Summary Conclusion: St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 7)

Final Summary of All Posts

Because Francis’ sainthood has been the object of polemical attack by those Orthodox unversed in critical scholarship who yet feel that zeal for Orthodoxy should permit them to discuss in ways which not only work against the generosity of spirit encouraged by Paul in his admonition to speak only about what upbuilds, but which also tarnish the reputation of Orthodoxy as a repository of well conducted theology, I decided to post this series of essays. It was my hope that writing the series should help frame my desire to see a critical, rather than polemical, theology among the Orthodox, and a reinvestment in the richness of the Medieval, Pre-Tridentine tradition among Catholics.

I divided the series into six parts. The first situated the series in the context of a polemical article in a popular magazine intended for the Orthodox faithful (OCA-ROCOR specific). The second traced the earlier accounts of Francis’ life which have come down to us, in contrast to the article’s reliance on the quite late and vernacular Fioretti di San Franceso. To enquire whether the article’s argument about Francis’ visualisation techniques was valid, the third part looked at meditation techniques in the Latin church of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The fourth and fifth sections asked ‘why’, and tackled the meaning assigned by Francis’ contemporaries to Seraphim and Stigmata, respectively. The Sixth section, which I divided into two parts, looked at changing patterns of devotional forms in the Byzantine Commonwealth during the Comneni dynasty (1081 – 1204), with specific attention paid to Byzantine devotion to the Passion. The latter part of the same section noted the motivations and understanding of Passion devotion as presented by Latin writers during its heyday of development in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. I also briefly touched on Crusader sermons to illustrate the context in which Passion devotion played out in other spheres of life for Latin Christians. Several conclusions have emerged from the various themes covered in the series of posts, which I present below as I review the series as a whole.

Why were stigmata absent in Byzantium? Is something wrong with Byzantine spirituality that its saints do not have this mark? Or is the phenomenon of stigmata a sign of the deviance of the Latin church? Those questions drove this series of posts. Rather than approach the latter two questions head on, I proposed an ‘archaeology’ of Francis’ stigmata in its twelfth century context. I adopted the logic that miracles of holiness are identified by local communities, and I sought to ‘excavate’ why particular miracles, in this case stigmata, are understood as signs of Christ-like-ness. I augmented the question by comparing the international Latin experience with the situation in the Byzantine Commonwealth under the contemporary Comneni dynasty. The hope was that uncovering the medieval contexts of stigmata and the initial understandings of the phenomenon would prove the most helpful approach in illuminating possible approaches to the larger ecclesiastical concern of venerating saints from other denominations.

Related to the question of Francis’ stigmata is the issue of saint-identification and saint-repudiation, or as an academic might phrase it, ‘saint-making and unmaking’. This is the implicit theme of the first post, although i did not draw it out as such, my articulated concern being to frame the debate as a whole. Saint making is inherently political: that is, it involves position relations of power within and between communities and the individuals who populate those communities. These relations of power exist quite apart from whatever revelatory process of grace was provided by the saint in question during his or her life.

In the context of saint-making and saint-unmaking, the questions were: Why is it important for the OW author to debunk the idea of Francis’ sainthood? Why was Francis made a saint to begin with? Are either considerations, those which prompt the article’s author to debunk Francis sainthood, and those which prompted his canonisation in the thirteenth century, universally applicable? How does the history of local proclamation of saints in Byzantine commonwealth, and the papal decrees for universal veneration of a saint in the (particularly post-Reformation) Roman Catholic Church impact today the proclaiming as unholy those whom other ages and communities proclaimed holy? This last question is not new; it was raised before during the Three chapters controversy during the early medieval period.

As mentioned already, several conclusions emerged during the course of this series. First, devotion to the Eucharist, Passion, and Icons are inter-related, especially in Byzantium, but to a lesser extent also in the Latin Kingdoms. Second, due to the peculiarities of his life, Francis became for Latin theologians and laity a node in a network of medieval devotions, allowing the devotee’s mind to move from Francis to any number of other theological topics: the Cross, transformation in Christ, the Body of Christ, Eucharist, angels, the virtue of Love, and so on. A third conclusion which emerged was that although important for Latin theological speculation on cosmological themes, the Byzantine Commonwealth had other concerns at the time (e.g. residual iconoclasm; scepticism regarding the ability of real people to become saints; the efficacy of saintly intercession after the holy person’s death), concerns which Francis’ life, or specifically his stigmata, did not address. Although it is possible to marginally fit Francis into a Byzantine framework of devotional and meditative associations, it isn’t really necessary; Byzantine spirituality came to cultivate other emphases. On the other hand, the fourth conclusion is that because Francis did leave relics and his contemporaries do see him as having been transformed in Christ, his sainthood and holiness should not be disparaged simply on account of his life not being applicable to the theologico-political situation of an empire in which he did not spend much time. Saints are given to locales first, and only later to Christendom as a whole.

I noted at the end of the second post (‘Earlier Accounts’), the primary argument put forward in the Orthodox Word article, namely, that Francis’ stigmata are a result of delusion induced by excessive visualisation exercises, is invalid. The argument is invalid on academic grounds because (quite apart from the fact that the article did not answer the prompting question directly), the author relies on one of the latest sources, written for popular consumption, rather than on the earliest sources which have survived. The argument is invalid on ecclesiastical grounds in the sense that the sources used were not those promoted by the proper ecclesiastical authorities for the canonisation of Francis; that is, they do not reflect the mind of the Church authorities of the time (or today). Finally, the argument also fails on a theological level for a similar reason, that the source documents the author used were not those of theologians per se, but of popular devotion. The problem here is that the author did not draw out the ways in which popular accounts, or rather popular spirituality, also represents the mind or consensus of the faithful with regard to the spirituality of a time and place. As such, the Fioretti are indeed evidence of popular devotional ideas of the fourteenth century (or at least of one author in the fourteenth century), and as such could have been used to tentatively illustrate differences in devotional emphases between Byzantine authors and Italian authors of the time period in question — if the overall framing of those stories had been properly taken into account. When I have used examples of popular devotion to further my own argument, I have done so precisely to illustrate the popular context in which Francis lived, and not to illustrate Francis’ own biography and possible thought-processes. Popular works are too uncritical a source to be used with any such certainty about the life of an individual.

In both the second post (‘Earlier Accounts’) and the third post (‘Meditation techniques’), I noted that the earliest sources do not support an interpretation which claims Francis’ used various visualisation techniques, in contrast to the author’s claims. For the author, ‘visualisations’ are a technique viewed with disapproval, as particularly likely to lead to delusion. (The visualisations under discussion are those in the mind, as opposed to visualisations as externalised and objectified in written icons; icons are able to be viewed, critiqued, and assessed by relevant authorities for their theological orthodoxy.) I delved into the various meditation and contemplation practises which were described by Latin contemplative theologians in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. These sources do not indicate that visualisation techniques are to be habitually practised. (For more on meditation, though a touch later than my sources and treating a specific type, see McNamer (2010). Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion.) More to the point, the earlier accounts of Francis indicate that his vision occurred in a moment of contemplative stillness, rather than during the discursive meditations on how he could conform his life to Christ more fully. The vision did, however, provide material for Francis and others to meditate upon, namely, why a Seraph? why a Crucified man with the six-wings of a Seraph?

Bonaventure wrote that the stigmata were ‘Imprinted on Francis by God via the action of Seraph’. The action came from God, but was this Seraph real or false? (The implication being that demons can serve God’s will, too, as evidenced in the book of Job; was the Seraph a ‘devil in disguise’ is the question.) How could such a question, of concern to an Orthodox pastor, be ascertained? The question is part of a larger one: do angels appear to people who are potentially heretics? Can an ‘orthodox’ angel appear to heterodox Latins? In truth, the reality or falsity of the vision cannot be certainly determined by us today, in part because of the scepticism of the age when it comes to angels and visions, and in part because all we have to rely on for evidence are hagiographical documents, none of which even hints that the Seraph was a devil. (Writers do evince uncertainty about whether the vision was one of Christ or of a Serpah. Bonaventure seems to come down on the side of the vision having been of an angel.) Inasmuch as the biographers of Francis point to an increase in devotion and love, however, rather than a flagging of his devotion, the veracity of his vision is implicitly confirmed according to the evidence acceptable in both Latin and Byzantine assessments of holy, as opposed to unholy, visions. What can be determined today, and what I focused on instead, was the meaning a Seraph had for Francis’ contemporaries.

Although no biographical account of Francis indicates that the Seraph was the devil or a demon in disguise, hagiography regularly discusses demons disguised as angels who appear to friars in order to deceive them. (The Fioretti itself contains several such instances, had the author of the Orthodox Word article chosen to give signs that he had read through the work as a whole.) The evidence from Francis’ biographers would seem to mitigate against a demonic interpretation, as Francis’ love for God did not flag after the vision, despite his suffering — a suffering accepted by Francis and described by his hagiographers as the final aspect of Francis’ perfect imitation of Christ’s life.

It is bad form to introduce new data (as opposed to analytical theory) in a concluding section. Nonetheless, for readers still in doubt about eleventh and twelfth-century Byzantine assessments of demonic activity, I will refer readers to the Byzantine scholar Psellos’ work (titled in Latin), De Operatione Demonorum. In this work, his interlocutor describes several classes of demons, and the forms each are capable of taking; assuming form of Seraph seems not to be one of them. Byzantine beliefs of the time do not posit an ‘anti-hierarchy’ to Dionysios’ Celestial hierarchy. In fact, the Seraph which appeared to Francis was not only in keeping with the hierarchy presented by Dionysios the Aeropagite’s Celestial Hierarchy, namely, indicative of love of God, but the association of a Seraph with the Cross and Passion can be located in a Byzantine text, the Judas Cyriacus (Kyriakos) legend, which became popular throughout the Christian world from Spain to Armenia, and Britain to Egypt. Francis’ vision thus had the potential to be understood throughout those regions where the History of the finding of the True Cross was recounted.

In any event, the vision of a Seraph was full of meaning for Francis’ contemporaries, a meaning which would have been readily intelligible in Byzantium. If Dionysios’ Celestial hierarchy had been more central to theological concerns of the Palaiologan dynasty following the Latin occupation of 1204, perhaps notice of Francis’ vision would have been different. By that dynasty, however, theological concerns lay more with defending the reality of internal experience, namely through or by means of hesychasm, than with external cosmological realities. (Quite apart from any association the Byzantines made between Franciscan friars and the Venetian Republic which sacked Constantinople in 1204, or between the friars and papal interference in the life of Constantinopolitan patriarchate during the period of Latin occupation.)

If anything, theological meditation on Francis’ vision of a Seraph prompted subsequent Latin writers to move away from an earlier image of the ‘angelification’ of humans as they pursued divine contemplation. Instead, combined with the clear evidence of Francis’ imitation of Christ, the speculative and contemplative theologians began to posit a much more Christocentric vision of humanity, in which ‘Christified’ humans move among the spheres of the angelic harmony, in contrast to the angels who remain stationary within each sphere. (I would argue that both the ‘angelification’ and ‘Christification’ of humans are aspects in Latin theology of what in Greek is called theosis, or divinisation. The issue of theosis in Latin and Byzantine theology is a contentious one, and the development of such an argument must await another post.)

The stigmata presented a similar problem to the seraph, and in the fifth section, I pursued the question, ‘what was the meaning of stigmata for Francis’ contemporaries?’ In light of examples of ‘stigmatists’ before Francis, Francis’ stigmata were truly novel, both in form (bearing nails, unhealing) and method of reception (via a vision, not via self-infliction). When it comes to interpreting what stigmata mean, both before and after Francis’ lifetime, two chief themes presented themselves to Latin theologians. The first was that stigmata were evidence of participation in or imitation of Christ. The second, and ultimately more broadly influential, was the idea that the stigmata were physical evidence of a mystic’s transformation into the Beloved (the contemplatives’ goal).

In Francis’ case, the stigmata were in fact interpreted by Francis’ contemporaries as evidence both of his complete imitation of Christ, and attested to Francis’ actual transformation in Christ. (The actual devotional work called Imitatio Christi would not be written for another century and a half. The history of that devotion as such — from its origins before Francis’ time, through his particular articulation of such an imitation as a way of life, to Thomas á Kempis’ work — deserves a later examination.) The stigmata, in other words, were taken by Latin theologians as a very physical manifestation of theosis — specifically in this case the ‘Christification’ I mentioned earlier. This theosis was authenticated, according to the sources, by the relics left by Francis,and the continued transformation of his body after his death.

Are these two ideas, participation and transformation in Christ, good enough evidence for the orthodoxy of stigmata, if, indeed, one can ask if an unsought, spontaneously given miracle is ‘orthodox’? Or do they point to a more fundamental difference in what it means to be transfigured in Christ? The stigmata cannot be used to demonstrate Francis’ orthodoxy; on the other hand, his relics can be used in that way.

The transformation in Christ of Francis’ body continued after Francis’ death, inasmuch as his relics continued to transfigure in holiness, leaving behind pleasant fragrances and miracles. The idea that false relics, scented and miracle working, could be fabricated by demons is belied in Orthodox hagiographical literature. Never are demonically-created relics mentioned, though stories of falsely-believed-to-be holy people whose remains stank and putrefied, and repelled people, abound in both Byzantine and Latin accounts of post-mortem revelations about false saints. (Of course, just because a saint’s body decomposed does not mean that the bones could not be relics; Dostoevsky certainly takes up that idea in his Brothers Karamazov.)

Finally, I traced devotion to the Passion in both the Byzantine Commonwealth and in the Latin Kingdoms of East and West, in order to contextualise Francis’ stigmata even further. I operated on the notion that because Francis’ stigmata were associated with the Cross and Passion, those two symbols provided an overarching context for understanding how Francis ‘fit’ into the symbolic worlds present in Byzantium and Italy. I asked two questions, first, did Byzantium have a devotion to the Passion at all? Second, how did medieval Latin conceptions of Imitatio Chrsiti come to focus on the wounds of Christ, such that stigmata, rather than say, the light of Tabor or the Resurrection, come to function as the sign of transformation in (or into) Christ?

I traced changing Byzantine devotion to the Passion through the development of several icons, their association with the Eucharist, and the derivation of additional icons from image-bearing relics of the Passion contained in the Imperial Palace. I suggested that a focus on the Passion in both Latin and Byzantine devotions of the period was prompted by the renewed accessibility to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (whose Latin precincts ultimately became stewarded by Franciscan friars). While in Byzantium monastic changes to liturgical practice led to the focus of devotion resting on the Cross or the icon of the Man of Sorrows, rather than the Passion as an event, nevertheless, the eleventh and twelfth centuries saw a common interest in the humanity of the man who suffered on the Cross.

Instead of icons, in the Latin west, devotion to the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist was shifted to a more often than not ‘conceptual’ devotion to the wounds present in the body which shed the blood of the altar. Latin devotion to the Eucharist outside the liturgical epiclesis, including the monstrance processions of the feast of Corpus Christi (instituted in 1246), did undergo elaboration during the thirteenth century, though its roots perhaps lay in the earlier reforms of Gregory VII. Devotion to the wounds of Christ seems to have been the result of a confluence of commentaries on the Song of Songs as they met Eucharistic devotion, coming to focus conceptually on the visual source of the gift of love: the body on the Cross, and more specifically, the ‘wound of love’ (cf. Fulton2002:292-294).

Bynum’s article “Women mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century”, which I used in the post on Stigmata, examined Latin devotion to the Body of Christ and the Eucharist, but did not treat the accessibility of Christ’s humanity to Byzantine Christians through the medium of icons — including most especially the ‘new’ icons emerging from the religious ferment of the two centuries preceding the Latin capture of Constantinople (i.e. the eleventh and twelfth centuries, from the reign of Constantine IX Monomachos through the Komnenian dynasty). Yet, according to Belting (1980)’s article on the icon of the Man of Sorrows, one of the newer icons developed during the Comnenian renaissance, the Threnos, appears to take its genesis from its association with the aër covering the Holy Gifts at the altar. In other words, in post-iconoclastic Byzantium devotion to the Eucharist (which was considered one of the few ‘true’ icons by the iconoclasts) is transferred to newly-written and emotive icons which, it can be argued, were more lay-accessible, particularly outside the specific liturgies into which they were embedded. (Belting (1990) in particular has traced the portrayal of the Passion events and the uses to which those portrayals were put in his The image and its public in the Middle Ages : form and function of early paintings of the Passion (German original: Das Bild und sein Publikum im Mittelalter).)

Thus in Byzantium the progression moves from the Eucharist and Cross to icons; from relics of the Passion, to icons of the relics of the Passion. The links between Eucharist, Passion, and Icon were reinforced by the association of the Image of Burial of Christ as already present on the aër covering the Eucharist. That image, however, assisted the creation of Icons of the Deposition and the Akra Tapeinosis funerary-like portrait for private devotion. The movement of devotional focus to icons occurred in a context which recognised sanctity through the creation of icons of the sanctified, an implicit result of holiness being the ‘Iconographisation’ of the believer. One might also frame the Byzantine devotion as one of transferring the holiness of the material Eucharist to the image which touches the gifts, and through the icon portraying what covers the ‘true’ icon of the Eucharist, to the believer. In contrast, Latin devotion had a paucity of immediate relics from Jerusalem (though this was eventually remedied by fifteenth century monarchs), and the ‘transferral’ of material holiness was obtained through imitation, rather than association. In the Latin kingdoms, the progression moves from Cross, Passion, and Eucharist back to the human Body of Christ on the Cross and present in the Eucharistic elements to a more immediate focus on the Blood of Christ received in the Eucharist. That movement is united with commentaries on the Song of Songs, tied to the Passion through the imagery of the ‘wound of love’ which transforms lover and beloved. The resulting practise leads to a conscious Imitatio Christi on the part of the believer and meditation on the embodiment of Christ’s body in the believer through participation in Christ’s acts of mercy, His sufferings, and his self-giving at the altar, made possible by the Crucifixion.


Analytical Possibilities: Francis within a Network

Lastly, I presented evidence from Crusader sermons in order to illustrate how Francis became so internationally popular among Latin Christians. The purpose of that section, in combination with the foregoing, was to illustrate my conclusion that Francis became a node uniting several devotions. Francis functioned for medieval theologians and the devout as an indexical tag, meditation on whose life can lead in numerous other directions: Cross, Eucharist, crusades, poverty and kenosis, imitation of Christ, Body of Christ, the angelic hierarchy, and so on. I showed how eucharistic spirituality, the spirituality of the cross and crusades, devotion to the wounds of Christ, and contemplation of virtues such as love and the celestial hierarchy all came together in Francis’ life, particularly through his vision on Mt Alverna. I reached that conclusion after examining popular devotions as they developed in Byzantium and the West.

I have mostly held off from analysing the presented evidence through explicitly theoretical (i.e. academic, sociological methods) perspectives. A few such theoretical lenses may help focus the processes surrounding Francis stigmata. The theoretical approach is not without utility to theological and ecclesial ends. Such utility is demonstrated when the approach opens new possibilities for understanding the faith of previous eras; when it raises new questions or complicates old questions about topics such as revelation from lived experiences of saints and hagiographers — hagiographers being the mediators between society and theology; and when it sheds light on ecclesial integration, both in its problematic aspects and in its more appreciative aspects, as when it deepens the spirituality of the faithful, even in the presence of difference. I intend only to sketch out possibilities here, rather than fully develop any one approach.

I have already mentioned a few theoretical approaches. First is an ‘archaeology’ of a phenomenon, which owes a certain amount to Foucault as a proponent of this method. Second is the idea of saint-making and -unmaking, for which Galatariotou’s monograph on St Neophytos is an eminent example. Embodiment is another theoretical term I’ve used a few times, but I would see it drawn into relation with concepts of contagion, in this case, contagion or transfer of holiness, rather than impurity. Finally, Lukacs’ idea of reification, particularly as that reification can bring a ‘thing’ into a network such that it becomes either highly connected or even an obligatory passing point, ideas developed in (actor-)network theory, seems pertinent.

Lukacs developed his idea of reification in the context of a Marxist critique of capitalism. Briefly, the idea is that one thing becomes separated from its original context and comes to have associations of its own derived from that context, although in and of itself, the item does not possess any such relationship. Although abstract ideas are capable of being ‘thingified’, money is the primary example which he uses to demonstrate the idea of reification. As paper bills, money has no relationship to anything, except perhaps artwork. However, money originates as a proxy for the relationship between employer and employee. It represents labour-hours. Those labour-hours become reified, or embodied as a material ‘thing’ in the material object of money. The next step occurs when money then becomes an actant on its own, whereas before, it was the recipient of an action. For Lukacs, reification is the embodying of social relations into a material object which comes to replace or stand for social relations, but in a way which obscures those relations. (See his ‘History and Class Consciousness’ for more on this idea. He has an interesting idea of orthodoxy as residing in faithfulness to developing methods laid out by the founders of a field, which might be interesting to pursue in the context of what it means to be Orthodox.)

I would suggest that the twelfth century was a period when Latin and Byzantine theologians developed two slightly different methods of reifiying relations between human and divine. For the Byzantine commonwealth, the item which comes to reify this relationship is the icon, and secondarily relics (although the Eucharist is a close runner up); in a way, even icons of relics are efficacious, maintaining their relationship to the prototype’s relationship to the original. While it can be argued icons derive their power from the intercessory capabilities of their prototypes, nevertheless, the material object which comes to function in that intercessory capacity is the icon, egg tempera written on gesso and wood. In some cases, icons of the cross appear to have supplanted the actual cross as intercessory object, in an icondoule effort to root out iconoclastic groups still dubious of the orthodoxy of icons. If the cross is efficacious on its own, why not an image of the cross? If an image of the cross, then also the image of the body on the Cross, or the body which hung on the cross.

The choice of externalised iconographic expression for devotion to the Passion, rather than embodiment (even in metaphor) within the devotee’s body in suffering, is one key to the differences which emerged between Latin and Byzantine approaches to devotion to the events surrounding Christ’s death. Why icons became the vehicle of reification, or even better, how icons came to be viewed as bodies capable of embodying a relationship with the divine (rather than the human person him or herself), is a process which the literature surrounding iconography sometimes touches on, but not in such theoretical terminology, and certainly not in the wider context of historical Byzantine experience. Is the key to bringing the reification to the icon rather than the human found in devotional literature? How do ideas about stillness and the divine light touch on the human body which experiences such phenomenon? How is that embodied experience phrased and framed in an iconographic context, if at all? Did the reification occur in response to opposition by the intellectual elite of the time, their mocking of miracles and appearances of the holy man (as a type)? (See Belting 2005, “Image, Medium, Body: A New Approach to Iconology”, Critical Inquiry, 31:2:302-319, for more on the idea of icons as material objects which embody relations. I may develop this idea more fully in a later post, under the category of STS and Theology.)

In the Latin kingdoms, in contrast, the eucharist and bodily imitation are reified as the relationship between the devotee and the divine; or, in the case of Francis, his stigmata, a physical sign, becomes the ‘thingification’ of Francis’ ‘perfect’ imitation of Christ for Christians of his time. In a sense, the idea of Francis becomes ‘thingified’, and as such becomes capable of drawing together a series of relationships which extend beyond the confines of his own lived social relations. To take that approach, I am treating Francis as an object of popular devotion, rather than as a person with a popular following. How Francis, or Francis’ stigmata, fit into such networks of devotion has been articulated through even the cursory examinations of medieval angelogy, art history, Passion devotion, Eucharistic piety (at least one story in the Fioretti bears that later association out) and the crusader spirituality of the Holy Cross set out in this series of posts.

Francis was situated socially in the context of Crusades, with a nimbus of a new chivalric ideal promoted by Troubadours, but not without the fervor of missionary zeal. Francis becomes associated through his own travels and through his order’s responsibilities with the Holy Land and Latin pilgrimage there. By the latter half of the Middle Ages, Francis becomes a node in a nexus of devotions, linking several disparate strands of spirituality and sociality into an internationalised symbolic figure of the perfect, or near perfect, Christian: masculine, soldierly (or brave) yet eschewing worldly honour, of consummate devotion to his lady (Poverty), physically transformed by Love, having a place in the Angelic hierarchy, linked to the Holy Sites of Outre-Mer, honoured by infidels, the founder of a powerful order of intellectuals, and reformer of the Church who was yet never a priest. This is a far cry from the animal-loving, ecology-appreciating saint we often see today.

Francis comes to be the node on a nexus uniting medieval devotion to Angels, the Cross and Passion (especially as evidenced through devotion to the Five Wounds of Christ), the Lamb of God (and its associations with Judgement, Revelation, and Sacrifice), and the name of Jesus. He embodies the idea of transformation in God, and imitation of Christ; his creation of the Nativity scene links him with Mary and the Nativity; his Poverty with the Gospel counsels, Troubadour songs about devotion to one’s lady, as well as the theological idea of the kenosis of the Word; and finally, ecclesial approval by the patriarchate of which he was a member. As such, Francis remains a potent theological focus. All the mentioned devotions are unified, for our imitation, in the person-symbol of the stigmata-bearing saint, Francis. Imitation of him is imitation of transformation in God. As already mentioned, Francis seems to be the catalyst for one articulated strand in Latin theology of approaching to the Byzantine idea of theosis, though through a practical, rather than theoretical exposition. In imitating Francis, devout remain devoted to these other aspects of Medieval spirituality.

The Call of Orthodoxy

Much of the Catholic-bashing which occurs in zealous Orthodox polemic seems to originate in an opposition to the ecumenical movement. If ecumenical endeavours are to be opposed, I would argue that such opposition must be well-founded on good scholarship, not based on over-zealous, over-ambitious and ultimately shallow polemic. Such polemic does more to foster a dismissal of one’s own claims and arguments than it does to prevent the ecumenical process from moving forward. The ecumenical process will move forward precisely because zeal is deemed ignorance rather than informed faithfulness to the Fathers. In so doing, not only will the intention of opposing ecumenism fail, but the opportunity to present the ‘ecumenicists’ with the Patristic and orthodox inheritance as interpreted, preserved, and lived in the Orthodox Commonwealth will be missed.

Without an understanding of both Latin and Byzantine theology, as well as the historical contexts which formed them, any pre-conceived response to questions about Latin practices will serve merely to entrench the Orthodox in xenophobic and narrow-minded stagnation, rather than move us towards a deepening awareness of the possibilities of our own tradition for deepening and elaboration.

For the Orthodox, I would see higher standards of scholarship even in a popular magazine, or at least an effort to move the faithful to the heart of the matter, and take the argument forward from mere Latin-bashing. Following a programmatic ‘we hold the one true interpretation, and they are wrong and deluded’ agenda will only work in certain social contexts — and we live in a rapidly changing society. Latin Catholics, though, must also step up their own background in how the (Latin) Church has had a very beautifully textured past, and cannot not simply to be divided into essentialised categories of ‘Pre’ and ‘Post’ Vatican II practice.

Educating the faithful, whether Roman Catholic or Byzantine Orthodox, by pointing out that not all questions have been answered (or need to be answered), that there is more to our tradition than any one of us can answer for them, and encouraging the faithful to educate themselves through critical scholarship and personal engagement with primary sources, is a pastoral responsibility. Letting an increasingly savvy laity know that one’s own simple (or even complex) answers should not necessarily be enough to satisfy them is key to igniting that thirst for God of which the Psalmist, and Symeon the New Theologian, speak. Simply because an articulation of the Christian faith occurred after the arbitrary date of 1054, and west of Serbia and Kiev, that articulation should not be irrationally considered as a valid reason for ignoring insights into Christian revelation evidenced by the lives of Christians practising in good faith. Unfortunately more frequent among some Orthodox is an a priori rejection of such persons altogether in order to maintain a schism whose importance has only recently become seemingly the sine qua non of certain ‘Orthodox’ identities.

If a critique of Francis is desired, a good critical and well researched account of Francis, as opposed to a superficial and polemical one, is The Poverty of Riches by Kenneth Baxter Wolf. That monograph, written by a historian, examines how Francis’ poverty was qualitatively different from that of other poor people in Italy at the time. The epitome of his argument is that unlike the urban poor around him, Francis was able to maintain his ties with the merchant and aristocratic classes from which he originally hailed. He was thus not ‘resource poor’ or ‘network weak’, to use current terminology. Wolf also discusses other devout people of Francis’ ilk working in Italy at the time, and addresses possible reasons why Francis, in contrast to them, reached the (posthumous) international popularity — as a person — that he did, while they remained at best locally remembered. Wolf thus begins to address how the intersection of popular and elite theological perspectives in the person of Francis came about.

The question among the Orthodox of how to interpret Francis’ stigmata, and the ongoing phenomenon of stigmatists in the Latin church, though, does open up larger questions regarding how the character of spirituality, and differences in spirituality between the Orthodox and Catholics, and even within Orthodoxy over time, can be examined. What meaning should be imputed to those changes, if, indeed, they are even admitted to exist? Spirituality need not remain static over time to be considered faithful to its forebears. Nor is such stasis when it does occur automatic evidence of Orthodoxy (much less holiness), and faithfulness to the Patristic and apostolic sources of our faith. Emphases, outward forms, and community understandings shift over time; they unfold deepening awareness of the revelation which sustains the Christian faith, as manifested in particular locales. Just as the Church Fathers wrote, and their works were copied, because they developed an articulation of the tradition they inherited through confronting and thinking through questions, with the goal of vetting what is conformable to the tradition and what is not consonant with it, so also have lay practices and understandings of sainthood for their communities.

Raising people up to the faith includes teaching them how to think critically and methodically about questions concerning differences in various Christian spiritualities. It does not mean feeding them pre-digested bits of impermeable boundary making. The Orthodox can point to national (and thus by definition ultimately temporal) characteristics in various saints and spiritualities: the giants of Egyptian monasticism are said to reflect the blazing sun of the desert and Nile; the eloquence of the Greek Fathers shows forth the acumen of Byzantine genius; while the poetic and devout lives of Russian hermits are washed in the watercolour hues of the birch and pine forests of their homeland. All are celebrated as being ‘Orthodox’ despite the clearly evident changes in emphasis and expression — because what is emphasised in these accounts is the continuity, rather than the disjunctions, shared by them and other Orthodox saints. I am not denying the tenet of continuity, but I am pointing out the ideology of continuity conceals the contradictions of time and place, change in form and expression throughout history, while attempting to highlight the presence of change among Latin Christians while exempting ourselves from any critical view of the same in Orthodoxy. This contradiction, or better, paradox of continuity despite outward change, deserves greater theological articulation, precisely because it can be misunderstood or scandalous to the faithful, as well as to outsiders.

The purpose of hagiography parallels icon creation. Hagiography and iconography both teach, and inspire a relationship between the devout and the prototype. Both hagiography and iconography, as examples of popular devotions, illustrate the symbolic universes which inform (lay) people’s understandings of holiness and the marks of being a ‘true’, or at least exemplary, Christian. Hagiography both shapes and responds to this understanding. Like iconography, by its communal nature, hagiography promotes some interests over others. One interest is the preservation of, and integration with, the memory of a larger chain of historical tradition. As Thomas of Celano wrote, Francis is an exemplar of the Christian life, but not one divorced from those who came before him: “And indeed the glorious life of this man sheds clearer light on the perfection of earlier saints..”


The second purpose of this series was to demonstrate why stigmata would not be understood in Byzantium. The conclusion I reached was simple: in Byzantium, devotion to the Passion took a different direction, becoming bound up with icons; other forms came under suspicion from heterodox use of the Mandylion’s festal Kanon; and perhaps because of heightened visibility among Catholics (or comparatively lessened visibility among Byzantines), passion devotion may also have become a political identity marker in the wake of Venetian and Papal interference in the political life of the Capital after 1204.

The question of whether the meaning of stigmata for the thirteenth century Latin church is an orthodox meaning, as understood today, would demand a foray into how much an ‘economic’ interpretation of the course of Christian history can be embraced. That foray stands quite apart from any discussion on how new events tied to spirituality can be evaluated as ‘acceptable’ or ‘heterodox’. By ‘economic’, I mean how much divergence from the usual course of events can be acceptably deemed as within the will of the Holy Spirit to teach the Christian faithful and create situations which elevate the people towards the divine life. In the case of Francis’ body, however, the leaving behind of relics would seem to mitigate against a push away from an economic interpretation of Francis’ sainthood. The reality of relics certainly trumps discussions over the meaning of stigmata, and in Orthodox fashion, should direct the argument’s course accordingly.

In and of themselves, the impression of the Five Wounds on Francis are not antithetical to Byzantine sensibilities, however unique at the time they were. Had Francis lived out his life in Byzantine lands one could speculate that the stigmata may well have been described by hagiographers as evidence that Francis was a living icon (of the Threnos-type, rather than the Man of Sorrows type). That approach might cause problems, though, implying that obtaining stigmata was the sure sign of theosis, or at the least, calling into question the position of the emperor as an Alter Christus. Lest one think that such devotion became alien to Byzantine spirituality, I would refer readers to the seventeenth century St Dmitry of Rostov’s prayers to the Passion (Bednarsky 1996: Tuptalo’s verses on Lord’s Passion.

One aspect of the larger tradition, a point of common genesis and possible starting point for rapprochement between Byzantine objects and Latin understandings of the account of Francis’ reception of the stigmata can be found in a common devotion to the Cross. (I insist on relating Francis’ stigmata to devotion to the Holy Cross because that is the context in which Francis appears iconographically most frequently in the century following his death: in frescoes adorning churches of the Holy Cross, Crusader chapels, and oratories devoted to Francis.) The empire in the East and the kingdoms of the West shared a common inheritance of devotion to the Cross, to the Last Supper, and to the events of Holy Week. Werner 1990 describes a history of the cult of the true cross in both Byzantine Empire and Latin kingdoms, with a special focus on insular British devotion to the material cross and its image. She notes that both Roman Pope Leo and Alexandrian Pope Cyril ‘understood devotion to the cross as devotion to the material object’.

While the idea of the feast day of the cross is fairly old, it was not particularly widespread. Angold (1995:186) mentions that the feast of the Elevation of the Cross was not celebrated in Thessaloniki until Eustathios’ episcopacy, in other words, not until after 1178 and before 1195. Eustathios was initially bishop of Myra, and perhaps devotion to the Cross was stronger in Asia Minor, where iconoclasts had strongholds (although iconoclasts seem to have been more centred in Anatolia). The time period of Eustathios’ introduction of the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross does, however, correspond to the changes in Byzantine devotional patterns, with their refocusing on the Passion.

The particular narrative of Francis’ reception of the stigmata shares elements in common with the Judas Kyriakos (Cyriacos) legend of the Invention of the Cross. How the life of that legend as it circulated throughout the Mediterranean and Northern Europe prompted devotion to the Cross as such, but also, in Byzantium, to the Man of Sorrows icon in particular (as distinct from the Bridegroom/ Nymphios or Ecce Homo icon), has already been told. Likewise with its impact in the Latin West, where devotion turned towards not just the Cross, but focused more intensely on the body of that man of sorrows who hung upon the Cross. In the legend, a Seraph is said to guard the Tree of Life, which is identified with the Cross. I would speculate that the Seraph which guards the tree of life in the Judas Kyriakos legend, when paired with Francis’ vision of the Seraph of the Passion, elaborates on the character of that particular angel. This is particularly the case if — and the early writers do not agree — Francis’ vision was of an angel, and not of Christ. The devotional situation of Francis’ stigmata can thus be set within Byzantine and Latin devotions centred on the Cross, the Man of Sorrows icon, the Wounds of Christ, and the seraph within the Judas Kyriakos account.

Later Stigmatists

The subsidiary question of later stigmatists cannot be addressed here. While it was the question which prompted the Orthodox Word article, my purpose is to examine that article’s focus on Francis. Frankly, Catholic theology has not integrated into any wide theology-cosmology the phenomenon of spontaneous stigmatism present in individuals who have lived subsequent to Francis’ life. Francis remains unique in that regard. On the other hand, no other stigmatist has been able to secure associations with as many other devotions and social models present in his or her age and succeeding generations, as Francis of Assisi did. The problem is compounded because the Church — or rather, the Franciscan lobby — forbade all later stigmatists, aside from Francis, from being portrayed with stigmata. (Padre Pio (1887 – 1968) and Teresa neumann are exceptions, as they lived during a time when they could be photographed, rather than painted or written into an icon.)

The way, or rather timing, stigmata have appeared in other individuals differs from Francis’ case as well. Francis’ stigmata were the crowning event of a long life; Padre Pio’s stigmata occurred in midlife. Catherine of Siena’s stigmata became visible only after her death, while Gertrude’s appeared only on her heart. What about stigmatists during the intervening seven centuries, among whom were Teresa Neumann and Padre Pio? What are the implications of such changes in manner of appearance, timing in the life of the stigmatist, and other manifestations related to the stigmata? How are they — stigmata and stigmatist — interpreted in the Latin context? While it would seem reasonable to assume these later stigmatists fall easily into a developed structure of interpretation in which the stigmata are evidence of transformation into Christ through love; I would caution against such wholesale assumptions. The religious climate of each stigmatist is likely to have been quite different from Francis , or even Gertrude of Helfta and Catherine of Siena. Stigmatists in wake of Francis, in other words, need a new, or at least augmented, cosmological framework. Something for Catholics to ponder over.

Latin Devotion to the Passion: Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic (Part 6b)

Passion Devotion in the Latin Kingdoms

What are the origins of the Latin devotion to the Passion? This is a qualitatively different question that what I asked regarding the Byzantine Commonwealth. There, the question was about the presence of any Passion devotions whatsoever. I argued from the iconographic and liturgical record that yes, Byzantium did have a devotion to the Passion, but that it took a different form, focusing on the Burial of Christ, although it maintained Eucharistic overtones. Likewise, its theological importance lay in its association with relics of the Passion which bore images attesting to the Incarnation. I did not examine in any detail texts from the kanons, akathists, or other liturgically-oriented writings on the topic (I hope to rectify that at some point in the future). In this section, however, because my focus is on the understanding and interpretations Latins themselves gave to devotion to the Passion, I will draw not so much on the artistic heritage of the West, but on its textual sources.

The best source of information on the development of devotion to the Passion in the West is provided by Fulton (2002)’s magisterial work, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary 800 -1200. Here, I will rely on only a few examples drawn from her monograph (which I highly recommend). Hrabanus Maurus (d. 856), provides an early recommendation for using devotion to the Passion as a way to open up the heart. His advice is taken up by John of Fecamp (d. 1079) in a small book given to the dowager empress of the Holy Roman Empire. This little book concerns contemplation, and details how meditation on the Passion, or specifically, on the Body of Christ, is the beginning of that path.

The twelfth century sees a new set of highly influential writers, among whom are Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), and Richard of St Victor (d. 1173). Anselm is important for a series of prayer-meditations in which Christ is portrayed as the Bridegroom of the soul. That theme is taken up by Bernard in his Commentaries on the Song of Songs, which open with a meditation on the Incarnation as the kiss, or union of two lips, at the start of the Scriptural canticle. Because Bernard’s work is rather long (and because my copies are stored in a box 3000 miles away), I will not examine any texts from him. Rather, I only wish to point out that his commentaries helped popularise the notion of an intimate, even romantic relationship between the soul and Christ. Richard we have had reason to mention before; he will receive only brief mention, in the context of the Song of Songs. Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179) would be a useful counterpoint if I wishes to provide an example highlighting the types of devotion which preceded the thirteenth century. My purpose, however, is to look at devotees’ understandings of what it means to meditate on the wounds and Passion of Christ. Therefore, I will not delve into her works here.

Three related groups of Old English texts, Ancrene Wisse, the Wooing Group, and the Katherine Group, however, do illustrate the shifts happening in Latin-rite devotion to the Cross and Passion in the years leading up to the thirteenth century. The subject matter of the texts combines imagery of the crucifixion with that of Christ as a bridegroom, bringing together Bernard’s mystical communion with Christ and the very real imagery of the Royal Cross. All three groups were written in the West Midlands dialect of English presumably for an audience of anchoresses (female hermits and recluses who lived in cells near churches and shrines), and in terms of composition date, seem to span the 12th and 13th centuries. Some of these anonymous prayers may have been part of an oral tradition and later written down. They may have been written by the women themselves, though one historian who focuses on the texts, Dr Innes-Parker, suggests they may have been written by a man. Regardless, “the intended audience for these prayers were anchoresses,” who had no access to education or libraries. These prayers were therefore written to provide them with their own devotional material. Nor could they speak Latin, which is why these prayers were written in English. They were the first passion meditation prayers written in English, and will serve as the most northerly examples of Passion devotion I will dip into in this post.

