Marcellinus and Peter were Roman martyrs during the persecution under the emperor Diocletian. Both Marcellinus and Peter were members of the clergy of the city of Rome. Marcellinus was a presbyter (priest) and Peter was an exorcist. (Prior to 1975, candidates to the priesthood were first ordained to a succession of minor orders which included acolyte, lector and exorcist. Nowadays, seminarians and diaconal candidates are still admitted to the minor orders of lector and acolytes, although their duties have largely been delegated to laypeople.)
Marcellinus and Peter are commemorated in the Second Intercession of the Roman Canon, known today as the First Eucharistic Prayer. The canon commemorates the “holy Apostles (although St. Matthias is frustratingly shuffled to the Second Intercession) martyrs.” The martyrs mentioned include people from all states of the Church: popes (the first four plus notables such as Sts. Cornelius, Alexander I and Xystus II), bishops (Sts. Ignatius of Antioch and Cyrian of Carthage), priests (St. Marcellinus), deacons (Sts. Stephan and Laurence), exorcists (St. Peter), and both laymen (Sts. Cosmos and Damian; John and Paul; and Chyrsogonus) and laywomen, both virgins (Sts. Agnes, Agatha, Lucy, Cecilia and Anastasia) and matrons (Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas).
Honored by Damasus
Like many of the saints commemorated in the Roman Canon, Marcellinus and Peter were commemorated in an elogium written by Pope St. Damasus I and placed over their tomb. Many of the martyrs commemorated by Damasus in his elogia were either connected in some way to the papacy of Damasus or Damasus himself personally. For example, Damasus was consecrated as pope in a basilica dedicated to St. Laurence, in whose honor Damasus composed a number of epigraphs.
In the case of Marcellinus and Peter, in the elogium Damasus composed for them, he states that “as a boy” that Marcellinus and Peter’s executioner told him the story of their martyrdom. The executioner was baptized by Pope Julius I, who had been the predecessor of Damasus’ own predecessor Liberius. St. Jerome wrote that Damasus was “about eight years old” when he died in A.D. 384, which places his birth sometime in A.D. 304/5. Thus, in the lifetime of Damasus, the Church went from viciously persecuted minority under Diocletian to the state religion of the Empire with the promulgation of the Edict of Thessalonica in A.D. 382.
The primary goal of the epigrammatic program of Damasus was to reclaim various locations in the city of Rome. A significant rigorist minority opposed the election of Damasus as pope by electing an antipope named Ursicinus and continued to oppose Damasus throughout his pontificate, despite imperial rebuke. (Ursicinus actually outlived Damasus) A significant part of this conflict, particularly at the beginning, was the capture and occupation of strategic geographic locations in the city, such as the tomb of St. Agnes. By placing memorials to the martyrs, that included his own name, throughout the city, Damasus regained control of the city from the schismatics, in a way that would last long after Damasus himself died. At the same time, with the loss of paganism’s status as state religion, Damasus saw an opportunity to replace the pagan monuments and memorials in the city with Christian ones, turning Rome into a Christian capital.
The Testimony of Witnesses
However, it is also important to remember that being eighty at the time of his death, Damasus was most likely one of the very few for whom the Great Persecution was still within “living memory.” Since St. Luke composed his Gospel, the story of salvation has been passed on “by the testimony of witnesses.” Damasus knew that it would be very soon that no one, eyewitnesses or those to whom they had passed on their testimony, would be alive and the Persecution might be forgotten. To prevent this, and ensure that the martyrs were remembered for generations to come, Damasus composed the epigraphs for which he is famous, and probably the Canon of the Mass as well. And while there is no way to prove this with any degree of historical certainty, I believe that he was inspired to do this by his own experience of having heard the story of the martyrdom of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter from the man who carried it out and thus had firsthand experience.
My dad always used to say that he believed St. Joseph died before the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry because if he had been alive, St. Joseph would have tried to prevent it. I no longer think that this is true for a number of reasons.
Had he been alive at the time of the Passion, Our Lady, who was always perfectly in tune with the will of God would have surely explained to him that this was all how it has supposed to happen. St. Joseph surely would have trusted Our Lady and followed her lead in accepting the Passion of his beloved foster-Son
The Gospel according to St. Luke explicitly states that after the Holy Family returned to Nazareth following Passover in the twelfth year of Our Lord’s life, after His three days in the Temple, that Our Lord was subject to St. Joseph. In Jewish culture, Jesus would have been under St. Joseph’s authority until St. Joseph died. Thus, in order to speak with His own authority, St. Joseph would have had to have died.
The death of St. Joseph, in the presence of Our Lord and Our Lady, is meant to be a model for our own deaths and is why St. Joseph is the patron for a happy death.
As stated in this video, Sts. Bede the Venerable and Jerome (two of my favorite saints!) state that St. Joseph died in Jerusalem while there for the feast of Passover. He was buried there in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is a beautiful thought to think that Our Lord sought some solace on the night before His Passion by praying at the tomb of his earthly father.
If St. Joseph had been alive at the time of His Passion, there would have been no need for Our Lord to commend Our Lady to the care of St. John from the Cross and thus we would not have the beautiful image of Our Lady as Mother of the Church and our Mother, with St. John representing every Christian.
I get why my dad said what he did. Especially now that I am a father myself, the idea that St. Joseph would have done everything in his power to try to stop the death of his only Son to the point of dying alongside Him, appeals to our inborn desire to protect and be a hero. But ultimately, it does not give St. Joseph, nor the ultimate will and providence of God, enough credit. There were many reasons that it was God’s will that St. Joseph should die before Our Lord’s public ministry and not witness His Passion.
A thought upon which I like to meditate frequently is what the meeting between St. Joseph and Our Lord in Limbo must have been like. Would St. Joseph have been saddened to see His foster-Son there so soon after his own death (if the souls there even had a concept of time)? Would he have thought of the Blessed Virgin, now bereft of both son and husband? How all the other souls of the just there, from Adam to Abraham to David must have marveled when they realized that the prophesied Messiah had come as a new Moses to lead them to the eternal Promised Land and the first person to whom He went was a humble unknown carpenter that none of them knew or recognized?
St. Joseph, foster father of Our Lord, spouse of the Blessed Virgin and patron of the Universal Church
I have always found it ironic that despite the iconic color of Ireland-and therefore St. Patrick’s Day- being green the priest who offers Mass on the feast of St. Patrick will never be wearing green. This is because the latest possible date for Ash Wednesday is March 10 and the earliest possible date for Easter is March 22. Thus, March 17 always falls during Lent. Thus the priest will either wear violet, the color for the liturgical season, or white, the color for a confessor a.k.a. non-martyr. (Yes, I am aware there is probably some liturgical moron of a priest somewhere who would wear a green vestment on St. Patrick’s Day. But they shouldn’t. And even among priests guilty of all kinds of liturgical shenanigans, the color of vestments, if not their design, seems relatively sacrosanct.)
