Isidore of Pelusium on Romans 1:28-29

1245 (IV.59) TO POLYCHRONIOS

Since you ask me in your letter: For what reason was it that “God gave them over to an intelligence without judgement” [Rom. 1:28-29] ? I will answer: If you read the next bit, you will understand and you will have no more uncertainty. In fact it reads: “Filled with every kind of injustice”; so, after indicating vice in general, he then goes in detail through the species of vices. So if He has given over people who were, not about to be filled with vice, but already filled with it, he’d have been talking nonsense.

If this isn’t clear to you, although actually it is clear, I will try to give a clearer interpretation of this.

(Paul) did not say: “When they were given over…, they were filled…”, nor: “They were given over… in order to be filled…”, but: ‘(already) filled, he gave over them’, i.e.: he abandoned those who deprived themselves of his help, as a general abandons soldiers who, disobeying his orders, are beaten by their own fault, by depriving themselves of his power. Because those who, of themselves, allowed themselves to be filled with every kind of vice, he rightly gave them over and abandoned: he did not make them “an intelligence without judgement”, but he let them run off.

Our bibles render “an intelligence without judgement” as “a depraved mind”.  God does not throw us into depravity; He lets us run into it, if we are determined to do so.  A further snippet makes up the next letter:

1246 (V.26) TO THE SAME

Just as the quality of the site of a city is closely related to the quality of the climate [of the location], in the same way for hearts, a good disposition to virtue helps the divine alliance along.

In other words, if you are naturally virtuous, this will help lead you into a relationship with Christ.  Well, maybe; but I’m not at all sure that the apostles would have agreed.  Won’t the naturally virtuous tend to be proud, like the Pharisee? Pride obstructs the recognition of sin, and so prevents repentance and conversion at all.

A couple more letters by Isidore of Pelusium

Explanations of biblical passages form quite a portion of the letters.

1243 (IV.48) TO AMMONIUS

For fear of presumption,  a terrible ill from which one can escape with difficulty, lest we remain on earth and be deprived of the heavenly rewards, the Lord said:  “Now let us leave this place!” [John 14:31]  Indeed, having engaged His own power in the word which He spoke, He delivered his true disciples from tyrannical passions and made them pass into the celestial assembly.

The French editor, Pierre Evieux, tells is that the following letter is also preserved in the catenas on Romans found in two manuscripts, Vatican. gr. 762 (10th c.) and Vienna. Theol. gr. 166 (14th c.). 

In Romans 1:32, Paul condemns people who, not merely commit a sin, but even approve of those who do the same.  Theologios queries why it is wrong to consider those who encourage sin in others as worse than those who actually commit the sin themselves.  Isidore’s reply is interesting as showing that some were willing to suppose a corruption in the text here.

1244 (IV.60) TO THEOLOGIOS THE DEACON

Since you’ve provided us the occasion to return to the apostolic treasures — in fact you said:  ‘It says “Not only do they do this, but also they approve of those who do this” [Rom. 1:32] and you added:  If the approval is worse than the action itself, why did Paul adopt this order [of words] here?’ — call a little upon your good sense to work out the sense of the apostolic saying which is escaping you, and listen. 

There are some people who did not understand the quotation but which, being embarassed like yourself and supposing that the apostolic expressions are corrupt, have interpreted them this manner: “Not only are there  those who do this, but also those who approve those who do this.”  According to them, the primitive text was presented thus to make it understood that the action was the more serious and approval of it less serious.  For me, without saying that the apostolic books display an error in this passage, without siding either with those who did not understand — because perhaps, even if they are wrong on this passage, on others they are right, and they have caught the direction of passages that, for my part, I did not manage to understand — I will set out what I understood and will allow the judgement of the readers to decide if I am right. 

So, in my opinion, it is because to praise the culprits is much more wong and more serious from the point of view of the punishment that this sentence is relevant:   “Not only do they do this, but also they approve of those who do this.” Because he who condemns his sin after the misdeed will be able in time to repent one day, finding the judgment of the sin a very great help in changing his attitude;  while he who speaks in praise of the evil will deprive himself of the help which repentance procures.  So because this judgement concerns a corrupt conscience and a heart tainted with an incurable disease, he who speaks in praise of the fault of the culprit is rightly judged more culpable.  Because the one will very quickly be diverted from sin, the other not at all, according to whether the judgement relates to he who commits the misdeed or he  who approves it. 

