/ No. 4 July 2014 @ar / Ibrahim Mumayiz – Christianity in Northern Arabia in Pre-Islamic Times (Part I)

Ibrahim Mumayiz – Christianity in Northern Arabia in Pre-Islamic Times (Part I)

Administrator on 15/06/2014 - 15:30 in No. 4 July 2014, العدد الرابع: يوليو 2014

Christianity in Northern Arabia in Pre-Islamic Times (Part- I)

Ibrahim Mumayiz

 Christianity’s Influence on the Development of the Arabic Script

               One of the more lasting influences of Christianity in north Arabia in pre-Islamic times was its constructive effects on the development of the Arabic script.  The Arabic script developed, according to a majority of scholarly opinion, in Oriens, Roman/ Byzantine Syria, the Arabic Bilad Ash Shām. Another school, however, believes that it was the eastern Fertile Crescent, specifically in the Mesopotamian Lakhmid Capital Hira, that saw the rise and development of the Arabic script. (1) If one is to take the majority opinion believing in a Syrian origin of the Arabic script, then the Christian influence becomes all the more apparent. Irfan Shahid points out that Oriens being the birthplace of the Arabic script is verified by the script’s internal evidence: The Namara inscription, one found in Syria, reflects the influence of both Nabataean and Syriac.(2) While Syriac was widespread throughout the Fertile Crescent, Nabataean belonged to southern Byzantine provinces and northern Hijaz; territories either under direct Byzantine Christian influence, or like northern Hijaz, under the influence of Ghassanid Christianity. Christianity influenced the literary life of the Arabs in the fourth as well as in the fifth century especially in prose rather than poetry.(3) Two main reasons account for Christianity contributing to the development of the Arabic script. First, it was Christian Byzantium’s federate Arabs, many of whom professed Christianity for their own political and material needs, whose personal interests required that an Arabic script be developed. This arose from the federates’ relations with both the Byzantine imperium and its ecclesia in the shadow of both of which they lived for three centuries.(4) Both Byzantium’s imperial relations with its federated Arab tribes, and Persian contacts with its Lakhmid clients necessitated the development of the Arabic script. Such relations by the two super-powers required the drawing up of treaties in Arabic; by Byzantium in “The Bureau of the Barbarians” in Constantinople’s (Scrinium Barbarorum) and by Persia in the Arab office in the Chancery at Ctesiphon.(5)

                              Secondly, with the spread of Christianity among the Arab federates of Byzantium in Oriens, interest in the Christian liturgy and Bible must have given a strong impetus to the development of the Arabic script and its differentiation from the Nabataean. However, it should be emphasized that the case for an Arabic Bible or an extensive liturgy, as Irfan Shahid cautions, was out of the question. Christianity did provide its Arab adherents with a massive sacred book, but it seemed that translation facilities were not yet in a position to tackle that massive tome which included all the then approved gospels. However, a simple liturgy or prayer book could have been available in Oriens in the fourth century. Unlike the fourth, the fifth century was relatively peaceful, making for a Christian–oriented development of Arab cultural and religious affairs in Oriens, paving the way for the rise of an Arabic script (6)

                              The Arabic script thus first developed due to Byzantine need to maintain both written and oral communication with its federated Arab tribes, whose numbers were steadily increasing from the third to the sixth centuries. By the sixth century these tribes closely federated to Byzantium were as follows: Ghassan; Kinda; Tanukh; Salih; Judham; cAmila; Balqayn; Bahraa’; Kalb; Bali; Taghlib; ‘Iyad; Al-Namir; Tayy; and cUdhra(7) Aside from the Byzantine Imperium’s need to maintain communication with its federated Arab tribes in these tribes’ own native language, the Byzantine ecclesia also had a vested interest in the development of the Arabic script. Such a script would contribute to the development of an Arabic liturgy and biblical lectionary. Unlike short inscriptions and treaties (foedera), liturgical and lectionary texts were long, learned and detailed; requiring linguistic, calligraphic and grammatical precision for the correct expression of liturgical and biblical language.(8) It was certainly in the interest of Byzantium’s ecclesia to both Christianize Arabia’s pagan tribes and to consolidate the Christianity – through written instruction in theology and liturgy – of those tribes who had hitherto only paid ‘lip-service’ to the Christian faith in return for Byzantine support.  A thorough Christianization of northern Arabian tribes would definitely be in the interest of Byzantium’s Imperium, since sound Christians make sound military and political allies, as the Ghassanids were to prove later in the sixth century.

                    Migration of Arab tribes from Persia and Mesopotamia in the fifth century also contributed to the use of the Arabic script. In the fifth century a new group of federates arrived from Mesopotamia who knew and used the Arabic script and knew Christianity in Iraq. The tribe of ’Iyad, who was Christian, built many monasteries and employed the Arabic script. Also a small Arab community had emigrated from Persian Mesopotamia, resided in Palestine, and for whom Christian Arab texts were prepared. Aspebetos, its first bishop, and his brother in-law Maris, who became an abbot in a monastery in the desert of Judah were dedicated Christians who worked for the welfare of the small Arab community and who probably provided Arabic liturgical texts. (9)

                     One of the main reasons why Christianity found fertile ground in pagan pre-Islamic Arabia was that the Arab morality code, muru’a,/ murruwwa  reflected many of the teachings of Christianity such as feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and protecting the weak and the defenseless. Thus Christianity was, for all intents and purposes, a spiritualization of much of the pagan Arabs’ morality code. The rise of an ecclesiastical Arab hierarchy in Byzantine Oriens and an organized Arab church brought into being a new spiritual hierarchical authority, one that previously did not exist. Moreover, Christianity, through this new hierarchical authority, made an impact on the Arabic language. Arabic’s linguistic resources were now employed to attain higher levels of literary expression as would do justice to the high spiritual ideals of Christianity. Arabic was put to use to express and perform Christian   rituals (10)

