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THE SECTS AT ROME—THE CERYGMAS—THE ROMAN CHRISTIAN—DEFINITIVE RECONCILIATION OF PETER AND PAUL.
Rome was at the highest period of her grandeur: her sway over the world seemed uncontested; no cloud was visible on the horizon. Far from growing weaker, the movement that led the provincials, above all those of the East, to come there in crowds, increased in intensity. The Greek speaking population was more considerable than ever. The insinuating Græculus, who was good for every trade, was driving the Italian from the domesticity of great houses; Latin literature was daily losing ground, whilst Greek was becoming the literary, philosophical, and religious language of the enlightened classes, just as it was the language of the lower classes. The importance of the Church of Rome was measuring itself with that of the city itself. That Church, which was still quite Greek, had an uncontested superiority over the others. Hyginus, her chief, obtained the respect of the whole Christian world. Rome was then for the provinces what Paris is in its brilliant days, the city of all contacts, all fecundations. Whoever wished to find a place of mark aspired to go thither; nothing was consecrated but what had received its stamp at that universal exhibition of the productions of the entire universe.
Gnosticism, with its ambition of setting the fashion in Christian preaching, especially yielded to that tendency. None of the Gnostic schools sprang from Rome, but nearly all came to an end there. Valentinus was the first to try it. That daring sectary may even have had the idea of seating himself on the episcopal throne of the unrivalled city. He showed every appearance of Catholicism, and preached in the absurd style that he had invented. Its success was mediocre; that pretentious philosophy, that unquiet curiosity, scandalised the faithful. Hyginus drove the innovator from the Christian pulpit. From that time forward the Roman Church indicated the purely practical tendency which was always to distinguish her, and showed herself ready quickly to sacrifice science and talent to edification.
Another heterodox doctor, Cerdon, appeared at Rome about that time. He was a native of Syria, and introduced doctrines which differed but little from those of the Gnostics of that country. His manner of distinguishing God from the Creator; of placing another unknown god above God, the father of Jesus; of representing one of the gods as just, the other as good, sounds contrary to right. Cerdon found that this world was as imperfect a work as that Jehovah Himself to Whom it was attributed, and who was represented as subject to human passions. He rejected all the Jewish books in a mass, as well as all the passages in Christian writings, from which it might result that Christos had been able to take real flesh. It was quite simple: matter seemed to him to be a deterioration, an evil. The Resurrection was repugnant to him for the same reason. The Church censured him; he submitted, and retracted his opinions, then began to dogmatise afresh, either in public or private. Thence arose a most equivocal position. His life was spent in leaving the Church and joining it again, in doing penance for his errors, and in maintaining them afresh. The unity of the Church was too strong in Rome for Cerdon to be able to dream of forming a separate congregation there as he would certainly have done in Syria. He exercised his influence over a few isolated individuals, whom the apparent depth of his language and of doctrines which were then quite novel seduced. A certain Lucain or Lucian is particularly quoted amongst his disciples, without mentioning the celebrated Marcion, who, as we shall see, sprang from him.
The abstract Gnosticism of Alexandria and Antioch, appearing under the form of a bold philosophy, found little favour in the capital of the world. It was the Ebionites, the Nazarenes, the Elkasaites, the Essenes, which were all Gnostic heresies in a way, but of a moderate and Judeo-Christian Gnosticism in their affinities, it was those heresies, I say, that swarmed at Rome, which made the legend of Peter, and created the future of that great Church. The mysterious formulas of Elkasaism were usual in their midst, especially for the baptismal ceremony. The neophyte, presented on the edge of a river or a fountain of flowing water, took heaven and earth, air and water, to witness that it was his firm resolve to sin no more. For these sectaries, who sprang from Juda, Peter and James were the two corners of the Church of Jesus. We have often remarked that Rome was always the principal home of Judeo-Christianity. The new spirit, represented by the school of Paul, was checked there by a highly conservative one. In spite of the efforts of conciliatory men, the apostle of the Gentiles had here also obstinate adversaries. Peter and Paul fought their last battle before becoming definitely reconciled in the bosom of the Universal Church for eternity.
