further that the healing of the deaf and mute man was a story based in history and tradition. Tradition is exhibited by the healing spells that make up a large part of the Greek Magical Papyri.  In the time of Jesus, there was a strong tradition of miraculous healing with the use of bodily fluids, magical words and the touching of afflicted areas.  The Epidauros inscriptions contain parallels where the God Asklepios was said to touch the afflicted area and heal the ailments in dreams.

A man who had the fingers of the hand crippled except one came to the God as a supplicant…While sleeping he saw a vision…the God appeared and seized upon the hand and stretched out its fingers. As it turned out, he seemed to bend the hand to stretch the fingers one by one. When he straightened all of them, the God asked him if he still disbelieved the inscriptions upon the tablets of the temple. He said “No.”[7]

Like the miracle story in Mark, this inscription tells of belief on witnessing the acts of a divine figure. Such parallels show that there is a historical acknowledgement of these forms of healing and also a basis, if not in biblical traditions, then in the healing traditions of the society in which the authors lived.

There is the idea that obstructions can be removed in order to cure ailments; an acknowledged healing tradition which could refer to both physical and metaphorical obstructions. Tacitus tells of how deformities and ailments could be healed if a healing for e were applied.[8] This refers to the will of the Gods and divine service an interest similarity to the looking up to heaven and the divine identity of Jesus in Mark 7.31-37.

Mark 7.31-37 and the synoptic miracles certainly have a basis in Jewish tradition. jBerakoth 9.1 and Deuteronomy 4.7 both tell of a Jewish boy who calms the sea with prayers to God. The divine presence and prayer appears to be an important part of many of these miracle stories, just as it is in Mark 7.31-37 with Jesus’ sigh and silent appeal towards heaven.

The miracle stories in the synoptics make up only a fraction of the miracle or miracle-like stories which are recorded or referred to in ancient literature. It is a genre which the biblical authors adopt for their own purposes. Iamblichus in his Life of Pythagoras records that Pythagorus mastered the Daunian bear, a miracle in that it was thought impossible; a creature that harmed the surrounding population.[9] He also tells of omens, symbols and signs that are often related to miracles, which parallels miracle stories such as the appearance of the doves at the baptism of Jesus. Iamblichus even refers to the calming of storms; a parallel to one of the most well known synoptic miracles.

Mark 7.31-37 appears to be a collection of redactional, historical and traditional features which have been brought together to best fit the motive and audience of Mark.  The miracle of tis healing specifically caters for the understanding of Mark’s Gentile audience which suggests that Mark could have manufactured the story.  At the same time, there are indications of the historical Jesus in the use of Aramaic, the detour and the human side shown.  Ancient and biblical traditions also appear as seen by the magical and healing parallels throughout contemporary literature.

The question of sources here is a difficult one.  It is believed that Matthew and Luke both had access to the Markan account; and Matthew had a Markan priority.  Why then would Matthew not include the miracle in its Markan form? For Luke it was usual to omit Markan text in favour of independent sources or summaries.  This could suggest that Luke and Matthew had a source/s that they held in higher regard for this area of the text.  It is more likely that this miracle story was so heavily Markan and catering for Gentiles, that both Luke and Matthew independently decided to change it to suit them by making it generic. This hypothesis is based also on Matthew’s addition of the healing miracles at the same temporal place as Mark, showing a remnant of that Markan priority prevalent throughout the rest of Matthew.

Further Reading

Betz, H.D., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Chicago, 1986)

Cartlidge, D.R. and Dungan, D.L., Documents for the Study of the Gospels (Minneapolis, 1994), pp.151-164

Drane, J., Introducing The New Testament (Oxford, 1993)

Eusebius, Onomasticon, s.v

Goodrick, E.W. and Kohlenberger III, J.R., The NIV Handy Concordance (London, 1982)

Guthrie, D., Motyer, J.A., Stibbs, A.M., and Wiseman, D.J. (eds.) New Bible Commentary (Leicester, 1992)

Hay, L.S., Mark’s Use of the Messianic Secret, in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol.35, No.1 (Mar., 1967), pp.16-27

Lockyer, H., Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Cambridge, 1986)

Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (London, 1978)

Perrin, N., The Christology of Mark: A Study in Methodology, in The Journal of Religion, Vol.51, No.3 (Jul., 1971), pp.173-187

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (Trans. Bostock, J.)(London, 1855)

Tacitus, The Histories [http://www.novaroma.org/camenaeum/tacitus5.html] 4.81


[1] Guthrie, D., Motyer, J.A., Stibbs, A.M., and Wiseman, D.J. (eds.) New Bible Commentary (Leicester, 1992)

[2] Eusebius, Onomasticon, s.v

[3] Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (London, 1978)

[4] Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (Trans. Bostock, J.)(London, 1855) 28.38

[5] Guthrie, D., Motyer, J.A., Stibbs, A.M., and Wiseman, D.J. (Leicester, 1992), op.cit.,

[6] Hay, L.S., Mark’s Use of the Messianic Secret, in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol.35, No.1 (Mar., 1967), p.21

[7] Cartlidge, D.R. and Dungan, D.L., Documents for the Study of the Gospels (Minneapolis, 1994), p.151

[9] Cartlidge, D.R. and Dungan, D.L., (Minneapolis, 1994), op.cit., p.153