Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Carthaginian origin for basic Christian theology

Christian history (origins and evolution) is a very contentious and controversial area of interest. Many of the major "facts" and beliefs of Christianity have vague, unverified (and unverifiable) backgrounds and the various explanations for them often leave much to be desired. Therefore much is questioned by serious scholars and rightly so. However, an additional curve-ball might be introduced into the mix: the time scale surrounding Christian origins might need to be extended even further into the past then was ever thought necessary before: perhaps to 300 or 400 BC, in ancient Carthage!

A crucial clue may exist regarding the earliest origins of Christian symbolism and theology in a very unexpected place: Justin's epitome of the Philippic history of Pompeius Trogus. The bulk of what survives of the original work by Pompeius Trogus are only these summaries by Justin. In these we find
a story (Book 18, Chapt 7; here: Latin version of text) from ancient Carthage that supposedly took place long before the Punic wars and involved a Carthaginian general* named Malchus.

The story says Malchus had successfully waged war against the Greeks in Sicily as well as against the surrounding north African peoples and had secured substantial gains of territory for the city. But soon afterwards he suffered a disastrous defeat in battle, and as per the demands of Carthaginian custom it seems, the people of the city sent him and the remnants of his army away in humiliating exile.

Malchus had a son, the story tells us, who was not exiled along with Malchus and his army. Before Malchus' disastrous defeat the son had been sent as his father's representative on a journey to the distant city of Tyre to deliver a tenth of the spoils, won by Malchus in the victorious campaigns in Sicily, as a sacrifice to the god Hercules.

Upon his return from this voyage the son faced the tragically altered circumstances of his father and their city. His now-exiled father and his army were arrayed against Carthage. Malchus had demanded that the city pardon him and his men and allow them to return, but the people of Carthage refused so Malchus and his army then surrounded and besieged them. The returning son found the people of Carthage inside the city starving and reduced to despair.

Malchus called for his returning son to come and wait on him, but the son refused, saying that he must complete his religious duties to the public before he can attend to his private obligations to his father. Although this response infuriated Malchus, he feared hindering the religious duties of his son and allowed him to pass through his besieging army and enter the city.

After a few days the son exits the city to visit his father's army camp dressed in all the finery of his religious office -- which included celebratory displays of the military victories of his father. Malchus severely reprimands the son for not only insulting him by being a disobedient and disrespectful son, but for showing disrespect to the memory of the victorious but now exiled general (Malchus, himself) by wearing his clothes and honors in his place; and also, to top it all off, for insulting the starving, mourning, besieged people of Carthage as well as the exiled soldiers by the flaunting of the celebratory finery in the midst of the tragic civil conflict.

As punishment the furious Malchus orders him to be crucified, and so his son is nailed to a cross dressed "in all his finery" (as a victorious general or a priest? Or perhaps as both?) on a hill in order to ensure the people of Carthage could also directly witness the punishment. The siege ends a few days later (three perhaps?) when the city surrenders to Malchus. He enters and takes command and complains of what the people did to him. But he pardons them for the unjust exile. He does, however, send ten senators to their deaths.

The Link between Carthage and Christianity

So what is so interesting in all this, and how might the story coincide with what we call Christian belief of centuries later? It is very curious that many of the essential characteristics in the story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ can be found in the story of Malchus and his son:

  • A powerful father and a punished son.
  • A strong presence of religion throughout upon which the story hinges upon.
  • The son dressed in finery, presented to the people.
  • The specific nailing to a cross of the son on a hill within sight of a city.
  • A punishment/crucifixion of a son which assists in the pardoning or forgiving of the people: the son's crucifixion could be seen as a substitution for their collective punishment that the victorious general Malchus (the father) could have instead meted out to them in retribution for their exiling of him and his army.
  • An issue of kingship, (the name Malchus actually has the meaning 'king', and there is a later mention in the text that Malchus either made himself king or attempted to.)