When it comes to devotion to the blood and wounds of Christ as that devotion developed on the Continent (and ultimately came to rest in devotion to the Sacred Heart), three women in particular are often mentioned. Mechtilde of Magdeburg, Mechtilde of Hackeborn, and Gertrude of Helfta, are associated with the High Medieval devotion, not just to the Passion in general, but to the blood and wounds of Christ specifically. (Relics of the Blood shed at the Crucifixion were some of the few relics which could be easily disseminated in the West, while Constantinople held the majority of other material remains associated with the passion.) These three women all lived in the Holy Roman Empire, and are associated with the Cistercian monastery of Helfta. Mechtilde of Magdeburg was born around 1207 (coincidental with the composition of the Wooing of Our Lord), and is thus also contemporaneous with Francis. Her writings attest to the currents of devotion present north of the Alps during Francis’ lifetime; as a Dominican sister, she was not especially invested the Franciscan project of promoting the founder of the ‘rival’ order — but she gives ample evidence of devotion to the Passion.

Mechtilde of Hackeborn (d. 1298) and Gertrude (d. 1302) post-date Francis, and both were contemporaries of Magdeburg after she entered the convent at Helfta. Gertrude was the most famous ‘student’ of Hackeborn, but the two are often mentioned together. Gertrude and Hackeborn were Cistercians, and therefore also not associated with the mendicant movement which developed in response to the new opportunities for pastoral care afforded by urbanisation. As Cistercians, they were part of a contemplative reform movement predating the mendicants, but closely associated through Bernard of Clairvaux with the Crusader kingdoms and the ‘taking up of the Cross’. (Cistercian architectural elements could be seen in the chapels of Crusader castles, of which Krak de Chevalier had until recently been the most well preserved.) The evidence provided by Magdeburg and Gertrude can thus be of use in elucidating the way Francis’ stigmata would be understood in the wider Latin Christian world around his lifetime. These women illustrate how devotion to the Passion was intimately wrapped up with a Eucharistic spirituality which was nonetheless contextualised within the convent’s discourse of women vowed to Christ as their Bridegroom.

Finally, the Cross and the courage in taking it up are themes widely preached in Crusader recruitment sermons to a broader, secular and lay public. The ways in which the Cross and Wounds of Christ are used in such sermons also sheds light on wide societal associations into which Francis easily fit, as a saint who preached to the Sultan, whose order was given custody of the Holy sites around Jerusalem, and as a human whose body bore evidence of taking up the Cross in a hyper-literal, though miraculous sense.

Elite Theologies: Passion as Preparation for Contemplation

Devotion to the Passion was not a sadistic glorying in pain and suffering for Latin Christians. Rather, they took seriously the admonitions of Paul, who to turn the Cross from stumbling block to corner stone of faith. Meditation on the Passion, as the means by which salvation was achieved, according to the Letter of the Hebrews, became for these Christians the first step in communion with the Divine. Fulton (2002:154) quotes a significant passage from Hrabanus Maurus, who comments on the Passion as the entry point for devotion to Christ in his Opusculum de passione Domini,

“If you wish to enter into life through Jesus, who is the way and the door… do not let it deter you, nor seem to you vile, if you find the approach to him everywhere troublesome and base. He has thorns on his head, nails in his hands and feet, a spear in his side, whip-marks on his arms; his body is torn to pieces, and like a leper he is ugly to look upon and hard to follow. But beware lest you throw away the nut on account of the bitterness of the shell: for the more bitter the outside may seem, so much the sweeter you will find the kernel inside. So that therefore you may be able to comprehend in some measure… the length, breadth, height, and depth of the mystery of the holy cross and the Lord’s passion, which God has hidden from the wise and knowing of the world and revealed to the little ones, understand the weight of the words… because, with God’s help, they will prepare the soul to have devotion in prayer, consolation in trouble, and revelation in contemplation; and you will know not only what has been given to us by God, but also the one who was given for us… even if you simply meditate on these things according to the letter.”

Hrabanus recommends the Passion precisely because it is an object of compassion or aversion. He promises that meditation on the Passion will lead to sweet fruit in the measure that the bitterness of Christ’s sufferings contain. Even if the person meditating focuses just on the literal events portrayed in the Gospel narratives, and not on the mystagogical interpretations handed down by the tradition of faith, Hrabanus says, benefit will accrue to the soul.

Hrabanus was not alone in composing a ‘little work’ (opusculum) on the Passion. John of Fécamp, who served as abbot of a monastery in Dijon in mid-eleventh century, at the request of the Holy Roman dowager empress Agnes, sent a small book of prayers to her. The empress by this time had entered the convent, and her request was for devotional reading for her new vocation in life. John’s Libellus was the response. It was copied, together with some of Anselm’s prayers into MS Metz 245, creating a thematically unified collection of prayers relating to the Passion (Fulton 2002:155). Fécamp, it should be noted, was a monastic school, founded by John’s own abbot, who had been called there by Richard II of Normandy. Earlier in life, John had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he had been held prisoner. How that pilgrimage affected his devotion to the Passion would make an interesting study itself.

Like HrabanusMaurus, John of Fécamp discusses meditation on the Passion in the context of prayer: “The contemplative ascent begins… as John has insisted throughout the Libellus, with Christ’s own body – or rather, his wounds, those ‘saving wounds which you suffered on the cross for our salvation and from which flowed the precious blood of our redemption.’ By these wounds, John implores Christ, ‘wound this sinful soul of mine for which you were willing even to die; wound it with the fiery and powerful dart of your charity that is beyond compare… pierce my heart, then, with the dart of your love, so that my soul may say, “I have been wounded by your love” [Song of Songs 2:5]…'” (Fulton 2002:169)

The excerpt just quoted is from John’s fourth prayer in his Libellus, which actually focuses on contemplation of Christ’s resurrection. For John of Fecamp, participation in Christ’s resurrection begins with Christ’s passion. Participation in Christ’s passion begins with the wound or wounds of love, which are here explicitly tied to the love of Bride and Bridegroom in the Song of Songs.

The association between Christ and the soul becomes even more concrete in another passage, in which John identifies Christ’s flesh with our own. This incarnational mystical theology contrasts with Peter Damian’s “conviction that it was necessary to bear with Christ not only his humanity but also the very wounds he suffered in taking on that humanity” (Fulton 2002:159-160).

John, in contemplating the Incarnation as God’s assuming human substance, writes, “And in this humanity is founded all my hope and all my trust. For in Jesus Christ our Lord resides a part of each of us, our flesh and blood. But where part of me reigns, there I believe that I too reign. And where my flesh is glorified, I recognize that I too am glorified. Where my blood rules, I see that I too rule. Although I am a sinner, i do not lose hope because there exits this grace-given communion. And if my sins bar the way, my substance requires that I be there. My sins may exclude me, but my communion in nature does not force me away. For the Lord is not so cruel as to forget humanity and not remember the creature whom he himself assumed, or not to want me for its sake after accepting it for my sake.” Far from being a statement of presumption on his part, it expresses a hope founded on theological faith in the incarnation. Yet it is also an expression of identification with Christ through the Word’s assumption of human nature. We as humans, can participate with Christ in his human experience, which includes a post-Resurrection glory.

Another figure, who, like John of Fecamp, was active during the ‘Norman renaissance’ of theological letters, was Anselm. Originally from Italy, he later settled at the monastery of Bec before being called to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Giles Gasper (2004:53) has suggested that John of Fecamp and Anselm of Canterbury mutually influenced one another, both coming from Norman monasteries located a mere 50 miles apart. (Gasper (2004). Anselm of Canterbury and his Theological Inheritance. Ashgate Publishing.)

Like John of Fecamp, Anselm composed meditative prayers which have been preserved, giving us an insight not only into his particular devotional themes, but also his approach to prayer. In his ‘meditation on the redemption of humanity’, Anselm recommends that it be read aloud, “…said from the depths of the heart and at a slow pace… give them your whole attention, and … do it was well as you are able, so that with humility of mind and the feeling of fear and love the sacrifice of prayer may be offered” (Fulton 2002:171). Key to making lectio divina into meditatio is attentiveness, at least for Anselm. One way to do that is to focus on one clear idea, and slowly work it over in the mind, ‘chewing it’, as Anselm describes. Fulton (2002:189f), in fact, argues that what is new in Anselm is “one of condensation and distillation: Anselm took elements available in the tradition — the image of meditation as rumination, as a slow chewing over of ideas within the stomach of the mind; the injunction, so clearly articulated by Hrabanus, to gaze upon the face of the Redeemer so as to kindle fire in the heart and understanding in the mind; the practice of private, confessional prayer to Christ and the plea, so richly articulated in the long prayer translated above (“Domine Iesu Christe, qui in hunc mundum”), that Christ hear the sinner and forgive all his or her many negligences and sins — and refined and enriched them in the alembic of his reasoned approach to the Christian faith… Above all, he transmuted the fear of Judgement, heightened as it had been for a generation or more by the passing of the millennial anniversaries of Christ’s Nativity and Passion, into an obligation to meditate on the immensity of Christ’s sacrifice.” Anselm, in other words, simply deepened the emphasis of devotions already at hand by imbuing them with an accessible mystagogy, and the methods for entering into that noetic contemplation.

The result, however, was that later Christians “would learn to think of their relationship to Christ in terms of an obligation to praise not simply the God-man but the man who had died in payment for their sins.” By focusing on the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice as achieved through his human nature, the reality of that humanity came to the fore. As Anselm later lamented, “Alas for me, that I was not able to see the Lord of Angels humbled to converse with men, when God, the one insulted, willed to die that the sinner might live. Alas that I did not deserve to be amazed in the presence of a love marvellous and beyond our grasp” (Fulton 2002:144). Anselm recognises in the crucifixion not simply human suffering, but the presence and will of Love, a love which transcends his ability to fully understand. As such, he recognises, but stands outside that love, contemplating it, rather than as in John of Fecamp’s prayerbook, identifying with it, or as in later writers, entering into it — at least in this particular lament.

Because Anselm recognises the love inherent in the act of submitting to the Crucifixion, the humanity of Christ for him is clearly not irreconcilable with a betrothal to one’s soul. In fact, one could draw the logical conclusion from his writings that in that act of supreme love was Christ’s betrothal of himself to the souls of humanity; the tomb, thus truly becomes a bridal chamber, which he enters and lies in wait for the soul of his beloved to join him, that later they may rise together in glory. But Anselm doesn’t quite carry out the imagery through the full triduum, at least not immediately. In the aforementioned prayer-mediation on the redemption of humanity (Meditatio Redemptionis Humanae), Anselm address Christ as Bridegroom in the following words: “I thirst for you, I hunger for you, I desire you, I sigh for you, I covet you… O that I might see the joy that I desire! O that ‘I might be satisfied with the appearing of your glory’ [Psalm 16.15] for which I hunger! O that I might be inebriated ‘with the riches of your house for which I sigh! O that I might drink of ‘the torrent of your pleasures’ [Psalm 35.9] for which I thirst! Lord, meanwhile, let ‘my tears be my meat day and night’ [Psalm 41.4], until they say to me, ‘Behold your God,’ until I hear, ‘Soul, behold your bridegroom'” (Fulton 2002:188). The imagery of Christ as Bridegroom was taken seriously by both male and female writers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and formed one aspect of the mysticism which flourished within and outside the monasteries of the period.

The Chivalrous Christ and the Wounds of Love

Perhaps the most influential preacher of the period was Bernard of Clairvaux. Often called ‘the Last of the Fathers’, he is credited with invigorating the nascent Cistercian reform of the Benedictine order. He preached for a Crusade, advised popes, and wrote extensive commentaries, sermons, and homilies. His commentaries on the Song of Songs, in addition to his work ‘On Loving God’ (De Diligendo Deo or De Amore) are considered to have been a contributing factor to the rise of the troubadour ideal of courtly love. Certainly, to them is attributed the rise of popular devotion to Christ as Lover. In concert with Richard of St Victor’s description of the ‘wound of love’ (Songs 2:4), devotion to the Song of Songs meets with Eucharistic devotion to focus conceptually on the visual source of the gift of love: the body of Christ on the Cross (see Winkworth 1993:138n28 for Richard of St Victor). More specifically, contemplatives begin to contemplate the meaning of the ‘wound of love’.

Commentary on Song of Songs in the Latin church focused on a quest for narration, though not without also searching for personalised experience (more exemplified by LeClerq than Bernard). “Latin interpretation of Song of Songs strives for narrative: the primary objective of breaking the [allegorical] code was to turn the text into a narrative plot.” The narrative plot, naturally enough, cast Christ in the role of Solomon or Bridegroom, and the soul in the role of Bride. This quest for narrative is not unlike the prosopographic exercises in late Antqiue Byzantium which gave rise to types of hymns like the Stavrotheotokia used in the liturgies of Holy Week. (Cf. Symeon’s Hymn to Eros for a Byzantine divine lover image; also his Ethical Discourses cast Christ as Emperor taking his (male) favourite to bed.)

Among the most enthusiastic supporters of this sort of interpretation in the thirteenth century were groups of lay women called Beguines (lay men who gathered in similar associations were called Beghards). As an example of the sort of emotive devotion characteristic of Beguine spirituality, flowing out of the Latin narrative interpretation of Songs, Bowie (Beguine Spirituality 1989:55:(I.4) provides a typical prayer: ‘Lord, you are my lover, my longing, my flowing stream, my sun, and I am your reflection.’ The key theme here, aside from a heavenly beloved, is of reflection: the Beguine devotee’s goal is to reflect the love and virtue of Christ, imitating in her own life the love Christ offered in his own.

Devotion to Christ comes to supersede fealty to Christ as the motivating force of the Christian life, for those who followed the more mystical paths laid out by the authors I mentioned above. The shift can be seen in a set of Anglo-Saxon devotional poems and prayers as one moves form the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. Beer (1992, Women and Mystical experience in the Middle Ages) juxtaposes a particular prayer-poem in the Katherine group with an older Anglo-Saxon poem, the Dream of the Rood, and links it to a chain which fully flowers in later Beguine spirituality. (Cf. The wohunge of ure Lauerd. Olde English poems.) Beer argues the Katherine poem illustrates the shift from an earlier conception in the Dream of the Rood of the nun as a martial warrior owing fealty to her Lord (as also in Hildegard of Bingen’s works), to the values of being a courtly lover, with Christ as a chivalrous knight as well as bridegroom. In part, this reflects an overall shift in literary topoi during the period in question, as the Res Gestorum of an earlier age give way to the Romances of the High Middle Ages. Likewise, Dr. Catherine Innes-Parker, a professor at UPEI, comments on her newly edited Middle English-Modern English edition of the Wooing Group, a group of texts related to the Katherine group. Dr Innes-Parker describes the Wooing Group as “a 13th century collection of prayers written in English for women. It turns Christ into a figure from romance—the Christ Knight, the ideal bridegroom” ( …For additional academic resources see: The Milieu and Context of the Wooing Group. Edited by Susannah M. Chewning Distributed for University of Wales Press.).

The two positions of martial fealty and courtly love, of course, are not as antithetical as it may seem: the societal shift may have been from a warrior ethos to a chivalric ethos, but the principle difference was the latter’s incorporation of courtly ideals and devotion to love into the pre-existing warrior ethos of glory, honour, and fealty to a feudal lord. Nevertheless, in the Katherine Group of texts, particularly in its later works, Christ is loved “for who he is, and what he has done [more] than for what he has to offer” (Beer 1992:75). In one particular poem, The Wooing of Our Lord (The wohunge of ure Lauerd), “the woman does not have to be convinced to choose Christ [as in earlier works in the Katherine group]: she fully recognises his desirability, and addresses him as his committed lover. Her sensitivity [is] to the degree of sacrifice made for her…” (Beer 1992:75).

As Innes-Parker elaborates, “These prayers refer to a romantic, even erotic meditation based on the Song of Songs. They are deeply rooted in the image of Christ as the bridegroom of the soul.” The commentaries and narrative-interpretation of the Songs, as we mentioned above, cast Christ as the bridegroom and the soul as his bride. Th Song of Songs is thus a scriptural account of Christ wooing the soul. “These poems were written to be read aloud,” says Innes-Parker. “The speaker had to look on the passion of Christ with the eyes of her soul and ask herself why her heart wasn’t breaking. Christ showed great love on the cross, and the response from these women was impassioned love.”

Beer (1992:67) also highlights that “a powerful element in the Wooing is the intense pathos surrounding the image of the Crucified Christ, the aching compassion expressed by a woman for the agony of her lover” (Beer 1992:77). The lover, of course, is the Bridegroom of the soul, Christ; and although the tomb in which he will be placed is not described as a bridal chamber — later prayers would ask Christ to hide the devotee in his wounds — as it is in the Byzantine liturgy, the focus of the poem is an interactive dialogue, not a monologue. (One wonders if the ‘pathos’ expressed in the poem is part of a general female experience of husbands and brothers as they left for Crusades, or when they heard that their men were wounded in battle? I would like to see if any female (secular) narratives attesting to such a relationship have survived, or is the poem a case of romanticising — in the sense of reading Romances and Courtly love onto everyday experience?)
In these groups of texts, we have a focus which moves from the Cross to the person on the Cross, who is loved as a Bridegroom who sacrifices himself out of love for his bride, personalised in the individual anchoress. Focus then moves from the incarnate man on the Cross to the actual wounds he suffered, and the motivating factor which led him to accept such marks: love.

The Wound of Love: Transformation of Lover and Beloved

Imagery of Christ as lover continued on the Continent during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Two strands of devotion, to the Eucharist and to the Crucified Bridegroom, are tied together in a vision recorded by Mechtilde of Magdeburg. In Mechtilde of Magdeburg’s Second Book, she describes a vision of transubstantiation, in which an image of a white lamb with red wounds wavers back and forth with the image of a white wafer: “As he [John the Baptist/ the priest] took the white wafer in his hands, the Lamb which was on the altar stood up and was changed into the wafer and the wafer into the Lamb, so that I saw the wafer no more but instead a bleeding lamb which hung on a red cross. He looked on us with such sweet eyes that never can I forget it. … John the Baptist took the white lamb with the red wounds and laid it on the mouth of the maid. Thus the pure lamb laid itself on its own image in the stall of her body and sucked her heart with its tender lips” (Beer 1992:86). In this vision, the Eucharist is the Crucified but Living Christ, symbolised in the wounded Lamb who stands up. The two images are brought together in one event, and the saint’s mind is able to hold both truths of her faith at once, without committing to one at the exclusion of the other. In addition, contemplation of the human person as image of God is alluded to: in the Eucharist, we who are the Body of Christ receive the Body of Christ. The transformation of the beloved one into her Lover is again alluded to later in the vision, which describes a “wreath of gleaming gold with the words: ‘His eyes in my eyes, His heart in my heart, His soul in my soul, Embraced and unwearied (and her face seemed the face of an angel).'” (Beer 1992:86)

Despite polemic that the Latin devotion to the Passion excludes contemplation of the mystery of the Resurrection, in Magdeburg’s vision although the imagery in that particular example is focused on the Crucified Christ, it is not divorced from Resurrection, or even apocalyptic-end time, images. In the vision of the wounded lamb, the lamb is alive as the resurrected Christ, who still bears his wounds (as we attest on Thomas Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter). The sister who receives communion is identified as an image of Christ, referencing Genesis in which humanity is made in the image of God, while the Lamb of God intimates not only John the Baptist’s preaching, but the imagery employed in the book of Revelation. The vision, in a sense, sums up the cosmological cycle of Christian time, and roots itself in the here and now through the mystery of the Eucharist.

Identification with the image of Christ also alludes to an underlying emphasis in the conventual life, of imitating Christ. That identification is brought out explicitly by Magdeburg in the third and seventh books,p where she “describes the passion and crucifixion of the individual soul, revealing that her spiritual ordeal, insofar as it mirrors that of Christ, is a way of regaining the divine likeness and achieving union” (Beer 1992:105). Later, in book seven, written at Helfta, Magdeburg broadens this imagery to embrace the entire community. The bride of Christ is the Church, and the Church is the Body of Christ, as much as is the individual Christian, who as a member of the Church, is also a member of the Body of the Crucified One. No contradiction between the individual sister as bride and the Church as a whole as bride is evinced.

Magdeburg’s disciple Gertrude also references the substantial identity humans have with God through the Incarnation. In one passage, she writes that Christ is he who has become ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh;’ the incarnation is paralleled in the Eucharist, reception of which allows the recipient to incorporate Christ so that his flesh becomes a part of her own (Winkworth 1993:103). The resulting association then draws together love imitating love, the wounds of the Cross, and a union of flesh through Eucharist and Incarnation as God becomes human and humans, through the mystery of the altar, receive a God made flesh.

Gertrude is perhaps the most interesting example for illustrating the idea of stigmata and devotion to the wounds of Christ. For Gertrude, the stigmata are both medicinal draught and intoxicating liquor; the intoxicating liquor,as the Blood of Christ, is also the Eucharistic cup. In her writings, she records in a dialogue with Christ that she received “the stigmata of your adorable and venerable wounds interiorly in my heart, just as though they had been made on the natural places of the body [i.e. physically, not psychologically]. By these wounds you not only healed my soul, but you gave me to drink of the inebriating cup of love’s nectar” (Winkworth 1993:100). Gertrude describes the wounds of Christ impressed on her heart as a transformation or healing though love.

In a passage immediately preceding the description of Gertrude’s own reception of interior stigmata, Gertrude quotes a prayer to Jesus which reads in part, ‘Inscribe with your most precious blood, most merciful Lord, your wounds on my heart, that I may read in them both your sufferings and your love. May the memory of your wounds ever remain in the hidden places of my heart, to stir up within me your compassionate sorrow, so that the flame of your love may be enkindled in me’ (Winkworth 1993:99). The Eucharist, as the immediately accessible Blood of Christ, is the means by which Christ’s love is written in the Gertrude’s heart. Through the Eucharist, which was made possible by the Passion and Crucifixion, particularly the wound in Christ’s side from which flowed blood and water, Gertrude read not simply suffering, but also love. The goal of meditating upon the connexions between crucifixion, eucharistic blood, and love, was to rouse within herself a reciprocal love and devotion to Christ.

In a passage where Gertrude advised her readers to meditate on the love of Christ’s heart as he hung on the cross, she makes the intention of reciprocal love quite clear. She meditates on the love of Christ’s heart, she writes, ‘so that from the fountains of charity flowing from the fervour of such inexpressible love I might draw the waters of devotion that wash away all offences…’ (Winkworth 1993:101; cf. Bernard, Songs 18.5). The association of love with Christ’s heart would later help shift devotion from the Wounds of Love to the Sacred Heart specifically; but that development occurred over the course of centuries.

As a concrete example of the sort of meditation Gertrude means, in Bk II, Ch 5, she relates how she asked someone to pray a particular prayer for her before the crucifix: “By your wounded Heart, most loving Lord, pierce her heart with the arrow of your love, so that it may become unable to hold anything earthly, but may be held fast solely by the power of your divinity.” Gertrude then relates that after receiving the Eucharist, she saw a vision: a ray of sunlight came out from the side wound of the Crucifixion image painted in a book. The ray had a point like an arrow, spread itself out, then drew back into the page (Winkworth 1993:101). Here again, Gertrude connects Eucharist, Passion-Crucifixion, and love. Interestingly enough, this vision is clearly associated with an icon, or at least a manuscript miniature, contained in the prayerbook.

In another passage, Gertrude writes that one “regarding [the] crucifix is to contemplate Jesus saying, ‘See how I hung upon the cross for love of you, naked and despised, my body covered with wounds and every limb out of joint” (Winkworth 1993:210). In this passage, Gertrude clearly expresses her belief that the crucifixion wasn’t a mere means to death for Christ; it was a death accepted out of love for humanity. Likewise, humans must express compassion towards Christ. Getrude points out that the wounds of Christ, like those of any man wounded in battle, need bathing, anointing, and bandaging; prayer, contemplation, and works of mercy, along with right intent, are the means by which that is accomplished. Meditation was not simply emotive, but served to remind the Christian of his or her practical duty.

From meditation on the person of the lover hung on the Cross, the mystic then moves her attention to the wounds suffered out of that love. Those wounds are then personalised and given agency all their own. (The relationship of these wounds to the Body of Christ imagery in which each member is given a role within the Church does not seem to have been drawn, either in Latin rite or Byzantine rite countries.) From here, it is a small step to meditate simply on the wounds themselves (without an initial meditation on the Cross of the Body on the Cross), as the bodily heralds of divine love. Thus, along with meditation on the love of Christ represented by the Cross, Gertrude describes how she recited Ps 102 (Bless the Lord O my soul), vv1-5 while meditating on five wounds: The first verse referred to the feet, where, she said, ‘I was granted to lay down upon the wounds of your sacred feet the scouring rust of sin and all attachments to the worthless pleasures of the world.’ The second verse moved to the wound in the side, where were washed ‘all the stains of fleshly and ephemeral pleasure in the fountain of your cleansing love, whence blood and water flowed for me.’ The third verse belonged to the left hand, imagined as a dove’s nest, while the fourth, right hand, was a treasury of virtue. Finally, by the fifth verse, she was purged of the infamy of sin by Christ’s ‘sweetest and most longed for presence.’ (Winkworth 1993)

Gertrude’s meditation on the Five Wounds was the means by which she felt her soul could bless God, as the Psalmist asked. Through the meditation, she moves from a washing away of sin and attachment, to a deeper cleansing through love. Realising love, she found a place in which to repose, and a means by which she could find a path to bring forth the virtuous fruits of the Holy Spirit. At the end of the meditation, purged of all other attachments and longing only for her Beloved, she finds him.

Ideas relating the love and wounds of Christ continued to play out into the fourteenth century. The Anima Christi prayer, composed no later than 1370 and allegedly by Pope John XXII (who was decidedly not a staunch ally of Franciscan zeal), exemplifies how the Latin devotions to the Passion, Wounds, and Eucharist as Body and Blood of Jesus, become securely fused by the time the Renaissance period was beginning. Devotion to the wounds of Christ culminates in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, particularly in French devotion to the Sacred Heart; it has recently resurfaced , associated with the Polish devotion to Divine Mercy, popularised by Bl Faustina and the late Pope John Paul II (who died on the feast day associated with Divine Mercy, corresponding to the Orthodox Thomas Sunday). The difference in devotion to the Divine mercy is its lack of physicality, though it contains the very visual depiction of red and white rays associated with the blood and water which flowed from Jesus’ side at the close of the crucifixion. The movement from blood to light is a movement towards abstraction, and mirrors the historical pendulum from abstract Cross to personalised devotion to the Crucified Bridegroom, back to an abstraction in the Blood of Christ and again to a personalised Sacred Heart, which then becomes abstracted into devotion to Divine Mercy, never quite losing its association with Eucharistic devotion.

The Crusading Ideal: Take up the Cross and Follow Me

Devotion to the wounds of Christ did not develop in a vacuum. I already alluded to the troubadour tradition of songs, and the courtly romances being produced during the period. That literature, too, functioned in the context of an internationally focused military recruitment history has called the Crusades. The Crusades were so named because a ‘Crusader’ is one who takes up the Cross; the link is even more obvious in French and Spanish (croix, cross; croisade, crusade; cruz, cross; cruzado, crusader). Through a linking of the Cross, Crusades, and devotion to Christ, Francis became central to both popular devotion and elite Latin theology of the period. This network was all the more resilient once friars began to supplant monks as the preachers for the Crusading ideal. I will therefore briefly examine how the themes of the legend of the Cross and Devotion to the Crucified Christ were used in some Crusading sermons which have survived in manuscript collections, and how devotion to the Cross comes back to Francis, as the human who perfectly took up the Cross in imitation of Christ. Maier’s 1994 work, Preaching the Crusades: Mendicant friars and the cross in the Thirteenth Century offers the most sustained account of this theme, and the next section relies almost exclusively on his research.

The first crusade relied on monks as the preachers, but the initial effervescence of idealism spread to the monastic orders themselves. The period saw the emergence of several monastic reforming orders, among which the Cistercians, with Bernard of Clairvaux as their spokesperson, were the most successful. In the succeeding century, however, as the Franciscan and Dominican mendicant orders grew, friars were more often used to preach crusade. Friars had several advantages over monastics as international preachers. Not only were mendicants generally not bound to one particular house and its rule of devotions, friaries were more often located in urban areas (where the friars could minister to the urban poor), whereas monks were more often found in the countryside. Like the Cistercians before them, friars were able to extend the papal centralisation programme as a corollary of their preaching; preachers chosen because of familiarity to both cardinals and curia and to the crusaders, their lands, and customs (Maier 1994:34). (The friars may also have inadvertantly spread the university programme throughout Europe as well, but that is another topic.) If the friar-preachers were familiar with the curia, then they also had a potential investment in elite and scholarly theological programme, among which were cosmologies which placed Francis at the apogee of the human capacity for transformation, through love, in God, by the economy of Christ’s passion and blood.

Ironically, most crusader sermons which have been preserved are from secular clerics, not friars. Textual content for these sermons exists in several model crusade summons, and sermons on this theme begin to appear in sermon collections at start of thirteenth century, especially at the University of Paris (Maier 1994:111). Maier points out that recruitment sermons for the Crusades often coincided, in theme at least, with the two feast days of the Cross in the Latin-rite Calendar, May 2/3 and September 14. As Maier writes, “the connexion between preaching the cross and preaching on the feast days of the cross is obvious. Sermons for the feast days of the cross usually concentrate on the properties and the symbolism of the cross and the devotion on the crucified Christ. In such sermons the theme of crusading is often used as a metaphor for the journey to the heavenly Jerusalem. Model sermons for the feast days of the Cross might thus have provided crusade preachers with themes or illustrate material for crusade recruitment sermons” (Maier 1994:113).

Among the preachers whose sermons or sermon collections have come down to us, Gilbert of Tournai’s sermons 132 – 137 refer to the Cross or recruit for the Crusades; Humbert of Romans has a sermon on the Cross from the latter thirteenth century (no 90, De predicatione S. Crucis, ca. 1266 – 1268); while both Roger of Salisbury (for more on him, See Cole, Preaching 227 -31) and Frederick Visconti were other Crusade preachers whose works have survived. (Maier 1994:112. For more on medieval preaching, Maier refers to D’Avray; Cole; Powell.) John Russel’s Crusade recruitment sermon is followed by a de cruce sermon in the MS fragment (in Bodleian: Digby 154 (1755)), which “seems that it was meant to provide material for a distinctio on signum crucis.” (Maier cites Smalley 1956. ‘John Russel OFM’ in Recherches de Théologie Ancienne et Mediévale 23:277-320, esp 280f) Likewise, Eudes Châteauroux’s sermon on the Invention of Cross includes recruiting passages. The influence, though, went both ways. Crusading themes, for example, appear in Alain Lille’s Sermo de Cruce Domini.

Crusader sermons, or at least the models which were copied into collections, generally relied on two tactics to move their audience to take up the Cross. One obvious tactic was to arouse aggression and anger towards the enemy of faith. These enemies were by no means confined to ‘Saracens’ or Saljuk Turks; after all, ‘crusades’ were preached for the Levant (to free the Holy Sites and in theory return them to the Roman Emperor in Constantinople), the Baltics (which were pagan at the time, wedged between Catholic Poland and Mongol-occupied Russia), North Africa (formerly part of Justinian’s empire, and thus a part of Christendom), Spain, and S France (against the so-called Cathars) (Maier 1994:116).

The other tactic is more interesting for tracing how Francis becomes a node in a network of symbols. This second tactic was to arouse penitential and devotional sentiments among the listeners. This could easily have been done by focusing on the wounds and violence suffered by Christ, inflicted by his enemies and who prevented Christ’s loved ones from approaching him. In support of this theme, the narrative movement from the symbolic nature of taking up the cross in Crusade, to devotion to Christ Crucified, miracles and visions are not infrequently reported. Maier recounts the case of Oliver of Cologne, who preached the Cross/ crusade in Frisia in 1214: “Several times Oliver’s preaching was said to have evoked visions of the Crucified Christ in the sky which caused a multitude of people to take up the Cross” (Maier 1994:120).

Although I have not read an account of Francis appearing during such sermons, he, of course, is one who took up the cross into his own body, as evidenced by the stigmata, and could hardly have been far from the minds of either the sermon composers, or those who listened to Franciscan preachers. On the other hand, in the Scripta Leonis, a work about Francis by his close companion Brother Leo, a Crusader sermon delivered by Francis himself is mentioned in which Francis praises Charlemagne for his victory over enemies of the faith, alluding to a history his audience shared and admired (Maier 1994:16), but the usual themes of taking up the Cross do not seem to have been repeated there, in the East, to the Crusaders who had already responded to such calls.

Papal legates were not always successful in winning over peasants, however. A thirteenth century Dominican MS near Bern (Bern Burgherbibliotek 679ff, 68v-69r) contains the story of an unlearned cleric who was tasked to do what several papal legates could not: convince the village to take up cross. He began his sermon to the wary villagers (wary because they were encountering yet another cleric preaching to them about taking up the cross) with an image which would be quite familiar to them. ‘Which is more difficult,’ he began, ‘threshing or winnowing?’ ‘Threshing takes 10 people, winnowing only 1, so threshing,’ replied the villagers. The cleric then said he was there to winnow the grain which the legates had threshed. He continued the metaphor with a short sermon. “He reminded the people of the opportunity to be absolved from their sins which Christ had offered them through his passion on the cross, his death, and the shedding of his blood. He said they had the choice of either taking cross and ‘become grains taken to the barn of paradise’ or chaff for the fire “(Maier 1994:121). In that short sermon, taking up the cross is seen as a way to demonstrate gratitude for the wounds suffered by Christ. The sermon ends by reminding the villagers that their souls could be fruitful, and stored up, or they could be meaningless and blow away in the wind. The theme of Crusade as a journey to Paradise or salvation, evoked in the imagery of being stored up, rather than dispersed is invoked. But a shift has occurred in this short sermon: it relies on guilt, rather than on love, as a motivating factor, at least in the snippet which survives.

The idea of Crusading as a means to salvation was not foreign to Francis. Francis himself is recorded to have gone East, to the Crusader stronghold of Damietta, burning with zeal for martyrdom during the fifth crusade, in 1219. Francis’ companion during his time in Damietta seems to have been Friar Illuminatus, whom Bonaventure places with Francis during his meeting with the Sultan, and implies that Friar Illuminatus may have been the source of that account. (Bonaventure is the author who later introduces the ordeal by fire during Francis’ visit with the Sultan.) The story in Julian of Speyer and Thomas of Celano follows a typical topos, Maier points out, so he turns to another contemporary source, James of Vitry. Maier quotes James of Vitry’s eye-witness account of Francis’ presence among the crusaders: ‘He [Francis] was not afraid to go into the camp of our enemy, burning with zeal for the faith; for several days he preached the word of God to the Saracens, but with little success’ (Maier 1994:9). The Vita Secunda records that Francis preached in front of Crusaders on Eve of battle not to go into battle on that day, for it would not go well , and not because of peace loving platform (Maier 1994:12). Francis is likewise quoted as using the scriptural advice to ‘tear out your eye’ to justify crusades, which, Maier asserts, “merely portrays him as a strict adherent of the contemporary doctrine commonly used to justify the crusades” (Maier 1994:15).

The Cross was of particular importance during the Fifth Crusade negotiations in summer of 1219. In addition to the return of the Holy City, the sultan offered to return a relic of Holy Cross lost to Saladin in 1187. Maier notes that the relic may actually have been lost permanently, for the Crusaders brought pieces of the True Cross with them to Damietta from Rome (Maier 1994:13). A specific event during that visit links Francis with the Cross, and specifically with his own theology of the Cross, which he delivers in a speech to the Sultan. An account dating from around 1256 – 1273 relates that before he granted audience to Francis, the Sultan placed on the ground a cloth with crosses embroidered on it to see if Francis would tread on the cross. Francis did, in fact, do so. When asked how he could do so without offending God, Francis replied: “You must know that along with our Lord thieves were crucified. We in fact have the cross of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, and it is this cross which we worship and embrace with all our devotion. The holy cross of God has been given to us, whereas the crosses of the thieves were left as your share; this is why I was not afraid to walk over the signs of the thieves. Nothing of the sacred cross of the Saviour belongs to you or is amongst you” (Maier 1994:14). Interestingly, devotion to the wounds of Christ, a belief which is not shared in Islam, was not mentioned in Francis’ sermon to the Sultan. Of course, Francis preached in front of the sultan before his reception of stigmata; one wonders what, if any, impression a stigmatist would have made in such a situation.

The Cross makes its way into the Francis story again, but this time, the evidence comes from art historical sources. The Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, and Santa Croce in Florence, both in Italy, offer two examples of the convergence of the two theological themes. Although named after St Francis, the Basilica of San Francesco is more famous for its frescoes depicting Jacob of Voraigne’s History of the True Cross than it is for any portrayal of St Francis. Santa Croce, on the other hand, offers the opposite case: a church dedicated to, and housing, relics of the True Cross, is nevertheless enmeshed in cycles depicting St Francis’ life, in addition to frescoes about the Cross. (For a full treatment on this theme see also Baert 2004. A Heritage of Holy Wood: The Legend of the True Cross in Text and Image, esp 384ff.)

In her article on Sta Croce, Franciscans, and the True Cross, Thompson (2004) indicates that “Francis’ reception of the stigmata gave his followers a unique claim on Christ’s wounds, and images commissioned by the Franciscan order in the thirteenth century and early fourteenth centuries consistently emphasized Francis’ dedication to Christ’s Passion.” (see Thompson 2004. “The Franciscans and the True Cross: The Decoration of the Cappella Maggiore of Santa Croce in Florence”. Gesta, vol 43, No 1:61 – 79.) In particular, she notes that “while the early apse program [of the history of the True Cross, painted by Cimabue and Ugolino da Siena] proclaims the centrality of the cross and of Christ’s Passion to Franciscan worship, Francis’ role as the Alter Christus, and Francis’ place in the history of human salvation, Gaddi’s frescoes of the True Cross celebrate the potency of the relic.” In other words, the positioning and narrative discourse conveyed by the frescoes to the viewer gathers together several associations at once: Christ, the Holy Cross, Christ’s passion, Francis’ sharing in that Passion, and the prophetic-eschataological role of Elijah the Prophet (which I will not discuss here). Thompson further argues that “The relic of the True Cross that rested on the Franciscan altar in Santa Croce was not just a symbol of Christ’s suffering. Within a Bonaventuran frame, it referred to the stigmata with which God marked Francis at La Verna,” and, as she argues, with the eschatological view in which all people will be marked by the Cross in Paradise.

Among the Franciscan saints portrayed in Sta Croce, two are particularly associated with the Crusades: Gerardo of Villamagna, who was first a Knight of Jerusalem and later a hermit of the third order of Franciscans; and Pietro da Siena. Both of whom “took on Francis’ charge in the rule of 1221 to go and preach among and, with luck, convert the Saracens in order to attain martyrdom. While Pietro died for his beliefs in the style of an early Christian martyr like Minias, Gerardo … lived [his life] in imitation of Francis and Christ; they were made like Christ not through physical martyrdom, but through the enkindling of their souls” {Thompson 2004:73). The association of Francis’ vision is thus further tied to Crusading and missionary work, as well as to the simple devotion of hermits who remained at home, devoted to poverty and ministering to those in need locally.

As already mentioned, the earlier churches of Arrezo and montegiorgio contain scenes from Jacob of Voraigne’s History of the True Cross. Baert notes that the fresco cycles in both Montegiorgio and Arrezo take care to highlight the presence of Constantine I, or both Constantine I and Heraclius, in their associations with the cross. Baert suggests this was due to Franciscan concerns about the unity of Christendom. The fate of Constantinople (if it fell to the Seljuks, for example) was of interest to them.

Especially noteworthy in the Montegiorgio cycle of frescoes on the Cross is the Judas Cyriacos/ Kyriakos legend. While that legend as a whole includes the conversion of the Jew as one trope, it is another aspect of the written (not frescoed) story which may be the origin of Francis’ Seraph of the Stigmata. In particular, the Judas Kyriakos narrative contained in the devotional text The Invention of the Cross, a text which survives in several languages, offers not only a narrative which circulated in both the Byzantine Commonwealth and the Latin Kingdoms of East and West, but it also contains a small detail which easily elides with the particulars of Francis’ reception of stigmata around Sept 14 on Mt Alverno. (The narrative was eventually codified in the West in Jacob de Voraigne’s Golden Legend; ‘Invention’ in this case means something like ‘Finding’ or ‘Discovery’ by St Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great.)

