NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 13.2
The early decades of the third century were a time of some debauchery in Rome, particularly under the boy-Emperor Elagabalus. Surprisingly he seems to have been nice to the Christians — perhaps because of the liberal outlook of the Bishop at the time, Callistus. But Callistus earned the wrath of the more hardliners including Hippolytus and Tertullian. Included in Tom Lee's commentary today is the story of how we came to have the term "pope". Originally Tertullian used it as a term of derision against the liberal policies adopted by Callistus.
The Third Century of Christianity – Part 13.2
Confusion and the first anti-pope…
The same year  Bishop Zephyrinus died and to Hippolytus' horror, Callistus succeeded to the See of Rome. But there is some confusion about the exact status of Hippolytus. Some think that he became a rival bishop of Rome (the first anti-pope), others that he was already bishop of the floating population of the harbor of Portus. Whatever his rank, he and his followers refused to recognize the validity of Callistus' election, or of his subsequent decisions and rulings.
Apart from the continuing argument over the exact composition of the emerging Trinity, Hippolytus was scandalized because Callistus relaxed the severe penitential code and accepted into communion sinners who had been refused admission even by the heretical sects, and including some persons whom Hippolytus had ejected from his own rigorist community. Hippolytus thought that Callistus was encouraging laxity in regard to morals; believed in fact that Callistus was preaching to the perverted, and accused: "He first invented the device of conniving with men as to their pleasures, saying that sins were forgiven to everyone by himself. For if a person who attends the congregation of anyone else, should commit any sin, they say that the sin is not reckoned unto him, provided only he hurries off to the school of Callistus. And many persons were gratified with his proposition."
Hippolytus further accuses Callistus, "He laid it down that, if a bishop was guilty of any sin, even a sin unto death, he ought not to be deposed. In his time men who had been twice married, and thrice married, began to be ordained to clerical office as bishops, priests and deacons. If also any one in holy orders should get married, Callistus permitted such a one to continue in holy orders as if he had not sinned ... he affirmed that the ark of Noah was made for a symbol of the Church, in which were both dogs, wolves, and ravens, and all animals clean and unclean; and so he alleges that the case should stand in like manner with the Church."
Though the clerics of the Roman Church eventually managed to impose at least the appearance of celibacy upon themselves, it is true to say that Callistus' more tolerant attitude to sinners had a much greater appeal to Christians and has, in time, prevailed. But there is equally no doubt that, at the time, many regarded the relaxation of discipline with horror and felt betrayed. It seemed that the rules of conduct they had always been taught were inspired by heaven were, after all, only a makeshift convenience, broken by everyone including their spiritual guardians.
The emergence of the term "Pope" — initially used in ridicule...
Hippolytus was not alone in his condemnation of Callistus. Tertullian wrote:
"I hear also that an edict has been issued, and a peremptory one too. The Pontifex Maximus forsooth, the Bishop of bishops, sets forth his edict — 'I remit the sins of adultery and fornication to those who have performed penance'."
In irony he affixes to Callistus the title Pontifex Maximus, then borne by the emperors. The Popes did not assume that title until the fifth century. Callistus had seemed to assume imperial prerogative by recognizing the marriage of a male slave with a free woman, forbidden by civil law. The name Pope comes from the Latin nursery term Papa meaning Daddy — first applied as a term of ridicule by Tertullian to Callistus whose pretensions to primacy he deemed excessive.
Interestingly, Tertullian (c.160-230), writing about the priesthood, stated: "...where no college of ministers has been appointed, you, the laity, must celebrate the Eucharist and baptize; in that case you are your own priests, for where two or three are gathered together, there is the Church, even if these three are lay people". Latter-day requests for some such deal where priests are in short supply have met with stony refusal from Pope and Curia.
Tertullian had a venomous view of women, declaiming: "Do you not know that you are Eve? ... Because of the death which you brought upon us, even the Son of God had to die." He appears to have been petulant, arrogant and convinced he was doing God's work. He wanted to make converts rather than friends.
Pragmatism in the face of the realities of the day...
When one views the history of Rome at the time of Callistus one can only regard him as one who was willing to face up to reality. Perverse sexuality was the order of the day. Rome was in process of being destroyed by those who enjoyed it. The populace was like a warren of rabbits determined to enjoy as much lubricious amusement as possible before the next epidemic of myxomatosis, and as with rabbits, so much random fertility failed to produce any particularly outstanding result.
