Jacob G. Ghazarian, The Mediterranean Legacy in Early Celtic Christianity – A journey from Armenia to Ireland; Bennet & Bloom, 264 pp., London. ISBN: 978 1 898948 70 4 (Hardback); ISBN: 978 1 898948 71 1 (Paperback)
I must admit that when a copy of the paperback edition of this work was passed my way I felt my heart sink. Having read reasonably widely in the area of Celtic studies it has to be said that it is a fruitful field for anyone who has a strange idea or wishes to make some personal point. It seemed most unlikely that anything substantial or serious could be written about the putative links between Celtic and Armenian Christianity.
It has to be said that having enjoyed reading this work I proved almost entirely wrong in my first impressions. In this case certainly it is wrong to take the title and subject as an indicator of some bizarre thesis. The author very usefully and competently describes the origins and development of Christianity in both the British Isles and in Armenia. Indeed the majority of the text is a very competent and scholarly description of the growth of the British and Irish Churches and the cultural context in which they found themselves. He shows very clearly that they were not isolated on the edge of the world, but throughout the centuries before and after the advent of Christianity they were subject to various influences from a wide range of sources.
Ghazarian describes the records of numerous Eastern visitors to the British Isles over many centuries, and although I had been aware of some of them, nevertheless there were many more which I had not known about. Of course those of us in the British Orthodox Church know that Seven Coptic monks established a monastery in Ireland, but it had not been recognised by me at least, that the same texts which describe the Coptic monks also describe a number of Armenians.
After reading the book, which is usefully full of maps and photographs, I have to say that I was not convinced that there was any strong direct influence from Armenia in the early Christianity of the British Isles. Just as I am not convinced that there was a strong direct influence from Egypt. But it must be admitted that there was some contact through pilgrims to the British Isles, and through a more diffuse dispersion of ideas and culture.
I am not convinced that a similarity of forms is always a sign of a single cultural source. For instance, Ghazarian suggests that the early Celtic Church practiced a solus consecration of bishops because it had received the custom in some manner from the Armenian Church which also practiced a solus consecration in its early history. It would seem to me that the more likely reason for such a practice in the British Isles was simply a lack of bishops, and the great difficulty in gathering any together. Other similarities of form between Armenia and the British Isles also seem to me to often be co-incidental.
There are one or two errors of fact. At one point Ghazarian describes Jacob Baradeus as a fanatical Nestorian, when in fact he is a highly regarded saint of our own Oriental Orthodox communion, and the establisher of the episcopal succession in the Syrian Orthodox Church.
On the whole this is a book which can be highly recommended. Not so much on account of the thesis of a connection between Armenian and the British Isles, which though real is rather more tenuous than I think the author allows, but because it is an excellent introduction to the early history of the Church in the British Isles and in Armenia, and because it does document those connections which do exist between our own Church and the East.
Father Peter Farrington
W.H.C Frend, The Rise of the Monophysite Movement (James Clarke & Co. Ltd.); first published by Cambridge University Press, 1972; corrected edition by James Clarke & Co. Ltd, 2008. 424 pp + 2 maps. ISBN:978 0 227 17241 4. £25.00
This well known and widely respected and cited volume has recently been republished by James Clarke, and the fact that it was possible to purchase a new copy, cheaply and easily, finally prompted me to give it the attention and study that its popularity seemed to demand.
The late author, Professor Frend, was an Ecclesiastical Historian specialising in the early Church. This particular work considers the sweep of history from the period before the first council of Ephesus, right up to the Arab invasion of the Eastern Empire. It consists of nine chapters which deal with the chronology of the Christological controversy, and especially as it relates to the development of the anti-Chalcedonian community.
It is unfortunate that Frend choses to describe this community as monophysite throughout the text. Indeed after spending some time carefully reading each of the chapters, it would seem that though interested in the anti-Chalcedonian movement, Frend does not have much sympathy for it. This should not be taken as suggesting that the author is unduly unfair or exhibits any bias beyond that which might be expected in a Western commentator. But there is all the while a frustrating sense that he never quite understands what drove the resistance to Chalcedon.
On the positive side, Frend makes clear that such resistance was not rooted in simple mis-understanding of terms, or in local separatist politics. He shows very well that almost to the end the leaders of the anti-Chalcedonian party were trying hard not to be forced into creating a separate hierarchy, and they always prayed for the emperor, even while he might be persecuting them, hoping that in God’s will an Orthodox emperor might be sent in due course to rescue them. Frend shows that they were never revolutionaries, but were always socially conservative, seeing themselves as called to restore the Orthodoxy of the Empire, not create a new Church.
