Delirious Melons: Watermelons, Cucumbers, and Gourds in Early Christian Polemics

As a child, every year during the week leading up to Halloween I would sit in front of the television and watch the drama of Shulz’s It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown painfully unfold before my eyes. With increasing consternation I’d witness Linus’s perennial misplaced faith decimated as he waited in vain for the Great Pumpkin to rise out of the pumpkin patch, fly through the air, and deliver toys to all the good little children in the world.

Of course, every year Linus’s gullible sister Sally, betrayed by her brother’s cultish fanaticism, unleashed her rage toward Linus for tricking her into yet another year of utter disappointment:

I was robbed! I spent the whole night waiting for the Great Pumpkin when I would’ve been out for Tricks or Treats! HALLOWEEN IS OVER AND I MISSED IT! You blockhead! You kept me up all night waiting for the Great Pumpkin, and all that came was a BEAGLE! I didn’t get a chance to go out for Tricks or Treats, and it was all YOUR fault! I’LL SUE! What a fool I was! I could have had candy, apples, and gum; and cookies and money and all sorts of things! But NO! I had to listen to YOU! You blockhead! What a fool I was! Tricks or Treats comes only once a year, and I miss it by sitting in a pumpkin patch with a blockhead! YOU OWE ME RESTITUTION!

So, from an early age I associated the pumpkin with disappointment. It became a symbol of deception, a sacrament of folly, a seal of derision. But it wasn’t until my study of patristics that I came to realize that this association has a prominent place in ancient Christian polemics. For example, in his famous diatribe against Valentinus’s imagined system of emanations, Irenaeus of Lyons chose to lob metaphorical gourds, cucumbers, and melons at his opponents:

Iu, Iu! Pheu, Pheu!—for well may we utter these tragic exclamations at such a pitch of audacity in the coining of names as he has displayed without a blush, in devising a nomenclature for his system of falsehood. For when he declares, “there is a certain Proarche before all things, surpassing all thought, whom I call Monotes” and again, “with this Monotes there co-exists a power which I also call Henotes,” it is quite obvious that he confesses the things which have been said to be his own invention, and that he himself has given names to his scheme of things, which had never been previously suggested by any other. It is obvious also that he himself is the one who has had sufficient audacity to coin these names; so that, unless he had appeared in the world, the truth would still have been destitute of a name. But, in that case, nothing hinders any other, in dealing with the same subject, to affix names after such a fashion as the following: There is a certain Proarche, royal, surpassing all thought, a power existing before every other substance, and extended into space in every direction. But along with it there exists a power which I term a Gourd; and along with this Gourd there exists a power which again I term Utter-Emptiness. This Gourd and Emptiness, since they are one, produced (and yet did not simply produce, so as to be apart from themselves) a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious, which fruit-language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon. These powers, the Gourd, Utter-Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought forth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.11.4)

Clearly in Irenaeus’s day gourds, cucumbers, and melons grew wild and free— “everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious.” This is, in fact, in keeping with Sir David Livingston’s discovery of watermelons in central Africa, where he found melon upon melon as far as the eye could see. It is equally clear that they served as ready weapons of derision—natural vehicles for communicating one’s negative estimation of another’s ideas.

This use of melons as means of mockery is seen in polemical statements in the writings of Tertullian of Carthage. In his treatise On the Soul 32, he wrote, “But the fact is Empedocles, who used to dream that he was a god and on that account, I suppose, disdained to have it thought that he had ever before been merely some hero, declares in so many words: ‘I once was Thamnus, and a fish.’ Why not rather a melon, seeing that he was such a fool?” Clearly Tertullian—like Irenaeus before him—associated melons with folly.

In Against Marcion 2.18 Tertullian commented on the insanity of the Israelites’ longing for a return to Egypt: “When, again, the law took somewhat away from men’s food, by pronouncing unclean certain animals which were once blessed, you should understand this to be a measure for encouraging continence, and recognize in it a bridle imposed on that appetite which, while eating angels’ food, craved after the cucumbers and melons of the Egyptians.” Tertullian intentionally left out other foods mentioned in Numbers 11:5 (e.g., delicious leeks and aromatic onions). This was most likely done to highlight the utter folly of the Israelites, as cucumbers and melons were already associated with idiocy in North Africa.

Perhaps the greatest passage in Tertullian illustrating the early polemical use of melons is Against Marcion 4.40—“Then, having taken the bread and given it to His disciples, He made it His own body, by saying, ‘This is my body,’ that is, the figure of my body. A figure, however, there could not have been, unless there were first a veritable body. An empty thing, or phantom, is incapable of a figure. If, however, as Marcion might say, He pretended the bread was His body, because He lacked the truth of bodily substance, it follows that He must have sacrificed bread for us. It would contribute very well to the support of Marcion’s theory of a phantom body, that bread should have been crucified! But why call His body bread, and not rather some other edible thing, say, a melon, which Marcion must have had in lieu of a heart!”