 Monks and Hermits in Northern Arabia: The monastic life and the ubiquitous presence of hermits was also a factor which enabled Christianity to take root in the spiritually arid deserts of Arabia. In a land where healing was rare Arabs witnessed the monks’ miraculous healing powers. Sozomen writes that  early in the reign of Valens (364-378) a childless Arab Sheikh, Zosomos, – probably the Arabic ‘Dhujcum’ –  appealed to a hermit to pray for him that he might have a son. His prayers were answered, and in gratitude the sheikh had his entire tribe convert to Christianity. It is possible that at least one Arab Christian tribe had been converted to the Cross as a result of some such plea of theirs being miraculously granted through Christian priestly intercession. Sozomen writes that some Saracens were converted as a result of their contacts with priests dwelling among them and with monks famous for their miraculous gifts dwelling in neighboring deserts.

              There are many stories about Arabs converting to Christianity after being healed by Christian monks.(11) In 405 a twenty-nine year old monk, Euthymius, arrived in the desert from Miletene on the Euphrates and found a retreat in the inaccessible caves in the gorge of Wadi Mucallaq by the Dead Sea. There he set up as a hermit with a companion of his, Theoctistus. Their news attracted other monks who formed a coenobium at the foot of the gorge. An Arab sheikh, Aspebet, and his son who was paralyzed on his right side, together with a party of nomads came to Euthymius’s retreat. They explained that they were refugees from Persia, victims of persecution, who in 420 were granted asylum in Roman territory where the sheikh was recognized as phylarch. The Persian magi were unable to cure his son. The youth prayed to God for cure, and in a dream saw this very place, the gorge, the caves and a man with white hair and flowing beard. Euthymius, praying for the boy, healed him. His father, in gratitude, embraced Christianity and was baptized “Butros” – Peter. His brother-in-law now named Maris decided to remain with Theoctitus as a monk.  In 427 Euthymius persuaded Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem (425-59) to consecrate Butros as Bishop, who afterwards played a considerable part in the Council of Ephesus in 431. (12)

                   The advent of Christianity in northern and north-west Arabia was through the anchorite ideal which grew out of a rejection of what was seen as the worldliness of the Church in the late third and of the fourth centuries. In the first Christian century the Gospel’s influence was so revolutionary that it turned individuals against a social order they considered to be impious, depraved, and worldly, and the Church became society’s sole beacon of piety and purity. But in the following two centuries, the Church, supposed to be the spiritual beacon of all Christ’s teachings, had become merely another temporal department of the state. Many pious individuals repudiated such a church they saw as riddled with ungodly worldliness; a repudiation that led to a commitment to the anchorite ideal out of which grew the monastic movement.  By the fourth century Christianity was characterized not so much by Christological differences as by the decision of so many individuals of varied backgrounds to abandon the secular life and follow the Gospel’s teaching in leading to ways of total dedication which took the form of pursuit of the anchorite ideal. (13) It was the anchorite ideal which developed in Egypt and Syria which was instrumental in bringing Christianity into northern and northwestern Arabia.

             What caused the rise of the anchorite ideal?  What drove individuals to forsake everything and live as anchorites?

              Ascetic behavior in late antiquity, originating in both Egypt and Syria, arose from severe, traumatic disruptions in societies which hitherto pursued orderly, settled lifestyles. Ascetic behavior represents a range of responses to social, political and physical worlds often perceived as oppressive or unfriendly, or as stumbling blocks to the pursuit of heroic personal or communal goals, life-styles and commitments.(14) Ascetic behavior was also affected by a general spirit pervading late antiquity from the fourth century: Christians appeared to view, and approach, what they perceive to be the Christian way of life through a renunciatory perspective; to renounce all that was unheavenly, fleshly and earthly – food, sex, money, politics, and even the family.(15)

              But the family remained the main obstacle confronting an individual’s pursuit of the ascetic life. Being part of, caring for, and supporting family dependants was a cornerstone of eastern social life for millennia. One thus would likely feel, and would be accused of, desertion if one should forsake the family and head for the desert. However, Patristic figures such as Augustine, Gregory of Nyassa and Shenoute of Upper Egypt, signal that the biological family need not be a stumbling block to the practice of asceticism rather it could be included alongside it. Augustine’s praise of the monastic life never raises the issue of needing to renounce one’s family as part of an embrace of asceticism. But he also upbraids those whose asceticism adversely affects their families. In a “Letter to Eudicia” he reprimands her for ascetic actions taken independently of her husband without thought for its impact on her son. To Augustine, the goal of asceticism is not to abandon the family, but to transform it by enhancing its spiritual devotion. In his “Letter to Laetus” Augustine assures Laetus that his renunciation of his family does not make him disloyal to it, but loyal to a very much larger and spiritually better family. But Laetus had a duty to provide financially for his biological family. An individual’s choice of asceticism does not mean neglecting ones financial obligations towards one’s family members. It means that one should make all necessary arrangements, financial or otherwise, to ensure that one’s family are provided for before the ascetic heads for the desert.(16)  In the Arabian context, this shows that monasticism and tribalism did not conflict, that a Christian Arab tribesman would not abandon  his tribal roots  should he decide to take up the ascetic life.

