The heretics of the borders and their strange books


Empires move or deport populations, often against the will of these subjugated peoples. Such movements can have the entirely unintended result of fostering and spreading new religious developments, often of a type that the imperial authorities strongly disfavoured. The consequences can last for centuries.

The Heretics of the Borderlands…

Empires are deeply concerned with maintaining public order and stability, and these concerns are all the greater in border regions, where a revolt could open the door to foreign invasion. When an empire has reason to suspect a subjugated people, it is likely to displace them, perhaps thousands of miles away. During World War I, the Ottoman Empire initially decided to deport the Armenian minority it suspected of pro-Allied sympathies, although this move soon turned into genocide. In this case, the effect was to wreak terrible devastation on a population following an ancient religion, in this case, Christianity. But the religious consequences of such a move can be very different, and far more positive or productive. One of the best examples of this also occurred in this same territory, from Armenia and eastern Asia Minor.

I have pointed out how, historically, dissenting and controversial religious ideas flourished on the fringes of empire, where enforcement mechanisms were weak. In the context of the later Roman and Byzantine empires, this was especially true of the eastern borders with Armenia, which preserved many older beliefs and doctrines that had been suppressed within the empire itself, as well as documents and scriptures alternatives that supported them. It was therefore not surprising that around 650 a new sect arose in this part of the world which closely resembled the older Christian heresies, including Adoptianism, Marcionism, Manichaeism and elements of the Gnostic worldview. wider. The new movement became known as Paulicianism. It had dualistic elements, teaching (probably) that Christ represented the God of the New Testament, while rejecting the Old Testament. They also rejected the veneration of Mary, associated with ideas of material incarnation, as well as many aspects of Orthodox devotion.

The Paulicians became extremely powerful in Armenia, ruling their own territories. As their ideas spread through the regions of Asia Minor ruled by the Byzantines, the emperors naturally persecuted what they called the “Manicheans”, killing thousands of people.

From the middle of the 8th century, the Byzantine emperors attempted a new policy, using the Paulicians as military substitutes in their western territories, particularly in the Balkans. It was not an instantaneous transfer, but was spread over a long period, culminating in the transfer of reputed 200,000 of the sect in 970. These settled in Philippopolis in Thrace (modern Plovdiv, Bulgaria). Here, these tough mountaineers would help defend the borders against the Bulgarians, who were exerting ever-increasing pressure on the border.

It was a win-win situation. The Paulicians would be massively weakened in the east, while they would be occupied as loyal frontier guards in the west. Their survival depended on maintaining this border.

What could go wrong?

I’m sorry, but did I hear someone say, “Isn’t that a really bad idea, because these religious dissidents would take their beliefs with them and plant them in whole new territory?” Wouldn’t this be a kind of heretical church planting, on a transcontinental scale? And you would be right. Already in the year 755-56, the ninth-century chronicler Theophanes reported that “The Emperor Constantine [V] resettled in Thrace the Syrians and Armenians he had brought from Theodosiopolis and Melitene; they propagated the Paulician heresy.

In the middle of the tenth century, the very important sect of the bogomiles. As with the Paulicians before them, there is some doubt as to their degree of dualism, but what we can say with confidence is that – what was that phrase again? – the Bogomils closely resembled older Christian heresies, including Adoptionism, Marcionism, Manichaeism, and streams of the broader Gnostic worldview. For centuries, Western Church figures would use “Bulgarian” as a synonym for dualistic heresy.

…And Their Strange Books

I also wonder what else the Paulicians and their clergy could have brought west with them?

In the study of lost and apocryphal scriptures, some of the most exciting discoveries of modern times have taken place in the so-called Slavic pseudo-epigraphs, a whole library of ancient Jewish texts preserved in the Slavic churches of Eastern Europe. These included such long-forgotten works as 2 Enoch and the Apocalypse of Abraham, some of which dated to the Second Temple era, and which often presented strongly dualistic views. (“Pseudepigrapha” designates a work falsely attributed to a venerated figure, such as Moses or Esdras). In many cases these texts have been completely forgotten elsewhere and did not exist in any other language, so their modern rediscovery has transformed the academic study of early Judaism, Christian origins, and the roots of Jewish mysticism. Without these Slavic translations, we would never have suspected that most of these works ever existed.