Unlike other accounts of the finding of the Cross, in the Judas Kyriakos legend, the focus is on the Cross, more than on St Helena. However, it is the presence of a Seraph in the Judas Kyriakos legend and in the account of Francis’ stigmata contained in Thomas of Celano which seems curious. In the Judas Kyriakos legend, Judas capitulates to Helena’s request to show her the hiding place of the True Cross. “On the eight day Judas gives in and shows Helena the place where Christ was crucified. Praying in Hebrew he asks God for a sign. He calls God a creator, the maker of the Cherubim, who serve Him, and the Seraphim who guard the Tree of Life at the centre of Paradise” (Baert 2004:44). The Tree of Life is not just at the centre of the garden; it is also the Cross. The Seraphim thus are also guardians of the Cross. Together with icons of ministering angels holding the instruments of the Passion (as appear in the Virgin Eleousa icons, or Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the West), angels come to be associated with Christ’s crucifixion. It seems a curious coincidence to then have a Seraph, specifically, a crucified man with six wings, appear to Francis during the vision after which he developed stigmata. To my knowledge, none of the medieval writers, and no frescoes make this parallel; my conclusion, then, is that to the Christians of the time, the vision was more important for other reasons — its association with Seraphim burning with love, for example — than with any specific attempt to identify the Seraph of the Passion with the Seraphim who guard the Tree of Life in the Judas Kyriakos legend.

Summary of Section

In this section, I asked the principal question, ‘Why were Francis’ stigmata understood as proof of his conformation to Christ — in the West — and why were such marks absent in Byzantium’s holy men and women? Taking as a starting point the association of Francis’ stigmata with the Cross (his stigmata were received on or around Sept 14), and the idea that they confirmed conformation to Christ, I examined devotion to the Passion in the Byzantine Commonwealth and the Latin Kingdoms, with an eye to also looking at how evidence of conformation to Christ was evidenced in both geopolitical worldviews.

I argued that Byzantium had a devotion to the Passion, and like the devotion to the Passion in the West, was associated with the Eucharist, or specifically, the Eucharistic liturgy. I concluded that while both Byzantium and the Latin Kingdoms of East and West had a common devotion to the Cross, Passion, and Eucharist, these three elements had different associated ideas in each rite. For the Byzantines, the Passion and Eucharist are associated with icons, so necessary for the public liturgy and accessible to private devotion; emotive liturgical hymns focused on the relationship of Mary and Christ. The Passion is also associated with relics. Both relics and icons are associated with sainthood. In the Latin Rite(s), The Passion and Eucharist are associated with the wounds of Christ, and the motivating impulse of the Word towards humanity, namely, Love. Both the wounds and Love are tied together with commentaries on the Song of Songs, which is itself associated with the Troubadour tradition of literature at the time. Finally, the Cross is associated with fealty and the Crusades, as well as with the Body which hung on it and is received in the Eucharist. Crusaders, as I showed in sermon extracts, could be aroused to fight through devotion to Christ’s love.

Clearly, when how Francis was portrayed in both the popular art and elite hagiography of the Latin West in the century after his death is taken into account, Francis ‘fits’ into the Latin network of associations much more easily than he does the Byzantine. Francis’s love and devotion to Christ, Francis’ association with the Crusades, Francis’ own poetical compositions, and Francis’ stigmata all combine to draw together those previously constructed associations of ‘nodes’ in the Latin spiritual tradition(s). Writers and speculative theologians expanded upon those associations, forming a cosmology into which Francis could fit, and including the choirs of angels and transformation in Christ. Francis does not fit into a rite whose liturgical foci centred around Stavrotheotokia hymns, iconoclasm, and material relics of the historical Passion. This does not mean that Francis could not fit into such a scheme today; merely that it disrupts the ‘symmetry’ in place at the time.

Francis’ stigmata would not have been understood in Byzantium unless framed in terms of post-iconoclastic rhetoric. For Byzantines, the understanding of transformation was couched in social terms related to becoming an icon, either in the sense of leaving behind relics, or in the sense of having an icon painted afterwards. Francis could potentially have been understood in Byzantium as a ‘living icon’, had commentators framed their presentation in terms of iconographia rather than imitatio, conformatio, or participatio. Yet one could argue that the presence of theological positions rooted in opposition to written icons (i.e. ongoing iconoclasm in Anatolia) would mitigate against any orthodox argument that humans could be or become living or true icons as well. That is, if a person could become a living icon, of what use are written icons? It is because a person has become a divinised being that the icon takes its purpose and ‘power’ (if we are to use such terms), not the other way around.

Additionally, later Byzantine theological rhetoric (rhetoric in the sense of literary or textual evidence using particular lines of argumentation and imagery) regarding transformation into Christ focused on Tabor or post-Resurrection events. This emphasis, traceable in origin to the eleventh century, lead not only to the later Hesychast emphasis on the uncreated light, but more immediately for determining holiness, on the presence of post-mortem relics. Living persons were too ‘unstable’ to be certain of their holiness. The age of living saints, as present in the Isaurian and Heraclian dyansties, was giving way to a different conception of ‘the Holy Man’ during the Comnenian and subsequent periods. (For people unfamiliar with Orthodox spirituality and relics, I would refer to the nineteenth century correlate of what I am describing in Dostoevsky’s Brother’s Karamazov, particularly the chapters surrounding the death of Father Zosima).

I don’t think a strong argument could be made that perhaps Byzantine spirituality was not as bodily-centred as Latin-rite spirituality. Symeon the New Theologian and his life certainly present evidence against that view, as do the later very physical descriptions of Hesychastic meditation and meditative techniques.

Both Byzantium and the Latin kingdoms faced a loss in their access to the materiality of the Passion. For Byzantium, the loss came through theft of the relics gathered by the Imperial family during the Latin occupation of Constantinople in the thirteenth century. Devotion to these relics continued in the subsequent Paliaologan and Romanov dynasties, but through the medium of icons which made those relics present to the devout. For the Latin countries, the loss of their Eastern kingdoms cut off access to the sites of the Passion, and solace was taken in devotions which had already begun to make their appearance during the Crusading period for people who could not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem during that time. Although relics of the Passion were housed in locations as various as Saint-Chapelle in Paris, various churches in Rome and Venice, and chapels in the Holy Roman Empire, it was the private devotion afforded by the Stations of the Cross, the Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and the Wounds of Christ Crucified which kept the sites and events of the Passion in the hearts of the devout. Those reminders stirred the devout to remember the power of love, without thereby detracting from the experience of the Resurrected Christ, who was present in the Eucharistic elements as both Love-wounded and Love-stronger-than-death.

Keeping in mind these two sets of comparison, the larger Latin tradition of naming something ‘stigmata’ and the liturgically influenced Byzantine spirituality of the Cross, a comparison of the Latin ‘ecology’ of religious symbols in the twelfth and early thirteenth century with roughly contemporary Byzantine devotional forms (themselves undergoing changes in the eleventh and twelfth centuries) has demonstrated how they symbolic associations of Francis stigmata ‘fit’ a Latin context, but would not have been clearly understood in the Byzantine Commonwealth under the Comneni.

Byzantine Devotion to the Passion? Francis, Stigmata and Polemic (Part 6a)

Discussion of allied questions: Trajectories of Latin and Byzantine Devotion to the Passion

(For readers unfamiliar with the naming conventions, ‘Latin’ in this post means what we today term ‘Roman Catholic’ and includes Germanic and Latin-language speaking monarchies in North and West Europe, while ‘Orthodox’ means ‘Greek Orthodox’. As the topic pre-dates Luther and Calvin, ‘Latin’ would also encompass those denominations which later took shape in Northwest Europe, as their roots lay in a ‘Latin’-rite context. Likewise with regard to the Russian Patriarchate: ‘Orthodox’ would include all those churches associated with Constantinople in the ‘Byzantine Commonwealth’.)

In the previous post I looked at the origins of the term ‘stigmata’ among the monks of St Peter Damian. I showed that in contrast to other mystics of the time, Francis’ wounds are not recorded to have been self-inflicted. According to the evidence we have in Thomas of Celano and Julian of Speyer, Francis’ stigmata were not taken upon himself by Francis himself — no self-flagellation or self-piercing is recorded in the context of his reception of stigmata. This is the case even though Francis’ efforts at self-mortification earlier in his life were clearly noted, and despite the almost commonplace recording of other mystics’ self-induced ‘stigmata’. One final difference between Francis’ stigmata and the wounds of previous and contemporary mystics is that in Francis’ case, the wounds are recorded as having contained nails, which were not removed (or not removable?), and the wounds did not heal. In other words, Francis’ hagiographers had no reason to break with earlier tradition if they wished to demonstrate that his stigmata were proof of devotion. The only reason to do so would be for literary effect (such as one finds in the Fioretti), and neither Thomas nor Julian’s accounts seem written in that vein.

In terms of the larger tradition, Francis’ stigmata were explicitly associated with the Cross, having appeared around September 14, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and with burning love, appearing after the image of a Seraph, an association elaborated upon by hagiographical commentators and speculative cosmologically-oriented theologians. Francis’ stigmata seem never to have been associated with judgement or punishment. Even the Alsatian sisters whom I referenced in the previous section seem not to have viewed their self-flagellation as punishment, but rather as Imitatio Christi, or at this early date perhaps the term Participatio is preferable. Likewise, Francis’ stigmata were treated as a seal indicative of perfect or perfected conformation to Christ’s life. Francis’ stigmata, as a seal of conformation to Christ, ultimately fit into the larger tradition of Imitatio Christi. In Francis’ case, however, the peculiar manifestation of the wounds in his body moves beyond spiritual imitation through the inner life and outward acts of mercy and enters the realm of physical transformation.

Thus we return to the original question asked at the start of this section: Why stigmata as a sign of participation in Christ? I earlier proposed the answer: because non-self-induced stigmata would be understood a particular way by Francis’ contemporaries. Though clearly shaped by later commentators, the question of why miraculous stigmata are absent among Byzantine saints, and the subsequent question of how stigmata might have been interpreted within a Byzantine theological framework, without distorting or discounting the assumptions of that framework, remain open. Several possibilities, however, present themselves. Key to answering these questions is understanding the historical associations surrounding devotion to the Passion in the context of eleventh and twelfth century Byzantium, and a comparison of like devotions as they developed about a century later in the Latin West.

The purpose of uncovering similarities and differences between East Roman and Italian City State spirituality is to discover why stigmata appeared or ‘made sense’ in the West but not in the East, and rests on the fundamental theorem that a miracle of holiness only occurs in a context in which it can be interpreted as such without doing violence to the preceding tradition. It seeks to answer the question, ‘Why in Italy and not Byzantium?’

Misunderstanding of Latin devotion to the Passion on the part of Orthodox Christians continues today. Quenot (1997:167), in discussing the role of the icon in Orthodoxy compares the ‘cross of pain’ in West with the ‘glorious cross’ in East, neglecting to realise that the ‘cross of pain’ imagery really doesn’t begin to show in the West until after the sixteenth century, during an era of increased medicalisation and anatomical studies, a resurgence of plagues, imperialist expansion in the Americas, and Protestant-Catholic polemic wherein accusations of morbid crucifixion scenes could be re-appropriated by Catholics as identity markers (and made even more extreme as a result). The seeming absence of devotion to the Passion within Orthodoxy (outside of Holy Week services), presents an additional hindrance to placing Francis and his stigmata in context. Without private devotions like the Stations of the Cross or the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, why should Passion devotion be understood by the Orthodox? In fact, however, Byzantium, or Orthodoxy, did have devotions to the Passion, which flourished under the Comnenian dynasty of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. That is the first of two principal arguments in this post. The second is that the changes in iconography of the Passion during this period in Byzantium mirror those dispositions which motivated devotion to the Passion among medieval Latin Christians, whose writings served to promote devotion to the Passion.

Both Byzantine and Latin developments in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries are associated with increasing contacts with Jerusalem from the eleventh century onwards, and both seem to be rooted in an initial devotion to the Holy Cross. How that commonality manifested itself in hymns, liturgical commemoration, and private devotion, however, slowly changed during the centuries surrounding Francis’ life. I will therefore briefly explore the development of devotion to the Passion-Crucifixion in the Byzantine empire and the Latin West as they were presented and shaped during the Central Middle Ages, roughly corresponding to the eleventh through thirteenth centuries.

Renewed impetus for these devotions emerged in the East when Constantine IX Monomachos funded the rebuilding of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the emperors of the succeeding Comnenian dynasty gathered relics of the Passion from Jerusalem to the capital. In the Latin kingdoms of both East and West, the main driver of these devotions was provided by the Crusades and the transnational society permitted by a ‘Latin East’ connected to Northwest Europe. Part and parcel of the Crusades were preachers, pilgrims, and soldiers, each of which had their own particular spiritual concerns and emphases, which they brought with them to the East, and back with them to the West and North.

I will begin with Byzantium, as the forms taken by and stimulus to devotion to the Cross and Passion there pre-date the emergence of similar changes in devotional patterns in the West.

In Byzantium, of course, devotion was both constrained and informed by the recent two-century struggle with iconoclasm, while the West had no such constraints placed upon its devotions. (Iconoclasm was not a major point of theological contention in the West until the sixteenth century, when both Catholic and especially Protestant churches had their walls stripped of frescoes and wall-paintings.) With regard to Byzantium, the creation of two icons, the Nymphios icon in the eleventh century and its associated services in Holy Week, and the Man of Sorrows icon following soon after, both illustrate how devotional patterns focused on the Passion developed during the period. A minor controversy over the heterodox use to which an Akathist hymn to the Mandylion (the Veronica/ Face of Christ icon) was put towards the end of the twelfth century sharply curtailed the official popularity of other icons associated with the Passion.

For the Latin West, two strands of devotion to the passion roughly contemporary to Francis’ lifetime will be examined. The first are strictly devotional-theological in nature, while the second is more social, and treats the uses to which devotion to the Cross and Passion were put by preachers recruiting in the North for the Crusades. The fact that Francis did visit the Latin kingdoms of Outre-Mer, will provide the international flavour these devotions had in the Latin-rite church, and clearly help situate Francis within the character of the emerging High Medieval period. Most evidence, however, will be drawn from North of the Alps. This is somewhat unfortunate, as Francis’ career geographically spans the Mediterranean basin.

One final element in the Latin and German speaking countries during the period, which I will not explore in this post, is the emphasis on love as transformative, a theme especially taken up within the Troubadour tradition as it becomes assimilated to the religious context of the Ligurian littoral (eleventh through thirteenth centuries). While St Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022) also emphasised love and desire (see his Hymn to Eros) as key to religious devotion, the ‘ecology of love’ and its language present in Byzantium under the Comneni was rather different from that elaborated by the courtly romances in Aquitaine and Champagne in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Since the differences in how romantic love was conceived is incidental to my argument, I will not go into detail about them here; suffice it to note that although Manuel Comnenos was interested in courtly love and traditions, and at least four medieval Greek romances exist, those influences do not seem to have been enough to impact how Byzantine devotion to Christ or his icons was expressed linguistically (at least in the materials available to me).

The resulting developments in both Byzantium and the Latin-rite world create a network of devotional practises, stemming from similar points of reference, but which nonetheless come to resonate with different nodes in the two geographic and liturgical traditions. These nodes become foundational for much of what becomes ‘essentialised’ as ‘Catholic’ and ‘Orthodox’ spirituality in the succeeding centuries.

The Passion of the Byzantine Commonwealth

What was devotion to the Passion like in twelfth century Byzantium? If so, what forms did it take?

Byzantium had a devotion to the Passion, and an emotionally-charged devotion at that, but three elements conspired to channel that devotion into the specific directions it took for the Commonwealth, especially as compared to the forms which developed in the Latin kingdoms. The first and most important element was the role of the icon in Byzantine society. Icons during the period continued to serve doctrinal ends, but at the same time became more emotive and abstract. New icons, such as the Nymphios, Threnos, Mandylion, and Akra Tapeinosis icons, were created through a convergence of monastic offices and private devotional material needs. The creation of these icons occurred in the context of the second element, the Imperial focus on gathering relics associated with the Passion from Jerusalem to the Capital. These relics not only drew attention tot he Passion itself, they also informed the new icons. After the sack of Constantinople by Venice in 1204, icons portraying the holy images of relics like the Veil of Veronica and the Shroud of Turin were all that remained in Byzantine hands, the actual relics having been borne away to the West. In the end, icons needed to meet both elite and popular devotional theology. The resulting union led the Byzantine Christian towards different associated theological ‘symbols’ than in the West, both in the initial assumptions about the icon (as material reminder of the reality of the Incarnation), the specific Eucharistic overtones the image might have possessed, and in the particular politico-dogmatic ends towards which approved icons were put.

The third element is wrapped up in a general scepticism among the literati regarding holy people, which led to devotional literature reflecting not hagiography, but the interior life. This shift in focus contributed to fostering a climate in which manifestations like stigmata would not have been understood or welcomed; and elite theologians resisted embedding the contemporary ‘holy man’ or ‘holy woman’ formally into the theological systems of the time. (This contrasts with the role Francis played for scholastic theological cosmologies, as noted in an earlier post.) The goal(s) of the interior life in the devotional literature that was produced (or more pointedly, which has survived) were transformation in Christ, in part via emotive conviction, but in greater part through experience of the divine light while still alive — and through ‘iconisation’ after death.

Change in Byzantine Culture in 11th and 12th centuries

To examine what sort of interpretation stigmata would have had in Byzantium, as an earthly representation of the crucified and risen Christ, the role and creation during the twelfth century of icons during which mirror the Passion-Resurrection may be informative. I will briefly describe the context in which these icons emerged, and the changes which occurred in iconography during the eleventh and twelfth centuries before I turn attention to specific icons of the Passion.

The eleventh and twelfth centuries, roughly corresponding to the dates of the Comneni dynasty (1081 – 1185), were a period of individualistic ferment in social and religious life in the East Roman Empire of Byzantium. A middle class had emerged through the twin means of trade and education, as the historian Angold details in Church and Society under the Comneni 1081 – 1261. This new middle class evinced a degree of individualism not previously seen in Byzantium on so wide a scale, and its commercial products, Angold writes, “were responsible for the new emphasis on the Hellenic element of Byzantine culture and on a humanist ethos. They seem to have been equally responsible for the changing patterns of piety” (Angold 1995:387). Those patterns shifted from an emphasis on the public and social displays characteristic of the preceding Macedonian dynasty, to private devotions and “an emphasis on the autonomy of the individual” (Angold 1995:6).
Angold suggests that public church services may have divided society; leading many to prefer private devotions in personal chapels and family monasteries, arguing that “if there was little open dissent” against the ruling elites — and the existence of icon- and sacrament-denying heresies in Anatolia and the Southern Balkans may belie that caveat — “there was [nonetheless] a degree of alienation from the imperial regime and a certain indifference to the hierarchical church in matters of worship and belief” (Angold 1995:7).

The primary vehicle by which Orthodoxy as a practice of both elite and popular elements remained cohesive during this period was, unsurprisingly, through the icon. Fortunately, Included among the commercial goods produced for the new middle class, and which have survived to the present, were icons meant for personal veneration (Kazhdan and Epstien 1985:97). In any event, images for veneration and procession are more common (or have more commonly survived) from the 11th and 12th centuries than earlier, even though the iconodule position was firmly established from the eighth century onwards.

Icons: Development and Devotion under the Comneni

With few exceptions, at the centre of private devotion during our period stood the icon. In part, the centrality of the icon may have been inspired by the fact that ‘fashions of lay piety seeped out from the monasteries’ (Angold 1995:391). The result is that monasteries hardly held a monopoly on icon veneration. Angold (1995:388) traces the existence of several confraternities in Byzantium dedicated specifically to veneration of a particular icon, church or shrine. (For more on these confraternities, see Hordein (1986). ‘The Confraternities of Byzantium’ in Studies in Church History 23:25 – 45.) Angold (1995:458) highlights several festivals centred around both a saint, the saint’s icon, and a confraternity devoted to the saint and his or her icon, among which were the Festival of Agatha in February; the Notaries’ festival on Nov 25, which, despite usually falling during the season of Advent, was celebrated as a Carnival, with people dressing in masks; and the ancient holiday of the Broumalia from Nov 24 to Jan 1. The pattern of Byzantine confraternities contrasts with the Western, specifically Italian model. Confraternities there made up for a weak state apparatus, particularly in the Italian city-states, and functioned side by side with various guilds and neighbourhoods demarcated by their dedication to particular saints. (In common with the Orthodox commonwealth, however, local celebrations for saint’s days can still be experienced in various parts of Italy and the rest of Catholic Europe; Italy in particular is famous for specific pastries associated with local saint day festivities.)

Given the centrality of the icon and its popularity in several strata of Byzantine society, it should be unsurprising that the icon began to undergo various changes during the Comnenian period. These changes ultimately established the criteria we use today to define what makes an icon an icon rather than a painting. As one well known twentieth-century iconographer writes, during eleventh through sixteenth century “the Church gave testimony above all about its conviction that if ‘God became man’ it is in order that ‘man might become God’; and the icon, in perfect harmony with theology and with the liturgy, pointed in a more special way to the fruit of the Incarnation, with the deification of man. With increasing precision, the icon showed the world an image of man become God through grace. .. Beginning with the eleventh century, it became a precise, exact, dogmatic system” (Ouspensky vol 2:207).

One change is that apocryphal subplots start to appear in icons. The presence of such narrative elements lent a more narrative function to icons, and allowed them function as a visual shorthand for meditating on a saint’s life (Kazhdan and Epstien 1985:97; footnote references Rothkrug 1979). An example of such an apocryphal subplot in the life of Jesus is the Threnos icon, to which we will return momentarily. The scene of Mary lamenting over the body of Christ purports to be a scene drawn from scripture; and yet it is not explicitly recorded in scripture — and therefore is called ‘apocryphal’, which, I would emphasise, does not mean ‘untrue’, or ‘invalid’ as a devotional theme).

Iconographic changes moved beyond the inclusion of narrative devices, however, towards the opposite direction. The precision of iconography stemming from the Comneni dynasty derives in part from stripping perspective out of the icon’s field. As Kazhdan and Epstein (1985:98-99) point out, perspective needs visual props — landscapes, incidental figures, buildings. The absence of perspective allows a greater degree of abstraction. The resulting abstraction and opulence worked together to clarify the focus of the icon, potentially playing out in the minds or experiences of the devout who venerated these new icons. Speaking specifically of Passion images in 12th century iconography, the art historian Belting points out that “a further consequence of the creation of this iconic type, which is isolated from any narrative context, is a transformation of the expression the image is conveying: the Christ figure lends itself to a contemplation which is no longer directed to a specific biblical scene but to the new reality as it exists in the liturgy” (Belting 1980:6).

Textual evidence attesting to the personal experience of a devout person from the period under discussion as he or she venerated or meditated in front of an icon is hard to come by. However, an early twentieth century Russian iconographer will illustrate what role the abstraction of an icon played in the spiritual development of some Orthodox faithful in his time. In the work, Icons: Windows on Eternity, Limouris quotes a ‘Letter of Muscovite iconogrpaher’ written in 1930. The letter first clarifies the function of an icon, before moving on to its role in prayer: “What does an icon, i.e. a picture expressed, or more exactly, revealed in a plastic form, do? It does the same as prayer [which to be authentic must have “a real bond with the prototype, whose action impresses its character on that prayer”] and in its highest modes of expression, a sacrament.”

This sacramental character of the icon is achieved, the anonymous iconographer writes, because “Iconography has its own intrinsic existence and meaning: it ascends towards the sublimest heavenly images and merges with them. But it also has an active, instructive meaning, for it teaches mystery. These two aspects are not separate of course, but constitute a whole.” (For the interested reader, Limouris 198 provides a side note on Russian contemplation, or diathaxis in Greek.)

In addition to both narrative inclusion and narrative abstraction during the Comnenian period, the icon also became more ‘humanised’. Subtle changes in how the subject was portrayed helped directed a shift in focus to the transfigured humanity of the icon’s subject. Quenot (1997:166) describes how, beginning in eleventh century crucifixion icons, “Christ appears with his eyes firmly shut, perhaps as a reminder of his mortal human nature. The increasingly curved position of his body served as a further indication of his death.” Additionally, although the Cross had for centuries been the subject of iconographic portrayal and veneration, even by iconoclasts, under the Comneni, the human subject of Jesus, and Jesus’ death emerged as an iconographic theme in several icons which make their initial appearances in this period.

Despite the lay and monastic preference for icon veneration, Pagoulatos (2008:27) notes that incorporating icons into the liturgical life of the church in Constantinople was difficult. Even in 11th century, some monasteries only carried cross and gospel codex in procession. Among laypeople, in contrast, “one can easily find icons that were prescribed [for liturgical use] in the typika of private monasteries founded by laymen since these patrons could impose the use of their favourite icon on the ceremonies of their monastery.” In those monasteries, the liturgical situation was somewhat different.

Belting (1980) reiterates that while the cathedral liturgy of the Hagia Sophia was ‘static’ until the 13th century, the monasteries of the capital developed “a rich corpus of new texts, rites, and even entire services.” The monastery of the Virgin Euergetis’ eleventh century typikon, for example, “introduces the celebration of Good Friday with a nocturnal ‘service of the Holy Passion’ which includes the reading of George of Nicomedia’s homily … and Romans Melodos’ kontakion ‘Come and let us praise Him who has been crucified for us.’ It concludes the celebration of the same day with another new service… which includes a lament or Kanon Threnodes of the Virgin, possibly Symeon Metaphrastes’ hymn ‘Thelon sou to plasma’ and also the famous burial song ‘The noble Joseph.’ Thus we find two new services, rich in mystagogical elements and full of psychological realism, the one contemplating Christ on the cross, the other the deposition, the lament, and the burial. The burial elements reappear in a third service… on Holy Saturday.” As the authors note, Saturday’s services do not seem to become important until after the thirteenth century.  (For a brief article on the origins of George of Nicomedia’s homily and the well attested hymnological tradition of Mary’s lament at the Cross, see Tsironis (1997).  George of Nicomedia:  Convention and Originality in the Homily on Good Friday.  Studia Patristica vol 30.  Available at )

The hymns and sermons thus brought together liturgically in the new eleventh century service for Good Friday were originally composed in the sixth century (Melodos), ninth century (Nicomedia), and latter half of the tenth century (Metaphrastes). It is interesting that the expansion of the liturgy first centres around Passion week, though given that the Eucharistic liturgy itself commemorates the Last Supper, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ, perhaps this coincidence of thematic augmentation is not so significant.

Panagoulatos relates the development of new services to new icons: “A fully developed artistic liturgy emerged out of a contest with iconoclasm and grew after the introduction of Palestinian, monastic elements into the liturgy of Constantinople [cf. Sevcenko, Taft].” (Panagoulatos 2008:24). New services need new icons, Belting agrees; or a single one which is abstract enough to encompass several services. One such icon, Belting suggests, was the purpose of the Akra Tapeinosis icon. Another is the Nymphios icon. Because the Nymphios icon is clearly linked to a specific liturgical service (or set of services), I will treat it first.

Now incorporated into the Constantinopolitan liturgy, the Nymphios (‘Bridegroom’) service is held in the evenings of the opening days of Passion Week. The icon associated with those services is particularly apt for our purposes (although it does not portray Christ with the wounds of Crucifixion). It roughly corresponds to the ‘Ecce Homo’ image in the West. Pagoulatos points out that “the present Byzantine Rite-Typikon, in which the service of the Bridegroom is contained, has been preserved in the eleventh or twelfth-century Typikon of the Euergetes [Evergetes] monastery in Constantinople, Codex 788 of the University Library in Athens” — the same typikon in which the Good Friday hymns are contained. That manuscript contains an eleventh century synthesis of Palestinian monastic and Constantinopolitan cathedral elements. It is the earliest textual evidence we have for the Nymphios service. “[A]nd thus it reflects the state of Byzantine liturgy after the end of Iconoclasm (843 CE) when the use of images was no longer in question and the Constantinopolitan and Palestinian liturgical elements were synthesized into one” (Pagoulatos 2008:24. He references Dmitrievskij (1965). Opisanie Liturgitseskich Rukopisej:vol 1:256-614, 543-546. Also Wellesz (1998). A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography. A translation of the typikon can be found on Google books).

Panagoulatos argues that the particular form of the Nymphios icon originated in the 1100s, at the height of the Comnenian dynasty. He suggests that the icon “may be related to the iconographic type of the dead portrait of Christ”, in contrast to Professor Andreas Xyngopoulos, who “argues that the Nymphios icon where Christ is represented in a stand-up position wearing the purple garment and the thorny crown on his head is an iconographic type, which was influenced by the western type of Ecce Homo and was disseminated later in art (especially in the art of the Ionian islands) possibly through the seventeenth-century Cretan painter Ioannis Moschos.” (Pagoulatos 2008:23n24. See A. Xyngopoulos, Sxediasma istorias tes threskeutikes zografikes meta ten alosin, reprint (Athenai: e en Athenais archaiologeke etairia, 1999) 246-247 and plate 59.1. For more on the Bridegroom icon and matins see Taft, History of the Liturgy; and ). However, Anna Komnena references a Nymphios icon, though it could be the Akra Tapeinosis or ‘a sleeping boy of the Anapeson type, the two being interchangeable in their meaning'” (Belting 1980), so it is very possible that the Nymphios icon in use today in the Orthodox church does in fact predate the seventeenth century.

Regardless, the other icon emerging at this time and definitely used liturgically, is the portrait bust of the Man of Sorrows or Akra Tapeinosis (‘utter humiliation’, referencing Isaiah 53:8), of which the earliest surviving examples date from twelfth century Kastoria. “The dead figure seems to allude to a biographical moment, but does not make clear which specific moment it is alluding to. Since the figure, though represented dead, is shown upright but not nailed on the Cross, it cannot be connected with any known event in the [Gospels’] Passion narrative.” Belting suggests that the Shroud (latterly, of Turin) preserved in the Byzantine imperial palace may have “justified the creation of our icon; with time, the icon came to reflect a shift of emphasis [from the Crucifixion? in private or liturgical devotion?] to the burial proper.” Belting also references a mosaic icon for private use, of ca. 1300, which has ended up in Sta Croce in Rome to attest to that evolution. (Another early image survives in metalwork, preserved in Jerusalem, in which the Crucifixion and the two lamenting angels are more prominent than the burial – Belting 1980:12)

The aforementioned earliest icon of the Akra Tapeinosis which we have, from Kastoria, is actually double sided; on the reverse side is a sorrowful Virgin Hodegetria, holding an infant Christ. John Mauropos in the eleventh century calls the Virgin associated with the Akra Tapeinosis icon, ‘The Mother of Passion’ (i.e. the icon-type of the Virgin predates the Akra Tapeinosis). Belting brings out the associations between the two icons, and particularly the change in expression from a peaceful Hodegetria to a sorrowful Mother of Passion: “To understand this seeming paradox [of a usually serene Hodegetria being sorrowful] we must first connect her with her dead Son on the front of the panel, and second with the texts of Passion liturgy in which, when the Passion begins, the Virgin remembers the childhood of her Son.”

With regard to the Marian icons, which have a history of their own in relation to the Passion, Belting remarks, “the portrait icon [of the Virgin] invited empathy on the part of the beholder in that it embodied the partner who was to receive the ritual address of the community,” but also, in combination with the Virgin Eleousa icon, that “the protohumanist ethos lies in the Virgin’s eventual insight into the necessity of the Passion to achieve salvation. The soteriological argument was also intended to affect the beholder. It suggested an inner training or conversion to reason; the Virgin was to appear as a prototype of model behavior, of the spiritual catharsis of the religious ego.” The icon, in other words, functions as a model by which the person meditating upon the feelings and thinking of the portrayed saint can come to reach similar noetic consonance. As Belting remarks, “Like her companion images, the Eleousa is at once both an instrument and an object of mystagogical thinking. The ‘new interest in pathos and human feelings’ which was observed in twelfth century art in fact seems to have had deeper roots. A lay public, increasing in number, seems to have developed a new demand for religious and emotional experience to which art had to respond.” I will return to the emphasis on emotional religious experience below, with St Symeon the New Theologian.

As a small icon, though, the Akra Tapeinosis came to be used for private devotion, implying a use outside the monastic liturgy. When would a monastic spiritual father have recommended devotion to one icon versus another, and to what sorts of people, or in what personal spiritual circumstances? That is a question an anthropologist would want to know the answer to, or a social historian. Unfortunately, I don’t have the source material to answer that question for the twelfth century Byzantine commonwealth. Belting mentions an early thirteenth century reliquary from Georgia also shows a variation of the Man of Sorrows icon, and was meant for the private devotions of the Queen, Tamar. He also references a fourteenth century fresco in Pec, of St Demetrios in prison, holding a small icon of the Man of Sorrows. “Another aspect of private use is attested in funerals during which our icon was placed on the chest of the dead.” The icon, then, seems to be thematically related to contemplation on mortality, or specifically, the presence of life in death. To actually prove this meditative theme, however, I would need to quote from textual sources clearly associated with the icon; I do not have those resources available to me at the moment. In fact, however, Belting notes that the Akra Tapeinosis icon does get used as a substitution for crucifixion scenes, if a twelfth century Gospel book preserved in Petersburg is any evidence. The question I wonder is what does this equivalence imply? Why shift from the crucifixion proper to this scene, especially for more portable icons? Those questions will have to remain open for the moment, as I turn to examine the second element which shaped the forms of Byzantine devotion to the Passion, what I have termed ‘the Imperial programme’.

The Imperial Programme: Eucharist, Province, Capital

The Komnenian dynasty oversaw several synods and trials important for the theological development of the Church. Although scholars may tend to decry to trial of John Italos, the results of which strongly curtailed philosophical inquiry and theological scholarship, nevertheless, theological debate did continue, and under Imperial sponsorship. (In fact, Clucas (1981) argues that the trial of John Italos was politically motivated in part to establish Alexios I’s credentials among the monastic party at the time, securing the emperor’s orthodox credentials.)

Among the issues debated was the sacrifice of the Eucharist. To whom was it offered? The Trinity as a whole? The hypostasis of the Father alone? The question of the Eucharist may have come to the fore during these centuries for two very different reasons. First was the continued existence of iconoclast groups who claimed that only the Eucharist was a true icon; that is, the sacrifice of the liturgy made present the reality of Jesus. (For interested readers, Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:12-13 discuss in greater detail the competition between icons and communion in the ninth and tenth centuries – cf. Grolimund 2005). Second was ongoing disagreements with the practises of the Latin-rite, which used unleavened bread. Given that the Byzantine territories included parts of Sicily and Southern Italy, which, while they may or may not have used leavened bread, were certainly in contact with neighbouring regions which used unleavened bread for the Eucharist. Two Councils, of 1156 and 1157, treated the custom of azymes (unleavened bread). In addition to theological-legal responses, iconography was deployed to popularise correct understanding of the position taken by the Imperial administration on the matter of the Eucharist.

The theme of the Eucharist, particularly as it intersects with the Passion of Christ is taken up in the iconography of the period, particularly in the Imperially-connected church of St Panteleimon in Nerezi (currently in the Slavic Republic of Macedonia). The fresco cycles of that church, one of the few remaining from the Comneni dynasty, brings together the themes of the death and burial of Christ, the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice to the whole Trinity, and the role of hymnographers as guardians of Orthodoxy and the tomb of Christ. Yet the movement between Passion and Eucharist also progressed along more material lines, as images embroidered on the aer, or cloth which covered the Eucharistic elements, gets transferred to iconography, and made available for public devotion.

The connexion of Passion and Eucharist at Nerezi is not just coincidental with the source of the divine liturgy in the Last Supper and Crucifixion, however. The frescoes also reference the Imperial efforts at securing the material remains of the Passion and bringing them to the Capital, where they were housed in the Imperial palace, and displayed for public veneration. As already mentioned, some of these relics bore images reportedly imprinted by Christ himself, and the frescoes at Nerezi, like the icons designed for private devotion, reproduce those relics in iconographic form.  The resulting associations tie together the themes of iconodoule orthodoxy, Eucharist, Passion, and Imperium.


In a chapter titled ‘Lay piety at Byzantium: beliefs and customs’, Angold mentions that the Eucharist was received only about once a year by laypeople, perhaps due to ‘the awe invested in’ the divine mystery (Angold 1995:441). In contrast, Kazhdan and Epstien reference an epistolary exchange between a hermit and his spiritual father concerning how the Eucharist could be celebrated by the hermit on his own, allowing him to receive communion without church or priest (Kazhdan and Epstien 1985:89). Both trends, of infrequency and distance in public practice on the one hand, and intimacy and autonomy in individual practice, are indicative of the eleventh and twelfth century trend towards spiritual needs being filled in ways other than the public liturgy of the Church. (To be sure, one can attend the divine liturgy and derive spiritual nourishment from it without necessarily receiving the Eucharist; my point is that piety found at the least, additional outlets for devotion.)

The success of the iconodules (those who supported the veneration of icons as orthodox), whose strength had historically lain and continued to lay with monastics, combined with the continued existence (or renewed appearance) of small heterodox groups who challenged iconodule hegemony throughout Anatolia and the Balkans, to lead orthodox Byzantine theologians to articulate religious ideas along new lines in the Comnenian period. The newly-secured role of the icon acted as a point of consolidation for and the litmus test of the Orthodoxy of such ideas. Thus, while the layperson may not receive the Eucharist more than once a year in these two centuries, it should seem no accident that the Melismos icon, which portrays the Eucharist as Christ-child within the Eucharistic chalice, was first written in this period (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:97n58). Belting (1980) notes the Melismos icon (child in cup) first appears around 1192 in Kurbinovo, and does not appear in Nerezi (frescoed around 1162), where the Hetoimasia occupies its place. (The Hetoimasia is a representation of God’s throne, often with either the Gospel book or, in the twelfth century, the instruments of the Passion, and with a dove. The whole implies the reign of the Holy Trinity, the image of the hypostasis of the Father unable to be portrayed as the Father was not incarnate as a human.) Theologically, the icon of the Christ-child in the Eucharistic cup is a perfect example of co-opting the heterodox notion that only the Eucharist could be a true icon; but it could perhaps function as well to subvert iconodule claims by cleverly shifting the direction of iconographic contemplation away from the written image and back towards the divine mystery at the altar (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:97n58; cf Ouspensky vol 2:222).

The Melismos makes the host visible as a child. Another icon, the Epitaphios, makes the Eucharist visible as the dead body of Christ. Belting argues that the Epitaphios makes its way from amnos aer, seen during the Great Entrance after the recitation of the Creed, to the Passion ritual of Holy Week, where it can represent the Eucharistic host it both displays and conceals (protects). Belting sees a similar method to the Threnos icon (see below) at work in the Epitaphios-Amnos which covers the gifts at the altar (“Amnos” = “sacrificed lamb”). On these cloths, Christ’s body is portrayed as laid out for burial, ready to be covered by a burial shroud — not unlike the gifts at the altar awaiting consecration. At that moment, Belting reminds us, “Eucharistic symbolism is combined with Passion realism.” Both images, the Melismos and Epitaphios icons, seem to have been introduced around the same time, in the twelfth century, as an enamel preserved in Petersburg and a fresco in Samari (Messenia) attest. The enamel contains the phrase ‘Christ is set forth and has a share with God/ XC prokeitai ka metexetai Theo”, which Belting sees as having Eucharistic overtones (Belting 1980:13), while the fresco quotes John 6:56 (‘He who eats my flesh…’). Markov Manastir, decorated around 1375, actually contains a fresco which combines both images.

(The particular element of processing with the epitaphios seems to have become popularised during the Comnenian period. (Cf Belting 1980-81 and Belting 1990:90-129, esp 120 — yet he also indicates that he transfer of the epitaphios from the Great Entrance to the Passion ritual seems to have occurred in the fourteenth century, when the Gospel book was covered by the aer in the Great Saturday procession. See also Panagoulatos, who refers to Demetrios Pallas, “Passion und Bestattung Christi in Byzanz. Der Ritus-das Bild”, Miscellanea Byzantina Monacensia, 2, 1965:233ff.)

The Nymphios and Akra Tapeinosis icons may also have taken an initial association from the Eucharist. The Akra Tapeinosis seems to have originated from the image embroidered on the aër, the covering over the gifts on the altar. Although several images were used for that covering, most commonly, they portrayed the burial or deposition of Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. The epitaphios used in the Lamentations procession for the Matins of Holy Saturday (held in anticipation on Friday nights today), is an example of that sort of image.

Earlier, I mentioned the icon of the Mother of Passion on the reverse of the Kastoria Akra Tapeinosis. Later images of the Virgin come to show her flanked by two angels holding instruments of the Passion (in the Latin Church this Virgin of the Passion type becomes known as Our Lady of Perpetual Help); in a Novgorod icon of the twelfth century, the obverse of such an icon, however, portrays the Mandylion, the Veil of Veronica. Altogether, “the group of the Mother and Child and the Cross become interchangeable features, the one emphasizing the sacrificial lamb, the other the sacrificial altar…” (Belting 1980:10). Again, even certain icons of the Virgin Mother as she contemplates the eventual Passion and Death of her Son, thereby come to have Eucharistic overtones.