           What enabled monasticism to gain a foothold in the deserts of Arabia was the inherent uncloistered openness of the monastery. This accorded perfectly with Arabian hospitality and openness to strangers. Egyptian monastic literature gives evidence of the permeability of the boundary separating the monastery from the world. Visitors, economic exchange and public preaching all provided opportunities for contact between the two. The Egyptian Shenoute, Abbot of the White Monastery in Upper Egypt from 385 to 465 preached a sermon entitled “On Cleaving to Profitable Things” to twenty thousand refugees who crowded in and around his monastery in the aftermath of a foreign invasion, his monks living with the refugees for three months. Some monks had joined and left their families, others brought their families with them. Yet all were expected to live together irrespective of their ties. There was no such thing as monks’ ‘cloisters’, or ‘cloistered monks’. In his sermon Shenoute uses familial discourse to shape Christian identity both in and outside the monastery, thereby showing how such discourse might emerge, in an age of asceticism “to form various identities under the rubric of ‘Christian’”.(17) Monasteries in Arabia would have adopted and displayed Shenoute’s open, welcoming outlook, since it tallied perfectly with the principal Arab ideal of hospitality and the moral code muru’a/muruwwa which stipulated that refuge and shelter be given to the persecuted, the fugitive and the distressed.

               The impact of Roman rule and hegemony on both Egypt and Syria was a main cause that drove people to become anchorites. The nature of Roman rule and its system of government was alien to the people of Egypt and Syria. The Romans were seen as heavy-handed, abrasive, coercive, harsh, cruel, inhuman barbarians; overbearing in their treatment of the native peoples, and more importantly, rapacious in their tax-gathering. For millennia, Egyptians worked together in harmonious communality in their villages. They volunteered en masse to build pyramidical resting places for their god-kings. Theirs was a nature that plodded away willingly, contentedly, and quietly without being subjected to alien forms of enforcement. In this they were sustained by a rich spirituality that catered for them in the afterlife, and, in this, they had a well-developed priest-temple system to minister to them. Theirs was a smoothly well-rounded existence embracing all aspects of life. But with the advent of the Romans, this well-run existence was rudely breached. Alien forms of government, administration, and an abrasive, aggravating foreign temperament made life unbearable for many. The main factor that drove individuals away from home to become anchorites is the Roman system of taxation. In the 350’s the desert community established by St. Anthony was described as one in “which was heard neither the evil-doer, nor he who had been wronged (by the magistrates), nor the reproaches of the tax-gatherer”(18). Both Egypt and Syria had a large class of peasant proprietors. Part of Syria, from the fourth to the sixth centuries, saw a steady increase in the area of land utilized and of the population these lands maintained. Economic expansion was based on olive plantations, especially in the environs of Antioch which were areas of large villages rather than towns. If left to themselves, these villagers would have been prosperous. But increasing taxation here – and especially in Egypt – accompanied by ‘extortion and the violence of the soldiers’ forced many villagers out of their holdings and communities and drove them to seek the protection of a powerful patron to whom they became virtual serfs, and the same took place in Egyptian villages. Both Egyptian and Syrian village patrons were not well disposed towards their distressed villagers, making life for them unbearable. Peasants were driven into flight from chronic debt due to excessive rates of interest and taxation. Their animals were seized for public transport, and they were ‘oppressed by billeting and requisitioning officers’(19). John Chrysostom in c.380 described how “landowners were more cruel than the barbarians because they imposed intolerable and unending taxes… on the working population”(20). “Why do the rich grind the faces of the poor?” St. Anthony is said by his biographer, Athanasius, to have asked. (21) In Egypt, Roman taxation had an even more detrimental effect on village populations who could not pay their debts or were overburdened with taxation, and had to flee into the desert. Escape into the desert was “traditionally the Egyptian peasantry’s last resort when conditions became intolerable”.(22) While Roman efficiency in tax-gathering brought increasing revenues to Roman coffers, it also caused increasing economic distress for many in Egypt in the third century. Even those high up on the village social ladder fled to the ultimate refuge of the desert and permanent absence from village life. Small farmers, escaping the weight of fiscal responsibility, by fleeing into the desert, had thereby increased the tax burden on the population that remained. As more and more of the remaining population became overburdened, whole villages were deserted, especially near the desert’s edge. “All through the centuries of Roman rule, especially in the troubled time of the third century, men continued to flee their homes when their fiscal burden was increased by the last straw”, prompting farmers to ask oracles “Shall I flee? When shall my flight end? Am I to become a beggar?”(23)

                Given that large numbers of individuals fled their villages into the desert in third and fourth century Egypt to become hermits, how did they live? What was the nature of their convictions? And what were their contributions? How did they affect northern Arabian spirituality generally and Christianity in particular? What needs to be said is that these distressed souls, driven from their villages to live a bare bleak desert existence, had a far reaching impact, east and west. Speaking of Anthony, the most celebrated of Egyptian hermits, Athanasius asked “How is it that he was heard of, though concealed and sitting on a mountain, in Spain and Gaul and in Rome and Africa?” (24) This question could be answered by saying that Christianity readily fused with ancient, pharaonic Egyptian teachings such as the Resurrection and the Day of Judgment. That gave an enormous boost to the spirituality of such Egyptian – cum – Christian hermits as Anthony; a boost powerful enough to resonate across to the most distant corners of the Christian world. The monastic/ascetic movement originated, and thrived, in Egypt because Christianity had re-invigorated many local systems of belief, practiced over millennia, which otherwise would have completely died out.  For untold centuries before the advent of Christianity, fleeing into the desert for a comforting contemplative existence was the last resort of an aggrieved, distressed soul. The Egyptian hermits’ quest for comforting contemplation was spiritually sustained by Christianity, brought into Egypt by Hellenized Jews as early as 50 C.E and which readily blended in with so many aspects of native Egyptian life and religion.

