True Christian Manliness: On the Acts of St Andrew

Here in St Andrews, oddly enough, we mark St Andrews Day in various ways—this year I shall be at a graduation ceremony and, in best Hobbit style, at two formal luncheons. To mark it on a blog, I turn the to apocryphal Acts of Andrew, or rather to what we have left of them.

Attributed by Pope Innocent I to a pair of ‘philosophers’ named Xenocharides and Leonidas, and a century and some earlier by Pilaster of Brescia to ‘disciples who followed the apostle’, we have a set of fragments in various languages, together with an apparently-garbled Latin summary by Georgius Florentius Gregorius, which together were reconstructed in the 1980s into two slightly different versions of the text by Jean-Marc Prieur (whose edition is published in CCSA 5 & 6) and Dennis MacDonald (who published in the SBL Texts and Translations series, vol. 33). The lost original can be dated to around, perhaps before, AD200.

There is little doubt that the authors intended to construct a Christian version of Homer’s Odyssey, a text which was being used by Greek writers in the early Christian centuries as an allegory of the soul’s journey. The connection with St Andrew, MacDonald hypothesises, is not in any way historical but because ‘Andrew’ represents masculinity, and the text is a Christian attempt to reconstruct visions of masculinity. MacDonald says ‘the AA replaces the ethically questionable traits of Homeric heroes with Christian virtues. Instead of Odysseus’s wealth, sex, and violence, the heroes here represent poverty, chastity, and military disobedience.’ (p. 55)

In the miracles reported in the Acts, warriors are repeatedly disarmed. Sometimes (e.g. Gregory’s summary, 9) this is against their will; other times, Andrew prevails upon his followers not to fight, but often there is a conversion to pacifism. Examples of the last two occur in the story in Gregory 18, and the longer version of it in the fragment preserved in the Coptic ms Utrecht 1: Soldiers are sent after Andrew, and a crowd comes armed to protect him, but he dissuades them from fighting. Then it turns out one of the soldiers is demonised; when he is delivered he throws off his military uniform and declares that from now on he seeks to be clothed in the uniform of God. The fragment ends with his confession, ‘there is no sword in his [Andrew’s] hand, nor any instrument of war, but these great acts of power issue from his hand.’ Masculinity is re-ordered by this text away from violence and militarism, towards pacifism and intentional peace-making.

Mercy is another striking feature of the text. Repeatedly Andrew is depicted as raising from the dead those who have been struck down by God in judgement against their evil deeds so that they might repent. This happens with Varianus’s son in Gregory 18, and with the Myrmidons in the Acts of Andrew and Matthias in the City of the Flesh Eaters (which MacDonald has as the first book of the Acts of Andrew, but Prieur has as a separate text). In Gregory 23 Callisto, a proconsul’s wife, is struck down dead for falsely accusing a convert, Trophime, of adultery (a crime she herself is guilty of); Andrew raises her from the dead, even after her husband suggests she deserved death and should be left, and then invites her to repent. In the Acts of Andrew, to be a proper man is to be merciful.

The story of Trophime gets us to questions of sexual ethics. It seems that the original Acts saw even marriage as impure, and commended chastity instead (Gregory conceals this in his summary); one of the recurrent motifs of this, however, is the protection of women threatened with rape or sexual violence. Trophime is enslaved into prostitution as a result of Callisto’s accusation; she is miraculously protected from all who would abuse her, in one case by the appearance of an angel who strikes the man down dead (and she then raises him from the dead; mercy triumphs over judgement once more!).

Andrew is martyred by Aegeates, the proconsul of Patras, because he encouraged the proconsul’s wife Maximilla to stand firm in her desire not to have sex with her husband. Aegeates presents his wife with an ultimatum: if she will be sexually active, Andrew will be freed; if not, he will be tortured and killed. Undoubtedly in the narrative her desire to be celibate stems from an unhealthy ethic; behind that, however, it is striking that Andrew is martyred defending a very modern, and feminist, concept: ‘no means no’ (even in marriage).

We might finally note humility; the servant who denounces Andrew and those who have been converted by him to Aegeates speaks of Stratocles thus: ‘Even though he is of noble stock … addressed as brother of the proconsul Aegeates, he carries his own little oil flask to the gymnasium. Even though he owns many slaves, he appears in public doing his own chores—buying his own vegetables, bread, and other necessities and carrying them on foot through the centre of the city—making himself look simply repulsive to everyone.’ (MacDonald tr.) Stratocles, a renowned fighter before his conversion, has become meek and humble despite his social status. This is what it is to be a true man, according to the Acts.

In a text which seems so intent on re-ordering masculinity, it is striking that the word is only used once, towards the beginning of the passion narrative: a demon has possessed a boy, and has him rolling and thrashing around. A crowd gathers, unable to help but fascinated; Andrew pushes through, and then rebukes the demon. ‘Immediately the demon relented and said in a masculine [Gk epandron] voice ‘I flee, servant of God!’ Surely here there is a mocking of Greco-Roman ideas of masculinity, of Homer’s heroes even? Violence and control collapse into cowardice and flight in the face of true authority.

True masculinity, according to this text, which for all its flights of fancy has drunk deeply of apostolic truth, is humble, non-violent, merciful, and respectful of a woman’s right to exercise her sexuality as she choses. The Andrew of this text never existed, but he has plenty to teach us.

 

2 Comments

  1. Matt Thornton
    Dec 1, 2016

    Excellent post. I loved the comment about ‘no means no’. Go Andrew!

    I was wondering – is your url “steverholmes” because you’re more stever than other steves? Who is the steviest, do you think?

  2. Chris Wooldridge
    Jan 3, 2017

    Steve,

    This is nothing like the modern view. This text is driven by an ascetic view which understands sex in a negative light, possibly based on an over-realised eschatology. It is rooted in the suppression of individual desire and self-expression. In extreme contrast to this, the modern view elevates individual self-expression as the highest ideal of all.

    Of course, the text is also completely wrong in its ethical approach. 1 Corinthians 7 teaches that husband and wife should render to one another and not deprive one another.

    Chris

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