The life of the two apostles was beginning to be much forgotten. They had been dead about seventy-seven years; all who had seen them had disappeared, the greater portion without leaving any writings behind them. One was at perfect liberty to embroider on that still virgin canvas. A vast Ebionite legend had been formed in Rome and was settled at about the time at which we have arrived. St Peter’s journeys and sermons were its principal object. In it the missionary journeys of the chief of the apostles, especially along the coasts of Phœnicia; the conversions which be had effected; his strifes, especially with the great Antichrist who at that time was the spectre of the Christian conscience, Simon Magus, were related. But often in hidden words, under that abhorred name was hidden another personage, the false Apostle Paul, the enemy of the Law, the destroyer of the true Church. The true Church was that of Jerusalem, over which James, the Lord’s brother presided. No apostolate was valid which could not produce letters emanating from that central college. Paul had none, he was therefore an intruder. He was the “enemy” who came behind the real sower to sow the bad seed. With what force, too, Peter exposed his impostures, his false allegations of personal revelations, his ascension into the third heaven, his pretensions of knowing things about Jesus which those who had heard the Gospel had not heard, his disciples' exaggerated conceptions of the divinity of Jesus! At Antioch especially Peter’s triumph was complete. Simon had succeeded in turning the people of that city away from the truth. By a series of clever manœuvres Peter brought one of the victims of Simon’s sorceries, to whom the magician had imparted his own form, to show himself to the people of Antioch. What was their astonishment on hearing him whom they took for the Samaritan magician, retract in these terms:—
I have lied about Peter he is the true apostle of the prophet who was sent by God for the salvation of the world. The angels beat me last night for having calumniated him. Do not listen to me if I speak against him in the future!
Naturally all Antioch returned to Peter and cursed his rival.
Thus the real apostle continued his journeys, following the traces of the Samaritan impostor, and arrived at the capital of the empire immediately after him. The impostor redoubled his artifices, invented a thousand spells, and gained Nero’s mind. He even succeeded in passing off as God, and in being adored. His admirers raised altars to him, and, according to the author, these altars were still shown in his time. On the island of the Tiber, in fact, a college of the Sabine god Semo Sancus was established. There there were a number of votive columns, SEMONI DEO SANCO, on which it was easy to read, with a little goodwill, SIMONI DEO SANCTO.
The decisive struggle was to take place in the emperor’s presence. Simon’s programme was that he would raise himself into the air, and would hover there like a god. He did raise himself in fact, but on a sign from Peter the skin of his magic was burst, and he fell ignominiously, and was shattered to pieces. A similar accident had happened in the amphitheatre of the Campus Martius under Nero. An individual who had claimed to be able to raise himself into the air like Icarus, fell on to the angle of the emperor’s box, and he was covered with blood. Perhaps some real facts in the life of the Samaritan charlatan served as a foundation for these stories. At any rate the discomfiture of the impostor was represented as Peter’s greatest glory, and by it he really took possession of the eternal city. According to the legend his death followed very soon on his victory; Nero, irritated at the misadventure that had happened to his favourite juggler, put the apostle to death.
Such is the legend which, started about the year 125 by the passions and rancour of the Jewish party in the Church at Rome, was by degrees softened down, and produced, towards the end of Hadrian’s reign, the work, in ten books, called “The Preaching of Peter,” or “The Journeys of Peter.” The legend had been cut into three parts for the purposes of publication. “ The Preaching” contained the account of Peter’s apostolate in Judea; the Periodi comprised Peter’s journeys and his controversies with Simon in Syria and Phœnicia. His sojourn at Rome and his struggles before the Emperor were the subject of the “Acts of Peter,” another composition which formed, in some sort, the sequel of the Cerygma and of the Periodi. Those accounts of his apostolical journeys, full of charm for the Christian imagination, gave rise to numerous compositions, which soon became romances. The narrative was interspersed with pious sermons; Peter was made the preacher of all good doctrines; the picture of chaste love vivified and imparted warmth to the painting; Christian romance was created, and no essential machinery has been added to it since.
All that first literature of the Cerygmas and of the Periodi was the work of Ebionite, Essenian, and Elkasaite sectaries. Peter, represented as the real apostle of the Gentiles, was always its hero; James appeared in it as the invisible president of a cœnaculum filled with the divine spirit, having its seat at Jerusalem. Animosity against Paul was evident Like the Essenes and the Elkasaites of the East, those of Rome attached great importance to the possession of a secret literature which was reserved for the initiated, and the commonest frauds were employed to give to those later productions of Christian inspiration an authority which they did not merit.