A bit more on the Zosimus affair

Isidore of Pelusium writes to his friend Harpocras about the gang of corrupt clergy in Pelusium:

1285 (V.48) TO HARPOCRAS THE SOPHIST.

Undoubtedly it is to better endure insults in silence, like a philosopher, but your attitude is not without elegance either.  Indeed, as a victim of individuals known for their perversity, I mean Zosimus, Maron, Eustathios and Martinianos, you had found malicious to avenge yourself on them by bringing them to justice, but also reducing their supporters to silence:  then, you inflicted on these insolent men a verbal punishment, limiting it to sarcastic remarks which usually wound those at which they aim without being dangerous.  However, in my opinion, the initial reasoning which encouraged you to write is better than the text itself;  therefore I would advise you to add to it what is lacking, i.e. a noble attitude and language free from scandalmongering.  Because even if those people deserve to hear these sarcastic remarks and others even more severe, however it would be wrong for you to pronounce them, you whose language is a sanctuary of purity. 

Harpocras received 28 letters from Isidore, and was teaching in Pelusium.  He composed a monody against these clerics, which is mentioned several times in the correspondence (e.g. 1291, 1292).

Another letter to Zosimus from Isidore of Pelusium

Yesterday I gave translations of two letters from Isidore to the corrupt priest Zosimus.  Here is another, although the context is unclear.  But it seems that once again Isidore is attempting to reason away the excuses offered by a man who just doesn’t give a damn.  It would be nice to know just why Isidore is bothering.  Are these letters public letters, one wonders?

1241 (V.24)  TO ZOSIMUS, PRIEST

You seemed to have a good pretext for your last offence to forgive yourself as avenging your brother. But for your current offence, you have nothing of the sort to cover yourself, and you have even lost the benefit of the first forgiveness. Because if you were avenging earlier the wrongs done to your brother, how does it happen that you aren’t ashamed to do wrong today to him whose defence you claim to undertake, and to torment him by every means?  This last offence is enough evidence to show that you deliberately commited the first one as well, because he who would not rescue a brother, how could he have rescued a foreigner?

A gay clergyman in Pelusium

Some problems are always with us. It is always hard to believe that someone is a deliberate villain, even when all the evidence points that way. Isidore of Pelusium was neither the first nor the last to encounter one; nor the last spiritual counsellor to discover that he was dealing with a rogue.

1228 (V.12) TO ZOSIMUS, PRIEST

Many people — perhaps it would be too harsh to say “all people” – scoff at you, and do so extremely violently and bitterly. I wish they were wrong! But when he who is your own brother, groaning and deploring on your account, has submitted to us the same report, indeed a report more overpowering, by begging us to drag you out, if possible, from this abyss of vice where you have grown old in your misfortune, often rejecting those who were exhorting you not to go with those to whom you have entrusted yourself, then I address this letter to you.

I do so that you may become master of yourself and that you may blush at the shame at your immodesty, at the old age towards which you are being drawn, at the sacred priesthood which you have acquired I do not know how, at the misdeeds and actual scandals, and that you cease to wallow in vice, acting the young man “on the threshold of old age”.

Indeed how will you exhort the young people to temperance, if you don’t even exhort yourself at the time of old age? How can you not tremble to behave thus and yet approach the altar? How do you dare to touch the immaculate mysteries?

I warn you — even if this pains you, the truth must be said in all frankness — stop acting like this, or at least keep away from the venerable altar; fear to attract one day the fire of heaven on your own head [1], to provide the weak with good reasons to use the sort of language which they like.

[1] An allusion to the fire which destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. This indicates the sort of scandalous vices that Zosimus was practising. In other letters Isidore is equally frank: n° 671, 795, 1326 (5.77), 1508 (5.220), 1754 (5.389), 1729 (5.373), cf. Is. de P., p. 217, and n. 138.