Frend also describes very usefully the development of different and incompatible models of Church-State relations in the East and West. In Rome the Pope considered the Emperor as no more than the executive arm of the Church, who should obey those placed in spiritual authority over him. In Constantinople the Emperor considered himself as set over all men, whether in or out of the Church, and that the Church was essentially only one of the organs of State. He details many of the repressive measures enacted against anti-Chalcedonians, as well as other dissidents and pagans, by the Byzantine emperors, who could no more consider the possibility of religious pluralism, than a political.
All of this is very interesting and well documented, and the history of the anti-Chalcedonian movement is placed within this context of Emperors seeking to preserve a political and social unity in the State by imposing a forced and ultimately unworkable religious unity. Frend is clearly well researched and refers to a very wide range of texts in his notes and bibliography, all of which are useful for further study.
But research, however thorough, requires a measure of interpretation, and there is a nagging sense that he does not really understand the Christological controversy, and is in any case a decided Chalcedonian. It is frustrating to read about the ‘tragedy’ of Proterius’ death by a lynch mob, and know that he has chosen not to refer to the historical materials which suggest that he was murdered by one of his own mercenaries. He makes no reference to the streets of Alexandria being covered in the blood of those who would not accept him as Archbishop, but chooses to refer to the death of some of Proterius’ soldiers in a fire set by Alexandrian citizens.
When he speaks of Cyril of Alexandria he reminds readers that his most important idea ‘one incarnate nature of the Word’ was Apollinarian, yet in fact it is always the use made of a phrase, not the origin of it which matters. Frend also suggests, completely unreasonably as far as I can see, that ‘Cyril’s Christ remains an abstraction, his humanity so much part of the divine world as to be unrecognisable in human terms’. He then describes ‘the profound weakness of the whole of the Alexandrian tradition of Christology which Cyril represented’. This doesn’t seem accurate at all to anyone brought up in that tradition. On the contrary it suggests the weakness of Frend’s understanding of the Christology of Cyril and of the anti-Chalcedonian community. The very last words of the book also echo this same lack of sympathy, saying of the anti-Chalcedonian’s final and frustrated abandonment of the Byzantine empire in the face of the Arab invasions, ‘the Monophysites purchased not their liberty but their grave’.
There is a sense in which Frend seems to have written only an historical overview of a community he considered to have only historical interest. The importance of his book as an overview of the period, and as a reminder of Imperial power throughout the controversy is readily admitted. But the weakness of the study is its lack of engagement with the community he describes and a real understanding of why the issue of Chalcedon was always a live one, right to the collapse of the Empire, and even today. Lacking that sympathy produces a recurrent frustration in the reader, and means that while the text is undoubtedly useful, it cannot always be trusted as representing either the anti-Chalcedonian view of history, or even a view which might be considered entirely balanced and uncompromised by an a-priori support for the Chalcedonian position. Given that Frend’s Christian faith was rooted in a Low Church Anglican tradition it is perhaps reasonable that he should show a certain lack of sympathy for what he seems to have considered theological nit-picking. The anti-Chalcedonian resistance was and is based on much more than that, and this undermines Frend’s rather impatient view of the ‘monophysites’.
Though I would not hesitate to make use of this book in my own studies, and recommend it to others studying the same period, it is not a theological work, and therefore does not always best represent the historical views of the anti-Chalcedonian community as they reflected on the Christological issues they faced. It is a generally fair portrayal of history, but not quite fair enough.
Father Peter Farrington
Stephen Huller, The Real Messiah: The Throne of St. Mark and the True Origins of Christianity, (Watkins, London: 2009). ISBN 9781906787011. 274 pp. + illus. £16.99 Hardback.
The author and publisher of this book have decided to exploit the unquenchable taste of a gullible and ignorant public for sensational revelations of “new” discoveries relating to the historical origins of Christianity. Under the guise of pretended scholarship, Huller examines a fascinating historical artefact, which he uses as the prop upon which to construct a preposterous thesis about the “real” Messiah, who is none other than Marcus Julius Agrippa, a grandson of Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea.
