Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Christ Conspiracy, Chapter 20: On Murdock, Eusebius and Philo

There is an argument present in Chapter 20 that is quite illuminating when it comes to Murdock's method of assessing and presenting evidence. The argument centers on Eusebius' Interpretatio Christiana of Philo's description of the Therapeuts in Egypt, and therefore I will investigate her argument, her presentation of it, as well as Eusebius' argument.

Interpretatio Christiana designates a passage in Eusebius where he interprets Philo as talking about Christians when in fact talking about a group of Therapeuts. Since Murdock posits that Christianity is really just a reshuffling of some previous religious organization, this fits well with her argument - we know the Therapeuts predated Christianity, so if we can demonstrate that the Therapeuts were Christians even before, say, 30CE, Murdock's contentions would suddenly gain some quite solid support. Murdock herself is not the originator of this argument:
Concerning Eusebius’s admissions, Taylor states:

. . . Eusebius has attested, that the Therapeutan monks were Christians, many ages before the period assigned to the birth of Christ; and that the Diegesis and Gnomologue, from which the Evangelists compiled their gospels, were writings which for ages constituted the sacred scriptures Egyptian visionaries. 
[1, p. 320]
It is a bit intriguing that Murdock does not say it in so many words herself, but lets Taylor speak for her. Not to get sidetracked, but the diegesis and gnomologue seem to be works Taylor dreamed up. I will admit to not having read Taylor's entire work, but might do so next year. He is only quoted by fairly unreputable sources, though, and no one who quotes him seems to quote any actually significant argument - exclusively the assertion that the Diegesis and Gnomologue are sources for the Gospels. The fact that no evidence nor arguments are presented leaves me inclined to think Taylor's argumentation probably does not have much value. 

There are some problems with this particular assertion, however. We shall first see what Murdock says, then we shall look a bit closer at Eusebius.

In addition to the Church organization well in place prior to the Christian era was the pre-existence of the entire gospel story, in bits and pieces around the “known world,” eventually put together by the Therapeuts at Alexandria. That the original gospels and epistles were in the possession of the Therapeuts is attested to by Church historian Eusebius. In his admission, Eusebius first relates what Philo said of the Therapeuts:
They possess also short works by early writers, the founders of their sect, who left many specimens of the allegorical method, which they take as their models, following the system on which their predecessors worked. 
As noted, the Therapeuts were also the Gnostics, as is evidenced by the acknowledgment that their “short works” were allegorical rather than literal. The change from Gnostic to Orthodox Christianity, in fact, constituted the switch from knowledge of the allegory to blind faith in the literal. Eusebius goes on to say:
It seems likely that Philo wrote this after listening to their exposition of the Holy Scriptures, and it is very probable that what he calls short works by their early writers were the gospels, the apostolic writings, and in all probability passages interpreting the old prophets, such as are contained in the Epistle to the Hebrews and several others of Paul’s epistles.
Of the Therapeutan Church, Eusebius remarks, “These statements of Philo seem to me to refer plainly and unquestionably to members of our Church.” Eusebius’s assertions are more than just peculiar when one considers he was the church historian who was purporting to be recording a continuous apostolic lineage, such that, had it really existed, these important aspects of the history of the Christian religion surely would have been widely known by virtually everyone indoctrinated into it.
[1, p. 320]
Some other problems do jump out at me from this text - can we really assume allegorical reading immediately implies Gnosticism? It is quite clear Christianity from the onset has read several passages in the Old Testament in very allegorical ways, and we also know that rabbinic Judaism is no stranger to allegorical interpretations of its sacred texts. What exactly Murdock is trying to say by the last clause in the above quote is quite unclear to me. No matter how I attempt parsing it, it ends up just not being very meaningful a thing to say.

However, as we can see Eusebius indeed was expressing a belief that the Therapeuts were early Christians. This appears strange - we do know the Therapeuts predate Christianity. However, why is that a problem? Do we know that Eusebius too knew this? In the Eusebian work here quoted, we can actually find some indication that he was not aware of this, and in fact believed something quite contrary to it:

3. In the work to which he gave the title, On a Contemplative Life or on Suppliantsafter affirming in the first place that he will add to those things which he is about to relate nothing contrary to truth or of his own invention, he says that these men were called Therapeutæ and the women that were with them Therapeutrides. He then adds the reasons for such a name, explaining it from the fact that they applied remedies and healed the souls of those who came to them, by relieving them like physicians, of evil passions, or from the fact that they served and worshipped the Deity in purity and sincerity. 
4. Whether Philo himself gave them this name, employing an epithet well suited to their mode of life, or whether the first of them really called themselves so in the beginning, since the name of Christians was not yet everywhere known, we need not discuss here.
[2, chapter 17]
Already this is enough to conclude that Eusebius laboured under the mistaken notion that the Therapeuts were a recent phenomenon in Egypt at the time of Philo - why else would he think Philo had come up with a term of his own with which to refer to them? However, we can find even more solid evidence that Eusebius believed the Therapeuts to be a group that only appeared some time after 30 CE:

1. And they say that this Mark was the first that was sent to Egypt, and that he proclaimed the Gospel which he had written, and first established churches in Alexandria. 
2. And the multitude of believers, both men and women, that were collected there at the very outset, and lived lives of the most philosophical and excessive asceticism, was so great, that Philo thought it worth while to describe their pursuits, their meetings, their entertainments, and their whole manner of life. [2, chapter 16] Note - from the context in Church History, it is clear that Eusebius means the Mark supposed to have written the Gospel of Mark. My bolding and italics.