1229 (V.13) TO THE SAME

I learn that a wise man, detached from riches and a defender of virtue [1], has met you, that he did all that was necessary to correct you, but saw himself dismissed without having achieved anything, without having been able to help you; your disease appeared stronger than his medical art. Whereas you should have, charmed by the beauty of his ideas, full of admiration for his intelligence and respect for the nobility of his feelings, put a limit to your vice, you dismissed him, not only as a failure, but even with an insult.

What must be done then? If nobody can be of any help to you, if even advice is merely treated as mistaken, if the laughter of people doesn’t matter, if the public scandal appears negligible to you, if you are inaccessible to the fear of God, if the threat of judgement makes you laugh, it seems that without knowing it we have been dealing with a heart of stone.

[1] Perhaps the sophist Harpocras or the cornes Herminos.

To the selfish, the church is merely an opportunity for self-advancement or plunder, not something with whose reputation they are in any way concerned.  Parallels with men of similar vices in our own days are not far to seek.

Eusebius “Quaestiones” in Isidore of Pelusium

The Differences in the Gospels and their Solutions by Eusebius of Caesarea is quoted all over the place.  One stray quotation appears in the letters of Isidore of Pelusium.  In the Migne edition this is book 2, letter 212, (PG 78, col. 651).  This letter consists entirely of a quotation from the Quaestiones Ad Marinum; how can we say that Jesus was dead for 3 days?  The text here is of course a corrective for that published by Mai, and I must send it to my translator.

Scum in the church: Isidore comments

The scumbag ecclesiastic is a perennial figure, his hands ever grasping the property of others, ever active in promoting evil, mouth ever open against any who dare to suggest that his life and actions are condemned by Christ.  Bishop Eusebius of Pelusium has ordained one of his sidekicks, a man named Zosimus, conspicuous for his evil life.

1382. (V.116) TO CASIUS THE PRIEST

In your letter, you express your astonishment: how can the unworthy consecration of Zosimus appear right to the man who has illegally ordained him?  I reply: your indignation, being of the kind that arises from a horror of wickedness, is legitimate, no-one can deny that!  But I advise you to keep your tongue free of all evil-speaking.  Although that man does indeed deserve a thrashing a thousand times over, as you write — because instead of being improved by his responsibility, he has taken on the priesthood as a tool to serve his vices and to do the intolerable — you mustn’t soil your mouth while exposing his shameful deeds and scabrous morals to the public.

Some 1843 translations of ancient letters, including Isidore of Pelusium

In 1843 William Roberts translated a selection of the letters of Isidore of Pelusium into English, as part of his book A History of Letter Writing from the earliest period to the fifth century.  I stumbled across a copy of the PDF which I must have downloaded ages ago, while looking around my hard disk for something to read during a period of no internet access.  Isn’t Google Books wonderful?  The book also contains letters of Phalaris, Cicero, Apollonius of Tyana, Synesius, and so forth.  I will scan these and make them available in due course.

Further letters of Isidore of Pelusium

In his cell outside the Egyptian city of Pelusium, ca. 430 AD, Isidore of Pelusium is still writing spiritual advice to us all. 

Some are doing well.  But it can be risky to be proud of success in overcoming temptation:

1225 (V.10) TO SYMMACHUS

In the civil wars, even if the conquerors are more unfortunate than the conquered — indeed they have more to blush about, precisely because they did whatever was done more than the others did — they will in any case oppose each other with the idea of a reconciliation in mind. But in us, where the warfare is more relentless than in the civil war — because it takes place inside a single being — it takes place without the idea of a reconciliation in mind. On the contrary, one sees he who has done more of it than his adversary glorify himself for it, whereas he should blush! Because punishment is reserved for the author of the drama, rather than for those who are simply its victims.

Others haven’t quite grasped why they need to renounce what they imagine to be the “innocent pleasures” of contemporary society:

1226 (V.11) TO MARTINIANUS, ZOSIMUS, MARON, EUSTATHIUS

My dear chaps, flee from vice: it is capable of making its devotees mad and foolish. Pursue virtue: it is capable of rendering those who stick to it wise, and of maintaining in them a good disposition. Because there is often gentleness and serenity in their eyes, this shows that in them a spirit full of wisdom has entered everywhere.