Eucharist, Passion, and Liturgy come together in the iconographic programme of the Komnenian era church of St Pantaleimon in Nerezi. “Considering that not a single ensemble of Komnenian wall paintings has survived to the present in Constantinople itself, the frescoes at Nerezi are of especial importance,” writes Sinkevic in her 1996 article on the origins and purpose of the frescoes. (Other examples of Macedonian regional styles from the period are the church of Hosios David in Thessaloníki and Church of the Transfiguration at Chortiatis near Thessaloníki (Sinkevic 1996:35).)

The church, according to its inscription, was decorated at the expense of Alexios Angelos, cousin of the emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143- 1180), and son of Theodora, the youngest daughter of Alexios I Komnenos (1081 – 1118). He was present at the 1166 Council of Constantinople (which treated a debate concerning the Eucharistic sacrifice). Adrian-John Komnenos, cousin to emperor Manuel I, was archbishop of Ohrid, nearby Nerezi. Other imperial relatives were in the region, and Manuel I, seeking to secure his influence of the area, often visited Skopje; the monastery at Nerezi would have provided a safe haven for the emperor to visit, according to Sinkevic’s research.

As a Comnenian foundation, the frescoes reflect a more cosmopolitan style, and influenced later church decor in area (Virgin Eleousa at Veljusa, Hagios Nikolaos Kasnitzi in Kastoria). The plan of the frescoes follows a regular, organised pattern, but is important as the first example of grouping saints according to their ‘genre’: warrior, monastic, martyr, hymnographer. The devotional execution of the iconographic plan allowed Alexios Angelos to publicly state his own position in the ideological battle. “The distinguished status of the saints at Nerezi is in direct opposition to the politics of Manuel I and the writings of the twelfth-century hagiographers. Both Manuel I and the contemporary writers displayed a great skepticism and questioned the whole institution of the holy man. … However, judging by the cycle at Nerezi, the saints preserved their importance and continued to act as a powerful vehicle in the economy of salvation in the minds of Byzantine aristocrats” (Sinkevic 1996).

In addition, one icon is quite new. A procession of bishops celebrating the Eucharist and portrayed carrying liturgical scrolls are arranged so that they are inclined and acknowledging the Hetoimasia at the centre of the composition. The Hetoimasia, as I mentioned above, is an “image of the prepared throne, [which] symbolises the Holy Trinity, with the Gospel book and cross surmounted by a crown of thorns, referring to the presence of Christ, and the dove representing the Holy Spirit.” The ensemble reflects the theological debates held in councils at Constantinople from 1156 – 1176 over the Eucharistic sacrifice, which, they ultimately decided, is offered to the Holy Trinity, “inseparable and divine” (Sinkevic 1996:37). I would draw particular attention not only to the use of iconography to promote a particular theological-political position, but specifically to the presence of the Crown of Thorns, an image not only associated with the physical capacity of Christ who suffered as a human, but also an image of a relic associated with the Passion, protected by the Imperial family in the Capital.

If we turn to less politicised icons of the Passion present on the walls of the foundation, special attention should be paid to two in particular: the Descent from the Cross and the Threnos. In the Descent, Christ’s face lays against the Virgin’s cheek as he is being taken down. The intensity of the moment is conveyed through very bold facial expressions which focus attention on the physical suffering of Christ, and Mary as Virgin of the Eleousa.

In the Threnos (Lamentation of the Virgin over the dead body of Christ) composition, Christ is laid out on the earth, his mother cradling his head, John stretched out and over him. Angels offer their garments to the group (perhaps as burial wrappings). The Thenos icon, of course, is a new narrative subject for iconography. Belting remarks that the Threnos “purports to be a biblical occurrence but, in fact, is the product of hymnographical and homiletic rhetoric, which invented the details of the kissing and embracing and even introduced the scene as such into the religious experience of the Middle ages,” beginning at least as early as the ninth century, when similar imagery is reflected in a homily by George of Nicomedia (Belting references Weitzmann 1961, ‘The Origin of the Threnos’ and Maguire 1977, ‘The depiction of Sorrow in Middle Byzantine Art”. Cf Cormack 1975, “Painting after Iconoclasm”). The homily by George of Nicomedia, as already noted, “served as the lesson on Good Friday, at least from the eleventh century onward, in small monastic circles, which may also have commissioned the painted Threnos” (Belting 1980). The new icon would therefore pair itself with ‘a newly introduced threnos office which offered the religious experience that also become the function of the image.” The threnos icon “was to become one of the favorite subjects and perfect realizations of a new language of church art in the twelfth century. Not only did it use a language borrowed from that of liturgy; it owed its very existence to a new way of staging the mysteries which the liturgy developed, beginning with the eleventh century. It is here [in the Threnos icon] that we have a glimpse of the spirit of the time…” (Belting 1980:3). (A very evocative Threnos appears again at Vatopedi, on Athos, in the south, upper register inside the porch of the katholikon, but I don’t have the dates for that fresco).

Apropos to the association of the icons with the offices to which they pertain, beneath the frescoes of the passion are icons of hymnographers: they whose writings gave substance to the offices for which these new icons were written. Babic identifies these saints: St John of Damascus (d. 749), St Kosmas of Maiouma (d. 752), St Theodore of Stoudios (d.826), St Theophanes Graptos (d. 845), and St Joseph of Sicily (d. 886). All are iconodoule hymnographers and theologians of the previous dynasty. We have already has reason to mention hymnography in association with the creation of new icons for liturgical use. Perhaps the presence of these hymnographers in close association with the Passion cycle are meant to remind the fellow worshipper of the sources of Christian faith and revelation? Their position beneath the Passion scenes would seem to indicate they are the guardians of the tomb of Christ, whose presence is invoked by the Eucharistic liturgy through the hymns they composed in defence of orthodoxy. (Sinkevic has indicated she is writing an article on the relation between the snippets of hymns held in the hymnographers’ hands and the passion narratives above, but I have been unable to locate that article. However, see N.P. Sevcenko, “The five hymnographers at Nerezi”, Palaeoslavica 10 (2002), 55 – 68. Cf. Ovcharova (2004). “Images of the Holy Hymnographers in the Iconographical Programme of the Church of St Panteleemon in Nerezi, Macedonia (1164).” Al-Masaq. Vol 16, No 1:131-146.)

Because the themes of the Passion are so prominent in the iconographic narrative of Nerezi, Sinkevic suggests that Alexios Angelos intended to be buried there. The Passion motifs are thus, in Sinkevic’s view, funerary in nature. In fact, it seems more plausible that Sinkevic views the church as a burial site because an arcosolium is located in a chapel in the NW chapel, and the rest of the narrative interpretation is based around the presence of an arcosolium, which could have been prepared for the imperial patron, or could have been prepared to house relics of a holy person; we don’t actually know. Whether frescoes are present in the arcosolium is neither examined nor mentioned. Sinkevic’s suggestion that the Passion cycle constitutes the church as funerary monument is not supported by further arguments in its favour; instead, Sinkevic develops the theme of intercession based on the portrayal of the church’s patron saint, Panteleimon (like Ss. Cosmas and Damian, one of the physician-saints).

At Nerezi, if intercession is the overall theme, I would suggest a better reading than Passion-as-Funereal-Inscription is the idea of Christ-who-heals through the Passion, which makes possible (though not of necessity) the Eucharistic sacrifice — and the medical work of St Pantaleimon. Sinkevic confirms that the narrative scenes of Christ’s life “are spatially related to the scenes which either anticipate or portray his sacrificial death” (Sinkevic 1996:38). (This is not too distant from Latin devotion to the Passion, which also roots itself in Eucharistic devotion.) As such, the church may also associate itself with the well-known efforts of the Komneni to portray themselves as the guardians of the relics of Christ’s passion. It would not be far-fetched to imagine an encomium about how the numinous emperor graces the church with his presence, conveying in his sanctified person that holiness conveyed by proximity to the holy relics of our Lord’s passion and death, relics whose presence are evoked in the emperor’s absence through the iconographic programme of the church. However, a more sound thesis would refer to the burial slab of Christ, which Alexios Angelos’ cousin, the emperor Manuel, brought from Ephesos.

Imperial Relic Collecting.

Beginning with Alexios I, the imperial dynasty secured various relics associated with the Passion and Death of Jesus. The initial impetus for imperial interest in the Passion may have been stimulated in part by Constantine IX Monomachos (d.1055), who had funded the rebuilding of the Church of the Anastasis (or Holy Sepulchre) beginning in 1042. (The church had been mostly destroyed by the Fatimids under Caliph al-Hakim (bi-Amr Allah) in 1009.) However, as Alexios I had appealed to Pope Urban II to launch a crusade for the recapture or protection of Christians in the Holy Land, it cannot be said that the Comnenian dynasty simply followed in Constantine IX’s footsteps; rather, they augmented that interest by securing for themselves those items which could be transported from the Holy Land to Constantinople, where they could be ‘safe’. By means of collecting relics from Jerusalem, the imperial dynasty was able to serve at least two political interests at once: one, clerical-elite and associated with the imperial cathedral of Hagio Sophia, and two, lay, whose individualistic piety was becoming more and more centred on the humanity of Christ.

With relics brought from the historical Jerusalem, the emperors were able to extend a liturgical motif, most pronounced in descriptions of the liturgy sung in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, which proclaimed Constantinople a Holy City. With the relics of Christ contained within its walls, those hymnographic descriptions were now woven into the physical fabric of the capital city. The eleventh century chapel in Boukeleon had already became the repository for relics of the True Cross and the Mandylion (the image of Christ’s face on Veronica’s cloth), which came to the City in 944 CE. Now, it was to contain the tunic woven without seams, the crown of thorns, the lance of Longinus, and a phial of blood from Jesus’ crucifixion, in addition to the robe of the Virgin and the head of John the Baptist. The Church of Holy Apostles preserved the pillar against which Jesus was scourged. Finally, the slab on which Jesus was laid after the crucifixion was kept in the Church of Pantokrator, which Manuel I, grandson of Alexios I, met upon its arrival in the City (Harris 2003:11). Kazhdan and Epstein (1985:96) quote the inscription engraved on the slab:

“Our lord Emperor, Manuel, re-enacts the resolve of the Disciple as he bears on his shoulders that stone upon which the Lord’s body was placed and prepared for burial in a winding sheet. He lifts it up announcing in advance his own burial, that in death he may be buried together with the Crucified One and may arise together with our buried Lord…”

As the authors note, “Manuel I met the stone of Christ’s unction at the Boukoleon harbour of the Great Palace when it was brought from Ephesus to Constantinople and carried it on his shoulders to the Chapel of the Virgin of Pharos. This was less a penance than an identification with Joseph of Arimathea, at least according to an inscription reportedly on the slab.”(ref. C. Mango (1969), ‘Notes on Byzantine Monuments’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 23-24.) For my purposes, it indicates the association of death as the passage through which all humans are to pass, and the hope of resurrection in Christ. In other words, the devotion to the Passion is focused on the transformation of the believer after death, just as in life, he or she sought to imitate the disciples who followed Christ.

The gathered relics of Christ’s Passion constituted Constantinople as a second Jerusalem, according to the historian Harris’ argument in Byzantium and the Crusades. The emphasis at the time was, in fact, on the material mementoes of the Passion; the Ressurection seems to have been only a minor current of devotion at the time. The Comenenian emphasis on the Passion contrasts strongly with the idea put forward by polemicists who in later centuries strove to differentiate Orthodoxy from Catholicism by proclaiming Orthodoxy’s emphasis on the Resurrection, in distinction to Catholicism’s mis-emphasis on a Passion without culmination in the Harrowing of Hell and triumph of the Third Day.

Through such means as relic collecting, Angold (1995:71) asserts that Alexios I put himself and his family “at the forefront of a new wave of lay piety… In keeping with the monastic ideal it was a piety that concentrated on the humanity of Christ and the humiliations he had endured for [humanity’s] salvation… God had humiliated himself for Mankind. In return it was the emperor’s duty to protect his flock for whom he had been made man, suffered in the flesh, poured out his own blood and suffered a shameful death. These were sentiments that fitted very well with the new currents of monastic piety with their emphasis on the Passion of Christ. They would find pictorial expression on images such as the Lamentation [Threnos] and the ‘Man of Sorrows’ or ‘Akra Tapeinosis.'” Images associated with these relics — e.g. the Mandylion (Veronica) and Epitaphios — proliferated (Kazhdan and Epstien 1985:96).

It seems unsurprising that those two relics, the Mandylion and the Shroud (of Turin), housed in the Boukeleon chapel were not only relics but more to the point, relics that were also images, imprinted at the time of Jesus’ passion or burial. They thus occupy a liminal space, serving as both icon and relic. They served an iconodoule purpose as well, being image and relic, advancing the iconodoule argument that God can be portrayed because he was made portrayable through becoming flesh. Related to a relic preserved in the Palace, the Mandylion, for example, was a ‘true likeness of the Savior’s face, [and] was taken as factual proof of the reality of Christ’s incarnation” (Kazhdan and Epstien 1985:96). Icons portraying the ‘icon not made by hands’ could thus find space among those who doubted the orthodoxy of other icons.

The relationship between imperial and private devotion, I would suggest, was mediated through the creation of specific icons relating to images present on relics of the Passion (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:97). The Akra Tapeinosis is one example. The Nymphios icon, which portrays Jesus as he emerged after being scourged at the pillar housed in the Boukelion, is another. The Mandylion as well may have been used in Passion rituals, according to Belting (1980:10). The Mandylion icon mentioned earlier, housed in Novgorod, seems to reflect an early twelfth century Byzantine model. The reverse of the Novgorod image, Belting notes, portrays the relic of the True Cross used in the liturgy of Hagia Sophia. “The icon, in fact, reproduces two different cult or relic images, namely, the Holy Face and the holy ‘Cross of the Symbols of the Passion'” (Belting 1980:10). That is, the Novgorod icon reproduces the two icons most amenable to an iconoclast sensibility. Ultimately, the feast of the Mandilion was abolished around 1100, due to the possibly heterodox use Leo of Chalcedon made of its kanon. Akathists to it still do survive, however.

Icons of the relics of the Passion would find a role in private devotion and public procession, ‘portable relics’ as it were, through which the faithful could venerate the reality of the relics which were materially associated with the one whose imaged they portrayed. After the sack of Constantinople by Venice in 1204, and the looting of its relics, all that the Byzantine Commonwealth had left were the images of those relics it formerly housed. Before then, however, “the cult objects proper, the materialized symbols of the mysteries of the faith, had not only stimulated liturgical vision but also inspired artistic creation to match the new patterns and thoughts of the liturgy” (I cannot relocate the source of this quote; pos Belting 1980 or Kazhdan and Epstien 1985). After the end of the Latin occupation of Constantinople, these icons moved from the private and monastic spheres of devotion and became incorporated into the public liturgy as we know it today.

The Holy Man and Hagiographers in the Twelfth Century

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries a good deal of devotional literature was produced for consumption by the middle class of traders and bureaucrats. The period saw Isaac the Syrian’s writings translated from Syriac into Greek, the composition of Philotheos of Sinai’s works on the Jesus prayer, and was the same period when Elias Ekdikos (Ecdicos) was active, leading Ouspensky at least, to characterise the period as a ‘renaissance in spiritual life’ (Ouspensky vol 2:227). This literature focused on individual experience of the divine. It was not opposed to the sacraments of the Church, nor to the established hierarchy, and thus was not banned by the clergy of the Great Church. However, in concert with elite scepticism of outwards signs of holiness, it did serve to turn devotion inward, or at best, allow the expression of such devotion only in front of one’s spiritual father.

Even men recognised by later ages as holy were could be viewed unfavourably during the eleventh century. By far the most illustrious individual theologian living in this period was St Symeon the New Theologian. His thought epitomises the streak of autonomy of the age, which conflicted with the established hierarchy inherited from the Macedonian dynasty. (This autonomy should not be confused with the spiritual vice of egoism, though few seem to have examined the shadowy border between the two).

Symeon emphasised the necessity of feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit within the believer’s own body. It was only after such experiences himself, which he had while working in the Imperial administration, that he came to embrace the monastic life. Kazhdan and Epstein (1985:92) summarise the distinctive individuality of Symeon’s spiritual ‘system’ as follows: “The only effective means [to salvation, for Symeon] was ultimate obedience or self-abasement before Almighty God, the internal enthusiasm that results in seeing the divine light. For Symeon, the believer stood alone before God in the universe, before the emperor in society, and before the spiritual father in the monastery… Symeon’s search for individual salvation may be seen as a reaction against tenth-century institutionalization and order. it was quite natural that he tried to substitute the emotional and spiritual exhilaration of self-discipline for the cold organization of the Byzantine church. It was just as natural for the ecclesiastical establishment to oppose this form of individualism, whereby people related directly to God. The hierarchy attacked Symeon exactly where his theology was most personalized, in the ‘heretical’ veneration of his friend and monastic master, Symeon Eulabes.”

Not only could the icon be used to further doctrinal positions, as mentioned above, but Morris (1996:89), along with many other scholars, has noted that the eminence of a monastic founder was measured not only by his or her inclusion in Synaxaria beyond his locale, but also by the creation of an icon in her or his honour. In fact, it is on just such a point that Symeon the New Theologian was reprimanded, as he had created an unauthorised icon of his spiritual father (also called Symeon).

For my purposes, the incident illustrates that in Byzantium, the deification or transfiguration of an ascetic in Christ is exemplified not so much physically (although relics left by holy persons played and continue to play an important role, and the role of relics in the iconoclast struggle has yet to be written), but by his externalised ability to be ’embodied’ in a devotionally used icon. (For the idea of the icon and transfiguration in Christ’s incarnation, and thus also deification achieved by the saint portrayed in an icon, see Ouspensky vol 1:157-160.) That trend in spirituality, of deification into a written icon, has continued into the early twenty-first century, as I experienced while residing in the Middle East. The abbot of one monastery in Lebanon related to me the story of when he was younger, painting an icon, and his spiritual father asked him to make an icon of a particular saint, whose name that abbot shared. The abbot at first thought the spiritual father meant he was to write an icon on a prepared board of wood; only later did he realise that the spiritual father was asking that the abbot turn himself into an icon, writing it with his life and actions.

In the twelfth century, however, the literati, in fact, seemed more fond of scathing attacks on men who would make claims to holiness. Kazhdan and Epstien reference Nicholas of Methone’s hagiography of St Meletios of Myoupolis. St Meletios was once disparaged in front of the emperor by a monk who had been “seduced by the desire for human glory and assumed a mock ascetic life… Using as his weapon ‘the poverty of spirit’, [the false monk] presented himself as a simple hermit, illiterate and unaware of sophisticated monastic doctrine.” It would be interesting to explore this hagiography in greater depth, to see how presentations of Francis’ poverty were received; certainly later Franciscans living in the Capital concerned the Palaiologan dynasty, for they and the people were attracted to the evident sincerity of the Franciscan poverty. In the twelfth century, however, “the literati not only mocked the fanatic and debunked his pretensions, they also tended to disdain hagiography as a literary genre. Twelfth-century hagiographic writing is remarkably meager, while derisory commentary is surprisingly rich” (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:95).

Several articles and monographs have been written on the status of the holy man (or woman) in 12th century Byzantium, and I feel no need to go into detail here. Important for my argument is the emphasis on interior devotion which manifests in transformation after death, either in the form of an icon which brings the presence of the individual’s holiness into contact with devotees, or through the leaving behind of relics.

(The interested reader can see Magdalinio 1983, “The Byzantine Holy Man in the Twelfth Century”, The Byzantine Saint. University of Birmingham Fourteenth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, pp 51 – 65; Paschalidis (????) “The Hagiography of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.” Ashgate Research Companion: 143 – 160; and Galatariotou (1991). The making of a Saint. The life, times and sanctification of Neophytos the Recluse. Cambridge University Press.)


The relationship between devotion to relics and to icons has not been properly explored in the literature, yet we know relics were, and remain, important indicators of sanctity in the Orthodox Church. Aside from relics associated with the Passion, those which were part of or had come in contact with saints were also valued. In the twelfth century, “pietism was reflected in the increasing popularity of relics. Christopher of Mytilene’s description [no. 114] of a relic collector indicates not only how avidly holy items were sought, but also in what disdain the practice was held by the well educated: he censured the foolishness of the monk Andrew, who was consumed with a passion for relics. Andrew had managed to collect ten hands of the martyr Prokopios, fifteen jaws of St Theodora, eight legs of St Nestor, four heads of St George, five breasts of St Barbara, twelve forearms of St Demetrios, and twenty hips of St Panteleimon” (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:95f).

To understand the place of relics, one must understand what they opposed. Angold (1995:443) relates three characters from the medieval Byzantine epic Diogenes Akritis, a trinity of Charos, Death, and Hades. Charos ferries humans away from life, and is opposed by Love (as a psychopomp, he is sometimes identified with the archangel Michael); Hades rules over the dead; and Death, of course, ends human life. In the words of the epic, they are “these three man-killers, the three unpitying… the young they spare not, nor respect the old, nor fear the strong, nor honour the wealthy, beauties they pity not, but turn to dust, and all things work to mud and stinking ash.” (From Diogenes Akritis. Grot VIII:270-276.)

It would be well to remember the hymns and sermon from the Liturgy of the Resurrection, in which Hades, as ruler of the kingdom of the dead, is ‘vexed’ at Jesus’ entrance into his kingdom, Life had entered the kingdom of death. Saints likewise were victorious over these enemies of humankind. They were divinised and transformed through their close relationship to Christ. (Whether the transformation was a result of, or as a reward for, their combats is beside the point). That holiness inhered in their physical bodies, with the result that “relics were believed to endow proximity to the Godhead” (Kazhdan and Epstein 1985:96). In this we see Byzantine ideas of physical transformation come not so much through imitation of the Passion’s sufferings so much as through death, the natural end of all humans, and through the mystery of the Harrowing of Hades which brought about the Resurrection. Although Latin polemicists might argue that Byzantines focus too much on the Light of Tabor (seeing that as transformative) and do not approach Golgotha, or pass over it briefly in favour of the Resurrection, this is too simplistic. Certainly, it does not reflect themes present in Byzantine literature during the Comnenian period.

Just as in the twelfth, so also In the twenty-first century, relics remain an indicator of sainthood. In fact, one hermit I spoke with on Athos posed the question to me: What is a saint? A saint, he said, is someone who leaves behind relics. On Athos, as throughout the Orthodox world, whether in Syria and Lebanon or Russia and Romania, relics are known by their incorruptibility, their pleasing fragrance, the occasional myrrh which flows from them, the miracles associated with them. On Athos, an additional miracle occurs with those who die there: their bodies do not experience rigour mortis, but remain pliable, as in life.

In part, the Byzantine emphasis on post-mortem transfiguration is one way around the twelfth century scepticism regarding claims to holiness when applied to living persons. A living person is susceptible to error, sin, or outright hypocrisy. Indeed, stories abound of men who were thought to be holy, but whose true spiritual state was only revealed after death, when their corpses putrified quickly, raising a stench few could stomach, while men whose holiness had been unknown during life were discovered only after death, when their bones exuded myrrh or gave off a sweet fragrance. (This tradition is not unknown in the Latin rite: one devil’s advocate has argued against the holiness of Pope Pius IX because his body decayed so quickly that a Swiss guard standing watch nearly fainted. Conversely, the assessment by an embalmer that the body of Pope John Paul II had been barely touched up for his funeral was used to suggest something numinous about this person for whom crowds called he be declared ‘santo subito’.)

It is an interesting question: the goal of human life is deification or divinisation (theosis), a goal possible while living, if we are to take sainthood seriously; and yet despite a saint’s behaviour in life, his or her theosis is really only known after death. The theology of post-mortem transfiguration comes head to head with the idea of a living metamorphosis (with attendant behaviour appropriate to that metamorphosis) in the twelfth century, when both positions were popularly held, before East and West decided in favour of one or the other possibility.

Although Francis’ biographers, both early and late, go to some lengths to stress Francis’ perfect imitation of Christ’s life on earth, for which the stigmata were a ‘seal’, they did not neglect to record post-mortem miracles which would further confirm his holiness. The transformation of Francis’ body thus continued after Francis’ death. Thomas of Celano records that the brethren saw his corpse transfigured: “There appeared in him in fact the form of the cross and passion of the spotless lamb who washed away the sins of the world, while he seemed as though lately taken down from the cross… and they beheld his skin glittering with whiteness,… and his other members [limbs] had become soft and pliant like those of an innocent child.” Like the monks who die on Mt Athos, Francis suffered no rigor mortis. The stigmata, which Francis took pains to conceal, were then examined: “Not the prints of nails but the nails themselves formed out of his flesh and retaining the blackness of iron” were discovered. One of the disciples kissed the right side, “in whose wound a solemn memorial was enacting of Him who, shedding forth blood and water together from that same part, reconciled the world to the Father.” (Note the similarity of devotion expressed by the North European mystics, of associating the wounds of Christ with the actions which they accomplished in bridging the divide between the mortal human race and the deathless Godhead.) Thomas relates that for the disciples, the sight of the stigmata was one of joy, not grief.

For Thomas of Celano, the stigmata are a form not only of Imitatio Christi, but also, and more clearly, of Transformatio: “From the time when true love of Christ had first ‘changed’ the lover [Francis] ‘into the same image’ [of Love, Christ], he concealed and hid that treasure [the stigmata]” (Thomas of Celano, First Life, Chapter 93). Having a different theology of both the icon and divinisation, and thus what it means to be an icon of Christ, Latin writers stress principally the similarity and union with God as represented by the Stigmata. An icon may convey a relationship between its prototype and the devotee’s actions towards it; here also, the stigmata conveyed for Latin Christians the idea of relationship to Christ in all its transformative capacity. In this regard, Thomas even references the vision of a fellow Franciscan to impress upon the reader to understand the extent of Francis’ transformation in Christ, this time drawing upon a post-mortem account of Francis: Once, a certain brother of the order had a vision of Francis, but could not distinguish whether it was Francis or Christ whom he beheld; “It seemed to the brother… that the person of Christ and of Saint Francis was one.” As Thomas comments, “He who cleaves to God becomes one spirit with him and God Himself shall be all in all.” (A conscious allusion to Francis’ favourite prayer, ‘Deus meus et omnes’.)

* * * Next Post: Passion Devotion in the Latin Kingdoms * * *

Homosexuality and the Bible (Part 4 of 4)

Some months ago, I had the opportunity to be present at a radio interview concerning a Christian group known for its anti-homosexuality stance and a Christian who fights for issues of social justice and against homophobia. The anti-homosexuality group has placed their position together in an article titled, ‘The Abomination of Homosexual Theology.’ The article, written by Stephen Green, can be found here:

This post, the fourth and final of the series, takes up the question of how Christians are to interpret the book of Leviticus, and what the role of Christianity in the public sphere can and should be.


Homosexuality and the Bible 4/4: What do Christians do?

When it comes to how Christians are to make use of Leviticus several questions can be posed at the outset. These questions are not made in vain, but are asked in order fully to think through the commandments and the assumptions we are making in advocating for one position or another, particularly in a context in which Christians clearly do not follow kosher dietary laws (to say nothing of kosher slaughtering of animals), nor prohibitions on mixed fibres, nor today even the laws of niddah.

First, why do we follow these rules? Do we follow these rules because God told us to follow them? Why? Why did God ask us to follow them — after all, some laws have suprarational bases, and defy logic, but nevertheless, the question ‘why’ must be asked if we are to enter more deeply into this revelation from God we call scripture. For Christianity, why follow the laws in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Torah? After all, Paul positions Christianity as a religion of the Spirit, not Torah. What are the assumptions we are making?

If the response to the initial question about why we follow these rules is ‘to please God’ — a somewhat Counter-reformation Catholic answer — then we have the assumption that God can be pleased. Howso? That is, what is the manner of God’s pleasure? Is it akin to our own? Again, I am not asking these questions vain, but to think through the commandments fully, take them seriously, and come to a knowledge of God (‘to know, love, and serve the Lord your God in this life, and be happy with God in the next,’ as the catechism once proclaimed). Or is God’s pleasure metaphorical language, and if metaphorical, what light does the metaphor of God’s pleasure shed on the laws at hand, both positive — ‘do this’ — and negative ‘thou shalt not’.

If we say that God revealed the law to us, we are making two assumptions: 1) God and 2) Revelation. What or who is God? What is a God of self-disclosure, and what is a God whose manner of self-disclosure is garbed in words of law and ceremony? Why choose that manner of self-disclosure? A Christian believer, of course, must also take into consideration the revelation imparted by God-incarnate, by Jesus himself. Jesus, of course, argued with the teachers of Torah-law, and came into conflict with the Temple establishment of priests and Sadducees. In the canonical Gospel accounts, Jesus’ teaching tends to focus by and large on the lack of follow-through when it comes to the positive commandments, rather than on ensuring that people who trip up in not avoiding the negative commandments be excised from the community. Jesus’ harshest words are for those who do not feed the poor or clothe the naked, who do not care for their sick or visit the imprisoned.

Given Jesus’ focus on the positive commandments, how are we to prioritise the various statutes? This question was raised by Green towards the end of his article. It seems that people have various means of assessing the question of priority, and the conflict of priority between different groups gives rise to accusations of hypocrisy by those turned off or turned away by organised religion. How do we assess priority? By the number of times a particular law is mentioned? By the degree of revulsion breaking a negative commandment or the pleasure of doing a positive commandment would evoke within us, individually or collectively? By the admonitions of the prophets, who continually called the community back to the basics of taking care of the oppressed and avoiding using one’s authority to damage the lives of other human beings? If we cannot assess priority in our personal lives, how can we assess priority for civic life, when the matters do not concern a loss of life or the alienation of property?

If the admonitions of prophets is to be granted authority in prioritising the statutes, then I can cite three prophets whose words should be taken into account when it comes to the verses in Leviticus. First, Ezekiel mysteriously leaves out Lv 18.22 from his reconfiguration of the Holiness Code, as I mentioned in part two of this post. Second, Micah proclaims: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly (or discreetly) with your God.” (If one wonders what may have come before the ‘and’ in that verse and is concealed from us, I would suggest the word ‘how’.) Being Christians, one could choose Moses as the third prophet, referenced by Jesus when asked what was the greatest commandment, as presented in the Gospel of Mark: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your power.” This commandment is called the ‘Shema’ in Hebrew, after the initial word of the verse. The commandment goes on to state: ‘Teach these words diligently to your children, to speak of them when you sit in your homes, when you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise; bind them as a sign upon your arm and let them be a sign between your eyes, and write them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.’ It may be that Jesus considered the rest to be separate commandments, or it may be that at the time all that sufficed for a reminder to those who questioned him were the initial words. I could ask why this is not given priority (how many Christians recite the Shema evening and morning, before driving, how many place mezzuzot on their doorposts?), except the point I am trying to make is that measure by which Christians should prioritise their legal battles for a socially just world.

Finally, we come to the actual analysis of the text. To do a proper textual analysis, the context of textual interpretation should be clearly set out, and I identify five contexts which can be brought to bear on Torah interpretation by Christians, in roughly chronological order of evidence:

1. Jewish tradition states that at Sinai the Oral and Written Torah was given to Moses. The written Torah is what is written on the scrolls: the consonants of the text. This is what is translated and used by Christians. The Oral Torah, in addition to certain vocalisations of the text (i.e. putting in the vowel points), tells us to what extent a particular law applies, when it applies, how it is to be performed, or where. Thus, ‘bind these words upon your arm/ hand and let them be a sign between your eyes’ is elaborated in the Oral Torah, so that teffilin are placed on the upper portion of the arm, on the biceps, rather than say, near the wrist or the outside of the arm. Likewise with the commandment ‘You shall do no work on the Sabbath’: While Christians today seem confused about what day is the Sabbath (it is the day when Jesus rested in the tomb, as the hymns for Holy Saturday proclaim in the Orthodox church; the day he rose is the eighth day, a day of renewal and the first of the week), the Oral Torah describes what counts as work. The Rabbis listed 39 categories of labour forbidden during the Sabbath, all of which point back not only to the construction of the Temple, but also the construction of the cosmos.

Because both an Oral and Written Torah were given and needed interpretation before Jesus’ time, it stands to reason that Rabbinical modes of interpretation should be taken into account. I have already referred to Rabbi Yishmael’s 13 rules for elucidating the Torah, in which similar words used in different contexts are meant to clarify one another. Another of the 13 rules states that a matter’s meaning is derived from the context surrounding the verse. In the case of Lev 18, one suggested context is sexual violence, or what looks violent (e.g. sex with a menstruating woman could let to the appearance of blood on the man, looking like he did something violent to the woman). I personally find the use of context for Lev 18.22 to be a somewhat weak argument, given how informed contemporary interpretations are about by anthropological theories of kinship relations, although mishkeveh-ishah (in Genesis) and mishkev-zakhar (in Judges and Ps 41 or 42) both refer to kinship. Besides, the general category of the verse — beginning with v6, ending with v23 frames kinship in the context of the land, specifically in defiling land; it contrasts the kinship structures of Egypt, Canaan, and Israel. How will Israel claim kinship to its surrounding neighbours? Therefore one could look at the verse in Gen 3 about cleaving to wife and becoming one flesh, although exposing the nakedness of kin does not necessarily equal the becoming of one flesh with them; the point of Leviticus 18 seems to be that these are the people with whom a man already is one flesh. In other words, do not become one flesh with those with whom one is already one flesh. Whether all Israelite men are already one flesh with one another through Jacob is an interesting argument to make, and raises the question of why commandments directed towards women are almost entirely ignored in the chapter, save for the ‘improper mixing’ of human with animal — a term clearly aimed at preventing an argument that because animals are not human, they cannot already by one flesh with humans, and are therefore permissible. Lastly, I also alluded to Eliezer ben Yose Galili’s homiletic interpretations of ‘et’ and ‘gam’ as concealing some further insight which can be gained once humans societally have progressed towards increased social justice.

2. The Rabbinic period began before and extended after Jesus’ time; Jesus came along in the midst of these discussions and emphasised that the laws are not to be used as a club against people. He made this point forcefully with regard to the woman caught in adultery, but he also made his point when his disciples were criticised for harvesting grain on the Sabbath (harvesting is not permitted on the Sabbath, one of 39 categories of labour prohibited.)  What did Jesus say?  ‘The Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath.’  This principle answers the very first question I set out:  why do we follow these rules?  Why were they given?  The answer Jesus gives, as recorded in the canonical Gospels, is that they were made for the benefit of humans, not our harm; and therefore the commandments must serve either refraining from harming others (e.g. ‘you shall not murder’) or to increase our peace (‘observe the Sabbath’). The Torah is tree of life when grasped by the observant; it is a tree of death to the wielder and the oppressed when it is used to club people into observance. Thus, the argument about merely quoting the Bible as an exercise in free speech fails: The problem is not quoting scripture. The real issue is how scripture is used socially, and when quoted as a response to a social issue, the Bible is being used socially. It is never ‘mere quotation’. When Torah is used to club people, scripture is being mis-used. It is not loving mercy, certainly, and today it is clearly seen by others in a pluralistic society to be socially unjust. For some within Christianity, it is a betrayal of the prophets. Finally, when Jesus speaks of sexuality, apart from the woman caught in adultery, he points to an eschatological future ideal, in which humans neither give nor are given in marriage (but live as the angels do, in mystic communion with the divine life). The early Christians certainly took that eschatological ideal seriously, and sought to implement it on earth: thus the monastics live like angels, celibate, poor, and focused on prayer, often prayer through work.

3. Building on Jesus’ teachings as presented in John’s Gospel, Paul (who as a rabbi seems to have allied himself with the House of Shammai, but after his conversion rejected that approach) teaches that Christians are to look at the spirit of the Torah.  What is the point of the law? Green did this in his article, when he said the point of various laws is to teach one thing or another; however, his approach seemed quite piecemeal, and I would frame the interpretation of all the laws in terms of social justice, taking seriously the idea that the Torah was given to benefit human society. The question of ‘what is the point’ when seen through a socially moral-justice lens is where the idea that the law in Leviticus 18 is meant to extend to all sex acts which demean or humiliate becomes important for Christians. Essentially, once we take Paul’s admonition to embrace the freedom of the Spirit or grace in the Torah, the reasoning process begins to dovetail with rabbinic interpretation, though the Rabbis still advocate for observing the law in its details, but with understanding of the law’s place and purpose; Paul advocates for just taking the spirit of the law as is.

Paul was a missionary. He wanted to draw people to the Gospel message. Paul wrote that he made himself all things to all men, but is weak with those who are weak. In this context ‘weak’ meant those scrupulous to observe Rabbinic law, specifically the stricter interpretations of the laws of kashrut (kosher dietary and slaughter laws). Yet Paul advises the mature Christian to judge for oneself what is right and what is wrong — but that the measure by which we judge is the measure by which we ourselves will be judged by God.

4. Subsequent to Paul’s time, Late Antique/ Patristic era Christianity developed four ways of reading scripture — literally, allegorically, anagogically, and morally (as in ‘the moral of the story is…’). This mode of interpretation held sway at least until the High Middle Ages, at which point it coexisted with theological philosophy, more commonly known as scholastic theology. The benefit of those four modes of reading scripture is that the legalism is taken out of the picture. Although legalism remained in canon law, monastic rules, and handbooks of penance, the interpretation of scripture according to these four modes sought out the applicable or inner meanings of the text for people who were not bound by the literal observance of the laws. Thus, early Church fathers for symbols behind non-kosher animals like pigs and raptors, and decried rapacity and gluttony in humans as the inner meaning towards which these verses pointed. Regarding Lev 18, the focus was more on permissible and impermissible degrees of marriage — and of course, by the sixteenth century, it was precisely over that issue that the established church in England asserted its autonomy from Rome.

Since I’m discussing legalisms, as I mentioned in part three, Christian and Muslim ideas on the topic of male-male sexual interaction took different trajectories. Christians relied on Greek translations of the Hebrew text, and they tended to adopt Roman law to the verse — and the weight of offence was often heavier on the penetrated than the penetrator. In the books of penance which survive from the early middle ages, the act of anal sex was seen more as a mockery of heterosexual intercourse, was punishable as mockery. In this regard, Green’s opposing homosexual behaviour and God’s institution of marriage is in a similar vein of argumentation, though not quite so historically informed. (I will leave aside the fact that marriage was not defined as a sacrament until the twelfth century, and I will take up in a later post how we are to understand the phenomena of typological antecedents in Scripture, such as Adam and Eve, as genealogies for present day theological positions, and the limits of pressing those types as a justification for an ‘it can only be this way’ position). Other sexual activities were treated with great leniency (as far as medieval penances go).

(For an extended commentary on the four senses of scripture, I would refer the reader to the following blog: )

5. In the high middle ages, however, another mode of moral theorising developed, one which took its inspiration from scripture, but which directed scripture to philosophically informed ends. At this point, moral theology really began to take on an Aristotelian cast, whereas prior to scholastic theology, some Patristic era writers like Augustine took up Stoic and Neoplatonic moral philosophy to inform their positions. Philosophic means of interpreting scripture though, are not necessarily relevant or considered authentic or authoritative for Evangelicals and the non-Conformist churches.

It is from scholastic theology that the moral scene was set with regard to using the terms ‘natural’ versus ‘unnatural’ to refer to homosexual activity, masturbation, and (artificial) contraception. Some of this thinking enters with a moral theologian named Ulpian, but it is really when Ulpian’s thought in the area of sexual relations gets taken up by Thomas Aquinas, almost without change, that allows this discourse of natural and unnatural. (In other areas of moral reasoning, Aquinas tends to be much more ‘liberal’ or pastoral in his approach.) ‘Natural’ in this moral theological context means ‘the end towards which something tends’ — thus, seen from a very restricted light, the end towards which sexual activity tends is the reproduction of the species. Any circumvention of that could be argued to be ‘unnatural’. As a result, if the Catholic church today were to lift the ban on artificial contraception, the ban on homosexual activity would also be lifted, because for the past 800 years, the moral logic underlying both has been the same. On the other hand, progress in understanding how many ends sexual activity serves has led the Catholic church to begin re-examining its claims. Among those additional ends are the strengthening of the marital bond, a function which remains present even in infertile couples. Just as infertile couples are morally permitted to have sex since ‘if they could have children, they would be open to them’, one could argue that same-sex couples be given the same economia, the same dispensation. Such at least, is one part of the current Latin theological approach to the topic.

