Claiming the high ground

(Book: First Apology, by Justin Martyr, courtesy of The Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)

We’re up to Chapter 27 of Justin’s First Apology, and we find him in fine form today, denouncing the people he’s trying to convince, praising Christians almost to the point of deifying them, and hopping from topic to topic in a way that says more about free association than about organized exposition. He does have a theme, though, and that theme is “Us good, you bad.”

He begins with an accusation that, if true, is really nasty. And it just might be true. He’s accusing them of “exposing” unwanted babies—disposing of them by abandoning them in fields or along roadways where they will die of exposure, or worse.

But as for us, we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men… [Almost] all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution. And as the ancients are said to have reared herds of oxen, or goats, or sheep, or grazing horses, so now we see you rear children only for this shameful use; and for this pollution a multitude of females and hermaphrodites, and those who commit unmentionable iniquities, are found in every nation.

Entire generations of “disposable” kids, thrown away like rubbish, to be scrounged by unscrupulous flesh merchants and rented out as sex toys. That is indeed repulsive and disgusting. I’m no prude, and if people happen to enjoy sex then I’m not going to judge them for how they do it. But it’s not the sex that’s the problem here, it’s the slavery. Sex is fine when both parties freely choose to participate and neither harms the other either intentionally or negligently, but grabbing babies to farm them like herd animals to be used for others’ pleasures—that’s just nasty.

Justin’s appeal to a nobler morality, however, is somewhat tarnished by his own bigotry. Notice that though he’s willing to mention the prostitution of both “girls” and “males,” he can just barely mention bisexuals, whom he calls “hermaphrodites”, and he can’t even say “homosexuals,” but has to call them “those who commit unmentionable iniquities.” In his view, all sex outside of marriage is wrong, but in his view there are also only three kinds of prostitutes: females, hermaphrodites, and “ooo, ick, I can’t even say it.” And his solution for all three groups is draconian: “you ought to exterminate [them] from your realm.” Not just outlaw sexual slavery, but exterminate the prostitutes themselves. Apparently he’s a little confused on the difference between “moral high ground” and ruthless slaughter (nor is he the last prominent Christian to share this befuddlement).

He continues his righteous rant against the Romans by tying this outrageous human trafficking to the Roman gods, and then uses a bit of mythic detail to segue into a presentation of his own Christian mythology.

And there are some who prostitute even their own children and wives, and some are openly mutilated for the purpose of sodomy; and they refer these mysteries to the mother of the gods, and along with each of those whom you esteem gods there is painted a serpent,a great symbol and mystery.

After identifying “the mother of the [Roman] gods” as being responsible for prostitution, mutilation, and sodomy, he suddenly switches gears and becomes an art critic. He’s noticed, you see, that the Romans frequently use the image of a serpent as a thematic element in their depictions of gods and goddesses. And that’s like Harold Camping noticing that you can do math with the dates and numbers in the Bible.

The serpent, as you may recall, is the character in Genesis 3 that tricked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “ From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

In the original Genesis story, the serpent was just a snake. It might have been more crafty than the other beasts of the field, but it was an ordinary, mundane creature, with one exception: it could talk. The modern Christian tradition is that this serpent was actually Satan appearing in the form of a snake, but that’s not how it was originally told. In the original story, the serpent was a genuine, earthly, flesh-and-blood animal, and what God cursed was a beast, not any demon.

The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
Cursed are you more than all cattle,
And more than every beast of the field;
On your belly you will go,
And dust you will eat
All the days of your life;
And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.”

Nowhere in any Jewish or Christian tradition is there any concept of Satan, the Devil, being cursed by God to go on his belly and eat dust all the days of his life. The victim of this curse is clearly a mortal animal, and one of the common beasts of the field. It might be (allegedly) more crafty than all the beasts of the field, and it might be more cursed than all the beasts of the field, but in saying this, the original writer is comparing the snake to its peers. It is a beast of the field that crawls on its belly and bites people on their lower extremities and gets hit on the head in return.

Along about the time the Babylonian/Persian Jews were absorbing the dualistic mythology of the Zoroastrians, though, this story got adopted and expanded. Instead of being merely a naive fable about talking animals and their trickery, this became an epic spiritual confrontation between the mighty God and His most deadly and ancient adversary. The people involved were mere pawns, which is pretty callous when you think about it. The reason people are mere pawns in a game between God and Satan is because both God and Satan are content to regard humans in those demeaning terms. The original legend made God look merely naive and dishonest; the new version makes Him callous and aloof as well.

This is Justin’s tangent, though, so I should let him explain what he sees as the main point to be gleaned from this story.

For among us the prince of the wicked spirits is called the serpent, and Satan, and the devil, as you can learn by looking into our writings. And that he would be sent into the fire with his host, and the men who follow him, and would be punished for an endless duration, Christ foretold. For the reason why God has delayed to do this, is His regard for the human race. For He foreknows that some are to be saved by repentance, some even that are perhaps not yet born.