However, the real St. Mark the Evangelist, the author reveals, was not only an Herodian princeling but also the biblical bandit Barabbas and the true Messiah. For a “scholarly” book there is a remarkable absence of references, but we are assured that “this assertion, which must seem like blasphemy to many Christians” is not made lightly and my research is based on the independent account of writers from the time”, although specific and verifiable quotations are notable for their absence. Huller tells us that he not the first person to identify Marcus Agrippa with Barabbas and we are assured that “scholars as diverse as Paul Wendland, Alfred Loisy and S.L. Davis have all wrestled with the underlying relationship that resurfaces time and again from literary texts of the period”, but none of these authors works are even cited in the bibliography and the “literary texts of the period” are nowhere identified.
Having rediscovered the alleged throne of St. Mark among the Byzantine loot in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Huller attempts an elaborate interpretation of the symbolism of its fine carvings. Not satisfied with the commonly accepted symbols of the four evangelists, he offers his own idiosyncratic interpretation in which the winged bull represents the underworld, the winged man represents the emerging Mark “the sprout” and the winged lion prefigures Mark’s eventual attainment of a Jewish Kingdom. The artefact, which is most probably some ancient episcopal – even Patriarchal – throne, is undoubtedly fine and deserves some fuller examination, but when it becomes central to his thesis and the allegedly Samaritan script is translated as “the sitting of Mark Evangelist of Alexandria” to become “The Agrippa Code” we may well feel that Huller’s scholarly credentials are on a parr with those of Mr. Dan Brown.
H.H. Pope Shenouda III, Have you seen the one I love? Contemplations on the Song of Songs (St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Boston, MA) Boston, 2008) 331 pp. Paperback. US $19.95
The appearance of a new book by His Holiness, Pope Shenouda III is always a welcome event; this one is all the more so for two reasons: in the first place the standard of the translation is superb (which is not always the case), which means his English-speaking readers can finally get what his Arabic readers always have – which is access to the full range of his wisdom; and secondly, because these profound meditations will edify any Christian. There are not, perhaps, many religious leaders who would write a series of meditations on The Song of Songs, but no-one could do so more profoundly than His Holiness.
These talks were originally given in the 1970s, and they are steeped in the fruits of a lifetime walking in the way of the Lord. We are told in 1 Corinthians 13 that without love there are no worthwhile fruits – and Pope Shenouda’s book is a prolonged meditation on that theme: ‘True relationship with the Lord’, he tells us, ‘is, in short, whether you love the Lord or not’. He reminds us that our relationship with the Lord is based solely upon love: everything else, obedience to His commandments, fasting, good works, follows from our love for Him. The Pope reminds us that 1 John 4:19 is a key text here: “We love Him because He first loved us.’
In eighteen meditations, Pope Shenouda invites us to explore with him the nature of our love for God, in each one using a text from The Song of Songs as his focus. For those unfamiliar with Coptic Orthodox spirituality, this is the most wonderful place to start. There are those in the Western reformed tradition who sometimes seem to think that Orthodoxy offers a relationship with the Lord which is less personal that with which they are familiar; this is the book to disabuse anyone of such a notion. The heart of the matter lies in this profound observation, which all would do well to ponder in their own hearts:
‘I wish we could rid ourselves of the formalities that may exist in our relationship with the Lord. We should rid ourselves of the the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ that fail to please the Lord. All God desires is your love. Do not worry too much about doing this or not doing that. Liberate yourself from the tyranny of the law and the commandment. Transcend these and replace them with love. With love, you will be naturally and spontaneously abide by and execute all that the Bible contains. Love will purify your very nature.’
There is, in all of this, a great echo of the spirituality which suffuses the work of St. Isaac of Nineveh – an exploration of what it means to say ‘God is love’. ‘God’, we are told. ‘seeks love’, and He will receive us always – even if we err and stray from the way like lost sheep, lusting after the transient things of this world; only by seeking the things of God now, can we prepare ourselves for eternity with Him; if we fail, now, to spend even a few moments with Him, how shall we be ready for what follows this world? Sometimes we do, indeed, feel abandoned and alone: “even holy people may be abandoned and forsaken because of their self importance and conceit, their pride and arrogance’. Thus we may say with Solomon: ‘I sought Him, but I could not find Him.’ From our sloth we must arise and seek Him, early in the morning, where we shall stand before Him in prayer and love.
No review could do justice to this book, which is one of the deepest sustained meditations on the relationship between man and God that this reviewer has ever read. All I can hope to do is to stimulate you to buy the book yourself – because it is surely one which will remain with you always.
Professor John Charmley