The legislation of Constantine made it financially profitable to become a priest and thereby avoid the ever-increasing taxes that finally destroyed the late Roman economy.  A century later, the theological standard of the ordinary priests could be low.  Some didn’t even understand that Jesus was God.  Gently Isidore addresses this:

1227 (IV. 166) TO ARCHIBIUS THE PRIEST

You were saying that you did not understand the expression “In him all the fullness of the divinity dwells, corporeally“; myself, I think that this expression is put for substantially. Because this is not an operation of the divinity produced by the substance who governed this immaculate temple, but a substance with innumerable operations: it was not a fraction of a gift, but the source of all good. It is, he means, He himself who reigns with the Father, who reigns in heaven and governs the earth, who was made man and, with the weapons of a combatant, took up position in the line of battle, at the same time organizing the world, ensuring victory to mankind, putting to rout the demon kidnappers, throwing down their chief who was swollen with pride, and filling the Church with innumerable gifts. This is a king, he says, who has been a general, not a general who could have been spared the title of king; this is the king who in the shape of a slave hid his own dignity in the battle, not a simple soldier who assumed the title of king. He was a king when he legislated, not a simple soldier starting to legislate: because the expression “I say to you” is that of a king; “I do want, be purified!” is that of a sovereign; “May it be for you as you wish” comes from someone with absolute power; “Be silent, silence” is that of a lord; and all the expressions of this kind which I don’t want to enumerate in full so as not to lengthen my letter.

But if you are shocked by the Passion, an audacious temptation against God which reached only his flesh, listen to the choir of the apostles: “But, he says, as Christ suffered in his flesh.” If thus He who had received in His hands the keys of Heaven has shown that the flesh suffered in a real sense — it alone was accessible to suffering because the divine is impassive — if even, because they had put the heir to death, the Jews suffered more than in any tragedy, don’t let yourself be disturbed by the Passion, but let it lead you to make full thanksgivings, because the king, the impassive one, who could not accept the shadow of a change, has delivered his own flesh, and appearing many times as a weak man, thought up a stratagem to surprise the evil one, and having produced brilliant trophies of victory, has risen up to Heaven, and returned to the dwelling of his nature.

But if, as some say, he was simply a man, lacking in divine grace, why then did the Jews, when they killed a great number of the saints, not undergo the same fate in turn, while, because of Him, no tragedy can bear comparison with their sufferings? Well, it is obvious that the first were only saints, while Him, he was the only-begotten God who had condescended to be made man. They did not have same dignity when they went to the torment: they were servants. He, he was the Master; this is what involved the Jews in relentless punishment. “Here the heir,” they say. The vine growers threw themselves on the heir to kill him, and not on a servant like themselves, on the real son of the Master, and not on one of themselves which had been raised to the dignity of son. How indeed was the Son was sent after the servants, He should be respected? How was it that he was called the second man come from the sky? How did God come here, if he cooperated with man? How did He abase himself, when He was the equal of God? How did God send his Son with a flesh similar to that of the sinners? Or how is there not scorn for the Sacred mysteries, when they claim to be the body and the blood of a man? How did he say: “You have provided me with a body”? How must He also have something to offer to him? How, by His own blood did he release the prisoners? How did they crucify the Lord of glory? How was the Word made flesh? How did the Father, having spoken on several occasions and in many ways in the prophets, then speak in His Son? Or again, how did the Son share much the same living conditions (as ourselves)? Well, rather than overpower your attention by an exhaustive enumeration, I will say just one thing which summarizes them all: to pronounce humble words while being God, this is to carry out effectively the economy of salvation, and that causes no damage to His immaculate substance; on the other hand, to pronounce divine and supernatural words, when one is just a man, is the height of presumption. Because, while a king can allow himself to be ordinary in his remarks and his thought, for a soldier or a General, to speak like a king is prohibited. If thus he were God, as precisely he was, by being made man there is a place for the humble things; while if he were only a man, there is no place for that which is above.

Isidore the pastor

Isidore of Pelusium is still writing to those seeking his advice.  The first is an erudite bishop, who would like to be seen as a philosopher.

