Signs and Mysteries

Magna enim in eis signa et mysteria continentur.

Remigius of Auxerre, Ennarationes in Psalmos (PL 131.259D)

A Catholic friend, author and blogger Mike Aquilina, has a new book out, illustrated by Lea Marie Ravotti, published by Our Sunday Visitor, Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols. OSV has been very kind to send a review copy. I trust the kindness is repaid here.

First off, this is a beautifully printed little book. I wouldn’t so overly simplify as to say that I always judge a book by its cover, but I do think a good book should be complemented by a good book design and production. This little volume passes with flying colors. Externally, it’s a small hardback (8.75 x 5.5 x .75 inches [21 x 14 x 1.75 cm]), with a smooth dark nut-brown cover with gilt lettering on the spine. The dustjacket is nice, thick, glossy paper (you may see the front of it at the link above), and includes a nice picture of a smiling Mr Aquilina on the rear flap. The binding of the 188 numbered pages is glued, not sewn; of course, this is sufficiently sturdy for this small book, and it is very nicely done.

Upon opening the book, however, one is truly treated to an example of very fine book design. The font is delicate (so may not make ideal unaided reading for those readers with vision problems) and all the text and illustrations are in a brown ink, rather than black, on a creamy matte paper. The font is really very nice, indeed. The choice of the brown ink is espcially striking for its effect in the illustrations. And these illustrations are absolutely beautifully done. There is a kind of classic delicacy in the treatment, which is difficult to elaborate, but which harks back to earlier traditions of monochrome illustration. There is a very nearly photographic realism to some of the illustrations (I think here of the Galilean cross on page 151), while others are more impressionistic (like the watercolor depiction of the “cross” on the wall at Herculaneum, page 150), and all represent the ancient art accurately, with a minimum of fussiness (no bothersome dotted lines of reconstructions, etc.), making the images much more accessible. Though some were certainly determined by their being mentioned in the text, others which are not mentioned are also included, rounding out the portrayals of these ancient visual depictions, and assisting in giving at least some taste of the style of depiction used in the ancient churches. The selected illustrations are excellent accompaniment to the text, and another pleasure is that there are so many of them, on average more than one every other page.

The text itself is a delight. Mike has managed to write a short beginner’s introduction to the visual imagery of the first four centuries of the Church. The twenty-six chapters following the Introduction cover (at varying length) such topics as “The Fish,” “The Peacock,” “The Lamb,” “The Anchor” and “Alpha and Omega.” (A bibliography of Works Consulted concludes the volume.) I am already thinking of several people of several ages for whom this book will be a fine introduction to the symbols used in the art of the Early Church. Mike explains clearly and simply the symbology (that is, the system of visual typology) used by the ancient artists which is so very similar to the textual typology employed in Patristic commentary of Scripture. The book is, in fact, peppered with Patristic citations, cementing the two. The book is not directed at an academic audience. As Mike says, “This is not a work of scholarship, but an act of devotion—an act of piety toward our ancestors, so that we might learn to see the world once again with their eyes, and to pray and live as they once prayed and lived” (p. 9). But I would take issue with the statement that this book “is not a work of scholarship.” It most certainly is. I’ve seen no errors in any of the references to subject matter that I’m at all familiar with. There is a sufficient presence of “perhaps” and “maybe” in the book so as to keep things realistically grounded in what we do know and can know, rather than the contrary commonplace of assertions presented as fact. That is certainly good scholarship, deftly wielded with a light touch. It is not intimidating scholarship, not overpowering and jargon-laden, and is thus perfect for those who know nothing about the subject of early Christian art and the symbols employed therein. Those who will appreciate learning what their ancestors in the Faith were up to with all these anchors, ankhs, and alphas will be well repaid for their time spent within the pages of this truly lovely little book. For great are the signs and mysteries contained in them.

O Holy Spirit

Blow the old man down, Wind,
sky-swimming toward the sea
into the ocean of holiness
where he suffers a sea-change
into something rich and strange
a new man born anew, god by grace

Gust away, Storm of God and send
flying my clouds of filthy earth
laying bare the bedrock of my soul
naked stone of hardened heart
and let the Sun shine
and let the rain fall
and let your wind blow
and wear it down

Rage on, Spirit flood
Flash and pound and roar
Crumble dissolve wash away
this careworn tired shack
tabernacle of selfish hues
that my heart may spring up
alive in the sunlight of God

me, just now


I watched a rosebud very long
     Brought on by dew and sun and shower,
     Waiting to see the perfect flower :
Then, when I thought it should be strong,
     It opened at the matin hour
And fell at evensong.