The most ancient edition of the Cerygmas of Peter is lost, and we only possess two fragments which form a sort of introduction to the work. The first is a letter in which Peter addresses the book of his Cerygmas to James, “master and bishop of the Holy Church,” and begs him not to communicate it to any heathen, nor even to any Jew with a preliminary test. Peter says that the admirable policy of the Jews ought to be imitated, who, in spite of the diversities of the interpretation to which the Scripture gives rise, have succeeded in keeping the unity of the faith and of hope. If the book of the Cerygmas were to be circulated indiscreetly, it would give rise to schisms. Peter adds,—
I do not know that as a prophet, but because I already see the beginning of the evil. Some of those who are of heathen origin have rejected my preaching, which is conformable to the Law, and have attached themselves to the frivolous teaching of the enemy, which is contrary to the Law. During my life people have tried, by different interpretations, to pervert my words, in the sense of destroying the Law. According to them, that is my idea, but I am not bold enough to declare it. God forbid! that would be to blaspheme the Law of God which Moses proclaimed, and whose eternal duration our Saviour attested when He said: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but not one jot or tittle of the Law shall pass away.” This is the truth, but there are some people who think themselves authorised, I do not know how, to expound my thoughts, and who claim to interpret the discourses that they have heard from me more pertinently than I do myself. They put before their catechumens as my true opinion matters of which I have never dreamt. If such lies are produced during my life, what will they not dare to do after my death?
James decided in fact that the book of the Cerygmas should only be communicated to circumcised men of mature age who aspired to the title of doctor, and who had been tested for at least six years. The initiation was to take place by degrees, in order that if the results of a first experience were bad it might be stopped. The communication was to be made mysteriously, on the very spot where baptism was administered, and with the formulas of baptismal promises according to the Essenean or Elkasaite rite. The person who was initiated was to promise to submit himself to him who gave the Cerygmas, not to pass them on to any one else, not to copy them or allow them to be copied. If some day the books which were given to him as Cerygmas should not appear to him any longer to be true, he was to give them back to him from whom he had received them. On setting out on a journey he was to give them up “to his bishop professing the same faith as himself, and starting from the same principles.” When he was in danger of death he was to do the same thing, if his sons were not yet fit to be initiated. When they had become worthy of it the bishop would give them the books back, as a paternal deposit. The most singular thing is that the sectary is to foresee the case in which he may himself change his religion, and go over to the worship of some strange god. In that case, he must swear by his final god, and rob himself of the subterfuge of saying afterwards, to establish the nullity of his oath, that that God did not exist. “If I break my engagements,” the neophyte was obliged to add, “may the universe be hostile to me, as well as the ether that penetrates everything, and the God who is over all, the best, the greatest of beings. And if I come to know any other god, I swear also by that god that I will keep the engagements that I have taken, whether that god exists or does not exist.” Then, as a sign of secret partnership, the initiator and the initiated took bread and salt together.
The absurdities of the sectaries would have been without any consequence anywhere but in Rome, but everything that referred to Peter assumed considerable proportions in the capital of the world. In spite of its heresies, the book of the Cerygmas was of great interest for the orthodox. The primacy of Peter was proclaimed in it; St Paul was abused, but a few after touches might soften down anything offensive in such attacks. Thus several attempts were made to lessen the singularities of the new book and to adapt it to the wants of the Catholics. This fashion of altering books to suit the sect towhich one belonged was quite usual. By degrees the force of circumstances made itself felt: all sensible men saw that there was no safety for the work of Jesus except in the perfect reconciliation of the two chiefs of Christian preaching. For a long time still Paul had bitter enemies in the Nazarenes, and he had also exaggerated disciples like Marcion. Outside this stubborn right and left, a fusion of the moderate parties took place, who, although they owed their Christianity to one of the schools and remained attached to it, yet fully recognised the right of the others to call themselves Christians. James, who was the partisan of an absolute Judaism, was sacrificed; although he had been the real chief of the Christians of the circumcision, Peter was preferred to him, as he had shown more regard for Paul’s disciples, and James only retained his vehement partisans amongst the Judeo-Christians.
