When scholarship was adventurous


Attis the Phrygian shepherd

Having recently published the second contribution to the section on Syncretisms - Bishop Abercius Marcellus - I just now attached this image to the page, referencing the early attempts to show that Abercius was not Christian:


Note: In the 'Book of the Dead' the Phrygian Attis is named 'Osiris, the Shepherd.' (E.A. Wallis Budge, Osiris and the Egyptian Resurection (London: Medici Society, 1911), 2:16; also, Korpel, Rift in the Clouds, 449; Fikes, Shepherd-King, 52.)

If Harnack had been aware of the wealth of Chrestian archaeology in the home province of Abercius, he would, I am sure, have identified Chrestianity as this "pagan, Gnostic sect".

I therefore attached a document (as a file for others to download) to the Syncretisms section, on Harnack and the Tubingen school. I highlighted these three passages:
  • He considered that from its earliest origins, Christian faith and Greek philosophy were so closely intermingled that the resultant system included many beliefs and practices that were not authentically Christian.
  • Marcion was a leader of the Pauline sect in its survival in the 2nd century, using only the Pauline Gospel, St. Luke (in its original form), and the Epistles of St. Paul (without the Pastoral Epistles). 
  • Simon Magus never existed; it is a nickname for St. Paul.

It may therefore seem that our evidence-based history for Antiquity set out in the footsteps of these 19th-century scholars; such is not the case: we began with a tabula rasa , our only assumption at the outset was for how we thought it likely that the history of Greco-India, with its tales of Thomas and Gondophares, should be linked firmly to the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean and in so doing, could take us somewhere interesting.

But as our study progressed, we discovered repeatedly how the Victorians had got there first. By comparison, scholarship of the 20th century seemed unadventurous, even dogmatic, forever trying to drag early texts even further back, into the early-first century. Modern scholarship seems largely to be a servant of the Church, the modern apologists.

We are not sure how the Victorian adventure ended - maybe the death and destruction of two world wars had something to do with it, although reading the detail of Harnack's later work, he seems to have been severely brow-beaten, bullied almost but not completely into submission. That's the vulnerability of a professional, dependent on others for everything, from peer-review to income.

Below:Cybele and Attis (seated right, with Phrygian cap and shepherd's crook) in a chariot drawn by four lions, surrounded by dancing Corybantes (detail from the Parabiago plate; embossed silver, c. 200–400 CE, found in Milan, now at the Archaeological Museum of Milan)

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