This becomes even more interesting when one contemplates various images of St. Patrick in sacred art, especially as found in churches. The city of Savannah, Georgia has a sizable population of Irish descent and one of the biggest celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day in the country (if not the world). In that city’s Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, St. Patrick is shown wearing vestments of the traditional green color.
A little less than two and a half hours to the northwest, a similar stained glass window in Macon’s church of St. Joseph depicts St. Patrick wearing what appears to be a gold chasuble with a red surplice a red miter.
Two hours to the almost direct south of Savannah, in Jacksonville’s (Minor) Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is another stained glass window depicting St. Patrick. In it he is wearing the same vestments as the one in Macon, but with a gold miter instead of a red one.
Finally, the apse of the church of St. Patrick in Rome, Italy features an image of the saint dressed in fully red vestments.
What is interesting is that each of these images feature the same event in the life of St. Patrick: his preaching to the High King at the royal hill of Tara. All of them feature him using the iconic shamrock to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. Of them, only the ones in Macon and Jacksonville he what he actually would have been wearing. According to the legend, the year that Patrick arrived in Ireland, Easter coincide with the Druidic festival of Beltane. On Beltane, all the fires throughout the kingdom would be extinguished. No fire was allowed to lit, under pain of death, until the High King lit the royal fire upon the hill of Tara. Flames would then be carried from that fire to light all the hearths throughout the land. It was a symbol of the regeneration of the world after darkness, cold and death of winter.
Unwilling to let a pagan feast deter him from lighting the Paschal Fire for the Easter Vigil, St. Patrick did so on the hill of Slane. It was spotted and the High King sent troops to arrest Patrick. The High King’s Druids warned him that “If this fire is not extinguished tonight, it will never be put out in Ireland.” The urged the High King to just kill Patrick and be done with it but the High King ordered Patrick to come before him in the morning. Thus, St. Patrick preached the Risen Christ to the High King at Tara on Easter Sunday.
White is the liturgical color for Easter, though it is such a high solemnity that it is often customary to wear gold vestments, if these are available. Thus, the stained glass windows in Macon and Jacksonville would be the most accurate. What is interesting about the image from Rome is that red is the color of martyrs (which St. Patrick was not though he certainly repeatedly risked becoming one) and of the Holy Spirit. It is worn at Pentecost.
Beltane is on May 1. This latest possible date for Easter is April 25 so it is not possible for Beltane to coincide with Easter. However, it could coincide with Pentecost. This has led many to consign the story of Patrick’s Pasha to mere legend. Yet, is it possible that is occurred on Pentecost? Could St. Patrick have lit a fire, not as a Paschal fire, but simply as a direct challenge to the darkness of Druidry as a symbol of the fire of the Holy Spirit?
The Date of Easter
It is also worth noting that Eastern Orthodox Easter can fall in May. This discrepancy is due to the Orthodox still computing Easter via the Julian Calendar because they do not accept the Gregorian Calendar promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Not only was St. Patrick alive long before the East-West Schism but Ireland and England did not really settle on a method for calculating Easter until about two hundred years after the death of St. Patrick. So, it is entirely possible that, based on the calculations and computations available to him at the time, Patrick celebrated Easter as close to when he thought it was supposed to be and therefore it coincided with Beltane.
In my previous post, I mentioned that, of the seven women (besides the Virgin Mary) mentioned in the Canon of the Mass, five are virgins. Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas, both being mothers, are not. The other way in each Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas differed from their fellow women in the Roman Canon is the location of their martyrdom. The other five are associated in some way with Italy (Two are associated with Rome and two with Sicily. Anastasia’s Roman credentials are fuzzy, but she is commonly associated with Rome as well). Perpetua and Felicitas are from Carthage in North Africa.
The Roman Canon
The Roman Canon was developed in the late fourth-century, likely during the reign of Pope St. Damasus I (A.D. 366-384). Damasus is most notable for a series of epigraphs he composed in honor of the Roman martyrs and had placed over their tombs. A significant number of those he so honored are named in the Roman Canon, including, in addition to the Apostles Peter and Paul, Clement, Cornelius, Xystus (Sixtus), Lawrence, Marcellinus, Peter and Agnes. Damasus started this epigrammatic program in effort to claim the city of Rome as a Christian city by creating a new cultural memory for the city by replacing the old pagan heroes with Christian martyrs.
Martyrs of Rome
Agnes is the only one of the virgin martyrs whom Damasus explicitly recognizes with an epigraph. It s notable that she is the only one of the five, other than Cecilia, who was definitely martyred at Rome. Lucy and Agatha were both martyred in Sicily. (In fact, the story of St. Agatha also inspired St. Lucy, whose mother visited her Agatha’s shrine and received a miraculous cure.) Anastasia was martyred in Sirmium, despite being a native of Rome. Now, Damasus did not limit his epigrammatic program to martyrs who were originally from Rome. The epigram dedicated to Peter and Paul states,
“The East sent the disciples, which we willingly admit. On account of the merit of their blood…Rome deserves to call them her own citizens.”
Maura Lafferty explains that “although Damasus allows that both Peter and Paul were born elsewhere, he nevertheless asserts that their new birth in martyrdom turned them into citizens of Rome herself.” Only Agnes of course, had her relics at Rome, which is why only she was honored with an epigraph by Damasus. However, Damasus likely included Sts. Lucy and Agatha as representatives of virgin martyrs from another part of Sicily since their stories were similar to those of Agnes.
Martyrs of Carthage
Damasus did not limit his Romanization to martyrs who had suffered at Rome. Damasus also wrote an epigraph for Saturinus, who had suffered martyrdom along with Perpetua and Felicitas. Damasus wrote,
“Now an inhabitant of Christ, he was of Carthage before…by blood, he changed his nation, name and family; the birth of saints made a Roman citizen.”
He likely felt the same way about Perpetua and Felicitas that he did about their companion Saturinus, and considered them to be Romans by virtue of their martyrdoms. Ultimately Damasus made the claim that to be Christian is to be Roman. He clearly believed that just as Rome was once the center of the Roman Empire, it should now be the beating heart of the Christian world. This is why Damasus included so many Roman saints in the Roman Canon.
Connection with St. Cecilia?
