Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Song of Moses, John Cassian, Powers, and Principalities.

Deuteronomy 32:8, John Cassian, and Powers and Principalities.

As Columba Stewart noted in her treatment of John Cassian (thus far the most extensive contemporary volume on the man), the study of John Cassian’s use of Scripture is a relatively fresh field, unplowed by scholarly hands, and could, if given the opportunity, constituted volumes in itself. The following is a brief treatment of Cassian’s use of Scripture and how said use aligns with a contemporary discussion in Old Testament textual criticism. Finally, we’ll attempt to see, however briefly, if this is of any theological relevance.

For those interested in angelology, Cassian’s Eighth Conference is a treasure trove of theology. Cassian proposes an angelology that is, by now, rare among most professing denominations. Drawing on Daniel’s account of Gabriel’s struggle with the prince of Persia and subsequent assistance from Michael, Cassian affirms an angelology in which earthly nations are engaged in some relationship with celestial powers. Cassian writes,

“There is no doubt whatsoever that the prince of the kingdom of the Persians was the adversarial power that befriended the Persian nation, which was hostile to the people of God.”[1]

            Cassian continues following the narrative from Daniel, noting the angel’s warning that the prince of the Greeks is to come.[2]  Concerning this prince of the Greeks, Cassian writes that he favored the nation or people subject to him. Cassian sees the principalities at the head of every nation, the exception being the people of God who are assisted by angels in God’s court. The principalities over the nations, according to Cassian, war amongst themselves. The internal warring among the principalities takes on a corresponding material manifestation in the form of warfare among nations,

“Hence it is quite clear that the discords and conflicts and animosity of peoples, which the adversary powers promote among themselves by these provocations, are also carried on against themselves. They either rejoice in their client’s victory or are tormented by their defeat, and therefore they cannot be at peace among themselves as long as one of them is constantly struggling with aggressive rivalry against the leader of another people on behalf of those over whom he himself is set.” [3]

            The description of these angels as principalities and powers is, for Cassian, self-effacing with regard to their nature and purpose. The principalities and powers set themselves at the spiritual head of the earthly kingdoms and their driving “force” for war.[4] It is tempting to see Cassian’s reference to the legions under the domination principalities and powers as a subtle comment made upon the nature of the armies of the earth as well.[5] For Cassian, the names principalities, powers, thrones and dominations need no special decoding, only obvious explication. The name reveals the nature of the beings under discussion. Dominations would not have such a name unless in fact they exercised domination over people. [6] Similarly, principalities are principalities because they establish themselves as the “spiritual princes” of the nations.[7]
            Although, is the nature of the principalities and powers really so self effacing from the names they are ascribed? If we turn to the account of the principalities, dominations, and powers given in the Pauline literature, we should note the Pauline provides us with little or no detail as to how these figures operate among the kingdoms of the world. Rather, the only clear context we derive from the Pauline literature is that of spiritual warfare. Christians do not, it seems, conduct or engage in violent action or warfare towards any human being or human agency because. The Christian’s real war is against spiritual entities. By redirecting the military imagery against any human agency, the Pauline literature not only directs the reader to a spiritual struggle, it in many ways attempts to undermine the tradition of angels, some malevolent, placed over every nation of the earth. Cassian, while adopting the Pauline terminology as a description, rejects the Pauline re-interpretation. Through the Pauline literature, Cassian would not necessarily have the ground upon which to build his conceptualization of powers and principalities.
            The text of Daniel looms notably large in this portion of Conference VIII. However, I would argue, Cassian is limited to what he can do with the text of Daniel. The text identifies a prince of the Persians and a Prince of the Greeks. The prince of the Persians has already been engaged by the angles Gabriel and Michael. I do not believe Cassian derives his angelology from an interpretation of Daniel. The narrative from Daniel cited by Cassian is rather limited, confined to four characters: Michael, Gabriel, the Prince of Persia and the Prince of Greece. The narrative is also rather neat: two sets of opposing angelic powers. The impulse to immediately identify Daniel as the source of Cassian’s angelology must be avoided. It is not that it is impossible, but it is only one possibility. Recognizing that the evidence from Cassian’s writings is nebulous, I would argue we must argue for Cassian’s knowledge and acceptance of the text of Deuteronomy 32:8 as it appears in the Septuagint.
            That Cassian could or would use the Septuagint over the Latin text, be it any of the old Latin texts circulating in his time or a text closer to that produced by Jerome, is not implausible and indeed may very well be likely. Once again, we must echo Stewart’s observation: the study of Cassian’s use of Scripture is in its infancy. Boniface Ramsey’s edition of the Conferences supplies the contemporary reader of John Cassian with a generous index of the Scriptures cited by Cassian. Ramsey notes where Cassian appeals to the Septuagint text as opposed to the common western or vulgate text. We can state that Cassian was not only familiar with the Septuagint but indeed thought it more appropriate than Latin text (and, ultimately, the Masoretic tradition) at various points.
            The discrepancy between the Masoretic text and the Septuagint at Deuteronomy 32:8 is immediately apparent. The Masoretic reads בני ישראל sons of Israel whereas the Septuagint reads ὅτε διεμέριζεν  ὕψιστος ἔθνη ὡς διέσπειρεν υἱοὺς Aδαμ ἔστησεν
 ὅρια ἐθνῶν κατὰἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ. ἀγγέλων θεοῦ is the dominant reading in the Greek textual tradition, however, υἱῶν θεοῦ also finds attestation.[8] Qumran, however, has given credibility to the Septuagint reading of the text; both ἀγγέλων θεοῦ and υἱῶν θεοῦ are attested to by what would be the Hebrew equivalent to both Greek translations.[9] This, coupled with parallels in other examples from near eastern literature has led scholarly opinion to consider the Masoretic text as a revision of an earlier textual tradition reflected in the Septuagint and some of the Qumran scrolls.
            The text of Deuteronomy 32:8 in the Septuagint establishes the basic framework for Cassian to work off of, especially when ἀγγέλων θεοῦ is followed. In the Septuagint text, the people and nations of the world have been divided according the number of the angels of God and, as implied by the text, divided among the angels of God. Each nation has been placed under the domination of one of the ἀγγέλων θεοῦ. ἀγγέλων θεοῦ, however, has a connotation in the Greek bible, one oddly relevant to our discussion of Cassian’s eighth conference. Conference VIII treats of the narrative of the fall of the angels of God in Genesis 6:1-4. Cassian attest to a reading of Genesis 6:1-4 indicates the use of either the vetus Latina text or a variant of the Septuagint in which ἰδόντες δὲ οἱ ἀγγέλοι τοῦ θεοῦ τὰς θυγατέρας τῶν ἀνθρώπων is preferred to ἰδόντες δὲ οἱ υἱοὶ τοῦ θεοῦ τὰς θυγατέρας τῶν ἀνθρώπων.[10] ἀγγέλων θεοῦ would carry a connotation in early Christianity- fallen angels of God who exercise dominion over the nations of the earth. Even though Cassian does not accept a literal interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4, he seems to follow the connotation of ἀγγέλων θεοῦ.