At the close of the patristic period, Augustine of Hippo denounced the Manichaeans for worshiping melons as divine. He wrote, “Tell me then, first, where you get the doctrine that part of God, as you call it, exists in corn, beans, cabbage, and flowers and fruits. From the beauty of the color, say they, and the sweetness of the taste. . . . Why do you look upon a yellow melon as part of the treasures of God, and not rancid bacon fat or the yolk of an egg?” (Augustine, On the Morals of the Manichaeans 16 [39]). The heretics’ love of melons was so extreme, that Augustine rebuked them thusly: “You feel so much more for melons than for men. Rather than hurt the melons, you would have a man ruined!” (17 [62]).

Augustine’s close association between melons and false teaching is vividly illustrated in his condemnation of the Manichaean “Elect,” who allowed their non-elect followers to conduct necessary labors forbidden to the Elect for the sake of the Elect. In return, those servants who had great merit would be reincarnated as food, and not just any food. Augustine wrote:

If they possess greater merit, they shall enter into melons or cucumbers, or some eatables which you will masticate, that they may be quickly purified by your digestion. . . . For if the faith of the gospel had any connection with such nonsense, the Lord should have said, not, ‘I was hungry, and ye gave me meat;’ but, ‘Ye were hungry, and ye ate me,’ or, ‘I was hungry, and I ate you.’ For, by your absurdities, a man will not be received into the kingdom of God for the service of giving food to the saints, but, because he has eaten them and belched them out, or has himself been eaten and belched into heaven. (Augustine, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean 5.10)

What can we conclude about these telling examples of watermelons, cucumbers, and gourds in early Christian polemics? The fact is that the vines of melons and gourds snake their way deep into the world of Church Fathers. If appeals to Holy Scripture, apostolic tradition, and episcopal authority all failed to convince heretics, the Fathers turned to a different trio of arms. Whenever their polemic called for sarcasm, they wielded the blunt cucumber like a sharp sword. When the Fathers were stirred with indignation, they hurled lush melons like fiery cannon balls. And when they wanted to expose the ridiculous doctrines of heretics, the early Fathers tossed misshapen gourds like explosive hand grenades.

Sadly, as the Dark Ages closed in, the skill of wielding cucumbers and gourds came to an abrupt end. Like so many strange and interesting doctrines of the infant Church, the brief storm of delirious melons abruptly ceased, leaving behind nothing but a fading watermark in the pages of unread history.

[Original post: 12-22-2009]

“I Am Truly Pleasant to Read”: My Dialogue with Spambot

spambotEvery day I get several attempted comment posts at www.retrochristianity.com from Spambots. Of course, normally I just delete them. But today I decided to give Spambot an opportunity to be heard. Below, written in original Spambotese, is my conversation with Spambot:

SPAMBOT: This article is really good, a friend gave me a look. I set eyes on, I would like to express the feelings I saw. Others did not feel that I do not mind, at least now I show myself….

SVIGEL: Thank you many for enthusiasm interestingly. My orientation point is to be made to happiness and ideology. It is good to learning when you feel outwards.

SPAMBOT: If you believe I do not care to see this article, the next time I am paid more attention to about your article, I think I will never again careless. Do you trust yourself, you do not know your article can make people so obsessed with.

SVIGEL: My paying attention about my article always carefully. I invest myself to your infatuation of people making.

SPAMBOT: I would like to be aware of when you write this article is what kind of mood, why would you write this article, also written so well, is that I can learn. I think I could record something like you….

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SPAMBOT: I love your article. Your article is like a big tree, so that we can be seated in your tree, feel yourself a real. I feel very moved, very blessedness.

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“Papias, the Outcast Father”

Lyrics by Michael J. Svigel

(To the tune of “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer”)

 ________

Papias the outcast Father

Was a bishop once revered,

’Til those in later ages

Had his reputation smeared.

_______

All of the later Fathers

Said he had is doctrine wrong.

They never seemed too bothered

That he was ordained by John!

_______

They didn’t care what he believed

About the Trinity.

They just prattled without end

About his view on the Millennium.

_______

Now all the Premils love him.

But we’ll have to wait and see

Whether the coming Kingdom

Is Amil or Post or Pre!

The Secret Gospel of Keith, Revised and Updated Edition

The Secret Gospel of Keith

Fully revised and updated translation from the original Syteremic1 by Michael J. Svigel, including recently discovered sayings 20-25.

 

1 The beginning of the account of the secrets of Keith, a secret so secret even Keith did not […]2 and when he heard it, he forgot.

2 Keith followed the followers of [ ….] who had followed [ … ] all the days, except for all the times that he did not follow them.