Another saint for whom Damasus wrote an epigraph was St. Tiburtius. Tiburtius was a soldier who was executed during the persecution of Diocletian. Although it is possible that he is not the same saint, Tiburtius was the also the name of St. Cecilia’s brother-in-law, who converted and was executed along with his brother Valerian. Thus, it is interesting that while Damasus did include married women among those he recognized in the Canon, he did write epigraphs for them. Instead, he wrote epigraphs for martyrs who may have been associated with them. Damasus likely included Perpetua and Felicitas for the same reason that he wrote the epigram to Saturinus, to indicate the universality of the Roman church. The inclusion of Perpetua and Felicitas adds that universality to the specific group of female martyrs as well both in terms of their nationality and of their states in life.
We live in a culture that is both overtly sexualized and violent. When those two trends collide, collectively society is rightly appalled as we have seen with the ever growing #MeToo movement. Yet, when we ask ourselves why such things happen and how to fix these problems in society, most, if not all, solutions are developed within the framework of the aforementioned overtly sexualized and violent society. Our society has been so saturated with these two toxins that the only solution that will have any lasting effect is one that is outside the current societal framework and actively repudiates it.
Ancient Roman society was patriarchal to a degree that seems almost incredible to those of us who have grown up in a modern society. At the same time, that society was even more violent and sexualized than our own culture. In many ways, the sexuality and violence went hand in hand with the patriarchy. (For example, a Roman husband was allowed, under law, to kill his wife if he found her committing adultery.) In Christendom, patriarchy was reoriented for protection from violence, sexual or otherwise. In contrast, our society has utterly repudiated the patriarchy, allowing the violence and sexuality of pagan Rome to return and run rampant, at times hand in hand, with nothing to check it’s spread.
In ancient Rome, a woman was either a wife or a whore. Women were invariably viewed in terms of how they could legitimately be used as a sexual object and by whom. This is seen in the accounts of the martyrdoms of Agnes, Agatha and Lucy. Each are pursued by suitor for the purpose, whom they reject in favor of maintaining their virginity for Christ, their true Bridegroom. The reject the pagan societal system that seems as nothing but sexual objects and in turn accept Christ (and eventual martyrdom for Him).
In the case of Agnes, in her Actae, the Prefect (who is the father of the suitor whom she has spurned) recognizes he dedication to virginity and gives the option of sacrificing to Vesta, the virgin goddess of Rome, and dedicating herself to the goddess as a Vestal Virgin. Even here, however, she would eventually be someone’s wife. The vow of celibacy for a Vestal was only as long as her term of service, which was generally about thirty years. Vestal Virgins were often sought after as wives after their term was completed.
In the accounts of Sts. Agnes, Lucy and Agatha they are always taken to a brothel when they refuse to offer sacrifice and marry their suitor. They have refused to be the wife of a pagan Roman and thus will be treated as a whore. Many people cynically say that the reason this occurs in every account is because they are all really different versions of the same legend. However, as the priest in this talk points out, in ancient Rome it was considered “bad luck” to execute a virgin. An example of this was the young daughter of Sejanus, who, according to Suetonius, was raped prior to her execution. The priest made the argument that each of these virgin martyrs was condemned to a brothel for the same reason but due to divine intervention died with their virginity intact
Sts. Vibia Perpetua and Felicitas
Of the seven women named in the Roman Canon besides the Blessed Virgin Mary, five were virgins: Sts. Agnes, Agatha, Lucy, Cecilia and Anastasia. Cecilia was married but lived in continence with her husband Valerian after his conversion and died a virgin. In this way, she subverts the sexualized patriarchal Roman order. The other two, Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas, differ from their sisters in the Canon in two important ways. They suffered martyrdom during the reign of the Emperor Septimius Severus, during games in honor of the birthday of the emperor’s son Geta. More importantly, both are mothers (and therefore obviously not virgins) whose children play key roles in their Passion.
Nevertheless, the martyrdom of Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas subverts the established patriarchal order of Rome in favor of the Christian order in a powerful way. Their husbands make no appearance in their Passion. It is entirely possibly that, being a slave, Felicitas had no legal husband. Her master may have forced himself upon her. More likely, since she was a catechumen, she may have been a recent convert and her pregnancy was a result of a relationship prior to her conversion. She is arrested while in the eighth month of her pregnancy and is fearful that she will lose the crown of martyrdom because Roman law forbade the execution of a pregnant woman. (How ironic, that a society, rightly castigated for its bloodthirstiness, was more respectful of the life of a child in the womb then our supposedly more civilized society!) Her companions pray and she gives birth to a daughter in prison. (The fact that her daughter is given to her sister to raise seems to indicate that Felicitas had no legal husband.)
The husband of Perpetua is mentioned in her Passion but he is never seen, either to pressure Perpetua from her martyrdom or to encourage her. (It is unknown if he was a Christian, but this is unlikely.) Instead, her father comes to her three times to entreat her to sacrifice to the Roman gods and thus save her life. Each time, he employs a different tactic. During his first attempt he becomes angry and even resorts to physical force.
While we were still under arrest and my father was liked to vex me with his words and continually strove to hurt my faith because of his love…Then my father, angry with this word, came upon me to tear out my eyes; but he only vexed me, and he departed vanquished, he and the arguments of the devil. –Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, 3
In her father’s second attempt, he appeals to her sympathy for him and the rest of the her family.
Also my father returned from the city spent with weariness; and he came up to me to cast down my faith saying: “Have pity, daughter, on my grey hairs; have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be, called father by you…I have preferred you before all your brothers; give me not over to the reproach of men. Look upon your brothers; look upon your mother and mother’s sister; look upon you son, who will not endure to live after you.” –Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, 5
Finally, in his third and final attempt, on the day of Perpetua’s trial, her father actually brings her son with him to try to use him as a prop to convince Perpetua to renounce her faith.
And my father appeared there also, with my son, and would draw me from the step, saying, ‘Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child. –Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, 6
Rejection of the Pater Familias
Perpetua certainly has pity on her father, especially when he continues his attempt to “cast down” her faith and ends up being beaten with a rod for his troubles. But Perpetua follows the words of Our Lord that “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37 RSV) We are commanded to honor and obey our parents by the Fourth Commandment only insofar that our honor and obedience do not entail disobedience or dishonor of God.
However, in Roman society, filial piety and obedience was even more dramatic. The authority of the pater familias was absolute. He even had the power of life and death over his children. As matron, Perpetua was under the authority of her (conspicuously absent) husband, but no Roman matron would deny the request of her father, especially after he willingly debased him by kneeling before her and kissing her hands. Yet, Perpetua does so. Even more so, she rejects her place in Roman society as a wife and mother while continuing to refuse to sacrifice despite knowing that she would leave her son without a mother.