Taking the above summary as a whole, the context in which the laws of Torah were clarified has shifted over the centuries. Both R. Yishmael and Paul used a mostly halakhic, or legal approach (specifically of the school of Shammai, if Paul was a student of Gamliel). Jesus engaged in halakhic and midrashic (homiletical) interpretation to point others towards an eschatological end. For us today, reclaiming those approaches as the axiomatic starting point for legal interpretations of scripture would be beneficial, if only for the breadth of vision such an approach can offer. The focus of interpretation, though, should take into account how working out methods of scriptural interpretation reflect contemporary needs, and ask when and how such methods are applicable in the public arena today.

Coda: A response to comments made on-air, 2012-02-25

I began this series of posts by discussing its inception in a radio interview at BBC Oxford in February 2012. Two parts of the post took up the issues raised in an article written beforehand by one of the interviewees. Here, I wish to turn my attention to some of the discussion points raised during the show itself. Although present, I was not one of those interviewed; had the discussion veered towards specifically theological topics, I would have been brought on, as my own background includes a Masters in theology, focusing on Jewish and Christian texts from the second Temple period through the end of the Late Antique Era. At the time of the interview, I was an M.Phil candidate in Medical Anthropology at Oxford University, and a queer college-mate of Molly, one of the two students interviewed on the show.

The common ground among all the participants, acknowledged at the end of the interview, including having the right to free speech to come onto the show, that all people are looking for affirmation and love, and Jesus forgives, and is a bridge to the oppressed. (Catherine of Siena discusses offers the metaphor of Jesus as a bridge in her Dialogues, and this is an image which deserves follow up in the context of debates surrounding same-sex marriage; perhaps in a future post.)

I am grouping the arguments presented during the radio interview around three main topics. First is the issue of an OU college hosting a conference which potentially included a homophobic platform. That issue took up the broader question of free speech. Finally, the civic debate on gay marriage (or gay weddings) and the rationales for moralising homosexuality in Christian and public discourse were also broached.

The aim of the organisation hosted at Exeter college is to train young Christians in the public arena. Whether the issue of homosexuality would be incidental to the conference or not was not clarified at the time of the show, nor was it clear whether the Wilbur Force Academy would allow gay people to speak. The aim of training people for the public arena raises the question of the role civic society, and individual Christians within that society, play in shaping national laws. The right to a particular platform was couched in terms of the right to practice free speech. The opposing argument claimed the limit of free speech was reached when it became hate speech. The implication is that hate speech fosters violence against members of a society, and thus destabilises civic peace.

Steven Green seemed disdainful of the political correct argument against free speech, stating that it constrained both freedom of speech and freedom of association. Another interlocutor said she was ‘astounded’. Christian concern, she said, was Bible based, and uses the Bible as a source of authority. There is no homophobia in quoting the Bible, she asserted. A reference was made associating freedom of speech tactic and wearing the Jewish Magen David (Star of David); the history of the Magen David as a Jewish symbol used by Nazis, like the prominent gay symbol of the pink triangle, seems to have been glossed over, and the point that a symbol can be used in socially harmful, as well as self-affirming ways, was lost. Likewise, the issue that quoting Bible differs from the social uses to which those quotations are put was also glossed over. It is the social use or impact of the exegesis (explanation) of the quotations — because all quotes are in both a textual and a social context — that is the real issue which needs to be discussed.

The other interlocutor saw LGBT concerns as attack on Christian faith and expressiveness in a public arena, and clearly felt hostility coming from the two LGBTQs she knew about in the interview. Unexamined was the cause of that hostility, and as such, whether it was justified or not. Because she covered up the cause as a reaction to a history of persecution at the hands of people who used scripture to justify torture and killing as commensurate with the crime of mutual consenting, but non-harmful activities, she made it appear as if she had been wronged. Little did she appreciate that she is part of the group which once held the authority to persecute; her outcry may as well be heard as that of one who has lost power and pines for it again.

Above, I wrote that the Torah is tree of life when clung to or grasped by observance, but is a tree of death to both those who wield it against the oppressed and those who are at the mercy of those who wield it. When Torah is used to club people, scripture is being mis-used. It is not loving mercy, certainly, and today it is clearly seen by others in a pluralistic society to be socially unjust. Some participants felt that Christians were being hated, and asked why. I would suggest that it is the slippage between how Christians portray Jesus and Christianity as a religion of love and the actual, often perceived as hateful and oppressive, social use to which the Christians put selected scriptural quotes. Contemporary society recognises that homosexuals have been a group which has suffered persecution, and is vulnerable to continued persecution, for simply being who they are, despite the fact that as a group defined by sexual object choice (consenting adults of the same physical sex) does not cause bodily or property harm to others in society.

Social recognition of discrimination and persecution is demonstrated through the enactment of anti-discrimination laws and the demographic identification and construction of minority groups. Whether a freely chosen philosophical ideology, such as certain Christian minorities in the contemporary UK, or by visible and unnecessarily changeable (if not unchangeable) social facts, such as race, is part of a larger question for the social sciences. For now, it is enough to recognise that ‘freedom of religion’ was meant to ensure that ‘heretical’ Christian minorities, that is, those which had disassociated themselves from the established church (whether Church of England, Lutheran or Catholic denominations varies by country), were not subject to active persecution. It was because of that type of persecution that the US colonies of Massachusetts (Puritans), Rhode Island (Puritan dissenters), Pennsylvania (Quakers, now famous for its Amish/ Mennonites), and Maryland (Roman Catholics) were founded by British migrants. Thus, the legal protections against physical persecution have been in place already for Christian minorities for at least two centuries in North America; I cannot comment on Britain (although Catholics apparently still cannot become Prime Ministers).

The construction of homosexuality as an inborn characteristic, and thus not amenable to change is a point of debate for the side opposed to LGBT civic rights. The principle argument raised against that construction is that homosexuality is treatable. The idea that homosexuality is treatable has been the subject of at least one court case with the Christian Institute or with Christian Concern; that a court case could be brought indicates the social conception that such treatment is unnecessary in today’s civil society. My argument is exactly that of the wider civil society: such treatment is unnecessary; homosexuality is perfectly normalisable. The problem for the opposing side, of course, is that so long as the verses in Leviticus are read as homosexuality-as-sin, homosexuality cannot be normalised, just as sin cannot be normalised. For heterosexuals, that normalisation comes through the medium of contractual civil marriage, as Paul recommended (‘if you burn, then marry, though it is better to be single’), a constraint on untrammelled heterosexual promiscuity they wish to deny same-sex couples.

One of the ‘anti-gay’ participants tried to make the argument that promiscuity was an inherent part of homosexuality. I would challenge that assertion in two ways, first by asking how socially mediated such promiscuity is, and second by asking why heterosexual promiscuity is ignored. My own experience in clinical settings draws a sharp contrast between San Francisco (where gay marriage is not allowed) and Massachusetts (where gay marriage is allowed) when it comes to looking at epidemiological risk factors in gay men. In San Francisco, promiscuity is assumed, whether the gay man is partnered or not; in Boston, monogamy is assumed if the person is coupled. This difference would appear to be a carry-over effect of allowing gay marriage. Marriage as a social fact, a socially recognised contract between two people, is flexible enough to encompass heterosexual and homosexual unions, and the obligations assumed by one are attributed and assumed for the other.

My college-mate Molly drew the distinction between love and lust regardless of the gendered nature of sexual object choice. While the hallmarks of love were left undefined, promiscuity was associated with lust. Like an evil which lessens the integrity of a person or community, promiscuity results not just from an internal dynamic, but an internal dynamic which responds to social conditions. Those social conditions are shaped in part by hate-speech, by lack of recognition (and its corollary lack of perceived possibility) of stable partnerships, by marginalisation, and by medicalisation. If a person is perceived as being able to live a normal life by his family or community, it will be difficult to live a normal life until he or she leaves that family or community. This is the aspect that the LGBT participants are seeking to highlight and change: a community has the ability to torment its members and play on their desire to maintain membership in that community.

No one ever seemed to acknowledge bisexuality or the possible fluid nature of sexuality, perhaps since clearly, such people should, if not would, ultimately choose the heterosexual lifestyle, namely a lifestyle predicated on a nuclear family of parents and non-adult children and marriage. One of the anti-gay group started to draw a distinction between marriage and civil partnerships and rights, but this distinction did not seem to carry through the rest of the discussion. In the US, one might say, quoting the result of Brown v Board of Education which ended segregation in schools on the basis of race, ‘separate but equal is not equal’.

A rather interesting point was raised when one interlocutor took up the question of homosexuality as a lifestyle or a birthright, or as she phrased it, the difference is between a call (e.g. lifestyle) versus nature (e.g. genetic). She argued that sexuality is part of life, and therefore not a calling. However, from a Catholic perspective at least, that which is part of life is a calling. Men and women can be called to the married life, to the priesthood, to the single life, to the monastic life. Catholics regularly talk about vocations to the married life or to the celibate priesthood (though Eastern-rite Catholic priests are allowed to be married). It is a philosophical question whether a person’s vocation is present from birth, or is shaped by experience. If a vocation is the role a person has in interacting with a community, a calling to serve the community in a particular capacity, then so long as homosexuality is not integrated into the community as a non-role in the way that other sexualities (married, celibate, etc) are, it has the potential to be the vocation a person can assume — not unlike the stereotyped roles sitcom characters have: ‘the popular girl’, ‘the jock’, ‘the gay guy’, ‘the geek’. The question of vocation, of course, is much more nuanced than this, and human life much more complex. Ultimately, I would suggest that a vocation models a person’s approach to the divine; as such, how the person approaches love and sexuality in general is going to impact that human-divine communion.

In a previous post, I quoted Frymer-Kensky as saying that God, as portrayed in the Hebrew scriptures, cannot model sex. Neither can a man portrayed as celibate, as Jesus is portrayed in the canonical gospels. It may be this need to have a divine modelling of sex that explains some of the recent explosion of theories about Jesus and the Magdalene. (Late Antique and Medieval representations associated the Magdalen with John the apostle, or sometimes in a more eschatological and evangelical context, with John the Baptist: both the Baptist and the Magdalene are responsible for proclaiming Jesus as a Messiah, the Baptist in the role of a prophet, the Magdalene as the first of those who were sent, that is, as an apostle.) However, the Christian tradition has taken such modelling and incorporated it into human life in various guises. For the monastics of Syria, in particular, the non-sexuality of God and Jesus led to an ideal of celibacy, but not a celibacy of repression. For these Syriac-speaking Christians, the goal was to achieve a bodily stillness which mirrored the stillness and silence in which the Word was begotten, in which the Trinity subsists. For Byzantine and Latin Christians of the middle ages, eros became a topic of philosophical speculation, as the motive force which draws men and women to God. Such speculation can be read in Symeon the New Theologian’s Ethical Discourses, and in Bernard of Clairvaux’s work On Love. Much has also been written about medieval devotions among women in the Latin and German west; St Dimitrii of Rostov in the Ukraine’s poetry has also been the subject of analysis (Bednarsky 1996) for what today are perceived as homoerotic overtones. Sexuality, because it permeates life, informs both vocation and spirituality — even to the extent that it can be the sole reason for a person to be excised from a community. It need not be that way, if sexuality is but one part of life, and a part of life which need not be seen as a calling within a community. People, after all, are multi-faceted, and the emphasis of the Christian life is supposed to be dual, focused on service to those oppressed by power and on approaching communion with the divine life.

So how then does marriage play into this scenario, if the model presented by God is one of stillness? The image of Adam and Eve for Christians, particularly those like Augustine, is a past ideal. The future ideal is transformative: to live like angels, and neither give nor be given in marriage. What Adam and Eve teach is typological, for as the first Adam was given to the first Eve and became one flesh with her, so the second Adam, Christ, is one flesh with the second Eve, the Church, formed from the blood (Eucharist) and water (Baptism) which flowed from his side in the Crucifixion. That is the model which Adam and Eve portrayed for the theologian Gregory of Elvira in fourth century Spain, and which was also discussed by Symeon the New Theologian in the discourses mentioned above. It is true that later in Latin (i.e. Roman Catholic) theology Mary the Virgin Mother is portrayed as the second Eve; but such theological reasoning has tended to be in the context of interpreting the verse on how the woman would crush the head of Satan. (In some early modern images of Mary, a snake can be seen between or under her feet for just this reason.)

The idea of two people coming together because of emotional complementarity, which is what Green proposes was modeled by Adam and Eve, need not be taken up in detail here. The idea that men and women are naturally emotionally complementary is naïve and ignores the range of masculinities and femininities available in any given society. Emotional complementary is socially determined, and any heterosexual with any sense knows that before marrying someone of the opposite sex who is neither emotionally compatible nor complementary.

The other theological question treated in the story of Adam and Eve is the existence of death. It is taught by Symeon the New Theologian and by Ephrem the Syrian that Adam and Eve were created in an indeterminate state, neither mortal nor immortal. Eating the fruit of the tree of life, once ripe, would make the couple immortal. When they sinned, evil inhered in their bodies, and came into the world. As such, for Adam and Eve to become immortal in such as state would have caused evil to also become immortal, a continual lessening of humanity. Thus, death, a most unnatural thing and not at all in the original plan for humanity, was introduced as a mercy, to stop the propagation of evil. (It is interesting that what is considered by some to be most evil are those things which cause death: war, pestilence, murder.) For the Byzantines and at least one writer of the Latin West (either Potamius of Lisbon or Pacian of Barcelona), ‘original sin’ is called ‘ancestral sin’, and is the penalty of death conveyed to all humans born of Eve. It is this penalty of death which was reversed by the resurrection of Jesus, Life itself having entered the realm of death and turned it upside down, as the Easter hymns of the Byzantine church proclaim. While this question warrants a longer post, because it was brought up during the radio interview, that short explanation here is justified, though I do not feel it is satisfactory.

Finally, what is the mandate given to Christians by its founders to participate in a legal process predicated on a philosophy which imputes rights to individuals and groups? Philosophically, the freedom of practice of religion in a secular society is the freedom to contravene laws which oppress groups to the point of death, it is to allow prisoners to be fed, to give illegal immigrants shelter and medical care, to provide benefits to those whom the government overlooks. The call of Christians is to be a leaven in society, to work in small areas to raise up the persecuted, help them stand on their own two feet again, supported by others. It is not to seek power, nor is it to seek to impose by force the ideas and ideals of the Gospel by force of law. However, neither is it to forget the power each person has individually and collectively to improve the living conditions of those around them. The prudent neither harm others nor let themselves be harmed. To be a leaven in society follows the tradition presented in the Torah of God giving humans responsibility for social justice, a responsibility which each individual must take upon him or herself and live out in his or her life.


Homosexuality and the Bible (Part 3 of 4)

Some months ago, I had the opportunity to be present at a radio interview concerning a Christian group known for its anti-homosexuality stance and a Christian who fights for issues of social justice and against homophobia. The anti-homosexuality group has placed their position together in an article titled, ‘The Abomination of Homosexual Theology.’ The article, written by Stephen Green, can be found here:

These are the sorts of debates and pamphleteering I don’t usually want to respond to in detail, as I feel they can be short-sighted. I am answering this one in part to illustrate a key frustration which prompted me to begin writing these blogs: a lack of follow-through in much thinking when it comes to religious positions and civil — social and political — life. This post is intended to examine the interpretation of the Hebrew verses in Leviticus using a rabbinic hermeneutic.


Homosexuality and the Bible 3/4: Looking at the Hebrew Words

with an eye to Rabbinic methods for elucidating Torah

According to mystical tradition, Torah — the five books of Moses — is black fire written on white fire, the ‘blueprint’ by which the world was made, the ineffable name of God, which points beyond itself into a time before creation and to an inner world access to which is achieved by passing through the character and life of a person, to ultimately probe and transcend one’s uniqueness. Thus, the place of Torah’s statutes and precepts is to lead us through inner worlds to arrive at an increasingly refined comprehension of the divine life and the principles or inner essences from which the world around us grows. A midrash alludes to the Torah having been wrestled from the angels by Moses, while another records that the Torah is now on earth, and must be argued over by humans. One aspect of that arguing is the supplying of vowel points to the text, Hebrew being a language which can be written without vowels. Yet the vocalisations chosen for the text can shift the meaning one way or another, and thus the Torah is to be read and translated anew by every generation. No single reading is ‘the’ reading, and a myriad possibilities can be held in the mind and attitude of those who revere the Torah as a revelation. Overt time, certain methods have been articulated to keep the interpretation from becoming grossly misdirected. Among those methods are Rabbi Ishmael’s thirteen principles for elucidating the Torah. Torah itself means ‘law’, though it does not mean ‘law’ in the sense of say, canon law; it is more a sense of law like the laws of physics: something to be discovered, to be investigated, to be pondered over in light of new discoveries and possible contradictions.

The thirteen principles of Rabbi Ishmael are in a sense a type of legal theory, designed to question the text in order to clarify its application, or the extent to which it is applicable. For example, the proper way to slaughter a wild animal includes that its blood be covered — with dirt. From this case, we see that one method of elaborating the text is to move from a general to a specific in order to clarify its meaning. One can also move from a general to a specific case if the text said something like ‘bring sacrifices from the domesticated animals, from cattle, sheep, and goats’. Here, the law would not permit the bringing of other domestic beasts, but only of cattle, sheep, and goats. These examples are drawn from the immediate text of the law itself. Another principle is that similar words used in different places are meant to clarify one another. Technically, this applies to such cases as betrothal and divorce, these two having at one point been mentioned in the same verse, implying that similar procedures underlie them both. Thus, if only the technicalities of divorce are then discussed in the text, the implication is that such processes will also apply to divorce. Functionally, however, a midrash — a homiletic gloss on the text — may take the use of a word (really a set of consonants vocalised a particular way) from one part of the text and say that the words should be vocalised that way in another section, leading to a new reading of the passage at hand. In that way, material for contemplation of God’s law is continually renewed. The final principle occurs in the case of two verses contradicting one another, at which point a third is brought in to reconcile them.

In addition to those principles, another set of techniques were received from the tradition of Rabbi Eliezar, the son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean. These techniques were used to elaborate upon a text homileticaly, rather than strictly legally, but the two work analogously. The methods revolve around certain grammatical peculiarities of the Hebrew language. For example, no sentence in Hebrew, or at least no verb, traditionally began with the conjunction ‘and’ (a single Hebrew letter ‘vav’). If a verse thus began with a vav, Rabbi Eliezar’s school said that all we received in the text was the latter half of the verse — the previous half has been concealed from us, and its possibilities should be discussed. The assumption is that what has been concealed relates to the verse at hand; what we read in the text is not considered to be a random non-sequitur. Another example is the particle ‘et’ (or ‘eth’), which indicates the word following it is the direct object of the verb. The word itself has no translation or independent meaning, and it is not necessary to use it with every verb which takes a direct object. Not all verbs take an ‘et’ particle, nor do all direct objects; in fact, when people learn Hebrew, they often overuse it at first. This seeming randomness was given meaning by the Rabbis, who declared that the ‘et’ indicates ‘something additional’. Thus in the commandment to ‘Honour et your father and et your mother’, we could translate the ‘et’ as ‘not just’ or ‘not only’: ‘Honour not only your father and not only your mother’. The legal implication then is that one is to honour all those who stand in the place of one’s father and mother: teachers, government officials, judges, and so on. In other words, what that something additional is, will be revealed as the students of the text come to greater understanding, or when the people as a whole have advanced in their understanding of morality and holiness through practice. Other particles which amplify the verse are ‘af’ and ‘gam’; while ‘min’ and ‘akh’ limit it.

For a good summary of these methods, I would refer interested readers to:

I want to note that what follows are not Talmudic arguments regarding the verses of Leviticus concerned with male-male sex. Much of the argument here is derived from Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s Wrestling with God and Men; I am summarising that analysis and noting which of the above principles are being used.

Here’s the Hebrew text of Leviticus 18.22, in Latin transliteration:

v’ et zachor

lo tishkav,

mishk’vey ishah

to’evah hi.

Interestingly, the text begins with ‘vav’, meaning ‘and’. As noted above, verses which begin with the conjunction ‘vav’ indicate that the previous half of the verse was concealed. In other words, here we have a law which is known only in part, and should therefore be investigated for more than just a plain meaning.

The next word, ‘et’ or ‘eth’ is more important for our purposes. As already discussed, the word ‘et’ signifies something additional. Grammatically, it indicates that the word following it, in this case ‘zachor’ (‘male’), is the direct object of the verb ’tishkav’ (‘you lie down’ or ‘you bed’). Zachor means ‘man’ — as in someone with a penis, as opposed to humanity in general. ‘Lo’ means ‘not’ and negates the verb which follows. ‘Tishkav’ indicates laying down with, and if referring to sexual activity, is a reference to active penetration; it is active voice. (Thus, in contrast to Roman law, Hebrew law does not see the bottom or penetrated man as the one violating a taboo; it is the active partner who is the one being discussed here.) So taking the above mode of exegesis into account, we can say the verse thus says: “…and not only a man you shall not bed” or “…and not just with a man you shall not lie”.

That translation raises a problem: to what extent? Thus, at this point in the verse the generality becomes limited by a specification. However, the specification is also the word that causes problems for translators: ‘mishkeveh’. Only one other place in the Torah seems to use this word (it does occur later in the Tanakh); it shares the same three letter root with the previous word, tishkav. (Semitic words typically form off three-letter word roots; in this case the three letters are sh(in), k(af), b(et).) ‘Mishkeveh’ is a noun form of the verb, with a ‘heh’ added at the end, which as a possessive means ‘her’. To draw a parallel from Arabic, kitab means ‘book’ (likewise in hebrew) kataba means ‘he read’ ‘maktub’ can mean ‘it is written’ and maktib means library. Mishkeve would be the noun form of ‘to lie down’ thus, ‘lyings’ or ‘couch/ bed’. ‘Mishkeveh’ is followed by the noun ‘ishah’, which means ‘woman’. The pair reads, ‘mishkeveh ishah’ — ‘the lyings of a woman’ or ‘a woman’s bed’ in the sense of a place where lying down — sexually — takes place. Yet this isn’t the usual way of talking about sex in the Bible; usually someone ‘knows’ someone else. Thus, at this point not only is a specification needed for the law, but here is where words in other contexts are looked at to clarify the meaning of verse.

As mentioned, only one other place in the Torah uses this word. The verse where it appears is in Genesis chapter 49. verses 1 – 29, when Jacob is blessing his children before his death. Verses 3 – 4, in English reads: ‘Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and the first-fruits of my strength; the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. Unstable as water, you have not the excellency, because you went up to your father’s bed and then defiled it — he went up to my couch.” The Hebrew text reads ‘ki aleyta mishkeveh avikha’ ‘as/ for you went up (onto the) mishkeveh of your father’ Mishkeveh in this context is translated as ‘bed’.

The switch from second person to third person, from “you went up” to “he went up to my couch” narrates a scene in which Jacob here turns to his other sons, after saying the first born will not have the inheritance usually given to the first born, and is reflecting on the disappointment of something long past, still stunned at the action of someone in his own family. What Jacob refers to was recorded earlier in Genesis. After Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, died, Jacob did not move his residence to the tent of his first wife, Leah, as would have been proper. Instead, Jacob resided with Bilhah, Rachel’s maid, one of Jacob’s two concubines. This act incensed Reuben, for it shamed his mother Leah. So Reuben decided to take revenge and ‘teach Bilhah a lesson’ as it were. (Thus Reuben lost his birthright as first-born son, and Jacob gave it to Judah who went to rescue Joseph; therefore the kings of Israel, with one exception, stem from the tribe of Judah, although the first king was from the tribe of Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, and only remaining child of Rachel after Joseph was presumed dead by Jacob.)

If, then, we are to take the meaning of ‘misheveh ishah’ in a sexual sense, which the overall context of Lev 18 would require, ‘mishkeveh’ would seem to mean the act of using sex as a way of humiliating or defiling or taking revenge on someone. If this be the sort of activity to which ‘mishkeve’ refers, then the verse thus far reads: ‘…and not just with a man you shall not penetrate in a way meant to exert power and violence, as over women.’

The final close of the verse is ‘toevah hi’, it is ‘obscene’, ‘taboo’, ‘forbidden’ — all are words used to translate ‘toevah’ ‘horror’ and ‘abomination’ are two other words often used. The Midrash to Leviticus relates that Bar Kappara interpreted ‘toevah’ for Rabbi to mean ‘toeh-attah-bah’, ‘you wander by (or in) this’. Other words, like ‘tevel’ are also explained (‘tevel’ is ‘tavlin yesh ba’, ‘is it really that spicy?’; ‘zimmah’ is ‘zu ma hi?’, ‘Which one is this?’).

Christian writers tend to focus on the meaning of ‘toevah’. Rabbinically, this is a touch misguided, since the subject is what needs clarification, not the predicate (i.e. what, exactly, is forbidden?). In particular, the vav and et are more important and intriguing in this verse, since they take the student deeper into the text. So, having looked at the verse according to its specification and in the manner a similar word was used earlier in the Torah, to what other(s) could the initial ‘et’ be referring? ‘and not only men, you shall not rape…’? The moral logic of the early twenty-first century would say: not only men, but also women.

Of course, at the time when the Torah was written down, a command not to rape women wouldn’t have been understood by practically any culture of the time. Thus, one could reason with the Rabbis that that portion was ‘concealed’ behind the ‘et’ until people grew up and realised women should not be maltreated, either, particularly in war. (Oddly, the verse doesn’t really appear among laws dealing with war, but even today male rape is used as a weapon during wartime. For more on this see Michael Scarce’s Male on Male Rape: The Hidden Toll of Stigma and Shame. Several cases deal with the case of otherwise heterosexual men raping men during wartime.) Genesis 35.22 is the verse regarding Reuben and Bilhah. Intriguingly, that verse also has an ‘et’ in it, right before Bilhah’s name. Was Reuben perhaps a ‘repeat offender’? Was it only when Reuben dared to go up to Bilhah that Jacob was told about all these activities? or was that when Jacob took notice (in part because Bilhah became forbidden to Jacob subsequently)?! cf Sifri Naso 5.3.

Finally, if we look at punishments for breaking various laws of the Torah, we can use the principle of eludcidating a matter from the general context of passage/ parsha, in the case of Lev 18, the general context is incest. (Technically, only the first half of the chapter is concerned with incest, the second with sexual relations with un-related persons.) The rabbinically ordained punishments for incest can be down-regulated from burning to excision, but adultery is punished by stoning, without any downgrading of punishment. Thus, if the entire passage of Lev 18 is speaking of incestual-type relationships, and homosexual relations are categorised with them, capital punishment could be waived, and heterosexual adultery stands as a more serious offence than homosexual activity. 

What the initial vav may conceal is something I’d be interested in pondering, but have no suggestions for now.

So, that’s the exposition of the text, the basic argument of which I learned from Rabbi Greenberg. Christian and Muslim ideas on the topic took different trajectories. Muslims, of course, have a different text from which to draw out their legal customs; the Christians of Europe and Egypt tended to rely on Greek translations of the Hebrew text (which technically does read more like ‘and with a man you shall not lie on a woman’s couch’). However, those Christians tended to read the verse with eyes accustomed to Roman law — and the weight of offence was thereby made heavier on the penetrated than the penetrator in male-male anal intercourse.


Homosexuality and the Bible (Part 2 of 4)

Some months ago, I had the opportunity to be present at a radio interview concerning a Christian group known for its anti-homosexuality stance and a Christian who fights for issues of social justice and against homophobia. The anti-homosexuality group has placed their position together in an article titled, ‘The Abomination of Homosexual Theology.’ The article, written by Stephen Green, can be found here:

What follows is my second of four posts in response to that article.

Detailed Analysis of Problems under the Thirteen Subheadings used to elucidate Lev 18.22 and Lev 20.13

(Part 2/4)

Having set out some broader objections to Green’s article, we can now enter into the details of what is problematic in each of the thirteen sections into which Green divides his piece. The overall arrangement of Green’s subheadings seems to fall into the following format (slightly different from my earlier division):

I. Sections 1 – 5 (Purpose of Leviticus);

II. Sections 6 – 10 (Pittenger and Arthur’s arguments are introduced in section 6; attempted rebuttal of Arthur in 7 – 8; Pittenger in 9 – 10);

III. Section 11 (to’evah);

IV. Sections 12 – 13 (to whom does the section apply).

After a brief introduction consisting principally of links to LV 18 – 20 (KJV), especially Lv 18.22 and Lv 20.13, and a link to words translated by KJV as ‘abomination’, the author clarifies that the assumptions of his argument rest on opposing ‘homosexual behaviour’ (which he equates with the behaviour of Biblical Sodom) to ‘God’s institution of heterosexual love and marriage’ in Mk 10 and Mt 19. However, Green does not give a warrant for using the said opposition between heterosexual ‘love and marriage’ and ‘homosexual behaviour’ as his method of interpreting the scriptural verses. If he did give such a warrant, he would still need to justify why he is not comparing homosexual behaviour to heterosexual behaviour, homosexual love to heterosexual love, and same-sex unions to heterosexual unions.

Because his post is not on the sacramental nature of the institution of marriage, I will not enter upon medieval debates regarding its inclusion among the sacraments only in the 12th century CE, nor will I say anything of the complications raised by the practice of polygamy in Biblical accounts of the Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob for Green’s ideas about heterosexual love, marriage, and (presumably as well) heterosexual sex.

The article then develops under thirteen subheadings, the chief points and problems of each I set out below.

1. Purpose of the Book of Leviticus. Green states that the book is chiefly concerned with the duties of Levites, ‘the tribe which came from Moses’, and ceremonial observances of the Israelites; ‘we have what we should today consider as elaborate regulations for the conduct of sacrifices… private and public health, the Sabbath,… etc’.

First, Levites are descended from Jacob’s tenth son Levi (counting backwards from Benjamin). The Levites were ‘tithed’ by Jacob to the service of the God of his fathers Isaac and Abraham. Moses, his brother Aaron, and their sister Miriam were members of the tribe of Levi. Levi was not the tribe which came from Moses, but the other way around. Aaron, however, was the ancestor of the Kohenim, the priestly caste within the tribe of Levi are his descendants.

Second, Green is relying on an anthropological argument to set out his case by referring to practices geared towards public and private health. The anthropological origins of his views are not clearly traced out by Green, nor does he extend an anthropological analysis to the verses in question. In this, Green may only be setting up a straw man to knock down: his real argument is that the prescriptions are not elaborate regulations for ritual worship, but precepts for everyday observance. Aside from the latent supercessionism (the idea that Christianity has replaced Judaism, its Temple worship, and its system of precepts) in his wording, Green seems apparently ignorant of how much of these Levitical laws are still observed by Orthodox Jews today, both those descended from Levi and those not descended from Levi (‘Beni Yisrael’ — historically traceable to Judah and Benjamin, though some Jews from India and Ethiopia claim descent from other tribes, notably Dan). In other words, observant Jews recognise the wider applicability of these laws to regulate their lives.

2. Purpose of the ‘Moral Chapters’. The principle content of this section consists of quotes from Leviticus framing the holiness code as an injunction not to do what was done in Egypt, and not to do what is done in Canaan. While the author simply quotes verses separated widely from one another without drawing attention to their distance within the text proper, the chapters within the book of Leviticus are indeed framed this way. As Green sums up, ‘Around this framework, the Lord provides a table of affinity to rule against incest, prohibits bestiality, sodomy, adultery and child sacrifice and in chapter 19 moves into more general laws governing society in other areas.’

In Biblical form and source criticism, these chapters are generally referred to as the ‘Holiness Code’. Green rejects this label, apparently because of its association with ‘the homosexual set at Cambridge’ in the 1930s. The author is thus setting himself up against established academic study of the scriptures, while attempting to present his own position as academic. Interestingly, in these chapters forbidding sexual acts, rape is not mentioned as such. A curious omission.

3. Rituals of Worship, not Personal Behaviour? This two paragraph section first sets out a quote from a ‘pro-gay minister’, in which the minister claims chapters 18 and 20 are about worship, not personal behaviour. The second paragraph then makes an ad hominem attack about how ‘apologists for sodomy rarely quote actual scripture’ and declares that the pro-gay minister ‘sets himself up over scripture by pronouncing that the conduct forbidden in the two chapters “seems” morally wrong.’ Green thus appears to contradict his initial position describing the book of Leviticus as primarily concerned with how sacrifices are conducted, but does not yet clearly develop how a book which is geared towards the Levitical priesthood becomes the norm for all Israelites.

The chief content of the second paragraph of this section, however, is a brief foray into the Hebrew terms translated as ‘customs’ and ‘manners’. Aside from some problematical translations in this section (e.g. the plural of ‘commands’ is listed by the author as ‘mitsvah’, rather than ‘mitzvot’ and likewise with ‘statutes’; while the singular noun ‘torah’ is mistranslated into a plural ‘laws’), the author’s main point seems to be that translating ‘chuqqah/ chuqqot’ as ‘customs’ or ‘manners’ does not capture the nuance of the Hebrew. In this, I agree with the author, and oppose the minister. The word in question is derived from a root meaning ‘to carve’ (and in other contexts, ‘to strengthen’), and thus ‘statutes’ is the preferred translation. The argument for not translating chuqqah as ‘customs’ is sustainable.

Green cites the example of Jer 31.35-36 for an alternate translation of the word ‘chuqqah’ as the poetic ‘course of the stars’, although a more proper translation is the ‘rule (or ordinance) of the stars’. (I and the author number the verses differently by one verse; my scriptural sources number the verses in question as Jer 31.34-35.)

4. Laws and Morality Derive from Religion. From this section onward several major problems with the author’s interpretations begin to reveal themselves.

‘A nation’s religious observance forms part of its religious world-view, and determines its morality and from that its law-code.’ D’accord, but Torah is revealed. First, Torah is revealed, and so the order of logic must be: law shapes world-view and religious observance, not the other way around. (And this may well be the fear of conservatives who oppose the extension of marriage to monogamous same-sex couples: the legalisation of such unions will shape people’s attitudes towards homosexuals and homosexuality in general. Yet the evidence seems to be the opposite, particularly in the recent US election in which three States voted to extend marriage rights on the basis of public attitudes to the question.)

Green then mentions temple prostitution, and follows this with a quotation from Deuteronomy forbidding a father from allowing his daughter to become a prostitute. The existence of temple prostitution is historically questionable, and will be dealt with in more detail in section 7. For here, I will bolster Green’s argument and say that so long as we don’t know what the sexual ecology of Canaan was like, we cannot tell how the sexuality or sexual relationships of religious functionaries was vis-a-vis non-religious occupations of the time. In plain language, if we are accustomed to our monks being celibate, we may find the fact that Zen monks could marry scandalous; but until we understand the sexual ecologies of Japan and Western Europe, we cannot say that Zen monks are monastic rent-boys. This bolsters Green’s argument because he makes the case that ‘whoredom’ spreads throughout society, and I am situating sexuality in an ecology or fuller context of a society’s behaviours.

Green goes on to write, ‘It is the same [i.e. evil spreads] with respect for human life. A nation practising human sacrifice hardly views innocent human life with respect or sees each person as made in the image of God. In paganism, human life becomes expendable and sex becomes promiscuous, which is why such societies have been short lived from the moment they embarked on such a course.’ Green then Ezekiel for support of the position that once respect for monotheism is lost, so too is respect for life and decency; and the rhetorical question is posed about whether western society today is in such a position — a rhetorical question used to make the authors assertion seem more plausible; but assertions don’t make arguments. Before moving on, I would note that the late Pope Joh Paul II’s linking of respect for life with sexual morality follows a different rationale; Green seems to have taken superficial readings of the Pope’s position as they percolated into wider social or Protestant discourse without seeing the underlying links to consumerism and the objectification of the human person attending to consumerist culture, a feature the Polish Pope was very concerned to address in his philosophical dialectic, seeking to steer a middle path between large-scale communism and corporate capitalism during the late Cold War, pre-911 period.

The problems with that statement include a generalisation about societies which practice human sacrifice; an assumption about the relation of humanity and the divine image; and a sweeping homogenisation about paganism and its approach to human life and sexuality.

The claim that human sacrifice is incompatible with viewing ‘innocent’ human life with respect is anthropologically and historically indefensible. (What constitutes innocent vs guilty human life is left undefined, and one wonders whether Green thinks guilty human life should be respected or not.) While I cannot point to Ugaritic texts from Canaan and Phoenicia to demonstrate my position, anthropological evidence drawn from other cultures should be a permissible approach, given that I am attacking Green’s similarly generalist claims; my hope is to nuance Green’s tack into a less-genocidal assertion. Graham’s 1965 account of human sacrifice in Benin indicates that the victims were generally criminals, and thus the human sacrifice was a form of expiation for crimes committed against the people. Green seems to ignore the potential parallel that capital punishment according to the laws of Torah would follow a similar rationale in anthropological interpretation (Graham 1965:330 ).

Green ignores human sacrifice in Israelite history, whether the narrative of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac and the story of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11. This omission is unsurprising, as Green seems to have ignored the story in Judges 19 – 21 which parallels the account of Sodom. Likewise, lay Christian (mis-)understandings of a Father-God who demands the sacrifice of his Son on the Cross can also be made to fit an idea that the rigours of religious justice require human sacrifice. In other words, Green opens himself up in a very dangerous way to accusations of blindness where his own faith is concerned, and inconsistency of approach.

(For those curious about how the Aztecs received the story of Abraham and Isaac, I would refer to Robert Potter’s “Abraham and Human Sacrifice: the Exfoliation of Medieval Drama in Aztec Mexico” in New Theatre Quarterly vol 2, Issue 8, November 1986:306-312.)

On the other hand, some cultures believed only willing and innocent victims were appropriate messengers to the gods. Euripides’ Iphegenia is willing; Soyinka (in a more modern Nigerian setting) portrays willing human sacrifice in ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’. For further reference, I would suggest Bremmer (2004). The Strange World of Human Sacrifice, which examines accounts of human sacrifice from various ancient Mediterranean cultures, including Israel, Greece, and Egypt. For those interesting in more daring exploits during the empire, Obeyeskere makes some interesting observations in his book Cannibal talk: The man-eating myth and human sacrifice in the South Seas.

Of course, the rhetoric of innocent human life and human child-sacrifice is presented because it easily aligns with the forms of justification taken on other politically hot-button positions such as abortion. (If abortion can be made to equal child sacrifice and if sacrifice to Molokh entailed child sacrifice and was forbidden, then abortion also should be forbidden.) I feel that such a line of argumentation, while interesting in its own right, fails to be persuasive outside a community which has previously accepted certain assumptions of faith; regardless, this is not the place to detail what may be more or less persuasive when it comes to the legal question of medically induced abortion. (For one re-examination of the Molek cult, see Brian Schmidt (2002). “Canaanite Magic vs Israelite Religion: Deuteronomy 18 an the Taxonomy of Taboo” in Mirecki and Meyer. Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World.)

Green’s argument that nations practising human sacrifice do not see humans as made in the image of God needs some explaining. Quite apart from assuming a nation has an image of God — and images of God as such are forbidden to Israel — Green’s argument is also historically indefensible. At least three nations which practised human sacrifice, the Celts, Aztecs, and Greeks drew parallels between their conceptions of human and divine images.

Green’s homogenisation of all non-Israelite religion under the moniker ‘paganism’ is too sweeping a generalisation. It may be rhetorically effective, if one wants simplicity, perhaps, but it covers variation within monotheism itself and within history. Not all pagan religions are polytheistic; neo-Platonism being a case in point; nor are all pagan religions ‘dead’, Hinduism and Yoruba religion being some of the most vibrant today. Given the economic rise of India, Green propounds an interesting explanatory framework for the decline of civilisation, though not its constant regeneration outside Christendom and the Dar ul-Islam. I would generously think his explanatory framework owes something to Augustine’s City of God, but perhaps it is not so rooted in the Christian tradition. Certainly, several pagan religions in India, the Jains in particular, might have something to say about Green’s assumptions regarding paganism, population growth, and respecting life. (In this context it is ironic to note that Catholic Italy has the smallest growth rate in Europe, while Hindu India’s population growth is well known.)

Green’s use of the quotation from Ezekiel is interesting given the relationship between the book of Ezekiel and the holiness code. (Lyons 2009. From Law to Prophecy is an interesting study on just this relationship.) It is odd, however, since Ezekiel’s reworking of the text of the holiness code omits Lv 18.22, and 20.23, the verses Green is concerned to uphold. Why does Ezekiel omit them?

The greater problem raised by Green’s approach in this section, however, is the conflict raised by using historical sources to elucidate what is considered a timeless revelation: Reliance on scholarship of historical Canaanite religion can sometimes entail an acknowledgement of other theories, such as the emergence of Israelite religion from a Canaanite milieu, or the separate writing and integration of texts which are ultimately edited together to form the Pentateuch (e.g. the identification of Deuteronomist, Priestly, etc sources in the Torah).

