Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire – Averil Cameron

I don’t have a summary of this set of six lectures on early Christian discourse in mind as much as a quick response. At the very end of the book, in the Envoi, is a statement that throws the article I just wrote into question – I’ll quote it in full – “The sign system of early Christianity did not, suprisingly perhaps, form itself either around eating (as in the Last Supper) or death (as in the Crucifixion) but, encouraged by the need to explain the union of bodily flesh and divinity in the Incarnation, around the body itself, and especially the mechanics and avoidance of carnal knowledge and procreation.”

This threw me for a loop initially, but then I remembered a few things. I have a lengthy argument suggesting that it IS eating, out of the possible sets of imagery which Goulder nicely summarized from Matthew. And near the end of drafting I added a short consideration of other metaphors, with the body being the top pick for further systematic conceptual hunting.

My response, I think, is this. If you look at Christian rhetoric 4th century and after, Cameron is right. Growing obsession with the Virgin and sexual mores only gets more and more convoluted. The metaphors of that era focus undoubtably the body, and imagery takes over from text as the rhetorical heavy lifter, taking the personification that the Lives, Acts, and other pious forgeries offer to something the eyes of the unwashed masses can passively absorb. Excuse my colorful language.

But, and a big but, in the late 1st century/early 2nd, all that theological baggage hasn’t piled up yet. A Christian sense of metaphor is still developing, and SHARED FOOD and BODY are linked pretty closely together. The Ignatius quote she uses for support when she starts discussing “figural” language is, well, leaven ‘n salt, and the Ignatius quote I used (he gets around) from his depiction of his upcoming martyrdom, uses both bread-making and body-rending.

Ah well. I suppose this is something for a revision. Like I’ve said before, the second I finish something, the more I discover that I didn’t include or consider properly. There’s also a very recent article on translating NT metaphors – with the plant parables and current metaphor theory very prominent – that I didn’t know about. Grrr. Well, better late than never.

On a completely different note, to cheer me up, I like Cameron’s assessment of early Christian “pious forgeries” (post-2nd century, mostly) as something that defies traditional genre. They’re not fiction, though they have some romantic elements. They’re certainly not scripture, and even Eusebius didn’t think they were histories. And their varying quality makes calling them literature, even popular literature, a bit dodgy. If anything, the Infancy gospels are probably closest to fan fiction, with some of the virgin-epousing material, with its erotic undertones, bordering on slash.

You can leave a comment!