Ultimately, the story of Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas is one of masculine failure. The respective fathers of their respective children are nowhere to be found. The father of Perpetua, unwilling to see her die painfully tries various methods to “cast down” her faith. Even at their deaths, both Perpetua and Felicitas survived being exposed to wild beasts in the arena, so gladiators were sent into the arena to finish them off. The gladiator assigned to Perpetua was either new or hesitant to kill a woman so Perpetua guided the sword to her neck with her own hand, thus ensuring she gained the crown of martyrdom. Here too, a woman is glorified by doing what a man is unable to.
What is the appropriate response to all this? Are we to completely reject even the idea of patriarchy? By no means! Instead, it must be reordered. Patriarchy was instituted by God but almost from the beginning it has been twisted. Adam failed in his own job of protecting his wife and Eve was changed from being in state of subordination to him to one of subjugation to him. Patriarchy was twisted. After the fall of Rome, Christendom attempted to reorient and reorder it to something more in line with what God had originally intended, keeping in mind the words of the Apostle Paul, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave up his life as a ransom for her.” (Ephesians 5:25 RSV)
We must return to this order that existed before Modernism broke our society at a fundamental level. Have we ever fought or rebelled against the will of God because following it would demand suffering, not for us but for our loved ones, especially our children? We must teach our children and show our wives, by our example, that nothing is more important than God. Perpetua succeeded in following the will of God and bring Him glory by winning a martyr’s crown despite her father. How truly glorious would it be, if our children should do the same, if they are so called, because of our paternal examples.
Our society is a mess because men refused to be men. Although this is nothing new, enough is enough. It’s time to #ManUp, take up our crosses, and if necessary our swords, and fight for the lives and souls of our wives and children. “Be strong, and show yourself a man” (I Kings 2:2 RSV)
Today is the 1,746th birthday of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. Constantine is rightly remembered for issuing the Edict of Milan after his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge gave him control of the Western Empire. Contrary to popular belief, the Edict of Milan did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. That honor would fall to another Edict, issued one hundred twelve years, to the day, after the birth of Constantine. That edict would be issued by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius I who, like Constantine, would go on to eventually rule the entire Empire, receive the appellation “Great” and be venerated as a saint in the Orthodox Church.
The Edict of Thessalonica
The Roman emperor Theodosius the Great, along with his imperial colleagues Gratian and Valentinian II, issued Cunctos Populos, also known as the Edict of Thessalonica. This edict made orthodox Catholicism the state religion of the Roman Empire. It is worth quoting in its entirety.
EMPERORS GRATIAN, VALENTINIAN AND THEODOSIUS AUGUSTI. EDICT TO THE PEOPLE OF CONSTANTINOPLE.
It is our desire that all the various nations which are subject to our Clemency and Moderation, should continue to profess that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition, and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict.
GIVEN IN THESSALONICA ON THE THIRD DAY FROM THE CALENDS OF MARCH, DURING THE FIFTH CONSULATE OF GRATIAN AUGUSTUS AND FIRST OF THEODOSIUS AUGUSTUS
The Role of Damasus
In the edict, Catholicism is defined as “that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition, and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus.” Damasus exerted a subdued, but nonetheless significant influence on Theodosius. Damasus was at the very least of Spanish extraction and Theodosius certainly was born in Hispania, in what is now the city of Coca. Prudentius, another Spaniard, served in the court of Theodosius until about 392. There was thus a Spanish affinity here that Damasus could work to his advantage. Furthermore, Alan Cameron has identified Aemelius Florus Paternus, the Praetorian Prefect Orientis under Theodosius from 381-383, as the father of Proiecta, the only non-martyr and non-family member for whom Damasus composed an epigram. This level of intimacy with the family of the second-highest ranking man in the East certainly would have translated to influence in the court of Theodosius.
However, the most significant influence exerted on Theodosius by Damasus was in the person of Acholius, the bishop of Thessalonica. Acholius baptized Theodosius following a serious illness that left the emperor near death in 380. Thus, it is no accident that in that same year, Theodosius issued Cunctos Populos from Thessalonica. It is likely that this definition on the part of Theodosius was a result of the influence of Acholius, who was in regular communication with Damasus.
The First Pontiff
The use of pontificem (accusative form of pontifex) in reference to Damasus is the first time a bishop of Rome is referred to as a pontiff. Although Pontiff is now a commonly used synonym for pope, it was initially a term for a pagan religious official.The Collegium Pontificum was still in existence as an institution in the year during which the emperors promulgated Cunctos Populos. This would imply that there were still pagan pontifices. Cameron argues that it is unlikely that, despite both being rather devout Christians, “either Gratian or Theodosius directly abolished the priestly colleges.” Rather, “they simply faded away as their older members died off, in the first decade of the fifth century.” Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, a staunch defender of paganism who died in 402 A.D. is the last man recorded to have held the office of pontifex. Thus, there does not appear to be any concerted effort on the part of the emperors or any other Christians, to directly replace pagan pontifices with Christian bishops. Cameron further argues that, “The Christian man in the street was likely to see a pontifex as something like a pagan bishop.” Conversely, one could infer that pagan men on the streets would see a bishop as a Christian pontifex.
In 378, a synod at Rome, headed by Damasus sent a relatio to the Augusti of the West, Gratian and Valentinian in which the word pontifex appears. In this context, the word no doubt refers to the bishop of Rome. Theodosius was the driving force behind the Cunctos Populos therefore he most likely influenced his colleagues to identify Damasus as pontifex.
The name of Pontius Pilate is one of three, along with those of Our Blessed Lord and His Blessed Mother, that Catholics around the world say every Sunday as part of the Nicene Creed. A Catholic also says his name every time that he prays the Rosary as part of the Apostles’ Creed. Pilate is obviously remembered in the Creed for different reasons than either Christ or Our Lady. But who was Pontius Pilate?
Nothing is known about him prior to A.D. 26. Not even his first name (praenomen) is known. Pilatus, Latin for “armed with javelins” (Latin: pila) or “having been plundered” (from pilo, from which we get the English word pillage) is almost certainly a cognomen, like Caesar or Cicero. That makes Pontius his nomen, or family name. The Pontii were from the Samnium region of central Italy, which means that some of Pilate’s ancestors were members of the Samnite tribe who fought against Roman efforts to conquer the entirety of Italy in the third century B.C.
Iudaea was a satellite province of proconsular Syria which meant that the governor had the rank of praefect. Unlike proconsuls, who were of senatorial rank and thus patricians, Pilate would have been one of the equites, or a member of the equestrian order, sometimes referred to as “knights.” The equestrians would have a step above the common plebians but not as high as the patricians and would thus not be allowed to serve in the Senate.