Historical scholarship aside, does a position in favour of revelation need historical contexts to bolster its claims? Or is perhaps Green, like Pittenger, also a proponent of process theology, which believes God’s own self changes through engagement with time? If that is the case, then Green and I are approaching scripture from fundamentally different starting points, and the question of what common ground we may share in theological language is raised; the answer to that question, however, cannot be ascertained on the basis of Green’s article itself.

5. Israel Respected Human Life and Marriage.

Green makes an interested move by linking to two ideas together, perhaps trying to build on his attempted assertion that the collapse of one follows the other in Canaanite decadence. In this section, Green attempts to assert that Israel was God’s model nation and therefore Israel respected innocent human life and ‘the bond of marriage’ in both religious life and daily life.

Aside from confusing the Beni Yisrael (the tribe or children of Israel) in the desert, the period of Judges, and the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the attendant result of Green collapsing 1000 years of history, it does not follow that Israel always was a model — as Ezekiel points out in the verse the author quoted above (written at the start of the Babylonian exile), and as the 16 or more prophets contained in Jewish and Christian scripture repeatedly bear testimony. Green also makes a curious separation between religious and daily life, a curious post-16th century concept pioneered in England, but not necessarily clearly present in many societies throughout the world, including Christendom, before then; perhaps Green is simply reacting to the assertion that Leviticus is merely a code for ritual? In that case, I can support him, though I would question how the two — religious life and daily life — can be separated, and what constitutes each as a separate sphere. Does the author mean to equate for ‘religious life’ ‘in the liturgical calendar of yearly festivals’?

A more salient critique is the essentialised nature of the bond of marriage Green seems to posit between Israel and Euro-American today. The bond of marriage which Israel (though notably not King David) respected in the Torah is arguably not the bond of marriage as conceived today. Rather, the bond of marriage conceived in the Torah appears to be a legal bond of property, lineage, and perhaps virginity (in the case of the High Priest) or the paternally controlled sexuality of daughters. In that case, the search for legal recognition on the part of same-sex couples in an effort to ensure assured transfer of property and paternity rights to their children seems quite in keeping with the scriptural view of the point of the societal bond marriage creates.

The section continues with a quote from Dt 4.6ff, which ends with the question, ‘What nation is there so great that has statutes and judgements so righteous as all this law, which I set before you today.’ Unfortunately for the form of Green’s argument, the statement appears quite valid for comparison with the Canaanite foil to Israel’s morality; however, as a historically situated statement (‘which I set before you today’), it is limited in comparison, and it is possible that other legal codes become more socially just in comparison to the Torah as understood at the time of Moses’ death. That may sound like blasphemy; but it is simply drawing Green’s method of scriptural elucidation to its logical end points. I don’t think he realised that possibility when he began using a historical method of arguing his point.

Green salvages his historically-constrained position somewhat by proposing through a citation in Isaiah that the laws of Torah are universally applicable to nations other than Israel. ‘When thy [Israel’s] judgements are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.’ This verse is open to various understandings. Does it mean when Israel’s actually begins to follow its own laws, then the nations will learn righteousness? More to the point: how will the nations learn that righteousness? By observing how these laws are understood and applied in Judaism? Or by adopting them in bits and pieces and applying them haphazardly? Does Green posit a supercessionist understanding of Israel and The Nations in which Judaism’s understanding(s) of the Torah today is irrelevant? Or does Green recognise that just as Judaism has deepened its understanding of the Torah through historical experience, so too is that sect of Judaism which has become Christianity also deepening its experience of the body of scriptures it has inherited — but with the additional burden of a law of grace, not letters? If so, Green fails to also understand the concrete means by which the nations would learn righteousness through the Christian message, as set out in Jesus’ sermons: Christians are to be the salt of earth, they are to be a little leaven, and they are not to be a lord-tyrant or benefactor who imposes laws and judgements upon the people. The goal is to teach by example. History, of course, has intervened in Jesus’ vision for his disciples and their disciples, and the ensuing centuries have witnessed negotiation after negotiation between Roman, Germanic, and Slavic laws and those contained in the Torah. Is it any wonder the Rabbis limited to the responsibility of non-Jewish nations to the Noahide laws, while only Jews need observe the Mosaic Torah? My argument is that Jewish understandings of the statutes at hand are important to consider, especially if the position taken is that Christians study the Law is to grasp its spirit rather than its literal application (complete with capital punishments).

The author goes on to say that ‘this [Isaiah’s and Deuteronomy’s verses referred to above] is the context in which we read the two verses which refer to homosexual acts. Twenty-three and a half out of twenty-seven chapters of Leviticus deal with ceremonial observance.’ I find it supremely interesting that the two verses treating male-male anal sex are not read in context of other laws within the chapters of Leviticus itself, regardless of whether ’23 1/2 deal with ceremonial observance’. This is not Talmud Torah — it is not the study of how a law is understood through interpretation of the laws surrounding it; nor is it even 19th century exegesis, which would take scripture apart to look at those portions thought to be written in the same period by the same set of writers.

Green then states that the key element of these ceremonial chapters points forward to the Precious blood/ blood of the new covenant. Despite the clear and theologically wonderful typological interpretation Green just advanced, it seems to be a throwaway statement, and he does not make clear how it supports his argument about universal application. After all, he just averred that one of the four medieval methods of scriptural interpretation was valid — but fails to draw out what that would mean typologically for the verses within the Holiness Code. I will not make the supercessionist argument regarding his movement, with reference to blood of new covenant, towards application of Leviticus within Christianity, as I believe I have already pointed out when supercessionism complicates the understanding of a verse, and here typology is a method which must rely on Christian symbols only. While it may not be sufficient in and of itself to fully explicate a verse, it can be applied consistently across whole sections of scripture — although Green does not demonstrate how that is to be done here.

With the opening of the next section we move out of Green’s introduction to the book of Leviticus and his somewhat haphazard justification for its place in civil life today and into his more direct rebuttal of other authors.

6. Timeless General Morality.

Green now proceeds to the heart of his argument, namely that the holiness code focuses ‘almost exclusively on timeless matters of general morality’, and he mentions incest, niddah (sex with a woman from the first day of her period until seven clean days after), adultery, child sacrifice, male homosexuality, bestiality. (Note Green does not specify ‘male homosexuality’, merely ‘homosexuality’, as if the two are entirely identical, or even worse, as if male homosexuality and male homosexual behaviour(s) are identical. Such vagueness does not have a place in a commentary designed to clarify matters.) ‘The remainder of the chapter, 24 – 30 exhorts the Israelites not to “follow any of the abominable customs” (chuqqah to’evah) [of Canaan and Egypt] and not to “defile yourselves with them”.’ Why Green switches to translating ‘chuqqah’ as ‘customs’ after making such a deal of it earlier in the text is not explained; perhaps he is not referencing the Hebrew.

Green then introduces and critiques the credibility of Rev Dr Norman Pittenger by labelling him as part of the ‘homosexual set at Cambridge University in the 1930s’. For further reference, which Green does not provide, Pittenger’s academic work highlighted the contextualisation of homosexuality in the holiness code. (To no good effect, as Green himself is doing the same thing.) Green then jumps to Rev Robert Arthur who takes a similar approach to Pittenger and argues the holiness code prohibits those acts — incest, niddah, adultery, cutting the pe’ah (the curly locks of hair that some Hasidic Jews still wear), tattoos — which were involved in the worship of Molech. Arthur’s (and in part, Green’s) argument may not be entirely sustainable, as the existence of Molech as a Canaanite deity has been questioned in scholarship by Smelik (1995). (“Moloch, Molekh, or molk-sacrifice? A reassessment of the evidence concerning the Hebrew term Molekh.” Scandanavian Journal of the Old Testament: An International journal of Nordic Theology, vol 9, Issue 1.)

In combination with Green’s statement ‘if the forbidden practices were also involved in pagan worship rituals, that seems merely to have provided a good reason to raise them’ at the start of this section, the weight of evidence implies Green believes homosexual activity today would equal idol worship. In section nine, Green will clarify this is not the point he is making. Nonetheless, due to the rhetorical impact of such a strategy, I would argue that if we knew that heterosexual intercourse was used in the worship of pagan gods (and the Victorians seem to have believed it was), presenting the argument that heterosexual intercourse today or in any community outside Israel is therefore idol worship cannot be sustained, and indeed would be absurd. Such absurdity is particularly apparent to those who subscribe to a worldview which prioritises intention in worship over generic external visible acts. If anything, the evidence would merely demonstrate that sexual activity, like any human activity, can be imbued with whatever particular meaning the society in which the individuals engaging in that activity wish it to have. Lived context is critical in assessing meaning.

An interesting case in point concerns how blithely Green skips over the issue of niddah. Avoiding intercourse during a woman’s menstruation was not skipped over for much of Christian history, and can be found in the writings of Nicodemos the Hagiorite in the Ottoman period. The Levitical rules on niddah even impacted regulations concerning when women were able to receive the Eucharist, much as regulations concerning nocturnal emissions forbade men from Eucharistic reception. More important, it is a statute still tacitly observed in Orthodox Judaism. One could make the argument that whether two men engage in anal intercourse (as this seems to be the specific sexual act with which Green is concerned) is of as much relevance as whether a man and woman engage in vaginal sex during the woman’s period.

The most salient problem with this section, however, is Green’s belief in a timeless, unchanging morality which leaves no room for greater insight into social justice, no possibility for the prophetic idea in which peace and justice will kiss. Green’s approach contradicts both Christian and Rabbinic ideas that God wants humanity to continually progress in moral philosophy. It is essentialising, not revolutionising, and does not allow the faithful to be taken deeper into the text, the text in which a person might live. For the Rabbi’s progress in the text was ensured by God ‘hiding’ certain ideas within the text in the grammatical particle ‘et’ and ‘gam’; the possibilities of further meaning could be brought forth by interpretation when the people had reached a certain level of social justice and perspective. Green’s ideas, however, would seem to allow no evolution of halakha, and evince no awareness of the exegetical possibilities of ‘et’ or ‘gam’.

7. Depravity of the Canaanite Culture.

After having introduced both Pittenger and Arthur, Green first seeks to rebut Rev Arthur’s arguments; Green attempts to rebut Pittenger’s arguments in the section Green calls ‘Logic Suspended’. Seeking an authority to bolster his claims, Green cites a certain Timothy Wilkinson without introduction. It is assumed that the audience will know who this Wilkinson is, and what his publications may be. Green cites Wilkinson primarily to introduce the categories of kurgaru, assinu, naditu, sinnishat zikrum, and qadishtu temple functionaries. According to Green and Wilkinson, what all these functionaries have in common is some sort of departure from a dichotomous gender categorisation: castrati, homosexual men, ‘ritually neutered priestesses’ (this is left unexplained by Green; does it refer to female circumcision?), ‘lesbian transvestites’, and ‘female temple prostitutes.’ Green also references copulation with cows and infant sacrifice during liturgies devoted to Ba’al, and quotes the assertion that ‘marriages and families were shattered by [the Canaanite priests’] practices, and unwanted children of these unions were often slaughtered on altars to Baal or Dagon.’ (Curiously, Molech seems absent from this picture.)

Absent from this section is the evidence for an appeal to dead relatives to overcome Mot through incest; likewise evidence is lacking in the paragraph about huge sexual orgies. The idea of sexual orgies permeating the ancient world seems to have been a peculiarly Victorian obsession, and the scholarship of the past twenty years, when sexuality has come under academic scrutiny, is questioning those obsessions. Green makes a vague reference to the likelihood of sexually transmitted infections, though the rationale for this reference is unstated. (Ecologically, STIs which lead to infertility place constraints on population size; however, Green likely comes from a context in which sickness is considered God’s punishment, and STI’s are excerpted from an overall ecology and medicalised as such a sickness.) I would note that despite all the injunctions against ‘passing through fire’ (interpreted by Green as child sacrifice, though it could be a simple as literally passing a child above flames to ‘baptise’ it) and various forms of sexual license, rape not explicitly forbidden in the holiness code.

The dated nature of Green’s sources becomes obvious when he does quote his sources. For example, Green brings in Unger, 1964 as an authority. Why is Green using publications from the 1960’s, instead of more examining more recent archaeological discoveries and scholarship? Halley’s Bible Handbook, the source of a genocidal argument I point out below, is also from 1964. The insupportable nature of such partisan writing of the mid-twentieth century and earlier is clearly demonstrated in Hillers (1985), who gives an excellent critique of how writers in the past have used Canaan as a foil for exalting Israelite religion (and as a consequence, its present-day derivatives in Northwest European Christianities). Green himself will use sources who do exactly that, particularly in section 8.

Among the most frequently discussed problems in Canaanite and Biblical studies is the social meaning and translation of the term ‘Qadishtu’. The word shares the same root consonants as the word for ‘holy’ in Hebrew (q-d-sh), and for that reason some early translators thought persons bearing the title must be consecrated in some manner, or be associated with temple worship. However, the root meaning of qadosh, holy, is to be set apart. Some might say ‘set apart for a special use’, but one could just as easily say ‘set apart from the community’; because the implications of the setting apart vary by materiality and time period, a simple translation as ‘set apart’ is preferable.

No person is to be set apart from a family in Israel (with the implication of being ‘cut off’ from the children of Israel), which would be the case if someone were a ‘qadishtu’ or ‘qadisha’. Particularly salient in this regard is that the priests of Israel were and are still today based on family lineage; only they and the Levites served in the temple. (Samuel the prophet was a Levite from the territory of Ephraim, so being dedicated to the temple from childhood did not interfere with this kinship structure, as the Levites belong to the Temple by virtue of their birth.) The possible exception to this general rule of not separating out a person for special religious service may be the case of the Nazirite, and the Nazirite vow. The role of the nazir and the manner of becoming one was strictly set forth in scripture and could be annulled by family members who have authority of the person making the vow. Additionally, the nazirite had to bring a sin offering at the close of his or her vow, indicating some sort of social anomaly had occurred. Sampson, who was a Nazirite from birth, was born to parents who had been living as Nazirites when he was conceived, so again, he ‘inherited’ their functionary status, and should not be considered set apart in the way that a qadishtu would have been. (Note that ‘n-z-r’ also has the connotation of being set apart, and differs slightly from the ‘q-d-sh’ sense of set apart.)

So how did the idea of temple prostitution come to be associated with this word? The source lies in a passage in Genesis 38. There, Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah (ancestor of king David) seeks to fulfil the commandment of Levirate marriage by bearing a child in Judah’s line. She therefore veils herself and meets Judah on the road, and Judah, thinking she is a prostitute (‘zonah‘ in Hebrew), sleeps with her. He left a security deposit behind, with the promise of a goat as payment, but when his servant went to deliver the goat, the locals of the area did not know of any ‘qadisha‘ nearby. Because Tamar is referred to as a ‘qadisha‘ by Judah’s servant, when Tamar had obviously presented herself earlier to Judah as a prostitute, the idea that a qadishtu or qadisha was therefore a prostitute associated with temples grew. Such a view seemed to be further supported by an observation in Herodotus about a custom he had heard practised in Babylon. Yet Babylon is not Canaan, and we have no evidence to support the claim that the two cultures were identical in either religious or cultural practises.

For further scholarship on this issue, I would refer the reader to Friedman’s Commentary on Torah; Tikva’s ‘In the Wake of the Goddesses’; Bodin, Stephanie Lynn (2008). The myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity. CUP; Assante, Julia (2003). “From whores to Hierodules: The historiographic invention…”; and Day, John (2004). “Does the OT refer to Sacred Prostitution?” in McCarthy and Healey. Biblical and Near Eastern Essays.

After naming the various temple functionaries, Green, under the guise of civic consciousness, then advances a very dangerous argument for genocide and pre-emptive interference through an extended quote from Halley: ‘Did a civilization of such abominable filth and brutality have any right longer to exist?’ In certain contexts, of course, the implication might be that Euro-American civilisation is descending into such filth, and thus should no longer exist; an internal revolt is called for. Happily, Green simply continues to quote from Halley, and writes, ‘Archaeologists who dig in the ruins of Canaanite cities wonder that God did not destroy them sooner than he did.’ This is a rather curious statement: who are these archaeologists? Are they all scientists? believers? both (as I admit being a believer and being a scientist are not necessarily antithetical)? What is the source of Halley’s assertion? Crucially, Green seems to ignore the civic implications of quoting a call for the destruction of a society.

At this point, Green seems to be speaking with a double tongue: His argument is either saying HaShem tells not to do what Canaanites do because this is simply God’s revelation speaking; -or- we take an anthropological argument and say these Israel must not do these things because they are identity markers for Canaan.

In fact, if an anthropological examination is what Green wants, the passage at hand can be read as a primer on kinship identity markers for the children of Israel/ Jacob. Chapter 18 tends to frame nearly all its rationales for forbidding certain sexual relations in terms of kin and lineage relations of some sort. This passage in Leviticus answers the basic human questions of who and what is ‘other’, and who is similar to me (‘family’)?). It also illustrates a more post-modern question, namely, what are the boundaries of my own body? It is noteworthy that ‘nakedness’ tends to be predicated only of women, or of men only through (their) women. The actual implications of ‘nakedness’ as shame or strength, property or self-possession (boundedness) is not explicated in the text. (As a side note, Ezekiel repeats most of these verses, but does not include verse 22 — against male-male sexual relations in that repetition.)

A look at the extended passage, Lv 18:6 – 27, consistently demonstrates this role that the scripture plays:

Verse 6 specifies its concern with ‘near of kin’: ish ish al kol sher b’sharo, (lo tiqervo l’galot ‘arveh.)

Verse 7 goes on to address the boundaries of the parents’ bodies: The nakedness of your father, and the nakedness of your mother, you shall not uncover: she is your mother; you shall not uncover her nakedness.

Verse 8 admits the possibility of second marriages (either polygamous or sequential): The nakedness of your father’s wife you shall not uncover: it is your father’s nakedness.

Verse 10. The nakedness of your son’s daughter, or of your daughter’s daughter, even their nakedness you shall not uncover; for theirs is your own nakedness.

Verses 12 and 13 are similar: You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s/ mother’s sister: she is your father’s/ mother’s near kinswoman.

Verse 14 has homosexual implications, which seem always glossed over, as the nakedness here is approached through a woman — though that need to always be the case: You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother, you shall not approach to his wife: she is your aunt.

Verse 17 now switches to outside immediate kin relations, although it relates how women are kin to one another: You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter; you shall not take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter [i.e. a woman and her grand-daughter], to uncover her nakedness: they are near kinswomen [to one another]; it is lewdness.

Finally, verse 19 again relates women and nakedness: And you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness, as long as she is impure by her uncleanness.

When we come to verses 20 – 21, the emphasis shifts; they are not concerned with nakedness. This may indicate a new section, or a shift in perspective. Verse 20, like verse 18, is concerned with social ties outside kinship, but it suggests neighbours are like kin. The verse states that sleeping with neighbour’s wife defiles oneself (but not necessarily the neighbour’s wife): lo titen sh’khavtekha l’zar’a: l’tamah-boh. Note the difference in phrasing in verse 21: v’lo tetalel et shem elohekha — neither shall you profane the name of your God. One could easily draw a comparison with prophets who suggest idolatry is ‘sleeping with a neighbour’s god’, except that in verse 20, one defiles oneself by sleeping with a neighbour’s wife, whereas idolatry defiles the name of the God of Israel, the implication being that each man of Israel carries or embodies that name.

Verses 22 and 23 are also salient for the difference in phrasing between them, and similarity between 23 and 20: Verses 23 and 20 both state: lo titen shekhavtekha (roughly ‘do not allow bedding her’) while in 22 the phrasing is markedly different: tishkhav, mishkhaveh ishah (you shall not lie, a woman’s couch), suggesting that verse 22 has a different social result; it is not defiling, though it is forbidden.

A simple reading of verse 22 is: ‘Two men shall not lie together on a woman’s bed.’ Such an act, if both parties have a seminal emission, confuses paternity should the woman who sleeps there become pregnant. (This is in part because of the role the bed on which someone is conceived plays in the larger notions of a child’s ‘destiny’, quite apart from any notions of the viability of seed to impregnate women for days after its emission.) This interpretation fits in with the rest of verses about unclear lineages which result from incest. (Therefore, this approach implies the Holiness Code is also a lineage code).

Verse 23 invokes bestiality, reverting to its defiling nature: And you shall not lie with any beast to defile yourself therewith… Note this commandment also explicitly applies to women, whereas the others did not: neither shall any woman stand before a beast, to lie down thereto; it is perversion. Thus verse 23 creates another similarity to v20: male initiated bestiality is l’tamah; it comes from the letters Tet-M-A, the same root used in ‘b-niddat tumatah’ a woman in her uncleanness; thus one can argue Scripture associates sleeping with a woman during her menstrual period with bestiality; it does not make that association in verse 22, the verse usually singled out as being against male-male homosexual relations. (Female initiated bestiality is tevel, perversion, a completely different root.

Verses 24 and 25 mention defiling again: ‘Do not defile you yourselves in any of these things; for in all these the nations are defiled, which I cast out from before you. And the land was defiled. Something ignored in polemic today (outside the country of Israel) is the concept of defiling the land; the land of Israel is specifically that which is promised to Abraham and his descendants. The implication is that that land specifically must be made different; whether such difference is to be extended to other ecosystems and borders is not mentioned.

Verse 26 glosses all the above as ‘these abominations’ (mikhol ha-to’evot ha-eleh), although each act was given a specific nuance, and differentiated. Verse 27, ki eth-khol-ha-toevot ha-el, substantially similar to verse 26 seems also to refer to all the preceding. Abominations, ‘toevah’, tend to be actions done; in contrast, profanation and defilement are received or reflexive, at least as indicated by the verb forms used. This difference implies that verse 22 therefore forbids an active role, not passive role in male-male sexual relations. Why that should be will be the topic of the third post in this series.

8. Marked Contrast to the High Ethical Ideals of Israel.

Julian Spriggs is quoted to support the view of the notoriety of Canaanite religious practises. ‘The religion was a crude and debased form of ritual polytheism, the sensuous fertility cult, involving worship of a particularly lewd and orgiastic kind.’ Later, Spriggs is quoted as if her value-laced terminology is aptly suited for the academic evidence Green seeks: ‘The sordid and debased nature of Canaanite religion stood in marked contrast to the high ethical ideals of Israel. The absolute lack of moral character in the Canaanite deities made such corrupt practices as ritual prostitution… the normal expressions of religious devotion and fervour.’

Green does not introduce the reader to Julian Spriggs, and thus we have no way to assess the validity of her statements, except by noting their own oversights. For example, Canaanite religious practice is or was notorious among whom? Twentieth century people? On the basis of what evidence is Spriggs making these claims? Do we have evidence from Canaan itself of the use of sacrifices to appease the gods’ wrath or bless the worshippers (‘particularly when first-born male children were sacrificed’)? We have evidence from North Africa that human sacrifice to Phoenecian-named deities was practised; but not from Phoenecia itself, and besides, Phoenecia is not Canaan. As for making a comparison between the sordid nature of Canaanite religion versus high ethical ideals of Israel, why are the doings of Israel and Judah’s royal houses as recorded in Scripture itself overlooked? Who exactly are we comparing, and on what terms? Clearly, a certain logic has already been suspended. I have already referenced Hillers (1985) above, whose article demonstrates the unscholarly nature of comparisons between Israel and Canaan which merely use Canaan as a foil, and which draw on texts from Babylon and North Africa as if they were adequate sources to inform us about what was happening in Palestine or Phoenecia to the north.

9. Logic Suspended.

Green indicates that the point of section is to rebut Pittenger, but this isn’t done directly; instead we discover the source of the author’s opposition to Pittenger: ‘Pittenger’s “Holiness Code” idea is picked up by Dr Mel White, co-founder of a pro-gay group called “SoulForce”, in his pamphlet, “What the bible says — and doesn’t say — about homosexuality.” Again, Green does not seem to realise that biblical scholarship’s ‘Holiness Code’ is the same as Green’s ‘moral chapters’; neither does he seem to make his case that changing the name of the same section would of necessity entail a change in how the section is interpreted and taken up socially.

Before moving on to Mel White, however, Green sums up his preceding argument that archaeology provides evidence that what Lev 18 forbids were the practises of the Canaanite priesthood. Unfortunately for his argument, that archaeological evidence was not demonstrated; neither did he demonstrate that what sources he did quote were not back-reading biblical texts onto a Victorian era imagination.

At least in this section Green DOES admit that homosexuality today is NOT idol worship: ‘But to say these things were only wicked because or when they were committed in the cause of Canaanite religion neither necessarily nor logically follows’ (although that has been the train of his argument thus far). Green takes up this new argument by elaborating that it doesn’t matter if we do these things in the name of ‘wicca, or liberal humanism, or middle-class tolerance, out of lust or because we really think we cannot help ourselves.’ What is interesting in the rhetoric Green uses with ‘it doesn’t matter in whose name we do these things’ is that Green makes no mention of social justice as a rationale for the code. What if we do something in the name of social justice? Does it matter then?

Only after Green’s clarifications does he take up the argument against Pittenger, or, more accurately, White. In White’s pamphlet, we are told, White advances the argument that a holiness code is merely what “people of faith find offensive in a certain place and time.” The implication is that Pittenger as the source of White’s argument or as a fellow homosexual, would agree, though I’m hardly convinced that is the case. Green critiques White for listing some elements of the Holiness Code and omitting others; yet this is a straw man, unless Green really does not realise the purpose of a pamphlet is to summarise. After all, Green himself does as much when he writes about reading with a reverent eye — although from Green’s reading, nothing unites all the laws collected in the ‘Moral Chapters’ or ‘Holiness Code’. Green does not take up the issues of niddah (as mentioned above), kashrut (i.e. kosher and non-kosher food), haircuts, sha’atnetz (forbidden mixture of plant- and animal-derived fibres), or observance of Shabbat. Why not?

Green says the Holiness Code should be read, ‘with a reverent rather than a mocking spirit, trying to see the righteousness of God in his laws’ – yet seems to grow rather naïve in his examples, and does not seem quite to make the leap in seeing where God’s righteousness could fit into Lv 18.22. Green thus argues that because fortune telling is from occult (meaning what?) it is forbidden (though this is a circular argument inasmuch as ‘the occult’ is defined as what is forbidden), tattoos dishonour the body (though I would argue that this is because the scarification of circumcision is the way the community of Israel marks its flesh), intercourse during menstruation is dirty (though how this is a religious virtue is not explained), Sunday work (not Saturday, the actual Sabbath day as evinced even in the Spanish and Greek languages today) dishonours God’s first ever statute and (in an interesting Marxist twist) oppresses the workers . When Green mentions wool and linen, and specifies that as the only mixture of fibres to be forbideen, though the Rabbinic Sages extended it to all mixing of animal and vegetable fibre, Green’s system of rationalisation fails him. The rationale for sha’atnetz is easy to give, for anyone who actually reads scripture in full: the high priest wears such a mixture, and on Yom Kippur; therefore, these things have a holiness not to be discussed. Not surprisingly, one can find in mystical literature that even incest is spoken of as too holy for this world, and thus forbidden. Likewise the prohibition against consuming pork and shellfish is not explicated, although an easy reference to Peter’s vision in Acts would have sufficed to support Green’s argument regarding why the laws of kashrut are exempt for Christians.

10. Embarrassing Omissions

Green continues to argue against Mel White, not Pittenger, in this section by noting what White omits in his pamphlet: child sacrifice, adultery, incest, bestiality. Green takes White to task even further, writing, ‘Nor does he [White] mention the social laws of Lv 19 upon which much of our law is based: They include being respectful to parents and the elderly, having care for the poor and the stranger, keeping food fresh, paying workers on time, loving your brother enough to warn him of his sin, keeping Sabbath rest’ etc. Because White omits a mention of the commandment to love one’s neighbour (Lev 19:18b), Green uses this to make an ad hominem attack on White, quoted without explanation or examination, except perhaps in an effort to demonstrate that the laws of Leviticus are not out of date. Green writes, ‘… the laws mandating some practices and prohibiting others just seem sensible and timeless to anyone with an open mind,’ despite the fact that Green cannot make sense of sha’atnetz or kosher dietary laws.

I assume the laws to which Green refers are the laws of the United Kingdom; certainly, the US legal code does not generally legislate when a couple can have sexual relations, what food can be eaten (although the FDA does regulate the preparation of food for sale), and it certainly has scant regard for economic class, as the most recent US presidential election highlighted. Therefore either these laws to which Green refers post-date 1776, or the US ignored them despite its reception of British customary law.

Intriguingly, Green dispenses with the anthropological warrant when he speaks of laws simply being ‘sensible… to anyone with an open mind.’ This dispensation is unsurprising, since an anthropological approach could easily counter his assertion by stating that aside from the historically indefensible essentialised implications of being ‘timeless’, perceptions of ‘sensibility’ are socially formed and constructed, and a principal mechanism by which Green’s sensibilities have been formed is the way Scripture has been taught to him. In other words, the laws make sense to Green because he is bound up in the culture which produced the laws; he takes it passively and is caught in a self-generating feedback loop.

Green does indicate the warrant for his organisation’s stand towards homosexuality: loving your brother enough to warn him of sin. Given their equation of violation of Torah law with sin (an equation not entirely held up in the Gospels), Green is merely acting according to his conscience, though a conscience not trained to seeking social justice. Interestingly, the injunction to warn one’s broth of his sin is an apostolic counsel, not a Gospel illustration of love.

The section closes with the statement, ‘It is obviously ridiculous, given both the content and the context to claim that such a law-book is a mere ‘a ritual for Israel’s priests’ [sic], as the Lesbian and gay Christian Movement (L&GCM) attempt to do in their pamphlet…’ This may very well be true; however, I am arguing against Green. Some LGBT-initiated arguments are indeed theologically flawed, but in their defence, those arguments are geared not , and not to utilising a theological apparatus critically, but rather to addressing the social misuse of texts in order to rehabilitate socially wounded people. Their arguments thus fall on the side of Tamar.

11. The Words in Hebrew

Green’s argument against the pamphlet goes on to discuss the word ‘to’evah‘. Here Green betrays why he keeps edging around associating idolatry and homosexuality: the pamphlet suggests that ‘toevah‘ is a word usually associated with idolatry; the author comments ‘this is standard “gay Christian” fare which we have already seen Alexander, Pittenger, Arthur and White wheeling out’. Green then moves on to another look at the Hebrew — but it appears he does not look up English translations from Hebrew for the word ‘toevah‘ using a Hebrew-English concordance (Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary no 8441). Instead, it appears he looks up how the English words ‘abomination’, ‘abominations’, and ‘abominable’ are translated into Hebrew. This is backwards scholarship. Scriptural exegesis does not rely on, and is certainly not furthered by, trying to translate English concepts into Biblical Hebrew; real scholarship, and that includes faith-based enquiry, seeks to grasp the meaning of Biblical Hebrew words in contemporary English (for speakers of contemporary English), in order to enter more deeply into the text, or for faith-based enquiry, embody more justly the fullness of the revelation of divine life imparted by Scripture.

The suspicion that Green is translating from English to Hebrew rather than the reverse is further supported when he writes, ‘the runner-up as a word translated “abomination” is shiqquts,’ while non-kosher foods are called ‘sheqets‘, ‘a completely different word’. In making that statement Green does not evince the most basic understanding of Hebrew or Semitic language roots: namely, that they derive primarily from three consonant clusters which share certain overtones of meaning. Shiqquts and sheqets share the same root (‘sh-q-ts’). To these roots are added other consonants and vowel points to cause the word to be a substantive, a participle, a particular tense, and so forth. A lack of basic Hebrew is again demonstrated by his transliteration of shakab rather than shakav (as in ‘mishkeveh-ishah’), a very poor transliteration of begadkepat letters, whose consonantal value depends on their position in a word and the presence or absence of a daghesh (dot in the centre of the letter).

Green writes that ‘sodomy is referred to as to’evah in Lev 18.22 and 20.13,’ before saying it sometimes has religious connotations and sometimes does not. It is somewhat unfortunate that Green does not define ‘sodomy’, and leaves the specifics to be assumed by his audience, a clear example of the sort of equivocation used by people in power to gain popularity without commitment to clarity. A lack of definition of this term caused all ‘sodomy’ laws to be struck down in US courts. Regardless, because to’evah sometimes has religious overtimes and sometimes not, the claim it has idolatrous connotations cannot be sustained. I concur with that critique. I would also add that the distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘not religious’ today is perhaps more clear than it was as recent as 1000 years ago, to say nothing of 25 or more centuries ago, but that blurs the terms of the argument unnecessarily.

At one point Green declares homosexual behaviour to be futile, but he does not state by what standards such a judgement can be passed. If it is futile because it does not beget children, well, much of heterosexual behaviour is also then futile. Gay men are not the only ones who engage in fellatio, nor are lesbians the only couples who have non-penetrative sexual activity.

Another ‘naive’ idea but one which should perhaps be examined, is the one-flesh union of heterosexual sex thesis. Green does not elaborate on his thesis, does not offer any exegesis of the verse from Genesis that a man shall cleave to his woman and they be one flesh. An anthropological argument would be that they become one flesh through the mutual production of children — but only in the modern understanding of mutually supplied genetic components making up the flesh of a child; such an argument cannot stand according to many ancient notions of conception and gestation. Theologically, one might say the verse was placed in Genesis to point towards the future reality of Christ’s union with his bride the Church, through which the Church becomes Christ’s body, one flesh with Christ, and thus allows the baptised Christian as a member of that body to enter into the divine life in a manner consonant with the Incarnation, permitting the human person to be divinised through the flow of grace from the transcendent Logos-made-flesh in the enhypostasised material existence of the united believer — at least according to writings found in Athanasios of Alexandria, Gregory of Elvira, and Maximos the Confessor.

My main problem with this section is that Green does not really state what the point of the verses is, merely repeats them. He does not enter the text, neither according to a rabbinic argument (e.g. What does it mean to not having sex with men the way they would with women?) nor according to 1500 year old Christian exegetical techniques (e.g. the typological analysis I provided above, from Athanasios and others). More important, however, why is the meaning of ‘to’evah’ argued about, when the first part of the verse, the most important for guiding human behaviour, left unclear? It seems like Green placed the cart before the horse — what is forbidden or taboo or abominable needs to be defined first, and then we can squabble about what ‘taboo’ actually means.

12. Do We Really Need the Law Restated?

Green next takes up the argument that because the sodomy laws are not repeated in Exodus or Deuteronomy, they thus do not apply to all the people. Green argues against this position by saying that only in Leviticus is the detail present (although as noted at the end of section eleven, Green does not actually spell out the detail); Green implies that the other sections, those in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, point back to Leviticus for the details. Finally, Green uses Dt 27.26, ‘Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of the law to do them,’ to include ‘sodomy’.

It is true that the verses against what Green calls ‘sodomy’ are not repeated; but the author fails to consider repetition as an indicator of priorities. Rabbinically, the verse in Deuteronomy is an injunction to perform, if not also to prioritise, the positive commandments (viz. ‘you shall do…’), rather than to refrain from the negative ones (viz. ‘you shall not do’). It may be that Green takes up a peculiarly Pauline tack, derived from the harsher school of Shammai: namely, that breaking one aspect of the law means the whole law was broken. This logic makes more sense in the Greek, where ‘nomos’ (law) is the translation for ‘Torah’: because the Torah is one and undivided revelation, breaking one law contained therein entails the breaking of the entire whole. (For reference, Hillel and Shammai were a pair of rabbis just before the lifetime of Jesus. They were the leaders of two rival schools of scriptural-legal interpretation. Rabbinic Judaism today by and large follows the rulings of the house of Hillel, although it is acknowledged that ‘there is holiness on both sides’ of the argument. During the lifetime of Paul, the stricter house of Shammai provided the leaders of the Torah academies, and although the consensus to follow Hillel’s rulings was mostly set, the manner of applying those rulings could still vary between partisans of Shammai and those of Hillel.)

The most problematic part of this section from a scholarly point of view, however, is the interpretation to which Green subjects Dt 23.17 (in the Hebrew, this should be Dt 23.18): There shall be no whore (qdsh) of the daughters of Israel nor a sodomite (qds) of the sons of Israel. I have already alluded to the problems this word has caused in section 8. Here, I wish to go into some detail with arguments drawn from Tikva Frymor-Kensky’s 1992 book, In the Wake of the Goddesses. The relevant section begins on page 201, but afterwards I will present background information on the ‘sexual ecology’ envisioned in the Tanakh (the Old Testament) drawn from Chapter 17.

At the outset of chapter 18, Frymor-Kensky sets the schoalr stage of the early 1990s: ‘Recently, certain fundamental questions have begun to be asked: Did Canaan have any religio-sexual rites? Is there any evidence for sexual activity such as cultic prostitution? Is there evidence for any type of sexual service? When these questions are asked, it becomes clear that the whole idea of a sex cult — in Israel or Canaan — is a chimera, the product of ancient and modern sexual fantasies. (Frymor-Kensky 1992:199)’ Most assertions of such a cult entail a set of self-referenced footnotes in William Albright, Gerhard v. Rad, and Hans Walter Wolff. A single section of Herodotus referencing cultic deflowering (not prostitution) in Babylon, not Syria, Phoenecia, or Israel, is constantly quoted. Simply translated, a ‘qdsh’ is a ‘tabooed woman’ (Frymor-Kensky 1992:200). The status is clearly prohibited in rabbinic tradition, perhaps because such a class could become competitors with the Levites. They are mentioned in association with shrines and pillars and altars, and thus pose a threat to the centrality of the temple in Jerusalem. Ugaritic texts indicate that the qdsh should be married, and in status ranks after Kohanim (priests). Finally, Frymor-Kensky notes that the ‘earliest translations of the Bible do not understand the term to mean a male prostitute.’ (Frymor-Kensky 1992:200n20: Vul Dt 23:8f; BT Sanhedrin 55b.)

Earlier, in chapter 17, Frymor-Kensky looks at the general topic of sex in the Bible. She states her position that no sexual dimension of divine experience is presented in the Bible. The visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel of God relate no (human) image from the waist down. A single, transcendent God cannot model sex for humans. (In the mystical literature which develops after the prophetic period, this lack is addressed somewhat, according to Wolfson’s Through a Speculum that Shines). In the more human realm, the place of sexuality as a human phenomenon which has no place in divine experience is indicated by how the people prepared themselves for the revelation on Sinai, and again when David and his soldiers ate the sanctuary bread: David assured the priests that they had abstained for three days from sexual relations, and thus it could be permitted to them.

Part and parcel of the human dimension of life, particularly in ancient Israel is the family unit; indeed, it is the family unit which is glossed as the rationale for Adam and Eve’s pairing (‘thus a man leaves his family to cleave to his woman’). ‘Ostensibly, the Bible considers human sexual behaviour to be part of human society rather than the natural God-created order. These laws channel this behaviour into its proper family structure, providing the proper outlet for the force of sexual attraction… [but] it could blur the lines of family and rip families apart;’ it could lead to assimilation with the nations. (1992:197). Sex defines family unit, and incest laws ‘define and clarify family lines. The marital bond creates a family even though there are no blood ties…’ (Frymor-Kensky 1992:190-191). When it comes to sexual relations with a neighbour’s unmarried daughter or married wife, Frymor-Kensky notes, ‘For a man to sleep with a woman who belonged to some other household threatened the very definition of “household” and “family”; for a married man to sleep with an unattached woman is not mentioned as an item of concern.’ Similarly, girls under their father’s authority are part of another household; if seduced, the man must marry her. (Ex 22:15-16; Dt 22:20ff) Frymor-Kensky then goes on to examine the issue of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Her brothers assert she was treated by Shechem as a whore, that is, as ‘a woman whose own consent is sufficient because her sexuality is not part of a family structure.’ However, Dinah’s consent alone was insufficient: Shechem ought to have spoken to Jacob beforehand and this lack ‘constituted a threat to the integrity of Dinah’s family.’ (1992:193)

Thus, when the question of Tamar as a qdsh is broached, Frymor-Kensky explains that both the zonah and qdshah are ‘women outside the family structure, with no male to protect them (1992:200).’ As such, ‘the qedeshah was vulnerable to sexual approach, and for all we know may have been permitted sexual freedom, as was the harlot (1992:201).’ However, for all we know, the qdsha could have been vestal virgins weaving garments for Asherah. (For Frymor-Kensky’s bibliographic references, see: Phyillis Bird. ‘The Qedeshah in ancient Israel.’ Wasternholz (1989) ‘Tamar, qedasa, qadishtu, and Sacred Prostitution in Mesopotamia.’ Harvard Theological Review 82:3:245 – 266. Mayer Gruber (1983). The Qades in the Book of Kings and in other sources.’ Tarbiz 52/ 2:167 – 176.)