Post-Critical Theology: Theological Application of the Data.

            Deuteronomy 32:8 as presented in the Septuagint has the potential to shape a world view. The nations of the earth have been placed under the dominion of beings fallen from heaven. Cassian’s comments about the ἀγγέλων θεοῦ/principalities as at the head of the earthly nations and as the spiritual forces the drive nations to war seems to indicate that Cassian held a similar worldview. In today’s climate, the Septuagint text could be relevant to political theology or separatist/sectarian movements in Christianity. Less controversially, it could be assimilated into discussions surrounding the proper view of the state or simply the preference for the mythic as the mode of divine communication. It seems to me, though, that when applying this data to a living context, one cannot aver from dealing with its implications for the state and the sense of the spiritual world. If one were to follow either Cassian’s interpretation of principalities or subscribe to the mythic account of the division of the nations as contained in the Septuagint, one would necessarily take a new critical look at the state and the orientation one should have towards it. As I mentioned, the most extreme manifestations would be in the form of sectarian and separatist response. However, a more responsible response, though one just as likely to court controversy, would be to question the legitimacy with which the state can demand any human being go to war. Anti-war theologians and pacifists should take note, at the very least, of Cassian’s statement regarding the origins of war among the nations. War is seen in Cassian’s eyes, in the light, I believe, of Deuteronomy 32:8 as found in the Septuagint, as a concrete manifestation of demonic activity on a global scale, inspired and catalyzed by fallen angels of God. This discussion should offer us the opportunity to engage the mythic, to revisit an ancient conception of reality that often tried to discern where our reality and a reality other than our own had points of correspondence or exchange.

[1] Conl. VIII.XIII.2
[2] Conl. VIII.XIII.3
[3] Conl. VIII.XIII.4
[4] Conl. VIII.XIV.1
[5] Cassian references the legions when discussing the lower demons subject to the principalities and powers, however, given the greater context of discussing the charge over human nations and their part in propagating war, one wonders if Cassian is subtley hinting.
[6] Conl. VIII.XIV.1
[7] Ibid.
[8] Heiser notes that later Greek texts reflect the reading of the verse as found in the Masoretic. See Heiser, Michael, “Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God.”
[9] Heiser. 53 For a detailed examination of the underlying Hebrew texts and reconstruction, see
[10] Current scholarship sees οἱ ἀγγέλοι as a later interpretation of οἱ υἱοὶ τοῦ θεοῦ. Philo attests to both readings being common in his time. The vetus Latina, as far as has been determined, follows οἱ ἀγγέλοι.