As a young man of equestrian rank, Pilate would have likely served in the Roman army as a tribunus angusticlavius. As such, he would have commanded two cohorts of 480 legionaries each. In the historical novel The Spear, Louis de Wohl theorizes that Pilate served under Publius Quinctilius Varus and thus was one of the few survivors of the disastrous Battle of Teutoburg Forest in A.D. 9. If this were true, it would also be possible that Pilate served under Varus when he was governor of Syria and thus would have participated in putting down the revolt after the death of Herod the Great Terrible, which included the crucifixion of 2,000 men and destruction of the city of Sephoris. This would have certainly given Pilate a certain viewpoint toward the Jews and may have informed his actions and attitudes when he himself was assigned to govern them over two decades later.
All of this is, of course, mere speculation. The only sure historical fact is that Pilate was appointed as praefect of the province of Iudaea in A.D. 26. Yet even this invites more speculation. Given the date, he was likely appointed by the Praetorian Prefect Lucius Aelius Sejanus, who took over administration of the Empire when the Emperor Tiberius withdrew to the island of Capri to isolate himself in A.D. 26. It is unclear why Sejanus was appoint Pilate to this post. He could have been doing it as a favor to a friend. However, Iudaea was a volatile province and was lacking in means by which a governor might enrich himself, as could be found in other provinces. Governing it was a thankless job. The Spear makes the insinuation that it was part of a plot to eliminate or otherwise marginalize those who might feel loyalty to Tiberius and thus isolate him. In the book, Pilate’s wife Claudia Procula is a relative of Tiberius. Sejanus arranges for her marriage to Pilate and then immediately sends Pilate off to faraway Iudaea. Either way, Pilate would be inexorably associated with Sejanus.
Coming, perhaps returning, to Iudaea, Pilate acted in a way that fit with the attitudes of the man who give him his post. According to the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, Sejanus was an anti-Semite “who he wished to make away with the nation” of the Jews. Pilate’s actions almost immediately upon his arrival in Iudaea were completely in line with the anti-Jewish attitude of Sejanus. These including bringing idolatrous images of the emperor into the Temple upon the standards of his legionary troops. Whether this was an intentional affront or, as some argue, a misunderstanding based on lack of knowledge of Jewish customs, Pilate’s response to the ensuing reaction of the Jews clearly demonstrated a violent antipathy toward them.
According to the Jewish historian Josephus,
“On the ensuing day Pilate took his seat on his tribunal in the great stadium and summoning the multitude, with the apparent intention of answering them, gave the arranged signal to his armed soldiers to surround the Jews. Finding themselves in a ring of troops, three deep, the Jews were struck dumb at this unexpected sight. Pilate, after threatening to cut them down, if they refused to admit Caesar’s images, signaled to the soldiers to draw their swords.” (The Jewish War, Book II)
Pilate also took the korban, money from the Temple treasury, to build an aqueduct. When a riot ensued, he had troops dressed as pilgrims mercilessly beat both rioters and bystanders alike in order to disperse (In The Spear, this is the riot in which Bar Abbas is captured and for which he faces the sentence of death.) Moreover, If the two “thieves” were insurrectionists, and Bar Abbas had been condemned to die along with them, then the date of their executions would have been no coincidence. Pilate would have scheduled the crucifixion of three men, captured in an insurrection against Rome, for Passover. The public execution, in particular brutal fashion, of Jewish freedom fighters on the day the Jews celebrated their freedom from Egypt would have been meant to ensure that Caesar would not confused with Pharaoh
Historicity of the Gospels
This well documented hostile, murderous attitude of Pilate toward the Jews he governed has led many critical historians to question the historicity of the Gospel accounts. They argue that the evangelists, eager to show the Romans who were at that time beginning to persecute Christians that the new sect is not subversive, portrayed Pilate as reluctant to crucify Jesus in an effort to transfer blame for Christ’s death from Pilate to the Jews.
Fall of Sejanus
However, Pilate did not hesitate out of deference to the Jewish leaders. By the time Jesus was brought before Pilate, matters had changed. The mostly likely date of Christ’s death is April 3, A.D. 33. Sejanus was deposed and executed two years earlier in A.D. 31, when it became known that he was plotting against Tiberius to become emperor. Worse still, in the immediate aftermath of the downfall of Sejanus, known supporters and even those simply suspected of supporting Sejanus were rounded up and summarily executed in an incredibly violent purge. This included his wife and young daughter.
Moreover, according to Philo of Alexandria, after the fall of Sejanus, Tiberius went out of his way to repudiate the former’s anti-Semitic policies and “charged his procurators in every place to which they were appointed to speak comfortably to the members of our nation in the different cities…and to disturb none of the established customs but even to regard them as a trust committed to their care.”
This went directly against Pilate’s style of governance for the prior five years. Regardless of whether he had been an actual supporter of Sejanus, Pilate’s appointment as praefect by Sejanus affiliated the two of them. Pilate had to be much more willing to acquiesce to the demands of the Jewish leadership than he had been previously. That he even tried to save Jesus from the crowd at all is remarkable.
No King but Caesar!
The Jewish leaders however, knew exactly where Pilate’s goat was and they got it, to devastating effect. They state that Jesus has claimed to be the King of the Jews. This (had it been true) was a direct rebellion against Roman authority, because only the Romans had the authority to appoint a client king. Similarly, while the claim to be the “Son of God” is seen as blasphemous to the Jews it is seditious to the Romans, as filius divi (“son of the divine”) was an imperial. As the Jewish leaders point out to Pilate, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; every one who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar!” (John 19:12 RSV)
To not be a “friend of Caesar” during the reign of a paranoid emperor who just recently learned that his most trusted advisor and administrator had been plotting against him, is a very dangerous prospect. This is especially true considering the roundup and summary execution of anyone thought to be in the least way connected to Sejanus, as Pilate would have been. Pilate’s very life, and that of his wife, could depend on being a “friend of Caesar.” Pilate could have been warned (as the film The Passion of the Christ portrays) that if there was another riot or if the emperor received any more complaints against him, that he would be removed. Pilate may have feared that Tiberius would use his perceived incompetence as an excuse to execute him for treason. Thus, out of fear, Pilate washes his hands and condemns Jesus to be crucified.
