NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 16.1
Tom Lee's exploration of the origins of Christianity never fails to fascinate and today's excerpt is no exception. It intersects with the growing discussion going on today amongst scholars regarding the literalness with which we can read Scripture and even the key events in the life of Jesus. We're still about mid-way through the third century in this 16th chapter of Tom's exploration. It's a discussion of one of the great controversies at that time on the divinity of Jesus and the equally fascinating question of how Jesus' birthday came to be celebrated on December the 25th.
New Strength in High Places– Part 16.1
The pagan origins of St Valentine's day...
The year 268 saw the death of both the emperor and the bishop of Rome. A stern general, Claudius II, succeeded Gallienus while a doctrinaire Roman churchman named Felix followed Bishop Dionysius.
The new emperor reformed the army and gained a major victory over the Goths, while maintaining mostly happy relations with the Christians, some of his family being of that persuasion. But a reputed martyr from this time is St. Valentine. He died February 14, 270. His only connection with our modern day festival is that he died on that date, eve of the Roman festival of Lupercalia. At this festival the names of selected young men and women were placed in separate urns and in equal numbers. Each then drew a partner. As Christianity spread, the festival was later absorbed into festivities honoring the martyr, and somewhere along the way St. Valentine began to be considered as a kind of Christian cupid, aiming his heavenly darts at those in search of a partner.
Bishop Felix stipulated that all Masses should be performed over the tombs of martyrs. Hitherto Christian altars had always been made of wood, but from this time, although some wooden altars were still in use, stone became the officially accepted material, and the deciding factor in the siting of early churches became the existence of the tomb of a martyr.
The controversy surrounding Bishop Paul of Samosata...
Paul of Samosata became bishop of Antioch in 260 and soon caused controversy by asserting that Jesus had been merely a man inhabited by an attribute of God. For Bishop Paul, whose ideas were very close to the original Jewish-Christian doctrine, Jesus was a uniquely inspired man, but not God. But to the Church of his own day Paul's doctrine was clearly heresy.
A Council was convened in 268 at Antioch, under the chairmanship of Bishop Firmilian of Caesarea. It swiftly condemned Paul of Samosata's teaching, excommunicated him, and elected a replacement for him, with no reference to the clergy and faithful of the church at Antioch; a direct breach of established practice in the Church at that time.
Felix of Rome added his voice to the general condemnation of Paul. But Paul's flock would not allow his expulsion and refused to recognize his replacement. Paul was moreover assured of the protection of King Odenathus and, after the assassination of that strongman, his widow and successor, the formidable warrior-queen, Zenobia, continued to support him.
While a considerable measure of spite animated the letters of the orthodox bishops which refer to Paul of Samosata, he was assuredly a very wealthy prelate; money derived at least in part from simony (the sale of church offices). Paul very comfortably divided his allegiance between the flesh and the spirit. Luxuriating in an expansive masculinity he was a far from secretive womanizer, a human quality that seemed to appeal to his hedonistic flock.
Paul's oratorical skills frequently provoked loud applause and acclamation from his congregations. He was a gifted performer. As the great ballet-master Bournonville once wrote: "The desire to please has created invention, but the desire to be admired, virtuosity."
Pride, more than conviction, seems to have prevented Paul from bowing to the doctrinal directives of the majority of his peers. A free intellect, he stood impatiently aside while his episcopal colleagues windily disputed, then passionately affirmed his right to differ, to the cheers of his independent-minded flock, already exulting in a rare degree of political independence from the empire.
Emperor Claudius II had confirmed the independent status of King Odenathus and Queen Zenobia only because the onslaught of the Goths prevented him from disciplining them. But a smoldering resentment was being fueled in Rome and the day of reckoning was not far away.
Emperor Claudius II and the philosopher Plotinus both died in the year 270, and a rough-and-ready, but extremely able soldier, Aurelian, assumed the purple and began almost immediately to lay plans to recover the lost territories. He was a rugged, simple and sometimes brutal man; son of an obscure priestess of the Sun.
Queen Zenobia of Palmyra was, by all accounts, a voluptuous, dark-skinned beauty; sultry, sensual and magnificent. But she was also an extremely forceful woman who went hunting in masculine military armor. When her pride got the better of her, however, she became absurdly over-ambitious. Claiming to be a descendant of Cleopatra she took control of Egypt in addition to the Eastern provinces already under her control.
As Aurelian advanced many cities opened their gates to him without a fight. But even with those who did do battle, the emperor proved surprisingly lenient. He forgave their loyalty to Zenobia, assuming it to be more from fear than choice, and accepted them back into the Roman fold with little or no penalty.
With her armies smashed in two great battles with Aurelian's veterans fresh from the war on the Danube, Zenobia retreated behind the walls of Palmyra, the fertile oasis that had grown into one of the major halts for trader's caravans using the desert route from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. She hoped that if she could prolong the siege long enough, famine and thirst would force Aurelian to retreat.