The Influence of Gnosticism on Pre-Islamic Arabia: The importance of the introduction of Gnosticism in pre-Islamic Arabia was in its bringing into the northern Peninsula those Apocryphal books which were banned by the Church and had almost disappeared elsewhere but had stubbornly stayed on in northern Arabia to resurface again later in the Qur’an. Anchoritism which found its way into Arabia, like early Egyptian Christianity, was deeply influenced by Gnosticism. Gnostic sects, since the mid first century, spread from the Palestinian-Syrian region northwards and westwards, reaching their first overall climax in the second century. These sects established themselves along the coasts of Asia Minor and Greece at the end of the first century. By the first two decades of the second century they reached Alexandria. It was in Egypt between the second and third centuries that Gnosticism found its most fertile ground. Then, it was merely a heterogeneous group of churches, schools of thought and conventicles that shared ‘a common exultation of knowledge’. Indeed, all Christians at first were ‘gnostics’ differing only in what each ascribed to be ‘true knowledge’. But Gnosticism later became a pejorative term, branding those beliefs that the Orthodox Church, whose theology had won, deemed heretical. Gnostics had lost and were vilified as heretics while victorious Orthodoxy succeeded in imposing its own sets of beliefs (25)

               But Gnostic thought and beliefs survived, despite orthodox persecution, in the Nag Hammadi library, which consists of largely Gnostic texts and was buried not far from the Pachomius monastery at Chenoboskion in Upper Egypt north of Luxor (26). The burial of the Nag Hammadi library in a jar was due to the vigorous, relentless anti-heretical campaign waged by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria throughout his forty-five year episcopate (328-373). He was staunchly orthodox and a firm believer in the Council of Nicea and its Creed. Pachomius, founder of cenobitic (community) monasticism, was a life-long friend and supporter of Athenasius. From February 356, and for the next five years Anathasius was in self-imposed internal exile spent in monasteries in Upper Egypt, in protest against the emperor Constantius. He returned to Alexandria on February 21st 362.(27)The Nag Hammadi documents date roughly to 350 C.E and were taken out from the Pachomius monastery library due to what was charged as their being heretical  in character and were buried for safety by adherents who believed in the banned texts. In this period the anti-heretical Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter of Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, who campaigned against heretical books which circulated falsely under the names of the Apostles, was published. The letter was translated to Coptic by Theodore, successor of Pachomius and was made known to Egyptian monasteries in 367.(28)  It was this hectic campaign of persecution waged by the virulently anti-Gnostic bishop of Alexandria, aided by his many friends among the abbots of monasteries of Upper Egypt that prompted those Gnostic monastics to hide away Gnostic texts in a jar and bury them near Nag Hammadi. But Gnostic texts had found their way outside Egypt, and into Arabia, where they were cherished by local Christians in spite of Orthodoxy branding them as heretical; which probably gave rise to the saying Arabia Haeresium Ferax – Arabia fertile in heresies. Such apocryphal Gnostic – heretical – texts were later to be the building blocks of Islam. (vide infra).

                 The Gnostic doctrine which had the clearest, irrefutable and lasting impact on pre-Islamic Arabia was Docetism (vide infra).The Nag Hammadi library, the most composite corpus of Gnostic writings available, derive from different schools and movements of Gnosis. They contain both strongly Christian, less Christian and non-Christian documents. Gnosis in its Christian form considered itself  to be the correct interpretation of Christianity.(29) Thus, the ascetics and monks in north and northwestern Arabia may well have adhered to this Gnostic form of Christianity. There was no “Gnostic Church”, no normative theology, no Gnostic canon of scripture. Church Fathers were aware of the frightening varieties of Gnostic speculation which they compared to the many-headed Hydra of Greek legend. (30) The prevalence of Gnosticism in Arabia causing the rise of the adage Arabia Haeresium Ferax was probably due to the free, open Arabian deserts and the absence there of such domineering ecclesiastical authority that led to the burial in Egypt of the Nag Hammadi library. The deserts may well have let loose the Gnostic predilection for free-wheeling speculation. Gnostic knowledge is ‘highly individualistic private illumination’. Each Gnostic could feel authorized to receive more than others, ‘dissect the truth with even greater precision’, and thus establish a new school; thereby leading to an even greater fragmentation in their teaching. Thus it is quite impossible to find a unified body of Gnostic thought, but only certain points upon which most Gnostics would  generally agree.(31) Free and freedom-loving Arabia would have been the perfect incubator for such unmitigated Gnostic speculation in which to be nurtured,  to develop and be preserved. The age was conducive to the generation of thought. The times were characterized by great intellectual energy which propelled unrestrained Gnostic speculation. The East, at the turn of the ages, in contrast to the West, was filled with overflowing vitality. One can speak of a great offensive of Eastern humanity launched with a powerful sense of self. The origin of this eastern surge was Mandaeanism, the most oriental, unhellenic, and most immediate expression of the life of the Gnostic soul.(32) The Mandaeans were the only people of the ancient world who embraced Gnosticism as a national faith; a faith strong enough to ensure their survival as a community in Iraq till today. This Eastern surge of vitality also had a negative aspect. A tremendous insecure anxiety hung over the Asian world. The self was experienced as the expression of hostile powers and must be left behind through redemption. A transcendent power of escape from, or negation of the world, prevailed. The fear of losing oneself to the world gave rise to compulsive self-annihilation.  A basic aspect of Gnosticism that particularly connects it with ascetic penetration of  northern Arabia is escape from the world; that the self “wills its own freedom from the world as it recognizes itself as trapped in the world”. (33)  It is this spirit that drove the hermits into the deserts of Arabia.