I watched a nest from day to day,
     A green nest full of pleasant shade,
     Wherein three speckled eggs were laid :
But when they should have hatched in May,
     The two old birds had grown afraid
Or tired, and flew away.

Then in my wrath I broke the bough
     That I had tended so with care,
     Hoping its scent should fill the air ;
I crushed the eggs, not heeding how
     Their ancient promise had been fair :
I would have vengeance now.

But the dead branch spoke from the sod,
     And the eggs answered me again :
     Because we failed dost thou complain?
Is thy wrath just? And what if God,
     Who waiteth for thy fruits in vain,
Should also take the rod?

Christina Georgina Rossetti, 7 January 1849

Hidden sense in hagiographa

[T]he true meaning of hagiographical literature, according to Symeon, is not open to everyone who reads it, but only to those who try to imitate the saints. The compilers of the lives of the saints, Symeon suggests,

described their bodily efforts, their non-possessiveness, fasting, vigils, abstinence, patience . . . but they hardly described their spiritual activity except as mirrored in such deeds, that those who show their labours and their faith by deeds may by these deeds in knowledge participate in the spiritual gifts of saints, while the others will not be counted worthy even to hear of such things.

So in hagiographical literature, as in Scripture, there is also a certain θεωρια (internal meaning) which is revealed to ‘gnostics’ who imitate the saints and is hidden from ‘others’ who do not imitate them. Symeon definitely regards himself as such a ‘gnostic’ and this is why he thinks he has a right to interpret the lives of saints in a personal way, clarifying their hiddent mystical meaning.

Developing the theme of the imitation of saints, Symeon in fact follows Theodore the Studite who suggests that ‘we must not only admire saints, but also imitate them with good sense: that is, let the cenobite imitate a cenobitic saint; the hesychast, a saintly hesychast; the hermit, the saint who is a hermit; the hegumen, a saintly hegumen.’ In Cat. 5 Symeon gives a description of the Last Judgement and suggests that people will be condemned if they were not familiar with the lives of saints and did not imitate them:

[Christ] says to the women: ‘Have you not heard in the churches the readings of the “Life of St. Pelagia, the Former Harlot”, the “Life of St. Mary of Egypt, the Former Profligate”, [the “Life of] Theodora the Adulteress, Who Became a Wonderworker”, as well as [the “Lives of] Euphrosyni the Virgin, Called Smaragdos”, and “Xeni, the True and Wonderful Stanger”. . . ? Why have you not imitated those and similar women . . . ?

Correspondingly, men who are kings and rulers will be asked why they did not imitate the Old Testament saints, such as David, who, after being reproved by Nathan, ‘did not cease day and night from weeping and lamenting’, as well as Moses, Joshua, and many virtuous ‘kings, rulers, and commanders’. To the patriarchs Christ will oppose John Chrysostom, John the Almsgiver, Gregory the Theologian, Ignatios, Methodios, and Tarasios; and against the metropolitans He will set Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Wonderworker, Ambrose, and Nicholas. Rich people will be judged by those who were rich, and the poor by those who were poor; married by those who were married, and unmarried by those who lived unmarried. ‘In short on the awesome day of Judgement every sinful man will see [a saint] who is like him . . . and will be judged by this [saint].’

[Bishop] Hilarion Alfayev, St Symeon the New Theologian and Orthodox Tradition (Oxford, 2000), 135-136. Though it’s several days since I first read the above passage, it’s managed to stick with me. Its implications are numerous and profound, particularly in the manner it can be unpacked and applied not just to personal transformation but in many other ways. It is a finely crafted watch of many tiny gears, ticking along smoothly. So I thought I’d share it.

Some random thoughts

On the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha
There’s a definite gap in dealing with these writings. The focus so often goes back to a putative Jewish original, although the form in which we have the texts are Christian, and much later. Both the initial Christianization of these writings (if indeed they were not simply originally Christian) and the later use of them as evidenced by the physical characteristics of the manuscripts (e.g., as part of hagiographical menologies, the liturgical texts for saints’ commemorations read in churches) are generally ignored. It appears, for one thing, that much is written on the authoring of various New Testament Apocrypha and Patristic works during the course of the second and third centuries, but that the Christianization (or authoring) of these Old Testament Pseudepigrapha are not included in such accounts, though it was precisely in these centuries that a plurality of these works appeared in their known forms. I know that Jim Davila deals with this in part in his book The Provenance of the Pseudepigrapha: Jewish, Christian, or Other? (Brill, 2005), which book glares at me, guilt-inducingly, from a pile of others in the To Read category, saying, “Read me…read me….”