The Fate of Pilate
Ironically, exactly what Pilate feared would happen if he release Jesus came to pass. Scripture makes no further mention of him. (This did not stop the miniseries A.D.: The Bible Continues a.k.a. Kingdom and Empire, based on the Acts of the Apostles, from making Pilate the heavily involved antagonist.) Medieval legend had Mary Magdalene denounce Pilate for unjustly crucifying Christ to Tiberius, who removed him from his post. What is far more likely is what Josephus records concerning the end of his term as praefect. An unnamed Samaritan prophet convinced a large group of followers to gather on Mount Gerizim, the sacred site of the Samaritans. The gathering quickly turned into an armed uprising, which Pilate put down with customary brutality. The Samaritans then complained to Lucius Vitellius, the proconsul of Syria, who ordered Pilate to travel to Rome to face the judgment of the Emperor.
Church historians pick up the story after Josephus. According to Eusebius, Pilate suffered misfortune during the reign of Gaius Caligula. Agapius of Hierapolis stated that Pilate committed suicide during the first year of the reign of Caligula. It is entirely possible, given the length of time that it took to travel, that Tiberius died while Pilate was en route and now Pilate had to stand before Caligula. Caligula is of course infamous for his murderous and barbarous brutality and he did force a number of people to commit suicide. However, he was largely considered to be a just and moderate ruler in his early reign, so if Pilate did commit suicide, it may have been, like that of Judas, out of remorse. Perhaps he did not commit suicide but was simply relieved of his post and lived out the rest of his days in obscurity, not really realizing what a pivotal role he played in the history of the human race. Either way, as is the case with Martin Luther, I pray that the soul of Pontius Pilate is in Heaven, though I seriously doubt it.
“Because by thy Holy Cross, thou hast redeemed the world!”
So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood, see to it yourselves.” -Matthew 27:24
The morning after His trial before the High Priest and the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas and the other Jewish religious leaders brought Jesus before Pontius Pilate, the Roman praefect of the province of Judaea. They already decided that Jesus had to die for claiming to be the Son of God. They could not, however; execute Him under the Law of Moses, which requires that there be two corroborating witnesses for a capital offense. Thus, they had to bring Jesus before Pilate on a charge of sedition.
They were afraid. Many people believed that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah, the descendant of King David who would liberate Israel, return it to its former glory and drive out the Romans.
The Romans appointed the High Priest and allowed him and the Sanhedrin to control Jewish religious affairs with relative autonomy. Caiaphas and the ruling priestly class owed their positions to the Romans because they were seen as being loyal to Roman rule. It was for this reason that Jesus called them “a wicked and corrupt generation,” because they collaborated with the pagan occupiers of their nation. A revolt would have caused Caiaphas and most likely many of the high ranking members of the Sanhedrin to lose their positions. There was even the possibility that the Romans would have disbanded the Sanhedrin. For Caiaphas and the rest of the Sanhedrin to maintain their positions, Jesus had to die.
The Possibility of Rebellion
There was even more at stake than loss of positions. There had been rebellions before, and the Romans had put them down with brutality. The historian Flavius Josephus records that the Romans crucified 2,000 Jews following a rebellion that occurred in the early years of the life of Jesus. There were subsequent rebellions but they were relatively small, with only a handful of diehard followers. All the Gospels describe Bar Abbas as having committed murder during an insurrection. Although the Greek word lestes, used to describe the men who will be crucified on each side of Jesus, is usually translated as “thief” it can also mean “insurrectionist” or “rebel,” and some translations use that instead of “thief.” The two men were likely part of the same insurrection in which Bar Abbas was captured and may have been captured with him.
Jesus had many followers and a rebellion led by Him would have been much larger. It could have been much more successful as well; and that success would cause Rome to send her legions and deal such a crushing blow to Judea that there would never be another rebellion, ever. They would destroy Jerusalem and, more importantly, the Temple. One man had to be crucified to prevent the crucifixions of thousands more.
Pilate Questions Jesus
Pilate questioned Jesus. As the praefect of Judea, he had to take sedition seriously. But when he asked Jesus if He is a king, Jesus simply stated that His kingdom is not an earthly one, and pointed out that if He were an earthly king, His followers would be fighting to save His life. Pilate thought Jesus might be innocent but he could not simply let him go.
Pilate was a shrewd man. He knew that the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus dead for fear that he would lead a rebellion but he did believe that Jesus would actually ever lead a rebellion. He probably realized that the Jewish leaders were jealous of Jesus for the size of His following and afraid that His teachings would diminish their own religious influence. But he also knew that he could not simply dismiss the charges against Jesus out of hand.
More Political Considerations
Pilate had to be more conciliatory to the Jewish leaders because he needed their cooperation to effectively run the province. Pilate’s predecessor Valerius Gratus had replaced the High Priest three times before finally appointing Caiaphas in A.D 18. Caiaphas had served as high priest for eight years when Pilate became prefect and would remain High Priest for the entirety of Pilate’s decade long term. Caiaphas was clearly someone with whom Pilate felt that he could work well. Pilate would not have wanted to squander this good will, especially on a prisoner whom the priests had brought to him with the accusation of sedition against Rome. So, he tried to outmaneuver the High Priest and his entourage.
“Give Us Bar Abbas!”
It is for this reason that Pilate offered to release Bar Abbas. He knew that the Jewish leaders feared that Jesus will lead a rebellion. So instead he offered a prisoner who actually had led one. He is telling the Jewish leaders that as the Roman governor, he does not consider Jesus to be as much of a threat as they are making Him out to be. Bar Abbas was a true threat to Roman power and given the choice between the two, Pilate assumes that the High Priest, focused on keeping the peace and preventing a rebellion, will choose Jesus.
Pilate underestimated the resolve of the Jewish leaders to destroy Jesus. Moreover, he did not take into account the crowd or their agitation. As Pope Benedict XVI points out in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, contrary to popular belief, the crowd that acclaimed Jesus as king when He entered Jerusalem has not suddenly turned on Him. That group was likely composed primarily of Galilean pilgrims who had accompanied Jesus up to Jerusalem. They were likely still asleep at this point. The crowd at the trial of Jesus before Pilate is composed of inhabitants of Jerusalem. They were afraid of Jesus when He arrived in the city.
They have also witnessed Bar Abbas rise up against Roman occupation. Now, their religious leaders are urging them to choose Bar Abbas over a man who has not lifted a finger against their oppressors yet stands accused of blasphemy. It is easy to see how the people of Jerusalem must have thought that their leaders were finally throwing their support behind efforts at winning freedom from the Romans. Therefore, they were more than happy to be manipulated into voicing their support for Bar Abbas.
