I have two YouTube videos involving Bede

I do promise to do some real blogging soon. In the meantime, I have two videos involving St Bede the Venerable. Most recently, on June 22, I made a video about St Alban the Martyr, given that it was his feast day, and I was baptised at a church of St Alban the Martyr, and then married at a different church of St Alban the Martyr. And I think the story of St Alban’s martyrdom is just really fascinating with lots of great stuff in it. Enjoy!

The first went up in late May in commemoration of the feasts of St Bede, St Augustine of Canterbury, and St Aldhelm:

The limits of secure historical knowledge

So a friend on FB recently had a really annoying guy insisting in the comments on his status that St Augustine of Hippo was a closeted homosexual. The main argument of the annoying guy was simply that there is no way you can argue against saying that someone was/is a closeted homosexual, since that’s the whole point of being a closeted homosexual. Mostly, he was doing it to annoy my friend; it seemed to work.

In the case of determining whether a historical person was a closeted homosexual or not, in the absence of any evidence of said person having secret relations with men, all that can be done is a psychological analysis. And psychological analyses even of the living can be wrong — given that we have very limited knowledge about the psyches of any dead people, even ones like St Augustine or Cicero who left us so many writings, this historical psychologising can only go so far.

I would be so bold as to say that you should probably even refrain from diagnosing Roman Emperors on whom the common consensus is that they were ‘obviously’ ‘crazy’ (e.g. Caligula, Nero, Commodus).

Our knowledge of the past is always and necessarily imperfect. Our knowledge, in fact, of the present and of our own, individual selves is as well.  When we want to get back to ‘what really happened’ or ‘what so-and-so was really like’, we have to rely on the various historical sources available to us — letters, memoirs, land grants, censuses, baptismal records, art, architecture, novels, photographs, films, epic poems, epigrams, funerary inscriptions, tombs, grave goods, your mom.

The further back in history we go — generally speaking — the fewer of these kinds of evidence are available to us. And amongst the remaining varieties of evidence, there are times when even these are sparse. Sparse(ish) for Roman history is the early fifth century AD. But that’s not as sparse as most Mesopotamian history.

And even when we have first-hand accounts, many questions remain.

Take C. Julius Caesar, for example. We have all sorts of stuff written by him about his campaigns and life, and things written by his contemporaries, and things written about him by those who came after, as well as portraits and archaeological remains. But we are still uncertain as to the locations of several major battles that took place in Gaul (modern France). And, even if Adrian Goldsworthy can put together a masterful, enormous biography of the man, a lot of that is still to be admitted as not entirely secure — new evidence could change one thing or tweak another or totally abolish the veracity of a third.

These considerations should be important for each and every Christian.

The Christian fait is founded upon the historical interactions between God and the human race, most especially in the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When ‘historical Jesus’ books appear, or when we get into arguments with people about persons or aspects of the faith, we have to realise how far the reasoned knowledge we possess can go. For example, conceptually and from a rationalist perspective, the goal of the Jesus Seminars — to determine which things Jesus did or did not say — is perceptibly laudable. It is also impossible, even with a better methodology than theirs.

Or take the Resurrection. A complaint raised against NT Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God is that, at heart, much of it is old argument dressed up in contemporary methodologies. But the work of the person who said that, Robert M Price ‘the Bible Geek’, has been accused of the same thing. We have so little new evidence (i.e. none) about the Resurrection of Jesus, and the ability of historical data to pinpoint any single, precise, individual event is so weak that the arguments for something that can only run around each other in circles, no matter how clever you are.

The best NT Wright can do for Christians is demonstrate that belief in the Resurrection is not contrary to reason (that is, if you believe that a reasonable universe includes a God who acts in human history). The best the Bible Geek can do is demonstrate to those who do not believe in a bodily Resurrection that the likelihood of such an event is very small and there is no burden of historical evidence that forces them to accept it.

That is to say, history will never give us the certainty about our faith that we want it to.

What a lot of good history can do is make sense of the sources. And here is its strength. Rationalistic approaches to the past cannot say whether or not certain, particular events happened, especially the supernatural or miraculous. But they can survey a wide array of evidence from a period and give us the cultural background to help us make the stories make sense and contextualise them. They can tell us what sorts of things our ancestors thought possible or reasonable. They can tell us what sorts of events are more or less likely to have happened. They can tell us the significance of a particular event in a particular culture.