Let us assume that this story arises from a real, significant event which transpired outside Carthage involving a powerful father (a general and perhaps the king?) and his son and the crucifixion of this son by order of the father. We can assume that down through the ages the story became inevitably distorted to some degree with some details erased, some added, and a few original details almost unrecognizable, but still there**. It seems likely that such a powerful and intriguing story would have spurred much curiosity about the son and the last days of his life, which would then in turn have inevitably spawned much imaginative elaboration and storytelling/myth-making to satiate the curiosity. Could this be the origin of the many 'gospels' of later times?

Could the people of Carthage who lived at the time of this major event (and those who lived during the subsequent centuries before extensive distortions had a chance to occur), have interpreted this event in a way that is strongly analogous with basic Christian myth and doctrine? Is it possible they practiced a religious festival or in some way celebrated this noteworthy and memorable event in order to renew strong religious feelings about it? Quite obviously there are reasons to think they would easily have interpreted and understood this crucified son as a savior--that his crucifixion saved their lives, saved them as a people and as a nation. They easily would have remembered (at least partly) the connection between his crucifixion and his honoring of his public/religious duty to carry-out a religious rite above his private/family duty to his father; and how that very choice to do so caused his father to vent his anger upon him rather than upon the people, and how thusly this son became literally their savior.

A strange detail perhaps supportive of the thesis that this ancient story is linked to what would later become Christianity can be found in the Christian Gospels themselves! During the struggle when Jesus is being arrested, Peter is armed and defends Jesus, and while doing so injures a servant of the high priest by slicing or cutting off one of his ears. The Gospel of John actually names him:

From KJV, John 18:10-11:

Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest's servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant's name was Malchus. Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the scabbard: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?

Jesus then performs his last miracle by healing Malchus's ear before being led away, eventually to be nailed to a cross.

It is intriguing to wonder if the gospel of Peter might contain a detail from an older tradition that ultimately stems from the Carthaginian story. It is easily imagined that there likely was a quickly-resolved struggle in the besieging army's camp when the father decided to seize the son and punish him with crucifixion. If such a short struggle did happen, Malchus himself could have been injured by someone attempting to protect the son. It would even be in keeping with the character of this son to stop the struggle and decide to accept his father's punishment as his duty. In any case, the coincidental presence of the name of Malchus at such a key and dramatic point in one of the gospel narratives is certainly noteworthy.

If this historical event is the seed from which would later grow the final fruit of Christianity's own crucifixion story, how could this have happened? We would need to prove the possibility of a continuity or link between ancient Carthage and the later people who called themselves Christians, and perhaps a continuity extending even later into the Middle Ages, when the theology of modern-day Christianity might have been formulated. Or, perhaps, when it's followers eradicated all other forms of "heretical" theological interpretations...

So, could it be that the city in question, the city of the original 'gospel' was not actually Jerusalem in Palestine, but Carthage in North Africa? The idea of an unbearably dutiful, earthly man who was a savior of his people, who had returned from a journey and who had been put to excruciating death by his own father, and thereby died in the place of a whole population, paying for their punishment through his own blood and death -- had origins far before the supposed time of "Jesus Christ"...

* Although Malchus in this story was a general, it is noteworthy that the word 'malchus' has the meaning of 'king'. Could it be this 'general' Malchus was a king of Carthage? Was he the first king, or at the very least a king of special significance? We cannot easily discount the possibility. On the other hand, it might be a mistake and the name of this general was not even Malchus; perhaps Pompieus Trogus mistranslated the original Punic, or it was already incorrect when he found the story in the Greek sources. Or perhaps the mistake lies with Justin, who certainly condensed much of the original text of Pompieus Trogus, omitting many details and more than likely introducing a few errors at the same time. We cannot ignore the fact, too, that the surviving fragments of Justin's work are copies of copies passed down through the European middle ages and much detail may have been lost or confused during that process. So was the title of king confused and reduced to become the name? We do not know, but the possibility is there.

Indeed, there is evidence that even Justin's late work as been tampered-with: there is a phrase auctoribus miserorum civium which doesn't seem to make sense.

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