Callistus had been bishop for less than a year when the emperor Macrinus was overthrown and Elagabalus (otherwise known as Heliogabulus), Syrian priest of the Sun god (Elagabaal), was raised to the purple at the age of fourteen through his grandmother's ambition and the sensual admiration of the legions. Julia Domna, mother of Caracalla, had a younger sister, Julia Maesa. She had two daughters, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, both of whom were widows and each of them mother of an only son. The son of Soaemias was Elagabalus; an abnormally goodlooking boy whom she claimed had been fathered by Caracalla. The son of Mamaea is known to us as Alexander Severus and was a boy of ten.
The boy Elagabalus succeeded his grandfather as High Priest of the sun god Elagabaal, at Emesa. The god's image was a black conical stone, essentially a phallic symbol. Like the followers of Cybele, the priests of Elagabaal frequently engaged in sex with male devotees, in the belief that union with a priest would join the pilgrim in ecstatic union with the god whom the priest represented. Thanks to the imagination and wealth of his grandmother and his mother, the big army which Caracalla had assembled in the East deserted Macrinus and acclaimed Elagabalus, who was so well known to the numerous libidinous soldiers who came to Emesa on leave and had enthusiastically embraced such satisfying union with the god. Elegantly seductive and with transparent candor, the boy used his sexual availability as a way of gaining power and demanding favors.
After wintering in Antioch, the imperial party, escorted by the Alban Legion, reached Rome in early July 219. The Romans looked at Elagabalus in his priestly outfit; purple silk adorned with gold, with necklaces and bangles and, on his head, a richly bejeweled miter; and dubbed him the Assyrian. Silk, which was imported from China, was exceedingly expensive, a pound of the slithery cloth being worth a pound of gold. Not only was the price prohibitive, but also because of its thinness and transparency it was thought to be un-Roman and indelicate fabric, indeed, indecent.
The most commendable of Elagabalus' emotions was his pious devotion to his phallic stone, which accompanied him to the capital. He was willing to recognize all other religions; he patronized Judaism, and proposed to legalize Christianity. He merely insisted that his stone was the greatest of gods. Elagabalus may well have believed in simple sincerity that, in bringing the sun god to Rome, he was one of the city's greatest benefactors. Temples were built to Elagabaal, the largest and most important on the Palatine, flanking Domitian's palace and overlooking the Circus Maximus. The worship was extravagant and orgiastic.
From religiosity or from simple depravity, Elagabalus decided to wed his stone to the goddess Vesta and himself to the Vestal Maxima Aquilea Severa. But tiring of the experiment, he had his god divorced and then remarried Elagabaal to the goddess Astarte of Carthage.
There were no offspring from the marriage with the Vestal; a pity, for he had assured the Senate that their children would be no ordinary mortals. It is doubtful the marriage was ever consummated, since Elagabalus was a homosexual of quite abnormal appetite. It is difficult though to see what blame can attach to someone who was raised from earliest childhood to not only accede to, but actually to pander to, the sexual peccadilloes of his fellow men as a solemn religious duty. He bore the confidence that comes from being unconditionally desired. His was an innocent eroticism.
When the besotted emperor decided to elevate the mother of his principal live-in lover, the handsome and fair-haired charioteer Hierocles, to the rank of Consul's wife, and spoke of making Hierocles a Caesar, Elagabalus' grandmother decided that he had to be sacrificed.
Grandmother Maesa, a model of sulfurous restraint, using generous bribes and promises, won over the Praetorian Guard, while persuading Elagabalus to adopt his cousin. A boy of sixteen adopted another of twelve. Eighteen months later the emperor was murdered, along with his male lover and the lover's mother. Their bodies were stripped and dragged through the streets. The corpse of Elagabalus was thrown into the Tiber.
Thus, at the age of thirteen and a half Alexander Severus succeeded to the Empire. The control of the administration rested with his mother and grandmother.
At their suggestion a council of sixteen senators was set up to advise the new emperor. The god Elagabaal ended his Roman holiday and was discreetly returned to Emesa.
Bishop Callistus died about the same time as Elagabalus. At first imprisoned and scourged, by the Roman authorities, he is reported to have been flung from an upper window of a house into a well in the courtyard below. He may have exasperated his captors even more than he had Hippolytus.
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