It is difficult to say who gained most by that reconciliation. The concessions chiefly came from Paul’s side: all his disciples admitted Peter without difficulty, whilst most of the Christians of Peter rejected Paul. But concessions often come from the strongest. In reality, every day gave the victory to Paul, and every Gentile who was converted made the balance incline to his side. Out of Syria, the Judeo-Christians were, so to say, drowned by the waves of the newly converted. St Paul’s churches prospered; they had sound sense, a sobriety of intellect, and pecuniary resources which the others did not possess. The Ebionite churches, on the other hand, were daily getting poorer. The money of Paul’s churches was used for the support of poor saints who could not gain their own livelihood, but who possessed the living tradition of the primitive spirit. The communities of Christians of heathen origin admired, imitated, and assimilated to themselves the others' elevated piety and strictness of morals. Soon more distinction could be made as regarded the most eminent persons in the Church of Rome. The mild and conciliatory spirit that had already been represented by Clemens Romanus and St Luke prevailed, and the contract of peace was sealed. It was agreed, according to the system of the author of the Acts, that Peter had converted the first fruits of the Gentiles, and that he was the first to deliver them from the yoke of the Law. It was admitted that Peter and Paul had been the two chiefs, the two founders of the Church of Rome, and thus they became the two halves of an inseparable couple, two luminaries like the sun and the moon. What one taught, the other taught also; they were always agreed, they combated the same enemies, were both victims of the perfidies of Simon Magus; at Rome, they lived like two brothers, the Church of Rome was their common work. Thus the supremacy of that Church was founded for centuries.
So from the reconciliation of parties and the settlement of the earlier strifes there sprang a great unity, the Catholic Church, the Church at the same time of Peter and of Paul, a stranger to the rivalries which had marked the first century of Christianity. Paul’s churches had shown the most conciliatory spirit, and they triumphed. The stubborn Ebionites remained Jewish, and shared the Jewish immovableness. Rome was the point where this great transformation took place. Already the high Christian destiny of that extraordinary city was being written in luminous characters. The transference of Easter to the day of the resurrection, which was in some measure the proclamation of the autonomy of Christianity, was accomplished there, at anyrate in the time of Hadrian.
The fusion that took place between the groups also took place with regard to their writings. Books were exchanged from one country to another. The writings passed from the Judeo-Christian school to that of Paul, with slight modifications. That Cerygma of Peter, which was, in its first shape, so offensive to Paul’s disciples, became the Cerygma of Peter and Paul. They were supposed to have travelled together, sailed in company, preached the gospel everywhere in perfect harmony. The Church of Corinth, especially, claimed to have been founded at the same time by Peter and Paul. The person of Simon Magus, who in the first Ebionite editions of the Cerygma and of the Periodi of Peter, was Paul himself designated by an offensive epithet, was rather a formidable obstacle. In the Cerygma of Peter and Paul the name of Simon was preserved, and restored to its proper sense. As the symbolism of the Ebionite pamphlet was not evident, Simon for the future was the common adversary whom Peter and Paul had pursued together hand in hand.
The fundamental condition of the success of Christianity was now settled. Neither Peter nor Paul could succeed separately. Peter was preservation, Paul revolution: both were necessary. It is told in Brittany that when St Peter and St Paul went to preach Christianity in America, they reached a deep and narrow arm of the sea. Although they were agreed on essential points, they determined to establish themselves one on one side and one on the other, so that they might both teach the Gospel in their own fashion; for it seems that, in spite of their intimate fellowship, they could not live together very well. Each of them, according to the custom of the saints of Brittany, set to work to build his chapel. They had the materials, but only one hammer, so that every evening the saint who had worked during the daytime threw the hammer across the arm of the sea to his neighbour. Thanks to the alternative labour resulting from this arrangement, the work went on well, and the two chapels, which are yet to be seen, were built.