On Rebellious Angels
About the Genesis 6 “sons of God” and the Enochian Watchers and the Nephilim. Having recently worked through Jubilees and the Ascension of Isaiah with much reference to parallels in the Genesis Apocryphon and various stray references to New Testament books and letters, I’m convinced that the earliest Christians, including Paul, actually did believe this tale of various angels impregnating women and bearing these hybrid Nephilim. A frequent objection to this has been said to be found in Matthew 22.30 (parr), where we read, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (NRSV). Reading this as reference to not the nature of angels in general, but as something of a reaffirmation of the goodness of the obedient angels in heaven as opposed to those fallen ones on earth, we might even take this to be a belief of the Master himself. Now, the emphasis in the tradition appears to be not that these angels were incapable of engendering some kind of children with the human women, but rather that they 1.) sullied themselves by doing so and 2.) broke the boundaries of their assigned positions, all because of the beauty of the women. Certainly Paul can be understood to refer to this also in 1 Corinthians 11.10: “For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” There is likewise the reference in 1 Peter 3.19-20, situating these events in the time of the Flood, which the tradition of the Nephilim also does, and Christ preaching to the imprisoned spirits of the Nephilim. Then of course is the obvious quotation of 1 Enoch in Jude 14-15, indicating a knowledge and acceptance (despite claims to the contrary) of the whole of that book.

On the Prophetic Nature of the Old Testament
It is an archive of the prophets, not the kings, not the priests. Though the latter two groups may have occasionally been the recipients of good press from the prophets, as much as they adhered to the prophetic perspective, it is only the perspective of the prophets, their religion, that stands forth as the sole valid perspective from Genesis to Malachi (or to 2 Chronicles or to Daniel, depending upon your canon!). And that perspective, that religion, eventually became the religion of the Judean people, after the return from the Babylonian Exile, though with an apparently somewhat shaky beginning. The recurrent syncretism and outright foreign worship (presented as adultery and idolatry) of pre-exilic Israel and Judah were finally eliminated, and the ideal of the prophetic worship became everyone else’s standard as well. The oracular nature of much of the (Latter) Prophets is clear, but it is likewise present in the Historical Books (the Former Prophets, namely Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), where the oracular/prophetic perspective is the filter through which events are interpreted, comprising a prophetic commentary on history itself. In this, they don’t differ from those oracularly-driven perspectives we read of in other ancient Near Eastern texts.

On the Davidic-Messianic Nature of the Old Testament
Tied to the above is the realization of the OT designed by those prophetic voices to reflect the ongoing loyalty of God for His promise to David as given in 2 Samuel 7, through the prophet Nathan, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam 7.16). Firstly, the genealogies of the various books drill down toward the family of David, from Adam to Noah, from Shem to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Judah, and so on, to David (as I describe here). In addition to this, that oracular promise was continually on the minds of the prophets, so that they were always in anticipation, generation by generation, of its fulfillment in the birth of a new scion of the House of David, a Son of God in a particular manner. This would explain the strong language found in Isaiah 7 and 11. Every king in that line was viewed not only as the living embodiment of the fulfillment of God’s particular promise to David made through one of their own. Later, the expectation of an ideal Son of David grew (this too, is reflected in Isaiah 7 and 11, and perhaps also in Ezekiel 34 and 37, if “David” there is not to be understood as King David redivivus) as time went on and the prophets were presented with various disappointing (and occasionally murderous) results. This Davidic-Messianic perspective is likewise, in combination with various references to prophetic texts, drawn on in the Gospels in reference to Jesus, a son of David, though the Messiahship there is one quite different than that of a physical kingdom, drawing on further aspects of the Davidic-Messianic tradition which must certainly have been in play in those days in reference to an expected Davidic scion, otherwise they’d’ve been incomprehensible to the original audience. One can only imagine that in the second century that at least some of the same references would have also been in play in reference to Simon bar Kosiba. One wonders if the miraculous healings and such things were likewise expected of bar Kosiba or if they had dropped out of the tradition by then; or perhaps the adherents of that tradition had simply entered into the Christian community, so that it was simply no longer held by other Judeans at the time.

Magic and a Patriarch

Following on my post Conversion of a Patriarch? and Chaim’s post The deathbed conversion of a patriarch?, I thought to post the other tale related by Count Joseph of Tiberias to Epiphanius, as related in the latter’s Panarion 30.7.1-8.7 (the translation is that of Frank Williams, The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis [Brill, 1987]). Setting the scene, it is several years after 365, the year in which Hillel II died. Hillel’s son and successor, Gamaliel V, was not yet of age at Hillel’s death, so his upbringing was entrusted to Joseph (in these years before his conversion to Christianity, he was still a well-respected elder at the Patriarch’s court in Tiberias) and another elder. Epiphanius was born in Palestine, south of Gaza, which explains his reference in an aside to “my country” when telling the story.

