Saturday, February 27, 2016

Justice Scalia, St. Hubert, and the Manichaeans

The media is abuzz this week with the revelation that Justice Antonin Scalia died while on a hunting expedition with several prominent members of a 300-year-old Bohemian secret society, the Order of St. Hubertus. The owner of the hunting lodge where he passed away is a prominent member of this order, as was Scalia’s traveling companion.

I will leave the criticisms of this society and its pursuits to the author of the article and any readers who find them interesting. What I find interesting is the historical and philological background of the St. Hubert legend behind the society, some key elements of which I have bold-highlighted in the excerpt below.
Origins of the Hubert Legend

St. Hubert is the Germanic patron saint of hunters and fishers. He is perhaps most famous as the Jägermeister (“Master Hunter”)—the basis for the stag-crucifix emblem of frat-party legend. The legend of Hubert describes him as an impious eighth-century aristocrat who flouted religious duty by hunting on Good Friday. In pursuit of a magnificent stag, he is interrupted and admonished by the stern voice of Christ in the presence of the majestic deer, and witnesses a radiant vision of the crucifixion in the animal’s enormous horns.

In repentance for his sins, he renounces his worldly ambitions, is ordained, and subsequently lives a pious life of solitude in the forest where he then has his faith repeatedly tested.

Virtually the same legend is attributed to an earlier Roman saint, Eustace (née Placidus), set in the second century. In that version, the protagonist is a pagan general in Emperor Trajan’s army on the Asian frontier of the Roman Empire, likewise converted by Christ in the form of a fleeing deer.

But in an intriguing example of the migration of religious myth, the single biography of Hubert/Eustace is now believed by many scholars to be a Christianized synthesis of two famous Buddhist legends.

The first act of the story is based on an eighth-or-ninth century Syriac translation of the first-century Nigrodhamiga-Jātaka, the legend of King Brahmadatta of Benares and the Banyan Deer. Here the Hubert/Eustace character is the great King Brahmadatta. The Bodhisattva (future Buddha) is the majestic King of the Deer. The animal Bodhisattva’s horns radiate silver light and the deer’s eloquent speech compels this erstwhile hunter king to become a champion of the dharma of the Buddha.

The second act of both hagiographies is a Christianization of the Visvantara-Jātaka, with Hubert/Eustace now cast in the role of the Bodhisattva himself. (Visvantara is famously the penultimate incarnation of the historical Buddha.)

Some have raised the possibility that the Buddhist-Christian parallels are coincidental, insisting instead that the narrative is derived exclusively from the Book of Job. However, the strongest proof of the Indian origins of these texts is not merely the fact that they share a common plot. It is the telltale use of a South Asian place name: Hydapses (Jhelum in Panjab). It has been persuasively argued that the anachronistic setting of the Eustace legend far beyond the Syrian borders of Roman Asia links the narrative conclusively to the Buddhist originals.

Furthermore, there was a straightforward historical process for the synthesis of Christian and Buddhist canonical texts within classical Manichaean monasteries of the Silk Road.

Mani was a third-century ascetic Persian prophet who was born of a Christian family but regarded Gautama Buddha as a previous incarnation of Jesus Christ. Mani’s followers redacted Buddhist narratives under the rubric of Western theology. Saint Augustine was the most famous ex-Manichee, and Manichaeism for Western Christianity is regarded (since Augustine’s time) as a contemptible heresy. Nonetheless, Manichaeism was the most successful Gnostic Church in history, and enjoyed a degree of state support in Central Asia at precisely the right moment to act as a permeable “membrane” between Buddhist and Christian monastic cultures.
All this sounds speculative, but nonetheless entirely plausible. The Book of Giants underwent a somewhat parallel process, starting with a Second Temple-era Jewish Aramaic text, which Mani adopted as scripture in a Syriac version. This version was transmitted over a wide geographical area and freely adapted versions of it survive in fragments of medieval translations in Iranian and Turkic. Another version of the story was retold in Hebrew. The story was also known in Arabic-speaking circles and even in China. Manichaeism ultimately fizzled out as a religion, but it first spread far and wide for many centuries.

Cross-file under "Manichaean (Manichean) Watch." Run that search term through the PaleoJudaica search engine for endless relevant posts. Some recent past posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. For past posts on the Book of Giants, see here and here and links etc.