Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins

an Interdisciplinary Humanities Seminar
in its twenty-fifth year under the auspices of
The University of Pennsylvania
Department of Religious Studies
Philadelphia PA

PSCO Minutes

Discussion with Frank Trombley

(See the preceeding presentation by Frank Trombley.)

Question:Were there any pagan angel cults?

Response:A. A. R. Sheppard's article, "Pagan Cults of Angels in Roman Asia Minor," Talanta 12/13 (1980/81): 77-101 discusses inscriptions that contain invocations to angels, such as one addressed to "Zeus and angelos." Another mentions a "society of angel-lovers." The Council of Laodicea also mentions people worshipping angels.

Question:What is the prehistory of the word angelos in pagan religion?

Response:The earliest usage I know of is in the Roman imperial period.

Question:Doesn't Sheppard suggest that the use in that area (Asia Minor) came from the local Jewish community?

Response:He raised the issue, but I think that he inclined against it. He distinguishes the word angel according to its use — it needed qualification to be clear (angel of God, angel of Satan, etc.).

Question:Like the daimones, who also could be good or bad? Are there substantive differences between angels and daimones?

Response:On that point, there's something in Proclus concerning sacrifice, saying that the angels are always good, secondary divine beings, and the demons are the next down the hierarchy. The order is demons‡heroes‡angels‡god. Even the philosophers talk about angels, which is a subject worth considering — the use of angels in late antique pagan philosophers.

Question:The issue you raised of cohabitation reminds me of the Armenians, who gleefully destroyed pagan cults rather than coexisting.

Response:There's an example of an Armenian story when they went to destroy the temple where the demon sealed the gates. Gregory uses a cross and a wind comes and destroys any trace of the temple.

Question:Did the Armenians have a different attitude?

Response:I think politically the issue was a lot simpler in Armenia than in the eastern Roman empire, because on the local level the people in the empire had this imperial order to contend with. The city council was pagan and remained pagan. Two imperial edicts had to be rammed through before they could get the big temple in the city destroyed, and even after it was destroyed there was an anti-Christian riot. The Christianization process just took years — the temples didn't just disappear.

Question:It may be that the heroes in the Armenian stories didn't really succeed in Christianizing either.

Question:Is it fair to ask you to compare what happened in this later period with the earlier? Did Christian theology pose special difficulties for assimilation? Was it easier to assimilate, for example, local Syrian deities into the Greek pantheon than into Christian theology? How much harder was it by the 4th/5th c?

Response:The most decisive factor was personality of the figure who went into the village. The monk had to show his "magic" was superior. There's just no easy way to integrate Semitic fertility deity into Christian theology (similarly sacred trees). You have deities, you have monk claiming his God was superior, and it is all relative.

Question:So it was about the monk's self-promotion?

Response:If a monk went into the countryside and understood the agricultural cycle and the beliefs and fears of the populace, he had an advantage in working with those people. Monks inspired local devotion, and portraits of these charismatic monks may have led to icon veneration. Monks were probably seen as semi-divine, even though they probably would have discouraged the people from believing this.

Question:You mention in your article that there is no evidence for monasteries in mainland Greece before the 9th century, but there is a tradition about one in connection to Athanasius.

Response:I don't know the Athanasius story, but I'm suspicious. The texts I know don't mention monasteries, but an inscription from Corinth mentions a monk. There is no archeological evidence as yet of early monasteries, although there is a church at Daphne that may have been a monastery. Monasteries seem to have appeared much later in Greece, although there were churches that may have been used earlier. There is hardly any evidence at all for monasticism in mainland Greece in late antiquity. In all, I think it is a good idea to avoid categorical comment about Greece.

Question:Could you talk about the cults of the martyrs and how that fits into hierarchy of newly converted areas?

Response:An example is a temple of Isis in Egypt with Greek inscriptions from late antiquity. One inscription is dated to 450-460 ce, to Isis. The priestly family was suppressed in the 6th c., and St. Stephen the Proto-Martyr was invoked. The "Christ has conquered; conquer always" formula appears on the inside. There are Christian markings all over Pharonic sites in Egypt. Martyrs play a role, certainly, in Christianization.

Question:You mentioned that statues among pagans have indwelling spirits, and Christians have the same idea in a negative sense (pagan statues are occupied by demons). Is the idea of a positive Christian spirit indwelling paralleled in relics?

Response:Yes, and also in icons. Icons are the closest thing to a positive spirit indwelling. Icons were thought of as sort of magical objects. [Trombley referenced a book called The Cult of Icons Before Iconoclasm]. This continues even in modern Greece.

Question:Is it the spirit indwelling in the statue or icon that performs the cure?

Response:The descriptions are in the hands of the educated monks, who knew that the icons had intercessory power but they were getting it from the Godhead. I can't think of an icon from which the martyr steps out…Maybe St. Demetrius in Thessaloniki, but that is somewhat different. [some other possible examples were discussed]

Question:There is the issue of the indigenous perception of the spirit in icon of saint. To make it seem like idolatry you would make it seem separate.

Response:Icons were extensions of saints, in popular perception. Tangibility of the object was important. Mediterranean religion is very hands-on.

Question:Is the issue of the source of power the key to discrediting it? Are they saying that power comes from the right or wrong place? I know in Latin examples they tend to say: "You think it's a god, but it's a ruse of the one true God." The real guys, the Christians, can get even more power from the source.

Response:Yes, I think they're talking about appropriate and inappropriate ways of locking into the same power.

Question:I'm interested in the use of combat imagery in the East, such as in the Thecla cult in Selucia. There it seems that the good power triumphs over bad, with no syncretism.

Response:That brings me back to Porphyry, saying that the good and bad daimones exist and do different things but are from the same order of powers.

Question:Do some of these semi-divine late pagan figures have jobs? Are they responsible for certain magic processes or agricultural jobs? Or were they related to places?

Response:A lot of the Anatolian gods were related to places, but some were for healing or fertility…

Question:What happens to male monks taking over for female deities? Who handles fertility? Who do the women go to, the celibate male monk?

Response:This is a problem. One example comes in Theodore of Sykeion, in his Life. A woman came to him for a disorder of the womb. Another instance — a man beat his wife after she committed adultery. She went to Theodore, who patched up the marriage. Then the man cut off his wife's nose, and she went back to Theodore to live at the monastery. There was no women's community there, though. Women may have gone to deaconesses, when they were available, but the question remains as to whether ecclesiastical authorities really trusted that level of power and authority to women.

Question:Peter Brown's conception of the "holy man" is that the development of this figure undercut women's folk knowledge about this kind of healing.

Response:I think there's a lot to that.

The discussion closed with the problem of identifying inscriptions and sites as Jewish, Christian, or pagan. The methodological problem is perhaps insolvable, as many of the examples discussed suggested. Trombley pointed to an inscription from Syria that is written right-to-left. Syria's population was probably largely illiterate, and spoke Aramaic or Syriac, although their inscriptions were in Greek, so who knows what the stonecutters knew. To understand these inscriptions, especially the one about the pagan who had a vision of his god, we need to seek parallels in epigraphy, and that is probably the best we can do.

For related materials, consult other PSCO presentations and discussions on the topic for the 1987-1988 seminar, "Principalities and Powers: Demons and Angels in the World of Late Antiquity".