 But what really drove the Orthodox Church to brand Gnostics as heretics, and how did this charge of heresy make for Gnosticism taking root in Arabia?

                       Aside from a variety of theological and Christological differences which are beyond the scope of this presentation, the two most notorious heretical sects associated with Gnosticism were Ophitism and Phibionism. The only source we have on these two Gnostic sects were the heresiologists who gave the most lurid descriptions of the scandalous practices that they say these sects practiced. These scandalous sects not only fuelled the wrath of Orthodoxy against Gnosticism as a whole, but caused a contraction within the movement away from the bizarre ritualism most flagrantly practiced by these two notorious sects, towards a more ascetic concentration on the redemptive aspects of Christianity. Gnosticism originally purported to be ‘a religion of redemption’ whose doctrine of the redeemer arose independently of Christianity, but the figure of Christ is present in many systems and documents of Gnostic soteriology. Now the anti-Gnosticism Ophitism and Phibionism had generated may have driven those Gnostic-imbued monks and ascetics active in Arabia to dwell, with a vengeance, on the redemptive aspects of Gnostic Christianity; on Christ as redeemer, and on scripture as the source in which redemption – for themselves and others – could be attained. To clarify further the source of this urge to return to redemption, following are accounts of Ophitism and Phibionism.

Ophitism: Was one of the rites into which Gnostic wisdom was symbolically transformed into scandalous practices. Epiphanius, in the Panarion describes an Ophite ceremonial feast: “They have a snake they keep in a box…At the hour they perform their mysteries they coax it out…They load the table with bread…The snake crawls over the bread…They ‘break the bread’ over which the snake had crawled and offer it to recipients…Everyone kisses the snake on the mouth after it had been charmed by sorcery… They prostrate themselves before the serpent and call this the Thanksgiving (eucharist)… Then they raise a hymn to the Father on High…That concludes their mystery feast”.(34) This ceremony, only superficially representing the Christian eucharist continues older Greek secret cults like those of Eleusis and Demeter. For the Ophites the snake was a medium of revelation and God’s mouthpiece. (35)

Phibionism: (or Barborites ‘dirty’). In this Gnostic sect, Epiphanius writes that men and women sit down to a feast. After satiating themselves with meat and wine, they commence sexual orgies in which men and women exchange partners for dramatic sexual performance after which both men and women hold men’s semen in their hands, raising them up to heaven with a prayer ‘we offer you this gift, the body of Christ’ and so they eat it saying this is the body of Christ. This is the Passover”. Similarly, “with women’s menstrual blood, they take it and eat it together”.(36) The Phibionites scandalized everyone, even the Gnostics themselves. The Gnostic text Pistis Sophia, part of the Nag Hammadi Library, curses in the name of Jesus the people “who take male semen and female menstrual blood and make it into a lentil dish and eat it” for they will “in the outer darkness be destroyed”.(37) Phibionites even aroused the concern of the Roman authorities. Pliny wrote a letter to the emperor Trajan in 112 C.E about the investigation of Christians in the province of Pontus (northern Turkey). Pliny was not interested in their religious beliefs but simply had to ascertain whether they ate harmful foods (male semen, women’s menstrual blood) and if they engaged in ‘deeds of darkness’ (orgies). Such practices, Pliny warned, were “the rituals of seditious political groups potentially harming the empire”.(38) Phibionites were more dangerous in the eyes of Orthodoxy for their missionary potential, as they would spread their own brand of Gnosticism. Epiphanius states that they have a gospel, the “Gospel of Philip”, a text of the New Testament Apocrypha dating to the third century.(39) Phibionites were concentrated in significant numbers in Asia Minor where unpopularity and persecution of Christians were higher than elsewhere in the second century. Asia Minor, in the second century suffered like no other region from natural disasters, principally earthquakes, and so did its Christians from pogroms. Disasters such as earthquakes were seen by Romans as the gods’ retribution for Christian atheism. (40) Tertullian wrote:

“They think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine and pestilence, straightway the cry is: ‘Away with the Christians to the lion’ (41)

 Similarly such natural disasters and the ensuing persecution of Christians may have been seen by the Orthodox Church as divine punishment for the scandalous excesses of such Gnostic sects as Phibionites and Ophites. The effect was not only to intensify the campaign against Gnostics as arch-heretics (and to the hiding away of their texts such as the Nag Hammadi Library), but probably to an internal Gnostic ‘campaign of purification’; one that concentrated more exclusively than ever before on the redemptive aspects of Christianity; on a self-enlightening reading of scripture; on greater freedom from the self and the world. This is the outlook that governed those Gnostically-influenced ascetics and monks who ventured into the deserts of Arabia. What characterizes heterodox Gnosticism is this emphasis on ‘redemption’. Redemption here is based on the distinction between Jesus and Christ (42). Gnosis is the religion of redemption, but the Gnostic doctrine of the redeemer arose independently of Christianity, and the figure of Christ, as redeemer, is present in many systems of Gnostic soteriology.(43) Gnostic theologians divided the Christian redeemer into two separate beings: the earthly, transitory Jesus of Nazareth, and the heavenly and eternal Christ. This is one of the most remarkable pieces of Gnostic teaching.(44)  The Gnostic distinction between Jesus and Christ caused an outcry by Orthodoxy against the Gnostics. An even greater outraged cry against the Gnostics arose from their doctrine of Docetism  which having taken root in pre-Islamic  northern Arabia was to later affect Islam and to constitute the official Islamic position regarding the Crucifixion. How?