So, it is clear Eusebius thinks Philo is talking about a group that had only been around in Alexandria since Mark started preaching the Gospel which he had written there. So, here is the first problem with Murdock's interpretation: she assumes Eusebius' knowledge of the Therapeutans to be correct as well as to exceed ours - everything we know, he knew, but everything he knew, we do not necessarily know. So, when reading him, we can understand what he is saying by means of our own knowledge of the therapeuts. However, reading the text seems to suggest he did not know all that much about the Therapeutans, and that we must not read what he is saying as though he had access to what we know now, and indeed it seems his knowledge in this matter entirely was based on his reading of Philo's De Vita Contemplativa. Thus, when trying to understand what he is saying, we must look at what he could derive from De Vita Contemplativa, and what intention he may have had in doing so.

Eusebius lived roughly 250-300 years after Philo, so we can be pretty sure Eusebius did not contribute any first hand accounts about the Therapeutans beyond what Philo himself says. Eusebius' Church History is not primarily a work of history, although he obviously presents it as such - it is a work of apologetics and propaganda. Not so much hiding history as producing a grand historiography, wherein the church is a miraculous and beneficial presence in the world. For this purpose, it seems as though Eusebius is reading Philo in a somewhat convoluted manner in order to claim Philo approved of and was impressed by early Christians, giving Eusebius a respected Jewish author to lean upon for support of Christianity. Eusebius spends a lot of ink on establishing what a great and respected thinker Philo was:
2. Under this emperor, Philo became knowna man most celebrated not only among many of our own, but also among many scholars without the Church. He was a Hebrew by birth, but was inferior to none of those who held high dignities in Alexandria. How exceedingly he labored in the Scriptures and in the studies of his nation is plain to all from the work which he has done. How familiar he was with philosophy and with the liberal studies of foreign nations, it is not necessary to say, since he is reported to have surpassed all his contemporaries in the study of Platonic and Pythagorean philosophy, to which he particularly devoted his attention. [2, chapter 4]
Once Philo's reputation has been established, Eusebius clearly is trying to claim him, not necessarily as a believer, but at the very least as a Jewish admirer of Christianity:
And since he describes as accurately as possible the life of our ascetics, it is clear that he not only knew, but that he also approved, while he venerated and extolled, the apostolic men of his time, who were as it seems of the Hebrew race, and hence observed, after the manner of the Jews, the most of the customs of the ancients. 
[2, chapter 17]
When I reached this point of investigation, I figured it would be interesting to see if serious theologians had considered this particular passage, and I was not disappointed. I was especially fascinated to see Sabrina Inowlocki expand on the same idea in an article ten years ago, where she also developed even more clear and interesting arguments. Inowlocki also concludes that Eusebius quote-mines Philo, thus distorting what he is saying to make the depiction seem to fit Christians better:
The summary nature of Eusebius's remarks here allows him to omit that the separation between men and women is not a permanent one. Likewise, Eusebius identifies the Therapeutae's meetings, vigils, fasts, and atten­tion to the word of God with the Christian exercises at Easter. He insists that these correspondences are found within the Christian community only, stressing the great feast during which they do not sleep but rather lie on the ground, abstaining from meat and wine, singing together, and seasoning their bread with only hyssop and salt. He also finds in Philo's account a reference to the Christian hierarchy. Actually, a close reading of Philo's text easily proves Eusebius's arguments wrong. First, the great feast is not annual, like Easter, but takes place every fifty days; second, many "philosophical" groups in antiquity could have maintained such customs; and third, Philo nowhere deals with an ecclesiastical hierarchy rising "from the deaconate to the episco­pate" (διακονίας τε καί τας επί πασιν άνωτάτω της επισκοπής προεδρίας), as Eusebius claims. Eusebius was only (mis)interpreting Philo's use of the words διακόνους, πρόεδρος, and his mention of a hierarchy in the account of the communal singing. [3, p. 317-318]
Inowlocki's paper is a great treatment of the  Interpretatio Christiana, and provides a detailed argument: Eusebius' motive, his method, the flaws of his argument, and a quite sober assessment of the extent to which Eusebius' claim is accurate. In summary, Eusebius wanted Philo to say good things about Christianity, he found a place that he might have understood as an actual example of that (or he may have been outright deceptive about it), he shows why he thinks (or wants us to think) that Philo is talking about Christians, and he concludes that Philo had a positive opinion of Christians. Even though the main argument I presented here seemed fairly clear to me before reading it, Inowlocki's paper has helped me structure this argument in a way that I could not have done myself – all credits to Inowlocki for this, really. It is a great read, and shows just how a scholar should do research in patristic texts and other works of historical interest. She also presents other important points about the Interpretatio, as well as Eusebius' use of Philo, and Eusebius' consequences for the works of Philo in Christian history.

Murdock repeatedly accuses the church fathers of being liars and fabricators, but for some reason, here she accepts Eusebius' words at face value even when they seem rather suspicious. A more sober investigation into the Interpretatio Christiana - such as the one provided by Inowlocki - could have provided evidence, at the very least, of a church father using insufficient evidence to make remarkable claims, but instead, Murdock falls for an even bigger fabrication - Taylor's failure to comprehend what Eusebius said (or possibly, Taylor's misleading his readers by means of quote-mining), resulting in the faulty notion that Eusebius claims that Christianity predates 30CE  - which from Eusebius' own words clearly is an inaccurate interpretation. Yes, Eusebius was wrong - but we know that two wrongs do not cancel out. Murdock cannot have read the Eusebian text in detail, and her understanding of it can be rejected.

Thus, a significant part of chapter twenty is rendered irrelevant or wrong.

1. D.M. Murdock, The Christ Conspiracy, 1999, Adventures Unlimited
2. Eusebius, Church History, Book II Translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second SeriesVol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace.
3. Inowlocki, Sabrina, Eusebius of Caesarea's Interpretatio Christiana of Philo's De Vita Contemplativa, Harvard Theological Review Volume 97 / Issue 03 / July 2004

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