R. A. Markus, Saeculum II — Tempora Christiana

The previous post introduced Robert A. Markus’ book Saeculum. 

Now, for chapter two. Continue reading

Stars Down to Earth


In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2, Cassius says to Brutus concerning Caesar:

Why, man, he [Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

“The fault […] is not in our stars”, which stars are here connected to the “fates” of “men”. James Dunn notes, commenting on this passage, that

[…] the fear that the stars may indeed be involved has been a recurring suspicion or nightmare in all ages. And if not the stars, then supra-mundane forces of some sort or kind.
[James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 102]

These “supra-mundane forces” are typically the gods, or some sort of divine/angelic (or demonic) powers. The notion of fate that accompanies the above passage from Shakespeare is, arguably, even more intense, and sounds rather Homeric, as though:

[…] No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you —
it’s born with us the day that we are born.
[Iliad, VI.488-489 (lines 582-584 of Fagles’ transl., p.212)]

This fate is inescapable; yet it is not always, as is often thought, inflexible. It can be steered, and even in some cases escaped temporarily, though this fate will always catch up with the individual in the end. The Greek word for “fate” (“moira”, “moros” or even “aisa”) means portion or allotment: it is the lot that is assigned to one, as C3PO whines in Star Wars: A New Hope: “We seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life.” This lot is what is simply “laid on us“, and includes what are the very ambiguous “gifts” (δωρα) of the gods —e.g., the loveliness of Helen of Troy; double edged gifts, if ever there were– that would not and cannot be chosen (“no one can have them by choosing” Iliad III.66); this lot includes, at its climax, death.

I suggested that the cup of this portion is, to some degree, flexible: Achilles in the Iliad has two fates he might fill up his allotment with [IX.410 ff., Fagles, 265], though some things are not flexible, because they are beyond one’s lot or portion, and pursuing them would bring about calamity for all. The fates are, it seems, above the Olympian gods such as Zeus, though he is the one who seems to distribute the portions, the limits of men — and as we see in the Iliad VIII.70 ff., where Zeus apportions different fates to the two different armies of the war in his “golden scale”, and in the Iliad XVI.400-550. [Fagles, 427], he can override the fates or portions of men, though the cost could be great, and would bring great turmoil and chaos even among the gods.

The historical-natural-cosmic and the theological are here one and the same. Here, there are no elemental powers that are not in some sense divine, and the difference between magic and religion, or between divination and naturalistic predictions, is unrecognized, moot. Continue reading

Unification in the Gospel According to Mark

Across cultures and traditions, across temporal and national epochs, people express a desire for perfect unity, simplicity, and integration. Not everyone, of course — and yet the desire cannot be brushed off as peculiar to a tradition or a time period. The expression is colored by a number of cultural features, and so the metaphors used for this unification and simplification vary from mostly natural imagery (Daoism) to mostly political imagery (Christianity). The predominant metaphors are important, and weight a tradition in a certain way. Traditions can overlap, of course, and the boundaries between them are not always quite as neat as either cultural taxidermists or identity politickers would like; and yet, the desire for unification remains. Nor is it simply a desire: in (neo-)Platonism, Daoism and Christianity (to offer three examples), the ethical drive for unification is connected with both cosmological speculation about the characteristic features of the world as a whole and ontological reflection on the nature of being itself. Specifically within the Christian tradition, the desire for unity, and the accomplishment of unity, is tightly connected to Christology.

The imagery of God as a king at war against the agents of injustice, chaos, and death surrounds all Christology. Because of this, there is an inescapable political element to Christian models of the unification of the person; a sloppy reading of this can lead to some very unethical social, religious and political positions. Here I will trace the twin themes of integration and unification in Mark, which signal the health that is found in redemption (itself a loaded economic, political and military term for liberated captives), and a return from an unnatural slavery under dark powers. I will occasionally ask about the consequences of this political language, sometimes with regard to the pursuit of unification in non-Christian traditions. Does the non-frustrated pursuit of integration in non-Christian traditions indicate that Christology is superfluous to this project? What does Christology assume about the good, about the world, and about reality? Continue reading