                         Docetism is a basic of Gnostic Christology. It is derived from the Greek word for appearance – dokesis – “to appear”, or “have the appearance of” – dokeo. It refers to the idea widespread among Christian Gnostics that Christ appeared on the Cross only “in semblance” – dokesai – as a man or in the flesh, and neither suffered, nor was crucified. The Docetic conception made it possible to have Christ present at the Crucifixion through a substitute, be it Jesus, or ‘the other man’ Simon of Cyrene, as is stated in the Gnostic Acts of John. (45) Docetism is no more a fixed set of doctrines than Gnosticism is, but a ‘theological option’ appearing in a wide variety of Christian texts. But while many doctrines referred to as “Gnostic” also reflect a Docetic attitude, Docetism is by no means identical to Gnosticism but is widely diffused among the earliest Christians who were contemporaneous to the Crucifixion and the few decades following (46). But it was Gnostics like Tatian the Assyrian who probably brought Docetism into Arabia. (vide infra)

              Docetism appeared early among the very first followers of Jesus who were influenced by Jewish traditions. For first century Jews Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as described in Genesis 22, provided a model of someone who had almost been sacrificed – but not quite; and the figure of Isaac “must have been the source of the Docetic interpretation of the Crucifixion”.(47) Among Hellenistic Jews like Philo of Alexandria, there was a tradition that although Sarah was Abraham’s wife she was a virgin when she conceived Isaac. This gave birth to the belief that Isaac was a representation of Jesus; that he, Isaac, was the son of God, born of a virgin. This belief gained some currency and several Patristic writers refer to similarities between Isaac and Jesus. Thus the figure of Isaac is central to Docetism. For first century Jews the figure of Isaac, his sacrifice, and his miraculous birth had reached a high stature.(48) They saw Jesus as a divine recurrence of Isaac.

                         Laughter is a key element in Docetism. Various Gnostic texts describe Christ laughing in heaven while Simon of Cyrene is being crucified in his place. Laughter here is based on the etymology of Isaac’s name – yzhaq – he who will laugh.(49) A Gnostic Nag Hammadi text on Docetism, the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, tells of “another…who lifted up the cross on his shoulder, who was Simon. Another was the one on whom they put the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the heights…and I was laughing at their ignorance.”(50) In another text from Nag Hammadi, The Apocalypse of Peter we read “I saw him (The Savior)…and I said ‘is it you yourself whom they take?’…the Savior said to me ‘he whom you see above the cross, glad and laughing, is the living Jesus. But he into whose hands and feet they are driving nails is his physical part, the substitute”. Various other texts from Nag Hammadi reflect the same Docetic perception of Jesus and highlight Christ’s laughter on the cross. (51)

               Docetism raises the issue of the Passion, of suffering on the cross. If it was not Jesus who suffered, but someone else and that Christ was not affected, but ‘laughed it all off’ (vide supra), then where is the redemptive nature of Christ, and how, and indeed if, he had redeemed Man? Francois Bovon answers this query: “…one can speak of Docetism when the spiritual cross of light, as opposed to the material cross of wood, becomes the location of redemption (51) Thus, the essence of Docetism upheld by Gnostics in Arabia and virulently denounced by Orthodoxy is not the suffering Jesus, but the other joyous, laughing Christ who redeems mankind through his light, not his suffering.

         What were the effects of Docetism on pre-Islamic northern Arabia?

          It is not clear precisely where in pre-Islamic northern Arabia that Docetism was particularly concentrated, but evidence points to numbers of Christian prelates holding Docetic beliefs. The steady spread of the Gospel during the second century led to the formation in the Province of Arabia of congregations (ekklesiai), each with its episcopos or pastoral overseer. Legend names the first episkopos of Bostra as a disciple of Jesus called Timon, one of the Seventy. ((Luke 10:1)). Timon, according to Hippolytus, is associated with “Ananias, who baptized Paul and was bishop of Damascus”.(53)When Origen visited the Province of Arabia on several occasions during the first half of the third century he found these congregations in most of the Province’s towns and villages.(54) Docetism was strong at that time and both episkopos and ekklesiai must still have harbored firm Docetic beliefs, drawn from their first episkopos, a disciple of Jesus. There are references to Gnostic Arabs in the Province Of Arabia, especially in and in the environs of Bostra, the Province’s capital, who held pronounced Docetic beliefs. Hippolytus (c.170 – c.236), in his Refutation of All Heresies, or Philosophoumena, gives an account of an Arab Gnostic, Monoimus (Muncim), a follower of Tatian the Assyrian. Tatian was a wandering Mesopotamian scholar who eventually attached himself to Justin Martyr in Rome. Author of the Diatessaron, “Harmony of the Gospels”, Tatian was a most important figure in the Syriacizing of Christianity. Manoimus was inspired by Tatian from whom he formulated his Docetism. Tatian presented yet another proof to Orthodoxy that Arabia Haeresium Ferax. (55)

                  Docetism flourished in Arabia during the administrative re-arrangement of its Roman provinces.  The Roman Province of Arabia, with its capital at Bostra situated on the extreme western slopes of the central part of the Hawran mountains, was created on March 22nd 106 C.E, a date which marked the beginning of “The Era of Bostra” (Aera Bostrensis) according to which coinage, monuments and epitaphs were dated. In 358 C.E another Roman Arabian province was created when the southern parts of the Province of Arabia and southern Palestine were detached to form an entirely new Arab province, Palestina Tertia, or Salutaris, with its capital at Elousa. Within these administrative regions ‘religious syncretism fostered a tangle of interpretations’.(56) In these re-arranged Roman provinces Gnosticism tangled with Orthodoxy; and Gnostic Docetism prevailed. Doceticism, which in Egypt had to be hidden in a jar and buried in the desert survived in Arabia’s human hearts.