Exactly where these priceless texts were translated into the Slavic languages ​​is uncertain, but an excellent candidate for the location would be the Bulgarian royal and ecclesiastical center of Ohrid, probably in the 11th century (Ohrid is now part of North Macedonia ). I discuss these origins in detail in my 2015 book The Many Faces of Christ.

In theory, the imperial decision to displace these Paulicians not only brought the heretics and dissenters, but also their learned personalities, and even an entire library of otherwise lost texts that had been preserved in Armenia, conveniently beyond the reach of Byzantine censors. I insist on the “conceivable”: I cannot really prove how these writings migrated, but it seems to me a plausible reconstruction. If there is no connection between the Paulician colony through the bogomiles and the new western heresies, then we are dealing with very strange and far-fetched coincidences.

Here is another example, which concerns the so-called Revelation (or Apocalypse) of Peter. A number of works circulated under this title, but the most notorious was the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter, discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. It was Gnostic in the sense that the author believed that the material world was ruled by a defective lesser God, while Christ was an emissary of the forces of Light. Peter thus taught monstrous heresy, and the book had to be completely suppressed – hence the burial at Nag Hammadi around 380. And so scholars thought it was completely lost until it was rediscovered in 1945.

But this timeline is just plain wrong. In 1045, in Constantinople, the Orthodox monk Euthymius, denouncing the Bogomils, described a powerful rite of initiation in which heretics read the words of a “Revelation (or Apocalypse) of Peter”. Euthymius asserted that this “satanic spell” wielded an astounding influence: “If heretics enter first, reading this to a man, the devil makes his home in him and brings him to utter destruction. Thenceforth no argument on the knowledge of God does not enter his soul. Considering the close harmony between the Bogomil views and the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter, it is very likely that this is the work to which Euthymius was referring – some seven hundred years after the supposed disappearance of the last known copy of the work in the Egyptian desert.

Incidentally, the other location that produced a comparable range of otherwise unknown ancient scriptures, both Jewish and early Christian, was in Ethiopia, which also stood beyond the immediate reach of Roman imperial power.

From the perspective of the Orthodox/Catholic institutional churches, this heretical expansion was disastrous, but the worst was yet to come. In the 11th century, visions very close to the Paulicians and the Bogomils appear more and more in Western Europe, especially in the south of France and in Italy, where they become known as Albigensians or Bulgarians: the term now popular phrase “Cathars” was little used at the time. time. In the 13th century, the crusade against the Albigensians ravaged large swaths of southern France. The struggle to suppress heresy led to the creation of a formidable new tactic in the form of the Inquisition. The Albigenses persisted at least until the 1320s.

Much ink has been spilled about the actual religious views of these groups, and many scholars view them as a militant church reform movement, rather than outright dualism. However, as I said, many of their views are very similar to these ancient Bulgarian and Eastern beliefs. The Albigensians also had access to otherwise lost alternative gospels and scriptures, one of which has been preserved as The Secret Supper. Like the famous Gnostic Gospels of antiquity, the Supper purports to be a recording by the apostle John of secret dialogues with Jesus, and it’s really dualistic. We also know how the Inquisition labeled this text: “This is the secret book of the heretics of Concorèze [sic], brought from Bulgaria by their bishop Nazarius; full of errors. I wonder if it once stood on a library shelf alongside other writings we know today as the Slavic Pseudepigrapha? Or the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter? And what other texts of Bulgarian origin could have circulated in Western Europe without falling into the hands of the Inquisition?

It’s a near-miracle that we still have the secret supperand without its survival we would never have dared to speculate that such a thing existed and circulated in the High Middle Ages, some eight centuries outside of its time.

The Byzantine Empire thought of consolidating its western borders by importing Armenian warriors. He did not expect to launch a European religious revolution.

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