This choice between Jesus and Bar Abbas is a choice between the true Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, whose crown is of thorns and whose throne is His Cross, and the false messianism that offers worldly power and freedom from both persecution and suffering. It is a choice that will be made again and again over the course of the subsequent two millennia. Every time Christians seek political power in order to avoid persecution, to avoid the Cross, they reject Christ in favor of Bar Abbas.
Son of God
Not only did the High Priest and Jewish leaders call Pilate’s bluff but they upped the ante. Part of the charge against Jesus was that He “made Himself the Son of God.” To a Jew, of course, this is a blasphemous repudiation of the strict monotheism of Judaism. Yet, to a pagan Roman like Pilate, the idea that a seemingly ordinary man could be the son of a god is not far-fetched at all. This is why Pilate becomes afraid and asks Jesus, “Where do you come from?”
However, Pilate had another reason to be scared. To a Roman, the “Son of God” was an imperial title for Caesar. In 42 B. the Senate deified Julius Caesar. Octavian, later known as Caesar Augustus, adopted the title was filius divus Iulii (son of the divine Julius) Augustus himself was deified by his successor Tiberius. Therefore, it could be argued that anyone who called Himself the “Son of God” was setting himself against the authority of Caesar and usurping one of his titles.
Friend of Caesar
Caiaphas drives this point home by telling Pilate, “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar.” In Rome, Friend of Caesar (amicus Caesaris) was a semi-official honorific title. The Jewish leadership was reminding Pilate that his political career could easily be stalled if he does not condemn Jesus. He might never be as powerful or influential as he desired to be.
There is no indication that Pilate was an ambitious man. Moreover, Judaea was a far flung and relatively minor province of the Roman Empire. Tiberius might never have found out what happened on that Friday morning. But the agitation of the crowd could have quickly turned into unrest, unrest into a riot and a riot into full scale rebellion. Jerusalem was a city that could quickly erupt into rebellion at the slightest Roman provocation, especially at Passover. The refusal of a solicited request to release a man seen to be a liberator, especially after that request was ratified by the religious leadership, would have been just such a provocation.
The prime directive of a Roman governor was to keep the peace in his province. A governor who could not do this was seen as incompetent or worse, treasonous. Pilate already had dealt with one uprising relatively recently: the one in which Bar Abbas, and likely the two “thieves,” had been captured. He does not need another one. That, especially if it came as a result of his release of man seen to be an opponent of Caesar, would ensure a that he was removed from office or worse, executed.
The hypocrisy of the High Priest and other Jewish religious leaders is on full display here. Jesus is the Messiah, a descendant of King David, and therefore the rightful king of Israel They reject the true Son of God as a blasphemer because He is a threat to their power and comfort and yet they accept a son of a false god as their ruler by saying “We have no king but Caesar.” This makes matters even worse for Pilate.
So Pilate washes his hands and declares himself to be innocent of the blood of Jesus. “See to it yourselves.” How many times have we been faced with the prospect of doing something that was right but unpopular, the consequences of which would have been great personal or even professional cost? How many times we said “It’s not my problem” or “There’s nothing I can do?” How many times have we metaphorically washed our hands?
For all the times that we have refused to embrace our crosses and rejected You in favor of the worldy power offered by Bar Abbas, forgive us, Lord. For all the times we did not do what was right out of fear of unpopularity and wordly consequences, forgive us, Lord. For all the times we did not speak for the unjustly accused and the innocent, forgive us, Lord.
In my previous piece, I mentioned briefly the principles of Christian typology found in Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings saga. Namely, unlike a direct allegory, one character can be a type of multiple Biblical figures. Frodo’s loyal companion Samwise Gamgee, for example, serves as an image both of St. John the Beloved Disciple and Simon of Cyrene. Conversely, one figure from salvation can be represented by multiple characters. Different aspects of Our Lady are represented by Galadriel, Eowyn and Arwen while the threefold mission of Christ as Priest, Prophet and King is represented by Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn.
Just as the figures of Our Lady and Our Lord are not perfect analogues, neither are other figures from the Passion whom Tolkien chooses to use his characters to represent. In the previous piece, I described how Gollum/Sméagol is a Judas figure. However, Judas is also represented by Denethor, son of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor.
Denethor as Judas
At first, such an identification seems strained. Denethor was not a member of the Fellowship (though his son Boromir was). Moreover, he was not even aware of Frodo and his mission to destroy the Ring until Frodo and Sam were already in Mordor (having been aided in their journey there by his other son Faramir). He does not actively betray anyone, lest of all Frodo (though Boromir does…somewhat). Denethor is a Judas figure because he succumbs to the same sin that Judas did.
The Despair of Denethor
Judas fells remorse soon after the arrest of Jesus, perhaps once his former Master is condemned to death by the Sanhedrin. He goes to the priests, states that Jesus is innocent and tries to give back the silver he was paid to betray Him. After he is coldly and hypocritically rebuffed, he throws the silver away, then goes out and hangs himself. This is despair because he does not believe he can be forgiven and does not want to live with the guilt of his betrayal of Christ.
Denethor’s descent into despair is not so sudden but it is no less dramatic. Denethor gives into a fear that Sauron is so powerful that there is no way to defeat him. He loses all hope and even goes so far as to order his men to abandon their posts and flee, leaving Gandalf to command the defense of the city of Minas Tirith. This despair is exacerbated when Faramir appears to have fallen in a battle to which Denethor sent him. In the end, like Judas, his despair leads him to commit suicide, albeit by self-immolation rather than hanging.
Qui est Petrus?
Who then is Peter? Denethor certainly exhibits some Petrine attributes. He is, after all, Steward of Minas Tirith, the city of the King of Gondor. The purpose of his office is to rule the city in the King’s stead until he returns. (Hence, Gandalf’s rather epic, biblical sounding line, “Authority is not given to you to deny the return of the King, steward!“) Another for steward is “vicar.” Also, many have taken the biblical office of steward in Davidic kingdom (described in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah) to be a prefiguring of the Petrine Office (which is why the reading is often paired with the Gospel reading in which Christ gives the keys to Peter). However, the primary Petrine figure in the Lord of the Rings is Saruman.
Saruman the White
Saruman, like Denethor, was never part of the Fellowship and his actions are more similar to those of Judas as a betrayer rather than Peter as a denier. However, there are certain very “papal” aspects to Saruman’s characters. He is the head of the order of Istari, or wizards, whose job is guard against the rising power of Sauron and lead the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth in combat against. Although he himself is an Istari, Saruman is nevertheless their head. He, like his fellow Istari, carries a staff as symbol of the power of his office. And he wears white robes.