Zenobia's bluff failed and, forgetting her previous boast that she would emulate Cleopatra if defeated, Zenobia fled and was captured. Destroyed in spirit, but alive still to the tactics of bodily survival, she blamed her generals and advisers for her rebellion. These poor dupes took the brunt of Aurelian's anger and revenge. Ministers without grace, they were deserted by a woman without shame.
Having executed the generals and chief ministers, Aurelian marched on to subdue Egypt, which he did without difficulty. But on learning that Palmyra's rebellious citizens had slaughtered the garrison he'd left behind, Aurelian retraced his steps and proceeded to slay every man, woman and child. Palmyra fell into ruins and was never repopulated.
Returned to Rome, Aurelian was accorded one of the greatest triumphs ever seen, in which the captive Zenobia was exhibited to the exultant populace, in golden fetters and weighted down with such an abundance of jewelry that she could scarcely support it. But, following the triumph, she was permitted to retire into private life, being given a villa at Tivoli.
The victory of Aurelian changed the face of the East. The contending Christian., bishops were invited to air their dispute before the Imperial magistrates. When it became clear to these disinterested intermediaries that the majority of the episcopal witnesses, especially the bishops of Italy, were opposed to Paul of Samosata, Aurelian decreed that Paul should be deprived of the temporal appurtenances of his office, while the bishops themselves deprived him of his religious authority and all spiritual consolations. Aurelian's decision was a political one. Paul had been a staunch supporter of Zenobia.
The Cult of the Unconquered Sun and December 25th...
Under Aurelian, the cult of the Unconquered Sun triumphed. A gigantic temple was constructed on the side of the Quirinal hill to this visible god, to whom Aurelian attributed his success in battle. A college of priests was instituted and four-yearly games. Various philosophers developed a synthesis of doctrine from the various sun cults, and the winter solstice, December 25th, was fixed in the West as the birth feast of the Sun of Righteousness.
Many Christians no less than pagans traced connections between the material sun and God. The first Christian representation of Jesus in the catacombs was in a chariot as the rising sun. Even two hundred years later in St. Leo's time, Christians could be found who, on entering the basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul turned to salute the rising sun.
December 25th was already celebrated as the birthday of Mithras. At midnight, the first moment of the day, the Mythraic crypts were lit up, with priests in white robes at the altars, and boys burning incense. The Egyptians would have been celebrating the birth of Horus, born of a virgin as the savior of mankind. In the temples of Isis would be found a crib or manger, with a figure of the infant Horus lying in it, and a statue of his virgin mother Isis standing alongside. The Greeks of Rome too, paid respect to the figure of a child-god. In Greece itself the festival was held on January 6th. This was the day when the virgin goddess Kore gave birth to Dionysus. It was a day of celebration also for the war-captives from Germany celebrating Yule, the northern-European midwinter festival. Yule, or the Wheel, signified the turning point of the year, when the sun was checked in its downward movement and began to roll back, like a wheel. The wheel was a universal solar symbol,
The Christian Church alone stood aloof at the festive season, though there were some who joined in pagan ceremonial and feasting, despite the protests of the clergy. There was no celebration of Jesus' birth, since no one knew when he had been born. As late as 245, Origen protested at the very idea of celebrating the birthday of Jesus as if he were an earthly king, so the idea must already have been mooted. But it would be almost a century before the blatant adoption of the pagan feast as the birthday of Jesus.
The criticisms of Porphyry...
A Syrian-born Neoplatonic philosopher, living at Rome, Porphyry (c.232-303), who was the biographer of Plotinus, became an implacable and formidable opponent of Christianity, just like Celsus a century before. In a sweeping yet compact critique he wrote, in or about the years 270-275, fifteen volumes Against the Christians. They are known to us only from the surviving fragments in subsequent Christian works written to refute them.
Porphyry appears to have been torn between skeptical rationalism and a superstitious regard for the old pagan pantheon. He was once dissuaded from suicide by the direct personal intervention of Plotinus. Porphyry also wrote a chronicle of world history designed to refute the Christian scholar Julius Africanus' contention that the one God of the Bible had inspired the oldest religion of humanity.
As with Celsus, Porphyry did not question the historical existence of Jesus; but they both had many objections as to the credibility of the Gospel narratives. Celsus expounded in great detail the divergences between one Gospel writer and the next. Porphyry demonstrated the variations and contradictions to be found in the accounts of Jesus' death. The passages that describe it, and that vary from one Gospel to another were, he maintained, not accounts of what happened but were gleaned from sections of the Old Testament and arranged in order to give the impression that the ancient prophecies had been fulfilled. Many latter-day Christian Bible scholars concur.
Porphyry concluded that the authors of the Gospels more closely resembled inventors than narrators. The stories of Jesus' infancy, such as the Annunciation and the virgin birth, should be dismissed as legends, because tales like these abounded in all mythologies.
For both Celsus and Porphyry, the resurrection was particularly unacceptable. Not that it was thought an impossibility for a dead man to return to life; it was rather the claim that Jesus had entered the Kingdom of Heaven in the body that was judged to be the absurdity. For the two philosophers, the true reality of Man was the spirit, not the body, which was considered to be the spirit's prison. Therefore what sense could there be in speaking of a resurrection of the body?
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