Justin is giving us our money’s worth here. He’s not only reinforcing the identification of the serpent with Satan, but he’s throwing in a bit of (typically Zoroastrian) end-times prophecy and a bit of an apology for the problem of evil. Part of the reason for this is that there’s really only one passage in the New Testament that refers to Satan the Deceiver in terms of being a serpent: Revelation 12.

And there was war in heaven, Michael and his angels waging war with the dragon. The dragon and his angels waged war, and they were not strong enough, and there was no longer a place found for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

No, I tell a lie: the description of Satan as a serpent who deceives the whole world is echoed briefly in Revelation 20:2. Apart from those two places, though, you don’t find anywhere in the Bible identifying the Genesis serpent as being Satan. That particular tradition owes more to foreign sources than it does to the tales of Moses. But the point is that the serpent, who appears in Roman iconography as a symbol of eternity, power, and wisdom, is the devil, and he and his followers are doomed to go to hell.

Notice that Justin minces no words about what Jesus meant by “everlasting torment” in Matthew 25. He meant “punished for an endless duration”—both Satan AND the men who follow him. You don’t go to hell to get the sin burned out of you, and then ascend into heaven like refined and purified gold, as some might propose in later generations. Back in the early church, hell was for keeps.

And this serpent, Justin proposes, is an evil demon whom you’re unwittingly idolizing in your pagan mythology. That means you deserve to go to hell, Caesar, but God is giving you a little extra time because He knows there are still some people who still may repent of their sins (hint, hint!). Repenting would be a bit easier if you didn’t have the craftiest of all deceivers around, of course, but somehow God seems to have overlooked the tremendous advantages of getting Satan out of the way sooner rather than later. Bit of a faux pas on God’s part. Nor does Justin seem any less oblivious.

In the beginning He made the human race with the power of thought and of choosing the truth and doing right, so that all men are without excuse before God; for they have been born rational and contemplative. And if any one disbelieves that God cares for these things, he will thereby either insinuate that God does not exist, or he will assert that though He exists He delights in vice, or exists like a stone, and that neither virtue nor vice are anything, but only in the opinion of men these things are reckoned good or evil. And this is the greatest profanity and wickedness.

In other words, if you contemplate the way the world is, and use your power of rational thought, you will come to the conclusion that either God does not exist, or else He does not care about good and evil. That, in Justin’s opinion. is a profane and wicked conclusion, and it is wrong to accept profane and wicked conclusions. Therefore God exists and cares about good and evil, Q. E. D.

From that bit of self-affirming brilliance, Justin hops back to the topic of exposing unwanted babies. It’s entirely a non-issue for Christians, he tells Caesar, because Christians don’t fornicate.

But whether we marry, it is only that we may bring up children; or whether we decline marriage, we live continently. And that you may understand that promiscuous intercourse is not one of our mysteries, one of our number a short time ago presented to Felix the governor in Alexandria a petition, craving that permission might be given to a surgeon to make him an eunuch.

“Just whack it off, boys, I’ve got no use for it.” I think there are a number of altar boys who would be a lot happier today if the Catholic church had surgical requirements for the priesthood along the lines of Justin’s unnamed example. It would, after all, be consistent with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:30. On the other hand (no pun intended), what Justin is telling Caesar here is complete bullshit, which is why the Church, from ancient times, has had a sacrament of confession during which the believer admits to all the lusts and temptations and other sins he or she has indulged in since their last confession. Christians “sin” just as much as anyone else, and some more so, because they have no socially acceptable outlets for their natural appetites.

From here Justin hares off in a new direction, but we’ll pick that up again in two weeks. (Just a bit of blog news there—I’ll be on vacation next week, so there won’t be a post here next Sunday. See you all in a couple weeks.)

4 Responses to “Claiming the high ground”

  1. mikespeir Says:

    “For the reason why God has delayed to do this, is His regard for the human race. For He foreknows that some are to be saved by repentance, some even that are perhaps not yet born.”

    Echos of 2 Peter 3:9. God seems to have overlooked one trivial detail. Sure, if Jesus delays coming back a few more might be saved. But the religion of Justin et al. insists that most people will be damned. That means that in order for a few more to be saved over-abundantly more will be damned. But what the, uh, hell: they’re just sinners, after all.

  2. pboyfloyd Says:

    “..exterminate ..”, “..exterminate ..”, we are the Daleks.. “…exterminate ..”

  3. lpetrich Says:

    Great series. Nice to see then-and-now differences, like Justin Martyr accepting Xian-pagan similarities. As to that gentleman who wanted to be neutered, the theologian Origen did that to himself, and Jesus Christ recommended considering it in Matthew 19:12.

    I’m looking forward to the next installments.

  4. Ed-M Says:

    I’m late to the discussion, but yes, Justin did want Antoninus Pius to exterminate the whole lot of the those exposed and brought up into prostitution of all sorts. Anti-gay bigotry infects Christianity to this very early stage here, and it’s of the “Kill-the-Gays” variety.

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