Legend of Prester John

Asked today for my perspective on this legendary character, my archive of prepared papers is bare. A dive into the murky depths of the textual tradition reveals a pearl amongst the fabulous creatures lurking there. This is a character I have spent an inordinate time studying, without (yet) reaching a definite conclusion; if you can resist jumping to the end to see his identity, I will tease you with just this: his supposed birth in year 1 is preceded by his angelic annunciation.

We can rely on the usual sources for the legend:

(Right: Prester John from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.)
Origin of the legendThough its immediate genesis is unclear, the legend of Prester John drew strongly from earlier accounts of the Orient and of Westerners' travels there. Particularly influential were the stories of Saint Thomas the Apostle's proselytizing in India, recorded especially in the 3rd-century work known as the Acts of Thomas. This text inculcated in Westerners an image of "India" as a place of exotic wonders and offered the earliest description of Saint Thomas establishing a Christian sect there (the Saint Thomas Christians), motifs that loomed large over later accounts of Prester John.[2] Similarly, distorted reports of the Church of the East's movements in Asia informed the legend as well. This church, also called the Nestorian church and centered in Persia, had gained a wide following in the Eastern nations and engaged the Western imagination as an assemblage both exotic and familiarly Christian.[3]
These tales of Thomas are set in Greco-India, not the Subcontinent; the eastern satrapy of the Iranian empire conquered by Alexander. They are part of a genre of literature I have identified, concerning wandering philosophers of the Greek tradition, converting kings to their faith; this genre includes Acts of the Apostles and Travels of Apollonius of Tyana; they are set in the first century.

This genre takes legendary characters of the 1st century and represents them as miracle-working missionaries; the transformations of this literary process make difficult today to ascertain what historicity these characters may have - changing names seems to be an important, playful part of this literary process, the more-so when the character is an anti-hero, or antagonist of the tale.

I have looked in some detail at the archaeology and tradition of Nestorians; though there is much archaeology, its textual traditions exists late; if this faith were Christian, it would disallow my history. It seems to me to be of a type belonging to that period in the Levant.
Following the exodus to Persia, scholars expanded on the teachings of Nestorius and his mentors, particularly after the relocation of the School of Edessa to the Persian city of Nisibis in 489 (where it became known as the School of Nisibis).
As the (Christian) textual tradition is a dark reflection of imperial history, often in parody, maybe this school and its founding is also a misrepresentation of something elsen - Shapur I – the imperial sponsor of Mani – is said to have married the sister of Aurelian, who went on to create a Hellenistic island of intellectual activity at Gondeshapur:
The Academy of Gondishapur (in Modern Persianدانشگاه گندی‌شاپور‎, Dânešgâh-e Gondišâpur), was one of the three Sasanian centers of education (CtesiphonResainaGundeshapur[1] and academy of learning in the city of GundeshapurIran during late antiquity, the intellectual center of the Sasanian Empire. It offered training in medicine, philosophy, theology and science. The faculty were versed in the Zoroastrian and Persian traditions. According to The Cambridge History of Iran, it was the most important medical center of the ancient world during the 6th and 7th centuries.[2]
See also: Gondi-Shapur History & Medical School by: Lutz Richter-Bernburg

At the same time and across the same region, we are supposed to have similar, e.g. that of Marcion and that of Mani. Trying to work out exactly what they are and their relationships with both each other and IS/Chrest/Chrestianity has been one of the many puzzles to occupy me. I am not about to unravel it all here and now.

I should mention in regard to Prester John and the references to "India", that historians then and many now are generally ignorant of Greco-India and so when they read "India" in ancient texts, think of anywhere but - Ethiopia being a favourite alternative (because it is distant, exotic and Christian). Two millennia ago, India usually meant that eastern area conquered by Alexander and later Greek generals, colonised by them and for some centuries after, enjoying (if that is the right term) Greek, or at least colonial Hellenistic culture.

Back to the textual tradition, which Wikipedia serves so faithfully:
Additionally, a kernel of the tradition may have been drawn from the shadowy early Christian figure John the Presbyter of Syria, whose existence is first inferred by the ecclesiastical historian and bishop Eusebius of Caesarea based on his reading of earlier church fathers. [5] 
Now, we are getting deeper, for I do not doubt that Prester John is Presbyter John:
John the Presbyter is an obscure figure of the early Church who is either distinguished from or identified with the Apostle John, by some also John the Divine. He appears in fragments from the church father Papias of Hierapolis as one of the author's sources and is first unequivocally distinguished from the Apostle by Eusebius of Caesarea. He is frequently proposed as an alternative author of some of the Johannine books in the New Testament.John the Presbyter appears in a fragment by Papias, a 2nd-century bishop of Hierapolis, who published an "Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord" (Greek κυριακῶν λογίων ἐξηγήσις — Kyriakôn logiôn exêgêsis) in five volumes. This work is lost but survives in fragments quoted by Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202) and Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339).
We are now in the depths of the textual tradition, for neither these characters nor the texts exist; they are monkish fabrications of the 6th century and later.