Above all, the death of the two apostles preoccupied the different parties, and gave rise to the most diverse combinations. A legendary tissue was woven with regard to this by an instinctive work which was almost as imperious as that which had presided over the formation of the legend of Jesus. The end of the life of Peter and Paul was ordered à priori. It was maintained that Christ had announced Peter’s martyrdom just as he had foretold the death of the sons of Zebedee. A want was felt of associating two persons in death who had been forcibly reconciled. Men wished to prove, and perhaps in that they were not far wrong, that they were put to death at the same time, or at least in consequence of the same event. The spots which were looked upon as having been sanctified by this sanguinary drama were fixed upon at an early date, and consecrated by memoriæ. In such a case, what the people wants always gains the day in the end. There is no popular place in Italy where the portraits of Victor Emmanuel and Pius IX. are not seen side by side, and general belief will have it that those two men, representing principles whose reconciliation is, according to the most general sentiment, necessary to Italy, were really very good friends. If such ideas obtruded themselves into history in our time, one would read some day, in documents which are looked upon as serious, that Victor-Emmanuel, Pius IX. (most probably Garibaldi would be joined in with them) saw each other secretly, understood each other, and liked each other. The association of Voltaire and Rousseau was brought about by analogous necessities. The Middle Ages also tried several times, in order to appease the hatred between Dominicans and Franciscans, to prove that the founders of those two orders had been two brothers,living on the most affectionate terms together, that at first their rules were identical, that St Dominic wore the cord of St Francis, etc.
The Cerygma of Peter and Paul was all the more important as it filled up the unfortunate gaps which the Acts of the Apostles showed. In this latter book Peter’s preaching was cut very short, and the circumstances of the apostles' deaths were passed over in silence. The success of a book that represented Peter and Paul going everywhere in company to convert the Gentiles,—going to Rome, preaching there, and both finding the crown of martyrdom there, was assured. The doctrine which they taught, according to this book, was equally removed from Judaism and Hellenism. The Jews were treated by them as enemies of Jesus and of the apostles. At Rome, Peter and Paul announced the destruction of their city, and their perpetual exile from Judea, because they had leaped with joy at the trials of the Son of God.
It seems at first sight as if such an important work ought to find a place in the canon of Scripture immediately after the Acts of the Apostles. But the wording of it was incoherent, and incapable of satisfying the whole Christian community in a permanent manner. The evangelical knowledge of the author was too incomplete. He admitted the most childish statements from the Gospel to the Hebrews. Jesus confessed his sins; his mother Mary forced him to be baptised, and at the moment of his baptism the water seemed to be covered with fire. In his discourses to the Gentiles, Paul cited the apocryphal Sibyl of the Jews of Alexandria and of Hystaspes, a heathen prophet who announced the league of the kings against Christ and the Christians, the patience of the martyrs, and the final appearance of Christ, as authorities that ought to convince them. Then, contrary to Paul’s formal assertions in the Epistle to the Galatians, Peter and Paul are supposed to have met for the first time in Rome. Other singular opinions soon caused that old compilation to be condemned by the orthodox doctors. The Cerygma of Peter and Paul had only a very uncertain place amongst the canonical writings. The romance of Peter had, from the very beginning, contracted a sort of sectarian bust, which must prevent its being admitted, even after corrections, into the lists of the imposed dogmas.
Thus the account of the death of the two apostles, like that of their preaching and journeys, was a matter of caprice, at anyrate as far as regarded form. Simplicity of style, which assures the eternal fortune of a narrative text, something decided in the outline, which makes the reader believe that events could not have happened differently, all those qualities which constitute the beauty of the Gospels and of the Acts of the Apostles, are wanting in the legend of the death of Peter and Paul. Ancient compilations about it existed which have disappeared, but which were not very different from those which have been preserved, and which have fixed the tradition on this important subject. The effect of the legend was abundant and rapid. Rome and all its environs, above all the Via Ostia, were, so to say, filled with pretended recollections of the last days of the apostles. A number of touching circumstances—Peter’s flight, the vision of Jesus bearing his cross, the iterum crucifigi, the last farewell of Peter and Paul, the meeting of Peter with his wife, St Paul at the fountain of Salvian, Plautilla sending the kerchief which kept up her hair to bandage Paul’s eyes—all that made a beautiful whole that only required a clever and simple compiler. It was too late; the vein of the first Christian literature was exhausted; the serenity of the historian of the Acts was lost, and the tone never rose above the level of story or romance. No choice could be made amongst a number of compilations all of which were equally apocryphal; in vain was it sought to cover those feeble accounts with the most venerated names (pseudo-Linus, pseudo-Marcellus); the Roman legend of Peter and Paul always remained in a sporadic state, and was more frequently related by pious guides than seriously read. It was an altogether local affair; no text was consecrated to be read in churches, and none obtained any authority.
