Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Greco-Roman Paternity in the Divine Institutes of Lactantius

Greco-Roman Paternity in the Divine Institutes

Cleanthes (331-232 BC) was a Stoic philosopher and poet, who headed the Stoa from 262 BC onwards. Anaximenes of Miletus (fl. c. 546-525 BC), on the other hand, was a Presocratic thinker best known for postulating air as the primordial cosmic substrate.[1] He was both a noted physiologist and monist, who along with Cleanthes averred that air “is the chief deity; and to this opinion our poet [Virgil] has assented: ‘Then almighty father Aether descends in fertile showers into the bosom of his joyous wife, mingling his greatness in her great body and nourishing all her children.”[2]

Lactantius further testifies to Greco-Roman ideas concerning divine paternity in Divinae institutiones 1.11.40-41. The apologist there constructs an argument that relies on etymology to show (what he perceives to be) the actual provenance of Rome’s paternal deity, Jupiter. Lactantius writes that Jupiter is “a version of a helping father.” He reasons that the name “Jupiter” does not befit a god since the nomen proprium “Jupiter” denotes a helper, but assisting others is purportedly a human endeavor. Moreover, finite rational agents normally do not speak of a father “helping” his sons when he procreates or rears them.[3] Lactantius accordingly concludes: “The word [“helper”] is too trivial to express the importance of a father’s generosity.”[4] What effect does this argument supposedly have on the deity of Rome’s paternal god?

Using a fortiori reasoning, Lactantius proceeds to argue that if “helper” does not fittingly delineate the human act of procreation, to an even greater degree, it does not designate God's figurative act of procreation vis-a-vis the world or Christ. God "is the true father, through whom we exist and whose possession we all are, he makes us, inspirits us, illuminates us; he gives life, health and all manner of food” (DI 1.11.42). Resorting to euhemerism, Lactantius explains how Jupiter became a god, whereas originally he was a human king. The apologist appeals to the diachronic signification of the noun “Jupiter” to show the inappropriateness of characterizing a deity with this name as the most high God. However, a familiar epithet in the OT identifies YHWH as Helper (1 Samuel 7:12; 1 Chronicles 5:20; 12:18; 15:26; Psalms 10:14; Psalms 30:10; Psalms 54:4; Isaiah 41:10, 13; 50: 7, 9). Maybe Lactantius was not familiar with the OT passages that refer to the Hebrew God as a helper. Of course, the NT is not without a reference to God as “helper” either (Hebrews 13:5-6).

[1] See Bowen and Garnsey, Divine Institutes, 67.

[2] See DI 1.5.19. See Virgil’s Georgics 2.325-327. In the same work, the poet calls Bacchus, the “Father of the winepress.” The actual lines from Virgil read: “In Spring earth swells and claims the fruitful seed. The Aether, Sire [Father] omnipotent, leaps down with quickening showers to his glad wife’s embrace, And might with might commingling, rears to life all germs that teem within her.”

[3] DI 1.11.41

[4] DI 1.11.41.

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