   Thus, the significance of Docetism in pre-Islamic northern Arabia was that it was ubiquitous enough to have survived in the consciousness of Christian Arabs. In all probability it was either in Bostra or its environs that Docetism made itself known to young Muhammad as he travelled with his uncle, through Bostra, on trading caravans to Syria.(57) Docetism is the official Islamic position regarding the Crucifixion:

And they say we have killed the Messiah Jesus son of Mary Messenger of God. They have not killed him nor have they crucified him but it was one who resembled him. And those who disagreed on this are in doubt for they have no knowledge of this but follow doubt for they have not in truth killed him. God has raised him to Himself, for God is glorious and wise.(58)

           But pre-Islamic Arabia was not where Docetism was born, but where it had flourished when it was persecuted by orthodoxy elsewhere. Egypt was most probably its birthplace from whence it penetrated into Arabia and was deeply rooted there to grow strong enough over several centuries so as effectively influence Islam. In the second century, Gnosticism was widespread in the ancient world but was especially associated with Egypt whose church was said to be ‘overrun by gnosticism’.(59) Gnosticism’s mystical insight was seen as an ‘inner philosophy’. When the Church condemned all Gnostic systems as heretical, the Gnostic tendency found a practical form of survival and expression through celibacy, asceticism and the monastic movement.(60) Contemporary Hellenized philosophical thought also provided an intellectual atmosphere conducive to that spiritual quest which the more educated hermits sought in the desert. Greek philosophy became an increasingly religious endeavor in late antiquity. By the second century C.E. philosophical schools were no longer considered to be schools of thought but of life where religious concerns and issues were central, and ‘philosophy’ came to mean the quest for God; not a theoretical construction, but a spiritual exercise ‘a method of forming a new way of living and of seeing the world, an attempt to transform man’.(61) Hermits fled into the desert, and then further afield into Arabia to escape, to God, through philosophical piety and virtue from what they perceived to be a depraved evil world. The goal of that ‘philosophical’ life which the hermit pursued was not simply to remove himself from society, but to transform himself inwardly. This was to be achieved through an intensely solitary, introspective existence in desert cells. To hermits and monks their cells became their very sources of life. ‘Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water’ Anthony was quoted as saying ‘so the monks who loiter outside their cells…lose the intimacy of inner peace’.(62) The cell being a place of refuge from temptations, in the solitude of the desert the monk resolved within himself the tensions that wrestled in his soul.


             Notes to Essay Three“Christianity in Northern Arabia” Part I.

  1. 1.  BAFIFC p.409. A detailed account of the various schools on the development of the Arabic script is found in A. Grohman Arabische Palaographie (Vienna, 1971) Vol. II pp 7-33. J. Soudrel Thomine in her article “Les Origines de l’ecriture Arabe a propos d’une Hypothese Recent” in Revue Des Etudes Islamiques Vol. 34 (1966) pp.151-157 argues for a Syrian origin of the Arabic script. Irfan Shahid in BAFIFC (passim) strongly favors the descent of the Arabic script from Oriens, Byzantine Syria, from both Nabataean and Syriac origins. This agrees with Grohman. J. Starcky, however, favors an Iraqi, Hirite origin of the Arabic script.

  1. Vide Supra, Essay Two “Nabataean Influences on Northern Arabia” – The Namara Inscription.

  1. BAFIFC p. 529. See also H. Charles Les Christianisme des Arabes Nomades sur les Limes (Paris, 1936).

  1. Ibid p. 414. See also M. Conrad “ Notes on Some Episodes Concerning the Relations between the Arabs and the Byzantine Empire from the Fourth to the Sixth Centuries” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 10, (1955) pp. 306-16; V. Christides “Arabs as barborai before the Rise of Islam” Balkan Studies, 10 (1969) pp. 315- 24.; D.F. Graf “The Saracens and the Defense of the Arabian Frontier” Bulletin of the American School of Oriental Research, Jerusalem, 229, (1978) pp. 1-27.

  1. BAFIFC p. 416. See also E.W. Gray “The Roman Eastern Limes from Constantine to Justinian” Proceedings of the African Classical Association, 12, (1973) pp. 24-40

  1.  BAFIFC pp. 418, 422, 423. See also N. Pigulevskaia’s paper “Les arabes a la frontier de Byzance au IV siècle”, Twenty-Fifth Oriental Congress, (Moscow, 1960).

  1. “Federate Tribes of the Inner and Outer Shields”, BASIXC Part I, p.666. Ghassan, Salih, Tanukh, Kinda, Iyad and cUdhra had established federate relationships with Byzantium in the fourth and fifth centuries. See also B. Isaac “The Meaning of the terms ‘Limes’ and ‘Limitanei’ in Ancient Sources” Journal of Roman Studies, 78, (1988) pp. 125-147.

  1. BAFIFC p. 513. See also D. Graf “Rome and the Saracens: Re-assessing the Nomadic Presence” in L’Arabie Preislamique et son Environment Historique (Leiden, 1989).