But they will never be able to prove to anyone, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus rose from the dead or that St Augustine was or was not a homosexual.

Thus the limits not only of historical research but of human reason.

Reading the ‘Life of St Antony’

I have blogged about St Antony and his Life published (if not composed) by St Athanasius before, as visible on the Desert Fathers page of this site. When we come in front a text such as the Life of St Antony, the questions that tend to confront us — especially if philosophical materialists (matter is all there is) — are manifold.

How much of this is even true? We have Antony visible wrestling with invisible opponents. The sick are cured. Demons are cast out. People hear the disembodied voices of the demons as they tempt Antony. He lives for twenty years alone on a sparse diet but is as hale and hearty as ever when he comes out of seclusion. He has visions both of demons and of Christ.

People who want to determine whether an account is true or not tend to dissect things on their likelihood as well as how well attested they are. The likelihood of any miracle is, by definition, scanty. And our evidence for Antony’s miracles primarily comes from this text written probably by an Alexandrian and certainly serving the polemical purposes of Athanasius vs. the ‘Arians’ — if the Nicenes can produce such a saint, how could they be wrong?

Of course, one could easily point to the vast wealth of material that gives us miracle stories, exorcisms, and visions in the acts of the martyrs and lives of later saints. Perhaps these could be used as a bar — people in similar circumstances do similar things. May these miracles be not so unlikely after all?

However, immediately it will be pointed out that the earlier stories are unreliable because they were often written after the fact and clearly embellished to promote the Christian message. And the later stories are clearly modelling themselves on the Life of St Antony. Therefore, the argument that holiness manifests itself in similar ways throughout history will not convince our imagined materialist.

In fact, short of witnessing such a miracle oneself, I don’t think that a confirmed materialist could ever be convinced that the Life of Antony is 100% true. Furthermore, the apparatus of historical investigation cannot either prove or disprove the events recounted in this story. ‘Likelihood’ cannot be used as a criterion if the miraculous is in play, short of discounting all miracles (as the materialist will).

What use, then, is the Life of Antony? We cannot prove it true. We cannot prove it false. What do we do with it?

We must ask ourselves why the text was written in the first place and for whom it was written. It claims to have been written by Athanasius to provide the ideal monastic lifestyle for the reading pleasure and edification of his fellow clergy. The point of the Life of Antony is not historical information but edifying example.

Therefore, what this text shows us is what this particular Egyptian community — Alexandrians who admired the Desert Fathers, perhaps the Desert Fathers themselves a bit — values and strives towards. These people value commitment to Christ above all. They value what Franciscans will later call ‘evangelical poverty.’ They value constant prayer. They believe in demons but also in the greater power of Christ at work in the Christian to overcome the demons. These things and more are what we can take away from this text.

At this point, when we look to it as reflective of a particular historical community rather than a straight historical narrative, the Life of St Antony takes on a different force and becomes disturbing in a new way. Rather than challenging the philosophical materialist (matter is all there is), it aims for the heart of the practical materialist (matter is all that matters).

This is the value, historical and philosophical, of documents such as the Life of St Antony. These are the questions we should ask them — questions that will provoke the text to question us as well.

Breaking News! Will the Real Hippolytus Please Stand Up?

Within hours of me posting this post about Hippolytus, an eminent late antique scholar with whom I am Facebook friends informed me:

Unfortunately just about everything that’s written about this Hippolytus is made up. Sorry. He’s completely apocryphal. The general view today is that he is in fact different writers, neither of whom was an ‘anti-pope’. And he didn’t write a chronicle either.

This, as you can imagine, came as a bit of a blow. Hippolytus a fake? After a little bit of this (go to 0:32 for the glory of it):

I moved on with my life. Clearly, I need to do better research on my popes. At all times. Or at least base what I say on … ancient/mediaeval sources; or the most recent research based on ancient/medieval sources. So here we go.

