14 November 2014

St. Philip

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oday belongs to the apostle Philip, by the reckoning of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Philip was one of the men Jesus specially picked to be in his inner circle, according to legend, and may have been one of his earliest followers if the fourth gospel is relying on some earlier (and with luck reliable) source, rather than just spinning tales as is its wont. As one of the twelve Philip would have been witness to the risen Jesus, and early tradition has it that he died a natural death—and that’s about what we know about the historical Philip, assuming there was such a person.
Papias, collecting his stories in the second century, used to interview people who had known Philip (among other apostles) to learn what he had said about Jesus—what sayings of his he remembered and the like. As his five-volume work is unfortunately lost, we know nothing of what he might have found out. A story he attributed to Philip’s daughters is sort of preserved, but I can’t help wondering if these women weren’t the daughters of a different Philip. This guy is known as the evangelist Philip, to avoid confusion with our present Philip, the apostle Philip. He did have daughters, if The Acts of the Apostles is to be believed.
After that the story of the apostle Philip dissolves into conflicting legends and outright fantasies. He was the very disciple whom Jesus told to drop everything (including burying his dead father) and follow him, for example. He preached in Greece, or upper Asia (take your pick), where, as the Spanish writer Pedro de Ribadeneira put it, “He threw down Idols, built Churches, erected Altars, ordained Priests, and gave a Form and Rule to the People to live like Christians, and like Men newly come out of the Darkness of Idolatry, and delivered from the Slavery of their Sins and Vices, and by a new Light of Heaven, acknowledged Jesus Christ for their God and Redeemer.”
In Hierapolis, “as Simeon Metaphrastes recounteth, [so writes Pedro de Ribadeneira,] he found in a Temple of this City, a strange and monstrous Viper, which the People adored and honoured with Sacrifices, as if it were a God. The Apostle was much afflicted with Sorrow and Compassion, seeing the Blindness of that deluded People, and the grievous Injury done to God, because they gave to the Devil in that Serpent, the Honour, Worship, and Reverence, which was only due to his divine Majesty.” That seems an odd concern, given that according to the narrative “many of [the people] daily perished, some being devoured by the Serpent, and others offered to him in Sacrifice”, but I suppose you can’t expect a saint to look at things in a normal manner. They’re commissioned agents of a Supernatural Power, and His interests clearly come first.
So what does Philip do? Does he go after the people who are feeding the serpent human flesh? Does he force them to stop it, and feed the damn creature its natural prey—or maybe release it into its habitat? Of course not. That would be sane. That would be just. That would be very unlike a saint. No, Philip curses the serpent, and it dies, “and the People were delivered from the Damages they received by him, and better disposed to admit of the Evangelical Light, and the Doctrine that the holy Apostle preached to them.” In other words, the problem with the serpent as Philip saw it was that it was an impediment to advertising his particular nostrum.
I originally intended to hook this up to some observations about the bridal chamber stuff in the Gospel of Philip, but time has run out and anyway James McGrath did something more interesting with the Nag Hammadi tractate. I wish I’d thought of it.

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