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C.H. Roberts

C.H. Roberts an honorary fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, is a former editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

Over-Achievers

C.H. Roberts, 5 February 1987

‘We are a third race,’ claimed Tertullian. Were the early Christians really so different and, if they were, how and why? This is the principal question Robin Lane Fox sets out to answer in this compelling and readable book, which is also a major work of historical scholarship. It is a study of differing and competing religions in the second and third centuries AD: not so much of ideas and systems as of how ordinary pagans and Christians behaved and thought, their cults, their visions, their sense of divine activity in oracle and prophecy. (A strange omission is any treatment of Christian cult and liturgy.) He writes with an easy command of multifarious sources: poets, essayists, novelists, letter-writers, martyracts, papyri and, above all, the mass of inscriptions, especially those from Asia Minor and North Africa. All this is controlled by and collated with the latest academic discussions and archaeological discoveries. He gives scope to his own feelings and sensibilities, but not at the cost of obscuring facts or to the detriment of a critical judgment. All notes are properly kept to the end of the book.

Grail Trail

C.H. Roberts, 4 March 1982

In 1891, Bérenger Sauniere, curé of Rennesle-Château, a remote village in the Cevennes, discovered hidden in the structure of his church four parchments, two of them written in the 18th century and partly in code, two earlier and containing genealogies (still not published). There were references to Dagobert II, the Merovingian king, to Sion, and to treasure said to be Merovingian. The consequences of the discovery were odd. Saunière was sent to Paris with the two documents, and came into contact with some leading figures in the literary and artistic world, all of whom were interested in the occult. He became suddenly very wealthy: shortly before his death he was visited by a Hapsburg Archduke who transferred to him a large sum of money. Accused of simony by his bishop, he was exonerated by the Vatican; on his death-bed he was refused extreme unction. In the 13th century this part of the Cevennes had been the centre of the Cathar or Albigensian movement, and the Cathar fortress of Montségur with its reputed treasure – in some accounts said to have included the Grail – was not far away; a neo-Cathar movement had sprung up in neighbouring Carcassonne and Saunière was in touch with it. It was clear that more than treasure was involved. There was a mystery of interest to a number of different people, and it looked as if Saunière was an agent for some group.

Christianity’s Doppelgänger

C.H. Roberts, 17 April 1980

In December 1945 an Egyptian peasant from the village of Al-Qasr in Upper Egypt stumbled across a large jar buried in the soil of an ancient site. It proved to contain, not the treasure he had hoped for, but 13 papyrus codices written towards the end of the fourth century AD in Coptic, the language of the Egyptian Christians, and complete with their leather bindings. After devious and sometimes discreditable transactions, 11 and a half found their way to the Coptic Museum in Cairo, one to the Jung Foundation in Zurich; their publication in photographic facsimile has only recently been completed. They contain no less than 52 tractates, some in duplicate, all of them apparently Gnostic, the majority Christian if usually unorthodox in character, a few pagan; together, they comprise a substantial Gnostic library that probably belonged to a monastic foundation. Apart from two codices, also in Coptic, which had been known to scholars for some time and which include the Gospel of Mary and the Apocryphon of John, they are the first large-scale and direct presentation of Gnostic beliefs: hitherto nearly all our knowledge has come from the descriptions (abusive but on the whole accurate) and excerpts given by their orthodox opponents.

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