April 23, 2004


As I think I've noted before, I have a certain fondness for heresies, but an abiding respect for orthodoxy as well. I don't buy into the notion, for example, that the Council of Nicaea was making it up as they went along, nor do I think that texts like those collected in the Nag Hammadi codexes represent a purer, truer version of Jesus' teachings than those collected in the New Testament. (An aside: Why is it that those who imagine malfeasance on the part of the Church fathers in assembling the Bible always assume that they erred on the side of conservatism? I can't help imagining the following scene, during the supposed editing of the Bible that went on there (please note, I have taken tremendous liberties here to make a point, and not to offend).

"By Jupiter's beard!" cried Vincentius as the passage from the Gospel of John was read. Though he was one of two priests sent by Pope Sylvester as his representatives to the Council, he was valued for his ability to appeal to the more conservative elements of Roman society, who had been shocked by Constantine's imposition of this primitive faith from the boondocks on the Empire, not for his knowledge of the Christian scripture, or even the proper method of Christian swearing. "He said what should be cut off of a man who indulges in adultery? And that a woman, who once sinned in this way, should be stoned, even should she not be discovered until her seventieth year? Don't you know the kind of woman -- with all due respect -- that Constantine's mother is?"

Athanasius, who had been serving as the secretary, smiled. His rather dramatic reading of the passage -- when John relates how a woman of ill repute was brought before Christ, and the Lord's reaction -- would have the desired effect. He gave Valentius a perplexed look. "The text is the text," he said, almost sheepishly, "although I have always thought that this line must have been miscopied, that our Lord would have shown mercy to the poor woman, as perhaps some of those at this very table have shown mercy to the fallen, including the good lady to whom our colleague from Rome refers."

At this, Eusebius of Caesura, who had become confessor to the Emporer's mother, that former bar slut, during the last persecution in order to save his own skin, flushed bright red. The arch conservative had battled with the cunning Athanasius through book after book, verse after verse. He had some notable victories -- he had managed to maintain the Old Testament's denunciation of homosexuality -- but with the many letters of Paul to come, including those insisting on stoning women, Athanasius had now scored a major victory. For did not Paul's Epistle to the Appians, Eusebius' favorite text, explicitly say that nothing was worse than an elder of God who ministered to a harlot, indeed, that he should share her fate? Eusebius bitterly realized that he had saved his own skin, at the cost of losing his religion.

"Brother Vicentius," Athanasius continued, "I have long believed that this passage should read differently. That our Lord undoubtedly said, 'Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone.' Then our Lord turns to the unfortunate woman, and says, perhaps, 'Go and sin no more.' At least my teacher, Liberales of Mercia, maintained as much."

For a moment, there was silence in the room. Victor, the other papal legate, looked meaningfully at the affable Hosius of Cordova, the president of the council. Unlike his colleague Vicentius, Victor was well-versed in the scriptures, and committed to them. Yet he was also aware that there were means of making promiscuous sexuality and sin far more of a torment -- an exquisite psychological torment to the believer -- without stoning.

Hosius smiled uneasily. The Spaniard was chosen as president because of his taste for food -- nearly a glutton, he could hardly be expected to endorse the Arrian heresy, with its emphasis on the evil of matter. But Hosius was also a an admirer of female beauty, and while he had mastered his own flesh, he was well aware of the large percentage of his flock that had not. Victor knew, as did Athanasius, that the man would be sickened if he were forced to preside over the stoning of the Spanish beauties in his flock, or the castration of his many dining companions. "What brother Athanasius says," he began uncertainly, "seems to conform to what I have heard. Let us incorporate this edit -- er, truth -- into the Gospel. Now, if there are further issues on the Gospel of St. John, let us move on to the alleged Epistle of Paul to the Appians."

Eusebius fumed. But he had already decided upon his counter strike. If his association with the Emporer's mother had been used against him, he would use the Emporer himself to have his revenge. If these prelates imagined that they would determine morality for the empire, for the Church, even for the Emporer himself, then he would strike back at them with a doctrine he called Divine Right of the Monarch. By building up the secular authority, he, Eusebius, who had the Emporer's own mother's ear, would undermine their authority with secular power...

I thought about all this when reading this and this reminded me I need to get around to reading this book and this one. For more on the Council of Nicea, I found this article of interest.

Posted by Ideofact at April 23, 2004 11:33 PM

Hmm, yes, "The Da Vinci Code". I haven't read it but I've read Umberto Eco's parody of it, "Foucault's Pendulum", which mysteriously appeared about 15 years earlier. This must be some kind of first in literary history. Recently there seems to be a spate of fiction based on "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" (itself a work of fiction). The other day I was browsing at Amazon looking at translations of Wolfram von Eschenbach's "Parzival", when one reviewer helpfully informed me that the poem was "outdated...For the latest of the real Holy Grail, read he hot authors like Ken Agori or even Baigent." OK then, I'll drop those Medieval losers (after all, what did they know about the Middle Ages?) and get with the times and if I want to know about the Merovingian Franks, Gregory of Tours will have to make way for David Icke.

Posted by: J.Cassian at April 24, 2004 04:44 PM

quite a funny story...

In one of his writings, Augustine mentions that this particular story (the one ending with "go and sin no more") had been dropped from John by some copyists, who were afraid it would be interpreted to support adultery.

Which fact helps make the dramatization stand out in a lively way. Not that I actually believe it, though.

The links about Nicea were enlightening, also.

Posted by: steve h at April 25, 2004 12:30 AM

To use the logic of the "diabolicals" that Eco's novel satirizes: The fact that Eco's satire appeared years before the work it satirizes, the Da Vinci Code, only proves the conspiracy that the latter book unravels. Eco is, no doubt, a Jesuit...

As for my own meager attempt at a fiction, I chose the text from John precisely because it had been left out of some copies. It's also worth noting that Athanasius really did want to set up an ecclesiastical authority that would above politics, and Eusebius did devise the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. Other than that, it couldn't be phonier than if I had made the room smoke filled (which I had thought of doing).

Posted by: Bill at April 26, 2004 12:20 AM