  1. BAFIFC p. 515.

10. See Fr. Louis Cheikho ‘Al- nasraniyya wa adabuha bayn cArab al-Jahiliya (Christianity and its Literatures Amongst the Pre-Islamic Arabs) 3 Vols. (Beirut: 1912-13) Vol. 2 pp 157-226; BAFOC p. 559.  For further details on Christianity in northern Hijaz see W.J. Jobling and R.G. Tanner “New Evidence for Early Christianity in the North-West Hijaz” in Studia Patristica (Louvain: Peeters Press, 1993) pp. 313-317.

11. Sozomen Historia Ecclesiastica, E. Walford, trans. (London 1855); Sp. Tr. pp. 94, 95

12. R. Genier Vie de Saint Euthyme le Grand (Paris, 1909) pp 104 -111; Sp. Tr. p. 109.

13. Sp. Tr. pp. 100, 101.

14. Edward Sellner on Vincent L. Wimbush’s Ascetic Behaviour in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), A review in JECS Vol. 1 Number 2, Summer 1993 p. 223.

15. Andrew S. Jacobs and Rebecca Krawiec “Fathers Know Best? Christian Families in the Age of Asceticism” JECS, Vol. 11, Number 3, Fall 2003 p. 289.

16. Rebecca Krawiec “From the Womb of the Church: Monastic Families” JECS Vol.11, Number 3, Fall 2003 pp. 287-289.

17. Ibid pp. 302, 303. See also David Brakke “Shenoute on ‘Cleaving to Profitable Things’” Orientalia Louanensia Periodica, 20 (1989) pp. 115-141.

18. W.H.C. Frend The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: The Fortress Press, 1984) p. 574

19. Ibid p. 575.

20. Homily on Mathew, Patrologia Graeca, 58; Frend p. 575.

21. Frend p. 423.

22. Naphtali Lewis Life in Egypt under Roman Rule (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1983) p.108.

23. Ibid p. 164.

24. Douglas Burton-Christie The Word in the Desert/ Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) p.7

  1. 25.   Edmondo Lupieri The Mandaeans/ The Last Gnostics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 2002) pp. 33, 34.  Kurt Rudolph Gnosis/ The Nature and History of Gnosticism Robert MacLachlin Wilson, trans. (New York: Harper & Row, 1987) pp. 308, 309.

26. Frend p. 568.

27. Ibid pp. 524-536, 605.

28. Rudolph Gnosis p.43.

29. Ibid pp. 51, 53.

30. Ibid p. 53.

31. Lupieri Mandaeans p. 36.

32. Michael Waldstein “Hans Jonas’ Construct ‘Gnosticism’: Analysis and Critique” JECS Vol. 8, Number 3, Fall 2000, p. 354.

33. Rudolph Gnosis pp.148, 149.

34. Panarion 37.5.6-8 in Rudolph p. 247.

35. Rudolph p. 247.

36. Panarion 26.4.3-8 in Rudolph p. 247.

37. Nag Hammadi Codex II “The Nature (Hypostasis) of the Archons” in Rudolph p. 45.

38. Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley “Libertines or Not: Fruit, Bread, Semen and Other Body Fluids in Gnosticism” JECS Vol.2 Number 1, Spring, 1994 p. 16.

39. Panarion 26. 13. 2-3; Buckley p. 20. A single manuscript of the Gospel of Philip was found in the Nag Hammadi library bound in the same codex that contained the better known Gospel of Thomas.

40. Charles E. Hill “The Epistula Apostolurum: An Asian Tract from the Time of Polycarp” JECS Vol. 7, Number 1, Spring 1999, pp 37, 44.

  1. 41.  Hill “Apology” p. 44.

42. Lupieri Mandaeans p. 37.

43. Rudolph Gnostics pp. 148, 149.

44. Ibid p. 151.

45. Ibid pp.157, 169.

46. Guy G. Stroumsa “Christ’s Laughter: Docetic Origins Reconsidered” JECS Vol. 12, Number 3, Fall 2004, p. 269.

47. Ibid p. 267.

48. Ibid pp. 279, 286, 288.

49. Ibid p. 288.

50. Ibid p. 270

51. Ibid pp 272-274.

52. Francois Bovon “Canonical and Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles” JECS Vol.11, Number 2, Summer 2003, p. 183.

53. Hippolytus on “The Seventy Apostles” in Ante-Nicene Christian Fathers (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1860) , IX/2; Sp. Tr. p. 51. n13.

54. Sp. Tr. p. 51

  1. 55.  Ibid pp. 75, 133-135. See Hippolytus The Refutation of All Heresies, also in the (Buffalo, 1886) ed. Of the Ante-Nicene Christian Fathers series, Vol. V pp. 9-153. Tatian the Assyrian (c.120-c.185) came to Rome, became the pupil of Justin Martyr, opened a Christian school, and was immersed in Gnostic teachings.  After Justin’s death he was excommunicated for following the Gnostic teacher Valentinius. He left for Mesopotamia and his Gnostic influence spread to Antioch and to Bostra, capital of Roman Arabia.

56. Ibid pp. 50, 51.

57. On Bostra (Busra) as one of the places where Islam originated see M. Sartre Bostra: Des Origines a l’Islam (Paris: P. Geuthnier, 1985).

58. Sura 4 – Al- Nisaa’ (The Women): 156, 157.

59. Burton- Christie The Word p. 37.

60. Sp. Tr. p. 37.

61. Ibid p. 49

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