It is not until Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White that he overthrows Saruman and, in effect, takes his place. He does so by magically breaking Saruman’s staff, the symbol of his office. The Petrine nature of Saruman’s office is further made clear in Saruman’s dialogue with Gandalf immediately prior to this. Attempting to sow dissension between Gandalf and his allies, Saruman accuses him of desiring power and using Théoden, Aragorn and others merely as means to that end. Saruman asks Gandalf if he wants “the key of Orthanc.” Orthanc is the name of the tower that is Saruman’s base of operations, one of the eponymous Two Towers.
The Pride and Presumption of Peter
Ultimately however, Saruman is a reflection of Peter not because his actions precisely match those of Peter but that their cause does. Peter is often contrasted with Judas in that Peter is what Judas could have been. Both betrayed Jesus in some way, though the betrayal of Judas is inarguably worse. Nevertheless, they both showed signs of repentance. In the end, Peter requests and receives forgiveness for his denial. Judas on the other hand, sinned against the virtue of hope, despaired of the virtue of hope and hanged himself.
The sin of despair made Judas think that nothing he could do would merit the forgiveness of Jesus. He failed to realize that while this was true, the grace of Christ was sufficient for him and Jesus would have willingly showed mercy on him had he asked. Peter sinned against the virtue of hope but in the opposite way. He presumed that he could remain faithful through his own strength and that he did not need the grace of Christ. Peter told Jesus, with his characteristic brash boldness, that “”Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” (Matthew 26:33) This of course leads Jesus to warn Peter that Satan has demanded “to sift him like wheat” and prophesies Peter’s threefold denial “before the cock crows.” Thus, the parts played in the Passion by Peter and Judas are both caused by the sins against the virtue of Hope.
Likewise In The Lord of the Rings, Denethor falls to despair while Saruman falls to presumption. Gandalf warns Saruman of the dangers of using a “seeing stone” known as palantir. The palantiri were originally created as a means of communication between realms but one was captured by forces of Sauron and therefore corrupted. Gandalf warns Saruman not to use a palantir because Sauron could corrupt and influence him through it. In his pride, Saruman thinks that he is strong enough to contend with the will of Sauron. He ignores Gandalf’s warning and precedes to use the palantir, thus coming under the influence of Sauron. (This can, of course, serve as powerful allegory and warning of the dangers of various occult practices, even “white” magic and fortune-telling)
Through the palantir, Sauron demonstrates his power and convinces Saruman that “against the power that is arising in the East, there is no victory.” However, rather than despairing as Denethor did, Saruman decides to join forces with Sauron, presuming in his pride that he is strong enough to contend with Sauron and treat with him, in not as an equal, at least as a valuable asset. In doing so, he once again ignores the warning of Gandalf that “There is only one Lord of the Ring, only one who can bend it to his will, and he does not share power”
It is barely hinted at in the movies, but in the books, Denethor is also corrupted by his use of a palantir, though which Sauron shows him the forces arrayed against Gondor. Thus, like Peter and Judas, Saruman and Denethor commit the same sin (using a palantir) but the results manifest in different ways. Like Peter and Judas, one sins by presumption and the other by despair.
It is thus no accident, that the one man who can safely use the palantir is Aragorn, who was given the name Estel by his foster-father Elrond. Estel is Elvish for “hope.”
“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the Imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism” -J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 142.
Tolkien and Lewis
Unlike his friend, contemporary and fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis, Tolkien did not approve of nor employ direct allegory. In the Chronicles of Narnia, (contrary to what Liam Neeson would want you to be believe) Aslan IS Jesus. Lewis had the idea that if Jesus were to become incarnate, as He did on earth, in a world mostly populated by talking animals, He would do as a lion. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Aslan tells Lucy that must remain in her world and not return to Narnia again. When her cousin Edmund asks him if he is also present in their world, Aslan responds “I am. But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name.” That name is, of course, Jesus Christ.
In The Lord of the Rings, there is not just one character who is analogous to a figure in salvation history. For example, he has three characters who personify different aspects of Our Lady. Galadriel is the powerful and beautiful “Lady of Light” who represents Mary as Queen. Arwen, who chooses bear marry Aragorn and bear his son, knowing that their deaths will cause her immeasurable sorrow, is the Sorrowful Mother. And Éowyn is the Woman (“No living man am I!”) who fatally strikes at the serpent’s (Dragon/”fell beast”) head.
The same is true for Christ. Aragorn, living a hidden life in exile before ascending to the throne of his ancestors, is obviously Christ as King. Gandalf, warning of the growing power of the Enemy, is Christ as Prophet. And Frodo, who bears a burden of evil that is not his up a mountain so that it may be destroyed, is Christ as Priest. The sacrificial nature of the Passion connects it to the priestly aspect of Christ. Thus, Frodo suffers greatly in his body. Besides being stabbed by the Witch-King and stung by the Shelob, he is wounded in his hand and bears the mark of his suffering there for the rest of his life.
Samwise the Brave
In the Passion Narratives in the Gospels, the Apostles flee upon Christ’s arrest. The Gospel than focuses on three of the Apostles: Peter, John and Judas. Like the Apostles, Frodo’s Fellowship is broken and scattered and he must continue on his quest alone. He is accompanied only by his faithful friend Samwise who stays with him through all his sufferings and is there with him “at the end of all things.” Although he briefly serves the role of Simon of Cyrene, temporarily bearing Frodo’s burden and when that fails, bearing Frodo himself (“I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” still gets me every time), Samwise clearly represents St. John, the Beloved Disciple.
Similarly, Gollum/Sméagol rather clearly represents Judas Iscariot. He enters the service of Frodo and even refers to him as “Master.” Yet, he betrays him. In the end, that betrayal enables Frodo to accomplish his mission. Frodo fails at the very last moment and Gollum forcibly takes the Ring from him, only to fall into the lava of Mount Doom and destroy the Ring along with himself. This to assert (as a certain movie blasphemously did) that Judas is the true hero of the story nor that Jesus could not have accomplished his mission without the betrayal of Jesus. Tolkien having Frodo fall is not a denigration of Christ but rather an affirmation that no Christ-figure is a perfect representation of Our Lord because it is by definition a figure of Christ and not Christ Himself.
It is also an affirmation of the role of Providence. Christian creative imagination, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to modern vampire movies, has damned the betrayal of Judas as a singular evil.
Jesus Himself said, “It would have been better for him had he never been born.” Yet, the evil act facilitated the greatest good ever. When Frodo wishes that his uncle Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chance, Gandalf rebukes him. “[D]o not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends…My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end.” In the same way, though Judas no doubt deserved death, as Gollum did, at the same time he is pitiable, and he had an important part to play in the Passion. As my brother once commented , “Judas is the Gollum of the Gospels.”