A little quotation from Saint Jerome could almost be enough to cover this:

Hippolytus was the bishop of a certain church. I have not, in fact, been able to learn the name of the city. (De Viris Illustribus 61)

But that’s a bit unsatisfying. How do we come to have a martyr story combined with an anti-pope combined with a host of writings, including sermons and a eucharistic liturgy?

First step: More than one Hippolytus. J. A. Cerrato, in Hippolytus Between East and West lists a bunch of these, the first being the martyr who died under Maximin, first mentioned in 354. There are are three other Hippolyti who died under Valerian later in the third century; the first, d. 257, is supported by archaeological and hagiographical evidence; the second, d. 258, is a character extrapolated from martyr acta of Lawrence; the third, d. post-257, was a Novatianist who returned to the Catholic faith and whose acta were written (and possibly forged?) by Pope Damasus as anti-Novatianist propaganda. There seems also to have been another Hippolytus, also a martyr.

That gives us five third-century martyrs named Hippolytus. At least one is probably real, maybe four. Cerrato writes, ‘By way of genuine accounts, the presbyter Hippolytus (c. 235) of the depositio martyrum is accepted as historical by consensus …’ (12). This Hippolytus, exiled with Pontian, was made into an anti-Pope by Doellinger, apparently.

I can see, however, how one could slip the reformed Novatianist Hippolytus into the exiled, earlier martyr Hippolytus and turn him into an anti-pope.

What about the many writings (which go beyond the Apostolic Tradition)? Cerrato tells us:

There is scant evidence, therefore, in any early sources to suggest that the martyred Hippolyti were teachers, or literate ecclesiastics. (13)

That leaves this blogger wondering how, once conflated into the Anti-Pope, they are imagined to be a writer. Apparently I have to read all of Cerrato book to find out, though. Since my PhD isn’t on Hippolytus but on Leo, I’ll refrain. Nonetheless, Cerrato does note that there is a Greek Hippolytus who was a spiritual teacher. No doubt writings come to be attached to him that way?

What, then, of the Apostolic Tradition? Who wrote it? How old is it? The commentary by Bradshaw, Johnson, and Phillips of 200 first gives us the traditional reasons for calling Hippolytus its author:

The first is that, while no existing manuscript of the document itself bears a title or author’s name, two of the derived church orders do refer to Hippolytus. (2)

The second argument is that the opening section of the document speaks of having ‘set down’ … ‘the tradition that catechizes the churches’ … This encouraged the identification of the document with an otherwise unknown treatise, the Apostolic Tradition, apparently included in a list of Hippolytus’s works inscribed on the right-hand side of the base of a statue discovered in Rome in 1551 (2-3)

If you ask me, these are reasons for a hypothesis but not a firm attribution. The commentators agree, noting the tendency to associate documents with famous men of old, whether they had anything to do with it — and a large number of other documents are falsely attributed to Hippolytus. The statue is also not clearly a statue of Hippolytus, nor necessarily a list of his works. Some also wonder if this text was even Roman, and note that it was more widely circulated in East than West. Add to these concerns the above discussion of Hippolytus’ identity, and the attribution of the work to him weakens enormously.

Well, what about the date? Is it as old as the supposed Hippolytus? Alistair Stewart-Sykes, in the SVS translation On the Apostolic Tradition, says that it is Roman and third-century, based upon similarities between it and later Roman liturgies as well as the connections between the practices described in other early Roman Christian literature.

So, what can we say? There were multiple Hippolyti who probably did not write the Apostolic Tradition but who may have worshipped with a version it in Rome in the third century.

What this teaches us is that Christian historiography, especially before Constantine, is fraught with danger. The ancients themselves can lead us astray, such as when the Hippolyti are conflated, or when they incorrectly attribute texts to people (or write texts under false names). Modern scholars can also lead us astray, such as the Anti-Pope theory which is still current in popular circles (as I learned to my peril!), or the weak attribution of the Apostolic Tradition to the shadowy figure of Hippolytus.

This has been brief and has not dealt with all of the arguments fully. If you want to get down and dirty with Hippolytus, the works I’ve consulted are:

Bradshaw, Paul F., Maxwell E. Johnson, and L. Edward Philllips. The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Cerrato, J. A. Hippolytus Between East and West. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Alistair Stewart-Sykes (trans.). Hippolytus. On the Apostolic Tradition. Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press.