1219 (=IV.174) TO MARINOS, BISHOP

I find that the definition that the illustrious Job gives of wisdom and knowledge is a happy one: “To worship God is wisdom; to keep far away from evil is knowledge”; because, in truth, the supreme wisdom is a right conception of God, and the divine knowledge is a perfect way of life: the first has a right opinion of the divine, the second keeps far away from evil; the one uses words to speak about God, we estimate the other by its acts. So if one who loves God and is loved by him is at the same time wise and erudite, he has both the virtue of contemplation and the one of action, one as a soul, the other as a body; how can we look like exceptional philosophers if we neglect to live as well as possible and apply ourselves only to speaking well?

Pierre Evieux points out that the last sentence is an echo of the advice of Socrates, in Plato’s Gorgias

Another correspondent considering Christianity is plainly having difficulty with the cult of the martyrs.  The Roman cry of Vae victis – “stuff the losers” – ran all the way through paganism.  How can losing be anything but shameful? 

1220 (=V.5) TO DOMITIUS, COUNT

Defeat, my very wise friend, is not death in combat; it is to be afraid of the enemy and to throw down your shield: but he whose body lets him down when he tries to show bravery, the rule is that his name is inscribed on the trophy; likewise we see the athletes killed during the fight honoured by the organizers of these combats more than those who did not encounter the same fate. So if this is so, why do think you that, for the martyrs, death is a defeat, instead of seeing in it a reason to celebrate them all the more? Because the end of that combat is not to keep the body alive – which lived only for the torturers and which they put to death – but to not diminish the glory of virtue.

Evieux notes that when gladiatorial games began, a trophy was awarded, inscribed with the names of the gods, especially Zeus; but in a later era, the trophy of victory was inscribed with the names of those killed in the process.

Meanwhile the worldly advantages of a late Roman episcopate continued to have an evil effect on the worse sort of lesser clergy.

221 (V.6) TO PALLADIUS, DEACON

If neither the greatness of the episcopate, nor a conduct which in no way deserves it, nor the word of the apostle who defines what a bishop must be, nor the incorruptible tribunal which will pronounce an undeniable verdict, nor anything else draws aside you from the madness which transports you with a foolish desire and makes you hope to buy this dignity, least let yourself be persuaded by the pagans.

It is told that Pittacus received the government of the Mitylenians, and when he had overcome Phrynon, the chief of Rhegion, in single combat he wanted to return this power to them. When they did not agree to receive it, he forced them to. He did not want to be a tyrant, but an ordinary person.

So if one who by risking his life personally had acquired power, voluntarily laid it down — he was removed from danger, he was discharged from tyranny, and that because he had no account to return to anyone — you who are not even in law a simple taxpayer, so it is said, take on a burden with high responsibility, called to return multiple accounts, higher than any human dignity, a burden which you should not accept even if it were offered to you; well! look at what you dream of buying, not only without hiding, but to glorify yourself! Who then will not reproach such an audacity?

 Even the sub-deacons were worrying away at Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, V, X, 2-3). “If what is fair and what is just are equal, prefer to be fair.  What causes the problem is that being fair can be against the law; it’s like watering down justice.”  Isidore replies:

1222 (=V.7) TO PALLADIUS, SUB-DEACON

It would be right that a fair man should adopt an attitude more human than the man of a too strict justice. Because it is more fitting for him to show himself human, than for the man of justice.

Which sidesteps the problem rather, while endorsing Aristotle’s precept.  A problem familiar to every confessor, and to every self-help group, follows:

1223 (=V.8) TO ALPHIUS, SUB-DEACON

Better not to be caught by vice; if we are caught, it is to better know that we are caught and quickly to become ourselves again, like after getting drunk. Because he who is caught but does not think of being caught, his sickness is incurable.

Education is the concern of everyone who finds himself a parent.  The school curriculum remained based on the pagan classics as late as 1453.  But the tension between the Christian family and the needs of a worldly education remain even today.  Isidore highlights the key point:

1224 (=V.9) TO AMMONIUS, SCHOLASTICUS

Those who when their children are still very small in the first place sow a notion of excellence and divine providence, in the second place a sense of virtue, these, because they are not only parents but also excellent teachers, will obtain divine rewards. While those who implanted polytheism and vice in them, since they sacrificed their children to the demons, will receive the reward which they deserve.