Homosexuality in ancient world, however, ‘exist[ed] outside the pair-bond structure, which is the social locus of permissible sexuality’. It thus blurs the male-female distinction. Frymor-Kensky does not elaborate on how this distinction is blurred. In an essay in Goldberg’s Reclaiming Sodom, a collection of essays from the early days of the academic field of queer studies, one proposed suggestion was the blurring relates to sexual penetration; yet is this the only way the male-female distinction is blurred? What if two men wished to form a pair bond — what then becomes of bride price, how is heritability, not just of property but of house and lineage determined? A larger question which arises is to what extent was a man’s sexuality under his own consent.

When looking at the two types of sexual activity which do not occur exclusively between humans, that is divine (or angelic) and animal meetings, the Torah proclaims bestiality to be tevel (improper mixing) not to’evah. No animal could kill a human without forfeiting its life — by stoning. Regarding the penalties for breaking various laws, Frymor-Kensky highlights that ‘stoning is a very special penalty, reserved for those offences which completely upset the hierarchical arrangements of the cosmos. (1992:192)’

Discussing the verses in Deuteronomy quoted earlier about the qdsh, Green writes, ‘Ritual temple prostitution may be in mind here, but any form of prostitution was against the law of God in Israel , so it is perfectly valid for such a general prohibition to be extended to the male variety.   The next verse says the wages of a whore or a dog (slang for a sodomite) are not to be brought into the temple.  If the word ‘sodomite’ only means a male prostitute, someone might argue, ‘well, that doesn’t apply to loving homosexual relationships’. ‘ While Green claims any form of prostitution was ‘against the law of God in Israel’, the Torah does contain laws which regulate men and prostitutes; for example, father and son are forbidden to visit the same prostitute. The inference that a prohibition can be extended from women to men is in keeping with the Talmudic rule that one can interpret the law by moving from the specific to general (i.e. in this case from female to male prostitution); however, if we are looking at the law, using zonah as slang for a sodomite makes no sense; in fact, zonah usually means ‘prostitute’ — and is a feminine noun. I have already quoted enough about the place of zonah outside the family unit, and will not repeat it here. Instead, I will move on to the most socially problematic part of this section, if not the entire article.

The most socially problematic section, because of how the rhetoric influences and shapes the treatment of other members of our civic society, immediately follows the author’s quotation of prostitution’s wages: ‘The position taken in Christian Voice is that all homosexual relationships are disordered and that the act of sodomy is an act of violence and abuse.  But the fact is, prostitution is an integral part of homosexuality and we never find apologists for sodomy condemning it in the form of the rent-boy culture and the description of casual contacts as ‘trade’ which are indispensable to the ‘gay scene’.’

The problems with those two sentences are manifold. First, the statement that all homosexual relationships are ‘disordered’ is left without an explicated meaning. Green seeems to parrot language used by the Vatican but without the scholastic background to support a technical philosophical language.

Second, Green says that the act of sodomy is an act of violence and abuse. Green neither acknowledges the existence of heterosexual sodomy, nor does he define it; nor does he explain in what way it is violent. Asking how something is an act of violence or abuse is intended to force a clarification of terms so that all parties know what is being discussed; it is not meant to evade any questions. After all, plenty of adolescent boys may want to be fellated by their girlfriends, and fellatio counts as sodomy by some definitions; does this mean that adolescent boys want to be immersed in violence and abuse? Hardly; I would call for the author to re-examine his statements so that greater clarification of the meaning and social implications of his statements on the lives of individual persons be taken into account.

Third, that prostitution is an integral part of homosexuality is news to me. I find the language curious, to be honest, as ‘homosexuality’ usually indicates to me the object of sexual attraction. As such, I fail to be convinced that prostitution is an integral part of sexual attraction. On the other hand, I have been to many places and countries in which prostitution is an integral part of how heterosexual men are introduced to the world of sexual relations. Finally, the notion that rent-boy culture and the slang word ‘trade’ (which I don’t think I’ve ever heard used in spoken English, whether American or British, even by gay male friends in their 60s; I’ve only read about the term) ‘are indispensable to the ‘gay scene” hardly seems tenable. In a culture where finding an actual relationship is forbidden, or in which homosexual activity is constrained to only sexual release with no other social meanings attached to it, perhaps so. However, present day Britain, Europe, and America have a different set of social meanings invoked by the term and culture associated with homosexuality. One might as well argue that being a fashionista and a woman’s gay best friend are indispensable to the gay scene. Such images would be far more easy to draw from popular culture than that of a ‘rent boy’ — unless one is immersing oneself in the immediate post-war Tom of Finland material, longing for lost possibilities in a different era.

Green closes the section by rhetorically asking, ‘Should we really require every law of God to be restated? How many times does the bible tell us not to… [insert several examples].’ Green does not follow up on the implications of his question. What does it mean for a verse to be stated only once? What about the laws stated several times? Is this is a question of priority, what laws we most need to remember and strive after? If the verse he quoted from Deuteronomy is any indication, it seems more important to make certain we do the good, rather than refrain from the evil. Ultimately, this may be a question to be answered by the Prophets of Israel, who continued to point to social justice as the keystone of Torah observance on the part of the kings and administrators of Israel and Judah.

Green seems to mistake restating the law with clarifying the law. Clarification is always needed: it is how people are taught, and more important, taught how to think through the principles of the law. Clarification of the law is how an orientation to social justice is formed among the group, and it keeps the law from being misconstrued and injustice perpetrated.

13. We Cannot Single Out the Verses against Sodomy

The final section of Green’s article presents an Inverse of the ‘only once is sufficient’ argument above: ‘So,’Green writes, ‘it seems, to quote the late Norman Pittenger himself, “preposterous to single out one set of texts, dealing with sexual contacts between males” and to say that these are the only verses in these chapters dealing with morality that god did NOT really mean to be taken literally and for all time by all people.’ In keeping with his earlier dubious scholarship, Green does not cite where in Pittenger he got the quote (p83?).

More to the point, the question of laws ‘for all time, by all people’ is blatantly contradicted both in the Rabbinic tradition of the so-called Noahide laws given to all non-Jewish nations after the flood, and by the application of that same set of laws by Paul and the ‘Council of Jerusalem’ when refering to the minimum/ maximum Torah observance required of converts to the incipient Christian sect of Judaism of the time. Even within Judaism, some laws are time-oriented, as for example, the laws of mamzerut in Judaism today (although when it comes to intermarriage between Samaritans, Karaites, and Rabbinic Jews in the nation of Israel, the question of mamzerut does come up as part of the larger question of confessional boundaries). Such an approach also denies the possibility of moral progress, and asserts that the maximum and fullness of moral glory is contained in a small and translated part of the Torah. I take the approach that the application of these laws is a minimum, that the Torah contains much more than its face value, and that as one grows in the spiritual life, one moves ‘from glory to glory’ — the justice of an omniscient and transcendent God can hardly be limited to human notions of the same. The point of a revelation such as the Torah is to draw the human person into deeper communion with the divine life, not to put drastic limits on the possibilities of such communion.

For example, when it comes to exterminating the people of Canaan, the ‘genocide laws’, one could interpret them to mean the Israelites were to kill the inhabitants (‘put them to the sword’); but a creative and more morally nuanced approach might also see in the verse the possibility of converting them, and exterminating them by integration and assimilation. (For historical reference, the Herodian dynasty came from Iudemea, ‘Edom’; they were forcibly converted by the Hashmoneans to Judaism, centuries after the Hebrews first crossed the Jordan into the Land.) The larger point I am trying to make is to raise the question of who does the reading and immediate interpreting through hearing what is read. The reading is always conditioned by a historical lenses (i.e. the only way is the way it has been done: exterminate the Philistines), but whether it allows for a prophetic-imaginative one is the problem I see in Green’s approach. Some of the biggest moral failures are failures of creativity when a course of action must be decided.

Finally, Green takes a moment of self-disclosure to indicate his personal integrity in his approach to scripture. It is an interesting position and deserves repetition here: ‘If I don’t take every word as inspired and infallible, I set myself up to decide what is and is not true in the bible, and I become my own god. It is just not tenable for a Christian to do that, so I shall believe the whole bible, literally.’ This is a question which has been debated for centuries, not just between Catholics and Protestants, but also between Rabbinic and Karaite Jews. For now, though, I would like to examine the consequence of the logical components in his argument being in the unfortuante form of half-syllogisms. Broken down, these components are as follows:

A.1. if i don’t take every word as a) inspired and b) infallible

A.2. then i set myself up to decide what is or is not true in the bible

(This can be seen as a mere definition or consequence rather than a conclusion; however, the rhetorical use to which it is put in Green’s statement indicates it is being treated as a conclusion.)

B.1. if i set myself up to decide what is or is not true in the bible

B.2. then i become my own god

C.1. if i become my own god

C.2. then being a Christian is not tenable

Tracing the genealogy of Green’s final conclusion then, we have:

D.1. It is not tenable for a Christian to become his or her own god (C.1,2)

D.2. One becomes his or her own god by deciding what is true or not true in the Bible (B.2)

D.3. This happens if (or because) he or she does not take every word as a) inspired and b) infallible (A.2)

Such circular logic is clearly irrefutable, but I shall try, by taking each syllogistic pair in turn and questioning the terms used in each.

A. Does it follow of necessity that if one does not take every word in the translation of a particular text as both inspired and infallible, then one decides what is true or not true in the bible? What does this mean? What are the limits of ‘infallibility’ with regard to what specific notions of ‘truth’? To what ‘truth’ or ‘truths’ does ‘inspiration’ point? What does truth have to do with applicability, which is the question under discussion in the civic forum when it comes to civil legislation regarding the treatment of people who acknowledge same-sex attraction?

B. Does it follow that one becomes a god (not by grace or by nature but rather with the implication of being an idolator) by deciding what is true or not in scripture? After all, Paul says, ‘Test everything, retain what is good’ and ‘Judge for yourselves what is right and what is wrong’; ‘All scripture is there for teaching’ — true; but how it is applied must still be tried and tested against Paul’s encomium on love. Does it not therefore follow that one is growing and taking responsibility for moral action by testing even scripture for what is most conducive in the present moment for alleviating the suffering of the widow and orphan, or for enacting a society which takes seriously the beatitudes of Jesus’ sermon on the mount and his vision of national social justice in Matthew 25?

C. Becoming one’s own god is incompatible with being a Christian. To take Green’s clear non-conformist church background and place it in terms more commonly used among the Greek and Russian Orthodox, I will restate this as ‘egoism is incompatible with deification.’ Fair enough. Yet deification (‘theosis’ in Greek), becoming like God, is the goal of the Christian life, as the doctrine of the Incarnation proclaimed, according to Athanasios of Alexandria: ‘God became human that the human might become God.’ Clearly, from a wider Christian perspective, something is amiss in Green’s language, if not also his logic, not especially for the limitations of his understanding of what the potential is for the Christian life.

The notion that a text is inspired means that the words of that text must be probed, if we are to take seriously the axiom that God’s thoughts are above our own. A God whose thoughts are above our own is going to be able to pack much more meaning into a word, a verse, a narrative, than any simple literal reading can unpack. Does this mean the literal is without value? Certainly not: the Antiochan ‘school’ of Christianity certainly took the literal practice of Scripture as the starting point for a mystical ascent into the Divine life, and gave us many luminaries of the spiritual life. Among them are the afore-mentioned Ephrem the Syrian; but also the Book of Steps, the influential Isaac of Nineveh, the poet and mystic Jacob of Serug, and the authors Theophylact and Theodore of Mopsuestia, and possibly the mystic whose name has come down to us as Macarius the Great.

What concerns me pastoraly then, is if Green does not question the meaning of the verses, how does he grow in the divine life? How does this self-limitation square with the tradition received from Gregory of Nyssa (who says we are to move from glory to glory in the divine life), an Ephrem (whose hymns, particularly those on Paradise, draw typological parallels to point to deeper mysteries in life, with the aim to cultivate a wonder and open heart in the believer as an antidote to coldness, hardness, and despotism), or an Augustine (whose Confessions are predicated on the whole notion of growing in divine life)?

An overall assessment of the article and its principle arguments demonstrates that Green draws on an unanalysed collection of interpretive devices which ultimately take differing views of how the Torah came about. The result is a somewhat confused line of argumentation which alternately views the Torah as God’s law and alternately as the product of a human society. Such a mixed approach can be sustained under certain circumstances, but the author isn’t attempting to clarify how the belief in Torah as God’s revelation and the Torah as product of a human society can be reconciled to life today, and so his analysis falls short of what it could be. Ultimately, it also falls to situate the position of the Torah within Christian (either non-conformist or established Church) life; and it does not address the role of a Christian appropriation of such a position when it comes to influencing the political process of a civil society; nor does Green seem aware of how such political processes impact the experiences (and possibilities and dreams) of individuals within a pluralistic and multi-religious society. The result is that Green’s approach is clearly not understood by (US-UK) society today, but comes across as oppressive, un-nuanced, and naïve to the members of that wider society.

Homosexuality and the Bible (Part 1 of 4)

Some months ago, I had the opportunity to be present at a radio interview concerning a Christian group known for its anti-homosexuality stance and a Christian who fights for issues of social justice and against homophobia. The anti-homosexuality group has placed their position together in an article titled, ‘The Abomination of Homosexual Theology.’ The article, written by Stephen Green, can be found here:

These are the sorts of debates and pamphleteering I don’t usually want to respond to in detail, as I feel they can be short-sighted. I am answering this one in part to illustrate a key frustration which prompted me to begin writing these blogs: a lack of follow-through in much thinking when it comes to religious positions and civil — social and political — life. This post is intended to interrogate the way several scriptural quotations were used by the former group in order to move the debate to a different ground. Because of the social issues — such as same-sex love, bodily union, and the institution of marriage — touched on in discussions of homosexuality, I hope to follow up this post with others treating topics of marriage, sex, eros, asceticism, and mysticism.

The Stephen Green article linked to above is the basis from which developed the principle homophobic positions during the radio interview. Therefore, an extended examination of its content is warranted here. After looking at the initial article and the arguments presented during the radio interview in February in parts one and two, the third post in this four-part series will take a linguistic analysis, using of Rabbinic principles for interpreting scripture, of the key text in Leviticus 18.22. I should note that typically in Judaism, arguing over how scripture should be interpreted and how its principles be applied to daily life is part and parcel of taking scripture seriously — as is the ability to recognise myriad interpretations and vet them for their wisdom. I therefore present only one of many possible interpretations, and my intent is to highlight the basic principles developed by Rabbi Ishmael and others at the close of the Second Temple period (first century CE) for elucidating the laws contained in the Torah. (‘Torah’ is usually translated as ‘nomos’ in Greek, and thus shows up in the New Testament writings under the English term ‘law’.) Following an examination of Jewish scripture from one Jewish and linguistic perspective, the fourth section will examine how Christians might approach interpreting the Hebrew scriptures, basing myself on principles elucidated in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, on the one hand, and taking up the arguments about political life developed in the 1940s by Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

I. ‘The Abomination of Homosexuality’ Article.

Although the author, Stephen Green, divides the article into thirteen subheadings, the arrangement follows a much broader scheme. After positioning ‘The Abomination of Homosexuality’ article as a follow up to his July 2010 piece which treated the destruction of Sodom as recorded in the book of Genesis, Green takes up the next book of the Bible to treat (male) homosexual behaviour, the book of Leviticus. (In the July 2010 article, Green apparently equated the behaviour of the Sodomites with an essentialised view of homosexual behaviour in general, the better to contrast it with an equally essentialised view of ‘heterosexual love and marriage’ as upheld by Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew (ch. 19) and Mark (ch. 10). Curiously, the destruction of Gomorrah seems to have been ignored.) The current article then falls neatly into three parts: the purpose of the book of Leviticus and in particular those chapters which form what are called in academic Scriptural Studies the ‘holiness code’ (Green seems unaware of the general acceptance of this academic term, and prefers the descriptor ‘Moral Chapters’); a section on Canaanite religion, drawn from outdated and poorly referenced sources, designed to set up arguments for the third part, which responds to a pamphlet by Dr Mel White, founder of a ‘pro-gay group’ on what the Bible says and does not say about homosexuality. The piece ends with a brief peroration in which Green attempts to bolster his case through a ‘once stated is stated enough’ rationale. At the end of the piece, Green also presents the logic which underpins his method of Biblical interpretation: “If I don’t take every word as inspired and infallible, I set myself up to decide what is and is not true in the Bible, and I become by own god. It is just not tenable for a Christian to do that, so I shall believe the whole Bible, literally.”

Green’s argument is somewhat difficult to summarise, in part because he seems to be arguing against several different schools of thought. (It is a rhetorical, not an academic piece, after all.) Likewise, the article would seem to be a commentary or interpretation of the verses in Leviticus, and yet the author’s method of interpretation, which I would note is, despite his late protestation, not literal, draws on several unrelated and somewhat incompatible-when-applied-to-daily-life methodologies. Because of this incoherence, I will treat each of the thirteen subsections in some detail; here however, I want to discuss the faults present even in the broadest division of Green’s article.

If I were to attempt a summary of Green’s principle argument, it would be that the laws of Leviticus are meant for all people, regardless of nation, and that to do otherwise makes a civilisation the moral equivalent of ancient Canaan. I believe his subsidiary point is that these laws are predicated on an a respect for life, and heterosexual marriage (as defined in post-16th century Western Europe), but he fails to make the latter of these two points explicit through presentation of evidence. He does present evidence for respect of life, however much based on dubious scholarship regarding a timeless and generalised Canaanite religion and society as contrasted with the specifics of the Holiness Code in Leviticus (and not with the whole gamut of Israelite history, an unfortunately lopsided comparison).

Left out of Green’s argument is the follow-through: Aside from neglecting to address the punishments laid out for transgression each law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, if these laws are meant for all people, to govern personal behaviour, and these laws are without the need to be interpreted, 1) why do they continue to be debated; and 2) how then are they to be enforced and applied? If the laws of Leviticus govern personal behaviour, what need is there for authority figures to legislate for or against an action in civil law, if conscientious individuals are educated to take responsibility for their own behaviour? If the laws are clear, why were guidelines for the elucidation of scripture developed by rabbis two thousand years ago? Why did Jesus and Paul talk about searching out the ‘spirit’ of the law? Why was it recorded that Peter, James, and John, debated with Paul over what laws Gentile converts should follow (recorded in Acts of the Apostles, and referenced in one of Paul’s letters (Galatians))?

This lack of historical perspective, on the one hand, and lack of follow-through on the other, is what makes the political debates around same-sex unions so acrimonious. A larger debate seems to go unaddressed: what is the place of faith in legislative life? This is a different question from the more common ‘What is the place of faith in political and civil life?’ Of course, the question can be inverted as well, more pointedly, to ask, ‘What is the place of civil legislation (particularly regarding sexuality) in religious life?’

Regardless of the larger context of these debates, Green only asserts, but does not make a case, that the laws of Israel are meant for other peoples. Indeed, Green doesn’t even seem to be aware that Orthodox Jews continue to observe the commandments laid out in Leviticus (including prohibitions against ‘weird haircuts’ and ‘mixed fibres’), but both Rabbinic and Karaite Jews acknowledge that some phrases and laws in the Torah need to be interpreted. While this is not the place to re-examine seventh century CE debates within Judaism, the third post of this series will revisit the first and second century CE debates within Judaism and the emerging sect of Gentile Christianity. The early Christian debates underscore the issues of how Jewish law is to be applied to converts from other nations, and to what extent Jewish law (i.e. Torah) should be taken literally in lieu of interpretation to uncover the ‘spirit’ behind the law (Torah). Those debates can then be placed together with the Hashmonean revolt in the second century BCE and the legalisation of Christianity in 313 CE, to illustrate the issues raised in how ethno-religious law relates to a wider multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.

Without going into detail, several more faults can be seen in the broad division of Green’s article. I will take these objections in order, before moving on to the thirteen subheadings. First, no terms are defined. What is meant by ‘heterosexual love’, ‘[heterosexual] marriage’, or even ‘sodomy’, is left undefined. Not defining what is meant by heterosexual love and heterosexual marriage seems to be a rather shocking oversight in the exposition of a text in which polygamy is accepted and acceptable, to an audience for whom monogamy is the current norm of heterosexual marriage. Likewise, the notion of ‘sodomy’ as having one unequivocal meaning cannot be sustained — as the US Supreme Court determined in 2003. Finally, male and female homosexual activity is not distinguished, although the verses Green discusses explicitly relate to men; their application to women can only be inferred.

Second, Green’s own assumptions are left unexamined. This comes through especially in the diverse sources he used to interpret — or rationalise — scripture. Green relies on four chief sources to support his position (Unger 1964, Halley 1964, Spriggs, Wilkinson), only two of which are cited in full enough form that their authority to speak to the issues can be assumed, though unlike the four authors against whom Green writes (Pittenger 1969, Arthur 1982, Alexander 1993, White 2003), the background of these sources is not introduced. Noteworthy is the fact that these sources are used primary to illustrate the depravity of Canaanite culture, a digression apparently undertaken by Green in an effort to rouse shock in the reader and convince the reader that if homosexuality was part of such a depraved culture, surely depravity must be part of a culture which permits homosexuality. To anyone unfamiliar with the scholarly literature surrounding the cultures of ancient Canaan and Israel, such illustrations would seem to be convincing. To anyone familiar with the current literature, they are anything but.

(For those who are interested, a Google search using the terms ‘Timothy Wilkinson Canaan’ revealed two likely sources: and A similar search for Julian Spriggs revealed a faculty member by that name at King’s Evangelical Divinity School and returned the likely source )

The four authors against whom Green writes are all associated with a ‘pro-gay’ stance, and their works are referenced at the end of Green’s article, so do not bear repeating here. I would highlight that Green appears to take the position that any hint of a pro-gay stance compromises the theological integrity of whatever academic works were published in association with these men. Thus, because Pittenger uses the academic term ‘Holiness Code’ to refer to the central chapters of Leviticus, and because Pittenger was pro-gay, the term ‘Holiness Code’ is now suspect and should be replaced. (If I personally were to critique Pittinger, it would be on the basis of his stance regarding process theology, but that is another matter.)

Another more important unexamined assumption is his method of elucidating scripture. I choose the term ‘elucidating’ to respect Green’s position that he does not interpret scripture, and I will leave the debates in literary criticism and anthropology about what constitutes ‘interpretation’ aside for the moment. What sources does Green seem to permit as valid for elucidating, that is, shedding light on scripture?

1. Historical-Archaeological: Green attempts to use evidence from the archaeological record to demonstrate that Israelite culture was moral and Canaanite culture immoral. Granted, Hebrew scripture, with its narrative focus on the people of Israel, does not give much of an insider’s view of Canaanite culture. Thus brining in archaeological evidence to fill out the Biblical account through cross-cultural referencing seems warranted. However, both ‘Canaanite culture’ and the date of the books of the Bible are left in a timeless vacuum by Green, undercutting this approach. Additionally, given that the standards set out in Hebrew scripture are the basis by which Christians, and to an extent secular Westerners, tend to make moral judgements, this seems a disingenuous demonstration.

2. Anthropological: Green does not explicitly refer to any anthropologists, but taken as a whole, his presentation of Leviticus in its cultural context owes much to Mary Douglas’ work, Purity and Danger. Anthropology and Comparative Religion, of course, share much the same genealogy, and both attempted in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries, to find an Ursprung des religion, a proto-religion which preserved the authenticity of humanity’s primal contact with the divine. Failing that, the study of cultures which still invoked notions of clean and unclean, taboo and permitted, could help shed light on what ancient Israelites might have understood by these terms; Rabbinic understandings, whether textual or contemporary, were ignored. The social use of anthropological findings when applied to the religious arena have thus tended to serve a Pauline and supercessionist approach to scripture, in which the ‘spirit’ of the law is sought, at the expense of examining how various communities who actually hand-copy the said scriptural passages have interpreted, developed, and applied those laws throughout their history. The anthropological approach is tentatively compatible with the notion of revealed scripture; it harmonises more easily with a secular view of scripture as the product of living communities in historical context, a very human, and thus very temporally-circumscribed product. It is therefore a theoretical tool, and not usually amenable to clear application in religious life today.

3. Evangelical (Pauline). As mentioned, a Pauline approach seeks the ‘spirit’ of the law, following Paul’s theology of ‘grace’ as opposed to ‘law’ as set forth particularly in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians. This approach is consonant with the idea that Scripture is God’s revelation, and that at the time of Jesus, at least, its literal application had been misunderstood (e.g. ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’; ‘He who is without sin let him cast the first stone [to enact the Torah’s punishment for adultery]’). As a result, the point or premise of the law is to be sought — which necessitates some degree of interpretation. Green subscribes to this view when he states the point of several laws, e.g. ‘having sex with menstruating women is dirty.’ When this is the base approach, it harmonises nicely with anthropological and archaeological contextual cues, because those cues shed light on how a law functions, how it can be corrupted in practice, and how ‘it might have been’ understood ‘originally’. It has an intent to apply the lessons learned through this approach to contemporary situations.

4. Linguistic. This approach asks, ‘what do the words mean?’ It often utilises a comparison of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek terms used in the various editions of Scripture. (When the New Testament is being discussed, other languages which attest to early textual variants are also used: Latin, Coptic, Armenian, Ge’ez, Syriac.) When a term is looked at strictly within a Hebrew context, the three-letter roots of the word, alternate vocalisations (vowels are not written into the text of the Torah; we supply the vowels when we read the text), and contexts in which a phrase is used are all taken into account. For those working with translations, the point of linguistic analysis is to further clarify the meaning of the text-in-translation; the English is not the literal scripture, but a derivative interpretation which at best approximates what God meant (if we are working with the ‘Scripture is revealed’ position), or an author intended (if we are working with a literary theory ‘authorial intent’ position). Unfortunately, Green proceeds in backwards fashion, and looks up how English words are translated into Hebrew to make his case, rather than seek out the range of meanings a particular word has.

5. Scriptural. This approach harmonises with both secular and religious views of scripture, in that it draws together several verses to shed light on one another. However, in a religious context, Scripture is taken as a whole, with any part of the Scriptures (including the Oral Torah in Judaism) acting as a valid counterpoint. In a secular methodology, only those elements from the same chronological (and sometimes geographical) frame are allowed; other uses can demonstrate how the meaning of a term has changed. A limited religious approach takes only other portions of the Torah itself — the first five books of the Bible — as eligible for this cross-positioning of ideas; other scripture (Prophets, Writings) is of lesser utility.

6. Logical-legal. This approach adds to the verses at hand through making inferences, either moving from specifics to generalities, or generalities to specifics. It is used to include lesbians in the verses which are understood to forbid men from engaging in same-sex activity. It is a method of interpretation. It is even mentioned by Rabbi Ishmael in his thirteen principles for elucidating the Torah. The approach typically implies the individual takes the text as revelation given to humans to understand and enact according to (collective?) judgement.

7. Tradition. This is what I am calling the unquestioning literalist vein of interpretation. It is not ‘tradition’ in the sense of Catholic or Byzantine Orthodox ‘traditio’, which would be understood by both those confessions to be part and parcel of the Scriptural method of interpretation — a Christian variant of the Rabbinic ‘Written and Oral Torah’. Rather, by ‘tradition’ I mean the interpretation of a verse according to the moral norms of the reader’s own time, with little input from recent historical changes (to say nothing of longer centuries old changes in interpretation, translation, and application). In its extreme form, this is the sort of method which states the King James Version is the be all and end all of Scriptural texts. In more attenuated forms, it approaches a verse only with the most narrow value-contexts of a particular community, and limits debate and alternative understandings as questioning the foundation of that community. (This is different from allowing extended debate over various interpretations and rejecting some as either insufficiently thought through, or as not being consonant with the historical and international understandings of a community’s tradition. I would argue the debates surrounding creating the canon of scripture in the New Testament, and the process of writing the Nicene Creed at the ecumenical councils, are examples of this latter sort of debate.) It is strictly application-oriented, and tends to eschew the theoretical as dangerous to the purity of Scriptural intent.

When each of these approaches should be taken, or how the insights gained from each approach are to be integrated with one another, is not addressed. As a result, Green’s overall scheme proceeds in piecemeal fashion and never comes across as one strongly reasoned, coherent argument. The above approaches can be difficult to reconcile, mainly in terms of their logical starting and end points — taking Scripture as revelation implies a certain use for it that taking scripture as a human and historical product does not; likewise, applying a revelation to daily life is different from applying existential or experiential historical situated-ness together with its rationales as it was then, to life today. This discrepancy is something Green does not seem to recognise in his article.

Of course, why, if scripture is so plain and literal, it needs elucidation, is not explained when at the end of the article Green states his position on scripture as inspired and infallible. Historically, of course, scripture was interpreted in both Christianity and medieval Judaism according to four modes: Historico-literal, allegorical, tropological or moral, and anagogical. The historical teaches what happened literally, but allegory teaches what you should believe, the moral what you should do, and the anagogical what is in store. (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 118). In Judaism, the four senses are plain, rational, homiletic, and mystical.

The third and most important objection, from an academic standpoint, is twofold: the curious method of back-translating the English term ‘abomination’ into Hebrew to demonstrate what the Hebrew term ‘to’evah’ means, despite not having examined the more complex linguistic issues present in the first half of the verse (see section 11), and a reliance on interpretations of Canaanite religion which do not stand up to current scholarship (see sections 7 and 12, below).

Finally, I have already noted that Green’s article is presented more for rhetorical effect than academic or critical analysis of the verses at hand. As such, I should make allowances for the many value positions with which he asserts his argument. After all, if his entire goal is to present rationale based on emotional appeal, rather than scholarship or pastoral care, in an effort to fill out the position of Christian Voice that…’all homosexual relationships are disordered and that the act of sodomy is an act of violence and abuse’, he’s managed to do that.

Why Stigmata?: St Francis, Stigmata, and Polemic in the Orthodox Church (Part 5)

Discussion of Allied Questions:  Why Stigmata?

Having addressed the sources which pertain to Francis’ reception of the stigmata, and having looked at some of the contemplative and meditative techniques common to the Latin west of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, we then addressed the question of the Seraph and the meanings associated with angels held by Christians of Francis’ time. With that initial groundwork, we can turn to the question of the stigmata themselves (their meaning at the time, their use by later writers, and the meanings which have emerged for us today as a result of that use).

It is important to first contextualise the word or concept of stigmata historically. How the word was used prior to Francis’ time may shed light on the context in which Francis’ contemporaries applied the term to the marks Francis bore. By looking at antecedent examples of what were called stigmata, we can better discern what was new and different about Francis’ stigmata and what similarities may link Francis to his predecessors. What were Francis’ stigmata, and what were they not? Were they actually part of an older, larger tradition? How did the symbol and meaning of the word ‘stigmata’ change as a result of Francis’ experience, or more specifically, through the portrayal of Francis experience by his hagiographers?

After this brief historical foray, a look at how Francis’ stigmata were situated devotionally among his contemporaries is in order. How do the stigmata, and specifically, how does a person miraculously imprinted with them, fit into ideas about the wounds of Christ, the body of Christ, and the imitation of Christ, all devotions popular among Christians — to an extent both Eastern and Western — of the time? Although the focus is predominately on West European experience, we must take account that twelfth century Latin Christians were also very much aware of their ongoing political connexion to the Crusader kingdoms of Outre-Mer, and the liturgical changes in both Byzantium and the West flowing from that association. One liturgical change in Byzantium which slightly predates the Crusader period (and predates the Latin occupation of Constantinople by about a century) is Byzantine devotion to the icon of Christ’s deposition; this devotion became increasingly assimilated to, even as it expanded upon, earlier devotion to the Cross.

Keeping in mind these two analyses, the larger Latin tradition of naming something ‘stigmata’ and the liturgically influenced spirituality of the Cross, a comparison of the Latin ecology of religious symbols with Byzantine devotional forms undergoing changes in the eleventh and twelfth centuries can be fruitfully undertaken. The purpose of uncovering similarities and differences between East Roman and Italian City State spirituality is to discover why stigmata appeared or ‘made sense’ in the West but not in the East, and rests on the fundamental theorem that a miracle of holiness only occurs in a context in which it can be interpreted as such without doing violence to the preceding tradition. (That thesis was developed in Abbasid period Baghdad to facilitate ongoing Muslim, Christian, and Jewish inter-religious debates; and belongs more properly to the theology of revelation, which I will hopefully explore in a later post. For the same reason, I will not address the question of deceptive or delusional miracles, which adds the question of discernment to an exploration of the theology of revelation.)

What, then, was similar in both the East Roman Empire and the Italian City States, in terms of religious expression and symbolism? Would Francis’ stigmata have been understood in the Byzantium of the Comneni [dates], or is the phenomenon of stigmatism confined to the West for reasons of prior tradition and later devotional elaboration?

Understanding Francis’ stigmata as both unique and, from a thirteenfth-century Latin perspective, a miracle of holiness forms the final portion of this post. What were the subsequent Latin interpretations of Francis’ stigmata? How were they brought into the theological tradition of the West? How do these medieval Latin interpretations relate to Byzantine models of spirituality and holiness from the twelfth century through the close of the Palaiologan dynasty? Can a certain rapprochement with Byzantine spirituality and theology of today be considered, or is the repudiation evinced by the author the Orthodox Word article the only way to understand the phenomenon of stigmatism, particularly in Francis’ case, but also in the lives of subsequent stigmatists such as Catherine of Siena, who lived during the Great Schism following the Babylonian captivity of the papacy in the Renaissance, and Padre Pio in the twentieth century?

I. Word-concept of stigmata, historically: Peter Damian. Imitatio in Alsace.

In her wide-ranging and very thorough From Judgement to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary 800 -1200, published in 2005, Rachel Fulton devotes significant space to an examination of Peter Damian (d. 1072) and his hermits. Peter Damian is significant for her purposes inasmuch as with him, devotion to Christ as Judge becomes fused and turned towards devotion to the Passion, the Cross being the judgement seat from which the world and its corruption is judged. The shift is interesting to consider in the light of Peter’s own seemingly judgemental sermons and his involvement in the Gregorian reform movement, a movement which set the stage for the spirituality and emphases of practice in the Latin West for the following three centuries.

One example of Peter’s devotion to the judgement-eschatology as it is linked to the Passion will suffice here. Presenting a long prayer by Peter contained in one of his letters, Fulton notes that Peter’s prayer ends with an exclamation that just as he is signed with the mark of the cross and thereby ‘configured to the crucified in punishment,’ so may he deserve to be the companion of the Arisen in glory.’ (Damian, Opusculum 50 (Letter 66) ch3, PL145, col 735, quoted in Fulton 2005:104f.) We thus see that for Peter, conformation to Christ in his passion, through penitence or self-mortification, one is led through death to transformation in Christ at his resurrection. Here, we see also how Latin and Byzantine emphases began to depart in emphasis, the Latins linking the Passion to the Resurrection as a necessary part through which the individual Christian, too, must pass.

More important to our purposes, however, what seems to be the first known reference to ‘stigmata’ appears in the vita of one of Peter’s monks at Fonte Avellana, where Peter’s reforms had taken root (Fulton 2005:101f, 105, 116, 460). Among the monks there was a former hermit called Dominic Loricatus (d. 1060, Oct 14), ‘Loricatus’ deriving from the chain mail he wore as a hairshirt. Fulton quotes from his vita:

“Dominic bore Christ as the crucified Judge, his body so tortured that it ‘bore the stigmata of Jesus’ for he had ‘fixed the sign (vexillum) of the cross not only on his forehead [at baptism], but printed it on every part of his body'” through self-mortification.

The idea of bearing the marks of Christ seems to hearken back to Paul’s statement in Galatians 6:17, associated at the time of Peter with the sort of self-mortification in which Christ’s power is made manifest or complete. This idea was already set out in Peter’s prayer, referenced above. Fulton, referencing Constable (1995), cautions that while “here, in Dominic’s vita, we encounter ‘the first known reference to what may have been the reproduction of Christ’s stigmata on a living person,’ … it is hard to know how descriptively Peter intended the allusion to Paul’s stigmata. (Constable. Three Studies in Medieval Religion and Social Thought. 1995. cf Elm ‘Pierced by Bronze Needles’ J. Roman Studies 1987:139 – 55.) In other words, Dominic’s stigmata may simply be an overall allusion to the ‘suffering servant’, and not to the five wounds of the crucifixion, which is what Francis’ stigmata specifically reference. This then raises the issue of the sheer novelty of Francis’ stigmata: actual marks of Christ were reported on his body.

In the eleventh century, ‘stigmata’ seems to reference asceticism undertaken in imitation of the sufferings of Jesus. It appears to be a general term, not linked to the Wounds of Christ. However, by the thirteenth century, as explored by Bynum in “Women mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century” (reprinted in Lock and Farquar 2007), Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life, 202-212; from Chapter 4 of Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion, 1991.), the term seems increasingly confined to the five wounds of the Cross.

Setting up the context of this imitation, Bynum clarifies that “Illness and asceticism were … imitatio Christi, an effort to plumb the depths of Christ’s humanity at the moment of his most insistent and terrifying humanness — the moment of his dying.” (Bynum 2007:206) Bynum’s focus in the article is on the Eucharistic spirituality of thirteenth century female mystics, some of whom, like Gertrude the Great, were later canonised. “For thirteenth-century women this humanity was, above all, Christ’s physicality, his corporeality, his being-in-the-body-ness; Christ’s humanity was Christ’s body and blood.” (Bynum 2007:204). (Exploring the divergence between Byzantine and Latin eucharistic devotional theology must await another post; the devotion of the women Bynum treats in her article may not have made sense in the Byzantine contexts contemporary to them.)

Self-mortification in such a context was not viewed as a means to uproot lust, nor destroy the body or physicality as such, in contrast to such earlier ascetics as Jerome. Instead, it was meant as an aid to conform the practitioner to the Incarnation. As Fulton glosses Bynum’s work, Bynum traces how people ‘explored boundaries between body and person, person and God.’ (quoted in Fulton 2005). Devotion thus takes the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Church as the Body of Christ, and the individual’s participation in that corporeality as a means of self-transformation, as starting points for a deeper engagement of the person with the divine life.

After presenting various examples of Christ’s humanity in the visions of these mystics — as an infant in the host, for example — Bynum writes, “No religious woman failed to experience Christ as wounded, bleeding and dying. Women’s efforts to imitate this Christ involved becoming the crucified, not just patterning themselves after or expanding their compassion toward, but fusing with, the body on the cross. Both in fact and in imagery the imitatio, the fusion, was achieved in two ways: through asceticism and through eroticism. Thirteenth-century women joined with the crucifix through physical suffering, both involuntary and voluntary — that is, through illness and through self-mortification… We see this particularly in the case of stigmata, where it is sometimes not only impossible to tell whether the wounds are inner or outer, but also impossible to tell how far the appearance is miraculous and how far it is self-induced.”

Bynum goes on to quote a thirteenth century Alsatian author who wrote of the local nuns, “‘In Advent and Lent, all the sisters, coming into the chapter house after Matins, or in some other suitable place, hack at themselves cruelly, hostilely lacerating their bodies until the blood flows, with all kinds of whips, so that the sound reverberates all over the monastery and rises to the ears of the Lord of hosts sweeter than all melody…’ And she [the Alsatian author Bynum just quoted] called the results of such discipline stigmata.’ Francis ended his life in the first quarter of the thirteenth century; whether these sisters had heard of Francis or not, the evidence provided by this author suggests a wider idea of what constituted ‘stigmata’ than the spontaneous appearance of wounds on Francis’ body: any self-mortification in imitation of Christ’s passion was enough to be called, ‘stigmata’.

Two cases from the early fourteenth century also support that idea, and show how the term ‘stigmata’ becomes constrained to reference only the wounds in Christ’s hands and feet; both cases are from nearly a century after Francis’ death, and thus the term may have changed its meaning due to how the term was applied in Francis’ cases specifically. Bynum notes the case of Lukardis of Oberweimar [d. 1309], who ‘drove the middle finger of each hand, hard as a nail, through the palm of the opposite hand, until the room rang with the sound of the hammering; and stigmata ‘miraculously’ (says her thirteenth century biographer) appeared. Beatrice of Omacieux [fl. 1305, diocese of Grenoble, thus 80 years after Francis] thrust a nail completely through her hands and only clear water flowed from the wound.” (Bynum 2007:206. I would note this point corresponds to the acupuncture point PC-8, ‘LaoGong’, and avoids hitting major blood vessels in the palm; thus while the people of the time might consider it miraculous, today it would not, and we would say only lymphatic fluid drained from the area).