[T]he boy Ellel had left to be reared as patriarch was growing up. (No one usurps the positions of authority among the Jews; a son succeeds a father.) Just as the lad was reaching full vigor some idle youths of his age, who were used to evil, unfortunately met him. (I guess he was called Judas, but because of the time I am not quite sure.) The youths of his age got him into many bad habits, seductions of women and unholy sexual unions. They undertook to help him in his licentious deeds with certain magic devices–made certain love-philtres and compelled free women, by incantation, to be brought against their will for his seduction.

Josephus and his fellow elder, who were obliged to attend the boy, bore this with difficulty. Often they charged him verbally, and admonished him. But he preferred to listen to the young men, and he hid his indecencies and denied them. And Josephus did not dare to voice his accusations of him openly; he admonished him, however, as though from professional duty.

Well, they went to Gadara for the hot baths. There is an annual gathering there. Persons who wish to bathe for a certain number of days arrive from every quarter, to rid themselves of their ailments, if you please–though it is a trick of the devil. For where God’s wonders have been, the adversary already spread his deadly nets–men and women bathe together there!

There happened to be an unusually beautiful free woman in the bath. With his accustomed licentiousness the young man brushed against the girl’s side as he strolled about in the hot-air room. But being Christian, she naturally made the sign of the cross. (There was no need for her to break the rules and bathe in mixed company. These things happen to simple laypersons, from the laxity of the teachers who do not forewarn them through their instruction.) Still, that God might make his wonders manifest, the youngster, I mean the patriarch, failed in his enterprise. For he sent emissaries to the woman and promised her gifts; but she insulted his messengers and did not yield to the pampered youth’s futile efforts.

Then, when his helpers learned of the passion the boy had betrayed for the girl, they undertook to equip him with more powerful magic–as Josephus himself described to me minutely. After sunset they took the unfortunate lad to the neighboring cemetery. (In my country there are places of assembly of this kind, called “caverns,” made by hewing them out of cliffsides.) Taking him there the cheats who were with him recited certain incantations and spells, and did some things, with him and in the woman’s name, which were full of impiety.

By God’s will the other elder, Josephus’ partner, found this out; and on realizing what was happening, he told Josephus. And he began by bemoaning his lot, and said, “Brother, we are wretched men and vessels of destruction! What sort of person are we attending?” Josephus asked what the matter was, and no sooner were the words out of his mouth than the elder seized his hand and took Josephus to the place where the persons doomed to die, with the youth, were holding their assembly in the cemetery for magic. They stood outside the door and eavesdropped on their proceedings, but withdrew when they came out. (It was not dark yet; it was just about sundown, and visibility was still good.) After the monsters of impiety had left the tomb Josephus went in and saw certain vessels and other implements of jugglery on the ground. He made water on them and covered them with a heap of dust, he said, and left.

But he knew the kind of woman on whose account they had plotted these wicked things, and he watched to see whether they would win. When the sorceries did not win–the woman had the aid of the sign and faith of Christ–he learned that the young man had waited for the girl’s arrival on three nights, and later quarrelled with those who had performed the jugglery, because it had not succeeded.

Such a lively tale! In the end, it sounds to be no more than a teenage crush, though a serious one, that the young Gamaliel was suffering from. And if it weren’t for his rough friends, there would likely be no tale to tell here at all. The drama is heightened by the “doomed to die” which would be related either to a presumed Divine judgment on the way for such rank impiety, or the Imperial ban on such magic. Since the Patriarch Hillel V held the post from 365 to 385, we can rather expect that his repentance was forthwith and he was spared such an immediate punishment. The account of Josephus “making water” (urinating) on the magical implements is delightful. This story, with the Christian woman avoiding the powerful magic of the young and wealthy Jewish Patriarch, is presented as the third of the various experiences that led Josephus step by step toward his conversion to Christianity. Another thing that is extraordinary about this story is that Epiphanius’ Panarion was published in 378, while the Patriarch Gamaliel V was still alive, though some dating schemes I’ve seen online would make it a close call. Perhaps the work was not so popular immediately as it was to become with time; Epiphanius clearly avoided any resultant odium in offending one of the most powerful men in the region.

A Pseudepigraphic Pearl

And I am now an orphan and desolate,
and I have no other hope save in you, Lord,
and no other refuge except your mercy, Lord,
because you are the father of the orphans,
and a protector of the persecuted
and a helper of the afflicted.
Have mercy upon me, Lord,
and guard me, a virgin who is abandoned and an orphan,
because you, Lord, are a sweet and good and gentle father.
What father is as sweet as you, Lord,
and who is as quick in mercy as you, Lord,
and who is as long-suffering towards our sins as you, Lord?

Joseph and Aseneth 12.13-15