There is a delightful little idol-polemic pericope in the Syriac Acts of Mar Mari the Apostle.  Known as the “Apostle of Babylonia,” Mar Mari[1] is credited with introducing Christianity into upper and lower Mesopotamia some time around the end of the first century C.E.  Mar Mari travels from city to city healing afflictions, making converts to Christianity, explaining the doctrine of the trinity and battling demons/idols.[2]

This particular story[3] is set in Seleucia, where the “blessed one” (Mar Mari) works on the people’s conversion for a whole year by doing signs and miracles.  Mar Mari then decides to ask them for a place to build a house of worship for the “Living God” (i.e., Jesus of Nazareth).  When the people ask where  he wants to be build it, Mar Mari demands that they let him buy the pagan temple governed by King Aphrahat.  Mar Mari begins his polemic against the idols of this temple, emphasizing the idols’ unreality by claiming that even though food and drink is given to the so-called gods, it is really the priests who eat the food offered to the idols.  Further, he says, they aren’t really deities – just statues of wood and bronze from which demons speak!

The priests, naturally, grow quite angry at Mar Mari for this claim and say, “If you claim that these are dumb things[4], what do you have to say about the sun-(god), the great judge?”[5]  To this, Mar Mari replies that the sun is just a creation of the Living God, placed to enlighten the universe and distinguish between night and day.  “If it is a deity, where would it flee during the night?” Mar Mari reasons.[6]  Apparently, this convinces the king because, after much discussion, the temple is given to Mar Mari by the king, along with the idols themselves as a gift for Mar Mari.  Mar Mari grinds the idols into dust and throws the powder into the river Tigris, demolishes the pagan temple and instead builds a small church with priests and deacons.

The saga continues as the enraged priests go to another king and the king threatens Mar Mari with dismemberment if he will not give up his religion and confess these pagan deities.   I may deal with that next bit of the story in another post,  but for now I’d like to concentrate on some of the details of Mar Mari’s polemic.

It is customary in Yahwistic idol-polemics to undermine the alleged deity’s authority by emphasizing its human qualities and then pointing out that the god can’t even really do the things that humans can do.  In Deutero-Isaiah’s idol-polemics, for example, the idol has eyes but cannot see.  The idol is mocked as the work of a human craftsman: it is mere wood and stone.  However, even though emphasizing the god’s ineptitude and human-made-ness is common, the portrayals of idols appear to become progressively less mystical as time goes on.  In Deutero-Isaiah, there’s certainly only one true God (Yahweh) and all other gods are nothing – yet there is still the sense that the worshippers of these idols really do believe in them (and the gods may even possess a kind of paltry, subservient existence).  If the gods are human-made, their makers and worshippers are ignorant and blind rather than deceptive and controlling.

Contrast this polemic of the Hebrew Bible with later Jewish idol-polemics of the Second Temple period like Bel and the Dragon.  This story strikingly begins by saying (after one short verse to introduce the political setting) that the Babylonians had an idol (Bel) who was daily offered an abundance of food.  The text goes into considerable detail describing the food.  While Bel is worshipped daily by the king, Daniel worships only his own God.  When the king asks Daniel why he doesn’t worship Bel, Daniel says that he cannot worship idols made with  human hands[7] but worships the living God.  (Note that in both Bel and Mar Mari, each monotheistic prophet insists that they worship the “living God.”  Mar Mari wishes to build a house for the “living God” and tells the priests that the sun is only a creation of the “living God.”)

In Bel, the king says to Daniel, in essence, “You don’t think that Bel is a living God?  Don’t you see how much he eats and drinks every day?”  Daniel smiles; he knows that it’s all the trickery of those finicky priests of Bel and tells the king so.  The king is incensed and calls the priests of Bel and challenges them to account for the food.  The crafty priests suggest a test: the king will set out a lavish meal for Bel in the temple and seal the doors shut with his signet.  In the morning, the king will see whether or not Bel has eaten his food.   What the king doesn’t know, however, is that the priests have made a secret entrance into the temple and that every night, the priest and their wives and children come and eat the food allotted for Bel.  Daniel thwarts the priests by sprinkling ashes everywhere in the temple so that in the morning, their footprints lead to the secret entrance.  The king sees that it is all just the trickery of the priests – Bel isn’t a living god after all.  Daniel destroys Bel and the temple.

In both Bel and Mar Mari, the reality or unreality of the gods lies in whether or not they actually eat and drink as they are purported to  do so.  In the end, it’s all the trickery of some wily priests who are out to deceive the king and the masses.  The pagan gods and their temples are destroyed and temples/churches to the Living God are established in their place.

[1] Mar means “lord” in Syriac and is a title given to holy men and ecclesiastical leaders, Amir Harrak, trans., The Acts of Mar Mari the Apostle (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), xi.

[2] Harrak, Mar Mari, xi.

[3] See Harrak’s translation, 55-59.

[4] The priests are here referring to Mar Mari’s claim that the idols cannot actually speak.

[5] Harrak, Mar Mari, 57.

[6] Harrak, Mar Mari, 57.

[7] The Greek term cheiropoietos (‘made with hands’) appears to have been a fairly common demarcation of idols.