The creative vein with regard to Gospel literature also grew daily weaker, although it had not absolutely dried up. The Gospel of the Nazarenes, or of the Hebrews, or of the Ebionites, was almost as different in texts as it was in manuscripts. Egypt extracted from them its “Gospel of the Egyptians,” in which the exaggeration of a sickly enthusiasm bordered so closely on immorality. A compilation which had a very great success for a long time was the Gospel of Peter, which was most likely composed at Rome. Justin and the author of the pseudo-Clementine romance seem to have made use of it. It differed little from the Ebionite Gospel, and already showed that prepossession in favour of many which is the feature of the apocryphal writings. Men reflected more and more on the part which would be suitable to the mother of Jesus. They sought to connect her with David’s race; round her cradle miracles were created which were analogous to those which occurred at John Baptist’s birth. A book that was later filled with absurdities by the Gnostics, but which perhaps, when it appeared, did not go beyond the main note of the Catholic Church, the Genna Marias, which differed but little from the writing that is called the Protovangelium of James, satisfied those wants of the imagination. Legends got more material every day. Men occupied themselves with the evidence of the midwife who attended Mary, and who vouched for her virginity. It did not suffice any longer that Jesus was born in a stable; men wished him, according to certain Jewish ideas which are to be found again in the Haggadic legend of Abraham, to be born in a cave. They tried to turn the journey to Egypt to some account, and as Egypt was the country in which there were the most idols, it was pretended that the mere view of the exiled child sufficed to make all the profane statues fall with their faces to the ground. It was known exactly what trade Jesus carried on. He made carts and other vehicles. They claimed to know the name of the woman who had the issue of blood (Berenice or Veronica), and the statues were shown which she had raised to Jesus in her gratitude.
The desire of finding arguments which the heathen could not challenge was the cause of some pious frauds whose success was rapid in that world, which was not hard to please, and which it was intended to impress. The monotheistic Sibyl of Alexandria, which for centuries had not ceased to anounce the ruin of idolatry, was becoming more and more Christian. The authority that was accorded to it was of the first order. The ancient Sibylline collections were continually increasing, by additions in which no trouble was taken to keep up an appearance of probability. The heathen were enraged at what they looked upon as interpolations into venerable books. The Christians answered them with more humour than justice: “Show us any old copies in which those passages are not to be found.” Men of intellect made fun equally of the heathen and Christian Sibyls, and parodied them cleverly, so much so that Origen, for instance, never makes use of these depreciated arguments.
To these oracles were added those of a certain Hystaspes, under whose name some pretended books on the mysteries of Chaldea were current amongst the heathen. He was made to announce the coming of Christ, the Apocalyptic catastrophes, the end of the world by fire, with an amount of assurance that argued extreme credulity in those to whom they were addressed.
About the same time, the documents which were supposed to be official, of Pilate’s administration relating to Jesus, may have been forged. In a controversy with the heathen and the Jews it was a great power to be able to appeal to pretended reports contained in the State archives. Such was the origin of those Acts of Pilate which St Justin, the Quartodecimans, and Tertullian had quoted, and which possessed sufficient importance for the Emperor Maximian II., at the beginning of the fourth century, to look upon it as an act of fair warfare to counterfeit them, in order to cast ridicule and contempt on the Christians. From the moment that it was admitted that Tiberius was officially informed of the death of Jesus, it was natural to suppose that this notification had some effect, and from that fact sprang the opinion that Tiberius had proposed to the Senate to place Jesus in the ranks of the gods.
Rome, as has been seen, continued to be the centre of an extraordinary movement. Heretics of all sorts met there, and were anathematised there. The centre of a future orthodoxy was evidently there. Pius had succeeded Hyginus, and was as firm as his predecessor had been in defending the purity of the faith. Pius is already a bishop in the proper sense of the word. Valentinus and Cerdon, although condemned by Hyginus, were always at Rome, trying to regain their lost ground, retracting at times, received as penitents, then returning to their dreams and continuing to have partisans. At length they were finally excommunicated. Valentinus would seem to have withdrawn to Cyprus; it is tot known what became of Cerdon. His name would have remained unknown if he had not left a disciple behind him who surpassed him in strength of intellect and in activity, and who became the greatest embarrassment for the Church that she had encountered hitherto, towards the middle of the second century.
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