3 And the Lord3 said to Keith, “Keith.” And Keith said, “Yes, lord.” And the Lord ignored him.

4 [ … ] Lord said to them, “Go to those who are already heavily burdened and set your burdens on them, for those who have little are easy to cure, and those who already have too much will not notice if you add more!”

5 Then the Lord said, “How many of you, if your father asked you for a [ … ] I mean if your son asked for a father [ … ] er [ … ] that is to say, a daughter asked for a rock, would you give a father [ … ]”

6 [ … ] Keith asked, “Lord, tell us, at what time will these things be and when will these things come to pass?” And the Lord answered and said, “Why do you ask me these things, seeing that [ … ] no time for you [ … ] busy watching [ … ] game.”

7 Then Keith said to Peter, “Peter, I followed your star and have found you.” And Peter said, “This star is mine. Go find your own star.”

8 Then Keith saw a spirit like a dove4 descend [ … ] so Peter caught the dove. [ … ] very hungry [ … ] so he ate it.

9 Keith said, “Lord, is the kingdom of heaven like a tree?” And the Lord said, “No, Keith, not like a tree.” Then Keith said, “Lord, is the kingdom of heaven [ … ] a boat?” And the Lord answered and said, “No, Keith, not like a boat.” Keith said, “Lord, is the kingdom of heaven like an ocean? [… ] Lord said, “No. Now stop.”

10 And [ … ] Peter said to Keith, “Let us agree to disagree.” So they were in agreement for all the days except for when they argued about the Lord.

11 [ … ] Lord said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Keith said, “Lord, could you repeat that?”

12 The Lord said, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first?” [ … ] Keith said, “But Lord, what about the one in the middle?”

13 [ … ] [ … ] [ … ] [ … ] [ … ] [ … ] [ … ]5

 14 The Lord said, “Keith, you are a rock.” And Keith said, “Lord, will you build your church upon me, like Peter?” [ …] and said, “No, Keith. You are just a rock.”

15 Keith said, “Lord, would you please tell us when the world will end?” And the Lord said, “How would I know that?”

16 And Thomas said, “Lord, I do not believe you are real.” And the Lord said, “Touch me and see.” And Thomas said, “No, even if I touch you, I [ … ] not believe.” But Keith reached out to touch the Lord, but the Lord slapped [ … ] and said “Keep your hands off me!”

17 And the Lord, when he walked with John along the beach, left no footprints in the sand. And Keith, [ … ] saw it, said, “Lord, show me how to do that.”

18 Now Gail, the sister of Keith, liked the Lord [ … ] than other disciples. And she told Keith, and Keith [ … ] and told Peter. But Peter [ … ] answered, “The Lord does not [ … ] in that way.” So Keith told his sister [ … ] and Gail did not like the Lord anymore.6

19 Then Peter [ … ] to Keith secretly and said, “Keith, climb to the top of the temple and jump, for it is written [ … ] charge over [ … ] not stumble [ … ] be saved.” And Keith listened to Peter and did so.

20 Then the Lord said “Take, eat, this is my body and blood.” [ … ] Keith answered and said, “Ewww!”

21 Peter said, “Lord, is it I?” Then Andrew said, “Lord, is it I who [ … ] betray you?” [ … ] Then John said, “Not I, Lord?” Then Keith said, “Lord, could you pass the figs?”

22 Lord answered Keith and [ … ] “Are you able to bear the cross I [ … ] bear?” And Keith answered and said [ … ] Lord, “I would but [ … ] bad knee.”

23 Keith said, “Lord, grant that I may sit with you on [ … ] throne in glory to judge Israel.” And the Lord said, “That is impossible, for there are but twelve thrones to judge the twelve [ … ] of Israel.” And Keith answered and said unto him, “Is there a waiting list?”

24 Then Keith said to Mary, “Blessed is the fruit of your womb and [ … ] that nursed the Lord!” Then Mary [ … ] and slapped Keith.

25 Then the Lord said, “I will not drink of the wine [ … ] again in the kingdom.” Then Keith said, “Why [ … ] not drink wine? Are you going to become a Baptist?”

The Secret Gospel of Keith

 

__________________________________________________

 

 

ENDNOTES

 

1Syteremic is a vulgar slang common vernacular of the west-southwest branch of the lower central lowland region of the north side of the cool spring tributary of the east bank of the Welqum River, a dialect of Symeretic, which originated on the south side of the same tributary. Syteremic was spoken for about seven months by the Syterem people, a family of five that was separated from the Symeret people when the cool spring tributary flooded one hot spring day. Because the family of five consisted of four wives and one man who died of drowning in the tributary as he was attempting to flee from his family, and because the Syteremic religion did not permit widows to remarry anyone other than their original husbands or each other, and because the Syterem widows were disbursed shortly after their husband’s death, the Syteremic language was added to the long list of dead vulgar slang common vernacular languages of the west-southwest branch of the lower central lowland region of the east bank of the Welqum River.