We could, by all rights, stop here, but the temptation must be to see what all the nonsense is about, for they lied for a reason, so finding that would be, alone, worth the effort. We will therefore hold our breath a little longer and swim around, feeling with our fingertips for that pearl.
The later accounts of Prester John borrowed heavily from literary texts concerning the East, including the great body of ancient and medieval geographical and travel literature. Details were often lifted from literary and pseudohistorical accounts, such as the tale of Sinbad the Sailor.[8] The Alexander romance, a fabulous account of Alexander the Great's conquests, was especially influential in this regard.[9]Whatever its influences, the legend began in earnest in the early 12th century with two reports of visits of an Archbishop of India to Constantinople and of a Patriarch of India to Rome at the time of Pope Callixtus II (1119–1124).[10] These visits apparently from the Saint Thomas Christians of India cannot be confirmed, evidence of both being secondhand reports. What is certain is that the German chronicler Otto of Freising reported in his Chronicon of 1145 that the previous year he had met a certain Hugh, bishop of Jabala in Syria, at the court of Pope Eugene III in Viterbo.[11][12][13]Hugh was an emissary of Prince Raymond of Antioch seeking Western aid against the Saracens after the Siege of Edessa, and his counsel incited Eugene to call for the Second Crusade. He told Otto, in the presence of the pope, that Prester John, a Nestorian Christian who served in the dual position of priest and king, had regained the city of Ecbatana from the brother monarchs of Medes and Persia, the Samiardi, in a great battle "not many years ago". 
There are clues; here's one: Thomas in 1st-century Greco-India:
The apocryphical Acts of Thomas mentions one king Gudnaphar. This king has been associated with Gondophares I by many scholars, as it was not yet established that there were several kings with the same name. Richard N. Frye, Emeritus Professor of Iranian Studies at Harvard University, has noted that this ruler has been identified with a king called Caspar in the Christian tradition of the Apostle St Thomas and his visit to India.[9] Recent research by R.C. Senior shows with some certainty that the king who best fits these references was Gondophares-Sases, the fourth king using the title Gondophares.[10]
Gondophares is not a name, but a title of a Scythian king in that particular place; he could be almost anyone. I think he is likely the same as Azes (I and II) and Azilises.
Azes II was long believed to have issued several of the Indo-Scythian coins struck under the name Azes in northern India. All these coins were however likely issued by a single ruler named Azes, as suggested by Robert Senior, when he found an overstrike of a coin attributed to Azes I over a coin attributed to Azes II, suggesting that all the "Azes II" coins were not later than those of "Azes I" and that there was only one king in the dynasty named Azes.[2] This idea had long been advocated by Senior with a number of indirect numismatic arguments, for instance in his encyclopaedia of Indo-Scythian coins.[3]
Azilises was an Indo-Scythian king who ruled in the area of Gandhara.
Azilises issued some joint coins with Azes, where Azes is presented as king on the obverse ("BASILEOS BASILEON MEGALOY AZOY"), and Azilises is introduced as king on the obverse in kharoshthi ("Maharajasa rajarajasa mahatasa Ayilisasa", "The great king, the king of kings, the great Azilises").

The histories of these kings changes constantly, because it is very difficult to fix the facts hard. In my view:
  • These Scythians - known in this region by various titles, often Greco-Scythian and Indo-Scythian, rule Greco-India including Bactria and the northern Subcontinent, in the 1st century of the modern era.
  • Scythian rule stretches across Central Asia to the Black Sea, including the Crimea and coastal Romania.
  • It is likely that Izas/Izates is also Azes. I also wonder about the other converted king, Azizus of Emesa - the names Izates and Azizus do not exist in the archaeological record, so both were likely known by (an)other name(s).
Left: Izas/Izates in the Batas rock relief. He - as with all those Scythians above - adopts the same pose to hold the same sceptre of Zeus. According to a statue excavated in Hatra, he became divine ca 200, when that new genre of literature appears for wandering philosophers converting kings with miracles.

Though I am uncertain of his exact role in the textual tradition, both he and his mother - Queen Helen of Adiabene - do appear in it. For example: Drusilla, one of wives, married Felix, the freedman of Antonia Minor, Chrestian, and the New Testament claims how this is arranged by a "Simon Magus" which I regard as a pseudonym for Saul. Another example is how Helen is used to create the Candace perverted parody I detailed earlier in Master and Servant.

This is the pearl, hidden under all that trash. Tradition says he was born in the Year 1 and his birth was presaged by an angelic annunciation - how many historical characters have a record such as that, let alone characters of the textual tradition?

I trust you will make something of value with it.

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