The difference between Francis and all the cases mentioned above — Peter Damian, Dominic Loricatus, the Alsatian nuns, Lucardis von Oberweimar, and Beatrice d’Omacieux — is that Francis did not take up a specific re-creation of the five wounds himself, whereas in the case of the others, particularly the last two, the physical imitation was clearly self-initiated.

When and how did this devotion to the Imitation of Christ originate? Is it aberrant? How can it be understood in Byzantium, if at all? A follow-up post may plumb the beginnings of this devotion to the Imitatio Christi (in addition to a whole series exploring the fifteenth century’s peculiar forms of Christianity — the century which gave rise to the Reformation); for now, however, let us return to the task at hand: clarifying what Francis’ stigmata were and what they were not, so that we can see what was ‘miraculous’ for his contemporaries about their appearance on him.

In terms of the larger tradition, the stigmata were associated with the Cross (by the date assigned to their appearance) and love (by the image of a Seraph, and by commentary of the hagiographers) rather than judgement or punishment (though the Alsatian sisters seem not to have seen their self-flagellation as punishment, but rather as Imitatio). They were treated as a seal indicative of conformation to Christ’s life.

What is different, however, is that Francis’ stigmata were not self-inflicted, according to the evidence we have in Thomas of Celano and Julian of Speyer. These stigmata were not taken upon himself by Francis himself — no self-flagellation or self-piercing is recorded in the context of his reception of stigmata, although Francis’ efforts at self-mortification earlier in his life were clearly noted. Additionally, the wounds seem to have contained nails which were not removed (not removable?), and the wounds did not heal.

It seems, then, that Francis subscribed to the earlier notion of stigmata evinced by Peter Damian and Dominic Loricatus, namely, a general self-mortification, or specifically in Francis’ case, devotion to ‘Lady Poverty’, rather than the later versions taken up by Lucardis of Oberweimar and Beatrice of Omacieux. Bonaventure’s statement made at the beginning of the Legenda Major bears out this interpretation: “[Francis] paid great attention to the mortification of the flesh so that he might carry externally in his body the cross of Christ which he carried internally in his heart.” (Legenda Major 1.6) Thus again, we see self-mortification as a form of voluntary Imitatio Christi, conforming to an interior bearing of the Cross Francis carried inwardly; the stigmata were unwilled, though accepted, marks of that interior devotion, impressed by all early accounts through the vision, if not the action, of the Seraph. The novelty of the five wounds specifically on Francis’ body therefore become not Imitatio so much as a surprising Transformatio in Christe.

Francis’ stigmata fit into the larger tradition of Imitatio Christi; the peculiar manifestation of the wounds in Francis’ case, however, moves beyond imitation and enters the realm of transformation. The transformative aspect is especially emphasised by the commentators, particularly when they describe the conformation of Francis’ external body to his interior life. Thomas of Celano, for example, describes the origin of the mystery (or sacrament) of Francis’ stigmata to the Cross rooted in Francis’ heart, “And therefore did the stigmata shine outwardly in his flesh because within that deeply planted root [the Cross] was sprouting in his mind.” (The phrase could plausibly be rendered in Anglo-Greek as ‘the noetically sprouting root of the Cross shone outwardly in his flesh’.) The image would be taken up again by Mirandola’s image of seeds bearing fruit — transforming one into an angel or Son of God, as described in the previous post on angels. No longer is the idea of angelification primary; with Francis, theosis, divinisation in the form of the Crucified and Resurrected Christ becomes visible.

Thomas of Celano refers to Francis’ stigmata as a mystery or sacrament, the transformation of the lover into the Beloved through or by means of his reflection of the Cross. I hesitate to use the scholastic definition of a sacrament as ‘the making visible of an invisible reality’, as the scholastic movement is only just beginning during the lifetime of Thomas of Celano. Nevertheless, Thomas does accept the stigmata as a revelation of an interior grace; merely the reason for its revelation at the time are concealed, as he exclaims in Chapter 154: “Be this alone announced to human ears, that it is not yet wholly clear wherefore that mysterious thing appeared in the Saint; for, as revealed by him, it derives its reason and purpose from the future. He shall prove true and trustworthy whose witness shall be Nature, the Law, and Grace.”

For Thomas of Celano, Francis is an exemplar of the Christian life. Francis’ behaviour and the symbolic importance of the stigmata were used in teaching the faithful. From a literary structuralist viewpoint, this can be seen in the arrangement of additional chapters treating Francis’ stigmata (e.g. ch. 98). These chapters are associated with Francis’ behaviour following the appearance of the stigmata, i.e. the remaining two years of his life, during which time Francis diligently concealed the marks from strangers, and even those closest to him were unaware of them for a long time. The chapters are placed so as to follow sections counselling against vainglory, and to precede those which discuss the virtue of hiding virtues; the climax occurs in chapters which praise humility and caution against trusting in one’s own opinion. In the entire series of chapters, we see an ongoing emphasis in Christian spirituality, drawn from Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and Tax-Collector, against self-aggrandisement in the name of righteousness. The implication is that while Francis could have been tempted to boast of the stigmata and proudly bear them, he did not; rather, Thomas writes, “He exerted himself in every way he could to hide it,” because he did not want to lose the grace through the favour of human beings. “For he had found by experience that it is a very evil thing to impart all things to everybody.” At the same time, Francis did not think it wise to conceal ‘revelations’ from others. In the Second Life, chapter 102, Thomas writes, “In many matters he had learnt his opinions by revelation, but yet he would bring them into discussion and prefer the opinion of others. He believed his companions advice to be safer… He used to say that anyone who kept back the treasure-chests of his own opinion had not left all for the sake of God.” In other words, a theology is being drawn from Francis’ life, whose sanctity and embodiment of particular virtues confirms previous ideas regarding them. Francis, in keeping with Gospel precepts about not boasting about grace, was afforded additional graces. This was proof enough for Thomas to hold Francis up as an example for readers to learn how God rewards those who follow His counsels.

“And indeed the glorious life of this man sheds clearer light on the perfection of earlier saints; the Passion of Jesus Christ proves this and His Cross makes it most fully manifest. Verily our venerable father was signed in five parts of his body with the token of the Cross and Passion, as if he had hung on the cross with the Son of God. This sacrament [mysterium] is a great thing and makes known the majesty of love’s prerogative; but therein a secret counsel lies hid… wherefore it is not expedient to attempt much in praise of him whose praise is from Him who is the Praise, the Source, the Honour of all, the most mighty, giving rewards of light…” (Thomas of Celano, First Life of Francis, Part 2, on the last 2 years of Francis’ life.) Key in this passage are the links drawn between the union of earlier saints with Christ’s kenosis as expressed in the Passion (the term at Thomas’ time can include the Resurrection, although the two — Passion and Resurrection — slowly separate into their own respective, overlapping domains), through whose reconciliation grace flows to humanity; between love, the Cross, and sacramental mysterium; and between the singular favour with which Francis was loved and how that love given to him to love Christ was manifested outwardly in his body. These links are drawn more fully by Bonaventure, as presented previously. One additional example here must suffice.

In Bonaventure’s account of Francis’ reception of the stigmata, he relates that at the end of forty days, Francis comes down from the mountain as a second Moses, bearing the image of the crucified as engraved in his body by the finger of God, glossed “when the true love of Christ had transformed his lover into his image.” The finger of God, of course, is the Seraph or the action of the Seraph in imprinting the marks of Christ’s wounds on Francis, the symbolic image of love; while the transformation is of Francis’ physical body into the image of the body which Thomas the Apostle saw and sought to probe. From imitatio Christi, Francis came to experience transformatio in Christe. Bonaventure makes a further leap, however: just as Christ is the giver of the law of grace, so also Francis inaugurates the physicality of that grace, becoming like a second law-giver, but a law which must be embodied. Unless the idea of law be attached to fear and punishment, Bonaventure adds another motivation: love, specifically, God’s choice to impress the marks of the Passion on Francis. Bonaventure emphasises becoming Christ, shifting from earlier Augustinian images of the Trinity manifest in humanity. A possible counterpoint to Richard of St Victor as well may be detected, inasmuch as the transformative power of grace operates on both mind and body.

As for later commentators, I have already posted how Olivi exalts Francis on the basis of his perfect Imitatio Christi, placing Francis in the sphere of the Seraphim. Mirandola, likewise, uses Francis as an example of how the seeds of virtue planted during one’s life can bear fruit in the divinisation of sainthood.

Why did the phenomenon of the five-wounds stigmata appear in Italy, then, and not in the East Roman Empire?

Some Parallels between the Woman Clothed with the Sun and the New Jerusalem in the Apocalypse of John

This post was originally a paper I submitted in the summer of 2006, for a class on Johannine literature.  In it, I propose to read the woman of Rev 12 as a representation of the New Jerusalem which appears concretely in Rev 21, using 4 Ezra as a key by which women and cities can be read in the apocalyptic genre of scripture.  If you choose to use any part of this post, please do cite me as your source.

This paper will examine the possible identification of the Woman Clothed in the Sun in Rev 12 with the Bride of the Lamb and the New Jerusalem in Rev 19 and 21.  This identification is postulated on the basis of parallels drawn not only from both internal textual evidence in Revelation itself and from apocalyptic material contemporary with Revelation, but also from the larger literary and iconographic context of the surrounding Hellenistic-Semitic culture of the period.

The book of Revelation arose in a social and literary setting not unlike that of the apocalyptic book 4 Ezra.  Both seem to have been written in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 AD.  The intention of the author of 4 Ezra was primarily concerned with consoling his audience in the wake of this tragedy and the subsequent degradations and oppression of his people under the Roman authorities.  4 Ezra not only provides a parallel socio-literary setting, but it also presents the most concrete literary example of a woman who, symbolizing the city of Zion, becomes transformed into that city (albeit a restored version thereof).

The passage which concerns us occurs in chapter 10.  At this point in the story, the protagonist (Ezra) has already been granted several revelations, mediated by the angel Uriel.  Still disconsolate over the loss and destruction of Zion, Ezra prays to the God of Israel who “did indeed show [him]self to our fathers in the wilderness.”[1]  His prayer ends with the lament that whereas in most cases that which contains a good remains after that good’s consumption, the opposite is the case with Israel:  the Torah/ law has remained, but the Temple (or more precisely, Jerusalem as a whole), which contained that law, has not.  Ezra then looks up to see a woman weeping next to him.  Inquiring about the cause of her sorrow, the woman explains to Ezra that she had been barren for thirty years before conceiving a son.  She took great care in bringing up that son, and chose a bride for him wisely, only to witness her son’s death as he entered the bridal chamber.  Ezra scolds the woman for weeping only for her one son, when “Zion the mother of us all, is in deep grief and affliction.”[2]  “We are all sorrowing,”[3] Ezra claims.

“And it came to pass, while I was talking to her, behold, her face suddenly shone exceedingly, and her countenance flashed like lightning, so that I was too frightened to approach her, and my heart was terrified.  While I was wondering what this meant, behold, she suddenly uttered a loud and fearful cry, so that the earth shook at her voice.  An I looked, and behold, the woman was no longer visible to me, but there was an established city, and a place of huge foundations showed itself…”[4]

The visionary becomes confused by this sudden transformation and cries out.  In good apocalyptic fashion an interpreting angel arrives to console him with an explanation:

“The woman who appeared to you a little while ago, whom you saw mourning and began to console – but you do not now see the form of a woman, but an established city has appeared to you – and as for her telling you about the misfortune of her son, this is the interpretation:  This woman whom you saw, whom you now behold as an established city, is Zion.”[5]

The angel also informs Ezra that the woman’s barrenness was symbolic of Jerusalem not having any offerings in it until Solomon built the (first) Temple.  (Recall that our protagonist is purportedly the Ezra who built the Second Temple.)

And as for her saying to you, ‘When my son entered his wedding chamber he died, and that misfortune had overtaken her, that was the destruction which befell Jerusalem… For now the Most High, seeing that you are sincerely grieved and profoundly distressed for her, has shown you the brilliance of her glory, and the loveliness of her beauty… Therefore I told you to go into the place where there was no foundation of any building, for no work of man’s building could endure in a place where the city of the Most High was to be revealed.”[6]

Although the main elements are obvious, a few remarks about its salient points are in order.  First, as Stone points out in his commentary on this passage, “Ezra sees both the woman and her transformation into the builded [sic] city.  Both elements are parts of the vision, but they differ.  The woman whom Ezra saw symbolizes Zion, while the city he saw, her true nature, does not symbolize Zion, it is Zion.”[7]  While this may contradict the text itself (“this woman… is Zion”) the authorial intent of using a woman to symbolize or embody the city is made clear by Stone’s reading.  A similar distinction should be borne in mind when we examine Rv 12 and 21.  Second, although she is identified as “mother of us all,” the woman’s son is symbolic of the Temple (or its offerings); the woman is not the Temple.[8]  Third, the woman choose a wife for her son, but this bride is neither identified nor interpreted.  Finally, her transformation into the city is witnessed by the visionary who mourns the destruction of her earthly counterpart (she herself is the “restored Zion”), and it is remarkable that the text portrays her as weeping specifically only for the death of her son.  We would also note that although in the context of a vision, the city remains standing subsequent to its/ her transformation.[9]

Initially, it might not seem surprising that a city is portrayed as a woman in a Hellenistic era text, even one of Semitic provenance.  After all, not only are the words for “city” grammatically feminine in Greek, Latin, and several Semitic languages, artistic representations of personified cities abounded in the ancient world.  A coin from the reign of Ptolemy (in 61 BCE) portrays the city of Alexandria as a woman encrowned with a diadem in the form of the city’s turrets.[10]  And after the destruction of Jerusalem, Titus issued the famous “Judea Capta” coin, with the province portrayed as a defeated woman weeping under a tree with a Roman soldier hovering over her.  These more conventional depictions are more akin to what appears in Revelation; what is shocking in the text is the vision of the transformation itself, an image to rival anything in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

With regard to evidence of women as cities in the text of Revelation itself, the clearest example is the harlot Babylon, whose description appears in chapter 17.  Although both the description and interpretation of her appear there, John alerts us to her presence in two earlier verses, 14.8 (in the context of a vision of the Lamb on Mt Zion, where the fall of Babylon is initially proclaimed) and in 16.19 (in which the seventh bowl is poured out “and Babylon the Great was remembered before God and made to drink the cup of the wine of the fury of His wrath.”).  Both verses are clearly in the context of the final moments before the final culmination of history in the general resurrection and the death of Death.  Babylon, in fact, is declared to be a recipient of God’s verdict in both contexts.

In the fuller descriptions of the harlot/ Babylon in chapters 17 and 18, the interpreting angel specifically states, “the woman you saw is the great city who holds way over the Kings of the earth.”[11]  Thus, in contrast to 4 Ezra, the woman is symbolic of Rome, a symbolism identical with that of the named city Babylon.  (I suppose we could say the harlot is symbolic of a city which is itself symbolic of Rome; or that the harlot is symbolic of the goddess Roma, who is in turn the embodiment of the city on seven hills.)  Throughout the passages in chapters 17 and 18 characterizations of Babylon as a woman alternate with characterizations of her as a city.   As a woman, she is richly clothed in scarlet and jewels, riding on a seven headed scarlet beast.  She is the “mother of all harlots and of all obscenities on the earth.”[12]  Together with the beast she will war against the Lamb, and kills his followers, but she will be humiliated by the beast and the ten horns, who will strip her of her clothing and consume her flesh.[13]  In 18.7, she calls herself a queen who will not be widowed, and is decried as the one who “corrupted the earth with her fornication” in 19.2.  She is said to have led all astray through sorcery.  As a city, she suffers from the plagues of war, is burned down, darkened (no lamp remains in her[14]) and made desolate and sterile.  Her inhabitants go out from her (presumably to the New Jerusalem), called by an unidentified voice who claims kinship with those emigrants in 18.4, warning them not to partake in Babylon’s sins.  It would seem, however, that that the fornicators, murderers, liars and sorcerers are Babylon’s offspring, sharing in her sins, and these do not enter the New Jerusalem. The images of Rome as the harlot and city Babylon culminate in the combined image of 18.16:  “Alas for the great city which was robed in fine linen and purple.”  (The city is described as robed in the very garments the harlot was described as wearing in 17.4.)  This woman, at least, is clearly the same being as the city whose name she bears.

Having established the existence of a literary contemporary outside our text, as well as the presence of such an exemplar within our text itself, in addition to parallels in the iconography (numisography?) of the culture at large, we are ready to turn our attention to the characterization and context of the images of woman and city in Revelation 12 and 21.  Through such a comparison we may more securely posit an identification of the two.

The woman of Rev 12 and the New Jerusalem of chapter 21 are linked by their respective relations to the pivotal chapter 19, in which the son of the woman clothed in the sun reappears, and in which the bride of the Lamb is first mentioned.  These three chapters, though linked together on internal grounds, are separated by chapters whose content and context ought also to be taken into account.  Such an approach does not deny the very useful “purposeful repetition” methodology; rather, it enhances it by demonstrating these three chapters occur simultaneously, and that therefore, the characters who appear in each passage ought to be identified with one another.[15]

The appearance of the woman clothed in the sun immediately follows the blowing of the seventh trumpet inaugurating the reign of Christ (11.15-19), the judgment of the dead and the opening of the heavenly sanctuary.  It is possible that the woman emerges from this opened sanctuary, although this is neither explicitly stated nor entirely plausible.  However, if such were the case, the woman could be representative either of the Shekhinah, which departed into heaven (into the heavenly Temple) at the destruction of the first Temple, or of the Ark of the Covenant which is explicitly mentioned in 11.19.[16]  Alternately, the passage of Rev 12 can be considered a “flashback” to the birth of the warrior-logos who appears in chapter 19.  Such a view fits in better with recapitulation theory; it also has stronger textual support from 12.6, in which verse the woman is safeguarded in the desert from the dragon for the same amount of time given to the trampling of “the holy city” in 11.2 and to the prophets’ preaching in 11.3.  The period of time involving the woman’s flight after being given eagle’s wings might correspond to the same era in which the martyrs are given refuge from the Dragon in chapter 20; since this period of the woman’s hiding is not specified (“a time, a time, and half a time”), the correspondences of time given in the earlier text need not be exact, whereas those in 11.2-3 and 12.6 are.[17]

The woman’s confrontation with the Dragon has parallels in Canaanite mythology, as pointed out by both Murphy and Collins.  The battles of Ba’al and Yam (or Lothan) and Marduk with Tiamat come to mind.  The Dragon, identified with the sea or with a river, adequately represented the destructive power these elements had over the early cities of the fertile crescent.  It seems to be no coincidence that the woman was threatened by a torrent of water from the dragon’s mouth, particularly if she is indeed representative of a city.  In the Marduk myth, Marduk, the defender of his city, does battle to rescue the city (which in some sense is also his mother, particularly in a liturgical context in which the king of a city is identified as the son – and if victorious in battle, bridegroom– of that city).  This underlying mythological motif becomes all the more alluring when the warrior who appears in Rev 19.11 is related to the young warrior commissioned by the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7.11-12.  The young warrior in Daniel seems to draw on Canaanite images of the battle between Ba’al and Yam (the Sea); the Ancient of Days would be ‘El.[18]  Additionally, Philo, at least, seems to link the young warrior of Daniel 7 with his own conception of the Logos, which is exactly the title given to the warrior in Rev 19.11.[19]

The only plausible identification for the woman in these images is with a city; none of the Ugaritic goddesses seem to bear a resemblance to the woman of Revelation 12, neither ‘Anat (consort of Ba’al) nor Attirat/ Asherah (the consort of El and mother of the gods at Ugarit) seem to fit, although Attirat was often represented as a stylized tree (the Tree of Life in the New Jerusalem?).  Perhaps the only candidate is Shapash, the sun goddess, who only appears in minor myths (which I have been unable to locate).[20]  A city, with whom (embodied in a priestess or the city’s temple) a warrior-king would enact a liturgical hieros gamos, seems to be the best fit.

It would seem therefore, that Rev 12 and 19, and perhaps 21, present the remnants of some underlying Semitic myth, turned to the author’s own purposes.  His source material could easily have come from Phoenician sailors in the Levant (particularly from Tyre, where the cult of Ba’al was still popular, as Ba’al-Zeus), or through Hebrew literature (in particular Daniel and some of the Psalms) which also draw on earlier Canaanite imagery.  Let us now turn to chapter 19, where the young warrior is presented and the Bride of the Lamb first mentioned.

In some ways, chapter 14 links chapters 12 and 19 and warrants inclusion here.  Chapter 19, which immediately follows the laments over Babylon’s destruction, contains the first mention of the bride of the Lamb.  It also marks the return of the son who will rule with a rod of iron first mentioned in chapter 12; he returns as a young warrior in a passage bearing certain similarities to Daniel 7, as mentioned above.  With him are his hosts, the non-fornicating (virgin) men from chapter 14 (where the fall of Babylon is first proclaimed).  Like the combat in chapter 12, the combat here in chapter 19 is entirely a result of the Lamb’s work (and note the Lamb’s presence in chapter 14).  Chapter 19 obviously falls in the period after the seventh trumpet but before the final resolution.  The bride is not explicitly identified here, although her attire is described as the good deeds of God’s people in 19.8 – again, the Lamb’s doing – and its simplicity contrasts with the opulence of the harlot. Chapter 21 is also connected to chapter 19 when the New Jerusalem, the bride, receives the kings who had died in chapter 19.

Also occurring in this chapter is the vision of the angel standing in the sun, a sun which had formerly clothed the woman of Rev 12.  Unless we are to postulate two suns, or do violence to the text and claim the woman’s raiment shone like the sun, we must ask what happened to the woman?  Is she no longer clothed in the sun because she fled (“leaving her garment behind” as the man in Mark did in the Gesthamane)?  If so, in what is she now clothed?  Solely eagle’s wings?  Or is she the bride preparing herself while the Logos-Amnos goes to battle?  If that woman is to be identified as the “messianic community” or the Church, and if the Church is protected in heaven with the martyrs at the time of the battle with the dragon, is it not plausible that she is being clothed by the martyr’s deeds, the martyrs throwing her a bridal shower, as it were?[21] These questions, of course, can never be conclusively answered and must remain speculative.  However, they do gain weight if the connections I made in note 17, in which the eagle’s wings are a reference to Dt 32.10-13, the same song which the victorious martyrs sang in the heavenly throne room, are accurate.  We might also remember that  images of the Church in other NT sources include both the Church as Mother (Gal 4.26) and as Bride (Eph 5.25, 32 and 2 Cor 11.2).

The New Jerusalem finally emerges from heaven only after the first heaven and earth have passed away.  This follows not simply the “general” resurrection, but the appearance of the One on the great white throne.  From that One did the heaven and earth flee, but unlike the woman of Rev 12, “no place was found for them.”[22]  The New Jerusalem emerges only after the “battle” of Gog and Magog, which seems to be the battle prepared for at Armageddon in chapter 16 (after the sixth bowl is poured out).  This New Jerusalem is explicitly called the Bride of the Lamb in 21.9-11 by one of the phial (bowl)-bearing angels, one of whom also interpreted the harlot as the city in 17.18.

The chief adornments of the city are the twelve pearly gates, at each of which is stationed an angel.  It is explicitly stated in 21.23 that “the city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it,” thus dispensing with the clothing and footrest of the woman in chapter 12 altogether.  However, the absence of stars is not mentioned.   Earlier in the text (in 1.20), angels and stars are identified.  Can we thus posit that the city has twelve stars (plus Christ, the morning star)?  The only other place where twelve angels or stars appear is in the crown which the woman clothed in the sun wears.  We have already noted the Alexandrian coin portraying a crown in the shape of the turrets of that city.  It would seem plausible that the stars of the crown in chapter 12 are also the angels who will be stationed at each of the gates of the new city.

Based on parallel images drawn from sources within and outside the text, I believe that an identification of the woman clothed in the sun with the New Jerusalem is plausible.  Such an identification is supported not only by traditional exegesis of these passages as relating to the Church or Messianic community, but also by similar parallels in 4 Ezra, Canaanite myth, and Hellenistic Roman iconography.  This identification is strengthened also by a close reading of the text itself, keeping recapitulation theory in mind.  The woman and the New Jerusalem share the same time sequences as does the Lamb and the divine warrior who are generally easily identified as being the same.  In addition, the woman of chapter 12 flees twice, the second time to take refuge from the Dragon, from whom the martyrs of chapter 20 are also protected.  She is given eagle’s wings, which recall the image of the song of Moses and Joshua in Dt 32, which is also sung by the victorious martyrs in heaven.  While awaiting the destruction of the Dragon, the bride is prepared by the martyrs, and the woman of Revelation 12 is a perfect candidate for being clothed in the righteous deeds of God’s people, particularly since it appears the sun which clothed her was left behind.  Finally, when the new heaven and earth appear, the New Jerusalem has no need of such accoutrements, since the bride is enlightened and adorned by her husband the Lamb; however, the stars which encrowned the woman of Revelation 12 reappear in their true guise as angels stationed over the twelve gates of the city, continuing to crown the one who bore and wed the victorious Lamb and Word of God.

[1] 4 Ezra 9.29.  An a manner remarkably parallel to Revelation, the visionary prays to the God who showed himself, only to then be granted a vision of a woman whom we learn is Zion.  It is tempting to see in this situation a reflection of the final verse of Ps 48, which literally reads in Hebrew:  “Walk around Zion, circle it, count its towers, take note of its ramparts, go through its citadels, that you may recount it to a future age.  For this is God, our God forever…”

[2] 4 Ezra 10.7

[3] 4 Ezra 10.8

[4] 4 Ezra 10.25-27

[5] 4 Ezra 10.41

[6] 4 Ezra 10.48, 50, 53.

[7] Stone, Michael Edward.  4 Ezra.  A commentary on the Fourth Book of Ezra.  Fortress Press, 1990.

[8] It might be a fruitful endeavour to examine if the Temple building itself is characterized as masculine in other texts, particularly in light of the characteristically feminine Shekhinah (God’s presence) which inhabited the First Temple building.  Is a sort of hieros gamos indicated by these characterizations?  Was the unidentified “bride” of 4 Ezra supposed to be the Shekhinah or the Ark of the Covenant, a piece of the image which would not stand up to interpretation in the text as we have it now?

[9] Stone, 334.

[11] Rev 17.18

[12] Rev 17.5

[13] Rev 17.6

[14] In 4 Ezra, the woman Zion describes how she and the townsfolk put out the lamps after her son’s death, presumably a common mourning custom which fits in perfectly with the laments about Babylon’s lamps being darkened in Rev 18.

[15] See Collins, A.Y.  The Apocalypse.  (New Testament Message 22). Michael Glazier Inc, 1979, page xii for a concise definition of “recapitulation theory.”  Also note that E. Schussler-Fiorenza has also argued for the same technique in the collected essays contained in her Book of Revelation – Justice and Judgement, 1998.

[16] See Howard Schwartz’s references to this tradition in Jewish literature in Tree of Souls, pp 50 – 52.  Numbers Rabbah 12.6 (although late) seems to be a primary representative of this image, in which the Shekhinah, which departed earth upon Adam’s sin (cf. 1 Enoch), did not return to earth until the erection of the Ark and Tabernacle.

[17]  Frederick Murphy, in Fallen Is Babylon.  The Revelation to John.  (Trinity Press, 1998) points out that the eagle’s wings may be a reference to Dt 32.10-13 (p286).  This reference occurs in the Song of Moses (sometimes called the Song of Moses and Joshua (= Jesus)), which one author (Schussler-Fiorenza, if I recall correctly) makes the case is the “song of Moses and the Lamb” mentioned in Rev 15.3, rather than the more well known Song at the Sea in Ex 15.  Since this image in Rev 15.3 clearly occurs in the presence of the martyrs in heaven before the final battle, is it not reasonable to assert that this heavenly abode is the place to which the woman flew for protection from the dragon?

[18] This is the parallel drawn in Collins, John J.  Daniel.  A Commentary on the Book of Daniel.  Fortress Press, 1993, p286-287, and in Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic.  Harvard University Press, 1973, pp16-18.

[19] See Segal, Alan.  Two Powers in Heaven.  Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism.  Brill, 1977, pp160 – 181 for Philo’s conception of the Logos.  Cf also pp 188-189 for the logos and Daniel 7 and 204 and 206ff for the use of Ps 110 to identify the Messiah and Divine Warrior.

[20] Day, John.  Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan.  Sheffield Academic Press, 2000. pp134-5; Cf 44ff and 59-60.  For an example of a city as goddess see ibid p52.  Other sources I used include del Olmo Lete, G.  Canaanite Religion According to the Liturgical Texts of Ugarit.  Eisenbrauns, 2004, and Mullen, E. Theodore.  The Assembly of the Gods.  Harvard Semitic Monographs 24, Scholar’s Press, 1980.  Applicable to the theory I presented above might also be Fymer-Kensky, T.  In the Wake of the Goddesses. Maxwell McMillan International, 1992, which I was unable to consult at this time.

[21] “Rev 12 also pictures the Messianic community as a woman whom God nourishes in the wilderness, and in chapter 19 the community is seen as Christ’s bride.”  Frederick Murphy, Fallen Is Babylon.  The Revelation to John.  Trinity Press, 1998, p286.  It is tempting to identify one of the unknown voices (in the wilderness, no less) as that of John the Baptist, the “friend of the Bridegroom.”

[22] Rev 20.11.

Where the Wild Things Are (Buffy Season 4, Episode 18)

Make up sex seemed to be the theme of this episode, and Riley and Buffy are at the core of the supernatural problem to be overcome.  Their incessant need to be closer to one another began to generate some strange events at Riley’s place, first manifesting themselves right before a big party.  When the party gets underway, some of the women begin to cut their hair, a glass bottle used in playing ‘spin the bottle’ explodes, and a G-spot appears in a wall for the amusement and wonder of party-goers.  Eventually all this fecundity leads to faster-than-kudzu vine growth throughout the corridors of the place, and the Scooby gang must figure out how to rescue Riley and Buffy from the death-by-sexual-exhaustion that awaits them.

It turns out that the dorm where Riley lives used to be a foster home of sorts.  The lady who ran the home used to reward the children when they were ‘good’ and punish them when they were ‘dirty’.  Anya understands this to mean ‘not dirty-muddy’, and the lady confirms Anya’s suspicions:  the children were punished when the girls were vain about their hair, or the boys lustful after other girls.  The result is a house filled with powerful energies which never got released.

[As a completely separate digression, more for the theology portion of my blog, something the old woman who used to run the foster home made something click in my mind:   She said that if she had not punished the children, or rather, if they had continued in their paths, ‘they would be kept out of the kingdom.’   The implication is of a specific sort of heavenly kingdom in an afterlife.  What clicked for me was that in the medieval period, when Christian theologians wrote about the ‘kingdom’, very often (at least for the monastic writers), they were referring to the kingdom entered through contemplation and stillness.  In some ways, this is simply a Christian continuation of the philosophical ideal of the ancient world.  For the monastic writers, a focus on distractions of any sort — vanity or sex — led away from entering the fulness of that contemplation, and disrupted the stillness of body and mind that was sought.  With a loss of monasticism and mysticism after the sixteenth century in certain parts of Europe and the Americas, the result was a much more literal take on the ‘kingdom’.  Instead of being a direction for or place of repose in meditation, it became literalised as an otherworldly place in the future.  It became not simply something unattainable in this life (unlike the accessibility of contemplation), but the dungeon of a most beautiful castle (to allude to the writings of a sixteenth century Spanish mystic, Teresa of  Ávila).]

In one of the initial Angel episodes — the one which started these blog posts, in fact — I treated the idea of the three types of ghosts:  wandering hosts, hungry ghosts, and horny ghosts, any of which can take possession of a person, often after traveling somewhere, and use them to attempt to fill the ghost’s needs.  Therefore, I will not revisit those ideas here; instead, the diagnosis I will give for this episode is simply excess libido.  (‘Libido’ means sex drive.)

In case readers think no one wants a lowered libido, I would mention that I have actually had patients in the clinic present with this concern.  I will mention two briefly, below.  I will also include a link to a recovering sex addict:

Martial artists often advise their students to refrain from ejaculation during particularly intense training months.  What is the reasoning behind this advice?

In terms of Chinese medicine, we know that Jing is transformed into qi and by assimilating the qi of food to its template is also transformed to support blood.  However, the focus in the case of martial arts is really not on the usual aspects of Chinese medicine — the zangfu or three humours — so much as on the tissues of the body.  (This paradigm much more in evidence in Ayurvedic rasayana tonics).  Although we can derive relationships between the tissues and the internal organs — the Spleen controls the Flesh, the Kidneys are associated with Bone, the Liver with Tendons, for example — in a more direct path, we can say that jing nourishes the marrow (‘sui’ or, in Jeffrey Yuen’s tradition, ‘jing-shen’), which allow the bones to be supple and the tendons to be strong.  Jing thus supports the density of bone and the limberness of the joints.  Although practitioners debate whether jing can actually be nourished or ‘regained’, it is said the jing is formed (or released by ming men) after about 90 days or 3 months.  Because the Extraordinary Vessels are filled with jing, EV treatments are typically given for three months before results are seen.  In my clinical experience with an older woman with slight damage to jing, it took  four months, at which point some rather profound changes came about in her life and her outlook on life.  I might have advised continuing with that treatment for another few months, but clinical rotations changed, and I did not see her as a patient after five months of treating her.

To return to martial arts:  Not all students feel up to the task of withholding their essence, and so the masters have come across several formulae which seem to have beneficial effects.

Gui Zhi Long Gu Mu Li Tang is the usual formula used by martial artists when they are training but wishing to have an aid to retaining their jing.  Gui Zhi jia Long Gu Mu Li Tang is made by decocting equal amounts of Gui Zhi (‘cinnamon twig’), Bai Shao (‘white peony root’), Long Gu (‘dragon bone’), Mu Li (‘oyster shell’), and Sheng Jiang (‘fresh ginger-root’), with 12 pieces of Da Zao (‘red dates’) and two-thirds the amount of Gan Cao (‘licorice root’).

Gui Zhi and Bai Shao together regulate the qi of the interior (ying qi) and exterior (wei qi), ensuring that the interior is astringed, and the exterior is dispersed and properly moving.  Sheng Jiang and Da Zao serve a similar function, with Da Zao nourishing the heart and blood, and Sheng Jiang warming the qi.

The Divine Farmer indicates Long Gu for treating “heart and abdominal demonic influx, spiritual matters, old ghosts, cough and counterflow… in females leaking, concretions and conglomerations, hardness and binding, and in children heat qi and fright epilepsy.”

The Divine Farmer says Mu Li — with protracted taking — kills evil ghosts, fortifies the bone joints, and prolongs life.  “It eliminates tuggings and slackenings, mouse fistulas, and, in females, red and white vaginal discharge.”  It also treats cold damage.  Today, however, it is also used to clear heat and astringe, and for this reason is used to treat seminal emission.  “With Rehmannia as its envoy, it boosts and astringes the essence and stops frequent urination,” according to Wang Hao-gu.

In both cases, ghosts are referred to; but so is ‘leaking’ in females.  This is sometimes interpreted as leaking of essence, or the female equivalent of spermatorrhea.

As a whole, the formula treats (dreams of) sex with ghosts in women, and spermatorrhea (i.e. masturbation) in men, according to Zhang Zhong Jing, the physician under whose name this formula was passed to us.   Ted Kaptchuk has explained that ‘sex with ghosts’ can also mean having a ‘dream lover’ in the sense of Mariah Carey’s song:  ‘Dream lover, come rescue me.’  This is a formula for the sort of person who can never be satisfied with one person because her ideals can never be fulfilled by an actual person.

Interestingly, the obverse of excess libido can be a fear of intimacy.  Having ‘ghost lovers’, in the sense of being ephemeral, here one day and gone the next, is another way of articulating that phenomenon.  As the article on sex addiction noted, this is precisely the sort of psychological mechanism articulated by the writer of that column.

But what produces the libido?  In Byzantine or Galenic medicine, it was thought that semen built up and caused friction within the vessels of the testicles and spinal chord.  This friction generated heat within the body, which in tern was interpreted — as the English phrase still reflects — as being ‘hot and bothered’.  A similar logic can underlie the explanation of how slippery medicinals which usually nourish jing, can in fact be used to regulate the sexual appetite:  they lubricate the vessels, thus preventing the build up of heat from the friction of too much substance; yet they can also be seen to quell empty fire, when yin deficiency from loss of essence is the root.

For speculative purposes, I would also note that in Galenic medicine, semen was thought to be composed of little homunculi, little tiny fetuses (or as Giles expressed it, ‘tiny, tiny babies!’).  Extending that thought process, one might posit that herbs to calm the fetus and address ‘restless fetus disorder’ in Chinese Medicine might work in men to calm libido.

One patient I had was an elderly man (in his 80s) who came in complaining that after about a week or so, he gets very testosterone-y, and the only way to release it is through masturbation.  He was not satisfied with this solution, and sought herbal medicine to help.  I prescribed a very simple formula:  Wu Wei Zi Tang.  Composed of Wu Wei Zi only, in a rather small dose, it was designed to astringe and nourish (male’s) essence, as well as calm the shen.  He did not return to the clinic, so I do not know what his experience with this formula was; however, he had presented to other practitioners beforehand without lasting success.  My assumption is that he either gave up, it worked, or he went somewhere else.

Since the good physician also looks at the future injuries which accrue should a pathology continue, I would briefly refer the reader to a chapter in Hua Tuo’s treatise on the internal viscera.  In a section on bi (‘obstruction’) syndrome (often correlated with various types of arthritis today), the Tang dynasty physician Hua Tuo describes ‘bone bi’ as “due to injury of the kidneys by inordinate sexual desire.

I have seen this in the clinic.  One patient, a man in his 50s came in complaining of severe gout and kidney stones.  His history indicated that he never went a day without sex (either with or without someone, he specified) since his late teens, and often several times a day.  While he was quite impressed with the quality of his physical presentation at those times, overall, his case illustrated exactly the sort of  ‘bone bi’ that Hua Tuo alludes to.  I used a formula to dissolve bone spurs (in the hope it would also affect gout deposits and kidney stones) and augment the kidneys.  I also advised him to refrain for sex, or at least curtail his activities while on the formula.  Returning to the clinic, he indicated his ‘kidneys felt stronger’ or more ‘full’, and subsequent clinicians kept him on a variant of the same formula.

Hua Tuo continues the progress of the pathology: Dispersed internally, kidney qi is not able to shut and confine,” leading to leakage and chaos in the interior, specifically the centre and upper jiao.  This in turn leads to qi glomus of the triple warmer, which impacts the ability of food and water to be transformed into essential qi.

Interestingly, that glomus and blockage of proper assimilation of food qi can be correlated with the phenomena of certain foods being particularly prone to aggravate attacks of gout.

The inability of food to be properly transformed allows evil qi to invade ‘in a wanton way’, leading to four possible scenarios:

1. Evil qi surges to Heart and tongue giving rise to aphasia; or

2. Evil qi affects the SP and ST, causing them to be unable to replenish the flesh; or

3. Evil qi flows to low back and knees, leading to paraplegia; or

4.  Evil qi attacks the lateral limbs creating numbness or insensitivity in the limbs.

To address the inability of the Triple Warmer to aid in the assimilation of food, and to rectify the glomus qi in the chest and upper back, I would use Hua Tuo’s Asafoetida Free the Qi Pills:

Asafoetida, 2 liang; Chen Xiang, 1 liang; Gui Xin, 0.5 liang; Qian Niu Mo 1 – 2 liang.  Boil Asafoetida in wine down to a paste.  Add the other ingredients, powdered and form into pills the size of a plum.  Dosage:  one pill dissolved in wine.  (Note the original formula coats pills with zhu sha.)

Once the qi is rectified and the libido flows spontaneously rather than in a libertine fashion again, the essence should be replenished.  This can be accomplished with a medicinal wine designed to strengthen the tendons, also drawn from the Martial Arts tradition:

Jin Feng Jiu:

Sheng Di, Shu Di, Dang Gui, Mai Dong, Di Gu Pi, Yin Yang Huo, and half an amount of Sha Ren.  Grind or use whole to make wine.  Add to a fifth of 80 proof alcohol or less; steep for 60 – 90 days.  Like Wu Wei Zi alone, this formula increases jing and quiets restlessness.  It should go without saying that refraining from a loss of seminal essence while taking this formula is advised.

As always, this post is for educational and entertainment purposes only.  If you feel you could benefit from the application of Chinese medicine, please contact a qualified practitioner.


Yang Shou-zhong (1993).  Master Hua’s Classic of the Central Viscera.  Blue Poppy Press.

Yang Shou-zhong (1998).  The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica.  Blue Poppy Press.

« Older entries