2 Brackets with ellipses represent gaps in the original manuscript. Unlike most other ancient manuscripts that had holes due to normal deterioration of the papyrus, holes in ancient Syteremic manuscripts were often made by a frustrated writer.

3 The “Lord” in the Secret Gospel of Keith is never identified as Jesus, and this has proven to be a major center of debate, especially among German scholars. For the affirmative identification of “the Lord” with Jesus, see Reinhardt Vardt, “Doch, der Herr des Keith ist der Herr,” Gelos Hagios 3.1 (2004): 4–5. For arguments that distinguish “the Lord” from Jesus, see, Friewie Nichtig, “Herrlich, aber kein Herr: Jesus und der Herr des Keith (Eine Antwort auf Vardt),” Gelos Hagios 3.2 (2004): 29–31. For a mediating position, see Karl-Heinz Unsicher, “Es ist mir egal: Nocheinmal der ‘Herr des Keith’,” Gelos Hagios 3.3 (2004): 97–98. 

4  The Syteremic word “dove” may also be translated “cauliflower.”

5  This line of the manuscript had been erased and rewritten so many times that it proved impossible to reconstruct the text with any degree of reliability. However, a conjectural reconstruction of the text has been offered by Helmut-Barth Krapsaan as follows: “Thi[s] space [has] been [in]tentionally left [b]lank” (“The Thirteenth Line of the Secret Gospel of Keith,” in Unlucky Thirteen from Judas to Jamestown [Grand Rapids, MN.: J. Garland Press, 2005], 13).

6 Of course, this has been the most controversial section of the Secret Gospel of Keith, as some have alleged that it suggests a romantic history between the Lord and Gail, sister of Keith (see Donald Braun, “Holy Broad, Holy Gail, or, ‘He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not’: The Mysterious Romance in the Secret Gospel of Keith,” Journal of Syteremic Literature 3.2 [2004]: 3–12).

 

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is, obviously, satire, which pokes fun at the various “Secret Gospels” of the Nag Hammadi Library, such as the Gospel of Philip, the Apocryphon of John, etc. For the original version of The Secret Gospel of Keith, permantly on display at Bible.org, see http://bible.org/article/secret-gospel-keith-humorous-satire.

My Accordion and My Christian Life

Several years ago I took up the accordion. Since then, I’ve considered whether this was a good idea. I acquired the very old two-reed Hohner for $25 from an older gentleman from Germany who wanted to encourage me in my curiosity about the instrument. (Yes, that’s it on the right.) I had no lessons, no familiarity with the machine, and didn’t know buttons from keys or leathers from reeds. I had no clue that those buttons were arranged in fifths, no idea that the three switches in the front were supposed to modify the tone, and I had absolutely no understanding of accordion lingo. I didn’t even know how to hold it!

Over the course of several months, as I slowly moved from absolute ignorance and incompetence to adequate awareness and limited skill, I began to notice intriguing parallels between my poor, junky accordion and the Christian life—or at least my Christian life.

You see, some musical instruments run by air (trumpets, flutes), others by percussion (drums, tambourines), others by vibrating strings (violins, cellos). However, I’m convinced that my antique accordion runs on grace. Unlike well-cared-for and finely-tuned instruments, my accordion operates less on the unalterable principles of music theory and more on the unpredictable and flexible principles of mercy. When I pick up the accordion and pump out a tune, the result is far, far less than mediocre—and even this negative phrasing is itself a grossly optimistic appraisal. Even if I push all the right keys and buttons at the right times, the accordion does only what it can do, leaving a large portion of the performance to the imagination.

Yet somehow that’s okay. My mind is able to envision some dusty decade long ago when that machine would have stunned listeners even in my novice hands . . . or I sometimes look forward to a day when I can afford the extreme makeover the poor thing deserves: repairing its leathers, replacing its reeds, and renewing its bellows. Until that day, it will continue to squawk its first note, moo and caw its belabored melodies, and growl to a halt. Yet amazingly, people continue to call it “music” even though I know it’s really more of an ordered pattern of tones which, given a slightly modified rhythm, order, and pace, might be mistaken for a traffic jam on Broadway.

As I reflect on the profound spiritual significance of that shabby apparatus running on grace, I can’t help but think of myself as a beat-up, quasi-functional accordion in the Savior’s hands. I’m fallen, damaged, dented, tarnished, and broken. I often fail to function as designed and need frequent invasive internal work to get me back to “barely tolerable.” I’m in desperate need of repair, restoration, and renewal. Yet for some reason the Great Musician continues to pick me up, breath fresh air through me, and manage a melody or two that inexplicably stirs His audience. By sheer grace and mercy I am what I am and I do what I do: “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit”
(2 Cor. 3:5–6, ESV).